Saturday, May 30, 2009

The State Will Control Even Your Respiration

"Totalitarianism is much more than mere bureaucracy. It is the subordination of every individual's whole life, work, and leisure, to the orders of those in power and office. It is the reduction of man to a cog in an all-embracing machine of compulsion and coercion. It forces the individual to renounce any activity of which the government does not approve. It tolerates no expression of dissent. It is the transformation of society into a strictly disciplined labor-army—as the advocates of socialism say—or into a penitentiary—as its opponents say. At any rates it is the radical break from the way of life to which the civilized nations clung in the past. It is not merely the return of mankind to the oriental despotism under which, as Hegel observed, one man alone was free and all the rest slaves, for those Asiatic kings did not interfere with the daily routine of their subjects. To the individual farmers, cattle breeders, and artisans a field of activities was left in the performance of which they were not troubled by the king and his satellites. They enjoyed some amount of autonomy within their own households and families. It is different with modern socialism. It is totalitarian in the strict sense of the term. It holds the individual in tight rein from the womb to the tomb. At every instant of his life the "comrade" is bound to obey implicitly the orders issued by the supreme authority. The State is both his guardian and his employer. The State determines his work, his diet, and his pleasures. The State tells him what to think and what to believe in."

—Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy

Pro-capitalist libertarians describe capitalism, and life under capitalism, in a way something like the Sufi story about the four blind men and the elephant. Libertarians know very well the head of the elephant, from drawings and sensation and books. They do not know anything about the elephant past the neck.

Image of the Day


When I watch a tasteful expose on the horrors of the State, these days, I acquire a new onion layer of respect for a film like Caligula. Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, not without its strengths and charms (e.g., it nails waspy emotional repression reasonably well), is relentlessly, thuddingly constrained by its faithful application of Spook History to generic conventions. "The CIA" (sorry, just "CIA") becomes merely a cover; history is titillation. At least some films have the decency not to hide it.

During a wedding scene between Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, a swinging camera nevertheless manages to capture a close-up on Jolie's face before moving over to Damon's group. A nice bit of camerawork? Expressive of anything? Or was it just another way of getting La Jolie's face onscreen for an extra moment? A Bay of Pigs fiasco reaction: Matt Damon, soon followed by his assistant John Turturro, walks out onto the beach in his slacks & loafers, gazing out over the water. Damon (who gives a fair performances, and deserves credit in this) nevertheless drifts through this particularly numbing narrative cul-de-sac: a story built around conspiracies and personal agency, but always hemmed in by horror movie conventions: the rival-enemy is quicker, stronger, has greater access to information, appears in the dark on your doorstep. Paranoia without psychology or sociology ... or even the supernatural.

A good movie: Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. (F-i-l-e ... l-i-f-e.)

There are, at least, books in The Good Shepherd. The appearance of books on the shelves, and books being used, may be a "soft" marker of a certain audiovisual classicism? Maybe, maybe. (Worth figuring, as a tangent: what are some filmic and televisual depictions of what we could call a Gramscian "organic intellectual"?) Onwards ...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009


We have weighed the 20th century on the scales and found it lacking. Bruno Rizzi's The Bureaucratization of the World, too (appreciated by Debord), was suppressed:

There is no doubt about another feature documented by Trotsky, Citrine, Victor Serge, Ciliga and by a host of writers of the most different nationalities and political theories: in no capitalist or fascist country is the proletariat in such bad conditions as in Soviet Russia. There is no freedom of speech, of meeting or of the press. Informing is widespread and the State very much a police State. All these writers are agreed on this: the exploitation of man still exists in the country of the “happy life,” being embodied in the famous surplus value which Messieurs the Capitalists extract from the workers. (The divergences appear only when it comes to identifying who monopolises it.) Another characteristic which must not be ignored is that the State demonstrations are only a grandiose theatrical advertisement, as in the totalitarian States of the West; likewise, the veneration, real or pretended, for the almost deified Leader is equal and perhaps even greater. Hierarchy enjoys great prestige there and servility is pushed to the extreme limit. The population lives in an atmosphere of fear as if the walls could hear and speak; they have a face for the public different from that as a private individual.

