By Cinta Pelejà
This book is about a phenomenon with which we are all familiar but that does not have a name and that, consequently, has never been theorized: the sequentially ordered representation of someone making or doing something. Whether the action is performed before a live audience, is recorded and later projected on a screen, is drawn from imagination, or is narrated discursively; whether or not the action employs tools and machines; and whether the representation is received by children or adults, the sequential representation of people successfully making and doing things produces in the spectator a singular wonder and deep satisfaction.
—Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor
Cinta Pelejà: As we will come to see in the next pages, the first paragraph (quoted above) of The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (2020) refers to objects as disparate as Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s mid-eighteenth century Encyclopédie; live craft demonstrations in the international expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; early industrial, educational, and ethnographic cinema; an arthouse fiction film like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 1975); a documentary film like Shinsuke Ogawa’s Red Persimmons (with Peng Xiaolian, Japan, 2001); a mainstream heist production like Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, United States, 2001); “hands and pans” cooking videos; YouTube tutorials; recipe cookbooks; or Ikea assembly guides. Just by reading the book’s introduction, it becomes so clear that this (ongoing) list belongs to a single, discrete category of representation. And yet, the “process genre” has remained until the publication of your book unidentified, nameless. This almost self-evident revelation that is at the core of groundbreaking arguments like yours prompted many to wonder why the “process genre” had not been previously discussed. Despite its ubiquity and familiarity, why do you think people could not see the “process genre,” or could not see processual representation as a genre?
Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky: I love that question because it’s also a question that I was continually asking myself. For a long period of time, I wondered why, if processual representation is “a thing” and it is so obvious, why hasn’t it been talked about in the way that it should be— “What can I be missing?”
I think that part of seeing it was a consequence of my own ignorance. The book that has the most references to processual representation, Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity Media (2009), contains multiple entries for the “process film,” a term that Tom Gunning employs to refer to early industrial films that follow a process of production sequentially. When I looked up each one of those entries, even if they weren’t constrained to the 1906-1917 period that Gunning talks about, it was clear that the category was taken for granted and understood as something not worth thinking about, as not really “a thing,” certainly not something deserving a book-length treatment. After all, what was there to say: “Sure. Yes, there are several films that follow a process of production from raw material to finished product.” If I had come to the process genre from industrial film or educational film or useful cinema, if I had been trained in one of these subfields and knew the scholarly literature of those research areas, the process genre would have been naturalized for me. I would have treated it as something self-evident too.
Because I came to the process genre through Latin American films from the late 1950s and 1960s, films that had not been talked about as being processual or as being about production processes, processual representation felt like a discovery to me. I think that was the virtue or the possibility of coming to this phenomenon as an outsider; I didn’t go through the kind of usual channels and read the usual things, so things looked different to me. I watched films like Mimbre (Sergio Bravo, Chile, 1957) and Aruanda (Linduarte Noronha, Brazil, 1960) and Araya (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959) and I felt mesmerized; my ears tingled and my toes floated. These films reminded me of other material I had seen like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934). In my state of relative ignorance, I could not help but wonder what this phenomenon was, what it actually was. At that moment, when I was working on early New Latin American Cinema (NLAC) films ostensibly about underdevelopment, I was a student and insecure as students sometimes are, I thought that someone had written about this phenomenon and that I only needed to find where they wrote about it and cite them. If I could only find the relevant literature, then I could plug it in and tell the story I wanted to tell about the early NLAC. But in order to find that literature, I had first to know what this thing would be called, right? So, I went in search of the right terms, and I found all kinds of proximate terms.
I mentioned my interest in these Latin American films about production processes to a senior scholar who told me that my production process films were just derivative of an endless archive of films that tracked production processes from raw material to finished commodity. Moreover, the concept I needed, that I had been missing, was Neil Harris’s “operational aesthetic,” a concept Harris developed in the course of his research on P.T. Barnum. Harris wanted to explain the popularity of Barnum’s mid-19th century live acts featuring such oddities as the “Feejee” mermaid not in terms of ordinary people’s stupidity or ignorance, but rather by focusing on the ways that Barnum incorporated a “how it’s done” dimension into his acts. Harris argued that the popularity of these shows owed to this process dimension, to an “operational aesthetic” that tapped into people’s fascination with how things work.
