Archive for February, 2006

In Memoriam Octavia Butler

Monday, February 27th, 2006

Octavia Butler died last weekend. She was only 58. (Newspaper obituaries here and here, and appreciations by other SF writers here, here and here, among other places). What a bummer. I just read Fledgling, which now turns out to have been her last novel, a few weeks ago. Butler’s novels are downbeat, pessimistic, and utterly gripping. They all deal, in various ways, with issues of otherness, pain, and dependency; as well as, obviously, with race and gender, and racism and misogyny. They are never didactic, however, because they are as deeply concerned with affect as they are with cognition: the two simply can’t be separated in Butler’s world. These novels offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses in various ways, but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses. They also often envision the posthuman, the transhuman, and the hybrid-no-longer-quite-human; but they never portray these in the salvific terms white technogeeks are so prone to. Above all, Butler’s novels never pretend to alleviate the pain that they so eloquently describe and evoke: in this sense, they are utterly, shockingly clear as to the forms of domination and oppression that are so often taken for granted in our (post)modern, highly technologized, supposedly enlightened world. They bear witness to the intolerable, to how much of our social life today remains intolerable. This makes them indispensable, both aesthetically and (dare I say it) politically. I think that we still have a lot to learn from Butler’s texts: about how to understand human limits and constraints without turning such an understanding into an apologia for the current ruling order; about how to construct a politics of the Other, in a way that goes well beyond today’s alternatives of insipid multiculturalism, Levinasian depoliticized ethics, or Zizek’s and Badiou’s deeply suspect universalism; about how to think the posthuman, the no-longer-merely-human. And above all, about a politics of affect (not a politics of emotions against reason, but one that rejects such binary altenatives altogether, and thus moves away from the common basis of both liberalism and fascism). I never met Butler in person (though I saw her speak or read a couple of times); but I am deeply grieved that we will never get any more novels from her.

Mark Amerika lecture

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

I’m happy to announce the next event in the DeRoy Lecture Series at Wayne State University:

Mark Amerika
discussion of recent work
March 3, 2006
3:00 PM
Room 10302
5057 Woodward

Free Speech

Friday, February 24th, 2006

Okay, let’s see if I can get this straight. A right-wing Danish newspaper publishes viciously racist anti-Muslim cartoons, hoping thereby to stir up trouble. (I say “racist,” because the cartoons involved stereotypical “ethnic” images that were clearly directed against Arabs, not just against Muslim believers of no matter what race or ethnicity). The newspaper succeeds in its provocation, as violent protests spring up across the Arab and Muslim world. (The protests are often cynically fomented by dictatorial governments, and they focus exclusively on the insult to the Muslim religion, not mentioning at all the element of racism involved). Throughout Europe and North America, there is a great outcry supporting free speech; the cartoons are republished widely, as a statement of support for free speech and of solidarity with the Danish newspaper against the would-be censors of the Arab and Muslim world, who are said not to share, or even understand, the Western values of freedom and tolerance.

Meanwhile, the historian David Irving is sentenced to 3 years of jail in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Irving is a vicious ultra-right-wing provocateur, and basically an apologist for Hitler and the Nazi regime. (I do not know the extent to which Irving has made specifically anti-Jewish statements; but I would argue that his very denial of the factuality of the Holocaust is itself already anti-Semitic). But all the people who denounced various Arab and Muslim governments and peoples for their protests against the Danish cartoons are strangely silent about this quite similar case. I do not see newspapers all over the West reprinting Irving’s speeches and articles in solidarity with his free speech rights. I do not see anyone saying that this conviction indicates that Europeans and Christians are incapable of sharing, or understanding, the values of freedom and tolerance.

I do believe in free speech as a universal value. I do believe that we need to support the right of free speech even for racists, and even for people who make provocative statements with the deliberate intent of stirring up violence and trouble. (Speech is itself an action, of course, and it will always be necessary to draw a line somewhere; but I am in favor of extending things as far as possible in the direction of regulating and limiting speech-acts as little as possible). What I don’t like is the double standard according to which some hateful speech (like that of the Danish cartoons) is more worthy than other hateful speech (like Irving’s). Anybody who says that “however much I am in favor of the right to freely express one’s opinion, one cannot allow the denial of the Holocaust to hide behind overly generous freedom of expression” ought to take a similarly stringent line with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. And anybody who defends (as I do) that newspaper’s right to publish its scurrilous trash ought similarly to defend David Irving’s right to publish his scurrilous trash. As Warren Ellis put it the other day, “The test of free speech always lays in that which is hardest to defend. It really would be nice if maggots like these didn’t make the rest of us work so hard.”

On the pleasures of reading Kant.

Monday, February 20th, 2006

Some philosophers are such great writers and stylists that they are a pleasure to read — even in translation. Plato and Nietzsche are the most obvious examples, though I’d also include Spinoza, Hume, and Wittgenstein, at the very least, on my short list of great philosophical stylists. And the rhetorical effects of style are a big part of what attracts readers to such philosophers — Nietzsche, especially, seduces more on account of his style than on account of his actual arguments. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a delusion, in any case, to think that you can separate logic from rhetoric, or content from style. Even mathematicians value “elegant” proofs. In things less cut and dried than mathematics — like metaphysics and ethics — style and rhetoric are even more important. Philosophy since Plato has tried to combat stylistic persuasion and seduction, but it’s significant that Plato, for whom the distinction between logic and style, or truth and persuasion, is so important — as in his constant championing of Socrates against the Sophists — is nonetheless himself one of the most powerful practitioners of artful, stylized, rhetorically active prose. Plato is ultimately a greater Sophist, you might say, than Gorgias or any of the other Sophists he rails against and shows up in his dialogues.

