Monday, July 21, 2008

The Many Faces and Names of Finitude

In Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (a book which will require a more thorough review at another time), Stiegler suggests that the original relation between anthropology and technology should be considered through the perspective of a thanatology. It is death that introduces the fundamental absence through which technology enters into the world. It is because we die, and are aware of this fact that we create a memory for ourselves in the form of languages, tools, and devices. Animals, which are ignorant of their death, are also unaware of artifice.

Death has been elevated to an almost all encompassing philosopheme (to borrow Derrida’s term). Of course it started with Heidegger, but from Heidegger it has expanded, become ubiquitous as a sort of paradoxical concept, the transcendence of non-transcendence, the universality of the singular, such that language, history, and technology are seen to be grounded, or ungrounded in a primordial relationship with death.

Now, I am playing a bit fast and loose here, running over themes that have been developed with great care. My main point is to underscore the ubiquity of death as a philosophical theme. To be fair to Stiegler he does not completely fall into this pattern, devoting as much time to the origin of mankind as to the end. However, my point here is to quickly sketch a picture based on a reaction, so I ask for your indulgence, dear reader.

Spinoza is perhaps the philosopher that stands outside of this “thanatology,” meditation on finitude, but not just because he stated that a “free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.” That statement taken by itself could be understood as simply a stoic refusal, easily dismissed as yet another way of evading the most primal and final fact of existence. However, Spinoza’s other remark about death is much more interesting. The passage reads as follows:

“But here it should be noted that I understand the body to die when its parts are so disposed that they acquire a different proportion of motion and rest to one another. For I dare not deny that—even though the circulation of the blood is maintained, as well as the other [signs] on account of which the body is thought to be alive—the human body can nevertheless be changed into another nature entirely different from its own. For no reason compels me to maintain that the body does not die unless it is changed into a corpse.”

Death is no longer the end all and be all of transformation. It must simply be thought as one transformation among others. Spinoza’s examples from the fantastic, the amnesia of a certain “Spanish Poet,” to the mundane, the radical gulf that separates the infant from the adult, all attest to a series of transformations of which death might be the final (decomposition?) but not necessarily the most dramatic. What I think Spinoza is developing is another thought of finitude. It is not finitude as the end of my individual existence, but my individual existence, insofar as it is individuated, as my finitude. What is difficult to think is not so much my end, the day that I die, as the limit of my existence, but the fact that my existence in its supposed freedom is itself limited.

Spinoza’s idea of life as a series of transformations prefigures Simondon’s idea of he discontinuous nature of psychic individuation. For Simondon the subject is never identical with its individuation, it carries with it a certain excess, pre-individual singularities, habits, capacities, and affects that exceed its identity. This excess manifests itself in moments of anxiety, moments in which one recognizes that one has been individuated in a particular way, accumulating particular habits, desires, and associations, but could be individuated otherwise. Psychic individuation, the individuation of character and self, passes through a series of discontinuous ruptures, moments of anxiety. As Muriel Combes indicates, it is only in these moments of transformation that we perceive transindividuality, our social existence. Transindividuality is not community, or society, the banal fact of the presence of others, but the recognition that others, other bodies, make up the most intimate facts of our existence.

In my view death remains all too subjective to be a radical figure of finitude. Who has not imagined their own death, their own funeral, or a world without their existence, as in It's a Wonderful Life? Such fantasies confirm, rather than negate individual identity. (Of course I realize that this is not at all what Heidegger, Derrida, Nancy, and Stiegler are talking about, but I am never entirely sure if an idea can be totally separated from its recuperations and rereadings). It is more difficult to recognize that even in one’s identity one is finite, determined by history and place. I suppose that is what I am gesturing towards: an idea of finitude as history.

Etienne Balibar writes in a provocative formulation: “For philosophy ideology is the materialist name of its own finitude.” Ideology refers to the social relations that condition philosophy but are never mastered by it. Thus, it is possible to argue that the materialist name of finitude is not necessarily death, not necessarily the end of this “mortal coil” but the very constitution of this coil.

