Marxist Film Theorists are Destroying My Daughter’s Life!

I came across this Los Angeles Sunday Times Magazine article complaining about required film theory courses through Planned Obsolescence. The author David Weddle is shocked by his daughter’s C on her film theory final and awed by all of the incomprehensible jargon on her final exam. As KF points out:

Weddle’s article is so rife with the kinds of anti-intellectualism often found in the mainstream media that it becomes a sort of cliché.


Professors are characterized as wild-eyed Marxists with bad hygiene who have no concpet of how the “real world,” in this case the film industry, functions. More specifically, he identifies the rise of film theory with 60s politics, which he characterizes as “a fantastic Day-Glo wonderland, a frothing kettle of New Left politics,” primarily using Penley’s experience at Berkeley to support his argument. The dismissive identification between drug use (“Day-Glo wonderland”) and leftist politics is bad enough. Weddle is also careful to choose his political “straw men” carefully, focusing only on film theory professors’ “Marxism” (which is of course a tremendous generalization) and ignoring the important contributions of feminist film theory (for example). Along with these charges of radical politics (one professor is condemned for participating in a Gulf War protest), Weddle has a particuarly incoherent discussion of how leftist film theory has destroyed any focus on authorship, another vast generalization, replacing it with a focus on the social forces that produced a given film.

Special ire is reserved for Edward Branigan, the offending professor who dared to “give” his daughter a C:

Branigan stands before a blackboard covered with rectangles and hexagons heavily notated with abbreviations. They appear to be the complex equations of an astrophysicist, but are in fact illustrations of semiotic theories of “narratology.” Branigan has tangled brown-gray hair, a shaggy beard, large glasses coated with flecks of dandruff and fingerprints, and wears an oversized gray sweater and corduroy pants. As he speaks, his hands grasp at the air, shaping it as he shapes his thoughts….Branigan’s oratory mesmerizes many of the students. They lean back, deep into the seats’ red upholstery, eyes staring blankly into space. Some give up and close them altogether.
Certainly someone so unaware of his physical appearance can have nothing useful to say about how film operates. Perhaps more troubling, Weddle (echoing Roger Ebert) implies that film theorists are essentially cultists, viweing themselves as “high priests of culture.” He dismisses Constance Penley because “she exudes an almost religious fervor for film theory and its power to transform” and then changes her admiration of Christian Metz into that of a gooey-eyed Justin Timberlake fan: “with the I-can-hardly-believe-I-actually-got-to-hang-with-him glow of a teenager who’s met a rock ‘n’ roll idol.”

This kind of anti-intellectualism is troubling for me. I recognize that film theory requires students to tackle difficult concepts and to challenge–and possibly rethink–standard assumptions about the world, but isn’t that what a liberal-arts education is about? I also find it troubling that these complaints are frequently directed at film and literary theory, while math and science courses are rarely criticized for their use of specialized jargon which seems to assume that studying a film should be “easy” and math/science courses can be “hard.” One of the major points of film theory is that sign systems are complex things–that they have a profound effect on the ways in which we pecreive, understand, and act in the world. Even though one of the professors Weddle interviews makes this point, he refuses to seriously entertain it. Still, I am troubled by these charges of “elitism” and the continued emphasis on “hands-on” practical experience that threaten to marginalize the work that I do. These perceptions about the academy have a lot of power, which leaves me wondering how we can change them.

16 Comments »

  1. Jason Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 9:01 am

    A couple of prefatory remarks:

    1. I agree that Weddle’s essay follows a recognizable, even cliched, pattern–here’s another contribution to this genre today.

    2. I’m not anti-theory–I’ve published on theory, review theoretical works regularly, etc.

    Having said those things:

    1. I suspect people outside the academy (and maybe even some first-year or second-year students) think majoring in film is like majoring in creative writing, rather than in English. This is partially a problem of making more explicit to parents, alumni, and other interested outsiders the value of interpretive work.

