Archive for December, 2007

Sex + Love With Robots

Monday, December 31st, 2007

David Levy’s Love + Sex With Robots aims to persuade us that, by 2050 at the latest, it will be a common thing for people to fall in love with robots, have committed relationships with them, and have sex with them. The author wants both to shock us with the extravagance of this claim, and yet demonstrate to us carefully that such a prospect is entirely likely, and that his extrapolation is entirely rational. And indeed, Levy’s thesis is not all that extreme, when you compare it with, for instance, Ray Kurzweil’s claim that the Singularity will overtake us by 2049.

Still, I think that predicting the future is impossible, and therefore inherently ridiculous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speculate and extrapolate; what it means is that we should read futuristic predictions in the same way that we read science fiction novels. As Warren Ellis recently put it, science fiction is “a tool with which to understand the contemporary world.” More precisely, SF (and nonfiction futuristic speculation as well) is a tool with which to understand those aspects of the contemporary world that are unfinished, still in process, and therefore (as it were) redolent of futurity. SF and futurism are vital and necessary, because they make us stop and look at the changes going on all around us, breaking with the “rear-view-mirrorism” (as Marshall McLuhan called it) that otherwise characterizes the way we tend to look at the world. That’s why I find it indispensable to read people like Bruce Sterling, Jamais Cascio, Charles Stross, Warren Ellis, and so on. The line between science fiction and futurist speculation is an extremely thin one (and some of the people on my list, most notably Sterling, explicitly do both). Extrapolating the future is necessarily a fiction-making activity; but we can’t understand the present, or be ready for the future, unless we go beyond empirical fact and turn to fiction.

That said, I fear that Love + Sex With Robots struck me as being more symptomatic than truly thoughtful, much less informative. There’s a certain (willed?) naivete to the book, as when Levy cites all sorts of dubious scientific studies and surveys — mostly conducted since 1985 — in order to prove that, for instance, “one of the stronger reasons for falling in love is need — the need for intimacy, for closeness, for sexual gratification, for a family” (p. 40). This is the sort of thing that gives (or at least should give) supposedly “scientific” research a bad name. Is a psychological research team really needed to verify cliches that have wide circulation throughout our culture? “Research” of this sort, which reproduces what everybody already “knows”, is entirely solipsistic: it is pretty much equivalent to telling somebody something, and then asking them to repeat what you told them back to you.

I suppose the idea that people crave intimacy, or sexual gratification for that matter, was merely “folk psychology,” with no objective status, until it was scientifically verified, by research summarized in an article published in 1989 in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (as mentioned on Levy’s p. 38). It’s remarkable how — if we accept Levy’s research sources and citations — we knew nothing whatsoever about human nature a mere thirty years ago, and now we know almost everything about it that there is to know; we have gotten, for instance “a definitive answer to the question” of whether men or women have a stronger sex drive (the answer — surprise, surprise, is that men do — pp. 294-295).

Sarcasm aside, it seems obvious to me — in line with what I said above about science fiction — that one can learn a lot more about “falling in love,” and the intensity of sexual drives, and so on, from reading romance novels, for instance, than from slogging through “scientific” studies of the sort Levy cites on nearly every page of Love + Sex With Robots.

But leaving that aside — and also leaving aside the most entertaining portions of Levy’s book, such as the one where he goes through the history of vibrators and other sex toys — Love + Sex With Robots presents us (inadvertently perhaps) with an odd paradox. On the one hand, Levy argues that we will soon be able to fall in love with robots, and have sex with them, because the experience will essentially be indistinguishable from falling in love with, and having sex with, other human beings. He advocates something like the Turing test for emotions, as well as for cognition: “the robot that gives the appearance, by its behavior, of having emotions should be regarded as having emotions, the corollary of this being that if we want a robot to appear to have emotions, it is sufficient for it to behave as though it does” (p. 120). This, in itself, is unexceptionable. SF has treated the question of androids’ indistinguishability from biological human beings in numerous works, Blade Runner being the most famous but far from the only example. And Levy is not far from SF in his assertions that robots will be able to do everything that we do, only better.

Of course, that still leaves the question of how we get from here to there. Levy tends to elide the difficulty of jumping from what is possible now, to the point where robots can actually pass the Turing test. He doesn’t seem to think that this gap is such a big deal. He blithely asserts, for instance, that programming robots, not only to “imitate human sociability traits,” but also “to go further and create sociability traits of their own” is a task “possibly no more difficult to program than the task of composing Mozart’s 42nd Symphony or painting a canvas that can sell in an art gallery for thousands of dollars — tasks that have already been accomplished by AI researchers” (pp. 166-167). One may well question whether the music-writing program he cites (by David Cope of UC-Santa Cruz) really makes works that have the power and originality of Mozart. But we get this sort of assertion again and again. Levy writes that “I am convinced that by 2025 at the latest there will be artificial-emotion technologies that can not only simulate the full range of human emotions and their appropriate responses but also exhibit nonhuman emotions that are peculiar to robots”; the sole evidence he offers for this assertion is the fact that “research and development in this field is burgeoning” (p. 86).

Levy suggests, as well, that the problem of robots’ intellectual knowledge is a trivial one: “one example of a similarity that will be particularly easy to replicate is a similarity of education, since just about all of the world’s knowledge will be available for incorporation into any robot’s encyclopedic memory. If a robot discovers through conversation that its human possesses knowledge on a given subject at a given level, its own knowledge of that subject can be adjusted accordingly — it can download more knowledge if necessary, or it can deliberately ‘forget’ certain areas or levels of knowledge in order that its human will not feel intimidated by talking to a veritable brain box” (pp. 144-145). Forgive me for not sharing Levy’s faith that such a thing will be “particularly easy” to do; judging from the very limited success of programs like Cyc, we are nowhere near being able to do this.

If I find Levy’s claims extremely dubious, it is not because I think that human intelligence (or mentality) somehow inherently defies replication. But such replication is an extremely difficult problem, one that we are nowhere near to resolving. It certainly isn’t just a trivial engineering issue, or a mere quantitative matter of building larger memory stores, and more powerful and more capacious computer chips, the way that Levy (and other enthusiasts, such as Ray Kurzweil) almost always tend to assume. AI research, and the research in related fields like “emotional computing,” cannot progress without some fundamental new insights or paradigm shifts. Such work isn’t anywhere near the level of sophistication that Levy and other boosters seem to think it is. Levy wildly overestimates the successes of recent research, because he underestimates what “human nature” actually entails. His models of human cognition, emotion, and behavior are unbelievably simplistic, as they rely upon the the inanely reductive “scientific” studies that I mentioned earlier.

Much science fiction, of course, has simply abstracted from these difficulties, in order to think through the consequences of robots and AIs actually being able to pass the Turing test. But this is where the paradox of Levy’s argument really kicks in. For, at the same time that he asserts that robots will be able to pass the Turing test, he still continues to treat them as programmable entities that can be bent entirely to our will. There are numerous rhapsodic passages to the effect that, for instance, “another important difference [between human beings and robots] is that robots will be programmable never to fall out of love with their human” (p. 132). Or that a robot who is “better in the bedroom” than one’s “husband/wife/lover” will be “readily available for purchase for the equivalent of a hundred dollars or so” (p. 306). Or that, in the future, you “will be able to go into the robot shop and choose from a range of personalities, just as you will be able to choose from a range of heights, looks, and other physical characteristics” (pp. 136-137). Or, again, that a robot’s personality “can be adjusted to conform to whatever personality types its human finds appealing… The purchase form will ask questions about dimensions and basic physical features, such as height, weight, color of eyes and hair, whether muscular or not…” and so on and so forth (p. 145 — though interestingly, skin color is never mentioned as a variable, even though eye and hair color are a number of times). In short, Levy asserts that robots will be loved and used as sex partners not only because they are just as ‘real’ emotionally and intellectually as human beings, but also because they have no independence, and can be made to entirely conform to our fantasies. They will sell, not only because they are autonomous agents, but also because they are perfect commodities. They will be just like Tamagotchis, only more “realistic”; and just like vibrators, only better.

Actually, the weirdness goes even further than this. The imputation of agency to robots, while at the same time they remain commodities serving our own desires, leads to some very strange contortions. The book is filled with suggestions along these lines: “A robot who wants to engender feelings of love from its human might try all sorts of different strategies in an attempt to achieve this goal, such as suggesting a visit to the ballet, cooking the human’s favorite food, or making flattering comments about the human’s new haircut, then measuring the effect of each strategy by conducting an fMRI scan of the human’s brain. When the scan shows a higher measure of love from the human, the robot would know that it had hit upon a successful strategy. When the scan corresponds to a low level of love, the robot would change strategies” (pp. 36-37). I must say I find this utterly remarkable as a science-fiction scenario. For it suggests that the robot has been programmed to put its human owner under surveillance, the better to manipulate the owner’s emotions. The human being has purchased the robot, precisely in order that the robot may seduce the human being into doing whatever it (the robot) desires (leaving open the question of what it desires, and how these desires have been programmed into it in the first place). Such a scenario goes beyond anything that Philip K. Dick (or, for that matter, Michel Foucault) ever imagined; it extrapolates from today’s feeble experiments in neuromarketing, to a future in which such manipulation is not only something that we are subjected to, but something that we willingly do to ourselves.

