A Pemanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories Conference, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, 24.-25. November 2017

Jean-Pierre Meunier’s Les structures de l’experience filmique: L’identification filmique from 1969 is a key text in the history of film studies. Through the readings proposed by Vivian Sobchack, Dudley Andrew and others, Meunier’s work has been an important influence on the development of film theory over the last decades. The trajectory of Meunier’s book is all the more remarkable if we consider that the book has hitherto only been available in its original French. On the occasion of the first English language translation of Meunier’s book, prepared by Daniel Fairfax (Yale University) and edited by Fairfax with Julian Hanich (University of Groningen), the proposed symposium, to be held at the University of Frankfurt on November 24/25, 2017, will bring together important international film scholars and philosophiers to discuss Meunier’s work. The goal is to reflect…

…historically on the role of Meunier’s book in the history of film theory – in France and beyond;
…conceptually on the continuing relevance of Meunier’s book and the seminal categories and concepts he proposes for the history of film phenomenology, contemporary film studies;
…philosophically on the underpinnings of his film phenomenological approach and the role the book played in the history of film phenomenology;
…film theoretically on future explorations of the film experience of fiction films, documentaries and home movies, areas to which Meunier’s book has contributed, and may continue to contribute, valuable insights.
Published at a time when film-phenomenology – influential from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s with such scholars as Henri Agel or Albert Laffay – had largely been superseded and replaced by semiotics, Marxism and psychoanalysis, Meunier’s book drew on the work of phenomenological philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre to distinguish various types of engagements viewers can have with moving images (on the history of film phenomenology, see Ferencz-Flatz/Hanich 2016). In his influential article “The Neglected Tradition of Phenomenology in Film Theory“ Dudley Andrew noted in 1978: “Meunier hopes to describe, and account for the peculiar fascination and momentum belonging to various types of film, from home movies through narrative features. Identification is key, unlocking the inner dynamics of genre upon genre by mediating on the viewer’s shifting mode of consciousness in confrontation with various types and organizations of images.“
Meunier starts off with the phenomenological observation that viewers have a particular subjective relation with fiction films, documentaries and home-movies that can be distinguished, first and foremost, according to what he calls the viewer’s “identification” with the types of image on the screen. He thought-provokingly argues that filmic modes like documentary films and home-movies should not be distinguished ontologically, according to some essential properties, but rather according to the viewer’s subjective experience. This experience is largely shaped by the knowledge viewers bring to the film: what do they know about the filmic world on display? Have they lived through the experience themselves (as in the home-movie, which has a largely evocative effect) or do they come to the film with hardly any prior knowledge (as in the fiction film)? Meunier’s study is a veritable reservoir of helpful conceptual distinctions, such as “fictional/documentary/home-movie consciousness” or “longitudinal vs. lateral consciousness,” terms this symposium seeks to discuss and assess for further use in film and media studies.
In particular, Meunier’s thoughts on documentary films and home movies became influential when Vivian Sobchack summarized and refined his arguments in her widely read and much-discussed article entitled “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience” (1999). Since then film scholars have variously taken up Meunier’s ideas, albeit only indirectly via Sobchack’s mediation. See, for instance, the work of Timothy Corrigan (2011) on the essay film, of Malin Wahlberg (2008) on the documentary, of Alexandra Schneider (2016) on the amateur film, or of Akira Mizuta Lippit (2002) on the representation of animal death in film.
Meunier’s distinctions – albeit somewhat schematic – bear further reflection as they convincingly show that watching what critics, scholars or paratextual discourse defines as fiction or documentary films does not imply that we watch these films continuously with a “fictional consciousness“ or a “documentary consciousness.“ It is a profound insight of Meunier’s book that the film experience is much more variable and shape-shifting than our usual analytic distinctions admit, allowing for moments of, say, documentary consciousness in a fiction film or home movie consciousness in a documentary. As Vivian Sobchack puts it, “The film that is objectively given to the viewer may be subjectively taken up in a variety of ways, not only in its entirety, but also in its parts. The form of our identification with specific cinematic objects may be solicited, but it is never determined a priori.” What is more, Meunier’s tripartite scheme can – and should – be extended to moments when the film experience is suffused with day-dreaming (what one could call “imaginary consciousness”) or instances when viewers become aware of themselves as viewers (a possible term could be “audience consciousness”). The two-day symposium will allow for assessing these and comparable extensions of Meunier’s ideas.
The idea of the proposed symposium is to invite a group of noted film scholars, film theorists and philosophers to respond to the new English translation of Meunier’s work, and to assess its enduring relevance to our thinking about film, cinema and the moving image in general.
Participants will be given access to Meunier’s text in the English translation in the spring of 2017, in order to allow sufficient time for the preparation of the contributions to the symposium. Participants will be asked to address Meunier’s arguments, relate it to their own approaches to film theory and film aesthetics and evaluate Meunier’s relevance to our understanding of the rapidly changing contemporary film and media culture.
Participants have been selected and invited on the basis of their previous engagement with Meunier’s work, or the intersections of their own work with the concerns of Meunier. All invitees have accepted to participate in the event.
The paper titles will be announced after the translation of the book has been made available to participants in May of 2017.
Jean-Pierre Meunier himself will be invited to attend the symposium and provide a response to the proceedings.
In that sense, the symposium will serve as the occasion for the discovery and re-discovery of a key moment in the history of film theory as well as a laboratory for the further development of some of the key concerns of contemporary film theory.
The essays coming out of this symposium will be published alongside Daniel Fairfax’ translation in a volume of Permanent Seminar’s „Film Theory in Media History“ book series with Amsterdam University Press, which is edited by Vinzenz Hediger together with Trond Lundemo (Stockholm) and Weihong Bao (Berkeley).
Rediscovering and re-introducing Meunier’s study to a broader audience seems significant against the background of a renewed interest in film phenomenology and the question of how viewers experience moving images. In their introductory volume What Is Film Theory (2010) Richard Rushton and Gary Bettinson characterize film phenomenology as one of three most flourishing areas of recent film theory (next to audience research and the debate about the cinema of attractions). The proposed symposium and the subsequent publication of the translation of Meunier’s work and the responses by contemporary film theorists will make a significant contribution towards the debate about film aesthetics and film experience in film studies, media studies, philosophy, as well as potentially in art history and media psychology. We also expect the symposium and the publication to have an impact on the current debate about documentary forms and aesthetics across media, as well as on research on home movies and other private forms of media use and media production.



The full program of the symposium will be announced here later this year.



Contact: Vinzenz Hediger (hediger@tfm.uni-frankfurt.de), Julian Hanich (juhanich@yahoo.de)