Friday, August 15, 2014

Acting Rationally: Under the Skin and Femininity

"All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable" - Nietzsche, Daybreak

Under the Skin begins with a simple trope: human beings have something horrible inside of us.

The opening scene is a series of images of a light being obscured by a dark, phallic object. Shapes change, things enter one another, and we hear a voiceover of a woman learning phonetic basics. A sort of birth is taking place. The "protagonist" of Under the Skin is played by Scarlett Johansson. After she masters the basics of (English) human speech in this initial scene of slow, ominous reproduction, we are treated to the image of a brown eye, looking for all the world like a sphincter, contracting and dilating. This is prep work for the beginning of the film, where Johannson's character takes the clothes off of a woman in an utterly bare white room and puts them on herself. She's taking a step towards humanity in an otherwise empty vacuum by beginning to look like a functional human. A simple game of dress-up. When the woman is stripped bare, Johansson's character finds an ant on her naked body. In a Lynchian close-up, we see the ant's feelers and pincers in manic action. Without her clothes, the woman who Johansson is emulating through her clothes is unveiled, to the point where we find entropy working on her nude body. The ant, with its simple processes and machinic character, is a stand-in for the awkward unseen work of human development that underlies the clothes and the social character of the sort of functional human that Johansson is attempting to emulate, just as the close-up of the sphincteric eye highlighted the reflex behind the "window into the soul."

In Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, there is a poignant scene where a stand-in for cybernetic feminist Donna Haraway talks about the human urge to create life. She compares human children to dolls, implying that something unhuman has to take place in order for a certain sort of human normality to emerge.

Under the Skin uses a similar tactic. In order for Johansson's character to develop the human empathy that she develops later in the film, she first has to go through a set of animal/non-human transformations. The eeriness of the film comes from the fact that Johansson skips many of the steps to becoming human that we associate with the traditional process of growing up. She moves from being something other, being something utterly opaque to human values, to something that can operate in human society even though it does not possess the sort of inner life that we associate with fully autonomous persons. Even more disconcertingly, Johansson's character has near-complete control over a certain set of sexual human actions, the behaviors that are most often characterized as base or animal, that we don't associate with someone in the beginning stages of development. Playing on the trope of demonic children, Johansson's character is a sexual thing that behaves like an adult when it has to. Like a Barbie, the monstrosity of Johansson's character is that it is at once sexualized and infantile.

The psychosexual drama is readily available to anyone who has ever thought anything like Camille Paglia. Johansson, as cypher for chaotic nature, seduces men into a dark nowhere where they are sucked of their substance (quite literally). Since at least the myth of the Succubus, the idea of woman as gnostic temptress has been borne through the various transformations of the Western tradition. Women, as basically irrational and animal entities, seduce men to their darker instincts and then eradicate them.The feeling that we get from the shots while Johansson's character is driving through the streets trawling for men is that she is objectifying them in a manner that we typically associate with male predation, and this reversal itself is supposed to mark her as dangerous. Under the Skin attempts to undermine this trope through two strategies. First, Johansson's character is subordinated to another thing whose human body is identified as male. In this way, we're supposed to understand that not only are the men of the film objectifying Johansson's character, but that the process of objectification is also overseen by a male-identified entity. The chthonic seduction that Johansson apparently represents is caught up in a process run by a male identity, a process that is supposed to produce a product. This is hammered home when we see the ultimate fate of the men that Johansson seduces; their entrails are pushed out onto a conveyor belt that carries them into an infernal light. In this sense, Johansson's character is meant to be seen as simply another objectified part of a process of production, rather than an evil temptress who acts simply to abet the chaotic forces of nature.

The second strategy that Under the Skin takes to undermine its early premise is to show Johansson's character attempting to develop into a fully functional human. After reaching a very human sort of self-consciousness, not so subtly represented by her staring into a mirror at her human form, Johansson attempts to save one of the men that she has taken in. This man is horribly disfigured, and the idea of exploiting someone so piteous is supposed to trigger the latent empathy that Johansson's character has been developing throughout her time among us. She quickly goes on the lam into totally alien territory; she attempts to eat food only to choke it all up. She attempts a stuttering traditional relationship with a man only to throw him aside and run when she begins to understand what it is she's been seducing her targets with. The female body, it seems, has a hard time getting along in the world.

This difficulty with belonging reaches its apex at the ending of the film. It culminates in an attempted rape, and when the would-be-rapist discovers what's beneath her pretty exterior, he destroys her. The feminist undercurrent is nigh undeniable; women are only allowed to be human, and when they show signs of being something deeper and scarier than they first appear, men react violently.

