1.30.2009

Of Stench and Living with Memory





Courtesy of the good Dr. Lohren Green, poet-sophist-atmospherist, I have been reading the exquisite, hilarious, and, if you'll excuse the misplaced pun, illuminating, "In Praise of Shadows" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki considers the Western taste for the sheen against the Oriental predilection for the worn, or what he calls the "glow of grime"—the way touch wears something and bends its relationship to light and, alas, to time.

For instance, in the West, we use shiny tableware, glimmering forks and knives; not so in the East where the muted tin and wood prevail. Tanizaki spends considerable time discussing bathrooms and the horror of the Western camode with its white tiles that amplify the filth of the space.

Reading this, I found myself continuing his line of thought. The Western obsession with the glean speaks to a perpetual eradication of history, of memory. We shine our antiques and in so doing erase the very thing that gives them their charm: the mark of use, the patina of time. In ceaselessly polishing, we erase our past, not just the doings of our so-called forefathers but the doings of ourselves.

I, for one, enjoy a certain whiff of myself—through eyes and nose. I like leaving residue of my goings on—a beer bottle on the coffee table, a torn scrap of paper used for god knows what, and, yes, a tinge of my own urine permeating the bathroom. Of course, culturally, we consider this "dirty."

But this dirt is more than mere marker of events; it is the event. It is, miraculously, the cohabitation of the present and the past. To live amongst one's stench is to live with and amongst one's past, to be present with one's memory—rather than sloughing it like so much dead skin.

And yet no sooner can I mark my temporality than a sponge descends on the scene, wiping my very remnants from this world and leaving me desperately alienated from myself, a (more or less) pure contemporary forced to face the now without the reeking trail of my own becoming. I must start anew, my memory wrung down the kitchen sink.

And so I relish those moments before antiseptic sweeps in, when the room is dense with the memory of me, when I can seep in my past, breathe my memory, and enjoy a certain peace that comes with the stench of time.

1.20.2009

On this whole inauguration thing

So, may I rant for a moment? Of course you can, jewbag, it's your blog!

Ok, so, I know people are all, like, excited for this inauguration thing. And I'm not one to shit on anyone's holiday—only I am the one, precisely, to shit on everyone's holiday. So here I go.

What the fuck? This Obama cat may be an excellent guy. He and his family unit sure seem super cool, no doubt about it. But, first, the inauguration was filled, inevitably, with sanctamonious bullshit proffered by a series of fucking idiots. Is this history redeemed? I may not know a lot about African-American politics but it seems to me that the election of this guy does not do a whole lot for the black men I see on the streets just trying to get by.

C'mon, folks, this is the president we're talking about. How much power does this guy really have? And even if he did have all the power in the world, are we sure we want it in this guy's hands? What's all this nonsense about jesus I heard here and there on various televisions about town during this inaguruation? What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? Isn't this why the world hates us—because we think we know who God is? Because we push jesus on everyone? Goddamn, I'm jewish—and jesus was a jew—and it made me feel left out.

It's the president, people. It's not your dad or your boss or your hubby or your friend. You still have to wake up to the stench of your life, regardless of who pays rent at the white house.

Listen, I hope this guy miraculously brings the change we all seek. I hope he stops bombing folks I've never met. I hope he puts money into our schools because, fuckin' a, we don't know how to educate our youth and it's quite literally killing us. I hope he puts a damper on corporate greed and actually restricts what hedge funds can do, what financial companies can risk.

I know y'all are desperate for change. But, c'mon, there are forces at work here that are big and determined and this guy, however cool, is only the president and is, in fact, not hell bent on fundamental change. He's a politician and not a terribly radical one at that. Yes, he seems competent and cool but government is government and life exceeds the law.

The change we need is drastic. We need a 32 hour work week, not 40, 50, 60, 80 hours. We need basic support of education and libido and love. Can a president do all that? Fuck, I hope so. Will this cat do it? No, because capitalism is greater than any president. The key to change therefore exists elsewhere. Where? In you—and, no doubt, in me.

