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FILM CULTURE IN TRANSITION

ALLEN AND TURVEY [EDS

Richard Allen is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University

Malcolm Turvey teaches Film History at Sarah Lawrence College

They recently collaborated in editing Wittgenstein,

Theory and the Arts (London: Routledge,

CAMERA OBSCURA,

CAMERA LUCIDA

Annette Michelson’s contribution to art and film criticism over the last three decades has been unparalleled

This volume honors Michelson’s unique legacy with original essays by some of the many film scholars influenced by her work

Some continue her efforts to develop historical and theoretical frameworks for understanding modernist art,

while others practice her form of interdisciplinary scholarship in relation to avant-garde and modernist film

The introduction investigates and evaluates Michelson’s work itself

All in some way pay homage to her extraordinary contribution and demonstrate its continued centrality to the field of art and film criticism

ISBN 90-5356-494-2

FILM CULTURE IN TRANSITION

CAMERA OBSCURA CAMERA LUCIDA Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson E D'I T E D'BY

Amsterdam University Press WWW

RICHARD ALLEN MALCOLM TURVEY Amsterdam University Press

Camera Obscura,

Camera Lucida

Camera Obscura,

Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson Edited by Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey

Amsterdam University Press

Front cover illustration: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Courtesy of Photofest

Cover design: Kok Korpershoek,

Amsterdam Lay-out: japes,

Amsterdam isbn 90 5356 494 2 (paperback) nur 652

© Amsterdam University Press,

Amsterdam,

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above,

no part of this book may be reproduced,

stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,

in any form or by any means (electronic,

recording or otherwise) without the written permission of both the copyright owner and the author of the book

Contents

Acknowledgements

Preface

Rosalind Krauss Introduction

Malcolm Turvey The Logic of an Illusion

Notes on the Genealogy of Intellectual Cinema

Mikhail Iampolski Narcissistic Machines and Erotic Prostheses

Allen S

Weiss Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion

Electricity and the Origins of Cinema

Tom Gunning Visitings of Awful Promise

The Cinema Seen from Etna

Stuart Liebman Transfiguring the Urban Gray

László Moholy-Nagy’s Film Scenario ‘Dynamic of the Metropolis’

Edward Dimendberg Eisenstein’s Philosophy of Film

Noël Carroll

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Knight’s Moves

Peter Wollen Hitchcock and Narrative Suspense

Theory and Practice

Richard Allen From the Air

A Genealogy of Antonioni’s Modernism

Noa Steimatsky Dr

Strangelove

or: the Apparatus of Nuclear Warfare

William G

Simon Collection and Recollection

On Film Itineraries and Museum Walks

Guiliana Bruno Afterward: A Matter of Time

Analog Versus Digital,

the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey

Babette Mangolte Select Bibliography

List of Contributors

Acknowledgements

A number of individuals have made this book possible

The editors are profoundly grateful to Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell and The Tisch School of the Arts,

New York University,

for providing a grant to underwrite publication of this volume

Chris Straayer,

Chair of the Cinema Studies Department at New York University also gave unwavering support to our endeavor

Thomas Elsaesser rescued the volume by his willingness to give space to a festschrift in his series at Amsterdam University Press

Without his commitment,

it would not have been published

Finally we wish to thank Suzanne Bogman and Jaap Wagenaar for shepherding the book through publication,

and Lucas Hilderbrand for his editorial assistance in the preparation of the manuscript

Preface Rosalind Krauss

Annette Michelson returned to New York from France in the mid-1960s with an intimate knowledge of French language and culture

This meant,

that a whole world of intellectual speculation was open to her that remained closed to less linguistically gifted American colleagues

In the late ’60s,

the translation business had not yet geared up to process the work of Barthes,

Saussure,

Lévi-Strauss,

and so the Structuralist reconception of language – in all its subtlety and elegance – had not yet impacted the world of aesthetic discourse

In 1970,

in Art and the Structuralist Perspective,

her lecture at the Guggenheim Museum,

Michelson spoke of the elegance and reduction of Structuralist diagrams in an effort to fuse cultural practice and this new domain of conceptualization

In closing,

she passed to what she saw as the disappointment of Structuralism’s hostility to abstract art,

a philistinism unworthy of the movement’s extraordinarily formal thinkers

from her entry into New York’s thriving art world,

committed itself to those painters,

and dancers whose work would have been most recalcitrant to these Parisian heroes even though,

it should in fact have been most available to the proponents of system,

and the formalization of meaning

In January 1967,

Michelson eagerly reviewed an exhibition that her colleagues at Artforum shunned from a sense of its difficulty,

its closure against the universe of discourse

This was ‘10 x 10,’ an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery of the work of Agnes Martin,

Robert Smithson,

Robert Morris,

Carl Andre,

Jo Baer,

Ad Reinhardt,

and Michael Steiner – the burgeoning movement of Minimalism which Michelson had embraced immediately upon her arrival

Her review spoke of this difficulty and the way it had produced the vocabulary of dismissal in the early critical literature,

as words such as ‘rejective,’ ‘aggressive,’ and ‘boring’ were applied to it

Her assessment of the situation was quickly stated: ‘The problem,

is the increasingly urgent necessity of some conceptual or philosophical framework within which criticism can propose a comprehension of the dynamics of art history and of art making

