Friday, March 30, 3pm
Room 10302 (English Department Conference Room)
Wayne State University
“Black to the Past: Speculative Fictions of Slavery”
Madhu Dubey is a Professor in the Departments of English and African
American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the
author of Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic (1994) and
Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism (2003).
I just finished reading Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Peter Hallward’s recent (2006) book on Deleuze. Hallward knows Deleuze’s texts very well. His formulations are quite lucid and quite powerful, and he systematizes Deleuze, or shows the fundamental unity of Deleuze’s philosophical project, in a way that most of Deleuze’s interpreters and followers have not been able to do. But Out of This World is fundamentally one-sided, so much so that it ends up being altogether misleading. In this respect, I find that I am in agreement with Glen’s critique of the book.
In a certain sense, Hallward takes Deleuze’s own methodology and turns it against him. Deleuze’s treatment of the philosophers he writes about is a complicated one: one that is obscured more than it is explained by Deleuze’s flippant and notorious comment about impregnating the past philosopher from behind, in order to produce a monstrous offspring. Deleuze is always closely attentive to the words, and the concepts, of the thinkers he is writing about. He quotes them a lot, and paraphrases their points using their own vocabularies. At the same time, Deleuze never provides an interpretation of the thinkers he is discussing; he is uninterested in hermeneutics, uninterested in teasing out ambiguities and contradictions, uninterested in deconstructing prior thinkers or in determining ways in which they might be entrenched in metaphysics. All this is in accord with Deleuze’s own philosophy: his focus is on invention, on the New, on the “creation of concepts.”
It’s not a matter of saying, for instance, that Plato and Aristotle and St. Augustine were wrong about the nature of time, and Kant or Bergson are right. Rather, what matters to Deleuze is the sheer fact of conceptual invention: the fact that Kant, and then Bergson, invent entirely new ways of conceiving time and temporality, leading to new ways of distributing, classifying, and understanding phenomena, new perspectives on Life and Being. A creation of new concepts means that we see the world in a new way, one that wasn’t available to us before. This is what Deleuze looks for in the history of philosophy, and this is why (and how) he is concerned, not with what a given text “really” means, but rather with what can be done with it, how it can be used, what other problems and other texts it can be brought into conjunction with. Deleuze writes about philosophers whose ideas he can use, or transform, in order to work through the problems he is interested in.
Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy, for instance, systematizes Nietzsche’s thought to a remarkable extent, an extent that Nietzsche himself never reached, and would most likely have actively scorned. (“The will to a system is a lack of integrity”). So Deleuze certainly does not provide an “accurate” or “complete” reading of Nietzsche. What he does, instead, is to select from Nietzsche, and transform Nietzsche; and to create, thereby, a postmodern and poststructuralist Nietzsche, a Nietzsche who is far more useful for thinking the problems of the late twentieth century (and now, the twenty-first), than the Nietzsches of Heidegger, of Bataille, of Derrida, of Hitler, or of Walter Kaufmann ever were. (This is not to say that these other Nietzsches are less accurate than Deleuze’s, or less viable — only that they do not provide us with the same tools that Deleuze’s Nietzsche does).
[I should say something here about Deleuze’s book on Kant; for this is the one time when Deleuze proclaims himself to be writing a book about an “enemy.” But in fact Deleuze’s relationship to Kant is more ambiguous than such a characterization implies. Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism” owes a lot to his selective, transformative reading of Kant’s “transcendental idealism.” And in the Preface to the English translation of the Kant book, despite calling Kant an “enemy,” Deleuze also credits him with four revolutionary, poetic formulas: these are the ways in which Kant, too, is a creator of concepts, ones that Deleuze takes up and transforms in their own turn.]
Now, Hallward brilliantly systematizes Deleuze, extracts a consistency (as Deleuze says a reading of a thinker aways should) from Deleuze’s words and ideas, and shows us what new concepts Deleuze created. But whereas Deleuze takes up this approach in order to make past philosophers useful, and to shed light on Deleuze’s own problems, Hallward does it in order to render Deleuze useless, to deny that Deleuze is at all relevant to discussions of materiality, of subjectivity, of affectivity, and of political change, to dismiss Deleuze’s importance for any of the problems Hallward himself is interested in. In this sense, Out of This World is ultimately an assassination attempt: like the recent books on Deleuze by Badiou and by Zizek, it seeks to perform an exorcism of Deleuze, to purge contemporary theoretical thought of his presence.