This said, Under the Skin goes beyond a sort of humanist feminism to make a stronger claim.  Rather than taking on the trope of men as imposers of rational order on irrational women, Under the Skin undermines another male strategy of making women into pure subjects. Men need women to be entirely surface, it suggests, because the idea that they are like men, that is, driven by something utterly alien to the status quo of rational sociality, is terrifying. The idea that despite their "soft" interior, the female libido is just as nasty and horrible as men's takes away the image of the feminine that men use in order to assume a position of authority over female naivete. Women are supposed to be fully human, penetrable, vulnerable, and transparent, so that men can be something more than human, deeper, more violent, and more animal. In this way, Under the Skin is a sort of critical rewriting of Darian Leader's take on Terminator; whereas the T-800 represents the emotionless and violent epitome of masculinity and renders the most masculine men feminine and vulnerable (i.e. the biker at the beginning of T2), Under the Skin suggests that there isn't an escape into the reductive innocence of feminine subjectivity. We can't simply acknowledge the fact that we are all vulnerable and socially interdependent persons. Johansson's character's attacker destroys her because she reveals herself to be more than an innocent subject for his defilement. Under the Skin turns our disgust with the otherness of female sexuality into a recognition of the perversion of a male sexuality that makes women into human subjects so that it can revel in the animal. Johansson's character is ultimately unacceptable not because she is an unfathomable force of nature or a fully autonomous person, but because she is both simultaneously. Under the Skin suggests that being a person is simply a part that we learn to play, and women are expected to inhabit the role perfectly or not at all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Social Policy Derelicts: Michel Foucault and "The New Jim Crow"

"The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the product of a subjection more profound than himself."- Michel Foucault

"The city of brotherly love/ hates blacks"- Mike Ladd on Social Policy Derelicts 

I recently watched a lecture delivered by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander where she distilled the message of her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. The book’s title evokes imprisonment and the language of humanism, which made me think of the most sweeping study of the historical connection between the prison and humanism, Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”. The covert history of racism and incarceration that Alexander details jibes with Foucault’s analysis of the formation of the modern prison.  The conclusion Michelle Alexander arrives at in her lecture is basically that, in order for real racial equality to be achieved, the criminal justice system must live up to its purpose and actually serve the greater good. However, when her work is viewed through a Foucauldian lens, it is illustrative of the fact that the ideals of humanistic progress are “rigorously indivisible” from the failures of the prison system.   
The Jim Crow laws were obvious tools of exclusion. They were taken off the books in 1965, and shortly thereafter there was a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from major urban centers, resulting in high levels of unemployment for African-Americans. If the apparent social progress brought about by the civil rights movement had had a thorough impact, there would have been economic stimulus measures to insure that the devastated communities could be integrated into society. Instead, the war on drugs was declared. Alexander points out that the war on drugs was declared prior to the crack epidemic- it was purely a political strategy. Alexander quotes Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman: “The whole problem is really about blacks. The key is to devise a system which recognizes this without appearing to.” In order to appeal to conservative white members of the electorate, the “war on drugs” was declared and destitute blacks were the primary targets. The large manufacturers which once employed African-Americans were replaced with prisons and the tactics of exclusion employed under Jim Crow were replaced with more efficient (i.e. cryptic) ones. Foucault wrote that a condition for the birth of modern institutions (hospitals, prisons etc.) was a benevolent condemnation of idleness. People who loitered and were unemployed- who were ‘unaccounted for’- were incorporated into various institutional contexts. This type of ‘benevolent condemnation’ is exemplified by the war on drugs, which allowed people who were formerly blatantly racist to express their racism in a benevolent form- the condemnation of drug use. As racism became less an obvious part of everyday life, the techniques of disenfranchisement and exclusion became more severe. In the (ongoing) war on drugs, blacks are arrested at a much higher rate than whites and the consequence of an arrest is being silenced- by being in prison and being a felon. Essentially, the story of black enfranchisement and integration- culminating in the election of a black president- is possible to tell because those who would contradict it do not have a voice. The virtue of ‘colorblindness’ is an objective failure to apprehend techniques of exclusion. They were in plain sight during the Jim Crow era, and the story of progress since the civil rights movement has actually been the Left’s rapid loss of vision.

Michel Foucault

Foucault observed that during the rise of capitalism, prisons ceased to be centers of forced labor and instead were seen as institutions that could reform individuals so that they could be fit to enter the job market. What the prisons (both the prototypical ones Foucault studied and current ones) really produced was recidivism. People who are mistreated and terrorized in prison grow resentful and return to society more ‘maladjusted’ than before. Foucault thinks that the failure of the prison to reform inmates is an intrinsic aspect of incarceration. The prison, as the paradigmatic institution of reform, is simultaneously the most efficient mechanism of exclusion.

