Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Desire & Capital Once More

On Men, Women, Theory, the Discipline, and Classical Cinema

"Although the "housewife" was rooted in the social conditions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes, nineteenth-century ideology established the housewife and the mother as universal models of womanhood. Since popular propaganda represented the vocation of all women as a function of their roles in the home, women compelled to work for wages came to be treated as alien visitors within the masculine world of the public economy. Having stepped outside their "natural" sphere, women were not to be treated as full-fledged wage workers. The price they paid involved long hours, substandard working conditions and grossly inadequate wages. Their exploitation was even more intense than the exploitation suffered by their male counterparts. Needless to say, sexism emerged as a source of outrageous super-profits for the capitalists."

--Angela Y. Davis, "The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective," in Women, Race and Class (p. 229)

Davis argues that in capitalism's specific brand of sexism half the workforce is devalued as workers: the 'domestic sphere' of the worker is not paid work. She contrasts this with Masai still living traditionally, and nomadically, whom she saw in the 1970s--the women, responsible as a gender for "domestic" tasks themselves, were responsible also for the construction and transportation of tribal housing. Though tasks might have been broken down along gender lines, there was no question that the women's work was as productive, as valuable, as the men's.

"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." Why the girl? Her labor, for one thing--her role--is not valued in the same way a man's is. Why is it that the Western stage that through much of its history forbade women to act has produced in fiction cinema an artform that quite exalts these women-image-commodities? Of what underlying fact is this change an effect? Capitalism. I think the passivity, the to-be-looked-at-ness, that characterizes female roles in cinema comes as a result of larger processes that slanted productive value to one side of a gendered divide, and relegated the "feminine" forms of value to adherence and maintenance of domestic codes: the mother, the wife, the keeper of hearth & home. Whose hearth & home? A man's. The classical narrative cinema surely produced plenty of women who were not mothers, and quite a few who were not wives. But this is beside the point, the issue is not an iconographic one at this level. The issue is one of valuation. The female star is, and is one at whom one looks (rather than the male star, who does, and who does the looking). This "feminine" stasis (i.e., maintenance) is to be appraised by those who can use it. The woman, the female star, does nothing because she is judged to have produced nothing. Her value is as something owned, literally or figuratively, and the (female) star image's value is thus one that contains, reflects, the productive value of the male--the male star, the male protagonist, the male viewer.

By the by. I should state right here that anyone reading these lines who has not read Laura Mulvey's canonical feminist-psychoanalytic article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," from 1975, which was massively influential in film studies and related fields, and was also massively criticized, should go to that link above and do so now. Though Mulvey's very imperfect and problematic piece is now often tittered at by scholars & critics as a mere dusty relic of "Screen theory"--groan, that jargon-ridden, pleasure-killing bad object, right?--there actually remains a great deal of merit, and a great deal of sense, in the article.

It should be obvious that we are speaking in generalizations. Of course not all classical cinema was built around the impending formation of a patriarchal and heterosexual union. (Though a great, great deal was--even the anti-Theory Mr. Bordwell provides empirical data to support this, if I recall.) Of course there were occasionally headstrong female protagonists--doers!--and passive male protagonists. And the rich world of character actors is a veritable Pandora's Box, surely able to complicate or enrich any generalization. What is at stake in this post topic, and in my vaguely Mulveyan take on it, is the comprehension of dominants, and the fuller understanding of how particulars and potentials are grafted, over and over, to stand in as universals. There is a reason why people tend to refer to feature-length movies (which, statistically, overwhelmingly feature heterosexual romances, and men more active than women) as "the cinema," when in fact the cinema is more accurately a technological process used to make optical and perhaps auditory effects on viewers ... effects which may or may not feature narrative, acting, mating instructions, etc. We are speaking of the parameters of form and content as shaped and encouraged by "ideology" (another dirty word from Theory). The other ideological constrictions of cinema are economic in nature, e.g., the way we "date" movies by the year of their release (or their "market birth"), the way the media have traditionally reviewed them (as new products on the market, and thus if it's not a commercial release, a product, then it gets little or no comment). At this point I would like to put the question of women in cinema on the back-burner for now, and move into different territory.

