Something occurred to me regarding the last posting. I got a few hate mails from people about autism; and this usually took the form of complaints about my insensitivity to their (the autistic email writer’s) hard life, or in general those with autism and their suffering.
So, a few things first — though they lead into the actual topic of this entry: suffering is pretty much what the entire world shares. You cant stand and look around in all directions, no matter where you are, and not see suffering. Secondly, this is the province of *hurt feelings*. Unless I had an out of body experience, I didnt rape anyone, beat up anyone’s children, burn down anyone’s house, drop napalm on any wedding parties, or trigger hellfire missiles at anyone’s village, nor did I cheat anyone, steal anything from anyone, torture anyone’s pet kitten, or even tease anyone’s Cocker Spaniel. Nor was I making fun of anyone. I wrote a fucking blog entry — and discussed the topic of autism and culture.
When I was young my parents, in rapid succession, were told I was a genius (or advanced learner or something….) and a sociopath. I suspect more emphasis on the latter. We are all suffering various conditions and life is hard, and despair lurks behind every door it often seems. Partly this is why humans create. And tell each other stories. And paint and dance. Growing up –especially under advanced capital, or in nations under the boot heel of Imperialist capital, is always a progress through madness and pain. That said, I often wonder, if psychically, the rich don’t really suffer more, or simply live in a state of greater anxiety. The point is, the very act of bringing up one’s “hurt feelings” for public display is just this side of grotesque, and additionally, the demand for apology in this society is pathological —- firstly because its never accepted, and secondly, because it is never, and can never, be sincere.
Now, I am hoping in coming weeks to have a round table here on the topic of Slavoj Zizek. I think its useful because of his pernicious influence, and because his celebrity has granted him special visibility. So, as a sort of proglomenia to the auto-da-fe, I wanted to discuss a couple things on film and theatre, and an introduction to the Zizekian discourse.
I was reading an old thread on a new defunct blog, and the topic was film, and a comment was made that the director of this film (a sort of kitsch crime film and a hit) had tried his best but given the genre and marketing, etc, the film ended up just formulaic studio junk.
Now, here is the thing. Sometimes the neglected dimension in reading a film, is the performative one. Actors, in Hollywood anyway, often act “up” to their material, or “down”. And I suspect the second might be worse (Helen Mirren in what she considers beneath her, and the first is Tom Hanks in his prestige vehicles, or any action star or comedy star doing a *serious* turn, i.e. Steve Martin doing Beckett, or Stallone in non violent drama). There are notable exceptions to this, Jackie Gleason in The Hustler, and Jerry Lewis as himself in King of Comedy. The performances of, say, Ian McKellen in X-Men is itself a sort of violence on the narrative (such as it is). It is an expression of hostility. There is a whole mini-canon of films for which my dislike places me in the minority — John Sayles films, or in other circles often David Lynch and in others still the work of Michael Haneke. In each case, a good part of my reading has to do with the performative.
In U.S. (so called) Indi film (for it is nothing of the kind 90% of the time) the banality and bourgeois sensibility (masked in other categories) is realized in the acting. In Sayles, you get very carefully proscribed “naturalism” — the carefully observed banality of *daily life*. It is meant, consciously in most cases, as a corrective to Hollywood big budget blockbuster. If you screened twenty frames from the opening five minutes of any indi film and twenty frames from any Bruckheimer shlock-fest (especially if the sound were turned off) you would without any difficulty be able to identify each (and this is if we managed to find twenty frames of Bruckheimer without a shooting or car chase). However, in almost anything made now there are these various correctives to something else. Or rather, what are predicated, consciously or not, as correctives. The problem is that the default setting now is really blockbusters, and that trickles down to relatively small films that are just downwardly selective bred blockbusters (the way toy poodles are bred down version of Standard Poodles). This leads back, as all film topics seem to do, to volume. The saturation point was reached twenty years ago. So we are post saturation, now. The cues, visual and textual AND performative, are over-determined. Each shot is a recreation of ten different films from several different decades. How many times do we see a character walk away from an exploding vehicle (house, mountain, etc) without turning back to watch the flames? Each time a dozen other films are being sampled. I recently read a brief posting about Fruitvale Station, the new film based on the shooting of Oscar Grant by Oakland police. A first feature by a USC film school grad, it won Sundance awards and stars relative unknown Michael B. Jordan (relative because he was a featured player in The Wire). So, a dozen reference points are already in play before even seeing the film. I have not seen it, but that the response from “the left” has been overwhelmingly positive is hardly a surprise. At this point, the reading of the film feels pre-determined, if you are a community activist or you’re a Oakland cop, or you’re a Wall Street Journal film critic. Again, there is beneath the engagement with the artwork (in this case film and TV)an appreciation that feels validated by a surface ideological instruction. Oh, this is a topic within my comfort zone, and hence the real target audience is flattered and feels confident to applaud. In reality, my guess is that the Oscar Grant story will be conformist in all areas, only with a “moral” instruction tacked onto it. A radical form — say a Mizoguchi, will remain opaque to this sort of approach of viewing. Such approaches ignore or remain indifferent to films that almost certainly are more radical (and more on that in a second) by virtue of their form, than the domesticated bio pic that narrates an incidence of police brutality.
