The Limits of Subversion in Film: Applying Jameson’s and Deleuze’s Arguments on Subversion to Two Contemporary Buddhist Films

by Shaun Terry

The history of subversive art is long: going backward for a brief survey of some relevant figures, we might think of contemporary filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Gus Van Sant to political rap acts like Mos Def and A Tribe Called Quest to musical artists like Bob Marley and Bob Dylan to Gore Vidal to George Orwell to Upton Sinclair to Honoré de Balzac to Voltaire to Plato and Homer and back even further—the list could go on seemingly forever. We generally might accept that some art could compel political action or, at least, grand changes in art itself. In fact, contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek often describes the revolutionary potential of art, as does Lawrence Grossberg1,2. The thinking here seems to be that no revolution occurs without first having won over the hearts and minds of the revolutionary class, and what better way than through that which can surely motivate us more effectively than any preachy call-to-arms? Still, this position is not without its doubters. Particularly, Fredric Jameson, famous Marxist cultural critic, does not seem to find any art convincing in its subversiveness3. Opposite Jameson for the purposes of this paper, Gilles Deleuze seems to take the position that, post-WWII, a new form of cinema emerged to subvert the older conventions of traditional Hollywood cinema and provided a means by which film could criticize the dominant structures of reality under capitalism4.

In this paper, I intend to argue that, while Jameson may be right to criticize the full revolutional potentiality of commodified cinema, the fact that no cultural product or set of products has led to full-scale global communism is not sufficient evidence to suggest that no film can be subversive at all. Put another way, perhaps the game of subversive art is not a zero-sum one. Instead, I will draw on Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image” to suggest that contemplative, sensory-symbolic films to which Deleuze speaks offer a means by which film might (subversively, in its form) offer new lines of flight, i.e. means by which we can call aspects of our inherited reality into question and effect change. In order to clearly define the tensions and commonalities in Jameson’s and Deleuze’s arguments, I will rely on two films: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring and Syndromes and a Century, by Kim Ki-Duk and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, respectively5,6.

To begin, though, it is necessary to clarify Jameson’s and Deleuze’s arguments. In “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Jameson directs criticism toward oversimplified analyses of art. He views analyses as tending to valorize either high art or mass culture, despite that the critical points made by all sides ignore the similarities between high art and mass culture. For example, Jameson asserts that both high art and mass culture are produced with sale in mind, if not with cultural impact also as an aspiration. He draws this comparison through his definition of reification of commodities. Under capitalism, cultural products are packaged as commodities to be sold in a way by which they are reified into symbols of the conflicts in our daily lives. Jameson relates the two forms of cultural product to repetition, a central point to those who valorize high art at the expense of mass culture (especially those of the Frankfurt School). While mass culture reflects commodification through its mass production, high art is also reactive to repetition: it responds by reflexively acknowledging the relationship of repetition to art (Andy Warhol’s art can serve as an example) or by trying (and failing, according to Jameson) to completely avoid repetition. So, while their relationships to repetition might be different from each other’s, neither is able to fully escape the problem of repetition under capitalism. Jameson goes on to describe how, under capitalism, contemporary products of culture affect us.

Jameson argues that contemporary products of culture follow a formula by which people’s inner conflicts are addressed. As such, cultural products enable us to repress urges to subvert social institutions: by presenting symbols of the tensions endemic to our lives under capitalism, cultural products allow us to gain a sense of the utopia that we yearn for while assuaging our concerns, allowing us to re-repress those concerns and go about our unfulfilled capitalistic lives.

Jameson uses Jaws to elucidate the repressive function of products of culture when he describes “an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations: an alliance which must be cemented… by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of that more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place.” (144) He further describes the purpose of this repression:

It touches on present-day social contradictions and anxieties only to use them for its new task of ideological resolution, symbolically urging us to bury the older populisms and to respond to an image of political partnership which projects a whole new strategy of legitimation; and it effectively displaces the class antagonisms between rich and poor which persist in consumer society… by substituting for them a new and spurious kind of fraternity in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it. (144)

From Godfather, parts one and two, Jameson is able to draw the utopic function that coincides with cultural products’ repressive function: “[T]he tightly knit bonds of the Mafia family (in both senses), the protective security of the (god-)father with his omnipresent authority, offers a contemporary pretext for a Utopian fantasy which can no longer express itself through such outmoded paradigms and stereotypes as the image of the now extinct American small town.” (147) Jameson expresses the need for the utopic function alongside the repressive: “[O]ur proposition about the drawing power of the works of mass culture has implied that such works cannot manage anxieties about the social order unless they have first revived them and given them some rudimentary expression; we will now suggest that anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness.” (144) What Jameson suggests, here, is that any effective product of mass culture must present people’s anxieties to them in order that they face them through mediation, but that this must occur in such a way that people’s hopes are realized, only so that they can put their fears back to rest, where they can remain dormant and feckless, non-threatening to the prevailing social order. If Jameson is right, his bidirectional formula for how cultural products operate on us seems to carry serious implications about which products of culture can and cannot be subversive.

