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Knowledge and the Limits of Postmodernism:

Social Constructionism in Film and Media Studies




for the degree


Field of Radio/Television/Film


Paul Alexander McEwan




Introduction 4
Film and Media Studies 7
Film, History, and Science 10
Defining Terms 14
A Note on Method and Style 18
Overview 20

Chapter One: The Roots of Social Constructionism 28

Pragmatism 32
Thomas Kuhn and Paradigm Change 36
Jacques Derrida and the Philosophy of Language 41
Michel Foucault 55
Social and Political Movements 59

Chapter Two: Social Constructionism in Film Studies 64

Screen – Brewster, Heath, MacCabe 65
Screen and Christian Metz 65
Responses to Screen 73
The Rise of Cultural Studies 75

Chapter Three: The Social Construction of Science 79

Bruno Latour and the Study of Laboratories 80
Latour’s Mind-In-A-Vat 83
Redirecting the Mob 86
Science in the Field 89
Laboratory Life 93
Boundary Epistemologies and Situated Knowledges 96
Haraway’s Avoidance of Relativism 101
Richard Rorty and Pragmatism 109
Pragmatism and Politics 110
Reverting to Objectivity to Solve Political Disputes 113
God = Science? 115

Chapter Four: Film As History 120

Michel de Certeau: Defrocking Emperor History 123
Hayden White: History and the Novel 125
Social Constructionism and Holocaust Denial 132
Other Key Arguments of History and Social Constructionism 136
Films as History: JFK and The Birth of a Nation 141
Making Films and History 152

Chapter Five: The Theory and Practice of Film History 154
Realism in Film Theory 156
Theory Versus Practice 163

Conclusion 178
Further Research 194

Bibliography 199


In the May-June 1996 issue of the academic magazine Lingua Franca, New

York University physicist Alan Sokal published an article announcing that he

had hoaxed the cultural studies journal Social Text. Sokal had submitted an essay

on quantum physics that had, in his words, no “logical sequence of thought;

…only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald

assertions.” While it might not be remarkable that a physicist could fool non-

physicists with scientific jargon and a serious tone, the edition of Social Text that

included Sokal’s essay was a special issue dedicated to the “Science Wars.” The

essay was about the political implications of contemporary scientific research,

which was the subject of the special issue and thus the subject in which the

editors were implicitly claiming expertise by publishing the journal.

What might have been a minor academic incident became a national news

story that was featured, among other places, on the front page of the New York

Times on May 18, 1996. The appeal of the story was not hard to understand. One

group of academic eggheads had had their claim to authority punctured by a

practical joke that anyone could understand without reading the actual pieces.

Non-scientists who were claiming expertise in science had been embarrassed by

a practicing scientist. The critical theory at issue here was also within the grasp of

readers of a newspaper like the Times, whose Arts & Ideas and Book Review

sections often feature concise summaries of postmodern theories on culture and

epistemology. Over the next few weeks Sokal’s hoax was described in dozens of

Sokal, “Revelation,” 51.

American and international newspapers, and responses to the hoax from the

editors of Social Text were published in the Times.

Many of the popular commentaries on the hoax used the opportunity to

lambaste the current state of academic theory in the humanities as dominated by

postmodern notions too divorced from everyday reality. Some academics replied

in op-ed columns, arguing the Sokal and those who supported him had misread

the key facet of postmodern theories of epistemology that motivated the

submission. That idea, that science and the knowledge it produces are social

constructions rather than reflections of the physical world, so that scientific

knowledge is created rather than discovered, is much more complex and

slippery than is first apparent. In fact, few of the participants in the debate could

agree on exactly what the terms were. To Sokal, the issue was clear. At the

beginning of his hoax essay, he had stated the social constructivist position, as he

understood it, in the clearest possible terms:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality,” no less

than social “reality,” is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that
scientific “knowledge,” far from being objective, reflects and encodes the
dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it;
that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-
referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific
community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged
epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives
emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. 3

The first line of this paragraph was evidently intended as an intellectual dare.

Sokal invited those who accepted that physical reality was a social and linguistic

A virtually complete selection of the criticism of the Sokal hoax is maintained by Alan Sokal on
his website: A useful and representative sample is
available in the collection The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook The Academy.
Sokal, “Transgressing,” 12.

construct to test the construction of gravity from his 21 floor apartment

window. 4

The editors of Social Text and others who responded to this hoax did not

defend this position as Sokal had attributed it to them. Of course, publishing an

article did not necessarily imply agreement with its every statement. Stanley Fish,

writing in the New York Times, argued that the social constructivist position was

being overstated and that the common position was much more moderate
and did not

challenge the notion that there was a physical reality. He also accused Sokal of

objecting to the idea of sociology of science and of misreading the field’s goals. 5

What was fascinating about the Sokal hoax was the way in which a debate

about an idea of such fundamental importance very quickly devolved into

accusations of misreading and bad faith. To some of those sympathetic to social

constructionism, this was yet another example of scientists asserting their

dominance and reacting to a threat to their power. To some journalists, scientists,

and non-academics, this was further proof of a long-lamented decline in

standards in the academic humanities. The hoax created a good deal of ill will in

the academic humanities, and the editors of Social Text in particular were

unapologetic about their actions or position. The papers in the special issue were

later published, with Sokal removed, as the collection Science Wars. The lack of

conciliation was not very surprising given Sokal’s method of publicly

humiliating his intellectual opponents.

In the intervening years since the hoax has faded from public discussion,

there has been surprisingly little consideration of the ideas at stake in the debate

Sokal, “Revelation,” 50.
Fish, “Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke.”

about social constructionism. Such silence covers an intriguing contradiction. On

one hand, social constructionism is widely accepted and is easily the hegemonic

position in the humanities. On the other, there is little agreement about what

social constructionism means exactly, with positions varying widely from

extremes not far from what Sokal parodied to more common moderate positions

that are almost indistinguishable from scientific realism. Surprisingly, there is

almost no internal debate among those who espouse a belief in social

constructionism, and this lack of discussion hides significant divisions on an

intellectual position that is central to the academic project. It also allows all of the

humanities to be painted as holders of the most extreme positions.

Sorting and clarifying these competing ideas is one of the primary goals of

this dissertation. I will also, using film and media studies as my example,

examine the epistemology that guides the practice of knowledge gathering in the

humanities. In a sea of competing theoretical ideals, attention to practice can

clarify complex epistemological arguments. At the same time, it helps cut

through much of the confusion that leads to misunderstandings of competing


Film and Media Studies

I approach these questions of social constructionism from within the

discipline of film and media studies. There are numerous reasons for this

approach. The primary one is that issues of reality and the representation of

reality have been central to film from its earliest days. One of the many

motivating factors in the development of cinema is the determination to use this

new medium for scientific research, as in the famous pre-cinematic experiments

of Eadweard Muybridge. In the twentieth century, debates about the possibility

and desirability of realism in film have been central to the development of the

film theories of Siegfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and many others. Questions

about the ability of film to represent reality have direct correlation to the

question of representation and interpretation in both science and history.

Secondly, film studies as an academic discipline is currently composed of

two inter-related sub-disciplines: film theory and criticism considers the aesthetic,

social and political implications of film, while film history concerns itself

primarily with archival research that traces the development of the medium

since the late nineteenth century. Film historians are generally theory literate,

and a knowledge of film history is necessary for substantial theoretical or critical

inquiry. Still, these two facets of the discipline of film studies draw on different

disciplinary perspectives and the work involved in them can differ remarkably.

This binary aspect of the discipline creates an inherent tension between the

theory and practice of film studies. Contemporary film theory, influenced by

currents of postmodernism and deconstruction that are central to a number of

academic disciplines in the humanities, tends to emphasize the political and

cultural nature of knowledge and truth claims. At the same time, film historians

still tend to conduct their research based on a realist paradigm that involves

gathering information from archival sources and presenting that work as

accurately as possible.

While this tension exists in film studies, and will be the subject of a later

chapter, it would be a mistake to portray the discipline as sharply divided over

epistemological issues. Instead, I wish to consider the relationship between

theory and practice in film studies as an essential tension of the discipline that, as

I noted above, has its roots in original debates about the realist potential of film.

Film studies sits between the discipline of history itself and the rest of the

humanities, an ideal vantage point from which to consider larger debates. The

recent development of film studies, from a largely theory-based project in the

1970s to a more historically focused discipline today, also allows us to trace the

development of the idea of social constructionism.

Film and media are also ideal examples for these debates because they

have tremendous societal influence. In the sections that deal with historical films,

I consider the ways in which varying perspectives on the possibility of historical

fact influence what the public sees in the cinema, and often what the public

knows about American or international history. Film and television can and do

have significant societal impacts. One of the films considered here, D.W.

Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, was instrumental in the resurgence of the Ku Klux

Klan in the 1920s. The public controversy over Oliver Stone’s JFK in the early

1990s forced the federal government to release significant documents relating to

the assassination. 7

On another level, film and media studies serve as a case study in the uses

of social constructionism in the humanities. While I argue that film and media

studies are in some ways uniquely situated to consider larger debates, I also

want to emphasize that film studies is, in some sense, a representative sample of

a larger debate. The primary challenge of considering the uses of epistemology in

contemporary academic discourse is the sheer scope of the issue. Considering the

implications of a variety of research paradigms across numerous disciplinary

This assertion, often anecdotal, is confirmed by Maxim Simcovitch in “The Impact of Griffith’s
Birth of a Nation on the Modern Ku Klux Klan.”
Toplin, Oliver Stone’s USA, 12.

lines could be the life’s work of more than one scholar. Focusing on one

discipline allows the project to be somewhat more workable than it otherwise

might be. Even so, I am well aware that the scope of the questions about

epistemology I am examining here is larger than the range of a single study. My

intention is to examine some major questions about the uses of social

constructionism in film and media studies with enough specificity to make a

substantial contribution to the development of the discipline.

Although there is no space herein for me to consider the uses of social

constructionism in the fields of English literature, Art, Theater, Area Studies, or

other humanistic disciplines, I am convinced that many of the arguments made

here may be generally applicable in these and other areas with suitable

modifications. For example, literary studies includes numerous works that

attempt to write a history of artistic production instead of a textual analysis of a

specific work. It would seem that the same tension between literary theory and

literary historical practice exists here as it does in film studies. A key difference is

that the history of literature, being much more developed and complete, is a

relatively smaller piece of the larger discipline. The status of literature as a

generally non-industrial individual endeavor also changes the nature of the

project. Still, it would be possible to adapt my argument to other fields with

appropriately varying results.

Film, History, and Science

Despite my determination to limit the scope of this work, it is absolutely

necessary to consider debates about realism in both science and history as part of

the background of social constructionism in film and media studies. The reasons

for this necessity are complex, but they primarily derive from the

interdisciplinary status of the arguments that support social constructionism.

Some are drawn from history and historiography while others are rooted in

science studies and the philosophy of science. Almost all of the arguments are

filtered through the lens of cultural studies, which has focused on the political

implications of epistemological questions. As an interdisciplinary project itself,

cultural studies has long been part of film and media studies, and many of the

concerns of cultural studies – particularly the emphasis on political readings of

popular culture – have been influential in film and media studies. These

disparate influences mean that it is impossible to properly consider the roots of

social constructionism as it relates to history without considering its relation to


Since debates about social constructionism in film and media studies are

not often at the forefront of the discipline, it becomes necessary to trace and

analyze a range of ideas from a variety of sources. No one has previously

summarized this debate in film or media studies, and neither are there clear

arguments on either side that sum up part of the case. There are few examples of

direct engagement with the broader issues of social constructionism, which

further adds to the difficulty. Since I am arguing that social constructionism is

already the default position and has become the default position with very little

debate, my task will be to lay out the range of influences that make this position

possible, as well as recounting the positions that social constructionism replaced.

Film studies’ status as a young and often interdisciplinary field means that, even

more than other fields, it is influenced by all that goes on around it. This melting

pot of ideas and ideals, some related to cultural studies and some not, means that

this project must be inherently interdisciplinary. There are no neat lines of

argument to follow. Instead, this project calls for the tracing of intellectual

threads as well as the clear rebuttal of the most prominent social constructionist

arguments. The influence of science studies and historiography on debates about

social constructionism in film and media studies makes a consideration of these

disparate fields absolutely necessary.

I am also arguing that the disputes occurring in each of these sub-

disciplines (science studies and historiography) are not as different as they first

appear. Both concern the epistemological status of evidence and the influence of

researchers’ personal positions and politics on the results of their work. In

essence, the key question in both of these fields is the central question of social

constructionism: How much influence does the knower have on knowledge?

And, how possible is objectivity? Both are also influenced by developments in

post-1968 French philosophy, including such writers as Jacques Derrida and

Michel Foucault, who are cited across disciplines. The work of these writers

attempts to undermine what they see as traditional Western notions of realism

and knowledge that are in the service of power rather than the betterment of

humanity. 8

The traditional assumption about the distinction between science and

history has been that a scientist can conduct an experiment while a historian can

not. There is no way to re-run a historical event, nor can one test a hypothesis

against a control group where the factor under study turns out differently. Even

if one attempts to re-create some of the physical conditions of a historical episode,

See, for example Foucault’s Power/Knowledge and The Archaeology of Knowledge, also the essay
“What is Enlightenment?” See also Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

like a particular voyage using presumably available materials and technology, it

is impossible to approach the controls available to a scientist. Compared to a

scientist in a lab, the historian seems to be at the mercy of his or her evidence and

lacking the control that the scientific method evidently provides. If scientists

have difficulty making claims to objectivity, it should be impossible for

historians to do the same. Such a division over-emphasizes the difference in the

practices of these fields. To begin with, this vision of science conducted in a

laboratory with carefully measured ingredients and control groups only applies

to some fields – for example chemistry, medicine, and some types of physics. For

a range of other scientific disciplines, such experiments are almost never possible.

In evolutionary biology, paleontology, and much of geology and cosmology,

scientists work much as historians do, gathering the traces of the past that exist

in the present. Granted, a scientist studying the past can generally assume that

basic processes of biology, physics and chemistry have remained constant over

time, while a historian cannot assume the same of human behaviour or

motivation. But this is a much smaller divide than that between experimental

and non-experimental research. Scientists who study the natural past use

methods very much like historians, and concerns about method that affect one of

these groups should affect the other. Both Michael Shermer and Jared Diamond

make convincing cases for the intermingling of scientific and historical methods

in works that combine the best of both ideals. If the methods are not so different,

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond’s work is an
attempt to explain why human societies have developed at such different paces without resorting
to racist assumptions about European superiority or European thirst for conquest. Although
Diamond is a scientist and most of his evidence is scientific, he obviously depends greatly on
historical accounts of intercultural encounters. Michael Shermer, Denying History: Who Says the
Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Shermer argues for a historical method that
draws from the scientific method, and while this assertion reads as naïve in the face of most

we should be looking to combine the study of method rather than considering

them as separate phenomena.

All of these similarities are but small support of my larger point, that the

range of influences on film and media studies makes the consideration of science

studies and historiography necessary. For the purposes of this project they will

be treated as differing branches of the same genealogy, so that rebuttals of

arguments on one branch can be considered relevant on the other. At the close of

this project, the similarities in the arguments across disciplines and the

consistency of my responses to them should be the most compelling case that

such a wide range of sources is both fitting and necessary.

Defining Terms

Since there is a great deal of slippage between definitions in this area of

study, it is necessary for me to define the terms of the debate as I will be using

them. Many of the terms in epistemology have adapted over time, so that while

there might be dictionary definitions available for these words, not every critic

understands them in precisely the same way. Thus, although my definitions are

borrowed from specific philosophers or other scholars, I am using them in

particular ways. Throughout this dissertation I am arguing for realism, which is

the modern scientific epistemology that holds that knowledge of the real world is

possible through careful examination and research. It recognizes that this

knowledge is often tentative, and will be replaced by better knowledge in the

future. At the same time, it holds that the limitations of our present knowledge

recent critical theory and historiography, his use of this ideal in the service of completely
undermining the evidence and methods of Holocaust deniers makes his claim more convincing.

are defined by the scope of our inquiry and the tools we have invented to

examine our natural environment. As such, it tends to believe in the ideal of

scientific progress, in the discovery of more complete and more accurate

scientific knowledge as time passes. The primary influence on the philosophy of

realism is Karl Popper, who defined scientific knowledge as being subject to the

rule of falsifiability – that there exists for all scientific knowledge the possibility

of reversal or revision through experiment. This, in Popper’s view, is what

separates science from religion and other types of belief in which the

fundamental tenets of the belief system cannot be challenged. The key here is

that realism allows for the revision of knowledge. By definition, scientific

knowledge is open to challenge in the face of new evidence. This openness is

both a recognition of the tentativeness of knowledge and, paradoxically, an

expression of confidence in that knowledge. Realism recognizes scientific

knowledge as incomplete, but is confident that much of the knowledge we have

acquired reflects the real world, and provides a solid foundations for our


The tenets of realism apply to the historian’s project as well. All historical

knowledge is acknowledged to be tentative based on the possibility that new,

contrary evidence will surface. Working historians are supposed to attempt to be

as objective as possible, with the awareness that this is impossible for any single

researcher to accomplish. Objectivity comes not from the individual but, as in

science, from the conflicting perspectives of a number of researchers. This is the 11

Popper, “Science: Conjectures and Refutations,” 3.


Lorraine Daston points out that there are a number of ways in which the term objectivity is

used, and calls the sense that I am using it in “aperspectival objectivity,” the sense in which
objectivity depends on the exchange of ideas between researchers as a way of eradicating

Hegelian aspect of realism, in which conflict between opposing views leads us

closer to truth.

In contrast to realism, pragmatism challenges the idea that research moves

us toward truth, in the sense that truth is objective awareness of the outside

world. Pragmatists acknowledge the accomplishments of science and history

while denying this link to a world outside of our experience. Early ancestors of

social constructivists, pragmatists argued that we essentially invent the

philosophy we need. This means that our knowledge is guided by our goals, and

our subjective desires for happiness. If we are unable to make claims about the

world outside our experience, then there are no fundamental rules on which to

base our decisions, even as we recognize the rules of our own society. In other

words, a pragmatist might accept a particular political or social worldview and

work within it, but is always aware of the construct of that worldview, to the

point that it is not possible to argue that other political views are less valid. With

no recourse to an outside world of either science or morality, pragmatism is

situated in human experience and attempts to work within that framework.

Social constructionism is the intellectual heir of pragmatism in that it also

refuses to allow for access to an outside reality. Drawing on postmodern

philosophers more than the original pragmatists, social constructivists

emphasize the importance of language in mediating our relationship to the

outside world. Social and political influences are key here too, but they are often

individual or small group idiosyncrasies. She traces this idea to the nineteenth century
development of communication mechanisms that allowed scientists to share ideas across
geographical and political boundaries. In turn, she suggests that the uniformity of nature is in
some ways a social production of this change in scientific practice. While I accept her account of
the development of communication and its effect on scientific perspectives, I would suggest that
the cause-effect relationship is impossible to demonstrate, and could as easily be read as one set
of technological developments making other scientific advances possible, a typical narrative of
scientific progress. Daston, “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,” 609.

considered as elements of the structure of language. Since language is so

encompassing, and there can be no exchange of either scientific or political ideas

without it, language can be seen as a marker of the fundamental boundaries

between our consciousness and the outside world.

The key disagreement between social constructionism and realism is that

social constructivists emphasize the cultural and political ideals that influence

scientific and historical research, to the point that these endeavors can be

regarded as “socially constructed,” that is, a reflection of the cultural and

political beliefs of the practitioners rather than of any objective reality. Social

constructionism is not the banal claim that social and political factors influence

the choice of questions asked or the type of work funded. I take this as so

obvious as to be beyond argument. And while the ground between social

constructionism and realism is definitely a continuum, I would draw a dividing

line between two positions using part of David Hess’s definition of “moderate

constructionism.” Hess suggests that those who believe that science is shaped by

natural and social factors can avoid relativism by evaluating science on a case-

by-case basis. In other words, according to Hess’s definition, moderate

constructivists might want to see evidence of bias before labeling work

“constructed.” In my view, this position is actually realist. In general, social


constructionism is broader and more fundamental.

Social constructionism has developed at the same time that numerous

political movements focused on race, gender and sexual orientation have made

important contributions to academic knowledge. The ideals of social

constructionism have become linked to the idea that science and history reflect a

Hess, Science Studies, 35.

white, male and Euro-centric perspective, and that this perspective goes to the

root of the scientific and realist world view. Since traditional science has a great

deal of power in Western society, this power is linked to the power of whites and

men over racial minorities and women. Partly because the superiority of whites

and men was once considered “natural,” social constructivists are suspicious of

epistemologies that claim a natural justification for their arguments. In addition,

the long and disturbing history of the use of “scientific” arguments in the service

of racism, sexism, and heterosexism adds considerable weight to the social

constructivist argument. The existence of such arguments is the strongest

evidence for the idea that science reflects and justifies the political desires of a

culture, rather than being a dispassionate compiler of facts about the natural

world. Thus, social constructionism has three strong roots – a pragmatist belief in

the fundamental limits of our knowledge, a contemporary awareness of the

power of language, and a practical focus on the ways in which science and

history can be used (and have been used) in the service of political exploitation. I

will examine these three roots in the first two chapters of this dissertation, while

in Chapter Three I will consider key theorists who try to mitigate the weaknesses

of social constructionism while maintaining its core arguments. In the last two

chapters, I examine the implications of social constructionism as a foundation for

research in film and media studies.

A Note on Method and Style

Because debates about social constructionism have been more of an

undercurrent in film and media studies, rather than a direct and cohesive

argument, it is necessary to trace the debate through numerous theorists and

debates that are situated in film, history, science studies, cultural studies, and

other related fields. It is not my intention to elide the distinctions between these

fields, only to note that there is considerable interplay between disciplines within

the humanities and that film studies, as a young discipline, is particularly prone

to outside influence. It is also my contention that the arguments I am making

about social constructionism are applicable to its manifestations in a number of

fields outside of film studies.

It is also necessary for me to explain the style of argumentation I am using

throughout this dissertation, as it is a style influenced more by philosophy than

by film studies or other disciplines grounded in textual analysis. For example, in

film studies, reactions to the work of other scholars is often framed in terms of an

argument that a previous critic has made a valuable contribution, but has failed

to “fully consider” the details of some particular subject. This is but one example

of a style that is in general less confrontational than the standard in philosophy,

where it is common to argue that another’s work has a fundamental logical flaw

and is thus invalid from its very premise. Since I am dealing with epistemology,

it has been necessary at times to adopt this latter style in an attempt to make clear

the boundaries between competing positions, and to separate foundational

claims from arguments by example. By the standards of the discipline within

which I am writing, this style sometimes appears to be dismissive or harsh, but

that is not my intention. Throughout this work, I have attempted to argue with

those whose writings are the most compelling and meticulous expressions of the

position with which I disagree.


In Chapter One, I trace the roots of social constructionism in three

directions – the philosophy of knowledge, the philosophy of language and the

social and political movements that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Understanding these roots is crucial to understanding why, despite its

weaknesses, social constructionism is such an appealing position. It is rooted in

longstanding debates in the philosophy of knowledge, particularly in the

development of pragmatism and in the work of Thomas Kuhn. In the 1960s,

these debates are reinforced by the work of such French theorists as Jacques

Derrida and Michel Foucault, who examine the foundations of knowledge both

in terms of its philosophical and argumentative roots and in terms of the

structures of language and culture that help define the limits of the knowable.

This work coincided with both the student-led revolts in Paris in 1968 and the

broader social movements that developed in the West around the same time.

Political debates about the rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals

borrowed from and reinforced the development of theories that emphasized the

social constructedness of all knowledge. These movements sought to overturn

entrenched societal structures based on bigotry and exclusion in favor of greater

opportunity and freedom from discrimination for marginalized groups. In a

culture where foundations are being challenged, social constructionism makes

sense as an epistemology that explains the challenges progressive minded people

are up against. It is also politically useful in that it is more of a broad attack on

traditional structures of knowledge rather than a small scale examination of

individual problems.

Chapter Two recounts the specific ways that social constructionism has

been part of the history of film studies, most noticeably in the rise of structuralist

and semiotic theories of cinema in the 1970s. The “turn to history” in subsequent

years is, I argue, a reflection of the ways in which film studies has largely

rejected social constructionism as a core element of its theory, while at the same

time paying lip service to the idea that science, and especially history, are social

constructions. The influence of cultural studies in film studies since the 1980s has

meant that these debates continue to be topical within film studies, even if the

field has largely adopted a realist model of historical practice.

In Chapter Three, I begin by considering three scholars who are primarily

concerned with science, but whose arguments have been widely cited across

disciplines. Bruno Latour is best known for his work Laboratory Life, where he

examined a scientific laboratory as an anthropologist would an unknown tribe.

Latour’s work is an attempt to view science more skeptically, and to reveal the

belief systems and everyday practices that are as much or more important to

scientific work than the scientific method. Latour’s work has been widely cited in

cultural studies as a type of subcultural research that in some sense validates one

type of cultural studies methodology at the same time as it calls scientific

objectivity into question. Given the status that scientists have in Western society,

it would seem a useful project to attempt to strip away the veil and get at the

way that science “really” works. Latour’s portraits of working scientists are at

times fascinating, especially as a portrait of what an “average” lab might look

like on any given day. By documenting the ordering of materials, the processing

of data, and the writing of papers, he re-envisions science as an industrial, social

and cultural practice, far removed from the cultural stereotype of a lone scientist

in search of eureka moments. I examine a number of Latour’s pieces, and take

issue only partially with his observations. Instead, I argue that the conclusions

Latour draws do not follow from his observations. He often re-mythologizes

scientists as exploiters of nature or career-oriented bureaucrats without

providing evidence for that view. The result of Latour’s attempts to write as a

dispassionate anthropologist is often a subtle mockery of his subjects.

In contrast, Donna Haraway was once a working scientist in the field of

primatology. She writes of her former discipline from the perspective of an

engaged, if now disillusioned, participant. To Haraway, science has very little

mystery, and she is intent on revealing her insider knowledge and the

sophisticated theoretical conclusions she has drawn from them. A widely cited

feminist scholar, Haraway sees a political dimension to the construction of

science that relates to both power and gender. She is sympathetic to strong social

constructivist positions while quick to point out their limitations. She attempts to

reconcile social constructionism with her politics, and is rightfully concerned that

the two may not be compatible, even as she proposes a middle ground that

answers a number of concerns.

Richard Rorty is less often cited in cultural studies or film studies, but he

is the philosopher that critics in science studies are most likely to turn to. Rorty

refers to his philosophy as pragmatism, following in the 19 century footsteps of


William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Pierce. By labeling himself a

pragmatist rather than a social constructivist, Rorty acknowledges the political

limitations of his position. Although he also believes in the goals of progressive

or leftist politics, and feels that pragmatism is compatible with those views, he is

aware that his philosophy is not a compelling argument for his politics. Rorty’s

sophisticated defense of pragmatism is also, in my view, a compelling argument

for the separation of social constructionism and leftist politics. Although, as I

have pointed out, social constructionism and pragmatism have distinct roots and

subtly different aims, I primarily cite Rorty’s work from the substantial areas

where the two philosophies overlap. Since I am concerned with the link between

epistemology and politics, I will focus on the works by Rorty that consider these

questions in detail. Within this area of overlap, realism’s response to social

constructionism and pragmatism is essentially the same.

In Chapter Four, I consider the politics of social constructionism more

specifically, and move the discussion of epistemology away from science and

into history. Here I examine two meta-historians whose work has been

influential – Michel de Certeau and Hayden White. Both are concerned with

acknowledging the influence of power and language on the output of historical

research. De Certeau argues for a recognition of the power structures that help

determine what stories get told and from whose perspective. He sees a direct link

between the origins of history as a project of princes and rulers who

commissioned their own stories to the modern power of the university as the

source of “official” history. De Certeau argues convincingly for a thorough

investigation of the power structures that influence history, with the dual goal of

re-writing history from the outside and acknowledging the biases that

undermine all historical research.

As a complement to de Certeau, Hayden White emphasizes the influence

of both language and form on the writing of history. White points out the

numerous similarities between “realist” novels and supposedly realist history.

Since these forms are so similar in structure, it is obvious that the history we

write is influenced by our ideals of narrative. Not only are we selecting data that

fits a narrative pattern, we are inevitably shaping that data with both our

language and the imposition of a story structure that requires dramatic tension,

conflict, and boundaries of beginning and end. In later writings, White argues

that since our history is written according to the ideals of fiction, it might be

better served by the model of postmodern narrative, which has the benefit of

foregrounding its constructedness. If history is to be narrativized, it might as

well be in a form in which the reader is constantly reminded that they are

reading a construction of reality rather than a reflection of it. In addition, this

lack of unity and illusion in postmodern narrative might be better able to reflect

historical events which are fundamentally unknowable because of their scope. A

reader of postmodern historical narratives is thus aware of the constructedness

of the historical account he or she is reading and simultaneously reminded of the

complexity and non-linearity of the event itself. The gap between the messiness

of actual history and the linearity of written history is thus minimized to the

extent that this is possible while the remaining gap is foregrounded.

White moves on to consider the relevance of film to his ideal of narratives

that emphasize their constructedness. He sees in film a medium that has less of

the baggage of realism and is better able to acknowledge its biases and influences.

The incompleteness of filmic images calls attention to the way in which our

knowledge is written over evidence. This argument, seconded by Robert

Rosenstone, is a link in this project to the discussion of films that attempt to make

historical arguments that can be taken seriously by the public and by historians.

Historical films are nearly as old as filmmaking itself, D.W. Griffith’s The

Birth of a Nation, one of the earliest features, was an attempt at historical narrative.

Griffith envisioned that films such as his might one day replace textbooks, and

boasted of the school principals who sought to book his film for their students. 13

The possibility of historical representation on film and the suitability of the

medium for telling history have thus been controversial since the NAACP and

other African American groups attempted to have the film banned. The primary

usefulness of The Birth of a Nation to this project is to function as an extreme

example of the uses of history to condone racism. If social constructionism allows

for individual and cultural bias in historical storytelling, The Birth of a Nation

offers a challenge to the link between social constructionism and leftist politics.

Our reactions to The Birth of a Nation are dependent on a realist condemnation of

Griffith for distorting the historical record. The production and reception of this

film thus provide an intriguing and complex study in the application of

epistemology to historical fiction film.

The contrasting example considered in detail here is Oliver Stone’s JFK, a

much more self-aware film that similarly caused controversy upon its release for

being a distortion of history. The film JFK and the story that it attempts to relate

exemplify the challenges to realism as a mode of history. Stone himself seems to

endorse a social constructivist view of history, and his film might be a

compelling argument for such a position. Both the film and the critical reception

of it provide an intriguing counter example to The Birth of a Nation. Together,

Griffith makes the comparison to textbooks: “The time will come, and in less than ten years…

where the children in public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures.
Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.” Reprinted in Geduld, Focus on D.W.
Griffith, 34. In a letter to the New York Globe, he boasts “I have in my possession applications for
reservations from the principals of ten schools, who having seen the picture, are desirous of
bringing their pupils to view it for its historic truths.” Reprinted in Lang, The Birth of a Nation,

these films exemplify the complexity of debates about epistemology and realism

in film.

In the fifth and final chapter, I consider the deeper implications of social

constructionism in film and media studies. In particular, I contrast the theory of

social constructionism as a way of interrogating history with its potential as a

way to write history. Despite the usefulness of social constructionism as a theory

in film studies and in history in general, it has significant limitations as a mode of

practice. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is the hegemonic position in the

humanities, it has had very little influence on the practice of historical research.

The reasons for this limitation are not self-evident, but I consider the possibilities

for alternate modes of practice based on social constructionism. The question of

historical practice is a key stumbling block for social constructionism; it is

difficult to imagine a practice based on such a theory. By examining historical

writing on film, I consider the ways in which such writing signposts its own

constructedness, answering some of the concerns of social constructionism

within a realist framework. The goal is to determine why debates over theory

have had few implications for practice and what this illuminates about our

theories. The focus on practice is, I argue, the most forceful and compelling

argument for realism. At the same time, I want to emphasize the ways in which

the goals of social constructionism can be incorporated into realism without the

limitations of the former position.

To that end, in my conclusion I make the case for a skeptical realism that

emphasizes the power structures inherent in knowledge claims while preserving

a place for real knowledge about the natural world and historical events. I wish

to combine the political awareness of social constructionism with realism

without the pragmatist emphasis on the gaps between our consciousness and the

outside world. Such a system is a better basis for leftist or progressive politics

than social constructionism, because it avoids the relativism that makes it

difficult to provide a compelling answer to those that leftists want to argue with.

I believe that realism has the inherent potential to be politically useful, as it has

been in the past, and I want to re-emphasize that political potential in a way that

does not try to erase or reverse the theoretical developments of the past thirty

years. Rather, I believe we can draw on a range of theory to reinvigorate our

politics and our epistemology. Thus, the reasons to endorse realism are both

logical and politically progressive, as I intend to demonstrate herein.

Chapter One – The Roots of Social Constructionism

Social constructionism is based in the philosophy of knowledge, the

philosophy of language, and social politics. These three roots interact in complex

ways, so that it is not always possible to draw a clear line from one theorist to the

next. And yet, there are a number of fundamental ideas that reappear again and

again, providing social constructionism with its theoretical base, justification,

and motivation. Acknowledging these influences is crucial to understanding the

appeal of social constructionism and the way in which it has become a

fundamental assumption in a number of disciplines. It is also important to

recognize what social constructionism offers in terms of critique of the ideas it

replaced or was formulated to answer. Thus this section attempts to trace the

genealogy of social constructionism in terms specific enough to understand its

strengths and usefulness, while recognizing that the intellectual history of an

idea so fundamental is by nature too broad to be exhaustively recounted. I am

also aware that the starting point of any history is always artificial to some extent,

a problem that is especially acute when recounting intellectual history.

