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Ray's How a Film Theory Got Lost


How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies.

Ray, Robert B. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001. 184p., $18.95, softcover. ISBN: 0253214386.

One mystery in cultural studies, suggests James Naremore in his Foreword to Robert Ray's recent collection of essays, is why the author of Princeton's best selling film book of all time would not try to repeat his success in subsequent volumes. A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980 (1985) is an encyclopedic work that makes lucid use of the Althusserian approach to ideology that has since become so central to cultural studies. This approach has proven so useful that one of its two major opponents, David Bordwell, has characterized the field of cultural studies as being dominated by what he calls "SLAB" theory: Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, Barthes. The other major opponent of SLAB theory, however, was also one of its principal practitioners, Robert Ray himself. Yet, if both Ray and Bordwell are in agreement that SLAB theory has run its course, then why has Bordwell waged an infamously vitriolic campaign (particularly in his review of Ray's The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy 1995) against a potential ally?

Ray himself has attempted to answer this question, locating the answer in opposing definitions of knowledge, in one of the present volume's most seminal essays, "The Bordwell Regime and the Stakes of Knowledge." Bordwell, on the one hand, criticizes SLAB theory for its "arid" attempts to explain "everything," leaving little room for disciplinary expertise so that "research came to resemble a reckless poker game in which the ante was constantly rising"(qtd. in Ray 43). Ray, on the other hand, makes the exact opposite claim. While Bordwell is interested in "Lowering the Stakes," as the title of his polemic essay suggests, in favor of rigid disciplinarity, Ray feels the stakes must be constantly raised. Rather than criticizing SLAB theory for attempting too much, Ray claims that the ideas of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes (and the list goes on today) have become templates with which to read an endless succession of individual examples. The models here are as familiar as they are hierarchical. While Bordwell's approach presents the barrier to entry of a totalizing, almost forbidding disciplinary expertise, SLAB theory proceeds as leading academics slowly allow new theorists into the academic canon so that their acolytes may produce countless "confirmations" of their ideas.

In contrast to these hierarchical approaches to academic knowledge, Ray proposes making use of the collaborative ideologies espoused by the historical avant-garde. Where the dominant approaches to knowledge privilege genius and its imitation, groups such as the Surrealists supply methods that are easy to follow yet unpredictable in their results. Making use of the storehouse of the unconscious, the automatism of contemporary technologies, and the power of collective action, such groups present us with a truly alternative mode to the production of knowledge. In the spirit of such egalitarianism, Ray's book includes many "How" and "How to" essays such as "How a Film Theory Got Lost," "How to Start an Avant-Garde," and "How to Teach Cultural Studies." These essays, as a whole, provide useful recipes with independent variables resulting in the delicious paradox, mentioned above, of easy-to-follow methods with truly surprising results. In this manner, Ray defines knowledge in the same way cybernetics has defined information: the fruitful combination of predictability and chaos that allows systems to reorganize at a higher level. Ultimately, "How to Start an Avant-Garde" and "How to Teach [and write about] Cultural Studies" are not unrelated questions at all. The most radical (and useful) element of this book is its suggestion that the avant-garde is not merely an object of study, but a set of research methods in its own right.

Alan Clinton