Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sympton and Theme

Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009) could be described as crypto-conservative - respect for military (check), longing for the order and authority of the days of yore (check).  But it's crypto because it takes care not to code its racial anxieties racially.  In fact the majority of the criminals in the film are white.  Nevertheless, it would be possible to insert a mouthpiece into the film along the lines of David Starkey.  Everything else is in place for Harry Brown to hypothesize that the problem with contemporary, welfare state Britain is from its "culture" turning "black."  There's just no one in the script connecting those dots explicitly.  I presume this is because writer Gary Young, director Barber, etc., are more concerned with articulating a storyline that can be comparably more broadly marketed than they are mounting an ideological critique (that is, one from the right).  I suspect socially divisive (e.g. racist, classist, jingoistic) nostalgia is usually easier to market when it's an overtone or undertone, rather than a front-and-center theme.


Early in Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris (2007), the American boyfriend - played by Adam Goldberg - misdirects a gaggle of American tourists by giving them false directions to the Louvre.  His reasoning is that this has drastically cut their wait in the line for a cab at the airport.  They're Bush-voting Americans here on a Da Vinci Code tour, he rationalizes to Delpy.  They deserve to see something outside of their little worlds, such as a riot.  (Nevermind that this film seems to whitewash Paris as much as Amélie ever did.)  "You're so mean," Delpy replies, "but you're so right!"  Then she kisses him. The class privilege on display here is totally nonchalant.  It's good for American tourists from flyover country to "see some riots."  But does the syndicalist bohemian Parisian culture of Delpy's gentle caricature admit many - or any - nonwhite people?  Perhaps it might, if the nonwhite person is an artist, poet, designer, photographer, etc.  Goldberg's character, suggested to be a Clinton Democrat (!!!), speaks no language but English, went through Italy simply snapping photos ... he's not so unlike these ugly Americans after all, and his real quarrel with the Bush-Cheney tourists he lies to is that they have such poor taste.  They read Dan Brown, not the Faulkner-Kerouac axis of respectable literature.  They live in Kansas or something like it, whereas he lives in New York.  They voted for Bush, not for a proper left-wing politician like, ahem, Clinton or Gore or Kerry.

And this division constitutes the heart of 2 Days in Paris, which is in many ways a sophisticated film.  Delpy is an intelligent person and though I don't think the movie is totally successful, her intelligence shows.  Almost everything annoying on display, that I want to read as a symptom, is at least implicitly or subtly acknowledged by the film itself - a line of dialogue, a choice of setting or blocking.  (For instance, Goldberg goes to McDonald's in a moment of crisis, underlining his proximity to the compatriots that he so despises.)  The Before Sunrise/Before Sunset diptych, which Delpy was so crucial in helping to create, does an even better job than this, though - one of the great recent achievements of cinema in displaying a particular class position (rootless, precarious, but nonetheless privileged, educated, culturally savvy youth), not treating it with scornful distance but inhabiting this position, all the while subtly pointing to its limitations, the fact that it's not the center nor the apex of the world.  Even if it's easy to think that the films' so-called "message" is equal to Jesse's worldview, or Celine's.  This is a common refrain in virulent criticism against those two movies (as against a lot of Malick) - ignoring the structure in order to have one part (usually one or two characters' POV) stand in for the whole movie, a critical upgrade via synecdoche.  Of course there are films, and other artworks, where this is a valid enough operation.  But it should be demonstrated instead of assumed.  2 Days in Paris tempts this kind of reading, and indeed I'm not certain how one could examine the content of the film without it, and yet proves quite slippery ... the lesson being that it's a tricky and provisional thing to arrive at conclusions about an artwork's conclusions.  There are too many variables, too many contingencies - and cultural products have potentially long afterlives, they can be re-purposed, re-articulated, by people and from variable perspectives.