There are other philosophers who, everyone agrees, are terrible writers, terrible stylists; even though we have to read and study them nonetheless, if only for the force of their arguments. One thinks here of Kant and Hegel, above all. Nobody has ever seen Kant as anything but an awful writer (at least in the Critiques; he can write elegantly and pleasurably in some of his lesser essays, but that talent seems to abandon him in his mature major works). Nonetheless, my own proper philosophical perversion is that I take enormous pleasure in reading Kant, in reading Kant’s style. (In contrast, I find the prose styles of both Hegel and Heidegger absolutely nauseating and repugnant: which is a big part of why I have so little patience with, or interest in, their arguments). (Needless to say, all this is filtered through translation — I’ve forgotten what little German I once knew, and which was never good enough to read any of these thinkers in the first place).

What is it that seduces me in the style of Kant’s prose? It’s clumsy, but at the same time never effusive; or to put it in reverse terms, it is somehow cut-and-dried (which has to do with Kant’s formalism and schematism), and yet never reductive or closed off in the way highly organized structures almost always are. No matter how convoluted the arguments get, there is always a way to diagram them in terms of taxonomies or categories (using this word in a general sense, not just in Kant’s strict philosophical sense). (This is a trick that, I think, Deleuze picks up from Kant: even when Deleuze’s prose, by himself or with Guattari, seems to be ranging anarchically all over the place, in fact it has a rigid and unvarying architecture, which is what keeps it from falling apart).

Since Kant never makes his points clearly and concisely enough, he tends to repeat each thing that he says over and over, a half dozen times at least, using slightly different terminology each time. This is part of what many readers find irritating about him, but for me the repeated paraphrases resonate with one another and condition one another, which leads to a sort of clarity in depth: like when two images, one in each eye, first overlap blurrily, but then snap in to stereoscopic depth focus, a third image that subsumes the other two — but in Kant there are more than two overlapping parts, and hence (as it were) more dimensions of depth, more dimensions than three.

This effect of multiple depth is crucial, because so many of Kant’s (binary) distinctions are so subtle, and yet so important, that they couldn’t be articulated any other way. I’m thinking of the contrasts between determinative and reflective uses of reason, or between constitutive and regulative ideas, or between the transcendental and the transcendent: binary oppositions which in fact turn out to be not quite binaries, because of they way they shade into one another, or better confront one another on borders which are as indistinct and fuzzy as they are absolute and uncrossable. Kant neither maintains binaries, nor “deconstructs” them, but walks a thin line in between these two tendencies, and this is precisely an effect of his overwrought and involuted prose style (even as, in contrast, Hegel’s erasure of Kantian limits and distinctions in a predetermined pseudo-orgy of smugly interlocked transforming categories is an effect of his execrable prose style).

(Zizek, good Hegelian that he is, always says something like: the situation seems to be X, but in fact it is precisely the opposite of this. I’d prefer to see an exploration of oblique angles and extradimensional digresses, rather than this continual, oppressive turning inside-out of the labor of negation. And that is a big part of what I love in Kant, and detest in Hegel).

All this is to say that the things for which Kant is most often criticized (both in terms of his writing style and in terms of his conceptual content, to the degree that one can separate these dimensions), his extreme formalism and his obsessive, rigid architectonics — that these things are precisely what’s great about him. Kant’s endless repetitions and dry elaborations his architectonics and schematisms, are in fact a powerful source of astonishing, continual invention. If Kant didn’t write the way he did, he simply couldn’t be so richly suggestive and so rigorous, all at once. This oxymoronic combination of rigidity and fertility, as of scholastic pedantry and mind-blowing leaps of insight, is what for me defines Kant as a thinker. It’s precisely to the extent that Kant is pedantic and formalistic, that he sets limits and proclaims legislation and duty — precisely to the extent, that is, that he seems to be (in Deleuzian terms) a thinker of a priori regulation rather than immanent construction, or (in Negri and Hardt’s terms) a thinker of constituted rather than constituent power — it’s precisely to this extent that Kant is in fact prodigiously inventive and liberating, arguably more so than any of the constructivist or constituent thinkers (like Spinoza, Nietzsche, or Bergson) who are commonly opposed to him.

For example, the very argument about how certain uses of reason can only be regulative, not actually constitutive — an argument which, to my mind, is based as much (affectively) in the prose style that I have been trying to describe as it is (cognitively) in any logical/conceptual distinctions — might seem to be an odious legislation, a shutting down of the potentialities of thought. (Deleuze/Guattari and Hardt/Negri never actually make this charge, but it’s the sort of thing that their epigones often do — this is at least a general impression I get, admittedly I don’t have any citations). But in fact the seeming restriction of (certain types of) thought to a regulative use only, the denial that it can have any determinative or constituent force, is a powerful liberation and stimulus. It’s a constraint, but one that offers release from the burdens of totalization and absolute determination. It gets us out of the straitjacket of the transcendent, and (precisely because of its heuristic value) points us to a multiplicity of contexts and applications and connections that might not otherwise have been available to thought. It opens a space for the freeplay of the mental faculties. It allows for the differentiation of moral duty and aesthetic singularity from the positivistic tyranny of fact, without thereby falling victim to the horrors (in either morals or aesthetics) of what Kant (in good Enlightenment fashion) decries as “fanaticism” and “dogmatism.”

(I’m reminded of the apocryphal story — at least, I have never been able to verify its truth, or to find out the name of the philosopher in question — about a Chinese philosopher who was sent to work on the farm during the Cultural Revolution; at great risk, he smuggled a copy of the Critique of Pure Reason with him and studied it at night; years later, after his release and rehabilitation, he published a book about how Kant was the necessary defense against the excesses of Hegelian and statist dogmatism).

To a great extent, I find the experience of reading Kant’s prose to be a soothing and comforting one. But most of the things we find soothing and comforting are such because they are constrictive: they hide horrors and difficulties from sight, let us safely regress, take a vacation from the world and its worries. Kant is almost unique in that his prose is (to me at least, and I’ve already said that from a general perspective this can only be a “perversion”) soothing and yet at the same time stimulating: opening things up rather than closing them down, extending our vistas rather than sheltering us from them. An oxymoronic effect that nobody else (as far as I am aware) is able to produce. (Except perhaps Whitehead, my other favorite philosopher, so different from Kant and yet in this respect so oddly complementary to him).