To turn to the films under review here, Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring supplies us with an example of the kind of tension that Jameson might envision. What seems clear in this film is that the encroachment of capitalism (in this case, we might set aside that the woman came to corrupt the protagonist in a kind of Genesian, patriarchal inflection on the broader capitalism vs. Buddhism conflict at play) on Buddhism brings Buddhism under threat. This might speak to the fears—not just of Buddhists—but of anyone concerned with the preservation of tradition or anything socio-historical. As such, what this film allows for is that capitalism comes to fully corrupt the young protagonist (let us suppose that he would not have killed his lover if he had adhered to his Buddhist principles), but this is not the full cost of the corruption. In a somewhat contradictory turn, the old Buddhist man sets himself ablaze, tearfully committing suicide. The oddity here is the seeming conflict between the man’s actions with his beliefs: after all, is it not attachment to the younger Buddhist that leads him to self-destruction and relief of his Earthly right actions? Following the old man’s death, the cycle suggested by the film is completed as the younger Buddhist returns to the empty house to take on a protégé of his own (coinciding with another case of problematic gender politics)—utopia in the form of redemption from the evils of capitalism. The viewer might walk away feeling a vague sense of having worked through the repressed anxiety over the cultural destruction that capitalism might inflict, as well as a sense of relief over the hope that the film supplies: in the end, historical wisdoms might overcome capitalism after all. It is easy to see why Jameson suggests that such a film might leave any latent class antagonism cold and dry: with all the emotional fervor recontained, there can be no fuel to run the revolutionary engine.

Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century deals in similar subject matters (with similarly problematic gender and sexuality associations), but with (at best) a much more vague sense of the utopic. The film’s structure does not necessarily follow a familiar narrative arc like that which Jameson engages. That is not to say that we cannot find Jamesonian elements.

Similar to Kim’s film, Weerasethakul’s inspects the relationship between Buddhism and emergent global capitalism. About halfway through, the film takes a sudden turn: the nascent integration of capitalistic institutions suddenly (somewhat painfully) matures in the lives of the multiple central characters to the film, flattening out the lives of each and leading to an odd series of discomforting scenes (more on this later). While the film might come across as subversive in some sense, Jameson’s analysis remains relevant.

Jameson offers no formula for how art may be subversive. In fact, he suggests that, at this time, no art could be conceived of as relating effectively with political praxis. His reasons are multiple: first, all products of culture only become significant because they are sold, which paradoxically necessitates that these products of culture perpetuate the capitalist system purportedly being attemptedly subverted; second, distribution by any capitalist firm would likely come with some capitalist censorship such that any threat deemed too great would likely be undercut, or, at least, would likely be drowned in a sea of cultural products more ideologically favorable to capitalism (capitalist-inflected mass-produced kitsch, if you will); last, by presenting the public with an image of the conflict and by symbolically overcoming that conflict, it removes the metaphorical oxygen from the revolutionary room.

To take up the second reason listed above, we will consider the distribution of Syndromes and a Century within Thailand, the country that serves both as the film’s setting and as the film’s production location. In this case, many of the film’s attempts at subversion, themselves, were subverted. That is, to what degree socio-political critique may pervade the film, the real threats were undermined by the Thai Censorship Board; in fact, the version of the film allowed in Thailand (missing six scenes) is referred to as the “exclusive Thai edition.” So, for whatever emancipatory power the film might have had, the State’s ideological apparatus seriously undermined it.

Jameson locates the problem of subversion through cultural products where both high art and mass culture are “dissociated from group praxis”:

[I]t is a daydream to expect that either of these semiotic structures [high art and mass culture] could be retransformed… into what could be called, in its strong form, political art, or in a more general way, that living and authentic culture of which we have virtually lost the memory, so rare an experience it has become. That is to say that of the two most influential recent Left aesthetics—the Brecht-Benjamin position which hoped for the transformation of the nascent mass-cultural techniques and channels of communication of the 1930s into an openly political art, the Tel Quel position which reaffirms the ‘subversive’ and revolutionary efficacy of language revolution and modernist and post-modernist formal innovation—we must reluctantly conclude that neither addresses the specific conditions of our own time. (140)

But, again, at least in the case of Syndromes and a Century, Jameson’s model does not fully apply. This might provide an opportunity to conceive of art in such a way that it could, at least to some degree, provide a sense of subversion, albeit perhaps without fully avoiding all of the problems raised by Jameson (at the very least, all relevant art is likely distributed by some segment of capitalist industry).