Some empiricists in film studies would argue that we cannot know, or rather, should not try to answer a lot of the questions that so-called Grand Theory addresses. We should look at data--data which can be tested and clearly understood, which can be constructive to a whole community. (And the empiricists and formalists have certain very legitimate concerns, I might add. There are plenty of areas--industrial-economic as well as formal-stylistic--in need of greater nuts-and-bolts research and explication.) Leave the rest to sociologists, cultural historians, psychologists, and the like, they say. A common response to this from those more sympathetic to theory is that empirical or formal analysis can give us data, but the data in themselves are not particularly meaningful, particularly if we are not professionals in the field. (Locating, say, an overall increase in Average Shot Length from 1909 to 1911 is good to know, true. But ... ?)

One must interpret data. And there are many ways to place and frame any kind of data to interpret them. Let's say again that ASL increased between 1909 and 1911, then. (I am not checking these dates, by the way. It's a hypothetical supposition, purely, that may or may not have coincidental relation to the facts.) Anyway.

Assuming we have no problems with methodology or intent, that we just accept the data as is, there are numerous ways to then interpret this quantitative information. We could read this as a result of technology--let's posit that cheap cameras or versatile lenses were manufactured which allowed camera operators to zoom and pan with great facility, and thus the imperative to cut in a scene really was lessened. (This is not at all true, but for our hypothetical case, you understand...) We could look at audiences and reception and surmise the increased ASL was a response to the growth of proper theaters and the decline of early cinema's "variety show" existence. (There is some historical truth to this development, though it corresponds to a slightly earlier timespan.) We could postulate that the new phenomenon of popular screen stars needed greater exposure (thus bringing in a number of close-ups, too, to the tail end of our data set). All these interpretations could be true in our little hypothetical exercise. They all also raise a number of questions. Why were those (fictitious) great new lenses or cameras, developed manufactured in the first place? Why did the nickelodeon rise up (and soon die itself), and what were any of these experiences like, and what did they mean? Why were identifiable/identified early "movie stars" adored so? Interpretation begets interpretation, you see.

We could leave all problems outside of empirical, quantifiable, formal analysis and their most immediate interpretations to the social scientists and neurological researchers. A tiny minority of scholars would not mind that at all. I am sure quite a few more would jump on board if we allowed greater wiggle room for strictly authorial/textual/pictorial interpretations.

But all those other areas--reception, viewer psychology, visual culture, cinema & subcultures, gender, race, class, representation, Karl Marx, the "apparatus," desire, queerness--the things that the excesses of Grand Theory rubbed in the faces of traditionalists in the 1970s onward ... should we really just leave them to historians, psychologists, neurologists, etc.? I think not, and my reason for this is that a lot of people who write about cinema from the perspective of the social sciences, or other "outside" fields, often do so with startling limitations. I trust any of us who read film studies books & journals have come across the occasional work of sociological researchers, say, whose interpretation of films goes by blunt plot synopses alone, or overlooking more (or more exemplary) films in a study because the social scientist may not be much of a researcher in the field, or much of a cinephile. Clearly I would not claim that outside academics sometimes working in the field of film studies are bad as a rule--please! I would only suggest that the better ones are necessarily those with a supple grasp of film form & history, and of competing theories pertaining to the medium. So what I am arguing for, at least as a first major step, is a kind of interdisciplinarity. I am aware this sort of call is one of the most hackneyed kinds of irenic mission statements to exist in academia. I plead guilty! I subject myself to cliché here because I think its application remains an utterly valid goal.

(One needn't be an academic with certifiable academic turf to open your big mouth in film writing only to show how clueless you are--look at how mind-numbing Camille Paglia's thoughts on cinema are, for instance. Maybe not just cinema.)

Which is why I think that the issue of 'Women in Cinema,' and some of the larger questions that constitute it, are not only necessary things to explore, but can't be answered except through theoretical consideration sooner or later. Ideally all good work comprises a scholarly ecosystem. Scholars, critics, students, and anyone else interested are of a good mind to always consider the health and cultivation of this ecosystem.

