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‘Marxism Goes to the Movies’ Author Mike Wayne on the importance of philosophy in filmmaking

Prolific Marxist film scholar Mike Wayne has published three books in the last seven years, each a contribution to different disciplines. Following his contributions to the philosophy of aesthetics Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (2014), and to political science and cultural studies England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities (2018), the Brunel Professor’s latest release provides a holistic analysis of Marxism’s notable contributions to cultural, economic and political theory. Following the launch of Marxism Goes to the Movies, the author spoke to Indy Film Library about class, cinema, and bookstore riots.

Marxism Goes to the Movies has so many different facets to it – academic, practical, critical, and so on – what were your initial goals when you began the project?

It wasn’t my idea initially. Someone at Routledge approached me because they wanted to add Marxism to their …Goes to the Movies series. Once I decided to take it on I realised it would have to focus on Marxist theory, with history and practice coming in as illustrations of various theoretical issues. To have done justice to Marxist film history and practice in its breadth and depth would have required a multi-volume project involving lots of specialists, but it was sometimes frustrating knowing that I was only skimming the surface of that whole area. So the goal was to provide an introduction to the theory and key debates.

I used a familiar argument about the desirability of integrating critical political economy, formal analysis and cultural studies perspectives, but I suggested that Marxism was best placed to achieve that goal. Firstly, it is the original interdisciplinary theory and is at a deep philosophical level committed to breaking down specialisms in academic knowledge and the gap between knowledge and efficacious action designed to produce radical change. Secondly, all three areas, critical political economy, formal analysis and cultural studies are unthinkable outside the contribution Marxism has made to those areas.

I hope it is a book that can be a reference point for lecturers and is understandable to the undergraduate student. You said in your review that you “would have killed” for a copy of the book when you were studying, so I can only look forward to mass casualties on campuses as fights break out in university bookstores.

Since the Indy Film Library review of your book was published, you let me know your initial intent was to address Slavoj Žižek – whose absence was the write-up’s only major bone of contention with the book – but that he ended up “on the cutting-room floor.” What would you have liked to have added on his work, if you had the time/space?

I became aware as the book progressed that the arc of innovations in Marxist theory stretched from around 1917 to the mid 1980s. This reflected the rise of Marxism as a political and cultural force and then it’s quite sudden petering out in the late 70s and 1980s. So my plan was to include Žižek in the chapter on ideology and this would have had the beneficial effect of including a more recent contribution to at least a quasi-Marxist theory of ideology.

There are two aspects to Žižek’s approach to ideology that I would have liked to have discussed. Firstly, with his thinking about contemporary ideology as a form of cynicism, he keys into the mood of the collapse of grand narratives. In this context ideology is not so much about really believing in a given social order, but as a ‘cynical’ or knowing acquiescence to power, to what exists. This opens up the possibility of tracing this ideology of cynicism in relation to irony and self-reflexivity in film culture, devices which we often think of as intrinsically ‘critical’ but may be actually rather ‘cynical’.  The other extension to our theories of ideology Žižek makes is by shifting the attention of ideology critique away from cognitive issues and towards the role of fantasy. This is in some contradiction actually with cynicism as a modality, since fantasies are a form of quite tenacious beliefs impervious to material reality and well evidenced causal forces at work in our environment.

But we may say that the modern subject is precisely split right down the middle between a ruthless scepticism and a naïve willingness to entertain implausible claims. Perhaps this is why people seem willing to ‘believe’ known liars in the political world. Fantasy involves investments in identity and identifications that people can be very unwilling to give up whatever the cost. Žižek’s discussion of the fight scene in John Carpenter’s They Live  is a good example of this problem. It is a problem across the political spectrum by the way, from the conservative right, through liberalism and including the left, unfortunately.  In any case, Žižek did not make the final cut because I was already pushing over the word count the publisher set, an example of what Althusser once called ‘determination of the economic in the last instance’, a formulation that could not in fact be more inappropriate in our neo-liberal times, where the economic saturates everything.

The book does a great job of outlining how Marxist film practices have adapted technically to take in new aspects of historical change, but I was wondering how they have shifted to accommodate changing ideological norms, for example regarding gender, sexuality or race. One of the things socialist filmmakers like Ken Loach often get accused of is being too ‘class-centric’, and subsequently failing to take into account other forms of oppression in their films. Do you think people like Loach have been hard-done-by regarding such criticism?

