Ideology, Critique, and Post-Cinema

Curator's Note

As Nico Baumbach has recently written, ideology critique, despite having been long associated with the discipline of Film Studies, has increasingly fallen out of favor.[1] Baumbach’s “Film Theory as Ideology Critique (After Trump)” considers some of the common objections against ideology critique, and argues for its continued relevance, a position I’ll also take here. But whereas he approaches the question of ideology critique in terms of its usefulness or political viability in the present, I want to look at it in relation to the concept of post-cinema, which would seem to render it all but impossible. Shane Denson, the leading theorist of post-cinema, argues that while film still fulfills many of the functions it did before, its greatest importance now lies in “metabolic processes” to which we have no phenomenological access. These processes are “properly subconceptual, subphenomenal, and literally material,” and post-cinema itself is in large part a form of “post-perceptual mediation.”[2] Post-cinema theory poses an existential challenge to not only ideology critique but to critique tout court by rendering the field of signification and any form of human perception and cognition largely irrelevant to our understanding and experience of cinema. For example, while Denson begrudgingly acknowledges that Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is a film about post-cinematic themes (i.e., this is what its “content” concerns), he ultimately concludes that “narrative and signifying functions seem secondary to the experience the film propagates, both diegetically and medially […] of metabolism as the subperceptual nexus of growth and decay.”[3] What makes it post-cinematic is its “subconceptual affective impact, which bypasses cognitive processing or metaphor […].”[4] If what matters is how film acts upon us on a metabolic level, then what we see, hear, and cognize becomes nearly irrelevant.

Much of what D.N. Rodowick calls political modernist theory,[5] whether in written or in cinematic form, presumed that film operated on the spectator as an expression of ideology. Films are often portrayed as impossible to resist, as the spectator falls victim to the ideologies that they propagate and to their language, which is itself ideological. Film interpellates us, providing us both with an illusory subject position and a seemingly coherent ideology through which to interpret the world. Most importantly, it functions as a form of ideological maintenance that “manages” the spectator on behalf of capital. For filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who engaged in this sort of critique through their filmmaking, this meant that a militant cinema had to destroy not only the ideological content of the bourgeois cinema but also its form, necessitating what Peter Wollen called a “counter-cinema.”[6]

Now, however, rather than an ideology conveyed through perceivable signifiers, it is “subperceptual” processes that determine the subject (who now, however, is often in flux and has ill-defined boundaries, unlike the rigid ideological subject of political modernist theory). When ideology was conceived of as the main vector of cinema’s action upon the spectator, one could carry out various procedures of critique to understand its mechanisms through a study of visible and audible signs and thus gain awareness and some degree of control over it, but now we are faced with forces that elude us entirely and that cannot be analyzed or responded to through the same kinds of representational or linguistic strategies. In this sense, the subject of post-cinema is both precarious and without much agency, or individual, voluntary agency at least. Post-cinema theory, like political modernist theory, avoids developing a properly historical conception of the subject, in large part because it wants to posit new forms of subjectivity and forces of subjectivization that have come about in the age of post-cinema or that are facilitated by it. What is attended to is not the spectator-subject’s historical or political specificity but rather their ontological metamorphosis or instability. The post-cinematic subject is figured as an abstraction of an ontological order, much like the subject of Screen theory in Stuart Hall’s account,[7] while at the same time being posited as emblematic of an epochal historical shift.

If it is true that cinema primarily now operates upon us on a subperceptual level, there can be little point in critique or in talking about ideology at all; if what really determines or shapes us is something we cannot perceive or cognize, ideology would seem to be old hat, a kind of remainder of an age when “content” mattered (an illusion supposedly dispelled by much media theory, following McLuhan and Kittler). Following this argument, cinema also loses much of its specificity: all of the metabolic functions that it carries out (if those do indeed exist) would be equally present in most of the other media technologies that we interact with on a daily basis. I would argue, however, that it is not yet time to give up the notion that cinema continues to be a privileged site for the articulation of ideology, often in a very old-fashioned way. What differentiates cinema and long-form narrative television from new forms of audiovisual media and from the subperceptual operations of what Mark B.N. Hansen calls “twenty-first-century media”[8] is the fact that they are still required to articulate their “content” in a form that is not only phenomenologically accessible, but also, at least if they are to be commercially viable, has some sort of structured narrative that includes a beginning, middle, and end, and usually resolution. They still employ the formal-linguistic operations that make narrative, to follow Fredric Jameson, “a socially symbolic act.”[9] This may not be a strong claim for specificity—one could object that one finds narratives in plenty of other places as well—but I would suggest that film and television narratives are specific in their standardization and duration, and in their historicity: they are far more likely than, say, a TikTok or a YouTube unboxing video, to employ forms that need to be understood in relation to the history of cinema for their full implications to be grasped. Cinema cannot simply be understood as a cultural field that registers or facilitates an ontological shift to some sort of post-human or post-individual subject; it is a repository of a history of forms that are precisely the ones that the critical tools of the 20th century (and prior) were developed to analyze.