’2 The opportunity to craft such a conceptual framework came in 1969 when Michelson was commissioned to write the text for Robert Morris’s major exhibition at the Corcoran Museum,

and the central proponent of Minimalism had to be introduced to an audience who would probably find his work,

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she turned to American figures rather than French ones for models of a rejection of ‘expressiveness

’ Both John Cage and Charles Sanders Peirce figured here

From Peirce came the concept of ‘firstness’: ‘a sense of quality rather than a perception

Non-cognitive,

it is “absolutely present”

acknowledging the dependence of Morris’s work on the precise conditions of its context and on their effect on the viewer’s own body,

her references turned to France and the philosophy of Maurice MerleauPonty

Speaking of Morris’s earliest public manifestation at the Green Gallery and the experience it forced on the viewer,

that experience – the ‘reduction’ on which it is posited,

the manner in which it illuminates the nature of our feeling and knowing through an object,

suggest an aesthetic analogy to the posture and method of phenomenological inquiry,

as it is familiar to us in the tradition of contemporary philosophy

It is the commitment to the exact particularity of experience,

to the experience of a sculptural object as inextricably involved with the sense of self and of 3 that space which is their common dwelling

From Merleau-Ponty’s insistence on ‘knowledge through the body’ to Morris’s beginnings in the dance projects of Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti,

commonly referred to as the dance of ‘task performance,’ Michelson was quickly led to a concern with dance and theater as the accompanying aesthetic mode of Minimalism

Approaching Artforum with the project for a special issue on performance,

she found nothing but resistance,

a refusal paired with the editorial rejection of proposals to translate central theoretical texts from French into English

One of these,

Michel Foucault’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe,’ found its way into the first issue of October,

the journal Michelson founded with me once both of us had resigned from the editorial board of the magazine

Our project for October began as an arm of contemporary avant-garde practice,

understanding that practice as overtly theoretical,

given the conceptual complexity of the recent essays published by Donald Judd and Robert Morris

Theorizing such practice meant not only translating important theoretical texts but attempting,

to locate the specificity of new forms of practice,

such as video – the medium that had been adopted by many advanced artists in the early 1970s

This aspect of the project was in evidence in the first issue,

and is still in evidence in our recently published 100th issue

Working with Annette Michelson on this magazine has been an adventure in the conceptualization of many aspects of advanced art – from film to sculpture,

Throughout,

her commitment has been exemplary

Preface

Notes 1

Annette Michelson,

‘Art and the Structuralist Perspective,’ On the Future of Art (New York: The Solomon R

Guggenheim Museum,

Michelson,

‘10 x 10: Concrete Reasonableness,’ Artforum V,

Michelson,

Robert Morris: The Aesthetic of Transgression,

exhibition catalogue (Washington D

Excerpts reprinted as ‘Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression,’ in Mimimalism,

James Meyer (London: Phaidon,

Introduction Malcolm Turvey

Annette Michelson,

in her multiple roles as critic,

and teacher has made a unique contribution to the study of artistic modernism

Her thinking and taste have exerted an enormous influence – both direct and indirect – over several generations of scholars (and in some cases practitioners)1 of advanced film and art

This volume of essays,

is intended to honor and build on her singular legacy

as I shall argue in this introduction,

not only has her work greatly influenced the way modernism in both its elite and popular forms is understood,

but it still has much to teach us

It is impossible to summarize,

in a short introduction such as this,

all of Michelson’s insights – developed in a number of seminal texts over a number of years – into the work of specific artists such as Brakhage and Snow,

Morris and Kubrick,

Duchamp and Cornell,

Eisenstein and Vertov

In order to do some justice to the force,

and multiplicity of her legacy,

I will instead try to convey a sense of her considerable impact on Anglo-American criticism of advanced art in general,

since her return to New York in the middle of the 1960s from fifteen years living in Paris

I This impact has been at least threefold

First of all,

as Rosalind Krauss points out in her preface to this volume,

Michelson was one of the first to argue that advanced artistic practice of the 1960s was creating a ‘crisis of criticism’ similar to crises created by previous modernist revolutions

In the texts she writes immediately following her return to New York in the mid-’60s,

we find her repeatedly insisting that Anglo-American criticism of the time – predicated on what she terms,

in a word that has reverberated down the years,

an ‘idealist’ model of an expressive author (RM 7

CK 57) – is incapable of understanding or appreciating the new art

and dance produced in New York in the 1960s,

which Michelson encountered and immersed herself in on her return from Paris

This artistic produc-

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tion had been greeted with incomprehension and hostility by many critics – especially those who were part of the critical orthodoxy that had solidified around Abstract Expressionist painting

AP 56),

which resisted the traditional ‘critical techniques’ of ‘aesthetic metaphor,

In order to do justice to Minimalism’s ‘resistance to semantic function’ (AP 55),

a whole new repertory of techniques and conceptual frameworks were needed by critics

Michelson,

following the steps taken by the most articulate of the Minimalists such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd,

immediately dedicated herself to developing these in a series of essays on those she saw as the most important artists working in and across the three major Minimalist media: Morris (sculpture,

Michael Snow (film,

Yvonne Rainer (dance,

Michelson,

also immediately realized that the critical revolution necessitated by Minimalism had implications well beyond Minimalist art

For one thing,

by exceeding the ‘idealist’ model of expressive author exemplified by a Pollock or a Kline,

Minimalism seemed to be part of a more general trend toward questioning the ‘sovereignty’ of subjectivity that was also evident in contemporary French thought