The other day, for instance, I came upon this: “Deceit, violence, and envy will always be rife around him, even though he himself is honest, peaceable, and benevolent. Moreover, as concerns the other righteous people he meets: no matter how worthy of happiness they may be, nature, which pays no attention to that, will still subject them to all the evils of deprivation, disease and untimely death, just like all the other animals on the earth. And they will stay subjected to these evils always, until one vast tomb engulfs them one and all (honest or not, that makes no difference here) and hurls them, who managed to believe they were the final purpose of creation, back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from which they were taken” (Critique of Judgment, section 87, A452). Only Kant can acknowledge all this, and yet, at the same time, open a space for moral, and indeed political — revolutionary — hope. And once again, I insist that all this is an effect of style, as well as argument.

Mysterious Skin

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, from the novel by Scott Heim, is an overwhelming, absolutely devastating film: not because, but in spite of, the fact that it is about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. Araki treats the subject without the demonization (of the abuser) or martyrology (of the victims) that have become such cliches in the last ten or twenty years.

The movie tells the intertwined stories of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), both of whom were abused by their Little League coach when they were eight years old. In the present time of the film (1991), they have had no contact with one another since that time; they are now both nineteen. Brian has repressed the experience: he only knows that something important happened to him at age 8; he suspects that he was abducted by aliens, and he wants to find out what really happened. He’s nerdy, touchingly sympathetic in his confusion, extremely nervous, and seemingly asexual. Neil, on the other hand, remembers everything perfectly. At eight, he already knew that he was gay. He felt wounded by the coach’s seduction, but also sexually excited by it, and grateful for the attention. In retrospect, the coach has become Neil’s erotic ideal, his lost love object. At nineteen, Neil is broodingly narcissistic, emotionally hard and closed off and withdrawn into himself. He has become a hustler, compulsively turning tricks with older men who remind him of the coach, turned on by the impersonality (and occasional abuse) of these encounters, and seemingly indifferent to their dangers (AIDS, and sometimes direct physical harm). Both actors (and the supporting cast as well) give amazing performances, sensitive and finely nuanced, attuned both to their characters’ vulnerabilities, and — most importantly — to what these characters are unable to understand, or articulate, about themselves. Gordon-Levitt and Corbet make the gaps and absences present, as it were, in their performances.

In the course of the film, Brian endeavors to work through his own awkwardness and discover what really happened to him; and Neil has a series of sexual encounters, some quite moving (a guy with Karposi’s sarcoma scars who just wants Neil to rub his back), and others downright horrific (especially an encounter with a brutal top). At the end, Brian finally finds Neil, who fills him in on what happened to them both a decade earlier. Brian learns the truth, and Neil realizes for the first time how great was the emotional cost of what happened. That’s really all there is in terms of plot.

But the genius and beauty of Araki’s film is that it doesn’t really abide by the terms of this schematically therapeutic narrative. There’s no past recovered, no redemption, and nothing inspirational. The abuse itself is troublingly ambiguous: though it unquestionably did harm to both boys (the film is in no way an apologia for sex with minors), this harm cannot be separated from who they are and what they have become. The coach is not presented as a monster; for all his creepiness, we can see what Neil loved in him. The film as a whole is bathed in something of an erotic glow. Even the older Neil’s harshest tricks are lit up by a kind of suffusing intensity that coexists with their overt emotional coldness. (The way the camera lingers lovingly or fetishistically on Neil, as it did on similar youthful male bodies in Araki’s earlier films, is part of the reason for this). And Brian is empathetic, not because we are made to feel sorry for him, in a condescending way, as a helpless victim, but precisely because of his will to refuse such a role, and his stumbling efforts to do something about it. As I’ve already mentioned, Araki elicits extraordinary performances from his actors, who are (if I can put it this way) expressive without emoting. There’s also a tightness of framing and editing, a kind of formal concision that — precisely because it is so unindulgent — works as a kind of affective intensifier, whether we are looking at a seedy gay bar, a seeming UFO passing over Brian’s house, or the giant empty screen of a closed-down drive-in, in front of which Neil and his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg of Buffy fame) are standing and brooding. Not to mention the concluding shot of the film, which I will not describe here.

But I don’t feel like anything I’ve written so far — not the plot summary, nor the stabs at formal analysis — gets at what’s really at stake in the film. Mysterious Skin is a hauntological movie, about irreparability and ghostly presences. The trauma around which it turns is something that you can’t ever represent (to yourself, much less to others), can’t understand, whether you idealize and cling to it (as Neil does) or (mis)conceive it as radically alien (as Brian does). But it’s also something you can’t ever get away from, since everything you experience and feel, everything you are, is woven around it and through it, permeated by its residual presence. So it’s never there, but it’s also never absent. It can’t really be recalled, but it can’t be expelled either. If Neil and Brian learn anything in the course of the film, it isn’t some therapeutic lesson about “healing,” but rather how to be sensitive to a fatality that they cannot will (cannot ever have willed), but that they also cannot escape, and must “assume.” And that is what is so desolating about the ending of the film, and which remains so when you think about it afterwards. When I say “desolating,” I don’t mean “hopeless,” exactly — the feeling we are left with is not that change is impossible or futile. Indeed, I think we are left with the sense — the hope — that both boys will be able to change their lives somewhat, and for the better. But this change cannot ever be put under the rubric of “moving on” or “coming to terms” or “forgiving” or any of the other therapeutic, psychobabble phrases we tend to use for situations like this. Even the possibility of change is predicated on the fact that (contra Hegel) the wounds of the spirit never heal, and always leave scars behind. If Neil and Brian (not to mention we the viewers) learn anything in the course of the film, it is that.


Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

At first I thought of writing a proper review of Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden) but I don’t feel up to it. What’s great about the film is that it produces affective blockage on every level. It doesn’t offer the viewer (or the characters) any way out. The protagonists, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), are intellectual yuppies just like the target audience of the film, just like me. Indeed, whenever I saw their Parisian apartment — in which much of the film takes place, and which is presented to us (like everything else in the film) largely in long shot — I felt a bit of sadness and envy and guilt, because everything is so perfect: meticulously neat and clean, with lots of space, sleekly minimal furniture, enormous entirely filled bookcases, a roomy kitchen with lovely appliances doubtless purchased at the French equivalent of Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, and up-to-date technology including an enormous TV/video screen. They give perfectly tasteful dinner parties in the dining room, and work comfortably in the large central space. It’s just like what my home is supposed to look like, if only I were ever to grow up (which, considering that I am in my early 50s, i.e. just about the same age as Auteuil and his character, I evidently never will). Of course, the camera eye is so distanced, so cooly observant, that it makes this ideal bourgeois space feel utterly oppressive (as undoubtedly it would feel to me if I actually had it — which doesn’t stop me from guiltily feeling that I ought to have it).

Caché is about the invasion, the porousness, of this seemingly perfect space. Georges starts to receive videotapes, from an anonymous source, they are left on his doorstep, which show him that his house is under surveillance. Nothing really happens on the tapes — we just see people walking by the street outside, as well as Georges and Anne leaving the house in the morning, or coming back in the evening. But their mere existence is disturbing. The long shots from the surveillance footage are indistinguishable from the long shots that Haneke himself uses throughout the film; indeed, in the opening shot, and several additional sequences throughout, what we think first is the camera’s “objective” viewpoint turns out to be that of the videotapes: we only discover this when one of the shots that fills the screen is suddenly paused, or put into fast forward or rewind. There is no ontological difference between the diegetic space — yuppified Paris — we are seeing as viewers of the film, and the video/surveillance space that is captured on tape within the diegesis. Indeed, there is no ontological difference between the spaces of the film and the video, and the space that we, the viewers of the film, ourselves live in. We never discover who sent the tapes: indeed, the narrative is so constructed as to make the question of “who sent them?” impossible to answer. It’s not just that we are not given enough information to find out the culprit; it is rather that, from within the film’s own premises, in terms of the naturalistic world the film sets up, it is utterly impossible for the tapes to have been made at all — there is no way anyone could have done it. This impossibility (combined with the almost complete accordance between the tapes and Haneke’s own cinematic style) suggests that the condition of being under surveillance — indeed, the whole condition of liberal complicity and guilt that the film explores — is not an empirical matter, so much as it is a transcendental condition of late-capitalist social life.

I have no desire to rehearse the plot of Caché here. Let’s just say that things escalate, as the tapes go on to show Georges his childhood home, and eventually lead him into a confrontation — no, let’s say rather a failed confrontation, a refusal of confrontation — with his past. This “missed encounter” raises a maelstrom of issues involving class, race, and hypocritical liberal guilt and denial of guilt. Georges’ bourgeois comfort is entirely connected with, and directly based upon, class privilege and racism. This is the case both structurally and personally, both cognitively and affectively, both socially in general and psychologically in the deepest levels of Georges’ own inner life. Georges’ personal guilt and complicity might seem at first to be just an allegory for the more general social condition; except that it is worked through so intimately, with such rigor and depth, that it becomes simply inescapable. Haneke, with his camera’s cool surveillant distance, takes a sadistic pleasure in the spectacle of Georges’ squirming — and the viewers’ squirming-by-involuntary-identification — through a series of denials, evasions, lies, and semi-confessions (both to others and to himself). Georges’ and Anne’s perfect bourgeois marriage decays into (or is revealed to have always been) a venomous battle of wills and egos, just barely hidden beneath the glittering surfaces of perfection. Georges’ and Anne’s relationship to their 12-year-old son Pierrot is also savaged: he is sullenly indifferent to them, and they are utterly clueless and uncomprehending about him. The bourgeois nuclear family is a nasty affair, though its relationship to the social world outside it is even nastier. Georges is implicated (emotionally and morally, though not legally) in another person’s (a working-class Arab man’s) miserable life and eventual (on-camera, in the single most horrific scene of the film) suicide, and we see him getting more and more panicky and self-righteous as he denies the guilt which is his objectively, and which he evidently does feel on some level (as his increasing desperation to escape it indicates to us). The film leaves Georges wallowing in his guilt and misery, but also hunkering down in the class and race privilege, which he so reflexively takes for granted that he never once questions it, nor even has the ghost of a suspicion that it exists.

And Georges’ position is also that of the viewer (who is structurally, a priori, an affluent white male, regardless of who is actually watching the film). We are made to feel guilty and complicitous, while at the same time we are given no way out from this position, and no release even from our own being safe because of the unquestioned privileges that people less fortunate than us do not have. Indeed, we are shielded from consequences because we are, after all, watching a film, this is not happening directly to us in “real life.” Despite the fact that “real life” itself is revealed by Caché to be no more (as well as no less) “real” than a video. Which means that, whatever we understand intellectually, on the affective level we end up sharing Georges’ self-protective sense of unquestioned privilege, as well as his sense of guilt.

In this way, Caché simultaneously abuses and flatters its audience. And I think that the flattery (rather than the abuse) is the nastiest thing about the film. From a political point of view, after all, guilt is just about the most worthless and useless affect/emotion there is. Nobody has ever questioned their privilege, or even done anything decent, out of guilt. Oh, lots of white people “identify” with “minorities” out of guilt, or give to charity (Live 8, anyone?), or mutter pious platitudes and express their support for “identity politics” of various sorts, which allows them to be self-congratulatory about how radical they are, when in fact they aren’t. Indeed, many people of power and privilege positively get off on being made to feel guilty, whether it is the oft-repeated apocryphal story of wealthy CEOs getting release by being abused by a dominatrix, or the more common everyday spectacle of white suburbanites feeling cleansed after getting a good scolding (followed by absolution) from Oprah (or white people with more intellectual/political pretensions getting a good scolding from bell hooks). I do not claim to be exempt from this whole process.

