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Intervista a David N. Rodowick

a cura di Cristina Tosatto

David N. Rodowick è professore di Visual and Environmental Studies e direttore della scuola di alti studi in Film and Visual Studies presso l'Università di Harvard. Tra i suoi molti libri ricordiamo, oltre al recente The Virtual Life of Film (2007 - tr. it. Il cinema nell'era del digitale, MCF-Edizioni Olivares, 2008), anche The Afterimage of Gilles Deleuze's Film Philosophy (1997, co-curatela) e Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media (2001).

Abbiamo chiesto a Cristina Tosatto (dottoranda presso l'Università Cattolica di Milano) di intervistarlo per noi intorno ai temi della nuova testualità nei media in relazione ai processi di ibridazione delle arti e al fenomeno della convergenza digitale.


1. The problem of looking at the theory of cinema, today, is to compare its existence with the whole of the visual culture on the one hand and with the invasion of technology on the other. In this way the media convergence forces us to re-think the film as an object belonging to a visual culture and no longer to a strictly defined discipline. Moreover we are spectators of a passage between the film as text to a film as part of a spread textuality. The debate is still open, but do you think that the film studies can assume a strong place in the ground of the visual studies?

Your question poses many ideas--and paradoxes--which have preoccupied me for a long time. Basically, my way to proceed here is to respond to questions with questions.  There has never been a moment in the history of cinema when its existence was not framed by the whole of visual culture, on one hand, and the predominance of technologically organized space and time, on the other.  This is the crux of the "modernity debate."  What figures like Kracauer or Benjamin (and even Canudo in 1908!) saw with great prescience and critical acumen was that, as an emerging art form, cinema was the mass expression of a great technological reorganization of space and time emerging since at least the early nineteenth century.  This is why I think it is important, as I relate in The Virtual Life of Film, to see the history of cinema as just one strand  (perhaps it already encompasses in itself multiple strands), though an important one, in a larger and more complex media archaeology whose history is long and complex.

And here we come to the second part of your question.  It is not simply media convergence that forces us to rethink film as one of many "objects" of visual culture or subject to a strictly defined discipline.  First, I don't believe that film has ever been the ground of a well-defined discipline.  In its short thirty-year life in the United States, and I would say the same in France, film studies has never attained the institutional solidity of a discipline in the same way as, say, the history of art.  For me one of the great attractions and intellectual strengths of cinema studies is the way it has drawn on a range of disciplines in a context that is always evolving and permutating.  Indeed, despite the strength of its results, one of my resistances to "historical poetics" is its desire to apply a methodology to film studies in a way that grounds and defines the field too strictly.

Anyway, to return to my point.  To want to define film as the object of a discipline is more often than not to think within the medium specificity debates that aesthetics, including film aesthetics, inherits from nineteenth century philosophies of art.  Since the time of Reading the Figural, my point has been that we call "film" (and it is a moving target open to many identities) has always challenged and undermined the main concepts of "aesthetics."  And to the extent that film's many forms have successfully challenged the concepts of self-identity and substantial self-similarity through which disciplines like literature or art history established themselves in the idea of autonomous objects having certain value, in its virtual life film helps us to understand that no discipline rests steadily on strictly defined grounds or objects.  In any case, throughout its entire history film has been located within a larger visual culture expressed through a panoply of technological forms.  The question is having the historical sensitivity to think change as series of discontinuities and mutations rather than as great and definitive breaks, and to revisit continually concepts that help forge frameworks for marking and understanding those discontinuities--screen, frame, image, narration, movement, space, time, vision--even if pressure is put on them by "new media."

And one last word: if film has also been a participant or cell in a larger visual culture and media archaeology, when has it not been part of a "spread textuality," if I understand your concept correctly?  The semiotic concepts of the interpretant (in Peirce or Eco, for example) and of intertextuality, or Foucault's discursive formations, have always insisted on an account of meaning that unraveled texts into skeins of related discourses and contexts that are always shifting historically and culturally.  What has changed with a computational screen culture is a greater awareness of the open, incomplete, and collective process of meaning making.  "Spread textuality" is a very fine concept to help account for these processes, I think.

