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  • Observations on Work, Employment & Education

    Francesco Sticchi

    The De-Sub­jec­ti­vat­ing Power of Cinematic Images, or Becoming-Class at the Movies

    The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism)

    Attemp­t­ing to evaluate the political potential of moving images is not a new and ground­brea­king effort. Since the early days of the medium, critics and scholars have debated and analysed the ima­gi­na­ti­ve and creative pos­si­bi­li­ties for audiences inter­ac­ting with specific audio­vi­su­al “texts”, to be unders­tood in their essential cha­rac­te­ris­tics and formal qualities. Soviet filmma­kers discussed and practiced a cinema for the revo­lu­ti­on with the direct aim to mobilise in viewers the facets of a renewed humanity. Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer connected the analysis of mecha­nis­ed art forms with the exami­na­ti­on of the emergence of collec­ti­ve, urbanised, and indus­tri­al social for­ma­ti­ons. Similarly, from Adorno to the critics at the Cahiers up to our days after the emergence of British Cultural Studies, many stra­te­gies to inves­ti­ga­te the sub­ver­si­ve, ideo­lo­gi­cal, counter-cultural, or repres­si­ve role of cinema and tele­vi­si­on have been devised and applied (and still are, of course). The latter field, in par­ti­cu­lar, has allowed critics to move their attention away from the exclu­si­vi­ty of the “text” in order to better under­stand the role of viewers in their power of reading against the grain. Therefore, to state that there is still a need to go back to the initial question, to try to under­stand the political power of moving images in their audio­vi­su­al spe­ci­fi­ci­ty may defi­ni­te­ly raise some eyebrows. Indeed, this preoc­cup­a­ti­on may feel a bit old-fashioned and asso­cia­ted with the desire to go back to “outdated” methods of film criticism.

    This approach appears even more outdated when we ack­now­ledge the effects of the post­mo­dern condition (to use a catchy expres­si­on), in which, to put a long story short, the academic and critical exami­na­ti­on has radically shifted, trying to under­stand more closely the ways in which audiences and social group interact with media. However, the optimism and enthu­si­asm that comes with the undis­c­lo­sed potential of audiences should never shy away from taking into account two key issues of our neo­li­be­ral age, and their impact on our fruition of audio­vi­su­al languages. First of all, we see more and more how media indus­tries exist as violent mono­po­lies, absorbing different enter­tain­ment sectors while con­trol­ling them through a strict chain of command. The current SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes are but an evidence testimony of the status of an industry that operates in a predatory way, with rentier capi­ta­list on top, investing their money exclu­si­ve­ly on the “content” that can be more easily repa­cka­ged in all possible enter­tain­ment format.

    At the same time, exactly because of the economic shifts that have taken place in the last five decades, our economy is one in which the main concern is to generate marketing targets, to produce data­is­able subjects who exist as fixed consumers’ cate­go­ries. Style, themes, and formal patterns do not matter since what is essential, in this context, is to receive and find ourselves reco­gnis­ed in the audio­vi­su­al material we interact with. Arts are not there to open up an undis­c­lo­sed space, but to be relatable and adequate in respon­ding to alleged needs of audience members. The illusion of freedom of choice that is often asso­cia­ted with prosumers’ ability to navigate the film and telvision ecology collapses when facing all the obvious role played by these power struc­tures in mediating viewers’ access and agency. It is on this note that it becomes necessary to reinstate a con­ver­sa­ti­on about the pos­si­bi­li­ty for moving image to create ruptures and critical openings within a certain social and ideo­lo­gi­cal field.

    I would imagine as starting point of this medi­ta­ti­on exactly the assump­ti­on that the main quality of the cinematic expe­ri­ence is to break and create disa­lign­ment in the con­struc­tion of sub­jec­ti­vi­ty. One of the main tenets of neo­li­be­ral ideology and hegemony is the assump­ti­on that we exist as atomised indi­vi­du­als carrying a baggage of expe­ri­en­ces, com­pe­ten­ces, and skills that would con­sti­tu­te our human capital to be used as assets in everyday acti­vi­ties and in all sorts of contexts. To frame the encounter with a work of art as nothing but a rein­for­ce­ment of this image removes from the table the pos­si­bi­li­ty to generate new ideas and explores different sides of reality through fictional (or not) sto­ry­worlds. However, the openness of the artistic expe­ri­ence is not to be reduced to the simple acqui­si­ti­on of the new, thus, remaining fun­da­ment­al­ly external to world we live in (Foucault would have called these hete­ro­to­pi­as). To interact with a film means, in a way, being placed in a condition of unsett­ling rela­tio­na­li­ty, having to come to terms with the rules of a par­ti­cu­lar world and with the behaviour of the cha­rac­ters inha­bi­t­ing them.

