Arrested Frames

Zachary Campbell

A passage from early in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest reads:

“What’s the rumpus?” I asked him.

He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure that the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so swift.

“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”

“Who shot him?” I asked.

The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said:

“Somebody with a gun.”

I wanted information, not wit.1

The novel’s narrator-protagonist aims to uncover salient information in an environment disposed to conceal it. The “gray man” repeats the obvious and in so doing invites suspicion of bad faith. His literalness doubles as both evasive and direct. Hammett’s investigator is hoping for more information than this, something supplemental which has direct bearing on the question, Who shot him? He seeks information, not wit. If there is too little respect for established contextual cues, then wit threatens the acquisition of information. One has to have one’s bearings in order to take the full measure of knowledge one seeks. To understand a text or an object prompts one to ask a question about it. The one asking stands “outside” the text looking “in,” and in order to look in better, one asks questions about other things outside the text, or things inside the text that are obscure. Context, indeed, is not so much a self-evident surrounding but a turf open to contestation. Its very constitution seems tied to the activity of arresting a proper “frame,” with adequate information to supplement any appropriate questions about a text, but not so much information as to permit irony or sophistry or relativism. Context, here, is a frame that locks in the kinds of questions that might pertain to an object or an activity; it moderates mediation. To think of context this way—as a kind of framing—invites us to apply a media metaphor to the social apparatus of the aesthetic.

Media scholars sometimes proceed as though context were obvious. If we wish to say what we know about an older film or television program, we may look at extant production materials, memoirs, trade press, advertisements, box office figures. These populate the fields in which texts are embedded. Such filling out clarifies meanings and archives noteworthy significance. (Here I draw, of course, on the simple though controversial distinction between meaning and significance offered by E.D. Hirsch.)2 Context mediates text but also mediates the observer. It situates the latter in an orderly way with respect to the object at hand and, implicitly, places observers in relation to each other. When one has knowledge, and the conviction that his knowledge is proper and can frame the object of inquiry, one assumes the authoritative voice.

An inquirer should ask complex questions about specific contexts, but not—to this way of thinking—complex questions about Context in general. To do so would invite myopia, or obfuscation, or mere play: wit, not information. This mindset solidifies a textual schematics that reserves the media object as a clear thing, a text, which sits within a clear frame, a context. Consider Steven J. Ross’s sober call to historical scholarship in a Cinema Journal dossier from a little more than a decade ago. Inviting “thorough analysis” of the production contexts for any given media object, Ross arrives at the reasonable point that “context enables us to understand not simply what we see, but what we do not see.” For him, media’s contexts in scholarship run to production or exhibition; there is another category, reception, which also invites historical, archival scholarship.3 Context, then, would seem to arrive in definite forms: production, reception, exhibition, hypotexts, paratexts, transmedial storytelling and branding, etc. We could list many varieties. In truth, every instance of reception shifts and produces relevant information about that context of that encounter. The lines, too, blur: from edition to edition, original release to tinkering restoration, where does the paratext bleed into the text proper, say, and how is our understanding of something like a paratext itself molded?4

These questions are not novel; my purpose is to demonstrate how the spectrum from ignorance to authority in aesthetic matters (refinement, knowledge, connoisseurship) slides as a matter of degree more than kind. The distinctions, once made, acquire a hardened relationality that is to be enforced. We can see this at work in David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste.” Hume writes of a “species of philosophy” that “represents the impossibility of ever attaining any standard of taste” because beauty, being in the mind of observers rather than an intrinsic quality, has more to do with sentiment than judgment. Whereas judgment can be objective and true, one truth out of a thousand attempts, sentiment can seem true for each who holds it. Hume backs away from this stance, however, because the “absurd and ridiculous” people who hold obviously incorrect aesthetic opinions cross over from representing a judgment of degree into kind—virtually, a category error. To voice certain gravely wrong aesthetic preferences is tantamount to claiming “a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.” Yet Hume comes around to a notion of individuality in tastes that avails itself to rather wide differences: “Comedy, tragedy, satire, odes, have each its partisans, who prefer that particular species of writing to all others. It is plainly an error in a critic, to confine his approbation to one species or style of writing, and condemn all the rest. But it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such performances are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard by which they can be decided.”5

