Monday, May 3, 2010

Deleuze and (Modern) Political Cinema: “The People are Missing”

In chapter eight of Cinema 2, Deleuze discusses what he calls “minor cinema,” and in the context of the modern political cinema of such filmmakers as Glauber Rocha, Ousmene Sembene, and Pierre Perrault (a Brazilian, an African, and a French Canadian, respectively). Political film of the classical period is premised on the idea that “the people are already there” (C2: 216): the people pre-exist their representation in film. In this cinema the filmmaker’s role is to bring to light, in a representative fashion, the concerns and struggles of the people. As Rodowick says (in Deleuze’s Time Machine, the first book-length study of Deleuze’s two volume work on cinema to appear in English and still probably the best one), the goal of political film in the classical period is “to represent the masses or ‘the people.’ They may be oppressed or in the process of liberation, alienated or awakened, but representation is nonetheless their right. That they are representable as a collective image, and that their political self-consciousness is also renderable in images, are givens” (1997: 152). All political films, documentary or otherwise, premised on the notion that the filmmaker is simply and objectively recording a reality to which he or she remains external or detached would be an instance of this kind of classical political cinema.

Modern political cinema begins from a very different position, premised not on the “already there” of the people but on their absence. In the words of the experimental Italian theatrical director Carmelo Bene, “the people are missing.” Bene says this in response to the query: for whom is your theatre addressed, to which people are they addressed? Bene’s answer: his work is addressed to a people who do not yet exist; a people who do not preexist their performative enunciation through, or with, the work of art. This, according to Deleuze, is also the answer found in modern political cinema. The stakes involved in proclaiming the people “missing” is nowhere more evident than in the postcolonial cinema of Rocha and Sembene. These filmmakers, Deleuze argues, understand that what is required is not simply an assertion of an identity counter to the one proposed in colonial rule; they thus resist the urge to evoke dubious notions of “origins” – a true identity, a unified peoples, prior to colonialist domination – and, instead, actively seek to forge a new collectivity, a people who belong not to the past, to history, but to the future: the people as future conditional. “This acknowledgement of a people who are missing is not a renunciation of political cinema,” Deleuze writes, “but on the contrary the new basis on which it is founded” (C2: 217). It is because the people are missing, rather than present, that there is a necessity for political art.


For me, Deleuze’s remarks on “minor cinema” remains the most interesting of all his discussions of the “minor” in art (far more convincing than the arguments about “minor literature” that Deleuze and Guattari ascribe to Kafka). I find compelling his commentary on Rocha and Sembene and, along these lines, if I had time, I could add a few examples of my own (including the work of the great heretical Italian Marxist filmmaker and provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini). Having said this, I’ve never been entirely convinced by Deleuze’s critique here of the work of Sergei Eisenstein as an instance of classical political cinema (and which has been repeated rather thoughtlessly by various Deleuze scholars, including R. Bogue). Does Eisenstein really presume the existence of a revolutionary proletariat, or does he see it as his – and other artist’s – responsibility to provoke or stimulate this revolutionary form of consciousness through the work of art? In the Soviet Union of the 1920s, the revolution has already occurred – literally so – but what remains unknown is the nature of the future communist society: what will it look like and what role the people will play. It is to this future collective that Eisenstein pitches his works. What interest Eisenstein is the ability of cinematic montage to stimulate both affective and cognitive responses and it is the imbrication of these two modes of spectatorial activity that allows cinema not simply to entertain its audience but also to transform them.

In this sense, we can’t say that the revolutionary proletariat pre-exist the cinema; the revolutionary proletariat is a being-in-formation and the cinema is one of the mediums through which it comes into existence. For Eisenstein, this meant that cinema needed to be pure experimentation, a mode of non-representational art in which the cinematic “image” is produced by the spectator in their encounter with a series of shots whose meaning is relational, whose meaning results from the tension produced by individual shots placed in conflict or collision, and which the viewer must resolve for himself or herself. This kind of experimentation became anathema in Stalinist Russia and precisely because the central administration no longer wished to provoke an (unpredictable) becoming; instead the goal became the affirmation of an identity that is already formed and complacent and a “true” ideology that doesn’t require thinking or feeling, only obedience. (Is it any surprise that Socialist Realism took the exact same "form" as classical Hollywood films, with their stories centered on the heroic exploits of the protagonist and the editing as unobtrusive as possible, so as to facilitate the suture of spectator to narrative, spectator to representation. Thought is no longer mandatory. Thought becomes optional.)


Those interested in the topic of art and the political, as well as Deleuze’s notion of the “minor,” might take a look sometime at Nicholas Thoburn’s excellent book on the “minor politics” of Karl Marx entitled simply Deleuze, Marx and Politics. Thoburn argues that Marx doesn’t posit communism as the simple description of a predetermined, and fully worked out, perspective or methodology but rather “a process of continual engagement with the flows and constraints of the capitalist socius towards its overcoming” (2003: 3). If it takes Marx sixteen years to complete the endlessly-revised Capital, Thoburn says, it is precisely because he is sensitive to the mutations that capitalism undergoes in the second half of the nineteenth century and because he is aware that such a strategic, dynamic mode of critique must also characterize communist politics. Marx thus re-configures communism as an immanent political practice, one that continuously discovers, or creates, a line of flight through the networks of capitalist production. “Marx presents the Communist Party, then, not as a distinct and timeless organizational form, but as a mode of engagement that is immanent to the content of the proletarian-in-struggle, which in turn is immanent to the particular configurations of capital” (Thoburn 2003: 40). The "proletariat" thus no longer simply refers to a particular group of people but to a revolutionary potential – a virtual potential – that awaits its actualization in, and as, our future.


1 comment:

  1. This is interesting unfortunately the black background makes it very difficult to read.