Archive for January, 2008

Whitehead’s God

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

It took me much longer than I had hoped, but I have finally finished a first draft of my chapter on Whitehead’s notion of God. It’s longer than it should be, and a bit all over the place (digressive) — and yet touches too briefly on a number of things that it would be good to flesh out in greater detail. And I didn’t quite manage to explain how and why Whitehead’s God might be preferable even to Spinoza’s God (its only competitor) for the role of the philosophers’ God, or the atheists’ God. In any case, the God I discern in Whitehead is (as far as I can tell) rather different from the one found in process theology.

For what it’s worth, the article is here (pdf).

1/20/09

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Bush’s term of office ends a year from now. But what if…

I’m Not There

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

As I have written before, I am pretty ambivalent about the whole Dylan mythology thing. Nonetheless, I found Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There very affecting, for the way it probes that mythology and makes it resonate. Haynes has six different actors playing six characters, all with different names and biographies, but all lightly fictionalized aspects of Dylan; and the movie as a whole tells their stories by blending together a motley assortment of film stocks (both color and black and white), genre markers, settings, and styles of editing and cinematography. In the abstract, this might sound like a dry intellectual conceit; but in practice it works fabulously, due both to the brilliance of all of the performers, and to the fluidity with which Haynes mixes and matches all those performances and styles. Everything is mediated and staged, and yet it all has a dreamlike suppleness and conviction. The move, for instance, from “Dylan” as an 11-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails to “Dylan” as an older man (Richard Gere), identified as a version of Billy the Kid who escaped Pat Garrett’s bullets, and his jail, and is now riding the rails to an unknown future destination — this shift seems “natural” and almost seamless, in the way that dream transformations always do as long as you remain inside the dream.

[I'm not going to try to track down the film's ten million allusions, but I do feel compelled to mention that, in the sections with Gere, Haynes is referencing -- among other things -- Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan had a small role and for which, of course, he wrote the soundtrack. I only point this out because I think that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the most beautiful Western ever made. Some of Peckinpah's gorgeous melancholy passes over into Haynes' re-creation of a belated Western/cowboy/outlaw "Dylan." In some "postmodern" works, all the citations of other "texts" tend to work like a jigsaw puzzle; it's really just a matter of being clever enough, or nerdily obsessive enough, to "get" them all. But in I'm Not There, the flotsam and jetsam of alluded-to culture generally manages -- if you know the allusion, and even when you don't -- to drag its affective associations along with it, so that you actually feel the way that the movie, like its subject, is a heterogeneous patchwork of things pulling you in all directions at once. I say this in the awareness that, as I am not a professional Dylanologist, there are certainly loads of allusions that completely passed me by.]

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is this. Although the film is certainly a neo-Brechtian exercise in critical distanciation, for the way it makes us realize how all of Dylan’s personae are fictional constructions, drawing both on “archetypes” of Americana, and on the media, and their ubiquity in the “present moment” of Dylan’s greatest prominence as an artist (the film mostly deals with the “Dylans” of the 1960s and 1970s, though there are dramatizations of later moments — like his 80s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity — as well) — although the film is that, it is also much more than that. Which is a way of saying that I’m Not There is affective as well as intellectual, and that it feels “intimate” even though it is all clearly distanced — or, better (to risk a Blanchotian formulation) that it makes us feel the intimacy of that very distance. All six “Dylans” are self-consciously performative; each one individually — to say nothing of their cross-references and resonances — displays the “self” as something manufactured, as something that can only present itself “in quotation marks” (i.e., by performing and by self-consciously calling attention to the fact that it is “merely” performing). And yet these six performances are all utterly compelling, by the very fact that — although they are not “authentic,” and in fact trash the very notion of authenticity (much as Dylan himself did when he played an electronic set at the all-acoustic folkie festival — an event that Haynes reproduces, not as it actually happenend, but in its full-blown mythical shock and splendor) there evidently is nothing “behind” them, no face behind the mask(s).

Bob Dylan is fascinating, of course, precisely because he is “not there”; and Haynes’ accomplishment is to put us in immediate contact with this not-thereness, and with the frenetic performativeness that at once covers over this absence, and expresses it: expresses it in the sense that all six personae in the film (six characters in search of an author?) are not trying to project a seeming “selfness” to cover over the void, so much as they are projecting this void itself, in order precisely to tell other people to go away and just leave him the fuck alone. (“Him”? this itself is not any real essence of “Dylan,” but rather a facade that each of the six “Dylans” expresses in his own way).