From there, Hume admits that we are more accustomed to works whose manners are familiar and domestic, rather than foreign to us. A cultivated observer will be able to make some allowances even if an uncultivated one will be less inclined. Nonetheless, a problem emerges in delineating where the disapproval and dismissal of foreign or ancient texts may be chalked up to, precisely, their foreignness (and in this way sterilized and recuperated by means of proper contextualization) versus those transgressions that cannot be fully meet the gentle observer’s endorsement. Hume: “however I may excuse the poet, on account of the manners of his age, I can never relish the composition.” We see that Hume proffers a moral standard for delineating a boundary whereby aesthetics must be corralled by manners, i.e. social prescriptions, and that which is not similarly curbed through censure, but instead through knowledge acting as supplement to sentiment.6

Hume posits more consistency to aesthetic standards than scientific ones, which is surprising because, he acknowledges, we would abstractly consent to a real criterion for scientific inquiry moreso than sentimental. Yet:

Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age: in a successive period these have been universally exploded: their absurdity has been detected: other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave place to their successors: and nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry.7

Perhaps the claim to persistence is what generates the reaction against contradiction or rupture in aesthetics.

The research questions which seek to achieve context presume that one knows how to ask the correct questions in the first place, and that this inculcation into proper ordering of aesthetic objects is, frankly, obvious. To return to Steven Ross’ evocations of proper research questions, we can imagine how these contextual tasks might be taken up as research questions in rather unsophisticated ways. Uncreative approaches prompted another contributor to the Cinema Journal dossier, Janet Staiger, to lament that “most essayists write as though media texts have some obvious direct relation to their social context.”8 One might add that many essayists oversimplify the role of mediation in relaying a text-context relationship. Context arrests text, and the scholar aims to arrest context, like a snapshot, in order to then do research within the boundaries of the contextual frame. So we see that “context” names a particular way not simply of understanding but of ordering. To acquiesce to context—and this is an observation outside the bounds of truth-claims, morals, or ethics—is to submit to a vision of order about a text but, moreover, a vision of order about one’s own (right, wrong, or other) sensations, perceptions, and conclusions.

Some voices in the domains of epistemology, history of science, literary theory, media theory, and political philosophy have agitated against this particular structure. An earlier generation’s gadfly, Stephen Toulmin, in Foresight and Understanding, argued that designating the purpose of science as explanatory was like saying the purpose of sports is competition. For him, singularity of purpose presents a dead end, precisely because both empirical and deductive investigation leave us with a multiplicity of purposes. (Sports, as sciences, enjoy many purposes.) Singularity, meanwhile, is both reductive and tautological.9 Presumably, the study of context profits from a similar understanding of supplementality as a fluid and shifting ground. For the inquirer who risks wit, context’s systematicity requires it to be unclosed on its broadest level, even as specific research questions might prompt us to generate limits and draw borders for the purposes of those questions. If the variable nature of paratext, exhibition, reception, etc., unsettles context, that is because the limits of mediation show themselves to be more flexible and more numerous than our models allow.

Over time, then, models that seek to accommodate this flexibility emerge. Awareness of this shifting frame becomes itself an epistemological frame; self-consciousness makes robust an observer’s interfacing with elusive, receding textual phenomena. As historian J.G.A. Pocock puts it: “Given that the archive records information as to the circumstances in which an action was performed or a decision taken, there is no theoretical limit, although there may be severe practical restraints, on the kinds of context it may record.”10 The inquirer, standing before his archive, encounters what Hume posited as the imperative of the historian or the interpreter to orient one’s own faculties to frame distant and foreign work:

An orator addresses himself to a particular audience, and must have a regard to their particular genius, interests, opinions, passions, and prejudices ... A critic of a different age or nation, who should peruse this discourse, must have all these circumstances in his eye, and must place himself in the same situation as the audience, in order to form a true judgment of the oration.11

Can there be a legitimate statement on a text that does not also involve knowledge of something about the text that is external to it, even if that contextual knowledge is no more than the forthright performance of one’s own ignorance? There we are: text is impossible without supplement, like a figure without ground. Indeed the text-context relationship is legible as a matter of figure/ground relations.

