In 1996 Bordwell and Carroll introduced their book entitled Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies in the following way: ‘Our title risks misleading you. Is this a book about the end of film theory? No. It’s about the end of Theory, and what can and should come after’ (xiii). During a discussion of what they term Grand Theory, Bordwell and Carroll go on to argue that certain approaches have been overused and misused in film studies; ultimately they suggest that theorizing of any nature (or at least in a ‘Grand Theory’ sense) is woefully inappropriate in understanding the moving image. Most frequently in the line of fire is psychoanalysis, semiotics and structuralism, and post-structuralist theory[i]. Just over 10 years later Andrew Darley mounted a similar attack on the use of certain kinds of theory in the analysis of animated texts; in the context of critiquing Animation Studies, he posits ‘I’m afraid I view rather conservatively attempts to import, willy-nilly, so-called ‘theory’ (usually, French and post-structuralist) into the study and understanding of animation’ (2007, p. 70). One of Darley’s main gripes here is that there is a preoccupation with ontology as it relates to animation, rather than what Darley sees as more pressing concerns such as production and reception contexts, the techniques and practices involved in various works, and the meanings films might evoke (2007, p. 70).
I find these critiques of theory and their application intriguing. They highlight how certain theoretical approaches fall in and out of favour, or should I say fashion? Perhaps this is not as odd as it first appears if one considers that most aspects of our cultural life morph throughout the continually changing context that we live in – why should theory and our understanding/application of it be any different? While Bordwell and Carroll’s arguments are written in the context of the post-Screen debates in Film Studies, where to be fair there had been a heavy use of the approaches noted above, I have always been slightly baffled by Darley’s criticisms of theory and its application to animation. Darley notes Alan Cholodenko’s edited collection The Illusion of Life (1991) which comes under attack for it’s theorising, and, according to Darley, it’s relegation of animation to ‘an alibi for so-called theorizing’ (2007, p. 71).
Darley’s critique of Cholodenko’s collection raises some interesting questions, as does Cholodenko’s original collection, and the follow up Illusion of Life II (2007). Is there a specificity to animation that lends itself rather well to particular notions of theorizing (one that Darley finds so objectionable)? There is most likely no easy answer to this, but it is an interesting question all the same, and why shouldn’t authors tackle it, or theorize it? Scholars spent years discussing the specificity of television because of it’s perceived ‘liveness‘ and I’m not aware of any attacks on such works because it in some way marks television out as different or because it is ‘theorizing’ the very nature of television – it’s ontology. I also wonder at the attack because Cholodenko’s collections are but two sources (actually only one was published at the time of Darley’s writing) within what I perceive to be a rather extraordinary and eclectic range of work that deals with animation in its variety of forms; one need only take a look at an issue of animation: an interdisciplinary journal, where Darley himself is published, to see that an incredibly wide range of approaches are being utilised in the field, and surrounding fields, of animation.
What of animation and (T)theory, then? Bordwell and Carroll announced the end of Theory, although not the end of film theory – are we at a similar crossroads when it comes to animation? Perhaps this comes down to a distinction between Theory and theory and this to me seems a rather willy-nilly application of capital letters! Perhaps it really comes down to questions of taste and preference, and one would hope here that variety shall continue to be the spice of the animated world.
[i] I do not have the room here to outline their criticisms in detail but if this has peaked your interest then see Ruddell, C. (2013) The Besieged Ego: Doppelgangers and Split Identity Onscreen, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. See Chapter One ‘Why Psychoanalysis?’ (apologies for shameless self promotion here)
Dr Caroline Ruddell is Lecturer in Film and TV Studies at Brunel Univeristy, London. She has published on witchcraft in television, anime, Rotoshop, and the representation of identity onscreen. Her monograph The Besieged Ego: Doppelgangers and Split Identity Onscreen was recently published in December 2013 by Edinburgh University Press. Caroline is currently researching the Gothic and fairy tale in popular film and television. She is Reviews Editor for the Sage publication animation: an interdisciplinary journal and sits on various Editorial Boards.