shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

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

Dalton, Russell J. and Weldon, Steven. “Germans Divided? Political Culture in a United Germany.” German Politics. 19:1. Milton: Taylor & Francis. 2010. 9-23.

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

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.

Holtfrerich, Carl-Ludwig. Frankfurt as a Financial Centre. Munich: C. H. Beck. 1999.

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

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. New York: Penguin/Vintage. 1867.

McLeod Christopher B.; Lavis, John N.; MacNab Ying C.; and Hertzman, Clyde. “Unemployment and mortality: A comparative study of Germany and the United States.” American Journal of Public Health Vol. 102 No. 8. 2012. 1542-50.

Noack, Rick. “The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, but Germany is still divided.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/10/31/the-berlin-wall-fell-25-years-ago-but-germany-is-still-divided/?utm_term=.6ca055a44f34). The Washington Post. D.C.: The Washington Post. [Internet]. 2014.

Ogden, Laura. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

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.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978.

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.

The Film Spectacle: An Inspection of Classical Film Theory through Marker’s La Jetée and Kubrick’s 2001

In Hugo Münsterberg’s “Why We Go to the Movies,” he suggests that movies are important for being different from theater and that we should not judge them under the same set of criteria as we judge theater. Not only are movies significant for their pervasiveness and affordability—they accomplish things that theater never could: rapid changes of sets, certain kinds of optical illusions, and close-ups.

In “Creative Cinema,” Bela Balazs attempts to legitimate some of Münsterberg’s points and draws out some of his own points of film specificity. For Belasz, because what is on screen is a photograph, the image has to be constructed both mentally and physically. Also, it has to be orchestrated in order to achieve the desired outcome, which is often not reproduction but wholly unrealistic production of the imagined. The subjectivity of the camera provides a particular perspective that frames and shapes the image through the camera’s angles, distances, etc. Balasz points out that the camera presents many images that we put together to create a single, solid story. He says that visual continuity can help to give the impression that one shot leads to the next through events and camera angles. Continuity of sound helps (filtering and effects can help when moving from inside to outside, etc.). The close-up is unique and powerful, giving us new insights and greater clarity.

To Münsterberg’s and Balasz’s points, it is hard to imagine Chris Marker’s La Jetée as a theater production. In fact, each iteration would have to be significantly different from the other. In part, this has to do with the fact that La Jetée is primarily produced as a series of stills. We rapidly and fluidly pass between completely separate worlds: an airport, post-apocalyptic France, an underground society, (then-)contemporary France. While it would seem challenging to produce the effect of producing a visual world through a set of stills on stage, it would seem even more impossible to reproduce the effect that comes with the break in method: for a brief moment in the film, what appears to be another of the film’s stills is suddenly animated, the Woman (Hélène Chatelain) staring into the camera.

This brings us to another point. Münsterberg and Balasz both see the close-up as being significant in the distinction between theater and film. In La Jetée, part of what is so powerful about the animated scene is that it is so starkly different from the rest of the film, but another important aspect is how intimate the scene is. It is as though we have transgressed a very personal barrier: the Woman is sleeping, seemingly naked, when, suddenly, she comes alive and she is staring directly into our eyes. It is easy to imagine the spectator not only feeling surprised, but perhaps even uncomfortable. Is it the incoherence? The sudden visceral humanity of it? Is it a kind of unsuspecting guilt that creeps up on us?

Münsterberg was a psychologist. He points out that film has a unique ability to simulate the act of memory. Similarly, film allows the imagination to manifest itself in new, interesting ways that give unique value to film. In line with these observations, Münsterberg supposes that “The more psychology enters into the sphere of the moving pictures, the more they will be worthy of an independent place in the world of art.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey exemplifies this idea well. Kubrick begins by introducing us to a brutal landscape of proto-humans, and these early scenes in the film are hued with deep red tones, perhaps symbolizing something about humanity. Later in the film, the raw humanity that we witness in the “Dawn of Man” scenes seems completely voided by the United States men in space. But, HAL (Douglas Rain), the artificially intelligent computer that is helping the people on their mission to Jupiter, seems much more sensitive and human than the people who he is there to help.

At one point in the film, a TV program explains that Hal “can reproduce—though some experts prefer to use the word ‘mimic’—most of the activities of the human brain.” The dialogue here anthropomorphizes HAL and gives him power. HAL can reproduce (or perhaps even destroy) human essence in some way. HAL’s interview on the TV program reveals his humanistic interests, and he describes himself as “conscious.” The interviewer asks one of the astronauts whether HAL has genuine emotions, and the astronaut responds by saying that he’s unsure.

Throughout HAL’s scenes, what we might think of as his eye is signified by a red dot. Following HAL’s murder of most of the crew, Dave, played by Keir Dullea, proceeds to the room that holds HAL’s memory. The room’s walls are lit up by the color red. As Dave coolly kills HAL—by removing his memory—HAL repeats “I can feel it” and “I’m afraid” over and over, before, in a low, drugged-sounding voice, singing lyrics referring to the insanity of the song’s subject. The red representing HAL seems to reflect some humanity lost from the proto-humans in the beginning of the movie, although it is also interesting that the color red is, too, associated with deaths in the ends of each of these scenes.

