It is difficult to overstate the impact the British journal Screen has had on the discipline of film and television studies. For the past 50 years, the journal has consistently been at the centre of debates around how we watch, why we watch, and what all this watching actually means. Moreover, when it came to film theorising, Screen for a very long time set the agenda. Today the journal’s back catalogue reads like a rollcall of canonical, game-changing texts (1), and the most (in)famous fruit of this labour, so-called “1970s Screen Theory” – that curious mélange of Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis (with just a dash of feminist theory) – remains an equally decisive and divisive point in film theory, marking either the height of activist political engagement with cinema and contemporary culture more broadly, or the nadir of rational film theorising, depending on your vantage point.
In any event, our contemporary conjuncture is doubtless marked by a pronounced retreat from so-called Grand Theory towards more local, formal and empirical concerns; in short, towards the more modest – and less polemicising – task of “open and interactive” theorising (p. 5). This special issue of Screen, which marks the journal’s fiftieth anniversary (2), takes this “open and interactive” process as its central theme and explores the state of screen/Screen theorising today. The issue itself contains 15 essays plus a substantive introduction, and is divided into four separate sections (although there is, of course, much overlap) with works falling under the various headings of “Spectatorship and Looking”, “The Screen Experience”, “After Cinema” and “Screen Cultures”. While the vast majority of the essays included are by already well-established scholars – including past and present editors of Screen – there are one or two new faces thrown into the mix. Moreover, as intimated above, the works themselves are predominantly “open” (and indeed “open-ended”), and the authors, for the most part, steadfastly refuse to venture into anything approximating “Grand Theorising” (although many of them are obviously sympathetic to Screen Theory and is central preoccupations). This “openness” is equally reflected in the recurring themes of the issue, most notably in the debates surrounding medium specificity and media convergence (or, more generally, cinema and “post-cinema”).
The issue opens with a lucid introductory essay by Annette Kuhn which traces Screen’s history, from its modest beginnings in the early 1950s as an occasional newsletter called The Film Teacher, through its serialisation in 1959 (as Screen Education) and its repackaging ten years later as a British Film Institute-published periodical (under its now familiar title, Screen), up to its current University of Glasgow-housed, Oxford University Press-published incarnation. In recounting the story of Screen, Kuhn pays particular attention to the journal’s overall pedagogical mission and its activist political engagement in the ’70s and ’80s. Pausing to reflect upon Screen’s “notorious love affair with psychoanalytic theory, or a certain version of it” (p. 3) in the mid-’70s, Kuhn goes on to document the evolution and eventual falling out of favour of Screen Theory. Noting the continuing relevance of certain theoretical approaches (specifically those promoted in the pages of Screen) and lamenting others that appear to have been left behind (3), Kuhn provides a broad assessment of the current state of screen (and Screen) theorising today, conceding that we can today no longer talk of a unified discipline of “screen studies” (let alone a Grand Unified Screen Theory). Rather, screen studies increasingly comprises a plurality of subdisciplines, brought together (perhaps) by a common rejection of Grand Theorising and the totalising structures such thinking appears to entail. She then provides a broad outline of the four sections making up the issue and offers brief commentaries on each of the essays contained within, before concluding with a reflection on how Screen’s role has ultimately shifted from academic enfant terrible to that of “gatekeeper” (4), with an important – and now wholly legitimated – role to play in both the academic and the broader public sphere. This last “gatekeeping” point arguably best captures the overall “feel” of the issue (especially when one considers its place in Screen history), the featured essays comprising, on the one hand, various renewals and reappraisals of long-held Screen convictions and references – Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, for example, figure prominently, as does Gilles Deleuze (although Marxism has conspicuously dropped off the radar) – and on the other, ideas and concepts which, while not entirely foreign to the pages of Screen, are perhaps more familiar in other contexts.
