Signs and Meaning: Film Studies and the Legacy of Poststructuralism

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 69 minutes (17119 words)


In 1996, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll famously declared that the discipline of film studies had entered the “post-Theory” age (Bordwell and Carroll 1996). This declaration was the culmination of two decades of intellectual combat within film studies centering on what was often referred to as “Grand Theory” (or, more pejoratively, “SLAB Theory,” for Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes [Bordwell 1989]) and which Bordwell and Carroll defined as that “aggregate of doctrines derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis, structuralist semiotics, poststructuralist literary theory, and variants of Althusserian Marxism” (Bordwell and Carroll 1996: xiii). Surveying the last two decades of film studies scholarship, it seems to be true that film studies is by and large post-Theory. And, with the recent resurgence of “close reading” – exemplified most notably by the return of the renowned MOVIE journal – as well as, in a related vein, the current popularity of “film-philosophy,” 1 most contemporary film scholars seem eager to break new ground and to leave to the past the battles over Grand Theory. However, to invoke a line from Magnolia (1999), I am not convinced, even if contemporary film scholars are through with the disciplinary past of film studies, that the past is through with the discipline. Carroll observed that, “however the demise of Theory came about,” the fact that film studies had entered the post-Theory age did not mean that there were not still “major obstacles” in its path; as he warned, “as long as these obstacles continue to grip the imaginations of scholars,” it is “unlikely” that film studies will be able to escape the “legacies” of Grand Theory and truly leave the past behind (Carroll 1996b: 38).

For as much as the philosophical sophistication of film studies has increased since Bordwell and Carroll inaugurated the age of post-Theory, the legacies of Grand Theory still seem to have a firm grip on the imaginations of contemporary film scholars. This is evidenced by, among other things, the lasting influence not just of Continental philosophy generally but of poststructuralism specifically. 2 This particular issue prompted me, in a recent essay entitled “Philosophical Problems in Contemporary Art Criticism: Objectivism, Poststructuralism, and the Axiom of Authorship” (Barrowman 2017), to make the case that the greatest threat to the philosophy of art – and, by extension, to the discipline of film studies – is, perversely enough, philosophy. But not philosophy as such. It was, and is, my contention that the threat is a very particular – and particularly pernicious – form of philosophizing, one that produces scholarship that is, in the terminology of the Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, unreadable (Rand 1973a).

An unreadable book or essay, as explicated by Rand, “does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions, and fears”; it “is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation”; and it “is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex” (Rand 1973a: 117). For all of her optimism, Rand was surprisingly – and, in my estimation, unhelpfully – pessimistic with respect to her prognosis for academia vis-à-vis the unreadable. 3

As she related:

Within a few years [of the publication of an unreadable book or essay], commentators will begin to fill libraries with works analyzing, “clarifying,” and interpreting its mysteries. Their notions will spread all over the academic map, ranging from the appeasers, who will try to soften [its] meaning – to the glamorizers, who will ascribe to it nothing worse than their own pet inanities – to the compromisers, who will try to reconcile its theory with its exact opposite – to the avant-garde, who will spell out and demand the acceptance of its logical consequences. The contradictory, antithetical nature of such interpretations will be ascribed to [its] profundity – particularly by those who function on the motto: “If I don’t understand it, it’s deep.” The students will believe that the professors know the proof of [its] theory, the professors will believe that the commentators know it, the commentators will believe that the author knows it – and the author will be alone to know that no proof exists and that none was offered. Within a generation, the number of commentaries will have grown to such proportions that the original [unreadable book or essay] will be accepted as a subject of philosophical specialization, requiring a lifetime of study – and any refutation of [its] theory will be ignored or rejected if unaccompanied by a full discussion of the theories of all the commentators, a task which no one will be able to undertake (Rand 1973a: 117-118).

Against the appeasers, the glamorizers, the compromisers, and the avant-garde stands the “intelligent man.” Far from valiantly defending reason, though, the intelligent man, on Rand’s account, will simply reject the unreadable, “refusing to waste his time on untangling what he perceives to be gibberish” (Rand 1973a: 117). Despite being an eminently understandable and even sympathetic response, important questions nevertheless remain. If “the man able to refute its arguments will not (unless he has the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr)” (Rand 1973a: 117), then what hope is there? Is such intellectual withdrawal not a form of moral treason? Worse yet, is such silence in the face of the unreadable not sanction? 4

For my part, I took on the “elephantine” task of refuting the philosophy of art promulgated by proponents of the philosophical school of poststructuralism (Barrowman 2017). Poststructuralism, of course, has been critiqued by countless scholars from diverse backgrounds across a wide range of academic disciplines, 5 but it is a curious feature of film studies that it does not have a comparable disciplinary history of such critiques. 6 Even with the recent emergence of film-philosophy, no film scholars have bothered to critically engage poststructuralism. It is therefore not surprising to find a leading film-philosophy scholar like Robert Sinnerbrink arguing the following (with reference to the work of Richard Allen and Murray Smith [1997], two intelligent men who had previously rejected the unreadable):

[Allen and Smith] assert that [poststructuralists have] attempted to demonstrate “the impossibility of knowledge” and have apparently “embraced this contradiction as the defining feature of philosophy and the only legitimate path that philosophy can take in response to modernity” [but,] apart from a derisory and mocking tone, little argumentative or textual evidence is provided to support such hyperbolic claims (Sinnerbrink 2011: 198).

Against this backdrop, my extensive critique of poststructuralism was meant to serve as an elaborate answering of the bell vis-à-vis Sinnerbrink’s implicit challenge to provide the “argumentative [and] textual evidence” necessary to prove that poststructuralism is, in fact, unreadable nonsense that intelligent film scholars ought to reject. It remains, however, to demonstrate the disastrous consequences of trying to build an aesthetics of cinema on a poststructuralist foundation. Such a demonstration is what I intend to provide in this essay. By examining the history of film studies and the problematic legacy of poststructuralism therein, I hope to discourage contemporary film scholars from (re)embracing the aesthetic philosophies promulgated by the likes of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Though I will focus on the foundational work of Peter Wollen, the first film scholar to provide poststructuralism with the sanction of reason, the motivating concept in this essay will be the concept of authorship, while the anchoring principle will be what I have previously termed the axiom of authorship (Barrowman 2017).

The Rise and Fall of Authorship

In aesthetic philosophy, authorship is an axiomatic concept (Rand [1966-1967] 1990: 55-61). An axiom, as Rand has explained, is “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.” Furthermore, an axiom “defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it” (Rand 1957: 1040). The axiom at the heart of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is existence exists, the propositional form of which is A is A. The axiomatic concepts that result from this axiom are existence, identity, and consciousness; they follow from the axiom and its two corollaries: First, that something exists which one perceives, and, second, that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. To simplify: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification (Rand 1957: 1016). In an Objectivist aesthetics, then, for which I have argued elsewhere (Barrowman 2017, 2018a), authorship is an artistic axiom since, by speaking about art at all, one is conceding the axiom of authorship, for art is a product of creation and creation presupposes an entity capable of and responsible for creating. To this end, the aesthetic principles to which the axiom of authorship gives rise and on which my conception of an Objectivist aesthetics is based are the following:

1) The Objectivity Principle – An artwork exists independent of the act of reading/listening/viewing (for, without the artwork, there would be nothing to read/listen to/view) and an artwork is what it is independent of the act of interpretation (for, without the artwork, there would be nothing to interpret).

2) The Identity Principle – An interpretation of an artwork can be considered valid only if it adequately explains what the artwork is and why the artwork is the way it is.

3) The Causality Principle – An artwork is a made object; thus, explanations as to what an artwork is and why an artwork is the way it is must consider the intentions of the person who created the artwork, i.e. its author.

These three aesthetic principles seem eminently straightforward if not self-evident. Indeed, these were the principles that implicitly fueled the famous formulation of la politique des auteurs. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the author policy was the order of the day. Critics and scholars writing for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, the British journal MOVIE, and the American magazine Film Culture produced writings that still stand as some of the most insightful ever produced on the cinema. 7 The insightfulness of the criticism of such eminent critics as André Bazin, Robin Wood, V.F. Perkins, and Andrew Sarris is due largely to the scrupulousness with which they explored the construction of the films that most affected them in relation to the artistry of the authors that most inspired them. However, contra Sarris, it is important to note that la politique was not a “theory” of authorship. To the early Cahiers critics – including Bazin, one of the founding editors of Cahiers, as well as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol, the “Young Turks” who would go on after changing the landscape of film criticism to also change the landscape of filmmaking – “theorizing” authorship would have made no sense, for, to them, authorship was axiomatic. As proclaimed by Roger Leenhardt, one of the Founding Fathers of the French New Wave and a significant critical influence on the Young Turks:

A film becomes a work of art only when made by an artist, to the end of expressing a style or a vision of the world … I reject immediately the false problem of collective film creation. The numerous technical specialists, even if you call them collaborators in the production, contribute to the success of the film, but simply in terms of its production – not its creation (Leenhardt [1957] 1966: 43, 49). 8

