Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 18, 2013

A pervert’s guide to Zizek

Filed under: philosophy,popular culture,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 18-20, 2013
Elvis is on the Screen!
A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek

Full disclosure: I have written at least ten critiques of Slavoj Zizek over the years so I approached the new documentary “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” with some skepticism. Despite this, I found much of it entertaining and even a little enlightening. At two hours and thirty minutes, however, it begins to lose its charm especially since the film is essentially one long lecture by the man called the Elvis of cultural theory. As is the case with all super-stars, critical self-reflection goes by the wayside when adoring fans surround you all the time telling you how great you are. It probably never entered the mind of director Sophie Fiennes (sister to actor Ralph) that the film was a half-hour too long and least of all that of the Slovenian Elvis himself.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/18/a-perverts-guide-to-zizek/

April 8, 2013

Notes on modern art, part two

Filed under: art,Film,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 8:10 pm

I received two documentaries focused on artists who are arguably among the most important in the world as part of the year-end bounty of screeners meant to help NYFCO members pick winners at our December 2012 meeting. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Gerhard Richter Painting” are both now available on Netflix screening and very much worth watching. Around the same time I viewed them, the MOMA show on the birth of abstract art had begun. In my last post on modern art, I tried to get to the bottom of its origins using the analysis of Meyer Schapiro. With Ai WeiWei and Gerhard Richter, you are confronted by the dialectic of art and politics operating in an epoch that might be described as post-modern if not necessarily subscribing to the ideology deployed in its name. In following up on their work, I have learned a great deal about the current state of fine art that is worth sharing with my readers.

Before examining Ai Weiwei’s work and activism, it’s necessary to get a handle on conceptual art, the genre that he works in. I think most of you are aware of some of its more famous objects, even if you are not familiar with the precepts of its makers. For example, New Yorkers must have vivid memories of “Piss Christ”, the photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine that received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, something that pissed off Senator Jesse Helms.

Piss Christ

This is the kind of work that is often on display at the Whitney Biennial in New York, widely interpreted as “subversive” in the sort of transgressive fashion we associate with postmodernism. It should not surprise anybody that some of conceptual art’s pioneers viewed Marcel Duchamp’s work in the Dadaist genre as a forerunner, especially his 1917 “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt.

If Dadaism was an expression of disdain for the bourgeois rationality that led to WWI, then conceptual art had a similar birth in the 1960s when napalming peasant villages in Vietnam led many young artists to conclude that art had to be delinked from bourgeois culture. Among them was Joseph Kosuth, born just 5 days after me, who considered Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories and Freudian psychoanalysis a major influence on his work. Kosuth was the art editor at Marxist Perspectives, a journal published by Eugene Genovese in the late 70s through the early 80s. Due to the impossibly dysfunctional archives at The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research I was not able to read the Kosuth articles.

In 1990 Kosuth curated the “The Play of the Unmentionable” show at the Brooklyn Museum to answer the likes of Jesse Helm. He included erotic Japanese woodblock prints, a 19th-century painting of a black youth eating watermelon, sculptures by Auguste Rodin of lesbians embracing, and furniture from the Bauhaus, the avant-garde German design school closed down by the Nazis.

Betraying the Wittgensteinan obsession with language and the philosopher’s infamous predilection for the inscrutable, Kosuth’s work almost always includes some text whose purpose is unclear. For example, his most famous work “One and Three Chairs” has a physical chair, a photo of the chair and a text panel with a dictionary definition of a chair. On the MOMA website, a page devoted to this work states:

But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.”

For what it’s worth, this work was constructed in 1965 just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. A year later I would be studying Wittgenstein at the New School, convinced that such pursuits were useful only for maintaining a student exemption from the draft.

Another conceptual artist also chose her words carefully and arguably with a more outright political intent. Born on the very same day as me, Barbara Kruger became very famous and very wealthy for creating photos overlaid with provocative text and eventually just for works that amounted to electric signboards like the one that carries the latest news in Times Square.