Part one on “Spectatorship and Looking” takes as its focus the convoluted question of spectatorship and textual engagement. In a piece sympathetic to 1970s Screen Theory, Rob Lapsley asks what form an “adequate” psychoanalytic criticism might take? After rehearsing the now-familiar critiques of psychoanalysis – whereby psychoanalysis figures as a discourse at once reductive and heterosexist, as well as philosophically naïve or “phallogocentric” (Jacques Derrida) and stifling the flows of desire (Deleuze) – Lapsley turns to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) to outline two possible versions of a more user-friendly “psychoanalysis to come”. The first considers Walkabout as a response to the real as “impossible”, whereby the film’s figuring as a series of open (and decidedly traumatic) stories, irreducible to any particular narrative strand, allows the spectator to exist “in the gaps between the narratives” and thereby “find new spaces in which to travel” (p. 21). Lapsley’s second approach effectively inverts the first by treating the real as a response, in the sense that the text is now viewed as a pathological structure to be analysed in terms of jouissance rather than signification.
Stephanie Marriott’s essay, by contrast, takes a far more formalist (if still Screen Theory-inflected) approach to the question of spectatorship, analysing the ways in which interactive “adult chat” television channels like Babestation – channels whose sole imperative is the successful interpellation of viewers as (paying) “users” – have turned the tables on traditional models of viewer-text relations by wholly subordinating program content to revenue generation. Marriott argues that in “directly monetiz[ing] interactivity”, adult chat television “transforms and unmakes television” (p. 34) as we have come to understand it.
Vicky Lebeau’s contribution to this first section resumes the psychoanalytic theme by appending D.W. Winnicot’s notion of the mother’s face as the precursor of the mirror to standard post-Lacanian psychoanalytic film theory. Pursuing the idea of a child’s looking into the mirror as producing nothing, Lebeau asks “what happens to the dialogue between psychoanalysis and visual culture if we put our emphasis not on the concepts of fetishism and voyeurism, of suture and the gaze … but on that ‘nothing’: the image not seen, the look that does not happen?” (p. 37). Lebeau explores this line of thought in an analysis of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), arguing that Haneke’s cinema conveys this absence by “looking back” at its audience through a process of “looking at looking” (p. 43).
Richard Rushton’s essay, by contrast, distances itself (at least superficially) from psychoanalytic theory by turning to the question of “Deleuzian spectatorship”. Limiting himself to Deleuze’s Cinema books (an approach worth remarking upon, given that the vast majority of secondary literature on Deleuze and cinema tends to ignore his Cinema books to instead focus on his work with Feéix Guattari), Rushton argues that while Deleuze has no explicit conception of the cinematic spectator, one can nonetheless locate an implicit theory of spectatorship in his works. In fleshing out this spectatorial absence, Rushton argues that, far from being active, Deleuze’s spectator must be “ineluctably passive” (p. 46), being less an immersive than an absorptive (or, better yet, incorporative) experience.
The essays comprising part two take as their central concern “The Screen Experience”, taken in its broadest sense. Francesco Casetti’s rich but compact paper on “Filmic experience” opens the section by briefly tracing the history of cinema in order to highlight the fact that spectatorship is anything but a static experience, having evolved with the medium itself. Casetti focuses his attention on the distinguishing characteristics separating the more immersive experience characteristic of early cinema (which Casetti thinks of in terms of “attendance”) from the increasingly “active” or “engaged” experience of post-World War II “modern cinema”, so as to draw conclusions about today’s highly variegated filmic experience (where film is increasingly moving away from the cinema, seeking new media, new platforms, and new environments), as well as raise some questions regarding the ontological specificity and continued contemporaneity of cinema itself.
These concerns are taken up and developed further in the following essay, in which John Ellis examines the peculiar ontological status of documentary film in the digital age. Ellis argues that the ubiquity of digital technologies and the consequent advances in verisimilitude in terms of both ontological fidelity (as human intervention in the reproduction of the image is even further elided) and simultaneity (as digital technologies allow “the profilmic event and its filmic representation [to] coexist” [p. 68]) has had the paradoxical effect of reinstating human agency as integral to the construction of the moving image. For this development in recording technology has equally “made crucial the need for a ‘chain of guarantee’ of the reality of these recordings, to ensure that their textual aspect has not overwhelmed their witnessing aspect” (p. 70).