More important to the early critics of Cahiers than trying to provide theoretical justification for the self-evident fact of authorship was the critical policy according to which what was of primary importance when engaging films as artworks was the adjudication of quality and the determination of value – in short, the pronouncement of aesthetic judgments. If, as encouraged by the Cahiers critics, authorship was to be acknowledged as axiomatic, then, to their minds, both the production and the criticism of films would have to be acknowledged as profoundly moral activities. 9 This is the source of the impact of the Cahiers critics, an impact that was felt both on paper in the pages of Cahiers and onscreen in the films of the French New Wave. Fueling this inspirational spirit was a desire on the part of the Cahiers critics to, in Jim Hillier’s words, “upset established values and reputations” in order to elevate the art status of the cinema:

There was nothing new or scandalous in either France or Britain or the USA in discussing, say, [F.W.] Murnau, [Luis] Buñuel, [Carl Theodor] Dreyer, [Sergei] Eisenstein, [Jean] Renoir, [Jean] Cocteau, or [Robert] Bresson, or, from the USA, [Erich von] Stroheim or [Orson] Welles or [Charlie] Chaplin, as the auteurs of their films. It was a slightly different matter … to propose, say, Howard Hawks as an auteur … In other words, the closer Cahiers moved to what had been traditionally conceived as the “conveyor belt” end of the cinema spectrum, the more their “serious” discussion of filmmakers seemed outrageously inappropriate. As it happens (even if Cahiers did not see it in quite these terms at the time), the more they outraged in this way, the more acutely they raised crucial questions, however unsystematically, about the status and criticism appropriate to film as an art form … If Cahiers came to be associated primarily with American cinema and a revaluation of its status, it was not because they talked about American cinema more than about other cinema – quite simply, they did not – but because American cinema as a whole, so generally ignored, misunderstood, or undervalued, provided the most obvious site for engagement with these critical questions (Hillier 1985: 7).

From this vantage point, it is not simply inaccurate but downright affronting for Nick Browne to claim that later Cahiers critics such as Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni, Serge Daney, and Jean-Pierre Oudart continued and carried on in the spirit of the original author policy. 10 On the contrary, the entire purpose of the later Cahiers was to initiate an Althusserian “epistemological break”; as framed by D.N. Rodowick, “the idea of the epistemological break, so expressive of the apocalyptic desire to ‘return to zero,’ [was] the central rhetorical feature” of the era (Rodowick [1988] 1994: xv). 11 The later Cahiers critics (and the Screen critics they inspired) wanted nothing less than “to make a complete break with the cinema and the theory of the past” (Rodowick [1988] 1994: x). To this end, it is no surprise that the first casualty upon Cahiers’ change in course was the author.

Intoxicated by the radical spirit of the era and inspired by the critical transformations initiated by such trailblazing French publications as Communications and Tel Quel, the new collection of critics at Cahiers began marching to the beat of a different drum. 12 An early sign of scission is the 1965 roundtable discussion published in Cahiers entitled “Twenty Years On: A Discussion about American Cinema and the politique des auteurs” (Comolli et al. 1965). Nearly two decades after the Cahiers critics had sown the seeds of what would become the author policy, the Cahiers critics were now starting to sow the seeds of what would become the revolt against it. The stated purpose of the discussion was to “look at the balance sheet” and assess the state of contemporary film criticism in the wake of the author policy. The discussants were happy to report that those critics committed to “stand for” the cinema and those “crabby” critics committed to stand against it were equally “aware of the reality of the concept of auteur and the soundness of the politique … On this front, the battle has been won more decisively than anybody could ever have predicted.” Despite the apparent stolidity of the discussants, shortly after this proclamation of victory is a curious remark about how the author policy “exceeded [its] limits,” a remark followed by the jarringly incongruous declaration of the discussants’ intent to “challenge the elevation of the politique des auteurs into dogma” (Comolli et al. 1965: 196).

This schizophrenic gesture of affirming and denying the concept of authorship in the same breath is the founding gesture of academic film studies and represents its fundamental impasse. 13 Looking back at the history of film studies, Rodowick claims that the poststructuralist models of film criticism that were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s and that represented the concerted effort of scholars to challenge the author policy are mere “relics of a near past that [have been] surpassed by a variety of approaches” (Rodowick [1988] 1994: vii). Quite the contrary, I think that it would be more accurate to say that, as Paul Bowman observes, film studies did not “surpass” the “relic” of poststructuralism but rather “morphed into [a discipline] dominated by the problematics of poststructuralism” (Bowman 2013: 31). Given the persistence of poststructuralism in film studies, I think that it is important for contemporary film scholars to look at the balance sheet and, in a similar vein as the Cahiers assessment of film criticism in the wake of the author policy, assess the practice of film criticism in the wake of poststructuralism.

Now, while it may appear that I am framing this essay as a Dante-esque descent on my part into the film studies Inferno, it is important to stress that, from a certain Objectivist perspective, the fact that the academic institutionalization of film studies followed from the dissolution of the author policy is not proof of scholars’ “essential evil”; rather, it is “a great and tragic proof of [their] essential morality” (Rand [1943] 1995: 87-88), of their willingness to always consider alternative methodologies and constantly check their premises. This determination on the part of scholars to be wary of error, ignorance, prejudice, etc., is not a vice. In fact, it is a virtue. However, it is important for scholars to be vigilant regarding what Rand calls the “dangerous little catch-phrase” of “keeping an open mind”:

This is a very ambiguous term – as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept. It is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything … What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind” but an active mind … An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood, it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them … If you keep an active mind, you will discover (assuming that you started with common sense rationality) that every challenge you examine will strengthen your convictions; that the conscious, reasoned rejection of false theories will help you to clarify and amplify the true ones; that your ideological enemies will make you invulnerable by providing countless demonstrations of their own impotence. No, you will not have to keep your mind eternally open to the task of examining every new variant of the same old falsehoods. You will discover that they are variants or attacks on certain philosophical essentials – and that the entire, gigantic battle of philosophy (and of human history) revolves around the upholding or the destruction of these essentials (Rand 1974b: 21-22).

Proceeding from the notion of what Rand refers to as the sanction of the victim (Rand 1957: 377-378, 423-496), it is one of the principles of Objectivism that “there comes a point in the defeat of any man of virtue when his own consent is needed for evil to win” (Rand 1957: 1048). If, in Randian terms, the gigantic battle of film studies revolves around upholding or destroying the concept of authorship, then it is not possible for the concept of authorship to be destroyed unless those committed to upholding it sanction its destruction. Arguments against authorship are, in and of themselves, harmless. Only when they are given the sanction of reason do they become dangerous. As Rand makes clear, a basic premise is “an absolute that permits no cooperation with its antithesis and tolerates no tolerance” (Rand 1957: 741-742). As it relates to film criticism, any scholar who accepts the denial of the basic premise of authorship is guilty of “granting the sanction of reason to formal dementia” and “it is they who achieve the destruction of the mind” (Rand 1957: 741).

Over the course of my critique of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical practice of deconstruction, I had recourse to discuss how the logic of Objectivism is the logic of all or nothing (Barrowman 2017: 179-182): “There are two sides to every issue: One side is right and the other is wrong … In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit” (Rand 1957: 1054). Authorship is a basic premise. Cooperation with and tolerance for critical methodologies that deny the basic premise of authorship cannot be permitted. A compromise between an author-based critical methodology and an anti-author critical methodology accomplishes nothing but the destruction of the concept of authorship. A is not A and B. A is A. All or nothing. 14 And yet, as a discipline, film studies is remarkable for the insistence of its scholars to try to have their cake and eat it. Myriad film scholars over the years have granted the sanction of reason to arguments against authorship and have tried to reconcile author-based criticism with its antithesis.

For example, in his magisterial account of the films of Fritz Lang, which is in virtually every respect a towering achievement in film criticism, Tom Gunning laments the fact that film studies scholars unproductively “jettisoned” the concept of authorship and thereby “stunted the growth of a dynamic film criticism” (Gunning 2000: x). His solution? To practice criticism as advocated by the author policy but according to the principles of poststructuralism. He encourages scholars to conceptualize authorship in the “novel manner” according to which the Derridean “play of discourse” ought to take precedence over the romantic search for authorial “self-expression” (Gunning 2000: 5). 15 Why? Because, according to Barthesian “logic,” just as “the gods [were] created by man,” so the author is “the creation of the reader” (Gunning 2000: 7). 16

In an effort to exorcize from film studies the specious specters of Barthes and Derrida and expel once and for all the “logic” of poststructuralism, I will turn now to a detailed examination of the book that Rodowick credits with “laying the foundation” for what would eventually become academic film studies (Rodowick [1988] 1994: 45) and, mutatis mutandis, the book that I hold responsible for sanctioning the destruction of authorship: Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. 17

Wollen contra Wollen

To describe Wollen’s landmark text as schizophrenic would be an understatement. In an interview with Wollen conducted by “Lee Russell” (Wollen’s pseudonym while writing for the New Left Review and a disturbing confirmation of his schizophrenic tendencies), Wollen explains that he wrote the first edition of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema in May of 1968:

As fortune decreed, this has become an emblematic date. May 1968 – it seemed like the beginning of a new epoch. Signs and Meaning is full of the same sense of a beginning – a new approach to film studies, a new intellectual seriousness, new theoretical developments, the promise of a new cinema, even the foundation of a new academic discipline (Wollen 1997: 211).