The actual narrative of almost any film made today is going to be partially obscured by the performative, and the frame in which that performance takes place. The sampling aspect also overlaps with itself. Each reference can be divided down to a dozen sub categories of reference. I was thinking recently of the way in which history is being rewritten by performance and by the camera. Take HBOs Boardwalk Empire. This series is first of all, an HBO product so it bears the unmistakable imprint of HBO structural keys. Beyond that, it is a “period” series. Beyond that it is a genre series. The casting mines earlier incarnations of this genre, and of HBO product. From the opening credits the audience is keyed into the essentials of how to read it, the map to reading this show is so firmly in place that what ends up foregrounded are the aesthetics of violence more than anything else. I suspect subconsciously the various directors of this show know full well the parameters of what shots can work, and what cannot. Nothing really destablizes the product — or encroaches on the pre-determined narrative. However, even within such shows, exceptions occur and it is worth noting them for these exceptions will quickly be reproduced in diluted form in coming HBO series, as well as just a host of other films.
Take Michael Haneke’s most recent film, Amour, a winner at Cannes. This is haute naturalism at its most extreme. Now, as a sort of thought experiment, one might compare Haneke’s direction of actors with that of Bresson, or even a contemporary like Bruno Dumont. One reason I consider Dumont a far more significant director has to do with performances. But even with such comparisons, one cannot step outside conventions. In reality Dumont suffers many of the same problems Haneke’s work faces, only with less naturalistic acting. I can think of perhaps four directors whose work withstands such easy recognition, and that would probably be Dreyer, Bresson, Pasolini, Fassbinder, and perhaps Ozu. And maybe Mizogouchi and Tarkovsky. The further back one goes, the easier it is to see a mise en scene free of sampling. But also an acting free of the studied expertise/audition quotient.
In exactly the same way the audience now reads narrative from the pov of producer or executive or marketing director, the actor tailors his or her performance for these audience avatars. There is a lack of mimetic coherence in today’s audience that allows for this trend toward compartmentalizing or doubling. It really is a sort of cultural narrative bi-polar condition.
Now, when I say “naturalistic” I am to be honest, not sure what I mean exactly. To what degree is performance mediated by text? By camera? This is the difficulty in speaking about film. For film is captured by the camera, and actors act *for* the camera. I wrote last entry about an Artaud-ian influence in theatre, in the sensibility that asked of the actor an abandonment of physical rhetoric. You saw it most directly, perhaps, in Growtowski. If one looked at the work of Athol Fugard, in those original productions with The Serpent Players that included Zakes Mokai, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, you saw one of those alchemical marriages of styles; Brecht, black African comedic acting, and its presentation under an Apartheid government that monitored all public performances. How are these plays to be compared to Fruitvale Station? Why does the political narratives of Fugard’s plays seem genuinely radicalizing in a way that anything filmed and financed in Hollywood wont? But what do I mean by radicalizing? I don’t think art creates revolutions. I don’t think culture does that. I don’t think seeing The Blood Knot even worked that way, but I think it DID, however, by virtue of its poetics (for lack of a better word right now) create an expansivness of emotion, an awakening to the very idea of a cultural event, that studio product is precluded from doing. If the tragic, per Benjamin, was about a ‘giving’, a making available something of the deeper pain we all feel, then regardless of the surface *message* or meaning, it was the more radical vision. Fassbinder and Pasolini were both overtly political, but neither were polemicists. They were poets of film (and Pasolini, of course, was also a poet and writer). What you see in the performances is a kind of humility. There is that abandonment of the virtuoso that is always something of an execution of the material, usually of the text. To watch a Tom Hanks, for example, is to see simply smugness, a self satisfied burger having his portrait painted, or to watch the various slummings of Mirren or McKellen or the like, and you see another version of arrogance on display for the rubes.
