Archive for January, 2004

Swimming Pool

Friday, January 30th, 2004

Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, like his earlier Under The Sand, takes an empathetic view of a middle-aged woman, played by the great Charlotte Rampling.
At the start of the film, Rampling’s character is brooding, angry, and repressed. She’s a successful crime novelist who finds herself a victim of writer’s block. And the film is both an allegory of the writing process, and a psychological thriller somewhat reminiscent of Polanski (in this respect, it reminded me a bit of one of Ozon’s earlier films, See the Sea).
At first, Swimming Pool is all nuance: Rampling’s gestures and pauses, her body language and facial expressions. Gradually, a story emerges on the screen, just as one does in the pages Rampling’s novelist character types out on her laptop. A strange tension develops between Rampling and another, much younger woman, as stereotypically French as Rampling’s character here is stereotypically English.
The film becomes an exploration of spaces and boundaries: of relations of intimacy and violation, suspicion and trust, between the two women. This gradually becomes something more, a complicity at once creepy and liberating; then it dissolves – or metamorphoses – into something quite different, as the stubborn, violent unreason of intractable fantasy gives way (or gives birth?) to the pliable, pacified objectivity of a finished work of art.
Swimming Pool is a grippingly mysterious film, less on account of the surprises of its plot twists, than because of Ozon’s and Rampling’s portrayal of the impalpable, the unsayable and unshowable, the in-between.

Quote of the Week

Thursday, January 29th, 2004

A brilliant epigram by Warren Ellis (from his Bad Signal email list):
“If you believe that your thoughts originate inside your brain — do you also believe that television shows are made inside your television set?”

New Hampshire Primary

Tuesday, January 27th, 2004

I still think, even more, that we are doomed if Kerry is the Democratic nominee. In his victory speech tonight, Kerry looked and acted like he had a stick up his ass (a common metaphor, but in this case it seemed almost literally apt). Not only did he obviously not believe any of the things he was saying, he didn’t even seem capable of pretending to believe them. He’s too lame even to be phony.
Dean, on the other hand, was emotionally involved, with his people, and also with the larger TV audience. Not that this will do him much good. I agree with Jacalyn that Dean is in trouble in large part because the media read things like his now infamous whoop as that he is “acting too ‘lower-class’/ too black/too much like white trash.”
It’s not that I am saying that any show of emotion is automatically good. After all, who was more emotional (and thereby more crassly manipulative) in his political speeches than Hitler? I am saying, rather, that it’s more on an affective level than an ideological one that elections are won and lost. And too few political commentators notice this, or are willing to admit that they are aware of it.
It may be that nobody the Democrats have can compete with what Jenny, who writes very well about the politics of affect, describes as Bush’s display of ” feeling that doesn’t slip over into ‘a’ feeling….Bush is the conservative/political cousin to the iPod commercials, insofar as they both tap into emotionless affect in order to ‘work.’ ”
Now, I think that Bush is able to appear this way, precisely because he is a sociopath, as Mark Crispin Miller cogently argues. But that doesn’t make the task of beating him any easier; and though I still think that the career military man, General Clark, is the one most likely to be able to do it, I remain uncertain as to whether he can pull it off. But I know that Kerry doesn’t stand a chance.
Most idiotic comment of the evening, by somebody on CNN: “Women like Kerry because they feel protected by him.”
Most outrageous claim by a candidate: Lieberman, claiming his 5th place showing as a victory, because he was almost in a tie for third place (Kerry and Dean, he said, don’t really count, because they come from states directly adjoining New Hampshire. It’s a good thing nobody reminded Lieberman that, even if Connecticut doesn’t border New Hampshire, it, too, is part of New England).
Sharpton brilliantly one-upped Lieberman when he said he was thrilled to get a few hundred votes in New Hampshire, when he didn’t even campaign there.

