Issue 9 Writers in Profile: An Interview with Marc James Léger on Radical Politics, Cinema and the Future of the Avant-Garde

Issue 9 has been released!
December 9, 2012
Issue 9 Writers in Profile: An Interview with Bradley Tuck on elitism, films and phenomenology
December 22, 2012
By Bradley Tuck
So Issue 9 of the Journal is out with lots of interesting and thought provoking articles. One such magnificent offering is provided by Marc James Léger, author of Brave New Avant-Garde and forthcoming Neo-liberal Undead. In this issue of One+One Journal, Marc James Léger takes on Obama, relating his presidency to the wonderful late 60’s satirical film, Mr Freedom by William Klein. All articles can be read for free so check it out.  I asked Léger some questions regarding his recent article, art, film and politics.

 

Bradley Tuck: Why is Mr. Freedom an important film and why should we watch it?
Marc James Léger: First thing Brad, I want to say that it’s a real pleasure for me to take part in the activity of One + One, which is a journal that comes very close to how I feel and think about cinema – as something rich, obscure, involving, exciting, perhaps even unknowable or inexhaustible. As Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams teaches us, prehistoric humans returned to the same caves after thousand-year intervals in order to add new images or to enact new rituals in the presence of the existing images. Why this fascination with images? Cinema for me is one of the cultural forms that comes closest to what Henri Lefebvre defined as the fantasmatic feature of “everyday life,” which involves both the Freudian and the Marxist understandings of fetishism. Lefebvre was an active witness to the colonization of everyday life, something that Kristin Ross tried to capture through film analysis in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies. Lefebvre didn’t take everyday life for granted and he didn’t celebrate it – he took it seriously, in the best sense of what we now define as the mission of cultural studies. So to ask me why we should see Mr. Freedom is kind of like Lefebvre commenting on the occasion on which his wife said a propos of a new detergent: “this is a good product!” It brings to mind the Anna Karina ad for Monsavon that Debord used in Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unité de temps and that alerted Godard to a new potential film star. Does a good film like Mr. Freedom constitute the “promesse de bonheur” that Adorno warned us against? Does it continue to effectuate the nineteenth-century villainy (urbanity) that Baudelaire extolled? If so, then I would say that Mr. Freedom is the kind of work that because of these kinds of reasons I like to work on. It has a particular relationship to labour, surplus labour, and surplus enjoyment. I can’t just watch it and forget about it like some films. I love this film and so, if Alain Badiou’s notion of artwork as truth produce has any sense, a film like this one sets up a process in which its reception carries forward the work’s inaugural undertaking. As I tried to relate in my essay, Mr. Freedom is unfinished business. If you’re a fighter, you’ll see that right away.
BT: In your book Brave New Avant Garde you reject the post-modern idea of art as “beyond left and right.” What do you find problematic about this approach?
MJL: “Beyond left and right” is shorthand that I use to describe what has taken place since the late 1960s and the abandonment of the old left, Fourth International project after almost everyone quit the various communist party organizations. We should not overestimate the agency of those who left the parties but should also consider the success of the right in demobilizing its opponents. This continues to be the case everywhere in the world when workers and labour organizers are killed for the smallest acts of resistance. Think of the recent massacres in South Africa. These events are like the kinds of images created by Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein gave us some ideas as to how people in Russia in the teens and twenties responded to such actions.
“Beyond the left and right” was also a Situationist slogan. The Situationists were exemplary of the kind of avant-garde formation that defined itself as “neither Moscow nor Washington.” We can see today that this is precisely the kind of “post-politics” that motivates the various anti-globalization “multitudes” in the West, from the students protests in the UK, to the Indignados, the various Occupy Wall Street affinity groups, to the Maple Spring and the CLASSE groups here in Québec. My thesis isn’t exactly unique or original – think for example of Bruno Bosteels’ brilliant little book The Actuality of Communism. I define today’s post-political left as “post-traumatic.” It has as its mission to always remind people of the crimes of Stalinism and it very quickly starts to sound exactly like the liberal capitalists who say that the extreme left is the same as the extreme right.
In terms of theory, Lefebvre explained in the late 70s in De l’État that around the 60s Marxists lent their “passport” (dialectical materialism) to various other social movements, post-colonialism, feminism, gay liberation, and that at one point these movements would need to give back to Marx what belongs to the project of emancipation from the crises of capital accumulation. What happened is that they didn’t want to return the passport but tried to destroy it after they had finished with it and installed themselves in government and university posts. Gilles Deleuze tried to dismantle dialectics by presenting to people a simplistic version of orthodox “diamat.” Sometimes I think he did more damage than good. In any case, Western Marxists had done a better job of this before he came along and I’m afraid that too many so-called post-Marxist theorists are working today under false pretences.  They don’t want to read a book like Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic because all of their work is operating with these anti-dialectical presuppositions. Think of the current trends in queer theory with its neo-new objectivism and fetishism of “open” bodies. There’s nothing politically radical in this and they can at best have a hipster’s sense of irony about it.
