Review of Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film | Leonardo

Review of Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film

Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film
by Christian Metz; Cormac Deane, Translator

Columbia University Press, New York, 2015
280 pp. Trade, $90.00; paper, $30.00; ebook $29.99
ISBN: 9780231173667; ISBN: 978–0–231–17366–7; ISBN: 978–0–231–54064–3

Reviewed by: 
Ian Verstegen
April 2017

At one time, Christian Metz loomed large in film and comparative literature reading lists (particularly his Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, 1974). Tied to semiotics and psychoanalysis, interest in him passed with interest in those subjects. The present book represents a delayed continuation of Metz's legacy in an English translation of his last book published in 1991 (L'Ãnonciation impersonnelle, ou le site du film). In the introduction, translator Cormac Deane notes how unlike it is from Metz's earlier ponderous works and argues that Metz is not looking backward at his formed system, but rather forward to new challenges that would preoccupy film theorists. The result is a wide-ranging pass through tens of examples of films of all kinds, only bookended with the theoretical armature of how Metz thinks enunciation works in films.

The title, Impersonal Enunciation, suggests that the subjectivity of the film takes place outside of actual people (impersonal), while the "place" of film is precisely asking where that nonperson might be. For Metz, long associated with linguistic reduction (the portrayal of film on a linguistic model), true enunciation doesn't actually take place in film. The theory is an apparent volte-face: technical enunciation as outlined for French semioticians by Benveniste is not a true pronomial case in the example of film, the film's "you" to our "I." Rather, Metz argues, it contains merely a "source" and "target."

The heart of the book is eleven short chapters documenting various ways in which the film appeals to the viewer, including the voice in the image, the voice outside the image, text added to an image, the addition of secondary screens and mirrors, the display of meta-technical elements to "expose the apparatus," films within films, and so on.

Metz smirks at the imputation of linguistic reduction to him by Anglo-American critics (e.g. Bordwell), but it is as if Metz's immersion in linguistic life is sufficiently great that, even if he denies a language system behind the production of cinema, his efforts still demand the term "enunciation." In other words, Metz regarded himself as merely using linguistic ideas productively, but from the English-language perspective his thought was dripping in some pretty specific (Saussurian-Hjemslevian) thought. In this book, Metz persistently contrasts his views with those of Francesco Casetti, and in the context of Metz's ruleless system, Casetti's espousal of a true system of enunciative positions, apparently more linguistically rigid, attains not so much linguistic reduction than places interpretation within bounds.

A recent cognitive linguistic analysis of enunciation seems to partly support Metz in defining a subset of impersonal discourse as "nobodied" (belonging to a subjectivity other than a person), which in film's case is "not attributable to a personal subjectivity" and for which the camera "does not imply the presence of a person doing the seeing" (Line Brandt, The Communicative Mind: A Linguistic Exploration of Conceptual Integration and Meaning Construction, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, 71). But it would take much more investigation to resolve the great debate between Metz and Casetti.