Archive for August, 2005

Lunar Park

Monday, August 29th, 2005

Bret Easton EllisLunar Park is — let me just say this to begin with — the best novel I have read all summer (new books by Cormac McCarthy and John Crowley notwithstanding). Like Ellis’ previous books it has been released with great fanfare and expensive publicity, as a result of which it has sold fairly well (it is ranked #121 in current sales on as I write this), despite receiving mostly negative reviews. One never reads novels in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to read and think about Ellis without noting the strange combination of his celebrity on the one hand, and the disdain and incomprehension with which the literary establishment regards him on the other. Or to put the same paradox in a different way: Ellis is an extraordinarily literary and writerly writer, and yet few artists of any sort have gone as far as he has in exploring and reflecting upon our current post-literary, multimedia culture. This situation is one of the things that Lunar Park is about.

Lunar Park is a surprising book, in many ways. Ellis’ previous books have been largely devoid of interiority. Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and The Informers have narrators and characters who drift through in a continual haze of drugs and expensive commodities and meaningless sex. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho shows no passion as he recounts the details of his murders in the same detached tone as he does the details of what everybody was wearing, or of what bizarre nouvelle cuisine meals he ate at various overpriced yuppie restaurants. And Victor Ward of Glamorama is chronically clueless, constantly strung out on Xanax, and incapable even of grasping simple metaphors. Ellis’ tone in these novels is generally flat; his language is often minimal and repetitive. All in all, Ellis’ writing has been seen as the quintessence of postmodern affectlessness and insistence on surfaces; most often it’s been criticized and scorned for this, and at best it’s received the backhanded complement of being regarded as a “satire” of pomo blankness (a reading that Ellis himself has sometimes encouraged).

But Lunar Park, unlike anything Ellis has written before, is a novel of interiority. All of Ellis’ novels have one or several first-person narrators, but this is the first book in which the narrator is self-reflective, highly self-conscious, and concerned more with his own inner states of being than with outward appearances (coolness, celebrity, the media, expensive clothes and food). Indeed, Lunar Park is pseudo-autobiographical: the narrator/protagonist is one Bret Easton Ellis, a novelist famous and controversial for his high life at fashionable nightclubs, as much as for such books as Less Than Zero and especially the notorious American Psycho. Ellis cannibalizes his own life history to set up the story of a writer who is trying go straight, leave behind his own past excesses with drugs and celebrity, and start a new life as a family man, a husband and father, in the suburbs. The first chapter is a tour de force in Ellis’ old style, only more self-lacerating than before because of its confessional mode. It’s a description of Ellis’ (real and fictional) career, filled with huge advances that are spent before the books are even written, cocaine binges, celebrity gossip, public collapses into incoherence, and even dinner with George W. Bush at the White House. But then it becomes the (entirely fictional) story of Ellis’ marriage to celebrity actress Jayne Dennis, of whose twelve-year-old son Ellis has been proven by DNA testing to be the father; together with an account of Ellis’ attempt to come to terms with the death and the horrific legacy of his own (actual) father, who he claims was the model for serial-killer Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. The narrative digs into various kinds of reckonings, about fathers and sons, about love and family, and about the moral responsibilities that need to be faced by writers of immoral or amoral fiction.

Formally, then, the book would seem to be a kind of palinode — an apology and recantation — both for Ellis’ real-life and writerly excesses, and for his aesthetics (his espousal of postmodern nihilism). Except that — the palinode is a parody, and the interiority that the novel so powerfully suggests is just as powerfully, indeed quite savagely and gleefully, deconstructed. It’s not just — and not even mostly — that Ellis’ quest for redemption is played for comedy (though it is to a certain extent, as Ellis downs enormous quantities of vodka and Klonopin, together with various controlled substances, to master the anxiety of living up to the demands of respectable married existence). But mostly because the book’s very self-reflexiveness, and the narrator’s own self-reflectiveness leads into a hall of mirrors, a mise en abime that defies any resolution. The techniques that mainstream novels, from the 19th century to today, have used in order to constuct the appearance of interiority are pirated by Ellis to suggest instead that everything is an appearance, a performance, a writerly imposture. The narrator’s introspection reveals only that he has no depths and no center, and that everything he does is driven by outside forces and superficial motives. The novel is filled with sincere moments of longing and confession and reform, with moments of the desire to go straight, “to get back to basics” (4), “to concentrate only on our family now [because] it was the only thing that meant anything to me” (199), to affirm the fact “that a family — if you allow it — gives you joy, which in turn gives you hope” (304); but each of these moments ends up being framed as a theatrical performance, being suspended “in quotation marks,” being revealed as an expression of social conformism, of what you are supposed to feel, even if nobody ever actually does. “I no longer had the hard-on for her that I once did, and tried to soothe her with vague generalities I’d picked up on Oprah” (85): Lunar Park is relentless in the way it picks up on feelings of panic, anxiety, need, depression, loneliness, helpless caring, and regard — and dissolves them into exercises in psychobabble, or maudlin literary conceits. Lots of American novels of the past fifty years have dealt with the emptiness and vapidity of suburbia, with the hopeless alcoholism and passionless adultery behind the facade of the great affluent American dream; but Ellis treats this vision as itself nothing more than a tired and unimaginative cliche, a situation people live out because it is what is expected of them.

