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An article by Stephen Heath, in response to Peter Gidal's 1976 essay The Anti-Narrative. First published in Screen Vol 20 no. 2, 1979

"The argument" is for truly materialist practice which is one of the presentation i.e. demystification of the material construction of film, a dialectically constituted "presentation", of film representation, film image, film moment, film meaning in temporalness, etcetera." [1]

That argument has been made by Gidal in films and writings over a number of years and has received a certain amount of discussion in Screen in articles by Brewster, Dusinberre, Eaton and Rees: the first reviewing the Structural Film Anthology edited by Gidal to accompany a National Film Theatre retrospective in 1976, the second concerned with problems of subjectivity in the development of Gidal's work, the third and fourth with the context of that work and its specific strategies. [2] The publication now of this piece by Gidal himself, The Anti-Narrative, written in 1976 and revised in 1978, is not simply a continuation of that discussion - and not at all a discontinuation of the elements of criticism produced by those previous articles - but also the possibility of a more direct access to and thus a more direct engagement with a position, strongly held and articulated, that has had its importance in contemporary debate around questions of strategy in independent film-making practice and that cuts across many concerns that have been and are central to the work of Screen. This 'afterword' is no more than a series of brief remarks, 'further footnotes' in connection with one or two points arising.[3]

There is for Gidal a radical impossibility: the history of cinema. The fundamental criticism made of everyone from the Berwick Street Collective to Akerman, Oshima to LeGrice (even LeGrice), is that their films are part of that history, return its representation, that they are in that cinema, repeat its implications. Strategies of deconstruction are merely a further turn of involvement: deconstruction repeats - gives currency once more to and looks into - the terms, the images it seeks to displace, is a continuing and reactionary reproduction of cinema. And cinema is not available here for another - alternative - history. It is inconceivable that Gidal could write a book such as LeGrice's Abstract Film and Beyond, the different, hidden, outside-the-industry, independent history. Not just because of the theoretical and political refusal of any grounding in ideas of art and developing artistic experimentation, but also because of the difficulty of 'independence' and 'history': there is always in Gidal's writing the tension of an acute actuality, the pressure of - for - a break now, exactly the constantly current impossibility.

It is this that Gidal qualifies as his 'ultraleftism' ('so-called ultraleftism') and that gives his habitual mode of assertion from a position occupied as being, occupied to be, the extreme - almost all films are to be described as 'reactionary', if not 'facistic' - and his habitual adjudicatory isolation - radical feminists alone are possible allies, though even then 'problematically'. The way may, be 'distrust concerning every form of enthusiasm' but that, as Gidal himself often seems to recognise, can quickly become , generally disorganised and individual pessimism, a strictly contemplative performance. [4]

As far as the theory and the film-making practice are concerned, the consequences of this position are, in fact, complex, contradictory. If the history of cinema is radically impossible, two courses seem open: either the end of cinema as the straight refusal to make films and so repeat its terms or the end of cinema in films, a work in, on, through film, the 'truly materialist practice' as Gidal defines it. Such a practice, which is the course decided by Gidal, is then necessarily the fully reflexive knowledge of the history of cinema that at any moment a film - a materialist film - must hold and present, 'a dialectically constituted "presentation", of film representation, film image, film moment, film meaning in temporalness, ecetera'. The film must be the event of that material presentation ('the historical moment is the film moment each moment'), the only way to end the implications of cinema, the place-image, identification, narrative-sign, illusion - of the spectator there.

Two remarks immediately in this context. First, it has to be noted that this presentation of film representation works in practice across a division or duality of strategies as with regard to signifier and signified (these terms with the idea of separation, one against the other, as used by Gidal): on the one hand, presentation of elements in and through the film: on the other, elimination of elements from the presentation - for example, images of human figures, with the stress in the theoretical statements on the elimination of images of women (human figures do occur in films by Gidal, sometimes quite centrally as in the 1970 Takes with its use of an erotic image of a woman in its film account of cinema- voyeurism, but there is a whole run of his films, including most notably Room Film 1973, Condition of Illusion and Silent Partner, and in respect of which the theoretical writing seems particularly to have been developed, where the absence is more or less complete - more in Room Film 1973 and Condition of Illusion, less in Silent Partner which introduces shots of legs). Second, the relation between the theoretical - theoretical-polemical - writing and the films should not be taken for granted: the films are different from the writing, the theory, that accompanies them and that difference is not - contrary to one or two of Gidal's own comments - their failing but their advance: this is not because of some notion of 'the artist' being automatically, romantically in advance of 'the theorist' but because, simply, the effects and constructions of the films cannot be flattened into the reductive position of the theory which, indeed, at many points they challenge in the very monotony - the undialectical nature - of its usual argument.

