Sunday, June 27, 2010

Between Genre and Generic: The Book of Eli and the Post-Apocalyptic Film

The Road Warrior and Blade Runner were both released (at least in the US) in nineteen eighty-two. Neither were incredibly successful films, at least initially, but both have had a huge impact on the general social imagination. Mike Davis has labeled Blade Runner Los Angeles “official nightmare,” noting the way its polygot distopia haunts some of the most reactionary projects in LA. Beyond that one would be hard pressed to find a vision of the future in contemporary film that didn’t borrow from its rain slicked, smog choked skyscrapers (even if they were mostly borrowed from Metropolis and other films). The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2 to the rest of the world) has left even more of an indelible mark on the popular imaginary. It has pretty much invented the genre of the post-apocalyptic action movie, and its imagery makes appearances in everything from Simpson’s episodes to a Tupac video. This has gotten to the point where movies can be accurately described as “The Road Warrior at sea,” as in the case of Waterworld, which substitutes jet-skis for motorcycles and a super-charged catamaran for the last of the V-8 Interceptors. We have all more or less unconsciously accepted the fact that the future will either be one of rain soaked neon or a desert of mohawked motorcycle gangs.


 The last entry in this long list of post-apocalyptic films is the Hughes brother’s The Book of Eli. The film concerns the quest of a lone man across the post-apocalyptic wasteland, Eli, played by Denzel Washington, to deliver a book to the west, dispatching anyone who gets in his way with sword and shotgun. The book turns out to be, quite predictably, the King James Bible. When I first heard of this film I had hoped that it would borrow a page from Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which the sacred and treasured text turns out to be a rather mundane manual of electrical engineering. The conceit of that book is that after the apocalypse, in which much of mankind’s knowledge was destroyed, everyday knowledge, the knowledge of a textbook or midlevel engineer, would be exponentially more valuable than it is today.

At the level of aesthetics the film lazily borrows from The Road Warrior, but it avoids both the sartorial excesses of the latter film (in other words, no mohawks) and any real attempt to give a consistent rationale for clothes and weapons. The people generally dress in post-grunge style that wouldn’t be out of place on the street today: I swear that a woman wearing the same plaid dress as the female protagonist, Solar (played by a miscast Mila Kunis) once made me a latte. Apparently, it is a society without the ability to fabricate soap, but with the ability to manufacture bullets. Bullets in a post-apocalyptic film always strike me as off, perhaps indicating how much I am influenced by The Road Warrior, but not as much as the use of an ipod, which, given that the film takes place thirty years after the collapse of society, seems like product placement combined with a cruel joke.

At the level of plot much has been made of the quest, guided by faith, to bring a Bible across the country to the people who could restore it to its proper place. This is supposedly one of those movies for real Americans in the heartland, a brief interruption in the steady stream of pinko-communist films that Hollywood churns out. The actual situation of the Bible is a little more complex than that, however. First, we have the character of Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman (it is an unwritten rule of Hollywood that an actor who begins his career with interesting performances will end it chewing up the scenery as the villain in various blockbusters) who knows the location of a water spring, and uses this knowledge to run a small town. Carnegie has read his Machiavelli, in the film he is shown reading a biography of Mussolini, and thus he knows that,“Only ecclesiastical rulers have states, but no need to defend them; subjects, but no need to govern them.” For him the Bible, possibly the last remaining Bible, is a source of power, making it possible to expand beyond what he can command with guns and a armored short bus. Since the events of the film take place thirty years after the apocalyptic war, and the destruction of civilization, most of the people who would remember the Bible are dead. The power of the Bible is not based on its immense hegemonic power as a common point of reference, as it was for Machiavelli, but on its sheer force as an aesthetic object, “the power of its words” as it is said in the film. This idea of the Bible as something that would have force ex nihilo seems a bit strained to me. Or, more to the point, it overlooks one of the most interesting elements of the post-apocalyptic narrative: the cultural bricolage of a society after some cataclysmic destruction of society, the way in which bits and fragments of the old culture are reassembled and given new meaning. (For example: Timothy Truman’s Scout comic books in which there is a new religion based on a combination of the Bible and the Lord of the Rings.) The utopian dimension of post-apocalyptic films lies in exactly this reinvention of the remnants of the old world (something that the Talking Heads understood): mundane objects take on new meanings, shoulder pads become acceptable everyday wear. Post-apocalyptic films are often about the revenge of use value, understood as myriad of acceptable uses, against the imperialism of exchange value. To return to the chain of thoughts begun above regarding the status of religion in the film, the film tries to present a liberal critique of religion, which attempts to differentiate its true core from its evil misuse, in these two figures of religion: the main of faith and the cynical exploiter of religion. Ultimately, the meaning of the Bible becomes more ambiguous, as I discuss below.


