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  • Response to Jonathan Beller’s Essay, “Cinema: Capital of the Twentieth Century”
  • Jeff Bell

Jonathan Beller has set forth an interesting and provocative account of the relationship between cinema and what he takes to be the condition for the possibility of cinema—i.e., capital. Beller draws upon many resources to support this thesis, from the film Barton Fink to the work of Gilles Deleuze, and generally the arguments are well thought out and thought-provoking. In particular, Beller argues, and rightly I believe, that with cinema capital extends its domain onto and into the conscious attention of individuals, and with this a new form of exploitation is made possible. As Beller puts it, capital cinema can be used to tap “the productive energies of consciousness and the body in order to facilitate the production of surplus value” (par. 7). Or again, “some people make a profit from other people’s looking” (par. 10). The basic argument is Marxist, yet Beller supplements it by stressing the significance of human attention as a form of labor, a labor that is productive of value, and hence productive of surplus value when exploited under capitalism.

In support of this basic argument, Beller brings in an enlightening discussion of the transition from aura (following Walter Benjamin) to simulacra. In both cases human attention constitutes value. In looking at a work of art, for example, there is what one actually sees, and there is the fact that many others have seen this same thing. The gap between what one sees and the circulation of this artwork among many other gazes defines, for Beller, the “aura” of this work, an aura which gives value to the work. A simulacrum, on the other hand, results when “visual objects are liquidated of their traditional contents and mean precisely their circulation” (par. 23), and this liquidation is the result of a speeding up of the circulation of these visual objects. Value in this case is nothing more than the circulation of the object among many gazes, and thus value is cut free from anything having to do with the object itself. In the words of a recent television commercial, “image is everything!”

I do not have much to add to Beller’s fine discussion of these issues, and for the most part I agree with what he says. What I want to respond to is Beller’s use of Deleuze’s Cinema books to support his arguments and his effort, through a critique of this work, to distance himself from Deleuze. More precisely, I want to respond to Beller’s three chief criticisms of Deleuze’s theory of cinema. The first and most important criticism is that Deleuze, according to Beller, ignores and “refuses simply to think” the fact that cinema is a capitalist industry. A second and related criticism is that Deleuze only discusses the masterpieces of cinema while ignoring everything else. And finally, Beller claims that Deleuze’s “aestheticizing thought” overlooks the cultural logic wherein the time-image leads to extinction, schizophrenia, and the pathological severing of senory-motor links. By responding to these charges on behalf of Deleuze, I hope to clarify some of the central issues that are at stake in Beller’s work and contribute to the important discussion which this work has begun.

Although Deleuze, according to Beller, refuses “to think political economy,” he does flirt with it. Such flirtation becomes clear when Deleuze cites Fellini: “When there is no money left, the film will be finished.” Beller finds in Fellini’s remark, and in Deleuze’s treatment of it, evidence for the claim that cinema is always “in one way or another a film about the film’s economic conditions of possibility” (par. 38). This is only a flirtation, however, for Beller believes Deleuze says “disappointingly little” about cinema’s own conditions of possibility—i.e., capital. Deleuze may not say much about the economic conditions of possibility in his Cinema books, and perhaps he is to be faulted for this, but much is said on these matters in Deleuze and Guattari’s book Anti-Oedipus. Central among their claims in this book is that capitalism is a functioning assemblage of processes...

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