Clearly, Kubrick is saying something about the psychologies of humans, albeit one presumes that Münsterberg certainly did not have in mind what Kubrick accomplished in this film. Still, what seems significant to the issue of medium specificity here is how Kubrick advanced the capabilities of film, as this film would provide a template for many of the aspects of many films to come, just as Marker’s La Jetée was later very influential on Terry Gilliams’ 12 Monkeys, a remarkable film in its own right. What all these films share in common is how they are able to push the boundaries of what film can accomplish as films, and completely separate from all other media.

The Limits of Subversion in Film: Applying Jameson’s and Deleuze’s Arguments on Subversion to Two Contemporary Buddhist Films

The history of subversive art is long: going backward for a brief survey of some relevant figures, we might think of contemporary filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Gus Van Sant to political rap acts like Mos Def and A Tribe Called Quest to musical artists like Bob Marley and Bob Dylan to Gore Vidal to George Orwell to Upton Sinclair to Honoré de Balzac to Voltaire to Plato and Homer and back even further—the list could go on seemingly forever. We generally might accept that some art could compel political action or, at least, grand changes in art itself. In fact, contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek often describes the revolutionary potential of art, as does Lawrence Grossberg1,2. The thinking here seems to be that no revolution occurs without first having won over the hearts and minds of the revolutionary class, and what better way than through that which can surely motivate us more effectively than any preachy call-to-arms? Still, this position is not without its doubters. Particularly, Fredric Jameson, famous Marxist cultural critic, does not seem to find any art convincing in its subversiveness3. Opposite Jameson for the purposes of this paper, Gilles Deleuze seems to take the position that, post-WWII, a new form of cinema emerged to subvert the older conventions of traditional Hollywood cinema and provided a means by which film could criticize the dominant structures of reality under capitalism4.

In this paper, I intend to argue that, while Jameson may be right to criticize the full revolutional potentiality of commodified cinema, the fact that no cultural product or set of products has led to full-scale global communism is not sufficient evidence to suggest that no film can be subversive at all. Put another way, perhaps the game of subversive art is not a zero-sum one. Instead, I will draw on Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image” to suggest that contemplative, sensory-symbolic films to which Deleuze speaks offer a means by which film might (subversively, in its form) offer new lines of flight, i.e. means by which we can call aspects of our inherited reality into question and effect change. In order to clearly define the tensions and commonalities in Jameson’s and Deleuze’s arguments, I will rely on two films: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring and Syndromes and a Century, by Kim Ki-Duk and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, respectively5,6.

To begin, though, it is necessary to clarify Jameson’s and Deleuze’s arguments. In “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Jameson directs criticism toward oversimplified analyses of art. He views analyses as tending to valorize either high art or mass culture, despite that the critical points made by all sides ignore the similarities between high art and mass culture. For example, Jameson asserts that both high art and mass culture are produced with sale in mind, if not with cultural impact also as an aspiration. He draws this comparison through his definition of reification of commodities. Under capitalism, cultural products are packaged as commodities to be sold in a way by which they are reified into symbols of the conflicts in our daily lives. Jameson relates the two forms of cultural product to repetition, a central point to those who valorize high art at the expense of mass culture (especially those of the Frankfurt School). While mass culture reflects commodification through its mass production, high art is also reactive to repetition: it responds by reflexively acknowledging the relationship of repetition to art (Andy Warhol’s art can serve as an example) or by trying (and failing, according to Jameson) to completely avoid repetition. So, while their relationships to repetition might be different from each other’s, neither is able to fully escape the problem of repetition under capitalism. Jameson goes on to describe how, under capitalism, contemporary products of culture affect us.

Jameson argues that contemporary products of culture follow a formula by which people’s inner conflicts are addressed. As such, cultural products enable us to repress urges to subvert social institutions: by presenting symbols of the tensions endemic to our lives under capitalism, cultural products allow us to gain a sense of the utopia that we yearn for while assuaging our concerns, allowing us to re-repress those concerns and go about our unfulfilled capitalistic lives.

Jameson uses Jaws to elucidate the repressive function of products of culture when he describes “an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations: an alliance which must be cemented… by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of that more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place.” (144) He further describes the purpose of this repression:

It touches on present-day social contradictions and anxieties only to use them for its new task of ideological resolution, symbolically urging us to bury the older populisms and to respond to an image of political partnership which projects a whole new strategy of legitimation; and it effectively displaces the class antagonisms between rich and poor which persist in consumer society… by substituting for them a new and spurious kind of fraternity in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it. (144)

From Godfather, parts one and two, Jameson is able to draw the utopic function that coincides with cultural products’ repressive function: “[T]he tightly knit bonds of the Mafia family (in both senses), the protective security of the (god-)father with his omnipresent authority, offers a contemporary pretext for a Utopian fantasy which can no longer express itself through such outmoded paradigms and stereotypes as the image of the now extinct American small town.” (147) Jameson expresses the need for the utopic function alongside the repressive: “[O]ur proposition about the drawing power of the works of mass culture has implied that such works cannot manage anxieties about the social order unless they have first revived them and given them some rudimentary expression; we will now suggest that anxiety and hope are two faces of the same collective consciousness.” (144) What Jameson suggests, here, is that any effective product of mass culture must present people’s anxieties to them in order that they face them through mediation, but that this must occur in such a way that people’s hopes are realized, only so that they can put their fears back to rest, where they can remain dormant and feckless, non-threatening to the prevailing social order. If Jameson is right, his bidirectional formula for how cultural products operate on us seems to carry serious implications about which products of culture can and cannot be subversive.