In short, literary interiority — or, more precisely, a brilliant simulation thereof — does the same work in Lunar Park that was done by media images and glittering commodified surfaces in Ellis’ previous novels. Victor Ward in Glamorama lives his life with a soundtrack of pop songs, and he is always being followed around by film crews which turn his life into a reality show (though the novel was written, prophetically, before the current vogue for reality TV). It starts out being a crew from MTV that is chronicling his efforts to open a new club in Manhattan; but further into the novel, the film crews are orchestrating Victor’s sex life, and forcing retakes of the terrorist actions in which he finds himself being implicated. In Lunar Park, instead of postmodern media we have the more traditionally modernist theme of Ellis as a writer, and the self-referential crossovers between real life and literary fiction. The first line of the novel reads: “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.” The next several paragraphs go on to analyze this opening line, by comparison with the opening passages of Ellis’ other books. Not only is Lunar Park an act of self-impersonation; as such, it is also a futile attempt to remake the author’s life by rewriting his fiction. Similar gambits of increasing complexity go on throughout the novel. Fiction crosses over into actuality, as somebody starts to carry out Patrick Bateman’s murders in real life. And actuality dissolves into fiction, as adolescent boys in the upscale, anonymous suburb where the novel is set start disappearing: it turns out that they haven’t been abducted or killed, but have abandoned the shopping malls and nuclear-family homes for something like Peter Pan’s Neverneverland. The narrator assures us early on in the novel that “all of it really happened, every word is true” (30); but by the end, nearly everything in the narrative has revealed its sources in Ellis’ earlier fiction.

In modernist novels, this sort of self-referentiality is utopian; it points back to the creative power of the author, or the supremacy of the imagination, that permeates and transforms reality. In certain stereotypically postmodern novels, such self-referentiality is instead either a tired display of virtuosity, or the assertion that everything is language, everything is text. In Lunar Park, however, the self-referential fictiveness of the text works rather differently. It presents a kind of collapse, an involution, but more into the boredom and horror of the everyday, and into the multiple mirrors of the movie-video-internet-entertainment complex (from which literary writing cannot ultimately be distinguished) than into the abysses of textuality. Ellis is not suggesting that there are only surfaces, or only texts, so that anything that would seem to float beyond them is an illusion; but rather that selves and desires are precisely effects of surfaces, real in the same way that mirror images are real: we do objectively see them, and they do tell us things about ourselves and about the world (of which we and they are part).

This is why, in the latter part of the novel, the narrator splits into an “I” — Bret — on the one hand, and an inner voice he calls “the writer” on the other. The two are in continual dialogue. The writer imagines scenes that Bret can’t, or won’t. The writer loves chaos and disorder (I can’t find the page reference for this at the moment); he is the one who got off on the kinky violence of American Psycho and Glamorama, in a way that made these books more than just satire. The writer pushes Bret out of the ‘normality’ in which he would like to take refuge, makes him look for extreme, disturbing possibilities. The writer is therefore the part of the narrator who invents horrors (like Patrick Bateman) that then manifest themselves in the real world — which the novel, on one level, is trying to exorcize. But the writer is also the voice that forces the trauma of the Real (as Lacan and Zizek might say) or of the Outside (as Blanchot might say) upon Bret, that dislodges him from his solipsistic fantasy life, and compels him to confront what he is perpetually fleeing from, what he refuses, or is afraid, to recognize.

This means that Lunar Park tends to show us how selves and desires are social fictions. Existentially, we are thrown back on these images and effects, these mirror reflections, and it is as foolish to dismiss them as phony as it is to invest them with mystical qualities, as if they were deeper and more resonant than they actually are. Politically, however, these effects and images have a lot to do with the social positions that we inhabit. Ellis has always written almost exclusively about affluent and privileged WASPs, and he never lets us forget it. The world of Lunar Park is a world of expensive malls and elite private schools and children hypermedicated on Ritalin and Prozac and whatever else can prevent them from being too curious, too manic, too afraid, or too divergent from the responsibilities and powers of the class they have been born into. The wealthy suburbs are safety zones, where scared white people hunker down in isolation (or so they hope) from a post-9/11 America which is not only inhabited by poor people and people of color, but in which, also, in Ellis’ fictive account, terrorist attacks in big cities have become a monthly occurrence. Yet this means, of course, that the affluent suburbs end up mirroring whatever they have armed themselves against. One brilliant passage recounts a national malaise, as reported in the media, in which “damage had ‘unwittingly’ been done. There were ‘feared lapses’… Situations had ‘deteriorated’… The populace was confounded, yet didn’t care… the survival of mankind didn’t seem very important in the long run” (55 — I’ve left out most of the paragraph of hilariously cliched, utterly indistinct abstractions).

In its last third, Lunar Park metamorphoses into a suburban horror novel, as the narrator’s home is haunted by demonic dolls, ghastly images from his past, and other psychic monstrosities. In interviews, Ellis has described this aspect of the novel as a homage to Stephen King — in much the same way, he adds, that the supermodels-as-conspiratorial-terrorists plot of Glamorama was a homage to Robert Ludlum. Many reviewers, even if they liked the earlier portions of the novel, have been critical of the supernatural latter portion. But to my mind, this seeming fall (from affective intensity to shlock horror) is a crucial part of the novel’s brilliance. Ellis’ insight here is that mass-market horror fiction is precisely the flip side of the high-art novel of self-conscious interiority. Stephen King is really Henry James turned inside-out (an assertion that would not at all shock or surprise the author of The Turn of the Screw). Horror projects inward anguish outward into the material and social world (the haunted psyche becomes the haunted house), and in doing so reveals that that inwardness was in fact itself first produced, and projected inward, by the outside world. (This argument is starting to sound a lot more Hegelian than I intended; but I can’t help it, strange things do happen in horror fiction). And so, Ellis gives us scary monsters, glimpsed for mere seconds, in prose the equal of King’s (which I do not despise the way severe high-culture types might). But one of these horrors turns out to be a figure from a story that Ellis (the real one? or just the fictional one?) wrote at age 12, and whose obvious Freudian overtones are easily mocked (251); while another is described as follows: “the only reason I did not immediately turn away was because it seemed fake, like something I had seen in a movie” (272). Horror is yet another arena for the self-referential collapse I mentioned earlier, one in which the banality of the everyday and the traumatic force of what the Lacanians call the Real are entirely conjoined, and both are theorized as effects (in the sense both of “cause and effect,” and of “special effects”) of the media, or more broadly of postmodern, informational capitalism.

