HomeThe critical theory of film - technique, phantasmagory, and politics

HomeThe critical theory of film - technique, phantasmagory, and politics

The critical theory of film - technique, phantasmagory, and politics

Théorie critique du film

Technique - fantasmagorie - politique

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Published on Wednesday, March 17, 2021


Ce colloque offrira l’occasion d’examiner la portée critique du film à l’aune des théories développées par les penseurs attachés à l’École de Francfort (prioritairement sa première génération : Adorno, Benjamin, Kracauer, etc.). Il se déroulera à l’université de Lille (deux journées) et à la Cinémathèque royale de Belgique (une journée), institution au sein de laquelle des discussions et des débats accompagneront des projections de films.


International Conference University of Lille / CINEMATEK, October 2021, 5-7


Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film expressly allows for a form of thought (a critical theory) to meet a specific medium (film)[1]. In the same way, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is largely focused on the potential for resistance in particular pieces of photographic and filmic productions – from Eugène Atget to Chaplin, Disney or Eisenstein. Benjamin and Kracauer share the way they analyse the critical potential of a photograph or a film[2] through what is at stake, as a way to measure its power of protest. The critical theory of “photographic media” that informs their writing builds the framework of a critical historiography that can be used as a film analysis methodology. Such a process links cinema’s technical means to the evaluation of its political potential.

Benjamin and Kracauer additionally agree about separating film (a “technical object” able to analyse the world and resist against its social injustice) from cinema (an industry under the thumb of the “victors of history”). The two philosophers define film both as a powerful tool for propaganda used by the dominant upper class and as a means for hidden parts of reality to be revealed (because it holds a capacity to make visible what is usually not apparent on a human scale). In the authors’ mind, these characteristics define cinema as a phantasmagoria: Benjamin and Kracauer both state that intrinsic to photography or film are the power to redeem but also to blind through distraction. They see films as phantasmagorias. On the one hand, films embody capitalism, for they are produced by its “victors” and serve an authoritarian and oppressive politics of distraction. On the other hand, as phantasmagoria, they have the ability to resist, turn against and fight the common discourse and the dominant ideology through which they are born.

Theodor W. Adorno also discusses phantasmagoria. In his essay about Wagner, he describes its potentially dissenting dimension. But unlike Benjamin, Adorno does not find hope or redemption—nor does he see phantasmagoria’s capacity to turn against itself and the capitalistic structures that produced it in the first place. Adorno writes: “With the anathematizing of the very pleasure it puts on display, the phantasmagoria is infected from the outset with the seeds of its own destruction. Inside the illusion dwells disillusionment."[3] Unlike Kracauer and Benjamin, Adorno, writing with Max Horkheimer plainly and vividly condemns cinema. According to them, cinema negatively embodies mass culture and thus appears as unworthy of their attentions. Apart from a very few Charlie Chaplin movies, neither of these authors deign to approach films or to consider some of them as possibly critical. Adorno describes cinema as a “misalliance between photography and the novel” and a total “pseudo-poetry”. As the figurehead of the cultural industry that “eats conflicts but in fact proceeds without conflict,” cinema appears as “the representation of living reality” that “becomes a technique for suspending its development.”[4] Yet, Adorno also states in 1966 that “film may become art”[5], revealing a ray of hope through his mostly negative words about cinema. This is further developed in Adorno’s experimental essay about composer Mauricio Kagel’s Antithese. In this essay Adorno, reconsiders his position: “For the time being, evidently, film's most promising potential lies in its interaction with other media”12. In the same vein, the last letters from Adorno to Kracauer in September and October 1966 indicate that Alexander Kluge’s film Abschied von Gestern (Yesterday Girl) may change his view of film’s potential[6].