At a time when Jacques Derrida’s name was barely known in the Anglo-American world,

Michelson drew on his most recent writings to unearth the ‘metaphysical’ assumptions about subjectivity at work in orthodox art criticism in her 1969 essay on Morris,

assumptions which Morris and others were challenging in their work: It is,

now suggested that ‘whenever we use the notion of form

we are forced to resort to the assumption of a source of meaning

And the source or medium of this assumption is necessarily the language of metaphysics

the language of our art criticism,

and its presuppositions the source of its proliferating claims for art as ‘saying,’ ‘expressing,’ ‘embodying,’ ‘bodying forth,’ ‘incarnating,’ ‘hypostasising,’ ‘symbolizing,’ ‘dramatizing,’ when it 5 is not ‘figuring,’ ‘presenting,’ or ‘representing’

Although Derrida is just one of a number of thinkers,

French and otherwise,

that Michelson draws on in this essay,

it was this particular gesture of turning to contemporary French thought for a conceptual framework for understanding advanced art that was to prove particularly influential in the years that followed

And it surely does not need to be belabored here that the questioning of the ‘sovereignty’ of subjectivity and author was to become a major,

theme of contemporary criticism

But beyond this,

Michelson recognized that there was a whole modernist tradition,

traversing the distinction between elite and popular art forms,

within Anglo-American criticism

Introduction

due to that criticism’s dependence on the ‘idealist’ model,

and that would benefit from the fruits of the ‘re-definition of the limits of critical discourse’ she was in the process of pioneering

the very same year she writes her essay on Morris,

we also find her writing on a very different ‘object’ that had been greeted with much the same perplexity and incomprehension as Minimalist sculpture (and for many of the same reasons),

Stanley Kubrick’s Hollywood blockbuster 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969): Like that black monolith whose unheralded materialization propels the evolution of consciousness through the three panels of the movie’s narrative triptych,

Kubrick’s film has assumed the disquieting function of Epiphany

It functions as a disturbing structure,

in its intensity of presence and perfection of surface,

Those signals,

received by a bewildered and apprehensive community (tribe

a choreography of vacillation,

’ We know that song and dance: they are the old,

familiar projection of a crisis in criticism

And still the ‘object’ lures us on

Another level or ‘universe’ of discourse awaits us

And in the years following,

we find her extending her critical innovations back in time to key,

works of the pre-war avant-garde – Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926),

the films of Joseph Cornell and Dziga Vertov,

Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealized projects – as well as René Clair’s science fiction comedy Paris qui dort (1923)

Although the particular crisis of criticism generated by Minimalism has passed,

and the critique of the ‘idealist’ orthodoxy has itself become orthodox,

Michelson has continued to play a major role in developing new techniques and conceptual frameworks to meet the demands on criticism of advanced art,

both indirectly in the work she has encouraged and promoted as an editor (first of Artforum and then October),

a teacher (professor of cinema studies at New York University),

a translator (of thinkers such as Bataille,

Deleuze),

an author of prefaces and introductions (Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice)

and more directly as a writer of essays

Her recognition of the limitations of criticism in the 1960s,

and her turn to other intellectual traditions to find alternatives,

I think,

to be exemplary for critics over the last three decades

Second,

the alternative techniques and conceptual frameworks Michelson herself pioneered in her effort to overcome the critical limitations exposed by Minimalism together constituted,

as David Bordwell has rightly pointed out,

a new way of understanding art,

a new paradigm of interpretation

its richness and power has meant that it has been extended well be-

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I think,

It can be termed ‘philosophical,’ and while familiar to us now due to its success,

it was almost entirely foreign to Anglo-American criticism of the time

It has had,

I think,

an incalculable influence on criticism,

akin to one of Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shifts’ in the natural sciences

As Bordwell puts it in relation to film criticism,

‘Michelson’s impact [has been] comparable to that of [Andrew] Sarris and Movie

’7 In answer to those critics schooled in Abstract Expressionism who greeted Minimalism with bewilderment and hostility due to what Krauss calls ‘its closure against the universe of discourse,’ Michelson argued that the works of Morris and others had a purpose or function quite other than that of ‘expression’ or ‘communication,’ one which she termed ‘philosophical’ or ‘cognitive

of perception and apperception,

a response to those perceptions which is cognitive

Our perception of the work of art informs us of the nature of consciousness

This is what we mean when we say – as I do say – that,

although art no longer means or refers,

it does have a deeply cognitive function

The philosophical function of Morris’s work was the result of his ‘transgression’ of traditional conventions governing the organization of space and time in sculpture

His ‘simple,’ ‘assertive’ sculptures overturned the conventional distinction between the aesthetic,

‘synthesized virtual space’ of the sculptural object,

‘operational’ space of the museum or gallery,

or indeed any real environment,

in which ‘we live and act’ (RM 37-43): Consider the Corner Piece

Perceived as a plane,

it is the broadest side of a triangle,

obtruding ultimately into a primary sense of available space

The plane stands in the way of,

Subverting and intruding upon the angle,

it forces recognition of that angle

the space enveloping and sustaining the apprehension of these structures is a space common to object and beholder

The corner of the Corner Piece is the corner of the gallery space in which we stand,

That space subtracted from us by a slab is real

It hovers over an area of floor on which one might stand

The space absorbed,

reflected by the mirrored cubes is that of the gallery in which we now stand,

perceiving ourselves as standing – and as perceiving

In these instances,

the central focus of attention is the manner of the solicitation – through placing,

the nature of materials and the spectator’s sensed relationship of the self as a perceiving,