Once contextual ground is more or less clearly delineated, then the impulse to know as much “about” the figure of a text as possible limits rather than opens the range of appropriate questions and answers. The more we know, the more we can fill in. The more we fill in, implicitly, the less there should be of our ignorance. In matters of scholarship and connoisseurship, anyway, this is the practical function of finitude. The stakes reach further, however, than the interpretation of a scriptural passage or the “correct” placement of a movie in cultural history. Agreements and disagreements about the substance of texts, and the proper questions to ask about the relational entities that (should) comprise their contexts, are indexes of signaling between observers to link together a network of voiced judgments. We corroborate, we deny, we demur, we learn, we accept, we reject, we counter. The text-context relationship bears significance as the accrual of socialized perceptions and propositions. Aesthetics entreats some kind of social ordering, so our understanding of aesthetics bears implications for the possibilities of our governed cohabitation.

What guides approaches to the significance of information about or around texts? Stanley Fish famously proposed the concept of interpretive communities, which “share interpretive strategies … for constituting [texts’] properties and assigning their intentions.” Such a matrix determines “the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around.” Fish highlights the indeterminacy of a final meaning in certain parts of a text when even the finest scholars and specialists cannot agree on the meaning of a textual datum due to the intrinsic ambiguity or undecidability of phrasing. The interpretive community forms in this field of ambiguities, each framing things a little differently than the other.12

Fish wears a certain shrugging fatalism (“you’ll agree with me if you already agree with me”), but of more interest might be the premium he places on forthright attitude toward the interpretive impasse itself. This is a teaching moment. He wants to make the problem “signify”:

The moral is clear: the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between an interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself.13

If we can gain a sense of what we don’t know, or might not know, or might not care to know, then we can begin to see the shape of how we shape texts. We read the context as text and in doing so arrive at a more useful, or at least more consciously useless, knowledge of our activities with respect to texts. Still, there are certain questions, as Fish notes, that have no definitive answers and whose significance as unanswerable varies from community to community. Transactions in this manner of signifying non-signification may prove especially difficult questions for those who would always disavow the witty answer in pursuit of serious, direct information. When ignorance is uncovered and figured into the contextual frame properly as a specifically meaningful form of non-knowledge, we arrive at a troubling possibility: troubling precisely because it is infinitely generative, indeed even generous. The number of ways in which one may not know is infinite.

In short, there is a connecting line to be drawn from the mechanisms of a text, through philosophy of language’s notion of pragmatics (actual usage), to record some ways in which self-aware ignorance itself might provide perfectly fertile ground with which to receive a figure. In this way, speaking about Context rather than solely individual contexts might be a helpful analytical maneuver. How might we frame what we do not know about the supplements and surroundings of a text? Richard Rorty has suggested that contexts are divisible into two main categories. One, which he likens to translation, involves “a new set of attitudes toward some of the sentences previously in one’s repertoire”; the other, which is more akin to language acquisition, involves the arrival of “attitudes toward new truth-value candidates, sentences toward which one had previously had no attitudes.” So I—American cinephile with no special understanding of, for example, Russian or Japanese culture—can stand to learn quite a bit of context so as to better understand any number of cinematic texts. But I, child of the twentieth century, am also native to some truth-value candidates that would have to be entirely recovered, or produced outright, in a stranger frame. We cannot recognize this unless we see contexts as shifting grounds, which might be pulled up as figures at will, and thus read like texts.

Any proposed context shared in a posture of authority is a matter of tacit social agreement. The source of this agreement comes down to something other than authority per se—since, e.g., scientific inquiry has threatened state or religious authority—and more to the very act of naming and placing authority. (We could also designate this, “right.”) Rorty, in the same essay previously mentioned, explained the problem succinctly: “In pre-Kuhnian philosophy of science, rational inquiry was a matter of putting everything into a single, widely available, familiar context—translating everything into the vocabulary provided by a set of sentences which any rational inquirer would agree to be truth value candidates.”14 Any rational inquirer would see this to be so, and not that. As Hume points out, this appears to function more smoothly still in the sciences—where we allow for discarded paradigms perhaps because they may no longer influence or threaten us. It is difficult in the domain of taste and aesthetics. This may be because aesthetics, however the currents shift, remains ever-pregnant with the possibility of a rupture that defies any common measure, any standardized frame.

