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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 53.4: Sarah Hamblin
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The Politics of Active Spectatorship[1]

Sarah Hamblin, University of Massachusetts Boston

In one of those fortuitous coincidences so timely as to seem orchestrated, my article comes out almost simultaneously with several other pieces on Dušan Makavejev, most notably a special issue of Studies in Eastern European Cinema (5.1) that variously celebrates the distinctiveness of Makavejev’s films and makes claims for their continued relevance to studies of both cinema and politics.[2] Perhaps even more serendipitously, they provide the perfect entry point for further interrogating one of the key premises of my article and a recurring theme in discussions of political cinema and Makavejev alike – the vexed concept of active spectatorship.

Virtually every treatment of Makavejev includes a discussion of his montage aesthetic, and the recent spate of articles provide no exception to this seemingly ever-present focus: the majority of the pieces in the SEEC special issue spend time analyzing Makavejev’s collage technique, as do two recent pieces published in CineAction.[3] Almost invariably, Makavejev’s aesthetic techniques are subordinated to some theory of active spectatorship. In this vein, Alison Frank argues that what distinguishes Makavejev and makes him continually worthy of our attention is his “ability to make audiences see the world differently” through the active participation his montage style necessitates.[4] Similarly, Jonathan Owen maintains that the most important element of Makavejev’s montage aesthetic is “the particular relationship [it] establishes with the viewer,” arguing that  “because Makavejev’s intricate montages invite a range of possible intellectual and affective responses, they enable the viewer to construct his or her own personal relation to the film at hand.”[5] Owen goes on to quote Pavle Levi’s influential treatment of the Yugoslavian black wave, where Levi argues that for Makavejev “the ‘truth’ of a film, of a work of art, is not to be located in its textual fabric […]. Rather, the truth resides in the process of each individual spectator’s dynamic engagement with the work.”[6]

This critical emphasis on active spectatorship and the individuality of interpretation makes sense given the historical context of communist totalitarianism and the black wave’s emphasis on the primacy of the individual. As Levi makes clear, filmmakers like Makavejev conceived revolution as a dialectical operation whereby “society and its power structures themselves enter the process of permanent transformation and improvement by seeking to accommodate themselves to the needs and desires of the individual.”[7] Thus, as I argue in my essay, Sweet Movie challenges the authoritarianism of political cinema where the filmmaker is positioned as the master who aims to impart her specific wisdom to the audience. The film rejects any such management of spectatorial subjectivity, which for Makavejev operates as a kind of fascist control. Instead, it uses disgust as a means of disrupting the communication of any pre-determined interpretation. As a result, the film is structurally unable to articulate a coherent revolutionary politics with which the spectator is supposed to identify. Rather, and in a politically consistent if not programmatically ineffective way, spectators are left to determine what could potentially constitute a truly non-authoritarian revolutionary politics by themselves based on their individual engagement with the film. This model of active spectatorship, therefore, where the spectator is free to determine the meaning of the film according to their own interpretative proclivities, forms a cornerstone of Sweet Movie’s radical politics.

Discussions of the political import of this kind of active spectatorship characterize a substantial body of criticism on films like Sweet Movie and political modernist cinema in general. Indeed, the emphasis on the freedom of the individual spectator to fashion meaning that privileges their own subjective experiences over and above the content of the film accords with the emancipatory politics of the black wave filmmakers and the affiliated Praxis philosophers, as well as the revolutionary politics of the global 1968 conjuncture. This historical context similarly sets the stage for a leftist revolutionary politics grounded in a sense of radical self-direction. For the remainder of this postscript, however, I want explore the ramifications of considering these familiar claims about the political import of Makavejev’s montage aesthetic in relation to Melina Dragićević Šešić’s call to reframe Makavejev outside of this well-worn historical context.[8] Šešić’s short overview of the critical and scholarly reception of Makavejev’s films advocates recontextualizing them beyond the accustomed historical framework of resistance to communist totalitarianism. Drawing on Boris Buden’s claim that black wave filmmakers were reacting as much to the rise of transnational capitalism and the global market as they were the totalitarian manifestations of communism in the Eastern Bloc, Šešić argues that Makavejev’s films are ripe for reexamination in the context of contemporary late capitalism.[9] Šešić reconsiders the political elements of Makavejev’s work, arguing for their continued relevance as prognostic critiques of “issues that seem crucial today – corporate capitalism, commodification, globalisation, migration, and the creation of a global, transnational Europe.”[10] In light of Šešić’s call, then, I’d like to consider how the emphasis on active spectatorship and the concomitant individualization of meaning in political cinema position Makavejev’s aesthetics within contemporary critiques of the neoliberal turn and the rise of global capitalism. To be clear, this isn’t a call to dehistoricize his films; rather, it is an attempt to reconsider them in relation to an emergent set of conditions that would later become known as the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism.

