Archive for September, 2004

Michael Moore

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Michael Moore.jpg

Michael Moore spoke to a crowd of 4000 or so on the Wayne State University campus this afternoon. His theme: we need to defeat Bush on November 2nd. He spoke for an hour. I’m too cynical to take any political speech (even when, as with this one, it is for a cause I totally agree with) at face value; but I can say that Moore is a brilliant showman and rhetorician, superb at moving a crowd with a mix of indignation, jokes, and banter. He probably mentioned Kerry less than ten times in the entire course of the speech; which was just as well, given Kerry’s extreme lameness; but also appropriate, given that his theme was, not that Kerry is great, but that we have to vote for him anyway, because it’s the only way to get rid of Bush. The talk was not without self-aggrandizement (he made a big point of encouraging screenings of Fahrenheit 9/11, whether via DVD (it comes out next week) or — to his credit — via bootlegs. But all in all, Moore’s performance was a superb piece of propaganda (a word I am using neutrally and descriptively, not critically: we need this sort of propaganda if we are ever to put an end to Bush’s reign of terror), albeit one that was devoted to rallying the troops rather than to convincing the undecided.

Moore exhorted everyone not to believe the polls, and not to give in to pessimism. Because pessimism leads to demoralization, and thence to not bothering to vote. Though I definitely will go to my local polling place and cast an unenthusiastic vote for Kerry, I remain extremely pessimistic. Kerry still hasn’t put together any sort of effective campaign; he still doesn’t seem quite to understand what sort of vicious game the Bushies are playing. (Or maybe he does know, but is just too lame to make any sort of effective rejoinder. I guess we will see what happens in the debates, starting tomorrow). Even taking the polls with a grain of salt, it does look like Kerry is slipping badly in many of the crucial swing states, failing to mobilize support in places like Ohio, and needing to divert precious resources just to hold on to states like Michigan (where I now live), Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, which he ought to be able to take easily. The only scenario I can see in which Kerry wins is if large numbers of people who have never voted before are angry and upset enough to come out and vote for him this time. I’m not betting on it.

La Habanera

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

La Habanera (1937) was the last film Douglas Sirk made for the Nazis, before he fled Germany in 1938. It stars Zarah Leander, the Nazis’ answer to Garbo and Dietrich.

The film is, of course, a melodrama. Leander’s character, a Swede vacationing in Puerto Rico, is charmed by the romance of the tropics and swept off her feet by the romantic local landowner. She jumps ship, stays in Puerto Rico and marries the landowner. Cut to ten years later; she is miserable, and dreams only of returning to Sweden. But her husband, revealed as a corrupt dictator and a jealous sadist, won’t let her take their son away with her if she leaves. Meanwhile, an old flame of hers, a doctor back in Stockholm, comes to the island with the double aim of rescuing her and finding a cure for the mysterious “Puerto Rico fever” that kills hundreds yearly. You can imagine where this is going. The picture ends “happily,” with the landowner himself dying of the fever that he didn’t want cured, and Leander returning home with the dashing doctor.

The film works as Nazi propaganda, since the bad guys are associated with US-style capitalism, and since the Aryan woman is recalled from the dirty tropics to her pure and proper racial roots at the end. Still, there are many signs of Sirk’s irony, undercutting the official ideology of the film in much the same way that irony worked against the overt messages in Sirk’s 50s Hollywood melodramas. (By applying the same doubling strategies to the films he made for Goebbels as to those he later made for Ross Hunter, Sirk in effect validates Theodor Adorno’s gloomy observations on the similarities between out-and-out fascism and the ultra-commodified “administered society” liberal democracies were more and more turning into; though Sirk of course has a lighter touch, and an empathy with the characters whom he depicts as subject to these constraints; Sirk is utterly free of Adorno’s elitist disdain and condescension for anything even remotely popular).

For one thing, Sirk’s irony is evident in the ways that he makes the heated tropics seem appealing; so that when Leander is about to return to Sweden at the end of the film, she seems to be more regretful than anything else at the prospect of leaving the island. The use of the title song, “La Habanera,” as a leitmotif throughout the film, sustains the mood of fantasy and romantic regret (both of which would be utterly repressed in the Aryan homeland). At one point, Leander sings this song, wearing sort-of ‘native garb,’ in a hypnotic performance, with the camera lovingly dwelling on her face in a moment that nearly attains a von Sternberg/Dietrich level of camp hysteria.

