Have a Good Time

January 7, 2017

Freedom ’90, ’98, ’16

David Letterman is having a bad night, as a joke but also for real. Meryl Streep has been forced to cancel and he’s built his monologue around her absence. After the commercial break, he can’t let it go—the sounds of applause and a saxophone swell as his cameras trace the path Streep might have walked to join him, and then he addresses his questions to an empty chair, mining his resentment for awkward laughs, Eastwood-style. When a member of the audience interjects, “I came to see you, David,” he asks her to repeat the compliment but can’t bring himself to thank her. Nor can he summon much enthusiasm as he introduces the first genuine guest of the night, who then strides onstage wearing a sharp black suit and an easy, sanguine, suggestive smile, which will somehow remain on his face for ten minutes and will put the whole setting to shame.

Shame is meant to be the subject of the night. This is November 1998, seven months after George Michael’s arrest for “lewd conduct” at a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Letterman is confused about how long it’s been, just as he seems confused about whether Michael has appeared on the show before or whether he’s slated to play any music later. Michael just grins through everything. He maintains the air of a visitor from a more graceful galaxy as Letterman begins a prurient and crabbed interrogation, pressing Michael for details on the arrest (“Maybe I’ve been misled—I was under the impression you didn’t mind talking about this”) and then retreating into mock horror and family values as soon as those details emerge (“Hanson is here tonight!”). The entire ten-minute interview is structured around what Michael reveals he has been told not to say, above all “the M-word.” So the rhythms of the conversation build up to the illicit utterance almost as intensely as pre-chorus chords make way for “sex,” “faith,” or “freedom.” When the impossible finally arrives, halfway through—“I’m not allowed to say ‘masturbation'”—the moment is expressly musical, with Letterman’s band kicking in to drown out further speech for a moment, enforcing the spirit of the law if not its letter, and Michael standing to take a couple of quick bows. “I guess half of America just switched over, yeah?” he asks as he sits back down. “No,” Letterman responds, “I think they’re switching here. I think word is spreading across the yards.” Here, too, the law is set to a kind of music. The joke’s implication (which puts it on the side of many other jokes I remember hearing in 1998) is that the nature of this guest’s shifting public persona dictates that his biggest fans should be in prison.

sex-is-good

What that joke acknowledges, then, in its uneasy way, is that George Michael is here to offer a vision of freedom. A quiet contest over the meaning of freedom is disguised in banter and bound up with competing notions of innocence. Letterman aims for liberality when he speculates that Michael’s “reason for going into the restroom […] was innocent enough,” and Michael simply gives the frame of that question the slip, in a response that still makes me gasp: yes, he was completely innocent, and he often enters public spaces looking for sex with other men. He brings to this interview the same generous refusal of respectability that strengthened his bond with LGBT audiences around the world even as it restricted the scope of his career in the years that followed. This is the spirit of the “Outside” video, released a month earlier, in which Michael sings “Yes, I’ve been bad” with that same smile (always impossible for me to disconnect the voice from the smile) while a public bathroom becomes a Technicolor disco.

On this night in November the transformation is subtler—a gray CBS stage becomes a platform for gay freedom—and it revolves around George Michael’s self-presentation as a glamorous and unapologetic and notably British gay man, at home in the U.S. yet still bemused by American attitudes toward sex and frustrated by prohibitions around speech. (“I’m not allowed to say the words, am I? I’m a bit stuck here.”) This performance marks him out as a kind of precursor or mirror image to another celebrity whose star has been rising over the last year, and whose name it’s almost too painful for me to write next to Michael’s. I’m going to have to, though, since the year ended with what I take to be an evil and resonant synecdoche: one died at 53, and the other got a six-figure book deal.

2016 is over now. Bad news will keep coming from all sides, and I’m bracing myself not only for the bad news but for all the scrupulous reminders that will surely come in its wake, the reminders that bad news has no expiration date and that there was nothing specially fated about 2016. All of which is true enough. But I think it’s possible to be fairly precise about what the public fiction of 2016 meant to many people, or what people might be expressing when they say they hated it, the whole year. And, again, I think it has something to do with freedom. To me, anyway, here is a large part of what “2016” stands for: on the one hand, the untimely departure of a cluster of artists and public figures who adapted popular American idioms—athletic, cinematic, and musical—to make statements that helped more than one generation imagine what freedom felt like, in childhood and beyond; and, on the other hand, the vicious formal clarification of what “freedom” actually means to white America, in the voting booth and on the street. Half of America just switched over. I don’t exactly think Lauren Berlant is wrong to say that those who voted for Trump did so because they “feel unfree.” But I would find that analysis more helpful if it took a more direct account of “the Trump Emotion Machine” as a machine of terror and domination, in the works for hundreds of years, or if it felt less proximate to the claim that what was missing from the election was empathy for Trump voters.

White supremacy and its freedom from empathy and accountability found new vessels in 2016, not just in Trump and Pence and Bannon but also in Milo Yiannopoulos, whose importance to the libidinal economy of Trumpism seems clearer every day. If, as Joshua Clover wrote a few years ago, conditions were apt in 1990 for a George Michael song flirting with gay visibility to “crystallize the feeling of the post-Wall moment,” then I think some feelings of the Build-That-Wall moment find a related expression in Milo and his performance of freedom as violence.

A pair of pictures featuring cop uniforms and sunglasses offers a kind of condensed chapter in the evolving history of the options open to cis white gay men in U.S. public culture. The first is issuing a plea for sexual openness by embracing and mocking a spectacle intended for his own humiliation. Shortly after the release of these images he will be sued by the same officer who arrested him. The second, two decades later, is in the middle of a national campus tour sponsored by a fascist news organization which will soon be ensconced in the White House; he proclaims that “blue lives matter” and reads antiblack propaganda from his iPad. Whenever he’s named as the key contemporary proponent of white nationalism that he is, he will continue to weaponize for his own purposes the promiscuity that George Michael fought to make sayable and visible, returning over and over to the fetishistic alibi that he can’t be a white nationalist because he sleeps with black men. For this reason and others, it’s hard for me to avoid seeing the “free speech” now endorsed by Simon & Schuster as a specific travesty of the freedom which George Michael sought and which the world never truly granted him. At the same time, as B. B. Buchanan observes in the most instructive antifascist analysis I’ve read of Yiannopoulos’s tour, “these debates are not about freedom of speech, but about communities, the continuation of Black queer death, and problems which precede this speaker and run far deeper than his individual impact.”

Lies about freedom have long histories, then. George Michael’s inclusive pop fantasy, which I will find new ways to keep mourning, said: All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow. The awful joke of Trumpism, backed by Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right, says: Take these lies … please. 2016 was Trump’s year, Milo’s year, death’s year, America’s year. My hope is that after 2016 things will line up less neatly, though; and I think they might. Word is spreading.

September 14, 2016

For the sake of clarity

At the start of my last post from July, I mentioned an old video I had recorded discussing Slavoj Žižek and Chelsea Manning, and I alluded to Žižek’s history of transmisogyny and echoed others in suggesting that this history might have received insufficient acknowledgment from Žižek’s disciples and defenders. That was two weeks before the debacle that was “The Sexual Is Political”—which did bring things further into the open, you could say, and which now has the brilliant response it doesn’t deserve, in the form of Che Gossett‘s essay “Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble.” I’ll be returning to that piece often. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Because, to the extent that this blog remains active, it’s intended as a blog against Žižek, it also started to bother me that at another point in the same post I’d effectively put myself in the position of citing him. It was by way of a sentence supposed to originate somewhere in Walter Benjamin’s work. In an attempt to think through John Brown’s attachment to the Stars and Stripes and the afterlife of an incomplete abolition, I’d been looking for a way to recognize the validity of the designation of Donald Trump’s campaign as fascist which would remain attentive to Trump’s emergence from the mutating history of mainstream American white supremacy. So I had reached for a claim I remembered seeing attributed to Benjamin often, the claim that every fascism is the index of a failed revolution. There was a kind of archival laziness here. The problem is that, like others before me, I’ve tried and failed to find a source for this passage that doesn’t cite it as Žižek’s own paraphrase. And the last two months have provided not only (with Verso’s publication of The Storytellera reminder of the wondrous multiplicity of Walter Benjamins, but also a reminder that Žižek’s paraphrases should never be trusted; and so, when there are so many Walter Benjamins already, why cite one who, like the straw trans people who populate “The Sexual Is Political,” is probably Žižek’s invention?

