Thursday, January 05, 2006

The dangers of revisionism in culture

Book Review

by Renée Sams

Understanding Film -- Marxist Perspectives
Ed. Mike Wayne, Pluto Press, London 2005, Pbl £16.99

FOR ALMOST 100 years the film industry has entertained and influenced people. It is a medium that both capitalists and Marxists have found a powerful tool for communicating ideas to people.
A new book Understanding Film – Marxist Perspectives is a collection of essays by some English and American university professors and lecturers exploring the work of some of the key theorists on the industry whose writings have been influential.
It is a very long-winded intellectual perspective, obviously intended for discussion in university circles, but it is interesting if you have the patience to plough your way through the academic verbiage.

Mike Wayne, who edited the anthology, teaches film, television and video practice at Brunel University. He is the author of several books on Marxism and the film industry and feels that “questions of ideology, technology and industry must be situated in relation to class”.
In his introduction he makes a delicate reference to “the Russian Revolution” that “opened up the prospect of an alternative modernity, very different from the capitalist one that has spawned the horrors of the First World War.”

In the first essay, Esther Leslie, a teacher at the School of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London, discusses “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film” during the early years of the film industry.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), an early critic of film, argued that capitalism feeds people with the products of a “culture industry” to keep them “passively accepting their lot in life, satisfied and politically apathetic”. His views stemmed, Esther Leslie says, “from his experience of California, the apex of US commercial culture”. Like many other theorists who would follow him he focussed on culture to change the social situation rather than economics. He was disappointed that capitalism did not seem to be as close to coming to an end as Marx had thought but had become more entrenched. His pessimistic views were coloured by his experience of Nazi propaganda and, Leslie says, his knowledge of “mass culture” in the Soviet Union. All of which led him to the belief that films would be of no value to art.

Leslie’s second guru is Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a German theorist who took a more positive view of the subject. He was acquainted with Adorno but his ideas on film were strongly influenced by Bertolt Brecht. He saw film as part of the technological revolution that would bring culture to a wider range of people. His major work published in 1935 was The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility in which he argued that photography and film, unlike painting or sculpture, are different in that every copy is an original and that therefore makes a difference to the understanding of art. He was afraid that mass reproduction of art, which was rapidly becoming possible, would threaten its status as something special. But film, he thought, was the only form that had become able to analyse social relations in the age of the new technical revolution.

The third guru in this essay is Bertolt Brecht (1895-1956), who was a communist, playwright and poet, whose work was more influential in theatre than film. He was forced to leave Germany in 1933 after the Nazis burned his books. He fled to Europe and then went to the United States where he worked on some films in Hollywood until in 1947 he was forced to give evidence before the House Un-American Activities Committee. After that he returned to the German Democratic Republic. His kind of “epic” drama was designed to remind the audience that what they are seeing on stage is not reality but a demonstration of an illusion of reality and should be looked at with critical detachment. The alienation effect (Verfremdunseffekt) was achieved through such devices as having the actors wear masks.

The next essayist is Marcia Landy, a Distinguished Service Professor of English and Film Studies with a secondary appointment in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh who writes on “Gramsci, Sembene and the Politics of Culture”.
Gramsci (1891-1937) studied at the University of Turin with, among other people, Palmiro Togliatti, future General Secretary of the Communist Party of Italy and he became a member of that party. He was an active anti-fascist during the rise of Mussolini and was imprisoned several times for his militant writing, spending the last 15 years of his life in gaol where he wrote his major work, The Prison Notebooks. In her essay Marcia Landy says that Gramsci’s ideas “represent a challenge to orthodox forms of Marxism that adhere to distinctions between rigidly determining economic base and the social and cultural superstructure.”

The African film maker Sembene goes along with Gramsci’s thinking in “contrast to Marxists committed to…the central role of economics”. He “saw that social, political and economic transformation is impossible without a corresponding transformation in knowledge, behaviour and belief.”
Gramsci’s Notebooks were not published until after his death and only came widely known in the 50s and 60s when they attracted worldwide interest. But it was written in the 30s at a time when the cinema and radio were the most popular forms of culture, which Gramsci felt had more influence on people than written forms of communication.
To him, social institutions such as the church, popular knowledge, folklore and specific artefacts such as radio and film played a crucial role in influencing people in favour of the capitalist society. He was also particularly keen on the role that intellectuals could play in the transformation of society.