So, the paradox of Levy’s account is that 1) he insists on the indistinguishability of human beings and (suitably technologically advanced) robots, while 2) at the same time he praises robots on the grounds that they are infinitely programmable, that they can be guaranteed never to have desires that differ from what their owners want, and that “you don’t have to buy [a robot] endless meals or drinks, take it to the movies or on vacation to romantic but expensive destinations. It will expect nothing from you, no long-term (or even short-term) emotional returns, unless you have chosen it to be programmed to do so” (p.211).

How do we explain this curious doubleness? How can robots be both rational subjects, and infinitely manipulable objects? How can they both possess an intelligence and sensibility at least equal to that of human beings, and retain the status of commodities. Or, as Levy himself somewhat naively puts it, “today, most of us disapprove of cultures where a man can buy a bride or otherwise acquire one without taking into account her wishes. Will our children and their children similarly disapprove of marrying a robot purchased at the local store or over the Internet? Or will the fact that the robot can be set to fall in virtual love with its owner make this practice universally acceptable?” (p. 305).

I think the answer is that this doubleness is not unique to robots; it is something that applies to human beings as well, in the hypercommodified consumer society that we live in. (By “we”, I mean the privileged portion of humankind, those of us who can afford to buy computers today, and will be able to afford to buy sexbots tomorrow — but this “we” really is, in a sense, universal, since it is the model that all human beings are supposed to aspire to). We ourselves are as much commodities as we are sovereign subjects; we ourselves are (or will be) infinitely programmable (through genetic and neurobiological technologies to come), not in spite of, but precisely because of, our status as “rational utility maximizers” entering the “marketplace.” This is already implicit in the “scientific” studies about “human nature” that Levy so frequently cites. The very idea that we can name, in an enumerated list, the particular qualities that we want in a robot lover, depends upon the fact that we already conceive of ourselves as being defined by such a list of enumerable qualities. The economists’ idea that we bring a series of hierarchically organized desires into the marketplace similarly preassumes such a quantifiable bundle of discrete items.

Or, to quote Levy again: “Some would argue that robot emotions cannot be ‘real’ because they have been designed and programmed into the robots. But is this very different from how emotions work in people? We have hormones, we have neurons, and we are ‘wired’ in a way that creates our emotions. Robots will merely be wired differently, with electronics and software replacing hormones and neurons. But the results will be very similar, if not indistinguishable” (p.122). This is not an argument about actual biological causation, but precisely a recipe for manipulation and control. The robots Levy imagines are made in our image, precisely because we are already in process of being made over in theirs.

Zeroville

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

I’ve been reading Steve Erickson for quite some time; he is one of my favorite living American writers. His new novel, his eighth, Zeroville, is one of his best ever — I am inclined to say it’s the best thing he’s written since Arc d’X (1993).

Zeroville is somewhat more linear and straightforward than most of Erickson’s other novels — though that is only a relative statement. It’s also largely focused on the movies, and almost requires a reader who is a movie freak. The novel takes place against the backdrop of Hollywood in the 1970s — the decade of the “New Hollywood,” with its promises of radical auteurism that eventually devolved into merely a new version of business as usual. One important minor character is closely modeled upon John Milius, and directors like Scorsese, De Palma, and Cassavetes, and actors like Robert DeNiro, make cameo appearances throughout the book. Indeed, much of the novel consists of rapt discussions of the movies: the main character is a film obsessive, and even the muggers and prostitutes whom he encounters turn out to be cineastes eager to argue about the relative worth of different movies in Howard Hawks’ oeuvre, or the position of Irving Rapper as an auteur. If you aren’t as enchanted by reading (or overhearing) such discussions as I am, then you probably won’t enjoy Zeroville nearly as much as I do. But if you are old enough to have participated in the cinephilia of the 1970s that Erickson channels here, or if you are now caught up in the contemporary (DVD- and Internet-fueled) second wave of cinephilia, then there’s a lot in Zeroville that will delight you.

The protagonist of Zeroville, Vikar Jerome (né Ike, “not Isaac”), is described at one point (by the Milius character) as “cineautistic.” A refugee from a horrendous fundamentalist Christian upbringing, with a father who is terrifyingly invested in the story of Abraham and Isaac, Vikar has rejected the God who slaughters his own children (not just Isaac, but Jesus too), and instead come to worship Cinema. He watches movies obsessively, promiscuously, and indiscriminately, and he knows them backwards and forwards; though he is never able to say more about how he feels about any given film than “I believe it is a very good movie.” Vikar has been described in several reviews as an analogue of Chance from Being There (played by Peter Sellers in the film version) — and that is not far wrong, at least from the outside. When Vikar tries to interact with other people, he seems unable to ‘read’ them, and they seem unable to make any sense of him (he “vexes” people). His conversation consists mostly of bizarre non sequiturs, and the verbatim repetition of quotes about the movies that he has picked up from others. He knows nothing about the extra-cinematic world: he shows up in Hollywood in 1969 barely aware that there’s a war going on in Vietnam, and at one point in 1981 or so he watches Don Siegel’s The Killers, and is then startled to see the same actor who had slapped around Angie Dickinson in that movie appearing in another one on TV: only to discover that this actor’s latter role is the extra-cinematic one of President of the United States.

Vikar presents a bizarre and menacing appearance — his head is shaved bald and adorned with a tattoo portraying Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun: “the most beautiful woman and the most beautiful man in the world.” He is also sexually obsessed (though he rejects any sort of consummation other than blow jobs from women whom he imagines to be Elizabeth Taylor or one of his other idols). And he is prone to sudden outbursts of violence: already, on the second page of the novel, he viciously attacks a hippie who misidentifies the figures on his tattoo as James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause.

Vikar is almost literally a blank slate, or a medium (in the spiritualistic sense) for the cinematic medium (in the McLuhan sense). The movies are inscribed, not just upon his skull, but upon his soul. And he does little more than let the movies pass through him. Watching the movies gives him strange dreams, and by the end of the film his dreams have contaminated the movies themselves, so that a single frame from his most obsessive dream (which seems to present Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in inverted form) ends up physically incorporated into every movie. As Montgomery Clift, speaking from beyond the grave, suggests to Vikar towards the end of the novel, “maybe we’re not dreaming [Cinema]. Maybe it’s dreaming us.”

In this way, Vikar is ultimately quite different from Jerzy Kosinsky’s, Hal Ashby’s, and Peter Sellers’ Chance, precisely in the way that the movies are radically different from television. Chance’s utterances could be described as random firings of the video scanning gun. Their charm and power reside in their superficiality and transitoriness. But Vikar’s utterances (and dreams) have a hidden logic, which is rooted in the depths of cinematic illusion. Vikar lives in a pre-VCR (and pre-personal computer) age, and he experiences the movies on the one hand in the form of larger-than-life figures projected, in the dark, on a giant screen, and on the other hand as reels of 35mm celluloid, which he obsessively collects even though he doesn’t own a projector, but only a movieola allowing him to inspect (and edit, cut and splice) individual frames.

That is to say, Vikar’s “cineautism” is rooted both in the unconscious depths implied by the overwhelmingness of cinematic projection, on the one hand, and by the materiality of celluloid, handled in physical, analog form, on the other. He becomes a film editor whose motto is “fuck continuity,” and whose guiding principle is that all cinematic moments are implicated in one another, so that everything is already (even before editing) connected to everything else both in space and in time. Cinema already exists, as a kind of Platonic form, before it is instantiated in one or another film, or moment of film. It would seem, even, that only cinema has such a Platonic form, or that Plato’s entire theory of Forms was nothing but an anticipation of Cinema.

This philosophy, implicit rather than directly expressed, allows Vikar, or impels him, to edit film in such a way that, irrespective of the intentions of the director, he is able to “set free from within the false film the true film.” His approach is entirely intuitive (or unconscious), but also so innovative that he wins a special award at Cannes for “the creation of a revelatory new cinematic rhetoric,” and gets nominated as well for an Academy Award (though, of course, he doesn’t win the latter). But such recognition means nothing at all to Vikar, who is helpless to do anything but continue to pursue Cinema’s hidden logic, no matter where it takes him.

