Archive for October, 2005

Benjamin, Warhol, and the Aura

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

Andy Warhol’s portraits (and self-portraits) suggest that personality, that unique inner selfhood that each of us cherishes, is just as much a commodity as anything else. Of course, we don’t all become famous and die young like Marilyn Monroe (whose image Warhol reproduced only after her death). But each of us has an exchange value, as a result of which each of us “changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness,” just as Marx says of commodities in general. Every commodity has a fetishistic aura (a pro jection of its exchange-value) that far exceeds its material and utilitarian properties as a mere ob ject (its use-value). In the same way, each of us has an aura that exceeds – and does not coincide with – our own consciousness or experience. As Warhol explains it: “I think ‘aura’ is something that only somebody else can see, and they only see as much of it as they want to. . . You can only see an aura on people you don’t know very
well or don’t know at all.” My aura, Warhol says, is different from my “product,” in much the way that exchange-value differs from use-value. My product is concrete labor, something I make or do through my own agency, like an artist’s paintings or an actress’ performances. My aura is not my product, however, because it is already myself-as -product, myself as I appear to other people, as I am present in the world as an object of exchange. That is to say, my aura is my exchange-value as a celebrity, in a society where everybody is famous for fifteen minutes. My aura is not an attribute, or a consequence, of anything that I actually do. It is independent of my agency, just as it is inaccessible to my awareness. My aura is an expression of how I am “famous for being famous”: like Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s entourage, or like Paris Hilton today.

Walter Benjamin, of course, opposes the aura to the commodity, in his discussion of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” For Benjamin, the aura is a quality that only exists outside of commodity production and technological reproduction. The aura of a natural ob ject is “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”; that of a work of art is its “here and now. . . its unique existence in a particular place.” In both cases, the aura is a singular presence, associated with cult and ritual; it has a “unique value” and it makes a claim to “authenticity.” Conversely, commodity exchange and technological reproducibility lead to the destruction of uniqueness and authenticity, and hence to the withering of the aura. Benjamin posits the same logic of simulation that is later celebrated by Warhol: “from a photographic plate. . . one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” But where Warhol sees the aura of celebrity as a result of this mutiplication of images, Benjamin only sees a cheap imitation: “film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character.”

But can we really distinguish, as Benjamin wants us to do, between the sublime magic of the authentic work of art, and the “putrid magic” of the commodity? Is the aura of the Mona Lisa any different from the aura of Greta Garbo? In fact, Leonardo and MGM both provide us with images of enigmatic beauty; and we revere both images in the same way. For Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave. . . and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Similarly, for Roland Barthes, “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature. . . the essence of her corporeal person [is] descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. . . The essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more than formal.” Pater and Barthes alike describe the enigmatic woman as a kind of eternal object, whose impassive perfection is unaffected by its material incarnation, or by the ravages of time. Garbo, like Mona Lisa, manifests a beauty – preserved in paint or celluloid – that stands out over and above her fleshly actuality; and this excess is precisely her aura.

In other words, the cult of the painting and the cult of the movie star are equally artifacts of commodity culture. The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world; this is equivalent to saying that it is the most frequently reproduced. We would not be able to experience the aura of the singular painting that sits in the Louvre, if we had not seen its image reproduced so many times in books, on postcards, even on film and television. The heart of Benjamin’s argument is that “the whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological – and, of course, not only technological – reproducibility.” But that is precisely the point: the authenticity of the original Mona Lisa can only be perceived by way of contrast to its many inadequate, inauthentic replications. You can’t have one side of this duality without the other. And the case of Garbo is exactly the same, except that here the authentic original is not her portrait, but her soul. The enigma of Garbo’s personality – the mystery of the woman who wants to be alone – is generated by the multiple reproductions of her image in the movies. If this is a “putrid magic,” then so is that of Leonardo’s portrait. We may doubt whether the Mona Lisa even had an aura, before the invention of photography caused copies of it to be widely disseminated. (Benjamin indeed refers to “the kinds and numbers of copies made of it in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries”; these would of course include pre-photographic copies, in the form of drawings, engravings, and woodcuts). In any case, the aura is not an earlier mode of being, destroyed by the rise of technological reproducibility. Rather, the aura is itself a product of technological reproducibility, a kind of obverse or back-formation. It is only ever apprehended retrospectively, and by contrast.

