by Peter Wollen

Autobiography: five years ago (1975) I wrote an article on “The Two Avant-Gardes” for Studio International. My main purpose was to outline somewhat schematically (though with the usual prudent provisos) two distinct types of film avant-garde. I am not going to quote or summarize the article but instead give something more like subtext – the polemical drift running beneath the surface. I wanted to bring together two poles of attraction: New York and Paris (a characteristically British ambition perhaps). New York stood for modernism. In film terms: New American Cinema, Sitney’s “structural film” and its European counterparts, and analogues associated with the Co-op movement. Paris stood for May ’68 and theory. In film terms: Godard, Straub-Huillet, Jancsó, Ōshima – what I dubbed the “second” avant-garde, the group of film-makers pushed critically by Cahiers (long an important point of reference for me).

Part of my purpose, I think I should add, was to go beyond the controversy between Sitney and Le Grice over priority between U.S. and European “structural” film-makers, of which I was all too aware. Naturally I was outraged by Sitney referring to Europe as “the outlands” and his near-total consignment of European film-makers after 1943 to oblivion. I thought Le Grice, the Heins and others were right to stress the autonomy and variety of European avant-garde film. Nonetheless, it still seemed to me that New York was the ideological centre for this type of avant-garde – if only because New York had become the centre of the art world and this avant-garde was closely tied to visual art in its latest phases. The terms in which this avant-garde was discussed were crucially dependent on Greenbergian modernism and its transposition into minimalism, conceptualism, etc. (more of this later). I wanted to broaden the discussion to include both avant-gardes – and at the same time “bury” the European-American polarization by displacing it into a subtext.

I ended the article by expressing the hope that the two avant-gardes might converge. There were three reasons for wanting a convergence. (Though apparently historical, the article was in reality extremely programmatic in its strategy.) First, I was laying the theoretical foundations I felt were necessary for the Independent Filmmakers Association, recently established in Britain. My aim (not only mine, of course) was to avoid both the U.S. model – complete lack of contact between avant-garde and political film-makers – and the German model – initial co-operation followed by destructive splits. The design was that the IFA should be able to bring together “militant” (Newsreel, Cinema Action) film-makers with “formalist” (Co-op) film-makers. For this, the old slogan of “new content, new forms” needed reviving and amplifying. Second, I was looking forward to our (Laura Mulvey and myself) next film, Riddles of the Sphinx, which we conceived of as an attempt to combine the two avant-gardes, a possibility we saw as signposted by the work of Yvonne Rainer in the U.S. and Chantal Akerman in Europe. Third, I wanted to push the magazine Screen, with which I was associated, away from a univocal “Parisianism” towards a more cosmopolitan stance. (A “Parisianism” I was partly responsible for having introduced, though I had backed Pierce rather than Saussure from the start, something I felt increasingly thankful for as I read more post-Chomsky linguistics).

The aim then was to combine New York modernism with Parisian (68) theory. Things look rather different nowadays. Modernism is in disarray and 68 has lead to unanticipated disavowals and re-interpretations: the rollback has begun. Cahiers has even reverted to its old pre-68 cinephilia, bracketing off the intervening period as a time of aberration and excess. The way in which I saw things five years ago begins to look naive – or at least ill-starred. Nonetheless I think the underlying impulse was sound. What needs much more careful and searching treatment is the exact nature both of modernism and of “new French theory” – and consequently of the avant-gardes associated with them.

I now see the history of the avant-garde in the visual arts – primarily painting, secondarily film – rather differently. I think that here too we should distinguish two separate trends. One (which I think of as “modernism”) is concerned with reflexiveness (film as film, film about film) and semiotic reduction (foregrounding one category of signifier, or, more radically, of the material substrate; movement towards suppression or suspension of the signified). The other (which I think of as “avant-garde”) is not purist, rejects ontological presuppositions or investigations, and is concerned with semiotic expansion (mixed media, montage of different codes, signs and semiotic registers, heterogeneity of signifiers and signifieds). It was “modernism” which became dominant in the U.S. in the post-war epoch, after the suppression of the avant-garde (especially in Germany and the USSR) prior to the trough of the thirties. Yet in the USA too both strands were always present: witness the Greenberg-Fried polemic against Duchamp and “theatricality”, or the Sitney-Maciunas polemic on “structural” film.

