Monday, July 30, 2007

Celluloid bodies: images of intellectuals in film

Casting an eye over recent publications in the humanities, one cannot help but be struck by the proliferation of studies titled 'images of...' or 'representations of ...' Yet such discussions of representation are curiously absent when it comes to examining those who actually produce such writings--namely intellectuals. I will argue here that there are a number of reasons for this reluctance to discuss the intellectual image as opposed to their role and status. Discussion of the latter has in fact expanded exponentially over the last two decades with the decline in power and status of the Western intellectual. I will argue further that film, for a number of reasons, provides an excellent point of entry into a discussion of the representation of the intellectual. Although an investigation combining the intellectual image and film might initially appear a somewhat rarefied exercise, further examination reveals an enormous, indeed an overwhelming, wealth of material. As a result, discussion will be limited here to a rather arbitrary and select group of films and will focus particularly on the issue of 'bodies'. Even within these limitations, there are no claims here to do more than briefly touch the surface of some of the questions raised. (1)

The current obsession with 'representations' might seem to confirm the gloomy observations of Baudrillard, Kristeva and also teledramatist Dennis Potter that we live in a dream like world of trance inducing images in which previously well defined lines between 'reality' and its representations have become distressingly blurred. (2) Nothing has any real substance beyond its flickering shadow on the wall of the cave, or to update the metaphor, on a multitude of movie, television and computer screens. The very word 'screen' says it all. It is at one and the same time the site of shadowy projections of 'reality' as well as a protection from the harsh physicality, the 'bodies' of that 'reality'. There are indeed strong indications that would seem to suggest that something is indeed happening in the physical external world, but we can only mediate that reality through representation, and who is to say which or whose representation is the most legitimate? Since the deconstructive activities of that famous post-1960 generation of French thinkers, few believe any longer in the possibility of a transparent representation of the world, of a world where words and things can be perfectly synchronised. This is, of course, the whole dilemma commonly described as the postmodern condition. But it could equally well be argued that nothing has changed and that the lines between the material world and its representations or simulacra have never been clear. At different times in history, societies have merely expressed varying degrees of belief in the existence, clarity and porousness of those boundaries.

Yet somehow intellectuals themselves, who are the usual instigators of such exposés of illusion and rearrangements of words and things remain strangely silent on the subject of their own undecidability. As experts on the shadowy and mythical nature of all existence they still secretly seem to believe that they are the one real point of reference, that there is some residual truth in the rational project after all. If, in recent times, there has in fact been a small but significant body of work produced on intellectual 'lifestyles' and how intellectuals create and perform their own social identities and roles, (3) few of these writers discuss the matter of representations or images of intellectual bodies at any length.(4) Even Edward Said, in his 1994 collection of essays titled Representations of the intellectual uses the word 'representation' mainly in the sense of representing a political constituency or a set of ideas. Perhaps the closest attempt at a sustained analysis of the physical image of the intellectual is to be found in the work of French sociologist François de Negroni (1985). de Negroni undertakes a brief history of the French intellectual image--changing fashions in clothing, self presentation and culinary habits and in the frequentation of restaurants, bars and cafés.(5) He also analyses descriptions of the physical appearance of intellectuals in various nineteenth and twentieth century newspapers and journals.

For the most part, however, those writing about the intellectual continue to focus on the conduct and ethical construction of the intellectual within a stratified social body located in history. But even if intellectuals are willing to admit that their lifestyles are variable and that they, like other members of society, are engaged in a struggle for social distinction, there still remains the lingering belief that they have the facility to remain above it all, to maintain an ironic self awareness which makes them impervious, unlike all others, to the siren lures of images on a multitude of flickering screens. Perhaps after all intellectuals are not as much disabused of the Enlightenment project as they would like others to believe. They still retain a secret residual attachment to the Hegelian idea that the 'Rational is Real', that Reason is the best and only means to the Truth and as such, intellectuals are its privileged emissaries. It is a view which has been constantly reinforced since the eighteenth century by the special relationship that the intellectual has entertained with the state. The state that was created with the French Revolution was a rational entity. This entity relied on the mediation of intellectuals and state sanctioned teachers to educate the populace about its existence. As mediators between the state and the people, intellectuals were in a position of considerable power, which they lost once the state turned to the mass media and advertising to publicise its existence. (6) Intellectuals remain unable to reconcile themselves to this loss of power. They are loathe to see themselves as occupying a more modest position than the one they have occupied since the Enlightenment. It is difficult for them to recognise that instead of being the guides and truth sayers for the rest of society, they are simply one quite specific group amongst many involved in a collective effort to make sense of the world. If other sectors of the community have held this view of intellectuals for some time now, intellectuals, understandably, are still somewhat reluctant to make this vision their own.

If few books attempt to examine representations of intellectuals in general, there are to my knowledge no sustained studies of intellectuals in film. There are, however, some well known analyses of at least two professions which overlap with this category, namely scientists--or more specifically that much more fascinating variant mad scientists (Tudor, 1989)--and school teachers (Joyrich, 1995). The current investigation poses two immediate questions: first of all, how does one define that notoriously vague body, the intellectual? Secondly, does film, still a suspiciously populist, indeed anti-intellectual medium in the eyes of some, actually have anything of substance to say about intellectuals?

