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What is it with academics and penises?

I’m currently reading Maggie Günsberg’s Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre as part of my PhD work. At the moment, I’m making my way through her chapter on horror cinema (which concentrates on the “pure” horror films of the mid-50s to mid-60s, barely even mentioning the giallo thrillers of the early 70s in which I’m interested), and I’m wondering if I’m the only person who finds it disconcerting that so many academics specialising in Film Studies seem to see penises everywhere. Particularly when discussing horror films, any object that is long, cylindrical and/or pointy is interpreted as a phallic symbol. (Likewise, the narrow corridors of the old houses that so often appear are invariably described as “vaginal” and their decaying state, plus their frequent use by evil spirits, proof of these films’ misogyny.) Sometimes it’s understandable - there are only so many ways one can interpret a lesbian character having a spear thrust into her nether regions and out of her mouth in Mother of Tears, for example - but most of the time, it’s bordering on the ridiculous.

Maybe it’s just me, but would it not be fair to suggest that, if you see willies everywhere, then perhaps you’re just a wee bit immature?

 
Posted: Thursday, February 07, 2008 at 10:15 PM | Comments: 12
Categories: Cinema | General | Gialli | PhD

 
Comments

1.

I suppose it's something freudanian (?). People see what they want to see. If you condition people long enough that those films are full of sexual images, they'll see them everywhere.

But as Sigmund said, "Manchmal ist eine Zigarre einfach nur eine Zigarre" (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).

Posted by: Peter von Frosta, February 8, 2008 9:30 AM

2.

That Freud quote is a classic, Peter. You know, if I were to end up writing a chapter condemning Freudian psychoanalysis, I’d be sorely tempted to use that as its title, or at least an opening quote (although I do note that, although this quote is frequently attributed to him, there is no record of him ever actually having said it).

Posted by: Whiggles, February 8, 2008 3:56 PM

3.

As mentioned, it's usually because most film theory is somewhat laggy, and an unhealthy amount of academics get tied up in Freudian and Lacanian notions of voyeurism and "gazes" (i.e. the infamous Laura Mulvey piece which gets pulled out at every opportunity, and still gets "taught", even though it's severely outmoded and Mulvey contadicted and corrected herself in "Afterthoughts").

I remember, when I was doing BA Film, my girlfriend was doing BSc Psychology, and she laughed at how blatant and outmoded most of the (psychoanalytical parts of) my texts were on semiotics, Women & Film, Narrative Film etc modules.

Posted by: anephric, February 8, 2008 5:54 PM

4.

I always felt that a cigar was just a cigar unless Freud was smoking one - then it's a cock!

Posted by: cookie, February 8, 2008 10:35 PM

5.

It's unfair to lump all academics who work in the areas of Film Studies/English Literature as obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis; it's a popular, and very common, way of building a 'straw man' argument against the academic study of film and literature. The actual body of gender-themed Film Studies-related literature that uses the models of Freud and Lacan is relatively small, although the people who work in those fields tend to be both very dedicated and very vocal.

Other post-structuralist cultural critics move beyond psychoanalysis: for example, Gilles Deleuze's work contains a strong repudiation of psychoanalytic models of analysis, and there are people like Donna Haraway and Judith Butler whose work moves beyond psychoanalysis and tends to be much more 'earth' as a result.

However, don't take this the wrong way, but I think it's a bit disappointing that you're perpetuating this age-old straw man argument; as you're beginning a PhD I'm sure that you're aware that it's a relatively small but dedicated group of academics that focus on this approach, although psychoanalytic models of criticism seem to be heavily promoted in undergraduate programmes. If you don't like psychoanalytic criticism but are interested in debates of the relationship between cinema and gender studies, check out Molly Haskell's FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE (probably the best starting point for a discussion of gender in modern cinema), and then dive into some of Deleuze's work.

Posted by: Paul, February 10, 2008 8:18 PM

6.

Paul, I certainly wouldn’t claim that all academics are obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis - had I said that, it would make me a complete hypocrite. What I was suggesting was that a disconcerting number were, at least on the basis of my own (admittedly, at this stage, limited) reading, particularly those specialising in horror. I do appreciate, however, that it is more than likely a vocal minority rather than the majority who go down this route, so I apologise if I’ve given the wrong impression.

Thank you for the suggested reading, by the way. I’ll definitely look into Haskell’s writing as a starting point.

Posted by: Whiggles, February 10, 2008 8:24 PM

7.

No problems, Mike!

I probably sounded a bit grumpy, but I didn't mean to; it's common for people who've studied Film Studies at an undergraduate level to grumble that the field is dominated by psychoanalytic criticism, because psychoanalytic approaches do seem to take up a disproportionate portion of the syllabus on undergraduate programmes--probably because they're so linguistically complex that they take a long time to explain. Consequently, it's a common criticism of academic approaches to both film and literature that over-emphasises the role of that particular critical model within these two overlapping disciplines.

