Sunday, August 26, 2007

Body Politic

In many ways this post is a follow up to “No Admittance Except on Business,” in that it deals with relation, or non-relation, between production and representation. This time the point of entry is that of the body politic. Of course the idea of a body politic has a long history from Menenius Agrippa through Chrstian Pizan and so on, but I am interested in a more contemporary and critical use. First, in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, where they write the following:

…the forms of social production, like those of desiring production, involve an unengendered nonproductive attitude, an element of anti-production coupled with the process, a full body that functions as a socius. This socius may be the body of the earth, that of the tyrant, or capital. This is the body that Marx is referring to when he says that it is not the product of labor, but rather appears as its natural or divine presuppositions. In fact, it does not restrict itself merely to opposing productive forces in and of themselves. It falls back on [il se rabat sur] all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi-cause. (pg. 10)

Deleuze and Guattari are drawing from Marx’s notebooks on “Precapitalist Economic Formations.” These notebooks are the conceptual underpinning of much of Anti-Oedipus. The focus of their particular borrowing seems to set up a relation between production and what appears to be the presupposition of production, a relation that in many ways an opposition between production and appearance, production and representation. The despot, which is produced by the institutions and structures of precapitalist society appears to produce those same structures. As Spinoza would perhaps say: the effect is taken as a cause. This lineage descends down to capital itself, which appears as wealth generating wealth without the need of labor. The full body is always an appropriation and a misrepresentation of the productive relations of society.

In the opening pages of Alain Badiou’s Logique du Mondes, there is an articulation of the three forms of subjectivity: the revolutionary subject (or subject defined by fidelity to truth), reactive subject (defined by a denial of the truth) and an obscure subject. The first two are symmetrical, structured by the same event. The reaction is defined by the revolution it denies. Badiou’s example here is Francis Furet or the “new philosophers” whose thought is defined by the very event that they deny, declaring the French Revolution or May’68 to be a non-event. (As I have written earlier, this is Badiou’s “autonomist hypothesis” all counter-revolutions must be traced back to the revolution they deny). The obscure subject has a different trajectory. It is based not a pure and simple conservation, a retention of the past, but on an invention. It produces something, but its production is not related to an event, to a rupture of the existing order. It is an invention that is oriented in terms of a transcendental body. “The obscure subject articulates in a decisive way a timeless fetish, an incorruptible and indivisible body. Nation, God, or race”(pg. 69). The obscure subject does not address the revolution, even to deny it, but severs any connection to it through a fetish, a full body, which is produced as transcendent.

This overlap is admittedly superficial, much of it hinges on the use of the term full body [corps plein], and some vague suggestion of similar problems through the idea of the fetish. However, this superficial point of intersection, makes it possible to bring together two different critical approaches on the “production of subjectivity.” The first, in Deleuze and Guattari, is historico-structural in that the subject is related to different modes of production, different regimes of desiring production, savage, barbaric, and capitalist. In this way Deleuze and Guattari’s work intersects with Foucault, who in his own way provided for a genealogy of the oedipalized subject of desire, as well as that of Negri and others, who have theorized the new subject produced by the desiring machines of the real subsumption of capital. The second, in Badiou, is formal-structural, in that subjectivity is not related to specific social transformations, but the general, or generic, coordinates of a truth, whether this truth is actively produced, denied, or simply obscured. These strike me as two different ways of discussing the subject, each with their strength and weaknesses. The first offers an important materialist perspective, situating subjectivity as part of the larger social force (desire is part of the infrastructure), but in relating subjectivity to social forces in general it overlooks some of the transformative effects of subjectivity. While the second offers an interesting ethics of revolt, that is totally disconnected from an understanding of social forces.

Here these two understandings of subjectivity are related, however, through a problem that is important in its own regard: that of the (re)presentation of sociality itself. It seems that we cannot avoid some presentation of the social totality, and of our relation to it, what Althusser called “the society effect.” However, we could see our actions as effects of the large molar structures, capital, the state, etc. or see these structures as apparatuses of capture that obscure their conditions.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Undertheorized: Or, More on Movies

My last post on The Stranger was originally intended to make a connection to the relatively restricted visual economy of "classic films" and Rancière's concept of "the distribution of the sensible." Rancière defines this concept as "the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.” This is what I was getting at with the idea that films from different periods disclose something about different regimes of visibility. However, it takes a lot of theorizing to get from Rancière's concept, which suggests a historically immanent constitution of the visible and the sayable, and the more overt limitations of American film making in the 1940s, and besides, I have not even finished reading The Future of the Image, so I let the point drop.

I also intended to make a somewhat facile connection between the rupture that I sensed in Welles film and some experiences I have had in watching current films. First, there is the distant memory I have of watching Ocean's 13 earlier this summer. That film had a subplot involving harsh working conditions at a Mexican dice-factory, and an eventual labor strike. These things should have been just as jarring as Sullivan's Travels shots of poverty, especially given that most of the film is made up of pretty boys in pretty clothes, but I cannot say it had the same effect. This is in part because it is played in large part for laughs, but also in part because no image is strictly incongruous with any other. As Rancière writes, "Linking anything with anything whatsoever, which yesterday passed for subversive, is today increasingly homogenous with the reign of journalistic anything contains everything and the subject-hopping of advertising." Now, I do not want to include that this all has to do with the omnipotence of the spectacle, and that is not the direction that Rancière goes in, but I do at least want to mark a difference.