This polemical intent stands behind every page of Hallward’s book, behind his very particular selection and transformation of Deleuze. Hallward works by means of omission and selection, reducing Deleuze to just one aspect of his thought, and acting as if the rest didn’t exist at all. Again, I stress that this is Deleuze’s own method of proceeding; the question is not one of representing Deleuze “accurately,” but of the ends to which Hallward’s selective transformation of Deleuze is put. Hallward seeks to present Deleuze as entirely a philosopher of the virtual, one who seeks merely to escape and to destroy the actual. Therefore, he triumphantly concludes, Deleuze is entirely an idealist and a spiritualist, at best uninterested in matters of this world, and at worst actively celebrating domination and oppression. At one point, drawing together Deleuze’s comments on Spinoza’s political writings, he presents Deleuze as, in effect, a Stalin or Hitler of the virtual: “the immediate political implication” of Deleuze’s philosophy, he writes, “is clear enough: … the more absolute the sovereign’s power, the more ‘free’ are those subject to it” (139). This is a quite tendentious, and indeed conservative, reading of Spinoza’s politics; I would hesitate to assert so sweepingly reductive a summary of Spinoza, much less of Deleuze, despite my uneasiness with Hardt and Negri’s too facile, but throroughly Spinozian, distinction between constitutent and constituted power. And at the very end of the book, despite disclaiming any polemical intent (“before you disagree with a book that is worthy of disagreement, you have to admire it and rediscover the problem that it poses” — 159), Hallward nonetheless entirely dismisses Deleuze’s thought with the remark that “those of us who still seek to change our world and to empower its inhabitants will need to look for our inspiration elsewhere” than in Deleuze” (164).
Out of context, these remarks would strike most readers at all familiar with Deleuze — even those who are not “Deleuzeans”, and have their reservations about Deleuze — as absurdly over the top. But the cunning and brilliance of Hallward’s writing is that he selectively shapes his citations of Deleuze (and of others) precisely in order to force this conclusion. He will quote, for instance, some of the more ‘spiritualistic’ statements from Bergson’s last (and least interesting) book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, and attribute them directly to Deleuze, with the alibi that, although “the description of such action is explicitly mystical in Bergson but only implicitly so in Deleuze,” nonetheless “this difference, at least, is largely insignificant” (21). In this way, the book betrays a sort of prosecutorial zeal to track down the least signs of mysticism, aestheticism, and other “crimes” against materialism, and to hold Deleuze responsible for them.
Hallward’s book on Deleuze is much more lucid and careful complexly articulated than Zizek’s book on Deleuze, but the two books share similar agendas. Zizek presents Deleuze as the complicit thinker of yuppie class privilege and multinational capitalism, by transforming Deleuze’s attempt to analyze such phenomena (something that Zizek himself only does in the most desultory fashion, by converting social and economic determinations into psychological ones) into an endorsement of them. Similarly — but perhaps even worse — Hallward uses Deleuze’s interest in creativity and the New, and in the virtual and the ways that it exceeds the actual, to transform him into a religious and quasi-fascist aesthete, who would (in effect) “experience [humankind’s] own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure” (to be a little unfair on my own side, by thus citing Benjamin’s description of fascism as if it were Hallward’s description of Deleuze — which I think it is, implicitly; but Hallward never says quite this explicitly).
Now, Deleuze is often quasi-dualistic, or two-sided. He often argues for a “reciprocal determination” between different levels of reality, as between the virtual and the actual (since the virtual is, precisely, “real without being actual”). [See James Williams for an excellent discussion of “reciprocal determination”]. And Deleuze often presents seeming opposites as being, not dialectically opposed, but rather alternate directions (or tendencies, or vectors) along a continuum. Thus there is a continuum between the schizophrenic and the paranoiac poles of experience under capitalism, between molar and molecular forms of organization, between the rhizomatic and the arborescent, etc.; and an action can be more or less territorializing or deterrritorializing (or both, in different senses), depending on situations and circumstances. This is precisely what Zizek dislikes about Deleuze — there is never an absolute opposition, never a moment of pure negativity. Deleuze argues, in effect, that there are always degrees of difference, rather than absolute ruptures, even between conservatism and reform, or between reform and revolution. This seems right to me — it is a way out of the apocalyptic posing of alternatives to which both “infantile leftists” and reactionary alarmists are all too often prone.
But Hallward takes a very different tack against Deleuze than Zizek does. Hallward (whose ultimately loyalty, as far as I can determine, is to Badiou rather than to Lacan) argues that Deleuze’s formulations of duality and reciprocal determination are in fact always one-sided and unidirectional. Deleuze, he says, presents us with “a theory of ‘unilateral distinction’ ” (152). What this means is that the virtual creates the actual, rather than the reverse; virtual forces are creative, and actual forms are merely created; the “line of flight” of deterritorialisation is not a reaction to the territoriality from which it escapes, but actually the creative force that produces that territorialization in the first place; in Nietzschean terms, active forces always have priority over reactive ones, even though all our concrete, empirical experience is of the latter. Therefore, in his endeavor to affirm active forces, to rupture stratifications and territorializations, etc., Deleuze necessarily rejects everything that is in favor of a pure potentiality (more accurately, virtuality) that always stands in excess of its actualizations. The productive or creative process is exalted at the expense of anything that is actually produced. Deleuze cannot value anything in the world, because from his unworldly perspective all worldly things are compromised.
