New Ebook — TWO ESSAYS ON JERRY LEWIS

September 11th, 2013

I’ve decided to release a free ebook (a pamphlet, really): TWO ESSAYS ON JERRY LEWIS. The book contains, unsurprisingly, two essays I have recently written on Jerry Lewis. The first essay is about his final self-directed feature film, Smorgasbord (retitled Cracking Up by the distributor). It appeared in the online film journal La furia umana, but it is currently unavailable due to website restructuring. The second essay, “The Jerry Lewis Assemblage,” takes off from a scene in Lewis’ film The Patsy in order to give a more general discussion of the mechanisms of his comedy (and how Lewis provides us with a synthesis of Henri Bergson and Karl Marx). This essay will be appearing in a book on Lewis edited by Toni D’Angela (the editor in chief of La furia umana). I am putting the two essays together here, in the hope that they will be read more widely. Consider it as part of my ongoing effort to help Jerry Lewis — a comedian and filmmaker more recognized in Europe than at home in America — fully gain the recognition he deserves as one of the great artists of world cinema.

The ebook is available for free download:

Vulgar Appropriationism

August 16th, 2013

I am not sure if my title is a good one for the phenomenon that I wish to describe. Perhaps I should use the adjective “vernacular” instead of “vulgar” (as in “vernacular modernism”; Miriam Hansen uses it “because the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability”). And perhaps, instead of “appropriationism,” I should say “detournement,” or even the much-dreaded “postmodernism.” In any case, these are just preliminary thoughts, that I would like to develop further at some point

What I am calling “vulgar appropriationism” is this: the way in which pop/commercial media today often appropriate formal structures from more-or-less “high art,” or even avant-garde art, of the 20th century, and use them in ways that negates the aesthetic or conceptual radicality of those structures. I can think of a number of examples of what I mean: for instance, how Spencer Tunick‘s “installations” (or “happenings”?) of masses of nude bodies are appropriated by Joseph Kahn in his video for Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”. Tunick says that he “stages scenes in which the battle of nature against culture is played out against various backdrops,” and that his “body of work explores and expands the social, political and legal issues surrounding art in the public sphere.” But these self-reflexive meanings drop out in Kahn’s video, which presents Kylie Minogue as a Goddess of Love floating above a mass of lovers of all races and genders, all dressed in white and undressing themselves, making out and generally acting sexual, in both hetero- and same-sex combinations; there are also “kitsch” elements like fluttering doves and a galloping white hourse. I find Kahn’s video wonderful, in a way that Tunick’s works are not. This is partly because of the dynamism of Kahn’s editing, but also because the specific erotic content, and its link to Kylie’s persona as well as lyrics, gives the video a specificity of content (even of narrative) that Tunick’s works (with their more self-reflexive modernist concerns) simply don’t have.

Another example is Gaspar Noë’s recent video for Animal Collective’s “Applesauce”. This video appropriates its background from Paul Sharits’ 1968 “flicker film” N:O:T:H:I:N:G (excerpts of which can be found here). I don’t think serious art critics take Spencer Tunick very seriously; but Sharits is a major figure in the “structural film”. As it says on the youtube page: “N:O:T:H:I:N:G is a film being deplenished of all, of any signified stance and involved only in the manner of film itself. Just the drawing of a bulb, the projector light and a chair remain in the space of the screen. But these are just random disruptions of monochrome frames.” Or elsewhere: “Sharits’ works reduce the process of filmmaking to its most basic components – the projector, the filmstrip, light and duration.”

Now, I have only seen the excerpt of this film that appears on youtube; which means, really, that I haven’rt seen it at all, since really seeing it would require the sort of immersion that comes, not just from seeing it in an otherwise all dark room, but also seeing it on actual film, not via video transfer, which erases whatever stutter effect might come from the actual progression of film frames. Sharits’ work is a high modernist one, which reflects quite rigourously upon the characteristics of its medium (though it may well have a psychedelic sensorial effect when seen properly — obviously I don’t know).

Even though Gaspar Noë is himself evidently interested in formal processes and psychedelic modifications of the sensorium, from a high modernist viewpoint you could only say that he has destroyed the essence of Sharits’ work. Not only has he turned it into video, but he has used it as the background against which we see the silhouette of a female figure, in extreme closeup, eating a mango (I think; eating a mango comes up in the lyrics to the song, and it sort of looks juicy like a mango, but it is not possible to tell for sure). Now, the shadowy figure is extremely sensuous, as we do sort of see her lips, and the bites she takes, and the juice dripping from the fruit. Noë instructs viewers to watch the video in otherwise total darkness; so it is fair to say that he seeks to provide for digital/electronic media, an ecstatic equivalent to the effect on Sharits’ film in its older medium. Nonetheless, I still think that we have to say that Noë has eliminated the self-reflexivity, the materialist rigor, and the conceptual lucidity of Sharits’ work; he has replaced a Kantian (or Clement-Greenburgian) purity with an aesthetics of hedonism, and has denatured the meditative essence of Sharits’ film by reintroducing those very elements of moviemaking (the human figure against a background, an implicit narrative, a sense of representation) that Sharits had taken such effort to get rid of. (Not to mention that, as a music video, we have a soundtrack that is a pre-existing song; as opposed to the silence of the Sharits film — even though the latter supposedly gives a visual equivalent of a Buddhist prayer drone)

In any case, the point I am building to is this: I vastly prefer Noë’s work to Sharits’, just as I do Kahn’s to Tunick’s, precisely because these recent music videos are hedonistic, impure, unrigorous, and filled with the figurative and representational content that high modernism sought to get rid of — in short, I like these appropriations precisely because they are “vulgar.” They present themselves as part of the everyday world that high modernism took such pains to separate itself from; they have none of the negativity that Adorno demanded of art in a capitalist, commodified age. The only claims that I can make for them politically are ones that occur on the level of content (e.g. Kahn and Minogue are evidently supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians). Nonetheless, I think it is highly significant that music videos like these (and I think there are many other similarly interesting works) are engaging in formal invention without such invention implying either self-referentiality, or negativity, or a purist rejection of “mere” content or “mere” representation. I’d like to say that these works are (finally) escaping from the prison of sublime modernist aesthetics; they no longer seek to maintain modernism’s self-proclaimed distance from the “Real.” They embody a new sort of immanence, or actualism.