In its original publication, the chapter on the “auteur theory” and the inclusion of a “pantheon” of great directors firmly situated Wollen’s text in the early Cahiers tradition of the author policy. However, with the publication in 1972 of a new edition, the pantheon was eliminated and a new Conclusion introducing a host of poststructuralist concerns was added. Wollen’s decision to eliminate the original pantheon pursuant to a critique of the author policy was, by his own admission, symptomatic of the effect of Barthes’ infamous essay “The Death of the Author”:

I felt that Barthes’ [essay was] ridiculous … All the same, I still felt called upon to revise my own section on auteurism and give it a poststructuralist gloss … [which] served to occlude the question of the relationship between the actual author and the textual “author effect.” I’m sorry about that (Wollen 1997: 244).

Through Wollen’s commendable introspection (and by virtue of his openness and honesty which admirably culminates in an admission of guilt and an apology), it is clear that, at the time, the sheer force of the authoritative pronouncements of Attilas like Barthes convinced critics and scholars that there must be something to their claims, otherwise why would they be making them with such force? 18 Afraid to hold to his convictions despite correctly identifying the “ridiculous” nature of poststructuralism, Wollen, “at the crossroads of the choice between ‘I know’ and ‘They say’ … gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty … [and] chose the authority of others” (Rand 1957: 1044-1045). The result is a book utterly torn apart by contradictions. For organizational economy and conceptual clarity, rather than proceeding through Wollen’s text beginning-to-end, I will single out the principal claims that he makes for an author-based critical methodology, organized in relation to the aesthetic principles of objectivity, identity, and causality as I have previously defined them, and explore the ways that his adherence to principles of poststructuralism undercuts the claims for his proposed methodology.

First, in corroboration of the objectivity principle, Wollen observes that meaning in art is “generated within the [artwork] itself” (Wollen 1972: 139). If this is true, then, as per the objectivity principle, the artwork exists apart from and prior to the act of criticism. A mere paragraph after making this claim, however, Wollen criticizes “all previous aesthetics” for perpetuating the notion that artworks are “monads, each enclosed in its own individuality, a perfect globe, a whole” (Wollen 1972: 139-140). The result of this contradiction is a bizarre (and unmistakably Barthesian [cf. Barrowman 2017: 160-163]) conception of an artwork as “a material object whose significance is determined not by [an author] … but through its own interrogation of its own code,” a mystical, “self”-generated interrogation which inexplicably produces “meaning of a new kind” (Wollen 1972: 139, my emphasis). 19

The incoherence here is the product of Wollen’s reliance on the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy and the resultant distortion of the concept of objectivity. 20 Wollen claims that, in all previous aesthetics, criticism is an “automatic” and “magical” activity in which “ideas shone through marks on paper enter the skull through the windows of the eyes” (Wollen 1972: 140). Wollen refers to this as “the myth of transparency, the idea that the mark of a good [artwork] is that it conveys a rich meaning, an important truth, in a way which can be grasped immediately” (Wollen 1972: 146). The key point to be made here is that this “myth” with which Wollen has speciously saddled all previous aesthetics is more precisely a straw man (indeed, it is the same straw man utilized by Barthes in “The Death of the Author” [cf. Barrowman 2017: 165-166, 188n18]). Added to which, not only does the objective existence of artworks neither preclude nor annul the act(ivity) of criticism, it is precisely the objective existence of artworks that allows for the possibility of criticism in the first place, for an artwork, as defined by Andrew Britton, “is not something simply available to be constituted at will” by critics on the one hand nor a mystical entity in possession of supernatural powers that allow it to “transmit” “knowledge” to critics on the other, but rather, “a historical object to which criticism aspires to be adequate” (Britton [1979] 2009: 435). 21

Further elaborating on the practice of criticism, Wollen makes the rational claim vis-à-vis the identity principle that criticism “has to be justified by an explanation of how the [artwork] itself works” (Wollen 1972: 146). If this is true, then, as per the identity principle, an interpretation of an artwork can be considered valid only if it adequately explains what the artwork is and why the artwork is the way it is. 22 However, immediately after establishing this eminently rational perspective on criticism, Wollen sets about contradicting himself by irrationally arguing that criticism “is not essentially grounded” (Wollen 1972: 146) in the artwork itself since the very notion of “the artwork itself” is allegedly an “illusion” (Wollen 1972: 147). 23 The first claim proceeds from an acknowledgment of the objectivity principle. Recalling Rand’s “existence is identity” formula, if an artwork objectively exists, then it has an identity. Moreover, if an artwork has an identity, then it can be identified in criticism. The purpose of criticism, then, would be to identify and interpret objectively existing artworks. The second claim, however, proceeds from a rejection of the objectivity principle. If an artwork does not objectively exist, then it does not have an identity. Moreover, if an artwork does not have an identity, then it cannot be identified in criticism. In support of the latter position, Wollen argues that it is “necessary to insist” that “there is no true, essential meaning” to be “found” “in” an artwork (Wollen 1972: 146). However, if Wollen believes that it is necessary to insist that there is no true meaning to be found in an artwork, then why does he also find it necessary to insist that critics must justify their explanations of artworks? Indeed, to what can the concept of justification possibly refer?

Finally, and most problematically, just as Derrida was tragically torn between two warring conceptions of art (cf. Barrowman 2017: 177-179), one according to which “intention will not disappear” (Derrida 1972: 18) and another according to which intention will disappear in the act of “Logos retaking possession of itself” (Derrida [1962] 1989: 146), Wollen endlessly waffles on the status of artworks as either the products of or the producers of authors. At numerous points throughout his text, Wollen acknowledges the soundness of the author policy and, in effect, affirms the causality principle. He concedes that, of the “great many features” of artworks, the contribution of the author is “the one which carries the most weight” (Wollen 1969: 85-86); he describes story elements as “catalysts” which are “introduced into the mind” of the author and which “fuse with his own preoccupations” and “the motifs and themes characteristic of his work” (Wollen 1969: 93); and he acknowledges that “there can be no doubt” that meaning in art is “connected with the presence” of an author (Wollen 1972: 145). And yet, despite the rationality of these claims, Wollen nevertheless proceeds to contradict himself and posit the following:

[Film criticism] does not consist of re-tracing a film to its origins, to its creative source. It consists of tracing a structure (not a message) within the work, which can then post factum be assigned to an individual, the director, on empirical grounds. It is wrong, in the name of a denial of the traditional ideas of creative subjectivity, to deny any status to individuals at all. But Fuller or Hawks or Hitchcock, the directors, are quite separate from “Fuller” or “Hawks” or “Hitchcock,” the structures named after them … It is in this sense that it is possible to speak of a film auteur as an unconscious catalyst (Wollen 1972: 144-145).

Plainly obvious in this passage is the influence not only of Barthes and “The Death of the Author” but also of Foucault and his conception of what he famously termed the author-function (Foucault [1969] 1979). In response to the proliferation of the Barthesian idea of the death of the author, Foucault famously articulated the concept of the author-function in an effort to supersede the allegedly antediluvian, bourgeois concept of the author. In the context of Foucault’s explicitly antihumanist philosophical system, the articulation of the concept of the author-function is the logical extension of his larger project to strip away the “privileges of the subject”; as he claims, “the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analyzed as a complex and variable function of discourse” (Foucault [1969] 1979: 28). Galvanized by the sanction provided by Foucault, Wollen followed his lead and sought to strip away the privileges of the author and analyze “authors” as variable functions of critical discourses. However, if it is true that, rather than the cause of an artwork, the author is merely an effect, then who/what is the cause? 24

At certain points in his text, Wollen endows the mystical “structures” and “patterns” of artworks with the creative powers required to “produce” them. For example, he claims in a distinctly Barthesian register that an artwork is not the “expression” of an author/subject but rather “a certain pattern of energy cathexis” (Wollen 1972: 144) which “provides the conditions for the production of meaning within constraints which it sets itself” (Wollen 1972: 140, my emphasis). At other points in his text, he shifts to more of a Derridean register and attributes the power of creation to the author’s unconscious. For example, he claims that an artwork is “associated” with an author “not because he has played the role of artist, expressing himself or his own vision,” but because “it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded … usually to the surprise of the individual involved” (Wollen 1972: 144). And still at other points in his text, he shifts to a Foucauldian register and evades the concept of causality altogether. For example, he claims that “writer and reader” are “indifferently critics” of a given artwork where “artwork” refers not to an “instrument of communication” (Wollen 1972: 141) but rather to “something like a machine for producing meaning” (Wollen 1972: 148).

To Wollen’s credit, despite his ceaseless oscillations, he never advocates anything resembling the madness of Barthes’ “hedonistic aesthetics” (an outcropping of what Britton astutely identified as Barthes’ juvenile “metaphysics of transgression” [Britton {1979} 2009: 419]) where out-and-out murder is passed off as the height of critical nobility (cf. Barrowman 2017: 160-161, 186n8). Instead, essentially burying his head in the sand, he follows with something approaching consistency Foucault’s reading of “The Death of the Author.” Intriguingly, whereas Barthes was equivocal as to whether art always was and always will be constitutively destructive to authors or whether art is now and should forever be approached by authors as a self-destructive practice (cf. Barrowman 2017: 163-167, 187-188n16), Foucault very clearly historicized sacrificial art as a then-contemporary issue of morality:

The writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of “expression” … Writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is a voluntary obliteration of the self … In addition, we find the link between writing and death manifested in the total effacement of the individual characteristics of the writer … If we wish to know the writer in our day, it will be through the singularity of his absence and in his link to death, which has transformed him into a victim of his own writing (Foucault [1969] 1979: 15-16).

