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Compassion in Mahāyāna Buddhism

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” — Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace (1869)

            It seems to me appropriate that this week’s readings would focus a good deal on compassion. What I understood from the genesis of the Mahāyāna tradition was that compassion is a central theme as a factor that distinguished Mahāyāna from previous conceptions of Buddhist thought. Even the increased importance on bodhisattvaship and on the pāramitās seemed to lean a good deal on compassion as a motivating force for these divergences from more traditional Buddhisms.

I think it important to try to locate the beginnings of the Mahāyāna movement and what its motivations were. Strong seems to disagree somewhat with Mitchell, as Strong says that the movement began as a mostly lay movement, whereas Mitchell notes that Mahāyānists often “lived in the monasteries of different schools alongside monastics who were not interested in their new form of religiosity.” (Strong p. 134; Mitchell p. 97) Strong helps us to understand some of the reasoning behind Mahāyāna, and how Mahāyānists might claim to have found “hidden texts”: “[T]hink of the Mahāyāna as a movement that had a tendency to take certain elements of early Buddhism and extend them to the limits of their logic.” (Strong p. 135) Of course, it then seems reasonable to figure that there would be some disagreement among Buddhists as to what was intended by the Buddha.

For instance, Mahāyāna gave fresh importance to compassion, so much so that bodhisattvas became privileged over arhats as Strong makes clear in “The Necessity of Compassion.” (p. 161) As such, I found myself questioning the coincidence of bodhisattvaship with arhatship. If compassion is so important, how could one reach enlightenment as an arhat having disregarded the seemingly necessary element of compassion? Should we conclude that nirvaṇa be reserved for bodhisattvas and not for arhats? Further, if everyone is destined for Buddhahood, how could one even be an arhat (Strong p. 161)? The distinction between them seems like it might be a distinction between bodhisattvas and beings that might not actually be: arhats.

This focus on compassion reaches an extreme in another sense: under Mahāyāna, compassion should be extended equally to everyone. Strong quotes Stephan Beyer’s The Buddhist Experience, in which the cultivation of compassion is described as a sort of progression: “One meditates first, then, upon those whom one loves; […] they are all the same as oneself, and one sees no difference among them.” (Strong p. 163) It seems to me worth it to perhaps complicate this for just a moment. Can we say that there is no difference between people? Of course, that is not exactly what Beyer says, here, but it appears clear enough that if people are encouraged to not see a difference between people, then they should not think of people as different from one another. This either implies that people should conceive of one another as literally the same (as in mutually part of something greater, perhaps?) or that they should intentionally delude themselves, which leads to the question of exactly how one intentionally deludes themselves (which would seem to require having a strategy for forgetting something so important to oneself—this would seem to be a challenging task). That said, the point seems perhaps to be aimed at encouraging nonjudgment and that is a point that would resonate with me, not least for the reasons that Strong gets into in this section (as well as those that the Dalai Lama elucidates in his text that we, this week, read).

Beyer continues through the progression: “Then one meditates upon one’s enemies […] they are all the same as oneself is […]And thus gradually one meditates upon all beings in the ten directions: one awakens one’s compassion for all beings equally, that they are as dear as one’s own suffering children…[emphasis mine]” (Strong p. 163) In our reading from the Dalai Lama, he seems to agree to these points. In fact, His Holiness dedicates several pages to describing the implications of, and reasons for, this kind of compassion.

His Holiness describes how anger causes us anxiety and clouds our minds, making our lives more complicated (p. 78). He also makes the point that we contribute to our anger both through our dispositions as well as through our physical presence in a situation by which we are made angry (pp. 77, 79). We can lose sight of our relationships to these unfortunate situations. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “[W]e consider the person—the intermediary agent between the negative emotions and the act—as solely responsible.” (p. 79) In essence, some people’s bodies carry out harmful acts against other people’s bodies, largely due to emotional responses to difficult situations, and yet, we tend to blame others when these situations occur.

In regard to why it is unreasonable to be angry with our “enemies,” not only is it the case that anger causes us a great amount of harm and complication, it seems to have no logical basis. It appears that “enemies” behave inimically either due to their nature or due to their circumstances (HHDL pp. 77-8, 80). We can think of this in more contemporary (and more scientific) terms: if someone only misbehaves either because of their genetics or because of some environmental stimulus, for which would it be reasonable to blame them? Is it ever fair to blame a person for the genes that they inherited? Is it ever fair to blame someone for circumstances that they did not create? If we agree to the assumption underlying this line of thinking—that negative behaviors only ever result from nature or nurture, and not by decisions that we freely make (a position that some cognitive science seems to support)—then there seems to be no good reason to ever direct negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors toward anyone.

Finally, His Holiness points out that people’s untoward behaviors provide us with an opportunity that would not otherwise arise (p. 81). Without someone testing our patience, there is no patience required from us. We cannot develop patience without some object for our patience. Therefore, our “enemy” presents us with the opportunity to accrue merit (HHDL p. 81). Thought of in another way, the Dalai Lama points out, “It is almost as if the perpetrator of the harm sacrifices himself or herself [sic] for the sake of our benefit.” (p. 81) What he seems to be alluding to here is that the negative outcomes that come from anger and negative behaviors are made the “enemy’s” to deal with, while we, if we are mindful and patient, have the opportunity to reach closer toward nirvaṇa. Indeed, seen in this light, perhaps the challenging moments that others thrust upon our lives are actually gifts in disguise. His Holiness says, “[W]e should dedicate our merit to the benefit of that enemy.” (p. 81) And, this gets us back to the centrality of compassion.

Beyer describes this kind of compassion in superlative terms: “Then is one’s compassion made perfect, and it is called great compassion.” (Strong p. 163) It is interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive to some Westerners, to think that we should thank our “enemies” for the opportunity to be our best selves. In fact, the reading from Strong manages to take this even further.

Quoting from the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva, the text says, “Let them smite me, constantly mock me, or throw dirt at me. […] Let them do to me whatever pleases them, but let no one suffer any mishap on my account. […] Those who accuse me falsely, others who do me wrong, and still others who deride me—may they attain enlightenment!” (Strong p. 166) Not only are we to not blame those who might harm us; we are to wish that harm upon us is somehow good for these “enemies” and that they “attain enlightenment.” It seems that this could be considered extreme for many in United States audiences.

In fact, it may be that a danger could crop up from this kind of thinking. There is an argument to be made about how the kind of compassion toward our “enemies” such that we stand aside and wish them well might complicate matters, especially in the context of asymmetrical power distributions. For instance, some people may find it objectionable to suggest that underprivileged people should not be resistant to their exploitations. There appears to be at least a superficial tension between social justice movements and Buddhist thought, insofar as social justice movements encourage change such that power is made more diffuse, whereas some Buddhist thought seems to encourage acceptance and tolerance, even of what might in some cases rightly be called injustice. However, I here forbear determination, especially in light of another quotation from the Bodhicaryāvatāra of Śāntideva: “May I be a protector of the unprotected…” (Strong p. 166) It could be the case that these concerns are dealt with in Buddhist texts and/or contemporary dialogue.

Compassion takes on yet another form under Mahāyāna as seen under Strong’s section on the pāramitās. Strong quotes Ārya Śūra’s Pāramitāsamāsa: “However, when the process of falsely discriminating things as being the same, better, or worse ceases completely, that is what those who walk the path of nondualism call the unsurpassed forbearance whose range is inconceivable.” (Strong p. 168) It can be easy to judge people, but I would assert that it takes some willful compassion to hold out judgment.

What seems clearly central to much of the reading assigned for this week is how compassion seems to have played an important role in forming Mahāyāna. Indeed, while it is early yet to say so for certain, I would not be surprised if it were argued that compassion underlies the majority of the distinction between Mahāyāna and Buddhism’s earlier conceptions.

Connections and Artistic Mechanics: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century as a Subversive Film

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” — Leo Tolstoy, from War and Peace (1869)

 

What makes any art subversive?

