Hope you can take some time to read my review of this post-apocalyptic trilogy!
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Hope you can take some time to read my review of this post-apocalyptic trilogy!
In a playwrighting workshop seven years ago we were asked to bring in art that had influenced us or that we thought was particularly meaningful. I can’t remember what I brought, Infinite Jest? In a similar, but adequately different situation several years before I had chosen the final showdown gun-fighting scene in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as my favorite musicalized film moment. Ennio Morricone’s score to this film has achieved cliché-status but the extremity of the operatic climax and the rhythm of the film editing have an orgasmic quality, an overflowing aesthetic with an indivisible remainder that appealed and still appeals to my *dramatic* persona.
But in this particular workshop the successful British playwright who was facilitating the discussion led with his own choice: A song by The Pixies. It played from a small stereo for three or four minutes during which we were all silently listening and forming some thoughts. The song ended and we were then prompted to voice our opinions. Of course I only remember one response, which was hostile, but critical in an enduring way. Negation is political and in certain scenarios the political cannot be contained, it creates a rupture that spreads into our minds and out and beyond. The critical auditor was an African-American female and of what she said I can remember her affect more than the precise words: “This is just white boy stuff. Nahhh Nahhhh Nahhh Nahhhh. It’s just droning along without any motion. One note. This does nothing for me.” Not a particularly trenchant analysis, but it was less her words and more her ontological frustration that allowed me to hear her language as more than juvenile aesthetic critique, but a challenge to a certain mode of artistic subjectivity. Without detouring now forever into the nuances of white working-class dysphoria or the politics of punk, this outspoken, emotional and purposefully discomfiting challenge had a disorienting effect on my mind: Why do I like what I like, and what is artistic enjoyment anyway?
The narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station would perhaps pick John Ashbery’s 1963 poem Leaving the Atocha Station as a particular piece of art that influenced his vision. The narrator is a poet who is on a fellowship in Spain in 2004 and the narrative reflects the hyper self-awareness of the “experience of experience” as Ashbery has described his own work. These experiences include visiting museums, trying (as a language-obsessed poet) to navigate a country that speaks a different language and meeting new Spanish friends, lovers, translators, poets and art curators. But reading the novel through the language of the poet-narrator we see this world through a highly literate, narcissistic, and idiosyncratic lens. The humor is incessant and comes from the acutely honest interior monologue:
What are you doing in Madrid, he said. Here I delivered a version of the answer I had memorized for my Spanish exam in Providence, a long answer composed by a fluent friend, regarding the significance of the Spanish Civil War, about which I knew nothing, for a generation of writers, few of whom I’d read; I intended to write, I explained, a long, research-driven poem exploring the war’s literary legacy. It was an answer of considerable grammatical complexity, describing the significance of my project in the conditional, the past subjunctive, and the future tense. To my surprise and discomfort Arturo’s interest was piqued…
He is a remarkable bullshit artist. But unlike the window-washer hero of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying who finds his way to become chairman of the board in one week, the poet Adam Gordon is no charming Machiavellian tyro-turned-tycoon. Instead we have a privileged Ivy-league educated poet who keeps succeeding in spite of the crushing weight of his self-critique and the deplorable dishonesty of his self-fashioning. The contradiction of his habitual lying and the harsh honesty of his commentary create a fascinating human puzzle. Deceit and candor combine and allow us to witness a mind wrestling with its own meaning, a kind of difficult poem.
In an interview in Believer Magazine the author Ben Lerner describes the work of Allen Grossman and his theory of the tension in the poem between “what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do.”
For Grossman, this arises out of a kind of contradiction at the heart of poetry that’s always been with us, what he calls “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.” Poetic logic is bitter because the poem is structurally foredoomed. The lyric poet is moved to make a poem because she is dissatisfied with the human world, the world of representation. But the stuff of poetry, language, invariably reproduces the structures it aspires to replace. According to Grossman, poetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure because you can’t actualize the impulse that gave rise to it without betraying it.
We have feelings and can try to recreate them or reproduce them in art for the resonance it may engender in others, but we are always already limited by the tools that intrinsically betray this desire. Successful art will in some way be able to convey this poetic problem at the heart of the project. And we see in Adam Gordon’s story a certain kind of recreation of this impossibility as the nuanced performance of his lies or smudging of the truth immediately strikes the rigor of his thought. Not to mention his own poetry about which he seems hesitant to lend any value, “Not that poems were about anything” but which sufficiently impress his Spanish audience, one of whom begins to translate his work.
But a novel can’t really be “about” the gap between language and the real, or can it? The narrator describes John Ashbery’s poetry:
The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of the mirrored surface.
Yes. And. Leaving the Atocha Station is known to be one of Ashbery’s most difficult poems: “…perhaps derived from Abstract Expressionism” “…the vagaries of their randomness…” “The poem represents no experience in particular…” “Calculated incoherence”– to sample a few haphazard quotes from Google Books. Ashbery describes the poem in an interview: “It strikes me that the dislocated, incoherent fragments of images which make up the movement of the poem are probably the experience you get from a train pulling out of a station of no particular significance.” So we are at the limit of poetry, but nonetheless there are words in the poem and they are evocative, resonant, related. Here are the first few lines:
The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness And pulling us out of there experiencing it he meanwhile . . . And the fried bats they sell there dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds . . . Other people . . . flash the garden are you boning and defunct covering . . . Blind dog expressed royalties . . . comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip Favorable to near the night pin loading formaldehyde. the table torn from you Suddenly and we are close Mouthing the root when you think generator homes enjoy leered The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof driving tractor to squash Leaving the Atocha Station steel infected bumps the screws everywhere wells
Perhaps this is a naïve reading, but to my mind the poem is intensely erotic, sexual, orgasmic even. The discombobulating words strike me as short-circuited, electric and non-linear as a mind lit on fire, endlessly folding into itself in pleasure and pain. “Arctic honey”, “pulling us out”, “flash”, “boning”, “mouthing the root”, “worn stool blazing”, “bumps the screws”. It’s an evocative vocabulary, difficult and disjunctive in a way that mirrors, in my reading at least, the experience of experience, sure, but an experience that is sexually over-determined.
