Archive for July, 2005

The Cookbook

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

Some scattered remarks on Missy Elliott’s latest, The Cookbook (iTunes).

  1. Missy really is the best. Hip hop is largely a boy’s/man’s game; women are usually more successful in (and more identified with) r&b. Although there were successful women hip hop artists who preceded Missy (Roxannne Shante; Queen Latifah; Salt ‘n’ Pepa; Lil’ Kim; etc.; for that matter, I still love Sha-Rock of the Funky Four Plus One) none of them have been so successful for so long as Missy has. And I’m talking power and authority and artistic success, not just sales figures. In The Cookbook, once again, Missy (seemingly effortlessly) beats the boys at their own game.
  2. Snap, crackle, and pop. Even though there are only two Timbaland tracks this time, nearly every cut in The Cookbook is bursting at the seams with rhythmic vitality. The Neptunes outdo themselves in “On and On,” with its monster bass and its dynamic burbling/gurgling. Rich Harrison surpasses anything he’s done for Amerie with “Can’t Stop.” Missy herself produces some killer tracks, especially “Lose Control” with its transversal Juan Atkins sample.
  3. Missy insists on the links between hip hop and r&b. It isn’t just a matter of putting a rapper’s guest verse inside an r&b song, or of having an r&b chorus in a rap; but of mixing and matching the genres, and of moving fluidly back and forth between them. Mixing and matching the genres also means mixing and matching the genders. Missy insists on this fluidity by the way she orchestrates the guest appearances on the album: having Ciara sing a bar a capella in the middle of “Lose Control”; having Mary G. Blige rap instead of sing; and (moving beyond r&b to dance hall and I’m not sure what) uniting Vybez Cartel and M.I.A. on the album’s final cut. The r&b slow jams in The Cookbook, by the way, are gorgeous.
  4. Missy’s own voice needs more recognition than it has hitherto received. There are endless nuances to her tone and delivery: both between songs (compare the slyly seductive boasting of “On and On” to the hard-edged aggressiveness of “Mommy,” the song in which Missy announces that “in 2005, the industry will be pussywhipped”), and from line to line within individual songs. The beauty of Missy’s inflections is even greater than the beauty of her innuendoes.
  5. For that matter, Missy’s lyrics repay attention more than you might think. On the surface, they seem straightforward and banal: either she’s boasting about how great she is, or she’s repeating the familiar r&b themes about love and sex (the latter in moods that range from tender to raunchy). But listen closer: beneath the familiar framework, these lyrics are as filled with wordplay and dense allusions and self-reflexivity as Bob Dylan’s lyrics are. No doubt many people will find this assertion outrageous; but I think that banal obviousness plays precisely the same role in Missy’s words as willful obscurantism plays in Dylan’s: in both cases the question of meaning (all-too-clear in the one case and all-too-unclear in the other) is a red herring, a sleight-of-hand to distract us from (and thereby make us all the more vulnerable to) the real life of the songs, which takes place on a level before meaning, a level of infra-meanings and emotional feints and jabs and fluctuations.
  6. Nonetheless, I simply don’t believe the love songs on this album. Missy is just too butch for me to find the oh-I’m-so-deeply-in-love sentiments in cuts like “Irresistible Delicious” and especially “My Man” to be at all credible. As for the hymn to fellatio that is “Meltdown” — “bet it tastes like candy” — let’s just say that her ode to sex toys on This Is Not A Test fit better with her persona, as do the songs here about female sexual satisfaction, about the woman being in control (like the already-mentioned “Can’t Stop” and “Mommy”.
  7. I loathed the three “skits” interspersed into the album. The opening Latina monologue is pointless at best, and I wondered about why the accent; the one with the Asian manicurist is racist and offensive; the closing phone message is just inane and stupid.
  8. If — in spite of all I’ve said so far — I have an overall objection to, or sense of disappointment with The Cookbook, it has to do with a sense that Missy is just coasting, rather than pushing boundaries or pushing herself. Of course, from a commercial point of view, that is probably the right calculation; but I can’t help wishing/hoping/thinking that Missy has a strong enough position in the industry that she could eat her cake and have it too. The first few listens, I was inclined to agree with Julianne Shepherd that somehow the album seemed less than the sum of its parts, great in theory but not transporting the listener (Julianne or me) in practice. Now that I’ve listened a number of more times, I find that even the lesser cuts on the album tend to grow on me. But I still can’t entirely shake the sense that the whole album is too calculated, too willed, too much this-is-a-commodity-and-nothing-more. (Which is not to imply romantically that there is a category of supreme music that isn’t calculated, willed, commodified-from-the-start; it’s the “and-nothing-more” part that bothers me. There’s a certain wildness, or ecstasy, that’s missing; not that I can think of anything else released in recent months that has it…)

