Cinematic time and the accumulation of ecosocial crises

Cinema emerged in an era in which accurately recording, standarizing and reproducing time was essential to the development of industrial capitalism. In previous — yet persistent — stages of capitalism, domesticating “the brute” or “the savage” (whether this was peasants, indigenous peoples, or slaves) had been the key to accumulating the capital that served to propel the qualitative changes which led to the Industrial Revolution. Once this process had been developed and refined, domesticating the industrial worker became seminal to a profound historical move: modernizing the capture of the surplus value the workers produced, from an exploitation based on the extension of time worked, to one based on the intensive productivity of that time.1 And thus, along with the great shifts in energy sources (fossil fuels, particularly), managerial organization, and technology, among other things, measuring time with precision was seminal to achieve that enterprise.

As film scholar Mary Ann Doane noted, all sorts of machinery was developed and improved for registering and homogenizing time in connection to the specific demands of capitalist modernity, transforming time into value according to “the logic of the monetary system.”2 Pocket watches spread quickly and served “the impulse to wear time.” Then, with the railways and telegraphy accelerating the rationalization of time by means of its global standardization, in 1884 the world would be divided into twenty-four time zones, after an international conference celebrated in Washington D.C. “The sheer speed of transportation and communication,” for the benefit of the commercial development of industrial capitalism, “worked to annihilate the uniqueness and isolation of the local.”3 This uniqueness would be substituted for another one; of globalizing and homogenizing features. Thus, when cinema emerged, “time became increasingly reified, standardized, stabilized, and rationalized.”4
As a particular type of time machine, as “a grand archive of time,” cinema allowed people to see the record of time and participated, as Doane underlined, in a broader cultural reality meant for “the structuring of time and contingency in capitalist modernity.”5 As such, the “technological promise to capture time” opened the cinema to confront all sorts of social and natural limits, from “the denial of the radical finitude of the human body” to the “access to other temporalities.”6 In collusion with capitalism’s ideological fetish for progress and infinite growth, the emergence of cinema was accompanied with stories and fables that would introduce and legitimize “the recognizable tropes of orientalism, racism, and imperialism essential to the nineteenth-century colonialist imperative to conquer other times, other spaces.”7 As did many other “technological promises” of the epoch, cinema served the shaping of time for capitalist modernity, in its case to see and imagine the conquest of other times and spaces, human and natural. Registering time for that matter meant domesticating contingency.

This process had been the result of a long shift in the very idea of time and history that had accompanied the relation of work to the formation of industrial capitalism.8 From linking economic life to the cycles of seasons in pre-capitalist societies to what historian Lucian Hölscher has called “the discovery of the future,”9 the dominating worldview had moved from the organic to the mechanistic paradigm:10 growth was endless, there were no limits to whatever the human aimed to do, history was linear, unavoidably moving towards progress. Nature had been a cage from which the inventive humankind was finally to be liberated. This rift from time with its natural cycles and restrictions, alongside the profitability inherent in capitalist logic, would mean in practice a severe disruption of the ecosystems and climate that had, for far too long, conditioned social life. Those obstacles had been finally overturned and domesticated. Additionally, this capitalist modernity was not — nor is still — a universal feature, but instead mirrored a very specific kind of human type: predominantly male, white, bourgeois. As such, capitalist modern time was also shaped along with the development of European imperialism, colonialism and racial supremacy that had been part of its very construction.11 Inscribed within this broad cultural scene, much of the emerging cinema also served these aims12 and, to some extent, the new art naturally adopted linearity to its logic, a form of time representation that remains dominant even today.

Nonetheless, due to its popular potential, cinema has also been, from the beginning, the realm for plenty of cultural practices of contestation and resistance. Authors as radically different as Charles Chaplin (notably in Modern Times, 1936), Michelangelo Antonioni (particularly in Red Desert, 1964) or Harun Farocki (among other works, for instance, in Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995, and the project with Antje Ehmann, which started in 2011, Labour in a Single Shot), explored in diverse ways the consequences of this modern capitalist conception of time and its use and abuse within the social relations of humankind. In addition, during the long 60’s, in times marked by revolutionary movements against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism in the Third World, a series of counter-hegemonic cinemas associated with the notion of Third Cinema, predominantly in Latin America,13 offered an artistic practice radically examining aesthetics, the particular relationship of cinema with the spectator and the society of its time, and alternative modes of film organization, production, and distribution, in order to challenge the inherited form of capitalist modernity in peripheral and subdued regions — in other words: a totalizing cultural challenge that interrogated the actual emptiness of the technocratic rationalization of progress.