That question became even more pressing for me when I was faced with a section from George Jackson’s Blood in my Eye, excerpted by Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics on the anniversary of Jackson’s killing, which conveyed everything I’d been looking for and much more. Maybe I would suggest that anyone who’s tempted to quote, as I did, Žižek’s untraceable Benjamin line—particularly in an American context—consider instead these words from 1971:

After revolution has failed, all questions must center on how a new revolutionary consciousness can be mobilized around the new set of class antagonisms that have been created by the authoritarian reign of terror. At which level of social, political and economic life should we begin our new attack?

First, we, the black partisans and their vanguard party, the old and new left alike, must concede that the worker’s revolution and its vanguard parties have failed to deliver the promised changes in property relations or any of the institutions that support them. This must be conceded without bitterness, name-calling, or the intense rancor that is presently building. There have been two depressions, two great wars, a dozen serious recessions, a dozen brush wars, crisis after economic crisis. The mass psycho-social national cohesiveness has trembled on the brink of disruption and disintegration repeatedly over the last fifty years, threatening to fly apart from its own concentric inner dynamics. But at each crisis it was allowed to reform itself; with each reform, revolution became more remote. This is because the old left has failed to understand the true nature of fascism.

We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.” We can make our definition more precise by adding the word “economic.” “Economic reform” comes very close to a working definition of fascist motive forces.

A PDF of Blood in My Eye is here. I also want to recommend Jackie Wang’s long Tumblr essay on the circulation of Jackson’s prison writing among French intellectuals, posted on September 9th to coincide with the start of the largest prisoner strike in U.S. history.

Do you want to write a note to Chelsea Manning congratulating her on the end of the five-day hunger strike that began on the same date, and wishing for a safe recovery and for liberatory justice as she prepares for a hearing on September 20 and beyond? (Sign the petition to have the government’s charges against her dropped.) Here’s her address:

CHELSEA E. MANNING     89289
1300 NORTH WAREHOUSE ROAD
FORT LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS 66027-2304

With further instructions for writing here. Or, if you want to send encouragement but you’re running short on time or resources, it would be my pleasure to write a card on your behalf. I have plenty of extra stationery and stamps. Drop me a line on Twitter or at jrmrtnn [at] gmail [dot] com.

December 27, 2015

“Turn the camera”: On fascism, racism, and Donald Trump

I have a long story about my decision to interrupt a Donald Trump rally and its aftermath. The story touches on upsetting subjects and contains details of emotional distress I’ve experienced in the last week, which has not disappeared. As I see it, though, there are two crucial larger points. The first is about historical ties and morphological similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia, and the second is about Trump’s own willingness to harness these two forces together in what he might regard as the coalition that will return America to greatness. In any case, that willingness now seems to me undeniable.

I had learned about a week in advance that on December 21 Trump would be holding a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived for several years. Protest events began materializing on Facebook right away. Some were more serious than others, but, as organizers of the local Black Lives Matter chapter remarked, all too many were set up by white people who were not averse to policing the tactics and tone of other activists. At least one page was shut down after heated arguments both among aspirant protesters and between them and the Trump trolls. News started coming in, too, about stringent measures to be adopted by the stadium hosting the assembly. There was no way to know what the evening would look like. Everything was a bit of a mess.

I wanted to play a role in responding to the rally, though, because, of course, I fear Donald Trump. To my view of him I would attach no particular claim to insight or originality. I think he’s one face of angry whiteness in a settler-colonial state founded on white supremacy and genocide, and in this sense I’ve tended not to read him as a pure anomaly, or as somehow external to American political discourse. At the same time, I believe it means something when a public figure of Trump’s popularity and influence abandons even the facade of liberal-democratic values and draws virtually the whole of his support from openly professed racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and militarism. However one feels about American electoral politics, I believe resistance becomes necessary against the specific discursive shifts enabled by such a figure—and, as W. Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach have lately been arguing, I think the responsibility for such resistance rests in a distinctive way with white Americans, in whose name Trump acts, and whose energies he presumes to channel.

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So I decided I would go to the Deltaplex Arena on December 21, quickly assess the protests outside, and, if I did enter the stadium, try to find an effective way of disrupting the speech. Drawing inspiration from Johari Osayi Idusuyi, I filled my bag with books by James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Junot Díaz, in case there was an opportunity to make myself quietly visible reading them. I also took a printout of a Brittney Cooper article that I might be able, I thought, to start reading aloud.

When I arrived outside the stadium just as the doors were about to open at 5, and saw for the first time how enormous the place was and how many people had already shown up, I knew that the books wouldn’t have much of a chance and that reading aloud from a paper would pose too much of a challenge. I stood for a few minutes in the light rain as a small protest got underway—which, following stadium policy, was situated a considerable distance from the building, by the entrance to the parking lot. Imagining that things there would stay relatively quiet, at least for a couple of hours, I walked toward the arena, waited in a fast-moving line that stretched up and down the lot, passed through the metal detectors in the lobby, and found a seat in the stands on the right side of the stage. For the next hour and a half I watched the stadium fill up, texted with friends, told them about the police on horseback outside and the Christmas music on the loudspeakers within, and fought off a panic attack.

The first interruption came about seven minutes into Trump’s speech, just as I was getting ready to say something. A young white man in the crowd in front of the stage got as far as “Trump, you’re a racist! You’re a bigot!” before the crowd shouted him down and shoved him out. After this it became relatively quiet as Trump started to discuss how it was only ever “one guy” crashing his rallies, so it felt like a good moment. I had been turning over endless things I could say, but I was grateful to have had “You’re a racist” as a kind of overture, and I decided to err on the side of specificity and to focus on one lie which, for the last month, had played a role in Trump’s myth-making that seemed to me axiomatically fascist. As best as I can remember, what I said from when I stood up at the railing in front of the stands to when I had been conclusively removed from the arena was something like:

There were not thousands of people cheering in New Jersey after September 11. There were not thousands of Muslims cheering on rooftops. That’s a lie and it’s racist. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on racist lies, it’s one of the faces of American white supremacy, and it’s our responsibility to fight racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. It’s our responsibility as white people to resist white supremacy.

I got a couple of words into the second sentence of this before someone on the stadium floor launched an impressive “Shut up” and a huge wave of boos followed, drowning out my voice. Around this same moment, the guard who had just reached me turned me around, gently but firmly placed his hands on my upper back, and began leading me down the stairs, back into the lobby (by which time I’d grown silent), and finally out of the building. I know some members of the audience near me heard more of what I said as I left, but, in the camera feeds I’ve found, what you can catch is mostly “New Jersey after September 11, there were not.” The video below has one of the clearest recordings of my voice, starting around the 9:00 mark, and it also briefly shows my exit.

It was over in seconds. Walking out into the evening dark—aware of myself as someone congenitally disposed to avoid both stadiums and shouting, who had just shouted in a stadium full of thousands who, in turn, had shouted at me—I was overwhelmed with relief, adrenaline, and pride. I’d been trying to quit smoking but I shared a cigarette with two protesters ejected minutes later, and I stood in the parking lot watching what felt like the beginning of a steady trickle of others.

