OPSIS, Vol. 1, No. 2/3, 1985
(Text only; photo-illustrations omitted)
Although the contest amongst-between-or-against structuralism in cinema has been displaced from the center of academic discourse in favor of what is termed "post-structuralism", the notion that this current film-critical discourse represents a significant rupture with structuralism is highly problematic in my mind. As I intend to demonstrate in this introduction to the films of Peter Rose, the often schismatic and misleading presuppositions of structural(ist) thinking have made both terms vehicles for the promulgation of anti-art strategems that serve to promote and privilege the 'analyst' and his/her conception of the "apparatus". This privileging is to be found not only within critical-theoretical discourse of a filmic nature but also extends to the various discourses of philosophy, sociology, political science, linguistics and (what has been mis-termed) "psychoanalysis" of the cinema.
The rise of structuralism is linked to the decline of modernist avant-gardes, in that structuralism is predicated on studying the 'after the fact' effects of cultural production and social praxis. The modernist avant gardes, dedicated to transforming both art and socio-cultural (and political) institutions, are for the structuralist critic 'specimens' in an otherwise broader formulation concerning paradigms of language, psychology and social formations. The artist thus is only one of many possible patients, and the act of analysis and exegesis of a 'text' tends to occupy a privileged position over and above the art work itself.
The rise of structuralism per se has led to an overvaluation of the logocentric problematic, one which derives its presumed authority from the privileging of the word and its linguistic universe (signs and their coded meanings/relations). Within this semiotic universe, only a particular consciousness is possible, one which presupposes analyzable structure. Were this merely an exercise in epistemological ground-breaking then the matter would only be of academic interest. What is notable in structuralist theory/methodology is the presence of reductive invariants which underly all social and psychic formations (as "Laws" of psycho-social determinations - eg. Oedipus, castration, 'the lack'). It would not be difficult to show that structuralist theory itself is that very vehicle for the promulgation of an oppressive (Hebraic-Hellenic) metaphysics which is ultimately grounded in the idealized conception of a plenitudinous or 'original' (a priori) state of being which inturn is brought forward into the real as duality (for example, nature/culture, mind/body, thought/experience, signifier/signified, presence/absence, etc.). The classic oppositions of nature vs. culture (Levi-Strauss) are as typical of metaphysical binarisms as their psychologized counterparts "plenitude" vs "alienation", or maternal vs. paternal. In Lacanian structural psychology neurosis is described in terms of an entry into lan guage/symbolic, in terms of a fundamental (and I would posit transcendental) 'lack'. Dualism is essentially metaphysics made manifest through language and predica tion. Its normative condition features the subordination of one of the terms (of the duality) — for example, nature subordinate to culture — and it is ultimately reliant on a "transcendental signified"1 to serve as operative context for all of the hierarchical or ders that it employs. This dualism is re-enacted in language through the 'logic' of predication. Once this type of logic is set into motion, only a certain type of analysis is possible. Here, then, is the 'rub': metaphysics is 're-enacted' by the structuralist analysts in their pursuit of fundamental equations concerning language and psyche by virtue of their own self-imposed methodologies. As I will demonstrate later, the 'machines' of Freud, Lacan, Levi-Strauss — theoretical structural machines which define man/womankind in terms of mechanistic drives, fundamental lacks and psychological-algebraic formulas (psycho semiotics) — are precisely the machines which inform "post-structural" analysis, and I hope to demonstrate that the post-structural (in much of film studies) is nothing more than the proliferating masquerade of structuralism and its metaphysics which has illegitimately claimed a status of materialist critique.
For avant-garde film practice, "structuralism" has inserted itself as a kind of guarantor of meaning' — a 'ghost in the machine/apparatus' — with the result that film practice itself is seen as a confluence of both psycho-linguistic-socio-political formations (all operating under the solemn gaze of the analyst!) and 'textual' determinations. Here the aesthetic work is evaluated only in terms that are congruent with those of the analyst. Within this oppressive schema, the 'merit' of the work is directly proportional to its "legibility" to the analyst; art is seen as semiotic-psychosocial and historically determined constructions which orbit around the poles of "Oedipus" and "castration". That this feeds into "post-structuralism " will be aptly demon strated by the feminist film-theory 'masquerade'.