But the greatest scenes in the film are those betweeen Leander and her nine-year-old son, who comes out as a perfect, idealized specimen of blond Aryan youth (despite the swarthiness of his father). The child is an utter mama’s boy, who yearns desperately for the Sweden he has never been to, playing with a sleigh and dreaming of the snow he has never seen. Leander sings several duets with him, all about snow and winter and longing for the homeland: these scenes are cloying, static, suffocatingly oedipal, and gorgeously designed in exquisite contrasts of extreme light and dark, black and white. These scenes are as over-the-top delirious as anything Sirk later did in Magnificent Obsession or Written on the Wind; they theatricalize and estrange the film’s ostensible ideology in ways that were presumably not available to the original audience, but which seem glaring in retrospect.

Unknown Pleasures

Sunday, September 26th, 2004

Jia Zhang Ke’s Unknown Pleasures drifts entropically as it chronicles the desultory, unfulfilled lives of young people in a Chinese provincial backwater. Long shots, long takes, natural lighting, flat affect, disjunctive edits, and elliptical narration have almost become cliches of a certain sort of international art cinema. But here, as in his earlier, and equally remarkable Xiao Wu — I still haven’t seen Platform, said to be the best of his films — Jia makes the style really work: not only does it mirror the anomie and hopelessness of the characters (form matching content), but it also performs a subtle yet incisive political critique.

In trading Maoism for capitalism, Jia suggests, China has merely substituted one form of tyranny with another. Instead of the totalitarian frenzy of mass mobilization, contemporary China in Jia’s eyes now offers only random drift and impoverished imaginings; gangsterism and currying favor with the bureaucracy are sometimes capriciously rewarded, but most people find themselves doomed to passivity and empty consumption, even if they are lucky enough not to be victims of social predation. Jia’s style establishes and embodies the topography of such a world.

In one telling moment of Unknown Pleasures, one of the protagonists describes to his girlfriend the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, which he has seen on video, and which for him only signifies the distant allure of a glamor he can never hope to attain. The point is precisely that we never get to see anything like Pulp Fiction in the actual world of Unknown Pleasures. Even when the protagonists plan a bank robbery, there is nothing exuberant or crazy or Tarantinoesquely tongue-in-cheek about it; instead, it just goes stupidly and humiliatingly awry. By the end of the film, the characters have nothing left to lose; but they certainly don’t experience their situation as any sort of freedom or release. Instead, they are trapped in a world in which only money talks, even if there isn’t much that money can buy.

Eileen Gunn, Stable Strategies and Others

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004

Eileen Gunn is a writers’ writer; highly esteemed in the science fiction community, but not as well-known as she ought to be outside it. Hopefully the publication of her first-ever book, a collection of her short stories, Stable Strategies and Others will change that.
Gunn’s stories are witty, oblique, subtly uncanny, and surprising in the ways that they continually shift perspectives and perceptions. Aside from that it’s difficult to characterize them, as they are all quite different from one another.
As a longtime Nixonologist, my favorite story here is “Fellow Americans.” This story slyly imagines an alternative history in which Richard Nixon quits politics after his losses for the Presidency in 1960, and for Governor of California in 1962, and instead finds inner peace and fulfillment in the New Hollywood as a TV game show host. The image of the “greening” of Nixon is hilarious — he even takes LSD! — but behind this the story says a lot about the 1960s, and the hidden links between America’s official culture, its so-called counterculture, and the way the media embrace everything: so that we are not so much a “society of the spectacle” as one in which spectacle is tamed and cut down to size: events are captured, homogenized, and shrunk down to fit the small screen.
Every American fiction writer ought to write about Nixon: his story is as basic for our culture as the Oedipus myth and the Trojan War were for the culture of ancient Greece. But thus far, not enough writers have done so. Gunn joins a small select group whose members also include Philip Roth (Our Gang) , Robert Coover (The Public Burning) and Mark Maxwell (Nixoncarver).
Elsewhere in the volume, “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is a radical postmodern reworking of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” When the narrator is bioengineered into an insect, she doesn’t spend all her time in bed, filled with impotent self-loathing, like Gregor Samsa; rather, she thinks positive and seizes the opportunity — as business gurus like Tom Peters are always exhorting us to do — using her new bodily endowment to work her way up the corporate ladder.
“Nirvana High” (co-written with Leslie What) takes an opposite, but strangely complementary tack, as it imagines how the “loser” culture of Seattle grunge is equally a constituent part of America’s strangely self-deluding image of itself. In a world where Microsoft owns everything, Cobain High is a special high school for paranormals, juvenile delinquents, and other deviant teen sensibilities. Even youthful disaffection and dysfunction has its proper place in the entertainment complex.
My favorite passage in the entire book comes from “Nirvana High”; it’s a gloss on the phrase “Entertain us” (originally from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” of course):