    In line with Sabina Spierlein’s idea of eroticism as intrinsi­cal­ly connected with the need to destroy ego­centric models for the purpose of forming new rela­tio­nal sub­jec­ti­vi­ties, the cinematic expe­ri­ence is much more trans­for­ma­ti­ve because it requires viewers to engage this process of self-anni­hi­la­ti­on. Rather than extern­al­ly observing while watching a film, we become within this process (in accordance with a set of aesthetic patterns provided) in a way that is far from resolved or harmonic. The discovery of par­ti­cu­lar stories and ways of behaving, indeed, may encounter resis­tan­ces on the side of the viewers, which, of course, have their validity and legitimacy.

    Without sug­ges­ting a model for appro­pria­te “cinematic par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, another important element to consider, when eva­lua­ting the openness of audio­vi­su­al languages, is the ack­now­led­ge­ment of their inherent mul­ti­pli­ci­ty. Instead of thinking about artistic objects as cha­rac­te­ri­sed by a fixed formal con­sis­ten­cy, we should always appre­cia­te the ways in which films, for instance, are pervaded by hete­ro­ge­ne­ous and, many times, con­flic­ting tensions. It is exactly this polyphony what allows us viewers to expe­ri­ment and explore our sub­jec­ti­vi­ty as sus­cep­ti­ble to radical modi­fi­ca­ti­ons and remo­du­la­ti­ons. We may empathise with cha­rac­ters whose decisions (and back­ground) differs from ours even in expres­sing ideas and values that we may find repulsive and, still, engage with this alterity, under­stand that as a legi­ti­ma­te facet of the reality we are immersed in. The dia­lo­gi­cal power of movies, of course, is not limited to those case studies to which we could allegedly easily associate a critical political concern, or whose explicit (or less enun­cia­ted) themes would captures the anxieties of a par­ti­cu­lar his­to­ri­cal context. The pos­si­bi­li­ty to create out of the encounter with an artistic object is not the pre­ro­ga­ti­ve of a specific stylistic form but it can be recon­duc­ted to the “power” or intense affective and con­cep­tu­al maps that it provides.

    Indeed, if a very con­ven­tio­nal example of art-house cinema like Tár (Field, 2022) has caused harsh debates, it is not merely out of its alleged criticism of cancel culture. As a matter of fact, this aspect of the film is probably the least inte­res­ting and causing facile divisions. Instead, I would argue that the most fasci­na­ting aspect of the film is that it forces a con­ver­sa­ti­on about the nature of artistic expe­ri­ence, about the need to embrace it as something that allows us to mate­ri­al­ly overcome ideas of ourselves, beyond any supposed elitism and aesthetic hierarchy. Far away from any desire to reinstate unhelpful sepa­ra­ti­ons between low and high art forms, we could, going back to the previous point, take into account what a film or a TV series asks us to do and what we can do with it. Here, in this space of undis­c­lo­sed mul­ti­pli­ci­ty a new con­scious­ness may raise, and find its way into the world. Reco­gnis­ing subjects and their struggles, iden­ti­fy­ing other spaces in the audio­vi­su­al psy­cho­geo­gra­phy of our reality are all ways in which our sub­jec­ti­vi­ty opens up and faces chal­len­ges to its unity.

    The material power of images can be that of unlea­shing a new con­scious­ness. As for Karl Marx becoming-class is a non-unitary con­ti­nuous process of discovery of material con­di­ti­ons and related political agency, forming new sub­jec­ti­vi­ties at the movies is possible exactly because, as viewers, we exist in a status of aleatory opening. Becoming-class, resisting against the tides of neo­li­be­ral dominion, con­cur­r­ent­ly, does not equate to reaching a pure revo­lu­tio­na­ry palin­ge­ne­sis. At the movies, inasmuch as in any other aspect of our everyday existence, the uneart­hing of our rela­tio­nal strength has rather to do with the effort to stay with the world (to believe in it, Gilles Deleuze would have argued) to re-imagine it, to embrace its com­ple­xi­ty while finding new weapons, tools, and ways of orga­ni­sing at every turn. To viewers the exciting challenge to explore the modes and oppor­tu­nities of this collec­ti­ve becoming hidden in every shade and pixel of a screens-sur­roun­ded world.