It is not surprising that many avant-garde filmmakers have profited from this overvaluation of structure and mediation by schematizing and overdetermining their expression to the point of conflating cinema-apparatus, expression and reality into one textual proposition of purely semiotic techincal-psychological proportions. Many 'theoretically-informed' works have been valorized by film academicians only be cause these works illustrate theoretical statements. Thus, the theoretical 'machine' finds its own "mirror stage" re-enacted for its own narcissism.
That the term "structuralist film" has been subject to vague and idiomatic usage can be briefly illustrated in the following examples. We might recall P. Adams Sitney's definition that "structural film" is a cinema in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified...and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline" (characterized by fixed camera position, flicker, loops and rephotography).2 While Sitney's formalisms denied any philosophical and/or ideological basis for "structural film", a similarly reductive and selective proposition for defining "structural materialist film" could be found in the writings of Peter Gidal. 3 Here we have a structural doctrine that posits the inversion and denial of dominant narrative norms (the 'classic' cinema of Hollywood) in the manner of dichotomous and symmetrical opposition. Gidal's alternatives to Sitney were grounded in the (Brechtian) principles of distanciation which suggested that a political-reflexive condition could be achieved on the basis of (and this is the focus of Gidal) formal antipathies. Gidal celebrated what he termed the "materials" of cinema (photographic and sound elements, duration, aspect, etc.) as if the viewer's fixation on those very basic qualities of cinema would guarantee a political transformation. For Sitney, "structural cinema" produced an intellectual response; for Gidal it provided a forum for political responses to dominant "illusionist" cinema. One could presume that the structuralist denial of the ecstatic was not so much tied to the structuralist antipathy towards phenomenology as to an antipathy to cultural processes which displayed an evident 'lacking' of governing combinational principles which could be systematized. Structuralist film (of the kind mentioned by Sitney and even Gidal) was a kind of unwitting accomplice to theoretical speculations which sought to combine linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology and philosophy under a fixed set of combinational rules (as externalized in the cinematic "apparatus").
It is therefore not surprising that "structuralist" film soon included other structuralist discourses: Lacanian psychoanalysis, linguistics and ultimately "new narrative". Here, the apparatus assumed the proportions of the neurotic's 'dream machine', the Freudian 'camera obscura'; cinema was identified as an instrument of regression and the place where the infantile re-enact ment of identity and aquisition of language would occur; here also cinema was seen as the battleground where ideological deter minations affecting language and the unconscious were most prevalent. From Levi-Strauss to Lacan, to Metz, to Althusser, the structuralist loop tightened, each element of the same metaphysics reinforcing each other element. It was as if the Kaballab had found its contemporary form of expression in film theory; and it was here that the age-old 'curse' that posits human experience as always outcast (from truth and Eden), neurotic and "lacking" was to be demonstrated.
What was initially lacking in Sitney and Gidal's position was an engagement with the broader problematics (which arise from the above mentioned social and linguistic disciplines), although in all fairness to Gidal we must acknowledge his preliminary attempts to include deconstruction and textual analysis within his theory. What was ultimately lacking was an insightful political use of structuralist theory within cultural praxis. Enter what has been termed 'feminist psychoanalysis' under the guidance of Lacanian and Althusserian theory now applied (via Mulvey, and later Doane, Williams, and even later technically refined by such late comers as Silverman)4 as a psycho-social critique of capitalism and patriarchy. This feminism was based on the opposition to patriarchal sexism but paradoxically derived its very authority from the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser which is itself predicated on a phallocentric conception of language and culture and psychic determinations arising in ideology. Within this specific type of 'feminist psychoanalysis' - and it should be noted that neither Mulvey, nor Doane, nor Williams, nor Silverman are psychoanalysts but rather interpreters of Freudian texts - culture and language constitute an oppressive and deceptive process which pollutes the psyche; here also, the patient (and cinema) is a liar whose alienation and corruption arises upon the occasion of his/her entry into language. What is most paradoxical in this so-called feminist psychoanalysis is that it cannot extricate itself from the double-bind of its own systemic, one that is based on Freudo-Lacanian sexism (privileging the male), the bourgeois family nexus and adolescent scopic drives. Their theoretical base for describing the oppressed state of female subjectivity rests on an a pnori as sumption that universalizes castration and describes the female in terms of "lack", and post-partum neurosis. The Freudian biologism is now 'converted' to convenient "metaphors". What is not convertable is the metaphysical base of this binarism which invokes 'materialist' methodology (deconstruction) in its attempt to be current and fashionably "post-structural".
