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New Specificities

From: Cinema Journal
Volume 52, Number 4, Summer 2013
pp. 147-154 | 10.1353/cj.2013.0043

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How would I characterize this present moment? From the perspective I inhabit it seems to reflect a shift from a phase of intensely analytical activity we went through during the late 1970s and the 1980s, when we gathered a wide assortment of tools of analysis to a moment in which new cultural objects are actually being produced.

—Irit Rogoff

Early in his intimate study of photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes asks, “Why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for each object?” The provocation is part of his own personal inquiry—both investigation and eulogy to his late mother. He wants to understand the general (photography) through the particular (a few pictures) and to reroute canonical approaches by taking as his starting point the images that matter “for me.” The slender book is a good example of Barthes’s adeptness at combining critical and expressive registers. It foregrounds both his and our subjective impulses—this picture—and the ways he and we live with audiovisual technologies (even after what they signify passes on). Barthes’s desire for a certain specificity—“a new science for each object”—is durably iconoclastic precisely because it at once insists upon and refuses any singular understanding of a medium like photography. Rather, it is a call for a new mode of interdisciplinarity defined not by ever-more sciences “surrounding” an object of study but by the construction of a new object of knowledge.

Barthes’s aspiration moves me to consider how what we might think of as new specificities are integral to contemporary film, TV, and digital media studies. Paradoxically, the need to account for a greater range of media texts, sites, and practices across diverse cultural and geographic contexts is at once a way of zooming in and zooming out. Being specific means capturing precise details—then, there, that—but is also bound up with the creation of new species, categories, and knowledges. Indeed, specificity and scale have a checkered past. Scholars like Doreen Massey have critiqued the widespread tendency to treat the “local” or “micro” as concrete and empirical while taking the “global” or “macro” as abstract or theoretical. As Massey writes, “Those who conflate the local with the concrete … are confusing geographical scale with processes of abstraction in thought.” New specificities are not simply about spatial, material, and global twists in the humanities and social sciences; rather, they are at the very center of our understandings of critical and cultural theory, and of doing media studies. In what follows, I pursue some of the specificities that matter to my own work, with a particular focus on overlapping of issues of intermediality, (in)formality, and globality.


Let’s begin with the following assertion: medium specificity is both too specific and not specific enough. We return to this claim in a moment, but first a brief detour. I want to start by connecting our current moment of transition to an earlier theoretical debate—screen theory and audience studies in late 1970s and 1980s. Variations of screen theory, of course, draw on poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, emphasizing problems related to narrative, apparatus, and ideology—to borrow the title from Philip Rosen’s seminal collection of 1970s film theory. To take just one example, Rosen writes that engagements with the apparatus ask, “Are there subject effects specific to cinema, to the kind of machine it is, to the kind of viewing situation it generally involves?” Disparate screen theories supply powerful models for understanding how subjects are constituted or “hailed” through their encounters with media texts, technologies, and the thicker social and cultural process to which they are imbricated, including processes of misrecognition that so plagued political thought following the global crises known as May 1968.

Among the challenges to 1970s film theory—and it was primarily about film—is that the insistence on abstract spectators, or the “subject-in-the-text,” disappears or stagnates “real” spectator-subjects. To activate actual viewers, scholars working across cultural studies in the 1980s began to focus on how audiences, fans, and youth culture make sense of texts through reception, use, and style. Such work is not (and to my mind, should not be) a categorical attack on understandings...

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