Recently I put up a post about Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera as seen through the interpretive lens of Jonathan Beller’s The Cinematic Mode of Production. Vertov recognized that producing a film isn’t just another kind of industrial commodity: by turning the camera on its own producers, a film can illuminate the process of industrial production itself. As Beller says, it is cinema that confers self-awareness upon a humanity embroiled in and scaled by industrialization… Cinema is the becoming-conscious of social relations — literally, the relations of production.
Captivated by the image — the sleek design, the slick packaging, the entertaining TV ad campaign, what Beller calls “the sheen of the commodity form” — the consumer loses sight of the human labor that goes into making and distributing a commodity in the marketplace. Through packaging the mode of industrial production is repressed, sealed off beneath the image of the object like an unconscious. In probing the quotidian bustle of 1930s Odessa, Vertov functions like a psychoanalyst, turning his camera on the scenes taking place behind the image, detecting traces of repressed industrial processes and focusing our attention on them, making them conscious. In contrast, most commercial cinema is a work of stagecraft, emulating and exemplifying the commercial enterprise, using theatrics and editing tricks to hide the work of production behind the spectacular image. Beller describes Vertov’s “communist decoding of reality”:
It was because the acted cinema mystified the relations of production — leaving them in the obscure world of the director’s fantasy — that Vertov detested it so profoundly. Political economy, as a set of necessarily unthought relations, is the unconscious of the objective world dominated by capital. Like the political economist, the psychoanalyst, and the author in modernist literature, the camera breaks apart the objective world and enters into it in order to bring forth the repressed or the unconscious elements and bring them to the level of consciousness… In Vertovian cinema, the objective world is revealed as frozen subjectivity; it is seen to be composed of historically sedimented, subjective practices and activated by subjective application. Thus, as Benjamin notes, “By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.” With Benjamin, Vertov’s film theory utilizes scientific precision and “the dynamite of the tenth of a second” in an effort to liquidate the aura or, what in mass production will evolve intensively as the fetish character that accompanies objects in modern bourgeois society, despite Vertov’s efforts…
By unpacking the object and revealing it as an assemblage of individuated processes, the subjectivity impacted in its form comes to life. The visual analysis that is tantamount to a de-reification of the object and therefore of the objective world is the unique content of Vertov’s phrase “I see.” …What we learn from Vertov is that the image is constituted like an object — it is assembled piece by piece like a commodity moving through the intervals of production… the endeavor to de-reify the commodity necessarily reveals the general commodity-structure of the image. Vertov articulates from a Marxist standpoint an implicit relationship between images and objects under modern capital.. The image as a social relation is a direct consequence of advances in the industrial production of objects.
Modern life is mystifying and alienating; it passes before our gaze without our being able to process it consciously. The spectacle of the manufactured world functions like an external unconscious: it has a structure that we’re unable to formulate consciously, it affects us without our being aware of it. Overwhelmed by the totality of the spectacle, we lose sight of the individual objects and people, as well as their codified interrelationships. The concept of totality, says Beller, is the specter of capitalism. Vertovian cinema offers what Beller calls a strategy of re-mediation: his cinematic interventions slow the world down so we can pay attention, bringing at least part of its unformulated and mystifying flux into conscious awareness. Beller relates Vertov’s visual destruction of reification to Lukacs’s project of recognizing that the totalizing image of everyday life occludes the “simple and sober ordinariness” of “the whole of society seen as a process.” Lukacs says that only consciousness “confers reality on the day-to-day struggle by manifesting its relation to the whole. Thus it [consciousness] elevates mere existence to reality.”
Previously I put up two scenes from the television series The Wire: the first one shows two Baltimore police investigating the scene of a homicide; the second, a drug lord evaluating and adapting to local marketplace conditions. Both scenes show people undertaking a conscious detailed analysis of specific social processes that contribute to the mystifying totality of the world. While creator David Simon frequently explores the drug underworld from the producers’ perspective, the program concerned itself primarily with the police’s efforts to understand production in order to undermine it.The name of the program refers to the electronic surveillance equipment police use to piece together the drug distribution network from encoded telephone conversations between anonymous bosses and suppliers and with neighborhood distributors. Police on rooftops watch the street action through long-lens cameras, photographing dealers making phone calls in order to match voices to bodies; photographing dealers’ face-to-face interactions with customers, subordinates, suppliers, and bosses in order to piece together the mechanics of the drug operation. The camera shows us what the police see, using stop action and long-angle focus to zero in on the nodes and synapses in the world’s neural matrix that continually produce the totalizing image as an epiphenomenon. In short, The Wire exemplifies Vertov’s cinematic strategy of decoding reality.
In producing this demystifying probe of the drug trade is Simon operating within Vertov’s Marxist framework? In a way he is: although the inner city drug gangs operate in a secondary countercultural economy, they run their business just like any other capitalist endeador. Simon also shows us the connections between organized crime and legitimate society: the payoffs to stevedores who unload contraband from ships and bypass the official tracking systems in order to transfer the product to the suppliers; the schemes for laundering drug money through legitimate businesses; the investments in real estate development facilitated by “campaign contributions” to politicians. The drug trade is embedded in the larger economic system, its very illegality adding monetary value to its operations.
At the same time, the illegality of the drug trade provides an arena in which legitimate society gets to demonstrate its power. The very politicians who take the kick-backs are also mounting re-election campaigns built around getting tough on crime. Police top brass, charged with cleaning up the streets, rely on the perpetuation of criminality to justify their manpower demands and budgets and thus their power in the city. As one of the police captains observes, antidrug enforcement isn’t really a police operation, the purpose of which is to ensure the safety of ordinary citizens; rather, it’s more like a state of perpetual war being waged in part to justify the covert surveillance and overt control that the state exercises against the citizenry. (The episode in which this insight is presented was originally produced shortly after GW Bush won his second term in office.)
As we watch the police watching the criminal underworld, we also watch the police assembling their surveillance and control systems, operating them in order to obtain information and to secure arrests. But this kind of surveillance works only if it remains covert, undetected by the subjects under scrutiny, disguised behind mystifying screens and charades. At the same time the drug gangs maintain constant vigilance, trying to detect the eyes and ears hidden behind the ordinary surfaces of the world. The work of surveillance and counterintelligence unfolds like a chess game, with each player responding to his opponent’s last move while at the same time trying to anticipate the next one.
For Vertov, showing objects and states as processes creates sites of potential action. He depicts all moments of social production as both part of a conscious process and part of a process becoming conscious… Thus are previously individualized consciousnesses — the people who work on their products and who formerly disappeared into them, as well as the people who enjoy the use of aspects of the social product — seen in the theater by the audience and producers alike in their collective interdependence.
By probing the details of the quotidian social spectacle and subjecting it to conscious understanding, the producers of The Wire aren’t just demystifying the social relations of capitalist production in order to dismantle the system. They’re demonstrating that the owners of the system employ these very same tools to build and maintain the system and to hide it behind a totalizing spectacle. Those who would undermine the system succeed to the extent that they adopt the strategies and tactics employed by the owners of the system.