Perhaps it is safe to say that our age extends from the Enlightenment, with capitalism being a dominant force in determining how societies and their institutions are organized, how we view one another and ourselves, and how we relate to the world more broadly (Althusser). As such, I would argue that any art that alters these understandings of the world in such a way as to slow the propagation of capitalistic ideologies could be thought of as subversive. In the case of film, the subversion of classic Hollywood’s aesthetics, forms, contents, styles, symbolisms, affects, and effects can be subversive. This subversion applies to capitalism more broadly insofar as such films might subvert film’s general tendency to propagate ideas and feelings that are useful to capitalism. I would argue that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2006 film, Syndromes and a Century is one such film.

Instead of a formal, easy-to-follow narrative plot, the film acts through abbreviated chunks of stories and interactions that set a tone without telling much of a cohesive story. There are romance, confrontations with mortality, career angst, and other common dramatic events throughout Apichatpong’s film, but its effectiveness comes more by way of unresolved tensions and by its identification with different characters than it does through any dramatic story arc.

Syndromes and a Century is organized into two halves (“Syndromes and a Century”). The two halves of the film deal with different contemporary tensions being felt in Thailand—Buddhism vs. capitalism, rurality vs. urbanity, immanence vs. transcendence, and connection vs. alienation—which we will later inspect more closely (Tangwisutijit). It tells the stories of various commonplace characters—doctors, Buddhist monks, and other nondescript personages—following them through the two distinct halves of the film and drawing out the tensions listed above without truly resolving anything.

But, is Apichatpong’s film subversive? In this paper, I argue that it is. On one hand, one might look to arguments made in Fredric Jameson’s 1979 paper, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” and rightly point out that Syndromes and a Century operates under capitalism, ensuring that it must play under some of the rules set forth under capitalism (it still benefits the wealthy executives of the companies that distribute the film, it must be approved by managers in the distribution company, it has to appeal to a likely already defined market, it might have made a lot of money for Apichatpong, etc.). However, taking the stance that this alone means that the film can in no way undermine capitalism does not seem correct, either.

Taking up Gilles Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image,” articulated in his 1985 book, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Apichatpong’s film embodies a style sometimes regarded as “slow cinema,” which is juxtaposed against classic Hollywood’s “movement-image.” The movement-image is full of the well-established tropes and symbolisms that we see from most films in general, but especially in those from before WWII (Deleuze 1985). Conversely, Deleuze’s time-image operates through the use of “opsigns” and “sonsigns” (optical symbols and sonic symbols) that are meant to call attention to recognizable phenomena in our lives (1985). Instead of taking advantage of the drama in fantastically dramatic stories, with heavy-handed narratives and incredible story arcs, the time-image tends to focus on the potency of unresolved tensions and tragedies in our lived experiences. Syndromes and a Century, then, shares with the modern time-image a decreased reliance on narrative, as well as a decreased reliance on resolution of tension, showing preference for greater realism and deeper expositions of issues being confronted in the film. Largely, Apichatpong accomplishes this through careful attention to the affect produced by his audio-visual spectacle.

Apichatpong’s film relies heavily on background aesthetics and ambient sounds to envelop the spectator and place them in particular spaces and places. Later in this paper, I will describe how we might think of the worlds formed by each half of the film as reflective of Buddhistic ontologies (i.e. Buddhistic ways of being) and capitalistic ontologies (Tangwisutijit). The first half of the film is Buddhistic and the film begins with the sights and sounds of trees swaying in the wind, like a drunken nature waltz at quarter-speed. The nature sounds carry seamlessly across the cut from the nature images to the next scene: a slow, mundane psychological screening, apparently shot in natural lighting. The first couple minutes of the interview are presented in one take that avoids the typical shot-countershot style that often accompanies similar scenes. The shot then cuts from the seemingly bored face of the interviewee to a wide shot of the office such that we see both interlocutors in front of the large panel windows. Two of the windowpanes stand ajar, allowing in the outside noises, and we see the trees and sky in the background. We cut to a scene facing the opposite door so that we see the interviewee casually bowing in the general direction of the doctor as he leaves, displaying the kind of commonplace reverence for Buddhistic ritual by a perhaps unenthusiastic practitioner. A couple minutes later, the scene ends with the doctor making her way outside and carrying on a conversation, but the camera gradually loses them. Initially, it tracks them through the door before they turn to walk and the camera pans in the opposite direction, tracking down a semi-open corridor, toward a broad field with trees in the background. The camera stops at the end of a ledge, leaving us to watch the wind blow over the grass or grain or whatever vegetation it is in the field as credits roll. The sounds of nature continue beneath the sound of the conversation being had elsewhere. In a somewhat strange, reflexive move, the conversation helps to explain the disjuncture between the audio and the visual as one of the speakers says that they forgot to turn off their microphone. The scene ends and the camera cuts to two Buddhist monks meeting with the aforementioned mental health professional.

While much of this certainly seems to undermine classic Hollywood norms, does it somehow subvert capitalism (Bazin)? After all, what does capitalism have to do with cinematic conventions, cinematic subject matter, or cinematic forms? We can begin by assessing the beginning of the opening scene: the trees waving in the wind, leading to the interview. Under the classic Hollywood continuity editing system, music might serve to set the tone and the use of montage might help to grab the spectator’s attention through the blunt bombardment of visual spectacle, the point being that Apichatpong’s film is slower and more subdued than what would be expected in classic Hollywood cinema, allowing for a different understanding than that which might be produced by classic Hollywood cinema (Bazin).

The expectation of film is often that it should often arouse excitement and intense emotions. Classic Hollywood cinema is sold to us as a distraction from the banality of life (Benjamin). As Jameson underscores, in the same paper referenced above, the function of cinema is often to provide spectators with a vision of utopia so as to repress the dissatisfactions that we encounter in our capitalistic lives: the unfair boss is overcome in a triumph of the ingenuous, ingenious worker; the hapless romantic eventually finds companionship in an unexpected place; the disgruntled commonperson eventually finds their True Calling™ in life; after a great struggle, external threats are expunged; etc. Films give us images (Jameson’s paper uses the shark in Jaws [Spielberg 1975] and the gangster in a few gangster films [particularly, Coppola’s first two Godfather films from the 1970s, among others] as examples) onto which we can project the fears and anxieties of our daily lives. The overcoming of those struggles allows us to feel some sense of vicarious satisfaction and to more easily go through the routine slogs of our existences.

Instead, in this scene, we are made to simply identify closely with nature and with the interviewed subject. We are surrounded by the sounds that Earth produces far from capitalistic edifices, with their constant buzzings and chatterings. We sense the odd discomfort and raw, awkward mystery that comes from being subjected to such interrogations, especially while trying to force a congenial appearance and attitude. Instead of inundating us with sights and mood music, the scene slowly lopes, seemingly to nowhere in particular, focusing on the mundanity and naturalism of our daily lived lives. Instead of flashing from one speaker to the other, we focus on the experience of a single subjectivity, further highlighting the unexciting reality experienced by most of us in general. This allows us to focus deep attention on the experience of this one person and to feel more connected to that person’s perspective (Hayles). We more closely identify with that person, rather than having our attention divided, enabling more closely connected identification. This deep attention helps to create a more immanent and immersive experience without all the spectacular distraction of action that tends to pervade so much of Hollywood cinema (Deleuze 1985).

