Ex-Cinema: From a Theory of Experimental Film and Video

Ex-Cinema: From a Theory of Experimental Film and Video

by Akira Lippit

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What does it mean for film and video to be experimental? In this collection of essays framed by the concept “ex-”—meaning from, outside, and no longer—Akira Mizuta Lippit explores the aesthetic, technical, and theoretical reverberations of avant-garde film and video. Ex-Cinema is a sustained reflection on the ways in which experimental media artists move outside the conventions of mainstream cinema and initiate a dialogue on the meaning of cinema itself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274143
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/30/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 201
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Akira Mizuta Lippit is Professor of Cinematic Arts, Comparative Literature, and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. He is on the board of Film Quarterly, and is author of Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) and Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife.

Read an Excerpt


From a Theory of Experimental Film and Video

By Akira Mizuta Lippit


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27414-3


Exergue Ex-Cinema

An exergue, from the Greek ex (outside) and ergon (work), refers to a space outside the work, outside the essential body of the work, and yet part of it, even essentially—a part and apart. An exergue locates an outside space that is included in the work as its outside. What kind of work, and what kind of outside? The Oxford English Dictionary defines the exergue as "a small space usually on the reverse side of a coin or medal, below the principal device, for any minor inscription, the date, engraver's initials, etc. Also, the inscription there inserted." A small space for "minor" inscriptions as well as the inscription itself. Inscription and the space of inscription (they appear to bear the same significance in an exergue) located on the body of a work or object (ergon), but on the other side, away. But not far away from the work, neither within nor without it, a minor space of inscription and a minor inscription. In a literary or artistic work, a place that forms an interstice between the frame or framework, parergon, and the proper body of the work, ergon. It belongs neither to the inside nor the outside, is proper to neither, but also exists before and beyond the work, a work that comes apart, exergue.

Jacques Derrida locates such an exergue in Friedrich Nietzsche's quasi-autobiography, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888). Suspended between the book's foreword and its first chapter, "Why I Am So Wise," the untitled exergue opens onto an anniversary, Nietzsche's forty-forth birthday from which he looks "behind" and "before": "How should I not be grateful to my whole life?—And so I tell myself my life." Here, in the suspended midday of his life, exactly halfway between life and death, in a shadowless moment, Nietzsche gives thanks to his life, and gives his life to himself, gives it over, tells and recites it. He mediates his own life, the recitation of his life to come, inscribing himself in the exergue as a medium. Nietzsche's exergue, this minor inscription and space of inscription resembles a spinning coin, front and reverse, "principal device" and "minor inscription" blending into one, a single work whose inside and out are no longer distinguishable, whose corpus and ex-corpus have become one in a blur.

What kind of work is essential and outside, essentially outside while remaining a part of the work? It is a work, or exergue, that takes place outside of the work, alongside and beside it, between the elements that constitute the work. It gives the work its date and its signature (the "engraver's initials"), inscribing its moment in time and its authorship. In this sense, the exergue initiates the work from outside, an outside or frame that makes possible the work, and remains part of it in the form of a trace or frame. Nietzsche's exergue is such a dating, written, he claims, on his forty-fourth birthday: "On this perfect day, when everything has become ripe and not only the grapes are growing brown, a ray of sunlight has fallen on to my life: I looked behind me, I looked before me, never have I seen such good things together. Not in vain have I buried my forty-fourth birthday today, I was entitled to bury it—what there was of life in it is rescued, is immortal." Nietzsche inscribes his book with an exergue, dates it on his forty-fourth birthday, between the foreword and first chapter. But he also engraves it, buries himself in this exergue on this date, in which "not only the grapes are growing brown." This anniversary, his birth date is also the date of his death and the beginning of an immortality, an eternal return that returns to Nietzsche, the author, and to the "engraver's initials." In the space of the exergue and made possible by the space of the exergue, Nietzsche gives the work to himself, addresses it to himself, to another self that returns to the site of this minor inscription: "How should I not be grateful to my whole life?—And so I tell myself my life." In the exergue, or hors d'oeuvre, in this space of minor inscription, Nietzsche addresses himself, gives himself over to himself. It is, Derrida notes, a unique space of autobiography, of dating, made complicated in this instance by the very concept of return that Nietzsche invokes within this space of the outside, the space outside the work and of the outside work:

Without fail, the structure of the exergue on the borderline or of the borderline in the exergue will be reprinted wherever the question of life, of "my-life," arises. Between a title or a preface on the one hand, and the book to come on the other, between the title Ecce Homo and Ecce Homo "itself," the structure of the exergue situates the place from which life will be recited, that is to say, reaffirmed.

