Associated with the temporal arts such as film, video, animation, theater, dance, and music, montage, initially a cinematographic term, and its spatial equivalents collage and assemblage, are the most important formal techniques for combining elements into a composition in 20th and 21st century art forms. They call into question 19th century monistic notions of absolute and homogeneous time and space and instead construct a “whole” that cannot be totalized, not quite “one” but partial, fragmentary, and dislocated; loosely articulated and plural, sometimes a composite structured literally by chance, as with texts produced by automatic writing, its meanings and very identity are relative to the point of view of the perceiver. In this broader sense, psychoanalysts have theorized sexuality as a “montage” of partial drives (oral-cannibalistic, anal-sadistic, phallic, scopic, and invocatory) that never cohere in the service of a genital whole and a natural instinct to procreate. Similarly, the whole of any film is in fact a montage of shots filmed in different times and places, but in mainstream cinema their spatio-temporal discontinuities are hidden by the techniques of “continuity editing” that developed in the 1910’s, notably with U.S. director D.W. Griffith. Their effect, according to film theorists, is to immerse spectators in the diegetic world of the film through “realism,” the latter the narrative and visual genre that expresses and naturalizes a 19th c. monistic and homogeneous universe.
By contrast, as Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein argued when theorizing “intellectual montage,” editing shots to create discontinuities could generate new ideas not present in any one shot on its own, just as the juxtaposition of elements of meaning in an ideogram did, which others have theorized promotes critical reflection, rather than immersion. Typically, a montage style of editing involves the rapid alternation between two sets of related shots whose meaning arises from their collision (the pace, and sometimes unusual camera angles, contribute to the sequence’s “denaturalizing” effect—although the technique Eisenstein developed for a proletarian spectator now dominates film and television advertising). In music, montage refers to a combination of elements without a shared key or scale and tonality, or in which relationships of theme and variation do not apply; in literature, it refers to a discontinuous juxtaposition of lines of poetry, dramatic scenes, or narrative actions; in architecture it refers to postmodern pastiche and hybridity, such as one finds in the buildings of Las Vegas. In all these mediums, heterogeneity, fragmentation and decentering predominate, and any sort of naturalized whole or harmony is called into question in a fashion that Fredric Jameson, writing of the postmodern arts, has described as schizophrenic, underlining its relation to a critique of humanist ideas of a coherent, expressive, and fully conscious self.