Voyou Désœuvré

I think I may be the perfect age for the appeal of the finely-tooled nostalgia of The Force Awakens. The obvious target for Star Wars nostalgia is someone like J J Abrams, who saw the original films in the cinema as a child; I was too young for that, growing up in the 80s after the films had left the cinemas, but before video recorders made it easy to watch the films at home. So I first experienced the films by catching bits of them when they happened to show up on TV, or, even more, through the clouds of content thrown off by Lucasfilm’s franchising efforts (I have particularly fond memories of animated C3PO and R2D2 buddy comedy Droids). This diffuse omnipresence played brilliantly into the mythical feel the films strive for. So it’s fairly unsurprising that I enjoyed the new film, but what I hadn’t expected is that the film quite clearly dramatises this condition of franchise-dependence, and also has some quite thoughtful things to say about it. Read more↴

The Grand Budapest Hotel - 64th Berlin Film FestivalIn the essay “Utopia as Replication”, Jameson suggests we consider Walmart as an example of how “the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfilments and utopian fantasies”. Jameson intends this as a bit of a provocation, but I wonder if Walmart isn’t actually too easy a choice for the “paradoxical affirmation” of “what is most exploitative and dehumanizing in the working life of capitalism”. Walmart’s vastness of scale and remorselessness give it an aesthetic alibi, allying it with a tradition of modernist creative destruction which is likely to be attractive, at least to the sort of people who read Jameson. To really follow through Jameson’s project of unearthing the “utopian impulse”, we need to consider an aspect of capitalism that is not just exploitative but also in bad taste; for a certain strand of contemporary opinion, that would be “twee”, the kind of cutesily-retro faux-petit-bourgeois capitalism of cupcake shops and Cath Kidston. Read more↴

Britney’s new song has been widely condemned as pure ideology; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics. Read more↴

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. Read more↴

In "Our Song," Swift asks god to give her a "song" made up of sounds from her everyday life; in the promotional art, this becomes a serious of words on a classroom chalkboard.In a piece written in 1990, Judith Butler writes of defensive feminist responses to postmodernism, in which postmodernism is the sign of “an impending nihilism” with “dangerous consequences” because politics, and particularly feminist politics, “requires a subject, needs from the start to presume its subject, the referentiality of language, the institutional descriptions it provides” (Feminist Contentions, 36). According to the view Butler is criticizing here, feminist politics needs to be defended from postmodern theory because postmodernism undermines “the referentiality of language,” that is, the idea that the meaning of language is fixed and under our control, or that language is a medium through which we can express our intentions. Two developments of the past few years make me think it is worth re-opening this discussion of the relationship between feminist politics and the referentiality of language: the feminist blogosphere and the lyrics of Taylor Swift. Read more↴

People usually describe The West Wing as idealistic. This is reflected in what is taken to be the show’s signature directorial move, the “walk and talk,” in which two characters walk briskly through the corridors of the West Wing engaged in some high-powered discussion of the story of the week; this is a visual representation of the show’s commitment to the idea of the good that can be accomplished by energetic, intelligent, good people. But I always thought the heart of the show was in a slighty different move, that usually appeared towards the end of the episode. Again two characters, but this time usually static, in the muted light of an office somewhere out of the way; one character gives an impassioned speech to persuade the other of the moral rightness of some course of action, and just as this speech reaches its argumentative climax, the character breaks off and says, “but of course, we’ll never be able to implement that policy.” This reveals the cynicism which Žižek identifies as central to idealism: the idea, not just that good people sometimes do bad things, but that the “goodness” of good people is an internal, essential, quality untouched by any bad things they may by chance happen to do; indeed, the very distance between the bad actions and the internal goodness, perversely, comes to be taken as evidence of this internal goodness.

While The West Wing exhibits the cynicism of idealism, there is also a naivete of cynicism. Cynicism operates by revealing that, behind people’s actions lie their true, hidden, motives; but this just reproduces naivete at one remove, with a simple faith in the reality of these underlying motives. What I like about Political Animals is that it challenges this naive cynicism.  Read more↴