- Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies
In 1959, Alfred Ayer, the foremost English advocate of logical positivism, published an anthology of essays by the bright, energetic and argumentative men who had earlier this century committed themselves to reconstructing philosophy uncontaminated by metaphysics, emulating the latest exact science on the block, mathematical logic.
Ayer’s anthology, Logical Positivism, is now of interest only to historians, for in the same year appeared the English translation of Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, preceded a year earlier by Norwood Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery, and followed three years later by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The three authors, despite differences, demolished the pretensions of positivism: no literate philosopher would ever again suggest that philosophy, or anything else, could be reconstructed without metaphysical presuppositions, much less scientifically, for every science, as David Park, the physicist, was to remark of his own, “swims in metaphysics like a fish swims in water, supported by it on all sides but unconscious of its existence until something goes wrong.”
I was reminded of Ayer’s anthology, and of the promise, pretense and passing of positivism, by the collection of Bordwell and Carroll. The question is not how to register the articles by others found within it, for all have been written cleanly, address their topics without obfuscation and permit independent evaluation. After a pair of introductory essays by the editors, the book consists of three sections, one on “Film Theory & Aesthetics,” another on the “Psychology of Film,” and the last on “History and Analysis.” Readers familiar with previous work of the authors will find therein welcome refinements and additions (notably by Currie, Freeland, Leibowitz, Levinson, Livingston, and Plantinga, and by the editors themselves); fruitful historical conjectures are newly made or reassessed (by Balio, Crafton, Gomery, Hjort and Kepley); and relevant work in perceptual psychology is summarized and extended (by the Andersons, Hochberg and Brooks, and Gerrig and Prentice).
Nor is the question a matter of identity of theme or method, for the anthologies differ widely in their claims for authorial unity. Bordwell and Carroll, unlike Ayer, claim correctly that no “homogeneous doctrine,” theoretical or procedural, unifies the works anthologized (pp. xv, 62). They stress proudly that no one of their authors need be committed to the cognitivist “stance” assumed by themselves; indeed, they themselves disagree on the exact nature of the cognitivist “stance” (pp. xvi, 2). The only commonality to be found among the works, they insist, is that no author relies upon what Bordwell calls “Grand Theory,” and in particular upon that quasi-psychoanalytical theory that has permeated film studies since its inception in the 1970s. [End Page 492]
To the uninitiated, an anthology pretending to be linked only by the absence of a unifying “psychoanalytic framework” might seem as unpromising as a gallery exhibit by painters eschewing blue; and such worries might be compounded upon noticing that the editors consider themselves to be outsiders, attacking the film studies “establishment,” despite one of them being the best-selling author in the history of film studies and the other a well-published, ranking officer of the American Society for Aesthetics. But the editors are right: given the domination of French farce masquerading as film studies, the very publication of their anthology is of historical importance, as a gallery exhibit of paintings done without blue would be provocative within a society that had historically demanded it; and few of the prolific writings of either editor have received the critical attention they deserve.
The question, rather, is what to make of the editors’ claim, encapsulated in the subtitle, that their anthology, despite its disunity, shows us how to “reconstruct film studies”? Here, I suggest, lies the deeper identity between this anthology and that of Ayer, for just as the positivists sought to exclude metaphysics from philosophy by reconstructing it to look scientific, so we in film studies, the editors suggest, ought to proceed by refusing to invoke any general theoretical approach to our...