LUDIC – THE INITIATOR AND THE CORRUPTER OF “TALES OF INTELLIGIBILITY”
Formalist (poststructuralist) theory focuses on the immanent logic of signification – the how rhetoric of enunciation – rather than the why as the politics of competing and contested subjectivities set in motion by the train of history : why the cultural products mean what they mean in the general apprehension of culture.
There is, in Zavarzadeh’s view, a conflict between the dominant tale trying to suppress the ‘other’ tale, and with it, the instituting of a certain ‘naturalness’, a ‘common-senseness’ meant at displacing ‘the real’ and replacing it, by virtue of the (dominant) tale, with the ‘ideological’, seamlessly.
The place of inquiry, at the level of film analysis at least, is, for Zavarzadeh, the ‘tale’, as “the way that a film offers a narrative - and proposes that narrative to be a paradigm of intelligibility – not simply through its immanent formal devices, but also by relying on historically dominant and contradictory assumptions about reality. The film exerts its greatest cultural impact through its tale. By means of its tale the film naturalizes the limits of ideology and then by appealing to commonsensical obviousnesses it has produced, the film instructs the audience on ‘how’ to make sense of the global reality of the culture” (8).
In “The Nature of the Viewing Experience :The Missing Variable in the Effects Equation” (in Film/Culture : Explorations of Cinema in Its Social Context Metuchen, N.J. & London, the Scarecrow Press, 1982, p.184), James M. Linton shows how the act of ‘identification’ within a film becomes a major site of positioning and conflict, “whereby the viewer crosses the distance from the screen and imaginatively enters the screen worldThis is one way of allowing myths to enter the ‘real’ and subvert it. Linton quotes Bronislaw Malinowsky’s interpretation on the power of ‘myth’: myth shouldn’t be equated with an intellectual reaction, but with an “explicit act of faith born from the innermost instinctive and emotional reaction to the most formidable and haunting idea” (Malinowsky, 1926: 33). This affirmation of the subverting power of myth upon the viewer, represents an indirect support for the idea that the consumer of cultural product, in this case the film viewer, manifests one symptom: an immense, hard to contain, vulnerability in the face of the tale-as-myth (for “myths present an ideal, an a priori value system that is never questioned and that often provides models of behaviour”. Linton continues by quoting Grainger (1974: 92) as the latter gives recognition to the fact that myths always have a certain function within the social, generating, in consequence, a certain ‘picture’ of the real which is necessarily an idealized one because, outside this ritual universe and the religious awareness that it expresses, the world remains existentially unintelligible, or at least disturbingly inconsistent”.
In each film genre, by the use of certain patterns and characterization, the relationship between individual and society, self and the ‘other’, raises to its own specificity; this helps disguising “the arbitrary nature of belief and the solely emotional underpinnings of faith” (Vivian Sobchak Genre Film: Myth, Ritual and Sociodrama, 156).
In Film/Culture: Explorations of Cinema in Its Social Context, edited by Sari Thomas, the articles presented deal with the critique of those analysis within film theory restricting themselves to certain prescriptibility and pre-constructed principles of formalism : “To talk about film as a social event is to assume a somewhat controversial stance – controversial considering the more popular ‘art’ orientation” , writes Sari Thomas in the ‘Introduction’. The problem of arguing for a social analysis of film – as enhancing rather than inhibiting the film appreciation – is an old problem in film scholarship; it is over a decade now since the articles in the above mentioned volume have been written and the controversy, however, remains in place. “Few writers”, laments Thomas, “treat motion pictures from descriptive, empirical or sociohistorical viewpoints, in which art is approached as a social construct and not as an object for critical examination” (2). This ‘culturalist’ argument has to face the reproach that such ‘cold’ analysis impedes upon the ‘magical’ nature of film (as medium), more, this kind of approach being a ‘scientific’ one, it is science which, as a practice, becomes incompatible with the film studies, and must step back.
Yet, what revolts Zavarzadeh in his Seeing Films Politically is the ignored problem of a global effect film text has in occluding the fact that “films are not enclosed constructs, as neo-narratological models assume, but are instances of cultural acts”; however this is to be found in much older texts, such as John Carrey’s “Conventions and Meaning in Film” (in the same Film/Culture volume of 1983). The author shows how most of the popular texts on film history and film studies in general approach film as a product having to obey certain judgemental bearings, whereby a film is good or bad in accordance to its application to a set of standards: “Typically, there is a large conceptual gap between filmmakers and audiences. Indeed the communication process through which a filmmaker exchange meaning with the audience may be treated as a taboo and inexplicable sacred ground” (111). Here, in the interstices of this ever increasing gap between the sender of the message and the consumer of it, lays bare the ‘tale’, and, with it, the risk that it becomes subject to subversion through ideological investment from the dominant structures is very big indeed. Here, once again, finds ludic an ideal space for its machinations and its destabilizing manners. Arnheim (1957) remains notorious for his insistence that filmmakers stay indebted to a ‘physical order and visual reality’, generating from the audience an instant response and submission. Film, as a medium, is governed, for Arnheim, by properties that are universal and invariable: “they do not vary in relation to those who make and view films or change over time” (John Carrey, 113).