I am not sure i can actually support any of these claims, but this posting at least gives some indication of where I am trying to go.

Detention

July 17th, 2013

Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) is one of the best new films I have seen in the last several years. I have given a talk on it several times, and I have been meaning to write a polished, academic article or chapter about it. But I am too busy with other things this summer (namely, finishing my book on Speculative Realism and Whitehead). So what follows is basically an infodump of my disconnected and unpolished notes about the film. If this inspires any one else to see it, then I will feel that I have done my job.

[WARNING: MY DISCUSSION UNAVOIDABLY CONTAINS LOADS OF SPOILERS]

Detention mashes together multiple genres, including slasher horror and science fiction, with intimations of softcore porn; but it is mostly comedic, and it remains true to the general format of the teen/highschool comedy. It is hard even to describe the plot of the movie. It is extremely convoluted; and in addition, everything happens at a breakneck pace. The commentary on the DVD notes that (contrary to the usual practice) the filmmakers deliberately did not leave in any empty time for the audience to react to the jokes. There is more to be said — which I haven’t quite worked out yet — about the sheer speed of the film. To me, Detention is the perfect antidote to the current academic fad for “slow cinema” — which to my mind is a reactionary and reactive aesthetic move, wrongly championed as a form of “resistance.”

In the opening sequence of Detention, Taylor (Alison Woods), the most popular girl in Grizzly Lake High School, addresses the camera directly, boasting to the audience about her awesome life; at which point, she is attacked and killed by somebody dressed as “Cinderhella,” the slasher in a horror film series popular with the students.

The second sequence introduces us to our actual hero(ine), Riley (Shanley Caswell). She complains about how pathetic everything in her life is. She is the second most dorky student ever to attend Grizzly Lake High School. Fortunately, there was once someone who was even dorkier: the girl who went down on the school mascot, the enormous statue of a bear, nineteen years earlier. But Riley never seems to get anything right. She’s in love with Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), the most popular boy in the school; but he regards her as just a friend; so she is always the awkward third wheel at any social gatherings. As she walks to school on the morning the film begins, she even gets robbed of her iPod by a lame hipster — that just shows us how low she feels.

The elimination of the bitch/powerful character, which allows for the ascension of the timid or dorky one, is a staple of teen comedy and drama. But here it leads to the turning inside-out of affective regimes; a turn from irony to what the film itself calls “post-irony.” Thus: At the climax of the film, the “Cinderhella” killer reveals who he is, even as he is attacking and trying to kill Riley. The two exchange one-liners. She tells him how lame it is that he dresses up as a movie character. He replies: “Read a book — it’s called post-irony.”

Actually, I find this profound. There was a time when we found slasher films scary (say, the time of Halloween, 1978). Then, we became so familiar with the rules that we could only enjoy a slasher film ironically and self-referentially, “in quotation marks” (this is the moment of Scream, 1996, and all its sequels). This is the same time when postmodern academic theorists were reading Baudrillard, and deploring the alleged “death of the real.”

But today, the situation has changed. For now we know that all those citations and remediations and so on and so forth are themselves altogether real, part of The Real. The exacerbated irony of the “postmodern” 1990s eventually imploded into what we can see today as a multifaceted immanence. We have moved on frrom Baudrillard’s “death of the Real” to Laruelle’s sense of radical immanence, or the Real as One. Irony is dead, not because of some supposed “new sincerity,” but because all the hierarchies of reflection have collapsed. Today, there can be no ontological privileging of referentiality and self-referentiality. There is simply no difference between reality and the mediatic representation of that reality, because the latter is itself entirely real, in exactly the same way that what it ostensibly represents is real. Hyperrealism has been transformed into Bazinian or Laruellian realism. I am taking this formula from John Mullarkey’s recent article, “The Tragedy of the Object.” Mullarkey says: “Neither the observer nor even the film can be taken any more as pictures of reality: they are (in) reality. The film’s frame does not contain the film in isolation from the Real, but diffuses it into the Real.” Detention is one of the first films to express and register this shift. (Arguably Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which was made at almost the same moment as Detention, is also a film that expresses and registers this shift. In the horror genre, Cabin in the Woods addresses the same situation, but to my mind far less interestingly).

But let’s get back to the plot of the film. Everything in Detention is so ridiculous, and yet so well and carefully articulated, that it almost seems like the movie is a parody of the “Screenwriting 101″ rule that everything has to be motivated, and all the loose ends must be tied up by the end of the movie. If you show a gun in Act One, they say, it has to go off in Act Three. For example: I mentioned how Riley had said, at the beginning, that fortunately she was only the second dorkiest student ever to attend Grizzly Lake. But it turns out, by the end of the film, that Riley was herself that girl. There is a time-travel device hidden inside the bear, which allows Riley to travel from 2011 (the present time of the film) to 1992; but when she tries to return to her own time, the mechanism gets stuck, and she has to tug at the lever to make it work, which places her in that apparent blow-job position.

