Saturday, March 29, 2008

Agriculture, Politics, Fantasy

"Up until now we had done no more, at best, than denounce the mercenary character of government research, pointing the finger at a few ways in which this research works hand in glove with the mercantilism of the private-sphere poisoners. The method chosen, namely direct action, perturbed some. At bottom, though, the most vulgar boosters of the nanny State, of fair-play capitalism, or of the permanence of the industrial system could still feign not to understand or affect to believe that our uncivil behaviour somehow lent support to their arguments. In a word, no tenet of progressivist dogma was so much as scratched - least of all infallible science still defying eternity from its dusty tomb.

"All the "citizens"(5b) were still free to trot out their old saw according to which it is only the use to which some technical application is put that "causes the problem," whether that application happens to be DDT, high-speed trains, river-polluting polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), agent orange, asbestos, cloning, Monsanto's Round-Up herbicide, the Internet, cell-phones, nuclear power, or you-name-it. Once the alarm has been is raised, all that is required is to take more security precautions in the future; to reinforce the institutions of modern democracy - stepsister to techno-science; to help governments take decisions; to assert one's independence; and so on and so forth - with everything becoming more participatory by virtue of opinion polls, referendums and "consensus conferences." In this way an end will be put to the aberrations of "neoliberalism." Last but not least, "good" genetically modified organisms will thus become acceptable, however little they may be "public" in any sense of the word."

-- Rene Riesel

* * *

The radical utopic fantasy of these early decades of the 21st century will be quite unlike that envisioned by socialist-modernists a century before: not more technology but less, and not more State but less. No large buildings but rather converted caves, no smooth infrastructure but broken roads with sprouting plants overtaking asphalt. With Opinel & hatchet in hand, we shall retreat to secluded cottages and build community bonds with our crusty peasant neighbors down the hill, and bike mechanics and failed doctors and so on, and maybe, if we're lucky, we can lead rich and full and not entirely toxic lives. Guy Debord eventually chose to live in relative seclusion; he created a glorious and mysterious facade for those who hated him. He says he lived off the land; I'd like to think in his wooded home he and his friends hunted, smoked, chopped wood, picked fruits, tended a garden and canned vegetables, read books, had sex, and got raging drunk every night so they slept off hangovers constantly. How true this all was, I don't know. (I have been reading Ran Prieur's amazing website for some months now and I suggest my readers do the same if they haven't dropped by already.) A long while back I opined on the peculiarities of some of the leading lights of festival art cinema, how these 'profound eccentrics' of the world were creating feature films that seemed to really tap into something: Reygadas, Alonso, Apichatpong, Rodrigues, Guiraudie, and others--what I think I am starting to understand is a certain wilding depicted in their texts. Or a re-wilding. The secluded adventures, the attention to "lumpen" groups, and occasionally the unusual behaviors in broken-up cities (think again of Pedro Costa, or Guerín's En construccion) and in the beautiful wilderness of Japón or Tropical Malady are not picturesque landscapes but ventures into places one can bring oneself to live, amidst the people who have not totally been claimed by the failed experiments of the last two decades. (I really should catch up with Reygadas' last two films...) All manifest today's utopic impulse. Which is not a society built up, but one that's crumbling down and the elusive promise of good life falling perhaps at our very feet so that we don't have to sell our labor for it. All the protagonists and characters in these films are microlevel, local, trying to escape some things, trying to find some things. The thing that most struck me about Guiraudie's No Rest for the Brave is how it seems to exist in a world where time doesn't really matter, where clocks don't seem to exist or have much importance--there's simply the cycle of light/dark, and the duration it takes to get from one place to another. (This whole phenomenon could explain explain part of the renewed interest this decade in Tolkien, of which of course I'm considering the blockbusters films themselves, too, as symptomatic and not causal. But I'm not yet sure that Hollywood has really been very perceptive about catering to this particular mass impulse...) This is what I'm leaning towards right now.

(Addendum: Actually, regarding this fantasy and corporate entertainment, it's not that I want to say that the studios and networks don't cater to some of these very real fantasies and impulses in our "collective unconscious"--it's more that I think they're timid and behind-the-curve, so far, about dealing with the decomposition of at least some huge aspects of our global society. Lost may be a tropical fantasy of survival & community, V for Vendetta and The Matrix saga may imagine a euphorically dystopic separation of society from the State, but they direct these energies back into old ways, and by extension old power structures. Sooner or later they will surely become more clever about exploiting not simply the possibility of rupture, but the thing that these profound eccentric art filmmakers are mining, i.e., the experience, the phenomenology, the direct freedoms and delights and terrors of these coming scenarios. More later.)

