- Is Theory a Science?
Given the cultural context in which it occurs, the title Elegy for Theory (2014) suggests a fairly elaborate set of discourses about the death of theory. These discourses have been circulating since the 1990s at least, and today D. N. Rodowick’s title is even very overdetermined for most academics, because what one sees is not just the death of theory, but many other deaths as well: the death of tenure; the death of traditional forms of education delivery; the death of the PhD as required terminal degree for college teaching; the death of the middle-class professorial wage (“pauperization”); the death of the liberal arts (replaced by STEM); the fabled death of the focused, attentive student (millennials are not without good reason said to be “wired for distraction”); and, last but not least, the death of the university itself as a noncorporate institution based on a participatory model of administration and governance. Of course, in this broad context of mass die-off, the death of theory is insignificant. Nevertheless, this end of theory is symptomatic of a conspicuous dumbing down of the humanities on account of a familiar scientific ideology that has become very dominant in university culture, namely that of positivism, which happens to be one of Rodowick’s chief concerns. Oddly, despite the expectations that Rodowick’s title sets up, it turns out that Elegy for Theory is really about something entirely different: a Foucauldian genealogy that reconstructs theory first in terms of the history of philosophy and then in terms of the history of film with some remarks at the end on the states of theory nearer to our own historical moment. This is hardly a lament, though I take it that by “elegy” Rodowick wanted to signpost that all this talk about theory seems moot to the many people who have moved on.
Elegy for Theory is the second in a three-volume series, preceded by The Virtual Life of Film (2007) and to be followed by Philosophy’s Artful Conversation. A complex book, Elegy is divided into 23 sections, a strategy unhelpful for the overall comprehension [End Page 305] of the book’s project. Essentially, the book divides into three parts. Part 1 (sections 1–9) defines and situates theory within recent and past epochs, while acknowledging that theory is so slippery a term that for centuries it has been used and reused in ways that displays deviations, some incremental, others very frustratingly divergent. Part 2 (sections 9–18) discusses the origins and development of formalist film theory in the twentieth century with some consideration of literary formalism as a predecessor. Included is a history of structuralism, though the highlight is a brilliant discussion of Christian Metz and his filiations to predecessors. Part 3 (sections 19–23) emphasizes science rather than philosophy (much as part one), and considers Russian formalism, French structuralism, the Tel Quel movement, Althusserian Marxism, the semanalyse of Julia Kristeva, and Jean-Louis Baudry’s work on cinema. Overall, part 3 marries theory and science.
A problematic feature of Elegy is that it is extremely defamiliarizing. I was wondering about the intentionality of this strategy until I came across the following subordinate clause: “To maintain productively our disorientation with respect to theory . . . .” (73). This phrase suggests that Rodowick’s intention is to disorient, presumably for reasons of edification. Certainly, organization by section breaks instead of chapters indicates as much, and elimination of much needed background context where it is desperately needed also seems deliberate, prompting one to consult Rodowick’s essay, “Elegy for Theory,” which provides more context. There’s good reason to imagine that in an identificationary moment with Russian formalism Rodowick decided productive estrangement would be most effective in promoting his project. In my view, this was a miscalculation.
Given Elegy’s extremely defamiliarizing challenges, a conceptual GPS is required. We need to recall that in the Anglo-American critical arena, everyone has been used to drawing a battle line that from the perspective of the critical theorists opposes theory—which is viewed as philosophically erudite, interpretive, self-critical—to science in its...