New Books Network

Joshua Foa Dienstag, Professor of Political Science and Law at UCLA, considers, in his new book, the interaction between our experiences in watching films...

Joshua Foa Dienstag, Professor of Political Science and Law at UCLA, considers, in his new book, the interaction between our experiences in watching films and our positions as citizens in a representative democracy. In both situations, as an audience member watching a movie and as a citizen in a representative republic, we need to understand the interactions we have with others, and consider how we experience representation, in politics and in film. These are not necessarily spaces and concepts that are usually woven together, but Dienstag makes the case that they should be considered in regard to each other because they both are forms of representation, and important emotional dimensions are threaded through each form.

Cinema Pessimism: A Political Theory of Representation and Reciprocity (Oxford University Press, 2019) begins by diving into the idea of representative government, especially in contrast to idealized notions of direct democracy. Dienstag examines some of the history of political thought about representative democracy and focuses on the contemporary dialogue among political theorists about reciprocity as both necessary and difficult in the representation relationship. If we could have more fully reciprocal relationships with our elected officials, inequality and corruption might not be problematic issues. Given that our democracy has grown substantially since the early days of the republic, we, as citizens, are far less connected to our elected officials. Cinema Pessimism holds up a mirror to this question of the estrangement of political representation and examines our experiences in context of filmic representations, which are structured to engage us emotionally and through images that “look like us.” Thus, Dienstag weaves together our experiences as audience members, where we see narrative constructions of these issues of representation and reciprocity, and our political experiences of the same.

In both cases, Dienstag warns that we are becoming disconnected—disconnected from individuals in our lives, from our roles as citizens, and from actual emotional engagement with others—and this disconnection is particularly problematic when the idea of representation and reciprocity is predicated on connections. Cinema Pessimism toggles between thinking about the political experiences of citizens and the emotional and visual experiences of audience members, tracing out the overlapping components of these often-separated roles. Dienstag’s analysis combines visual cultural artifacts and political theory, focusing our thinking on the danger that representative politics may pose for freedom and equality. Cinema Pessimism examines a number of cinematic artifacts, some more overtly political than others, in the course of discussing what we see, feel, and experience as viewers and audience members. This novel and rigorous analysis will be of interest to many readers, bringing together a variety of fields and disciplines, including political theory, philosophy, media studies, cultural studies, and film studies.


Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).