It is always more difficult to criticize a publishing journal than a book or article; even so, Terry Eagleton’s remarks on Screen (nlr 107) are not adequate to the rigour and seriousness of that journal’s project. Essentially, Eagleton reproaches Screen with formalism. More than merely the willingness to study form is needed for this criticism to stick. Like other ‘isms’ (economism, theoreticism), the term implies the error of overtotalizing, and so an excessive concern with form as central or exclusive determinant (it is thus a precise definition of the Russian Formalists).
For Eagleton, Screen’s formalism is firstly an excessive concern with techniques of production whose supposedly radical programme presumes that ‘films which draw your attention to the camera thereby impel you out inexorably onto the picket lines’. Screen has disavowed such technical formalism with some consistency. Colin MacCabe (Screen Vol. 17, No. 3, p. 21) refers to the notion that, the breaking of the imaginary relationship can constitute a political goal in itself’ as ‘the ultra-leftish fantasy of the surrealists’, and associates it with certain formulations of the Tel Quel group. Again, in the same issue, Stephen Heath condemns deconstruction based on the notion of ‘film as film’ as representing ‘the impasse of formal device’ in ‘an aesthetics of transgression’, and urges instead work which will bear little resemblance to the officially acknowledged avant-garde (p. 109).
Screen has been less concerned with the technical forms of film or its ideological ‘theme’ (‘content analysis’) than with its ideological ‘form’ or operation, that is, the articulation of codes of image (mimetic representation of visual space) and of the arrangement of film in sequences (the novelistic development of narrative) constituting the ‘classic realism’ of cinema. Such formal codes are not, of course, metaphysical; they are a really existent discursive materiality, and as such an object to be constructed as knowledge in an appropriate theory (a theory of signifying practice) ; and further, an object it has been conjuncturally important to construct, since formal codes are a necessary condition for ideological ‘theme’ and are presupposed—often without question—by conventional ‘content analysis’. As instituted form, realism is ideological not merely in repressing traces of production (as Eagleton mentions), but in promoting the homogeneity of realism’s ‘narrative space’ which acts to preclude contradiction. As instituted form, realism is historical in being one of the forms (with harmony in music, iambic pentameter in English poetry) produced with the capitalist era, and so what may be termed an epochal form. It is only for those positioned within the contradictions of late
What Screen has not so far developed is historical study of film in its immediate conjuncture. The obstacle to this does not, I think, inhere in any of Screen’s theoretical assumptions or in the logic of its project, nor has Eagleton demonstrated that it does; it is rather the present lack of an adequate theory for thinking the relation between signifying practice and conjuncture, and the consequent danger of falling (back) into impressionism.