In other words, the entire drama of the aura and its decay, or what Benjamin also calls the movement from “cult value” to “exhibition value,” is internal to the commodity form itself. Technological reproducibility itself is a consequence of commodity production and circulation, rather than the reverse (a point on which Benjamin remains ambiguous). Once full-fledged commodity exchange has taken hold, it is no longer possible to refer back to an earlier (pre-captialist or pre-industrial) state of things. We can only grasp that earlier state of things in commodity terms; for as Benjamin elsewhere writes, “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.” So what Benjamin describes in terms of historical process is actually a static duality, frozen in the Eternal Now of consumer/celebrity culture. Your aura is different from your product, Warhol says, but both of them are for sale. The difference between them is this. As Marx says in his description of commodity fetishism, relations between human beings – relations of labor and production – are transformed into “ob jective characteristics of the products of labour themselves.” My labor is embodied in my product; and to the extent that this labor is “work for hire,” this product is then taken away from me. And that is how it becomes a fetish. But the aura is not a product. In their auras, human beings actually are “things,” rather than just having their labor (and the social relations that determine that labor)
“alienated” from them and congealed into the form of things. It is not in exchanging products, but only by selling and buying auras, that, in Benjamin’s words, we reach such an extreme point of “self-alienation” that “humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself.”

Mark Anthony Neal on Jay-Z

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

I am happy to announce the second DeRoy Lecture of the 2005-2006 school year. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, and author of books on hip hop, r&b, and “black masculinity,” will be speaking about Jay-Z.

The talk is tomorrow, Thursday, October 20, at 3pm, at Wayne State University in the English Department Conference Room (suite 10302, 5057 Woodward).

A History of Violence

Wednesday, October 19th, 2005

I’m not sure how much I can add, belatedly, to what k-punk, girish twice, Chuck, Jodi — followed by k-punk’s reply and Jodi’s counter-replyJonathan Rosenbaum, and others have already said about A History of Violence. But I do think that it is David Cronenberg’s best film since at least Dead Ringers (1988). Quite some time ago, I wrote extensively about the body horror in Cronenberg’s early films: which meant a lot, and still means a lot, to me. I was a bit disappointed, however, about the way that Cronenberg’s distancing himself from genre, in order to embrace “art film,” got in the way of his adaptations of writers with whom he shared a sensibility (William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard). And I was still more disappointed, when, in his more recent films, even though sometimes with increased artistic power, Cronenberg moved away from that explosive sensibility altogether, and towards an implosive concern with the anguish of wounded white male interiority — a subject with which I have little sympathy, as I think that we (since I have to be included as part of that “we”) need to get over it, and go on to more important things than whining over our supposed (more fantasmatic than actually real) loss of privilege. (In fairness, I should note that my friend Bill Beard, in his excellent book on Cronenberg, not only gives a far less pejorative account of this progress, but also argues that such a process was in fact already the real concern of Cronenberg’s earlier films as well, despite all the posthuman exploration that I, among others, have read into them).

The editing of A History of Violence is very tight and powerful, like that of Spider. But the important thing is that A History of Violence for me is that the film is not psychological, not about interiority, in the way Spider definitely still was (and the way many of the Cronenberg films of the last fifteen years or so have been). By “not psychological”, I don’t mean not affective, but that the affect in some way is impersonal or transpersonal. In Spider, dread was tied in to the protagonist’s point of view: a POV that we know is distorted and fantasmatic, but which we cannot escape from, or get an independent perspective on, despite this knowledge. The epistemological deadlock — or better, prison — that is at the heart of that film was reinforced by the way in which the adult protagonist (Ralph Fiennes) appears in the frame as a silent observer of his own psychotically distorted childhood memories.