When I worked at Goldman-Sachs in the late 80s, they had one of her signboards in the cafeteria. Back in 2000 I forwarded a nasty swipe at Kruger by Judith Shulevitz titled “Barbara Kruger, Ad Industry Heroine” with my preface:

Back in the late 80s, when I worked in Goldman-Sachs’s new corporate headquarters, I always got a chuckle over how the powerful investment bank had decided to festoon the walls with ‘avant-garde’ art. This was especially glaring in the cafeteria, which served as a mini-gallery for some “daring” neon signs created by Barbara Kruger, who has an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in NYC right now. These signs had slogans like “You think you can escape commodification — You can’t”. Standing on line behind some bond salesmen in $1200 suits, I couldn’t imagine them being disturbed by her archly ironic postmodernism. Now if Goldman-Sachs had decided to put up some of Mike Alewitz’s murals of striking workers, that would have been a different story.

Another well-known conceptual artist is Damien Hirst who is pretty open about his bid to become the artist favored by the world’s one percent. Lately Hirst has been encrusting his work with precious jewels instead of text like other conceptual artists. This approach has generated significant revenue as reported by The Economist in 2008:

Alexander Machkevitch, a Kazakh mining magnate with a taste for metallurgical themes, bought six lots in the evening sale: a large stainless steel cabinet filled with manufactured diamonds, a pair of gold-plated cabinets containing more lab gems, three butterfly canvasses and a spot painting with a gleaming gold background for a total of £11.7m. Other buyers from the region included Maria Baibakova, Vladislav Doronin, Victor Pinchuk and Gary Tatintsian.

In keeping with the financial collapse that began in 2008, Hirst’s work has devalued considerably, with the resale market reflecting a 93% drop in prices.

Perhaps the brick-and-mortar character of the Chinese economy, largely devoid of the postmodern financialization of the world of Goldman-Sachs and hedge fund billionaires, lends a different character to the work of Ai Weiwei who I knew only by reputation. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is not only valuable as an introduction to a most revolutionary figure; it also shows in a highly dramatic fashion what it means to face censorship and repression in a “communist” country.

The film points out that Ai Weiwei became a conceptual artist through his exposure to the thriving downtown New York City art scene of the early 1980s when he was studying at the Parsons School of Design. One wonders if his “20 Chairs From the Qing Dynasty” might be paying homage to Kosuth’s work:


When he returned to China in 1993, he began producing provocative works geared to his country’s traditions. He let a valuable Han dynasty urn to fall from his hands and break. He also painted the Coca Cola logo on other valuable pieces, or after applying garish-colored paint over them presented them as cheap counterfeits. The obvious statement was that China was for sale.

Ai Weiwei’s father was Ai Qing, one of China’s leading poets and a powerful figure in the Communist Party. In 1957 he made the mistake of opposing the persecution of Ding Ling, another Communist leader and writer, during an “anti-rightist” campaign. Accused now of “rightism”, Ai Qing was banished to a state farm and his work went unpublished for another 20 years.

Obviously Ai Weiwei inherited both his father’s talent as well as the courage of his convictions. He was the chief architect for the 2008 Olympics stadium in Beijing that he eventually disavowed. In a statement he not only attacked China for cracking down on dissidents but—warming the cockles of my heart—lashed out at Stephen Spielberg for his cozy connections to the CP bosses: “All the shitty directors in the world are involved. It’s disgusting. I don’t like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment. It is mindless.”

Like the late Roger Ebert, Ai Weiwei became totally involved with the Internet to get out his ideas, both through blogging and Tweeter. After a mammoth earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that cost the lives of more than 5000 children due to shoddy construction, he created a work in their memory that like Maya Ling’s Vietnam Memorial is simply a list of their names. He used Twitter to gather together the names of the children.

A year later the Chinese cops conducted a raid on his apartment and beat him so badly that he required emergency brain surgery.