    2. While I agree that a liberal education is supposed to challenge student’s received ideas, I have to wonder if theory’s the way to do this. (On some days I wonder if theory has any place in an undergraduate curriculum, the point of which is not “to anticipate graduate school.”) When one teaches theory, one either has to spend an extensive amount of course time filling in background, or has to get by with a quick-and-dirty, superficial reading. If the latter, then one’s not really challenging anyone’s ideas at all. (In fact, one’s actively doing harm because such readings validate the widespread impression that the interpretive disciplines are just BS anyway.)

    3. While, as I’ve said, I think theory’s intensely useful, it also needs to be acknowledged that there’s an embarrassingly high noise-to-signal ratio, and that we in the humanities have done an inadequate job of calling this out. Two quick examples: While there have been outstanding Lacanian film scholars, it’s also the case that much Lacanian film theory in the 1970s and 1980s seriously misrepresents the ideas of the gaze and the imaginary, even or especially when the theorist identifies as a Lacanian. (Joan Copjec has a pretty good account of this.)

    The other example is Judith Butler, generally accounted (within the theory-friendly world) as an exemplary rigorous thinker, one whose conceptual sophistication is so valuable that it warrants her atrocious prose. Yet she can’t even quote Lacan or Zizek accurately, much less represent their ideas in a reasonable way (see Tim Dean’s _Beyond Sexuality_ on this). What people find useful or significant about _Gender Trouble_ or _Bodies That Matter_ is beyond me.

    And Butler, for all her faults, has actually read and thought seriously about the writers she engages. The same can’t be said for everyone. But if one raises this objection–that, say, if you’re going to publish on Foucault it would be clever to have read _The Order of Things_, or, at a bare minimum, to have read the text you’re citing in the French–then one immediately gets hit with charges of elitism or snobbery.

    We would arguably be better served by cleaning up our own houses, rather than defending ourselves against the petty, anti-intellectual cliches of our critics. After all, if our students find our work lively and engaging, and their intellectual lives enriched by our classes or even our research, then complaints like Weddle’s will fall on deaf ears.

  2. Anne Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 9:41 am

    I never cease to be amazed at the hostility that can be directed at “postmodern” jargon, while “scientific” jargon is rarely problematised. (And this can become especially nasty in the social sciences, where it remains unclear to which set of jargon we should ally ourselves.)

    I believe that all academic disciplines have been guilty at one time or another of unnecessarily obfuscating their studies, and no small part of that can be linked to claiming and/or maintaining authority over particular knowledge. At the same time, I have little patience for arguments that imply that specialised vocabularies are inherently and inexcusably elitist or useless.

    As for the matter of theoretical discourse: there are those of us who do not see the utility of separating ontology from epistemology, or theory from method or practice.

    And I do agree that complaints from either side of this strange debate will fall on deaf ears if each side constantly strives to responsibly engage and inspire students in their everyday lives.

  3. chuck Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 12:48 pm

    Jason and Anne, you make a lot of important observations here about how theory fits within an undergraduate curriculum. Given Jason’s comments, I think I may have been a little hard on this article before, but it still feels caustic and somewhat condescending. I’ll try to work through them now that I’ve had enough coffee.

    1. As I understand the article, UCSB film production students, such as the author’s daugther, are generally aware of the theory-intensive curriculum. That being said, I agree that the case for interpretive work needs to be made more carefully.

    2. I have mixed feelings about incorporating theory in an undergraduate classroom for many of the reasons you describe. I think it can be done, and Weddle’s examples of reading Bazin and Eisenstein in his undergrad film theory courses are actually helpful. I think that what upset me the most was the wholesale dismissal of theory as a legitimate part of interpreting film (or film as a part of interpreting theory). Calling theory an “arcance cult,” with no legitimacy is unnecessarily harsh.