And this is exactly what Caché does to/for its viewers. Or better, it indeed exposes this mechanism of flattery-through-guilt; but without offering any escape from it, and even without quite criticizing or critiquing it. As if that were just the way it is: which indeed, it is. This is what the obvious question about Haneke’s own position comes down to. (Is he claiming exemption from the condition that he otherwise shows to be universal among people of privilege? Well, yes and no. That’s an evasion, of course, but the evasion itself is the point). What’s most powerful about the film is that it not only decrees guilt, but cranks the guilt up to a self-reflexive level: the guilt is reduced or managed by the flattery and privilege that we retain while observing all this; but such a meta-understanding itself creates a new, higher-order sense of guilt, which in turn is cushioned by a new, higher-order sense of self-congratulation as to our superior insight, which in turn is an unquestioned privilege that, when comprehended, leads to a yet-higher-level meta-sense of guilt, and so on ad infinitum. There’s complete blockage, no escape from this unending cycle. The experience of the film is one both of self-disgust and of a liberation, through aestheticization, from this self-disgust. The latter is what makes Caché truly insidious, in an almost Bataillean way.

There’s a long shot/long take at the very end of the film, in which — foregrounded in no way, so it is easy to miss — amidst a whole crowd of people doing all sorts of things, we see some sort of contact between two of the minor characters (as far as I could tell, it was Georges’ son Pierrot and the son of the Algerian suicide) that suggests even new levels of complicity and uncertainty. I think that this only reinforces the film’s overall coldly delirious deadlock. The more explaining we need to do, the more we are trapped in the film’s (and society’s) self-reflexive spiral of guilt and privilege. The film offers no way out, because it never breaks with its sense of privilege, no matter how unwarranted it shows that privilege to be. The creepiness of finding oneself under surveillance, the creepiness of seeing a marriage break down into mutual vicious recriminations, is nothing compared to the creepiness of realizing that one still has one’s shield of privilege despite these intrusions, and that the facade of bourgeois marriage will survive everything that’s going on underneath.

Footnote: I think that some sense of this ethico-political mise en abime is what explains Armond White’s otherwise bizarre review of the film, in which he blames Haneke for exploiting the Third World yet again under the guise of supporting it, and for lacking the alleged “complexity and brilliance” and moral clarity of Spielberg’s Munich. White’s adoration of Spielberg is reprehensible and unconscionable, but the reasons he hates Haneke are pretty much identical to the reasons I consider Haneke is one of the best and most important European directors working today.

Comment on comments

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

I’ve turned comments back on, for the time being. I want to see if the new anti-spam protections now available in WordPress 2 (and especially the Akismet plugin) will preserve me from being absolutely overwhelmed with comment and trackback spam as I was before.

Specters of Marx

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

I finally read a book I should have read long ago, Derrida’s Specters of Marx. I found it strangely disappointing. I’m not even sure the book is worth discussing at any length; it is only about 14 years old, but it seems to belong to a long-vanished era of critical discourse. It seems like a fossil, in comparison to the more relevant discussions of Marxist theory, and of what Marxism might mean in our postmodern, post-everything age, by the likes of Hardt and Negri, Zizek, Badiou, etc. (not to mention the continuing far greater relevance of Deleuze and Guattari’s attempts to renew Marxism). Nonetheless, I will work through my response to the book here, if only because the phenomenon of its obsolescence, its loss of relevance, is itself something that the book itself discusses (in relation to the claims, rejected by Derrida, that Marx himself is obsolete and no longer relevant in the post-Communist era).

Derrida basically argues — quite elegantly, of course — that Marx, like every other thinker in the long history of Western metaphysics, falls victim to an ontology of absolute presence, and strives unsuccessfully to abolish the uncanny otherness, the trace of non-presence, the non-literal or irreducibly metaphorical, the differance, that nonetheless continues to insinuate itself within his texts. At the same time, Derrida — writing in the early 1990s, after the “fall of Communism,” and in the first flush of neoliberal triumphalism — proclaims his fidelity to a certain spirit of Marxism, insofar as it maintains a call for justice beyond market values. He associates Marxism, therefore, with a certain religious impulse, what Walter Benjamin calls a “weak messianic force,” a hope against hope or beyond hope that a better time is possible, and must come. What draws these two strands — the deconstruction of Marx’s metaphysics, and the welcoming nonetheless of a Marxist inheritance — together is the figure of the specter, or ghost: a figure that Derrida traces throughout Marx’s texts and many others (most notably Hamlet). The specter is something that is not present, not real, not there, but that nonetheless enters into (and disrupts the closure and self-presence of) whatever is present, real, and there. The ghost addresses us, interrogates us with its voice and its gaze; it’s a call from Otherness to which we must respond, even though we are unable to adequately respond. Derrida argues that, in works like The German Ideology and Capital, Marx endeavors — unsuccessfully, of course — to exorcise the specter of impropriety or non-identity; that he struggles, for instance, to get rid of exchange-value and return us to the simple utility and presence of use-value (a reading of Marx that I have specifically argued against here; though Derrida’s formulation of the argument is far more circumspect than those of Lyotard or Baudrillard). At the same time, Derrida presents the “specter of Communism” that haunts Europe in the Communist Manifesto as a “spirit” that neoliberalism similarly cannot exorcise, and that renders impossible the “end of history,” or the definitive triumph of the market.