'There is no film which subverts the real . . . that which is, the material real, is only subvertable by another material real, not by any material image of a material real.' [5] The same emphasis is made and extended in 'The Anti-Narrative': contemporary social formations cannot be adequately given through cinema: there is no dialectical portrayal, operation upon and through in cinema in relation to social practice of the extra-cinematic. In part, this is a position against certain idealist conceptions of the political importance and effectivity of cinema and film: film is important but unimportant, and a political practice - a political study for that matter - of cinema is so only in posing constantly. and against itself, the terms of that recognition (the movement and perspective and action of that 'but'). In part too, however, it is the argument against 'work on the signified (and "work on the signifier")' for a specific practice of film, of film specifically, where 'specific' - 'specifically' involves, as the very condition of 'an unrecuperated avant-garde', film kept out of meaning and representation, free from all illusions - 'the process is the film'.

The problem of all this can be grasped in the idea of a production of meaningless: 'the attempt at meaninglessness... the nongivenness of meaning'. Gidal's formulations are difficult here and confusing in that difficulty and then themselves confused, several possible positions (and there is a defensive edginess that emerges in the need felt to disclaim positions which are clearly recognised as perhaps implied - 'none of the above to imply autonomy to (a) discourse'). The terms of the making of meaninglessness for which Gidal argues are not so far from those of deconstruction - 'the emptying of meaning', 'the undermining of meaning' - and the effective distinction of the two would depend on a far more developed account of the operation of this 'making' than Gidal gives. In the absence of which account, meaninglessness is both entangled with deconstruction and, which defines it as being different from deconstruction according to Gidal's argument, with the reiterated attack on representation and, ideally, reproduction, 'that battle against reproduction': 'a defensive resistance against the reproduction of meaning: that latter which is the reproduction of dominant ideological meaning, the representation.' Though Gidal would not accept this, it appears in the difficulty and confusion that one position implied would involve something like the notion of an abstraction of the given as the production of a work outside meaning and hence the ideological: 'the undermining of determinate meaning, the latter being as always and necessarily ideologically produced and arbitrary'. What exactly would an indeterminate or non-determinate meaning be? (Does 'determinate' here mean simply a particular meaning? The elision of the question of specific historical meanings into a question of meaning in general is part of the difficulty). What exactly would be at stake in a non-arbitrary meaning? (In what sense, moreover, is a determinate and ideologically produced meaning arbitrary? In one crucial sense at least, it is quite the reverse that has to be stressed: historical materialism indeed is the science of the non-arbitrariness of the given, Including meaning(s). And this is to leave aside that 'film-as-projected, as anti-illusionist' and the 'making of meaninglessness' are not one and the same thing or necessary concomitants with the latter the condition of the former (for Gidal 'meaning' and 'illusion' seem to function synonymously in a totally un-Brechtian manner) and that, precisely, Gidal's turns are in meaning, crossed by meanings - those of the history of cinema they inevitably and critically engage included - and productive of meanings, not least the complex meaning of their, of that engagement.

In a way, the confusion is exactly a result of what Gidal calls his ultraleftism and which might better be seen as an absence at many points in his writings of historical and dialectical thinking. The critique of deconstruction [6] is right but no justification for a monolithic argument against all and every work engaging contemporary terms of representation and their production. Since a film is never in itself simply radical, it is right and necessary to locate and critique the elements of its construction in ideological reproduction but this is again no justification for a monolithic argument in which all films become indiscriminately and uniformly 'reactionary' and which avoids any consideration of the historical reality of the contradictions a film may represent and decisively produce (as does Riddles of the Sphinx, which is its real difficulty and its political use value, the latter itself with contradictory effects to be grasped at each stage of the continuing history of the film's situation). [7]

Evidently, the work of Screen differs sharply with Gidal as to the possibility and the value of 'production of meaninglessness': there is a necessary - and inevitable - struggle in representation and the relations of representing of men and women as subjects given in those relations, which struggle is what is easily 'forgotten', theoretically avoided, by the notion of minimalising potency of signification in order to allow for attention to the film's process as such, 'its' construction. To say that 'we must get "back" to work on the signifier and process of production, the inscribed oneness of diegesis with process (relations) of its production' is not only still a problem of representation - inscribed oneness - but is equally, and precisely in its belief in a simply filmic solution of that problem - work on the signifier - an elision of the real process of a film in a way that does not support the assertion of 'the obviously political of such a work'. 'Representation of meaning means: repressing the coming into being of meaning'; [8] as against which, as something of its dialectical relocation, would have to be added, however, in order to grasp what is then at stake, that 'film as film' means repressing the fact of the social existence and heterogeneity of film: film is not film - 'has any materialist account ever proceeded by tautology? - but, always and every time, a specific social production, which real process of a film includes the conditions of its construction and presence (the audience, for example, and despite Gidal's 'somehow the audience mustn't be mentioned'), never reducible to 'inscribed oneness' or 'work on the signifier'. It is thus, moreover, and without in any way falling into some indulgent idealism of its effectivity, that film is a site of social practice and intervention, that something is to be done and - constantly, contradictorily - to be gained there, in and against its institution, its cinema. Gidal's films after all, are about that.

