After the Historical Imaginary

As we have seen, much of the debate around national cinema is dominated by two paradigms: that of essentialism versus constructivism, and the paradigm of "otherness," the fact that a sense of (national) identity always implies drawing boundaries, and staking out the visible or invisible lines of inclusion and exclusion. However hard a semiotically inclined mind may find it to abandon the meaning-making power of binary pairs, from what has been said so far, such strict oppositions cannot be maintained without some modification. While the idea of the historical imaginary - which as indicated, runs through most of the essays in the collection - is already an attempt to allow for the shifts and reversals in the relation of self to other, it is evident that this term, too, is dependent on some version of identity as a relation to otherness (at the time intended to combat essentialism, while not yielding to full-blown and ahistorical constructivism). I have tried to include a certain historical dynamic and asymmetry in the power relations at work in the self-other relation, reflected in the section titles, such as "border crossings," "without passport," or the way I trace the relation of art cinema to counter-cinema to Hollywood via the detour of an imaginary Third Cinema of neo-realism as magic realism.

Yet insofar as the essays do have a consistent conceptual-metaphoric basis, it is indeed grounded in this self-other relationship, the cinematic look, the mirror metaphor and the different affective, psychic and political architectures built on it. As already explained in the introduction, the (two-way) mirror is something like the master trope in my thinking about national cinema (Germany, Britain, the Balkans) in relation to Hollywood or the West, but it is equally in evidence in essays such as the one on Bergman and in "Women Filmmakers in the 1980s." While I am therefore not disowning either the underlying assumptions or the analyses thus obtained, I do want to signal that the historical situation of cinema in Europe has changed since the 1990s, or rather, that the questions we put to this cinema have changed, and that in pleading for a new approach I am also revis(it)ing positions put forward elsewhere in the present collection.

I began by looking at the sort of distinctions that are usually made about how the national functions within the body politic (ranging from patriotism, to chauvinism, to racism) and in the media, sports, leisure, and popular culture (print, television, cinema, popular music, football, food, tourism), where signifiers of the national are constantly put in circulation in modes that range from the exotic and the nostalgic, to the patronizing and the provocative. My central question, thus, was to ask what the relation might be between the resurgence of political nationalism in its contradictory, but also very modern or contemporary character, and the increasing ubiquity and political power of audiovisual media, notably television (and to a much lesser extent, the cinema).

The conclusion reached in this chapter has only answered the question above, insofar as it has pointed to the difficulties of moving from national cinema to European cinema with the concepts provided by the discipline of Film Studies. The chapter appears to end on a negative note, suggesting that the debate around national cinema may have exhausted its usefulness for the study of contemporary cinema in Europe. But this also contains the hope that both the es-sentialist and the constructivist notion of national cinema can be superseded by a new cognitive mapping of the hitherto central categories such as "nation", "state", "identity" and "otherness" without either resorting to the formal-meta-phoric level of in-between-ness and hybridity, or the generalized label of postmodernism. If the premise of the present chapter is correct, namely that the relations between nation and state are, within Europe, shifting in particularly paradoxical and countervailing ways, then the concepts of subjectivity and identity, of history and temporality - with which the European cinema has been identified at least since 1945 - are also changing. Such reflections provide more reasons why it may be necessary to revise the concept of the historical imaginary, based as it was on identification and address, and centered on the geometries and architecture of the look, rather than on irony and voice, appropriation and impersonation, painted faces and American accents. The New Cinema Europe, if such an entity exists, cannot be defined as either essentialist or constructed in relation to nation and state, but neither will the mirroring effects of self and other be sufficient to determine its identity. Indeed, the very concept of identity, with respect to self, nation and Europe may no longer be apposite. The hope is that new terms will emerge that can think cinema and Europe, independent of nation and state while still maintaining a political agenda and an ethical imperative. For the former, I shall look at the supra-national organization of the European film business as manifested in the film festival circuit, and the nodes that determine its functioning as a network; for the latter, I will choose a subnational perspective - above the individual and below the state - to explore how specific films locate their protagonists and narratives in different forms of intersubjectivity and mutual interdependence, while still speaking of inclusion and exclusion. The central concepts will be those of occupancy rather than identity, of interference rather than mirroring. In both these respects - the festival network as a determining factor of contemporary cinema and multiple identities as a determining factor of belonging - European films are not unique, for these are characteristics that they share with films from Asia and the US. Maybe the best reason for calling films European in the global context would finally be their awareness not of what makes them different, but their reflexivity about what makes them able to participate and communicate in the world's cinema cultures.

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  • ishbel
    What is the "historical imaginary"?
    8 years ago

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