Jeffrey Pence, “Cinema of the Sublime,” Poetics Today 25, Vol. 1 (2004): 29-66)
Pence wants to correct the modernist critical tendency to box in films by means of various theories and methodologies, arguing that even an approach intended to be socially progressive and political such as Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction” in the end relegates cinema to a place of subjugation by limiting its power to work wonders, do magic, and elicit ineffable or sublime viewing experiences. Rather than the destruction of the aura, Pence holds that cinema has perpetuated it, but in a politically engaging and empowering way. If anything, the dominance of criticism has forbidden a liberated spectatorship. The aura, by definition, cannot be pinned down and reduced to fascism as Benjamin maintains. Rather, we must as audiences and critics acknowledge the limits of the knowable, engage with them. “A criticism geared exclusively toward demystification ultimately produces reification.” Ironically, Pence seems to turn Benjamin on his head, arguing that demystifying cinema and destroying the aura reifies films and contributes toward a conservative and capitalistic view of the world. Methodological uncertainty is the first step. By approaching film in an open-ended manner, we permit an aesthetic response that “may contribute to an open-ended ethical self-fashioning and may protect critical discourse from itself by preventing the standardization of cultural experience.” Pence ends his argument with extensive appeal to Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed. The citation is so extensive almost to function as a re-couching of Cavell’s argument into the present context.
“The key to cinema’s relation to the ineffable, therefore, does not lie in its subjecting the world to new standards of scrutiny. Rather, cinema’s spirituality inheres in the effects produced in viewers freed to reflect on powers of perception and forms of desire which have been either diminished by, or excluded from, conventions of thought and action, including those of criticism” (62).
Mainly, Pence’s argument raises the question (which he acknowledges) as to how criticism can happen, let alone flourish, with the ineffable as its focus. By nature, isn’t the ineffable ineffable? Pence’s response to this is to admit he doesn’t have all the answers to these questions, but still he insists that the first step must be taken to liberate films from methodologies and explore spectatorial experience at the levels of the spiritual and the ethical. It’s a little unclear how the category of the ethical fits almost synonymously with the spiritual, although eventually Pence appeals to Levinas and starts to differentiate them.