Master Morality and Slave Morality

Wednesday, July 27th, 2005

It just struck me: when Nietzsche (in the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, Section 11) evokes his fantasmatic master race, writing of “triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a students’ prank,” he is in fact giving a perfect, precisely literal description of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Though I can’t help thinking that Nietzsche would have been sorely disappointed and disillusioned if he had actually encountered such men, and realized that they were the living embodiments of his ideal.

No Country For Old Men

Monday, July 25th, 2005

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy‘s latest novel, No Country For Old Men. I think it’s McCarthy’s best book since Blood Meridian twenty years ago, which is to say that I liked it better than any of the “Border trilogy” novels that made McCarthy famous.

No Country For Old Men is spare and lean, McCarthy at his most minimal. It’s also set in 1980, which makes it the closest to present-time of any of McCarthy’s books. It’s set in the same southwestern desert territory as all his books since Blood Meridian. But there’s much less sublime description of nature than in the earlier books; instead, a lot of the action plays out in anonymous motel rooms in small West Texas towns. There are no accounts, either, to match the descriptions of wolves and wild dogs and horses in the earlier books. At the start of No Country For Old Men, one of the protagonists, Llwellyn Moss, is hunting antelope; but when he stumbles across a heroin deal gone bad, with lots of dead bodies and a suitcase containing $2.4 million — when he decides to pick up the suitcase — nature and hunting disappear from the novel, never to return. No Country For Old Men is the story of Moss’ doomed attempt to make off with the money, and of Chigurh, the ruthless killer who wants to recover the suitcase, and of Bell, the sheriff who wants to solve the murders and make sense of all the violence.

In its spareness, the novel plays out like a very taut thriller; though contrary to genre expectations, certain crucial aspects of the plot are elided or decentered, and others are never fully explained. The first half of the novel — except for Bell’s monologues, which I will get to in a moment — are almost pure action; as the novel progresses, however, we finally get some of the metaphysics of which McCarthy’s earlier novels are full. However, there are no dense Faulknerian/Melvillean passages such as were found in the earlier books; here, the sense of fatality is all the more intense for coming only in the clipped and understated conversations of the characters, brief and plain statements punctuated by long pauses. The vision of life offered us in rare glimpses is almost unbearably bleak: god is absent, evil rules the world, fate cannot be averted. Of course such a bald summary does a great injustice both to the poetry with which McCarthy expresses these ideas, and to the extremity of his gnosticism (I refer the reader to my old friend Leo Daugherty’s article on the gnostic subtext of Blood Meridian, available here).

No Country For Old Men is a lesser work than Blood Meridian: but this is scarcely a criticism, considering that, in my humble opinion, Blood Meridian is the greatest American novel of the 20th century. In many ways, the new book is structurally similar to Blood Meridian, and can be seen as a less ambitious update into the near-present of the earlier book. In both novels, the landscape of the American Southwest is drenched in blood: the effect is existentially chilling, but the novels also go beyond the existential in that they comment on American history and society more generally. In Blood Meridian, set just after the Mexican War of 1848, America as the land of Manifest Destiny is at stake, especially with regards to the Anglos’ relations to Mexicans and Indians. The novel is a revisionist Western with strong cinematic echoes, though it is more lacerating and more fundamentally savage and negative than anything ever done in Hollywood movies. In No Country For Old Men, the historical field is more restricted: it is sort of about America after the 1960s and Vietnam, in a form that reflects the nihilistic crime genre more than the Western — though references to the latter genre, and historical continuities with earlier times, are also present.