To turn to the films under review here, Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring supplies us with an example of the kind of tension that Jameson might envision. What seems clear in this film is that the encroachment of capitalism (in this case, we might set aside that the woman came to corrupt the protagonist in a kind of Genesian, patriarchal inflection on the broader capitalism vs. Buddhism conflict at play) on Buddhism brings Buddhism under threat. This might speak to the fears—not just of Buddhists—but of anyone concerned with the preservation of tradition or anything socio-historical. As such, what this film allows for is that capitalism comes to fully corrupt the young protagonist (let us suppose that he would not have killed his lover if he had adhered to his Buddhist principles), but this is not the full cost of the corruption. In a somewhat contradictory turn, the old Buddhist man sets himself ablaze, tearfully committing suicide. The oddity here is the seeming conflict between the man’s actions with his beliefs: after all, is it not attachment to the younger Buddhist that leads him to self-destruction and relief of his Earthly right actions? Following the old man’s death, the cycle suggested by the film is completed as the younger Buddhist returns to the empty house to take on a protégé of his own (coinciding with another case of problematic gender politics)—utopia in the form of redemption from the evils of capitalism. The viewer might walk away feeling a vague sense of having worked through the repressed anxiety over the cultural destruction that capitalism might inflict, as well as a sense of relief over the hope that the film supplies: in the end, historical wisdoms might overcome capitalism after all. It is easy to see why Jameson suggests that such a film might leave any latent class antagonism cold and dry: with all the emotional fervor recontained, there can be no fuel to run the revolutionary engine.

Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century deals in similar subject matters (with similarly problematic gender and sexuality associations), but with (at best) a much more vague sense of the utopic. The film’s structure does not necessarily follow a familiar narrative arc like that which Jameson engages. That is not to say that we cannot find Jamesonian elements.

Similar to Kim’s film, Weerasethakul’s inspects the relationship between Buddhism and emergent global capitalism. About halfway through, the film takes a sudden turn: the nascent integration of capitalistic institutions suddenly (somewhat painfully) matures in the lives of the multiple central characters to the film, flattening out the lives of each and leading to an odd series of discomforting scenes (more on this later). While the film might come across as subversive in some sense, Jameson’s analysis remains relevant.

Jameson offers no formula for how art may be subversive. In fact, he suggests that, at this time, no art could be conceived of as relating effectively with political praxis. His reasons are multiple: first, all products of culture only become significant because they are sold, which paradoxically necessitates that these products of culture perpetuate the capitalist system purportedly being attemptedly subverted; second, distribution by any capitalist firm would likely come with some capitalist censorship such that any threat deemed too great would likely be undercut, or, at least, would likely be drowned in a sea of cultural products more ideologically favorable to capitalism (capitalist-inflected mass-produced kitsch, if you will); last, by presenting the public with an image of the conflict and by symbolically overcoming that conflict, it removes the metaphorical oxygen from the revolutionary room.

To take up the second reason listed above, we will consider the distribution of Syndromes and a Century within Thailand, the country that serves both as the film’s setting and as the film’s production location. In this case, many of the film’s attempts at subversion, themselves, were subverted. That is, to what degree socio-political critique may pervade the film, the real threats were undermined by the Thai Censorship Board; in fact, the version of the film allowed in Thailand (missing six scenes) is referred to as the “exclusive Thai edition.” So, for whatever emancipatory power the film might have had, the State’s ideological apparatus seriously undermined it.

Jameson locates the problem of subversion through cultural products where both high art and mass culture are “dissociated from group praxis”:

[I]t is a daydream to expect that either of these semiotic structures [high art and mass culture] could be retransformed… into what could be called, in its strong form, political art, or in a more general way, that living and authentic culture of which we have virtually lost the memory, so rare an experience it has become. That is to say that of the two most influential recent Left aesthetics—the Brecht-Benjamin position which hoped for the transformation of the nascent mass-cultural techniques and channels of communication of the 1930s into an openly political art, the Tel Quel position which reaffirms the ‘subversive’ and revolutionary efficacy of language revolution and modernist and post-modernist formal innovation—we must reluctantly conclude that neither addresses the specific conditions of our own time. (140)

But, again, at least in the case of Syndromes and a Century, Jameson’s model does not fully apply. This might provide an opportunity to conceive of art in such a way that it could, at least to some degree, provide a sense of subversion, albeit perhaps without fully avoiding all of the problems raised by Jameson (at the very least, all relevant art is likely distributed by some segment of capitalist industry).