Can Xue

Sunday, January 25th, 2004

Can Xue is one of my favorite living writers, in any language, although (as well as because) I do not think I really understand her. Three of her books have been translated into English: the short story collection Dialogues in Paradise, Old Floating Cloud, which consists of two novellas, and the one I just reread, The Embroidered Shoes, which contains ten short stories and a novella. (As far as I know, Can Xue has published a lot more in Chinese, but these are the only texts of hers that have been translated into a language I understand).
It would seem obvious to say that Can Xue’s fiction is “dreamlike” and “surreal,” but words like these don’t get us very far. The stories contain lots of description, and are vividly poetic, and preternaturally clear, in their details. Yet these details are often highly irrational, or impossible; and they refuse to coalesce into anything like a linear narrative. There are obsessively repeated (but continually varying) images of disease and decay, of insects and other vermin, of flowers blooming and withering, of twisted family dynamics and unpleasant altercations with neighbors.
There’s something unique, too, about the tone of the stories: their everydayness. None of the narrators or characters find their “surreal” circumstances to be in the least unusual or strange. They describe a man who has suction cups on his hands, allowing him to hang from the ceiling, or a boy who raises poisonous snakes, or a woman who spends all her time in a glass cupboard, as if these were the sorts of people you met every day. They evoke metamorphoses of the landscape, so that familiar landmarks disappear, or abysses open up at their feet, as if they were merely talking about changes in the weather.
Most of these images are harsh and troubling. The stories are also filled with that dreamlike sense of never being quite able to reach a goal that nonetheless always seems to be imminent, just beyond one’s grasp. But I wouldn’t describe Can Xue’s stories as nightmarish or despairing. For they are filled with a certain wonder of metamorphosis: a sense of ongoing change that is more important than any of the goals that are never reached (for to reach them would bring the metamorphoses to an end). These stories are about loss, suffering, and mortality, but in them such events have a kind of quite beauty to them, since they are more about living on or going on, than they are about finitude and finality. There’s no finality here, and hence no narrative closure; but a kind of impersonal, insomniac vigilance that ever renews itself.
And in the end, I am not sure that anything I have just written about Can Xue’s fiction makes any sense. But what I love about this fiction is the way it continually, delicately evades whatever constructions one would want to place upon it.

Tokyo Godfathers

Saturday, January 24th, 2004

I don’t have that much to say about Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers. The sappy plot – melodrama, but not over-the-top enough for my kind of melodramatic bliss – means it’s not anywhere near as interesting as Kon’s first film, the weird and science-fictional Perfect Blue. (I still haven’t seen his second film, Millennium Actress). Still, the animation was really good: the characters have that iconic simplicity that (as Scott McCloud has argued) is the special power of comics and cartoons; while the Tokyo cityscape is vivid and dynamic. Tokyo Godfathers is certainly an improvement on 3 Godfathers, the John Ford/John Wayne flick on which it is loosely based. (Believe me, 3 Godfathers is not one of Ford’s greatest moments. And Kon’s couple of lachrymose bum and stereotypical drag queen is far preferable to Ford’s couple of the Duke and Pedro Armendariz, with the former snarling to the latter at every opportunity, “Don’t speak Mexican in front of the kid’).

