- Promiscuous Histories, Materialist Theories, Speculative Poetics
When I entered graduate school in the late 1990s, my impression of the field of film studies was constituted by a set of tensions and agonistic relations. The university itself seemed a field of contestation, its customs of scholarship and practices of peer review subject to attacks from without and within: the Sokal affair was one prominent flash point, a scandal that purported to be a referendum on the perceived "excesses of postmodernism" in cultural theory but in fact served as a hostile conservative reproach to younger, progressive fields, invested in cultural critique, to stay out of other disciplines' territory.1 At the same time, the excitement of new [End Page 121] developments in cultural studies, cultural theory, and critiques rooted in traditions of feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory, and postand decolonial histories was palpable. There was the sense that these "new" areas of politicized practice and inquiry disrupted or posed a threat to the old guard of aesthetic analysis, formalism, and close reading, not just in film studies but across the humanities. Just discovering academic life, my low-level disciplinary "aha" moment came in seeing a distinction—between the scholars who had fought for film to be considered an art form, via historical poetics, aesthetic history, or other modes, and the sometimes inchoate interdisciplinarity and prioritization of social relations posed by "cultural studies." Needing a heuristic, I posed the following questions to scholars I read and to the work of my peers: "Are they interested in film texts, or in people? In what film texts do, or in what people do?" A baldly schematic distinction, no doubt, and one I often asked of myself—at the time, I invariably fell on the side of "people." A naïve binary, it allowed me to make sense of what the field of film studies was arguing about, against, and for. Does one align with texts, collocated as form, close reading, aesthetics, pattern recognition, the artwork, the film object, cognitive structures, or with people, human subjects, resonant with desire, fantasy, spectatorship, process, labor and its failures, collectivity, the subjective?
It is odd that I drew a line in the sand in that moment, not around an opposition between theory and history—a much-discussed node of debate and contention, then as now—but around a nonhuman and human distinction, a differentiation between object and subject, between form and culture, between a notion of aesthetic autonomy and collective constitution, between the world within the film, made by it, and the world that made the film. Such a preposterous distinction with its obvious flattening and false equivalences seems to me now embarrassingly facile, especially in the presumption that form can ever be quarantined from the labor of its own making or exist outside of politics. Yet however spurious this distinction, it expressed the stakes and hazards of entering a comparably young field, one that contended from its outset with the constant diffusion of screen cultures and moving-image formations beyond its borders. It also reflected a set of anxieties circulating then around the nature of the object of our study and the creeping influence of new knowledge formations and different methodologies. In a state-of-the-field published in these pages in 2004, Jon Lewis, writing on the SCMS at fifty years old, suggested that "losing cinema to cultural studies was inevitable. In the long run (to extinction), taking on such a flexible partner as cultural studies may not, for those of us bound to film in film studies, be such a bad deal."2 The "long run to extinction" may have become rather shorter in this contemporary moment, in which we have edged into global economic, humanitarian, and ecological crises in a new, terrifying, authoritarian political regime.
I came to film studies with an interest in feminist film theory and the cultural politics of the visual, and cinema as a chosen medium was to me frankly an alluring vehicle for [End Page 122] the questions I was most keen on asking: What were sexuality, desire, fantasy? How did taste operate? What might an aesthetic of transgression look like? (Transgression was the sought...