In the lecture I linked to at the beginning, Michelle Alexander recounts an instance when she refused to use the opinions of a young African-American man in an ACLU campaign she was working on because he was a felon. Later it came to her knowledge that he had had drugs planted on him and was arrested by the Oakland police in a quota-reaching campaign. Of the event she says, “My great crime wasn’t refusing to represent an innocent man; my great crime was imagining that there was some path to racial justice that did not include those we view as ‘guilty’.” She ends her speech by advocating that the war on drugs be called off and saying that mass incarceration is perpetuated by the same core belief as Jim Crow, “that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, compassion and concern.” She still sees racial equality as an ideal to strive towards. What she fails to see is that, in a twisted way, we already have achieved it. Ask any nice person if all races are equal and the answer will be an unequivocal ‘yes’. After the demise of segregation and simultaneous, ironic rise of mass incarceration (segregation by another name) and integration, doesn’t it make sense that the most pernicious forms of imprisonment- spiritual and institutional- are accompanied by a broad affirmation of equality? In “The Agony of Power” Jean Baudrillard writes about “objective irony”, and the coincidence of the sentiments of integration with mass incarceration is an example of that. Foucault writes, “delinquency is the vengeance of the prison on justice”; as the sentiments of humanism become more and more universal, the world becomes a gigantic prison; individuals mere recidivists on a treadmill. The disillusionment and lack of agency experienced by the recidivist becomes the defining political experience. The seamless functioning of segregation and integration causes the endless turmoil of black consciousness; blacks are the product of a system that seeks to exclude them. In that sense, it will eventually become clear that we all really are equal.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Generation X Gets Sincere

People have very good taste in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cakes are consumed lovingly. Wine is drunk and discussed in a devilishly clever way, as our friend Kailyn has explained. At the center of it all is a very discerning white man, Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel and the most tasteful person of all, who struggles, along with his interlocutor Zero, to clear his name in the face of an enormous conspiracy by vulgar arrivistes and a rising Nazi-style party.

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson's always been a retro director. The general jewel-box mise-en-scène and the vaguely Euro intelligentsia that drifts through it have always had an implicit connection to some imaginary aristocratic past. The Grand Budapest Hotel clears away all of the vagueness. First, obviously, it plunges right into the interwar period, a much more past past than that of Moonrise Kingdom's Kennedy era. Second, and more to the point, it's full-throatedly reactionary.

Obviously it's more complicated than that—the pseudo-Nazis of the movie are, strictly speaking, just as reactionary as the main characters—but the movie's elegy for a lost world of manners and sophistication has a lot more bite than Anderson's previous movies. Gustave H. expends an awful lot of air being hypercompetent, knowing every wine and every cake that darkens his doorstep, hating kitsch, hating the uncivilized, the unenlightened, and despite the movie's obligatory attempts to make him a bit of a buffoon—well, just witness the way he apologies for colonialism before the climax. That's nothing if not a ringing endorsement of manners. You get the sense that the doomed mission of this concierge, to maintain his hotel, and the broader mission of the hotel itself, to preserve taste and civilization, to carve out a safe space for superficiality, is a kind of heroism. And, following from this, you get the sense that Anderson is mourning a world without taste. Gently, maybe, but about half as gently as normal. Anderson has always seemed like he was essentially a craftsman, but with Grand Budapest we finally learn at least one thing about his real beliefs: he genuinely believes that vulgarity, as it was understood in the 30s, is a plague. He really does hate the world. All the retro stuff is more than just talk.

There is, however, a key to the movie that opens up another perspective. In an obituary, flashed on the screen, that announces the death of Tilda Swinton's character, there is a brief biographical note. In this note a viewer with access to a pause button can note that Tilda's character, Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgroffe und Taxis, was orphaned when she was a child. The newspaper coyly gives the respective causes of her parents' deaths in a parenthetical: "(herring, botulism)." This echoes another famously laconic parenthetical: "(picnic, lightning)", the circumstances of the death of Humbert Humbert's mother in Lolita.

This on its own isn't enough to sustain an interpretation, of course, but when considered in conjunction with the other features of Grand Budapest it starts to smell an awful lot like Nabokov. The nobility of an imaginary Eastern European empire? The vulgarity and inevitability of fascism? Mistaken identities, grisly coincidences, clues hidden in the depths of the errata? Aesthetic work as puzzle box? To say nothing of the fact that the whole story of the film is reported to the audience by a reader, reading a book by an author, who had the story told to him by the aged Zero, who, as you might expect by now, reports on an awful lot of things he could never actually have seen.

With all of this in mind, the movie seems like the first one in Wes Anderson's whole corpus to provide motivation for the dollhouse sets and poised compositions: they are pointedly artificial because this movie is about artifice. Which is to say that the movie is a gentle jab at Anderson's whole aesthetic, and therefore, more broadly, at taste itself. It's all an illusion, it's just l'air de panache. There's a massive weight of irony in this movie to counterbalance its apparently reactionary moral.

