Saturday, July 29, 2006

Clerks and Cynicism

I went to see Clerks II over the weekend. I cannot exactly say why, the ninety-degree heat had a lot to do with it, but it does not explain the particular choice. I have never really been a Kevin Smith. Watching the film did allow me to pinpoint exactly what I find so vexing about his films.

Kevin Smith likes to consider himself to be shocking and threatening to conventional sensibilities. In this particular film the transgressive scene has to do with a bachelor party bestiality act, or, as it is referred to in the film, "interspecies erotica." This scene which is more implied than shown has already received a great deal of attention in the press. What is not discussed, and I suppose this is something of a spoiler, is that it is during this scene of debauchery that one of the main characters Dante Hicks declares his love for Becky, played by Rosario Dawson. (In this film Dawson plays as much as an adolescent male fantasy as she did in Sin City: in this film she plays the quintessential "girl who is one of the guys,"someone you can discuss porn with and have sex with) Earlier in the film the Becky character had expressed her criticism of the ideal of romantic love, stating that monogamy contradicts basic human nature. Without getting into the limitations of this particular critique of monogamy, I will just say that it is a criticism of sorts, but more importantly it is a criticism that is promptly overcome by the last scene--in the midst of numerous references to bestiality, masturbation, and homosexuality. This is what I find so bothersome about Kevin Smith films (and much of contemporary raunchy comedy), that no matter how shocking and even crude the film gets it never gets in the way of what remains a basically sentimental Hollywood cliche regarding love. The scatological, subversive, and bawdy humor in no way interferes with the ideal of love. The film is about as transgressive as a bachelor party, in the morning, after the strippers have left and the "adult novelty gifts" have been put away, marriage and the church emerge from the ordeal unscathed.

This reminds me of a passage from Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus that I have been thinking about as of late. As Deleuze and Guattari write about our contemporary age:

It is no longer the age of cruelty or the age of terror, but the age of cynicism, accompanied by a strange piety. (The two taken together constitute humanism: cynicism is the physical immanence of the social field, and piety is the maintenance of a spiritualized Urstaat; cynicism is capital as the means of extorting surplus labor, but piety is this same capital as God-capital, whence all the forces of labor seem to emanate.) ( pg. 225)

Now I take this phrase to be more of a provocation than an explanation, but I take its central point to be that contemporary "cynicism" is not a critique of established values, but a distance kept with respect to those values. As Peter Sloterdijk argues the cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological values and the social reality, but still insists on the mask. Which is why Deleuze and Guattari insist that cynicism is inseparable from a kind of piety: the relentless pursuit of profit with an invocation of "values," or, hypersexuality and the ideal of marriage. Cynicism is the coexistence of the highest values and their opposite, without contradiction or tension.

If the citations of Deleuze, Guattari, and Sloterdijk are making this too confusing, The Daily Show makes pretty much the same point.

Now, I am not saying that I hated the film, in fact I rather enjoyed the synchronized dance routine to The Jackson Five's "A B C". I definitely have a thing for synchronized dance routines in films which are not musicals. (This is probably one of the reasons that I love Simple Men so much). I also like its last minute spirited defense of the the "slacker" lifestyle.

Friday, July 28, 2006


While a bit of paranoia about blogging prevents me from putting too many identifying characteristics on this blog, I figure that the following is oblique enough. I ran into a former student at the grocery store. The first thing she says is "you probably do not watch television, but...." Well, I am not sure what to make of this: should I take it as a compliment, meaning that I appear to be so knowledgeable in my teaching that I could not possibly be spending time watching TV? Or, is it just part of the general way in which students perceive professors, as strange creatures who live in their offices and only travel to the library? Anyway, she went on to tell me that she and other students (who were not counted or named) had come to the conclusion that I resemble this person (pictured left) one of the "stars" of the reality TV show "Big Brother." I do not know what to think of this, the person seems a bit bland by my taste. Does anyone really like "Kashi Go Lean"?

Just for the record, my last doppelganger according to students was Rivers Cuomo. This is something that they actually wrote on student evaluations, which have now become a part of my permanent pre-tenure record.

Neither of these qualify as a true doppelgänger. In order for that to happen there must be consensus. A true doppelgänger is a famous person who one is compared to regularly and consistently.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

There are other ways to deal with jet lag, I suppose

After a long night flying back from the west coast I decided to start this blog--unemployed negativity. What does the title mean? Well the term itself comes from Bataille. But I am so not interested in its pedigree. For me the term suggests a sort of surplus of critical energy, moving beyond the official channels of research, teaching, etc. Besides I have more projects than titles right now, and I have to save the really good titles.

I flew Jet Blue for the first time, and while I enjoyed the blue chips, direct TV, and free wireless in JFK, I found one thing somewhat unsettling. Before take off the little TV screen, which is positioned front and center, kept flashing a series of little bits of advertising copy such as "Without you we would just be flying a bunch of televisions around the country" and "You are our favorite customer, but do not tell anyone." I might not have the wording right on those, but the latter pretty much matches one of the bits of advertising copy from Jose Saramago's The Cave. In Saramago's novel the advertising is for the center, a mall/urban center, which in the novel is pretty much a metonym for global capitalism itself. This overlap, in which, well what exactly...? Ironic advertisement imitates its own critique? Critique preempts that which it is critiquing?Or, some lazy but well read copywriter needs to give Saramago the credit? got me thinking about the challenges of representing corporations or representing capital in literature and film. Most of the attempts to do this fail, think of all of the Omnimarts, Megamarts, Megacorps, etc. that show up in film and TV. These lack in sublety, they are like films in which the villans wear elaborate uniforms with skulls on their epalets and toast "to evil." And Jet Blue's "Without you we would just be flying a bunch of televisions around the country" with its hint of human beings reduced to "conscious organs," a missing component of all of those TV's, already offers its own little critique.

I have to admit that I found the problem of representing capitalism interesting. It is why I read Saramago's novel. To do it well one must dispense with an evil genius, a secret lair, or even a master plan and get at the way in which capitalism functions anonymously, abstractly, through the work of all sorts of well intentioned people. Doing it well also means grasping the way in which corporations are incredibly adept at maintaining their image, to the point where they are the cultural critics.