* * *

Henri Lefebvre wrote, "We shall now tackle everday life from the new angle of philosophy. In the nineteenth century the axis of thought was redirected from speculation towards empirical practical realism, with the works of Karl Marx and the budding social sciences forming landmarks on the line of displacement. In the social framework of freely competitive capitalism Marx concentrated mainly on the everyday existence of the working classes from the dual viewpoint of productive power and illusions to overcome. Notwithstanding the assaults of positivism and pragmatism, philosohpy still directs such inquiries and is alone capable of connecting fragmentary ideologies and specialized sciences; moreover it cannot be dispensed with if we want to understand the essence and existence, the real or imaginary responsibilities, the potentialities and limitations of mankind; and there is no method to equil it in linking and assessing disconnected material. This is because philosophy, though the wide range of its interests, projects the image of a 'complete human being', free, accomplished fully realized, rational yet real. This image--implicit already in Socrates' maieutic--has, for approximately twenty centuries, been refined, revised, opposed, developed and adorned with superfluities and hyperboles." (Everyday Life in the Modern World, p. 12)

And, "I address the philosopher in his own terms. The question is how far can a compendium of compulsions and determinisms (desires--specialized labor--fragments of understanding--biological, geographical and historical compulsions) assume the appearance of a freely created world, projection of something greater than freedom? Philosophers may ignore these compulsions and determinisms when laying down their laws, but in so doing they will not have solved the problem. The limitations of philosophy--truth without reality--always and ever counterbalance the limitations of everyday life--reality without truth." (p. 14)

I am not completely clear on Lefebvre yet, but I think these sorts of sentiments undergird what interests me about the topics touched upon above.


Frank Partisan said...

Camille Paglia doesn't write about cinema, She just says things, and sees what gets her noticed.

Cinema is judged first in its own language. Art has its own language, aesthetics etc. No different than molecular biology. First things are evaluated in terms of molecular biology, before other fields.

Cinema is first judged as art. Later it can be judged against its historical epoch, and in relation to the artists other accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

Zach, I just read an astonishing recent interview in POSITIF where James Gray discusses his last film (much admired by yourself) in terms of ... Althusser's theory of Ideological State Apparatuses! And Sontag, and plenty of other stuff. 'Screen Theory' is still very enabling for some!


Anonymous said...

Zach, I just read an astonishing recent interview in POSITIF where James Gray discusses his last film (much admired by yourself) in terms of ... Althusser's theory of Ideological State Apparatuses! And Sontag, and plenty of other stuff. 'Screen Theory' is still very enabling for some!


ZC said...

RE--true enough about Paglia. And I've no problems with the last statement, but this is precisely what's at stake with regard to the thinking of classical cinema, and to the "field" of cinema/media studies that I'm addressing in this post. Since its alleged demise critics, theorists, etc., have worked at figuring out what it meant, means, and can mean. In the 1970s in film studies it was all rigorous marxist-psychonanalytic-feminist theory, often dry and often dogmatic texts. I think that the reactions to this Theory, the rise of historical writing in film studies and the re-embrace of pleasure, were necessary, but in so strenuously embracing these other things I think the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. 1970s "Screen theory" had its valuable contributions, and could have--should have--continued to make inroads to the way we understand cinema in the social sphere. That's been jettisoned more or less. To be snarky, it's almost like psychoanalysis in the study of cinema is now relegated to being either a horror film hermeneutic or a fun tool in the Zizekian's bag o' tricks. (I am not of a psychoanalytic persuasion, mind you; but I think it's interesting and a reading informed by Freudian or Lacanian theory can be fascinating--Joan Copjec's work, which I'm only just a little familiar with, is an example.) I think maybe feminism has survived better but I'm not as up on all the literature to be really sure. Marxism is all but dead and marginalized in film studies.

Adrian, your writing has always been to me a model balancing act of these needs & problems--what I'd describe as your unpuritanical acceptance of, and revelry in, cinematic pleasure--but not solipsistic pleasure, the idea of unconsidered pleasure as the principle to which all other concerns are enslaved and submitted. Your criticism has been helpful for me, and many others beside, in navigating the vagaries of a disciplinary turf war that may have prompted previous generations to "pick sides." Anyway, James Gray & Althusser, huh? I'll have to hunt down that issue of Positif! Thanks for mentioning it.

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