It meant one thing to the teachers, another to the students. To the teachers it meant “pay attention.” To the students it meant “stop whatever you’re doing that’s interesting and do what we want you to do.” To Kurt Cobain, of course, it had meant “stick a shotgun in your mouth.”

All the stories in Stable Strategies and Others are rewarding. Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, their subjects range from alien contact (an old SF staple, dealt with movingly in “Contact”, and with hilarious sleaziness in “What Are Friends For?”) to self-reflexive revisionism (as in the collectively authored “Green Fire,” where a young Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein find themselves drawn into a real-life Golden Age SF adventure).
Like all the best SF, Gunn’s stories don’t so much predict the future as they make visible the otherwise hidden deep currents of our present.


Saturday, September 18th, 2004

Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, the new book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is their sequel to their justly famous Empire.
Hardt and Negri are important thinkers — as I’ve said before, more than once — because they are thinking seriously and profoundly about how to renew marxism and the left in our current age of post-Cold War globalization.
Multitude isn’t quite as rich and surprising a book as Empire: but that was inevitable, both because it consolidates and restates what we already learned from Empire, and because it endeavors to be more immediate, more pragmatic than the earlier book.
Empire argued that globalization, and the end of the Cold War, had led to a new form of capitalist domination, one that differed in substantial ways from those of industrialization, colonialism, and imperialism. While transnational corporations, electronic communications and computing technologies, and a world market whose expansion is no longer checked or resisted by so-called “socialism”, have not ameliorated conditions for the enormous number of people around the world who live in poverty, they have certainly changed the rules of the game, the way power is exercised, the way economic and political structures are organized, and therefore the ways it might be possible to resist, and to change things. Hardt and Negri take for granted that we live in a “network society,” in which nation-states no longer exercise sovereign power to the extent they once did, and in which the fluidity of capital has eroded the welfare state and the status of the traditional working class. Their endeavor was to rethink marxist theory in such circumstances; they rejected both the orthodoxy that would cling to traditional marxist categories (like the proletariat and the vanguard party) regardless of changed circumstances, and the “post-marxists” who would throw out the baby along with the bathwater, arguing for a tepid reformism on the grounds that recent developments had made radical change henceforth impossible. Hardt and Negri instead argued, optimisitically, that in dissolving traditional categories of nationality, in “informatizing” everything, and in uniting points and processes around the world, globalized capitalism had in fact created new conditions for its own overthrow. Instead of opposing “globalization” for basically conservative and nationalistic reasons, they advocated a sort of hyper-globalization,one that actually fulfills the promises falsely offered to the people of the world by the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank.
In Multitude, Hardt and Negri flesh out this picture, by expanding on the possibilities for resistance and change, and by more explicitly linking their own philosophical project with recent radical activism (from the Seattle and Genoa protests to the Zapatistas). They define the “multitude” (which is their replacement for such defunct groupings as “the people” and the “proletariat”) as a collection of “singularities” who discover what they have in common, but without fusing into some sort of sovereign unity, the way “the people” and the “proletariat” were once supposed to do. This idea of the “common,” as that which brings together groups that remain different and disparate, is the link between Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomatic” logic of singularities and connections, on the one hand, and the actual practices of coalitions and affinity groups in the worldwide “anti-globalization” movement today, on the other. Hardt and Negri argue that the informatization and networking of everything leads to a greater production of the common than ever before: precisely because all social and economic production today is networked, leading to the “common nature of creative social activity” (132), and because of the increasing importance of “immaterial labor,” meaning work that produces “ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images, and other such products,” on the one hand, and emotions and relationships on the other (108). It is not that industrial work in factories is disappearing, but that such work itself is increasingly permeated by “immaterial labor” and “affective labor.”
