by Alexandra Juhasz
MEDIA PRAXIS theorizes and makes media towards stated projects of world and self-changing. This ongoing project, as old as cinema itself, links culture, theory, and politics, in the 20th century, through mediation technologies and indebted to Marxist theories. While I name this a radical web-site in that it directly refers to what Marx, in Theses on Feuerbach calls “revolutionary practice,” a project of interpreting and changing the world, this site is equally radical in that it presumes that we are all participants in making history. It asks you to both study and join the tradition of Media Praxis.
In 1922, Lenin informed his minister of culture that “you must remember that of all the arts for us the most important is the cinema.” It is the goal of this web-site to demonstrate that early Soviet cinema is not the exception, even as it is the most heralded of such convergences; rather, the explicit linking of art, culture, revolution and philosophy has inspired a great many of the seminal works and theories of cinema history as well as today’s new media practices.
I organize the web-site through ten chronological moments (HISTORY) where media is theorized, by someone who is making it, and as a vital component of political struggle. The site archives theoretical writing, video clips, and related web-based activity from ten periods in media history, commencing with the years surrounding the Russian revolution, then moving to the Popular Front in France, Germany and the US in the 1930s, to the beatniks and underground denizens of American bohemia in the New American Cinema of the 40s and 50s, and then to the cinema connected to the decolonization of the third world in the 60s, and in France and the UK in and after 1968, then to feminism and the black Atlantic of the 70s and 80s, AIDS and ethnographic film in the 1980s and 90s, and concluding with media organizing that occurs in and about cyberspace in our time.
Most of what can be read here has already been canonized in textbooks—from Sergei Eisenstein to Laura Mulvey, Isaac Julien to Trinh T. Minh-ha—but these seminal theoretical productions have been considered in isolation from each other: as either the hallowed words of a great artist or as part of a national or genre tradition. However, in the integrations made by users of the site, these theorizing voices speak amongst and to other politicized filmmakers, both past and present. By making clear the theoretical affinities that occur across such vast political, global and chronological landscapes, a picture of cinema, and cinema history emerges that is anti-corporate, agitational, intelligent, Marxist, and as often as not gendered female and non-white.
MEDIA PRAXIS demonstrates a filmmakers’ ontology of film: what filmmakers know and learn about the medium they shoot, edit, and project because they engage in its sensuous activity. Unlike most collections of writing by filmmakers, the web-site relies upon neither interviews nor memoirs. This challenges the distinction typically drawn between those capable of and qualified to make systematic claims about the media (its theorists) and those whose ruminations are about the particular, daily, and technical (its producers).
I am not the first to note that this bifurcation, in and of itself, leads to a “theoretical crisis.” The founding of Media, Cultural and Minority Studies in the 1960s and 70s were rooted in an energizing political and theoretical investment in practice, daily activity, the personal and the political. “Now I think the true crisis in cultural theory, in our time, is between this view of the work of art as object and the alternative of art as a practice,” writes Raymond Williams in his 1950s “Marxist Cultural Studies.” He continues: “What this can show us here about the practice of analysis is that we have to break from the common procedure of isolating the object and then discovering its components. On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions.”
The theory that makes up the backbone of this web-site, written by those who discover the nature of a practice by practicing, seeks less to understand the isolated object, the aesthetics and formal structures of film, as it does the nature of its practice and its conditions: what happens when it is made, seen, and used, how it is financed, who gets to see it, and what happens after the screening. In these web-pages, the film object is often over-shadowed by attempts to theorize the extra-textual, such as collective production and radical reception. When makers theorize, political-economic considerations regarding access to both authorship and media education are also definitive. Furthermore, unlike what defines typical anthologies of cinema theory which might focus upon cinema aesthetics or narrative, analyses of realism, documentary, and truth are primary. Thus, most theory-writing producers attempt to prove that realist or documentary cinema is the ideal medium for this work and that the artist/intellectual is the worker best suited for this labor towards the struggle. The writing that is archived here theorizes praxis itself: how do ideas exist in action, and how is this related to the project of radical pedagogy?
Over this 100-year theoretical tradition, there are notable changes. While the film movements from the first half of the century are rooted in local, often national struggles for change, a noteworthy adjustment occurs in the sixties, where cross-cultural, global, or identity-based politics of representation and personal liberation take dominance.
Who, we might ask, is better qualified to theorize the nature of a practice than its practitioners? And why is this most obvious truism such a bitter pill? Perhaps for the majority of scholars whose ideas come from their heads alone, there is the fear that their theories will be proven inadequate. But Marx cautions us in Feuerbach: “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” Perhaps for the discipline, one that moved so quickly from margin to center, its legacy of both partisan politics and hands-on practice must be closeted like so much Marxist dirty linen. Serious academic disciplines must claim a theoretical, not a political lineage at their core. MEDIA PRAXIS challenges Media Studies’ tautological advancement towards theory abstracted from politics and practice.
Needless to say, I chose my graduate education in Cinema, drawn to the promise and history of a young discipline that claimed to be “representing the point at which theory, politics and the academy intersect.” In the 1980s, I was a graduate student at NYU and an AIDS activist videomaker. I was supported to write my dissertation about a media movement in which I was an active participant. In that work, “AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video” and in later projects where I made and theorized feminist or queer film as part of those political movements, I also marked myself as a participant in the very tradition of media praxis I map in the web-site with the same name. I name my role in this history not to mark my prowess, but quite the opposite, for MEDIA PRAXIS focuses upon what we theorize and learn about the media when commitment and engagement are more valued than artistic or intellectual genius. I make video, along with teaching, scholarly writing, and organizing—to speak with different audiences, in multiple settings, using a range of tactics, so as to address real-world conditions that matter to me. This web-site continues the dialogue in another medium.
Thus, MEDIA PRAXIS simply prompts us to know film theory, history, and studies not as something written on paper, the mark of some other’s formidable mind, but as a thing that was made to be used and re-made by us, in our world, towards what matters most. I want the theorizing that has been born from sensuous human engagement with the medium and the world to be granted the central place it deserves in the history and current shape of our discipline. This because I want to pass and together chew on and make use of the theoretical legacy of “revolutionary practice,” a 100 year old project of interpreting and changing the world with film, this so that present-day theorist/makers can learn from and expand upon these magnificent and flawed ideas to contribute to the real world changes that we all know must happen here, and soon, in this radically media-saturated world in great need of a counter, intelligent, angry, and artful media praxis.