Saturday, December 7, 2013

Glean Some Death: Agnes Varda, Essay Films, and Death

Jean-Francois Millet

“He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days..”
– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life." – Wendell Berry 

Entropy, from the Greek for "transformation," is an immutable law of physics that all ordered systems descend into chaos. It is inevitable that the rules of the universe will slowly break down and lose their tight organization and rigidity. Entropy is the inexorable relaxing of order that ends in the ultimate chaos: nothingness, a complete absence of order. All matter obeys the march of entropy. There is no escape. No escape from decay. No escape from death. All bodies will die, will lose their rigidity, will have their organs stutter and stammer, will wrinkle, will stop, will end. Death is the ultimate "transformation" of matter. Entropy is pervasive and death is always knocking at the door. All things fall apart. The subject is always intensely aware of the inevitability of death, since it is the ultimate fate of all things. Despite this knowledge, the subject feels an immense ambiguity about entropy. They are programmed to resist death by any means necessary, yet entropy is ineluctable. Some subjects combat entropy ceaselessly, while others accept their fate.

Agnès Varda's documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is, in many ways, an expression about acceptance of death: the death of a cultural practice, the death of an era, the death of the subject, the death of the filmmaker. Though, "documentary" is perhaps not the best descriptor for Varda's intimate glimpse into the practice of gleaning. Rather, the "essay film" would work better as the genre of the essay film better allows for the introspection and formal vacillation between subjects that Les glaneurs et la glaneuse traffics in. The essay film as a genre lets Varda accomplish her rather literary goals of metaphorical vacillation that the staid documentary form might resist. Instead of the didactic approach of the documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an essay film that lets the subject accept death, or rather transformation.



In the traditional tarot card deck, the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana is the Death card. The Grim Reaper rides aloft the white stallion, brandishing the flag of the flower. While the card may seem grim, with kings and paupers still at Death's feet, the card symbolizes nothing more than a change of state: "One state must end (tis common sense)/Before another may commence" (Moore Promethea, 12.15). Death is inherently transitional as it allows for one state of matter to transform into another state. There is little difference, physiognomically speaking, between a living body and a freshly dead one. The moment of death is not even the initial step of entropy's march. Rather, the physical death is only one step on a long journey. The decay of the body, the transformation, is constant, from the moment of adulthood. 


Varda uses the medium of video to easily capture the gleaners and their dying/transforming cultural practice. She narrates that her project is to film one hand with the other. Through this, and the title, she sets up a duality that the film is both about gleaning and about ageing: an objective factual documentary and a subjective introspective look at the documentary filmmaker. But Varda "rejects this duality" and she forces herself and the viewer to understand that the camera lens both captures and reflects simultaneously (Fischer 114). It is not a dilemma: capturing the practice of gleaning before it disappears versus accepting its disappearance. Rather, it is a process. The film, like death itself, is transitional, a liminal state between genre (documentary/travelogue), between media (film/video), between subjects (gleaners/filmmakers). Instead of resisting the change in state, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse embraces it. The film understands the "horror of it."



The film is cognizant of the death drive, or Thanatos. The death instinct is not, contrary to its name, interested in the death of others but rather the destruction of the self. Freud's formulation of the death drive is related to the subject's repetition, the constant return and departure, the build up of pleasurable tension (pleasurable, of course being relative). The death of the subject, then, is the ultimate release of tension – far more pleasurable than sexual release. The rehashing of events not pleasurable are rehearsals for the subject's own death. Repeating destructive events is the ultimate form of self-destruction. Since the death of the subject cannot be experienced by the subject (as the body loses ability to be aware of or even repress), the death drive is experienced through the deaths of others (eg family members, friends, celebrities, pets). Other decaying dying bodies allow for the subject to "work through" their own death. Thus, I submit that Varda's documentary is not a documentary about a transforming cultural practice but a way of working through her own impending death by metaphorically aligning herself with gleaning.

Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. Ceres Teaching Agriculture to King Triptolemus. 1769
The choice of the practice of gleaning as a way to work through the subject's inescapable descent into entropy is not chosen randomly. Not only is it a cultural practice on the decline, but it is also an agricultural practice. The practice of agriculture, done by countless across the world, has always and forever been intricately related to death. The Greek figure of Demeter (later named by the Romans as Ceres as in the above painting) was closely related to death, literally. Her son-in-law was Hades, lord of the underworld. The Greeks used the myth of Persephone's partitioned time in the underworld as a way to explain the seasonal shift in agriculture; when Persephone is in the underworld with her husband for half the year, Demeter is in mourning and thus there is no growth in the soil. Though, Demeter/Ceres are not the only deities that closely linked death and agriculture. Osiris, of the Egyptian pantheon, was both lord of the dead and lord of the harvest. In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec is the life-death-rebirth god as well as agriculture. Ninurta, of Sumerian mythology, was god of agriculture and war. There are countless more examples. Agriculture has always been linked to entropy because it is the apotheosis of transformation. At no point does agriculture ever sit still. It is a constant process, ever changing. All elements of nature shift, in a futile attempt to stave off permanent death. Rather than submit to oblivion, flora and fauna go into fallow periods. Trees lose their leaves; grains hibernate. They transform. It is a constant vacillation between life and death.

In the film, Varda picks up a potato, discarded and unwanted. She lets the camera's gaze linger on it, letting the potato take center stage for once. The rotting starch would normarlly have been forgotten by the camera's gaze, as it is transforming back into the earth, but Varda saves it and allows its transformation to be the star. 


The potato should not be forgotten. They deserve to be filmed, Varda implies. She films them up close, while simultaneously is filmed herself, setting an immediate comparison. Neither Varda nor the misshapen potatoes should be forgotten, despite their transformation towards entropy and death. Both deserve to be in the archive of the documentary. As Derrida writes, archives are traditional and revolutionary, institutive and conservative (11). Archives shelter themselves, conceal themselves while simultaneously making themselves transparent. Varda's film is both traditional in the sense that it is a travelogue, has a subject, and uses linearity for intelligibility but the film is also revolutionary in that it frustrates, resists, and blurs generic signifiers. It is not simply a travelogue nor a one subject documentary. It is not simply a meditation on the transformation (the entropic journey) of a cultural practice. It is both transparently about gleaning while sheltering its multivalence. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an archive that seeks to keep gleaning alive in the collective conscious and it is an archive that seeks to keep Varda alive. Though, as Derrida points out, the archive does not happen without the death drive. Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression" (19). In other words, the very fact that things are finite is enough to drive the archive fever. Were things (potatoes, people, lives, film) infinite, there would be no need to archive, to sort and select that which need to be made infinite. The archive inherently looks to the past as it is a shelter for things the archivist has decided might be lost in the future, but in that, the archive also looks to the future. It is both pessimistic (things will be lost) and optimistic (things will be remembered in the future). For the archive, “it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (Derrida 36).

This prophetic tendency finds a comfortable home in Varda's ostensible archive. The film straddles the past and the future, using historical analysis and art to understand the cultural practice of gleaning while looking forward to how different cultural practices might be understood in relation to gleaning. This complex relationship with past and future means "there is no stable archival object or archiving subject that we can hold, or by which we can be held, in a time that is simply present or past" (Torlasco 52). Varda interviews a cook who gleans herbs and vegetables in order to keep his food cost down. Also, in the final sections of the film, Varda interviews a man who gleans at the urban marketplace. Varda "gleans" this man from obscurity, from the forgotten edges of history, and follows him around. She follows him to his home, where he teaches new immigrants basic reading and writing. The building is a shelter, just like an archive.


For archive fever to function, “it is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (Derrida 57). It is a desire to salvage from the wreckage of the past, to re-energize the detritus of the past for a future. The documentary is a film invested in the idea of transformation: the transformation of a cultural practice, from an agricultural one to an urban one. Thus, as gleaning changes from a wholly alimentary concern to one of dealing with increasing levels of discard from consumer culture, the subject of the film shifts as well. Varda attempts to salvage the practice of gleaning by interviewing those who live on the margins of urban spaces.


Varda, as in other films, shows an interest in the underclasses, the detritus of "polite society." Varda salvages them, just as her subjects salvage food or garbage in order to survive. It is a process of transformation, to take the garbage of one person and turn it into the treasure of another. In the film, Varda interviews different artists who repurpose trash in order to make art. Trash is beautiful, one moment in the film tells us. This is another vacillation in Varda's project: recognizing that the transformation itself is beautiful. The entropic descent is inevitable, but there is beauty to be found there, in the wrinkles of a hand, in the rotting heart of a potato, in the discarded doll's head, in the margins of society.