I must confess that I am unable to greet this argument with more than a shrug of the shoulders, and a weary “so what?” It’s scarcely news that Marx’s texts can be deconstructed, just as Plato’s and Kant’s and Hegel’s can be. As is so often the case with Derrida, I am more or less persuaded by his argument — I mean, by his close reading — without necessarily finding his claims or discoveries to be of any particular interest or importance. Now, of course the question of which parts of Marx are alive and which parts dead, or which parts are useful and interesting, and which parts are not, is itself an extremely important one. And Derrida, as always, warns us (rightly) that this is a difficult question precisely because we cannot ever simply separate the relevant from the irrelevant, or the “living” from the “dead.” The uncanny apparition of the specter forbids us to make so neat a separation. We are always haunted by ghosts, and we cannot freely choose what we will be haunted by. We have, as Derrida continually reminds us, the responsibility of making such a separation, without the ability neatly and definitively to do so.

Yet all that said, and even recalling that all such separations will be provisional ones — Derrida introduces, into nearly every sentence, clauses about how provisional and subject to revision all his claims and distinctions are; he so overdoes this that the effect is unintentionally comic — nonetheless, I still believe that there are much more interesting and useful ways to distinguish between what’s valuable and what’s not in Marx’s writing, and in subsequent Marxist writing, than the particular distinctions that Derrida makes. For Derrida, it’s a matter of deconstructing, and thereby dismissing, all of Marx’s positive claims about history, about capitalism, etc., and only adhering to a sort of vague and general sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Which is why Derrida ultimately rescues from Marx and Marxism only its ostensibly religious core, its messianic dimension, its utopian (though Derrida scrupulously avoids this word) promise of a better world — together, however, with the proviso that no such better world can actually arrive, because this would undo the dimension of hope, expectation, and openness to the future and to the Other that is, for Derrida, the essence of the religious or messianic.

For instance, after reading Marx in Capital on commodity fetishism, Derrida writes that “as soon as there is production, there is fetishism: idealization, autonomization and automatization, dematerialization and spectral incorporation, mourning work coextensive with all work, and so forth. Marx believes he must limit this co-extensivity to commodity production. In our view, this is a gesture of exorcism, which we spoke of earlier and regarding which we leave here once again our question suspended” (166). Derrida is too careful and sensitive a thinker to come right out and say that the processes he associates with fetishism (a list I won’t take the time to comment on here) must occur in connection with all production, not just commodity production. This is why he leaves the “question suspended.” Nonetheless, the evident deconstructionist implication of Derrida’s reading indeed is that it’s naive (to use the word that was — and probably still is — the favorite of all the deconstructionists I used to know in grad school) not to realize that all and any production (rather than just commodity production) is compromised by fetishism and its accompanying spectrality, which Marx makes the metaphysical error of thinking that he can “exorcise” or otherwise get rid of. So Marx, like every other metaphysician from Plato onward, is guilty of trying to hypostasize absolute presence and preserve it from differance, to pretend that alienation and otherness can be overcome when in fact they cannot.

Well, perhaps this is true. But to push the question to this level of metaphysical generality is to ignore the particular ways that Marx’s formulations work. Derrida convinces me that, yes, there is a logic of spectrality at work in Marx’s discussion of exchange-value and commodity fetishism; but to say this is not to exhaust the implications of Marx’s theory. Marx says that, but he also says a lot more. And that more is where Marx specifically addresses the particular implications of capitalism and commodity production. A different mode of production would involve different specters, different forms of “spectral incorporation,” different implications for human life and society, a difference in the extent of human suffering. Indeed, Derrida keeps on reminding us that the underlying problem is the one of which specters we are dealing with; but at the end of his analysis he ignores his own warning, in favor of just saying that Marx is trying to exorcise ghosts, and that he can never really accomplish this, and that therefore all his concepts (use- and exchange-value, commodity and surplus value) are compromised and should not be retained. It’s a lame and weak conclusion, after so much textual and conceptual exegesis.

What I’d rather see, what I’d find much more interesting, useful, and relevant, would be an approach that considered the already-deconstructive implications of Marx’s own categories. That looked, for instance, at how the logic of the supplement (or Bataille’s logic of “general economy”) is already at work in Marx’s notion of surplus-value (which is not simply an empirical quantity in the sense that profit is, for it implies a radical incommensurability at the heart of the process of buying and selling labor as a commodity); or at how the spectrality that Derrida exhumes at such great length is coextensive with — how it haunts — the regime of money as “universal equivalent.” But Derrida has too much invested in arguing that deconstruction goes beyond mere critique to be willing to see such deconstructionist virtues as already operating within Marx’s form of critique. (I myself would want to argue that deconstruction is indeed different from Hegelian critique, but that it falls entirely within the purview of Kantian critique. But that is a subject for other posts).

So I don’t really find Specters of Marx very illuminating on the subject of Marx. I do, however, like the way that Derrida reformulates his (usual deconstructive) logic in terms of spectrality, of ghosts. In his earlier writings Derrida tends to emphasize differance or the trace as a sort of negativity, an infinite mediation disrupting any claim to presence. But in Specters of Marx (as in much of his later work) Derrida (more radically, I think — and in line with Blanchot’s formulations) shifts his emphasis to the way that this trace is a radical non-negativity, a kind of residual, quasi-material insistence, that disrupts and ruins every movement of negation or negativity. That’s what the ghost is, after all: something that is gone, or dead, but that refuses to be altogether absent; something that is not here, not now, but that continues to stain or contaminate or affect or impinge upon the here and now. Hegel, Mallarme, and Lacan all proclaim that the symbol is the death — the murder — of the thing (i.e., that the word “flower” or “tree” necessarily implies the distancing, the negation, the loss, the inaccessibility of the actual Thing that is being called a flower or a tree). But Blanchot responds that this murder is ultimately ineffectual, for the Thing (not the idealized form that we call a tree or a flower, but its creepy, always-decomposing-and-recomposing materiality) returns at the very heart of its supposed absence, like a zombie arising from its grave. The living thing we have murdered is never restored to us, but its death, its having-been-murdered, tracks us relentlessly and will not let us go. This is what Derrida means by specters, ghosts, and haunting. The finest invention in Specters of Marx is Derrida’s neologism hauntology, which he argues is more basic, more (pre)originary, than Being or than ontology. (The pun works better in French, where hantologie and ontologie are almost indistinguishable in pronunciation).

