Revisiting the theory/practice debate

Interesting discussion going on recently over on Film-Philosophy about that old bugbear, the relation of theory to practice in our teaching and study of film. This debate has a history which, in the UK at least, goes back to the 1970s, when the art colleges taught experimental film making, and the then polytechnics and a few new universities began to include film-making in their undergraduate film courses. Film theory as such was still taking shape, and video was in its earliest stages.  In an atmosphere charged with radical intellectual fervour, the theoretical input led to much experimentation in colleges of creative practice—the watchword of the time was deconstruction. The paradigm for the infusion of theory into practice could be found in the work, for example, of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, who established themselves on screen and on page, together and separately, as leading denizens of both. Some of the people emerging from this habitus made the break and went on to successful careers in the mainstream, but independent film-making informed by theoretical critique remained in the margins.

Obviously these conditions have changed, metamorphosing into the myriad undergraduate courses which are now supposed to compete for business, feeding trained labour to the creative industries of mass culture. Here the scholarly study of film as an art form risks becoming a mere accompaniment to the main attraction: access to semi-pro digital video, and a playground for trying it out. Actually, this also brings a new element into the mix, because these tools are no longer subject to the esoteric laws of professional production, but of easy general access to anyone with a little bit of nous—even text-based film scholars, who are busy inventing a new kind of audio-visual essay. (For examples, see Audiovisualcy.)

This new kind of scholarly creativity is remote from the majority of what my Roehampton colleague William Brown, in the Film-Philosophy discussion, calls ‘commodified’ students, because in a word, they are not cinephiles, not interested in film history, not drawn by film as art, merely dreaming of glory in a narrow world of star-driven movies, drugged on the continuous shock effect of intensified continuity. This is an updated version of the same shock effect that Walter Benjamin wrote about in the 1930s, where the viewer is seduced into ‘reception in a state of distraction’, and it now spills out onto other screens of reduced size where a similar ‘attention deficit economy’ operates. There is little one can really do with this type except, as J.L.Austin once put it (in a different context), to try and tamper with their beliefs a little. The rewards of teaching always lie in the few who respond creatively to having their beliefs tampered with, and begin to discover themselves under your tutelage (although you can never be sure if you really helped).

Warren Buckland responds to William by citing Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between knowing that (propositional knowledge) and knowing how (practical knowledge), and maintains that the one is not needed for the other. This may be true but isn’t so relevant here, because there’s another kind of knowledge beyond Ryle’s ken, which is more important to this discussion—we can call it aesthetic knowledge: the apperception of the creative imagination in action, the judgement that gives sensuous shape to expressive content, without which knowing that and how both remain creatively barren. This is the knowledge the aspiring film-maker needs above all, with its powers of synthesis and route to the unconscious wellsprings of the imagination.

My own position is that theory and practice exist for ever in creative tension, and that’s how it should be. But there are also one or two areas I’ve found where theoretical analysis may have a strong impact on student practice. The first is sound, where students, like almost everyone else (except perhaps the musically trained) have no vocabulary for talking about it. Teaching a book like Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision gives them that vocabulary, along with concepts that open their ears, help them listen—and analyse the films they watch—with almost immediate effects on their own practice. Their soundtracks start to acquire space and depth, becoming richer and more moulded. The second area, fiction screenwriting, is a bit more speculative, but Sarah Kozloff’s Overhearing Film Dialogue teaches about dialogue writing more effectively than all the manuals put together.

The problem is that there are also many students for whom books like these make challenging reading because they’re unschooled in the literary culture that remains the basis of critical theory. They may have plenty of imagination and good practical skills, but are poor at reading and writing; they would not have reached university in earlier generations but would have entered the film and television industry by the traditional route, going in at the bottom and working their way up, in a manner akin to apprenticeship, but of a kind that no longer exists because the industry has changed shape (no more labs or film cutting rooms, and the broadcasters no longer take trainees).

Here the rift between theory and practice becomes the symptom of a problem that runs through the entire culture, and affects all classes because it goes beyond simple anti-intellectualism. What has been produced by the so-called knowledge economy is the instrumentalisation through information technology of all forms of knowledge, and indeed imagination itself, which is nowadays readily codified into pre-digested digital effects. On the one hand, a process of de-skilling has relegated old forms of craft and creative knowledge to anachronisms, on the other has been the introduction of an illusory category of transferable skills, an ideological and managerialist denomination that excuses the growing precarity of aesthetic labour in the postmodern mode of cultural production.

But perhaps the new skills of digital videography, transferable or otherwise, can be put to other uses than merely feeding the market, and in that case, perhaps the theory/practice divide will be tempered by a renewal of creative praxis, in another register. But it will never disappear.

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3 Responses to Revisiting the theory/practice debate

  1. Chuck Kleinhans says:

    I agree with your remarks on Chion and Kozloff (and of course some others). Some of the same constraints about literacy apply to experimental work which also teaches the “practice” student new ideas about the nature of film expression, once they learn to “read” this kind of work. (Usually requires screening it several times, with discussion following each screening. Thus short works are best for this pedagogy.) It also teaches “theory” students something important: that “theory” is a desperate attempt to catch up with the most cutting edge practice.

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  3. Michael Witt says:

    I enjoyed this post Michael. One line of thinking you don’t mention is that of experimental film as a form of theory. A useful book in this regard is Edward Small’s Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre (Southern Illinois UP, 1994) (see in particular the opening chapter, entitled simply ‘Experimental Film/Video as Direct Theory’).

    Nicole Brenez has also done some important work on visual/audiovisual theory and criticism. See especially her ‘L’étude visuelle: Puissances d’une forme cinématographique (Al Razutis, Ken Jacobs, Brian De Palma)’, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), Pour un cinéma comparé: Influences et répétitions (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1996). This essay was subsequently republished in her book De la figure en général et du corps en particulier: L’invention figurative au cinéma (1998). As far as I’m aware it hasn’t been published in English in its entirety, but the section on Jacobs was translated as ‘The Visual Study: The Forces of Cinematographic Form’ in the special issue of Exploding that was included with the VHS release (by Re: Voir) of Jacobs’ Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son. Brenez has recently pursued her thinking around the theoretical and practical study of the image through the image in ‘Recycling, Visual Study, Expanded Theory – Ken Jacobs, Theorist, or the Long Song of the Sons’, trans. Adrian Martin, in Michele Pierson, David E. Jones, and Paul Arthur (eds.), Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (OUP, 2011).

    Small’s and Brenez’s work (together with that of Bellour, Mulvey, etc.) are key points of reference on the Audiovisual Criticism course I teach, where I introduce students to the concepts of direct theory and of the visual study, and to the rich history of audiovisual film history and criticism (from the 1920s and 30s to the later work of filmmaker-critics such as Noël Burch, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Jean-Luc Godard, Mark Rappaport and Al Razutis). As you know, I then get them to use digital technologies to produce their own audiovisual essays in film theory and criticism. We now have an archive of several hundred such works.