After another cigarette I decided to rejoin the rally by the lot entrance. I had been there for a couple of minutes—clapping at honking cars, exchanging good wishes with others who had interrupted, preparing to leave but still dazzled by what had happened—when a white man in his forties or fifties, holding a video camera, approached the group I was standing behind and asked with enthusiasm if anyone had been kicked out. Assuming his good faith, and thinking that it couldn’t hurt to assist in documenting the night’s events, I fought back my aversion to other people’s cameras and raised my hand. He approached closer and positioned himself so that the arena appeared in the distance behind me. He asked me a series of questions about exactly what I had said and how I had been removed, and I answered as best I could while the protest continued several feet away from us. The man told me he had come all the way from Los Angeles to do something just like what I had done, and I nodded with surprise and pleasure. He agreed with me that on September 11 there had not been thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey, and I nodded again. He then turned the camera around to capture his own face, adding that the only people who had been arrested for cheering on September 11, as he had just told Donald, were “five Israeli Jews.”

I froze. This would have been the moment to refuse to engage further and to leave. Instead, in shock, I struggled to recalibrate my sense of the person who had been filming my face, and to argue a position. I tried to say that this sounded to me like another racist myth, that I had friends in the Jewish anti-Zionist movement, and that I was very critical of Israeli policy but rejected antisemitism. He asked if I “agree[d] with the slur where they try to say anti-Zionists are antisemites,” and I reiterated that those two words were different but that I saw antisemitism as a real and dangerous force. He swung his camera around for a second to capture some loud chanting and I took the opportunity to stutter, “I think I’m going to head out, but.” He asked for my name, and in my vulnerable polite stupidity I said, “My name’s JR.”

I got some distance from the man and his camera. Trying to collect myself, feeling betrayed and violated, I called Daniel, one of the friends who had kept me company through texts as I’d sat in the stadium. We agreed that the only thing I could do was to find the man again, make it clear that I would never have spoken to him if he’d been honest about his agenda, and tell him to delete his footage of me. I doubled back toward the now-dissipating protest and looked for him, asking several strangers if they’d seen a man with a camera. He was gone.

Over the next twenty-four hours I tried to hang onto the traces that remained of pride or satisfaction in what I had done that evening. I shared the video of my disruption on Facebook without discussing the events that had followed, to which I still felt dizzyingly close. I said only that I might write more about it later, and I welcomed supportive comments and praise from friends. But I was already starting to regret having gone to the rally at all, and feeling a growing fury at myself for having failed to research the false claims of 9/11 celebrations carefully enough to know that one persistent variant replaced Arab/Muslim with Israeli/Jew. (Joshua Keating writes for Slate about five Israeli nationals who were detained after filming the attack, and later deported amid unproven rumors of ties to Israeli intelligence: “The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the ‘dancing Israelis’ from being a fixture of 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones, ever since.” I’m tempted to amend this a little, considering the shapes of paranoid thought, and to say that it’s precisely the lack of evidence that has kept the theories going.) I knew that if I had been conscious of that predictable modification—if I had been, in general, less naive about who might be in the Deltaplex Arena that night and about how my voice could be heard—then I wouldn’t have shouted something related to September 11 in any way. I could have shouted “Refugees are welcome here,” or “Borders—what’s up with that?” I could have said “Black lives matter,” or “Abortion is a human right.” Instead I had been the first of two people to invoke September 11, and the second, I assumed, had shouted something about Jews.

It wasn’t until late the next night that I found his YouTube account, when I searched for “trump 9/11” and limited the results to videos from the past week. The video I found—then half an hour old, with fifty views, and now with more than 13,000—was recorded by the man from inside the Deltaplex, and titled “Front-Row Protester Tells Trump ‘ISRAEL DID 9/11!'” At that point I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a few fragments of it. I confirmed that this man, Martin Hill, who had bitterly lamented the “smear” of antisemitism, maintained a large online collection of videos featuring David Duke, Mel Gibson, and Father Coughlin. He had posted a clip in August of himself running with his camera among the stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, laughing and repeatedly intoning, “Six million Jews.” Looking at his more recent videos and at his website, I realized that he had effectively been following Donald Trump around the country attempting to convince him of Jewish responsibility for the attacks on September 11. There were other interviews with anti-Trump protesters he had tricked into talking to him.

I was sick at the thought of my image appearing in this space. Given that I’d been as vocal as I knew how to be during my real-time recognition that we weren’t on the same side, I spent one near-sleepless night and then another hoping that he would see no reason to post our exchange. On the morning of Thursday, December 24, I found that he’d put it up, under the title “Michigan Leftist Says Dancing Israelis is an ‘Anti-Semitic, Racist Urban Legend.'” There were already a few comments from his Nazi friends, calling me brainwashed, a loser, and a rash. I spent most of Christmas Eve reading about YouTube’s privacy policies and preparing to file a complaint that I hoped would get the video taken down. Complainants are asked to identify an offending channel and video and are given just 200 characters in which to “provide additional information” on the infraction, and I wrote: “This man began filming our conversation without revealing that he is a Holocaust denier and a racist. I don’t want my face and name on his channel, where white supremacists are already commenting.” I’m waiting for a response.

Over the next few days that clip of me saw little activity, but I watched the view count for Hill’s other video rise as it got around in online white-nationalist circles. I noticed that the user “fascist lemming,” who had responded to the video of me with “what a loser smh,” had published a video of his own, now with almost 3,000 views, titled “Trump doesn’t mind if you name the jew!!” I returned to the clip from Hill that I had found too painful to watch earlier, as well as to footage of the rally from multiple news cameras, and I came to the same conclusion that Hill, fascist lemming, and their supporters had now reached with delight: there is essentially no doubt that Trump, who is no more than thirty feet away from Hill and pausing to make direct eye contact, hears him scream, “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” It’s caught easily by cameras much further away than Trump is—in the video above, at 20:15; or here, at 20:10; or here, at 21:01; or here, at 19:27; or here, at 53:07. Following that shout, some others in the crowd around Hill start to voice their disapproval: there’s less noise than I was met with minutes earlier, for the purely negative statement that thousands of Muslims had not cheered, but there is some. A man yells, “Go away, go away.” Trump hesitates for a moment, shrugs, and points to Hill with an open palm. This is his subsequent response, in full:

… He’s all right. He’s OK. Relax. Relax. Relax. Take it easy. He’s very committed—relax. He’s actually a Trump guy, he’s just … [gesturing] … got a lot of energy. OK, shh. OK, shh. OK, OK, sit down, come on. Relax. Relax. He’s on our side. Who would know it, but he’s on our side, I think.

The description of Hill as “very committed,” of course, echoes Trump’s defense of the “passion” of two Boston supporters who had assaulted a homeless Latino man in August, and his refusal to condemn the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester in November. Moments later, when guards come to remove Hill in spite of Trump’s protestations, Hill confides to his camera: “I’m getting thrown out of a Trump rally for talking about Israel. Donald said it was OK. Donald said I could stay.” As Trump moves on with his speech, seeing the guards hustle out the man he just saluted as a fan and attempted to placate, he reminds them to “be nice” and asks the crowd: “Is there more fun than a Trump rally?”

That question marks a space for me where many other questions emerge. I find it hard to know how to respond to them or even to give them a full articulation, but here is a start. It isn’t quite enough to observe that the anti-Muslim persecution advocated by Trump structurally resembles the anti-Jewish persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust (though the logic behind this analogy is clear). Recalling what Hamid Dabashi wrote a year ago about a German newspaper that had mistaken an antisemitic cartoon for an Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cover, I want to stress that one form of racial hatred has not simply or tidily taken the place of another. The two forces persist, rather, in a state of conversation and co-mutation. Trump, then, responding to the world with his clarifying opportunism, organizes his public statements and campaign rallies around the tenets of mainstream American Islamophobia, and asserts collective Muslim responsibility for terrorism; and, at the same time, he actively welcomes people at those rallies who raise their voices to proclaim collective Jewish responsibility for the same terrorism. The difference seems not to trouble him. He praises their commitment and asks only that they modulate it, so that he can continue speaking.

