Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Workers, Potters (Part II)

One thing we should want to take away from the quagmire of cultural politics is that we're doomed if we look to the textual qualities of objects themselves to defeat their placement in cultural commerce.  Context can make films politically radical in some sense - I'm thinking of the profligacy of a work like Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, or the anti-colonialist "missiles" by the likes of Rene Vautier (pace Nicole Brenez), or Debord's famous Howls in Favor of Sade screening (or Isou's Venom and Eternity), or even the solid and principled liberalism of a filmmaker like Bertrand Tavernier.  There are a number of ways that cultural objects are political - often these ways overlap, and can even contradict each other.  And often an "activist" version of cinema - a la Michael Moore (or, let's say, the Kony 2012 folks) - presumes that a political cinema is one that causes its audience to leave the theater and act in some way.  Indeed this is what Eisenstein sought when he tried to devise a cinema which could play upon the spectator's sensorium in such a way as to help foment revolution.  (On this, see Jonathan Beller's terrific book The Cinematic Mode of Production, whose praises I've sung many times here over the years.)  But I do admire political gestures that aren't simply the instrumentalist consequences of "effective" political filmmaking.  I harbor a certain romanticized liking for big, expensive movies that fail to turn a profit - and this regardless of whether I think the film is secretly good or not.  I admire the Straubs and Pedro Costa, and in his own way Pasolini, whose films' very production have often sought a political and economic order alien to the hostile, dominant paradigm: i.e., matters of payment, and of closeness to the working class, the underclass, and their environments.

But films can't opt out of the money economy simply by virtue of their message.  The domain of art is neither divorced from politics, nor does it - can it - offer a satisfactory trump card before politics.  There are aesthetes who simply ignore politics; there are aesthetes who hope against hope that aesthetics will overcome politics.  (I suppose what I'd strive for is to have the qualities of an aesthete who follows neither path.)

At the same time, we first world commentators on movies, books, and the like, risk irrelevance - at least in some circumstances - if we adopt what we might characterize as the "Adorno approach."  Like with Pierre Bourdieu, Theodor Adorno's massive body of work is now relegated to a placeholder status for the puritanical position that "culture industries are always bad, no matter how revolutionary they appear."  And the implied shorthand addendum to this position is that Adorno was wrong, because he "didn't like jazz," and as we know, jazz is the great American artform.  Ergo, one must at all costs avoid being an Adorno - this can be a serious offense in the high court of internet intelligentsia.  It causes more vitriol, at times, than the aerial bombing of hospitals and civilian neighborhoods...

Let me impress, once more, that my quarrel is not with mass culture but with a certain way of characterizing and defending it.

Quoting the great AvW/LCC (I've already in fact quoted this exact post of hers once on this blog):

"Realism (and its children in 'literary fiction') was and is largely a formal and political reaction to the vigour of the 'genre' (avant la lettre) habits/tropes/imaginative power of the long 18th century - their revolutionary verve and critical capacity - rather than, as it advertises itself, and as it has been assumed by the major theorists and historians of the novel, from Auerbach to Watt, the result of a direct adaptation of and attention to social and individual reality, naturally arising in the context of the bourgeois individual emancipation narrative."

...the blogger then writing as Alphonse van Worden characterizes a tension between mimesis and metaphor in literature that comes to a head in 1848 ...

"To 1848 the proletarian challenge, to expropriate the bourgeois revolution and universalize it, make it look both backward to commoning and forward to civil liberties, is building, as it adapts certain ideas generated in the course of bourgeois emancipation. 

"To 1848 the 'fantastic' and what later becomes 'genre' generally is gaining force and intensity as it adapts certain techniques of realism and mimesis.

"After 1848, realism - the canon - and genre are separated and hierarchised.  Realism takes power and achieves hegemony and legitimacy; genre is degraded, becomes the formal prison in which the radically imaginative is both 'confined' and 'reformed' under the surveillance and despotism of bourgeois liberalism."


"The history of the mimetic in the bourgeois novel can be written as the history of two tropes for property, that is, the love story of I and Mine: The Umbrella and The Camera.  (The seamstress/sewing machine is important too.)

"(Genres on the other hand whirl around the vehicle and the weapon.)"

In other words, we might trace what NYTimes-style discourse characterizes in terms of split between a serious (artistic, adult) and a frivolous (mass, juvenile) approach to cultural production.  In the former category, keep an eye out for how often critics feel obliged to justify the play & whimsy that can sometimes creep into these works.  'Such-and-such isn't a genre film, but rather a meditation on genre.'  'The author simply uses genre tropes.'  Characterizations like these may often be true.  But it is the fact of the separation that intrigues me.  Defenders make great claims about the likes of Harry Potter or Lost, sometimes quite extravagant claims - but rare is the recourse to realist or modernist justification.  Nobody (or almost nobody) says that the oeuvres of Rowling, J.J. Abrams, the entire Batman franchise, or Joss Whedon are really something other than genre.  Instead, the achievements of mass culture are surplus to genre, or built off it.  In a sense, then, what serious culture performs, when it uses genre, is in fact a representation of it - a mimesis of or toward metaphor, if you will.

I haven't gotten to sentiment today, but that will come ...

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