    Recom­men­ded reading:
    Sticchi, Francesco (2021): Mapping Precarity in Con­tem­pora­ry Cinema and Tele­vi­si­on: Chro­no­t­o­pes of Anxiety, Depres­si­on, Expulsion/Extinction, Palgrave Macmillan.

     

    TÁR (2022) - Official Trailer 

    A Dangerous Method [2011] Official Trailer 

    Focus Features

    Tags

    The De-Sub­jec­ti­vat­ing Power of Cinematic Images, or Becoming-Class at the Movies

    Francesco Sticchi

    The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism)

    Attemp­t­ing to evaluate the political potential of moving images is not a new and ground­brea­king effort. Since the early days of the medium, critics and scholars have debated and analysed the ima­gi­na­ti­ve and creative pos­si­bi­li­ties for audiences inter­ac­ting with specific audio­vi­su­al “texts”, to be unders­tood in their essential cha­rac­te­ris­tics and formal qualities. Soviet filmma­kers discussed and practiced a cinema for the revo­lu­ti­on with the direct aim to mobilise in viewers the facets of a renewed humanity. Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer connected the analysis of mecha­nis­ed art forms with the exami­na­ti­on of the emergence of collec­ti­ve, urbanised, and indus­tri­al social for­ma­ti­ons. Similarly, from Adorno to the critics at the Cahiers up to our days after the emergence of British Cultural Studies, many stra­te­gies to inves­ti­ga­te the sub­ver­si­ve, ideo­lo­gi­cal, counter-cultural, or repres­si­ve role of cinema and tele­vi­si­on have been devised and applied (and still are, of course). The latter field, in par­ti­cu­lar, has allowed critics to move their attention away from the exclu­si­vi­ty of the “text” in order to better under­stand the role of viewers in their power of reading against the grain. Therefore, to state that there is still a need to go back to the initial question, to try to under­stand the political power of moving images in their audio­vi­su­al spe­ci­fi­ci­ty may defi­ni­te­ly raise some eyebrows. Indeed, this preoc­cup­a­ti­on may feel a bit old-fashioned and asso­cia­ted with the desire to go back to “outdated” methods of film criticism.

    This approach appears even more outdated when we ack­now­ledge the effects of the post­mo­dern condition (to use a catchy expres­si­on), in which, to put a long story short, the academic and critical exami­na­ti­on has radically shifted, trying to under­stand more closely the ways in which audiences and social group interact with media. However, the optimism and enthu­si­asm that comes with the undis­c­lo­sed potential of audiences should never shy away from taking into account two key issues of our neo­li­be­ral age, and their impact on our fruition of audio­vi­su­al languages. First of all, we see more and more how media indus­tries exist as violent mono­po­lies, absorbing different enter­tain­ment sectors while con­trol­ling them through a strict chain of command. The current SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes are but an evidence testimony of the status of an industry that operates in a predatory way, with rentier capi­ta­list on top, investing their money exclu­si­ve­ly on the “content” that can be more easily repa­cka­ged in all possible enter­tain­ment format.

    At the same time, exactly because of the economic shifts that have taken place in the last five decades, our economy is one in which the main concern is to generate marketing targets, to produce data­is­able subjects who exist as fixed consumers’ cate­go­ries. Style, themes, and formal patterns do not matter since what is essential, in this context, is to receive and find ourselves reco­gnis­ed in the audio­vi­su­al material we interact with. Arts are not there to open up an undis­c­lo­sed space, but to be relatable and adequate in respon­ding to alleged needs of audience members. The illusion of freedom of choice that is often asso­cia­ted with prosumers’ ability to navigate the film and telvision ecology collapses when facing all the obvious role played by these power struc­tures in mediating viewers’ access and agency. It is on this note that it becomes necessary to reinstate a con­ver­sa­ti­on about the pos­si­bi­li­ty for moving image to create ruptures and critical openings within a certain social and ideo­lo­gi­cal field.

