Have a Good Time

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown

landedited

“A great unrest was on the land. It was not merely moral leadership from above—it was the push of mental and physical pain from beneath;—not simply the cry of the Abolitionist but the upstretching of the slave. The vision of the damned was stirring the western world and stirring black men as well as white. Something was forcing the issue—call it what you will, the Spirit of God or the spell of Africa. It came like some great grinding ground swell,—vast, indefinite, immeasurable but mighty […].”
W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Chapter V

“And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police”
Miguel James, “Against the Police”

I spent a good part of the last year thinking about W. E. B. Du Bois and John Brown. It wasn’t meant to take a year, but then I’m slow. The prompt for the form of the thought was throat surgery, related to longstanding chronic health conditions, which two summers ago resulted in slight but lingering difficulties with speech and subtle changes to the sound of my voice. Looking for ways to work through those changes, I returned to an old interest in Librivox, where volunteers create recordings of texts in the public domain, and for my first solo project I chose the 1909 edition of Du Bois’s biography of Brown (sadly missing the communist revisions of 1962) because I’d had my eye on it for a while, and because I was surprised to find no one had read it yet.

(I also missed my old, fuller, sharper voice—though how noticeable the differences are to anyone else I don’t know—and so, mostly for that reason, I restored some of the few recordings of it that I had first put online and then, like many things I put online, made private. One of them was a YouTube video from November 2013 which doubles as a kind of awkward sequel to an older post on this blog. It responds to some comments left on a clip by Mary Eng which had in turn engaged with that first post. My video focuses on Eng, Chelsea Manning, and Slavoj Žižek—who, in April of this year, did the world the favor of clarifying a position: “Transgenderism—I’m opposed to it.” Whether the world has sufficiently acknowledged that favor is another question. Free Chelsea Manning.)

I soon realized that this slow experiment—reading sentences over and over for the right emphases, seeking out other online sources for pronunciation and background information, spending hours editing each file—was a perfect way for me to get close to Du Bois’s text, to fall in love with his sentences, and to sit with the words he quoted extensively from John Brown and his contemporaries. It was also a linguistic education in settler colonialism, as my concern for articulation led me to page after page full of other white Americans disagreeing over the names of the cities in which they lived.

I wasn’t surprised to find echoes of the crises of Brown’s time in 2015that was why I had chosen the book. But for the specificity of some connections I was unprepared, and they’ve stayed with me. In June I was reading about Brown’s strategic debt to Denmark Vesey and his planned insurrection in South Carolina, days before Dylann Roof desecrated Vesey’s church and weeks before Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. (I want to come back to this later.) And flags were on my mind again in November. A few hours before I saw news of an attack in Paris, and a couple of days before Facebook was suggesting that I add a French flag to my profile picture and other users were eloquently addressing the colonial violence of that suggestion, I was reading about the 1858 Chatham convention, where John Brown and an assembly of black and white abolitionists from Canada and the U.S. drafted and debated the constitution for the “provisional government” they aimed to establish following the overthrow of slavery in the Southern states. Disagreements arose regarding the flag that this phantom government would adopt. Here, too, sympathetic intentions could not erase histories of violence. Du Bois quotes J.M. Jones’s observation that some black members of the convention, naturalized as Canadian subjects after fleeing slavery,

[…] said they would never think of fighting under the hated “Stars and Stripes.” Too many of them thought they carried their emblem on their backs. But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World, for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question.

I’m interested in the connection between this passage and another quotation from Jones at the convention, a few pages later, which ends on the same note and with the same verb:

A question as to the time for making the attack came up in the convention. Some advocated that we should wait until the United States became involved in war with some first-class power; that it would be next to madness to plunge into a strife for the abolition of slavery while the government was at peace with other nations. Mr. Brown listened to the argument for some time, then slowly arose to his full height, and said: “I would be the last one to take the advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe.” He seemed to regard it as a great insult. That settled the matter in my mind that John Brown was not insane.

Du Bois makes no explicit comment on this discussion of flags, nations, and the borders of sanity. But one aspect of his book I value deeply is its consistent attention to the difficult interplay between moral leadership from above and pain from beneath: which entails an attention to the way John Brown’s position as a white man meant both a responsibility to unsettle some matters, and the unearned, almost unquestionable authority to settle others.