Image of the Day

Eli Lotar, The La Villette Slaughterhouse (1929)

Totality and Interpretation

"The interpreter here "restructures" with the aim of registering and apprehending, words whose disciplinary overtones are difficult to ignore. The purpose of such restructuring is precisely to render the force-fields, the struggle and conflicts of History, appropriable by a contemplative, detached spectator, the traditional subject of scientific observation. History is thus to be made safe for cognition. Conflict is objectified but the process of objectification itself is held to be outside the Melee.

"How different the picture of interpretation that emerges in The Interpretation of Dreams, where, it is true, the "dialectical code" in which the notion of Darstellung is at home, is replaced by something more difficult to name, if not with the word used by Freud himself: Entstellung, displacement, disfigurement, dislocation. The interpretive process that it designates, however, provides a striking contrast to the academic serenity described in The Political Unconscious. "It should not be forgotten, Freud writes,

that the work of interpretation must struggle against the very psychic forces to which we owe the distortion of the dream (welche die Entstellung des Traumes verschulden). It thus becomes a question of the relation of forces whether one's intellectual interest, capacity to overcome one's self, (Selbstüberwindung), psychological knowledge and skill in dream-interpretation enable one to master internal resistances. [The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 563]

Interpretation, for Freud, does not reconstruct and resuscitate so that we may register and apprehend; it partakes of, and in a process of conflict that no totalization can ever comprehend. Which is why its effect is not simply the primitive or teleological accumulation of wealth, nor the "semantic enrichment" of the phenomena it interprets, but their impoverishment as well. Or rather, a transformation in which enrichment and impoverishment become very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish. This is why, when Freud chooses a word to articulate the relation of Entstellung to "the forces" from which it proceeds, it is derived from "debt," Schuld (verschulden). The hermeneutics of Entstellung thus inscribe itself in a tradition which can be traced to The Genealogy of Morals, in which both history and interpretation are conceived as forms of a debt that is impossible to repay. By contrast, Freud--here and elsewhere--adds the implication that the debt in question cannot be construed as a static and stable obligation, but rather as an ambivalent and unresolvable tension. If the psychic conflict that structures the subject of desire precludes any enduring resolution, any kind of totalization, neither can the process of interpretation simply renounce such aspirations. For every interpretation (including, of course, this one) must necessarily seek to arrest and to dominate the conflictual process of symbolization it seeks to comprehend. In the text just cited, the ambivalence can on the one hand be retraced to the exigency of Selbstüberwindung--a term which means practically the opposite of its translation in the Standard Edition, which reads: "self-discipline," since what is both required, and stated, is the overcoming-of-self, i.e. of the ego--and on the other, to the fact that such "overcoming," the "mastering of internal resistances," still inevitably entails mastery, control, discipline, and hence, as such, appeals to the very ego that it seeks to "overcome.""

--Samuel Weber, "Capitalizing History: Notes on the Political Unconscious," Diacritics, vol. 13, no. 2 (Summer 1983), pp. 27-28.

* * *

A good sign that you're encountering a writer who will teach you something, demand something of you, is that you feel humbled and at sea when you've read the work. I'm not referring to tone, as though only supercilious erudition will teach anyone. It's more about frames of reference, speed of connections, durability of concepts. Since my late adolescence I've been chasing after people smarter than I am, chasing after ideas too difficult or intricate or nuanced for me. (Hence the title of this blog, by the way: when I'm at my computer, writing, I'm either Tantalus or Sisyphus.) Fredric Jameson is one of the writers and thinkers whose work has taught me the most over the past 5-6 years.

What Samuel Weber offers in his long review essay of books by Jameson and Stanley Fish is what I think is a fairly rare occurrence--a critique of a major Marxist intellectual (Jameson) in terms that don't appear to me as a long and convoluted justification for codedly reactionary politics. I've encountered, in text and conversation, a lot of disdain for Jameson--because nobody likes totalizing theorists, nobody likes curmudgeons who aren't optimistic about pomo, and often, anyway, comes the old chestnut "Marx was proven wrong." Weber's account is not an angry howl against Jameson's political project but a complication of the means of interpetation by which our man FJ can say that History is our untranscendable horizon, that Marxism is something like the code by which all other codes can be properly placed and utilized (because it, historical materialism, properly understands History). The idea is not so much that the Marxist project is a wash or that its political aims are undesirable--but what precisely enables us to mediate the material before us if we sustain the integrity of our recognition of ideology, of class, of conflict? (And, what is the wisdom of loudly smuggling this tool into the scholarly marketplace, as Weber interprets Jameson as doing with his book The Political Unconscious, as a kind of intervention into the definable arena of ideas and academic politics?) This is not obfuscation Weber's offering--I don't think--as though the world were hopelessly "complex" and resistant to any kinds of organized comprehension & reistance so we may as well simply accept it (a common bourgeois reflex, peddling stretched-out half-truths). But, with Jameson, what is the wisdom, or what are the use-values, of essentially freezing this grandfatherly interpretive grid for the aim of US academic consumption?