I need to emphasize that this reading of Deleuze is indeed as brilliant and insightful as it is unfairly one-sided. Deleuze does in fact affirm the ontological priority of process over product, of creativity over objectivity, of affirmation over critical negotiation. The recognition that the forces of the virtual are always in excess of that which they produce or actualize is crucial — Deleuze’s key move is precisely to insist upon inadequation as excess, against the Lacanian view that inadequation is lack, or inconsistency, or a gap in Being. And yet, and yet… This view of indequation as affirmative is precisely how Deleuze insists upon comprehending and embracing the actual, in order the better to transform it. It is this latter aspect of the Deleuzian movement that Hallward explicitly, and repeatedly, denies. Hallward polemically rejects the association of Deleuze’s thought with “fleshly materialism” and “complex processes of material emergence and physical transformation” (176), just as he utterly ignores the ways that Deleuze (both in the books co-authored with Guattari, and in certain of his own essays, like the great “Postscript on the Societies of Control”), expressly uses his concepts of transformation to understand the inner functioning of “late” (or post-Fordist) capitalism.
Let me put all this in another way. Deleuze always insists on grasping the virtual , as it were “behind” the actual. He tries to trace the ways that the virtual involves, not just the Kantian “transcendental conditions of possibility” for whatever exists in actuality, but in addition a sort of transcendental account of the actual emergence of what exists in actuality. This is precisely what Deleuze means by “transcendental empiricism.” Philosophy, for Deleuze, is an endeavor to grasp these real conditions of emergence — the virtual that generates the actual. In this sense, Deleuze adapts the projects of Spinoza and Leibniz — their endeavor to comprehend the actual determination, or “sufficient reason” of phenomena — to a post-Kantian or neo-Kantian framework. (I think that the way in which Deleuze thus remains a post-critical, post-Kantian thinker, is the crucial aspect of his thought that tends to be ignored by commentators of all stripes). But Hallward presents this investigation of the virtual, of its transcendental conditions of emergence rather than of mere possibility, as a spiritual quest to escape the actual altogether, to dissolve the phenomenal and ascend into an entirely immaterial, spiritual realm of pure creativity. I think that this is a fatal and crippling misunderstanding (although, in fairness, it is simply the mirror inversion of the enthusiastic, unproblematized calls to “construct the Body without Organs” that one hears all too glibly from all too many ostensible Deleuzians). Indeed Hallward is quite relentless in the way that he explicitly takes up all of Deleuze’s warnings against a transcendent reading, one that would turn the immanence of becoming into a separate and transcendent realm, and twists them into more reasons to see Deleuze as a thinker who traduces and rejects the actual. In Hallward’s account, the Nietzschean celebration and affirmation of Life is really just another version of the religious and metaphysical denial of Life that Nietzsche is always so ready to criticize; this strikes me as more valid as a criticism of Nietzsche, than as one of Deleuze.
The real issue here, I think, is Deleuze’s unabashed aestheticism (an attitude he shares with such of his contemporaries as Foucault and Barthes). Hallward devotes an entire chapter to Deleuze’s appreciation of art and literature, to the ways in which Deleuze exalts works of art as expressions of the virtual, of becoming, of transformation (rather than seeing them as ideological formations subject to critique). If there’s anything that Left and Right today agree upon, it’s the absolute incompatibilty between aesthetic values and political ones. As Marx said, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Hallward, like most self-respecting leftists, absolutely rejects any mode of thought, such as Deleuze’s, that overtly valorizes “contemplation” and aesthetic experience for its own sake. But this attitude is precisely mirrored on the right, in the way that neoconservative art critics like Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball exalt the supposedly transcendent values of art, in opposition to any sort of politicization (either of art, or of experience more generally).
This unseemly coincidence of Left and Right is something that Deleuze, among his many virtues, helps us to get away from. For there is no contradiction between Deleuze’s valuing of aesthetic contemplation, and his insistence (with Guattari) that Being is always, in the first instance, political. Just as there is no contradiction (but rather, a mutual implication) between Deleuze’s insistence that everything is historical and contingent, and his insistence upon what he calls “eternal truths” (echoing Whitehead’s formulations about “eternal objects”). Contemplation is not the “interpretation” that Marx decried, but precisely a mode in which philosophical interpretation is suspended. In the aesthetic, we no longer explain things away, as philosophical apologetics have so often done; instead, we are forced to feel the intolerable intensity of the actual. Hallward reads this as the paralysis of any possibility of action; but it is rather, for Deleuze, a necessary condition and generative factor in any sort of truly radical action, any action that does not just reproduce and ratify the order of things as they are. And “eternal truths” or “eternal objects,” which are highlighted precisely in aesthetic contemplation, are absolute singularities, relations and qualities that cannot be generalized, but only communicated in their very refusal to be pacified and subsumed. For Deleuze, the aesthetic is not a sufficient condition for the political, but it is a necessary one. And if aesthetics is not subordinated to politics, this is because both are necessary, and both irreducible.