    I think Anne’s points about “elitism” are relevant here. There are certainly cases of [intentionally] obfuscating language that may entail a desire to retain power over a certain type of discourse, but I don’t think these vocabularies are necessarily elitist; they are definitely not useless.

    3. I agree with you about the “signal-to-noise ratio,” especially regarding the misreading of Lacan’s gaze. For that reason, I’ve been more convinced by Copjec’s argument. More recently, Todd Macgowan has been tackling these issues as well (check out his article in the most recent issue of Cinema Journal). I think my point in mentioning it was that Marxism is a much easier target in today’s political climate than feminism.

    But your main points, Jason and Anne, are absolutely right. If we can make our work liveley and interesting, then students will indeed be engaged with it. Still, I find such articles frustrating because I think it unfairly stereotypes all academics as being elitist snobs who are out of touch with reality.

  4. KF Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 1:23 pm

    One of the things that frustrates me — both about the unnecessary obfuscation in much contemporary critical work and in the dismissive responses of mainstream writers to that kind of difficulty — is that both point to (at least if I’m thinking through this clearly, after an insufficient quantity of caffeine this morning) the same phenomenon: the devaluation of the humanities withing the academic economy.

    The blind adherence to “theory” (and let me here disclaim: I consider myself to be a theoretical adherent, though hopefully not a blind one, and not one who has sacrificed a readable style to a theoretically correct vocabulary) has in part been produced, I think, by a need within the humanities to demonstrate our curricular and scholarly value by proving our “rigor.” This need for rigor, for precision, for difficulty, is driven by the necessity, in the contemporary academic universe, of competing with the sciences, both for funding and for students. Thus we wind up with a deep concern for methodology and much less concern for the interpretations that such methodologies are, one assumes, intended to produce. All of this, I think, is meant to keep administrators and students from mistakenly believing that literature and art and the other humanities are “pleasure” courses, meant to fill in the gaps in an otherwise science- and social science-driven curriculum.

    The same devaluation of the humanities, I think, is paradoxically operative in the mainstream dismissals of all such attempts at rigor in said humanities; as we repeatedly point out, no one in the mainstream media writes or speaks so dismissively of even the most abstruse work done in the sciences. Even the most odd pockets of theoretical physics receive nothing but awed responses in the press, as there’s an assumption that (a) folks in the sciences take reality, rather than representations, as the basis for their work, and (b) such work, however bizarre-seeming, is aimed at the improvement of human existence. The idea of “research” in the humanities presents itself as nothing but bizarre to the mainstream, who seem to want courses on literature, art, and film to be about one of two things: either “appreciation” or production. Otherwise, (a) you’re reading too much into something that’s just a novel/painting/film, and (b) what’s the point?

  5. Jason Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 6:24 pm

    (Apologies to Chuck in advance for a second overlong post on this thread, but:) I wonder about too hastily equating jargon in the humanities with jargon in the sciences. A few points:

    It’s not true that people don’t fret about writing in the sciences. I concede that the case isn’t pressed with the same fervor or moral outrage, but many folks within and without the academy are frustrated by the paucity of good science writing. One consequence that’s often drawn is the astounding popularity of creationism in the US. (I.e., if a few more biologists could write like the late lamented Gould, then we’d have a wider understanding of the pivotal role of evolution in all contemporary biology.)

    In addition to appreciation or production, many people wouldn’t mind seeing serious intellectual, literary, or cultural history, no matter how revisionist or even anti-historicist. Textual scholarship never quite goes all the way out of style, either. (Though this may not be true much longer: It’s frankly shocking how few literature Ph.D. programs even require any coverage of textual or bibliographic methods.)

