Technè/Technology. Mutations and Appropriations in European Film Studies: The Key Debates Series.
by Annie van den Oever, ed.
Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014, 411 p.
ISBN: 978-90-8964-571-5 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Since its creation in 2010, the Key Debates series edited by Annie van den Oever (Amsterdam-Groningen), Ian Christie (London) and Dominique Château (Paris) has rapidly become a landmark collection in film studies, a field that is both ubiquitous and, paradoxically perhaps, in crisis. After its institutionalization in the 1980s and the gradual broadening of its research scopes and methodologies, films studies has suffered from the shift from cinema to post-cinema and the blurring of boundaries between cinema and many other types of moving images, screen practices and cultural framings of film. The Key Debates series is an important contribution to the redefinition and repositioning of the field and, as such, a vital plea for the central position of film studies in the expanded field. This fourth volume of the series is the start of a new period, which will include also collections on Feminism and Narrative.
The volumes in the Key Debates series are very different from the formats that are systematically used to present a state of the art or a reflection on upcoming cutting edge research in a scientific field. They are no textbooks, no readers, no encyclopedias, no edited collections on 'key terms', but real debates. On the one hand, they cover a broad range of networked concepts and questions that shape matrix-like part of the global field. Technè, which entails the semantic spheres of art as well as technique, and technology, which links material culture and cultural context, are of course fundamental to the study of film, a technology that eventually became an art, but never without ceasing to be deeply rooted in mechanical and industrial aspects. On the other hand, the books of the series aim at disclosing the past, present and, to a reasonable extent, the future of the critical and social discussions that permanently reshape the debate in question. They refrain from describing this debate from a distant or Olympian point of view, but prefer instead a presentation that leaves room for its historical and cultural complexity.
This complexity has not only to do with the internal density of each notion, object, or practice related to the technological dimension of cinema. It is also directly linked to the linguistic and ideological differences that accompany their forms and uses. The series highlights in a very convincing way the diversity that accompanies the European approach of film -undoubtedly another major asset of these books. French, British, German, Italian, and Russian perspectives (and sometimes even perspectives from smaller cultural and linguistic areas) are systematically brought together and analyzed in a framework that succeeds in persevering a good balance between the specific input of each tradition. Besides, the complexity of the debate is also stressed by the refusal to reduce the debate to a single moment, or a small set of decisive moments. All aspects of the debate are not only carefully historicized, they are also examined both in their various historical settings and in their relationship to ongoing theoretical discussions. The fact that various contributions take the form of a dialogue between equal but not necessarily equally-minded partners is one of the many manifestations of the debate culture that the series wants to foster.
Since one of the aims of the Key Debates is also to redesign the field of film studies, it is important to have a closer look at the global structure of the book. What strikes here is less the interdisciplinarity of the volume than the multiplication of point of views on the same object. This approach is a very sound one: what film studies need today, is not another layer of interdisciplinary readings and methods (and one thinks here spontaneously of the combination of neurological theories with big data mining techniques) that tend to jeopardize the very specificity of the medium, but a 'back to the basics' analysis that demonstrates the internal richness and diversity of the field formerly known as film studies. The outcome of this a priori (if there has been such a programmatic turn at the beginning of the series) is exceptionally successful. The book manages to offer a far-reaching variety of cinematographic approaches of film technology (which of course does not mean that the essays that it contains live in splendid isolation, but the focus is categorically on film studies). Moreover, they also avoid the encyclopedic cutting up of the basic issues of technè and technology into a myriad of smaller and potentially independent notions and concepts. Here, the accent is on what matters: the notion of apparatus, the relationships film technology in relationship to similar technologies, the shifting place of film technique according to historical and cultural settings, for example. This broad perspective and the strong editorial hand of Annie van den Oever give also the possibility to most contributors to tackle the subject in a way that is not technical at all (the discussions are often very sophisticated, but always deprived of jargon and the sense of clarity is not a simple nod to the general reader but the result of an intellectual desire to think as clearly as possible). The exceptional place given to more philosophical readings, not only of film technology but of technology per se, is a proof of the series' unique position in the field.
One should not infer from this presentation that the book privileges general discussions over close-reading. The latter is very well represented as well, but always in close connection with the larger question of technè and technology. A good example of this approach (and I apologize for giving only one example) is Markus Stauff's article on the technology of classic television (1960s-1990s). The fear of being accused of technological determinism as well as the (well deserved but now too easily hegemonic) success of audience reception and resistance in a cultural studies perspective have made that the technology of classic television has remained undervalued and underresearched. As Stauff brilliantly demonstrates, the technological reading of television is an eye-opener in many respects: it helps reopen the ossified discussion on technological determinism (often a straw man's argument), the comparison with film technology discloses several new perspectives on cinema, and it is also the ideal opportunity to tackle issues of apparatus and governementality as well as the link between both forms of technology.
The book contains many surprises like the one provided by Stauff's contribution, and this at two levels: first, the conceptual and philosophical one (please read for instance Robert Sinnenbrink to discover what film studies can learn from Heidegger's philosophy of technology); second, the historical and aesthetic one (see for instance Ian Christie's discussion of André Bazin's interest in 3D or Martin Lefebvre's journey through Christian Metz's archival notes on the apparatus, equally for instance). And it would be a pity not to have a wide discussion on the manifesto on "experimental media archaeology" that closes the book and that is built around a vibrant plea for a hands-on approach of the medium's technology (in plural, of course).