Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Powers of the Invisible

‘Since 1789, ideas alone have constituted the strength and salvation of the proletariat. It owes to them its every victory’, wrote Blanqui (one of those who passed the ideas of 1789 on to the Paris Commune). Abstract concepts were the abc of a militant’s apprenticeship. The notions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, like those of labour power, surplus value, relations of production, etc., that underlie them, are not apprehensible by the senses. Secondly, whether project or myth, the idea of the Revolution as ‘what should be’ is the denial and transcendence of the immediate, the overcoming of the present. Both as logical discourse and as moral undertaking, the socialist utopia demanded an inner break with the ‘stream of everyday life’, an act of faith that mobilized the powers of conceptual analysis to break the accepted social imagery down into elemental abstracts, like ‘exploitation’.

Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds; it is fundamental for the idea of socialism. When it is cold outside and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone. Alphabetical memory, as Hegel would put it. Contrasting ‘the inestimable educational value’ of learning to read and write with alphabetical characters, as opposed to hieroglyphics, he described how the very process of alphabetical writing helps to turn the mind’s attention from immediate ideas and sense impressions to ‘the more formal structure of the word and its abstract components’, in a way that ‘gives stability and independence to the interior realm of mental life’.

All the revolutionary men of action I have met, from Che Guevara to Pham Van Dong by way of Castro (not the autocrat, but the one-time rebel), to say nothing of the walking encyclopaedias known as Trotskyists, were compulsive readers, as devoted to books as they were unreceptive to images. A Hegelian would explain this by saying that reading leads to critical detachment, and—given that there is ‘no science that is not hidden’, nor future without ‘rehearsal’ of the past—to utopian anticipation. Abstraction encourages action, as remembrance leads to innovation. The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. Columbus discovered America in a library, through the perusal of arcane texts and cosmographies. The Ancien Régime in France was overthrown by admirers not of Montgolfier or Washington, but of Lycurgus and Cato. Chateaubriand and Hugo revolutionized literature by dint of Gothic ruins, Nietzsche vaulted over Jules Verne with the aid of the pre-Socratics, and Freud revisited Aeschylus.

The misfortune of revolutionaries is to have inherited a little more than most people. The written word is vital for these transmitters of collective memory, since their analytical tools are forged from its traditions. A legacy of ideas is not automatically transmissible; there are better or worse historical environments for conveying abstractions, just as there are better and worse conductors of electricity. The revolutionary act par excellence starts from a sense of nostalgia, the return to a forgotten text, a lost ideal. Behind the ‘re’ of reformation, republic or revolution—of rehearsing, recommencing, rereading—there is a hand flicking through the pages of a book, from the end back to the beginning. Whereas the finger that presses a button, fast-forwarding a tape or disc, will never pose a danger to the establishment.

--Régis Debray, "Socialism: A Life-Cycle." New Left Review 46. Food for thought.


Anonymous said...

I (an unregistered EL reader) read Debray's article as well. An implication of his argument is that no revolutionary movements could ever be sparked by people walking out of a cinema or after viewing a DVD, an argument that seems reasonable to me.

I'd like to read more of your thoughts on the (im)possibility of politically effective film. What response can you offer to the common criticism that the collective passivity of its means of consumption (sitting silently in a darkened room) inhibits active engagement?

Maybe you have addressed the subject somewhere before.

Anonymous said...

1. Not a particularly materialist argument from Comrade Debray.

2. Reality Check. Does the proletariat really give a damn about ideas? Or is it more in love with images...including it's own in the mirror of history?

Zach Campbell said...

Long comments here because I'll be away for the weekend ...

Can a revolutionary movement
be sparked by DVD or cinema screenings? Maybe not. Cinema can raise awareness; it can fan flames; I think it can also deal with abstractions (but not necessarily in a way analogous to the graphospheric, alphabetical writings).