It is these three main roots of social constructionism that are most relevant

to our discussion, and to the context of film studies in the humanities. They

provide sophisticated foundations and justifications for social constructionism.

The philosophy of knowledge root is divided into two main threads. The first is

the history of pragmatism, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century

philosophy primarily associated with William James, John Dewey, and Charles

Sanders Pierce. Pragmatism is concerned with the fundamental limits of human

knowledge and the ways in which human contexts intrude on the gathering and

assessment of information. In this way it is an important pre-echo of social

constructionism. The second thread comes from the philosophy of science,

particularly the influential work of Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s attention to scientific

practice provided the groundwork for later critiques that contrasted the idealized

scientific method with the actual working methods of scientists. The explanation

of paradigm change that Kuhn formulated has been crucial to anti-realist

accounts of science, even though Kuhn’s position on realism is at times difficult

to ascertain. Both of these threads are part of a much larger history of

epistemology that can reasonably be traced all the way back to Plato. In order to

deal with the relevant cases in depth, I have elected not to recount much of this

history, even as I attempt to place both pragmatism and Kuhn in their larger

philosophical context.

The second root, the “philosophy of language,” is heavily centered on the

work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others who are often cited as

central to the “linguistic turn” in critical theory. In particular, Derrida’s focus on

the ways in which the structures of language both reflect and control political

assumptions has been particularly influential. The idea that language creates a

fundamental barrier between consciousness and reality is one of the strongest

arguments for an epistemology that, like pragmatism, recognizes the limits of

human knowledge within which our notions of the “real world” are constructed.

Although this work is sometimes labeled “post-1968 French philosophy” as a

way of marking its political influences and context, it would be an

oversimplification to see this work as merely a reaction to the social movements

of that period. While some of this work, particularly Foucault’s, seems at points

to be a pessimistic reaction to the failure of that year’s May revolution, it is

important to note the critical and philosophical antecedents of this work that

preceded 1968. In particular the positivist and formalist currents in science and

the humanities provided a overarching and conservative structure to which

many late-1960s and 1970s critics were responding. Derrida and Foucault have

also been more broadly influential in the humanities than either the pragmatists

or Kuhn. The political implications of Derrida and Foucault’s work also cement

their relationship to the third root of social constructionism, the social and

political movements that come to the fore in the 1960s.

The civil rights movement, the “second wave” of feminism and the

nascent gay rights movement transformed Western societies from the 1960s on.

Their influence in the humanities is substantial. This new politics challenged the

traditional Western assumptions about the superiority of whites, heterosexuals,

and males and quickly turned, in academic hands, into a critique of the

epistemology that underpinned our broader understanding of the world. If the

previous social realm, in which the white man’s experience stood in for the

experience of humankind, was now considered suspect, so was the foundation of

that worldview, a foundation that posited the distanced Cartesian subject at the

center of the natural world. There could be little doubt that the biases of earlier

generations were related to their epistemology. The prevalence of formalist

critiques, in the form of New Criticism, meant that artistic critiques were to be

separated as much as possible from their social contexts in favour of attention to

their internal coherence as works as art. This critical paradigm was, at its core,

universalist. Attacking that “universalism” as a stand in for the interests of those

with political power, the gender, racial, and queer theory critiques of the late

1960s and 1970s were inevitably drawn to an epistemology that proclaimed

knowledge to be situated in the experience of those who held it. Knowledge, in

the new social constructivist paradigm was a product of both individual and

social factors, contingent on the relative power dynamics within societies and

between societies.

The philosophy of knowledge, the philosophy of language and social

politics are interdependent and mutually reinforcing as roots of social

constructionism. Only by considering each of them in relation to the others can

we understand the reasons for social constructionism’s rise as an epistemology.

More importantly, by considering them as distinct strains within a whole rather

than as an undifferentiated philosophical position, we can better understand the

ways in which elements of social constructionism have been adopted and

discarded in contemporary film scholarship. While each of these roots has had

significant influence on the development of film scholarship, their effects are not

equal at this point in the discipline’s development. In fact, one of the key

arguments of this dissertation is that film studies has adopted the political

interest of social constructionism while gradually discarding its philosophical

underpinnings. As I will argue, this is hardly inconsistent, since the progressive

politics that have been at the center of the academic humanities since the 1960s

are better served by the realist epistemology they have retained in practice if not

in theory. In my conception, the relativism at the core of much social

constructivist work undermines the real world basis for progressive politics. At

the same time, social constructionism seems like the most politically viable

response to the dominant paradigm of the 1950s and 1960s. In order to better

understand that paradigm, and the social constructivist positions that reacted to

it, it will be necessary to consider at least some of the philosophical debates that

occurred before and laid the groundwork for more radical positions.


The historical philosophy that social constructionism most closely

resembles is pragmatism, a late 19th century position expounded primarily by

Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey, among others. 14

Pragmatism was an attack on the notion of universal truths, to be supplanted

with the idea that we build the philosophy that we need, and this in turn is and

should be the guide to our actions, institutions, and laws. Pragmatism has

undergone a revival since the 1960s; particularly because it matches so well with

the contingent theories of knowledge that are key to social constructionism. In

many senses, the writings of James and Dewey seem to be premonitions of much

later concerns, even though their ideas largely fell out of favor in the middle part

of this century. In particular, James calls for a philosophy that is engaged with

the real world: “What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your

powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion

with this actual world of finite human lives.” This “positive connexion” is not

overtly political in James’s account, but primarily religious:

You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to

facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and

For an introduction to pragmatism, see the collections of William James’ writing titled

Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. See also John Dewey’s Experience and Nature, originally
published in 1929. A useful overview of pragmatism is Morris Dickstein’s introduction to The
Revival of Pragmatism.
Dickstein, “Introduction: Pragmatism Then and Now,” 8-9.
James, Pragmatism, 17.

accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the

resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or of the romantic type. 17

What makes this position important for social constructivists is that it is an

attempt to find a “third way” between the cold rationality of science and the

religious acceptance of ideas based on faith. Contemporary social constructivists

generally don’t frame this dichotomy in terms of religion, but similarly attempt

to chart a path away from scientific realism without falling into relativism. We

might take James’s “confidence in human values” as an endorsement of the

progressive political goals of contemporary social constructivists. This seems to

be at least partly what he had in mind. He quotes Pierce as arguing “that our

beliefs are really rules for action,” and that “to develop a thought’s meaning, we

need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us

its sole significance.” In other words, the practical effects of any epistemological

position on real people are what matters. It is not the position, nor its entirely

rational truth status that matters so much as its effect on our behaviour.

This link between epistemology and its effects is central to understanding

social constructionism. In effect, this focus on effects is what social

constructionism primarily adapts from pragmatism. Social constructionism is, in

practice, almost entirely motivated by an attention to the practical political effects

of knowledge claims. Like pragmatism, social constructionism is an attempt to

work backwards from the effects to the epistemology that best suits those effects.

That is not to say that the epistemology they end up with is the same in both

cases. There are key differences in the cohesiveness of the aims and the

Ibid., 17.

epistemological stance, which are primarily a result of the fact that the

pragmatists are working on a cohesive philosophical project that springs from

relatively few hands while social constructionism is somewhat more ad hoc,

springing from the work of a range of scholars with varying backgrounds and

goals. This alone does not mean that social constructionism is any weaker as an

epistemology, but it does mean that its practitioners often do not recognize the

limitations of their position in the way that contemporary heirs of the original

pragmatists do. So while the two positions have much in common, they are not

quite the same thing. Thus, it is important to recognize that the relationship

between the pragmatists and social constructivists is not a direct line of influence.

Rather, the connections between the philosophies means that the ideals of social

constructionism have a long and developed history and that later-trained

philosophers would have at least been exposed to their ideas.

In addition, one of the key criticisms of pragmatism is also relevant to our

discussion of social constructionism. Social constructivists react to this dilemma

in a markedly different manner. Dewey had long been susceptible to the criticism

that, despite his hope that pragmatism be one of the roots of political

progressiveness, his theories could be used to justify all manner of evils. In the

eyes of his critics, the nightmares of the world wars and fascism exposed the

uglier side of pragmatism, since pragmatism allowed little room for

condemnation of moral evil (Dickstein 8). Without reference to absolutes, there

was no way to answer fascists. This criticism of Dewey is central to my critique

of current notions of social constructionism, primarily because this is the single

biggest weakness of social constructionism as a politically motivated


I am arguing that the less appealing aspects of social constructionism have

been ignored, also that progressive politics have once again been associated with

a position that offers no fundamental support for those politics, and only offers

the momentary appearance of freedom from earlier ideologies. By momentary, I

mean that social constructionism appears as an emancipatory epistemology only

when it is offered in relation to more realist epistemologies. In political struggles,

knowledge validated by social construction theory offers participants a

temporary advantage, allowing them a momentary freedom from institutional

structures of validation that can act conservatively to preserve the status quo.

The advantage is temporary however. As soon as those in power become social

constructivists, all political advantage is lost.

Recognizing this weakness in social constructionism is the first key to

separating its political dimension from its philosophical and linguistic

dimensions. This particular argument is best illustrated by example. The ability

to choose “alternative” health providers or rely on the concepts of so-called

“postmodern nursing,” in which individual experience is valued over the

standards of double-blind testing which govern institutional science and

medicine, appears at first to give consumers an advantage, since they now have a

greater range of options available to them, and can make the decisions with

which they are most comfortable. Indeed, this seems to be the motivation behind

the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 that freed alternative

medicine providers from the burdens of proof that govern traditional medicine.

The act allows alternative medicine a chance to be adopted by the public without

the expensive and time-consuming trials to which mainstream drugs are subject.

This allows for a range of decentralized health practices, many drawn from the

medicinal practices of other countries, to be made available to the public. This

would seem to be a victory for localized and non-western knowledges over the

power of institutionalized medicine and the handful of large pharmaceutical

companies that control the American marketplace for medicines. But this

advantage only lasts as long as the traditional vendors of medicine, the M.D.s

and drug companies, continue to play by the old rules. If pharmaceutical

companies were allowed to work with the same rules as alternative medicine

providers and make similar claims about their products in the absence of

anything resembling scientific proof, this would be an absolute windfall for the

already wealthy drug companies, who would now be free to market anything in

any way with no regard for the consequences. Those who would suffer most

would be the least educated and least powerful members of society, those least

likely to be able to distinguish between legitimate medical claims and the wishful

thinking of marketers. So while the loosening of marketing rules and the

growing acceptance of alternative treatments seems progressive because it

appears to value local and non-western knowledges over the institutional

authority of mainstream medicine, this is only a benefit as long as different rules

apply based on the relative power of those claiming to provide medicines. If the

notion that individual choice and “traditional” knowledge should trump

scientific knowledge spreads, the result would be an even greater imbalance of


Thomas Kuhn and Paradigm Change

Of course, the above distinction between traditional science and

alternative medicine often depends on unquestioned assumptions about how

science works. It posits a realist, logical practice of science versus a non-realist

alternative, and privileges the former. Social constructionism does not leave this

assumption unchallenged, and in many ways borrows its perception of science

from work in the philosophy of science that challenges the realist conception of

science. The most influential work in this category is Thomas Kuhn’s The

Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962. Kuhn’s work challenges

the notion of a realist science that gradually uncovers more and more accurate

knowledge about the natural world.

The key to Kuhn’s conception of science is the notion of paradigm change.

The traditional conception of science held that scientists gradually improved

their image of the natural world in a punctuated but steady progression. While

old knowledge was often discarded or corrected, it was always by knowledge

that was better than the old, in the sense that it more accurately reflected an

external reality. This sense of scientific progress was inherently linked to the

notion of progress in society, a particularly modern idea that imagined a

continuous line of improvement from past to future. Not only would we be

better able to understand the world, but we would inevitably be able to solve

problems that had previously been thought unsolvable. This broader social

conception of this inherently optimistic notion was undermined in the 20 th

century by the two World Wars, but it continued to hold in science throughout

the 1950s. Kuhn’s close reading of the history of scientific development

challenged the notion that science progressed by continuously improving upon

prior knowledge, substituting instead the idea that science moved through a

series of punctuated equilibria. What is most significant about these periods of

equilibrium is that they represent an almost closed system in relation to the

periods that precede and follow them. Kuhn posited that science goes through

stable periods in which the defining description is not progress but problem

solving. In these periods, scientists have defined the terms of their discussion

and set about filling in the details of that particular system. Results that do not fit

the terms of the paradigm are dismissed as anomalous or as errors. Eventually

these anomalous results pile up until they can no longer be accounted for in such

a way, and they begin to challenge the foundations of the paradigm. At these

moments of crisis, the paradigm shifts to one that better accounts for the new

information, but is not necessarily more “true” than the previous paradigm.

There then follows a new period of relatively tranquility and problem solving

until the process re-occurs.

The most radical part of this argument is the claim that these paradigms

are fundamentally different in their conception of the world, so that they cannot

be compared to each other in any meaningful way. This means that one cannot

be hailed as an improvement over the last. There is no progress, only a change of

paradigm. This is of course a simplified version of Kuhn’s position, since his is

based on close attention to historical examples, but the usefulness of this

argument to social constructivists should be relatively obvious. Undermining the

notion of scientific progress completely undermines the realist perception of

science as a field that uncovers truths about the world. Instead, science becomes

an internal, self-validating system that, although determined in large part by the

natural world, cannot claim to be understanding it. So convincing is Kuhn’s

reading of the history of science that is often seems like the best “proof” of social


Kuhn himself attempted to temper the notion that his descriptions of

paradigm change supported relativist epistemologies. In a postscript to The


Structure of Scientific Revolutions written for the second edition, he attempts to

sketch out a middle ground that resembles pragmatism in its desire to limit

ontological claims while maintaining the usefulness of scientific discovery. The

following passage sums up Kuhn’s distinction and answers key criticisms:

Imagine an evolutionary tree representing the development of the modern

scientific specialties from their common origins in, say, primitive natural
philosophy and the crafts. A line drawn up that tree, never doubling back,
from the trunk to the tip of some branch would trace a succession of
theories related by descent. Considering any two such theories, chosen
from points not too near their origin, it should be easy to design a list of
criteria that would enable an uncommitted observer to distinguish the
earlier from the more recent theory time after time. Among the most
useful would be: accuracy of prediction, particularly of quantitative
prediction; the balance between esoteric and everyday subject matter; and
the number of different problems solved. Less useful for this purpose,
though also important determinants of scientific life, would be such
values as simplicity, scope, and compatibility with other specialties. Those
lists are not yet the ones required, but I have no doubt that they can be
completed. If they can, then scientific development is, like biological, a
unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better
than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different
environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position,
and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific
Compared with the notion of progress most prevalent among both
philosophers of science and laymen, however, this position lacks an
essential element. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its
predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for
discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better
representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that
successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more
closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the
puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but
rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with
which the theory populates nature and what is “really there.” 19

Kuhn also attempted to clarify his position in the essay “Objectivity, Value Judgement and

Theory Choice,” published in 1977. A useful examination of the implications of Kuhn’s position is
Ernan McMullin’s “Rationality and Paradigm Change in Science.” A challenge to Kuhn’s notion
of paradigm change is Larry Laudan’s “Dissecting the Holist Picture of Scientific Change.” See
also Laudan’s Science and Relativism.
Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3 ed. 205-6.
19 rd

In the first half of this section, Kuhn endorses what seems like a

traditional notion of scientific progress, one that emphasizes the ways in which

subsequent discoveries are actual improvements on previous models. The key to

this distinction is that Kuhn’s term “puzzle-solving” makes the process sound

more trivial than he believes it is. From this passage, he makes it clear that

puzzle-solving is both useful and progressive. In the second half of this section,

he endorses what is best described as a pragmatic view, one that stops short of

making ontological claims. Kuhn believes that science is useful and offers

productive knowledge, and in this way he is closest to the pragmatic conception

of “the philosophy we need.” He is concerned with outcomes, but wary of

fundamental truth claims, and argues that the fact that science “works” does not

imply that it is moving closer to an understanding of the real world. Instead,

science’s perception of the “real world” is always fundamentally limited. We are

prevented from knowing when we are close to reality not because we are bad at

science, but because we have no way to test definitively when we have it right.

Kuhn argues that it is not so much that we can’t access reality as it is that we do

not know when we are accessing it. The replacement of scientific knowledges

with competing paradigms means that our belief that we are moving closer to

the truth is fundamentally not provable. It is illusory but we lose nothing of

practical value by giving it up. Instead we retain the benefits of science while

being more realistic about its ontology.

So from the philosophy of knowledge social constructionism borrows two

key elements – the focus on a practical philosophy and a sense that social

constructionism is rooted in a reading of the history of science and not “simply”

in philosophy. Kuhn’s theories in particular are widely cited, and a simplified

notion of the “paradigm” has entered the general consciousness. If Kuhn’s theory

of paradigm change argued persuasively that we can never know the real world,

philosophical theories of language that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s

solidified that notion by attempting to explain the nature of the gap between our

consciousness and reality. While Kuhn’s reluctance to make ontological claims

was based on a practical reading of the history of science, these theories were

based instead on a more esoteric reading of the history of philosophy. Rather

than simply refusing to make the “ontological leap,” these theories attempted to

explain convincingly why that leap was impossible.

Jacques Derrida and the Philosophy of Language

The foundational and radical critiques of Jacques Derrida have perhaps

been the biggest influence on the theory of social constructionism. Beginning in

the 1960s, Derrida’s theories of writing and language posited a significant

challenge to realism and to philosophy in general. He is attempting to break the

mold of traditional philosophical argument, in which previous works are

examined and then either found to be solid or refuted. This relationship between

argument and counter-argument is one of the many binarisms that Derrida seeks

to dismantle, and so he examines Plato, Heidegger, and other philosophers not to

decide whether they are valid but to draw ideas from and “play” with the texts,

revealing hidden and contradictory assumptions. This desire to work outside the

boundaries of traditional philosophical discourse and, indeed, to undermine that

discourse, makes it difficult for other scholars to confront Derrida. If he is

attempting to work outside the traditions of argument and counter-argument,

then it is not clear how to respond to the work. If other scholars either agree or

disagree with Derrida, they are in a sense working in the framework that he

rejects, and could be accused of missing the point. On the other hand, the

complexity of the work and its potential significance calls for a response. The

clearest summation of his work tends to come from interviews, when he has less

recourse to the play of language. In an early interview with Henri Ronse, he says:

I try to keep myself at the limit of philosophical discourse. I say limit and
not death, for I do not at all believe in what today is so easily called the
death of philosophy…. Thus, the limit on the basis of which philosophy
became possible, defined itself as the episteme, functioning within a system
of fundamental constraints, conceptual oppositions outside of which
philosophy becomes impracticable. 20


To “deconstruct” philosophy, thus, would be to think – in the most

faithful, interior way – the structured genealogy of philosophy’s concepts,
but at the same time to determine – from a certain exterior that is
unqualifiable or unnameable by philosophy – what this history has been
able to dissimulate or forbid, making itself into a history by means of this
somewhat motivated repression. By means of this simultaneously faithful
and violent circulation between the inside and the outside of philosophy –
that is of the West – there is produced a certain textual work that gives
great pleasure. 21

There is a great deal to be drawn from these passages alone, and we will see how

various critics have responded to each of these ideas. Derrida seems to resist the

most radical readings of deconstruction as a type of “destruction” of the

possibilities of knowledge and language. His desire to move “between the


inside and the outside” of philosophy has been challenged as a rhetorical trick

that makes it difficult to take Derrida seriously. Lastly, his equation of

Derrida, “Implications,” 6.

Derrida, “Implications,” 6-7.


For further explanation and critique of the notion of deconstruction as destruction see

Christopher Johnson. Derrida: The Scene of Writing, 1999.

philosophy with “the West” has considerable importance for those who wish to

consider the political implications of his work.

There are two facets to the potential relevance of Derrida for social

constructionism. The first is purely epistemological – Derrida’s work challenges

the foundations of Western philosophy and thus the foundations of Western

knowledge. Related to this is a consideration of the politics of Derrida’s work,

and whether or not his radical challenge to epistemology equals a radical

challenge to the politics of capitalism.

The range of responses to Derrida’s philosophy can be roughly

summarized by the positions of three scholars who have considered his writing.

Christopher Norris argues that Derrida does have a significant point, and that it

is a useful one for philosophy. Norris has also argued that Derrida has been

wrongly labeled as a postmodern relativist, a claim he has supported through

numerous volumes on Derrida and postmodernism. Norris is a realist who


wants to rescue Derrida from the relativists who, he argues, have mislabeled the

philosopher’s work and misunderstood his intentions. John Searle is also a realist

but one who takes the opposite position on Derrida. Searle is dismissive of

Derrida’s work, attacking his central claims and arguing that Derrida is in fact a

relativist, and one who is deliberately vague so as to avoid the possibility of


While these philosophers differ greatly in their readings of Derrida, they

both take him seriously in the sense that they place his argument into a dialectic

of philosophical debate and then choose to support or refute it. Richard Rorty

Norris’s relevant works include What’s Wrong With Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of

Philosophy, 1990; Derrida, 1987; Uncritical Theory, 1992. The Truth About Postmodernism, 1993.

attempts to respect Derrida’s desire to remain outside this dialectic and so

refuses to consider Derrida as someone who is making a serious philosophical

argument. Like Searle, he does not agree with many of the foundational claims

that Derrida makes, but for very different reasons. As a pragmatist, Rorty is not

opposed to Derrida’s critiques of traditional epistemologies. Rather, in his refusal

to take these critiques seriously he implies that both Searle and Norris are

missing the point. Derrida’s work is a play with language that, in Rorty’s

estimation, is a type of philosophical game or in-joke. Those who attempt to

support or refute it, he argues, essentially do not understand the game.

Norris’s reaction to Derrida is, like his subject, complex and prolific. His

primary aim is to separate Derrida from his relativist reputation, and in doing so

he makes arguments that are key to our discussion of social constructionism. His

most important and primary goal is to separate the concept of deconstruction

from the relativism that comes from thoroughly undermining realist

epistemologies. Norris reads Derrida closely and focuses on the moments when

Derrida discusses the limits of his ideas and attempts to rein in the most radical

interpretations of his arguments. Norris argues that deconstruction

is a rigorous attempt to think the limits of that principle of reason which

has shaped the emergence of Western philosophy, science and technology
at large. It is rigorous insofar as it acknowledges the need to engage with
that principle in all its effects and discursive manifestations. Thus the
activity of deconstruction is strictly inconceivable outside the tradition of
enlightened rational critique… 24

Thus Norris reads Derrida as an explorer of the boundaries of knowledge rather

than as an exploder of foundations. He argues that Derrida’s project of

Norris, Derrida, 162.

deconstruction “sustains the impulse of enlightenment critique even while

subjecting that tradition to a radical re-assessment of its grounding concepts and

categories.” In order to dispel the notion that he is reading selectively against


the grain, he quotes passage after passage in which Derrida discusses the limits

of deconstruction, including this one from Limited Inc.:

I have never ‘put such concepts as truth, reference, and the stability of
interpretive contexts radically into question’ if ‘putting radically into
question’ means contesting that there are and that there should be truth,
reference, and stable contexts of interpretation. I have – but this is
something entirely different – posed questions that I hope are radical
concerning the possibility of these things, of these values, of these norms,
of this stability (which of its essence is always provisional and finite). This
discourse and the questioning attuned to its possibility… evidently no
longer belong simply, or homogeneously, to the order of truth, of
reference, or contextuality. But they do not destroy it or contradict it. 26

This passage, which Norris uses to support his reading of Derrida as a hard

questioner who stops short of endorsing relativism, contains enough qualifiers

that one might reasonably see how others could read it differently. And while

Norris is frustrated by simple readings of Derrida that focus on the idea that il

n’y a pas de hors-texte, it is difficult not to see some of the limits Derrida proposes

as re-considerations of earlier radicalisms. In that sense, Norris seems to logically

use Derrida to support his own realist project, but it is harder to accept that

others have misread Derrida from the beginning.

Thus Norris’s reading of Derrida has two parts. In the first, he believes

that Derrida’s radical readings of philosophical texts are worth preserving. If not,

he would not go to such lengths to rescue those readings from those he disagrees

with. Despite Derrida’s claims to be outside of the discourse of philosophy,

Norris, Uncritical Theory, 17.


Derrida, Limited Inc., 134. Quoted in Norris, Uncritical Theory. 37.


Derrida, Of Grammatology. 158. Translated as “There is nothing outside of the text.” Literally

“There is no outside-text.”

Norris plays down the rhetorical claims in favor of an emphasis on what Derrida

has to say about other philosophers. The second part is aligning Derrida with his

own realist project, one that seems reasonable from the evidence he provides,

even with the caveat that Derrida is notoriously hard to pin down to a singular

and concise position. It is easier to accept Norris’s reading of Derrida as a

possible reading than to accept that it is the reading – in other words, that it is the

reading most in tune with Derrida’s intentions. In the end, he does much to

clarify Derrida and presents a position that is uncommon and persuasively


John Searle has a much more negative reaction to Derrida, and especially

to the rhetorical play that Norris works so hard to sort through. He recounts

Michel Foucault referring to Derrida’s writing as “obscurantisme terroriste.” Searle

expands: “The text is written so obscurely that you can’t figure out exactly what

the thesis is (hence: ‘obscurantisme’) and then when one criticizes it, the author

says, ‘Vous m’avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot’ (hence ‘terroriste’).” Labels aside,

Searle writes that “I believe that Derrida’s work… is not just a series of muddles

and gimmicks. There is in fact a large issue being addressed and a large mistake

being made.” That mistake, he goes on to argue, is the same mistake of classical

metaphysicians who attempted to find the foundations of ethics or knowledge:

Derrida correctly sees that there aren’t any such foundations, but then he

makes the mistake that marks him as a classical metaphysician. The real mistake

of the classical metaphysician was not the belief that there were metaphysical

Searle, “The World Turned Upside Down,” 178-9. Derrida’s imagined response is “You have

misunderstood me. You are an idiot.” (my translation).

Ibid., 180.

foundations, but rather the belief that somehow or other such foundations were

necessary, the belief that unless there are foundations something is lost or

threatened or undermined or put in question.

In other words, the failure of the metaphysical search for foundations…

…doesn’t threaten science, language, or common sense in the least. As

Wittgenstein says, it leaves everything exactly as it is. The only
“foundation,” for example, that language has or needs is that people are
biologically, physiologically, and socially constituted so that they succeed
in using it to state truths, to give and obey orders, to express their feelings
and attitudes, to thank, apologize, warn, congratulate, etc. 30

In this passage Searle sounds like more of a pragmatist than he really is.

Elsewhere he is a passionate defender of the realism of science, and his 31

comment here about the possibility of language to “state truths” is significant.

While Searle takes issue with a number of the key arguments of Derrida

and his defenders, a couple of his points are particularly significant. He argues,

for instance, that Derrida twists and misunderstands Ferdinand de Saussure’s

point about language being structured on a system of differences. Searle agrees

that the understanding of the phrase “the cat is on the mat” is dependent on its

difference from phrases like “the dog is on the mat” or “the cat is on the couch.”

Derrida uses this distinction to argue that each of these phrases and words in

thus infused with the alternate possibilities. As a result, none of the possibilities

can be said to be completely present or absent. All are present as traces by the

fact that their differences create the meaning of the sentence. Searle argues that,

on the contrary, “the system of differences is precisely a system of presence and

Ibid., 181.

See, for example, Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, 1995. Mind, Brains and Science, 1984.

Mind, Language and Society, 1999.

absence.” In other words, it is the presence of the word “cat” and the absence of

the word “dog” that makes the first example understandable.

Trying to understand the appeal of Derrida for literary critics, Searle

remarks that he repeatedly finds literary theorists who use Derrida making two

mistakes that, ironically, place them in the company of logical positivists. The

first is the assumption that, to be valid, any definition must have clearly defined


Many literary theorists fail to see, for example, that it is not an objection to
a theory of fiction that it does not sharply divide the metaphorical from
the nonmetaphorical. On the contrary, it is the condition of the adequacy
of a precise theory of an indeterminate phenomenon that it should
precisely characterize that phenomenon as indeterminate; and a
distinction is no less a distinction for allowing a family of related,
marginal, diverging cases.
People who try to hold the assumption that genuine distinctions must be
made rigid are ripe for Derrida’s attempt to undermine all such

This is a key insight, I think, that marginal cases are consistently held up as proof

that a “binarism” is invalid, when such a claim rests on the assumption that all

definitions must be absolute to be valid.

The second, related, issue that Searle sees as part of the appeal of Derrida

to literary theory is the apparent belief that “concepts that apply to language and

literature, if they are to be truly valid, must admit of some mechanical procedure

of verification.” In other words, concepts such as authorial intention cannot be

subjected to a rigorous test that verifies our assumptions. We cannot figure out

with certainty whether an author intended a work to be fiction or non-fiction, for

example. In Searle’s conception:

Ibid., 177.
Ibid., 182.

…that there is no mechanical decision procedure for identifying an
author’s intentions, or for determining whether or not a work is a work of
fiction or whether an expression is used metaphorically – in no way
undermines the concepts of intention, fiction, or metaphor. … In general
these practices neither require nor admit of rigorous internal boundary
lines and simple mechanical methods of ascertaining the presence or
absence of a phenomenon. Again the crude positivism of these
assumptions I am criticizing is of a piece with Derrida’s assumption that
without foundations we are left with nothing but the free play of

Searle’s criticisms of deconstruction are significant and substantial. Derrida’s

arguments do seem to rest on the presumption that the disruption of hard

distinctions is significant enough to undermine the foundations of language, and

obviously such an argument depends on the metaphysical assumption that such

foundations are significant. But these criticisms might be more suited for those

who try to apply Derrida’s work more than Derrida himself. It might be argued

that Searle is simply taking Derrida too seriously, looking for a rigorous

argument that is not there and not supposed to be there. If Derrida is trying to

break out of the philosophical mode of argument and counter-argument, it

makes little sense to treat him as if he is within it. The widespread influence of

Derrida’s writings over the past 30 years means that Searle’s arguments are

useful whether they are aimed at Derrida or those who apply his work to literary,

art, or film studies. At the same time, a case can be made that Searle is missing

the point of Derrida, and that case has primarily been made by Richard Rorty.

Rorty finds much to like about Derrida. In the first case, Rorty considers

himself a pragmatist, so he is unlikely to be offended by the usefulness of

Derrida’s thoughts for attacks on realism. However, for Rorty, this is not the

Ibid., 183.

strength of Derrida’s work – rather, it is Derrida’s play with terms and ideas that

he finds challenging, interesting and entertaining. He does not find Derrida

useful in the common philosophical sense, as someone who makes arguments

that can be evaluated in relation to previous claims. Rorty takes seriously

Derrida’s attempts to remain outside the philosophical paradigm of argument

and refutation, and thus refuses to engage him on those grounds. Rorty thus

argues explicitly against philosophers like Norris and Searle who attempt to deal

with Derrida as a “serious” philosopher whose arguments can be considered

with in an argumentative philosophical framework. In this regard, Rorty


highlights one of the difficulties of Derrida’s position in relation to the rest of

philosophy. He is not dismissing Derrida as too difficult or obtuse, in fact this

seems to be what he most enjoys about Derrida’s work. He sees him as “writing

for the delight of us insiders who share his background, who find the same

rather esoteric things as funny or beautiful or moving as he does.” To Rorty,


Derrida is a writer about philosophy who attempts to stand outside of it, and as

such he cannot be seen as a participant in that world: “The idea that there is

some neutral ground on which to mount an argument against something as big

as ‘logocentrism’ strikes me as one more logocentric hallucination.” In this 37

regard, he seems most respectful of the radicalness of Derrida’s position, while

demonstrating the difficulty in engaging that position, either to use it or to refute


Rorty moves on to further consider a key problem for those who wish to

consider Derrida’s work on language as a substantial and workable position. He

Rorty, Richard. “Is Derrida a Transcendental Philosopher?” 137-139.
Ibid., 138
Ibid., 139

takes issue with the idea of considering language as a whole system, seeing this

as just a waste of time that has little practical use. In this instance, the gaps

between pragmatism and Derrida’s deconstruction are clearest. Rorty argues that

for nominalists like him, who “see language as just human beings using marks

and noises to get what they want,” Derrida’s project is pointless.

[T]here is no reason to think that there is any great big metavocabulary

which will somehow get at the least common denominator of all the
various uses of all the various marks and noises which we use for all these
various purposes. So there is no reason to lump these uses together in to
something big called “Language,” and then to look for its “condition of
possibility” and more than to lump all our beliefs about the
spatiotemporal world together into something called “experience” and
then look, as Kant did, for its “condition of possibility.”

Rorty is thus concerned with the usefulness of Derrida’s project given its

apparent scope. His skepticism is based in a pragmatist’s disdain for debates in

which the alternatives have no difference in their practical outcomes. This is the

key difference between Derrida and pragmatists – the pragmatists’ willingness

to be “useful” and to limit or guide philosophy based on what is useful. This

difference is hardly absolute however. Rorty admits that Derrida’s writings have

enough internal contradictions to justify other readings of his work, and the

question of Derrida’s usefulness has been central to others who have considered

his writing.

While Rorty considers Derrida’s relationship to other philosophy and the

purposes Derrida’s work can serve within philosophy, the broader discussion of

Derrida’s “usefulness” has centered largely on whether his work has political

implications. There are two facets to this discussion of the political implications

Ibid., 145

of Derrida that are relevant to the roots of social constructionism. One is the

timing of his early work, coinciding as it did with both the radical movements in

France in 1968 and the broader American social movements of the time that

focused on the politics of race, gender, and sexuality. Although that timing is

significant in the influence of Derrida on social constructionism, I do not wish to

suggest that this relationship was purely coincidental. Instead, there are ways of

reading Derrida that make him useful to those looking for a philosophy of

radical politics. As we shall see, Derrida has been at time reluctant to make the

politics of his philosophy explicit, perhaps because the connection between his

philosophy and his politics is complex and contradictory.