To develop all this needs a whole essay in itself — such a development is, in fact, one of the goals of my current research/writing projects. So I hope that you will excuse me for being so cryptic about this here. I just want to suggest that Hallward’s inability to imagine any conjunction of the aesthetic with the political is at the root of his rejection of Deleuze. I will add that, for me, what really needs to be rejected is not the aesthetic, but rather that nearly universal shibboleth of current academic and theoretical discourse, the ethical. Hallward rightly praises Deleuze for altogether rejecting “that most precious sacred cow of contemporary philosophy — the other” (92), for “avoid[ing] any inane reverence for the other as much as for the self” (159). I think that, in theoretical writing today, it is precisely the valorization of the ethical that blocks any effective understanding of politics; and that the ethical needs to be decomposed into the aesthetic, on the one hand, and the political, on the other. Hallward rightly values the political (as we find it, for instance, in Marx) against the ethical (as we find it in Levinas and Derrida); but he fails to grasp the crucial role of the aesthetic, and this is where his account of Deleuze falls short.
Ildiko Enyedi’s My Twentieth Century (1989) begins in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1880, as Thomas Alva Edison demonstrates his invention of the electric light bulb to an enraptured crowd. An enormous array of light bulbs, gleaming all over an architectural structure something like an enormous jungle gym, glows with a thousand points of light like a second heaven. Soon enough, we see the stars of the actual heaven; whispered voices from the stars urge us to look eastward, all the way to Budapest, where a young woman is giving birth to twin baby girls, named (in titles above their heads) Dora and Lili.
The voices from the stars will continue as a motif throughout the film; meanwhile, we cut from one scene to another, spanning the globe. In Burma, a white explorer tells his “native guide” about the wonders of Edison’s displays of light in America. In Hamburg, a man tells his companions that he is from Hungary; the others dismiss this as an imaginary country, perhaps invented by Shakespeare. We return to Budapest to discover Dora and Lili, now seven, selling matches in the midst of a snowstorm; the entire sequence is visually reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s silent film The Little Match Girl (1928). The girls finally fall asleep, with heads together, lying against a fence. Two top-hatted gentlemen come up; they flip a coin, then each of them takes one of the twins, and they head off in opposite directions.
I’ve described the first few minutes of My Twentieth Century in such detail because it is the only way to give even a slight sense of what the film is like. Shot in highly luminous black and white, and set (after these introductory sequences) in Budapest and other parts of Central Europe, just at and shortly after the turn of the century (from the 19th to the 20th), My Twentieth Century could be described as a sort of Hungarian equivalent of Latin American “magic realism”, except — though this may be no more than what has to be the case, when Garcia Marquez’s Columbia is exchanged for Enyedi’s Hungary, or when the novel as a medium is exchanged for film — that My Twentieth Century‘s fantasmagoria is altogether more spectral, more hauntological, than that with which we are so familiar from South American fiction. The ghosts of old Europe continue to stalk through the fabulous inventions of modernity, even as Enyedi makes what is perhaps the first post-Communist film by hearkening back to the pre-Communist world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Film itself — another astounding modern invention for which Edison can claim at least partial credit — is, of course, a part of this fantasmagoria. One striking scene in My Twentieth Century shows a movie house, with an audience seated in front of not one, but a whole series of screens (each of which is illuminated by back-projection, by a series of projectors on the other side of the screens from where the audience sits), showing subjects that range from Lumiere-like documentary to Buster Keaton comedy to objects that are entirely anachronistic (like a helicopter– something that evidently didn’t exist in 1901 or 1905). My historical knowledge about early cinema is extremely limited; but I don’t think that films were actually shown like this, in the first decade of the twentieth century (or at any other time, for that matter). But the multiple screens fit in with other evocations of the mystery of images, and of the history of cinema, throughout My Twentieth Century. Most notably, there is the funhouse hall of mirrors — recalling Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — near the end of the film, when the two sisters are finally reunited.
Most of the film, after the introductory segments, involves the adventures of the now adult Dora and Lili (both played by Dorotha Segda, who also appears as their mother when they are infants), around the turn of the century. Dora is a stylish fake aristocrat; she uses her sexual charms to live off various men. She manages both to charm everyone (the audience as well as her men), and at the same time to make the throes of sexual passion appear (to the audience, if not to the men involved) pretty much ridiculous. In one highly amusing sequence, she steals some expensive jewelry by convincing the jeweler to deliver the items to her at an address which turns out to be a mental asylum; she convinces the rather creepy, proto-Freudian asylum director that the jeweler is her brother, who is in desperate need of psychiatric treatment to cure his out-of-control obsession with diamond necklaces. In this way, as also in her more direct seductions, she performs a kind of feminist jiujitsu, turning the very sources of patriarchal power (psychiatry, phallic authority, the sexual ‘double standard’) against the men who wield that power.
Lili, on the other hand, is a bomb-throwing anarchist terrorist. This means that she is not at all stylish, but rather a woman of the people. She is highly moral, where Dora is cheerfully amoral. In the language of feminine stereotypes, Lili is the “virgin” to Dora’s “whore.” Lili directly protests the political conditions that Dora inverts to her advantage. In fact, Lili’s terrorist acts are more symbolically expressive than they are actually effective; her “politics of the deed” is actually a politics of images. She bombs the movie theater, but fails to kill the Minister who was her target. Later, she confronts this Minister face to face, but cannot bring herself to actually throw the bomb. Perhaps her grandest moment is when she shimmies up a tall, phallic factory smokestack, in order to rain down political leaflets upon the crowd below. For this she gets sent to Siberia (another deliberate anachronism, since Austria-Hungary and Russia were scarcely political allies in 1903); but the voices from the stars guide her safely back to Budapest.
