There is a slight retro effect to the triple-barreled title of Nico Baumbach’s book, with the pair of solidi separating-conjoining the terms “cinema”, “politics” and “philosophy”. Is the writer not harking back to an older mode of film writing, more stridently militant, more uncompromisingly radical, which saw its heyday in the 1970s, and in which such lapidary titles were a recurring feature? We do not have to read very far to find an answer: by page 2, Baumbach already invokes Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s 1969 Cahiers du cinéma editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”. Having come, after the May ’68 near-revolution in France, under the sway of Althusser’s theories of ideology, the Cahiers editors declared that “Every film is political” (taking care to specify that this is the case “inasmuch as it is determined by the given ideology that produces it”).1 In this book, Baumbach is not beholden to the theoretical framework elaborated in Comolli/Narboni’s text, which now tends to go by the label “political modernism”. But he does seek to repeat, in 2019, the political gesture that the Cahiers duo made in 1969. In the decades since the highwater mark of political modernism in the 1970s, thinking about film has witnessed a trenchant bifurcation: philosophical approaches to cinema, exemplified by the “film-philosophy” movement have proliferated, but in the wake of Deleuze and Cavell these have tended to evade a direct engagement with the political sphere. At the same time, there is no shortage of attempts to conjoin film and politics, but these have invariably shied away from broader philosophical claims, preferring to be embedded in a more concrete, but also more instrumentalist, mode of political filmmaking. In essence, film-philosophy has become de-politicised, while political film has become de-philosophised.
For Baumbach, there is a pressing need to overturn this situation, and Cinema/Politics/Philosophy seeks precisely to locate the potential points of connection between these three terms. Primarily, these links are to be found in the cinema-oriented writings of a trio of contemporary philosophers, whose broader theoretical projects in the 21st century have all involved a return to radical political engagement after the arid, conservative years of the 1980s and 1990s: Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben. All three, it is notable, have been participants in the “Idea of Communism” conferences of 2009-2012, which sought to rehabilitate the notion of communism as a comprehensive alternative to the present global capitalist regime, while avoiding the historical dead-end of Stalinism. Of more direct interest to Baumbach, however, is the fact that all three of the philosophers he treats have made aesthetics a central part of their agenda (and, to varying degrees, cinema a central part of their thinking on aesthetics). In seeking to re-establish a nexus between art and politics, however, all three reject a simple turning-back of the clock to the political modernism of the 1970s. Instead, Baumbach maintains, their independently developed, politicised philosophies of cinema, even with all their points of difference and variations, can best be understood by reading them through the legacy of earlier thinkers. The bulk of the book is thus taken up by individual chapters relating the work of Rancière to his former mentor and seminal figure for 1970s film theory Louis Althusser, that of Badiou to his interlocutor and sometime enemy Gilles Deleuze, and that of Agamben to a more historically remote but no less decisive figure, Walter Benjamin, whose theories of art and media in the 1930s have acquired unprecedented importance in the contemporary era.
Before these chapters, however, Baumbach provides the reader with an extended introduction that offers a historical overview of the fate and fortunes of the “political modernism” pioneered by Comolli/Narboni, Jean-Louis Baudry and others, inspired as they were by a conceptual configuration incorporating Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and the structuralist semiology of Christian Metz. With its often sweeping claims about the ideological nature of the cinematic “apparatus”, this theory became dominant in Anglo-American film studies as it consolidated itself into an academic discipline in the 1970s. But the following decade saw a pair of war machines assailing political modernism from both without and within. Externally, it came under attack from scholars inspired by cognitivist or positivist modes of studying cinema, which culminated in the 1996 collection of texts Post-Theory, edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Baumbach can scarcely conceal his disdain for this tendency, which sought to overcome what Bordwell/Carroll derisively called “Grand Theory” in favour of a modest programme of piecemeal epistemological gains. While the author censures Bordwell/Caroll for “lumping a wide range of material into a single monolithic category that, once rendered in caricatural terms, can be easily demonstrated to be worthless,” he nonetheless has to acknowledge that “consensus seems to accept that the anti-theorists have won.” (p. 4) While “post-theory” is far from being a hegemonic paradigm in the field, film studies is now dominated precisely by the kind of small-scale scholarly projects espoused by the “post-theorists”, rather than sweeping attempts to erect a global theory of the cinema.