Vikar seems affectless — except perhaps in his sudden moments of violent rage — to everyone who encounters him; and to the extent that he is charismatic, it is precisely on account of this affectlessness, combined with his total devotion to Cinema. But of course, this surface (or conscious) lack of emotion is only the index of the way in which, on a deeper level, Vikar is traversed and utterly embroiled by the impersonal, or prepersonal Affects of Cinema itself. This affect would seem to take the form, finally, beneath all the moments of love and betrayal and absence and violence and despair, in a sacrificial scene of inverted Oedipalization: inverted, because it is not about the son’s fantasmatic hatred of the father, but rather the father’s (including God the Father) all-too-real hatred of the son (or the daughter). This is not so much to psychoanalyze film, as to suggest that pyschoanalysis itself (just like Plato) is merely a derivative of a more ontologically fundamental Cinema.

Zeroville is thus traversed, like all of Erickson’s novels, with a certain melancholy, or sense of loss: a feeling that has directly political connotations in some of Erickson’s earlier novels, but that here is associated, rather, with the death of cinema itself, in a post-cinematic age thirty years further on than the time in which Vikar lives and in which the novel is set. I don’t mean to imply that this makes Erickson a luddite, or a paradoxical conservative. His novel’s investment in Cinema is entirely clear-eyed, and free of what Marshall McLuhan disparaged as “rear-view-mirrorism,” precisely in its identification of the movies with a (both primordial and historical) Past. Erickson evokes a Pastness which is that of the movies themselves, as well as of the passage from the movies to other, newer media forms. The movies are both past and eternal; or, they are eternal precisely in their pastness.

Or, as the black robber/mugger cineaste tells Vikar early on in the novel, and as Vikar then subsequently repeats to the assembled news reporters when he is being interviewed at Cannes after his award: “The Searchers is one wicked bad-ass movie whenever my man the Duke is on screen, evil white racist honky pigfucker though he may be.” Which sums up both the archaic limitations, the backwardness of the movies, relegated as they must be to the scrapheap of history, and their eternal truth nevertheless.

Comeuppance

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

William Flesch‘s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction is, I think (by which I mean, to the best of my knowledge) the best work of Darwinian literary criticism since the writings of Morse Peckham. That may sound like faint praise, considering how lame most recent lit crit based on “evolutionary psychology” has been; but Comeuppance is a brilliant and startlingly original book, making connections that have heretofore passed unnoticed, but that seem almost self-evident once Flesch has pointed them out.

Comeuppance combines attention to cutting-edge biological theory with a set of aesthetic concerns that are, in a certain sense, so “old-fashioned” that most contemporary theorists and critics have completely forgotten even to think about them. Flesch is concerned with the question of vicarious experience: that is to say, he wants to know why we have so much interest in, and emotional attachment to, fictional characters, narratives, and worlds. He tries to account for why we are so inclined to the “suspension of disbelief” when we encounter a fiction; why we root for the good guys and hiss at the bad guys in novels and movies; why we find it so satisfying when Sherlock Holmes solves a case, or when Spiderman defeats the Green Goblin, or when Hamlet finally avenges his father’s death, or when we imagine a torrid romance between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

When such pleasures are thought about at all, they are usually attributed either to our delight in mimesis, or imitation (which was Aristotle’s theory) or to our identification with the protagonist of the fiction (which was Freud’s). But Flesch suggests that both these accounts are wrong, or at least inadequate. Far from identifying with Sherlock Holmes, Spiderman, Hamlet, or Captain Kirk, we admire and love them from a spectatorial distance, and with an intense awareness of that distance. And while our engagement with narratives requires a certain degree of “verisimilitude,” neither resemblance nor plausibility is enough in itself to generate the sort of engagement and attachment with which we encounter fictions.

Flesch proposes a very different explanation for this engagement and attachment from either the Aristotelian or the Freudian one. He bases it on recent developments in evolutionary biology, and particularly 1)the use of game-theoretical simulations to explain the development of intraspecies (and even inter-species) cooperation, ever since Robert Axelrod, in the 1980s, first used the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game to model how competition could give rise to altruism; and 2)the studies by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi of “costly signaling” and the “handicap principle.” I will not try to reproduce here the details of these studies, nor the elegant logic that Flesch uses in order to put them together, and to bring them to bear on the problematics of fiction; I only wish to summarize them briefly, in order to move on to the consequences of Flesch’s arguments.

In brief, Flesch maintains: that evolution can lead, and evidently has led, to the development (in human beings, and evidently other organisms as well) of “true altruism,” or the impulse to help others, or the group in general, even at considerable cost to oneself; that this altruism requires that we continually monitor one another for signs or selfishness or cheating (because otherwise, selfish cheaters would always prosper at the expense of those who were honestly altruistic); that, as a result of this monitoring, we get vicarious pleasure from the punishment of cheaters and (to a lesser extent) from the reward of those who enforce this by actively ferreting out and punishing the cheaters; that altruism cannot just be enforced by the punishment of individual cheaters, but needs to be signaled, and made evident to everybody (including the cheater) as well; that — given the way that everyone is continually monitoring everyone else — the best way to make evident that one is indeed an altruist rather than a cheater is to engage in “costly signaling,” or altruistic behavior that is sufficiently costly (draining of wealth or energy, involving risks) to the one engaging in it that it has to be authentic rather than a sham; and that our constant monitoring and reading of these signals, our constant emotional reaction to vicarious experience, is what gives us the predisposition to be absorbed in, or at least emotionally affected by, fictions, so that we respond to fictional characters in narratives in much the same way that we do to real people whom we do not necessarily know, but continually observe and monitor. (There’s not that great a difference, really, between my reaction to Captain Kirk, and my reaction to Bill Clinton).

I haven’t done justice to the full subtlety and range of Flesch’s argument; nor have I conveyed an adequate sense of how plausible and convincing it is, in the detail with which he works it through. But the argument is as careful and nuanced as it is ambitious. It’s true that Flesch places his argument under the mantle of “evolutionary psychology,” something about which I remain deeply dubious. The proponents of evolutionary psychology tend to make global or universalist claims which radically underestimate the extent of human diversity and of historical and cultural differences. I am willing to accept, until shown otherwise, that in all human cultures people sing songs, and experience the physiological reactions that we know as “fear”, and have certain rituals of hospitality. But even if these are biological givens, “human nature” is radically underdetermined by them. For instance, there are enormous differences among cultures and histories as to which vocal performances count as songs, and why and when we sing, and what it means to sing, and when it is appropriate to sing and when not, and what emotions are aroused by singing, and who knows the songs and is expected to sing them, and what technologies are associated with singing, and so on almost ad infinitum.

But even as Flesch adopts the mantle of evolutionary psychology, and makes some general claims about “universal” human attributes, he is careful to avoid — and indeed, he severely criticizes — the reductiveness that often comes with such claims. For his evolutionist arguments have nothing to do with the usual twaddle about how women are supposedly genetically hardwired to prefer older, high-status men, and so on and so forth. Rather, Flesch’s arguments are directed mostly at showing how altruism and cooperation could have emerged despite the Hobbesian nature of conflict among Dawkinsian “selfish genes”; and, more broadly, at demonstrating how “biology has brought humans to a place where genetic essence does not necessarily ‘precede human existence’ ” (219 — Flesch says this after wryly noting that he is probably the first to have cited Sartre and evolutionary theorists together). Since altruism and cooperation — and for that matter cultural variability — evidently do exist among human beings, the potential for these things must have itself arisen in the course of evolution. So Flesch’s real argument is with those sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists — like Edward O. Wilson, and especially Steven Pinker, to cite the most famous names — who argue, basically, that all these things are a sham, and that underneath appearances we “really” are still only engaged in a Hobbesian war of all against all, and a situation of Malthusian triage.

That said, the real importance of the evolutionary categories that Flesch bases his argument upon — especially game-theoretically-defined altruism and Zahavian costly signaling — resides less in how adequate an explanation they provide of human origins, than in how useful they prove to be to help us think about our own investments in narrative, and the particular (Western) tradition of narrative that is most familiar to us. (Evolutionary categories are nor more nor less “universal” than, say, psychoanalytic categories; and both sorts of formulations work in many contexts, in the sense they provide insights, and allow us to generate further insights — whether or not they are actually valid “universally”). I have also long felt that one of the problems with evolutionary accounts of complex phenomena like human culture is that they commit the elementary logical fallacy of thinking that how a certain feature or trait originated historically determines the use and meaning of that feature today. But as Gould and Lewontin’s arguments about “spandrels” pointed out long ago, this need not be the case, and probably most often is not — many traits are non-adaptive byproducts of adaptations that occurred for entirely different reasons; and even directly adaptive traits are always being hijacked or “exapted” for different uses than those on account of which they originally evolved.

