documentary and political modernism

John Mowitt displays posters from Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm as part of the workshop "Documentary and Political Modernism." (photo: P. Sen)

Saturday’s session 8A “Documentary and Political Modernism: Histories, Geographies, Theories” was the first in a two-day diptych devoted to the relationship of documentary and the discourse of political modernism. As co-leaders of the workshop, Joshua Malitsky and Masha Salazkina introduced the purview of Saturday’s discussions and those to come in its companion panel, 11A “Case Studies in Global Documentary and Political Modernism” on Sunday. Phil Rosen and John Mowitt joined them in leading the highly engaging and stimulating workshop before a packed audience in the Michelson Theater. One could hardly think of a more fitting venue, given the site’s namesake.

Malitsky began by orienting the conversation to the stakes of the debates pursued in film theoretical writings from the 1970s and 1980s around the theme and tendency described as political modernism, a phrase used by Fredric Jameson in the seminal Verso collection Aesthetics and Politics (1977), taken up by Sylvia Harvey in film studies in her May ’68 and Film Culture (1978) and articles for Screen, and subsequently placed under scrutiny by David Rodowick in his The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory (1988). The workshop emerged out of overlapping interests in how the set of problems invoked by the rubric of political modernism—most broadly, issues concerning Marxist formulations of the relationship between avant-garde/radical practice and theory, aesthetic form and political transformation, the reconsideration of the subject in modernism, the relation between and ideological effects of realism and modernism—might be re-approached and reformulated with respect to documentary in light of the complexity and expanse of reconsidered histories and geographies of cinema. Malitsky spoke of revisiting a global network of leftist artistic activities across history in scholarly work now increasingly paying attention to translations, transmissions, and migrations of makers, concepts, and interpretations.

Setting out some further points of departure, Salazkina noted that today’s broader discussion might have just have readily been scheduled to follow the next day’s panel of historical case studies. She suggested that although political modernism comes to us most saliently in film theory via Rodowick’s account of this tendency’s aim to develop a critique of illusionism in classical Hollywood cinema through meticulous textual readings, this workshop sought to expand our thinking beyond this specific object of critique and the limits of textual analysis found in Screen theory and its associated corpus of post-60s English- and French-language scholarship drawing on currents in Marxism and psychoanalytic thought. Her opening remarks set out a few more points for consideration: the privilege accorded to the visual by critics and makers in political modernism; the need for greater attention to the materialist aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition in revisiting the trajectories of political modernism from the 1920s to the 1970s; the need for reconsidering the geographies and geopolitics of knowledge production concerning political modernism by going outside the west, beyond Eurocentric (“for lack of a better word”) studies of its theoretical discourses and artistic practices, so as to reengage with Eastern European, Indian, African, and Soviet contexts; the need to take note of inclusions and exclusions of the canon, whether it be filmmakers, writers, theorists, translators, or other agents and facilitators. Does political modernism still have any robustness or efficacy for historical and theoretical thinking, she asked? Lastly, Salazkina described her current project focusing on the “network of leftist film critics” traced through institutions and discourses from the Soviet Union in the 1920s to Italy in the 1930s-50s and then to Latin America (especially Cuba, and in Argentina and Brazil, in texts on “third cinema”).