First of all, the problem of definition: one must begin by deciding who qualifies as 'intellectual'. Definitions of the term have been one of the perennial themes in the literature ever since the word first came into current usage at the end of the nineteenth century with the Dreyfus Affair. The broadest definition offered by the sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1978) is that an intellectual is someone who engages in 'intellectual work' as opposed to manual work--a definition it would seem, which immediately eliminates the body. This definition includes all white collar workers creating a category which is far too broad to be of much practical use in the current context and which is, incidentally, also far broader than the popular conception of the'intellectual'. Perhaps a more useful definition would see the intellectual as someone who uses reason, logos, or words to make sense of the world. Intellectuals are concerned with putting together argued chains of reasoning to directly explain or criticise the social and political order. He or she is also generally possessor of a certain 'cultural capital' even if this is not always sanctioned by recognised educational or cultural authorities.

This definition is by no means unproblematic either, as it in fact encompasses two separate if related notions. Generally, even within the confines of this more restricted definition there remains a division between 'researchers' and those designated more specifically as 'intellectuals'. What distinguishes the latter is their engagement with the social and political world. The physicist who quietly works in his or her lab and publishes in refereed journals is not necessarily regarded by his or her educated peers as an 'intellectual'. If however, this physicist emerges from his or her laboratory to make certain public statements about the implications of their research on the broader political and social scale (Einstein and Oppenheimer are examples), then they come to be regarded and described as an 'intellectual'. The term 'public intellectual' has often been adopted in the English speaking world to mark this distinction.

But coming from a more populist perspective, it is more likely to be simply 'cultural capital' or the dissemination of cultural capital which distinguishes the intellectual. To put it in its most raw form, an intellectual is someone who has read a lot, uses big words and often teaches for a living. This kind of image of the intellectual tends to be rather a cliché in popular mainstream film, but it is by no means the only image. Neither is political or social engagement always a feature of this type of intellectual--indeed the individuals included in this category often completely fail to engage with the rest of society beyond the display of a range of eccentric, extreme and socially maladaptive behaviours. Of course all these definitions open up an enormous field and can at various times include a wide range of occupations and professions--notably school teachers, university professors and researchers, students, artists, poets, novelists, journalists, lawyers, scientists, musicians, political activists, detectives (for example Sherlock Holmes (7) and Inspector Morse (8) and even spies. (9)

To turn to the second problem, can one say anything useful about the intellectual by focussing on the medium of film? Even if film and media studies have gained a certain degree of academic respectability, scholars engaged in film analysis tend to be regarded with suspicion by their colleagues involved in the more traditional disciplines of history, philosophy and sociology. The view is still widespread that only the printed word can provide the focus for really serious intellectual analysis. Indeed most of the focus in the training of intellectual elites is still via the written word. There is a far greater corpus and a longer history of written text to be analysed and the book is a far cheaper, more accessible and more transportable technology than film or television. Books cost less to produce and are therefore to some degree less subject to the constraints of marketing, finance and censorship than films. Added to this is the idea that film is synonymous with entertainment--an understandable notion given that the dominant producer of films on the world stage--Hollywood--has a strong commitment to this view of film. But with the recent explosion of the cheap video market, pay television and of numerous film and television data bases on the Internet, there has been a shift in emphasis in recent years. Popular culture has come to be more widely based on the sharing of television and cinematic culture than literary culture.

Even the most cursory survey of first year university students, reveals a far greater familiarity with film and television than with other forms of cultural production such as literature, art and theatre--let alone history or theory--demonstrating that it is not only the safely defined political and ideological systems with their accepted intellectual pedigrees and canon of texts that one needs to be aware of when it comes to social analysis. As Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner (1988:14) argue in their useful book Camera politica:

The political stakes of film are ... very high because film is part of a broader system of cultural representation which operates to create psychological dispositions that result in a particular construction of social reality, a commonly held sense of what the world is and ought to be that sustains social institutions.
Striking support for this argument can be found by invoking the immensely popular suite of Star Trek series which in their most recent incarnations detail the adventures of several corporate groups of politically correct overachievers in twenty-fourth century outer space. Joe Michael Straczynski (1996:10) the writer of a rival science fiction series, Babylon 5, makes the following interesting observations:
After a lifetime of watching Trek as the only vision of the future that most people were aware of, it's amazing to become aware of the belief suspension, until it seems like the 'real' future is the one with the Crayola uniforms and the communicators on the chest. ... Some of the reaction against Babylon 5 was so strong from some groups ofStar Trek fans [that it became plain that] it wasn't just one show vs another ... it was two ... competing visions of the future.
He notes further that he received an angry letter complaining about the use of communicator links stuck to the back of the hand in Babylon 5 when 'everyone knows that by then we'll be using chest communicators'. As he observes the problem then becomes 'a religious problem ... a question of competing ideologies'. Indeed such is the power of the Star Trek phenomenon that it has had a number of real material effects such as the naming of the space shuttle after the Star Ship Enterprise and scientists borrowing ideas from the series for their own research. (10) The fantastic flickering shadows come to life and acquire a real body of their own, the representations create their own kind of reality effect. As Baudrillard (1993:74) suggests:
'It's a circus', 'it's a theatre', 'it's a movie'; all of these old adages are ancient naturalist denunciations. This is no longer what is at issue. What is at issue this time is turning the real into a satellite, putting an undefinable reality with no common measure into orbit with the phantasma that once illustrated it.
Neither is the process simply one way--the 'real' is sucked into the world of fictional representation. In a famous scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation Professor Stephen Hawking, the noted cosmologist, appears as himself, an event I will go on to discuss at more length shortly.