What’s more, we also learn at this point in the film that the photograph of Riley apparently going down on the bear, which has circulated through the school ever since, was taken by a student named Elliott Fink (Walter Perez), who we met earlier in the film when he was in detention. In fact, Elliott has been in detention every day for nineteen years, ever since he took the photo — and he has not grown any older in those nineteen years. We now learn that it is because he took the picture that he was sent to detention in the first place; the 1992 principal was adamant that he be punished for being a “pornographer.” I should note that, in the course of the film, Riley herself gets accused by the school’s uptight principal (Dane Cook) of being a “porn star,” because, due to a “wardrobe malfunction” at a party, her breast gets momentarily exposed, an event that is of course video-recorded on somebody else’s phone and uploaded to the Internet.

Everything in Detention is like that: the plot of the movie is excessive and hilariously insane, but every last detail is tied together in the manner of a purely classical narrative. Indeed, there are many ways in which the movie combines old with new. Despite all the post-irony and post-post-modernism, we are still very strongly invited to identify with, and root for, the main character, Riley. As in so many teen movies, the dork/misfit character is valorized, and finally triumphs. Despite her many humiliations, Riley eventually succeeds in her passage through and beyond adolescent anguish. Her attempted suicide is averted: she tries to hang herself, but realizes that she wants to live after she is attacked by Cinderhella. Riley doesn’t overcome dorkiness so much as she becomes happy with it; by the end of the film, she has dispatched the slasher, and she even gets Clapton, the guy she was pining for all along.

So the film asks us to identify with Riley, and to enjoy her triumph at the end. To this extent, Detention offers us a traditional sort of subjective identification. (Of course, classical Hollywood had us identify with men much more than with women; but comedy was always a genre where female characters were able to hold their own — just think if Bringing Up Baby, where Katherine Hepburn manages to get the man of her dreams, an extremely silly but wonderful Cary Grant).

But what sort of subjectivity is this that we are being offered in Detention? We cannot really say that the film endorses authenticity, as opposed to cultural stereotypes. For it seems to go out of its way to suggest that everything we think or do is a cultural stereotype. The movie evidently prefers certain stereotypes to others, but it does not suggest that there is any position outside of all these stereotypes, defined as they are by how you dress, who you hang out with, what music you listen to, etc. Authenticity (if that is even the right word any longer) only exists within the stereotypes, within the incessant rhythms of cultural circulation. This is a new way in which subjectivity is embedded in the social, or in culture: in reality television, in pop music, in uploaded viral videos. Detention, embraces this situation, explores it, and tries to think about what it might mean. The movie, therefore, is not a critique in the traditional sense — though this suggests to me, not a failure of the film, but the inadequacy of traditional notions of critique.

Here’s another intuition I have, that needs to be thought out more fully and expanded: There is an equivalence (or an identity in the One, Laruelle would say) between the short-circuiting of reflexivity in what I am inclined to see for various reasons as the “nonphenomenological perception” associated with new media in terms of form, and the extended circuits of networked pop culture in terms of content.

Beyond these general comments, there are three sequences in Detention that I would like to discuss in detail:

The first is when Riley is at a low point. Almost everything that could have gone wrong for her, has. She has failed in love and failed at suicide. The police won’t believe her when she tells them that she has been twice attacked by Cinderhella. Her stint as the actual school mascot (wearing a bear costume) has ended ignominiously with the star of the football team puking all over her, after revealing that he has undergone a transformation reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s in Cronenberg’s The Fly. She has lost the school debate, where her ardent plea for vegetarianism was ridiculed by a meat-eating Canadian exchange student. The principal has just chewed her out for being a “porn star.” And so on. Riley sits despondently in the school gymnasium, while behind her wrestling practice is going on: two guys trying out all sorts of holds and flips and falls on one another. Riley sits in a heart-to-heart with a 30-something male teacher, why sympathetically tries to get her to reorient her chakras. “There’s always a new way of looking at each other,” he tells her, quoting the words of a “wise man,” Deepak Chopra. (Not everyone will find this hilarious; but I do).

Caught up in the moment, Riley starts coming on to the teacher. Our identification with Riley is both reinforced by the closeups of her, and disrupted by the wrestling in the background. In the conversation, we go from closeup shot reverse shots to the two of them in the same shot facing each other (with the wrestling precisely positioned in the space between them). Riley and the teacher embrace: we see this from behind him. Yhe camera moves in closer to Riley’s face as she starts to feel for him, then down his back following her hand as she caresses his back. Riley then puts her hand on the teacher’s thigh. He gently removes her hand, then gets up and walks towards the exit door — where his boyfriend is waiting for him; they kiss on the lips, and the boyfriend claps him on the ass as they exit together.

Then we see Riley’s reaction shot, as the camera moves back from the two men kissing to Riley sitting alone, and closes in on her facial expression, which changes from initial startlement to a broad smile. It is indeed the case, quite unexpectedly, that “there’s always a new way of looking at each other.” As Riley comes to this recognition, we follow the process of a movement of self-disidentification. For this is indeed the turning point of the film. Riley moves out of the self-pitying narcissism that has been her problem up to this point, and to a new understanding.and a new ability to do things actively. Something has changed, or broken free, within her.

I’m not sure I can articulate what the wrestling has to do with this moment of illumination, but the scene wouldn’t have worked without it. (Indeed, on the commentary track of the DVD Joseph Kahn says that he first shot the scene without the wrestling, but it just didn’t work until the counterpoint of the wrestlers was added in. Here, at least, absurdism doesn’t destroy emotion, but punctuates it and makes it seem more, well, real).

