No More Precious Objects


Dear John,

A beautiful hypothesis and corollary!

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.

I also appreciate the rebuke:

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.

It underscores a need to be careful. The problem, according to your hypothesis, lies in a kind essentialism, a subordination of being to doing and a consequent over-investment in “literature” or “film,” elevating objects over the social relations they mediate and enable. Since this assumption is  something like an unconscious of several (some? most? all?) humanities disciplines, it is very difficult to avoid reproducing. It gets reproduced, for example, in job descriptions, such that one might find oneself understood as “the film guy” before getting a chance to talk about what that might mean.

The need to avoid overvaluation of objects does not make it less important to understand the relationship between the being and doing of media. Media, forms, and genres do differ for each other. We try to embrace this when we write:

Read in tandem with the familiar histories of English, the  new histories of film and media suggest that the humanities have been interdisciplinary in something like the same way mass media have been “inter-medial,” achieving specificity by studying and distinguishing themselves amidst rival forms. This inter-medial encounter ought to remind us further that humanities objects are themselves moving targets produced and reproduced by nonacademic institutions.

I think our collaboration repeatedly demonstrates that my background in Film and Media Studies gives me something to say about about the problem of meditation that your background in English does not, and vice versa. This productive difference does have something to do with the fact that I’ve watched a lot of films and you’ve read a lot of novels. It ought to be possible to value this difference without perpetually reprising a love-hate relationship with these objects of study.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that in film studies the problem of “realism” has been bound up with considerations of the nature of the medium, and specifically with the relationship between its indexical and iconic qualities. At great hazard of overgeneralization, I would say that the Bazinian line of argument has valued the being of the object over the doing of the medium. It would take some work to win this point, because Bazin yokes the being and doing together from the get-go. In any case, cinema’s indexical and iconic qualities make cinematic realism a different problem from that of the  “realist novel.” I understand that problem to center on the form’s capacity to symbolize social relationships (of class, of nation) given the requirement that it also tell narratives of personal growth and/or heterosexual romance. In the old days, appraising this capacity involved measuring novels against one version of another of the Marxist meta-narrative. These days scholars like you are teaching us to see realist fiction as one of a number of specialist discourses competing and collaborating to define and explain a changing world order. Correct me, please, if I am wrong.

Do we really want to do this realism thing? The water will get deep quickly.




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