To turn to an alternative conception of subversion and a possible explanation for Syndromes and a Century’s inconsistency with Jameson’s model, we can look to Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image, in which Deleuze suggests a new form of cinema (a subversion of the previous film paradigm. He juxtaposes the time-image against the “movement-image,” which we might think of as classic Hollywood tropes and forms. The movement-image is characterized by what Deleuze refers to as the “sensory-motor,” a conception of the workings of film such that they are about action and agency, whereas the time-image is defined by a system of signs employed to relate symbolic meanings in visual and auditory cues: “opsigns” and “sonsigns.” Deleuze succinctly characterizes what distinguishes the time-image: “This is a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent [de voyant, non plus d’actant].” (2)

For Deleuze, subversion of traditional film norms (as in the time-image) might relay into a subversion of social and cultural norms. By taking focus from the actions of agents and, instead, to the symbols of sounds and images, there is no need for clear emancipatory acts on the part of any protagonist. Instead, feelings of alienation, inequity, and injustice are made palpable by the recognizable sounds and images that accompany those undesirable characteristics of life. In some sense, the criticism is far more complete: instead of the simple good-vs.-evil interpersonal conflict narrative, the time-image might tell us that the problem is all around us (if we are willing to introspect, it may even go as far as to say that we are sometimes part of the problem).

To go back to the Buddhist films, Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring provides plenty of symbolic imagery. The Buddhists’ garb, the iconography, images of the Buddhists meditating, and even their (serene) relationships to nature offer clear associations with distinct symbols, so much so that when the young Buddhist returns in his worldly clothing, the effect is stark in its contrast to the then-set expectation. However, these symbols, as in the case of the movement-image model, merely seem to set the stage on which the action happens.

For Deleuze, the focus of the new film paradigm, the time-image, is less on grand narratives of recognizable heroes engaging in dramatic actions in order to save the day; instead, the depicted spaces and objects can tell us something of how the world is and how the world could be. As such, Syndromes and a Century provides little in the way of recognizable inter-agential conflict; instead, the mood cast by the form of the film and its symbols is palpable. Deleuze helps to clarify how these imageries might come to offer subversive effects.

Interesting in Deleuze’s analysis is how he relates subjecthood to the screen, which will come to have subversive implications. In a kind of phenomenological turn, Deleuze asserts that the spectator’s gaze imbues meaning upon that which appears on the screen, despite the often inactive elements to which Deleuze refers. The obverse appears in Deleuze’s treatment of the other kind of subject in this arrangement—that of the film’s characters: Deleuze supposes that characters offscreen (indeed, at times, the characters to which Deleuze refers do not surely exist) supply affects to the other characters in the film, and through them, to the film’s spectator. (8-9)

Typical of Deleuze, he refers to affect in a geographical, counterintuitive way: he asserts that spaces—even empty ones—can affect the viewer: “From The Eclipse onwards, the any-space-whatever had achieved a second form: empty or deserted space. …[T]he characters were objectively emptied: they are suffering less from the absence of another than from their absence from themselves (for example, The Passenger). Hence, this space refers back again to the lost gazer of the being who is absent from the world as much as from himself.” (9) Here, Deleuze supposes that seemingly innocuous, ineffectual empty space can do critical work, providing material to facilitate cultural interrogation. While it may be that a great majority of film confronts alienation, Deleuze’s suggestion is one that might run counter to Jameson’s point on the necessity of the utopic function in products of culture. Even the most introverted among us would likely not suppose that empty space represents a utopia to which we should aspire.

In accordance with what Deleuze suggests, Weerasethakul provides a series of three sets of important imageries scattered throughout the second half of the film.

In the first case, Weerasethakul puts statues at the center of our consciousness. He does so in three scenes: first, the camera steadily pans around a black statue of a worldly leader (associated with the State? industrial capital?) before similarly panning around a white statue of the Buddha; in the second scene, we do the same but in reverse, and with the added (but nearly irrelevant, by this point) spectacle of a man hiding from his love interest behind the Buddha: the same white Buddha statue followed by a different black statue of a worldly leader; in the third iteration, the camera pans in front of a swaying tree before it cuts to a black statue of a man and woman. These shots are accompanied by a low droning tone and capitalist sounds (industrial noises and auto traffic) drowning out the sounds of nature. Perhaps the moral implication (problematic though it may be) of black vs. white, along with the film’s form (progressing from the slower, calmer, more organic section to the fast-paced, random, and disquieting second section), might suggest a moral argument: to the detriment of Thailand, their Buddhist traditions are being lost to global capitalism.