Today, immersed as we are in the geological exceptionality of the Anthropocene,14 we could certainly ask what cinematic forms could provide us with a radical imaginative view with which to examine and expose the contemporary “accumulation of catastrophe” we live in, as environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster has described the intertwined relationship between capitalism’s socioeconomic system and the resulting ecological disaster.15 Being the Anthropocene, among many other things, the devastating result of our conception of time shaped by capitalist modernity and its delusional fetishism of progress and growth, a cinema of resistance to this worldview is more necessary than ever to confront the unprecedented and cumulative ecosocial crises that threaten our existence on Earth as a whole. In this regard, as environmental activist Ian Angus has underscored, it is necessary to approach the contradiction between capital’s time and nature’s time, and how this affects our modern societies so deeply.16 As part of the worldview shift mentioned above — from organic to mechanistic —, the need of capital for rapid accumulation, circulation, and expansion clashes with the slow cycles through which nature guarantees the sustainability of all its complex ecosystems. As social beings, humans — whose natural lifespan determines their understanding of all aspects of their social relationships — have acted differently in relation to time and nature depending on their particular social order. However, the specificity of capital, its need as an “autonomous subject” — to use the expression by Karl Marx — and its dominance on modern human societies, marks today our relation with time in general, stamping immediacy as an inexcusable must in our social lives.

Thus, again: how can cinema today challenge this hegemonic worldview of time and reformulate alternative approaches to contest the current ecosocial crises we accumulate as part of living in the Anthropocene? As interventions on the major primitive, most dramatic fractures caused by capital’s expropriation and exploitation (between city and country, core and periphery), narratives of colonization and decolonization serve to reflect on this rift between capital’s time and nature’s time, the acceleration from one to the other. These stories talk about the drastic shift between organic and mechanistic paradigms that has disrupted our metabolic link with nature in the empty name of progress and endless growth, with tragic consequences for all the expropriated and the exploited, especially the landless poor of “the darker nations” in the South, the indigenous, women and the oppressed in every corner of this globe. And in all these peoples, the question of land and territory, their link to it as the source of life — a link broken by the expropriative colonial and imperial rule imposed as part of the capital logic of accumulation, circulation and expansion — becomes seminal. In this regard, and among many other works, some recent powerful film-essays, of different aesthetic sensibility, come to mind: Göran Olsson’s Concerning Violence (2014), Ana Vaz’s Apiyemiyekî? (2019) and Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes (2021).

The feature essay-documentary Concerning Violence juxtaposes the narration (in the voice of Lauren Hill) of the homonymous essay by Frantz Fanon included in The Wretched of the Earth, with bold archive footage, never seen before, from different episodes of colonial rule in Africa, as well as the actions of local movements in their struggle against it and for their independence during the 60’s and 70’s. Göran Olsson’s complex approach to the topic avoids the easy shortcuts of linearity. Instead, the editing mastery of the film, with its episodic tone, reveals the true mechanisms behind the criminal domination of the African peoples under colonialism, as well as the persistent urgency for liberation. As for Ana Vaz’s short Apiyemiyekî?, as well as in her other powerful and poetic film-essays, archive material and research methods go hand-in-hand to interrogate the register of temporalities, in this case through drawings made by the Waimiri-Atroari, a native nation of the Amazon, as they were collected by Brazilian educator Egydio Schwade during his literacy experience developed with them in the 80’s. The visual archive serves to document the devastating collective memory of the Waimiri-Atroari in regard to their encounter with the “civilized white men”: the genocidal military dictatorship that violated their territory with massacres to impose and pave a road, as part of “the order and progress” carried out throughout Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Perhaps the most elaborate work done in recent years on colonialism, imperialism and racial supremacy is the four-part essay-documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes, by Raoul Peck. Inspired by the milestones of radical history Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Peck elaborates a complex collage of defiant aesthetics that serves to portray the origins of Western colonial arrogance and racial supremacy, from the devastating conquest of the Americas to the imperial configuration of U.S. history. Through a rich and surgical editing, his work combines reenactments that include estrangement techniques, with dramatizations of its main literary references, as well as others from Joseph Conrad; personal and professional memories through family footage and scenes from his previous works, with material from classic films informing on the colonial, imperial and racial imaginaries built and legitimized by cinema itself; historical episodes along with reflections on personal experiences; informative and critical archive footage, animation and motion graphics. Thus, Peck displays a palette of endless cinematic resources to build a particular form of historytelling that puts together multiple layers of temporalities, situating himself at the crossroads of history. Through all these elements, Exterminate All the Brutes disputes the infinite inconsolable ruptures within the bloodthirsty abstraction of homogeneous time inherent to the historical — and still existent — Western colonial-imperial projects.

These works are part of a broader cultural scene that requires us to rethink the possibilities of radical cinematic aesthetics when confronted by the current accumulation of ecosocial crises. Their bold proposals are seminal, today, to challenge the dominant temporalities used to narrate the relationship between society, nature, and history. We are faced with the dramatic calls of the Anthropocene, which demands from us, more than ever, our observation, knowledge and action to “pull the emergency brake” — to paraphrase the late Walter Benjamin — before disaster strikes. In the middle of this critical junction in human time, these films emerge as a must-watch, to learn from and then, act. 

