Sam B. Girgus is a Professor of English at Vanderbilt University with special interests in philosophy, ethics, film, and American Studies. He has received several prestigious honors including the Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship and Senior Fulbright Lectureship. His many books include The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture (University of New Mexico Press, 1981), The Films of Woody Allen (Cambridge University Press, 1993, 2002), The Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Capra, and Kazan (Cambridge University Press, 1998), America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and the recently released Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine (Columbia University Press, 2010).
You started out in American Studies, moved to English, then Film Studies. Talk to us about these turns.
I suppose that all of these “turns” exhibit what in American Studies we used to call an eclectic or what Henry Nash Smith dubbed an “opportunistic” approach to studying and analyzing changing issues about culture and history. They indicate a kind of pragmatic attitude toward methodology, the attempt to invent a systematic approach to problems so that ends and means cohere. At its core, I suppose it also goes back to a basic insistence on rigorous research as part of a method of investigation that deals with issues from diverse perspectives.
When I started out as a professor and scholar, I saw my first passion as American culture and the American experience as opposed to a commitment to a specific discipline such as literature or history. So I went into American Studies. In time, I also became deeply interested in Freud and psychoanalysis as part of an attempt to understand American culture. I was very influenced by the work of Christopher Lasch as a way to meld history, psychoanalysis, and literature. Then, when I felt I had written all I could in American literature and when the discipline itself seemed to be changing, I began to pursue my interests by studying film and more recently philosophy and ethics.
Do you see your career in the Navy as influencing your scholarship in any way? Likewise, you've done a lot of work abroad as a scholar and teacher. Presumably, that experience affected you as an American Studies scholar as well?
I think any experience that exposes you to a diversity of people and relationships should prove beneficial for opening and deepening perspectives and understandings. The benefit I received from that very undramatic military experience in the 1960s was the association with people from all kinds of places and backgrounds with so much to offer.
The teaching and scholarly work abroad proved life changing – especially first-hand experience over several years in Eastern Europe and even in the last days of the Soviet Union. These events definitely solidified, probably as it was meant to, my adherence to a classic view of the meaning of the American idea and experience to the world. In Hungary, in Poland, in Bulgaria, in Moscow just steps away from the Kremlin, I met so many people who felt lost and hopeless in their own time and place and looked to America, truly in Lincoln’s words, as “the last best hope.”
In 1982, you edited The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture with essays from such luminaries as Sacvan Bercovitch, Henry Nash Smith, and John Cawelti. What's your biggest "take away" from such a distinguished collection of essays?
I was and remain very proud of that work and especially was happy that it was representative not just of a collection of scholars but of a philosophy and approach to education and teaching American culture studies at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The collection indicated what we were doing in the classroom and as an institutional program. In addition, it also was intended to suggest an academic community of scholars and students and learners.
At the same time, it also was, I think, a vital and valuable collection of major scholarship and criticism in American Studies. Saki’s essay in The American Self was a seminal piece that helped initiate the importance for the field of the whole idea of the “ideology of consensus.”
Equally important, along with such figures as Henry Nash Smith, Saki, Walter Blair, and Alan Trachtenberg, The American Self also included the work of new and rising scholars such as a young African-American scholar who now is my colleague at Vanderbilt – Houston Baker. I have teased Houston since he came to Vanderbilt that if I knew how important and influential he would become that I would have placed the essay better. In addition, long before I ever thought that I would be writing about film, the essay included important work by Bob Sklar. I continue to go back to Bob’s essay in that collection on It’s a Wonderful Life in the new book on the "cinema of redemption."
Perhaps the most important and lasting lesson, however, is laced with irony in that the great glow that emanated from the power of the light from such, as you say “luminaries,” blinded me to how quickly and deeply the whole field was undergoing transformation. At that point, I still believed in the idea of American Studies as a big tent that covered a community of diverse interests.
So the irony for me that emerges from the collection is the basic one of being prepared for change and not to being so surprised by it even when it takes place right in front of you and you don’t recognize it as something that also will be changing your life.
So with the publication of my first three books on American literature, I was looking at a field that seemed to be changing and moved to apply my basic interests and passions about American culture to a new field and discipline that was fresh and unexplored for me at the time – maybe a “virgin land” of academic opportunity. Then American Studies as a field moved as far away as possible, as far as I could tell, from my kind of thinking about the American experience. Some people wrote about the new wave as a kind of anti-American Studies. So for me the “big tent” idea of American Studies that was so important for housing and nurturing inclusion, pluralism, and diversity seemed to collapse and change, depending I guess on how you felt about who was in and who was out of the tent. For many, the ideology of consensus and its academic applications were themselves restrictive, confining, and limiting. Such critics wanted to change the boundaries and structures of the discourse, whereas I felt a loss of the very instruments, ideas, and values of pluralism, diversity, and debate that had made the country and the discipline work.