There’s a fascinating figure of pure evil at the heart of both books; though Chigurh, for all his coldblooded singlemindedness, and seeming ability to inhabit Fate and become its agent (instead of just passively suffering it like everybody else does), still is ultimately human-all-too-human, in contrast to the superhuman ferocity and perversity and mythic perseverance of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Chigurh is recognizable as the samurai-esque gangster familiar from a lot of recent movies; though McCarthy radically demystifies this figure, in a way that Tarantino and others never do. Both books also turn on the figure of a witness: a (relatively) innocent character who observes — but is never able to really comprehend — the central figure of evil, and the monstrous actions all around him. In Blood Meridian, the witness is a young man (15 or 16 years old) who is never named but only called “the kid.” In No Country For Old Men, the structurally identical role is played by Sheriff Bell, who must be in his mid-fifties but feels (and sounds) much older.

Bell’s monologues are spaced throughout the book, offering a counterpoint to the third-person omniscient narration of the rest of the text. Some idiots have claimed that Bell provides a “moral compass” for the novel (I won’t link to them here, but if you are curious you can find them through Google). The fact is that, far from providing any sort of definitive judgment on Chigurh’s actions and the events of the novel, Bell always finds himself outside them, behind them, too late to do anything about them, unable even to contextualize them in any way he finds satisfactory. He’s a decent guy, and probably a Bush/Reagan voter (he complains lamely about kids with punk hairstyles, and at one point suggests that, with abortion legal, enforced euthanasia of annoying elderly relatives can’t be too far behind); but even if these are also McCarthy’s personal views (I have no idea), they don’t define the metaphysical perspective of the novel. Bell spends a bit of time lamenting how morals have decayed since the good old days — a notion of which he would have easily been disabused, if he had ever read any of McCarthy’s novels set in earlier times. But in the long run Bell admits that such idealizations are untenable; violence and evil are inscribed in the land, in our history, and probably too in our very nature as limited, imperfect and selfish selves (in what is the hyperbolic gnostic version of Original Sin). Bell never captures Chigurh, or saves Moss’ wife as he hopes to, or indeed arrests anybody, or even saves a man he believes is innocent from receiving the death penalty; at the end of the novel, he harshly judges himself a failure, feels that he has been defeated (which he is, and has been, but no more so than any other human being). (Perhaps because he gives up and retires, in acknowledged defeat, he is not murdered by the novel’s evil figure, the way the kid finally is).

The figure of the witness is necessary, in both Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men, because he is the only one who can experience the pathos, the affect, the tragedy of McCarthy’s vision. The new novel’s flatness (as I’ve already said) suggests a diminishment in comparison to Blood Meridian‘s utter sublimity (which is of Melvillean and Biblical dimensions). But in both novels it is only through the witness figure that the inhuman coldness of the universe (of McCarthy’s vision of the Universe) can be felt and registered, can itself be spelled out in humanly recognizable terms. No Country For Old Men has a sadness to it, striking a new tone in McCarthy’s fiction; and what’s most remarkable about the book, perhaps, is how this new tone overlays, but does not mitigate or sublimate, the unsparing, nihilistic ferocity of McCarthy’s overall vision. I felt that in the Border trilogy, as well as in his play The Stonemason, McCarthy was to a certain extent fleeing away from, and looking for some sort of comfort against, the extremity of his own vision in Blood Meridian. No Country For Old Men cannot be accused of such a withdrawal; he has indeed stepped back once again from the abyss, but only in a way that continues fully to acknowledge it.

Talk on Whitehead

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

A quicktime movie of “Without Criteria,” a talk on Alfred North Whitehead that I delivered at the Sense Lab of Concordia University, in November 2004, is now available online here.

