Yesterday‘s Misfits: Post-Fordist Mind-Game Cinema

In the Foucauldian section of his reading of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Thomas Elsaesser interprets the Buffalo Bill character as a kind of over-achiever who:

literalises the invitation to self-improvement and “self-storage” which contemporary society addresses to its subjects as consumers. … Bill becomes a subversive, because wholly dedicated, worker at the site of body- and self-commodification. By taking the system more seriously than it takes itself, he is in the vanguard of a particular form of consumption, that of self-expression turned “self-fashioning”, engaged in the permanent bricolage art of identity formation. (1)

The Foucauldian move here is the shift from a notion of power as repressive to a conception of power as productive, mining populations and subjects for ever new energies, and as modulating, i.e., flexibly adapting to any aberrations in the behavior of the governed, and thus as capable of integrating such disturbances into an expanded, intensified system. Thus, highlighting the usefulness and dutifulness of Bill‘s acts of self-observation and self-perfection, Elsaesser arrives at the conclusion that “[t]he line between the criminal (the extreme embodiment of the system itself, which takes the system at its word) and the resister/contester of the system … becomes a fine one indeed.” (2)

This logic according to which the transgression enriches the norm and expands its rule is also at work in other recent studies of Elsaesser on what, for some duration, he labeled “post-classical cinema.” In two essays on different incarnations of Hollywood‘s ambiguous “newness”, the emphasis is on logics of production (rather than docile self-commodification, as in Bill‘s case), placing two moments in the recent history of American mainstream cinema within the genealogy of the regime of capitalist accumulation known as post-Fordism. First, in his introduction to the reader on New Hollywood Cinema, Elsaesser proposes an alternative to the canonical, fetishising critical/cinephile view of New Hollywood as oppositional to the main current of American cinema. He suggests to see maverick or underground filmmakers and cinematic practices as “pilot fish”: This means that they act as an avant-garde preparing and rehearsing Hollywood‘s move from an overall Fordist logic, which restricts film images – what they render perceptible as well as their production and consumption – to routinised disciplines, into a post-Fordist logic capable of valorising deviations and rule-breaking, for instance, by way of the paradoxically standardised exception called the “blockbuster”. In this view, not only did the (however vaguely) “counter-cultural” experimentation within American popular cinema help to modernise a Hollywood in crisis, but it also “played” through – rather than worked through – in its images new, more flexible norms of meaningful subjectivity and sociality. With his outlook on cinema as a site for the rehearsal and capitalisation of social productivity, Elsaesser writes of Hollywood circa 1970 as “harvesting and harnessing the counter-cultural energies (including their anti-social excesses) for new kinds of work, especially in those sectors where, according to [Michael] Hardt and [Antonio] Negri, economic and cultural phenomena can no longer be distinguished” and as “giving, for instance, the psychopath (as well as other marginalised, pathologised or criminalised existences, including ‚hippies‘) a potentially valuable function in periods of transition.” (3)

Second, there is the cultural logic and epistemology of the “mind-game film”, a more recent phenomenon within Hollywood as well as global mainstream cinema. (4) Elsaesser cautions against a – cognitivist/narratological – reduction of these films‘ textual bifurcations, phenomenological ambiguities, and retroactive dynamics (the built-in necessity to [re-]read them from their surprise endings, as in M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Sixth Sense, (1999)). Not to reduce the playful weirdness of mind-game films to mere deviations from the norms and normality of commonsense story-telling is a precondition to Elsaesser‘s interpretation that sees the mental states of protagonists, largely unframed and encompassing all of the film‘s articulation, as “productive pathologies”. Reading films here opens up an ethos of confronting sense-making potentials of insane thinking. The overall “’avant-garde’ or ‘pilot’ or ‘prototype’ function [of mind-game films] within the ‘institution cinema’” is “to train, elaborate and, yes: ‘test’ the textual forms, narrative tropes and story motifs that can serve such a re-negotiation of the rules of the game.” (5) Pathologies such as paranoia, understood as a hypersensitivity to changes in the environment, or the amnesia of Memento‘s (2000) protagonist who practices self-programming by inscribing his body – and even Buffalo Bill‘s compulsive self-observation and self-fashioning – manifest their productivity as tactics and subjectivities suitable for the labor and power regimes of post-Fordist network and control societies. (6)

