Three recent additions to Caboose’s Kino-Agora series are dedicated to fundamental terms in the history of film theory and criticism: Frank Kessler writes on mise en scène, Jacques Aumont on montage, and Timothy Barnard, the founder of Caboose, on découpage. Digesting the treatment of these terms in each of the three books I was reminded, once again, that French is cinema writing’s first intellectual and critical lingua franca. The combined influence of these three terms has been immense; they have each in turn become cornerstones of entire schools of criticism and perennial categories in the historiography of the cinema. They have all, and this is the conclusion of all three essays, nevertheless experienced a gentle decline as active terms and a generalised dilution of sense and significance. The banalisation of mise en scène, the decline of montage’s moral function, and the long-standing absence of découpage, is, for better or worse, the sign of a somewhat fatigued institution of cinema, of the digital remediation of the moving image, but also of the welcome dismantling of a certain kind of insecure, nay defensive mode of thinking about film. Together these three essays reactivate cinema’s disciplinary memory and thus they remember the constitutive debates that brought forth the discourse of film theory and criticism in the first place; that is, the cinema’s search for a language adequate to its novel mixture of atavism and corrosive modernity.
Unlike some more established fields like Philosophy or Ancient History, the reference library of the cinema is sorely lacking. Made up of a patchwork of individual parts, dispersed across several languages and series, mercurial, quixotic, at times bafflingly amnesiac, cinema reference works as group certainly can not be trusted to meet the needs of teachers and their assistants, new initiates, the large group of internet writers, reviewers, and critics, students, not to mention interdisciplinary visitors. The question of cinema’s critical language has often been obfuscated by the urgency of disciplinary or critical demands. The postmodernist allergy to establishment knowledge, Enlightenment universalism, and large-scale scholarly projects more generally has eroded away much of the zeal that culminated in the encylopaedia and dictionary frenzy at the end of the 19th century. In addition to this, the popularity of user-generated resources on the internet has put in doubt the practicality of expert or specialist reference literature. The collective intellectual and financial will required to produce such works has been disassembled and unfinished projects of the past have stalled and unraveled as a result.
Where is cinema’s equivalent of the Pauly-Wissowa Realencyclopädie, the LSJ, the Grove Dictionary of Music, or two recently completed (so far as reference works go) German language historical dictionaries, the seven volume Ästhetische Grundbegriffe and the majestic Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, forty years in the making? This, of course, doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent reference works on the cinema: the Jacques Aumont and Michel Marie edited Dictionnaire théorique et critique du cinéma, the encyclopedic Storia del cinema mondiale edited by Gian Piero Brunetta, Richard Abel’s Encyclopedia of Early Cinema or David Thomson’s eccentric Biographical Dictionary of Film, for example. Many of these important works are also associated with a specific publisher as well as with an editorial team, Storia del cinema mondiale with Einaudi, Ästhetische Grundbegriffe with Metzler, and so on. In this respect, Caboose, and the Kino-Agora series in particular belongs, self-consciously, to the tradition of specialist publishers who disseminate handbooks, manuals and reference works, in the service of a specific field of knowledge.
Mise en scène
Frank Kessler begins his essay on mise en scène by discussing its theatrical origins. In the French theatre of the 19th century, Kessler points out, mise en scène referred to everything involved in the production of a piece of theatre except “declamation” (the recitation of the text itself). Initially it was the lesser term in the pair, spectacular rather than literary, but later, with the development of theatre into an autonomous art, and once, as Kessler writes, “the staging of a play came to be considered an interpretation of the text rather than a simple reproduction of the written work,” mise en scène became the very essence of modernist theatricality. As an example of this Kessler cites the important metteurs en scène of the late 19th century such as Antoine, Reinhardt, Meyerhold, and Craig. Mise en scène is both a technical/descriptive term (the set-up of production) and a concept that designates theatrical expression, the transformation of literature into theatre. This distinction between descriptive and expressive definitions of mise en scène is mirrored in the literature of the cinema. The corresponding agent of mise en scène, the metteur en scène, develops historically into the authorial instance of the late 19th century, an “interpreter” of the text and “realiser” of a production. The best English and German translations of metteur en scène are “director” and “Regisseur” respectively, now standard terms in the cinema. In other words, the relationship between the development of authorial agency in the cinema is bound historically to similar developments in the theatre and to a terminology that they share.