The editing and pacing of A History of Violence create a similar sense of dread, even when what is explicitly going on (the members of a picture-perfect nuclear family eating breakfast, pouring the dry cereal, etc.) is entirely “normal” and banal. But Viggo Mortensen, playing the protagonist, is so closed off and opaque that we can’t really read (or more accurately: feel) what he’s going through as subjective anguish. (I’m assuming anyone who has read this far has seen the movie, or at least knows the basic premise: Tom Stall, exemplary small-town family man, turns out to have a dark past as Joey Cusack, psychotic mob hit man). As Tom, Mortensen is simply too blank to “identify” with; as Joey, he doesn’t display any of the self-congratulatory feeling that even Clint Eastwood (wonderfully minimal in expression as he is) does ultimately allow himself when he is in vengeful mode. In an email exchange, Bill Beard suggested to me that Cronenberg and Mortensen are operating by subtraction: “A History of Violence produces something radical simply by subtracting standard conduits of viewer empathy from what is unmistakably a mainstream-movie framework.” So we get, for instance, generic small-town Americana such as is found in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and in the films of Frank Capra and (more recently) Steven Spielberg; everything is literally as it is supposed to be, but some dimension of warmth (or smarminess) is unaccountably missing, and this makes it all rather creepy. I’d only add to Beard’s account that the greatness of Mortensen’s acting, in particular, lies in the way he switches from one to the other of his two ‘characters’ or personalities, so that ultimately he seems to be trapped in a no-man’s-land between them. He’s a man without qualities, which is why both of his personas seem unpsychological. The conventional way to tell this story would be to make one of the personas more basic, more in depth, revealing the other persona to be just a mask; but this is precisely what Cronenberg refuses to do.

All this is even more evident in the two extraordinary sex scenes between Mortensen’s character and his wife Edie (Maria Bello), which are at the heart of the movie. The first involves playacting, as Edie drags Mortensen-as-Tom off to a secret tryst in the course of which she dresses as a cheerleader, and they pretend to be making out while their (whose? hers, I think) parents are sleeping in the next room. The second is when Mortensen-as-Joey drags Edie down the stairs and brutally fucks her in what is at least a near-rape (she ultimately seems to consent, though it’s clear that she continues to feel loathing as much as desire). What unites these two opposed scenes is that they both seem similarly distanced and performative, except that there is no sense of any realer or truer self behind the mask of the performance. The first scene is a parody of what adolescence is supposed to be like; the second is a parody of what maturity or adulthood all too often turns out to be like. This is why I felt a bit queasy during the first scene, and found it almost as disturbing as the second one. Both scenes suggest a kind of void, and a failure of contact: the two people never really come together. (Is this what Lacan meant by declaring that “there is no sexual relation”?). It’s not a void that one can feel anguished about, however; for the selfhood, or sense of “thrownness” at least, that would allow one to feel anguish is precisely what is missing, what has been replaced by a void.

All this is to say that the split or doubling in A History of Violence is ontological, rather than existential or psychological. The split between Tom and Joey, and between the two sex scenes, of course corresponds to the two worlds of the film, both of which are themselves cinematic — and thereby social — fantasies: the wholesome, Capraesque or Spielbergesque small town (Ronald Reagan’s America, or George W. Bush’s red states) on the one hand, and the big-city-at-nighttime on the other. (I initially thought of film noir for these scenes; but on further reflection I’m reminded more of the big city in violent-revenge-fantasy films like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, or, more recently, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City — it’s not irrelevant that A History of Violence, like Sin City, is an adaptation of material that first appeared in comic book form).

The result is that A History of Violence offers us a kind of spookily abstract modeling of cultural formations: of American fantasies about family, the good life, violence, empowerment, and self-reinvention: and in particular of how these participate in the construction of masculinity. This is very different from exploring the disintegration of masculinity — or of American culture, for that matter — from the inside. I call this ‘abstract modeling’ not just because Cronenberg’s presentation is so distanced and subtractive, but also because in a very real sense the abstraction is all that there is: the “inside” — something more personal and subjective, that would give the abstraction existential density and individual quirkiness and variability — simply doesn’t exist. This is Cronenberg’s version of postmodern flatness: the depths do not exist, everything is visible and apparent. This also explains the title of the film: this move really is a “history,” in the sense that it tracks the emergence of violence, and the different forms it takes at different times and in different circumstances. Violence is generated — almost as a autonomic effect — out of tiny rifts in the social fabric, or in the fabric of social myth (I mean, in the myth of noir as much as in the myth of wholesome “we take care of our own” Americana). This is why we get the story of Jack (Ashton Holmes), Tom’s teenage son, who erupts with violence in a parallel way to his father: as if what came back out of the past in the father’s case were generated as it were spontaneously, out of his very need to struggle, as an adolescent, with the (entirely stereotypical) problems of autonomy from the father and coming to terms with normative formations of masculinity. (I think that Jodi’s reading of the film as the son’s fantasy is valuable in the way it works out the son’s perspective; but I don’t accept it as an overall reading of the film, because it overly psychologizes the film and privileges the son’s perspective more than the film itself does, and thereby gives that perspective too much existential weight, ignoring how the film suggests it is just another social cliche, another purely superficial mode of articulating an otherwise blank subjectivity).

