The role of critique in contemporary cinema has been displaced. Consider the story of Chicago gang member Danny Toro, who would watch Scarface almost every day for 10 years despite the film’s heavy-handed critique of its gangster protagonist Tony Montana. Perhaps as equally perplexing, the film American Psycho is popular among many yuppies even though its point is to critique the masculinity and violence of a financial culture much similar to their own. Or even more striking: fraternities across the country hold “Fight Club” events inspired by David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s book although the film is an in-your-face condemnation of preppy social climbing.
Diagnosing this problem, Slovenian philosopher and critic Slajov Zizek writes that we no longer live in an age where “they know not what they do,” but rather: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” To make his argument, Zizek echoes the theory of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that we have entered the age of “cynical ideology” whereby the demystifying correction of ideological camera obscuras no longer motivates social action – or in the words of French sociologist of science Bruno Latour, the critique has “run out of steam.”
The alternatives suggested by all three are disappointing, however: Zizek proposes empty political doctrines (“signifiers without a signified”), Sloterdijk recommends a return to the irony and sarcasm of the Greeks (“kynicism”), and Latour calls for a “stubborn realist attitude” (“empiricism”).
In contrast to these three alternatives, I propose contemporary theories of affect as replacement for the diagnostic and effective functions of ideology critique. As used here, affect is the felt intensity of shared relation that both circulates as a pre-personal substance and is often categorized through cognition as emotion. One can thus analyze the affects that are produced and circulated by media objects, political subjects, and even social situations. Borrowing from American queer feminist scholars of affect, such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lauren Berlant, and Sianne Ngai, I outline the basic elements of a methodology based on affective critique.
To conclude the paper, I apply affective critique to recent transgressive cinema, namely Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and Bernadette Corporation’s Get Rid of Yourself, and suggest media objects and social advocacy campaigns for which such an analysis would also be appropriate.
In the first half of this paper, I will review the theory of cynical ideology – the history, philosophy, and proposals of its proponents – which challenges the efficacy of ideology critique. In the second half, I will propose a different form of critique based on a theory of affect from a media ecology approach.