By contrast with Arnheim there are not, unfortunately, many film scholars convinced that the visual, formal conventions established in a film are related to ‘social negotiations’ between the sender and the receiver in the process of communication of the (filmic) message. This preoccupation with aestheticized, formalized and conventional views inserts into the diegetic fabric the illusion that what the viewer is dealing with, is a space of satisfaction and plenitude, realised through a process of ‘naturalization’. The consumer of the filmic image and text, of the whole message as such, is supposed to discard any attempt whatsoever at interrogating film’s validity in relation with the ‘real’. What is expected to be concealed here, is film’s role in producing (class) subjectivities, hierarchical positionings and patternalized identities. It is in this corruption of the ‘real’ and its truth that the ludic executes its task of ‘naturalizing’ a certain economic, social and political order. Good and bad, in this ludic maneuver, gain permission to substitute each other, interchangeably.
Zavarzadeh discusses on the notion of ‘tale’ and its revealing of intelligibility, and, more, the exercising, by the spectator, of a political practice meant to help her in achieving ‘social reality as a subject’ (11).
In detailing the mechanisms of ‘tale-ing’ within the film space, Zavarzadeh takes into account the very possibility of intervening into the process of learning, by the spectator, of a (prescriptible) socio-cultural code, “the ideological syntax of his culture” and, implicitly, the perception of (a) class relation to which it is subjected or it subjects itself. “The tale articulates the viewer through the process of sense making, locating her in the social relations of production” (11). By constructing the tale the viewer-consumer learn to accommodate herself with diverse cultural codes (gender, class, race, sexuality, etc) meant to eventually invest her with the expected grid of intelligibility able to help her navigate the waters of the social ‘real’. This is a process by which the spectator-consumer is rendered symbolically competent and ideologically reliable”, proving she deserves positions of authority (employment). Cinema, argues Zavarzadeh, becomes thus a crucial institution in generating ‘tale-making subjects’ out of individuals (12); a ludic terra ferma where, again, subjectivities are shaped and re-shaped, negotiated and subverted.
Postmodernism, however, has a big stake in the formation of an unstable, incoherent, de-centralized, contradictory subject. It is the avant-garde film, by (apparent) contrast to the ‘realist’ film – as two modes of subjectivity, posing, in ludic postmodernism, as incompatible - this making great use of the unstable, postmodern subject. In the ‘realist’ film (Hollywood cinema) the subject is assumed as coherent, stable, previsible. The apparent, simulated contradiction between these two modes of positioning, of subjectivity, is the direct expression of the mechanisms of the ludic, whereas the two modes are, argues Zavarzadeh, in fact complementary.
Jouissance, absence, pleasure, the symbolic, etc, are some of the psychoanalytic tropes employed by mainstream suture theories of film aiming to undermine the socially and politically involvement of the act of film viewing and replace it with a merely voyeuristic process, granting ‘pleasure’ to a psychoanalytically ‘lack-ing’ subject. Zavarzadeh quotes Daniel Dayan (1974: 56) in the latter’s discussion on the effects of suture-ing in generating a regime of ‘auto-intelligibility’ and transparency at the level of filmic perception, by substituting the ‘message’ for the ‘code’ (Zavarzadeh, 16). Derrida’s immanent and transhistorical laws of signification are taken for the ‘meaning’, thus enabling the dominance of discourse over the acknowledging of class relations.
To this obliteration of the why of inquiry into the ‘political economy of interpellation’ (17), Mas’ud Zavarzadeh opposes his view on the need for a ‘tale’ to determine the viewer to render herself intelligible as a subject of class positioning and thus develop a sense of self-identification able to prompt her take a stand and, eventually, produce the necessary – in Marxist view – historical change : to make the subject aware, in the end, that “it is necessary to bear in mind that the authority of the film in interpellating the subject does not derive from the film itself or its immanent filmic properties (poststructuralist theories of the avant-garde notwithstanding) but from the dominant social arrangements that encourage the subject to occupy the positions of knowledge proposed by the film” (19).
Wolfgang Iser is quoted (1978 : 123) for demonstrating how there must be something beyond the ‘tale’ – the tales are told for something “that extends beyond themselves”. But this appears obvious only at the moment a ‘tale’ is understood as a ‘Posttextual construct’
The Investment within the Filmic Tale: The Posttextual Effect
Grounded in the idea of a subjectivity constituted linguistically, prioritizing the language and the discursive, (ludic) postmodern practices severe the pre/post conditionings of these ‘facts’ of language from their socio-historical and economic context. In the ‘here and now’ of the socio-historical the effect of certain condition(ing)s upon the formation of ‘cultural intelligibility’ becomes obvious and must be subverted if one wants to preserve the structures of domination in power.
The effect of ‘difference’ and ‘slippage’ at the textual level – a (ludic) postmodern appanage – represents the expression of an inherent, de-historicized circumstance of self-realization; a ‘textual-rhetorical’ difference, in Zavarzadeh’s own words. The ‘tale’ (of a film) comes under the incidence of the same self-containment into the “essentially textual effects called forth in the rhetorical and tropic requirements of the text itself” (26).