Unfortunately I haven't any answers yet. Just thinking.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quote of the Day

"There are of course specific characteristics of different media, and these characteristics are related to specific historical and cultural situations and intentions. Much of the initial appeal of McLuhan's work was his apparent attention to the specificity of media: the differences in quality between speech, print, radio, television and so on. But in his work, as in the whole formalist tradition, the media were never really seen as practices. All specific practice was subsumed by an arbitrarily assigned psychic function, and this had the effect of dissolving not only specific but general intentions. If specific media are essentially psychic adjustments, coming not from relations between ourselves but between a generalised human organism and its general physical environment, then of course intention, in any general or particular case, is irrelevant, and with intention goes content, whether apparent or real. All media operations are in effect desocialised; they are simply physical events in an abstracted sensorium, and are distinguishable only by their variable sense-ratios. But it is then interesting that from this wholly unhistorical and asocial base McLuhan projects certain images of society: 'retribalisation' by the 'electronic age'; the 'global village'. As descriptions of any observable social state or tendency, in the period in which electronic media have been dominant, these are so ludicrous as to raise a further question. The physical fact of instant transmission, as a technical possibility, has been uncritically raised to a social fact, without any pause to notice that virtually all such transmission is at once selected and controlled by existing social authorities. McLuhan, of course, would apparently do away with all such controls; the only controls he envisages are a kind of allocation and rationing of particular media for particular psychic effects, w hich he believes would dissolve or control any social problem that arises. But the technical abstractions, in their unnoticed projections into social models, have the effect of cancelling all attention to existing and developing (and already challenged) communications institutions. If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it, and whatever apparent content he may try to insert, then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. It is hardly surprising that this conclusion has been welcomed by the 'media-men' of the existing institutions. It gives the gloss of avant-garde theory to the crudest versions of their existing interests and practices, and assigns all their critics to pre-electronic irrelevance. Thus what began as pure formalism, and as speculation on human essence, ends as operative social theory and practice, in the heartland of the most dominant and aggressive communications institutions in the world."

--Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, pp. 127-128.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Niche Marketing

I've been enjoying--as a way of staving off depression about it--the way that the media have been talking about the "white male" vote, and whether Clinton or especially Obama will scare us off. I suppose it's a good thing that we're not being conceptualized as an universal here, that we are demographically identifiable now. But I still have to laugh at insinuations that come through in reportage or interviews that indicate that we are the forgotten children of this campaign, with "no one to represent us."

Are we really so pampered we have to cry about this lack of representation in the Democratic nominee during this one election? Well, yes, I guess we are.

I didn't see the speech where Obama ended racism yesterday, but I saw clips of it. I don't get the furor over Wright's comments, which are generally tiptoed around in the articles I've read, not even saying what they are, only that they're "controversial." (Better to repeat that something is controversial, too hot to touch, than circulate the comments in context and let people decide.) As readers of EL will recall, I am not exactly won over by Obama, but I think it's disgusting the way he's been pressured into denouncing his pastor, assuring that all important white voting bloc he doesn't think in terms of "race" (those were the Sixties man!) but rather in terms of healing divisions in all of society. My girlfriend laughed as The Daily Show covered these issues last night at the fact that so many of us (white people) are shocked that black churches act as fora in which black people discuss issues relevent to them and their communities. The horror! Obama handled the uppity media's minor firestorm as well as could be expected, but I would have liked him to say, "A lot of what my pastor said was perfectly defensible. Deal with it."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Les Visages

An observation inspired by J'entends plus la guitare ('91), which could in fact be called Faces ... what strikes me about Garrel's cinema is a peculiar quality of light--the flicker in these films is, I swear to the cine-gods, more active and more palpable in these films than in most others. The thing that makes a Garrel close-up interesting is the pulsating light around the face.