What this means, ultimately, is that all of social reality — and not just some economic “base” — is being produced collaboratively, and in common. Traditional notions of private property are evidently nonsensical when applied to immaterial (and digitally reproducible) goods, like pop songs and software and the genomes of crops (which is why the attempts by media companies to enforce their copyright increasingly appear absurd and surreal). But even more conventionally physical goods, like automobiles and food, are now as much the products of collective knowledge (information technologies) as they are of the manipulation of raw materials; and they tend to be marketed at least as much for their affective qualities as for their pragmatic uses. There is no longer an economic sphere (what marxists traditionally called the “base”) separate from the spheres of culture, leisure, etc (the old marxist “superstructure”); rather, everything is cast into the same web and network.
More conventional Marxists see this situation (the loss of superstructural “autonomy”) as a dystopian nightmare. For Hardt and Negri, however, the increasing production of the common means that there is a more powerful basis for radical democracy and equality today than ever before in human history. Capitalism works by expropriating what human labor produces; in globalized “late capitalism” this means that capitalism expropriates everything, not just economic goods but cultural and affective life as well. But for Hardt and Negri, this means that the revolutionary reappropriation, by the multitude, of what it creates, can be equally all-embracing.
This basic thesis is backed up by a wealth of detail: not by those dubiously valid social science statistics, of course, but by considerations both philosophical and practical. Hardt and Negri write at great length about the structure (and lack of accountability) of supernational organizations like the IMF, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organizations), about the sorts of demands that global protest movements have been making, and about the problems involved in “scaling up” from democracy on a national scale (as in the United States, not as it actually does work, but as it is supposed to work according to the Constitution) to a global scale. They don’t claim to give a blueprint of “what is to be done,” but they try to work out the philosophical basis upon which a global truer democracy could function.
Basically, Hardt and Negri call for a massive act of imagination and reinvention — something that cannot be done by theorists, but that has to be thrashed out in the course of actual social and political practices of escape and transformation — and suggest the ways that concrete movements of reform can themselves help lead to these more radical outcomes (in rejection of the old marxist opposition between “reform” and “revolution”). They say that such radical reinvention is possible and thinkable, because its basis is already present in the world today, in our networks and information technologies, and in the extraordinary creativity of the poor, the disenfranchised, and migrants and immigrants, worldwide.
I find myself half persuaded by Hardt and Negri’s arguments. Their vision of multiple singularities, and of the production of a “common” which is yet not a fusion or a unity, is the best way I have come across for thinking about what is often regarded negatively as postmodern “fragmentation”, or as the death of “grand narratives” (Lyotard). This seems to me to be crucial understanding of the world we live in today: there’s nothing worse than when people on the left, as well as the right, call for some return to the “good old days” that never existed in the first place, and regard the present only as a case of woeful decline.
On the other hand, I think that Hardt and Negri’s willful optimism causes them to underestimate the difficulties of the endeavor they are calling for. Especially in the context of our post-9/11 state of eternal war (which they discuss in the first third of the book), I think that Bush and Osama, between them, would destroy the world before they would allow any flourishing of the multitude to take place.
There’s a wonderful passage in Multitude (190ff) where Hardt and Negri write of the way that political philosophy has traditionally seen the nation or the society as a body: Hobbes’ Leviathan is only the most famous use of this more-than-metaphor. The multitude, they say, can in this context only be seen as something monstrous, a disorganized agglomeration of flesh, since it rejects the sovereignty of the head over the other organs that is the central concern of Hobbes’ model (and that of all too many later political thinkers as well). Capital works, in the terms Hardt and Negri implicitly borrow from Deleuze, by separating the body politic from what it can do. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the multitude is a body without organs; it expresses its potentialities to the fullest by rejecting the restrictions imposed by the hierarchical organization of the organs.
While I find this image compelling, I can’t help being haunted by its inversion. In my picture, capital itself is the monstrous flesh, the body without organs, that we the multitude are forced to inhabit. This flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. But in our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, we don’t own it, or hold it in common. Rather we scurry about, in its folds and convolutions, like lice or fleas; or at best, we reprogram its code here and there, just a little bit, like viruses. It oppresses us, but we are stuck; we hate it, but we can’t live without it. Can we transform this parasitic, shadowy state of being into a form of resistance?

