Thursday, November 17, 2005

Zizek and Spiegelman

I am interested in comics—their aesthetic qualities, their tempo, their avowed mediation. Spiegelman is a figure who’s interested me since Maus I and II, and I’ve gone back to look at some of the Raw stuff he’s produced along with François Mouly, his wife. Many great figures got their start in Raw—like Paul Chadwick of Concrete fame—and like Robert Crumb from an earlier historical period, Spiegelman has shifted from comics writer to editor of comics and writer and artist, each discreet from the other. Unlike Crumb, though, Spiegelman stayed stateside (Crumb has been in France for years), so he had an opportunity to comment directly on the events of September 11, to build from the ground up his response. In a series of oversize pages (outsize, he calls them in his intro) depicting his existential angst at his predictable emotions, his reactionary liberalism, and his total emotional evacuation, Spiegelman inhabits a number of classic comics personas, his own mouse headed, chain-smoking figures from Maus, as well as a realist depiction of himself, in an effort to multiply the possible perspectives on what is admittedly a singular work by a sole author. The black-on-black cover (printed in The New Yorker a few days after the event itself) of In the Shadow of No Towers is interrupted by an overlay of a color banner in which an assortment of classic comics characters tumble to the ground, all kicked by the same turban wearing, bearded billy-goat (though, don’t all billy-goats have beards; aren’t all mice sort of cute; can’t cats ever look cute as post-kitties?), and the juxtaposition brings in an element of pastiche and parody that serves to off-set the plunging pathos of the ebon cover. Throughout we are beset with Spiegelman’s ennui regarding the event that took place just a few blocks from his home, but at a moment—later, much later, as the pages came out months apart, and this one is in—in the strip where he’s taken on the Happy [-less] Hooligan persona (the last page, in fact), Spiegelman confronts, and is confronted by in return, the news media: in the guise of a Tom Brokaw interview, he’s taken into a studio and asked goofy questions about my favorite American whatever is—blank; to which he responds with completely removed and polemical tracts like the following. “The greatest thing about America is…uh, that as long as you’re an Arab you’re allowed to think that America’s not always so great!”
Another fav of mine is Slavoj Zizek, whose Welcome to the Desert of the Real presents us with a Marxist-psychoanalytic reading of the event of September 11: that our dreamy fantasy of one-sided liberal democracy that has become our reality has been interrupted by a competing fantasy of obscene adherence to the law of symbolic identification and violence to which the only seeming answer is yet more violence. The real of September 11—the eruption of something inassimilable into our quotidian life—is itself the fantasy of victimhood and one-sided oppression that allows us to simply forget what it is in our own policy and our own global attitude, and capital movements, that could have engendered such animosity. Careful to avoid liberal democratic rightist and leftist arguments of, on the one hand, fear of democratic advance or modernism, and on the other, the empty notion that we deserved it. Opposed to these two poles, Zizek posits a third term: we move to another narrative. On defining courage as having the courage to question one’s own position (or narrative, in the psychoanalytic sense), he says the following: “Instead of imposing our notion of universality (universal human rights, etc.), universality—the shared space of understanding between different cultures—should be conceived of as an infinite task of translation, a constant reworking of one’s own particular position” (66). And while he takes on almost every major figure in literary theory today—especially indicting cultural studies, and on the political side, positively skewering Habermaas (who deserves it)—Zizek nails it with regard to the event of September 11. And isn’t this exactly what Spiegelman was trying to do in his interview? Now, despite the fact that this interview with the producer for Tom Brokaw’s show on NBC is a part of In the Shadow of Both Towers, overall, this book is more about demonstrating the poles than positing the third term. But still, at the end, we get that the point of the event is we. Zizek is great in that he takes on so many potentially thorny topics, and in a perspicuous way, details his position while at the same time pointing out the faults in others’ positions. And he always has a program. Spiegelman is great for the opposite reason—his ambivalence.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Paul Virilio and Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Ground Zero by Paul Virilio and “This Is Information” by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, from 9-11: Artists Respond, Volume One, both attempt to organize arguments about the causes and ramifications of the attack on the World Trade Center perpetrated on September 11, 2001. Virilio’s argument traces the influence of a twin history, that of a dialogue between god and man, and that between the exceptional individual and monotheism. Calling both a history of life and death that advance together, he suggests that the history of man cannot find the sensible and the super-sensible to be mutually excusive, and one of the ways we can see this is in the prohibition of prohibitions evident in both histories: with the prohibition of likenesses of god and angels and devils in religion, and with the seemingly unstoppable destruction of limits in secularism. While it’s easy to condemn Virilio of some Luddite-loving, reactionary, and anti-technological rabidness, his argument has some interesting turns to it. Taking a concept like the doctrine of free will—sacred, pardon the term, to both camps—he shows how its influence has been felt in these various situations. (And as an aside, as I write this, my power is going on and off, nine times and counting, whenever the wind blows—sucks, and means I lose stuff I’ve not yet saved—hard to save on a line to line basis.) For instance, he traces the development of predestination from a life before life (prebirth) to a means of obviating the doctrine of free will, pointing up what imbricates scientific integrism with religion—its Gnostic duality. He is quick to point out the beyond of good and evil that eugenics, racist hereditary theories, and phrenology represented for (and especially the Nazi’s) totalitarian science. Iconoclasm (the prohibition of graven images) in religion is paired under this twin logic of historical progress toward death with the concept of disappearance that is the techno-scientific imagination’s structuring concept, that science strips down the world: god is disappeared that we might not look at it (for fear of knowing too much, about good/evil, and their post-tribal beyond) and the world is disappeared, so that we can look into it. Linking progress to acceleration (“To Progress Would Be to Accelerate” 15), Virilio moves from a utopian model of place and site-specificity to a temporal model of uchronia, a no-time. Forsaking the human body (which cannot exist [and progress] in the dimension of time), Virilio suggests that we’ve no choices left but to seek immortality, either in the technological solipsism of longevity or in the atemporal afterlife of faith’s disappearance. In the succeeding chapters Virilio pursues his thesis of twin histories of progress’s problems. In chapter 2 we see his elaboration of the prohibition of prohibitions that marks both the enlightenment narrative and the religious base (and recent theoretical turn, I’d add) with the introduction of the scientific hero: a conflation of scientist and terrorist, the prohibition of prohibitions seems to establish equivalencies between these usually disaggregate figures. Chapter 3 is about information, and this is where Alan Moore fits.