2. If we consider cinema as a machine to produce hybrid objects, how could we think the history of the device and the categories according to which we have looked at the cinema until now. For example, in Reading the Figural, you suggest to consider the new media through a kind of history of interface instead of the traditional history of visual art. Or for instance we could ask what happens to the idea of genre, authorship, style and all those temptations of making an history of cinema. How could we re-write a new history of cinema?

Perhaps you should ask a historian and not a philosopher!  But I cannot avoid the question since my approach, always with Foucault looking over my shoulder, has been to keep constantly in mind that no concept or epistemological claim is free of history and time.  My one recommendation, though, as I suggest above, is to frame whatever history one conceives or writes as discontinuous series--this is very much Foucault's Nietzschean-inflected history.  This is why I tend to think of relations among expressive forms (call them media or arts if you will) as genealogies, rhizomes, and erratic family resemblances.  Take the concept of the interface, evoked in your question.  Wild historical claims where made in the 1990s about the unprecedented novelty of digital culture, and of the absolute break of digital from analogical media.  One criterion defining this break was "the interface"--at the time, and perhaps still, a very badly drawn concept.  In Reading the Figural, I wanted to show that a genealogy of the virtual arts encompassed complex series of intertwining continuities and discontinuities.  On one hand, the control interfaces of computational devices are something extraordinary and novel, owing to what I call the discontinuity of inputs and outputs characteristic of the logical structure of digital devices, which also responds to what Manovich nicely names the different cosmogonies of machine languages, and human perception and symbolic structures.  On the other, the idea of the interface was not created ex nihilo with the invention of digital computers.  Indeed, though Walter Benjamin did not see it clearly, interfaces are properties of almost all of the technologically reproducible arts; indeed, they may be one of several logical characteristics of technological reproducibility.  With this change of perspective, we also gain a more complex and nuanced understanding of both the concept and history of the interface.  Stereopticons, lantern slides, cinematography, and phonography all required technological interfaces of various types to translate or reconstitute a perception that is otherwise ungraspable in the recording medium.  What we look for in such an observation is not the origin of the interface or its novelty, but patterns of similarity and difference among media forms through which gradual and sometimes substantive changes occur.  In this hopefully we better understand the relationships between the analog and digital as interconnected related series, while also locating a major distinguishing characteristic of computational media as measured by the discontinuity versus the continuity of inputs and outputs, and their corresponding transformations of space, time, and causality.

3. In Reading the Figural you start talking about film as a form of "hybrid art" according to the issue of the media convergence. In Virtual Life of Film you continue considering that "there are no new media, but only a multiplicity of hybrid forms linked by their basis in computational operations or automatisms." As we consider the film as an "hybrid form", this new concept of spread textuality necessarily needs new analytic categories and new means of observation. So, what kind of analysis do you think we have to use now?

I wonder whether I have already replied to this question above, but maybe I can go deeper.  If one takes my account of the figural seriously, there are only hybrid or "impure" arts.  The interest of film, and the history of film theory, in Reading the Figural were to show the frictions and fractures produced in the history of semiology and the philosophy of art in their confrontation with forms that were both spatial and temporal, plastic and discursive, visible and expressive. This is why Lyotard's Discourse, figure, Foucault's Ceci n'est pas une pipe, or Deleuze's book on Foucault remain such powerful works for me.  They show in the most complex ways the graphism at the heart of writing and the expressivity of images.  Apart from this, I am not sure I can recommend a method of analysis or framework of observation.  One would have to ask first, "What kinds of problems are raised to us by screen culture today?," and then try to invent or transform concepts that allow thought of those problems to move forward.  I am very pleased that Reading the Figural or Virtual Life has been received as books to think with with respect to the analysis of screen cultures.  However, more and more my work has turned to art or cinema as a way of formulating and responding to philosophical problems; that is, I turn to cinema or photography to make an intervention in philosophy, to challenge and refashion its concepts and how they frame our engagements with the world, with others and with thought.  I would hope these concepts are portable to other critical activities.  I suppose I am more an advocate of a flexible approach to problems than I am of the construction of methods.  My only watchword is Wittgenstein's fine phrase from the Philosophical Investigations:  "Ein philosophisches Problem hat die Form:  "Ich kenne mich nicht aus," which I might translate as both, "I cannot find my way about" and "I can no longer find or place myself."  I am attracted to problems, concepts, and questions that disorient me, for which I have few ready or preconceived roadmaps.  Then I seek new ways to move forward in thought.