For Zavarzadeh, the only ‘post-ality’ permitted is that of the text(ual). suggests that, by contrast, a posttextual analysis (and posttextuality in general) presents the advantage of showing the fact that the ‘tale’ is not to be found neither in the text itself, nor in what the viewer is induced to construct as an effect of the ‘ideological’ in power. In posttextual analysis the tale is interpreted as a marker of ‘difference’whereby this becomes the obvious result of social contradictions at the level of labor relations and language hegemonies (language as itself a historical product). Posttextuality becomes thus a “meaning effect produced in the nexus of global relations that endow the text and reader, simultaneously, with historical intelligibility” (27).
Posttextual, as a ‘meaning effect’, may rise to the power of dispelling the different ideological frames that keep a vast array of manipulative strategies in place, and may further succeed, eventually, in producing and educating an ‘oppositional’ kind of viewer. This viewer will become conscious of the need to go beyond the “‘pleasures’ of the empirically visible and see the politics of the operations of intelligibility in cultural products” (29) - a consumer, tale-wise, able to resist the hegemonies inherent in dominant cultural practices and institute the adverse mode of ‘counterintelligibility’.
Micropolitics, Localness, and the Incommensurable Inside: the Hegemony of Post-class Ludic Space
In his discussion on the notion of ‘resistance’ as it connects with the larger issue of ‘pleasure representation’ in (ludic) postmodern practices, Zavarzadeh distinguishes between two types of ‘resistance’ : 1) ‘resistance postmodernism’, focused on the revealing of the ludic strategies in a society based on injustice and dispersion – a radical strategy; 2) ‘ludic resistance’, expressed as an ethical rather than political pre-condition granting the subject an a-historical stature by endowing it with a set of natural human qualities to enable him to confront the obstruction of dominant structures and learn to contain them as ‘natural’, ‘inherent’, rather than fight against them. What informs and motivates this endowment – the zest of certain ‘human qualities’ – is a set of equally a-historical ‘human rights’ by virtue of which one learns to respect his need for ‘pleasure’ and the satisfaction it produces. It is in this replacement of the ‘political’ (taking a stand on public issues) with the ‘ethical’, a disguised coercitive measure inhibiting the engagement in a collective awareness – Zavarzadeh relates this to Foucault’s thesis on the ‘care for the self as practice of freedom’ type of ethics.
This ‘resistance theory’, a (ludic) stratagem, annuls any acknowledgement of the real danger lying in the exercising of the ‘repressive’ character of power. Foucault is seen here as much of an enabling factor, with his annihilation of any border between a ‘dominant’ and a ‘dominated’, a ‘ruling’ and a ‘ruled’: “there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” (34).
A ludic theory of ‘dispersed power’, develops at this point, in which the notion of ‘class’ becomes itself engulfed together with the instance of the “many simultaneously coexist[ing] in the one” (34). The local, regional, personal(ized), molecular, in place for the global and historical, represent the articulation of the dichotomy ‘discourse/social’ practice.
Class, laments Zavarzadeh, is purposefully erased from an analysis at the level of a “socially flat world in which everything affects everything else” (35), where the human agents evolve, in their own actions, from ‘own immanent laws of intelligibility’ and self-determination. This opens the way to a foucauldian vision of a multiple-site type of domination, a self-reliant and self-sufficient paradigm of collapsing binaries such as powerful/powerless, dominant/dominated, exploiter/exploited, etc. The notion itself of domination is displaced and emptied of its powerful, suggestive quality of producing awareness of class and the economics. The final result of such occluding and subversion is an “enlightened capitalism in which economic ‘exploitation’ continues but with a human face: it grants everyone ‘freedom’ of speech and (ideally) access to the modes of signification without giving them access to the means of production” (36).
‘Hegemony’ displaces ‘class’ in the ‘micropolitics of resistance’ proposed by Laclau and Mouffe (1985) – a postpolitical hegemony in which opposition is a pre-conceived situation, articulated by the structures in power themselves, “a form of affirmation of the system” relegitimating the ‘inside’, the status quo. Zavarzadeh makes it quite clear that the effort to obscure the notion of ‘domination’ in order to replace it with a ‘mere mobilizing of ‘opposition’, is eroding, gradually, more general and globalist in character, ‘radical’ political goals (36).
The necessary acknowledgement of a demarcation line between dominated/dominating, generatory of ‘class’ awareness, suffers, under the same gradual erosion, a transformation into a post-political situation, whereby the border between the different social sites is observed as merely an expression of the ‘difference within – the one predicated by Derrida and the ludic postmodernism in general. Zavarzadeh’s explanation of the effects of this upon the genuine ‘resistance’ and hope humanity must continue to celebrate and perform is this : “however, in a ludic analytics, the dominated and the dominant, in their fissures and gaps, are equal : neither can ‘master’ the other because the exploiter and the exploited, underneath their seeming powerfulness and powerlessness, are both in the same condition according to the political social logic. In such an analysis, battles in which one gets scarred and loses are the same as those in which one is scarred and wins, since in both the combatants are scarred, marked and wounded! The social and economical consequences of the battle (improving the conditions of life for the winners at the expense of the losers) are occluded by foregrounding the process of war: its local, micropolitical daily actions and agony and its constantly moving, unstable frontiers. The result is obscured – thus the opposition to ‘closure’ in ludic theory” (38).