Image of the Day

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Long Voyage Home

In the moment of Amor de Perdição / Doomed Love where the spirit of Teresa appears before Simão on the ship, one sees the crystallization of a metaphysic previously submerged in the film's stagey style. Not competely unlike the historical cinema of late Rossellini or Rohmer's Perceval, Manoel de Oliveira's film--and presumably much of his historical/literary adaptation work of this period--puts into motion a story whose strange textures come from the tempo of the scenes and the spare, beautiful compositions. These compositions at first glance may often appear as "merely televisual," but which (like sudden shifts of sunlight entering your room from the window) can drastically alter into the most intensely felt kind of pictorialism. Where Rossellini moved his camera to restlessly investigate the space that the frame can't contain, one feels that Oliveira the hunter of images often knows exactly where to find his compositional quarry--and he pounces often when his companions, the viewers, least expect it.

Such arresting moments come to head in the scene illustrated above, where the film literally demonstrates the metaphysical dimension of this story. And I am still pondering the meaning of the presence of Mariana, the third woman in the triangle, the unrequited lover and angel, in this shot.

The Angel of Compassion

In the Movie Mutations letters, Raymond Bellour mentioned civilization, "a word far greater than cinema"; "There is a name that goes with this word: de Oliveira." This is not a bad proposition: is there a more civilized filmmaker than Oliveira? Well, of course we must define what we mean by this word, civilization, and that is no quick or easy task unless we invite glibness.

One of my favorite passages by one of my favorite bloggers (and I think I have quoted this before) follows:

The great poet of civility of the 20th century, Patrick O'Brian, proposed a code of civility whose central posture is not a soft voice, peaceable 'diplomatic' manner, or feigned flexibility of opinion, but discretion. The civil being controls his curiosity, permits the other his privacy and anonymity. Asking questions, interrogation, is in the novels of O'Brian a more serious transgression against civility than flinging an unblunted insult or even dealing a physical blow. The forced (or betrayed) confidence is the most heinous violation. 'Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation,' declares the wandering Catalan-Irish-Catholic (crypto-Jew) Dr. Stephen Maturin, United Irishman, physician, natural scientist, and British intelligence agent.

Oliveira's death kneel for (some part of) Western civilization, Um Filme Falado / A Talking Picture, is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament. It is my least favorite of the smattering of Oliveiras (from his very first to some of his most recent) I've managed to see. In it one sees this exercise of civilization sailing towards its inevitable doom. The Mediterranean legacy claimed as European by Europeans--from Portugal to the Middle East, the ship goes, its American comandante guiding a series of conversations with women Portuguese, French, Italian, and Greek.

This central question of the film is one of politics and cosmopolitanism. (Perhaps: to what point shall we embrace our adjacent Others as neighbors and allies rather than enemies?) If I too am inclined to tentatively read Um Filme Falado as a conservative artwork, as complicit in a Europeanist project I don't trust, I am placing it still in the context of Oliveira's work in general as I have slowly come to know its beginnings over the past several years. This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition) and the character of which finds its displaced representation in the likes of hierophanies and such. Espelho Mágico is a wonderful film and seems more wonderful each time I think about it. It is one of the most brilliant films, I think, about the nature of religious devotion both private and social, and the sources and uses of images that are not artistic (too often we forget this about the potential and the historicality of images!).

Amor de Perdição
very gradually realizes this fundamental problem, which may or may not have its own brilliant treatment in Camilo Castelo Branco's novel, in depicting the metaphysical. The groundwork for this adolescent love story is an intense and ineffable experience; Oliveira conceptualizes and illustrates it as the intrusion of the everday by the rapture of utter beauty, something like the sublime but much closer to ourselves, a beauty that is not Other to oneself. (This is to say that I am referring to metaphysical experience, or experiential categorization. We may not have a spiritual or metaphysical realm as such; something like free will may indeed be an illusion: but their experience is real, or real enough, and socially recognized, and so its potential absolute truth is rendered almost meaningless, and its realized social truth is paramount. Oliveira documents the social and its conventions: his object and his framework are civilization.) One must not try to name this beauty, it can only be rendered and understood obliquely--such as the moment when Simão tells Mariana that he is unhappy because he cannot make her his wife, and the narration informs us that Mariana could not understand him but her spirit rose to meet his meaning. The truth of the intense experience of Simão reveals itself to her in describing, simply, what he cannot do--the urgency of his imperative makes itself clear to her, and in their embrace (one of the saddest shots in the film, as with Mariana's parting kiss) inheres this mutual comprehension.

