Elena Vogman: Dance of Values. Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project

Elena Vogman: Dance of Values. Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project

Zurich, Berlin: Diaphanes, 2019, ISBN 978-3035801088, 286 p.

Gal Kirn
Sergei Eisenstein; Karl Marx; metamorphosis; (re)valorisation; value form; capital; representation of Capital; ideology critique; dialectic; commodity fetishism; film.

There are many ways to read film history, and perhaps one of the more subterranean is through negative epistemology, which traces missing film chapters and reimagines or even speculates on major projects that have never been realised. Such epistemological endeavours can make visible moments, notes, and film sequences that have been cut or (self)censored, or, even more concisely, may consider the very blind spots of the film field itself. Its contribution lies in reassessing what is most proper to the film and to its invisible field, and to what seems to always fall out of the frame. Elena Vogman applies this approach to film in her latest book Dance of Values, as she works closely on the encounter of Sergei Eisenstein’s methods and Karl Marx’s epistemic discovery of surplus value. Such a project is ambitious and repeats the ‘epic’ journey that French theory of the 1960s-1970s embarked on when philosophy encountered film and offered a provocative new take on Marx and on early Soviet and contemporary political cinema, to develop apparatus theory that always thought both through film and society. Rather than thinking in objective categories of class as a sociological entity that provides us with various levels of class consciousness and habitus, the epistemological stance of (post)structuralists reversed this reading: it is the class struggle that defines and constitutes classes. The central lesson of Marx can then be read in the way that capitalist society is split by class antagonism, which cannot be reconciled by state, law, trade unions, or any regulative mechanisms. For Eisenstein, as Vogman’s book shows, the project of how to take this lesson seriously and visualise the movement of capital with all its antagonisms and ideological distortions was of pivotal interest.

This aim is launched from a difficult question: there never existed, and there still does not exist any universal recipe to apply Marx’s theory of exploitation and value into film form. More concretely, Vogman points out that Eisenstein’s diaries, spanning 500 pages, show that Marx’s categories cannot be easily represented and applied onscreen (see also Bianchi 2020). Neither the political message, nor the film form that can be easily extracted from Marx. This quandary of this departure point has to do with epistemological complexity that condenses in the questions: how to capture capital, and how to visualise it? (Vogman 2009: 211). To make things more complex, any critical analysis needs to be attentive to the constant revaluation and distortion of political, economic, and cultural forms (“verwandelte Forme”). This means that any direct application of categories onto the screen will fail to grasp the core of Marx’s project and remain on the level of social critique, merely reflecting reality as it is and not the way it is constantly changing. At least since Antonio Gramsci, a critical approach to ideology has moved beyond a conventional Marxist formula positing that the economic base determines superstructure. Rather than limiting ideology to the sphere of false consciousness and ideas, an updated definition of ideology will focus on its working through a constant play of displacements, condensations, and secondary elaborations. In order to understand better Marx’s and Eisenstein’s take on ideology critique Vogman suggests using the key notion of “metamorphoses”, borrowed from Goethe (for more on this see the subsections “Marx’s Scene of Metamorphosis” and “Goethe’s Gift to Hegel” in Vogman 2019: 218–234). This complexity operates within the theoretical work that Marx, and Eisenstein after him with filmic means, used in order to shake the dominant dynamics of political economy and symbolic economy of (film) reality. Marx himself would find the idea of representing class struggle on the level of “content” merely crudely materialist, and, as Vogman shows, Eisenstein’s project clearly shared this essential standpoint. The major challenge consists in discerning and representing value and Capital, that is, in visually representing Marx’s method on the level of form. Vogman quite poignantly articulates the aim and the means that Eisenstein devised for this ambitious task:

“Eisenstein’s project of ‘showing the method of the dialectic’ in Capital, that is, of applying Marx’s theory of value on the visual level of concrete forms […] remotivates value theory at the level of visual signs by juxtaposing the static model of representation with an active and dynamic one: montage. Adapting Marx’s method – going beyond simple quoting his Capital – engaged the process of montage as an experimental structure in motion, a field of force in which Capital’s concepts would concretely acquire new meanings.” (Vogman 2019: 211; emphasis in the original)