In a work that examines the potential uses of Derrida for radical political

movements, Nancy Fraser points out that debates about Derrida’s usefulness are

complicated by both the intricacies of his position and his relative silence on

political questions. To sum up the opposing positions, she calls on the work of

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jacob Rogozinski, who tackled the question of

Derrida’s politics beginning in the early 1980s. She cites Spivaks’s use of a quote

from Derrida’s 1968 essay “The Ends of Man” a call for a “radical shake-up

[ebranlément], [which] can come only from the outside [and which] takes place [se

joue] in the violent relationship – be it ‘linguistic’ … or ethnological, political, or

military – between all of the West and its other.” Such apparently direct call for

political action is rare in Derrida’s work. The “violent” relationship to linguistics

Spivak is quoted by Fraser in “The French Derrideans,” 53. This is Fraser’s translation of
Spivak’s quote in French. The essay is published in English as “The Ends of Man” in Margins of
Philosophy and translated by Alan Bass, 134-5. Bass’s translation of the passage reads: “A radical
trembling can only come from the outside. Therefore, the trembling of which I speak derives no
more that any other from some spontaneous decision or philosophical thought after some violent
maturation of its history. This trembling is played out in the violent relationship of the whole of
the West to its other, whether a “linguistic” relationship… or ethnological, economic, political,
military, relationships, etc.”

and language is a constant, but the link to broader politics is rarely explicit. At

the same time, the thoroughness of Derrida’s critique of the foundations of

language and philosophy makes them an attack on the foundations of

epistemology. Given the extent to which Derrida challenges our sense of what

we think we know, it is difficult not to see the potential links between this

position and radical politics. But one must read “between the lines” of his

writing to get a clear call to politics. Even “The Ends of Man” is not primarily

concerned with radical politics. Much of it, including the section Spivak refers to,

is concerned with the questions of how to work both inside and outside of

philosophical discourse that I discussed earlier.

As a response to Spivak’s political reading of Derrida, Fraser offers the

work of Jacob Rogozinski, who offers a counter reading of Derrida’s politics

based on a quotation from an interview with Julia Kristeva: “I do not believe in

decisive ruptures, in an unequivocal ‘epistemological break,’ as it is called today.

Breaks are always, and fatally, reinscribed in an old cloth that must continually,

interminably be undone.” Moving on from these dueling citations, Fraser goes


on to recount the difficulties of the Center for Philosophical Research on the

Political, founded in France in 1980 a few months after the conference at Cerisy

where Spivak and Rogozinski presented their competing views. The Center, run

by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, was founded as an attempt to

explore the nature of the political from a deconstructivist perspective, and was

determined to do so without falling into either of the two camps represented by

Spivak and Rogozinski. The problem was that there was a limited amount of

exploration that could be done without lapsing into real political questions, at

Derrida, “Semiology and Grammatology: Interview with Julia Kristeva,” Positions. 24.

which point the question of which side of political debates deconstruction comes

down on could not be avoided. The Center ceased operation in 1984. Such an

example does not illustrate that deconstruction is not political, but that Derrida’s

insistence on playing inside and outside without falling into the binarisms of

traditional debate is difficult to reconcile with any real-world political question.

The Center was an attempt to create a space for critical inquiry outside of the

dialectics of traditional political discussions, but actually inhabiting that space

proved difficult for very long.

While this is but one example of the potential political uses of Derrida, it is

illustrative of the difficulties of applying his esoteric and complex philosophies

to hard political realities. The competing readings of his writing, generally

supported by short passages isolated from their convoluted context, reveal the

difficulty of getting a clear reading on any of Derrida’s positions, let alone those

that deal with issues external to philosophy. The primary usefulness of Derrida

has been as a symbol of the radical possibilities of questioning foundations. He

spares nothing from inquisitiveness and thorough examination, constantly

revealing the hidden assumptions in a range of ideas. This position as a

questioner is inherently politically appealing and useful. As such he became a

representative of political ideologies that he rarely if ever voiced explicit support

for. Although presumed to be supportive of Marxism, it has been suggested that

he refrained from dealing directly with the relationship between Marxism and

deconstruction since he was not sure that deconstruction was supportive of

Marxism and did not want to give Marxism’s critics any further ammunition. 41

This balance between supporting progressive politics and not speaking publicly

See Fraser, 52.

has allowed Derrida to become part of the framework of social constructionism

without dealing with it directly. He is a significant influence because he

questions foundations of knowledge, and this is his primary usefulness to

politics and social constructionism.

Michel Foucault

Derrida’s contemporary Michel Foucault has undertaken a similar project,

examining the bases of knowledge in the West and asking hard questions about

the influences of cultural ideas on science, history and philosophy. His project is

generally less esoteric than Derrida’s. Foucault is concerned more with a reading

of history to determine the ways in which cultural values shape the possibilities

of knowledge. Thus, like Derrida, he is concerned with the limits of knowledge

and the foundations upon which power structures are built. Foucault’s work is

the more political of the two, and also more willing to deal in the specifics of real

world cases. Though dense, his writing is comparatively clear, which makes it

easier to get a sense of his overall project, even if it took numerous forms over the

course of his career. Foucault is interested in interrogating the structures of

power, whether that power is legal, scientific, or political. He accomplishes these

interrogations by looking for the possibilities of knowledge in various time

periods, in order to ascertain the ways in which the limits of knowledge shape

authority and society – the ways, in Foucault’s words,

our culture has made manifest the existence of order, and… what
modalities of order have been recognized, posited, linked with space and
time, in order to create the positive basis of knowledge as we find it
employed in grammar and philology, in natural history and biology, in
the study of wealth and political economy. Quite obviously, such an
analysis does not belong to the history of ideas or of science: it is rather an
inquiry whose aim is to rediscover on what basis knowledge and theory

became possible; within what space of order knowledge was constituted;
on the basis of what historical a priori, and in the element of what
positivity, ideas could appear, sciences be established, experience be
reflected in philosophies, rationalities be formed… 42

This passage is in some sense a summary of one type of social constructionism.

In its emphasis on attention to historical detail, it is closer to Kuhn’s reading of

the history of science than Derrida’s reading of the history of philosophy.

Foucault is concerned with the context of knowledge, and with tracing the

contexts into the knowledge itself. He is not necessarily anti-realist however – it

is unclear how much he believes that these contexts influence the core of science.

The scope of his project means that he can only examine select examples to make

his case, and so in some sense it is up to his reader to decide whether these

examples are typical or not. The question of the possibility of realism is an

undercurrent to Foucault’s work, but is sometimes sidestepped as being of only

partial relevance. Foucault writes:

I am not concerned, therefore, to describe the progress of knowledge

towards an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be
recognized… but rather that of its conditions of possibility; in this account,
what should appear are those configurations within the space of
knowledge which have given rise to the diverse forms of empirical science.
Such and enterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of
that word, as an ‘archaeology.’ 43

Here Foucault posits that the vision of science and progressing toward an

objectivity is an overly simple picture of its history. At the same time, he does not

confront the question of objectivity so much as render it less important with an

attention to historical details surrounding the internal workings of science.

Throughout his work, he emphasizes the connections of science to the larger

intellectual and political culture: “In short, the question of ideology that is asked

Foucault, The Order of Things, xxi-xxii.
Ibid., xxii

of science is not the question of situations or practices that it reflects more or less

consciously; nor is it the question of the possible use or misuse to which it could

be put; it is the question of its existence as a discursive practice and of its

functioning among other practices.” In Foucault’s conception, science is


thoroughly constituted by ideology, but “this is not a sufficiently good reason to

treat the totality of [its] statements as being undermined by error, contradiction,

and a lack of objectivity.” At the same time, science cannot undo its relationship

to ideology no matter the levels of rigour it instills in its practice: “The role of

ideology does not diminish as rigour is increased and error is dissipated.” In his46

explorations of the history of madness or sexuality, Foucault explores the ways

in which scientific discourse is part of a larger structure of ideology and culture,

and does not allow scientific discourses a special status separate from these


The key limits to Foucault’s work are the extent to which his examples are

representative of the history of science more generally, and the extent to which

his observations are relevant to current scientific practice. On the first point,

Foucault’s focus on clinical medical practice, the point where science and culture

interact, creates a divide between this type of “science” and the type that is

practiced in laboratories, often (but not always) farther from social taboos about

the human body or the limits of insanity. Foucault is well aware of this division,

and that clinical medical practice hardly meets the usual definitions of a science.

He makes the argument that ideology extends into physics and astronomy, but

the bulk of his carefully considered examples are from the places where science

Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 185.
Ibid., 186.
Ibid., 186.

and culture interact most explicitly in terms of both content and practice. These

are fascinating points of exploration, but it is difficult to assess their applicability

to science more generally. On the second point, it would be foolish to argue that

since Foucault frequently deals with historical examples that his findings are

limited to history, or that science has somehow overcome the limitations he

discusses. However, despite his questioning of the model that science progresses

by improving on its mistakes, there is little room for the idea that scientific

practice might improve over time. This is not to argue that at some point in the

recent past, science was able to magically remove the ideology from its practice,

only that a dichotomy of ideological/not ideological does not create a space for

differing levels of infiltration. Foucault may argue that science and knowledge

are thoroughly constituted by ideology, but the effects of that ideology in

practice might differ substantially over time and across place, especially as,

internally at least, science is continually concerned with improving its

knowledge bases and removing the biases of the past.

Foucault’s contributions to social constructionism are substantial,

particularly because, like Kuhn, he is arguing from historical example and not

simply from theory. Thus, his work has been widely influential both in terms of

its findings and for the model of inquiry it represents. The work of Derrida and

Foucault focuses on the context of knowledge claims and the ways in which

knowledge is determined by the possibilities of argument in the social realm in

which it is formed. So by considering the roots of social constructionism in the

philosophy of knowledge and language, we can better understand where the

idea comes from and how it can be perceived as having solid foundations that

are both theoretical and historical. I would argue that, regardless of the actual

solidity of these arguments, a third factor has been crucial in their diffusion and

acceptance. The social movements that took place at about the same time as

many of these ideas were being published provided the context in which Kuhn,

Derrida and Foucault made sense to their audiences.

Social and Political Movements

The third major root of social constructionism is probably the most

important of the three, although it is also the more difficult to document. The

social movements that developed in the 1960s and 1970s have been a key part of

the motivation for social constructionism and key to its longstanding appeal. It is

doubtful whether these epistemologies would have held critical favour for as

long as they have if they were not associated with important social movements.

In a time of substantial challenge to conservative social structures, challenges to

what could be seen as conservative, or at least traditional, epistemologies, made

a lot of sense. The need to rebel against conservative structures in intellectual

disciplines was as important to Kuhn as it was to Derrida and Foucault. As we

shall see in Chapter Four, this rebellion was important for Michel De Certeau

and Hayden White as well.

The social movements that are crucial here though are grassroots political

movements that largely take place outside the world of intellectuals. Three

primary movements developed in the 1960s and 1970s, although all obviously

have much earlier roots. The civil rights movement of the 1960s is tied to the long

history of racial struggle in the United States, but it received a boost in the

aftermath of the Second World War, when black servicemen returning from the

war were unwilling to return to second class citizen status in the country they

had recently been defending in the name of freedom. When the movement

becomes widespread and publicized in the 1960s, it offered a substantial

challenge to the social structure of the United States, and other countries with

similar racial divides. Most importantly, it confronted an entrenched system of

discrimination and violence based on silence and the illusion of peace. Thus, this

was not just the boiling over of a long standing dispute, but the disruption of a

longstanding social system that depended on denial and was not being

questioned openly and angrily. Since the system of racial equality had depended

on silence, the act of vocalizing and questioning represented a substantial shift in

the culture’s way of dealing with problems. That act of questioning and

attempting to undermine social structures that have long been considered

unquestionable is the key to the relationship between politics and social

constructionism. The relationship applies to the other two social movements of

the time as well.

What is sometimes referred to as the “second wave” of the women’s

movement is perhaps more of a peak in an ongoing challenge to women’s roles

in Western societies in the twentieth century. Although the perception of

women’s roles in society changed substantially in the first half of the century,

ingrained prejudices meant that women could not substantially advance in

public and professional life. Coupled with the civil rights movement, the feminist

movement of the 1960s and 70s began to focus on women’s contributions to

society and knowledge. Like the civil rights movement, it represented a

challenge to fundamental assumptions. The act of questioning was again key to

this shift, so that the fundamental shift was not just from a lack of equality to

greater equality, but from a system of acceptance to one of challenging the status


The last of the three social movements of this period is of course the gay

rights movement. Often marked as beginning with the riots that followed a raid

on the Stonewall Inn in New York City in June of 1969, the gay rights movement

also had roots in many years of discrimination. In some ways, the gay rights

movement is the most fundamental challenge to cultural mores to arise in this

period, because homosexuality is perceived as disrupting binary gender roles

that conservatives see as at the foundation of society. It is difficult enough for

conservatives to accept that women’s roles within that binarism have had to

change. They seem unable to accept that gender roles are more mutable than this.

Indeed, the entrenched and legal homophobia that exists to this day is a

reminder of the depth of the challenge gay rights present. In the academy too,

queer theory has not been as mainstream as theories based on race and gender

have been.

I have focused on these social movements and not more obvious political

movements of the period such as opposition to the Vietnam war for two reasons.

The first is that the movements based on personal identity are a more substantial

and longstanding change in the societal fabric. In this way, the opposition to the

Vietnam War could be a symptom of these other changes rather than a

substantial shift on its own. The second, and simpler, reason is that the protests

are a time-limited issue that ended with the war, while the social movements

have had continuing influence.

The relationship between social constructionism and these social

movements cannot be overemphasized. Just as Foucault argued that the social

conditions of a time period largely determined what arguments would be

acceptable, the social movements that develop in the 1960s provide the political

context for social constructionism. In a culture of questioning, in a culture in

which longstanding institutional structures are being challenged, modified, and

rearranged, it would have been surprising if a more radical philosophy of

knowledge had not developed. The fact that many archaic and biased societal

assumptions above race, gender, and sexuality had been reinforced by scientists

made it logical that science should come under scrutiny for the ways in which it

had reinforced bias and bigotry. Critics of science, both internal and external,

have re-visited much traditional work on race, gender and sexuality and

persuasively argued that it was rooted in societal biases and not objective

knowledge about the world. They have challenged the notion of any sort of

“natural” social order, typical of the arguments in fields like sociobiology.

These challenges to science, mostly successful, are crucial to

understanding the debate about social construction in the present day. On one

hand, the attention to the ways in which science has been implicated in various

forms of bigotry is a compelling argument about the ways in which science is in

fact socially constructed and the ways in which the respect and power afforded

scientists can be implicated in more general societal power structures that exploit

marginalized people. On the other hand, the fact that examinations of science’s

racism have come from scientists as well as scholars outside of science seems to

indicate that science can self-correct, and implies that science can move from

mistakes to better knowledge. This self-correction, even though it occurs because

of outside influence, offers strong support for a realist conception of science, in

which ideological influences can be identified and corrected. In other words, we

would like to believe that the present scientific support for racial and gender

equality in the realm of intelligence, or the current conception that

homosexuality is not an illness, are in fact better approximations of reality than

the previous notions that men and whites were naturally more intelligent or that

homosexuality was a disease requiring treatment. This tension between


individual cases in which social bias is evident and broader view that science is

always thoroughly constituted by ideology is the central tension in debates over

social constructionism. It is my contention that this distinction between

individual cases and the general practice of science has been lost in charged

debates about the nature of scientific inquiry. Trying to negotiate between an

optimistic view of science, in which cases of bias are viewed as anomalies, and a

more pessimistic view, in which these cases are viewed as typical, is difficult in

light of the political implications of each view. In Chapter Three, I will consider

three contemporary theorists who offer the most compelling arguments for the

more pessimistic view. First though, in Chapter Two, I consider in great depth

the role of social constructionism in film studies specifically.

There are, of course, those who still try to make “scientific” arguments for racial superiority or
homosexuality as an illness. The best known example in the former category is Hernstein and
Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. While arguments such as
these get a considerable amount of play in the mainstream press and thus help fulfill their
authors’ desire to convey the impression that they are taking part in a legitimate scientific debate,
such arguments are dismissed by the mainstream scientific community. See Steven Jay Gould’s
review of The Bell Curve in the New Yorker (“Curveball” November 28, 1994). For an overview of
the ways in which scientific illiteracy in media allows fringe arguments to appear mainstream,
see Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud or Michael Shermer’s Why
People Believe Weird Things.

Chapter Two - Social Constructionism in Film Studies

In this chapter I will focus on a pattern of development in film studies that

has it roots in the late 1960s, hits a peak in the 1970s and declines in the 1980s

and 1990s. In concert with the theoretical and political changes of the 1960s and

70s that I outlined with the previous chapter, the film studies of that time

reflected the influence of theories of social constructionism. This is also the

period in which film studies was dominated by film theory. In the 1980s, the

influence of theory declined somewhat in the face of a new emphasis on

historical research. This is a simplified description of the history of the discipline

but one that is, I think, the standard picture of the ways in which film studies has


In this chapter, I would like to re-examine this shift from the film theory to

film history as reflective of limitations of social constructionism. I am not arguing

that the development of film studies over the past thirty years has been overtly

determined by battles over social constructionism. On the contrary, social

constructionism has been little remarked upon within film studies. What I am

instead arguing is that the changes in film studies from, in one sense, theory to

practice, are reflective of the ways in which social constructionism has fallen off

as a substantial epistemology that guides the discipline even as it continues to be

endorsed within the discipline. In short, film scholars have ceased being social

constructivists even if they often still regard themselves as such.

Although the longstanding debates about the possibilities and usefulness

of realism in film might be seen as a corollary to debates about realism in

epistemology, there are significant differences between these two ideas that

makes an extended comparison of them less than useful. The similarities are that

both filmic realism and epistemological realism are attempts at capturing or

explaining reality and both thus inherently posit the existence of a reality while

recognizing that there are substantial difficulties in approaching this reality. This

is already a generalization of complex positions, and to sustain an inquiry into

their points of comparison would likely end up being a description of

metaphorical relations rather than an expression of actual critical common

ground. In Chapter Five, I use Andre Bazin’s notion of cinematic specificity in

filmic realism to reinforce an argument about the differences between filmic and

written history, but here I will focus on later arguments that are not based in

discussions of filmic realism.

Screen – Brewster, Heath, MacCabe

As an example of the influence of social constructionism on film theory in

the 1970s, I will be focusing on what are the most significant and high profile

examples of a particular brand of “theory” – one that was expounded and

endorsed by the journal Screen in a key period from about 1973 to 1978. During

these years, the editors and contributors of the magazine, particularly Colin

MacCabe, Ben Brewster, and Stephen Heath, undertook the building and defense

of a film theory based on structuralism and semiotics with a strong

psychoanalytic component. They were heavily dependent on the work of

Christian Metz, and seemed to see their project as fundamental to the

establishment of a viable and “scientific” film theory. At the same time that

science was used as a model for the construction of film theory, science was seen

as a construction that is no more real than a film itself. Thus, in a manner of

speaking film studies was elevated to the level of science as science was brought

down to earth. This is not the contradiction it seems at first glance. The editors

were borrowing from science a sense of rigour and thoroughness that they were

adapting to their attempt to build a complete film theory that accounted for film

in total. At the same time, they had no use for science’s ontological claims to be

representing nature as it really is. Since film is a construction of human society,

there is no dilemma over whether film scholars are making ontological claims

about the real world. They were able to adapt what they saw as valuable in

science without the ontological baggage that came with a traditional scientific


Screen and Christian Metz

Among the primary documents of Screen’s attempts to build a new film

theory is their special double issue on Cinema Semiotics and the Work of

Christian Metz, published in 1973. In this issue, the editors attempt to introduce

Metz’s work for an English speaking audience, as very little of it had been

translated from French at that point. Introducing the issue, an editorial written

by Paul Willemen explains the context for their endorsement of Metz. The first

goal is to force a radical break with traditional film theory, represented in this

case by the impending translation into English of Jean Mitry’s Esthétique et

Psychologie du Cinéma, a text that could “be interpreted as a major breakthrough

and spark off a whole series of texts à-la-Mitry, a rather dismal prospect.” The

special issue of Screen “is in part an attempt to help counter such a

development.” Throughout this issue, there is a strong sense of film studies as a

young discipline that can still be defined and shaped by coherent arguments. The

reason for supporting Metz is that his “intervention” in the theory of cinema

countered the tendency of film criticism to be “an excuse to talk about something

else, usually the moral views, the political beliefs and other prejudices of the

critic himself.” Such an account seems to be overly dismissive of a lot of early

film criticism. Willemen writes that “This is not to say that one has to sweep

aside every word by Balasz, Arnheim or Bazin, by Kuleshov, Pudovkin or

Eisenstein. On the contrary, many concepts developed by these writers and

many of their ideas (on condition that one re-defines and re-locates them) are still

of immense value.” Yet, there is a strong sense of an epistemological break here,


of an attempt to re-create film theory from the broken shards of what came


Semiotics is seen as the answer to the previous problems of film theory,

precisely because it seems detached from political concerns in its creation, even if

it has political implications of its own. The basis for semiotics is both a desire for

scientific rigour and a belief in line with social constructionism that such a

science can be constructed: “What is required first of all, if the semiology of film

is to become a science, is a precise description of the object of cinesemiotics.

Moreover, since Kant we know that the object of a science is not a given but that

it has to be constructed.” Willemen then quotes Althusser on psychoanalysis,


where Althusser defines psychoanalysis as a science on the basis of its

Willemen, “Editorial,” 2
Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 2.

resemblance to a science – it has a distinct object, a theory and a technique. 51

What is interesting about this description is the epistemology that it implies. A

science can be developed by imitating the form of a science. In this conception

science is purely a social practice, but one whose practice is useful and can be

adopted without concern for the relationship of “scientific” knowledge to any

external reality. Psychoanalysis would not be regarded as scientific within a

realist conception of science because it is neither falsifiable nor provable. Instead,

it offers theories that may or may not be useful to a particular patient (or critic),

but whose relationship to an external reality cannot be checked or corroborated.

So the attempts of Willemen and the Screen editors to found a new film theory is

based on a very particular conception of science as a social practice. Science has

been demystified and its tools can be borrowed by film scholars who wish to

adopt both its rigour and its respectability.

There is also a more sophisticated level of argument here that posits

semiotics as an improvement on science, precisely because it removes the illusion

of a basis in reality. Willemen writes that an article by Julia Kristeva has been

included so that “one can see that this science [semiology] not only presents a

rigorous theoretical framework, but that it constantly questions its own discourse

in its very formation: being the science of signification, its own discourse

necessarily forms part of its object.” Thus, semiology avoids the blind spots of

traditional science by questioning its own methods and ideas constantly. In this

Willemen quotes Althusser, Louis. “Freud and Lacan” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.

London, 1971. 184. In Ben Brewter’s later translation of Althusser’s For Marx he added a glossary
of Althusser’s terms for English readers that was approved by Althusser. In it, science is defined
in terms of ideology and practice. Science is differentiated from ideology in terms of its emphasis
on knowledge, as opposed to ideology’s emphasis on the “practico-social.” This definition is
supported by Althusser’s extensive descriptions in the text of the varieties of theory. Althusser,
For Marx, 252.
Willemen, “Editorial,” 5

conception, traditional science seems naïve by comparison, and it is not difficult

to see the influence of the critical theory I outlined in the previous chapter, in

which the examination of foundations is key to re-understanding and critiquing

traditional sources of epistemological power.

The temptation to build a film theory that does not examine its own

foundations is further outlined by Stephen Heath in the same issue. He argues

that a central tenet of semiology is its resistance to totalizing discourses:

“semiology as critical science does not – need it be said? – imply the discovery of

some ‘total discourse’ (Metz’s term) of the type spun out week after week by a

film criticism that is written by the ideology whose films it sells” This total

discourse, a marker of the film criticism Heath is countering, also includes the

notions of film and/or filmmaker as organic wholes. Semiology opposes “a

homogenization that, holding film in a mysterious individuality, refuses to grasp

the process of its production as signifying system.” Thus, the context of the

film’s production must be fully considered, including broad notions of its

relation to other films. More importantly, Heath and other Screen critics call for a

film theory that positions the filmmaker in context. This is a frontal attack on the

auteur theory, especially the position they attribute to the French journal Cahiers

du cinéma. In discussing semiology’s opposition to auteur theory, Heath lays out

a position that links semiology and social constructionism:

In calling into question the notion of the organic individual ‘work’,

semiological analysis also operates a radical questioning of the ‘author’
and, under that, a radical dissociation of the subject – that ‘dissolution of
man’ which Lévi-Strauss once defined as the aim of the semiological
sciences. The subject is no longer assumed as full immediate presence,
point of origin and source, but is grasped in his construction in the series

Heath, “Introduction: Questions of Emphasis,” 10.
Ibid., 11.

of signifying system, in a multiplicity of structures…, dispersed, in
Foucault’s words, in ‘a plurality of possible positions and functions’. 55

By drawing on Foucault and questioning the idea of the unified subject, Heath

links the idea of social constructionism – that individuals are inevitably actors of

social relations – with a critique of the notion of the auteur. Essentially, if a

scientist cannot stand outside social relations to make claims about the natural

world, a filmmaker cannot produce a film out of his own consciousness that does

not bear the marks of his social and political context. Not only do both of these

actors reflect their social context, but this context is seen, in line with Foucault, as

being of primary influence and interest. Heath is not simply arguing that film

scholars need to take a filmmakers social situation into account, he is attacking

the notion of the unified subject that underlies any description of films as the

work of an auteur. Simply documenting a filmmaker’s social context would not

overcome the limitations of the theory, since it leaves intact the coherent subject

that critical theory had been attempting to overcome.

The thoroughness of Screen’s objections to auteur theory is clearer in a

response by Ben Brewster to the now famous Cahiers du cinéma article on John

Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which was translated and reprinted in Screen. Brewster

critiques the Cahiers du cinéma work as superficial and insufficient. Auteur theory

potentially posits a cohesive and detached subject that is the opposite of the

socially constructed filmmaker that Screen is arguing for. From the Cahiers du

Cinéma article though, it is clear that the French critics are not arguing for a

simplistic view of the filmmaker as author removed from social context:

a certain number of ‘classic’ films which today are readable… insofar as

we can distinguish the historicity of their inscription: the relation of these

Ibid., 11.

films to the codes (social, cultural…) for which they are a site of
intersection, and to other films, themselves held in an inter-textual space:
therefore, the relation of these films to the ideology which they convey, a
particular ‘phase’ which they represent, and to the events (present, past,
historical, mythical, fictional) which they aimed to represent. 56

Despite this emphasis on context, Brewster is unconvinced that this will not just

be another ideological reading that fails to develop a critique beyond the surface

of the work. He wants to critique the notion of an “active” reading of the film:

It is quite clearly different from the interpretation which discovers a

universal essence behind the phenomenal surface of the work and the
mechanical structuralism that deconstructs the work into its elements once
and for all, it is not so clear what distinguishes a reading which forces the
text from the commentary which restates its meaning in an arbitrarily
determined manner. 57

Thus, for the Screen critics, dealing with the filmmaker’s social context is

insufficient to overcome the limitations of traditional film theory. It is not simply

about erasing the potential bias of a limited auteur theory that separates a

filmmaker from his or her context, but seems to be about undermining the notion

of a subject that underlies both the French critics’ notion of the filmmaker and

their notion of the critic.

There is an element to Brewster’s argument that is distinctly metaphysical

in tone, suggesting that deconstruction can define the elements of a work “once

and for all” – attempting to reduce a work to a kind of filmic first principles. In

this moment, he echoes both Derrida’s attempts to examine the foundations of

knowledge and the metaphysicians Derrida is attacking. He seems to have much

more faith than Derrida does that it is possible to determine the structural

foundations and codes of the object – film, perhaps because we are still dealing

Editors of Cahiers du cinéma, ‘John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.’ 5-6. Quoted in Brewster, “Notes

on the Text ‘John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln’ by the Editors of Cahiers du Cinema,” 29
Brewster. “Notes on the Text” 29.

with an object that we can see, rather than with a concept that depends overtly

on definitions.

At the same time, Brewster’s search for the implicit codes of a filmic text

echoes the concerns of the Russian formalists, and their influence in the rise of

New Criticism in the 1950s and 1960s. He writes that any number of readings of

the film are possible and justifiable, but that

if it is true that there is some way of reading this film text which is

pertinent for the poetician of film, this must lie in the object of film poetics, ie, in

this case, in the film itself; there must be a reading implicit in the text, or its

unique context, and hence something that Paul Willemen has called the ‘implicit

reader’. 58

What are we to make of this combination of social construction theory and the

formalism that social construction is in key ways the opposite of and a reaction

to? It should not be surprising that any theory has elements of a number of ideas

that came before it. In this case, it is not hard to see formalism as a type of

precursor to structuralism. Both methods are concerned with finding the ways in

which meaning is inherently encoded in a text. At the same time, the Screen

editors’ emphasis on politics seems to contradict the isolating tendencies of

formalism. Their work is based in Marxism, and they make extensive use of

Brecht and Althusser, among other Marxist theorists. Their work is occasionally

blind to the other political movements of the time, particularly the social

movements based on race, gender, and sexual orientation I discussed in the last

chapter. This is important because it lays the groundwork for a division between

Ibid., 31.

the Screen version of 70s film theory and competing impulses that are more

directly political.

Responses to Screen

An article by Jump Cut co-editor Julia Lesage illustrates this division well.

The article was reprinted and critiqued in Screen. In it, Lesage takes the Screen

editors to task for their dependence on concepts of psychoanalysis that are, she

argues, based on patriarchal assumptions about gender roles. Lesage carefully

outlines some of the key problems with basic Freudian theories that have been

referenced without critique in Screen. She castigates the editors for not examining

the assumptions about sexuality and gender roles upon which these theories are

based, pointing out that they would not reprint similar theories about race, and

that these omissions are significant given their claim to be examining the

foundations of knowledge on which film theory is based, including their own.

Given Screen’ s emphasis on foundational critiques, the gender assumptions of

psychoanalytic theory constitute a significant blind spot. And while some of the

articles in Screen in this period deal with gender and psychoanalysis (most

notably Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), the bulk of

the semiotic work ignores issues of gender. To make matters worse, in the

response to Lesage’s piece signed by MacCabe, Heath, and Brewster, they begin

with a dismissive tone, writing that “If there are errors in our work, it may be

that they stem from significant problems which, however inadequately for the

moment, we are trying to resolve and which more ‘rage’ is unlikely to help us to

Lesage, “The Human Subject – You, He, or Me? (Or, the Case of the Missing Penis).”

clarify.” The film theory which MacCabe, Heath and Brewster are trying to

invent may involve politics at the level of theory, but seems unwilling to

consider them more directly, and even more unwilling to allow for the influence

of political movements that are in some sense “grassroots” and not confined to

academics. Ironically, they seem at times to be protecting their work, like a good

science, from the taint of outside influence. Given the politics of the time, and the

theoretical alternatives presented by Lesage and Jump Cut, this attempt to keep

their theory “pure” seems to be a significant handicap.

In Theories of Cinema, Francesco Casetti labels the semiotic and structuralist

film theories of the 1970s as methodological theories, and defines them against

earlier ontological theories that tried to define cinema completely. In comparison,

methodological theories use some outside form of analysis like semiotics or

psychoanalysis and use that to better understand film. This is a useful division,

but it downplays the ways in which methodological theories could become all-

encompassing to the point that they seemed to be making ontological claims, if

not about film, then at least about film theory. This occasional rigidity made

these theories susceptible to critique. By the 1980s, film theory as represented by

Screen had come under attack from a variety of fronts. The first is more directly

political critiques like the one mentioned above. The second was from theorists

who posited other positions like cognitivism, which contradicted semiotic and

structuralist assumptions. The work of David Bordwell and Noel Carroll

represents this attempt to reinvent theory once again. In particular, Carroll’s

Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory is a near point by

point refutation of the Screen theorists’ position.

Brewster, Heath and MacCabe. “Comment on ‘The Human Subject – You, He, or Me?” 84.

The Rise of Cultural Studies

It seems as though, in the 1980s and 1990s, the more directly political

concerns articulated by Lesage and others became tied to the development of

cultural studies, an interdisciplinary field that grew from the work of the Center

for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Cultural

studies is a directly political discipline that blends Marxism with politicized

readings of identity, and takes as its object a wide range of popular culture, with

the aim of examining the politics that permeate societies. The influence of

cultural studies in the academic humanities has been substantial, even as it has

been controversial and has generally not developed into a discipline that has

departmental status at very many universities, at least in the United States. The 61

key influence of cultural studies on film and media studies as it relates to my

argument here is that cultural studies in effect provided a channel for the

political concerns of film studies, the concerns that the Screen theorists were not

very good at addressing. Cultural studies did not just provide a better way for

film scholars to talk about politics (although it certainly did that). More

importantly, it channeled political discussions away from the “center” of film

theory. I do not mean to infer that these concerns are not peripheral, only to echo

the observation of Francesco Casetti that cultural studies is representative of a

third generation of theories after the ontological theories of Bazin and the

methodological theories of Metz and Screen. Casetti labels these theories “field

theories” and emphasizes the ways in which they examine specific problems

Some of this lack of disciplinary development is a conscious choice by cultural studies


practitioners who which to avoid the trappings of disciplinarity. For a further discussion of this
phenomenon, see McEwan, “Cultural Studies as a Hidden Discipline.”

without trying to re-define cinema in the mode of the earlier theories. So they

are not central in the sense that they are not trying to define what cinema is or

even what film theory must be. Cultural studies’ goals are no less significant, but

they occupy a different position in relation to film texts and film studies. Political

concerns have primacy in cultural studies, and the focus is on the ways in which

cultural objects figure in the complex interactions of culture and politics. Thus

cultural studies is well suited to deal with the politics of film and media objects,

and its practitioners have taken over the primary responsibility for doing so.