More than any other white man of his time, Brown recognized the responsibility. He knew that few things would disturb the slaveholders of the South more than a white American willing to die and to kill for abolition; he came to feel that his own death was necessary, as Du Bois again quotes Jones as saying, “to awaken the people from the deep sleep that had settled upon the minds of the whites of the North.” And Du Bois closes the book’s stunning final chapter with words that situate Brown as an abiding prophet of a great un/settlement to come—in 1859, in 1909, in 1962, and in 2016: “You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.” Nevertheless, as the passages from Chatham and others attest, Brown also exploited the authority. He dismissed the voices of black men who hated the Stars and Stripes, who recognized those stripes as running parallel to the wounds on their backs. In the midst of planning what he knew would be understood—inevitably and not inaccurately—as an assault on the government that had authorized those wounds, Brown overrode their objections and insisted on flying the same government’s flag.

“Racism is decisive,” Sara Ahmed wrote in November: “It decides to whom we have an affinity (and to whom we do not).” The dissenters at Chatham knew that to define such affinities and distinctions, to make them material and to mark out which lives matter, is often a flag’s work. On occasion, even in the most radically aspirant settings, the established affinity can look like sanity, so that it is an affirmation of allegiance to a flag, or to the republic for which it stands, which can tether radical thought to the realm of the rational or the sensible. Flags can settle such matters, especially when flown, as the American and French flags were and are, by settlers.

execution

Most sources quote John Brown’s final words approaching the scaffold as some version of a sentence that can be seen to uphold a settlement: “This is a beautiful country.” Du Bois’s biography is to my knowledge the only text that has Brown say, instead, “This is a beautiful land.” And it’s true that the two sentences are nearly identical—considering that Brown wrote of “the crimes of this guilty land,” famously crimes to be “purged away with blood,” when he could have written “this guilty country.” Still, I suspect a wishful and affirmative gesture here on Du Bois’s part. “This is a beautiful country” is exquisite, of course, in the cruel optimism of its patriotic self-sacrifice. At the same time it lends itself to the merely optimistic recuperative efforts of, say, Richard Nixon—who closed a 1971 speech marking “the beginning of the Bicentennial Era” with a nod to Brown’s death: “[S]peaking to no one in particular, he said, ‘This is a beautiful country.’ If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country…”

For Nixon to be able to employ these words in such a way, it’s surely important to believe both that Brown was “speaking to no one in particular,” and that his speech unambiguously referred and deferred to the authority of the state that was about to kill him. In this vision, John Brown’s life comes to an appropriate end while the beauty of the state goes marching on—a tragic beauty, perhaps, but also a self-evident one, and all-consuming. Du Bois, in contrast, pushes Brown’s words out beyond the state and onto the land, and shows him speaking, very particularly, to a history and a future of resistance against the state unfolding across that land:

John Brown rode out into the morning. ‘This is a beautiful land,’ he said. It was beautiful. Wide, glistening, rolling fields flickered in the sunlight. Beyond, the Shenandoah went rolling northward, and still afar rose the mighty masses of the Blue Ridge, where Nat Turner had fought and died, where Gabriel had looked for refuge and where John Brown had builded his awful dream.

Du Bois’s critical “beyond,” his refusal to let Brown’s words end with the state, and his orchestration of an echo of shared struggle across the land are consistent with a biographical approach which continually foregrounds the importance of the natural world in the development of Brown’s life and thought. And which returns several times to Brown’s beliefin no way a figurative or a rhetorically exaggerated onethat God had intended the Allegheny Mountains, “from the foundation of the world,” to serve as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. There’s something here that feels strikingly like Manifest Destiny in reverse: a land imbued at once with guilt and with the seeds of an unsettling absolution.

Du Bois also quotes William A. Phillips’s report that Brown, on one night spent under a Kansas sky in the summer of 1856, “condemned the sale of land as a chattel.” Another historian suggests that an error in transcription substituted “land” for “man,” but I’m not so sure. In any case, I would suggest that in amplifying Brown’s respect for the land and its emancipatory possibility over and against the state, Du Bois’s text—though it has little to say directly about the genocide of indigenous populations—sketches a drive for abolition that leaves crucial space open for the work of decolonization and climate justice. Such an openness quietly expresses itself in the difference between “a beautiful land” and “a beautiful country”; which might be compared to the difference between a sentence like “Give us back our land” and a sentence like “We want our country back.”

