Ivan Boldyrev reviews a fascinating revisitation of Eisenstein’s Capital project.

Elena Vogman, Dance of Values: Sergei Eisenstein’s Capital Project (Diaphanes, 2020), 240pp.

How can we see – but also stage, or perform, and thus, make visible – materialist dialectic? This was the question Sergei Eisenstein wanted to answer in 1927-1928 when working on his never-to-be completed film on Marx’s Capital – a work Marx himself could never complete. In Dance of Values, Elena Vogman revisits this project while dealing with Eisenstein’s diaries from those years.

Eisenstein’s major operation there – putting together heterogenous images, mostly newspapers clippings or drawings of his own, and freely commenting on them – is something the book seems to follow as well: the diaries are exhibited, deciphered, and contextualized. Vogman’s book thus tries to elucidate Eisenstein’s method by practicing it – in a series of essays guided by their material, commenting on Eisenstein’s central ideas (like montage of attractions or tipazh/typecasting), producing associations and circling around one question – visibility of concepts/embodiment of thought.

If one were to find the book’s starting point – even if it does not have one –  I would say that it is located in a single caesura, a small hesitation in Eisenstein’s letter to Léon Moussinac, quoted in the book. When describing his own ‘cinematography’ as ‘genetically ideological, for its substance will be the screening of …’, Eisenstein cannot immediately say what is going to be screened – ‘the one essential word in all this hodgepodge doesn’t come to mind […] Okay, take the German word Begriff (concept, idea). But there is no absolute Begriff. They are always “classical.” (From the word “class” and not “classicism.”)’ (200).

So, how could we show a Begriff? Vogman’s text shows this: it is accompanied and, in a sense, constituted by the plates featuring the pages of the diaries, many of them published for the first time, and their ingenious schematic representations, as if designed to scratch the surface and to identify the elements of Eisenstein himself. On those pages, he accumulates images, sarcastically comments on current political events, draws sketches, tests visual schemes, looks for inspiration in analytic geometry, reflects on his critics, plays with etymology, while continuously oscillating between irony and obscenity.

Eisenstein’s images could only become ‘actors of history’ (20) if they could ‘de-automatize’ the given social and aesthetic relations (242). His wild – Joycean – associations, which disturbed the visual and conceptual structures, were the only way to actually make dialectical negativity appear. Hegelian truth – ‘the bacchanalian revel where not a member is sober’ (PhS 29), ‘not adaequatio but affinity’ (Adorno, Hegel: Three studies, 41) – is here reconsidered in view of the new cinematic perception, moving as closely to thought, as it possibly could. If the talk about the moving forms was not enough anymore, one could only make the forms themselves move, the concepts play (114) or, as Vogman calls it, get re-valuated.

In the book, value refers, among other things, to the business of exchange and equivalence defining Eisenstein’s ‘adaptation.’ Indeed, its political economy involves capturing the new cinema as both signifying something – capitalist exploitation, material(ist) dynamics of social totality – and creating an excess, a ‘surplus value.’ Cinematic experience, with its dynamics dissolving the past, could thus seem to be the best phenomenology of capitalism.

Its main modus operandi was metamorphosis. Dance of Values makes Goethe’s thinking of immanence – in some way actually inherited by Marx – a context for Eisenstein’s own morphology. To make capitalism visible in this series of miniatures, one needed to embrace a new epistemic regime, in which, for example, a commodity could not exist without – and indeed, dialectically presupposed – its advertisement. For Vogman, Eisenstein’s visual exercises are similar to Goethe’s plants, paradigmatic singularities, which, every time they are discovered by a new morphologist of modernity, open a new organ within us.

In a programmatic way, Eisenstein’s metamorphosis was indispensable for dealing with social relationality of any phenomenon and with the wealth of historical contingencies to be accounted for. Only metamorphosis could produce a durcheinander, an organization through Rimbaud-like ‘disorganization of all the senses’ – and thus depict not a stable image, but a destabilization itself.

My only quarrel with this masterfully written book is an unresolved tension it bears within itself: Eisenstein’s Capital is taken, much in the spirit of Benjamin, Adorno, and post-structuralists, to undermine a ‘dogmatic totality’ (37), to break, with its technique of montage, the idealist continuity of historical or ideological frame. But throughout the book we encounter Eisenstein struggling to substitute this totality with his own, to find an expression for the new synthesis. Its elements are discussed at length, but its ultimate ambition is not suspended. How could the totality of Eisenstein’s cinematic gaze – a sun, a hedgehog, an all-embracing screen, a cyclic, self-sufficient disruption in a ‘spherical book’ (245), a thought externalized in (and thus incorporating) a series of bodily reactions – still be open and revolutionary? How can it evade its imminent petrification? These questions – provoked by the book – concern not only Eisenstein’s project, but the dialectical thinking itself, its visibility and its future.

Ivan Boldyrev is Assistant Professor at Radboud University with interests ranging from the history and philosophy of recent economics to German idealism and critical theory. He has written several books including Ernst Bloch and His Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2014) and is currently completing a manuscript on the dialectical imagery in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

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