Marx Enters the Matrix

by Jason Barker, Nemanja Korsic    New Left

Marx Reloaded is the Arte culture documentary that mixes serious interviews with some of Europe’s most renowned leftist thinkers with coquettish animation featuring Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky. Among those ruminating on the state of capitalism in the midst of ongoing global recession are John Gray, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, Jacques Rancière, Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and Slavoj Žižek. There’s even an appearance by the controversial German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.

The following interview took place on 20 April 2011 at the Moskva Hotel in Belgrade, Serbia.

Nemanja Korsic: TV documentaries about Karl Marx are not so common. Was it difficult to get Marx Reloaded commissioned, especially given its political subject-matter?

Jason Barker: Marx Reloaded didn’t begin life as a TV documentary. Originally the idea was to do something much more experimental for the cinema. That seemed like the obvious home for Marx. The idea was to make a fully animated feature documentary, based on Marx’s letters, but with a lot of fictional elements thrown in. Something in the mould of Waltz with Bashir. That’s still my ambition. But gradually it became clear that the type of budget needed for that was going to take years to track down. There’s very little money in documentary film-making and that this was an animated film, and a film based around Karl Marx’s ideas, only added to the “ambitious” nature of it. 

NK: Did the TV channel (Arte/ZDF), which is publicly-funded, try to control and alter what you were doing for fear that the content would be too politically controversial?

JB: There was understandably I think some nervousness at the start about what they were letting themselves in for. But of course you can’t start a revolution in television; the content is far too tightly regulated. That goes for all films, not just films about Marx. In any case there was no point in trying to make a highly politicized or “left-wing” film. Instead, the aim was to make a film which tried to place Marx’s thinking in some kind of modern context, albeit one that was drastically abridged. Apart from a couple of economists I only interviewed philosophers and theorists. I suspect that if this film had been made by an out-and-out journalist then the “political” content would have been somewhat greater, and probably exaggerated. One can imagine a bunch of interviews with trade union officials, grassroots activists, bloggers and so forth. That’s not to say the film doesn’t deal with politics; you can’t talk about Marx without politics. It’s simply to say that the political side is often exaggerated and taken out of context, simply because the political controversies surrounding Marx and his work are what most people know about him, or think they know.

NK: To come back to the question of public television channels: can the fact that films dealing with Marx and his ideas are so rare be explained by commercial pressures or political ones?

JB: This I find interesting. There’s the interview Ken Loach gave to The Telegraph last year (15 Oct 2010) where he slams television for its lack of creativity and welcomes the cull of senior executives at the BBC on the grounds that they represent so many layers of non-productive labour. His point was that television is full of commissioning editors that stifle the creative process and only get in the way of what film-makers are trying to do. But this was not at all the experience I had in making Marx Reloaded. If anything, the reverse was true. The commissioning editor at ZDF actually provided feedback which supported what I was trying to do, and if anything improved the script. The fact that television has become such a fragmented industry all around the world means, quite contrary to what Loach is arguing, that spaces will inevitably open up for films about Marx and other marginal or potentially “controversial” subject matter.

NK: So if that’s the case then why is Marx and his work so rarely dealt with on television?

JB: Because the structures of television today – which rely heavily on independent production – have insufficient funds to make such films. The BBC or ZDF or one of the major European networks wouldn’t dream of making a documentary about Marx without an independent producer in tow simply because the costs would be so prohibitively expensive. They’d need to invest so much time and money just in researching the thing that it would never get off the ground – unless of course they were prepared to throw a huge amount of money at it. And this is where commercial pressures would take over.

NK: So it’s not a question of conservative forces in television rejecting ideas that are too politically controversial?

JB: In my experience it’s not a question of content, no. The idea that layers of TV executives are stifling the life out of film-makers, suffocating them, or rejecting all the genuinely “creative” or “cutting edge” ideas, is wrong. Maybe it’s a fantasy that exists only in Ken Loach’s imagination. It doesn’t take account of the ways in which TV production has evolved. And it strikes me as a complete myth that all we need do is remove the supposedly non-productive, stifling layers of bureaucracy in order to finally unleash the creative energy that’s trying to get out.

