Thu Jul 10, 2003

Moving Images of Society

I teach a course on 19th Century Social Theory [pdf] at the University of Arizona, of the kind often required of Sociology majors around the world. I usually begin with the question “How can there be a city as big as Tucson in the middle of the desert?” and go on to give them a sense of the differences between Europe around 1800 and the society they’re used to. Then we trace the development of the idea of the division of labor in the writings of each of the theorists.

There are other ways to approach a class like this. Rather than focusing on the authors, you can look at different images of society, basic metaphors or pictures of what the social world is like or how bits of it work. Thinking of how to build a course along these lines, I began to wonder what films could I show as part of the class to illustrate these images and processes?

We already watch two films in class, A Job At Ford’s and The Saturday Night Massacre. The former is about life at Ford’s River Rouge plant in the 1920s and ‘30s and is great for getting a grip on Marx. The latter is about Richard Nixon’s efforts to get rid of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and we watch it when we read Weber on Bureaucracy and the pure types of legitimate authority.

But what about other movies? Not just documentaries, not just closely tied to a particular social theorist, either. For instance, you can draw a strong contrast between images of society that emphasize the fluidity and open-endedness of individual agency and those that emphasize the robustness and durability of social structures. Run Lola Run is almost a reductio of the former vision. In it, tiny decisions or accidents of timing involving the characters have enormous ramifications for their lives, though the characters themselves are unaware of this. Everyone is fully in the grip of contingent circumstances. It’s hard to think of a complementary film, one where, ideally, people think of themselves as making all their own choices but in fact are highly constrained by structural circumstances. (Perhaps the demands of cinema militate against this sort of film.)

Other basic images or mechanisms surely also show up in film: self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies; the rapidity of modernizing social change; the potentially nightmarish qualities of rationalized bureaucracies (Brazil?); how status hierarchies and systems of power work; and so on. Suggestions are welcome.