The one poem included in the novel which is written by the poet-narrator Adam Gordon, but also written and published by the actual novelist Ben Lerner in a previous volume of poetry is probably even more directly erotic:
Possessing a weapon has made me bashful. Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure. The ether of data engulfs the capitol. Possessing a weapon has made me forgetful. My oboe tars her cenotaph. The surface is in process. Coruscant skinks emerge in force. The moon spits on a copse of spruce. Plausible opposites stir in the brush. Jupiter spins in its ruts. The wind extends its every courtesy. I have never been here. Understand? You have never seen me.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a musician, but I doubt I will ever forget the evocative “My oboe tars her cenotaph” —-The forlorn tone of the double reed, the lugubrious eroticism of her cenotaph, elusively “tarred”. The desire to erase the experience as the poem ends and its initial “economy” perhaps evoke a sexual encounter with a prostitute: Desire and shame experienced simultaneously. If I stretch too far in a prurient direction we can at least argue that the language and moments of the poem are dramatized in the diction of desire. And the tears that the narrator-poet incredulously notices on a museum-goer in Madrid (for how does art actually emotionally move someone?) now “appreciate in this economy of pleasure.”
Although the poet-narrator Adam Gordon never visits any prostitutes, much of his experiences revolve around Teresa and Isabel, two Spanish women who he has relationships with. The relationship with Isabel, whom he meets through his Spanish tutor, is sexual; while the relationship with Teresa is professional as she is translating his poems but also ambiguously flirtatious and riven with jealousy. The sexual encounters of the novel, however, are veiled and not explicitly described. The poet’s candor stops at a point and it is perhaps this domain of sex where narrative or prose seems inappropriate and ill suited. Poetry to Adam Gordon/Ben Lerner and John Ashbery is one way perhaps to attempt to render the asymptotic limits of physical and mental orgasmic short-circuiting, an impossible task that succeeds in its failure.
So the novel is also about desire. And the desire of desire, or the desire to be desired. Here we move away from the single point of “the experience of experience” to a more dynamic vector: The experience of the desire of desire– The desire to be accepted, loved, feted, translated; the degree to which one will lie in order to achieve these goals and the self-disgust that comes with betraying one’s history, family or friends in the process. And this process is the process of power and an intimate description of the process of this power’s becoming. Much of the mental calculating that gives the novel its psychological acuity focuses on the narrator’s incessant attempts to present himself in a certain way to these two women and then immediate criticism of the efficacy of his ploys. It’s a familiar mental state and heightened by the cultural differences–especially the American abroad in 2004 at the height of post-9/11 militarism in Iraq.
The power that the United States is wielding across the globe, the destructive violence it is effecting in Afghanistan and Iraq is mirrored somewhat in the poet Adam Gordon’s experience in Spain and his conquest of a certain sector of the literary scene. When the 2004 Madrid train bombings strike the Atocha Station and bring the War on Terror and the Terrorists’ War on Us into Spain it is a moment in the narrative where Adam is at his most sexually jealous. Carlos, who is “a Marxist” has attracted the attention of Teresa and playfully teases the poet-narrator, filling him with a jealous rage. The nexus of desire and power cloud over the bombing sequence, which coincides with demonstrations and a presidential election that sees the Socialist Workers party (PSOE) come to power as voters blame the bombings in part on the right-wing People’s Party’s support for the Iraq War.
Which leads us to politics.
How do we characterize someone who would lie on a grant application about an interest in the Spanish Civil War about which he knows nothing? And who for the duration of the novel makes no real attempt to engage with the history of this conflict? The fact that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is not even name-checked is remarkable. Instead he reads Don Quixote and John Ashbery. So is this novel a critique of a self-interested American who narcissistically attempts to escape history while history is erupting all around? Or is it a kind of mea culpa of the educated white male class in which we are forgiven because of the brutality of our honesty: “I can’t help it, but this is the truth.” The plot of the novel strictly avoids any redemption for the narrator where he would experience some sort of historical epiphany. And the Spanish characters don’t leave him much room for political development either; on the day of the historic vote, one of Teresa’s friends doesn’t vote because he “won’t participate in a corrupt system”, and the “Marxist” votes for the right wing party in order to “destabilize the system.” But these strategies are only included to highlight the “comedy” of the milieu our narrator has entered. The poet may be hypocritical, but the left-leaning, literary elite he associates with also suffers from a large dose of contradiction as well.
As a satire this works well enough I suppose. But there is “satire” and then there is “the roast.” The roast is different from satire because in the roast the object of ridicule and jokes is still worthy of our love and admiration. We roast famous and talented actors, snickering at their eccentricities and foibles, but return in the end to endearment, love, or sentimentality. The best man’s speech at a wedding is a roast, for example. Satire on the other hand holds its target in contempt. Though perhaps admiring one or two qualities of victim, the idea is to subject the person to a withering critique and weaken the power this figure wields. The novel’s success perhaps rests in allowing the reader to accept the novel as either a satire or a roast. Depending on one’s own history, nationality, gender, ethnicity, vocation one may feel the journey of this novel in contradictory ways. We’re left with a character that we come to know intimately, but who leaves us as an indeterminate sign.
