International Symposium
Politics of Form,
Forms of Politics

Session 3: Theory and Textuality Daniel Fairfax,
Phil Rosen,
Jane Gaines

Friday 1:30pm-4:30pm

Daniel Fairfax (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt),
“The Insights and the Oversights: ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ viewed from 2019”

If Comolli/Narboni’s “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” still holds a status, fifty years after its initial publication, as a major text in the film studies canon, then in recent years it has largely been treated as a theoretical fossil, of interest as a document of its time but nothing else. In this presentation, I will attempt to carry out a symptomatic reading of Comolli/Narboni’s text inspired by the method adopted by Althusser et al. in Reading Capital – which the Cahiers editors themselves espoused as a mode of interpreting films. The goal will be to unearth the texts “insights and oversights” (vues et bévues), as Althusser put it, and thus to highlight its relevance for the contemporary film and media landscape. Here I will argue that, in spite of the sweeping transformations in technology, culture and politics in the intervening half-century, many of the key arguments of the Cahiers editorial remain valuable for a politically engaged approach to cinema today.

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in film studies at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt and an editor at the Australian online film journal Senses of Cinema. He was the translator of Jean-Louis Comolli’s Cinema Against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited (Amsterdam University Press, 2015), and the author of the two-volume monograph The Red Years of Cahiers du cinéma (1968-1973) (Amsterdam University Press).

Philip Rosen (Brown University),
“Textual Disruption and Film Theory, Then and Now”

The 1969 Cahiers du cinéma editorials announced a polemical program which, among other things, promoted textual disruption in the cinema. It is well-known that this program was formulated at a particular historical conjuncture, involving the urgency of a political conception of cinema, contemporaneous filmmaking, certain types of emergent theory, and more. Paradoxically, perhaps, the Cahiers editorials, with their politicised conception of textual disruption, became one of the originary texts for the emergence of university film studies and initiated some of its generative questions and research programs. As a matter of film theory, the new ideas of textual disruption implied the need to identify the characteristics, strategies, and effectivities of disruption. This theoretical and critical drive was tied both to new kinds of interest in contradiction, aporia, logical disjunction, and also to problematics of reading films. It also implied the need to address its dialectical counterpart, a logically and historically prior textual stability: what is to be disrupted, and what is the history of such systematic stabilities and disruptions? As subsequent work in Cahiers and its interlocutors made clear, the new ideas of politicized textual disruption could claim certain 20th century ancestors – for example, Russian Formalism, Soviet film theory, Brecht, surrealism, and so forth. But there has also been an after-history. For several years Cahiers itself changed. Issues of textual disruption would not only remain at the forefront of some tendencies in filmmaking, but also work in film theory and film studies. And as different or opposed theoretical and methodological approaches were formulated, some may have incorporated notions of textual disruption, whether explicitly or subliminally. This paper examines the status of the notions of textual disruption now, and its utility in the present historical situation of film and its existence in the mediatic universe.

Philip Rosen is Professor Emeritus of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where he is also affiliated faculty in the Departments of American Studies and English.  He has published widely on a range of topics related to film and media theory and history, as well as cultural critique and theory.  Among his publications are the standard English-language collection of 1970s film theory, Narrative Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader and the book Change Mummified:  Cinema, Historicity, Theory .   

Jane Gaines (Columbia University),
“If Reality is Nothing More than the Prevailing Ideology”

It is well known in the English-speaking world that Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinéma, ideologie, critique,” from Cahiers du cinéma no. 216 (1969) was translated as “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” in Screen 12, no. 1 (1971). My interest in the Susan Bennett English translation is in speculation as to the way in which some wording may have contributed to the theorization of an “ideology of realism” especially as it was developed in the UK. For example, how does “reality is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology” lend itself to the manifesto-like stance that became the “critique of realism” and outlawed much documentary practice? Then, I contrast the 1971 wording with translation of the original French in which “this reality reproduced by cinema is entirely ideological.” In addition, I look backward and forward in revisiting the theorization of the relation between the camera and the world. This begins with the politics of May 1968 and the time of the Althusserian Marxist reconceptualization of the difference between “imaginary relations” and “real conditions of existence.” Then I go further back to the Heideggerian formulation of the difficulty of proving the existence of the external world. In conclusion, I turn to Comolli’s later articles on documentary translated by Annette Michelson in October – first “Mechanical Bodies, Every More Heavenly,” and finally “Documentary Journey to the Land of the Head Shrinkers” which looks ahead to the problem of the real before the camera in the age of computerization.

Jane M. Gaines is Professor of Film, Columbia University, and Professor Emerita of Literature and English, Duke University. In 2018 she received the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Distinguished Career Award and before that fellowships to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the National Humanities Center. She is author of three award-winning books: Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice and the Law (North Carolina, 1991) and Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era (Chicago, 2001) and Pink-Slipped: What Happened to Women in the Silent Film Industries? (Illinois, 2018).  Most recently she has been engaged in a critique of the “historical turn” in film and media studies and is part of a group researching the internationalization of workers film and photo leagues in the 1930s.