Hence the necessity of materialist (not moralist) analysis, when asking political and social questions of culture.  If we return to the example of Harry Brown, we could jump to the conclusion that the film is not only an indictment of an ineffectual nanny state bureaucracy, but also a thinly veiled lamentation that Britain's culture is "becoming black" ... even if the racial aspect is precisely what is veiled.  What then?  Having cracked the film's code, do we move on to the next?  Do we "combat" the film somehow?  (Why this one and not countless others?) 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tech Notes

"[T]he arrival of any new technology that has significant power and practical potential always brings with it a wave of visionary enthusiasm that anticipates the rise of a utopian social order.  Surely the coming of this machine, this new device, this technical novelty will revitalize democracy.  Surely its properties will foster greater equality and widespread prosperity through the land.  Surely it will distribute political power more broadly and empower citizens to act for themselves.  Surely it will cause us to cultivate new and better selves, becoming larger and more magnanimous people than we have been before.  And surely it will connect individuals and groups in ways that will produce greater social harmony and a relaxation of human conflict."  (Langdon Winner, "Sow's Ears from Silk Purses")

"The technological plane is an abstraction: in ordinary life we are practically unconscious of the technological reality of objects.  Yet this abstraction is profoundly real: it is what governs all radical transformations of our environment.  It is even - and I do not mean this in any paradoxical sense - the most concrete aspect of the object, for technological development is synonymous with objective structural evolution.  In the strictest sense, what happens to the object in the technological sphere is essential, whereas what happens to it in the psychological or sociological sphere is inessential.  The discourse of psychology or sociology continually refers us to the object as apprehended at a more consistent level, a level unrelated to any individual or collective discourse, namely the supposed level of technological language.  It is starting from this language, from this consistency of the technological model, that we can reach an understanding of what happens to objects by virtue of their being produced and consumed, possessed and depersonalized."  (Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects)

“My point is that Marx is not working to create an undivided subject where desire and interest coincide. Class consciousness does not operate toward that goal. Both in the economic area (capitalist) and in the political (world-historical agent), Marx is obliged to construct models of a divided and dislocated subject whose parts are not continuous or coherent with each other.” (Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”)

I've taken the above quotes from out of their contexts and chosen them to populate this post, which has no real point - it's blunt and vague, instead.  But I've been thinking the last several days about the grafting of politics into or onto technological forms.  Politics and technology are not equivalent and mutually exclusive spheres, but what I mean is the substitution of the latter for the former.  Or maybe the relocation of the former to the latter.  I.e., the rhetoric that Langdon Winner evokes.  But it's something that has prompted me to take a look at one of the earlier books by that joker Baudrillard, The System of Objects, because it now seems worth entertaining what he means when he provocatively suggests that the essential feature of the object resides in its technological abstraction - not its "psychology or sociology."  Something appealingly anti-determinist ...

Monday, October 24, 2011

TV Waves

"The cover centers on a television set seen from the side.  To the right are two little blond viewers in their pajamas, presumably siblings, who watch the illuminated screen raptly, one seated and the other lying on his stomach, head lifted at attention.  This domestic scene takes place in a void - the uniform black of the cover allows for no spatial orientation whatsoever.  But framing the floating vignettes are two twisting configurations of rainbow-colored electromagnetic waves.  Here the gap between the television commodity, represented photographically, and the network, represented in abstract wave patterns, is almost traumatic, as though some monstrous science fiction force had invaded the cozy children's world.  The cover of
All About Radio and Television insinuates a startling fact: the network and the commodity, though structurally linnked in the ways I have suggested, are profoundly dissimilar and even antagonistic."  (David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy

For all its virtues, Joselit's book is also highly symptomatic: very much the work of an art history professor deciding to take on the brave new world of television studies, absorbing some of it, but also forming an argument without completely attending to the literature's findings.  (Such is the challenging nature of interdisciplinarity ...)  Interpretation suffocates a lot of Joselit's readings; if the electromagnetic waves are "almost traumatic" then one wonders what could possibly not constitute a trauma.  Instead the fashionable buzzword of trauma serves to contextualize an image that, to my own "art historian" eyes, is much more mundane than that. 

In Joselit, network broadcasting culminates (more or less) in the object, the physical object of television as well as its mainstream programming.  The network is represented abstractly, at least when in the context of commercial broadcasting, and video art rides in to save the day when finding more sophisticated or literal ways of representing it.