When it’s distinguished from Hollywood entertainment, then the cinema becomes a distinctly French conception. The further development of this legacy depends on archival connections with discourse and arts. Taking the cinema as a mnemotechnical equipment connects it with the philosophies of Henri Bergson, and particularly the idea of an involuntary memory. This move can be fatal for discourse because it prioritizes intuition and denies reason the authority to guide the discussion thematically. This aporia between reason and intuition provides the beating heart of the unavowable cinema.
The unavowable cinema is a community of spectators with a shared ambivalence. They are ambivalent towards the relations of images to texts, which is to say that they suffer a failure of representation. Their narratives and explanations are only tentative and conjectural. Together they behold projections which trigger reveries that drift in every direction, and the community is always lost in the flows of intuition. Their attention is especially drawn to the thresholds of representation where fleeting connections gesture at providential patterns. Perception becomes playful around these limits where it dances between the modes of intention.
This community was founded by Gilles Deleuze when he denounced the cinema as a catholic institution. This meant it was an economy in the medieval sense, where communities are bound through the ritual enactment of sacrificial trauma. That sacrifice has become the flickering of representation.
The operation of the sacraments was outlined by Heidegger. Beyond the limits where subjectivity disintegrates there lies the realm of affect. This is the dimension of boredom, fatigue, vertigo, nausea, suffering. These troubling experiences cannot be denied, because they are the ground of subjectivity. The ancient mysteries of the church provide conventions for the grounding of subjectivity in affect. They promote an attunement to affect so that it can be converted into subjective feelings such as emotions.
The cinema is a modern sacrament which provides an attunement. This is to say that it provides the “ambience” which interested Eric Rohmer, and which gives art movies the reputation for being boring. But the source of this ambience cannot be located within the projections on the screen. The cinematic economy hinges on the hosting which mediates the attunements of the audience. That is the process where spectators are oriented through the course of a mise-en-scene which draws the outer borders of a cinematic experience.
The cinematic experience begins with a subliminal orientation, which involves the dialectic of intuition and reason. The apparatus is charged with sacramental powers through this dialectic of conflicting hosts. The enlightenment is a tradition where communities are hosted by Knowledge, whereas romanticism follows the Hobbesian custom of the rustic host who enthralls the guests with Myth. This dialectic charges the audience with a transference which drives the sacramental movements.
The pair enlightened/romantic belongs to a series with other pairs like civilized/barbarian and progressive/regressive. These ethnic codes receive generic sense through the convergence of global media. They interact with further pairs like catholic/jew, clergy/harlot and sedentary/migrant. The cinema pushes these relations to reversal, where material affects are converted into symbolic emotions. This is to say that the unavowable cinema obliquely stages a transcendental exchange through a performance of the old dialectic of logos and mythos.
This sacramental exchange requires the affected participation of the audience in the ambivalent mode of the masquerade. The projections on the screen are masks for the spectators. This allows the audience to experiment with the limits of subjectivity. Layers of deceptions can transfer the affects through relays that alienate them from subjectivity. For example, the Jew’s lament for the destruction of their temple could become an excuse for their otherwise scandalous love of the desert. The cinematic experience dances between someone and anyone. The materiality of film washes away semantics, leaving the empty formal conditions of the symbolic blowing around in the wind of instinct.
Now for some narrative. A caravan rolls recklessly through the night, crucifying concepts in its wheels. The vehicle is doomed to strike a deadly gaze that objects to that liberty of migration. The delusion of mobility left a dark double that awaited them as a destiny. Their asceticism proved to be a mere pretense. Their agency was derived from a hapless pact that came due leaving them abject.
The cinematic kenosis purifies the desert of subjective transcendence. Emptying projections on the screen of content opens the immanent chance for some unforeseen and rarified sense. This ontological exorcism expunges the graven impurities such as index and concept. Impurity here designates the reliance on an imaginary other – a good/evil super-egoic double. The audience learns the intuition of an immanent neutrality through traversing the contours of its emptiness.
Ascetics are cursed in the genre of the unavowable, where they embody the very impurity they deny. This dramatic transitivity makes the compass spin. Oriental asceticism gets implicated with the pathologies of occidental development. The monk’s reputation for wisdom is tarnished when they appear aligned with economic austerity, especially when such alignment bears the marks of a destiny. This drama sweeps through the unconscious dimensions of reified power, interrupting the developmental gaze and leaving a wilder and more abstract desert in its wake. Cinematic assembly converts sovereign transcendence to schematic immanence.