Following most of the second half, with its odd, awkward moments of gum-eyed half-smiles and strange, almost elegant, and simultaneously robotic gesticulations and mannerisms, the second case of the symbolic image finds us in a room lit by ultraviolet bulbs, filled with what look like industrial machines. Over low quasi-musical, quasi-discordant noise, the camera stares up toward a ceiling that is not there, revealing a ventilation system, plumbing, and suspended light fixtures. The camera hypnotically pans around, slowly foregrounding a vapor, an unrelenting smokiness in the room until the camera finds and fixates on an oddly hanging tube with a wide mouth. The camera turns to face the opening to the tube, as the tube slowly, steadily sucks in the room’s fog. If we consider the overarching message of the film, the passage from the gentler, more joyous first half of the film seems clear in its relationship to Buddhism, while the second half of the film expresses a litany of small corruptions and subtle discontentednesses and alienations. The only obvious interpretation of the tube seems to be that the tube itself might represent global capitalism, slowly, invisibly, practically imperceptibly forcing all that might ever lie before it into its gaping, exploitative, brutal mouth—even that which would seem wholly incompatible with its ethos—in this case, Buddhism, itself, which brings us to the third case.

The film ends in a kind of perverted distortion of the mood of the beginning of the film, which is to say that of joy, but perhaps this is now capitalistic joy. In place of the calm contentedness of the Buddhistic first half of the film, the mood is here replaced by an exuberant, spasmodic happiness achieved through a succession of images of gigantic masses of city-dwelling dancers in the public park, enthusiastically synchronized in their hyperactive dance-as-exercise routine, complete with the instructor in the center, leading the way—in some way, it feels like an army of the health-obsessed, but instead of ritualistic marching, we bear witness to an aerobics routine. The implication might be double: first, the happiness here feels false in the context of a second half of the film in which nothing feels natural and especially juxtaposed to the first half of the film in which everything is awkward but, counterintuitively, feels completely organic, maybe even endearing; second, one cannot help but notice how “wellness” is commoditized in capitalist society such that something as seemingly harmless (indeed helpful) as exercise is both packaged for mass consumption and weaponized against workers as a force for increasing their productivity and usefulness. If nothing else in the film shows it, the proletarian sweat routine to the effervescent 8-bit techno music seems to demonstrate the full takeover of capitalism in Weerasethakul’s Thailand.

Deleuze’s analysis does not, however, limit the time-image’s emancipatory potential to criticism only. Deleuze takes the emancipatory potential of the time-image a step further, referring to the methods used in Luchino Visconti’s The Earth Trembles: “[T]his embryonic ‘communist consciousness’ here depends less on a struggle with nature and between men than on a grand vision of man and nature, of their perceptible and sensual unity, from which the ‘rich’ are excluded and which constitutes the hope of the revolution, beyond the setbacks of the floating action: a Marxist romanticism.” (5) Deleuze is suggesting that some films tell us something about the reality that we could have, as opposed to the one we find ourselves in.

What becomes clear through the first portion of Deleuze’s book is that it is the utopic function, and, therefore, the repressive nature of, the movement-image that Deleuze sees the time-image subverting:

Claude Ollier says that… the violently hallucinatory character of Godard’s work is affirmed for itself, in an art of description which is always being renewed and always replacing its object. This descriptive objectivism is just as critical and even didactic… where reflection is not simply focused on the content of the image but on its form, its means and functions, its falsifications and creativities, on the relations within it between the sound dimension and the optical. Godard has little patience with or sympathy for fantasies: Slow Motion will show us the decomposition of a sexual fantasy into its separate, objective elements, visual, and then of sound. (10)

What Deleuze suggests, then, is that the time-image has its own means of subversion, of political consciousness, of criticism, and even of suggestions for possible future worlds (utopic, to be sure, but devoid of the kind of content that would facilitate Jameson’s formulation) that do not rely on Jameson’s model. Instead, as Deleuze points out, filmmakers like Godard, then, are responding critically to the utopia/repression paradigm that Jameson articulates, instead relying on alternative means of effecting socio-cultural criticism.

Jameson seems right to point out the challenges in producing art that is both meaningful and subversive, but his unbounded skepticism, here, of the emancipatory promise in products of culture seems to ignore that which Deleuze captures. Cases like that of Weerasethakul’s provide clear examples of the critical work done by Deleuze’s time-image. It would seem unreasonable to suggest that any cultural product would, on its own, lead to global communism, and perhaps that is not exactly what Jameson means, but he might concede that more time-images—instead of movement-images—could be helpful to effecting his utopic ideal for society.

  1. For example, see: Žižek, Slavoj. “Sing of the new invasion.” New Statesman. ( London: New Statesman. [Internet]. 2011.
  2. From class lecture, Grossberg, Lawrence. 2017.
  3. Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text. 1. North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1979. 130-148.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1989.
  5. Kim, Ki-Duk. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring. Seoul: Cineclick Asia. 2003.
  6. Weerasethakul, Apichatpong. Syndromes and a Century. California: Strand Releasing. 2006.