While entropy is inexorable, Varda's film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse shows a complex relationship with death. The essay film, with its personal and empathetic approach, its confessional style, and its loose structure, is an ideal form to approach the subject. The archive fever propels the essay film, just as the death drive propels the archive fever. Varda's awareness of her decay, her destruction, fuels the desire to capture, salvage, and repurpose. In one sequence, Varda films her hand forming a circle, as a camera's lens, so that she might capture images. She films her own hand, just as she claimed she would. Her own decaying hand. She does not shy away from death. She repurposes death for film, for art. She gleans the beauty from entropy with her film.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Notes on Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets

1.

Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets opens with a foreboding and portentous image of the Winnipeg Arena. The image of the arena is poor, with glaring distress of the video on the sides. A drone whines uneasily as the arena comes more fully into view. A newscaster's voice, easily identifiable by the common cadence, intones these words:
You wouldn't think a smaller city smackdab in the middle of the country wouldn't be a violent place but it obviously is.
With its opening 30 seconds, Death by Popcorn provokes an emotional response from its audience. The film asks the audience to feel anxious, and in a complex way, asks that the audience tie their anxiety to their memories of the Jets. The traditional set of emotions that accompany rituals of sport should be complicated, this opening shot demands. The subtitle of the film claims that this is tragedy, but surely this is horror.

2.

If the personal is political, then the emotional is political as well. In her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes:
Pain has often been described as a private, even lonely experience, as a feeling that I have that others cannot have, or as a feeling others have that I myself cannot feel. And yet the pain of others is continually evoked in public discourse. (20)
If Death by Popcorn is about anything, it is about what Elizabeth V. Spelman calls co-suffering. Spelman argues that the presentation of other people's negative feelings leads to an appropriation of those negative feelings. This is not simple empathy, where we imagine ourselves skating in another person's shoes. Rather, this is parasitism. When I am presented with the other's feelings, the other is constituted by me. The other person is produced through my appropriation of emotion. In order for the other to be real, I must feel as they feel. In this way, the body is absent, and the emotion is only real element: "the body is absent because it is perpetually outside itself, caught up in a multitude of involvements with other people" (Ahmed 26). Bodily surfaces are only constituted through my appropriation of the other's bodily pain. The other's body does not exist until I feel it. For Jets fans, they co-suffer with the Jets, with their failure, and in turn, appropriate the failure themselves. Winnipeggers feel their shame of the Jets through each other, as a mass experience, through a mass ritual of pain and mourning.

3.

In his book, Among the Thugs, journalist Bill Buford writes of British sporting events:
I had always assumed that a sporting event was a paid-for entertainment, like a night at the cinema; that it was an exchange: you gave up a small part of your earnings and were rewarded by a span (an hour, two hours) of pleasure, frequently characterized by features—edible food, working lavatories, a managed crowd, a place to park your car—that tended to encourage you to return the following week. I thought this was normal. I could see that I was wrong.(19)
Buford's book about football hooligans was one of many accounts of the ritualistic and often organized violence inherent to the British football culture. He writes of his slow descent into the darker, lesser known parts of footie fandom, such as the ties with the National Front and the EDL.

Jets fandom might not have had the overt racism and criminality that hooliganism has, but Death by Popcorn gestures towards the seemingly inevitable link between the two. The ritualistic displays of tribal fealty, the chanting, and the investment into collective feeling all contribute to the inexorable comparison between sports fandom and ritual violence.

The terrorism of hooliganism finds its older mature brother in Death by Popcorn. A man holding a microphone interviews another man outside the arena. He wears a scarf that appears vaguely Middle-Eastern, almost like a terrorist.

Later (around 48 minutes into the film), brief glimpses can be seen of two masked men standing over a third on his knees, his head covered. Behind the men, a cloth banner with vaguely Arabic writing hangs. A modified Oilers logo on the banner looms over the three men. This sequence, staged for the film, mobilizes the signifiers of films made by terrorists, a oft-seen image in the years following the 9/11 attacks (though existing long before). As the kneeling man reads what is presumably a manifesto written by the "terrorists" (as per the logic of these films), one of the terrorists hits his stick on the ground. The hockey sticks stand in for the cheap AK-47s that terrorists often hold in these videos, but this has another significance in the sense that the banging of the stick on the ice is a common way for players to signal to their teammates. In this section of Death by Popcorn, the banging of the stick is a threat. Listen to the message, obey the message, or face the consequences. Obey the group, follow the group, or face cataclysm.

4.

Death by Popcorn has a subtle but distinct interest in architecture. The outside face of the Winnipeg Arena opens and closes the film, while there are countless shots of inside the arena in the rest of the film. The dilapidated arena at the very end of the film speaks to the "broken dreams" of the city, and its failure to maintain a major league sports team. A careful link is established between the fortunes of the city, both figuratively and literally, and the Winnipeg Jets. It is not hard to create a symbolic link between a city's prosperity and its architecture.

In the advent of postmodernism and the cementing of globalization, "dominant buildings have long ceased to be those in which political and public power resides but are rather those of private finance and corporate investment" (Rykwert 6). In the reign of neoliberalism, the small government, both in the sense of organization and in visibility, must not be involved in the regulation of business. Decreased visibility of state power means increased visibility for corporate power. The Winnipeg Arena, by dint of its name and thus implicit government link, was doomed to fail. Proponents of neoliberalism argue that any regulation of the market, any governmental hand in the free market leads to impotence. This is literalized in the film when Susan Thompson, then current mayor of the city, expresses that she (and thus the government) tried everything to maintain the Jets' presence. But the very act of government intervention leads to impotence, according to the tenets of neoliberalism. The municipality's meddling was doomed to fail; the free market giveth and taketh away.

5.

The great move that Death by Popcorn takes is to tie together the sense of loss inherent in the urban experience with how the citizens linked their civic pride with the successes and failures of the city. As Joseph Rykwert writes in his book, The Seduction of Place, the very moment of urbanity is by definition an absence of the "natural" state. Moving into the city means giving up nature, giving up the natural, default condition of living creatures. This absence is felt, internalized, and then reworked as a coping mechanism. The melancholy for nature is reconstituted in opposite, as a fear of anything outside the city walls.

The constant threat of the outside world weighs heavily in the film. A false rivalry is set up in Death by Popcorn between the mediocre teams of Winnipeg and Edmonton. The latter city is constituted as the Other, a villainous but ridiculous team as symbolized by the goofy Wayne Gretzky. The other is produced through the earnest intense feeling of optimism for the Winnipeg Jets. As Lauren Berlant writes in "Cruel Optimism," "when we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us" (20).

The sense of loss of nature by virtue of urbanity, the production of civic pride through sports fandom, and the inevitability of the loss of the Jets leads to an intense feeling of cruel optimism. Berlant writes, "cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss" (21). The intensity of feeling for the Jets is only made more ridiculous in the light of the inevitability of the Jets' loss. The agent of loss for the Jets is blamed not on capital or neoliberalism, but on the popcorn.

6.

The film uses survivalist rhetoric to complement this condition of loss. A masked man hisses at the viewer that there is impending cataclysm. “Our civilization must survive,” the voice intones. Text on the screen reads “Spend Money,” a injunction. The logic suggested by this sequence is that consumerism and capital might be enough to save the Jets. However, as cruel optimism points out, this survivalist discourse is a stop-gap measure. The loss of the Jets is inevitable, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the film. The man repeats that “we must prepare for cataclysm.” In this way, the masked man is one of few voices of reason, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric. However, all is for naught. To reiterate, the loss of the Jets is inevitable, and even with that knowledge, people “choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to” (Berlant 23).

The man in the mask looks to foment fear in the Jets fans but it is more accurate to speak of the fans relation to the Jets as anxiety. There is a difference between fear and anxiety which is "most often represented in the terms of the status of the object" (64).  Fear is an emotional reaction to to an identifiable threat, whereas anxiety is a "tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event" (64). In this case, the vague event, not quite defined is the cataclysm, the apocalyptic loss of the Jets. As one young man says in the film, "What is there in this city without the Jets?" or "What can we do in the winter?" In the logic of Jets fans, the answer is that there is nothing. Civic identity and pride is so intricately tied into the public spectacle and ritual of the sports team. The film asks, in a larger sense, for the sports fans to complicate their feelings, to think not about the traditional physical violence of the sports ritual, but about the emotional violence from this anxiety, this cruel optimism for the Jets, this painful attachment.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.

Berlant, Lauren. "Cruel Optimism." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.5 (2006): 20-36. Print.

Buford, Bill. Among the Thugs. London: Arrow, 2001. Print.