In My Skin

Monday, July 18th, 2005

Last week I had some essential dental work done — something that I had been putting off for years. In the aftermath, the new bridge that covers the spot where teeth are missing or defective is fine. But my gums are awfully sore, even today, a week later. The pain is slight in amplitude, just barely above the threshold of awareness — which is just enough to be annoying. I’m taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen (not simultaneously, but one after the other) to dull the pain. But I also have this incessant compulsion to probe the sore spots, with my tongue and with my fingers. Doing so actually makes the gums hurt more; but I can’t get rid of the feeling that this constant probing is also in some sort of way a cure, or a solution, as if stimulating the pain in this manner was a way to make the feeling active instead of passive, to claim it for myself, to incorporate it, so it would no longer be something that’s just happening to me, no longer something from which I suffer.

It is through this experience — and others like it in the past — that I relate to Marina de Van’s extraordinary film In My Skin. A thirty-something woman (played by de Van, who stars in the film as well as being the director and screenwriter) injures herself at a party: she goes out to the back lawn for some fresh air, and in the dark she stumbles over some sort of tool (we never get to see it) that tears up her leg, leaving some ugly gashes. Although she is bleeding, she goes back to the party as if nothing had happened, and doesn’t bring herself to go to the emergency room until hours later. In the days to come, she develops a fascination with her wound, tearing off the bandages so she can feel and trace the cuts, and then cutting herself to extend the network of bloody lines. As the film proceeds, she grows more and more obsessive. All this plays out against the background of her life as a Parisian yuppie, moving up the corporate ladder as an advertising consultant, and alternately arguing with and making up with her boyfriend (who’s a self-centered asshole). At one point, during a dinner meeting with a client, she hallucinates that her left arm has been replaced by a prosthesis and has started to act in alien ways, out of her control; she starts furtively cutting it under the table, with a steak knife. Later that evening, she fakes an auto accident so that her boyfriend won’t know that the wounds were deliberately self-inflicted. And it escalates from there: she eventually holes up in a hotel room, lying in fetal position while she cuts off rectangles of her skin, licking up the blood and putting the skin fragments aside for later preservation via tanning.

What’s remarkable about In My Skin is not just the presentation of an obsession, but the affective tone and mode of presentation. Though the film is definitely visceral in impact, it’s also psychologically muted — which makes it all the more intense. No explanation, either psychological or sociological, is ever given for the main character’s obsession. It’s just a brute fact of her being, something that defines and dominates her very existence. At the same time, though we see some of the cutting, the cutting scenes are dominated by close-ups of her face. This leads us to identify with her emotional reactions, which range from dread to blankness to nearly orgasmic bliss — without our being able to ground these emotions, because (in the absence of any causal explanation) we cannot relate them intelligibly to what she is actually doing to her body. The result is a ferocious intensity that is at the same time very nearly abstract. Towards the end of the film, instead of these facial shots de Van splits the screen and gives us two different angles, both in extreme close-up, on the same few inches of skin, knife, and surrounding objects: the effect, again, is one of visceralness and abstraction at the same time. The more intimately the film reduces its focus to just the consciousness of its protagonist, the more oddly impersonal it becomes. (I can’t help thinking, at this point, of Maurice Blanchot, the author who — aside from Proust — has demonstrated most profoundly how intimacy is tied to impersonality: for the deeper you go, the more you explore interiority and the precognitive desires and feelings that drive us, the more everything that we know as “personality” and “psychology” falls away, and the more we discover an impersonality that is tied to otherness, to the Outside).

The emotional tone of In My Skin, to the extent that it can be pinned down at all, is closer to horror than to any other genre. I was reminded a bit of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Except that in Monique de Van’s film, the vampire/cannibal and the victim are the same person. Monstrosity cannot be projected outward; it becomes a sort of auto-affection, and thereby an of self-love, a way of fashioning and relating to oneself. (As Foucault taught us, it’s precisely because the “self” doesn’t exist a priori, because there is no pregiven phenomenological subject, because “the given” is prepersonal or impersonal, that “care of the self” or “self-fashioning” becomes the most crucial existential and political issue).

In vampire stories, the vampire’s insatiable desire often wins our sympathy: because of the allure of shadows; or because the vampire suffers and endures more than his victims; or because such infinite longing can never be resolved in satisfaction; or because the inextricable intermingling of life and death is something we cannot conceive and yet know in our hearts; or because such desire, however cruel, seems more authentic (more alive, ironically) than the repression and coldness of the society in which the vampire’s victims live. In My Skin goes further than any other vampire story in exploring these dimensions, and in excavating the strange, impersonal intimacy at the heart of vampiric terror. In other words, In My Skin is the tenderest of all horror films.