Cultural studies is of course heavily dependent on theories of social

constructionism. It might be argued that this is the area in which such theories

have the most significant acceptance. The journal that Alan Sokal hoaxed, Social

Text, is a cultural studies journal, and cultural studies has been at the center of

debates about the social construction of science and history. If cultural studies is

influential in film studies, it should make sense that the social constructionism

that is part of cultural studies would also have an influence. It does of course, but

social constructionism’s influence in film theory is not as extensive as its

influence in cultural studies. There are numerous reasons for this. The first is that,

as Casetti’s distinctions illustrate, field theories like cultural studies are neither

concerned with defining the center of film studies nor occupying that center (if

indeed there is center). The key insight in Casetti’s description is that film theory

has splintered in numerous directions, so that film scholars are now less likely to

be speaking to the same issues at the same time than they might have been in the

1970s. So cultural studies and social constructionism are an influence, but not the

Casetti, Theories of Cinema, 15-16.

center of the discipline. That fact is not just because of the splintering of film

theory, but because of the division between film theory and film history.

The most significant development in film studies in the 1980s and 1990s

was the rise of history. In this period, more significant than the changes in film

theory was the renewed emphasis on exploring the still largely unwritten history

of the medium of film. In particular, the significant and thorough explorations of

the early and silent film periods means that much film scholarship is divorced

from present day political concerns. This is not to suggest that this work is

divorced from political concerns completely. On the contrary, it is infused with a

concern for the politics of race, gender and sexuality that is manifest whenever

relevant to the films or filmmakers under study. At the same time, the attention

to the past means at least some division from the more immediate concerns of

cultural studies. Perhaps more significantly, film history has adopted the

methodological practices of history – archival research and attention to primary

documents whenever possible – and these practices are infused with realist

expectations about the possibility of historical knowledge. In Chapter Five, I

explore these expectations in considerable detail. Here I simply want to note that

the pull of history means that whatever center film studies presently has has

been pulled in a direction that is away from the socially constructed theory of the

Screen authors and from the directly political concerns of cultural studies.

Film history has thus adopted numerous political influences while

discarding the more radical politically oriented theories in favour of realist

practice that pays attention to politics whenever possible. Film history is

influenced by the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s and

contains the traces of theories defended and confronted throughout the history of

film studies. It is continually influenced by the concerns of cultural studies and

borrows from that field its concern with filmmakers and film experiences that are

influenced by the effects of sexual and racial identity. At the same time, the need

to discern the most basic facts of the history of cinema means that it cannot

afford to discard the epistemological foundations of the historical work that is

completed. We still need to know a lot of things about what actually happened in

the past, and a realist historical practice allows us to do that. In Chapter Four, I

tie the discussions of meta-historians Hayden White and Michel de Certeau into

an analysis of films that are based on historical events and try to reconcile our

conceptions of written and filmic history.

Although there also is some tension between the more radical positions of

film theory and the realism of film practice (see Chapter Five), film studies is in a

sense an ideal example of the blending of the numerous concerns that have

confronted critical theory in the past forty years. It is concerned with the politics

of race, gender, and capitalism but it does not forgo the best possible

epistemological foundation for those politics in favour of a position, social

constructionism, that appears to offer support for radical politics but does not.

The attempt, outside of film studies, to clarify that link between politics and

social constructionism, while avoiding some of social constructionism’s excesses,

is the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter Three: The Social Construction of Science

The first two chapters of this work traced the development and influences

of social constructionism with the aim of showing the appeal of social

constructionism as an epistemology. In this chapter I consider three major

theorists who have, in one way or another, attempted to navigate some kind of

middle ground between realism and social constructionism (Bruno Latour and

Donna Haraway) or pragmatism (Richard Rorty). All are concerned with trying

to avoid the epistemological relativism that social constructionism implies. At the

same time, all three are trying in some way to maintain the political and

epistemological promise of alternatives to realism. Thus they tend to be aware of

the strengths and weaknesses of a range of positions, and carefully argue for

their alternatives. I have chosen to argue with social constructivists who have the

best-defended positions, so as to avoid taking on poorly argued works that could

be easily dismissed. Unfortunately, a great deal of work is in this latter category. 63

Much of this chapter deals with the social construction of science, as it is

in that forum that the substantial and fundamental arguments have taken place.

The analogies to the discussion of history I undertake in the next two chapters

should be clear. The primary subjects of this section are Bruno Latour, Donna

Haraway and Richard Rorty. Only the latter has been the focus of sustained and

Three notable examples, two from well-known scholars, the other from a lesser known one:

Stanley Aronowitz’s Science As Power is motivated by a desire to question the uses of technology,
and asks legitimate and interesting questions. At the same time, he fails to connect his arguments
to a coherent epistemology. Aronowitz was an editorial board member of Social Text at the time
of the Sokal hoax. His fellow editorial board member, Andrew Ross, is similarly motivated by the
desire to question the service of science to both militarism and capitalism. While he is right that
many of these connections have not been fully explored and deserve to be, he seems to disregard
the significant epistemological questions at stake here. See, for example, his “Cultural Studies
and the Challenge of Science” 177. As part of an otherwise interesting collection entitled Wild
Science, Jennifer Daryl Slack and M. Medhi Semati present the social constructivist case so badly
that I briefly entertained the possibility this was another hoax (“The Politics of the ‘Sokal

thorough criticism already, so in his case I will deal with a couple of significant

issues that he and his critics have overlooked, issues that tie into my discussion

of the other two and the rest of this work. In the case of the first two writers, I

will deal with their primary works and counter the arguments that are central to

their projects.

Bruno Latour and the Study of Laboratories

The value of Bruno Latour’s work is that he spends vast amounts of time

observing how scientists actually go about their daily work. Latour is one of the

most commonly cited social constructivists who is also a major figure in the field

of science studies. Rather than trusting the idealized version of scientific practice

offered by the scientific method, Latour pays attention to scientists bound by the

expectations of modern scientific work, in which grant writing, paper publication,

and the building of credentials occupies much of a scientist’s time. In addition, 64

he follows scientists into the field, observing the ways in which they gather

evidence, determine the importance of various questions, and establish social

relations between themselves based on rank and other social factors. He is

interested in the ways in which all of these apparently extra factors influence the

work produced, and argues that science is a complex interaction between natural

and social factors. As a constructivist, he tends to emphasize the influence of

social factors on work, and argues that it is impossible to separate the results of

scientific work from the social factors that produce it. In some sense, he is an heir

to Thomas Kuhn, since he bases his work on scientific practice rather than theory,

See, for example, Latour and Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. 2nd ed.

but he also argues for his epistemology from a reading of Descartes and the

philosophy of knowledge.

Although Latour’s work has been subject to criticism by John Huth, as

well as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, most of these corrections have concerned

mistakes of scientific fact rather than complex epistemological arguments. In the

former case, Huth demonstrates how Latour’s deconstruction of the theory of

relativity in “A Relativistic Account of Einstein’s Relativity” is based on a simple

misunderstanding of the theory. Sokal and Bricmont similarly point out Latour’s

numerous mistakes. But while such corrections certainly undermine Latour’s

credibility as a scholar of science and lend themselves to John Brenkman’s

conclusion that social constructionism in science studies is based on the

misguided notion that there exists a class of scientifically literate non-scientists

capable of separating fact from wishful fiction, there are limits to this approach. 66

Works such as Paul Gross & Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition load ridicule on

many of those who have supported social constructionism, pointing out the

numerous scientific and logical errors, and I could add many offenders to the

lists they have created. In the end though such an approach seems unsatisfying,

contradicting as it does the scholar’s obligation to deal with the best-presented

version of an argument he or she wishes to contradict. Gross and Levitt are not at

fault for this choice of approach, since they are simply dealing with what is out

there, and they are correct in finding that most of the arguments can be

summarily dismissed in a few pages. It is my intention though to engage with

the arguments of major constructivists on a more fundamental level, and to do so

Huth, “Latour’s Relativity,” 181-92.
Brenkman, “Letter to the Editor of Lingua Franca,” 66.

I have ignored a number of others whose work does not stand up to sustained

inquiry. 67

Latour’s work is more sophisticated than average, despite the mistakes

others have noted. In particular, he calls attention to the ways in which the

practice of science determines the theory. In some sense, the contrast between

practice and theory he undertakes is not so different than the description of the

practice of film history I undertake in Chapter Five. There is a distinct value in

considering the relations between what scientists or historians say they do and

what they actually do. So while I agree with Latour’s project in many ways and

find his descriptions of everyday practice valuable, there are significant logical

problems at the foundation of his argument. At times, he tends to argue with a

rhetoric that is politically appealing even as it masks significant weaknesses in

his position. As I will demonstrate, in many cases Latour’s arguments are

primarily based on rhetorical shifts that elide actual argument in favour of

appeals to his readers’ politics.

The broadest examples of this rhetorical shifting and elision are found in

Latour’s most recent work, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies.

In the introduction to this collection, Latour explains at length his response to a

colleague who asks nervously: “Do you believe in reality?” This question has

been at the heart of realist attacks on social constructionism, most famously in

Alan Sokal’s challenge that anyone who doubted the reality of the law of gravity

was welcome to test their position from the window of his Manhattan high-rise

For a broader approach, see Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense or Gross and Levitt’s
Higher Superstition. See also the collection edited by Gross, Levitt, and Martin Lewis, The Flight
From Science and Reason. A collection that features contributions from scholars in science studies
and other humanities as well as scientists (including Alan Sokal) is Noretta Koertge’s A House
Built on Sand.

apartment. The answer that Latour provides (“of course”) is the obvious one, the

answer one could expect from all but the most radical social constructivists. As I

will demonstrate throughout this work, there is rarely a problem with social

constructivists believing in reality. It is in fact their only possible course. Their

problem lies, as it does for Latour, in bringing that belief into accordance with

their conviction that science is socially constructed and that they are equipped to

be the arbiter of what is politically produced and what might be given the status

of fact. Latour spends the bulk of this chapter dealing with what he identifies as

the two faults of traditional realism, the “mind-in-a-vat” problem and the fear of

mob rule. With these problems out of the way, he argues that he is free to believe

in reality without compromising his constructivist position.

Latour’s Mind-in-a-vat

Latour’s first issue with realism is what he terms the “mind-in-a-vat”

problem – the way in which realism treats the mind as something that is

detached from the surrounding world. The traditional split between subject and

object allows that the subject’s mind might be capable of understanding itself

and the subject. Thus, the metaphorical split between mind and body is

sometimes treated like an actual split in which the mind is unencumbered by

attachment to a physical body and, by extension the influence of the senses.

Latour is critical of this tradition, and he extends this analogy further, becoming

critical of positions that sound like contemporary social constructionism. In the

end he is in favour of a new approach that reflects his own work in science


Sokal, “A Physicist Experiments,” 50.

Latour traces the mind-in-a-vat theory to René Descartes, who is looking

for a way to have absolute certainty, and finds it only when knowledge comes

from God. Latour argues that later scholars abandoned the need for God but kept

the relationship of knowledge to an outside arbiter that fulfills the same function.

In this way, science and realism are compared to religion in that both appeal to a

higher power beyond the control of humans. (Richard Rorty makes this

comparison in more detail and will be the subject of a later section of this

chapter). The idea that society is a filter between the mind and the real world, a

position taken by most social constructivists, has little appeal for Latour. He sees

this as an even worse solution, since the mind is still detached and now is further

separated from nature by all sorts of filters. The next step in this chain of ideas

has still less appeal for Latour – the idea that this extraordinary distance between

the mind and the world is a good thing, or at least something we should resign

ourselves to. The prisonhouse of language is something from which we can

never escape, so we should not try, is the essence of this position as Latour sees it.

He argues that if we take this development all the way back to Descartes we can

undo all of the damage and escape the perils of all of these positions, freeing the

mind from its vat.

Latour wants to re-attach the mind to nature and to the body, to break

down the divide and free the mind from the vat. To do so he does not propose an

epistemological position so much as a course of study. This course is not

described in great detail, but involves “retrac[ing] our steps, retaining both the

history of humans’ involvement in the making of scientific facts and the sciences’

Latour, Pandora’s Hope, 7.

involvement in the making of human history.” This course of study includes the

observation of scientists at work, the type of observation Latour does elsewhere

in this collection and in some of his other works, most notably Laboratory Life.

Latour’s argument that the best way to understand science is to observe

scientists at work does not hold up in the context of his critique of realism and

western intellectual history. He proposes simply that the division between mind and

nature can be bridged by observing the ways that others attempt to bridge it. The first

obvious issue is that Latour (or whoever is doing the study) is now an observer

in exactly the same mode as those he is studying, no more attached or detached

than they are. As an observer, Latour is subject to exactly the same concerns,

issues, and biases as any researcher. His conceit that his research is somehow

naturally different is one of the key fallacies of social constructionism in practice.

Constructivists argue that the biases in the work of others are overwhelming, but

implicitly present their own work as a realist representation of what actually

happened, not as a partly fictional and constructed reflection of their political

ideology. If it is impossible for realism to provide a truthful account of an event,

then there is no way for researchers like Latour to provide an observed account

of scientists that undermines realism. Simply put, it is logically impossible to use

the scientific method to undermine the scientific method. If Latour observes

scientists at work and finds that they are clearly motivated by their own biases

and that they routinely disregard or reconstruct evidence to serve their needs,

then he has observed what can be called bad science. But he cannot use this type

of observation to make epistemological claims about the nature of science or

impossibility of realism, because the methods he is using to make the argument

Ibid., 10.

are exactly the methods of realism and science itself. If they do not work for

scientists, they do not work for him, and vice-versa.

There are only two ways out of this conundrum. Latour can either invent

a new method of research, observation and argument that is not realism but can

still make believable truth claims, or he can simply claim that he is some sort of

privileged observer not subject to the same rules. The latter option is the far

poorer of the two, since it makes the problems Latour has with realism even

worse, amplifying the position of the researcher as someone above the fray

without even a normal panoply of biases. In one sense, it replaces the idea of

reason being above the fray with the idea that the researcher himself is the one

looking down from above. This weakness in Latour’s approach is clearly evident

in the latter chapters of Pandora’s Hope that deal with particular studies. But first,

let us turn our attention to what Latour calls the other structural feature of

realism, the fear of mob rule.

Redirecting the Mob

Latour’s use of “mob rule” is interesting because it is easy to see its appeal

to a sympathetic reader. Latour’s argument is that the nervousness in the voice of

the colleague who asks, “Do you believe in reality?” is based on a fear that

haunts realism: the fear of mob rule. Realism and traditional science appeal to a

logic that is beyond the control of humans, and is thus able to act as a final

arbiter in the settling of disputes. The placement of logic and reason – which are

human creations – in a god-like position is a way to counter the threat of mob

rule. If all knowledge is socially constructed, according to the realists, then

doesn’t that infer that the mob rules – that whatever the masses decide to be true

is the truth – and that there is nothing anyone can do to change it? Latour is right

that this is one of the concerns of realists and those who argue against social

constructionism. As we will see, both Haraway and Rorty consider this one of

the most significant problems with realism, both because it puts realism and

logic in a god-like position, and because of the obviously political notion of the

masses as a “mob,” which implies the need for strict control. Latour has no real

answer to this concern, but he elides it after a significant build up and then

moves on quickly, so quickly that one could be forgiven for not noticing that he

has not answered the question.

Latour traces the fear to Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Callicles,

in which they discuss the ugly truth that the Athenian mob, untutored and

uncivilized, must be considered in their system of governance because it has an

unfortunate amount of physical strength at its disposal. Reason and realism are,

in Latour’s conception, direct results of this need to place ideas beyond the reach

of the crowd. The two Athenian scholars in Plato’s dialogue make no attempt to

hide their disdain for the common people. In doing so, they provide a perfect

example of the undemocratic despots who are apparently typical of realists in

that they wish only to subjugate others. Modern realists, in Latour’s conception,

share this conception of the majority as an untutored mob. He attempts to

answer this concern:

Neither of these two monstrous forms of inhumanity–the mob “down

there,” the objective world “out there”–interests us very much. And thus
we have no need for a mind- or a brain-in-a-vat, that crippled despot
constantly fearful of losing either “access” to the world or its “superior
force” against the people. We long neither for the absolute certainty of a
contact with the world nor the absolute certainty of a transcendent force
against the unruly mob. We do not lack certainty, because we never
dreamed of dominating the people. For us there is no inhumanity to be
quashed with another inhumanity. Humans and nonhumans are enough

for us. We do not need a social world to break the back of objective reality,
nor an objective reality to silence the mob. It is quite simple, even though
it may sound incredible in these times of the science wars: we are not at
war. 71

The rhetorical shift here both misses the point and summarizes the extent of

Latour’s available responses. The only way to answer the fear of mob rule that is

part of realism is to claim that those with this fear seek the domination of the

masses. In this characterization, those who fear the potential violence of a mob

are rhetorically switched into the position of violator, one who seeks to

“dominate” the peaceful masses. So the angry mob in Latour’s conception is

turned back not with appeals to reason, but with a much easier re-

characterization of the mob as a subjugated peoples, as if this act of imagination

will be enough to make people behave rationally. In Latour’s conception, the fear

of mob rule is always an attempt to subjugate and dominate, but this view misses

the possibilities of what the mob might represent. Latour overlooks the fact that

the angry mob might be a representative of any ideology. In other words, what

motivates the crowd may be a noble attempt to throw off tyranny or a vicious

attack on ethnic minorities. There is no place for this distinction in Latour’s

position, since he has idealized the crowd without considering what carries it

into the streets in the first place. His view is reflexive rather than reflective. On

the other hand, a realism based on reasoning and evidence allows us to assess

the crowd’s motivations and, more importantly, allows the crowd the possibility

of reason itself. By associating realism reflexively with the dominators, Latour

also inadvertently undermines the potential knowledge of the masses. He is so

eager to see them as an innocent and liberatory force that he undermines their

Latour, Pandora’s Hope, 15.

status as subjects even as he grossly oversimplifies their motivations and

caricatures his opponents as controlling despots.

Thus this is his answer to the fear of mob rule: change the word “mob” to

“the people.” The political connotations of the position are changed and the

problem is solved. Except that even as he offers this solution to what he sees as

an unjustified fear based on politics, Latour himself is the one not seeing the

hidden complexities of ideology. Like many other constructivists, he completely

ignores the ways in which grassroots political power is just as likely, and

perhaps more likely, to be conservative rather than progressive. He forgets that

political movements from all ends of the political spectrum are, in various

contexts, supported by a popular will. In his zeal to idealize the masses he makes

the mistake of assuming they will automatically agree with his beliefs, when

there is little historical justification for such a claim.

Science In The Field

Latour’s key argument throughout his work is the idea that science can

best be understood by observing scientists at work. To that end, he has spent

time analyzing the behaviour of scientists in a number of forums, including

laboratories and fieldwork. In a chapter of Pandora’s Hope, he spends time with

an interdisciplinary and multinational group of scientists doing research at the

edge of the Amazon rain forest. The scientists are interested in whether or not the

boundary of the rain forest moves naturally and if so, in which direction. Either

the plains are encroaching on the forest or the forest in encroaching on the plains,

or there is something fundamental about the conditions at the boundary that

makes it the only place for the transition. Determining the direction and

mechanism of movement is extremely difficult, given that there are significant

differences in the soil conditions on either side of the boundary and no

immediately obvious explanation for these differences or the possibility that the

boundary is moving.

Latour offers what amount to a complex set of field notes for the time he

spends with this group, working closely enough with them that he is eventually

a co-author of their published findings. He offers extensive description of the

competing theories advanced by members of the group who have backgrounds

in a range of scientific disciplines and pays close attention to the ways in which

information is organized, noted, and transformed by scientists. Throughout all of

this description, Latour makes very few direct comments on the nature of the

work, and is certainly not openly critical of the ways in which the scientists and

technicians go about their tasks. His describes his goal, in his own words, thus:

“My friends want to know whether the forest advances or recedes, and I want to

know how the sciences can be at the same time realist and constructivist,

immediate and intermediary, reliable and fragile, near and far.” 72

This is an interesting goal, but Latour doesn’t make his argument so much

as infer it by description, which makes it difficult to counter directly. His method

of argument is fairly subtle. As in the earlier chapter, he makes his case as much

with a rhetoric of control and violation as he does with direct claims about the

socially constructed nature of science. Again it is repeatedly the image of the

realist who seeks to control the environment that Latour calls upon to argue that

these scientists are creating rather than discovering. In recounting the process by

which the group gathers specimens of plant life and returns them to a lab to be

Ibid., 30.

categorized and filed, he constantly uses metaphors that suggest a controlling,

unemotional scientist who performs the most unnatural acts on an unsuspecting


In the naturalist’s collection things happen to plants that have never

occurred since the dawn of the world… The plants find themselves
detached, separated, preserved, classified and tagged. They are then
reassembled, reunited, redistributed according to entirely new principles
that depend on the researcher, on the discipline of botany, which has been
standardized for centuries, and on the institution that shelters them, but
they no longer grow as they did in the great forest. The botanist learns
new things, and she is transformed accordingly, but the plants are
transformed also. From this point of view there is no difference between
observation and experience: both are constructions. 73

The language here, and throughout the chapter, creates an image of the scientist

as an unfeeling creature who violates these plants in fundamental ways, so that

their original state of being is destroyed. Botany, “standardized for centuries” is

a method of action that calls to mind the worst aspects of colonialism and

perhaps even the slave trade, tearing these beings (they “find themselves”) from

their natural place in the world and subjecting them to domination. Identification

is always linked with control. But just when we feared that all was lost, the

plants have a chance to fight back:

Still, the naturalist does not always succeed. …something scary is

brewing: an enormous pile of newspaper stuffed with plants brought back
from the site and awaiting classification. The botanist has fallen behind. It
is the same story in every laboratory. As soon as we go into the field or
turn on an instrument, we find ourselves drowning in a sea of data. 74

Through metaphor, the gathering of data becomes an epic battle of man versus

nature in which it is self-evident that the scientist is motivated by the need to

control. How else to avoid “drowning in a sea of data?” This classification of

Latour, Pandora’s Hope, 39. There is no translator credited to this book or Laboratory Life. Latour
either writes in English, translates his own books, or works closely enough with an outside
translator that the text can be considered his. Thus, the close attention to his language is justified.
Ibid., 39.

nature, according to Latour, is part of an inevitable distancing of evidence from

nature itself. While this is self-evidently valid, he overemphasizes the ways in

which this distance effects the work without writing directly about what those

effects might be.

Throughout this section Latour constantly emphasizes the ways in which

the data gathered is distanced from the actual area under study, recounting both

the lab’s physical distance from the edge of the rainforest and the numerous

physical permutations the evidence goes through, such as those described above.

At times, he seems like a defense lawyer trying to point out the many places in

which bias could be introduced into a sample before the result is declared. In this

case though he has only the potential for bias, and that potential is simply that

the evidence is handled and organized. His overall point in emphasizing the

distance between forest and lab seems to be to re-iterate that the lab is not the

forest – it is something different. This is a useful point, but he never introduces

any evidence that any of the scientists involved in this project are confused about

this distinction. All seem quite aware that the lab is distant, physically and

ontologically, from the lab, and this is presumably why they introduce so much

order into the samples they collect. They need to be sure that the lab does not

intrude into their study of the forest too much, that substances and ideas in the

lab do not overly influence the samples themselves. Rather than trying to control

the forest by imposing order, the scientists use the order of their samples to allow

the forest a place in the lab and prevent outside influences from imposing

themselves on the dirt and leaves they have collected. Order preserves the forest

in the lab, not the other way around.

Latour’s work has considerable value as anthropology, since it recounts

the gathering of evidence in considerably more human terms than the passive

voice that is common in scientific discourse. A description of this work in a

scientific paper would likely not include the details of the ordering system, and

actions performed are written as if they happened without anyone actually

performing them (“soil samples were tested,” etc). In contrast, Latour makes re-

evident that these actions are performed by people with personalities, desires,

and habits of action. More importantly, here, as elsewhere, he adds in that which

is usually missing from scientific accounts, the daily work that is usually

considered background to narratives of scientific discovery. His work is thus

useful as a description, but his argument about the effects of all of this

background is rarely made explicit. There are plenty of points in the scientific

process Latour describes where bias might be introduced, but he never makes

clear when this has actually happened. He is arguing instead that the process of

science is thoroughly socially constituted. He is right in the sense that it involves

complex social interactions between scientists whose methods are infused with

cultural values. But he is vague on what the effects of these values are.

In other writings, Latour is less vague about these effects. When he is

more specific though, his argument often does not hold up under sustained

scrutiny. The following example is typical of the limitations of Latour’s direct

arguments about the effects of social factors in scientific work.

Laboratory Life

Latour’s Laboratory Life, co-authored with Steve Woolgar from Latour’s

research, is his most complete attempt to describe the work of a scientific

laboratory, and to meld those observations with arguments about the specific

ways in which science is socially constructed. Again, the most useful element of

his work is the portrait of the daily operation of the laboratory, especially the

emphasis on the production of publishable papers, which is a collaboration

between the scientists and numerous technical and support staff. The portrait is

of a lab which is in a sense industrial and whose product is written

documentation of its work. While Latour strips away some of the stereotypes

about the way science proceeds, he falters when he tries to make specific points

about the effects of these “industrial” relations on the results that are produced.

He emphasizes the ways in which many of the objects under study exist only

within the lab, and are only within machines and instruments that are

themselves the results of theory. In the following lengthy quotation, Latour

explains one of his key points, one that others have repeated:

Specific to this laboratory is the particular configurations of apparatus that

we have called inscription devices. The central importance of this material
arrangement is that none of the phenomena “about which” participants
talk could exist without it. Without a bioassay, for example, the substance
could not be said to exist. The bioassay is not merely a means of obtaining
some independently given entity: the bioassay constitutes the construction
of the substance. Similarly, a substance could not be said to exist without
fractioning columns, since a fraction only exists by virtue of the process of
discrimination. Likewise, the spectrum produced by a nuclear magnetic
resonance (NMR) spectrometer would not exist but for the spectrometer.
It is not simply that the phenomenon depend on certain material
instrumentation; rather, the phenomenon are thoroughly constituted by the
material setting of the laboratory. The artificial reality, which participants
describe in terms of an objective entity, has in fact been constructed by the
use of inscription devices. 76

Latour is right that many of the substances in this lab would not exist but for the

machines that construct them and the human work that goes into their creation.

Latour and Woolgar, Laboratory Life, 45-47.
Latour and Woolgar, Laboratory Life, 64.

In that way, they are fundamentally different from the materials other scientists

might work with. When a zoologist discovers a new species of mouse or monkey,

we generally assume that the species was always there. But in the case of the

bioassays prepared in this lab, that is not usually true. Where Latour goes wrong

is in his contrast in the last sentence quoted above – between objective entities

and constructed objects. These two things are not mutually exclusive. The

bioassays created in this lab might simultaneously be constructed objects and

objective entities, in much the same way that a bridge or an office building or

anything else that is built by humans can be both “constructed” and objective.

The confusion here is over the double meaning of the word “constructed.“ In the

every day sense, it means “built,” and bridges and office buildings and bioassays

are all built. In Latour’s sense, and in the sense it has been used in science studies

and throughout this work, it also means “socially constructed,” that is, created

by social agreement of some kind and not existing objectively outside those

agreements. Latour obviously does not mean to use this word in the first sense

– to do so would be akin to pointing out that steel bridges are not a natural part

of the landscape – but he only offers us evidence for this first meaning. The

bioassays would not exist without the machines and/or people who create them

– true. Therefore, they are socially constructed and cannot be said to exist

objectively – false.

Latour’s third example in the quotation above, the reading on the

spectrometer, is a bit more complicated. The reading is not an object in the way

It is worth noting here that the second edition of Laboratory Life drops the word “social” from its

subtitle, which was “The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.” Latour argues in a postscript
that since it is implied that all interactions are social, the word is devoid of meaning.
Conveniently, it also makes it easier to slide between the meanings of “construction.”

that a bioassay or a bridge is. Rather, it is a measurement of some underlying

physical characteristic in the sample. Our measurements of daily temperature

work the same way. The temperature cannot be said to exist as an object, it is

only one description of a type of energy in the air. The scale and numbers we use

to describe this energy are “social constructions” in one sense. We already use

three different scales for different reasons, and could easily come up with a

dozen more. For example, dividing the Celsius scale into 100 units between the

freezing and boiling points of water is a matter of convenience, not a reflection of

some fundamental relationship in nature. At the same time, the repeatability and

independence of the measurement give it the status of objectivity. It describes a

relationship between states and between objects that is consistent and

independent of our measurements. The measurement itself is simply a consistent

way to describe these relationships. It might be possible to demonstrate that a

specific measuring system distorts our perception of the actual physical world,

but the mere fact that we invented the measuring system does not a priori do so.

Boundary Epistemologies and Situated Knowledges

Donna Haraway is likely the most frequently cited of the feminist social

constructivists who critique traditional science. Haraway’s position on science is

complex and at times contradictory. More importantly, she works at proposing

solutions to the major problems to which social constructionism gives rise, even

if her solutions sometimes create other problems. Haraway clearly understands

the limitations of social constructionism as a position, and is particularly

concerned about the relativism that the position implies. She is also aware that

relativism undermines progressive politics as much as it helps, and her solution

to this problem is what she calls “situated knowledges,” the subject of one her

best known essays, which will be dealt with here in detail.

Because Haraway’s best-known and most often cited book, Simians,

Cyborgs and Women, is actually a compilation of essays written over many years,

it is difficult to get a coherent sense of her position, since it modifies over time. 78

There can be little doubt that Haraway is aware of the problems with social

constructionism, although she seems to see herself a constructivist. As a result,

there are nuances to her position that make it extremely valuable.

Haraway was trained as a biologist, and this is a source of much of her

credibility. She is someone who has observed science from the inside, and relies

heavily, in this collection and elsewhere , on her experiences studying primates.


She has worked extensively in the field of primatology, but became disillusioned,

both as a scientist and a feminist, with the work that she saw going on in her

field. So Haraway is not an outside observer of science but someone with direct

experience that is crucial to the foundations of her argument. But if this

experience in science gives Haraway’s work a stature that the work of outsiders

might not have, it is also the source of one of the limits of her position. Haraway

recounts in detail in Simians, Cyborgs and Women the many ways in which

primatology was constructed by the social and political biases of those who

practiced it. In particular, she recounts the ways in which human gender biases

were projected onto apes, a phenomenon that becomes a feedback loop. Sexism is

projected onto apes, where that sexism is now seen as “natural” and thus not

something to be challenged in the human world. Apes provide reinforcement

An extended interview with Haraway conducted by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve and published

under the title How Like A Leaf summarizes many of the positions she has developed over time.
Much of Haraway’s writing on primatology is collected in the book Primate Visions.

that all of our worst tendencies are innate in us and perhaps even necessary for

our survival.

The experiences Haraway recounts are textbook examples of the social

construction of science. The “facts” that scientists claimed to be discovering

through objective observation were reflections of themselves rather than of the

subjects of the study. In addition, these reflections were not politically neutral,

since they reinforced social and political biases that were harmful to women. I

take very little issue with her description of primatology, and trust that her

analysis of the field is more or less correct. The problem is that the results are

hardly surprising, and as such do not allow Haraway to make the larger claims

about science that she makes throughout the book.

Many of the studies that, like Haraway’s, offer support for the prevalence

of racial and gender bias in science are studies of race and gender difference, or

in fields, like primatology, where we would expect human biases to be projected

easily. The sensation that apes are “like us” and share some of our social

relations is common to almost everyone who has ever seen one, even in a zoo.

We would expect that scientists who study these animals would be careful not to

anthropomorphize them and project human concerns onto them, and there are

probably many people, including scientists themselves, who believe this is both

easily done and standard practice. Haraway demonstrates convincingly that in

the sectors of primatology she has been involved in, this has not traditionally

been the case. Scientists have all too easily fallen into the same trap as the zoo

visitors, projecting human values onto animals whose culture is wholly

independent of our own. It is distressing that scientists would fool themselves so

easily, and it would seem that if they can do it in this field, why not in all of

science? Indeed, this is the inference Haraway makes.

The problem is that fields like race and gender difference or primatology

are exactly where we would expect societal biases to override any pretense of

realism. It might even be that realism is impossible in these fields, but I would

suggest that recent work that brings these biases to light makes scientists all the

more aware of the pitfalls of areas of research such as these. Studies of this type

of bias in science include two well-known texts, Stephen Jay Gould’s The

Mismeasure of Man and Carol Tavris’ The Mismeasure of Woman. Gould’s study

recounts the history of eugenics-based science in which physiological

characteristics were used as “proof” of the racial superiority of Europeans over

non-white races. Tavris’ work takes on the same task to illustrate the supposedly

scientific justifications for sexism and the ways in which these issues are

distorted in media. Although both of these works seem like ideal case studies of

the social construction of science, they do not offer support for social

constructionism broadly. Gould was, of course, a prominent Harvard

paleontologist, and Tavris is a board member of the Skeptics society, an

organization dedicated to the defense of science and reason. The case studies

recounted in both of these books are better understood as “bad science” or

“pseudoscience,” categories recognized within science for work that loses any

claim to factual status because of the biases and desires of its authors.