If we regard these points as amounting to the formula that yesterday‘s disturbances and failures are today‘s assets and high-level performances, then Elsaesser also gives us his second thoughts on these schematics. The assessment that New Hollywood‘s “misfits, rebels and outsiders were necessary for ‘the system’ to first adjust and then renew itself,” he intimates, “may be too neat – or cynical”; and he hopes that it is “not too cynically [put]” to state that Hollywood‘s “auteurs drew their self-understanding from identifying with the ideology of the European artist (or the freewheeling spirit of the [Roger] Corman operation and the various counter-cultures), while at another level they also played the role of the pilot fish.” (7)

Cynicism is a term and a stance worth pondering in the context of Elsaesser‘s writings on cinema‘s role within mediatised social life; we reencounter it (in brackets) in his dense 2001 essay on trauma theory: “[T]rauma theory would be called upon to rescue interpretation and hermeneutics from the relativism of ‘there is no hors-texte’, from the fundamentalism of the ‘authentic experience’ but also from the (cynical) tyranny of the ‘performative’, since trauma poses the enigma of interpretation as a negative performative.” (8) The cynicism which Elsaesser has in mind here is the “genealogical” appropriation and reworking of pasts in the service of the successful performing and fashioning of present media-cultural identities. As an antidote to this, Elsaesser‘s philosophy of cinema and media history offers an “archeological” ethos willing to encounter the irreducibly insisting, irritating virtualities of non-appropriated pasts and presents. (9)

There is also a certain cynicism that Elsaesser‘s own argument seems to be willing to risk. To quote again from the essay on the mind-game film: “Read ‘politically’, in the light of Michel Foucault, mind-game films would show how perceptual or somatic faculties released or manifest by illness are … ‘socialized’: … the illness is made to work, fitting a body (through its mind no longer ‘in control’) around a new set of social tasks and political relations.” (10) Elsaesser‘s position certainly differs from the American pop sociology he refers to, in which, under the headline “Everything Bad Is Good for You”, sophisticated HBO series and mind-game films are advocated as educational tools for the young, effective “in adapting the working population to the social technologies that promise their economic survival, maintain civic cohesion and assure America‘s hegemonic position in the world.” (11) Pointing to such instrumentalist notions of pedagogy-through-media as well as to Foucault‘s theory of governmentality and Gilles Deleuze‘s concept of the control society, Elsaesser, at the end of his essay, wants to leave open the question if cinema is “part of the solution” or “part of the problem.” (12)

In avoiding a formalist reductionism of cinema‘s social role as well as a cinephile/film-critical longing for a film art untainted by capital, Elsaesser, however, emphasises cinema‘s usefulness to a post-Fordist, flexible adaptation to a degree that his argument seems to feed into an “economistic” determinism (“culturalistically” rearticulated as it may be) which pertains to neo-liberal ideology as well as to Hardt and Negri‘s ultra-left celebration of the skilled, knowing, affectively creative “multitude”. (Elsaesser also does so in his more recent suggestion to rethink the notion of the “cinematic city” by perceiving cinematic urbanity through the conceptual optics of film festivals with their economies of cultural capital, their post-democratic moments of socialising, their security and information apparatuses, etc.) What is evaporated in this system-theoretical affirmation of weird cinema training people to be normal according to new rules, is the very category of politics which Elsaesser invokes with his claim to read mind-game films politically with Foucault. One can object to this claim with Jacques Rancière‘s philosophy of politics as a “subjectification in disagreement”, that the management of the well-ordered knowledge and productivity of subjects is not an issue of politics, but of the “police”, in the expanded, Foucauldian sense of government and bio-power which Rancière draws on. (13)

Trauma as Metaphor and Failure Taken at its Word

Elsaesser‘s project to highlight the successful contribution of cinema to a well-performing machinery of post-Fordist capitalism comes quite close to that unlimited capacity for revaluation and appropriation which is labeled “cynical tyranny of the performative” in his trauma theory essay (cf. supra). In order to draw a line here and to dissolve an all-too neat equation of the pragmatics of cinema with the smooth functioning of social energies, one can, however, turn to another Elsaesserian concept outlined in his writings on trauma and terror. The concept of “failed performance”, loosely derived from the Freudian Fehlleistung and expanded into a cinematic/mediatised “poetics of parapraxis”, points to a pragmatic orientation which differs from the mere functioning and “success stories” of genealogical identity-formation.