This is most evident in Cate Blanchett’s bravura transvestite turn as “Jude Quinn”: the pop-star “Dylan” visiting and performing in London, utterly seductive because utterly cold, a perfect narcissist, eyes hidden behind shades, continually dosed or overdosed on uppers, mean and belligerent to everyone, and always heaping scorn on any idea of authenticity, sincerity,self-revelation, political or personal committment, belief, or having anything to say. (The Blanchett sequences are supposedly based on D. A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, which I have never seen).

Dylan might seem as far removed from Andy Warhol as any two pop figures from the same decade could ever be; but I’m Not There explores, and refers back to Dylan himself, Warhol’s great question: “When a mirror looks at its reflection, what does it see?” Haynes’ six “Dylans” reflect everything and nothing. Their careers coincide with the upheavals of the 1960s, and with the consolidation of the consequences of those upheavals that was the 1970s. But they mirror these decades mostly by their refusal to express, to serve as a spokesman for anyone or anything: renouncing a “folkie” past, the various “Dylans” deny political intent (because songs don’t make anything happen, as several of them say), or even personal, self-expressive intent. (This may be why “Jack Rollins,” the “Dylan” played by Christian Bale, is the one who — after withdrawing from the scene in the early 1960s as a disillusioned folkie — re-emerges in the 1980s as a Jesus fundamentalist). (Though even this apoliticism is denied in an odd scene where Huey Newton tries to explain to Bobby Seale how “Ballad of a Thin Man” is really a radical song in support of the black liberation struggle — though this is an interpretation that Jude Quinn scornfully rejects).

Dylan’s songs are up for grabs, open for interpretation, precisely because they refuse to wear their meanings on their sleeves. But behind all the disjunctions and surreal metaphors,and even behind the invocations of a mythical “weird old America,” which are the one concrete (if bullshit) meaning that they still possess, they have an affective pull that can only be felt, in modes from hostile sarcasm to world-weary melancholy. And yet even these affects — which are the thing that really powers I’m Not There, filled as it is with Dylan’s music, performed both by Dylan himself and by many other artists — are finally expressions of a void, or of a desire that is too diffuse and disorganized and at second (or third, or fourth…) remove ever to speak its name, or of a mirror that is only able to mirror the act of mirroring itself.

Indeed, I think that this is the secret affinity between I’m Not There and Haynes’ previous film, Far From Heaven. Speaking of the 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk and others, that were his models for Far From Heaven, Haynes says:

“There’s something really direct about emotional themes in these films. They’re sort of pre-psychological. The characters in the Sirk films, their realizations are very much on the surface. They’re very much dealing with the quite apparent constraints of their society, and making quite apparent and overt decisions that usually mean depriving themselves of something that would make them very happy.”

– cited from here

Though Dylan is a figure of the “freewheeling” Sixties, rather than of the hyper-repressed Fifties, I think that his personae, as presented by Haynes, are in fact similarly “pre-psychological,” in the sense that their decisions and actions seem unmotivated, unconnected to any sort of “interiority.” We even get a glimpse of a Far From Heaven-like world, early in the film when the version of “Dylan” as an 11-year-old black kid who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” is invited to play in a well-to-do, white Southern liberal home (the year is 1959). It may be that, in terms of subjectivity, the (supposedly) unrepressed Sixties is not as far from the ultra-conformist and severely repressed Fifties as our standard mythologies would have it. This is a (seeming) paradox that Foucault might well have relished. It also has something to do, I think, with the fact that, for all that Haynes is celebrating continual transformation and self-reinvention (as opposed to the old mythology of a fixed, essential self) he nonetheless is doing this entirely mythologically — I mean with a mythology that (contrary to his practice in all his other films) he gives no hint of criticizing or deconstructing. Haynes’ Dylan is a hero of postmodernity, in much the same way that I made Dean Martin out to be such a hero, in a book that I published over a decade ago.

