Film Studies Research Seminar: Uncompassed, or the Rarity of Theory 

11 January 2012

Research seminar talk by Professor D.N. Rodowick (Harvard University)

Tuesday 17 January, 4-6pm

Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL Wilkins Building

The idea of theory in art or film has a long and complex history.

Indeed the range of activities covered by concepts of theory comprises a genealogy much longer and more complex than the virtual life of film. As a form of explanation, theory is ever more important to our comprehension of contemporary moving image culture, which is ever more powerfully a digital culture.

Yet in film and media studies, as in the humanities in general, attitudes toward theory remain vexed. The decades since the 1970s have witnessed many critiques of theory, mostly unkind.

These attempts to dislodge, displace, overturn, or otherwise ignore it have taken many forms--against theory, post-theory, after theory--as if to contain or reduce the wild fecundity of its conceptual activity or to condemn it to exile. In most cases, these critics have a no more clear view of what theory is than the thinkers who are supposed to practice it.

The lack of clarity in our picture of theory haunts the humanities, and this is equally true for its defenders as its assailants.

In this paper I ask: What is theory that is should arouse such emotion and debate within the humanities in general and media studies in particular? My response is to argue that a genealogical reflection on theory in general, and in the philosophy of art and media studies in particular, may help to restore some conceptual precision to its range of connotations and semantic values. Genealogy recognizes that theory has no stable or invariable sense in the present, nor can its meanings for us now be anchored in a unique origin in the near or distant past.

If the currency of theory is to be revalued conceptually for the present, we need a history that attends critically to the competing sites and contexts of its provenance in the past, and which can evaluate the forces that shape its diverse and often contradictory conditions of emergence and its distributions as genres of discourse.

Beginning with the metatheoretical attitude recapitulated in cinema studies’ current interest both in excavating its own history and in reflexively examining what film theory is or has been, I will examine the emergence of film aesthetics in the twentieth century from the perspective of three more or less discontinuous and open genres--expressive, structural, and cultural.

What can be learned from the variety and contentiousness of writing on film, especially in the silent and early sound periods, is that theory itself functions as a medium; it is less a form of unifying and systematizing a body of knowledge about an object than a mode of activity or of conceptual engagement, a manner of interrogating one’s self and debating with others about the nature of what counts as a (new) medium and how to describe its subjective effects and cultural significance.

For further information contact Dr Lee Grieveson

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