To say that A History of Violence is ontological and historical, rather than existential and psychological; and to say that it shows violence to be itself a surface or superficial effect of a structure or abstract model that is itself all surfaces (I’m calling it a “structure”, but the point of this is precisely that there is no underlying “deep structure” in any sense of the term): to say all this is also to say that the dichotomy or structural opposition that the film presents us with is false, and that the film ‘deconstructs’ the opposition, rather than affirming it. In other words, A History of Violence is like a Moebius strip. At any given point, it seems to have two sides; but the two sides are really the same side, each is continuous with the other, and slides imperceptibly into the other. There is no way to separate the Capra/Spielberg side from the noir/revenge nocturnal side. The common interpretive tendency in cases like this is to see the ‘dark’ side as the deep, hidden underside of the ‘bright’ side, the depths beneath the seemingly cheerful surface. But in A History of Violence, everything is what it seems. Both sides, both identities, are surfaces; both are ‘superficial’; and they blends into one other almost without our noticing. The small town, with its overly ostentatious friendliness, is a vision of the good life; but brother Richie’s enormous mansion, furnished with a nouveau-riche vulgarity that almost recalls Donald Trump’s penthouse, is also a vision of the good life. In their odd vacancy, they are both quintessentially American (this could be, as Cronenberg has hinted, an allegory of America’s current cultural divide: blue states and red states, which actually are more continuous with one another than anyone on either side recognizes… this is something, perhaps, that only a Canadian could see, as it is invisible both to us Americans, who are too caught up in it, and to people from outside North America, who are too far away).

The Moebius strip would be Cronenberg’s version of the postmodern idea that there are no depths, only surfaces. Or (the same thing, to me) that there are affects, but not identities to be owners of those affects. And this two-sides-as-one would be why/how Cronenberg can be so unrelentingly grim, instead of having to resort to camp, in the ways that David Lynch and Guy Maddin both do (in the ways, I would say, that they are both forced to do, because of the extremities of their visions). K-Punk is right to assert that, for both Cronenberg and Lynch, it’s wrong to explain away the dualities and dichotomies of their films by saying that one side is the dream or fantasy or underside of the other. Rather, we have to grasp the total congruence of the film’s two halves (this comment would apply to Mulholland Drive as much as to A History of Violence. The difference is that where Lynch marks the two sides in the form of manic camp on the one hand and depressive bitterness and paranoia on the other, Cronenberg flattens both of them out, empties them both out. Lynch is thus a maximalist, Cronenberg a minimalist).

To say that Cronenberg’s vision in this film is ontological is also to say that he recognizes no hierarchy of levels. A History of Violence isn’t a film about existential male anguish, precisely because it works equally well, without privileging any one of these, as a study of the vacancy of the isolated inidividual, of the bourgeois nuclear family, of America as a fantasmatic formation or imaginary community, and of the “human condition” in the most general terms. But if it works most bitingly and corrosively on the level of family, this is because the Spielberg/revenge dichotomy-that-isn’t-one, which is Cronenberg’s largest cinematic reference point, tends to play out most overtly in terms of Family. The small town, of course, is grounded on the nuclear family, and its “family values”; Joey became Tom, in large part, by becoming a family man (which is why Edie worries, when she discovers the hidden identity, what the family really is, what their name is or could be). In Philadelphia, Richie makes a speech to Joey/Tom about why and how he never married & would never marry: it ties you down, makes difficulties, if you are married, then when you have a fling with somebody else (as you will inevitably want to do) you will have to do it with elaborate secrecy, etc. All this is a prelude to Richie’s trying to kill Joey, not in spite of, but precisely because of the fact that they are brothers (Richie never got as far in the mob as he wanted to, he says, because his family tie to his crazy brother held him back, just like getting married would). But by the end of the film — the last scene — being a married husband/father/family man is just as hollow as Richie’s life was — and retrospectively, it always was this hollow. Cronenberg rejects and undermines what is to me the one most absolutely offensive thing about all of Spielberg’s films (and about all of Spike Lee’s films too, for that matter): the absolute insistence on taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood, and thus restoration of a 1950s nuclear family, as an unquestionable and totally redemptive gesture. I hated that insistence before I had children; and now that I am a father, I hate it even more. The hollowness of the final scene of A History of Violence — the son getting out a setting for the place of the now-returned father at the dinner table — is devastating in its absolute oppressive rightness.