Pseudoscience describes whole fields of study that are lacking in any kind of

scientific basis yet claim the status of science. By this definition, astrology might

not be a pseudoscience unless its practitioners claim that it is provable by

scientific standards. On the other hand, creation science is certainly a

pseudoscience since it uses the rhetoric and style of science to give credence to

purely religious claims. Bad science refers to work in any field that is usually

considered a scientific field, but the work is substandard or sloppy for any

number of reasons. These categories are not strict and can be combined when

someone, say, uses physiognomy (the study of the link between facial structure

and intelligence) which is a pseudoscience, as well as some misunderstood

genetics, to make the claim that a particular racial or ethnic group is intellectually


The remarkable thing about the work Gould studies is that most of it

features egregious errors that can only be accounted for by the scientist’s desire

to “prove” what he already believed. To do so, data was manipulated and

extraordinary claims made when an examination of the evidence by a less biased

observer reveals that the evidence either does not support the claim or that the

evidence was fabricated in the first place. Most importantly, when data failed to

meet pre-arranged ideals, the scientists came up with more and more elaborate

explanations to explain what they wished to be true. 80

There are two lessons in the biases discovered by Haraway, Gould, and

Tavris. This first is that fields of science that deal heavily in social considerations

are strongly subject to social biases. In all of these cases, the bias of the

researchers seems almost inevitable, given what they were studying. It is much

more difficult to presume that particle physics or microbiology would be subject

to the same problems. There is little social stake in the direct results of these

An interesting example of this phenomenon as applied to history was the recent libel trial in

Great Britain of Deborah Lipstadt, who was challenged by Holocaust denier David Irving over
the claim in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, that he
was a racist. For further discussion of this trial, and its relation to postmodern epistemological
positions, see Chapter Four.

subjects. Even though they may have applications that have extraordinary social

and political impacts, the objects themselves, microbes and particles, have no

politics of their own. Even if the temptation to find what you wish to find is as

strong in this field as it is in the ones that involved social relations (as it most

likely is), it is much more difficult to manipulate the results. In the cases that

Gould considers, there was little work for the eugenicists to do, since they were

simply confirming the biases that people already held. In other words, their work

was unlikely to be subject to much scrutiny, and the people it affected most

directly – women and ethnic minorities – had little power to answer back or fight

against the results. In the case of a physicist’s claim that a new compound has

revolutionary strength, the compound either stands up to tests or it does not.

Microbes declared fit for human consumption will not obey the wishes of the

food company biologist who declares them so, and so on.

Haraway’s Avoidance of Relativism

The major thrust of Haraway’s argument is in the essay “Situated

Knowledges.” Here, Haraway acknowledges the relativism that is a danger of

social constructionism, and she definitely wants the sureness of science when she

is arguing with conservatives. She begins by reviewing favourably a number of

works in science studies:

..recent social studies of science have made available a very strong social
constructionist argument for all forms of knowledge claims, most certainly
and especially scientific ones. In these tempting views, no insider’s
perspective is privileged, because all drawings of inside–outside
boundaries in knowledge are theorized as power moves, not moves
toward truth. 81

Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 184.


The strong programme in the sociology of knowledge joins with the lovely
and nasty tools of semiology and deconstruction to insist on the rhetorical
nature of truth, including scientific truth. History is a story Western
culture buffs tell each other; science is a contestable text and a power field;
the content is the form. Period.82

As soon as Haraway has stated this position, she points out its weakness:

This is a terrifying view of the relationship of body and language for those
of us who would still like to talk about reality with more confidence then
we allow the Christian right’s discussion of the Second Coming and their
being raptured out of the final destruction of the world. We would like to
think our appeals to real worlds are more than a desperate lurch away
from cynicism and an act of faith like any other cult’s, no matter how
much space we generously give to all the rich and always historically
specific mediations through which we and everybody else must know the
world. 83

In other words, feminists and leftists still need to be able to claim that the

emancipatory politics they support are not simply a choice among many, with no

way to answer the conservatives who make their own truth claims. This is one of

the key weaknesses of social constructionism as a political idea – the way in

which it removes the factual basis from the political goals of the very people who

endorse it. Haraway is aware of the political reasons why this position is adopted,

but also of its political limitations:

I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the
truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity,
and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and
technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological
electro-shock therapy, which far from ushering us into the high stakes
tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with
self-induced multiple personality disorder. We wanted a way to go
beyond showing bias in science (that proved too easy anyhow), and
beyond separating the good scientific sheep from the bad goats of bias and
misuse. It seemed promising to do this by the strongest possible
constructionist argument that left no cracks for reducing the issues to bias
versus objectivity, use versus misuse, science versus pseudo-science. We

Ibid., 185.
Ibid., 185.

unmasked the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our
budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency and our
‘embodied’ accounts of the truth, and we ended up with one more excuse
for not learning any post-Newtonian physics and one more reason to drop
the old feminist self-help practices of repairing our own cars. They’re just
texts anyway, so let the boys have them back. 84

I have quoted this extraordinary passage at length because of the dual critical

desires it encapsulates. Haraway recognizes the loss of objectivity that social

constructionism causes and the potential effects of that loss on feminist politics.

At the same time, she seems to downplay that loss as an inconvenience, one

noted after the case is closed on the social construction of science. This misstep

informs the overly optimistic fix she prescribes in this chapter. Haraway depends

on others, particularly Latour, for her “proof” of the validity of social

constructionism (as if there could be such a proof) when we have already seen

the multitude of weaknesses in Latour’s position. In fact, the only way to

preserve the objective basis for progressive politics that Haraway desires is to

maintain exactly the distinctions between good and bad science, use and misuse,

and science and pseudoscience that Haraway disparages in this passage.

Instead, Haraway attempts to create a middle passage between realism

and social constructionism that preserves the best features of both. She says

“Feminists don’t need a doctrine of objectivity that promises transcendence, a

story that loses track of its mediations just where someone might be held

responsible for something,” but it does need “an earth-wide network of

connections, including the ability partially to translate knowledges among very

different – and power differentiated – communities.” The notion of an


Ibid., 186.
Ibid., 187.

objectivity that can be “held responsible” has limits that Haraway does not

account for.

Haraway’s alternative to traditional objectivity, “situated knowledges” is

a form of individual objectivity that attempts to avoid relativism by arguing that

individual knowledge can be factual, and that by maintaining the link to the

individual, knowledge can be answerable to political critique. In other words, by

keeping knowledge embodied, we keep it responsible. There is no knowledge

that is just “out there,” separate from human connection, what Haraway calls the

“god-trick.” This is also knowledge that avoids the homogeneity of official

science in favour of “many kinds of heterogeneous accounts of the world.” So 86

we get to maintain a realism that can be used to argue with conservatives, while

avoiding the over-arching and homogenizing power of science and being

respectful of individual positions. It sounds idyllic, but that is hardly the

problem with this approach. I think Haraway has the right idea about the kinds

of knowledge systems that might solve what seems to be an epistemological

impasse while avoiding the limitations of previous systems. But her system has a

couple of significant weaknesses, and although I will draw on elements of her

system in my conclusion, the version she proposes here has only the promise of a

solution that it cannot possibly provide.

The first problem with Haraway’s system is that it takes no account of

potential conflicts between situated knowledges. She envisions knowledge and

objectivity as individual systems that can be mediated across the divisions of race,

class, and gender. Each person is answerable for his or her view of the world. But

what happens when these two knowledges are at odds with one another? It is

Ibid., 199.

easy to imagine her system working on a small scale, where two people who

have conflicting views of an issue or idea attempt to reconcile their positions and

answer each other’s queries in good faith. We can imagine a good deal of mutual

understanding coming from the exchange that would be perfectly in line with

Haraway’s political goals. If instead we find that the positions are mutually

exclusive, we would assume that the participants maintain a respect for each

other’s position, or, in common parlance, “agree to disagree.” This is already the

polite form of social debate as widely practiced among reasonable people. In

Haraway’s system where there is no recourse to an objectivity outside of the

person, this is the limit of the debate. If there is a pressing need to decide one

way or the other which of two proposed courses of action is the best one, the

debate is apparently dependent on rhetorical, social, and political conditions to

be solved, since we have no other option. In other words, someone gives in either

because they are rhetorically persuaded or because they assume that their

“opponent” has superior social credentials to assess the situation.

If the debate is larger than two people, and involves social policy or

governmental decisions, the system seems impossible to put into useful practice.

We can listen to each other and agree to disagree, but we lose all of the

objectivity that Haraway wanted to maintain for political battles. How can we

possibly reconcile millions of “objectivities,” some of which are carefully thought

out and informed, some less so but passionate, and some the result of whimsy or

preconceived bias? How can we reconcile them without resorting to an

objectivity that is greater than any individual or a relativism that decides the

correct course based on rhetoric or majority rule? The simple answer is that we


The primary weakness of Haraway’s position is that her system of

“situated knowledges” is, ironically for a politically progressive position, far too

focused on the individual. She writes, “this chapter is an argument for situated

and embodied knowledges and against various forms of unlocatable, and so

irresponsible, knowledge claims,” a passage that could be interpreted in several


ways, all of them problematic. At face value, this concern with keeping

knowledge embodied means maintaining its tie to an actual person who can be

questioned and judged in relation to a position, idea or fact. If this is what she

means, and she appears to, Haraway confuses embodiment with responsibility

and the ability to question. These are not the same thing. She is right to be

against knowledge that is unlocatable and irresponsible, but knowledge that is

not embodied can still be locatable. It might simply be located in the data of an

experiment or a series of measurements rather than in a person. This kind of

knowledge can still be located, pinned down, and questioned. We need not

always have a human to confront, sometimes a set of data will do.

Let us suppose that in investigating a particular scientific claim, we find

both a person and a data set at the end of our search. Which is better to

investigate in order to challenge that claim? If we challenge the data and the

results, we have the chance to make a convincing counter claim based on the

available evidence or any new evidence we gather. What do we gain from

challenging the person? We might question his or her motivations, especially if

he or she is, say, a scientist doing health research on behalf of a tobacco company.

But such questions would be irrelevant if we could not also challenge the data

that the scientist is presenting. To use another analogy, it would be as if I had

Ibid., 191.

spent the last few pages ignoring Haraway’s arguments as presented in her

writing and instead attacked aspects of her personality. I do not need Haraway’s

knowledge to be “embodied” in her in order to present a counter claim. In fact,

Haraway might as well be an abstraction instead of a living person, for all the

difference it would make to me here. Would it be more than a point of passing

interest if Donna Haraway turned out to be the pen name of a man or someone

writing outside of the United States?

In Haraway’s system, it might. Her emphasis on the embodiment of

knowledge as the key to responsibility raises the possibility that challenges to the

objectivity of another would be based more on whom that person is rather than

what he or she had to say. Immediately before the passage quoted above about

embodiment versus unlocatability, she writes, “Many currents in feminism

attempt to theorize grounds for trusting especially the vantage points of the

subjugated; there is good reason to believe vision is better from below the

brilliant space platforms of the powerful.” So, as I suggested earlier, it is likely


that differences that cannot be settled agreeably between individuals are to be

settled by assessments of the status of the participants. That subjugated peoples

might have the upper hand is of no consequence. We live in a dynamic world

where categories of subjugation are ever changing and extraordinarily complex

within individuals and across societies. To pick only a simple example, what of

the exchange between a female western human rights worker and a man in a

third world country defending his culture’s absence of basic rights for women?

The man is probably more subjugated overall, but this is a gender issue, and he is

still a man. If their relative positions change over time, does that mean the other

Ibid., 190-1.

person’s perspective should now be given priority? This is exactly the kind of

relativism that Haraway sought to avoid in her position. We cannot answer our

political opponents if they might be able to demonstrate that they hold a superior

position over us. No matter what the criteria, whether it be subjugation status or

traditional power status, Haraway’s reliance on the “embodiment” of knowledge

undoes any pretence of objectivity for the epistemology she proposes.

Let us consider the possibility that I am taking the argument for embodied

knowledge too literally, and that Haraway has a broader sense of embodiment in

mind. We might first consider embodiment to be a characteristic of groups rather

then individuals. This might make sense based on Haraway’s argument above

about vision being “better from below.” Subjugated groups may have a

perspective on the world that is embodied in their daily experience. This

possibility is subject to the same limitations I outlined previously about the

complexity and shifting nature of subjugation. Extending my above example, the

confrontation between a western woman and a third world man might become a

debate between groups of western women and the men who defend and enforce

women’s subjugation in many nations. This changes nothing fundamental about

the debate that would solve the problem of relativism based on subjugated


If we broaden the notion of embodiment more than this, it begins to

become a synonym for answerable or locatable knowledge, and is now too broad

a concept to be useful to Haraway’s position. We are essentially at the realist

position I proposed, in which knowledge can be embodied in a set of data or the

results of a piece of equipment. This is line with the realist scientific practice that

Haraway claims to be arguing against. At this point, it becomes difficult to

imagine what “unlocatable, and so irresponsible, knowledge claims” would 89

look like, within the realm of science.

I do believe that Haraway is on the right track when she attempts to make

knowledge locatable and answerable, but she is not willing to give up on the

social constructionism that seems so appealing when she sets out. By dropping

the claim to the socially constructed nature of all science, she would be better

able to recognize that knowledge can be answerable outside of the individual.

Making recourse to knowledge that is outside of a person does not necessarily

have to be a “god-trick,” even if God and scientific objectivity seem analogous at

times. Haraway is hardly the only one to make this connection. It is one of the

more interesting issues raised by Richard Rorty, who has perhaps better

articulated a social constructivist position than anyone else.

Richard Rorty and Pragmatism

Rorty would not refer to himself as a social constructivist, preferring the

term pragmatist, which makes explicit his connection to the earlier American

pragmatists of whom Rorty considers himself a “disciple” (Philosophy and Social

Hope xvi). As we will see in our close analysis of Rorty’s position, the terms

pragmatism and social constructionism are reasonably interchangeable in his

case. The fundamental precept of both ideas is an unwillingness to accept the

idea of an outside arbiter, whether that be God or scientific objectivity.

Haraway’s conception of scientific objectivity as the “god-trick” is relevant here.

As a prominent philosopher, his work has attracted considerable attention,

including a collection of essays dedicated to answering his work. The issues he

Ibid., 191.

raises are complex, and many of them have been discussed in depth, so I will

focus on the issues that are most relevant to this argument. The first is the

relationship between pragmatism and politics hinted at by Haraway. Rorty is

much more frank about the limits of this link, but offers a sophisticated defense,

one that leads into his second major point, about the uses of objectivity to solve

political disputes. On this front he runs into many of the same issues as Haraway.

Last discussed here is his link between God and scientific objectivity, the same

connection made by Haraway and Latour, but with a much more sophisticated

reading of the history of epistemology and religion. We will chiefly consider

Rorty’s essay “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” which is useful both as an

up-to-date summary of Rorty’s position and as an answer to many years of

criticism. 90

Pragmatism and Politics

Unlike Donna Haraway, Rorty is more upfront about the limits of

pragmatism or social constructionism for leftist politics:

Romantic utilitarianism, pragmatism, and polytheism are compatible with

both wholehearted enthusiasm and whole-hearted contempt for
democracy. The frequent complaint that a philosopher who holds the
pragmatic theory of truth cannot give you a reason not to be a fascist is
perfectly justified. But neither can that person give you a reason to be a
fascist. For once you become a polytheist in the sense I just defined, you
have to give up on the idea that philosophy can help you choose among
the various deities and the various forms of life offered. The choice
between enthusiasm and contempt for democracy becomes more like
choice between Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers than between
competing sets of philosophical arguments.

For detailed discussions of Rorty’s position, see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and

Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume 1. Another useful introduction to
Rorty’s position is in the introduction to Philosophy and Social Hope, which also contains a number
of essays on political topics that confirm Rorty’s commitment to leftist political causes. A volume
of rebuttals to Rorty is Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
(and Beyond).

Those who find the pragmatist identification of truth with what is
good to believe morally offensive often say that Nietzsche, rather than
James and Dewey, drew the proper inference from the abandonment of
the idea of an object of knowledge that tells one how to rank human needs.
Those who think of pragmatism as a species of irrationalism, and of
irrationalism as selling the pass to fascism, say that James and Dewey
were blind to the antidemocratic consequences of their own ideas, and
naïve to think that one can be both a good pragmatist and a good
Such critics make the same mistake that Nietzsche made. 91

That mistake, according to Rorty, is thinking “that the idea of fraternity is

inextricable from Platonism.” And Platonism, in this reasoning, is “the idea that

the will to truth is distinct from the will to happiness – or, to be a bit more precise,

the claim that human beings are divided between a quest for a lower, animal

form of happiness and higher, God-like form of happiness.” So Rorty is


attacking the position in which truth is seen as something outside of the human

desire for happiness, as well as the position, Nietzsche’s, in which that separation

allows one to dismiss the primacy of human happiness. In contrast, Rorty argues

that “once one sees no way of ranking human needs rather than playing them off

one another, human happiness becomes all that matters.” 94

In fact,

Mill’s On Liberty provides all the ethical instruction you need – all the
philosophical advice you are ever going to get about your responsibilities
to other human beings. For human perfection becomes a private concern,
and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as
much space to pursue these private concerns – to worship their own gods,
so to speak – as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to
all. The tradition of religious toleration is extended to moral toleration.

Rorty, “Paragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” 25.
Ibid., 25.
Ibid., 26.
Ibid., 24.
Ibid., 24.

This passage sounds in some ways like a defense of libertarianism, although I

think that would be a misnomer, as Rorty is elsewhere firmly in support of

collective political action. Instead, it is best summed up by its last line, a call for

unequivocal moral tolerance based on the assumption that there is no higher

power or objectivity on which to base such judgments. Such a position is not a

call for the complete absence of moral rules, any more than Mill’s On Liberty is a

call for unfettered freedom. Both place important limits on tolerance based on the

happiness of others, and this is what confines our actions, rather than appeals to

a code outside of ourselves.

So Rorty is aware that pragmatism offers no support for one political view

over another. In recognizing this, he sets himself apart from almost all of the

other social constructivists discussed here, and from the most common view in

the humanities outside of philosophy. But why would Rorty embrace such a

position as pragmatism if he is aware that it does not inherently support his

politics? Although he does not think that pragmatism supports democracy

automatically, he does argue that

…there is a plausible inference from democratic convictions to

[pragmatism]. Your devotion to democracy is unlikely to be wholehearted
if you believe, as monotheists typically do, that we can have knowledge of
an “objective” ranking of human needs that can overrule the result of
democratic consensus. But if your devotion is wholehearted, then you will
welcome the utilitarian and pragmatist claim that we have no will to truth
distinct from the will to happiness. 97

Throughout his paper, Rorty equates polytheism with pragmatism and realism

with monotheism, based on the link between religious tolerance and moral

tolerance described earlier. This is not quite a literal equation, since Rorty is

See, for example, “Back to Class Politics” in Philosophy and Social Hope.
Ibid., 27.

surely aware that polytheistic religions are perfectly capable of religious

intolerance and violence based on an all-encompassing worldview, as the

religious violence of Hindu nationalists in India, among other examples,

demonstrates. It does, however, establish a metaphorical link between

monotheism and intolerance that causes Rorty to make some mistakes in a later


Reverting to Objectivity to Solve Political Disputes

In describing the uses of objectivity above as an attempt to “overrule the

result of democratic consensus” Rorty is in some ways playing the same kind of

language game that Latour uses in Pandora’s Hope, and equating reason with

control. He argues that it is this potential use of objectivity that is most likely to

be demonstrated in the public forum as a way to take away power from the

masses whose happiness or well-being is not considered.

What makes his argument slightly more sophisticated is his use of the

term democratic consensus, which infers that we are not simply talking about

majority rule, and erases some of the fear that we are dealing with a mob.

Implied in Rorty’s notion of democratic consensus – based on the limitations on

liberty he borrows from Mill – is the sense that this is not straight majority rule.

We should assume instead that all sorts of minority positions have been taken

into account and considered in the final result – that is what would make it a

consensus. The problem with this even more generous view of the potential of

democracy is that consensus and majority rule are at times extremely difficult to

separate. Rorty’s view of democracy is still utilitarian in its implied goal of the

most happiness for the most people, including society’s subjugated peoples. But

there are still times where a utilitarian view of government does not protect

minorities at all, even when their suffering is immense. A government that rejects

the possibility of fundamentalist religious parties being given the opportunity to

take over the government is using a principled objection that may or may not be

utilitarian. If the proposed fundamentalist party would deny the rights of a

significant share of the population, then suppressing it might be utilitarian. But

what if it would subjugate only a tiny minority to appease the will of an

overwhelming majority of fundamentalists? I think Rorty would admit that his

version of pragmatism does not allow the invocation of higher reason to protect

that tiny minority from an otherwise democratic consensus, since that is his

primary rule. In confessing to this limitation, Rorty is being much more honest

with himself than either Latour or Haraway, but it still leaves us at the same

place, with minority rights in jeopardy. That Rorty is willing to accept this risk is

both a testament to his intellectual honesty and his overarching optimism. His

hope for pragmatism as a method of solving our disputes and allowing us to live

peacefully is too dependent on the wish that everyone be a pragmatist. It is

obvious that pragmatism is definitely anti-fundamentalist:

The pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that

fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results
of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in
attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus
about how to maximize happiness. They sin not by ignoring Mill’s
inductive methods, but by ignoring his reflections on liberty. 98

While pragmatism is anti-fundamentalist, it offers no answer on how to deal

with fundamentalists. Rorty’s conception of democratic consensus is dependent

on a lack of significant fundamentalist factions within the democracy. Simply put,

Ibid., 29.

everyone has to share the desire for democratic consensus in order for the system

to work. Pragmatism is thus an ideal system, with the same limit as Haraway’s –

it is unable to deal with significant disagreement. Pragmatism is unable to

answer fundamentalism when it inevitably arises in the real world. Of course, as

the pragmatist might point out in rebuttal, it is not as though realism has been

able to vanquish fundamentalism. But realism is able to face fundamentalism

with the claim that the fundamentalists have it wrong, not just that they don’t

have respect for democracy. Fundamentalists are likely to answer the latter

charge with the response that democracy is part of a humanist or liberal project

of which they want no part. Charging fundamentalists with being morally

irresponsible is unlikely to have much effect, since they are likely to believe they

already have the moral high ground. In addition, Rorty has already called for a

“moral toleration,” but now wants a moral condemnation to be our best answer

to fundamentalists. This contradiction highlights the larger issue that Rorty

seems to recognize he cannot escape. Pragmatism offers no real answer to

fundamentalism, any more than it offers one to fascism. In a world without

fundamentalism, the debate between pragmatism and realism might still exist,

but without many consequences either way. In our world, this difference is


God = Science?

In this debate between fundamentalism and realism or pragmatism, it

becomes evident that realism really is, as Rorty charges, arguing from the same

foundation as fundamentalism. In contrast to pragmatism, realism and

fundamentalism are “monotheistic” in that they refer to an overarching system

of knowledge that is beyond human scope and “unquestionable.” Where Rorty is

less convincing is in his overemphasis of science’s monotheism, a misreading

that is the result of his otherwise intriguing reading of the history of Christianity.

Rorty offers an alternate history of Christianity, in which “the Christian

emphasis on human fraternity – the idea that for Christians there is neither Jew

nor Greek, and the related idea that love is the only law – might have been only

accidentally, for contingent historical reasons, associated with Platonism.” What 99

he means is that Christianity might have adopted the “love thy neighbour” edict

without the monotheism that has been its counterpoint. Such a church would

have avoided much of its problems through the centuries and preserved the best

part of itself that does not depend on monotheism:

A Christianity that was merely ethical – the sort Jefferson and other
Enlightenment thinkers commended and was later propounded by
theologians of the social gospel – might have sloughed-off exclusionism
by viewing Jesus as one incarnation of the divine among others. The
celebration of an ethics of love would have then taken its place within the
relatively tolerant polytheism of the Roman Empire, having disjoined the
idea of human brotherhood from the claim to represent the will of an
omnipotent and monopolistic Heavenly Father (not to mention the idea
that there is no salvation outside the Christian Church).
Had they preached such a merely moral and social gospel, the
Christians would never have bothered to develop a natural theology. So
thirteenth-century Christians would not have worried about whether the
Scriptures could be reconciled with Aristotle. Seventeenth-century
believers would not have worried about whether they could be reconciled
with Newton, nor those in the nineteenth century about whether they
could be reconciled with Darwin. These hypothetical Christians would
have treated Scripture as useful for purposes for which Aristotle, Newton,
and Darwin were useless, and as useless for purposes of prediction and
control of the environment. As things stood, however, the Christian
churches remained obsessed by the Platonic idea that both Truth and God
are One. So it was natural, when physical science began to make some
progress, that its practitioners should take over its rhetoric, and thereby
stir up a war between science and theology, between Scientific Truth and
Religious Faith.100

Ibid., 26.
Ibid., 26-7.

Most of this alternate history is dramatically appealing, offering the prospect of a

religion based on good deeds without the Crusades or the Inquisition. It is the

most compelling case for the link between religious fundamentalism and

scientific objectivity. In Rorty’s assessment, the latter is the direct result of the

former. If the church had not insisted that it held the only path to the truth,

science would not have had to do so either. In response to my earlier suggestion

that objectivity and realism are the only ways to counter fundamentalism, Rorty

would reply that this is exactly the problem. Rather than continue the charade,

science should admit that all truth is contingent and this would in turn undo the

premise of monotheism. Dismantling scientific objectivity would end the illusion

of a motivation outside of human happiness and perhaps take us back to a form

of religion that follows the alternate path Rorty has sketched out. It is an

attractive vision, except…

Rorty’s analysis of the way that science adopts objectivity as a response to

monotheism is missing a crucial piece, and it is a piece that he is well aware of

when he is discussing religion. In a rush to paint scientific objectivity as merely

another kind of fundamentalism, he forgets to carry his analogy all the way

through to its logical conclusion. In his assessment of religion, Rorty says that it

could have adopted the useful parts (“love thy neighbour”) that are part of the

everyday action of the faith. In his view, there is a division between these

everyday ideals of the church, and the overarching monotheism that claims that

this is the only way to live. Similarly, science has everyday accomplishments that

are extraordinarily useful, and these might be separated from the “monotheism”

of science, the idea that science is the only way to look at the world. Rorty’s

mistake is that although he envisions a religion that is “useful for purposes for

which Aristotle, Newton and Darwin [are] useless, and as useless for purposes of

prediction an control of the environment,” he does not allow for a science that is

useless for the purposes of ethical commandments, and recognizes that it is useless.

I would argue that modern science is well aware that it has areas in which it is

useful, like postponing death, and areas in which it is useless, like pondering the

mysteries of death, helping survivors cope, or even asking if the postponement

of death is a good thing. In this way, science is not monotheistic in the sense that

Rorty supposes. He confuses objectivity on a small scale – the ability to claim that

certain things are true throughout the universe regardless of the observations or

desires of humans – with a claim that science can answer all of our questions

about everything. We can easily separate these two claims. For example, we are

quite capable of holding these two ideas about science in our head at the same

time: acceleration due to gravity is a constant on Earth; science is useless for

analyzing poetic imagery. Science can be objective within the realm of science,

and the fact that this realm has limitations has no consequences for this

objectivity. Like Haraway, Rorty is concerned that a claim to objectivity is a god-

trick. He misses the fact that one does not necessarily imply the other.

The fact that science cannot explain everything does not mean that all of

its proclamations are socially constructed. It is only when we confuse the

objectivity of individual findings with an overall claim of monotheism that we

feel the need to knock science off its perch. It is this confusion that motivates

Haraway, who wants to preserve objectivity while attacking the paper tiger of

scientific monotheism. While there have been times in our history when it has

been regularly suggested that science will eventually solve all of the world’s

problems, this is but a quirk of modernity that very quickly proved foolish. It

would be overkill to attack all of science for the actions of a few overeager

supporters whose work was not very convincing in the first place. We might

think it foolish to expect that science would eventually be able to explain our

reactions to painting, film, and other arts, replacing our more subjective critical

interpretations. This is a different limitation than the idea that science’s

foundational claims are limited to one culture or historical period and not

another. The effects of individual scientific “laws” can be universal while

admitting that there are not scientific laws for everything.

There is a last lesson in all this confusion of terms. While it is obviously a

mistake for a scientist to claim that science can explain ethics, religion, and art, it

is similarly foolish for a scholar of the humanities to claim that the tools of these

disciplines must be able to be applied to the sciences. Yet that is what many

social constructivists have in essence argued. In the next chapter, we will see

what happens when a scholar is too easily convinced that superficial analogies

between arts and sciences mean that the two fields work the same way. Like

someone who tries to graph a poem on x and y axes, he is perhaps too

enamoured of his tools to see that they are not appropriate for the task at hand.

Chapter Four: Film as History

Debates about the socially constructed nature of history are more directly

related to the development of film studies than similar debates about science.

Even though these controversies are closely related and draw from similar

philosophical and political perspectives, it makes sense that film studies would

draw more from the historical thread of the debate over social constructionism,

since historical research is an inherent part of film studies. This chapter thus

examines some of the key works in contemporary discussions about the social

construction of history. In addition, I intend to explore some of the ways in

which the political dimensions of social construction are not as clear as might

have been previously thought. In Chapter Three, I argued that social

constructionism does not necessarily provide support for the political left. In this

chapter I will extend that debate to consider some of the ways in which social

constructionism could work against progressive politics and the sense of history

that is crucial to those politics. In addition, I will consider relevant film examples

that crystallize this debate and make clear the relevance of these historical

discussions for film studies.

The key example of this chapter is a comparison of the extensive critical

responses to two films that have been controversial for their apparent distortions

of historical events. The first film is Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which makes a

strong argument for the theory that the assassination of President John F.

Kennedy in 1963 was not the work of a single gunman, and was instead the

result of a complex conspiracy carried out to ensure that Kennedy would not be

able to pull American troops out of the Vietnam war, as Stone believes he was

about to do. The film fits into a long tradition in the United States of skepticism

about the official version of events provided by the Warren Commission, which

concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. When the film was released,

many media commentators and historians sharply criticized it for the way it

mixed documentary footage and re-creations, deliberately blurring the line

between evidenced argument and conjecture. Typical of these reactions was


Richard Grenier’s much-quoted review of this film in the Times Literary


And so Oliver Stone romps through the assassination of John Kennedy,

inventing evidence that supports his thesis, suppressing all evidence that
conflicts with it, directing his film in a pummelling style, a left to the jaw, a right
to the solar plexus, flashing forward, flashing backward, crosscutting
relentlessly, shooting “in tight” (in close), blurring, obfuscating, bludgeoning the
viewer until Stone wins, he hopes, by a TKO. 103

Grenier goes on to note that despite the chorus of criticism of this film

from numerous political commentators from all parts of the political spectrum,

film scholars have generally liked the movie. He concludes sarcastically that

“[p]erhaps one should not buy a used car from a film critic.” The implications of

Stone’s film for film studies and for social constructivist theory are complex and

contradictory, but there is much to admire about the work.

Hayden White points out that the posters for Stone’s film listed it as JFK: The Story That Won’t

Go Away. White uses this to support his point that this part of a trauma that cannot be “precisely
remembered.” (“The Modernist Event,” 37, endnote) Another way of reading it is to see this
phrase as fitting the film into a long-standing discussion in American culture about who was
responsible for the President’s death. The “story” here is not the trauma of the assassination as
White asserts, but the conspiracy theories about who did it.
See, for example, the range of responses collected by Stone and Zachary Sklar in the published

(and footnoted) version of their screenplay.

Grenier, “Movie Madness,” 16.

In contrast to Stone’s JFK, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) has

long been criticized for its clearly racist representation of the Reconstruction

period in the American south following the Civil War. Like Stone’s film,

controversy dogged this work as soon as it was released. The film was the subject

of protest by African Americans, and was banned in the state of Ohio. Film 104

scholars’ relationship to the film has been shifting and multi-faceted. Over the

years, many commentators focused on the film’s artistry and either downplayed

or gently excused the film’s racism. In recent years, the focus on racism has

increased, as scholars have struggled to reconcile apparently conflicting notions

of the film as both a work of artistic genius that is key to understanding the early

development of narrative cinema and an unfortunate example of Griffith’s (and

America’s) racism. Scott Simmon argues that few 20 century works of popular

art have had their meanings shift so completely. It is unlikely that anyone

would now apply a social constructivist argument to The Birth of a Nation. No one

would argue that Griffith’s distortions are irrelevant or that they are an equally

valid view of history. That most contemporary scholars are appalled by Griffith’s

version of history speaks to our discomfort with versions of history that differ

substantially from our own. How can we reconcile this discomfort with a social

constructivist view of history as contingent and subjective with our need to call

The Birth of a Nation was banned in Ohio with the support of Republican Governor Frank B.

Willis. Willis’s successor, James M. Cox, allowed the film to be shown for two years and then
banned it again in 1918, apparently in the name of wartime unity. One black newspaper reacted
to the second ban by asking “Are antagonisms to be permitted in times of peace, and prevented
only in times of war? Are the feelings of the colored man to be respected only so long as he is
fighting?” See “Gov. Cox Admits Birth of a Nation Unfit” and “ex-Gov. Willis Stands Vindicated”
The Ohio State Monitor. October 19, 1918. 3.
Simmon summarizes the history of apologies for the film’s racism, including some quite recent

attempts. He writes,” it can only muddle issues further to deny what is evident to all but the most
determined apologists: The Birth of a Nation has evolved into one of the ugliest artifacts of
American popular art” The Films of D.W. Griffith, 105

Griffith’s history wrong? That dilemma is central to this chapter. Since this

debate about the possibilities of historical objectivity is not specific to film studies,

we will begin by reviewing key arguments in the field. As in the earlier section, I

have chosen the best-argued examples of these perspectives, as well as those that

have been widely cited.

Michel de Certeau: Defrocking Emperor History

Michel de Certeau’s 1975 collection The Writing of History sums up much of the

constructionist objection to “standard” historical research, and his arguments

have been influential. De Certeau’s assessments of historical research are clearly

a reaction against what he sees as a discipline that proclaims itself unsullied by

values, able to conduct its work in positivist objectivity. De Certeau begins his

examination with an attack on one of the fundamental positions of rational

research, the split between subject and object. Historians immediately separate

the present from the past, and in doing so impose a subject/object split. In this

regard, history has much in common with medicine. Both disciplines “are born

almost simultaneously from the rift between the subject that is supposedly

literate and an object that is supposedly written in an unknown language.” De 107

Certeau’s objection to this rift is central to the constructivist argument. He holds

that no such division is possible, since “while these discourses speak of history,

they are already situated in history.” In other words, the historian is no more

able than his object of study or anyone else of escaping the biases and

The term “positivism” refers, as David Hess points out, to a philosophical position that puts

substantial faith in the scientific method. Often parodied as a naïve version of realism, Hess
summarizes it as “I’m positive I’m right because my position is founded on science” (8).
De Certeau, The Writing of History, 3.

