- Suffering without Meaning
Augustín Zarzosa’s Refiguring Melodrama in Film and Television: Captive Affects, Elastic Sufferings, Vicarious Objects participates in an ongoing rethinking of melodrama pioneered most prominently by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. This view maintains that melodrama ought to be conceived as a mode rather than a genre—indeed, as the dominant narrative mode. As such, it should neither be opposed to realism nor linked to objectionably normative levels of emotionalism and excess. Gledhill’s and Williams’ theories of melodramatic pleasure and spectatorship occur largely within a framework shaped by psychoanalytic film theory, and Zarzosa’s book is timely, even fresh, for developing new tools for thinking about melodrama for our posttherapeutic age. This is not to say that his methods are freewheeling. Zarzosa translates the view of melodrama-as-mode into Deleuzian idiom, which, given the proliferation of interest in Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, is a contribution that many will surely welcome. Indeed, Zarzosa appeals not just to Deleuze but also to a range of key central European philosophers to clarify his interventions. Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that Brian Price recently included Refiguring Melodrama in a list of works that indicate “the theoretical new wave” in film and [End Page 298] television scholarship, a wave that is recognizable for its imbrication with continental philosophy or, at least, with the writings of a coterie of continental philosophers who never forget that thinking deeply about the image has always been important to philosophy.1 (One can trace a direct line from Saint Augustine’s thoughts on the image in Confessions to Deleuze’s, after all.) This sort of theoretical work is often associated with a certain diffuseness of thought, or a willingness to accept vagueness and contradiction that reveals itself in prose that replicates such vagueness even as it purports to clarify. Zarzosa’s style, however, is clear and direct. He has a particular talent for condensing complex arguments, even traditions of argument, into accessible, efficient, and quotable nuggets. That said, Peter Brooks’s seminal work on melodrama functions as Zarzosa’s primary target throughout the book’s chapters, and it would be nice to see Zarzosa engage at a deeper level with more recent scholarship specific to cinematic and televisual melodrama.
Zarzosa seeks to rescue the notion of melodrama from a Brooksian history in which it might, according to him, fall prey to charges of vagueness and reification, particularly if we do not keep in mind that melodrama both dramatizes experience and is the model that results from this dramatization. A mode, for Zarzosa, is more basic to the dramatization of human experience than a genre. In his picture, melodrama is—to borrow a logic from Cornelius Castoriadis—constitutive of and constituted by reality.2 With this in mind, Zarzosa offers an inversion of how we typically think about melodrama, arguing that it is not a model of reality but a strategy to solve practical problems of experience. Melodrama seems to offer up suffering as an effect of systems of moral ideas, whereas in fact, he claims, it defines those ideas. Moreover, as a dominant form, melodrama has a privileged position to shape how we think about and test these problems.
Zarzosa makes this case by analyzing a pleasing array of examples including movies, such as Home from the Hill, The Piano, [Safe], and Year of the Dog, and television series, such as Torchwood and Lost. Although this presents a diversity of budgets and media, there is not an enormous variety of emotional registers within this selection. That is, the stories of these texts could be seen to fit within a generic perspective of melodrama. This move left me to wonder whether the melodramatic mode encompasses categories that are arguably also modes (e.g., the farce or the tragedy) or whether the melodrama is one mode among many.
Across his analyses, Zarzosa’s overarching aim is to flesh out “the concept of melodrama as an elastic system that redistributes the visibility of...