Thursday, October 13th, 2005

Charles StrossAccelerando (available for free download here) is a science fiction novel about the Singularity, the hypothesized point when radical increases in computing power — expressed both in neurological enhancements to our brains, and in the development of autonomous artificial intelligences — lead to an absolute discontinuity in history (the word was first used in this sense, as far as I know, by Vernor Vinge). Stross bases his novel on the “strong AI” hypothesis, and the arguments of such enthusiasts as Hans Moravec (who sees the human race as shortly to be surpassed and rendered defunct by artificial intelligences) and Ray Kurzweil (who similarly contends that “within 25 years, we’ll reverse-engineer the brain and go on to develop superintelligence”). Stross doesn’t question these dubious premises, but runs with them in the best SF manner, pushing them to their most delirious consequences. The book is an experiment in thinking through what it might mean to be human in a posthuman world; and beyond that, what it might mean to be (merely) posthuman in a world (or, I should say, solar system or galaxy) in which the development of computation on a massive scale has left anything ‘human’ far behind.

I think that Ken Macleod was the first SF writer to describe the Singularity as “the Rapture, for nerds”; but Stross uses the phrase on several occasions. And indeed there is much of adolescent-boy wish-fulfillment fantasy in the ideas of Moravec and Kurzweil. Getting rid of those pesky bodies, eliminating all of the resistance of materiality to the immediate fulfillment of our desires, guaranteeing us omnipotence and immortality… Stross concedes all of this, in a charmingly offhanded manner. All of information space is wired directly into people’s brains; you can always run subprocesses to consider alternate possibilities (should I have sex with this person? I’ll just run a simulation and see what it will be like); thanks to “programmable matter” and nanomachines, any object you want (food, clothing, shelter, furniture) can be instantaneously produced with just a snap of your fingers. Yet much of the humor of his book comes from the fact that, even with all of this, people are still hopelessly neurotic and confused. As Accelerando traces the history of three (or four, depending on how you evaluate the existence of clones furnished with the memories, as well as the phenotype, of their ancestors) generations of a single family, it keeps on looping back through the same manias, tics, and obsessions, from masochistic abasement to puritanical fear of sexuality to an almost hysterical lust for novelty. Perhaps this is only a longwinded way of saying that, no matter how outrageously manic the plot gets, with sentient lobsters running spaceships in the Oort Belt, and characters who are older than their own mothers, and people who decide to shed their human form and download their intelligence into a flock of pigeons (which gives a whole new meaning to the computer-science idea of “distributed intelligence”), everything seems to fit quite sensibly and ‘naturally’ into the course of things. Stross maintains the idea that human beings are so culturally flexible, so able to adapt to new circumstances, and to imagine alternatives, that almost anything is possible; while at the same time also proposing a vision of human-all-too-human nature stubbornly refusing to give up its primordial instincts, no matter how altered the circumstances and no matter how self-defeating the refusal. His narrative gains its flexibility and fun by walking the tightrope between these contradictory cliches, and refusing the Nietzschean pathos that might come by embracing either.

Accelerando also stands at an odd angle to the ‘utopian’ strain that so many critics (like Fredric Jameson) have seen as central to science fiction. The novel envisions a society of abundance rather than scarcity: but this seems to be the inevitable result of new, powerful technologies, more than it comes from any determined political vision. The only political issue that really seems to trouble the novel’s characters (at least in the earlier stages of the story) is in what circumstances artificial intelligences should be given the right to vote (and relatedly, whether multiple copies of the same personality should be allowed one-instantiation-one-vote). In Stross’s post-Singularity world, everybody is provided free with the basic necessities (which include neural implants and information access, as well as a reasonably comfortable supplies of food, clothing, and shelter). This would seem to be all gain and no pain: poverty is eliminated (as are wars and ethnic and religious conflict) with no need for a corresponding change in our fundamental capitalistic ethos. Relative scarcity, and money, still seem to exist when it comes to luxuries over and above the basic needs; people continue to scheme and plan and compete and act all “entrepreneurial,” even though there doesn’t seem to be much of anything for them to compete about. Actually, this shifts towards the end of the book — since “progress” and ease continue to be projected exponentially onward, eventually we find ourselves in a ‘world’ without State or commerce, and where “life is rich… endlessly varied and sometimes confusing,” but still recognizably grounded in communities of human beings “living in small family groups within larger tribal networks” (359-360). Again, Stross is playing with the paradox of everything changing and yet, fundamentally, nothing changing: a sort-of utopia achieved on the basis of abundance alone, confounding both those conservatives who believe that the fixed nastiness of “human nature” makes any hope of amelioration illusive and even dangerous, and those progressives who pin their hopes of improvement on the need, as well as the capacity, for human beings to fundamentally alter who they are. One of the most brilliant strokes of the book is that, though the Singularity undoubtedly occurs sometime during the course of the narrative (which extends from the year 2010 to what would be, in old Earth terms, the 23rd century), we never ‘see’ it happening, and cannot pin down precisely when it took place. Continuity and radical discontinuity are thus, like these other paradoxes, affirmed simultaneously.