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land

Wednesday, July 13th, 2005

I thoroughly enjoyed John Crowley’s latest book, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, though I don’t have all that much to say about it. It’s an amazing work of literary impersonation. Crowley’s conceit is to give us a supposedly lost manuscript of Lord Byron — his only novel, a semi-autobiographical Gothic romance — together with the circumstances of its loss and rediscovery. Crowley’s text has several layers: Byron’s novel itself (written in what is, to my untrained ear at least, a convincing channelling of Byron’s voice, style, and sensibility); a series of annotations on the text, by Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace (his only “legitimate” child, whom he never saw post-infancy, and who grew up to become Charles Babbage’s collaborator upon the Difference Engine, and arguably the first person to conceive the possibilities of computer programming); and an exchange of emails, dated 2002, among the people who discover and decipher the manuscript (which Ada had encrypted to preserve it from her mother, Byron’s estranged wife, who would otherwise have destroyed it).

The novel’s puzzles and collections of fragments give pleasure; recurrent themes of estranged fathers and longing daughters, of exile and reconciliation, are worked out in the book’s various parallel layers; and Crowley offers something of an apologia for Byron, against feminist charges that he was a misogynist, together with a quite poignant reconstruction/celebration of the life of Ada Lovelace (one recent biography suggested that her fame was unmerited, but Crowley argues for a more generous look at her potential, squelched as it was both by restrictions on women in the 19th century, and by her early death). All in all, though the Byron novel is briskly entertaining, it’s the parts about Ada, together with the 21st-century plot involving a woman’s (partial) reconciliation with her own father (a filmmaker exiled from the United States for Polanski-esque reasons) that have the most emotional weight. Lord Byron’s Novel is finally a trifle in Crowley’s oeuvre, an elegant, seemingly effortless performance rather than a plumbing of the depths, but that’s OK. It gives us something to ponder while we wait for the final volume of Crowley’s Aegypt tetralogy.

Land of the Dead

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

We’ve had to wait something like twenty years for George Romero’s Land of the Dead; but now it’s finally here, and I couldn’t be happier. The film is a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) (which three films I wrote about, long ago, in my book The Cinematic Body).

Though the “living dead” films take place in chronological order — each seems to take place a few months or years after the previous one — they explore different realms of social experience. Night is about the implosion of the American (white, middle class) nuclear family; its crude, low-budget visceral shocks (which revolutionized horror filmmaking in general) are grounded in the collapse of patriarchal authority into a kind of grovelling hysteria. The sexual and social “revolutions” of the 1960s were not so much rebellions against a tyrannical paternal despot, or against the rigid repressions of suburban family life, as they were carnivalesque revelations that the emperor had no clothes, that the patriarchal tyrants were toothless, and the suburban hypocrisies nothing more than a thin veneer of stage decor. So the nuclear family holed up in the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead collapses under the weight of its own stupidity, until the child-turned-zombie avidly consumes her parents; the impotence of the father is echoed by the clownishness and impotence of the larger-scale authority figures viewed on television during the zombie siege. Meanwhile, the ravaging zombies outside present a darkly humorous vision of hippie communalism (the preferred refuge of the children of the white middle class). And the movie’s ostensible theme of survivalism is totally undermined by the cynical conclusion, when the film’s only sympathetic character — a black man who has managed to make it through the night unharmed by the zombies — is shot dead by a redneck sheriff’s posse.

Of course the “rebellions” of the 1960s went nowhere — though they are still the object of vilification by the far right and the fundamentalists to this day. But hippies and campus radicals from middle-class backgrounds grew up to be yuppies, and their influence on the larger culture was mostly a matter of an easily saleable “lifestyle.” Once the social upheavals of the 60s had passed, consumerism turned out to be the real winner. So it’s entirely appropriate that Dawn of the Dead takes place largely in a shopping mall: which the zombies are attracted to because it was the place of their happiest moments when they were alive, while the four living characters who hole up inside it alleviate their sense of being besieged by living a fantasy of commodity abundance and frictionless shopping and consuming. The invasion of a paramilitary bikers’ gang looking for loot puts an end to this bourgeois idyll, but not before the exorbitant lust for commodities has been established as the ruling passion of living and dead alike.