What is perhaps a little more interesting is that the film is in some ways a film about literacy. Franco Berardi has coined the term “post-alpha generation” to refer to the current generation, to those who have learned more words from machines than from their parents. This idea of a post literate generation, of a fundamental shift from reading, at least engaged reading of anything more than one hundred and forty characters, shows up in multiple places, from the works of Bernard Stiegler to the pages of the New York Times. The film stages this generational gap by inverting it: it is not the conflict between an older literate generation and a younger, post literate generation, raised on instant messaging and YouTube clips, but between an older generation that can read and a younger one that cannot. In this way the film becomes a strange staging of a generation in cultural decline (and aging). One of the best (but still botched) scenes in the films shows an isolated farmhouse where an elderly couple is holed-up against the rampaging gangs of the post-apocalyptic wasteland. At one point they put on an old hand crank turntable to play a record: one expects to hear some song that would be appropriate to a hand cranked turn table only to hear Anita Ward sing “Ring My Bell.” The incongruity makes sense, given that the movie takes place at least thirty years in the future, the old couple are us, the film’s audience. The film asks its generation X audience (who else even remembers the Hughes brothers) to contemplate their own decline and obsolescence. As much as it is a film about a kind of cultural decline, however, it is also a film of the advantages of the “alpha” generation, of the skills of reading and memory against those who live in the perpetual present of survival.

Now back to that Bible: Eli eventually makes it west, to Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay, where a small group of people have dedicated themselves to salving the cultural treasures of the old world. One of the final scenes of the film details the reprinting of the Bible, showing with loving detail layout of the typeset and the production of pages. This Bible, with the words “Alcatraz Press” on its spine, is then shelved with the Torah and Koran (either the 200s in the Dewey Decimal system or BL in the Library of Congress system). This could be seen as the ultimate message of tolerance, undermining the film’s vaguely Christian theme of faith guiding a man through the desert. However, I prefer to see this last scene, with all of these great books in a prison differently. Religion is referenced in the film as a source of the war and conflict, and placing the name of a prison on the spine of these hallowed tomes seems to send a different message than one of faith of tolerance. As Marx wrote, "The Tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

These last scenes of the printing of the Bible are juxtaposed with shots of the Solara, Eli's companion, leaving the prison of cultural patrimony to return to the desert, listening to an ipod. Perhaps this last image invokes a different idea of the Bible, not faith but exodus.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Consider Me a Fan: Brief Review of Toscano's Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea

The current age could be described as one that is opposed to fanaticism. Fanaticism is the name that we have given our enemy in the current “war on terror,” but the contemporary opposition to fanaticism goes beyond the specific spectre of Islamic terror. Fanaticism is the generic name of what must be opposed at all cost. This is the lesson that seems to have been drawn from the previous century: the various crimes of the past, Stalinism, Fascism, and Nazism, have been stripped of their specific political and historical conditions and reduced to the original sin of fanaticism. In order to get some sense of this opposition to a generic an unspecified fanaticism, one only has to read some of the critiques of neoliberal policy (and neoconservative ideology), which do not focus on its disastrous effects or ill-conceived philosophy, but on the “fanatical” dimension of its adherent’s belief. Fanaticism is a criticism of the way one holds their ideas, and not the ideas themselves: as such it can be applied to any idea.