The white supremacists in online communities who now know this, and who feel emboldened by it, recognize certain complexities. They know that Trump’s daughter converted six years ago to Orthodox Judaism, that she and her father view Judaism and Zionism as closely intertwined, and that Donald Trump has spoken many times in favor of the Israeli state, even going so far as to accuse Barack Obama of “hating Israel.” (David Duke himself, in a video also released over the weekend, qualifies his otherwise wholehearted celebration of Trump’s campaign with regret at Trump’s support for Israel.) The white nationalists are nevertheless impressed by Trump’s patience for their own views, and cheered by the discursive opportunities that other Trumpian speech acts open up for them. In a phone interview on Morning Joe from earlier this month, for example, Trump performs a kind of fascism of ambiguity. He warns Joe Scarborough that “some of our so-called allies, that we work with and we protect […] militarily,” are “sending massive amounts of money to ISIS.” When a puzzled Scarborough asks if Trump means “the Saudis,” Trump replies: “Of course they’re doing it. Everybody knows that. […] There are [others], but I’m not gonna say it, because I have a lot of relationships with people. […] And everybody knows that, and nobody says it.” When the antisemitic conspiracy theorists of the alt right boast that Trump is signaling to them here—as if to reaffirm that his defense of whiteness has room not just for antiblackness, not just for anti-immigrant violence, not just for Islamophobia, but for their particular concerns, too—can that claim be dismissed?

I’m not sure it can, but, in any case, I’m not happy to have arrived in the position of asking the question the way I did. I want to have not spent a full week monitoring online white supremacists who might have watched a video of me. And I never wanted to devote this much time to considering Donald Trump.

I find it difficult to write anything about Trump without falling into the rhythms of a kind of purely additive logic of offense, indexing every line he has comfortably crossed and every marginalized community against whom he invites further violence. And it is, needless to say, important to catalog these offenses, as a record not just of what some Americans want, but also of what America is; and the list is overwhelming. Trump’s hatred of women understandably became one of the most prominent headlines from his night in Grand Rapids, after a calculated series of grossly misogynist remarks on Hillary Clinton. With the luxury of online mediation, which is to say without a lying bigot’s camera in my face, I feel somewhat more comfortable venturing a complex thought and affirming that I am not a supporter of Hillary Clinton while identifying Trump’s spectacularized contempt for her body as awful and dangerous.

As I’ve continued to reflect on my experience that night, though, and on what happened both inside and outside the arena after I was expelled, I’ve kept returning to another theatrical moment that resulted in slightly fewer headlines. This moment prompts questions for me about “fascism,” a frustratingly malleable but still necessary word, and about the historical memory which, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, shades the horizon of every discussion of the American fascism of Trump’s campaign.

About fifteen minutes into his speech—between my departure, then, and Hill’s—Trump complains that the media are against him. They never turn their cameras away from his face to show the size of his crowds. “Turn the camera,” he starts to instruct each photographer individually. Most of them oblige, sweeping up and down the crowds as if Trump were conducting an orchestra. (I don’t blame the camera operators here: faced with the sea of indignant Michigan whiteness they were now documenting, they might have agreed to do so for fear of incurring a riot.)

If only in aesthetic terms—that is, if only in the terms famously laid out by Benjamin in the epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—this is a classically fascist moment. With an air at once harsh and gracious, Trump gives his audience a chance to contemplate the beauty of its own magnitude. This is indeed about me, he’s saying, but I will make them admit it is also about you. I am indeed a great man, but I am great largely insofar as I command your respect and channel your power. Look at that power now. I’ve been haunted for a week, and will be for much longer, by the rhyme between the moment when Hill turned his camera around to spit into it the word “Jews,” and the moment when Trump assumed control of those cameras to honor the anger of a full stadium. He would confirm minutes later that such anger could incorporate, with no direct resistance from him, “commitment” to a politics that begins with the sentence “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” This has been noted.

November 16, 2014

The watch: some notes on recent film

“Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review,” suggested Jamelle Bouie, before anything else, in a piece for Slate in September titled “A Few Helpful Rules for Reviewing Books About Slavery.” He was responding, of course, to The Economist‘s soon-infamous defense of slavery in the form of a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The movie still in question no longer appears next to the withdrawn article, which The Economist has kept online “in the interests of transparency,” but it’s an image of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. It was originally captioned with the words “Patsey was certainly a valuable property,” and positioned just to the right of the review’s opening paragraph—a paragraph that begins, with no introduction, by reproducing the text of a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper ad quoted in Baptist’s book: “FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications.” The Economist‘s anonymous reviewer goes on to explain that “such accounts […] punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.” The ascription of grimness to Baptist’s history, and not to “the business,” is already a sign of the direction the review will go in. Not contesting Baptist’s arguments so much as slickly ignoring them, it will come to focus on a claim that increased cotton production between 1800 and 1850 can be attributed to slaveholders’ supposed “vested interest” in “better treatment”—having adapted, to accompany this claim, the image of a character whose fate, onscreen and off, contradicts the claim on every imaginable level. Even before this, though, the original combination of the grotesquely captioned photo and the unattributed slaveowner’s ad copy has had the fleeting but unmistakably uncanny effect of making The Economist‘s article feel, itself, like an advertisement.

Bouie’s article was one of many necessary responses. Others include Jeet Heer’s tweets on The Economist‘s faux-contrarian history of apologism for slavery and posts by Will B. Mackintosh, Greg Grandin, and Chris Taylor on the inseparability of that apologism from the defense of capitalism. Ta-Nehisi Coates also tweeted about his memory of a stream of similar magazine articles throughout the 90s, articles for which “no one ever apologized”—a reflection, in some ways, of the same recent social-media developments whose radical potentialities are beautifully explored by Ashon Crawley in an essay from August, “Do It For the Vine,” on the occupation of Ferguson.

And it’s the appearance of The Economist‘s review at this precise time, in the wake of initial events in Ferguson, that has been on my mind for a while, along with Bouie’s crucial first rule: Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review of a history of slavery. I’ve been thinking about why that rule was broken, why it will surely be broken again, and the implications of those facts for navigating a contemporary film environment that continues to engage, consciously or not, with the history and continuation of American white supremacy and antiblack violence. The intimacy of the connection between contemporary discussions of, respectively, America’s cinematic history and its racist legacy is suggested by the way The Economist‘s article—even while implicitly allowing a cinematic image to stand in for history—advances, almost word for word, the same evaluative claim about Baptist’s work as history that conservative American critics tended to make about 12 Years a Slave itself as cinema. (“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave,” wrote James Bowman in the American Spectator, “as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that [Steve] McQueen does not want us to hear about it. This […] surely means that his view of the history of the American South is as partial and one-sided as that of the hated Gone With the Wind.” Like The Economist‘s, these are sentences to which it’s hard to know how to respond. One detail I would highlight, though, is the conflation of seeing with hearing about: Bowman’s cherished fantasy of an apolitical film about slavery—the basis of his whole non-review—can’t be sustained even on its own terms, thanks to his evident disinclination to approach 12 Years a Slave as a film about Solomon Northup at all.)

Movies are, it’s true, usually not works of history. Hence the acuity of the need to read them historically. What joins together for me an apparently disparate group of movies I’ve seen in the last three years is a feeling that they demand to be seen as documents of the same American moment for which “Ferguson” might have become one shorthand. I would hesitate to make too strong a periodizing claim, partly because I’ve also been spending time with Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonismswhich is, among many other things, a reminder that one name for a cinema persistently structured by logics and optics of antiblackness simply is and always has been American cinema. Still, the purpose of this post is to gather together some thoughts (other viewers’ and my own, with suggestions for further reading gratefully encouraged) about a period loosely bookended by two events: the release of The Watch, formerly titled Neighborhood Watch, in July 2012, which coincided with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the release of Let’s Be Cops in August of this year, which—as Wesley Morris observed in an essential piece for Grantland—coincided with the police murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson uprising, as well as with the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing.

One undeniable feature of this period is its relative abundance of major releases by black directors directly addressing, from various geographic and historical angles, struggles for black life and resistance in the face of white supremacy. The last two years have seen 12 Years a Slave; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; and, from across the Atlantic, Amma Assante’s Belle—a dramatization of part of the prehistory of the English legal abolition of slavery that reaches one of several narrative climaxes with a scene of a woman looking at a painting, and thus a movie that might have a lot to tell The Economist. But in this post I want to see what emerges from close attention to three other films and to some threads that connect them and lead out elsewhere: The Watch; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; and After Earth.

