Monday, March 31, 2008

Marx at the Movies

Last week I happened to see two (relatively mainstream) movies that referenced Marx in some way. The first was the delirious Southland Tales; a movie that famously was booed at Cannes, seen by like twelve people in the US, and quickly shuttled onto DVD release. I was ready to love this movie, to embrace it as a work of genius, or maybe I was just excited to see Sarah Michelle Gellar as an ex-pornstar turned neo-marxist radical who drives around in an ice-cream truck (that particular description turned out to be inaccurate). I did not love the movie, but not did I hate it, I found myself occupying a middle ground that I would have thought was impossible. I loved certain scenes like the following hallucinogenic dance scene with Justin Timberlake.

But what of the film's reference to Marx, or Neo-Marxism? As Steven Schaviro points out, while the film engages with a alternative future, it is very much made up the visual economy of our present: its aesthetic is mostly flat, like a television image, occasionally punctuated by news feeds (the effect is one of the common practice of watching tv while surfing the internet), and everything about the film, right down to its casting bears witness to our celebrity obsessed culture. I would say that it treats Marx in a similar manner. Marx's image is used several times, and various bits of his life are "name dropped" in the film, everything from the name Jenny Westphalen to Trier Germany is referenced in the film in the oddest manner possible, becoming the name of corporations or futuristic zeppelins, but little is said of class struggle or exploitation. As a friend of mine put it, "so all they did was read the wikipedia entry on Marx." This is not really a complaint about the film. In the world of the film Marx simply becomes one more image, in a flow of images.

Marx is treated very differently in the film Persepolis. In this film it is less the name of Marx, Marx the celebrity, than the spirit of Marx, or communism that is referenced. The film deals with life in Iran and is split into three parts, the first dealing with the rule of the Shah and the revolution, the second with the war with Iraq, and the third dealing with Iran after the war. In the middle section the main character, Marji is sent to live in Vienna to avoid the war. In this section the film follows a rather typical coming of age story, in which love is found and lost. The difference is that at this point both the protagonist and the audience is aware that the trials and tribulations of this coming of age story pale in comparison to the real pains and suffering of imprisonment, war, and persecution. Nevertheless they are treated as quite real, after losing her home and boyfriend, Marji nearly dies from heartache. This to me is where the film's Marxism lies, in the recognition that although the pains and pleasures of the bourgeois life are all situated against a backdrop of comfort, comfort which is made possible by exploitation and suffering elsewhere, these pains and pleasures are nonetheless experienced as very real. The class nature of conscious is the constitutive inability to situate one's own perspective, to not see how one's anxieties fit into a larger whole which dwarfs them. The film does not just leave it at that, however. In the third act, when Marji returns to Iran, all of the bourgeois pleasures of love, alcohol, music, and sex are now seen to be political acts. The same pleasures that were seen as narcissistic in the second act are now understood to be in some sense directly political. This could be seen as a difference of context or situation, a matter of "always historicize," but I think that it reflects a larger point about Marxism, or materialism, which is understood as not an opposition to the realm of pleasure and sexuality (as it would appear in the second act) but to the system in which the pleasures are distributed. I perhaps did not state that well, but the film does a brilliant job of demonstrating how daily life can become a terrain of political struggle. In this way it stands in sharp contrast to Southland Tales, in which the "everyday" is completely filled with images of celebrities and pseudo-events, to the point of becoming entirely empty. The sad part is that it is probably more accurate.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Beyond Good and Evil: Towards a Theory of the Buddy Movie

I am currently teaching a class on the introduction to political and social theory. One of themes that I have been focusing on as of late is the connection between various political theories and their underlying conception of human nature: from Aristotle’s “social animal,” to Hobbes “man is a wolf to man,” to Rousseau’s state of natural pity and self-sufficiency. My pedagogical point is fairly basic; I am trying to stress the importance of “political philosophy” that political questions of the state, law, and right cannot be dissociated from philosophical questions, in this case those of a philosophical anthropology. Even as an introductory pedagogical strategy it has its limits. First, students are all too quick to speak as if they know what human nature is, apparently it can be gleamed from some anecdotes from high school and a few seasons of Survivor. Second, and more importantly, it sets up a rather basic classificatory schema for understanding political philosophy, in which there are those who think that people are bad and those who think people are good. My point in setting this connection up, however, is to problematize it and go beyond it, a process that starts with teaching Rousseau and continues into Marx, Mills, and some anarchist writers (Goldman and Graeber).