I didn’t blog a “top 10″ list this past year, because I simply didn’t see enough films (or hear enough music) to be able to creditably put together such a list. I missed way too much. But of the American films released in 2007 that I did manage to see (and especially noting that Inland Empire doesn’t count here, because it was released in 2006, and that I still haven’t seenThere Will Be Blood), I’m Not There is right up there with Zodiac and Southland Tales. Nothing else I saw in the past year came close to any of these three.

I think, in a way, that I’m Not There and Southland Tales are complementary opposites. They both deal with the form of subjectivity (decentered, multiple, and not characterizable in terms of “authenticity” or its absence) that is correlated with, or that answers to, our age of media saturation and ubiquitous capital flows. And they both present this form of subjectivity without apologies, and without opposing it to (and also, without expressing nostalgia for) some sort of supposed lost, unified, and more authentic form of selfhood. But they do this in quite different ways, reflecting how Bob Dylan is different from, say, Justin Timberlake. Dylan is still a creature of myth, even though it is a sort of myth that could only exist in our contemporary mediascape. But “myth is gossip grown old,” as Stanislaw Lec is reputed to have said, and Timberlake is young enough, and lives in an age cynical enough, that his media presence still exists in the form of gossip, and resists congealing into myth. This is why Haynes’ film is retrospective, and deeply cinematic; it’s really about (both personal and cultural) memory. Whereas Richard Kelly’s film is prospective (forward-looking) and formally post-cinematic (it’s still a movie, not a tv show or video; but it’s a movie permeated with the effects of CNN and youtube): it’s about short attention spans and the continual effacement of long-term memory. I’m Not There is very much a film, in the cinephilic sense; Southland Tales is a real movie, but it isn’t in the least a film. Of course, it is not a question of choosing between these two movies, or these two modes. They offer vastly different perspectives on celebrity, on the mediascape, and on the strange detours of desire; but both of these perspectives are necessary ones. In 2006, Justin Timberlake offered the world a far better album than Bob Dylan did; but in 2007, they both, equally, embodied aspects of the media-drenched dreamworld from which we are unable to awaken, even if we wanted to (which, as I write this, in 2008, we evidently don’t).

Written and Posted Before the Polls Closed in New Hampshire

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

I think that Lenin is right to suggest that John Edwards “is pure Hollywood.” And I very much fear that Julianne is right to say that “the way [Obama] poses his populist ‘you did this, I am a conduit’ stance has YouTube generation written all over it – he makes everyone feel like a star.” It’s new media versus old media: that’s why Edwards’ campaign is floundering, while Obama’s is surging. (And the less said about Clinton the better: her husband is pure television, which positions him media-wise in between Edwards and Obama; but no media are capable of putting her across).

In other words: class struggle, which Edwards at least rhetorically appeals to, is an old-fashioned Hollywood “grand narrative”; it’s corny and old-fashioned, and nobody younger than a graying Boomer like myself could possibly believe in it any longer. Mr. Edwards Goes to Washington, indeed. Obama, on the other hand, makes everybody (or at least everybody who is young, or young at heart) feel good; he gives his fans “hope”, i.e. the possibility of feeling empowered, or “a star”; and he exalts “change,” all the while making sure that nothing actually will be changed. (If you are white and you vote for Obama, not only have you demonstrated that you yourself aren’t racist, you have made racism itself magically disappear).

My only consolation for this is that, of course, if Edwards were somehow elected, in the sort of thrilling turnaround that Hollywood hasn’t been able to pull off convincingly for years, he would prove to be thoroughly disappointing, since he wouldn’t really fight the power the way he claims, on the campaign trail, to want to.

The Head Trip; consciousness and affect

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

I’ve been reading Jeff Warren’s The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness, basically on the recommendation of Erik Davis. It’s a good pop-science-cum-therapy book, which explores basic modes of conscious experience, both nocturnal and diurnal, and combines accounts of what scientific researchers and therapists are actually doing with a narrative of Warren’s own subjective experiences with such modes of consciousness-alteration as lucid dreaming, hypnotic trances, meditation, neurofeedback, and so on. Warren maps out a whole series of conscious states (including ones during sleep), and suggests that consciousness in general (to the extent that there is such a thing “in general”) is really a continuum, a mixture of different sorts of mental activity, and different degrees of attentiveness, including those at work during sleep. These various sorts of conscious experience can be correlated with (but not necessarily reduced to) various types of brain activity (both the electric activity monitored by EEGs and the chemical activity of various neurotransmitters; all this involves both particular “modules” or areas of the brain, and systematic patterns running through the entire brain and nervous system).

