On Not Running in Place
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Most of us will recall the Red Queen’s admonition to Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” This is as good a description of the garden of live flowers in Alice in Wonderland as it is of the predicament of film criticism today. Conceptions and positions proliferate—as if to keep pace with, if not outpace, all the technological and economic advances that underwrite the medium’s conditions of possibility and circumstances of reception. But the abundance of ostensibly new terms and theoretical pronouncements should not prevent us from questioning whether the object of film criticism has changed. Although there is a lot to be said about the specific prospects of film criticism in the current century, my remarks here are more general; they are intended in the spirit of applying the emergency brake, as Walter Benjamin proposed with regard to the runaway train of capitalism, on runaway ideas about acceleration, change, and novelty or, by contrast, decay.
For instance, there are those who have argued that the decline of celluloid film and emergence of digital media require rethinking the medium’s ontology, but whether this is the case is doubtful—as witnessed by the ambiguous status of the ontological in discussions equating it with indexicality, not to mention the determinist bent of the notion that technology and medium are equivalent. Also, in philosophical terms the problem of ontology has little to do with the physical constitution of objects (as would be relevant in the shift from photochemical to digital processes in film technology); it is, rather, a conceptual distinction between appearance and existence in which the latter gains precedence. Indeed, in Stanley Cavell’s classical meditations on photography as the basis of film, the uncertain status of photographic film as an imprint of reality leads ultimately to a metaphysical rather than materialist view of the medium. And since the ontology of the filmic image is, strictly speaking, pre-ontological—given that it is a projection and thus immaterial—the renewed preoccupation with ontology is ultimately something of a red herring. One might even say that the emphasis on cinematic ontology now has more to do with shoring up the medium as a legitimate object of inquiry than it does with the existential quiddity of film as an index of reality.
Given the constraints of space, this sole example will have to suffice to suggest that we have run a great deal but we may not have come far, at least when it comes to a form of criticism that aspires to relevance and not merely attention. At times, the esotericism of current film scholarship gives the appearance of what Freud called a “reaction formation”—in that much of what has immediate cachet is anxious and hyperbolic rather than argumentative and generalizable. Even the attempt at prophesying the imminent death of the medium is a tad parochial—were we simply to note that most of the world’s citizens still watch movies whether at home or in theatres. In addition, judging by the number of celluloid films that continue to be made annually, worldwide, the medium is in better health than its absolutist—and Eurocentric—mandarins would have it.
For criticism to merit its name, there must be more at stake in reading films than the kind of insider talk we witness today about affect, attraction, or agency (just to stick with the first letter of the alphabet!). This is by no means to imply that our contemporary interpretive vocabularies have contributed nothing to the critical enterprise; but it is to proffer a caution about equating the apparent complexity and variety of arguments with producing deeper understanding, let alone anything more transformative. Regardless of their momentary purchase, the latest trends in journals or book-publishing circuits do not, in my view, rise to the level of criticism per se. Why? Because the first requirement of the critical impulse is disciplined skepticism—what the ancients use to call askesis. Such discipline, and with it an openness to counter-arguments, have largely disappeared from criticism that dazzles with virtuosic assertions but does not convince anyone outside narrow circles of the like-minded.
The late great literary critic Edward Said used to advocate for “secular criticism.” By that he meant, among other things, criticism as a form of affiliation with the world outside oneself and a practice of reflection that eschewed what he called “donnish abstractions.” Criticism along these lines is both profane—that is to say, temporally rather than transcendentally oriented to a pre-given ideal—and public. But the issue of intervening in a public world is where the practice of criticism today runs into a paradox, given the distance between critical activity and social sense in the age of internet expertise. The incommensurability of academic production of knowledge (of which criticism is an integral part) and everyday consciousness renders not only film criticism but also other forms of specialist discourse at best inconsequential because the links between art and life, as well as ideas and understanding, have been broken.
So the effort must be to re-link these spheres and for film criticism to learn from its own object: the films that, regardless of their provenance, politics, or aesthetic style, are always statements in and about the world. That said, the enterprise of criticism, involves not just a mimicking of the object in the mere act of description or phatic communion, but also evaluation and critique. If critical writing about films is to be an engagement with the works themselves, the ideas they generate, and the spectators they address, then the challenge is to account for the text and its accompanying institutions in ways that refuse anti-intellectualism and hyper-intellectualism equally; it is also to say something meaningful and enduring by articulating the relationships between cinema, the subjectivity of the critic, and the socio-historical contradictions of our times.
Keya Ganguly is Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of States of Exception: Everyday Life and Postcolonial Identity (2001) and Cinema, Emergence, and the Films of Satyajit Ray (2010). She teaches film, critical theory of the Frankfurt School, postcolonial studies, and the sociology of culture. Her current project is on the revolutionary utopianism of the Indian nationalist, Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950).