Film as Theory - Winfried Pauleit

For a long time we took it for granted that there is film as an art form, and that there is theory as a particular form of elaborated commenting on film.
This distinction is well established beyond the context of film studies, throughout the history of other arts (e.g. literature and fine art).

It is also related to a form of identity politics that we use to make sense of our selves, as part of a differentiated field of cultural practices.
In everyday communication we claim to make films, to be a film maker, or we claim to do theory, to be a theory person (or to be a film curator, to be a person who runs a cinema, or a film museum, etc.).
This distinction is also mirrored in different institutions: The humanities within the universities on the one hand and the art schools on the other, and their particular practices:
making pictures or other art works, versus writing academic texts.

These distinctions have been questioned, attacked, or crossed through from different positions during the last decades, and double identities became fashionable.

This is very roughly the context of my presentation.
What I would like to address is the very possibility that film itself can be theory – or can become theory.
That means: film itself arguing in place of a text.
If you look in the printed summary for this panel, the questions that follow this hypothesis read like that: (and I quote the text of the summary):

But what does “in place” of a text mean here?
What do film argumentation methods look like?
What are the connecting points between text-based theory and film theory that is not (any longer) a theory of film, but theory itself, albeit precisely as film?  (etc.).

The rhetoric of these questions suggests answering them by looking at films – experimental films – commenting on them and describing their particular qualities as theory.

I will not follow this direction – at least not in the first place – because this path and setting would only reproduce the usual distinction of film (here) and theory (there), and may end up in mere speculation.
Rather, I suggest looking at the rhetoric of this claim that film can be theory or can become theory, and at the efforts and attempts that have already been undertaken in this direction.
Looking at these claims, there are three different models of understanding and describing the notion of “film as theory.”


The first claim is that film – and particularly experimental film – can somehow equal theory, although bypassing the established system of a language-based theory.
You can find this claim very often as an implicit hypothesis or rather as a metaphorical description.
There are also elaborated arguments that follow that path.
With regard to experimental cinema, there is Edward Small’s book Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as a Major Genre (1994).
With regard to the works of Jean-Luc Godard and Harun Farocki, and to “Essayfilm,” there is Volker Pantenburg’s book Film als Theorie. Bildforschung bei Harun Farocki und Jean-Luc Godard (Film as Theory: Image Research in the Work of Farocki and Godard, 2006).
The rhetoric of these arguments usually includes the point that there is a need for interpretation or translation of this sort of visual theory into language, for a better understanding.
As a consequence, these arguments often include this interpreting and translating, and their writers behave like advocates, and show or explain to their readers why and how particular films can be understood or perceived as theory.
(I hope that one can see the problematic issue of this claim.)


The second model of “film as theory” is a counter-position to the first one. It argues that film can be theory if it really makes proper arguments that are understandable without translation or comment.
As a consequence, the defenders of this position argue that film as theory has to be built on language.
You can find this position e.g. in Phillip Lopate’s writing on essay-films (Totally, Tenderly, Tragically/In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film, 1998).
The argument of Lopate goes like this:
Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight is a wonderful experimental film and an exceptional work of art. It has shifted our understanding of film in a fundamental way. However, it does not qualify as an essay or as theory, as it does not make any verbal argument.
One of the results of his research is that films very rarely make proper arguments.

We don’t have to agree with Lopate.
But it is the aim of this congress to investigate the field of experimental films and their quality of thought, as well as their potential for theory. If one follows Lopate, one may argue that Michael Snow’s film So is this makes language-based arguments within film, as well as Heinz Emigholz’s A series of thoughts, where he is filming and discussing the work of El Greco.


The first and the second model are both built on the distinction between two areas that I described in my first remarks:
a distinction between image and word, art and theory, etc.
Both take it for granted, rely on it, but apply it differently.

In contrast to this, the third model changes the conditions under which film and theory are placed in a relationship to one another.

