The Invisible Armada

The critique in the stomach of entertainment (2/2)

Alain Brossat


If cinema is a factory, which it certainly is, it is also a factory of dissensus with the present, an inexhaustible source of thinking differently. In other words, it gives rise to other spaces just as it nourishes the formidable principle of identity. If cinema perpetually takes us on board, it never does so in an unequivocal way. Far from being, as Kracauer says, only the "mirror of existing society", a flat definition par excellence, cinema is, in a perpetually minor but constantly renewed mode, a means for us to ensure our grip on the present while differing from what exists. Cinema has, in principle, its own singular means by which it thwarts and complicates its vocation to be nothing more than a colossal and sumptuous (sumptuary) machine to entertain. It is constantly “behind” entertainment that this insistent power of complication returns – where it moves us, tears us away from our certainties, upsets our habits of thought and brings out new perspectives – new angles of view, unexpected. It is here, too, that the critical power of creation (of art) appears, in cinema, as that which separates itself from the industrial machine and makes its cogs grind.

But it is also here that Benjamin and Kracauer, heralds of this dialectical approach to cinema, leave us in the lurch today, that they no longer really keep up with the most recent developments in cinema in its major forms – the hyperdominant cinema in the countries of the global North and one of the characteristics of which is that the traditional separation between "general public", "commercial", "popular" cinema and art cinema, avant-garde cinema, "intellectual" cinema, “elitist”, “quality”, “experimental” (etc.) has become completely nebulous.
 What makes this dividing line blurred today is notably this: the separation between a cinema whose vocation would be to convey stereotypes, norms and dominant models of behavior, to promote the spirit of submission and conformism, on the one hand, and a critical and rebellious cinema, “independent” as such, often politicized and oriented towards emancipation, on the other hand – this distinction has lost almost all relevance. This is because, contrary to the Adornian "lesson", industrial cinema, in its most advanced forms, no longer revolves ("fuels") so much on the open and massive diffusion of conformism, on the promotion of positive images of legitimate authority and their discourse, to the “advertisement” in favor of major state and economic actors – in short, it no longer simply operates on “the dominant ideology”, as one would say in a vocabulary of the years of the 1960s.

 What is striking, when we take at random films which are doing well at the box office, but also the average films from the white, middle-class global North available on a platform like MUBI, is that this cinema operates rather, in general on critique – critique being understood generically here as that which separates us from the evidence of the present, leads us to take a critical look at the legitimized authority, reveals the faults of the established order. This cinema which, in the global North, tends to become major , that is to say to occupy the dominant position or to be the current modality, has, as its horizon line more or less clearly drawn delegitimization more than legitimation of the existing, of the instituted. It is a cinema which now, and in an almost routine manner, is not content to depict, relate, represent the bankruptcy of political elites, the corruption and brutality of the police, the greedy blindness of industrial circles, the banditry instituted in high finance (etc.), but which, much more, places us in the middle of these cesspools, as if they were the most natural element of our lives, of our societies, of our world. It is no longer at all a cinema which aims to strengthen our links with the present, our feeling of belonging to this world, its great actors, its benchmarks, its norms and its “values”, it is a cinema of disaffection, rather – in the sense that its most constant turn consists of taking for granted that the forms of order, in our societies, are based on lies, imposture and illusion.
 We could therefore imagine that the cinema of everyday consumption, mass cinema in its destination, and industrial in its modes of production, including blockbusters , has now almost entirely detached itself from what Adorno considered to be its primary vocation – homogenization, standardization of the massed public, the production of conformism on an assembly line; that it has now turned entirely to "critique", that it has entered into dissidence, by dint of challenging the foundations of the established order and indicting the double-talk of those in power, the cynicism of economic powers, the delusions of hegemonists and supremacists of all kinds, the enemies of women, those who mistreat animals, etc. This would therefore be the paradigm of Avatar: for the blockbuster to be popular, it must certainly promote the great cause of Tolerance, but on the express condition of making a bad start to racial prejudice and extractivist ideology, to productivism dedicated to the devastation of the planet.