Sentimentality is another form of violence. It is the false promise of emotion replaced by the bloodless insulin disruptions of essentialist pandering.
Now, I am just sort of riffing here, and raising questions. The question of *political* film then is raised when one writes of Fugard’s theatre. There seems little in the way of political writing for film or theatre today, or at least little that escapes the mediation of The Spectacle. One can appreciate aspects of Sayles, for example, at least textually, but the over all effect of those films is hard to read as anything other than banal after school specials. I suppose it is worth pointing out that at least there is an intelligence at work in the choice of subject matter, but one just wishes it were wed to a filmic vision that didn’t undercut that intelligence. And this segues nicely into a brief introduction of the topic of Zizek and his progeny.
For in Zizek, before one even gets into the fascistic racism of his thinking, one encounters the circus virtuoso, the truism that beneath most clowns beats the heart of cruelty.
Here is Zizek, from First as Tragedy, then as Farce
“…[Once we understand that the intellectual aspect of the Haitian revolution was supplied by white Frenchmen, w]e white Leftist men and women are free to leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt. Although Pascal Bruckner’s critique of contemporary Left often approaches the absurd, this does not prevent him from occasionally generating pertinent insights–one cannot but agree with him when he detects in European politically correct self-flagellation an inverted form of clinging to one’s superiority. Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defence but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world; Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes. The positive form of the White Man’s Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man’s guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: they are merely imitating what their colonial masters used to do, and so on).”
What is really being said here is what Zizek says over and over again; and that is that all the West’s criticisms of imperial brutality are only really a mechanism to prop up our sense of superiority. This is a cul de sac. Its all about US, in any event. The domination of others by white Europe and North America is part of an intellectual equation, and that equation provides our sense of, now, damaged superiority with narcississtic self pity. The consequence is that to speak of colonial brutality is to just be self involved.
The better to just not speak of it.
There is always hidden in plain sight a version of the toy poodle architecture of white surpremicism. Zizek’s canvas of ‘jokes’ targets self involved feminists, multicultrualists, ideas of tolerance and all those confusing deconstructionists, naive and indecisive, and any social protest movement. These are really the same targets that most conservative social critics like to pillory. Lazy consumerist gays, and always with the idea that somehow there is a balloon of hypocrisy that he is popping. But its a straw balloon (as it were). This is the technique of jailhouse predators, actually. Sidling up next to the fish — here, have a smoke….those fucking guards, right? Yeah, and those fucking other cons. What? By this time, already, one has smiled, laughed, and as a general social contract courtesy, gone along with the rhetoric. But then it darkens. And then comes the reassurance…no, hey, I’m one of them bro. I’m only sayin’, you know, they are murderous scum…why they’re in jail. But hey, we’re in jail, too, right. Har har har.
Paul Bowman, writing of Alan Johnson’s reading of Zizek:
“Žižek vis-à-vis cultural studies is equivalent – perhaps even structurally identical –to the situation Johnson lays out regarding Žižek vis-à-vis political theory. His method is to start from a misreading, to move into a caricature, to construct an all-or-nothing binary and then to slay the chimerical straw bogeyman he has invented.”
Here is Zizek again, from an interview on Al Jazeera:
“”I think today the world is asking for a real alternative. Would you like to live in a world where the only alternative is either anglo-saxon neoliberalism or Chinese-Singaporean capitalism with Asian values? I claim if we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new type of authoritarian society. Here I see the world historical importance of what is happening today in China. Until now there was one good argument for capitalism: sooner or later it brought a demand for democracy … What I’m afraid of is, with this capitalism with Asian values, we get a capitalism much more efficient and dynamic than our western capitalism. But I don’t share the hope of my liberal friends – give them ten years [and there will be] another Tiananmen Square demonstration – no, the marriage between capitalism and democracy is over.”
