In this episode of High Theory, Pardis Dabashi tells us about plot. A plot consists of a change with stakes that establish norms. This seemingly simple structure shapes novels, films, politics, and our world, from easy seductions of comfort to difficult promises of liberation.
In the episode, Pardis references Thomas Edison’s 1903 film, Electrocuting an Elephant, which is super sad, and kind of terrifying, but an economical explanation of plot. She also discusses Max Ophüls’s 1953 film, The Earrings of Madame de… as an example of a film with a potentially liberatory plot. We recommend you watch the latter, not the former. Other texts referenced in this episode include Mary Anne Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Harvard, 2002) and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke, 2011) and Female Complaint (Duke, 2008).
The occasion for our conversation was Pardis’s new book, Losing the Plot: Film and Feeling in the Modern Novel (U Chicago Press, 2023). If you’d like to get yourself a copy there’s a 30% discount on the University of Chicago Press website with the promo code UCPNEW. It’s a book about film and literary modernism, including the work of Nella Larsen, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner. The cover is really beautiful, and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in either of the genres it addresses.
Pardis Dabashi is an Assistant Professor of Literatures in English and Film Studies at Bryn Mawr College, where she is also Affiliated Faculty in the Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and North African Studies Program (MECANA). She has published everywhere, and is friends with everyone! She teaches courses in twentieth-century literature, film studies, Middle East studies, and theory. She was also one of the first guests on High Theory! You can listen to her 2020 episode on The Autonomous Work of Art if you’re feeling a flashback.
The image for this episode is a publicity still from George Cukor’s 1936 MGM film Camille, showing Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in a tense embrace. Digital image from Wikimedia Commons.