    Finally, I wonder if there’s a different way to think about the outrage at crappy theory and bad writing in the humanities: It’s not so much a sign of the humanities’ (or social sciences’, but IANASS) waning influence, as much as of their abiding relevance. People want to pay attention to the worlds of ideas, art, and politics, but when they try to read something, so often they’re rebuffed by ostentatiously rebarbative prose, which, if they can decode it, tells them that their pleasures in reading a novel or viewing a film are suspect, if not evil.*

    *Caveats: 1) The Invisible Adjunct had a similar thread going a few months ago, and I would repeat now what I said then: For as long as literature has been taught, critics have argued that its teachers are pretentious abusers of jargon. It might serve to examine how literature/film are taught, especially in middle and secondary schools. In many states, you don’t even have to have an English MA, major, or minor to teach lit.

    1-a) I also freely acknowledge that a certain amount of criticism of the humanities is of course politically motivated, linked to an attempt to defund the arts and humanities, and to reimagine education as vocation. (Of course, since many academics repudiate–or at least take theoretical positions that imply they repudiate–humanistic
    aims for education, it’s a bit hard to understand why we’re complaining, except inasmuch as we’re losing money and prestige.)

    2) I’m of course aware that there’s a pleasure in difficulty, and that there are, at times, reasons to prefer difficulty to a misleading clarity. However, surely one can be difficult without elevating bureaucratic technospeak as the pinnacle of English prose style? (I have Jameson most in mind here.)

    It puzzles me to no end that many critics read theorists who discuss, at great length and with considerable subtlety, the significance of a particular language. The specificity of a symbolic order, in other words, isn’t always or fully translatable. Most, but not all, of these theorists write in French or German. And yet, when writing in English about these ideas, American critics import words willy-nilly across the linguistic transom, with little apparent regard for sound or pleasure. (To put it a slightly different way, the abuse of jargon effaces the materiality of the signifier in ways that, one would think, are contradicted by the theory under discussion.)

  6. KF Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 6:55 pm

    Jason — two quick things. First, I’m not sure if you were responding to me, but I didn’t mean to point to the sciences’ use of “jargon” — or indeed the state of scientific writing — at all. (Actually, I look back now and see that Anne’s post made that connection.) My concern was less with the difficulty or abstruseness of the writing per se (though yes, undoubtedly, too many contemporary scholars write appallingly, to the extent that I often find myself admonishing my students to read Critic or Theorist X for their ideas, but not to write like them) than with the seriousness with which the “work” is taken. One difference is that, in the humanities, the “work” and the writing are, to a significant extent, identical; without the writing, the work would not exist. In the sciences, however, the writing serves merely as a report on the actual “work,” which has taken place elsewhere. (How many times have I cringed to hear a social scientist colleague claim that she has completed her project, and now “just” needs to write it up?) I wonder if this different relationship between the project and its written form accounts for some of the issues we’re discussing?

    Second, a question: IANASS?

  7. kenrufo Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 8:45 pm

    Just a quick reactionary comment, maybe I’ll get more in depth on this issue later after I complete the revisions occupying me at the moment. But I can’t help but respond to the odd pressure being exerted here on the one hand, by those who find a certain type of intellectual posturing so problematic (Weddle) and on the other hand, the subtle but persistent complaint about American incorporation of continental theory, either for the lack of respect for the effects of translation or for its alleged repudiation of humanism. What strikes me as strange about the two prongs of concern here is how much they require the same core belief – pragmatism – albeit defined via slightly different agendas (one longs for vocation, the other for a particular utility of consumption). And not surprising, as with most pragmatist philosophies, theory a) is never questioned as such, but is instead posited a practice per se, different from vocation or critique, as if the latter two are not already theoretical, and b) simultaneously functions as the foil for whatever random truth-claim one wants to make.

    Two case-in-points: First, don’t you think there’s some irony in characterizing prose that is too “theoretically” dense as “rebarbative”? It sounds like a pot-kettle grudge match over diction preferences.