To turn to an alternative conception of subversion and a possible explanation for Syndromes and a Century’s inconsistency with Jameson’s model, we can look to Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image, in which Deleuze suggests a new form of cinema (a subversion of the previous film paradigm. He juxtaposes the time-image against the “movement-image,” which we might think of as classic Hollywood tropes and forms. The movement-image is characterized by what Deleuze refers to as the “sensory-motor,” a conception of the workings of film such that they are about action and agency, whereas the time-image is defined by a system of signs employed to relate symbolic meanings in visual and auditory cues: “opsigns” and “sonsigns.” Deleuze succinctly characterizes what distinguishes the time-image: “This is a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent [de voyant, non plus d’actant].” (2)

For Deleuze, subversion of traditional film norms (as in the time-image) might relay into a subversion of social and cultural norms. By taking focus from the actions of agents and, instead, to the symbols of sounds and images, there is no need for clear emancipatory acts on the part of any protagonist. Instead, feelings of alienation, inequity, and injustice are made palpable by the recognizable sounds and images that accompany those undesirable characteristics of life. In some sense, the criticism is far more complete: instead of the simple good-vs.-evil interpersonal conflict narrative, the time-image might tell us that the problem is all around us (if we are willing to introspect, it may even go as far as to say that we are sometimes part of the problem).

To go back to the Buddhist films, Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring provides plenty of symbolic imagery. The Buddhists’ garb, the iconography, images of the Buddhists meditating, and even their (serene) relationships to nature offer clear associations with distinct symbols, so much so that when the young Buddhist returns in his worldly clothing, the effect is stark in its contrast to the then-set expectation. However, these symbols, as in the case of the movement-image model, merely seem to set the stage on which the action happens.

For Deleuze, the focus of the new film paradigm, the time-image, is less on grand narratives of recognizable heroes engaging in dramatic actions in order to save the day; instead, the depicted spaces and objects can tell us something of how the world is and how the world could be. As such, Syndromes and a Century provides little in the way of recognizable inter-agential conflict; instead, the mood cast by the form of the film and its symbols is palpable. Deleuze helps to clarify how these imageries might come to offer subversive effects.

Interesting in Deleuze’s analysis is how he relates subjecthood to the screen, which will come to have subversive implications. In a kind of phenomenological turn, Deleuze asserts that the spectator’s gaze imbues meaning upon that which appears on the screen, despite the often inactive elements to which Deleuze refers. The obverse appears in Deleuze’s treatment of the other kind of subject in this arrangement—that of the film’s characters: Deleuze supposes that characters offscreen (indeed, at times, the characters to which Deleuze refers do not surely exist) supply affects to the other characters in the film, and through them, to the film’s spectator. (8-9)

Typical of Deleuze, he refers to affect in a geographical, counterintuitive way: he asserts that spaces—even empty ones—can affect the viewer: “From The Eclipse onwards, the any-space-whatever had achieved a second form: empty or deserted space. …[T]he characters were objectively emptied: they are suffering less from the absence of another than from their absence from themselves (for example, The Passenger). Hence, this space refers back again to the lost gazer of the being who is absent from the world as much as from himself.” (9) Here, Deleuze supposes that seemingly innocuous, ineffectual empty space can do critical work, providing material to facilitate cultural interrogation. While it may be that a great majority of film confronts alienation, Deleuze’s suggestion is one that might run counter to Jameson’s point on the necessity of the utopic function in products of culture. Even the most introverted among us would likely not suppose that empty space represents a utopia to which we should aspire.

In accordance with what Deleuze suggests, Weerasethakul provides a series of three sets of important imageries scattered throughout the second half of the film.

In the first case, Weerasethakul puts statues at the center of our consciousness. He does so in three scenes: first, the camera steadily pans around a black statue of a worldly leader (associated with the State? industrial capital?) before similarly panning around a white statue of the Buddha; in the second scene, we do the same but in reverse, and with the added (but nearly irrelevant, by this point) spectacle of a man hiding from his love interest behind the Buddha: the same white Buddha statue followed by a different black statue of a worldly leader; in the third iteration, the camera pans in front of a swaying tree before it cuts to a black statue of a man and woman. These shots are accompanied by a low droning tone and capitalist sounds (industrial noises and auto traffic) drowning out the sounds of nature. Perhaps the moral implication (problematic though it may be) of black vs. white, along with the film’s form (progressing from the slower, calmer, more organic section to the fast-paced, random, and disquieting second section), might suggest a moral argument: to the detriment of Thailand, their Buddhist traditions are being lost to global capitalism.

Following most of the second half, with its odd, awkward moments of gum-eyed half-smiles and strange, almost elegant, and simultaneously robotic gesticulations and mannerisms, the second case of the symbolic image finds us in a room lit by ultraviolet bulbs, filled with what look like industrial machines. Over low quasi-musical, quasi-discordant noise, the camera stares up toward a ceiling that is not there, revealing a ventilation system, plumbing, and suspended light fixtures. The camera hypnotically pans around, slowly foregrounding a vapor, an unrelenting smokiness in the room until the camera finds and fixates on an oddly hanging tube with a wide mouth. The camera turns to face the opening to the tube, as the tube slowly, steadily sucks in the room’s fog. If we consider the overarching message of the film, the passage from the gentler, more joyous first half of the film seems clear in its relationship to Buddhism, while the second half of the film expresses a litany of small corruptions and subtle discontentednesses and alienations. The only obvious interpretation of the tube seems to be that the tube itself might represent global capitalism, slowly, invisibly, practically imperceptibly forcing all that might ever lie before it into its gaping, exploitative, brutal mouth—even that which would seem wholly incompatible with its ethos—in this case, Buddhism, itself, which brings us to the third case.

