In early 1940s Germany, the Reichsbank was faced with some degree of difficulty in finding a way to liquidate the embarrassing amounts of personal valuables that were being deposited with them. They ended up pawning an inordinate number of such goods, particularly the streams of gold fillings mysteriously flowing in from locations like Auschwitz. At Nuremberg, the bankers claimed not to know the source of the deposits.

(adapted from Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich)


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Thoughts on the Video Effects Industry

While this blog has mainly served as a site for impromptu essays on various subjects, I want to take a moment to just draw attention to something that’s been going on lately.  Chances are that a lot of people are already aware of this, but the general consensus seems to be that the video effects industry is finally reaching breaking point for the workers.  Rather than summarize someone else’s points, I’ll just encourage you to read this analysis.

It seems clear to me that at this point the video effects industry needs to unionize.  This will have a few effects.  Aside from the clearly positive effect of reducing working hours and improving working condition, it will therefore drive up the cost of CGI in films.  This means less CGI-sploitation–stuff like what the Asylum has been doing (NOTE: I am not saying that the Asylum exploits their workers, or that they do not, just that they represent a certain type of film that relies on cheap CGI).  While I will lament the future lack of movies where Sherlock Holmes fights a T-rex, overall this could be a positive change because it also means that a lot of the more egregious CGI that we’ve been seeing in major movies lately will have to be curtailed, either replaced with miniatures, animatronics, or more creative ways of filming scenes.  More seriously, it means a lack of demand for VFX artists as the demand for CGI goes down.  This means that there will probably be a generation of artists who fall through the gap, as it were, between the factory-style production now, and a future unionized production with better conditions and fewer workers.  This is unfortunate, but could possibly be offset by the potential for competitive freelancing, or numerous smaller studios that could do simple, cheaper work–cheaper in the sense of taking less time, so that the actual cost of the product should be reflected in either its length or quality.

Either way, the chief problem here is that for a lot of young artists, things are going to suck.  These are often young, creative, motivated individuals, who enter the field out of a love of the art form and find themselves cruelly forced into medial production by economic necessity.  They stay longer in the field than the average person would because of their love of the art, and that is one of the things that is being exploited.  Either things will continue as they are, which will mean overworking and unstable careers, or we will see unionization soon (given the model of most other creative elements of Hollywood, this seems the more likely to me) which will mean a lot of unemployed young effects artists–a big problem in an industry run off a constantly changing technological basis, since even a couple years out of work could lead to a knowledge gap that will leave them passed up for hiring in favor of less experienced but more technically proficient candidates.  As I have a number of friends in this position, I sincerely hope things work out well, but the situation is admittedly grim at the moment.

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“In the first stone which the savage flings at the wild animal he pursues, in the first stick that he seizes to strike down the fruit which hangs above his reach, we see the appropriation of one article for the purpose of aiding in the acquisition of another, and thus discover the origin of capital.”

-R. Torrens, An Essay on the Production of Wealth, etc as quoted in Marx, Capital Vol. 1

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Top 5 Films of 2012

After all the heavy-handed political stuff lately, I figured it would be fun to do an overview of my top 5 films from 2012.  While I initially thought of doing a top 10, I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough films from this year to accurately make a list that size.  There are a number of films that, once I see them, will probably be included–Amour, Django Unchained, and Holy Motors, for example.  So keeping in mind that I haven’t seen everything for the past year, these are the top five of the films I did see, ranked from least best to most best.

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

dir. Benh Zeitlin

This movie has a lot of problems.  There are real pacing issues–it feels like either the first two acts of a movie or like an extra couple acts tacked onto a short film.  It lacks focus.  It has one particular special effect that is laughable–if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m referring to.  And unfortunately the trailer completely gives away the ending, although there are still plenty of surprises waiting in the middle of the plot.

