Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The school of reflexivity

If I were to say there is one overriding concept that most defines, influences, and reflects cinema as a narrative medium, a technological device that communicates, an artistic expression, etc., it would be reflexivity. It defines every aspect of cinema as a social practice, an aesthetic model, and a medium of many media. For me, reflexivity captures the illustrious diversity that cinema represents, from the commercial to the artistic, and everything in between. So then what is reflexivity? It's a difficult idea to label with a simple definition, let alone think of it as something that can be "applied" to the study of something like cinema or various other media. It is not so much a singularity, but a plurality of meaning. I've been wrestling with it for years now as a student of communication studies, particularly media and culture, wherein I have been not been driven by questions of "What?" (which would be the project of empiricism) or "Why?" (Philosophy's question), but rather "How?". Of course, this is a simplification of the discipline, but it rather pointedly evokes the difficulty of approaching cultural meaning making and the ideological tensions that underlie the production and consumption of media in global and political economy.

At times, narrowing my focus to studying cinema both ignores and involves the theoretically rich study of communication and its implications for cultural and individual agency. Many critics would like to believe that a movie is just a movie, there for my critical assessment. But what informs me as a critic, as a privilaged spectator passing judgment on a movie's "aesthetic quality"? How do I assume that role, and under what assumptions am I operating when I look at moving images on a screen and attempt to measure their value? Certainly, there are a innumerable factors that contribute to my position as a watcher, lover, and critic of cinema; systems of values and beliefs that together constitute my consumption and understanding of cinema. But how do I individually, and we culturally define what we call "cinema" or "movies"? It is indeed a unique intersection of a various media, technologies, and narratives that have developed through various cultures over thousands of years. And only now are we in a position to understand it through various theoretical lenses, such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, cognitivism, formalism, neoformalism, etc. The fracturing of cinema studies into varied schools of thought as diversified how cinema is viewed, relate to, and understood. But despite the disparity among these various approaches, the increasing level of diversity signals the necessity that elusive concept of reflexivity.

But, again, what is reflexivity? I'm not sure it can be understood directly for the very reasons mentioned above. It's just too big to try to understand linearly. But in my recent reading, I came across a wonderfully stated approach to reflexivity, one that broadly encapsulates reflexivity, yet avoids the very clear-cut tendencies it critiques. It's from Gillian Rose's book, Visual Methodologies:

"Reflexivity is a crucial aspect of work that participates in the so-called cultural turn. There, reflexivity is an attempt to resist the universalizing claims of academic knowledge and to insist that academic knowledge, like all other knowledges, is situated and partial. Reflexivity is thus about the position of the critic, about the effects that position has on the knowledge that the critic produces, about the relation between the critic and the people or materials she/he deals with, and about the social effects of the critic's work."

That summation captures the feeling and presence of reflexivity. For me, reflexivity is a constant state of repositioning and revisioning how I see what I see, and how I perform what I perform. Its the abstraction that what makes it so essential, so necessary in our individual/cultural being.

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