It is interesting to contrast Godard’s famous Bande à Part with his less famous La Chinoise. Ostensibly the latter operates as a more cynical view on radical leftist politics, whereas the former critiques the societal role of money in an indicting manner. The key issue with this analysis is that it fails to recognise that true radicalism can function introspectively. Of the two, Bande à Part is the more accessible, paying homage to American style gangster films, though with a unique twist of nouvelle vague. Although La Chinoise serves as a rebuke of university led Maoist politics in 1960s France, this does not render it ‘un-radical,’ rather it serves to demonstrate the intransigence and thoughtlessness of certain elements of radical politics, which have thus become didactic and unoriginal. Even in form, La Chinoise seeks to provoke; its use of montage and breaking of the fourth wall conveys a fragmentation and confusion amongst the radical students which in turn communicates an immense sense of disarray, despite their obstinacy. Nevertheless, La Chinoise has received significantly more flack and is often considered as the marker of the beginning of Godard’s artistic slump.
This film analysis serves as an apt metaphor for the state of liberal-leftist politics, particularly at institutions like Sciences Po. Although there is an appeal to the multi-cultural identitarian politics on offer, it fundamentally fails to produce politically thoughtful activity. This article will thus argue that there has to be a greater depth of analysis of political action amongst campus leftists, which is built upon the historicization and politicisation of issues, as opposed the mere categorisation and analysis of abstract notions of identity. In order to explicate this argument, this article will look at the ideas of two key thinkers, Wendy Brown and Antonio Gramsci.
In chapter 2 of Wendy Brown’s book Politics out of History she addresses the issue of moralism, both in theory and politics. She draws on Nietzsche’s notion of slave-morality to demonstrate the political impotence of modern identitarian politics. As she notes, ‘identitarian political projects are very real effects of late modern modalities of power, but as effects, they do not adequately articulate their own condition.’ This is not to say that identitarian politics are unfounded or unimportant, but rather to say that the suffering experienced as identity is an effect of complex historical modalities of domination, and therefore ‘cannot be resolved at the identitarian level.’ At Sciences Po, on an intellectual level, we are quick to criticise the essentialization of conflicts in the Middle East into their abstract sectarian divisions, instead choosing to weave the complexities of the political, socio-economic histories into our essays. Yet, on the level of political activity, there is a stark absence of these intellectual considerations. What we instead see is a willingness to criticise and censor the blatant, appalling racism witnessed on this campus, but lack any political activity that encompasses an understanding of the forces that drive such racism. Racism, sexism and homophobia have all been produced, in large part, by the drive for capital at the individual, national and global level; it therefore follows that solutions to these problems should incorporate, in some significant capacity, resistance on the material, physical and negotiated cultural level. This resistance should be part of a new-hegemonic project, which seeks to positively define a society in various anti-capitalist terms, as opposed to merely regulating language. For instance, instead of accepting the parameters set by the institutional composition of Sciences Po, we should seek out new modes of subversion and activity which aim to obstruct and reconstruct a system wherein complex capitalist historical forces are inverted.
The Sciences Po student body would best be diagnosed with ‘severe material and cultural amnesia.’ In Steve Jones book Antonio Gramsci he neatly lays out Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and how certain groups, consciously and unconsciously, weaponise culture as a mechanism for domination. Steve Jones demonstrates this idea by looking at the active promulgation of notions of ‘enterprise’ and ‘excellence’ in 1970s western democracies. The propagation of these individualistic concepts led to the obfuscation of what is properly cultural and what is properly economic and also obfuscated the line between the individual and the company. We become integrated into these systems through inclusion in certain practices, for example goal setting, which leads to the psychological adoption of the hegemonic ideology. This ideology is a highly capitalistic one which seeks to reward individualism and personal gain above any collective, structure-shifting political action. In Raymond William’s 1958 article Culture is Ordinary he writes ‘we don’t want any Wardour Street thinkers in the leadership of the Labour Party. We want leaders of a society, not repair workers on this kind of cultural economy.’ Never has such thinking been more pertinent; if we want to fundamentally improve our society, there has to be action that operates outside the hegemonic cultural and economic structures and which binds actors beyond abstract notions of identity. This type of action could then seek to define a new hegemony based on anarchistic cultural and economic cohesion.
We have all become one-dimensional men and women and, although the process of liberation is painful, it is also deeply rewarding. To use the aforementioned metaphor, instead of watching the more accessible Bande à Part, we must delve deeper into La Chinoise. We must painfully analyse our political action and painfully act in order to free our minds from the ubiquitous modalities of capitalism.
by Dominic Parker