Never Historicize!

I thought I might have been too facile in my characterization of the newest theoretical turn in film studies – and maybe I have been – but yesterday I noticed that Tom Conley agrees:

From 1970 until about 1990 film studies witnessed, first, an explosion of theory. Since then there has tended to be a retraction in favor of extensive work on canons, genres, reception, and origins. A corollary aim for the cartographer of cinema is not to let theory go unattended, to be recanted, or left in the wings of a virtual theater of interpretation. (Cartographic Cinema 5)

To the outside or the neophyte to the field, decoding passages like this may be like reading tea leaves, but for those on the inside the referents of the passage are clear. By "cartographer of cinema" Conley means himself. In contrast, the retraction and recantation of Theory is, for Conley, a bad thing or at least a detour in our understanding of some crucial aspect of the cinema. "Canons, genres, reception, and origins" stand in broadly for both a cultural studies sensibility and an emphasis the discipline placed on film history. Both moved scholarly inquiry away from the generalizable to the particular.

The battle is more than one between subfields of film theory and film history. It's about the kind of argumentation that scholars put forth. At some point in the 1990's, even theorists followed Jameson's dictum "always historicize!" Today, they are just as likely to refuse historicization. To the historically minded, that's a problem of course, but to the new theorists, this refusal is necessary to get at some greater experiential quality of cinema – or, as I read Conley as claiming, to get past an ideological and illusory mastery of knowledge that historical explanation provides.

Finally, it's important to note that "theory" is not one thing. As scholarly practice, the generalizing claims of film theorists diverge from the explanatory claims of film historians. But historians have their own theory too (i.e. historiography), and the theorists' generalizing claims range considerably in type, scope, and underlying assumptions.

My stance is not a secret, but I'm also trying increasingly to think productively and charitably about this battle or schism in the discipline. At the very least, I think self-awareness about our underlying claims of knowledge production is healthy.


Vince said…
I find film history to be interesting trivia facts and more accessible to the layman, but theory leads us to truths about the art form and ways to make it better in the future. Theory needs history, though, for examples.

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