But upon examination, we realize that this reversal is, essentially, illusory, for two main reasons. The first reason is that in the present era of cultural industries, of which we cannot say whether it is that of maturity or decline (the "late" age of these industries), it appears that critique is almost entirely soluble in the spectacle (in the Debordian sense of the term), in entertainment – ​​critique does not escape the process of reification, on the contrary, this tends to absorb it. This is because critique itself has changed status: now devoid of the ground which established it in the position of foundation of resistance to the disorder of the world and injustices, it no longer finds its natural outlet in conduct or actions of resistance, it no longer nourishes aspirations for another world; it no longer stimulates the imagination, it no longer brings out other spaces, it no longer reveals lines of flight outside the administered present. Critique, now torn from this humus, critique whose normative, ethical, political and ideological, even religious or metaphysical, foundations have now become evanescent – ​​critique is suspended in the air, in a state of weightlessness and it rotates in round. It is almost entirely untied, unmoored from the domain of action.

It is this very thing that creates the conditions for its absorption by the world of spectacle, for its reabsorption into entertainment. It becomes the “plus”, the natural spice. A film noir which only presents virtuous cops, respectful of the rules, pure incarnation of the rule of law would be, according to the expectations of the contemporary public, not only mortally boring, but kitsch, ridiculous, with no relation to reality. What makes the spectacle, what feeds the entertainment, is the picture of a police force corrupt to the core, whose leaders control drug trafficking in the city, whose collusions with the crooked politicians of the place go without saying, a good rogue police force whose misdeeds will, for two hours, keep an audience, more mocking than dismayed, in suspense. [1]
 This is because, in fact, for critique to become an element of the spectacle, the public must have entered into these particular dispositions where conformist messages no longer have a hold on it – it must have entered into the age of perpetual disillusionment. That it has become a public which, in its mass, no longer “believes” in much, except that lies and imposture are the pillars of the existing order – pillars by antiphrasis, here. The disillusioned public is the one who no longer believes that critique can influence actions likely to produce displacements and upheavals oriented towards emancipation. This is a public that has entered a time of limitless cynicism.

 Under these conditions, when the relationship between spectators and works (which have become products, merchandise) is thus de-intensified, the conditions are met for critique to degenerate into entertainment, into satire without consequence, into jokes, into hullabaloo disconnected from any practical issue - hence, in a related field, radio and TV programs which treat the news of the day "as a joke", which tease the powerful without offending them - on the contrary, the joke is what contributes to their notoriety. Critique is then ripe for its dilution in spectacle and entertainment. It can then indulge in all sorts of one-upmanship – the bigger the line, the more vibrant and dope the show. A President of the United States who orders the cover-up of the homicide of his mistress by his bodyguards, a President of the French Republic whose only and tiny fault is that he has absolutely nothing to say, the middle class family in rags and splinters, vampire ecclesiastics (…) – such is now the daily bread of mainstream cinema in the global North, the antipodes of the Adornian diagnosis and prognosis  [ 2 ] .

 But, strangely, the saturation of this cinema by critical charges leads to a result which, as in the second degree, would tend to conform to the Adornian position: henceforth, critique is, essentially and in the ordinary practices and uses of this cinema, enslaved to spectacle. It is one of its driving forces, like the special effects, so to speak. Enslaved, critique produces second-degree conformism – once again, the paradigm of Avatar.

 The involution of the function and scope of critique, in cinema and more generally, is due to the fact that the articulation between the questioning of present conditions and the invocation of other possible worlds is broken. Critique of the present calls for alternatives, it is based on the possibility of differing from this present, of branching off, of creating other spaces, it refers to otherness. In another dimension, critique has today lost its support to the extent that we no longer know in what name it is exercised, what would be the basis of its legitimacy. The legitimizing authorities have become vague, the norms are changing, the reference to values ​​has become, in the democratic world, in the global West, a carnival.