Introduction

Meanwhile,

building on his experience in the temporal media of dance and performance,

Morris used and extended Duchampian strategies in order to inscribe time into his sculpture,

a medium traditionally thought of as ‘convert[ing] process into static object’ (RM 49)

Hence his brilliant ‘process’ works,

such as the Box with Sound of its Own Making (1963)

Michelson’s core insights into Minimalism’s spatial and temporal innovations are now basic axioms of scholarship on ’60s art,

and have been extended and complicated by others,

For Michelson was keen to show that artists like Morris had done much more than overturn artistic conventions

Turning to the ‘phenomenologically grounded perceptual theory’ of philosophers such as Charles Sanders Pierce and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (AS 115),

Michelson argued that Morris’s works – by drawing the spectator’s attention to his own body,

to the space in which he and the sculpture stood,

and to the time of the making and viewing of the sculpture – were asking the spectator to reflect on the fact that temporality is ‘the condition or medium of human cognition and aesthetic experience,’ and that ‘knowing’ (quoting Merleau-Ponty) ‘is the body’s functioning in a given environment’ (RM 23

In other words,

Morris,

had passed from a concern ‘with things seen to that of seeing itself

’ They were engaging in philosophical investigations into the nature of consciousness and related issues such as perception,

by prompting reflection on these topics on the part of the spectator: Attention to the simplicity of [the] structure [of Morris’s sculpture],

upon the quality of his perception

The inner rehearsal of its modes,

of the aspects and parameters of that perception,

conduces to an experience of a reflective nature

Morris’s questioning of a self-contained system of virtual space is impelled by a recognition of the most profound and general sense in which our seeing is linked to our sense of ourselves as being bodies in space,

knowing space through the body

The paradigmatic notion propelling this paradigmatic analysis – that an art work can occasion reflection on philosophical topics such as ‘What is seeing

that art ‘as exploration of the conditions and terms of perception

converges with philosophy and science upon the problem of reality as known and knowable’ (CK 58) – has proved to be a singularly fertile one for criticism of the last thirty years,

having been extended well beyond the understanding of Minimalism and the avant-garde to include mass and popular art

Certainly it has for Michelson’s work

In the same year as her text on Morris,

she applies it in her analysis of 2001,

arguing that while watching this film,

as always but as never before,

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And two years later in her text on Snow,

she claims that Wavelength (1967) prompts the spectator to reflect on the fact that,

‘to every perception there always belongs a horizon of the past’ (TS 174-75)

As she has moved away from the Minimalist moment and its particular preoccupation with temporality and the body,

Michelson has extended this paradigm of interpretation to other key philosophical topics related to consciousness,

in particular illusion in her texts on Vertov (1972),

Duchamp (1973),

and later language in her texts on Hollis Frampton (1983,

drawing on other conceptual frameworks beyond phenomenology in the process

For example,

in her first major text on Vertov,

she argues that one of Vertov’s ambitions,

at least in Man with a Movie Camera (1929),

is to transform his camera ‘from a Magician into an Epistemologist,’ from a tool of illusion into a tool of enlightenment,

an exposure of the terms and dynamics of cinematic illusionism

’ And one of the ways he does this,

Michelson argues,

drawing on Jean Piaget’s theory of ‘developmental epistemology’ as her conceptual framework,

is through the employment of filmic equivalents of the ‘logico-mathematical operations characteristic of adults,’ such as reverse motion

(For ‘it is the most general characteristic of adult logic,

as distinguished from that of children,

) Acknowledging Michelson’s achievement here does not rest on the claim that this paradigm of interpretation,

in which art is conceived of as prompting reflection on philosophical topics on the part of the spectator,

For it certainly has precedents and precursors within the Western tradition

In its confidence in the individual spectator’s capacity for reflection,

in its assumption that true knowledge comes from questioning something for oneself,

in its belief that art can give rise to such questioning and therefore enlighten (so opposite to the suspicion of art as an instrument of power and domination today enshrined in cultural studies),

it seems to come straight out of the Enlightenment

Closer in time,

see it as a broadening of Brechtian and Greenbergian ‘reflexive’ models of art – in which art is conceived of as occasioning in the spectator a reflection on socio-political realities (Brecht) and medium-specific properties (Greenberg) – to include philosophical topics

or the extension to film of the sort of philosophical interpretations of the ‘New Novel’ that Michelson had been exposed to when living in France in the 1950s

Rather,

Michelson’s achievement,

I think,

and promote this paradigm with such force and vigor in an Anglo-American context that was largely hostile to the notion of art,

as performing analytic and speculative functions

Introduction

Through this paradigm,

she has shown that art can potentially do a lot more than ‘express’ the ‘personality’ of its author

Michelson not only pioneered this new philosophical paradigm for interpreting art

She also historicized it by proposing,

a particular model of the history of modernism,

one in which the function of advanced art is of necessity to philosophize due to modernism’s ‘elevation of doubt to an esthetic principle’ (CK 59)

This model has been influential in the form of a distinction it proposes between two basic types of modernist art,

a distinction that has been crucial for postmodernist critics: the ‘secular’ type that accepts the impossibility of theological or metaphysical certainty as the modern condition,

and the ‘religious’ or ‘idealist’ type that searches for aesthetic substitutes for the theological certainties lost in a secular age

