For a Marxist critique of media in the contemporary conjuncture

by Michael Litwack, Beth Capper,
and Christopher Robé

Toward the end of the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary essay Handsworth Songs (1986), archival television news footage of police confronting Black and South Asian protesters in 1977 Birmingham cuts to a sequence that refracts this scene of racialized policing through interwoven histories of labor, slavery, empire, and struggle. The sequence opens with a Labor Day parade filmed forty years earlier, featuring a procession of marching bands and horse-drawn carriages scored to the chorus of an extradiegetic song dedicated to British Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald. This actuality footage stages a familiar cinematic portrait of working class representation, one that pivots on a national history of the wage and the white male industrial wage laborer. However, the scene is soon intercut—and undercut—by a counter-narrative of the history of capitalism that exceeds this Eurocentric, nationally-bounded frame. This audiovisual rendering makes perceptible social subjects and formations of racial, gendered, and colonial dispossession central to the reproduction of capitalism that are obscured by the parade’s circumscribed “image,” to borrow Stuart Hall’s words, “of what class is.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

This interjection of alternative experiences of class pervades the film’s broader analysis of the uprisings that unfolded across Black and South Asian neighborhoods in Handsworth, Birmingham and Tottenham, London in 1985.[2] Taking these uprisings as a point of departure, Handsworth Songs offers a meditation on race, gender, migration, and class composition, and their rearticulation and revision through struggles over anti-Black violence, police power, housing justice, and unemployment in postcolonial Britain.

In the aforementioned sequence, the Labor Day song continues to play as the image track cuts away to a highly stylized museum-like tableau of objects that the camera tracks in a series of a close ups: a Union Jack draped beside the reproduction of a 1585 proto-ethnographic watercolor painting of Manteo, a leader of the Croatoan people, in what is now known as North Carolina; a 1918 issue of National Geographic on “The Races of Europe”; and, finally, a bundle of iron chains. In the absence of an anchoring voice-over, the tableau poses the question of the relation between these emblems of settler colonialism, imperial knowledge production, and racial slavery, as well as the processes of displacement and plunder through which they came to inhabit this tableau as hermetically sealed artifacts of official national history. The sequence then cuts to tinted footage from an industrial film that depicts laboring white men making chains in a metalwork factory. Moving from the tableau to the industrial factory and back again, Handsworth Songs holds together, within this single sequence, multiple modes of social and spatial differentiation—between those who own the means of production and those who have been expropriated from their means of subsistence; between waged and unwaged labor; and between various peoples who are positioned asymmetrically in their negative relation to the wage.[3] The montage pulls our attention to a set of accumulated fragments, to the wreckage of racial capitalism’s processes of worlding, that continue to exert their lethal force on the present.

This dossier takes its inspiration from the Black Audio Film Collective’s inquiry into the multiple contradictions and fissures that constitute the capitalist mode of production in its racial, gendered, imperial, and colonial character. Through Handsworth Song’s strategic appropriation of TV newsreel and actuality footage, the film illustrates how popular audiovisual media actively participate in producing narratives of class society and class struggle. And, more significantly, it intervenes in these narratives by establishing the inextricable connections among processes of accumulation, exploitation, and dispossession.

Contemporary Marxist criticism has been reenergized by indispensable concepts implicitly at play in Handsworth Songs: racial capitalism, social reproduction, primitive accumulation, and colonial dispossession. Crucially, much of this work in Marxist criticism draws its energy from recent instances in ongoing struggles against state, corporate, and intimate violence, including Indigenous movements to resist land theft and resource extraction, such as Idle No More, #NoDAPL, and the Unist’ot’en Camp; Black-led uprisings against police power; the wave of global anti-austerity protests that erupted after the Great Recession of 2007; and the Global Women’s Strike, among others. These movements reactivate longer theoretical and political genealogies that illuminate capitalism as a more complex totality of social forces. This special section aims to explore how these genealogies of Marxist criticism and praxis can open up further avenues for making sense of—and intervening in—our media and technological landscape in the present conjuncture.

We find ourselves again in the midst of an intense backlash against Marxist and left traditions of social upheaval both in North America and across the globe. An explicit anti-communist animus has returned to centerstage in popular rightwing discourses, from the criminalization of critical race theory and discussions of sexual and gender identity within educational institutions to headlines that warn “Marxism Underpins Black Lives Matter Agenda.”[4] As the syndicated radio host of the eponymous The Mark Levin Show recently inveighed on Fox News,

“What we have today are people pulling down monuments, effectively burning books, shutting down debate, attacking free speech, trying to balkanize the nation on race, on gender, on income. Isn’t this fundamentally quintessentially Marxism dressed up as something else?”[5]

In such revanchist expressions, Marxism appears as an ever-moving target. But the rightwing attribution of critical race theory and the destruction of Confederate monuments to a thinly-camouflaged Marxism nevertheless betrays the persistent inseparability of anti-communism and anti-Blackness in the modern United States.[6] Together, these forces continue to criminalize, repress, and condemn Black radicalism and internationalist movements for racial and economic justice.