Flesch, unlike most of those who have tried to apply evolutionary arguments to human cultural contexts, takes full account of these complications and multiplications. The real justification of his use of ideas about costly signaling and “strong reciprocity” (or altruism that extends to the monitoring of the altruism of others), is that, in understanding the sorts of narratives that Flesch is interested in, they prove to be very useful indeed. The concepts that Flesch draws from evolutionary theory both elucidate, and are themselves in turn elucidated by, a wide range of familiar narratives, from Shakespeare to Hitchcock, and of characters in narratives, from Achilles to Superman. Even as Flesch provides a series of dazzling close readings, he uses these readings pretty much in the same way that he uses citations of biological research, so that Prince Hal and King Lear stand alongside peacocks and cichlids as exemplars of things like costly signaling and altrustic extravagance, and as subjects of our concern and fascination.

Flesch’s argument thus reflexively provides an account of both why the content of narrative moves us as it does, and of why the narrative form, as such, should be especially suited as a focus for meaningful emotional reactions. (I should note that, although Harold Bloom, in a blurb on the book’s back cover, praises Flesch for “giving a surprisingly fresh account of the workings of high literature,” and although the great majority of Flesch’s own readings and citations do in fact come from “high literature,” one of the great virtues of Flesch’s argument is that it applies equally well to “low” narrative forms (and that he also does cite these forms). The things that interest us in reading Shakespeare’s plays, or novels by Henry James and James Joyce and Marcel Proust, are pretty much the same things that interest us in reading stories about Superman, or Conan the Barbarian).

Beyond this, Flesch’s argument is noteworthy, and important, because of how it uses the tools of (usually reductive) science for determinedly nonreductive ends. Usually, the language of game-theory payoffs and cost-benefit calculations drives me crazy, because it is a hyperbolic example of what the Frankfurt School critics denounced as “instrumental reason.” The “rational choice” theory so prevalent these days among economists and political scientists idiotically assumes, against nearly all concrete experience, that human beings (and other organisms as well) make cognitive, calculated decisions (even if not consciously) on the basis of maximizing their own utility. More recently, some social scientists have sought to incorporate into their mathematica models the empirical evidence that people in fact respond emotionally, and non-rationally, to many situations. But most of this research has remained reductive, in that the calculus of probabilities and payoffs has remained at the center — the assumptions are still essentially cognitive, and calculative, even if emotions are admitted as factors that skew the calculations. Flesch is really the only author I have read who pushes these models to the point where they flip around, so that cognition is effectively subordinated to affect, rather than the other way around (“Reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions,” as Hume — one of Flesch’s favorite theoretical sources — once wrote).

This is largely because of the way that Flesch defines his central concept of “altruism.” Drawing both on Hume and Adam Smith (his “moral philosophy” rather than The Wealth of Nations), as well as on contemporary biological game theorists and on the Zahavis, Flesch defines “altruism,” basically, as any other-directed action that is not driven by “maximizing one’s own utility,” and that indeed is pursued in spite of the fact that it decreases one’s own utility.” This means that things like vengefulness and vindictiveness, not to mention Achilles valuing glory more than his own life, or Bill Gates dispensing his fortune in order that he may congratulate himself for being a great philanthropist, are also examples of altruism, in that they are other-directed even at a cost to oneself, and therefore they absolutely contradict the “utility-maximization” assumptions of orthodox economics and “rational choice” theory. As Flesch puts it epigrammatically, “the satisfactions of altruism,” like Gates’ self-congratulation, “don’t undercut the altruism itself. Satisfaction in a losing act or disposition to act is itself a sign of altruism… Pleasure in altruism doesn’t mean that you’re not an altruist. It almost certainly means that you are” (35).

This is useful for the way that it undercuts both the model of Homo economicus that is the default understanding of humankind in the current neoliberal consensus, and the cynicism that sneers at the very possibility of altruism, generosity, cooperation, and collectivity on the grounds that these are “really” just expressions of egotism. Of course, egotism is involved; how could it be otherwise? But as Flesch insists, this doesn’t prevent the altruism, or concern for others at one’s own expense, from being genuine.

Altruism is by no means an unconditional good, of course; in Flesch’s account, it allows for, and can lead, not just to an insane vengefulness, but also to the kind of surveillance of people by one another that enforces social conformity and involves the persecution of anybody who acts innovatively, or merely differently. Nonetheless, the important point remains that we all act and feel in a social matrix, rather than as atomized individuals, and that people’s actions are not merely determined by the considerations of personal well-being (or at most, those of one’s genetic kin), but by a much broader range of social concerns and relationships and emotions (including vicarious emotional relationships with, or feelings about, strangers).

For this reason, even though Flesch states in his introduction that his aim is “to give an account… [of] why [narrative] should be as strange, complex and intellectual — as cognitive — as it is” (6), his arguments really contribute more to an affective approach to narrative than to a cognitive one. The tricky evolutionary arguments that Flesch works his way through are used in order to show how evolutionary processes — which in a certain sense, because they are based upon a competitive weeding-out of alternate possibilities under conditions of scarcity and stress, are necessarily “rational,” even though no actual rationality is involved in their workings — can nonetheless produce an outcome that is not itself “rational,” but instead involves extravagance, waste and “expenditure” (in the sense Bataille gives to this word), and that necessitates cooperation of some sort, rather than a continual war of all against all. And once the affects that drive us in these non-rational ways have evolved, they continue to have a life of their own (they may well be reinforced even when they are counter-productive; but they also may, in evolutionary terms, aid the survival of groups that adopt them or are driven by them, in contrast to groups that don’t: here Flesch draws upon the recent attempt by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson to rehabilitate the notion of “group selection”).

This brings Flesch’s arguments in line with, and makes them an important contribution to, any attempt to think about social relations (and aesthetics as well) in terms that owe more to Marcel Mauss (with his complex notions of how gift-giving involves both gain and loss, both economic calculation and an openness to loss, both power/prestige and generosity) than to the currently hegemonic assumptions of neoclassical and neoliberal economics. Rather than Derridean musings on how an absolute gift is “impossible,” because there is always some sort of return, we get something more in line with Mauss’s (and Bataille’s) sense of how expenditure and potlatch, and other forms of gift-giving (including what might be called the “gift” of narrative, though Flesch conceives this much more complexly than Lewis Hyde, for instance, does) involve the intertwining of self-aggrandizing and altruistic motives, and allow a place in practice for the openings and ambivalences that both a rational-economic calculus, and a deconstructionist negatively absolutized logic would forbid us.

I’ll conclude with one small additional comment, which is that Comeuppance is not really a book about “narrative theory,” even though it sometimes presents itself as such. Though it tries to delineate the “conditions of possibility” for us to enjoy, crave, and develop an emotional investment in fictional narratives, it is (quite properly) much more concerned with these affects and investments than it is in the structure of narrative per se. And this turns out to involve our relation to characters much more than our relation to narrative as such (even when Flesch considers the latter, he does it in the framework of the relation between the audience and the fiction’s narrator, including both the fictive narrator and the author-as narrator). This seems to me to be in line both with Orson Welles’ insistence on the enigma of character as the center of our interest in film and other arts, and with Warren Ellis’ insistence that what he is really concerned with in the fictions he writes is the characters and the ideas; the plot is just a contrivance to convey those characters and ideas.

Southland Tales

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is an amazing movie, and I will try to do it justice in what follows, although all I can do for the moment is spew out a series of speculations and observations, in a random, and no doubt contradictory as well as repetitive, order. But I think that this is not only a brilliant film, but an extraordinarily important one, in that it is one of those rare works that is “as radical as reality itself,” and that reflects upon our real situation while at the same time inserting itself within that situation, rather than taking a pretended distance from it. The film is a demented fabulation, but in such a way that it can best be described as hyperreal. Its “science fiction” is scientifically and technologically unsound, and could best be described as delirious — but that is precisely why it is directly relevant to a world that has increasingly come to be “indistinguishable from science fiction.” Southland Tales makes nearly all other contemporary movies seem inadequate, outdated, and guilty of fleeing our actual social world in search of nostalgic consolations. I cannot help suspect that the radicality of Southland Tales is the reason why the film has received such a savagely negative response from most reviewers, and has been such a disastrous flop at the box office. (Several of the film critics I most respect, including Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and Manohla Dargis, have praised the movie; but most have regarded it as unspeakably awful, an unmitigated disaster. As for general audiences, the film has only made something like $160,000 in box office gross, nearly a month after its initial release).

Southland Tales is all about the flow of images, the multimedia feed. Although it is very much a movie, in the way that it is big and spectacular and meant to be viewed on an enormous screen, it is also deeply post-cinematic, both in terms of contents and of form. Southland Tales takes place in an alternative universe to our own: one in which atomic bombs detonated by terrorists in Texas in 2005 have led us into World War III, reconfiguring both the political landscape and the development of internet and alternative-fuel technologies. Nonetheless, the movie is recognizably contemporary, in that it is set firmly in a world of handheld video cameras, and You Tube, and 24-hour cable news channels, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and celebrity-tracking papparazzi.

