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Capital and community: On the films of Melanie Gilligan


At Mute magazine, Jasper Bernes examines Melanie Gilligan’s trilogy of incisive films about contemporary capitalism, Crisis in the Credit System (2008), Popular Unrest (2010), and The Common Sense (2014). Focusing on the last of the three, Bernes writes that film shows that not all forms of collectivity under capitalism are inherently anticapitalist. Some are part and parcel of the capitalist valorization process itself.

For some commentators, present day capitalism offers a stark choice between a thoroughly capitalist ‘fantasy of individual singularity’, whose origin and destination lies in the market, and ‘a collective desire for collectivity’ that might form the basis for an overcoming of capitalism. Against the relentlessly personalising and individuating energies of late capitalism, the task for those who oppose it, we might be told, is to augment ‘the collective power of the people.’ Without a doubt, the capitalism we live with today takes its direction from the molecularising energies of the 1960s, an era in which demands for autonomy, variety, free choice, and free desire were leveraged against the massified, one-dimensional societies of mid-century. And yet, the cunning of history seems to function, in part, through the misguided efforts of those who insist on fighting the last war; we shouldn’t lose sight of the long list of bad collectivisms nourished by anti-individualist discourse. As preceding generations knew all too well, the discourse of the people can be used for the most repugnant of populist, corporatist, fascist, or statist projects. In the face of a new capitalism happy to deploy ideas of ‘sharing’ and ‘friendship’, we would do well to sharpen our sense of the distinctions worth preserving. Perhaps the pertinent line of opposition does not run between individuality and collectivity but between different forms of community, forms which imply, as a matter of course, different definitions of the individual: on the one hand, what Jacques Camatte, following Marx, calls the ‘community of capital’, and on the other, ‘the human community.’

Toronto-born artist film-maker Melanie Gilligan’s new film, The Common Sense, helps bring these distinctions into focus, by examining the perils of the common and the collective as we encounter them today. The film revolves around the emergence of a new ‘patch’ technology allowing the direct transmission of affect from person to person. As with her preceding film, Popular Unrest, (2010), science-fiction allegory is here a tool to investigate the logical structure of capital, in terms borrowed from Marx and Marxism, as total system and automatic subject. Though Gilligan finds herself among a number of artists and film-makers producing trenchant investigations of the structure of contemporary capitalism – from Hito Steyerl to the late Allan Sekula – no one that I can think of has used Marxist categories in such an imaginative and analytically precise way, nor put them in the service of such a novel critique of emergent aspects of contemporary capitalism. Viewed as a trilogy, the three film series, which began with 2008’s Crisis in the Credit System and continued with Popular Unrest and The Common Sense, presents one of the most powerful reflections on our present age of crisis and revolt that I have encountered.

Image: still from The Common Sense