In a short essay titled “Anthropology and Theory of Institutions” Paolo Virno reflects on this same connection between politics and anthropology. As Virno argues, this connection cuts both ways in that theories of human nature are also implicitly political. (Anyone who doubts this point needs only to read some of what gets called “evolutionary psychology.”) As Virno writes:

Let us avoid any misunderstandings: it would be unrealistic, even farcical, to believe that a model of the just society could be deducible from certain bio-anthropological invariants. Every political program is rooted in an unprecedented socio-historical context (religious civil wars in Hobbes’s case, a productive process directly based on the power of verbal thought in our own), confronting a unique constellation of passions and interests. Nevertheless, collective action is really contingent precisely because, while it seizes hold of the most volatile reality, it takes charge, in unpredictable and changing ways, of what is not contingent, which is to say of bio-anthropological invariants themselves. The reference to human nature does not dull, but rather accentuates to the highest degree, the particular and unrepeatable character of a political decision, the obligation to act in due time [tempo debito], the perception that yesterday was perhaps too early and tomorrow will be too late.

As much as Virno asserts the simultaneous unavoidable and unanswerable question of human nature he also seeks to separate the link that connects the “left” (communist, Anarchist, etc.) with some naïve belief in a fundamentally good human nature. (Anyone who has taught Marx knows how unavoidable this particular little ideological machine is; the fundamentally unavoidable nature of greed has become the strongest justification of capitalism.) As Virno writes: “Radicalism hostile to the state’ and to the capitalist mode of production, far from presupposing the innate meekness of our species, can find its genuine basis in the full recognition of the ‘problematic’ character of the human animal – which is to say its indefinite and potential (in other words, also dangerous) character.” Radical transformation of the existing order is not based on some supposed cooperative or collective character but on the indeterminacy of human existence, that are natural drives and desires only exist in their cultural articulation. This articulation can push these desires in multiple directions, for better or worse. For Virno the “social animal” that is at the basis of politics is neither good nor evil, but the unavoidable possibility of each.

Starting for a very different place Dominic Pettman makes a point that is somewhat related in Love and Other Technologies. Part of Pettman’s reflection begins with a fact so mundane it is rarely commented on, what could be called the conundrum of “serial monogamy.” That most people will fall in love multiple times, with multiple people, all of whom will seem to be “the one,” at least for the night. Pettman will use this fact to reflect on the generic and singular nature of human existence, eventually tending towards a thought of what Agamben termed “whatever being.”

No matter how much it insults our delicate sensibilities, the fact that remains that we are eminently replaceable on the macro or social plane…And that is why we must refuse to draw lines, distinctions, borders and conclusions prematurely. Precisely because everyone is a potential lover, he or she also is a potential victim of our hatred, and we foreclose on our own futures when we internalize an identity-as-essence or when we count off our conditions of belonging like rosaries or worry beads.

Love like hatred is always about a set of qualities, but it is never reducible to them. As much as we might have our types, the list of things that we look for or desire, their remains that irreducible “something” that is more than the sum total of items on a list. Moreover, there is often that point in any relationship when the very qualities that could have made up a list of desirable qualities become intolerable annoyances. Just as “good” and “evil” relate back to the undetermined potential, which is always capable of being determined in multiple ways, love and hatred relate to the indeterminacy and specificity of a person, their simultaneous generic interchangeability and specific singularity. What links these two arguments is that they attempt to think a politics from the perspective of what could only be called the “transindividual” (to use Simondon’s term), from the characteristics and relations that constitute the backdrop of individuals, rather than from already constitute human beings, or human natures.

So what does all of this have to do with the “Buddy film”? The Buddy film like the screwball romantic comedy begins with two people who completely detest each other and of course by the end that joined in homosocial friendship or heteronormative love. It is easy to interpret these films according to a version of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, in which misrecognition turns to recognition. Following Virno and Perelman it is possible to read this scenario differently; it is not so much a matter of moving from what was falsely seen to what is truly there (the cad is a sensitive gentleman, the heiress has a heart of gold, the gruff older cop has a profound sense of justice), in which one set of qualities replaces another. Rather, it is a matter of grasping the inessential nature of all qualities, their existence as potentiality and not essences.

Most of the time our relations, our loves and friendships, are narcissistic, we love those who are like ourselves. We treat our neighbor like ourselves so long as they are like us to begin with. However, every once and awhile the vicissitudes of location, work, politics, family, or even desire bring us close to someone with whom we have nothing in common, and yet we build some kind of relation. We could see these as the expression of some kind of human nature, that supposed thing that we all possess, or we could see them as a critique of the nature of the individual as an essence, as the sum total of its qualities.