Perhaps the first thing we need to consider as we explore the idea of active spectatorship in relation to neoliberalism is the way that Mavakejev’s mode of spectatorial engagement forces us to reconsider the way that meaning is generated in a political film. As Levi’s comments make clear, meaning does not reside in the film itself as a normative property, but in the spectator’s “process of engagement” with the film. In this way, “the meaning” of a film – how we interpret and understand what it is – is but one of a range of possible meanings to be determined by the spectator through her consumption of the film, each meaning thus existing only according to her private and idiosyncratic engagement with the film. This logic is echoed in Levi’s description of Makavejev’s active spectator: “every viewer is supposed to actively supply his or her own political and cultural predispositions, his or her own experiences and sensibilities. The process […] manages to involve the viewer […] in comparing and contrasting his or her own convictions, prejudices, desires, with the variety of textually disseminated (and contextually almost always destabilized) ones.”[11] To put things in Emilo Sauri’s terms, this kind of emphasis on the spectator indicates that the meaning of an artwork “is indistinguishable from the effect it has on its reader/beholder.” To this end, meaning is “locate[d] on the side of the subject; a subject, that is to say, whose experience of the work of art (the reactions it elicits), becomes [its] very meaning.” [12]

Such attempts to break down the boundaries between artist and consumer are familiar to arguments concerning the politics of modernist aesthetics. Indeed, for Owen, Makavejev’s attempt to deconstruct the relationship between filmmaker and spectator by making the latter as responsible for the production of meaning as the former positions him as a modernist avant-garde filmmaker. According to Owen, Makavejev is part of the same surrealist tradition as Luis Buñuel and Joseph Cornell, artists who similarly sought the dissolution of the work of art itself through the erasure of the gap between artist and consumer, between art and life.

But to continually position the idea of active spectatorship in this context is to perpetually bracket off films like Sweet Movie as part of a historical avant-garde no longer operative today, rather than to take seriously Šešić’s claim that Makavejev’s films address more than the repressive limits of totalitarian communism. For, as we shall see, if we consider the politics of active spectatorship in relation to global late capitalism, a very different political picture emerges as active spectatorship’s radical political potential is transcoded into an affirmation of neoliberal ideology. Indeed, in today’s neoliberal environment, as Nicholas Brown argues, “The old vanguardist horizon of equivalence between art and life—which only made sense as a progressive impulse when ‘life’ was understood as something other than the status quo —reverses meaning and becomes deeply conformist.”[13] Thus, if we no longer contextualize active spectatorship as the assertion of individuality against the authoritarian uniformity of Soviet-era communism, Makavejev’s revolutionary appeal to spectatorial autonomy transforms into a conservative affirmation of the individual. To put it in Sauri’s terms, we are left with the reproduction of politics as identity politics, where “an insistence on the primacy of the subject […] reduces questions about political beliefs (what one believes) to questions about perspective (where one stands).”[14]

We have to ask ourselves, then, to what extent does our understanding of active spectatorship find itself complicit with the very logics of neoliberalism? In rejecting the authoritarianism of actually existing communism, does a film like Sweet Movie inevitably align itself with capitalism, despite Makavejev’s continued commitment to Marxist politics? As critics like Slavoj Žižek have pointed out, the ideologies of individuality, spontaneity, and contingency that drove the 1968 rebellions were quickly appropriated by the logic of capitalism, such that the actual legacy of ‘68 turns out to be not so much the formation of an anti-hierarchical political system as it is the consolidation of a new form of capitalism that “usurped the far Left’s rhetoric of workers’ self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan into a capitalist one.”[15] Thus as self-determination gave way to individualism, solidarity to bourgeois moral indignation, and revolutionary spontaneity to flexibility in the workplace, the legacy of ‘68 seems to solidify as the transformation of global revolt into global free market capitalism. The emphasis on the ability of the spectator to divine their own individual political meaning, when considered alongside the neoliberal turn, thus seems to reaffirm the ideologies of consumer capitalism by asserting the primacy of individual experience over and against collective meaning. The ability of the spectator to determine the meaning of the film reflects a certain market-based logic where our freedom as spectators is determined by the extent to which we are able to choose our own individualized meanings. Moreover, the alignment of political value with personal interpretation according to our own private “political and cultural predispositions,” as Levi puts it, naturalizes our ideological judgments as freely determined choices, rather than the product of complex processes of cultural conditioning. The historically constructed nature of subjectivity is thus obscured and replaced with the neoliberal fantasy of complete self-determination where choices are made freely and in full consciousness. Furthermore, these predispositions appear to go problematically unchallenged; they simply provide the foundation for our own “personal relation to the film,” to use Owen’s words, but remain themselves uncontested. By privileging the subject over the artwork and subjective context over objective meaning, the latter are subsumed to the former, and the film is bent to the worldview of the spectator, not the other way around. Active spectatorship’s emphasis on individual choice thus becomes the naturalized expression of late capitalist ideology, with every individual personal politics becoming nothing more than an interchangeable commodity on the market.