The film ends in a kind of perverted distortion of the mood of the beginning of the film, which is to say that of joy, but perhaps this is now capitalistic joy. In place of the calm contentedness of the Buddhistic first half of the film, the mood is here replaced by an exuberant, spasmodic happiness achieved through a succession of images of gigantic masses of city-dwelling dancers in the public park, enthusiastically synchronized in their hyperactive dance-as-exercise routine, complete with the instructor in the center, leading the way—in some way, it feels like an army of the health-obsessed, but instead of ritualistic marching, we bear witness to an aerobics routine. The implication might be double: first, the happiness here feels false in the context of a second half of the film in which nothing feels natural and especially juxtaposed to the first half of the film in which everything is awkward but, counterintuitively, feels completely organic, maybe even endearing; second, one cannot help but notice how “wellness” is commoditized in capitalist society such that something as seemingly harmless (indeed helpful) as exercise is both packaged for mass consumption and weaponized against workers as a force for increasing their productivity and usefulness. If nothing else in the film shows it, the proletarian sweat routine to the effervescent 8-bit techno music seems to demonstrate the full takeover of capitalism in Weerasethakul’s Thailand.

Deleuze’s analysis does not, however, limit the time-image’s emancipatory potential to criticism only. Deleuze takes the emancipatory potential of the time-image a step further, referring to the methods used in Luchino Visconti’s The Earth Trembles: “[T]his embryonic ‘communist consciousness’ here depends less on a struggle with nature and between men than on a grand vision of man and nature, of their perceptible and sensual unity, from which the ‘rich’ are excluded and which constitutes the hope of the revolution, beyond the setbacks of the floating action: a Marxist romanticism.” (5) Deleuze is suggesting that some films tell us something about the reality that we could have, as opposed to the one we find ourselves in.

What becomes clear through the first portion of Deleuze’s book is that it is the utopic function, and, therefore, the repressive nature of, the movement-image that Deleuze sees the time-image subverting:

Claude Ollier says that… the violently hallucinatory character of Godard’s work is affirmed for itself, in an art of description which is always being renewed and always replacing its object. This descriptive objectivism is just as critical and even didactic… where reflection is not simply focused on the content of the image but on its form, its means and functions, its falsifications and creativities, on the relations within it between the sound dimension and the optical. Godard has little patience with or sympathy for fantasies: Slow Motion will show us the decomposition of a sexual fantasy into its separate, objective elements, visual, and then of sound. (10)

What Deleuze suggests, then, is that the time-image has its own means of subversion, of political consciousness, of criticism, and even of suggestions for possible future worlds (utopic, to be sure, but devoid of the kind of content that would facilitate Jameson’s formulation) that do not rely on Jameson’s model. Instead, as Deleuze points out, filmmakers like Godard, then, are responding critically to the utopia/repression paradigm that Jameson articulates, instead relying on alternative means of effecting socio-cultural criticism.

Jameson seems right to point out the challenges in producing art that is both meaningful and subversive, but his unbounded skepticism, here, of the emancipatory promise in products of culture seems to ignore that which Deleuze captures. Cases like that of Weerasethakul’s provide clear examples of the critical work done by Deleuze’s time-image. It would seem unreasonable to suggest that any cultural product would, on its own, lead to global communism, and perhaps that is not exactly what Jameson means, but he might concede that more time-images—instead of movement-images—could be helpful to effecting his utopic ideal for society.

  1. For example, see: Žižek, Slavoj. “Sing of the new invasion.” New Statesman. (http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2011/12/coriolanus-freedom-play). London: New Statesman. [Internet]. 2011.
  2. From class lecture, Grossberg, Lawrence. 2017.
  3. Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” Social Text. 1. North Carolina: Duke University Press. 1979. 130-148.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1989.
  5. Kim, Ki-Duk. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, …and Spring. Seoul: Cineclick Asia. 2003.
  6. Weerasethakul, Apichatpong. Syndromes and a Century. California: Strand Releasing. 2006.

Covert Power: A Review of Laura Ogden’s Swamplife

Ogden, Laura. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

It may seem hard to imagine—or even inappropriate—thinking of whites (particularly white men) as being Orientalized in the United States, to use Edward Said’s term1. Yet, if Orientalization occurs anywhere, then it surely must be possible that white United States men could be Orientalized. And, while the culprits may be familiar—agro-business, real estate development, the scientific and academic community (at-times capital’s techno-scientific arm), legislation, and law enforcement bodies, to name a few—the complicated story of the devastation of the Florida Everglades and the marginalization of those who have lived there draws a clear example of something that we have seen throughout history: power locates a resource that it views as worthy of seizing; power develops a strategy; power meets resistance; power appropriates resistance in order that power further progresses toward its goal; power displaces and disrupts the prevailing local paradigm, intractably arrogating the resource. Still, through Laura Ogden’s telling of the story of the Florida Everglades, she introduces new and unexpected aspects of power, means of power, and products of power. What is at stake in her book, Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, is a Deleuzian framing of a Florida Everglades history of power and the dispossessed, acknowledging the erasure and marginalization of Everglades people2.