A crucial distinction: the population lives as if walls could hear and speak, versus, the walls can hear and speak. In America, some segments of the population endorse a certain measure of police state surveillance. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to worry about. Nobody would suggest that these apologists for Big Brother in the Land of the Free are not, in fact, genuine, sincere, and possessed of free will as much as anyone else. By and large their endorsements reflect their class experience: the comfortable, white middle class does not generally have a single thing to fear from police officers (or the Feds). Is this because the white middle class commits no crimes? Not exactly ...

I have the windows open because it is a beautiful morning. A chubby bird perches upon my fire escape, ruffles its feathers, looks around inside my room. In fiction this bird could become a symbol of the oppression that exists everywhere except where it is manifest.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Image of the Day

Screencaps of Isabelle Huppert are taking over EL!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Back of the Eyelids

Part one:

Part two:

Solar Beats (Patrick Bokanowski, 2008)

Though very different from Brakhage's work, the films I've seen by Bokanowski similarly seem to manifest around the same crux, i.e., the apprehension or appearance of form (figurality, order) amidst a flux of images that reaches back into the ocular primordial chaos. With Bokanowski this is a more mental process than in Brakhage, perhaps; we see more of the fantasies creep in from out of nowhere. Disturbing, familiar glimpses, scenes that are both figural and beautiful but not coherent. (Bokanowski: at the vanguard of Freudian-Cartesian cinema? Eh, forget it, just a throwaway joke.) If one were to replace the final "trippy" section of Danny Boyle's Sunshine with Solar Beats, one must admit, the Hollywood film would be a wholly more transcendental experience.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Real Time

"Realism (and its children in 'literary fiction') was and is largely a formal and political reaction to the vigour of the 'genre' (avant la lettre) habits/tropes/imaginative power of the long 18th century - their revolutionary verve and critical capacity - rather than, as it advertises itself, and as it has been assumed by the major theorists and historians of the novel, from Auerbach to Watt, the result of a direct adaptation of and attention to social and individual reality, naturally arising in the context of the bourgeois individual emancipation narrative." (Le Colonel Chabert in the days of olde, as Alphonse van Worden)

"Each period uses a particular vocabulary to exorcise the demonds that plague it" (Guy Debord, Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici; if I recall, Debord says somewhere in this book that he was the spitting image of young Philippe Noiret)

In film & media culture, a paradigm unworthy of our further investment (not to say attention), realism versus artifice (or we could say genre). Twist things a bit and a very similar, and similarly unsatisfactory paradigmatic choice (classicism versus modernism) remains. The relationship between sociopolitical reality and the aesthetic is not, nor need it be, a mimetic one. We move on.

In Haneke's La Pianiste, overhead close-up shots of hands playing the piano remind me, just a bit, of the close-ups of hands practicing & performing in Bresson's Pickpocket. Hands, windows to the soul just as much as the face, expressing the full fury of human guile, craft, depth, and violence. The hands pull the triggers, grab the bank notes, commit the crimes; the hand is a synecdoche for the active subject (the aspirant sovereign). Crime shows are a perennial favorite in television fiction, at least in the States and Europe. These can run the gamut from 'realist' to 'fantastic,' every level between, because their deepest recourse is to the law and sovereignty (of whose operations all are cognizant) and because there place in fiction is to reconstitute these things in an artificial way which will draw eyeballs.

(Speaking of crime television, I'd be interested to hear if any readers could be up to supply me with loans or copies of British series Edge of Darkness, Z-Cars, or Red Riding?)

Image of the Day

Tintoretto, The Slaughter of the Innocents (1582-1587)

Friday, May 15, 2009


The bourgeoisie have far more interesting lives than the members of the socialist state apparatus. Members of the socialist state apparatus are desperately, helplessly enthralled by the goings-on of the would-be bourgeoisie (or the "creative class"), so much so that when they lean forward, fascinated, with headphones on, surveilling, they must bolt upright like good commie German workers when their subordinate comrade comes in to take over on the shift. The socialist state apparatus lies and deceives by repeating mere truisms and demanding adherence. The socialist state apparatus destroys the spirit of its people. The socialist state apparatus cracks because of the good or guilty consciences of some of its number, who have heard the call of the demos and must respond in earnest. (The liberal democratic capitalist state does not lie, cheat, steal, or demand fealty.) Deep down, Man wants Freedom. You cannot chain the human spirit.

More shallow, less nuanced, but more honest, more intelligent in its superficial operations: another film about the threat of home invasion, Panic Room.