The audience are bemused by these disturbances of the unconscious. The deconstruction of developmental time disrupts the customary gestalts of perception. The evil of transcendence loses its facial mooring and wanders through the desert of meaningless projections. This failure of customary entertainment has implications for political-economy. Speaking in the manner of 18th century aesthetics, the wandering of attention becomes assimilated to the ambience of nature. Sedentary/nomad, actors/audience.
Sedentary youths are preparing to travel. They cross frontiers seeking opportunities for the trading of perspectives and experiences. But their aspirations are disappointed when their experiences are nullified. The ubiquity of markets reduces them to pedestrian merchandise. Their mobility was doomed like the caravan in the first scene. They dreamed of a singular travel that would be recognized as unrecognized, but they were recognized unprepared in turn by wicked others. This failure of experience stirs the desire for an experience beyond the recognition of a sedentary community.
Sedentary societies are sensitive to movement, perhaps because they feel their stasis is a deficiency, or because they fear disruptive invasions by foreigners. They are ambivalent towards movement, which alternately becomes a transgression, a privilege, or a pity. This is to say that the mention of travel triggers an affected hermeneutic of the sojourn, where the sedentary gaze struggles to register movement within its symbolic coordinates. As the Chinese proverb says, “high hangs the Qin mirror”. Movement is nervously arrested in value-schemas of subjective power. This reduces movement to ambivalent clichés – polarized correlations of text and image – that reverse between exaltation and pogrom.
This term pogrom might seem overblown, but cinema draws its power from the limits of dramatic possibility (see Artaud). Characters embody extremes which aren’t enacted. This prepares a stage where ethnicity personifies a hushed pogrom against the entropy of difference which is the mysterious movement of nature.
Some of the greatest moments of cinema stage the compulsions of capitalist society. Aesthetic judgments hinge on the audience’s relay between subjection and non-subjection to those compulsions. This heuristic proceeds within a mode of spectator criticism. From a position of extimacy, along the thresholds of figuration, the audience discovers the spiritual masochism of development. They discover the irresistible mechanisms of dialectical compulsion where culture negates itself. This discovery leaves an impression that moves freedom elsewhere, into the wilder frontiers of a natural resistance. The discovery of developmental masochism drives a flight of degentrification.
This is to say that the cinematic experience involves a quest for natural movement. The sense of this word “natural” is playful, because it designates the dance of forces around the thresholds of the outside. Reified nature is the superego, but unreified nature is the return of an old kind of chance.
What we call “natural movement” is the interplay between technology and ancient customs. For instance, the direction of the ancient Chinese script gradually Latinized until its rightward movement assumed the normativity it has today. But this modern typological convention sometimes goes unobserved. Sometimes there are regressions where characters descend downwards on wall-scrolls or sneak leftwards over temples and tea houses. The return of nature is manifest in the atavism of ancient customs which are obstinate in their resistance to technology.
The violence of development drives minorities into oblivion, but then the ensuing vacuum of boredom attracts their ghostly return. The tedium of majority fuels the tourist’s desire for the drama of the mystical child and the playful utopia of chance. The tourist desires something beyond the screen, which is distant in both space and time, while also perhaps more intimate than the flesh. They desire an object which they feel was eliminated by technology, while in fact it is only technology which makes the fantasy of that object possible. The ancient rhythm is generated by its own absence.
Walter Benjamin’s endorsement of a new barbarism anticipates the present alignment of that ontological wound called the digital with that proletarian technology called china. The cinema is learning to project the sinodigital as a natural persona. It consists in signatures of the technological contortions of instinct.
When Chinese officials tout the development of their “culture industry”, the words of Adorno return in the synthetic speech of technology. The images of automated culture appear with the smoothness of cosmic flow. There has been a resolution of disjunctions that were associated with neoliberalism. This natural repose resolves some hypocrisies of the superstructure through an equivocal rapport between the popular, the proletarian, and the agrarian. This involves an affirmation of migration between the rural and the urban, and a solidarity with the popular that transcends class distinctions. As this new synthesis becomes hegemonic, the suggestion of any alternative becomes a shameful class pretention. This is all to say that the sinodigital achieves a dramatic naturalization of technology.