I don’t take the novel as a bildungsroman, “to forge in the smithy of my soul”, etc… That novel would end much differently, with the poet perhaps heading to the library instead of the museum and reading a few history books. How about Gerald Brenan’s classic The Spanish Labyrinth? Ronald Fraser’s The Blood of Spain? Antony Beevor, Hugh Thomas, George Orwell. English readers are lucky; many of the definitive histories and studies of the Civil War were written by British writers. In fact the European country that contains the most English expatriates is Spain. A deep study of this conflict will tell you a thing or two about the 20th century. And the narrator in the library staring at the stacks wouldn’t forget the Americans who fought and died either, the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. Or he could just click on the most recent issue of Insurgent Notes where Loren Goldner has an excellent article on the subject. But then the novel would not be this novel; we would instead be forced to “like” the poet narrator for his good work of confronting history and all that leftist rah rah rah. The relentless but wry study of a young white male intellectual self-obsessed American poet abroad who succeeds in spite of, leaves us with an indeterminate subjective challenge at the end, more puzzling and difficult than any bildung could achieve.
Suddenly and we are close
Ben Lerner and I were born the same year, both attended East Coast elite colleges, are artists, and we both had an experience abroad (I was in Paris, but only for a few months). It’s difficult to separate my response to his work from my own personal experience. Perhaps someone in the room should raise her hand: “This is just white boy stuff. Nahhh Nahhhh Nahhh Nahhhh.”
Perhaps this potential bifurcation of art creation is theorized elsewhere with more nuance, but I have been struck recently by a division in the world of artistic mimesis. Simply, some art is created and as it is created becomes the art work itself. For the most part these creations are immutable and become and remain “the thing itself”. Here I have in mind all visual art (painting, photography, sculpture), most literary arts such as poetry and novels. These arts are created and then possibly reproduced, but the hand of the artist is nevertheless directly “visible”. We could call this form of art creation “idiomatic” in that the work remains forever in the idiom of the artist; the creation is characteristic of the artist in her time and most importantly doesn’t require an interpreter to engender meaning.
Which leads us to a different form of art creation in which the artist creates a work, but in so doing is simultaneously imagining its performance or interpretation. These arts are written down as a set of instruction manuals from which anyone or group can create a unique manifestation. This art is thus not specifically located in any space, but is located “outside”, in another zone and it is only through human processes that our idea of these works take form. A work of theater is perhaps the most obvious example: The imaginative process of the creative artist here is not solely centered on the page and the careful arrangement of words (as in the poem or novel) but with a hypothetical arrangement of individuals who will provide the ultimate form to the words on the page. The majority of music writing similarly has this same tension in which the composer will write down a score of music with instructions to instrumentalists, or a songwriter will compose a series of music and lyrics with the intention that the art will be performed. The music which is notated isn’t really the art itself but an ideal form of that art which must be interpreted by humans or computers in order to allow us to experience it. We could call this form of art creation “eidetic”, an echoing of “eidos” (Greek for “form” in the Platonic sense) and locates the art more in the mind than in the material work. Here, the work is “seen” but only seen in the mind as perhaps the imagination of a performance or a collection of performances that in the mind nevertheless combine into one work.
Does this matter and what are the historical processes that have shaped the vicissitudes of the “performing arts”? Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction doesn’t really pinpoint this difference in artistic creation although much of what he writes resonates with an approach that would see a division here. What I see as perhaps the most salient feature with this potential split in artistic creation is the generative artistic process itself. The painter’s relationship with a canvas, the sculptor’s relationship with clay, the novelist’s relationship with words is fundamentally different from the eidetic artist’s relationship with his or her media. The medium in this case is a means, not an end. And even if the means is nothing more than a set of notes that describes how a performance was produced, even these informal notes, script, or diagrams allow for other future interpretations of the work that may be able to access the ideas in different ways. And the assumption that most eidetic creators are aware of this potential for future reincarnations of the work points towards a difference in the state of mind of the creator.
The eidetic artist relies on a community to realize his or her work and the historical development of communities of performers will shape this imagination. The relationship between the community that will realize the work and the work itself is often so close that one could criticize that there is no “outside” or “ideal” form that really is occurring the mind of the creator at all. The troupe of actors or musicians are right at hand, bound by tradition, and one simply writes with them in mind as the painter takes the palate of colors and begins the work of creation. But nevertheless I maintain that there will forever be that slippage between the signifier and the signified, and this real slipping point allows the creator the chance, always, to revolutionize the mimetic process because of the imaginary power that goes beyond custom and tradition. One thinks here of the “impossible” stage directions of dramatist Sarah Kane, for instance.
These were reproducible works of art before the age or mechanical reproduction. What is their fate today? Benjamin is obsessed with film, wary of it:
In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily. This circumstance derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the mutual penetration of art and science. Actually, of a screened behavior item which is neatly brought out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science.
Film is perhaps the most idiomatic of art forms as it is forever preserved, crystalline, for us to view even in the palm of our hand. Screenplays perhaps exist in an uneasy relationship to the eidetic arts, but still they must maintain some affinity as movies are often “remade”. Is the imaginary process of the screenwriter the same as that of the playwright? Could one reshoot the screenplay to Taxi Driver or The Godfather and what would this act even mean? What does it mean that to even imagine the reenvisioning of “classic” screenplays feels somewhat heretical? It would seem that the screenplay is somehow written in a different state of mind? A state of mind that is not unlike the architect’s sketches and blueprints for a monumental building? Instead of creating a script that will be interpreted thousands of times we have here a set of instructions for a specific group of technicians and artisans who will come together and create a permanent and unique icon.
So we encounter some theoretical stumbling blocks. Benjamin writes of the death of the cult aspect of art and the concomitant death of the auratic.
…for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura.For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.
What Benjamin skips over is the aura is also a necessary feature of eidetic art that requires someone or something to briefly represent or fill in for the work-of-art-itself. Hamlet or Tosca is somewhere else, especially when he or she is on stage in front of me as played by an actor. This is a fundamental difference Benjamin sees with film and helps us navigate the problems of why remaking a screenplay seems so wrong and filmed plays and musicals so strange:
The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.
