Someone – I think it was Nick Mamatas – recently made a sarcastic Facebook or Twitter post, expressing mock-surprise that a “multi-million dollar Hollywood movie isn’t the Communist Manifesto” (or words to that effect). The thing being mocked there is the way in which it seems that some on the Left will criticise an expensive (and, the studios hope, profitable) product of the mass-market corporate capitalist culture industries for not being something it was obviously never going to be, and never could be.
As it turned out – for a host of complex and contingent historical reasons – cinema and television became almost-overwhelmingly comforting and placating instantiations of the spectacle. Every now and again a big movie will come along, like Mad Max Fury Road or (I’d argue) Prometheus, which contains aspects of radical critique within its aesthetic and/or thematics. But firstly, this happens rarely, and only when a host of other factors constellate. Based on the cited examples, I’d be tempted to suggest that franchises and auteurs have something to do with it, which is interesting, as is the way those two things are clearly related in the mentioned cases. In any event, both films are akin to aberrations which can slip out occasionally, not despite but because of the existence of an overarching and hegemonic mainstream with tightly policed ideological rules and regulations. To be crude about it: they can happen only because they are, by definition, exceptions to the rule. And then, of course, we have to ponder what effect they actually have. I am – as far as I’m aware – the only person who detected a metaphor in Prometheus about the fascist impulse immanent within all imperialist Westernism, about fascism as a syncresis, concatenation, and meta-expression of Western culture’s id), so I’m unsurprised to learn that it hasn’t led many people to fundamentally question Western civilisation’s foundation on the principles of racist empire. Basically, to notice it (or to construct it through your relation with the text) you have to already feel it – which gives us a clear idea of its capacity for agitation. Mad Max Fury Road possibly had more effect, in that it may have helped give some expression to a burgeoning new feminist consciousness in some Western women and men.
I strongly suspect that media has very little ability to directly influence particular opinions or attitudes. That isn’t how it works. Media, over time, as part of a hegemonic ideological system, reflects, reinforces, and normalises certain assumptions and impressions. When it comes to ideological production via media, individual representations probably mean less than the trends of representations over swathes of media, over long periods. This is why one decent bit of representation is not going to achieve very much, except as part of changing trends. These trends can be positive, but that’s the exception. And the positive effect is minor, especially if we confine ourselves to thinking about the direct effects of one representation.
Of course, it’s easy for me to kvetch about the uselessness of representations. I’m represented – at least in some ways.
Movies are not, and cannot be, subversive. Not even when they are. A subversive movie is not subversive, because it is a movie. In the subversion/Hollywood dichotomy, the Hollywood is always the dominant gene. Indeed, it is a terminator gene. It is engineered to be so. It is a mistaken precept of many leftist accounts of structural ideological production that they forget that, which the ideology may not be consciously produced, the products carrying the ideology definitely are. The ideology is produced consciously even when it is produced unconsciously, because the vehicle in which it rides is consciously produced. One may not consciously be aiming to create a circular puddle, but if one creates a circular hole in the ground just before it rains… well, you know what will result, even if you take pains not to think about it. It is one of the great defects of leftist thought that it has permitted its general (and generally justifiable) distaste for Freud to guts its ability and willingness to investigate the borderlands between the conscious and the unconscious. As a result, leftist accounts of ideological production have tended to err on the side of conspiracism and vulgarity or of over-nuance and over-subtlety.