As for the practice of criticism, Foucault excitedly observed the consequences of instituting an altruistic aesthetics:

It has been understood that the task of criticism is not to re-establish the ties between an author and his work or to reconstitute an author’s thought and experience through his works … [but rather] should concern itself with the structures of a work, its architectonic forms, which are studied for their intrinsic and internal relationships … No longer the tiresome repetitions: “Who is the real author?” “Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?” “What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?” New questions will be heard: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?” “Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?” “What placements are determined for possible subjects?” (Foucault [1969] 1979: 16, 28-29).

Even though Foucault was strategically vague as to how/why the “new” question “Where does a discourse come from?” was different from the “old” question “Where does an artwork come from?” – not to mention as to what the answer to the “new” question could possibly be – the “logic” is nevertheless clear: If authors voluntarily obliterate themselves and acquiesce to their “function” as victims of writing, then critics may do with “their” artworks qua alms whatever they wish; the critic-as-God is endowed in Foucault’s Barthesian aesthetic system with the sovereign power to give to and take away from artworks “authors” as he sees fit, “justified” by nothing more (and requiring nothing more) than his whims (cf. Barrowman 2017: 163-166). 25 Thus, even though Wollen never went so far as to explicitly advocate hedonism, by adhering to the principles of poststructuralism, his proposed methodology amounts to nothing less than the ideal critical foundation for a hedonistic aesthetics of cinema. 26 And the tragic irony is that the position from which he set out in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema was for all intents and purposes an Objectivist position.

In the original Introduction to the 1969 edition, Wollen acknowledged that, since “criticism necessarily depends upon knowing what a text means,” any critical methodology that refuses to acknowledge the aesthetic principles of objectivity, identity, and causality is “condemned to massive imprecision and nebulosity” (Wollen 1969: 10). At some point, every poststructuralist acknowledges this basic and eminently rational fact. And yet, at some other point, every poststructuralist argument invariably turns into a denial of this basic and eminently rational fact in the hopes of evading the responsibility of having to live up to it. Wollen claims at one particularly telling moment that a critic puts his consciousness “at risk” in every engagement with an artwork (Wollen 1972: 139). In the Objectivist sense that thinking is volitional rather than automatic and subject to error rather than infallible, this is true. However, given Wollen’s poststructuralist arguments regarding artworks as being subjective constructs which do not objectively exist, which have no essential meaning, and which neither originate in nor emanate from a volitional human consciousness, where exactly is the critical risk? If there is no true and objective meaning to be found in artworks – which implies that meaning in art is arbitrarily asserted based solely on critical whim – then how can an ascription of meaning ever be wrong? Far from embracing risk and advocating objective criticism, does Wollen not embrace subjectivism and advocate turning criticism into a risk-free zone in which the whims of critics reign supreme, in which criticism ceases to be a conversation and instead becomes a cacophony of Attilas struggling to outshout those around them, and in which the final arbiter in criticism shifts from logic to force? 27

In the context of a discussion of what he has conceived of as “the threat of skepticism,” Stanley Cavell made the case that the truth of skepticism is that, inasmuch as “what skepticism questions or denies my knowledge of is the world of objects I inhabit, is the world” (Cavell 1979: 448), the desire of skeptics to know with certainty the existence of the world paradoxically gives ground to “a sense of powerlessness” in the face of “the precariousness and arbitrariness of existence, the utter contingency in the fact that things are as they are” (Cavell 1979: 236). On this picture, a more accurate name for skepticism presents itself: Fear. Through the act, motivated by fear, of sealing off from human knowledge the world in its awe-inspiring immediacy and intractability, skeptics create in its place a world that they fancy as subject to their whims. The skeptic’s experience of trying to prove that existence exists, moreover, is “one of trying to establish an absolutely firm connection with that world-object from that sealed position,” a self-defeating task undertaken “as though, deprived of the ordinary forms of life in which that connection is, and is alone, secured, [the skeptic] is trying to establish it in his immediate consciousness, then and there” (Cavell 1979: 238). 28

Against this Cavellian backdrop, I am inspired to identify in the fear that drives poststructuralists to embrace critical subjectivism the truth of poststructuralism. To Cavell’s mind, subjectivism is a painfully transparent “Kantian bargain” with skepticism, “buying back the knowledge of objects by giving up things in themselves” (Cavell [1986] 1988: 65). 29 To add insult to injury, poststructuralism “tends to soberize, or respectify, or scientize” this bargain, “claiming, for example, greater precision or accuracy or intellectual scrupulousness” (Cavell [1986] 1988: 59). Hence, when Wollen asserts that “it is an illusion to think of any [artwork] as complete in itself” (Wollen 1972: 147), the implication is that once he was blind but now, thanks to poststructuralism, he can see. As expected, what he can “see” thanks to poststructuralism is, paradoxically, “the artwork itself,” but nonsensically conceived as “the location of thought rather than the mind” (Wollen 1972: 141). Regarding this mystical presumption of a “sixth sense” which allows poststructuralists to “think” in the absence of their minds and paradoxically “see” behind the curtain of (their fantasy of) reality, this, Rand explains, is merely the self-imposed blindness at the heart of skepticism:

[Skeptics] are germs that attack you through a single sore: Your fear of relying on your mind. They tell you that they possess a means of knowledge higher than the mind, a mode of consciousness superior to reason – like a special pull with some bureaucrat of the universe who gives them secret tips withheld from others. [Some skeptics] declare that they possess an extra sense you lack. This special sixth sense consists of contradicting the whole of the knowledge of your five. [Other skeptics] do not bother to assert any claim to extrasensory perception. They merely declare that your senses are not valid and that their wisdom consists of perceiving your blindness by some manner of unspecified means. [All skeptics] demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power … The secret of all their esoteric philosophies, of all their dialectics and super-senses, of their evasive eyes and snarling words, the secret for which they destroy civilization, language, industries, and lives, the secret for which they pierce their own eyes and eardrums, grind out their senses, blank out their minds, the purpose for which they dissolve the absolutes of reason, logic, matter, existence, reality – is to erect upon that plastic fog a single holy absolute: Their wish (Rand 1957: 1034-1036).

Thus, the poststructuralist reliance on the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy betrays, vis-à-vis intrinsicism, “a wish that underlies skepticism, a wish for the connection between my claims of knowledge and the objects upon which the claims are to fall to occur without my intervention” (Cavell 1979: 351-352), as well as, vis-à-vis subjectivism, a wish for omnipotence to compensate for the lack of omniscience, for “consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence and existence to be not the object but the subject [of] consciousness” (Rand 1957: 1036-1037). And, regardless of which side of the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy any given poststructuralist chooses to embrace at any given point in an argument, the fact remains that “there is no honest revolt against reason”:

An honest man does not desire until he has identified the object of his desire. He says: “It is, therefore I want it.” [Poststructuralists] say: “I want it, therefore it is.” They want to cheat the axiom of existence … But reality is not to be cheated. What they achieve is the opposite of their desire. They want an omnipotent power over existence; instead, they lose the power of their consciousness. By refusing to know, they condemn themselves to the horror of a perpetual unknown (Rand 1957: 1036-1037).

This nihilistic space of the perpetually unknown and the constitutively unknowable is the space into which Wollen ventured with Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and into which innumerable film scholars subsequently chose, and sadly continue to choose, to venture after him. The tragedy in Wollen’s case is that he knew the direction he was heading but failed to adequately grasp the consequences of continuing down the path he had set for himself. 30 Observe the clarity with which he recognized the logical implications of his poststructuralist conception of criticism:

The critic, to demonstrate the value of a work, must be able to identify the “content,” establish its truth, profundity, and so forth, and then demonstrate how it is expressed … The world itself is an untidy place, full of loose ends, but the [artwork] can tie all these loose ends together and thus convey to us a meaningful truth, an insight, which enables us to go back to the real world with a re-ordered and re-cycled experience which will enable us to cope better, live more fully, and so on. In this way, art is given a humanistic function, which guarantees its value. All this is overthrown when we begin to see loose ends in works of art, to refuse to acknowledge organic unity or integral content … All current theories of evaluation depend on identifying the [artwork] first and then confronting it with criteria … [but] if we reject the idea of an exhaustive interpretation, we have to reject this kind of evaluation (Wollen 1972: 147-148). 31

Exemplifying more than just the logical consequences of the Nietzschean conception of causality that underwrites the poststructuralist objection to authorship, Wollen’s text also exemplifies the logical consequences of the obstinate refusal of poststructuralists to acknowledge “fixed” meaning (which is to say, to embrace objectivity) and to prefer instead to conceive of meaning as “infinitely deferred” (which is to say, to embrace subjectivity). This might – and, given the persistence of poststructuralism, clearly does – seem seductive and “progressive,” but if meaning is not objectively fixed then the very concept of “meaning” is lost, for if a given text does not mean something then it does not mean anything. As Robin Wood once put it, if texts do not have fixed meanings, “then it makes no difference whether you choose to [analyze] conservative texts or radical ones, Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. The choice is merely arbitrary. Nothing ultimately means anything and nothing ultimately matters” (Wood 1989: 28).