Of course, I didn’t know what the “operational aesthetic” was, and at first, I just accepted it—”ok, it’s the operational aesthetic that explains everything.” And this happened at various times with various terms, like Tom Gunning’s “process film,” Victoria Cain’s “craftsmanship aesthetic,” Ann-Sophie Lehmann’s concept of “showing making,” André Leroi-Gourhan’s “chaîne opératoire,” and E.H. Gombrich’s “pictorial instructions.” I don’t think it is just my own opportunism to say that those categories were not quite what I was looking for. Certainly, they overlap with the “process genre,” and were incredibly useful for thinking through the limits of the category of representation I was trying to understand. These terms were proximate terms operating independently in different disciplines, from art history (in the case of pictorial instructions and “showing making”) to history (in the case of the “craftmanship aesthetic”) to cinema studies (in the case of the “process film”) to anthropology (in the case of the chaîne opératoire). The terms were not yet in dialogue, they hadn’t been brought together. I thought hard about each of them—whether they encompassed the kind of representation I wanted to encompass, what kind of representation would be inside and what would be outside of each of these categories and why or why not. Each of the concepts covered part of what I was interested in, but none of them cover all of it. Because I was not quite satisfied with previous terminology, I needed to propose a new category, but then came the problem of all category proposals: how broad or how narrow should the category be. If it was too capacious, it would lose explanatory power; everything would fit inside. If the category was too narrow, it would lose significance, reach, and thus impact. Although I decided to start very small— including only my favorite, the most spellbinding example films— because I thought that the category had to produce an intense absorption, I soon started to see that there could be a scalar approach to the process genre. I started to think about the category in terms of concentric circles: in the center circle would fit my paradigm examples. So, there would be something at the heart, then the circles move out from the center. And, in fact, this process of thinking about what was at the heart and what was in those outer concentric circles helped me think about what it was I wanted to talk about.
I like the visual metaphor of concentric circles, but I am aware of the concerns this way of thinking raises. On the one hand, there has been a general disavowal of genre categories derived retrospectively by critics as part of a classificatory effort as opposed to genre categories defined by use—that is, genre categories that emerge organically and contextually as a product of industry publicity. On the other hand (and more generally), taxonomy and taxonomic approaches are under fire for reasons that I’m totally sympathetic to. In this moment in time, our humanistic disciplines focus on blurring categorical boundaries, on differences and not on similarities. In a way, there’s something that feels almost reactionary about building categories (especially genre categories) and then testing cases against these defined category borders. Yet, in the pursuit of theorizing, I don’t know how to get out of thinking in terms of categories or cases—what is inside the category and outside it. I think this taxonomic enterprise is a heuristic technique, a useful restriction that promotes thinking. People will come up with new cases and whether these cases end up being in or out of the category or whether they are on the scale is, in the end, almost irrelevant.
CP: The “process genre” is a transmedial phenomenon that spans across a range of historical and geographical frameworks. However, I don’t think it is a coincidence that a cinema and media scholar identified and theorized it. You explain to us that you “come to focus on the process genre in film because, although the genre has a life in other media […], it achieves its fullest expression in moving image media, not least because of the medium’s constitutive capacity to visually and analytically decompose movement and to curate its recomposition. The process genre is,” you argue, “a ciné-genre.” In your book, film and media studies becomes a privilege site to think about cultural practices at large, and to make sense of these practices’ social and political significances. Are there lessons that we can learn about this critical centering of our discipline?
