Into Barbarism

Into Barbarism

The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Jonathan Rosenbaum at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014.  Mr. Rosenbaum and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.

I’m the odd person out in this gathering because I’m not an academic, although I teach periodically in various, most often relatively unacademic, situations. And plus, I could be described as a failed academic. Before I came to Chicago I was teaching for four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, but prior to that I actually began my failed academic career in the U.S. where Robert Pippin had his background, at UC San Diego. And in between I was an adjunct at NYU, at the School of Visual Arts, etc.

My academic background, actually, was in English. I was an English major as an undergraduate and in graduate school I did everything but a dissertation in English and American literature. But then I went to Europe and ended up being a journalist. And the reason why is that I had reached the point of alienation in graduate school where I was actually making a point of reading college outlines rather than the literary texts because I didn’t want them ruined — I wanted to read them in my own time, whereas what they needed in terms of my papers could better be fulfilled by reading the college outlines than by actually reading the texts. So I was alienated from that but then on the other hand when I ended up teaching in film, which is where most of the teaching I’ve done was, the people that were deciding knew much less about film than I did. And the best I ever got was a one-year appointment. But usually it was without any of the health benefits or anything else, it was being hired as an adjunct for a quarter at the time, and having to reapply for each successive quarter for most of the time I was at Santa Barbara.

As a journalist, I find that I’m basically a magpie. I like to take material that I find useful wherever I can find it. Sometimes that comes from the academic world, sometimes from other journalism … I have a lot of scruples as a scholar, but I sometimes think on the subject of theory, that what is stimulating is more important to me than what is, let’s say, accurate.


I can think of two parallels in film criticism to this issue of the kinds of disputes that my predecessors here have been discussing. There are whole studies of cognitive psychology in relation to film theory that have been done by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, and frankly I’m quite bored by it. If it yielded something that I found interesting it would be different, but I find that in fact things that are much more criticizable, even on the level of accuracy — like some of the more crackpot theories of Noël Burch — are more interesting to me because they produce more ideas that I find useful. But the other thing that I think of as kind of a grim parallel to biology and psychology, and it comes from what I see hanging over all of the previous discussions that we’ve had this evening, is the financial aspect, that this is all about scrambling to make a living, and this is what has distorted human activity of all kinds, but I think especially within the university. In film criticism the biggest symptom of that, the most obvious I can think of, is when all of a sudden it started to become interesting and important to publish the box office returns for a given week for a film, which nobody was interested in beforehand. It was a manufactured interest. And I think what we’re talking about in terms of these forms of unholy wedlock between the humanities and the sciences is really wanting to make money through a new gimmick, and that you are more likely to get paid or get funding, if you come up with this new gimmick.

But at the same time there are other kinds of constraints that exist. They’re very large ones that go far beyond academic questions. America, I sometimes feel, may be the only society on earth, or the only country on earth, in which the default position on art is, if not hatred, at least fear and distrust. And because it becomes a default position, art is always going to lose in all of these transactions. And the idea of the individual voice becomes a problem.

I’ve been reading, just out of my own interest, a book about a film that my parents told me when I was growing up in Alabama as the grandson of a movie exhibitor was the first film I ever saw, which was Disney’s The Song of the South. In some ways, this is quite a fascinating book, all the more so because Song of the South is such a treacherous object that it’s not even released by the Disney people. But what I found really disappointing in this book, despite its many interesting qualities, is that it becomes strangled by certain kinds of political correctness, and also by what are erroneously referred to as the social sciences, while questions of aesthetics, which are to me very real and important with something like Song of the South and all of Disney’s films really, gets left out. Nowhere in the entire book is it mentioned that the cinematographer for Song of the South is Gregg Toland, the same person who shot Citizen Kane. The point being that there’s an aesthetic relation of a kind between something that’s considered a good object now like Citizen Kane, and something that’s regarded as a bad object now, like Song of the South. I think that’s one aspect of something in the university that has stifled what could’ve been a much more interesting discussion of Song of the South.


But completely outside of the university… I write a lot of pieces for DVDs. And I’m in communication now with one of the main DVD labels about a box set devoted to Jacques Tati, and the person who is in charge of assigning all the essays and will be editing them was really trying to parcel out and divvy up what the different topics to address Jacques Tati are, and I’m just going to quote from something she wrote to me:

Just asking, does it make sense to you to introduce the idea of Tati as a filmmaker through his technical and aesthetic skills, as opposed to his brand of comedy or his background bio, or even the substance of what he’s saying in his films?

What seems to be what she’s saying is, Can you try to talk about his technique without talking about what it means? Which is very perverted, but it comes from the same kind of phenomenon as these other things, which is compartmentalizing, and it’s compartmentalizing that can be traced backwards to economics.

And that’s what I find very peculiar about the idea of Marxist culture and its dominance being in some ways responsible for these things. My own experience, when I lived in Paris, during the time I spent in Europe, many of my friends were French Communists and they were more sophisticated about the arts than my other friends. It’s very different from the tradition of what Marxism is in America, because they were very much concerned with what you were talking about in terms of the internal life and its aspects. And what’s funny is if you have an academic influence and dominance in the academy, you certainly don’t have a Marxist practice. So it becomes even more perverted by the fact that what is dominant in the academy, as in the rest of society, is capitalism. What we’re talking about to a large extent is capitalism and the kind of craziness it can create — particularly a form of capitalism which even when it’s proffering the idea of newness is really more interested in the Reagan model of exhausting all markets. I’ve come to feel more and more, through one of my favorite Marxist ideologues, Eric Hobsbawm, that maybe the twentieth century and the twenty-first is a long slide into barbarism from what once was the height of a certain kind of civilized approach to the humanities.

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