Saturday, August 29, 2009

All Possible Worlds

If it were possible for me, I would make films which, apart from entertaining the audience, would convey to them the absolute certainty that they DO NOT LIVE IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS. And in doing this I believe that my intentions would be highly constructive. Movies today, including the so-called neo-realist, are dedicated to a task contrary to this. How is it possible to hope for an improvement in the audience and consequently in the producers when every day we are told in these films, even in the most insipid comedies, that our social institutions, our concepts of Country, Religion, Love, etc., etc., are, while perhaps imperfect, UNIQUE AND NECESSARY? The true "opium of the audience" is conformity; and the entire, gigantic film world is dedicated to the propagation of this comfortable feeling, wrapped though it is at times in the insidious disguise of art.

—Buñuel (via - thanks for this, Andy)

The proposition that we live in the best of all possible worlds is not, in itself, a political salve or a refutation of action. It could mean, of course, that our seemingly "imperfect" world provides the requisite conditions for the coming of, say, tomorrow's less-"imperfect" world. Deciding precisely what is or is not possible (not constructing possibility but deciding where to draw its borderline) is a problem for politics. Or 'the political.'

Buñuel made films which skip back and forth along this tipping point to better frame human behavior, to ask which of our mores are "ours," why we may call them that ...


Andy Rector said...

Thanks for the repost Zach.

It could mean, of course, that our seemingly "imperfect" world provides the requisite conditions for the coming of, say, tomorrow's less-"imperfect" world.

Like toxic waste? This comes to mind: "Pollution is (...) is the ne plus ultra of ideology in material form, the wholly contaminated superabundance of the commodity, as well as the real, miserable dross of spectacular society's illusory splendour."

(Theses on the Situationist Internation and Its Time, Debord, '72)

Andrew K. said...

Short but very astute post...a bit depressing if you think about it...but still true. These are not the best of times.

ZC said...

That is a fantastic quote from Debord.

Cinema itself is not an "environmentally friendly" practice - and digital shit is piling up in the form of e-waste. All things are a compromise, and our promised shores (if we arrive there) will be reached via the help of, among other things, such "real, miserable dross." I'm saying this descriptively, "realistically," not as a normative or prescriptive measure ...

Welcome, Andrew: E.E.

Joel Bocko said...

ZC, out of curiosity, what do you believe the promised shores are, and how can we arrive there? I say this as someone who does not quite believe we live in "the best of all possible worlds" but that the actual best possible would most likely not be a whole lot better.

And that's an interesting quote from Bunuel because, while he was clearly and unashamedly a man of the Left, he also appeared to be, if not a pessimist, certainly not an optimist. His politics seemed to be far more critical than constructive, so it's interesting to see him say otherwise here, though I find it slightly unclear if he's only talking about constructing more astute movie audiences (and hence a greater freedom for filmmakers, since there would be more of a demand for challenging art) or if he's also talking about constructing a better society.

ZC said...

What is to be done? Or, just where the hell are we supposed to be going?

My own pendulum swings from optimism from pessimism - deeply in the latter, of late, and likely to stay there for a while.

Part of the question of what is to be done, which is very much tied to the determination of destination ("promised shores"), follows one's understanding, or one's assumptions, about where history is headed. What we might call utopianism, even of the least pretty doe-eyed styles (a 'strategic' utopianism: like Lenin's, or Trotsky's--no political slouches, they) entails that world history, for humanity, will get better ... or can get better by our efforts. Pessimism may concede the latter possibility but asks the uncomfortable question--who is it that claims "our" efforts? I suspect, personally, it will not be me among them ...

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting response. Out of curiosity, how do or you or DO you at all characterize your politics? (Not that I'm holding you to the fire here - I find it difficult to characterize my own, which are loosely centrist and pragmatic but poke out at odd angles here and there and are agnostic in many regards. I am generally a neophyte in terms of actual theory - one college class long ago, and a smattering of readings, most indirectly related. I am about to read a 45-year-old collection of anarchist literature, so perhaps I'll return to this blog to share my thoughts).

At any rate, when you say "can" get better, do you mean "could" or "will" - and is it your own efficacy you doubt, or is it your will to exert the appropriate "effort" to improve society and/or humanity? And are you tentatively excluding yourself from the "our" or the "benefits" - i.e. are you doubting that you can be among those making the effort, or among those benefitting?

Also, I do have to admit I would not want to live in Lenin's or Trotsky's utopias - proposed, perhaps, actual, certainly not.

ZC said...

I mean "could," as in, it is in the realm of possibility. And I exclude myself from the "our" insofar as I do not think that I will ever be part of the actual ruling class. (I may, however, continue to enjoy the benefits of being on its fringes.)

As for my political beliefs - I answered this question from another commenter here, and I suppose it still stands:

Joel Bocko said...

ZC, thanks for pointing me in that direction. Out of curiosity, you seem to be describing yourself as an anarchist, or close to it, without using that word - any particular reason for the avoidance?