The Head Trip is both an amiable and an illuminating book, and I really can’t better Erik Davis’ account of it, which I encourage you to read. Erik calls Jeff Warren “an experiential pragmatist in the William Jamesian mode,” which is both high praise and a fairly accurate description. Warren follows James in that he insists upon conscious self-observation, and looks basically at what James was the first to call the “stream of consciousness.” Like James, Warren insists upon the pragmatic aspect of such self-observation (what our minds can do, both observing and being observed, in all its messy complexity), rather than trying to isolate supposedly “pure” states of attention and intention the way that the phenomenologists do.

At one point, Warren cites Rodolfo Llinas and D. Pare, who argue that consciousness is not, as James claimed, “basically a by-product of sensory input, a tumbling ‘stream’ of point-to-point representations,” because it is ultimately more about “the generation of internal states” than about responding to stimuli (p. 138). But this revised understanding of the brain and mind does not really contradict James’ overall pragmatic style, nor his doctrine of “radical empiricism.” James’ most crucial point is to insist that everything within “experience” has its own proper reality (as opposed to the persistent dualism that distinguishes between “things” and “representations” of those things). Not the least of Warren’s accomplishments is that he is able to situate recent develops in neurobiological research within an overall Jamesian framework, as opposed to the reductive dogmas of cognitivism and neural reductionism.

Nonetheless, what I want to do here is not talk about Warren’s book, but rather speculate about what isn’t in the book: which is any account of emotion or of affect. Shouldn’t we find it surprising that in a book dedicated to consciousness in all its richness and variety, there is almost nothing about fear, or anger, or joy, or shame, or pride? (There’s also nothing about desire or passion or lust or erotic obsession: I am not sure that these can rightly be called “emotions,” but they also aren’t encompassed within what Warren calls “the wheel of consciousness”). There are some mentions of a sense of relaxation, in certain mental states; and of feeling a sort of heightened intensity, and even triumph, when Warren has a sort of breakthrough (as when he finally succeeds in having a lucid dream, or when his neurofeedback sessions are going well). Correlatively, there are also mentions of frustration (as when these practices don’t go well — when he cannot get the neurofeedback to work right, for instance). But that’s about it, as far as the emotions are concerned.

The one passage where Warren even mentions the emotions (and where he briefly cites the recent work on emotions by neurobiologists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux) is in the middle of a discussion of meditation (pp. 309ff.). The point of this passage is basically to discuss the difference between how Western rationalism has just tried to repress (in a Freudian sense) the emotions, whereas the Buddhist tradition has instead tried to “cultivate” them (by which he seems to mean something like what Freud called “sublimation”). Warren oddly equates any assertion of the power of the emotions with evolutionary psychiatry’s doctrine that we are driven (or “hardwired”) by instincts that evolved during the Pleistocene. The existence of neuroplasticity (as recognized by contemporary neurobiologists) effectively refutes the claims of the evolutionary psychologists — this is something that I am entirely agree with Warren about. But Warren seems thereby to assert, as a corollary, that emotions basically do not matter to the mind (or to consciousness) at all — and this claim I find exceedingly bizarre. Warren seems to be saying that Buddhist meditation (and perhaps other technologies, like neurofeedback, as well) can indeed, as it claims, dispose of any problems with the emotions, because it effectively does “rewire” our brains and nervous systems.

What is going on here? I have said that I welcome the way that Warren rejects cognitivism, taking in its place a Jamesian stance that refuses to reject any aspect of experience. I find it salubrious, as well, that Warren gives full scope to neurobiological explanations in terms of chemical and electronic processes in the brain, without thereby accepting a Churchland-style reductionism that rejects mentalism or any other sort of explanatory language. Warren thus rightly resists what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” Nonetheless, when it comes to affect or emotion, some sort of limit is reached. The language that would describe consciousness from the “inside” is admitted, but the language that would express affective experience is not. I think that this is less a particular failing or blind spot on Warren’s part, than it is a (socially) symptomatic omission. Simply by omitting what does not seem to him to be important, Warren inadvertently testifies to how little a role affect or emotion plays in the accounts we give of ourselves today, accounts both of how our minds work (the scientific dimension) and of how we conceive ourselves to be conscious (the subjective-pragmatic dimension).