According to this model,

the modernist rejection of realism and mimesis from the middle of the nineteenth century onward was the result of the ‘crisis in the Western metaphysical tradition’ occasioned by the conversion from a Christian to a secular society

unquestioned theological certainties provided by Christianity,

‘reality [is] no longer assumed as pre-defined or pre-existent to the work of the [artistic] imagination

the artist is no longer compelled to mimetically represent and celebrate a pre-existent,

Rather,

the artist is now free to question and intervene in,

with the same modern hubris as the philosopher or scientist,

the order of things through formal experimentation: ‘Art now takes the nature of reality,

the nature of consciousness in and through perception,

Michelson suggests that this ‘elevation of doubt to an esthetic principle’ gives rise to two basic trends in modernist art

The first,

dominant until the 1960s and exemplified by Abstract Expressionism,

contingent reality and our ordinary knowledge of it lacking without the theological certainties of Christianity

It provides an aesthetic substitute for such certainties by transcending the limits of quotidian reality and the way we standardly come to know it in the redemptive form of ‘a work of total autonomy,

self-sustaining and self-justifying,’ a work of total ‘immediacy’ and ‘presence

’ This ‘dream of absolute immediacy pervading our culture and our art

a theology of absolute presence’ (AS 56): ‘Examine the mutations of things,’ says St

Augustine,

‘and thou wilt everywhere find “has been” and “will be

” Think on God and thou wilt find “is” where “has been” and “will be” cannot be

’ Absolute presentness being the attribute of Divinity,

to experience ‘the work in all its depth and fullness’ as within ‘a single,

infinitely brief instance’ is to dwell in Presence,

in ‘conviction’ as in Revelation

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However,

this is not the only shape that idealism can take in modernism

Surrealism,

constitutes another: A notion of the ‘noumenal’ persists

Surrealist thinking is haunted by demons and old ghosts such as a ‘transcendence,’ subjected periodically to rituals of exorcism,

Surrealist ‘immanence’ is,

a ‘transcendence’ in disguise

Dedicated to the abolition of Christian myth and its repressive vestiges,

Surrealism derived its strength and its contradictions from that myth

There is,

in the pre-war era by Duchamp’s aesthetic of ambiguity,

which artists of the ’60s such as Morris and Rainer can be seen as extending: ‘It is,

I think,

a prime quality of Morris’s work that it offers

the terms of a sharpened definition of the nature of the sculptural experience

in a manner wholly consistent with a commitment to the secularist impulse and thrust of modernism’ (RM 23): There are,

in the contemporary renewal of performance modes,

two basic and diverging impulses which shape and animate its major innovations

The first,

grounded in the idealist extensions of a Christian past,

is mythopoeic in its aspiration,

and constantly traversed by the dominant and polymorphic style which constitutes the most tenacious vestige of that past: expressionism

Its celebrants are: for theater,

Artaud,

Grotowski

Wigman,

The second,

consistently secular in its commitment to objectification,

proceeds from Cubism and Constructivism

its modes are analytic and its spokesmen are: for theater,

Meyerhold and Brecht,

Cunningham and Rainer

Rather than attempting to find an aesthetic substitute for lost theological certainties,

‘to dwell in Presence,’ to transcend the limits of everyday,

contingent reality and the way we standardly know it,

this trend analyzes and questions quotidian reality and our ordinary knowledge of it itself

Morris,

rejects the metaphysical ‘virtual space’ of traditional sculpture and focuses on real space and the spectator’s standard perception of it

In a parallel gesture,

Rainer rejects the metaphysical ‘synthetic time’ of traditional dance in favor of ‘a time that is operational,

of our actions in the world’ in her ‘ordinary language’ dance (YR 58)

In this way,

modernist art can be seen as recapitulating the same fissure that exists in Western philosophy between those who seek new metaphysical certainties beneath or beyond contingent reality and the way it is normally known (Descartes,

Heidegger),

rejecting the possibility of (finding) metaphysical certainties,

Introduction

on everyday reality and our ordinary knowledge of it (Hume,

Wittgenstein)

I think,

has proved to be absolutely crucial for postmodernist criticism

Postmodernist art is often understood by its critics as rejecting,

on ethical and political grounds,

the theological or metaphysical aspirations of the dominant idealist trend within modernism,

in part through a recuperation of the marginal secular trend exemplified by Duchamp,

corporeal realities – the ‘return of the real’ charted by Hal Foster,

one of Michelson’s colleagues at October,

Michelson’s own work has parted company with her postmodernist colleagues by increasingly blurring this distinction,

a point to which I will return

I have argued that,

beyond her numerous insights into specific artists and movements such as Morris and Minimalism,

Michelson has influenced AngloAmerican criticism of the last thirty years in at least three fundamental ways: by recognizing the limitations of ‘idealist’ criticism and playing a major role in finding alternatives to it

by pioneering an alternative herself – the so-called philosophical paradigm of interpretation

and by introducing the distinction between secular and idealist modernism so crucial to postmodernism

This festschrift,

is not only intended to honor Michelson’s contribution to the past,

but to show that there is a great deal still to be learned from her work

It is to the task of identifying the potential legacy of her scholarship for the future that I now turn

