The journal article I referenced in my last blog “Shielding Idiosyncrasy From Isomorphic Pressures: Towards Optimal Distinctiveness In European Filmmaking” seems to be suggesting that all human organisations – or what the New Institutional Theory refer to as ‘fields’ – have as part of their architecture a submerged and hidden aspect made of up unconscious assumptions and biases, codes and modes of acceptable behaviour that can delimit the freedom of anyone active in that field (referred to as ‘actor’) often without the actor ever being full aware that they were operating in such a restricting environment. These ideas I find to be particularly relevant as they reflect my own experiences working within, what Alvarez et al (2005) refer to as, the “cinema field” (see here for more on the cinema field) which, although seemingly limitless in terms of the freedoms it offers a filmmaker, is in fact highly restrictive.
With these kind of ideas in mind I have just been reading a fascinating book by American literary critic and Marxist political theorist, Fredric Jameson, called – The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act – as a way of further exploring these notions of unconscious aspects of production; which can include cinematic production.
So, essentially Jameson’s book is a reworking of Karl Marx’s notions of the base and the superstructure. The base being all the tangible, visible parts of a society , that constitute, as Marx says, “the means of production” (, the factories, businesses, transglobal companies, the people, the raw materials, the structures and hierarchies (please excuse my short list and my vagueness) in short, the economic engine that beats at the heart of our capitalist system. While the superstructure is constituted of the intangible parts of our culture, the mysterious tree that grows out of the ground of ‘the base’ – the tree of ideology that is fed by the base and which produces an overarching system of thought in the heads of all the people who live beneath it; doing so through the various institutions – education, politics, the media, the government, law, religion, science, art, philosophy that make up the superstructure. An important aspect of Marx’s critique, worth noting, though, is that the IDEOLOGY being produced exists to facilitate the whole machine’s smooth operation, performance and longevity.
And that from the perspective of the working class it is a FALSE ideology because it is the ideology of those who own the means of production, and not that of the workers, who exist within the structure as a whole, and, who are, in fact, being duped and rendered passive by it.
It’s as if Marx is positing the idea of a false mindset – as if our very ideas about ourselves and the world have been co-opted by a system which makes us operate in ways that are, at times, contrary to our own, or others, well being. Or, if you like he is suggesting – a Political Unconscious… as if there exists part of our being over which we have very little conception or control…
Coming back to Jameson’s book then, which takes this idea of a “repressed and buried reality” that exists hidden within modes of production, applying it, as the full book title suggests, to literature and more specifically, the literary genres available to the 19 century novelist. Jameson makes the point that, within the various literary genres – romance, realism, historical, etc, there is built into them, a hidden ideological or unconscious aspect. Or as Jameson says- “Genres are like “speech acts”: they not only express, but bind the work and the reader together in a kind of interpretive contract, or set of expectations.” (p 189 Jameson, F. 1989)
He goes on – “For Marxism, indeed, only the emergence of a post-individualistic social world, only the reinvention of the collective and associative, can concretely achieve the ‘decentering’ of the individual subject called for by such diagnoses; only a new and original form of collective social life can overcome the isolation and monadic autonomy of the older bourgeois subjects in such a way that individual consciousness can be lived—and not merely theorized—as an ‘effect of structure’”
Jameson seems to me to be suggesting, that, inherent within literature itself, (film too) there are all manner of unconscious assumptions and biases about the primacy of individuality, individual subjectivity, personal isolation etc. which will always scupper any attempts to use “the novel” or “the film” or “the film genres” or “the classical hollywood system of film production” as a tool for change.
Anyway, not sure if I have fully understood Jameson’s oft times abstruse reasoning but these thoughts are extremely interesting. For I somehow find these concepts of hidden levels of ideological meaning buried within modes of production directly relevant to my gripes surrounding the conventions of film production AND directly relevant to my creative impasse at not being able to think of a subject or “way in” to the next film I want to make.
Alvarez, J. L., Mazza, C., Pedersen, J. S., & Svejenova, S. (2005). Shielding idiosyncrasy from isomorphic pressures: Towards optimal distinctiveness in European filmmaking. Organization, 12(6), 863-888.
Jameson, F. (1989). The political unconscious: Narrative as a socially symbolic act. London: Routledge.
Marx, K., & McLellan, D. (2000). Karl marx: Selected writings (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.