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Concepts and Terms

Marx and Engels

Marx and Engels

I thought it wise to define some terms that crop up regularly. These are all relatively commonplace words, especially in writings about film. However, they are frequently used with different meanings and not all the writers are careful to define the sense in which they are using them.

I want to start with ‘academic’. I frequently use this word in reviewing film books. What I mean is that I found that the book relied extensively on the specialist language and ‘Theories’ of film studies in Universities. I have highlighted ‘theory’ because this is an area where there are frequently complex set of ideas, for example psycho-analytical or semiotics [the study of signs], and approaches which require a specialist study to follow. These books also tend to rely on referencing other books from Higher Education and to assume some acquaintance with these. I was slightly taken aback when a friend recently suggested that she found the way I talk about film ‘academic’. However, I cross-checked and I think she was referring to a tendency to discussing films dispassionately, with references to techniques and thematic matters, rather than the emotional and entertainment pleasures found in many films. In this postings I will refer to the former meaning.

The next word is ‘auteur’. Nowadays this has a variety of meaning. When it appeared early on in Cahiers du Cinéma and the debate around the ‘Politique des auteur’ it was an argument about the signature that some directors working in Hollywood apparently left on their films. The role of the critic was to discern a pattern in their films. Other critics, notably Andrew Sarris in the USA, elevated the argument to the status of a ‘theory’: a position that I do not find totally convincing. It was then taken by up critics as a term of praise for favoured directors. There is also the structualist approach which sees the filmmaker’s signature as representing more than the individual director: an approach with which I have some sympathy.  The Industry picked up on this and in recent decades it has become a marketing tool. The distance travelled can be gauged by the example of filmmakers with a first film being labelled an auteur [e.g. Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga 2009]: not exactly a pattern in keeping with the usage of the French pioneers.

Then there is ‘ideology’, my particular pet hate. It is an important concept in the writings of Karl Marx, though many writers do not bother to check out his usage. The famous aspect is that of the ‘dominant ideas’ of the ruling class. But in Capital Volume I and III, there is carefully defined usage. The ideological resides in what is often described as the superstructure, the social relations that stem from the basic economic structure. What an ideological stance entails is regarding the surface appearances of the world but neglecting the underlying social relations. The famous example is the extraction of a surplus by the capitalist from the worker, which appears on the surface as ‘a fair days labour for a fair day’s pay’. In the 20th century numerous writers reworked the concept of ideology. It usages range from the values of a particular society or social group to a set of values that are imposed on social practice. This picks up on Marx’s usage in The German Ideology where he writes about the ‘dominant ideas of the ruling class’. However, even here Marx is referring to the ‘interests’  of the class. Many examples treat the ideological as just about values, divorcing those values from the interests for which they give expression. What is most common, even in critical writing, is that there is a negative aspect to this description. For the Marxist, the extent to which ideas fail to correspond to the underlying social relations is the extent to which they are ideological. Writers, especially in the UK, often also include ‘false consciousness’, not a word used by Marx [see Political Economy of the Olympics].

The final word follows on from the above, ‘post-colonial’. This is a word that has arrived through the lens of Cultural Studies. The problem is that in most countries or states that are nominally independent after suffering colonial occupation the exploitative relationship to the dominant countries remains. Aspects of the situation among the oppressed peoples and nations can correctly be described as imperialist: the economic dominance of the major advanced capitalist powers. But frequently we also see direct intrusion into the countries, as for example with the USA’s attack on the household holding Osama bin Laden and the use of US and British drones in parts of the Indian sub-continent. [See Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 ). Rather, as Marx described socialist society, “economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”, at the end of formal colonial occupations there is not a clean break and the exploitative, frequently violent relationships continue when the interests of advanced capital demand this.

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