Hegemonic ludic politics introduces the notion of autonomy of subject (agent) directed toward an ‘essentialized’ understanding of the social, in the last instance a simple ‘rhetorical’ move, meant to produce a ‘monadization’ of the subject/agent. Laclau and Mouffe’s such theorizing within their self-proclaimed ‘post-Marxist’ orientation is, at the political level, similar to, and the expression of Paul de Man’s and Jacque Derrida’s same move on the cultural (and literary) level. For both views, insists Zavarzadeh, there exists the privilege of gaining ‘interrogative immunity’ from radical analysis and critique, discharging the latter on the ground of its being just another ‘essentializing’ practice.
Benefiting greatly from the theories of the collapsing and the undecideable of (ludic) postmodernism, the ‘class-less’ type of society defies one of the most important effect of a revolutionary, radical, anti-ludic thinking : that of keeping a clear demarcation between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ within social practices, thus facilitating that “through the historically moving outside the immanent practices of the closed system of class society are subjected to transformation” (42).
In substituting the ‘political’ for the ‘ethical’ what happens is exactly this : people loose access and control over their own identity and positioning within the socio-political structure – they are left solely at the mercy of their isolation and ‘autonomy’, in a space ‘void of the social as collectivity’, their ‘economic rights’ replaced by their ‘civil rights’.
Pleasure and Resistance in Ludic Film Theory
“Whereas cultural meanings are laughed out and emptied and new modes of thought are emerging in the ‘new age’, the old regime of economic exploitation continues. Thus, today, in the 1990s, the integration of a few high school ‘proms’ in Georgia is taken as a mark of change and heralded on the front page of The New York Times (May 14, 1990, A-1), while in the same state of the ‘union’, the rate of black unemployment is twice as high as that of whites, and the majority of black people still livein abject poverty” (Zavarzadeh, 53).
By proceeding to an act of ‘decoding’ the texts of culture not for their meaning but for that which remains after the signifier is exhausted - the surplus of meaning -, the resistance subject can not help herself indulging into the frenzy of what in theory today is called jouissance. This process implies a good exercising of the ‘excessive-ness’; the art of knowing how to summon the ‘surplus meaning’ expressed in parody, pastiche and the carnivalesque (53). Rhetoric is what supplies this habit together with a stand against what is perceived as ‘burgeois utilitarianism’. Free-floating signifiers, with their unfixed identities, navigating uncharted territories of confusion, gapping and fissuring, create a certain logic of the textual, meant to destabilize the pragmatism and utilitarianism of the burgeois world - for most of the ludic feminists, an epitome for the values of a patriarchal system.
Textuality, as the (resistant) “other” of sense, meaning and extrinsic social values, renders ‘class’, economics and gender “as mere tropes whose metaphoricity has been forgotten” (54). The politics, as the only one capable of perpetuating such paradigm of ‘difference’, is obscured and kept as outsider to the instance of an a-historical, playful, textual dogmatism. As a pan-historical effect of textuality, in ludic postmodernism ‘difference’ becomes a marker of division within, and this is what stops it from revealing its identity as marker of the struggle between classes, a historical and material construct.
The notion of ‘resistance’ is not absent from the contemporary film theory, but this, argues Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, is an “exclusively cultural resistance” (55). Its acting-force shows more idealism than a social and materialistic dimension. Through negation, ‘resistance’ turns, in ludic postmodernism, into an “unencumbered self-floating self-reflexivity”, caught as it is in its struggle to overcome itself and fashion a ‘new truth’ – the body – as “an oasis of nature in culture” (56).
In regard to this new deity in late postmodernism - the ‘body’ - resistance represents nothing more than a ‘spontaneous’ natural rebellion against domination resolved through (a) ‘mobilization (of the ‘body’), through “physical rights to autonomous pleasures”.
Postmodernism routinely features a certain ‘interstitiality’, an ‘in-between-ness’ most propitious for the formation of “the other” of ‘difference’. However, “in these spaces of ideological otherness, human agency and resistance emerge; and a localist, regional and particularistic ‘experiential politics’ develops.
The excess of meaning in the films, for example, stored within these interstices, reaches the point where it impedes upon films’ own codes and conventions, to eventually proceed to deconstructing the ‘truth’ of ideology - a strategy form shifting attention away from hegemonic practices. The truth thus displaced, takes the unexpected route of its strict opposite, performing an act of self-deconstruction and auto-erasure, by becoming ‘differential’ and ‘undecidable’ (62). This mix-up of elements supposed to be part of a binaristic relationship, performs one crucial task: annulling the principle by which “critique and intervention are possible only when their object can be drawn clearly and has a definite identity” (63). Zavarzadeh exemplifies this by briefly discussing Tania Modlesky’s (1988) analysis on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Modlesky’s efforts are all drawn into one single direction – getting the (‘identity’ of) patriarchy to the point where it becomes “different from itself” (63), incapable to render itself viable other than intertextually and by dismantling its ‘identity’. The potential that women have for taking action against patriarchy and finalizing the overthrowing of it, is reduced to impossibility by men and women always already acting ‘undecidedly’ – neither has access to an outside and undifferential truth in order to ‘master’ “the other”. Zavarzadeh’s argument turns bitter at this point, when he warns against a certain ‘paradoxical’ nature of the ludic interpretive practices. He quotes Modlesky as she appreciates Hitchcock as much beyond a simple, ‘reductionist’ figure of a ‘patriarchalist”; he is, rather, a more complex figure, one exceeding “politics, economics and such reductive entities, and can be understood fully only through the regime of textual signification in his films” (64). But this, concludes Zavarzadeh, generates the fact that, in the name of ‘complexity’ (parody, pastiche, paradox), exploitation within patriarchalism is naturalized and placed under the privileged position of ‘interrogative immunity’, thus conferring it the ‘free play’ to perform under an ‘immanent resistance (64).