But for me, the best parts of Accelerando have to do, not with its florid imaginings, but with its presentation of what really cannot be imagined. That is to say: its representation of posthuman artificial intelligences, those whose computing power is not limited by our carbon-based biology. These superhuman entities force the remaining enhanced human beings further and further away from the sun, to Jupiter, then to Saturn, then to the Oort Belt, then finally out of the solar system altogether. There isn’t room for both them and us; once they have simulated and assimilated us, they have no further use for us. It isn’t just that we don’t know what they want; beyond this, it is literally impossible for us to imagine what they might want. The scientific and philosophical reason for this is that these entities possess a higher-order consciousness than we do: “a posthuman can build an internal model of a human-level intelligence that is, well, as cognitively strong as the original. You or I may think we know what makes other people tick, but we’re quite often wrong, whereas real posthumans can actually simulate us, inner states and all, and get it right” (376-377). (So much for “the problem of other minds”).

But in terms of the narrative, these posthuman intelligences are like nothing so much as transnational corporations. . Remember that, already today, corporations are “persons” according to the law, even though they are not themselves conscious. Accelerando simply takes this legal fiction to the next level. The posthumans are “slyly self-aware financial instruments” (168) that have freed themselves from merely human parameters. No wonder that, in the course of the novel, they dismantle the solar system, pulverizing the planets and asteroids in order to convert them to computronium. For they strive to extract the maximum value (in the form of computational power) from all matter; their focus is on efficiency, and on the endless expansion and accumulation of computation, with no goal external to this accumulation itself. Money to them is “quantized originality — that which allows one sentient entity to outmaneuver another” (295). No measure of abundance can squelch their drive for competition. They are continually crunching data; for instance, they use all available historical traces to simulate as many as possible of all the human beings who have ever lived; after they’ve extracted what surplus-information they can by running the simulations, they download the “resimulated” (313) human beings back into flesh, where it seems they function as “cognitive antibodies” (340) programmed to keep the remaining augmented humans in line.

The posthumans have upgraded the old-fashioned “free market” to “Economics 2.0,” a system that is “more efficient than any human-designed resource allocation schema” (303). Economics 2.0 “replaces the single-indirection layer of conventional money, and the multiple-indirection mappings of options trades, with some kind of insanely baroque object-relational framework based on the parametrized desires and subjective experiential values of the players” (321). Human intelligence is incapable of participating in Economics 2.0 “without dehumanizing cognitive surgery” (315). In the framework of Economics 2.0, we can only function as “sapient currency units,” stockpiled for trade in “species futures” options (210). And all this seems to be the case, not only in our own solar system, but throughout the galaxy, which is littered with the ruins of superintelligent civilizations that have pushed the mania for accumulation to the point of implosion and extinction. Indeed, when the human protagonists of Accelerando finally meet an alien entity, not only does it take on the material form of a gigantic slug, but it turns out to be, rather hilariously, a “parasitic organism… the Economics 2.0 equivalent of a pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam” (295). Never has the classic SF scenario of First Contact with alien life been so deflated. Accelerando suggests (though perhaps not fully intentionally) that, not only is the Singularity near, as Ray Kurzweil maintains, but in fact it has already happened: less through the exponential increase in computing power and telecommunications networking (though that has certainly played a role) than through the neoliberal transformation — the deregulation of corporate activity, and the dismantling of the welfare state — of the last thirty years or so.

The Girl From Monday

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

Hal Hartley, once a darling of independent film, has fallen from critical and popular favor as his films have become weirder and more abstract. Not many people besides me liked his 2001 film No Such Thing; and his most recent feature, The Girl From Monday (premiered at Sundance last winter, and currently distributed on DVD by Netflix — see the trailer here), seems to be even less popular. But it’s a strong film, haunting and at the same time deliberately frustrating and insubstantial.