In the course of the narrative, Dora and Lili both become involved, unbeknownst to one another, with the same man, identified only as Z (the Russian actor Oleg Jankovsky). Z is first seduced by Dora, who romps in bed with him after stealing the money in his wallet. Subsequently, Z meets Lili in the park, and — thinking she is Dora — propositions her. Lili does not disabuse him — in fact, she doesn’t speak at all — but follows him back to his chambers, disrobes, and services him, as if his voice had put her under some sort of hypnotic spell. It’s hard to say who is deceiving (or using) whom, at this point. It’s only in the funhouse hall of mirrors, towards the end of the film, that Z learns of the deception, when he sees both sisters together for the first time (though he cannot be sure this isn’t just some sort of mirrored deception). Dora and Lili fall into each other’s arms; all the time since they were separated at age seven is abolished. Their bond with one another evidently means more to them both, than any relationships either of them might have with any men. I am inclined to say that here — if I may (ab)use Lacanian parlance — the Symbolic order altogether collapses; it is just too ridiculous to endure. But the “Imaginary” order that replaces it (with all those mirrors, and with the dual female protagonist) is not the morass of narcissism that those Lacanian moralists are always sternly warning us against. It is rather a zone of play, and of imaginative creation; it is the realm of Freedom, as opposed to the (capitalist and patriarchal) realm of Necessity. There is no narcissism here, because the “subject” of this playful freedom is always (at least) two, rather than one. Dora and Lili, in their mirrorings of one another, which also means (according to the film’s non-binary logic) their differences from one another, are reminiscent of the two “Maries” in Chytilova’s Daisies, and of the eponymous heroines of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating.
Almost precisely in the middle of My Twentieth Century, there’s a sequence in which Otto Weininger — author of the notorious, over-the-top misogynistic rant Sex and Character, a book that was an intellectual sensation in its day, and (inexplicably?) had a profound impact upon such crucial figures of Central European modernity as Freud, Kafka, and Wittgenstein — gives a speech to the Budapest Suffragette Society. The ladies applaud boisterously when Weininger declares himself in support of giving women the vote; but this changes to hisses, disapproving looks, and walkouts when Weininger goes on to speak, more and more hysterically, about the inferiority , irrationality, and sexual voraciousness of Woman, who can only enact the roles of Mother or Whore. Lili sits in the audience; the camera keeps on returning to her. As Weininger gets more excessive and outrageous, Lili looks ever more stricken and ashamed. She has internalized the oppressive duality enunciated and theorized by Weininger (rational Man versus irrational, affective Woman), and feels subjected to it even though it doesn’t characterize her at all (she is largely rational, which is what gives a disturbing edge to her submission to Weininger’s judgment, as it does as well to her almost hypnotic submission to Z’s seduction). This is precisely why she has dedicated herself to fighting against male and capitalist domination politically — submitted to the Law, she can only transgress it. Nothing could be a sharper contrast to Dora, who laughs at the masculine Law while using it opportunistically for her own ends.
With its crucial placement in the center of the film, the Weininger sequence defines the issues at stake in My Twentieth Century as a whole: the place of women in modernity, with its promises of liberation and invention — promises that were largely not kept in the years beyond the confines of the film: years with the horrors of two world wars, and of Nazism and Stalinism. The promise of political emancipation, like the promise of miraculous changes from the new technologies of the late 19th and early 20th century, was still, in 1989 — as it is still today — an unfinished project; and My Twentieth Century works both to give an exhilarating sense of those promises, and a mournful reminder of their failure.
I am perhaps running the risk of making My Twentieth Century seem more linear than it actually is. The film’s logic is anarchic and associative; its sense of the marvelous is largely created by its continual digressions. On the one hand, these digressions often concern technological inventions. On the other hand, they often involve animals, which are associated with women by Weininger’s misogynistic logic, as well as by the experiences of captivity and confinement that women and animals share. At one point, we see a dog cooped up in a laboratory, with a strange formation of wires attached to its head. (Presumably the dog is a subject of Pavlov’s conditioning experiments, which were conducted precisely at this time). The voices from the stars pity the dog’s suffering, and release it from the lab; a long sequence follows in which the dog runs freely out of the city and through country fields. Later, there is a sequence at the zoo, in which a chimpanzee, apparently able to talk, recounts to Dora and her male companion the woeful tale of his captivity and exile, locked behind bars in the Budapest zoo, far from the jungle of his youthful freedom. (The story seems to echo Kafka’s “Report to an Academy”). There are also sequences with a magical donkey and with homing pigeons; and citations of cooperation among animals, taken from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, written by the Russian anarchist in opposition to Social Darwinism (there is also a more ominous citation from that book, something about rabbits that play together so joyously that they forget to be afraid of the fox).