Any attempt whatsoever at engaging with a localist deconstructive critique fails on the ground that it paradoxically ends up supporting the system it tries to displace in the first place. This ‘local resistance’ paradigm reveals ludic’s double stand : the accuser is the perpetuator.
Film theory is used greatly to justify ludic resistance’s efforts in film to maintain conservative, aesthetic (formalist) practices through treating the idea of ‘excess’ as genuine resistance. It is the case of a view on film as “an aesthetic entity that overcomes its own ideological limits by virtue of its own immanence (textuality)” (67). By collapsing the difference between old and new at the level of the consequences of textuality, films have nothing new to say than to reaffirm the ideology of power which they maintain mainly (I should say especially) when they seem to criticize it.
By practicing ‘resistance by jouissance’, argues Zavarzadeh, an intervention from outside the system (which does not belong to own mechanism of ‘immanence’ and textuality) turns into a ‘crude’ destabilizer, rendered ‘hermeneutically unsubtle’ - a mark of irreverence in front of film’s immanence. The ‘crudeness’ mentioned is the expression of the ‘intruder’ from the outside (the ‘political’) into the aesthetic (textual) strategies of “institutionalized hermeneutic ‘subtleties’ of the burgeois academy” (68) and it must, in the author’s view, be understood as the only force capable of mobilization for the acquiring of access to the means of production, which means of production, in this case, are occulted as means to ‘free expression’.
Pleasure, jouissance, becomes, in this paradigm of genuine resistance, invalidated by knowledge, the one whose treatment in ludic (film) theory is as ‘totalizing’ notion. ‘Globalizing’ (seen as ‘totalizing’), as anti-local, anti-ludic view, is given the blame of such indifferent agent from the ‘outside’, disrespectful of localness’s specificity and regime of uniqueness. Totalizing becomes here a mode of drawing what is specific, particular, unique, into a more general problematique, in reality, towards ‘global transformative politics’ – what Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s view in his book Seeing Film Politically (discussed here) is all about. Zavarzadeh’s text is overwhelmingly inciting against the idea that an ‘institutionally authorized resistance’ of a micropolitics represents the domein of a “generic Left in the academy and culture industry”; this ends up discouraging and eventually threatening the genuine political (as opposed to the political as simply an effect of the filmic discursivity and self-consciousness).
In ludic avant-garde and classic Hollywood cinema, for example, great efforts are made to problematize the texts of culture and thus to pose an ‘honest’ disclosure of ‘dominant’, ‘subversive’ structures in power: “The idea of the political as a concerted effort to subvert the easy movement of meaning in culture has lead to privileging those films and cultural texts with a high degree of formal reflexivity” (70). Zavarzadeh discusses the claim within ludic film theory and practice of a ‘radical’ self-reflexivity generating a truly ‘active, engaged ‘subject of resistance’, refraining itself from the “fraudulence’ of ‘identitarian’ politics and the regime of ‘realism’ in the Hollywood film” (71). But the subject thus created is a pseudo-active one as long as its self-reflexivity is based on the immanent, formal practices discussed above (the ‘excessive). In this way, again, it becomes impossible to oppose in any way the dominant structures.
The radicality of self-reflexivity is promoted here, together with its grounding in the contestation of the ‘panhistorical’, transsocial and “the radicality of any (anti)narrative device” (72). The genuine ‘radicality’ of a potential self-reflexive act is guaranteed, in Zavarzadeh’s view only, by choosing the ‘Brechtian tradition’ of political rather than formal self-relfexivity – an instance which “calls for explanation”, for the ascension of why over that of how.
Another feature to invite controversy within the dichotomy ludic/radical is generated by the assertion that it is the case of knowledge being ‘produced’ and not ‘found’ in texts of culture : “…intelligibility is historical and the effect of the socioeconomic relations legitimated by the discourses of ideology. The film participates in the culturally significant act of circulation of ideology: the film shows the reader”. PAGE 1111 This strategy remains crucial to the formation of the ‘social real’.
The Construction of the Social Real
There exists, in any study of ‘narrative’ (tales) of today, at least the allusion that the tale “form[s] the cognitive environment of a culture…demonstrate(ing) how to make sense of experience” (78).
In radical theory practices, the accent should be posited on destabilizing the ‘center’, that which is ‘said’ and, by virtue of intense psychoanalytic practices, placed within the cultural unconscious. What we need, in Zavarzadeh’s view, is ‘politically transgressive readings’ not as “simply instances of disagreement over aesthetic judgements about a film but…[as] contestations over the dominant tale of a film…” (79). By jouissance, the production of ‘meaning’ in ludic postmodernism is substituted by a mode of consumption, an irresponsible act of eschewing the effects, socially and historically, of ‘reading as free play’. Each instance of reading is isolated as a ‘singular moment of jouissance’ (Barthes) or as an event (Brunnette & Wills). The reader is brought to the perception that what she should do is consuming those texts offering the highest pleasure.
