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  • Film Technique and Micropolitics
  • William E. Connolly (bio)


This death is not simply the end of life, but the immersion into the eternally returning pulsation of life itself, symbolized by the sea waves; in her death, Aels is transfigured into the cosmic impersonal life substance.

(Zizek, p. 5)

There it is. Lacanian theory brought to interpretation of a romantic film by a Nazi Director. In this approach symbolic interpretation receives priority over engagement with technique; Lacanian interpretation is granted authority over other narratives; and film directors are construed either as masters who already grasp Lacanian theory (e. g., Hitchcock) or carriers who get caught in its logic. Words such as “symbolize”, “structure”, “paradox”, “fantasy”, “precisely,” and “of course” grease the analysis. The story is the thing. Its paradoxical structure could almost as easily be drawn from a novel, a Bible, a play or a philosophical text as a film. I exaggerate, of course.

I do so because I am interested in an approach to the nexus between film and politics that is inflected differently. Here interpretation becomes shallower and more modest about itself because the interpreter doubts that the world possesses a structure amenable to deep, authoritative interpretation, whether that depth is conveyed through a logic of coherence or one of paradox. As the hegemony of narrative interpretation is relaxed, attention to technique is accentuated. Film techniques mix sound, image, words and rhythm together to work on the visceral register of human sensibility. It is the intersection between techniques and story which is critical. Attention to such intersections discloses how immersed we are in the sea of micropolitics. By micropolitics I mean, for starters, organized combinations of sound, gesture, word, movement and posture through which affectively imbued dispositions, desires and judgments become synthesized.

Micropolitics saturates cultural life, helping to set the stage for macropolitical action. Do you seek to include gays in the military? End capital punishment? Reorganize subliminal orientations to poverty by people in the middle class? Micropolitics in and around the dinner table, the church, the movie theater, the union hall, the TV sitcom and talk show, the film, the classroom, and the local meeting set the table for macro-policy initiatives in these domains by rendering large segments of the public receptive or unreceptive to them.


The intriguing thing about film is that it both participates in micropolitics and teaches us how this ubiquitous dimension of politics operates. So why is the technical dimension of film often subordinated to the task of narrative interpretation? Since much of contemporary film theory views movies through a psychoanalytic lens, part of the answer may reside in Freud’s own hesitancy about technique. Freud, who was at odds with Kant on other issues, reinforced Kant and neo-Kantians in their resistance to technique. Kantians are reserved because they participate in a two-world metaphysic that depreciates the embodied character of human being. Freud does not accept this metaphysic. But he shares that reserve. One reason, doubtless, is those intensive “memory traces” that reach back to primordial times. They do not possess a form appropriate to intellectual concatenation. Freud’s critique of the hubris of intellectualism is well taken, in my judgment. But, on his reading, memory traces are also extremely resistant to modification by tactical means. You can at best try to control them. Which is why Freud, by the time of Moses and Monotheism, at least, thinks of ethics on the model of intensive instinctual renunciation and skimpy sublimation. According to him ethics at its highest rises above crude instruments such as image, rhythm, ritual, trance, hypnosis, magic and the like, some of which form the very material of film. Moses, “the great stranger” introduced a more spiritual God to the Jewish people, “one as all loving as he was all-powerful, who, averse to all ceremonial and magic, set humanity as its highest aim a life of truth and justice.” [1] This means, first, that the intellect is engaged to control the lower instincts and, second, that corporeal tactics or gymnastics such as ceremony, ritual, hypnosis, image and magic are avoided or minimized.

What Freud admires most about the effect of the Mosaic faith upon Jews is...

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