Furthermore, as indicated by Wood and averred by Wollen himself, if objective meaning – and hence the practice of interpretation – is rejected, then the concept of value – and hence the practice of evaluation – must be rejected, as well, because to value something presupposes that a. something exists to be valued and that b. it is being valued for what it is. In the previously quoted passage, Wollen is encouraging critics and scholars to reject this “bourgeois” aesthetic position and to embrace instead the “progressive” position from which the meaning – and hence the value – of an artwork is a subjective construct based on the critic’s whims. But, if this true, then why does Wollen so revere Jean-Luc Godard? In his 1972 Conclusion, Wollen remarks that “it was only right” that Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, across its three editions between 1969 and 1972, “should have built up towards a paean of praise” for Godard (Wollen 1972: 134). But, given his critical premises, what sense can the concept of “praise” possibly have in this context? If artworks do not objectively exist, if they do not have objectively fixed meanings, and if they are not made by authors, then is the “praise” for the alleged progressiveness of an artwork so nonsensically conceived (or the “blame” for the alleged lack of progressiveness of an artwork so nonsensically conceived) not due to the critic for his subjective “construction”? Indeed, would it not be the case that such concepts as “good” and “bad” or “progressive” and “bourgeois” would no longer be attributable to objectively produced artworks (which are “illusions” anyway) and would instead only be attributable to “their” (whatever “they” “are”) subjective reception?

Beyond the ubiquitous and flagrant concept stealing and package dealing, the conceptual knots into which poststructuralists so often twist themselves bring to light another fallacy which Rand terms context dropping, whereby one attempts to ignore major premises in order to make minor arguments. She elaborates on the “logic” of context dropping as follows:

Context dropping is one of the chief psychological tools of evasion. In regard to one’s desires, there are two major ways of context dropping: The issues of range and of means. A rational man sees his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly. This does not mean that he has to be omniscient, infallible, or clairvoyant … It means that he does not regard any moment as cut off from the context of the rest of his life and that he allows no conflicts or contradictions between his short-range and long-range interests. He does not become his own destroyer by pursuing a desire today which wipes out all his values tomorrow (Rand 1962b: 36). 32

The term Rand uses to identify the mechanism that facilitates context dropping, meanwhile, is blanking out, which she describes as “the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think – not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know” and which she explains makes possible attempts, undertaken “on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘it is,’” to “wipe out reality.” But, as Rand avers, “existence exists; reality is not to be wiped out; [such attempts] merely wipe out the wiper” (Rand 1957: 1017-1018). 33

The nature and the consequences of Wollen’s context dropping are most clearly evidenced in his efforts to theorize the significance and proclaim the value of Godard’s films. If, as Wollen contends, criticism necessarily depends upon knowing a. that an artwork exists, b. what the artwork is, and c. what the artwork means – which it does – then it likewise depends upon the objective existence of artworks the identities, meanings, and value of which it is the task of criticism to determine and adjudicate. If, however, the fundamental premises of a critical methodology dictate that artworks do not objectively exist, then the only possible way to produce criticism is to drop the context; steal the concepts of objectivity, identity, and causality; and blank out on the fact that the criticism produced contradicts the premises of the critical methodology per which the criticism has ostensibly been produced. And, sure enough, this is the exact trajectory followed by Wollen as he builds up to his “paean of praise” for Godard. In order to praise Godard and to insist on the development of a Godardian “counter cinema” on the one hand and a critical methodology capable of adequately interpreting and evaluating such a counter cinema on the other (Wollen 1972, [1972] 2009, 1976), Wollen drops the context of his poststructuralist methodology; steals the concepts of objectivity, identity, and causality; and blanks out on the fact that the criticism produced within the pages of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema contradicts the terms of the poststructuralist methodology Signs and Meaning in the Cinema is ostensibly meant to establish. 34 The question that remains: If one must drop the context of one’s critical methodology in order to produce criticism, then should one not simply drop the critical methodology?

At this point, it can probably go without saying that my answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” Perhaps slightly more surprising – and very encouraging – is the fact that, by 1997, nearly three decades after he had begun the influential investigation that was conducted within the pages of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and that set the course for film studies, Peter Wollen himself had acknowledged that film studies needed a new foundation on which to build a new aesthetics of cinema:

When you make a film, you ask yourself whether a cut is good or bad, whether a way of delivering a line is good or bad, whether a camera movement is good or bad. Production mainly consists of judgments about value and quality. Critics and theorists shouldn’t try to insulate themselves from a discourse which is so intrinsic to [artistic] practice. After all, our natural response after seeing a film at the cinema is to talk about whether it was good or bad … I strongly believe we need to make judgments of taste and then defend them with rational arguments … Maybe that means a new aesthetics (Wollen 1997: 245).

In Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, the extent of Wollen’s self-sabotage in the form of his adherence to the principles of poststructuralism was grave but not fatal. While his example is proof of the deleteriousness of poststructuralism, it is also proof of the redemptive power of reason. Rand once expressed the sentiment that “no man can predict the time when others will choose to return to reason” (Rand 1957: 771). If, as she believed, “it is impossible to predict the time of a philosophical Renaissance,” then the most that one can do is “define the road to follow” (Rand [1969] 1975: 115). This is the perspective from which any scholar committed to establishing a foundation on which might be built a new aesthetics of cinema ought to set about defining the road for film studies to follow.


Observing that “film studies has recently declared itself in need of reconception,” Stanley Cavell expressed his hope that “part of this reconception will take the form of a wish to understand how it got to its present form” (Cavell 2004: 319). I hope that this essay has provided at least one piece of the puzzle. Looking back at the history of film studies, I am consistently drawn to the coincidence that, in 1972, the same year that Peter Wollen published the influential third edition of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema and thereby set the philosophical agenda for the discipline of film studies, there was another book published that could have set a very different agenda: V.F. Perkins’ Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies. Robin Wood considered Film as Film to be “among the most valuable books on the cinema,” and he considered Perkins’ arguments to be “beautifully developed with meticulous logic” to the point of being “virtually impregnable” (Wood 1976a: 30). Noël Carroll took Wood’s praise one step further, claiming that Film as Film stands as “the most thoughtful, ambitious, and original attempt to construct a film theory in the seventies” (Carroll 1988a: 74) and commending Perkins for being the only film scholar to have even attempted “to deal rigorously with the issue of film evaluation” (Carroll 1988a: 256). At these earlier moments in the history of film studies, the opinions of Wood and Carroll were, regrettably, minority opinions. As Carroll explains:

The main direction that film theory took in the seventies was scientific, or pseudo-scientific (the synthesis of semiology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism), whereas Perkins’ approach was aesthetic – that is, he was concerned with the “artistic quality” of films, a concept that many [then and even now] would laugh out of court (Carroll 1988a: 74-75).

Today, however, scholars are (re)turning to Perkins’ text and the issues with which he was grappling with greater frequency. 35 I consider this (re)turn to be symptomatic of a more general desire for a (re)turn to the question of value, which, to my mind, is the sine qua non and should be the raison d’être of film studies. Murray Pomerance, for instance, argues that “something is inevitably missing” in all academic analyses of films, “and that something is the experience of actually watching the film” (Pomerance 2008: 5). Taking his cue from André Bazin, 36 Pomerance passionately affirms that:

Because cinema is art, it remains true that the most assiduous and earnest commitment to looking at its historical, social, psychological, compositional, authorial, and political aspects finally brings any serious viewer to a consideration of love: Love of the screen, love of the cinematic image, love of the peculiar kind of light that is to be glimpsed in the dark theater coming from this magical world, that holds us fast to our fixation upon film – love of life, because, just as it includes people, life includes cinema (Pomerance 2008: 8).

In a similar spirit, scholars such as Stanley Cavell, 37 Noël Carroll, 38 William Rothman, 39 D.N. Rodowick, 40 Tom Gunning, 41 Alex Clayton, 42 and Andrew Klevan 43 have all voiced similar sentiments. 44 Perhaps, even more than being symptomatic of a general desire for a (re)turn to the question of value in film studies, the voicing of such sentiments is symptomatic of an even deeper desire to overhaul the philosophical foundation on which film studies was originally built and to establish a new foundation 45 – in which case the philosophical Renaissance in film studies may already be underway.