On June 11 of this year, Donald Trump was at a rally in Tampa, Florida, where his supporters began to chant “Build that wall” with such passion that he was prevented from continuing his speech. Faced with an enthusiasm for containment that had become temporarily uncontainable, Trump stepped back, gave the crowd a quiet thumbs-up, clapped along with their chant as he walked away from the podium, and hugged one of three American flags displayed behind it. This wordless embrace brought the crowd’s noise to a crest and then took it down. It was generally recognized for a moment that a flag meant a wall. Trump returned in triumph to the podium and summed up the moment: “Folks. Ready? America first. Very simple. America first.” That settled the question.

Hours after Trump hugged a flag in Tampa, a hundred miles away, forty-nine people were dead and another fifty-three wounded at the hands of one would-be police officer and a team of authorized police. The victims overwhelmingly looked like those whom Trump’s supporters demand to see on the other side of a wall (and whom President Obama has been putting there); and, as Che Gossett writes, their deaths were inseparable from “a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power in relation to Puerto Rico.”

Two days later it was Flag Day. On social media and offline there was an awful overdetermination in the air, with the specifically Latinx and LGBT context of the shooting stifled by echoes of Paris and Brussels and the extra resonance of the centennial of a lesser-known national holiday. George W. Bush, standing for the political establishment supposedly worlds away from Trump’s nativism, took the opportunity to post four sentences on Facebook in which he found his own way of putting America first, or his own way of saying that America is a beautiful country. The victims of the Pulse shooting literally figure here as “others.” The words “Latina,” “Latino,” “gay,” and “homophobia” are absent, but the word “freedom” appears four times, once in each sentence. (Now, I would suggest that the late revelation of Omar Mateen’s targeting for entrapment by a voracious post-2001 FBI means that George W. Bush bears a degree of personal responsibility for the Pulse massacre that might not have been anticipated. Even if that weren’t the case, though, there would be violence in this erasure.) Trump, meanwhile, merely repeated “AMERICA FIRST” on Flag Day, because he’s a machine built to repeat it. But his fans were circulating the same fact that his butler loves to recite: it was his birthday.

I wholeheartedly accept and endorse the symbolic conjunction of Donald Trump’s birthday with Flag Day. And, in the middle of a month when I’ve walked around a segregated Michigan city and seen flags lingering at half-mast and it’s become impossible for me to disentangle the Orlando deaths thereby commemorated from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and millions of others, I want to take a moment to revisit some thoughts from six months ago. In the aftermath of an encounter with a white supremacist Trump had placated at another rally, struggling to process what had been an overwhelming experience, I wrote a post which, in retrospect, came closer than I intended to painting Trump as an exception. It approached exactly the claim I had hoped to avoid, namely that “society must be defended” against Donald Trump, when—for whatever it’s worth, and however difficult it might remain for me to absorb it and keep thinking with it—some of the intellectual work that has meant the most to me over the last two years has been work uncovering a constitutive antiblackness in American (and global) civil society, and a concomitant need for that society, as such, to end. And when every new day seems to uncover more.

So I would maintain that a good word for what burns through at moments like the rally in Tampa—a fine label, if not for the personal beliefs of a New York billionaire, then for the forces he has so effectively mobilized—is “fascism.” But I would set alongside that label the claim (commonly attributed to Walter Benjamin by way of Žižek, although the exact provenance is unclear) that every fascism indexes a failed revolution. And alongside the image of Trump hugging the Stars and Stripes in Florida in 2016, I would be inclined to set the image of John Brown in Chatham in 1858, on the verge of sparking a war between the states to be fought in many ways under his name, “declar[ing] emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes.” I want to hold two ideas here simultaneously, which Du Bois helps me to remember. First, in thinking through my own life as a beneficiary of white supremacy, John Brown is an ideal and a guiding light. Second, the violence that built and sustains the world I inhabit, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow to COINTELPRO to “superpredators” to President Trump and beyond, is the long index of a failed revolution. And the failure that might be flagged here is in an attempt at abolition which put America first, which was unready to abandon, even in martyrdom, the image of the beautiful country.

no flag

This is why I know I still have so much to learn from Bree Newsome’s action in South Carolina a year ago, from the way she responded to mass death not by raising one American flag but by grounding another. I remember the magnificence of the negative space where the Stars and Bars had lately hung, the pole then supporting only a June sky. And I remember getting into online arguments last summer, pointless arguments with Confederate apologists who seemed to find one trolling tactic more and more appealing as the summer went on. Wasn’t it absurd, they would ask, to get so worked up over that flag and not the Stars and Stripes? When they both stood for the histories they stood for? When one had flown over a secessionary movement for only five years, and the other had flown over a slaveholding nation for a century and more?

