Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughts on Realism and Solidarity (or, Celebrity Deathmatch: Zizek vs. Chomsky)

Several posts on this blog have discussed 21st century attempts at realism (Griffin’s post on Zero Dark Thirty, Owen’s post on Syriana, my post on The Wire). That topic is, I think, closely tied to how peoples movements (the current protests in Turkey and Brazil, the Occupy movement etc) are documented and received. In this piece I want to offer my own take on Zero Dark Thirty’s attempt at realism, discuss historicism in Slavoj Zizek’s and Noam Chomsky’s appraisals of protest movements, and tie that in with problems I see with American solidarity with revolutionary movements abroad.
Noam Chomsky
            The first half of Noam Chomsky’s 2010 book “Hopes and Prospects” contains transcripts of talks he gave around Latin America in the four years preceding the book’s publication. One recurrent theme in Chomsky’s work is “historical amnesia”. Chomsky describes the historical trends surrounding American imperialism in Latin America; the US government’s main foreign policy concerns (with that region among others) throughout its history have centered around increasing military surveillance and corporate exploitation. The press, because of “historical amnesia”, ignores rather than documents events (the state-sponsored kidnapping of democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Arstide in 2004, one among countless examples) which would point to easily discernable historical trends in military and corporate interests. In this way, the American view of the world is de-historicized. This jibes with Griffin’s criticism of Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the manhunt for bin Laden; that the film presents “Central Asia as a place where bad things happen”,  “We never get an inkling of perspective on the causes or even many of the consequences of the American war machine”. Because of this lack of historical awareness, the film is a failure as a work of realism. But I think there is more to it than that. If “Zero Dark Thirty” dealt with terrorists and their motives, then history would matter- bin Laden’s rage was mostly directed towards forces of globalization and empire, his religious fervor more of an incidental cultural artifact than a motivating cause. However, the film deals with CIA strategists on the ground- they may be agents of History, but they don’t know they are. They work in an ahistorical world, one where military strategy and goals are designed to line up with the expansion of empire. Chomsky writes, “By the end of WWII… US industrial production more than tripled, while industrial rivals were severely damaged or destroyed. The US had literally half the wealth of the entire world, along with incomparable security and military power, including nuclear weapons. High level planners and foreign policy advisers determined that in the new global system the US should ‘hold unquestioned power’ while ensuring the ‘limitation of any exercise of sovereignty' by states that might interfere with its global designs… Since then, fundamental policies have changed more in tactics than in substance.” Zero Dark Thirty’s realism would have been more than just an affectation if it had confronted the disparity between the moneyed “strategic interests” that deemed the war a useful tool and the CIA operatives who risked life and limb to capture and kill Osama bin Laden- essentially participating in an ideologically constructed narrative rather than a mission of real pertinence. This disparity creates people like (now disgraced) General Stanley McChrystal, who essentially lived to be biographied and had no stake in the war effort, as well as characters like Maya (portrayed by Jessica Chastain), whose insatiable drive to capture and kill bin Laden comes off as increasingly Quixotic as the al Qaeda leader disappears from the headlines.