Rykwert, Joseph. The Seduction of Place. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Homes's Orange Prize-winning novel is not a satire but it is comic. Despite its tone, in the first 20 or so pages, there's a fatal car accident, adultery, murder, and Thanksgiving. The rest of the novel propels with the same amount of force and energy, making it a somewhat breathless exercise. Homes uses a first person present tense to sustain this sense of immediacy. The novel's origin as short stories is apparent in the conciseness and the brevity of scene, though this does not detract from the experience at all. Rather, this force of plot helps the comic bits stay funny rather than surreal. Instead of letting my mind linger on the plausibility of situations, the novel simply provides another comic setpiece, such as a naturist community engaging in a laser tag fight (about as attractive and sad as you'd expect). The narrator is an academic enamoured of Nixon, somehow aware of the former President's personality problems yet ultimately forgiving, a paradox that reverberates throughout the text. Homes offers numerous incidents of ludicrous proportions yet the narrator takes everything in stride, including a stroke, and a prepubescent niece who might be engaged in a lesbian love affair with a school administrator. His narration is flat and impassive, totally at odds with his description of his affective reactions. It pushes the reader away, giving space for comic effect. Ostensibly about this family, Homes's novel expands to touch on contemporary America as a whole, including alternative forms of incarceration (rural camping with threat of domestic drone strikes), America's indulgence in prescription medication, suburbia's predictable relationship to sex and adultery, government, legal system, medical system, private school system, academia, and a host of other institutions that are failing individuals all the time. It's not satire, because the institutions are depicted realistically. Despite the comic tone, the novel has countless moments of blistering emotion, including when the narrator has a panic attack in a public park, sobbing uncontrollably though a police officer asks him to move along. Not all is perfect though; secondary characters are mostly blank, including the children. Their inconsistent behaviour and maturity confuses perception of their age even if those numbers are made explicit.

The Midnight Choir is a Dickensian crime novel focusing on a variety of characters on both sides of the law in modern Dublin. Written by an award-winning journalist, the novel is surprisingly poetic, though not in the clichéd "nobility of the streets" sense. Kerrigan's prose is muscular and sensitive at the appropriate times, while his construction of the plot is... almost watertight. The central character, a morally upright police detective, is mentioned repeatedly to betray his brotherhood for the sake of a greater moral authority: the law. Despite 25 years of virtue, he compromises his integrity in the final stretch of the novel. This can be effective for the story, but Kerrigan doesn't quite sell it, turning the moment implausible. Thus, the author does not stick the ending, which is one of those exceedingly writerly moments of dramatic irony. Even if I didn't quite believe in the ending, I was perfectly enamoured of the novel as a whole. The Midnight Choir is a very good novel, yet not great.

Kureishi's debut novel is as Bildungsroman as novels get, filled with all sorts of quasi-quest imagery such as the figurative "crossing the threshold" and initiations. I'm quite torn on this novel. I liked the first third quite a bit, as it's complex, satirical, and very critical of clueless white people in 1970s London, but also post-war immigrants who unable or who refuse to assimilate. Similar to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Kureishi seems ambivalent about assimilation. However, at the two thirds mark, the novel becomes tiring and aimless. The narrator becomes an actor, which cues the painfully clichéd depictions of upper middle class labor activists/artists, upper class patrons, and the truly execrable cliché of the sexual depravity of the artistic sector. Of course the theatre company director would arrange for his wife to sleep with the narrator. Dohoho, those middle class people and their swinging. In May We Be Forgiven, Homes sells this stereotype by infusing it with self-awareness. Kureishi simply depicts his narrator's growing disillusion with the world of theatre with a straight face. It's not effective. Yet, the novel turns around in the very final pages, as the development of the protagonist reaches its organic conclusion. He has a beautiful insight when he realizes his philandering father is actually in love with the woman he left his wife for. Parents are perceived as perfection, but really they're just as scared as everybody else. While trite and banal, this is the necessary key to the narrator's maturity, and Kureishi definitely sticks the landing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Star Wars Exhaustion

I wrote a long essay about Star Wars and cultural exhaustion. It's an attempt to understand why I don't like Star Wars and why I hope for the new film's critical and commercial failure. I wrote it using the new blogging site Medium, which is more user friendly than Blogger. I haven't decided if I will immigrate there, but I'm contemplating it. (Previous attempts at moves include a disastrous try at Tumblr).

You can read my essay here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

‘only the ghosts of other stories’


England's not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It's the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds

Sinead O'Connor. "Black Boys on Mopeds." I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. CD. Ensign/Chrysalis. 1989.

The 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs looks at the generational disjunction between enthusiastic first generation immigrants from the West Indies, and the civil disobedience of their children and children's children. Using the 1985 riots in Handsworth as the starting point, the film offers the thesis that the tension in the UK derives from a multiplicity of factors including industrial decline, geographic segregation, poverty, and most importantly, systemic and institutionalized racism. 

The film's political aim is to challenge the normative narrative of "black youths = trouble." In another way, the film presents a "secret history" of Afro-Caribbean communities in the UK that problematizes and destabilizes the traditional media depiction of black people as problems. Thus, Handsworth Songs is an explicitly political film that combines a plethora of film techniques to makes its point: news footage, interviews, animated headlines from newspapers, poetic voiceover, oneiric and brooding music, and interrupted voices. The use of traditional documentary techniques closes off the political objective of destabilizing the naturalized discourse; hence the use of non-standard or more esoteric techniques. Rather, there is the interrupted voice, the refusal of the singular static monolithic story, all for a cacophony of voices, and the admission that there are no "stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories."

Handsworth Songs uses the 1985 riots but could have just as easily used the 1981 riots, or the Brixton riots in 1981 or any other riot in the UK during the 1980s, during Margeret Thatcher's reign. This was an era when Thatcher, the prime minister, made a "much quoted remark that white people were being 'rather swamped by people with a different culture'" (McSmith 88). The black experience in 1980s UK was one of underemployment or unemployment, one of substandard living conditions in racially segregated inner-city ghettos, and near constant harassment at the hands of the police. In inner London, the Metropolitan Police were using old Victorian acts to justify "stop and search" on the smallest shreds of evidence (though this was repealed at the beginning of the Conservative government). This was an era when the state used coercive and violent force in the form of police to repress non-white communities. This was an era when police killed black boys on mopeds.


In 1983, Colin Roach was shot in the head while in lobby of a police station, and the subsequent inquiry into his death revealed a history of police harassment, wrongful detainment, and police brutality, much of it alleged to be racially motivated. In 1985, Dorothy Groce was shot and killed by police who had been searching for her son. The inquiry revealed that the police did not provide necessary warning of entry for the raid which would have prepared Groce for the police. Later in 1985, Cynthia Jarrett died of a heart attack during a police search of her home. In 1989, a van pulled up to Jamaican Hugh Prince and eight men jumped out and forced him into the van, wherein he was stripped and taken to a police station where he was detained on suspicion of drugs. Later that year, Prince alleges the police planted drugs on him in order to get a charge. In 1989, the police pursued Nicholas Bramble who was riding his moped. The police believed erroneously that the moped was stolen. Panicking, Bramble lost control of the moped and crashed, dying from his injuries.

Sinead O'Connor's song "Black Boys on Mopeds" takes the view that the police caused his death because they assumed Bramble's guilt on the basis of his skin colour. Like Handsworth Songs, O'Connor's song is one of countless responses to the repressive force of the state authority during this tumultuous era. Both cultural artefacts point to systemic issues rather than individuals as the issues facing black communities in the UK. It is the very institution of the state that upholds the racism, segregation, prejudice, and poverty. The system is to blame, the machinery of the state.

Thus, it is fitting that Handsworth Songs opens with footage of industrial machines whirring frantically, while ominous tones boom over the soundtrack. A black worker watches the wheels of the machine spin, observing, not entirely apart. The decline of industrial employment within the UK is alluded to frequently within the film. Employers tended to provide jobs to whites due to in-group favoritism, leaving black communities without proper employment. Children of immigrants, and their children, know only one land, the land of their birth, England, but were constantly asked by the media and the machinery of the state to be "repatriated" into the system, to be absorbed. This demand was and should be wholly unacceptable.

After the opening shot, after the murder of crows perched over a dark horizon, sirens blare across the soundtrack. A police siren wails. A glimpse of boots running. A shaky camera takes in debris, detritus, destruction. Shouts, screams, incoherent voices, a cacophony of voices. For Handsworth Songs, sound is vitally important to convey the complexity of the racial situation, but also the multiplicity of the stories. Using this collage of multiple sounds, images, and techniques, the film refutes the very idea of a monolithic "black community." There is no one grand narrative of the riots in the UK, but rather a variety of subject positions, beliefs, and motives. Instead of a homogeneous group of black immigrants, Handsworth Songs lets a variety of voices speak to, speak over, and speak about a variety of issues.