SAS: Your intuition makes sense and to respond to your question, let me start like this, in a roundabout way. When I was a graduate student, I felt that my dissertation was malformed and reflected a certain idiosyncrasy. Because I felt that I had pursued a series of personal interests and then told a story about how those interests were related. I dreamed about unfolding a project in which all its parts were necessary, in which these parts were not justified after the fact. So, when I started to think of the process genre I began by asking myself what would be required to unfold the phenomenon. “Okay,” I thought, “I need first to show and demonstrate that this is a thing. Once I’ve convinced the reader that this is a thing, I then need to start unfolding its parts. But which are its necessary parts? Well, it would be important to know where this phenomenon comes from, how long it has been around, why we care about it, what its effects mean, and where it is going.” This was what needed to be said, but I didn’t want to say it from the perspective of cinema and media studies just because I was in cinema and media studies. I wanted to approach the process genre from this specific disciplinary location because this was the best position. Not just because it had to be in the best position—because I needed to keep my job and live and have a life—but because it actually was the best position.
I haven’t always been convinced that cinema studies was the best position to think about processual representation. After I had put together that industrial films, educational films, ethnographic films, craft demonstrations, pictorial instructions, and so on were all part of the phenomenon I wanted to understand, I wasn’t sure which expression of processual representation was at the heart of the phenomenon. Was it the earliest, pictorial instructions? Or craft demonstrations where there are no ellipses in the performance? I first worried that I was not the right person for the project because I thought that at the center of the genre was the craft demonstration, since it is a form of representation that unfolds in real time. If that had been the case, the most natural cinematic convention of processual representation would have been the long take. But the paradigmatic process films from Latin America, whose shots are ten seconds long, started to make clear that cinema’s ellipses were not antithetical at all to the phenomenon but quite the opposite. These films helped me understand that the phenomenon is a syntax, an achievement of form and style rather than something that occurs naturally in the world. And not just that. I realized that those 40 or so ten-second shots edited together in a work like Aruanda produce more mesmerism than the “real time” of craft demonstrations. What I ultimately felt was that at the heart of processual representation was absorption, this kind of surprising mesmerism that the genre produces (surprising because subject matters like cooking or mining or building often do not have an obvious interest) —craft demonstrations have something of it, but they don’t have it as strongly marked (nor can craft demonstrations cover such a wide range of time-intensive activities) as my paradigm processual films.
There’s one more thing to add. Something I wonder about are all the processual representations found in new media, which the book does not really touch upon. Since The Process Genre came out, I’ve done some book presentations and people in the audience have inevitably asked me whether unboxing videos or algorithms or some porn or certain TikTok trends could be considered processual representation, whether various media belong to the category. “I don’t know,” I’ve always responded, “what do you think?” So, someone might come along and say that in fact my location as a cinema scholar overdetermines my approach because the paradigm of the process genre is in fact…I don’t know…the videogame. That may be so, and I cannot see it. My aspiration would be for something of the framework I have tried to establish to be helpful for further developing thought about the phenomenon. If the categorical borders become blurred, moved, deconstructed, so be it. Isn’t that the way of things, anyway?
CP: Okay, so let me be more specific about my previous question and say that I think it is not a coincidence that a film and media scholar with a background in Latin American cinema identified and theorized the “process genre.” In Chapter 4, “Nation Building,” you discuss the importance of thinking about the “process genre” in dialogue with “nationality,” and you do so by focusing on NLAC. You help us understand the role that “processual syntax” played for NLAC filmmakers in “conjuring a parallel nation, a society fit for posterity—fashioned by the intelligent labor of local peasants and local artisans.” Could we approach this question in the reverse? That is, what is the role that your background in Latin American Studies played in theorizing the “process genre”?
SAS: When I started to work on the topic, I was in a Latin American and Latino Studies department, and I felt the pressure to write a book that was largely about Latin American films. My initial idea was to divide the book into two parts. While the first part would be an effort to unfold the process genre as a category, the second part would focus on the Latin American case study. As my editor at Duke foresaw, what I conceived were in fact two different books. But I changed jobs, and within a cinema and media studies department, I felt more freedom, and with more freedom, I thought I could do the book that I wanted, where there wouldn’t be anything idiosyncratic or extraneous, and where I tried to unfold—in the best way that I was capable of—my idea. Yet, within these new and favorable circumstances, I needed to think about the role of Latin American films. It is often the case that European and U.S. cinema become the cases on which a general theory is developed, while Global South cinemas serve as case studies of some theory (unless the topic is national cinemas) developed from within a different context. It’s not that the theory was developed without reference to or without particular cases in mind (how many general theories of point of view or editing have been built on Hitchcock or Eisenstein); it is that it isn’t usual to generalize and theorize from Global South cases and thus they are often thought about not in formalist or abstract ways but almost exclusively in local and contexualist ways. (Of course there is nothing wrong with careful considerations of context.) My desire was to tell a story in which Latin America was not just a case study or an opportunistic idiosyncrasy, but rather I wanted those Latin American examples to have a central—and theoretical—function in unfolding the book. And if they really couldn’t play that role, I wanted to be able to treat them like all the other examples. In the end, I think the Latin American process films are actually special.