If the freedom and captivity of animals is one “line of flight” followed by the film, another is technological invention, and the consequent rrise of globalization. Just as the film begins with Edison’s electric light bulbs, so it ends by coming back to Edison, who demonstrates the power of the “wireless telegraph” by sending a message around the world, from station to station, until it returns back to him. As with Edison’s previous appearance in the film, this demonstration is equal parts wonder and hokum. We see the various stations, around the globe, at which the message is received and passed on, in a dead-on parody of the “telephone” montage sequences in 1930s Hollywood films. My Twentieth Century doesn’t ridicule, though it does point up, the naivete of both early-twentieth-century technology and classical cinema. Rather it simultaneously affirms wonder and disillusionment.
After this latter Edison sequence, the film goes backwards in time, returning first to the 7-year-old twins, and then to the mother holding them newly born. We have seen the (somewhat flourishing) actualization of modernity’s dreams, with only subtle hints of the disillusionment that was to follow. Now we return to the moment of pure potentiality –what Deleuze would call the virtual — the point (in time and space) at which all that energy, all that potentiality, was just at the point of its emergence, still mostly in suspension, so that all sorts of hopes and possibilities could be looked forward to, with heightened anticipation. The future, then, was open; now, of course (the filmmaker’s “now” of 1989, or our “now”, watching the film in 2007) it has been closed.
The film ends with a long, mysterious, brooding tracking shot; the camera glides slowly down a river or (more likely) a canal, with foliage on both banks, but no human beings in sight; then it reaches a larger body of water (a lake? the ocean?), extending to the horizion, though with islands (or some sort of land) in the distance. The camera continues out across the water. Mournful classical music plays on the soundtrack. We are left with a film that is contemplative and surreal, beautiful rather than sublime, and that is earnest and playful, hopeful and comedic and disillusioned, all at once. My Twentieth Century evokes a time of exalted, and ultimately disappointed, hopes; it was made at a time that was also one of exalted, and ultimately disappointed hopes, when “actually existing socialism” was not so much overthrown as (in Hungary, at least) it simply faded away into irrelevance. The film might be described as mock-nostalgic: it probes the depths of time, in order to evoke, not a past that never was, but a future that never was. What use might we find for it now, in postmodernity’s eternal Now, when things are changing (both socially and technologically) so quickly that we cannot keep up with them, and yet every potential, every future, already seems exhausted in advance?
Zizek has good things to say about Lenin, about Mao, even about Stalin; the one Communist leader who, it would seem, is beyond the pale for him is Josip Broz Tito.
The logic of Kieslowski’s films is affective, rather than (as is often argued) spiritual. A Short Film About Killing (1987), an expanded version of Episode 5 (“Thou shalt not kill”) of Kieslowski’s Decalogue, is nearly unbearable, due to the intensity with which it forces us to contemplate murder. First, a young man, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka) kills a taxi driver (Jan Tesarz) for no apparent reason; then, the legal apparatus, with full procedural regularity, executes Jacek. Jacek’s idealistic attorney (Krzysztof Globisz) can do nothing to stop the execution; this makes him feel like an accessory to (judicial) murder. In both cases, the audience feels implicated in the killings — just as the lawyer does in the second case — simply because we are there to watch.
The film, I said, forces us to contemplate murder. Contemplate is precisely the word I want here, as it implies a stance of disinterested observation: using disinterested precisely in the Kantian sense. A “judgment of taste,” Kant says, “is merely contemplative, i.e. it is a judgment that is indifferent to the existence of the object.” Taste operates “by means of a liking or disliking devoid of all interest. The object of such a liking is called beautiful.” While it might seem bizarre to use such old-fashioned (and unpleasantly high-toned) words as “taste” and “beautiful” to describe so viscerally disturbing an experience as that of watching A Short Film About Killing, I believe that the connotations are entirely apt. For there is something almost perversely aesthetic (and aestheticist) about the way that Kieslowski presents us with an ethical deadlock or dilemma.
This is because Kieslowski presents murder precisely as something that we cannot be interested in. Defining the notion of interest — the state that is incompatible with aesthetic contemplation — Kant notes that “to will something and to have a liking for its existence i.e. to take an interest in it, are identical.” But the murders in the film are actions that we cannot will or desire. They happen, and we see them, and we are unable to escape their traumatic impact. But we also cannot identify with these killings — or with the killers. We cannot make an imaginative leap of comprehension. Jacek is too much of a blank; we feel his alienation, but we cannot understand his motives. And the Law is too bureaucratic, too impersonal and distant; before the coldness of its procedures, we cannot extract any edifying sentiment of vengeance, or deterrence, or exemplary rigor, or even justice done. Both killings appear to us as utterly arbitrary, which is part of what makes them so excruciating — and which is why we cannot will them, cannot assume their burden as our own. But this impossibility, this impotence of the will, is itself the reason why our mere contemplation is tinged with an unbearable complicity. We are accessories after the fact.