With all that said, there’s also a lot going for this movie.  It really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that’s saying something since I go out of my way to see unusual movies.  It’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a film version of a folktale.  Made on a minuscule budget, it manages to utilize the setting of rural Louisiana to create what may be the most cost-effective ‘epic’ style filming ever.  Those with an ear to the ground may have noticed that epic is returning in a big way, both in the Hollywood blockbuster and as a new voice for the disenfranchised, and that’s what we have here.  The film is also aided by a wonderful performance not just by young Quvenzhané Wallis but by the whole cast.  Overall, while this movie may have more problems than the others on my list, it’s also much more ambitious, and charting genuinely new film territory.  I really want this film to have an influence, to force directors, especially low-budget directors, to consider how to utilize their resources to make films that are very non-Hollywood but very appealing.

4. The Cabin in the Woods

dir. Drew Goddard

I’m lucky I saw this in theaters.  At the time, I hadn’t heard much about it beyond that it was supposedly good, and that it had been written in part by Joss Whedon.  (I’m not as big a Joss Whedon fan as most–I didn’t grow up on Buffy, and while I liked Firefly I recognize that he has some problems to his writing, patterns he tends to fall into, especially with how characters develop.)  I was in the mood to see a good horror movie in theaters though, and decided to check it out.  It was definitely worth it.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, because everything that makes it so good is in the last half, but even the first half stands on its own as a parody of horror film in the fine tradition of Scream, Behind the Mask, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, etc.  The whole film stands as, in the creators’ own words (paraphrased) a defense of everything good in horror and an attack of everything bad.  Now, I don’t agree exactly with what is or isn’t good in horror–honestly, I thought the beginning of Scream 4 was a better attack.  But this is a clear labor of love that simultaneously works as a great film and calls out every other horror film on a lot of things they’ve gotten lazy about.  The only reason it’s not ranked higher on my list is that it has those same Joss Whedon problems to it–I know it was directed by Goddard, but either Whedon had a huge influence or Goddard is trying to imitate him.  The main problem is that it feels too sanitized to me.  Anyone who’s seen the film is probably wondering what I mean by this, given what goes down in the last act, but it’s not a matter of lacking gore or nihilism, it’s an approach to the medium of storytelling.  I hesitate to say that these filmmakers are too competent, but it might be better to say that they’re too comfortable.  While it’s a unique and original story, it’s told so smoothly that it lacks the kind of bite or edge that denotes genius.  It takes risks, but not enough or the right kind.  That said, it’s still a great film, well-crafted, and absolutely mandatory viewing for any fan of horror.

3.  Dredd

dir. Pete Travis

This is a bit of an odd one for me.  When I was putting together this list, I struggled with putting it on here at all, and yet somehow it’s in my number three slot.  The thing is, it’s exactly the sort of movie I don’t normally care much for, but I liked it–a lot.  It’s straightforward sci-fi action, with a real emphasis on the action.  The story is incredibly simple: in the near future, two Judges (cop/judge/jury/executioner) enter a housing project to solve a seemingly simple gang murder.  However, something is amiss, as they find out when the leader of the gang locks them in the project and goes on the attack.  That’s basically the whole thing, but it’s executed perfectly.  It made the world feel real, but more importantly it made Dredd feel real, in a way that the Stallone flick didn’t.

The thing about Judge Dredd is that he’s an asshole, a pseudofascist asshole, but he is this way because of the world he’s a part of.  What science fiction (or, potentially, fantasy) can do really well is to show you a fundamentally different way of being, and Dredd is just different enough to be intriguing, but just close enough to be uncomfortable.  The film itself is exactly what you want from an action film–a lot of violence, a lot of explosions, pretty awful villains, but all of them believable in the context.  It goes out of its way to show the tragedy of lost life that accompanies this kind of over-the-top action, but does it without undercutting the adrenaline-pumping thrill.  As a side note, it does a really good job representing female characters who are actually characters, not just cliche villains or paragons of virtue.  I would love to see more action movies like this, or better yet, a couple sequels.  Unfortunately, this film didn’t earn its way at the box office, and as such probably won’t have any sequels, which is a damn shame.  Here’s hoping for some fan support that might at least convince producers to make one more sequel, hopefully with the same cast and crew.