As suggested above, this is a highly speculative field of study that sheds new light on the encounter of Marx and Eisenstein at the intersection of the dialectical method and montage technique. This review has, first of all, to commend Vogman’s book for its ability to offer the reader not only a new interpretative path that propels abstract theoretical research, but also successfully fills the gap in archival research on the Eisenstein’s Capital project and concretise it through an analysis of expressions and their metamorphoses in images (especially in Chapter 4).

Dance of Values consists of 286 pages and contains 78 images, ranging from film stills to RGALI archival resources, and 39 plates taken from the diary notes. Most of the archival material is published and translated for the very first time. There are four chapters: (1) “The Value of Crisis”, (2) “Capital ’s Stream of Consciousness”, (3) “The Value of Lenin”, and (4) “Metamorphosis of Values”. It would be impossible to condense the richness of the arguments, hypotheses, and reconstructions of the archival novelties presented in the book in just a few pages. What I will highlight in the next paragraphs are some major insights on the encounter of Marx and Eisenstein offered by Vogman, as well as her methods of dismantling an ideological constellation, especially in the third and the fourth chapter of the book.

Firstly, I would like to point out Vogman’s critical media methodology/archaeology, in which she does not simply illustrate her own theoretical ideas with the help of (new) archival material. Rather, she lets the material speak for itself and shows how Eisenstein’s cuttings, drawings, and annotations come into play and assume a form of a textual-visual montage. The archaeological method becomes an autonomous epistemic force within Vogman’s book. However, she treats earlier interpretations of Eisenstein’s Capital generously and quite justly directs her criticism at the crux of the methodological registers of the filmic and the textual. Her book poses a series of pertinent and critical questions: how come only a few passages of Eisenstein’s project on Capital have been made available? Only fifteen pages relating to the project were published in Russian and then translated into English - some incorrectly - and were not complemented by the original constellation of cuttings, drawings, and text(s) (Vogman 2011: 22–24)? Finally, Vogman’s decision to brush the dust off the 500 pages of Eisenstein’s largely untranslated diaries (1927-1928; and what he wrote on Bataille in 1930) is in itself an important contribution to the study of early Soviet cinema. The book presents us with a meticulous care for detail that fosters better understanding of what Eisenstein intended to do and how he wanted to edit and reconstruct the “mode of expression” of Capital via “filmic” means (Vogman 2019: 201). Pavle Levi calls this procedure “cinema by other means” (Levi 2012), deploying montage through various non-filmic elements, forms and arts in other words tracing a rich heritage of avant-garde film that pointed to experimentation and collage with other artistic forms.

Vogman’s book presents us with a few reasons for internal dissonance within Eisenstein’s oeuvre: how to account for the distance between his theoretical preoccupations on Capital and the failure to realise such a project, and how his methodology, only to a limited extent, materialised in his future films. Vogman points out that Eisenstein had no official support for such a major project as filming Capital, while it is also important to know that “in the extensive convolute for Eisenstein’s Capital project one cannot find even a single quote from Marx’s own text.” (Vogman 2019: 199). This omission is striking. Vogman quotes Eisenstein in saying that his major preoccupations revolved around the epistemic questions of “new cinema”, and the invention of new ways of moving beyond the false dilemma of the “played” (igrovoi, or fictional) and the “non-played” (neigrovoi, or non-fictional) (ibid.: 151). Eisenstein clearly focused on the readings and criticisms from his comrade film-makers and theorists, who, especially after his film October (1928, Soviet Union), spoke of his “betrayal” of Revolution by claiming that his fictive representation did its cause no good. It is important to state that at that point Stalin was already taking a firm grip on the state apparatus. It was also Stalin who launched the official campaign to commemorate the great leader Lenin by openly affirming the tradition and conservative reading of history made by great historical personality. This is why Eisenstein – and other leftist artists – were deeply invested not only in continuing the legacy of “true Lenin” (see Boynik’s introduction to discussion of Russian formalists and Lenin, 2018), but also in developing critical devices that could dismantle the dominant ideological formation and the symbolic authority of any political order. I would argue that Eisenstein’s approach is most promising when taking a closer look at Marx’s theory of ideology. Moreover, we need to be aware that Marx’s conception of ideology in Capital is rather slim and limited to the passages on “commodity fetishism”. Once commodity production becomes a dominant mode of production – the main feature of capitalism – it turns the products of workers’ labour, and labour itself, into commodity “free” to be exchanged on the market. Fetishism functions as a basic alienation mechanism: we fail to see the products as fruits of someone else’s labour, whereas the worker herself has nothing but their labour power to sell on a very precarious and asymmetrical market of relations. The title of Vogman’s book Dance of Values suggests precisely what Marx emphasises when defining commodity. His conception goes beyond the opposition between the use value and the exchange value, and is marked by enigmatic, transcendental, and dancing aspects:

