Intersubjectivity and _35 Up_

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Sat Jul 22 00:45:03 MDT 1995

I'm glad people are "butting in" to this thread.  Even Ralph, with whom
I'm coming to agree, I can see, on some things: some of what he said
about philosophy to Juan, for example, or about getting away from any
intellectual pretense to "see through" ideology--unfortunately, a
pretense embodied in the still prevalent, if understated, concept of
"false consciousness."  That's in part why I'm not happy with Kerry's
answer simply that "materialism" provides a marxist theory of subjectivity:
how, why, for whom?  Who gets to see what is actually material and how?

Here may be a test for theories of (inter)subjectivity, one that prevents
them from getting too abstract (merely gesturing at "History," say).

I just saw the British documentary _35 Up_ (I saw _28 Up_ some time
ago).  For those not familiar with this, it's a project by the Granada TV
"World in Action" team.  In 1964 they picked 15 or so supposedly
representative British 7 year olds, and interviewed them, with the aim of
showing us what the future of Britain would be like (and with the Jesuit
phrase ringing through the programme: give me a boy before he is 7 and I
will give you the man).  Every seven years since they've been
interviewing these same people: so in 71, 78 (lots of very dreadful
hair), 85 (Princess Di haircut on at least some) and 92 (though I could
be out by a year, so they'd end up with the year 2000).

By the time of _35 Up_ there have been 4 previous documentaries, then,
and previous interviews are spliced in and played off with the current
(age 35) interviews.

Obviously, the whole thing is about class (though there is one black,
who, like some others, didn't want to be interviewed at age 35), and the
interviewers target class difference relentlessly--comparing the several
boys who went to prep and public schools and then Oxford with the
farmer's son, the working class women, or the two who were in a
children's home--while most of the "subjects" also show at times very
strong class allegiance (or shame!), in more or less complicated ways.

[The film is crying out for more room for more race, gender or lesbian/gay
critique by the way--for example, it's absolutely taken for granted that
all the subjects are unproblematically heterosexual, though even within
that rigid framework of understanding, one character, the teacher, seems
to buck it at least slightly.  But that's another matter]

Yet the film is also very much about the production and expression of
(inter)subjectivity, and simultaneously about acculturation and social
constraint (the edge to the Jesuit adage).  Unlike a normal narrative
film, the "social matrix," and the subjective discontinuities are
especially striking: we are given five x fifteen snapshots (in which an
"I" is always interrogated, but often doesn't face the camera back:
especially among the 14 year olds), in one of which a "character" may
declare themselves against the idea of ever having babies (say) and in
the next of which be surrounded by several.  The subjects are encouraged
to narrativize over these discontinuities to some extent, but clearly are
unable to do so sufficiently (the different historical frames registered
by, for example, the earlier scenes being in black and white, or the
different styles of dress or voiceover also add to this effect).

On the other hand, continuities are equally marked, and also played up,
yet not seen so much to be the result of individual choice or personality
but rather quite clearly of forces beyond the subjects' control: most
clearly, when the three 7 year olds at pre-prep school (who are fairly
indistinguishable) are asked what they are going to do, they reply things
like "Westminster--if I pass the exam--then Cambridge, Trinity Hall, and
Law, though 'we' haven't quite decided that yet" while another gets a
little confused and says "Mummy has a big list and I'm not quite sure"
while, lo and behold, essentially the three of them follow exactly those
programmed paths.  Meanwhile, the first kid who was originally in the
children's home replies "What is a university?" and his wife many years
later reports, herself obviously quite shocked (thinking of her husband
in that film) that their son had recently asked "What is a university?"

I could go on about the film itself, but here's another point, perhaps
more of interest to film theorists, but also I think important for ideas
about (inter)subjectivity, and the more so the more that film theory
since Metz and _Screen_ has paid so much attention to the Hollywood
interpellation of the individual subject through closure, parallel
editing and suture etc.... well, the thing is that, I think, it is quite
clear that none of this works with _35 Up_.  Much of the power of the
film, I think, is its activation of the intersubjective experience of
viewing and (of course I'd say) affectively rather than merely
symbolically constituting one as the spectator.

When I say affect here, I don't mean the affect of identification (you
watch Forest Gump have a good or a hard time, and laugh or cry with him)
but precisely the affective experience of dis- or partial
identification.  For given the above brief analysis, it is clear that
there are no single or centered, or even particularly coherent characters
with which one could identify.  And yet each character has some part
(some sequence in some year: even the nasty Thatcherite taxi driver was a
very cute kid, for example) with which one makes some identification,
which may immediately be cancelled the next scene (the next discontinuous
jump), but which leaves its affective trace.  In watching the film
instead of being the detatched, all-seeing I/eye, one enters into the
intersubjective matrix, the class, gender, and historical contradictions
that the film itself embodies, and then reproduces (though with a
difference).  Simultaneously the effect is one of fragmentation, and of
entering into a larger collective, one that is open rather than totalized
or totalizable.

I could say more about this film, but I think it does begin to exemplify
some of what I'm saying about subjectivity, and I hope others will butt in...

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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