The role of nature here is also one of immanence—an important idea in Buddhism: we are not, in fact, separate from nature (Loy). We live in nature, through nature, and we help to constitute nature. This is a point that is easy to miss under a post-Enlightenment culture that, for various reasons, emphasizes the separations of mind from body, person from God, person from person, person from themselves, and specific aspects of ourselves from all the other constituent aspects of ourselves. In the course of the last half-century or so, we have seen a loose progression through different forms of these kinds of separations. In barbarian transcendentalism, salvation and grace come from outside ourselves (and generally implies that people are inherently evil). Enlightenment atomization discredits the concept of the community, replacing it with that of individuals (and masses of individuals). Under capitalism, labor is divided, such that workers operate separately from one another. Foucault’s “micro-power” conceives of social norms as diffuse, opaque, and unofficial (that is, not legitimated by the state or by law) means of controlling people in highly specific and varied ways (Foucault). And, Deleuze’s “control society” views particular information (exchange rates; secret passwords; divisive cultural codes and cultural informations) as subtly dividing up societies and isolating groups of people from one another, capacitizing some and decapacitizing others (Foucault; Deleuze 1992). In essence, and to oversimplify, the last several centuries have been characterized by the divisions and specializations of both the means of power (the processes) and the objects of power (the people and behaviors being controlled). Power has become more diffuse in its bearers, more diverse in its processes, more ubiquitous, more specific in its intentions, more divisive, more invisible, and less contested. We might think of transcendence as a precursor to the rest of these kinds of divisions, and as such, we might conceive of the logic of transcendence as being a thread that holds together these forms of separations. However, immanence describes another logic. Instead of finding meaning in some aspect of the world that is external to ourselves, the world might be thought of as a kind of (mostly) self-contained multiplicity (Deleuze and Guattari). Put another way, there are not necessarily separations between objects that seem to be juxtaposed; instead, such oppositions make up parts of larger systems or bodies, depending on your vantage point. Everything could be thought of as making up some greater whole that is only visible when being viewed from a high enough level, or a far enough distance, to see the sum of these parts. This all calls into question the Enlightenment’s proposed separations.

Already, we see some subtler ways by which Apichatpong’s film could be thought of as subverting capitalism. Instead of fully commodifying the film experience by packaging it as disinterested entertainment like so much other cinema, this film seems to serve another function (Jameson). The immanent, slow, immersive, “hot” media experience of witnessing the long, unmoving take of the interviewed subject demands deep attention and forces the spectator to connect with the subject on the screen in a way that is not generally necessary in Hollywood cinema (McLuhan; Deleuze 1985; Hayles). This sets up a juxtaposition of the first, Buddhistic, half of the film against the faster pace in the second, capitalistic, half of the film, which we will get to later. Still, by encouraging connections between subjectivities, Apichatpong, if only for a moment, forces us to reverse the course of cultural indoctrination by which we perpetually divide processes and people for the sakes of greater efficiency and of more easily controlling outcomes (Jameson; Foucault; Deleuze 1992). By focusing on more and more specific aspects of processes and people, capitalism can more easily and more precisely tailor behaviors to produce particular outcomes.

Under capitalism, what seems to be clear—and can seem difficult to explain—is how there are dual, seemingly opposed, crises. On one hand, the essential identity of the individual seems lost, as seen in the inherent conflicts in existentialistic literature, films about finding oneself, pins and stickers as symbols of essential aspects of ourselves, and so on (Benjamin). On the other hand, the dissolution of the sense of community is also a well-covered subject matter, as evidenced by much contemporary popular psychology literature, like in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. What Jameson (as well as Marx before him) seems to propose is that, through commodity fetishism, our identities are largely found in the products and brands that we buy. Instead of feeling connected to our most authentic selves, our identities are found in layers upon layers of consumer choices that we make—those consumer choices all having been made by countless other people, as well. There is nothing deeply personal or essential to wearing the same shirt as someone or buying the same electronic device or preferring the same movie; at the same time, with all these layers of differences between others and ourselves, we are further and further distanced from everyone else (Marx). That is, we never reach any true sense of self, and in further and further estranging us from one another, this process ensures the elusion of both the individual and the community (Marx).

However, Syndromes and a Century seems to manage to avoid at least some of the problems of these alienations and perhaps even suggests some countermeasures to them. The first scene encases us in a world rife with subversions of these separations. By connecting to someone in a fuller way, at least in relation to film in general, we begin to reintegrate the community. The seemingly genuine, gentle, caring interactions between the characters in this part of the film help to support this reintegration, as do the associations with nature and with Buddhism that pervade the scene and more fully buttress either end of the interview. But, what about the reflexive moves?

The reflexive move of the camera drifting away from the conversation, as well as the reflexivity of the conversation, itself, help to remind the viewer that this is only a film and that it has its own subjectivity. In some sense, this seemingly obviously undermines norms: the point of a fictional film is often to escape into another world—not to be reminded that you are watching a film. In reminding us that this is a film, Apichatpong foregrounds that conversations take place in particular contexts and that any message (including his own) is given from a particular perspective. This might encourage us to be mindful of the messages that are thrust upon us. If all art and communication are produced by particular subjectivities, then it may serve us well to keep those subjectivities in mind and to be cautious of the effects produced (in us, in others, and in societies) by these rhetorics, as opposed to allowing ourselves to be effectively inculcated by pervasive capitalistic ideology.

To be clear, Jameson makes a strong point in response to this, too. Setting aside that Jameson views reflexivity in films to be reactive to the simulacratic nature of film (as in all art), what seems more important here is that the performative aspect of foregrounding one’s subjectivity speaks to the emancipatory limitations of film or any other medium. That is, while the film might suggest reintegrations (as opposed to separations) and suggest subversions of capitalism, the film is not the same as real life. There certainly seems to be something different in expressing revolution and subversion through the body than consuming revolutionary or subversive art. As addressed earlier, the film is still a commodity being consumed under capitalism, even if it elucidates problems under capitalism and pushes against capitalism in its subversions of social norms and through its suggestions for what we might do to combat problems under capitalism, which leads us to the capitalistic second half of the film.

We will now shift our focus to a scene from the more capitalistic half of the film. In terms of the plot, the scenes that precede this scene seem unrelated. This scene starts with a wide shot of the doctor who was being interviewed in the aforementioned-scene in the beginning of the film. He wears a labcoat as he sits across from an older, business suit-wearing woman at a metallic-topped table. He looks down as he writes, and she begins speaking to him. In the background of the frame are office chairs, an uncovered electrical outlet and its wiring, along with odd (indeed, inexplicable) tubes and prosthetic legs—literally the techno-scientific, divided, commodified substitutes for parts of humans. Perhaps, that is unsubtle. They make idle chitchat and it becomes clear that they know each other from when the doctor was a child. Another elderly woman in a business suit and glasses walks into the frame, turns on additional lighting and rolls a piece of luggage behind her as she joins the table and the conversation. She appears to be friends with the other lady and they all seem to be doctors of different sorts. The first female doctor walks over toward the pile of fake legs and grabs one of them. In a kind of postmodern move (that is, an unexpected and irreverent one), she pulls a bottle of liquor from the opening in the top of the prosthetic. The male doctor from the beginning of the film smiles and asks, “Isn’t it a bit early for that?” They grab some glasses and begin to drink, as the camera slowly tracks and pans toward the male doctor and the first female doctor. Another male doctor and his young male patient join the table. The patient suffers from carbon monoxide poisoning (and mental health issues, as we will learn in the immediately subsequent scene). The first female doctor offers to look at the patient and she begins to perform chakra healing. As she performs this ritual, the camera tracks back out and pans slightly toward the other female doctor, who is staring directly into the camera, tracking it with her eyes as the camera continues its move. Apart from the female doctors (one performing a healing ritual and the other moving her eyes to follow the camera), the rest of the room (including the male doctors and the younger man) remains perfectly still. Then, the second female doctor turns her head toward the chakra healing taking place before the first female doctor finishes the ritual. The second male doctor quibbles with the first female doctor over the ritual and the young man asks to leave the room before the conversation shifts. “Are you selling Red Cross t-shirts?” the second male doctor asks of the second female doctor. She informs him that there are two styles and that the t-shirts cost 200 baht each, and the scene ends.

