Olga Moskatova

Film as Theory | Commentary

Winfried Pauleit’s lecture gives us insight into a wide range of topics and problems posed by the very focus on film as theory. It outlines several models of the interrelation of theory and film in order to deepen these considerations by a possible further taxonomy.

The models foreground the relationship between image and word and provide the framework to discuss the necessity, the possibility, or the impossibility of thinking outside the realm of language. Indeed, it seems to be the main issue and difficulty of the question on “film as theory”. The affirmation of the theoretical capacity of images is dependent on our assumptions of theory and on our ability to review the primacy of textual theory, while at the same time challenging the hierarchical views of word-image relations with which the history of film theory and practice is filled. To put it in the words of the screenwriter Curt Hanno Gutbrod on the basic rules of film: “1. Use the possibilities of film! 2. The word has to be subordinated to images!… The pure mental, abstract statement is always nonfilmic.”1 Of course, we can find plenty of similar hierarchical arguments. For instance, experimental and avant-garde films have a tradition of rejecting language and sound, restricting film to a visual art.2 Further, film theory and analysis take a great interest in images rather than in sound and often ignore the acoustic dimension altogether, while plenty of concepts of film theory are borrowed from literature studies and linguistics. Siegfried Kracauer noted that language was regarded to render film more theatrical or to reduce images to pure illustrations.3 On the other hand, language seems to be more efficient and precise. It allows for the formation of generic terms and elaborated sentences filled with subordinate clauses, while images are more ambivalent, less generalizing, and lack differentiated reservoirs of metaphors.4 Apparently, word and image seem to form a contrast of the concrete versus the abstract, perceiving versus reasoning, particularity versus generality implying that the images have to rid themselves of the concrete in order to become abstract in the first place.

But Winfried Pauleit’s lecture made an important point by leaving behind this model of separation and by acutely observing hybrid models like Mitchell’s image-text concept and essay films.  Further, metaphors, allegories, language games, and notational iconicity can be analyzed, among others, as examples of hybridity. Indeed, the separation is rather pointless in respect with this subject matter, because we already would negate the theoreticalness of images by unilaterally concentrating on one side of the involved processes of translation: the word-based theory.

In contrast, the topic “film as theory” calls the separation of perceiving versus reasoning into question and emphasizes the productivity of transgressions. If we foreground the differential character of film, we can find many multilayered image-image, word-image and word-word relations which enable film to perform operations of thinking and to generate complex statements. Of course, complex operations are not a guarantee for thinking, reflexivity, or discursivity in themselves. Operations have do be connected and related to questions that they help to elaborate or to answer. Questions like: historical shifts in visual regimes, interconnections of different realms of media, power, operationalization or servitization of images, conditions of perception and understanding, and others. 

Clearly, the survey of the theoreticalness of images can be reformulated in several ways. In terms of discursive functioning, it can stand for criticism, for social, scientific, or political engagement, for alternatives and correctives through aesthetic thinking, etc. Some of these aspirations are clearly quite established in the history, theory, and practice of art without automatically referring to theoreticalness or scientificness. So why call something theoretical which art claims or accomplishes at its best all along? Obviously, interests of legitimation and institutionalization are at stake, as can be discussed concerning artistic research and picture theory (Bildwissenschaften). But attendantly, the question of theoreticalness and scientificity of the arts and images goes along with the pursuit of approximation which turns it into a debate on anti-hierarchization at its heart. It encompasses different aspects like: reconsidering scientific standards and appearances by providing alternative artistic knowledge; deconstructing hierarchical relations and separations like antecedent and subsequent influences, theory and practice; calling into question our concepts and reservoir of knowledge and theory, and many others. And it seems that this debate would neither be urgent nor necessary if several cultural, technological, medial transformation didn’t take place and call for it. We can observe these transformations, for instance, regarding the increasing argumentative role which the images play in the techno-sciences and which provoke attributions like “‘pictorialization’ of science”5 or ‘Big Science’ as ‘Science-Fiction’.6

Further, we cannot presuppose the notion of image but rather have to deal with many conflicting concepts. Image is only one medium among many that are used in arts today. They have lost their dominant role in visual arts. The latter are marked by hybridizations and the dissolving boundaries of genres and media, which also prefigures the intersections with non-art fields. But one remarkable feature of all this is worth mentioning: While we are arguing for anti-hierachization, we are referring to notions like experiment, research, theory, etc. that are nurtured by other disciplines to some extent. Thus, we risk measuring the artistic results against borrowed and maybe even dogmatic concepts instead of finding new notions or reformulating the problems. At least, we have to decide on one point of principle, that is, whether we want to act on the assumption that science and art are basically interwoven or to insist on their distinctness. The latter seems to be a precondition for functions like alternatives or correctives of science marking a negotiation of proximity and distance. And the profound demolition of the separation is still something else and goes beyond comparison, analogies or competition. And I suggest a reformulation one more time: Maybe the main point of the whole issue of whether and how an aesthetic work can be theoretical is yet another question, namely: Does theory suppose to be appropriate knowledge? And if so, why should art deal with and produce appropriate knowledge?


Further References

Arnheim, Rudolf: Anschauliches Denken. Zur Einheit von Bild und Begriff. Köln: DuMont, 1977.

Bordwell, David (ed.): Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison, Wis. [et al]: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Deleuze, Gilles: Das Zeit-Bild. Kino 2. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1997.

De Man, Paul: The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986.    
Flach, Sabine (ed.): Wissenskünste. Das Wissen der Künste und die Kunst des Wissens. Weimar: VDG Weimar, 2011.

Gidal, Peter: “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film”. In: idem. (ed.): Structural Film Anthology. London: British Film Institute, 1976. pp. 1-21.

Grizelj, Mario (ed.): Theorietheorie. Wider die Theoriemüdigkeit in den Geisteswissenschaften. München: Fink, 2011.

Mersch, Dieter (ed.): Kunst und Wissenschaft. Munich: Fink, 2007.

Mitchell, William J. Thomas: Bildtheorie. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2008.

Pantenburg, Volker: Film als Theorie. Bildforschung bei Harun Farocki und Jean-Luc Godard. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2006.

Small, Edward S.: Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre. Carbondale/ Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1994.

  • 1. “1. Nütze die Möglichkeiten, die der Film bietet! 2. Das Wort muß dem Bild untergeordnet werden! […] Die rein geistige, abstrakte Aussage ist immer unfilmisch.” Quoted after Reitz, Edgar/Kluge, Alexander/Reinke, Wildfried: “Wort und Film” (1965). In: Eder, Klaus/Kluge, Alexander (Hg.): Ulmer Dramaturgien. Reibungsverluste/Klaus Eder; Alexander Kluge. Stichwort: Bestandsaufnahme. Munich/Vienna: Hanser, 1980. pp. 9-27, esp. S. 9.
  • 2. Wollen, Peter: “The Field of Language in Film.” In: October 17 (1981): 53-60.
  • 3. Kracauer, Siegfried: Theorie des Films. Die Erretung der äußeren Wirklichkeit. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985. p. 149-150.
  • 4. Reitz, Kluge and Reinke: “Wort und Film”, p. 13-14.
  • 5. Flach, Sabine/Weigel, Sigrid: “Images Beyond the Picture.” In: idem. (ed.): Wissenskünste. Das Wissen der Künste und die Kunst des Wissens. Weimar: VDG Weimar, 2011. pp. 18-25., esp. p. 24.
  • 6. Enzensberger, Hans Magnus: Die Elixiere der Wissenschaft. Seitenblicke in Poesie und Prosa. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2002. p. 163.