Allow me to speak on a few thing about which I am fairly ignorant, yet I nonetheless profess to love. The films of the late Aleksei German exemplify impenetrability, seemingly for all viewers, but whose qualities and significations of impenetrability vary from one interpretive community to the next. Some of this results from cultural placement: it is de rigueur to indicate, at least in anglophone criticism, how deeply and intimately is his work bound up in a certain lived experience of Soviet Russia. J. Hoberman writes that much of the dialogue in Khrystalyov, My Car! (1998) “would make sense only to Russians of a certain age—it’s an untranslatable collage of period slang, official slogans, and bits of old Party songs.”15 Meanwhile Anton Dolin, who remarks upon German’s unparalleled evocation of the Soviet era of communal apartments, suggests that “a good half of the film’s dialogue is lost in a whirlwind of inexplicable, incomprehensible events—causing Russian audiences at the time to complain about defective sound.”16 For others, the impenetrability is more generalized. Tony Wood notes, “throughout the opening sequences, the viewer is left with a growing sense of unease at not knowing what is happening, whose perspective it is being viewed from, what relevance these scenes will have later in the film. … Plot, events, the chain of causes and consequences are all secondary to the evocation of a frenzied imaginative state.”17 German’s cinema almost always seems to prompt the question, “What is happening?” Differently situated viewers will have variable levels of competency in answering some aspects of that question, but even nailing down straightforward contextual data leaves us with texts the power of whose indeterminacies remain no less resonant. Being unsure of something itself generates a response. To be made aware that one’s uncertainty, or ignorance, is corrigible may, in fact, be good or true or useful—it remains also a reinforcement of social ordering. It situates the observer in a potentially ill-fitting, albeit “correct,” context.

To know, for instance, that Yuri Nikulin was a popular comic actor whom German cast against type as the lead in Twenty Days Without War (1976), gives me some grounding. But not the same grounding as, say, being Russian, living under Soviet governance, and growing up seeing Nikulin in films such as The Diamond Arm (Leonid Gaidai, 1969). If, however, I ascertain as much about Nikulin’s star text, then I gain some knowledge, but not felt or inherited or cumulative knowledge. It’s a layer of significance worn like a borrowed jacket over some core meaning. How would it still matter to me that Nikulin was known for his clowning, for example, if I haven’t known or seen that clowning?18

This is the difficulty of a tiered understanding of cultural and historical “context” which presumably informs the asymptotal object of ideal spectatorship. It describes an audience that can only ever be limited, partial, and retrospective. The tiers include historical spectators who knew enough of Nikulin’s star text to respond to the implications of casting him as he was cast in German’s film, and later, the attainment through research a certain comprehension of shorthand, humor, performative conventions, etc., that might signal from the place of Nikulin’s performance. The mere fact of Nikulin’s star text—minus the felt, embodied, pre-verbal or extra-verbal layers—is, essentially, a piece of metadata that better situates a piece into a larger classification scheme. A robust critical theory of context can segue any ignorance of these layers into a kind of epistemological sculpture. One can exercise, even perform ignorance just as one might exercise or perform expertise. It can read as wise foolishness: a naïvete analogous to Brakhage’s famous touchstone, the preverbal eye.

This does, however, leave us at a sociopolitical hurdle. Is the foregrounding of ignorance enough to ground it as a practice of interpretation? Consider Noël Burch’s landmark study of Japanese cinema. Burch directly acknowledged his “distant observation.” He cites his ambitions as both modest and, due to the “limited” tools and material at his disposal, more ambitious than the sweeping historical surveys of Japanese cinema his work claims not to try to be. Burch proclaims his story to be historical and yet aims to describe, due to the specificities of Japanese society and cinema in the period from 1917-1945, the essence of that cinema.19

Some of the problems that will arise from such a stance as Burch’s are immediately apparent. Scott Nygren points out that Burch, like his predecessor Roland Barthes (who also systematized some impressions of Japan), simply misinterprets some facts of Japanese culture and aesthetics due to his touristic encounter (“bad” context, we might say): “sweeping interpretations of cultural dynamics largely [based] on the novelty value of first impressions.”20 Historical and transcultural scholarship can serve to correct these distortions and it may seem churlish or worse to disagree with such eminently reasonable empiricism. I want to connect this notion of distant observation—a more or less self-aware outsider status—to the so-called textualism that reads a text’s relationship to its context as so much more fodder for intertextual implication.