As if that were an irresistible argument for leaving all the flags up, rather than for taking them all down. As if an unspoken universal faith in the Stars and Stripes settled everything. Of course a refusal to admit any reason why the Confederate battle flag might have represented a more urgent strategic target in South Carolina in 2015 is a refusal of the obvious; but there’s no need to go as far back as the Chatham Convention to find radical voices explaining why the American flag, too, stands for terror. That can be heard from Newsome herself. There is no Law of Conservation of Political Energy here: the removal of one racist banner is not the de facto raising of another (just as opposition to one politician is not necessarily the endorsement of another, is not the endorsement of anyone).

And if John Brown, with his own death imminent, could say so, then even more we today can truly say: This is a beautiful land, and America is not a beautiful country. And if John Brown believed that “the old flag was good enough for him,” then I think one of the achievements of Du Bois’s biography—a book I would recommend to anyone in 2016—is to establish so thoroughly the broad sense in which “John Brown was right” that his wrongness on that point becomes all the clearer.

January 9, 2016

Two kinds of evidence

Because The X-Files is returning this month and I’m not sure how I feel about that, I’ve been remembering how, last September, just after Kim Davis had been imprisoned in Kentucky for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Dana Scully was patrolling the Internet reminding us all to do our jobs:

scully

Which I found encouraging in some ways and dispiriting in many others. So, along with almost twenty thousand other Facebook users, I shared the picture, and this is a lightly edited version of what I wrote to go along with it:

I’ll attach a really mild X-Files spoiler warning to this? Mild, because the show only waits to confirm what’s been implicit from the start, but still I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind this image, of course. But I have reservations, and I think the implications are actually worth exploring, given that Dana Scully‘s job—the full details of which are kept secret, at first, even from her—is to debunk and discredit, in any way possible, the work of her partner at the FBI, so that he can be safely disposed of and an enormous government conspiracy can be allowed to continue. Scully‘s job is in this sense not a good one. When her bosses remind her, often in so many words, to do her job, the show tends not to elicit sympathy for her bosses.

I’m saying this not just to quibble, but because the larger narrative of The X-Files actually hinges on Dana Scully‘s status as a woman whose personal convictions lead her to refuse to carry out some part of her job, to violate direct government orders, and even to break the law—like Chelsea Manning, you could say, or Kim Davis. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t see Davis and Scully, let alone Davis and Manning, as comparable in any other way. (And, for all I know, Kim Davis probably hates Chelsea Manning as much as the Westboro Baptist Church hates Kim Davis. I don’t know how any of them feel about Dana Scully.) I just mean that, with Manning and others in mind, I get nervous around arguments that end at the rightness of the law, or with the unconditioned axiom that if you work for the U.S. government, whatever you believe, it’s best to do your job.

With respect to The X-Files, I think it’s worth stressing how often the show comes down on the opposite side of “Do your fucking job,” not just within the broad terms of the mytharc but on a case-by-case basis. I have a lot of feelings about The X-Files and goodness knows there are enough problems with that show as it is, and enough episodes that left me unsettled or disappointed or angry. But I can’t imagine that it would ever have pulled me in at all if it were a show about two young agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation who faced new reminders, week after week, that no matter what you believe you should just do your fucking job.

As for Kim Davis, I’ve been reading

Not long after I posted this, of course, Gillian Anderson tweeted her support for the meme. I respect her advocacy for marriage rights, and, moreover, the meme’s creator sells some lovely letterpress items. But I stand by what I wrote.

One reason I feel comfortable standing by it is that, as painful as this truth can be, Dana Scully isn’t real, at least not in the way Chelsea Manning or Kim Davis is real. So while the evidence of Chelsea Manning’s convictions takes the form of the brilliant essays she continues to write from prison—

—free Chelsea Manning—

—Dana Scully’s beliefs have no substance beyond the evidence for them, evidence which can take the form of a smile, a cut, or the balance between a line reading and a piece of music. I made a video about this a while ago, and there’s also an exegesis that’s been kicking around since then with nowhere to go. So both are below.