    Second, the Butler malaise. She is not the greatest writer in the world. She’s probably not even a good writer, assuming we can come to any sort of agreement about that kind of judgment. But there are rewards for working through her efforts – a rethinking of Cartesian and Lacanian dualisms regarding the body, a fresh look at gender that escapes (in large part) certain norms and discriminations, a problematizing of much of liberal feminism and identity politics, etc. To dismiss her two best known books with a wave of the keyboard strikes me as a little quick, and far too simple. Look, just claim you don’t agree with the motivations for the project, say that you find yourself unable to justify her torturous writing, whatever – but don’t simply deploy the derisive “beyond me”. In fact, what’s telling about your dismissal is how it follows a complaint about her ‘poor’ reading of Lacan. This strikes me as a rather banal hermeneutical maneuver, especially since, in her debate with Laclau and Zizek, Butler makes clear that her reading of Lacan, just like her reading of Hegel, is governed by a certain politics.

    How about this as an alternative: where did “theory” come from? Why has that signifier achieved such a prominence? Rather than accepting ‘theory’ as a signifier for an established set of practices, perhaps we might think about how ‘theory’ operates to govern the practices to which it is assigned, in large part to consign those practices to the level of the abstract, and isolate them for critique. I think academics play a dangerous game if we accept the rhetorical “rules” assumed (and reproduced) by those like Weddle.

    I think that, absent the rather suspect division between theory and its other(s), we get much more quickly to the heart of the debate: people should write better. That doesn’t mean abandon what we’ve been calling theory, nor does it mean run away from the various post-whatevers because of their particular language games. It just means that folks should learn to deploy those languages better. I don’t agree with most of what Zizek says, but the man can write. So can Derrida and Foucault (even if, on occasion, they choose not to). Or Zygmunt Bauman, who is a god. And so on and so forth. Those are folks all neck deep in theory, and they wade right through it with a ‘thank you very much’.

    Alright, long enough.

    [As an aside: And if you don't read the original French, who seriously cares? 1) The vast majority of people exposed to those works haven't read them in the original language, so writing to an Englsh audience should account for that if we really want to avoid that harsh ivory tower; 2) there are very, very few people on the planet who might understand the subtle nuances or relavances involved in those translations, and indeed, those few people are usually the ones employed to do the translations; 3) hell if you read Derrida, everyone speaks their own unique language anyway, so the idea that speaking French somehow make's Derrida's meaning more transparent to you is laughable.]

  8. Jason Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 9:34 pm

    Let’s see:

    “IANASS”: I am not a social scientist.

    Todd McGowan: Yes, he does do great work. I keep meaning to read more of him.

    And then, considering that the rest of this post is responding to digs from Kenrufo, I just want to flag here that we end up agreeing on all substantive issues: Let’s not give up theory, nor run away from the language game parts. People should write better–all the more since, as KF points out, the writing and the work in the humanities are the same.

    “rebarbative”: Well, we all make our little jokes, yes. (And sometimes a word lodges in my brain b/c I’ve just invoked the author.)

    “French”: In most circumstances (conversation, certain kinds of classroom situations, on first exposure), of *course* it doesn’t matter. That’s why I restricted it to “if you’re publishing on X.”

    While it’s certainly true that reading Derrida in the French doesn’t make him more transparent (and really, what kind of a straw dog is this?), the idea that the Anglo-American reception of French theory hasn’t been significantly affected by translation issues is just silly. There is, after all, a reason why Norton’s releasing new translations of Lacan’s _Ecrits_ and _Seminar XI_: The Sheridan translations are so corrupt that some of the passages mean the opposite of the original. (This is one of the reasons why early film theory is so rotten on the gaze.) And there’s a well-known passage in Foucault’s _The History of Sexuality, Vol. I_ that’s often cited as a critique of psychoanalysis, but which, in the French, distinguishes between psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and uses the latter as a stick to beat the former with. This sort of thing happens all the time.

    It’s *because* most people will never have read the original that academics have an imperative to do so, at least when they take it upon themselves to publish on it. It’s part of that whole “preservation and dissemination of knowledge” thing.