What located the Latin American cases at the heart of the project were those late 1950s and 1960s Latin American ethnographic films about craft production. Since those films hadn’t been treated in a formalist way, their processual character had remained unremarked. They had been primarily talked about in relation to the representation of racialized poverty and immiseration because these films mostly depicted rural Black and Brown people (Afro Latin Americans or indigenous Latin Americans or mixed-race Latin Americans, whether Brazilians or Chileans or Argentinians) involved in subsistence activities. They were films that resembled the kind of romantic ethnographic films in the style of Robert Flaherty. And they were that, sort of, except that the politics of these early NLAC films was different. What is unique about these Latin American process films is that they contain not an ambiguity so much as a complexity—dialectical politics, perhaps—in their critique of developmentalism. They recognize that development in the form of government intervention, support, social spending would make people’s lives better. But, at the same time, as a matter of film form, as a matter of one’s experience of the films—these films reject the sort of condescension that is so common in romantic, well-intentioned depictions. The films are not condescending because they’re not picturesque in the familiar ways. And that is because they are so rigorously processual, so focused on what their social actors do—on what it is to conceive or design something in imagination; on what it is to actually make something; on what it is to follow through on a series of steps involved in the process. Whether the people at work are crafting wicker, or pottery, or salt mining, you feel their making in your belly, you feel, viscerally, people’s profound intelligence, skill, and capacity. In effect, these films’ social actors are turning branches into wicker figurines, water and earth into jugs, they’re transforming nature. They are not the subjects of a taxidermic representation, stuck in time—which is the way Johannes Fabian talks about how anthropology has constructed its ethnographic subject; but rather, they are dynamic agents changing the world. (I don’t want to leave the impression that just any representation of people doing and making achieves this effect. For me, this effect is an achievement, an accomplishment, of film style.)
These Latin American films helped me understand something about politics and the process genre. I don’t want to say that it helped me understand something about the politics of the genre because I don’t think the genre itself has any particular politics. The process genre is used by the left and it is used by the right and to focus on the politics of it can be a trap. If I had come to the process genre from industrial cinema, for example, I would have said to myself, “Okay, this processual syntax is really bad news. It belongs to the political right, it’s about productivity, it’s about capitalist development, it’s about the capitalist division of labor. It’s politically irrecuperable.” But I came to the process genre through Latin American socialist films and their insight is very different. These are revolutionary films that show folk subjects making something out of nothing, that tell us that the world could be other, that another world is possible. It was this that made this cycle of films peculiar and made me understand that Latin America had an exceptional role to play in the book.
CP: Chapter 3, “Aestheticizing Labor,” discusses why the “process genre” is open to mobilization by both left and right movements. The “process genre,” you contend, “is fundamentally committed to (what might be thought of as) a kind a politics that straddles left and right: the metaphysics of labor.” “Believing in a metaphysics of labor,” you explain, “can mean being committed not merely to the idea that labor is the source of value in commodity exchange but also to the idea that it is the transhistorical source of meaningfulness in human life—‘life’s prime want,’ as Marx famously wrote in The Critique of the Gotha Programme.” This argument has a broader theoretical impact, one that exceeds the framework of the “process genre.” It exposes theoretical limitations of previous debates about cinema’s relation to labor—it shows how the historical situatedness of the conception of labor as toil had been, to use your own terms, “naturalized.” Does the theoretical terrain drawn by the process genre open new critical paths, methodologies, objects, in debates about cinema and labor?