One of the greatest leftist accounts of this borderland is in Orwell, with his account of Doublethink. Doublethink is the ability to hold contradictory opinions simultaneously, to be conscious and yet unconscious of doing so, to be unaware and proud of one’s own ideological self management, to construct one’s own deliberate self-delusion as prideworthy while also forgetting about it. Moreover, it is reflex. It is both generated by, and generative of, the society which gives rise to it. With Doublethink, Orwell manages an astonishing feat of dialectics, and penetrates some of the darkest secrets of the psychology of class societies. Leftists have shied away from Orwell’s achievement because they have interpreted him as merely attacking (one-sidedly) the culture of socialism, and have thus ceded his insights to those who fail to appreciate or utilise them: the Right, and the bourgeois, philistine mainstream. Doublethink can be employed to understand how many aspects of the psychological production of capitalism is managed. It is not enough to explain the contents of newspapers with reference to either the bias and power of the owner, or of the normative assumptions of the writers and editors, or even of the structural pressures of the political economy of journalism and publishing – much as all these things play a role. We have to get to grips with the specific content and character of such ideological cultural productions. With their slippery many-sidedness and ambiguity, their tactical ambivalence, their sly sadism, their brazen hypocrisy, their outrageous and showy irrationalism and incoherence. Doublethink is a key which can permit us to penetrate this occluded realm of creation. It is impossible to imagine the ideologues of capitalism, writing in the Washington Post and the Guardian, speaking on CNN or Fox News, conducting the moral, verbal, political contortions they do, and in plain sight, without Doublethink. Just the reporting of imperialism alone, based as it is on simultaneous savagery and sanctimony, both equally intense and necessarily cohabiting articles, paragraphs, even sentences, demonstrates the active perversity of Doublethink.
As with journalism, so with narrative. The capitalist culture industries produce many stories, and the stories told in movies and films are at least as important – if not more so – to the management of capitalist society as the stories told in newspapers and live reports. And yet, just as the stories of journalism have to be based in fact in some way, to some degree (whatever the degree of distance and attenuation… Fox News cannot, for instance, claim to be reporting the doings of the resurrected spirit of Andrew Jackson), so too do the stories of narrative media have to be based in fact… or rather in reality… which is, of course, simply a word for the network of assumptions most of us share… or tolerate. Even a film which features immortal demi-gods with super-powers fighting in storms of supernatural energy must be based in this ‘reality’, which – once we subtract assumptions about gravity and materiality and time, etc – is really just a way of talking about hegemonic ideology. Indeed, it is arguably even more important for the more fantastic stories to adhere to such hegemonic ideology, just as the most brazenly dishonest ‘news’ stories have to adhere closer to orthodox, and display the most spurious rigour. The fantastic narratives have various options open to them. They may cling with pathetic loyalty to the most outright conformism, or they may hide their adherence to hegemonic ideology within sentimental truisms which masquerade as improving or inspiring morals, assertions about the best sides of human nature, the highest moral aspirations of mankind, and other such childish drivel. Or they may, of course, cloak their adherence within the appearance of challenge. This is what stories are doing when they try to look as if they are confrontational, subversive, etc. This is what stories are doing when they have characters demand “Who broke the world?”, or say “Like all workers everywhere, we’re fighting the suits”, etc. Whatever the intentions of the producers, they also have other intentions. They can’t not have. Because they are making what they are making. They are doing what they are doing. You cannot be making a Hollywood film, or a prime-time drama, without having the intention of defending capitalism. You can fill the script with as much anti-capitalist rhetoric, argumentation, satire, polemic, etc, as you like. It makes no difference. Form overwhelms content. Or rather, context overwhelms content.
Of course, Doublethink cuts both ways. We can engage in it too. Just as it is wrong for socialists to abjure the use of the institutions of capitalism against capitalism, so it wrong to abandon even the irrecoverable in art, narrative, and ideology. We have precious few enough weapons, let’s not drop even the ones that cut us when we grip them. If you’re desperate enough, you will wield a sword with a blade for a handle. In extremis, people will grip the dagger that is being plunged towards them. Murdered corpses have defence wounds. Sliced hands and arms. And this is not evidence of foolishness or futility, but of bravery and admirable pig-headedness. (Not that I necessarily wish to shame those who die without a fight – that can be its own strength.) Doublethink, capitalist ideology, bourgeois narrative culture, the spectacle, the products of ideological production… these are all the home element of the enemy. Yet can we not swim away from sharks? I am, I’m afraid, not one to refuse to pick up the baseball bat dropped by the enemy, lest I should become as bad as him. There is a difference when we do it. To pretend otherwise is to forget history and context and material reality, to forget the existence of time and society… to, in other words, really become like them. To imagine that by using their weapons against them we become them is to project them onto ourselves… to, in other words, once again, really become like them.