My fear is that we're all being fooled—no, placated, cajoled into thinking this changes everything. But it's the president! It's not that important! Nothing is more dangerous than the mass accepting of change that is anything but.

I am with you in hoping that there's hope. But I fear I am utterly alone in my hesitation and suspicion.

On University Teaching: Stanley Fish's False Dichotomy

In his review of a new book, "The Last Professors," Stanley Fish proffers a dichotomy: we teach to prepare people for work or we teach humanist knowledge for its own sake. On the one hand, we have students gathering around professors speaking of Shakespeare and tropes and Kant. On the other, we have students being prepared for the work world:

"The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment."

Of course, in many ways what he says is right and it is, alas, utterly depressing. Nothing—well, almost nothing—makes me weep more than students asking me what they're "going to do" with a degree in rhetoric, as if all pedagogy must end in profit.

My answer to that question initially is: you'll use this education to think and enjoy life, to live better. And this is practical. But it does seem to reify the dichotomy between inspiration and work.

But the fact is that today's economy is a network economy and this demands a certain kind of pedagogy that is at once inspirational and "practical." This does not just mean that local economies are enmeshed. Nor does it mean solely that we live in the network of the Internet. No, what it means is that jobs themselves are a network—a network of skills.

The assembly line demanded expertise in one area—put the screw in the hole (but don't touch the engine), fix the guy's fingers (but not his anxiety), design the ad (but don't think about revenue streams). But the assembly line is, basically, dead. Today's jobs don't let you stay in your silo. Today's designers can't just draw pictures—they have to know technology and business, the competitive landscape and the behaviors of people.

This, today, is a network life, a network economy, and it demands network thinking. And this is redundant because to think is to forge connections between and amongst different things, to forge networks.

Now, the liberal tradition of the university is built on scholarship and knowledge, on philology and, once again, expertise. It is NOT premised on thinking. What the university rewards is mastering some pedantic, esoteric field no one else has mastered and this is your ticket to tenure—which will eventually allow you not to teach anymore. Thinking, per se, is rarely taught and more often than not is frowned upon.

But there is a mode of teaching that is not premised on mastery, not premised on knowledge, one that is premised on teaching a practical skill—and yet not a skill that is immediately transferable to an industry. This skill is called thinking, or perhaps, critical thinking. It involves the ability to think across disciplines, to assemble disparate trajectories, to make new kinds of sense. And this is precisely what the network economy demands.

First, we must escape the trappings of industrial thinking, assembly-line thinking, which still reigns in both industry and the academy. When both embrace the network and what it demands, then we can have a university in which thinking is, finally, rewarded.

1.06.2009

The Melodrama of the Image in Harmony Korine's "Mister Lonely"






All of the characters in Mister Lonely—almost—are impersonators. This immediately shifts the very architecture of cinema and the dynamics of experiencing a film. Rather than actors trying to present real people, we see actors playing actors who are always acting—and yet it is not as though they go back to their real selves when off screen.

The characters in this film, then, are always playing a character. This shifts the affective distribution of the filmic experience. We are never asked to identify or understand these people. We are asked, rather, to see these people as they are always already images, always already playing life, putting on the world (I steal that from McLuhan and I just love that phrase—putting on the world). By displacing the very premise of acting, the film displaces the very possibility of identification.

And so the narrative force that would come from characters interacting with each other is suspended. There is no narrative force, not really, just a series of exquisite images.

This film is a spectacle. It privileges looking at images rather than interpreting images. Mister Lonely rigorously denies access to the real as it shifts the space of cinema from the relationship between world and image to the image itself, to the screen. The images in this film do no refer to a real. Diego Luna doesn't just play some guy playing Michael Jackson. His identity is as an impersonator of Michael Jackson. This guise will not give way to a real person (despite the ending which I will not address now).

The film is not a parable. On the contrary, it's a film.