Southland Tales‘s visual flow is also that of these post-cinematic media that play such a role within it. Properly cinematic images are intermixed with a barrage of home video footage, internet and cable-TV news feeds, commercials, simulated CGI environments, and especially sequences in which the film’s characters are watching all of the above on multiple computer windows or screens. The compositional logic of Southland Tales is paratactic and additive, having little to do with conventional film syntax. Indeed, Kelly’s disjunctive flow is almost the polar opposite of Eisensteinian montage. Eisenstein wanted his contradictory images to interact, dialectically or alchemically, in order to produce by their clash a higher order image/concept, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But Kelly’s discordant images refuse thus to come together; they don’t even clash, but co-exist in their distance from one another, their “incompossibility” (to use a word that Deleuze adapts from Leibniz). In Southland Tales, chains of cause and effect both multiply and break down entirely, in defiance of linear or narrative logic; everything in the film is a matter, neither of causality, nor of action grounded in character, nor even of dialectical contrast; but rather of juxtaposition, “free” association, and the proliferation of multiple levels of self-referential feedback loops.

For instance: a pair of hip, “underground” performance artists, a black man and a white woman, who are a couple in “real life” and in their performances, disguise themselves in facial prosthetics so that they will not be recognized. In this disguise, they pretend to be an arguing married couple, in order to simulate a scenario in which they will be murdered by a racist cop. There are doing this apparently for a political cause; but it also seems that they are interested in blackmail for financial advantage (seed money to feed back into their “art”). The racist cop who is supposed to seem to murder them, after responding to a domestic violence call, is himself being impersonated by his twin brother, and accompanied by an actor trying to research his own forthcoming role as a cop by slipping into character on the (ostensibly) real cop’s rounds, as well as by hauling around a video camera with which he records everything that happens. The fake racist cop is supposed to fire blanks, and the performance artists will pretend to be hit, while a hidden accomplice presses a button in order to make fake blood spurt out. But the whole scenario is detourned when a second cop barges in on the scene and fires real bullets, so that the performing couple (who have already, in their desparation not to be really killed, gone out of character and revealed themselves as the notorious performers they are) are actually killed — though, as they fall, the hidden accomplice still pushes the special-effects button at the sound of gunfire, in order to make the prosthetic blood spill out. In a subsequent scene, the second, killer cop is revealed also to be an impersonator rather than an actual cop, who has performed the killing, and confiscated the video camera that recorded it, in service to yet another confused agenda that also seems to involve both political activism and blackmail for cash…

I’ve described at such cumbersome length a scene that only takes up a few minutes of Southland Tales‘s two-and-a-quarter-hour running time, simply to give a sense of how twisted and multi-leveled the film is. These convolutions of content go along with the sensory-overload barrage of multiple media images that fill the screen, or often multiple screens within the screen. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that everything that happens in the film is under surveillance, so that most of what we see on screen is viewed in progress, or a second time, by the evil Republican homeland-security czar (played by Miranda Richardson, channeling Angela Lansbury’s performance in The Manchurian Candidate), who monitors multiple screens from her command center at the heart of US-Ident, a “think tank” turned spy facility that (in the interest of “national security”) tracks everything that streams across the Internet.

The great theoretician of film sound Michel Chion notes that, while in cinema the sound subliminally supports the primacy of the image, in video the sound becomes up-front central, and weaves together and makes coherent what otherwise might appear to be an utterly random stream of images. In cinema the images are primary, the coherence of the film coming mostly from mise en scene and cinematography and montage, and the soundtrack really serves as a support for the images, by giving them emotional resonance and a guarantee of (seeming) naturalism. Video, to the contrary, is more like “illustrated radio,” according to Chion: the sound is primary (whether it be the voice in a news report, or the music in a music video), and the images have no intrinsic logic of their own, but are only strung together through the guidance provided by the sound. This does not necessarily mean that images tend to disappear; it more likely means that there is a proliferation of images, due to the fact that they are no longer constrained by an imagistic logic, but instead opened up by the fact that a logic external to them, based instead in the sonic, is the only regulating principle. (Chion’s formulation should be compared with Marshall McLuhan’s claim that television and computer-based media are audio-tactile, rather than predominantly visual).

In any case, this is yet another sense in which Southland Tales is resolutely post-cinematic. Its use of sound is much closer to that of television and music video than it is to that of anything recognizable in the history of cinema. We are guided through the labyrinth of the movie’s proliferating images almost exclusively by Justin Timberlake’s voiceover narration (together with other forms of narration, like those from various CNN-style news reports) and Moby’s musical score. While the electronic music modulates our mood, the voiceover makes connections between layers and levels of imagery that otherwise could not emerge. Stylistically, Kelly’s images tend toward televisual flatness, and conventional character positioning (either two-shots or shot/reverse-shot setups). He does, however, throw in more heavily stylized cinematography every once in a while (I recall an extraordinary long take, towards the end of the film, in the mega-zeppelin, as the camera weaves through the partying crowds, following first one character, then another, without a cut). But the emphasis is never on strictly optical tableaux: there is always too much of a welter of too-flat images, which need the soundtrack to be unscrambled.

This is not a matter of “telling instead of showing” (the accusation that is usually made against the use of voiceover in more traditional Hollywood films, e.g. in the films of Billy Wilder), but rather of voice enunciating what literally cannot be shown, because it exceeds the limits of the visual. I am thinking here of Jameson’s dictum that postmodern capitalist society cannot be imaged or represented; this does not mean that it cannot be known, or “mapped,” but that such a mapping itself exceeds what can be imaged or represented or “visualized.” And I am also thinking of Deleuze’s notion is to make us sense and feel that which literally cannot be sensed or felt, but which remains implicit in whatever it is that we do sense or feel, and which therefore cannot be registered in any other way, but can only be sensed or felt. For both Jameson and Deleuze, and despite their radically different orientations (since Jameson is focused on cognition, and Deleuze on affect), what’s needed is a certain rupture or disparity: in the case of any medium involving images in motion, this means both disjunction among the images, and discordance between the images and the sounds (words and speech, music, noise) that underly them.

In Southland Tales, as in the network society we live in, the world is entirely composed of images: bodies are not only registered on video as images, but are themselves images; and images are themselves entirely real, because they are what,to a large extent, compose the material substance of the real. But this means that everything is flat or two-dimensional, everything is laid out in a configuration that is essentially spatial and simultaneous, even if not conforming to any literal geography. Sound is what energizes this configuration; it provides the temporality (both the existential duration, and the principle of ordering) for this labyrinthine array of images; it thereby realizes the actual connections between images that, on the image track itself, are merely latent or virtual.

This means that Kelly is one of the very few contemporary directors — alongside David Lynch, David Fincher, and really I am not sure who else — who is actually rethinking what film might mean, and what sense it might make, in our post-cinematic, videocentric and thoroughly digitized age. We can profitably contrast Southland Tales with Lynch’s Inland Empire: these films are complementary to one another. Lynch’s film is shot on digital video, and constructed in such a way that it is no longer a movie any longer, but some newer media form. It is intimate and interior in a way that traditional movies (because they are public and collective and operate on a grand scale) are incapable of, and that therefore can only be attained by fracturing and fragmenting cinematic codes, and by rejecting 35mm film for digital video. But the deep logic of Inland Empire is still a cinematic one, precisely because it refers back to the cinematic codes that it deconstructs. Inland Empire is based on the enigma of images, all the more so in that Lynch’s digital camera flattens out and makes more glaring the images whose subtleties he used to capture on film. Lynch’s sound design provides an exquisite support for these deconstructed images, but the images still come first. Southland Tales, to the contrary, no longer recognizes cinematic logic at all, not even in order to deconstruct it. This is because it is no longer based on cinema’s image-centric logic at all — despite the fact that, as a media object, it is still (in contrast to Inland Empire) a movie. The two works thus explore the same contested territory, but from opposite perspectives, moving in opposite directions. I am not saying that Southland Tales is as great an accomplishment as Inland Empire, but nothing I have seen recently, aside from Lynch’s work, comes close to matching it.

As for the content of Southland Tales — since it is anything but a formal exercise — this has as much to do with the auras of the actors making up the cast, as it does with what the characters played by these actors actually do on screen. Everybody in the film is a pop culture icon of one sort or another. The main characters are played by such actors as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock, of both wrestling and action-picture fame); Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy); Seann William Scott (from American Pie). The minor roles are played by the likes of Wallace Shawn (as a mad-scientist dwarf), and Mandy Moore (as a fashion-victim Republican Senator’s daughter). All the minor roles are acted by people whom I can recognize, even if I cannot actually place them without the help of the IMDB. (Thus, Christopher Lambert — Highlander — plays a brutal and crazed cynic who sells heavy weaponry from inside an ice cream truck usually parked in Venice Beach). But nearly all these actors are cast against type, playing roles that largely contradict the characterizations for which they are best known. Thus, the Rock is denied action-hero status, as he spends most of the film as an amnesiac Hollywood actor, lost in various varieties of fear and befuddlement. Sarah Michelle Gellar is hilarious as a humorless porn actress with her own business plan, that includes a talk show (sort of an X-rated version of The View), a pop record (“Teenage Horniness is Not a Crime”), and an energy drink.