After the perfunctory citing of examples of staging for the camera from the Lumières and Méliès, Kessler moves on to the Soviets and two seminal problems in the history of mise en scène: its role as constitutive counter-term to documentary and the effect of the close-up on the practice of mise en scène. He reminds us that mise en scène can also mean to lie or deceive and so stands in for ideological fiction in the foundational discourse of documentary. Vertov’s opposition of “life caught unawares” and “the staging of everyday life” is an aesthetic opposition between mise en scène and montage; “life caught unawares” is not a privileged, profilmic, life-before-the-cinema, but a vast world that must be subject to the incisions of the camera, the kinok, and the new law of the fragment. As Kessler relates, the dramaturgy of the actor’s face in close-up was also debated at this time in Russia. Did the use of the close-up marginalise the set, and the other expressive actions, gestures of the actor? Some lamented the loss of decor (a component of mise en scène) while others, Kuleshov for example, noted the compensatory expressive power of fragmentation and editing. Still others thought that the close-up produced a “surfeit of theatricality”.
Kessler then notes that filmmakers in the 1910s preferred depth staging and long takes over editing. He cites the 1913 film Die Landstrasse and its German reception which praised the long-take second part over the more analytical first part. Feuillade, Perret, Sjöström, Franz Hofer, Yevgeni Bauer, Mario Caserini are given as further examples of this tendency in 1910s cinema. Metaphors such as “choreography” and “orchestration” depict mise en scène as a more expansive act of coordination, synchronisation and composition, as a genuinely “cinematic concept”.
By the 1960s mise en scène had become a synonym for filmmaking, the integration of all the elements of film form. French criticism, explains Kessler, in the 1950s and 1960s developed mise en scène into a fundamental aesthetic concept of the cinema and took sometimes excessively totalising positions. In Mourlet’s still untranslated article Sur un art ignoré, mise en scène is an all-embracing designation for the ineffable and mysterious act of filmmaking creativity, while Truffaut’s 1968 definition expands mise en scène to include the entire production process of the film. Paradoxically “the artfulness of artlessness” conception of an actively pursued but unobtrusive mise en scène is a critical topos of some of these writings, for example Bazin, Rivette, Amédée Ayfre, in which the auteur is a self-effacing ascetic. Both mise en scène and the auteur elude clear and consistent definition in the Cahiers writings because they are both integral parts of the general problem of originality. Mise en scène is the mark of the auteur, his signature, and the manner in which the filmmaker employs the means of the cinema artistically.
Inevitably, this enthusiasm would dissipate and Kessler begins his discussion of that decline with an account of the mid-1960s round table at Cahiers. Comolli and others redirected attention to the “result” or “artistic reality” of the film as aesthetic object relegating mise en scene to an “operational reality” or functional means whose outcome is the film itself, the primary object of critical interest. Comolli’s addition to the chiasmatic lore of the Cahiers set has mise en scene “not as an expression of anything” but as a “means of expression – stylistic, rhetorical, technical.” Mise en scène is a formal constituent. By the late 1960s, the formal language of semiotics and psychoanalysis had further marginalised mise en scène and auteurism at Cahiers, and in issue no. 195 of the journal André S. Labarthe pronounced mise en scène dead. David Bordwell revived the term in the 1980s as part of his historical poetics, which has had an immense influence on the pedagogical practice of film studies. It is here that I think Kessler perhaps misses an opportunity to meditate more closely on the relationship between the term mise en scène and the disciplinary history of English language film studies. How is it that a term so definitively relegated to obsolescence became the stalwart of undergraduate formal analysis? A study of the mise en scène revival in the university tutorial rooms of the 1990s could help explain how the contemporary University vernacular of film analysis developed.
Before concluding Kessler attempts to reconcile mise en scène with Bordwell’s functional formalism. In spite of the opposition of 1950s and 1960s French criticism to overly scripted or overly literary filmmaking, mise en scène still should not be understood independently from its narrative function. Mise en scène, “endows the diegetic universe with specific qualities” and “communicates the film’s enunciative regime”, the “tone” and “mode” of the story, in a way that is comparable to terms from genre studies such as iconography. Mise en scène articulates spatial and temporal continuity – it matches cuts. Citing Eisenstein’s distinction between the “representational” and the “figurational” planes, Kessler explains mise en scène’s twin functions with respect to action itself: it projects physical movement and position into the dimension of logical, emotional and social relationships, that is, into an emphatically crooked allegorical dimension.