At the center of this technoculture remains a vacuous economic subjectivity which cinema treats allegorically. The cinema attempts to extricate spectatorship by presenting economic subjugation as an objective system of relations. Projected images might depict some rusty carnival rides placed beside a shopping mall as a distraction to disburden shoppers of youngsters. The experience of life reduced to a resistance to physiology. Work as tension in antithesis to relaxation.
The residues of physiology mark the return of Thanatos, and art summons Eros to meet this return. There is an uncomfortable ambivalence towards the antithesis of work, a morbid fear of relaxation. This might be a fear of the unknown, of the loss of industrial coordinates. And there is the fear of relaxation lest a greater burden befalls. If they relieve themselves too quickly or too thoroughly, then their load could be increased, like Aesop’s donkey who intentionally slips, or the grasshopper who didn’t prepare for winter. The sword of Damocles as an anal-hygienic fear for the Medusan residue of god’s death. If this superego is too powerful, then work degenerates into an antithesis of anxiety, like paddling against the ceaseless current of abjection. This workaholism features throughout modernity, while the sinodigital brings it to a pitch that forces resolution.
Authentic intention is scarce under technological conditions, yet there is an obsession with maintaining its semblance. The demand for a semblance of purpose is doubtlessly a cause of crime. Cinema abolishes the possibility of intention by trafficking relentlessly in its images. Any mirror identifications are essentially ironic. There are ironic relations with images of mechanical behavior, like the characters in Playtime (1968) by Jacques Tati. That irony provides the spectators with relief from economic subjugation. This irony is repeated with each wave of mechanical subjugation. It began with Chaplin’s satire of the assembly line and follows the course of mechanization. The aesthetic critique of this humor becomes a political flash-point. Why do audiences laugh at the mechanical movements? Is it the Hobbesian laughter at the inferiority of the other? Or is it the Bergsonian laughter at man confused with machine? Or is it Bataille’s laugh of nature itself?
The Chinese solutions to the libidinal conflicts of modernity are schematized according to cinematic genres. There are comedies about dubious business practices following the stories by Laoshe, where the rural family is sanctified as a bastion of moral integrity. The reckless malpractices of business are set in contrast with the eternal fidelity of the family. This comedy relieves the audience of the pressures of economic subjugation by reducing business practices to an absurdity. This is a Bergsonian comedy, where economic man appears as a ridiculous machine without regard for the family which is a natural superego. This opens a delicate question about what ironies might arise around the rural family, and that sensitive issue defines a politics of spectatorship.
New perceptual liberties are explored in the fluctuations where no stable gestalt has formed. Let us provide an inventory of movements around the thresholds of subjective figuration. There are alternations between attention and distraction. There are returns to embodiment which might be triggered by bodily or environmental disturbances. There is the sense of relations among the audience, which is especially important for certain genres like comedy. There is the wandering of attention between figures and background. There is the alternation of attention between texts and images. Mirror identifications and emotional bonds are established and broken. There are discoveries. There are surprises. There are deeper reveries and trains of involuntary memory. There are reflections on artistic techniques. Where the burdens of subjectivity are removed, cinema provides an opportunity to rediscover the natural spontaneity of perception.
The fragment is the token of cultural pathology. These are borderline objects on the threshold of representation. This object gives itself performatively in its incompleteness, which triggers an obsessive fantasy which pursues something else. This is an obsessive pursuit of synechdotal or metonymic sense – the part that provides a taste of something better. The fragment is treated as a piece of a puzzle, and so the subject wants the next piece. This line is symptomatic of the fetishistic breakdown of patriarchy, where there is an obstinate commitment to a dysfunctional textuality. Through the evolution of representation, fragmentation gives way to the smooth transitions of the hieroglyph.
Natural movements are animated hieroglyphs that carry the one to the other, which is to say the text to the image, the ancestor to the descendant, and the domestic to the foreign. These movements are dramatic reveries which only arise where relations are imperiled. The movements swirl from antiquity through presence into the future. There is no question of providing examples, but only of drifting along between language and perception.
In Chinese history, declining dynasties were said to have lost the “mandate of nature”, which was embodied as a jade seal. Nature was physically reified into this object which embodied the superego as the basis for representation. Dynastic transition was conceived as a failure of reification, since this mandate was not possessed. During the intervals between regimes, there were struggles over the possession of the mandate. Those intervals feature scenes of fragmentation and symbolic displacements such that representation gives way to masquerade.