In “This Is Information” Moore and Gebbie begin with a silent panel (one in which there are no dialogue balloons or narration boxes) except for the title, set before a cloud of dust. Next panel is a pyramid of chards and two boxes: “matter is energy. Energy is information. Everything is information[;]” and “physics says that structures…buildings, societies, ideologies…will seek their point of least energy” (185). Things run down—the third law of thermo-dynamics. Moving through a series of closer and closer shots of rubble, a hand is discernable, but as Moore writes, “the jutting hand holds little information” (185). The next few panels run through the dissemination of the event of 9/11: have you got the telly on? Holy shit, images—symbols. And then we’re back to the pyramid, with its two narration boxes: “people build towers…marriages, careers, empires, fortunes, ideologies…intended to reach god[;]” and “the lightning bolt is information, putting our ideas of god into perspective” (186). Perhaps we’ll learn, Moore suggests. Gebbie’s butch-dykes plotting the attacks as a reaction to the cancellation of Ellen Degeneris’s show on TV feature buzz cuts, bad pants, and mullets, while her Reverend Jerry Falwell is not rendered by her; it is a TV still put into a TV set rendered in the panel—multi-media, remediation, what have you. Moore narrates the ambient of fear in Northampton, as well as an anecdote from his childhood: potty aunt strolling through the blackout with her accordion, uncle Albert, electrified by throwing water on an exposed power line he thought was a power cable. And by way of the musket-ball holes blown in the Northamptonshire Sepulchre Church’s door by Cromwell’s troops in the English Civil War, Moore goes to the Crusades. Pointing up the distance the English take from war, he takes us through the effects of information—the grays of morality, the disfigurations of aim, context; we face a “Mujahedin Moonraker, [who says] choose your next witticism carefully, western democracy. It may be your last” (189). And in the back of the panel—behind Gebbie’s Ossama bin Cufflink, complete with emerald eyed white kitty—there’s the multi-media: six miniature screenshots of cable-and-network newscasts. Moore and Gebbie end it on a humanist note, suggesting the widest context of understanding, in two boxes: “any single human life has more complexity, more energy bound up in it than our tallest towers” and “and any death simplifies that, horribly” (190). Refusing the either/or logic of the law of non-contradiction (x cannot also be non-x), Moore writes, “with all due respect, with all sympathy, with all love, some of us cannot make that [with us or against us] choice” (190). Gebbie’s hand has returned, grey, ashen, jutted, and the narration is in six boxes over three panels: “are we with the terrorists or crusaders? [a pink, living hand enters the panel;]” and “no[;]” and “we’re with you[;]” and “whoever you are [they clasp;]” and “squeeze once if you understand[;]” and “this is information” (190).
Virilio’s Ground Zero, especially chapters 3 and 4, suggest that, firstly, the multiple worlds of the mass-media edge out the factual world of political propaganda, and secondly, that the range of concurrent moves that attend that: from standardization of products to synchronization of opinion (his ludic democracy, which actually sounds cool to me, like play in a post-structural sense, a radicalized democracy—but Virilio’s not havin’ it), from intermittent democracy (representative) to continuous democracy (direct), the move from franchise (citizenship) to forecast—are for Virilio traces of the breakdown of democracy in the breakdown of information systems. In chapter 4 he suggests that the informational shift from WW II’s elevated morality to today’s gulf war concepts of technological superiority is just another station on a track that is always headed to spiritual demolition: both sides of this theater-less (more like the theater of this uchronic war is everywhere) conflict play out a war of images, two equally misleading and self-contradictory systems: ego-mysticism (self and god) and techno-scientific mysticism (exceptional individual and monotheism), both beyond the tribal notion of the good, both using communication as a compensatory function that obviates the painful encounter of self with self (39-40). Both participating in the strategic deployment of images: two hands, touching, one ash, one pink. He talks about the effect of the diasporic and intermittent nature of the battlefields in this war, though writing just after the 9/11, the war’d not yet begun (though Virilio could see its basic dimensions, to his credit). He suggests that the disappearance of any real battle field—the prohibition of its image—obviates any possibility of contact between forces: “in this way, the risks of fraternization between combatants, a well as any true proximity, were eliminated automatically, to the advantage of a global information system freed of any concern for verisimilitude…of anything elementarily human” (43-4).
So, do Moore and Gebbie offer us that contact, that verisimilitude? They give us contact, but it’s between the dead amid the rubble (of our thoughts) and the living of the artists they are, responding in the pink. Virilio goes on to call this cannibalistic mass-media machine Big Optics: multinational powers monopolizing appearances (59). Moore and Gebbie work in a realistic way, sometimes as satire, sometimes as melodrama, but overall—realistic. Is this to suggest, that among his many reactionary pronouncements, Virilio is against the avant-garde, too? He seems to suggest that the development of nuclear weapons was an advent of the avant-garde, the ultimate figure of progress (52). That’s easy, to come to the conclusion that if he’s against progress that he’s against the human. But he has it his way: progress is defined as disappearance of the world, and its effects are to separate humans (as with the disappearing battlefield above). In a way that echoes and deranges Benjamin, Virilio suggests that the age of mechanical reproduction of the image has nothing but deleterious effects—none of the emancipatory potential found in the artwork essay—and that “techno-scientific development has become an art of the false in the service of the art of the lie […] a tissue of absurdities” (67). But I still can’t figure Virilio out. Would he like Moore and Gebbie because of their pathos and communication of the human, or would he condemn them in believing in progress, in an infinite perfectibility? It’s easy to say that Virilio is anti-humanist, and that all ideas of progress are to him the way to ground zero, a path laden with deceit, moral ambiguity, and assaults on nature. He would no doubt rue the hope that “This Is Information” ends with—the repeated image of two hands touching, white, black, Caucasian, African, ashen grey, pink. This is because he’s making a historical argument insisting that iconoclasm is behind every progressive notion, and that what we base hope upon is in fact the same iconoclasm that motivates and subtends terrorists, thus to buy into hope is to buy into terrorist hope. And perhaps he’s right. Not ethically right, but right about the enlightenment narrative. (Ethically, I’d go to Derrida or Levinas, and those are theoretical figures Virilio would likely indict as humanist [but is that better than progress?]) Of course there are options: Adorno and Horkhiemer’s famous assault on the enlightenment narrative has it that it’s both good and evil, and while we progress in our thinking and ethical and moral behavior, we also tend to put reason up as a court against which there is no appeal, thus eliminating any appeal that can be deemed unreasonable. Virilio would only like half that book. Most post-structuralists tend to take some enlightenment narrative on—communism (Derrida’s Specters of Marx), mostly, but sometimes democracy (Laclau’s Emancipations)—but they usually reform it, or recuperate it in some way. Virilio seems to suggest no way out for progressive society, though he does seem to like people, just so long as they stay with their icons—and aren’t comic panels iconistic? This consists in the fact that they communicate by resemblance, re-presentation? Fuzzy little slip, I know, but I like to have it too.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Reverend Charles Adams