The second moment that I want to discuss takes place when the students are in detention, in the school library on a Saturday (it’s reminiscent of Breakfast Club, in yet another of Detention‘s many cinematic and pop-cultural allusions). Suddenly all the other students notice somebody sitting in the circle with them who they don’t recognize. It’s Elliott Fink, who I’ve mentioned already: the guy who has been in detention every day for nineteen years, without ever growing a day older. As he tells his story, the camera moves back in time with him, from 2011 back to 1992. It does this by going around in a circle; Elliott is always sitting there, dressed in a hoodie and working out equations on his desk by cutting them into the wood with a knife. The students in detention all sit in the same postures and places — but with different clothing styles, accompanied by changing songs on the soundtrack, as we regress from 2011 back to 1992. Only Ellliot remains the same.

What can we say about this sequence that moves back in time in the course of a (seemingly) single shot? I want to suggest that this scene suggests some important things about cinematic temporality. But that requires a theoretical detour.

Deleuze writes that “it is a mistake to think of the cinematographic image as being by nature in the present” (Cinema 2, 105). And he goes on to describe how, in Orson Welles, depth of field produces a profondeur of time as well as space; where pre-Wellesian flashbacks merely depict past moments when they were present, Welles’ explorations in depth of field present us with the past in its (Bergsonian or Proustian) pastness (105-116). Later directors of the time-image, most notably Alain Resnais, continue with this exploration of the past, in and as depth.

Today, however, we are no longer in the realm of Deleuze’s time-image, or of high modernist pastness and duration. David Rodowick complains that the digital lacks duration; I want to suggest that his intimation is correct, without accepting his nostalgic despair over what he is only able to regard as a loss. We have gone beyond the time image, to something else. Our problem is to determine the nature of this something else; to create a concept that is adequate to the current digital regime of audiovisual images, in the same way that Deleuze’s movement image (with time as the indirect measure of the primary movements of bodies in space, or in narrative) works to describe the form of classical cinema, and his time image (with duration freed into its own autonomy, and presented directly to the spectator) works to describe the form of modernist cinema (the French New Wave, the New Hollywood, etc.).

Several critics have recently made important suggestions along these lines, proposing candidates for a third sort of Deleuzian “image.” Patricia Pisters proposes what she calls the neuro-image, associated both with the multiplication of screens in digital culture, with the Eternal Return as an irruption of the future into the present, and with the increased importance of the nonhuman or the cosmic in cinema and in culture more generally. And Nick Davis proposes what he calls the desiring-image, active in recent queer cinema.

I would like to propose my own candidate for a third, digital regime of audiovisual images, although I don’t have a good name for it yet. I want to suggest that the Elliot Fink sequence in Detention gives us an exemplary figuration of what this third regime, currently still in process of emergence, might be like. Instead of penetrating back into the past through the exploration of depth of field, Kahn gives us a superficial or lateral movement, without deep focus, in the form of a repeated circling, a multiple-360-degree tracking shot. What we have here is a kind of “spatialized” conception of the past: exactly the sort of thing that Bergson and Deleuze disliked. It is like a Moebius strip: there is no depth, and no “other side.” If a modernist literary reference is needed, we might think less of Proustian duration than of Mallarmé’s “Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort” (“a shallow stream, much maligned, death”). There is sort of an infinite superficiality of time. I am still trying to work out the implications of this different approach to time and space; but I want to insist that it is not a mere regression back to the movement image; and that it has its own expressive powers, and shouldn’t been seen in the negative terms that Bergson and Deleuze (and Rodowick) use when they discuss spatialization.

This conceptualization of time seems to have more to do with 21st-century informatics, and beyond that, with 20th-century physics, than it does with psychological interiority. “Selves” are defined by things like clothing styles and musical preferences — these are infinitely swappable, but the same spatial configuration underlies them. This doesn’t mean that the teens don’t have real feelings — but it does have to do with the gap between affects that cannot really be spoken, and the data that nonetheless work to express them. It also suggests the multiple scales of modern physics: from the microscale of quantum mechanic to the macroscale of general relativity — as well as the idea that the universe is ultimately composed of nothing but digital information (as the physicist John Wheeler famously said: “it from bit”).(It is worth noting that, quite hilariously, all the classes in the high school seem to involve graduate-level quantum physics). I myself do not believe that everything is information; but it is certainly the common assumption of our digital age.

I should briefly mention that there are other instances of this new audiovisual “image” throughout the film. For instance, the credit sequence near the beginning involves a tracking shot down the main corridor of the high school. When the various 2011 students go back in time to 1992, we get a formally identical tracking shot, in the same location — though of course with different contents (different students, different fashions, different music, etc). I also haven’t yet worked through my ideas about the time travel body swapping section of the film: a mother and daughter swap bodies, so that the mother becomes a teenager again in 2011, while her daughter goes back to 1992 and becomes her mom back then, at her current age; and possibly even becomes pregnand, so that she will be able to give birth to herself. (To work this out, I think I will need to consult David Wittenberg’s recent book on time travel narratives).

In any case, I wanted to conclude with a brief mention of the third sequence in Detention that I found especially interesting. This is also when the students are in detention. They don’t know who the killer is yet; and in order to figure out his next move, they figure that they need to see the next film in the Cinderhella slasher series. But the new movie hasn’t been released yet. No matter; they are able to use a cell phone in order to access a work print that has been pirated on the Net. They view a scene of young people seated in a circle much like themselves, who try to figure out just how they are in danger by watching a pirated film on the Net. And in that film… well, the same thing happens, down to four levels of self-referentiality.

