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.