One final observation: for Kessler, the increasingly digitised filmic event does not make the term mise en scène obsolete but rather renders obsolete the definition “staging for the camera”. He mentions an alternative term dispositif which Luc Moullet substitutes for mise en scène in a 2007 article, and which Adrian Martin, who recently published a much longer study of mise en scène, writing in 2011 suggested might include not just cinema, but a full range of intermedial images. 1 Dispositif, writes Martin, can fulfill mise en scène’s function as the integrative arrangement of all production elements. In this respect Kessler concedes that mise en scène is indeed outdated. While as technical and functional practice mise en scène is an essentially historiographical term, he says, as an aesthetic je ne sais quoi, it belongs to a specific period of film history, and has become a memory and a myth.
Timothy Barnard’s essay on découpage is in some ways quite breathtaking. In essence it questions the assumptions under which the historiography of the cinema has, since Eisenstein, and in spite of Bazin, and in part because of Bazin, made editing the privileged aesthetic concept of the more general notion of “sequencing”. How could editing, the joining together of film, come to replace découpage, the revolutionary re-imagination of the dimensions of the cinema event? Organised into 39 miniature commentaries the essay is itself an exercise in critical découpage. Each section centres on one fundamental statement in the term’s history. Barnard also points out that today découpage is virtually absent from film theory and debate in any language, including French. Indeed, while montage and mise en scène have been emancipated from the italics that mark borrowed words, découpage still languishes in this admonitory typeface. Perhaps the most interesting of Barnard’s selections is his first, Buñuel’s speculative 1928 article in which the director compares découpage to the segmented body of a worm. Découpage, at its simplest, corresponds to the “shooting script” or “continuity”, the final iteration of a film’s script that contains detailed plans for shooting, camera placement, stage directions, changes of shot, and so on. According to the lexographer Jean Giraud the term enters cinema in the late 1910s, those crucial years during which the first general vocabulary of film aesthetics was being constructed.
In 1919 Henri Diamant-Berger anticipated the later distinction between découpage téchnique, a purely descriptive and technical term, and découpage without the article, a formal term referring to the manner in which the découpage téchnique of a film accords with aesthetic and formal demands. Barnard observes that in English and French a group of terms, continuity script, editing, montage and découpage, share the same formal and technical designations, but ascribe continuity and discontinuity differently. English language film scholarship has long conflated découpage and analytical editing reducing découpage to its “Hollywood” form. Malraux, agreeing with Buñuel, makes découpage a necessary condition of film art – it reorganises theatrical space into cinematic space. Barnard also points out that Malraux’s essay Esquisse d’une psychologie du cinéma was poorly translated into English in this respect; découpage is rendered as “cutting”, but read as editing and a footnote explaining découpage as the spatial imagining of the découpeur (the agent of découpage) manifested in camera movement is omitted entirely. This idea of spatial, and temporal, imagining as empowered camera movement corresponds to a more general concept of découpage as aesthetic category, indeed the aesthetic category of cinema’s artistic autonomy.
Barnard’s essay continues by stating that when Griffith moved the camera in for a close-up he invented découpage, not editing. The critical step here was a re-imagination of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the film event, the de-theatricalisation of the stage, which Malraux had described in his Esquisse. Griffith inserts rather than juxtaposes, resisting Godard’s and others’ mythologising of this moment as the inaugural edit. Sadoul, and later Burch, distinguish découpage, the cutting up of a single scene, from editing, the narrative conjunction of scenes remote from each other. In the 1980s, the term “scene dissection” was popularised by post-Brighton scholars such as Salt to explain this very process, a term that first appeared in the 1929 Montagu translation of Pudovkin’s Film Technique, one of the original sources of what Barnard calls the “editing ideology”.
