Marx's primary insight is that our economic being has primacy over our cultural consciousness. Our ideas are neither innate nor revealed but are the product of our social economic activity. For Marx, history is not be understood as the progression of a series of ideas as Hegel argued, but as the record of class struggle. Class struggle pits different classes against each other to decide how surplus labour will be allocated.
A simple Marxist analysis will attempt to read a literary text as a representation of an already existing class struggle. Thus one might read Hamlet as an account of the birth of the individual bourgeois consciousness which the transition from feudalism to capitalism was bringing into being.
These forms of analysis suffer from a fundamental defect in Marx's analysis of society into forces of production and relations of production. Whenever you go to a force of production, say capital then you will immediately forced to talk in terms of the relations of production for you cannot talk about capital without talking about property which is to say that you are using the relations of production ( the superstructure) to define the forces of production (the base). In the case of Hamlet one is ignoring the way in which Hamlet and the Elizabethan theatre are themselves unthinkable without the new forces of production and that they are a significant factor in determining the new relations of production.
The lecture explored the question of how Marxist theories can inform the way we think about and interpret culture, and specifically cinema. The texts for this week's topic were Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Sergei Eisenstein's Strike.
Marx and Engel's theory of BASE and SUPERSTRUCTURE, as laid out in 'Social Being and Social Consciousness' in Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy was discussed. This theory enables us to understand how Marxism sees social relations - the material conditions of everyday life - play out in the sphere of ideas, of ideology and therefore in the cultural products of literature and film.
The lecture examined three different approaches to film, all of which might be understood as broadly influenced by Marxist thinking:
1) Reading Film Narrative as ideological
The example taken here was Metropolis, where initially the film seems to explore the alienation of the workers by presenting their plight. However, on closer examination, it is clear that the narrative centres on the experience of the bourgeois hero, Freder, with the worker's plight being understood through his experience, and point of view. It could be argued that the ending of the film 'contains' the revolution of the workers through the romantic union of Maria and Freder and the 'message' of the union of hands and heart.
2) The political possibilities of film form (through dialectical montage)
The examples taken here were two films made by Sergei Eisenstein, Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein's theory of montage was also referred to. For Eisenstein the very fabric of film allows it to be used to communicate (potentially revolutionary) ideas. He maintains that the combination, or juxtaposition of different shots together through editing can be used by the filmmaker to provoke ideas in the mind of the film viewer. A famous example is the montage at the end of the film Strike which juxtaposes images of a cow being slaughtered with the violent repression of the worker's revolution. Eisenstein's theory of montage is influenced by dialectics, that an idea (or thesis) can be juxtaposed with its opposite (antithesis) to give rise to a third idea (synthesis).
3) The Frankfurt School and a critique of film as mass art, part of 'the culture industry'
The work of the Frankfurt School of critics was important in founding the study of mass culture in the 1930s. Intellectuals and critics such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkeimer and Walter Benjamin sought to understand popular forms such as cinema, the radio and popular music. Adorno and Horkheimer's essay 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' was written while they were in exile in America, having fled Europe. They saw mass culture, and Hollywood cinema in particular, as a monolithic system producing homogeneous product, they famously make a comparison between a factory production line producing Ford cars and the Hollywood studio system (or Dream Factory) where movies roll out constantly. Adorno and Horkheimer's view tends to assume that audience's rather passively consume these homogeneous cultural products without thinking about them. But in positioning themselves as able to critique these products they potentially put themselves in rather an elite position.
Whilst Adorno and Horkheimer's view or culture as an industry is persuasive, subsequent critics (such as John Fiske, Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige - see extracts in Rivkin & Ryan) have turned their attention to the activities of readers, viewers and consumers of mass popular culture. They argue that these readers, viewers and consumers are more active in interpreting and even appropriating the meanings of popular culture, and that popular culture can therefore hold important resonances.
Marxism and Culture: Base and Superstructure
'[A] distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.' (Marx and Engels, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1859/1845-6)
3 Approaches to Film - informed by Marxist Theory:
1) Metropolis - Reading Film Narrative as ideological
Dialectic: thesis - antithesis - synthesis....
2) Battleship Potemkin - the revolutionary possibilities of film form through dialectical montage
Eisenstein: 'Shot and montage are the basic elements of cinema. Montage has been established by the Soviet cinema as the nerve of cinema'[ Eisentein, Dialectic Approach to Film Form, 48]
Montage and narrative style
In montage cinema the relationships between shots are governed mainly by compositional or graphic elements, or by rhythm and movement within shots, or by the 'tone' of shot content. In Eisenstein's system the crucial objective of montage is to generate affect in the spectator (see Eisenstein, 'A Dialectic Approach to Film Form'). Although all of Eisenstein's montage films are fictional narratives, the affective principle which underlies their editing is usually more important than any imperative to construct a coherent fictional space and time. Narrative flow, in other words, tends to be subordinated to film image.
The narrative opacity that results reinforces, though it comes about in part because of, the absence in Eisenstein's films of psychologically-rounded characters. None of Eisenstein's first three films (Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October) has an individual hero whose actions and motives form the pivot of the narrative. If there is any 'hero' in any of these films, it is the people or the proletariat, as a group. [Annette Kuhn, 'History of Narrative Codes' in Pam Cook ed. The Cinema Book (BFI, 1985), 218]
Benjamin - film and modernity, movement and the city
'Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.... The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.' [Benjamin, 222]
Americanisation and the production line:
'Americanization stood for true modernity, the liquidation of stifling traditions and shackling lifestyles and work habits' [Wollen, 36]
3) The Frankfurt School: Critique of Film as part of mass culture and the 'culture industry'
That the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors products is basically illusory strikes every child with a keen interest in varieties. What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice. The same applies to the Warner Brothers or Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions. But even the differences between the more expensive and cheaper models put out by the same firm steadily diminish: for automobiles, there are such differences as the number of cylinders, cubic capacity, details of patented gadgets; and for films there are the number of stars, the extravagant use of technology, labour and equipment, and the introduction of the latest psychological formulas. [Adorno & Horkheimer, 'The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception' in Simon During, ed. The Cultural Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993)