Slavoj Zizek
            Slovenian philosopher and “Original Gangster” Slavoj Zizek offers a different critique of realism, and his own historicism. He assesses The Wire’s representation of the present and the Occupy movement’s reaction to the present through a Marxist lens. In my post from couple months ago  that dealt with Zizek explicitly I quoted from his book “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously”; he stated that The Wire had failed to perform the “formal task” of rendering “in a TV narrative, a universe in which abstraction reigns.” That is, a world where neoliberal economic policies all-too-often (and all-too-arbitrarily) determine the living conditions of entire communities. Zizek, however, doesn’t offer any advice on how to go about fulfilling this “formal task”. His assessment of the Occupy Movement is similarly oracular (and perhaps obtuse). He urges us to look for “signs from the future”, i.e. events in the present that contain kernels of a future beyond capitalism. This line of thought is, I think, dangerously dualistic. Although far from being an orthodox Marxist (socialism or barbarism!, etc) Zizek maintains that our world is determined by our economic-philosophical epoch (in our case, capitalism), and that we ought to look for signs of the coming communist epoch within the present. It is no wonder, given the utterly abstract status he affords capitalism and communism, that he ends his book with theological musings rather than concrete advice for protestors or artists. Zizek’s attempt to tie protest movements from around the world together because of their shared connection to an utopian future rather than their shared interpretation of intolerable aspects of the present is dangerous, if only because it leads to navel-gazing rather than discussion.  Chomsky uses the term “really-existing-capitalism” to refer to the web of strategic interests that determine and interfere with economic practices. Here lies an important distinction between these two thinkers. Chomsky studies unjust tendencies that are continually asserted throughout history and applauds movements that recognize these tendencies and rise up against them, however rudderless the movements themselves are. The tone of his work is detached, yet tentatively optimistic. Zizek, and other strict anti-capitalists, is probably too radical to be widely relatable, and too prone to waxing philosophic about a human condition which claustrophobically oscillates between blindness and fatalism (we're blind to the forces determining us, yet aware that those forces will do us in). Marx wrote that truth is without
 passion and passion is without truth. The stark truths documented by Noam Chomsky bring to light a sea of moral relativism and cynicism that send one on excursions of philosophic passion which contain no essential relation to the truths that launched them. Finding a balance between the soft-spoken pragmatism embodied by Noam Chomsky and the brazen polemics of Zizek is a task for artists who hope to create works of realism as well as revolutionaries striving for a working understanding of the modern situation. Chomsky is occasionally bitterly sarcastic, and Zizek often narrates his own wooly solipsism, but neither of them gives in to those transgressive tendencies as far as I can tell.
         The current protests in Brazil and Turkey were widely reported in a blizzard of articles that were abundantly shared on Facebook. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan has essentially turned on his people, mobilizing military forces to violently terrorize peaceful protestors. In Brazil, the government has been more positively (if superficially) engaged. But in both cases, the us vs. them mentality is the product of immediate material conditions, rather than a learned anti-capitalist viewpoint. The struggle in South America is between US-backed elites and peoples movements. For Zizek, capitalism is a transgressive abstract force; for Chomsky, it is a collection of historical tendencies. In Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, people are standing up and saying “no” to these historical tendencies, which are for them a daily fact of life. 
               In his “Phenomenology of Spirit”, Hegel equates abstraction with indifference; it makes sense then that living in an age where increasing overpopulation and increasing wealth inequality coexist (an increasingly few people who benefit from an economic paradigm are indifferent towards an increasingly huge number of people who are being fucked over by it) creates the impression that we live in a “universe where abstraction reigns”, as Zizek writes. Indifference reigns. Indifference towards historical tendencies. If American liberals are going to attain solidarity with protest movements abroad, it won’t be by occasional memetic appropriations in social media. Either we wait until the material conditions of our lives are determined as starkly as they are for people living in Latin America and Central Asia, or we confront the blithe indifference that exists beneath the surface of mainstream liberal narratives of progress. Otherwise, our solidarity will be worthless at best, toxic at worst.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Random Access Memories: Have You Heard the Good News about Disco?

One of the few remarkable things about the new Daft Punk album is the utter lack of deviation, on the part of basically every music critic in America, from the myth of its creation. Looking for an angle, every reviewer seems to repeat a more or less overt version of this story: Daft Punk, having taken the EDM they invented to its tepid extreme with Human After All and vanished in shame, have come back to atone for their past sins. In the yawning eight-year gap between the last album and Random Access Memories, dozens of usurpers have clawed their way to the electronic throne, from Justice to Skrillex to LCD Soundsystem; now the robots have returned, not to take back their rightful place at the top of the EDM pantheon, but to obliterate the pantheon completely.

Which is a nice way of saying that they made an album with no samples. Or not a lot of samples. An album that revels in a different kind of artificiality than their other albums, anyway, a slick analog artificiality rather than a robotic digital one. Whatever they've made, the critics love it: Matthew Horton at NME, as an illustrative example, raves about the opening track's "stupendously vast rock intro" and the way "everything goes ape" on the Giorgio Moroder tribute. I'll let you decide for yourself on that last one. Usually at the end of the review there's some wimpy caveat about how the album is bloated and egomaniacal, but either that's a forgettable detail or, conversely, it's actually crucial to the album's success—Will Hermes at Rolling Stone says the album is "a victim of its own ambition," but "it wouldn't be half as awesome a ride if it had aimed any lower." 