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  1. Film-philosophy is still in the process of establishing itself as a viable alternative to film studies orthodoxy. For the probative value of film-philosophy, see, beyond the individual contributions to the groundbreaking Film-Philosophy journal and the work of such philosophical heralds as Stanley Cavell ([1971] 1979, 1981, 1996, 2004, 2005) and Noël Carroll (1988a, 1988b, 1996a, 1996b, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010), the work of contemporary scholars such as D.N. Rodowick (2001, 2007, 2015), Stephen Mulhall ([2001] 2008), Daniel Frampton (2006), David Sorfa (2006a, 2006b, 2016, 2018), Thomas E. Wartenberg (2007), Daniel Shaw (2008, 2012, 2017), Berys Gaut (2010), Robert Sinnerbrink (2011, 2015), Daniel Morgan (2011, 2012), Robert B. Pippin (2012, 2013, 2017), and Daniel Yacavone (2015). Additionally, for my own takes on film-philosophy beyond the scope of this essay, see Barrowman (2018a, 2018b).
  2. There is a particularly strong effort at present to solidify the connection between film studies and Continental philosophy. Beyond the continued influence of more contemporary philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Rancière, and Slavoj Žižek, this can also be seen in the release of such titles as Roland Barthes’ Cinema (Watts 2016), Cinema without Reflection: Jacques Derrida’s Echopoiesis and Narcissism Adrift (Lippit 2016), Acinemas: Lyotard’s Philosophy of Film (Jones and Woodward 2017), and Foucault at the Movies (Maniglier and Zabunyan 2018).
  3. Perhaps Rand would have countered by accusing me of being naïve for thinking that convincing academics that their chosen emperor has no clothes is anything but an exercise in futility. After all, over the course of their own famous attempt to convince their academic peers that their emperor has no clothes, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont felt compelled, despite not wanting to sound “unduly pessimistic,” to acknowledge that “the story of the emperor’s new clothes ends as follows: ‘And the chamberlains went on carrying the train that wasn’t there’” (Sokal and Bricmont [1997] 1999: 177).
  4. For further discussion of these questions and their ethical implications, see Rand (1957: 1058-1068) and Barrowman (2017: 155-156, 183).
  5. For samplings of such critiques, see, among many others, Cary Nelson (1985) and Donald G. Ellis (1991) in the context of communication theory; Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels (1987), Seán Burke ([1992] 2008), and Noël Carroll (1992) in the context of the philosophy of art; Alex Callinicos (1990), Barbara Epstein (1995, 1997), Terry Eagleton (1996), and Rey Chow (2006) in the context of political philosophy; and Sokal and Bricmont ([1997] 1999) and David Detmar (2003) in the context of the philosophy of science.
  6. For the few anomalies, see Andrew Britton ([1979] 2009), Robin Wood (1989), David Bordwell (1989), and Richard Allen and Murray Smith (1997).
  7. The development and evolution of la politique des auteurs is a familiar and well-known story which I have no intention of retelling here. However, for some of the most famous and influential writings of the era, see, among others, André Bazin (1946, [1948] 1997, [1950] 1978, 1951, 1952, 1955, [1957] 1966, [1958] 1974), Alexandre Astruc (1948), François Truffaut ([1954] 1966), Ian Cameron (1962), Andrew Sarris ([1962] 1979, 1963, 1977, 1996), V.F. Perkins (1962, 1963a, 1963b, 1972), and Robin Wood (1965, [1968] 1981, [1969] 2013, 2006). For additional important writings around the concept of authorship, as well as for added historical and philosophical context, see John Caughie (1981) and Jim Hillier (1985, 1986). Lastly, for my own discussions of the vicissitudes of authorship, see Barrowman (2012, 2013, 2018a).
  8. Inspired by the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard would echo Leenhardt and proclaim that filmmaking “is not group work” and that – in the spirit of Astruc’s influential articulation of the concept of la camera-stylo, or the “camera-pen,” on the basis of which he argued that the filmmaker “writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen” (Astruc 1948) – in the cinema, the filmmaker “is always alone, on the sound stage as in front of the blank page” (Godard [1958] 1966: 59).
  9. For a landmark debate from the “pre-history” of academic film studies – one which turned on, in the parlance of Stanley Cavell, “the role of moral judgment” in aesthetic philosophy (Cavell [1995] 2003: 204) – see the debate conducted in the pages of Screen between Alan Lovell (1969, 1970) and Robin Wood (1969). See also the follow-up commentaries offered by John C. Murray (1971) and Barrowman (2018a).
  10. In an editor’s note added to Daney and Oudart’s psychoanalytic/deconstructive critique of the concept of authorship entitled “The Name of the Author” (Daney and Oudart 1972), Browne claims that their essay continues “the early Cahiers auteurism” and represents, rather than a break with “the traditional figure of the author,” a “re-inscription” of that “figure” within “poststructuralist problematics” (Browne 1990: 324n4). This is demonstrably false; it was plainly the case that the “traditional figure of the author” was the explicit target of Daney and Oudart’s psychoanalytic deconstruction and represented to the newly radicalized critics of Cahiers a hopelessly romantic (hence bourgeois, hence capitalist, hence deplorable) fantasy to be demolished for the sake of a radical new political (re: Marxist) aesthetic. I will have more to say on this course change in Cahiers in what follows. However, for a more accurate assessment of this turbulent period in Cahiers and a more thorough chronicle of the critical transformations it produced beyond the scope of this essay, see Rodowick ([1988] 1994: 67-110).
  11. For more comprehensive accounts of the considerable influence exerted on the critics of this era by Louis Althusser, see, among others, Britton ([1979] 2009), Carroll (1988b: 53-88), and Rodowick ([1988] 1994: 28-34, 67-110; 2014: 232-251.
  12. For more elaborate treatments of these shifts in the French intellectual terrain, see Rodowick ([1988] 1994: 1-41; 2014: 131-152, 214-231) and Jean-Michel Rabaté (2002: 47-92). Rodowick, in fact, goes so far as to call Barthes and Derrida the “discursive founders” of the problematics of the era (Rodowick 2014: 223) and identifies Derrida in particular as the “philosophical underwriter” of the era’s most influential criticism (Rodowick [1988] 1994: 21).
  13. Though my frequent ascriptions to certain scholars (and all poststructuralists) of schizophrenic tendencies (cf. Barrowman 2017) will no doubt strike some as hyperbolic at best and malicious at worst, I maintain that, more than mere rhetorical bluster, it is diagnostically accurate; I do not consider it an exaggeration to say, as Richard Harland has said, that “meaning on the schizophrenic’s level is in precisely that state to which all poststructuralists aspire” (Harland 1987: 174). Needless to say, I do not aspire to schizophrenia, nor do I think that any sane person would/should, hence my pejorative tone.
  14. This is not, of course, to deny the difficulty, in certain instances, of attribution (cf. Knapp 1996: 1-4). Nor is it to deny that film authorship is an exceedingly complex phenomenon (cf. Cameron 1962). It is simply to stress that authorship, though it can at times present epistemological problems (determinable only on a case-by-case basis), is not an ontological problem (cf. Cavell 1996: 8-9).
  15. Gunning’s Derridean “logic” here is an example of a fallacy that Rand termed concept stealing (Rand 1957: 1039-1040), whereby one denies the primacy of a putatively invalid concept (e.g. authorship, or “authorial self-expression”) and then asserts the primacy of a derivative concept (e.g. art, or the “play of discourse”). Unfortunately, concept stealing tends to beg questions rather than answer them (e.g. how did the “discourse” that someone [who?] is “playing” [how?] with come into existence?). For more on the prevalence of concept stealing in poststructuralist arguments generally, as well as in the context of Derrida’s practice of deconstruction specifically, see Barrowman (2017: 168-182).
  16. Gunning’s Barthesian “logic” here is an example of a fallacy that Rand termed package dealing (Rand 1973b: 28-29), whereby one attempts to integrate into a unified conceptual whole, or package, a series of contradictory concepts/premises (e.g. conflating the author and God). For more on the prevalence of package dealing in poststructuralist arguments generally, as well as in the context of Barthes’ infamous essay “The Death of the Author” specifically, see Barrowman (2017: 158-168).
  17. Obviously, it goes without saying that I am far from the first film scholar to critically engage Wollen’s landmark text. Most notably, both Robin Wood (1976b) and V.F. Perkins (1990) have written insightfully on Wollen’s methods and arguments. However, neither Wood nor Perkins conducted philosophical investigations of Wollen’s methods and arguments or their foundational presuppositions – and this despite Wood’s avowed interest, beyond simply refuting isolated claims made by Wollen with reference to the films of Howard Hawks, to “go on to question the general assumptions on which [they were] based” (Wood 1976b: 233). Rather, they each engaged in dialectical critiques in which they pitted their own methods and arguments against Wollen’s, never actually getting to the root of Wollen’s operating procedure – or, more accurately, Wollen’s operating procedures from structuralism to poststructuralism. This is not to imply that one mode of engagement is better or worse than the other; I simply wish to differentiate the levels of analysis and to clarify my own aim in engaging Wollen’s text. Rather than focus on discrete interpretations/evaluations of individual films or filmmakers, I intend to elucidate Wollen’s philosophical presuppositions, to demonstrate the effects on Wollen’s text of his turn from structuralism to poststructuralism in the 1972 edition, and to make explicit the terms of a philosophical rejection of poststructuralism in film studies and, indeed, in the philosophy of art more broadly.
  18. My use of the term “Attila” to characterize Barthes is in reference to Rand’s delineation of the two figures – the man of faith and the man of force – that she demonstrated stand out as “philosophical archetypes, psychological symbols, and historical reality”: “The essential characteristics of these two remain the same in all ages: Attila, the man who rules by brute force, acts on the range of the moment, is concerned with nothing but the physical reality immediately before him, respects nothing but man’s muscles, and regards a fist, a club, or a gun as the only answer to any problem – and the Witch Doctor, the man who dreads physical reality, dreads the necessity of practical action, and escapes into his emotions, into visions of some mystic realm where his wishes enjoy a supernatural power unlimited by the absolute of nature” (Rand 1961: 10). For the justification for my characterizations of Barthes as an Attila and Derrida as a Witch Doctor, see Barrowman (2017). Regarding Wollen’s remark and the discernible confusion and malaise therein, Rand clarifies that Attilas like Barthes “do not seek to convert you to their values – they haven’t any – but to destroy yours. Nihilism and destruction [are their] explicit goals … and the horror is that [their ideas] move on, unopposed. Who is to blame? All those who are afraid to speak. All those who are still able to know better but who are willing to temporize, to compromise, and thus to sanction an evil of that magnitude” (Rand 1966b: 114).
