Archive for May, 2010

The Universe of Things

Monday, May 24th, 2010

“The Universe of Things,” my talk at last month’s Object-Oriented Ontology symposium, is available in audio-recorded format, together with all the other talks, here. (Direct mp3 link).

However, I have since revised the talk; I am much happier with the text as it now stands, and can be downloaded here (pdf).

Slow Cinema Vs Fast Films

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

I really think I need to jump in on this one. In the April 2010 Sight and Sound, the journal’s editor, Nick James, wrote as follows:

Part of the critical orthodoxy I have complained about has been the dominance of Slow Cinema, that “varied strain of austere minimalist cinema that has thrived internationally over the past ten years”, as Jonathan Romney put it. “What’s at stake,” he wrote, “is a certain rarefied intensity in the artistic gaze . . . a cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.”

I admire and enjoy a good many of the best films of this kind, but I have begun to wonder if maybe some of them now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few. The bargain the newer variety of slow films seem to impose on the viewer is simple: it’s up to you to draw on your stoic patience and the fascination in your gaze, in case you miss a masterpiece.

Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.

This passage is cited, and then heavily criticized, by Harry Tuttle in Unspoken Cinema, the blog devoted to what it prefers to call CCC (Contemporary Contemplative Cinema), as exemplified in the work of such directors as “Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-liang, Bruno Dumont, Weerasethakul, Sharunas Bartas, Kore-eda, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sokurov, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Pedro Costa” (list appears here). For Tuttle, James’ criticism is “anti-intellectual banter”, “typical of the anti-intellectual, pro-entertainment inclination that plagues today’s film culture,” and offering a “reductive and superficial” account that perpetrates a “mischaracterisation” of recent art films “that induces contempt and caricature.” Tuttle says that “critics need to learn how to name (and list) things that are not obvious, to learn to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness, to learn to understand the depth and complexity in the intervals between the apparent (and nominal) details” — he accuses James of failing to do this, and instead merely remaining on the surface of things.

Will it get me expelled forever from the ranks of Film Bloggers Who Can Be Taken Seriously if I state that I am more in agreement with James than with Tuttle here? [I should declare in advance that I am unwilling to be drawn into lengthy polemics on this issue. I'm making my sentiments clear in the present blog post; this posting may well just be totally ignored by the film blogosphere and the larger world; but if  anyone does pay attention to it, I feel sure that it will garner substantial criticism. I am stating here and now, in advance, that I will not respond to criticisms with counter-arguments. I've had my say, and that's that].

Anyway. Like Nick James, I am not insensitive to the greatness and power of many of these recent “slow” or “contemplative” films. Tsai Ming-Liang is a great director by any accounting; Tarr, Kore-eda, and Sokurov have in my opinion made some important and powerful films (though in both cases, I find their work uneven). And friends of mine, whose aesthetic sensibilities I respect, have had sublime experiences with films by Reygadas, Weerasethakul, and Alonso — and I can see what it is in the films by these directors that appeal to them, even though I do not quite share their admiration.

And yet, and yet… There seems to be something lacking to me in nearly all the recent exercises in contemplative (or slow) cinema, when you compare them with such older “contemplative” works as Antonioni’s films of the 1960s, Chantal Akerman’s early films from the 1970s, Miklos Jancsó’s films of the 1960s and early 1970s, and Tarkovsky’s films before he left Russia. There was something daring and provocative about Antonioni’s portrayals of fatigue and ennui, and his precise contemplations of the positive emptiness of both natural and human-made landscapes; about Akerman’s digging into the horrors of women’s everydayness; of Jancsó’s icy priouettes around the clashes of armies on vast plains; about Tarkovsky’s patience and sense of duration. All these directors were extremists in their own singular ways: by which I mean they were pushing cinema to its extreme limits, as well as exploring the extreme aspects of human possibility and impossibility (and not just human ones — some of these directors may well be credited with pioneering a potential posthuman and object-oriented cinema).

In today’s contemplative cinema, in contrast, the daringness and provocation are missing. I never get the sense that Dumont, or Reygadas, for instance, are ever taking risks or pushing boundaries. There’s an oppressive sense in which the long-take, long-shot, slow-camera-movement, sparse-dialogue style has become entirely routinized; it’s become a sort of default international style that signifies “serious art cinema” without having to display any sort of originality or insight. “Contemplative cinema” has become a cliche; it has outlived the time in which it was refreshing or inventive.