Let me be more specific: more formally specific. A Short Film About Killing is meticulously stylized. Nearly all the outdoor scenes are shot with a greenish/yellowish filter, which gives the surroundings — the urban tenements and shopping streets and public squares, but also the natural scenery, foliage, underbrush and a lake, where Jacek’s murder of the cab driver takes place — a sickly, feverish cast. During these scenes, the sky is always overcast. Often portions of the frame are cut off, made black, by an intervening body or architectural detail. Sometimes the frame actually seems unusually dark around the edges, as if the heavy oppressiveness of an oncoming storm were about to decimate our vision.
(The only time we see bright sunlight, and natural green, is at the very end of the film, when the lawyer stops his car in the middle of nowhere, overcome by the horror of the execution he has just witnessed. There’s a gleam of brightness flashing in the distance, that we can’t quite resolve, and that seems shockingly incongruous, out of whack with everything that’s come before. This is the one and only moment of “objective irony” in the entire film).
The indoor scenes, meanwhile, are dominated by formal, bureaucratic architecture. We see a lot of the law courts, and (in the latter part of the film) of the prison with its numerous locks and gates and narrow corridors and confined rooms. The interiors are clean, although sometimes soiled. At one point, before the murder, Jacek is sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and eating a cream puff. Seeing some young girls looking into the cafe window from outside, he uses his spoon to flick a piece of cream puff on the window, where it remains in an ugly smear. He smiles after doing this, and the kids on the other side of the glass smile back. This is one of the few moments in the film where Jacek smiles, and seems happy. (Another time is when, sitting on a highway overpass, he drops a small rock, or block of cement, onto the roadway below. We hear sounds of horns and squealing brakes, but we don’t see what happened).
Soiling, and petty vandalism, and creating inconvenience, are repeated motifs throughout the film. At the very beginning, we see a close-up of a dead rat in a puddle. Shortly thereafter, we see a cat that has been hanged in a little noose (preparing us for Jacek’s hanging at the climax of the film). There are also casual incidents of violence in the background; in one early sequence, as Jacek wanders aimlessly through town, two young men are viciously beating up a third in a doorway in the distance.
The first time we see the taxi driver, he is assaulted by a large carpet that someone throws out of an upper-story window, and that barely misses him. The driver likes to mess with people’s dogs; he corrupts one by feeding it when it is sitting faithfully in place; he frightens another, so that it breaks from its owner’s leash and runs away, by honking his horn at it. The taxi driver also takes a somewhat sadistic glee in leaving people shivering in the cold or the rain, when he could easily have picked them up. And he is something of a dirty old man; he leeringly propositions a young woman who is working at an outdoor stall nearby his cab. She turns him down, walking away without saying anything. It later turns out that she is Jacek’s girlfriend; he offers her a joyride in the very taxi whose driver had propositioned her earlier, and that he has stolen after the murder.
I’ve been cataloguing details of what might be thought of as signs of a society in decline — one where codes of morality, and even simple norms of politeness and civility, have ceased to function. But I think it is way too easy to thereby see Kielowski as a social conservative (or, alternatively, as a Zizekian, observing and mourning the “decline of symbolic efficiency”). For I think that, in the world of A Short Film About Killing, these unpleasant exchanges (up to and including the killings themselves) are not primarily signs of the decline of the social: to the contrary, they are precisely, and positively, what constitutes the social. They are forms (however weird and perverse and unpleasant they might seem) of contact, interaction, and disalienation; they are what binds an otherwise isolated individual to others — and to the collectivity (present in this film mostly in the form of the State institutions of police, law courts, and prisons) as well. In a sick and distressing, but nonetheless entirely valid, sense, Jacek’s murder of the taxi driver is the one moment when he does establish an intimate relationship with another person. (This is one of the stark differences between Jacek’s act of murder, and his equally harrowing execution, at the hands of the State, at the end of the film).
If Kieslowski retreats from politics in the Decalogue and in his subsequent films, if A Short Film About Killing, made in the waning days of “actually existing socialism,” says so little about that social system in particular (everything in the film could just as easily happen, much the same way, in an economically depressed capitalist society and state), if Kieslowski seems to reject politics altogether, in order to focus on supposedly more “universal” concerns (ones which are generally described as moral or ethical, and as spiritual or religious) — then this movement is still founded upon a bleak and critical view of the social, one that is not dissolved away by any sort of move to more “individual” concerns. This is another way of saying what I said at the very beginning: that Kieslowski’s films are affective rather than spiritual, and that they remain curiously and singularly aestheticized, even at the most abstract level of their universalizing ethical concerns. Affect is never internal, never just bottled up inside; it always involves a sort of transfer, from one person (persona, character) to another, and from the persons on screen to the persons in the audience, watching the film.