Simultaneous with this effort, the Parisian crucible of critical theory was undergoing its own tumultuous changes. The likes of Althusser, Lacan and their followers were supplanted by Lyotard’s post-modernist critique of “grand narratives” and, more pertinent for film studies, Deleuze’s Cinéma books. By the end of the 1980s, political modernism, as D.N. Rodowick recognised, had fallen into a deep crisis, from which it has never really recovered.2 The followers of Deleuze may see little affinity with Bordwell, Carroll and company, but Baumbach perceives a key common trait shared by these two branches of film studies: whereas “1970s film theory”, as exemplified by Metz, sought to “disengage the cinema-object from the imaginary and win it for the symbolic” – that is, to make it an object for theoretical observation and thus a political weapon – the later tendency is to “reverse the Metzian dogma” by adopting the opposite goal: “to wrest it from the symbolic and restore it to the imaginary.” (pp. 6-7) In this line of thinking, films “should not be interpreted but rather should be understood immanently as a heterogeneous bodily and/or cognitive and neurological experience.” (p. 7) This affective, corporeal emphasis in recent film studies has, however, an anti-political underpinning – proudly assumed by Bordwell and Carroll, symptomatically present in Deleuzian film theory – that for Baumbach is in fact deeply conservative in nature. In arguing, rather, that “we cannot separate pleasures and affects, ideas about what cinema is and the politics of cinema”, the author insists that “seventies film theory remains a useful starting point for considering the politics of cinema even as we must rethink and reject certain of its dominant assumptions.” (pp. 11-12)
In this vein, it is perhaps key that Rancière, Badiou and Agamben are all of a generation that was profoundly marked by the radical moment – in society and philosophy – of the late 1960s and 1970s, and that their thinking since this time has been profoundly marked by a reckoning with its legacy, most clearly apparent in Rancière’s vituperative critique of his former teacher in Althusser’s Lesson. While they have recently gained a certain fashionable status in American humanities departments and the contemporary art scene, more important for Baumbach is that all three are marked by “an approach to film theory that assumes neither that all films or theories are political (as was often claimed in the seventies and eighties) nor that politics underdetermines theory (as is often claimed today), but rather suggests that we analyze both theories and films in terms of how they might be seen to construct connections between cinema and politics”; as a result, “to think of cinema as politics becomes an axiom of film-philosophy rather than a normative claim.” (p. 13)
There is perhaps no modern-day theorist for whom re-conceptualising the politics/aesthetics relationship is as central as it is to Rancière. In his notion of the “distribution of the sensible” (le partage du sensible), he seeks to relate the political with art in a way that does not subordinate the latter to the former, as instrumentalist notions of art do, or vice versa (in line with apolitical formalism), but conceives both of them as ways of framing sensory experience. The political sphere is marked here by the conflict between the police – not the repressive state apparatus per se, but rather all the forces of the consensual administering of power to preserve the status quo (the “business as usual” model of politics) – and politics, which is inherently contestatory and antagonistic, or dissensual. But emancipatory politics is also profoundly – axiomatically, Rancière would say – egalitarian, and since breaking with Althusser the philosopher has been engaged in a project to think through the meaning of a radically comprehensive notion of equality, as could be seen in his early work on proletarian culture and pedagogical models. In a cinematic context, Baumbach argues, Rancière’s commitment to equality comes through in his appreciation for utopian projects, such as those of Jean Epstein and Sergei Eisenstein, to unshackle film from a dependency on narrative and representation, and unleash its pure artistic force. Rather than treat such quixotic dreams condescendingly or nostalgically, Rancière finds that it is the “thwarting logic” that they inevitably come up against that makes the cinema of such interest: “Cinema will continue to be ‘nourished by all that thwarts’ the idea of what makes cinema cinema.” (p. 65)
Badiou’s biographical links to Rancière have a long lineage: the two were both student activists during the post-68 militancy, who were involved with Maoist groups and influenced by Althusser’s philosophy. Since then, the two have maintained a long dialogue with one another, and it should be no surprise that their views on aesthetics should contain some significant similarities. Indeed, the notions of equality, dissensus and utopianism course across both thinkers’ writings on art, and they are frequently spoken of in the same breath, particularly in the contemporary art world. But Baumbach elects to situate Badiou’s reflection on cinema within the context of Deleuze’s film-philosophy, and in doing so highlights some of the major differences between Badiou and Rancière. Whereas the latter’s philosophy has a mercurial, even anarchist streak to it, the former retains a certain Maoist intransigence, as well as a Platonist commitment to “truth procedures”, of which art is one of the major domains. But for Badiou, following Deleuze, cinema holds a particular place within the artistic truth process: whereas art forms such as poetry, music or dance are marked by a striving for pure presence, in the cinema (the “plus-one of the arts”) this is strictly impossible. Cinema is marked by an innate impurity – which takes the shape of influences from other arts, and its necessary contamination by commerce and the mass public (that is, by “non-art”). But it is precisely in its impurity, in its processing and re-shaping of the ideologies and sensory material that make up the present-day social order, that cinema finds its political purpose. As in Rancière’s conception, then, Badiou’s understanding of the cinema is predicated on the operation of a kind of thwarting logic: stripped of the possibility of embarking on the purifying vocation of other art forms (as can be seen in so many of the 20th century avant-garde movements), the cinema is instead fated to “patrol the border of art and non-art.” (p. 126).