Yesterday, Channel 7 (ABC in Detroit) broadcast the funeral services for Rosa Parks, civil rights icon whose protests inaugurated a struggle for equal recognition under the law still on going in our society. What was amazing about it, besides the fact that there were no commercial interruptions for a period of nine hours, was the particular affective response I had to the proceedings. I am religious, and much to the chagrin of some of my materialist comrades, professional acquaintances, and instructors, I also believe in god. Now, I am of a particular kind of religion, sort of Jewish in that I am angry with god and contend against it—as Israel means originally “he who contends with god”—and sort of Christian, in that I believe also in an impossible forgiveness—impossible to fully achieve in this life—that serves as a universal model. So where I was totally unresponsive to folks like Bill Clinton and his tale of sitting in the back of the bus, as if it counts when you’re in the power class, I was blown away by the preaching of Reverend Charles Adams: balling like a little baby, really, just shuddering and inconsolable, except by the thought that I could possibly cry/laugh a little more should Adams stick around.

Adams was thanking god for Rosa, but also for the experience of Rosa, for her affective eruptions in himself, and also thanking god for all of us too, that we got something out of Rosa Park’s life as well. And as Adams went through all the different languages in which someone could be thanked (“If I was Japanese, I’d say, domo arigato; if I was Spanish I’d say, muchos gracias; if I was German I’d say, Danke Shane; if I was Portuguese I’d say, obligato; if I was French I’d say, merce bou coup; if I was Italian I’d say, grazi”) his level of animation rose, and he entered a state known in the vernacular as testifying: the delivery was pitched such, and his gesticulations and tempo matched so perfectly what he had to say, amplifying it but also translating it to a bodily experience, that I was very much imbricated in a contact loop, feeding back from him, but also feeding forward, immersing me in a temporalized and spatialized experience where I was concerned with what Adams was concerned with—despite my intellectual position, my Jewish position, that I should and could be angry with and blaming god for allowing the world to persist in racism and bigotry—and that I was thankful in a way that Adams was. this reached a fever pitch when Adams said, "if I was deaf, I'd say [flaps his arms and does the sign for thank you in American Sign Language]," to which the crowd just exploded, and to which I shuddered and nearly collapsed in joyous tears, both laughing andf crying. "But since I'm here where I am now, and speak the way I do today, I'll simply say, thank you, thank you, thank you."

Now, I resist the notion that I was awash in false consciousness, though that’s a lefty answer hardly anyone buys today, even the lefties; but I also resist the notion that my weeping was some catharsis in which I narrate my psychosis with Adams’s parallel narrative of thankful remembrance in a process of sublimation, or that I was projecting my own sadness—no matter the cause—on to Adams’s narrative for the purpose of avoiding it, that I cried at Adams’s testimony to avoid confronting my own psycho maladies. And this leaves me in an interesting place apropos this class: what is the cause of my intense affective response to Adams’s testimony if not psychoanalytic identification? Following after Leibniz, Brian Massumi suggests that the stakes of recognizing a continuum of affective responses, each with a provisional subjectivity—however fully formed or not—are high, because not only is he suggesting that the subject and the object mutually inform each other, an old idea, but that the subject may not have the attributes we propose it has should we only invest in one of the poles of a continuum between nature and culture. Splitting subjectivity into subject and incipient subject (under construction, or in Massumi’s terms, emergent), the incipient subject is called “self-,” a sort of provisional self where the relationality of subjectivity is put to fore. Relatrionality as in the relation to other positions on the continuum, but also in the sense that time and space form a parallel continuum, on which rest a range of positions from an ontogenetic space-time where positions are impossible to differentiate, to a position where one can tell space from time, or that constructs the possibility of their being disentangled.