We could read the context of Burch and Barthes and others, in casting their Western gazes on Japan, as Rey Chow suggests about the major “players” of East Asian culture in the Cold War imaginary, China and Japan:

This foreclosure of other Asian cultures allowed the stakes and possibilities involved to be cast in terms of a fundamental difference between infra- and superstructure, between material scarcity and aesthetic (or ideological) cultivation. Japan was rising from the ashes of defeat in the Second World War. Dominated by the United States and intent on establishing a new self-image as a peace-loving nation, Japan offered the prospect of quietist contemplation of the beauty of the natural world. China, on the other hand, was closed off to the West in its trajectory of self-determination as a new communist nation.21

The notes of caution Nygren and Chow sound both “contextualize” Burch’s project (though Nygren addresses it directly and Chow is not talking about Burch at all). In doing so, these positions further translate Burch’s own readings of texts, as we may read them through the prism of knowledge about orientalist Western fascination with Japanese culture. We constantly translate, even remediate, layers of context as text: seeing, hearing, reading, being, and becoming in relation to them is a way of establishing types of co-presence with different interpretive communities. At this point “interpretive communities” may stand for political factions, social diversity, or experiential multiplicity. Philip Rosen, interestingly, reads Burch in much this way:

Burch does not give us a simply coherent ‘Oriental cinema’ whose mysterious and pure Otherness to dominant Western modes of representation is merely founded on the geographical and cultural isolation of Japan. He insists that Japanese culture historically has been criss-crossed by foreign influences, and the Japanese tradition includes transformative integrations of many foreign practices. Representational forms have therefore often been sites of struggle, and national integration is linked in particular ways to cultural and representational processes.22

In our knowledge of ignorance—or, putting it differently, in some awareness of the contours and pitfalls of our contextual ground—we lay bare the antagonistic space in which filling in of context (one context, aspirant to the context) becomes a contest of wills and authority. The singularity of purpose Toulmin unscrewed arises as the artifact of the intersubjective multiplicity that Rorty and others aim to re-open as a site of negotiation and cohabitation through otherwise non-common measures.

Effectively, the ado about context is a perpetual crisis of social organization and participants’ proper or improper acquiescence to that organization. The aesthetic movement from sense to form to idea, i.e. to greater levels of abstraction, mirrors an ascent to ever more legitimate forms of reason, order, and authority. WJT Mitchell has hooked this movement to politics and ideology in comparing Panofsky’s iconology with Althusser’s work. The aesthetic significations that ensue from a simple address on the street escalate into political implications. Taking Panofsky’s account of iconology’s origins in the street encounter between two persons, Mitchell summarizes:

These four terms—form, motif, image, and symbol—are overlapped to construct a three-dimensional model of interpretation that moves from “pre-iconographical description” of “primary or natural subject matter” to “iconographical analysis” of “secondary or conventional subject matter,” to “iconographical interpretation” of the “intrinsic meaning or content,” to the (iconological) world of “symbolical values” (p. 14). The movement is from surface to depth, from sensations to ideas, from immediate particulars to an insight into the way “essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts” (p. 15, emphasis Panofsky’s).23

Like Burch, Panofsky seeks to extrapolate essentials from the domain of aesthetic appearances. Absent mysticism, this sort of truth-claim seems to require the demonstration of authority and great awareness. This, to repeat, is a social signal. Few would scoff at Panofsky’s bona fides; my point is less to cast suspicion and more to highlight the role authority plays in Panofsky’s grounding of an aesthetic figure. Burch, comparatively, indeed performs some of his ignorance. He produces part of his authority by showing his very knowledge that he does-not-know. Despite his essentialism on some fronts, Burch embodies a step toward a more fluid theory of context.