One of the initial interviewees in the film is an Afro-Caribbean man with an almost impenetrable accent. Despite the accent's thickness, or perhaps because of the accent's thickness, this man deserves to be heard, the film contends. Later, different ethnic groups are interviewed, including Sikhs and Hindus, but in the media, in the system, they are reduced and simplified to the sign of "blacks" which has a second order of signification meaning "not white" and "trouble."

An Afro-Caribbean voice reports that the new Chief Inspector says that the blacks are all drug pushers, and that they are using every drug on the street. The Chief Inspector, a representative of the state, is putting the blacks "into the corner."


Headlines from newspapers report that this "mob was on the rampage," that this was a "riot of death." The newspapers show a group of armed police officers as "the front line" borrowing military jargon to naturalize the idea that fighting this civil disobedience is war, justified war. Headlines that depict Handsworth as a "bloody battleground."


An Afro-Caribbean woman explains that it's not just the unemployment, which is in the background, but the harassment at the hands of the police. In the background of this shot, a white police officer stands still, arms crossed, watching impassively, as this woman of colour expresses her frustration with a state that only seems to care about individuals, not society. Thatcher's government, a neoliberal machine of privatization and neo-imperialism, was only interested in individual:

They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.
In this government, there is no place for those that cannot take care of themselves. Black youths blamed "society" for their problems because privatization, union strikes, an impotent Labour government, outdated colonial mindsets, the Enoch Powells, and other large scale social issues upheld and still upholds the institutional racism in England.


The pressure put on black communities in Handsworth is the same as the pressure put on in other parts of the country, one Afro-Caribbean man tells the camera. They are paid to do the dirty work of the state, he reports. He concludes by saying that there is no chance of relief from pressure: "if we're right, we's wrong, and we's wrong, we doubly wrong." He is expressing the idea of out-group derogation, when any critique of the in-group by an outsider is rendered invalid by the out-group status. His very articulation of the problem is part of the problem, the in-group would contend. Thus, there is no chance. No hope.

Handsworth Songs is both a time capsule of England in the 1980s and a timeless depiction of English racial tensions that continue to this very day. The film could be about any racial crime in the UK.

In 1959, Kelso Cochrane was murdered by white youths. The police denied that there was any racial motivation to the murder, despite the large presence of right wing political groups in the area. This denial and lack of police action led to racial tension in the area.

34 years later in 1993, Stephen Lawrence was killed by white youths in a racially motivated attack. The subsequent police investigation was found to be compromised by issues of race, leading an inquiry that concluded that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist.


In 1998, Chris Olifi exhibited the above painting called "No Woman No Cry." Like Handsworth Songs, the painting is mixed media, offering a multiplicity of avenues for understanding. Olifi used acrylics, oil, collaged images, and elephant dung to create a portrait of Stephen Lawrence's mother Doreen. Each tear she cries is a picture of her murdered son. The portrait is designed not to hang on the wall as with other paintings, but leans against the wall, supported by two pieces of dried elephant dung. A third dried piece "hangs" on the necklace around Doreen's neck.

Along with the surface comparison of inspiration from racial crime, "No Woman No Cry" shares attributes with Handsworth Songs. Olifi's painting problematizes the traditional discourse of portraiture by refusing a frame, a border, or even two dimensions, as the elephant dung is wholly third dimensional. "No Woman No Cry" does not entirely reject traditional portraiture but uses visual collage to include a multiplicity of techniques. Handsworth Songs does not entirely reject traditional documentary techniques, but includes them with an audio and visual collage.


Both painting and film work together in a discourse of art resisting the coercive repressive force of the institutionally racist state. They are works of art that reflect the sheer complexity of daily lived reality, rather than the singular narrative of traditional portraiture or media reports that declare "this is the face of a bomber" as in the film, a face of terrorism. Rather, this face, Doreen's face, is one of the many affected by England's racist government and police.
Margaret Thatcher on TV
Shocked by the deaths that took place in Beijing
It seems strange that she should be offended
The same orders are given by her
Works Cited

McSmith, Andy. No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s. London: Constable, 2011. Print.

O'Connor, Sinead. "Black Boys on Mopeds." I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. CD. Ensign/Chrysalis. 1989.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

The Patriot Game by George V. Higgins
Hollywood Crows by Joseph Wambaugh
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
The Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
Zulu by Caryl Ferey

I don't have much to say about any of these novels other than I enjoyed them, some more than others. I also don't have much to report on in terms of my life. I'm working on an MA in Cultural Studies, so that's one reason for my long absence.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh
Galveston by Nick Pizzolatto
All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane
The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Galveston I read because the author, Nick Pizzolatto, has a TV show coming out on HBO that is getting ALL of the hype. The novel was okay, I guess. The prose was quite good, but in that tryhard writerly way. The mechanics of the plot are probably the best part, as the narrative takes place in two time periods: the 1980s and hurricane season in the 2000s. Despite knowing that the narrator survives in the earlier time period, essential information is kept from the reader by the narrator, and not consciously so. In fact, the whole novel is a rumination on the idea that the past is not real, but simply a biased imperfect construction of events. Which means our unreliable narrator suffers from delusions both in the later time period, and interestingly enough, also in the earlier time period. The slow reveal of plot details is sometimes so low key that I wondered if I had already learned the specific piece of info and had forgotten it, which is a definite problem. I also didn't care for how male gaze-y the book is. The teenage prostitute character is almost always described in lurid painstaking physical details, but her character is poorly defined. This novel is from 2010, so I can only assume Pizzolatto's skills have improved considerably.

Hollywood Station continues my very slow read of Joseph Wambaugh's novels and journalism. The novel charts a few months in the lives of various cops and criminals in the Hollywood Station district. Using black humour and real life anecdotes repurposed for narrative reasons, the novel tries to articulate life for the regular cop. Because Wambaugh was himself a cop (but like 30 years ago), the novel has a sheen of authenticity to it, not only in the plot details but also in characterization. As with many of his novels, Wambaugh also uses the novel as a didactic platform. In this book, the author criticizes the non-police oversight structures that came from decades of accusations of corruption and brutality. To Wambaugh, this watchdog structures mostly paralyze good cops from undertaking their job and enforcing the law to the full degree. He's concerned that cops have become mostly reactive to crime due to this public prejudice against the LAPD and subsequent "neutering" through incessant civilian probes. While this might be true in the microcosm of Hollywood District, Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop paints a different and more realistic picture. In his nonfiction account of the militarization of the police, Balko shows that police have been consistently increasing their reach, often operating as an extrajudicial arm of the state, upholding through increasingly violent means the economic status quo. How to reconcile this with Wambaugh's cheery, hilarious surfing cops that only want to enforce the law, not kill everybody? Regardless, the novel is quite funny and tightly plotted considering its large cast.

I'd almost like to review Kim Newman's Anno Dracula and Andy Lane's All-Consuming Fire together. Both of them are self-conscious literary pastiches using Victorian (and Edwardian) literary tropes and figures. Newman's novel, the first in a series, depicts an alternate history where at the end of Stoker's Dracula, the great vampire is not defeated and in fact marries Queen Victoria in order to usher in a new world of vampirism. Using a vast cast of characters drawn from popular and unknown Victorian novels, Newman throws himself into the premise. The plot is that Charles Beauregard (a spy for the Diogenes Club) is tasked with solving the Whitechapel murders. He ends up discovering the culprit (who is revealed on the first page of the novel) and then accidentally overthrowing Dracula's totalitarian rule of Victorian England. The novel is a romp, but it's more interesting for how Newman postulates the logical outcome of a world in which vampires are socially accepted.

Andy Lane's novel is a Doctor Who New Adventure starring the Seventh Doctor. Presented as a Conan Doyle novel, the text is excerpts from Doctor Watson's journal. He and Sherlock and tasked with investigating the theft of important banned works from a clandestine library. The Doctor is also on the trail, but as with the Seventh Doctor, he has prepared in advance. This is not the first Virgin New Adventure to use Lovecraft's creations, but the first to explicitly use the lore. The books stolen from the library allow for planetary travel, to a world called R'lyeh where an alien named Azathoth wants to invade Earth using an army of rakshassi. Cthulhu and Dagon are name-dropped along with a couple others. In addition to the Cthulhu Mythos, Lane also deploys various Holmesian details such as the Diogenes Club and even name drops Charles Beauregard. The best bits of the novel are the relationship that develops between Watson and Benny and then later Watson and Ace. This is an effect of the narrative necessity of having Watson be present for important things, but it's still a lovely development in both Ace and Benny. This version of Ace is, unfortunately, the hyper violent 90s Ace who name-drops Sonic the Hedgehog. Still, the novel was fun, even if the stuff about India is totally racist (cf The Sign of Four).