I’d even say that the most inspired works of “difficult” international cinema are characterized by the ways that they depart from slow-cinema norms. Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, for instance, cannot be classified as slow or contemplative cinema: its narrative is oblique, as is its presentation of that narrative, but it is too intimate, or too interested in the feelings and everyday shifts of attention and mood of its protagonists, to fit the “slow” paradigm. The late (and still woefully underappreciated) Edward Yang abandoned the Antonioniesque stylings and slownesses of his earlier films for something more like a Renoiresque social realism with ensemble casts (I still think that Confucian Confusion and Mahjong are two of the greatest films of the 1990s, together constituting the postmodern equivalent of Rules of the Game). Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life is utterly inspired, with its peculiar, more-than-Gondryesque take on mortality and memory, while Still Walking seems to me to be just standard-issue CCC, with a deep-emotions-displayed-through-restraint portrayal that is strictly by the numbers, more “moving” than actually moving. Similarly, the handheld-camera  rawness of Jia Zhang-ke’s earlier films (like the intensely disillusioning Xiao Wu) seem to me to be far superior to his “slower” recent works. The crazy excesses of the best Korean directors (Bong Joon-ho, park Chan-wook, and Kim Ki-Duk) all evidence, in their utterly different ways, a hunger for all the dimensions of life (from corporeal to spiritual to social) that contemplative cinema systematically omits. In his best films, Takeshi Kitano pushes slow cinema to the point of buffoonery and absurdity. And Takashi Miike has shown more formal invention, and rethinking of what cinema is, what it can be,  and what it means, in each year of his career than all the CCC directors combined have shown over their entire careers. (And I could go on; Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, and Mladen Djordjevic are all important contemporary directors who have nothing whatsoever to do with Contemplative Cinema).

So my overall sense is that the Contemplative Cinema Canon doesn’t even give us a very good sense of what’s most interesting and most powerful in contemporary international art cinema today. But I think there’s more. Great works of art can be created in profoundly retrograde styles, and almost completely detached from contemporary concerns. And I think the best works of the Contemplative Cinema Canon may in fact be described in such a way. But I still think that, even at its best, Slow-Cinema-As-Default-International-Style is profoundly nostalgic and regressive — and I think that this is a bad thing. It’s a way of simulating older cinematic styles, and giving them a new appearance of  life (or more precisely, a new zombified life-in-death), as a way of flattering classicist cinephiles, and of simply ignoring everything that has happened, socially, politically, and technologically, in the last 30 years. It’s a way of saying No to mainstream Hollywood’s current fast-edit, post-continuity, highly digital style, simply by pretending that it doesn’t even exist. And I agree with Nick James that this simply isn’t enough.

When I say that CCC is regressive, I don’t mean that all change automatically constitutes “progress,” or that such “progress” is somehow automatically good. But in a world that has been so profoundly changed over the past 30 or 40 years by globalization, financialization, and technological innovation, it’s simply an evasive cop-out to make movies as if none of this had happened. And in a film industry whose production processes have been entirely upended by digitalization, and where film itself has increasingly been displaced by newer media, and refashioned to find its place within the landscape of those newer media, it is a profound failure of imagination to continue to make films in the old way, or that continue to signify in the old way, when this “old way” has itself become nothing more than a nostalgic cliché.

In other words: it’s very consoling and self-congratulatory for old-line cinephiles (a group in which I fully include myself) to tell ourselves the story that the current cultural landscape’s insistence on rapidity and speed and instantaneous gratification is a monstrous aberration, and that we are maintaining truer values when we strive to slow everything down. But this is a lie. You cannot change a situation if you are unwilling to have anything to do with it, if you are so concerned with keeping your hands clean and avoiding complicity that you simply retreat into fantasies of the good old days. To my mind, this is what Slow Cinema is doing; and Nick James is entirely right to find it unsatisfactory, and to look instead for new, “more active forms of rebellion.” And we are likely to find these as often in exploitation cinema as in art cinema; but in any case, in movies that engage with the new media landscape, and the new socio-economic landscape, rather than fleeing them in dreams of “learn[ing] in to find the content behind the appearance of emptiness.”

Still more about objects (sigh)

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Levi Bryant says:

The substantiality of an object is not to be found in its qualities, but rather in the ensemble of its powers or capacities.  This entails that we never directly encounter an object because no object ever actualizes the totality of its powers in all the ways in which those powers can become manifest.  Rather, there is always a hidden excess or reserve of potentiality that dwells within the object.  This is why I refer to the qualities of an object as local manifestations of the object. They are actualizations of the object at a particular point in time and under determinate conditions or relations to other objects. It follows then that qualities are acts on the part of an object. Qualities or properties are not something an object has, but are something that an objectdoes when it relates to other objects in the world.