Humble disavowals of synoptic expertise may purchase goodwill from more suitably-placed commentators, as Nygren’s and Rosen’s openness to To the Distant Observer attests. An even further step than the modesty of self-aware ignorance would be the acknowledgment of media forms as themselves constitutive as a kind of grounding substance for our conceptual figurations. To be sure, media serve as themes and as figurative material for a number of recent media-political thinkers who explore telling isomorphisms between the form of cinema (sequential frames materializing a kind of structured time, simultaneous past and future at once) and the organizations of social life.

Davide Panagia and Jacques Rancière are two key exemplars of this turn. A strong metaphor emerges in Panagia’s thinking about political theory as something other than argumentation founded upon written reason. Instead, the assembly of “aspects” (which Panagia takes and extends from Wittgenstein and a host of others) might serve as a new and potentially superior model for articulating political understanding and, what’s more, political possibility. The “stochastic seriality” he explores in Impressions of Hume invites us to consider that even though things were once this way in this arrested frame, they need not be the same in the next, nor need they be a causal and logical continuation of same.24 This insight draws upon Rancière’s notion of dissensus as the interruption of political life—in fact, the essence of politics.25 The true location of politics, Rancière argues, is in relation to la police, or the order of the suppositions that fix, as Panagia phrases it, “an identity between cause and effect.”26 Cinema’s sequentiality bears the potential for radical shifts that might harness conviction but, importantly, not profess rational or causal propositions.

This affordance applies not only to the material apparatus of cinema, such as the frames on a strip of film, or the edited sequence of discrete parts. It is also true for the generative interfacing of cinematic phenomena with each and every observer. Thus, as Rancière explains in his preface to The Intervals of Cinema, he chose in his career to speak of “cinematic fables,” not cinema theory, because he wanted to work in “a universe without hierarchy where the films recomposed by our perceptions, feelings and words count for as much as the ones printed on the film itself.”27 Further than Burch, this position announces a possible placement for any and all subjects, even when “wrong,” or when otherwise poorly placed.

By contrast, another theorist of the media-polical is Jonathan Beller, who in The Cinematic Mode of Production uses “the cinematic” as synecdoche for an entire suite of audiovisual technologies (e.g., television, graphical user interfaces). The cinematic describes circulation as the impression of movement, as phenomena that ingratiate themselves into the sensorium and through that enlist attention as labor. Beller argues powerfully that the logic of the cinematic—which, like money, embodies value—circulates not only within particular films but throughout the social body. Even a principle such as feedback, which once held great pride of place for video activists appropriating cybernetics and systems theory, is in this late Marxist framework merely a principle serving the “visuo-sensual cybernetic interface.” We spectators are all workers, and the circulation of capital finds an alternate and higher manifestation in the movement of audiovisuality, which outsources the assembly-line into our very senses. Thus, anything suitably enframed might be cinematic, and perception, Beller insists, is inextricably wired to production. The space for difference, including a different world, is minimized in this line of thinking because any expression is always potentially subject to the flows of capital.28

Where Beller sees cinematic sequentiality subsumed by a capitalist logic of circulation, Rancière and Panagia advance notions of cinematic form where dissensus and rupture inhere in the possibility of each shift, gap, and turn. Some of this comes down to how one emphasizes a mediatic metaphor. The cinematic frame provides at least two operative vectors for this political-metaphorical activity. In one sense, which Beller foregrounds, it refers to the encapsulation and projection of something that circulates in the world. This is a frame like a picture has a frame. It arrests something out of the world and, if we view it as optimists at least, projects a new thing into being. We can relate to all the supplemental material, the context, which was necessarily excised at the moment of its arrest. This is, as an understanding of cinematic frames, perhaps an interpretation similar to the rigid understanding of text (image) and context (world). Figure and ground might still be theorized in a fluid way if we articulate this media metaphor into social and political life, but it seems to me the logic supporting this approach is one of subtraction. What is left out of the frame that must be put back in it for proper knowledge, and to restore lost order? There is another way of talking about cinematic frames, which entails succession. Cinematic sequences’ capacity to model a world, and in turn to engender an audiovisual otherwise, reveals a different understanding of political possibility. Though we may speak of narrative structures or average shot lengths, there is no necessary reason a film ever must be a single frame (or a single minute) longer or shorter at any point in its running time. It continues. It may build on the previous; for an observer it probably will. Yet it also provides at every moment the potential for some kind of rupture. There is always a space between one thing and the next and there is no telling how large that space might be. Whether this is located “in” the text or “around” it—a paratext, a critical apparatus, a spectator’s mood—is trivial. This conception operates on a logic of addition or multiplication. What more can we do, what next will there be?


