Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vietnam is in Our Boardroom: Or, Everyone is a Colonist to Someone

Shelton has been doing a great job with this season of Mad Men over at his blog. I do not want to intrude, but I had a few thoughts about this week’s episode. First, I have been rereading Kristin Ross' May ’68 and its Afterlives, a book that I still think is very important, albeit a bit too heavily influenced by Rancière. This last point is not so much meant as a criticism of Ross or Rancière, it just reflects a general problem: how to theorize an event that is itself the impetus behind so much thought, so much theory? Interpreting it through the lense of one theorist (why not Deleuze, Badiou, Foucault, the situationists?) seems like an unfortunate reduction. But, I digress…

Anyway, at some point in her book she discusses the role that the anti-colonial struggles, Algieria and Vietnam, played in radicalizing French politics, making way for the famous events of May. One example of this is the phrase “Vietnam is in Our Factories.” The phrase is taken from a Fiat strike in Turin, but in Ross’ view it captures some of thought and action of the French sixties, in which the direct and brutal exploitation in the colonies exposed exploitation at the heart of the West. Such an idea can even be traced back to Marx, who recognized the necessity of primitive accumulation, and thus of violence in the more open colonies. As Marx writes, “In the old civilized countries the worker, although free, is by a law of nature dependent on the capitalist; in the colonies this dependence must be created by artificial means. ”

What does any of this have to do with Mad Men. Well after watching last weeks episode I thought about the phrase that Ross cites, or my own twist on it. This was my reaction to the brutal and shocking scene at the center of this week’s episode. [Spoiler alert] I am referring to the scene in which the hapless secretary, Lois, runs over Guy Mckendrick’s foot with a lawn mower in the offices of Sterling-Cooper. The riding lawnmower is Ken Cosgrove’s trophy from his latest victory, securing the John Deere account. This scene, which is shot with all of the conventions of cinematic violence (the blood that spatters across the faces and shirts of Sterling Cooper’s junior executives), is a shock because it is such a departure from the show’s aesthetic of smoldering understatement. What does it have to do with Vietnam? Well for starters in a few moments before, at the company party, members of the staff were discussing the escalating war in Vietnam. The blood and screams that follows a few seconds later feels like an interruption of traumatic reality at the heart of the shows fantasy of the sixties. One of the interesting things about this season is the way in which blood and violence has gradually begun to enter the show’s frame: Gene’s war souvenir, the self-immolation of a Monk, and Medgar Evers’ ghostly presence. The bloody foot, and the shattered life of a young man, is then just part of the escalation.

Beyond that, the scene got me thinking about the way in which the particular episode is all about colonizers and colonized. First, there are the obvious references to Sterling Cooper’s new British owners (I forget the company name) arriving for an inspection visit on the eve of the Fourth of July. Beyond that the episode is riddled with visual cues of empires that have fallen: Japanese and British armor decorate the halls, a member of the company is sent to the new offices in Bombay, and so on. Beyond these literal colonies there is the way in which the past weighs on the present. The moment before the violent explosion of blood is also framed by Joan and Peggy’s discussion of their different attempts to deal with the crushing weight of patriarchy: Joan’s attempt to marry her way out of the office and Peggy’s difficult climb into the male dominated world of copywriting. Their different routes out of the restricted life of secretary have led to conflicts between them, but Peggy is trying to make peace, a peace founded upon a recognition of their shared condition as women in the sixties. Lastly, there is the story that frames the episode, Sally Draper’s difficulty in dealing not so much with the death of her grandfather, but his apparent rebirth in the form of her brother. (After all, he looks the same, and even sleeps in the same room). What can these be, but the ultimate colony: the way in which the past, dead labor, constantly determines the fate of the future. Sons try to be their fathers, daughters are shaped to be like their mothers (complete with Barbie) and colonies eventually become colonizers.