In the scenes of the second half of the film, the varied colors of nature are replaced by the monochromatic whites and greys and metallic colors of the industrial world, while the background sounds of wind and insects are replaced by buzzings and drones, marking a shift in the film’s opsigns and sonsigns (1985). Similarly, the male doctor goes from wearing an olive drab military uniform in the first half of the film to a labcoat in the second half, while the women’s business suits have no equivalent in the first half of the film. Put another way, signs of science and industry appear where they had not before. The appearance of the electrical infrastructure of the building and the prosthetic limbs help to foreground the emergence of technology and the separatenesses of our bodies and of the objects external to us that are meant to make us whole (if not figuratively, then at least literally). But, we are not only alienated from our most essential selves and our happiness—we are alienated from one another, as well.

Instead of the deeply personal, long, slow anecdotes that pervade much of the first half of the film, shallow, pointless chatter make up much of the dialogue in the second half of the film, just as it does in this scene. In accordance with another shift in the film, alcohol appears (from the prosthetic leg, no less). In the beginning of the film, people move slowly, intentionally, and with a sense of authenticity, whereas fakeness and distractedness appear in the demeanors and bodily actions of people in the second half of the film. In the first half of the film, joy appears in some characters, whereas in the second half of the film, there is no authentic joy. Instead, listlessness and depression are unique characteristics that appear in the second half of the film. Inauthenticity appears when people make small talk and wear strange smiles, and distractedness appears when people absent-mindedly stare off into nothingness for long periods. People in the second half seem dissatisfied, helping to explain the mid-day drinking that appears in the capitalistic half of the film (perhaps, sometimes, the opiate of the masses is just the opiate [or depressant, as is appropriate] of the masses). Dissatisfaction might also help to explain the mental health issues and carbon monoxide poisoning (assuming that it might be from a suicide attempt) that crop up in the film’s second half.

The rest of the scene serves as an exemplar for the weirdness that Apichatpong associates with the capitalistic ontology of the second half of his film. In addition to foregrounding the film’s subjectivity, the reflexive move of the woman’s persistent staring into the moving camera contributes a weirdness that does not appear in just the same way in the first half of the film. The first half has its awkwardnesses, but they are not as pervasive as the second half’s weirdness is and they do not contribute discomfort to the first half of the film. Something about those awkwardnesses (their context? their natures?) feels more comfortable and more authentic to the characters. The move toward discomfort might suggest that capitalism alienates us from that which we find fulfilling and gratifying: community, self-actualization, and connection to nature. This is further understood by inspecting the role of nature and the medical industry in the two halves of the film. While the first half sees medicine take place in a context of nature and unvarnished religious reverence, its obverse appears in the chakra healing ritual’s appearance within the modern industrial hospital. Some of the alienation in the scene is distilled, if oversimplified, in the last lines of the scene, as they refer to the sale of mass produced commodities by a humanitarian organization (in this case, the Red Cross). Under capitalism, even the most “well-meaning” entities participate in a system that alienates us from that which can give us fulfillment and contentment.

As we see in this paper, Syndromes and a Century does, in fact, operate under capitalism and cannot fully avoid all of the problems that might be produced under capitalism. However, the film’s reflexive moments are not merely ironic or entertaining—they serve the purpose of foregrounding the problems that the commodification of art produces. In this way, they encourage critical awareness of film’s problems as a subversive intervention. That aside, Apichatpong’s uses of opsigns and sonsigns help to demonstrate the conflicts between Buddhism and capitalism and how Buddhistic ontologies might provide greater potential for fulfillment and contentment than might capitalistic ontologies (Deleuze 1985). By subverting classic Hollywood aesthetics, forms, contents, styles, symbolisms, affects, and effects, Apichatpong creates a work of art that takes direct aim at many of the problems that capitalism produces, even if Jameson is right to be skeptical of any film’s potential to initiate the overthrow capitalism. While falling short of such a lofty goal as revolution, Syndromes and a Century seems potent in its ability to cause us to rethink the syndromes produced by capitalism over Thailand’s past century.

 

References

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. New York: Verso Books. 2014.

Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” What is Cinema? Volume 1. California: University of California Press. 1967. 22-39.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility (Second Version).” Selected Writings Volume 3 1935-1938. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2002. 102-142.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Beyond the movement-image.” Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1989. 1-18.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October. Massachusetts: MIT Press. 1992. 3-7.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books. 1977.

Hayles, N Katherine. “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession. New York: Modern Language Association of America. 2007. 187-199.

Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text, No. 1. North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1979. 130-148.

Loy, David. “Transcendence or Immanence? Balancing Heaven and Earth.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-loy/transcendence-or-immanence-balancing-heaven-and-earth_b_3166015.html. New York: The Huffington Post. [Internet]. July 13, 2013.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Penguin Books. 1992. 280-400.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Media Hot and Cold.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Critical Edition). California: Gingko Press. 2003. 39-50

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone Books. 2000.

“Syndromes and a Century.” Kick the Machine. http://www.kickthemachine.com/works/Syndromes.html. Bangkok: Kick the Machine. [Internet]. 2006.

Tangwisutijit, Nantiya. “Buddhism vs Capitalism: The spiritual way of life will overcome the materialistic way of life, say scholars.” Pressreader. https://www.pressreader.com/thailand/the-nation/20080410/282029027948145. Vancouver: Pressreader. 2008.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010. 2896.

Picnic Gods — Straightjacket

I started a band and we made a song!

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo [Зеркало]) and the Five Senses

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo [Зеркало] seems to envelop its viewer. It is easy to feel confused while watching it, but the mood is unmistakable, if hard to put into words. There is irony in this fact, as the necessary alienation of language seems at least obliquely relevant to themes in the film.

The idea that things in reality do not always fit together very neatly seems important. Inter-generationality seems central to what Tarkovsky is saying here, but also that time, itself, plays a large role in our construction of reality (as in the construction of this [and perhaps any] film). The story follows a non-linear path that constantly juxtaposes different generations of a family against one another and the story is punctuated by footage of important Soviet events.

What I find most brilliant in Tarkovsky’s film are two tensions that I see. First, Tarkovsky makes films that often feel surreal. I see Tarkovsky’s particular brand of surrealism as particularly potent in its palpable realism and the wonderment achieved in many of the visual effects that he creates. In part, Tarkovsky seems to owe this to his engagement of the senses: one feels the water dripping from the ceiling as the woman’s wet hair moves somewhat unnaturally in the dank room (and seeming to predict Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film Ringu); the slowly coagulating tears on the nearly-frozen face of the boy create an effect both visual and haptic; when the light burns out and the boy finds himself alone in the stranger’s dark house, one feels the loneliness, the loss, the abandonment, and the disconcerting disorientation; and so on. In the formulation of this surrealism, then, the obverse might be Tarkovsky’s filmic tricks, along with his reflexive gestures. At times, he uses the elements to create eerie effects: the wind picking up as a strange man finally leaves; the rain pouring down at especially heightened moments; water dripping from the dilapidated ceiling; a strange, stoic woman unflinchingly placing her hand in a flame; and so on. The film never allows much time to pass without foregrounding its subjectivity: through the seemingly deliberate shadow of the microphone boon; an actor staring into the camera; the use of Soviet film documentary footage; the beautiful, but displacing camera movements; the poetic voice-overs; etc. This reflexivity also finds itself in the use of the boy as both the protagonist and the protagonist’s son, as well as the use of the same woman as both the mother and the wife, but that more greatly seems to say something about Tarkovsky’s psychology in a way that is worthy of deeper inspection at another time.

Another tension that I found interesting was that between the drama in the events occurring and the kind of brutal restraint mostly exemplified in the characters, to which the appropriate counterpoint might be that of the Hollywood film: the predictable-to-the-point-of-banality storyline made romantic or otherwise saturated with dramaticism. As the rain falls around the characters, the camera slowly pans around to find the characters mostly standing around, watching the building burn down. As the couple fight, the apparent alienation and frustration in their disjointed, misunderstood arguments are met with dull, defeated tones. The beginning of the film’s miraculous rehabilitation of the stuttering teenage boy ends with him smiling and announcing that he can speak, but not with the sense of surprise that one might expect.