Martine Beugnet and Elizabeth Ezra, by contrast, focus their attention on a single film, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait (2006). Using a Deleuzian framework, the authors argue the film perfectly illustrates “one of the most stimulating developments in both contemporary film theory and the practice of feature filmmaking”, namely, “the return of the corporeal and a concomitant reappraisal of film theory’s abstract tendencies through a renewed focus on the material appearance and sensory impact of film and media images and sounds” (p. 77). Beugnet and Ezra maintain that not only does Zidane directly call for “a ‘tactile’ relation to the image”, but moreover the film figures as a “perception-expanding event … where identities, individual and collective, appear in a state of flux” (p. 80).
Continuing in this Deleuzian vein, Laura U. Marks’ contribution outlines what she calls an “unfolding-enfolding aesthetics” which proposes “a theory of representation and narrative as unfolding” (p. 87). Inserting an additional level of “information” into the standard Deleuzian (or Bergsonian) opposition between the actual image and the virtual universe of images, Marks turns to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2007) and Rob Moss and Peter Galison’s documentary Secrecy (2008) – films in which “the image struggles to escape from information” (p. 87) – in order to trace the process by which images unfold from information (which, in turn, unfolds from the universe of images).
Thomas Elsaesser kicks off section three (on “After Cinema”) by proposing something of a “return to Freud”, conceived this time as neither medical therapist nor cultural theorist, but rather as “media theorist”. Paralleling Freud’s own preoccupation with the problem of memory – to which the unconscious, according to Elsaesser, only served as a “provisional” answer – with the problem of cinema (which is itself, at base, an inscription/recording and storage/retrieval device) and media technologies more generally, Elsaesser argues that Freudian theory still has much to offer in the digital age, and can greatly contribute to our understanding of contemporary media technologies.
Ji-hoon Kim follows up Elsaesser’s essay with a broad assessment of Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the “post-medium condition”, through which Krauss attempts to maintain the legitimacy of the concept of medium specificity in an age seemingly dominated by media convergence and platform multiplicity. Kim points to certain deficiencies in Krauss’ theoretical framework that need to be addressed, specifically in relation to new technologies, arguing that she fails to take into account the challenge posed to film by so-called “expanded cinema”, and by digital media more generally.
Elizabeth Cowie similarly treats the problem of medium specificity, albeit in the context of documentary films screened in the gallery. Focusing on Kutlug Ataman’s Kuba (2005), Cowie argues that the documentary time-based installation “engages the spectator both as immersed, open to the oneiric, and as interactive – her attention split (or distributed) between two or more possible views and across multiple channels of information and affect” (p. 129). At the same time, Cowie argues, such installations pull us between “historical time” and “now time”, and thereby transgress traditional models of spectatorship in favour of a more “interstitial” experience.
In closing this section, Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann revive the question of oppositional cinema, now “updated” to the “post-cinema” age. Calling attention to what they call “collaborative remix zones”, wherein “plural pasts, multiple temporalities, multiple artefacts and polyvocalities can join together to reclaim public spaces”, the authors argue such zones mount a direct challenge to transnational media corporations by way of a “politicized cinephilia that adopts the strategies of radical historiography and reverse engineering” (p. 135).
Part four on “Screen Cultures”, which closes the issue, begins with Charles R. Acland’s essay addressing the seeming ubiquity – and increasing banality – of the moving image in contemporary life. Acland argues that our contemporary media era is foremost defined by an increased mobility coupled with a rising informality regarding viewing formats, whereby “easy and abundant adaptability to a variety of formats has increased the ordinary, quotidian aspect of moving images” (p. 150). Hand in hand with this depreciation of the moving image, however, is a “heightened platform consciousness”, as we witness “an intensified discussion of the quality and appropriateness of various formats and spectatorial situations” (p. 150). By way of bolstering his argument, Acland goes on to engage in a detailed history of the mobilisation of the moving image, focusing on the area of audiovisual education, in order to demonstrate how mobilisation has long been integral to screen cultures.