Ogden’s book attempts something bold: using the structure of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome as an organizing logic, she argues for a rhizomic conception of the history of the Everglades. Ogden elucidates the erasure, Orientalization, and exploitation of residents of the Everglades in a way that feels organic and compelling, while weaving in the pseudo-fictional story of the John Ashley gang. Ogden craftily balances dense theoretical concepts with the easily accessible narrative of the complicated lived experiences of marginalized people in the Everglades, doing so in a way that avoids the temptation of moralization. On p. 4, Ogden notes: “Without a more humanized and nuanced politics of nature, we cannot hope to create (or imagine) sustainable futures.” That is, there are problems, but without accounting for all of the forces—or “intensities,” to remain true to the Deleuzian parlance that pervades Ogden’s book—it may be unreasonable to assume the effection of a viable, long-term solution.

Part of the problem in the Everglades, as articulated in Ogden’s book, seems to be of oversimplification and shortsightedness. Ogden’s “gladesmen” represent easy targets for the power regime in the jungles of Ogden’s South Florida: “Simply put, glades families had very few economic alternatives to hunting and so went to great lengths to subvert the law’s territorial claims. The hide market’s global networks of production and distribution supported this oppositional politics.” (P. 126) The Everglades of the 20th century provided economic opportunities, but the people already living there complicated those opportunities. When alligator hunters came to represent possible targets to divert negative attention from big business, it also allowed for the deligitimation of economies that fell outside the normal “legitimate” market economy.

Ogden illustrates how power appropriates the means of resistance to its ecologically destructive capitalist project in the Everglades. In this way, power furthers the very project to which conservationists might be natural enemies. It was not until there was something economic to gain (agricultural products and tourism) that alligators became a point of official consideration and protection. Ogden states, “Explicit in this conservationist approach is the construction of rural folk as reckless criminals incapable of managing local environments for the common good.” (P. 126) Interesting here is how power is able to leverage the expertise of seemingly well-intended—and potentially oppositional—scientists and environmentalists to further capitalists’ economic project that intentionally displaces and vilifies the gladesmen.

To consider Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome once again, power, like anything else, might adapt by responding to changing intensities and emerging forces. In Ogden’s book, neoliberal, rhizomic power paints poor whites as criminal instead of reorganizing the role of capital, not unlike Slavoj Žižek’s anecdote about the moralization of consumer recycling (instead of greater pressure on the main culprits: capitalists who produce tons of waste and consume vast amounts of resources) or consumer restrictions on water in California (instead of curtailing the use of water by agro-business, which accounts for several times more water use than that used by consumers)3. Basically, instead of being honest about the problem, it presents a kind of Kleinian opportunity to attack a perceived threat while deceptively placating the populace in regard to the actual problem4.

Ogden’s book adds to the literature on political ecology, doing so from the perspective of the displaced: in this case, poor, rural whites. The book’s narrative helps to ground the (mostly Deleuzian) theoretical ideas that permeate the book, while the concepts help to contextualize the complications that appear in the lived experiences of those who make the story.

That said, it is easy to envision another kind of story, entirely: one from the perspective of those in power. That is to say that something that seems lost in Ogden’s story is how the decisions seem to have been made and what might have motivated those in power. If, as Ogden seems to suggest, all sides should be taken into account, how might we understand the motivations of those in power in order that we come to a more useful assessment of the situation?

In the end, I would recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the complicated processes by which ecologies are devastated and transformed, even by some of the most inconspicuous agents (in this case, even conservationists assist in the devastation). Further, anyone interested in complicating, and adding nuance to, environmental justice in the United States might show interest in Ogden’s book.

Ogden’s writing strikes a pleasant balance between clarity, beauty, and theory; she appeals to those interested in being swept up in the poetry of people’s lived experiences, just as she provides substance to those looking to reconcile facts and theory in concrete terms. Indeed, the question of the relationship of Everglades poor, rural whites to big business and state apparatuses is one that might serve as a microcosm of many of the problems that we face today.

  1. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978.
  2. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
  3. Žižek, Slavoj. “Lessons From the ‘Airpocalypse’: On China’s smog problem and the ecological crisis.” In These Times. Illinois: In These Times and the Institute for Public Affairs. 2016.
  4. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador. 2007.

Impermanence, Elegance

Walls are never walls the way we think of walls.
Illusion-walls
are temporary obstacles signaling shifting safety.

With the sensibility of a post-Soviet cynic,
everything built eventually falls.
Sometimes, foreign forces pull low
the falling things.

La jardinière took care choosing
flora and grooming plants
with patience.

But innocent flowers, trees, ground, air, water,
and un étranger innocent conspired
in treacherous understandings and impulses
(unbeknownst to anything or anyone, including themselves)
and incidental, clandestine movements.

In an ephemeral instant of innocent ruination,
a blaze emancipated le jardin belle—
embers inching upward, lighting up the night.
La jardinière watched with
patience and bewilderment
like the peculiar end
of an Andrei Tarkovsky film.
She knew none intended harm;
she mourned her masterpiece,
imagining a new place for love.

Kubrick as Marx: An Analysis of Ideology and Violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey

kubrick 2001 a space odyssey

Note: in referring to the ape-people and HAL, I may use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” and “their.”

