Monday, April 07, 2014

Hegelianism and Historical Poetics

I do find historical poetics useful and enlightening as a method, even though I was not trained in it nor is it the only approach I use. But something I've mentioned before is that there's a common narrative behind its model of historical change: A B A' - or thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Stable aesthetic norms get disrupted by some external event (usually technology), causing disruption, experimentation, then finally recuperation into a new stable norm largely adapted to prior norms. One can see this narrative in works on sound (James Lastra), deep focus (David Bordwell), or Technicolor (Scott Higgins), or in one essay I always enjoy reading and teaching, Paul Ramaeker's account of the split-diopter lens.

There's a good reason this narrative appears often: culture industries, particularly those as capitalized and convention-oriented as Hollywood, place a premium on stability and regularity so filmmakers do a lot of professional work to find stability in an unstable context.

But I keep toying with the possibility that there might be other ways to narrativize stylistic change. Maybe the old stable system was never all that stable (Miriam Hansen), or maybe stylistic genesis does not come primarily from external shocks to the system (what I argue in a forthcoming essay on cinematography). Or maybe things don't re-stabilize, or to borrow a metaphor stabilize only around multiple equilibria. Quite possibly the case of digital cinematography is an instance of this.

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