The reproduction of art in Benjamin’s sense is technological. The reproduction of eidetic art on the other hand is political in the sense that it require a polis in which citizens are capable of gathering to recreate the art. “Let us put up a production.”
Why does it seem that the eidetic arts are dying? Or that where they were traditionally one way–as in writing a song that can and will be interpreted by many singers–they are now another way–a song is released with a specific, idiomatic sound that nearly binds the song to that particular manifestation of the song. In a reverse motion the world of art perhaps with its move towards conception swings away from an idiomatic reliance on material substance and finds itself in an eidetic realm where the “idea” of the work trumps its being-there. Or as Sol LeWitt put it in 1967:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.
Disney’s film Haunted Mansion shares with Pirates of the Caribbean the common trait that both films were released in 2003 and are both filmic representations of Disneyland theme-park rides. It was a clever conceit by the studio to give new life to its aging and technologically dated attractions, both of which were first opened in 1969. But the similarities end there: Pirates would go on to spawn four sequels, led by Johnny Depp whose character Jack Sparrow plays a queer pirate who faces down a vagina dentata, has serious daddy issues and in one brilliant image possesses a kind of sexual synecdoche: a spinning compass that can’t settle on true “north”. Where the gender politics and sexuality fit the theme of an epic watery adventure of (stereotypically homosexual) pirates, slippery squids and underwater caves with hidden treasures lurking inside, the historical sensibility of the series is inept. Orlando Bloom’s plebeian hero “Will Turner” longs after the daughter of the Jamaican port city in which he plies his trade as a blacksmith, but this being Jamaica in the 17th/18th century what we have is one of the more brutal slave societies ever known, a Caribbean political economy that is mostly overlooked by the series. Where Will Turner’s blacksmith is supposed to evoke a sympathy for his petit bourgeois craftsmanship, all I could think was that he must be spending the majority of his time fabricating iron shackles and chains for the thousands of slaves who work and die on the sugar fields. Downer!
The Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, with its spectral theme is fertile ground to explore the ghosts of our historical past, and shockingly it does. The first “uncanny” element of the film is that it foregrounds a successful African-American middle-class family whose only “problem” is the usual “white” problem that devotion to work has gotten in the way of family time. Eddie Murphy’s character and his wife form a harried, but well-remunerated real-estate broker team who decide to take a weekend trip to escape the demands of a booming business. This dated emphasis on the real-estate market also serves as a reminder that the film was created before the mortgage crisis and braids in a version of American success that we now realize was mostly fictional– an asset bubble waiting to burst. Before the family can escape for some R&R, however, they must visit one more house after a strange phone call asks that Murphy’s wife come alone to visit the mansion for a prospective seller. Already this is strange territory as the black American family is usually pathologized, and broken in Hollywood films that are not specifically marketed to a black audience and rarely allowed to simply “be”–Not that the Haunted Mansion will leave this family alone or give it a vacation from history because it won’t, but for starters this is an intriguing scenario that reminds us of the cultural lacuna that opened with the disappearance of the Huxtables (The Cosby Show) and the Banks mansion (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).
What is even more unexpected (to me at least) is when the plot begins to directly confront the blackness of the family and pin the haunting of the house to a story of cross-racial love which ended in a double suicide (shown as a flashback in the opening credits). This fact is a small spoiler, but I imagine that with a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes this is not a film that most people would be interested in viewing anyway. “The Master” of the mansion (a man in 19th century attire who speaks in a British accent) it seems has seen a photograph advertisement of real estate agent Sara Evers (Murphy’s Wife) and has become obsessed with her… Is Eddie Murphy’s wife some sort of reincarnation of a 19th century “mulatto” woman who fell in love with a rich, white young man? Who would argue that the ghosts that haunt the mansion America are not in the main those of the African slaves and Native Americans, the desire, the rape, the blood, the historical trauma–but do we really trust Disney to remind us of this? And is it salutary or abusive that this model African-American family must be dragged into this mansion, dragged back into a past which they don’t remember?
At this point it is the historical erasures that the film creates, how it eschews a geographical and temporal specificity that is most interesting. The fact that Master Edward Gracey, owner of Gracey mansion, speaks with a British accent I can only understand in that Disney wished to push this narrative away from a specifically American racism. Were he to speak in a dignified Southern drawl the movie would immediately move into another register, hackles would be raised and the escapism the movie (and Disney) promises would be “ruined” by cultural commentary. But arriving almost as a non sequitur, the final shot of the film is unmistakably the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and is underscored with a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” So we are in New Orleans but this important fact is only barely apparent at the last instant, and only apparent if you have driven a car in Louisiana or can put two and two together. Murphy’s family also has no discernible accent either; for most of the film they are simply “Americans” who could live anywhere, and who happen upon a spooky mansion owned by a man whose accent is British, a clever red herring.
What do we make of this strange film? Does the 13% Rotten Tomato rating really speak to its quality? Or is this the usual critic’s unconscious anger at seeing too many unpathologized black characters on screen at once? There is no white savior here who is poised to help this family and congratulate the white audience who love to be indulged with racial condescension. Instead in The Haunted Mansion the Evers family become the *black saviors* for a historical trauma that has festered for more than a century. Correctly and for once it is the “white” characters who are pathologized and in need of cathartic release. So here we have an African-American family as saviors–It really is not too far a leap to see something of the Obamas in the Evers family–A father played by Eddie Murphy who is devoted to the intricacies of his job, but also a man who teams professionally with his successful and beautiful wife. This relationship is not too far away from the teamwork and ambition of Barack and Michelle and even the Evers’ two children, an arachnaphobic son and his plucky elder sister have something in common with the yin and yang of Sasha and Malia
So Disney’s The Haunted House, released in 2003 is a prophetic film in more ways than one and like most perplexing and critically-reviled films is capable of telling us more about our country and the future than any Oscar contender. If we acknowledge that New Orleans is the setting, we must also realize this is a pre-Katrina New Orleans, one before “The Saints Go Marching In” became a stand-in national anthem for a certain traumatic period. The Haunted Mansion thus probably flooded, not to mention the problematic real estate market which quickly crashed along with the American economy soon after. The black home owner would see herself not only lose homes in the 9th ward of New Orleans which is now a kind of haunted suburban landscape, but also become the scape-goat of the entire financial crisis. Right-wing commentators continue to blame the collapse of capitalism on loose credit markets extended to “undeserving” communities who couldn’t pay their mortgages –Mort gage: A “dead pledge”, meaning the deal dies when the pledge to pay is fulfilled or ceases to be paid. The loan, the mortgage is a debt that haunts us with the “American Dream” while the real dream is more like a scary nightmare. There are deaths and debts yet to be paid. History continues to leave its residue.