People today who go through university “finishing schools” are deeply conflicted. Their political sensibilities are torn between different kinds of projects: critical theory, postmodernism, identity politics, cultural studies, social constructionism, post-structuralism, and then, on top of that, between the different traditional political tendencies. There is a strong split between people who think that we need to organize the transition away from global capitalism and save humanity and those who think that politics means anti-foundational resistance to any form of constituted power. This second group serves the interests of a moribund managerial middle class (effectively, a reformist petty bourgeoisie) that is still deeply suspicious of mass sensibilities. They have no hope that people can be made conscious of their role in the reproduction of class relations and they have practically abandoned any and all forms of class analysis. Some of them have made real contributions concerning the new post-Fordist modes of production, but they haven’t dealt with the major ideologico-political problems. They’ve folded one into the other but they haven’t yet managed to appeal to the mass of society. At best, in this case, they’ve sustained the art of protest.
BT: What does it mean to be radical today?
MJL: That depends on the situation in which you find yourself, where you are working, in concrete terms and in intellectual terms. I think that people need to rediscover what “critical dialectical realism” is all about. Knowledge is situational. The feminists are right about this but they’re wrong when they try to make this a “personal” politics. The best understanding that the personal is political is dialectical, as in, “history happens behind the backs of men” and not in terms of identity politics – which Badiou does a good job of explaining as the bedrock of democratic materialism. Leftists have a strong tendency to be moralistic. This is a needed quality but it weakens our activity when we start moralizing one another. We need to remember the Maoist slogan “Let a thousand flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” We need to understand and cultivate the practice of polemical friendly fire but without breaking ranks. There’s a difference between being a pervert and being a psychopath. We need to do more to distinguish liberals from leftists. The liberals are sometimes our allies because we do more to protect their freedoms than anyone else, often more than they do. There are enlightened exceptions here and there.
BT: Who is you favourite film-maker?
MJL: I normally hesitate to answer this question but I like the promiscuity of it. What does it mean for me to know that Sasha Grey is a fan of Jean-Luc Godard? I don’t believe in art but here goes anyway. Among my favourites: Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Robert Bresson, Todd Browning, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Eisenstein, Vincent Gallo, Abel Gance, Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Hartley, Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, William Klein, Alexander Kluge, Harmony Korine, Mike Leigh, Tsai Ming-Liang, Pier Paolo Pasolini, D.A. Pennebaker, Roman Polanski, Jean Renoir, Todd Solondz, Bela Tarr, François Truffaut, Agnès Varda.
Other favourites: Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Richard Benjamin, Charles Bronson, Marx Brothers, Luis Bunuel, John Cassavetes, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Clint Eastwood, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, Jane Fonda, especially in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Gorin dvd commentaries, Elia Kazan, James Keach, Andrei Konchalovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Sidney Lumet, Dusan Makavajev, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Moore, Paul Morrissey, Bill Murray, Mike Nichols, Alan Pakula, Gregory Peck, Sydney Pollack, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Ken Russell, Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Delphine Seyrig, Maggie Smith, Barbara Stanwyck, Andrei Tarkovski’s Andrei Roublev, Gene Tierney, Jhang Yimou, Eli Wallach, Peter Watkins, John Wayne, early Wim Wenders.
It’s not fair to list favourites because it leaves out so many intense film moments, so many indelible performances and also the kinds of avant-garde productions that can be very formative and influential of how we look at films.
BT: Who is your favourite theorist?
MJL: Žižek is without a doubt not only my favourite theorist but also the most important living thinker largely because of the way he has saved critical theory from at least two decades of betrayal. However, as he has gained in popularity many academic thinkers have started to take very easy jabs at him. Because of tendencies that are endemic to capitalist cultural consumption Žižek may turn out to be the Cassandra of our moment. I certainly hope not. Just as I finished writing a fairly lengthy and involved essay on Pasolini’s La Rabbia, I heard a Žižek talk in which he said ‘nevermind Antonioni and Fellini and all of that auteurist crap, what Italian cinema has given us is Spaghetti Westerns and Italian comedies.’ How do I heed Žižek’s words? I watch Django and Sartana movies and weigh the evidence.
BT: Your article was written before Obama’s re-election. What are your current thoughts on American politics after this?
MJL: To quote Jean-Luc Godard at the end of his last film: “no comment.”