I could say a lot more — and cite a lot more — but this posting has gone on too long already. All in all, Lunar Park resonates with a very tricky and profound sort of affect. It’s an emotionally intense novel, and at the same time an extraordinarily distanced one, with a strong dose of absurdism. I’ve often written about how postmodern irony and flippancy, the placing of all feelings in ridiculous “quotation marks,” in fact works as an emotional intensifier (this is the mechanism, for instance, in the films of both David Lynch and Guy Maddin). But Ellis is onto something even stranger here — in the way his novel is always teetering on the edges of cliche, on the edges of sincerity, on the edges of wistful longing, without ever falling completely into any of these; and in the way that, the more confessional and inward-looking the narrative gets, the more generic and impersonal it also gets, so that it offhandedly, subtly corrodes our most cherished feelings about personhood and privacy. Ellis is at the same time exorcizing his private demons, and demonstrating to us the illusiveness of any such gesture; he’s projecting an emotionally powerful, but ultimately wishful fantasy about fathers and sons and reconciliation and making up somehow for the irreversibility of time (what Nietzsche called the tyranny of the “it was”), and at the same time pointing up the fictiveness of this wishful fantasy, and the way it plays into, and is even generated by, the media-entertainment complex within which we cannot choose but to live.

Quotation of the Week

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Bret Easton Ellis on the experience of bourgeois parenting, from page 43 of his marvellous new novel Lunar Park (which I am currently reading, and which I will discuss at greater length once I am done):

Well, being married’s okay — but the dad thing’s a little tougher… ‘Daddy, can I have some juice?’ ‘How about some water, honey?’ ‘Daddy?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Can I have some juice?’ ‘How about some water instead, honey?’ ‘Daddy, can I have some juice?’ ‘Okay, honey, you want some juice?’ ‘No, its okay, I’ll just have some water.’ It’s like some fucking Beckett play that we’re rehearsing constantly.

The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Mario Perniola’s The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic is one of those books that comes upon you unawares (rather than one’s coming upon it) , and that is so beautiful, so singular and unexpected, that it just blows you away. The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic is a philosophy book, and it is about a certain sort of extreme experience that, or so the author claims, philosophy and sexuality share. Perniola invents a new ontological category, that of the “thing that feels”: something that is utterly apart from the duality of subjectivity (which we usually equate with sentience) on the one hand, and of insentient objects on the other. The thing that feels “has” a certain sort of intense experience, but this experience is not a subjective one, not anything that is experienced by a subject. This has something to do with the impersonal affect described by Blanchot and by Deleuze, though neither of these authors is cited in Perniola’s text. The experience of the thing that feels is a sexual one: it is sexual contact, touching, caressing, licking, penetrating, and so on: but without orgasm, without a climax, without any release of tension, without any return at the end to a satiated self. The experience of the thing that feels is organs and orifices that are no longer felt as parts of larger wholes, bodily surfaces and depths in such intimate contact that one cannot be separated from the other, feelings cannot be attributed to one rather than the other, and yet this intimacy does not result in fusion either, because that would imply a larger unitary entity into which the two lovers, or more accurately the multiple parts and orifices and organs, would have merged. The experience of the thing that feels is a kind of utter abandonment: I desubjectify myself, detach myself from myself and turn myself into a mere thing, give myself (my body, my organs and orifices, my feelings) — give all this over to the other person to do with me what they will (and vice versa, though the two self-abandonments do not quite form a mutual and symmetrical pattern of reciprocity, because both these self-abandonments are limitless, formless, and cannot be measured).

Perniola does not only invoke the mysterious being of the thing that feels: he describes it, quite systematically, according to a series of cultural and philosophical coordinates. He compares it to, and carefully differentiates it from, sadism, masochism, fetishism, vampirism, and other “perversions” and “transgressions” that have been the obsessions of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century modernity. He shows the way that the sexual experience of the thing that feels resonates with various contemporary aesthetic states and expressions, with a quite amazing list that includes prog rock (!), cybersex, avant-garde fashion, deconstructive architecture, installation art, and the novels of Georges Perec.

And furthermore — since he claims that the experience of the thing that feels is a philosophical one as well as a sexual one — Perniola gives it a metaphysical genealogy as well, in a trajectory that runs through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. Perniola seeks, like many thinkers before him, to get rid of the mind/body dualism that has so long structured Western thought and culture. But he finds the vitalism of Nietzsche and other anti-Cartesian body theorists as unacceptable as the spiritualism of Descartes and all his idealist descendents; for Perniola, these are just two sides of the same coin. Descartes, in the cogito, defines himself as “a thing that thinks”; he failed thereby to conceive the non-subjective thing that feels; so it was the “think” part, rather than the “thing” part that was Descartes’ big error. Reification and alienation are good things for Perniola; one can never be alienated and reified enough; it is only through them that one can become — or more accurately, that one can be, a thing that thinks. Perniola therefore scorns those thinkers (Nietzsche explicitly, Bergson implicitly) who claim to undo that reification, and return us to some lived experience of the body.