What emerges from this general critique of fanaticism is a particular ethos, an ideal of having no ideals. One should be tolerant, flexible, open to debate, and, above all, not a fanatic. (It is worth noting that this “opportunism” is precisely what the current labor market demands: ideas and convictions are bad business). Albert Toscano’s Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is best understood as an intervention in this particular ideological consensus, an intervention that, as the vaguely Nietzschean title suggests, takes the form of a genealogy. As with most genealogies, the point of the historical examinations is to take us back to a point where our established conceptual coordinates, such as the one between fanaticism and enlightenment, fall apart. If the current era is one that often juxtaposes the Enlightenment, understood as tolerance and respect for individual rights, to fanaticism, then part of Toscano’s analysis is to demonstrate how this opposition falls apart in the face of history. The figures of the Enlightenment, most notably Kant, were at once critics of the excesses of dogmaticism and criticized for their fanatic commitment to the abstract ideals of freedom and right. In this respect “anti-fanatics” include not just famous conservatives like Burke, but all defenders of given customs; defenders of slavery and other established dominations saw themselves as defenders against the excesses of fanatical reason. Toscano cites Dominic Losurdo on this opposition to the fanaticism of ideas in Kant:

“The refusal of theory is the refusal of any project of radical transformation, a project which is either judged empty and abstract because of its transcendence vis-à-vis the existing social-political system, or is ruinous and appalling because of its pretense to realize concretely, even through harsh struggles, a new social-political order.”

Toscano’s project is not a simple revalorization of fanaticism; in fact, it is the strength of his book to argue both against the anti-fanatic consensus and the various revitalizations of subjective commitment, or fidelity, on the part of Badiou and Zizek. Ultimately, Toscano’s focus is to argue that what is lacking in the anti-fanatic consensus, in which the label “fanatic” is bandied about to various ideals and religions, and everyone claims to be opposed to the fanaticism of the other, is an understanding of the different modalities of abstraction in society. Fanaticism always relates to an abstraction, to an ideal, but as such it is situated against other abstractions, those of religion (in the case of enlightenment) and the everyday abstractions of capitalism. An understanding of fanaticism must grasp how it functions in these other abstractions. Toscano demonstrates this by countering the facile but persistent claim that Marxism is a religion with an examination of Marx’s critique of religion and the religion of everyday life in capitalism.

It is on this last point that I would offer not so much a criticism, but a rejoinder of sorts. Toscano argues that part of his project is to help philosophy escape from its long cold war, “which vies unconditional conviction and principled egalitarianism with horror or contempt.” It seems to me that doing so means overcoming, or at least examining, the current opposition between the abstractions that are ideals, universality, equality, etc., and the abstractions that are directly lived, without taking the form of ideals. Toscano does some of this in his discussion of Marx, and I know from having read his work on “real abstraction” that he, more than nearly anyone, is aware of the complexity of abstraction in capitalism. As Toscano writes, “Whether we are dealing with money or with religion, the crucial error is to treat real abstractions as mere ‘arbitrary products of human reflection.” So, all I am really doing here is trying to connect to lines, connecting the critique of the critique of fanaticism with a critique of the real abstractions of everyday life. Failing to do so leads back into the morass of anti-fanaticism. This is my criticism of those who criticize neoliberalism as “Market Stalinism,” as a dogmatism of the market (which Toscano does not do). What such criticism misses is that outside of Friedman, Rand, and their acolytes, commitment to neoliberal practices is produced, naturalized, as it were, by the micro-politics of everyday life, by the axioms of the market. Escaping the cold war entails not just overcoming the consensus against “fanaticism,” that hangs over every egalitarian ideal, but the less overt reproduction of the existing order as simply the way of the world, as a fact without commitment or passion.