But what makes it so great—and it is almost or perhaps great—is that it is a melodrama. The effect is supremely odd. These are not people, not really. They're impersonators but impersonators all the way down. So from whence the drama? It seems to come from the narratives of characters they play—from Michael Jackson, from Marilyn Monroe—but this is not to say that it doesn't come from the characters, as well. Only who are they?

What Korine brings to light is the melodrama of the image. It is not that the image presents melodrama, that the image is a vehicle of melodrama. There is no representation. All there are are images and these images are rich in pathos.

It's not a pathos that we experience one-to-one with the drama—we are not necessarily sad when they are sad, happy when they are happy. As I've said, there is no identification because how could you possibly identity with these characters? It's literally impossible. No, the affect of the characters are constituent and constitutive of the affect of the image.

It is the image, of which the characters are a part, that produces—no, that is—the melodrama.

1.04.2009

Another thought about professional sports

Why, exactly, do the networks insist on showing us the owners of the teams during the game? I, for one, find it kind of disturbing as it reminds me of the creepy class and race structure of professional sports.

Ah, perhaps that is why the networks do it: to incite, even if in a roundabout way, a revolutionary consciousness.

And a random thought about professional athletes

Do you think professional athletes—at least in football, baseball, and basketball—are at least a tiny bit relieved when they're eliminated from the playoffs? This is their job, after all, and who wants to keep working? I mean, jeez, their bodies ache in ways we will never, ever, understand and we think they want to play more? Why? For glory? Perhaps. But still....

A brief thought: slow motion reveals....slow motion

It is odd, I think, that we believe a slow motion replay of an event to reveal the reality of the event. It seems to me that slow motion reveals....what things look like in slow motion. How could it be otherwise? Indeed, how could severely distorting the perception of something reveal its truth? Hmn.

4 things that drive me ape shit

Popcorn in movie theaters. The sound of greedy, mindless hands reaching time and time again into that bowl of greasy nothingness only to be followed by the repulsive din of mindless mastication—all the while being inundated with sound and image of epic proportions! Have we no sense of decency?

Morons who run red lights, speed, pass you on the shoulder. Drivers assume that they are lone actors. And yet isn't it glaringly obvious that the roads are a collective, ethical system, that they run on the simplest of laws, rules, and regulations and that these laws, rules, and regulations are perhaps the one example of fairness and equality in our entire legal system?

Cafe Lattes. All right, all right. I know plenty of you heathens drink these. But, c'mon, it's a vat of milk with an inkling of coffee—a hint, a mild gesture, a dram. If you don't like coffee, don't drink it. Because the fact is you are holding up the lines for the rest of us. Making an espresso is fast. Pouring coffee is fast. Steaming milk is not fast. Now, I'm not in an enormous rush but waiting an extra 20 minutes in line to get my coffee because you need a steamed keg of shit drawn from a cow's teet just doesn't seem right to me.

Public bathrooms in America. Must we piss and shit under the watchful eyes of our brethren? Can't we have a moment of solitude to tend to our most private matters? What the fuck? Can't a stall door go all the way to the floor and then, for good measure, reach to the ceiling? Can't we just shit alone? In Barcelona, Spain, I encountered private bathrooms nearly everywhere I went. As far as I'm concerned, it is the only first world country (that I've been to, needless to say).

1.03.2009

The Folds of Life: On Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen"



At first, things some more or less straight forward—a melodrama, of a sort. But as the film goes, we come to realize that neither it nor human being itself is either straight or forward. I want to say that both film and human being are organized not around linear progression, not around cause and effect, but in and through the fold.

There really is no plot. Many things happen—institutionalization, suicides successful and not, revelations too bizarre to discuss. But these serve less to propel the film than to illuminate folds in characters. And as these people are pleated this way and that—or, rather, as their pleats come to pass—the film itself pleats and folds in time as past, present, and future find themselves juxtaposed as if in some kind of origami structure that will never be the structure of anything other than the film.

Why folds? The fold is a figure that allows for simultaneous continuity and discontinuity. Consider a piece of paper that has been folded at different angles and pressures. The paper has not been torn but now houses profound internal differences. It is therefore continuous—the same piece of paper—and discontinuous as each crease introduces a whole new posture, direction, and shape.