In contrast, Perniola finds clues to the thing that feels in Kant’s ethics above all, with its rejection of subjective good will as inherently “pathological,” and its deeply paradoxical equation of freedom with the state of the “thing in itself” (it is highly significant that Kant’s realm of noumena is a realm of Things). Perniola also finds clues to the thing that feels in certain moments that Hegel denounces as inauthentic, but describes with incomparable rigor; in certain moments that are intimated, but then foreclosed, in Heidegger; and in the late Wittgenstein’s enigmatic discussions of “seeing as” and of the puzzling grammar of expressions of pain.

What this summary of The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic leaves out is the extent to which the book’s power and beauty is largely an effect of style. Perniola’s writing (as far as I can tell from the translation, which occasionally trips itself up with expressions that seem to be literal translations from the Italian in ways that come out sounding unidiomatic in English) is lucid, and concise, finely chiseled yet without suggesting any hardness or harshness. Nothing is argued or deduced; but everything is set forth calmly, clearly, and in a carefully structured order. Rarely has a call for excess and extremity been set forth with such classical care and restraint. In this respect, Perniola joins a small circle of “postmodern” writers who are starting to interrogate limits, push thought to extremes, and approach affect outside of the cognitive straightjacket, without any recourse to the tired 20th-century category of “transgression.”

Natural History

Friday, August 19th, 2005

Justina Robson‘s SF novel Natural History is a brilliant exploration of what it might mean to be posthuman.

In the future world of Robson’s novel, “Unevolved” human beings live side-by-side with the “Forged,” genetically-altered, enhanced, and engineered beings who combine human characteristics with those of other organisms and with machines. There are Forged in the form of birds, of jellyfish, of weapons of mass destruction, and of spaceships. The Forged are adapted for tasks that Unevolved human beings could not easily perform, and for environments (deep space, the bottom of the sea, the atmosphere of Jupiter) where the Unevolved could not easily live. The Forged all have recognizably human minds — in terms of language, rationality, and emotion — even though they differ greatly from the Unevolved, and from one another, in terms of life history and body-experience. Their biggest problem is that they have all been designed for specific tasks — their Form is determined by their Function — which means that their lives are constrained in ways that those of ordinary Unevolved human beings are not, even though their imaginations and senses of selfhood and freedom are as extensive as those of the Unevolved. Robson’s greatest accomplishment in Natural History is to make the Forged come alive as speakers and characters, so that their emotions and neuroses and desires and political activities make as much sense (are as unique, and at the same time as recognizable) as those of the Unevolved characters. The Forged are neither alien (radically other, utterly outside our experience) nor “the same” (belonging to some universal, essential, unchanging category of humanness, just as “we” allegedly do). No one is a “blank slate,” independent of the predispositions that have been built into them; but also, no one is determined by these predispositions. Will and imagination play too strong a role for these posthumans, just as they do for us.

So Robson imagines what it would be like to be, for instance, a sentient spaceship, gendered female, whose body includes a nuclear engine, whose senses involve what for us could only be readouts on various monitors, whose reaction times can be measured in femtoseconds, and whose sexual feelings are almost entirely auto-affective, focused upon her own bodily sensations. And who is driven by rage, fanaticism, vulnerability, ambition, neediness, and revolutionary fervor, and who is capable of sarcasm, irony, reserve, and manipulativeness — much as a human mind/body of any other shape might be. Actually, what it is like to be a sentient spaceship is not far different from what it is like to talk to one: for language is not only how one talks to others, it is also how one talks to oneself. Robson insists on distinguishing between living and speaking other-sentience, and mere artificial intelligence, which in the world of Natural History can calculate, and use and respond appropriately to language, but which cannot be creative or self-reflective, which cannot talk to itself, which does not express any sort of will, and which does not seek after higher Meaning nor regret its absence (307-308). In positioning consciousness in this way, Robson rejects the strong-AI position (that there is no difference between human mentality and what machines are capable of), but in a more nuanced and sophisticated way than John Searle (for instance) does. That is to say, Robson explores how consciousness could be different, or other, from our “common” experience; but she does this without reducing mentality to computation (as cognitivists are always prone to do).

The future society depicted in Natural History is one of immanent differences. There is no unity between the Unevolved and the Forged, nor among the Forged themselves. Also, the Forged have access — but the Unevolved do not — to a full-immersion virtual reality in which they can change their environments and body forms at will, interact with other Forged and have sex with them, and generally escape the limitations of their Form and Function. There are thus multiple perspectives which cannot be reconciled; and none of which can claim to transcend or overcode the others. This leads to a fractious politics: the Forged, spread out across the solar system, form unions and independence movements, fighting and negotiating both among themselves and with the Unevolved authorities on Earth. Here Robson explores the possibilities and impasses of what might be called a network-society, “post-globalization” politics, one where the traditional orders of States and territories play little role, and where traditional ideological myths of unification have ceased to function, but where questions of “identity,” together with economic power and the unequally distributed possession of military strength and of the tools of surveillance, continue to play major roles.

