Toward an Anarchist Film Theory

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A brief survey of these analyses and critiques followed by a sketch of an alternative, anarchist approach to film theory.

Transcript of Toward an Anarchist Film Theory

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    Anarchist Developments in Cultural StudiesPost-Anarchism today2010.1

    Toward an Anarchist FilmTheory:Reections on the Politics of Cinema

    Nathan Jun

    Abstract

    Cinema, like art more generally, is both an artistic genre and a politico-economic institution. On the one hand there is lm, a medium whichdisseminates moving images via the projection of light through cellu-loid onto a screen. Individual lms or movies, in turn, are discreteaesthetic objects that are distinguished and analyzed vis--vis theirform and content. On the other hand there is the lm industry theelaborate network of artistic, technical, and economic apparatuseswhich plan, produce, market, and display lms to audiences. Sinceits inception, both the aesthetic and political aspects of cinema havebeen subject to various forms of theoretical analysis which have beensubject to critique in turn. In this paper I oer a brief survey of theseanalyses and critiques followed by a sketch of an alternative approachto lm theory. Drawing upon the ideas of Foucault and Deleuze, thisanarchist lm theory seeks to present a viable critical methodologywhile at the same time elucidating the liberatory potential of lm.

    I. The Politics of FilmTheory: From Humanism to CulturalStudies

    Prior to its emergence as a distinct academic discipline in the1970s, lm studies could be roughly divided into two distinct butclosely-related camps: humanism, which analyzed cinema in terms

    Nathan Jun is assistant professor of philosophy and coordinator of the philosophyprogram at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. He is co-editor(with Shane Wahl) of New Perspectives on Anarchism (Lexington, 2009) and (withDaniel Smith) Deleuze and Ethics (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2010) andauthor of Anarchism and Political Modernity (Continuum, forthcoming 2011). He hasalso published and presented widely on the topics of poststructuralism and classicalanarchism.

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    of its promotion of, or opposition to, classical Enlightenment val-ues (e.g., freedom and progress), and various schools of formalism,which focused on the formal, technical, and structural elements ofcinema in general as well as of individual lms.1As Dana Polan notes,humanist critics frequently vacillated between skepticism towardcinema and profound, even hyperbolic adulation of it (Polan, 1985:159). To some, lm represented the death of culture for the benetof a corrupt and debasing mass civilization (ibid.).2 To others, lmdid not kill culture so much as democratize it by destabilizing theprivileged, elite status of art (cf., Cavell, 1981). Ultimately, however,the pro and con positions merge in their common ground of origi-nary presuppositions: they understand art as redemption, transport,utopian oer (Polan, 1985: 159).Like the pro-lm humanists, formalist critics emphasized the artis-

    tic depth and integrity of cinema as genre. (This is especially trueof auteur theory, according to which lms are expressions of theunique ideas, thoughts, and emotions of their directors; Staples,196667: 17.) Unlike humanism, however, formalism was centrallyconcerned with analyzing the vehicles or mechanisms by which lm,as opposed to other artistic genres, generates content. This concerngave rise, in turn, to various evaluative and interpretive theorieswhich privileged the formal elements of lm (e.g., cinematography,editing, etc) over and above its narrative or thematic elements (cf.,Arnheim, 1997, 1989; Bazin, 1996, 1967; Eiseinstein, 1969; Kracauer,1997; Mitry, 1997).In contrast to the optimistic humanists and the apolitical formal-

    ists, the Marxist critics of the Frankfurt School analyzed cinemachiey as a socio-political institution specically, as a componentof the repressive and mendacious culture industry. According toHorkheimer and Adorno, for example, lms are no dierent fromautomobiles or bombs; they are commodities that are produced inorder to be consumed (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1993: 12067). Thetechnology of the culture industry, they write, [is] no more thanthe achievement of standardization and mass production, sacric-ing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of work andthat of the social system (ibid., 121). Prior to the evolution of thisindustry, culture operated as a locus of dissent, a buer between

    1 For an excellent overview of formalism in lm theory, see (Andrews, 2000: 34151).2 See, for example, Leavis (1952). On Leavis dismissal of cinema and mass culture moregenerally, see Mulhern (1979).