Not content to use physical violence, the state has also tried to pressure him into keeping quiet through legal persecution over alleged tax evasion. If you enter aiweiwei.com as a URL, you will be directed to fakecase.com that has the facts on the latest round of repression. On April 6, 2011 Xinhua News Agency reported: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.” Considering the amount of corruption at the highest levels that the top officials of the CP are engaged in, it is a stunning exercise of chutzpah for the state to single him out for obviously trumped up charges.

My strongest recommendation for watching this documentary. It will show you how conceptual art can be a powerful weapon against the status quo, as long as those creating it know who the enemy is.

If “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is carried along by the force of the subject’s personality, the opposite can be said about “Gerhard Richter Painting”. Mostly giving the impression of being camera-shy and self-effacing, the 81-year-old artist originally from East Germany is content to let his work speak for itself. Most of the film’s action reminds me of documentaries I have seen about the designers Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld that focus most of all on their work in the studio as they prepare a collection for their next show. Since fashion design is probably the art that has most in common with the grand old days of aristocratic or bourgeois patronage, it is not surprising that world class designers fit comfortably into the life-style of their benefactors.

For an artist like Richter, whose works command the highest price tag of any living artist, there’s not much sign of him enjoying a life of privilege. He is seemingly content to live for his work and rather indifferent to celebrity and the luxury it affords.

Unlike any documentary about art I have ever seen, this one is all about the production of work. Approximately 90 percent of it depicts Richter working on his latest series of abstract paintings that are executed through the use of a squeegee. He applies (throws, more accurately) different colored paint on a huge canvas and works them over with the squeegee until he is satisfied with the results. The benefit of the film is seeing a major artist at work. Imagine how this generation could have gained from a similar treatment of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, that would be the artist with whom Richter has the closest kinship.

Richter is a throwback to the modernist tradition embodied in the MOMA show. In 1955 he submitted a painting titled “Communion With Picasso” as part of his BA in East Germany—a sure sign that modern art rather than socialist realism was his preference.

Although I can certainly recommend the film, it is regrettable that it does not have much to say about works that don’t fit into the squeegee mold. He also works in a photorealist style, one that can also be regarded as “post-modernist” in the same vein as conceptual art.

When Richter arrived in West Germany to seek political asylum in 1961, he hooked up with a group of artists who described their work as a “Capitalist Realism” that repudiated the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. The 1963 work titled “Bombers” speaks for itself:

Another Richter work that speaks for itself, and which also was omitted from the film, was his “October 18, 1977” that consisted of fifteen paintings based on photographs of moments in the lives and deaths of four members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), referred to as the Baader-Meinhof gang by the tabloid press. On October 18, 1977, the bodies of three leaders of the RAF found in their cells and widely regarded as having been murdered by the German state police.

Finally, there’s Richter’s painting from 2009 titled “September”, a reference to 9/11:


Interestingly enough, the work appears to be an amalgam of his photorealism and the “smear” technique used in his squeegee paintings.

In an interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst in 1970, Richter was asked how he interpreted his role as a painter in German society. He replied:

As a role that everyone has. I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.’

In my next and final post, I am going to comment on how some leading Marxists (Alex Callinicos, Alan Woods, et al) grapple with the challenge of contemporary art.

October 16, 2011

Thoughts on Zizek’s “The Idea of Communism” conference

Filed under: Academia,Lenin,liberalism,postmodernism,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

In a striking inability to gauge the mood of a good portion of its targeted audience, Verso Press distributed an announcement for this weekend’s “The Idea of Communism” conference with a couple of blurbs referencing its éminence grise and majordomo Slavoj Zizek as follows:

“Superstar messiah of the new left.” – OBSERVER

“Slavoj Zizek is a superstar of Elvis-like magnitude–a bogglingly dynamic whirlwind of brainpower.” – DAZED AND CONFUSED

Superstar… Elvis-like… Messiah…

No wonder so many people bought into the hoax that Zizek and Lady Ga Ga were intellectual soul mates.

To some extent this obsession with celebrity is understandable because the powers that be at Verso Press and New Left Review must see themselves in the same terms. Whether this has anything to do with the proletarian orientation of the movement that Marx founded is of course another story altogether. How odd that the goal of some “revolutionaries” today is a guest appearance on the Charlie Rose show or a profile in Vanity Fair.