The Girl From Monday was evidently made on an extremely low budget, and shot on digital video. In this respect, it somewhat resembles Hartley’s pre-millennium short The Book of Life, with which it shares many stylistic traits, notably the exploitation of the video for stop action, strange light diffusion, motion blur, and so on. The Girl From Monday adds to this mix desaturation (so that scenes shot in color look washed out, almost black and white) and lots of jump cuts and unexpected close-ups. The result is a film that is gorgeous in its relentlessly kinetic and fractured cinematography, although (or precisely because) its spare look is diametrically opposed to the photographic lushness that is commonly described as “gorgeous.”

In terms of genre, The Girl From Monday is a science fiction story, focusing on commodities and commodification (which is a sub-genre I’ve been especially paying attention to recently). But it’s also, this being Hal Hartley, a Godardian, highly self-conscious auteurist film. It doesn’t exactly have a straightforward plot, and it works more by digression and intense focusing on (seemingly irrelevant) details, than on conventional narrative momentum.

In any case, the movie takes place in a slightly-future New York (the look is entirely contemporary, and not at all “futuristic” — the only special effects are those of Hartley’s video cinematography) in which a “revolution” has given supreme power to an advertising agency. Everything is based on commodity acquisition; instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have “the Dictatorship of the Consumer.” People receive exactly what they desire (assuming they can afford it); their desires are incited by advertising campaigns, which in turn are directed by focus-group surveys, whose choices are in turn circumscribed by corporate sales agendas… It’s a solipsistic closed loop, so that everyone is by definition maximally satisfied, while at the same time people’s ability to act is extremely circumscribed. High-tech police stand on alert on every street corner, and everyone has a bar code permanently tattooed on their wrist.

Everything in the world of The Girl From Monday is sexualized, and sexuality itself is entirely commodified. As the description of the film on Hartley’s website puts it, “Citizens are now public offerings on the stock exchange; each time they have sex and remain unattached their value increases depending on the current state of the market.” In contrast, any sexual act unaccompanied by market valuation (like fucking either for love, or simply for pleasure and enjoyment) is considered (at best) a shameful perversion (sort of like how masturbation was regarded in the 19th century).

Of course, there is an underground rebellion against this state of affairs, and Hartley’s male protagonist, Jack Bell (played by Bill Sage, who in both looks and affect is quite similar to Martin Donovan, the male lead in a number of Hartley’s earlier movies) is both an advertising executive responsible for the commodification of sex, and the secret leader of the underground. Jack is involved in typically Hartleyesque romantic situations (missed encounters, confused signals, discontents that fail ever to be articulated clearly) with two women, his co-worker Cecile (Sabrina Lloyd) who eventually joins the underground and gets sent to prison, and the Girl From Monday (Tatiana Abracos), an alien (from, we are told, “Star 147X in the constellation Monday”) who emerges naked from the sea in front of Jack’s eyes (despite the fact that he has seemingly committed suicide several scenes earlier).

Confused? The plot and background, as I am trying to recount them here, are in fact not a big part of the movie: they are presupposed by it more than they are narrated by it; they come out mostly as throwaways in Jack’s voiceover narration. Bear with me; as I’ll try to explain, it’s all pretext. What does matter is the aliens — or “immigrants,” as they are called in official euphemism — and apparently there are many of them; all acts of the underground are attributed to them, and by the end of the film we even discover that Jack himself is one, though he has apparently forgotten it. The aliens come from a planet where they don’t have individual identities, being all parts of one another; which means, also, that they don’t have bodies — they only incarnate themselves when they come to Earth. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie involve the nameless Girl From Monday learning how to use and to understand her body: how to eat and drink and piss and shit, how to have sex, even what it means to cry. From the official point of view, only such an alien — devoid of the endless commodity cravings of consumer capitalism — could possibly be opposed to the atomistic self-empowerment that is the watchword of the Dictatorship of the Consumer.

So on one hand, we have citizens obsessed with their own bodies and body-images, consumed by insatiable desires whose only expression comes in the form of commodities, and whose main activity is at once conspicuous consumption and relentless self-valorization — so that the consumer is identical with the capitalist, or better with Capital itself. On the other, we have aliens who are beautiful precisely because they seem so self-sufficient, which is because they do not know desire or need, which is in turn because they do not know separation (except in the shock of reification that occurs when they fall to Earth) which in its turn is because they don’t have bodies (though, interestingly, there is no suggestion of anything spiritual or mental or dualistic in this bodylessness; without a body simply seems to mean without lack, without deficiency or desire, which makes the definition of the alien into another closed circle).