NK: Do you think Loach’s understanding of television production is out of date?

JB: He doesn’t work in TV anymore, does he? And he probably doesn’t know about the web as an alternative distribution platform, which feeds back into the production process, and is changing the very nature of television. In a way this is exciting because it opens up spaces for organic intellectuals (among whom you might count me) to make their voices heard. To be fair to Loach, maybe he was talking uniquely about television in the UK. In the interview he talks about how he originally had high hopes that television would be a National Theatre of the airwaves, and a place for public discourse. I must admit I’m bored to death with this public sphere stuff. It sounded dated even in the seventies, when theories of television were being put forward that were much more socially progressive, not to mention philosophically informed. Television and media theory from the seventies was trying to move away from traditional forms of artistic reception and understand television as a medium unto itself. It drew on a lot of French philosophy and psychoanalysis: Althusser, Lacan. Think of Laura’s Mulvey’s essay on the male gaze and how that cut across traditional aesthetics and the public sphere idea. In this sense Loach’s remarks seem not just dated, but rather elitist. He no longer works in television because cinema is the place where he can have all the creative freedom in the world. But let’s not have illusions. Cinema is also the only place that can fund his films. If TV could put up the money then he’d still be in TV. As for this “National Theatre of the airwaves” stuff… This type of high-minded comment is typical of National Film School elitism. TV has lost its creativity not because bureaucrats stifle the life out of film-makers, but because film-making is dominated by romantic-tortured artists from the National Film School who haven’t got an original idea between them.

NK: Do you worry that your film, which is only 52 minutes long, risks simplifying Marx’s ideas to the point of caricature?

JB: Marx Reloaded is a caricature in many ways. Whether that’s a result of the technical constraints inherent to making this type of film is not something I’ve really thought about. I suppose it must be to an extent. It was never in my mind to simplify complex ideas. I was always conscious of the need to make a film that precisely did not simplify unduly. And I absolutely wanted to avoid making some lousy piece of journalism. Anyway, how could I? The film is meant to address the alleged renaissance of Marx’s thinking. One had to take that thinking seriously and present its main contours faithfully.

NK: I thought the animation scenes, where Marx is lost in this strange subterranean world, raised as many if not more interesting philosophical questions than the interviews with the philosophers. Why did you choose to have Marx meet Trotsky?

JB: It didn’t take a lot of working out. It seemed an obvious parody. It was fun to make.

NK: I imagine you must be aware of the huge amount of theoretical literature devoted to The Matrix. Did any of that enter into the parody?

JB: Over the years I’ve come across this very snobby attitude – maybe it’s changed – towards media and film theorists on the part of philosophers. If you apply Alain Badiou’s theory to The Matrix then immediately there’s this suspicion that you’re doing it simply to add an air of intellectual sophistication to your argument where none exists. My first degree was in media studies and I’m proud of it. There’s no reason to assume that essays on The Matrix can’t involve valid philosophical arguments.

NK: But was the Marx-Trotsky encounter intended to satirize the philosophical aspirations of The Matrix?

JB: No. But I can see how it might be read that way.

NK: Since the film considers the Marx phenomenon or renaissance, which Žižek is strongly associated with, I wonder if you ever considered having Marx meet Žižek instead of Trotsky.

JB: No, I think that would have been a bit heavy-handed. And the question of the so-called “Marx phenomenon” needs unpacking. My understanding of what Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek are doing with their Idea of Communism conferences is that they are arguing for a communism which precisely doesn’t begin or end with Marx.

NK: Marx without Marxism?

JB: That’s certainly Badiou’s position, where Marx is read as a figure of “logical revolt”.

NK: That distinction between Marx and communism wasn’t made in the film.

JB: It was difficult to include it. I hope I didn’t simplify Badiou and Žižek’s respective positions too much.

NK: How sympathetic are you to the Idea of Communism?