  19. As a testament to the still-pressing challenge of exorcizing from film studies the specter of poststructuralist “logic,” an even more astonishing manifestation of this Barthesian conception of the “autonomy” of the inexplicably volitional and “(self-)conscious” film “text” appears in the most recent analysis of the films of Alfred Hitchcock undertaken by William Rothman (2014). Throughout his examination of Hitchcock’s films (which, like Gunning’s examination of Lang’s films, is in virtually every respect a masterclass in film criticism), Rothman endlessly waffles on the issue of whether it is the author who possesses volition and is thus responsible for the content of a film or whether it is the camera (which, similar to Barthes’ conception of capital-L Language [cf. Barrowman 2017: 161-162], is, in Rothman’s critical practice, the capital-C Camera). On the one hand, in a discussion of a shot of Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959), Rothman rationally argues that, “by choosing to frame Grant frontally as well as closely,” Hitchcock, as the author, “inscribes” his thought in the shot (Rothman 2014: 14, my emphasis). On the other hand, in a discussion of a series of shots of Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man (1956), Rothman irrationally argues that “this passage perfectly exemplifies Hitchcock’s understanding that the camera is more than a machine that passively takes in whatever happens in front of it. The camera also has the power to make things happen (Rothman 2014: 114, my emphasis). More astonishing still, in his own recent work, even Rodowick ends up ensnared in the same contradiction. After developing even more extensively than Rothman a nonsensical notion of “camera consciousness” for which he claims that “no active powers of consciousness need be attributed” to the camera, Rodowick, exemplifying the illogic of concept stealing, proceeds in the very next sentence to attribute to the camera a “mode of thought” capable of activating mystical “powers” of “expressive intentionality” (Rodowick 2015: 223). Clearly, poststructuralist “logic” is still a pollutant in the conceptual air that film scholars breathe.
  20. For discussions of the intrinsic/subjective dichotomy generally and its deleterious consequences in philosophical practice specifically, see Rand ([1966-1967] 1990), Leonard Peikoff (1967, 1991), Chris Matthew Sciabarra ([1995] 2013), Roger E. Bissell (2007, 2014, 2015), and Arnold Baise (2017).
  21. Derrida struggles with the same contradiction in the construction of his deconstructive aesthetics (as do Peter Brunette and David Wills in their attempt to resolve this contradiction towards the goal of building a deconstructive aesthetics of cinema [Brunette and Wills {1989} 2014: 86-92]). In Of Grammatology, Derrida states very plainly in accordance with the principles of objectivity, identity, and causality that there is a “guardrail” around every text the “indispensable” purpose of which is to keep criticism from “developing in any direction at all and authoriz[ing] itself to say almost anything” (Derrida [1967] 1997: 158). Yet, he also claims in opposition to the principles of objectivity, identity, and causality that it is not possible for criticism to reconstruct in any text the “conscious, voluntary, intentional [meaning] that the writer institutes” (Derrida [1967] 1997: 158) insofar as the “presumed content” so “instituted” is merely “a chain of differential references” which “have always already escaped, have never existed” (Derrida [1967] 1997: 159). Given that the notion of a “guardrail” presupposes something to be guarded, and given that Derrida has just claimed that there is nothing to be guarded, in the context of his deconstructive aesthetics, the notion is divested of all sense, for, if not the meaning (which is to say, the identity) of the objectively existing text, what is it that Derrida thinks this indispensable guardrail is actually guarding?
  22. Adding to the confusion endemic to deconstruction, despite the position Derrida advocates in Of Grammatology, the same impulse vis-à-vis the identity principle evidenced by Wollen here is also discernible in Derrida’s critical practice. In a consideration of the various steps taken by a critic in the interpretation of a text, Derrida once observed that, “in asking if [an] interpretation is justifiable, [the critic is] therefore asking” whether or not he has “understood the sign itself”: “In other words, has what [the author of the text] said and meant been clearly perceived? This comprehension of the sign in and of itself … is only the first moment but also the indispensable condition of all hermeneutics” (Derrida [1963] 2001: 32, my emphasis).
  23. For an example of the persistence of this contradiction in attempts by film scholars to formulate “progressive” critical methodologies based on poststructuralist principles, consider that Rodowick, at the end of a marvelously perspicacious critique of the contradictions with which nearly every major critical endeavor of the era, including Wollen’s, was riddled, promulgates the exact same contradiction. In an effort to ensure the objectivity of artworks against the tendency of critics to “freely apply interpretations as [they] may,” Rodowick anchors the practice of criticism in “the given text itself since its particular organization of signs may either serve to facilitate or resist certain avenues of interpretation” (Rodowick [1988] 1994: 282). At the same time, Rodowick claims that “the ‘text itself,’ or the ontological definition of the text as an autonomous, self-identical formal object, must be dismantled” (Rodowick [1988] 1994: 283). To Rodowick’s credit, he seems to have resolved this contradiction in his more recent work (Rodowick 2015).
  24. Clearly underwriting the poststructuralist objection to the concept of authorship is Nietzsche’s objection to the concept of causality. According to Nietzsche, the “chronological inversion” whereby “the cause enters consciousness later than the effect” is proof that the very concept of causality is not only “imagined,” hence not real, but imagined falsely. I will not hazard a guess as to how one can “falsely” imagine something that does not exist in the first place, though I will point out Descartes’ observation in the Meditations that the content of one’s imagination “cannot strictly speaking be false” qua imaginary content (Descartes [1641] 1984: 26). In any event, this is the basis for Nietzsche’s proclamation (in language recalling Kant and anticipating Derrida) that consciousness as such is merely a “groping” which is “indissolubly tied to the old error of the ground” (Nietzsche [1883-1888] 1967: 265-266). I will explore the consequences of this warped Nietzschean perspective for Wollen’s critical practice presently.
  25. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Rand and Objectivism will know that the morality of altruism and the (religious/fascist/communist) fetishization of sacrifice were two of Rand’s perennial targets. Of particular relevance to the altruistic aesthetics promulgated by Barthes and Foucault is the following observation: “Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men. Of course, you must dress it up. You must tell people that they’ll achieve a superior kind of happiness … You don’t have to be too clear about it. Use big vague words. ‘Universal Harmony’ – ‘Eternal Spirit’ – ‘Divine Purpose’ – ‘Nirvana’ – ‘Paradise’ – ‘Racial Supremacy’ – ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.’ The farce has been going on for centuries and men still fall for it. Yet, the test should be so simple. Just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice – Run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that, where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master” (Rand [1943] 2007: 666-667; see also Barrowman 2017: 166).
  26. In his lucid rejection of this critical model, Robin Wood shrewdly observed (having recognized both the logical consequences and the moral implications of instituting such a critical model) that “the demolition of the author is necessary and central to a wider operation – the demolition of art. For without artists there is no art – only various configurations of signifiers awaiting deconstruction” (Wood 1989: 26, my emphasis).
  27. Perhaps the paradigm case of a poststructuralist shrinking from such risk is Foucault’s work on Raymond Roussel, in which, to avoid “the common risk of being wrong” when formulating an interpretation of a text (Foucault [1963] 2004: 5), Foucault shifted the terms of criticism from the terrain of the objective onto the terrain of the arbitrary (Foucault [1963] 2004: 8-9), a treasured concept for poststructuralists inasmuch as it is, to their Nietzschean satisfaction, “beyond right and wrong.” For the sense of deliverance experienced by poststructuralists, consider the gleeful observation made by Stanley Fish that ignoring objectivity “relieves [scholars] of the obligation to be right” (Fish 1980: 180).
  28. Rand adds color to the picture painted by Cavell of the fear that drives skepticism in the following passage: “Every form of causeless self-doubt, every feeling of inferiority and secret unworthiness, is, in fact, man’s hidden dread of his inability to deal with existence. But the greater his terror, the more fiercely he clings to the murderous doctrines that choke him … He will fake, evade, blank out; he will cheat himself of reality, of existence, of happiness, of mind; and he will ultimately cheat himself of self-esteem by struggling to preserve its illusion rather than to risk discovering its lack … A [skeptic] is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of independence that he renounced his rational faculty … [That is why,] when you listen to a [skeptic’s] harangue on the impotence of the human mind and begin to doubt your consciousness, not his, when you permit your precariously semi-rational state to be shaken by any assertion and decide it is safer to trust his superior certainty and knowledge, the joke is on both of you. Your sanction is the only source of certainty he has. The supernatural power that a [skeptic] dreads, the unknowable spirit he worships, the consciousness he considers omnipotent, is yours” (Rand 1957: 1044, 1057).
  29. For her part, Rand regards this Kantian bargain with contempt as a “gimmick worn transparently thin” (Rand [1966-1967] 1990: 61).