This essay appears as part of the research project ‘Estética Fósil: una ecología política de la historia del arte, la cultura visual y los imaginarios culturales de la modernidad’ [Fossil Aesthetics. A political ecology of art history, visual culture and cultural imaginaries of modernity] (PIE, ref. 202010E005) located at the Instituto de Historia [History Institute] (IH) of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [Spanish National Research Council] (CSIC).

* Alejandro Pedregal is a researcher, filmmaker and writer, and lectures Film and Critical Theories at the Academy of Moving People and Images (AMPI) 

Pedregal's photo by Erol Mintas

  1. However, as John Smith has noticed, none of these two forms of exploitation, “separately or in combination, are on their own sufficient to explain the value relations of contemporary globalized production networks.” On the contrary, especially in the Global South, what is known as super-exploitation — meant to “push the wage of the worker down below the value of his labour-power,” in the words of Marx — is rather common and remains current, which problematizes a mechanistic view of the two forms of exploitation mentioned above. Smith underlines the importance of Ruy Mauro Marini and Andy Higginbottom in his analysis. See John Smith, Imperialism in the 21st Century: Globalzation, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016) and John Smith, “Exploitation and Super-Exploitation,” available in Additionally, other approaches to this issue, from different perspectives, can be found in the work of Theotonio Dos Santos, Vania Bambirra, Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, Jaime Osorio, Intan Suwandi, Jason Hickel, Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope and Max Ajl, just to name a few.
  2. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 8.
  3. Ibid., 4-5.
  4. Ibid., 5.
  5. Ibid., 3-4.
  6. Ibid., 2.
  7. Ibid., 2-3.
  8. For a historical approach to the shift in the conception of time from “task-orientation” in pre-capitalist societies to “timed labour” in industrial capitalism see E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (December 1967), 56-97.
  9. Lucian Hölscher, El descubrimiento del futuro (Madrid: Siglo XXI, 2014).
  10. The debates on this shift of worldviews exceeds the purpose of this text. An influential approach to this topic can be found in the work by Fritjof Capra, notably in The Turning Point, The Web of Life, The Hidden Connection, and The Systems View of Life (co-authored by Pier Luigi Luisi). From an ecofeminist perspective, Carolyn Merchant has discussed this shift in relation to the modern domination and devaluation of women and nature in the Scientific Revolution in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. For a thorough examination of this shift that problematizes some of the most widespread assumptions that have been taken in relation to Marx, for instance in Capra’s work, see John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, “The Dialectic of Organic/Inorganic Relations: Marx and the Hegelian Philosophy of Nature,” Organization and Environment 13, no.4 (2000), 402-425, and John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 57-88.
  11. In this regard, see the seminal works by Frantz Fanon, Eric Williams, Eduardo Galeano, Walter Rodney, Enrique Dussel, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Gerald Horne and Hannah Holleman, among many others.
  12. As in the case, for instance, of Thomas Edison’s Sioux Ghost Dance. See Charles Musser, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1997) and Michelle H. Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignity, and Representations of Native Americans in Films (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2011).
  13. See the film works and theoretical interventions by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (who coined the term Third Cinema), Fernando Birri, Julio García Espinosa, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Santiago Álvarez, Jorge Sanjinés and Grupo Ukamau, Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira Dos Santos or Patricio Guzmán, to name a few. We have discussed the importance of the conceptions of temporality in Third Cinema, in regard to capitalist modernity, in Miguel Errazu and Alejandro Pedregal, “Future Experiments from the Past,” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media 17 (2019), 38-63.
  14. The Anthropocene is the proposed term for the current geological epoch, starting after the Great Acceleration that broke in by the mid-20th century, when the actions of the humankind —“a rapidly rising human population [that] accelerated the pace of industrial production, the use of agricultural chemicals and other human activities”— became a determinant geological agent. However, the term has not been recognized yet by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which was supposed to receive an official proposal from its Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) during 2021. See Meera Subramanian, “Anthropocene Now: Influential Panel Votes to Recognize Earth’s New Epoch,” available in For an introduction to the Great Acceleration in relation to the Anthropocene see Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney and Cornelia Ludwig, “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” Anthropocene Review 2 (2015), no. 1, 81–98. Beyond the strictly geological debates, the social sciences and humanities has disputed the term and the time of this epochal change, linking it to the conformation of capitalist modernity to call it Capitalocene. See for instance Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014), 62-69, Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), and Jason W. Moore (ed.), Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crises of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press). On this and other alternative “histories” for the term, see Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (London: Verso, 2016). For an accessible introduction to the discovery and scientific debates surrounding the term Anthropocene, as well as a critique to these alternative narratives from the humanities, see Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crises of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 25-106 and 224-232.
  15. John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe,” Monthly Review 63, no. 7 (December 2011), 1–17.
  16.  Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crises of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 111-125.

This article was commissioned by AVEK for the Moving People and Images Journal (the MPI Journal)