I like a lot of this formulation; in particular, the idea that “there is always a hidden excess or reserve of potentiality that dwells within the object.” However, I reject Bryant’s claim that “this entails that we never directly encounter an object.” To the contrary: we do encounter objects all the time, the entire universe is composed of objects encountering other objects. The fact that these encounters do not involve the manifestation of all the powers or capacities of the objects in question does not mean that the objects are somehow failing to encounter one another, or that there needs to be a split between an object and its manifestations, as Bryant and Graham Harman both maintain.

When a mosquito bites me, I am changed thereby, although this is only to a relatively minor (albeit irritating) degree. When I slap and kill the mosquito, it is changed so extensively as to be altogether obliterated. When the mosquito bites me, it only interacts with a few of my qualities (my skin, my blood, my body heat). And even when I murder the mosquito, I only encounter a few of its qualities: I interfere with its physiological organization, but I do not attain its inner life (and yes, I am inclined to think that a mosquito has something of an inner life; for that matter, I would even maintain that the dead mosquito, or even — as Harman likes to say — a “mindless chunk of dirt” — has something like a perspective, or what Whitehead would call a “subjective form”, a manner in which it prehends or interacts with other entities, and therefore the rudiments of an inner life).

However: I still maintain that there have been actual encounters between the mosquito and myself, both when it nourishes itself by sucking my blood and when I express my irritation by killing it. Yes, the mosquito’s knowledge of me, and my knowledge of it, are both incomplete; we each have particular perspectives from which we perceive and act upon one another. But there is no good reason that I can see why this should entail that (in Harman’s terms) I only encounter the “sensuous” mosquito rather than the real mosquito, or that the mosquito should only encounter the sensuous Shaviro rather than the actual Shaviro. Or, in Bryant’s terms, it is precisely because the mosquito interacts with certain of my powers or capacities or local manifestations, and I interact with certain of its powers or capacities or local manifestations, that we must say that the mosquito and I do encounter one another and interact — this is precisely the way that two entities perceive one another and interact.

In other words: I do not see the point in maintaining, simply because interactions (or relations) are always partial and limited, to therefore hypostasize whatever was not grasped (prehended) in the event of a particular encounter as a shadow object that exists in and of itself apart from the encounter. (Quite ironically, this means that Harman and Bryant are more Kantian than I am — in spite of what I have said on this subject before). The mosquito only apprehends particular aspects of me; but it is “me” as a complete object, rather than just those particular aspects or manifestations of me, that is changed by the encounter. To say that objects do not encounter one another, because they cannot entirely know one another, is to reduce ontology to epistemology, once again.

With all this, I am clearly agreeing with Adrian Ivakhiv and Christopher Vitale against Harman and Bryant. But I would like to remain sensitive to Harman’s proposal for “a cease fire to this friendly shooting war.” For me, the point is this. Harman and Bryant have stimulated my thoughts, even (or especially) when I disagree with them. I need them in order to develop my own ideas, even when these are at variance with theirs. The important thing to do is to avoid the habit (which is inculcated into all of us as academics, I fear) of focusing everything upon the critique of others, instead of positively developing one’s own ideas. I can’t avoid criticizing certain aspects of Harman’s and Bryant’s work, since my own positions have in fact been formulated (in part) in reaction or response to theirs. But I hope I have succeeded in using these criticisms as only a jumping-off point to my own development of ideas that go in a somewhat different direction. The problem is when the criticisms become an end in themselves, so that the war of disagreements becomes more significant than the positive developments of ideas by both parties. Hopefully I have avoided that.

New Writings

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

I still need to revise, slightly at least, the talk I gave at the Object-Oriented Ontology symposium. That is why I have not posted it here yet.

However, my talk at the Debt conference is available here (pdf).

Additional note: the papers from the Debt conference are supposed to be published as an edited volume. But according to the schedule that the conference participants were given, publication will not occur until January 2013 (!!!). This is because the schedule involves endless rounds of reviews and revisions, plus the fact that the eventual publisher (Indiana University Press) works at a glacially slow pace. This seems completely, outrageously unconscionable to me — there is absolutely no excuse, either for the sclerotic and overly baroque review process, or for a press that processes books at so slow a speed, it is as if the technologies of the last thirty years didn’t exist. So I have decided, in protest, to withhold my text from this volume (just as I have already started the practice of withholding texts from volumes that are published at outrageously high prices).

The fact is, that many academics (especially younger academics) are compelled to publish work under ridiculous conditions (taking way too long to appear in print, or appearing in volumes that nobody can afford) because they have to — they need such publications on their Vita in order to get tenure or promotion, or to survive in academia at all. However, I am in a position where I can afford to neglect such considerations. Which is why I have decided, as has been the case several times before, to simply publish the article in question on my website, list it in my Vita as an “electronic publication,” and refuse to collaborate with a decrepit academic publishing system. If I don’t do this, who will? And if nobody does this, how will the system ever change?