Final unrelated note: Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle are apparently writing a book about “Cognitive Mapping.” They have set up a blog called Cartographies of the Absolute to post some of their research. It is not only good reading, it is also proof that at least three people think that the world needs a Marxist reading of Wolfen.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Methlab of Democracy: More on the Micropolitics of Neoliberalism

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, in a quip that is smarter than he knows, referred to Arizona as “the methlab of democracy.” His reference is primarily to the immigration law. Stewart probably just meant that Arizona’s law is crazy, hence methlab. (Crazy and racist, he actually gets in some good points about the latter as well, comparing the law to slavery era legislation). However, I think that there is a good reason that “meth” is the drug of our era, in the same way that pot, crack, and coke, all seemed to metonymically stand in for their respective eras, expressing the “tune out” rebellion of the sixties, urban poverty of the post-civil rights era, and "irrational exuberance" of the nineties. (This is something that the underrated TV series Breaking Bad has picked up on: the show not only deals with meth but is set in the strip malls and housing developments of New Mexico, reflecting America's new spiritual home.) The major ingredient of meth is synthesized in corporate labs, but it is “cooked” in trailer parks. Meth stands in for the short circuit between corporate power and rural anger that seems to define contemporary US politics.

The most recent Harper’s also offers an examination of Arizona as the laboratory of America politics, as a place in which the “tea party” has already taken power. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is the following quote by an unnamed government worker:

“People who have swimming pools don’t need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don’t need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don’t need K-12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don’t see the need for government. Since a lot of the population are not citizens, the message is that government exists to help the undeserving, so we shouldn’t have it at all. People think it’s OK to cut spending because ESL is about people who refuse to assimilate and health care pays for illegals.”

Putting aside for a moment the odd racist conflation of non-citizens and the undeserving at the end of the passage, the first part is strikingly similar to a passage in Wendy Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism:

“As neoliberalism converts every political or social problem into market terms, it converts them to individual problems with market solutions. Examples in the United States are legion: bottled water as a response to contamination of the water table; private schools, charter schools, and voucher systems as a response to the collapse of quality public education; anti-theft devices, private security guards, and gated communities (and nations) as a response to the production of a throwaway class and intensifying economic inequality; boutique medicine as a response to crumbling health care provision; “V-chips” as a response to the explosion of violent and pornographic material on every type of household screen; ergonomic tools and technologies as a response to the work conditions of information capitalism; and, of course, finely differentiated and titrated pharmaceutical antidepressants as a response to lives of meaninglessness or despair amidst wealth and freedom. This conversion of socially, economically, and politically produced problems into consumer items depoliticizes what has been historically produced, and it especially depoliticizes capitalism itself. Moreover, as neoliberal political rationality devolves both political problems and solutions from public to private, it further dissipates political or public life: the project of navigating the social becomes entirely one of discerning, affording, and procuring a personal solution to every socially produced problem. This is depoliticization on an unprecedented level: the economy is tailored to it, citizenship is organized by it, the media are dominated by it, and the political rationality of neoliberalism frames and endorses it.”

As I have argued elsewhere, Brown’s passage and the remarks from Arizona, demonstrate a kind of micropolitics of neoliberalism. The way in which neoliberalism does not just operate at the level of state policy, but at the level of quotidian practices and daily transactions. These practices and transactions produce a subject that sees him or herself as isolated and autonomous, producing disconnection that alternates between absolute freedom and total alienation.

All of this is offered as something of a rejoinder to J.M. Bernstein’s recent piece for The New York Times philosophy column. Bernstein writes the following:

“My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.”