Looking at mind-game cinema‘s “productive pathologies” from the vantage-point of performed failure and of the parapraxis – that which, etymologically, is not yet a praxis, or is a praxis besides itself – what comes to the foreground is what these concepts have in common. They both act as media for rendering a problem visible, sensible – as “early warning systems” with respect to the way in which mental insanities fulfill in an excessive way demands made by governmental power (which, Elsaesser notes, also gives Buffalo Bill‘s efforts their “subversive” edge) and as a mode of reading media images in constellations, as in the following quotation: “[The media] culture of confession and witnessing, of exposure and self-exposure … has made trauma theory the recto, and therapeutic television (also disparagingly called trash TV) the verso of democracy‘s failure to ‘represent’ its citizens‘ personal concern in the public sphere.” (14) Turning a metaphorical media image (TV culture‘s notorious “survivors” of experiences ranging from political violence and natural disaster to childhood consumption habits or long periods of illness and even to the time spent in jungles or in re-created 1950s school environments as candidates of TV shows) and a metaphorised concept (trauma) into each other is the becoming-thought-image of a question which in Elsaesser‘s writing comes up almost as frequently as the “recto/verso” diagram: What is the problem or trauma to which this or that media image offers itself as a solution or symptom?

Reading media through trauma means deciphering a crisis of political belonging. All the self-confessed “traumatised” and self-stylists of reality-TV who, sobbing or screaming, display a survived life crisis or a frivolous enjoyment, they indicate, in Elsaesser‘s perspective, not a genealogical “carnival of identities”, but a loss of possibilities for democratic representation. It is exactly there that we find a trauma, or (which amounts to the same thing) the blind spot of a perception which sees trauma everywhere. Or, as Elsaesser puts it in connection with media images of recent German history, while trauma culture might have become the most comfortable way for German society to speak to itself, there is a genuine trauma, an unrepresentable absence, to be deciphered in the 1968 generation‘s obsession with working through (the Nazi past) and the 1989 generation‘s fancy for playful appropriation (of images left behind by history, including periods of political violence): the widespread loss of any belief in the possibility to contribute to a changed world through individual or collective public action. (15) Instead of this lost pragmatics, the present metaphorical extension of the notion of terror serves to label as “terrorist” various attempts to reclaim public activity (swallowing up what once was called “resistance”); at the same time, the universalisation of trauma has firmly established the idea that history and politics (or rather: historical experience driven from a well-policed course by the immodesty of politics) produce nothing but victims. For this situation, Elsaesser introduces the image of terror and trauma as “Siamese twins” of political discourse – the semblance of a pre-given, complementary opposition, into which, however, the concept of parapraxis can intervene. Failed performances in politics and in cinema (which we will turn to in a second) are successful in that they, however inadvertently, avoid the extremes of traumatic paralysis and excessive terrorist action, while at the same time marking and keeping open the site which these extremes attempt to occupy: that of meaningful, purposive action. Thus, parapractical action testifies to the still existing, or rather insisting, hope that public action and politics can be possible (again). (16)

Although Elsaesser intimates a perspective on terrorist acts reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek messianistic invocation of the 9/11 attacks as stand-ins for a genuinely revolutionary rupture in the continuum of neo-liberal policing, his analysis is more complex and reflexive in confronting head-on terrorism as a phenomenon of media culture. (17) In his study of two semi-documentary German films on the legacy of the RAF, the West-German Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction), and its political terrorist acts during the 1970s, he marks politics as exactly that which insists beyond the closure of what we may call a “post-Fordisation” logics. The argument goes as follows: First, there is the “double failure” of the RAF, “as artists and as political activists.” Politically, the RAF failed because, instead of mass mobilisation, they were “merely able to engender ‘imaginary’ identifications around either bank robberies, prison break-outs and killing sprees, or designer labels, rock music and fast cars.” (18) Artistically, they failed because their “conceptual art” version of a politics of the street, while attempting to render intelligible (post-)urban security spaces cleansed of democratic activity, ended up producing spectacles of a “dangerous lifestyle” that served as blueprints for today‘s playful pop-appropriations of left-wing militancy and terrorism (as in Che Guevara or “Prada Meinhof” clothing). There is even the cynical view, which Elsaesser cites, in which the RAF appears as outright useful, an invention of the bourgeois state in its move towards the “information society”, legitimising all sorts of “curtailment of civil liberties”. (19) As he points out:

