The Nature of Disciplines

An anonymous commenter riffs off my observations about the way the discipline has "moved on" from a 1970s moment.
Why are we so quick to refer arguments and claims to disciplinary consensus? Why do we stop short of making evaluative claims about the quality of scholarship, and of the objects it addresses, preferring instead to (implicitly) dismiss certain scholars for being "out of date"?
I'm pretty much in agreement with her or him. I want to be generous to the newer theoretical approaches - in part because I value conceptual innovation and in part because some of the work, such as the Langford essay I mentioned, is quite smart. All the same, I too think that some debates aren't as dead as people would like to act.

The comment raises a couple of good questions. First, how well can we characterize a discipline? Academic fields are large, messy collectives of scholars, with competing points of views and different movements. As the comment implies, there is no monolith of "70s theory." To use one of my favorite essays, in Christine Gledhill's reading (1978) of Klute, she disagrees with the favor for strict political modernism by arguing for a progressive realist practice. So while her conclusion differs from the 1970s take, her agenda belongs to it. Other theory - for instance Dudley Andrew's championing of phenomenology - adopted a different agenda but was still part of the discipline.

So... there's always a danger that when I'm trying to take a temperature of the field that I'm actually reifying it. Disciplines do not move in lock step, but they do move.

Second, why do disciplines reject past approaches? Certain disciplinary change may be mere faddishness. It can reflect professional ideology. But it can also be a way to build knowledge collectively. If we have to debate every point at every turn, it becomes much harder to form research agendas which are useful. For instance, it's useful to have textual analysis as a methodological tool without having to debate what the director intended or whether a film made for profit can express greater ideas. At its best, consensus closes off discussion but also opens up areas of inquiry. I would champion a Thomas Kuhn-model of how the discipline works but have to acknowledge that film studies is not a truly scientific field.


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