Of course, that's only an interpretation, and the "und Taxis" in the name of Tilda's character, lifted from The Crying of Lot 49, reminds us that the resemblance to Nabokov could just be a vast coincidence after all. Either a transcendent meaning or only the earth.

That, essentially, is the problem with Grand Budapest: its ironic undercurrent feels more like a defense mechanism than a genuine component of the work. In one register this is a clever, reflective movie about Wes Anderson's work, but in a much more obvious one it's a screed against the vulgarity of the modern world, which is personified artlessly as the SS. You have to do a lot of interpretive work to turn up its debt to Nabokov, but there's an actual dedication at the end of the movie to Stefan Zweig, one of prewar Vienna's main mythologizers. (Prewar Vienna seems like a popular place for Generation X to go when it wants to critique the vulgarity of the modern world. Remember The Kraus Project?)

We've seen this kind of dual register from other Gen-X luminaries—a few months ago we published an article about the ironic subtext of Her, another movie that comes on like an anti-modern rant. There as here, the irony that inverts the movie is buried in references—to transhumanism, to cybernetics, to Spike Jonze's other movies. It's the province of a small, connoisseurial audience. Gustave H.'s people, in other words. Irony is getting smaller and smaller. Which might seem out of character for as committed an ironist as Wes Anderson, but put in context it actually puts his movie in a very familiar lineage.

In the 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace explains a few things to us. One is that the cultural bugbear called "irony" was originally an insurgent strategy, a fresh way to critique the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and so on. Another is that by the publication date of the essay, irony had become hip and hegemonic; it was no longer the subversive tactic of Altman and Pynchon but rather the default register of literary elites across America. It was a pose, a reflex, an automatic deadpan sneer. (This is leaving out the roughly 35 pages of this 42-page essay that are just TV criticism.) Since then the injunction has been to distance ourselves from irony, to be always more earnest and sincere. I'm not saying that Anderson has taken his cues from DFW, exactly, only that exalting sincerity and earnestness is a pretty pervasive trend today.

The assumption is that the unironic future will contain a lot of people like John Darnielle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Green, scribbly fonts and ukuleles and handheld DSLR footage of the sun flickering through trees and so on. But I think it's worth reminding ourselves that sincerity is not necessarily nice. It might not even be smarmy, which Tom Scocca has pointed out is a way to be vindictive while pretending to be nice. It might be vindictive, simply and blandly.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a case in point—it's suppressed the irony reflex to the best of its ability. Irony is still there, but in all its erudition it's only detectable by the very people who will be sympathetic to the movie's most overt and vindictive message. The movie clearly wants to have its (Mendl's) cake and eat it too.

The point of all this is to say that if Anderson is at all symptomatic of the change Generation X is undergoing right now—and I think he is, if you consider the recent Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Jonze and Jim Jarmusch (although that last one is an oldster)—then maybe the end product of DFW's suppression of irony isn't a series of books and movies that will induce us to hug strangers at the supermarket. Maybe it's just anger. Maybe, if we finally purge irony, Generation X will reveal itself as a bunch of coots. There's nothing more sincere than a coot.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is This Water?: David Foster Wallace and the Value of a Liberal Education

"Life continues, and capitalism does life in a way it has never been done before."- Nick Land, Fanged Noumena 

David Foster Wallace
Graduation season is coming to a close, which gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on our college experiences, but also on graduating itself. I graduated from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University this past weekend, and the celebration of accomplishment seemed a little odd to me, since I mostly feel strange about suddenly leaving the tiny college, rather than feeling like I really accomplished anything there. Our commencement speaker was former Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson, and it was weird to hear him deliver harmless political commentary in person instead of hearing it emanating from my parent’s television set a room over. Probably the most revered recent commencement speech was delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 by the author probably most revered by undergraduates (emphasis on the ‘under’…), David Foster Wallace. In the speech, titled This is Water, DFW reflects on the genre tropes of commencement speeches and attempts to transcend them. He observes that liberal arts commencement speakers focus on the intrinsic value of a liberal education- that it teaches you how to think. Although he partially denounces the ‘banal platitudes’ typically offered by orators, he does offer some advice about surviving adult life, namely that everyone has to believe in something—and if you choose to believe in your intelligence, looks or wealth you will end up in bad shape. You’re better off humbly trying to live by an inviolable ethical code (he rattles off belief systems associated with various religions and philosophies) than pursuing the ever-popular cult of the self. A liberal education ought to make one insightful enough to realize that ‘banal platitudes’ gain power and depth when they are lived out in everyday life. The message to graduates, despite DFW’s initial slipperiness, is clear: you had better use your critical skills to discern what the empathetic, moral thing to do or think in every situation is, because your only other option is spiraling into shallow self absorption. But what if this is a false choice? What if ‘banal platitudes’ derive their power not from their inherent humaneness, but from their banality? If that were the case, then rejecting them certainly wouldn’t be shallow.