II In preparation for writing this introduction,

which involved reading and rereading almost the entirety of her oeuvre,

I initially attempted to categorize Michelson’s work using concepts typically employed in the analysis of art criticism today,

ones that might be familiar and therefore of help to an educated reader new to her writing

But it soon dawned on me that it is the varieties of its resistance to such categories that,

give her work its unique identity in the contemporary critical landscape,

I believe,

To start with,

anyone ignorant of the fact that Michelson has been a professor of cinema studies for the past thirty years or so would,

I suspect,

be unable to identify from her essays whether their author is an art historian,

or indeed a philosopher interested in art,

such is the diversity of artis-

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tic aspirations and conceptual frameworks she has concerned herself with

Her body of work resists disciplinary identification,

ranging voraciously across artistic media and theories,

from the sculpture of Morris and the dances of Rainer to the poetry of De Stijl and the linguistic riddles of Frampton,

from phenomenology and Deconstruction to Kleinian and Lacanian psychoanalysis

This resistance is partly to be attributed to the fact that,

rather than pursuing an education in the American academy with its various specializations,

she began her career as a translator and critic in France,

receiving an education – both formal and informal – in artistic modernism and philosophy in the Paris of the ’50s and early-’60s

However,

I think,

to her early conviction that cinema is the pre-eminent medium of modernism,

a conviction that explains in part,

I suspect,

her decision to place cinema at the center of her mature work

For as she points out repeatedly in her early essays,

cinema has seemed to almost every major avant-garde movement to instantiate its aspirations: There is a special sense in which almost all the major authentic movements and styles of this century – Futurism,

Surrealism,

Dadaism,

Constructivism – reacted to the growth of cinema

Each fresh revision of esthetic and social values staked its claim upon film,

claiming as well that its aspirations and energies subsumed and articulated a filmic ontology

Thus [for example],

the early developments of montage spoke to Surrealists as the conjoining of disparate objects in the synthesis of Lautréaumont’s Encounter,

rendering concrete and vivid that Encounter as the primary mode of consciousness

Michelson’s conviction that cinema is the modernist medium par excellence stems,

from her philosophical paradigm

Given that,

what essentially defines the modernist artist is his freedom to question,

like the philosopher or scientist,

a freedom rooted in the ‘crisis in the Western metaphysical tradition,’ then the ultimate modernist medium would be one that best allows the artist to philosophize,

to ‘elevate doubt to an esthetic principle,’ to question ‘the nature of reality,

the nature of consciousness in and through perception

she argues in her early essay on 2001,

due to its unique combination of ‘lived reality,’ rooted in its photographic nature,

with enormously powerful tools,

that allow the artist to reconstruct that ‘lived reality’ to an unprecedented degree: [The] movement towards abstraction which animates the style and esthetics of modernism posed,

the problem of what Ortega calls ‘the incompatibility of the perception of lived reality with the perception of artistic form’

Cinema [is] the art form whose temporality created another space in which ‘lived re-

Introduction

ality’ could once again could be figured,

Cinema reintroduces not only ‘lived reality,’ but an entirely new and seemingly limitless range of structural relationships allowing for the reconciliation of ‘lived reality’ with ‘artistic form’

as she begins to write more and more on cinema from 1969 onward,

we find Michelson suggesting that film is the superior medium for prompting the spectator to reflect on the sort of philosophical topics being raised at the time in other media by modernists

Examples include illusion,

and temporality being ‘the condition or medium of human cognition and aesthetic experience

’ There are cinematic works which present themselves as analogues of consciousness in its constitutive and reflexive modes,

as though inquiry into the nature and processes of experience had found in this century’s art form,

a uniquely direct presentational mode

The illusionism of the new,

temporal art reflects and occasions reflection upon,

it facilitates a critical focus upon the immediacy of experience in the flow of time

Michelson has tended to focus throughout her career on those filmmakers – Snow,

Cornell,

Duchamp,

Rainer,

Eisenstein,

Warhol – who originally or primarily work in other media,

demonstrating in her essays how a modernist desire for the philosophical possibilities afforded by cinema intensifies in these artists’ work in another medium,

eventually propelling them into cinema

Whether or not one shares Michelson’s conviction that cinema is the preeminent modernist medium,

I am suggesting,

at least in part driven her resistance to disciplinary specialization,

her insistence that avant-garde film must be analyzed within the context of modernism as a whole

In acting on this conviction,

she has shown several generations of scholars what an important role cinema has played in modernism,

how central it has been to the aspirations of avant-garde artists working in and across other media

To quote Bordwell again,

‘her philosophically informed essays [have] helped make the study of avant-garde film part of modern art criticism and history

she has provided an exemplary model of authentic inter-disciplinarity for contemporary and future scholars,

by which I mean true expertise in more than one medium or discipline

The value of such inter-disciplinarity surely does not need explicating in a contemporary context in which disciplines are (often wrongly or absurdly) thought of as ‘disciplinary

for someone who helped pioneer the turn to contemporary French thought in the late 1960s in order to render the advanced art of that moment intelligible,

one finds in Michelson’s work a salutary resistance to being too closely identified with a single French thinker,

or indeed with the trends in French thought known as ‘structuralism’ and ‘post-structuralism

Camera Obscura,

Camera Lucida

we have witnessed Althusserians,

Lacanians,

Derrideans,

Foucauldians,

Deleuzians using art and culture as so much grist for the mill – as ‘proof’ – of their chosen theories