To my knowledge, Stanley Kubrick never called himself a Marxist, a fact perhaps complicated by then-contemporary notions of Communism and Marxism. While Kubrick’s films avoid blunt Eisensteinian montage, he clearly seems to make statements through his work. Having developed what we might think of as post-Eisensteinian projects (not unlike Orson Welles’s careful, value-laden films), perhaps Kubrick is aware of Bazinian concerns. There seems to be a clear reading of 2001: A Space Odyssey by which Kubrick’s messages on violence, technology, and human progress carry, along with obvious Nietzschean undertones, Marxian ones, too.

The monoliths can be associated with violence and dramatic change, but they also seem to have a Marxian sublational quality. As humanity pushes along—creating conflicts, repeatedly finding itself stuck, yearning for answers—the seemingly more detached and perhaps evil monoliths might represent important developments on Marx’s inevitable arc of human progress. We might conclude that conflicts between classes of people result in paradigm shifts that are simultaneously useful and devastating. We can start by analyzing the film’s “The Dawn of Man” scene.

Immediately following the geocentric, perfectly-aligned image of the sun appearing over Earth’s horizon, accompanied by the major resolution of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (an unsubtle reference to Nietzsche), “The Dawn of Man” starts with a mostly-dark landscape: a carmine semi-desert steppe, the buzzing of insects and animals. The title of the scene appears in a serif font, reminiscent of characters we might imagine were used to write Ancient Roman classics. The movie title in the previous scene was in a futuristic sans serif font; perhaps the change in font means to signal something temporal, helping to illuminate the importance of the motor of human history. The monoliths seem to at least be markers of human shifts. We can notice that the redness that pervades the scene’s atmosphere suggests one of the film’s central themes: red is a color associated with HAL, who (if we are meant to think of HAL as a who) seems to possess more emotional sensitivity than HAL’s human companions. Perhaps Kubrick means to say that, as a persisting product of brutal Enlightenment preference for logos over pathos, humanity has lost something—a point that historicist Marx would likely agree with.

We leave the montage of broad, blood-toned vistas to attend to ape-people having to divide water and plants (food) with tapirs. Among a bevy of skeletons—anthropic and non-anthropic alike—the ape-people become aggressive toward the tapirs, pushing and slapping them to ensure greater access to necessary food and water. Humanity will persist via dominance.

Here, Kubrick makes an interesting choice in constructing the scene: whereas landscape shots appear realistic, shots with the ape-people are lit by multiple sources and clearly take place on quasi-realistic sets with two-dimensional depictions as backgrounds. In an ironic twist on Bazin’s thinking in “The Evolution of the Cinema,” Kubrick’s use of telephoto lenses in these shots seems to emphasize unrealisticnesses of the visible. Kubrick seems to be playing with the “faith in the image” versus “faith in reality” distinction that Bazin draws. On one hand, Kubrick provides a plausible narrative to explain the genesis of human violence; on the other, Kubrick seems to show self-awareness to say that we oversimplify the origins of aspects of humanity. This works in much the same way that Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” means to dissuade us from quickly accepting all that seems to be, which might inform a Marxian historicist reading that might say that, contrary to the prevailing narrative, power asserts itself in the formation of ideology.

The scene takes place in a good deal of darkness even in the most well lit shots, helping to set the tone for the proverbial darkness that humanity is soon to present. The minor inter-species violence over scarce resources is immediately followed by one of the ape-people being attacked and ostensibly killed by a big cat. We are in a brutal, chaotic place, to be sure, but this violence foreshadows the inter-protohuman conflict that Kubrick uses to flesh out his theory of violent human nature. Initially, the ape-peoples’ conflict is carried out by intimidation and threat, since they are limited in their ability to cause damage to one another. But, this changes when the monolith signals a violent progression in the human story.

The monolith seems to force its acknowledgement by waking one of the ape-people. The ape-person responds to the monolith with hysteria—that is, the ape-person does not simply observe the monolith; instead, they react violently, as though in fear (if initially the ape-person’s and their counterparts’ fear is unclear, it is further clarified in the ape-people’s repeated hesitancy to touch the monolith). This helps to clarify Kubrick’s theory on human violence. At least sometimes, when humans encounter new things, rather than soberly inspecting, they fearfully respond, quickly becoming violent. This is exacerbated by the fact that differences in capacity to inflict damage might effect differences in people’s material outcomes, possibly contributing to cycles of violence.

When the camera pulls out to more fully show the ape-people encircling the monolith, the area around the monolith forms a well-lit area in the dark, as though illuminated by a spotlight. Some of the ape-people begin to physically engage with the monolith, and the creepy, discordant music from earlier in the film returns. The ape-people contract around the monolith, all touching it before the camera cuts to look into the sky—the monolith protruding from the bottom of the shot. The sun lines up with the moon as it rises over the center of the horizon formed by the monolith, perhaps suggesting the centrality of the monolith. What we might take from the discordant musical accompaniment to the power represented by the monolith is that dramatic human change comes in the form of seemingly chaotic violence. This violence might be exacerbated by the at-first unfulfilled need for shifting social relations, as Marx might put it, to adapt to advancements in technology; in some sense, we initially spend our time stumbling in the dark. Like Plato’s cave, those latencies might have lingering negative effects.