Many fans of the earlier films found Day of the Dead disappointing, but to my mind it’s as brilliant and as vital (if that’s the right word for a film about the dead) as the rest of the series. Day is the most philosophical of the “living dead” films, which is part of what I love about it, but which may be part of what turned many viewers off. As befits a film from the Reagan 1980s, the focus shifts from consumerism to the military/scientific complex; it takes place, not in a brightly lit mall, but in a hellishly claustrophobic underground bunker. Pathologically macho soldiers try to keep the zombies at bay, while scientists futilely try to discover the cause of the zombie plague, or else try to “tame” the zombies. The film is relentless in its deconstruction of military authoritarianism and scientific claims to supreme authority (indeed, Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later is entirely indebted to Day in its latter half, when — just as in Romero’s film — the military saviors of civilization come off as worse than the monsters they are trying to fight). Day of the Dead ends up combining a kind of Stoic fatalism (as the few sympathetic living characters do escape the zombies, but in a way that is pointedly fragile and contingent) with a greater sympathy for the zombies than ever before, as they embody a kind of inchoate, but plaintive and oddly innocuous desire, in contrast to the twisted viciousness of the characters who stand for social order.

Land of the Dead is both simpler and more expressionistic than Day: it takes place almost entirely at night, and both the cinematography and the gory special effects have an elegance that goes beyond anything Romero has done before. In Land, as befits our globalized, post-9/11 world (though Romero’s screenplay was apparently mostly finished before 9/11), social class, and indeed class warfare, comes to the foreground, after having been an implicit subtext in the earlier films. Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh is a bastion of humanity against the zombie hordes — just as America today paranoiacally imagines itself as a fortress of “freedom” barred against the Muslims and Mexicans who are always trying to batter their way in. Internally, post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh is almost a parody of rapacious capitalism (though it must be said that “actually existing capitalism” in America is rapidly approaching this terminal parodic state): the ruling class live lives of elegance in the exclusive gated high-rise of “Fiddler’s Green”, while the masses outside scrape by day to day, more or less at a subsistence level, with sex, drugs, violence, and gambling as their only amusments. Add to this a psychotic Bushite dictator (played, inevitably, by Dennis Hopper) whose two main passions are an all-out drive to make the rich richer, and a refusal ever to negotiate with “terrorists”; and the muscle he uses, a cadre of mercenaries who have no ties or loyalties, except (to a limited extent) to one another. Meanwhile, the zombies are treated more sympathetically in Land than they even were in Day: they start to evolve, and develop a sort of memory and intelligence, an ability to plan and to coordinate their actions. They become, in fact, a spontaneously self-organized swarm (they have a sort of leader, but his role is exemplary and inspirational, rather than having any sort of authority). And when they break into the city, it’s as if the proletariat — or more accurately, Negri’s “multitude” — had finally arisen to demand restitution and justice. This zombie invasion is intercut with infighting among the city’s cadres: John Leguizamo starts a self-serving rebellion, because he’s pissed of at not being amply enough rewarded for doing Dennis Hopper’s dirty work. (Hopper will never allow Leguizamo into Fiddler’s Green, because he’s “street,” and even worse, Latino). Simon Baker, the film’s nominal hero, is sent by Hopper to squelch Leguizamo (it’s sort of an offer Baker can’t refuse, though he plans to hijack the process for his own selfish ends anyway). (The fabulous Asia Argento also plays a small but key role). Not to give too much away, or get involved in the minutiae of the plot, but the various strands merge in brilliantly satisfying ways. What makes Land noteworthy, aside from the tightness of its construction and (as I’ve already said) the delights of its (dare I call them understated?) gross-out special effects, is the way that class comes to play a central role — and other oppositions, particularly that between the living and the dead, tend to dissolve or fall away. Is there any American filmmaker working today who is as politically cogent as Romero, and at the same time as affectively powerful, and as committed to pulp/”low” culture values?