It was not until the late 60s and early 70s that film studies appeared on university curricula at time when “ideology” was the subject of much discussion among students, lecturers, left wing political groups, film critics and those involved in the media and education fields.
In her essay The Athusserian Moment Revisited Deborah Phillips who teaches at the School of English and Humanities, Birkbeck, London University, writes about that time: “The concept of ideology…was the buzzword of conferences and meetings, and the unavoidable issue of contemporary Marxist thinking.”
Along with other critics of Marx, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) was part of the trend towards distancing communists from the Soviet Union, basing policies on social forces instead of economics and class, a trend that became known as “Eurocommunism”.
She quotes historian EP Thompson’s essay The Poverty of Theory in which he saw the danger of advocating theoretical practice as politics, scathingly describing the adherents of these ideas as “bourgeois lumpen intelligentsia: aspirant intellectuals, whose amateurish intellectual preparation disarms them before manifest absurdities and in practice leave them paralysed in the first web of scholastic argument…”
Althusser who suffered from a bi-polar condition for most of his life had a violent episode in 1980 in which he killed his wife and was consigned to a psychiatric hospital for the rest of his life and his works fell out of favour with those who were re-writing Karl Marx.

The next essay by Mike Wayne brings the series up to date on with a piece on Fredric Jameson, Distinguished Professor of Contemporary Literature at Duke University, described as a Marxist, who has received much acclaim for his work on contemporary critical theory of post modernism.
For three decades he has written extensively on writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Georg Lukacs, TW Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse. His essay: Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of late Capitalism was published in New Left Review in 1984.
Jamieson argued that we live “in a world frighteningly controlled by vast forces” which “stultify our capacity to represent history and manipulate knowledge and information to the extent that the boundaries between what is real and what is not, what is true and what is false, effectively disappear.”
Jamieson comes to the conclusion that postmodernism; “the cultural logic of late capitalism” is the dominant force in media culture – a conclusion that Mike Wayne disagrees with and I would certainly go along with. As Wayne says:
“Postmodernism is only one of the many cultural resources at play,” which is culturally significant but not dominant. Ideology is no longer the buzz word of meetings and conferences but the ideas of all those “Marxist” theorists who set out to turn people against socialism and communism spread throughout the media, and were infiltrated into the communist movement where they brought about the demise of the CPSU, and communist parties throughout Europe.
The McCarthy era in the United States, and the Cold War were under-pinned by anti-communist theoretical writing and supported by the Hollywood moguls who turned out anti-Soviet films by the dozen, which were seen by millions, some of which are still shown today.

It was refreshing to see an essay on cinema in Democratic Korea, or North Korea as it is called in the essay written by Hyangjin Lee, a lecturer in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of “Contemporary Korean Cinema Identity, Culture and Politics” as well as many articles on North and South Korean cinema and culture.
In her essay she says Kim Jong IL asserted that Juché oriented art and literature are “communist art and literature that meet the requirements of the new age and the aspirations of the popular masses” and she asks the question “What does this conveniently elastic cliché mean for filmmakers?”
Hyangjin Lee is not supportive of the Korean revolution, characterising it as a “passive revolution carried out by the oppressive regime at the apex of which is the Great Leader, which insists on the necessity and continuity of the revolution.”
She does, however, provide an interesting account of the early beginnings of film in Korea, then a Japanese colony, where the KAPF (Korean Proletariat Art Federation in Esperanto) was established in 1925 with the merger of two socialist-oriented literature circles.
The organisation developed into a “radical political” body and declared: “the art movement as a weapon for political struggles”. Members of the KAPF were active and concentrated on “political agitation and ideological uniformity with the party line in order to achieve national popular revolution”.
In 1935 many of its members were arrested, and some of them returned to underground Korean Communist Party work, others went on to make pro-Japanese films or non-political literary films.
Since the division of Korea by the Allies in 1945, Hyangjin Lee writes, the south has “maintained anti-communism as the state ideology”. In the north, from 1948, “the ‘socialist’ regime gave new life to the former KAPF filmmakers.”
In 1955 Kim IL Sung defined Juché as “a theory, which rejects the universality of mass-initiated class revolution” and she says “proposes the ideas of the Great Leader” instead. But Kim IL Sung in his explanation of the theory emphasised that this was a “creative adoption of Marxist-Leninism to the Korean situation for revolutionary purposes.”
Like all these theorists Hyangjin Lee expresses her fear of the “subordination of film to politics”. Both Hyangjin Lee and the editor of the anthology are pessimistic about the situation in Democratic Korea.

In his introduction Mike Wayne says that the state has “now merged with the party, as a centralised body of coercive force and political and cultural power,” and this leaves the masses in “the same position of passivity and non-participation as in orthodox capitalist countries.”
He only sees that Marxism is a useful tool for the critique of capitalism but, neither Wayne nor the other essayists, can see that it was not the failure of socialism that caused the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Europe, but the work of imperialist enemies without and the revisionist enemies within those parties that finally brought them down.

They cannot see that the peoples of China, Democratic Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos are engaged in a heroic struggle to overcome the problems of working out the economics of building a socialist society and that art and film have a useful role to play in that struggle.

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