Special mention must go, of course, to Justin Timberlake, who narrates the film with omniscient voiceovers — even though at the same time he is a character within the film, who could not possibly know most of the things that his voiceover confides to us. His character is an Iraqi-war vet, Pilot Abilene, who was wounded (and facially disfigured) by “friendly fire” (shot, in fact, by the Seann William Scott character). He spends most of the movie sitting in a sniper’s post over Venice Beach, seated at the controls of a long-range machine gun with telephoto lens, which he occasionally uses to pick off people on the beach, when the film’s narrative demands it. The rest of the time, he both deals and takes Fluid Karma, an illicit psychedelic drug, manufactured by the mad scientist’s company and used in Army trials on unwitting soldiers. Fluid Karma is injected by a syringe into the neck, and it is supposed to promote both telepathy and transcendent visions.

Probably the high point of the film is when we actually get to see one of these visions. The sequence is a sort of music video, in which Timberlake/Abilene, under the drug’s influence, dances and lip-synchs to the Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done,” stumbling about in a blood-stained T-shirt, flipping his dog tags to the repeated line “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” and drinking beer and pouring it over his head like a frat-boy party dude — all the while surrounded by a bevy of Busby Berkeley-esque nearly-identical women wearing skimpy nurses’ uniforms as they gyrate and kick their legs. Timberlake, here as everywhere else in American pop culture today, displays a charisma that seems incompatible with, and yet that somehow arises seamlessly out of, his bland-as-white-bread, blue-eyed-soul persona. His Killers-inspired hallucination is at once utterly depraved, and yet also oddly impersonal, as well as being flat, self-contained, and without resonance, as if it were being performed in a special chamber designed to muffle and absorb anything that might exceed the literal, or that might lead us to connotations beyond the obvious. The scene is nearly unspeakably ridiculous, at the same time that it is creepily menacing, and yet also exhilarating. Let the forces of the cosmos stream through you, and you will find yourself channeling chintzy advertising specials and reality shows. Which is not to say that such material is devoid of impact. Watching Timberlake strut and lip-sync among the fake-porno nurses, it’s almost as if time had stopped for the duration of the song, looping back upon itself in order to intensify, by a sort of positive feedback, the film’s overall sense of apocalyptic imminence — of something catastrophic not so much happening, as always being about to happen. Teetering on a precipice without actually falling over; or better, falling over but never finishing falling over, never quite hitting the ground.

What I have just been trying to say about the Timberlake music video scene applies to the movie as a whole: it is utterly hallucinatory, and yet it possesses at the same time a sort of flatness, or lack of resonance, something that is extremely claustrophobic. It is as if the film were always holding something back, or running repeatedly through a holding pattern, like an airplane circling the airport but never landing. Timberlake/Abilene repeatedly tells us that we are watching the end of the world, and that this end is coming (in a reversal of T.S. Eliot), not with a whimper but with a bang. But this end is repeatedly deferred. We hear of tidal drag causing the earth’s rotation to slow down, and of rifts in the spacetime continuum. But it is never clear how these apocalyptic events are manifested in the media flow that proclaims and amplifies them. Kelly strongly suggests that even nuclear holcaust, World War III, and the institution of a totalitarian police state do not much interfere with life as usual. People are still partying and drinking, filling the boutiques and cafes of Venice Beach and Santa Monica. The July 4th celebration with which the film concludes involves not only fireworks, and partying among the rich and powerful on Wallace Shawn’s “mega-zeppelin,” but also gun battles between “neo-Marxist” guerrillas and the police on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. But these latter only add to the general sense of carnivalesque release, of the sort that we are all too used to gawking at on TV. (And even the people who are there, in the streets, act in the full knowledge of being on TV). Even when the promised apocalyptic bang finally comes, in the last few minutes of the film, it seems weirdly anti-climactic, if only because we are all too familiar with seeing disaster footage on TV. Seann William Scott apparently becomes the Messiah, taking over a role that should have, by right, gone to The Rock; and Justin Timberlake is his John the Baptist.

Southland Tales is both infinitely diverse and expansive, and yet at the same time oddly claustrophobic, because of the way that all of its crazy tangents, detours, irrational cuts, and meta-fictional leaps are all enclosed within the self-validating feedback loop of its multimedia bubble (the network, the Net, the communications infrastructure, what have you). This claustrophobia is what gives the film its compulsive power. The narrative is filled with conspiracies and rumors of conspiracy, with plots and schemes that go nowhere, or that implode upon the schemers and plotters themselves, and with paranoid and apocalyptic premonitions that have their effect precisely as premonitions, rather than on account of what they actually foresee or prophesy. In the course of his voiceover narration, Timberlake/Abilene incessantly quotes from the Book of Revelations; only in such a way that it becomes impossible to tell which are the powers of light and which the powers of darkness. The Book of Revelations is not so much a guide to the final days, as it is a funhouse-mirror roadmap of the actually existing mediasphere. Everyone in the film is under surveillance by somebody else, and is being plotted against by somebody else. The excesses of the Security State are matched by the blind, grandilquent self-delusions of everybody who is a subject of that State, or a self-declared enemy of that State. The only characters more or less free from this grandiloquence are the disfigured Timberlake/Abilene, and the befuddled amnesiacs played by The Rock and by Scott.

Grandiloquence and amnesia, and a continual sense of performing for an audience that one desperately invokes, but that one cannot actually see are all parts of the model of subjectivity that Southland Tales presents to us. We are probably all familiar by now with the description of postmodern subjectivity as the experience of oddly impersonal fluxes of affect, flows that traverse me much more than they can be said to be “mine.” You can find such descriptions in Jameson, in Deleuze/Guattari, in Baudrillard, in Lyotard, and in others, dating back to the 1970s (or, perhaps, even to certain aspects of McLuhan in the 1960s). These thinkers are all vastly different, of course, in how they describe the phenomenon, and the (positive or negative) value they place upon it; but still it’s a thread that can be followed through all of them. Southland Tales does not expound such a theory, so much as it takes it for granted and explores its consequences. Indeed, the movie takes it as a self-evident axiom that this is the only form of subjectivity that one can even imagine. Within it, however, we get a whole series of fluctuations and hesitations, and back-and-forth negotiations.

For instance, the Rock’s character, Boxer Santaros, is amnesiac and literally beside himself (we ultimately learn that this amnesia is the effect of space/time displacement, together with the murder of his “other” self). Apparently he is a a rich and famous Hollywood star with Republican Party connections (as The Rock himself more or less is in “real life”). But he doesn’t remember any of this, which means that, although everybody else recognizes him, he does not recognize himself. Amnesia takes away his knowledge of his own stardom, but it also turns him into even more of an actor, since anything he does feels like a fictive role, and his only possible mode of being is to imagine himself into such a role. No wonder he keeps slipping into the role of a character in an apocalyptic screenplay that he is supposed to have written — though he doesn’t remember writing it either, but only having read it. The Rock gives a brilliant performance as such a performer — you can see him trying on the various roles, being touched by fear and anxiety and surprise, and above all a sort of bemused puzzlement, but always braving it out and trying to act in the way the situation demands. Is it possible to be a method actor, inhabiting your role, when you don’t have any personal memories to call upon in order to think yourself into that role? Is it possible to be a method actor, drawing upon personal memories in order to inhabit the role of somebody without such personal memories? Boxer Santaros’ performative, or improvisational, simulation of interiority is one model of subjectivity in Southland Tales; Pilot Abilene’s odd, soft-spoken cool, and toned-down but ecstatic nihilism is another; Krysta Now (the porn starlet played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), with her business plan, her self-imposed instrumentalization of pleasure, her immediate reduction of feeling to self-conscious enactment, offers another. These are all types; and Kelly’s attempt to typologize the sorts of “subjective expression” that are generated and enabled within the overriding multimedia flow is one main reason for the meandering length of his narrative.

I’ll stop here, though I feel that I could go on indefinitely, because Southland Tales is so rich and convoluted, at the same time that (and precisely because) it pursues its vision of chaos and dread and media flow with such a monomaniacal intensity. Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles. It immerses us in the present, in the Now, relentlessly and without release. (It even makes a joke of this valuation of the Now, in the person of Gellar’s character, Krysta, who takes on the last name “Now” because she is so doggedly interested in freedom and sexual gratification Now: not in the future, or tomorrow, or in ten minutes, but right Now). This immersion in the Now is what makes Southland Tales such a brilliantly futuristic film. (Krysta even remarks, at one point, something to the effect that futurists now think the future will be much more futuristic than they had previously believed). It is because it speaks in and to the Now that Southland Tales cannot be received now, but must look to the future for its reception. Combining irony and prophecy, it is at once too ironic for its meanings to be acceptable, and yet too earnest and visionary for the kind of ironic acceptance that we otherwise revel in.