Joshua Malitsky’s presentation analyzed two related examples of documentary filmmaking that “can help rewrite and challenge what has defined the ‘relentless negativity’” of political modernism in artistic production and challenge “the opposition of reflexivity and illusionism.” He spoke about Esfir Shub’s compilation filmmaking and Santiago Alvarez’s chronicle documentaries, revisiting the topics of Soviet and Cuban revolutionary cinema through two less dominant models. Both Shub and Alvarez “refus[e] to disavow the role of cultural institutions and aim to rework narratives of historical meaning and social determination” in their work. According to Malitsky, in two different contexts, Shub and Alvarez developed alternative models of historical thought in documentary form and process. Reassessing debates over factography and fact in film carried out in the 1920s by Osip Brik and Shub, among others, Malitsky characterized Shub’s approach to historical compilation as one appealing to accumulative logic and scientific thought, addressing the film viewer in a way that tempered the role of narrative momentum and thereby permitted the pursuit of new connections, arrived at inductively. In Cuba, Alvarez likewise turned to play with film duration in relation to history to transform viewing experience. Malitsky elaborated on how Santiago Alvarez’s film I Am the Son of America, a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute document of Castro’s 1971 visit to Chile, challenged even Cuban citizens in the extensive duration of its “observational sequences, framed by historical montage of collectivist history,” as part of a strategy to get viewers to grasp history and see the potential for making history anew.

John Mowitt’s deftly composed paper, “Sound Evidence for Political Modernism,” marked an important intervention in raising the issue of “the status of sound in discussion of political modernism” “as it bears on the genre of documentary.” A brisk critical genealogy of key writings on political modernism shaped the structure of his remarks, as he abided by a demand for “brevity contrary to whatever my nature might be.” Opening with a passage from David Rodowick’s “The Crisis of Political Modernism” essay, Mowitt noted that there exists a need to think about how sound has been “vouched for in the very emergence of the concept of political modernism.” Citing Sylvia Harvey’s Spring 2008 lecture “May ’68 and Film Culture Revisited,” he noted that although Harvey had initially formulated her notion of political modernism in an essay on the critical recovery of Brecht in 60s and 70s political and avant-garde filmmaking, her revisitation does not engage with Brecht and, most crucially, demonstrates no interest in Brecht on radio. Mowitt pointed out that “political modernism accepts the centrality of montage” in order to grasp “the modernity of cinema,” and that this view should perhaps be critically questioned. He referred to how Adorno, among others, had already suspected montage and its centrality. Via montage, Mowitt continued, cinema and political modernism “succumb to visualism” (citing Don Ihde on visualism). Pursuing the issue of montage, Mowitt next turned to a piece by Annette Michelson, a catalogue essay entitled “The Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval” from Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum (MIT Books, 1992), for it usefully gathers much of what Michelson had laid out across earlier essays on Vertov, modernism, and Eisenstein. Mowitt made several points about Michelson’s “Wings of Hypothesis” and its proposal of a “grand floating signifier, the interval” “at the core of classical montage theory” and film theory’s encounter with physics. First, the premise of the interval had included sound, as is evident in Vertov’s writings. Second, montage theory rests on “a musical logic of assemblage.” And third, montage theory stresses visualism. Mowitt quoted from Vladimir Messman’s response to the 1928 Eisenstein/Pudovkin/Aleksandrov “Statement on Sound,” and he argued that there is in this essay by Michelson a “lack of originality” in the “reassertion of visualism in her analysis.” The concept of the interval is “indelibly marked as the difference between two pitches” and the interval should only be referred to in order to grasp an event in relation to the image track. For Mowitt, Michelson emphasizes “the musicological characer of montage” and this aspect of her argument “brushes back against” the text’s appeal to physics and semiosis in an interdisciplinary manner. Mowitt characterized a “further symptom of this dilemma” in Michelson’s essay by mentioning its reference to Eisenstein’s unmade film on Marx’s Capital. As Mowitt reminded everyone, Marx wrote of the speech of the commodity (“if commodities could speak”) yet he only “spoke of the content, not the sound of this voice” of the commodity.  Summarizing, Mowitt stated that political modernism has consistently been formulated in terms that privilege the visual, so that the “dubious politics of avoiding the art of sound has been vouchsafed” and the “terms of political modernism wager on the fecundity of the image.” Furthermore, “even indexicality theorists” have ignored “the difficult question of ‘is sound recording like a language,’ asked by Alan Williams” many years ago.