    Butler: Of course *I* wasn’t trying to critique Butler–that’s why I provided a source. And I will not get into a long discussion about Butler–it’s just not worth it to me. But I will probably never understand how the acknowledgement that her reading of Lacan “is governed by a certain politics” frees her from an obligation to quote correctly. Can’t we agree that accurate quotation is a degree zero of the textually based disciplines?

  9. chuck Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 10:32 pm

    I think that I’m in agreement with the substance of most of the larger claims on the table right now, especially the points about the responsibility of critical theorists to write better, perhaps with somewhat larger audiences in mind, but without abandoning their theoretical basis. I generally agree with Jason that some translations (I’ve encountered this in Deleuze) misrepresent the original, but I do think that translations can sometimes bring out interesting ambiguities in the original (some that I would never be able to recognize).

    I’d like to address the (now somewhat faded) claim that academic film criticism often takes as its aim the denial of visual pleasure. To me, this is a sticky problem, in part because I think it unintentionally plays into a fear of images that oddly echoes more conservative reactions to film (such as the Joe Lieberman “family values” responses). I think it grows in part out of the misreading of Lacan that Jason describes, but more dangerously, I think it potentially devalues film as an object of study, which seems like a dangerous move when higher education budgets are perilously tight (thanks, Dubya). I *do* think that ideological critique of film is important, but one aspect of the Weddle piece that hit awfully close to home was the observation that film theory might impede enjoyment.

  10. chuck Said,

    July 17, 2003 @ 10:38 pm

    I should clarify that not all film theory has the stated purpose of disrupting visual pleasure. In fact, much contemporary film theory seems to try and trace subversive pleasures out of popular genres (Carol Clover on horror, for example)….

    And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I think *I* initiated the English/science binary that emerged as a strain in many of the comments.

  11. kenrufo Said,

    July 18, 2003 @ 9:31 am

    For the purposes of reading the same page, can Jason make more explicit what he is referring to as a misreading of Lacan? Lacan’s is a large corpus, and I’ve seen allusions to the use of gaze and the concept of the imaginary, and I was just hoping for some clarification on what has been misread and how. Not being polemic here, I’m just curious :)

  12. chuck Said,

    July 18, 2003 @ 10:09 am

    Jason can answer this question much better than I can, but I’ll offer one example. For a more precise discussion check out Todd Macgowan’s “Looking for the Gaze” in Cinema Journal 42.3.

    Basically Macgowamn argues (convincingly IMO) that “although in his early essay on the mirrir stage, Lacan conceives of the gaze as a mastering gaze, he thought of it in preciselt the opposite way later on–as the point at which mastery fails” (All quotations from Macgowan). In Seminair XI, he uses the example of Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors, in which a small anamorphic figure appears at the bottom of the painting–looking directly at the painting, you see “nothing discernible,” but from one specific angle, you see the object as a skull. Lacan reads this as “the site of the gaze.” Lacan notes that the anamorphism not only serves as a reminder that death is inevitable, but also that it involves the viewer in the painting–viewers can never achieve safe distance from it.

    I can’t work through the entire Macgowan essay, but it illustrates a different understanding of the gaze than we find in Laura Mulvey, for example. Hope this brief synopsis helps a little. Anything to add, Jason?

  13. kenrufo Said,

    July 19, 2003 @ 11:56 am

    Juan Monroy wrote a nice response to Weddle’s article in a letter to the editor. Take a gander at it over at his site:

    http://www.juanomatic.net/news/000088.shtml

  14. chuck Said,

    July 28, 2003 @ 4:50 pm

    Thanks for the link to this letter. I’ve been lazy lately about maintaining the blog and responding to comments.

  15. Evan Branigan Said,

    December 5, 2003 @ 5:08 am

    Just like to note that the daughter was not given a C by Edward Branigan. She never took his class.

  16. chuck Said,

    December 5, 2003 @ 9:49 am

    Wow–that would add an interesting twist. So why did Weddle write such an angry article denouncing film theory?

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