Me++

Wednesday, January 21st, 2004

William J. Mitchell‘s new book ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City is an extremely useful survey and discussion of new technologies, but (how do I put this) not an inspiring one. The book makes a powerful and exhaustive inventory of new network technologies, particularly wireless ones, and discusses how these technologies are changing everything from our sense of self to the way power works in our society. Mitchell is careful not to get too carried away, in the manner of so many futurologists: the devices and techniques he is writing about are not all commonly available yet today, but they are all grounded in current practices. That is to say, Mitchell extrapolates only to the extent that he describes the situation in which today’s bleeding-edge technology has become the norm, an everyday experience within the price range and technical know-how of the average consumer. (By this, he seems to mean anyone at the economic level of the inhabitants of North America, Western Europe, and Japan).
What’s especially good about Mitchell’s account is the way that he embeds his accounts of cell-phone texting or RFID chips or GPS systems in the history of human culture, technology, and architecture. Goggles that display hyperlinked data are not anything radically new, so much as they are continuous with a whole series of inventions, or of human tweakings of the environment, from the mastery of fire, to various forms of clothing, various means of writing (making symbolic marks), and various architectural programs. New technology is thereby demystified, and even its “virtual,” delocalizing components are grounded in a dialectic between the body and its surroundings. Mitchell is also frank and thoughtful about the dangers, as well as the advantages, of the new wireless digital technologies: he spends as much time talking about their potentials for surveillance and control, as he does about the new forms of freedom that they might open up. Rejecting both utopian fantasies and dystopian prophecies, Mitchell offers instead a sober calculus of possibilities and dangers.
Why, then, am I ultimately disappointed with this book (which is what I meant when I said I didn’t find it inspiring)? I think it is because Mitchell remains on the level of the catalogue, or listing of separate observations. He fails to do (and probably has no interest in doing) what Deleuze and Guattari define as the task of the philosopher, theorist, or intellectual: to create new concepts. He shows us how new conditions and new forms of life are emerging, conditions and forms for which our current patterns of thought are no longer adequate; but he doesn’t take cognizance of this inadequacy (not even in his own language) and he doesn’t even begin to think about how it might be remedied. The result is a kind of enforced blandness. I suppose that is better than your typical “gee-whiz” celebratory attitude, but it leaves me dissatisfied. Mitchell avoids corporate hucksterism over the effects of new media and new technologies, but only at the price of substituting a kind of bureaucratic, policy-wonk mentality.

The Fix Is In

Tuesday, January 20th, 2004

A year ago, before anyone had heard of Dean, the story was that the Democratic party insiders had already decided on Kerry as the nominee. And today it looks like that’s what’s going to happen. Dean just “peaked too soon,” as Richard Nixon might have said. He wasn’t able to endure the relentless negative campaigning that blanketed Iowa over the last few weeks. (Negative campaigning, and exaggerated scrutiny, of the sort George W Bush never received from the press, and that Kerry probably won’t receive until after he is nominated).
Now, I’m not a big fan of Dean, and the fact that he’s a psycho in the mold of John McCain may indeed be a handicap. He might well not be able to win, but he would have at least an outside chance, the kind of long odds a risk-taking gambler would put down money on.
(For what it’s worth, I still think that General Clark has the best winning chances of any prospective Democratic candidate. The smoothie Edwards might have a chance, too, just because he’s a Southerner, though I doubt that his phoniness is good enough to really carry things off. But then, neither Clark nor Edwards is going to get the nomination, any more than Dean will).
Kerry probably has the nomination sewed up; he probably had it sewed up, as I said, a year ago. But he has no chance whatsoever of beating Bush. He has loser written all over him: he’s a tired, colorless hack in the exact mold of Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore. When will the Democrats ever learn? They would rather lose every election from now until eternity, than allow a single breath of fresh air to enter the chamber of mummies that they laughingly call a “party.” And we pay the price, in the form of one-party rule by the predacious Bush clan and their sycophantic retainers.

A Good Old-Fashioned Future

Saturday, January 17th, 2004

Bruce Sterling’s short story collection A Good Old-Fashioned Future offers seven vignettes of the near future, with an emphasis on globalization and mobile stealth technologies. The stories – originally published between 1993 and 1998 – manage to be (for the most part) dystopian yet anti-apocalyptic, as well as wildly hilarious, and to throw out new ideas with a profligacy that more than makes up for their occasionally corny plot lines. The promiscuous, postmodern mixing-and-matching of cultures is accompanied by new forms of mutating sociality, from the Japanese “network gift economy” of “Maneki Neko” to the Wende (a sort of chaotic convergence of temporary anarchy, involving simultaneous rioting by all sorts of groups from artist-anarchists to Moral Majority bigots to soccer hooligans) that convulses Dusseldorf in “Deep Eddy.” In addition to the usual subcultural types muddling through bizarre circumstances which to them are utterly mundane, there are also characters like The Cultural Critic, a sort of hyper-Friedrich Kittler figure on the far side of postmodernity (he has the best quotes in the book: “the enormous turbulence in postmodern society is far larger than any single human mind can comprehend, with or without computer-aided perception… every vital impulse in human life is entirely pre-rational”). Not to mention the hack Bollywood film director who is shooting pictures in Britain to take advantage of the depressed economy there, in the wake of a Mad Cow epidemic that wiped out most of the population. There’s no “cyberpunk” attitude here, only Sterling’s gift for making the wildest scenarios seem alarmingly plausible.

