‘Cultural Manipulation and the Tasks of Critics’
‘Cultural Manipulation and the Tasks of Critics’
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents an essay written by Georg Luká as an introduction for Guido Aristarco's book where he discussed problems related to the aesthetics of the cinema. It also highlights Lukács' standpoint on the issue of ideological manipulation in which he conceives the social and political environment as dominated by an ‘overwhelming reality of manipulation’.
Faced with the task of writing an introduction for his [Guido Aristarco's] new book, an invitation which is certainly flattering to me, I will not attempt to hide my embarrassment and the inhibitions that I feel. These originate in the well-founded awareness of my incompetence when to it comes to formulating concrete assessments in concrete discussions concerning questions of cinema.
It is true that I have dealt previously with the problems of cinema, in my youth. If, even today, I can only consider the piece of writing I was then dedicated to as one-sided, and occasional, it nevertheless remains testimony to a vital interest in the birth of a new genre of art, and was written at a time in which there were still few, even amongst film producers and critics, who believed that a new art had come to be born. Ever since then I have continued to follow the evolution of the cinema with great interest, even though a lack of time, and preoccupation with my other more central concerns, did not allow me to concretely address particular problems in a way that seems to me to be the only way to attain an authentic and non-fictitious competence. Ultimately, in the first part of my Aesthetics [actually, in the second part] (The Specificity of the Aesthetic), I attempted to take a position on what I believed to be the problems related to the most important principles of an aesthetics of the cinema. And even on that occasion, I sought not to pass myself off as somebody who is competent in relation to particular questions that are often seen as exceptionally important in artistic circles, and did not have the possibility to explore, in particular, the historical evolution of this new art. I must say that I believed then – and I still believe today – that the most relevant social and aesthetic problems connected with cinematographic art should be grasped in their ensemble, even by those inclined to consider them otherwise, and from an abstract point of view.
The birth and later evolution of the cinema were and are determined much more strongly, much more intensely, by inventions of a purely technical nature, to an extent that was not the case with any other and previous type of (p.238) art, with the possible exception of architecture. This has the necessary consequence that the …
Behind every question in purely formal appearance stand serious and significant problems of human life, which cast their influence throughout the medium of the artistic configuration through which one finds or loses Man. We must resist manipulation, whether it is voluntary or imposed, of culture, and, therefore, also of cinema. Films and criticism that operate at an aesthetic level dominated by technical issues must be set against a criticism capable of interiorization and profound aesthetic depth, which, in a spirit of truth and accuracy, is able to go to the heart of things, and which, in doing so, cannot but arrive at the real human being.
[It is a stylistic feature of Cinema Nuovo to break up the flow of an article by positioning a key quote from elsewhere in the article near the beginning of the article. In this process of highlighting, the language in the repeated quote is also often changed a little.]
literature on cinema, by now already substantial, has come to be informed by the analysis of these technical innovations and, in the best of these cases, of their psychological effects. And, in comparison, research on the social significance of this new art form has been relatively rare, and even rarer yet have been attempts to grasp the aesthetic essence. This trend not only flowed out from the genesis of the new technical means of expression of the cinema, but also, and perhaps above all, from the typical way of regarding art today, from the absolute predominance of particular technical issues over all basic questions of aesthetics. And yet, in the final analysis, this is not just a question immanent to aesthetics, as it is not a question of ‘worldview’, but is rather rooted much more in the general tendency of our times, in the general domain of manipulation, which, in always greater measure, goes on to subjugate even, and in its entirety, the field of art. That this dominance, in the case of cinema, cannot but reveal itself with particular significance, hardly needs to be said. If film production is in the hands of the great capitalist powers, and with an immediateness and completeness that is by far greater than is the case with any of the other arts, the cinema, by its very nature, and certainly more so than every other art, is destined exclusively to wield immediate mass effects.
The problem of manipulation is not, however, limited to questions of the technical; manipulation also has as a spontaneous consequence – sometimes also a conscious one – that, in granting exclusively, or at least in large measure, prominence to all questions of the technical, it deflects attention from the manipulation of human and social content. This process, the intimate connection which exists between the primacy of the technical and conviction that manipulation is limitless, must not be simplified and trivialised, even though it is easy to ascertain that the most banal forms of kitsch can be patched up and disguised, and then forcefully marketed, in maximum and (p.239) standardised doses, on a mass scale. It is equally incontestable that in both these dimensions a convergence of these tendencies has been realised. Think only of the shock-effect. Today shock is one of the principal tools of manipulation. Apart from its propagandistic effect in numerous irruptions of the unexpected, subversion, sensation, etc., it can be provoked in an easier and more sure manner with a new technical trick, and it still goes without saying that the technical semantics of critical judgement are firmly satisfied by this correspondence. All the more because it is in the essence of shock to provoke a momentary nervous tremor, that, both in its origin and consequences, is unable to remotely touch upon setting and background. And in this manner – whether one likes it or not, whether one knows it or not – such a tremor provides assistance to the ideology of manipulation: shock, its explosive effect, the unanticipated character of its manifestations, gives to those who are affected by it, and all the more so to those who provoke it, the illusion of a non-conformist attitude, from which cannot flow any decisive opposition, on the theoretical or ethical level, to that which is being manipulated, and without which an authentic non-conformism cannot become manifest.