2. The Master

dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

This was a strong competitor for the #1 slot, but it finally loses to the lack of structure, or perhaps to its own peculiar structure.  I appreciate movies that buck the three-act structure, but the long pauses in this long movie were as frustrating as a Tarkovsky film.  However, this is sort of a case of praising with faint damnation, if the worst thing I can say about a movie is that it’s Tarkovsky-esque in pacing.  This isn’t really the story of Scientology that it was billed as; rather it’s a character study of one man who gets involved with a Scientology-esque organization.  It’s an interestingly amoral film in that it asks us to sympathize with deeply flawed individuals, people who may be making the world worse for their presence, and it never disguises that this is what they are.  As such, it’s also a vicious critique of everything post-war America was, even the supposed good.  The final scene and the title of the film are downright chilling once one considers them in depth–personally, it seems to me a much darker film even than There Will Be Blood, albeit in a much more subtle way.  Paul Thomas Anderson may be the best living filmmaker; he’s certainly in the top five.  If there is any justice in the universe of aesthetics, this is a film that will be remembered and talked about for decades, maybe even centuries to come.

Honorable Mentions

Before I get to my number one film, a few noteworthy films this year:

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson): This is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes-Andersony film, a straight-up trip into a nostalgic fantasy of a past that never really was.  What makes it great is that it’s not sentimentalizing.  Although downright theatrical in its presentation, it deals with real issues, and even talks about some things that big budget films normally stay far away from–like child sexuality.  I also appreciate the effort to reclaim the notion of family values for a liberal perspective.

Your Sister’s Sister (dir. Lynn Shelton): Alright, this is apparently technically a 2011 film, but it came to my theater in summer 2012 so I’m counting it.  Normally a romantic dramedy would not be on my list of interesting movies, but this is exactly how I like to see it executed.  It’s a very minimalist sort of film: only three substantial characters, a lot of dialogue between them.  It almost feels like a stage play.  But this creates a wonderful intensity of emotion.  The characters are flawed, to the point of unlikeability at times, but still relatable, and the film puts them in a very real-seeming, tightly focused dilemma.

Seven Psychopaths (dir. Martin McDonagh): Basically, Adaptation but for action movies.  Full of a lot of great metafiction commentary, and great acting by Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell (as well as the rest of the cast, but those two compete for the stealing of the show).  Yes, it’s very violent and gory, but that’s the point, kind of, but also not, kind of.  It’s an ideologically confused movie, but worth seeing.

1. Cosmopolis

dir. David Cronenberg

I’m surprised this ended up at number one, because when I first saw it I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, but in retrospect that dissatisfaction was just because of the odd way the film confronted me.  I mentioned that I thought Paul Thomas Anderson was in the top five living directors, and I think Cronenberg is as well (for the curious, the others would possibly be Gaspar Noe and a couple others I’m not so committed to as to actually list them).  This film does not feel like a movie; it doesn’t really feel like anything.  The cramped, claustrophobic cinematography and eerie lighting combined with Don DeLillo’s inhuman-sounding dialogue and strange pre-Enlightenment style narrative create Brechtian levels of audience alienation, only assisted by the unpleasantness and absurdity of the subject matter.  I saw this at nine in the morning on the day it came out with two friends, and there was one other person in the theater, who walked out just before the ‘climax’.  It did not do well at the box office.  I’m not surprised by this at all; this isn’t a movie most people would want to see.  Several reviewers have compared the film as a whole to the prostate exam which forms such a key component of the plot (not kidding), and I have to agree: it’s a strangely cold, analytical, and unpleasant insight into the structure of capitalism, that bastion of meaningless action.  But it’s also a necessary examination for our health.  The world is headed to strange places, and while Paul Thomas Anderson may be perfect at anatomizing our past, it seems that only Cronenberg has perfected the art of anatomizing the future.  Indeed, reception of his films is often hampered by an inability to understand them because they come from a place in front of us, an ideological position we may not yet have access to–this explains, for example, those who see Shivers as purely an attack on free sexuality, or Videodrome and eXistenZ as Luddite anti-technology films.  Somehow, Cronenberg has tapped into the concerns of the future, and it may be that Cosmopolis will be better appreciated then.  However, I submit the opinion that it is a uniquely disturbing and wonderful film, combining the best of DeLillo’s ability with the best of Cronenberg’s (not to mention great performances by, among others, Pattinson and Giamatti) to create my top pick for 2012.


