Thursday, November 18, 2021

Shine On: We Are All in Room 237 Now


Danny Lloyd rocking the same haircut I had as a kid

Of all of the various concepts and neologisms that populate A Thousand Plateaus that of the "regime of signs" is one that never really caught on. It has not had the same effects as nomadology, rhizome, virtual, assemblage, body without organs, become etc., If I had to offer a quick explanation of  this it is perhaps because the idea of the sign, and of a regime of signs, still seems like a remnant of an earlier period, more structuralist than post-structuralist. It is for that reason that it has remained something of a B-side or a deep cut, taking a clue from Deleuze and Guattari's assertion that the book is more like album with different plateau songs than a linear progression. 

It is perhaps worth revisiting the regime of signs now. I am thinking of the following passage from A Thousand Plateaus 

This is the situation Lévi-Strauss describes: the world begins to signify before anyone knows what it signifies; the signified is given without being known. Your wife looked at you with a funny expression. And this morning the mailman handed you a letter from the IRS and crossed his fingers. The you stepped in a pile of dogshit. You saw two sticks on the sidewalk positioned like the hands of a watch. They were whispering behind your back when you arrived at the office. It does not matter what it means, it's still signifying. The sign refers to other signs in struck with a strange impotence and uncertainty, but might is the signifier that constitutes the chain. The paranoiac shares this impotence of the deterritorialized sign assailing him from every direction in the gliding atmosphere, but that only gives him better access to the superpower of the signifier, through the royal feeling of wrath, as master of the network spreading through the atmosphere. The paranoid despotic regime: they are attacking me and making me suffer, but I can guess what they're up to, I'm one step ahead of them, I've always known, I have power even in my impotence. "I'll get them."

I was reminded of this passage for two reasons. First, after teaching Kubrick's The Shining in my philosophy of film course I decided to finally watch Room 237, the documentary/video essay on the different interpretations of The Shining. 

It is hard to watch this film and feel that it does not  in some sense illustrates the paranoiac regime of signs. Everything in the film, every flag on a desk, rocket ship on a sweater, and missing chair becomes a sign, an indicator of something else, something that needs to be decoded. Nothing is what it appears, and everything is something else, but everything can be decoded which is to say that it means something. Second, as much as it might be fun to engage with that kind of paranoid reading of films, declaring that this or that film is really about X, where X is some secret meaning available only to the right interpretation,  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that these days the paranoid reading has left the movie theater and entered the world.

I am thinking here of Qanon, or more specifically Wu Ming's understanding of Qanon as less a conspiracy theory than a kind of conspiracy game. While the former would tell people what is happening, often through a reference to a master text or narrative, the latter invites its followers to play, to interpret signs and clues. It has an active component. 

Here we can ask the question, what has let the paranoid interpretation out of the multiplex, or videostore, and into the world? This question could be answered by looking to Deleuze and Guattari, I think that one of the things that is often overlooked about A Thousand Plateaus is the way that it puts forward its own theory of the relation between words and things, signs and pragmatics, or, to use their terms machinic assemblages of bodies and enunciation, one that is indebted to Marx, Foucault, and Spinoza.  A regime of signs, an assemblage of enunciation, changes with a change of the machinic assemblage of bodies, with the technological and economic transformation of society. A full account of this transformation goes beyond a blogpost, however. So I would like to instead turn back to film, to The Shining specifically and how films are viewed more generally to at least outline some of the shifts in bodies that have accompanied the shift in signs. 