The plot of Natural History doesn’t resolve any of these issues — Robson suggests that, for all practical intents and purposes, they are simply not resolvable — but instead does an end run around them. The book narrates the encounter of its vividly imagined world with something truly alien, truly Other: a technology that entirely transcends the immanent differences among Unevolved and Forged, and that therefore seems to promise infinite power, magically driven by Will alone. Of course, things turn out to be much more complicated than that, and there are some wonderful passages where Zephyr Duquense, the most prominent Unevolved character in the novel, explores an alien architecture that is clearly the product of intelligence, but just as clearly uninterpretable in human terms. The social-emotional play of immanent differences, which cannot coincide but which are open to negotiation and mutual reflection, is here contrasted to a kind of absolute Difference, a limit in relation to which we face the alternative of either only getting our own expectations and presuppositions reflected back to us, or else of gaining access to this Otherness at the price of ceasing to be ourselves, of being irrevocably changed by what we encounter, and indeed absorbed into what we encounter. At certain moments, Robson presents this latter alternative (somewhat unfortunately) as a kind of New Agey mystical oneness, cosmic consciousness, oceanic feeling, with almost absolute power to affect the physical universe — but this is balanced out at other moments by a continuing harsh skepticism. At the end, you can retain your individuality against this alien, totalizing encounter by killing yourself before you are absorbed — suicide is not exactly an attractive or life-affirming option, but at least it does remain an option, a via negativa resisting an otherwise relentless dialectic.

So I wasn’t entirely happy with the conclusion of Natural History, but I liked the way that Robson at least in part resisted her own conclusion. Robson’s novel is not really about my current overwhelming preoccupation — the ubiquitous culture and circulation of capital — but its passionate intelligence is a sterling example of how science fiction, at its best, works today as an experimental laboratory of embodied social and philosophical thought.

Broken Flowers

Sunday, August 14th, 2005

Jim Jarmusch’s latest movie, Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, is absolutely lovely, and perhaps my favorite thing Jarmusch has ever done. A big part of the reason is Bill Murray. I feel like I could watch Murray for hours, just sitting on the living room couch as he often does in this film. It’s hard to describe, or do full justice to, the persona Murray has evolved in his recent work for Wes Anderson, and especially for Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), and now Jarmusch. He’s moody and melancholic, in contrast to the manic comedy that first made him famous. But of course there was already a kind of silent, intense yearning behind the frantic hysteria of Murray’s characters in films like the great What About Bob?. In Broken Flowers, a kind of mournful passivity is all that’s left of this yearning; Murray’s Don Johnston is (as the character’s name suggests) a sort of Don Juan, who has found no lasting satisfaction in any of his erotic conquests, and now, in a financially comfortable middle age, has no ambitions and nothing to look forward to. To call Murray’s acting style here minimalist and deadpan would be accurate, but inadequate. Don Johnston isn’t really a blank slate; he’s weary but goes on anyway; he understates all his emotional reactions, but he is far from affectless. Murray’s pauses are eloquent in their suggestiveness; he fully expresses feelings and responses with the tiniest, slowest gestures and facial tics. But that’s not quite an accurate description either; it isn’t that Murray suggests and expresses a lot with a little; it’s rather that this “little” is what he is expressing, quite accurately and fully proportionally. Don Johnston is somebody who has found life to be disappointing; but he doesn’t feel betrayed or outraged by this disappointment, he merely takes it in stride, because he knows that it is all that anyone can reasonably expect — or better, that it is all that anyone will ever get, no matter what they expect). It’s a kind of weary, melancholy stoicism that is nonetheless as far from despair as it is from exhilaration and joie de vivre. I’m reminded of Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, or of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

(I should add also that the long-ago lovers whom Don Johnston contacts 20 years later, in a vain attempt to discover whether he has a son, are wonderfully acted also, especially the performances of Sharon Stone and Jessica Lange. There’s also the great manic supporting peformance of the always-brilliant — and always underrated — Jeffrey Wright).

All this makes Murray a perfect leading man for Jim Jarmusch, whose films are always about missed connections, disappointments and misunderstandings, and (excuse the metaphor) pregnant pauses that end only in miscarriages. At his worst, Jarmusch can be snide, irritatingly self-congratulatory, and quite sappy beneath all the hipster posturing. At his best, however, as here, he is very nearly sublime. I admired Jarmusch’s last two real features, the deconstructed Western Dead Man, with Johnny Depp, and the colder-than-ice gangster/samurai Ghost Dog, with Forest Whitaker, both of which made brilliant use of their leading men; but I think that in Broken Flowers, and with Murray, Jarmusch has outdone himself. His visual style, with long pauses, elliptical cuts, and an emphasis on journeys rather than destinations, is perfectly pitched for this inconclusive story about a man who sort-of confronts his past, but has no epiphanies, revelations, or moments of Proustian recollection. Jarmusch’s films are slow, but their tempo is never simply drawn-out or undifferentiated; Broken Flowers is perfectly paced in its evocation of reluctant retrospection. Jarmusch has always juxtaposed moments of (understated, but genuine) feeling with moments of absurdist deadpan humor; in some films, the effect is deliberately jarring and deconstructive, but here there’s an almost seamless blending of these modes, so that nearly all the incidents in the film seem ludicrous and touching at the same time. All in all, Broken Flowers is a very nearly impalpable film, slipping through one’s grasp, but leaving the ghosts of decayed emotions behind to haunt you.

Magic for Beginners

Wednesday, August 10th, 2005

Kelly Link‘s new short story collection, Magic for Beginners, leaves me as much at a loss for words as her previous collection did. Stories at once mundane (a New York family moves out to the suburbs; the husband is scarcely ever home, with his long commute and well-over-40-hours corporate job) and fantastic (the suburban house is oddly haunted; rabbits ridden by tiny people, armed with spears, throng on the front lawn) continually metamorphose, implode, or fall into dizzyingly self-referential mise-en-abime loops. One moment a bunch of middle-age guys, all failures in life, are sitting around a table drinking beer and playing poker; the next, a cheerleader is in a closet with the devil, experiencing her life flow backwards, and telling the devil a story about one of the guys sitting around the table… Then there’s the one about the TV series that unfolds entirely in an enormous library, with all sorts of supernatural happenings, and different actors play the same character each episode, only it seems the people who watch this series are also characters inside it, unless it is rather that the TV fiction somehow leaks into the “real” world… only there’s also all the stuff about teen awkwardness about sex, and wedding chapels in Las Vegas, and going on to the roof at night and looking at the stars…