Ibid., 20.

philosophies of the period. De Certeau is particularly critical of the concept of the

history of ideas, concerned that any notion of a collective unconscious or a

zeitgeist “can be extended, stretched or shrunk at will.” The tendency to define


history in such ideological terms is the concern of a social elite maintaining a

division between ideas and labour. 110

De Certeau’s demonstration of the structures of power that can influence

historical work is useful, even if it seems overstated. Defined against a positivist

discipline of history that refuses to examine the situation of its own writing, de

Certeau’s arguments are a necessary correction. At times this correction is

overstated however. Much of the rhetoric in the first sections of The Writing of

History plays on this power/rebellion dynamic, in which history is identified

with a type of despotic royalty and we are encouraged to support the popular

will to counter this tyranny. De Certeau portrays the first historians as officials of

the prince, whose job is to tell the prince’s story – to be an observer of power

without actually sharing in power. He draws a direct line between the prince, the

state, the patron, and the thesis director who “designates the legitimizing place...

inside of which and through which analysis has its place.” The insinuation is

that historical research is always tied to the interests of those in power.

Despite his rhetoric, it is possible to read de Certeau’s arguments as a

fairly moderate call to be more aware of the social and cultural factors of writing

history. He is concerned that history without theory “will necessarily drift into

the dogmatism of ‘eternal values’ or into an apology for a ‘timelessness.’” Read 112

Ibid., 28.
Ibid., 29.
Ibid., 10.
Ibid., 57.

as a reaction to positivism, and to the general conservative tendency to argue

that the status quo is “natural” and “unchangeable,” de Certeau’s arguments are

a necessary counterpoint. They are less useful as support for the idea of history’s

inevitable and complete constructedness and in fact undermine the possibility of

progressive change based on rational argument and the unmasking of ideology.

At the end of the chapter ‘Making History,’ de Certeau says that he is attempting

to change the position of history from that of the king able to convince his public

he is dressed to that of the child who points out the lies of those in power. But for

history to be able to switch positions in this manner, it must be free to maintain

the promise of rational and realist research. We must, in a sense, be able to argue

that the king really is naked. To argue instead that such judgments are subjective

is to allow the illusion to continue.

Hayden White: History and the Novel

Like those of de Certeau, the early writings of historian Hayden White can

be read as those of someone reacting against a discipline that is far too

comfortable with its own place. White sees history as situating itself between

science and art and claiming the best characteristics of both. It is this balance that

White attacks in Tropics of Discourse, arguing that history can claim to be the best

of neither science nor art. In his view, history borrows from models of science

and art that are vastly outdated. The models that history follows are late

White’s key works in this area are, in addition to Tropics of Discourse, Metahistory: The Historical

Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe and The Content of the Form. A useful overview of
Hayden White and Richard Rorty that situates them in relation to seminal debates about
objectivity that are usually traced to Edward Carr and Geoffrey Elton is Keith Jenkins’ On ‘What
is History?’ A frequently referenced text in historiography is Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The
“Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession.

nineteenth century social science and mid-19th century art. His objection to the

science model is as follows:

The “badness” of these hoary conceptions of science and art is contained

above all in the outmoded conceptions of objectivity which characterize them.
Many historians continue to treat their “facts” as though they were “given” and
refuse to recognize, unlike most scientists, that they are not so much found as
constructed by the kinds of questions which the investigator asks of the
phenomenon before him. 114

So on one hand we might read this argument as a reaction to historians who see

their work as simply objective, if such purebred positivists actually exist. On the

other, White is clearly wrong in his claim that “most scientists” reject objectivity.

The difficulty here is separating several interrelated ideas that White has

conflated. The first question we need to ask about historical or scientific research

is whether the choice of questions asked have an influence on the results. The

answer would seem to be an obvious yes, since we cannot get answers to

questions we do not ask. The problem with this question as asked lies in the

conception of the phrase “an influence” – the degree of influence is not specified,

and this is really what social constructivists and realists are arguing about much

of the time. Realists admit that the choice of question has an influence but

minimize the affect on outcome or hold that the degree of influence can be

assessed in the final product. Social constructivists argue essentially that such

determinations are impossible and tend to view the influence as overwhelming.

If this difference of opinion seems narrow, it shrinks further when we leave the

realm of theory and begin to examine specific examples of historical practice, as

we will do in Chapter Five.

White, Tropics of Discourse, 43.

If we recognize that the choice of questions has an influence on the results,

the next question is whether the choice of questions is a result of social and

political influences. The answer here would be a stronger yes, since despite the

social isolation of some scientific and historical research, the bulk of the work,

particularly in science, is determined by what can get funded. This often places a

priority on projects with profitable commercial applications or military uses. So

when White argues that historians sometimes see their facts as “given,” he is

right in the sense that they have to be looked for, and the way in which we look

will obviously limit the potential results. It is his jump from this argument to a

greater skepticism about the potential for objectivity in historical research that is

a problem. This is more troubling because in this and other writings, White

doesn’t see lack of objectivity as much of a problem. Since the problem is

inescapable, he seems to see it as something to which history should simply face

up. This is evident in his discussion of the “art” of history and the

recommendations he makes for the discipline.

White accuses history of being based on a mid-nineteenth century notion

of art. By this he means that the narrative form of much written history owes its

structure to the novels of the period. The stories tend to be linear and relatively

clear with an organized structure. Since the mid-19th century, White notes, the

novel has developed in a number of different directions, from the high

modernism of James Joyce to the common postmodern devices of ruptured time

and character. White laments that history has restricted itself to old-fashioned

models, when there are so many interesting forms to try out. He seems to be

motivated by a sense that history needs the excitement of narrative

experimentation without considering whether any of these forms would serve

the goals of historical writing. These experiments with narrative might further

distance historical writing from any claim to objectivity but since, in White’s

view, this is an impossible goal anyway, we may as well have work that is

interesting to read.

While this work definitely sounds as though it would be more interesting

to read than the stereotypical dusty history narrative, White does not
explain what use this writing would have. If historical writing followed
the lead of fiction at every turn, the line between them would disappear.
Would we cease to distinguish between academic historians and popular
novelists? To do so would be to give up what Philip Rosen calls the
“referential ambitions” of historical writing. Such a comparison reveals

that the differences between these forms in terms of background and

authorial intent are significant even if they share characteristics of form.
White consistently overplays the similarities between the realist novel and
historical writing. His key insight is that we are often writing our history
to fit the expectations of readers accustomed to fiction. Thus we shape the
past in the name of narrative, and should be aware of this convention and
the influence it exerts on research. At the same time, this similarity does
not mean that we are suddenly unable to tell the forms apart, or that they
are, on an epistemological level, the same thing.

In order to consider White’s theories in relation to film, it will be necessary

to consider another of his essays, “The Modernist Event.” As an
introduction to a collection of essays edited by Vivian Sobchack, the essay
sets a social constructivist tone that is both endorsed and critiqued by
other contributors to the collection. In this essay, White attempts to lay a
social constructivist groundwork for considering historical
representations, including events that are recounted by film and
television. Within this paper, he attempts to complete the argument begun
in the much earlier work, by arguing that disjointed postmodern
narratives are actually better able to represent the past of the twentieth
century than any traditional attempt at realist objectivity. We begin with
an illustrative example – White’s summation of the confusion surrounding
the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. He considers the
effects of the repeated footage of the disaster, footage that was repeated ad
nauseum for hours without anyone able to provide an explanation for
what had “happened.” He writes: “It appeared impossible to tell any
single authoritative story about what really happened–which meant that
one could tell any number of possible stories about it.” 116

Rosen, Change Mummified, 7.
White, “The Modernist Event,” 24.

This assessment of the disaster sets up a classic false dilemma. Since, in

the hours immediately following the accident, no one was able to explain exactly

what had caused the explosion, White argues that, in essence, all bets were off

when it came to describing the event. In doing so, he fails to consider possibilities

that lie between these theoretical extremes. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of

the event, the number of stories that could be told was quite small, hardly “any

number.” White’s mistake lies in his confusion over the meaning of “happened.”

He confuses the recounting of events – that, shortly after takeoff, still in view of

spectators and news cameras, the shuttle exploded – with the ability to explain

the causes of those events – it was not immediately obvious what had caused the

disaster. As far as the events are concerned – the shuttle exploded – there was

only one story. Even if we were to consider the initial explanations for the causes

of the disaster, information that was admittedly less definite in the hours after

the explosion, it was reasonably obvious that some sort of mechanical or human

error was to blame. The shuttle was not, for instance, shot down by MiG fighters

or space ships. While there was always the possibility of sabotage, there were in

fact an extremely limited number of possible stories one could tell about the

explosion. In his assessment, White implies that the absence of a singular master

narrative in the postmodern era means that anything goes – merely trading one

illogical extreme for another.

White spends the largest part of his essay considering the nature of

historical representation of the Holocaust, and argues that this, and other

twentieth century events of great magnitude have created a crisis of

representation as events which are not capable of being recorded or understood

in traditional narrative form. He argues, essentially, that the magnitude of these

events makes more fluid postmodern narratives both necessary and desirable, as

a way of reflecting that these events cannot simply be recounted. Again, White

falls into a mistake similar to the one he made with the Challenger disaster.

Certainly, the causes of the Holocaust in terms of motivations and human

consciences are incredibly difficult to define. Entering into the realm of human

motivations, it is nearly impossible to understand how individuals and

governments acted as they did. But the historical events themselves are

reasonably fixed. Our knowledge of them grows steadily through research, and

though accounts sometimes change based on new evidence, this is not the same

thing as arguing that events are ambiguous or determined by what we want to

find out about them. To argue that realism is ill equipped to deal with the event

plays directly into the hands of those, like Holocaust deniers, who rely on slips in

the use of logic, evidence, and argumentation to advance a “historical” argument

that has no realistic basis. The subtler part of White’s argument is that the

recounting of the facts of the Holocaust implies some sort of mastery of the

events, an understanding that cuts off further questions. In other words, to think

that we can explain the events means that we assume we can explain the causes

as well. This is a useful warning, but unnecessary. The raw numbers of dead

and the details of the Holocaust raise more questions about the causes of the

event as they are recounted, not less. It is only because of the “hardness” of the

Ibid., 30.
Ibid., 32.

numbers and sureness of our history that we can begin to grapple with the “why.”

In one sense, White has the relationship backwards. He suggests that the

difficulty of determining the reasons why the Holocaust happened undermines

our ability to document the events. Rather, it should be clear that without a solid

foundation for the events we can never move on to an examination, however

difficult, of the causes.

It is White’s willingness to undermine the factual nature of historical

events and the line between truth and fiction (while maintaining that he does not

want to undermine the factual nature of the Holocaust) that is most troubling. He

maintains that “facts are a function of the meaning assigned to events” while 119

arguing, unsurprisingly, that he does not want to say that these events did not

take place. He states explicitly that the “suggestion that the meanings of these

events… remain ambiguous… should not be taken to imply in any way that such

events never happened,” but he cannot escape the fact that his general theories

about the nature of historical fact endorse precisely that view. Unfortunately, this

belief in the socially constructed nature of historical facts corresponds all too well

with the beliefs and perspectives of Holocaust deniers. Even as White is

emphatically not included in this group, I would argue that his position helps

those he actively opposes.

Ibid., 21.
Ibid., 20.

Social Constructionism and Holocaust Denial

In the case of those who deny the standard historical account of the

Holocaust, we find one of the most significant weaknesses in the social

constructivist position. Holocaust revisionists are almost solely concerned with

the facts of the Holocaust, not the meanings of those facts. In other words, they

do not try to argue that the 6,000,000 deaths were justified (some people do of

course, but they are a separate, generally less sophisticated group). Instead they

argue that the deaths never happened at all, that the story of the Holocaust has

been made up to further the agenda of Jewish people and their sympathizers in

the modern era – an argument not so different from the idea that we write the

histories we want in the present rather than being bound by an actual past.

Ironically, it is precisely because the meaning of the Holocaust is so singular and

fixed in contemporary Western society (as an image of pure evil) that there is

little point in trying to affect it. This means the only way for anti-Semites to

challenge this horrific event is to argue that it did not, in fact, happen at all, or

that it has been greatly exaggerated. Since the meaning cannot be changed to fit

their ends, anti-Semites attempt to challenge the basic facts. Thus, the way in

which the meaning and status of the Holocaust are debated by those who deny it

and those who confront them completely contradicts both White’s view of the

event and his advice for dealing with it. Instead of being ambiguous, the event is

surprisingly fixed.

White does not see a conflict within his paper because it is obvious, in a

sense, that the Holocaust really happened and that only a fool or bigot would

argue otherwise. This is also “obvious” to most of his readers. The roots of this

agreement are difficult to assess, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the high

degree of political homogeneity within much of the academic humanities means

that consensus points are not questioned as often as they could or should be. This

might explain how a belief in the fluid nature of historical facts can be

widespread without the numerous conflicts becoming readily apparent. In other

words, since we all agree that we’re not denying the Holocaust, there is no need

to clarify the arguments themselves. But for the theory to be more widely

applicable, and as an epistemological position social constructionism is intended

to apply widely, we must consider what happens when the theory slips outside

its academic borders. If we are arguing for an epistemological position, we must

assume that it will be adopted by those who do not share our politics. And yet,

this has not been a major component of social constructivist debates to this point.

What I am getting at here is that there sometimes a tendency, especially in

cultural studies, to mistake consensus for truth. This can be a problem in any

discipline but it has been particularly acute in fields that have politics as their

root. That no one has noticed the conflicts in theories like White’s seems to me

emblematic of consensus that interferes with the ability to analyze the

repercussions of an idea. What gets overlooked is that epistemological theories

which undermine the notion of truth are just as damaging to progressive ideas as

to conservative or racist ones. If a notion of the flexibility of historical events

undermines the Warren commission’s version of the Kennedy assassination, it

also undermines the standard account of the Holocaust. When we give up the

right to challenge historical accounts on their individual merits, substituting a

dissatisfaction with historical research and throwing open the doors to any

conflicting ideal, we give up very much indeed.

An intriguing case study in the interrelation between social

constructionism and Holocaust denial was offered by the trial in England of

Deborah Lipstadt, who was challenged by Holocaust denier David Irving over

her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In the

book, Lipstadt labeled Irving a racist, and he sued for defamation under the

United Kingdom’s relatively strict libel laws. The defense had the difficult task of

proving that Irving’s views on the Holocaust were not within the realm of

academic debate. The trial centered on the question of whether Irving’s conduct

in researching his many books could be construed as honest. The defense argued

that the only way for Irving to come to the conclusions that he did was to have

consciously disregarded evidence or ignored evidence that would normally be

included in such an inquiry. Lipstadt won the case and destroyed Irving’s

reputation as a mainstream historian.

In a short book on this case, Robert Eaglestone attempts to break the

implied link between postmodernism and Holocaust denial. He points out that

postmodernism does not cause Holocaust denial, which is true, but falters

significantly in his attempt to rescue postmodernism from the fallout of the

Irving trial. Eaglestone spends some of his book attacking the idea of objectivity

in history for some of the same reasons as Hayden White, and he cites White

extensively. He argues, with White, that history is a set of genre conventions. So

when the court finds that Irving violated the rules and standards of history,

Eaglestone agrees that Irving has done so but says that this is Irving failing to

follow the genre’s conventions. In other words, he agrees with the court that

Irving’s writings are not history, but disagrees with the court on what history is.

Importantly, he does not say that the court’s reasons for concluding that Irving’s

writing were “not history” are the wrong reasons. He agrees with these reasons

completely. He simply argues that since history’s attempts at objectivity are

genre conventions, he can substitute “genre conventions” for “objectivity” in his

reading of the court’s judgement and find support for his case without actually

making it. Lest this seem harsh, a direct quote clarifies the point:

The question is whether ‘the available evidence, considered in its totality,

would convince any objective and reasonable historian’ (Judgement 7.5), that is,
whether the evidence would be enough to meet the generic conventions. 121

So Eaglestone literally substitutes generic conventions for objectivity in order to

pretend that this judgement supports social constructionism. But the only way he

can make this case is if he has convinced us that these are the same thing.

Besides quoting White approvingly, there is nothing in this short book to do that.

He makes the usual mistakes of discounting the ways in which various accounts

of an event can minimize each other’s biases, and accusing traditional history of

trying to be an unencumbered window on the past when in actuality historical

writing signposts its evidence and conjecture in the language of the text (See

Chapter Five). Most importantly, at no point does he argue how this situated

knowledge can answer Holocaust deniers. He is firmly in favour of the notion of

the reasonable historian without interrogating how we know what a reasonable

Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial, 59.

historian is. How can we condemn Irving as a non-historian or anti-Semite

without recourse to realist rules of fact and evidence? Eaglestone argues that we

can’t, but tries to get around this by again calling all of these rules genre


In the final estimation, Eaglestone thinks that traditional rules of evidence

are valuable, even if he insists that they have no basis other than convention. The

question is then: could we or should we prosecute Irving or other deniers (Irving

was not on trial in this case) for “violating genre conventions”? Irving lost his

case, even under Britain’s strict libel laws, because he offered accounts so

different from those supported by evidence that he could credibly be called a liar

and have his writing declared “untrue.” The court stuck to realism and could not

have decided as it did without it. Arguing that this decision is based on

postmodernism is not only patently false, it reads like a desperate attempt to

rescue social constructionism from what Eaglestone openly admits is its most

difficult case study.

Other Key Arguments on History and Social Constructionism

Like Hayden White, Robert Rosenstone is a historian who has moved into

film studies, although he has done so to a much greater extent, publishing two

books on filmic representations of the past. In Visions of the Past, Rosenstone

describes his journey from traditional historian to one who accepts a more

relativist postmodern position. This shift is inspired by theorists like White, but

also by an interest in films, and a desire to see films given a place as historical

works that can contribute to a dialogue about the past. The last part is a noble

Rosenstone, Visions of the Past, 1-16.

goal, but Rosenstone seems to believe that the only way for films to contribute to

the study of history is if their usually numerous distortions of the historical

record are excused by a social constructivist position that minimizes arguments

about historical details and facts.

In an article titled “The Future of the Past: Film and the Beginnings of

Postmodern History,” Rosenstone summarizes some of the recent debates within

history over postmodernism and points out that for all of the attention paid to

the issue and the heated tone of the debate on both sides, very few works of

history have been produced that can actually be labeled postmodern. Critics of

postmodernism, he argues, point to the same handful of titles again and again,

and even some of the authors thought of as postmodern stick to a fairly

traditional style of writing history even as they expand the subject matter of the

discipline by studying minorities, the poor, and “others” whose place in the past

has been less explored. As Rosenstone rightfully notes, there is nothing

particularly postmodern about this subject matter. It is a welcome addition to the

study of history but one that has become firmly established over the past 30

years. Postmodern history, he argues, is a style, not a subject matter, a way of

looking at the past that foregrounds the uncertainty and tentativeness of facts or


Rosenstone laments the fact that more postmodern histories have not been

written. He takes comfort though in the way that a number of films have been

made that could qualify as postmodern histories, and goes on to describe a

number of these projects, such as Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland, that are about

the uncertainty of historical knowledge. Most of the films he describes are

documentaries of some kind, and many of them are strong and innovative films

that deserve attention. The problem with Rosenstone’s analysis is that he

disregards the significant gaps between the works he labels postmodern history

and the general notion of what history is for. He is right that there are few books

that could be properly called postmodern history, primarily because such works

are nearly impossible to produce. For work to be labeled as academic history, we

still expect that its conclusions are in line with what we already know about the

topic or that sufficient evidence for revision has been presented in the text. An

account that fictionalizes the past or openly re-imagines the past without

referring to evidence might be an interesting read, but it would be impossible for

us to regard as history in the sense that it is even an approximation of the past.

As Keith Windschuttle points out, even the most adventurous attempts at

postmodern history end up referring to historical documents or evidence in ways

that refute or disprove previous notions. Rosenstone is aware that realism is the

foundation of the way we practice history. What he underestimates is the extent

to which realism is the basis of our conceptions of knowledge and the ability to

gather knowledge. It is not just the foundation for present historical practice, but

the foundation for the possibility of history. While the films he mentions might

be great films, and might also demonstrate some of the difficulties of historical

research, they do not substitute for an actual attempt to know the past. Far From

Poland, with its emphasis on the process of documentary filmmaking, is a

compelling argument about the difficulty of such projects and the relation of

filmmaker to subject. It is no longer the project Godmilow set out to make – a

historical portrait of the shipyard strikes in Gdansk in 1980. It has become

something else, is about something else. It cannot be a substitute for written or

Windschuttle, The Killing of History, 79.

filmic works whose purpose is to represent history as accurately as possible. So

while filmmakers are able to put into practice the theories of postmodernism in a

way that historians cannot, these works are not comparable in purpose or result.

Rosenstone thinks that there are so few postmodern histories because writers are

not adventurous enough. Rather, it is because such work is always a supplement

to, and commentary on, conventional history and never a replacement.

In “Cinematic Shots: The Narration of Violence” Janet Staiger examines

the controversy surrounding JFK and Hayden White’s reaction to it. She begins

by asking what makes JFK so unusual. Is it that the film dramatizes historical

events? That it mixes documentary footage with re-enactment? That it represents

violence as the product of a conspiracy? That it presents unofficial versions of

history? As she argues using historical examples, these are all “normal media

practices.” In effect, Staiger argues that debates about JFK are not debates about

the possibility of representation, and thus the assassination does not fit White’s

criteria as a modern event needing alternate modes of representation. She points

out that critics of the film generally disagree with its argument. They are not


...they believe the story of Kennedy’s assassination is telleable and

explainable. The debate is not about whether one can describe the event
verbally or visually because everyone thinks he or she can. They just do not
think the Stone/Garrison story is correct. 125

Staiger, “Cinematic Shots,” 49.
Ibid., 50.

Staiger differentiates between contesting historical narratives and “the radical

notion that history itself is fictional.” But she seems to place most postmodern

theories of history in the first half of this division, and here I would disagree. She

quotes Linda Hutcheon’s argument that postmodernism means that grand

historical narratives are questioned, and takes this to mean that postmodernism

is a simple corrective to views of history as beyond contradiction. The problem is

that the notion of contesting historical narratives has always been the realist

position on history. The discipline advances by constantly uncovering new

evidence to revise our idea of the past. To view postmodernism as a necessary

corrective to staid unchanging history is to attack a straw man. So while I agree

with Staiger about how history should work, we differ substantially in


Staiger points out that polls have found that 22% of American adults think

it is possible that the Holocaust never happened. She rightfully finds this

disturbing, but in a footnote argues that to see this belief as a result of

deconstruction is “irresponsible.” I would argue that while postmodern theories


of history certainly did not cause this belief – if only because postmodernism is

only now spreading beyond the academy and Holocaust denial has a much

longer and uglier history – it is impossible from a postmodern position to

counter this belief. Postmodernism did not start this, but it makes it difficult to

end it and may eventually help it spread. Only a realist view of history, where

competing evidence is weighed with the goal of determining which version is a

more accurate representation of what actually happened, can deal with these

Ibid., 51.
Ibid., 54.

issues. Traditional history has always been about revision in light of new

evidence. In recent years, much revision has been done as historians have moved

from focusing on “great men” to telling history from the bottom up, researching

the lives of those whose achievements and/or day to day existence has been

ignored. We do not need postmodern theory to write this history. Furthermore,

to be valuable, and to answer previous histories, social history must have a

similar factual basis and draw primarily on evidence rather than theory.

Films as History: JFK and The Birth of a Nation

In this section I will consider two case studies, and attempt to determine

how we might account for films that claim to tell historical stories. I have chosen

to center this debate on two films that are particularly suited for use in

illustrating the tensions between realism and social constructionism. Oliver

Stone’s JFK and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation have much in common as

historical fiction films that have been the focus of considerable controversy. Both

films can be viewed as significant formal achievements: Griffith’s work was the

synthesis of many of the formal developments he had mastered in his previous

films, while Stone’s film won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Editing.

In each case, the style of the film was central to the effectiveness of its message.

In addition, both directors put considerable effort into claiming that their films

were historically accurate in the face of significant public criticism. Stone and

Griffith offered footnotes to their films in the manner of traditional historians –

Stone in an annotated screenplay and Griffith in the intertitles of the film itself.

The films are each about a politically contested past that was relatively recent at

the time of release. Lastly, both of these films have been the subject of a

considerable amount of study by film scholars, which makes them useful for

examining the way questions of historical representation have been dealt with in

film studies. There are several books devoted to Oliver Stone’s films and their

historical controversies, while Birth of a Nation’s formal achievements have made

it the subject of more scholarly attention than almost any other film.

The position represented by JFK in the debate over the socially

constructed status of history is difficult to state definitively. We might choose to

see multiple views of history within the film itself or to read the film as one

version of history against the official version of events, and conclude that the

incommensurability of these representations means that we must adopt a

postmodern view of history as socially constructed rather than attempting to

synthesize the opposing views. Indeed, given the range of accounts of President

Kennedy’s assassination, such synthesis seems impossible. One relatively recent

attempt is Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which relies on sound analysis technology

not previously available to argue that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Posner

makes a noble attempt to answer all previous conspiracy theories, but it is

unlikely that his work will provide closure in this debate. Finality in this case is

elusive, which is what makes it so appealing to social constructivists. 128

Is the film, as Janet Staiger claims, part of a realist argument about the

assassination that holds the event as definable, or is it a representation of the

impossibility of historical representation? The answer seems to be that it depends

on what you are looking for and how hard you try to get a cohesive message out

A CBS News Poll conducted for the 35 anniversary of the assassination in 1998 (five years after
128 th

Posner’s book) found that conspiracy theories still held sway with the American public. Did
Oswald Act Alone?: Yes 10%, No 76%. Was there an official cover-up?: Yes 74%, No 13%. Will we
ever know the truth?: Yes 19%, No 77%. CBS noted that a “majority of Americans have expressed
doubt about a single assassin at least since Gallup first asked the question in 1966.”

of the film. At some points in the film the message is straightforward, most

notably during Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) conversations with X, played by

Donald Sutherland. Stone uses this invented character to lay out the conspiracy

theory clearly from the mouth of one person. X tells Garrison that he is correct

that the president’s murder was part of a conspiracy, and explains the multiple

reasons for why this happened, most of which are attributable to the theory

(endorsed by Stone) that Kennedy would have pulled American forces out of

Vietnam. It is at this point that the message of the film is clearest. The message is

linear and verbal, with support from images of the key events X describes. At

these moments, the combination of image with Sutherland’s voiceover gives

Stone’s argument considerable authority. I would argue that at these points

Stone is arguing like a realist, presenting evidence that he regards as factual.

However, the overall effect of the film by its end is not the reinforcement

of a single clear narrative like the one X recounts. The film offers a range of

possible culprits in the assassination, from anti-Castro Cubans and the CIA to

Lyndon Johnson, the Dallas police and the Mafia. It is never clear whether Stone

is arguing that all of these people were involved. At times he has various

characters ridicule elements of this conspiracy – even Garrison mocks the idea

that the Mafia has the power to pull off something of this magnitude. The film

never clearly fingers a distinct culprit or makes a case for a single possible series

of events. If there is a single purpose to the film, it is to argue coherently against

the Warren commission’s version of the assassination. One might not leave the

film convinced of any one version of events, but it is difficult to accept any of the

film and still believe that Oswald acted alone. This is the “TKO” that Richard

Grenier described in his review. The film so overwhelms with its pace that one

gives up hope of knowing the event. In this regard, JFK is a postmodern film, one

that argues against the possibility of knowing history and for the idea that any

single narrative of events has been produced to benefit someone in a position of


I believe Staiger is correct in her assessment of the film’s critics as people

who believe the event is tellable, and at times Stone’s responses to his critics

seem to take place within a realist framework. When it came to specifics about

what did or did not happen, Stone was more than willing to present his evidence.

The overall effect of the film itself though is to argue against the possibility of

synthesis and our potential for knowing what “really” happened. This is largely

a result of its style, a series of quick cuts and changing film stocks that make this

likely the fastest moving three-hour film ever made. JFK does not allow time for


There are limits to our conception of Stone as a social constructivist.

Stone’s characters, and Stone himself, do not seem to see history as unknowable

because of a theoretical relationship between subject and object. Rather, history is

unknowable because evidence is consciously hidden from those who wish to

understand it. Evidence makes historical knowledge possible, but only if that

evidence is available. The cynicism in Stone’s portrait of official and government

power argues that this boundary is not easily overcome. He seems to see it as a

nearly inevitable result of political power. The extent to which the inability to

know the past is tied to one’s lack of power in a society is the extent to which

Stone is a social constructivist. If he really does see corruption as endemic, he is

essentially a practical version of a constructivist, one who is willing to point to

specific limits on knowledge and assign blame. If Stone does not see this

corruption as inevitable, and his hagiographic ideas about John F. Kennedy

suggest that he does not, then he could be viewed as a practical realist who still

sees specific impediments to historical knowledge.

Despite the volume of his writing on the subject, it is unclear exactly how

Stone would see himself. He purposefully occupies a middle ground between

historian and dramatist of historical events, while leaning toward the latter. He

rejects the term “cinematic historian” as well as the idea that his work is “just a

movie.” He seems to want the artistic license to dramatize history while


claiming the right to have his ideas about history seriously considered by the

public. While there is nothing inherently mutually exclusive about those

positions, the public debate about his films, JFK in particular, seems to be an

attempt to force him into one camp or the other. He must be either presenting his

ideas as a historian, meaning that he gives up much of his artistic license, or be

merely making movies, meaning that he should avoid taking strong positions on

controversial historical topics. The production of the annotated screenplays and


his appearance at the conference of the American Historical Association to

answer challenges about his films would seem to earn him some credit as a

filmmaker who thinks carefully about history. Indeed, his writings often seem

much more moderate and thoughtful than his films.

Regardless of Stone’s intended position as a social constructivist or a

realist, it is clear that his films and their reception offer tacit approval to social

constructivist perceptions of history. The incommensurability of interpretations

and the sheer range of opinions about the topics Stone tackles in his historical

Stone, “Stone on Stone’s Image,” 40-44.


See the collected criticism in Stone and Sklar’s annotated screenplay for JFK and Toplin’s Oliver

Stone’s USA.

films seems to offer the clearest possible example that, regardless of the merits of

the position, we live in a postmodern society that sees history as a construction of

power and rejects master narratives. Indeed, as should be clear by know, I have

difficulty condemning Stone’s work or his methods based on the work he has

produced. I would maintain however, that this reluctance, on my part and on the

part of some film scholars, is a result of politics rather than epistemology. I do

not have as much of a problem with Stone because the politics of his films either

reflect my own or are within the parameters of positions I am willing to accept as

reasonable. In order to properly consider the relationship between epistemology

and politics, it is necessary to choose a film that does not reflect mainstream

political views. The film that most challenges a social constructivist conception of

history is The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation recounts an extraordinarily racist version of the

Reconstruction in the American south following the Civil War. In the 1915 film,

the white south is overrun by newly freed blacks and “carpetbaggers” from the

north. The climax of the film is the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorize

blacks into re-submission. In one scene intended to be an emotional high point,

white Union soldiers and southerners unite in defense of their “Aryan birthright”

against marauding black soldiers, who are played by white actors in blackface. In

considering The Birth of a Nation as an epistemological counter example to JFK, it

is interesting to consider the way in which one view of the film has steadily

replaced an earlier contradictory version. Scott Simmon points out that there are

few cultural artifacts whose meaning has shifted so completely over time, and

although controversy has followed this film from the time of its release, the

critical perception of it has evolved more subtly. The filmic achievements of Birth

of a Nation were lauded at the time, and it was extremely popular, even at the

then extraordinary price of $2 a ticket. Griffith always maintained that his

version of history was absolutely accurate, and that he had consulted numerous

books to get the details right.

The primary text of The Birth of A Nation was Thomas Dixon’s The

Clansman, a book that is even more racist in its accounts than Griffith’s film. He

also depends on Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People. Since

Wilson was President by 1915, his endorsement of Griffith’s film carried

substantial weight. From the numerous biographies and Griffith’s own writings,

his conviction that he told an accurate, if somewhat ugly, truth is what carries

him through much of the criticism the film evoked from the NAACP and others

supportive of blacks in America. In Martin Williams’s account, Griffith felt


pained by the condemnation of his film, and remarked that blacks seemed to him

like ungrateful children who had been given everything. It seems Griffith’s

racism was based primarily in a perception of blacks as children who could

never be allowed the full responsibilities of citizenship. This is essentially the

thesis of his film. Although the black and mulatto characters seem like symbols

of evil, pursuing and raping white women, Griffith argued later that they were

Some of Griffith’s responses are collected in the collections Focus on D.W. Griffith edited by

Harry Geduld, and Focus on The Birth of a Nation, edited by Fred Silva. Biographers have tended
to downplay or excuse the racism of the film, especially those writing before about 1980. Strong
defenses of Griffith’s racism are Homer Croy’s Star Maker: The Story of D.W. Griffith (1959), and
William Everson’s American Silent Film (1978). More nuanced defenses are included in Richard
Schickel’s D.W. Griffith: An American Life (1984) and Martin Williams’ Griffith: First Artist of the
Movies (1980).
Williams, Griffith: First Artist of the Movies, 78.

not to blame, that it was white Northern carpetbaggers who had caused all of the

problems, and presumably led the blacks astray. 133

How do we account for The Birth of a Nation as a “historical” film? Since

Griffith had no shortage of written and academic sources on which to draw, he

could reasonably maintain that his film was the truth as he saw it. The

widespread acceptance of the film suggests that, despite protests, the film was in

agreement with the commonly accepted view of the Reconstruction in 1915.