I cannot extricate my cinephilic and political developments from each other--the seriousness of them both came about around the same time, and some of the films I saw or texts on films I read played a real part in the way I thought about and felt about very real sociopolitical things. But I don't think that happens to very many people.

I think there's sometimes a problem when people--even very intelligent people--deal with 'film and politics,' and part of it is a laziness about differentiating between the cinema as a commercial/industrial institution; as an artistic medium; as a technological practice that has very de- and anti-institutional elements. Of course they're all related; but I feel like, e.g., I've come across critiques of cinema that read like they're based on the medium (and the ideological materiality of 'the Apparatus,' say) when they're really critiques of cinema's industrial-commercial role, which is its most important politically (critically), but which doesn't even bother to search for or acknowledge positive/revolutionary options (assuming they exist, which is an assumption I'm willingn to make). Sometimes I want to rush to the medium's defense.

Then again what I find myself also slipping into sometimes is an irrational move, wanting to defend cinema and my cinephilia as ethical; in its worst manifestations it's a case of, "I really loved this Peter Watkins film, and it's left-wing, so of course cinema is great!" Where one founds ethical consideration of a medium or practice upon personal pleasure derived from particular instances/products (which in turn is based upon moral affirmation), without really consciously acknowledging any of it as such. It's a weakness of mine and I'm still learning how to deal with it.

Cinema can be a witness; it can tell stories or provide facts; it can be edifying or entertaining or beautiful; most of all it can be an interactive site: maybe not always interactive like 'Web 2.0' or a roundtable meeting but in the sense that it can be exhibited in groups of people, it can be made among communities, proliferated among them. Cinema's presence in collective (proletarian) activity is very much a possibility. What makes the cinema potentially active, engaged, sociopolitically good and ethical is not in the texts themselves (though there are many good things in some of these texts), but what individuals and communities do with them, how they present them and talk about them amongst each other, what lessons they draw from them (positive & negative).

And there is also the appreciation of aesthetic good, which is a fine and I think necessary thing in our lives. But often the acknowledgment of this need takes the form of an imperative in the service of reaction (Thou must genuflect at the altar of Film X or Filmmaker Y: anyone who dares put politics before it is a hideous beast who hates Art); I don't want to contribute to a culture of beauty, and an appreciation of beauty, that tethers proletarianism or altermondialism to this. If for no other reason, it's that the forces that the left fights against dominate the discourse on beauty and the means (media, education, etc.: valid things in themselves but in our material world never actually found "in themselves").

I would like to prove Debray wrong; I would like to think that parts of our a/v age will play a vital role; that the tools will be used. As an historical critique of, at least, institutional-commercial cinema, however, I think he's basically correct.

Zach Campbell said...

Anon 2--why not particularly materialist?

And certainly some proletarians give a damn about ideas. I have no idea if "it" is "in love" with "its own image," however.

Marilyn said...

I think Debray's prejudice for the written word is extreme and rather myopic. Let's think for a moment of preliterate societies that passed their stories on through rhapsodists, tales of heroics and unjust kings that could indeed inspire. It is likely that the commoners who marches on the Crusades were inspired by this type of communications.

Then let's look at the riots caused by the premiere performance in Dublin of John Synge's, "The Playboy of the Western World." I myself witnessed a loud booing chorus, program tossing, and walkouts of Peter Sellars reinterpretation of "Tannhauser" to be the story of Jimmy Swaggart, certainly an artistic choice that caused quite a stir.

Yet I have not seen a similar reaction from films other than documentaries. Is it possible, as has been rumored, that something chemical in the brain is pacified by these images? Can a film move people to action? I know that attempts have been made, a.k.a., Renoir's La Marseillaise to counter grown fascist tendencies in France. I suspect that film accomplished the "nostalgia" Debray refers to as an accomplishment of written texts in at least some of the audience. It is a stirring piece of polemics that makes for good film-going as well. But if we are entertained, can we really be enlightened?