In fact, it is clear that the Fluxus movement had a very important role (hardly acknowledged still) in the history of post-war art. It served, for instance, as the vehicle of transmission for Cage’s ideas and his example to all the other arts. If we look at U.S. “structural” film and its own history more closely we find that both Landow and Sharits were directly involved with Fluxus; Tony Conrad too worked closely with LaMonte Young. The influence of Fluxus was helped, I think, by the fact that it combined a strong element of semiotic reduction (absurd or minimal signifieds, “literalness”) with a strong element of semiotic expansion (mixed media, movement out of art museums into public space, lack of any painterly purism).

Fluxus was also able to take root in both the U.S. and Europe. The ground was prepared by the same tendencies which surfaced as DIAS in London and the “material-aktion” in Austria and Germany, both of which has close ties with the beginning of the Co-op movement and “structural film” in their countries. Evidently Fluxus, like “classical” Dadaism, was not a movement which could endure or consolidate. All the same, it alerts us to the possibility that New American Cinema was not necessarily concerned either with “metaphors of mind” (Sitney) or with “film as film” (Le Grice) except as one aspect of its development – a development, moreover, which was not simply towards and end-point along a line of progressive ontological purification.

Otherwise, in fact, one can hardly hope to make sense of Landow or even Snow. It is all very well pointing out the way in which Film in Which... foregrounds the material substrate of sprocket-holes, etc. (yet dust takes us back to Duchamp) but it seems inadequate for coping with Wide Angle Saxon, let alone Landow’s latest film which heads off from the marriage-broker jokes in Freud’s Wit and the Unconscious. Similarly it is clear that the leading interpreters of “structural” film were much happier with the Wavelength, Back and Forth, La région centrale trilogy than they were with Rameau’s Nephew, which again only makes sense within a Duchampian rather than Greenbergian tradition. (It is interesting too to see how Le Grice deals with Kren – consistently emphasising “work on the signifier” rather than the almost unavoidable nature of the “signifieds”).

The conclusion I reach is that the New American Cinema and its European counterparts formed by no means a unitary movement, but represented two opposing tendencies which have been with modernism and the avant-garde ever since the “natural” Renaissance scope of relations between signifier and signified was overthrown by Cubism. One tendency reflects a preoccupation with the specificity of the signifier, holding the signified in suspense or striving to eliminate it. The other has tried to develop new types of relation between signifier and signified through the montage of heterogeneous elements. It is clear that it is the second tendency which is “convergent” with Godard and Straub-Huillet, and which in the long run must hold hopes of much greater potential. It is modernism which has run its course, not the avant-garde (though a crisis of one is necessarily a crisis for the other).

This brings us back to the second avant-garde and Paris. Looking back on what I wrote in 1975 I sense that I already felt disappointed with the outcome of Godard’s adventures in the wilderness. It had seemed to me at first, as it did to many (witness Cahiers and Cinéthique) that Godard’s trajectory was that of 68. The “theoretical” accompaniment to this view came from Tel Quel with its attempt to elaborate theoretical positions which would bring together Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics and the avant-garde. (Or should I say Althusserianism, Lacanianism, “semanalyse” and a certain tradition of the avant-garde: Artaud, Joyce, etc.). Again, in retrospect, it is easy to see that the “new French theory” was more complex than it looked at first – and like New American Cinema, it contained different trends, mutually inconsistent and contradictory, even more acutely perhaps.

There are three (very bare) points I would like to make. First, the Tel Quel position was basically – like Situationism – a prolongation of the dissident surrealist tradition (Artaud rather than Buñuel, Bataille rather than Breton, Mao rather than Trotsky, etc.). As such, 1968 was both its crown and its wreath. Second, a great deal of “new French theory” turned out to be “old German theory” in origin: not simply Marx and Freud, but also Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and so on. Again, it looks now like part of the lengthy process of French digestion of German thought – and, as such, much closer to Sartre than anyone was prepared to admit. Third, and this is the pertinent point, the revival of semiotics turned out to be anti-scientific rather than scientific. Responsibility here, of course, falls on the very figures who inaugurated semiotics with such brave flourishes of scientificity: Barthes and Kristeva.

