Archive for November, 2004

Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 25th, 2004

For the first time in my life, I am not celebrating — more accurately, I am not participating in — Thanksgiving. This is because I am out of the country, breathing the air of freedom (or at least of freedom-from-Bush) in Montreal. Canadian Thanksgiving is a completely different holiday, and it happened over a month ago in any case.
On the whole, I’m happy to be here. Though I miss my daughter, I miss the food (cranberry sauce especially), and I miss the opportunity to perform my own yearly Thanksgiving counter-ritual, which is to play my recording of William Burroughs reciting his Thanksgiving Prayer.

Primer

Thursday, November 18th, 2004

I’m not sure how much I can write about Shane Carruth’s Primer, since (like most viewers, apparently) I am unable to give a coherent summary of its plot after having seen it once. But not understanding the plot scarcely seems to matter. The film is dense, elliptical, and powerfully involving, and I doubt a point-by-point explanation of “what happens” would make much of a difference, in terms of its impact.

Primer is about two engineers, working in a garage in an anonymous suburb somewhere in the Sunbelt (the film was shot in the environs of Dallas), who stumble upon an amazing invention. They are really just tinkering, with no particular goal in mind aside from the vague hope of coming up with something that will make them money. But it turns out that they have devised a time travel machine: it looks sort of like a strongbox or a coffin, but if they crawl inside and stay for, say, six hours or so, when they emerge it’s twelve hours or so earlier than when they entered, so they have an entire day to live all over again.

Primer is intellectual SF, exploring its premise with no bells and whistles. The film contains no special effects: most of it is just naturalistic shots of the two engineers talking or arguing, without dramatic entrances or exits, and without any of the “action” actually happening onscreen. The time-travel devices themselves are nothing, really, to look at. Just as the protagonists only gradually infer what they have discovered, so we only gradually get a sense of what they are doing, and what the stakes are. There’s kind of a drift, and then an acceleration into paranoid complications and cross-purposes, but it’s all conveyed through a murk of low-affect, casual conversation, technospeak, offhand private allusions, elliptical cuts, and occasional anomalies that the characters themselves are unable to explain. The film is often overexposed, bleached out by the Texas sun; the mise-en-scene is cluttered and yet utterly mundane; the camerawork seems straightforward and documentary-like, but nonetheless it has a strangely alienated, claustrophobic feel (I have no idea how, technically speaking, Carruth attained this).

So: we have these two guys messing with time. At first, they do simple things like finding out the stock prices in the afternoon, then going back to the morning to buy/sell accordingly. (This is just reported to us through conversation, not shown onscreen). But gradually, they start messing with time in more complex ways. And in film terms, messing with time means messing with continuity. If you live through a day, then in the evening go back to the morning and live it again, there is no way to present this linearly (since subjective time and objective time are now out of sync: if you portray/represent either one, you cannot portray/represent the other in proper succession). Worse, it means there are now two of you around instead of one: what if you meet your other self, or if other people interact with the two of you in inconsistent ways? What if you multiply the effect by doing this more than once? What if you put a time machine inside a larger time machine, sending it back in time and in effect multiplying it as well? What if you record your conversations, and listen to them through an earpiece so that you can replicate them the second time around? All of these things happen in the second half of Primer. Time travel implies a logic of feedback and recursion, and this logic seeps into the form of the film (as well as its content, since in such a case the form is the content), and everything is swamped in a sort of fractal paranoia.

The film’s achievement is to make all this as visceral and affective as it is cerebral: by the end, we don’t quite know what’s going on, but we are drawn powerfully and disturbingly into the labyrinth. Primer unfolds with a suffocating, mysterious density — or better, viscosity. The film takes seriously the idea that engineering, or technical experimentation, is a form of imagination. Technology is a probe into the unknown: those things that we often think of just as “tools” or “instruments,” or at best as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, in fact redound back upon us, and change who/what we are. Primer proposes that the mysteries of technology, as well as those of representation, are ultimately the mysteries of Time itself. Carruth’s strange amalgam of McLuhan and Borges stands alongside such films as Code 46 and Demonlover as a brilliant exploration of the metamorphoses of the postmodern image.

DJ Spooky

Thursday, November 11th, 2004

Spooky.jpg

I heard an excellent lecture/demonstration tonight by Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. It was a heady evening of intellectual, visual and sonic montage. There was text from Miller’s book Rhythm Science and citations of postmodern thinkers and writers from Derrida to William Gibson, together with sound collages combining everything from Public Enemy to Miles Davis to Pierre Boulez, and video clips ranging from 1950s TV ads that featured electronic music to excerpts from Miller’s multimedia remix/deconstruction of Birth of a Nation.

Miller/Spooky is an important artist, both because of the sheer vitality of his sampled/remixed sounds, and because he so thoroughly registers and reflects upon what it means to live in our 21st century network culture. Miller speaks to and for a world in which everything is hybrid, everything is continually being transformed and “remediated” — but also everything is instantly commodified and branded, reduced to an identifiable and marketable tag. He reminds us that we are constantly being bathed — literally as well as metaphorically — in sound waves and electromagnetic waves of all conceivable frequencies, carrying messages intentional or not, and whether we are aware of all these messages or not. Miller plays with all these messages, both ironically and seriously, and encourages us to play with them in turn.