This brings us right back to Kieslowski’s great, much-celebrated theme of mysterious connections, alternative destinies, and chance encounters that yet seem fated. The way that acts of aggression, and of acting out — in their range from vandalism, through impoliteness and physical aggression, and all the way to murder — institute and embody the social all throughout A Short Film About Killing is only the flip side of this theme. For Kieslowski, these mysterious connections (together with the institutions that emulate them in a stiflingly formalized way) are the warp and woof of the social. They are also the stuff of cinema, reflecting and answering to the ways that images (or people and places) are brought together through editing. Kieslowski’s incessant cross-cutting between Jacek, the taxi driver, and the lawyer, before the murder takes place, and before they have even met (though they pass one another without recognition a number of times, which is itself an expression of Kieslowski’s vision of mysterious connections) — this cross-cutting itself creates the bond between the three of them. It is as if they are all fated to meet so catastrophically because the filmmaker has edited their scenes together — rather than the reverse. This is yet another way of approaching Kieslowski’s aestheticism: he discovers or creates patterns that have no intrinsic meaning — that do not appeal to any particular interest, or desire — aside from the fact that they are simply there.
A Short Film About Killing operates through a strange (or unexpected) principle of dispersion. For the first half of the film, we don’t really know (aside from the hints provided by the title, or by other prior knowledge we have brought to the movie) what is going to happen, or how the seemingly random incidents and encounters that we witness will fit together. Kieslowski ignores, or evades, the usual narrative structures of cause and effect. He dwells on things, and incidents, simply on account of their sheer materiality. It takes a good amount of screen time for the taxi driver just to wash his car, before he starts driving around in search of passengers. Later, there is a long sequence of shots in the course of which Jacek is just waiting around; he sees a policeman walking up and down the street, and evidently doesn’t want to do anything (take action, though we do not yet know what sort of action it will be) as long as the cop is around. Finally a police vehicle comes by and picks up the lonely cop; it is only after this that Jacek takes a long rope out from his pack, and coils it up, tests it, and cuts it to suitable length for what, we only find out subsequently will be an act of murder.
Time is empty, filled with disparate and seemingly random incidents: it isn’t even a time of anticipation, because we don’t know what any of the characters are waiting for (or even if they are anticipating and waiting). Did Jacek plan to murder someone when he put the rope into his briefcase? Is he planning the murder (despite the randomness of the victim) when he coils that rope? How clear or vague are his plans, his desires? We cannot know this, and we cannot even be sure that Jacek himself knows this. The film is filled with affect, but this affect is ambient and impersonal, it circulates, it doesn’t remain fixed in anyone’s head. And this is why we cannot “identify”, even negatively, with any of the characters, which in turn is why our stance towards the film, however intense and uncomfortable, never takes the form of “interest.” Kieslowski almost brutally elides those portions of the narrative that might create identification or interest; he cuts directly from the shot in which Jacek shows the stolen car to his girlfriend, and proposes that they escape into the mountains, to a shot of the judges rising after having delivered their verdict (which, we only learn subsequently, is a condemnation to death). Pursuit, arrest, confession, and trial — the meat of most crime movies — are entirely absent from A Short Film About Killing.
The murder of the taxi driver doesn’t occur until midway through the film, after we have been adrift in the maze (or miasma) of cross-cuts and seemingly unrelated, but thickly described, incidents. The murder itself takes up five minutes or so of screen time, This, of course, is part of what makes it so excruciating — by sparing us none of the details, and none of the length, Kieslowski wants us to feel the momentousness, and the horror, of actually taking a human life. But the sequence is also remarkably physical and material in its emphasis — Kieslowski concentrates o the body, rather than the soul. Jacek strangles the man with his rope, then bludgeons him, then drags his body from the car… but the man still will not die, so that Jacek has to pummel him with a large rock. We cannot see the driver’s face for the latter part of this sequence, because Jacek has covered it with a handkerchief. But this absence of reciprocity — we can’t see the face of the dying man, we like Jacek do not look him in the eyes — only makes things worse, since it turns the still-living taxi driver into a thing that nonetheless continues to live and move, or at least to squirm spasmodically: no longer a person, but not yet peacefully inert. We see blood ooze through the handkerchief — just as later on, when Jacek is hanged, we see the shit that his body expelled with its last movements. These displays of a coarse, impersonal vitality at the very moment of death are more horrifying than any look into the anguished face of the victim might be — precisely because they spasms, events, with which we cannot identify, that we cannot assimilate into ourselves.
A phrase like “the aestheticization of death” is usually applied disparagingly, in reference to something like Quentin Tarantion’s staging a mass bloodbath for laughs, as if it were an MGM musical (I am thinking, of course, of a scene towards the end of Kill Bill part I). But Kieslowski offers us an aestheticization of death and killing — in the precise Kantian terms of disinterest that I have been trying to describe — that has an entirely opposite valency. Death here is a singularity, because it cannot be exchanged, or compared, or rendered equivalent to anything else. Not even to another death: which is why, and how, A Short Film About Killing condemns the death penalty. I suppose one can see this as Christian (New Testament vs. Old, suspension of the Law), if one wishes; perhaps that is how Kieslowski himself saw it. But more important to me is just the very physical and material — and also aesthetic — way that Kieslowski rejects the logic of equivalence that lies at the heart of “actually existing” socialism and capitalism alike.