Both novels use the postmodern idea of the pastiche and for seemingly no artistic reason beyond "this is public domain" and "this is cool." Neither Newman nor Lane take even the slightest effort to say anything about British Imperialism. It's empty pastiche in the sense that Jameson talks about in Postmodernism. But then again, not all cultural objects, especially not licensed material, should be criticized for their lack of didacticism or pointed political critique. Especially since, in many ways, both novels are professional fan fiction. Newman and Lane obviously both have a fondness for these literary tropes, and even more so with Lane, who never really acknowledges that the Doctor is pretty much a science fiction Sherlock Holmes. What's interesting, as I read licensed material and material that repurposes public domain, is the sheen of "authenticity" given to these two objects while I simultaneously disregard or sneer at other fanfics. Intellectually speaking, there is little that separates amateur Internet fanfic from these works other than both of the authors were previously published and thus benefited from a system of professionalization (editing, agents, etc). Either way, I thought both books were enjoyable, but nothing really all that special.

The Crow Road, by Iain Banks, is a re-read, but from when I was in high school. I didn't remember a single thing about other than Banks' coinage of "vox humana" to refer to voices during coitus. It's a clever turn of phrase, and the entire novel is chock full of them. One that stood out was "rapacious stillness" which conjures such a mental image. This is one of those rare cases where the experience of reading the book outstrips my (hazy) memory of the first time. The Crow Road is a novel that I probably just did not understand when I was in high school. It's an emotionally mature work that is both a Bildungsroman as well as a family history. However, it's far more clever than simply a fractious recounting of family deaths and births. The text gestures towards ideas of memory, time, sight, and the emotional labour involved when pretending to be something you're not. It's quite a good text, only ameliorated by the stellar prose from Banks. I had totally forgotten how good a stylist Banks was. Sort of like Martin Amis, but without the narcissism. I re-read the novel because Banks passed away this year, and I've been staring at his sci-fi novels on my shelf for decades. I should get around to them, but his "literary" works were always just so much more captivating.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

Review is a bit of a misnomer. Here is a list of books I've read this week:

Filth by Irvine Welsh
Union Street by Pat Barker
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Last Days by Adam Nevill
La Brava by Elmore Leonard

I got back on the reading train, after spending a month not reading.

Filth is a re-read, as I originally read it back in 2000-2001, not sure. But the film adaptation is coming out, and I thought I'd give it another go. I remember quite liking it. The second time around? I liked it for wildly different reasons. Filth dares you to identify with its protagonist and the moment you do, it's cruel towards its audience. The little details, such as the execrable protagonist's taste in music, were clearly meant to mock, rather than imitate another famous sociopath's questionable taste in pop.

Union Street was Pat Barker's first novel, and it's surely a masterpiece. Utterly devastating, structurally compelling, gripping, and clearly didactic. This is gritty realism at its best.

Jack Glass was a sci-fi novel recommended by a couple critics I follow on Twitter. It's sort of a pastiche of both golden age science fiction and golden detective fiction. In reality, it's a tricksy novel that tells you everything upfront and then proceeds to challenge your expectations. It's the abandonment of narrative catharsis and the hysterical cleaving of genre. I liked it; I didn't love it.

Winter's Bone is probably not my favourite Woodrell novel, but it's probably his best. It's much more writerly than his other works, as if it took him ten novels to abandon the self-conscious noir approach and take on the Iowa Writers Workshop aesthetic. Woodrell does something rather complex with the idea of family, blood, kin, and bodies in this novel that was more impressive technically than his other books. Plus, I had no idea that protagonist was queer, so it was a pleasurable surprise.

Last Days is old school Hammer horror melded with a twenty-first century aesthetic of found footage. Nevill's prose was quite good, and his control of pacing and tone was masterful. I was able to read the 550 page novel in two sittings, so that says something about its affective qualities. However, just as with most horror being written for straight males, the whole thing lacks any nuanced or developed female characters. The only women in the novel are either grotesquely villainous or objects of the male gaze, literalized through the fact that the male protagonist films them! Plus there's a bit of gay panic about the mysterious film's benefactor who employs the protagonist. I could have done without that. However, I still quite liked the book as it takes up the idea of cults and links it to ancient rituals and demons.

La Brava was interesting to read as Leonard tries to conceptualize photography as a sort of cop's thing, trying to reduce a single person into a type for easy categorization. As for the novel itself, it is what it is: an enjoyable crime caper that has cracking dialogue and a narrative logic so tight that once it reaches its conclusion, there is nothing left to say. I used to be disappointed that Leonard novels always end in the predictable way, but now I realize, that the novels are always true to the characters, rather than to the puerile interests of the audience. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Abandoned hope in the blockbuster era

The last film I saw in the theatre was Django Unchained and that was in January. It's now the summertime, and the multiplexes are positively throbbing, vibrating with the sounds of million dollar spectacles of pixels moving across the screen to the delight of audiences. I am not one of them anymore. It seems that I've fallen out of love with the theatre experience, along with the blockbuster phenomenon.

I haven't seen Star Trek Into Darkness, nor Iron Man 3, nor Man of Steel. However, I'm starting to feel the societal push for me to see these films. As all three blockbusters are worldwide experiences (though only depicting a small world themselves called Amurika), they are impacting and influencing culture. I am unable to visit a pop culture website without tons of ads, reviews, and essays about the films. I am left out of the conversation because of my lack of desire to see the films. I want to discuss them; I just can't be bothered to actually experience them. So, there's a cultural impetus, a responsibility almost, to see these films in order to not be left out.

This is sort of similar to last year, when The Avengers came out and felt absolutely no desire to see the film. I eventually went and saw the film because I was tired of memes, pictures, jokes, and people telling me that it's the greatest movie ever. So I saw it, and predictably, I was bored by it. Even now, a year later, I'm feeling bored by The Dark Knight Rises. While my initial reaction was "I love it," I'm willing to concede that I was mistaken. None of these blockbusters are interesting. They're empty vessels with overly convoluted plots, similar structures, and action for the sake of it.

Jonathan McCalmont, a critic that I very much respect, has a theory that the depoliticization of films is the symptom of a matrix of factors, with the biggest being the budget. The modern blockbuster has a huge budget that in turn requires a large profit in order for the studio to maintain profitability in the eyes of its (non-creative type) shareholders (who are probably other corporations rather than people). In order to achieve that large profit, the film must be successful in domestic and international markets. Thus, films must be easily translated, must appeal to different cultures and peoples, and must be accessible. This very accessibility limits the emotional palette with which the film can work, and substitutes endless action sequences for nuance and subtlety.

We can then thank (or blame) the vast labyrinthine gears of capitalism for the emptiness and shallow nature of blockbusters. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as The Dark Knight attempts to say something almost revolutionary ("hey maybe the structures we believe in aren't infallible"). But this is an example of Zizek's interpassivity: cultural objects do the labour of criticizing capitalism for the subject, so that the subject does not feel the responsibility of doing that themselves. The guilt of knowing that one must speak out is assuaged when a large blockbuster film speaks out for the subject.

Blockbusters are then depoliticized by the structures of capitalism and simply become singular items in a series offered by endless waves of production. Not only can this be seen in how the films are produced, as there is no respite between film releases, but also in the very films themselves.

Every blockbuster film produced is never meant to be isolated or discrete. Instead, it's always designed for a franchise. In other words, the risk of producing a new intellectual property is diminished due to the investment and subsequent returns of the sequel. Star Trek was only greenlit because it was an already established intellectual property (which means no one had to do all this work introducing the idea to countless millions) and because it comes from an already established franchise (a subtle but distinct difference).

Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man were explicitly designed to be a part of a franchise, with the hope that a huge return would be seen once the franchise had come to a head. The Avengers broke numerous box office records and was an exceedingly profitable film.

In each of these aforementioned films, there comes a tease. This is the mechanism of which I meant by the endless waves of production. Once the film is complete, the audience is no longer excited by the film they just watched, but by the anticipation of the next film in the series. Their whole enjoyment is dependent on the promise of continuing adventures.