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On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.

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On Writing Unpleasant Women

Hi, sorry it’s been so long, but I’ve been dealing with a number of things that have kept me away from posting.  Anyway, I just wanted to through out some quick thoughts on an issue that has come up several times recently.

In a novel I’ve been working on for a while now (since at least June of 2011, not counting pre-development), the two lead characters are both women.  They are also both, to various degrees, pretty unpleasant people.  Having had the first draft out for a while now and gotten some feedback, it’s striking to me that the number one feedback I get keeps being that these characters are pathetic, disturbing, disgusting, etc.  I’ve also had a couple people point out that this might be a bad thing–after all, the reader has trouble identifying with them, and is it really a good thing to have characters who are female–and what’s more, potentially queer–be unlikable?

The thing is, I knew these characters were unlikable.  This was always intentional, writing in a long tradition of books like The Cement GardenAmerican PsychoNotes from the Underground, etc.  But I hadn’t expected my readers to be surprised by this idea, that these characters might be unlikable.  Of course, the big distinction is that in all of the cited examples, the main characters are white hetero males.  Now, I’m sure there are plenty of unpleasant leads who are female, but all the ones I’ve read, at least for longer pieces (short stories always have more leeway), were written by female authors.  I think it’s a sign of privilege, of the state of how we receive characters, that white male characters are ‘allowed’ to be horrible people, whereas anyone outside that demographic (and my characters are not particularly far from normative either) is seen as somehow representative.  If you write a woman, you are understood as writing all women.  The same applies to a greater degree with race, and to an even greater degree with non-normative gender and sexuality.  It’s frightening just to think about the pressure of writing a trans character, where every action and word would no doubt be picked apart by readers from all over the political spectrum.  Now, this is naturally part of the experience of being anything but a straight white male, but it exists twofold with a character, since that character is being judged both in their world and as a character in a book.  Just look at the backlash to Silence of the Lambs--why is it that a transvestite serial killer can’t exist*?  The obvious answer is because in the real world, transvestites are demonized enough, and the image of a transvestite serial killer only adds to that.  But at the same time, saying that you can’t have a transvestite serial killer in a major motion picture limits what a transvestite character can be, makes them into more of a representation of their gender practices than a realistic purposes.  For the needs of mimetic art, this is problematic to say the least.

What’s the solution here?  I’m not sure that there is one, or at least that there is one easily available.  It’s the same issue raised when people make jokes about the idea of a colorblind society: as long as racism/sexism/general bigotry exists, we need to be aware of it, but that awareness is nonetheless part of that system.  The only solution I can see for the time being is to judge each work on its own merits, but at the same time pay attention to larger cultural trends.  I, for example, think that Silence of the Lambs does an excellent job of not demonizing non-normative gender as a whole even while it contains a very unpleasant non-normative character.  It does this a number of ways, including by addressing those gender practices as the behavior of that character (rather than generalizing), showing other characters with non-normative gender (at the very least, Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter), and by grounding the behavior in the world we see in the film.  Other naturally have the right to view the film differently, and many do.  One of the key things we can look toward is a resistance to clichés and tropes.  It seems to me that tropes are the most common way bigoted politics work their way into media.  With regard to the representation of women, just look at the number of pre-existing roles, from femme fatale to loyal housewife to leather-wearing badass to the very unfortunate cliché of the character that gets raped to prompt the male lead to action.  Sure, some of these may seem empowering, but they are nonetheless problematic in that to design a character in order to seem empowering means that you’re denying to them the ability to exist as a character. (Note: this only applies to mimetic literature.  Didactic literature is a whole other ballgame, one that I have largely stayed away from and thus don’t really feel qualified to speak on.)