Brief Response to Anne Cranny-Francis’s Technology and Touch

On p. 38 of Anne Cranny-Francis’s Technology and Touch: The Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies, she states that political activists “demand” that we “recognize [difference] as a bodily practice that marks our own bodies and determines our bodily relationships with others, including whom we might choose to touch or not.” She supports this kind of thinking by referring to Foucault’s and Heidegger’s hermeneutical conceptions of technology, referring to some of Foucault’s work to be a “powerful intervention.” She refers to the socializing effects that Foucault and Heidegger identify in technology: by engaging with technology, we behave differently from how we might if we were to not use technology.

For Foucault, technology seems to be a system by which we are operated on (through some combination of action directed on us from outside and of self-directed action), subjecting us to particular social norms and values, i.e. Foucault seems quite specific in the attention he gives to the fact that technology helps to shape who we are.

For Heidegger, the concern is related, albeit slightly different. Dasein is the technological frame within which we find ourselves, and by which we see nature as instruments for our lives. Heidegger seems to take issue with the fact that this technological frame is one of many possible realities in which we might find ourselves, despite that it might often be assumed that this is just the way things are or something of that nature. Heidegger seems to suggest that we should look critically on how technology shapes how we think and behave.

However, Cranny-Francis’s position does not seem well-supported by the thoughts of Foucault and Heidegger. In fact, if we are to take Cranny-Francis seriously here, it is hard to fully explain what she might mean, exactly, by “difference.” If it were the case that a difference between people is an external force that “marks our own bodies,” then the hermeneutics of Foucault and of Heidegger would likely have to be for naught. If such differences come only from outside of us, then what is there to be done, other than to resist the symptoms (by which I mean the social effects that this embodiment produces)?

Instead, if we are to take the view of Foucault or Heidegger, then the effects of the embodiment of differences are ones that are likely malleable and subject to change that might be worth advocating for. In particular, Foucault spent a lot of energy focusing on how we participate in our own oppressions, suggesting that we might have a role to play in determining the trajectories of social forces—a position that Cranny-Francis’s statement seems antagonistic to.

The problem in what Cranny-Francis is saying is made somewhat clearer as the line goes on. If, as she suggests, such a difference “determines our bodily relationships with others, including whom we might choose to touch or not,” then we are not the ones deciding with whom we engage and in what ways. Social forces alone determine when, how, and with whom, it is appropriate to touch someone. There is an inherent contradiction here: if there were any hope of empathy or understanding, let alone political action, the determination that Cranny-Francis points to would likely have to have always already been such that there would be no need for this interagential interaction. The alternative to this is that the odd matrix that determines how we all react to one another—and necessarily devoid of any of our input—would be a kind of complicated teleological shifting. This shifting would then have to arbitrarily end in outcomes that are consistent with the desires of those who would appear to be critical of the current state of affairs. Those criticisms, though, would be practically devoid of meaningful content-value because such criticisms are always directed at what would, then, have to be the uncontrollable actions of others.

I suppose that what gets Cranny-Francis in trouble, here, is the absoluteness of what she says. It is not that differences must not help to determine some aspects of social relations, but that is not what she says, and I consider this to be a serious problem, and one that pervades of much of academic writing.

Brief Response to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”

“[Humankind’s] self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.” (P. 122)

In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,” his primary concern seems to be how art—and film, in particular—are mechanized to inflict and enable the infliction of violence upon the working class.

Benjamin seems to see film as having the ability to transmit bourgeois ideology. He draws a distinction between the intentional consumption of high art and the distracted, passive spectatorship that often accompanies mass culture, like in the case of watching film. He points out that we often learn how to do things without being very aware of how we are learning it or what is, exactly, that we are learning. If ideology is what we do without knowing that we do it, then surely this kind of learning is the process by which that occurs. Benjamin says, “Even the distracted person can form habits. What is more, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction first proves that they performance has become habitual. The sort of distraction that is provided by art represents a covert measure of the extent to which it has become possible to perform new tasks of apperception.” (p. 120)

Interestingly, by acknowledging film’s power to disseminate bourgeois ideology, he acknowledges the potential emancipatory power in cinema. But, he is reluctant to characterize the film of his time as having emancipatory quality. Benjamin supposes the purpose of film:

the original and justified interest of the masses in film—an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class. Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority. For this reason alone, the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat. (pp. 114-5)

He has good reasons for this.

As film operates in his time (and the same could likely be said of today), film often serves to squelch the urge to cause civil unrest. Film often plays the role of living out our fantasies so that we do not have to:

[O]ne also has to recognize that the same technologization has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychoses. It does so by means of certain films in which the forced development of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses. …The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. (p. 118)

However, when this repression does not work, the proletariat are able to redirect the violence of the proletariat. This is accomplished by instilling ideology and discipline and through a maneuver that reverses the objectification at which Marx directed so much of his ire: by swapping the affect’s quantitative characteristic to a qualitative characteristic more useful to the bourgeoisie, violence can be directed to perceived threats outside the nation-state and apart from the bourgeoisie.

Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish. It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged. (pp. 120-1)

Ein Luftschloss

Rhinestones and silhouettes shifting in the light,
glimmering in the shine of one trillion stars,
each intentionally placed in the sky to be absorbed
in a symphony of sensuous activity.

Waves of cotton, flowing in a night’s breeze
—like endless seas, feeding whales and jellyfish below—
sliding, slippery over hills:
the haptic, the tactile, eternally oozing, shifting,
fountains founding figures over figures,
layers of spectacle, indescribable except by the language of limitless sensuousnesses.

Chocolate on berries;
or snared gazes, smiles;
or sound from oceans, endless in novelty and curiosities;
or the sights and sounds of a moments-old anything;
or all the fields affected by the fields of us.
Obvious and elusive.
Castles in the sky.

Different Worlds: Film Phenomenology in Jenkins’s Moonlight and Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road

In Vivian Sobchack’s “Phenomenology and Film Experience,” her object is an ambitious one: rather than standing on any side of the opposing traditions of film theory, she suggests a phenomenological view by which the elements of these traditions can be explained. Formalism, as Sobchack expresses it, is the theoretical view that film is expressive, relying on carefully choreographed action and the intentional framing of cinematic events. She contrasts this with realism, by which the sounds and images captured as ontological residue go on to be the stuff of films. The third framework she addresses is that of the psychoanalytical feminist: there is an other out there, producing films “always already dishonest and subjugating.” (65) She explains that the third option can lead to reflection on cinema itself or guilty viewing pleasure.

Sobchack is interested in another position, though. Her aim is to adopt phenomenology in order to conceive of film as an object bound up with our subjectivities. Film, using images and sounds, and codes and cultures, expresses thoughts and feelings that can only have meaning to subjects who are of the same world as this film.

Jennifer Barker expresses something similar in The Tactile Eye. She claims that films are, in and of themselves, bodies. As such, films have affects, as do we. We interact with films, trading affects. To give some examples, we will look at Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Moonlight is a film that seems to have a psychology all its own. Primarily through pace, color, sound, and acting, it creates a kind of body that performs, affecting its spectator with its subtle, mysterious histories, one layered upon the other. In the scene at Juan’s (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa’s (Janelle Monáe) dining room table, the visual field seems perpetually composed of light and dark elements. Juan’s skin against his white t-shirt, the light in the room from the idyllic Miami landscape against the dark tones of the table and chairs. The adults wear concerned faces as Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks what a “faggot” is and whether he is one, before Chiron inquires as to whether or not Juan sells drugs. Juan, shoulders slumped, responds to the question of his drugdealing by telling Chiron, “Yeah.” Chiron asks if his “mama” does drugs, and Juan again responds, “Yeah,” before Chiron gets up and walks from the room, birds chirping in the background. Juan looks down at the table, appearing to softly cry, and Teresa reaches her hand across the table to place her hand on his, after which Juan disappears from the movie altogether.