Feed

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

The first thing that gets you about M.T. Anderson’s “young adult” science fiction novel Feed is the narrator’s voice: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, ‘I’m so null,’ and Marty was all, ‘I’m null too, unit,’ but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them…”

And so on, for 300 pages. It’s the tone that does it. Feed isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s dead-on as an act of linguistic impersonation, or possession. No actual living teenager is this vapid and unreflective — in fact, even the most conformist, consumerist, trendy, and outwardly unreflective teens turn out to be filled inside with anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, and a paralyzingly exacerbated self-consciousness — but Anderson has channeled instead the Platonic Idea, as it were, of the privileged and pampered male American teen, at least as the media (or better, Entertainment Capitalism) would want him to be.

In the future world of the novel, all of television, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet is available, interface-free, through a neural-interface chip implanted inside your head at birth. (At least, that is, if you are in the 73% of the American population that can afford it). It’s all a continuous feed: AOL-chatting with your friends, hearing music, watching comedies and dramas, getting the news if you are interested (most people aren’t), looking up words you don’t know and facts about any subject — and above all, getting those constant exhortations to buy, with ads that are context-sensitive and tailored especially for your own particular preferences. Fashions are continually changing, so there’s always something new to get, especially if you are an affluent, post-literate teen with an ample monetary flow and lots of time on your hands, since there’s so little you actually have to do.

Perhaps all this is obvious and predictable, but it’s almost uncanny the way Anderson captures the sense of the flow, the immersion in multimedia, the eternal Now in which everything is always changing, but for that very reason there’s this absolute monotony, since the mere fact of meaningless change is the only thing there is. Ernst Bloch’s unfair characterization of Bergson — “sheer aimless infinity and incessant changeability; where everything ought to be constantly new, everything remains just as it was” — is an accurate description of the endless, kaleidoscopic “feed” that Anderson describes. How the genuinely New is actually possible in such circumstances — which is Bloch’s great question, as well as Bergson’s (though Bloch, with an ungenerosity that is quite unusual for him, refuses to concede this in Bergson’s case), and Deleuze’s, and above all Whitehead’s — is not directly addressed by Anderson’s novel.

Instead, we get satire that turns to tragedy. The narrator’s girlfriend attempts to revolt against the Feed. Her rebellion is quite tentative and uncertain: this is exactly right, because the whole point is that neither she, nor anyone else in the world of the novel, has any sort of external perspective to bring to bear on the Feed, precisely because it subsumes everyone and everything, translates whatever you encounter into a matter of mere/sheer commodity consumption. Nonetheless, however timid and incomplete her rebellion is, it is enough for the Feed to destroy her: both mentally/metaphysically/morally, and literally/physiologically. The book’s greatest accomplishment is to convey the full creepiness of this destruction, while/although the narrator himself remains utterly incapable of understanding it, or her. An unreliable narrator is one thing; but a narrator who is reliable as to the facts, but uncomprehending as to their import, is far more painful and disturbing. (Affect cuts deeper than epistemology). The resulting, slightly queasy, feeling of combined immersion and alienation is what makes the novel more than just a clever commentary that any NPR listener, or snob who refuses to watch TV, could approve of. It leads, instead, to a sense of complicity: the realization that I cannot pretend to be somehow superior to, or even external to, the object of my critique.

Artificial Desires

Wednesday, July 6th, 2005

In Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, the ideal commodity is an absence: a product that promises everything, precisely because it is nothing. This product is called diet water or Litewater. It’s “an artificial form of water… that passes through the body completely unabsorbed. It’s completely inert, completely harmless,” and has no effect on the body whatsoever. It doesn’t actually quench thirst; but as a result, it also doesn’t add to the drinker’s weight, and doesn’t make her feel bloated. If you still feel thirsty after a drink of Litewater — and you will — all you have to do is “buy more.” Consumers needn’t worry about the consequences of imbibing; they “can drink all they want, guilt-free.” Litewater is the ideal commodity, then, precisely because it “is, in its very essence, the opposite of consumption. Consuming [it] is like consuming nothing at all.” This means that it is a figure of pure desire, scrupulously detached from any use or need. All it does is make sure that circulation continues: the circulation of money through the economy, and of fluids in and out of the body. Litewater is the perfect product for a world beyond scarcity, beyond irony, and beyond guilt. No matter how abundant it becomes, the demand for it is never satiated.