The Lives of Others has the negative virtue of avoiding certain cliches about the Iron Curtain: that all life behind it took place in grayscale (it's a visually pretty, bold-colored film), that one was constantly at the mercy of all amenities that are in short supply. (An old instructor of mine once pointed out how a scene in Tarkovsky's Mirror is in fact a joke at the expense of Soviet plumbing...) In The Lives of Others, our central victim-characters go to parties, have friends over, they have sizable book collections, roomy apartments, smoke and drink. Indeed, this negative virtue is simultaneously an added bonus. For how better to communicate the threat of devilish Stasi surveillance in 2006 to Western arthouse audiences than to make the sympathetic characters put-upon creative class types? (Keep in mind, too, that our present decade sees '80s retro in vogue.)

Saturday, May 09, 2009


"Whenever they talk about photography, the majority of [Jeff] Wall's commentators discuss the transparency and its light box installation, to make the point that this has been borrowed from the society of the spectacle and in a reflexive and critical manner turned back against it. Few commentators have veered from the scholarly, interpretive use of the artist's numerous allusions to classical compositions drawn from the history of painting, and have little to say about why the fact that he works in photography should allow him to maintain the same relation to his sources in Manet and Caillebotte as Manet did towards his sources in Watteau, Le Nain, or Velázquez. Admittedly, Wall's art prompts scholarly, iconological readings of this kind, which in turn yield a wealth of meanings, including and particularly social ones. This is what has attracted commentators with a background in the social history of art to his work; they find, in a contemporary artists, a mirror of their own attempts at a sophisticated reading, both scholarly and politically aware, of the 'painting of modern life' in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was very honestly confessed by Thomas Crow in an excellent article on Wall. The artist would confirm the revenge of the social history of art (and of Panofsky) over modernist-formalist history (and over Wölfflin) by producing the painting of modern life which history has not produced."

—Thierry de Duve, in Jeff Wall (London: Phaidon Press, 1996), p. 28.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Colors of Another World

Jack and Rose—not that Jack and Rose, they who rue the iceberg, but another Jack and Rose.

Everything in The Ballad of Jack and Rose is so lush. Breathtakingly picturesque. I'd love to live in this setting with them (as I would with Michel Lonsdale's pad in Munich). At the same time, two things. First: this is a community without any body odor. Plucked eyebrows and just-so bobo green livin'? It's a collaborative Ralph Lauren/Martha Stewart spin on the Woodstock's afterlife. (It's also downhome Americana-style magical realism: see also John Duigan's excellent Lawn Dogs, or for a less flora-choked approach, Steven Shainberg's Secretary.) Thank the gods the characters are at least shown to glisten with sweat. Second: the movie is thematized so as to be about its own utopic allure, that utopia's own Lauren/Stewart superficiliaties. It may not reach profound conclusions, but it's also not stupidly unaware. This self-criticism comes in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis's Jack, sure, and his various realizations or admissions of his own failures. But we are also treated to a layer of Breillaterie here, and Camilla Belle is employed as la vraie jeune fille. (Belle acquits herself just fine here. Is it a performance that asks a lot of her, though? I don't want to make a snap judgment but my gut instinct is that she wasn't pushed.)

For the purposes of those who haven't seen the movie, but would prefer no spoilers: The Ballad of Jack and Rose, written and directed by Rebecca Miller (Day-Lewis' wife and Arthur Miller's daughter), is about an ailing hippie father raising his beautiful adolescent daughter on an island off the coast of New England in the 1980s. The superb Catherine Keener puts in a performance as the father's girlfriend who brings her two sons to live with the father & daughter. There's a hint of incestuous feeling that makes the film more interesting than it would be without it; there's an air of liberal hand-wringing, too, about the failures of '68 and all that it entails—as though the middle-class, blue-state "lifestyle" is a good enough compromise in light of the counterculture's shortcoming's in morning's cruel light. To be clear: I do not claim that the latter is the position of Miller, only that it's an element in the film overall, and to which I suppose she and her collaborators bear an ambivalent relationship. There are always films made about the impossibility of revolutions. Tragedy, rather than comedy, is the narrative line which enlivens futile hopes.