While I was put off by the publicity, I felt I owed it to myself and my readers to take advantage of Verso’s live streaming of the event. I have become more and more aware of a kind of trend emerging around Zizek, Jodi Dean and Alan Badiou that is distinguished by its insistence on using the term communism as well as its admiration for Lenin. It is a barometer of opinion in the academy that “communism” and Lenin can be placed in the center of a professor’s escutcheon (likely after attaining the safety of tenure.)

While Zizek refers to himself frequently as a “die-hard” Leninist, there is some question whether he understands the fundamental basis of Lenin’s politics, namely class independence. In a October 29, 2009 interview with Jonathan Derbyshire in the New Statesman Zizek said:

I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. I think the battle he is fighting now over healthcare is extremely important, because it concerns the very core of the ruling ideology. The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. And the lesson, if he wins, is that freedom of choice is certainly something beautiful, but that it only works against a background of regulations, ethical presuppositions, economic conditions and so on. My position isn’t that we should sit down and wait for some big revolution to come. We have to engage wherever we can. If Obama wins his battle over healthcare, if some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.

While many are the charlatans who spoke in the name of Karl Marx, starting with Eduard Bernstein, Zizek has the distinction of saying the most anti-Leninist things in the name of Lenin, it would appear.

Unlike Zizek, whose “Leninism” is of recent vintage, Badiou is a soixante-huit Maoist. While Badiou’s fellow Maoists (André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy et al) became turncoats, he remains true to his youthful beliefs. That, plus the fact that the Kasama Project speaks highly of him, gives him a certain legitimacy. That being said, Badiou seems to share the prevalent philosophical idealism of his fellow conferees (illness prevented Badiou from making an appearance).

Zizek, Dean, Badiou are clearly in the tradition of what Perry Anderson diagnosed in his 1976 “Considerations of Western Marxism”. Back in 1992 or so, when I was first exposed to the academic left on the Internet, I was so perplexed by all of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found myself searching for an explanation of where it came from. I had given up my pursuit of a philosophy PhD in 1967 to join the Trotskyist movement and could not fathom why so many Marxist intellectuals were touting exactly the thinkers who I had abandoned 25 years earlier: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger et al. As Marx had put it, the point was to change it. Right?

Anderson, no matter his confusion over so many things nowadays, had a pretty good explanation:

Western Marxism as a whole thus paradoxically inverted the trajectory of Marx’s own development itself. Where the founder of historical materialism moved progressively from philosophy to politics and then economics, as the central terrain of his thought, the successors of the tradition that emerged after 1920 increasingly turned back from economics and politics to philosophy – abandoning direct engagement with what had been the great concerns of the mature Marx, nearly as completely as he had abandoned direct pursuit of the discursive issues of his youth. The wheel, in this sense, appeared to have turned full circle. In fact, of course, no simple reversion occurred, or could occur. Marx’s own philosophical enterprise had been primarily to settle accounts with Hegel and his major heirs and critics in Germany, especially Feuerbach. The theoretical object of his thought was essentially the Hegelian system. For Western Marxism by contrast – despite a prominent revival of Hegelian studies within it – the main theoretical object became Marx’s own thought itself. Discussion of this did not, of course, ever confine itself to the early philosophical writings alone. The massive presence of Marx’s economic and political works precluded this. But the whole range of Marx’s oeuvre was typically treated as the source material from which philosophical analysis would extract the epistemological principles for a systematic use of Marxism to interpret (and transform) the world – principles never explicitly or fully set out by Marx himself. No philosopher within the Western Marxist tradition ever claimed that the main or ultimate aim of historical materialism was a theory of knowledge. But the common assumption of virtually all was that the preliminary task of theoretical research within Marxism was to disengage the rules of social enquiry discovered by Marx, yet buried within the topical particularity of his work, and if necessary to complete them. The result was that a remarkable amount of the output of Western Marxism became a pro­longed and intricate Discourse on Method. The primacy accorded to this endeavour was foreign to Marx, in any phase of his development.