This helps to explain my affective response to Adams. For if I were to be reminded of Adams’s struggles, and could relate to them, that’s one thing, but if his appeal were so strong that it awoke in me a memory before the characters that determine that memory, if his appeal ranged over my experience of time, and ranged past it, and took me with it, or dissolved my ability to distinguish between myself and the self of Adams, my time and my associations and struggles and the time of Adams’s struggles and association with Parks, then that’s something different, something where my feedback with Adams has destabilized temporality and subjectivity so much that it can feed forward, allowing the world to relate to itself, even if only (and perhaps only) in an emergent way. so much so that the where Adams was at, and the time that he was in, was also my time and place, and those distinctions disolved into the heterogeneity in which they always were--distinct but entangled. And so I wept, not at god, or with it, not at Adams, nor with him, but in a way that through my weeping, the world could relate to itself, and I was only a stunned witness to it all, barely formed, and quaking.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Shaviro and Cronenberg, Heidegger and Lynch

In watching Cronenberg’s Videodrome I was, as were several class mates, struck by the enormously wide-ranging and edgy bent exhibited by some eighties movies. This is not to say that Sixteen Candles or some other Rambo junk turned my head around, but a few movies did, and one was Dune. Panned by critics and fans of Frank Herbert’s novel series of the same name, upon which the film was based, and released in a longer, TV version that Lynch had his name taken off of—replacing it with the oft-used Hollywood pseudonym Alan Smithee—that actually was more faithful to the original novel, this movie in its shorter version displays a profoundly affective quality. Just as Shaviro maintains in his treatment of Cronenberg’s films, including a section on Videodrome, in some cinema there is the capacity to see “the distinction between fantasy and actuality, or between inner bodily excitation and outer objective representation […] entirely collapse []” (141). This failure of objective reasoning to completely totalize subjective experience has been noted by others, including Heidegger (in Being and Time), who founded his existential analytic on a forceful contestation of the a priori in Kant, saying, in brief, that there can be no a priori objective reality because any structuration or articulation of such is always already the product of subjective understanding. Heidegger is the first philosopher to ask of rational presence, what is the use of claiming to be, or proving being, when one must first ask what it means to be? Affect is crucial here, because—as Heidegger knew, and his work on mood and death show—what we see (and know, cognitively/epistemologically) is inextricably bound up with what and how we feel (emotionally/biologically), so much so that our bodies often react to what they’re shown well before (well, really only a few nano-seconds, but still, before) our mind can identify it, rationalize it, universalize it.
In Dune, Lynch gives us these visceral shocks—body blows—in the form of the various figures of the Harkonens. A different branch of the highly elaborate noble caste system posited by Herbert, the Harkonens are thought of by the Atreides (the noble house from whom our protagonist, Paul, comes) as animals. But in the film, we see, even though we don’t want to. Or as with Shaviro’s claim contra the psychoanalytic view that voyeurism is an active process, the viewer is in a state of radical passivity: “I [the movie house viewer of cinematic art] am powerless not to see” (48). We see the bloated Harkonen Baron flying about with the aid of a levitation device, his body too big to stand on its own; we see the younger generation of Harkonens as glistening with oil, anointed and sexually charged, in the form of Feyd (played by a young and snarling Sting); we see the middle generation between the two, mealy mouthed and bowing when the Baron receives his meal (or is it a drug?): the blood of a young boy, stripped down to a black leather diaper, and complete with a nipple from which the stuff is sucked. But first we see the Baron, in close-up: pimpled and puss-oozing, scarred and red-haired (tufts is all he has, though Sting maintains his normal coif), bloated as he is, he looks as if he’s about to pop, just like one of his sores, straining against a translucent membrane, seeking a weak seam in his outfit just the same as the puss of his sores strains against their covers. The Harkonen scenes get a brash musical score, with plenty of cymbal crashes and angular harmonies, and this acts to further focalize the animal in the Harkonens, as opposed to the Atreides, who get finely orchestrated lines with classic European sensibilities. Guards, also in tight black leather, bring in the boy, and he is pushed forward. After a roaring claim to destroy the house of Atriedes, the Baron flies up to the boy and looks deep into his eyes, almost lovingly, and grabs him by the shoulders, pulling him close. We can count the sores on his face, see the ooze, seemingly smell the feted breath, but in an instant, he’s yanked free the plug on the nipple affixed to the boy’s chest and is sucking at it with glee and slurping noises, just as the scene cuts we hear him laugh and black spatters across the screen; we feel it hit our skin. Now, following Shaviro, we’d say that instead of any identification with the boy or the Baron, we only experience an “alien interest” (49). And despite an urge to make some posterior narrativization that might allow us to locate some allegory to consumption in the work (as would be the case with psychoanalysis), we at the moment of viewing are caught up in the image, neither possessing it, nor able to act against it. This passivity is radical exactly insomuch as it is determined to maintain its passivity even in the face of immanent danger to the subject as a result of such passivity; this masochism is the twine knotted around the wrists of the viewer, whose hairy fibers irritate even before we strain, but whose biting incisions at the moment of struggle we take to be caresses.
Whether we choose to take Shaviro at his word that psychoanalysis is finally moribund or not, his charge (like Sedgwick’s in The Sylvan Tompkins Reader) that the process of film criticism has fallen to some automatism is well taken. While I would argue that the only theoretical apparatus that could adequately deal with the non-narrative is psychoanalysis, I’ll grant that there is some useful methodology to be found in the affect-theory model. We can use both; we need to use what works. What I would avoid is the tendency to afford some special ontological status to the cinematic apparatus, such as when we say that cinema is “a technology for intensifying and renewing experiences of passivity and abjection” (65), as Shaviro does (and as do Benjamin and Silverman, though in different ways), because, given the tendency to recovery that is exhibited in aesthetic production (that is, the tendency to always find new ways to say old things, as well as to say new things all the time), it seems imperative to embrace the ontological analytic, which for Heidegger was the key hermeneutic: we are, and only ever were, on the basis of what it means to be. And because we known what it means to be only in an historically situated moment, completely contingent upon subjective experience that is responsive to pressures from past, present, and future moments (anticipations, illuminations in Bloch’s sense; all recoveries), we might properly think of these technologies (following Heidegger to a place where he only partly leads us) as ontologies, as logics of beings. And as each device has its own logic of being, perhaps what is most important is in what ways each overlaps and anticipates of, and recovers from, the others.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Silvan Tomkins Reader, edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank

In their presentation of the work of Silvan Tompkins, they have presented—as Richard Grusin has recently suggested (to a seminar of graduate students at Wayne State University in Detroit)—their Silvan Tompkins. Not noting the origin or extent of their omissions, only that they are there (by way of ellipses), the editors do admit to having their ellipsis cover over paragraph breaks, and even chapter breaks, which indicates a greater level of omission than that usually covered by such a scholarly procedure. And they make a great case for this in their introduction, which feels more like an article on Silvan Tompkins than an introduction: it introduces him as a figure worthy of investigating, thanks mostly to their rescue of his corpus from the dustbin of contemporary theory, despite what other theory heads may make of his essentialist conception of affect.
Indicting theory (spelled with a capital T, as with Being, or Blackness, both of which come out of a theory reading and responding community that they are both a part of and indeed hope will buy the book) as immediately dismissing any essentialist concepts out of hand, they propose that the fear of any numerable account of affect—Tompkins proposes a schema of affect which is limited to eight members (Interest-Excitement; Enjoyment-Joy; Surprise-Startle; Distress-Anguish; Fear-Terror; Shame-Humiliation; Contempt-Disgust; Anger-Rage)—is nigh automatic on the part of theory after the poststructuralist intervention, mainly because of the latter’s reliance on the infinite suggested by multiplicity. Multiplicity arises in theory today because of an unreasonable (to them) fear of the limitations placed on agency by the enlightenment and humanist project of infinite perfectibility and the separation of subject and object, or writing and speech, or any of the attendant binaries explored in post-enlightenment philosophy. So, post-structuralism mounts a sort of enlightenment critique, but (contra the editors of this volume) I would suggest that the enlightenment project is still very much a part of post-structuralist thinking, so much so that the editors have nothing to fear. There is no possibility that “reflexive antibiologism” (8) such as they contend will erupt out of the scholarly investigation of a schema such as that proposed by Silvan Tompkins.
Pointing out that the lists Tompkins produces operate on both postmodernist and modernist paradigms, in that they are subject both to radical contingency in their possible permutations and a fixed typology and character that would suggest more probable and felicitous combinations over others, they suggest that Tompkins’s work in this way offers a sort of “productive opacity” (13). And in proposing a system of “finitely many (n>2) values” (15) they wish to avoid the automatic burden of the concept of innateness that would suggest that these schematized affects are a limit on affect, or that they would come to proscribe the human. They say access to this system of thinking not routinized to the dictates of post-structuralist theory is important because this thought-realm, “the analogic realm of finitely many values [… could enable] a political vision of difference that might resist both binary homogenization and infinitizing trivialization” (15), and who would argue? Especially after they assure us that they “have no interest whatever in minimizing the continuing history of racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise abusive biologisms, or the urgency of their exposure, that has made the gravamen of so many contemporary projects of critique” (15). And their logic as to why we can’t seem to conceive of affect except as finitely many? It’s this: “[s]omehow [not a good start, post-structurally or otherwise] it’s hard to hold onto [a finitely many valued concept] without a biological model in the vicinity” (15), which they blame on some momentum-of-modernism argument of conceptual vacuity, which has so de-frictionized the floors upon which theorists stand that in order to get a grip, they must have the friction—ostensibly originating from the blood and guts spilled in its name—of a biological model. And their assurances aside, this is not so convincing, and here’s why: the post-structuralist intervention in hierarchy (say Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome instead of an arboreal model), rational presence (as with Derrida’s related concepts of trace and différance instead of a positivist model of sense certainty), or progress (as with Lyotard’s concept of the inhuman instead of an ever-rapacious concept of humanism which would take its own achievements to be of the most importance, a form of instrumental logic, that is, progress by any means) owes everything to the enlightenment thinking it wishes to critique, and these critiques are, moreover, themselves instances of the further progress of the enlightenment. And whatever habits the editors have identified as being injurious to further development of thought realms are habits of the same historical moment of these editors have pointed out is Tompkins’s own. In combating an automatic tendency on the part of post-structuralist thinking they risk relying on another default thought-realm, and in avoiding one danger, they open themselves up to charges of avowing the horrors that they themselves make pains to point out, though they would of course claim to want to land somewhere in the middle, between poles of unitary logic and paralytic multiplicity. And this is perhaps most disturbing, for if they are the arbiters of truth value (even if it’s only the seemingly harmless exploration of a thought-realm), then they are also its sovereign, living and theorizing in a state of exception: not subject to a prohibition that they use to establish power, in the form of a discursive formation that they characterize as some willy-nil theory war.
Does this indict Tompkins’s work? No, and it never did. In the comfortable space of finitely many there’s lots of room. And in the safe harbor of a logic that still owes its ass to enlightenment thinking the limits of Tompkins become apparent: innate, perhaps, but as Tompkins describes it, as innate as a nervous system; limited, perhaps, but only by a concept of infinity that would theoretically never be reached. I don’t see the harm, in looking at Tompkins for what he does offer. We don’t indict Freud for using a tri-partite system to schematize the conscious/unconscious divide, as limiting as that is (Lacan’s elaborations not-withstanding). At one point he makes a claim not to innateness, but inevitability (67), and we can dismiss these as concordant enough to be invalid. At another point, he makes claims based on specious citations, such as that based on Bloom’s assertion that toned musculature and proper posture are required to initiate intellectual problem solving (65), and we can dismiss this on account of his particular historical position (1962, well before the watershed of high theory in 1968). But the usefulness of concepts like the central assembly and the General Image of power, are both worth checking out, just as Heidegger is still worth checking out, just as Darwin is still worth checking out, but I’m afraid that I can’t say that’s what the editors are in for, even as they claim that’s their aim. And this is because the stakes are so high—extinction, the biologism of eugenics come back in the new genetic therapy available only to the rich, the eradication of sexual choice because one has been proven biologically straight or gay—that one slip could do it. And I don’t endorse prohibition. But in a choice between license and freedom, I’ll take freedom, and I don’t think that’s automatic—I find it considered.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

