Thursday, March 22, 2012

SCMS 2012: The New Theoretical Return

A first glance through the SCMS program made me think that the Post-Theory crowd had won: many, if not most, of the titles seemed to reflect middle-level research projects, organized around a particular and even narrow object of study. However, a couple of panels made me realize that film theory actually is playing a key role in the conference.

The Where is Film Theory Now? workshop was interesting both for its constellation of polemics and its popularity. By my estimation, about 75 people packed into the room, and a certain energy was palpable for what in effect was an unofficial inauguration of a Contemporary Film Theory scholarly interest group. The workshop participants all spoke to varying aspects of the phenomenon of what I'll call the New Theoretical Return: Philip Rosen; Elena Gorfinkel; Caetlin Benson-Allot; John David Rhodes; Damon Young and chair Scott Richmond. They nor those in the audience presented a unified vision of where film theory is (going) today, but a few trends emerged:

- misgivings with the Historical Turn in film studies. This ran the gamut, from productive tension - Elena Gorfinkel discussed her intellectual biography of working through history to get at theoretical questions - to outright hostility to conventional historiography, which a few people felt lacked the ambitious to ask big questions that theory does.

- generational divide. Not everyone belonged to the same generation, but a good plurality of attendees seemed to be those who finished their PhD in the 2000s or are currently in grad school. Their comments moreover pitched the New Theoretical Return as an explicit rejection of the methodological hegemony of a previous generation of scholars.

- style and process: particularly those involved with the World Picture journal laid out the case not only for theoretical approaches but also a process that resists the form and disciplinarily of historical scholarship. They made the case for alternatives to peer-review, for speculative research, and for writing foreground stylistic play.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have an investment in film theory but even so do not agree with all of the above. One thing I'll point out is that the conversation seemed to be a dialogue with a branch of the field that was largely absent from the room.

This point was highlighted for me when I attended a panel the following morning on "Managing Cinema's Economy" in which Charlie Keil gave a historical paper on Famous Players' management grounded in archival research, while Marc Cooper made an argument about accounting practices, drawing on aesthetic theory and the Frankfurt School. Here, history and theory were in dialogue - in between the two papers but also in the audience questions. Many attendees actually asked questions to both, engaging both theoretical and historical argument. To me, that was a far more utopian vision of what the field could do than a defenestration in the cause of the speculation or aestheticized scholarship.

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