In the act of re-narration it is inscribed the construction of the “other” of the existent. The identity of the ‘real’ is thus altered, be it only in a small proportion and this proves for the major impact cultural products such as film, for example, have on our perception of the real. : “Films, like novels, paintings and even music, are often regarded as reflections, reports, or at least interpretations of the real; interpretation in the sense of a representation of something prior and independent from the very historical process of sense making and understanding. This proves the ideal way, that of ‘naturalizing’ the reality as autonomous and as prior to the existing social and historical order : “The tale is taken to be the tale of the real and not a tale of the way in which the real is made intelligible”.
The act of interpretation is more often than not regarded as an additional act, independent of the process of sense-making – an obvious factor contributing to the formation, the shaping of the very real itself; cultural products, further regarded as mere statements on the margin of a real to which they remain simply observers and thus estranged.
The reality represents the construction of various practices within the social, (political, economic, theoretical and ideological), together with those ‘signifying activities’ among which film making and film viewing. Ideology’s contribution in this process of sense making is by providing a “(seemingly) coherent and integrated view of life”, encouraging the perpetuation of a natural, pre-given and invariable real. Nevertheless, ideology performs, through the act of (mis)representation, a sustained (re)presentation of the contradictions within the social in the interest of the ruling class: “…ideology is an ensemble of images, narratives, practices that place the subject in a position of knowledge from which social contradictions that are produced historically are seen as essential and thus as ‘natural’” (93). Zavarzadeh’s example in this case is illustrative: the myth of ‘slimness’ in the American society becomes an interesting point of departure for revealing the very contradictory nature of the ludic itself within the very notion of ‘slimness’ – on the one side, the idea of slimness is restricting to the body and requires a permanent control, on the other side this control is nothing but meant to relax the control of the body in the context of ‘consuming’ (the subject of capitalism is under continuous pressure to consume). The example is also edifying in expressing the dichotomy local/global, a contradiction weighing hard on the shoulders of the subject (victim) of ludic arrangements.
Films assume, to a certain degree, the role of representing and perpetuating the ludic system of (pretending to do the) ‘fighting’ of the codes of domination it, otherwise, desperately tries to protect. ‘Slimness’, in short, represents the crisis site of a social contradiction – “…by constructing slimness in its text as a mark of the ideal femininity, film identifies the slim female with femininity itself rather than with one possible (ideological) version of it” (95).
What is interrogated here is why films, among other cultural products, end up always classified as mere reports, reflections, tales of the real, instead of the real’s ‘active producers’. Because, admits Zavarzadeh, the ‘real’ as it managed to be ‘passed’ to the consumer with the use of the ludicized ‘ideological’, from a vast array of cultural products, becomes the ‘inevitable’, the ‘genuine’ real whose origination in, and impact on the social relations and the economic, is persistently reinforced. This, of course, turns to be quite problematic to the understanding of, and detrimental to any intervention in the moves of the ludic, as it rather opens the schism between the cultural, the political and the economic.
Another problem raised by this irresolute diversion is the confusion it produces at the level of the dichotomical ‘real’ vs ‘actual’. Signifying activities, such as languages, become the means by which an ‘undifferentiated continuum of nature’ is offered ‘differentiation’. As part of this continuum to be segmented and disentangled, human beings must take a role and be active in the process of organizing the cultural life and instituting the social and economic arrangements, unless they want to remain an ‘undifferentiated’ part within the nature’s continuum (96). What helps ‘actual’ individuals to enter the ‘cultural’ is Lacan’s arrangement of the social called ‘the symbolic order’. Here, at this point, shows Zavarzadeh, the transformation of the ‘actual’ into the ‘real’ is produced, via certain interpretive action of various languages and discourses in culture “which produce differences out of the sameness of nature” (96). Once again, film – as one of such tools – acts as both part of the material structuration of a culture and an effect of the modes of production. Speaking of modes of production, they seem to play a crucial role in the process of sense-making – a crucial stage in the process of changing nature into culture. This is why the hegemonizing aspect of holding film technology as means of production operates in the dichotomy First World (Hollywood) Cinema/ Third World Cinema. The proportionality between the access to film technology and the autonomy in instituting meaning-making activities meant to produce the leap from nature to culture, is very problematic indeed.
One equational statement in Zavarzadeh’s plea for understanding the controversial nature of the ‘real’ is this: the boundaries of the ‘real’ are never fixed, but they vary according to the frames of intelligibility. The monopolizing over news agencies and other channels of media and communication become the major source of mystifying the culture by presenting it as nature (naturalizing it), in the same time with inducing the ‘real’ as the (mere) ‘actual’ – culture-as-nature, real-as-actual. As long as meaning (the ‘real’) is produced through cultural practices (signifying practices) – language, film, etc. – the ‘actual’ ends up subverting the ‘real’, posting as the ‘real’ - “the close connection between that which is called the real in each culture and the material means under which the actual is turned into the real”, for “to confuse the actual with the real is to bypass the politics of meaningfulness” (98).