What this all means is that the film is structured around a sort of Gnosticism — albeit (this being Hartley) a particularly wry and unapocalyptic one. We have fallen, not into materiality (the classical Gnostic lament), nor even into instrumental reason (the modernist paradigm) than into commodification itself (which makes for a postmodern Gnosticism). The only salvation would seem to come from a sort of slipping away, dissolving away, back into the non-personhood of the aliens. We are told that an alien can return home by re-immersing him/herself into the ocean from which he/she initially emerged; but also, that once you have become too caught up in the body, and in the desires of this world (of consumer capitalism), such a return becomes impossible. Jack says he is unable ever to return — the waves reject him (this is perhaps why his suicide early in the film leaves him untouched?), and at the end of the film, when the Girl From Monday does go back under the waves, Jack’s narration states that he will never know whether she made it back home, or just drowned. In any case, active resistance seems futile — it turns out that rebellion, sabotage, and the like, just as much as conformity and enthusiastic shopping, is good for business and serves only to increase sales.

Consumerism requires discontent; thereby, it also inevitably breeds a discontent with this very discontent. But no such “negation of the negation” will get us out of the consumerist trap. For such a move only breeds still more commodified desire. If you fail to be a properly self-valorizing subject, your punishment is to be commodified instead as an object (selling your labor as a commodity). Offenses against the spirit of the marketplace are punished by “hard labor” teaching high school; repeated offenses get you sent to the moon to do low-level service-sector work in a DisneyWorld-like theme park.

The one thing that “redeems” this unredeemable situation is the formal (visual and sonic) structure of the film. (Though “structure” is probably not quite the right word, for something so willfully fragmentary and impalpable). It’s not just the jump cuts and washed-out colors and self-referential-reminding-us-that-this-is-just-a-video-moments that do this — although these features do, as Adorno might put it, rupture any sense of formal closure, destroy the possibility of any “false totalization.” It’s also the way that Hartley’s camerawork and editing remain anchored in a sort of everydayness. Though we hear a lot about ultra-commodification, what we see on the screen is not Starbucks, but 89-cent cups of rotgut coffee from the local streetcorner bodega; and not interiors expensively set out with lavish but suitably minimal yuppie furniture, but ratty couches, fire escapes, and bookcases filled with random volumes. (One of the negative reviews I found complains, not just that the camerawork seems “cheap” and “grating” — which to my mind is precisely what is right about it — but also that “Hartley shot the movie in haphazard locations, nodding to the future with just a few elements of costume and prop design. So, for instance, the hero’s office features a copy of “The Beatles Anthology” on a shelf. Huh?” — which again, to my mind, is precisely the point).

There’s a beauty in this casual rundownness, just as there’s a beauty in Hartley’s characteristically precise blocking of speech, gestures, and movement, so that every statement seems to be said with a well of ironic reserve, if not actually put into “quotation marks”; and the actors’ gestures and movements are (not robotic, but) too clipped and carefully articulated to be expressive (they cannot be imagined as expressions of deeper inner mental states, but instead reinforce the principle of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or “nothing is hidden”). This sort of beautiful reserve and distance in both the actors and the decors — and also in the perpetual incompletion of what the movie shows us, as editing and camera movement are similarly clipped and curt, never lingering in the “right” places (which is one reason why there is so much voiceover narration, since we need to be told what Hartley declines to show directly) — all this restraint and distance, which yet stubbornly remains within the ordinary (however extraordinary the science fiction premises of the whole film), serves, in its understated beauty, as the counter-instance both to the meretricious yuppie- and Donald Trump- beauty of the Dictatorship of the Consumer, and to the absolutely unrepresentable, sublime otherness of Star 147X. What the film actually shows us (and I ought to include in this, if I could write better about it, Hartley’s techno-y soundtrack) is what escapes the otherwise ubiquitous pressure and solipsistic closure of what it tells us, or narrates. Which means, I suppose, that The Girl From Monday succeeds precisely to the extent that it makes itself unmarketable — which in itself might be thought of as a classic high-modernist strategy; and also that (unlike a high modernist work) it seems to slip through one’s fingers, so that I cannot hold on to it, cannot find it memorable (since that would re-commodify it); so that — for all of Hal Hartley’s tics and idiosyncrasies — it seems almost anonymous.

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Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

I’ve had to turn off comments, at least for the time being, because I am being deluged with comment spam.