Cinematic Political Thought: Narrating Race, Nation and Gender

Michael J. Shapiro,
Cinematic Political Thought: Narrating Race, Nation and Gender.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
ISBN 0 7486 1289 0
176 pp
£16.95 (paper)
(Review copy supplied by Edinburgh University Press)
Uploaded 1March 2000 

Michael Shapiro’s latest book confirms the author of Reading the Postmodern Polity and Violent Cartographies‘s status as an interdisciplinary scholar; his range takes in critical theory and cultural studies to unsettle the empirical certainties grounding much of the conservative mainstream in his home discipline, political science. The essays here are thought provoking and move beyond their premises to develop original insights and rich analysis. Whether they also offer anything of particular interest to the cinema studies scholar or whether the title Cinematic Political Thought is meaningful is less clear. But nontheless there is much here to engage any intelligent reader interested in the larger issues of the day.

Those issues considered in Cinematic Political Thought include the politics of race, sport and the media; American right-wing nationalism today; various responses to globalization; and while male rage. The stances Shapiro takes on these issues are little more than motherhood and apple pie statements for liberal academics. He wants to break down the barriers between nations, between migrants and locals, between white Americans and Americans of colour, and so on. Who would disagree?

Fortunately, however, he moves well beyond these pedestrian premises, and his elaboration and exploration of his arguments is far more engaging. In his discussion of race, sport and the media, for example, he brings Paul Virilio’s ideas on speed and mobility as distinguishing obligations of modernity to bear. He demonstrates how the capacity for both literal physical mobility and social mobility are keys to the success or otherwise of the black basketball players shown in Hoop Dreams, and how this finds a resonance in the manipulation of speed in slow motion playback techniques. And in his discussion of nation, he adopts Homi Bhabha’s insights on the narrated nature of the nation, and shows the striking, multiple and disturbing similarities between the Israeli and American narratives of themselves as chosen peoples.

However, beyond the occasional deployment of texts such as Hoop Dreams as examples, where does the “cinematic” come into all this? Shapiro’s use of the term to characterize his thought here is derived from Deleuze’s work. Shapiro describes his own work as “post-Kantian,” and it is Deleuze, along with Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard, who provides the bridge out of pure Kantian thought. Shapiro is attracted to Kant because of his idea of the political subject, and his cosmopolitan attraction to international connection. However, he finds Kant limited in certain ways. He is unable to think beyond the nation-state to account for national and other identities that do not fit states or which are mobile and uncertain because of migration. And he believes that connection will result in universal rationality and shared values (or common sense) without seeing the coercion and repression that would be needed to produce such a situation. The various post-Kantians enable Shapiro to unsettle the certainties he perceives as blocking Kant’s thought with what he terms “uncommon sense.”

Within this general framework, Deleuze’s concept of the cinematic is invoked. Shapiro elaborates, “I make use of the radical temporality of cinematic composition, which, by its mode of presentation, resists the perspectives of the characters and groups whose actions it portrays. Through its cuts, juxtapositions, and the temporal trajectories of its images, cinematic writing-as-critical-thought assembles an alternative perspective to those narrations that support the coherences of bounded individual and collective identities” (7).

It is on this point that I have reservations. For Shapiro seems to invoke the idea of the cinematic as nothing more than another term for critical modernist analytical thinking, for meta-discourse, echoing Barthes’ idea of the writerly text, Brechtian distanciation and so forth. Maybe this is big news in political science. I don’t know, but I do know that it is either a misapplication of Deleuze’s concept, or a usage that inadvertently reveals how unoriginal Deleuze’s thought is. And for much of the volume, Shapiro operates in precisely this modernist manner, detailing existing (false, mythical) “narratives” from various right-wing figures and then giving his (analytical, critical) “montages” that produce an alternative truth. Sometimes, however, he concedes that critical interventions alone may not be enough, that it may be necessary to develop alternative narratives. And this is where the films come in, tacked on at the end. If Shapiro really wants to privilege the idea of the “cinematic” as much as his use of the word in his title would suggest, it needed a more thorough consideration and deployment than it gets here.

Overall, then, readers are best advised not to be misled by the title of the book and expect cinema and the cinematic to play a particularly important role in it. If they can get past this, Cinematic Political Thought still has much to offer on important current issues concerning identity and polity.

Chris Berry