When I began studying, teaching, and writing about American literature and American Studies, I approached those fields with the idea at the time of America as a unique experience in human history. That was what made the study of the culture and history so exciting and worthwhile. It was not just a matter of cultural anthropology or the studious and rigorous analysis of an exciting historical narrative. American literature was a crucial part of that unique experience. In fact it manifested, articulated, and advanced that experience. As Saki argues, the idea of America was what American literature was all about. Significantly, this notion of uniqueness, was what we also used to call American “exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism at that time meant nothing like its uses in recent political discussion as crude and vulgar examples of American chauvinism and super-patriotism and arrogance – although for sure our history unfortunately has undergone many prolonged instances of such perversions of the idea of American mission. However by exceptionalism it was taken to mean at the time, according to my understanding, the idea of America as an ideology – an “ism” – “Americanism” unlike any other nation in the world – Britain, the Soviet Union or Russia, Israel. Exceptionalism referred to America as an invented national entity. America was called “the first universal nation.” America was an asylum and sanctuary for all peoples from all over the world. We could recite the words of Paine, Jefferson, Crevecoeur, who helped to implant that idea, and of course Lincoln, who used it to perpetuate “the last best hope of earth” in the face of the Civil War, and Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Kennedy who revived and sustained it to inspire the contests against Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.
To my thinking and study, what made that idea work was what Gunnar Myrdal called an “American Creed” that was basically an ideology of ethical relationships of fairness, equality, opportunity, democracy. It was supposed to mean that everyone had a chance to participate in the system. To the extent that we failed to live up to that creed, the ideology of exceptionalism failed. In other words, an ethical obligation that Saki traced back to the “American Jeremiad” of the Puritans was the glue that kept it together with an ever-expanding vision of inclusion.
Dissent and difference were intrinsic to this system and indispensable to making it work. This is what Saki called “dissensus” as a key part of the ideology of consensus in America. So to me the American idea, as I argue in the new Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption, was all about ideological dissensus long before the term came to be used by some left-leaning critics today as part of their own projects for change, reform, and renewal. Dissensus in relation to the American idea, however, is not just an abstract notion or proposal but entails a practice and politics with a history that can be studied and criticized and perhaps used and emulated as a foundation for greater change in conjunction with more contemporary ways of thinking.
At some point, it seemed to become politically incorrect, unfashionable or just old fashioned to see things this way. In addition, there was this great surge of powerful new theoretical languages and critical approaches to literature that many felt were important to use in the classroom.
Not that I hid or disguised my views or avoided expressing them.
So I moved over to film, where I thought my approach would be somewhat newer to that field and where these ideas about American culture had not been tested so extensively as far as I knew. I ventured into new, unexplored territory – at least for me. As research, criticism, and scholarship, my books are meant to provide the basis for the claims and arguments that are made in the classroom about film and culture.
Perhaps it’s really just a case of self-exile so that I can watch, teach, and write about the films I have loved all my life.
When you turned to film, you turned first to Woody Allen. What do American Studies scholars need to understand about this filmmaker?
When I started that book, the argument that was a bit original at the time was to emphasize the genius and originality of Allen as a filmmaker as opposed to simply seeing him as a comic genius making movies. The seriousness of that study of him I think was important at that time as was the effort to see Allen as part of an American literary and cultural tradition that also included humor, ethnicity, and film.
After going through several translations, the book now is in a second edition which is funny to me personally because in the intervening years I have developed a more distant, critical view of Allen. So the new chapters in the second edition reflect some changes in my perception and thinking about him. I argue first of all that in the wake and light of the scandal involving Soon-Yi Previn, the aura surrounding his image as the beloved and admired funny New York Jewish comic genius collapsed and this radically affected his art in his films. He was no longer able to use his on-screen image and persona to fulfill his art. He lost the basic vehicle that ignited and moved the humor, narrative, and character development of his films. For one thing, it was hard to continue portraying himself as the basically decent, ethical but all too human and flawed schlemiel-like victim of others. So trying to get Kenneth Branagh to fill in for him in Celebrity or playing himself as a crude, negative figure in Deconstructing Harry were to me failures and signs of that crisis in his creativity.
Significantly, his recent films that I consider so good such as Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona take place outside of New York and without him in the starring role.
Also, in the years between the two editions of The Films of Woody Allen during which I kept up with his work and career, I guess I became disillusioned about his ability to manipulate so much of the New York and even national media. It made him seem contrived and inauthentic, the very opposite of the qualities that made him so effective in his classic films and comedy.