For Rancière, Badiou and Deleuze, cinema must be driven by a resistance towards the consensus politics of contemporary power structures – which Deleuze has labelled “control” in opposition to Foucault’s notion of 19th century disciplinary societies – but all three remain within both a latent modernist framework for understanding cinema, and within traditional conceptions of what constitutes “film” (tacitly understood as the output of auteurist directors working chiefly in the feature fiction format). For a more expansive vision of the role of the moving image in the present political situation, one which draws heavily on Benjamin’s theories of media, Baumbach turns to the work of the Italian post-Heidegerrian Agamben. Compared to Rancière and Badiou, who have both devoted entire books to cinema, Agamben’s written output on the seventh art amounts to little more than 30 pages, as Baumbach readily admits, but this material is so valuable that it is given a crowning position in Cinema/Politics/Philosophy. For Agamben, the core quality of the cinema is not the image, but the gesture, and it is thereby linked to Brecht’s notion of the Gestus (a kind of constellation of theatrical gestures that can produce political signification), as discussed by Walter Benjamin. If this was most apparent in the silent era, it is still pertinent in the present day. It is through its representation of gesture that cinema is capable of redeeming the elements of everyday life that were lost or eradicated by the 19th century bourgeoisie.
It must be said, however, that the connections, here, with a radically emancipatory political potential are tenuous at best, and Agamben finds himself a fair distance from the Marxist tradition when he argues that the notions of production and praxis have been replaced, as fundamental concepts of politics, by inoperativity and use (see Baumbach, p. 155). Even Baumbach himself admits that we must “seek ways of unhinging the potential of Agamben’s own work” from the actual logic of his ideas, a move which involves the original step of relating his thought to the “aesthetics of narcissism” (to use Rosalind Krauss’s term) in 21st century video sharing culture, found in online platforms such as YouTube or Instagram. Whereas social media is, in the Agambenian sense, “an apparatus where gesture gets exhibited and captured”, its reappropriation and re-purposing, such as in the 2011 video artwork needideas!?!PLZ??? by Elisa Giardina Papa can produce new political effects. One wonders what Agamben himself would make of the piece, but Baumbach makes a stirring case for its ability to make visible the social Gestus of the desperate teenagers whose clips Giardina Papa recycles.
If this line of reasoning feels a little anti-climactic, Baumbach nonetheless appends an epilogue in which the thinking of Slavoj Žižek is engaged with. The Slovenian provocateur may have appeared to be a lacuna in Baumbach’s survey, given his radical politics and his frequent discussions of cinema, as well as the fact he is so frequently spoken of in tandem with his confrères Rancière and Badiou. But, as it turns out, this is because Baumbach finds his ideas profoundly wanting: in denying “films the possibility of producing new ideas for thought”, Žižek ends up relegating them “to the status of a pretext for theory”(p. 171), a mere object that offers itself up for analysis by the theorist, as Žižek himself is capable of doing to such spectacular effect. Instead Baumbach insists that “moving images are forms of thought and produce effects for conceptual thought.” (p. 172) Rather than resting on anointed formulae of militant cinema or the symptomatic readings of artworks deployed by critical theory, Baumbach concludes his monograph by defending the idea that “the works that make a claim on philosophy are the ones that challenge our ideas of what cinema can do, how cinema is related to thought, and what makes cinema political.” (p. 184)
Indeed, the major drawback of Cinema/Politics/Philosophy is that Baumbach leaves it at that, and largely avoids discussing which works, precisely, are capable of doing this. This is a conscious decision on the author’s part, who already in the introduction foreshadowed that he would consciously avoid supplementing his discussion of the philosophies of Rancière, Badiou and Agamben with lengthy analysis of film examples to support his argument. The result is that Baumbach can confidently navigate the reader through a selection of dense and difficult philosophical texts, while keeping the book to a brisk 180 pages, and he is right to take his distances from a common model of the scholarly monograph, pairing philosopher with film text in schematic fashion. Moreover, there are occasions when he does tackle products of contemporary audiovisual culture to great effect – such as needideas!?!PLZ???, or the use of video cameras in the Black Lives Matter movement. In the end, however, it is hard to avoid feeling that the book could have been productively fleshed out by more in-depth discussion precisely of those contemporary filmmakers whose work does rise to the challenge of intertwining cinema, politics and philosophy in the ways set out by Rancière, Badiou and Agamben. In the end, this will remain a task for other scholars, for whom Baumbach’s text will undoubtedly serve as a crucial launch pad of thinking on cinema.
Nico Baumbach, Cinema/Politics/Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019)
- Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, in Jean-Louis Comolli, Cinema against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), p. 253. ↩
- See D.N. Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). ↩