This is also why close readings remain valuable; they insist on the fact that films are still meaningful, and meaningful in a way that is specific to them, rather than just being a barrage of sub-perceptual phenomena that invade and reshape our minds and bodies in inscrutable fashion.  Even if we are now subject to all sorts of processes that we may never know anything about at all, we can still exercise the agency of critical thought, and interrogate the ideological forces that continue to decisively shape our world and our experience of it. To do so, we need to treat films as phenomenologically accessible objects, one whose content is not simply indifferent or reduced to the level of medium-as-message, but that can only be understood through the interrogation of their textual and historical specificity.

One of the ironies of Denson’s account of post-cinema is that it becomes clearest, at least to my view, when he reads films allegorically, or in his words, as “post-cinematic parables,” a fact that illustrates the continued importance of textual analysis.[10] This lies in tension with his repeated assertions that narrative is not what matters in our experience of films, and indeed, there is hardly any mention of narrative in the entire book. To demote our conscious experience of a film to a secondary status, like the abstract conception of the post-cinematic subject (or whatever a subject becomes/can become in a post-cinematic era), leads away from history, away from politics, and like the bulk of post-ideological approaches, attempts to be political by appealing to ethics. This ethics is almost completely identical with ontology (and this would include ontologies of becoming or what Deborah Levitt calls “an-ontology”), insofar as unstable or perpetually mutating ontologies are seen as a virtue in themselves: as Levitt writes, “There’s an opportunity in this an-ontological space to experiment with vitality affects and forms of life that expand our attention and care beyond narrow spheres of identity or belonging.”[11] This would seem to me to be the opposite of politics insofar as it presents a vision in which our problems will be solved by “vitality affects and forms of life,” and even worse, does not even bother to posit what those might look like or why they might be useful in any concrete context. Such a position (which, if we were still in the 20th century, I would dub “bourgeois”) stands in opposition to one in which a materialist analysis informs conscious, deliberate, and transformative political action. It is hardly a coincidence that the praise of the instability and lability of the subject in this discourse mirrors neoliberal ideology.

Levitt’s enthusiasm about these new forms of life is tellingly accompanied by a declaration that “As we moved from the twentieth-century’s cinematic regime to the animatic apparatus, we were at once freed from the constraints of cinema’s ideological reality and delivered into the dialectic of anything-goes plasticity and reactionary identity formations that have constituted the twenty-first century so far.”[12] So far as I can tell, we have not been “freed” from ideology (although this is precisely what neoliberal ideology claims, casting all past ideologies as foolish and impractical delusions), nor do I see how one can reject a medium that reflects ideological reality as “constraining,” unless one has the luxury to simply ignore that reality. Apparently, the only options here are being an ossified bad subject or a destabilized, dynamic good one. Post-cinematic arguments like this obscure the actual material conditions in which we exist and the ideologies that govern our experience of the world by creating an imaginary one in which our biggest problems have to do with transcending our supposedly limiting forms of subjecthood (again, the same ones that neoliberal capitalism needs us to transcend, and which for Levitt can be destabilized through a supposedly liberating “animatic apparatus”), rather than, say, extricating ourselves from exploitation. While it can be twisted in unproductive ways and fall into abstraction, ideological criticism refuses to let us off so easily; it shows us as the exploited captives of capital that we are, rather than indulging in fantasies of ontological liberation.


[1] Nico Baumbach, “Film Theory as Ideology Critique (After Trump),” in The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, ed. Kyle Stevens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[2] Shane Denson, Discorrelated Images (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 24; 46.

[3] Ibid., 46.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] D.N. Rodowick, The Crisis of Political Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[6] Peter Wollen, “Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’est,” Afterimage 4 (Autumn 1972): 6-17.

[7] Stuart Hall, “Recent developments in theories of language and ideology: a critical note,” in Culture, Media, Language, ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (London: Routledge, 1980), 150-151.

[8] Mark B.N. Hansen, Feed Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).

[10] Denson, 121.

[11] Deborah Levitt, The Animatic Apparatus (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2018), 124.

[12] Ibid.

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