What this “mirroring” of the state by the RAF flattens is the underlying dynamic of identification: not the kind of imaginary identification … on the part of the RAF‘s political or pop sympathisers, but the act of symbolic identification … [T]he RAF took the state at its word, mirrored the demand made upon the individual by the state, accepted the symbolic mandate that is implied in being a citizen. (20)

This is how a mere post-Fordist logic – failed performances become useful to a system renewing itself through integration of disturbances – gives way to a parapractical argument. Seeing the RAF as taking the state at its word points towards the performance of a failure, the exposure of a problem (similarly, reading Buffalo Bill as taking the system at its word exposes the coercive dimension of self-perfection). What becomes visible-as-legible in this thought-image of the RAF performing the state through failure is, for instance, the “missing people” (a notion put forward by Deleuze), the absence of the manifestation of a legitimising popular will on the part of the terrorists as well as on the part of the state, both proclaiming themselves as representatives of the people. In the face of such a crisis of representation, Elsaesser‘s concluding argument aims at the formation of a political subject via a failure of belonging:

It must have seemed to the RAF that it was only by putting themselves outside the law that they could constitute a “political group”, and again, not in the practical sense of organising a non-authoritarian Wohngemeinschaft, or in the formal sense of registering as an extra-parliamentary opposition, a sort of NGO for internal affairs, but in the sense of being political subjects and constituting a “we”. (21)

It is important to note that what counts in the RAF‘s “making the act of becoming ‘criminals’ the founding gesture of its group identity” (22) is not its embracing of a rebel lifestyle, but its very breaking with lifestyle, its tearing loose from a culturalist and identitarian definition of subjectivity – in this case: from the post-1968 counter-cultures of hippie collectives and student communes and their sense of being on the right side by virtue of their organisation and stylisation of the everyday. So, “what sort of ‘we’, what group identity, is symbolisable in a civic, political sense?” (23) With this question that Elsaesser raised in the conclusion of his RAF essay, especially when faced with foundationalist attempts at nullifying the very question in the form of identity politics and new nationalisms, the connection of Elsaesser‘s concept to Chantal Mouffe’s and Jacques Rancière’s theories of democracy comes to the fore (the latter being explicitly referenced in the formulation of the question). In order to trace that connection, it is rewarding to turn to Elsaesser‘s early writings on the politics and aesthetics of mainstream cinema; in them, we retrospectively, perhaps even retroactively, re-encounter the issue of a performative “we” that impersonates a rupture, the subjectification of a failure, a “we” that “blew it”.

Failure and Fuller

In 1971, in the first issue of Monogram, a film magazine which Elsaesser co-edited, he already pondered the question of what mainstream cinema teaches people. Under the headline “Why Hollywood?”, he opposed the contempt which then-current counter-cultures had for American movies and argued in favor of Old Hollywood. In its classical period, American film served as an “education of sensibility”, taking characters as well as audiences “from simple impulse to experience of complexity” and to acknowledging “the impossibility of instantaneous gratification”. In contrast to classical Hollywood‘s teaching of sublimation, contradiction, and – as a category of experience more resonant in his later “traumatological” writings – delay, Elsaesser detected a celebration of “outbursts of unmotivated and wholly irrational violence” in contemporary American cinema as “evidence of an unsublimated energy” (The Wild Bunch, 1969), as well as an artistically nihilistic opportunism in which “essential contradictions are being slurred over by a cult of the aesthetically pleasing” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969). (24)

The latter critical point reappeared four years later in a better known Monogram article, which already in its title seemed to announce a future key concept: “The Pathos of Failure” was diagnosed as the predominant narrative and ethical stance of Hollywood‘s youth-oriented road movies circa 1970; these films reflected “the experience of a rebellion whose impulse towards change aborted” and “the moral and emotional gestures of a defeated generation”, increasingly resorting to the self-pity of those who feel their identity denied by the establishment. (25) Apart from the recurring critical verdict on Hollywood‘s catering to hip(pie) audiences by undialectically glorifying a rebel-as-loser habitus, there is also a similarity in the concluding arguments of the two Monogram articles. In 1971, Elsaesser wrote about Easy Rider (1969):