I recently saw The Bourne Ultimatum. Now by and large I enjoyed the film, but I have to say I am little tired of films that subtly and slightly criticize the current political regime. First of all it is so easy, all one has to do is put in some reference to torture, rule by fear, black-ops, surveillance, a shadowy government within, etc. and you are being critical. (see V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Land of the Dead, Pan's Labyrinth,etc.) Now I must admit that these little jabs are preferable to films that go in the other direction, such as the various pro-torture films and series (24, Man on Fire, etc). However, turning the current travesty of the war in Iraq and the war of terror into entertainment strikes me as a bit obscene. Despite all of this, or because of it, I love the final scene between Matt Damon and Joan Allen. It is not enough to be disgusted by the state of the world, one must do something.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I did not expect to see that

As of late my movie rentals have tended to the old, the noir, and the works of Welles. Watching several movies from a different period (or nation) becomes an instant education in the particular protocols of visibility of that era. This is especially true for films produced under the Hays code. Although, as Adorno is quick to remind us, our modern Hollywood films are no less restricted, it is just that the source of the restriction has changed from the state to capital. These protocols go beyond the strict rules of the Hays code to encompass the sensibilities of a given time.

I sometimes wonder how much of the U.S.’s nostalgia for a particular past, that of the nineteen fifties, is not so much nostalgia for the actual past, but for what could be presented of that past in its media.

I thought of all this while watching Orson Welles’ film The Stranger. In that film, Welles plays a Nazi concentration camp officer who has fled to America after the war, disguising himself as a small town teacher. An American agent knows that the Nazi is hiding in the town, and tries to get Welles to reveal his true identity. Two things about this cat and mouse game are significant. The first takes place during a dinner party in which the agent (played by Edward G. Robinson) asks Welles about his opinion of Germany, a fairly transparent ruse. Welles then launches in a tirade about the essentially militaristic and authoritarian nature of the German people; he argues that unlike the rest of Europe, the Germans have had no spirit of revolutionary justice, no equality, liberty and fraternity. A student at the dinner objects, “But what about Karl Marx, who said the proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains?” To which Welles replies, “But Marx was a Jew, not a German.” This denial becomes key in Robinson figuring out who Welles is, as he says later in the film, “Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?

The citation of Marx as an emancipatory figure in a film made in 1946 is a bit odd, but it is nothing compared to what happens later in the film. Robinson is trying to turn Welles’ wife against him, he takes her into a room with a projector and the screen shows actual newsreel footage of the liberation of the camps, the ovens, bodies stacked like wood, etc. It is truly a shocking image, breaking with the protocol of everything before and after in the film. According to IMDB this is the first instance of images from the holocaust appearing in an American film. More importantly, it is a strange rupture with the visual logic of the film itself, It is perhaps comparable to Preston Sturges’ montage on the depression in Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is some sense about the limits of what can be profitably shown on the screen.

I can think of only a few examples of ruptures in modern films, which are empowered by the spectacle to juxtapose everything with anything.

Monday, August 06, 2007


I have been tagged by Nate to come up with eight things about myself. So here goes:

1. I had a pet turtle for twenty-years. Well, it started as my brother’s turtle, and I sort of inherited it (not that my brother died, he just moved into an apartment that was too drafty for proper reptile care). It was an Asian box turtle (sometimes referred to as Malaysian Box Turtle). I loved that turtle.
2. I once worked for a syndicated court TV show (like Judge Judy, only less successful). My job was to read the dockets of local small claims courts, searching for cases that would make good television. I am not proud of this, but it did help me get through graduate school, at least for the few months that it lasted. I also learned something about the power of television through this job. For the most part the judges I encountered during this job hated me, something about ruining the sanctity of the judicial process, but the clerks and other people I encountered were utterly fascinated; they saw me as link to the glowing world of television.
3. I am somewhat obsessed with monkeys, and I consider the day I spent watching howler monkeys in the jungles of Guatemala to be one of my fondest memories.
4. I have a brother who is an artist and a musician. I do not know what horrible karmic wrong my parents did to get a philosophy professor and an artist/musician for sons, but they have dealt with it well. (I should link to my brother’s band or art site here, but it would violate my commitment to anonymity, sorry about that.)
5. I am quite fond of the peanut, in all of its forms, peanut butter, peanut sauce, peanut butter cups, etc.
6. (as a belated response to Steven Shaviro) Aside from the brilliant teachers I have had, my pedagogical role model is Rupert Giles, simultaneously bookish and cool.
7. I once killed a man just for snoring too loud.
8. One of these is not true.

I am also supposed to tag others, and promise them good luck if they comply. Well I am less comfortable about this part. I do not want to threaten anyone with bad luck, or dabble in mystic forces that I do not comprehend (see #6), but I will say that if you are a frequent or occasional visitor to this site, you should consider coming up with your own eight things.