While the Marvel Studio films are an excellent example of this rapacity of film production, the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who might be even more emblematic. Each episode of the previous season was promised to be a mini-blockbuster, but each "film" only served to tease the mystery of the "final" blockbuster, which of course was simply an hour long tease for the next episode.

Audiences are essentially being told when to be excited. "GET EXCITED FOR THE NEXT THING" while the current thing is still happening. This is the apotheosis of consumer culture. Each blockbuster film, empty, soulless, depoliticized, shallow, is l'objet petit a.

As Zizek writes, "while the object of desire is simply the desired object, the cause of desire is the feature on account of which we desire the desired object (some detail, tic, which we are usually unaware of and sometimes even misperceive it as the obstacle, as that in spite of which we desire the object)." The films themselves present themselves as both the object of desire and the cause of the desire for the desired object. Each item in the series of advertisements (another endless wave of production) simply teases the inevitable tease that is the film itself.

This constant anticipation has, of course, an unintended side effect within the overarching structure of the production of blockbusters. Each film, independent of intellectual property or studio, must somehow compete with the very aesthetic. That is to say, that each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release.

With The Dark Knight, Gotham City is in danger of being blown up. In the inevitable sequel, Gotham City must, by the logic of escalation, must be blown up. And it is.

In a sequel by aesthetic only, Man of Steel can't simply have Superman and Zod do battle in Metropolis as Bane and Batman did. Rather, an entire city, millions of people, must die for the stakes to be appropriately high.

The moment a blockbuster doesn't have ambitions as high as this, the audience will reject it. Audiences are being desensitized to the scale, the destruction, even the palatable feeling of danger. After all, how many times can the world be in danger of annihilation if it happens all the time?

In the titular film, the Avengers assemble to combat Loki, a fascist who is lazily compared to Hitler. How could anyone begrudge the Avengers from fighting what is essentially a Nazi? Thus, their battle with Loki is not ideological but simply an attempt to maintain a specific political and in turn economic order. Both Stark and SHIELD are massive job providers and contribute to the health and wealth of the nation. In a throwaway scene that emotionally contradicts a later scene, Stark reveals that he's building a mechanism for sustainable, renewable energy. Out of the goodness of his heart, or simply for sheer profitability? Of course, Loki's intervention signals a possible shift in the paradigm. If Loki manage to enslave the human race, then how is anybody going to make a profit? Or even worse, what if they lose their wealth? Thus, the Avengers assemble simply to prevent the change in status quo.

Loki is provided with no motivation other than "conquer all he sees" which is frankly, boring. But since the film must be marketed across the world, almost everybody can get behind the idea that Loki must be stopped in order to prevent domination. It's a shallow motivation for a villain.

But it can't simply end with Loki's defeat. Rather, The Avengers, like all blockbusters, must tease that the villain the heroes are fighting isn't the mastermind at all. Rather, there exists another structure behind that. The film then teases the next threat... which will be inevitably defeated at the hands of the jingoistic superheroes.

Surely, Zizek would argue that modern blockbusters, once depoliticized, offer a fantasy in which there exists more dangerous structures such as total enslavement than more banal structures such as class disparity or racism. The fantasy posits that if the more frightening possibility can be defeated, it stands to reason that the lesser, more realistic structures can be too.

However, this presents its own problems. If audiences are too busy imagining the fascist villain being defeated by punching, how will they ever have time to imagine the end of more insidious structures, ones that are lived reality?

What will be the next step in superhero films after audiences have become bored with the fantasy of the destruction of Earth? Obviously, the destruction of the galaxy. And from there? Why, it must be the Universe: the total annihilation of the Universe while shareholders in Marvel Studios count the rising box office totals.

Blockbusters are exhausting. They're long, overly complicated (due to the escalation logic as formulated up above), and joyless. They function by teasing the next instalment, the next empty threat, the next group of pixels to fight with other pixels.

I haven't been a film in the theatre because I'm neither interested in the films, nor am I interested in giving money to produce more of these blockbusters. I won't see Man of Steel because frankly I just don't care.

Let's have a new superhero paradigm. There's nothing wrong with telling grand scale epic blockbusters. There's still tons of good stories to tell with these corporate figures (such as Batman). So let's take a risk and watch something that challenges us, rather than toadies to our most superficial desires for SPLOSIONS AND PUNCHING. I reject the current model, but I hope for many new models!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

American Elsewhere


When I was 14 or 15, I was visiting my grandparents in Calgary all by myself. On a particularly lazy day, I was allowed to venture forth from their condo and explore a small area. Of course, my first destination was and always will be, a used bookstore. There, I came across a silvery shiny blue paperback of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show. At the time, my reading consisted of alot of beginner crap like Stephen King and cheap horror paperbacks from the 1980s (an era for which I still retain fondness). Barker's novel (which David Foster Wallace hated btw) promised a territory of reading unlike any other I'd ever read.

Structurally speaking, The Great and Secret Show was unlike any other novel I'd read up to that point. Rather than the traditional narrative of ordinary folks introduced to a small town with secrets that reveal themselves slowly and methodically, Barker has everything revealed in the first 80 pages. After a time jump in which our focal characters age 20 years, the action starts and never lets up: a war between two impossibly powerful humans using pawns and ghosts and creatures and nightmares. It's a strange novel if only because I hadn't expected the story to get to the "good stuff" so quickly.

Similarly, Barker's Coldheart Canyon resists the same structures of ghost stories. Instead of the protagonist being slowly driven mad by hauntings, everything is revealed in one quick burst, with the rest of the novel being an ever escalating series of confrontations and horrors.

Both novels are characteristic of Barker's tendency to get to the "good stuff" which is to say the horror that I so desperately craved as a teenager. However, Barker's horror novels are not traditional (as aforementioned) and fall under the nebulously defined but generative category horror-fantasy. This is where the non-standard stuff goes like say Alan Moore's Swamp Thing or Laird Barron's short stories. These are horror stories that evoke other worlds, other creatures not from mythology or folklore.

In other words, H. P. Lovecraft's influence looms over all of this, including Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere.

Bennett's novel works within the same category as Barker's Great and Secret Show and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Bennett listed that novel as an influence on this text. Both work with vast concepts across a small town canvas and feature other worlds only glimpsed that hint at dimensions and creatures not possible in our universe's physics. In other words, the exact type of pulp that I loved as an adolescent and that I still love now.

However, Bennett's novel lacks the elegance of Barker, but retains a better grasp of efficiency. In American Elsewhere, ex-cop (ugh) Mona Bright discovers that she has inherited a house in a town not found on any map. She goes there to discover more about her mother who committed suicide when Mona was a child. In Wink, New Mexico, she is confronted with a strange town, strange people, and endless rules about staying indoors at night, not touching the strange geodesic dome in the town square, and never ascending the mesa to the old abandoned government laboratory.

Of course, once the laboratory is introduced into the plot, the experienced horror-fantasy has already gleaned most of American Elsewhere's secrets: another world, vast unimaginable creatures, a battle on an epic scale, nauseating chitinous creatures from nightmares, all discovered in the name of science.

Mona, a biracial tomboy who no patience for nonsense (ugh), seeks to discover the truth about the facility where previously unbeknownst to her, her mother worked as a scientist. Along the way, she meets strange people who play Chinese checkers against unseen opponents, an old lady who hasn't aged in thirty years, a man who has replaced all the parts of a car's engine with detritus found in the kitchen, a child who has secret meetings with a fish-lady, and other strange things.

However, like in Barker's novels, Bennett wastes little time with the traditional structure. After an extended introduction in which he slowly moves the pieces in place, the remaining 400 pages are breathlessly paced and relentless.

Sure, Bennett's novel unfolds in somewhat predictable ways, but the narrative has a certain neat and tidy logic to it, so when I closed the book, I was utterly satisfied with this engrossing read. Stories, after all, have structure and rhythm and balance; Bennett understands this and has constructed his text accordingly.

He's clearly worshipped at the altar of Stephen King and its imitators, because he populates his Wink, New Mexico with the same type of "aw shucks" American realist characters that have dominated fiction since King's meteoric ascent to godhood. The human villains of the piece (because there are always human villains in these types of stories) could have been culled straight from Needful Things or IT. Characters are introduced in long prologues (always after an "act break" which speaks to the efficiency of the composition) that reveal their weird but relatable backstory. It's not... tedious, but neither is it... elegant. Rather, it's simply economical.

In typical Barker and King fashion, the whole point of introducing a large swathe of characters is to quickly dispatch them to show how important or frightening the main antagonist is. I can identify these tropes, I can understand their function within the narrative, I can despair at their predictability but nevertheless, I feel a frisson of excitement every time.

