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Scenes of Instruction:

While numerous disciplines have turned to an analysis and even anthropology of their own
practices there has not yet been an extended historical investigation of the institutions and
concrete activities of film studies. To be sure, the emphasis on theory as a central activity of the
field has encouraged reflexivity and self-interrogation. It becomes inevitable to ask such
disciplinary questions as What does it mean to do film theory? Which theory? Should one do
something other than theory? Here we might cite David Bordwells Making Meaning: Inference
and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema as a key text in its attention to the operative
premises of the field. As the reference to rhetoric in his subtitle suggests, Bordwell is
concerned centrally with the shared languages of film studies and with the critical activities that
the discourse most encourages. But it is interesting to note how Bordwell, to a large degree,
dis-embodies the practices of the fields participants and disconnects them from concrete
institutional operations. For example, Bordwell offers extensive quotations from theorists, but
these remain unnamed in the body of the text, with attribution only in footnotes. This is in
keeping with Bordwells evident intent to see film theory as governed by rules and codes of
investigative conduct that transcend individual personalities. But it does mean that material
bodies, institutions, and individual identities become of secondary importance. Bordwell is not
interested here in the personalities that are doing theoretical work but in the common discursive
field in which that work is expressed, no matter the individual theorist. (Polan, 3)

Specifically, the narrative that has film studies emerging into the 1960s is the story also of its
emergence out of the 1950s, that period in which so much intellectual reflection on culture was
dominated by a disdain for what one fairly denunciatory volume termed mass culture: the
popular arts in America. But for a few exceptions, which film studies will then treat as heroic
figures who separated themselves from the crowd of complainants against popular culture,
intellectuals of the 1950s tended to see the mass arts as a homogeneous bloc of superficiality,
formulaic triteness, soulless pandering, degradation of higher reason, and so on. Film studies in
the 1960s, then, frequently had to do with the redemptive tales in which various figures fought to
stand out from the morass of mass conformity. (Polan, 4)
For modern film studies [of the 1960s and 1970s] to be imagined heroically as an achieved
professional discipline, the figures who came before had concomitantly to be imagined as
nonprofessionals in the area. (Polan, 5)
In these respects, the period of the early study of film cannot really be termed pre-paradigmatic.
There was little conflict, not because questions had been answered but because there was little
common space in which practitioners could come together even to pose questions and debate
answers. For the most part, the early instructors of film operated without taking much account
of each other. At best they would cite each other as bibliographic items in reading list, but
almost as if the very fact of citation meant that they did not need to engage with each others
ideas in extended fashion...Where scholarly conferences offer a means for academic
professionals to assemble, exchange thoughts, and thereby solidify the discipline, the 1930s
proponents of betterment through film did not yet have access to academic conferences as a
venue for dialogue. They met, rather, in the context of nonacademic civic institutions - in
particular, public conventions of reform agencies such as the National Board of Review, which
expected research to lead to policy and action rather than further academic study. (Polan 7)
To the extent that we can define the concretization of a discipline by such signs as the rise
of professional societies, the legitimization of some critical practices (and a concomitant
delegitmation of others, deemed to be less scholarly, rigorous, or scientific)the
crystallization of networks of dialogue and interchange among credentialed practitioners
through such venues of conferences, the perfection of channels for the dissemination of
disciplinary research in the form of scholarly journals, and so on, then the 1960s are indeed
the period when film studies as an academic field did begin to take on disciplinary solidity
and regularity. (5)
Disciplines, their historians seem to say, are formed through professional activities and
institutions such as scholarly journals, professional societies and their meetings, the reading
and writing of specialized research, the credentializing of graduate acolytes, and so on, but
rarely through what happens in the average classroom session. It is as if the everyday work of
imparting instruction to a student population is taken to be a secondary activity with no direct
impact on the fields constitution and continuance (Polan 21)
Reinventing Film Studies
Theory, like cinema itself, thus comes to be seen as a socially constructed, historical category,
serving socially significant and historical and therefore politicized ends. (Eds Intro, 5)
Theorising has also been institutionally situated in such processes as the histories of journals
(see Willemen and Pines, 1998: 1-11), of the proliferation of academic and textbook publishing
houses, and, recently, of journals, related, like so much else in the field of British higher
education in the last 10 years to the mechanisms of research funding. theory is also shaped by
career stages of academics, involved in the display of expertise and claimed innovation on
which, in part, depend employment, publication, security and promotion within the academy.
Difference institutional motivations might include working with theories in a well-established
subject area such as English in the 1930s, or in an area, such as film studies in the 1950s-
1970s, eager to gain accreditation and legitimacy via the incorporation of difficult, higher status
scientific theories. (Branston 22)
At their best, these theories have not engendered master narratives for film so much as
conceptual frames within which historically situated processes of generalization address
significance and value in variable ways. Continual transformations occur in relation to time and
place. The cumulative result traces out a pattern that is neither linear nor predictable. It is a
pattern of socially and historically conscious engagement that remains at odds with a more
classically philosophic or detached pose. It is in relation to this pattern that the theorist must
locate himself or herself if history, politics and ethics are to serve as an articulated base for
theory itself. (Nichols 35)
Principles of cinematic structure, effects of the apparatus, qualities of formal organization and
aspects of directional artistry provide necessary mediations for social and political effects. A
rhetoric of political regard often persists but fails to generate concepts as powerful as those of
semiotics, auteurism or formalism, except for a strongly feminist current within psychoanalytic
theory. Film studies gain in disciplinary status by these approaches is also its loss in social
consequence and historical significance outside the frame of a self-contained, disciplinary
development. (Nichols 36)
As Gill Branston comments, there do...exist theoretical breaks or achievements which
absolutely change the way you can think and argue about an area(this volume, Chapter 2,
pages 26). The trinity of Marxism, structuralism and psychoanalysis and their awkward
articulation with each other produced such a break. What they offered was a way to account for
and critique the taken-for-grantedness of theoretical systems which no longer provided an
adequate account of sociocultural phenomena. The impetus behind these attempts to
understand how consciousness was formed was that we might change it - which is why
Mulveys article drives to the conclusion it does. (Perkins 84)

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