Humanities research is widely
considered to be the sole
province of academic scholars,
yet avant-garde artists practise
their own versions of humanities
research. As critics, we tend to
applaud the avant-garde for its
anti-linear, anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment qualities, but we do so even as we continue
to reproduce the same form of criticism, employing linearity, rationality, and
the rhetoric of scientific realism.
Avant-garde artists invent research methods by using media as research tools.
Thus, avant-garde artists expose scholars?? biases towards alphabetic literacy. Under the
reigning logic, scholarship is recognized as such only when transposed into alphabetic
The crone may cackle or tell a story or scold her for her
self-absorption, but sooner or later she will open her
eyes and find herself here in her moldy bed once more,
waiting for she knows not what in the name of waiting
for her prince to come. Of whom, no lack, though
none true so far of course, unless in some strange wise
they all are, her sequential disenchantments then the
very essence of her being, the fairy??s spell binding her
not to a suspenseful waiting for what might yet be, but
to the eternal reenactment of what, other than, she
can never be.??Robert Coover, Briar Rose
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94 Mosaic 38/1 (March 2005)
text; with rare exception, no other forms count as scholarly knowledge. Scholars frame
research questions such as,??How does selfhood change in the shift from literate to cinematic/
electronic cultures??? Their answers, however, take the form of a treatise, never
a film.Media and cultural studies scholars readily admit that film has its own ways of
knowing. If not, why bother studying it?
Perhaps the most famous articulation of avant-garde arts as research method,
Andr?? Breton??s 1924 ??Manifesto of Surrealism?? describes how novel methods of writing??
such as automatic writing and cut-up newspaper headlines??yield knowledge of
the mind and the world that cannot be obtained by strictly rational means.My essay,
an homage to Breton, is a manifesto for an arts-oriented cinematic/electronic media
and cultural studies research method. Although my work includes traditional critical
rhetoric??providing another piece in the critical dialogue about Sherman??s Untitled
Film Stills??it also offers something else: a visual research strategy appropriate for
media and cultural studies invented from Sherman??s work. Gregory Ulmer calls such
invention of new research methods heuretics. Though my claim that we can conduct
important research using images may appear strange, I argue that such research is
essential for addressing key questions:
1. How can we learn about the ??objects?? of study in our discipline??media artifacts??
while gaining self-knowledge?
2. How do we invent forms of academic writing appropriate to cinematic and electronic
3. What is the relationship between written criticism and other ways of knowing?
Heuretics is charged with finding ??forms appropriate for conducting cultural studies
research in relation to the electronic media?? (Ulmer xi). Theorists from Plato to Barthes
invented research methods appropriate to their disciplines and to the information technologies
of their times. The Sherman project I propose is a hybrid of research methods
from art and academia adapted for use within cinematic/electronic media.
I focus this research method on the following research ??problem??: the emergence
of cinematic/electronic culture has changed the way people present the self, which
Aristotle termed ethos, yet there is considerable disagreement and speculation about
the nature of this shift. Sherman performed a response to this problem, exploring the
changing modalities of selfhood in cinematic/electronic terms. I borrow Gregory
Ulmer??s term ??mystory?? (Scholes et al 241?C312) to describe the kind of research
Sherman does using images. Mystory is a genre that addresses questions about identity
and ideology using their material embodiments within the culture and life of the
researcher. Ulmer refers to artists?? texts as relays, or rough analogies, for new methods
of conducting media studies and cultural studies research.
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Barry J. Mauer 95
The modalities of selfhood are best understood within the framework of grammatology,
which studies the means by which people store, retrieve, and process information.
In alphabetic culture, ethos, the presentation of self, is a ??voice,?? the writer??s
simulation of a spoken ??role?? for a particular occasion. In cinematic/electronic culture,
the self becomes a ??look,?? an embodiment of one??s values and mood in concrete
form. Sherman??s Untitled Film Stills experiment with the possibilities of using the
??look?? to reflect upon herself and her culture.
Sherman??s work performs a double movement in relation to her ??object of
research:?? the cinema. The Untitled Film Stills offer, simultaneously, identification with
and detachment from cinematic images. Sherman achieves this double movement
through strategies of simulation and defamiliarization. Another word for this double
movement is unheimlich, Freud??s term
for that which is familiar to us but
also strangely foreign or disturbing
(??Uncanny?? 219?C252). The movie star
types Sherman portrays in her