Wilson’s stature alone as both a source and endorser of the film gave the film

“establishment” credentials. Griffith was able to claim that those who criticized

his film were politically motivated and did not have facts to back themselves up.

He at times criticizes the actions of white politicians who condemned his film as

motivated by a desire to get the colored vote. 134

Both the implied divisions between “white” and “black” history and the

changing view of Birth’s history since 1915 seem like strong support for the idea

that history is socially constructed. The relationship in 1915 between white

power, Jim Crow laws, and a view of the Reconstruction as a disastrous

experiment is not coincidental. All of these elements are part of a societal

structure based on racism, in which the past must play a role in supporting the

present. History, in this case, has definitely been “written by the winners,” and

Griffith’s film plays a key role in justifying that victory. At the time, African

Americans and their supporters had an alternate view of history based on their

experience, which was also a view that had significant political ramifications.

The history of the exploitation and slavery that black Americans had endured for

See Griffith’s letter to the editor of the New York Globe in Lang, 169.
Griffith, “How I Made The Birth of a Nation,” 41.

centuries was as central to the nascent struggle for equality in 1915 as it was

during the 1960s. Thus, the political struggle of the time period virtually defines

the history of that time. These tensions would seem to be strong support for

social constructionism.

The difficulty with that assessment is that it makes it difficult to resolve

the competing views of the Reconstruction in 1915 or our own perception of it

nearly ninety years later. If we recognize that both Griffith’s view of the

Reconstruction and our own present day view are social constructions of their

time of production, how can we have any confidence in our version of events?

Are both versions equally true? It is extremely difficult to endorse this type of

equivalence because of the political implications of the views. Social

constructionism here seems to slip into a type of relativism, in which one version

of history is as good as another. As with Holocaust deniers, we need to have a

way to declare one version of history incorrect, to support counter claims with

facts and evidence.

I would argue that few social constructivists really are relativists who

would support the notion that Griffith’s version of history is different but

epistemologically equal. In other words, I am not arguing that social

constructivists consciously support a glib relativism in which racist revisions of

history cannot be condemned. Rather, I am positing that the failure to consider

such troublesome examples is a serious omission in theories of social

constructionism that have been offered up to this point. As noted in Chapter

Three, Donna Haraway hints at an awareness of this problem, but has difficulty

reconciling social constructionism with the need to be able to answer racists or,

in her example, the Christian right. I would argue that in contemporary accounts

of Griffitth’s film and its racism, the argument that the history is wrong is

inherent. As such, this condemnation or correction relies on a realist version of


history that depends on traditional notions of facts and evidence.

This simple argument for realism fails to account for the status of history

in 1915, relying as it does on our own distance from the making of the film. Any

epistemological theory must be able to account for the ways in which history has

been told in the past as well as providing verdicts in the present. Realist

historians would view Griffith’s version of history as “bad” history, one that

includes obvious distortions. In one sense, this response would not be very

different from academic historians’ reaction to many fiction films – pointing out

all of the places where the film has it wrong. But if some of the written histories

of the time support Griffith, the issue is more complicated. 136

How does realism account for the change of perspectives over time? It

does so in two ways. The first is by assuming that change occurs because new

evidence has accrued – this is the optimism of realism I alluded to earlier. This

optimism is inherently modern in its belief in an arc of human progress from

ignorance to knowledge. In the case of Griffith though, the version of history in

The Birth of a Nation does not seem attributable to lack of evidence. Even if

Griffith himself had had only racist sources from which to draw, we would still

have to account for those sources. The bias here is political and cultural, and

cannot be conceived as a simple lack of evidence. So the second way that realism

accounts for such histories is by writing those efforts off as bad history – in other

See, for example, the essays by Janet Staiger, and Michael Rogin collected in Lang.

I have not completed a detailed study of the written sources available to Griffith in 1915. We do

know that he had “reputable” sources available to him, including Wilson, and the point here is
that our conceptions of history do change over time, and realism needs to be able to account for
that change.

words, history that does not conform to the evidentiary standards of realism.

Thus, part of any realist historiography is the march toward greater realism.

Realism presumes that historians (if not societies) learn from their mistakes.

In this sense, realism itself is a closed system that accounts for its own

success by rules it has devised. Since it holds the concept of logic to be central to

the project, there is no way to logically destroy the system and little opportunity

for logic outside of realism. We are apparently at a logical paradox, since we

recognize that realism is in some way self-justifying. What is crucial about this

paradox is the link to logic. Throughout this work I have been arguing that social

constructionism contains inconsistencies that are essentially illogical. Realism

and logic are inherently linked, and though it easy to imagine the former as an

epistemological “option,” it is harder to do so with the latter.

Without descending too far into epistemological paradoxes, I would like

to shift the discussion to the question of the political usefulness of realism and

social constructionism. It is here that the debate has the most relevance for film

and media scholars. While realism might seem overly optimistic from a

postmodern perspective, it is what allows us to view Griffith’s history as

something that can be corrected or revised on a basis other than a difference of

political opinion. A social constructivist might hold that we can differ from

Griffith on the basis of politics, and that those politics are enough without

recourse to realism. This is essentially a pragmatic view, and one that can be

satisfying in some cases. In real world political battles though, there is no

foundation on which we can base our perspective. We might feel confident of

our view of the Reconstruction or African American history while recognizing

that our view is based on a political desire for equality, but how can we force that

view on others who do not share that aim? From an epistemological perspective,

we cannot have a history dependent on politics without allowing others the same

luxury. The stakes in these debates are not academic. The Birth of a Nation had a

hand in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the late teens and 1920s. As

Maxim Simcovitch points out, the film became a Klan recruiting film from its

premiere in Atlanta, and was used by the KKK for years at meetings for new

members and at rallies. 137

The Birth of a Nation represents an extreme example of the implications of

a theory, but it is also a film that has been central to film studies for many years.

Our evolving responses to the film have been social and political, but in order to

consider those responses as a whole, to weigh and evaluate them, we are

inevitably realists. Our impulse to claim that “this did not happen” is entirely a

realist one. Both our contemporary position, and our sense of that position’s

relation to history, are realist. Some histories might be “socially constructed,” but

only realism allows us to properly account for those histories and divide them

from attempts to figure out the actual past.

Making Films and History

In the next chapter, I consider the differences between filmic and written

histories by focusing on the differences between film theory and the practice of

film history. I draw this distinction to avoid arguing that films themselves must

always be a form of realist historical practice. None of this discussion means that

directors ought to stop making historical films until they can get all the details

right, or that they ought to sacrifice all narrative structure to the needs of the

Simcovitch, “The Impact of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation on the Modern Ku Klux Klan,” 75.

historical record. It simply means that filmmakers can continue to do what they

seem to know they are already doing – making films that dramatize the past, and

drawing on the historical record without remaining absolutely faithful to it.

The motives for making historical films vary. In addition to the usual

creative impulses, we assume that makers of historical films have some

attachment to the stories they tell, that they feel a particular story need to be

brought to light. Films like Glory and Malcolm X dramatize historical figures

largely absent from mainstream consciousness. Even if these films get some of

the details wrong, they can still be said to provide education as well as

entertainment. The audience walks out of the theatre knowing more about Black

union soldiers or the Nation of Islam than they did when they entered.

Essentially, filmmakers have the freedom to do what they like with the details of

history as they try to create art. To argue otherwise would be to place an unfair

limit on art. And while historical films skirt the boundary between the freedom

of art and the rigor of a historical argument, that boundary is still there.

Whenever filmmakers such as Stone and Griffith present their work as an

authentic past, we have the right to critique their work as history. As we have

seen, to offer a critique of history is to embrace realism.

Chapter Five: The Theory and Practice of Film History

Film studies is an ideal discipline in which to consider the uses and

problems of social constructionism, because the discipline is divided between

film theory, which has ties to cultural studies, critical theory and textual analysis,

and film history, which involves the gathering of primary evidence to piece

together a story that still has significant gaps. When it comes to history, we are

divided between theory and practice, and this provides the perfect opportunity

to examine social constructionism as an idea.

While the relationship between theory and practice is the subject of study

in many cutting edge humanities programs, we rarely consider the relationship

between theory and practice in their most basic form. In film studies and some

related disciplines there is currently a significant gap between theory and

practice in terms of some basic issues of epistemology. In short, the last forty

years have seen radical shifts in theories of knowledge from theories based on

the possibility of objectivity to those emphasizing the subjectivity and social

constructedness of all knowledge. In that time though, little has changed in the

practice of research – certainly not enough to match the radical shifts in theory.

In addition, the ability of academic research to adapt to the social constructivist

paradigm is extremely limited. Instead, we end up with the curious situation in

which almost everyone is a social constructivist in theory, yet we continue to do

research in much the same way we always have. What then are the consequences

of this gap? How does this shift to relativism, much derided outside the

humanities, affect our practice? More importantly, how might our current

practice re-inform our theory? What do we gain or lose by keeping our theory

separate and how does this affect our relationship to more empirical disciplines,

especially the sciences and history?

The claim that all knowledge, including that of science, is at bottom a

social and linguistic construct is a fairly radical claim in that it runs counter to

the basis of Enlightenment thought upon which both the sciences and humanities

are based. The key switch of the Enlightenment was a shift from a focus on the

knower to a focus on the knowledge. Statements became true because they could

be proven and supported with evidence, rather than because a king or priest

decreed them to be true. Of course, knowledge and truth claims have never

completely severed their link with power, but in general the Enlightenment

made the democratization of knowledge possible. In practice, the status of the

person making a claim still has a lot of weight, and we have only begun to shake

off the racial and gender beliefs that long excluded most of society from being

considered holders of valuable knowledge. I think we can make the case though

that this problem has been shrinking over time. So if the current claim of theory

is that the Enlightenment focus on knowledge is wrong, and that truth claims are

really the product of the knower, this is a fundamental shift.

Despite the furor over the Sokal affair and some lingering bad feelings,

this shift has created surprisingly little debate within the humanities. This is

because the shift has overwhelmingly been a theoretical one, a change that has

not directly affected the daily practice of academics to the same extent. In the last

ten or fifteen years particularly, there has been an increasingly common tendency

to write one’s position into academic work in order to signpost one’s potential

biases. In general, we are more aware of our own biases now and less likely to

claim objectivity, but this is a more subtle shift than we realize, pre-supposing as

it does an imaginary old class of positivists, declaring that their every

pronouncement was objective fact, a group we can now look smugly upon as

naive at best and corrupt at worst. In other words, our present practices only

look radical if we caricature a previous generation of scholars. They are hardly

the only ones who have been caricatured or misrepresented in this debate, and

this is partially because of the stakes of the debate, but also because little

attention has been paid to the gaps between theory and practice in this case, gaps

that make it easy to misunderstand or misrepresent social constructivist or realist

positions. To that end, let us consider several critical examples that illuminate the

gap between theory and practice in social constructivist debates, with the aim of

clarifying positions and determining exactly what the points of difference are.

And while Ian Hacking has undertaken a similar task in his book The Social

Construction of What?, his focus has been to untangle the theory of social

construction. Here I focus of the gap between theory and practice as the best way

of clarifying a complex issue. In Chapter Two, I traced the roots of social

constructionism in film theory. Here I consider its influence in the present day.

Before that, I trace a key distinction about realism from the work of André Bazin.

Realism in Film Theory

In order to understand contemporary debates about realism and social

constructionism in film studies, we must first consider another of the historical

origins of this debate. Debates about realism are central to the development of

film studies, but the realism being discussed is only sometimes the same as the

epistemological realism we are talking about here. The two concepts are related,

but it will require a careful examination of key arguments in the history of filmic

realism to trace the thread of these debates into the discussion of epistemology.

The debate over filmic realism, its purpose and its value, is familiar to film

scholars, but it is necessary to re-consider some seminal contributions in order to

properly contextualize this debate.

As Francesco Casetti notes, the tension between realism and interpretation

in film is as old as the division between Lumiere and Méliès. He argues that the

debates over neo-realism in Italy in the late 1940s crystallize the discussion, one

that is continued by both André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer. Casetti argues

that the central tension over realism in cinema is exemplified by the perspectives

of Cesare Zavattini and Guido Aristarco. These two critics both argue for

realism in the cinema, but disagree significantly over what that realism might

look like. Zavattini is in favour of a cinema that narrows the gap between the

filmic image and everyday reality. He argues “What we are really attempting is

not to invent a story that looks like reality, but to present reality as if it were a

story.” This is a documentary impulse, but one that is filtered through the

influence of Italian neo-realist films, which retain the appearance of fiction films.

Zavattini wants the artifice of cinema to be further reduced, so that it approaches

what Casetti calls a “shadowing of reality,” reducing the artistic interpretation


of reality in favour of a direct experience with the real.

In contrast, Guido Aristarco argues that there is a place for artistic

interpretation in realism. It is no longer a direct experience, but one that borrows

The writings of Zavattini are excerpted as “A Thesis on Neo-Realism” in Springtime in Italy,


edited by David Overbey. None of the writings of Guido Aristarco have been translated into
English (nor, evidently, any other languages) so I am dependent on Casetti’s description.
Quoted in Casetti, 25. All citations of Zavattini and Aristarco, unless otherwise noted, are cited

by Casetti and translated by Francesca Chiostri and Elizabeth Gard Bartolini-Salimbeni.

Casetti, Theories of Cinema, 26.

from the idea of realism in literature, in which the author can help to get at

deeper truths by applying artistic ideals. In Casetti’s reading:

The ideas of the conquest of reality without any formula is replaced by the
idea that, while telling us about the world, cinema can and should take
advantage of the previous experience of great literature. In other words,
the aesthetics of shadowing is replaced by… an aesthetics of reconstruction.

Aristarco writes: “There are many degrees of realism, just as there are many

degrees of reality (reality as it is perceived) that directors may uncover according

to their inclination and capacity for examining it.” In short, the division

between Zavattini and Aristarco is the division between a direct experience of

reality and a mediated one. In one sense, they might be seen as an

epistemological contrast between realism and social constructionism, where

Zavattini is looking for a scientific reflection of the world and Aristarco a more

mediated, postmodern conception of reality. The positions are much more

complex than this, and we will need to consider related positions to get a better

sense of the relationship between filmic and epistemological realisms.

The complexity of André Bazin’s conception of cinematic realism makes it

difficult to fit into the continuum we have created between Zavattini and

Aristarco. Bazin’s cinematic realism is more ontological than either of the Italian

theorists – he sees the link between cinema and reality as being inherent in the


The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the
conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy,
distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the
image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the
being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.

Ibid., 27.
Quoted in Casetti, 28
Bazin, What is Cinema?, I – 14.

Given this link, Bazin seems to allow for interpretation of reality in a manner

closer to Aristarco than Zavattini:

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a

confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the

need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its

essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for

that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory

appearances. 144

Casetti recognizes this allowance for interpretation, and contrasts it with the

scientific and documentary impulse of Siegfried Kracauer: “…for Bazin cinema

aims to interact with and act upon the world (so much so that its representation

may disappear and become life itself); for Kracauer the medium must above all

analyze people and things, with the attitude of an explorer or scientist.” Given

Kracauer’s interest in the relationship between cinema and science, it would

again seem that we have an epistemological split, with Kracauer as the scientific

realist. This is again an oversimplification of Kracauer, but Bazin is still harder to


The attempt to overlay these discussions of cinematic realism with my

previous definitions of epistemological realism is made problematic by a lack of

clarification of the gap between subject and object. These debates over cinematic

realism deal with the gap between the cinematic image and the reality being

filmed – between camera and actor or camera and place. If we consider historical

films though, we introduce a second gap – between the staging of historical

Ibid., I – 12.
Casetti, 39.

actions and the actions themselves. Thus the cinematic image is doubly historical.

The actors and director recreate a historical event after that event has occurred.

Then the cinematic image captures that moment of recreation, and renders that

moment into the past, capturing, in Bazin’s phrase, “change mummified.” 146

Bazin’s writings hint at an awareness of this double historicity, a hint that is

drawn out by Philip Rosen in his book that takes Bazin’s above phrase as its title.

Rosen examines Bazin’s essay on Robert Bresson, in which Bazin praises

Bresson’s adaptation of the novel The Diary of a Country Priest. Since there is a

gap between the film and the object it represents,

…as always in Bazin, abstraction from the preexistent reality is

unavoidable. But the stylistics of Bresson fill in the gap by manifesting a

subjective relation to the novel. This relation is not the artistic subject of

Bresson’s assertion of his own capacity to construct a substitute for the

preexisting reality, and he does not impose his own categorical preconceptions.

… Rather, while Bresson’s stylistics inevitably embody a mode of abstraction, it

is a mode of abstraction aimed at minimizing the gap by evincing respect for the

prior, independent existence of the novel and through this subjective relation of

respect, the film establishes a special bond with it. 147

Although there is a difference between a literary adaptation and a historical

adaptation, there is an acknowledgement here of the ways in which the two gaps

between an object and its representation are inter-related. Indeed, Bazin seems to

blur the distinction between the two gaps in his discussion of Bresson. At the

very least, in numerous essays he moves from one to the other without making a

Bazin, I – 15.
Rosen, Change Mummified, 24-5.

distinction between them. In Bazin’s conception, cinema’s approach to a reality

that can be filmed “directly” and a reality that must be represented are one in the

same. In his treatment of Bresson, however, we might see a prescription for the

historical fiction film. He writes:

[Bresson] prunes even the very essentials, giving an impression as he does

so of a fidelity unable to sacrifice one single word without a pucker of concern

and a thousand preliminary twinges of remorse. Again this pruning is always in

the interests of simplification, never of addition. 148

Thus the filmmaker has a responsibility to the source material of his or her film.

The filmmaker can never reproduce the original exactly, but must attempt to be

as faithful to the core of the original as possible within the structures and

limitations of filmmaking. This perspective acknowledges interpretation in

filmmaking but places a strict limit on that interpretation. It does not allow for

much re-imagination of the event or the source. In that regard it is

epistemologically realist as well. It is aware of its form but is comfortable

downplaying the influence of that form. It depends in a sense on the honesty of

the person who creates an account of an event.

It would be easy to over-read the similarity between Bazin’s filmic realism

and epistemological realism as it relates to written historical inquiry. There are

important distinctions between the forms that are intrinsic to their nature. Just as

Bazin is arguing for an honesty in representation that respects the limits of what

film is and can do, we must adjust our theory to account for the characteristics of

written history. All of Bazin’s definitions are dependent on a notion of cinematic

Bazin, I – 26.

specificity, which he argues for repeatedly. When we try to gloss over the

distinction between filmic and written histories, we ignore this specificity, a

specificity that is important because both of these forms are encompassed by

contemporary film studies. When we apply the standards of historical fiction

film to written history, we are not only losing the distinction between fiction and

non-fiction forms, but between film and writing. In the process, even cinematic

realism becomes social constructionism because the ability of film to signpost its

sources are so limited. So one of the influences on social constructionism in film

studies is film theory itself, even when that theory attempts to be realist in the

filmic sense. I am not arguing that all realist film theories are in fact social

constructivist. Rather, it is the translations between media, from film to writing,

that make them appear so. In the difference between the specificity of film and

the specificity of writing a mistranslation occurs. And while this mistranslation is

not the key influence on social constructionism in film and media studies, it

provides another root to arguments for social constructionism and allows us to

see why social constructionism would appeal to film scholars.

In the last chapter, I considered the ways in which two particular fiction

films attempted to tell history and the ways in which those attempts demonstrate

the limits of film as a historical medium. In this chapter I consider the ways in

which attempts to apply the standards of film to written work further identify

the disconnect between the two forms, and illustrate a gap between theory and

practice that is not easily overcome.

Theory Versus Practice

Vivian Sobchack’s “Surge and Splendor: A Phenomenology of the

Hollywood Historical Epic” presents an example of this gap between social

constructivist theory and realist practice. In the introduction to this study of the

practice and rhetoric surrounding Hollywood epic films, Sobchack contrasts the

history told by the epic films themselves with academic writing that deals with

the films or with the time periods covered in the films. “In sum,” she argues,

“although academic history enjoys an institutional legitimization that the

Hollywood epic doesn’t, neither mode of historicizing, of creating History, is

‘truer’ than the other.” The rhetoric of this claim is interesting for its use of the

term “institutional legitimization,” a phrase that reduces any differences between

trained academic study and entertainment for profit to a kind of faceless, elitist

authority. Curiously though, this “sum” follows a section in which Sobchack

carefully and thoughtfully considers the differences between academic and

popular versions of history, noting that:

both respond – if in different ways and through different experiences – to

the same central and philosophical question: how to comprehend ourselves in
time. Whereas the reticent and opaque work of academic histories is the
objectification and projection of ourselves-now and others-then, the
expansive and transparent work of Hollywood’s epic histories seems to
be the subjectification and projection of ourselves-now as we-then.

So while I might take issue with the broad strokes painted here and argue that

Hollywood films have plenty of objectification and othering and academic

history plenty of subjectification, the basic comparison is a valid one in that it

contrasts the general aims of two very different types of history. The problem is

Sobchack, 26.

that here, as elsewhere, Sobchack overlooks the differences in the epistemological

status of various types of history. Both may be about comprehending ourselves

in time, but the steps they take to get there are very different, and these

differences go beyond subjectification and objectification to the harder and more

crucial distinction between subjectivity and objectivity. To make the jump from a

comparison of historical styles to assessments of their trueness is only valid if

one is extremely vague about what true means. Neither is more instinctual or

natural a mode of representation, but it is clear that each has different uses for

objectivity that make fundamental differences in their truth status.

For starters, although both forms of history are influenced by present-day

social and cultural factors, as well as by the need to impose a narrative on events,

the discarding of inconvenient evidence in service of these factors is accepted as

among the conscious choices of filmmakers, while historians do not have that

luxury. While many of the choices made by academic historians about what to

include and presentation of evidence are indeed conscious, they are imbued with

a professional responsibility to not actively discard the contradictory evidence

they encounter or to make claims that are actively countered by existing evidence

without new evidence to replace it. The Hollywood filmmaker, on the other hand,

has much more freedom to dismiss or displace whatever he or she pleases. The

filmmaker is free to combine the clothing of one era with the ideas of another and

the events of a third, a freedom that seems to grow with the distance of the era

represented from the present day. These are exactly the kinds of “mistakes” that

historians have long pointed out in films about history, and almost no filmmaker

(Stone and Griffith are of course exceptions) presents his or her choices in these

matters as being motivated by historical counter-evidence rather than the need to

tell a good story.

So while Sobchack is right to contrast the differing goals of filmic and

academic histories, a distinction that might help us consider film’s usefulness in

generating historical awareness and helping us answer the question of “how to

comprehend ourselves in time,” she cannot resist pushing the distinction

between academic and filmic history further, into the realm of “truth,” when the

latter claim is not necessary to justify the former. It is perfectly reasonable, and a

better solution, to suggest that film’s subjectivity and tendency to make

“ourselves-now” into “we-then” is valuable as a way of telling history while also

admitting that some facts and evidence tend to get trampled in the process.

Filmmakers are often given allowances by audiences and critics to consciously

change elements of the story that leave the fundamental message intact.

Academic historians do not have this much freedom. While they must choose

what to include, subsequent revisions or examinations that reveal significant

omissions or misreadings are likely to be judged not as artistic license, but as


The body of Sobchack’s essay is an argument about the rhetoric

surrounding the production of epics. Although this is not primarily a history, it

draws on many of the conventions of academic history to make its point. She

analyzes a promotional booklet for the film How The West Was Won to make an

argument about the ways in which the scope of the history is mirrored by the

logistical and financial scope of the production. The filmmakers themselves

emphasized the vast numbers of people, animals, and dollars utilized to bring

the film to the screen. From the simple facts Sobchack recounts, like the dates and

directors of films, to the more subjective analysis of the promotional book itself,

there is a careful consideration of evidence and a clear sense of what the evidence

for these claims looks like. Though its premise is analytical, this is a history and it

is rational and realist.

Sobchack has chosen the style of academic history to tell her story, but at

this point there is no outright contradiction between her comparison of academic

and filmic histories and her use of the former to make her argument. She has

pointed out that the two have different styles and chosen the one appropriate to

the context in which she is making her argument and in which it will be best

received by her peers. So while she moves from a critique of academic style into

that style, my purpose is not to argue that this particular prominent scholar has

made contradictory assertions that might be read as a “mistake.” Rather, there

are much more interesting questions at stake here: If the academic and filmic

ways of telling history are merely different but equal in terms of truth status,

why use the academic mode at all? What does the academic historical method

offer us, if not the claim to be closer to the truth than accounts designed

primarily for entertainment? If it is true that a method that aims to get as close as

possible to objective truth cannot get closer than a fictional movie (or novel), why

is that method in use? If we cannot distinguish between the trueness of a film

and an academic history, how can we distinguish the truth claims of differing

academic histories? What rules are in place within the “objectivist” study of

history that fall apart as soon as we leave this realm, and what good are rules

that do so?

In order to answer some of these questions it is necessary to further clarify

our terms, and to illustrate some of the ways in which various levels of historical

inquiry –theoretical, methodological, epistemological and ontological – are

sometime conflated in discussions about the epistemological status of history. As

one example, I would like to consider another Sobchack essay, entitled “What Is

Film History?”

Like the previous example, this essay includes both a theoretical

discussion of what history is, considering both film and in the study of film. Here

Sobchack recounts the ways in which the perception of history is changing

among historians themselves, from an apparently disinterested, objective stance

to one that is more cognizant of its biases, or more importantly, has a fuller

awareness of the many levels of mediation between the past event and historical

recollection. Within this piece, Sobchack also recounts the “discovery,” by

filmmaker and teacher Peter Brosnan of a curious historical artifact, the set for

Cecil B. Demille’s original 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, now

buried like a real Egyptian city in the sand dunes near Guadalupe, California.

Brosnan has been trying for ten years to gather enough money to do a proper

excavation of the site, which apparently included walls 110 feet high, 21 sphinx

statues and four 35-foot Pharaoh statues, all made out of plaster rather than

stone. 151

As a historical excavation, the site is certainly interesting theoretical

ground. Sobchack notes that this is a Hollywood recreation of history that now

has its own status as a lost city worthy of historical inquiry. She is also aware that

her recounting of Brosnan’s plans and difficulties over the past ten years is a very

traditional history within a paper that attempts to counter the tendencies of just

that sort of history. She writes:

Sobchack, “What is Film History?,” 12.

My previous – and relatively traditional – history of DeMille’s buried
movie set and Brosnan’s desire to excavate and film it is at once both
fascinating and “merely history.” If I similarly had the time and
obsession of a DeMille or Brosnan, I might wander forever in the sand,
turning literally and troping figuratively among the site’s historical
fragments and heterogeneities, its murmurs, nostalgias, stories, myths,
its other episodes and histories. For example, as new historian Antonia
Lant has done in “The Curse of the Pharaoh, or How Cinema
Contracted Egyptomania,” I might turn in the direction of Egypt and
the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922..., [or] the building of the
Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where the film premiered, and held
sway over the American imagination and press for eight years. I might
also veer off to write a tangential history of the site which points
outward to other Egypto-Orientalist fantasies of the period, not only in
cinema, but also in painting, architecture, popular music, and
museology. 152

Here the methodological, theoretical, and epistemological facets of history are

combined and conflated. Sobchack’s history of Brosnan’s quest is traditional in

two senses. One is methodological – her sources are primarily newspaper

accounts, DeMille’s autobiography, and a web site, and the story is recounted as

a reasonably linear narrative of Brosnan’s progress. The history is also traditional

in an epistemological sense – Sobchack is fundamentally limited by her sources

and by the unspoken assumptions of her academic audience that she is being as

true to those sources as possible and avoiding conjecture unless it is indicated as

such. Even if readers are, like Sobchack, skeptical about objectivity in historical

writing, the constraints of academic writing are such that objectivity must be the

goal, even if it can never be the accomplishment. The options for further exploration

that she lists, while representative of varying methodologies, never challenge the

epistemological status of historical writing. These options divide into two

categories. One is the exploration of “murmurs, nostalgias, stories, myths” that

may or may not end up being a history at all, but might still provide fertile

Ibid., 20.

ground for cultural exploration. The second group is the specific alternate

histories she proposes, histories of Egyptomania in the United States, or of

Egypto-Orientalist tropes in various other forms of art. These “alternate”

histories might end up being very similar to the traditional histories Sobchack

writes about Brosnan’s project or DeMille’s film. There is nothing inherent in

these topics that makes them incapable of being considered within a realist

framework that examines a range of evidence to describe the development of an

idea or an artistic trope. Even if the broad range of evidence such studies might

require was considered a methodological shift, the epistemology remains intact.

Sobchack is certainly not the only one to conflate methodological shifts in

history over the past 30 years with an epistemological shift that has occurred in

name only. The perception that the broadening of historical objects – away from

the “great men” conception of history to one that includes many more histories

written “from the bottom up” to include the histories of subjugated groups –

entails a profound epistemological shift is common. But one does not inherently

imply the other. The broadening of scope is certainly a change in history at the

level of its theory, representing a new notion of what “history” is. This new

history includes all of a society rather than just its leaders and politicians. As the

theoretical shift has taken place, there have also been methodological shifts to

make this new history possible. In particular, the notion of what counts as

evidence has broadened, since one can not always rely on government

documents or preserved letters to tell the history of the poor. Because women’s

history is often a history of private life it has often had to depend on written

personal narratives that may not be verifiable in the way that those of public

For a discussion of this issue see Rosenstone, “The Future of the Past.”

figures are. In all of these new histories though, the attempt is still made to

recount the history that is as true as possible. As Keith Windschuttle points out,

the broadening of historical inquiry in recent years has been a tremendous boon

to the field, and offered historical underpinning for all kinds of progressive

causes. This is completely separate from arguments that history has shifted or

should shift its goals from objectivity to subjectivity. Other than the fact that they

are both “traditional,” there is no inherent link between realism and the

exclusionary “great men” theory of history. One is as able to pursue a

“postmodern” approach to a study of the great generals of the Confederacy as

easily as one can a rational, fact-based approach to the study of slaves’ lives. A

great number of new histories written in the last 30 years testify to the

possibilities of the latter approach.

In Film History: Theory and Practice, Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery

summarize the epistemological debates about film history by contrasting views

they label empiricist (traditional attempts at “common sense” objectivity) and

conventionalist (social constructivist). While emphatically not attempting to close

off the debate, they see realism as a system that compromises by allowing that

theories have a place in observation while maintaining that this does not mean

historians cannot tell the truth about the past. Rather, it means that “why

questions... require answers to how and what questions.” This might seem to us

like “common sense” as well, but it is important to recognize that realism allows

for the biases and interpretations of the historian doing the work. It does this not

Windschuttle, The Killing of History, 128-9.
Allen and Gomery, 15.

by erasing or hiding biases to pretend they do not exist, but rather by putting

them up front. This is not the once fashionable blanket statement in an

introduction that one is writing from the perspective of, say, a “middle-class

white female” but a more subtle transparency within the prose of an argument.

Thus, the key facet of historical work in a realist framework is not the

erasure of bias or interpretation but the assurance that bias is made visible.

Ideally, it should be clear to all readers of a historical text that evidence is

available for the various claims made. More importantly, the links that a

historian has drawn between points of evidence should be visible in the text.

Where the historian necessarily links documented factual events into a causal

narrative, the process must be clear in the finished text. These “links” between

points of evidence are governed by the unspoken assumptions and expectations

that readers of history bring to a text, a set of conventions and codes that both

explicitly (with footnotes) and implicitly (with language choices) explain the path

the historian has followed to his or her conclusions. To clarify these expectations,

it will be useful to consider an example from a historical text.

The following example is from Donald Crafton’s The Talkies: American

Cinema’s Transition to Sound 1926-1931. There are thousands of examples that

might be considered, but Crafton’s status as a well-regarded historian makes him

an ideal example. The passage below follows a discussion of the failure of

Universal’s 1929 version of Show Boat, partially because of studio head Carl

Laemmle’s changing positions on sound recording.

In 1929, Laemmle made his son Carl, Jr., head of production and there
was a marked upturn in ambition and quality. Junior Laemmle, as he
was called, started off with a magnificently produced musical
extravaganza, Broadway (dir. Fejos). While modern viewers are

impressed with the technical virtuosity of Broadway, almost all of the
critics of the time compared the film unfavorably to its source, a
nightclub melodrama directed by George Abbott with a two year
broadway run behind it. “A good bit of a bore,” groused the Telegram.
The Daily Mirror and the World reviewers were among the few who
noticed Fejos’s gargantuan set and crane-mounted camera work. 156

This apparently simple passage contains a wealth of information, some of which

is drawn straight from archival sources, some that is reasonable assumptions

from the evidence, and some that is informed opinion. At each level, the reader

has expectations about the evidence Crafton has assembled for this passage. If

we unpack and deconstruct the evidence presented and the rhetoric with which

it is presented, it might seem as if we are undermining Crafton’s work by

questioning it – attacking the unity and sureness of its tone. But the keys to the

deconstruction are already in the text itself, provided by the author. To

“deconstruct” in this case is not to damage but to read according to the clues and

guidelines given.

To begin with the simplest level, one assumes that the quotations from the

newspapers are accurate, and also that they represent the general tone of the

review, since Crafton specifically says they are negative (“groused the Telegram”).

We also assume, that since Crafton writes “almost all” of the reviews were

negative, that he has read a considerable number of them, and not just these

three. As for the power shift, the appointment of Carl Jr. as head of production

must be documented in company files or in film credits, as is the fact that he

actually contributed to the production of Broadway. When Crafton writes that the

shift brought a “marked upturn in ambition and quality” this is likely an

interpretive remark, based on informed opinion. One still ought to be able to

Crafton, The Talkies, 309.

look at the films before and after and come to a similar conclusion. When he

writes that “modern viewers are impressed” by the film, this is most likely a

purely critical remark, rather than, say, the results of an extensive audience

response survey.