What is clear in this scene from Moonlight is that the film is expressing a complex web of thoughts and feelings, deftly using images and sounds to produce an energy endemic and unique to the film. The film cannot be confused for any other film and exists uniquely for us in a relationship unique to each viewer. The effect of the film is simultaneously subtle and palpable, and one supposes that each spectator experiences it in a different way from each other spectator and upon each viewing, giving credence to the notion that there can be a phenomenology of film.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, we are taken to a world nearly devoid of what we might think of as humanity; the film seems to exist in a world all its own, relying on an amalgamation of old stories as bases for a unique tale.

Metaphysical gestures pervade Mad Max (e.g. the whole story might be thought of as a cosmogony). As Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Max (Tom Hardy) enter the (perhaps Biblical) storm, the removal of Max from the front of the car reveals the apparatus at the front of the car to have been a cross all along. That is, Max, as a man sacrificing his blood for the cause of a higher power, was affixed to a cross. As Nux locates the war-rig, the camera angle widens out, and Nux turns the car to cross the desert in the apocalyptic storm (here, the vehicles on the desert appear almost as ships on the ocean), foregrounding the cross in the upper portion of the screen. As Nux closes in on the war rig, we watch with him as the war rig sends another of the War Boys’ cars, along with some of the War Boys into the storm cloud, causing them to burst into flames. Nux smiles and shivers, claiming, “Oh, what a day—what a lovely day! I am the man who grabs the sun…riding to Valhalla!” He grabs the ritual spraypaint in order to “chrome” his mouth, presuming that he is surely on his way to Valhalla.

A few minutes later, responding to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrnes) wives, Nux declares, “You can’t defy him. He is the one who grabbed the sun! …By his hand, we’ll be lifted up!” But, when Nux fails to kill Furiosa, Immortan Joe declares Nux “Mediocre,” leading to Nux having a moment of identity crisis before switching sides in the conflict, not unlike St. Paul’s conversion.

Mad Max is unique in its post-apocalyptic depiction of the world, but it also draws on that which is already in the world, allowing us to relate to the film more readily than we otherwise might. By transforming mythologies already familiar to us, it creates a sense of nostalgia, sociality, and ideology that already lies within us. There is a give-and-take as the spectator is forced to be moved to some thought or feeling, projecting onto the film that which is already there within us, thanks to social institutions.

Sibling Rivalry: How Rhizomic Power and Orientalism Figure into the Reunification of Germany

Abstract

The Berlin Wall’s fall marked a momentous occasion, full of joy—for none perhaps moreso than for East Germans. Quickly, Germany reunited in what was largely an occasion worth celebrating. However, the euphoria only lasted so long.

In this paper, I will consider how the reunification process affected East Germans and how that reunification seems to have followed a neo-colonialist pattern, having left East Germans worse-off materially than West Germans. I will draw on ideas from Deleuze and Guattari, as well as from Edward Said, to help to illustrate how this process might have occurred.

Keywords

Germany, Reunification, Rhizome, Capitalism, Orientalism

Introduction

While Germany has historically been culturally, ethnically, and nationally diverse, the resolution of World War II distinguished Germany’s Western and Eastern states, leading to the further differentiation of the two sides (Dalton and Weldon). As East Germany Sovietized, their reality grew quite different from that of people in West Germany, who quickly assimilated into a global capitalist model being propagated by other Western powers (Henke). Hamburg was established as a center for finance capital, and West German industry was highly productive, leading to high living standards in West Germany (Holtfrerich, Henke). East Germans were socialized such that state communism and the products and byproducts of state communism were endemic to East Germans’ daily lives (Henke). I recently heard a joke. It went, What would happen if the desert became a socialist country? Well, nothing for a while… and then, there would be a shortage of sand. East and West Germany grew to be very different places from each other: people’s expectations were different, their educations were different, their resource pools were different, and their attitudes were different (Dalton and Weldon).

When the Berlin Wall fell, many of these differences persisted; apparently, West Germany had little, if any, interest in taking on the policies or ethos of the state communist regime (Henke). The West Germans installed bureaucrats to Westernize East Berlin and the rest of East Germany (Kirschbaum).

Today, many differences between people in former East Germany and people in former West Germany persist. Income levels, demographic differences, and attitudes about the government differ significantly from one side to the other (Dalton and Weldon).

In this paper, I will look at how Cold War legacies have persisted in Germany and how the unification of Germany seems to have created problems of its own. More specifically, I will draw on ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as from Edward Said, to show how the reunification of Germany was executed in a manner consistent with the interests of Western capitalistic interests. This follows a neo-colonialistic pattern by which opportunities to open markets and to serve the interests of existing capitalistic regimes have presented themselves and organizational infrastructures have been lain to further those interests.

Rhizomic Power

The political economy of East Germany seems to have taken on a pattern established elsewhere. In many parts of the world, whenever the potential for exploiting a new market has appeared, officials have swooped in to liberalize economies, providing economic freedom to the newly fortunate citizenry. We can examine a couple cases.

In Laura Ogden’s 2011 book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, she highlights how power often operates by appropriating what might otherwise be assumed to be the resistance to power, itself. She draws on the work of Bruno Latour:

It is as if ecological fame making is a process that effaces all other landscape visions from our popular consciousness, turning the landscape into what Bruno Latour called a ‘smooth object.’ Smooth objects, Latour explained, are materialities containing clearly defined boundaries and essences, ‘matters of fact,’ belonging ‘without any possible question to the world of things, a world made up of persistent, stubborn, non-mental entities defined by strict laws of causality, efficacy, profitability, and truth.’ (118-9)

Ogden explains how people living in the Everglades were made into enemies of conservation efforts, while large agricultural businesses were given free rein to drain the Everglades swamp. In the end, this had the effect of moving blame from industry squarely onto residents of the Everglades.

For another example, and one closer to Germany’s backyard, we could think of Poland’s economic reforms, following the fall of the USSR. Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and advisor to the government during its transition from state communism, advocated for “shock therapy”: “to establish free and stable market prices by doing away with price controls, subsidies, cheap credits, vertical relationships, the monopoly power of state-owned enterprises, the obstacles to setting up private business, quota restrictions and high tariffs in foreign trade, and last but not least, by opening up the economy to foreign competition.” (Somogyi 8) This allowed for Western corporations to freely do business with Poland, surely providing Poland with some benefits, but also providing benefits to companies West of Poland. Overnight, Poland went from being a state communist country to taking on policies and institutions that would encourage a sense of (global) consumerism and allow for Western entities to take advantage of Poland’s natural and human resources.

Somogyi further describes what happened in Poland:

Starting on 1 January 1990, the Polish reform programme had most of the ingredients prescribed by Sachs…: prices were liberalised for 90 per cent of transactions; subsidies were reduced from 17 per cent of GNP in 1989 to 4 per cent in 1990; monetary policy became restrictive, average turnover taxes went up from 10 to 20 per cent, a uniform capital tax was introduced, and the state budget was balanced; wage increases in excess of the guidelines were heavily taxed; and, after a somewhat excessive devaluation and with the fixed exchange rate chosen as the nominal anchor, the currency was made convertible for current account transactions (for households a floating rate was applied). (8)

Sachs saw it completely necessary to take drastic measures in Poland. He recalls, in his 1993 book, Poland’s Jump to the Market Economy, “[B]y the end of 1990, more than 1,000 Polish state enterprises were voluntarily subjecting themselves to the popiwek by paying wages above the norm! In the socialist firm, after all, workers might as well maximize take-home pay, even at the cost of punitive taxes on the enterprise’s earnings.” (81) He further exposes the problem: “If privatization proceeds too slowly, there is risk that managers and workers within the enterprise might paralyze the privatization process at some point in the future. As time goes on, the managers and workers may come to view the enterprise simply as their own.” (82)

To help us understand how power might operate in these cases, we can look to an idea first conceived of by Gilles Deleuze and written about extensively in his 1972 book with Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. The idea is that of the rhizome: instead of power always functioning vertically, as in a root, it can operate horizontally, as in a rhizome, or even obliquely (Deleuze and Guattari 3-25). This means that, instead of operating intentionally and transparently from above, power can sometimes function in unexpected ways. Whereas arborescent logic might be that of working through algorithms to determine preferred actions, the rhizome responds to intensities, always adjusting to changing landscapes, not unlike a mathematically complex, adaptive system, and as opposed to something more rigid (Deleuze and Guattari 3-25).