In Nietzsche's exergue, says Derrida, life itself is recited and reaffirmed; my life, signed and dated, returns to me in this space suspended within and without the work. On this borderline, the exergue animates this other life (the other's life, but also my other life) that returns to the proper body on the anniversaries and eternal returns that call it back. But the body that returns and the one I return to are never one and the same. The shadowless moment of the exergue, makes both bodies possible side by side, inside out. This is the spatiotemporal structure of an exergue, but also the force of its vitality: outside life. Borderline life returns on the occasion of its anniversary, on the anniversary of its beginning and its end, in this space essential to the work and yet always at the same time, in the same instant, inessential. For this day, inscribed and remembered is also not a place or time at all."But this noon of life," says Derrida, "is not a place and does not take place. For this very reason, it is not a moment but only an instantly vanishing limit." This limit, says Derrida, vanishes and returns every day, each iteration a new recurrence of the same. This vanishing limit of life, of a time that begins in the instant of its end, born at the instant of its death, and signed always by an engraver that addresses itself elsewhere, returning from the outside to itself, operates according to a logic and work of the outside: because the exergue is not only outside the work, a work outside the work, but also a work of the outside. It works the outside as an instantly vanishing limit.

The exergue is also a thinking and excavation of the outside. It gives shape to the outside, signs and dates an outside made visible from the work, but which also makes the work visible. This is the necessity of Nietzsche's exergue that Derrida recognizes: the work of life, of reciting one's life, of autobiography, is made possible only by traversing the minor inscription and space of inscription, the exergue. Only by crossing and crossing over (and crossing out) these thresholds, by signing and countersigning life (engraving), does life become visible, does life become visible as work. The ergon is made possible by the exergue, framed by it as parergon. Outside the work and the work of the outside, but also a work from the work, and a work no longer the (same) work. Exergue, ex-cinema.

Could one imagine a cinema that appears as a series of exergues, elements of an essential cinema that take place between works—between, beside, and outside of them—but also as works of the outside, inscriptions of work that illuminate the outside; works that make cinema visible, and thus possible? A cinema elsewhere, to and from cinema, marked by this passage outside, no longer cinema yet not far? Could one call this body of works an ex-cinema? In his essay on the experimental cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, "The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film," Jonathan Walley, following Hollis Frampton's coinage, uses the term "paracinema" to describe the phenomenon of cinema outside of cinema. "Paracinema," he says, "identifies an array of phenomena that are considered 'cinematic' but that are not embodied in the materials of film as traditionally defined. That is, the film works I am addressing recognize cinematic properties outside the standard film apparatus, and therefore reject the medium-specific premise of most essentialist theory and practice that the art form of cinema is defined by the specific medium of film." Walley rejects medium specificity in the paracinema but not essentialism as such, only the essentialism of medium specificity. "Paracinema," he concludes, "is based on a different version of essentialism, which locates cinema's essence elsewhere." In Walley's account of paracinema, the essence of cinema does not lie somewhere else, somewhere other than the specificity of the medium, but precisely in the elsewhere. Paracinema is an essence of the elsewhere, a medium displaced from itself, like Nietzsche's autobiography given to himself from the outside, an exergue and ex-cinema that returns from the outside, from elsewhere, as the essence outside. For Walley, the paracinema is such a return, a "cinema beyond, even before, film."

Walley cites Paul Sharits's early flicker films and Anthony McCall's Long Film for Ambient Light (1975) as two examples of paracinema, works that begin the process of "dismantling" the basic film apparatus to achieve the idea of cinema. Walley traces this impulse to Sergei Eisenstein's and later André Bazin's theorization of cinema as a general concept rather than a specific form achieved in the basic apparatus, and the structural-materialist or "expanded" cinemas (Gene Youngblood's term) of the 1960s and 1970s as the moment of its actualization or attempted actualization. For Walley, cinema is virtual and its actualization in specific forms, iterations, and instances represents only a temporary and provisional realization of a cinema that remains ultimately elsewhere, diffuse, a potential rather than an instantiation. Following Bazin, Walley concludes that cinema is "an idea that has temporarily taken the form of certain materials." His argument eventually puts the experimental cinema of this period in dialogue with Conceptual art, which similarly sought to "dematerialize" art, to liberate artworks from specific materials and media.

