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A World Apart: Apophasis and Avisuality in the American Avant-Garde


Critical consensus on the avant-garde characterizes its prime creative and historiographical force as its ability to create images. In contrast, this dissertation presents an alternative to the scholarly emphasis on the avant-garde’s “visionary tradition” by focusing instead on American experimental films that engage the discourse of the sacred in an avisual mode. Given its separateness from the profane, material world, the sacred necessarily exists beyond representation; therefore, films that flirt with the representation of the sacred flirt with the limits of representational form. In case studies of films that deny the visionary power of the cinema, I chart the possibilities of an under-recognized alternative mode of modernist filmmaking, which I am calling the “apophatic tradition” of the avant-garde. Drawn from apophatic theology, apophatic refers to the failures or negations of signification that paradoxically point beyond themselves to the unsayable divine. Following this principle, this dissertation explores productive gestures of negation in postwar American avant-garde films that use the intersection of film and religious discourse to explore the limits of cinematic representation itself.

What does it mean for modernist cinema to engage the sacred? This dissertation begins by examining the production history of Maya Deren's 1947-50 unfinished Haitian project. Rather than a failure, I reframe the incompletion of the project as an apophatic negation that has the potential to preserve the sacrality of the film and its subject matter of Haitian Voudoun possession dances. Chapter Two offers an analysis of Caveh Zahedi's "I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore" (1994), arguing that the film’s self-referential failures of narrative and generic conventions cultivate an apophatic state of unknowing. The final chapter explores representational negations in Nathaniel Dorsky's "Hours for Jerome" (1982), "Variations" (1999), and "Compline" (2009), claiming the relationship between these films and their paratexts redirect the viewer's perspective on the world in a way that is ultimately reflective of the religious forms referenced in those paratexts. By focusing on the interactions created between these avant-garde films and their viewer, this dissertation argues that the experience of absence created by these negations paradoxically becomes itself the experience of that which is beyond representation.

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