All this can come into existence on the technical-artistic level in perfectly good faith. It can even expand itself into a ‘world view’, enough for this state of manipulation in which man has come to find himself to become conceived of in terms of a ‘human condition’, whether that condition is defined in terms of existentialism, or depth psychology. Such an opposition can also be raised up to the aesthetic level, to the radical negation of that which exists, and this can be realised in the anti-novel, or anti-drama etc., without, for all that, rescuing a single human being from manipulation. However, does not such submission, voluntarily and in good faith made, portray effectively and meaningfully the unstoppable power of manipulation, and, its subjective reflection: alienation? In my opinion, the answer is no. And I would argue no with regard to both the objective social level, and to the subjective human level. Of course, this dual negation is related to the inopportune consequence of the emergence of a real opposition. And here is where things become serious. Among the material consequences is that one eventually finds oneself excluded from the number of those who ‘count’, who cannot speak (even though this can be treated as a matter which is, socially speaking, not without relief), other than when we are alone among ourselves, with our own ideological and moral convictions; and in the end, this is a serious opportunity to lay down a trial of the character. It is a risk that must be run unless you wish to welcome completely passively this overwhelming reality of manipulation.
The irresistibility of which is not, nevertheless, that apparent. On the contrary, there is not a day, not an hour in which life does not offer opportunities to resist in a real way; and, however, at the same time, the degree of the (p.240) manipulation of public opinion in all press and literary publications, not to speak of cinema, means that this opposition is as yet only expressed in what is, beyond comparison, the weakest way. This is an assertion that, in our day, may be difficult to document in a convincing manner. But if one thinks, for example, of fascism, which by now belongs to the past: how many works of art (including those of propaganda) are there that would be able to bear comparison, quantitatively and qualitatively, with the last letters of anti-fascists sentenced to death, with the diary of Fucik, etc. (in like regard, the Italian cinema may be said to have fared better). However, the overall impression is, to be honest, quite alarming. And with every probability, the same judgement concerning our present state of affairs will also be given by a not-too-distant future.
But let us turn to the cinema and its activities, Mr Aristarco. If containing manipulation, whether carried through in a deliberate manner or not, whether done voluntarily or through imposition, involves culture, and, therefore, the cinema; at the least, the tasks of theory and criticism in those spheres in which, by their nature, production is more difficult, and there is a tendency towards industrialisation and commercialisation, must be to resist. However, resisting in the first rank is not a matter of engaging in direct political or propagandistic struggle; even though the majority of those complicit with cultural manipulation are, nevertheless, artists who believe in art, people of good faith, who are all sincerely engrossed with their philosophy and their aesthetics, and who are also often quite talented and even independent thinkers and critics. Against their false ‘world view’, and their false aesthetic, against their counterproductive conception of art, it is necessary to posit an authentic theory, convincing, and capable of convincing. The overcoming of technicalism in the theory and practice of cinema, the demonstration that, behind every question which in appearance is purely formal, stand serious and significant problems of human life, which cast their influence through the medium of the artistic configuration in which one finds or loses the human being: this is the central task of a critical cinematography and theory that today will be worthy of this name. The specific knowledge, the fine aesthetic sensibility, should be necessary prerequisites, but no more than prerequisites: this is not the same thing. What arises from this – pointing the right way as opposed to leading us astray – has its foundation in such relationship with the life of man. ‘Being radical’, says Marx, means to go to the core of things. But for a human being the core of things is the same human being. Chaplin is not and never was a Marxist. Nevertheless, he has demonstrated in the most diverse ways how we can take advantage of the new technical possibilities of cinema in order to anchor, as he unforgettably anchored, the image of a human being in danger, of his struggle for survival, and the unmasking of that (p.241) which is in contrast to and is a pitfall for humanity. A cinema and film criticism that move on the level of externalised technicalism must be contrasted with a criticism capable of internalisation and profound aesthetic depth, and which, in a spirit of truth and accuracy, goes to the core of things, and cannot but arrive at the human being, at the real human being, who suffers and engages in the social struggle between men and against other men.
To the modest degree to which I consider myself competent in issues of cinema, to the modest degree that I have an understanding of its production as a whole – and also because I realise that I am not able to verify many of your judgements because of my ignorance of the models to which you refer – I have nevertheless drawn from your writings the firm conviction that you are a film critic inclined to go the right way. For this reason I have considered it a duty and an honour to be given the opportunity to write these lines of introduction to your book. I hope that this work will provoke open and sharp debate, and succeed in helping to elucidate the various questions of cinema, such that, if authenticated, in the clarification of these questions we can also go on to invite clarifications of the problems of humanity.
Budapest, April 1965
‘Introduction’ to the book by Guido Aristarco, published by Feltrinelli, The Dissolution of Reason: Discourses on the Cinema, published in Cinema Nuovo, vol. 14, no. 178 (November–December 1965), pp. 406–9.