What means that critique can now be integrated into entertainment is that it continues freewheeling, without support, that it is above ground as we say today, and therefore that it has shifted from the side of the farce, the burlesque spectacle, the teasing, the enormous charge intended to put the laughers on his side, the big laugh devoid of any effect of real censorship of the characters, the institutions, the practices and the behaviors that she scratches. Critique has lost its capacity for real questioning, when it is deployed in the spaces marked out by the culture and communication industries, under the conditions of the devices put in place by them. It has become harmless, the reason why those whose job it is to humor the powerful of this world, starting with the rulers and people of the State, have an open platform on radios and televisions and are paid handsomely rather than sent to prison. It is the “Guignols de l'info” (a lately popular satirical programme on French TV)  effect which has become a general paradigm in our societies.

 Cinema never ceases to draw attention to this new turn of spectacle, the basis of which is generalized cynicism: since everything is lies and corruption, since power and might are no longer based today on anything other than imposture and tall stories, and even to the extent that we can do nothing about it (powerlessness is taken for granted), we might as well have fun with it! Perpetual sneering as a modality of approach or appropriation of the present, which inevitably drags us down – approached through this means, public life tends to condense into sordid imbroglios (private life, sexual misconduct, etc.) where some important person in politics or business, some celebrity from the entertainment world find themselves entangled day after day... So many misadventures echoed endlessly by the media, social networks, digital public rumor, and of which we enjoy ourselves, rather than becoming indignant. Or rather: indignation is also part of the show, it is a market – the “new philosophers” were the first to excel there, before Stéphane Hessel [3] tried, quite in vain, to restore its nobility.

 The dilution of critique in spectacle and denigration clearly signals the rise of nihilism in our time. For it to be a shared affect which supports this about-face of critique (from rebellion or rupture to sneering consent), both the irreversible fall must be considered as acquired by the general public, by the average subject of public morality and the disappearance of all common decency . What signals the entry into the era of soft democratic or post-democratic nihilism (in contrast to rabid nihilism of the Nazis, the totalitarians in general)is this gesture, this pirouette: since the disappearance of what constituted the ethical foundation of critique in its traditional form is irreversible, and since we can do absolutely nothing about it, we might as well turn it into a spectacle! And this is indeed one of the inexhaustible themes in the spectacle of global North white cinema today: the disappearance of public morality, the end of common decency. Since life must go on anyway, with or without these traditional foundations of communal living, we might as well mourn them in songs, turn this disaster  into a carnival, a tumult, and let whatever will be, be! 

The impasses or, as Enzo Traverso puts it more delicately, the antinomies that can be identified in the Adornian analysis of the cultural industries therefore appear, upon examination, more sinuous, more complicated than one would think, at first glance. On the one hand, of course, we can say that Adorno (and with him, to a large extent, his alter ego Horkheimer) is, on this point as on many others, the very incarnation of the figure of a radical thought that turns sour and sinks into a neo-conservatism without return, with all the accents of reactionary nostalgia that goes with it – it was better before, when people still knew how to listen to music instead of wiggling around on the syncopated rhythms of jazz.…

 The intellectual, ideological, and political trajectory of Adorno is exemplary in this regard, one might say. Above all, it endlessly repeats itself and extends to our times, especially in the post-years, notably in the sequence leading from the 1968 era to the neo-conservative revolution – in truth, a genuine counter-revolution both ideologically and politically.

It is an unanswered question, always elusive, to determine where the tipping point lies, the watershed, that causes a thinker who was positioned on the side of critical radicality, accompanying and enlightening us as such, to gradually and suddenly slide, prompted by a political event or an intellectual twist of fate, towards the realm of reaction. This leaves us abandoned in the open field, even as we had grown accustomed to seeing them as a friend or ally. What muddles the waters and bewilders is precisely that this shift occurs against a backdrop of apparent continuity: the man remains the same, his style generally does not change, he continues to present himself as a rebel or a dissident, as a inflexible censor of the time – simply, one good (or rather bad) day, we have to face the facts: he went to the other side of the horse, he joined the camp of reaction and, with a bit of luck and skill, may end up at the Académie française or at the head of the Fondation de France [4].