In Miriam Hansen’s article “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,’” she identifies some diverging lines of argument in Benjamin’s “Artwork” essay: the spatio-temporal line, which she indicates works on a parallel between the cinematic apparatus’s restructuring of temporality in spatial division—the cut of the montage, the shock that enables a different awareness of apperception—and the mimetic-reproductive line, which she indicates is problematic in its conflation of semiotic and political senses of representation, “making the latter vouch for the revolutionary potential of the former” (185). Benjamin’s argument relies on this slippage inasmuch as he’s advocating the revolutionary potential (in terms of political representation) of a series of shocks that rely on radicalized (but still meaning-bearing) representations. And it is here that she makes her first charge against Benjamin’s argument, noting that with the decline of monadic and contemplative (that is, auratic) aesthetic experience in favor of shock-induced collective appropriation of art on the part of the masses (as opposed to a single viewer descending into the work of art), there is a concomitant decline in the possibility of aesthetic experience for the masses: deaesthetization. And thus the “‘aura’ plays a precarious yet indispensable part” (186) in Benjamin’s theory of experience.
But Hansen points out that the anticipated reciprocity of the gaze as a necessary condition of one experiencing the aura of phenomena is dependant on the fact of social witness, though it is the witness of another self, one unknown to but originating from oneself. So here distance (that which marks the altered conditions of apperception that reveal the aura) is figured temporally, not spatially, in the folded-in registers of memory and history. Locating this capacity of aesthetic experience in the past is crucial for Benjamin’s argument, says Hansen, because such temporality allows the aura to be recognized as such: in decay, fading into the dispersal of discourse and the changing conditions of apperception contingent upon the historical moment of industrialized mediation. And here again we see the ambivalence with which Benjamin saw the aura, though this time in the negative, as it happens in a temporality that presents us with both “the decay of the aura [a good, in that it allows collective apperception to overtake monadic apperception] and the atrophy of the vision of a better nature [seemingly our only means of apprehending the potential good that the decay of the aura presents us]” (Benjamin quoted in Hansen 189). Thus we look forward to a time, a future anterior, from which we will look back on what will have been: a radicalized (impossible to predict, and difficult even to anticipate) futurity. Hansen suggests that the radicalized futurity presented by Benjamin has its origins in Jewish Messianism, an evental and eruptive conception of history as bound not by determinate (that is to say, calindrical) structures but barely containing the burgeoning possibility of revolution.
Moving through the surrealist applications of shock, and likewise through the concept of the flaneur as he who aimlessly flits about the city aiming all the more to map the city in the mnemotechnic of ephemeral consciousness, Hansen settles on the mimetic faculty as both agent and archive of change. Benjamin’s concept of non-sensuous similarity rests on the transient aspect of language, housing all change within its own ever-shifting walls, complete with porous and non-porous membranes, and directing us back to a non-arbitrary (contra Saussure) resemblance that is again not possible without a witness, the witness of language itself, seen most clearly in the act of translation, or in the cast of the hand itself that does the writing. And keeping with the shifting grounds of language’s potential(s) vis-à-vis its correspondences, Hansen suggests that mimesis in Benjamin is more properly thought (with semiotics) as an index: a metonym to historical time-place. And in employing such an aporetic reading strategy Hansen claims the stakes for Benjamin are revealed: a different use of language, a mobilization of the mimetic power of language (archival-agential) against the ‘once-upon-a-time’ of classical historical narrative through the use of a heuristic gaze—not hermeneutical, but dialectical. Thus the linear movements of capital that reify semblance into resemblance are confronted by emphatic experience’s hither and lee dialectical allegorizing. Which seems to suggest that Benjamin’s revolutionary work of art is only such in the constancy of a history that is perpetually overturning itself—and this mimetic transformation happens most in the cinema of shock technique (despite the fact that Hanson maintains that a powerful dialecticism is diluted in the Artwork essay that gets recuperated in later work, like “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which is indeed where I’m culling terms like calindrical and evental). Through a process of allegorical remembering, that is a narrativizing of the constructedness of human/natural life, cinema makes material what has been made, something Hansen calls “a logic of double negation” (203), refigured here as procreative: producing the thingness of the thing, the reification of the reified gaze, giving “aesthetic expression to the scars of human self-alienation” (206).
Setting up a constitutive dialectical ambiguity at the heart of Benjamin’s endorsement of a distracted mode of reception, Hansen figures it thus:
Shock of modernity plus the simultaneous experience-impoverishing shield it provokes
Shock as moment of sexual recognition of loss, exemplifying the dislocating impact of auratic experience in general
Thus shock takes on a strategic significance, propelling the human body into moments of recognition, opening up new avenues of tactile and optical reception, and activating “layers of unconscious memory buried in the reified structures of subjectivity” (211).
Hansen points up the way that different threads of Benjamin’s argument—quantity into quality, destabilized experience as quotidian—play asymmetrical roles, the latter being dominant, along with transformative mimesis. Moving through a psychoanalytical side-by-side comparison with the concept of the uncanny that involves the fetishization of Benjamin’s mother-body figure, she finishes by noting the way Benjamin, even as he’s already participating in the psychoanalytic discourse, and perpetuating the patriarchal fetishization of the gaze, evades these registers through the deployment of a subject shattered, and re-narrativized, but not into the self-same subject, and maybe into an object—something not at all endorsed by psychoanalysis.
Recapitulating her argument, and then extending it, Hansen then makes another claim to Benjamin’s unwitting endorsement of the aura: within distraction lies the ability to lose oneself, to become dreamlike (219), and this is interesting, mainly because the avenues for revolutionary and radicalized consciousness can happen within what traditional Marxism would call false consciousness. Moving through a (too) brief mention of the resistance to reified structures and stilted political economies available in and through Eros, she moves to danger: film, with its deliberate borrowing and mixing of radicalized experiential modes, translates (and transfigures) an individual experience into a collective (and cathartic) one. Valorizing Benjamin over Adorno, and then Adorno and Horkheimer, Hansen maintains that Benjamin’s project was ultimately one of redemption, not indictment—as with his one-time friend, Adorno—and that since Adorno and Horkheimer have been “vindicated” (her word), the value of Benjamin’s theses go toward theorizing alternative mediations, and what come of them.
Given that this has turned into an exercise in tracing an extended argument, and its success is dubious at best, I’d simply like to leave one question:
o In some senses the avant-garde features in both Adorno’s and Benjamin’s argument; with Adorno it’s blatant that “artistic music,” in the case of the “On the Fetish-Character in Music” essay, means avant-garde, but with Benjamin, less so. Is it indeed only the avant-garde that can do this collectivizing?