This past week saw the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. I can remember exactly where I was two years ago, which was teleworking from home on a Saturday in a bid to make a few extra bucks for my upcoming wedding. That day during each work break I would check in on a live-feed being streamed of the day’s events and feel a different kind of energy coming from the activists and anarchists on camera, acquaintances being dramatically arrested, videos uploaded, an online chat room with other curious viewers across the world, a mediated spark to ignite the revolution, a desire to join them that day, but a need to pay off credit card debt and log some more hours. The revolution will not be televised… But it will be live-streamed.
Bernardo Bertolucci made a film in 1964 (when he was only 22!) called Before the Revolution. This is an amazing film that artfully depicts his sympathies with a revolutionary energy that would influence his later films such as 1900 (Italian communism and fascism in the first half of the 20th century) and The Dreamers (Paris, May 1968), but also his abiding concern with privilege and its flirtation with social change. Like many of his generation, the revolution was a real and historical process, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a personal and poetic odyssey. In Before the Revolution the protagonist is the young Fabrizio who has been mentored by Cesare, a local teacher and Marxist and Communist educator. Despite his recent revolutionary education Fabrizio’s emotional life is mostly taken with his engagement to the pretty, but boring bourgeois Clelia and a more recent sexual affair with his hot, but unstable aunt Gina. A key scene occurs as preparations are underway for a communist party festival of some sort. Most of the shots depict Fabrizio soliloquizing in motion, walking away from the children with communist placards and flags as his mentor Cesare listens and chimes in every now and then. Fabrizio has lost his passion for the cause:
We must open our eyes. You wanted to change me and I hope you would. Instead I am a rock, I will never change. I wanted to fill Gina with vitality. Instead I filled her with anguish. She once told me slightly ashamed she had “nervous fever”, I have a different fever, a fever that makes me feel nostalgic for the present. While I live I already feel the moments I’m living are far away. Thus I do not want to change the present. I take it as it comes, but my bourgeois future lies in my bourgeois past. For me ideology has been a holiday. A vacation. I thought I was living the years of the revolution and instead I was living the years before the revolution. Because it is always before the revolution when you’re like me.
At the end of this scene Fabrizio’s dialogue falls into a recitation of the Communist Manifesto, and he begins to have a nervous breakdown of a sort, unable to say the words that Cesare has to help him recite:
The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions…
In 1964 the Italian Communist Party was an entrenched and historic institution in the world of Italian politics. So much so that most of the revolutionary energy that would accelerate and eventually explode in the Hot Autumn of the last few years of that decade would take place in formations firmly outside of its conservative orbit. This is a world we could hardly relate to in 2011, a world of large, cumbersome, conservative and oppressive “communist” parties intoning about the coming revolution while acting in such a way to prevent that radical break from ever entering the horizon. Indeed, the Fabrizio who is fearful of revolution and abrupt social change probably could have stuck with the PCI or its French counterpart, the PCF, without much psychological stress. Both parties (like most Stalinst parties of the era) worked to keep the workers’ movement permanently “before” the revolution, as in “far away from” the revolution. The moments of true revolutionary energy in Europe in the 60s precipitated and accelerated well out of the parties’ ability to control them, wildcat strikes, student movements. In most cases these parties (which were huge) would eventually flex their muscle and assert their ability to funnel the liberatory event into yet another bureaucratic negotiation with the state and its capitalist counterparts.
Before the Revolution mounts a critique of Italian society on all levels; much of Fabrizio’s malaise comes from his friend’s recent suicide, but it is his nostalgia for the present that can be translated as the paradigmatic existential crisis of the post-war or “baby boom” generation–the desire for a revolution not to forcibly overthrow all existing social conditions but a revolution that reifies and reclaims the “now”. This is a desire for revolution that mostly ignores historical injustice and class politics and instead shifts focus to a psychological realm that ails from a sensation of disconnection, of standing outside oneself, one is never of the event, but perpetually “before” it, “before” the revolution. The solution is to enact the “now” and in so many words “be” the revolution or the anti-revolution, or anything, anything but “before”. Fabrizio’s solution is to submit to a bourgeois identity, get married, which will at least allow him to be alive “now”, to be in the midst of something instead of waiting and agitatedly waiting before an eventuality that may never arrive.
Bertoluccci criticizes Fabrizio’s decision while sympathizing with it and feeling that is indicative of a lost generation uninspired by a “professional” and bloated revolutionary party that is more about festivals and remembering the heroic days against the fascists in the 1940s than remaking the world and addressing the violent capitalistic change Europe underwent in the post-war era. One of the major tendencies of the 1960s revolutionary movements would be an attempt to transform the rupture whenever and wherever it would break out into a remaking of the “now”. Arguing over wage increases, pensions and other bureaucratic and traditionally union strategies simply was not enough to address the massive social and economic forces that were transforming entire industries, modes of living (such as farming) and traditional expectations and concomitant psychological states. This nostalgia for the “now” that Fabrizio confesses to harbor is not just a bourgeois problem that he was born with and is unable to shake off, but a serious critique of a society under totalizing capitalist transformation in which monetized time is always already slipping away. “I don’t have any time” is meant literally. There is no time, so there is no “now”. This is not to take away from the serious dedication and renaissance in revolutionary traditions and worker activism that occurred in the 1960s, but as a cultural phenomenon there was a momentous shift in a personal self-understanding, a need to break with the “before” and “after”, a need to confront a recreated “now”.