I have a general cynicism towards psychoanalytic criticism anyway, because it's very easy to abuse. When it's done well, it can be very insightful (for example, despite my general distrust of this particular critical model, I admire Slavoj Zizek greatly), but often it seems that because it sounds 'impressive' (thanks to the complex discourse surrounding it), it's sometimes deployed to disguise the fact that the writer really has very little to say about the topic. If you've ever marked undergraduate essays, you'll know how many students at that level dress their poor essays up in the fancy trousers of psychoanalysis, in hope that it will gain them more marks. But bad criticism is bad criticism, and it doesn't matter how complex the discourse it uses is.

Anyway, good look with the reading: it's the most enjoyable stage of a PhD, I think; the writing is fun too, but editing the thing is about as painful as pulling teeth with only a dram of whisky as an anaesthetic :D

Posted by: , February 10, 2008 8:45 PM

8.

By the way, 'good look' should read 'good luck'. Forgive me: I'm very tired ;)

Posted by: , February 10, 2008 8:56 PM

9.

A Freudian slip, perhaps? ;)

Thanks, I’ll do my best to keep posting about my progress. It’s been rather slow so far, and not just because I’m doing this part time: it’s taken what seems like an age for me to begin to build up a concrete picture of where I’m actually going to take this, but things are starting to become a bit clearer now.

I must confess that I sidestepped undergraduate Film Studies almost entirely (I only did it in my first year, and then came back to do my MLitt after getting an MA in English Language), which might explain some of my aversion to psychoanalysis. Then again, my brother has gone all the way through four years of undergraduate Film Studies, and he holds similar views on psychoanalysis to myself.

Posted by: Whiggles, February 10, 2008 9:00 PM

10.

Those Scottish degree titles always confuse me. (My family left Scotland as steeplejacks and members of the military; none of them had any experience of the Scottish university system.) An MA denotes an four year undergraduate degree in arts and humanities, doesn't it--what the English call a degree 'with Honours'; but as I understand it, in the Scottish system you can opt out of the fourth year of study and walk away with an 'ordinary degree' (which is like leaving an English university before the Honours stage). An MLitt denotes a taught postgraduate qualification in the arts--very different to the system we have south of the border, where an undergraduate degree is a BA (usually with Honours, although you can elect to finish early without the Honours) and a taught postgraduate course in the arts is an MA.

I remember that when I was studying for my MA in an English university (which is the equivalent of the Scottish MLitt), one of my classmates was a young woman from Aberdeen who had transferred to our English university for her postgraduate studies.

When she told the other students that she had just completed her (Scottish) MA, it confused them no end: they thought she had already got a postgraduate qualification in the subject, and she wasn't in a hurry set them straight :D

I wouldn't worry too much about 'fixing' your thesis at this moment in time; the best advice my supervisor gave me was to be flexible in my approach. As you're dealing with mostly qualitative data, the information you gather over the next couple of years could change the direction of your thesis almost completely.

Posted by: , February 10, 2008 9:17 PM

11.

I have to admit, I regret completely and utterly ever going down the theory route at BA and desperately wish I'd done practical film instead.

Without sounding cynical, outside of one person I know who got their foot in the door in film archiving, the only other person I know who got anything out of film theory was a chap who went through all the way to PhD and then into academia. He writes about regional Italian cinema, by the way: I think he did some stuff fairly recently on Neopolitan cinema. I made a stab at keeping in touch with him, but he's so far removed and refined now from my own crude interest in film that I felt a bit embarrassed trying to talk to him about it.

Speaking of desperately dressing up essays in the livery of psychobabble, I spent a good deal of time (for a postmodern module) reading and desperately trying to mould my wobbly knowledge of Lyotard and Baudrillard into a decent essay. On the night before it was due in, I gave up on it utterly and scrapped it, read one thing by Georges Bataille and one by Don Ihde, stayed up all night munching instant coffee granules, ran to the computer room at 8AM to type up my ludicrous scribblings in an hour, and gave it in. It was literally a stream of consciousness that threw in copious nonsensical (at least my usage thereof) quotes by Bataille in support of a completely carcrash interpretation of Cronenberg films, toxic sex and insect politics, with lashings of Ihde and his notions of Praxis as a side order of gibberish (I didn't really understand what I was writing and just cribbed lots of vocabulary and power words).

I got an A for it. I think I got the highest mark in my group.

Posted by: anephric, February 12, 2008 2:19 PM

12.

"I have to admit, I regret completely and utterly ever going down the theory route at BA and desperately wish I'd done practical film instead".

There's a false dualism in the ways in which 'theory' and 'practice' are, within a lot of education nowadays, placed in opposition. But either way, believe me when I say that for the best part of the last decade, I've had one hand in teaching on various technical-oriented courses, and most of them aren't worth your time: for the most part, they simply teach convention rather than critical thought and slavishly follow (and explain in great detail) why it's a good idea to exploit a specific market, and you'd be better off picking up a manual, watching a varied group of films in order to gain understanding of methods and approaches, and getting some informal input from a knowledgeable friend or simply applying for some voluntary work experience in the industry. There's more to be learnt from playing about with the equipment than from sitting in a room and listening to someone babble on about conventional narrative structures and how great it is to follow them; a technical-oriented course is no substitute for experience or enthusiasm. Its only real value is in the ability to 'network'.

Posted by: , February 12, 2008 8:25 PM

Comments on this entry and all entries up to and including June 30th 2009 have been closed. The discussion continues on the new Land of Whimsy blog:

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