Of course any Heideggarian worth their salt will simply point out that death, finitude, is a condition of history.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Cinema of Isolation

Image from "that book by derrida" on Flickr

The movies construct subjectivity. This is true in at least two senses. Taken to its extreme, this statement would mean that the movies, taken here in the broadest sense of the term to include whatever is projected onto any screen of any dimensions, TV, computer, ipod, construct subjectivity by giving the audience the codes, affects, and styles that make up the basic backdrop of our existence. In a more moderate sense this would mean simply that the movies construct subjectivity on the screen, convert a series of images into characters, or subjects. This construction is laid bare whenever something non-human, a car, a duck, a zombie, a robot, is given subjectivity, depth. The basic vocabulary of this construction is “shot-reverse-shot,” show the object then the thing reacting to the object (a shot of the face, or whatever stands in for the face), then an action on the second thing, action, contemplation, reaction, the basic elements of subjectivity. As Walter Benjamin argued, subjectivity is often constructed on the cutting room floor.

It goes without saying that Wall-e is a film about isolation, about separation, and ultimately about loneliness. It goes without saying, but it is worth mentioning that we are talking about a children’s cartoon that deals with these things. What is perhaps interesting is that every character in the film is presented as lonely or isolated in some sense, and their ways of coping with this reflect aspects of contemporary life.

Wall-e, the film’s central character, is introduced through his loneliness and isolation. The opening third of the film defines him a character, a subject, that is not only alone (shots of other broken down robots, of huge expanses of wasteland) but lonely. This loneliness is established through his relation with objects. Wall-e collects objects found in the garbage, objects like the rubik cube, the dolls, the lighters, and the video tape that seem to suggest a world. The objects not only reflect a world, one that is gone, but make up a world, a world that defines an interior subjective space; a point that is reinforced in the final moments of the film, when these same objects are used to awaken Wall-e’s memory, to remind him who he is.

Aboard the spaceship we meet the humans who are isolated in a fundamentally different way. The denizens of the spaceship Axiom cruise about in separate floating chairs, interacting only through screens no matter how physically close they may be. The image conjures up a phrase that Hardt and Negri use discuss the current spectacle, which they describe as—“individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens.” In this way the humans occupy a strange sort of isolation, they are not alone, in fact they are unified in their isolation or isolated in their unity. They travel along parallel tracks, never seeing anything outside the screen in front of them. Moreover, such isolation is only possible given a great deal of social organization, even if in this case it falls to robots. Such a situation recalls Marx’s overlooked, but important description of modern existence as a kind of asocial sociality:

“Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.”

The humans in the film take this to an almost absurd level, they are the completely isolated consuming subject, infantilized, overweight, and absolutely passive. In fact this opens up many questions, they are so isolated, so disconnected, it remains difficult to see how they could ever reproduce. More disappointingly, the film subscribes to the worse ideology of ideology: the idea that to escape ideology it is enough to turn off the screen and simply open one’s eyes to reality. We all know what happens when the screen turns blank, when the machine breaks down, people do not see reality and each other for the first time, they call tech support or the cable company. (It is perhaps too much to expect ideology critique from a Disney film, but those opening scenes of a desolate and abandoned Earth are just so good, it tends to get one’s hopes up.)

To conclude somewhat abruptly, the movie outlines several contemporary strategies for dealing with isolation, and what strikes me is how easy it is to map them unto contemporary existence. Wall-e embodies a particular idea of fan culture: collecting objects with nostalgia for a better world, and watching the same film again and again to extract lessons. In our contemporary world he would be shopping on ebay and keeping a blog on old musicals. While the human’s in the film embody a kind of digitally connected materially disconnected existence. In our world they would have hundreds of “friends” on facebook, but little or no contact with their neighbors. I am not sure what children think of this film, but it does seem well suited to prepare them for life in the contemporary world.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Follow the Money

What follows are some reflections on the final season of The Wire so Spoiler Alert.