DFW includes in his speech a typical ‘adulthood’ situation- a commuter stopping at the supermarket on their way home from work. He describes the claustrophobic scenes on the highway and in the store and discusses the two ways he sees of coping with them—either by being annoyed by the people in front of you in line yelling at their kids and the cell-phone jabbering SUV drivers cutting you off on the road, or by empathizing with them and imagining the quotidian struggles that they themselves endure. For DFW, empathy and sincerity are strategies that allow us to redeem a bad situation. What he failed to articulate in this speech, but what his books (namely the posthumously published The Pale King) impress upon me is that a steadfast belief in the power of empathy is just as destructive and superficial as self-worship. The type of empathy he espouses in his speech is basically this: if a person’s behavior seems to embody some contradiction of late capitalism (i.e. a person driving an SUV covered with progressive bumper stickers), imagine the redeeming circumstances that led to their current condition (i.e. anxieties about rush hour traffic lead them to buy a larger car). Regarding these hypothetical scenarios, DFW concedes that “none of this is likely”.  In The Pale King, the dryness of his prose is owed to the fact that, increasingly, our ability to empathize with one another is engulfed by the incomprehensibility of our situation.
Deleuze and Guattari

In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the Oedipal formulation as the fountain where psychoanalysts gather to wash their hands of the world’s iniquities. Deleuze and Guattari saw psychoanalysis as a tool in the service of repression. Sincerity, the attempt to see each other clearly, is likewise often effectively an attempt not to see the Other as an equal, but to use the Other as a way to suppress one’s own awareness of systemic inequalities and oppression. If a liberal education really promotes freethinking, then we should be free enough to see one another’s contradictory behaviors as affirmations of life rather than forces of death, and to see discrepancy and inconsistency as our life-blood.  In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem quotes Henry Miller, “everybody becomes a healer the moment he forgets about himself… Nobody can do it for another—it is a private affair which is best done collectively.” In order to ‘empathize’ within the situation of arbitrary dominations that our identities arise in, we should forget about our sense of entitlement and recognize ourselves in the errors, ignorance and cruelty of others.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tune-Yards, Kelis, and Cheesy Snacks: A Puff Piece

When Merrill Garbus (tUnE-YaRdS) dropped “Water Fountain,” the first single from her new album “Nikki Nack,” I eagerly clicked its official Youtube video that had popped up on my news feed, courtesy of some friend who checks out music blogs more than I do or perhaps follows Garbus more closely anyway.

On a first listen, the song was certainly enjoyable—more danceable than I’d come to associate her sound with, though there’s no reason not to booty dance to “Whokill” or “Bird Brains.” But something else struck me: the song sounded like another song and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Was it just me being struck with familiarity after my only experience with her in the past year or so has been her commission for Roomful of Teeth? I couldn’t put my finger on any other Garbus-penned tunes either. It was something more surprising, more out-of-the-past.Then it hit me: “Water Fountain” is unmistakably similar to Kelis’s iconic hit “Milkshake” from 2003 (the best year for billboard hits in the 2000s, but that’s a story for another Spook piece). I’ll wait while you compare the two, and note that Kelis has also recently released a new album—“Food.”

So what similarities are worth talking about here? Structurally, each song follows a general chorus—verse—chorus—verse—bridge—chorus form, though “Water Fountain” expands harmonically during the final chorus while “Milkshake” sticks with repeating itself verbatim. Rhythm is another one. A quick sojourn to Wikipedia informs me  “Milkshake” uses a single darbuka drum. Eschewing a drum machine for a darbuka wasn't entirely unprecedented in pop music in 2003; however, comparable hits were few and far between. Despite the track’s eventual success, critics such as Tony Naylor of NME noted that the song was “probably the oddest track” off of Kelis’s Tasty album. 

Garbus, on the other hand, has made unexpected instrumentation a mainstay of her work since Bird Brains and, in the decade since “Milkshake,” more pop artists have had time to experiment with similarly minimal beats. The drums in “Water Fountain,” hypnotic and dry, might not raise as many eyebrows—particularly since the song likely won’t be gracing middle school dance floors and Garbus already has a reputation for unconventional percussion choices. This is about as far as my average ear can get in discerning the instrumental qualities the songs share, and even these similarities are limited in exactitude and seem to peel away upon each repeated listen.