    I would imagine as starting point of this medi­ta­ti­on exactly the assump­ti­on that the main quality of the cinematic expe­ri­ence is to break and create disa­lign­ment in the con­struc­tion of sub­jec­ti­vi­ty. One of the main tenets of neo­li­be­ral ideology and hegemony is the assump­ti­on that we exist as atomised indi­vi­du­als carrying a baggage of expe­ri­en­ces, com­pe­ten­ces, and skills that would con­sti­tu­te our human capital to be used as assets in everyday acti­vi­ties and in all sorts of contexts. To frame the encounter with a work of art as nothing but a rein­for­ce­ment of this image removes from the table the pos­si­bi­li­ty to generate new ideas and explores different sides of reality through fictional (or not) sto­ry­worlds. However, the openness of the artistic expe­ri­ence is not to be reduced to the simple acqui­si­ti­on of the new, thus, remaining fun­da­ment­al­ly external to world we live in (Foucault would have called these hete­ro­to­pi­as). To interact with a film means, in a way, being placed in a condition of unsett­ling rela­tio­na­li­ty, having to come to terms with the rules of a par­ti­cu­lar world and with the behaviour of the cha­rac­ters inha­bi­t­ing them.

    In line with Sabina Spierlein’s idea of eroticism as intrinsi­cal­ly connected with the need to destroy ego­centric models for the purpose of forming new rela­tio­nal sub­jec­ti­vi­ties, the cinematic expe­ri­ence is much more trans­for­ma­ti­ve because it requires viewers to engage this process of self-anni­hi­la­ti­on. Rather than extern­al­ly observing while watching a film, we become within this process (in accordance with a set of aesthetic patterns provided) in a way that is far from resolved or harmonic. The discovery of par­ti­cu­lar stories and ways of behaving, indeed, may encounter resis­tan­ces on the side of the viewers, which, of course, have their validity and legitimacy.

    Without sug­ges­ting a model for appro­pria­te “cinematic par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on, another important element to consider, when eva­lua­ting the openness of audio­vi­su­al languages, is the ack­now­led­ge­ment of their inherent mul­ti­pli­ci­ty. Instead of thinking about artistic objects as cha­rac­te­ri­sed by a fixed formal con­sis­ten­cy, we should always appre­cia­te the ways in which films, for instance, are pervaded by hete­ro­ge­ne­ous and, many times, con­flic­ting tensions. It is exactly this polyphony what allows us viewers to expe­ri­ment and explore our sub­jec­ti­vi­ty as sus­cep­ti­ble to radical modi­fi­ca­ti­ons and remo­du­la­ti­ons. We may empathise with cha­rac­ters whose decisions (and back­ground) differs from ours even in expres­sing ideas and values that we may find repulsive and, still, engage with this alterity, under­stand that as a legi­ti­ma­te facet of the reality we are immersed in. The dia­lo­gi­cal power of movies, of course, is not limited to those case studies to which we could allegedly easily associate a critical political concern, or whose explicit (or less enun­cia­ted) themes would captures the anxieties of a par­ti­cu­lar his­to­ri­cal context. The pos­si­bi­li­ty to create out of the encounter with an artistic object is not the pre­ro­ga­ti­ve of a specific stylistic form but it can be recon­duc­ted to the “power” or intense affective and con­cep­tu­al maps that it provides.

    Indeed, if a very con­ven­tio­nal example of art-house cinema like Tár (Field, 2022) has caused harsh debates, it is not merely out of its alleged criticism of cancel culture. As a matter of fact, this aspect of the film is probably the least inte­res­ting and causing facile divisions. Instead, I would argue that the most fasci­na­ting aspect of the film is that it forces a con­ver­sa­ti­on about the nature of artistic expe­ri­ence, about the need to embrace it as something that allows us to mate­ri­al­ly overcome ideas of ourselves, beyond any supposed elitism and aesthetic hierarchy. Far away from any desire to reinstate unhelpful sepa­ra­ti­ons between low and high art forms, we could, going back to the previous point, take into account what a film or a TV series asks us to do and what we can do with it. Here, in this space of undis­c­lo­sed mul­ti­pli­ci­ty a new con­scious­ness may raise, and find its way into the world. Reco­gnis­ing subjects and their struggles, iden­ti­fy­ing other spaces in the audio­vi­su­al psy­cho­geo­gra­phy of our reality are all ways in which our sub­jec­ti­vi­ty opens up and faces chal­len­ges to its unity.

