The Film Festival Phenomena and Latour’s Actor Network Theory

In processing this week’s readings, I found myself interpreting each author’s theoretical framework through the lens of the film festival circuit.  I have an extensive history within the film festival universe and currently work for the Tribeca Film Institute in NYC.  In order to better understand the totality of the festival phenomena, I find it a useful exercise to analyze its resemblance to a network of interdependent events.

Latour’s work on Actor Network Theory (ANT) attempts to examine the various relationships between things as well as concepts and ideas, both human and non-human, as seen through the structure of the network. It emphasizes the equal ability of all actors within the network to act, whether individual people or overarching ideas. Focusing on the interaction between the semiotic and the material and their contributions to the formation of a whole (network), Latour rightly emphasizes the principle of generalized symmetry between human and non-human actors. This principle allows for both categories of social actors to operate within the network without any preference given to one group over the other, but rather allowing the particular network to dictate the relations between them. He coins the term act-ants in reference to such actors at work within the network, and stresses the expansive nature of the network as an all-encompassing web of connections where nothing lies outside the network of relations.

ANT also places a high degree of importance on such actors as intermediaries and mediators. Intermediaries represent actors within the network that help to relocate the force of another entity within the network without alteration or transformation. However, mediators play a crucial role within networks, for their ability to enhance, transform, and multiply difference within the network of relations, and it is in this capacity that Latour’s Actor Network Theory stresses the importance of applying agency to non-human actors. And finally, Latour discusses the importance of translation, citing the ways in which social actors attempt to coordinate and agree upon the variables inherent to the building of networks. Within this concept,Latour points to the various problems that arise when actors enter a network and the forms of representation each actor or group constructs in order to best negotiate. Here Latour emphasizes the importance of the primary actors repositioning themselves with in the network as indispensable obligatory points of passage, capable of hosting key sets of negotiations between actors. It is through these points that the conditions of an actor’s involvement within the network are negotiated and the actors adopt their prescribed position and duties within the system.

Attempting to bring together the melting pot of performances, year round presences, and agendas operating within each festival and thus compounded across the festival circuit, Marijke de Valck utilizes ANT’s principles in order to establish a mobile line of inquiry.  ANT allows for a study of the film festival circuit while assuming relational interdependence of both human and non-human actors, straying from hierarchical oppositions between the actors and the network but rather emphasizing the processes of circulating entities.  Mobile agency distinguishes between the festival as an abstraction and the roles of its various participants.  “The sales representatives, film critics, and filmmakers meeting at film festivals are not considered separate from the event, but whose congregations, performances, and products are understood as necessary links that make up the event…” (de Valck 2007: 34)  Here the act-ants are the filmmakers and the media, journalists and systems of accreditation, the audience members and spectacle, printed leaflets and notions of power; both human and non-human with no bias implied in favor of one group over the other.  Rather, the film festival is better understood by analyzing the ways in which the entire range of actors come together to form the network.  From the innocent tourist stumbling through the festival crowd to ideas of race and class, nothing lies outside of the network.  Local street vendors hawking refreshments and thieving pickpockets possess an equal ability to act within the network as a Hollywood star or an international sponsor.  Overall, all the variables within the film festival event contribute to the construction of the network and facilitate the spread of human and non-human agency within the system.

But Henry Jenkins rightly outlines the dramatic shift in the the relationship between media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence.

“The American media environment is now being shaped by two seemingly contradictory trends: on the one hand, new media technologies have lowered production and distribution costs, expanded the range of available delivery channels, and enabled consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. At the same time, there has been an alarming concentration of the ownership of mainstream commercial media, with a small handful of multinational media conglomerates dominating all sectors of the entertainment industry. No one seems capable of describing both sets of changes at the same time, let alone showing how they impact each other.” (Jenkins 2008: 29)

In the greater context of the festival circuit, Latour’s notion of obligatory points of passage plays a key role. But in a digital world, how are these points of passage being actively redefined?  Given the fact that the festival hierarchy is full of small, medium, and larger festivals jockeying for position within the network (and are trying to climb the ladder of societal importance), how will such an exhibition-driven side of cinema react to the multi-platform media environment of the future?  Ultimately, each festival is attempting to position itself as a necessary point of passage within the circuit while gaining status and affecting the condition of the greater network, but convergence culture seems to indicate that the film festival circuit runs the risk of quickly losing its relevance. Film festivals’ online/cable counterparts (re: Sundance streaming and The Sundance Channel) and such oddballs as Second Life’s Film Festivals all seem to try to connect the virtual experience to the tangible shared viewing experience in an attempt to dip their toes into proverbial waters.   By framing itself as a critical node with the network, the film festival defends its ability to capitalize on fanfare and social negotiations but the digital age continues to usher in new mobile technologies that operate at a similar (potentially disruptive) intersection.

Also, check out Jenkins’ related TED talk

Works Cited:

De Valck, Marijke. Film Festivals From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

Jenkins, Henry. “Introduction to Convergence Culture,” excerpt from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NYU Press, 2008.

Latour, Bruno.  “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.