Thus, to close with Marx:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Man is a Wolf to Man: An Appreciation of Wolfen

One could argue that the three classic monsters of American culture are the vampire, zombie, and the werewolf, each handed down by folklore and solidified in popular culture. (I am leaving the Mummy out of this, as well as Frankenstein’s monster which is not a generic type, but a specific monster) Of these three the first two are definitely dominant. They not only make up much of the films, comics, and TV shows, but they have proven themselves the most versatile in terms of both the kinds of stories they can tell and what they can symbolize. Vampires are truly polymorphous in their significations. They are situated everywhere that sex intersects with death and fear. Zombies have proven to be much more versatile, symbolizing everything from the drudgery of work to the insatiable desire to consume.

Werewolves have lagged behind their cinematic brethren for at least two reasons. The first is purely technical. The werewolf is difficult to pull off, it is hard to combine the figure of the wolf with that of a human in a way that looks both convincing and menacing. The new CGI technologies do not really help either, leaving us with oddly hairless werewolves in the case of the Underworld movies. More importantly the werewolf has not proven itself so adept at symbolization, at providing the subtext that makes a horror movie work. There is the general theme of the animal within, but this is almost too literal, too direct, in the case of the werewolf. When it comes to symbolizing unchecked desires, the id within, the vampire and zombie have the market cornered. Vampires have become such versatile symbols of sexuality that they can cover everything from queer identity (True Blood) to the fear and desire of a first sexual encounter (Buffy). Zombies cover a more inchoate desire or hunger, but one that has been linked to shopping ever since Romero’s zombies went to the mall. With sex and consumption covered there is very little left of unchecked desire for the werewolf to symbolize.

However, it is possible to detect a bit of exhaustion with each of the two big figures. When vampires become part of a series of novels about teenage abstinence and when zombies are part of a Woody Harrelson comedy, one has to ask how many more movies can be churned out. It is at this point that our attention turns toward the werewolf as perhaps the next big thing in movies. In order for this to happen the werewolf will have to find its place in some kind of symbolic economy.

(This idea, the idea of the monster as symbol, is not sophisticated at all; in fact, one could argue that it constitutes a kind of degree zero of film interpretation, cited by almost anyone who does not know the gaze from the look. That is precisely my interest in it, and in so-called genre films themselves, which demand at least a minimum of interpretation to be viewed at all)

All of this is really a preamble to writing a few words about Wolfen. I know that I saw this movie years and years ago, during an adolescence in which I watched a lot of monster movies. Infinite thought posted about the film recently, suggesting a secret connection between it and Chris Marker, at least at the level of documentary footage (scroll down to September 5th). This prompted me to watch the film again.

The opening scene situates the film within the universe of the post-Watergate paranoid thrillers and the early films of Cronenberg. It is a world in which total and complete surveillance is emerging as a reality, carried out by a global corporation in a sterile and imposing office tower. This corporation, ESS, is responsible for protecting the elite against such forces as the Red Brigades, NAM, and Red Army Faction (all mentioned by name in the film). Caught between these two global forces are the police, city coroner, and a scientist at the city zoo, their dilapidated offices stand in sharp contrast to ultra sleek interiors of the corporations and super rich. This is very much a film about urban space, about the layers of space as the new city is built over the old. The old city cannot be entirely effaced by the new--the ruins, Native Americans, and wolves remain. The spaces also constitute a kind of shorthand for the dynamics of power: the powerful inhabit the skyscrapers and the powerless dwell in the derelict spaces of old buildings, the middle ground is made up of small shops and overburdened structures of civil society.

The plot of the movie begins when the wolves (or, inexplicably, wolfen) attack and kill a wealthy real estate developer, his wife, and driver. (As something of an aside I should point out that these are wolves, at least in appearance, and not awkward half-wolf/half human creatures that I wrote about above. Their human part comes in through their intelligence, and the suggestion that they were once part of an original tribe of man and wolf, a kind of cross-species primitive communism) The police and private corporation (ESS) each conduct their investigation of the murders, and from that point forward the film becomes explicitly about what is seen and unseen. This is highlighted in the films primary special effect, a kind of wolf-vision, in which the wolf’s perspectives is shown in a kind of pseudo-infrared, seeing in the dark where humans cannot see. Less explicitly, the corporation turns its attention to the usual subjects, various international terrorist groups and even a disgruntled rich daughter, playing at being radical, subjecting them to the latest biometric techniques to distinguish truth from fiction. In contrast to this the cop, Dewey Wilson (played by Albert Finney) teams up with the city coroner (played by Gregory Hines) to investigate the margins of the city, derelict spaces and a Native American bar. All of the different actors of the film are distinguished as much by what they can see as what they look at.