The form of wood, for example, is changed if one makes a table out of it. Nevertheless, the table remains wood, an ordinary, sensual thing. But as soon as it steps out as a commodity, it metamorphoses itself into a sensually supersensual thing. It does not only stand with its feet on the ground, but it confronts all other commodities on its head, and develops out of its wooden head caprices which are much more wondrous than if it all of a sudden began to dance. (Marx 1976)

Marx highlights the very relational aspect and the supersensual aspect of commodity production that needs to be understood both within the production and circulation processes. If relational and asymmetrical features are first inscribed in the fundamental relation between capital and labour, then on the level of circulation, a commodity should never be perceived as an isolated product. Rather, a commodity only exists in a complex web of relations with other commodities and conditions of (re)production. As such, a commodity can never be reduced to the dimension of use value, or of free market ideology. What Marx traces is the time of labour, more specifically, the perpetual moment of creation and extraction of surplus value, its production and materialisation on the market that will define the nature of commodity fetishism and generally of capitalist economy.

The constant revolutionising of capital is grasped by Eisenstein especially in his various attempts to visually capture capital in its various manifestations and transformations. This is the enigmatic side of capital for Marx; capital’s ability to transform labour and products into commodities and (new) money, which will then run through the whole logic of (re)production and exchange, stretching well beyond the economic sphere. Kojin Karantani argues that Marx’s discovery can be credited to his method of constantly switching standpoints, to analyse in a “parallax view” (Karantani 2003), between production and circulation, which entails transforming the fundamental categories of political economy. When Marx took a standpoint of production (and worker), he conceived value as a vital part of the labour process. It is the worker who produces “surplus value”, but from the moment one assumes the standpoint of capital, one calls it profit. Furthermore, what is called value in production is called price on the market. Why this change and the gap between the terms, and how come Marx analysed such different standpoints (first of capital, then of worker; first of production, then of circulation)? There is no simple path to capture semantically and visually the logic of capital. What Marx shows is that one cannot be satisfied with the definition of capital as a static form (as “wealth of nations”), but as something that is in constant flux. This brings us to the core problem of Marx’s “transformation problem” over which substantial ink has been already spilled in the history of Marxist theory. In Vogman’s work, one can find this topic hinted at in her discussion of Goethe and various forms of metamorphosis – regular, irregular, and accidental (Vogman 2019: 227–229).

