Of Ghosts and Flows


How can one consider the relation between cinema and politics today, in an era that has been branded as one of both “post-politics” and “post-cinema”? Even if we for a moment put aside the apocalyptical discourses of today’s cultural and political climates, there is no denying that we experience once again what Hannah Arendt, on the eve of the turbulent 1960’s, called “dark times”, in which ‘”the public realm has been obscured and the world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.” No doubt the world we live in is a different place than the one Arendt tried to engage with. Both the geo-political and the socio-economical landscape have been drastically rearranged, and the revolutionary horizons that were once envisaged, are said to have dissolved in a common state of things that carries names such as “neo-liberalism”, “hyper-capitalism” or “liberal democracy”. All of this has greatly influenced the discursive field for thinking about politics. Cinema has gone through quite a few changes as well. What was once thought of as a particular form of individual and collective experience, a way of inhabiting the world and living with images, has been dispersed over various media and contexts, different ways of approaching the art of the moving image. At the same time the film critical discourse which, around the time of Arendt’s reflections, consisted of interrogating works of cinema on what they tend to show and hide, not only of the state of cinema but first and foremost of that of the world, seems to be caught in a haze of mourning and melancholy, just like almost everything else.

But perhaps this pervasive haze conforms all too well to the prevalent narrative describing our contemporary world, which deems that certain things inevitably had their time. Nothing but ghosts, as Pedro Costa said in a recent talk. According to this narrative, It is no longer reasonable to think of politics as a practice of conflict or a horizon of emancipation, just as it is no longer suitable to think of cinema as an art of struggle or a form of politics. This is what “post” is supposed to mean: as if we are living in the time after the end, when a certain way of making sense of things, as promise to another future, is said to be lost. But this loss might in reality rather be a displacement. After all, it’s not that criticism and resistance have all together disappeared, on the contrary: in all domains of art and politics there are still innumerable critical voices denouncing the way in which everything – cinema not in the least – has become mere commodity and spectacle. In order to uncover some truth, the veil of appearance has to be lifted, providing the knowledge which can then be used to challenge the order of things. This critical sense is basically still the same as it was decades ago – when Jean-Luc Godard, in reference to Bertold Brecht, wrote that it’s not enough “to say how things are real”, one has to “say how things really are” – but perhaps what has changed is the sense of the possible that it entails. As Jacques Rancière has suggested, these denunciations might simply have been disconnected from their horizon: the perspective of revolutionary change that made them viable, at least in the collective imagination, as weapons in struggle.

What happens now that this revolutionary horizon has disappeared from sight, now that the struggle for emancipation is said to be no longer universally sustained and the world can no longer be clearly divided into antagonistic political forces? The danger might be that the logic of domination and the logic of its criticism become tied up with one another, until they turn out to be one and the same. Consider, for example, how the everlasting critical discourse about commodification and the spectacle, once proclaimed by the likes of Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, has become the resentful denunciation of a world reigned by mass individualism. As recent events have shown, this discourse has been taken up all too easily to stigmatise forms of struggle as nothing but the outgrowth of this so-called “democratic hedonism”. Ultimately what used to be dialectical opposites – protest and spectacle, struggle and consumption, individualism and totalitarianism – are staged as part of the same process, governed by the inescapable commodity law of equivalence. So it turns out that the logic denouncing all resistance to economic liberalism as reactionary and the one denouncing the same resistance as accomplice to its disastrous triumph, just might be two sides of the same coin.

This is what Rancière means with “consensus”: a view of the world preempting all forms of opposition, governed by a law of domination that permeates any will to do anything against it. The model of criticism that once legitimized itself by its effect of empowerment, can now only ascertain and negotiate its own impotence. One can not help thinking that it is this rational impotence that is at the heart of today’s overwhelming sense of melancholia. As Serge Daney, Baudrillard and others have suggested some time ago: the world has become liquid. Everything flows, Costa recently said in turn, and all we can do is peddle, even if we know it doesn’t get us anywhere, at least not anywhere else. Precisely because we know, the mechanism of deconstructive criticism ends up chasing its own tail, playing on the very undecidability of its effect. As Rancière has written: “unmasking the ghosts has turned to be an affair of ghosts”.

This ambivalence is also part of today’s discourse on cinema and politics, that often thrives on both the relevance and the irrelevance of this critical model. As Rancière has noted: “art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity.” Many works still rely on decade-old strategies, as used by militant filmmakers in the past, to denounce the “society of the spectacle” and the “reign of the commodity”, and many artists and critics still rely on the rhetoric assuming that a critical demonstration and interpretation of our lived world will make us aware of its underlying machinery, inciting the will to overturn it. Political cinema should strive to “understand the law of the objective world in order to explain the world”, Godard wrote in 1970, and making cinema politically means “actively transforming that world”. Today however the same filmmaker can’t help bemoaning the end of these times: it’s not that melancholy has taken the place of denouncement, it rather expands on it.

Don’t these denunciations all too often amount to an disenchanting expression of futility that is at the same time a mournful demonstration of culpability: guilty of knowing, guilty of complying? If indeed the force of unmasking has turned into something of a “ghost”, doesn’t that mean that the workings of the machinery and the workings of its unmasking have become part of the same game, one being the equivalent double of the other? It might be that it’s not so much the hidden secrets of the machine that keep us trapped in our given place, but rather the assumption of its obviousness. “That’s just how it is” is the line that is used to close off any discussion today: there is only one reality, and only one way to make sense of it, no matter what opinions or aspirations we might have, whatever convictions we want to fight for: everything conforms to everything else. How to escape this spiral? How to escape it in cinema? How to construct a cinematic world that contends this consensual frame, reframing the very field of the given, of the sensible and the intelligible, in order to compose a new topography of the possible? How to find or reinvent modes and concepts to think and speak about what might be a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema today, without resorting to an endless unmasking of ghosts and speculating of flows?

Notes based on texts by Jacques Rancière