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    runaway materialism on the one hand and primitive fanaticism onthe other. In the wake of its thoroughgoing commodication, culturebecomes a mass culture whose movies, television, and newspaperssubordinate everyone and everything to the interests of bourgeoiscapitalism. Mass culture, in turn, replaces the system of labour itselfas the principle vehicle of modern alienation and totalization.By expanding the Marxist-Leninist analysis of capitalism to cover

    the entire social space, Horkheimer and Adorno severely underminethe possibility of meaningful resistance to it. On their view, the logicof Enlightenment reaches its apex precisely at the moment wheneverything including resistance to Enlightenment becomes yetanother spectacle in the parade of culture (ibid., 2401). Whateverforms of resistance cannot be appropriated are marginalized, rele-gated to the lunatic fringe. The culture industry, meanwhile, pro-duces a constant ow of pleasures intended to inure the massesagainst any lingering sentiments of dissent or resistance (ibid., 144).The ultimate result, as Todd May notes, is that positive interven-tion [is] impossible; all resistance [is] capable either of recuperationwithin the parameters of capitalism or marginalization [. . .] thereis no outside capitalism, or at least no eective outside (1994: 26).Absent any program for organized, mass resistance, the only outletleft for the revolutionary subject is art: the creation of quiet, solitaryrefusals and small, eeting spaces of individual freedom.3

    The dominance of humanist and formalist approaches to lm wasoverturned not by Frankfurt SchoolMarxism but by the rise of Frenchstructuralist theory in the 1960s and its subsequent inltration of thehumanities both in North America and on the Continent. As DudleyAndrew notes, the various schools of structuralism4 did not seek toanalyze lms in terms of formal aesthetic criteria but rather [. . .]to read them as symptoms of hidden structures (Andrew, 2000:343; cf., Jay, 1993: 45691). By the mid-1970s, he continues, themost ambitious students were intent on digging beneath the com-monplaces of textbooks and theorizing the conscious machinationsof producers of images and the unconscious ideology of spectators(ibid.). The result, not surprisingly, was a ood of highly inuentialbooks and essays which collectively shaped the direction of lmtheory over the next two decades.5

    3 This position receives one of its fullest articulations in Marcuse (1964).4 For example, Barthesian semiotics, Althusserian Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanaly-sis.

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    One of the most important structuralists was, of course, JacquesDerrida. On his view, we do well to recall, a word (or, more generally,a sign) never corresponds to a presence and so is always playingo other words or signs (1978: 289; 1976: 50). And because allsigns are necessarily trapped within this state or process of play(which Derrida terms dierance), language as a whole cannot havea xed, static, determinate in a word, transcendentmeaning; rather,dierance extends the domain and the play of signication innitely(ibid, 280). Furthermore, if it is impossible for presence to havemeaning apart from language, and if (linguistic) meaning is alwaysin a state of play, it follows that presence itself will be indeterminate which is, of course, precisely what it cannot be (Derrida, 1981:11920). Without an absolute matrical form of being, meaningbecomes dislodged, fragmented, groundless, and elusive. The famousconsequence, of course, is that Il ny a pas de hors-texte (There isno outside-text) (Derrida, 1976: 158). Everything is a text subject tothe ambiguity and indeterminacy of language; whatever noumenalexistence underlies language is unreadable hence, unknowable to us.In contrast to Marxist, psychoanalytic, and feminist theorists, who

    generally shared the Frankfurt Schools suspicion towards cinemaand the lm industry, Derridean critics argued that cinematic textsdo not contain meanings or structures which can be unequivocallyinterpreted or otherwise determined (cf., Brunette & Wills, 1989).Rather, the content of a lm is always and already deconstructing that is, undermining its own internal logic through the play ofsemiotic dierences. As a result, lms are liberated by their ownindeterminacy from the hermeneutics of traditional lm criticism,which repress their own object precisely by attempting to x orconstitute it (Brunette & Wills, 1989: 34). Spectators, in turn, arefree to assign multiple meanings to a given lm, none of which canbe regarded as the true or authentic meaning.This latter ramication proved enormously inuential on the dis-

    cipline of cultural studies, the modus operandi of which was to dis-cover and interpret the ways disparate disciplinary subjects talk back:how consumers deform and transform the products they use to con-struct their lives; how natives rewrite and trouble the ethnographiesof (and to) which they are subject. . . (Brub, 1994: 138; see also

    5 Of particular importance are Baudry (1986: 299319), Heath (1976: 68112), Metz(1973: 4088; 1974), Mulvey (1975: 618).

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