Link’s stories have the dizzying ontological dislocations of Borges, but they also seem bizarrely, unreasonably cheerful (even when they are describing deeply troubling things), which is mostly because of the narrating voice, who remains bouncy like a fairytale storyteller, and yet remains matter-of-fact, no matter how outrageous what is being said. You can see this in the openings of her stories: “There once was a man whose wife was dead. She was dead when he fell in love with her, and she was dead for the twelve years they lived together….” Or again: “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet. But she will be, soon. She’s a character on a television show called The Library. You’ve never seen The Library on TV, but I bet you wish you had.” The more convoluted and crazy the narrative line becomes, the more blithely the narrator tells us about it, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. It is impossible to describe what these stories are like (in precisely the way that, according to certain philosophers, it would be impossible for a human being to experience what it is like to be a bat. And yet the stories do somehow convey this alien sensibility, that cannot be positively described).

The stories in Magic for Beginners are vertiginously weightless: they have an excessive clarity, I want to say, that makes them impossible to summarize or pin down. Nothing could be more postmodern, in the way the stories have no center, in the way all their affects are free-floating and highly mutable, in the way even their anxieties and terrors seem strangely objective or ambient, strangely devoid of any interiority. And yet they are also devoid of the cartoony hyperrealism, the flippant irony, the ultra-commodification, and the obsessive allusiveness, that we usually consider markers of the “postmodern.” (They are also too slippery, and too free of any programmatic transgressiveness, to be properly called “surrealist”). I want to say (though I am unable, for now, to say it at all convincingly; and though even to suggest it makes me seem, oxymoronically, like a monstrously upbeat and cheerful Adorno) that Kelly Link’s writing presupposes, and is only conceivable within, a world like ours that has been entirely colonized and subsumed by global capital; and yet, this writing proposes and enacts a sort of singular aestheticism that is utterly irreducible to this global totality.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Wednesday, August 10th, 2005

I’ve been a fan of Miranda July for some time now: I have heard her CDs, and seen several of her multimedia performances. Her work always (what is the best way to say this?) obsesses me, but in a mild way: her oblique stories/comments/pictures and words/impersonations draw me in and make me want to figure out more, since they seem meaningful and not merely nonsensical, and since they continually imply depths that they resolutely refuse to articulate. July’s work is very “postmodern”, in that it is (in a sense) all about surfaces; but some of the surfaces are folded and dark and inaccessible, which makes me want to unfold them somehow, but I can’t. It is hard to describe them more specifically than this: I’d say that everything July does is affectively charged (with a certain degree of pain and awkwardness “behind” what seems “quirky” and “cute”), but (as my use of quotation marks indicates) it is impossible to pin down just what the affects are. Defensiveness? disappointment? embarrassment? shyness? an oxymoronically low-key hysteria? disillusionment? rejection? mild satisfaction?

July’s new film, her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is (as reviews and interviews have suggested) more “accessible” than her earlier work in other media, but this doesn’t mean that it waters down or compromises any of the qualities of her previous work. In genre terms, Me and You is a romantic comedy; but it’s so continually surprising and original that the genre marker doesn’t really say very much. It’s a film about the tentative, fragile, and often mishandled and misunderstood connections between people: romantic connections, sexual connections, family connections, friendship connections. The ages of the characters range (literally) from 7 to 70, although the main characters (played by July herself and by John Hawkes, whom I didn’t know before but who is apparently best known for his role in the TV series “Deadwood,” which I still unfortunately haven’t seen) are single or divorced 30-somethings. The awkwardness with regards to sexuality of the under-the-age-of-consent characters is beautifully portrayed (actually I am surprised that, in these puritanical times, July hasn’t gotten more flak for this), but so is the awkwardness, when it comes to expressing feelings (or even recognizing feelings in oneself) of the adult characters. I really don’t know how to describe the changing moods of the film, from humor to despair, without negatives: it’s so off-kilter that its gloom and fatalism is never morbid or even sentimental; so wry and dry and deadpan that its fundamental sweetness often passes by barely perceived; it walks a line between outrageousness and silliness so deftly that it is never in the least bit transgressive (not even when the 7-year-old boy is exchanging fantasies about poop with another screen persona who turns out to be an uptight woman in her 40s, and not even when the subject of teenage fellatio comes up, as it does several times) — but not transgressive precisely because there is never anything the least bit normative in the film, hence nothing against which one could transgress.

Me and You and Everyone We Know also abounds with images that are lovely and ridiculous at the same time. I think of an almost-excrucating sequence involving a goldfish in a bag of water precariously perched on the roof of a car weaving through traffic; of a pair of pink shoes that comes up several times; of the 7-year-old using cut and paste to overcome the problem of his uncertain spelling as he writes in a chat room; of a bird on a branch at the start of the film that is transformed at the end to a hokey painting of a bird stuck in some bushes. Me and You and Everyone We Know is a film of small moments that are (again, how do I say this?) utterly everyday, and at the same time transformative — but only slightly, tentatively transformative. It’s appropriate, perhaps, that a film so beautifully undemonstrative and undeclarative should leave me tongue-tied as I endeavor to describe it.


Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

In the wake of Bush’s statement endorsing the teaching of “intelligent design” theory alongside Darwinian evolutionary theory in the schools, I saw a debate on CNN between somebody from the Discovery Institute (the foundation behind the recent push for “intelligent design”) and Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. I was appalled. The Discovery Institute guy sounded open-minded and reasonable, with all his talk about new research and intellectual flexibility — though of course everything he said was pure garbage. On the other hand, Shermer was pompous and overbearing, the condescending voice of Authority, lecturing the public about the importance of peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals, and actually saying at one point that only allowing the expression of ideas that have been properly peer-reviewed is “how we do things in a free society.” (He also kept on referring to “the marketplace of ideas,” evidently not realizing that the “marketplace of ideas,” like any other marketplace, has no concern for the truth or rationality he was otherwise trumpeting).

If you didn’t know anything about the subject, whom would you believe? Shermer’s performance justified everything Isabelle Stengers has said about the imperialist arrogance of official spokespeople for Big Science. Though ostensibly he was talking about the importance of rationality and of the objective gathering and weighing of empirical evidence, his affect was one of argument from authority, as if to say: “how dare you contest what we, the enlightened elite, have determined to be the case!” (Not to mention that, as an academic myself, I have ample experience with “peer review,” and I know how corrupt and dishonest it is). With supporters like this, Darwin doesn’t need enemies. Shermer, just like the Democratic Party, almost seems to go out of his way to justify all the sterotypes the Republicans and fundamentalists have been promulgating for years now about “liberal elitism” and liberals’ contempt for the common person. After hearing advocates for Science like Shermer, most Americans will find Bush to be speaking plausibly when he says that “intelligent design” ought to be taught alongside evolution because “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”

In reality, of course, teaching “intelligent design” is an historical falsification. It is equivalent to teaching the theories of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, and of people who say that blacks were treated kindly and humanely under slavery. I doubt that even Bush would endorse Holocaust denial as a benevolent example of exposing people to different schools of thought. But the argument is never made along these lines, not in the courts, and not in the statements of any of the scientists who oppose creationism.

Of course, giving any legitimacy at all to “intelligent design” is actually a form of religio-political indoctrination; but recognizing this forces us, too, to recognize the unpleasant fact that no form of education is entirely devoid of indoctrination. (I am referring not only to formal education in the schools, but also to things like teaching my 3-year-old daughter to use the potty and to be polite and show consideration for other people). There’s no easy way out of this dilemma; it brings us to the limits of secular humanism/liberalism, which is the dogma I prefer over all others, except for the fact that it refuses to admit that it is one dogma among others, and which (like all dogmas) can only establish itself by vanquishing others.

I have no conclusions here, no suggestions as to how we can better defend historical truth against imposture (to give the whole question a more 18th century turn of phrase than perhaps it merits in these postmodern times). Currently science is losing the battle to religious fanaticism, and to a large extent this is science’s own fault (just as all the recent Republican victories are the Democrats’ own fault). Which probably just means that we are doomed (as I already said after Bush’s re-election).

Joseph Schumpeter

Monday, August 1st, 2005

Joseph Schumpeter sees the process of “creative destruction” as the essential dynamic of capitalism. Entrepreneurs turn the market upside-down with their innovations, forcing the adoption of new patterns of production and consumption. Schumpeter, in contrast to the orthodox neoclassical economists, has little use for the idealizations of “perfect competition,” or for the putative rationality of the free market. He ridicules the notion of market equilibrium, and sees little value in the efficiency that results when firms selling similar products compete on the basis of price, performance, and marginal advantage. Schumpeter prefers monopolies and oligopolies, with their ability to realize economies of scale, to standardize production, and to take advantage of their control of the market in order to nurture innovations that might not be immediately profitable.

Schumpeter is the only right-wing, pro-capitalist economist of note to give Marx his due as a thinker. His theory of “creative destruction” is an expansion of Marx’s insight that capitalism can only work by continually revolutionizing the relations of production. For Schumpeter, the competition that really matters –- in contrast to mere price competition –- is that which a given product faces “from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization.” Even monopolies can collapse overnight when faced with this sort of unexpected shift. The “ever-present threat” of innovation from outside compels monopolies and oligopolies to stay on full alert and seek to expand their business, rather than simply raising prices and restricting supply. The neoclassical notion of equilibrium is nonsense, because capitalism is “an evolutionary process. . . [that] not only never is but never can be stationary.” Schumpeter clearly means “evolutionary” here in a Darwinian sense. Capitalism, he writes, is a “process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.”

There’s an irony here that needs unpacking. The neo-Darwinian synthesis in contemporary biology is grounded in a vision of harsh competition under conditions of scarcity. Yet it emphasizes stability and continuity rather than revolution and destruction. It assumes that organisms are basically conservative. It tends to regard the organism’s external environment (or the “fitness landscape” defined by that environment) as essentially stable; it underestimates both the mutability of the environment, and the self-reflexive feedback effects that organisms have on their own environments. Instead, it calculates Evolutionarily Stable Strategies, using equilibrium models that are borrowed from neoclassical economics, and ultimately from 19th-century, pre-quantum and pre-complexity, physics. Schumpeter’s biological analogy, to the contrary, involves catastrophic destructions and dislocations. Stability is only a relative and temporary condition, a lull in between moments of radical mutation. Schumpeter even seems to anticipate the Eldredge-Gould theory of punctuated equilibrium: “these revolutions are not strictly incessant; they occur in discrete rushes that are separated from each other by spans of comparative quiet. The process as a whole works incessantly, however, in the sense that there always is either revolution or absorption of the results of revolution, both together forming what are known as business cycles.” In biology, it can at least be argued that punctuated equilibrium does not really contradict Darwinian gradualism, and can be folded into the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But in Schumpeter’s case, no such reconciliation with the neoclassical model is possible. The irony is that, during the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, Schumpeter’s celebration of entrepreneurship and “creative destruction” became popular right alongside the neoliberal faith in perfectly rational and efficient markets –- despite the radical incompatibility of these viewpoints.

