Velleity, Or Criticism In Vernacular

Scope | Baidurya Chakrabarti

from Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)


noun \ve-ˈlē-ə-tē, və-\

plural vel·le·i·ties

Definition of VELLEITY 

1: the lowest degree of volition

2: a slight wish or tendency : inclination.

Origin of VELLEITY

New Latin velleitas, from Latin velle to wish, will — more at will

First Known Use: 1618



Let me fist of all make it clear that this piece is a ‘velleity’. A small wish that never overstates, imposes, or overbears. An audacious humility that does not respect any boss, genius, big brother, and does not want to become one in turn. However, it is never the lowest degree of volition; only the superficial expression remains muted. Muted, because this text is aware of the traps into which one may fall. The wish is simple: to extract a possibility, or the conditions of possibility, of delineating a few advantages of being a Third-World critic. Which is another way of saying that there exists none.

Firstly, it must be understood that criticism, and especially film criticism is a thing that belongs to a past era. Today, before criticism comes to influence a viewer, WhatsApp messages do the work. Criticism has been condensed into blurbs or even telegrams; its intelligence has now been lobotomized into common sense (Roger Ebert was the grand champion of it). Critics are no longer expected to think much anymore; they are expected to “appreciate”. Appreciation here is obviously an euphemism for conformation: fall into the line, ‘appreciate’ according the visual cues the ‘cinematography’ (grainy, smooth, jerky, stylish etc), follow the narrative cue and ‘appreciate’ the emotion (“a good human tale worth retelling”), follow the festival-circulated and IMDB-disseminated cue of ‘great directors’ and pay homage, etc., ad nauseum.

Criticism, in today’s climate, is allowed within a certain limit, certain norm, of politeness and sociality. The hardest thing for a critic to do today is to think. And this is exactly what the innumerable garden-variety blogs from English-speaking (since that is the language I follow on the net) Third World do; they repeat the same ‘appreciation’ in various forms, thus forming a ‘community’ of people who self-legitimize themselves as ‘cinephiles’. They are, in virtual reality, the high priests and security guards of the orthodoxy mistaken as cinema. The varieties of this orthodoxy are impressive, covering from extreme avant-garde fetishism to blind defense of anything Hollywood or Bollywood. But they are all–despite the differences in preference–birds of the same feather, because they play the same game of ego-pumping by elevating Gods and devaluing others. Their relation to cinema replicates the structure of an old cinema hall: cinema is the blank white screen on which they continually project their self-images, class values, national histories. Which is not really a problem, unless one also adamantly protests and justifies the separation between the cinephile and the cinema.

A cinephile is the last person who will allow the possibility of entering into a democratic and/or egalitarian relationship with the language called cinema. The ‘genius’-es of cinema are there as the inviolable barrier to such collapse of distance. The stake here is clear: if cinema is allowed to be a democratic language, the first thing that collapses is the privilege and posturing of the cinephile. The God-Cult in cinema has always existed, but mass communication has made the right to priesthood the birthright of the neo-liberal youth and trying-very-hard-to-hold-on-to-it corporate workers. One just simply needs to make a choice.

Historically, film criticism straddles the gap between the utopian but absolutely necessary dream of film-as-everyone’s-language (that is, a democratization of access to it) and film as the museum object, sole property of dusty and distant old men. On one hand, film criticism, or at least a certain strand of it, gave birth to—intentionally or unintentionally—the God-Cult called Auteur-ism, or, to be more precise, gave a new name and legitimacy to an old cult within cinema for the first time. Unintentional, since the original moment of Cahiers, where Auteurism is supposed to be found for the first time, was not propping up ‘greats’ but precisely those who would never have been named, industrial workers and supervisors of the film factory in Hollywood; also another stream of Cahiers denounced wholesale any cinema that was made in the name of the Father, calling it the Cinema du Papa (I shall return to the crucial philosophical issue of youth and its political significance later in this essay). On the other hand, the entry into criticism—mind you, not the ‘appreciation’ of the vacuous type of today—demanded the assumption of creativity vis-à-vis the film language, and in the best of cases, criticism did not merely disseminate elementary knowledge of film language competency or the latest update on the next Great Man on the line, it actively envisioned and propagated some type, some alternate conception of cinema. Criticism at its best is doing cinema in another language [And this ‘doing one language in other’ is what came about with the advent of the audio-visual medium, and in fact that is the determinant of the whole multimedia era].

There is also another history of the institutionalization of film criticism, both through the academia and through the market. But all in all, what we have in our hand is the gradual hardening of a film orthodoxy with irreparable divisions-of-labour and creation of vacuous specializations. A critic in our times has two things to do: firstly, make it into a hobby and conform to the norms of ‘appreciation’, and secondly, become a professional and conform in the highly stylized language of an academic conformist! The other possibility of really thinking cinema is not an option, it is a velleity.

Cinema is a language of thought. Like any other language, it has its own ways of ‘thinking’ which is often untranslatable to others. Retelling is secondary to it, or even mimicry of traditional fictional forms: it creates the reality. And like all language, the last thing one is taught is the thinking function of one’s language, the fact that we think in and through language, and there exists nothing outside it. We are told to obey, follow, utilize; the last thing that is taught in any language is creativity, which is synonymous to thinking. Indeed, thinking is precisely that function that escapes the bounds of teaching. Hence, the vehement arguments about ‘reality’ values of cinema are a dupe that wants you to believe cinema is this innocent recorder and has no generative function. The aesthetician who teaches you about the separation of art from society and politics wants to hide the fact that cinema is one of the most important governing mechanisms of modernity. Let any close-circuit camera prove it to you; if you have not already let the Censor Board make fools of you, that is. Cinema is not the representation of idea, it is ideology itself.

The generative aspect of cinema is at once the dirty secret of the industry and the state, and the liberating factor that keeps it beyond the prison of schools. Thinking cannot be demonstrated; one can only try to think with the other. It cannot be taught. Not in alphabetical language, not in film language too. A cinema that thinks does not believe in Holy Fathers and Obedient Sons, Masters and Disciples, Masters and Slaves. In a cinema hall, everyone sits together, because without renouncing the hierarchy, one cannot think. One cannot think with the others.

from Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015)

Again, that is only a potentiality. Very few think through films; very few—the detractors and the fans, the analysts as well as the I-don’t-care-for-such-hi-flying-stuff guy—will even agree to recognize that Hitchcock’s Vertigo is as prescient a work in Freudian psychoanalysis as any by the masters. It is not easy to tease out the aspect of thinking from the structure of narration and other affects. And the historical struggle first to legitimize cinema as art and then to strive towards an alternate cinema was—despite all their faults—at the core a move, however hesitant, towards opening up the possibility to convince oneself that one can think in cinema. To think of all things through cinema, including politics, sexuality, liberation, economy, finance, ethics etc. And amazingly, it is popular cinema that taught us that this is possible. It is popular cinema, in its skewed and myopic form—but then, who can outperform the myopia of an avant-garde?—cannot but thinks about the pressing concerns of its own time, reflects most faithfully the awful blindness of its time, its hopes, its aspirations and dejections. Like all things past to us, these have died too. Like all activism, film activism today resembles and functions like an NGO. And in this atmosphere, to call oneself a ‘critic’ is either to take part in a gigantic fraud, or to hopelessly fight a war once again that has been lost already.

And where does a Third World film critic stand vis-à-vis this history? Till the nineties, many of these Third World countries, and especially the ones espousing some form of state socialism like India, felt that they have always-already missed the boat (the reaction ranged from jubilation to utter despair); since the nineties, there are increasing number of people who are already on the boat but do not know how to disembark! But let us not talk about post-colonialism here; I have not eaten yet. There are material problems of time that haunts the film critic from the Third World: the hegemon in Hollywood, flanked by the newspaper and TV cronies establishes a norm in a new film that at once remains crucially topical to a third world critic and out of his reach. The nationalism-s of his/her space make him/her believe that a separate historical and cultural trajectory exists for his/her country that is distinct and only nominally connected with the global history of cinema (or for that matter, history in general); the cosmopolitan class-consciousness of the globalized elite makes him/her remain a snob towards his/her national cinematic space. A Third World subject is s/he who remains blind to what a ‘third’-ness really entails. They are not only already late, but they are always too quick: we have already moved into the telegrammatic non-senses of Nikhat Kazmi (and most Indian bloggers cannot write more than a short paragraph), but we never had an Andre Bazin, or even someone like Andrew Sarris. There is nothing in the identity/ontology of the third world critic that can establish an advantage.

The advantage I am envisioning here is a roundabout way of coming back to the utopia of thinking in cinema; but this time, we do not possess any avant-garde arrogance. It is velleity in the second sense: the minimum of volition. And the term and the category that can bring us back to it is the one the neo-liberal corporate worker wants to hide quickly in his/her closet: vernacular. To live in a third world English-speaking country is to live with the horrible reality that for much of the ruling class of today, the crème de la crème, has and do not belong to any vernacular whatsoever.

The word vernacular takes on a very peculiar inflection in the Third World. Originally a word that denoted “a: using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language; b: of, relating to, or being a nonstandard language or dialect of a place, region, or country; c: of, relating to, or being the normal spoken form of a language” [refer here] and was considered the other of the Lingua Franca, here, in the inescapable bi-lingual-ity of the Third World, it becomes the word for the mother tongue. A mother tongue: the ‘non-standard’, chaotic, vibrant joy of a language of one’s own. And here, I do not intend to make this into a distinction between existing languages. On the contrary. Vernacular denotes a will to change, to be involved, a refusal of the institutional language etc. Lovers of The Language of the Father (or, the Cinema du Papa, or those films one watches in retrospectives) do not and cannot be one with a vernacular. Thus a cinephile, does not matter which language s/he is talking in, always talks in the Lingua Franca of the film orthodoxy.

A critic, thus, ideally has to belong to the vernacular of cinema. For a third world person, I think the attraction/repulsion of the vernacular still remains strong, much stronger than the West, where very few possibilities of a vernacular-ity exists any more. That also entails a looking back at the nationalist moment, the period of great vernacular-ization: what do we carry forward? Not everything, indeed very little, but not nothing. Is it possible to think of a general politics of the vernacular? If there is, it can happen here in the Third World. Not for civilizational reasons. Not because it exists. But may be because I still hope. This is the advantage, but who can be there to accept it? It is a velleity, it is a wish that is afraid to even speak of itself to itself.

Till then, websites that live on, groups that blabber on, people that crawl on, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Thine is the Kingdom.


About the Writer

Dr. Baidurya Chakrabarti is an independent film scholar, currently based in Hyderabad. His doctoral dissertation, titled Mapping the Ideological Terrain of Contemporary Bollywood, is a detailed ideology analysis of post-2000 Bollywood cinema. His current research interests include Dakhini cinema of Hyderabad.