The characters in "Rois et reine"—"Kings and Queen"—are folded. We are moving along with first this character, Nora, and then with that, Ismael. Things seem to be banal enough, even if visually and dramatically engaging. And then things start to shift as characters fold—they remain continuous but quite different postures, attitudes, modes reveal themselves. And it is not because these people are mad. The film does explore that possibility but those we see who are clearly mad are precisely those who seem to lack folds, who are monolithic in their madness (such as Arielle, the would-be suicide).

No, these characters are not mad. Nor are they products of a surrealist inclination by the filmmaker. This is not the discontinuity of William Burroughs; this is not the cut up that introduces radically discrepant threads to see what will come. Desplechin engages an entirely different tactic: the fold. As the film moves, we discover, we confront, the great complex pleating of Nora and Ismael (everyone else remains more or less univocal—which is lucky, because the complexity and intensity of just these two is overwhelming).

Neither character can be summed up. Neither can be said to have this and that side to them, as if the complexity of character were always the ambivalence of moral/immoral. Desplechin's fold is not the fold of dichotomy. The fold has no purpose, no goal, no destination. This is not origami that will end in a crane. This is the impossibly complex pleating of humanity when it is free of reduction, free of the simplification that humanism and Hollywood would have us believe constitutes this life.

For Desplechin, to be human is neither surreal nor simple. It is to be at once continuous—you are, necessarily, everything you do, think, feel—and discontinuous precisely because you ARE everything you do, think, and feel. There are no deviations from ourselves. In everything we do, in everything we say and feel and think, we create ourselves. Each of these is a fold of our becoming.

What makes it even more complex is that we are not alone, not solipsistic creatures who adjust our beings in solitude. We are folded as much as we fold—by our children, our lovers, our parents, our culture. But the manner in which we can be folded is who we are.

And so this film, "Kings and Queen": a great cinemantic folding that never jumps but that is nonetheless discontinuous, at once jointed and disjointed. In rhetorical terms, Desplechin deploys metonymy—there are no metaphors, no leaps and bounds, no surrealism and no symbolism (surrealism and symbolism are closely related via metaphor's jump cut). Scenes tend to be short and, even when longer, the takes are short. Each shot is a moment, a piece, of this or that character, a metonymy of this or that person. There is never, ever, synecdcohe—we are never allowed to have this fragment stand in for the whole of the person—because there is no whole of the person per se! All there are are folds, a great unwieldiness that is somehow, nonetheless, and more or less, discrete. We can still say, "This is Nora, that is Ismael." But now ask me to tell you what either is like and you will find me showing you the film in its entirety because they are all these looks, words, desires, ideas—not necessarily at once but, yes, at once.

And there is certainly never any irony, no play of surface and depth, no negation. This film is all profusion, fecundity, giving us the baroque nature of human being—folds and folds, perhaps not to infinity but certainly unto death.

Desplechin is an odd and refreshing filmmaker who, like Cassavetes, delivers sentiment without sentimentality, pathos without bathos. And yet his films are really nothing like Cassavetes' as Cassavetes priveleges the immediacy of the event, the surprise and speed and sometimes severe angles of the undulating now. Sure, it's a now that undulates with past and present but his films like to spotlight the urgency of the now. Not Desplechin: he deploys the fold and all of its temporal wackiness. Watching "Kings an Queen," we feel the presence of the past and all the doubt, uncertainty, and anxiety of the future. We literally see them folded into the now.

This makes for a radically different speed and affect of the film, for a different distribution of urgency. Desplechin's films are certainly intense but I want to say that this intensity is distributed differently. Watching "Faces" or "Love Streams" or "Woman Under the Influence," my heart and body are pounding: I'm right on the edge along with Gena. Watching "Kings and Queen" and "Esther Kahn," I am less on edge than I am taken by the edge and folded. To watch these films, then, is not just to see and experience the fold. It is to be folded.