Delving behind the screen

Issue: 112

Chris Nineham

A review of Mike Wayne (ed), Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives (Pluto, 2005), £16.99

At various times over the last century Marxists have been central in debates about culture in academia and beyond. Marxist perspectives were key to discussions about realism and modernism in the 1920s and 1930s and to controversy about high and low culture and the role of ideology in the 1960s and 1970s. With some honourable exceptions Marxist input petered out in the 1980s. This book is just one indication of a revival in the Marxist study of culture. In itself it is an attempt to reassess and reapply some of the best work of the past.

Some of the the essays recap Marxist debates and in the proccess show how many different ‘Marxist’ positions on culture there are. Esther Leslie describes the three-cornered 1930s controversy between German Marxists Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno about the impact of mass production and modernism. Brecht’s philosophy was to embrace and use ‘the bad new things’. Adorno was more pessimistic, championing the avant garde only because he felt mass produced culture was contributing to a ‘repressive collectivism’. Walter Benjamin argued that in certain circumstances new technology could demystify and had a shock value that could jolt people out of complacency.

Deborah Phillips describes how Althusser’s brand of Marxism came to dominate in the 1970s and 1980s. She marvels at the venom and obscurity of some of the debates he generated but shows how the real impact of Althusser was to open the way to various forms of poststructuralism and identity politics: ‘Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard are now more likely to be invoked as theorists than Althusser, but all forged their work in the context of his intervention into Marxist theory.’

Mike Wayne develops the critique of Althusser. Althusser’s trick of deconstucting the ideology ‘written in to’ texts was a useful innovation. But in the end he took cultural critique down the road to relativism and obscurity. Though he hung on in theory to the notion of scientific truth, he came to see ideology as all pervasive in practice. He followed Lacan in declaring that ideology was written in to language itself. From here there is no escape.

Apart from containing a paradox (from what vantage point can you identify the role of ideology if it dominates all human practice?), this is clearly a position that leads away from struggle or even hope for the future. It also leads away from a real Marxist understanding. As Mike Wayne points out, Marxism should remind us ‘how important socioeconomic relations are and any authentic Marxism understands the complexities of the cultural arena within those relations’.

There are essays in this spirit on corporate ownership in Hollywood, an examination of the conflict between two core functions of capitalist film and culture; ‘sales’ and ‘uplift’, and an interesting comparison between the cinema of the Russian and Cuban revolutions.

There is also an entertaining look at the (absence of the) working class in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and a fascinating study of one film by Ousmane Sembene which examines the complex way dominant ideas are disseminated.

Mike Wayne’s introduction is one of the highlights of the book. Wayne summarises many of the key Marxist debates but takes positions. He argues against the pessimism of even soft versions of postmodernism and challenges the once fashionable post-structuralists who argued that texts write themselves, that cultural products are shaped unconsciously by institutions, history, subconscious desires and so on. As he says, ‘While the dominant version of authorship had rightly been taken to task, we cannot do without some sense of agency, collective and individual… There is no reason to suppose that authors of cultural texts are any less able to consciously shape meaning than academics.’

In his discussion of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, Wayne places the role of ideas in the context of economic developments and class struggle, something most self-declared Gramscians failed to do in the 1980s: ‘The forging of hegemony is the process by which the dominated or subaltern groups are brought into the social economic and cultural order… As the competitive struggle to accumulate profits intensifies capital must establish a new neo-liberal order in which capital compromises rather less and labour concedes rather more. The struggle for moral and intellectual leadership is today fought out in such topics as war, the environment, sexuality, public services, poverty, wealth and trade.’

Just two connected observations: first, none of the contributors draws out what seems to me an important conclusion from the quote above. Some of the essays point to growing cultural opposition in the margins, on the internet or through culture jamming, for example, but none consider the impact that neo-liberalism and war have had on the cultural mainstream. Though big corporate control of the studios is tighter than ever, there is a widening strand of dissent even in Hollywood.

One unexamined paradox is that though the cultural world is ideologically important for the ruling class, it is a social sphere which must at least appear to allow dissent and freedom of expression. It needs to do this to legitimise a society that denies them in practice to the rest of us. In normal times this works okay for the establishment. The free market can be invoked to justify the predominance of pap, and the alienation of audience and cultural producers alike is a barrier to engagement in social isues. At times of growing social stress, however, polarisation in society can carry over into the realm of culture. It is at times like these that corporations like Disney find themselves involved in Michael Moore films, or pin-ups such as George Clooney rail against permanent war.