Machine in Deleuze and Guattari means more than technology, but it includes it as well. It is hard to overlook the technological changes which have altered our relationships to images and signs.  The subjects interviewed in Room 237 often mention that their theories really took off when they saw the movie on Blu-ray, the clarity of picture and the ability to pause and rewind repeatedly changed the film. Theories based on the minutiae of details cannot come from one viewing at theater, or, as more often the case from the memory of a film. A similar technological change has migrated from movies to reality, not just in the internet that distributes conspiracy theories, but also in the generalized ability to pause the video of any press conference, all the better to find the clues, to freeze the video to see the lizard people. A regime of signs is in part a particular organization of the recording and dissemination of texts and images, as the technological conditions change so do the signs and how they are read (this is the connection between Deleuze and Guattari and Stiegler)

A regime of signs is not just a technological condition, or rather, to put it in Deleuze and Guattari's terms the technological machine is itself determined by the social machine, and part of this social machine involves the production of subjectivity. Here, we can find an unlikely bedfellow for this idea of a different production of subjectivity in Fredric Jameson's reading of the film (which I taught in the class). Jameson argues that what he refers to as "the occult" aspect of the film, the shine, possession, ghosts of the past, is in some sense a distraction from its real core. As Jameson writes, 

For one thing, the conventional motifs of the occult or supernatural thriller tends to distract us from the obvious fact that The Shining, whatever else it is, is also the story of a failed writer. Stephen King’s original was far more openly and conventionally an artist’s novel whose hero is already a writer of some minimal achievement and a classical American poète maudit whose talent is plagued and stimulated by alcoholism. Kubrick’s hero, however, is already a reflexive commentary on this now conventional stereotype (Hemingway, O’Neill, Faulkner, the beats, etc.): his Jack Nicholson is not a writer, not someone who has something to say or likes doing things with words, but rather someone who would like to be a writer, who lives a fantasy about what the American writer is, along the lines of James Jones or Jack Kerouac. Yet even that fantasy is anachronistic and nostalgic; all those unexplored interstices of the system, which allowed the lumpens of the fifties to become, in their turn, figures of “the Great American Writer,” have long since been absorbed into the sealed and achieved space of consumer society.

For Jameson this interpretation is in part based on what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable scenes of the film, something everyone recalls whether or not they have watched it obsessively, the famous scene in which Wendy finds Jack's work, or absence of work. 

As Jameson writes about Jack's writing,"The text in question is however very explicitly a text about work: it is a kind of zero point around which the film organizes itself, a kind of ultimate and empty auto-referential statement about the impossibility of cultural or literary production." Less Jameson's interpretation focusing on writing and cultural production seems as outlandish as reading the film as a commentary on the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans (two interpretations in Room 237), it is worth remembering that scene in question resolves any ambiguity about the terms of conflict, from that moment forward Jack is clearly the villain of the film and not another victim of the hotel's spirits. (Although it is worth raising the question, albeit parenthetically, if at the end of the day one can ever draw a rigid division between the "readings" of films offered by people like Jameson or Zizek and the work of "outsider" film theorists featured in the movie. I am fairly convinced that the students in my class have their doubts).

What does this reading, or interpretation of the film, have to do with the changing regime of signs, the expansion of the paranoid regime from a search to find the meaning of the text to discern the ultimate machinations of the world? In some sense Jack is in some sense the prototypical subject of conspiracy theories. One whose ultimate existential deadlock is to be found in the gap between his potential, his sense that he really could or should be something, and his reality, or his fears of what he will become. At one point in the film he tells Wendy that if he should leave the Overlook Hotel, give up his job in order to protect his family, he would be forced to resort to the only jobs available to the "lumpen," shoveling snow or working at a car wash. (The novel goes in greater detail about how the job at the hotel and the chance that he could get some writing done is very much the last chance for a man whose life is falling apart due to addiction and a cycle of abuse, but, as Jameson points out, the character in the novel is a writer, one who has been published, while the Jack of the film is a man who wants to be a writer.)Jack is a man who is convinced that greatness is denied to him because of external forces, or as he says at one point in the film, "the white man's burden." This inability to confront his own limitations, the fact that he might not truly have any good ideas, or anything to say, by externalizing them into a world which has undermined him again and again is the subjective kernel of the paranoid view of the world. The typewriter has been replaced with the laptop and the memes no longer circulate endlessly on top of one another in different patterns, but go out into the world. 

No comments: