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Published on August 5th, 2014 | by Matthew Deacon
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Reading Between the Lines

How do we understand ourselves and our society as political objects and subjects? How do we read and infer the beliefs and ideals of others through their actions, reactions and interests? How are cultural objects and products imbued with political meaning and value? And what does this mean for us, our identities and our beliefs?

In our social context identity is an extremely fluid concept, which from a cultural perspective is, forged, in part at least, at the point our consciousness and the surrounding culture meet. We understand ourselves in relation to others, to that which is external to our own bodily experience and as such in our world we understand ourselves through our culture and perhaps most vividly through film.

I should note that I am focussing primarily on film here as this is my particular area of interest yet many of the points that I will outline below can equally apply to television, newspapers and websites.

Film exists within the cultural and social landscape of the 21st century as a point of conflict, creation and belief. The act of producing, screening or even viewing a film is a political action that influences the way you are socially constructed and understood. Socially or culturally interacting with a particular cultural artefact, in this case a film, broadcasts to the world the position you perceive yourself to hold within society.

To profess yourself a fan of Disney films creates one kind of impression, to say you are a fan of David Lynch creates another and to say you are a fan of horror films creates a third. Different genres, categories or areas of culture have over time, and through cultural and social interplay, developed certain recognisable social and political connotations.

These connotations are formed by the solidification of ideas surrounding particular cultural forms through repetition of cultural discourses by powerful institutions and organisations. For example we are encouraged to think of Disney films in a particularly positive way by the Disney Corporation which repeatedly reiterates the harmlessness and cuteness of their productions, which in turn affects the way that fans of Disney are socially and culturally constructed, understood and accepted.

In their famous essay Cinema/Ideology/Criticism Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni write “every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.” This suggests then that all film is inherently political because it is produced within a political matrix, and is shaped from its earliest conception by surreptitious political forces. They go on to suggest that most films, bar the most successfully political films, reproduce and disseminate the ideology under which they were produced. For example a Hollywood film such as Independence Day (1996) produced within the capitalist, American studio system reproduces and reasserts the power and the goodness of modern-day America, and modern-day capitalism.

If we accept that all film no matter who produced it or for what reason is political, and that the act of viewing a particular film is a political action that aids in the constitution of the self then we must realise what a powerful tool film, and as such culture, is. Film constitutes part of the ISA (Ideological State Apparatus) a concept conceived by Louis Althusser, expanding on the work of Marx.

The Ideological State Apparatus includes organisations and institutions such as the Church, the education system and cultural objects and discourses, basically anything that can teach or convince the public by peaceful means. It operates within society alongside the RSA (Repressive State Apparatus) which includes the police and the armed forces, which seek to convince the public through coercion and violence.

It is through the ISA and the RSA that the dominant ideology encourages its own continuation and reproduction, reasserting the dominant position of the ruling classes. The ISA is a politically surreptitious force that convinces and coerces the individual through cultural discourses relying on spreading the dominant ideology through wide dissemination and populism.

So then turning back to my first point, if identity is formed, at least in part, at the point the individual and culture meet, the Ideological State Apparatus plays a big role in the way that identity is formed and understood. In a capitalist society we are constructed in relation to capitalism, not only through our economic activities but rather through our social and cultural activities.

I would suggest then that our identities, beliefs and ideals are formed at least in part outside of the self, constructed by the dominant ideology and through social discourses introduced to us. We are socially and culturally constructed through our relation to that which is external to ourselves and perhaps even outside of our own intentions or knowledge. To truly understand ourselves then is to understand and appreciate the formative influences our society and most particularly our culture have upon us.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Matthew is a final year Film Studies student at the University of Sussex with a strong background in academic and critical writing. He has studied and worked with politics over the last 5 years and believes politics can offer everyone a voice. He lives in Brighton and loves the music of Mogwai. You can find him on twitter at @MDeacs77

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