Books like Kristin Ross May ’68 and its Afterlives attempt to refocus this history onto the subaltern activists and proletarians whose furor over genocidal militarism and barbarically punitive working conditions formed the impetus and core of 1960s militancy. Similarly, in the US it is the Civil Rights activism over structural racism and this movement’s deep roots and intersection with militant workers that composed the “real” of the revolutionary 1960s in America. But elephant in the room, as Kristin Ross points out and attempts to eschew in her book are the bourgeois activists and future “new philosophers” who usurped the history of the 1960s and perverted the narrative into one of individual transformation.
What’s amazing is that Bertolucci seemed to have understood this, in a way, back before it all began in 1964. More interested in sex, self-discovery and avoiding a life wasted in a perpetual waiting, an always-before, Fabrizio concedes the match and accepts the bourgeois mantle (although he has been wearing a suit and tie for most of the film)–Fabrizio is the successfully rich baby-boomer with that essential whiff of a radical past before this even became a thing.
Does this have anything to do with Occupy Wall Street? Maybe not, maybe so. Here is Natasha Lennard in Salon describing in an elegant article why she won’t celebrate the Occupy anniversary:
But above all for me, Occupy was about rupture: In the bold and basic act of taking space in New York’s overdetermined grid, we found ourselves, each other and our streets anew. “Whose streets? Our streets!” we would chant. And sometimes — when the police had lost control and we stormed across thoroughfares usually reserved for the constant flows of cars, work and consumption — it was true; the streets were ours.
The emphasis on rupture is interesting here in the need to reinforce the the necessity of breaking the contemporary flows, of seizing or reclaiming the now. But the essay only briefly alludes to the political content of the occupation, which I believe led to its meteoric growth in popularity and the necessity for the state to crush and contain. Later Lennard concludes:
Insofar as Occupy once represented a terrain of possible rupture, it was about not repeating past patterns; it was about not going home (the fact of ad hoc encampments made this clear) but home understood as psycho-geographic location too: We would not return to the old ways of politicking and living, was the thought.
This totalizing rhetoric I believe was quite common among the most devout occupiers and the key to the movement’s biological success, but it skips past the tactical coup which was to draw a class line in the sand– 99% vs. 1% –and situate this anger directly at a vital nexus of global capitalism. What becomes the salient divide is one over an emphasis on pre-figurative politics (which has its theoretical flowering in the 1960s as activists sick and tired of waiting for the revolution decided to become the revolution they desired) and a kind of strategic-traditional politics as program. Lennard:
I have no interest in debate over whether we should have built a program, platform or party. For me and many others, that was never the Occupy we loved or sought. (Call me an anarchist.) Suffice to remember that militarized police forces across the country, and especially in New York, cracked down on Occupy encampments and marches with overwhelming force and regularity.
But it was the concentrated anger over a immorally unequal society that made the occupations so dangerous to the state. The occupations were a geographic and biological form that could focus this anger and let it ferment and threaten a society that actively colludes in the enrichment of a deadly financial/capitalist elite, its retainers and court jesters. A failure to recognize this and reiterate this critical content I think is a strategic mistake.
These paragraphs here may lead one to the conclusion that I’m saying that (as contradictory as it may seem) Fabrizio’s bourgeois malaise and its solution is somehow related to Occupy’s strategy in allowing people to find themselves and their streets anew. Fabrizio does not want to overthrow societal conditions; occupiers like Lennard wanted/want to overthrow every societal condition. Fabrizio gets married in a church and leaves his youthful experimentation with Marxism and incest; contemporary anarchists critique marriage as an oedipal/patriarchal institution. And yet— There is a certain fetish for the *now* in both cases, or at least a recognition that the ceremony of disruption (whether this disruption is rebellious or societally condoned) is necessary to reinvigorate a life that is on the verge of being lost in time. We must reclaim the now through rituals that disrupt the capitalist time machines we have become. And even the most resolute critic of marriage would probably admit to having attended friends’ weddings and the radical rupture that the wedding embodies….I push too far, perhaps, and veer into pseudo-psychoanalysis. T
The prefigurative/political binary is an opposition that should be smashed. It is quite simply the “tragedy” of revolutionary movements if a tragedy is composed of two opposing and unresolvable world-views. I feel a sympathy with prefiguration, as prefiguration in its most basic form is a simple disgust of hypocrisy. If it walks like a duck… Talk left, walk right. Prefiguration prioritizes the material human community and evinces a healthy distrust of language. “But!”–the argument runs–”How can you live this utopia without smashing the state or destroying its political/police apparatus? Have fun in an encampment for a few weeks or running around in the streets for a day or two, but this is hardly going to change the immiserated condition of millions of poor, homeless and hungry and jobless. There is also another “Now” that is not “right now”, but a “Now” that will truly be “Now”, a revolutionary “Now” that will be a perpetual now-horizon, and always-now in which the transformation of our lives and interrelations and living will actually be possible. This will be a true revolution, but your can’t get there by simply declaring that Now is now.” The argument continues, the stychomachia escalates. . . . . .
The first thing you should notice on watching Miley Cyrus’ new video “Wrecking Ball” isn’t the “sexual” imagery deployed; the testicular wrecking ball she swings from naked, the sledge hammer she fellates–these images are worthy of a middling Maxim Magazine photo spread and are familiar enough. What immediately struck me is how the song is constructed, which is to say the form and melody are strikingly similar to Goyte’s wildly popular single “Someone That I Used to Know”.
