Configuring the demos: Cinema, the Global Digital Economy, and the Crisis of Democracy

International Conference and Publication

Project leader: Prof. Vinzenz Hediger | Profile

Project description

Cinema has been discussed as the paradigmatic cultural space of modern (mass) democracy by thinkers as different and far apart as Siegfried Kracauer, who developed an alternative to the bourgeois fear of masses and mass art in his criticism from the 1920s and his film books, and Alain Badiou, who cast cinema as a “democratic emblem” in an essay published in 2005. But how do modernization and democracy relate to cinema in a moment of the supposed crisis of (modern liberal) democracy? With a focus on three case studies of new players in the global cultural economy, all of which combine the emergence of a popular cinema with the (relative) consolidation of liberal democracy – India, Nigeria and South Korea –, this project argues that cinema, and particularly popular cinema, configures the demos in modern democracies by articulating and dramatizing the conflicts and crises of democratic polities, while developing a significant appeal beyond the geographical and political boundaries of these polities.

Among the most remarkable developments of the last thirty years in world cinema has been the emergence a number of new global players, i.e. thriving and market driven rather than state sponsored cinema industries with an international reach, operating below and beyond the confines of the American film industry’s continuing dominance of global middle class film consumption. Enabled by new digital technologies of production and distribution, these new global players include most notably the various Indian film industries, including, but not limited to, Hindi or so-called “Bollywood” cinema; South Korea; and Nigeria. While the Indian cinema industry has dominated its home market since the introduction of sound in the early 1930s and has consistently found an audience in Non Resident Indian or NRI diaspora communities as well as in the Middle East since the 1950s, Indian cinema’s globalized presence coincides with c country’s market liberalization policies in the 1990s.  These, in turn, are part of the second wave of globalization after the end of the Cold Ward, which involves, most notably, the emergence of a new world trade system around the GATT treaties and the establishment of the WTO. South Korea’s film industry, which is now one of the dominant cultural industries in East Asia with a strong presence in global pop culture, began its rise in the 1990s and emerged from a policy of market liberalization, combined with tax incentives that induced the Chaebols, the large industrial conglomerates, to enter film production. The Nigerian video industry, which has an output of around 1000 feature films per year and has an audience across Africa and in African diasporas in the Americas, Europe and Asia, emerges out of a situation of economic crisis and in response to the complete collapse of state sponsored film production in the country in the 1980s.
Broadly speaking, to all three cases applies what film critic and scholar Meena Pillai argues in her work on Malayalam (Kerala) cinema:

"As earlier notions of kinship and identity based on clans, natal homes and blood relations disintegrated with the rise of industrialization, spread of Western education and more individualistic and capitalistic modes of production and consumption, there was a need for forms of art and thoughts that could bring together the newly liberated individuals and mobilize them into a new collective. Cinema was inextricably caught in this task of imagining a stable and viable national/subnational community." (Raghavendra  2017, 267)

What is more, the rise and global reach of a self-sustaining, market driven cinema industry coincides in all three cases with the emergence and consolidation of or the transition to liberal democracy. As historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Adiya Mukerjee argue, the mass movement of resistance against colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries in India was “influenced deeply by democratic thought and traditions of the Enlightenment” and “succeeded in making democracy and civil liberty basic elements of the Indian political ethos”, establishing India as the largest democracy in the world after its liberation from British rule in 1947. (Chandra, Mukherjee, Mukherjee 2008, 28) While governed by authoritarian rulers and military dictatorships until the 1980s and 1990s, both South Korea and Nigeria have since evolved into relatively stable liberal democracies, if by liberal democracy we understand a political system in which parties loose elections and accept the result, and in which no section or fraction of society dominates the political system permanently at the expense of other sections. (Lefort 1991)
These parallel histories are all the more remarkable as they unfold against the backdrop of a growing sense of crisis of Western liberal democracy. In the United States, for instance, still the dominant player in the global economy of cinema, this crisis plays out as a conflict between two competing visions of egalitarianism and two concomitant and mutually exclusive conceptions of democracy: an inclusive democracy based on the notion of the continuous expansion of equal civil rights, and an exclusive, ethnic or racial democracy in the tradition of John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson, in which equality is  the equality of “white” people, combined with the selective attribution and revocation of civil rights based on ethnicity. One can argue that this conflict, which has marked the history of American Democracy since the 1830 and through the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, has now engulfed the American political system in its entirety, with Barack Obama, the first black president, being the emblematic figure of the first and Trump, who replaced the portrait of president Lincoln in the Oval Office with a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the epitome of the second type of mass democracy. One can further argue that since its inception, and particularly since the emergence of the feature film, cinema has been a privileged site for the articulation of this conflict. The first full-length feature film produced in American, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” from 1914, celebrates the creation of the Ku Klux Klan, while the representation, or rather – non-representation – of non-“white” people in American cinema has been a matter of contention and public debate throughout the 20th century.
Against the backdrop of the literature on questions of representation and the experience of mass democracy in American cinema, and drawing on more recent work on non-Western cinemas, this project looks at the three cases of India, South Korea and Nigeria in a comparative perspective and inquires into the relationship of cinema and democracy under the conditions of a globalized economy. The exploratory claim of the project is that, rather than contributing to a process of “undoing the demos”, cinema, through its broad appeal and wide reach, has a privileged role in configuring the demos in modern democracies, dramatizing the conflict and articulating the potentials, but also the pathologies of modern democratic polities.

Chandra, Bipan, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence. Revised and Updated edition, New Delhi: Penguin India 2008, 28.
Lefort, Claude, Democracy and Political Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press 1991.
Raghavendra, M.K.  (ed.), Beyond Bollywood. The Cinemas of South India, New Dehli: Harper Collins India 2017, 267.

Configuring the Demos: Cinema, the Global Digital Economy, and the Crisis of Democracy
International Conference
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