There is nothing more familiar at this point (as I have already mentioned) than modernist and postmodernist self-reflexivity, or fractal self-similarity at multiple scales. But Detention turns this whole idea into a joke. It proclaims, not infinite meta-levels, but rather the collapse of any meta-level. The reason for this is that the image quality progressively degrades as we move into the past, from one meta-movie into another. People watch on a cell phone a movie of people watching a movie on a desktop computer, in which the people watch a movie on q VHS tape. As we go back in time, the image quality degrades, and the movie productions themselves become cheesier and cheesierRather than self-reproducing, everything ultimately fuzzes out in an analog manner. We regress through the history of slasher horror films, and back to its coincidence with what looks like Italian softcore porn of the 1970s, something like an inadvertent collaboration between Dario Argento and the early John Waters. (I was also reminded of a film made after Detention: Berberian Sound Studio). I think that this sequence, by pushing the mise en abime to the point of its reductio ad absurdam, works as a reproach BOTH to postmodernist pop-culture’s ironic self-referentiality (as in the Scream films), AND to postmodernist highbrow-theory’s valorization of the infinite mise-en-abîme as ultimate expression of the simultaneous necessity and inescapability of self-reflexivity (as in Derrida). Once again, we have a new presentation of time: one that is neither simply past, nor simply present, nor a Deleuzian or deconstructionist “past that never has been present.” How do we conceive this new “image” (really, an audio-visual presentation, rather than just a visual one) of time? I think that this is someplace where the artists really are ahead of the philosophers. We need somebody to do for Joseph Kahn (and other innovative contemporary directors) what Deleuze did for Welles, Resnais, and Antonioni.

This post has already gone on long enough, so I will leave matters hanging there. — Or better, I will end my account with Riley’s decisively non-nihilistic words at the end of the film, after she has come through all this madness: “”The only way to change the past is to change the present… It’s just high school, it’s not the end of the world.”

Notes on Sensation

July 7th, 2013

In his fine new book Levinas Unhinged, Tom Sparrow writes about how Alphonso Lingis both radicalizes Levinas in the direction of materiality, and goes beyond the accpunt of perception elaborated by Merleau-Ponty. Lingis insists upon the radicality of sensation, something that orthodox phenomenology excludes. For Merleau-Ponty,Sparrow says, “our most elementary experiences are always already meaning-laden, figural, given to us as a thing that we can get our hands around.”

Now, as far as I can tell, Merleau-Ponty is basically saying the same thing that Wilfrid Sellars is saying, when he denounces the “myth of the Given” and insists that all our experiences are always already conceptualized or theory-laden. These two philosophers come from very different traditions, and their terminology is correspondingly different. (Thus Sellars denounces the idea of what he calls “givennnes,” but Merleau-Ponty uses this very same term to refer to the way that, for him just as for Sellars, what we experience is already conceptualized and meaningful).

The parallel between Merleau-Ponty and Sellars is that they both descend ultimately from Kant; they are both affirming the Kantian principle that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” And doubtless, Kant, Sellars, and Merleau-Ponty are all correct in rejecting what we might call the illusion of simple presence.

Nonetheless, as Sparrow points out, sensation for Lingis is a point at which the Kantian/phenomenologica/Sellarsian structures break down. Lingis, in contrast to all theseearlier figures, “reminds us that ‘to sense something is to be sensitive to something, to feel a contact with it, to be affected by it’.” (Sparrow quoting Lingis). Sparrow also (rightly, I think) aligns this affirmation of sensation with a moment in Levinas where Levinas is asserting the priority of the aesthetic, rather than (as he usually does) the ethical. It is true that we should beware (as Kant, Merleau-Ponty, & Sellars all tell us) to simply hypostasize non-conceptual (or non-categorical) aesthetic sensation as a higher or more pure form of presence. But it is equally true that we need to avoid the error of thinking that what does not fit into our conceptual categories does not exist at all. Sparrow finds this latter concern in Levinas and in Lingis. I find it, initially, in Kant himself, in the discussion of aesthetics in the Third Critique, where we have “intuitions” (sensory impressions) that cannot be contained within any concept. I find traces of this also in Deleuze (with his aesthetics of sensation), in Laruelle (with his insistence on the radical immanence of the photograph), and also in Erin Manning’s account of autistic thought.

The larger point is that both cognitivists and phenomenologists affirm the Kantian idea of subordinating sensation or affect to cognition, or conceptualization, or meaning; and yet both cognitivism and phenomenology offer us margins, or moments, where we still encounter a radical, non-categorizable aestheticism. (These margins can be found, for instance, in Metzinger’s discussions of “Raffman qualia”, and in some of Merleau-Ponty’s more speculative gestures, including those where he is writing under the influence of Whitehead — for which see this book). I think that David Roden’s recent discussion of “dark phenomenology” fits here too (although I don’t agree with Roden’s conclusion that this might be accessed via third-person naturalism).

Both in the book I am finishing now (on speculative realism) and in the two that I hope to write next (one on theories of mind in science fiction, and the other on post-continuity in contemporary film and video) I am pursuing these aesthetic margins.

Spring Breakers

June 28th, 2013

Audiovisually speaking, SPRING BREAKERS is utterly ravishing. It is so gorgeous as to negate or suspend the uneasiness one might legitimately feel about 1)the use of GIRL POWER as an alibi to empower a straight white dude’s jerk-off fantasy; & 2)the “wanna-be-black” fantasy by means of which straight white dudes compensate for (supplement, in the Derrida sense) their own feelings of impotent inferiority by adopting, with a vengeance, the most viciously racist stereotypes of “black masculinity” that our culture currently likes to circulate. I notice these things, but I am helplessly & successfully disarmed by Harmony Korine’s relentless audiovisual seduction: the sunsets, the colors, the slow-motion, the breasts, the throbbing but sublimated yearning of the electro score, the intellectual montage that layers Britney over thuggery, and gorgeous beaches over willful stupidity, the heartfelt spirituality of Selena Gomez’s voiceovers. with the mantra-like repetitions of her monologues and other fragments of dialogue… All this as an almost didactic demonstration of the way that, in our neoliberal culture, there is no distinction whatsoever between hedonism and self-help, or between transgression and hypernormativity.

