Marginal Notes on Cinema and Nation

As our Film 240 class wrapped-up earlier, I’m still trying to come into terms of how should I approach the topic of both Cinema and Nation. Prof. Deocampo said to me that the way I wanted to approach my topic, which is Cinema under the Aquino Administration, is something most students (if I heard him right) may not be excited about. He’s referring to the idea I’m proposing that the Nation is constructed.

This idea is something I synthesized over weeks (if not years and months) of reading about cinema and ideology. Benedict Anderson’s most famous claim that the “nation” is something that is imagined is the root of this, but this is something I thought through Kojin Karatani. [1]Karatani claimed, in Nation and Aesthetics, that although, yes, nation is something that is imagined, it isn’t something abstract. The nation being an imagined community, for him, is imagined through reciprocal exchange.[2]

But Karatani’s thought, although thinking with Empire in mind, can only be applicable on nations which has only history of internal geopolitical domination. I’m guessing Nobunaga, when he’s trying to “unify” Japan, does not really have that much of a colonial problem. Although, history may state that his thought of the nation as a rationale of geopolitical domination, is itself, a product of colonial thought, only hybridized with feudal and warrior-society based notions of social organizing to fit their then current historical condition.

How does Karatani’s “nation imagined through exchange” can be thought in a country (in its current geopolitical set up as a nation-state) with history of domination which resulted to uneven development, and therefore, uneven exchange? Thinking about this problem lead me to believe of the answer lying on the question itself: that the Philippines’ national construction is founded really on this uneven exchange. This thought isn’t new, of course. This, in effect, resulted to an affirmation of something one can hear by taking the short course for Philippine Society and Revolution (PSR), of the country’s history as a history of class struggle. By itself, if looked at closely, something which might seem as a hasty appropriation of the introductory line in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Although Amado Guerrero himself, on the actual book of PSR, identified the geophysical limits of it in such a way that the government, in the constitution, would also describe the limits of a national territory,[3] it still does not address the issue of nation and nationhood. But I guess, it comes with the historical necessity of the time. It was a period of great tumult, and Guerrero can only but address what is perceived as an immediate task to do. Philosophical / theoretical abstractions of terms can be done later, and not necessarily by himself, by other people.

Historically, too, the “nation,” on more progressive nations (i.e. socialist-construction) like in North Korea, theorization of these kinds of abstractions — of “national” , “nationhood”, “national” philosophy” — only came after the successes of its people’s front’s revolutionary takeover of the economy and the state. Kim Jong-Il wrote books on the philosophical foundations and direction of their state — called collectively as the Juche philosophy. He even wrote books for opera and cinema, which confirms the importance of these popular arts (and later, media) to the formation of the philosophy he and their party is trying to establish.

So theorizing about the nation, I think, isn’t of a pressing issue in 1969, back when PSR was conceived. This actually is quite scientific, in a sense. Reading Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach would let us perceive the logical organization around the strategy of prioritizing the change of the economic base before the theorization of the nation. Marx critiqued Feuerbach’s notion of “religion” as mere essence. For him, “religion” is a product of “sensuous human activity” — something which later will be called as labor. As much as nation and nationhood, like “religion,” is being treated merely as essence — as an imagination — it is also necessary to tumble this thinking as it is standing on its head.

We must look at history to see how the nation is formed. And looking at the nation as having a history of uneven exchange, it could be said that the “nation” formed and that is being imagined right now is rooted on this uneven exchange. We can call this phenomenon — of a nation being constructed or formed through uneven exchange — as postcoloniality. This uneven exchange can never be anything, in the history of global south, but rooted in colonial history. All symptoms of a postcolonial condition, by which the notions of hybridity and subalternity are most pressing, tautologically points toward the nation’s’ colonial history.

The history of cinema in the Philippines, by which Prof. Deocampo has been dedicating his life researching and writing about, can also be seen as rooting from this uneven development. Of course, it can only come by logic (in this case, that of the bourgeois since the uneven development can only but serve the ruling class of its time since resources — electricity, infrastructure etc — are centralized  where the ruling class are gathered to do their economic activities) that the first place to ever have a functioning cinema theater is the metropolitan center of the then colonial country, which was the Salon de Pertierra in Escolta, Manila. The duplication of theaters are also symptomatic of this uneven development. Of course, it is also only through bourgeois logic that it is thinkable that theaters can only be established on cities.

Fast forward to 2017. Still, as one can notice through critically looking at the current conditions of the country, we’re experiencing this uneven development. The challenge for me right now, is how to look at cinema, nation and this uneven development of economics and politics in the backdrop of the current dominating economics and politics. I can only but imagine one thing, and that is through looking at ideological formations.

The Nation, as an imagination, is necessarily a construction. It flows through a certain ideology, which is nationalism. Nationalism vary on every country, depending on the social and historical conditions which produced it. The nation, being an imagination, can’t be an object without its subject. Nationalism being an ideology necessarily produces and reproduces its subject through and by ideology. It may sound like a loop, but as theorized by Althusser, ideology exactly functions like that. He called this function of ideology as overdetermination (interestingly, borrowing from both Mao and Freud).[4]  And it is in such a manner I can imagine nationalism functioning.

Prof. Deocampo noted earlier how the legislation of the “national” under the Commonwealth era, helped establish this imagination. National symbols were established in legislation, which includes a “national language”. Later these symbols expand to other symbols such as national leaf, national animal symbol, national sport, until we reached the point that we get to have national artists and scientists. Looking through Althusserian lens, these are not nonsense. If anything, the state’s function to establish a national imagination starts in the legislation of the symbols which would help one imagine. Here, the “imagined” and the “imaginary” shifts from the essential to the Lacanian imaginary. Moving forward, we will refer to the nation imagined as such: through images.