It’s notable that the songs are both lyrically cryptic. I remember lunch table conversations with other preteens debating just what Kelis meant by “milkshake.” Our guesses ranged from sex acts to her butt, but no one's answer was ever quite satisfactory. Kelis later reported that “milkshake” meant “the thing that makes women special. It’s what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting.” So: a milkshake wasn’t an act or concrete object, per se. (By the way: the question of authorship comes in here as well. The Neptunes wrote and produced “Milkshake” and I’ve chosen to interpret the song as sung and performed by Kelis, rather than through the lyrics that The Neptunes assigned that likely didn’t refer to this mysterious essential feminine quality Kelis references in the above interview.)

The lyrical meaning of “Water Fountain” is also ambiguous as the lyrics shift abruptly from campfire-style chant to the sultrier verses that—somewhat ominously—always come back to the phrase “I can’t seem to feel it.” The fact that someone made a Rap Genius page for “Water Fountain” shows audiences are already trying to decode it the way my middle school friends and I tried to decipher “Milkshake,” despite “Water Fountain” existing (for marketing purposes, anyway) far outside the boundaries of “Milkshake” in terms of genre.

More likeness rests in the vocals as they exist in the verses. In the verses—sadly, no one really remembers the verses in “Milkshake,” though they’re the key that elevate the song from potential jump-roping jingle to mysterious seduction piece—Kelis’s low voice scratches against the surface of the track, recorded to sound just the slightest bit muffly, a little distant. Garbus does the same with her own voice in the verses to “Water Fountain.” But there’s an essential quality the two singers share beyond simply singing at a similar range; a boredom, a bemusement. Their phrases end flatly, with a "so what" without the question mark. What do they know? Why the ennui with an upturned-corner mouth? What’s the secret? I think it’s here, in the attitude of both songs, that the true resemblance lies. Something is entertaining either Garbus or Kelis, but something is also missing.

Thematically, both songs deal with sustenance as metaphor: the “Milkshake” is the essential desirability of women, while the “water in the water fountain” is a source (of creativity? Excitement? Eroticism?) run dry. Kelis’s continuing sensory fascination with taste carries over onto her new album, where the title (“Food”) informs the song names despite no real references to concrete nourishment (or, uh, “food”) within their lyrics (“Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry.”) Hyper-sexualized milkshakes (“Bringing All the Boys to the Yard: The Hyper-sexualitization of Milkshakes in a Lactose-Intolerant 21st Century Pop Culture”) show up all throughout the “Milkshake” video, while lusciously disgusting piles of spaghetti are thrown and tossed in “Water Fountain.” In each song, the woman singing finds herself in control of precariously depleting resource. Kelis's "Milkshake" is readily available to other women only if they pay to learn and depend upon its "betterness" than other women's milkshakes, and Garbus's "Water Fountain" is empty, leaving her to "get the water from your house."

The control present in both songs—the lack of control “the boys” have over whether or not they’re going to visit Kelis’s yard and the helplessness of their women in the process (in the video, one covers her boyfriend’s eyes when she catches him staring at Kelis) and the monopoly Kelis has on her milkshake making skills as well as the lack of a necessary component for life in “Water Fountain”—is, I think, the most salient shared quality between them and probably the source of each woman’s bemusement.

I’ve been eating a lot of snacks covered in cheese powder lately: Smart Puffs, Pirate’s Booty, Mike’s “Cheesealicious” Popcorn among them. I nearly abandoned this piece to make another "puff piece" ranking cheese snacks and relating them back to what studies have been done on the cultural capital of cheese. And from what I know about the anthropology of cheese—which isn’t a lot—the more labor-intensive and hands-on the cheese-making process, the more prized the cheese in the artisanal market. This seems an appropriate way to finally tie Garbus and Kelis together in these two songs where they both sing about sustenance bemusedly and wind up sounding pretty similar. I won’t attempt a cheap comparison trying to place “water fountains” and “milkshakes” in the hard-work-pays-off-artisanal-cheese-box, though: if anything, for Kelis and Garbus the work that goes into nourishment is null and their resulting bemusement is at its inadequacy. 

So what does it mean to be entirely in control of a resource, like Kelis, or responsible for its replenishment, like Garbus? I suppose the only meaning we can gather here is in the two women's shrugged-shoulder tones. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Labyrinth Carcosa: True Detective and Narrative Domination

This is how True Detective ends: Detective Rust Cohle, our pessimist anti-hero, has come dangerously close to death at the hands of the child-torturing antagonist. From his temporary wheelchair, Cohle tearily tells his partner Martin Hart that he has had a spiritual experience and seen the error of his miscosmological ways. "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning," he says, staring up at the starry sky.

Writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto tells us that the series was about this moment. Fanboys dug into its ominous portents to link together the clues to what they suspected was some sort of supernatural or Shyamalan twist denouement and then yowled as their Lost-like predictions were disappointed by Pizzolatto's philosophical agenda. The murder, the manipulation, the sex, and the seamy dark of the series' Southern setting were all props on a gnostic stage, put in place to teach us an important lesson: despite the crushing weight of the twenty-first century, despite the tragedies that every living person has to endure, there's still good in the world. But only if we fight for it.

Hegel told us all something similar with his trademark dialectical twist a couple centuries ago. Cohle's bitterness has its mirror in Hegel's portrayal of the Enlightenment. In his story about the French Revolution in the Phenomenology, Hegel called the negating force of the Enlightenment "pure insight", which failed to recognize itself in its other, faith, which represented the naiveté of our shared life together. We can easily see the caricature of this perspective at work throughout the fabric of True Detective; from the beginning of the show until the very end, Cohle's histrionics are betrayed by his uncompromising morality. His final realization is that his scathing worldview is dependent on his continuing (largely unacknowledged) investment in the world. Even his most suicidal moments are unresolved expressions of his daughter's seemingly meaningless death and his unbearable continuing attachment to life. It isn't hard to imagine Hegel nodding knowingly from beyond the grave.

But we don't live in the 19th century, even if our narratives about human meaning and psychology can still be traced from that point. Historically unparalleled destructive power, accelerating world capital, genetic modification, and all the other old saws of globalization have changed the ground on which we have our conversation about what a proper humanism looks like. Pizzolatto recognizes that he has to up the ante in order to make such a humanism viable in the face of utter annihilation. He culls Cohle's rhetoric from the latest vanguard of ultranihilists: Ligotti, Brassier, and a gang of their anti-natalist cohort are attached to the wikipedia article citing his sources. The only way to make it in a dark world, Pizzolatto tells us, is becoming equal to that darkness, so Cohle fights, drinks, smokes, fucks, and manipulates his way through much of the story. This by itself doesn't distinguish Cohle as a character; much of his actions are familiar from the stoic and picaresque world of contemporary action movies, where you have to cheat the law and maybe torture the bad guys in order to wade through the bureaucratic sludge and make sure justice is served. In this sense, Cohle isn't too far away from an "adult" HBO update of the soap opera cynicism of Gregory House.

So in Pizzolatto's dialectical story, who's the antagonist? What's the enemy of our new humanism? Pizzolatto juxtaposes myth and Enlightenment; the antagonists are Illuminati-esque cultists that are attempting to tap into a dark cosmology. The primary antagonist, Childress, is a product of years of inbreeding and a small part of a larger shadow conspiracy. His seemingly sincere belief in supernatural power is contrasted with Cohle's militant atheism. But if this is right, what should we make of Cohle's about-face in the above-described final scene? It seems as though True Detective doesn't trust its own footing. Before Cohle's conversion, it's a progressive story; through hard struggle we emerge from our bloody, pagan, superstitious past and embrace a cool-headed and realistic human ethics that is based on our decisions, which don't rely on any outside force to substantiate them. Cohle's conversion, however, thrusts us back into the pagan cosmos. The world is a battle between good and evil ultimately beyond our ken, and we have to play our small part in this larger struggle. In this sense, Childress wins; for Cohle, the world is obscured and our only access to the larger forces that define us is through revelation.

When we look at the narrative from this perspective, the whole conflict starts to collapse. Cohle's transition from his first position to his second looks natural. In the first case, we are puppets of blind Nature and in the second, we are pawns in the struggle of good and evil. The rule in both cases is simple: our humanist hubris is misplaced. We're reminded here of some less optimistic Hegelians. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that myth and Enlightenment were both forms of domination. Childress and Cohle start to look the same in their deference to a higher authority. It doesn't matter if that authority is manifested in the scientific "view from nowhere" or the chthonic gods. The outcome is the same whether you think we have a Blind Brain or a vital essence. Cohle's personal journey into the light is made into an oblivious joke when you understand that he's telling the same story, just with different nouns switched in.

Rather than being about how we're in thrall to our genetic destinies or primeval spirits, True Detective ends up being about how we're slaves to the higher authority of stories. Cohle's earnest pontificating and attempts at explanation have the same tone no matter what they're about. In a way, Pizzolatto has given us the tools to see another sort of pessimism skulking around in the background of the louder scientism initially espoused by Cohle. It's the pessimism of being doomed to define ourselves by stories, a sort of pessimism, that threatens the infinite boredom of repeating ourselves over and over in different voices. If "time is a flat circle" and we're doomed to the eternal return, the most horrifying part of this process will always be that the story never changes. Maybe, alongside Nick Land, we should say "It cannot be attachment to some alternative conviction that cuts here, but only relentless refusal of what has been told."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Up Your Ass and Around the Corner: Staging Valerie Solanas

A little over a week ago, I staged two performances of Up Your Ass, the long-lost play Valerie Solanas wrote in 1965 and gave to Andy Warhol hoping he would produce it.When Warhol lost the manuscript, Solanas showed up at the Factory and shot him through the chest. Obviously, the play was found. I directed and performed it using a bootleg PDF copied from the original mimeograph and called it a “staged reading” to avoid lawsuits.