These scholars forget that editing or film-cutting presupposes découpage, that the reorganisation of the film event itself generated the very material of editing, the new dimensions to which the editor could then assign values. André Gaudreault uses découpage only once, and figures such as Tom Gunning and Bordwell subsume it under “editing”. Bordwell, as Barnard points out later with respect to Bazin, overemphasises the importance of editing in his history of Classical Hollywood cinema by consistently translating découpage as “analytical editing”. Barnard proposes that “scene conception” replace “scene dissection”. Just before the decline of découpage, in 1949, Rachael Low, writing on the early British cinema, understood the importance of pre-editing image sequencing and “on the floor” camera work, but lacked a suitable English term for it. Editors are map readers not mapmakers, says Barnard, craftspeople who contributed little to the establishment of the Classical aesthetic, which was accomplished by another larger group collectively imagining the découpage dimension into being.
What Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, in particular, have labelled analytical editing, is in fact analytical découpage and Classic Hollywood découpage is an institutional découpage. In this respect, authorship is an unimportant question, and in contrast with editing, mise en scène, cinematography, and script-writing, découpage is rarely given a separate credit; it is a highly collaborative process diffused through the filmic event’s many determinative instances and agents. Editing implies the finished product, the end to which a process can be made to conform if the process itself is reduced to editing. Découpage, on the other hand, refers to “a nebulous, ineffable, diffuse, creative process”, whose comprehension requires critical distance and archaeological immersion. Shooting ratios, outakes, and rushes are the appropriate material and metric of the study of découpage.
Re-familiarisation with the term découpage also allows for a re-examination of the principal theories of the camera, whether as stylo, luminescent brush, metal brain (Epstein), or general anthropomorph. Barnard mentions Potamkin, an American writer for Close-Up, who uses the phrase “camera engineering” where “engineering” is a participle whose object is cinema/scene and not a gerund. This emphasis on the camera allows for a more general distinction between editing and découpage: “Editing acts materially on the abstract while découpage acts ideally on the concrete”. The abstract unities of editing are physically and materially arranged by the editor, even by the digital editor, whereas the unabstracted, concrete portions of the filmic event are dimensionalised by the découpeur. Distinguishing découpage from editing allows for the recognition of directors that do edit and arrange pieces of cinema on an abstract, almost textual plane (documentarians; essayists) and those that don’t, directors subjected to the tyranny of an institutional découpage or beholden to a filmmaking “Bible”, but also figures like Stroheim whose very interest in découpage generated so much resistance to its homogenisation and capitalisation.
Barnard’s principal postulate, then, is that the historically general notion of sequencing produced a number of different film theoretical concepts, but that the development of editing into an aesthetic concept has come to dominate our understanding of sequencing. In the 1920s though, editing had not yet established itself as the hegemonic term. While French and German film writing of the 1920s lacked a well-developed concept for editing, it had nevertheless developed a conceptual vocabulary to explain sequencing, which included among other terms tempo and rhythm.
Barnard then re-reads Eisenstein’s polemic over Béla Balázs’s forgotten scissors. In spite of Eisenstein’s rebuke, he argues, Balázs’s privileging of the camera was an attempt to uncover what is ideologically shielded by the pre-découpage pro-filmic – the raw and intensely ideological “natural” way of seeing. The excesses of pictorial symbolism aside, it is also the emphasis on the camera as the viewer’s introductory instance that clashes with Eisenstein’s more controlling production aesthetic. What if Balázs and others noticed sequencing in Griffith but did not see it as editing, asks Barnard? Interpreting Balázs’s term Bilderführung as montage is anachronistic and “baldly teleological”. Balázs’s term is another example of early theories that do not understand image sequencing as editing. His interest in the close-up is a study of image sequencing as insertion, physiognomy, and truth or revelation, that pre-dates montage as cinematic term in German. Later, in Der Geist des Films, Balázs uses the phrase “Einstellung zur Einstellung” to describe an “attitude” or “placement, positioning” of the camera, both of which are included in the meaning of the German Einstellung. Barnard cleverly translates this as “posture”, integrating Balázs’s critique of theatrical “imposture” by means of the de-mystificatory powers of the close-up and of the camera as instrument of cinematic scene conception.
Even in the Soviet tradition it would be a mistake to fetishise editing, continues Barnard. The term, raskadrovka (раскадровка), which, Barnard notes, Eisenstein uses in his 1930s film courses to describe the preparation of shot-clusters for montage, corresponds to découpage, but just like Jean Mitry, Eisenstein sees this process as mere preliminary to the higher art of montage. In Pudovkin’s 1926 Film Technique he uses the term differentiation (дифференцирование), in its mathematical sense, to designate the extraction of a montage element from an event, or découpage. Bilderführung, раскадровка, Einstellung, дифференцирование, all of these terms require longer, more attentive study; as a group they remind us of the richness of the first fifty years of writing on the cinema.