For Anderson, the key to understanding the “philosophical” turn was the series of defeats in the 1920s and 30s that left many intellectuals in despair. If Stalinist and imperialist hegemony militated against the revolutionary project, then the next best thing might be an academic career where a kind of watered-down Marxism might be tapped for interesting lectures on Alfred Hitchcock movies and the like for audiences at conferences in places like London or Paris, with travel and hotel paid by one’s employer. That would be much more profitable than writing analyses of the capitalist economy in order to help develop strategy and tactics for the workers movement. That might have been how Lenin became a celebrity of sorts in Czarist Russia but that route was excluded for the modern and chastened left academy. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock movies were a lot more fun than pouring over land tenure or labor demographics.

Household chores and other research projects prevented me from watching the entire conference, but I did manage to check out the Saturday morning talks by Bruno Bosteels and Susan Buck-Morss, and Sunday’s with Jodi Dean and Zizek. The brunt of my comments will be directed at Dean and Zizek, but I do want to say a few brief words about Bosteels and Buck-Morss.

Bosteels’s talk was a mild polemic directed against Zizek’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and Christianity, the subject of his 2001 “The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?” Bosteel’s talk first appeared as an article titled “Are There Any Saints Left? León Rozitchner as a Reader of Saint Augustine” in the 2008 Polygraph (19/20). It is essentially an indictment of St. Augustine as a precursor to modern day imperialism, a rather uncontroversial thesis given the fact that his “City of God” was essentially a defense of the Holy Roman Empire. As my senior thesis at Bard College was a study of this book, I confess to having no inkling of its sinister motives at the time. I was a big fan of St. Augustine’s Confessions that resonated with my own adolescent angst and assumed that “The City of God” would be more of the same.

At the time (1965), I never once considered that a book might serve reactionary aims. My only problem with Bosteels’s approach to this classic is that it can easily be interpreted as idealistic. In other words, St. Augustine’s bad ideas explain the horrors of the Crusades, etc. At the risk of sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, I would look at the Crusades as driven more by a need to challenge Muslim commercial interests and to open up trade routes, but that’s just me and my moldy fig Marxism.

The first half of Susan Buck-Morss’s talk on communism and ethics was largely incomprehensible, dwelling on ontology and other matters related more to philosophy than political economy. The second half was what Teresa Ebert once called a “postal” attack on Marxism, including the usual complaints that it prioritizes a working class that no longer exists, instructs women and Blacks to wait until capitalism is overthrown for its problems to be solved—in other words, a mindless caricature.

Buck-Morss is an Adorno expert and as such found herself in the good graces of the Platypus Society that is striving after a synthesis of the Spartacist League and the Frankfurt School. In an April 2011 interview with the group, Buck-Morss told the boys what was wrong with people like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh:

The whole discourse of “the enemy” or “the class enemy” in the Old Left was about putting people against the wall and shooting. I do not consider it progressive anymore, if it ever was, to justify violent insurrection on the basis that the state was not going to fall on its own.

Her grasp of economics is as sure-footed as her grasp of the nature of the state. The next morning she took the mike after Jodi Dean’s talk and relayed her concerns about the OWS 1/99 percent distinction that did not address the fact that many people in the United States were “capitalistic” because of their mortgages and their 401-k’s. When I used to sell the Militant newspaper door-to-door in the Columbia University dormitories in 1969, I used to hear the same argument. Little did I expect to hear it from a relatively famous almost-Marxist professor.

Google “Jodi Dean” and “Communist Desire” and you’ll be able to read the talk she gave this morning. It is a kind of psychoanalysis of the left:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement , or so-called market demands. Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure. Impossible is no excuse—desire is always impossible to satisfy.

My take on this is somewhat different than Professor Dean’s. My RX for combatting melancholia is victories, no matter how minor, against the bourgeoisie. To achieve such victories, it will require strategy and tactics that Malcolm X once described as  “designed to get meaningful immediate results”. Such actions are surely aided by a solid analysis of the relationship of class forces that can only be derived by a study of bourgeois society such as the kind found in classical Marxism and not Frankfurt-inspired philosophizing, I am afraid.