Bernstein primarily sees the Tea Party as a conflict between two views of freedom: one liberal, in which freedom is naturally given and must be realized, and the other Hegelian, in which freedom is a historical product, made possible by institutions. This is all well and good, but Bernstein then argues that the Tea Party is ultimately a metaphysical rather than political rebellion: they have no concrete proposals and are primarily reacting to a loss of a metaphysical ideal, that of the individual. The opposition between the metaphysical and the political overlooks the dimension of political economy entirely, or what I would prefer call, following the remarks of Brown and the anonymous citizen from Arizona, the micro-politics of political economy, the point where political economy intersects with and transforms subjectivity. An adequate response to the current conjuncture cannot simply return to the opposition of Locke and Hegel, or politics versus metaphysics, but must take seriously the transversal intersections of politics, economics, and metaphysics. (Incidentally, this is something that Hegel does in his discussion of “Civil Society”).

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Revenge of the Children of Marx and Coca-Cola: Remarks on Deleuze, Vertov, and Godard

I must admit that at first I did not much care for Deleuze’s Cinema books. There are several reasons for this, first; I simply was not prepared by the sheer breadth of their cinematic references, everything from Vidor to Ozu; second, after Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which the general problem of signification, of regimes of signs, was developed through an engagement with the problem of capitalism, the rarefied typology of images, movement images and time images, seemed too aesthetic, too much of a reflection on film for film's sake.

My opinion has changed considerably since then. First, I have finally caught up with at least some of Deleuze’s references: Vidor’s The Crowd is still difficult to track down as is Europa 51, and for some reason it took me forever to find a copy of even Winchester 73. However, the major points of reference, Eisenstein, Vertov, Welles, Godard, and Hitchcock are all films I am more than familiar with, and have come to appreciate thanks to Deleuze. This is not want I want to write about. It is the second reaction that has changed as well. I have begun to think that there is a somewhat subtle politics to Deleuze’s film books. More specifically they concern the question as to what it means to act. I would even argue that they are concerned with what it means to act now,  in an age dominanted by images, what we could call, for lack of a better word, the spectacle. As Deleuze writes, in one of the few historical/social asides that dot the arid conceptual landscape of the book, explaining the breakdown between the opposition of movement and action: “There were social and scientific factors which placed more and more movement into conscious life, and more and more images in the material world.” Thus it is possible to triangulate Deleuze’s writing between the work of Paolo Virno (who most succinctly posed the question of acting in the modern world) and Maurizio Lazzarato’s remarks regarding control as power that does not so much act on actions, but on the very possibility of actions.

This shouldn’t seem like such a stretch, after all, in the first book action pretty much defines the movement image. The three variants of the movement image, affection image, perception image, and action image, are defined by their relation to the center of indetermination, to the body/or brain, which introduces the interval/the gap between action and reaction. Film simultaneously underscores and displaces this schema. 

It underscores it through the conventions of the shot/reverse shot, the shot of the thing reacted to and the reaction, add a close up of affect to this, a shot of fear or anger, and you have perception, affection, action. This is why Deleuze sees a sensory-motor schema underlying most films. The dominant Hollywood genres, western, detective, comedy, and their variants in the samurai film etc., follow the basic pattern of either S-A-S’ (situation-action-situation) or A-S-A (action-situation-action): in the first, actions transform situations (the duel brings peace and justice to the town) and in the second, actions disclose situations (the search for clues reveals that the conspiracy is deeper than imagined). What links this two is a kind of a connection that links actions to their milieu, actions are entirely adequate to their situations.

At the same time, film has the capacity to completely de-center the coordinates of perception, introducing angles and shots that are inaccessible to our human all too human perception. Deleuze is very enthralled by Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, a film which realizes this ideal. It is possible to say that Deleuze’s approach to film is as much Vertovian as it is Bergsonian. The latter may provide a general ontology of images, but this increasingly understood in materialist terms, an immanent plane of images affecting other images. As Deleuze writes, in one of the few passages that cites the terminology of his co-authored books, “The material universe, the plane of immanence, is the machine assemblage of movement images.”