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“The narrative strategies labor like responsible citizens, razing social barriers of the ‘past’ and democratizing the personal pronoun we. The cinematic strategies labor like watch commanders, sending the spectator out on patrol.”—Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black

The closing credits of The Watch begin to the sound of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” It’s obviously not a film that could have known what was coming, or one that shows much of a desire, in general, for proximity to the political. Granted, some of the jokes in its first few minutes are at the expense of the privileged subjectivity of Ben Stiller’s hero, Evan Trautwig—a Costco manager and city councilor in Glenview, Ohio, struggling with his fertility and, as a result, with his marriage—who announces hopefully in the opening voiceover that he’s “on the market” for a black friend, and who can conceal neither his surprise nor his awkward pleasure when Jamarcus, played by Richard Ayoade, shows up to volunteer for the local patrol he’s organized after the mysterious killing of a Latino employee. (This is arguably one of the most remarkable signs of The Watch‘s pre-Zimmerman origins. The depiction of a neighborhood watch founded in order to investigate the killing of a Latino who had just become an American citizen—with a fresh tattoo to prove it—seems to reveal the movie’s assumption that the key suspicion it must allay within its audience is the suspicion that any neighborhood watchers would prejudicially target, first and foremost, residents suspected to be unrecognized as American citizens by the law.) Trautwig has advertised the patrol at a high-school football game, bribing an announcer so he can deliver a halftime speech in a scene that holds up a small-town mirror to Bane’s injunction to Gothamites to “take control of [their] city” in The Dark Knight Rises. The only volunteers before Jamarcus have been Vince Vaughn’s Bob, the paranoid and authoritarian father of a teen girl, and Jonah Hill’s Franklin, a kid with a knife who always wanted to be a cop.

White anxiety and white vigilantism are, in these early scenes, more or less satirical targets. And yet the movie’s ineluctable embeddedness within histories of racialized surveillance and violence starts to become clearer with the late revelation that Jamarcus is the only member of the team who is also a member, however friendly, of an invading alien species, and the only such alien we see in human form. The film’s position here is underscored by a certain correspondence between, on the one hand, the alteration of its title in the wake of events in Florida, and, on the other, the trajectory of George Zimmerman himself before the day he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not officially on duty as the local neighborhood watch captain that day; nor was he licensed, as that captain, to be armed; nor was he ever on duty as the policeman he, too, always wanted to be, the kind of cop whose heroic death is marked with the term that served as the title of another big movie in 2012, End of Watch. In short, it wasn’t even really in the name of any neighborhood watch that Zimmerman acted. He was simply watching. And the nature of his concern for a neighborhood meant that he was on the lookout for perceived threats not just against that neighborhood but against an entire world—just as, onscreen, Trautwig and his crew soon come to realize that Glenview is (as Bob says) “ground zero” for an inestimably larger fight. It happens to be a fight against aliens whose strength is displayed, in one sequence, by the way one of them resists the group’s chokehold (as Bob shouts “Bring him down“)—and who, in a scene emphasized in trailers released after the title change, must be shot many, many times, even as they lie prone on the ground, before they are dead.

Eventually, with one exception, they all are. Trautwig and his wife have apparently adopted a child and repaired their relationship, and Franklin has finally been accepted onto the police force, in what feels like an alternate origin story for Hill’s character in 21 Jump Street, released four months before, or a teaser for its sequel, released two years later. (Without which, as Wesley Morris speculates, Let’s Be Cops probably wouldn’t exist.) When he wanted to join the neighborhood watch, Franklin’s desire to “work through [his] emotional shit and bust some heads in the process” was an unsettling joke. His hard-won opportunity to realize this desire with a badge is one unspoken component of a happy ending.

If the violence of the second half of The Watch is shocking and obvious, it might be instructive to consider the appearance and the operation of the kinds of watching that undergird it. And not only in brash and spectacularly ill-timed comedies of policing, but also in the kinds of movies that see their purpose as something closer to the quiet documentation of the ongoing scene of everyday American life—movies like, say, a low-budget post-mumblecore comedy, with likable actors and a mellow vibe, which wants nothing more than to breeze away eighty minutes in Baton Rouge and give its audience a few reminders that everything happens for a reason.

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That’s certainly how the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home tended to be received on its limited release, three months before The Watch, in March 2012. It’s an unassuming movie that would never dream of advocating violence against anyone. It also obeys a narrative logic wholly incomprehensible without the premise that white men are licensed, by some secret law of a beneficent universe, to watch and follow people who are not white men.

The full weight of this law is revealed only at the movie’s end, but it’s most glaringly evident in the first twenty minutes. Jason Segel’s Jeff, the younger of two brothers and an unemployed thirty-year-old stoner, is introduced to the audience on the couch in his mom’s basement as he records a blissed-out monologue about his conviction (largely derived from another alien-invasion movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs) that everything happens for a reason. You just have to follow the signs. The movie’s world immediately seems to bend to accommodate his faith: an infomercial on TV urges Jeff to “pick up that phone,” at which moment the phone rings, and a stranger on the other end asks to speak to “Kevin.” When Jeff says there’s no Kevin there, the stranger angrily insists otherwise, spells out the name—kay ay vee eye en!and hangs up. While Jeff is wondering what “Kevin” could mean, his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, calls from her office and asks him to go to the store to buy some wood glue so that he can fix a shutter that’s been broken forever. On the bus to the store, Jeff sees, seated in front of him, a young black man (played by Evan Ross) wearing a jersey that bears, sure enough, the name “KEVIN.” The man soon gets off the bus, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Jeff abandons his errand to do the same. He stalks the man through a convenience store, as mock-ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Eventually he ends up hovering at the edge of a basketball court where the man has joined his friends for a game. When one of the other players is hurt, Jeff is invited to play, and then to go off and smoke some pot with the young man, whose name, it turns out, is Kevin after all. After a drag on a shared joint, Jeff is in the middle of praising the quality of the pot when—with the effect of a jump scare, a sudden intrusion into the space of the scene—two darker-skinned black men attack him from behind, beat him to the ground, and take his wallet, while Kevin looks on. “Sorry, Jeff,” Kevin says, and disappears from the movie, having fulfilled his twofold function: he has been briefly held in the film’s gaze as, first, a suitable target for the innocent and well-meaning Jeff to follow across town in his pursuit of signs, and, second, the bearer of an unpredictable violence depicted as fundamentally unconnected to that earlier pursuit. (Until the moment of the assault, Jeff thinks they’re just new friends smoking together, and the audience has been encouraged to think the same.)

In its sudden shift from whimsically scored humanist comedy into unscored, “realistic” violence, this sequence comes closer than anything I know to presenting someone literally mugged by reality. Even in the most generous possible reading of the sequence—where its goal, say, is a liberally informed gesture toward a social world Jeff has no knowledge of, delivered in order to stress his privileged naïveté, his unpreparedness for the cruelty of everyday life—the only realization of that aim the film can imagine is a blunt presentation of Kevin as a deceptive embodiment of that cruelty. (Evan Ross brings as much to the role as anyone could, but it’s precisely his affable charisma that the scene betrays.) And yet the movie finds a way to fold this “reality” back into a providential narrative, without ever returning to Kevin or his friends, and over the course of the next hour Jeff’s stoned-innocent approach to the world will be emphatically confirmed as the right one anyway.

That’s what really fascinates me about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I think: that after Jeff is “beaten up by Kevin” (which is how he describes the event a few minutes later, though Kevin himself didn’t touch him), the movie obliges Jeff in the continuation of his quest for a Kevin-event. It ultimately allows him to find, indeed, another Kevin—one who looks very different, who happens to have a last name, and who redeems, in a single stroke, Jeff’s day-long search for “a perfect moment,” his previously aimless life, and, by implication, our experience as moviegoers. After the mugging, Jeff wanders across town and runs into his older and seemingly better-adjusted brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms. But Pat has his own problems: his marriage is collapsing, and he’s just bought, against his wife Linda’s express wishes, a new Porsche that she knows they can’t afford. Linda, played by Judy Greer, is unhappy about it. (Later it becomes clear just how cogent her analysis of the situation is, in a scene Greer imbues with a startling intensity: she doesn’t love Pat anymore, and, as she tells him, she’s glad they haven’t yet bought a house or had any kids, because that will make it easier to end the relationship. But the movie is not going to let this happen.) Pat also has reasons to suspect she’s having an affair, and so he enlists the help of a reluctant Jeff in a creepy pursuit of Linda across the city. There’s an interlude in a cemetery, where the two brothers’ bickering is briefly interrupted by the revelation that they’ve both been having the same dream about their father, who died in 1995. Events unfold from here so that the paths of all the major characters converge in the same traffic jam, on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, at which point Jeff realizes that another car has gone off the bridge; jumps into the water; saves two young white girls and then, with more difficulty, their father; and is saved, in turn, by Pat. After these dramatic developments, Jeff and Pat reconcile; Pat and Linda are implied to be back on track (perhaps with a child in the future); and Jeff is back on the couch, watching a news report that teases upcoming coverage of “the rescue tale of local councilman Kevin Landry.”

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Jeff’s decision to trust his instincts and follow that first Kevin on the bus, in short, began a series of events with a fantastically overdetermined resolution: the preservation of a marriage, the saving of three lives, and, as a function of the particular lives saved, a tangible civic benefit. A councilman lives to adjudicate another day. Satisfied, Jeff fixes the shutter. The camera’s shutter closes and the movie is over.

So it turns out that Jeff, Who Lives at Home and The Watch aren’t as far apart as they might look, with disparities in genre, tone, and critical reception starting to feel more like the elements of a good-cop/bad-cop dialectic—or, you could say, like the superficial fraternal differences between two movies that are having the same dream. Both are effectively comedies of remarriage in which the health of a white heterosexual couple’s relationship is tied to the health of their city, metonymized in the figure of a white city councilman. In order for this conjugal-civic happiness to be restored, Councilman Evan Trautwig must pump bullets into bodies in one city, while, in another, Jeff must stoically suffer an unprovoked beating at the hands of a Kevin who, despite actually bearing the name across his body, could never have been the Kevin he was looking for. To one viewer posting on an IMDB forum, this Kevin stands in for an urgently underestimated threat to civil society itself, a “racist” epidemic of young black men robbing “white guys or couples” in attacks that are never reported nationally, only locally. The viewer is upset by the injustice; still, he enjoyed the movie.

One other impassioned IMDB comment is worth noting: “This movie,” says a different forum member, “changed my stance on homosexuality.” This is the plot strand I haven’t mentioned (and in fact its separability from the main plot was a sticking point for other viewers), but the film’s vision of liberal community does have room for a tentatively established interracial queer couple. Jeff’s widowed mother Sharon has an online “secret admirer” at the office, gradually revealed to be Carol, the friendly coworker she’s been keeping apprised of the mysterious admiring messages all along, played by Rae Dawn Chong. The movie ends with Sharon maintaining on some level that she doesn’t identify as gay, while keeping the option of a relationship with Carol very much open, because, as Carol has said, they get each other. These scenes are sensitively played by Chong and Sarandon, and I don’t want to discount the remarkable effect they clearly had on one viewer, and maybe on others. I would just say that another way of getting at what makes Jeff, Who Lives At Home so interesting to me—what really makes it, I think, something like a defining movie of its era—is the way it seems to invite and to reward the reading practices of both of these IMDB comments simultaneously. The film is a careful shaping of an ostensible American everyday into a perfect moment, where “perfection” means the safe continuation of existing conditions and “the everyday” encompasses queer couple formation and contextless black-on-white violence. Watching Sharon and Carol find happiness with each other, it’s easy to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home as a document of a year when dramatic advances in same-sex marriage movements were taken to show the continued acceptance of LGBT people into American life. Focusing on the larger narrative that redeems Pat and Linda’s marriage, by way of Jeff’s progress through a raced teleology of Kevins, I think of Dan Savage—surely one of the most prominent champions of marriage in contemporary America—whose tendency to cast black citizens as ontological obstacles to the march of “marriage equality” garnered him appreciative citations in the fantasy fiction of (once again) The American Spectator. Here Trayvon Martin’s “homophobia” serves as an explanation for his fear of the man who was stalking him, and consequently as an excuse for his own death.

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“’I was like, “No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!”‘ Smith said, spoiling the film.”—The Huffington Post

ghosting, noun. the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen”—Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The prominence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs as a motivating factor in Jeff’s odyssey through the everyday makes it all the more striking to find, in the Shyamalan film released the following year, a kind of sustained aesthetic resistance against the system of signs on which movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home rely. Not that this did After Earth any critical favors. It’s undeniably a Shyamalan movie—in ways that Ben’s great post from last year investigates—though popular understanding of its authorship certainly tilted more than usual toward its star and coproducer. It was an M. Night Shyamalan movie but a Will Smith event, and, as such, it was met with roughly the same widespread derision and hostility as Smith’s decision not to play the role of a formerly enslaved bounty hunter in a movie that wouldn’t let that character kill the main antagonist himself. Smith had made it very clear that he’d declined the offer of Django Unchained not just because he could afford to, but because he’d felt—like the Academy, as it turned out—that the title character wasn’t the most significant one. In early 2013, everyone seemed to think this was evidence of hilarious vanity. (Around the same time, Smith was profiled, along with his son and After Earth costar Jaden, in a piece for New York that gave the impression of having been calculated to make him appear as out of sync with the world as possible; and he co-produced Shola Lynch’s documentary on Angela Davis.) So it was partly for this reason that a gleeful sense of karmic justice was palpable in the air when After Earth, the film Will Smith had turned down Quentin Tarantino himself in order to make, debuted to reviews like Joe Morgenstern’s in The Wall Street Journal, asking if it was the worst movie ever made.

The intensity of so many of the attacks on After Earth made every thoughtful response to the movie feel like a gift: Armond White’s review for CityArts, or Ben’s post, or Olivia Cole’s, or—one of the best things I read online in 2013—Nicholas Ochiel’s. And I don’t have much to add to these readings beyond a few more intertextual considerations, a few attempts to think through how the landscape the film is situated in makes it resonate all the more powerfully.

On the surface, the film’s premise and poetics might bring to mind an Afrofuturist echo of Fanon’s conviction, repeatedly cited by Frank Wilderson in Red, White & Black, that the end of white supremacy must mean nothing less than “the end of the world.” In its uncompromising interrogation of the antiblackness that saturates “the epistemic air we breathe,” and in its insistence on both the necessity and the incomprehensibility of the end of such a world, Wilderson’s book could almost have been titled After Earth itself. “To say we must be free of air,” as he writes near the conclusion, “while admitting to knowledge of no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here.” From this perspective, the sight of Jaden Smith as Kitai Raige reaching for the “air-filtration inhalers” that will allow his temporary survival on an Earth with insufficient oxygen points toward a way of reading the dangers of this anti-human atmosphere (with White, Cole, and Ochiel) such that they come to resemble dangers much closer to home. The full setup clarifies the nature of this cinematic “end of the world,” and reveals a subversion of the decisive temporality promised by the title. Kitai has crash-landed on the planet with his father, General Cypher Raige, a thousand years after humans have been forced to abandon it. The Raiges’ ship is dead and there’s nowhere else to go. On the same ship was a captive member of the Ursa species, fierce creatures from the new homeworld, capable of tracking humans by chemically detecting their fear. (It’s General Raige who has led humans in the fight against the Ursa, but one of them, years ago, killed Kitai’s sister.) The captive Ursa has escaped; the general’s legs are broken; the other half of the ship is miles away. Kitai must elude unfamiliar predators, stay warm, conserve his limited oxygen supply, find the ship’s tail, and activate its beacon to send a distress signal into space, or—the line recurs—”we are going to die.” So he begins to make his way across the harsh landscape, digitally tracked by his father from the crash site, and wearing a skintight suit of “smart fabric” that senses threats, its darkness marking him out for danger: “My suit’s turned black. I like it but I think it’s something bad.”

Even this brief sketch of the action of After Earth suggests its radical difference from other movies of its period. It is a kind of apocalyptic mirror image of the settler-colonial kitsch of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, in which a white boy and girl in 1965 New England find romantic bliss against a pristinely empty natural backdrop that could only have been created for them, with Hank Williams on the soundtrack. (The confidence of a white at-homeness in the world extends into the name of one of Moonrise Kingdom‘s production companies, Steven Rales’s “Indian Paintbrush,” which also helped finance Jeff, Who Lives at Home.) It’s also galaxies away from the two other big post-Earth releases of last year, Oblivion and Elysium—or, more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—where, more conventionally, the Earth itself is what’s at stake, to be rescued or redeemed through heroic individuality. (Ben calls this “a whiteness of genre.” Hollywood’s inability to visualize humanity’s salvation without whiteness at the center has also resulted in a recent wave of egregiously white Biblical epics. What I tried to explore in the paragraphs above, triangulating from The Watch and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is how the sense of a world at stake can make itself felt as well in white American conceptions of the everyday. As for sci-fi, though, maybe it should be noted that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion—which, like After Earth, was mocked as a Scientologist vanity project, though with less vitriol—makes “vanity” feel like an odd verdict, too, with the news that Earth was destroyed by nothing other than an army of clones who all thought they were Tom Cruise.) And, finally, After Earth stands in sharp relief against Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another speculative fantasy that grounds its story of a child passing through ruined earthly environments, and toward a climactic confrontation with unearthly creatures, in the child’s relationship with a critically compromised father.

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The difference here isn’t just between the near-unanimous critical praise for one film and the near-unanimous dismissal of another. After seeing After Earth for the first time (and after reading so many reviews that seemed to locate a critique of Jaden Smith’s acting solely in a recognition of how much of the movie he spends looking terrified), I kept returning to a pair of brilliant posts from Social Text, by Christina Sharpe and Jayna Brown respectively, on the exuberance of the critical consensus around Beasts. And also on the movie’s “romance of precarity”—or how its effective reception as an inspiring document among largely white audiences depended on the blackness of its desperately poor protagonists “mak[ing] their precarity unreadable as precarity.” Responding to an Occupy-themed blog post by Nicholas Mirzoeff that had celebrated six-year-old Hushpuppy as a heroine whose “wilding” allowed viewers “a means to visualize climate resistance,” Sharpe is devastating:

How does a little black girl child orphaned and abandoned become a vision for climate resistance for so many people who watched the film? It is precisely this kind of misprision, this not feeling or seeing, that subtends an event like the death of Glenda Moore’s sons during Hurricane Sandy. Riffing on Invisible Man, optic white does not see your plight.

The film ends with Hushpuppy, six years old, motherless, fatherless, kinless, leading a group of black and white children and adults through a causeway after pushing her father’s corpse out to sea. She is caretaker, man, boy, girl, woman all within herself; she is part of the community but complete unto herself. Abandoned to precarious life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, in this analysis, is unable to acknowledge or comprehend the burden it needs Hushpuppy to bear. It depicts an uninhabitable environment and at the same time encourages its audience to view Hushpuppy and her father as at home in it. In contrast, the specificity of After Earth’s sci-fi scenario allows it to go out of its way, from the opening shot, both to show the beauty of a digitally realized, wildly post-human planet, and to insist that this Earth is not where Kitai wants to be, or should be. His suffering is not in the service of saving it, because he is not The One, because no one is. There’s no Wall-Evian fantasy of repopulation here, no trace of the redemptive turn embedded in Oblivion‘s tagline: ”Earth is a memory / Worth fighting for.” Instead, Earth is a nightmare to be woken from (with repeated scenes of characters urging Kitai to wake up); in terms of structure and affect, everything is pared down; and the boy at the center is “a vision of climate resistance” only insofar as the experience of the film is that of watching him resist a climate.

In short, this is not a pretense of representing the social. As Nicholas Ochiel’s post in particular indicates so sharply, it may be more like a pretense of not representing it. And Ochiel’s reading of Kitai’s experience through the lens of the truth that “it has always been open season on black folk in America” enables, I think, a decisive response to one of the most popular and most tedious objections to After Earth on “scientific” grounds, voiced across the Internet even before the movie’s release: namely that its suggestion of a kind of malevolent evolutionary agency, articulated in Cypher’s warning to his son that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” reveals the movie’s ignorance of the laws of evolution. Now, under any circumstances, this objection would represent a notable failure to approach a work of art on its own terms. When Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people” in trailers for The Sixth Sense, the utterance wasn’t widely received as evidence that “M. Night Shyamalan has no idea how death works.” But what the complaint misses here, crucially, is the very deliberate construction of a libidinal ecology—one whose surprising and willful distance from any coherent message about either evolution, or, as in Shyamalan’s The Happening, climate change, is indicated by its supplementation with a monster that is literally a fear machine, hanging bodies from trees. This ecology is not a happening but a structure, comparable to the libidinal economy of antiblackness whose irreducibility to the political economy of capitalism Wilderson is always at pains to emphasize. (In this sense, the notion that After Earth’s environment is more hostile than it has to be simply because the film “doesn’t understand the laws of evolution” is analogous to The Economist’s claim, against Edward Baptist, that slaveholders must have learned to practice “better treatment” because to do otherwise would have gone against the laws of the market. And I would say that one picture of an environment constantly evolving toward violence against a particular kind of body, even if direct opportunities for that violence remain temporarily absent, can be found in The Watch.) What the movie commits to putting on the screen, above all, is a world weaponized against a black teenager’s survival.

Following Ochiel’s and Ben’s readings, I would stress that it’s in this context that After Earth‘s study of fear needs to be understood. General Raige learned to defeat Ursas by “ghosting,” purging his body of any trace of terror. Halfway through the movie, in a monologue filmed largely in one medium shot, he gives his son an account of the events that led to his first learning to ghost, arriving at a formulation that was shortened and emblazoned on posters everywhere: “DANGER IS REAL / FEAR IS A CHOICE.” Armond White recognized this as “street hardness.” Reactions more commonly tended to be divided between, on the one hand, an assumption that any discourse of fear-management was necessarily Scientology, and, on the other, a dismissal of this assumption which also stripped the movie of its particularity altogether. “Saying that danger is real but fear is not is run-of-the-mill ‘brave warrior’ stuff,” claimed a Scientology scholar, in a Gawker article titled After Earth is Just a Shitty Movie, Not Scientology Propaganda.” And, divorced from its context, of course Cypher’s dictum is run-of-the-mill. But it’s also the thesis of a movie that is not quite After Earth itself, which holds more space for ambivalence about fear and about choices than its promotional campaigns. Ghosting, the technique that allows Cypher and then Kitai to survive, is just that—a survival technique: not an easily generalizable rule for managing subjectivity but a last-ditch affective gambit, undertaken by desperate people in order to face what was intended to destroy them. That it takes a psychological toll is obvious, if not from Cypher Raige’s name, then from Will Smith’s every word and gesture in a boldly uncharacteristic performance that so many viewers found baffling. In the closing scene, when the two are reunited, a near-dead Cypher’s rigid salute to his son collapses into an embrace, and into agreement with Kitai’s statement that he “want[s] to work with Mom” now, a scientist. Having had to become fearless is not, in this film, an enviable burden, and finally what matters is not that Kitai has become fearless but that he’s managed to stay alive. He’s managed it partly thanks to his father’s transmissible gift of ghosting; partly thanks to the unexpected maternal care of an earthly creature whose offspring had been killed; and partly thanks to a blessing and a warning received in a vision of his sister—which, further complicating the task of interpreting Cypher’s gift, might make After Earth the first Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense to feature an actual ghost.

In this vision of Earth, it’s a community born of ghostly attachments that enables continued life. (And even after the final defeat of the monster that most spectacularly threatened life, the ecosystem still has to be abandoned.) This, then, is not a Shyamalan movie without a twist: the twist is survival, in spite of everything, a survival that is alone worth the telling.

Against a white everyday that continues to sustain itself through criminalizing and policing black life, resistance in Ferguson and elsewhere is the necessary dream of an Earth after this Earth.

December 30, 2011

Worlds and their subjects supposed to feel, or not

This post isn’t really about Christopher Hitchens either, or not entirely. On the recent wave of encomia to Hitchens and their necessary erasures—and the felt need to dissent from a kind of miniature Christmas effect in reverse, by saying, The death of an Iraqi does not mean less than the death of a man who defended, encouraged and discursively enabled a war that killed Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands—I don’t have anything to add to Anthony Alessandrini in Jadaliyya, or Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Bady in Salon, or, more briefly, a few tweets by @abubanda. (See also: Dani Nayyar on Christmas and being shot in Baghdad.) But I was thinking about these sentences from a post by Corey Robin, quoted by Alessandrini, titled “Yes, But”:

[T]hat people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the [Iraq] war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

My own “yes, but”: while I agree with most of this, honestly, I’m interested in denying some of the other virtues, or in attending to other reflections of “the culture he helped create” that are disturbing. After a few conversations with people who wanted to defend the legacy, I was trying to figure out how I’d feel even if it were possible to block out imperial war in just the way Robin calls into question (and which so many writers seem to think it is anyway): if, say, we were trying to talk abstractly about a public intellectual who was a former Marxist and a prominent atheist. More specifically, the kind of atheist who commits all energies toward a fight against religious faith that’s seen as the essential fight, because religious faith, as such, is the essential enemy. And so I was remembering some other thoughts I’d had about The Invention of Lying, a movie by one of Hitchens’s most vocal pop-cultural disciples, Ricky Gervais … which I hated maybe as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, but which I think is arguably a useful text insofar as it stages a kind of central misprision or denial at the heart of “New Atheism.”

I saw the movie more than a year ago, and I’m not going to watch the whole thing again, so my memory of it isn’t perfect. I also haven’t gotten very far looking online for the symptomatic readings that other people must have written, because most of the Google results for [“the invention of lying” + “capitalism”] only reflect that Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was released in the same year, 2009. But what it comes down to for me is that The Invention of Lying—which, importantly, wants to be seen not just as a minor comedy but as a comedy of radical ideas—could have been called Existing Social Relations: An Apologia. Gervais plays an American citizen in an alternate world where no one lies or tells stories, where human beings “haven’t evolved” the ability to speak anything other than “the truth”—a world which is, perversely, identical to the world we know, except that on the level of day-to-day interpersonal interaction we’re meaner to each other. Gervais’s character has money trouble, because capital exists, and, early in the film, he’s talking to a bank teller and the magic moment arrives: he’s bowled over by the realization that he can tell her (and gender is not irrelevant) that there’s more in his bank account than there actually is, and that she’ll believe him, because she’ll believe anything. Suddenly the scene feels haunted by the ghost of a more subversive movie it could have come from, one that might have been written by David Graeber: the foundational lie is patriarchal (a man lies to a woman) and it is also the creation of credit; it is (by extension) debt; it is money.

At which point the movie stops thinking about money, and moves on to “comedic” scenes like one in which the newly powerful Gervais lies to another woman who can’t process lies, so as to have sex with her, and nearly does that. I remember the movie’s trailer stopping at the suggestion that he had; which would have been rape. (The movie itself celebrates him for relinquishing his power over her. In these scenes, Gervais’s conception of “the (man’s) lie” is like a perfected version of Hitchens’s famous conception of “the (man’s) joke,” the joke that the ugly but funny man tells the unfunny but beautiful woman in order to produce a state of eroticized helplessness. Not only do I think most women, non-binary folks, and men are actually funnier than Christopher Hitchens—his paeans to the “involuntary […] mirth, “shocked surprise,” and “sweet surrender of female laughter” unsettle me deeply.) Finally, after those scenes, I remember the movie shifting into a second and third act in which, as you may know even if you haven’t seen it, Gervais the liar accidentally invents religion, a “man in the sky.” The satirical target becomes the pathetic childish gullibility of anyone who believes in God. (Don’t they know better?)

And this move out of the bank and into the church—this submission to an inchoately grasped capitalist realism, so that the task becomes, not radically restructuring the world on material grounds, but rather “liberating” the world solely by getting it to stop believing in the immaterial—this move which is crucially underlain by effectively unquestioned, coercively maintained white male privilege and domination of people who are not white men—maybe I’m being irresponsible, but this feels to me like a rough but adequate sketch, if not of Christopher Hitchens’s career, then certainly of the New Atheist program of which he was one of the most visible faces.

 

Having said that, I want to talk about the grimaces.

The arrogance of Gervaisian atheism in The Invention of Lying is also what allows the movie to achieve some poignant moments in spite of itself. After I saw it with friends, one of the things we bonded in annoyance over was the boring inattention to any possible distinction between “unable to tell a lie” and “unable to stop yourself from blurting out rude shit, unprompted.” But it’s not only that: in this movie people say whatever’s on their minds, and Ricky Gervais alone, because he’s (explicitly) the future inventor of lying and (implicitly) the atheist who’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, is hurt by it. The people he runs into tell him that they think he’s ugly, stupid, incompetent, whatever; and, instead of reacting the way someone would react who had been raised in a world where everyone said this to everyone else all the time, he responds exactly as Ricky Gervais would respond. Even before he invents lying, we look at his face and see that he knows what lying is, because it’s what he wants from sociality. And I was reminded of this by a bad video that Grant shared on Facebook a while ago—another unfunny comedy and another failure to found an alternate reality, in this case “a world of true equality between men and women.”

[“A Feminist’s Dream Date,” from YouTube. Transcript coming soon.]

Again: beyond wanting to show one boy relating to one girl in the spirit of “true equality,” this video wants to be a document from a world of “true equality”; and it wants to convince us that such a world is undesirable. (One of the “related videos” on YouTube, when I watched it, was a clip titled “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” in which Hitchens tells a stunned female TV host, “They’re called the gentler sex for a reason […] I’m here to take care of them.” Of course Hitchens insultingly misread Judith Butler in the New York Times, and presented his misreading as a critique. Of course he did.) But what this video does instead, exquisitely, is to show the kernel of malignant meaninglessness in antifeminist “chivalry.” It shows us the kind of privileged American white guy who hates feminism because he believes in chivalry (which depends on inequality); and all it can think to do is subtract chivalry from the equation, revealing that, without chivalry, the guy will treat the girl he’s dating, not as a friend, a comrade, or someone who deserves a bite of popcorn or the most basic courtesy, but rather as an effectively nonhuman object in which he has no interest. And—again—what makes the video so interesting isn’t just that he treats her this way; it’s that she, too, breaks the rules the video thinks it’s following, by knowing it, and flinching in ways that bespeak expecting something else.

Like The Invention of Lying, this is an aspiring picture of a parallel world whose laziness is betrayed by winces, glimpses of a kind of lived affective archive that could only have been accumulated in this world. Not coincidentally a world where men like Christopher Hitchens and Ricky Gervais will defend to the death their right to offend you. I’m not sure if it would be all too precise, or not precise enough, to say that these characters who wince are like Sara Ahmed’s affect aliens, “unseated by the table of happiness”—they’re more like affect ambassadors, whose half-intended role is to show us the strangeness of a new world by acting, impossibly, as our surrogates in it. And, as much as I dislike and distrust the texts they come from, in some way I welcome these figures. Heading into a new year, inside a moment that at least seems to accommodate more and more thinking in public about the new worlds that people might actually want to inhabit, I think the fact that so many of us actually are ambassadors like this—inevitably bearing the imprints or scars of the world we want to see left behind—is worth keeping in mind.

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