The fifth season of The Wire is best understood as the intersection, maybe even the collision, of two trajectories. The first is the culmination of a theme introduced in the first season, namely money. Money has always been an integral part of the drug investigation on The Wire, but it is also that which expands and disrupts the drug investigation connecting it to the broader world of politicians and corruption. As Lester Freamon stated in the first season, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.” The second theme is unique to the fifth season, and constitutes something of a meta-level reflection of the show itself and that is the relation of truth and fiction.

Money appears in a dialectic of excess and poverty. The city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Sun are confronted with a massive shortage of money, and the show details the disastrous effects that this has not only on morale but on the capacity for such institutions to function. As the editor of the Sun claims, it is necessary to do more with less, a glib phrase that, like so many clichés, proves to be impossible in practice. As the series demonstrates, the layoffs are much more than a numerical reduction of the number of employees working at the paper; they destroy the foundation of knowledge and connection that a newspaper rests on, as reporters with experience are replaced by new reporters lacking in basic knowledge of the city. (Part of Simon’s theme that people are not quantifiable, not calculable in the form of costs and benefits). On the side of excess, the money trail leads to Clay Davis, who in the end proves to be less of the top of the pyramid than dense nodal point of corruption. Money does not just flow from the street to the halls of politics, but back out through the lawyers who pay for inside information about the courts. There is also an excess of money on the street and the show details how this money is laundered and invested.

The other theme, “truth and fiction,” permeates the final season. On the meta-level there is the fact that the show deals with the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper where David Simon worked and from which he learned the stories of Baltimore that constitute the raw material for the show. The season could be understood as a reflection of the power of fiction to communicate more effectively than truth. This, after all, is the beginning of McNulty and Freamon’s serial killer lie. The truth of the dead bodies left behind by Marlo Stanfield doesn’t sell, in part because of the race of murdered, but the story of a serial killer, especially one with sexual motivations, is capable of generating headlines. On a related point, the final season also seems to be more “fictional” than previous seasons, the sprawling plotlines are cut considerably for a tighter plot that seems less plausible (from the serial killer story, to Omar’s daring leap from a window). This could be a meta-moment as well, the show reveal itself to be ultimately a cop show.

Much more could be said about both of these themes, but the interesting question has to do with examining the point where they intersect. To understand the connection between money and fiction, money and lies, is to understand contemporary capitalism. Money and fiction intersect repeatedly. First, there is the somewhat obvious connection that shows the “value” of lying, lying increase value, makes possible wealth. This is true for Clay Davis, but also for McNulty, whose lie brings him money, making him, the ultimate rebel, an awkward institution within the institution. Second, there is also the way in which money itself is revealed to be a kind of fiction, an abstraction, disconnected from its material existence. This is shown through the character of Marlo Stanfield, who takes money literally. When “The Greek” asks for clean money, Marlo returns with fresh pressed bills. Marlo also insists on traveling to the Cayman Islands, or wherever his off shore accounts are held, and seeing his money. In the age of financial capital, money is less and less a medium of exchange, a medium of value, than it is something that demonstrates the power of one’s fictions, the capacity of making people believe your story (about serial killers, investment opportunities, the future of the oil market, etc.,)

Finally, as much as I love the character, Omar Little had to die. Given that the dominant theme of the entire show is in some respects the conflict between the individual and institution, Omar has always been something of a utopian figure, a man without an institution. This is a huge aspect of his appeal, a man who lives by his own rules, his own code, representing the possibility of pure individual action, on mitigated by structure or institution. (Thus it is not surprising that Obama is a huge fan of Omar.) The closest that the show comes to a utopian moment is the scene of Omar living out his retirement (in Cuba? Puerto Rico?), suggesting a possible outside to "the game." These final moments are only a culmination of what Omar always represented: a life outside of institutions, free of the constraints of the drug world or the police. Thus, if Omar lived the show would surrender its main point; that the very institutions that make our actions possible ultimately work against us. As David Simon says, "Whatever institution you as an individual commit to will somehow find a way to betray you on "The Wire."