If it's not clear yet, these are reviews that will themselves into positivity. Pitchfork's Mark Richardson notes the album's "mix of disco, soft rock, and prog-pop, along with some Broadway-style pop bombast and even a few pinches of their squelching stadium-dance aesthetic," which makes the album sound so bad that it's almost revolting when he praises it, like listening to someone talk cheerfully about why they enjoy eating mud. That NME review is really the clincher: it praises the resemblance of "Fragments of Time" to Wings, Cliff Richard, and even 70s sitcom themes and somehow calls the sludgy Paul Williams ballad "Touch" both "gout-inducingly indulgent" and "magnificent." These reviews look directly at the terrible things about this album and pronounce them good. If this isn't a little disquieting, I'll refer you to Comrade O'Brien.

Sasha Frere-Jones has the best understanding of the album's weirdly Orwellian nature: he writes, "I replay parts of Random Access Memories repeatedly while simultaneously thinking it is some of the worst music I've ever heard." The record raises what he calls a "radical question: Does good music need to be good?"

Forgive me, but I don't see how this is a radical question at all—isn't it one of the most mundane facts of life since Tin Pan Alley that the catchiest, funnest music is usually also worthless? Who hasn't found themselves humming along to an Air Supply song at the grocery store? Catchy, well-produced schlock isn't remarkable by any means. Good music doesn't have to be good, and we all know it.

Random Access Memories is remarkable, though, in the way it wears its heartlessness on its sleeve. Standard-issue "popcraft" doesn't enter into it, nor does its bruited retro recording process. If Random Access Memories is really about reprocessing Los Angeles circa 1981, then its real success isn't in recording or composition, it's in the adoption of the entire callous, cynical mindset of the epoch that gave us "Hey Nineteen" and "Africa." Not only the mindset, but also the entire industrial organization of the album—the welter of guest producers, guest songwriters and guest musicians, some of whom are as washed up today as Cliff Richard himself was when he came back in the late 70s, and the compositional style, which is as deliberately lethargic as anything on Gaucho. Daft Punk are method acting here, dedicating themselves to evoking in every detail the mythical heyday of the LP, an imaginary time when mad genius producers roamed LA in quest of the perfect concept album. Most of the albums from this era, in retrospect, are unbearable, but you have to respect the insane dedication that went into their creation. Daft Punk have dedicated themselves to simulating this madness. By any musical standard, the album is dumb, forgettable fun, but we're clearly meant to evaluate it as a performance, not as an object, which is exactly what the critics are doing.

As an important sidenote, it's very much a mythical heyday that Daft Punk are hearkening back to, as mythical as Jack White's British Invasion or Fleet Foxes' preindustrial utopia. I think that's the key to the performance; if it weren't a myth, it wouldn't be so impressive to replicate it. It's critical to Daft Punk's interpretation that the epoch they appropriate is intangible. Like Swinging London for Jack White or the American frontier (I guess) for Fleet Foxes, and like the 50s for Ronald Reagan and the 60s for the left today, a historical era has to lose substance, flatten itself into a set of stories and values, for it to be worth simulating. The difference between Daft Punk and these other luminaries is that the others all foreground the authenticity of their eras, the studio craftsmanship, honest labor, white picket fences or free love, while Daft Punk zeroes in on the inauthenticity.

Random Access Memories is so unapologetic, so blatant, so relentless in its phoniness that it attains a grim determination you don't usually see outside of religious zealots. The ironic distance provided by those stupid robots suits is gone; they've become so ritualized and expected that it's not possible to read the album as some kind of big joke, and it would almost be more insulting if it were. I'll hand it to them that they've found a way out of the sincerity/insincerity binary that pop music has been caught in for the last decade or so, but they've done it by pledging something like blind faith. The critics seem to love it, though, and a lot of their love seems to stem from that faith. Maybe the world needs Jesus after all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Iron Man 3: Shellhead Ends The Story

