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Theory Goes To the Movies

I've started noticing a new generation of newspaper film critics whose writing manifests the various trappings of "theory."
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #25, March 1996

I've started noticing a new generation of newspaper film critics whose writing manifests the various trappings of "theory." Perhaps this is a result of film studies becoming entrenched in the humanities curricula of many major universities. Perhaps it's a result of a change in film studies teaching, which has moved from analyzing film as art to analyzing film as "text" or "culture." But the cause isn't nearly as important as the effect. Consider the following quotes, drawn from a review of the John Woo film Broken Arrow:

"Nonetheless, Slater is somewhat effective at subtly conveying an oedipal insecurity that ties into Broken Arrow's and Woo's typical displaced homoeroticism and rites-of-passage/kill-the-father theme."

"Woo's use of jarring theme music for Travolta is reminiscent of the moment of unintentional Brechtian distanciation that marked Woo's Hong Kong films."

"Equal parts epicurean and mad-dog psychopath, Travolta's Deakins is a familiar riff on the token Euro-trash villain that has become a staple of 90s action film. Travolta's fetishistic attachment to the warheads results in an [sic] terminal act of phallic penetration that by film's end is so hilariously overwrought that if nothing else...."

Displaced homoreroticism? Unintentional Brechtian distanciation? Fetishistic attachments and terminal acts of phallic penetration? You can find the same kind of banter in mytown paper, the News-Gazette and even as far up the gravy train as the Village Voice. These are mass circulation dailies with audiences numbering in the tens of thousands or more. Yesterday's mediocre students of film theory are tomorrow's mediocre newspaper film critics. While we could simply dismiss these forays into theory as poor thinking and writing, I think we can read them as an example of what happens when critical thought enters the "market of ideas." Even if the theory above were good theory, it would raise some of the same political questions about disseminating radical ideas.

What happens when phrases culled from radical criticism appear in mainstream journalism? Has theory finally come to the people? While admitting a certain pleasure in seeing the ideas of a Marxist like Bertolt Brecht or a feminist like Laura Mulvey find their way into mainstream parlance, I think it's better to read these emergences as a warning.

By virtue of what we do, intellectuals assume that disseminating radical ideas is an important part of radical politics. That it is. But the institutional channels through which we disseminate ideas have a lot to do with how those ideas get taken up. In the name of the mother of all possible goods, Politics, self-professed leftist professors have peppered their syllabi with discussions of ideology, semiotics, and social or cultural theory of all colors and flavors. The results have been mixed. While we've certainly educated lots of people to be critical of their cultural milieus, the ideas that comprise radical thought seem just as easily made into commodities for exchange.

I can already anticipate several objections. Yes, this is not a new phenomenon. When he was editor of the student newspaper here (at the University of Illinois), Roger Ebert would regularly regurgitate misshapen versions of the ideas he learned in his Philosophy of Communications course in his editorial columns. It's true that as teachers, we cannot ultimately be held responsible for the politics of our students even if we try and engage them when we teach. The semiotics faculty at Brown University is not responsible for the TV show Homicide; Marxist professor Terry Eagleton is not responsible for his best students becoming advertising executives rather than International Socialists. It's true that Brecht and Mulvey are avant-garde writers, and that other types of writing are less easily co-opted. And yes, it's true that it is the teacher's job to disseminate these ideas.

All of these objections are valid, but they obscure an important distinction: the difference between disseminating ideas as an end in itself, and disseminating ideas as a means or an end in a larger project of social transformation. When ideas are commodities, their dissemination is an end in itself. For instance, as any kind of professional writer, one's job is to produce and publish writing. Similarly, a teacher's job is to get ideas out into the classroom, to either provide students with knowledge they previously did not have, or to give them the tools to educate themselves. The beliefs that underwrite these practices are "occupational ideologies" — they give us a reason to be invested in doing our jobs well.

When ideas are part of a project of social transformation, however radical or modest, disseminating them may be an important thing, but it is not an end in itself. For instance, a large part of organizing for a union is publicity: letters to the editor, holding rallies, circulating literature to potential members - in short, engaging our constituency and future membership at the level of ideas. But this engagement is only important in the larger context of working to have a union. If all we ever did was circulate ideas about having a union, not a whole lot would happen. This is a basic point, but an important distinction. There's a difference between doing our jobs well and fighting for social change.

Radical politics and everyday writing or teaching may share the common goal of disseminating ideas, but are significantly different projects. We can marvel at the cultural studies "boom" in academia, the wide distribution of Bad Subjects, and the surfacing of terms from critical thought in the newspaper. But we have to remember, as C. Wright Mills said, that America is a conservative country without a conservative ideology. Conservatives walk around using the liberal language of empowerment. Racist lawyers "deconstruct" a video tape of police beating Rodney King. A doddering millionaire senator can denounce our bumbling president as "a member of an elite" with a straight face. Asinine multiculturalists, deconstructionists, and feminists on the Yale English faculty threaten their students with expulsion (for some, this means deportation) for complying with a graduate employee strike. The same critique of national ideology works for capitalism as well — it can afford to build up quite a wardrobe of radical clothing. It still walks the same walk.

Film theory or Marxism or Feminism in the newspapers is not a sign of radical change. It is a sign of the flexibility and ingenuity of capitalism. Academic publishers especially friendly to academic leftists like Routledge and Verso are still profit ventures, and not simply instruments waiting to be taken up by an insurgency. The classroom is similarly implicated in larger processes of social reproduction. The left needs a critical engagement with the mass media, the schools, the government, and all other areas of public life. But we cannot simply walk in, announce our presence, set up shop, and start playing the game. Publishing and disseminating ideas, whatever our intentions, remains business as usual for the institutions we inhabit. While institutional processes may resemble the project of radical politics, as in the dissemination of critical theory, they are attuned to radically different ends. Do not be fooled. Radical ideas do not a radical make. Dissemination is not enough. You have been warned.

Jonathan Sterne is a graduate student in Communications Research and Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an officer of the Graduate Employees' Organization, a group unionizing grads here, and a bass player. He would like to thank Dan Emery for pointing out the banality of publishing, and Jillian Sandell and Carrie Rentschler for their useful critical comments. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 1996 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.