Mowitt returned to Messman’s position in the Soviet sound debates and asked us to recall Vertov’s “laboratory for hearing” and “white screen experiments” where Vertov labored so that “sound could be welcomed back to life.” Mowitt then displayed images of two advertising posters for Vertov’s Enthusiasm (pictured above) and explained that the designs “score visual surfaces with sonic properties,” properties of sound that may be more useful than montage as such—permeation, radiation, and delocalization. In naming the “urgent task to rework the production of knowledge about cinema, documentary or not” as well as issues of subjectivity and realism, Mowitt concluded by saying that he was repeating Rodowick’s remarks on the crisis of cinema, subject, and text from “The Crisis of Political Modernism, but that he hoped he was repeating it in a “slightly different tone.”

Phil Rosen’s presentation broached the issue of the “modern” and vexed issues of temporality in political modernism and, more broadly, how it has been taken up in discussions of cinema. Drawing on Peter Osborne, Rosen laid out that the modern is a temporal category predicated on possibility, the new, the different, and a marker of historical consciousness. Modernity taken as a periodizing category means modernity’s self-consciousness about its own historicity. Modernism accordingly refers to “the aesthetic consciousness of modernity that would reject what it identifies as its part.” Noting that Marx’s draft introduction to the Grundrisse breaks off at the subject of art and the difficult question of how Greek art still gives us aesthetic pleasure in the present despite its impossibility today, Rosen stated that political modernism could be said to involve the construction of an aesthetic past in a political present. Rosen spoke of Vertov’s Kino-Eye and Three Songs of Lenin on Lenin’s death and raised the matter of how deeply such a film can affect a viewer today, later (“a film that still today could make leftists tear up”). In looking back at this canonical moment in political modernism, Rosen suggested that we might say that “Vertov’s mourning of Lenin’s death is, in a sense, our antiquity.” Is this nostalgia, or is it a model that can in any way be taken up again, Rosen asked. Rosen cited Fredric Jameson’s discussion of Kluge’s Eisenstein film, in which Jameson speaks of a “future that demands the constitution of an antiquity appropriate to it.” Rosen put forward the idea that a desire for antiquity makes us modern and that a reexamination of political modernism must grapple with “the idea of transition” in both an aesthetic and political sense. Next, Rosen elaborated on how reconsidering the Soviet 20s as “our antiquity,” the high tide of the historical avant-gardes and popular revolution, alongside the importance of documentary in that moment is key. This would move away from Rodowick’s concerns in “The Crisis of Political Modernism,” which is “only a critique of 1970s academic discourse,” offering a “limited philosophical” rather than historical discussion, “with very little to do with films and film history” in reducing matters to realism versus modernism. With regard to the familiar opposition between Eisenstein and Vertov, Rosen pointed out that it should be understood as epistemological (a new way of knowing the world through film) and agitational (how should film be formed to address an audience and move it to action). Characterizing the 1920s moment, Rosen noted that documentary can now be seen as situated at the confluence of many issues, as there was no distinction between the avant-garde and documentary production. This meant that the modernism/realism opposition was confused in actuality, so the 1970s discussions of filmmakers and film theorists got something wrong about political modernism. Finally, Rosen called for talking about political modernism in the plural, and he directed the workshop to two other lines of writing and thinking apart from Rodowick on political modernism: first, critical theory from Adorno through Jameson that advances modernism as epistemological resistance to reification; and second, Paul Willemen’s essay “An Avant-Garde for the 90s” in Looks and Frictions (originally titled “An Avant-Garde for the 80s”) that clearly distinguishes between modernism in the arts (exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s views on specificity) and the avant-garde, which embraces impure mixtures, situational and localized action.


In the ensuing discussion, a number of interesting questions, comments, and further elaborations were heard:

Alice Lovejoy said that scholars need to think about where we locate theoretical discourse since it can reside in such locations as state institutional documents, and she also asked that shifting notions of and conflicts in Marxism be considered.