The backlash against these movements is, however, a thoroughly bipartisan affair. The announcement by mainstream media pundits of a “return to normal” with the 2020 U.S. election of Joe Biden aimed to resecure consent to a liberal hegemony apparently debased by the Trump administration’s “illiberal” antics. On the heels of mass protests against police murder and louder and louder calls to defund the police, this so-called “return to normal” has yielded a continued commitment to growing police budgets sounded by the counterinsurgent rallying cry, “Fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”[7] It has also brought unwavering support for genocidal military and security regimes both in the U.S.  and abroad, inaction on the devastating student debt crisis, and the failure to provide economic relief, labor protections, and healthcare access during a pandemic that has killed over one million people in the U.S. alone. These exigencies of the present underline the need for media scholars, practitioners, and publics to revisit traditions of Marxist theory and praxis that have struggled to dismantle anti-Blackness, white supremacy, colonialism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and empire in their complex intersections with capitalism. Reactiving these genealogies also requires upending the epistemic and citational commitment to whiteness that still dominates film and media studies, including the field’s received histories of Marxism.[8]

Our dossier begins from the premise that Marxism has been central to the intellectual formation of film and media studies (FMS), from discipline-defining concepts such as ideology and hegemony to the field’s longstanding concern with production cultures and material apparatuses. At the same time, however, the place of Marxism within FMS in our current moment appears more diffuse and nebulous. Some critics contend that a commitment to Marxist critique has waned within FMS in recent decades.[9] Others similarly note that, in a capitulation to the anti-communism that continues to pervade academia (particularly in the U.S.), Marxist FMS has been prematurely cast as an “outmoded project.”[10] But it is also the case that the sheer expansion of FMS since the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the encounter between cinema studies and the more amorphous fields of media studies and cultural studies, has led to a dispersion—rather than a simple eclipse—of Marxist critique. In other words, while in North America a limited set of proper names (e.g., Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard), movements (e.g., Soviet montage, Third Cinema, Situationist film, the Left Bank Group), and forums (e.g., Screen, Cahiers du Cinéma, Jump Cut itself) perhaps once served as metonyms for Marxist approaches to film and media, the proliferation of media criticism across academic and non-academic publishing venues and through a wide range of academic disciplines makes it more difficult today to assess the state of an overall Marxist FMS.

On the one hand, recent currents in Marxist media criticism have extended enduring concerns in the field. Much of the most compelling work on digital technologies, for instance, builds on abiding interests in both the political economy of production and the capacity of media to represent the totality of capitalist social relations. Such tendencies are exemplified in key studies of global electronics manufacturing and data visualization.[11] This critical work refuses to indulge in the hyperbole that often surrounds discussions of new media. Instead, it remains attentive to the historical specificity of emergent media technologies and practices while situating these phenomena within longer histories of media technology, culture, and political economy. Likewise, recent media criticism has interrogated the viability of media visibility and representation as emancipatory strategies for disenfranchised communities that remain mired in underfunded neighborhoods, eviscerated social services, and unstable and poor waged jobs, if any. Such analysis draws on Marx’s insight into the ways that formal inclusion and abstract equality legitimate and heighten brutal material inequalities.[12]

On the other hand, despite these continuities between the pasts and presents of Marxist FMS, it strikes us that, within the last decade, renewed engagements with Marxist critique have supplemented questions of ideology and the critique of commodity fetishism that arguably once dominated the reception of Marxism in North American film and media studies. This is not to suggest that the imperative of ideology critique has in any way waned, nor is it to say that the many materialist strategies for reading media and culture that have emerged through an encounter with Capital, Vol. 1’s first chapter on “Commodities” have lost their urgency. But it is to register a reorientation in the kinds of theoretical commitments, archives, and political histories that have been brought to the fore within film and media criticism. Writing with the aim of contributing to these reorientations, the authors in our special section train our attention on aesthetic, political, and theoretical activity that has brought to FMS more analytic precision in deciphering the role that media play in reproducing capitalist processes of dispossession, immiseration, and disposability, but also in imagining alternatives to these violent processes.