I don't remember it well, but in the late '90s I really liked a mawkish (sincerely, unapologetically mawkish) Hollywood film, What Dreams May Come. Robin Williams traverses the afterlife, parts of which look like his wife's brightly colored paintings. Perhaps only semi-intentionally, this film communicates something about the libidinal, familial, even traumatic dimensions of fantasy, a fantasy for the beautiful (happiness a contract: 'beauty the promise of happiness'). It would be interesting to see these two flawed but highly personal, highly emotionally invested films side by side, look a little closer at them.

When Jeremy Blake's wife left this world, he too fell into all the colors (letting big blue take him).

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


"But, of course, cinematic nudity circa 1961 was not quite innocent (i.e., nude) enough, and we cannot fully fetishize clichés of lost innocence where innocence was still suppressed, as it was in Wishman's previous Hideout in the Sun (1960, above), which, filmed in Nude-arama, falsely promised viewers an "escape to a modern Garden of Paradise where Nature's sun-kissed daughters walk forth in all their natural beauty!" This was a bizarre cultural-historical moment when cinema's gradual assault on decency could only pretend to salaciousness, when sun-kissed daughters could, in fact, walk forth in only some of their natural beauty. True, the naturally gravity-resistant breasts Wishman displays are anatomical marvels compared to today's stuffed, synthesized concoctions, and Nude's women are happily liberated from the brassiere manufacturer's contrived cleavage. But the lunar sunbathers' Sears & Roebuck panties dispel any whiff of lost Edens, while the astronauts' fixed foil codpieces, secreting the crux of virile privilege, ensure that the very notion of nudity remains so alien that it literally and forever belongs to a different heavenly sphere."

—Andrew Grossman, "Between Nudist Morality and Freudian Realism!"

Please forgive the quotations-heavy posting of late. One must get back into blogging like one gets into a frigid lake: either slowly, cumulatively ... or all at once. I'm taking the former approach. Some of these threads will find themselves woven into material over the next few weeks.

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Fully Visible

"Thucydides gives a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War, which was a particular event. But this particular event is the only phenomenon in which the nature of human things or of human life becomes fully visible because in it the peak of Greekness, and therewith the peak of humanity, becomes fully visible; we see the beginning of the descent. We see the limitation of the peak. For war, or movement, is destructive. And that particular movement which is the Peloponnesian War is destructive of the highest. The biggest rest finds not its culmination but its end in the biggest movement. The biggest movement weakens and endangers, nay, destroys, not only power and wealth but Greekness as well. The biggest movement leads very soon to that unrest within cities, that statis, which is identical with re-barbarization. The most savage and murderous barbarism, which was slowly overcome by the building up of Greekness, reappears in the Peloponnesian War. The war brings murderous barbarians into the the midst of Greece as allies of the Greeks engaged in fratricidal war. Thracians murder the children attending a Greek school. The Peloponnesian War reveals the extremely endangered character of Greekness. Original kinesis, original chaos, comes into its own. It reveals itself as the permanent basis of derivative rest, of derivative order, of derivative Greekness. By understanding the biggest unrest Thucydides understands the limits of human possibilities. His knowledge is final knowledge. It is wisdom."

—Leo Strauss, "Thucydides: The Meaning of Political History"

(for Alex)

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Quote of the Day

"And here we can fully apply what we established earlier: if a set of socio-political configurations such as apartheid, for example, are conditions of existence of the economy and capitalist accumulation, then the economy cannot be constituted as an object separate from those conditions since we know that the conditions of existence of any contingent identity are internal to the latter. What we find, then, is not an interaction or determination between fully constituted areas of the social, but a field of relationl semi-identities in which 'political,' 'economic' and 'ideological' elements will enter into unstable relations of imbrication without ever managing to constitute themselves as separate objects. The boundary of essence between the latter will be permanently displaced. The combinatorial games between hypostasized entities—the 'economic,' the 'political,' and the 'ideological'—remind one most of the economic abstractions which Marx described as 'an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are social characters as well as mere things, do their danse macabre.' This does not mean, of course, that an area of the social cannot become autonomous and establish, to a greater or lesser degree, a separate identity. But this separation and autonomization, like everything else, has specific conditions of existence which establish their limits at the same time. What is not possible is to begin by accepting this separate identity as an unconditional assumption and then to go on to explain its interaction and articulation with other identities on that basis."

—Ernesto Laclau, "New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time"