There is thus a tension between these two aspects of cinema: the sensory-motor schema that governs the relation of images and the materialist plane of images affecting other images. However, this tension is not irresolvable. It is possible to see film as revealing the genesis of subjectivity, as the plane of images is constantly folding and unfolding around particular contingent centers. Situations are constantly giving rise to actions and being transformed by them: the plane of immanence is constantly given rise to contingent centers. Which is why the “stylistics” that Deleuze refers to, the particular way of combining (perception, action, and affection) images that defines a director, could also be considered a particular way of resolving the relations between situation and action, a particular way of framing how one acts in a world. One acts differently in the world of Griffiths, Eisenstein, Ford, Kurosawa, or Hitchcock.

What interests Deleuze, however, is the breakdown of this connection between situation and action. “We hardly believe any longer that a global situation can give rise to an action which is capable of modifying it—no more than we believe that an action can force a situation to disclose itself, even partially.” The reasons for this remain both overdetermined (Deleuze refers to “social, economic, political, moral and other [factors], more internal to art, to literature, and to the cinema in particular”) and off-screen, Deleuze does not so much represent this history as present its effects on the world of movies. Like a classic horror film, we get the reaction shot but never see the monster.

The two cinematic transformations that react this history are Italian neo-realism and the French new wave. The first gives us situations that cannot be reacted to, that remain too disparate, too excessive for any determinate action. (Bicycle Thief as a testament to the impossibility of action). While the second, the new wave, and specifically Godard, demonstrates what has come to fill this space, short circuiting the relationship between situation and action: clichés. “They are these floating images, these anonymous clichés, which circulate in the external world, but which also penetrate each one of us and constitutes this internal world, so that everyone possesses only psychic clichés by which he thinks and feels, is thought and is felt, being himself a cliché among the others in the world which surrounds him.” These clichés are in the citations of genres, the dance sequences, actions that are disconnected and disparate.

For Deleuze these two transformations in film represent a shift in film itself, from the movement image to the time image, but we could also see this as a continuation and exasperation of the question as to what it means to act in the modern world. There is no longer a situation, a “west” that can be defended or even a “city” whose story can be told, that can coordinate action. In its place we have the clichés of film and popular culture. As Deleuze writes, “…it is a civilization of the cliché where all the powers have an interest in hiding images from us, not necessarily in hiding the same thing from us, but in hiding something in the image.” These clichés come from film, from precisely the films of the movement image (SAS’ and ASA) that Deleuze argues the soul of cinema has passed by, to move into new directions. To act today means to not only reconnect action with the situation, which requires some kind of cognitive map of the situation, but to recognize that the clichés must be mapped as well, as the form part of both the world and any possible action on the world. 

Deleuze’s remarks in Cinema 2 regarding political cinema makes some interesting remarks about the colonization of life by film. However, a thorough account of the role of cinema must go beyond the cliché’s of popular culture to a political economy of the image. As Jonathan Beller has argued cinema has to be placed within a general political economy of attention. The movies are nothing other than an apparatus of capture of attention, that has now past through the multiplicity of screens that make up social life. “[Cinema] realizes capitalist tendencies toward the extension of the work day (via entertainment, email) the deterritorialization of the factory (through cottage industry, TV) the marketing of attention (to advertisers), the building of media pathways (formerly roads) and the retooling of subjects.” 

I do not have a conclusion for this, but given the two figures I have focused on here, Vertov and Godard, it seems to me that the task for contemporary cinema would be to combine Vertov’s project to map social relations with a post-Godardian awareness that such a map must included the clichés are internal to those relations.  It is not enough to film the audience entering the theater, as Vertov did, but also the movie entering the audience, as the image enters thought and desire. Moreover, it seems to me that political action today will take place not in spite of the clichés of cinema, in some kind of attention to a real world exisiting outside of images, but through them.