The Skinner

Tuesday, September 14th, 2004

The characters and plot of Neal Asher’s SF novel The Skinner didn’t do much for me; but the setting was amazing.
The Skinner takes place on the world of Spatterjay, which has an utterly ferocious ecology. Spatterjay is mostly sea; on the very first page we are introduced to “vicious plankton — which would make the experience of swimming for a human akin to bathing in ground glass”; and things go on from there. Asher takes great delight in imagining surpassingly feral and vicious forms of invertebrate life: mostly arthropods, molluscs, and annelids. As these creatures prey upon one another, Darwinian “survival of the fittest” goes into absurd hyperdrive. The result is a nightmarish cycle of devourers devoured in their own turn, without end.
At the top of the food chain are leeches (both in the sea, and on the sparse islands where people live) that grow to the size of sharks or whales, taking big bites of flesh out of their victims, or even swallowing them whole. But there’s more: if the leeches don’t kill their victims outright, they infect them with a virus that, in effect, renders those victims immortal: or at least the prey become so resilient, and able to repair injury, that they generally live on, providing yet more food for the leeches over the course of their extended lifetimes. This gives an exceedingly nasty twist to Nietzsche’s maxim that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
The virus is also mutagenic; under circumstances of extended stress, it reprograms the DNA of the infected organism, making it more leechlike. This happens to human victims, as well as to other organisms. Viral proliferation, pointing towards a future in which the leech genome monopolizes the entire biosphere… It’s a nightmare beyond anything William Burroughs imagined…
Unfortunately, nothing else in the book matches this astonishing ecology. Even the human villains, sadistic nazis that they are, are dwarfed by the fantastic flashes of the novel’s background.

Time of the Wolf

Saturday, September 4th, 2004

Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf is a powerful film, and a thought-provoking one. Haneke’s films have always been about imagining the worst — or close to it — and savagely dissecting the pretensions and hypocrisies of bourgeois life. But Time of the Wolfmoves in something of a different register than Benny’s Video or Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. The view is more detached and contemplative, though this certainly doesn’t mean it is more optimistic or hopeful.
Some sort of (unspecified) catastrophe has emptied the cities, poisoned the water and food supply, and left people to wander nomadically about the countryside, or to gather wherever shelter can be found. Many wait by the railroad tracks, hoping for redemption or rescue in the form of a train that never comes.
Haneke’s brilliance comes in the film’s everydayness. Time of the Wolf doesn’t depict the descent into utter savagery that you might expect. Yes, people are murdered for no reason, and some ugly squabbles develop; but on the whole, the film is as far from the extremes of dystopia as it is from the idyllic. People form groups, and these groups have hierarchies and power relations, and bigotry and sexism rear their heads; but for the most part, everyone gets by and has enough to eat, and there are instances of compassion as well as greed, and quarrels are usually resolved without violence. Conditions are unpleasant, but they are still, largely, livable.
By frustrating our melodramatic, dystopian expectations, and instead instilling in us a sense of the routinization of misery, the everydayness of discomfort and deprivation, Haneke makes a film that in retrospect is far more disturbing than a facile Lord of the Flies expose of human beings’ innate savagery would ever be. Civilization hasn’t collapsed in Time of the Wolf ; what we get instead is a social order without the comforts that privileged people have in our own, but with much the same blend of obedience, complicity, half-assed conformity, half-assed rebellion, smugness, and despair.