JB: Let’s just say it’s a very strange sort of communism that doesn’t depend, to some extent at least, on Marx’s contribution to it. In my view communism can’t be so easily conceived apart from the name Karl Marx. If you want communism without Marx then it tends to beg the question: why call it communism? But then neither Badiou or Žižek would disagree with that, since they always insist on the “idea” of communism, rather than the object.

NK: The idea that communism still needs to be invented, and doesn’t have anything to do with the communist disasters of the past, might lead in some very un-communist directions.

JB: It’s a philosophical question. I think Badiou and Žižek are adopting a fairly standard Platonism when they talk about communism in this formalistic sense. Then again, Platonism is just one possible way toward formalism in politics. With Spinoza you can end up in the same formalism. It often turns up in Antonio Negri’s spinozist Marxism.

NK: But Negri is a historical materialist, so there’s a certain historical contingency involved in his communism. In Negri’s book The Savage Anomaly, the metaphysics of Spinoza’s Ethics is contrasted with the social context in which the book was written.

JB: True. But in Marx Reloaded Negri adopts a similar position to that of Badiou and Žižek when he says that the communism of the 20th century was never true communism, it was socialism. And that communism can only be conceived in the process of creating it. Although you’re right that Žižek and Badiou have quite different philosophical approaches to communism to Negri.

NK: Despite all the emphasis on the return of Marx and the prophetic nature of his work – which seems like quite a common sense opinion in the press these days – most of the philosophers you interviewed, all of whom are closely associated with Marx, reject Marx’s basic theory of exploitation, according to which exploitation can be empirically measured.

JB: This is a neo-marxist principle: you reject the economics but retain the politics and/or the “philosophy”; especially the philosophy. Marx’s economics is no longer deemed valid by the neo-marxists. But that opinion is also shared by liberal economists. Marx’s economic theory isn’t taken seriously. I like what you said about Marx as the common sense philosopher. Badiou made this point a few years ago at a conference that Marx had become the philosopher of choice for the middle classes. After all he won the BBC Radio 4 top philosophers poll. No one has a problem in admitting “Marx was right”. It’s become a comforting statement for the Sunday supplement crowd. Quite what he was “right” about escapes them of course.

NK: Do you think this general acceptance of Marx by an educated public helps to explain the Marx phenomenon?

JB: My impression when I attended the Idea of Communism conference in Berlin (June 2010), which we show in the film, was that most of the audience was made up of students, some artists and left-wing activists. The conference on socialism in Zagreb (The Subversive Film Festival, May 2010) where we also filmed Žižek and interviewed him was much more mixed: the elder generation, which experienced a form of socialism in the former Yugoslavia and are still emotionally attached to it, turned up in droves. But so did students.

NK: Do you think that the effect of this kind of conference, which is becoming increasingly widespread and popular, is to undermine the originality of Marx’s ideas?

JB: Well, maybe. I don’t know. Marx’s ideas have innumerable applications. We have by no means exhausted them all. If they can inspire and motivate people at a time when we need more radical opponents of the neo-liberal agenda, then that would be one positive outcome of the Marx phenomenon.

NK: Finally, can you tell us something about the other Marx film you now have in production, Marx Returns?

JB: It’s planned as a fully animated film with a lot of humour and intelligence. Especially humour. His life situation is often shot through with humour – although I don’t want to ridicule it. That was the approach of these two authors who wrote the books on Marx and Engels respectively: Francis Wheen and Tristram Hunt. I quite like Wheen’s book but the deconstructive, tongue-in-cheek method makes me resent it slightly. The same goes for Hunt: always this desire to scoff at the flat out “contradictions” of a “champagne socialist”. And I think we can say that this, more than anything else, explains best the “Marx phenomenon”. It’s where people have no problem admitting that “Marx was right” but where no one, including Marx himself, is able to follow through the power or originality of their own convictions. How resentful. The Marx conference: yes. The demonstration: no. Or at least not for now, not yet.

Marx Reloaded was broadcast on 11 April on the Franco-German TV network Arte. An international English-language version is currently being prepared for release later in the year, along with a screening at the Karl Marx Memorial Library in London. No release date is yet planned for Marx Returns.

Nemanja Korsic is an MA student at the University of Ljubljana.

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