The fundamental psychological impulses of the Right – which is really just bourgeois ideology compressed and intensified – are amnesia and projection. These are the only weapons of theirs we cannot use. And even then, projection is arguable. The key is consciousness. To be conscious of what we are doing. To be, in most un-Right and un-bourgeois fashion, self-aware. Irony is thus another weapon of their we need to steal and appropriate. They use irony to undermine reality. We must use it to stay in touch with reality. This is, of course, why an essay like this, which threatens to veer into pomposity, must occasionally remind itself of the game it is playing. I like to think that I use pomposity as a style, as an aesthetic. It can be beautiful, if it remembers irony. Pomposity is a way of faking it ‘til you make it. It is – or can be – a way of aiming for big things. Falstaff mimics the grandiloquence and self-importance of the great men of the realm, and in the process he makes himself wiser and more human than them, as fat and drunken and cowardly as he is. Let me be clear: I am fat and drunken and cowardly too. And pretentious. But fuck it, I’m going to aim for revolutionary profundity anyway. Yet another weapon retooled.
This appropriating and retooling is the impulse at the heart of the desire to read the hegemonic texts of capitalist civilisation against their grain. The impulse is to find oneself. This is an entirely human, comprehensible, even admirable impulse. It is, essentially, empathy. Empathy is the finding of oneself in others. Stories are, at bottom, concerned with questions of empathy and justice. When we read (or watch, for that matter), it is a profoundly social act, no matter how alone we might be. It is not only an act of engagement in social production – both the consumption of the social production of others but also the personal production of meaning – but is also an engagement in empathy. We don’t really believe that Pip is a real person. We believe that we are because we see ourselves in him. His interactions with Joe and Miss Haversham and Estella and Jaggers allow us to gauge and measure ourselves, to ask what we would do in that position, what we would say to such people, in such situations… and not because we believe we will ever meet such people, or be in such situations, but because we know we already have been. We measure our own actions, our own potentialities and capabilities.
And this brings us to something important. We want happy endings – or not – not because we want to believe that all things are for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. That may be why capitalist culture endlessly churns out trash stories which repeatedly reassure us that life is fair. But in so doing, capitalist culture profoundly misunderstands the human impulse towards producing and consuming stories. In its crass mistake, it undermines itself, its own ideological project. It highlights the unfairness of the bourgeois cosmos. It throws its own horror into sharp relief. This blunder is based on the most elementary and most philistine cock-up imaginable: the mistaken idea that people believe fictional texts are real. Of course they don’t. Not even that guy who asked Sylvester McCoy what he was thinking when he landed on Peladon really believes texts are real. He was trying to engage a fellow human in a conversation about theoretical, hypothetical reality. This hyperreality exists in a realm of concept and perception. In other words, in the realm of theory. Obsession with this realm is, whatever we are or are not conscious of, based in a desire to understand the world theoretically, and to link this theoretical understanding to questions of empathy and justice. What was he thinking when he landed on Peladon? We want to know. Why? Because he is a person, like us. And because Peladon is a society riven with conflict, disagreement, strife, and injustice. Even the simplest, crudest story is based on such things… at least in the Western tradition. My friend Josh has led me to see that conflict is overemphasized as a principle of narrative in the Western tradition. But this, I suggest, comes from the fact that modern Western storytelling is an attempt to grapple with the intrusion of conflict into every facet of social life. It is based on the bourgeois social revolution of Western modernity, which detached people from fixed positions entailing both loyalties and entitlements, and introduced the anarchy of market relations.