But while these names appear in Michelson’s essays,

they do so alongside the much less fashionable ones of Descartes,

Emerson,

Husserl,

Sartre,

Merleau-Ponty among many,

many others outside the post-structuralist canon

Indeed,

one gets the sense when reading Michelson that the whole of the Western tradition is at her fingertips,

not just the few French thinkers who have dominated so much of the scholarship of the last few decades

The reason Michelson has refused to ally herself too closely with a single theoretical school,

I submit,

that she is instinctively a critic,

Whereas a theorist of art begins with a theory,

in which he believes (usually with religious zeal),

and then typically applies it top-down (often ad nauseam) to art and culture,

the critic begins with the art work and,

goes in search of the concept,

the theory that can best illuminate the art work,

that can best render it intelligible

The theorist of art,

is committed first and foremost to the theory,

and uses the art work to illustrate the theory

The critic,

is committed first and foremost to the art work and to explicating its meaning and value

The critic will therefore typically employ the most apt conceptual framework to illuminate the art work,

and will often be agnostic over whether it is true or not

Michelson’s essays provide a signal example of a prodigious,

While she has shown a preference for certain conceptual frameworks at certain moments in her career – most notably phenomenology in the late 1960s – when there is a choice to be made between an art work and a theory,

For example,

just as Anglo-American critics were first learning about Structuralism and beginning to apply it to art,

Michelson warned in 1970 that: ‘The application of the classical Saussurian linguistic model will do a certain violence to art and poetry alike,

to their stubborn resistance to meaning and to their desire to redefine the possibility of meaning through playfulness and speculation’ (AP 52)

According to Michelson,

Structuralist theory,

rooted in Saussurian linguistics,

was unsuitable for the criticism of advanced art of the moment,

because of that art’s apodicity,

its resistance to ‘any notion of code and message in [its] stubborn claim for autonomy,

the same comment Michelson makes in 1979 about the attitude of Minimalist artists such as Morris to the conceptual frameworks they employed could be made about her own work: ‘Artists on this continent have refrained from giving to their successive sets of postulates,

and methodological options the status of orthodoxy

these have functioned instead as working hypotheses,

Introduction

Due to its instrumental,

agnostic attitude toward theories,

Michelson’s work remains an exemplary model for contemporary and future scholars who want to employ sophisticated conceptual frameworks in the act of criticism,

yet who believe that the task of the critic is not to proselytize on behalf of a fashionable theory,

but to render avant-garde experimentation intelligible

Michelson’s work resists conventional categorization not only because it ranges across artistic media and conceptual frameworks,

but because it has examined artists with very different aspirations and sensibilities within modernism

Indeed,

if one examines her bibliography,

one finds that she is often thinking and writing about seemingly antithetical artistic projects simultaneously

For example,

the same year she writes her essay on Morris and his proposal (again quoting Merleau-Ponty) that ‘to perceive is to render one’s self present to something through the body’ (RM 45),

she also produces her text on Stanley Kubrick’s Hollywood blockbuster 2001,

with its ‘progress toward disembodiment’ (CK 57)

The year she interviews Richard Serra in October about his non-narrative films is the year she publishes her essay on René Clair’s prewar narrative science fiction film Paris qui dort

She composes her essay on Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema,

with its ambiguity and destruction of ‘illusionist’ space,

the same year she writes on Joseph Cornell’s films,

with their Surrealist preservation of ‘illusionist’ space

Her foreword to Hollis Frampton’s collected writings,

in which she identifies the refined,

even sublime linguistic riddles in his work,

is written just one year after her text on the ‘poetics of anal glossolia’ in De Stijl

And I could extend this list of improbable combinations

While most scholars of the arts specialize in a single artist,

one finds in Michelson’s output an attempt to resist such specialization,

and an ability to think together very different artistic projects with very different aesthetic properties

The signal instance of this is surely the special issue of Artforum she edits in 1973,

in which she stages an encounter between the work of two filmmakers usually thought of as polar opposites,

Brakhage and Eisenstein,

an editorial gesture greeted immediately (and predictably) by perplexity and condemnation

How are we to understand this ‘critical athleticism,’ and what does it have to teach us today

? Others have pointed to external reasons for it,

such as Gregory Taylor in his essay on the politics surrounding the Eisenstein/Brakhage special issue of Artforum

If one returns to Michelson’s first major text on cinema,

‘Film and the Radical Aspiration,’ published in Film Culture in 1966,

Camera Obscura,

Camera Lucida

pre-lapsarian myth (and by myth I don’t mean that it’s not true) of an Edenic age of cinema and modernism,

Generally speaking

took place within a context of broad agreement as to the probable or desirable directions of the medium

Styles,

inventions and theoretical preoccupations were largely complementary,

A spectrum,

The Surrealists’ admiration of American silent comedy,

reflected in the work of Artaud and Dulac among others,

the universal excitement over the achievements of Russian film,

Eisenstein’s openly acknowledged debt to Griffith and that of the young Dreyer to both,

testify to a certain community of aspiration

The excitement,

the exhilaration of artists and intellectuals not directly involved in the medium was enormous