I would say that I'm not in a fundamental disagreement with many of the things you say, but there is a fundamental disagreement in terms of EMPHASIS, something you sort of point out in your post on The Lives of Others. You seem more interested in pointing out the hypocrisies and dishonesties of the "liberal-democratic" order than in reciting the familiar litanies against the orders which are less immediately relevant to the 21st-century Westerner. While I see your point, I find that emphasizing this too much throws matters out of perspective. For example, Jake's comment in that thread "Poor sensitive artists being stifled by Orwellian police state!" seems to me to be so colored by (hypocritical?) anti-intellectualism and anti-anti-communism that I can't quite take the sentiments seriously. Nonetheless, for what it's worth, though I don't share your own point of emphasis, I generally find your musing on this regard thought-provoking and challenging.

For example, in your rather sardonic post on "the good liberal" last year, I disagreed with your emphasis on the historical and outside-U.S. Left in attacking critics of the Left - since I felt it was manifestly clear that the critics were attacking a very different aspect of the Left and, semantic concerns aside, an aspect that is clearly understood to be implied by most participants in the conversation these particular critics would be engaging in.

Yet at the same time, I'm glad there's someone there asking "THIS Left?" with pictures of Third World activists and 19th-century slaves to widen the context somewhat. Not sure if any of this is here or there but it's on my mind, so what the hell.

Sorry to keep pressing, but when you write "I do not think that I will ever be part of the actual ruling class" do you mean the future, potential ruling class or the present? And if the present, are you implying that you feel change must come from a top-down "our" - a vanguard of the elite, so to speak?

Also, as far as fringe benefits go, what are your thoughts on the refusal or disengagement from said benefits? Do you think it's possible to do so? To go as far as one can go in rejecting privileges, say reducing one's status to the working-class? Or do you feel obsessions of this sort trivialize the work to be done and put too much emphasis on individualism? I must admit, like your foe Howard Hampton (I almost wrote Fred Hampton - irony of ironies!), I've always had a bit of the problem with the elite of the middle-class/upper middle-class Left. They seem resigned to their own privilege, utilizing expensive educations, elite connections, and unusual leisure. But their combat often brings them into conflict with those lower on the totem pole than they (call them the petty bourgeoisie, if you must stick a label on it, but really I'm thinking a bit lower than that on the ownership/independence scale), and hence they seem to be sucking the fruits dry from ideologies of the right AND the left - bringing to mind Pasolini's vitriolic siding with the cops in '68, whether or not he was right in that particular situation.

This was a rather lengthy and wandering response, but I'm quite intrigued by all the cans of worms being opened here, even if it's admittedly far more on theoretical basis than an emotional or visceral one.

ZC said...

Anarchist? Oh, maybe on an abstract level, but I imagine most flesh-and-blood anarchists would not really accept me into their club.

If I emphasize the problems with the liberal-democratic United States, it is because this (not Chavez, not Ahmadinejad) is the powerhouse. And while my meager criticisms on EL do absolutely nothing to weaken the operations of the US federal government or transnational corporations, I do think it's probably a good idea to attend to one's one flock first (even if I am just one of the sheep). I do not sow dischord in any national or ideological project because not enough people listen to me (and why should they?). What is the point of "exposing" Stalinism or Nazism? (Better my role be, if it comes up, to examine how we use such examples.)

Guy Debord is a figure I admire--not as a personable person, mind you, because most accounts paint him as a genuine asshole. But he was someone who appears to have lived freely, and to have understood something about how & why the train wreck of our age was working the way it was. He didn't go off the deep end, like others who may have had an inkling of the big picture (say, Ezra Pound)--and I say this because, while alcohol ended up tormenting him in his final years, it is Debord's late writings that I think are clearest, wisest, and most beautiful. Everyone wants to think of Debord as primarily a Situationist, a figure of '68 above all else, I guess because the 'burnout' storyline is comfortable, familiar. But Debord himself, in the 1980s, deftly deflated & continued the mythology that had grown up around him.

But the reason I bring up Debord is to show just how rare a figure he was--someone who could live on his own terms and who had the insight & fortitude to recognize and call out the miserable terms of his surroundings.

Joel Bocko said...

Oddly enough, though I've read a fair amount on May '68, I don't know much about Guy Debord. (I don't recall him playing a major role in the recent book From Revolution to Ethics, about the transformation of the French Left from the 60s to the 80s, which I read this past spring.)

I suppose I should pick up Society of the Spectacle at a local library if it's available - or is there another title you recommend more highly?

ZC said...

Sure, The Society of the Spectacle is worth reading. His 1950s/60s stuff, a great deal of it anyway, is online. As are his memoirs, from the late 1980s - Panegyric I here. It's a very beautiful work.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, ZC. I will pursue that.

By the way, I found an interesting online source years ago. Don't know if it's up your alley or not but I found it fascinating as a historical resource, though I have not delved very deeply as of yet. Most interesting to me from an aesthetic perspective are the covers, particularly the way they shift over the years from '68 to '71 or so, charting the transformation of the New Left and the counterculture.


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