Zizek’s talk was a bad boy exercise in epater la bourgeoisie that he is famous for. He scoffed at the priority that the left had put on winning democracy and urged the need for violence, calling attention to how demonstrators in London had broken windows earlier in the year. Without breaking the windows, nobody would have noticed. Fortunately, the mass movement no longer pays attention to such provocative suggestions.

Dean unfortunately has bought into Zizek’s bad boy routine and even defended it against his critics. Google “Jodi Dean” and “Zizek Against Democracy” and you will be able to read a document that states:

Some theorists construe Zizek as an intellectual bad boy trying to out-radicalize those he dismisses as deconstructionists, multiculturalists, Spinozans, and Leftist scoundrels and dwarves.  Ernesto Laclau, in the dialogue with Zizek and Judith Butler, refers scornfully to the “naïve self-complacence” of one of Zizek’s “r-r-revolutionary” passages:  “Zizek had told us that he wanted to overthrow capitalism; now we are served notice that he also wants to do away with liberal democratic regimes.”   Although Laclau implies that Zizek’s anti-democratic stance is something new, a skepticism toward democracy has actually long been a crucial component of Zizek’s project.  It is not, therefore, simply a radical gesture.

Indeed, part of Zizek’s talk this morning dealt with exactly this question, scoffing at those leftists who care about which judge will be elected. He reminded the audience that Marx believed that it was only through seizing state power and abolishing capitalist property relations that true freedom could be achieved. That of course would be news to Marx scholars like August Nimtz, whose “Marx and Engels: their contribution to the democratic breakthrough” revealed their commitment to what Zizek writes off. The book includes this epigraph that obviously Zizek would regard as liberal mush:

The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity, that in another year or two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working Democrats and Communists — for in this country Democracy and Communism are, as far as the working classes are concerned, quite synonymous.

–Frederick Engels, “The Late Butchery at Leipzig.-The German Working Men’s Movement

And as far as the “ruthless” Lenin, scourge of democratic half-measures, was concerned, this was his assessment in “What is to be Done” of what the Russian socialists (he used this term much more frequently than communist) had to do to live up to the standards of the German social democracy, a party he was seeking to emulate:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

That’s the Lenin we must learn from, not Zizek’s cartoon-like figure who comes out of a 1950s Red Scare B-movie.

October 25, 2010

Film theory follow-up

Filed under: Academia,Film,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Now that I have had a chance to step back from the film class and do some of my own reading into the particular sub-discipline of “film theory” that Professor Jane Gaines operates in, the whole thing starts to come into focus. In a nutshell, her class is intended to indoctrinate students into her own perspective, which is a mixture of Marxism and post-structuralism of the kind that should be familiar to readers of Social Text, Rethinking Marxism and any other such journals read by the like-minded tenured left.

Before taking a close look at one of her articles, I want to recommend Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology, a longish and interesting piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on July 13, 2003. Written by David Weddle, it describes his consternation with the UC Santa Barbara Film School where his daughter was enduring frustrations even greater than mine:

“How did you do on your final exam?” I asked my daughter.

Her shoulders slumped. “I got a C.”

Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?

“It’s not my fault,” she protested. “You should have seen the questions. I couldn’t understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds.”

She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: “Here, read the test yourself and tell me if it makes any sense.”

I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. I’d written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active–that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ “

Then came the question itself:

“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’ or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I went wrong,” she said.