It is crucial that readers are aware of the process of writing history in the

final text. The success of the work depends on interpretation as much as on the

recounting of documented facts, but these interpretations follow clear rules. We

are aware of the places where interpretation has been necessary and accept that

others might come to a different conclusion. For example, it would not affect our

view of Crafton’s work in a significant way if we viewed Broadway and failed to

be “impressed.” But if we were to investigate every piece of information in this

paragraph, the stakes would increase as we moved closer to what appear to be

the facts. If we found no “upturn in ambition and quality” after the appointment

of Carl Jr. we might question the author’s critical judgment. If we found that the

Telegram was not in the majority opinion, it would call into question his research

skills, and thus, the status of the entire work. If we could not find any of the

quotations or basic evidence, we might consider it fraud.

All of these considerations are the assumptions that greet all historical

work, and are part of the complex reactions of readers and other scholars to new

research in our field. These expectations would change somewhat if the point

being made was especially contentious or in direct contradiction with earlier

work, as our expectations increase. For the most part though, they are

remarkably set, and based entirely on a realist epistemology that relies on

evidence and clear rules about the uses of that evidence. All of these rules help

maintain a balance that ensures historical research is as objective as possible

while avoiding a dry and useless recounting of unlinked facts. They allow us to

understand history and make arguments about what happened in the past while

restraining our ability to conjure the past we desire.

To continue the exercise, we might try to consider ways in which these

rules of evidence might become more fluid, more open to individual expression

and the play of words and theories. How might we make our practice reflect our

theory and become more postmodern, more reflective of the social

constructionism which has undermined our faith in the facts? The immediate

difficulty is that our practice already allows room for theory and argument, and

for a historian to confront the theories and arguments of others. At the other end

of the scale, it seems impossible to reconcile with our notions of academic

honesty the idea that a writer would quote from a newspaper article and be

purposely misleading or misquote it. In the middle, there might be some room

for play between evidence and conjecture, especially since there are plenty of

areas in film history where the lack of evidence means that historians must fill in

bigger gaps between smaller posts. But we would still expect in these cases that

we could reasonably ascertain where the evidence leaves off and the

interpretation of the historian begins. It is not the amount of evidence that

matters as much as the fact that its boundaries are clear. Historians should not

pretend that there is solid evidence for events or causal chains that are actually

his or her educated guesses or wishes. Thus, our writing about the past is always

linked to realist notions of evidence and proof, even when little such evidence

exists. By rhetorically signposting our evidence and its limitations, we never

stray far from realism in practice.

At this point it is perhaps obvious that, although we might argue that

realism is in itself a choice and not necessarily the best or only way to conduct

our research, the difficulties of loosening the restrictions of evidence would be

overwhelming. As soon as we lose the trust between historian and audience that

available evidence is being treated fairly, we lose the epistemological basis for

history as an academic endeavour. If we allowed each other to invent as we saw

fit and present the results as supported by strong evidence, the subject loses

much of its interest, as gripping as some of the stories might be. In addition, our

societal position as teachers and gatherers of knowledge disappears.

To return to the first of the questions I posed (if academic and filmic ways

of telling history are merely different, but equal in terms of truth status, why use

the academic mode at all?) the answer is that the academic mode offers greater

transparency, the ability for writer and reader to communicate through the text

the levels of evidence for the claims made. It is this transparency that means the

two are not equal in terms of truth status, since film has no way to make such

epistemological statements clear in the text. On the screen the actions of the

actors are the actions of the historical people portrayed, and there is no intra-

textual way to distinguish between documented actions and the whims of the

screenwriter or director. On screen, evidence is erased in favour of a narrative

and historical continuity that makes all ideas equal. The only way an audience

can tell fact from opinion is when extra-textual factors intrude – their own

previous knowledge, a written review, or in rare cases, the written claims of the

author. Oliver Stone has published annotated screenplays for both JFK and Nixon

that spell out what evidence came from where and exactly where Stone

combined characters or events for historical effect. His goal in doing this is to

support his arguments about historical events by following the lead of academic

historians and making his choices visible. The only way he can do this though is

in writing. His films allow no such distinctions to be made while they make their

arguments on the screen. The isolated examples of silent films, like The Birth of a

Nation, that have footnotes on screen during the film, are the exception that

proves the rule. Not only would such notes be disruptive enough in films

without intertitles to make their use very difficult, they are still only able to

reference whole sections of the text, without the detailed rhetorical markers of

evidence such as the ones we examined in Crafton’s text. Indeed, Griffith’s

footnotes in The Birth of a Nation are the equivalent of a footnote in a book that

implies that all information in a whole page or section is equally supported by

evidence, with no interpretation at all from the author.

So while the answer to my second question about what the historical

method offers us is transparency, I am well aware that this transparency is based

partially on trust that is in theory easily abused. It is exactly the apparent

transparency and objectivity of written work that makes it powerful and likely to

be abused. To stay with the same film-related example, Griffith had no problem

finding books with which to footnote his film, books which presented white

supremacy as factual and glossed over the distinction between fact and opinion

just as much as his film did. This would have been part of the reason Griffith was

so adamant that his film was factual and not motivated by racism – he had the

books to back it up.

While we are certainly aware that the power of the conventions of

academic historical writing means that they can be abused, in practice we

operate largely on trust, and partially by investigating and challenging each

other’s work. In practice we make major distinctions between the truth status of

written and filmic works based on what we know about the way these forms

work. We recognize inherently the rules of “objectivist” history and are aware

that these rules are not and cannot be the same for filmic texts. The

epistemological status of the two forms is very different, and one has much more

use to academic historians, for reasons that cannot be dismissed simply by

emphasizing their links to power and tradition. The tools we use to understand

history and film are imperfect, but we have learned much with them so far.


Perhaps the most negative aspect of the Sokal hoax is the fact that it

completely overshadowed the position of Alan Sokal himself. The reaction to the

hoax, the discussion of the ethics of such an endeavor, and the resultant

accusations of blame all made sure that serious discussion of the issues raised by

Sokal’s hoax never really took place. There was considerable press attention to

the affair, unusual for what seems at first like an academic dispute. Of course,

this might be the only type of academic dispute that makes sense to outside

observers, as it violates the rules of polite and boring discourse for which

academics are noted and usually ignored. Sokal certainly violated these rules

with his initial actions, which included a refusal to edit the piece for the Social

Text editors. In response, when the story broke, no one at Social Text was in a

mood to be conciliatory or apologetic. Not only were they critical of Sokal’s

methods, they attacked the reasoning behind his parody, generally arguing that

he had overstated the social constructivist position, and there was nothing

especially radical about social constructionism. Sokal had made a point of


stating a radical constructivist position in the first page of his paper, and most of

it is made up of quotations from social constructivists, with only praise to string

them together and little original argumentation.

That the Sokal hoax would turn out to be a national news story is not as

surprising when one considers that it presented one of America’s favourite

narrative conventions – the puncturing of academic pretension. A scene in which

intellectual, book-based learning is shown to be inadequate in the face of

For a range of international responses to the Sokal Hoax, see The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That

Shook the Academy, compiled by the editors of the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca.

everyday common sense is a cliché of American film and television. The fact that

in this case the purveyor of everyday common sense was a physics professor

from New York University only made the story more interesting, not less.

Luckily for the nation’s newspaper editors, Sokal was standing up for a position

that was remarkably understandable and “common sense,” and stood in contrast

to a critical viewpoint that few people (including some of its practitioners,

perhaps) were able to make complete sense of. The idea that science was a social

construction seemed representative of the type of reasoning that outsiders often

mock in the humanities, where obtuse and dense theory eventually leads to

counterintuitive positions in such a manner that the ideas can only be traced

back to their source with great difficulty. There can be little doubt that this

general lack of respect for the humanities in the culture at large was one of the

reasons the hoax played out so well, not just in the United States, but around the


I would like to argue though that this lack of respect for the humanities is

also one of the reasons for the appeal of social constructionism. Scholars in the

humanities are well aware of the way their disciplines are viewed in relation to

the hard sciences. Scientists get more respect in the culture at large, and also

receive a lot more money, from both government and industry. The humanities

constantly have to justify themselves to government and often to students in

ways that the sciences almost never have to. For scholars in the humanities, it is

inevitable that a theory that attempts to redress this balance by undermining the

epistemological nature of science would be appealing. Social constructionism

also relies on the connections between science and political power structures that

are a direct result of science’s position in society. In an article in Le Monde, Bruno

Latour points out the numerous links between science and the Cold War power

structure, in an effort to both make science’s overall project suspect and to make

the case that science is simply looking for new enemies after the end of the Cold

War and has settled on postmodernism. 158

Scholars in the humanities need to be cautious though about imagining

scientists as an enemy who needs to be brought down a peg. Such competition

can lead one to quickly accept positions that would be subject to more scrutiny if

they were not so agreeable. It should never have come to the point where an

outsider had to hoax a journal in order to call attention to the weaknesses of an

argument. Even after the Social Text fiasco, there has still been little attention paid

to social constructionism as a position. In effect, by “attacking” social

constructionism, Sokal solidified the antagonistic positions that he claims to


What then, is Alan Sokal’s epistemological position? As we will see, it is

not as far from Donna Haraway’s as either of them would likely assume,

although all the adaptations to make their positions agree would have to be on

Haraway’s part. It is also not far from a position that David Hess labels moderate

constructionism, a position that I believe is held by a number of people in the

humanities. In my estimation, moderate constructionism is simply realism with a

more contemporary name. If that means that apparently disparate positions can

be reconciled, it is a good thing. It also allows us to dispense with the more

radical forms of social constructionism that, as I have tried to demonstrate, are

supported only in theory and not in practice.

Reprinted as Latour, Bruno. “Is There Science After The Cold War?” 124-6.

Sokal’s position is best summed up in an article he published shortly after

his hoax was revealed. It is intended as an answer to both his critics and his

supporters, and is entitled “What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove.”

He admits up front that the hoax certainly does not prove that all of cultural

studies or all of science studies is intellectually suspect, as some supportive

commentators had supposed. He says that the publication of his hoax proves

only that “the editors of one rather marginal journal were derelict in their

intellectual duty” (11). In other words, not much. Sokal is insistent though that

the content of his parody reveals much more than this. By quoting the most

egregious examples of social constructivist thought he could find, Sokal

demonstrates the foolishness of the position, albeit in a less measured way than I

have been attempting here.

In this follow up article, he begins with a number of points that he says

should be “noncontroversial.” I think they make good staring point for

discussion, so I will recount them in their entirety:

1. Science is a human endeavor, and like any other human endeavor, it

merits being subjected to rigorous social analysis. Which research
problems count as important, how research funds are distributed, who
gets prestige and power, what role scientific expertise plays in public
policy debates, in what form scientific knowledge becomes embodied in
technology, and for whose benefit – all these issues are strongly affected
by political, economic, and, to some extent ideological considerations, as
well as by the internal logic of scientific inquiry. They are thus fruitful
subjects for empirical study by historians, sociologists, political scientists,
and economists.
2. At a more subtle level, even the content of scientific debate – what types
of theories can be conceived and entertained, what criteria are to be used
for deciding among competing theories – is constrained in part by the
prevailing attitudes of mind, which in turn arise in part from deep-seated
historical factors. It is the task of historians and sociologists of science to
sort out, in each instance, the roles played by “external” and “internal”
factors in determining the course of scientific development. Not

Sokal, 11.

surprisingly, scientists tend to stress the “internal” factors while
sociologists tend to stress the “external” factors, if only because each
group tends to have a poor grasp of the other group’s concepts. But these
problems are perfectly amenable to rational debate.
3. There is nothing wrong with research informed by political
commitment as long as that commitment does not blind the researcher to
inconvenient facts. Thus, there is a long and honorable tradition of
sociopolitical critique of science, including antiracist critiques of
anthropological pseudoscience and eugenics and feminist critiques of
psychology and parts of medicine and biology. These critiques typically
follow a standard pattern: First, one shows, using conventional scientific
arguments, why the research in question is flawed according to the
ordinary canons of good science. Then – and only then – one attempts to
explain how the researchers’ social prejudices (which may well have been
unconscious) led them to violate these canons. Of course, each such
critique has to stand or fall on its own merits; having good political
intentions doesn’t guarantee that one’s analysis will constitute good
science, good sociology, or good history. But this general two-step
approach is, I think, sound; and empirical studies of this kind, if
conducted with due intellectual rigor, could shed useful light on the social
conditions under which good science (defined normatively as the search
for truths or at least approximate truths about the world) is fostered or

These statements appear noncontroversial, and I would argue that for the most

part they should be. However, they force social constructivists to give up most of

their ground, since they take for granted the possibility of realism and leave the

fundamentals of the scientific project intact. What they also leave intact is the

space for philosophers, historians, and others to study and critique science and

scientists. All of the questions laid out in number one above are broad issues that

have provided and still offer a great deal of fruitful territory for research. More

importantly, these are the issues with which politically progressive theorists

should be concerned. There is a tremendous political influence on the ways in

which scientific expertise is focused, and we should try to understand and take

part in this political influence as much as possible.

Ibid., 10.

An example will better illustrate the ground laid out in the first of Sokal’s

two points. To choose a suitably controversial scientific example, let us briefly

consider the Manhattan Project. At its most basic level, the attempt to build an

atomic bomb is a purely political project motivated by the desire to defeat the

Axis powers and win the Second World War. Even this simple statement reveals

a wealth of questions about the motivations of the military and opens up the

controversial questions of the ethics of building such a weapon and using it on a

foreign population of civilians. From there, the choice of the scientists to take

part in the project was also presumably rife with social and political

considerations that had an effect on the finished product. For example, some of

the scientists had problems after the war with investigations about Communist

sympathies, investigations that questioned their patriotism and loyalty after they

had helped the United States win the war in the Pacific. Robert Oppenheimer, an

essential figure in the Manhattan Project, eventually lost his security clearance

and was banned from top secret research.

Once the scientists were assembled to work on the project, there were

presumably all sorts of interesting social interactions that were based on their

relative social status, personalities, and politics. For example, Richard Feynman,

a future Nobel Prize winner, was a nervous graduate student worried about

offending his supervisors. How do such social roles affect the ways in which

research gets done? In general, this is the type of question Bruno Latour’s work

could answer.

Once the bombs were built, the social questions change somewhat, since

this is no longer an abstract discussion, but a set of realistic choices about

whether to use this weapon and on whom. The repercussions of the decision that

was made have been subject to incredible scrutiny over the years, and they

should be. Arguments about the justifications for using the bomb on Hiroshima,

and the more difficult justifications for the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki,

will continue for many years.

What is not open to social or political question is the fact that the bombs

worked. Nor is the way in which they worked a political question. (The two

bombs used quite different mechanisms). The two atomic bombs built during the

Second World War really did blow up in exactly the way that atomic theory

predicted they would. They really were dropped in Japan and the people in

those cities really died. There is no way in which any of this knowledge is a

construction of someone with a political goal. In fact, the only reason any of the

above political and historical questions are remotely interesting is because of the

reality of the bombs and the destruction they caused. I must stress too that the

mechanics of the bombs, their use of plutonium and uranium to start atomic

reactions, is fact. The bombs were not willed to work. Only the collected

scientists’ mastery of the atom allowed them to build, after much effort, a

working bomb. That they figured it out creates one of the most interesting and

disturbing political issues of human history and a powerful example of the

possibilities of scientific objectivity.

How, in considering the above example, could we argue that more of the

intellectual terrain of The Manhattan Project is representative of social

phenomenon than the areas I have outlined? It might very well be possible to

make the case that the bombs did not in fact work because of the scientists’

knowledge of the atom. Perhaps there was some other factor at work or a strange

coincidence of atmospheric conditions that allowed the bombs to go off despite

their design flaws. These seem like fanciful examples, but I do not want to claim

that scientists’ assessments of their own work are unquestionable. One might

certainly attack their scientific conclusions, mindful that they have powerful

evidence to support those conclusions. Any reconsideration of that evidence

would, as Sokal points out in #3 above, have to be made on scientific terms. In

other words, potential alternate explanations for how and why the bombs

worked are scientific debates first and foremost. We cannot challenge the science

of the Manhattan Project without challenging it on scientific terms, and this is

one of the fundamental barriers to social constructionism.

The reason this is such a barrier is that it requires critics of science to know

science. While this certainly makes the task more difficult, it does not make it

impossible. Within the philosophy of science, many philosophers take it upon

themselves to develop an expertise in say, quantum mechanics, if they want to

consider the philosophical implications of this research. That such expertise


would be necessary seems self-evident. It is the kind of independent learning

scholars do all the time to bring themselves up to speed on disciplines with

which they are not familiar. When it comes to social constructionism though, this

has often not been the case. Even though the occasional arguments that those

who do not know science are actually better equipped to assess it can be

dismissed as ridiculous, there is a significant lack of scientific understanding in


the humanities that makes social constructionism’s claim to be able to weigh on

the fundamental nature of science a weak claim indeed. As John Brenkman

See, for example, the work of Arthur Fine, who has contributed to fundamental discussions on
the nature of quantum mechanics that have implications for science as much as philosophy.
See example in Wild Science cited earlier. That anyone would cite ignorance as an intellectual

advantage in an academic discussion is worthy of a full-length study of its own.

points out, the Sokal Hoax does prove that the notion that there is a collective of

scientifically literate non-scientists who can stand in judgement of science’s

politics is a false one. The other crucial concern is raised by Donna Haraway,

who admits that tagging science as male and socially constructed might mean

that feminists do not have to bother learning any. This would be a considerable

loss, to both feminism and science. Indeed, it would undermine the potential of

science to be a tool in all kinds of progressive projects.

The fundamental point of Sokal’s three criteria for discussion and debate

is that the ability of science to discover facts about the world escapes unscathed.

No scientist should object to these criteria, and they leave plenty of space for

political and historical discussions. They maintain the distinction between good

and bad science that Haraway wanted to discard, and make it a challenging task

to prove that science is bad. It is not enough to challenge the person who makes a

knowledge claim; one has to challenge the knowledge itself. In this way,

knowledge is answerable even when it is not embodied, and the embodiment of

knowledge is recognized as a distraction from the assessment of the truth status

of a statement. This last point should make realism more palatable to those who

are skeptical of official knowledge and power structures, not less.

For those in the humanities who are not as enamoured of science as Sokal

and other scientists might like you to be, I would like to suggest a less optimistic

version of realism that differs slightly in tone from what Sokal suggests. The

position is skeptical realism, a realism that is informed by a general mistrust of

official knowledge and eager to prove alternatives. This is a form of realism

See The Sokal Hoax, 66.
Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 186.

whose adherents must be willing to put in the effort to undermine those claims

they find questionable, and to avoid making blanket assessments of knowledge

based on the source of that knowledge. There is a difference between skeptical

and cynical or negative. Skeptics are not easily convinced and want to see

evidence before believing in fantastic claims. They always ask who benefits from

knowledge but require the answer to that question to be the beginning of their

investigation and not the end. While most people who currently label themselves

skeptics do not have the political agenda of many in the humanities, I believe

that the positions are reconcilable in a mutually beneficial way.

Part of this skepticism is borrowed from Donna Haraway, who admits

that the appeal of social constructionism was that it appeared to be the quickest

and surest way to get at the socially constructed elements of science she saw and

wanted to counter. Social constructionism was a broad rather than a focused

attack, and it freed its adherents from the need to deal with the messiness of

individual cases. As an initial debate tactic it worked well, but such disregard for

the specificities of particular scientific practices has limited usefulness. Now, that

skepticism needs to be focused on individual cases and steered away from broad

claims that undermine progressive politics as much as any scientific abuses of

power. Haraway admits that this is the problem with social constructionism, and

she wants a better tactic to argue with cultural conservatives than one that

depends on individual disagreement without recourse to fact. As demonstrated

Parts of this discussion of this form of skepticism come from the statement of purpose of the

Skeptics society, a group dedicated to the use of science and scientific thinking (See Skeptic
magazine). I see no reason why this quite strict version of realism should not appeal to academics
in the humanities who mistrust science.

in Chapter Three, Haraway’s solution to this problem is insufficient, but her aims

and some of her solution can be molded into a workable position.

Haraway argues for “situated knowledges,” a type of individual

objectivity that avoids what she calls the “god-trick,” the ability to see with

certainty beyond one’s social and individual perspective. She also wants more

respect for the perspectives of subjugated peoples, but falters when she over-

emphasizes the usefulness of this respect as a way of settling disputes. In

Haraway’s conception, one’s status as a subjugated person becomes a type of

debate trump card that can be employed reflexively to determine which of a set

of competing perspectives should be valued more, or presumably become the

basis of public policy. She wants knowledge to be embodied so that it can be

answerable to critique, but as I argued in an earlier section, there is no reason

why embodiment and answerability have to be inexorably linked. A sheet of

data can at times be challenged and critiqued more effectively than a person can,

particularly if the person doing the challenge is deemed to be less subjugated

than the person making the truth claim. Better then to leave the challenging of

scientific claims on the ground of realism and evidence.

If we were to soften Haraway’s position slightly, we would come up with

a set of principles that would be useful for critiquing “official” science while

preserving the realist base in a manner than satisfies my critiques, as well as

Sokal’s. Instead of seeing subjugated status as a way to settle disputes between

individuals and groups, we might instead see it as one of the triggers of our

skepticism. That is, we are much more likely to question official knowledge

when it reinforces the existing power structure, but the power imbalance in an

issue is a starting point rather than an endpoint of the discussion. It initiates our

skeptical response and spurs us to pay closer attention and subject a claim to

further scrutiny. In this way, our skepticism and motivation is political, but we

avoid the trap of making blanket accusations about scientific projects because we

do not like or fear the results. Progressive politics can spur scholars in science

studies and the humanities without providing a priori results. We maintain

realism, and with it, our faith in our own arguments and positions.

This position is similar in some ways to what David Hess calls “moderate

constructionism.” In his assessment, the distinguishing characteristic of

moderate constructionism is that it holds science to be socially constructed, but

makes this argument on a case-by-case basis. Evidence for specific claims is

considered before work is labeled constructed. This position is not really

constructionism, I would argue, but realism. As soon as we begin to consider

social constructionism on a case-by-case basis, we are recognizing the line

between good and bad science that Sokal is upholding and that is a fundamental

tenet of realism. Social constructionism is always a blanket claim that denies the

distinction between good and bad science, and holds that all science is subject to

the same inherent flaws. Any treatment of science that works case-by-case

allows that some cases are going to be upheld as factual. These cases then fit the

traditional realist definitions of scientific work.

I am arguing that moderate constructionism (as defined by Hess) and

skeptical realism are actually the same thing. Modifications in the social

constructivist position to include case-by-case application really do bridge what

appears to be an unbridgeable chasm at first glance. This form of “moderate

This is Donna Haraway’s characterization of social constructionism in “Situated Knowledges”


in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.

constructionism” differs only in emphasis from the form of skeptical realism I am

proposing. The former argues that science is often socially constructed but

reserves judgment on a case-by-case basis. The latter assumes that science can

build up objective knowledge about the world, and allows that there will be

cases where scientists’ biases lead them, consciously or unconsciously, to results

that are contradicted by the evidence. Both of these scenarios actually allow for

the fact that science can gather true knowledge of the physical world. Both

positions emphasize that bias is possible and in fact common. Both allow one to

be more skeptical of knowledge that reinforces the political status quo, and in

doing so provide a place to challenge science and scientists whose biases appear

self-evident. Both use the idea of “situated knowledges” as a starting point for

the questioning of science, but inherently reject this concept as a final arbiter of

competing claims.

All of these definitions apply equally to historical study. Even without

anyone articulating a moderate constructivist position, common sense tells us

that this is likely a frequent working position in the humanities. The arguments

of constructivist theorists like Hayden White and Michel de Certeau are rarely

critiqued, but judgment of historical writing tends to be on a case-by-case basis.

On the other hand, traditional realist historical study has always allowed for

“bad history” that takes the same form as bad science – the biases of the

researcher lead him or her to conclusions that are not reasonably supported by

the evidence. The method of dealing with this type of history is identical to the

method Sokal prescribed for science. First, one must show, using standard

historical evidence, how another scholar’s conclusions are wrong. Then, and only

then, does one set out to prove that the mistake was the result of social biases,

which may have been unconscious. Again, the identification of potential or likely

bias in a historian is the starting point for further inquiry – the perception that

informs our skepticism. It is never the end of the discussion, and it is never

enough to contradict someone’s results. To consider a simple example, the

pseudo-historians who argue that the Holocaust never happened are wrong

because their work is not supported by the available evidence, not simply

because they are racist. It is likely the fact that they are racist that informs our

skepticism of their claims in the first place, and it is this that leads us to subject

their claims to close scrutiny. It would hardly be sufficient though to declare that

since they are anti-Semitic their claims are invalid and stop there. The

“embodiment” of the knowledge in someone who is a member of a hate group

leads us to question it, but the argument still must be considered on its own. If

the argument was made by someone who harbored no racist sentiments yet still

believed erroneously that the Holocaust did not happen, the argument would

still be invalid. The embodiment of knowledge in a particular individual or

group can often be a good clue for our skeptical impulse, but it is never enough

to decide the issue.

As we have seen, none of the social constructivist arguments makes a

compelling case for judging scientific or historical work. When it comes to

providing a method for our own work, they are even less useful. For all the

writing about the social construction of science and history, there have been

precious few recommendations about how to carry out work that avoids the

pitfalls of the research one is critiquing. Social constructionism is a theory that is

incapable of being put into practice. The closest thing to a practice that any of the

scholars considered here have proposed are the experimental documentaries

endorsed by Robert Rosenstone and the possibilities for historical theory writing

proposed by Vivian Sobchack. None of these proposals is in any way a substitute

for the telling of history that these scholars are trying to critique. Historiography

is fundamental to the practice of history, but it is its own project. The proposals

offered by these critics are almost exclusively historiographical projects rather

than historical projects. Those that are historical projects would inevitably be

completed in the realist mode of research, argument, and justification.

All that social constructionism can offer us is a warning to be more aware

of our own positioning and biases. This is a valuable lesson, and one that history

and science needed to learn and still need. The tremendous developments in

gender theory and racial identity theory in the past 30 years have provided

overwhelming evidence that we had previously underestimated the ways in

which our position in social and political hierarchies coloured our perception of

facts and ideas. We are much more aware of how we are “situated” in relation to

others in our society and in other societies, and hesitant to privilege our

perspectives over those of others. All of these changes are valuable, because they

help minimize the biases of scientific and historical research by making the

researcher the first source of self-reflexive critique. In addition, we are much

more aware of how the positions of others – who may or may not share our

social group – might be influenced by their own social position. We are more

aware of others and of ourselves. We recognize that we all carry biases, that these

are our default settings, and that it requires constant effort to minimize their


All of this, however, changes nothing about the possibility of objectivity in

historical and scientific research. We might recognize that reason and evidence

are not as transparent as we once believed, and that we have biases of which we

are unaware. Social constructionism acts as an influence to make us more

stringent about our own biases and those of others. It is a warning to not let

ourselves off too easily, to be alert and to accept that we must self-examine

constantly. On a practical level, it also offers some examples of research that is

tainted by social and political expectations, examples that are useful specifics to

accompany the general warnings about vigilance. Social constructionism raises

the bar for objectivity in science and history by pointing out so many more ways

in which apparent objectivity can be an apparition and a fault.

Social constructionism offers us no real prescriptions for practice since we

cannot celebrate our biases and allow them to overrun our work. We are unable

to simply embrace our pre-conceptions or those of others as inevitable. We

cannot accept research from historians or scientists without the unspoken claim

that the work is based on the best available evidence honestly gathered, even if

this unspoken claim is occasionally determined to be not true. That our practice

is still realist is both the single strongest argument against social constructionism

and the best defense against critics who view the humanities as soft. Our theory

must better respect our practice, since our practice is constrained and linked to

our objects of study in ways that our theory is not.

In the end, social constructionism reminds us that there are few shortcuts

in our argumentation, that we cannot lower our standards and assume that we

can tell the truth unproblematically. Taken this way, it is of considerable value. If

instead we see social constructionism as a shortcut in itself – one that allows us to

avoid the tedious gathering of contradictory evidence in favour of making

sweeping claims based on the situation of the speaker or based on an

unjustifiable relativism – then it does us a considerable disservice. We take away

the foundation of all that we argue, and find ourselves in a position of

contradictory assertions that cannot be sorted from another without exposing us

to public ridicule – a ridicule we might then deserve.

Further Research

There are numerous specific areas of research that this project opens up

which are too substantial to be considered fully here, but I would like to explain

some of them briefly as a way to make a case for the numerous clarifications and

arguments I have offered thus far. One of the primary uses of this present project

is that it clarifies points of contention that have been muddied by a lack of

attention to the details of epistemological positions. This lack of attention means

both that significant disagreements are hidden and that, in some cases, what

appear to be radical differences of opinion are not that different in real terms. For

example, it is common for people in the humanities to remark casually that

“science is a social construction” but that statement, as we have seen, can refer to

a range of positions that have little in common epistemologically.

There are two other areas in film studies where a similar lack of clarity

about profound positions seems common, and both are linked more substantially

to the issues I have raised in this dissertation. The first has to do with what I

would call the “limits of interpretation.” By this I mean that the central question

of audience response to a text, about the possibilities of interpretation, has been

lost, at least in the theoretical realm, to a dichotomy between singular, “correct”

interpretations of the text and the notion that the audience is free to make its own

meanings of any particular text. This question has been central to cultural studies

work on the audience, from the influential studies of Ien Ang to the work of John

Fiske. I think it is safe to assume that virtually no one still subscribes to the

notion that there is one correct interpretation of a text, while at the same time

Fiske’s notion of resistant readings, while useful, can be seen as overly

optimistic. Most scholars would seem to position themselves somewhere


between these two extremes, but the lack of clarification of where any particular

critic stands can make this a confusing a contradictory topic.

In an article on the Rodney King videotape, “I’ll See It When I Believe It,”

Frank P. Tomasulo argues that contemporary postmodern film theory is firmly

on the “multiple interpretations” side of this debate, and that this makes it

difficult to argue about real social issues and effects. He notes that a petition

circulated at the Society for Cinema Studies conference in April 1992 in response

to the recent “not guilty” verdict in the trial of the four officers accused of

beating motorist Rodney King after a high speed chase in Los Angeles. The trial 169

had attracted much attention, and had only occurred in the first place, because a

man named George Holliday captured the beating on videotape. To most this

seemed like an open and shut case of police brutality, finally some “proof” of the

type of treatment many felt had been going on and ignored for many years. In

the trial though, the defense attorneys for the police officers managed to

reinterpret the tape as an example of justifiable force used to tame an unruly

See, for example Ang’s Watching Dallas and Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture.

For an overview of this argument, see Chuck Kleinhans, “Cultural Appropriation and

Subcultural Expression.”
Tomasulo, 79.

suspect. The jury bought this explanation, and acquitted the officers, touching off

days of rioting in Los Angeles that claimed 53 lives and caused $1 billion of

property damage. The petition circulated at the SCS conference condemned the

fact that the jury had refused to “‘see’ this visual evidence the way that most of

us – regardless of color – saw these images.” Tomasulo argues that the belief

that there was a singular reality in the video not subject to interpretation

contradicts virtually all recent film theory that emphasizes the multiplicity of

readings available in any filmic or televisual image. He holds that one cannot on

one hand argue for the textuality of everything and then claim access to a

singular reality on the other.

What Tomasulo seems to miss is that this dichotomy between a singular

interpretation and infinite interpretations is a false one. It is in fact the same false

dichotomy that Hayden White presented in his treatment of the Challenger

disaster. Tomasulo can be excused somewhat in that it often seems as if

contemporary film theory does posit that any number of interpretations of an

event are possible and valid. This is the same kind of over generalization as the

statement that science is socially constructed – a foolishly radical position that is

in general not reflected by the practice. I would argue that in practice, film

scholars automatically dismiss interpretations that are not within a set of

reasonable parameters. To pick a simple example, there are a range of possible

responses to The Birth of a Nation. We would reject a reading of the film that

posited that it was actually about the Second World War or that it took place in

France. While these might seem like ridiculous examples, and they are, they raise

what I think is a profound question. At what point do interpretations become


unreasonable? In other words, what are the limits of interpretation? To return to

The Birth of a Nation, at what point do we accept readings of the film that excuse

or even celebrate its racism as equally valid and simply different than our own?

This question might not seem of crucial importance until there are cases, like the

Rodney King beating, that clarify the importance of the question. Is the defense

attorneys’ reading of the videotape merely different or is it invalid? What are our

criteria for deciding what readings are or are not invalid? Until now, it seems

that various communities have, like SCS, decided them based on consensus. This

question needs much further examination.

The second related area of research in film studies is the question of

realism in documentary film. Enough questions have been raised about the

realist potential of documentary in the past 30 or 40 years to make a belief in its

potential truth status seem hopelessly naïve. The argument that there is no

difference in the truth status of documentary and fiction film is yet another

radical-sounding argument that is contradicted by practice. It also has a direct

relationship to the questions of realism and social constructionism that I have

raised throughout this work. As film scholars we are still able to recognize

differences between fiction film and documentary. We still note whether or not

documentary footage is of the actual subject or of an actor playing that subject. In

other words, we are still cognizant of the complexities of truth status within

documentary and fiction film even as we often claim that there is little difference

in their epistemological status. It seems to me that their presumed

epistemological difference are all that separates the two forms, and thus these

differences are central to the notion that the categories of documentary and

fiction film still exist. While much has been made of films that cross the

boundary between these forms, we still treat them as distinct forms. We need a

much more honest accounting of the ways in which documentary and fiction

films differ. The epistemologies of film and television images are complex and

fascinating, and are deserving of our critical attention.

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