In response to being called an “auteur,” the Australian director of such films as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and Roxanne (1987), Fred Schepisi, scoffed: “Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else's job.”1 Unfortunately, the acts of denigration alluded to are in the name of an idea that has found expression in many critical texts and received the blessings of scholars and critics across a large spectrum of constituencies. As a result, we have witnessed theoretical battles and multiple contentious debates pursued over the historical meanings and cultural implications of “auteur theory” or single authorship in film and media arts production. The accumulative result of these historical debates is a series of competing interpretations about the legitimacy of an idea that has glacially evolved into what is now an entrenched categorical imperative in theories of the moving image.
The rhetorical underpinnings of the advocates of single authorship are, more often than not, driven by an ideological commitment to an existential position vis-à-vis the production of moving images that has been popularized by film critics, journalists, scholars, and cultural historians. In other words: an active cadre of intellects who are invariably far removed from the concrete, messy, and sometimes contradictory operations of production practices. It is also apparent that these provocateurs, if you may, have little direct experience of moving image production and its ever-shifting contexts of operations, yet they are comfortable in propagating a profoundly problematic idea within the academy and in the broader public sphere of journalistic criticism.
Enunciating that single authorship in moving image art is merely an “idea” is to crystalize what many may deem a heretical posture, which is to say, “auteur theory” is not a theory at all; neither do its central elements (style, mise-en-scene, directors’ vision) constitute a rigorous epistemic system—a theory. In my view, it is at best an ideological stance vis-à-vis the film production process. It is an attitude, a way of being grounded in a rhetorical strategy that positions the director as auteur—the figure around whom all artistic and technical contributions coalesce, and dare I say, are subsumed under the label “director”; yet paradoxically these multiple contributions are articulated as if they were the products of a singular authorial voice.
With its historical antecedents in nineteenth-century discourses pertaining to the construction of the literary figure as visionary and singular author, this romantic idea that was more akin to the zeitgeist of novelists, poets, playwrights, and essayists metamorphosed into “auteur theory” or politique des auteurs via Andre Bazin and his circle at Cahier du Cinema; Andrew Sarris's germination of this idea into the psyche of American cineastes; and its subsequent popularization through a network of film journals, newspapers, and magazines. The devastating result of this cultural movement has been the marginalization of the collaborative ethos that is at the center of film and multimedia production. Ultimately, the discourse on authorship has erroneously structured inner and external perceptions of how moving image art has been produced or, for that matter, should be produced.
In addition, it has decentered moving image and sonic art production as essentially a collaborative medium, a process of co-creation that is more attuned to a rhizome than a hierarchical structure in which extractive and corrosive power relations are played out. Probably one of the most egregious affronts by its advocates is the blatant failure to acknowledge that moving image productions are often impossible to attain without the unflinching commitment of a multiplicity of artists, minds, and bodies: writers, designers, thespians, composers, editors, special effects specialists, choreographers, cinematographers, researchers, etc. It is in response to auteur theory's protracted, hegemonic, and cannibalizing effect that C. Paul Sellors was compelled to declare in 2007:
Authorship is a problem in film studies that simply will not go away. Despite all sorts of arguments reducing authors to abstract entities such as author-functions, fictional surrogates, and implied authors, and eventually abandoning them under the mantra of “the death of the author,” we have not been able in our critical and historical discourses to shrug off talking about films as if they are products of real individuals.2
Beneath the surface of Sellors's critically inflected argument is what I perceive to be a perennial ontological and epistemological problem that single authorship has engendered in our collective understanding of creative production practices. And if we are honest in our assessments of this issue, it is not difficult to ascertain that film studies programs and the academy in general have not only institutionalized the auteur in pedagogy, but have also been complicit in perpetuating, even actively promoting, the auteur as the only viable model of filmmaking practice.
While it is evident that this pedagogical agenda has relentlessly pushed “auteur theory” on successive generations of students, its greatest impact has been to repress the complexities of film and multimedia arts production, to undermine the significance of social relations (artistic and technical) without which nothing gets done, to denigrate the importance of ethical conduct in terms of how creative artists relate to each other and with those who are the objects of their inquiry and representation, to expunge the importance of constructing meaningful and productive dialogue as a means of circumventing the propensity toward extractive corrosive practices, and the rise of caustic exercises of power. In other words, what has been omitted from the curriculum is the kind of pedagogy that promotes the centrality of meaningful acts of give-and-take in the spirit of collaboration, and dare I say, the promotion of a more democratically infused cultural ethos of co-creative practices. Over many years, there has been systematic pushback within the academy and larger public sphere on the viability of co-creation as a model of cultural production. This has of course been accompanied by the familiar mantra that co-creation is a utopian narrative that will never be fully realized.
The underpinnings of this response rest in the fact that many scholars and critics are intellectually invested in the auteur idea—a notion that is theoretically aligned to modernity's notion of the “individual,” the logos of “individual agency,” and their operations within the social. It is worth noting, however, that the growing numbers of creative moving-image makers who are pursuing co-creation are not so naïve as to indulge in the thought that co-creation will replace auteur practice—and I do not think that is the objective here. But neither are they blind to a parallel reality that articulates co-creation as a historically concrete and evolving movement. And if it has a concrete presence, as it does (there are a significant number of projects that are being conceptualized and executed through the processes of co-creation), then, philosophically, co-creation ceases to be a utopian idea; it is no longer a proposition or abstraction but rather an incontrovertible sociological phenomenon whose glacial emergence many in the academy and in the broader sphere of cultural criticism have more or less ignored, except for the few who have recognized its materiality and potential as a modality of practice.
