For Love of an Object


Dear Mark,

Your last post was a tour de force. And/but, we have ways of keeping any hint of ressentiment from creeping into our account of the renovation of English in the 70s / 80s. We have argued that film studies has and continues to contribute to its status as a minor discipline (attached to a major media) by reproducing an object-centered approach it borrowed from earlier, mid-century arguments about literature.

Quoting from our work in progress,

To be clear, cinema matters…because it institutionalized new practices and altered others, not because it has inherent value as a disciplinary object of study. To think of film studies in such object-centered terms is to treat it as an analog of the version of English invented in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, Ransom described the popularity of prose over poetry as a homicide in progress and urged critics to band together and intervene. Such New Critical crime prevention finds a peculiar echo in Yale film scholar Dudley Andrew’s 2009 defense of “the film object.”

To the extent that your professional status in an English department hinges primarily on your intimate relationship to the object called cinema, there’s no more reason for any of your colleagues to worry about what it means to analyze a film than for the novel scholars among them to worry about what it means to analyze a poem.

I agree it would be cool if “all this ‘extra’ non-literary and/or theoretical stuff” kicking around English departments turns out “to be a virus that will have entirely rewritten the code of English from within.” But I think we’d also like it to mean an end to film studies and any new media studies that declare their sovereignty by specifying a discipline-organizing object.

If we are to make the stakes of this absolutely clear, we need to concentrate on how the question of what a mass media object does got displaced by questions of what mass media objects are. The fact that English Departments don’t think they are still object-centered (because they are treating everything they encounter as text) is part of this story.

This essay by Joseph D. Anderson linked to on the “Bazinian, Neo-Bazinian, and Post-Bazinian Film Studies” entry from Film Studies for Free makes it sound like when it comes to thinking about realism in film, it’s all about the information-containing properties of the medium. Which makes me want to rehearse the distinction between medium and form you’ve persuaded me to pay better attention to. It also makes me want to observe how changes in what counts as medium tend to upset some film studies scholars as much as literary scholars (well, maybe not…but some film studies types talk about the crime of watching movies at home the way some literary scholars lament the kindlization of books). These changes are potentially upsetting in any number of ways, of course, but one of the key analytic reasons for distress may be that changes in medium make form seem less reassuringly stable. Or, because changes in mediation make it clear how easy it is to confuse the object’s form with the institutions and technologies involved in its reproduction.

Hypothesis: the question of what an object is subordinates the question of what an object does every time we stop asking questions about medium and mediation. I think it follows that in order for the humanities to reclaim an ability to talk about how its precious objects shape populations, the humanities needs to stop speaking about its objects as if they were precious.


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