A couple of years ago, on a long train trip, I got stuck inside an early sequence from The X-Files the way I sometimes get stuck inside a song, playing it over and over. Later I made a fan video that extended the sequence, and then I realized that part of what the video had dramatized was my own uncertainty about my attachment to The X-Files. There are many, many TV shows I’ve never seen, but for a long time I would have described The X-Files as my favorite—and yet I may never exactly have watched it for the mytharc, or for the monsters of the week, or for the neoliberal-era paranoia or the shipping or for narrative elements at all (as enjoyable as these all could be). It often seemed to have more to do with Mark Snow’s synths, the faces of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson and a host of sublime character actors, and the way Vancouver looked on film in the mid-90s. This is part of why I secretly prefer the second movie to the first, even if the aura was half gone. It was filmed back in Vancouver and it has a plot that’s there to be ignored for Vancouver. (Also Amanda Peet is underrated.) The new episodes will have Mulder, Scully, Vancouver and Mark Snow, but I don’t think I’m too worried about the possibility of disappointment, because the core of the show for me was over by season five, and so I’ll still know to expect a different kind of thing. Which is not to say that there weren’t good episodes after season five, or that there weren’t also really fucked-up episodes throughout the whole run.

This sequence comes about halfway through “Deep Throat,” the first episode after the pilot, and it’s bookended by images of Mulder in motion. It ends with the archetypal and fictively benign image of two federal agents approaching the front door of a suburban home—in this case with the camera trained at first on Scully, as she exits a car and starts up the sidewalk, only to be overtaken by Mulder, who cuts into the frame from the right and then takes the camera’s gaze with him. (Gillian Anderson would reveal in later interviews that there was a formalized rule, for the first few years of the series, that Mulder should approach houses first, with Scully following.)

mulder

And the sequence starts, too, with Mulder guiding the camera from right to left. A lateral tracking shot follows him along the driver’s side of a car after he says goodbye to two stoner kids who have seemed to serve both as Scully and Mulder’s grunge doubles and as stand-ins for an imagined audience. (The agents have just bought the kids hamburgers and listened to them talk about lights they’ve been watching in the sky over an airbase, under the influence. Intoxication will recur as a motif in dialogue throughout the sequence.) As Mulder walks toward the driver’s seat, the sounds of birdsong and a passing jet become nearly indistinguishable—hybrid frequencies. He enters the car and there’s a cut to Scully’s perspective from the passenger’s seat that coincides with the little crunching noise of Mulder putting a cassette into the tape deck. The scene enters a shot-reverse-shot pattern as the dialogue kicks off with a joke about music as evidence: the kids have given Mulder a tape, and, later, tapes will matter a lot, but this one turns out to be glam metal. It’s unclear, in fact, why they gave it to him. Scully switches it off.

And then Mulder shows her some photos that he actually believes to be evidence, and the cue by Mark Snow that begins at the moment Scully breaks into a smile at his theory is one of my favorite pieces of music. I’m always torn between hearing it as music and reading it evidentially. Mulder was the one to turn on the rock tape and Scully was the one to stop it, and then her smile at the absurdity of what Mulder is saying marks the transition from diegetic into non-diegetic sound. The music starts to feel like a protraction of or an elaboration upon her smile, as the smile ends and the sound lingers. Three slowly shifting synth chords attend her skepticism with a cut to the pictures as studies them: “Mulder, come on! You’ve got two blurry photos—one of them taken almost fifty years ago, and another one you purchased today in a roadside diner. You’re going out on a pretty big limb.”

scully

The music underneath these lines helps to define the space the show will occupy in the way it allows the rest of the exchange in the car to play out as a duet between paranoid faith and positivist doubt; but what always strikes me is the way it simultaneously steers the scene away from a rigid mapping of skepticism onto Scully and faith onto Mulder. A key point here is that, if the scene were from two or three seasons later, I think this dialogue would be played for laughs, and so it would be scored very differently, if at all. By that time the relationship between Scully and Mulder would have hardened somewhat into the familiar mold where, as Sianne Ngai says in her essay on feminism and paranoia, not only is Mulder always more paranoid, “he is always right.” (“For the feminist critic,” Ngai goes on to say, “it remains important to note how intimately tied conspiracy theory appears to be to the hermeneutic quests of male agent-intellectuals.”) But for now, and for these lines of Scully’s about a diner and a limb, the music is almost shockingly serious. I want to describe it as the sound of wanting to believe, in a way that points toward how the show at its best is centered around Scully’s subjectivity rather than Mulder’s. Because clearly Mulder believes already. Scully smiled once before in this scene, after she’d asked, “You believe it all, don’t you?” and he’d replied, “Why wouldn’t I?” (As if to underline Fox’s doggedness, there was distant barking.) A show focused exclusively on “Why wouldn’t I?” isn’t going far. It’s Scully who wants to believe, because she already trusts Mulder but also has doubts, and here it’s her ambivalence that seems to push the music and the rest of the scene forward. Something like this is conveyed visually in the next part of the sequence, when the music temporarily takes over and a single shot shows Mulder sitting in a motel room entranced by his photos, as if unable to move beyond mere belief, while, outside, Scully runs around and gets things done.

