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  • The Hitchcock Symptom:Duster Flight Patterns around "Production Values." A response to Griffiths
  • James Berger (bio)

A bon mot of my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter: She was watching a video of The Nutcracker ballet, of which she's a great fan, and she said, "There's Drosselmeyer!"—that is, the mysterious, wizard-like friend of the family who brings the nutcracker doll and the other toys to life and who, in most productions (and in the E.T.A. Hoffman tale on which the ballet is based) wears a patch over one eye. "How do you know?" I asked. She replied, in that tone of explaining the obvious that even three-year-olds can adopt with their parents, "Because he's wearing a disguise!" That's it! We recognize the character not in spite of the disguise, but because the disguise itself is the mark of his identity.

Something of this logic seems to inform the practice of theory today in general and the position held in theory by Alfred Hitchcock in particular. Why does Hitchcock occupy such a privileged place for theoretical analysis of all kinds? There are 726 entries for Hitchcock in the MLA Bibliography. John Ford gets 617; Godard, 459; Fassbinder, 328; Welles, 302; Truffaut, 212; Kurosawa, 160; Douglas Sirk, 112; Sam Fuller, 31. We recognize Hitchcock because he is always, obviously, in disguise. A disguise enables us to interpret it, and there is also pleasure in disguise itself. But why Hitchcock? Why not Ford? Why not Sirk? In Ford, the ironies and ambiguities are too straightforward. It turns out that there's no disguise after all. And in Sirk, there's too much opera, too many arias, not enough movement.

When one looks at Hitchcock—at least as much of the Hitchcock industry sees it—one sees not a commentary on America, on the functioning of American ideology, but an exemplar in miniature of America in its totality, in its processes. At the same time, the Hitchcock style—its disguise which is also its essence—detaches the film from the social whole to which it refers. It stands beside the whole, or in a privileged space within it, working its small formal engines in ways that replicate cultural energies. It is both metonymy and synecdoche: the part standing for the whole, the perfect analogy standing just beside the unwieldy original. What is extraordinary is how perfect the correspondence. All that we always wanted to know (it is said) is contained in the magic box, or statuette—and Žižek didn't know the half of it. And the apparent insouciance, read as self-reflection—the self-reflection of disguise—is the measure of its authenticity.

This has long been a hermeneutic strategy. In modern literary criticism, Erich Auerbach's close readings reproduced the coherent world-views motivating the texts of an astonishing range of historical periods. More recently, New Historicist readings took a particular text or historical anecdote as emblematic of the social relations of its moment. The metonymic-synecdochic approach makes for beautiful, compact readings--with the somewhat paradoxical benefit, especially for the New Historicists, that a method that stresses the importance of the fragment and the ruptured character of historical narrative finally produces compelling accounts of the social whole, however dirempted, and makes its alterity readable.

Most of us profess a hermeneutics of suspicion. Do we need also a suspicion of the suspicion? Has our suspicion become credulous? Do we seek out what seems most obviously in disguise, and say, "There's the key; the social totality must be there in miniature"? Perfunctory suspicion is exerted toward the working of the dominant ideology—the subject, gender, capital, empire—but the assumptions and terms of the methodology proceed unaffected. Analysis of the text—taken as part, as index, as symptom, as performer or enactor, as formal analogy—renders the professional truth of the historical moment. But how do we know this? We must have some sense of the truth of the historical moment in order to believe that the text in question is indeed rendering it, and this prior understanding of historical truth often comes primarily from contemporary theory. The truth drawn...

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