This introduces a paradox: when the monolith appears, it often helps to form a symmetrical cosmic pattern, but the music is grating and sounds almost intentionally nonsensical and discomforting. On one hand, we have patterned cosmic design; on the other, we have terrifying chaos. The paradox is quickly resolved, though. After the camera cuts away from the monolith, the camera comes to focus on an ape-person playing in dirt and bones. The camera returns, albeit only for an instant, to the monolith-sun-moon alignment. Immediately following this, the ape-person stares at the bones, tilting their head back-and-forth as though they experience an elucidation of potential reality. Also Sprach Zarathustra returns, and the ape-person discovers the bone’s usefulness as a destructive tool. The music reaches a thunderous, ordered resolution as the ape-person swings the bone with both hands over their head to crush the skeletal skull in front of them and obliterate the skeleton. The development of the full force of the technology allows for advancement of power, signaling humanity’s entrance into the next increasingly violent epoch.

We cut to the group of ape-people eating meat seemingly for the first time. The monolith has marked the development of the ape-people’s handy death-tool. Then, we witness the next conflict between the two tribes of ape-people, but our primary subjects come armed. One of the other tribe persists at the watering hole, but the bone quickly subdues them. After having scared off the other tribe, one of our subjective tribe throws a bloodied bone in the air: victory through domination. These are the relatively enlightened übermenschen, or capital class, if you prefer.

The bone turns into a space station and, after Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube’s lithe, sophisticated accompaniment to images that would surely inspire George Lucas’s Star Wars and other science-fiction films to follow, we are introduced to Dr. Frank Poole, played by William Sylvester. The interior of the space station looks like a cross between a 1960s university math department and the art-deco imaginings of a 1960s interior designer. Dr. Poole appears as the proposed math professor in a brown tweed suit. Bazin might propose that science-fiction requires a restyling of aesthetics such that the futuristicness of the mise en scène not overwhelm the spectator. More temporal assignation appears in the form of global capitalistic branding. In the expansive space station appear logos for Pan-American Airlines, Hilton, Howard Johnson, Bell Telephone, and Aeroflot. While this notion of (extra-) globalization seems simultaneously prescient and indicative of a mid-20th century trend, Kubrick would have been unable to have predicted the full consequence of late capitalism—HAL later informs us that he was made in Illinois. Today, this might seem so preposterous as to be confusing: not only are computers rarely assembled in the United States, the parts for electronic devices generally come from all over the world. However, to the degree that there may be shortcomings in terms of the film’s predictions of the future, its accuracies are impressive, like in the case of what we might think of as a lo-res Skype call between Dr. Poole and his daughter.

Dr. Poole bumps into some Russian scientists (he starts with the old sexist ritual of telling his female acquaintance—the mononymous Elena, played by Margaret Tyzack—that she looks good, to which she responds obligatorily in kind). This begins a Kubrickian there’s-something-not-quite-right-there-you-should-reconsider-your-role unheeded warning scene (think of Halloran’s warning in The Shining or the repeated warnings in Eyes Wide Shut, as examples), indicating human hubris. After the requisite greetings and smalltalk, Dr. Andrei Smyslov, played by Leonard Rossiter, takes on the inquisition of the evasive Dr. Poole. The two men (the only men among the circle) smile politely at each other while the women remain passive, de-humanized, disempowered objects in the background, blending in with the cold, austere, antiseptic interior design of boxy white panels and magenta (not a human red) blobbish chairs. As the scene unfolds, Dr. Poole’s charming ignorance reveals itself to be a deceptive technique as he repeatedly claims that he is “not at liberty to discuss” the brewing situation (or even the intentionally leaked fabrication-as-coverup). Humans now intentionally create Plato’s cave when it might serve their ambitions.

Perhaps it is telling that Russian Dr. Smyslov’s earnestness and concern are mirrored by American Dr. Poole’s stodgy, polite fakeness. In the height of the Cold War, Kubrick imagines a future by which Russians and Americans freely interact, but in which Russians are warm, reasonable people and Americans are dishonest and destructive. This leads to an interesting conclusion. Kubrick’s depictions of globalization clearly demonstrate his sense of a potentiality of American capitalism, and the rest of the film plays out in a way that supports the notion that late capitalism is a particularly virulent strain of human development, both naïve and devastating in its bumbling adventures toward “progress.” If we take this notion a bit further, it is capitalism that leads to the devolution of humans into brutal robots, while the state communists of Russia do not lose their humanity in the same way and/or to the same degree that Western capitalists do.

When Marx, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, thinks of the problems of capitalism, he often thinks of them as having to do with that which makes us essentially human. He sometimes describes “species-being” in a way that suggests a patently capitalist tension between self-service and altruism. Marx suggests that we might be able to take on a new form of “sensuous activity” by which we can live fuller, more harmonious lives. In 2001, Kubrick seems concerned with something similar: a loss of so much potential humanity. The monoliths might mark moments by which people have hastily taken up the promise of technological advancements without attending to the problems that these advancements might present. The latency of policy responses to advancements might lead to ideological shifts that favor the most powerful at the expense of the weakest, except that these paradigm shifts might also take something from all of us. Surely, one would suppose that Marx would agree, but Nietzsche would maybe be less receptive.

References

Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2011. 314-325.

Nietzsche, Friederich. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2015.

Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” Early Writings. Colletti, Lucio; Nairn, Tom. Vintage Books, 1974. 279-400.

Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Edited by Corrigan, Timothy; White, Patricia; and Mazaj, Meta. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 7-9.

%d bloggers like this: