Nausea prevents me from watching more than small snippets of the Republican convention.
But tonight I watched Arnold’s speech. Arnold is the white Republican answer to Barack Obama.
Note too that Arnold credited Richard Nixon for his political awakening.
The Bush twins make Paris Hilton look like Simone de Beauvoir in comparison.
Archive for August, 2004
Nausea prevents me from watching more than small snippets of the Republican convention.
Iron Council is China Mieville‘s fourth novel, and the third set in the fantasy world of Bas-Lag (after Perdido Street Station and The Scar).
I’ve written about Mieville here before, so I will just go over briefly how he’s a brilliant writer of “speculative fiction” — or of what Mieville himself prefers to call (with a not to Lovecraft and the old pulps) “weird fiction” — basically fantasy, though tinged with elements of both alternative-Victorian science fiction and of Lovecraftian horror; how he’s created as rich and strange an alternative world as any writer has ever done; how he might be thought of as the anti-Tolkien, since his major effort is to rescue fantasy literature from Tolkien’s Medievalizing, moral simplemindedness, reactionary-nostalgic politics, and vision of literature as “consolation”; and how, beyond this, Mieville is actively engaged in rethinking every aspect of fantasy literature, in critiquing and revising its myths, as well as in renewing its links with many aspects of both high culture and low, particularly with surrealism and with pulp writing.
In all these ways, Iron Council is of a piece with Mieville’s earlier books. The urban density and sheer materiality of the immense (and politically repressive) city of New Crobuzon, the strange physics, the monsters, the magical technologies — all of them are here. Also the intoxicating prose, sometimes down-to-earth, more often lush and luxurious. Mieville is a writer so full of ideas that even in a long book — and Iron Council, at 564 pages, is the shortest of the three Bas-Lag novels — seems not long enough to contain them all.
What’s new and startling in this novel is how, instead of being about an individual quest, as Perdido Street Station and The Scar both arguably were, Iron Council is about a collective quest, and a political one at that. Mieville has tried for nothing less than to write a myth (if that’s the right word, which I am not sure it is, for something that is both magical and material, but has none of the pompous and reactionary Jungian connotations that invocations of ‘myth’ usually have) of political Revolution.
Iron Council contains echoes both of the Paris Commune of 1871, and of labor struggles in the American West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book is split between three characters, and between two major plotlines (which of course converge by the end). One plotline involves striking railway workers who literally steal the train and the tracks they are working on, and construct a “line of flight” away from their oppressors: it is only by disappearing from public view and official knowledge that they have the leisure to reinvent society along non-coercive lines. The other plotline, back in New Crobuzon, focuses on a disgruntled militant, who becomes increasingly involved with a fringe group of “infantile leftists” (as Lenin called them), while around him, and almost unbeknownst to him, events are fast approaching a point of revolutionary effervescence.
But wait. What I wrote in the last paragraph, if taken by itself, might well be the description of a “social realist” or “proletarian” novel of the 1920s or 1930s. What is it doing in a fantasy novel, filled with occult happenings and monstrosities worthy of Lovecraft (who, of course, also wrote his major works in the 1920s and 1930s)? Can the same novel possibly dramatize both the evolution of class consciousness, and the visceral, nightmarish experience of fighting with monstrous “inchmen,” who have human heads and arms, mouths with shark-sharp teeth, and the torsos and bodies of enormous, yards-long caterpillars?
Mieville’s accomplishment in Iron Council is to make such a fusion work: to carry it off so seamlessly that when reading the book the thought of a possible contradiction doesn’t even enter one’s mind. It’s only in retrospect that one even wonders about it. The politics of Bas-Lag, with heavy state repression, continual war, and feuding leftist factions, and the presence within this world of the Cacotopic Stain, a mysterious region that causes bizarre, cancerous mutations in whomever or whatever approaches it too closely, both seem equally concrete.
Not to mention the presence of the Remade, who are among the most haunting figures in all three of Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels. The technology of New Crobuzon seems especially oriented towards torturing criminals, convicts, and political dissidents by surgically altering their bodies in grotesque ways, combining the organic with the mechanical, or the human with the animal. A man will have been transformed into a centaur or a satyr, or will have a coal stove on wheels replacing his torso, belly, and legs. A woman will have animate babies’ arms attached to her head, in punishment for the poverty that led to the death of her child.
When the human imagination can reach extremes of hypermoralistic cruelty like these, Mieville seems to be saying, the dream of a relatively egalitarian and uncoercive society is really rather a modest one.
Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is a film of sonic and visual textures. It’s science fiction, depicting a world in which genetic screening is the key to everything, including what jobs you can get, where and when you are permitted to travel, and — most important? — who you can have (reproductive) sex with. There are also wall-sized video screens, and everything is protected by personal (spoken) passwords and fingerprint scanners.
But the world of the film is largely recognizable, despite the high technology. Locations alternate between dense urban landscapes, with skyscrapers, anonymously bureaucratic offices and medical facilities, crowds, subways, and security checkpoints (these parts of the film were shot in Shanghai), and seemingly endless deserts (shot in Dubai). Like Godard’s Alphaville and Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, there’s no fancy F/X, but rather a sense of how the future is already immanent, and imminent, in the present of when the film was shot and first seen.
Winterbottom’s images are flat, with ambient lighting; the camera is often handheld, though less skittery than handheld camerawork often is. Everything in this world is polygot: the people are ethnically and racially mixed (though white privilege has clearly not been altogether effaced), whether the locale is supposed to be Shanghai, Seattle, or the Arabian peninsula, and they speak an English mixed with scraps of other languages (mostly Spanish and French, though Arabic and Mandarin are suggested as well). The music, usually warm techno, creates a dreamy ambiance, one of longing and semi-detachment: sadness filtered, softened, and distanced through a calming antidepressant haze, perhaps.
This is the same sense of floating displacement, the same wavering affect (partly calm and partly vaguely nostalgic, neither sincere nor ironic, but giving a sense that indifference has become a sort of engagement), that we get in other pomo/internationalist films, like Lost in Translation or Last Life in the Universe, or any number of films by the likes of Johnnie To and Wong Kar Wai and Shunji Iwai. Films like these are exploring, and articulating, the sensory feel, and the unfamiliar affects — at once frenzied and cool — of the new post-televisual, transnational multimediascape that we are starting to find ourselves living in.
Nomadic displacement is a positive condition in all these films — it is primary, rather than being seen as the negation of some supposed sense of place, or of rootedness.
What distinguishes Code 46 from these other films is that it shows how the “society of control” is inextricably interwoven with the sense of possibility that comes from decentered flows. For instance: access to everything is regulated by a series of personalizing markers (password, fingerprint, various sorts of permissions that can alter from one moment to the next –you are free to travel for the next 24 hours, but you will be blocked after that). These markers determine whether you can remain “inside” (in the metropolis) or whether you are relegated to the “outside” (which seems to be mostly desert. Inside is much more secure, and materially comfortable, than outside. But both inside and outside are nomadic and decentered, both seem to involve a life of slipping and sliding between alternatives, with nothing that is definitive. There’s a rigid binary, which is a real distinction, but the conditions on both sides of the binary are structurally homologous — both are exemplary instances of postmodern drift.
Genetics is the key to all this: it is the way people are coded. Travel restrictions have to do, for instance, with genetic susceptibility to various diseases that are dangers in various parts of the world. And most important, people with similar DNA are prohibited from having sex (the film is unclear when it comes to nonreproductive sex, whether this be because of contraception or because of same-sex encounters). The drama of Code 46 comes from the fact that the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton), are genetic siblings even though they have never met before — their mothers were clones of each other.
It all works quite oddly in the film. Their life circumstances are so dissimilar, that it would seem their mutual attraction is due to the genetic similarity of which they are both unaware. Yet the film also implies that, due to this dissimilarity of backgrounds and characters, there is nothing psychologically incestuous about their relationship. Indeed, Code 46 seems absolutely devoid of any Freudian overtones (or undertones), even thought it is ultimately about incest. Which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment, suggesting how fully & successfully the film has thought itself into its “postmodern” sensibility.
Of course, this has to do not only with the look and feel of the film, but also with the characters of the protagonists. I adore Samantha Morton, and this film is no exception. The camera dwells on her face in closeup, but her face is too alien for this to work in the traditional “feminine mystique” kind of way. She seems alien, abstracted, withdrawn, as if all her attention were turned inwards, except that this “inwards” is nothing that I could possibly recognize by analogy with my own sense of interiority. She isn’t “mysterious” at all, but just sort of not there… elsewhere? or not anywhere? If anybody embodies a “posthuman” affect, simultaneously cool and intense, it is she. Watching her is like being somehow induced to empathize with something that is entirely beyond my (emotional or intellectual) comprehension. There is nothing blank about her; the blankness I feel watching her on screen is entirely mine.
Robbins, on the other hand, I usually do not like, and again Code 46 is no exception. Unlike Morton, he is all too comprehensible. He seems fussy and a bit condescending, and I’m not convinced that this is all because of the character he is trying to play. It’s as if he doesn’t really fit into this film, or into the world of this film. But perhaps this is the point. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and Morton, despite the fact that we are supposed to see them as a doomed, tragic romantic couple. But this mismatching is not to the detriment of the film; it seems precisely right, for an emotional connection that isn’t “plausible,” and that isn’t explicable in terms of depth psychology, nor even in terms of unconscious kinship/similarity (nothing in the film makes them seem like siblings, any more than like amour fou lovers).
Not everything in Code 46 works; there are problems in terms of the plot, as well as in terms of certain aspects of the film’s world that are left overly vague. But the film does have an opacity, a kind of affectively charged resistance to the usual sorts of categorization, that I found powerful.
Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time was first published in 1927. Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality was first published in 1929. Two enormous philosophy books, almost exact contemporaries. Both responding to the situation (I’d rather not say crisis) of modernity, to the immensity of scientific and technological change, to the dissolution of old certainties, to the fast pace of life, to the massive reorganizations that followed the horrors of World War I. Both taking for granted the inexistence of foundations, not even yearning for them, or fixating on them as absent, but simply going on without concern over their absence. Both anti-essentialist, both anti-positivist, both working out new ways to think, to do philosophy, to exercise the faculty of wonder.
Yet how different these books are in concepts, in affect, in spirit (if I may use that word).
(I admit it: I am setting up an overdrawn, melodramatic confrontation, inspired no doubt by the recently released film Alien Vs. Predator, which I haven’t seen, as well as by the first episode of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” which I just watched on DVD).
I’ve long detested Heidegger, for a number of reasons. (Did I ever mention the academic conference where a militant Heideggerian, regarding me with the same scorn and disgust he would have shown if he had accidentally stepped into a pile of dog shit, told me with lofty condescension that my problem was that I was unwilling or unable to “patiently hearken to the voice of Being”?). Heidegger embodies for me, more than any other thinker in the Western tradition, what Nietzsche called the “spirit of gravity.” He’s heavy and morbid, without an ounce of humor or irony or even sense that we human beings are/have bodies. He picks up on the worst part of Nietzsche, the heavy-handed, pompous, self-obsessed, doom-laden, apocalyptic, romantic rhetoric — so stereotypically “Germanic” — of Zarathustra, but completely misses Nietzsche’s gaiety, sarcasm, “French” scepticism, and general sense of dancing over the abyss. I’ve never been able to decide which part of Heidegger is worse: the existential part, all about authenticity and resoluteness and the earth and the dwelling and being-towards-death (i.e. the Nazi side), or the ontological part, with its endless dissection of concepts by returning to their etymological roots, its walking on forest paths, its idiotic hatred of technology, its mythology of (capital-L) Language, its waiting and hearkening, its twisting of its own formulations into an endless process of self-confirmation through self-undoing (i.e. the deconstructionist side).
Whitehead is different. His language is dry, gray, and highly abstract. (Occasionally a joke shimmers through, but rarely; you have to work hard in order to make it to the jokes; and as soon as you’ve gotten one, it is on to something else). But in this degree-zero, “academic,” fussy and almost pedantic prose, Whitehead is continually saying the most astonishing things. His “coldness” (in a Deleuzian sense) or “coolness” (in a McLuhaneque sense) or “neutrality” (in a Blanchotian sense) is in fact the enabling condition of his discourse: it is what permits him the freedom to analyze, to construct, to reorient, to switch direction, to re-ignite the philosophic sense of “wonder” at every step. Whitehead’s style is a kind of strategic counter-investment: it allows him to step away from his own particular passions and interests, without thereby falling into the pretense of a universal, above-it-all, higher knowledge. It’s a kind of detachment that continues to insist upon that from which we have become detached: particulars, singularities, perspectives that are always incomplete and partial (in both senses of this word: partial as opposed to whole, but also partial in the sense of partiality or bias). There is no universal, transcendent point in Whitehead’s cosmos; there are only partialities. But each of these partialities “transcends” all the others.
The cliche objection to “relativism” has always been to point out that the statement “everything is relative” is itself an absolute one, so that any relativist necessarily contradicts him/herself. Of course this is a bogus objection: because the argument depends upon separating the assertion “everything is relative” from the contexts of its utterance, in order to turn it into a universal statement. Whitehead’s neutral style is precisely a way of pointing out how everything is relative, without turning this observation (or really, a potentially infinite series of observations) into a universal.
Whitehead’s philosophy is all about change, creativity, and the production of novelty. There are no entities in the universe according to Whitehead, but only events. Or rather, events (which he usually calls “occasions”) are themselves the only entities. These “occasions” are each of them radically new — each of them is something that never existed before — and indeed, it is only because of this perpetual creativity and novelty that we are even able to think in terms of a “before” and an “after,” of time passing and irreversible — and yet each of them is radically intertwined with, affected by and affecting in its own turn, everything else. Everything is singular, but nothing is isolated.
Whitehead doesn’t ask (as Heidegger does) “why is there something rather than nothing?” (which in itself, is the ultimately nihilistic question: since it is demanding a reason for existence itself, when it is only within existence, and from an existing standpoint, that questions of value and purpose make any sense), but rather: “how is it that there is always something new, rather than just the same old same-old?”. He doesn’t “hearken” to (genuflect before) Language, as Heidegger and his deconstructionist heirs are always doing, but rather notes language’s inadequacies alongside its unavoidability. He doesn’t yearn for a return before, or a leap beyond, metaphysics, but (much more subversively) just does metaphysics, inventing his own categories and working through his own problems, in order to make metaphysics speak what it has usually denied and rejected (the body, inconstancy and change, the relativeness of all perspectives and of all formulations). And he doesn’t “critique” the history of philosophy, but rather twists it in wonderfully ungainly ways, finding, for instance, arguments in Descartes that are themselves already the best response to Cartesian dualism, or anti-idealist moves in Plato.
Leibniz is the classical philosopher with whom Whitehead is most commonly compared. (Deleuze’s only extended discussion of Whitehead, for instance, takes place in a chapter of The Fold, his book on Leibniz); but there are ways in which Whitehead is actually more similar to Spinoza. More of this in a future posting.
Paul Feyerabend‘s Against Method (originally published in 1975) is another one of those books I have been meaning to read for years, but never got around to before now. Feyerabend (1924-1994) was a philosopher of science, famous (or notorious) for his “epistemological anarchism,” his insistence that “the only principle” that can be justified for scientific research is that “anything goes.” I’ve turned to him now, partly out of my interest in science studies, and partly because I’m supposed to give a talk in a few months at a symposium on “foundations and methods in the humanities,” a task I am finding difficult because I have no belief in foundations, and little use for methodologies.
Feyerabend critiques and rejects the attempt — by philosophers of science, primarily, but also by popular apologists for science, and sometimes by scientists themselves — to establish norms and criteria to govern the way science works, and to establish what practices and results are valid for scientific research. Feyerabend’s particular target is Karl Popper’s doctrine of “falsification,” but more generally he opposes any a priori attempt to legislate what can and cannot be done in science.
Feyerabend’s argument is partly “deconstructive” (by which I mean he showed how rationalist arguments were necessarily internally inconsistent and incoherent — though he does not seem to have much use for Derridean deconstruction as a philosophy), and partly historical and sociological. He argues that actual scientific practice did not, does not, and indeed cannot, make use of the rationalist norms that philosophers of science, and ideologists of science, have proclaimed. He analyzes Galileo’s defense of heliocentrism at great length, and shows that Galileo’s arguments were riddled with non sequiturs, loose analogies, ad hoc assumptions, self-contradictory and easily falsifiable assertions, rhetorical grandstanding, and so on. The point is not to undermine Galileo, or to assert that there are no grounds for choosing between seeing the earth and the sun as the center. Rather, Feyerabend wants to show that such (disreputable) strategies were strictly necessary; without them, Copernicus and Galileo never could have overthrown the earth-centered view, which had both the theoretical knowledge and the “common sense” of their time, as well as the authority of the Church, on their side. It was not a matter of a “more accurate” theory displacing a less accurate one; but rather, a radical shift of paradigms, one which could only be accomplished by violently disrupting both accepted truths and accepted procedures. It is only in the hundreds of years after Galileo convinced the world of the heliocentric theory, that the empirical evidence backing up the theory was generated and catalogued.
Feyerabend is drawing, of course, on Thomas Kuhn’s work on “paradigm shifts,” but he is pushing it in a much more radical direction than Kuhn would accept. Kuhn distinguishes between “normal science,” when generally accepted research programs and paradigms are in place, and rationalistic criteria do in fact function, and times of crisis, when paradigms break down under the weight of accumulating anomalies, thus forcing scientists to cast about for a new paradigm. For Feyerabend, however, there is no “normal science.” There was no crisis, or weight of anomalies, that forced Copernicus and then Galileo to cast about for a new astronomical paradigm; it would be more to the point to say that Galileo deliberately and artificially created a crisis, in order to undermine a paradigm that was generally accepted and that worked well, and put in its place a new paradigm that he supported more out of passion and intuition than out of anything like solid empirical evidence. Because “facts” are never independent of social contexts and theoretical assumptions, Galileo could not have provoked a shift in the theoretical assumptions of his time merely by appealing to what were understood then as the “facts.”
Such an argument was quite shocking in 1975. It has become much less so in the years since, as rhetorical theorists, sociologists, and others in “science studies” have studied in great depth the way science actually works, and have contested many other instances of (capital-S) Science and (capital-R) Reason on historical and sociological grounds.
There remains a subtle but important difference, however, between Feyerabend and more recent science studies historians and thinkers like Bruno Latour, Stephen Shapin, Steve Fuller, and many others. Feyerabend justifies his “epistemological anarchism” on the ground that it is necessary for the actual, successful practice of science, and indeed for the “progress” of science — though he explicitly refuses (page 18) to define what he means by “progress.” What this means is that Feyerabend opposes methodological norms and fixed principles of validation largely on pragmatic grounds : which I do not think is quite true of Latour et al. Where Latour sees a long process of negotiation, and a “settlement,” between Pasteur and the bacilli he was studying, Feyerabend doesn’t see Galileo (or Einstein, for that matter) in engaging in any such process vis-a-vis the earth, or the sun, or the universe. Instead, he sees them as blithely ignoring rules of evidence and of verification or falsification, in order to impose radically new perspectives (less upon the world than upon their own cultures). Galileo’s and Einstein’s justification is that their proposals indeed worked, and were accepted; this is what separates them from crackpots, though no criteria existed that could have assured these successes in advance.
What I don’t see enough of in contemporary science studies — though one finds it in Deleuze and Guattari, in Isabelle Stengers, and in the work of my friend Richard Doyle — is Feyerabend’s sense of the kinship between scientific and aesthetic creativity, in that both are engaged in creating the very criteria according to which they will be judged.