And just as in the classical movie, the hero learns something from his quest about himself and about the world, so Billy and Captain America learn the lesson of total failure – that they cannot live among the hippies, that the American South is murderous, and that, in short “we blew it”. Given the present ideological climate, such an admission may seem the sign of a new realism. (26)

Elsaesser was quick to add that such a bitter, self-devastating “realism” had been the very starting point for films by Nicholas Ray in the classical Hollywood and was therefore nothing that the counter-culture filmmakers should be very proud of and certainly not something invented by New Hollywood. Even more significant in this context is how the “Pathos of Failure” article ends on a note similar to this realism implied in the admission of total failure. In his 1975 text, Elsaesser sees the slow-motion car race that becomes a “burning” of the image in the projector at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop (1970) – the road movie planned by its producers as a successor to Easy Rider‘s triumph and ending up as a huge commercial failure – as a “revaluation of physical reality”, with “the momentum of action [giving] way to the moment of gesture and the body”. The last sentence of the article reads: “[T]he unmotivated hero and the pathos of failure will be the two negatives that result in a positive.” (27)

Two negatives under whose sign a new, post-heroic but also post-political valorisation of reality announces itself, with the body in its action-thwarting givenness acting as a “positive”: we can see this pair as early – dare I say embryonic – incarnations of Elsaesser‘s “Siamese twins” trauma and terror. On the one hand, we have the embracing of universalised traumatisation, resulting in passivity, paralysis, and self-pity. On the other hand, we have the terrorist perversion of the genuine act, corresponding to, well, if not the moment of gesture and body, then certainly to those Wild Bunch-like outbursts of unmotivated, unsublimated energy and instantaneous fulfillment which in 1971 Elsaesser saw as taking the place of Hollywood‘s temporalisation of image and experience by way of delay. What at the time appeared to be nihilistic, is in retrospect legible as an “early warning sign” of the formation of a new socio-aesthetical regime of revaluating reality and revalorising its profitable energetic potentials, a post-Fordist logic centered on (“repressively”) desublimated self-enjoyment, on the authenticity of rebels and on the “wild” productivity of band- and bunch-like teams in creative industries. (28) Or should we, taking the masculinity crisis and psychotic violence of Wild Bunch‘s Westerners as an optical device, even see a link between Easy Rider‘s self-pitying hippie cowboys biking across the prairies dressed in suede and leather, and a self-fashioning post-Fordist Buffalo Bill dressed in women‘s skin?

Wherever this takes us, it seems that the detour – from the ethical act of political subjectification via breaking with social and cultural belonging to New Hollywood‘s unmotivated heroes – has brought us to a dead end: It seems that the “We” that impersonates a failure has taken us, more inescapably than before, into the closed circuits of a genealogy of a post-Fordist subsuming of any-life-whatever. Again, one should call upon the poetics of parapraxis to wrest, rescue, and reclaim the dimension of the political in its non-givenness from this closure. I suggest turning to an even earlier Elsaesser text to find the concept of a film aesthetic of performed failure that goes beyond both the cultural habitus of self-victimisation and the ethos of a self-realisation so anxious to be “fully” expressed. What is beyond the full is Fuller, the American filmmaker of that name, portrayed as a subject of political cinema in an essay first published in 1969 by the then 26-year-old Thomas Elsaesser.

In his essay, simply titled “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor”, Elsaesser starts out with finding in Fuller a concept of subjectivity that contrasts with the classical American movie hero. Instead of an individualist relationship to the self and the world, there is in Fuller‘s protagonists

a sense of inquisitiveness which often gives way to a kind of obsessive fascination. … the logic of their actions is that of a strictly internal, existential purposiveness: to penetrate into unknown territory, to go behind enemy lines, or to desert to the enemy altogether. … Parallel to the action, we therefore witness a process in which [an] external necessity (the mission, the goal) is validated existentially. For what do these characters care about Communism, the war in Indochina or Korea, the American Civil War, the Sioux nation – if not because invariably their fight becomes purely and simply a question of survival? (29)

