WHAT’S LEFT to be said about “theory”? The theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s have long since lost their fervor. Gone are the glory days — or, some might say, the ice age — when theory was thrust to the forefront of critical consciousness. Today, theory isn’t exactly espoused or opposed so much as unthinkingly presupposed — if not simply shrugged off as passé. In this sense, theory has slipped into a state of semi-invisibility. Many of the most pioneering insights of “high theory” are now so institutionalized that they’re less readily recognizable as theory; ideas once regarded as revolutionary have been incorporated into the routine practices of academic disciplines. At the same time, such disciplines seem increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared “dead,” and we assume that we’re safely “after theory.”
But if theory really is a thing of the past, its status as such could open it up for retrospective reconsideration. Insofar as a certain era or genre of theory feels like it’s “over,” perhaps its historical closure leaves it newly illuminated in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present. For this reason, a new strand of scholarship appears to be emerging: one which treats theory less as an instrument than an object of study in its own right. François Cusset led the way with French Theory, a contextual account of the impact of Derrida, Deleuze, and company on American academia. More recently, Mark Currie has historicized the “invention of deconstruction,” while Judith Ryan has illustrated the influence of literary theory on postwar fiction. For these authors and others, theory, it seems, is still on the table — only now it’s seen from a shifted, reflexive perspective.
D. N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory echoes this trend, and also extends it. Rodowick’s field of expertise is film studies, a discipline that he helped develop. (He founded Yale’s film studies major in 1985 and recently directed the PhD program in film and visual studies at Harvard.) Throughout his career, he has surveyed that discipline with a keenly historical sensibility — as demonstrated in his previous book, The Crisis of Political Modernism, which offered an authoritative account of the heyday of film theory from 1968 through the 1980s. In some respects, Elegy for Theory reads like a sequel to that earlier work, although its scope is much more ambitious. While remaining rooted in the intellectual history of cinema studies, here Rodowick situates that history within a longer, larger story. Significantly, he seeks to show how theory’s changing applications to film exemplify its more general trajectory across the arts and humanities — a narrative whose sheer scale and complexity, he contends, now needs to be brought into focus:
Embedded within the concept of theory is a discontinuous history of conceptual usage whose genealogy is as long as it is incomplete. Each time we evoke or invoke theory in the humanities, we lift the weight of this history on our backs, or more likely, we tread lightly upon it, as if to leave undisturbed the bones of our ancestors, unaware of how many geological layers lie beneath our feet.
Refreshingly then, Rodowick wishes to excavate the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments “for” or “against” it. Stepping back from such controversies, he stresses instead the more modest but important point that “theory has a history” — a history which the rhetorical fireworks of the theory wars have too often obscured. Regardless of whether we wish to preserve theory or resist it, “our picture of theory,” Rodowick argues, “is cloudy or unfocused because we have forgotten its history or become blinded to it.” Therefore, the aim of this “elegy” is to restore some much-needed precision to the way we conceive of theory as such: Rodowick is concerned not with contestation, but with conceptual clarification.
Indeed, if theory has recently been controversial, Rodowick makes us aware that it was always thus. Theory, he claims, is an inherently “unstable” concept, conditioned by a “history of unruliness” which “reaches back 2,500 years.” Accordingly, Elegy for Theory tracks several centuries’ worth of seismic shifts in the concept’s semantics, ranging from classical Greek accounts of theoria (a term whose etymological echo of “theater” already foreshadows the link between theory and film) to 18th-century German aesthetics, before finally reaching the more familiar terrain of “French” theory post-1968. The resulting picture resembles a kind of intellectual pinball game, in which the overdetermined term “theory” (trailing various precursors and placeholders) bounces from Aristotle to Althusser and beyond, sometimes colliding with well known names (Hegel, Kristeva) and sometimes with figures specific to cinema studies (Canudo, Aristarco). As Rodowick acknowledges, the effect can often seem somewhat chaotic:
My attempts to understand the conceptual vicissitudes of theory have veered wildly in perspective, sometimes plunging into one or two texts in florid detail, making them carry the weight of an entire discursive formation on the space of a few pages, then retreating to the horizon to frame the most panoramic view possible.
Crucially though, this approach produces precisely the kind of “conceptual clarity” Rodowick seeks. That is, in the case of an “unruly” concept like theory, clarification should not be confused with simplification. Rather, the method of historical reconstruction must reflect the unruliness of its object. In this regard, Rodowick follows Michel Foucault in preferring the detours of “genealogy” to the disingenuous neatness of linear history. Foucault famously defined genealogy as a kind of historical investigation that deliberately “disturbs what was previously considered immobile,” “fragments what was thought unified,” and “shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself.” Similarly, Rodowick sets out to render theory in all its self-inconsistency, not as a spurious whole (the mirage we conjure when we converse casually about “theory”) but as a fractured palimpsest, fissured by historical fault lines — an almost ungraspably complex object, which “retreats from us as rapidly as we approach it.” Consequently, “a genealogy of theory [...] cannot confuse [clarity] with the search for origins.” Straying from any predictably straightforward path, Rodowick maps theory’s multiple “culs-de-sac, [...] secret passages, steep turns, and sudden and surprising vistas,” the better to disclose “not one identity, but many lines of descent.”