In 1998, you published The Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Capra, and Kazan with Cambridge University Press. You believe that these filmmakers "replicate the situation of our classic Renaissance writers in dramatizing the basic values, conflicts, and contradictions of American democracy." Tell us more about those connections.
I still care deeply about this book and am glad that it is apparently still in print – at least I still make my students buy and read it. In the book, I try to propose that Saki’s idea of American consensus, jeremiad, and mission as part of a culture of dissensus carried over from the time of the so-called “American Renaissance” to the work of the great directors of the "Hollywood Renaissance,” a term borrowed from others.
This meant to me that the genius of these great directors – Ford, Capra, Kazan, Hawks, Stevens – others not emphasized such as Wyler, Sturges, Wellman – was to see, when it came to the American experience, that the dialogue of dissensus and consensus rather than intellectual and ethical conformity characterizes the so-called “exceptionalism” of America.
Film begins to change and you document that in 2002 with America on Film. Talk to us about the tensions concerning race and gender.
The chapters in America on Film attempt to see important films such as Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair the director with that wonder and genius of acting today, Denzel Washington), Lone Star, and Malcolm X as part of the broader American experience, while other chapters also emphasize the importance of seeing sexuality and gender as crucial in the construction of subjectivity and cultural identity.
Why did you write Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine? Levinas is so important for someone concerned with philosophy and ethics, as you are. He advocated the "wisdom of love" rather than the "love of wisdom" and believed in "ethics as first philosophy."
I became obsessed with the importance of Levinas’s ethical philosophy of placing a priority on the face of the other as opposed to the existential self. It was an extreme reversal for me of customary ways of thinking about individualism, personal identity, and freedom that also made sense as an irreducible source of ethics based on inter-subjective relations. It made me realize that in a way the book and idea are an extension or counterpart to Hollywood Renaissance by identifying the source of ethics not just in culture and society but in alterity and the relationship to the other. Levinas says in Totality and Infinity, "Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality." That seemed to me to be a key question for Capra and Ford and other directors. Moreover, the key concepts for Levinas of time and the feminine as inexorably connected to ethical relationships and subjectivity also seemed to have a strong potential for providing an interesting way to study film.
So Levinas in a way brings me back to American Studies. Interestingly, I see some similarity between Levinas’s idea of the mission of Israel, meaning the idea or ideal of the messianic Israel as the heavenly city incarnate, and my sense of America’s place and role in the world. Obviously, such notions are anathema to some today and have become the object of ridicule and condemnation to such critics.
Now writing about Levinas and ethics as informing American transcendence and the cinema of redemption suggests to me a foundation of ethics and responsibility for both the American Renaissance and the Hollywood Renaissance. Reading Levinas put Matthiessen’s American Renaissance and the Hollywood Renaissance in new contexts for me with historic foundations that integrate ethics and transcendence.
You return again and again to that word "ethics."
In retrospect ethics seem to me to run through everything that I write about including exceptionalism, the Jeremiad, the American Creed, the rhetoric and ideology of American mission.
It is rather amazing and exciting to me how what we used to call “the life of the mind” can be so rejuvenating and revivifying as ideas relate and develop over the years. The new book, Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption, involved opening a whole new area for me of philosophy, ethics, and phenomenology. In fact, some readers generously have claimed that the book also opens a new direction and interest in film study. However, at some point toward the end of the project, I realized, as I said, that when I was writing Hollywood Renaissance, I in fact also was working on the ideas and problems for the Cinema of Redemption, although at the time, of course, I didn’t quite know it. In other words for me, after discussing the sources in American culture, history, literature, and ideology that went into the making of the so-called "Hollywood Renaissance," I came to appreciate more fully that there also existed another dimension and source that involve the issue of ethics and transcendence. Levinas articulates this dimension in our time in Continental philosophy, but closer to home in America, the Puritans, and the Transcendentalists, of course, were committed to such concepts as regeneration, redemption, and transcendence in their different ways and discourse.
Tell us a little more about what you are working on now.
The two immediate projects are a book on Clint Eastwood’s America and a Companion to Woody Allen that I am co-editing with Peter Bailey. However, my long term research and study involves Julia Kristeva’s work and its potential as a tool for film with its focus on ethics, the body, the feminine. I find her cultural criticism and her idea for a time of renewal to be very important. Strangely, I had read her years ago, but at the time was more connected to thinkers like Mitchell and Rose on psychoanalysis and the feminine. Now I find that all that work and study I did in those years that went into the book on desire and American literature now help me to understand and use Kristeva. For me, her work continues what I had started in the new book on the cinema of redemption with my readings of Levinas and Irigaray and other key thinkers in philosophy and the feminine such as Tina Chanter, Kelly Oliver, Ewa Ziarek, among others.
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