More generally, Feyerabend, like Latour and other more recent science studies thinkers, is deeply concerned with democracy, and with the way that the imperialism of Big Science threatens democracy by trying to decree that its Way is the Only Way. Indeed, one probably sees more of this threat today — in the “science wars” that reached a flash point in the mid 1990s, but that are still smouldering, in the popularization of science, and in the pronouncements of biologists like Richard Dawkins and Edward O. Wilson, and physicists like Steven Weinberg and Alan Sokal — than one did when Feyerabend was writing Against Method. But Feyerabend wisely refuses to get lost (as I fear Latour does at times) in the attempt to propose an alternative “settlement” or “constitution” to the one that Big Science has proclaimed for itself. Feyerabend’s genial anarchism, pluralism, and “relativism” (a term he accepts, but only in certain carefully outlined contexts) simply precludes the need for any single alternative account, such as the one Latour struggles to provide. Finally, for Feyerabend, there is no such thing as Science; we should rather speak of the sciences, as a multitude of often conflicting and contradictory practices, none of which can pretend to ultimate authority, and all of which have to be judged and dealt with according to a range of needs, interests, and contexts.
Pluralism is often derided as wishy-washy, wimpy, “soft,” unwilling to take a stand. None of this is true of Feyerabend’s pluralism, though I am not sure how much of his exemption from such charges is due to the rigor of his arguments, and how much to the charm of his rhetorical style — he’s an engaging, inviting, and unaffected writer, able to be clear and focused without becoming simplistic, and able to argue complexly without becoming abstruse. Of course, the attempt to separate logical rigor from stylistic effects is precisely the sort of pseudo-rational distinction that Feyerabend is continually warning us against.
Jim Carrey doesn’t really cover any new ground in Bruce Almighty (2003), but the film reaffirms the comedic genius that was his in the first place. The film marks Carrey’s return to the bread-and-butter that originally made him famous, in contrast to his more “serious” efforts to extend his acting range (which efforts have varied from the dismal —The Majestic — to the utterly sublime — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
Given divine powers, Carrey’s character Bruce (a disgruntled TV news reporter) goes off on a power binge whose utter narcissism is only matched by its infantile pettiness and lack of imagination. Unable to conceive the divine decadence of a Nero, Caligula, or Heliogabalus, Bruce contents himself with driving a new sports car, parting the Red Sea (a la Cecil B. DeMille) in a plate of tomato soup, and getting revenge by pulling a monkey out of a bully’s ass and causing his newsroom rival to babble as if he had breathed in a tankful of helium. Never has self-indulgence been so lacking in grandiosity. Bruce doesn’t have the manic energy of Ace Ventura; but like Ace and so many other Carrey characters, he is driven by an unconscious whose sole contents seem to be fifty years of television. No wonder the urges that roil in his raging id are nothing more than cheap special effects and lame one-liners. Above all, Bruce is characterized — like so many other Carrey personae — by a cringe-worthy need to ingratiate himself with everyone, and especially with his stereotypically whiny and long-suffering girlfriend (a role played, appropriately enough, by the sitcom queen herself, Jennifer Aniston).
I suppose my remarks are sufficiently snide that they could be read, in Adornoesque fashion, as a critique of the terminal mediocrity of American popular culture (a culture that is basically televisual, even when it is being enacted in the movies). But I don’t mean it that way at all. There is nothing mediocre about Jim Carrey. If you ignore the sappy moralizing and self-congratulatory complacency in which Bruce Almighty is wrapped, and focus just on Carrey’s physical and verbal performance, you will find it (as always, when he does comedy) utterly astonishing. It’s a miracle of embodiment. Every grimace, every twitch, every inflection, every pause conveys the predicament of the character — his narcissism without a self to be narcissistic about, his desire for recognition by others without any sense of otherness to pin that desire onto, the utter saturation of his inner experience by bland, public generalities: in short, the predicament of the quintessential postmodern “man without qualities” — every grimace, twitch, inflection, and pause of Carrey’s incarnates this predicament with energy, grace, intensity, and precision: so that nothing could be more profound and singular than the utter absence of depth and singularity that Carrey is depicting.