Fuller‘s 1957 Run of the Arrow is Elsaesser‘s implied reference when he mentions the Civil War and the Sioux, and although his essay has Fuller‘s Shock Corridor (1963) as the main object of inquiry, this western is a good example of the kind of political existentialism it was aiming for. Run of the Arrow is about a Southern rebel soldier who, right after the Civil War, joins the Sioux nation – not, however, for any “foundationalist” reason, such as a culturalist fascination with an allegedly unalienated fullness of Indian life, as it is invoked in Dances With Wolves (1990). Rather, the “Johnny Reb” character becomes a Sioux because he refuses to accept the surrender of the Confederacy to the United States; he prefers separation to union, splits from his people who have decided to make their peace with the enemy, lives in the desert as a traveling one-man-war, and only joins the Sioux – as a white man and thus their enemy – after being captured by them and surviving the ordeal which gives the film its title. Being granted a Sioux identity as a reward for not having died at their hands, he accepts it because they are the enemy of his enemy (the US military). Nevertheless, he gives up his Indian life and wife at the end when he finds himself unable to bear the sight of the tribe torturing a captured Union officer and relieves his sworn enemy from his suffering by shooting him. So the outlaw is an Indian because he refuses to be a US citizen and ends up being part of the United States, as his Sioux wife tells him, purely because he is unable to remain a Sioux. Significantly, this protagonist is not a self-pitying, New Hollywood-style outsider catering to the empathies of audiences eager to feel misunderstood by the world; rather, the way in which Rod Steiger plays him makes him appear as remarkably unlikeable in his high-pitched self-pitying hate-sermons: and yet, this unlikable character allows for no easy gesture of knowing better and dismissing him on our part, and he remains the one who takes us through most of the film. Devoid of any positive qualities to found a rebel identity or imaginary identification upon, he becomes a political subject according to a logic similar to the RAF‘s founding rupture: by not-belonging, by tearing himself loose from a cultural habitus. In this he accepts the symbolic mandate of being a representative. As Elsaesser writes (with regard to Shock Corridor‘s split-subject protagonist): “The schizophrenic, traitor to reality, is the true hero of America, because he alone is representative by taking upon him the cross of contradiction.” (30)

Elsaesser‘s point on heroic schizophrenia (a version of “productive pathology” – or a verso to its recto?) is the result of an argument about America‘s rational, freedom-desiring impulses demonstrating the irrational and oppressive nature of that society. We might read here a philosophy of history in the vein of the Dialectic of Englightenment. Actually, it is Herbert Marcuse whom Elsaesser quotes regarding the concept of the American “enemy within”. The reference to Marcuse, a key thinker of the events of 1968, can be seen as a theoretical linkage from Critical Theory to a Deleuzian/Guattarian ethics of the “schizo,” which Elsaesser, from today‘s perspective, seems to invoke by in fact anticipating it. (31) Let us, however, retrace at this point the connection between Elsaesser‘s political aesthetics of cinema and philosophies of (radical) democracy: It is vital that the quest for self-knowledge on which the Fuller hero embarks and his representative role – his readiness for a position which the RAF took up as an impossible one – that, in short, Fuller‘s politics are not based on a liberal phenomenology of the rational pursuit of individual interest. Elsaesser writes that in Fuller‘s films “communism is not an ideological notion, not even primarily a political one, but an existential one.” (32) In spite of Elsaesser’s somewhat misleading terminology here, his point amounts to highlighting an existentialism which is political in an acute, conflictual, “agonistic” sense. This political existentialism refutes a reductive understanding of politics as a choice between offerings in favor of a radical concept of politics as a milieu of existence and as the genuine production of a subject. This is a subjectification as the event of a political appearance, to use Rancière’s terms, a subjectification in disagreement and disidentification. Or, to put it in Mouffe‘s ontological vocabulary of “the political”, Elsaesser‘s view of Fuller‘s cinema as one in which the Western subject positions him/herself in a precarious relationship with, and thus in acknowledgement of, an “enemy” (not an “other”, because there is no “self” to presuppose or rediscover) subscribes to an “agonistic” definition of politics in categories of the irreducibility of public passions, or affects, and of the performativity of adversarial we/they distinctions. (33) “[T]here can be no question of Fuller‘s heroes being ‘objective’ about Communism. Indeed, I would claim that they have to be violently anti-communist, racists, maniacs, etc., in order to encounter the ‘other’, the alternative on a sufficiently intense emotional level”, Elsaesser writes, and he calls this “the didactic-provocative nature of Fuller‘s cinema.” (34)