SAS: To try to figure out the politics of the process genre (which I was trying to do for a long time) became a blind alley. I don’t think that genres have politics. Would you, for example, talk about the politics of the melodrama? Different films do different things. Yet, in the course of thinking about whether the process genre had politics led to one of my favorite arguments. (Can you have favorite arguments?)
It all started with the Crayola crayon short from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It is one of the most memorable segments from that PBS television show. I approached the crayon film by asking myself what today’s common sense would want to say about this film. “Well,” I thought, “it would say that while the film shows the process of crayon-making, it doesn’t show any single human face. And because labor is effaced in the representation, labor is not present in the frame, and thus the film dehumanizes labor.” Although this would have been the standard reading, it chafed against my own experience of the film, and somehow, I could not accept a political reading of those five minutes as reactionary. I just couldn’t. It just seemed wrong, and so I wanted to figure out why was it the case that I couldn’t accept the obvious reading, which was to understand the film as a product of the logic of Taylorism. I thought that maybe there was something else to take into consideration in the analysis of this and other industrial films that follow production processes from beginning to end.
What we see in the crayon film is people involved in a kind of repetitive, alienated, monotonous, toilsome work under a capitalist organization of production. That’s definitely the pro-filmic situation. And yet, the spectatorial effect of these films couldn’t be more different: to see all the steps involved in the transformation of a commodity from nothing to something produces an intense involvement and absorption. I slowly began to realize the importance of these films’ perspective in the achievement of such effects. Even though what is actually represented is a Taylorist organization of the labor process (with a minute division of labor), the film’s form—i.e., the film’s processual syntax—approximates this labor to the artisan’s perspective, to the artisan who gets the satisfaction of seeing the transformation of material across all the steps in the process. This is, in a way, the rhetorical genius of some processual advertising films that tap into the pleasures of craft production and turn something that is not craft production into something that feels like craft production. When you understand how cinema’s formal possibilities can tap into the pleasures of watching craft, you understand why processual syntax can be employed by different constituencies for different ends. You see what’s going on? One orientation would have been to locate a particular object like the Mr. Rogers crayon film on a progressive-reactionary continuum. It’s progressive, it’s good. It’s reactionary, it’s bad. But I think that part of our (i.e. the critic’s) task—or part of what I’m interested in—is to understand the appeal of a film like this one (even if it is only its appeal to me). Understanding the appeal even of reactionary works is part of what I think we should be doing.
I think the process genre is committed to a “metaphysics of labor,” which has its left-wing and right-wing adherents. One can embrace a “metaphysics of labor” when one celebrates productivity as in many industrial films; or one can embrace a “metaphysics of labor” when one views labor as “life’s prime want” as in romantic anti-capitalist socialist films. But, of course, one can reject a “metaphysics of labor,” and there are a range of political commitments from across the left-right spectrum that reject a “metaphysics of labor”—on principle. I also acknowledge there is an outside to it. There are other ideological committments, from the Autonomists to others in the tradition of Paul Lafargue, who would say that labor is not at the heart of human life, that it is not at the heart of a liberated human life, that it should not be at the heart of a liberated human life, that it will not be at the heart of the liberated human life.
Just as there is a critique of the “metaphysics of labor” or an “outside” to the “metaphysics of labor,” there is an “outside” to the process genre or a taste antipathy to processual representation. I think I see that antipathy as connected to the critique of humanism. Like the anti-taxonomic drive, this anti-humanist “outside,”—which is clearly unfriendly to processual representation—is the spirit of the day, at least in the academic milieu. And all the films I discuss in my favorite part of the book, the epilogue, are precisely interested in this “outside”: they express a general antipathy for everything I love about processual representation—craft, care, human genius, the possibility of true knowledge, the striving for perfection, the experience of absorption, the expressive and agentive character of work. The epilogue’s spoofs are refusals of the metaphysics of labor; what you get in objects like The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World Ever Made or Dough (Mika Rottenberg, United States, 2005–06) is a parody of the process genre’s pleasures—poking fun at its carefulness, rigorousness, precision, etc.—and a celebration of imperfection, messiness, chaos, and goop. I’m so personally seduced by the process genre and so partial to its kind of wholesome, humanist, democratic sensibility, that I think the mistake would have been to naturalize it, to not be able to see its outside. I try at least to see its outside, to see how one might raise questions.
