Joan Copjec Bibliography Definition

Metaphor, symbol, irony, litotes, hendiadys, zeugma — the figures that allow us to approach language with sophistication seem to have less purchase on visual experience. Film theorist, Joan Copjec, joining the Brown faculty as professor of modern culture and media, has been working to enhance our ability to speak about what we see.

Joan Copjec has observed the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown for a long time, since the days it was doing business as the Program in Semiotics. She knew many of the early professors through her own work in cinema. “The department was always forward-looking, part of the vanguard of theory in the United States,” she said.

Now she arrives on campus as a colleague. Like the department itself, Copjec focuses her theoretical lens on a broad range of interests: cinema, psychoanalysis, feminism, philosophy, political theory, and architecture.

She began studying modern English literature, earning a bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College (with a minor in classics) and a master’s at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she began her doctoral work. This work led her into cinema studies and an ever-expanding course of inquiry.

“The English doctoral program required proficiency in a minor field,” she said. “I took some film courses simply to fulfill that requirement and my aspirations changed almost immediately. Before that moment I had never stopped to think that images — the entire visual field — could be discussed with the same level of sophistication as one brings to discussions of the written word. I decided to abandon my dissertation and to start all over by switching to film.”

She entered the world of cinema studies via the Orson Welles Film School in Cambridge, Mass., and then moved to England to study in the Film Unit of the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London. As it turned out, she was studying film in real time, at the very moment it was emerging as an independent discourse. “It was a very exciting moment,” she said. “Screen magazine was publishing foundational texts and holding regular readers’ meetings. Weekend schools were put together outside the universities, which did not allow film courses to be taught as part of the regular curriculum. Filmmaker coops and alternative cinemas were popping up all over. This was all pioneering work. As a result of living through this adventure, I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘first-generation film theorist.’”

The fledgling field of film was obliged to boot-strap its way into existence by borrowing from other discourses, primarily Marxism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. In addition to her studies at the Slade School, Copjec began to attend courses in architecture and semiotics around London, to attend Marxist conferences, and to become more and more fascinated with the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Economical — she claims not to like to leave behind or “waste” knowledge she has gained — she has kept up with all these fields. She became a fellow at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York (where she met and worked for a time with Anthony Vidler, who is also joining the Brown faculty this fall in the department of History of Art and Architecture); taught architecture and film theory at a variety of architecture schools; and was a long-time editor of the influential art journal, October, and of a book series, S, at Verso Press. But it was psychoanalytic theory to which she devoted most of her attention over the last two decades, serving as director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at the University at Buffalo and publishing the journal Umbr(a), which she founded in 1995 with her graduate students there.

Copjec has been a prolific scholar. She has written or edited 11 books, published nearly 60 essays in books and journals, and has given lectures at more than 160 conferences in the United States and internationally. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages.

Her most recent work, which is focused on the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian filmmaker, and medieval Islamic philosophy, will be published in her next book, tentatively titled Cloud: Between Paris and Tehran.

Certain texts in the history of psychoanalytic theory form the primary body of reference material for psychoanalytic film theory. This changes from the first wave of traditional psychoanalytic film theory to the second wave, but an understanding of these texts is crucial for comprehending the theoretical project of each wave. Traditional psychoanalytic film theory relied heavily on Freud 1961, Lacan 2006, Miller 1977–1978, and Althusser 1971 for its blend of psychoanalytic and political theorizing. Later theorists turned to Freud 1953 and Lacan 1978.

  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Translated by Ben Brewster. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. By Louis Althusser, 127–188. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

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    Originally published in French, Althusser’s essay theorized the fundamental operation of ideology as the formation of the subject. Though Althusser was not a psychoanalyst or a psychoanalytic theorist, traditional psychoanalytic film theorists took up this idea as foundational for their approach to the cinema and began to see the cinema itself as a place where the spectator was constituted ideologically as a subject. Available online.

  • Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vols. 4–5. By Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

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    Though Freud never discusses the cinema or the analogy between dreams and films, this work provided much inspiration for psychoanalytic film theorists. Freud interprets the dream as the “disguised fulfillment of a wish” or as a fantasy, and this leads to the analysis of the cinema as a fantasy space.

  • Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” Translated by James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. By Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey, 152–159. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.

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    Fetishism functions as the exemplary perversion for Freud. It allows the subject to disavow its castration while obtaining sexual pleasure at the same time. For many psychoanalytic film theorists (especially from the first wave), the same process occurs for the cinematic spectator.

  • Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1978.

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    This was Lacan’s eleventh seminar and the first presented to the general public, rather than to a specialized group of psychoanalytic practitioners. Jacques-Alain Miller transformed the oral seminar into a French book, which subsequently greatly influenced psychoanalytic film theory because Lacan introduces the concept of the gaze as a form of what he calls the objet petit, or object-cause of desire.

  • Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. By Jacques Lacan. Translated by Bruce Fink, 75–81. New York: Norton, 2006.

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    Written in French, Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage was the defining theoretical starting point for traditional psychoanalytic film theorists. Lacan theorizes that the mirror stage allows the infant to see its fragmentary self as an imaginary whole, and film theorists would see the cinema functioning as a mirror for spectators in precisely the same way.

  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. “Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier).” Translated by Jacqueline Rose. Screen 18.4 (Winter 1977–1978): 23–34.

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    Engaging Jacques Lacan and Gottlob Frege, Miller links the formation of the subject in psychoanalysis to the act of suture. The subject, as Miller sees it, occupies the point of the zero in Frege’s mathematics. Originally published in a French psychoanalytic journal, Miller’s account of suture would become central for traditional psychoanalytic film theory.

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