This more optimistic view, also reflects Kracauer’s thoughts about films in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Kracuaer repeatedly approached those films through their links to other media to prepare the ground for a reflection on “mass culture”. But Kracauer and Benjamin’s thoughts go beyond interrogating the constituent intermediality of film and the technical replicability of art. Their shared method was to analyse what is “small” (one film, one moment, image, scene or sequence; one particular shot) to produce a reflection upon general phenomena (cinema, history, discourses or thoughts about the medium). Kracauer writes a theory of the film, which shouldn’t be confused with cinema (thea mass culture that Adorno and Horkheimer perceive negatively). In line with Benjamin and Kracauer, the present conference will focus on films as film, not cinema. Such a methodology does not explore the direction of a “critical” study of cinema understood as a (homogeneous) whole. It favours the analysis of the critical power at stake in different movies. In the same way, the conference proposes three frameworks by which to open up the study of films: technique; phantasmagoria; and , politics. These are closely linked and open up a path for the bonds between film and a critical position to be considered.

The elementary conceptual disagreements between these fundamental thinkers from the 20th Century allow us to consider the existing disparities within the reflections from the Frankfurt School and its margins. Critical Theory thus appears as a philosophy of mostly heterogenous nature. Thus, this conference does not aim at summarising the links between cinema and Critical Theory, for such assessments would necessarily be imprecise (depending on different authors, and whether they are part of the Frankfurt School or at its edges). Our aim, rather, is to approach cinema as a large phenomenon that implicates the members of the Frankfurth School (Institut für Sozialforchung) on various levels and at different periods of time  (Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer to Alexander Negt and Alexander Kluge). In the same way, our considerations extend to authors who are seemingly not affiliated with Critical Theory. Benjamin and Kracauer’s proposals, and their studies of specific films (documentaries, fictions, or experimental works) represent a theoretical and critical base for exploring different perspectives (aesthetics, history, anthropology, sociology). Relying on such foundations, the papers should consider the methodological approaches inspired by Critical Theory and its diversity regarding film analysis and film historiography.

Understanding the complexity of Critical Theory has been enabled by former studies mostly belonging to the fields of sociology, philosophy, and literature. By contrast the present conference employs the framework of Film Studies. The critical dimension of the papers should be highlighted, whether referring to historical, anthropological or aesthetical approaches, and the study of past or contemporary objects through the selected approach should be central (photography, film, video game, video, TV series, web series, …). The conference is opened to different disciplines (philosophy, history, art history, literature) and fields (fine arts, drama, media). Being close to cinema itself, papers from these fields should make sure not to digress from the conference’s heart, the study of films and discourses within film history. In this way, the originality of the conference and its ambitions are to build a serious and long-term reflection resting upon “critical foundations” (as did the Frankfurt School and its margins) inside the particular field of Film Studies.

Main topics

Papers topics may include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Film and Critical Theory: Chaplin, Eisenstein, Disney (and some others) in the writings of Benjamin, Kracauer, Adorno or Horkheimer;
  • Film and Critical Theory nowadays: the contemporary « critical film »; topicality of a Critical Theory of the film;
  • « Critical films », avant-garde and cinematographic forms ;
  • Anthropological materialism and film: critical anthropology, materialistic aesthetics, surrealism, poetic montage and political aim of the film (Luc de Heusch)
  • Montage, technique and revelation of reality: Charles Dekeukeleire, Boris Kaufman, Georges Lacombe, Lázló Mohly-Nagy, Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo (non-exhaustive list);
  • The ones that history excluded, marginalized individuals or groups in films; the ragpicker, the tramp, the Lumpenproletariat and « insane people », especially in experimental film;
  • Cinematographic archives, memory of films and Critical Theory: film and non-film archives, the role of the historical object, its materiality and its shape in the writing of

cinema history, questioning current techniques of conservation;

  • Testimony, the human being, the film and the photograph: critical witness(es);
  • From the discourse within films to discourses about films: Chantal Akerman, Claire Angelini, Sean Baker, Vincent Dieutre, Richard Dindo, Jean-Luc Godard, Luc de Heusch, Henri-François Imbert, Alexander Kluge, Chris Marker, Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet, Agnès Varda, René Vautier (non-exhaustive list);
  • Critical documentaries from Belgium: Chantal Akerman, Luc de Heusch, Boris Lehman, Paul Meyer, Henri Storck (non-exhaustive list);
  • Anachronisms: drawing parallels between heterogeneous temporalities (ideas, discourses, photo-cinematographic works, …), critical writing of the history of cinema.