 This is what happened to us with Adorno: enchanted readers of Minima Moralia, then, for the most persevering, of the Dialektik der Aufklärung (absurdly translated into French as La dialectique de la Raison), we fell on our ass when we learned that in the heyday of the student protests, in Frankfurt, the same Adorno, having taken over the reins of the Institute for Social Research after his return to Germany, without hesitation called the cops to chase away the protesting students who occupied... Is it really the same Adorno that we are talking about?, we asked ourselves... The same scene is reproduced endlessly, as in Eternity by the Stars of Auguste Blanqui – what was yesterday a voice, even a mouthpiece of protest, of radical critique, of rebellion continues his career today in the front rows of the party of order; insensible shifts, brutal about-faces, whatever, the tipping point retains its mystery – but the fact is there – the friend of yesterday with whom we cultivated so many intellectual affinities has become an enemy, we change paths when we meet him in the street.
 Adorno, therefore, is established prominently in the series of incarnations of the collapse - the rebellious and dissident charges of critique turning like a glove into an apology, ever so vehement, of the most unpresentable forms of the established order. We detect immeasurable social contempt in his obstinacy in opposing, in the field of art, the avant-gardes to any form of artistic expression whose roots are popular; it is cultural aristocratism in all its splendor (so to speak) which gives free rein in this absurd way of opposing Berg and Schönberg to the pioneers of jazz, soul music, blues. On this point, the case is settled.

But on the other hand, Adorno's cultural pessimism , with its natural neoconservative outlet, may prove, upon examination, if not good company, at least a spur to thought. Certainly, if it is revealed today that Adorno wasn't particularly good at diagnosing or predicting when he characterized cinema, especially Hollywood, as a factory churning out social and political conformism, offering an overly simplistic view of the future—commodity of critique, (pertaining to both contemporary film critique and film critique in general [5]) is an evolving process and a novel state of affairs that ultimately aligns with its radical pessimism: reification takes another stride as the critique of existing conditions, once a vehement denunciation, increasingly transforms into a spectacle in its own right. Here, therefore, the unqualified virulence of the diagnosis made by Adorno finds relevance and vigor. Simply, what often leads radical critique to go astray and lock itself into the impasse of neo-conservatism is the apocalyptic tone; this is precisely the trap that closes on Adorno's criticism of the cultural industries and which we should be wary of here - the temptation of a definitive diagnosis, in the form of the cause is heard, the mass is said, the circle is closed and critique definitively enslaved to the spectacle in the general conditions where artistic production, particularly cinema, are subject in a drastic manner to the conditions of the cultural industries.

But it is precisely here that the affect of the end of the world (which underlies the apocalyptic tone) is bad advice. Indeed, the loop is never truly closed, there always remain gaps, cracks, lines of flight. It is the way in which the very movement of life passes through, supports and inspires artistic creation such that it continues to irrigate the works with sufficient constancy and intensity so that these, or parts between them, at least, do not entirely coincide with the products, the goods that they are elsewhere, insofar as they are intended to enter the market. Artistic intensities are the weeds of commercial culture and reified works, and critique finds its resources in this movement. Critique returns, in original works like those of Kelly Reichardt or Jordan Peele, as a new source, not yet polluted by its transformation into spectacle, its destiny as a commodity  [ 6 ] . The loop is never completed because art continues and circulates through the most compact sediments of commodity culture. Art renews itself, circulates, produces its effects by infiltration by circulating through the strata of culture, the products of the cultural industries. In this sense, we could say that any form of art (which it is not necessary here to adorn with the adjective "authentic"), quite simply, presents itself as minor, placed under the status of “minor”.