    The material power of images can be that of unlea­shing a new con­scious­ness. As for Karl Marx becoming-class is a non-unitary con­ti­nuous process of discovery of material con­di­ti­ons and related political agency, forming new sub­jec­ti­vi­ties at the movies is possible exactly because, as viewers, we exist in a status of aleatory opening. Becoming-class, resisting against the tides of neo­li­be­ral dominion, con­cur­r­ent­ly, does not equate to reaching a pure revo­lu­tio­na­ry palin­ge­ne­sis. At the movies, inasmuch as in any other aspect of our everyday existence, the uneart­hing of our rela­tio­nal strength has rather to do with the effort to stay with the world (to believe in it, Gilles Deleuze would have argued) to re-imagine it, to embrace its com­ple­xi­ty while finding new weapons, tools, and ways of orga­ni­sing at every turn. To viewers the exciting challenge to explore the modes and oppor­tu­nities of this collec­ti­ve becoming hidden in every shade and pixel of a screens-sur­roun­ded world.

    Recom­men­ded reading:
    Sticchi, Francesco (2021): Mapping Precarity in Con­tem­pora­ry Cinema and Tele­vi­si­on: Chro­no­t­o­pes of Anxiety, Depres­si­on, Expulsion/Extinction, Palgrave Macmillan.

     

    TÁR (2022) - Official Trailer

    A Dangerous Method [2011] Official Trailer

    Focus Features

    Tags


    Night Mail - The focus on work

    Night Mail — The focus on work

    "Night Mail" (1936) was commissioned as an image publicity film by the British General Post Office and went down in film history as a ground-breaking documentary. Directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright succeed in creating an ode to workers and modern technology by enriching their naturalistic style within the film with poetic elements and always keeping the human aspect in mind.

    Night Mail - The Poetic Gaze

    Night Mail — The Poetic Gaze

    When the eminent film scholar Amos Vogel was forced to flee Vienna to the United States in 1938, the 17-year-old had already made the decision to devote his life to film. One experience that would define his future was a screening of "Night Mail" (1936) and this film still doesn’t fail to impress today.

    Bossnapping à la Cantona

    Boss­nap­ping à la Cantona

    In the last two decades in particular, disputes between management and workers in France have become increasingly intense. The so-called "bossnapping", the hostage taking of management, masterfully staged by Éric Cantona in the Netflix series ‘Inhuman Resources’ (2020), provides a telling example.

    Eastern German Women. Self-realisation through employment

    Eastern German Women. Self-rea­li­sa­ti­on through employment

    As a woman you always have to be better than the best man in the team. That's the minimum for a successful woman, where patriarchy works." This is how Maria Gross, a cook and restaurateur from Thuringia, sums up the situation of East German Women (2019) in a MDR-documentary by Lutz Pehnert.

    Between enlightenment and ‘plugging’.  A history of vocational guidance films on nursing

    Between enligh­ten­ment and ‘plugging’. A history of voca­tio­nal guidance films on nursing

    Combating nursing shortages through film has a history. A W-o-W film evening explored the changing nature of the nursing profession through vocational guidance films over the last 80 years.

    Capturing ‘Each and Every Moment" of nurses in training

    Capturing ‘Each and Every Moment” of nurses in training

    A W-o-W film evening contrasted vocational guidance films with "Each and Every Moment", a heartfelt documentary by Nicolas Philibert on training of nurses at the La Croix Saint-Simon hospital in the suburbs of Paris.

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    About this blog

    By selecting a film or an image, this blog literally illus­tra­tes the vast sphere of work, employ­ment & education in an open collec­tion of academic, artistic and also anecdotal findings.

    About us

    Konrad Wakol­bin­ger makes docu­men­ta­ry films about work and life. Jörg Mar­ko­witsch does research on education and work. They are both based in Vienna. Infor­ma­ti­on on guest authors can be found in their cor­re­spon­ding articles.

    More about

    Inte­res­ted in more? Find recom­men­da­ti­ons on relevant festivals, film collec­tions and lite­ra­tu­re here.

    About this blog

    With picking a film or an image, this blog literally illus­tra­tes the vast sphere of work, employ­ment & education in an open collec­tion of academic, artistic and also anecdotal findings.

    About us

    Konrad Wakol­bin­ger makes docu­men­ta­ry films about work and life. Jörg Mar­ko­witsch does research on education and work. We both work in Vienna. Infor­ma­ti­on on guest authors can be found in their respec­ti­ve articles.

    More about

    Inte­res­ted in more? Find recom­men­da­ti­ons on relevant festivals, film collec­tions and lite­ra­tu­re here.