Tuesday, March 22, 2011

THE DISPOSABLE & THE DISCONTINUOUS: A Historical (Premodern / Postmodern) Note

"It's not easy to see things in the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left: try it, you'll see that everything changes."—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Taking its name from the above quote by Deleuze and Guattari, In the Middle is a medieval studies group blog moderated by Mary Kate Hurley, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Karl Steel and Eileen Joy. A few years back they invited Kofi Campbell to contribute his piece "Time, again" to their site and I have found his entry immensely relevant to my recent explorations of filmic practices of discontinuity (both in production and spectatorial practice). Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell is Assistant Professor of English at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford Campus. He has published articles on both medieval and postcolonial literatures. His current research focuses on the portrayal of same-sex love and lovers in the literature of the Caribbean diaspora, and on the construction of nationalism in England during the Middle Ages.

"Time, again" is, in effect, a review of—though he terms it "a relationship with"—David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn. Though on its surface the book's subject matter is unrelated to film studies, its operating concepts—namely "a) its obsession with notions of time and historicizing, and b) its dedication to a truly comprehensive understanding of hybridity"—help me understand the radical and transformative potential of "discontinuous viewing."

Influenced by Wallace, Campbell suggests that to read "the complex and convoluted history" of the Caribbean "in purely chronological terms is to miss the potential knowledges which can be gleaned from the discontinuities and divergences from apparent historical patterns." Let me reduce that for my more immediate purposes: a linear and continuous view (whether of Caribbean history or the history of film) risks missing out on the potential
knowledges of what might be revealed through the discontinuous. To stress knowledge's potential plurality, I will privilege discontinuity. I will presume that—despite how uncomfortable its cultural disruptions might feel—the experience will be accumulative.

Campbell quotes Einstein: "The only reason for time is so everything doesn't happen at once." Why else continuity? Why else sequential progression? Why else narrative traction? Why else history? Why else biography? Why else the establishing shot and the closing credit? Responding to Einstein's quote, Campbell writes: "The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can't ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn't happen at once. But those connections don't account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear."

Campbell's appreciation of Wallace's thesis also recalled me to Michel Foucault's adoption of discontinuity as a tool to help him develop his theory of the archaeology of knowledge. Wikipedia summarizes this received wisdom: "For Michel Foucault (1926-84), discontinuity and continuity reflect the flow of history and the fact that some 'things are no longer perceived, described, expressed, characterized, classified, and known in the same way' from one era to the next. In developing the theory of archaeology of knowledge, Foucault was trying to analyze the fundamental codes which a culture uses to construct the
episteme or configuration of knowledge that determines the empirical orders and social practices of each particular historical era. He adopted discontinuity as a positive working tool. Some of the discourse would be regular and continuous over time as knowledge steadily accumulates and society gradually establishes what will constitute truth or reason for the time being. But, in a transition from one era to the next, there will be overlaps, breaks and discontinuities as society reconfigures the discourse to match the new environment."

Girish Shambu has asserted that discourse is precisely one of cinephilia's defining attributes. He further acknowledges that it might be time for "a dialectical engagement with cinema discourse" to discontinue—
there's that word again!—attitudes that either dismiss the in-cinema values of a former generation or new media's undeniable and ongoing impact on film culture. Instead, it would probably be much more interesting to explore their simultaneous historicity (Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, indeed!), and to acknowledge their symbiotic relationship.

Cross-published on


Michael C said...

Wow, a superb post, this has come at a perfect time for me. I am also currently in the middle of re-viewing cinema experience and history through the lens of non-linearity and discontinuity, and your post has given me new insights a new research paths to follow. The work by Kofi Campbell and David Wallace sounds like a rich source of inspiration for seeing history as a vibrant intertwining of simultaneous temporalities. I'm interested in cknowledging the progressive linear model of history but also incorporating the discontinuity inherent inside flow of time. Deleuze and Guattari, when comparing the nonlinear state of the rhizome with the linear and progressive state of the arboreal, say that the arboreal in inherent inside the rhizome and the rhizome can be found inside the arboreal. A bit of yin to the yang, I guess we could say.
Fantastic post, much appreciated.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for swinging by to comment, Michael and, especially, for your summarization of the rhizome/arboreal dyad. Its long intrigued me that Deleuze and Guattari developed a theory out of this and got all the credit for it when--in fact--C.G. Jung wrote about rhizomes as the structure of the psyche decades before. I have to be honest that I can read Jung like drinking fine wine but Deleuze is a real struggle for me. I'm glad your sensibility grasps him more readily and that you can share that with me.

Michael C said...

I'm not as familiar with Jung as I would like, and didn't know about his writing on the rhizome - cool, more avenues to pursue! I agree that Deleuze and Guattari have stolen a fair bit of thunder for their theories - for example, although I'm not so well-versed with eastern religion/ philosophy, from the little I've read, it seems that Deleuze and Guattari have pretty much outlined ideas that these philosophies had already outlined centuries ago. I, too, find Deleuze a pretty tough customer to read - I've only been finding it a bit easier lately by approaching the writing in the same manner that he espouses - in a nonlinear fashion, picking out fragments here and there that might help me to understand what on earth is being said. I think I need to be trying that fine wine of Jung a bit more!