John MacKay brought up the complexity of Vertov’s early and late work with respect to modernism and the modern, since its mix of parades, rituals, and hagiography “can seem so un-modern.” He also suggested how entangled questions of temporality become regarding the modern, as innovation always creates or imagines an antiquity, and concepts of revolution and alienation imply not only the new but also the release of latent potentials of the past.

In reply to MacKay’s question about some of the specific ways bringing sound back into the question of political modernism makes a difference, John Mowitt highlighted two dimensions of sound. The practical work of assembling in film is cast in one familiar trope in cinema as visual rhythm, and an account of sound could do another sort of work, remodeling how we think of sequencing and assembling. Mowitt suggested that there “may be something going on in enunciation” that has to do with “respecting the specifity of the encounter of sound and image.” He has recently been looking to the figures of permeation, radiation, and delocalization as touchstones for sound processes and their relation to the problem of subject positioning. Sound may suggest the idea of passing through bodies and structure rather than positioning them, and this would complicate how we think of subject positioning. Mowitt also reiterated his concern with the question of interdisciplinarity—what disciplines do when they interact—and with how the introduction of the interval could complicate interdisciplinarity.

Tom Waugh inquired into the relationship of political modernism in film to the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left.

Phil Rosen directed the group’s attention to the Lukacs/Brecht debates as a starting point for any discussion of the modernism/realism opposition in history.

Rachel Gabara asked about how postcolonial thought and politics bears on this discussion of political modernism. In response, Phil Rosen referred to broader debates on pluralizing modernity and modernisms in the humanities and pointed to the canonical centrality of Hour of the Furnaces. John Mowitt stated that it was important to ask what we mean by the postcolonial, and if it means a critique of Eurocentrism, then re-examining political modernism would involve challenging the ancient/modern distinction and what it represents for thinking about this historical distinction in Europe. Mowitt added that we should also think about how postcolonial cinemas, such as Ousmane Sembene’s work, involved articulations with the Soviet Union, and that such connections make us think about how the Soviet Union relates to empire and imperialism. Masha Salazkina mentioned that she has now been concerned with the details of the institutional and political infrastructures that made up a third-worldist network of exchanges and encounters—for instance, the Tashkent Film Festival in the Soviet Union.

Janet Walker stated that she would be interested to hear further discussion of the politics of place and geography—what about geography? In response, Salazkina said that the case studies being pursued in the current work of panelists today and tomorrow would hopefully encourage revising our views of political modernism by no longer only looking at canonical examples. This extends to written work as well—from the great collection of material, “we have astoundingly little on cinema that’s available in translation to North American scholars.” Salazkina emphasized the need to think about geographic sites and paths relationally. Mowitt, in turn, raised a point about how the visualism of standard geographic thinking implies the locus of the North and the West and an account of what should be paid attention to. For that reason, there’s a need to think about how geopolitical configurations are expressed in the privileging of certain discursive categories and their formation. According to Mowitt, an attention to sound offers a different perspective on how we live space and place, how sound opens up and confuses spaces (“delocalization”), something that geographers don’t pay attention to.

Susan Lord asked that the circulation and mobility be taken into account in the geographies of political modernism—how people move and who gets to move through which pathways thereby placing limits on and shaping certain activities and affiliations. She referred to her current work on the history of the 1968 World Cultural Congress held in Havana, Cuba.

Luca Caminati pressed the question of whether or how we can claim any exceptionality for documentary, and he noted that the role of documentary in state colonial projects and movements should not be left out in thinking about political modernism and documentary. Salazkina acknowledged this issue of the place of documentary and colonial histories. Rosen added that major intersections of documentary, liberalism, and the state are already there to be rexamined with Grierson’s re-alignment of documentary with the state, showing that documentary has to be seen as an arena of conflict and contested claims. The questions referred to by political modernism have instead often pointed to particular ways of aligning art with political transition/transformation or the imagining of such transformation in opposition to the state.

– Paul Fileri


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