 Art continues because it is carried by the movement of life; culture in its dominant forms (industrial and commercial, culture as market, world of merchandise, empire of reification) is at the same time its element vital (the air she breathes) and a hostile environment (the air is polluted, risks and dangers are omnipresent), but it continues against the course of things – the art which preserves and renews the powers of a critique not subject to the spectacle can only appear in the present in the form of an annoyance, which complicates things (unnecessarily from the point of view of good management of cultural merchandise), which “brushes the hair” of the present “the wrong way” . But not at all in a posture or an “avant-garde” position – and this is again where we must separate ourselves from Adorno and, with him, here, from the glorious 1920s, which today have become the museum of avant-gardes.
 Today, it is not at all a cinema rediscovering the inspiration of the avant-gardes that saves and revitalizes the film's critical powers. Instead, it is a cinema actively engaged in unmasking reality, restoring its richness, delineating its spaces, and gauging its constraints. This stands in contrast to the major, monstrously major cinema of today, which specializes in orchestrating collective escapes into the imaginary, complete with the accompanying panics.  A cinema that restores, revitalizes, and reinstates reality against the proliferation of groundless phantasms – films by Aki Kaurismäki, Andrea Arnold, Sebastian Silva  [ 7 ], to name a few.  That is to say, a cinema that does not categorize itself at all within traditional binary frameworks – art cinema versus commercial cinema, avant-garde cinema versus bourgeois or old-fashioned films, etc. Simply put, a cinema of the real, not in the purely documentary sense of the term, but a cinema that reconnects with reality against the rise of collective delusions that set the tone for our era. A cinema of the here and now that disentangles us from the administered world (for the worse), from the present held hostage.
 Today, we must learn to un-inhabit, meaning to desert while fully residing in the present where critique is now integrated into the general apparatus. The fate of film critique here is merely a symptom, a "detail" among many others, as it has either become a mere element of film promotion or one of the various forms of universal digitized chatter, in the mode of "like/dislike.". We must think with and against Adorno a state of affairs in which critique is an element of consumption, one of its facets, in a world where the aesthetic pleasure associated with art has become inseparable from consumption – a form of consumption. The return to reality involves the effort to find the gaps allowing us to escape this encirclement, starting from the certainty that “life is elsewhere” – certain films, rare but infinitely precious for this very reason, help us do this. Reality, in this sense, is indeed the world in which we live, think, act, work, love in... - but re-divided, redeployed, re-mapped, placed under a regime other than that which presupposes and "naturalizes" administered life.

 This minor cinema, these rare films help us to make this change of regime. If only insofar as they give us back, against the great inorganic universal chatter (the storytelling of some and the digital logorrhea of ​​others), the taste for stories. We need stories to get us off to a good start. Nothing like a good story to relaunch the intermittent but indestructible motif of community: the circle forms around the narrator and it is already the beginning of a community. This again takes us away from Adorno and brings us closer to Benjamin.


[ 1

La Confidential , Curtis Hanson, 1997.

[ 2 ]

Absolute Power , Clint Eastwood, 1997; Gaz de France , Clément Forgeard, 2015; Mila , Shannon Murphy, 2019; Thirst , Park Chan-Wook, 2009…

[ 3

Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013): French freedom fighter during WWII, diplomat, writer. His short essay Indignez-vous! (Be indignant!), 2010, was a hit.

[ 4 ]

La Fondation de France: a private philanthropic foundation supported by the state.

[ 5 ] 

Another Man , a film by Lionel Baier (2008), evokes in ironic tones the evanescence (obsolescence?) of film critique today.

[ 6 ] 

Kelly Reichardt: Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), First Cow (2019)... Jordan Peele: Get Out (2017), Us (2019), Nope (2022)...

[ 7 ] 

Aki Kaurismäki: exemplarily, his latest film: Dead Leaves , 2023. Andrea Arnold: Milk (1998), Dog (2001), Wasp (2003), Fish Tank (2009)... Sebastian Silva: Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus (2013), Rotting in the Sun (2023)...