BT: What do you believe is the future of film for the 21st century?
MJL: I like to think that Herzog has something when he says that without new images humanity will die. This is a very poetic way of saying that art making has an important role in human civilization. How do you translate that into something like Walter Benjamin’s “Author as Producer”? Gene Ray does a pretty good job of that in an essay called “Toward a Critical Art Theory” in which he remarks:
In political terms, there are at this point just two irreconcilable options: either to be enlisted in culture’s affirmative function – ‘to justify a society with no justification’ (Debord) – or to press forward with the revolutionary process. The institution will organize the prolongation of art ‘as a dead thing for spectacular contemplation’ (Debord). The radical alternative is the supersession of art. The first aligns itself with the defense of class power; the second, with the radical critique of society. Surpassing art means removing it from institutional management and transforming it into a practice for expanding life here and now, for overcoming passivity and separation, in short for ‘revolutionizing everyday life’.
There are some limits to the notion of overcoming and I argue in Brave New Avant Garde that institutionality is ambient, it’s not just a matter of specific buildings, organizations and managers. It’s more like what Pierre Bourdieu defined as the relation between the formal gaze and the working-class ethic. Institutionality has a bearing on all cultural production, whether it’s marginal, radical, underground, or arthouse. Since it’s almost impossible to escape discursive authority it’s maybe a better strategy to radically subjectivize our relation to the past and to the instituted forms of “dead labour.” This requires a kind of pervert’s or analyst’s sinthomeopathic identification with the predominant structures so that they can be made effective “for people, not profits.” Minimally, this would mean less garbage and better films overall. I think that all valuable “underground” art has had this kind of relation.
This is also to say something about the fate of radical artists as they become absorbed into capitalized or spectacular channels. Badiou tells us that we don’t necessarily need to worry about future artworks but that we can instead be faithful to the successful works of the past which were inventive and which, as Pasolini also said, have a tragic relation to the society around them because they were subtracted from norms of evaluation. It’s in this regard that as a writer I’ve so far paid particular attention to filmmakers like Herzog, Klein, Pasolini, and now Godard. It’s not enough for me to say like some sophomore who has just learned a little bit of theory that these are “consecrated” artists and that therefore the political thing to do is to focus on new talent or on marginal producers who have also made good work. It’s exactly that kind of temporalization of the avant-garde that I think we should avoid. I like filmmakers whose work allows me to think not only about their work but the society around it, in the present and maybe even in the future. Žižek talks about “signs from the future,” things that will become significant, that will come into visibility later on, but that we can barely recognize right now. Global warming promises that the 21st century will be disastrous. Reactionaries like to think that technocratic managerialism will succeed in harnessing humanity’s technological prowess and that that will save us from our present dependence on fossil fuels. I’m not so optimistic. Artists and filmmakers in this context do not necessarily have to stop doing the best of what they’ve always done. Many great filmmakers have been the kinds of “good soldiers” that Herzog always says he hopes he has been.

 

Biography:
Marc James Léger is a graduate of the doctoral programme in Visual & Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. He has taught undergraduate courses in art history in Rochester, Thunder Bay, Lethbridge, Ottawa and Montreal. His writings in critical cultural theory have appeared in such places as Afterimage, Art Journal, C Magazine, Etc, Fuse, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Creative Industries Journal, RACAR and Third Text. He is editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century and of the forthcoming The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today. He is author of Brave New Avant Garde and of the forthcoming The Neoliberal Undead, both published by Zero Books. He blogs at http://legermj.typepad.com/blog/.