Indeed,

a certain euphoria enveloped the early filmmaking and theory

For there was,

a very real sense in which the revolutionary aspirations of the modernist movement in literature and the arts on the one hand,

and of a Marxist or Utopian tradition on the other,

could converge in the hopes and promises,

This Eden is destroyed,

by a number of ruptures in the late-’20s/early-’30s: between art and commerce,

between narrative and non-narrative,

between film and the other arts

And ever since,

cinema (and modernism) has been haunted by this ‘Fall from Grace’: Film,

is young enough to remember its first dreams,

ineradicable trauma of dissociation

The attendant guilt and ambivalence,

in which a dissociative principle has been alternately resisted or assumed,

converted into an aesthetic principle,

the manner in which this resistance or conversion modified or redefines cinematic aspirations are,

like everything concerning film,

unique in the history of Western culture

However,

avant-garde film of the 1960s is in a position to overcome many of these dissociations,

thereby potentially recreating the modernist Eden of the 1920s: ‘The extraordinary advantage of American cinema today does lie partly in the possibilities of

convergences and cross-fertilizations [with the other arts]

It may be that American film is unique in its access to a multiplicity of vital efforts unprecedented since the immediately post-Revolutionary situation in Russia’ (FR 419)

Whether or not there was such an Eden in the 1920s (or 1960s),

the promise or dream of one has,

I think,

because everywhere in it one finds an effort – with cinema at its center – to unify,

Introduction

sions between theory and practice,

and traditions within modernism,

to point to continuities where others see differences,

including continuities between elite and popular forms

the reason she views Snow’s Wavelength as a ‘masterpiece’ is,

because of the fact that it is a ‘grand metaphor for narrative form’ (TS 175

thereby overcoming the rupture between narrative and non-narrative

It is therefore able to ‘unite,

critical opinion of a great many kinds’

and it transcends ‘the a priori distinctions between the “linear” and the “vertical,” the “prose” and “poetic” forms,

the “realist” and “mythopoeic,” the “vertical” and “horizontal,” the styles of continuity and of montage which had animated the film theory and polemics of the last forty years or so’ (TS 177)

Another example of this effort at overcoming divisions concerns the distinction between secular and idealist art

Postmodernist critics typically attempt to erect a wall between these two traditions,

condemning the latter on ethical and political grounds,

and proselytizing on behalf of the former

But it seems to me – and here I must confess to being unsure of myself and to moving into the realm of speculation (if I haven’t already) – that as Michelson writes more and more on cinema from the early ’70s onward,

it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between the two trends in her writing

Certainly,

in her first two essays on single filmmakers – Kubrick and Snow – they are viewed very much like Morris and Rainer as secular artists who analyze and question quotidian reality and our ordinary knowledge of it

By abandoning ‘the familiar framework of existence’ through space travel,

Kubrick ‘redeliver[s] us in rebound

And as we have already seen,

Snow’s Wavelength prompts the viewer to reflect on the fact that ‘to every perception there always belongs a horizon of the past’ (TS 174-75)

But in the essays on filmmakers that follow,

Michelson increasingly focuses on those whose work has at least one feature in common with idealist art forms such as Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism: it employs cinema to transcend the limits of ordinary human consciousness and perception,

and alight on forms of knowledge unavailable in quotidian human existence

While these filmmakers differ in many respects,

they all have a similar conception of cinema: they view it as a powerful visual technology that,

much like a telescope or microscope,

escapes the limitations of everyday human seeing and knowing by revealing reality in a manner impossible for normal human vision

Three examples will have to suffice here

In her 1974 essay on Rainer,

Brakhage is placed in the idealist trend,

Eisenstein in the secular

A year earlier,

in her contribution to the Eisenstein/ Brakhage special issue of Artforum,

Michelson follows this distinction by differentiating,

between Eisenstein’s epic style with its gaze

Camera Obscura,

Camera Lucida

of ‘analysis’ (CL 33-34) and Brakhage’s lyric style with its gaze of ‘fascination

eluding analytic grasp’ (CL 37)

among the many other commonalities she then goes on to point out between the two masters,

she argues that both transform the spectator’s everyday experience of time in a remarkably similar way

Eisenstein,

for example in the lifting of the bridge sequence in October (1927),

‘reorders the action through a temporal staggering

The movement forward and then back in time suspends the action in an abeyance of time’s passing,

investing the sequence with the fullness of the present’ (CL 34

Similarly,

Brakhage ‘radicalize[s] filmic temporality in positing the sense of a continuous present,

of a filmic time which devours memory and expectation in the presentation of presentness’ (CL 37)

And they both do this for the same reason: to give the spectator access to forms of seeing and knowing reality beyond the constraints of the ordinary

Eisenstein ‘creates radically new spatiotemporal objects of apprehension’ (CL 34),

thereby granting them a pure visibility that ‘conjures away any intimation of that which is not there,

Brakhage’s temporal and spatial manipulations produce a ‘cinema of the hypnagogic consciousness aspiring to a rendering of a totally unmediated vision’ (CL 37)

While Eisenstein’s ‘Intellectual Cinema’ and Brakhage’s ‘Cinema of Vision’ are in many ways opposed – the one is analytical,

the other positively anti-analytical – both reveal reality in a way unavailable to normal human perception and consciousness

In her second major essay on Snow,

who has previously been labeled a secular artist in contradistinction to the idealist Brakhage in the Rainer essay,

is now seen as perpetuating Brakhage’s insistence on the ‘idealist primacy of vision

’ Both position the spectator as ‘sovereign’

both accord him ‘the status of transcendental subject’ (AS 115),

Snow most spectacularly in La Région Centrale (1971),

with its ‘disembodied mobility of the eye-subject’ (AS 121)

Ind

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