To return to Eisenstein and his intuitive grasp of the enigmatic features and logic of values and capital, I would argue that his approach is visionary. First of all, Eisenstein’s analysis is very productive when it visually presents us with the logic of fetishism and its operation of “reification”. Reification, in simple words, objectifies interpersonal and social relations. As Marx suggests, instead of seeing commodities as products of labour and a complex set of social and production relations, our consumer eyes only perceive a specific set of qualities put forward by marketing and advertising. This distortion and transformation of values and commodities is the secret behind “commodity fetishism”. However, Eisenstein radicalised this point visually and showed that besides commodity fetishism being one of the important aspects of capitalist society, one also should visualise fetishism as the vital feature of any ideological formation (cf Močnik 1999).1 As Vogman points out, Eisenstein was interested in a longer transhistorical anthropomorphic universality of ideology, be it socialist, capitalist, or pre-capitalist. Fetishism, and the way a subject and its desire are linked to and inscribed into the position of authority, is a feature of any ideological functioning. Vogman is correct to discern how this critique was materialised in Eisenstein’s critique of religion (Vogman 2019: 155-159).

This argument is best materialised in the film October, and the sequence which chains together heterogeneous gods, initiated by the majestic scene of the dismantling of symbolic authority (Alexander III, see Fig. 1). Eisenstein claims, in opposition to Stalin, that the simple overthrow of power and taking over of the governing apparatus is not revolutionary (enough).

Dismantling the statue of Alexander III in Eisenstein’s October.

It is noteworthy that Eisenstein’s film came out ten years after the October revolution. In retrospect it seems that in that moment the whole aesthetico-political focus on revolution rested merely on bringing down representative symbols of power. Old leaders get replaced by the new ones, which might well be the path to counter-revolution. It is poignant that a few sequences after the dismantling of Alexander III and the image of gods, we see the resurrection of General Kornilov. The spectre of the Old. Spectators might then follow the representation into two lines of History: on the one hand there is a linear hope of progress with the teleologically necessary arrival of communism, while on the other hand there is also history that can ‘progress’ through a chain of regressions and monarchic restoration. This constellation might be read as an implicit criticism of the then existing socialism that increasingly relied on the old models of governance and ideological tropes. Eisenstein, however, meditates not only on the question of representing and staging the October revolution, but of specific – let me call it – ‘primitive accumulation’ of ideology that targets religion. He goes to display the fetishist feature of totem and diverse figures of gods. If we take the totem as a sort of ‘primitive accumulation’ of religion, then we can discern that it already has a function of objectification of relationships between the clan and its members. What possesses seemingly supernatural power, a sacred object, already uncovers the operation of abstraction/reification. In other words, totems represent relationships between people in reified forms; through totems we celebrate/mourn the very community we find ourselves in, which in turn also represents specific power constellations and divisions within that specific community (see also MacGaffey 1994). In this respect, Eisenstein’s intuition is correct: fetishism is the original, dominant feature of any ideology, and as such a necessary but insufficient condition for understanding capitalist ideology. This is why Eisenstein supplements Marx with Joyce’s “stream of consciousness”. The latter’s method enables an understanding of capitalist marketisation, discussed by Eisenstein in various advertising examples. He is interested in how advertising reaches our minds and hearts, our desires, even our dreams and unconscious. A plate used by Eisenstein to bring together the various aspects of symbolic political economy is condensed in the news of melting ‘wax figures’ (Fig. 2-3) that are iconic representations of the stardom system, yet again signalling fetish and cult of great historical persona.

Eisenstein’s diary from April 8, 1928, RGALI, 1923-2-1107 (pp. 162–163). Courtesy of Diaphanes, designed by Uliana Bychenkova. Appears in Vogman 2019: 185.
Eisenstein’s diary from April 8, 1928 (Translation). Appears in Vogman 2019: 184.

Vogman elaborates this point by using Walter Benjamin’s notion of “exhibition value” and the method of “metamorphosis” to further analyse the revolutionising logic of capital. The critique of ideology and mechanisms of distribution of capitalist commodities brings us back, in a “parallax way” (Karatani 2003) to the sphere of production. One of the most striking plates from Eisenstein’s diaries, in Vogman’s words, shows an excerpt from the German newspaper, Die Woche, that features “an architectonic cage of workers” exploitation (Fig. 4-5). The wheeled cage here appears as the metaphoric imprisonment of two thousand “willing workers”, which an American transport company keeps in reserve in case of a strike (Vogman 2019: 239).