And indeed, it’s been the recent brilliant discussion of hauntology in the blogosphere, by k-punk especially (also here and here), that led me (so belatedly) to read Specters of Marx and to think along these lines. Although I tend to be more interested in how the present is haunted (as it were) by the future, than in how it is haunted by the past (this is one reason for my obsession with science fiction), these two dimensions or directions of time cannot of course be separated, once we have realized that the present is not a “living presence,” but rather that it is riven within itself, traversed by forces that are not contemporary with itself. Shelley’s “gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” and Poe’s returned cadavers, haunting us with their insistent evidence of their deaths, are two sides of the same coin (a financial metaphor that is therefore particularly appropriate from the perspective of Marxian political economy). I need to think more about k-punk’s comments on “hauntology now,” on how it has become (as he writes with deliberate awareness of the temporal paradoxes involved) a “zeitgeist,” and on its implications for understanding our culture today beyond the already-stale-and-banal formulations of “postmodernism.”


Monday, February 6th, 2006

Octavia E. Butler’s new novel, Fledgling, is a vampire story. But its dynamics are far different from any other vampire tales I know. Vampires are usually disruptive forces from the unconscious. They give body to our least avowable desires and fears. But there’s nothing atavistic about Butler’s Ina (as her vampires call themselves): they have a culture, with laws and customs, kinship groups, a religion and an ethics and a politics, and disputes and power struggles about all these things — just as any group of human beings does. Butler is after something subtler than our usual (and far too familiar and commodified, at this point) romances with the “dark side” (not to mention that we ought to be more aware than we — or white people, at least — usually are of the racial connotations of a phrase like “dark side.”)


Let me begin again. Fledgling is, among other things, a book about the mystery of beginnings. Fledgling begins with a narrator who awakens in the dark, knowing nothing except an immense hunger. She can’t remember who or what she is; she doesn’t even know her own name. She has language, but many of her words lack referents. She knows there are others, and therefore she feels alone; but she doesn’t know who those others are. She is wounded, in great pain; but gradually she heals, and finds that she knows how to do what she needs to do: hunt, kill, and feed. There is no blank slate, no pure origination: even as the narrator comes into the world afresh, entirely alone, and seemingly new, there are webs of meaning and obligation and history that surround her, and affect her — although she is ignorant of these things, and must discover them as if for the first time.

The narrator’s name, we eventually learn — as she eventually learns — is Shori Matthews. She looks like a 10-year-old black girl. But actually, she is a 53-year-old vampire; though 53 years old is stilll pre-pubescent, in vampire terms. Shori is almost completely amnesiac, as a result of trauma. Her entire (extended) family has been murdered; she alone has survived. She will never regain the memories she has lost; she cannot even really mourn her mothers and fathers, her sisters and brothers, and all their loved ones, because they have been so entirely erased from her memory. Her new beginning is the result of loss beyond loss, a loss even of the possibility of feeling loss. She must learn afresh, as if from the outside, all that she previously knew through the experience of growing up. She must learn about both the human world and the vampire world. She must reacquire, at second hand, all the referents and contexts that go along with the the only things she still possesses: he language and her sensory-motor skills.

Reading Fledgling, we learn about Ina society as Shori does. Butler invents a whole biology and anthropology of vampire life. The Ina live for 500 years or more. When injured, they can self-repair (as Shori does) on a diet of red meat. When they are well, they live exclusively off human blood. They possess an extraordinary sense of smell, together with more acute sight and hearing than human beings do; all these senses come into play in their relationships with one another, as well as with human beings. Ina society is more or less matriarchal — female Ina are more powerful than male — and is organized around gender-segregated extended families. They mate and reproduce in family-based groups (a group of brothers mates with a group of sisters from another family). The male young live with the family of their fathers, the female with the family of their mothers. The Ina also have complex relationships with their “symbionts,” the human beings upon whom they feed. In Fledgling, vampires almost never kill their human prey: they live together with them, and have sex with them, in extended families of seven or eight human symbionts for each vampire. Whether male or female, vampires generally have symbionts of both genders, and the symbionts often develop sexual relationships with one another. So all in all, Ina society involves both vampires and human beings, involved in complex webs of polyamory. (Vampires seem to be strictly heterosexual with one another, but human/human relationships, as well as cross-species vampire/human relationships, involve all sorts of gender pairings and sexual play).

What does it mean to be the human symbiont of a vampire? Since Shori is a vampire, and we only see human thoughts and feelings through her narration, it’s difficult to know precisely. Vampire saliva is both addictive and antiseptic for human beings: the human beings experience an immense sexual pleasure from being bitten, and quickly become dependent upon — no, in love with — their vampire captors. Vampire saliva also results in their leading long and healthy lives: they never get sick, and they live much longer than ordinary human beings (though not quite as long as the vampires). But symbionts must give up their autonomy in return for love, pleasure, health and long life. Somebody who has been bitten cannot disobey their vampire’s orders. Their lives are ultimately ones of servitude. Most vampires are ethical enough to give their human prey some modicum of choice, allowing them to leave at some early stage in the relationship, before they have become so addicted to their vampire’s bites that departure would be physically impossible. But emotional dependency precedes physiological dependency, and so the symbionts almost never choose to leave. In general, symbionts are chosen by their vampires, and almost never the reverse (though rarely, human beings who have grown up in Ina culture, with symbiont human parents, do make the decision to become symbionts themselves).