The issue of cinematic teaching is brought up here with a focus neither on the rehearsal of flexibilisation nor rationalisation; in the latter respect, Elsaesser‘s position in 1969 differs from contemporary critiques of cinematic ideology – from attempts to rationalise images that “naturalise” power relations, a project inspired not least of all by a wish to “sanitise” cinema, to “put it right”. (35) Instead, Elsaesser offers a theory of a productively “wrong” and ostensibly “inadequate” cinema, which he later rephrased as the poetic of parapraxis. What Elsaesser‘s more recent writings on performed failure refer to as “strangely adequate discrepancies”, “conceptual slapstick”, or “slips of the tongue” as “camouflaged articulations” with respect to New German Cinema (36), could be analysed in Verboten! (1958), Shock Corridor or other Fuller films. Fuller´s B-movies are dedicated to disruptions in the sensible, to non-identitary subjectifications and self-founding “speech-events”(Rancière). This aesthetic of the “democratic act” sheds some light on what passes as “political film” in today‘s American or German mainstream cinema.

Belonging Twice Over: A Body too Much

To conclude with a more recent piece of “unsane” cinema, let us briefly turn once more to Siamese twins; not exactly to Elsaesser‘s discursive Siamese twins of terror and trauma, however, but to the protagonist(s) of the Farrelly Brothers comedy Stuck On You (2003). At first sight, the film may seem a mere joyful rehearsal of post-Fordist diversity management, a lesson in flexibilisation in which two men conjoined at the hips take the place given to pilot-fish and other hippies in New Hollywood. The twins first perform admirably as high-speed “burger flippers” in their diner, and later one of them (!) has an acting career in a TV detective series, co-starring with Cher and dragging his brother along, who is rendered invisible with the help of blue-screen camera technique. But it eventually becomes clear that the film is less about “productive pathologies” and disabilities functioning as empowerment, or rather, it is so only by way of disturbing the “count of parts” (Rancière) of the social body: the actor brother‘s career has no obvious relationship to his handicap (unlike films of the Rain Man (1988) type in which talent or some deep insight into life as such neatly complements a pathology), and, generally, disability in Stuck On You does not translate into an identity with an “evident” foundation. Rather, the status of the twin‘s “god-given Siamese…ness”, as Cher puts it in the film, is precarious with regard to its meaning as a phenomenon: from scene to scene, from one encounter to another, it seems to shift from visible to unnoticed, from significant to negligible.

When, in one dialogue, the twins are addressed as “Siamese twins”, and one of them objects: “We‘re not Siamese! We‘re American!”, we have, in the nutshell of a key-line, the affirmation of citizenship over foundational identity, the embracing of the “United States” in every sense as the manifestation of a political subjectivity. Performing a failure in this case implies insisting on the urgency of the question of what it means to say “We” politically, to refuse “having understood” what the adequate, well-founded, culturalisable group identity is. It means taking the system, or rather its irreducible democratic dimension, at its word by taking a meaning literally, thus escaping metaphorisation as in Deleuze‘s aesthetic of “literalness” and parapractically, mimetically, overidentifyingly playing stupid to render a problem visible. Conceived as a political subject or two that cannot be quantified, the non-Siamese twins could be approached along the lines of Elsaesser‘s interpretation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s episode in the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (1978); instead of a proper symbolisation of bodies, they confront, assault us with the gross materiality of “a body too much”. (37) This “too much”, this embodied excess of being exposed and connected to a community, inescapable being “Stuck On You” as state of the union, is what distinguishes political subjectivity as “belonging twice over: belonging to the world of properties and parts and belonging to the improper community” from a rebel stance of not-belonging to which the economy of cultural identities has so many places (of work) to offer. (38)

This article appeared in a different version in: Jaap Kooijman, Patricia Pisters, Wanda Strauven (eds.): Mind the Screen: Media Concepts According to Thomas Elsaesser. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 82-96.