I think that is a ‘burden of representation’ question. Loach does what he is most comfortable with and we cannot expect any one filmmaker to cover all the bases. His strengths, such as tracing out how class power impacts on every aspect of the lives of working (or non-working) people, their reserves of strengths as well as relative powerlessness in the present time, his ability to produce the kind of emotional gut-wrenching responses that audiences might more typically associate with melodrama, are real enough. He has produced plenty of strong women characters, but a multi-cultural working class has not been explored as much as we need, but then we need a thriving film culture from lots of sources to be able to do that. That’s in part a political economy question.

I actually think that there is a stereotypical idea that people have of Marxism that its vision of agency is couched solely in terms of white men. While Marxism has had to struggle against its own uncritical internalisation of the values and practices of the world it wants to change, it is a historical travesty to think that its vision of agency has been exclusively about white men. There has been a rich tradition of black Marxism for example. Take the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene – trained, not in France by the way, but in the Soviet Union – a key figure in the history of not only African cinema, but world cinema in my view. His last film, Moolade was all about African women’s struggle against female circumcision, and is a parable of revolution. More broadly, revolutionary struggles are frequently transformative in relation to women. Behind the western media perspective on the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela (where I lived for a year) which was dominated by the figure of Chavez, women in the barrios were actually the driving force of social change, and were known and acknowledged to be. The role of women in the long Kurdish revolution is another example, with the fusing of the political-military function in the women’s brigades fighting Isis in Syria being another good example of transformation in struggle. Within the more humdrum context of liberal democracy, a lot of good works came through the trade unions, something which the British film Made in Dagenham had the virtue of reminding us of.

The other thing Loach has been criticised for is what is seen as a certain lack of formal sophistication. Again that is a burden of representation issue. Loach does what he does very well and it is unfair to expect him to explore themes that lie outside his aesthetic sensibility. That’s why again we need a range of voices. If you want satire for example, don’t watch Sorry We Missed You, watch Sorry to Bother You, directed by the black Marxist rapper and lead singer of The Coup, Boots Riley. If you want a Ken Loach inspired approach with a different demographic, watch Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood.

On the question of being ‘class centric’ – social being is clearly multi-dimensional and theorising how the different dimensions of social being work and relate to each other will necessarily generate different perspectives and sharp disagreement.  However, Marx did not arbitrarily identify the importance of class on some whim. The question of class points us in the direction of that activity we spend more time doing than anything else, apart from sleeping, and without which, stuff falls apart pretty quickly – as we have seen with the Covid-19 crisis: and that is work or labour time. You cannot sensibly understand work or indeed non-work for the surplus labour population (set to grow with further rounds of automation) without placing the class antagonisms involved in the production of life, at the heart of our thinking.

According to your Brunel University profile, studying film at the North London Polytechnic in the mid-1980s was a “revelation” to you. How did your time there come to shape your future interests, and work?

Well I think this is a personal experience which I am happy to advocate should be the general experience of going to university. It was life changing and it was politicising – life changing, because I was a very average, often struggling student at my comprehensive school. Something happened when I went to university – the light bulb moment was actually a process of course but it was being introduced to actual theories which you could name, which had a history, with their own concepts which you could evaluate and tools which you could use to decode.

What did we have before at school, studying history, literature, etc.? Certainly not those instruments. Instead we had naturalised assumptions about culture, history, politics, economics – admittedly if you did something like sociology, you would have had some introduction to a world of theories, and that is presumably one reason why sociology for teenagers was and is detested by the right. It is also why teaching film studies, at A-level and GCSE is important, because those curricula do try and introduce teens to critical thinking.

I taught GCSE Film Studies to a class of home educated kids for a couple of years and was impressed with it. But that kind of critical thinking was not available to me until I went to university and that combined with a reasonably political academic staff and a highly militant student body opened up my horizons in life long ways.

Radical ideas aren’t usually especially welcome in any workplace – as Rebel Video author Heinz Nigg previously told us, universities aren’t an exception to that. In your writing, you don’t seem especially shy in celebrating Marxist film theory or its traditions, so I’m curious if you have encountered much hostility towards you for the focus of your studies, or their conclusions?

In general, from my own personal experience, I don’t think heterodox ideas are particularly persecuted within a UK academic context. If you are in America, then there’s a history of virulent anti-communism, a hire and fire culture generally and insecure employment conditions within Higher Education specifically to contend with.