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (Blake).
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is a beautiful film, so languidly quotidian, and yet so dreamily gorgeous, that its utter naturalism verges on the surreal. It’s about an ordinary day at a suburban high-school; the day’s everyday banality is not so much disrupted as continued by the Columbine-style massacre with which the film concludes. The camera floats from student to student, with long tracking shots following one or another kid down the hallways or across the grass, looping backwards and forwards in time so that the same events are captured several times from several viewpoints. Van Sant (or his camera) is clearly in love with these boys (and to a much lesser extent, girls), but in a relaxed way: without any of the voyeuristic smarminess of a Larry Clark. The film is about teenage awkwardness and grace (which coexist in all the characters, in different proportions), and it is wonderfully attentive to the life of the body, to bodies in motion, with their microscopic habits and routines and glitches and disruptions, their momentary tropisms and encounters.
The film is, for the most part, devoid of moralization about the killers. It emphatically refuses to condemn the supposed disinterest, or pomo affectlessness, of today’s youth; if anything, Elephant is about the emotional richness, in its very confusion and unclarity, of this supposed affectlessness.
Elephant‘s only false step is a scene in which the two teenage boys who shoot up the school receive guns, ordered on the Net, via UPS, while a fatuous documentary about Hitler plays on a disregarded television. The scene is not presented as an explicit explanation or motivation, but it’s the one place where lazy stereotypes replaces the film’s otherwise passionate investment in quotidian detail, in how the characters live moment to moment.
Much more interestingly, Elephant hints that internalized homophobia is involved in the genesis of the violence (a theme that is explored more fully in Dennis Cooper’s equally beautiful, though far more oblique, “Columbine” novel My Loose Thread, which is the only work I am aware of in any genre that bears comparison to this film).
David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is filled with interesting and provocative ideas. Graeber wants to ally the discipline of anthropology with the anarchist currents that have shown up, most recently, in the anti-globalization movement. Each, he says, has a lot to offer the other.
What anarchism can offer anthropology, according to Graeber, is a way out of academicist impasses, a way that anthropology might change the world, rather than merely interpret it (to use a Marxian formulation to which Graeber might well be averse; here he soft-pedals the Marxist slant that was more apparent in his previous — and more traditionally academic — book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value). This is the most upfront side of the book, but also its least convincing one. For I fear that here Graeber overly idealizes academia, and the discipline of anthropology in particular. Despite all his rote Foucault-bashing, and sneering at mainstream academics as “people who like to think of themselves as political radicals even though all they do is write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other people in an institutional environment” (71), he in fact buys into the authority of normative academic “knowledge” much more than I think is necessary or justified. Most obviously, this is apparent in the fact that Graeber never questions the interests and biases of “downwardly-studying” ethnographic researchers or participant-observers themselves. Graeber’s claim that anthropology has had “an affinity to anarchism from the very beginning”, because of anthropology’s “keen awareness of the very range of human possibilities” (13) is disingenuous at best, given the tangled nature of anthropology’s origins (as both an expression of and revolt against European colonialism), not to mention its institutional investments today. It’s not that Graeber doesn’t know that “the discipline we know today was made possible by horrific schemes of conquest, colonization, and mass murder” (96); but he seems to think that the “vast archive of human experience” possessed by anthropologists is uninflected by these origins, and only needs to be shared more publically in order to be efficacious.
Graeber is far more interesting when he writes about what anthropology can offer anarchism: a wider range of both social theory and observation of social practices than is available in orthodox Western theory and philosophy alone. Graeber discusses Marcel Mauss’ theory of the gift as an alternative to orthodox economic assumptions about the centrality of markets and “exchange”, and Pierre Clastres’ arguments about societies that explicitly sought to avoid the formation of a State. He cites numerous anthropological examples of social formations that have not taken on the form of State authority, or that have existed in the interstices of States and that have “autonomized” themselves or exempted themselves from its control. He suggests ways that we can dispense with the myth of “revolution” as some ultimate and complete rupture with the past, without thereby resigning ourselves to what hardcore Marxists used to disparage as mere “reformism.” And, paralleling arguments that I am more familiar with in other fields (given my limited knowledge of anthropology), he critiques the common assumption that “modernity” itself represents a radical break from all the rest of human history. And I haven’t even scratched the surface here of the wide range of Graeber’s historical examples and theoretical suggestions.