So, the nation being determined through images needs an economics of images. The nation will be overdetermined by these economic practices and the contradictions it embody, going back and forth to establish a social formation. The construction of the nation is necessarily the construction of the subject of the nation through overdetermination. Hence, the interpellation which happens when someone calls us “kabayan” if we’re in another nation for whatever reason.

But since the nation and nationalism in the Philippines are founded on uneven development and exchange, in most cases, the dominating idea which overcodes the signifiers which aides the subject-formation of the nation, came from the ruling class’ imagination of what is “Filipino.” This is being articulated in cinema through its mainstream side. The studios assume “Filipino” taste in its film productions. This assumption mostly came from empiricist reflection of the box-office. This instance highlights what Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni’s classified as category “a” cinema.[5] For Comolli and Narboni, although not exclusive for mainstream, but mainstream films in general are “thoroughly bathed in ideology, which express it, carry it forward without any gaps or distortions, being blindly faithful to it, and above all being blind to this very fidelity.” The production of such films, for them are determined by a certain conformity to an imagined public demand as reflected by the economic “response” to the films. What does this do, for Comolli and Naroboni, is it “creates the notion of the “public” and its tastes, a “public” which can only express itself through the ideology’s modes of thought, functioning consequently in the schema of the closed circuit, of the specular mirage.”

Not only does cinema and its relation to ideology reproduces ideology, it also reproduces its subject. And nation, as part of the object of ideology, have its subject reproduced through cinema. This conception of the subject-formation through cinema makes cinema not a finished object in-itself, but a process.

Jonathan Beller reorganizes these notions in his conception of the Cinematic Mode of Production.[6] For Beller, Cinema is a mode of production, expressed through its formal qualities, which necessitates that it is also a mode of social organization. Like how segmentation of work in a Fordist economy work, cinema places its viewer into specialized labor of assembly line. Viewership, or Film-Watching, in this sense, is a value-producing labor.

Beller’s theory travel a long way, longer than I did with this essay. Initially, the Cinematic Mode of Production is something which has been, from what I understand of it, a reiteration of Debord’s spectacle. But Beller took Debord’s notion of the spectacle, noting that the way the subject is organized not are not just merely spectacular but also necessarily cinematic in such a way that any cultural theory are necessarily, also, film theories. Unlike the spectacle, cinema codes tempo-spatially, which provides its subject an imagined progress since they are given with a codified progression in time and space.

But cinema, being a mode of production and social organization, produces what? There are few things: first, obviously, the economic exchange which can be gotten thru admission tickets. But that exchange happens outside the theater (in the box-office). What is produced inside, by the “consumption” of the cinema-commodity, is the subject, through interpellating processes, one of which is the suturing mechanisms of film-form.

Reading these writings on the relationship between cinema and ideology heightened my suspicion of what cinema might be. I’ve been keeping notes on preliminary theses on cinema, where I described cinema as propaganda. That cinema being left in the realm of aesthetic appreciation would be to devoid cinema of its core function: mediation. Looking at this, it can be said that there can never be “good” or “bad” films. Rather, the way “good” or “bad” films is determined, is a way of validating it being an “effective” or “ineffective” propaganda and/or mediation.

This, again, can be validated through history, albeit on the instances of correlation. I remember one meeting on the same class with Prof. Deocampo when he pointed out that most national artists, specifically Gerardo De Leon and Lamberto Avellana, worked also as propaganda-film directors. Gerardo De Leon interned under the Japanese Propaganda Corps, later on made his own propaganda works, most notably, The Moises Padilla Story (1961). Avellana, on the other hand, had a bunch under his name. Including those with McCarthyist leanings such as Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (1953). Of course, it isn’t any wonder that the merit which gave Lino Brocka his own national artist award are those which are appraised of him by critics circles, which are propagandistic by intention.

All these correlations between national symbols, filmmakers, films, box-office, nationalism etc are all but portions of the complex of social relations which determines (and overdetermines) the subject. In the context of globalization, it may be impossible in the first hand to see where the exchanges start. More impossible that globalized mode of exchange also bring about its own sets of overdetermining factors.

My research for the class will mostly focus on the globalized mode of exchange in relation to the national formation through cinema under the Benigno Aquino III administration. What I noted above are just the initial theoretical trajectory I bridged through to come up with a tentative model which would explain how cinema helps with the construction of the nation and its subjects. I’m looking into going around the idea of the propagandistic nature of cinema, especially in the construction of a national subject, function through exclusion — which is different from what is the common conception of the propaganda, which is forcibly inclusive. This, I’d argue, is the result of the unchallenged ruling class dominating the mode of production of films, and by extension, the cinematic mode of production. This exclusive attitude of films is characteristic of cinema in this early 21st century.

(I’ll go back to these notes from time to time, probably adding notes as new posts, but wth. This is quite long-ish.)


[1] For an expansion of the concept of nation as an imagined community, you may refer to Anderson’s book Imagined Communities (revised edition, 1991/2002, Verso)

[2] Karatani is quite firm of his distinction between of reciprocal exchange to commodity exchange. For more of his discussion, refer to Nation and Aesthetics (2017: Oxford University Press)

[3] The whole of PSR’s Chapter 1 covers these definition of the Philippines’ geological, geophysical, and geopolitical limits.

[4] “Contradiction and Overdetermination” from For Marx (Trans. Ben Brewster. 1969/2005: Verso).

[5] Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni; Appendix 1: Cinema/Ideology/Criticism. From Comolli, Jean-Louis,Cinema Against Spectacle. pp 247-279. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2015. (Was published first in French in Cahier du Cinema. The English Translation was first published in Screen in 1971.)

[6] Beller, Jonathan. The Cinematic Mode of Production. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press. 2015.

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