Everything is a sample, everything is waiting to be sampled; and everything is renewed when it is sampled, broken down, reconstructed and recontextualized. If architecture is, as they say, frozen music, then — Miller says — music is liquid architecture. Music fills and reconfigures space, puts it into motion. All that is solid melts into software — actually, into free software or shareware. I found Paul Miller’s lecture exhilarating, as it envisioned — but also pragmatically demonstrated, in brief — the utopian potentialities of postmodern culture. Remix/Remodel. Deform in order to Transform.

Nothing

Friday, November 5th, 2004

I really have nothing to say about the election. I agree with my 83-year-old father, who said that it would take a century to undo the damage to the country that Bush will be responsible for in the next four years. That is to say, the damage will not be repaired in my lifetime, let alone his; and probably not in the lifetime of my daughter either. The United States, and the world, will be a meaner and more oppressive place, with the virtues of tolerance and compassion increasingly under siege, if not altogether obliterated. And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.

What interests me most, in a morbid sort of way, is the motives and desires of the voters on November 2nd. For make no mistake about it: the American people have willfully and knowingly chosen to embrace radical evil. Yes, this was an election about “values.”

The question, at a time like this, is always what causes people to vote, and to pledge their lives, against their own interests. Most of the people who voted for Bush will be deeply screwed by his policies. They will see many more of their sons and daughters die in foreign, imperialist wars; they will see their incomes go down, their savings wiped out, their old age security taken away, their medical care reduced to nothing, their freedoms curtailed.

The old-time Marxists used to explain things like this in terms of “false consciousness.” People acted against their own interests, the Marxists said, because they were deluded by ideologies, because they were fooled by empty promises, because they were tricked by the ruling class into misidentifying their enemies, the source of their misfortunes. (Thomas Frank still pretty much makes the same sort of argument today). But this line of approach seems to me to be deeply wrong. It’s condescending, for one thing; it assumes that those 59 million Bush voters didn’t know what they were doing, and that “we” (whoever constitutes this we) know their needs and desires better than they do. For another thing, it wildly overestimates the degree to which people in general act rationally; despite what the free-market economists tell us, we do not start out with bundles of “preferences,” and then work to logically maximize the satisfaction of those preferences. In fact, people are far less motivated by such calculations than they are by passions, desires, values, committments, and beliefs.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice. Kant says that the only moral action is one not tainted by “pathological” motives, by which he means (among other things) personal advantage and satisfaction. Lacan, Zizek, and Badiou, in this respect following Kant quite closely, say that the only ground for ethics in our “postmodern” world is to remain true to one’s desire even at the price of one’s own comfort and well-being; or that it is “fidelity to an event” (Badiou) when this event ruptures the homogeneous order of the world and introduces absolute novelty. Under all these definitions — probably the only ones that are adequate to describing ethical experience, where pragmatic, naturalistic, and utilitarian approaches are not — the choice of, and committment, to Radical Evil is just as authentic and meaningful an ethical decision as any other. The American people have said, in effect, that no sacrifice is too great, no price is too high to pay, when it is a matter of affirming the Values of bigotry, torture, xenophobia, ignorance, and general social corruption. They have pledged themselves to radical evil, transcendently, knowingly, come what may.

And that is why I have nothing to say. I only hope that I remember, in the years to come, that however grievously my family and myself are harmed by the results of the American people’s moral choice (and this harm will not be negligable: I am likely to find myself destitute in old age, and bereft of the freedoms that I have, thus far, unquestioningly enjoyed and pretty much taken for granted; and my daughter is likely to have many paths of advancement closed off to her), that nonetheless we are still in a relatively privileged position, so that the ills we will suffer will be quite trivial in comparison to those that will be suffered by the vast majority of the population, both in the United States and throughout the world.

Election Eve

Monday, November 1st, 2004

No predictions. It’s a fool’s game to presume to predict the outcome of an election like this one. Tomorrow I will cast my vote for Kerry, then I will come home and turn on the TV and wait and watch, trying to Keep Hope Alive. Yes, I said Keep Hope Alive, despite being an inveterate pessimist.

I feel like the country is more divided now than ever. More even than in the 1960s. But without the utopianism of the 1960s. No counterculture, no dreams of revolution. Only this gulf. I do not understand the 50-million-odd Bush supporters; I do not know how to reason with them. I feel like we live on different planets.

All we ask is that the national nightmare be over. That we return to merely ordinary stupidity, incompetence, and oppression (sort of like how Freud said the aim of psychoanalysis was to dissolve neuroses, so that people could return to ordinary unhappiness, the intractable difficulties of just living). Doubtless Kerry will be a mediocre President. And the Iraq situation and the US economy are both in such a mess that, even in the best-case scenario, there is little he could do to make things better. But that sort of doesn’t matter. Voting out Bush is the only thing that matters, ending his four-year reign of terror, his assault on 9/10ths of the Bill of Rights, his Big Lie propaganda campaigns, his running amok over the rest of the world, his crony capitalism.

Nobody I’ve talked to is that enamored of Kerry. What we share, instead, is the sense that a vote for Kerry — really, a vote against Bush — is a minimal act of human decency, a simple effort of joining together to turn back the tide of ignorance and bigotry that otherwise threatens to engulf us. Which is why I’m trying to Keep Hope Alive.