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An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema Hardcover – June 17, 2013
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Chandler returns to Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759) to lay the theoretical foundations of networked spectatorship. Smith understands sympathy not as experiencing another person’s feelings (which is impossible), but rather as a reflecting on what we would feel if we were that person. To put myself in the place of another is made possible by sympathetic imagination, an engagement which also includes awareness of the concept of the impartial spectator. On this basis Smith rejects as inherently unreliable the idea of a moral sense, which is always open to self-deceit, in favour of the ̶ to him more reliable ̶ consequences of the effect of being able to view ourselves from the outside. Chandler extends this to cinema arguing that spectators implicated in reaction-shot sequences, and to other characters watching this interaction, assume a subject position outside of the constructed spectacle. There is structural equivalence between narrative point of view and cinematic point-of-view-shot and shot/reverse-shot techniques. We the audience, ‘interpolated into the modes of sympathetic or sentimental causality’ that we see presented in the scene, watch the scene of our own watching. This version of Smith’s impartial observer can legitimate by naturalising historically contingent modes of behaviour, or it can be used to estrange them amidst proliferating modes of probability. At no point does Chandler draw on the insights of Jacques Lacan that have informed the work of Linda Williams and Slavoj Žižek regarding film.
Part 1 begins with Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, ‘”jumping around”’, that exploits the synecdochal ambiguity of movement between representative part and represented whole. Eisenstein’s analysis of Dickens’ narrative technique, its cinematicisation by D.W. Griffiths, is traced to Sterne (Dickens’s inspiration), the moral sentimentalism of Smith and Shaftsbury, and focused on Capra. Noting invocations of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in the context of the anti-banking movement that followed the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Chandler explores how during the 1930s Capra’s films seemed to speak to and for an America that liked to see itself reflected in the images of the auteur of corn. What makes the Capraesque sentimental for Chandler is not primarily a preoccupation with character or melodrama but rather his singular preoccupation with revision, a recursivity and self-consciousness that links Capra with the literary sentimentalism of the eighteenth century. The success of this argument depends on how far readers are able to accept the recursivity as being Chandler’s or Capra’s, and the attribution of conscious intention to films that embrace the formulaic. Indeed students of film may balk at Chandler’s view of film as essentially illustrative. As he puts it: ‘I believe that the arguments of part 2 can largely stand on their own for students of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. These chapters certainly aim to bring new literary angles of approach to the texts they examine and to offer some surprises for students of the field.... I have noticed, however, that when I lecture on these literary matters, audiences respond with a new kind of interest if I begin with a clip from Capra.... The fact of that added interest led me to go further’.
Part 3 ‘Against Sentiment’ is the strongest in the book. Chandler begins by revisiting Horkheimer and Adorno’s mid-1940s attack on the culture industry, and attack Chandler argues is directed at exactly the sentimentalism associated with the Capra. Exiled in Los Angeles, Horkheimer and Adorno unleashed their indictment of the mass media’s stunting of the consumer’s powers of imagination. Capra made similar criticisms of the homogenizing effects of the studio system at about the same time. Just as before Wordsworth berated modernization and massification. This is linked in turn to Blake’s deconstruction of sympathy as active identification (his poetry’s simultaneous warming and freezing of the heart). In Blake’s songs ‘conflicting emotions are engaged in such a way as to decompose sentiment into what he called passion and sense’. Chandler sees Blake interrogating the foundation of Burke’s ‘national sentiment’ that enlisted Smith’s theory of moral sentiments in defence of the English monarchy. Blake effectively denaturalizes what Burke would turn into second nature. The final chapter on modernism briefly discusses Joyce’s use of sentiment and the importance of Sterne for Finnegans Wake (1939). The concluding image of heroic collapse brings together scenes from Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Braveheart.
What might account for the unevenness of this book? Perhaps a clue can be found in Chandler’s thanks to colleagues in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago: ‘I salute them all, along with other colleagues who work in cinema across the porous departmental boundaries of this university’. Is it going too far to read into this Capraesque supplement the presence of something other than intellectual solidarity and gratitude? What of those pressures of an institutional and disciplinary kind that can lead a scholar in search of an audience? Perhaps An Archaeology of Sympathy’s lack of flight can be traced to those economic conflicts at the heart of It’s a Wonderful Life, minus the happy ending. Recursively, we can ask: Is it sympathetic or callous to see in the book’s weakness vindication of its central thesis regarding historical connectivity?