This post traces out a convoluted line of thought regarding Spring Breakers and middle grounds. As with so much on EL, it's public but it's written at least as much to help me work through things as it is to communicate ideas clearly. So follow through it at your own risk, but don't say you weren't warned!
Amy Klein writes, "I don’t buy this idea that Spring Breakers is good art simply because it holds a mirror up to the world we live in." I don't buy it either, but surely this isn't the only argument put forward by advocates of the film ... is it?
Here's another idea I don't buy, which is that every film, text, object (et cetera) has a single interpretation at its truest, depest core. I mean that idea that we can find and fix a meaning to the object by reading (into) it and finding its proper, ironclad, trans-historical significance. Perhaps some objects are designed to work in this way, and it is true that some reception contexts encourage analyzing texts this way. But I'm unconvinced this is the set which encompasses all cultural objects. Even the ones that are meant to work like this are positively helpless before the sweep of human history.
If we think that cultural objects, discussions about the politics of art very quickly lead nowhere. Let's say we have two people of roughly similar temperaments. One absolutely loves Spring Breakers and insists its bold, neon-sexy-thanatological trip takes us into a Bataillean inferno of excess. The other focuses primarily on the brute fact that the camera fixates on young female bodies, and attaches this exhilaration of excess to a story of these bikini-clad Disney princesses as a few of them slowly lead up to a triumphant showdown-massacre of black drug dealers. Too often, people fail to envision that both views might actually co-exist. There are deep puritanical forces that a Bataille-Reich "liberation" might do some good (I do not say an infallible good) in addressing. But at the same time the terms of such "liberation" are open to question. However, it is also possible that in transgressing, other features of cultural power imbalances often position these "transgressions" in ways that are also sexist, even misogynistic, or are at least more than capable of being interpreted that way.
And though I'm not the most inductive/empirical sort of thinker, you might figure when it comes to the politics of feminism or antiracism, for example, my general take is that we don't look to the intrinsic "core meaning" of the text to determine if something is racist or sexist, but instead we look to how its operating in the cultural sphere: are there, in actual fact, feminist or antiracist grievances being lodged against the object in question? Who benefits concretely from the dissemination of a particular object or a particular framing of that object? (For instance, does an aesthete's l'art pour l'art defense make a film look "pure & true"? This is sort of what I poked at in parts of my Tree of Life commentary a while back, because I was unconvinced there was a stable, true patriarchal/sexist reading to the nature-grace dichotomy, but as much as I love Tree of Life I concede its very romantic modernism itself is an issue.) So instead what I think is worth examining, when it comes to the politics of an object, is the cluster of uses to which the object is put. In other words, Spring Breakers isn't necessarily anything in the final analysis, but we can discern trends in the ways it is received. On what grounds do its detractors or defenders insist the discussion be held?
So in this sense I may have some deeper philosophical disagreement with the perspective Amy Klein mobilizes, but I'm very much in accord with her skepticism toward a defense of Spring Breakers that would subordinate any political question to a depoliticized appreciation of the "rawness," the "exhilaration," the "weirdness" of Korine's vision. And the reason for this, of course, is because appreciation of vision itself depends upon politics. This is a tricky philosophical problem I'm still working out for myself, but while aesthetics and politics may be discrete conceptual spheres, in actual practice politics always grounds the conditions in which a particular kind of aesthetics - such as the appreciation of a genius vision or powerful experience - operates.
An object's meanings, then, arise contingently. They are often contradictory. They can co-exist. Walt Whitman wasn't the only entity in this world to contradict himself and contain multitudes, you see.
I think that Spring Breakers is a fascinating experience, and makes for a great unofficial Florida youth trilogy with Trans (Julian Goldberger) and Bully (Larry Clark). I would also say, however, that feminist objections with this film strike me as more or less on the mark. This is a heteronormative pornographic film; its pornography is both the root of its most brilliant formal strategies and its most obvious "structuring structure" yet it more than warrants feminist interrogation. The camera lens focuses upon supine forms, slow-motion gyrating women, a plethora of fluids (sweat, booze, blood, poolwater). I wouldn't call the film erotic, by which I mean that it doesn't work on an arousal-payoff dynamic [though it is sensuous] ... or rather, its formal arousal-payoff dynamic simply passes over the whole issue of sex [though image and dialogue-wise the film is saturated with the promise of sex] and moves directly toward death: the danger of death, the specter of punishment.
This disembodied floating neon-lit gaze is, critics have already noted, in fact not disembodied at all but representative of a straight male subjectivity which sees women as objects. The fact that the women who star in Spring Breakers "reclaim" some of this objectivity is not trivial, but it also isn't a trump card. We can't simply step outside of an entire world of unequal power relations through a localized process of seeing a few women (objects) "take up" their own objecthood. There can be empowerment in abjection and submission; one can feel empowered, emboldened, enlightened through taking on the object status. But this emancipatory operation is not the same as form or style invigorating the viewer (particularly if the viewer may be a liberal straight guy getting his kicks from bikini-clad women but also enjoying the "detachment" as sociopolitical alibi). It also isn't exactly the same as the kind of phenomenological liberation triggered by such beautiful, weird, lush, multi-textured experience as Spring Breakers might provide.
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So here are a few kinds of liberation at hand.
- Liberation through abjection, submission, or objecthood. The Disney princesses "own" their status as objectified Others; they inhabit and embody it consciously.
- Liberation through form or style: the phenomenological register.
- Liberation (or abdication) of puritanical moralism.
* * *
Contrary to the edicts of almost all official culture, it is possible for us to hold more than one idea in our head at once, and to see things from multiple angles. I can appreciate the convulsive, very generally druglike immersion in colors-beats-bodies . This is not simply a matter of "form versus content," however, because the form itself is part of what is called into question ...