Accelerationism discussion

June 24th, 2013

The latest issue of the e-flux online journal is entirely devoted to the question of accelerationism.

A lot has been said about this already, most notably:

But the new issue of e-flux contains 11 articles on accelerationism, including an extremely sour-minded article of mine. But there are also articles by friends and people I admire, including Mark Fisher, Patricia McCormack, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Alex Williams, and others. 

Trigg, Levinas, Harman

June 17th, 2013

I find that my position on speculative realism is close to that of Dylan Trigg, in his article in Speculations 4. Trigg seeks to expand phenomenology beyond the human — to devise an unhuman phenomenology, through recourse to early Levinas (Existence and Existents, and Time and the Other). There is something in experience that is not “mine,” and that extends beyond the limits of the body/world correlation in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Trigg also suggests, rightly to my mind, a different take on Levinas’s “there is” (il y a) than the one offered by that other admirer of Levinas, Graham Harman. For Harman, in Levinas’ il y a “there is a single formless element from which the things of our lives emerge” — this is an “undermining” of objects to which Harman objects. Harman’s reading is not wrong, but for Trigg it only gives part of the story. In Trigg’s analysis of the il y a, “Levinas is assigning a reality to existence that is not dependent on there being a world in the first place. Rather, existence precedes the birth of the world, marking a constant presence that is at once immersed in the world of things but at the same resistant to being identified with those things.” This means that, “far from the mere disappearance of things, the Levinasian il y a retains a presence, which cannot be tied down to appearances despite having an indirect relation to those appearances.” In other words, any entity (not just a human being) can experience the il y a, and the il y a is precisely an experience of what Harman calls “withdrawal” — the withdrawal, not just of things from me, but even (or especially) of what I myself am from me. This is where my own experience of the world becomes, as Trigg says, “unhuman.” While I suspect that Harman will not accept this as a defense against the charge of undermining, I actually find that Trigg’s reading of Levinas makes it easier for me to accept, or come to terms with, what Harman means by withdrawal.

Trigg’s reading resonates with my own Blanchotian sense of Levinas (which I came to via Joseph Libertson’s Proximity). It it not the “undermining” of the object that is at stake here, but rather what I can only call a défaillance of the subject (I cannot think of a good enough English equivalent for the French word). The supposed “subject” doesn’t disappear into nothingness; there is no negativity at work here. And yet this subject finds itself unable to relate intentionally to the world or to objects in the world. This deficit of intentionality dissolves what Harman calls the “sensual” realm, without for all that allowing any access to “real” objects.

My difference from Trigg (and also from other SR thinkers interested in the horror of Lovecraft and Ligotti) is this. Where they see immersion in the il y a as a form of deprivation, a wound to the narcissistic ego — which is probably the only way a constituted human subject can feel about it (I myself find few things more dreadful than insomnia), I think that the same process can also be understood as what Whitehead would call a “constructive functioning” (Process and Reality 156). Rather than descend from full human intentional consciousness into the il y a, we should start from the “vagueness” (again, Whitehead’s term) that lies behind conscious perception, that is much broader than that perception, and out of which consciousness only fitfully emerges, if at all. From this point of view, we have a story of emergence instead of one of dissolution into horror. The vague sentience of the slime mold (my favorite biological organism) is not in the least horrific for the slime mold; it is a kind of thought, and also a kind of contact with the world that is devoid of phenomenological intentionality; in other words, a form of “contact” that is not a “relation” in the sense Harman criticizes, but rather the experience of what Trigg rightly describes as Levinas’ “non-relational account of existence.”

For me, this means the point is not to develop (as Trigg wishes) an “unhuman phenomenology’; nor what Ian Bogost calls an “alien phenomenology” or what Thomas Nagel calls an “objective phenomenology”; but rather what I would like to call (imitating Laruelle, perhaps?) a non-phenomenology.

Some Updates

June 6th, 2013

I haven’t had the time recently to post anything on this blog. Which is unfortunate, as I miss writing here. 

But in the meantime, here are a few updates on recent publications and events. 

A short article of mine, originally posted on this blog, has appeared in French translation in the journal Multitudes, issue 51, under the title “Comment traduire une forme de vie ?”. I haven’t managed to find a copy of this yet, but the information on the journal issue is here

Wesleyan University Press has brought back into print a brilliant short novel by Samuel R. Delany, Phallos. The new, enhanced edition of the novel also includes several scholarly essays discussing it, including mine. 

The absolutely indispensible Aqueduct Press has just published Strange Matings, edited by Rebecca J. Holden and Nisi Shawl, a collection of essays on the fiction of the late and much lamented Octavia Butler. An essay of mine is included, together with others much better than mine. Book information is here

And finally, audio is available for the two lectures I recently gave in Dublin at the invitation of DUST (Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought). “Speculative Criteria (a conversation with Paul Ennis)” is available at https://archive.org/details/ShaviroSpecCriteria230513. And “Discognition” is available at http://archive.org/details/DiscognitionALectureByStevenShaviro , and also as a podcast from the University College Dublin Humanities Institute, and via iTunes (free).

SCMS response

March 9th, 2013

Here is my response to the SCMS panel this afternoon on “primordigital cinema,” with talks by Jonathan Freedman, Richard Grusin, and Selmin Kara. Grusin’s paper is available at http://ragmanscircles.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/post-cinematic-affect-scms-march-9-2013/.