To which, Hamid Dabashi writes:
“When people from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another cry “people demand the overthrow of the regime”, they mean more than just their political regime. They also mean the regime of knowledge that does not see from pogroms to the Holocaust as equally embedded in “Western values”, does not see Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and Spain, Totalitarianism in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe (Zizek’s own backyard), horrid racism across the European history, and all other sorts of diseases spreading from one end of Europe to another as coterminous with capitalism while married to the West – and cherry picks democracy as their only offspring, and when aterritorial capitalism wreaks havoc like a bubonic plague around the globe he looks for an flu strain he calls “Asian values”.
*Asian values*? This is what is so startling, that Zizek repeatedly uses this language, utters these openly racist and Orientalist terms and ideas, while still being embraced by the nominal left. I suspect that part of this is an only semi-conscious racism on the part of White college educated Westerners. Zizek is saying, social movements are bullshit, and wimpy. Asian values are unwholesome, and undemocratic. A kind of weird primal male volunteerism is what is called for. This is the message of his film criticsm, after all.
From the M-L-M Mayhem blog (Marxist Leninist Maoist)on Zizek’s review of Zach Snyder’s 300
“For those unfamiliar with the film, 300 is a movie about how a massively outnumbered Sparta defeated the Persian army but at great sacrifice. Directed by Zack Snyder (recently responsible for defiling Watchmen and directing the sexist action film Sucker-Punch), the film is based on Frank Miller’s comic of the same name––in fact, so closely based that all the characters strongly resemble the drawings and the movie is shot almost panel-for-panel. In this film Persia is presented as the barbarous Orient whereas the Spartans are presented as the civilized Occident. The former are even dehumanized in their depictions, some of them resembling monstrous savages from the opium dreams of the most racist colonizer. Very European/white looking Greeks are the heroes against very dark-skinned (and often savage-looking) Persians. At one point, the white Spartan king kicks a black Persian messenger down a well yelling, to much applause in the theatres, the movie’s best known line (and now internet meme): “This. Is. Sparta!” And this is also a film that appeared at the height of Islamophobia, a film that seems designed to conflate Greece with America and the Persians with Muslim terrorists.
According to Zizek, however, 300 is not a reproduction of a racist imperialist narrative where the centres of capitalism like to see themselves as embattled victims facing an onslaught of savagery. Ignoring the logic of the film, and how this logic fits into dominant ideology, Zizek decides to remind us that in actual history Greece was a tiny nation facing the onslaught of a more economically developed empire––therefore, he reasons, we should be able to see the Sparta as somewhat akin to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Persians akin to Reagan’s America. And the very artificiality of the film (everything is shot on green-screened background and heavily digitized) should tell us that we are watching a film about spectacle itself! Hence 300 is not actually dehumanizing the Orient in its depiction of non-white savagery but is making an extremely subtle and sophisticated critique of dehumanization itself.
…300 is a piece of reactionary film-making for three reasons. First of all, the author of the graphic novel source material, Frank Miller, has openly bragged that his comic is meant to be a metaphor for the war on terror and “Western civilization” standing courageously against tides of “Eastern barbarism.” Miller is a right-wing libertarian racist (who currently really wants to write a “Batman versus Al Queda” graphic novel) who intentionally drew the Persians as dark and grossly monstrous, and the Spartans as white and altogether human, because he actually believes the myth imperialists ideologues propagate that the “western world” is engaged in a clash of civilizations with those who hate America because they hate freedom. Secondly, in order for 300 to be a critical film, Snyder would have to shoot the bloody thing in a way to intentionally disrupt the narrative: and yet, judged by his interviews, he was interested in doing an utterly faithful adaptation, transposing the comic identically panel-for-panel unto the screen. Nor is Snyder someone capable of doing a critical piece of political film-making: his adaptation of Watchmen removed the majority of the source material’s critical content; his Sucker-Punch was predictably sexist. Third and finally, the vast majority of viewers interpreted the film 300 in the way that Miller intended the comic book to be interpreted: as propaganda about the War on Terror––audience members at some theatres even cheered the ending of the film by chanting “USA! USA!”