Schumpeter refuses to minimize the dislocations and inequities caused by the process of creative destruction: “any pro-capitalist argument must rest on long-term considerations. In the short run, it is profits and inefficiencies that dominate the picture. In order to accept his lot, the leveler or the chartist of old would have had to comfort himself with hopes for his great-grandchildren. In order to identify himself with the capitalist system, the unemployed of today would have completely to forget his personal fate and the politician of today his personal ambition.” This argument is remarkably bracing and contrarian, especially in contrast to the usual neoliberal paeans to the perfection of the market. Schumpeter is indeed arguing that “trickle- down” economics works, that a rising tide ultimately lifts all boats, and that the immiseration of the British working class noted by Engels in 1844 was in the long run not a bad thing, because it led to a somewhat higher standard of living for British workers a hundred years later. But at least he doesn’t tell me – as Thomas Friedman does – that I myself will be made happier by living in a world without any social guarantees, and that I ought to feel grateful for the opportunity to raise my productivity by working longer hours for less pay.

There is reason to wonder, of course, whether the distant future that Schumpeter promises to my great-grandchildren will ever actually arrive. For if capitalism survives, the cycles of creative destruction will still be going on then too, and the promise of prosperity for all will continue to be deferred indefinitely. If, however, as Schumpeter fears, capitalism itself were to “become atrophic” and disappear, then there would no longer be any innovation or material progress at all: “human energy would turn away from business. Other than economic pursuits would attract the brains and provide the adventure.” I must say that such a prospect seems quite delightful to me; but Schumpeter regards it with unqualified disgust. Indeed, he scarcely distinguishes between the inertia of bureaucratic socialism, which he loathes, and the actual fulfillment of capitalism’s long-deferred promises of abundance. Nothing seems worse to him than “a state of satiety” in which “the wants of humanity might some day be so completely satisfied that little motive would be left to push productive effort still further ahead.” And the only thing that can rescue us from such a state, he adds, is the infinite restlessness of desire itself: “as higher standards of life are attained, these wants automatically expand and new wants emerge or are created. . . particularly if we include leisure among consumers’ goods” (131). This is again a remarkable piece of contrarianism. Usually, social critics (like Stuart Ewen) attack capitalism for colonizing leisure, and for soliciting artificial desires; while defenders of capitalism (like Virginia Postrel) indignantly reject these charges, and insist that the market gives us everything we truly want. But Schumpeter has the perversity to celebrate capitalism precisely for its creation of artificial “new wants,” and for its commodification of leisure time.

All this suggests that Schumpeter values the process of creative destruction itself, more than he does any long-term prosperity that might arise therefrom. Indeed, one might wonder whether he cares about prosperity at all. His glorification of capitalism centers on the heroic image of the entrepreneur; and this image, like the idea of “creative destruction” itself, owes far more to Nietzsche than it does to Adam Smith. Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is a charismatic figure, whose injection of new energy rescues the capitalist system from its otherwise fatal entropic tendencies (I’ve benefitted for this point from some suggestions by Douglas Collins). His deeds “lie outside of the routine tasks which everybody understands.” The entrepreneur, like the man of Nietzsche’s fantasized master race, acts spontaneously, without reflection or resentment. “The function of entrepreneurs,” Schumpeter says, “is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production”: this function “does not essentially consist in either inventing anything or otherwise creating the conditions which the enterprise exploits. It consists in getting things done” despite massive opposition. In all these ways, Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is not really a bourgeois figure at all, but a mythical aristocratic one.

Conversely, Schumpeter’s picture of the “state of satiety,” of a socialist world without entrepreneurs to shake things up, is just like Nietzsche’s vision of the Last Man: “One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. . . We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink.” Schumpeter as for Nietzsche, socialism is basically bourgeois conformism and complacency writ large. Schumpeter’s analysis of the dynamics of capitalism traces the way that the very success of heroic entrepreneurship leads to the creation of an atmosphere in which entrepreneurship is no longer valued, and in which modishly left-wing intellectuals come to increasing prominence. By “intellectuals,” Schumpeter means people like me: “people who wield the power of the spoken and written word. . . [in] the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs,” and who therefore have the leisure to despise capitalist values despite (or because of) the fact that they are themselves the beneficiaries –- and indeed the product –- of those very values.

Schumpeter holds intellectuals in contempt, because they make judgments, and seek to legislate for society at large, without being accountable for the practical consequences of these judgments. In other words, the intellectuals’ judgments are contemplative, disinterested, and therefore –- in Kantian terms –- aesthetic. Schumpeter, no less than many Marxists, equates aestheticism with passive consumption, detached from any involvement in the actual processes of production. Schumpeter’s intellectual, like Nietzsche’s Last Man, is a mere consumer: someone who lives under the rule of universal equivalence, who lacks even the desire to make a difference. Who lacks desire altogether, in short, and who is incapable of an act of creative destruction.

But the impasse of Schumpeter’s own thought is a mirror image of the malady he diagnoses in his enemies. Creative destruction comes to grief over the fact that its outcome is just more commodities, more fodder for the regime of universal equivalence. All charisma is quickly routinized. The heroic individualism that Schumpeter glorifies is dissolved by its very success. Nobody is going to confuse Sam Walton, or Bill Gates, with the Übermensch. If Schumpeter’s bitter prophecy of capitalism’s decline has not come to pass, this is because such a “decline” is in fact the normative state of actually existing, and fully triumphant, capitalism.