Both songs noodle around in D minor (!) in a similar groove for two verses which recite a past romance. In Miley’s case “We clawed, we chained…A love no one could deny”, but “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…I will always want you” — In Gotye’s song things are a tad darker: “you said you felt so happy you could die…Told myself that you were right for me/ But felt so lonely in your company”. And eventually: “Well you said that we would still be friends/ But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over.” Both of these videos start out with the subject reciting these past romances in painful close up, both singers’ eyes are welling up with tears emotionally. Goyte yearns pessimistically, but the strange bathos of Miley’s “I will always want you” has that wonderful twang of American Hypocrisy (you don’t believe it) and bizarrely/boldly embraces a non-feminist naive honesty, eschewing a more familiar contemporary refrain of independence, transcendence and narcissism.
Now to the sing-along choruses which contain eerily similar money notes, namely Bb!-A-A! sung in the same rhythm (Dotted quarter, eighth, half note; “Long, short Looong!”): Miley’s “Wreck-ing ball!!” /”Break your Walls!”, or Gotye’s “Cut me off”, “Need your love” or “Stoop so low”. Now Miley’s song puts this melody on top of an F major chord, which is a modulation from the minor world of the verse. This is a “pop” move which adds a more slow-head-banging-rock-on feel where as Gotye keeps the chorus in D minor, always avoiding a melodramatic shift to the relative (F) major. Gotye’s song even stretches towards objectivity when the woman he has been criticizing for cutting him off and treating him like a stranger in the emotional choruses is given a verse to explain her side of the story. No such control, anger or drama with Miley’s refrain:
I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
What a wreck. But here we also have a lyric that perhaps limn’s capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction.” Her love, her desire, the creative urge to found a new basis, a new relationship is initiated through a destructive need, a need to break walls in order that a new foundation can get laid. The dialectical contradiction is emphasized with ludic eroticism as the swinging, destructive wrecking ball she straddles and fondles is both smashing through her small grey concrete chamber, creating rubble and ruins while also evoking a gonadal fecundity.
The sledgehammer which Cyrus tickles with her tongue isn’t too far away from Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song whose video begins with an ambiguous image that looks like an out-of-focus snapshot of snowflakes falling in darkness–When the frame is unfrozen the snowflakes flurry and we can make out instead hundreds of spermatozoa swarming about an ovary. Next, a close up of two sperms tadpoleing about, then images of fluids flowing, semen, blood, a montage of Deleuzian desire that culminates with closeups on Gabriel’s eye-machines, his lip-machines, his ear-machines until the singing begins which is delivered in a stop-motion style that only reinforces the bodily *mechanics* the song is hymning and interrogating.
The sexual content of Sledgehammer is graphically, if scientifically introduced in the introduction, but the genius of the video is how the rest of the images sturdily avoid aping the metaphoric eroticism of the lyrics:
You could have a steam train/ If you’d just lay down your tracks… You could have a big dipper/ Going up and down, all around the bends/ You could have a bumper car, bumping… Open up your fruit cakes/ Where the fruit is as sweet as can be
Instead his artistically playful images literalize and thus neuter the libidinous lyrics. In a claymation sequence the sledgehammer strikes Gabriel’s malleable (clay) face and human limbs appear in the gashes and in a later sequence on a stage, a dancing sledgehammer strikes the boards and an egg appears, soon there is a chicken, then two dancing chickens, you get the idea. Sledgehammers do what sledgehammers do: they (ironically) create.
Wrecking Ball is no Sledgehammer. But Cyrus’ skill is to borrow again and again in a culture of borrowing and sampling and trading and wrecking and rebuilding and stealing and commodifying. Miley Cyrus has been critiqued a great deal recently for appropriating the twerk from black culture and using it as a publicity stunt. While basically agreeing with this critique I have also disagreed with the way the argument has been framed and the historical depth at stake. It should be obvious that we are talking about a sophisticated marketing machine that cleverly borrows artistic techniques from motley sources, many of which are *just* under the radar, mostly forgotten, provocative, or historically rooted, but perhaps not yet properly commoditized in mass culture. Gotye’s video has been viewed a ridiculous 428 million times as of today, but it is the unexpected pain of the melodic line which is mostly responsible for the song’s success. It is a melody that is unafraid and thus hits the listener with a kind of shock; the anger he feels and the tone which he would express verbally in an argument finds its match in a musical moment. Wrecking Ball’s melody echoes this pain but with all the subtlety of a fleshy fashion shoot set during the Blitzkrieg. Sex and death return into each other over and over as the mediated sphere like a bulldozer churns up the perpetual landfill that is our culture.
The final shots of Sledgehammer show a room onto which is projected the original image of the argent dots on a sable field, which now evoke stars in a dark sky. The universe, cold and infinite is tied to the sperm and their frenzied struggle, now frozen in time. Gabriel, having fallen asleep in his chair, is now only a dark figure with these bright star-sperm shining out from his body. He rises from a chair, opens a door and salutes the milky galaxy with both arms. The final image shows this cosmic demiurge hammering with his arm in a mechanic rhythmic movement, the music fades.
By the end of Ayesha Siddiqi’s article “Can the White Girl Twerk” (which is of course about Miley Cyrus’ recent adopting of a new hyper-sexualized, “black” persona) we are forced to choose between two options:
…Miley earns both praise and scorn. If Miley’s new look is acceptable, it requires a tolerance for undermining black women. If it is unacceptable, it means demanding an identity, sweet and unsexed, dictated by the anxieties of white patriarchy.