So if the 300 was both produced and consumed as racist-imperialist propaganda, any historical materialist worth hir credentials as an historical materialist would have to accept that, by this very materialist fact (production/consumption), the film is racist-imperialist propaganda. Otherwise, by the very same logic, we could argue that Triumph of the Will or Birth of the Nation are secretly progressive pieces of film-making: Reifenstahl is really satirizing the Nazi Party, D.W. Griffith is interrogating the dehumanization of African Americans! Only the most banal apologists for fascism and racism pretend that these films were not works of reactionary propaganda: we understand the social-historical context––a context of production and consumption––in which these films were made; we would look like fools to pretend that these films were not racist. And we can speak of a more sophisticated understanding of the “death of the author” thesis by arguing that even if Reifenstahl or Griffith had other intentions (which is doubtful), then it didn’t matter because the films were produced within a context that made them reactionary propaganda.”
There is a consistency to Zizek in all this. His mis-reads Lacan, and sticks him atop a jerry-rigged intellectual edifice with Hegel and Marx …both also mis-read, and then simply makes clear misogynist and racist statements, holds reactionary and usually authoritarian political readings, but still his blurbs can be read on the back of many books written by cultural study professors he is in the habit of denouncing. These denouncements usually, if not always, take the form of prima facie male dominance, of male courage and power, and a stigmatizing of weak *female* and/or wily Asian weaknesses and flaws.
“Any man in Congo would sell his mother into slavery for a chance to move to the West Bank”
“Should Europe then accept the paradox that its democratic openness is based on exclusion: there is “no freedom for the enemies of freedom,” as Robespierre put it long ago? In principle, this is, of course, true, but it is here that one has to be very specific. In a way, Breivik was right in his choice of target: he didn’t attack the foreigners but those within his own community who were too tolerant towards the intruding foreigners. The problem are not foreigners, it is our own (European) identity.”
When interviewed on Croation radio, you hear the same slightly deflected sentiments. Zizek really never answers questions directly, and provides a certain cover for himself by issuing certain statements that for a moment seem progressive in some way, but always there is a qualification, and that qualification is always racist and totalitarian. That the problem is the masses. That strong central control is needed. As he says in the video below, without inequality, no work gets done (around the four minute mark).
Besides the basic incoherence what one primarily takes away from such exchanges is that globalization is good, if in the hands of a strong central power — and that for Zizek, that power cannot ever be in the hands of the Untermensch. This is a highly reactionary almost purely fascist thinker, and how this ‘act’ became so appealing to the half educated westerner is worthy of serious discussion, I think.
As a sort of addendum, I want to add that in addition to Zizek’s general degrading of public discourse, he has single handedly destroyed Lacan vis a vis film theory. (and I appreciate Molly Klein’s work on the Zizek files).
As a footnote to this. I stumbled upon the work of Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa this week. I shockingly didn’t know Scarpa..though I have a vague memory of hearing the name. It is always a rare joy to discover someone new, and the older one gets, the rarer that treat. But I mention this because in one way Scarpa’s work bridges many movements in the 20th century, and his purity, if that’s the word, and his integrity, is evident in even a cursory look at his commissions. He worked very closely with local craftsmen throughout his career. He remained relatively local, and drew upon local crafts traditions (he began as an apprentice glass blower). He drew inspiration as well from modernist art, from Rothko in particular, for color and the sense of emotion he felt connected to shape as well as from Japanese design. There is an unmistakable seriousness in Scarpa. There is nothing trivial and nothing glib. It is no accident that his final masterpiece was a cemetery garden and arcosolium for Giuseppe and Onorina Brion. How is the work of the architect read? It is interesting because there is always a narrative, and in Scarpa’s major projects (the Olivetti showroom, the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, and the Brion cemetery), the sensibility is tragic. It is not the tragedy of Beckett or even of Shakespeare, but rather the tragedy of Sophocles and of Verdi and Puccini. And probably even of Berg. Scarpa is somber but never grim, never not meditative, and somehow always expansive. Scarpa’s leftist political beliefs were genuinely expressed in his collaboration with crafts people, and with the mingling of elite materials such as travertine and marble with baser utilitarian materials such as cement. It was an architecture of respect and balance. He is the personification of rigour in that nothing kitsch or tawdry is ever present. The grammar of Scarpa is both Latinate and proletarian.