Where Bennett succeeds most is not simply his replication of a Lovecraftian menace, or a King-esque small town, or a Barker-esque clash of titans, but also his deep comprehension of how to mix and match these elements for pure efficiency, a word I've used a couple times already to describe American Elsewhere. Despite the novel being almost 700 pages, there is very little fat or excess. It's an economical novel that must do what it must do for the sake of the narrative logic, and has no spare time to traipse around in detours. Bennett has also learned from the altar of Elmore Leonard: "try to leave out the part that readers skip."

Alas, not all is perfect with Bennett's novel. While I applaud the use of a female protagonist, Bennett sort of stumbles with his characterization of women in general. They come in two forms in American Elsewhere: meek/submissive and aggressive/powerful. Mona is a powerful woman who has learned all of the masculine traits which comes in handy, narratively speaking. The other lead female is Gracie, a meek girl who has become... the concubine of one of the powerful alien figures. Which is gross.

In the last part of the novel, when the shit is hitting the fan, he deploys some essentialist balderdash: the hoary cliche that underneath every powerful woman, there's a strong maternal instinct that will suddenly take over and redeem her ruthless behaviour. It's not nice, but it does make sense in the narrative's logic.

Also, I was quite sceptical about the mixed race aspect of Mona, but Bennett only brings it up in the beginning in order to set a physical dimension to the character. It's not really anything that defines Mona, but is part of her identity.

American Elsewhere is a good horror-fantasy. It's not a game-changer, it's not doing anything drastically different, but it's certainly efficient, entertaining, and not terribly racist, sexist, or homophobic (which is saying something considering how pervasive all those things are).

Friday, April 12, 2013

ENJOY AT ALL COSTS

Today, however, when we are bombarded from all sides by different versions of the superego injunction “Enjoy!”, from direct enjoyment of sexual performance to enjoyment of professional achievement or spiritual awakening
-Slavoj Zizek. The Parallax View. 303.




On March 4, 2013, the Guardian reported that Justin Bieber's 19th birthday had been ruined by British law. He had booked tables at the Cirque du Soir club in Soho. However when he arrived, some of his entourage were turned away because they were under Britain's legal limit of 18. Bieber then tweeted “Worst birthday.” After being turned away, Bieber's "posse was forced to retire to a nearby McDonald's."

The question arises of which activities are appropriate for the celebration of a rich young man's last "teenage" birthday. At 19, Bieber is an adult (able to vote, drink, get a mortgage, drive, etc), but is not an adult in the sense that he has the wisdom, experience, and maturity of an adult. For his birthday celebration, there are limited options. He is unable to get a clown, a magician, have a barbecue and invite all his friends from school. He is unable to host a brunch, a potluck, a fondue party. These avenues of adult socialization are closed off to him simply because of his position in the public eye and his position as avatar of a youth culture. His music is atavistic in its injunction to party, to have a good time, to be youthful, to love at full volume. Thus, any compromise on his birthday celebration would be a violation of his ethos. Bieber, by virtue of his own music, is forced to enjoy at all costs.

In this essay, I will explore the cultural injunction to party otherwise known as the super-ego ideal of enjoy at all costs as formulated by Lacan and Zizek. The injunction to enjoy is currently the cultural dominant and has come to overshadow competing discourses in popular culture. As subjects, we must enjoy or else with the "or else" being nebulously defined as a lifetime of solitude and missed experiences. The cultural injunction to party can be succinctly defined by the prevalent use of two acronyms: the oft-seen and oft-ridiculed "YOLO" (you only live once) and the lesser known but older-skewing "FOMO" (fear of missing out). The logic of late capitalism that demands subjects consume has been internalized and then turned outwards as even celebrities become subjects to a discourse of endless partying.



In 2011, Khalil Underwood uploaded a demo called "Party All Night," which was meant to attract the attention of Bieber and Chris Brown. Underwood's business model is similar to Bieber's rise to fame: upload original songs, covers, and funny videos to YouTube in the hope that a record company scout or somebody famous will notice and subsequently offer a record deal. "Party All Night," embedded above, is an atrocious song with the simplest of beats and the simplest of lyrics. The martial beat of the song demands the listener move, stomp, or clap in time while the lyrics command the listener to party all night.
No,no I don't care if you're single tonight.
Just get up on your feet and have a good time.
Cause girl we're gonna party all night.
Gonna party all night.
Gonna party all night.
Gonna party all night.
The speaker has no interest in the girl/object's relation to anything outside of the song, or presumably the club where the music is thumping and the lights are flashing. The speaker demands of the object to dance, regardless of any interpersonal relation. They must party all night, which in the context of the song and greater culture, can be taken to mean drinking, dancing, clubbing, and having sex. The atavistic pleasures of partying are simultaneously freeing and menacing. Freeing in the sense that partying represents an oasis away from the relentless labour of the modern world, the ceaseless pressures of responsibility, the endless onslaught of information pushing and pushing and pushing. Menacing in the sense that to party all night requires a commitment from the partier to expend a considerable amount of time, money, and bodily energy in the pursuit of partying. The injunction is omnipresent and inescapable. The subject must spend his body in order to enjoy fully.

In How to Read Lacan, Zizek points to a three and a half second long dissolve to another shot in the film Casablanca as an example of the ideal super-ego at work. When Rick and Ilsa are talking, the film shifts focus to the airport and then comes back to the couple. The 3.5 seconds seem to occur in diegetic time, the bed remains the same, and their clothes appear to be undisturbed. The audience is left to wonder if the couple had sex. The dissolve creates the implication that the couple might have had sex as dissolves generally signify a temporal jump forwards. Thus, the audience is given the offer to imagine their dirtiest fantasy but projected onto the ideal figures of super cool Rick and super beautiful Ilsa. The audience transposes their fantasies onto fantasy figures. This is the superego injunction to enjoy, Zizek argues. Zizek writes, "You can indulge in it, because you are absolved from the guilt by the fact that, for the big Other, they definitely did not do it."

Guilty pleasures are evacuated of their guilt through the cultural injunction to enjoy. Through what Zizek calls interpassivity, cultural objects do the work of feeling guilt, being critical of capitalism, having negative thoughts for the subject. This is the Lacanian notion of "decentrement," the decentered subject. Deeply felt intimate feelings can be externalized and then experienced through substitution. The subject defers the labour of feeling guilt about guilty pleasures by substituting another subject or rather, in commodity fetishism, the object. The guilt and enjoyment are displaced onto the Other, in Lacanian terms. Thus, enjoyment is "not an immediate spontaneous state, but is sustained by a superego-imperative: as Lacan emphasized again and again, the ultimate content of the superego-injunction is 'Enjoy!'" (Zizek).

The enjoyment of the guilty pleasure comes not just from the first order consumption of the pleasure but also from the second order of guilt, the violation of the prohibition. The subject experiences enjoyment through both interrelated orders of enjoyment, as the first is a pale shadow of itself if not paired with the taboo.

Generally, the guilty pleasure, as formulated by popular culture, is defined mostly in terms of edible, consumable products such as chocolate or red meat. However, in consumer culture, the commodities being sold contain within themselves a paradox: the market needs to sell these products, but needs to maintain the prohibition in order to create the need. Thus, a third order of enjoyment is created through the commodity culture. The subject receives pleasure from and through the Other by acquiescing to the injunction to enjoy.

Zizek points to the paradox of the superego injunction with the example of "a father who works hard to organize a family holiday and, after a series of postponements, tired of it all, shouts at his children: 'Now you better enjoy it!' (Zizek). This can be extended to the injunction to party that comes from the hands of the subjects also embedded in the same discourse.

Bieber, Underwood, LMFAO, Ke$ha Andrew W.K. are all examples of artists that must heed their own call. They are subjects to the menacing enjoinder to enjoy at all costs. Of all the artists working within popular music, LMFAO appears be most emblematic of this phenomenon. Specifically, LMFAO have even re-deployed the slang "party rock" to mean a complex set of signifiers.

In an interview with Las Vegas Weekly, DJ Redfoo gives a generative definition for party rock:
The Party Rock … it’s an experience, it’s a lifestyle. We feel that it’s a way of celebrating life, it’s a way of partying …
Rather than simply be one of many activities that subjects engage in (labour, leisure, sleep, etc), party rock comes to encompass an entire mode of living. Partying becomes analogous with "alternative" lifestyles such as the naturalist's dream of living off the land in a commune, or maintaining military manners in daily lived experience. Rather, party rock becomes a discipline.