Returning to Buden’s claim that the black wave should be considered “an early cultural announcement of the coming neo-liberal turn in the global economy” rather than an expression of the bleakness of actually existing communism, perhaps the mode of active spectatorship that films like Sweet Movie proffer is not so much a reaffirmation of the individual in the face of totalitarian uniformity as it is a prophetic expression of the burgeoning neoliberal subject and the total subsumption of the artwork to the logics of late capital. It goes without saying that Makavejev’s films, like all artworks, need to be carefully historicized, and any attempt to rethink Makavejev’s films, the Yugoslavian black wave, or the political modernist cinema of the 1960s more generally, must do so carefully. What Šešić and Buden ask, however, is that in performing this contextualizing work, we don’t lose sight of its complexity and create monolithic narratives that obscure other important elements at work in these films. Political modernist filmmakers were active during a time of profound economic transformation, and, as such, their works speak to both the global context of emergent consumer capitalism as well as more the localized experiences of authoritarianism, be it communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe or the repressive conservative ideologies of the postwar period in the west. The tensions between individualism and conformity, between choice and standardization, produced in and between these competing economic and social forces render the politics of active spectatorship ambivalent; in one context, active spectatorship holds political potential for the revolutionary ideologies of 1968, while in another it reveals strains of the neoliberal ideology of freedom as choice that takes a firm hold in the decades after the revolts.

Perhaps what this contradiction reveals, then, is the flexibility and adaptability of capitalism to absorb revolutionary energies into itself. In the same way that the philosophy of autonomy in the ‘68 movements was usurped by the logic of capitalism to formulate the ideology of worker self-management and flexibility in the workplace, when recast through the machinery of the culture industry, active spectatorship moves from generating a revolutionary consciousness to reaffirming the principles of personal choice as promulgated by the ideology of market freedom. At the same time, this contradiction highlights one of the fundamental tensions at the heart of the politics of 1968 – the struggle to formulate a politics capable of balancing the competing need for both collective action and individual expression and the tension between the will of self-determination and the structuring power of social and historical forces. At the very least it provokes further inquiry into the politics of active spectatorship and their relation to the ontology of the artwork in late capitalism, prompting a need to rethink these issues for contemporary political cinematic production and to develop new modes of spectatorial engagement given this shift in historical context.


[1] I am fundamentally indebted to one of my graduate students, Melissa Macero, for first considering the consequences of active spectatorship in relation to the ontology of the artwork. Melissa raised these ideas in a seminar paper she wrote for my graduate class on film theory, after working closely with my colleague Emilio Sauri, to whom I am also grateful for making these questions part of the intellectual inquiry of the department I’m privileged to work in.

[2] This is in addition to the forthcoming publication of Vadim Erent and Bonita Rhoads’ edited collection, Dušan Makavejev: Sex, Ideology, Montage. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2014.  

[3] See Alison Frank, “For Further Study: Dušan Makavejev.” CineAction 93 (2014): xx-xx, and Adam Balivet, “Sweeter Still: Sweet Movie Revisited.” CineAction 87 (2012): 54-xx. While most of the essays in the SEEC special issue focus, at least in part, on Makavejev’s montage, Zdenko Mandusic’s essay offers an important counter to this tendency. Mandusic argues against the limiting scope of considering all of Makavejev’s films in relation to his collage technique, an emphasis that, as he points out, has led numerous critics to dismiss his more “coherent” films. See “Tasting Colors in the Disregarded Films of Dušan Makavejev.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 5.1 (2014): 59-70.

[4] Frank, pp.x.

[5] Jonathan Owen. “From Buñuel to the Barbarogenius: Surrealist and Avant-garde Traditions in the Films of Dušan Makavejev.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 5.1 (2014): 8.

[6] Pavle Levi. Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.

[7] Levi, 31.

[8] Melina Dragićević Šešić “The films of Dušan Makavejev and their reception in Serbia.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 5.1 (2014): 71-74.

[9] Boris Burden. “Behind the Velvet Curtain. Remembering Dušan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism.” Afterall 8 (2008):

[10] Šešić, 72.

[11] Levi, pp. 33-34.

[12] Emilio Sauri. “‘A la pinche modernidad’: Literary Form and the End of History in Roberto Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes.MLN 125.2 (2010): 409.

[13] Nicholas Brown. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption under Capital.” Nonsite. March 13, 2012.

[14] Sauri, 429.

[15] Slavoj Žižek. First as Tragedy then as Farce. London, Verso, 2009. 52.

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