“We need to articulate our differences rather than pretend we’re all on the same page.”
-Mary Ann Doane, “Theory Now in Film and Media Studies,” February 25, 2023.
The title of my article is poached from a talk I presented at “Theory Now in Film and Media Studies,” a conference that took place at the Carsey-Wolf Center in Santa Barbara from February 24-25, 2023. Featuring twenty papers whose concerns spanned the necessity of psychoanalysis over subjectivity’s dispersal by affect theory to the urgency of social justice activism in spaces beyond the University (including backyards, prisons, and community filmmaking workshops), a tension loomed large across our sensations of intellectual solidarity and togetherness: WHO ARE “WE”? By that I mean, to what extent is film and media studies interested in assembling theory into something resembling a “state” across our seemingly incommensurable range of objects, concepts, methodologies, and investments? With the recession of academic resources, freefall decline of secure tenure-track positions, neoliberal cannibalism of all that we do, and pervasive democratization of legitimate academic objecthood, what is the utility of all being on the same page? And if we’re not on the same page, as Mary Ann Doane suggested several times during our conversations, then what common language or theoretical discourse do we have left for navigating the necessary articulation of our differences?
Heyday feminist psychoanalytic theory, Frankfurt School dialectical materialism, ideology critiques of the cinematographic apparatus, and ontological vicissitudes of the indexical sign all vied for residual affirmation alongside the urgency of this conjuncture: timely scholarship on affect, abolitionism, new media virality, environmental ecology, queer and trans social justice, ableism and accessibility, anti-colonial alternatives to “global” imaginaries, or any possible gesture with the potency to jam the wheels of its instantaneous digestion by neoliberal capitalism’s genocidal productivity drive.
Suffice it to say that no definitive solutions were concocted, despite our shared commitment to sustaining open conversations across intellectual differences that could allow for collective, improvised lines of thought—in lieu of anxious fidelity to the correctness or presentism of the signifier. Simply put, THEORY NOW!
For my own offering, I focused on the nitrate film decay that enshrouds images of feminist plate-breaking rebellion in archives of silent film comedy. I take my title from an as-yet unfinished work by the feminist filmmaker Karen Pearlman, who has edited and reenacted multifarious footage from Cinema’s First Nasty Women: a 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray set featuring 99 archival feminist silent films with all-new music that I co-curated with Laura Horak and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi for Kino Lorber. As Pearlman preaches, “violating realism is a victimless crime,” which she commits in cold blood via her reanimation of “early cinema rage to create new images of women.” Enacting what Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon theorize as “a feminist transvaluation of the unfinished film’s signs of deficiency” (in Incomplete, their incredible forthcoming collection), Pearlman recasts the pockmarks of the archive “as signs of possibility” with incisive implications for the present political conjuncture.
Nitrate Film Decay vs. Feminist Creative Destruction
In my headlining embedded video, I juxtapose a haunting excerpt of nitrate decay from Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) with the rhapsodic campaign by Pathé-Frère’s Nervous Kitchen Maid (1907) to smash each and every last plate in the kitchen, which is exactly what she does after her employers criticize her coffee! Following Jennifer Bean’s evocative notion of “vital decay” as the semiotic insistence that we read nitrate deterioration in vivid juxtaposition to extant film images, I view the kitchen maid’s 2k digital resurrection as a call to arms against both empirical gatekeeping and the dispersal of our discipline into siloed sub-fields, sidebars, and fragments. As Katherine Groo argues in her incisive polemic, “Let It Burn: Film Historiography in Flames,” nitrate combustion is essential (and not external) to the ontological value of film, whose place in media studies has likewise far from outlived its use value.
I have always been attracted to the spectacle of creative destruction and slapstick calamity as symptoms of simmering social insurgency, which are the wheelhouse of early cinema: broken plates, decapitated heads, disembodied limbs, and metamorphic bodily organs galvanize all-consuming contagious euphoria that rebounds from the phantom film screen to the world of contested social relations. I look to early film archives for intellectual inspiration and political resilience in the belly of the beast of our crisis-ridden present.
It’s a rallying cry for film preservation evangelists that 80-90% of all silent films ever made are now irreversibly lost. But it’s become a credo of feminist historiography that over 90% of the most indispensable films remain unrealized, archivally excluded, or extant but widely unseen due to their obscene de-prioritization by the hegemony of the canon. Simply put, FEMINIST FILM ARCHIVES NOW!
Epilogue: Fragments of a Film Theory Conference from Memory…
For my epilogue, I return to the scene of the Carsey-Wolf “Theory Now” conference, whose outbursts of generative differences will live on in my soul for as long as I can lay claim to having one. Highlights for me included Courtney Baker’s critique of essentialism via Black feminist studies and her incisive reading of “critical fabulation” in Jordan Peele’s NOPE (2022); Kyle Stevens’ polemic against film-philosophy carried forth from his essential new Oxford Handbook of Film Theory; Amy Villarejo’s reenactment of Constance Penley’s anecdotal experience of the gender antagonisms that animated 1980s academic culture, which Patrice Petro, Mary Ann Doane, and E. Ann Kaplan reminded us were occupational hazards of the assertion of feminist concerns within the field of film theory; Nicholas Baer’s notion of perfection as a “limit concept” for the discipline and Timothy Corrigan’s conjuring of “supplemental theory” via the desire to write oneself alongside the experience of film; Lisa Parks’ backyard theory (dislocated from its disciplining by the University) and Karen Redrobe’s community pedagogy in her “Participatory Media” syllabus for a course co-taught with Louis Massiah at the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia; Kara Keeling’s feminist frequencies attuned to the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) in Cauleen Smith’s short film Sojourner (2018) and Doron Galili’s resurrection of classical film theory’s idea of the medium for extricating cinema from its convergences with platforms and infrastructures; Althea Wasow’s reading of the “carceral gaze” in Harun Farocki’s “suspect-cinema” and Yiman Wang’s transhuman historicization of science education films in Socialist China; Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece’s playful call for SITTING STILL (despite all the birds, birds, birds!) and Mary Ann Doane’s critique of affect theory’s elision of mediation as the symptom of a historical moment overly fixated on instantaneity, novelty, and speed; Patricia White’s excavation of “theory then” versus the nimble but less grandiose intersectionality of theory now, Jeff Scheible’s “ping theory” of the pervasive spread of “contentless content,” and Debashree Mukherjee’s discontent with the Eurocentric urbanism of the modernity thesis; Naoki Yamamoto’s expansive genealogy of film theory in Japan and Bhaskar Sarkar’s piratic provocations spanning state terrorism, Gramsci’s “southern question,” and Maurizio Cattelan’s middle finger-wagging Il Dito (2010); last but not least, the warm and brilliant UCSB graduate students who moderated all of the panels and the fearless/peerless trifecta of Patrice Petro, Emily Zinn, and Paula Firth who organized this whole shebang.
In summary, we need more joyful gatherings, unruly community spaces, and mutual openness to slapstick intellectual play where we can revive the legacies of the state of the field for the contested possibilities of the NOW.