Zavarzadeh initiates here a discussion around the notion of ‘pertinences’, as ‘selected by practices (cultural and otherwise). He quotes Umberto Eco in the latter’s commentary on Luis Prieto’s work Argues Eco: “…Thus practical purposes, decisions about pertinences and material constraints will interact in leading a culture to segment the continuum of its own experience into a given form of the content. To say that a signification system makes communication process possible means that one can usually communicate only about those cultural units that a given signification system made pertinent” (104). It is by means of ideology, adds Zavarzadeh, that pertinences are naturalized and offered as the only valid choice. The non-fixed character of the pertinences (they change in accordance with the historical developments at the economic, political, social, cultural and ideological level) is proof enough for the investment stored into them by the ‘agents of change’ - be them genuine or simply fakers.
Pertinences, thus, effect the task of regulating the ‘real’ with a constant infusion of meaning, albeit accurate or distorted. This is the reason why, I should add, the understanding of the role of ‘pertinences’ in the (construction of the) ‘real’ - as possible effect of the strategies of containment generated by the ludic practices - is crucial.
Another discussion initiated by Zavarzadeh is that on the notion of ‘experience’ diverted from the searching for ‘truth’ and re-directed toward what the dominant ideology dictates as ‘meaningful’.
Located, as a consequence, either in the ‘natural’ world or in the ‘formal’ structures of the language (108), experience becomes a device for establishing ‘immanence’ in the natural daily events or a textual-aesthetic dimension – jouissance - for ludic theory. Thus ‘naturally’ or ‘aesthetically posited experience is granted the right to be seen as ‘complete’ and beyond intervention – taking the world as it is. Zavarzadeh warns against this most subtle maneuvers of substituting truth for experience.The effect is felt down to the level of constructing the social as subjected to the laws of ‘differential textuality’, whereas ‘difference’, as a result of conflicts and transformation is erased. By ideology’s advancing through the proclaiming of a world of ‘eternal’ truths, (naturalized, a-historicized), the site of the social, historical, economic and cultural production of meaning is seen as either natural or aesthetic (formalized and made dependent of the symbolic arrangements), rather than the site for struggle and transformation - a site of intervention. The ‘gap’ (difference) perceived at the level of the social structures is promoted by (ludic) burgeois (film) theory so that the spectator (consumer) is found in the position of accepting this ‘gap’ as either natural or as an effect of immanent laws of internal structuration, as something already there.
The efforts of radical theory (Zavarzadeh’s alternative), on the one hand, is to awaken to the contradictions of capitalism: “through making ‘other’ sense of daily experience, radical film theory can intervene in the discourses of the dominant ideology” (111). This is the only chance to render visible the ludic strategy of constructing ‘cultural obviousnesses’ (pertinences) placed under the regime of ‘interrogative immunity’ regarding ideology’s involvement in this process. Wim Wenders, the German film-director, is mentioned with hid Paris, Texas film which exemplifies precisely the image of family as a ‘biological and natural unit’, by this helping the ‘actual to pass as the ‘natural’ and the ‘real’. This image of the ‘natural family’ (based on blood-ties genealogy) is opposed, in Wenders’ film, to the ‘discursive family’ (blood-ties replace the shared cultural codes) : “In the same way that one cannot break a (natural) family tie, one cannot avoid its dictates which are all based on the notion of the authority of the father” (146). The ‘discursive family’ is rather different – its shared values are based in certain cultural codes which assure the group as a ‘free congregation’ operating from an ‘open’ plan “inherently unstable and threatening, because it constantly reorganizes itself through its codes, and codes, unlike genes, are transformable and changing” (146).
Under attack, in such paradigm of re-historicizing values, which were completely emptied of their historical substance, are notions most privileged by burgeois theory and practices: parenthood, authority, self-hood, etc - all ‘transmissible’ only ‘through their natural heirs’.
Change and/in the Synthetic History of a Ludic World
“As a result of [such] hegemonization of the past, a synthetic history is produced that, like all ideological versions of history, is in an odd way ahistorical if not outright antihistorical” (154).
The following subchapter is the last in this presentation of Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s (Marxist) critiqueon the Ludic paradigm and its effects on the social and cultural practices meant to maintain change and transformation outside of the ‘historical’. I will concern with Zavarzadeh’s discussion on the importance of change in a ludic world of.
In his analysis Zavarzadeh focuses on the contemporary American society and its view on change. He insists that the American way is in a way paradoxical, as it helps to understand the (double) nature of the ludic: on the one hand we have America’s admiration for change, but on the other this is only counteracted by its rejection of it – thus change ends up equating a “thinly disguised chaos”, threatening a pre-structured, self-sufficient order. An ‘un-safe’ kind of change will always pose a danger for the American society, therefore a ‘harmless and non-disorientating’ change is possible only through transforming the ‘past’ into ‘tradition’. This is precisely what American society did upon its past, rendering it under a ‘mythical’ stature as the natural/universal/inevitable/ideal frame of stability.