The Bordwell alluded to above is David Bordwell, a “rock star” in film studies even more glamorous than Jane Gaines. As I mentioned in my previous post on the film class fiasco, he has no problem using the word “movies”, even though Gaines regards this akin to blowing your nose on your sleeve (something I do from time to time.) Despite being used as a resource by the Santa Barbara film professor, Bordwell—a Marxist of sorts—is on record as viewing film theory as a load of crap. In an article by Alissa Quart titled The Insider: David Bordwell Blows the Whistle on Film Studies that appeared in the now-defunct Lingua Franca (vol. 10, no. 2 (March 2000), we learn that Bordwell, despite his own tendency to over-theorize (my view, not Quart’s) is a bit fed up, especially with the kind of Lacanian nonsense that Zizek specializes in. In a 1996 book co-edited with Noel Carroll, he calls for a return to a “historical poetics” that would explain how movies “work and work upon us”, something I foolishly expected out of my class. It should be mentioned that Zizek answered Bordwell in a 2001 book titled The Fright of Real Tears. Bordwell’s response is here.  Honestly, despite my sympathy for Bordwell’s approach, the debate strikes me as sterile as the ones I have seen over the falling rate of profit and many other arcane topics of Marxism in the academy.

I must say that I found Bordwell’s book on Asian film less than compelling since it pretty much ignored the social and political context that figures so prominently in my old friend Michael Hoover’s book City on Fire, co-written with Lisa Stokes, on Hong Kong cinema. Frankly, my interest in movies has always been mostly as an entry-point into history and politics. I do want to learn about tracking shots, lighting, etc. but only as a means to an end.

Turning now to Gaines’s chapter (Political Mimesis) in a book she co-edited with Michael Renov in 1999 titled Collecting Visible Evidence, you are struck by her obsession with leftist politics, an activity that she only knows from the opposite end of a telescope by all evidence. (You can find the article by doing a Google book search.)

The article opens with a broadside against a fellow named John Grierson who in Gaines’s world serves as a kind of archdemon equal to Michel Pablo in some Trotskyist sects. He is blamed for the atrociously paternalistic and middle-of-the-road quality of the typical PBS documentary. Grierson was a major figure in the 1920s who coined the term “documentary”. He was aligned with the Labour Party left and saw documentary film as a way to redress social ills. But since he worked for the government, this meant that his movies were basically “promotional pieces”. I have seen a number of Grierson’s films in class and would describe them as on the side of the angels, although not up to Jane Gaines’s fire-breathing Bolshevique standards. Here’s one titled Night Mail that you can judge for yourself:

As opposed to Grierson’s movies (there, I said it) that are “far from the front lines of political upheaval” (a place that I doubt Professor Gaines has any firsthand knowledge of herself), she prefers those that might inspire “cataclysmic change”.

Unlike Grierson’s Labourist pap, she prefers something like Ivens and Storck’s 1933 Borinage, about the plight of workers in Belgium, because it had the “requisite socialist credentials, a political badge that many other documentaries in the West cannot claim.” What are these? She is impressed by the fact that the filmmakers were inspired by a visit to the Soviet Union and “were engaged in a revolutionary struggle as part of the international Communist movement”. The USSR? 1933? One might hope that Ms. Gaines would find some time in her busy schedule one day to read Leon Trotsky. She would find it most enlightening I’m sure. Well, maybe not.

In searching her noggin for a movie that might have produced “cataclysmic change”, she can think of only one. At SUNY Buffalo in 1969, some SDS’ers screened some newsreels that resulted in a march against the ROTC building on campus where they smashed windows, tore up furniture and destroyed machines until the office was a total wreck. I would only hope that someday when Columbia University students are inspired to take similar action that Ms. Gaines can tear herself away from her scholarly pursuits and join them. After all, a tenured professor does not have to worry that much about losing her job although I doubt that she would ever face the kind of mailed fist that a Ward Churchill did. Like most “Marxists” at Columbia, her “revolutionary politics” are those best expressed in a small-circulation journal and not on the picket line.

Turning to the question of political mimesis, the sine qua non for “cataclysmic change”, we find ourselves moving away from broken office furniture and more into the rarefied realm of Foucauldianism, with its ever-present emphasis on the Body. Ms. Gaines has come to the conclusion that documentaries must employ the “sensationalized body” to be effective. She singles out Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike as a good example with its “sensual scenes of male workers bathing.” Silly me, I always thought it had more to do with the sense of solidarity among workers understanding their common class interests. But what do I know. I am only the Unrepentant Marxist. Judge for yourself:

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