I’ve described Ina culture in almost too much detail here, giving a flat, reductive, and schematic sketch of things that slowly unravel and become evident in the course of the novel. (And learning these things gradually, as Shori herself relearns them, is one of the pleasures of reading Fledgling). But I hope my summary gives a sense both of the richness of the novel, and of some of the things that are at stake in the narrative. Butler has often written of how love involves dependency, loss of autonomy, and unequal power relations: even when both sides in the relationship have both given themselves over unconditionally to an Other, they are never equal in (self-)abandonment. This leads to paradoxes and impasses that are almost too painful to contemplate. (Levinas is right to say that my relation to an Other is non-symmetrical, because it involves my self-abandonment beyond any possibility of recuperation or return. But he is wrong to think that this dispenses with power relations; the non-symmetry between lover and beloved is not felt symmetrically, or in the same way, on both sides). Butler has often conveyed this painful sense of dependency in love from the point of view of the dominated partner (I am thinking both of the narrator of the short story “Bloodchild”, and of the human beings, in relation to their alien captors, in the Xenogenesis or “Lilith’s Brood” novels). But here she approaches the same knot of dependency and inequality — which is yet love — from the point of view of the dominating partner. (And this is not even to get into the disturbing fact that, from a human perspective, from the point of view of the human beings who are giving her blood and having sex with her, Shori looks like a ten-year-old girl).

Fledgling is also, like most of Butler’s work, a story about race. The Ina are of European origin (though the novel takes place entirely in the contemporary United States); they are a separate species from human beings, but they have lived in the human world for thousands of years, like a hidden elite, with a certain ability to manipulate human opinion in their own favor, but also with a well-grounded fear of human prejudice and hatred. No matter how ethical they try to be, after all, they are still ultimately predators (or parasites), having their own society in secret, while feeding upon the surrounding human community. This makes the Ina seem a lot like Jews (I mean, both like Jews as they actually were in European society for so many centuries, and like the images of “Jews” as anti-Semitic Christian bigotry portrayed them). But together with this, the Ina are nocturnal: they are allergic to the sun — they burn in it if they go outside, and they are physiologically unable to stay awake during the daytime — and their physical appearance is almost grotesquely albino. (This is one of the very few traits that Butler retains from traditional vampire fiction). Shori is a minority within this minority, as she is the world’s only black vampire. She learns that she is the result of genetic experiments, performed by her mothers: genes from black human beings have been mixed into her otherwise-Ina genome, giving her skin enhanced melanin expression, and thereby allowing her to stay awake during the day, and even to endure some limited exposure to the sun. And it emerges that racism among the Ina is why her family has been murdered and she is a target. The Ina cling to their unique heritage, and this leads some of them to a fanatical belief in their racial purity and superiority. They hate Shori because she is “part human” (though from a biological point of view this is a meaningless statement), amplified by the fact that the “human” part of her is black.

All this, too, is only revealed gradually in the course of the novel; and it leads into some extraordinary conceptual and emotional tangles. Things do get at least provisionally resolved by the end of the book; though the resolution is emphatically not accomplished by the recourse to action/adventure that usually does this work in most genre fiction. Rather, it comes about strictly within the anthropological (vampirological?) framework that the novel has constructed for itself. I won’t say more, in order not to spoil the few secrets of the narrative that I haven’t already revealed. I’ll conclude instead with a few more general observations. One of the greatest virtues of Fledgling — as, indeed, of much of Butler’s fiction — is that it makes debates about “genetic determinism” and “social construction” almost entirely irrelevant. In Butler’s world, we are bound and limited both by our genes and by our cultural inheritance; both are constraints that we cannot ignore, and yet both are susceptible (under certain conditions) to alteration. So the question is never whether something is “in our genes” or merely a “cultural construction”: everything is both, and there is no reason to see either “nature” or “culture” as more restricting than the other. The question, with both culture and biology, is how we are constrained and how we are free; what our limits are, and what powers we can exercise within (and despite) those limits. From Butler’s perspective, we can entirely dismiss both the Hobbesian reductionism of someone like Steven Pinker, and the “blank slate” Rousseaueanism that is Pinker’s caricatural view of those who don’t share his narrow determinism. In nature as in culture, everything is changeable — that is part of the meaning of evolution. But in culture as in nature, the forces of tradition, convention, and so on are so strong that changing them is quite difficult. We are never free from our histories and their entanglements, for their inertia is the largest part of what constitutes “us” in the first place. Butler imagines alternative genetic and cultural histories, reminding us that life can always be otherwise. But these alternatives aren’t “utopian”: each of them represents a different set of constraints and possibilities than we are used to, but there are still both constraints and possibilities.

The other great thing about Fledgling has to do with the way that it is so powerfully an affective text, at the same time that it is so powerfully a cognitive one. Butler’s writing tends towards the spare and descriptive, rather than towards the stylistically elaborate and rhetorically self-reflexive. Yet there is something about it that gives it an incredible intensity and poignancy, when it evokes states of hunger and grief, doubt and hope, craving and lust and love, longing and anger and bitterness and rage and hatred. Fledgling traffics in currents of emotional turmoil that are almost too overwhelming to be borne, and that push us to the limits of who and what we are (whoever “we” are, human or vampire). The novel produces affects that exceed the human, and that therefore imply new, different forms of subjectivity than are recognized in ordinary life (or in ordinary, “mimetic” fiction). This is why, among other things, although Butler’s novels continually raise issues of gender and race, they cannot be said to allegorize particular existing conditions of gender and race inequality: for they constantly push the hierarchies and power relations of gender and race into new configurations. Butler’s fictions, through their affective intensities, both suggest the need (and the possibility) for metamorphosis (and the hope that comes through this possibility), and suggest that (as Zizek might put it) trauma and social antagonism are uneliminable, not subject to rational adjudication. At the end of Fledgling, Shori has been freed from the death sentence with which she had been threatened — if not forever, then at least for 300 years (though that is a shorter stretch in vampire time than it would be in human time), and the way has been cleared for her to create her own Ina extended family. But she will never regain all that she has lost, nor even regain the memory of having lost it.