Transgressive Art, Or How Linklater's "Everyone Wants Some!!" is Radical

On the urging of a friend, I watched YouTube videos of Chuck Palahniuk reading excerpts from a work in progress. It focused on the process of his father's dying and these jokes they'd tell each other— exceedingly crass, sometimes hilarious, and inevitably "offensive". I enjoyed it but finally found it trying to shock and offend and never quite succeeding. My friend felt the same but wanted it to be nasty, edgy, somehow transgressive. He yearned for the shtick of Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, the Sex Pistols, something smart but punky, sexy, and with a whiff of nihilism.

I like Palahniuk well enough. But the reality is, today, there is no such thing as transgression, as transgressive art. Palahniuk was trying to shock but there's no way to shock any more, not really, not with violence or sex or nihilism. I actually believe Palahniuk's piece is about exactly that: the impossibility of transgression. Hence, Fight Club: Nothing left to do but beat the shit out of each other.

I remember in college there was always a lit class entitled, "Literature of Transgression," filled with all the familiar names. But none of that makes any sense anymore. Once capitalism — or, better, capital — realized that there was money in transgression, in punk, in sexy nihilism, transgression became impossible. Now it's just another commodity. There are no lines to cross, no way to shock and disgust and disrupt. It's easy, of course, to piss off or offend this or that crowd. But that's the dismay of a "special interest" group; it's not cosmic dismay. There is no thrill in it.

And yet it is still possible to transgress. Trust me, I do it all the time. I have felt the ire, the ressentiment, of various powers that be for as long as I can remember — anxious, fear-riddled academics, secretly self-loathing CEOs, self-proclaimed radical would-be girlfriends.

But transgression doesn't happen, indeed can't happen, where we expect to find it — in attitude. Transgression, today, can only happen at the level of structure or what McLuhan calls the environment. This has always been true. Just think of Burroughs. Sure, he made sex really, really weird but that's not what makes his work pop. What makes Burroughs so outrageous in a way that, say, Henry Miller can never be, is Burroughs' utter disregard for, and recasting of, the the basic rules of the form (to the dismay of most, no doubt). No character identification, no plot, grammar stretched to its limit: this is where Burroughs' transgression lies, not in his gay alien sex.

Which brings me to Richard Linklater's latest film, Everyone Wants Some!! It's at once a slight and utterly profound film. Nothing much happens. The film follows a gaggle of boys on a college baseball team, three days before classes start. They talk, tease, dance, get in arguments, get drunk, get laid meet various people. Each time there's a different episode — they go dancing at a country bar then a punk club then a disco bar — I thought: this will be the scene where something big happens and the relationships — and the film itself — will shift.

But nope. All the various conflicts that arise are part and parcel of the film; they flow with all the conviviality. The movie is almost completely bereft of plot. I actually read article on Linklater in which he said he made the movie as a follow up to Dazed and Confused which he felt was too narrative driven. Everyone Wants Some!! would be even less narrative driven.

And so it is. And in this there is something truly transgressive and, finally, quite radical. On the one hand, it defies our basic assumptions and expectations of film, of character, of storytelling. There are no character arcs (pace Christopher Moltisanti). There is no change. No one learns anything. Nothing terrible happens. Even when there is a moment of surprise about a character that seems negative, they briefly discuss that what happened is actually kinda cool — and then move on. (Spoiler alert: The guy is kicked off the team for not being enrolled; he's in his 30s but just wants to keep on playing ball and hanging around with the kids getting high and meeting girls. And this is the most momentous event in the film! A guy wants to keep having fun but he can't!).

Unlike certain modernist writing in which nothing works out, in this film everything works out. Only there's no working out neceessary. It's all good. This film doesn't need conflict to drive it forward. It just needs people living their lives. As the title emphatically declares, everyone wants some!! With a double exclamation!!

And that, alas, is radical. It asks something different of our attention, our assumptions, our expectations. It is punk rock in that it refuses to give us the normal way of things — characters discovering themselves or obstacles being overcome. But it's transgressive in another way entirely: by offering a radical affirmation of life in an age of relentless judgment and consumption. Look at all this, the film says. Enjoy all this. Ain't it grand? Doesn't everyone want some?!?

The film gives us a joy that defies and belies the narrative structures that hinder joy and affirmation. This is a film of jouissance. Or, better, this film is jouissance. It offers a fundamentally different way of creating, enjoying, and living. And what's more radical than that?


Ross Pavlik said...

Hi Daniel,

I agree with your assessment of the radicality of the film. I also grew up in Houston, TX (60 miles from where the college town Linklater depicts), and other than my ragtag crew being way more racially diverse and children of the 90's; I'd say he nailed a type of vibe I remember growing up in. Which is where my question comes in - I was wondering if you'd read the Jacobin review of the film? https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/05/richard-linklater-everybody-wants-some-mumblecore/

I'd say these two quotes sum up the author's thesis:

"There’s nothing fresh or new here — just another unforgivably smug American movie about white, middle-class, hetero college dudes hanging around together saying random shit and trying to score with chicks."

"The film gives its audiences a no-problem fantasy guy-world that, in 2016, is a little shocking to watch. Are we still fine with valorizations of the triumphal march of old-fashioned Big Men on Campus? If so, why?"

At a certain level of facticity, she's wrong, because like I said, my crew was minority white, with a punk/hip hop skater aesthetic; yet very much akin to these hetero white bro-jocks. But that's just a nitpick.

To put it simply, I see that her critique is at the level of content, and your assessment is at the level of form. So my last question is - Do you think the radicality you see in the formal structure is negated by the author's type of identity political, standpoint epistemological, critique? Or, is the "radical affirmation of life in an age of relentless judgement and consumption," a totally unrelatable white-bro privilege?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey Ross — thanks for reading and commenting so thoughtfully. I appreciate it enormously.

I hadn't read the Jacobin review; reading it now, it doesn't hold many surprises. And, to me, good critique is surprising. Their review reads a little like ideology critique 101 which can be interesting and important but, fundamentally, reiterates a hierarchical structure of ideology/concept > example/symptom/instantiation. I prefer other modes of critique, ones that approach texts immanently rather than categorically, that are not so hierarchical.

Is that a privilege I enjoy based on my class and race? Perhaps. On the other hand, how else am I to speak? Foucault always said he didn't want to speak "for" anyone; WS Burroughs always said he didn't want to be "on" anyone's side. Both suggest a writing with. And that always involves speaking/thinking from your vantage, whatever it is.

I'd also invoke J Butler's gender performativity which I'd extend to identity performativity. Is everything a woman writes feminine? And everything a man writes masculine? I find Linkalter's film distinctly non-masculine, non-phallocentric — even if the character's have dicks.

And: why can't men talk about being men?

So what am I saying? Well, that all great texts are complex. Is the Jacobin reading wrong? No. It's a valid take. I just prefer mine.