The Maternal Imagination of Film and Film Theory
Palgrave Macmillan, 2020
(Review copy supplied by Palgrave Macmillan)
I imagine a generous but critical reader, hopefully with a well-developed sense of humour, who is neither convinced that sexist and misogynist film and media representations are so totalising as to prevent a questioning and critical response of the kind offered here. (p. 28)
And yes, impressively, Lauren Bliss tackles one after the other taboo in her first major academic work, ranging from birth and witchcraft to virginity and cannibalism. Taking on a figurative approach, permeated by minute attention to historicisation and contextualisation, she slowly discerns a carefully chosen corpus, which in all is composed of no more than a handful of films.
It must immediately be said that her extensively large bibliography is effortlessly occupied at large by female scholars, philosophers and writers from all fields in the humanities. The first half of the book lays out the theoretical foundation on which Bliss builds her arguments, in the second half each subsequent chapter focuses on a singular theme or aspect, which she addresses through one or two films in their wider socio-political and historical context.
Very subtly, the book moves through time both in its theoretical framework and in the films or visual media it addresses, starting with the “early modern imagination” – although Bliss nowhere states what timespan is actually meant by that – to political, experimental cinema in the 1960s, ending in the very now with YouTube-videos, social media imagery and the #MeToo theorisation.
Starting with a subtle and well-weighted critique of feminist film theory, opening up the possibility to move into muliebral filmic matter from a different yet not opposed angle to the already established feminist one, she readies the reader to move ahead with an open mind, hopefully installing a freshly shaped means of perception. Suggesting a new vocabulary that does not stem from these known and well-ingrained histories of feminist theory, or of psychoanalytics, or of the history of patriarchal unconscious – without saying they are incorrect and unimportant – Bliss writes that the spectator is capable of forming their own informed interpretation, of reacting to cinema with one’s own eyes and body-image.
The riddly chapter titles (“When We Do Not See Something, We Imagine It to Be Much Worse”) are fun and tantalising, but hardly give the reader an overview of what is to be expected from the book. Its material as such does require an immersive attention to get a sense of unity and connection throughout. The first few chapters deal with a theoretical construction in which Bliss tries to turn away from a ‘normative’ feminist approach, of the male gaze, of patriarchal domination; altogether she wishes to “argue against the literal-mindedness of the common sense image of objectification by developing the early modern history of the maternal imagination and the witch-hunt to question the terms on which the patriarchal unconscious has been constructed” (p. 2), or at least “slow down the conversation” (p. 18).
Opposed to this unconscious, there is a conscious spectatorship to which she wishes to give more credit, and for which she thus makes the case throughout the rest of the book. The idea of figuration, as theorised by Nicole Brenez, perfectly suits this purpose of rethinking subjectivity and literalness, and foremost serves as a great guide to returning to the actual images seen in films, coming before the questions of discourse. Reiterating Brenez, Bliss wishes to free the original through a figural account, and through a sometimes very visual use of language.
Apart from reevaluating spectator-screen-artist relationships, Bliss is mostly concerned with rethinking critical theory in relation to a highly delicate set of ‘events’ such as virginity and cannibalism, alongside maternity and witchcraft. Early on, Bliss writes that “the paradigm of maternal imagination, the history of pregnancy’s imaginary capacity and the imagining of what pregnancy means, both in its historical as well as its modern feminist form, have potential to elucidate a critical theory and history of cinema and visual culture” (p. 4).
In other words, without taking an all too literal approach to pregnancy and maternity in cinema, the author tries to think with and through the pregnant body, as it has always produced an important metaphor for the relationship between art, artwork and spectator as for the process of imagination. Not writing a new theory, but sidelining well-established ones, Bliss composes an interesting questioning of how film theory and spectatorship come together. Her method, rather than a history of technology or a reaction to the paradigm of patriarchy, is an open-ended attempt to rethink common sense assumptions such as the “academically produced set of dichotomies of power – between patriarchal and feminist, sound and image, body and screen” (p. 11), and a suggestion to begin again from the moving images (in context) through this figurality.
Although the book’s title immediately suggests a great deal of theoretical framework, which should take away the surprise, it does take quite a long time before Bliss comes to discuss actual films rather than examining the discourse around, and the theory of, film. Halfway through the book, the first moving images come to life on the page, starting with the documentary Histoires d’A by Charles Belmont and Marielle Issartel from 1973, at the time an important social tool to bring advancement in the French law on abortion. She writes of its production and social setting, to speak of (ignorant) spectatorship on the one hand and of the different perspectives on pregnancy and motherhood on the other hand, researching questions of the cultural, biological, political body; of the female body owned and represented.
In later chapters, various films on different themes are presented, to once again question the relationship between the spectator, the screen and the artwork, whilst simultaneously dissembling the figuration of virginity through sound, of birth through materiality in experimental film, of foetal cannibalism through the horror genre. In all, Bliss works out an enticing first record of capturing figurality and an open spectatorship through the image of a female body in an attempt to “promote new ways of imagining” (p. 102).