Zachary Campbell completed his PhD at Northwestern University with a project on video history and media theory. He has published work in Cineaste, Framework, Lola, and Rouge. He currently teaches at DePaul University.


1 Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (New York: 1929, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, 1992, 6-7.
2 E.D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
3 Steven J. Ross, “Jargon and the Crisis of Readability: Methodology, Language, and the Future of Film History,” Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, Fall 2004, 130-133.
4 Consider Jacques Derrida on the parergon in The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
5 David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in John W. Lenz, ed., Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), 3-24. Quotes are from 6-7 and 20, respectively.
6 Hume, 22.
7 Hume, 18.
8 Janet Staiger, “The Future of the Past,” Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, Fall 2004, 126-129.
9 Stephen Toulmin, Foresight and Understanding: An Inquiry into the Aims of Science (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 18-23.
10 J.G.A. Pocock, “The Politics of Historiography,” Historical Research, vol. 78, no. 199, Feb. 2005, 1-14..
11 Hume, 15.
12 Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 2, no. 3, Spring 1976, 465-485. The quote is from p. 483. In some ways Fish reconfigures the tension at the heart of Kant’s sensus communis and the subjective-universal nature of aesthetic judgment.
13 Fish, 480.
14 Richard Rorty, “Inquiry as Recontextualization: An Anti-Dualist Account of Interpretation,” Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume I (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 93-110.
15 J. Hoberman, “Exorcism: Aleksei German Among the Long Shadows,” Film Comment, Jan/Feb 1999, 48-53.
16 Anton Dolin, “No Surrender,” Film Comment, Mar/Apr 2012, 26-33.
17 Tony Schwartz in Fairbanks, “How Did Sleep.”
18 Contextual data, meanwhile, may also bleed into the framing architecture of metadata, guiding access and preservation. WorldCat currently lists as among the major associated subjects with German, “Civilization, Medieval,” “Extraterrestrial Beings,” “Interplanetary Voyages,” and “Scientists.” This is the consequence of a heavier weighting of recent material, presumably, of German’s final film, Hard to Be a God (2013), which is an adaptation of a novel by the Strugatsky brothers (also listed prominently as associated subjects in WorldCat, “Aleksei German,” Accessed March 24, 2016.) In two hundred years’ time, if scholarship still exists, will people arrive at German’s body of work thinking of him primarily as a master adapter of sweeping science fiction? Then, an enterprising media historian may publish a revisionist piece explaining to contemporaries that minor Eurasian media artist Aleksei German was not overall a major practitioner of the obscure genre of future innovations known as “science fiction.” This is the kind of basic information that anyone who has, at least, heard of Aleksei German might be expected today to know.
19 Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning the Japanese Cinema, rev. and ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1979).
20 Scott Nygren, Time Frames: Japanese Cinema and the Unfolding of History, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 51. It should be noted that Nygren does not altogether dismiss Burch’s project.
21 Philip Rosen, “History, Textuality, Nation: Kracauer, Burch, and Some Problems in the Study of National Cinemas,” in Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen, eds., Theorising National Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 2006), 17-28.
22 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 55.
23 WJT Mitchell, “The Pictorial Turn,” Picture Theory (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 26.
24 Davide Panagia, Impressions of Hume: Cinematic Thinking and the Politics of Discontinuity (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). See also Panagia, “A Theory of Aspects: Media Participation and Political Theory,” New Literary History, vol. 45, 2014, 527-548.
25 Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” trans. Rachel Bowlby and Davide Panagia, Theory & Event, vol. 5, no 3, 2001.
26 Panagia, Impressions of Hume, 24.
27 Jacques Rancière, The Intervals of Cinema, trans. John Howe (London, NY: Verso, 2014), 7-8.
28 Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2006).