Partly this turn against science was due to the pressure of the dissident surrealist and German idealist traditions that I have mentioned above. Partly it was due to an epistemological failure to accept the role of an empirical component in any science without it falling into empiricism – Althusser’s failure, in particular, compounded by an accelerating philosophical fascination with language, text, discourse, etc., completely divorced from any theory or reference. Thirdly, and this is connected with the preceding point, there were serious weaknesses inherent in the fundamental work of Saussure: for instance, his lack of any real theory of syntax, thrown into an appallingly revealing light by Chomsky, and his ambivalence about the place of reference in his theory of the sign.

In making these (regrettably sweeping) criticisms, I should stress that I believe the project of semiotics is more important to defend now than ever before – as the wave of 1968 recedes, ever more attacks are made on semiotics, in the hope that its supposed weaknesses will cause it to collapse and the whole enterprise can be forgotten. The alternatives, of course, are new waves of Anglo-Saxon empiricism and impressionism. Fortunately too the semiotics of film (Metz, Bellour and others) was much less damaged by the anti-scientific reversal I have described than the project of semiotics in general. The problem of film semiotics has been twofold: the failure, building on a Saussurean base, to find flexible enough concepts to extend the scope of semiotics beyond the classical codes of Hollywood and art cinema, certainly in any way which could feed directly into film-making, and secondly a tendency to look for general theories of the cinematic sign (or “dispositif” or “imaginaire”) rather than stressing the plurality and heterogeneity of film – as Metz himself at one stage correctly emphasised.

The failure to develop a theory of semiotics in relation to the film avant-garde was particularly unfortunate because it was here that the influence of Barthes, Kristeva, etc., in their later phases made itself increasingly felt. Eventually semiotics began to turn into an explicitly and militantly anti-scientific (let alone non-scientific) project. In fact, Screen in England was not totally immune from this kind of slippage as it attempted to synthesize a post-Cahiers politique with the semiotic theory from which it had become divorced in France.

The project of a film semiotics capable of dealing with the problems of the avant-garde began to seem more and more Utopian, a vain struggle to hold back the tide of irrationalism. In fact, it was in the area of feminist film-making and feminist film theory that the line was best held. Feminism, of course, was itself in part a product of the political and intellectual upheavals emblematically associated with 1968. Feminism also demanded a critique of image and narrative in dominant forms of cinema which inflected it towards the avant-garde. As yet there are only the beginnings of a breakdown of the division into two avant-gardes and separation of avant-garde from theoretical work, but it is in and in relation to feminist film that the convergence is most marked. Many recent films have been made in context where feminist theoretical writing has provided background and encouragement for film.

P.S.: Since writing these lines my prediction of continuing attacks on semiotics has been amply fulfilled – Anderson, Brownlow, Durgnat and of course the MacCabe affair (itself foreshadowed by Durgnat’s malign call for a struggle against semiotic inflitration of the universities and cultural institutions). While these particular attacks lack any intellectual credibility (Durgnat’s, the most ambitious, opportunistically invokes both Popper and Thompson as guarantors of the most ideal scientific and scholarly empiricism he so deliriously travesties in his own work) there is plenty to worry about when you consider the political situation, ripe for a resurgence of neo-McCarthyism designed to wipe out the aftermath of ’68. What is especially worrying is to find a “progressive” journal like Cinéaste launching a campaign against “structuralist” Marxism and avant-garde film, using non-Marxists to trash enemies on the Marxist left, while cosying up obsequiously to establishment critics like Caroly and Sarris.

On the other hand, it is reassuring that these attacks emanate above all from a pre-’68 generation attempting to turn back the clock. There is another important angle of approach to the present situation. Although, as I pointed out earlier, modernism and Parisian theory are both in disarray, it is possible to see film-makers and theorists in Britain as inheritors, not of these two tendencies, but of the possibilities to develop them. Having spent the 70’s turning between different points of intellectual and aesthetic attraction, the time is now ripe for a British independent film culture to explore the intellectual and aesthetic background of the ’70’s for it’s (their) own purposes.

(Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media n. 14, Spring 1981, pp. 9-10)


Dear Framework,

Your series of translations of theoretical articles from the period of silent cinema marks the initiation of one of the most valuable and laudable gestures of a periodical devoted to the cinema that I have seen in recent years. Congratulations! Your latest issue, which opened with a cogently introduced translation of Lukacs’s seminal essay, thrilled me until I read Peter Wollen’s article “The Avant Gardes: Europe and America”. The misrepresentation in that seemingly innocent and rational essay requires a response.

Mr. Wollen uses a trustworthy rhetorical strategy: he looks down upon a series of controversies from Olympian heights. He cannot sink to the level of those whom he attacks by paraphrase. Like a cork at sea, he is above it all. Still, opportunism is curiously at work in his essay. Of course, he begins with a tone of self-denigration which makes his polemic all the more effective because it camouflages his self-aggrandizement. It would seem at first that he admitted the folly of his essay “The Two Avant Gardes”, in which he called for a synthesis of the energy of the American avant-garde and the politics of a number of European and Japanese feature films. Actually he was following a venerable tradition in that article of five years ago; he was creating an historical fiction in which he could situate his emerging career as a film-maker. Bully! Other much more distinguished artists have used the same ploy.

His recent contribution turns out to be not a repudiation of that self-launching, but merely a desperate attempt to revitalize it and recoup his losses. Since this time around my work and the work of my colleagues are the scapegoats of his careerism, some clarifications are in order.

The most offensive strategy Mr. Wollen employs—although it too has a pedigree—is to assume the very position I articulated in the concluding chapter to my book Visionary Film (revised edition, 1979) as if it were his original insight, and furthermore as if it were a conclusive argument against me and my American colleagues. In my study of “The Seventies” in that book I pointed out that the influence of Duchamp had always been a significant factor in the history of the American avant-garde cinema and that it accounted for the shift toward language games in the recent work of George Landow and Michael Snow (among other film-makers). Yet we read in Wollen’s article that “the leading interpreters of structural film” had trouble dealing with Landow’s Wide Angle Saxon and Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew. Perhaps I am being presumptuous in including myself among those “leading interpreters”. Yet he only names me and Malcolm Le Grice in that context. Surely Mr. Wollen cannot be held responsible for not knowing my essay on the latest Landow film, inspired by Freud’s marriage broker joke interpretation, because it has been delayed in publication. But he is rather premature in his assumption that we leading interpreters of... seem “inadequate in coping” with it. I am still waiting to see the fruits of his insights into this major film. On the other hand, I do not understand how he could have overlooked my consideration of Wide Angle Saxon and Rameau’s Nephew in Visionary Film or Regina Cornwell’s analysis of the latter film in her Snow Seen. (Ms. Cornwell may be the American film critic with the closest ties to Greenberg’s version of modernism—but she has no evident difficulty with this film. Nor should she, for the whole problem is a phantom of Mr. Wollen’s polemic.) Perched on high for his overview Mr. Wollen checks off our failings. So be it. For a man who has never published anything about the Snow film or about either Landow film, to my knowledge, the name-dropping authority he bestows upon himself is grotesque.

The issue is not my writing. There is a deeper matter at stake. I have gone through this silly ritual of discreting Wollen’s warmup paragraphs only to alert your readers to the dubiousness of his objective tone. He shrewdly introduced his argument with allusions to films that are virtually unknown in England (I believe) and to an obscure body of criticism to give weight to his hilarious misinterpretation of modernism.

