"Go Back to the Source". Postscript to "The Dialectics of Cruelty: Rethinking Artaudian Cinema".
I can still recall the voice of one of my doctoral supervisors, JD Rhodes - to whom by the way my Cinema Journal article is dedicated to - telling me impatiently “go back to the source; I do not want to see you quoting secondary literature on key theorists. Show me instead what you can do with them.” This suggestion was extremely influential on my work, since with the lapse of time I ended up realizing that a series of misconceptions in film theory can be attributed to the fact that people tend to taxonomize theorists and theories without necessarily consulting the original sources. One needs only to read scholarship using adjectives such as “Bazinian,” “Artaudian,” or “Brechtian” to discover that a large number of contemporary scholars tend to rely on already established classifications or secondary literature without bothering to go back to the writings of these authors and discover whether our customary taxonomies do any service to them. Something similar takes place with Marx and Freud in the broader field of humanities. Many people unapologetically admit that “I have never read them,” but at the same time “I know more or less what their work is all about.” Yet people still use adjectives such as Marxist or Freudian - and to return to an influential figure in Film Studies, Althusserian - implying most of the times a broader School of Thought rather than the key intellectual figures themselves. The effect is that this has become such an established practice that students in the field of Cinema Studies tend to copy it, and when they are asked to go back to the source they simply retort that most of the articles they have read - some from renowned scholars - do not do this, so why shall they bother?
My favorite film studies scholars - irrespective of their theoretical background - are the ones who have gone back to key theoretical texts to identify the inherent contradictions, enigmas, questions, and conflicts within the work of important theorists or theories. I would like to refer here to Dudley Andrew’s work on Bazin, Miriam-Bratu Hansen’s on Benjamin and Kracauer, Ian Aitken’s fresh take on the work of Lukács, David Bordwell’s influential rereading of historians of film style including Bazin, Burch, Mitry, Sadoul, Eugenie Brinkema’s inspirational rereading of affect theory (beyond the simplistic phenomenological assertions that such and such makes me feel this), and Esther Leslie’s work on Benjamin.
What I tried to do in this article on Artaudian cinema was something similar. My point of departure was that many writings on Artaudian cruelty have rarely consulted Artaud’s writings on film (there are of course exceptions such as the work of Martine Beugnet, Ros Murray, Nikolaj Lübecker, and Elena del Rio), or his fascination with the medium, which he thought that could revitalize the theater. I still stand by this position, and the more I read Artaud’s key texts, I am convinced that many film scholars have used the adjective Artaudian in canonical ways without engaging with the conflicts and contradictions in the French theorist’s writings. What do I mean here by canonical? There is a growing tendency amongst commentators to resort to clear-cut taxonomies, suggesting for instance that the aesthetics of cruelty is all about pathos rather than intellectual stimulation, or the other way around, that is, cinema deploying defamiliarizing techniques and effects is a “cold” cinema that cannot produce emotional or even affective responses.
Such an approach promises few insights mainly because in Artaud’s writings it seems that there is room for films that produce pathos or even laughter as well as others that engage the intellect. Artaud was a big fan, after all, of American comedy, including Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and was at the same time an admirer of the work of Carl Dreyer. One thing, however, that I failed to clarify in this article was that Artaud’s modernism - and here is another similarity with Brecht - was not predicated upon a critique of popular culture. Quite the opposite. Both Artaud and Brecht were aficionados of slapstick comedy or even popular forms of entertainment that had their roots on the people, such as folk songs, cabaret, and even sports. Herein lies an important distinction between bottom-up folk culture (and I think this term is more suitable rather than popular) and a top-down popular one. Whereas the first one describes a culture whose origins are in the people, the latter one is simply named popular on the basis of sales numbers. Some of the gangster films of the 1930s are also a good example of a bottom-up folk culture, and Jonathan Munby has insightfully explained how the cultural and social background of some key gangster films is to be located in the “hyphenated” Americans’ disillusionment brought about by the discrimination they suffered and of course by the Great Depression. It is one of the key moments in the history of Hollywood cinema, where the industry responds to the desires of the people or, to put it differently, where the bottom-up folk culture finds its cinematic expression.[i]
Let us also use an example from music. Jazz music (which apparently some people label it nowadays as elitist!) has its roots in the African-American communities and musical styles that draw on collective traditions and experiences. It is thus a music that stems directly from the people, their collective pains and joys, and even from folk literature that cannot be attributed to a single individual writer or composer. The fact that jazz does not sell as much as Madonna does not make the latter more popular or at least more expressive of people’s culture. I consider this distinction between bottom-up folk culture and top-down popular ones quite important, because while consumption habits can be changeable, popular forms of expression that have their roots in the people keep on influencing both radical and conventional forms of artistic expression.
Artaud and Brecht were even proponents of “low culture” originating from the peoples’ traditions, and this explains their passion for cultural figures such as Chaplin and Karl Valentin, or even their enthusiastic embracement of profanity. These are some points that the case studies I chose in my Cinema Journal article did not clarify. Then again, the key thesis of the article is that cruelty is an aesthetic strategy that produces simultaneously affective and intellectual responses, since as an anti-Cartesian theorist, Artaud - like Brecht - thought that one cannot separate mind from body; this point refutes a large body of critical scholarship on these two theorists that relies on standardized distinctions between affect and defamiliarization. My interest in both Brecht and Artaud responds to my broader interest in early film theory and the writings of cultural theorists such as Arnheim, Eisenstein, Balázs, Bazin, and Kracauer. I am quite convinced that some of these early writings on film need to be revisited. As David Rodowick says, “cinema studies has continually evolved as a field in search of its object,”[ii] and film theory from its early days was and is still concerned with the definition of cinema. It is in some of these early debates that one identifies some of the most stimulating (at times naive, but always inspiring) writings on the medium. By revisiting them, we can rethink their currency beyond standardized classifications that have little insights to offer to scholars and students. This article on Artaud and Cruelty is a small part of a larger project titled Rethinking Brechtian Film Theory and Cinema that will lead to a monograph to be published by Edinburgh University Press between 2018-2019. Needless to say, that book goes back to the source.
[i] Jonathan Munby, Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 39.
[ii] David N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 2007), 13.