In the UK ideas are less discriminated against than social bodies – at that level academia has similar inequalities as other professions. If you are a women you are discriminated against (the gender pay gap for instance), BAME representation is poor and if you are working class, then you don’t even have any legal protections against discrimination that the 2010 Equality Act provided to the other two categories. Nor does class have the legitimacy or esteem to encourage liberal virtue signalling about it as a problem -although maybe that is a relief. But I have seen class discrimination at work in the sector up close and it isn’t pretty. By contrast I think the worst thing that can happen to ideas in academia, is that they go out of fashion.

Academia is very fashion conscious unfortunately and that is a serious corruption of the purpose of the university which is to encourage critical thinking. If academics are chasing the latest trend, then that encourages intellectual opportunism and condemns each generation of students to lapping up whatever was ‘hot’ whenever they were students, instead of a critical interrogation of the history of ideas and methodologies. What tends to happen, as others have pointed out, is every attempt to ‘go beyond’ Marxism ends up in a pre-Marxist position since it is impossible to go beyond Marxism while the object of its critique, capitalism, looms so large in the various social, political, economic, environmental and cultural problems we face. Without a democratic Marxism, whatever else we need, we haven’t got an ice-cream in hell’s chance of overcoming these problems.

The category of class, which has been central to Marxism, as it was to sociology, fell seriously out of fashion in the 1990s and into the noughties. When you are out of fashion, whether your bag is Marxism, phenomenology, Freudianism or whatever, it can be a bit of an uphill slog. Yet as Fredric Jameson famously said, history is what hurts and after the 2007-8 crash, class gradually began to creep up the political and even policy agenda.

The documentary feature film I co-directed with Deirdre O’Neill, The Acting Class (2017) (about class barriers in the acting profession) was fortunate to really chime in with this mood in political, media and cultural industry circles. The film connected with a rich vein of sociology of culture work on class being done by academics – and it is welcome to see class returning to the sociology agenda. Film studies is probably still a bit behind the curve here, in terms of rehabilitating class, although there is a growing awareness that a global capitalism is being represented on screens from lots of different geo-cultural locations.

I recently reviewed a good book by Milo Sweedler called Allegories of Capitalism that examines films testifying to this.  Bong Joon-ho’s success with Parasite, the first foreign language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, is perhaps indicative that the class conditions explored (Renoir-like) in that film are both very recognisable to a global audience living with capitalism but we also see how that global situation is laced with some specificities of the national South Korean culture and situation. If world film culture is alive to capitalism and class, then film theory really ought to be as well I would have thought.

Have you ever considered moving into video essays, Pervert’s Guide to Cinema style, as a means of engaging with new audiences, or making more direct interventions in debates around cinema and Marxism?

I would like to follow through on some ideas I have had for the video essay format – less in terms of the presenter led narration as with The Pervert’s Guide… than archival remixes in the montage tradition. But I haven’t yet done it. As mentioned above, I do use film practice in the documentary genre tradition as a form of research, not into film itself but other issues through film. Just as popular film culture can disseminate anti-capitalist values and perspectives, so we can use film as a way of reaching audiences outside academia with informed research.  As a mode of research it is very attractive not least because it gets you out of the lone scholar sitting in front of a computer/in the British library model and interacting with other people (not fellow academics) in both the production and dissemination of the work.

What is next for you and Marxism Goes to the Movies, and is there anything our readers can do to help? Aside from that, do you have any new projects lined up?

One of the nice things about making a film is that the work involves you in an active way, beyond finishing the edit. Typically I am still doing screenings and Q&As 12-18 months after a film has been released. That does not happen with a book. You might do a launch, if you are very ambitious a mini bookshop tour, but generally there isn’t much for you to do except look out for reviews and hope they are at least fair.

In terms of conventional scholarship though, in the last few months I have submitted a long chapter for a forthcoming anthology called Fredric Jameson and Film Theory (Rutgers University Press). I also wrote an article for another anthology called Capitalism’s Conscience: 200 Years of The Guardian (Pluto Press). I hope to be able to make a return to documentary film production at some point in the next 18 months and I suspect that a lot of my theoretical energies are likely to go towards media studies, the political sciences and cultural studies in response to the deepening crisis.

Marxism Goes to the Movies is available for order for £31.99 from publisher Routledge.

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