'I vehemently want to aim the camera at something and work through with it on representation.' [9] In fact, of course, Gidal's work is in representation. The argument against representation - perfectly idealist as such, the question is not one of 'arguing against representation' but of transforming specific institutions and practices, specific terms and relations of representation - is accompanied by an argument for, effectively, a more complex engagement with representation. What is important for this latter argument is a critique - the practical critique made by the films (sometimes described by Gidal as 'the distance between know- ledge and perception') - of existing holds of identity and identifi- cation, of their whole contract of seduction, of. this cinema of reproduction. (Elsewhere, 'reproduction' tends to become another generally abstract term, taken up in the battle 'against reproduction in any form' which is not helped by a quotation from Maynard Smith's The Evolution of Sex that does not, contrary to what is claimed, say anything about not-reproducing and so support that, as 'a viable theoretical position'). Gidal's films use materials of reproduction, reproduce, are the site of relations of representation, represent; the work is in the transformation they realise, the new situation they reproduce: 'setting up a contradictory representation: holding and not holding a series of reproductions into' (the) terms of (a) representation.' [10]

These few remarks have been made simply as an initial response to the writing and arguments of Gidal's theory of which 'The Anti- Narrative' is an extended example. None of the points made cannot be found in 'The Anti-Narrative' itself. Part of what remains over from them there is the kind of difficulty and confusion here men- tioned: part again, however, is a complex development of the-. problems and contradictions of these points in theory and in practice, a development which these present remarks have largely curtailed and which is the final use of Gidal's paper here in Screen.

1. Peter Gidal, 'Further Footnotes', unpublished paper delivered at the London Film-makers Co-op, February 1976.

2. Ben Brewster, 'Structural Film Anthology', Screen Winter 1976/7, vl7 n4, pp 117-120; Deke Dusinberre, 'Consistent Oxymoron - Peter Gidal's Rhetorical Strategy', Screen Summer 1977, v18 n2, pp 79-88; Al Rees, 'Conditions of Illusionism', Screen Autumn 1977, vl8 n3, pp 41-54; Mick Eaton, 'The Avant-garde and Narrative', Screen Summer 1978, v19 n2, pp 129-134. A context for these articles, and to which a number of them explicitly refer, was provided by Peter Wollen's '"Ontology" and "Materialism" in Film', Screen Spring 1976, v17 n1, pp7.23.

3. These remarks, also follow on from the discussion in an article to which Gidal here refers: Stephen Heath, 'Repetition-time: Notes around "Structural / Materialist" Film', Wide Angle v2 n3, 1978, pp 4-11.

4. Think of surrealism and the political situation of the avant-garde, Benjamin talked of the need to ,em>organise pessimism: 'To organise pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images. This image sphere, however, can no longer be measured out by contemplation. If it is the double task of the revolutionary intelligentsia to overthrow the intellectual predominance of the bourgeoisie and to make contact with the proletarian masses, the intelligentsia has failed almost entirely in the second part of this task because it can no longer be performed contemplatively . . . In reality it is far less a matter of making the artist of bourgeois origin into a master of "proletarian art" than of deploying him, even at the expense of his artistic activity, at important points in this sphere of imagery.' Walter Benjamin, 'Surrealism', Reflections, New York 1979, p 191. Gidal's writing runs across ideas in this passage which in turn has questions for that writing and its various formulations. The problem of the deployment of the artist, even at the expense of his or her artistic activity, against the unity-illusion of an assumed progressive relation (Benjamin's 'metaphor') and towards a critically produced knowledge in the con- tradictions of the reality of representation and its institutions (Benjamin's 'sphere of imagery') is the problem of, together, Gidal's theory, his films, his practice and situation as an artist.

5. Peter Gidal, 'Technology and Ideology in/through/and Avant-Garde Film: An Instance', in Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath eds, The Cinematic Apparatus (in press).

6. Ironically but symptomatically critique of d%eacute;onstruction in Screen has on occasion involved simultaneous and explicit critique of Gidal's theoretical account of 'structural/ materialist film': 'Deconstruction is quickly the impasse of a formal device, an aesthetic of transgression when the need is an activity of transformation, and a politically consequent materialism in film is not to be expressed as veering contact past internal content in order to proceed with "film as film"...'
'Narrative Space', Screen Autumn 1976, v17 n3, p 108 (for the 'proceeding-with-"film-as-film"' formulation, see Peter Gidal, 'Theory and Definition of Structural /Materialist Film', Structural Film Anthology, London 1976, p 2).

7. As context for this description of Riddles of the Sphinx, see 'Difference', Screen Autumn 1978, v19 n3, especially pp 73-74, 76, 98-99.

8. 'Further Footnotes', op cit.

9 Peter Gidal, 'Talk at Millennium', Millennium Film Journal v1 n2, 1978, p 20.

10 'Technology and Ideology in/through/and Avant-Garde Film: An Instance', op cit.

Stephen Heath
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