Iron Man 3 is about everyone's favorite technocrat Tony Stark. He spends his time being righteously hostile to reporters and developing more and more Iron Man suits that he begins controlling with a wireless autonomous technology called Extremis.  Little do we know that one of the nerds that he spurned with his celebrity power and sexual dominance has become a twisted Nietzschean triumphant slave.  This beta-male posing as an alpha-male does botany research that allows him to artificially give former soldiers (the horror! look what we're doing to our veterans!) the ability to melt things and other boring superhero powers.  Further, this little twerp is using the reactionary politics of the War on Terror as a shield to hide his cynical and manipulative plans.  At this point we're supposed to remember that Osama bin Laden and those other Muslims don't really believe all that God-and-Jihad junk; they're just using it to hide their real, greedy, Machiavellian agenda.

Anyway, Tony Stark's arrogance gets the best of him and he has to go to a small town to recover.  But his super-genius allows him to escape handily, proving that if you have talent in America, you always rise to the top.  He has some touching moments with a kid that are hilarious adumbrated by the writers' need to make Stark an unfeeling quip-machine.  At the end, Stark will show that he really cares about the kid by facelessly buying him a whole laboratory with product placement energy drinks and everything.  That's what daddy does when he can't express how much he loves you with his words, honey.

In the final climactic scene, an army of Stark's Iron Man suits, representing technology, face off against the AIM superhumans, representing genetic modification.  Ultimately, all of Tony Stark's technology doesn't save him, and just when we think we're going to get a humanist narrative about how his human intelligence is going to get him out of the sticky situation (it's the man in the suit that counts), the narrative is mutilated by his girlfriend.  She has been given superhuman powers by the villains as part of a fucking idiotic plan to threaten Stark and she brutally destroys the main antagonist. This causes Tony to remember that he's forgetting all of the important things in his life, like his paper-thin relationship.  So he sends the Iron Man suits zinging up into the air to explode like fireworks, raining debris into the ocean below. The final scene is Stark becoming entirely human and thus removing himself from the picture; now he'll just sit back in his armchair and watch the superheroes, just like the rest of us.  But he'll always be Iron Man, he rehearses.

The final scene of Iron Man 3 is the culmination of superhero movies, and, arguably, of action movies. The whole picture is a machine to deliver an orgy of our detached power fantasies; Iron Man's normal technological augmentation becomes more and more autonomous until it becomes a completely independent fighting machine that his computerized butler orchestrates while Stark watches from afar.  The superheros(/villains) are laboratory products; the AIM storyline takes the mystical miracle "science" that was a stand-in for magic in the Captain America story and makes it into an easily reproducible process that can pump out superheroes like clockwork (except, awesomely, when they explode instead).  These two forces clash for our entertainment, with both us and Stark watching passively from the sidelines.We're on the couch with Tony, letting things take care of themselves.  The conflict that we watch is a Tony Stark vanity project; if he had only shown some humility, it would have never happened. Lucky for us, he's so arrogant that we get to watch it culminate in violence. In the end he learns his lesson and all is well.  

The brilliant final gesture of the film is performed in two strokes.  First, Pepper's obliteration of the classic humanist resolution foils any connection that the narrative might have to the real world.  Just when we think Stark is going to be jarred out of his mediated removal, the spectacle that surrounds him saves him from activity; the "showdown" reveals itself as the scariest part of the rollercoaster ride. Then, Stark's fireworks show of his own self-destructing technology unveils the purpose of the whole exercise; his exoskeletons, like him, and like the film itself, were all designed to destroy themselves in spectacular fashion.  The conflict is artificial, the hero is a spectator, the combatants are inhuman robots and supermen, and the resolution is an escalation.

Think back to a post not too long ago on Don DeLillo.  Art has exhausted its ability to communicate anything politically serious to us.  The only thing that can really make an impact is an act of self-destruction.  We're powerless to understand the complexity of the modern situation and so we find ourselves on the couch with Tone, watching things play out to their conclusion. There are no stakes, no history, and no movement save for the drive to the inevitable pyrotechnics. The anesthetic, desperate middle-class sensibilities of our generation have reached their full expression in the self-immolation of Iron Man 3.