Graeber’s ideas are rich and wide-ranging; he pushes us to expand the boundaries of what we admit to be possible, or even thinkable. It’s very much the exhilarating spirit of May 1968: be realistic, demand the impossible; though Graeber rightly does not couch his exhortations in the form of an appeal to return to the 1960s, or to any other mythologized past of radical political hope. There is, thankfully, no nostalgia, and no call to order, or reverencing of past political models, in this book.
The main problem I have with Graeber’s argument is this. Graeber’s emphasis on the State as the enemy misconstrues, I believe, the role of the “market,” and of concentrations of capital. Like many other anarchists, Graeber is all too ready to see “free market” capitalism, commodification and consumption, and the wage system itself — all of which he denounces — as being adjuncts and epiphenomena of State power. This seems to me to be exactly wrong. While capitalist markets, the wage system, the private ownership of the means of production, the ever-increasing “branding” and commodification and corporate appropriation of all forms of human creativity and activity, and so on, of course could not sustain themselves without relying upon State power, and more generally without exerting and monopolizing power in the political realm, this does not make them functions of State power. It does not follow that State power comes first, either pragmatically or ideologically. Rather the reverse. Marxist political economy, and Foucaultian analytics of power, different as they are from one another, both view State power as an effect and an instrument of social, political, technological, and economic power relations, rather than as the source, or the most basic component, of those relations.
I am not arguing for a monocausal theory (like the so-called “vulgar-marxist” one that would reduce everything to an ultimate economic “base”); and I don’t think that Graeber, in his focus on the State, is monocausally reductionist either. (He mentions, among other things, the differences between the State as an ideal, and the actual ways that peoples’ lives are controlled and constrained, and points out that these two need not correspond). But I do think the difference in emphasis is crucial. For one thing, Graeber’s overestimation of the importance of the State leads him to underestimate other (non-state) impediments to freedom. How successful can “self-organization” be, today, in the absence of any economic resources? Graeber adopts the Italian autonomists’ ideas about “exodus” and “engaged withdrawal” from “capitalism and the liberal state” (60ff), but he ignores, again, the autonomists’ grounding in political economy. There are a lot of things worse than the “liberal state.” So-called “free enterprise,” for one thing. The dismantling of the welfare state in the US and other Western countries over the last quarter-century has not led to more opportunities for self-organization and empowerment, but less. States have increasingly withdrawn from what Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism,” but the people unfortunate enough to be stuck in those black holes are still subject to the terror of the “free market,” and what Marxists used to call “the international division of labor.”
When Graeber really lost me, though, was with his praise of decision-making through “consensus,” instead of compulsion. Me, I don’t see much of a difference between having to obey hateful and stupid orders issued by clueless assholes (the Leninist model as well as the State and corporate one), and having to sit in meetings for hours on end while the same clueless assholes make endless objections and qualifications that all have to be worked through before the meeting can come to an end. It’s torture either way, and I’m not convinced that the one method is even any more “democratic” than the other. Anarchist “consensus” is just another way of enforcing conformity and group solidarity, by wearing people down until they are browbeaten into agreement; it’s every bit as stifling and oppressive as military hierarchies and fraternity initiations and the “discipline” of the “free market” are. Empirically, different mixtures of these procedures might be more or less oppressive, less or more democratic, in particular instances; there are cases where the looser form of self-determination that Graeber praises might be welcome in comparison to the alternatives. But let’s not kid ourselves that decision-making through “consensus” somehow eliminates inequalities of power, or that it expands human freedom, or that it’s a desirable social ideal.