In some attempt to provide an answer, and some original content to this blog, I’ll start with the notion, explicated by Hansen, of shock. My first example from the media is again Bill Maher’s live talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher. This show is funny, causing often irrepressible and involuntary affective states of confusion and displacement with every joke. That’s not to say they’re all killer jokes, but that humor works that way, and even when a joke bombs it triggers an affective state, but when it goes well, usually it makes us laugh. And that’s practically the definition of humor—transgressions and offences that strike us as particularly inappropriate but that make us laugh, and that they’re temporally dependant (the timing of the joke). This is the distracted mode of reception: a new tactile awareness (the involuntary laugh).

Home Box Office (HBO) runs a bumper before all original programming with a voice over of the following: “Raw. Outspoken. Uninhibited.” Which is followed by the TV—MA tag for adult content and adult language, which of course indicates how not raw and outspoken they are, inasmuch as they’d rather not give you the raw in the raw, as it were, so as to spoil the possibility of shock as a result of their programming. On 10/07/05, this bumper ran before Real Time with Bill Maher. And as usual, he started with a video production piece before he rolls the credits and montage—not live, or in real time.
Shot in black and white video with grain added in post-production, and set with a noir feel, the music is some crap (smooth) jazz with lots of saxophone over extended chords cycling in a pseudo-sophisticated II-V-I progression, but that music fades and the camera finds a tall, dark, and handsome Euro-stud with shellacked hair and killer pecs who says:
“Who are you?”
Then a card comes in, moves across the screen, followed by a picture of Harriet Miers, Bush’s second pick for the Supreme Court, to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Sandra Day O’Conner. The card says “Mysterious.” Another floating pic of Miers looking PTA, then another card: “Dispassionate.” A third pic, another card: “Unqualified.”
Our Euro-hottie comes back, stern look on his smooth and chiseled face, says (emphatically):
“Who Are You?”
To which an equally hot girl with a waif waist and long black hair, in a shimmery black dress, says (in a whisper):
“I’m whoever you want me to be.”
Directly after which we see a perfume bottle with a tag superimposed on top of it that reads:
“HARRIET—the fragrance.”

Cut to color and the opening montage. The theme music is a sort of funk with all sorts of pop-culture sound bites, one of which calls out the query: “Do you know what time it is?” There is a countdown, and running below the montage—complete with images of Egypt (the Sphinx), Greece (temple to Apollo), an American lynching, the Emancipation Proclamation, George Washington in duo-tone (by Andy Warhol), Hitler raving at Nuremburg, the lift off of the Apollo moon shot, the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, the Hindenburg crashing in New Jersey, Mao, Reagan, a bald eagle, the Buddha in jade, an immolated (dead) body, and soldiers in haz-mat gear packing automatic weapons—is a crawl: “[REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER] . . . [LIVE TONIGHT] BILL GREETS MOVIE STAR BEN AFFLECK [LIVE TONIGHT] NOVELIST SALMAN RUSHDIE [LIVE TONIGHT] CONSERVATIVE ICON ANN COULTER [LIVE TONIGHT] MASTER-BLOGGER ANDREW SULLIVAN [LIVE TONIGHT] AUTHOR KAYLA WILLIAMS [LIVE TONIGHT].” And after this, the host, Bill Maher, comes out looking dapper in a designer jacket, brown, shirt, brown, no tie—good shoes. There is a card in the corner that reads: LIVE.

He’s got a monologue:
“Thank you, thank you—I know why you’re so excited: you just realized you also could be on the Supreme Court!”

After a few jokes about how Bush is so in fear of losing his base he’s promised the right that he’ll nominate “that tiger that killed Roy [of Siegfried and Roy],” he lets go with this one:
“Tom Delay was indicted twice in one week! I, I mean…you almost feel bad for how screwed this guy is because usually when someone wants to beat this kind of rap the person they bribe is Tom Delay!”
Then he moves to Tom Cruise:
“We’ve had another ‘Sudden Terror Alert’ this week—sounds to me like another Bush stunt to repair his image. He wanted to knock up Katie Holmes but Laura said, ‘No!’ You heard the news: Tom and Katie—Tom cat is gonna have kittens. Um. Katie Holmes is pregnant [Maher laughs]; they say if it’s a girl, they’re gonna name it after the mother, Katie, and if it’s a boy, they’re gonna name it after the father—In Vitro. [Laughs again] I kid the Cruises. Listen to this: fellow Scientologists—John Travolta and Kelly Preston—they are trying to convince Katie to have the baby the Scientologist way, which is known as silent birth. I’m not making this up—that’s where, during the delivery, during the delivery (emphatic), the mother doesn’t talk, or scream in any way, or express herself emotionally. Wow! No Yammering. And if it works there, they’re gonna try it on Oprah.”

