- Elegy for Theory by D. N. Rodowick
What is “theory”? Academics structured much of the theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s to address this question, and more urgently, to settle the dispute about whether forays into literary theory were academically innovative and sound as opposed to faddish or obscure. By the 2000s, controversy over theory’s presence in studying literature, film, and more seemed to have diffused. D. N. Rodowick, author of Elegy for Theory, stood at the center of these theory wars, founding the Yale Film and Media Studies Program. His first book, The Crisis of Political Modernism, offered a critical analysis of the development of film theory. Considering the legacy of French feminism à la Irigaray and Kristeva in relation to emerging cultural studies approaches to film and media, Rodowick stakes his claim to theory with keen historical approach. Elegy for Theory remains committed to the intellectual history of film studies, placing that history in a larger frame through which theory’s evolving applications to film are demonstrative of a more general trend across all arts and humanities, as opposed to theory’s general location in the history of philosophy: “it is not possible, in either the history of philosophy or in the philosophy of science, to attribute a stable sense to theory that leads inexorably toward a perfectible concept around which a final consensus can be achieved” (xiii).
Rodowick lays out the impetus to do his work clearly: “Every violent conceptual struggle is followed by efforts to provide a venerable ancestry for newly won definitions of the concept. New concepts of theory are thus often guided by present interest through forces of retrojection that make the unfamiliar familiar again” (xiv). He closes his introduction to the book with a far-reaching call for the work to come: “What I offer here is not a history of contemporary theory, then, but rather something like the elements of a historiography of concepts, enunciative modalities, and discursive formations in which developments in the academic study of film might stand, pars pro toto, for the vicissitudes of theory in the humanities more generally” (xv). It is notable here that Rodowick also reveals in his introduction that Elegy for Theory was originally meant as a single project but now will serve as only the first volume to a two volume series, the subsequent volume of which is to be called Philosophy’s Artful Conversation.
The association and disassociation of theory from ethics and philosophy is an argument one would expect in Elegy for Theory, yet Rodowick directs the attention for that debate to the upcoming, unpublished, companion volume to Elegy. Rather, this work’s first half begins by offering a genealogy of theory (by way of Foucault and Nietzsche) that not only traces its origin points but also “return[s] to a historical sense of [theory’s] discontinuities as a concept and as an activity—not retracing a line, completing a circle, or constructing a frame, but rather following [End Page 384] theory’s complex web of derivations” (6). Drawing heavily from Kant, Hegel, and discussions of aesthetics, Rodowick points to the ways in which modernity’s sense of the aesthetic can be understood as what John Ruskin, in 1846, termed the theoretic. He cites Hegel’s “Introduction” to his Lectures on Aesthetics (1823–1829) as the space in which one finds “the various and contested discursive paths and thickets through which the history and theory of art would gradually emerge by the end of the nineteenth century” (38–39). His close reading of Hegel through the first third of Elegy is compelling, leading Rodowick to a place where he argues art first opens itself to theoretical consideration.
Elegy is most potent when Rodowick is working in his domain of film theory and criticism. Extending his own argument from The Virtual Life of Film, he reasserts here that a critical consequence of the rapid and ever changing development of electronic and digital media forms begs the very question: What is cinema? Noting that “our contemporary picture of film theory is ineluctably tied...