Finally, Barnard returns to France and ultimately Bazin whose decision to abandon découpage in the mid 1950s marked its exit from the list of film critics’ active terms. In 1930s and 1940s France, découpage referred both to the tyranny of institutional découpage technique (Hollywood), and to the conception and planning of a film in its creator’s imagination, a “hallucinatory prior vision” as Jean George Auriol puts it. According to this second understanding of the term, the film is written with a camera rather than with a pen. For Alexandre Astruc, the films of Orson Welles employed a new kind of découpage téchnique which permitted viewers themselves to arrange dramatic lines within the same shot. For Bazin, writes Barnard, “shot sequencing gives way to scene differentiation within a single dynamic frame”. In Welles’ depth of field a new découpage unit emerges, the plan-séquence.
Barnard now turns specifically to Bazin. Bazin’s realist aesthetic sought to introduce modernist ellipses without the imposing syntactical reductions of editing. An ignored 1952 text by Bazin entitled Découpage, which Barnard has translated and edited for Caboose books, gives an account of the movement from analytical découpage to the fluid découpage of the differentiating camera. The title was mistranslated however as “montaggio” in Italian and “montage” in English and was later reworked slightly into the famous L’Évolution du langage cinématographique. Barnard explains that both are compromised texts where Bazin himself slips between mise en scène, découpage and editing to explain similar phenomena of sequencing.
The younger Cahiers critiques avoided the term découpage and replaced it with mise en scène, perhaps wanting to distance themselves from an earlier generation, perhaps because Bazin himself had abandoned the term. Here Barnard explains the relationship of their preferred term, mise en scène with découpage: “Découpage is the formal treatment – the camera treatment – of the mise en scène, sequenced.” (p. 54) Noël Burch’s use of découpage in the late 1960s gave the term a third sense, the underlying “facture” (not “structure”, another mistranslation) of the finished film. Facture, which in Art History refers both to the handling of paint, and to the marks of such handling on the painted surface, in Cinema suggests the camera’s handling of physical reality, or as Barnard puts it “our awareness of this handling through the tangible presence of the camera.” For Burch, the découpage unit is not the shot but the sequence and its articulation. After Burch abandoned it in the early 1980s découpage disappeared from film discourse. Barnard ends his tale of mistranslation and terminological hegemony by comparing the editing ideology to the Cretan minotaur. Editing ideology is the minotaur at the centre of the labyrinth, the offspring of a misreading of André Bazin’s influential essay on the evolution of film language, and it must be slain!
Given the already abundant writing on this subject, Jacques Aumont’s essay on montage has its work cut out for it. It begins with the fundamental distinction between the diegetic world of the image and the profilmic world of the view. The impossible ubiquity of the camera operator stems from a misconception of cinema as the “natural image of a fabricated world” rather than as the “fabricated image of an imaginary world”. Film is either narrative by convention or it is made up of traces of the physical world. The film image as “total apparition” surpasses all other phenomena in its sudden, thorough, rapid and unexpected character. It is this central character of the image that has oriented both “productive” and “transparent” editing and thus marked the entire history of film, explains Aumont.
Pudovkin’s influential Film Technique posits the ideal observer as the instance of filmic judgment: the ideal observer should inhabit a credible, clear, accessible imaginary world. The ideal observer, explains Aumont, is just that, an observer whose ideal vantage point guides the decisions of the filmmaker. The decision about what to include is a semiotic one and is resolved with reference both to common sense and to the context of literary and theatrical experience. Ellipsis obviously preexisted the cinema in novels, theatre, even painting. The idealness of this ideal is conditioned by the semiotic milieu of the film viewing collective. This mass of unlikely sophisticates act as an ever-changing array of coordinates mapped onto the variable terrain of the “ideal observer”.
