What Is Revolutionary Narrative Art?

Last week I published an essay about Moonlight that is a bit tricky, or so people tell me. It’s an exploration of the movie through the lens of posthumanism, which I argue might be released from its bounds as an ethics of non-human animal relations, or as an exploration of cyborg hybridity, by returning to its roots in antihumanist theory. Check it out, but definitely watch Moonlight first; it hit Amazon Prime last month, and it might be the only movie in Academy Award history that both won the Best Picture prize and deserved to do so. It’s a rich film and I hope we’ll all be writing about it for a while.

I’ve written pieces of contemporary filmic criticism before but never anything quite so theory-driven. In hindsight, there are a couple reasons why I must have felt compelled to do so. First, I had been working on an analysis of films of the 1950s through the category of liberal humanism, which was brought to my attention by Mark Greif’s excellent book, The Age of the Crisis of Man. And I’ll have more writings on 1950s liberal humanism in popular culture soon enough. Last week’s essay was actually cut for length, and at one point it had a lengthy section on the racial liberalism of cinema in the late forties and fifties. I suggest that we might think of this approach as “racial liberal humanism,” for these old films tended to pose racism as a psychic problem, one to be defeated by strong individual wills, rather than social or state institutions, and they neglected the role of social experience in shaping identities and material realities. I even cut out a whole bit about Hidden Figures, which though I greatly enjoyed and admired the film, was clearly rooted in a model that I argue owes much to a liberal humanist episteme.

Second, I think I was wrestling with the question of what is revolutionary or progressive art. For a while now, I’ve been writing histories of the film industry that look at a bunch of movies, and tell you why they unknowingly colluded with the status quo, or helped to birth nascent narratives of libertarianism or neoliberalism. Inevitably, I find myself faced with the question: if I find x, y, and z problematic, what would want to see in a cinema of the future? I’m being a bit dramatic here: to be clear, I don’t think that one has to solve such a question in order to perform good cultural genealogical work. And I don’t think I was so naive to ignore the fact that there is a great deal of narrative art that I enjoy and appreciate.

But it occurred to me, in dashing off some words about the latest Star Wars movie, that in writing from a left perspective one always bumps up against the “socialist realism” question: is what we want really just Waiting For Lefty or Salt of the Earth or Norma Rae? I came up with an emphatic “no” in the above post. And thinking about this more recently—in reading some great utopian political and social theory such as Peter Frase’s Four Futures and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future—it occurred to me that a form of narrative art that is relevant to the 21st century must follow the same turns as do our conceptions of utopia and of our selves. That is, if I side strongly with those who say we should imagine a world beyond the laborer rather than fetishizing them (even as the above authors caution us not to abandon Marxist analysis of the problems posed in realizing a utopian future), surely Norma Rae isn’t due for a remake anytime soon. Or maybe it would make for good organizing, but I’m not convinced it’d make for good art.

This is where, I would argue, that posthumanism can help us. When I began thinking about this stuff, I had actually planned not to write about Moonlight, but instead on the novels of the Korean author Han Kang. Her work is astoundingly good, I just felt compelled to try to write about it. And I won’t say too much here in case I ever decide to go to back and attempt to write something substantive. But suffice it to say she challenges her readers by imagining entirely new ways of depicting social relations, by highlighting connections and contingencies that are made unintelligible by the everyday language of liberal individualism.

And I was thinking, there are other fiction writers that I enjoy, precisely because they get around the standard narrative forms that center upon an individual protagonist whose growth or achievements mark the arc of their story. Edwidge Danticat, for example, whose novels often travel from character to character in chapter after chapter, deploys such a form to articulate the interconnectedness of her characters, and to avoid privileging one hero or narrator. My favorite example of this form from the last year was Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey, an unassumingly quotidian story that was more rewarding than any bombastic and triumphant tales from Michael Chabon or Noah Hawley.

I never saw the film, but Birth of a Nation (2016) came in for quite a bit of criticism, some of which was because its hero appeared to be a one dimensional archetype, and I think Django Unchained could be said to have suffered from the same problem. Such a problem too is apparent in films like Elysium, where for all of its class-consciousness, the film fails to elide a conception of the self that is imagined to be born of a state of a nature. A revolutionary 21st narrative art would surpass notions of a rights-based or contract-based individual, particularly if such notions end up reifying the same kinds of meritocratic and hard-rationalist notions as does neoliberalism.

I know I keep returning back to the idea that the alternative to “resistance” per se is epistemic change, but I think it’s worth repeating. Epistemic change requires the formulations of new lexicons and ways of thinking, and those things don’t come easy. Srnicek and Williams suggest the importance of abandoning liberal humanism and individualism in saying “the pathway towards a postcapitalist society requires a shift away from the proletarianisation of humanity and towards a transformed and newly mutable subject….There is no ‘true’ essence to humanity that could be discovered beyond our enmeshments in technological, natural and social webs.” The good news is that I think we have the artistic seeds for imagining such a transformation. I think it’s worth considering how the vocabularies of antihumanism and posthumanism, in not just artistic ventures but in critical ones as well, might serve as antidotes to the meritocratic myths, banal liberalism, and “woke” humanism that appears in both contemporary popular narrative art and in the “takes” that are written in response to such art.