In this case, we might think of the rhizome as sometimes appropriating obstacles in order to use them to achieve the rhizome’s greatest goals. In Ogden’s Everglades, the residents of the Everglades represented an obstacle to industry, as did conservation efforts. By defining Everglades residents as criminal hunters, trespassers, and dangerous to the preservation of the Everglades landscape, industry benefitted, especially as conservationists became occupied with seeing the Everglades hunters as antagonists (Ogden). In Poland, capitalist economics was able to infiltrate social institutions and ensure that benefits to Western industry were codified into law, privileging the wealth of Western businesspeople above the wants and needs of workers in Poland that Sachs seems to paint as naïve and/or lazy (Somogyi). The German case was not entirely different from these and similar cases. Power was expressed through the German unification process, ensuring that the desires of industrialists were addressed through the process.

Orientalism and German Reunification

Whereas in 1956, 65% of West Germans wanted reunification, thirty years later (and leading up to the fall of the USSR), only 25% of West Germans wanted it. (Henke 6) West Germany had been the recipient of significant Marshall Plan assistance, and had flourished under global capitalism (Provan). On the other side of the Iron Curtain, East Germany’s economy was doing relatively poorly (Henke).

When Günter Schabowski, member of the East German government, announced that East Germans could legally pass over to West Germany, they did so in great numbers. However, this did not mean that the East Germans were completely satisfied after German unification.

[M]any East Germans felt that the new system had been imposed on them. To them, it was as if they had to tolerate rather than actively shape the unification. Some critics and a number of East Germans even primarily blamed those politicians who had steered the transformations after 1990 for the problems of the unifications process, instead of accusing those who had plunged East Germany into ruin before 1990. (Henke 8)

This can be compared to aid recipients’ familiar refrain by which aid organizations do not sufficiently involve local authorities in the plans. As Stacy Leigh Pigg puts it, in her 1992 paper, “Inventing Social Categories Through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal,” “As long as development aims to transform people’s thinking, the villager must be someone who does not understand. …Hence the village becomes a space of backwardness—a physical space that imprisons people in what is considered an inferior and outmoded way of life.” (507)

In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process by which, for the sake of justifying Western aggression, people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Major are othered by those in the West. By painting people as primitive or otherwise less-than, aggressive maneuvers to properly civilize those people can be justified. Said elucidates the dynamic:

[W]hen Orientals struggle against colonial occupation, you must say …that Orientals have never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do. When some Orientals oppose racial discrimination while others practice it, you say “they’re all Orientals at the bottom” and class interest, political circumstances, economic factors are totally irrelevant. (107)

It may seem counter-intuitive to think that West Germans might have painted East Germans as somehow less than West Germans, but in a recent interview, former Brandenburg, Germany mayor Matthias Platzeck indicated that he found the West Germans to have treated the East Germans disrespectfully. When describing the attitudes of the negotiators of the unification process, he claimed, “The rule was: what’s from the west is good what’s from the east is bad.” (Kirschbaum)

While all the ways by which West German benefitted from German reunification might be unknown, some of the ways by which some of them benefitted seem clear, as well as how East Germans lost. Henke illustrates some of the process by which this “shock therapy” took place:

Founded in 1990, the ‘Treuhandanstalt,’ as the privatization agency was called, became the central authority restructuring East German economy. Functioning as a state-holding, its task was to either close down, secure, or as in most cases, privatize more than 13,000 East German companies consisting of about 45,000 production sites and four million employees. This enormous conversion task, involving all kinds of alleged or actual scandals, was completed within only a few years. Yet, the outcome was quite different than expected: the initially assumed disposable proceeds of the ‘Treuhand’ of 600 billion DM [Deutsche Marks] faced a final balance of minus 140 billion DM. Even more: 84 percent of the overall purchases of the 35,000 contracts were raised by West German investors whilst only 3 percent were made by East German investors. (14-5)

In essence, the German unification process was arranged so that East German companies would come under capitalism or be dissolved, it was funded by German tax dollars (to the point that the scheme went into debt), and West Germans were the ones who invested in the process and ended with the ownership of the German companies. In another recent interview, Matthias Platzeck invoked the brutality of the Anschluss in order to describe what he experienced in East Germany: “We didn’t want an accession; we wanted a cooperation of equals with a new constitution and a new anthem. We wanted symbols of a real, collective new beginning. But others got their way.” (“Was East Germany Really ‘Annexed?’”) Put simply, it seems that reunification was negotiated as a one-sided affair and one that benefitted West Germany at East Germany’s expense.

Present-day Differences Between East and West Germany

The fall of the Berlin Wall marks a point of arrival for a great number of people, along with all that they introduce to West Germany, to a renewed nation-state. But, it also marks a point of departure for many of the trends in East and West Germany at that time. When the Berlin Wall fell, huge numbers of people left East Germany to escape to “democracy” and “freedom.” However, one of the interesting outcomes of the reunification has been the persistence of the population shifts in East and West Germany. While it is the case that West Germany made concessions in order to try to ensure the successful reunification, people still move to West Germany in higher numbers than to East Germany (Henke, Hennig). To confound the issue, birthrates in West Germany are higher and the number of foreigners relocating to West Germany is higher, too (Sobotka, Noack).

Economic differences remain, as well. West Germans have remained wealthier than East Germans and have enjoyed lower rates of unemployment than in East Germany (Noack). On top of that, workers are more likely to die on the job in East Germany than in West Germany (McLeod, et al.). If reunification had been intended to have helped East Germans as much as it has helped West Germans, this persistent discrepancy might not have been so pronounced for so long. In Russell Dalton’s and Steven Weldon’s 2010 paper, titled, “Germans Divided? Political Culture in a United Germany,” they observe: “As most observers would acknowledge, there remains an economic and policy performance gap between West and East—and this influences public opinion. In other words, the dissatisfaction with the workings of the political process has a basis in political reality.” (16)

Along with the years of socialization that occurred during the formal division, the economic differences have played a role in differing ideas on things like the unification, itself, government’s role, religion, and the role of the family. Dalton’s and Weldon’s research shows that East Germans view Germany as less democratic than do West Germans, see themselves as not having gotten less of their fair share than do West Germans, support socialism in greater proportions than do West Germans, and are more supportive of the idea that government should be responsible for giving citizens more support. (18-20)

One reason why these differences might have persisted could lie in the meritocratic notion that “people get what they deserve” that often seems endemic to capitalism. If West Germans felt that East Germans simply did not deserve material equality to West Germans, then there might be no cause for alarm for West Germans. Some of them might justify differences in people’s material outcomes, as West Germans agreed with the following idea to a greater degree than did East Germans: “such differences ‘are acceptable because they basically reflect what people made out of the opportunities they had.”’ (Dalton and Weldon 20) However, regardless of the problems that might normally come with this kind of meritocratic justification for differences in people’s conditions, it seems that the differences in outcomes for East Germans help to explain why they held different views from West Germans. Dalton and Weldon put it like this, “As most observers would acknowledge, there remains an economic and policy performance gap between West and East—and this influences public opinion. In other words, the dissatisfaction with the workings of the political process has a basis in political reality.” (16)

Conclusion

Germany’s reunification served to benefit a great number of people—perhaps, it even benefitted the vast majority of Germans on either side. However, it seems that there were clear reasons for West Germans who held power to have administered the reunification process in a way that failed to take East German concerns into account. East Germany provided an opportunity. There were valuable resources in the East, and there was no one saying that those resources could not be the property of people from the West. The proposed appropriation of resources presented a challenge, though: how was anyone to be convinced that East German practices and East German voices should be ignored? Maybe it was not that difficult. In fact, West Germany held so much of what East Germans wanted, so in terms of how to do things right, surely the West Germans must have had many of the answers. Instead, some West Germans seem to have held a view of East Germans such that they were able to take over East German institutions and operate in the East in self-benefitting ways. As things stand, East Germans have yet to have fully become equals to the West Germans.

