Monday, January 09, 2012

Film Theory and the Problem of Chronology

Jason Sperb has posted a couple of his syllabi, including one for a film theory class. His class has some terrific choices, which are already inspiring me as I fine tune my syllabi for my film theory classes this semester. He's also using the same anthology I'm using, Corrigan, White, and Mazaj's Critical Visions in Film Theory (Bedford St. Martin's).

I'll post my syllabi soon, but I wanted first to highlight a conceptual issue I've been wrestling with in teaching the film theory class: how much should I arrange a syllabus in chronological order? I don't mean chronology in the strictest sense, in which all writing form 1978 has to come before that from 1985. Rather, I mean organizing the syllabus according to the intellectual history of the field, with identifiable theoretical schools following one after the other. To be honest, this is my first inclination. There are a few reasons, but the biggest is that film theory itself tends to refer to prior schools and works. Even though I really like the Critical Visions anthology and find it a welcome improvement over prior anthologies, I do find it a weakness that the books skips certain conceptual steps and expects students/readers to figure out what semiotics, signification, or the "subject" mean without reading anything that explains these concepts.

Then again, I can imagine the editors would counter that an anthology has to start somewhere, and now that contemporary film theory alone has had a run of roughly 40 years, it's sometimes worth skipping to more current debates rather than have to recreate Cahiers' political thriller debate, Screen's realism debate, or Cinema Journal's melodrama debate.

For me, an additional issue is that I'm teaching mostly production students who are interested in theory but not invested in schematizing overview that one would need for an orals exam or even a journal article. For this reason, this semester I'm trying a more conceptual organization to my syllabus and addressing key problems that film theory tries to answer. I'm not dispensing with chronology altogether - I'm still teaching Bazin before semiotics before cultural studies. But I'm loosening up the focus on intellectual history. Maybe I'll learn that I need to go further.