The Wisconsin Tradition, Then and Now: A Brief Note on SCMS’s Fieldnotes: Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell

Everybody who cares about the rigorous study of film and media owes it to themselves to peruse the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’s Fieldnotes. Since 2015, SCMS has been producing video interviews with figures who have been pivotal to film and media research for the last forty years. The most recent interview features two people I consider mentors, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The interview, conducted by the University of Toronto’s Charlie Keil, was eye-opening for me in many respects, so I wanted to share a thought or two. But first, a little back story.

I graduated from the Wisconsin film program in 2011, and during my time there, I published the first in a series of pieces where I endeavored to understand the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the Wisconsin tradition of film study. These essays address its roots and tributaries, its intellectual commitments, and, yes even in some cases, its biases and shortcomings.

From what I gather, it isn’t all that common for graduate students to write critically or historically about their current professors and mentors and the paradigms that had made them important players in the field. It’s probably a little risky, some would say unwise, but I think anyone who read these essays could see that they were written in the spirit of honest inquiry. As a PhD student, I simply believed that if I was going to be trained in the Wisconsin tradition, I owed it to myself, not to mention my peers and mentors, to seek answers about the tradition’s origins, the areas of history, analysis and theory it had explored, and the approaches and methods it had employed (and overlooked). Happily for me, the answers I came up with were of interest to journal and book editors. An additional boon: throughout this little journey, I was also able to sniff out how I could contribute to the tradition and to the field more broadly. Writing these pieces, which often touched on other topics–on the problem-solution model of historical explanation, the concept of style history put forward by early film theorist Rudolf Arnheim, and the rise of para-Marxist formalism in the US–helped me work through this intellectual side-project.

Looking back at this work, I now realize that it would have benefited from the insights on offer in the Bordwell and Thompson Fieldnotes interview. Here’s how.

First, the Fieldnotes interview crystallized for me how Bordwell and Thompson view their work in relation to leftist traditions of thought. In my article on para-Marxist formalism, I focused mainly on Albert Maltz and the leftist review, the New Masses, during the years 1945-1946. The work of literary critics George Steiner and Marc Crouzet suggested to me that Maltz and other New Masses authors and readers were invested in a nascent form “para-Marxist” literary and art criticism. The para-Marxist took the Engelian view that the cultural critic ought to be free to comment on a range of phenomena, including form in and of itself, and thus invested in exploring modes of materialist writing that extended beyond the critique of ideological content.

I briefly speculated in the piece (on pages 24 and 25) that the ill-fated effort to develop a leftist formalist criticism in the New Masses in the immediate postwar era was part of a long history of para-Marxist aesthetic inquiry in the US and elsewhere, and that the “neoformalism” of Bordwell and Thompson, indebted as it was to the Russian Formalists, was a part of that history. They had, in effect, married formalist art criticism and theory with some Marxist political or economic models. This “discovery” was important to me because, as I understood matters then (and still do now), the distinctions between the Wisconsin tradition and Marxist approaches in film studies are not as stark as some critics of the tradition allege.

It was refreshing to learn, therefore, that Bordwell concurred. He states in the interview (at 37:33):

I see what we do, and this […] echoes the old Russian Formalists, as completely necessary to any kind of political or social critique. But that doesn’t mean that everything you write has to be a call to rally behind some cause.  

A bit earlier, he provides context (at 36:45):

I remember being told this: “Your work doesn’t fit the agenda.” […] The agenda was essentially psychoanalysis and neo-Marxism. Now, I am somebody who is very sympathetic to leftwing political science and political economic theories. I am more skeptical of psychoanalysis, because I am not sure what psychoanalysis is exactly. Nevertheless I think it’s legitimate to pursue these things. I think that what was worrisome to some people was that what we did didn’t engage enough in issues they thought were salient. Patriarchy, capitalism, things like that.

There’s no doubt that Bordwell might have been pressed to elaborate on precisely how his work, and that of Thompson, serves social critique without directly performing it. Still, these passages suggest that, on some level, what we had in the debates between the Wisconsin tradition and its critics was a rehearsal of an issue raised in the New Masses in the middle 1940s, that being: whether a properly leftist writing about art must work explicitly to advance the political agenda du jour, or whether it can serve leftism by other means (perhaps by spreading and deepening knowledge about the various effects artistic techniques can have on consumers). We had, in other words, a dispute not between progressive and conservative forces, but among members of the left.

Second, at least tacitly, both this section of the interview and a later passage (at 1:02:50) encourage us to think a little differently about the political work of academic research–a question now on the minds of many film and media scholars. Simply put: film studies should avoid setting too firm of an “agenda” for academics to follow. The implication is that, even in periods of political activism and indeed stress, we ought to take steps to ensure a healthy degree of  “pluralism” (Bordwell’s term).

Bordwell, it should be said, is not recommending widespread inter- or multidisciplinarity, which already has its fair share of spokespersons in the humanities. He’s talking about a healthy diversification of approaches, methods, and questions within specific disciplines.

Let’s call this intra-disciplinary diversity. Bordwell believes that he and Thompson contributed to this pluralism in film studies by showing the virtues of question-based research. Through the fruits of their question-based academic labor, they helped widen the base of commitments among film scholars, showing the promising shores beyond the realms of psychoanalytic and neo-Marxist orthodoxy.

As Bordwell and Thompson see it, this did not mean abandoning leftist principles, as we now know. It meant pursuing what I would call non-politicized, politically-informed research, which in Bordwell’s and Thompson’s case, focused on the “causal inputs of cinema.” They were drawn toward leftist political-economic tools because of the answers they yielded about the development of film aesthetics in institutional settings. An instance of this is their focus on industry structure and power relations within the classical Hollywood studio system. We might dub their leftist approach, somewhat crudely, a neo-para-Marxist one. It formed the basis of a film-aesthetic historiography.

In any case, none of this is to suggest that Bordwell and Thompson have the final word on the impact of the Wisconsin tradition or its place in broader intellectual history. Some are likely to view their interview, or read this blog, and take issue with the claims and conclusions on offer. Nevertheless, film historians now have at their disposal an invaluable piece of testimony about the history of the field, testimony that, as we have seen, sheds new light on two related issues: where did we come from, and where should we be going from here?