Archive for July, 2007

Ingmar Bergman

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

WIth Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day, we have lost two giants from the First Golden Age of Cinephilia (the 1960s and the 1970s, when — at least in the US — such a thing as a film culture came into existence for the first time). (I consider us to be living right now through the Second Golden Age of Cinephilia — DVDs have made a wider range of art films, from a broader part of the world, more available than ever before; and internet discussions have led to a more wide-ranging discussion of such films than was ever possible before). I will write about Bergman here, and Antonioni in a subsequent post.

My attitude towards Bergman has really changed a lot over the years. When I was in college and graduate school, in the 1970s, I worshipped him — he was second only to Godard in revealing to me the potentialities of film, the heights of artistry of which it was capable. I found many of his films, basically the whole series, ten major films or so, that ran from Virgin Spring (1960) through Persona (1966), and on to Cries and Whispers (1972), to be uniquely powerful, and indeed devastating. I think that The Passion of Anna (1969), Bergman’s first color film, was also the first film to teach me how powerful color could be as an element of film. I found Bergman’s portrayals of women to be deeply empathetic, and his themes of loss and cultural desolation resonated deeply within me.

As I grew older, my attitude changed. Sometime during or after Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman’s artistry seemed to me to have lost its edge. Either he had become too sentimental, or else his continued vision of pain and destruction had become too shrill and one-dimensional. By the time of Fanny and Alexander (1982), I had completely lost interest in Bergman’s ongoing work. What’s more, I had become more than a bit embarrassed by my younger self’s enthusiasm even for his greatest work. What had once seemed profound now struck me as pretentious. Bergman’s existential anguish, his handwringing over the death of God, his laments about essential loneliness, his contrived psychodramas: all this seemed to me to add up to a moribund aesthetic, the last gasp of an old-fashioned humanism and high-culture snobbery that nobody with any sense could take seriously any longer, in an age of television and rock ‘n’ roll and the first personal computers.

Today, I think that my attitude of contemptuous rejection was as misguided as my earlier enthusiasm was exaggerated. Perhaps I am suffering from a general mellowing of my sensibility, which is one of the most horrible things that often tends to happen to people in middle age. But I can mention two film experiences that led to my current re-re-evaluation of Bergman’s stature as an artist. The first was seeing Sunday’s Children, a film directed by Daniel Bergman (Ingmar’s son) from Ingmar’s own script. This is not a bad film by any means; it is directed solidly and more than competently, if also a bit stolidly and unimaginatively. The content (or the script) is pure Ingmar Bergman, at his most intimate and (presumably) autobiographical. It recounts the solitude and alienation of a young (10-year-old) boy, his initiation into the mysteries of death and sexuality (if I am remembering correctly), and above all his painful relationship with a harsh, perfectionist, unloving pastor father. The film affected me precisely because it didn’t really work: what was missing was precisely Ingmar Bergman’s lyricism, the expressiveness he achieved through lighting, through painfully long-held closeups, and through the rhythms of speech and silence, of tension and anticipation and (all too rarely) release. Again, I don’t want this to sound like I am just dumping on Daniel Bergman; but the things that were missing from his film, the things that were recognizably Ingmar-Bergmanian, but that didn’t have the resonance that Ingmar’s own directed films had — all these things made me realize what my harshly negative judgment of Ingmar Bergman was forgetting, or failing to acknowledge. I came away from watching Sunday’s Children, ironically enough, with a renewed appreciation of Ingmar Bergman’s artistry, of the way he was a true poet of cinema in the visually minimal, and yet somehow ravishing, images and details of his films in the heartwrenching moments of suspension and deadlock and incapacity that these films came to again and again, scenes that moved me however much I remained suspicious of his grand statements and pseudo-profound themes.