A problem arises concerning the ontology of the dynastic interval. According to the standard historiography, the empty symbolic position remains intact during these intervals, and there is just a matter of it being unoccupied. The empty throne is waiting for a new ruler to take his seat. The new dynasty will assume a position that was waiting for them. But beyond this emptiness of representation, would be a more radical chaos where even the possibility of representation had no place. Then there is no throne or heraldic conventions by which a new dynasty would be identified with any preexisting tradition. In that situation, the aspiring dynasty would have to invent an original symbolic mandate, as opposed to just seizing an existing one. That more radical origin is what we call the unavowable. And such an emptiness corresponds with the prohibition on the forging of graven texts and images.
The hermeneutics of censorship moves the veil of Isis. Though this is overlooked where censorship is derided as an absolute injustice. Among western liberals there prevails a promiscuous zealotry which insists on the right to say and show everything. In contrast to this hapless progressivism, it is possible to view censorship as a sign of nature, as it indicates the proximity where representation is jeopardized by its exposure to its abgrund. Where authorities are bothered to control the media, that implies that speech still carries the ancient powers of liberty which threaten to overturn economic subjectivity. This converts censorship into a dangerous sign of the millennium.
The millennium would be the absolving of the cultural superego, which is the way that representation displaces nature and death. Representation cannot accommodate these ideas, and this creates a kind of insomnia where natural death wanders around the thresholds of culture. The millennial return of nature requires a higher order of representation that could accommodate the unavowable. The unavowable cinema would be a reinvention of the ancient mysteries that facilitates this augmentation of representation.
Insomnia is a symptom of an excess of enlightenment, which is like an insistence that everything can be represented. Where the enlightened attempts to decipher every hieroglyph, the romantic conceals them beneath myths. Enlightenment is regressive like a dog digging up bones, whereas the romantic certifies the sleep of death with the idea of the unavowable. Where the excess of light becomes deadly, the darkness provides a soothing balm. Their distribution is a matter of taste.
Representation becomes immanent as it reposes on the unavowable. This is where representation evolves to a higher order by reflecting itself. This means that it registers its abgrund as an equivocation between orders of negativity. This negativity is the unholy trinity where trauma and the secrecy of crime are emblematized in an aesthetic form. The form of the unavowable is the fragment as a rigorous symbol of absence. This symbol of the unavailable is implied in most genres of literature like eroticism, mystery, fantasy, horror, and adventure.
There exists a type of person known as the “china watcher” who is an expert on the sinister machinations of that communist government. They provide commentary so the public might know what to expect in the future. The china watcher is a kind of vigilante or partisan who spreads the virus of cold war subjectivity. I want to suggest that the framing of this practice is critical and should be approached as an aestheticization. This gossip might be akin to those Chinoiseries that were popular ceramic ornaments in Rococo interiors. Such an embellishment would raise this punditry to an exercise of taste. It would repurpose China journalism as an aesthetic material. This move has avowedly orientalist implications, which concerns the Babylonian aesthetic of harlotry.
An oriental gaze operates at the level of geopolitics. This brings us to the ethics of modesty and the dueling of honorific gestures. Pride becomes a dangerous liability when it gets caught as the object of envy. Guests are manipulated through flattery and sensitized to the judgments of the host. This is not so much insincerity as the ambivalence of a reversable idealization. Everyone is juggling the same batch of hot potatoes. The powers of the unavowable can be marshalled for the exorcism of these evil organs.
The unavowable provides a representational bulwark against ethnic identity. Its powers can suspend representation in irony, but this can remain a secret among spectators. This becomes critical as the course of development renders ethnic distinction increasingly tenuous. The codes of the neoliberal era are wearing thin. The sense of cultural essence becomes incoherent as China ascends to hegemony, and the ensuing disorientation can resolve only when a new historical orientation gains traction in the unavowable.
The term “Chinese” is taking on a distinct sense, where it refers not to any timeless cultural essence, but rather to the vanguard of industry. It becomes the name for an historical fashion such as Hellenistic or the Baroque. It’s another layer in the sedimented phases of civilization. These layers are crystalline in that they follow the intricacies of established patterns, so that mature epochs manifest the signatures of their predecessors.