The difference of vision is not just framed in terms of how the two investigation agencies look—the corporation rounding up subjects to place in their high tech monitoring equipment versus the street smart cop investigating leads—but ultimately in terms of what they see. Wilson’s investigation leads to an encounter with a group of Native Americans who have relocated to New York City to work in the construction industry. One of these, Eddie Holt (played by Edward James Olmos), plays the role of informant, explaining to Wilson the origin of the wolves that live at the heart of New York City. As Holt and an elderly native American explain to Wilson.

Eddie Holt: It's not wolves, it's Wolfen. For 20,000 years Wilson- ten times your fucking Christian era- the 'skins and wolves, the great hunting nations, lived together, nature in balance. Then the slaughter came.The smartest ones, they went underground into a new wilderness, YOUR CITIES. You have your technology but you lost. You lost your senses
Elderly Native American: In their world, there can be no lies, no crimes.
Eddie Holt: No need for detectives.
Elderly Native American: In their eyes, YOU ARE THE SAVAGE.

In the end this how Wilson does not so much solve the crime, but brings the narrative to a close, by recognizing that the savage and brutal attacks that he has been investigating are a kind of justice. He learns to see himself as savage, as outsider, to his own city. The wealthy real estate developer killed in the beginning was planning to convert the wolves’ space, the abandoned buildings they live in, hunting the sick and forgotten of the human pack, into condos and commercial development. In the final scene, when Wilson is cornered and surrounded by the wolf pack, he destroys the model of the new real estate development. This is an interesting reversal of the clichéd scene from horror and fantasy movies in which the protagonist has to destroy the magic amulet or some other cursed object in order to destroy the monster: the same magic which created the monster must be destroyed, restoring a natural balance. In this case the monster is us, and what has to be destroyed is not some primitive magic, but a symbol of urban gentrification. In the end what makes the movie interesting is how it solves the problem of the werewolf as symbol and subtext. The wolves are not symbols of some repressed animal nature, but are the return of the repressed, the vengeance of a population subject to genocidal slaughter.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Teenage Caveman: or, Leroi-Gourhan Explains the Eternal Appeal of Teen Movies

Years ago I purchased a used copy of André Leroi-Gourhan's Gesture and Speech . My purchase at the time was motivated by a vague memory of a few references to Leroi-Gourhan in Anti-Oedipus combined with a desire to have some kind of ultimate library, made up of all kinds of obscure yet important texts. It remained unread and even untouched for years, and I only picked it up at the end of the summer after reading some of Bernard Stiegler’s writing. My first impression, which was perhaps already indicated by the multiple references throughout Stiegler’s writing, was that Leroi-Gourhan is perhaps more of a central figure for Stiegler than I first thought, much more central than Simondon.

I expected that Stiegler developed his general idea of the connection between technics and memory from Leroi-Gourhan. After all, the central thesis of Leroi-Gourhan’s book is that mankind emerges with the first tool, the tool that even in its most basic instrumental function is inseparable from the exteriorization of a memory, that anthropogenesis is inseparable from the history of technology. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“The whole of our evolution has been oriented toward placing outside ourselves what in the rest of the animal world is achieved inside by species adaptation. The most striking material fact is certainly the “freeing” of tools, but the fundamental fact is really the freeing of the world and our unique ability to transfer our memory to a social organism outside ourselves.”