Valerie Solanas

For what it’s worth, the brief summary I wrote for the university website read like this: “A wisecracking lesbian hustler working the streets of 1960s New York encounters a multitude of colorful passers-by in this fast-paced comedy by Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.” It’s accurate enough a description, if not a little hyped up. You, too, can access this bootleg copy if you get your Google game right, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll probably never know what exactly drew enough people to “Up Your Ass” to run me out of programs and litter the floor with approximately ten million sticky hand wrappers (in an attempt at integrating the audience into the show, I encouraged them to fidget as much as possible by handing out sticky hands—ordered in bulk from a creepy wholesale website, of course). I can, however, speculate, and what good is a blog if you can’t use it as a public platform through which to project suppressed desires onto your classmates?

Simply put, I think it’s Solanas. I think people need actual access to the Scary Feminism that gets frantically gesticulated about by Men’s Rights Activists and cautious gender studies majors alike. If you identify as a feminist and someone warns you not to be “one of those bra burners,” what good does that do you if you’ve never encountered an actual bona fide gun-totin’, man-hatin’ feminist? If you don’t identify as such I might ask the same question. Shouldn’t an actual Dangerous Feminist deliver the bad news here?

Bongi, the play’s main character and a loose analogue of Solanas—who also did sex work on the streets of New York, on and off—here is arguing with Russell, the play’s embodiment of pure male chauvinism. The quarrel itself foreshadows the famous-in-some-circles opening lines to the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men,” though as far as I know, people are still debating whether Solanas actually coined the acronym or if some smartass found it appropriate and spread the rumor from there):

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

There we go. Every fear, every suspicion that feminism might be about something more sinister than “women’s equality”—all confirmed in one luscious sentence. Valerie Solanas, ladies and gentlemen: the embodiment of the dreaded Straw Feminist, the One of Us that no feminist these days wants to claim as Real. Never mind that Ti-Grace Atkinson called her the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and Florynce Kennedy, while defending her in court after shooting Warhol, deemed her “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” That's not to say anyone needs to claim her as a role model; what I mean is that she received legitimate praise from two of the most important feminist figures of the 60s and 70s and perhaps we should examine her influence with a little more nuance.

Up Your Ass runs itself in circles referencing pop culture and then re-referencing its own jokes. The characters are fantastically unbelievable except for Bongi, whose semiautobiographical nature still feels fantastic at points. Some other points of absurdity: Ginger, a perfect handmaiden of the patriarchy, plans to eat a turd for dinner to impress her male guests. Solanas shows wildly unsatisfying sex onstage (we moved it into the wings), depicts drag queens in a light tottering dangerously close to offensive, inserts a lengthy “Creative Homemaking” lesson into the play at random and culminates the action in a mother strangling her six-year-old son because he’s “bugging the hell out of her.”

Beneath all the raucousness are pockets of something-like-truth that sting a little more than one might expect from a play so outlandishly ridiculous. One drag queen accuses another of “jumping right in the sack after a piece of pussy;” the other responds bitterly with “I am a piece of pussy.” Ginger says, “I adore neurosis; it’s so creative,” explaining why the men she deals with all day in her profession are “really fascinating” compared to Bongi’s johns. That doesn’t come long before this gem:

These are things that still get said. Solanas laid it out in 1965. Since then laws have changed, certainly, but I’m inclined to think not much else has, and I’ve yet to encounter a text that addresses the rotten core of gendered discourses so frankly, so bleakly, while still wrenching a laugh out of its audience.

There’s been an upswing in Solanas scholarship of late; most notably, Breanne Fahs, who has been writing on Solanas for years, is releasing a hotly anticipated biography in April. Solanas has never been fully absent from filmmusicother music or consumer goods either. But something in me is dissatisfied with the depth usually afforded her. 

I get it: if you want to convince someone of feminism’s worthiness as a cause, casually mentioning Solanas as a member of the Famous Feminist Pantheon isn’t going to help you. Fine. So what happens when we acknowledge Solanas’s existence on her own terms, without trying to promote The Cause? As a writer? An actress? When my cast and crew acknowledged her as a playwright, people showed up. They might have been skeptical or event resentful of the play, but they filled a theater space during week-before-finals-week. It might've been the sticky hands, but I think it was the several-ton elephant in the feminist theory room: Solanas.