Two such lines tend to recur throughout Rodowick’s labyrinthine account, combining and recombining in constant tension and entanglement. One of these threads connects theory to philosophy, through an “aesthetic discourse” shaped by the long shadow of Hegel. The other ties it to the rise of modern science, via various flavors of positivism and empiricism. In this sense, theory seems to hover “in an unstable space, as if held unsteadily” between twin poles or attractors. Rodowick shows how the push and pull of these forces has formed theory as we know it today. In the postwar period, for instance, aesthetic conceptions of theory give way to what Rodowick calls the “discourse of signification” — a “desire for formalization” which peaks in the structuralist project of systematizing the human sciences. Rodowick’s genealogy of structuralism takes in some intriguing twists and turns, traveling back through the French “filmology” movement to Russian formalism, and further. Yet these are not to be seen as steps in a causal progression; instead, they represent nodes in a network, “capillaries” branching out from “the beating heart of positivism.” Later the pendulum swings back again, when Derrida and the post-structuralists disrupt the “epistemological confidence” of their predecessors. But beneath these differing configurations, an underlying rhythm remains: theory is formed, deformed, and reformed in the shifting space between science and philosophy.
Rodowick’s most detailed description of the formation of a theoretical discourse — that is, of the way in which a specific iteration of “theory” arises to organize this fluid space — occurs late in the book, in a section focused on the French film theorist Christian Metz. Rodowick credits Metz with the “invention” of modern film theory — and, through a close reading of this critic’s early essay “Le cinéma: langue ou langage?,” he articulates how such inventions come about. One of the most striking traits of Metz’s essay is its performative search for precursors to the type of theory — here, a systematic “film semiology” — that it seeks to construct. In other words, Metz formulates his theory by reflecting on his forerunners (principally, assorted proponents of the “aesthetic discourse”) and, in so doing, sweeping them up into the newly minted discourse of signification. As Rodowick explains, Metz’s essay not only surveys the history of writing on film, but also retrospectively rewrites it, such that “theory enters the ordinary language of academic discourse as if it had been always there,” as if earlier authors like Canudo “were and had always been ‘theorists.’” Through his assemblage of a set of precedents for theory, Metz therefore “reformat[s] the aesthetic discourse in the structure of the discourse of signification.”
But beyond the immediate impact of this intervention, Metz’s essay might be of still deeper significance. Rodowick goes on to suggest that Metz, in making this methodological move, “was one of the first key figures to adopt a metatheoretical perspective in film study, [...] constructing theory as an object, examining its history, and testing its present and potential claims to generate knowledge.” And this strongly recursive, self-reflexive standpoint — which Rodowick dubs “the metatheoretical attitude” — is arguably the driving dynamic of theory “as we have lived and still live it.” Perhaps it could even be said that theory creates and renews itself precisely by thus folding back on its previous forms, so as to “project new epistemological spaces,” redefining its history, and thereby redrawing its future horizons. This, to my mind, is the most important insight of Rodowick’s book. As he puts it,
Every historical moment of theoretical awakening is, as it were, to some degree metacritical or metatheoretical. In key moments of discursive ramification or reformulation, an idea of theory suddenly becomes conscious of itself and its apparent history. [These are] moments of rupture, reconsideration, and retrojection where theory takes itself as its own object, examines and reconfigures its genealogy, conceptual structure, and terminology, and posits for itself a new identity and cultural standing.
Moreover, if theory moves forward by looking back, then Rodowick’s own work epitomizes the metacritical spirit it describes. In this essential respect, Elegy for Theory surpasses its humbly stated aim of “clarifying” the history of a concept. While it is true that readers of Rodowick’s book will discover new insights into the story of theory, the exhilaration aroused by those “steep turns [...] and surprising vistas” stems as much from the structure and form of the story’s telling: to follow Rodowick’s argument is, in a way, to witness the spiraling swerve of theory enveloping and comprehending itself. It remains to be seen where Rodowick’s next book will lead — he hints that it will relinquish high theory in favor of a new conception of philosophy. And yet his elegy’s very existence suggests, somehow, that whatever animates theory is alive and well. Toward the end of this book, Rodowick writes of the era of theory that “to feel one’s self at the end of something inspires reflection on its ends.” In itself, his inspired reflection revives the stream of ideas on which it reflects; if this is only an elegy, it’s one that instills its object with endless energy.
David Winters is a literary and cultural critic living in Cambridge, England.