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.