[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Mon Sep 14 16:04:04 UTC 2009

Hi Jonathan,

although I respect your attempt to find common ground in our  
positions I am afraid you mistake my basic points, which are not  
particularly compatible with your analysis below. Briefly:

You say: "I see the industrialization of the visual world as the  
water-shed for a new mode of production".
I say: the visual world has never been industrialized. On the  
contrary, the world has been visualized (by literacy) and  
industrialism is a consequence and not a cause.

What I find interesting here is that if we were to extrapolate this  
argument in more detail, I am reasonably certain that it would play  
out along the following lines: You would defend your theory mostly by  
referencing other theories. I would defend my theory mostly by  
referencing what people do and have done with their communication  
tools on a very mundane level. I do not doubt that you would  
reference some historical examples, but like many academic theorists,  
your arguments appear to gain much of their credibility by explicitly  
positioning themselves in relation to one or more theoretical  
traditions; whose value, in my skeptical opinion, often lie less in  
the authority of unimpeachable usefulness than in the usefulness of  
unimpeachable authority. As below:

"It is, in short, the overcoming of what Kittler almost poetically  
calls "the bottleneck of the signifier," that creates the crisis for  
language, representation, the modern subject, and, I would want to  
add, a new set of crises for political-economy. The industrialization  
of the visual brings with it a radical marginalization of language  
function's purchase on the world, all of which is itself part of a  
complex picture that must factor in both the falling rate of profit  
and the legitimation of imperialist wars by purportedly liberal- 
democratic societies. Following Orwell (as well as Horkheimer,  
Adorno, Debord), I have come to think that a short-circuiting of the  
lived experience that was (enlightenment) logic is a pre-requisite  
for sustaining the contradictions of the modern-capitalist  
superstate. In other words, the elaboration of visuality was a socio- 
economic necessity, whose earliest signs were to be found in the pyro- 
technics (and psycho-logistics) of commodity-fetishism."

Despite the erudition evident in this paragraph I must admit that I  
think that your arguments about language are a mirage. You go on to say:

  The entire discipline of linguistics (like its big-brother  
psychoanalysis) does not really get off the ground until the age of  
cinema. One could argue about this (drawing perhaps on the  
philological tradition), but I would say that it is only with  
Saussure, and the formalization of the split between signifier and  
signified, that one gets linguistics proper. This formalization  
depends upon two things -- first the conscious recognition that  
language functions like an image (the signifier is an image of the  
signified, and indeed this relation is itself graphically figured),  
and second, the unconscious recognition that language is one medium  
among many. In short, linguistics marks the denaturing of language,  
its fall from its status as an ontological formation. All of this, as  
well as the development of theories of literacy and the retrospective  
considerations of the huge historical and sociological consequences  
of the printing press, follows from this moment of disenchantment

Again briefly: Linguistics (proper) is of little relevance to the  
crux of our disagreement. Its evolution neither proves nor disproves  
anything about the advance of visual society, still less about the  
evolution of cinema. But digressing for a moment to address it, I  
reject your assertion that "language functions like an image". This  
is tautological thinking, mistaking a culturally-specific truth for a  
universal one simply because, as members of that culture, its  
advocates perceive no other option as legitimate. But language does  
not function like an image at all times. Text functions like an  
image, true. But there are other forms of language, far more ancient  
than print, whose modalities are in no way captured or successfully  
dissected by linguistics, or by textual analyses, and that do not  
function in any way like images. Specifically I refer to the psycho- 
social experiences of orality.

Thus I do not think that linguistics marks 'the denaturing of  
language, its fall from its status as an ontological formation'.  
Linguistics has little to do with this fall, which was not a fall at  
all but a transformation from one ontological condition to another, a  
bloody and brutal transformation over millennia, still underway in  
some respects, though now largely mature, from orality to literacy.  
The illusion that literate theorists are not themselves today as  
dependent upon - and blindly devoted to - their own ontological gods  
(a pantheon crowded with countless minor deities among whom are those  
responsible for certifying, classifying and otherwise fixing  
supposedly 'contingent' knowledge in peer-reviewed publications -  
that least contingent medium of all) is to my mind absurd. Yes there  
was/is an assault upon the bodies of oralists and their psycho-social  
architectures, resulting in most cases in their extinction and the  
rise of economies, governments, universities and other systems given  
meaning and form exclusively within literate epistemologies. And yes  
this was in one sense a fall from a state of nature to a state of  
denature (we agree there) but it was not a fall from naive  
ontological wholism to enlightened individualist critique. Each  
system has its own unshakeable ontology, its own faith, despite the  
range of post-modern titles in college bookstores (if not as proof of  

Your final point, that 'theories of literacy and the retrospective  
considerations of the huge historical and sociological consequences  
of the printing press, follows from this moment of disenchantment' is  
a little closer to the mark, though again off-kilter. Yes, it was  
only in the 20th century that theories of literacy emerged. But not  
as a result of 'disenchantment', and certainly not as a consequence  
of the appearance of linguistics or cinema's industrialization of the  
visual. It occurred because literacy was entering the networked age,  
and MacLuhan was there far before the rest of his peers, in his  
visionary mind, (a poet's not a scholar's) and was thus one of the  
first to feel himself bumping up against it, and measured himself and  
his world accordingly. And it happened because a few backward-looking  
scholars such as Lord and Ong were able to bridge those divergent  
oral and literate ontologies, to master in certain respects the  
modalities and mysteries of each, and to explore their  

Anyway, I too have work to go to too, so will go do it. I imagine  
that some people must think that since I tend to always reference the  
same argument and position that I must have a one-track mind, but  
this is not the case. Understanding oral, literate (and digital)  
values and how they clash is as fundamental in my view as  
understanding that gender, race and class politics play critical  
roles in shaping our identities and our world. And not understanding  
them as incomplete and as destructive. I believe that in the  
developed world we live almost entirely according to literate social  
architectures, that oral epistemologies are utterly misunderstood by  
most of us – especially intellectuals who are most completely devoted  
to literacy – and that there are serious consequences to this  
misunderstanding. That's why I keep reiterating the same perspective.  
Not because I am an egomaniac, but because I think it matters.

John Sobol
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20090914/33d519d0/attachment.htm 

More information about the iDC mailing list