Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why is Theory Useful? And Film.

Theory as a discipline, an established and coherent conversation, is interesting in terms of its utility. 'Theory' certainly has become an established discipline unto itself, but why is it useful? To answer that, I believe it is important to think about the difference between theory and philosophy - which, is perhaps slight. Often in English, Film, Media, etc. Departments we take philosophers and apply them to our discipline, calling it 'theory.' The difference is, then, that the philosophy is applied to something material. In the humanities and social sciences, the question we ask our students, and ourselves, when discussion gets bogged down in abstraction is: how can we apply this to a material situation? What would this really look like?

For our purposes here (or, this blog in particular), this material situation is of course film. The question then becomes, how does a certain philosophical question play out in a particular film or set of films?

This is an interesting question, because film generally implies some sort of narrative, or a real possibility of how life could play out. This is not always true, but how often do you hear the comment: 'that wouldn't really happen!' Consumers of narratives know that what they perceive is not true, but at the same time they understand that there remains a connection to reality - in terms of the potentiality of the narrative, I am thinking here. It follows then, that when we apply some sort of philosophical situation to film under the heading of 'theory,' we are not only attempting to apply a thought or idea to a constructed text, but to a possible reality.

One might argue that this is what philosophy does - apply some sort of idea to a possible reality. The difference between theory and philosophy here, however, is that philosophy seems to prefer a sort of autopoiesis - a self-referential explanation, or explanation according to a particular logic - whereas theory performs according to its ability to be applied to something. These are just two different approaches to the same ideas, under two different headings. Evaluating the philosophy of Marx according to Hegel is a philosophical endeavor, whereas applying the philosophy of Marx to a particular film is a theoretical endeavor. Of course, this distinction between theory and philosophy is probably completely meaningless, beyond what I am postulating here.

Returning to film, then: using theory to work with film, applying certain philisophical concepts to a film, is an attempt to understand the situation that is playing out in a text. This situation is static, but still exists as an example of 'life.' And this static situation of the film-text will never play out in reality just as it does in the film, but certain films have a great deal of resonance with reality - neorealist films, for example. Thus, each time theory is applied, it is not just an attempt to understand an apolitical text, but an attempt to understand a glimpse of reality. This itself is a political act, because this now involves real people and real political struggle. I am not saying that philosophy is not political (or that it can't be political), but theory as I define it here has a more direct correlation with political problems.

Maybe I am the only one harboring this desire to apply concepts directly to lived experience, but for me that seems to be the ultimate goal of philosophy. Applying philosophy to film, for me, seems a logical step along the way. Looking at the previous post where I've applied this issue of 'the refrain' to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is perhaps a good example. I use this philosophical concept to try and understand what is going on in this particular film, but at the same time I am trying to understand how 'the refrain' affects our lives. What happens when we experience this recurring experience in our own lived realities? Does it happen as it does in the film? Perhaps not, but regardless of its correlation to our lives, the application helps us make some sort of determination about the correlation itself (it does do this in lived experience, it does not do this, it does this with some modification of the concept).

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