If civilization, or rather the most honorable ethos behind it (and civilization itself is not, I think, honorable), involves the respect of the other person so as to avoid interrogation, I am beginning to suspect that Oliveira's cinema is about the passages by which truth is transmitted by means of conversation and other forms of intimacy, and not always asked questions. This doesn't mean nobody asks questions in Oliveira; I'm sure there are tons of examples. But the experience of his work I have, the way I think of his cinema that I've seen, is one in which conversation at its most discreet and attentive and compassionate becomes a unifying principle--not just talk, but form.

Sometimes the torrential emotion, transmitted through oblique intimacies, is indeed this sort of metaphysics--maybe not "true," but "true enough" because its characters believe. The spirit of Teresa is true, and real, because we know the parameters in which she appears.

I said to Jonathan Rosenbaum after the screening that rather than his claim about Dead Man, maybe this 262-minute film could be perversely suggested to be cinema's longest death scene. In a literal sense of course this is not correct, but the principle underlying the narrative, the "doom," makes it seem to me as though the death that eventually comes is more preordained than in just any old film, just any other film.

Full Circles

The NYU Responsibilities of Criticism conference (with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin and the blogosphere's own Girish Shambu), about which there have been a few mentions and allusions on the blogosphere as of late, turned out to be a great success in my eyes. I think there was unfortunately some confusion as to just how "public" it was, and to tell you the truth after having attended every minute of it, I'm still not sure precisely how much it was both technically and realistically to be a university-centered event. At any rate the mix of people, from various levels of NYU (undergrad, grad, faculty, alumni) along with some other area cinephiles and writers and professionals, managed to make for a very congenial atmosphere. Kevin Lee, whom I had the opportunity to finally meet though we've surely attended the same New York screenings countless times, has already put up some summaries of the talks on his website. Aside from Nicole Brenez's last-minute absence (which broke my heart!) things went swimmingly.

Both Jonathan and Adrian spoke, on Thursday night, of coming full circle. Jonathan, in his time at NYU and living in the Village, talked about seeing films in this very area, buying his first issue of Sight & Sound practically around the corner from the building in which he was speaking. Adrian mentioned the pleasures of meeting so many people he knew and worked with in a great number of venues--journals, festivals, online correspondence, etc. As I told both of them, for myself and surely many of the other attendees my age, this was a very important culmination of roughly ten years of cinephilia, in which the Movie Mutations letters helped spark and maintain a certain passion and, I hope, broad inquisitiveness in the cinema and the world.

Those who came to the conference included former instructors and professors of mine, peers in the grad program, a few film critics and programmers, cinephiles-at-large whom I see all the time on the repertory circuit, some professionals and scholars from outside of NYU, and at least one ahead-of-the-curve undergrad film student. There were plenty of individuals, from NYU and otherwise, that I would have loved to see there and who may not have been able or aware to attend. But as a group, as a whole, I am grateful that there remained a certain measure of intimacy and bonhomie about the entire event, from the Thursday night talk and screening to the totally unofficial coda at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, where many converged to see Amor de Perdição straight through. (Contrary to most showings, as Jonathan informed us, there was no intermission last night!) This motley congregation of people I often see at varying frequencies and in different modes of life (scholarly, socially, cinephilically, online) cohered with perfect and unforced looseness. Truthfully, for me, it was a decade of cinephilia and thought finding a certain closure and, more importantly, a certain renewal. In a way it was like coming home.

(Thanks to Paul Grant and Martin Johnson for organizing the Responsibilities of Criticism event. And thanks to Adrian, Jonathan, and Girish for participating.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Just Say No!

"Salvia's short-lasting effects and fact that it is currently legal may make it seem more appealing to teens, lawmakers say. In the Delaware suicide, the boy's mother told reporters that salvia made his mood darker but he justified its use by citing its legality. According to reports, the autopsy found no traces of the drug in his system, but the medical examiner listed it as a contributing cause." (Here.)

And just who would qualify as today's Dwain Esper, if anyone?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Future Is Now

"A new analysis of online consumer data shows that large Web companies are learning more about people than ever from what they search for and do on the Internet, gathering clues about the tastes and preferences of a typical user several hundred times a month." (Here.)

Not news per se, but it's slowly becoming a topic one discusses in polite society.

"These companies use that information to predict what content and advertisements people most likely want to see. They can charge steep prices for carefully tailored ads because of their high response rates."

And the gloriously elegant market solution that will soon perhaps present itself is that the consumer may herself shell out for the opportunity of "ad-free," or ad-minimal, or very likely "ad-invisible," cyberspace--adhering to the good taste (aesthetics, manners, anti-vulgarity) of very few ads, as though one were tucked away in the high green hills, far from the billboard-littered boulevards where strip malls and blocky superstores pollute our visual quotidian.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008