'Dreaming of Cinema' Demonstrates Why the Humanities Are Out of Touch

For better or worse, contemporary scholars in cinema studies spend more time drawing from and debating one another than talking about films.

Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media

Publisher: Columbia University Press
Length: 280 Pages
Author: Adam Lowenstein
Price: $30.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-11

Adam Lowenstein’s Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media is a scholarly book about film spectatorship, and at the start, Lowenstein makes clear that he “takes seriously one of the primary missions of humanistic film studies scholarship, which is to provide theoretical accounts for acts of spectatorship that must be carefully historicized and contextualized but must also, ultimately, remain hypothetical” (4). In other words, at a time when the economic and cultural value of a humanities degree is uncertain, Lowenstein defiantly defends the need for humanistic scholarship in the digital era.

This premise, while admirable, is plagued by the probability that this book is unlikely going to be read by anyone outside of academia, which ironically contributes to the perception that humanities departments across the United States are out of touch with the general public. Doctoral students and university professors that specialize in spectatorship, surrealism, and digital media will find this book useful, but it’s not the kind of crossover work like Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide or Barbara Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home that will appeal to intellectuals outside of the academy. This isn’t Lowenstein’s fault per se, since he is part of a profession that regularly writes for its own, but it’s a reality that needs to be acknowledged.

The book is separated into five chapters, and as Lowenstein explains, each chapter “investigates a different theoretical model of cinematic spectatorship in the digital era.” (5) The first model, “Enlarged Spectatorship”, argues that André Bazin and Roland Barthes’ “shared commitment to photographic realism is more accurately described as an investment in surrealism.” (ibid.) In this chapter, Lowenstein makes connections between Bazin, Barthes, and famous surrealists like André Breton, Georges Bataille, and Jean-Paul Sartre. He then uses The Sweet Hereafter as a case study to claim that “digital technologies of the DVD… open up possibilities for spectatorship practices once considered surrealist.” (6) This is a complex section that has limited appeal, but at the very least, general readers can learn about important thinkers like Bazin, Breton, Bataille, and Sartre.

Chapter two, “Interactive Spectatorship”, argues that cinema “offers a valuable model for theorizing interactivity as embodied stimulation”, which harkens back to the time when the surrealists used games to explore the relationship between artist and audience. (ibid.) Here, Lowenstein references Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and Roger Caillois, which should interest readers that aren’t familiar with their work.

The third chapter, “Globalized Spectatorship”, borrows from Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the global village to consider “the complex media flows connecting recent extremely successful Japanese horror films and their U.S. remakes, all of which feature prominent displays of digital media technologies and surrealist aesthetics as central to their sources of horror.” (7) The discussions of Nakata Hideo’s Ring (1998) and its American remake are particularly insightful.

“Posthuman Spectatorship” draws from recent claims about digital technology that there is no difference between the body and the machine. Lowenstein takes from “the growing body of scholarship in animal studies to juxtapose the surrealist and new media accounts of human-animal relations, so that posthuman spectatorship rests on cinema’s role in remapping the human within the frames of machine and animal, embodiment and disembodiment.” (8) If this loaded sentence peaks your interest, by all means dive in and explore Lowenstein’s take on the famous “Christian the Lion” YouTube video.

The final chapter, “Collaborative Spectatorship”, “investigates the ramifications of digital technologies on the phenomenon of spectator fantasy concerning the film star, specifically as it overlaps with surrealist imaginings of the movie star.” (ibid.) Lowenstein focuses on the famous surrealist Joseph Cornell’s writings on forgotten ‘30s star Rose Hobart, as well as a YouTube channel devoted to Rock Hudson. He concludes that these examples “illuminate both the strengths and weaknesses of surrealism as a theoretical model for understanding cinematic spectatorship in the age of digital media.” (9)

Anyone who has been associated with the humanities will be familiar with this kind of scholarly work. It's incredibly abstract and theoretical, and although it attempts to offer new ideas about spectatorship and digital media, most of it expounds on the work of past influential theorists. For better or worse, contemporary scholars in cinema studies spend more time drawing from and debating one another than talking about films, and with the exception of David Bordwell and a few others, knowledge of the scholarship is considered more important than a broad grasp of cinema itself. This is problematic, and it has caused most of the general public who are curious about cinema to tune out.

I’m all for rigorous thinking, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing idea and pretentious psychobabble. It’s one thing to introduce a new generation of students to the groundbreaking work of the surrealists, but it’s another to push that work in pointless new directions. There is a productive way to teach surrealism, and I am reminded of a graduate seminar in which I once enrolled on experimental cinema. We read Breton’s manifesto and watched Buñuel’s films, but the professor didn’t waste our time with other scholars’ interpretations of their work. We just learned about the context in which the work was created, the main ideas, and the overall impact.

My point, albeit a bit controversial, is that there’s only so much that can be said about a particular topic. Yes, the surrealists should still be taught in classrooms, but it’s likely that the discussions had by today’s students mirror the discussions of previous generations. An exposure to the work opens up students’ minds, but once the ideas have been grasped, there’s a sense of accomplishment and completion that comes with gaining new knowledge, and it is at this point when students should move on to the next topic of study.

However, as academia becomes more competitive and professionals fight to maintain job security, there is a race to contribute new knowledge, since such contributions are required to get a job. This has resulted in a cycle of scholarship that has become stale and repetitive, in which scholars fill in gaps that didn’t need to be filled, or in Lowenstein’s case, enter into the tired realm of theorizing.

This idea, that there is always more to ruminate on a given subject, has allowed humanities departments across the United States to justify their existence. However, Dreaming of Cinema demonstrates the disconnect between what is taught in the classroom and what is regularly published by university presses. The information that is taught, whether it be the works of surrealists or Spielberg, will always be relevant, but the scholarship about that information struggles for legitimacy. Unlike neuroscientists, whose current research serves to benefit society, humanities professors don’t exactly set the world on fire with reinterpretations of Foucault. That is, no one is waiting for another theory of cinematic spectatorship, especially when the ones we already have are quite fascinating.

Dreaming of Cinema has its admirable attributes, and it will surely appeal to those that work within humanities departments. There’s no denying that Lowenstein knows his field, and that he has carefully mapped out his arguments. There’s just a sense of pointlessness to it all, and the book’s existence speaks to a larger issue with which the humanities has not dealt. The issue is institutional, but given Lowenstein’s position as a tenured professor, he could have used this opportunity to change the course of cinema studies and make it more accessible and applicable to the general public. At a time when the discipline is deemed irrelevant, another theoretical treatise is a step in the wrong direction.

To borrow from McLuhan, we live in a global village now, in which “uneducated” citizens around the world can access information in unprecedented ways. The mission of the humanities at this point should be to introduce these citizens to the great thinkers and artists in an accessible manner. Instead, it continues to alienate them with more elitist claptrap.

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