After graduating with a degree in history, politics and sociology I worked in publishing, and became editorial assistant for the journal Screen from 1972 to 1976 at a time when it was transforming debates about cinema and culture through its often controversial introduction of new French approaches to film, including semiotic and psychoanalytic theories. My involvement in these debates led to my change in career, and I began a post-graduate degree at the Slade School of Art, while I edited the 1978 catalogue of films funded by the British Film Institute Production Board, involving avant-garde and independent short and feature length films, and as well as teaching film at a number of institutions and universities in London.
At the same time I was also involved in feminism, through discussion groups, working on issues of women and film, and then founded the feminist theory journal, m/f, with Parveen Adams and Rosalind Coward,with Beverley Brown joining us later. The journal, which published 10 single and two double issues between 1978-1986, was committed to developing theoretical work on the social and psychical organisation of sexual difference, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault and of Jacques Lacan in his ‘return to Freud’. A collection from the journal was published as The Woman in Question, edited by Parveen Adams and Elizabeth Cowie, by MIT Press in 1990 and a digital version is forthcoming.
I came to the University of Kent in 1981 to teach on its new programme in Film Studies and the department has since grown to become one of the UK’s foremost university centres for undergraduate and postgraduate study of film, television, and film practice.
The central focus for my research and writing was to understand how representation works to produce meanings and identities in relation to political and cultural questions of gender and sexual difference. I published several key essays in m/f, in particular, ‘Woman as Sign’, ‘The Popular Film as Progressive Text - a discussion of Coma’, and ‘Fantasia’. These have appeared in a number of anthologies, as well as appearing in revised form in my book, Representing the Woman: Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1997), in which I undertook a critical reassessment of the ways in which cinema has been described as an apparatus for fetishistic and voyeuristic masculine pleasure. I develop an account of identification understood through psychoanalysis and film theory which recognises feminine pleasure and identification as a complex psychical and cultural affair in the cinema. For both men and women, fantasy and fetishism in cinema are audio-visual settings or mises en scène, in which sexual difference is constructed, confronted, and disavowed. The audio-viewing spectator is an active partner in the passivity and activity of these pleasures.
These conceptual concerns have continued in my recent work in publications on the horror of the horror film, where I consider the spectator as an ethical subject within the audio-viewing experience, and the horror or horror through examining Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959), and the psychoanalysis of anxiety, and more recently in In my discussion of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) my focus is dreams and film, and I explore ways in which cinema’s ready-made dreams engage us in a further ‘dream-work’ of our own. ‘Documentary, memory and trauma are the focus of my work in relation to fiction film and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour ( ‘Traumatic Memories of Remembering and Forgetting’, 2000), And on trauma, mourning and the ethical in relation to gesture in Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), in ‘The time of gesture in cinema and its ethics’, Journal for Cultural Research, 19:1, 82-95, (2015). Essays on documentary video-art and photography, in the work of Serbian artist Milica Tomić, on paranoia and video art (2006) and in relation to my colleagues and film-makers Clio Barnard’s Dark Glass (differences 2010), and Sarah Turner’s Perestroika, and ‘The difference in figuring women now’, in Moving Image Review & Art Journal, 2016.
The focus of my recent research is the documentary film and its spectator, and documentary video art. This work has two strands, one which is concerned to develop an historical understanding of the genre of documentary in film and video both as a project of recording the real and as a cinematic form and to relate this to contemporary broadcast and video documentary. A second strand of this research is the interrelationship of pleasure and knowledge which characterises documentary. Here I consider the ways we are moved to feel for the social actors we see and hear, and the ways in which, as a result, we are brought to understand them and their worlds. This interrelation of specular pleasure (or, voyeurism) and identification is central to my publications on reality tv, video art and traditional documentary in my monograph Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (2011), and my essays ‘Specters of the Real: Documentary Time and Art, in differences (2007), ‘The ventriloquism of documentary first-person speech and the self-portait film’, in Embodied Encounters (2015). Across both these strands, the politics and art of documentary are central, and I address the work of theorists including Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.
A very different project was my audio commentary for Juan del Gardo’s video work, ‘Who are You Entertaining To?’, in Aspect, dvd journal, vol 3, 2004, ‘The Artist as Content’ www.aspectmag.com.