Citizens: On Marx and Kane (talk abstract for 16.3.2012)

This is the abstract, or at least the opening move, of what I wil say at the “Marx at the Movies” conference at Uni of Central Lancashire in March.

Citizens: On Marx and Kane.

In reading Capital, if anything about beginnings should be considered necessary, it might be good just to start with what is immediately at hand. There is much much discussion and theory about this, and its probably naïve to simply say that materialism might start with things themselves, but why not start with the objects, commodities, souvenirs or detritus of our lives? There surely is enough stuff of which to take account in our contemporary world.

The key to the beginning of volume one is where Marx starts with ‘an immense collection of commodities’, but there are many possible starts… So, I want to begin with something, or even someone, who might seem the total antithesis of the celebrated critic of capitalism. Marx was not a rich man, however well bred, well married, well educated, he was in and out of the pawn shop, knew a lot, intimately, about debt, borrowing, credit, and – as is very well known – relied upon a certain moneybags called Frederic Engels very often to get by. Engels though, whatever his peculiar foibles in taking up with two sisters, riding to hounds, effecting a mourning jacket and partial to fine liqueurs, does not deserve to be lampooned as much as the figure with which I want to begin. I choose a character from the not too far removed history of Capitalism, though glossed through a film – I have in mind the life of William Randolph Hearst. Moneybags. As portrayed by Orsen Welles in the film Citizen Kane.

In this talk, I want to develop this as an introduction to Capital, through a contrary incarnation in the figure of moneybags Kane, and begin to get at commodities through a focus on the kind of obscure, miniature, almost irrelevant and insignificant of objects to hand – those baubles and trinkets that mesmerize us all. When the film opens, Kane’s life is over, the story ends before it begins – the ‘No Trespassing’ sign raising questions at the beginning to flummox would-be explanations of a man’s life, or – since we know the ending – to dissuade us from thinking that Kane’s life can be referred back to the primordial snow globe scene where he is wrenched from his sled, and his mother, and catapulted into education, the news, the world… abundance and loss. Kane is a collector – and the one thing he hangs onto is the snow globe. The first sequence of the film has him dropping it as he dies, it shatters… A cinematic object, collected, contemplated, pondered, shaken, smashed. A snow dome is not always a frozen moment, its kitsch relevance to the everyday and its souvenir quality make it both domestic and profound, familiar, but also strangely remote. Miniaturized, yet televisual. I am fascinated by these domes.

John Hutnyk

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