We shouldn’t take the story of Litewater as merely a satire on capitalism’s incitement of “artifical desires.” For of course all desires are artificial, in the standard social-constructivist sense that they belong to culture rather than nature, that they aim for something more than mere subsistence, and that they are irreducible to “reproductive strategies” or other forms of biological need. We should therefore say, together with Philip Pullman, that “nothing is natural any more, and nothing is artificial. It’s a false dichotomy, and we should forget about it.” In fact, when people denounce capitalism for instilling artificial needs or desires, what they are really objecting to is not artifice, so much as wastefulness. This sort of criticism ought to give us pause, however. For the drive to reduce or eliminate waste is itself intrinsic to capitalism, and only to capitalism. Only managers and neoclassical economists are obsessed with “efficiency.” As Bataille pointed out long ago, part of what makes capitalism unique is that it is the only socio-economic system in human history to regard waste as “shameful,” and the only one whose ruling class refuses the otherwise universal “obligation of functional expenditure.” Of course there is sumptuous waste in capitalism nonetheless: mostly in the form of what Veblen (with his own curious aversion to waste) called conspicuous consumption. But it seems misguided to reproach capitalism for wastefulness, as if the problem with it were the abundance that it provides, rather than the scarcity that it counter-produces in order to rein in and control this abundance.

The language of capitalism is the language of desire, and utopia, and salvation. And that is the secret of its success. The market always leaves us unsatisfied; but for this very reason it always gets us to come back for more. In the last analysis, there is no arguing against desire. Leftists won’t get very far by urging people to live within their means, or by telling them to settle for what they need instead of what they want. We should leave such exhortations to the Federal Reserve Bank. But also — and this is the most difficult part — we won’t get away from the logic of commodities and the market by appealing to utopian yearnings and hopes of redemption. For these longings are the very ones that motivate us to go shopping. They have been subsumed, all too successfully, within the circuits of consumption. The only way out is the way through. The only answer to capitalist desire’s constant cries of “more!” is to up the ante still further, as in Blake’s aphorism: “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy Man.”

It is therefore only by embracing the logic of capitalist (and specifically, post-Fordist) aestheticism that we can hope to open a path ‘beyond’ it. The best guide in these matters is Andy Warhol, who wrote that “buying is much more American than thinking… Americans are not so interested in selling — in fact, they’d rather throw out than sell. What they really like to do is buy — people, money, countries.” The supply-side way of encouraging people to buy is beauty, style, or more precisely cool. When leftist critics denounce the market’s promotion of style over substance, when they deplore, as Stuart Ewen does, “the cycle of waste upon which the market is built,” they are missing the point that this wastefulness is not a bug, but a feature. It’s flexible accumulation’s answer to the dilemma of overproduction. Without it, the whole system would come tumbling down — and not in a way that would lead to a change for the better. We need to be wasteful, to throw things out, in order to clear room in our closets for new stuff. And we need to change our fashions, and upgrade our gadgets, as often as possible, in order (as Virginia Postrel puts it) to “reinvent ourselves, emphasizing and developing previously unknown or subordinate aspects of our personalities.” Far from creating scarcity by diverting resources, conspicuous waste is our only exemption from the ruthless reign of Malthusian scarcity, Darwinian struggle, and “the discipline of the market.” A visit to the mall puts beauty into our otherwise blighted lives.

The thing to remember is that, even when we strive to resist the commodity’s allure, and the ubiquitous domination of the marketplace, it is only in the terms set forth by the commodity itself that we can do so. We must say of the commodity what Derrida says of metaphysics: “We have no language — no syntax and no lexicon — which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.” The Situationist strategy of radical negativity and absolute refusal is a self-congratulatory self-deception, or at best a show of empty bravado. Like it or not, the situation that we face today is the opposite of the one described by Audre Lord: for it is only with the master’s tools that we can possibly hope to dismantle the master’s house.