References

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Garrison, Ben. “The New East Germany.” (http://grrrgraphics.com/cartoonblog/the-new-east-germany). Ben Garrison Cartoons. [Internet]. 2011.

Henke, Klaus-Dietmar. “The German Reunification — An Analysis a Quarter Century After 1989/90.” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies. Vol.23,No.1. Seoul: Korea Institute for National Unification. 2014. 1-24.

Hennig, Benjamin. “Germany’s Population Growth and Decline.” (http://www.viewsoftheworld.net/?p=4146). Views of the World. [Internet]. 2014.

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Kirschbaum, Erik. “The dark side of German reunification.” Reuters. New York: Thomson Reuters. 2010.

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Pigg, Stacy Leigh. “Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, No. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992. 491-513.

Provan, John. “The Marshall Plan and its consequences.” (https://www.george-marshall-society.org/george-c-marshall/the-marshall-plan-and-its-consequences/). Hofheim am Taunus: George-Marshall-Gesellschaft. [Internet]. 2001.

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Sachs, Jeffrey. Poland’s Jump to the Market Economy. Massachusetts: MIT Press. 1993.

Sobotka, Tomáš. “FERTILITY TRENDS IN EUROPE: Is below-replacement fertility an inevitable outcome of the Second Demographic Transition?” VUB Colloquium on “Demographic challenges for the 21st century.” Brussels. 2007.

Somogyi, Laszlo. The Political Economy of Transition in Eastern Europe: Proceeding of the 13th Arne Ryde Symposium, Rungsted Kyst, 11-12 June 1992. Vermont: Edward Elgar Publishing Company. 1993.

“Unemployment statistics at regional level.” (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statistics_at_regional_level). Luxembourg: European Commission. [Internet]. 2017.

“Was East Germany Really ‘Annexed?’” (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/reunification-controversy-was-east-germany-really-annexed-a-714826.html). Spiegel Online. Hamburg: Spiegel Publishers Ltd. [Internet]. 2010.

Appendix

 

Faith in the Time-Image: Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century and Malick’s The Thin Red Line as Examples of Contemplative Cinema

André Bazin and Gilles Deleuze addressed a kind of shift (or, perhaps, growth) in the semiotics of cinema. They each suggest that a new form of cinema emerged after WWII by which the symbols and the arrangement of those symbols were different from those of the cinema that had preceded this new form. However, Bazin and Deleuze differ some, especially in where they put their emphases. For Bazin, the syntax (or arrangement) of film—the ways by which films are conceived of and shot, the editing process, the intended relationship of the spectator to the medium—becomes central to the shift, whereas for Deleuze, the signs, themselves—the images and sounds—come to represent a different kind of cinema from that from before.

First off, we should clarify that Bazin seems to be taking a structuralist view on how cinema works: cinema is a language and a system defined by the differences between elements within it. What Bazin is proposing, then, is that the language has changed. What is of interest is that the signifiers that we might normally think of—purely images and sounds—are not only what Bazin seems to be getting at. Instead, what Bazin seems to be suggesting is that, in addition to the content-values of the images and sounds, the syntax of cinema has also changed. Instead of Classic Hollywood symbolism overlaid on Classic Hollywood continuity editing techniques, Bazin seems to suggest that a new mode by which symbols are rearranged and the means by which these symbols are presented to us take on different forms. In fact, Bazin seems to have lost faith in the abilities of the old codes, or he at least seems to prefer the new form of cinema. Bazin locates a new presentation of cinema such that the images and sounds that are presented to us can be interpreted in wholly new ways.

Deleuze assists Bazin in defining what this cinema can be. On p. 2 of Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze says, “What defines neo-realism is this build-up of purely optical situations… which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image in the old realism.” Deleuze sees Italian neo-realist films and French New Wave films, in particular, as embodying the shift that he identifies. For Deleuze, part of the shift is in how optical signs, opsigns, are treated as spectacles in themselves, whereas, in older cinema, the focus is on action and clear narrative storytelling. The “sensory-motor” driving force in what he refers to as the “action-image” facilitates the older form of cinema that relies on the development of a clear plot with a clear message, leading the spectator along.

For Bazin, those films that “put their faith in reality” take a bold leap into a cinema that he finds more useful. To try to understand what this means, we can think of some of the similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Bazin praises that cinema that could come across as anti-Eisensteinian in the sense that its intentions may not be immediately clear on the surface. If Eisensteinian films are those that are unrelenting in their blatant intentionality, Bazin’s subtler, more complex cinema obfuscates its intentions to the point that they are not always completely clear.

Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century opens with a thirty-second shot pointed directly upward as trees sway in the wind before the film cuts to a simultaneously banal and slightly bizarre interview of what appears to be a Thai military surgeon. After a brief interlude by which the image on the screen is of what appears to be another Thai soldier, the next couple minutes are nothing more than a medium close-up of the Thai soldier being interviewed, mostly staring directly into the camera, answering a random assortment of questions.

Malick’s film opens in a similar manner: within seconds of the opening of the film, the camera is focused on trees in a jungle. The scene cuts from one slow-moving shot staring up into the highest strata of the trees to the next such shot. Instead of a work-related interview, the audio track is occupied by the thoughts in someone’s head: questions about the nature of nature.

In Weerasethakul’s film, there seems to be an intentionality to the slow pace of the opening sequence, to the near-motionless in it. Perhaps the pace is doing part of the work in the film. If one considers the role of rurality and Buddhism, particularly in the first half of the film, and contrasts that part of the film to the more capitalistic, faster-paced second half, the function of this pacing seems clearer. In the case of Malick’s film, the slower pace of much of the film seems to simultaneously juxtapose itself with, and contextualize, the battle that is taking place, i.e. we are not separate from nature and conflict is not separate from nature. The open-endedness of the constant philosophical questionings of the film seem to mirror the open-endedness of the film and its subject matter.

Later in Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, we come to a scene in which a woman attempts to heal someone by adjusting their chakras. As she performs her work on the young man, the camera slowly pans around the table to another woman. She stares into the camera as the camera pulls back from the table. Her gaze follows the camera as the room’s symbols emerge: alcoholic beverages populate the table at which the people sit; in the corner of the room are plastic bodily appendages, overhung by odd red-and-white pipes; two male doctors sit on one side of the table; and a file cabinet and worktable line one side of the plain, austere, industrial-looking room.

The scene is odd in its imagery and in the reflexiveness implied by the woman’s staring into the camera. The layered composition in the scene may serve as an example of one aspect that Bazin had in mind. It is easy to see that the spectator has several choices in terms of where to look in this scene and how exactly to be affected. Each of these images seems to tell its own story, a point that Deleuze would likely agree to.

This is consistent with Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image,” the post-WWII form of cinema by which images and sounds create a mood that affects the spectator. Through their gaze, the spectator imbues meaning into these symbols, allowing film to tell stories through familiarities in the kinds of symbols embodied in our daily lives’ objects. For Bazin, it is the emphasis on reality that he is concerned with. Bazin sees the relative autonomy of images in post-WWII cinema as giving the spectator a different relationship to film: the spectator plays a freer and more active role in the discovery of the meaning of film.

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