John T. Caldwell follows up with his essay highlighting the underexplored affinity between academic screen studies and the various forms of “theorising” internally conducted by film, television and new media industries (and which fuel contemporary industrial practice). Arguing that the former has much to benefit from a close examination of the latter, Caldwell offers six examples of common industrial practice, ranging from “creative” Hollywood accounting to the steady erosion of the boundaries separating creative content from marketing, all of which highlight how and why contemporary screen studies can and must engage with contemporary industrial theorising.
The issue closes with Lee Grieveson’s essay on “governmentality and screens”, which turns to Michel Foucault to consider the ways in which his work on governmental rationality might help us understand “the role and function of media cultures as aspects of liberal (and neoliberal) governance and the concomitant cultural shaping of self-regulating citizens and populations” (p. 181). Noting how Foucault has, for the most part, played only a marginal role when it comes to screen theorising (being effectively sidelined by more dominant Lacanian and Althusserian – and later, Deleuzian – paradigms), Grieveson maintains that a proper consideration of governmentality with regard to screen cultures would open up a number of potentially fruitful avenues which might continue to inform politically engaged screen theories and histories.
In the end, it is this appeal to potentiality that encapsulates what is so refreshing about this special issue of Screen (and the journal in general); namely, its determined retention – in the face of an anti-theoretical backlash that is hardly singular to screen studies (its branches having extended throughout all the humanities) – of not simply the concept but moreover the very possibility of positive and productive theorising. The difficulties and dangers inherent to such an undertaking are of course only too familiar to Screen. Many will recall the infamous resignation in the mid-’70s of four members of the editorial board in protest over the direction the journal was taking. In explaining their actions, they raised three serious objections, namely, that the journal had become “unnecessarily obscure and inaccessible”, that its underlying politico-cultural analysis was “intellectually unsound and unproductive”, and that it “had no serious interest in educational maters” (5). This fiftieth anniversary issue does much to answer these criticisms. Not, as one might immediately suppose, in simply denouncing (some of) the “excesses” of the past and embracing a program of open and plural theorising, but paradoxically by doing the very opposite; by returning to these excesses and examining them under a new light, by stripping away the layers of obscurity in order to separate what remains of worth from what must be abandoned, by questioning the basic tenets of film theory without ever abandoning the prospect of a coherent theoretical program, all the while renouncing the temptation to abstraction and remaining firmly rooted in the contemporary situation. In short, by remaining faithful to the spirit of Screen Theory.
Screen Theorizing Today: A Celebration of Screen’s Fiftieth Anniversary, edited by Annette Kuhn, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2009.
- The 1970s alone saw Screen publish a host of hugely influential works, including translations of Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” (Screen, vol. 12, no. 2, 1971, pp. 145–55) and Christian Metz’s “The Imaginary Signifier” (Screen, trans. Ben Brewster, vol. 16, no. 2, 1975, pp. 14–76), as well as original pieces like Stephen Heath’s “Narrative Space” (Screen, vol. 17, no. 3, 1976, pp. 68–112.) and Laura Mulvey’s “legendary manifesto” (p. 4), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18).
- This special issue has also been released as stand-alone book with its own ISBN 978-0-19-957296-0, available to non-subscribers as a single purchase. While the journal has been around in one shape or another since the early 1950s, Kuhn explains that 1959 was chosen as Screen’s “first birthday”, “for this was when the [Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT)] … published the first issue of a print journal that has appeared regularly, and without breaks, ever since” (p. 1).
- In a brief but welcome aside, Kuhn laments the fact that André Bazin’s work has been largely disregarded in the wake of the “phenomenological turn” in screen studies, and argues that “the time is surely ripe for revisiting Bazin’s and Metz’s work with a reframed theorization of screen metapsychology in mind” (p. 7).
- One cannot help but note here the parallels with cinema itself, not only with regard to the latter’s long-recognised function as “cultural gatekeeper”, but also – as many of the essays in this issue attest – its questionable role in our contemporary media era.
- Edward Buscombe, Christine Gledhill, Alan Lovell and Christopher Williams, “Why we have resigned from the board of Screen”, Screen, vol. 17, no. 2, 1976, pp. 107–8.