Aumont now turns to the crucial concept of the match. The matched cut renders the discontinuity of shot change secondary to semiotic continuity; it is the complex of sensorial and intellectual continuity and rupture. The shot is equally ambiguous, having succeeded the tableau or scene, it is partial and at the same time possesses its own individuality. For Pudovkin, according to Aumont, the shot is a momentary point of view, relevant and economical. If editing is the mental means governing the relation between the visible and the invisible, then, “the matched cut, by virtue of its constituent ambiguity, is this relation.” (p. 16) Classical editing limits the inherent ambiguity and arbitrariness of shots and matches by ascribing shot changes to the psychic states of the character and of the generic viewer.
Just like Pudovkin’s ideal observer, the sophistication of this generic viewer, as the repository of an infinite and evolving array of “imaginary causes” grounds the “rules” and conventions of editing and is also the condition of possibility of ellipsis. The matched cut’s “power of contamination” can make us accept almost anything, even the impossible. Aumont’s main problem with Bazin’s famous maxim, prohibiting the editing together events whose “essential aspect” depends on simultaneous presence, is that it surreptitiously establishes an “axiology between various kinds of filmable events”, an ontological hierarchy of events. Aumont’s typology of the plan-séquence is based on the degree to which the shot or the sequence dominates: the static shot organised in depth; the animated shot whose goal is to explore space; the very long almost autonomous shot. Aumont’s discussion here is sensible and systematic. He carefully explains that because the shot is the result of découpage and montage, the shot’s limits must also be constituted by montage.
Revisiting the problem of montage as theoretical concept, Aumont turns to the polemic between Vertov and Eisenstein. Editing is both a semiotic tool that ensures cohesion and a principle of rupture, a sudden uncontrollable apparition. This two-fold nature carries over into both the history of editing as practice and the history of editing as theoretical conception, says Aumont. There are two avant-garde paths. For Vertov, cinema should simultaneously show reality and the signification of reality; montage is the means of expressing reality’s truth. For Eisenstein, the shots of the film are like verbal utterances that should be edited together according to their meaning. The equivocal meaning of the shot can either be minimised and focused or made to resonate with other shots in concatenation, its semiotic proliferation thus limited. Eisenstein contrasts a cinema of the profilmic event or verisimilar image of an imaginary world with a cinema of the image as image, of the image tout court. Einsentein’s “attraction” is an attempt to find a passage from sensation/emotion to the idea. Linking together the ideal observer in Pudovkin, which inhabits a common sense perceptual reality, the generic viewer of Hollywood, and the spectator of attraction, Aumont shows that the emotional charge of attractions diminishes with repetition. Attraction, collage and found footage films all make use of the image’s “total apparition” to act upon on the viewer. In contrast with the matched cut, abruptive montage does not resemble normal perception.
Aumont finishes by considering the status of the concept of montage in contemporary film writing. Editing is no longer a gesture as decisive, definitive or as profoundly ethical as it once was. Interactivity (TV, video games) diminishes the ethical function of editing: “We have entered into a period in which the reign of vision has become contested by that of the image.” (p. 51) Editing no longer regulates shots, it regulates images which are not responsible to reality but to themselves. The proliferation of digital and networked images has made the connections of editing ineffectual and redundant. Aumont concludes by attributing editing’s historical function as cinema’s aesthetic and formal soul to its ability to show time and warns us against mythologising montage.
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Each of these three terms at various points in their respective history made totalising bids for formal supremacy as critical terms, montage, mise en scène more successfully than découpage. These short essays supply us with synthetic, readable accounts of some of our favourite tales from the history of film writing. The story of at least two of these terms, montage and mise en scène, will be familiar to most, but like any good tale, they improve with the telling. The secret history of découpage, on the other hand, is a thrilling example of tightly argued, attentive scholarship. I could not help but notice that the tone of the closing chapters of all three of the books verges on the elegiac. Barnard’s allegory of the editing minotaur, the promiscuous and souless proliferation of image interconnectivity in Aumont, and the mythical remnants of a now diminished, enfeebled mise en scène, having been suitably disciplined for hubris, are each glosses of a now crumbled and haunted edifice of theory. The ongoing developments in digital information platforms, the growing importance of scholarly practices such as the video-essay, and the luscious textual and image world that the long century of cinema has bequeathed us, make a multilingual dictionary of the language of cinema, one based on historical principles and an exhaustive re-examination of the corpus an urgent and exciting scholarly endeavour for the future.