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Cinema Journal 43.3 (2004) 85-88

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The State of the Field:

Notes toward an Article

If film studies has always been in transition, as it moved from a loose collection of amateurs, enthusiasts, and fans to become an academic discipline—however unstable—the transition that faces us now is seen by some as of a different order. As has been much discussed in recent years, with the advent of new digital technologies, our traditional object of study—the celluloid strip we knew as film, along with the institution we knew as cinema—seems in danger of disappearing. We now routinely watch films on numerous kinds of screens, in diverse formats, and in varied contexts. These new technologies and viewing sites challenge the film theories of the 1970s and 1980s, which were based on the traditional cinematic apparatus and on the significance of the material cut of the celluloid in editing. We also know that students in our classes grow up in a world of multimedia images and sounds of which film is just one example. There are generational differences among faculty as well as between faculty and students, since the cultural formation of younger faculty vis-à-vis the image/sound world is often closer to that of the students than to the scholars who grew up with analog technologies. Many students have never seen a 16mm projector or a 16mm film, to say nothing of the 8mm home movie camera I grew up with.

SCS recently changed its name to SCMS to take account of the new realities of a world of images and sounds that come to us from many sources and that are received in multiple sites. However, one may well ask what the status of film as such is in all this. Is our old object of study really disappearing or only seemingly so? And, along with our old object, is the very shape and organization of the discipline we struggled so hard to establish already being challenged by new categories, such as cultural studies, media studies, and visual culture?

When we faced a challenge years ago from television studies, we (wisely) accommodated to that challenge by including panels on TV at our conferences and articles on television in Cinema Journal. TV and film continue to share many things, but just as surely, TV is also close to the computer as a kind of liminal technology.

The departments of communication that were introduced in many universities some years ago have gone their own ways because their methods were usually closer to those of the social sciences. More recent clusters of knowledge such as cultural and visual studies seem closer to film studies in method, ideology, and theory and thus require serious discussion. For instance, should cinema studies [End Page 85] departments give way to academic structures that take account of the new kinds of research going on under these new categories?

To address this briefly, I personally do not think that separate departments of new media or visual culture should be introduced, especially in times of extremely tight budgets and downsizing that at least those of us in state universities are experiencing. Where such programs already exist and include film studies and scholars trained in film (e.g., Modern Media and Culture at Brown University or Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine), they should continue to collaborate with other departments that have film scholars. Far from being threatened, film studies has an opportunity to broaden its scope and to be enriched and productively challenged by technological innovation and new interdisciplinary developments (even though film studies has always been interdisciplinary). Cinema departments might well open up new avenues of research (such as new media and visual culture) while continuing to teach the history of cinema and any number of well-established courses in genres, directors, national cinemas, or such familiar topics as feminism and film, psychoanalysis and cinema, race and cinema, and the postcolonial film.

Keeping in one department scholars who pursue different kinds of research on images and sounds enables productive...


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