As per Foucault, a discipline is one of many mechanisms of power that regulates and mandates the behaviours of subjects within a social setting. In order for power to be exercise, the bodies are subject to regulation through the organization of space, of time, and of their behaviours. Discipline, in Foucault's formulation, is enforced with the help of surveillance. Thus, party rock exists as a Foucauldian discipline. Party rock can happen anywhere but it mostly takes place within the architecture and space of the dance club. The dancefloor is, in a way, similar to Foucault's formulation of the prison.

In downtown Williamsport, Pennsylvania, there is a building called "The Cell Block" which is a dance club made from the husk of a prison built between 1799 and 1801. The old prison ceased its initial function in 1982, and in 2001, a developer turned the site into a dance club, as its location is perfect for students of both universities in the area. While its geographic and urban location is ideal, its very structure speaks to the apt comparison between prison and dance floor. The superficial links between the prison and the dance floor abound: both employ guards to control movement in and out, both order and manipulate bodies through space. However, the urban space of the dance floor and the punitive space of the prison share more than cosmetic similarities. Both spaces are devoted to concepts of containment and release, spectacle and observation, and highly specific gendered gestures. The DJ booth observes and regulates similar to a panopticon, and the coordination of bodies through space maintains control despite dance being a method of losing control. It should be no surprise that one method of torture devised by modern military organizations is the relentless repetition of loud dance music to disorient the subject.



Party rock, with its idealized unfolding localized on the dancefloor, is menacing in its disciplinary power.  Despite being called "rock," "Party Rock Anthem" is not a rock song. It is, on the surface, a pop song influenced by electronic dance music. However, it is an anthem, in that announces and celebrates a "way of life." On the site Overthinkingit.com, Mark Lee argues that:
LMFAO has effectively created a new definition for the noun “rock.” ”Rock” is a state of mind, not a music genre. LMFAO is simply taking the evolution of the culture that grew up around “rock” music to its next logical step: divorcing it from its source music altogether.
Emphasis mine. Party rock is not simply an activity categorized under the all encompassing term "leisure" but a state of mind, a way of life, an alternative lifestyle that is no longer alternative. It has become the dominant. The anthemic song also features the super-ego injunction right in the first few moments of the song:
Party rock is in the house tonight
Everybody just have a good time
And we gonna make you lose your mind
Everybody just have a good time
The song instructs and demands that the subject have a good time. Within the logic of the song, which is also the logic of a way of life, there is no room for anything but partying. In order to achieve this state of being (state of partying), one must lose their mind. The subject must surrender their own individuality to become part of the discipline. The consumption of alcohol and other depressants, implied in the concept of party rock, contribute to the docility of the body, a necessary element of the disciplinary power. The body is subjected to uninterrupted coercion in the form of repetitive ceaseless martial beats, pounding from the DJ booth. The intoxication from the alcohol combined with the numbing effects of the relentless noise of the club sustains the docility necessary to maintain discipline.

While music videos depict ordered, tightly controlled, uniform dancing, in reality, the dance floor is a messy display of uncoordinated bodies, sticky floors, spilled drinks, and garbage. Superficially, party rock does not resemble a military order, a school, or a monastery. However, party rock deploys a careful phrase in order to mediate the undisciplined actions of the discipline itself. LMFAO's 2011 album is entitled, Sorry for Party Rocking, a disingenuous phrase that excuses and dismisses any criticism of the lifestyle. Urban Dictionary provides a succinct and generative definition: "the act of apologizing for having an awesome time." Party rocking is allowed to extend and envelope any questionable behaviour that might arise. Party rocking sets the terms and limits of what is possible through the simple disingenuous phrase. In this way, party rocking becomes a discourse, in Foucauldian terms. "Sorry for party rocking" allows for problematic behaviour and actions to be categorized under the protective umbrella. Party rocking is benign, fun, inclusive, and does not hurt anybody due to its pursuit of a good time. Thus, when anything negative occurs, the unwelcome behaviour can quickly be appropriated by party rock the discourse in order to alleviate the action of its crime. The song "Sorry for Party Rocking" is didactic. It instructs how to minimize instances of "party fouls" by repeating the mantra. The speaker sexually harasses somebody in the club by groping them and this behaviour becomes excusable once the mantra has been repeated. The phrase becomes the disavowal of the guilt associated with atavistic behaviours, the ones prohibited by the Big Other. Essentially, "sorry for party rocking" is a intonation of the super-ego injunction.



LMFAO's contribution to this collaboration appears to be simply the repetition of the words, "And party" over and over. LMFAO appear to be steadfastly and studiously committed to the party rock way of life. As they write paean after encomium to party rock, it becomes a sort of Other than they are writing to. In other words, "party rock" and its set of behaviours that must be followed are a Big Other. It is a purely symbolic order, a collective lie that all bodies are subject to. We know that a lifestyle of pure partying is physically exhausting and consuming (the Real), yet we agree that party rocking is fun, inclusive, and appropriate (the Symbolic). We obey the superego injunction to party for "fear of missing out" or simply to avoid violating the order set by the Big Other of partying.

The party rock subject simply ignores cultural prohibitions on partying without limit and engages in partying for the sake of appearances, in order to appease the Big Other, the symbolic order. Thus, Justin Bieber's birthday celebration could only have happened in a nightclub. Whether Bieber wanted to party or not, he must maintain the appearances of a party rock subject, he must obey the super-ego injunction, he must enjoy and the only way to enjoy is through the labour of partying.

On authenticity and geek culture

It should be no surprise that I think the phenomenon of "fake geek girls" is specious at best. At worst, it's vile misogyny and strikes me somewhat of a persecution complex.

The logic, as stated by countless critics, is that previously geeks were ostracized and bullied for their outlier interests. Now that contemporary culture has embraced — no, colonized geek culture, geeks are defensive, that they were the original lovers of outlier culture and that they are entitled to the respect deserving of pioneers. Any non-geek that enters into the discourse of geek culture is doing so in a frivolous manner. As perceived by geeks, this is akin to allies within various social movements. The ally is not "in it to win it" because they are not emotionally invested in the success of the movement. Thus, they are trivializing it by their very participation. This is how geeks perceive the colonization of geek culture.

They're not entirely wrong, but neither are they entirely correct. If any trivializing is happening, it's due to the process of colonization by late capitalism that assigns monetary value and thus equivalence to cultural objects that previously laid on the borders. Spider-Man now has the virtually the same cultural and social capital as Survivor or Ellen Degeneres. The exchange value of Spider-Man has been depleted. No longer is your identity's worth tied up with the arcane knowledge of culture that's inaccessible and unwelcoming to outsiders. This colonization comes hand in hand with the Internet, of course. The Internet becomes the great equalizer; everybody has access to the same databases that list every single obscure comic book character and reference and issue and crossover.

No longer are geeks special for their special knowledge. So, they externalize this obsolescence and focus their ire on those that appear to be benefiting from the colonization without "putting in their dues." In other words, geeks bully those that previously bullied them. A cycle of retributive justice.

This essentially boils down to the idea that back in the nebulously defined days (70s, 80s, 90s), geek culture was inclusive because it was always on the edge. It needed more people in order to survive. Now it doesn't need people to survive because of the commodity culture. Whether we like it or not, superheroes and geek culture are now part of the mainstream. This is irrevocable. While geek culture was previously inclusive, now there is an attempt to make it exclusive. Average casual fans need an authentication cards just to enter into a conversation about some terrible TV show.



Let's face facts here. Geek culture is terrible. It's Sturgeon's Law writ large. Most of the cultural objects we consume are fucking awful (the New 52, Marvel Now!, crossovers, Rob Liefeld, Bendis, Flash Forward, Robert J Sawyer, the new Star Trek film, the Clone Wars theatrical film, etc etc etc etc). Most of it. Not all. Most. So why are we getting so defensive about a culture that's been thoroughly colonized and then diluted by late capitalism?

We need to get over the idea that geek culture was or is sacred and that it needs protection from "fake geek girls" who are trivializing the struggle for acceptance. We won. We received acceptance from the mainstream and now you're mad because of that?

Defensive geeks hold tight to their outmoded perceived structure of the world, where they are still the victims of targeted bullying. In reaction, they turn the bullying around and spew vile shit at women, PoC, LGBT people in order to maintain the purity of the geek culture. These outsiders would only trivialize or compromise the integrity of our sacred geek culture.

In my perspective, adding more talented people, regardless of background, could only help geek culture rip itself from its stagnant roots and bring geek culture into the twenty first century. More women, more PoC, more LGBT people can only help, they can challenge the homophobia, the racism, the transphobia, the sexism, the pure misogyny, the benign racism all of that stuff. More talented people can only improve geek culture.