  30. For an added dose of irony, recall that Foucault was initially impelled to formulate the concept of the author-function because he was “not certain that the consequences derived from the disappearance or death of the author [had] been fully explored or that the importance of this event [had] been appreciated” (Foucault [1969] 1979: 16).
  31. Once again, it was Robin Wood who shrewdly observed the logical consequences of this antihumanist critical model: “If what we used to call works of art are mere ideological constructions, culturally determined, produced out of various combinations of codes, systems, and signifiers, then there is no point in choosing between them. All we need do is disassemble them to see how the mechanisms work – or, more commonly, to prove once again that the mechanisms work in exactly the ways we predicted … It’s the perfect gift [for poststructuralists] though something of a dead end. When you’ve demonstrated that every text can be deconstructed, it becomes fruitless to deconstruct more and more. You can, of course, deconstruct the deconstruction, then deconstruct the deconstruction of the deconstruction: The babushka-doll of contemporary aesthetics” (Wood 1989: 26, 28).
  32. To return to the impasse that Derrida reaches in Of Grammatology, it is context dropping that provided him with the necessary (though not sufficient) out in his subsequent battle with John Searle (see Derrida [1972, 1977, 1988a] and Searle [1977, 1983, 2000]; see also Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [1980], Christopher Norris [1990], Stanley Cavell [1994], Gordon C.F. Bearn [1995, 1998], Stephen Mulhall [2001], Toril Moi [2009], and Raoul Moati [{2009} 2014]). Indeed, Derrida’s haranguing of Searle for allegedly misinterpreting his essay “Signature, Event, Context,” in which is contained, according to Derrida, “precisely what [Searle] claims to oppose to it and could have found in it” (Derrida 1977: 52, my emphasis), is the paradigm case of context dropping in poststructuralism (cf. Barrowman 2017: 193-194n39). The problem for Derrida – a problem that he confessed was a constant bother in his career (Derrida 1988a: 146) – is that, even though he wants to use the principles of objectivity, identity, and causality to assert and protect the objective/discoverable meaning of/in his texts, the fundamental premises of deconstruction vis-à-vis the nonexistence of objective/discoverable meaning of/in texts as such prevent him from doing so…unless he drops the context and contradicts the fundamental premises of deconstruction.
  33. From a similar vantage point, and on similar grounds, Charles Sanders Peirce derided “the person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth … and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it” and summarily rejected such a “sorry state of mind” (Peirce [1877] 2016: 1018). Analogizing this sorry state of mind to “when an ostrich buries its head in the sand,” Peirce acknowledged the possibility that “a man may go through life systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions” (Peirce [1877] 2016: 1014). However, contrary to such cowardice, Peirce encouraged people to adopt the following epistemological/ethical stance: “A clear logical conscience does cost something – just as any virtue, just as all that we cherish, costs us dear. But we should not desire it to be otherwise. The genius of a man’s logical method should be loved and reverenced as his bride … She is the one that he has chosen, and he knows that he was right in making that choice. And, having made it, he will work and fight for her, and will not complain that there are blows to take, hoping that there may be as many and as hard to give, and will strive to be the worthy knight and champion of her from the blaze of whose splendors he draws his inspiration and his courage” (Peirce [1877] 2016: 1018). Incidentally, Peirce’s choice to analogize blanking out to ostriches burying their heads in the sand was apt; recently, the evolutionary behavioral scientist Gad Saad coined the diagnostic term “Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome” for this degenerate impulse (Saad 2016, 2017a, 2017b).
  34. Though it is beyond the scope of my present critique, it is worth mentioning that Wollen’s notion of a Godardian “counter cinema” inspired him to produce more than just film criticism. In addition to collaborating on the screenplay for Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), Wollen also made in collaboration with Laura Mulvey two avant-garde films, Penthesilea (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). For considerations of Wollen’s filmmaking practice in relation to his critical premises, see Britton ([1979] 2009: 412-413, 424) and Rodowick ([1988] 1994: 244-247).
  35. For two representative examples of this (re)turn to Film as Film, see David Sorfa (2015) and Dominic Lash (2017).
  36. Pomerance was inspired by a moment in Bazin’s discussion of Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie (1955). After differentiating between film appreciation, which “presupposes love and familiarity,” and film analysis, which “can yield nothing but a crude enumeration which overlooks the essence that only taste can uncover,” Bazin wryly exclaimed: “But try to make taste the subject of criticism!” (Bazin 1956: 165). More recently, as part of an investigation into the “taste of crime” in French New Wave cinema, Pomerance was again inspired to reflect on this Bazinian point, reaffirming that: “My claim – and, I think, Bazin’s – is that the noblest and most serious aim of all film criticism is to make taste its subject, to elucidate and open the work of film in such a way as to make understandable how it can be a pretext for love” (Pomerance 2017).
  37. In a reconsideration of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), a film that he had already analyzed as part of a larger study of the genre of what he calls “the comedy of remarriage” (Cavell 1981), Cavell opined that it is only in one’s “concrete” appreciation for individual films that “genuine conviction of [the cinema’s] value for study can, or should, develop” (Cavell 1985: 136).
  38. In the only work by a film scholar where the possibility of objective evaluation is explicitly and elaborately defended in philosophical terms, Carroll unequivocally avers: “I regard the discovery of value as the primary task of criticism in contrast to the championing of criticism as the almost clinical dissection and interpretation of various codes or signifying systems or regimes of power. Rather, I maintain that evaluation is the crux of criticism and that this inevitable connection to human value is the litmus test of membership in the humanities” (Carroll 2009: 7).
  39. In his most recent book, Rothman encourages as an alternative to rote scholarship that “purport[s] to tell us a priori what films are and are not capable of” that scholars (re)learn how “to receive films, to read them, moment by moment, trusting [in their] experience” (Rothman 2014: 280). And this sentiment importantly continues a long-running thread in Rothman’s work, as evident by the following (still largely unheeded) plea made to film scholars decades before: “Too many academic film critics today deny their experience [of films] … Predictably, the resulting criticism reaffirms an attitude of superiority to the films … Such criticism furthers rather than undoes the repression of these films and the ideas they represent … [and] we [as scholars] cannot play our part in reviving the spirit of the films we love without testifying, in our criticism, to the truth of our experience of those films” (Rothman 1986: 46).
  40. In one of his most recent books, Rodowick considers the possibility of film scholarship becoming “a diagnosis of values” (Rodowick 2015: 95); indeed, he stresses the importance of film scholars (re)learning how to value films, a process which would involve, as Rodowick adumbrates, “adding to one’s cognitive stock, amplifying one’s perceptual sensitivity and openness to new experience, acquiring new frameworks or contexts for judgment, and developing the potential for imaginatively applying or creating concepts” (Rodowick 2015: 103).
  41. In a recent consideration of the state of academic film criticism, Gunning observes how, “as academic critics, we know that evaluative categories exist and shape what we write about … but where they come from seems to be avoided as if we were prudish parents invoking the stork rather than answering tricky questions” (Gunning 2016).
  42. Over the course of a critique of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s (1997) mode of engagement with Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), Clayton strives (in a rather Bazinian register) to reaffirm the fact that, “whilst criticism is apt to involve analysis,” the goal should be “to do so without ‘breaking the film’ and without straining for a plateau above experience” (Clayton 2011: 29); the goal of criticism, Clayton persuasively argues, should be the articulation of “the developing nature of a response [that] is forged through an undertaking to reconnect with the film on its own terms, ideally in its own terms” (Clayton 2011: 36).
  43. By way of concluding his illuminating investigation of Cavell’s critical practice, Klevan emphasizes that, in addition to undertaking criticism “because we feel that we might owe it to the creators of the work,” another one of the most powerful reasons to undertake criticism is a certain “compulsion to share” on the basis of which criticism can take the following form: “I choose this moment to discuss because I value it and you may value it, too. You may have missed it, or you sensed it but let it go, or you saw it, too – you are not alone” (Klevan 2011: 61). In the same spirit, I explore this dual sense of communion – between critics and authors on the one hand and between critics and critics on the other – in Barrowman (2018a).
  44. And all of these scholars are echoing the critical note sounded long ago by Robin Wood, who very plainly stated that “if the purpose of criticism is not a discussion of values, then I don’t see what it is” (Wood 1969: 48).
  45. For my part, establishing a new foundation on which to build a new aesthetics of cinema is exactly what I have tried to do, and with particular emphasis on the neglected role of the concept of value in modern aesthetic philosophy and with specific reference to the early “pre-Theory” efforts of such heraldic film scholars as Robin Wood and V.F. Perkins (Barrowman 2018a).

Kyle Barrowman received his PhD from the School of Journalism, Media, and Culture at Cardiff University. In addition to his work on the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the possibilities of an Objectivist aesthetics of cinema, his research focuses on issues of philosophy and aesthetics throughout the history of film. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 22, Issue 7 / July 2018 Essays ayn randfilm theorypeter wollenpost-structuralist film theory