The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006) 76-85
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Robust Subjectivity in Lourdes Portillo's The Devil Never Sleeps
Mónica F. Torres
There is no doubt that in the last part of the twentieth century the "author" has sustained significant theoretical blows. Roland Barthes declares the author dead. In his or her place Barthes suggests the "scriptor": "In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate" (145). For Barthes, the scriptor is "always already" immersed in language and as such troubles even the possibility of "theological meaning" (146). Michel Foucault, of course, speaks not of the author but of the "author function." In so doing, he more fully articulates the ways in which an "author" is culturally embedded.
The "author function" is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy.
Like Barthes, Foucault theorizes a more complex, less stable subject integrated with and produced by complex and fluid discursive institutions and processes. Also interested in the in/stability of the subject, Julia Kristeva posits the "subject-in-process," who, embedded in a complex semiotic environment, cannot produce the "transcendental signified" (135). Essentially, the author, the person thought to precede and produce the text, the person thought to hold the key to any final signified, has been thoroughly problematized.
The history of documentary film reveals a different but related trajectory for the author. Erik Barnouw all but anoints the author-filmmaker in the very structure of his foundational history of documentary film. Chapter titles—"Explorer," "Reporter," "Advocate," and "Observer"—suggest that the author and his purpose are the pivot points around which documentary film history should be understood and articulated. Chapter foci—Flaherty, Vertov, Grierson, Wiseman—include a veritable who's who of "authors" in the grand tradition that Barthes, Foucault, and Kristeva disturb so convincingly.
Of course, documentary filmmakers and film scholars working later in the twentieth century theorize discursive reformulations of the author. For example, two developments in filmmaking unsettle the author/ity of the documentary production. Bill Nichols describes "reflexive" documentaries, films in which scenes of "authorship" are included: director, crew, camera, and sound equipment, all are filmed in the process of filming. In a move that parallels the self-consciousness of the "linguistic turn," these films expose the relationship between the filmmaking apparatus and the construction of knowledge (Nichols, Representing 61). Critics also note a new approach emerging in documentary films in which the subjectivity of the author-filmmaker is foregrounded. In "New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-Verité Age" Michael Renov argues that by 1990 "any chronicler of documentary history would note the growing prominence of work by women and men of diverse cultural backgrounds in which the representation of the historical world is inextricably bound up with self-inscription" (The Subject 88). Renov's new subjects are much more cognizant of the cultural-discursive milieu in which they are embedded/through which they are produced. These subjects perform the impossibility, even the undesirability, [End Page 76] of a final signified; these subjects acknowledge subjectivity as the very frame through which they experience the world and with which they will construct and communicate a representation of that world. If reflexive films allow viewers to see the mechanics of reproduction, these films question whether reproduction is even possible. And so, as Nichols argues, "questions of authority may diminish in favor...