This idea, the idea that mankind constitutes a memory through tools, figures, and language, simultaneously constituting a who (a sense of ethnic identity) and a what (a material culture) is central to Stiegler’s philosophy. What I did not expect is that Leroi-Gourhan would have his own version of the destructive effects of the modern transformation of culture and memory. Whereas Stiegler’s concern is primarily with the way in which the industrialization of memory through film, television, and the internet precludes even the minimum amount of interaction on the part of the individual, Leroi-Gourhan is more worried about the standardization and massification of a global monoculture. As Leroi-Gourhan writes:

“An increasingly small minority will plan not only society’s vital political, administrative, and technical programs but also its ration of emotions, its epic adventures, its image of a life which will have become totally figurative—for the transition from real social life to one that is purely figurative can take place quite smoothly.”

Two interesting passages that I would like to remark on follow from this, or rather are associated, since one actually comes before it in the text. The first is a prediction about the future, which is interestingly wrong in the way that only a fifty-year old book can be. Leroi-Gourhan predicts that generations will be increasingly raised on pre-packaged and pre-constituted cultural memories (his analogy is canned food) so much so that the future cultural producers will have no raw material, no unmediated experiences from which to draw on. Thus Leroi-Gourhan predicts the following:

“Ten generations from now a writer selected to produce social fiction will probably be sent on a “renaturation” course in a park a corner of which he or she will have to till a plough copied from a museum exhibit and pulled by a horse borrowed from a zoo. He or she will cook and eat the family meal at the family table, organize neighborhood visits, enact a wedding, sell cabbages from a market stall…and learn anew how to relate to the ancient writings of Gustave Flaubert to the meagerly reconstituted reality, after which this person will no doubt be capable of submitting a batch of freshened up emotions to the broadcasting authorities.”

(I am going to just remark in passing how much this sounds like a George Saunders story)

The ten generations have not yet come to past, but I still feel secure in declaring this to have missed the mark. Leroi-Gourhan assumes that social literature needs to be drawn from some kind of ideal of unmediated experience, of nature. What he has missed is one of the defining characteristics of so-called postmodern culture: the way in which the plurality of genres, clichés, and manufactured experiences can itself become the raw material of culture. Films, books, and music do not need to refer to anything else than other films or books, cut up and reassembled. There is no need to sell cabbages in order to relate to Flaubert, not when one could write
Madam Bovary and Mole Men.

Leroi-Gourhan suggests that this ideal of a totally manufactured experience is an impossibility in the second passage.

“The age we live in is still filled with survivals from the past. The city worker still goes out to watch a soccer game, catch a fish, or attend a parade, and still has a life of responsiveness, restricted it is true but one that may stretch to taking part in the activities of a club. If we exclude the vital cycle, activities involving direct response are increasingly confined to adolescence and the pre-conjugal period, when direct participation is necessary to collective survival. Until we get to the stage already reached by the species of domestic animals that are best suited to productivity—the stage of artificial insemination—it would, for the time being, seem that a modicum of social aesthetics will continue to surround our years of social maturing.”

I am less interested in his remarks about the uneven development of cultural experience, despite the fact that is seems to be true, than I am in his allusion to a general theory of adolescence. As much of life becomes administered, subject to rules and structures, adolescence remains the last remnant of “activities involving direct response.” This is in part due to the vital cycle, to sexuality as a necessary component of human existence, but it is also due to the undetermined nature of identity (Leroi-Gourham makes a reference to adolescence and insect larvae.) In Leroi-Gourhan’s world-view, which mourns the loss of “ethnic” belonging, in the name of some mega-ethnic global culture, high school cliques are perhaps all that remains of transindividual culture, of groups that can be influenced as much as they influence one. One can always transform one’s clique by coining  a phrase, inventing a look,  or be the one who introduces an important aspect of music or literature. There are the last collective that we both constitute and are constituted by, everything that comes after, the school, the factory, the company, the army, etc., is less open to our interventions. I am not sure that I totally agree with all of this, but it does offer an interesting take on why we return to teen dramas again and again. They offer us a moment when we acted with drama and determination.

If you put these two remarks together, however, the derivative nature of modern culture and the endless appeal of adolescence, you get the endless remakes of High School dramas and John Hughes knock offs. Perhaps Leroi-Gourhan predicted the future better than I first thought.