  1. Thomas Elsaesser, “Feminism, Foucault, and Deleuze (The Silence Of The Lambs)”, Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland, Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis (London and New York: Arnold, 2002) 275.
  2. Elsaesser, “Feminism, Foucault, and Deleuze” 275.
  3. Thomas Elsaesser, “American Auteur Cinema: The Last – or First – Great Picture Show”, The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, eds. Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004) 66. Elsaesser refers to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  4. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009).
  5. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”.
  6. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”.
  7. Elsaesser, “American Auteur Cinema” 44, 58.
  8. Thomas Elsaesser, “Postmodernism as Mourning Work”, Screen 42:2 (2001): 201.
  9. Thomas Elsaesser, Filmgeschichte und frühes Kino. Archäologie eines Medienwandels (Munich: text + kritik, 2002) chapter 10. See also Drehli Robnik, Geschichtsaesthetik und Affektpolitik. Stauffenberg und der 20. Juli im Film 1948-2008 (Vienna: turia+kant, 2009): 28f.
  10. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”.
  11. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”. One is reminded here of the provocation in October‘s “Visual Culture Questionnaire” which suggested “that visual studies is helping, in its own modest, academic way, to produce subjects for the next stage of globalised capital.” October 77 (1996): 25.
  12. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”.
  13. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) chapter 2.
  14. Elsaesser, “Postmodernism as Mourning Work” 196.
  15. Thomas Elsaesser, Terror und Trauma. Zur Gewalt des Vergangenen in der BRD (Berlin: Kadmos, 2007) 36, 45.
  16. Elsaesser, Terror und Trauma 42-47.
  17. Elsaesser, Terror und Trauma 47; Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London and New York: Verso, 2002).
  18. Thomas Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes: Urban Guerilla or Guerilla Urbanism? The Red Army Faction, Germany In Autumn and Death Game”, Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, eds. Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin (London: Verso, 1999) 293, 297. I refer here to the original publication of the essay which, in German translation, became the centerpiece of Elsaesser‘s Terror und Trauma volume and was published in French as Terrorisme, Mythes et Représentations: la RAF de Fassbinder aux T-Shirts Prada-Meinhof (Lille: Tausend Augen, 2005).
  19. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes” 292.
  20. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes” 294.
  21. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes”297.
  22. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes” 297.
  23. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes” 298.
  24. Elsaesser, “Why Hollywood”, Monogram 1 (1971): 10.
  25. I am quoting this 1975 article from its 2004 reprint: Thomas Elsaesser, “The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s. Notes on the Unmotivated Hero”, The Last Great American Picture Show 286.
  26. Elsaesser, “Why Hollywood” 10.
  27. Elsaesser, “The Pathos of Failure” 292.
  28. Some of these points are developed further in Drehli Robnik, “Allegories of Post-Fordism in 1970s New Hollywood: Countercultural Combat Films, Conspiracy Thrillers as Genre-Recycling”, The Last Great American Picture Show 333-358. For a placing of The Wild Bunch, along with other 1960s “teamwork westerns”, within the interpretive framework of capitalism‘s shift to professional élites, see Will Wright, Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975). Wright mentions hippies – along with executives and scientists –as one of the social groups that have adopted a self-perception as an élite of the specially skilled (184).
  29. I am quoting this essay from a 1976 reprint: Thomas Elsaesser, “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor”, Movies and Methods Volume 1, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976) 292.
  30. Elsaesser, “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor” 297.
  31. Elsaesser, “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor” 295.
  32. Elsaesser, “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor” 296.
  33. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (London and New York: Routledge, 2005) chapters 2, 3.
  34. Elsaesser, “Sam Fuller‘s Shock Corridor” 293.
  35. One example would be “Young Mr. Lincoln, texte collectif,” Cahiers du cinéma (August 1970).
  36. Elsaesser, Terror und Trauma 32, 132, 187.
  37. Elsaesser, “Antigone Agonistes” 281.
  38. Rancière, Disagreement 137. I explore the usefulness to film theory of Rancière´s critique of ethics and of his politics of disidentifying, dissensual acts in: Drehli Robnik: Film ohne Grund. Filmtheorie, Postpolitik und Dissens bei Jacques Rancière. (Wien, Berlin: Turia+Kant, 2010)

About The Author

Drehli Robnik is historian and film theorist based in Vienna-Erdberg with a PhD in film studies from University of Amsterdam. A key researcher at Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for History and Society, Vienna, on the historicity of film with respect to Hollywood´s (re-)visions of WWI, and author of monographs (in German) on Jacques Rancière´s political film aesthetics, and on the politics of affect in films on German anti-Nazi resistance, and an essay on Siegfried Kracauer appeared in Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers (Felicity Colman (ed.) London: Acumen 2009).