After this he brings on his guests, but first goes to Ann Coulter:
o Why are conservatives mad at the president?
o Unlike liberals, we’re principled. […] She’s unqualified.
o But you didn’t make that objection with eve3ry other of GWB’s appointments?
 [emphatic] It never occurred [mic input clips because her voice is so loud] to us that he’d nominate, as you say, the cleaning lady—we thought this was clear.

After she demurs once again, Bill goes into GWB again:
o So, what do you think of your boyfriend, George Bush, now, I mean, seriously. I mean, this (Miers’s Appointment to the Supreme Court), the deficit [over this she is heard saying, “I’m not very happy”], he fucked up the hurricane: are you willing to admit that he’s in over his head and always was, and that when Karl Rove looked at him, when Karl Rove looked at him and said ‘I could make him president, that was different than looking at him, [and] saying he should be president?
o No, actually, I’m more mad at you, Bill, because if you hadn’t been so mean to our Georgy this never would have happened. [Smirks] I’m running scared, now.

While it is difficult to do so much transposition—temporally, culturally, formally—there are some interesting notes that come out of using Benjamin, through Hansen’s recuperative strategy regarding the ‘aura,’ to look at Real Time.

First of all, it’s live. Not that this makes it an original, but that the auratic function has been transposed to the live broadcast in some senses, but incompleatly, such that the eruptive finction of the montage just before is perhaps not so shocking as the fact that in live broiadcasts we have the possibility that there may well be a shock or two waiting, shocks which the montage does not provide us, despite its invocation of Hitler, Mao, Reagan—the three biggest criminals of the 20th century. But the fact that it’s on HBO, with its swears and such, denudes the show of the possibility of the ‘fucks’ even getting in the way of our contemplation/absorption of our weekly live talk show.

When Hansen claims that Benjamin’s concept of non-sensuous similarity rests upon an indexical register, that is, it bears the cast of the hand of the writer, she seems to suggest that this indexical semiotics registers the scars of human self-alienation, but without the presence (even as a rehearsal) of the initial perpetration of those scars. We get the damage, but it’s not so damaging. Rather, it is collectivizing. We see this in the repeat phrases of Maher’s monologue, and in the particular glee with which he gives Ann Coulter her due, even though she is a friend of Maher’s. This is through the way he asks it, the affective register, but that rhetorical slant is achieved not just by the words, but also by their being couched in humor—your boyfriend, George Bush—and this helps to recuperate the aura of the moment too, almost as if mediating the shock such that it is lessened allows for it to be heard at all. Of course this works for Coulter as well, as when she admits to Bush’s failings, that he fucked up the hurricane is the shock that they both agree needs to be out there, even as it is diluted. Surface scratched.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility” advances the thesis that mechanical reproduction of art works strips away their aura, that substance symptomatic of originality and being tied to a tradition, such that “it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (104), thus reformulating the conditions of reception from those of the monad to those that are multiple. And in so transforming these conditions of reception, Benjamin wants to suggest that that which is perceived is perceived anew—being more directly within viewers’ situations, as well as having intensified (by way of distraction) apperceptive qualities (“[r]eception in distraction […] is a symptom of profound changes in apperception” (120)—ultimately has emancipatory potential. This emancipatory potential resides in the shift from cult aesthetic production to exhibition aesthetic production, from distance (the figure of the magician) to penetration (the figure of the surgeon), and of course from static image to motion: film. This apparatus—the motion capture of the cinematic medium—destabilizes the time-space tissue of the aura, making art available in its admittedly unstable form almost universally. In this destabilized form it becomes a sort of capital that enables potentially progressive exchange. He valorizes the Surrealists by suggesting that their “ruthless annihilation of the aura in every object they produced” (119) is the course of development for distraction: what the surrealists insisted on in moral terms has other uses in social terms, more radical uses. This shock or distraction is set against contemplation: singular contemplation causes the subject to descend into the depth of the art, whereas distanced shock allows for the work of art to descend into the depth of the social. While all these depth metaphors are troublesome, I think that there are useful parallels that can be drawn to sound, even as the essay seems to be concerned solely with the visual/optical. And despite film’s occularity—and as well Benjamin’s dismissal of sound in film as not altering significantly these potentials—I want to take some of these concepts to the aural level. After all, sound has these emancipatory potentials too, and films are sonic.
If the Dadaists transform their sonic art from that which is enchanting to that which is destructive (a missile), and it’s valid (non-auratic) art, then I can hear my train a comin’. While it seems overly simplistic to assert that public reception of disruption is bound to end in revolution—though of course this is not what Benjamin is saying, he’s for the progressive—a certain dual consciousness can emerge that while still trapped in a sense of false consciousness, does allow for an outside to be thought that is not such a radical break. Against Benjamin, I would suggest that the combination of original works of art—auratic art—with electronically reproduced art is one such case where the emancipatory potential is provisional but still available, opening out on the side of agency while still maintaining a distance. In using digital technology to record sound (or image), the status of the original is at once sustained and nullified: they’re all originals. So, a performance that mixed digitally recorded sound with live sound (like showing a film behind or on top of live actors on a stage) could parse out the all or nothing logic that seems to limit Benjamin’s argument in a way different from Adorno’s objection—that the thesis is too undialectical and cannot account for the debilitating effects of reification. Is it possible that the dual consciousness produced by the simultaneous reception of art both with and without aura could also have (provisional) emancipatory potentials? This is a consideration Benjamin may not have been able to anticipate, perhaps because his Marxism—while not up to snuff with Adorno—was (over) sufficiently present to him.