The reader may counter that post-structuralist issues have arisen on the basis of a critique of structuralist precepts, that femi nist psychoanalysis embodies Derrida's de constructivism and the post-May '68 influence of Guattari and Deleuze. I agree that post-structuralism embodies decon struction and is itself a reaction against structuralism, but my point is that psychoanalytic post-structuralism (of the type mentioned) is essentially a masquerade which reperpetuates structuralist precepts. Similarly, the supposed marxism and post-structuralism of such writers as Frederic Jameson and Steven Heath is not only questionable but misleading. The post-structuralist dilemma resides precisely in the fact that this discourse has been misappropriated by a network of structual theoreticians of which the psychoanalytic feminists are the most vocal.
The theoretical basis of structuralism is an anti-phenomenological impulse to enforce a rupture between "reality" and "experience". As a methodological proposition for studying patterns and connections between the various influences on/of art, it proved invaluable; as a theory which prescibes for reality it contains the seeds of intellectual fascism. For film makers and film theorists, the rise of structuralism and reductive forms of post-structuralism has resulted in an intellectual/cultural obsession with "the apparatus" — whether it be textual, perceptual, psychological or socio-political. The obsession with systems, and their intricacies, has resulted in studies of great intellectual exactitude (and films which attempt to play out theoretical propositions or conceptual modelings of the cinematographic apparatus) concerning issues of importance only to the academician or the artist pandering to the theorist-critic-academician.
At the root of all this is that we have, with the rise of structuralism and its mutated forms, set in motion models of cultural repression which pretend to be 'progressive' but are ultimately oppressive. The example of a 'feminist psychoanalytic theory of film' attempting to ideologically critique patriarchal capitalism, all the while it was totally derived from metaphysical binarism and Freudian sexism is an example of a nonsensical praxis and the condition where one repressive ideological system (the patriarchal) is replaced by an equally repressive analytical system ("feminist psychoanalysis"). — Felix Guattari's critique of psychoanalysis I think would be most appropriate to both structuralism and the various 'feminist' revisionisms:
"Psychoanalysis is no science: it is a politico-religious movement and should be treated in the same way as all the other movements that have proposed models of behavior for particular times and contexts. Its conception of desire is 'ahead' of its time in appearance only; it is ahead only in perfecting the repressive support required by the logic of the system, and overhauling a technique of interpreting and redirecting desire and of internalizing repression. The object of psychoanalysis is, in brief what I would call collective paranoia...7"
The inability of structuralist metaphysics to penetrate anything outside of its own systemic and to recognize the extreme flexi bility with which contemporary capitalism and ideological equivalents work is to reveal itself as a proposition hopelessly doomed to perpetuation of a distorted view of the world. This distortion, as I have maintained earlier, is not without purpose, for within its contemporary forms (the 'textual') psychoanalysis shows itself equally capable of articulating preferential treatment to those texts (read patients) which it deems "legible". As will be shown with the next example, art that refuses to "signify" (at the level which is desired) is deemed useless if not perverse, while those works which operate at the level of "secondary identification" exhibit so-called legibility and meaning. This is of course why "New Narrative", and not the avant-garde is of such crucial importance to structuralist and psychoana ytic strategies, for it is within narrative and narrativized avant-gardes that structural and 'post-structural' psychoanalysis has anything to 'converse with'. It is also why we must realize the political program that criticism and theory lays out both for itself and for the practice that it intends to control via the 'talking cure'.
Structuralist Film 'Up Against the Wall' or...in the Psychiatrist's Ante Room
Within an imagined psychiatrist's ante room, which is to be provided for us by Constance Penley, many of the theoretical arguments noted above will find a 'practical context' in relation to the avant-garde. The importance of this session - what I term as another example of the "kiss of death" bestowed on art - is that it demonstrates how contemporary film theory at times strives to contain, neutralize and displace the formalist avant-garde in favor of the 'theoretically informed' accomplices now found in 'new narrative'.
