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. Plenty of junk. Marx himself has much to say on waste and shit, and in volume three of Capital it becomes crucial (see here)
But we are not at volume three as yet, by any means, though it is a key to the beginning of volume one, where Marx starts with a immense collection of commodities, its is also crucial that materialism as material-ism would have to take account of all this stuff from the perspective of the whole, of totality (Lukacs). This will never be easy or straightforward – an impossible accounting, which must nevertheless be our aim. Even if documentation of all this stuff is forever incomplete and that in all the varied and multiple efforts, interpretation is, or should be, always contested, to do so still betrays a totalizing ambition. We might also call this a reckoning to come. The collection is messianic, the collector divine (Benjamin).
But that is to get ahead of things a little, the task here is to start to read a text, and then to relate it to our present conjuncture.
There are many possible starts.
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 Freddy 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 partiality 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 Orson Welles in the film Citizen Kane.
Is it possible to reclaim Citizen Kane from all the readings that have passed over it so much? What residue will need to be cleared away so as to see this film anew? Is that even possible? So many biographies of Welles, but an oblique angular take on this overburdened film can perhaps still reveal something about our perspective today.
Hearst, however, cannot be reclaimed. Conrad suggests that Hearst papers created both the gossip column and celebrity (Conrad 2OO3:145). Andre Bazin Points out that the controversy over Kane as Hearst was a consequence of the rivalry between Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons and her bitter enemy Hedda Hopper. (Bazin 1950/1991:57). Conrad also notes, a page earlier, that Welles had written a forward to Marion Davies posthumously published memoir of her time with Hearst at San Simeon.
Was Hearst’s hostility to Kane reason for the industry to fear exposure, through Hearst papers, of Hollywood’s foibles – sex, payola – or rather its employment of ‘aliens at the expense of American labour’ (Leaming 1985:209)? His support for the working man may well have got Hearst called communist in his youth, but it was always a misnomer.
The importance of rumour in the reception of Kane is clear, but what then of the unspoken exclusions in the Hearst story, the bits of narrative not voiced: Hearst as moneybags plundering the material culture of the world, the arrogance of his taking photos in Luxor where the flash damages the art of millennia… Hearst thought WW1 a financial venture for Wall Street tycoons and his defence of regular soldiers, even deserters, and pro-Irish anti-imperialists was impressive – for example his campaign in support of British diplomat Roger Casement who was eventually hung for seeking German military support for Irish independence. Such campaigning was however not without financial benefit to Hearst’s own purse in the form of ever growing newspaper sales to those who approved of his anti corruption stance. His position on WW2 entailed a meeting with Hitler, but an abstentionism that became a liability. He rapidly became an advocate of anti-communism in the post WW2 era and had campaigned against pro-Soviet U. S. Films from the early forties, such as ‘Mission to Moscow’ and ‘North Star’ (Pizzitola 2002:409).
Hearst, an anti-communist, muck-raking, armaments and finance capital moneybags with a vendetta and a deep resentment (Rosebud)? What then of his concern about ‘alien’ labour? What of his early ‘investigative’ journalism? Despite denials by Hearst that he orchestrated it, Kane, the film, was branded communist, only saw restricted release, got bad early press, and took several years before being recognised the ‘greatest film of all time’ etc etc… the rest is cinema history. Welles was investigated by FBI agent Hoover (Pizzitola 2002:398) and his directing career never recovered, despite The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, he was forever dogged by studio interference and funding troubles.
So lets find that image from the film that encodes it all – a hammer end Sickle on the façade of the Inquirer (see accompanying still). Then the multiple perspectives of the Kane film can be twisted to do allegorical service for a reading of Capital (“hat tip Rough Theory“). Immediately following the newsreel sequence that (re)starts the the film after Kane’s snow globe death, the camera moves through a neon sign and down through a glass window to Susan’s table and the first of five or six interviews which structure the rest of the film. These are not consecutive, temporally concurrent, and can even be contradictory, they do not add up to an explanation of the life of Kane, yet by the end, when the ice of the snow globe has turned to the fire of the furnace that consumes all that collected junk, we do perhaps know a little more than before, can examine things in a more nuanced way, and we maybe even get to know something of Hearst.
The different windows on the story of Kane also offer an allegorical way into reading Marx’s Capital – the initial newsreel section something like the commodity fetish chapter, a platform that warns, as does the very first sentence, that things are not what they appear, that the wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails only presents itself as an immense collection of commodities
Although the film begins and ends with the No trespassing Sign, it is Welles I think who does want, and wants us, to trespass. His camera passes through the chain mesh, and again through various windows and signs to examine and inquire. This is something like the metaphoric architecture that governs the presentation of Das Kapital. The theatrical references to drawing back curtains (before the wizard of Oz, duex ex machina), the ocular, vision and camera lucida that ‘at first look’… implies always a second, and third, look, the ghost commentary so beloved of Derrida, and much more.
Bazin, Andre 1950 Orson Welles
Leaming, Barbara 1985 Orson Welles, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Conrad, Peter 2003 Orson Welles: the Stories of His Life, London: Faber and Faber.
Pizzitola, Louis 2002 Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion and Propaganda in the Movies, New York: Columbia University Press.