The second experience was encountering Persona again, for the first time in years, when –about five years ago — I was teaching a survey class on film of the 1960s and 1970s. I was struck by so many things: things that I didn’t remember from seeing the film in my period of Bergman-adulation, and that I certainly wasn’t even aware of in my period of Bergman-contempt. There was, first of all, the way that Bergman’s camera dwelt so lovingly — intimately and yet also with a certain respectful, or even worshipful distance — on Liv Ullman’s and Bibi Andersson’s faces, as these women smiled, or cried, or screamed, as they glanced lovingly or resentfully or jealously at one another. Then there was the visual tonality of the film, the black-and-white which was (how shall I put this?) stark but not harsh, with a luminosity that is too subdued and depressive to be called “radiant,” but too intensely saturated, too much a visible atmosphere, to be called anything else. The experimentalism of the film, which I had feared might come off as gimmicky and hokey, instead struck me as genuinely exploratory and even brave: I refer not just to the (justly) famous opening sequence, with its series of mysterious images (and, as Michel Chion reminds us, evocative sounds), but also the minimalist scene in the hospital, where Ullman watches the horrors of the Vietnam War on TV, and especially that moment towards the middle of the film, when the rupturing of the relationship between the two women is suddenly transformed into a rupturing of the cinematic apparatus itself. And then, in terms of narrative and thematics: what I had remembered as a murky and heavy-handed exercise in existential angst (Ullman is so distressed by Vietnam or whatever that she decides to stop speaking, because speech is necessarily impure and inauthentic) in fact turned out, upon my viewing the film again, to be something quite different. Something that at first seems stark and clear-cut turns out, as the film progresses, to be ever more ambiguous and equivocal, as everything Ullman and Andersson do, by themselves or to one another, gets entangled in a morass of mixed motives, uncertainties, confusions, and fabulations. The film becomes more and more a labyrinthine reflection upon its own fictionality, and (most remarkably of all) the affective currents which, in the first half of the film, relate quite firmly to the two main characters turn out themselves to apply, in a nearly impersonal way, to the confusions between those characters and their stories in the latter half of the film. In Persona , in short, Bergman deconstructs his own narrativity and thematics as rigorously as any of his European contemporaries of the 1960s were doing — and with more affective power than most.

All in all, Bergman still does not emotionally move me, or intellectually engage me, as profoundly as Godard, Fassbinder, and Antonioni do. But I think that now I am more able than I was for a long time to appreciate the considerable beauties and virtues of his art.

Brand Upon the Brain!

Friday, July 27th, 2007

Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! is — together with Cowards Bend the Knee, to which it is a sort of sequel — the best thing Maddin has ever done. Cowards and Brain are alike quasi-autobiographical, with protagonists named “Guy Maddin” involved in all sorts of Oedipal entanglements. Maddin says, in a short documentary about shooting the film, something to the effect that Brain is “autobiographical” because it reproduces the emotions he remembers having felt years ago, during his childhood. That is to say, the film is affectively autobiographical, rather than literally so. It is not really the case that Maddin’s mother ran an orphanage, or that his father was a mad scientist — it is only that that is what they become, or how they feel to Maddin today, when they are refracted through the double delirium of memory and the movies. In all his films, Maddin seeks to present to us the reality of the past: which is to say, not the past as it really was, but the past as past, the past as a memory, the actuality of the past as it is re-called or re-presented, rather than actually present. The past is spectral, hauntological; it “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

All of Maddin’s films emulate, or recall, the styles of older film, and especially silent film. They look, intentionally, archaic. And they mimic specifically, the oldness of these older films — that is to say, they try to look, not like silent films must have looked at the time they were originally made and shown, but how they look today, in prints worn down by years of use and chemical decay. They deploy visual conventions and acting styles that look out of place, because they self-consciously correspond to what seemed like naturalism to audiences of 1917, and which therefore today seems entirely mannered and artificial, entirely at odds with what audiences take for naturalism in 2007. Against the myth that film preserves the living presence of what has passed away in reality (i.e. the idea that Garbo’s films preserve her youth and sensuality intact, despite the fact that the real Garbo grew old and died) — against this myth, Maddin equates the cinematic perpetuation of images with the pastness and inaccessibility of that to which the images refer. This is very nearly literalized in Brand Upon the Brain!, in the monstrous figure of the father who is murdered, but then brought back to a sort of zombified life, so that he may continue his vampiristic scientific experimentation, which consists of stealing the vital energies of the young, extracting vital fluids from their brains and spinal cords, in order to rejuvenate the older generation (in a process which is, at best, temporary and delusive).

In order to create the decayed-silent-film look, Maddin shot Brand Upon the Brain! in Super8, which he then blew up to 35mm, so that the predominantly black and white images (there are a few seconds in color) look, at various times, grainy, washed-out, overly-high-contrast, etc. There is no synchronized sound; the soundtrack combines music, a few songs, and Isabella Rossellini’s voiceover narration (supplemented by intertitles). (At some initial screenings in big cities, the soundtrack was provided live; but the screening I attended in Detroit used a prerecorded soundtrack). Many of the images, with the actors’ exaggerated gestures, and the scenes forming tableaux, were vaguely reminiscent of D W Griffith-style melodrama, with interpolations from German Expressionism. The editing style, however, is not like anything from the 1910s or 1920s. The delirious editing, with many scenes broken up into jump cuts between fragmentary closeups, might suggest Eisensteinian montage as a contrast to the Griffith-like mise en scene; but (at least at one viewing; I really need to see the film again) it didn’t really seem “constructivist” in the way that Maddin’s short Heart of the World, which explicitly referenced 1920s Soviet cinema, did. That is to say, Brand Upon the Brain! is edited emotively, rather than providing any sort of “intellectual montage.” It’s a bit too crude to say that the editing emphasized shock effects instead of comprehension; but everything Maddin does works to express how the events of the film might feel, or make us feel, rather than what is actually happening. In contrast to contemporary action montage, the emphasis is on gaps and disjunctions, on making us feel abruptly disconnected, lost and puzzled, rather than on piling on kinetic shocks as quickly as possible (in the way that filmmakers like Michael Bay like to do). Individual shots, or sequences of shots, are also often allusive to all sorts of stylistic tics and mannerisms from the history of film (and not just silent film — for instance, there is one shot, probably no more than two or three seconds, that references Night of the Living Dead). The film is edited so as to emphasize the impossibility of fully capturing the events that it nonetheless shows. It is noteworthy that the 12-year-old “Guy Maddin,” the protagonist of most of the film, repeated passes out in a swoon because the events he witnesses are too much for him.

The plot of Brand Upon the Brain! has so many twists and turns as to be nearly indescribable. It involves a basic Oedipal configuration — the smothering and controlling mother, the distant, detached, yet ultimately sadistic (and even more ultimately, dead or living-dead) father, the brother and sister with their incestuous desires. Both brother and sister fall madly in love with an androgynous “celebrity” figure, the alluring girl/boy detective, who comes to the island on which the film takes place in order to investigate the “mystery” of what the overwhelming and terrifying parents are really up to (which involves, as I have already mentioned, vampiric preying upon the young). The mother fluctuates in age throughout the movie, becoming younger whenever she imbibes the rejuvenating fluid that is extracted from the orphans in her care, and then becoming older again whenever (as often happens) her smothering love for her children transforms into a violently possessive rage. But within this basic scenario there are so many variations and changes of direction that it becomes impossible to summarize — it is as if all conceivable variations on the Oedipal triangle, and the androgynous-love triangle as well, had to be played out at some point in the course of the movie. There is therefore no real narrative progression, but only a series of peripeteias, punctuating passages of dread, suspense, and anticipation. Brand Upon the Brain! has a feel to it of lurching seasickness, and of nightmarish repetitions from which we (like the protagonist) are unable to awaken or escape.

The film is framed by the return of an adult “Guy Maddin” to the island which he left, as a child, thirty years previously. He is swamped by the childhood memories that comprise most of the film, and that invade and compromise his adult present with their ghostly insistence. We are told, repeatedly, that everything that happened before will happen again — twice. (This almost seems like a parody, both of Nietzsche’s eternal return, and of Marx’s observation that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce). Repeated intertitles invoke “The Past! The Past!” — and sometimes this is transformed into “The Future!” — for, evidently, no future time can be secure from the past that returns to fill it up.

As always in Maddin’s films, the intense emotional material is so hyperbolic, so over-the-top, and so outlandishly — and stiltedly — overacted, that it becomes campy and ridiculous. In Maddin’s earlier movies, I have generally tended to see this pattern as a sort of defense. The campiness and ridiculousness serves as a sort of (psychoanalytic) disavowal; disavowing the hyperemotionalism of the films’ basic material through ludicrousness is actually a way of protecting it from criticism. Maddin can get away with melodramatic hysteria precisely by pretending (to himself, as well as to the audience) that he isn’t serious about it — whereas any effort at a “sincere” presentation would immediately fall flat on its face. But even if that was what was happening in Maddin’s earlier films, I don’t really think it is the case anymore. Even in the earlier films, campy exaggeration and ludicrousness don’t only work as modes of disavowal; they are also, in a strange way, direct enablers of emotion, in that they serve as a medium of expression for feelings that “dare not speak their name.” But in Maddin’s most recent work — Cowards Bend the Knee, and now, Brand Upon the Brain — even a further transformation is at work. This has to do with modes of display, or of what I can only call (somewhat oxymoronically) a self-conscious obviousness. A Freudian depth-psychology reading of Brand Upon the Brain would make no sense, precisely because all the Freudian motifs are right there in front of us. They so fill up the overt, manifest content of the film, that there is no sense in looking for a hidden, latent meaning behind them. [This "self-conscious obviousness" is, I think, one of the ways in which Maddin is radically different from David Lynch, to whom in some other respects he can be closely compared]. There is a sort of hysterical overfullness to the way in which the film seems to cram into its plot every conceivable permutation of Oedipal desire, and also every conceivable generic twist of melodrama (with hints of horror as well). The campy exaggeration of Maddin’s earlier films is now an almost literal too-muchness, an overplenitude that is strictly coordinated with the film’s insistence on spectrality and absence, on the pastness of the past, on the ways in which memories, like movies, allure us without ever allowing us touch them. The result is that the film jumps the rails (jumps the shark?) in a certain sense. The only way to describe Brand Upon the Brain is with a Freudian account of trauma and Nachtraglichkeit, and with an ontological dialectic of presence and absence. Yet the film also seems to mock these terms, by demonstrating to us how utterly inadequate they are. You can’t separate the ridiculousness from the horror and the pain any more. Brand Upon the Brain develops a sort of flow, incessantly turning back upon itself, that fuses and confounds all the distinctions I have just been trying to make about it. I am tempted to say the film is finally more Deleuzian than Freudian/Lacanian, that it has to do with flows that almost become abstract, that traverse the earth in a way that is both so intimate, and so utterly artificial, as to break down such distinctions altogether. But even to say that would probably be to reduce the film, to put it in terms that it adamantly resists. Rather, it is something about the sheer beauty of Maddin’s images, the ways that they dissolve into one another, the ways that their very distance and inaccessibility registers affectively. The way it makes me run out of things to say about it, and only feel the need to see it again.

Twitter

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

So, as an experiment, I have set up a Twitter account. No, I am not going to use it to report on taking my kids to the playground, or getting a latte at the local bakery/cafe. I just want to see what (if anything) I can say about music, books, movies, etc., within the ridiculous 160-140-character limit that Twitter has to offer.

Paprika

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

Satoshi Kon’s Paprika is the finest, most exhilarating animated feature film that I have seen in quite some time. Actually, “exhilarating” is a peculiar word to apply, but I can’t think of a better one. Paprika‘s style is something that I am a total sucker for: it’s wildly, floridly psychedelic, but at the same time somehow harsh and astringent.

The SF plot centers on a machine that allows one person (a therapist, ideally) to enter another person’s dreams; the device is stolen, and someone is using it to mess with people’s dreams (which become nightmarish black holes that the people cannot awaken from), to combine the dreams — and thereby the psyches — of different people, and finally to altogether break down the walls between dream, waking life, and the movies, fusing them into a single stream of experience, a marvelous and scary fantasmagoria. Paprika continually teeters between hard-edged realism and the menacing flux of delirious schizophrenization.

Kon’s visual style is almost photorealist, at least for the backgrounds. Tokyo streets and corporate offices are rendered with clarity and precision. But this painstaking accuracy only makes the film’s frequent metamorphoses all the more disconcerting. Photorealism tends to rupture when it is applied to sites like circuses and amusement parks, and to objects such as children’s wind-up toys that have suddenly expanded to human-size, and taken on an autonomous life of their own, all rendered in bright primary colors. At moments of transition, when characters pass from “reality” into dreams, or (within a dream sequence) when a psychological breaking point is reached, the backgrounds start to ripple and flow, a bit like the ground moving in waves during an earthquake, before they dissolve and transform altogether, or simply close up.

The film’s repeated motif is a joyous parade down a large street, consisting of broken toys and other miscellaneous junk come alive: empty refrigerators and other household appliances, gaudy and ominously smiling dolls, a whole marching band’s worth of mechanical frogs, a wobbling, de-pedestaled Statue of Liberty, and lots more — basically, it consists of everything that Western hipsters and fanboys (and fangirls?) love about Japanese pop culture. This parade reappears every time the plot moves to a point of maximum breakdown, or maximum permeability between the dreams of psychotics and the clarity of the everyday world. The music accompanying this parade is a sort of cheerfully cacophonous technopop, suggesting the joy of just letting yourself go and being transformed into a cartoon — and underlyingly scary on that account.

When the film’s human characters enter into dreamworld, they are transformed into playing cards, or lumbering robots, or hollow dolls. When they are safely in the real world — a condition that becomes less and less possible as the film goes on — the characters are rendered more realistically than is often the case in anime; but they still stand out as iconically simplified in contrast to the realism of the backgrounds. (I don’t know what technology is being used here, but it certainly isn’t as computer-intensive as Toy Story and other recent American animations that try to make the characters look as “naturalistic” and “identifiable-with” as possible). I think it is by design that the characters come off as less real than the settings — since the whole film seems to be about breaking down conventional subjectivities, and suggesting both the fluidity and the generic, objectified, commodified conformity that lies behind and empowers our very assertions of distinctness and singularity.

The film’s heroine is Dr. Atrsuko Chiba, a psycholgist/researcher whose alter ego in the dream world is Paprika, one of those overly cheerly, bright-eyed teenage girls one sees a lot of in manga and anime. Yet the two become dissociated, to the point where they both appear together, both in the real world and in the dreamworld. There’s also Detective Konakawa, a quintessential noir detective, tough as nails but also gloomy and depressed, whose dreams move in and out of various movie genres (Tarzan, noir, melodrama, etc). He is phobic about the movies, and this turns out to have something to do with his past as a failed filmmaker. And then there’s the inventor of the dream device, the grotesquely obese, ultra-nerdy, child-like genuis/savant Dr. Tokita. None of these characters have real “interiority” (again, this is not a flaw, but a feature of the film, by design); what they do have instead is an unconscious that seems to have been colonized by all the 20th century’s forms of mass entertainment (though “colonized” is not the right word, to the extent that it implies some pre-existing content before colonization — nothing of the sort seems to exist in the world of Paprika.

There are some extraordinary surrealist scenes in Paprika, but one gets the sense that surrealism here is not an underlying content or even form (as it might be, for instance, in David Lynch’s movies), but just another pop genre, alongside hard-boiled detective fiction, Godzilla-type horror, and all the rest. In one sequence, Paprika grows wings in order to escape from her pursuers — she turns into something like a Disney-movie fairy. But she is captured anyway: we next see her pinned down to a table, like a specimen in a butterfly collection. One of the villains, after menacing her for a while, reaches his hand and arm through her clothes, into her crotch, and through her innards up to her face (we see, from outside, how the body bulges from this intrusion), until, finally, he pushes from within, and Paprika’s face splits and peels off like a sloughed skin, to reveal the face of Dr. Chiba underneath. The scene doesn’t really register quite as traumatically as my description might imply: it’s all cartoony enough that it doesn’t feel as if Paprika/Chiba is really being hurt. That is to say, it’s scary disconcertingness comes less from any sense of a unique personality being violated, than from a sense of the generic impersonality and interchangeability even of the most extreme experiences. The film is as affectively reflexive as it is conceptually and narratively reflexive: a lot of it involves the feeling of observing one’s feelings from a distance, the feeling of seeing all one’s feelings as being marketed and manipulated, and not unique to oneself; the feeling of simultaneous intense closeness and vicariousness that we get from the movies; and so on.

I won’t try to work through the convoluted plot of Paprika in any detail. I will just note that, as we get closer to the end of the narrative, there’s a kind of shift from the proliferation of a vast, fun-house delirium to the more familiar paranoid vision of urban apocalypse, the Tokyo cityscape ravaged by wartime destruction or ecological catastrophe. We’ve moved from process to endpoint, from manic flux to depressive fixity. After scaring us yet again with this vision, the film does finally move back to the genre comfort of a happy ending, with the villains defeated and the protagonists returned to the “real” world — but with a broader sense than we had at the beginning, of the way that “reality” is already imbued with fantasy (in the psychoanalytic sense). Even when “order” is restored, we will never be free of the uncanny doubles, and stereotypical moldings, of that “reality” that we find in dreams, and in the movies. In the vision of Paprika, I do not think that there is anything like a “cure,” or like “traversing the fantasy.” The best we can do is to pull back, and be more aware of the way we are alway standing on the brink. And maybe go see a film like Paprika, which gives us a kind of intensity, if not (again, by design) a catharsis.

The Argument from Experience

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

So antigram has a posting attacking a previous posting by k-punk that was about class power and “class confidence” (the sense of entitlement which is instilled in members of the ruling, or upper, class, while members of the “lower” classes tend to experience, instead, “a sense of inferiority, a constant worry about whether one should occupy certain spaces, the quietly panicky conviction that ‘surely they can see that I don’t belong here’.”).

Antigram doesn’t so much dispute the content of k-punk’s post, as reject its basic premises. Indeed, I’m inclined to say that no human being with any observational powers whatsoever could possibly disagree with k-punk’s basic observations (unless he or she were utterly blinded by ideology, which is an entirely different discussion). Consider, for instance, when k-punk notes that “in my experience, so many members of the ruling class resemble Daleks: their smooth, hard exterior contains a slimy invertebrate, seething with inchoate, infantile emotions.” Despite the differences between American class sensibilities and the British ones that k-punk is describing, this is precisely what I encounter whenever I visit The Somerset Collection, or any similarly upscale suburban shopping mall. This is the case, even though — in contrast, probably, to Great Britain — in the US the people who fit this description, and whose household income is probably at least two or three times mine, are just as likely as I am, or for that matter as people whose combined household income is one half or one third of mine, to describe themselves, if asked, as “middle class.” For class cannot be circumscribed by old-fashioned notions of “class consciousness”; it is something deeply embodied, and powefully affective , even when (or all the more if) we are not directly conscious of it.

It’s because antigram cannot really dispute any of this, that he puts the argument on a different footing. The part of k-punk’s argument that he rejects is contained in the first three words of the quotation I cited in the paragraph above: “in my experience…” Antigram argues (as does Jodi in her own comment on this exchange) that one cannot validly argue “from experience” at all. This is because, in the first place, “every argument from experience is really an argument from fantasy, and more specifically from the fantasies that a particular subject has for some reason produced in order to comprehend a traumatic experience.” The very fact that an argument is grounded in experience would therefore mean that it is skewed, partial, non-objective, and self-delusional. And secondly, “because arguments from experience are really disavowed arguments from fantasies, their categories often tend to become substantial and racialized.” The argument from experience always ends up being (horror of horrors!) an essentialistic and reified one. Therefore, according to antigram’s argument, k-punk is guilty of transforming “the Marxist conception of class” from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.”

Now, it is evident that in a certain sense antigram’s criticism is correct. We don’t need the Lacanian theory of fantasy to know that merely anecdotal evidence is rarely accurate and complete. Indeed, it’s easy enough to find examples of bigotry (against black people, or not-quite-white Muslims, or darker-skinned people more generally; or against Jews; or against women; or against gays and lesbians) which justify themselves precisely on the grounds of anecdotal experience (“they” behave this way; I’ve seen “them”). Indeed, the justified distrust of the merely anecdotal is one of the major reasons for what has come to be known, in the past several hundred years, as the scientific method. The most reductionist quantitative social scientists are as likely as rigorous Lacanians, and other enemies of positivism, to distrust “experience” in this anecdotal sense.

The trouble with antigram’s argument, however, is that, for all its limits and distortions, “experience” is something you cannot get away from. There is nothing besides, nothing outside of, experience. All arguments are ultimately “arguments from experience.” We can argue, of course, about different sorts of experience, different ways of invoking experiential evidence, and so on; but that is a very different sort of argument. Scientific evidence (using “science” in the sense of physical, experimental science) has rules about validating evidence, which things to accept, and which not, as evidence, and so forth; but it still remains entirely within the realm of what is given to us by experience. Antigram invokes Lacan against k-punk’s appeal to (his own) experience, by citing the Lacanian critique of fantasy. But doesn’t Lacan also say that there is no metalanguage, and that psychoanalysis is, quite emphatically, not a matter of the analyst knowing what the analysand does not? As far as I understand Lacan (which admittedly is not very far), there’s nothing in his thought that would authorize us to separate ourselves from experience in the way antigram thinks we can, and ought to.

In one of the comments on antigram’s post, kenoma says that antigram’s argument brings back to mind “the dreary Theory-fetish shared by many British Althusserians such as Catherine Belsey in the early eighties.” I think that Althusser is somewhat to the point here (though I know almost nothing of Belsey or of 80s British Althusserianism). Althusser famously insists on the difference between “ideology” and “science.” He scandalized humanist Marxists with his valorization of science, but also scandalized hard-core Leninists, Stalinists, etc., with his insistence that even a communist society would still be in the grips of ideology, which was humanly uneliminable. But the whole argument has usually been misunderstood. “Ideology,” for Althusser, means any sort of subjective position, any sort of reliance on “experience,” altogether. “Science” means something that is radically asubjective, and that therefore cannot be called a “position” or a “perspective” at all. By science, Althusser basically meant Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge, or knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. Part of Althusser’s point is that this sort of knowledge, although it exists and is articulated in certain texts, or in certain portions of certain texts, is strictly speaking impossible, in that it absolutely cannot be assumed or adopted subjectively, by a subject; it cannot be a matter of experience. This is why Althusser said that ideology would never be surpassed or eliminated, even in a communist society.

Now, the very idea of “science” led Althusser, as is well known, into all sorts of difficulties. These days, even Althusser’s admirers (if there are any left) probably don’t accept it. My own sense of the matter is that Althusserian science, like the Spinozian knowledge to which it is equivalent, is best regarded as an Ideal in the Kantian sense: an imperative that thought can neither fulfill nor disavow, and that has a regulative or “problematic” use, even as it is constitutively impossible. Althusser himself never accepted this as a resolution; though I’d like to think that his late work on “aleatory materialism” is not incompatible with it (this is more of a hunch on my part than something I can articulate in a convincing manner). In any case, I think that an understanding of “experience” in this crypto-Kantian-Althusserian way, as something that is never entirely adequate, but also that we can never presume to rid ourselves of, shows why antigram’s critique of k-punk is unacceptable. Antigram says that k-punk grounds his discussion in “an argument from a specifically childhood experience.” But k-punk is not offering this experience as the proof of his argument; he is rather using it in order to foreground his own subjective stake in the argument, which is an entirely different matter. It is antigram who is being disingenuous by writing as if he didn’t also have such a stake: as if his own argument could be scientific rather than ideological, or as if the position of the analyst could somehow be free of counter-transference.

(I don’t mean by this to demand that antigram reveal his own stake. Such a demand is never justified.There are all sorts of good reasons for privacy and disengagement; and writing and arguing often function, quite rightly, as ways of escaping from one’s personality or subjectivity rather than affirming it. I certainly regard my own writing, on this blog and elsewhere, as such an endeavor towards escape. But no argument, and no writing, has the sort of transcendence of all stakes and subjectivities, the freedom from any “argument from experience,” that antigram implicitly claims for his criticism of k-punk).

Another way to put this is to note what is problematic about antigram’s charge that k-punk transmutes class from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.” Now, I’m a great advocate of retaining Marx’s understanding of the logic of capital as the basis for understanding class and many other things. Most essentially, class is a function of one’s relation to the processes of extracting, expropriating, and distributing surplus value. But I don’t think that k-punk is ignoring this, even though he is not focusing on it. And to say that class is ultimately determined (“in the last instance”, as Althusser liked to say) by one’s position vis-a-vis the expropriation of surplus value, is not to say that class is devoid of other sorts of components. And particularly of affective components. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing Deleuze and/or Guattari ever said is that there is a crucially affective dimension of all social and psychological processes; that affectivity is intrinsic to, or immanent to, among other things, the very logic of Capital. K-punk is trying to describe, in his post, one aspect (an important one) of the affectivity of class, i.e. the affectivity of the very movement of capital as it works in the world today. Antigram is wrong to exclude the affective, or to oppose the affective to the “economic and political.” For there is no economcs, and no politics, that is not at the same time affective.

Indeed, one major reason for the theoretical deadlock in which the Left finds itself today is precisely its failure to adequately consider the affective dimension of economics and politics. Neoliberalism is able to work as a form of class warfare (of the rich, or the capitalist class, against everyone else), and as a form of redistribution (away from everyone else and to the already ultra-rich and their corporations), only because it has been so effective, so triumphant, on the affective level. (This is something that Deleuze and Guattari, and the post-operaismo Italians, among others, touch on in various ways, but our understanding of it remains seriously underdeveloped).

Antigram’s separation of the affective from the economic and political is thus where the real problem lies. As for the “therapeutic,” well, it seems curious for somebody using Lacanian arguments to disavow therapy. (But perhaps that is a low blow; Lacan certainly had acute, accurate criticisms of American-style therapeutic “cures”). In any case, I take the point (expressed more by Jodi than by antigram) about the problem with appeals to one’s own “experience” of “victimization” in American identity politics. But again, the way to get around this is not to stop considering affect, or experience, but to understand affect and experience in less “propertarian” terms. Affect and experience are necessarily “subjective”; but they can still, for all that, be collective and transpersonal rather than the “property” of an aggrieved individual. They do not “belong” to a specially privileged subject; they are rather that which transforms, shapes, and misshapes any such subject. Which I think was what k-punk was pointing to. The aggressive personal claims to the validity of one’s own experience that Jodi disparages are another thing altogether. (In fairness, Jodi — unlike antigram — never asserts that this is the case with k-punk’s post itself).

Antigram ends his post by asserting “the basic Lacanian maxim that, not Daleks, and not the class system, but rather oneself ‘is always responsible for one’s position as subject’.” I do not know whether or not Lacan really says this. But I find this maxim to be utterly appalling, “bad and reactionary.” It is a classic example of “blaming the victim.” It is the basic neoliberal mantra that the poor are “responsible” for their own poverty, that the failure of the so-called “underclass” to thrive is a consequence of its own deficiency in “values” or “entrepreneurial drive.” To hold this maxim is to endorse a Hobbesian and Malthusian view of the social world, to accept cutthroat capitalism as an ultimate ontological horizon, to smugly view whatever happens as the justified “survival of the fittest.”

The only politically and ethically acceptable maxim, to the contrary, is to say that nobody is ever responsible for his/her own position as subject.

Edward Yang, 1947-2007

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of Edward Yang, from colon cancer at age 59. Yang was one of the greatest film directors of the last several decades. A founder of the Taiwanese “New Wave” starting in the late 1980s, he is probably less well known (either in Taiwan or internationally) than his colleagues Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang; but to my mind he was the greatest of the three.

I remember being stunned and blown away by The Terrorizer (1986) when I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival: sometime in the late 1980s. It was an elegant, beautifully meditative, and deeply unsettling exploration of urban anomie and alienation, paranoia, and random encounters; it played as if a Patricia Highsmith novel had been turned into a screenplay by Jorge Luis Borges, and then shot by Antonioni. A few weeks later I went to the (at the time still existing) Chinese-language theater in Seattle to see it a second time. Since it hasn’t ever been released on video in the US, I have not seen it since; but it was one of those films that burns into your memory, because of its affective power, and because of the haunting power of certain images: a (male) photographer is obsessed with a certain woman; he has an enormous photo of her on the wall of his apartment; the photo is really made of scores of smaller, detailed photographs of small parts of her face; when he opens the window, the image is shattered –or, I should say, scattered — as all the little photos blow in the breeze.

After that, I made sure to see all of Yang’s subsequent features; they always played at the Seattle International Film Festival, even when they didn’t get an American release. (SIFF has always been very good with films of the Pacific Rim; and Yang had strong Seattle connections, working there as a computer engineer for some years before he returned to Taiwan). I never managed to see Yang’s first two (pre-Terrorizer) films, That Day on the Beach (1983), Taipei Story (1985), but I saw, and found myself impressed by, all his subsequent work.

Yang’s two best-known films are probably A Brighter Summer Day (1991), about teenagers in 1950s Taiwan, and his (alas) final film Yi Yi (2000), which was the only one of his works to get international acclaim and widespread (in the US as well as other parts of the world) distribution. Both of these films are very long, giving a kind of epic weight to intimate, domestic family stories. They aren’t as abstract and self-referential as The Terrorizer; but they are rich, layered, and totally absorbing. Indeed, they are almost “classical” in their comprehensiveness and mastery of detail, and in the way they relate the pathos of personal situations to larger social themes (basically the history of post-1949 Taiwan). I also need to see them both again; they are both powerful films, though they don’t stick in my mind quite as intensely as The Terrorizer does.

The other Yang film that really blew me away on first viewing was A Confucian Confusion (1994). This film is fast-moving, with a large ensemble cast, and a shifting tragi-comic tone. The characters are mostly Taipei yuppies dealing with the various entanglements, and interconnections, of their professional and personal lives. There is a lot of stuff about changing mores, from traditional values (hence the “Confucian” in the English-language title, which I am pretty sure is not a literal translation of the Mandarin title Duli Shidai: can anyone tell me what it literally means?) to — not so much “modernist” values in general, as commercial values and the complete rule of money. There is also an avant-garde theater director who is struggling to put together a play that is more accessible and audience-friendly than his earlier works; this character is perhaps something of a parodic stand-in for Yang himself. For A Confucian Confusion marks a radical change/renewal of Yang’s style. It’s as if he had moved from emulating Antonioni’s Eclipse to emulating Renoir ‘s Rules of the Game; I use these references, not to imply derivativeness on Yang’s part, but simply to signal the kind of shift in sensibility, and in cinematic style, between the two films. A Confucian Confusion is brilliant for its multiple ironies, its multiple prespectives, and the way its complex characters are marked in terms of social class relations; as well as for its elegant, careful framings, and its foregrounding of the performative. Where The Terrorizer was slow and contemplative, even when it brushed against violence, A Confucian Confusion is thoroughly dynamic, and thrusts us into the lives of characters who don’t have the time to contemplate anything.

Or, to restate the point in a slightly different way: Yang’s earlier style, in The Terrorizer, is as different from the styles of Hou and Tsai as these filmmakers’ styles are from one another; but Yang’s earlier style, like Hou’s and Tsai’s, is demandingly abstract, oblique, and minimalist. And I love it. But the style that Yang develops in A Confucian Confusion, and also in Mah Jong (1996), to the contrary, is maximalist, highly concrete, and dizzying in its numerous shifts and reversals. And, I think, I love it even more. I am struggling, and failing, to describe this style as vividly as I would like to be able to do, and as the films deserve; that’s what happens when I try to give an impression of something I saw more than a decade ago.

I had been wondering what Yang was up to since Yi Yi, and hoping that he would make more films — especially since Taiwanese cinema in general has been getting more recognition in the past decade or so, and Hou and Tsai have been increasingly successful in raising money internationally for their own films. The only ongoing project listed for Yang in recent years was The Wind, apparently an animated (!) feature based on the life of Jackie Chan (!). Apparently Yang was ill for some time, and this is the reason both for cancellation of The Wind and for the absence of any other projects. All I can say, I guess, is that I am glad about the films Yang did get to make, and I hope more of them are brought out on DVD with English subtitles, so that I can see them again.

New Chapter

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

Sorry for the paucity of posts lately, but I have been trying to get as much as possible of the Whitehead book done this summer, so I haven’t been able to do much other writing. Anyway, I’ve finished (the first draft of) another chapter. Thanks to Warren Ellis for reminding me of this great Whitehead quote: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”