John Rignell

PhD student,  Arts and Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.


John’s first degree was in Drama at Bristol University followed by a teaching qualification that led to a career in education, teaching children with a variety of special educational needs. Whilst engaged in this work he undertook a degree in French and Spanish with the Open University. A subsequent career change and further training led to work as an adult psychoanalytic psychotherapist in both the private and public sectors.

His return to academia was marked by undertaking an MRes at Birkbeck, followed by his present project of a PhD in Arts and Humanities at the same institution. He contributed a chapter on shame to an edited collection of papers gathered in a book entitled Being and Relating in Psychotherapy: Ontology and Therapeutic Practice (Driver, Crawford and Stewart (eds), 2013). He has also published a paper in the journal Free Associations; the result of a talk he gave at the Seventh European Psychoanalytic Film Festival on 35 rhums (Denis, 2008).

At Birkbeck, John is a member of the Guilt Group and has introduced a number of film screenings for them. He has also organised a conference on the theme of reflexivity and the use of the self as a resource in formal research.


Making, Looking, Doing: An exploration, from a Winnicottian perspective, of the dynamics of the encounter between the spectator and the films of Michael Haneke.

My PhD thesis marks my interest in the ways in which we make a relationship with a film that has the potential to instigate personal and wider political change. The theoretical concepts of Donald Winnicott, particularly the transitional object, potential space, and his thinking about the mirror, playing and creativity, provide the language to speak about this.

The above is predicated on the notion of the spectator as an active maker of meaning rather than a passive recipient of the image. As a director Michael Haneke has stated a commitment to posing questions that the spectator can answer, rather than providing those answers himself. It is this process and the aesthetic devices he deploys to achieve his aims that provide the focus for the exploration.

Whilst Haneke and Winnicott provide the content of my work, I have become increasingly interested, as my thesis has developed, in the process of research. My interest in the personal, subjective responses of the spectator has led me to think about my own in relation to my work. The tension between writing in a way that preserves academic and intellectual integrity yet is personal and uses the idiosyncratic response without being unhelpfully narcissistic or embarrassingly confessional has become the central challenge in my development as a researcher.