But what if such a paracinema—such an idea of cinema without organs, without bodies, or rather with multiple bodies and parts of bodies—took place within cinema, as cinema, as the specter of an idea of cinema that doesn't require its dematerialization or dismantling, its displacement into a radical exteriority, but as an exergue within the body of cinema, of film, framed within the frame but always at an irreducible distance? What if the medium was thought here, as the word also suggests, as a passage rather than a fixed body, as a movement rather than a form, as the possibility of contact with another medium? Would it alter the very concept of "medium specificity" if the medium were understood as essentially nonspecific, if its specificity were determined precisely by its opening to another form or thought of the outside—that is, an intermediate (mediating) form rather than a fixed body, a channel of communication rather than an essence unto itself, like a spiritual medium? And what if certain works haunted cinema, returned to cinema, engraving from within the trace of an irreducible exteriority, a second body or secondary revision, like Nietzsche's exergue, marking a temporal dimension that always comes from cinema (ex-cinema), from a spectral outside (ex-cinema) and becomes cinema, like an autobiography of cinema, inscribing itself within the space of an anniversary exergue? Might one call such a cinema "ex-cinema"—a cinema that opens a space before and beyond, as Walley says, a space beside and outside, but always from within a minor space opened on the other side of cinema?

David James locates such parasitic geographies in the minor cinemas of Los Angeles, countercinemas that formed as a resistance to—but also a symptom of—the film industry. "The industry has been a constant presence," he says,"one that enticed as often as it repelled its would-be other and inspired as often as inhibited it." James calls the constellation of other cinemas that formed around the industry "minor cinemas." It is an aggregate term for those cinemas outside:

To register the collective significance of these multiple traditions of films whose unusual, experimental, and sometimes outrageous qualities set them apart from the standardized narrative features made by Hollywood and other industrial centers, they must be brought into some common field of reference with each other. My expanded summary term for these diverse and often mutually incompatible avant-garde traditions is "minor cinemas," cinemas constructed, in at least some aspects of their motivation, outside the major studios and the dominant film industry.

James's collection of minor inscriptions, of "most typical avant-gardes," defines a cinema borne of ambivalence toward cinema. They are second cinemas, paracinemas, ex-cinemas that exist outside cinema by existing within it.

A cinema from cinema, ex-cinema that forms in the space of an exergue, second cinema and medium double, which generates its own grammatology pieced together from the languages of cinema, from its spaces and times and images, often quoting cinema in excerpt and extensive revision, secondary revision. A cinema that describes cinema within the frame of cinema, along its borders as parergon. Would one call this cinema, this ex-cinema, a second medium—another medium specific to its own aspecificity, to medium aspecificity? Or would this ex-cinema supplement cinema, extend its medium specificity outside from cinema, but remain within the parameters of the basic apparatus? The problem of medium specificity that Walley poses with regard to film and the idea of cinema assumes an added degree of complexity in an ex-cinema that never distinguishes itself from cinema and yet never adheres to a cinema proper. All of this made possible by the phantom space and time of an exergue, by the space of work outside and the work of space outside that returns. James's Los Angeles resembles such an exergue, a city, industry, and concept whose outsides are already inscribed inside, ex-Los Angeles.

The ex-cinema is never only a thought or conception, an imaginary genre, but a set of manifestations and praxes. Andy Warhol's Blow Job (1964) practices ex-cinema.The pornographic visuality signaled (named and promised) in its title is displaced offscreen, performed where it cannot be seen. If it exists, it takes place outside, folded into the spectacle as an absence. Warhol's thirty-six-minute close-up of a male face reveals nothing while exposing something, if not everything (else); the sexual activity described in the title never appears in a film that suggests something else, another other film elsewhere. There and not there, visible and invisible, or evasive. Roy Grundmann recognizes the persistent "tension between concreteness and abstraction" that defines Warhol's sexual visuality in Blow Job, and which leads outward into a cinema space that forms around the frame. In this film, one sees the space one does not and cannot see, the space of scopophilic desire par excellence. Everything in Blow Job takes place in this exergue, in and beyond the edges of the frame, of a pornographic scene exposed. In Warhol's ex-cinema, here and elsewhere, the frame is obscene, the mundane spectacle and time of cinema always inscribed on the edges of his cinema. And yet everything takes place in the film: the frenzy outside the frame, its force, exists within Blow Job. The displacement of spectacle in this film and of cinema is its spectacle.


Excerpted from Ex-Cinema by Akira Mizuta Lippit. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

EXC00 Exergue Ex-cinema
EXC01 Out of the Blue (ex nihilo)
EXC02 Extimacy: Outside Time and Super-realist Cinema
EXC03 Cinemnesis: Martin Arnold’s Memory Apparatus
EXC04 The Rhetoric of Images, of the Unimaginable
EXC05 Derrida, Specters, Self-reflection
EXC06 (Parenthesis: Video Ergo Sum)
EXC07 Digesture: Gestures Without Bodies
EXC08 Extract Matthias Müller
EXC09 Revisionary Cinema
EXC10 xxxxMA

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