- Political Theory and Film: From Adorno to Žižek by Ian Fraser
If all films are political, as Christian Zimmer famously asserted, then the entire literature on cinema, too, can be said to explore the interconnections between the medium and the total complex of relations between people living in society. Even the studies that conceive of politics not in that broadest sense in which politics is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, but in the narrowest one–as the art or science of government–occupy several shelves in the cinema section of the library where this reviewer is writing. To the corpus of scholarship among those books that explores films in relation to concepts of political theory, Ian Fraser has added an accessible and engaging–albeit questionably Eurocentric–contribution.
As Fraser notes himself, Political Theory from Adorno to Žižek repeats the analytical approach of Fraser's book on the novel, where each case study was read through the hermeneutical lens provided by a major thinker. Perhaps as a tacit acknowledgment of cinema's breakthrough in the past century, Political Theory, unlike the earlier book, limits its attention to theorists who emerged during that period. In addition to the titular ones, Fraser discusses the theories of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and Julia Kristeva in relation to a selection of films spanning chronologically from Monsieur Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin, 1947) to A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013). What links the theorists and the films, claims the author, is their mutual concern with the oppressing social relations in capitalism, and "the expressions of resistance or opposition with the possibility for emancipation" that they offer(Fraser 1). A product of the age in which the balance of class struggle has tipped decisively in favor of the oppressors, the book champions a "bottom up" approach to the process by centering mostly on films whose narratives are organized around the figure of the "small man" waging battles with the exploitative system.
The eight chapters are prefaced by an introductory survey of the previous academic books and articles that investigate political theory through film (and vice versa), identifying as the inaugural one Michael J. Shapiro's Cinematic Political Thought: Narrating Race, Nation and Gender (1999). Notwithstanding the philosophical relevancy of all of these texts and the acumen of Fraser's summation and commentary on them, both of these choices appear somewhat arbitrary. The proclamation and review of the writings by Shapiro, Davide Panagia, Richard Rushton, and John S. Nelson as the project's antecedents leave the reader unsure as to what essentially distinguishes these writers from an array of other ones who had theorized on politics and cinema before the late 1990s. Given the aforementioned polyvalence of "politics", Benjamin and Deleuze–to mention the two writers who figure prominently in both Fraser's and Shapiro's books–recommend themselves as veritable contenders, and so do many authors working in, or originating from, outside of what has been problematically called the West: Mas'ud Zavarzadeh and Trinh T. Minh-Ha constitute but two possible examples. The selection seems additionally dubious in light of the book's failure to integrate the ideas of Shapiro and the subsequent writers on the topic into its larger argument. The absence of those ideas from the book's bulk is made conspicuous by the introduction's aspiration to comprehensiveness, which in turn raises the question of the restriction of Fraser's attention to the four English-language writers from the past two decades.
The unavowed rationale for this choice might be the universalist impulse that animates the book. While acknowledging the radical variety of ways in which the selected thinkers have [End Page 91] interrogated and challenged the status quo and the characters that populate the films with which the former's texts have been paired, Fraser silently posits the meaning of the Latin phrase to refer to the increasingly detrimental effect of contemporary capitalisms on the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants. But the notion of "majority...