Thursday, January 31, 2008

Theoretical Pluralism and Theoretical Schools

Staying meta; I've been wondering if there might be a general split characterizing both the theoretical pluralism and the recent (re)turn to theory in the discipline. There are those dissatisfied with traditional aesthetics (I'm thinking of the Anglo-American inheritance from 19th and early 20th century, say Clive Bell or Matthew Arnold) because it does not address the specificity of historical agents. At the other end there are those dissatisfied with traditional aesthetics because neither discussion of formal fundamentals nor interpretation get at the personal, the experiential, or the perceptual of film watching. Yes, I know the Wisconsin school offers its own relation to this question, sometimes fitting in the first camp, sometimes coming up with its unique answers. But for the rest of the field, there has been almost a reverse-dialectical procession of theoretical fashion: in the late 1980s and 1990s, both cultural studies and the renewed historicism (i.e. Gomery, Balio, and company finally, belatedly catching on outside the subfield of film history) reacted against the universalizing implications of 70s and 80s textual reading and spectatorship theory and sought in various degrees to depose Theory; in turn, theorists of the 2000s have turned to a variety of inspirations – classical film theory, Deleuze, Bergson, surrealism, affect psychology – to stake claims that are more universalizing and even less verifiable in empirical example than 70s film theory. Implicitly or explicitly, the new theoretical turn rebukes 90s era historicism. (If I'm reading him correctly, I think this tension is what Jason Sperb is getting at here.)

This narrative is schematic and arguable. But amidst the changes to the field and changes to "theory" that we've seen, I have a larger question about the role of theoretical movements in our pluralistic field. As I've mentioned, I've been researching the Chicago school sociologists and in the process came across this nice bit from Martin Bulmer:
A 'school' in the social sciences may be thought of as akin to the term used in art history to designate a group of contemporaries sharing a certain style, technique, or set of symbolic expressions and having some point of other in time or space a high degree of interaction (e.g. the impressionists, the Bauhaus, etc.). A local example would be the Chicago school of architecture, centered on Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Several ideal-typical characteristics may be seen to distinguish a school of social science. It has a founder-leader and a group of his or her followers, usually ranging in number from one to three dozen members. This leader has a relatively dominating personality. The group is usually drawn together by a set of ideas, beliefs, and normative dispositions, articulated by the founder-leader, which are somewhat at odds with those prevailing in the discipline at the time. (The Chicago School of Sociology 2).
As my usage above indicates, I do think of Wisconsin's program as an institution-based school of thought. There is also a Chicago school for film theory; their faculty's convergence around theories of modernity and a longue duree is remarkable. I know I often get interpellated as a product of a specifically Brown school, in ways I usually live up to, sometimes not. (If I had to articulate the formula, it would be post-Marxist theoretical interest in ideological formations + lingering interest in 70s film theory.) But clearly not all institutions comprise or are dominated by such schools. And not all scholars fit remotely into one.

A few open questions I have: are we currently, genuinely, in a pluralistic field or merely a field of competing schools? Is there a difference? Do schools drive pluralism or has their relative decline since the 80s opened up space of pluralism? Is pluralism a good thing or does it mean a disjointing of scholarly conversations? Does pluralism portend some major shift in the discipline of film studies?

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

know I often get interpellated as a product of a specifically Brown school

If you beta-minusculed, and read that in the semantic valence of either Ween or Bubs, that would be something, wouldn't it?