[iDC] Periodizing cinematic production

Jonathan Beller jbeller at pratt.edu
Mon Sep 14 20:45:24 UTC 2009

On Sep 14, 2009, at 12:04 PM, john sobol wrote:

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  

Hi John,

I think I am going to agree with you about our lack of common ground  
on these topics. While I am not quite sure why you display such a  
contempt for theory while blithely going about writing your own, it  
is, for me too laborious on this ocassion to contend with so much a  
priori negativity with regard to intellectual labor -- as if, by  
virtue of being intelligent, the work of Debord, Adorno, etc. were  
somehow to be discounted. For me to make a real answer to you, I feel  
like I would have to convince you that your position, in which you  
look at empirical reality and just tell it like it is, while I draw on  
bullshit philosophers and confabulate mirages, is disingenuous, and I  
don't think I'm up to that task. However, I will say that your refusal  
to recognize that changes in visual technologies may impact linguistic  
practices, forms and the theories thereof, is tantamount to saying  
that language/literacy evolves/changes in a vacuum, and everything  
else is the consequence of that. But I guess you do say that: in your  
words, "the world has been visualized (by literacy) and industrialism  
is a consequence and not a cause." Few would argue that the history of  
literacy is bound up with technological and economic changes but I  
can't recall having met anyone, scholar or poet, who thinks that  
everything is caused by any one thing, excepting of course, if that  
cause is God himself.

If I were to try to get one point across, it would simply be an  
attempt to reiterate what I said in a prior post -- the tools you use  
to represent literacy are themselves the consequence of socio- 
historical transformations that include the rise of visuality, meaning  
to say that, poet or not, your language isn't transparent. Unless you  
recognize the historicity of your terms, there is no way to perceive  
that some formulations of your own, such as "specifically I refer to  
the psycho-social experiences of orality" are anachronistic. "Psycho- 
social" is a modern perhaps even a postmodern (sorry) construction,  
that posits a template for the resolution of variables that would have  
been mostly unavailable to pre-modern/pre-individual speakers. So in  
constructing your bedrock realities you import both the very theory  
that you seem to despise, as well as the history that gives rise to  
the emergence of these theories. Not acknowledging this situation  
means that you erase the very media through which you see, as well as  
the historicity of your position.

One consequence of that is precisely the syndrome which you disavow at  
the end of your last post.


Jonathan Beller
Humanities and Media Studies
and Critical and Visual Studies
Pratt Institute
jbeller at pratt.edu
718-636-3573 fax

> 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 it!).
> 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  
> interrelationship.
> 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
> www.johnsobol.com

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20090914/944f5dd1/attachment-0001.htm 

More information about the iDC mailing list