Penley's criticism, which was contained in "The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary", argues that structural-minimalist film should be evaluated on the basis of Freu dian psychoanalysis whereby we could detect the kind of fetishism that this type of art displays - a fetishism which derives from a "castration anxiety" presumably on the part of the filmmakers. Her essay has been cited in numerous critical tracts as being a kind of 'authoritative' reading of avant- garde film. Her reading is also consistent with the kinds of propositions put forward by the other 'psychoanalytic' feminists (Williams, Silverman, etc.) cited earlier. Mention of this essay is also made (in this introduction to the films of Peter Rose) because it would not be difficult to demon trate that her condemnation of avant-garde film is so sweeping that it could be applied to Rose's work as well. That is, if one approached his films from her perspective. What the reader should note is that here (in Penley's case) we have a structuralist critic-theorist condemning 'bad' structuralist film and promoting 'good' political-structuralist cinema within a framework that essentially confuses cause for effect and confuses language for the unconscious.
After a cursory review of basic points (and their limitations) raised in the writings of Peter Gidal and Malcolm LeGrice, Penley's essay presents us with a theoretical base informed by Christian Metz (The lmaginary Signifier ), Baudry (The Apparatus), Lacan and Stephen Heath. She criticizes the avant-garde for its inability to account for "subjects of the unconscious": "The strategies of this avant-garde (i.e. structuralist-minimalist-materialist) cannot hope to offer means of subverting the apparatus if they ignore the levels of unconscious functionng, choosing instead to work on the codes of 'conscious' reception of the film". By unconscious functioning, she means the (Metz-Baudry) theorized isomorphism of film and the unconscious (film as regressive, dream apparatus, film as recreation of the mirror-stage, wherein Lacan hypothesizes that the viewer finds him/herself engaged in a kind of primary narcissism and identifica tion with a pre-linguistic sense of being and loss.) In her argument, Penley notes that the plurality of formal concerns (multi-screen, multi-projection, etc.) lend themselves primarily to what she terms a new recentering of the subject", a recentering that is hopelessly idealistic since it suggests that the viewer inhabits a position which makes him/her the "center of the universe". Her position is that the viewer, when confronted by minimalist-structuralist film, somehow re-enacts the regressive mirror stage but in a manner that is hopelessly deceptive and ultimately politically (and psychically) regressive. To her, it hardly matters who the specific audience or what the specific film is. She has basically come up with a descrip tion of avant-garde film that fits her (and Baudry's) description of the "imaginary" and the "apparatus" situated within some mythical and imagined movie theatre)!
Innovation and technique, according to her argument, is analogous to schizoid symptoms of the patient endlessly conjuring up deceptions to elude the analyst's reading. Her arguments maintain that the dyadic "imaginary" plenitude (a psycho analytic invention featuring a kind of imaginary bliss of baby and mommy) is displaced in structural film for the "most extreme expression of (inherent) idealism", one which involves the "fetishizing" of technology, process, perception and one that is a "reworking of thefact of castration" (my emphasis). Here, she relies on support from Metz:
To say that minimalist film is the extreme example of the fetishism inherent in cinema is to recall at the same time the ambivalent position of fetishism in relation to the Law. (Christian Metz has said that the Law, at the level of the cinematic signifier, is the codes.) The fetishist attempts to substitute the rules of his own desire for the culturally predominant ones; the minimalist artist wants an easily mani pulable abstract set of rules completely void of cultural signification. The totality of the denial of signification tends to affirm the potency of the paternal function, thus exhibiting a very strong identification with the Law. This is the risk with any aesthetic of transgression.
She then proceeds to outline certain 'alternatives' as found in "political film-mak ing " of Straub, Mulvey-Wollen, Akerman and others - films which invoke narrative and verbal sign play as symptomatic of the psycho-social problematic.
While Penley's preferences may be for the reintroduction of a more explicit 'social' via structuralist narratives her criticism of. minimalist films (Ray Gun Virus, for example) is based on certain universalizing as sumptions that are both incorrect and misleading.