Organisational commitee

  • Édouard Arnoldy (Full Professor, Film Studies, CEAC, University of Lille)
  • Cécile de Coninck (PhD candidate, Film Studies, CEAC, University of Lille)
  • Mathilde Lejeune (PhD candidate, Film Studies, CEAC, University of Lille, University of Lausanne)
  • Matthieu Péchenet (PhD, Film Studies, CEAC, University of Lille)
  • Sonny Walbrou (PhD, Film Studies, CEAC, Université de Lille)

Scientific commitee

  • Gil Bartholeyns (Associate Professor, History and Visual Studies, IRHIS, University of Lille) [on condition]
  • Stéphanie Baumann (Associate Professor, German Studies, CALHISTE, University of Valenciennes)
  • Michael Cowan (Full Professor, Film Studies, University of St Andrews)
  • Laurent Guido (Full Professor, Film Studies, CEAC, University of Lille)
  • Laurent Le Forestier (Full Professor, Film Studies, University of Lausanne)
  • Dario Marchiori (Associate Professor, Film Studies, Passages XX-XXI, Université Lumière Lyon 2)
  • Muriel Pic (Full Professor, Litterature, Université de Berne)
  • Simone Venturini (Associate Professor, Université d’Udine)

Guest Artists [on condition]

  • Claire Angelini
  • Philippe Bazin
  • Boris Lehman



Cut-off date for the submission of proposals for evaluation

The proposals (2500 characters including spaces + short bibliography) should be submitted

before May 31st 2021

(the chosen papers will be announced at the end of June).


[1] Nowadays, Theory of Film is one of the last steps of research still to be completed (some texts about cinema, mass media and propaganda are still waiting to be published in French). The (re)discovery of Kracauer’s oeuvre is largely due to the work and research of Nia Perivolaropoulou and Philippe Despoix – whom the organisers wish to thank warmly for their support in the construction of such a conference. 

[2] Such an approach to film can be applied to history itself. Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History and Kracauer’s History. The Last Things Before the Last conceivably agree regarding this political dimension (This is not a unanimous opinion).   

[3] Theodor W. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, translated by Rodney Livingstone, London, Verso, 1981, p. 83. 

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture” (1942), The Culture Industry. Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London and New York, Routledge, 2001, p. 63 and p. 71. 

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, "Transparencies on Film" (1966), translated by Thomas Y. Levin, New German Critique, Autumn 1981 - Winter 1982, #24-25, p. 201.  12 Ibid., p. 203. 

[6] Adorno-Kracauer. Correspondance, 1923-1966, Paris, Le Bord de l’eau, 2018, p. 419 et p. 421. Original version in German (Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 2008) edited by Wolfgang Schopf.


  • Domaine universitaire du Pont de Bois - Université de Lille - 3, rue du Barreau
    Villeneuve-d'Ascq, France (59 650)
  • Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique - 9 rue Baron Horta
    Brussels, Belgium (1000)


  • Monday, May 31, 2021


  • Edouard Arnoldy
    courriel : edouard [dot] arnoldy [at] univ-lille [dot] fr
  • Matthieu Péchenet
    courriel : matthieu [dot] pechenet [at] gmail [dot] com

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Edouard Arnoldy
    courriel : edouard [dot] arnoldy [at] univ-lille [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« The critical theory of film - technique, phantasmagory, and politics », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, https://doi.org/10.58079/168b

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