So this brings me back to my original conundrum: is it okay to write female characters who are unpleasant?  Obviously yes, but with caveats.  In my case, I went into the novel intending to write about unpleasant people, and people who were female, but they were not unpleasant because they were female.  I am sure–very sure, now that I’ve gotten some feedback from readers–that the representations will be offensive to some, but to me it seems unfair to censure the characters’ behavior because of what readers would respond with.  What I have tried to do is ground that behavior in a world and experience, and show where it comes from and what it leads to, and to show realistic behavior rather than tropes either for the positive or the negative.  Nonetheless, I am aware that people are going to read the novel and make negative generalizations about women from it.  A necessary part of looking at characters as thinking, conscious subjects is allowing them a freedom of behavior, even of that behavior may be interpreted differently if they are looked at as objects.


*We’re totally going to ignore the fact that Buffalo Bill is not, according to both the book and movie, technically transgender, because it really distracts from the issue of representation we’re talking about here.

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Are You Responsible for Your Offensive Movie?

This is part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series I’m going to call The Ethics of Immanent Creation, focusing on the issue of creative work within the world–the productive process that gives rise to those things we analyze.  Rather than an analysis or opinion piece, this is meant to be more a rumination, an effort to help outline the problematic I encounter.

This is a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately, so I figured it was worth mentioning on here.  It goes something like this:
Other:  I really like “Independence Day.”
Me:  Yeah, it’s pretty good, but for me it’s a guilty pleasure.
O:  Why?  What’s wrong with it?  I mean, sure, there are some plot holes but…
M:  It’s more the political stuff.
O:  Like what?
M:  Well, how about the ridiculous number of Jewish stereotypes–or general racial stereotypes?  Economic stereotypes, such as with Randy Quaid’s character?  Or the whole ending sequence where we see the little montage of the world’s cliche’s, and of course no one knows what to do until–“It’s the Americans!  They want to organize a counter-offensive!”  “Well it’s about bloody time!”  “True, because we are literally helpless without the big American hyperpower to hold our hand, even in an apparently apocalyptic post-globalization scenario.”  Or how about the fate of the President’s wife, a textbook case of Women in Refrigerators if I’ve ever seen one?  Or the patronizing treatment of Jasmine’s strip-dancing, or structuring the film as a defense of heroic president-icons against conspiracy theories, or–  Well, as you can see, I could go on about this forever.
O:  I mean, I can kinda see what you’re saying, but what, do you think they intentionally put that there?  It’s just a fun action movie, I don’t think they were thinking about the political side of it.
M:  True.  I’m almost certain that Roland Emmerich, who seems to be a very well-meaning idealist sort of fellow, did not go into this project intending to perpetuate racist, sexist, and classist ideology.  Likewise with everyone else involved.  But nonetheless, the movie does this.  The key word here is ‘perpetuate’.  When this was put together, people didn’t think about the implications of what they were saying, in terms of race, because they were putting together a story based out of cultural myths–cliches and tropes, basically.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  Most everything either contains or reacts to cliches and tropes; that’s the fundamental basis of a number of theories of cultural transmission, from Roland Barthes to Richard Dawkins.  But nonetheless it resulted in a movie that is all these things: sexist, etc.
O:  But how can you expect them to be responsible for that?  Are they really responsible for the sorts of messages that get put into the story if they’re not even aware of them, if they’re not done intentionally?
M:  I don’t know.  This is why it becomes useful to talk about that idea of ‘originality’, which often means taking a critical look at the cultural myths we rely on.  Sure, by now the idea of another revision of traditional fairy tales or something might seem outdated and overplayed–except that Disney and company are still churning out replications of the unfortunate elements of these myths, and people are so used to it that they actually regard something like “Brave” as being feminist!  When someone is making a work, they are either replicated myths–and this can, generally, be called lazy storytelling–or they are critiquing those myths, even if their critique is just the refusal to use them.  So when I’m picking on Roland Emmerich, what I’m really doing is accusing him of lazy storytelling, but also pointing out that this laziness has political consequences.
O:  So, this is about political correctness?  Haven’t we been dealing with that for decades now–and isn’t it pretty universally loathed?