Penley's "Law" is undoubtedly in formed by Levi-Strauss' conception of the (Law of) prohibition of incest as underlying all social formations and the Lacanian conception of the unconscious as founded on the primal repression (of such desires). She is thus relying on anthropological hypothesis and Lacan's speculations to align film practice with certain perversions. Her focus on minimalism is revealing: this is a type of film practice that focuses on the workings of cinema itself (its apparatus); this is a type of cinema that signifies not though 'language but through cinema itself. One may assume that all formalist (cine-specific) technique is guilty of this "fetishism" - at least that is what Metz conjured up as per Freud's castration theory. This is also what Penley wishes to disseminate. It would then matter little what that particular social context (the '60s for example) was, who was viewing the film, what they thought, what the filmmaker was specifically expressing. Within Penley's universal constants, all can be described within the fixed poles of 'male subjectivity' and its aversion to castration. It is noteworthy that Penley' s views are consistent with those of Linda Williams on Melies and Surrealism, noteworthy be cause here we have a theory of culture and art that really knowns no limits, whether they be narrative, abstract, historical or avant-gardist. Quite simply, here within this theoretical ante-room it is possible to collapse intent and expression into a neurotic disorder based on loosing one's mother and being born into a world which forever prevents one from returning to that "imaginary plenitude", presumably the womb space and its sonorous envelopes. I am undoubtedly not the first writer to see that a film theory that identifies mommy as 'good object' and daddy as 'bad object' is both sexist and guilty of reactionary meta physics. (It was, after all. Melanie Klein the noted Freudian child psychologist that schematized this for the purpose of describing childhood neurosis, and paranoid schizoid conditions.) But the manner in which this good object/bad object binarism has proliferated to include even the avant- garde, even all aspects of the cinematic apparatus, is perhaps the telling quality of the ability of film theory to network and filiate its primary obsession with art, language and the world as ultimately symptomatic of neurosis.
There is one additional point in this deconstruction of Penley's essay that perhaps more than other aspects of her theorizing reveals the self-privileging that film theorists sometimes bestow upon themselves. Within Freudian psychoanalysis, the denial by the patient is a kind of 'proof of guilty mind'. (In Freudian analysis, negation of denial Verneinung is where the "subject matter of a repressed image or thought can make its way into consciousness on condition that it is denied: negation is a way of taking account of what is repressed." 10 What does this mean to the analyst if we filmmakers deny dominant cinema codes, deny commercial film aesthetics or production methods? As I interpret Penley's conclusion, these denials "affirm the potency of the paternal function" (the phallus) and identification with the "Law".
The avant-garde, and I have examined the relationship of the structuralist-minimalist avant-garde to several film theories, is continually going to be marginalized by a film theory that privileges the analyst over the filmmaker, that describes social and personal realities in terms of universal laws based on interpreting expression as neurotic disorder. Here, the best that an artist (even political artist) can get for his/her aesthetic labor and meticulous technique is a condemnation arising from a theoretical base that most of us a long time ago abandoned. The problem seems to be that the archaic metaphysics has resurfaced in the form of a updated meta-psychology, one that has deceived both feminists and leftists alike. When this meta-psychology suggests that we "write in the social", or engage with narrative and language on the terms that they prescribe, then perhaps we should interrogate the precise theoretical base from which these prescriptions arise. For to 'write in the social' may simply mean to write another text for Oedipus and castration, since art does not seem to be under stood in any other context. (See also Kaja Silverman on the subject of 'the social' as it applies meta-psychology to avant-garde and in a manner reminiscent of Penley: Framework, No. 20, 1983, pp. 27-36).
Structuralist film has changed over the past several decades, and now it features a more obvious interest in issues of linguistic and political proportions. These changes have not been based on theoretical prescription or accomodation, but rather arise from a need of an art form to other materials and other extended concepts.
What is the face of structuralist and post structuralist film today? Where are the vanguard works, the vanguard ideas? Can structuralist film theory and practice be come a discourse that incorporates the poetic, the irrational, the accidental, the expressive? Or is structuralism, in this age of deconstruction, headed for 'structuralist soap operas' - 'The Holy Family Deconstructed!' - based on a Freudology that should have departed (along with its Marxology) during the industrial revolution.
At the fringe of these academicised debates on narrative and structure, and in spite of the hegemony of theory, some excellent, inspired and important work is being conducted. It is here that we would find the films of Peter Rose - films which have their roots in structural film, but which neverthe less exceed the prescriptions that have strangled structural film. Here, film would once again allow us to engage visual pleasure, invention, experience of self and world within a cinematic practice that is irreducible to paradigms or simple combinational rules.
It is here, and the places are few and far between, that we would find cinema celebrated as an art.
1. One of many instances of Derrida's
critique of structuralism and metaphysics can be found in Writing and Difference, Chapter Ten: "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", Jaques Derrida, Trans. Alan Bass, 1978.
OPSIS, Vol. 1, No. 2/3, 1985