CP: As you show us with numerous (and necessary) textual close analyses, it is only by adopting a formalist approach that the “process genre” can be defined and understood. At the same time, what I most admire in your book is the historical side of your study, the way you historically specify the development of formal structures in cinema. “The process genre is a genre of modernity, made necessary,” you argue, “by changes to the sphere of production in fifteenth-century Europe.” (Reading parts of this first chapter, “The Process Film in Context,” I couldn’t help but think of Tom Gunning’s article “Systematizing the Electric Message: Narrative Form, Gender, and Modernity in The Lonedale Operator,” in which he discusses parallel editing in relation to telegraphic communication and the “systematic nature of modernity.”) What joys and challenges did you encounter in the process of historicizing the formal features of the “process genre” and, specifically, of the process film?
SAS: That’s such a nice comparison. I wish… I love that essay. This is just an aside, but I heard someone describe that essay as the perfect cinema studies essay, the perfect model because it brings together formal analysis, ideological critique, and history.
CP: That’s precisely what your book does!
SAS: This is so nice… But I think that chapter was the hardest to write, and it was the hardest because I’m not really a historian. But let me say a little bit about what I was hoping to achieve, and the kind of trouble I had writing it, which had primarily to do with chronology. I was not sure whether I had to begin in the present or with the earliest form of processual representation, 15th century machine drawings; whether I had to move back or forward in time. To figure out what to do, I thought of my readership. The readership that I imagined was a readership in my discipline; and I imagined that if I started to talk about the process genre, readers in cinema and media would immediately think of industrial films. So, because I wanted to convince this readership, I thought I should start with where I thought they were—with their intuitions, with the kind of objections I thought they might have. I decided to begin the history of the process genre with turn-of-the-century industrial cinema and have the rest move back in time from there.
The way I move in time mimics my own process of discovery, as I go from processual representation in industrial, educational, and ethnographic early films to craft demonstrations in 19th century fairs to 17th and 18th century pictorial instructions and finally to machine drawings. From this range of processual representations, ethnographic films, World’s Fairs, and machine drawings were the most challenging but also the most rewarding objects of analysis. On the one hand, ethnographic films and International Expositions helped me understand that the process genre does not only show a method of doing or making something. In anthropological contexts, processual syntax was important for locating a people or a civilization along a developmental trajectory. Material culture and methods of production (both of which are present in processual representations) play a crucial role in that assignation. To think about the process genre in relation to modes of production was a kind of revelation, and an idea that became key to the unfolding of the next parts and arguments of the book.
On the other hand, machine drawings from the 1400s became key to helping me see the role of perspective in processual representation. There is a point at which these drawings of machines start to employ single viewpoint perspective and to number or letter the parts of the machine, and this seemed deeply related to a new constituency for these drawings, a constituency that needed a better sense of how the machine parts were related and how the machines actually worked. The drawings needed more and more to stand on their own, to be self-explanatory.
This chapter is a little eclectic partly because I don’t present a full history of the process genre. In trying to make the case that the genre is a transmedial phenomenon and that its syntax goes back quite far, I brought together different disciplines—from art historians writing about how-to manuals to historians of technology writing about early machines drawings to historians of empire writing about evolutionary ideology to historians of science writing about representation in embryology. I thought about processual syntax comparatively: “Is this part of the same phenomenon? Can I convince my reader that this is the same phenomenon? And if it’s the same phenomenon, what do we now notice about it that we didn’t notice before?” Comparing pictorial instructions, machine drawings, craft demonstrations, and cinema was a practice of figuring out how far I could trace processual syntax. I wasn’t exactly looking for a precise origin; but I wanted to have a sense of how far back I could go and still recognize the phenomenon…
…Somehow, I can’t get out of the first-person biographical mode…
CP: Actually, I worried about my questions being too oriented towards your research and writing process…
SAS: I don’t think it’s just the questions, I think that’s where I go, and I think it just has to do with the fact that I’m very interested in method. Although the book has very concrete arguments, in every presentation I’ve ever given on The Process Genre, I end up talking about methodology—how you go about something, how you come to an idea, etc.