One distinctly Chinese tendency is the proliferation of awards and contests. For example, the institution of the Chinese national exam was established as a global model during the French revolution. The performance prize permeates education with its meritocratic ordinances. The evolution of the contest turns around historical models such as spelling bees and art salons. There is a politics of how the contest is organized, and what values the awards represent.
One of the markets emerging in China is foreigner evaluation, where the award-winning foreigners give speeches at galas hosted by officials. These spectacular events move from city to city as trade machines overflowing with gifts and light. At each node the circus is repeated in the same mechanical manner. Prestigious venues are filled with meritorious individuals of all ethnicities. The audience is assembled before a screen which reflects the value of the local industries. The performance culminates with the ceremonial signing of industrial contracts between public officials and local entrepreneurs. Then there are tours of facilities and scenic locations.
This ceremony performs a contemporary social exchange. There is mimicry of neoliberal capitalism with touches of irony that step beyond its impasses. The ceremonial meeting of private and public attains a new degree of immanence. This ritual encoding of capitalism allows for a systematic momentum that makes the American approach seem haphazard. The absolute alignment of the private with the public allows for a cultish pomp, whereas such alignment could be scandalous for western neoliberalism. The extension of this ceremonial immanence defines a contemporary politics.
Last autumn a partnership was announced between AT&T and Huawei, but the deal was cancelled by regulators before it could be formalized in Los Vegas. In ethnographic terms, we might say that some elders found the marriage inappropriate. China watchers speculated that the deal was unbalanced because Huawei would provide both phones and infrastructure, whereas AT&T were just going to package the services for American customers. This is to say that the industrial base was threatening the hegemony of the superstructure. The superstructure has been blind to the counter-hegemonies which are emerging within its base. The cold war remains a viable heuristic for understanding this scenario. The west was blinded by their premature declaration of victory, and arrogantly assumed the servility of the former adversaries. This surprise return has the form of an Aesop-fabulation – the bourgeois rabbit was over-confident, and now the proletarian tortoise is set to win.
By the late 1990’s, Huawei was already doing serious damage to western economies. Its first major kill was a Canadian telecom company called Nortel, which was that country’s national flagship brand for the information age. That was a major defeat that the Canadian economy has never recovered from. But the media in that country blamed the catastrophe on executive malpractice, perhaps because it would have been too shameful to admit that the company was obliterated by a Chinese firm. So, for years the Canadian public never heard that name Huawei, which means “Chinese Action” while also playing on the Daoist “No Action”.
Then the company flashed up in the international media with the ongoing Meng Wanzhou episode that began in December. That financial officer of Huawei has a poetic name. Meng is the family name of the ancient philosopher Mencius, and her given name has the dramatic meaning “night boat”. On her way to attend a G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, she was captured while changing planes in Vancouver. There were conflicting reports over whether she was arrested or detained, and who the officers were. No charges have been laid. An American court has filed an extradition order. Meanwhile she is under house arrest in her Vancouver mansion.
Unleashing the dramatic potential of this event requires some imputation of ambivalence. The immediate background is an elite marriage that may require some blood sacrifice. It’s well known in anthropology that certain ceremonies require a spectacle of passion. Once we enter this dramaturgical mode, then the identity of those who ordered the arrest becomes less important.
According to the format of a cold war spy-novel, Ms. Meng would have known about her impending arrest when she boarded the plane. This would be part of a ritual refiguration of china into the role of a hegemon. This ceremony touches the sensitive abgrund at the original emergence of the nation. Near the end of the 19th century, a fracture opened in the Manchu imperial dynasty, and the Chinese ethnicity was reborn as an anti-Manchu movement. During that period reports circulated of iconic Chinese getting arrested abroad, such as Sun Yat-Sen’s arrest in England, the arrest of Wu Zhihui in Japan, and the incarceration of Zhang Taiyan by the English in Shanghai. This is a kind of passion play that we might call a neobaroque traurspiel.
The dynastic interval is origin of symbolic subjectivity. That is where symbolic orders emerge from the drama of nature. Cinematic reverie is drawn to that dimension. This is a precarious drama of perception without subjective coordinates. New figures can emerge from that liberty. But natural perception is only possible if the spell of reification can be broken. The transcendence of nature must be abolished. The passage to this immanence is through the historical intervals in representation. So this becomes a mandate for an unavowable cinema: to project the natural history of representation.