The serious issues at stake in Mr. Wollen’s article are interconnected in a way he does not admit. He bears witness to the collapse of “modernism” as formulated by Clement Greenberg and his followers and the waning of the structuralist semiotics of Barthes and Kristeva. Naturally, he does not acknowledge that the fierce critique of Greenberg culminated more than a decade ago, while the bankrupcy of semiotics as a science has only recently become an embarrassment to its adherents. The crucial difference between Greenberg and both Barthes and Kristeva is that the former was a superb writer, a master of luminous clarities. But this is not the only difference. In the period of his greatest influence, Greenberg took enormous risks, staking his reputation on the paintings of people such as Pollock, Still, and Rothko. He had the amazing good fortune to combine critical insight with forceful and clear prose. No critic of American painting has been able to repeat his achievement, although—God knows—many have tried, sadly including Greenberg himself, whose eye and critical voice lost authority in the 1960s. Neither Barthes nor Kristeva ever had the arrogant courage of a Greenberg. They were academics with a new gimmick for discussing accepted works. Mr. Wollen’s melancholia over the collapse of their enterprise may be tied to the size of his investment of an Anglo-Saxon merchant of French ideas.

The important and unmentioned issue is quality. Greenberg rose first and fell later on the basis of the artists he championed. My argument with Malcolm Le Grice, to which Wollen cryptically refers, rested upon my conviction that the British avant-garde films I had seen in the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies were simply not on a level of artistic achievement with the works of a dozen or more Americans who had the benefit of a thirty-year tradition. Furthermore I found that the more strident theoreticians among the British and Europeans (e.g. Gidal, Hein) did not make films of the originality and intensity of those few who moved me, such as Chris Welsby or Klaus Wyborny.

A few years ago Le Grice and I debated this issue in public (Mr. Wollen was even there). The most interesting and certainly the most memorable aspect of the evening must have been the undeserved graciousness with which my worthy antagonist greeted my increasingly aggressive polemics (exacerbated by the effect of a bottle of Fundador cognac that Jonas Mekas had placed between us of which I took more than my share). During the debate Le Grice was quite forthright. He told us his critical writings responded largely to the need at a particular historical moment to publicise the English avant-garde cinema. That work was done and he was retiring as a critic. There was no real argument between us. Now Mr. Wollen seems to have forgotten that evening since it is convenient for him to call Le Grice to task, along with me, for not being “able to cope” with certain developments in the recent avant-garde cinema. My guess is that only Mr. Wollen knows how to cope with them, but he is too busy overlooking the whole history of the matter to let us in on it.

Now he repeats Le Grice’s gesture for publicity without admitting its history. He goes so far as to claim (only) Chantal Akerman as a significant example of the kind of European synthesis to which his own films aspire. Yet behind this distortion of the history of the European avant-garde lies the neglect or the cover-up of much more significant film-makers who do not share Mr. Wollen’s political views. Peter Kubelka, Jean-Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître and Marcel Hanoun are central figures of the authentic avant-garde tradition in the European cinema. Yet each one of them, in his own way, is an embarrassment to the spokesman of the current semiotic/feminist/Marxist axis. Therefore they are not mentioned, just as Landow’s repeated invocation of the authority of the Christian Logos in his recent films is not acknowledged by Mr. Wollen, who “copes with” problematic issues by remaining silent.

The policy of Framework, in researching the rich heritage of the theory of cinema through translation of obscure but important contributions from the time before film theory was fashionable seems to run counter to the errors of Wollen’s article. Wollen is at his best, in fact, when he discovers that the “new French theory” is a version of “old German theory”. I only wish he had the guts to admit that this recognition puts into question the chic claim that the bugaboo of “idealism” has been surmounted. Wollen is at his worst, however, when he tries to make a clear assertion: “The conclusion I reach is that the New American Cinema and its European counterparts formed by no means a unitary movement, but represented two opposing tendencies which have been with modernism and the avant-garde ever since the ‘natural’ Renaissance scope of relations between signifier and signified was overthrown by Cubism.” Where he betrays his ignorance of the histories of art, philosophy and literature and his preference for simplistic dichotomies and dramatic chronology. Having failed to be a prophet with his article “The Two Avant-Gardes” he now relocates his cute polarity within the structure of the sign itself and inside a banality of art criticism. In order to make this trick work he has to reinvent the history of the American avant-garde cinema and falsify its criticism. Curiously, he almost achieves a real insight. For fifteen years Annette Michelson and I argued that the American avant-garde cinema, since the 1940s, presented a critical alternative to the reductivism of Greenberg’s version of modernism. In Visionary Film I argued that the influence of surrealism (which is vigorously cast aside by Greenberg) was decisive in the formation of the American avant-garde. There never was a Greenbergian phase of that cinema; in fact, the very notion of cinematic “modernism” in that limited sense is a contradiction, as the philosopher closest to Greenberg, Stanley Cavell, is at pains to insist. By clinging to the rag-tags of his semiological vocabulary, Mr. Wollen hides from himself the recognition that the revolution he locates in Cubism had already been inscribed in the division of the first half of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, as well as in the art criticism of Baudelaire, and numerous other monuments of 19th century aesthetics. His desperate attempt to regiment the “progress” of modernity, to fix it and secure gains, is pathetically evident in the nostalgic litany of the date “1968” with which he peppers his essay.