Rancière (2)

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

So… democracy.

Rancière doesn’t see democracy as a form of government, or form of State. It is something both more and less than that. States are all more or less despotic, including supposedly “democratic” ones. And non-State forms of authority tend to be based on other forms of unequal power relationships, with authority grounded in age (patriarchy), birth (aristocracy), violence and military prowess (I’m not sure of the name of this), or money and wealth (plutocracy). Our current neoliberal society combines the rule of Capital with the rule of bureaucratic States with their own levels of authority based upon expertise and guardianship of the “rights” of property or Capital. Even though we have a legislature and executive that are chosen by majority, or at least plurality, vote, our society is not very democratic by Rancière’s standards. The role of money in the electoral process, the fact that there are career politicians, the management of increasing aspects of our lives by non-political “experts” (e.g. the Federal Reserve), all militate against what Rancière considers to be even the minimal requirements for democracy.

To a great extent, Rancière uses the idea of “democracy” adjectivally (a society may be more or less democratic) rather than as a noun. For democracy is a tendency, a process, a collective action, rather than a state of affairs, much less an organized State. Democracy is an event; it happens when, for isntance, people militate to change the distribution of what is public and what is private. In the US, the civil rights movement and (more recently) the alterna-globalization protests would be examples of democracy in action. Rancière rightly stresses the activity, which always needs to be renewed, rather than the result. This might be thought of, in Deleuzian terms, as a revolutionary-becoming, rather than an established “revolutionary” State, which is nearly always a disappointment (if not something worse). While I am inclined to agree with Zizek that State power often may need to be actively used in order, for instance, to break the power of Capital, I still find Zizek’s apparent worship of State forms and Party dictatorship reprehensible (it would seem that Zizek has never found an ostensibly left-wing dictator he doesn’t like — except for Tito and Milosevic). Collective processes should not be reduced to State organization, though they may include it. Chavismo is more important than Chavez (whereas Zizek seems to admire Chavez because, rather than in spite of, his tendency to do things that allow his opponents to apply the cliche of “banana-republic dictator” to him). It is admirable that Chavez is using a certain amount of State power, as well as extra-State collective action, in order to break the power of Capital; but to identify a revolutionary process with its leader and authority figure is worse than insane.

But I digress. To value the process of revolutionary-becoming, as Deleuze does, and as Rancière does in a different way, rather than the results of such action, is not to gvie up on lasting change. It is rather to say that change continues to need to happen, as against the faux-utopia of a final resting place, an actually-achieved utopia (which always turns out to be something more like “actually-existing socialism,” as they used to say, precisely because it congeals when the process comes to a stop).

I need to be cautious here about assimilating Rancière too much to Deleuze and Guattari. I am only trying to say that Rancière’s notion of democracy gives substance to something that often sounds too glib and vague when Deleuze and Guattari say it. For Rancière, “democracy” means that no one person or group of people is intrinsically suited to rule, or more suited to rule than anyone else. Democracy means radical contingency, because there is no foundation for the social order. Democracy means absolute egalitarianism; there is no differential qualification that can hierarchize people, or divide rulers from ruled, the worthy from the unworthy. In a democratic situation, anybody is as worthy of respect as anybody else. This means that, for Rancière, the purest form of democracy would be selection by lot (with frequent rotation and replacement), rather than “representative” elections. Selection by chance is grounded in the idea that anyone can exercise a power-function, regardless of “qualifications” or “merit” (let alone the desire to rule or control; if anything, those who desire to have administrative or legislative power are the ones least worthy to have it — to the extent that we can make such a distinction at all).

It is unclear to me whether Rancière actually believes that a total democracy could exist in practice — as opposed to being an ideal to strive for, a kind of Kantian ethical imperative, something we must strive for to the utmost possible, regardless of the degree to which we succeed. (In my previous post, I was privileging both the political and the aesthetic at the expense of the ethical. Here I would add that Kantian morality is not ethics, but perhaps can be seen as the limit of ethics, the point at which it comes closest to politics).

But here’s the point. For Rancière, egalitarianism is not a “fact” (though we can and should continually strive to “verify” it), but an axiom and an imperative. That is to say, it has nothing to do with empirical questions of how much particular people are similar to, or different from, one another (in terms of qualities like manual dexterity or mathematical ability, or for that matter “looks” and “beauty”). Egalitarianism doesn’t deny the fact that any professional tennis player, even a low-ranked one, could effortlessly beat me at tennis, or that Rancière’s philosophical writings are far more profound than mine, or that I couldn’t pass a sophomore college math class. And egalitarianism doesn’t mean that somehow we all ought to be “the same,” whatever that might entail, genetically or experientially. What egalitarianism means, for Rancière, is that we are all intelligent speaking beings, able to communicate with one another. Our very social interaction means that we are on the same level in a very fundamental sense. The person who follows orders is equal to the person who gives orders, in the precise sense that the one who obeys is able to understand the one who commands. In this sense, Rancière says, equality is always already presupposed in any social relation of inequality. You couldn’t have hierarchies and power relations without this more fundamental, axiomatic, equality lying beneath it.

This seems to me to be (though I presume Rancière wouldn’t accept these terms) a sort of Kantian radicalization of Foucault’s claim that power is largely incitative rather than repressive, that it always relies, in almost the last instance (i.e. up to the point of death) upon some sort of consent or acceptance on the part of the one being dominated. Without these fundamental relations of equality, it would not be possible for there to be elites, masters, bosses, people who tell other people what to do, and who have the backing or the authority to do this. So the question of equality is (in Kantian terms) a question of a communication which is not based upon the quantitative rankings that are imposed by the adoption of a “universal equivalent” (money as the commodity against which all other commodities are exchanged) — therefore this, too, relates to the Kantian problematic that I discussed in my previous posting on Rancière.

Of course, in our personal lives, we never treat everyone else with total equality. I love some people, and not others. I am always haunted by Jean Genet’s beautiful text on Rembrandt, where he mourns the way that Rembrandt’s revelation of the common measure, or equality, of everybody means, in a certain register, the death of his desire, the end of lusting after, and loving, and privileging, one individual in particular. But the power of Genet’s essay resides in the fact that, in the ultimate state of things, this universal equality cannot be denied any more than the singularity of desire can be. And that is why, or how, I think that the lesson Genet draws from Rembrandt is close to the lesson on equality that Rancière draws from, among others, the 19th-century French pedagogue Jacotet (the subject of Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster).

Democracy, or egalitarianism, is not a question of singular desire; but it is very much a question of how we can, and should, live together socially, given that we are deeply social animals. Which is why I see it a kind of imperative, and as something that we always need to recall ourselves to, amidst the atomization — and deprivation for many — enforced by the neoliberal State and the savage “law” of the “market.” To that extent, I think that Rancière is invaluable.

There is something I miss in Rancière, however, and that is a sense of political economy, as opposed to just politics. This absence may have something to do with Rancière’s rejection of his Althusserian Marxist past. He is certainly aware of the plutocratic aspects of today’s neoliberal network society. He doesn’t make the mistake of focusing all his ire on the State, while ignoring the pseudo-spontaneity of the Market and its financial instruments. But he never addresses, in the course of his account of democracy, the way in which economic organization, as well as political organization, needs to be addressed. Here, again, is a place where I think that Marx remains necessary (and also, as I said in the previous post, Mauss — as expounded, for example, by Kevin Hart). Exploitation cannot be reduced to domination, and the power of money cannot be reduced to the coercive power of the State or of other hierarchies. Aesthetics needs to be coupled with political economy, and not just with politics. So I still find a dimension lacking in Rancière — but he helps, as few contemporary thinkers do, in starting to get us there.

Rancière (1)

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

I’ve been reading Jacques Rancière these last few weeks, trying to get a grip on what he’s about. I have read four short books of his, so far: The Politics of Aesthetics, The Future of the Image, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and The Hatred of Democracy. (All of these have been translated, though some of them I read in French, because I happened to have the French editions at hand). There was also a lengthy interview with Rancière sometime this past year in Artforum, which I finally got around to. I haven’t really sorted it all out yet, but I’m making these preliminary comments in order to get a start at it.

I first became interested in Rancière because of the way that he links politics and aesthetics. This is something that, from a different angle, I have been quite interested in. My starting premise is that the current academic (left academic?) infatuation with “ethics” is severely misplaced. I’m inclined to say — though I will not endeavor to back up this statement here — that the category of the ethical (whether understood in Levinasian/Derridean terms, or in ones derived from Spinoza and a Deleuze-inflected Nietzsche) is worse than useless: it is actively obfuscatory when it comes to thinking about actual instances of suffering, exploitation, and domination in the world today. At best, ethical thought leads to the impotent wringing of hands and to empty sympathizing (in the Derridean version), or to optimistic fantasizing (in the Spinoza/Negri version). At worst, it leads to accepting the “tragedy” of the neoliberal world order as the ineluctable Way Things Are.