I believe that cinema does change minds and hearts, but it doesn't do so in a revolutionary way. Touching the deep archetypes within can reorder our psyches, bit by bit. Having an experience of empathy thrust upon us by an unexpected turn of plot equally can jolt us into a new place. Because I believe in the transformative power of film, I rail often against Hollywood pablum that squanders cinema's power and potential. Others have done so about television. I believe truly transformative films have a hard time finding a screen and an audience, but these films do exist. I've seen them.

Zach Campbell said...

Marilyn--the Crusades were not a revolution though, were they? Debray is speaking of the revolutions borne of a certain age, capitalism, Enlightenment, printing technologies (and literacy). Obviously, slave revolts and serf rebellions existed long before Babeuf, Fourier, Marx, Sorel, etc. But Debray's trying to indicate that there's a certain culture of reading/writing, and with it certain options for social action, including revolution, that different eras would be unlikely to foster. It's not that other arts can't cause riots and massive reactions (cf. Playboy..., Stravinsky, etc.)--but the graphosphere is what allowed for the appearance and rise of unions and other workers' organizations, intellectual arguments both bourgeois and proletarian, etc. Capitalism (and the alphabet, logos abstracted, Debray says using Hegel as a not-totally-owned-up-to puppet) engendered the means for its own revolution: that's the crude but basic iteration of this piece, I think; or rather the driving force behind it.

Can films change minds and hearts--at least play a part in doing so? Certainly (though how much and in what ways still needs to be better understood). Does 'the videosphere' offer the same revolutionary potential as 'the graphosphere' (and hence earlier stages of capitalism) offered before it?

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, I'm glad people are reading & thinking about the Debray piece.

Marilyn said...

I apologize for the semiliterate writing of my previous post - now that I see it again for the first time.

I think Debray, and perhaps your reading of him, is rather ethnocentric and narrow in definition about what a revolution is or can be. There are many literate societies (the Chinese much earlier than other civilizations, for example), but in fact, those who perpetuated revolutions were, for the most part, illiterate. So what you really have is a group of thinkers and intellectuals who perhaps are responding to a dynamic in society itself, describing it so to speak, as it is flowering. I'm a Jungian myself, and believe that the collective unconscious, not the written word, moves mountains. The scribes are there to bear witness, like John Reed at the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Zach Campbell said...

Once again, I don't think Debray is talking about all revolutions in all kinds of places, and likewise his focus is heavily on Western thought, history, and--most importantly--economic forms of capitalism and its resistance (among the West or otherwise), and the proliferation of that particular kind of resistance over the last few centuries.

John Reed could bear witness to the Russian Revolution, but Lenin and other leaders--actors--were often bookish, highly literate people! These aren't simply scribes we, or Debray, are talking about: a lot of the movers & shakers were active participants in the so-called graphosphere. Debray traveled a fair amount, he met with plenty of revolutionaries and even served some time for his crimes; I wouldn't guess he's ignorant of what sort of people comprise revolutionary movements--I think he's probably well-placed to venture as to what

Marilyn said...

I've have to take your word for Debray's POV and experiences. I'm not really very familiar with him. I was responding to the quotes you provided.

I don't wish to say that the writers were not also actors. Certainly Mein Kampf is the uberexample of the author/actor of a radical movement that nearly succeeded in its aims.

Perhaps the fatal flaw with movies is that they have become inextricably linked with commerce. As long as they are seen primarily as product/entertainment, they will not have the power to move mountains in an of themselves. If the best purveyor of social foment we have today in the West is Michael Moore, a semi-politicized comedy writer, then we'll never get there.

Zach Campbell said...

Marilyn, I'd recommend the entire Debray article if you can access NLR. (If not, please feel free to drop me a line and I can send you a PDF.) As for film=entertainment product, yes, this is a problem, but its reality is not something we should ascribe to audiences being wrong. It's in the interest of corporate elites and their supporting class to keep it this way, reproduce it, spread it, no?

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