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“marx and montage”

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Frederic Jameson has a piece called “Marx and Montage” in the current New Left Review. I saw an earlier version of this paper last year as the keynote at a conference in the US, where it didn’t go down all that well. This is tighter and better. It deals, via Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity, with Einsenstein’s rough plans to make a film of Marx’s Kapital. He deals with, among other things, what Joyce’s Ulysses had to do with Eisenstein’s Marx project…

Commentators—and not only Kluge himself—have fastened on the jotting, ‘a day in a man’s life’ as the evidence for believing Eisenstein to have imagined a plot sequence like that of Joyce’s Bloomsday. Later on, they note the addition of a second ‘plot line’, that of social reproduction and ‘the “house-wifely virtues” of a German worker’s wife’, along with the reminder: ‘throughout the entire picture the wife cooks soup for her returning husband’, the unspecified ‘man’ of the earlier sequence having logically enough become a worker. This alleged routine cross-cutting—to which one should probably add the day in the life of a capitalist or a merchant—is being ruminated at the very same historical moment when, as Annette Michelson points out, Dziga Vertov is filming Man with a Movie Camera.

It is true: ‘Joyce may be helpful for my purpose’, notes Eisenstein. But what follows is utterly different from the ‘day in the life of’ formula. For Eisenstein adds: ‘from a bowl of soup to the British vessels sunk by England’. What has happened is that we have forgotten the presence, in Ulysses, of chapters stylistically quite different from the day’s routine format. But Eisenstein has not: ‘In Joyce’s Ulysses there is a remarkable chapter of this kind, written in the manner of a scholastic catechism. Questions are asked and answers given’. But what is he referring to when he says, ‘of this kind’?

It is clear that Kluge already knows the answer, for in his filmic discussion of the notes, the pot of soup has become a water kettle, boiling away and whistling: the image recurs at several moments in the exposition (Eisenstein’s notes projected in graphics on the intertitles), in such a way that this plain object is ‘abstracted’ into the very symbol of energy. It boils impatiently, vehemently it demands to be used, to be harnessed, it is either the whistling signal for work, for work stoppage, for strikes, or else the motor-power of a whole factory, a machine for future production . . . Meanwhile, this is the very essence of the language of silent film, by insistence and repetition to transform their objects into larger-than-life symbols; a procedure intimately related to the close-up. But this is also what Joyce does in the catechism chapter; and Ulysses’s first great affirmation, the first thunderous ‘yes’, comes here and not in Molly’s closing words: it is the primal force of water streaming from the reservoir into Dublin and eventually finding its way indomitably to Bloom’s faucet. (In Eisenstein the equivalent would be the milk separator of The General Line.)

I’ll admit to being slightly confused by what Jameson has to say about Eisenstein’s use (or non-use) of Joyce in this piece. He wants to deny Ulysses centrality to the project, but it remains somewhat unclear how or why.

I feel as though, in my ample spare time, I’m about to go on an Eisenstein reading / watching run, as this aggregate fiction that I keep thinking and taking about might be something like an intensification of modernist montage aesthetics, an intensification that does something more than just make more of it, make it faster and more total.

(Very disappointed to have missed this last night, I must say….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 25, 2009 at 7:59 am

Posted in eisenstein, movies

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  1. As it happens, I saw Kluge’s film – or at least the first part – a couple of weeks ago, just after finishing re-reading volume 1, and I have to say I found it extremely disappointing, so much so that I switched off about half way through, just after a particularly fatuous interview with Enzensberger. Maybe this was wrong of me; maybe things would have improved in the next hour, maybe parts two and three would have excused and explained everything – but something made me doubt it. OK, so the film wasn’t about Capital, but Eisenstein’s attempts to make a film about Capital (which I couldn’t help feeling was a bit of a cop-out in itself), but its most interesting sequences never got beyond a few intelligent interviews with an Eisenstein biographer, and most of it had a distinctly arbitrary and thrown-together feel. Neither the unmade film, nor the book itself, were any clearer towards the end, and there were certainly no insights about the really interesting and difficult issue of how historical and socio-economic processes can be dramatically represented – indeed, if they can be represented at all. Jameson mentions Peter Weiss in his article, and his Discourse on Vietnam (1970) is probably the most determined recent attempt I can think of. It’s telling that it’s now forty years old.


    July 25, 2009 at 11:24 am

  2. Yeah, it’s pretty fragmentary, no? I’m also not sure I understand the polemic against the Joycean reading of Eisenstein, but perhaps what he’s getting at is that E. is much more explicitly polemical, didactic, and that his disruptions intend to denature–along the lines of the chains of M-C-M that run through capitalism–the unity of everyday life. This seems true (even if it’s only true in a limited way)–the baroque, involving surfaces of Joyce’s prose have a very different feel than the angular disruptions of Eisenstein: Joyce is rarely as hectoring or antagonistic to the reader/viewer in the way that E. is.

    It’s strange that Jameson never mentions that his concluding reflections on classical Marxism as antiquity are almost a word-for-word restatement of TJ Clark’s similarly left-melancholic claim, in Farewell to an Idea, that “modernism is our antiquity,” where the potentiality of the latter is entirely vouchsafed by the (presumably foreclosed) possibility of revolution.

    I understand this is an excerpt from a book project, so perhaps Jameson will get there, but it’s too bad that he never acknowledges the construction and rhetoric of Marx’s late writing as essentially montage-like: the play of standpoints in the finished book of Capital (which N Pepperell describes so well, where the po-faced, apparent neutrality of the prose gets undercut by the caustic wit of the footnotes; the dialectical running-together of a Hegelian method with the naive empiricism of political economy; the way that the the Grundrisse and the later books of Capital–notes, like Eisenstein’s notes–feature Marx thinking through masses of half-digested quotations from various antagonists and interlocutors; his tendency to interrupt himself, and interrupt his own interruptions. Debord writes in The Society of the Spectacle that Marx’s use of the reversed genitive, switching subject for predicate in, for example, his refutation of Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty, is an “insurrectionary style”, one that presages detournement (fellow traveler of montage) in its negation and/or preservation of the chosen materials. . . Something like this would be a promising addition to Jameson’s project.


    July 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

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