All three of these papers point to ways in which the new is never entirely new, but always involves a return to – and what Grusin calls a remediation of – the old. Technological transformation calls forth what Grusin in his paper calls atavism. Digital technologies have at this point entirely displaced the older technological bases of the cinema; this has led both to new forms and new sorts of content, but also to the surprising revival of older forms, contents, and techniques. Sometimes these revivals and remediations involve a nostalgic hearkening back to what has been displaced or lost; but at other times, we may see them as necessary or unavoidable consequences of the very process of social and technological change. All three of these papers consider, and shed interesting light upon, such mixed cases.

I think that Marshall McLuhan still provides us with the best framework for understanding such transformations. So I will use McLuhan’s schema in order to consider what we have learned from these three papers. McLuhan identified four tendencies, or what he called “laws of media”: four ways in which a new medium, technology artifact relates to its environment. This environment consists, in fact, of the older media, technologies, and artifacts that are in process of being displaced by the new. McLuhan describes the four tendencies as follows; each one provides a series of questions that we may ask:

  • ENHANCEMENT: “What does the artefact enhance or intensify or make possible or accelerate?”
  • OBSOLESCENCE: “What is pushed aside crobsolesced by the new ‘organ’?”
  • RETRIEVAL: “What recurrence or retrieval of earlier actions and services is brought into play simultaneously by the new form? What older, previously obsolesced ground is brought back and inheres in the new form?”
  • REVERSAL: “When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will end to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?”

All of these films suggest a progressive movement of enhancement and forced obsolesence of previous modes, and an atavistic retrieval of such modes and reversal back into them, all at once.

Jonathan Freedman untangles the ambiguities of digital cinema in his discussion of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and HUGO. Quentin Tarantino uses computer-generated imagery precisely in order to celebrate the power of per-computerized, analog movie technology. The power of the old, analog cinematic image is celebrated in BASTERDS in “the shot of Shoshona’s disembodied face projected, ghostlike after her death onto the flame-engulfed theater”; this spectral image proclaims revenge even as the movie theater bursts into flame due to the combustibility of celluloid; so Tarantino both celebrates the power of celluloid, and portrays its destruction. Similarly, in HUGO, Martin Scorsese recreates George Melies’ lost or ruined films by means of 3D digital rendering. In both cases, new media technologies ironically allow the films’ directors to RETRIEVE certain of the lost powers of an older cinema. Digital film ENHANCES the powers of spectacle that already belonged to an older cinema; more specifically, it RETRIEVES the “cinema of attractions” that was made obsolete by conventional (classical) narrative (as well as certain old technologies, e.g. the hand-cranked projector –cf. Tony Scott’s use of hand-cranked cameras).

What is OBSOLESCED in this process, however, is a certain measure of naturalism or realism, or representational accuracy. This erasure of actuality, as a result of the new cinema’s ability to impose its own imagined events without impediment, potentially even reaches the dimension of historical falsification – this is the reason for Freedman’s worry about how BASTERDS achieves its fantasy of revenge against, and defeat of, the Nazis at the price of repressing the actual horrors of the Holocaust. He is less concerned with Scorsese’s mystification of early film history, because this doesn’t have the same ethical weight as Holocaust revisionism. But it still participates in what Freedman calls “the effacement of the signs of history by means of the perfections of digital technology.”

I am sensitive to Freedman’s point here, even if I am not as worried by the ethical and political consequences of this sort of “revisionism” and historical oblivion as he is. This is because I think that our new digital powers to alter historical images at will does not just mean a falsification of memory. But rather this transformation is one part of a whole new articulation of both (collective) historicity and (individual) memory: one that is no longer based in the sense of deep time, or of the density of Bergsonian duration, as was the case for much of the 20th century. David Rodowick deplores what he sees as the loss of duration in digital cinema, just as Fredric Jameson, more generally, criticizes the ways in which the spatialization enforced by postmodernity leads to a loss of history, since now all past moments are equally available for appropriation, outside of sequence, in a sort of eternal present, and with their import reduced to the status of commodified cliches. But it seems to me – and Jameson in certain moods would probably even agree – that this needs to be seen as an ambiguous situation rather than as a decline of formerly available powers. It is the terrain on which, for both good and ill, our political and cultural interventions need to operate.

In this regard, I would contrast INGLORIOUS BASTERDS with another Jewish revenge fantasy – one of its evident sources – that imagines Hitler killed prematurely, so that not only are the Nazis defeated, but the worst horrors of the Holocaust are, as it were, retrospectively averted in advance. I refer, of course, to Jerry Lewis’s 1970 film WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT?, which has no compunctions about transforming the traumas of the War into kitsche. In this film, Lewis’ character impersonates a German General and thereby manages to kill Hitler during the Allied invasion of Italy – hence well before D-Day. Despite its much earlier date than Tarantino’s film, and consequent much less technologically advanced use of (analog) special effects, Lewis’ film already takes for granted the “postmodern” image of history deplored by Jameson. But Lewis’ historical revisionism operates according to far different codes than that of Tarantino (comedy instead of war/macho cliches), to better and more progressive effect. I would even claim that Lewis’ film, despite its temporal priority, can be seen as the tendential REVERSAL of Tarantino’s digital reworking of history. (As perhaps THE ERRAND BOY is in relation to Scorsese’s nostalgic re-creation of early cinema).

Richard Grusin’s talk convincingly rereads Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA as a kind of mourning for the death of cinema. Grusin refers specifically to the death of an atavistic cinema of attractions, and suggests that the film refuses the audiovisual practices of contemporary “fast” cinema. I am not sure I agree entirely with this, since the first half of the film involves a Dogme95-style nervous handheld camera. (Does photographic cinema equate with the primitive cinema of attractions?).

