Archive for November, 2011

Melancholia: first attempt

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Here’s an abstract that I have just written on the subject of von Trier’s Melancholia. It’s my first attempt at getting a grip on what I want to say about the film. This will be subject, of course, to extensive elaboration and revision.

(I have left out any reference to how Melancholia can be seen, as several critics have already noted, as the radical opposite of Malick’s The Tree of Life. To my mind, it is quite noteworthy how many defenders of The Tree of Life have regarded the film theologically, as a sort of rapturous spiritual experience; criticism of the film is routinely — and not entirely playfully and ironically — referred to as “blasphemy,” etc. In this case, Melancholia provides a radical counter-theology. I leave open the questions of whether it is a-theistic or rather an other theology; just as I leave open the question of to what degree von Trier is reverting to Schelling, and to what degree he is reverting to Schopenhauer — for this distinction, see Eugene Thacker’s recent article. But in either case, von Trier is opposed, as both these thinkers were, to the Hegelianism of which Malick’s film is the most recent articulation).


Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) moves from domestic melodrama to cosmic catastrophe. It works as what used to be called a “women’s picture,” giving the portrait of a female character’s clinical depression when confronted with the prospect of a bourgeois family lifestyle. But the film also envisions the extermination of all life on Earth; this serves as a kind of objective correlative to the protatonist’s depression. In contrast to other recent apocalyptic films, however, Melancholia refuses to present the audience with a grandiose and sublime spectacle of mass destruction. Its apocalypse is disconcertingly intimate. Melancholia offers a deflationary view both of ongoing life and of its extinction.The film rejects conventional art-house standards of construction and form, with its disjunctive structure and its use of Dogme-style unsteady handheld camerawork. But Melancholia is also filled with Romantic allusions, from the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the soundtrack, to visual tableaux that recall Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It treats these allusions in a strangely distanced way, however, framing them as beautiful objects of contemplation in a manner that, for some viewers, might even seem to border on kitsch. In deploying this Romantic imagery, and reverting to a Romantic pessimism reminiscent of Leopardi and Schopenhauer, von Trier breaks away from the Modernist obsession with estrangement-effects, self-reflexivity, irony, and the “unpresentable” (cf. Lyotard). Against the Romantic and Modernist sublime, Melancholia offers an aesthetico-ontological vision of desolate beauty. In its reference to a certain side of German Idealism, its radical anti-anthropocentrism, and its entertainment of the thought of extinction, the film parallels recent developments in so-called “speculative realism.” But in its own right, Melancholia offers at least one possibility for a new aesthetics of the 21st century.

David Graeber on Debt

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

I am reprinting here my short review of David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which I originally posted on Google Plus last summer. Among other reasons, because the book is more relevant than ever today, given the Occupy movement.

David Graeber’s Debt The First Five Thousand Years is a brilliant and powerful book; and even, I would say, a crucial one. Graeber does several things. He shows how the notion of “debt” has been integral to any notion of an “economy.” He traces the history of debt, both as an economic concept and as a metaphor for other forms of social engagement, back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of thousands of years ago. He traces the changes in how debt is conceived, and how economic exchange is organized, in various Eurasian civilizations and societies since then. And he contrasts these relations of economy and debt to those that existed (and still exist to some extent) in non-state societies (the ones that anthropologists tend to study). He takes account of Braudel’s claim that markets have long existed outside of and apart from capitalism — but shows that such markets have only improved life for all, rather than enforcing vicious social stratification through the imposition and collection of debts, when they have been grounded in a cooperative ethos, rather than a harshly competitive one. And he shows that the existence of virtual currency and virtual debt is not just a recent phenomenon, but has deep historical roots — it is hard currency, rather than virtual accounting, that is the more recent (and shallower) innovation.

Several important conclusions emerge from Graeber’s meticulous work of comparison and reconstruction. One (not surprisingly for me) is to expose the ridiculous parochialism of the notions of Homo oeconomicus, of self-interested “rational choice,” etc., which have dominated Western social thought since Adam Smith. Another is to show that “market” and “state” have always been closely intertwined, and indeed that neither can exist without the other — exactly the contrary to the current ideology which sees state and market as opposed. Graeber also shows how the moralization of debt and indebtedness — the notion that one’s moral standing depends upon one’s readiness to pay what one owes — is a shoddy myth of fairly recent invention. In general, debt (as the financialization and quantification of formerly much broader notions of community and mutual obligation) has only existed to the extent that it has been enforced by massive, organized violence — Graeber draws a straight line from the genocidal violence of the Spanish conquistadors and North Atlantic slave traders of early modernity to the policing of work relations, and the management and containment of political protest today. 

Graeber’s book is well-written, and entirely accessible to a general (non-specialist, non-academic) audience. Its calmness, lucidity, and careful sifting of evidence only add power to its ultimately quite radical condemnation of the total barbarity and oppressiveness of our contemporary society and civilization, and of the values that we unthinkingly take for granted. 

Graeber is an anarchist rather than a marxist; and his approach is quite different from any sort of traditional marxist one. Nonetheless, I think that what he does can be accommodated alongside marxist concerns. For one thing, the book closely links forms of domination (whether by violence or imposed consensus) to forms of economic oppression (this in contrast to the way that so many recent academic studies have tended to separate the former from the latter, and ignore the latter entirely). Secondly, although Graeber is largely concerned with circulation (rather than, as Marx was, with the hidden depths of production), he entirely demystifies circulation and distribution, and shows the social forces (often violent and inegalitarian) that work through them, rather than idealizing the supposed autonomy of circulation and exchange, as mainstream bourgeois social science usually does. (Graeber makes quite explicit what other anthropologists have known for a long time — that Smith’s claim for a basic human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” is ridiculous and incredibly parochial). 

So I think that Graeber’s long history of debt and currency has a lot to offer marxism, and vice versa. Graeber’s accounts of precapitalist economic formations and their relation to capitalism point to important dimensions that most marxist historians have failed to take into account. On the other hand, I find Graeber’s account of the current crises to be not entirely adequate. He is right that debt is at the center of current processes of dispossession, and the movements that have striven to oppose this. But I think that Graeber’s insights here need to be supplemented by more explicitly marxist accounts of capital accumulation and continuing, intensified exploitation (cf David Harvey on “appropriation by dispossession”, and Fredric Jameson on the production of massive unemployment and hence imporverishment as a necessary corollary of intensified surplus-value extraction).