Co-creation represents a growing shift in the organizational structures of production, and it signifies a rupture in the cultural economy of production practices. As such, co-creation represents a paradigmatic shift partly determined by the emergence of innovative technological platforms such as interactivity, and that allows for collaborative practices within and across borders as well as in multiple shifting contexts of production. Beyond the obvious technological affordances is the profound desire by a growing number of media artists and filmmakers to be more inclusive, democratic, and dialogic; and less hierarchical, extractive, and exploitative in their practices.
This shift in ideas signifies, I believe, the arrival of an “event” that finally renders the hidden visible; it's the ray of light that brings to the fore a new cultural ethos. French philosopher Alain Badiou argues that:
An event is something that brings to light a possibility that was invisible or even unthinkable. An event is not the creation of a reality; it is the creation of a possibility, it opens up a possibility. It indicates to us that a possibility exists that has been ignored. The event is, in a certain way, merely a proposition. It proposes something to us. Everything will depend on the way in which the possibility proposed by the event is grasped, elaborated, incorporated and set out in the world.3
Therefore, the very fact that a growing segment of media artists are pursuing opportunities to work collaboratively is constitutive of the “event” that proposes the possibility of co-creative production practices as a concrete alternative to the auteur model. The demand being made by co-creation is essentially the formation and inscription of a new epistemological regime that is grounded in concrete practices and that is also contingent upon media artists discovering in the processes of production new forms of knowing and doing. In that sense, the promises of co-creation are essentially dialectical, dialogic, nondidactic, and more akin to the propensity of media artists to develop a “language” of practice through the interstices of ongoing cognitive engagements with the materiality of their historical experiences of the social world. It is, therefore, a system that is loosely built around a series of elastic nodes, a nexus of connections that are rooted in the radical phenomenology of lived experience. This means that the epistemology of co-creation emerges out of the concrete experiences of collaborative audiovisual practitioners, and its episteme is contingent upon the accumulation of historical experiences over time—this is the modus operandi of co-creative practices.
Also linked to the emergence of co-creative epistemology is the reconstitution of the ontology of the moving image artist into a new mode of being, knowing, and doing. As such, the formation of this new ontology within media arts practices seeks to solve the perennial ontological problem that is at the center of single authorship—the nineteenth-century romantic notion of individual creation that works quite well for poets and novelists but evidently not in the complex terrain of film and media arts production. Another of co-creation's demands is a radical philosophical rethinking of the character and specificity of being in relation to creative practice. It postulates a notion of being that stands in opposition to that which the auteur idea has historically articulated.
It is precisely at this juncture that co-creation speaks directly to the promises of philosophical hermeneutics and its emancipatory politics of “oneself to the other,” which can only be fully realized through interpretive acts. This is, in fact, ground zero for the development and reconstitution of being as a non-extractive agent in the production process. Its central axis is being for oneself and being for others, which leads to the development of non-exploitative social relations, a new mode of ethical conduct that helps to mitigate against the damaging impact of punitive power within the context of production.
It should also be noted that co-creation is not a method because it is not a “goal-directed procedure” fixed by logic or a set of logical principles. Instead, it should be viewed as what I will refer to as a “phenomenological attitude” that is determined by the accumulation of experience, and intuition that allows for the apprehension of concrete processes (facts) before they are fixed by method and logic. This then makes it possible to have acts of interpretation within a collaborative framework that are open, dialogic, self-reflexive, and critical—all of which are anchored in seeing, in experience, and in the ability to apprehend lived experience in the structuring of social and cultural relations within production. It is out of this network of lived experiences that a radical ethics of being in relation to media arts practices emerges as a tenet that is integral to the act of knowing and doing. Stating that the philosophical underpinning of co-creation is phenomenology is to simply acknowledge that the promises of co-creation are best served by the following phenomenological precept:
A philosophy based on phenomenology must be characterized first of all by the most intensely vital and most immediate contact with the world itself, that is, with those things in the world with which it is concerned, and with these things as they are immediately given to experience, that is, in the act of experience and are “in themselves there” only in this act.4
Given that co-creation, at a granular level, is anchored in lived experience, then out of necessity it works against the parameters of established goal-oriented productions, against the rule-based method that is the social engine of the auteur idea, while it simultaneously moves toward a more human-centered modality of creative practice in which film artists are all convened around the same table of cultural production. As such, this is a constitutive space where nonhierarchical constructions of practice can evolve in the form of a forum for listening, a roundtable for the free articulation of multivocal voices in the spirit of a new and more liberative ethos of knowing and doing.
Ryan Gilbey, “The End of the Auteur,” March 23, 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/23/the-end-of-the-auteur.
C. Paul Sellors, “Collective Authorship in Film,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 263.
Alain Badiou with Fabian Tarby, Philosophy and the Event (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), 9–10.
Max Scheler, Selected Philosophical Essays (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 138.