Some modes of consciousness are more expansive (or, to the contrary, more sharply focused) than others; some are more clear and distinct than others; some are more bound up with logical precision, while others give freer reign to imaginative leaps and to insights that break away from our ingrained habits of association. But in Warren’s account, none of these modes seem to be modulated by different affective tones, and none of them seem to be pushed by any sort of desire, passion, or obsession. Affects and desires would seem to be, for Warren, nothing more than genetically determined programs inherited from our reptilian ancestors (and exaggerated in importance by the likes of Steven Pinker) which our consciousness largely allows us to transcend.

Another way to put this is to say that Warren writes as if we could separate the states (or formal structures) of attentiveness, awareness, relaxation, concern, focus, self-reflection, and so on, from the contents that inhabit these states or structures. This is more or less equivalent to the idea — common in old-style AI research — that we can separate syntactics from semantics, and simply ignore the latter. Such a separation has never worked out in practice: it has entirely failed in AI research and elsewhere. And we may well say that this separation is absurd and impossible in principle. Yet we make this kind of separation implicitly, and nearly all the time; it strikes us as almost axiomatic. We may well be conscious of “having” certain emotions; but we cannot help conceiving how we have these emotions as something entirely separate from the emotions themselves.

It may be that consciousness studies and affect studies are too different as approaches to the mind (or, as I’d rather say, to experience) to be integrated at all easily). Indeed, in this discussion I have simply elided the difference between “affect” and “emotion”: the terms are sometimes used more or less interchangeably, but I think any sort of coherent explanation requires a distinction between the two. Brian Massumi uses “affect” to refer to the pre-personal aspects (both physical and mental) of feelings, the ways that these forces form and impel us; he reserves “emotion” to designate feelings to the extent that we experience them as already-constituted conscious selves or subjects. By this account, affects are the grounds of conscious experience, even though they may not themselves be conscious. Crucial here is James’ sense of how what he calls “emotions” are visceral before they are mental: my stomach doesn’t start churning because I feel afraid; rather, I feel afraid because my stomach has started churning (as a pre-conscious reaction to some encounter with the outside world, or to some internally generated apprehension). The affect is an overall neurological and bodily experience; the emotion is secondary, a result of my becoming-conscious of the affect, or focusing on it self-reflexively. This means that my affective or mental life is not centered upon consciousness; although it gives a different account of non-conscious mental life than either psychoanalysis (which sees it in terms of basic sexual drives) or cognitive theory (which sees non-conscious activity only as “computation”).

There’s more to the affect/emotion distinction than James’ account; one would want to bring in, as well, Sylvan Tompkins’ post-Freudian theory of affect, Deleuze’s Spinozian theory of affect, and especially Whitehead’s “doctrine of feelings.” Rather than go through all of that here, I will conclude by saying that, different as the field of consciousness studies (as described by Jeff Warren) is from cognitivism, they both ultimately share a sense of the individual as a sort of calculating (or better, computational) entity that uses the information available to it in order to maximize its own utility, or success, or something like that. Such an account — which is also, as it happens, the basic assumption of our current neoliberal moment — updates the 18th century idea of the human being as Homo economicus into an idea of the human being as something like Homo cyberneticus or Homo computationalis. For Warren, this is all embedded in the idea that, on the one hand, our minds are self-organizing systems, and parts of larger self-organizing systems; and on the other hand, that “we can learn to direct our own states of consciousness” (p. 326). Metaphysically speaking, we are directed by the feedback processes of an Invisible Hand; instrumentally speaking, however, we can intervene in these feedback processes, and manipulate the Hand that is manipulating us. The grounds for our decision to do this — to intervene in our own behalf — are themselves recursively generated in the course of the very processes in which we determine to intervene. The argument is circular; but, as with cybernetics, the circularity is not vicious so long as we find ourselves always-already within it. This is in many ways an enticing picture: if only because it is the default assumption that we cannot help starting out with. And Jeff Warren gives an admirably humane and expansive version of it. Still, I think we need to spend more time asking what such a picture leaves out. And for me, affect theory is a way to begin this process.