Various attempts have been made to suspend that particular distinction from the side of theory and philosophy:

  1. E.g. the figure of the language game is an attempt that pushes theory towards aesthetic production.
  2. The graphemes used in deconstruction build a similar figure.
  3. Another attempt is the concept of the “image-text” developed by the visual theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, which tries to cross out the difference between text and image with this conceptual hybrid notion image-text. He postulates that the difference is a construction, and that each text includes aspects of an image, just as each image contains components of text. In brief: there are only hybrid forms.

All these attempts of the third model have been perforating our everyday understandings of film and theory for quite some time. They take a different methodological path as they do not only look for theory, or for the potential of theory in film.
Instead, they question our understanding of film and of theory in a fundamental way.
I hope that my sketch of these already existing different models can help to build the ground for a taxonomy of “film as theory” that allows us to distinguish various modes of talking and thinking film as theory.

I would like to talk about an example within this context – which may qualify as a fourth model of film as theory.
It does not equal theory, and it does not make verbal arguments. Its method may be similar to deconstruction, but it does not use texts but a whole film archive instead.
I’m talking about Christoph Keller’s presentation of the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica, a research project founded in post-war West Germany.
I like to talk about this example, as it takes up a thread that came up in another panel discussion on Thursday.
In her response to Siegfried Zielinski, Gertrud Koch discussed the notion of “experiment.” Experiment as a device of control and even torture, to cause nature to speak up.
Film recordings were often used to register scientific experiments, developing particular methods and dispositifs. Today, these experiments are no longer restricted to scientific laboratories. They also take place in the public sphere, and surveillance cameras are only one device of control amongst others.

Encyclopaedia Cinematographica was a scientific film project that sought to compile a comprehensive archive of all kinds of movement. The methodology of this project can be characterized as an attempt to structure movements into various distinguishable units of motion, for example, how an animal runs or a metal melts, and to create short films of each unit for research and teaching purposes, particularly in the natural sciences and ethnology.

The starting point of this project was animal movement, taking up earlier studies by Muybridge and Marey and extending them into the field of animal and human behavior. Founded in 1952, the film project came to a close in the 1990s. Encyclopaedia Cinematographica left behind a body of several thousand films

In 2001, part of the film archive Encyclopaedia Cinematographica was presented publicly in the form of an art exhibition. The artist Christoph Keller chose 40 exemplary films from the collection, inserted them into video loops and presented them as a video installation on 40 monitors in the space of Kunstwerke Berlin.

Keller’s installation is coded differently, simply by transferring the scientific films to an art context. By producing loops he even followed a certain use that was the suggested by the scientists.

The installation shows animals as well as a particular setting of an experiment or a staged arrangement.
It also makes visible the implied film proof of natural laws, from which our understanding of animals and their behavior was derived for a long time.

I would even go so far as to say that in the off-screen of these films the ideologies of social Darwinism, including the Nazi interpretation of “racial hygiene” are inscribed.
These ideologies can be uncovered, studied, questioned, and
worked through while reading these images.

I think it is possible to take this installation as a further model for film as theory, a model that works differently.
I would suggest two ways to describe its function:
From the side of the spectator: reading these images may evoke theories from the collective memory and at the same time through the process of reading, the theories will be deconstructed almost automatically.
And from the side of production: this sort of video installation does a reframing of films. And the reframing also alters the frame for the theories connected to these films through cultural practices.
I would call this a counter-strike of picturing and therefore deconstructing theory.

Constanze Ruhm brought up similar practices referring to intertextuality in the TV series “Breaking Bad” on Thursday evening.
The strategy at work in Keller’s installation also seems to be similar to the one that we can find in Isodore Isou’s film Traité de Bave et d’Éternité. Although I have to admit that I’m skeptical about the title of this panel and the attempt to place Isou’s film in the context of found footage and appropriation. I would rather call Izou’s strategy a form of disappropriation or a sort of exorcism.