But in any case, the apocalypse figured in the film is also, or perhaps even primarily, a self-reflexive technological one. Grusin thereby reworks my own reading of MELANCHOLIA, by pointing to aspects of the film that I overlooked. Von Trier, in effect, uses digital technologies – especially in the film’s Overture and in its imaging of the planet Melancholia coming towards and finally obliterating the Earth – in order to OBSOLESCE the myths of progressivism that were central to 20th century filmic narrative. He mourns the death of cinema by proleptically welcoming this death and finding it a source of comfort, and an opportunity to act humanely – as it is for Justine within the film. In this way, the film remediates, or RETRIEVES, a kind of archaic pictorialism that is found in images reaching back to the very birth of cinema (of a cinema largely of attractions) – and beyond this as well, to various pre- and anti-modernist visual sources. The affective “pull” of cinema is ENHANCED at the very moment of its disappearance – which is dramatized in the film by the way the end of the film, or of any film, is synchronized with the end of cinema itself. The end of the story is synchronized with the vanishing of the cinematic image.

In place of Grusin’s reference to the Lumiere Bros’ “Arrival of the Train,” and to the final shot of “The Great Train Robbery,” I would rather recall Godard’s WEEKEND, whose final title reads, instead of the usual FIN, rather FIN DU CINEMA. In 1968, Godard felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of cinema, both formally and politically. Recall that Godard also said that a film must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

Despite the militant Maoism to which Godard aspired at the time, I think that one can find a despair here that von Trier RETRIEVES in a depressive (instead of angrily nihilistic) mode. In this case, the REVERSAL is a kind of (implicitly endless) living-on of the very scene of catastrophic obliteration. By aestheticizing the disaster in this lyrical way, i.e. by using his digital special-effects technology to give us delicate double-moonlight and double-shadow effects, in contast to the FX apocalypse porn of so many other films, von Trier manages to find a sort of comfort in this final destruction precisely by lingering over it at the culminating or liminal point of its advent. And this means a kind of REVERSAL of the very apocalyptic culmination that he is mourning and deploring: which is precisely the way that the new digital technologies incorporate the atavistic.

Selmin Kara’s account of THE TREE OF LIFE, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and (to a lesser extent) NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, directly links these films’ technological innovations – and especially the FX sequences of extinct life forms in the first two of these films – to the metaphysical questions that they raise. These films both involve the sort of ways that, as Lev Manovich has recently argued (in contrast to his earlier position) the digital enhances – rather than negates or substitutes for – the analog realism of traditional cinematography.

If these FX inserts are jarring to some audiences, because the compromise the otherwise-maintained sense of naturalism in the films’ depictions of families and their losses, Kara shows that these technological ENHANCEMENTS also work to disturb, and indeed to OBSOLESCE, the humanistic pieties that the films might otherwise seem concerned to maintain. They combine human an nonhuman temporalities. Both films RETRIEVE the sense of what Quentin Meillassoux calls “ancestrality,” or the primordial insistence of that which is irreducible to the human, since we cannot apprehend it even as a past presence; it is rather something that never was and never could have been present, never had the possibility of being “given” to an apprehending consciousness, since it absolutely precedes the existence of any such consciousness.

The crucial ambiguity of these films has to do with the way that this absolute antecedence is nonetheless “given” to us in a certain sense, through the “perceptual realism” of the computer-generated imagery, and through what Kara calls both films’ palpable “nostalgia for a proto-digital sense of naturalism.” I myself have no problems with speaking of speculative realism, despite the fact that the term has been criticized and rejected by the original participants.

Formally, TREE OF LIFE remediates, or works as a sort of remake of, Tarkovsky’s MIRROR. And the CGI sequence of creation and the dinosaurs seems to emulate Kubrick’s 2001. But, despite the atavistic reversion to the creation or origin of the universe, Malick’s film has a much lessened sense of thick temporality than Tarkovsky’s does. The scrambling of scenes via disjunctive editing has a thinness compared to Tarkovksy’s time traveling. It also entirely lacks the cynicism (if that is the word) with which Kubrick treats Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of cosmic evolution – despite the fact that Malick refers to Darwinian evolution as well as to Christian creationism. Unlike Kara, I don’t really see a “thanatological” alternative to Christian eschatology here. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that these are artistic failings; it has to do rather with the changes in our very conceptualization of temporality that I have already mentioned.

I think, actually, that this is more ambiguous than Kara says, since to my eyes the CGI doesn’t entirely succeed in its pseudo-naturalism, but retains a certain “uncanny valley” feeling to it. In this way, I think, the films in question (and Malick’s in particular) raise the question of the nonhuman that has become so urgent in contemporary speculative realism, and engage in salutary speculation – but also that they RETRIEVE, or retreat back to, the sort of existential sense of finitude that is precisely what Meillassoux and Brassier reject – Brassier in particular criticizes the adequacy of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s stances towards death. Malick’s film seems to me to recuperate the nonhuman temporality of cosmic origins into human terms. The question that for me still remains unanswered is to what sort of REVERSAL the tendencies of these at once forward-looking and atavistic films might lead.

Another interview

February 22nd, 2013

I am the latest academic to be interviewed on the excellent Canadian website, Figure/Ground Communications. My interview is here. I talk both about my own current research in Whitehead and speculative realism, and in science fiction, and about the current state of academia, at a time when “the university is under threat… from the relentless demands of capital accumulation, which has led to both the defunding of educational institutions, and their instrumentalization and monetization as nothing more than potential sources from which an economic profit may be extracted.”