CP: Inadvertently, my last question attempted to explicitly touch upon your interest in method. I had formulated it in this way: In Chapter 2, “On Being Absorbed in Work,” you explain us that the process genre represents labor as “skill,” “technique,” a representation that elicits a sense of “satisfaction” in the beholder. As many readers and reviewers of your book have insistently expressed, to grasp the effects of “wonder,” “pleasure,” “absorption,” “gratification” of the “process genre” is an easy endeavor precisely because we experience them while reading your book. “The Process Genre illuminates the pleasure of reading a well-executed scholarly work,” Juan-Llamas Rodríguez has commented. What is for you the significance of your book’s collapse of method and object? How has the process genre informed your scholarly work, and vice-versa?
SAS: I think that part of what I thought my task was in the book was to convince the reader that the process genre was “a thing.” However, I felt that it was not enough to simply construct an argument about it. As much as possible, I had to make the process genre present for the readers. To conjure the process genre for the readers was very much like teaching, a pedagogical exercise. You can lecture to students about a variety of things, and explain difficult, dense theoretical texts. Although this approach can be helpful, in my teaching I often don’t want to say, “here’s this thing,” but I want to try to approximate the thing, make it present, tap into the students’ own experiences so that they can feel and come to know it for themselves.
One of the main things I think about when I do scholarly work is who I am writing for. I know this is a profession and our writing has its norms, technical vocabulary, and expertise. I get that. But, I try to write without using too much specialized vocabulary, I want to write with a “layperson” in mind. You know? My imagined reader is often my dad—this liberal, open, reasonable, Jewish guy in his 80s. I try to make my writing convincing not to an academic person, but to a regular person like him. Here, I am not talking about writing for general readership; my writing is disciplinary (and he complains about that); but still, I want to convince a person on the street. I think there’s something very satisfying about trying to explain something well or convince the uninitiated of something. I’m not saying that the whole discipline should do this, or that this is the model to follow, but there’s something personally satisfying about gaining or trying to achieve a certain level of clarity and understanding for oneself.
Before finishing, let me also expand on something that I briefly touched upon before: common sense. I’m interested in common sense. How can I say this? One day when I tried to say that my method is intelligent, common sense, a much admired colleague responded to me, “Oh my god, common sense! I’m totally against common sense. Totally against!” (In this particular case, I don’t think he is actually.) I imagine that what he was getting at is that our task as scholars is to clarify things that people don’t understand and, in a way, to put things right. And although I absolutely agree with this, I think there’s a further task. When you feel people are wrong about something, you need to account for appearances and ask yourself why something looks that way to them. This strategy led me to the argument about the artisan’s point-of-view, and that’s precisely what I really like about this argument. Rather than assert that a viewer is absorbed by processual representation for bad reasons or adopt a moralistic denunciation of a spectator who is enthralled by industrial films produced by capitalist corporations to sell commodities that perpetuate a catastrophic of organization of society, what I think we need to do as scholars is to figure out what these films’ appeal is, and why this appeal works. This method has the premise that people aren’t idiots and that people aren’t rotten, but that they’re smart and mostly they’re good. And, to me, that’s one of the great lessons of the Marxist method. Even when you think that people get things wrong, and that appearances are deceiving, you strive to account for why things appear the way they do, and why something can be so convincing. I think that’s what the process genre is all about. Even when it is used by forces against us, for nefarious purposes, it is used precisely because processual representation expresses a democratic and utopian wish to know and understand the world.
This interview was conducted via Zoom on September 15, 2021. It has been condensed and edited.
Read more about The Process Genre. Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (2020) on the Duke University Press website.
Read Kit Hughes’ review of The Process Genre