The involvement of such version of the past with the notion of change is advancing the paradox in which the move is rather toward the past than away from it. Any relation maintained between the present and the past being one of ‘nostalgia’, the mix up of the two temporalities warrants for a ‘stable, unproblematic, dehistoricized’ past/present axis: “the changeful present loses its face and merges with the equally ‘changing’ traditionalized past in a panhistorical moment whose ideological function is to make change (consumption) palatable without disrupting the existing relations of production” (155). A kind of “synthetic history” seems thus to emerge at the junction of this two times, their dichotomical value abolished, via ‘traditionalizing’ (dehistoricizing) it, in the last instance, depoliticizing it.
Conclusion: A Ludic’s Profile: Mas’ud Zavarzadeh’s Marxist View on Ludic Postmodernism
This final assignment regarding Ludic theory will concern itself with listing the attribute of ludic as ‘ludism’ in theory and practice today, in the Marxist (ideology) critique offered by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh. His text Seeing Films Politically articulates most of the powerful features of the ludic as it connects to the notion of postmodernism. Zavarzadeh nevertheless counteracts ludic with an alternative, recommending a move, which remains still within postmodernism’s paradigm of ‘transformation’ and ‘change’.
Following are some of ludic’s characteristics in our postmodern world as underlined by Zavarzadeh in his view on ludic theory today, on film as crucial site of ideological investment and dispute, finally, on the possibility to counteract all this by making use of radical theory to bring change into the real world.
1. Ludic’s existence and its advancement are secured by the use of ideology;
2. Ludic strengthens the solidarity between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘politics’ in mainstream (poststructuralist) theory;
3. Notions such as ‘sameness’ and ‘identity’ are refused a dichotomical relation in ludic postmodernism;
4. Ludic theory systematically avoids discussing ‘class’, ‘resistance’, ‘opposition’, etc, and denounces any attempt to do so as ‘crudeness’;
5. Ludic operates through an ‘immanent’ logic of signification – the how rather than the why;
6. (Ludic) poststructuralist (film) theory uses ‘tale’ as an ideal site of constructing and subverting a certain paradigm (grid) of intelligibility;
7. Ludic helps that, through ‘commonsensical obviousness’, the audience makes (a certain) sense of the reality, by ‘naturalization’;
8. The subverting power of myth is used as ludic strategy of destabilizing the ‘real’ through viable codes of ‘common sense’;
9. The assumption that the ‘magical’ nature of film (as medium) is disrupted and altered by the attempt to approach film as a social construct, rather than an object of critical examination; the ‘aesthetic’ overtakes the socio-economic;
10. Ludic obturates, occludes the very possibility of learning, by the ‘consumer’ of cultural products, of a (prescriptible) socio-cultural code inscribed into an ‘ideological syntax of culture’;
11) Ludic film theory promotes two, apparently irreconcilable, modes of subjectivity: the ‘realist’ film and the ‘avant-garde’ film, when the two are, in fact, complementary. This disjunction is a ludic effect;
12) Ludic film theory (especially suture film theory) substitutes jouissance, absence, pleasure (film as a voyeuristic act), for social and political involvement in the process of film viewing. The substituting of the ‘message’ for the ‘code’;
13) Ludic’s plea for a subjectivity constituted linguistically (prioritizing he discursive), thus cutting it off from the socio-historical context;
14) ‘Slippage’ and ‘difference’ – ludic effects of mainstream ideology at the textual level;
15) ‘Ludic resistance’ – one of ludic’s strategies granting the subject an a-historical stature by endowing it with a set of ‘natural’ qualities as opposition to dominant structures appears as an effect of such inherent’ qualities and not the awakening consciousness vis-à-vis the real socio-historical context;
16) In ludic theory, ‘dominant/dominated’ is not dichotomically linked. Thus a ludic theory of ‘dispersed power’, in a ‘capitalism with a Human face’;
17) Ludic replaces ‘domination’ with a mere ‘mobilizing of opposition’ (Laclau & Mouffe);
18) Ludic, as a marker of the ‘postpolitical’, where ‘ exploiter/exploited’, dominant/dominated’, where ‘powerful/powerless’, are dichotomically abolished;
19) In ludic theory, the ‘dominant/dominated’, etc, are equal;
20) Ludic grants the autonomy of the subject toward an essentialized understanding of the social (a simple, ‘rhetorical’ move’);
21) The ‘inside/outside’ binary – collapsed;
22) Substituting the political for the ethical in ludic
23) Ludic replaces ‘economic rights’ with ‘civil rights’;
24) The Body becomes the privileged locus of ludic;
25) Ludic also represents the ‘resistance’ (through the Body, as jouissance) as ‘spontaneous’, ‘natural’ rebellion against domination, as the physical act of autonomous pleasure;
26) Ludic devices such as parody, pastiche, paradox, etc, (in the name of ‘complexity’) are granted a ‘free play’ to perform under ‘immanent resistance’;
27) Ludic, as a double-stander: both the accuser and the perpetuator (the facilitator);
28) Ludic’s involvement into the collapsing difference between old/new. Thus Film has nothing new to say except for to reaffirm the ideology of power.
29) Ludic undermines (by obliterating) ‘economics’ through ‘politics’ and ‘culture’;
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AGERO Stuttgart® - Deutsch-Rumänischer Verein e.V. Stuttgart.
Colectivul de redactie: Lucian Hetco (Germania) , George Roca (Australia), Melania Cuc (Romania, Canada)