Politics Without the State

Saturday, January 17th, 2004

The Seattle Research Institute is trying to bridge the gap between academic and journalistic discourse, and to open a new space for a new generation, and a new sort, of “public intellectual.” Over the past few years, they’ve been a vital presence here in Seattle, sponsoring lectures, readings, and performances, as well as publishing two volumes of essays, with more to come. I finally got around to reading their first book, Politics Without the State, by Nic Veroli and others, and edited by Diana George and Charles Tonderai Mudede. (It was originally published in 2002, and has just been reprinted).
Politics Without the State is a brilliant polemic, one of the few I’ve read recently that is actually worth arguing with, rather than just dismissing. Veroli et al. argue for a politics of joy and imaginative expansion, in contrast to the politics of terror and restriction purveyed by the IMF and the US government, no less than by Al Qaeda.They focus on how the current world order works affectively, rather than just economically and ideologically or cognitively. Against “the communication of terror by a private corporate media oligopoly that functions in tandem with a state apparatus”, they advocate “a universal communication” of invention, of joy, and of bodies. The goal that they envision is “gaining collective, participatory control over the imaginary processes through which our identities and desires are instituted.” This means inventing new forms of sociality, imagining alternatives to global capitalism precisely at the moment when we are endlessly being told that no alternative is conceivable.
The theoretical inspiration for all this comes from Deleuze and Guattari, and Negri and Hardt, and to a certain extent Zizek; and before them, from such nomadic thinkers (as Deleuze calls them) as Spinoza (for his theory of affect) and Gabriel Tarde (for his theory of sociality). (They also cite C. L. R. James, as well as some German thinkers I am alas only vaguely familiar with, like Negt and Kluge, and Enzsenzberger).
But there is also a pragmatic inspiration, or one deriving from practice, which has a lot to do with why and how Politics Without the State is more than just an academic exercise. Veroli et al are inspired by the successful Seattle anti-WTO protests of 1999 and by the Zapatistas in Mexico, as well as by the ongoing (and not quite as successful) efforts in the alternative media to develop a counter-narrative to the official “manufacturing of consent” to imperial adventurism in the wake of 9/11.
So what is it that I want to argue with in Veroli et al’s account? I suppose I could put it down to my own neurotic doom and gloom that I find them (as I do Hardt and Negri) way too optimistic. However attractive it is to call for a revolutionary politics of gratified desire, in opposition to the old-fashioned (Leninist) ethos of sacrifice and discipline, I am not really convinced by such a vision. It’s the old problem that Wilhelm Reich ran into: if the masses (or, to use the more up-to-date Negrian term, the multitude) are orgasmically sated and satisfied, they aren’t going to rebel for anything more than their orgasms. While I’m all for “irruptions of idleness, perverse delights, useless pursuits” (Veroli and George), I don’t believe that such “practices of desertion” are radical acts, or threats to the consumerist world order. And although I’m as much in credit card hell as anyone, I also don’t believe that “our mounting debts, even as they topple us, will bring the system in upon itself, effectively sucking the money away from globalization’s larger agenda,” as Robert Corbett playfully (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) proposes. (For one thing, because the problem for world capitalism is not overconsumption, but precisely the reverse: overproduction).
In addition, I wish that anarcho-collectivists, like Veroli et al, would get over their negative fetishization of “the State” as the source of all evil. I know this may make me sound like an old-line marxist fundamentalist, but I’m sorry: the State is not the problem, multi- and transnational capital is. Bush’s police state tactics are in the service of Halliburton, and not the reverse. Deleuze and Guattari write somewhere of the “minimal State,” pioneered by Pinochet and Thatcher, and reaching fruition today under Bush. This is when the State abdicates all forms of authority except for its policing and military functions (and even those are being privatized to a good extent), in order to give capital a freer hand at ever-more horrific forms of exploitation. That, rather than State power, is the main danger, the real source of terror, today. Bush is truly a “crowned anarchist,” destroying the State far more radically than any left anarchists have dreamed.
Similarly, it’s the IMF and the World Bank and free-trade agreements like NAFTA that are the greatest antagonists of the State today, since they are precisely negating any form of independence or local sovereignty, in order to allow for the unimpeded expansion of flows of capital, and in order to further privatize all forms of social life.
So when Veroli dismisses the importance of public services like those of the New Deal, on the grounds that such services were only extracted from the State by the threat of “large mass movements” (which is not untrue in itself), he’s speaking from a position of luxury that fails to acknowledge what a big difference such services have made in many people’s lives however inadequate such services are. And when he says that “it is unlikely that today’s mass movements will be satisfied by a New Deal, even a global one,” I can only throw up my hands in exasperation: it’s like saying that starving people will not be satisfied with access to middle-class American meals, because anything less than the banquets of ancient Rome is oppressive and unfair.
In short, I take the rather unfashionable position that a progressive and democratic politics today must strive to reinvent the State, not bypass it or destroy it. “Politics without the State” is a chimera.

Ellen Gallagher

Thursday, January 15th, 2004

An exhibit of works by Ellen Gallagher just opened at the Henry Art Gallery. The artist was present to give a talk about her work. I’ll have to go back for a more extended look, but what I saw (and heard) was quite interesting. Gallagher’s work is fascinatingly oblique, giving a kind of formalist take on the history and position of black people in America. Gallagher took advertisements for wigs from old copies of Ebony and other African American magazines (her archive extends from 1939 to the late 1970s). She obsessively reworked these images in various ways, replacing the depicted wigs with plasticine blobs, effacing the faces of the models, organizing the resulting tiny images in huge grid patterns.
Gallagher is tracing a careful path between the Scylla of identity politics, and the Charybdis of universalizing abstraction. She is not representing “black identity” or even black history in any straightforward way; but neither are her abstract patterns – which is what you first notice of her work from a distance – abstracted from history, or from the history of that (contingent, non-essential, but also perfectly concrete and real) “identity.”
Wigs are a prosthetic amplification of the body, even when (or especially when) it is claimed (as is the case in many of the ads Gallagher appropriates) that they are “natural.” (They are also part of the larger history of the cultural meanings of hair – remember Madame C. J. Walker). As dubious fashion accessories. wigs themselves have a history in the years of Gallagher’s archive (witness the differences between the straight ones of the 1940s and the Afros of the late 60s and 70s).
But Gallagher is not just memorializing a history. Neither is she making a critique (as might well be done, for instance, from the point of view of looking at the various ways that African Americans have often sought to make their hair straigher, more like white people’s hair). Rather, she is exploring a tricky middle ground, where identity, an artifice to begin with, becomes blurred by memory, time, and loss, but is never entirely obliterated. Her images of prosthetics of the body are themselves prosthetic images: images which replace, or extend, previous images. This suggests an endless progression of simulacra, perhaps; but it does NOT suggest any sort of Baudrillardian thesis that the “real” has been obliterated. This is because, far from being “hyperreal,” Gallagher’s images are troublingly concrete: indexical presences rather than achieved absences, residues rather than effacements of their dubious “originals.”
In her talk, Gallagher linked these residual presences, uneffaced despite the violence with which she works over her appropriated images, to the themes of Afrofuturist science fiction. That is to say, she sees the Middle Passage as the true and ultimate form of alien abduction: people taken away from their homes and families, brutally dragged by strangers through an unfamiliar, blank space, and enslaved in an utterly alien environment. She suggested that the Middle Passage itself, rather than any fantasy of Mother Africa, is the one “origin” back to which black Americans can refer. And she cited the conceptualizations of Samuel Delany, and the SF mythologizings of George Clinton and especially Drexciya, with their wonderful vision of an underwater Atlantean realm, inhabited by the women and children who perished during the Middle Passage. Gallagher said that she felt close to Drexciya both in terms of this mythology, and in terms of the oblique, abstract way that they present it, in enigmatic techno music without vocals.
Gallagher is a brilliant artist of the in-between, in many different senses.