So we can either praise a young woman who was the previous embodiment of the Disney “white girl” tween princess and who shatters all this past personal history by shaking her booty up near the crotch of a mediocre male singer and earning the opprobrium of every media commentator alive–but in praising her bold moves we also erase the history of black women who have been historically oppressed and whose history Miley Cyrus usurps and appropriates for her own nefarious money-making schemes–That is one option. Option two is to scorn her, “slut shame” her for this act of appropriation, or just criticize her blatant opportunism and how it utilizes a “black identity” to accomplish its goals, but in so doing we also reinforce the repressive ideology that she has just “escaped”– What a conundrum, how are “we” supposed to react to this contradictory binary?
Unfortunately, it is only in this final paragraph that Siddiqi approaches something close to a dialectical appreciation of how cultural forms hybridize and are stolen, steal each other, are remixed, repainted, parodied, paraded, pirated, censored, erased by one hegemonic cultural sphere and its orbiting, subservient moons. I think back to my days with Ancient Greek and that middle voice, neither active nor passive, but simultaneously active and passive, verb as dialectic. This is an old dance and when we are specifically talking about American “white” culture and its interactions with “black” culture and how this affected “pop” culture, or all culture, or the birth of genres, a moralistic tale of one-sided theft will not do. It’s been a while since I’ve read Eric Lott’s “Love and Theft” in which he tries to untangle this history, American music, its roots in minstrelsy and how some of the first famous minstrels were black performers who themselves would cork their faces in imitation of the popular white black-faced minstrel singers, but his argument essentially complicates and twists around any simplistic notion of one-sided cultural appropriation.
The fact that the history of these two worlds colliding to create American music contains so much *theft*, (slavery being the ultimate act of thievery) nevertheless should not obscure the *love* that is probably at the root of the cross-fertilization, the desire to learn new musical forms, to encounter new sounds, new rhythms. Perhaps that sounds a tad naive, but it is true. There is more to music than how it eventually reflects a slave-culture’s moral decay. Stephen Foster’s melodies and often-racist lyrics end up accomplishing more than a heroic and nefarious rear-guard action for slavery’s stubborn retreat. What is his music and what does it mean that we know Stephen Foster’s name and not the names of the countless and nameless subalterns who created the blues and other strange new art form hybrids that would change the course of world art? These are knotty questions, but to answer them in such a way that trivializes the 19th century and contemporary artists wrestling with their creative forces in the midst of a racist culture is to do a misunderstand the contradictions of history and the role of the critic.
Unfortunately Siddiqi, from what I can glean from this article, sees the world in a much more Manichean way– There is a surfeit of evil when it comes to racial history in the United States, but written in a certain way it colors her narrative into tarnishing the efforts and genius of African-American artists who have taken the risks to perform and thrive in American culture. Reading Siddiqi’s essay and the dilemma she poses at the end it would almost seem that having defined the shadow of the White Capitalist superego that subsumes all of our interactions it would be better that black and white never interact. She poisons the well of whiteness in a way that all black artists engaging in “western” arts would become traitors to their race and writes almost moralistically at the “white” artist’s engagement with “black” culture. I cringe thinking what Siddiqi would think of the Duke Ellington orchestra performing at the white-only Cotton Club. Duke’s father was a kind of “house negro” in Washington D.C.; was Duke Ellington an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race? Should he have given up the Cotton Club gig where he and other black musicians played “Jungle” music on European instruments in front of an ogling and titillated white audience? How should we write about these cultural exchanges? The history of these awkward meetings and courtships of course goes further back into the repressed enigma of minstrelsy and forward into the present with Miley Cyrus and her hip-hop collaborators.
For all of its sophistication and theoretical fluency, this essay has the obsessive’s fear of borders and boundaries being crossed and violated, and the paranoiac’s twisting of problems into persecutions:
For all its black performers, the rap industry has been run by the white establishment and caters to the white consumer. The commercial success of gangsta rap wouldn’t be possible without North America’s largest demographic buying in. The commercial demand for sexually aggressive and violent rap is appreciably shaped by white teens in the suburbs looking to live out their fantasies via imagined black bodies. And in guiding the market, white consumers dictate the available imagery of blackness.
In the context of this limited representation, black people are cornered into owning all the stereotypes white consumers afford them, particularly when these consumers allegedly “act black.” Black girls who don’t twerk are made invisible because white consumers decide not only what blackness is but also what they want out of it.
It’s thinking like this that also serves to disenfranchise and delegitimize almost any black artist who has ever worked in America. There is just very little room in this rhetoric for a black artist to be creative, i.e., to actually be an artist, to play with the stereotypes, to remake them, subvert them, be radical and new. Does Lester Young’s sax sound like white power? Working in a racist culture, performing for a white audience in this limited vision takes away the black artist’s generative force–Not to mention the white artist’s potential creativity as well. The Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Eminem have 4 of the top 10 best-selling rap albums of all time. But whose fault is that?
“White people clamoring to up their cred by appropriating nonwhite culture do so hoping to be rewarded for choices that are falsely seen as inherent in people of color. It’s this savvy that Miley wants us to be convinced of.”
Um, no. There is more to a rich history of artistic cross-fertilization than vain desires to “up one’s cred”. This is a cynical view that may or may not be appropriate with respect to Miley Cyrus, but does an injustice to almost all American artistic output, “white” or “black”.
Siddiqi attempts to, but never really unpacks the contradiction that there can be a hegemonic “white” culture and a “white girl” ideal that “serves as the normative gender performance, the femininity from which all femininity deviates, through which all women of color are otherized”, but that transgressing this boundary allows the performer to “reap massive profits by straddling an insider-outsider status.” But teasing this problem apart requires a dialectical subtlety in tune with desire, historical acculturation and contradiction.
This is the second article in a month from the New Inquiry that rubbed me the wrong way and elicited a meek blog critique. I don’t want to be a New Inquiry troll; I want to write for them and join them and push forward together on this interneted united front assemblage … Until then there is only negation and the fidelity to the labor of the negative!!!?!!!