But as much as the impulse is the impulse to find oneself, and thus to find empathy, and thus to think connectedly and personally about questions of justice and injustice… there are other impulses. Without wanting to fall into vulgar strawmanning of anyone, there is an impulse on ‘the Left’ (let’s be tactically vague about what this means) to seek a form of ‘correctness’ in art. Now, I am not whingeing about PC-culture and the totalitarian Left, trying to make all art reflect their beliefs, and attacking or discounting any art that violates ideological purity. We can leave YouTube to box with those shadows. What I’m talking about is an (entirely understandable) impulse to assess art via political yardsticks, to judge its meaning by testing its ideological implications against what we take to be the truth. I’ve done this myself. It is not an unworthy or inherently bad impulse. Art makes assertions and implications, and those assertions and implications constitute political interventions. Like news reports, they are often wildly inaccurate, misleading, slanted, etc. They propagate a general ideological climate, a hegemonic cultural, social and political ‘common sense’, etc. This common sense usually constitutes bullshit, and needs to be called out. Not because an individual case of an artist or artists ‘getting something wrong’ is so heinous but because it both happens a lot and usually comes down on the side of entrenched power and privilege. Most of us are probably either familiar with the outlines of this argument or are able to intuit them.
I’m not going to attack this on the grounds of aestheticism, sympathetic though I am to the idea that art should be appreciated on its own terms, and for its own qualities. I tend to think that this is an argument that has largely been won on the Left, even if practice lags behind theory. I also tend to think that Eagleton has a point in his elaboration upon Wilde, when he points out that Left critiques which focus on the ideological ‘mistakes’ of a piece of art partake of a bourgeois impulse towards utilitarianism. The underlying assumption seems to be that art is ‘for’ something, which itself ties into an ethos of bourgeois production. If the work of art is not ‘for’ making money, then it is ‘for’ making a statement, and thus playing a particular social role, providing a particular social need, etc. The political critique can stray into this territory, assuming that art requires a utility, a justification… with that utility or justification simply politically reassigned. That can be an example of the retooling or appropriation mentioned above, but this seems to place leftist discourse as formally identical with bourgeois discourse, even if the content differs… which is, of course, often true… and that’s the problem. We are, ultimately, engaged in a critique of our current social form rather than just our current social content. Or we should be, anyway. To allow the work of art, the product of the capitalist culture industries, to be judged according to how well it satisfies a particular function, is to allow capitalist culture to appropriate that very human impulse to seek justice and empathy that we identified as being at the root of reading (or watching). It is to give them that, and then to simply insist upon being allowed to inflect it in your own supposedly-oppositional way. It is, essentially, to do nothing more than ask for a seat at the table. We should be turning the table over.
Conversely, if the claim to a seat at the table is granted, what is happening but capitalism controlling our seat, putting us where it wishes in the pecking order of the banquet. Like Banquo, we should refuse the dinner invitation of the tyrant who murdered us, but rather haunt him, refusing to take a seat, and yet always occupying the seat he wants to sit in, leaving him no choice but to prowl the dining room feverishly, terrified of our accusing, blood-crusted gaze.
Capitalism’s desire to control the banquet, to control the guests via their seats at the table, is probably at the root of the recent trend in capitalist media culture towards greater diversity and inclusivity. However, we have to guard against the tendency to downplay this as an achievement, just as much as the tendency to overstate it. To put it all down to capitalism’s desire to ideologically manage is to give capitalism too much credit, and to give the gadflies too little. Remember Doublethink. It’s our way out of that cul-de-sac where we are either elitist conspiracists who secretly admire capitalism for its all-conquering guile, its mastery of three-dimensional chess, or excuse it by attenuating its guile into non-existence in the name of nuance. Remember, to make texts under capitalism is – structurally, whatever their content – to make capitalist texts. To create diverse and inclusive messages, implications, etc, in such texts is – by definition, structurally – to put inclusivity and diversity and progress at the service of capitalism. This is no conspiracy, but arises from the political economy of cultural production, all the way down to the basic observation that the system of private property and wage labour determines that creative people will have to work for capitalists in order to be creative.
Meanwhile, the Doublethink comes in in another way. The tentative and imperfect attempts by Hollywood, etc, to expand the range of genders and pigmentations which can be on posters is clearly an attempt to expand into a new market, and to thus ‘enclose’ those commons we call diversity and inclusion… it is the primitive accumulation of identity representation… and yet in order to ‘work’ there has to be sincerity behind it, since not even the most cynical Hollywood product can function effectively as cynical product if it is made by people who are totally uninterested and ignorant. A certain triangulation is therefore necessary. As with Doublethink’s subtleties, the triangulation needs to be both calculated and unaware of its own calculation, and yet also be able to manipulate and utilise its own sincerity. Luckily, we have the bourgeois doctrine of market freedom (and the freedom brought by markets) readily to hand. Markets as liberators. This is the justification employed for calculatedly using diversity to sell products while claiming – even believing – oneself to be using products to sell diversity… and all the while dodging the obvious question: if markets produce freedom and equality, why do they need to be consciously manipulated into representing diversity. This is all without even getting into the question of why ‘diversity’ exists as a concept… which is because monolithic privilege exists, a fact which tracks back to slave huts.
There are all sorts of problems with the Left-critiques of art based on their success or failure at representing diversity, at being inclusive. As vital as they can be, they are riddled with problems. This itself is nothing to worry about. Everything is riddled with problems. The contradictions between and within things are what make reality work, and investigating them is what constitutes thought. But, to move beyond what would potentially be nothing more than smart-arse well-actuallying, we should simply, upfront, embrace the yearning for representation. I need to do that simply because. When it comes to someone like me, ‘because reasons’ is enough. But I want to do better than that. I want to recognise and applaud the impulse. To me, it is not only what it claims to be, what it knows itself to be, what it presents itself as on its own terms, but is also the expression of a desire to escape a hegemonic ideological system. It is couched in terms of trying to widen the discourse of that very same ideology. But its actual project – whether it is conscious of this or not, and it often is – is to challenge that very project itself. To challenge the content of hegemonic bourgeois ideology is to challenge the structure of it, precisely because the content is generated by the structure (see above). To demand that it speak better is to demand that it stop speaking or betray itself, because it literally cannot speak better… or rather, it can speak better, but its effort is self-revealing of its own hypocrisy. The better it speaks, the more a chasm opens between its speech and its real social basis. Between claim and truth falls the shadow. As Bakunin said, the differences between things are more obvious at the extremes (say, when the US government slaughters people while pontificating about freedom and human rights) but the very improvement of speech makes the extreme difference between the improving speech and the unimproved reality more and more obvious.
The desire to make the world speak better about you is, effectively, the desire to make the world change. And to ask power to change is to be confronted by its inability and unwillingness to do so.
This project for change is inherently idealist (in the philosophical sense). And, while ideas are ultimately secondary, only vulgar materialism sees their secondariness as anything other than their place in a temporal sequence… and even that, viewed truly dialectically, is only a provisional assumption as part of an explicatory schema. The lonely hour of the final instance never comes because it is, and always was, a chimera. To seek it is to seek vulgar materialism in the name of defeating vulgar materialism. Ideas are social forces. They are both generated by social, material, historical realities and also constantly in a state of feeding back into those realities, altering them (to an extent which varies according to the circumstances in which they land).
The representation is achieved through the demand for representation, via capitalism’s interpretation of the demand as a market signal. But the representation undoubtedly feeds back into the feeling of capability. But it does this in two ways: the representation itself, and also the achievement of the representation.
The achievement of representation is ultimately an expression of the power of popular demands, albeit channelled into – essentially – consumerism. That capitalism perverts and diverts such demands into consumerism should not fool us into forgetting that we are still talking about popular demands. And the achievement of representation is ultimately of more importance than the representation itself. Not only because representation itself is simply not good enough, but also because the whole discourse plays into the mainstream bourgeois conception of ‘role models’, which is itself based on contempt for people, on the idea that they are in need of leaders among the powerful.
Do I contradict myself? Very well. Contradictions are constitutive of texts, and of reading.