M:  Except that the term political correctness assumes some absolute, which is one of the reasons that critiques of what the right calls ‘liberals’ love to use the term: it implies that offended defenders of minority groups see themselves as imposing some new absolute rule.  While this may be true of a few, most of us are cultural relativists living instead with the issue of experienced ethics.  So perhaps the term ‘political responsibility’ would better convey what I’m trying to say: these people are responsible for their political content.  By saying that something is just a fun action movie, you can try to excuse that political responsibility, but it’s still there.
O:  But how is their responsibility?  It’s not like people are going to get their morals from watching “Independence Day”…
M:  Would that it were so.  But think back to your own childhood, assuming you grew up in some sort of normative United States-style experience: you were exposed to a lot of movies like “Independence Day”, songs like “Ignition (Remix)”, books like “Harry Potter”, games like “Duke Nukem” and you probably watched, listened to, read, or played these things repeatedly.  If you were anything like me you ran around the playground shouting, “Welcome to Earth!” and punching imaginary aliens.  In doing these things, you were re-enacting, you were learning how to perform cultural positions.  A lot of kids learned what it meant to be American from movies like “Independence Day”; is it any wonder, then, that they grow up believing in some myth of American exceptionalism?
O:  But you can’t just blame the films and music and whatnot; the children have to be responsible for what they end up learning as well.  Besides, don’t you like cheesy horror movies, which have traditionally been vilified for their influence on children?  How is this any different from those “Marilyn Manson and Doom caused Columbine” arguments?
M:  I absolutely agree: people are responsible for their individual actions.  What we have to understand is that these actions are overdetermined; they are both entirely the fault of the individuals who enact sexism, etc, and the fault of those who culturally imbue them with these ideas–although that’s a much more diffuse blame.  The classic metaphor is the man who is executed by a firing squad: each shooter would have been sufficient to kill him, yet they all shot him, so the blame is diffuse but the responsibility rests on the shoulders of each shooter.  The difference between these sorts of cultural ideas and something like the Manson-Columbine argument is in presentation.  No one with any vague amount of critical thinking approaches Manson thinking he is dead serious if he says, “Kill!”–it’s clear he’s being transgressive, and his performance carries transgressiveness almost to the point of parody.  I point you to Lukacs and simply say that the act of transgression is in itself a re-affirmation of the law; this is why the sort of ‘political correctness’ that goes after any discussion of drugs, sexuality, race, etc, is not only ineffective but actually harmful.  What is insidious about the sexism, etc, in the films of Roland Emmerich (and just about every other cultural product we enjoy; I don’t want to make too much of a scapegoat of Emmerich) is that it is not framed as a problem; rather, it is hardly framed at all, appearing as the basis and background for what is ostensibly a discussion of mankind uniting in the appearance of a new Other (Godzilla, aliens, ice age, Mayan apocalypse).  It is the way that cliches neither true to current reality nor an ideal reality are mindlessly replicated that I rebel against.  It is unrealistic and harmful.  Is it fair to ask the creators of a fun action film to be responsible for this?  Maybe not, in certain traditional conceptions of fairness.  But someone has to be responsible, and the only figures standing there are the creators.  By creating something, you need to be aware of not only what you do, but what you perpetuate, what you pass on.

Well, this is clearly not exactly 100% accurate to life, but it is indeed patched together out of various conversations I’ve had.  Is it the final word on the topic?  I don’t think so.  I specifically framed this as a dialogue to open myself up to refutation, and if anyone would like to continue the discussion I would be happy to.  But it does seem to me that there’s a good degree of excusing of bad messages that goes on–not the subversive messages that we associate with Eminem and Pussy Riot; the insidious, friendly, destructive messages contained in Meg Ryan movies and the show 24 and “Call Me Maybe”.  This isn’t a matter of  being too ‘politically correct’, it’s a matter of asking people creating cultural products that will be shown to hundreds of millions of people to take accountability for what they put out there.  Perhaps the most egregious violators are advertisers, who naturally have no advantage in telling us anything but exactly what we want to hear–in other words, reinforcing stereotypes, and in doing so defining cultural positions that vastly limit the ability of most people to understand anything apart from the normative message they’ve been spoon-fed for generations.  And we wonder why political change is so hard to achieve.


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