As I said, I will not try to defend this argument here. I want rather to suggest an alternative: which comes down to evacuating the space of ethics, and replacing it with politics and political economy on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. Every ethical dilemma needs to be displaced, both into a politico-economic problematic, and into an aesthetic situation on the other. As Mallarme wrote, some 130 years ago: “everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy” (Tout se résume dans l’Ésthetique et l’Economie politique). We need to reverse the direction of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and move from the ethical to the aesthetic. This involves, on the one hand, seeing the situations of exploitation and domination that lie behind every ethical dilemma or tragic situation; and on the other hand, disengaging the ways that, in our neoliberal network society (society of the post-spectacle, of the simulacrum, of the proliferation of electronic media and their saturation of the real), the distribution of percepts, affects, and concepts (to use Deleuze and Guattari’s schema) can potentially be altered.

It can be noted that the program I am outlining both relies very strongly on Deleuze and Guattari, both for their analysis of Captial as Body without Organs, and for their unrepentant aestheticism; while at the same time this program distances itself from certain aspects of Deleuze’s — with and without Guattari — Spinozianism and Nietzscheanism. This is the point at which I vastly prefer Whitehead to Spinoza and/or Nietzsche. Though Whitehead never polemicizes about it, his subordination of ethics to aesthetics (but in an entirely un-Nietzschean way, without any of that tiresome pontification about blond beasts and breeding a master race and so on and so forth) is precisely on track with what I am trying to work out. Of course, Whitehead has nothing worthwhile to say about political economy; but in that stalled chapter I hope to get back to shortly, I am trying to work out the ways in which Whitehead’s notion of “God” is homologous to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulations about the Body without Organs (I am referring to the analysis of BwO-logic as capital-logic in Anti-Oedipus, rather than to the far less interesting “make yourself a Body without Organs” stuff in A Thousand Plateaus).

Anyway: this is where I encounter Rancière’s thesis on the “distribution of the sensible.” Rancière argues for a direct connection between politics and aesthetics (one that implicitly leaves out ethics) like this. Immediate aesthetic practices (aesthetics in the sense of Art) both establish and contest the ways in which, and the structures according to which, a given society distributes the “conditions of possibility” for what can (and what cannot) be sensed, felt, and spoken about, and what cannot (aesthetics in the sense of Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic,” which deals with time and space as forms of intuition — Rancière, like Foucault, in effect offers us a historicized version of the Kantian a priori argument — cf. The Politics of Aesthetics 13). Rancière offers, in effect, a more subtle version of McLuhan’s claim that new media produce new “ratios of the senses.” (Rancière dislikes McLuhan’s emphasis on media as determining by themselves, independently of “content”; but he rightly attributes to social arrangements that include media technologies the power to redistribute “sensibility” that McLuhan perhaps too simply attributes to the media alone).

The “distribution of the sensible,” which art addresses, and at once accepts as its condition of being, and disputes, is precisely also the ground and the stake of politics — every “distribution of the sensible” thereby also defines who is entitled to speak, and what sorts of things they are able to say. The “distribution of the sensible” defines the rules and the arena for “normal” political and social decisions. But politics, in the radical sense that Rancière champions, is a movement that does not just operate within these parameters, but actively challenges them, seeks to alter them.

In other words: Politics in the conventional sense — which would include both the US presidential election process, and the ways in which policy decisions are made by institutions like the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Bank — operates within the parameters of an already-given, socially sanctioned distribution of the sensible. Rancière dismisses this sort of policy-making as oligarchic even in supposedly “democratic” societies like France and the US — it is the work of the “police” rather than actual political engagement, and it always involves domination and inequality. On the other hand, what Rancière calls actual “politics,” and which he also describes as radical democracy, occurs when these background a priori rules, embodied in an official distribution of the sensible, themselves become contested.

The protestors in Seattle in 1999 were entirely Rancièrean when they chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” And the city’s response to the protests — effectively suspending civil liberties and imposing martial law for several days — demonstrated how “policing” is the inverse of politics, how the smooth functioning of both government and capitalist commerce depends upon the suppression of democracy, or of politics proper.

I can see two major consequences that follow from this. One is to point out the way that neoliberal governance, with its two institutions of State and Market, is fundamentally and at the core anti-democratic. There is a continuity between allowing decisions to be made by the “market” or by supposedly nonpartisan “experts” (like the Fed) in order to shield these decisions from the supposedly noxious effects of political controversy, and bringing out the cops in force to protect the WTO meeting from popular discontent. (I can’t remember the author or title right now, but I remember reading some reviews of a recent book that argues that, since voters always act “irrationally,” it is better to leave as many social decisions as possible to market mechanisms instead of democratic ones. While we may question how “democratic” the opportunity to choose between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani actually is, it is clear that leaving issues to the “decisions” of the “market” is far more autocratic. The “market” is supposedly the sum of individuals’ “preferences”; but in reality, it is both the sphere of maximized inequality — since unequal income distribution is very far from one-person-one-vote — and also, we cannot avoid confronting the “market” as a vast impersonal force against which we have no power whatsoever. Neoliberal ideology regards the “market” as an ineluctable force of nature, like gravity or the speed of light).

The second consequence of Rancière’s argument is to shed a new light on the political dimensions of art. It is no longer a question of looking at a work of art’s “ideology,” nor of asking what the artwork’s actual political “efficacy” might be. Rancière allows us to get away from both of these tired ways of looking at the politics of art. It is rather that art and political action run parallel, because both of them, against the backdrop of a socially given distribution of the sensible, both enact and contest this distribution, work to reconfigure it, and to bring out potentials within it that have not previously been realized. Art is thus already a political intervention — not in what it says, but in its very being, in its formal and aesthetic qualities.

Rancière probably wouldn’t like this assimilation, but I think that his theory of art fits well into the Kantian-Deleuzian genealogy of aesthetics that I have been trying to pursue. Kant’s aesthetics has to do with the singularizing limits and extremities of the mental faculties, with the points at which they break down or enter into discord with one another, or (as Deleuze reads Kant) find a harmony only through this discord. In other words, commonality and universality are precisely problems for “aesthetic judgment”; Kant takes commonality and universality for granted in the First and Second Critiques, but problematizes them in the Third. The problem of aesthetic judgment is the problem of communicating things (sensations) that are absolutely singular, and heterogeneous in relation to one another. In a way, therefore, the problem of aesthetic judgment is the same as the problem of the commodity in Marx (how a universal equivalent can be found for things that in themselves are heterogeneous), and also as the problem of how to find a “common” or commonality or communism that is not just a reductive quantification via translation in terms of the universal equivalent (this is the side of the Marxist problematic that is highlighted in Hardt and Negri’s discussion of “the common”; following it out would seem to involve both thinking Marx and Kant together as Karatani does, and thinking about alternative currencies and trading systems, which Karatani approaces vis his interest in LETS networks, and which Keith Hart has done a lot to illuminate, referring to Mauss’ The Gift as well as to the Marxist tradition).

Now, Deleuze radicalizes Kant in this respect by the way that he rewrites, and radicalizes, Kant’s pushing of the mental faculties to their limits. Drawing on Blanchot and Klossowski, among others (and implicitly drawing, as well on Foucault’s Kantian reading of Bataille in “A Preface to Transgression,” despite Deleuze’s own evident contempt for Bataille), Deleuze in Difference and Repetition and elsewhere outlines a scenario in which each of the faculties pushes to the point where it breaks down: which means that, going to the maximum extent of “what it can do,” it both uncovers the (transcendental) force or energy that impels it but that it cannot apprehend directly, and ruptures itself, thereby compelling thought to jump discontinuously to another faculty, which (precisely through this discontinuity or discord) picks up the process, pushing itself to its own limit, and so on in turn…

What I am trying to suggest is, that, in his examinations of the distribution of the sensible, Rancière in effect historicizes the process that Deleuze describes in more absolute terms — just as Foucault, in his middle period (The Order of Things) historicizes the a priori conditions of thought that Kant describes in absolute terms. (Actually, this is an oversimplification; because Foucault in effect historizes Kant’s Categories, his “Transcendental Deduction of Concepts”; whereas Deleuze radicalizes, and Rancière then historicizes what corresponds more to Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic.” This is something that comes up in the Kant/Whitehead/Deleuze book, but that I eventually need to work out more careflly here).

There’s a lot more to be said on Rancière’s aesthetics — and particularly on the way that he rewrites the history of art since the Renaissance, and especially of the transition to modernism, in terms of changing distributions of the sensible. But I will defer that for now, as well as the even bigger question of the consequences of Rancière’s understanding of “democracy.” Hopefully I will now be able to start posting more frequently than I have in the last few months. To be continued…