Until the weight of the philosophical tradition is acknowledged, and the illusion of a science of meaning abandoned, film theory, such as Mr. Wollen presents it, will be nonsense. A telling example of the combination of ignorance, prejudice and politics in the name of film theory, in which Mr. Wollen participated but for which he cannot be held fully responsible, is the volume of essays on The Cinematic Apparatus, edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath. Mr. Wollen contributed “A Historical Overview” (what else!). Nowhere in that book does the name of Stan Brakhage appear. As early as 1964, six years before the first meditations on the ideology of the cinematic apparatus by Comolli and Baudry, Brakhage, in his theoretical essay Metaphors on Vision, raged against the bias of conventional lenses, which duplicate Renaissance perspective, the colour balance of film stock, which imitates picture postcards, the limitation of tripods, the scope of “focus”, the church-like structure of the conventional movie house. Yet not one of the scholars who contributed to that symposium mentioned their precursor. Of course, his politics are notoriously different from those of the organizers of the volume, and he is neither French nor a semiologist. As I have said, Mr. Wollen is not solely responsible for this over-sight; still, he should know the history if he is to give us his “overview”. As the Olympian voice of reason and science on the subject of the avant-garde cinema, he is poorly informed. If, however, he is writing as a film-maker, asserting the priority of his aesthetics and/or political position he owes it to his readers and to his fellow film-makers to be more candid.



1) I didn’t pretend to Olympian detachment but made it quite clear that I was being partisan and polemical—just as partisan and polemical as Sitney is.

2) It stands to reason that my theoretical approach to film converges with my practice as a filmmaker. It would be strange if it didn’t. This isn’t careerism, it’s consistency. You might as well call Metaphors on Vision careerist on the grounds that it serves Brakhage’s film-making purposes.

3) My point about recent work by Landow and Snow was not that Sitney could not possibly write about these films—of course he has—but that he could not write about them in the same terms as he wrote about structural film. The new last chapter of Visionary Film is fine in itself, but I don’t think that it respects the schema of development that structured the first edition of the book.

4) Sitney’s attempt to stay consistent gets him into trouble. It’s not really possible to limit Duchamp’s impact on Landow and Snow to that of Anémic cinéma or to ignore the many non-filmic ways in which Duchamp’s influence was transmitted. It’s simply wrong to restrict the history of film to film alone as though it was sealed off from the other arts or other intellectual and social currents.

5) The main influeces on my work have not been French—Peirce, Propp, Eisenstein, Freud, etc. I have never written of Barthes except critically and comparatively little about any other French theorist.

6) I don’t see any future in trying to revive the sterile Europe vs. America debate. I admire the work of Welsby and Wyborny but I don’t believe in the “authentic avant-garde tradition” of Kubelka, Isou, Lemaitre, Hanoun. How are Kubelka and Hanoun part of the same tradition?

7) It is the Roussel side of Landow’s work which appeals to me—not the Christian logos.

8) No apologies for harping on ’68.

9) Sitney drags the Cinematic Apparatus into the discussion just to fling a few rocks at De Lauretis and Heath. What he says isn’t relevant to what I wrote here.

10) However reluctantly, I’m ready to grant Brakhage his place in history. When will Sitney do the same for Godard?

(Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media n. 18, 1982, pp. 57-58)





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