Maybe there’s already a hint of show’s eventual failure to avoid privileging Mulder’s heroic paranoia in the way the shot is filmed from inside the motel room, so that Scully’s activity appears from over his shoulder. And, again, the way I actually experience The X-Files is maybe not so different from the way Mulder gets locked inside those pictures, except I’m looking for less important things. I’ve spent a lot of time watching this scene—partly just because I can’t find a recording of the music by itself—and I always want it to go on for longer. Hence my video, assembled with the most basic editing tools in iMovie. First it allows the dialogue and the action to run their course (with a sadly cropped image, for YouTube, but it’s better than nothing), and then it just backs up to sit with notes, faces and textures for a while. When I made it I wasn’t thinking about much more than those textures. Because it’s a fan video with Mulder and Scully, though, I think it also inevitably lends itself to a mode of interpretation in which the music serves as evidence of something more tangible and straightforward, namely the bond between them. Which is also not wrong.

 

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.

June 16, 2011

Ron Silliman and the Amina hoax

Poet-theorist-blogger Ron Silliman hasn’t weighed in yet on the Amina Arraf hoax, where a white heterosexual male from the United States pretended to be a lesbian Arab woman from Syria.  Or has he?

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example – are apt to challenge all that is supposedly “natural” about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who do not identity as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers – women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the “marginal”—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to who is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.

Silliman, in this extract from a 1989 article in Socialist Review, argues that a white heterosexual [cis] male would be more able to criticize the formation of subjectivity from a radical perspective than a woman or person of color.  The oppressor more able to criticize the oppression.  Not an unfamiliar perspective historically, but a joke for anyone with any exposure to contemporary social movements by women or people of color.

Leslie Scalapino replied to Silliman, in an exchange published in Poetics Journal :

The conception of a “unified subject” is merely taught, in certain conventionalizing settings such as school or workshops, i.e., people writing would not otherwise have such a view. Your argument is that this conception is inherent in the “experience” of women, gays, and minorities.

The very notion of the “unified subject” is a white, “Anglo” description which conventionalizes writing radical in its own time such as that of Flaubert or Williams.

As Scalapino points out, in Silliman’s argument the “male white heterosexual” is attempting to critique the position he hegemonized.  He forces the myth of a unified subject and then denies those who are forced into it the right to critique it.

This is not identical to MacMaster’s delusion.  MacMaster knew that as a white heterosexual cis man  his voice would be taken to have less value on matters relevant to non-white non-heterosexual women.  But the deeper content of his racism is analogous.  Non-white non-straight non-cis non-male people, in this view, have no particularly important experience of marginalization.  The value given to their subjectivity is only a matter of political correctness.

Silliman replies to Scalapino, towards the end of their exchange:

My point here is…that none of us is privileged, yet each of us is positioned. The question of politics in art can only be how conscious we are of the multiple determinations that constitute position, and the uses to which these understandings are put.

Well, yes and no.  The multiple determinations that constitute our position include privilege, and to pretend unawareness of that is Silliman and MacMaster’s mistake.  Their taking the task of speaking for marginalized groups, whether through ventriloquism or supposedly politically salient poetry, is just another silencing, nothing new in the history of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism.   That it is in the sheep’s clothes of the left, Silliman attempting to speak as part of a Marxist vanguard in poetry and MacMaster against “orientalist assumptions,” should only increase our vigilance.

(See also: Racialicious asks “how the media environment got so skewed that fictionalized accounts by white writers get more media attention than actual accounts by people of color”; actual LGBT bloggers in Syria say, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know”; Amina is just one example of how in the Western response to the Arab revolutions, “One establishes a mirror vision of the ideological image of oneself and then sets it up to be emulated”; important observations about the implications of the Amina hoax with respect to pinkwashing.  Thanks JR for the links!)

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

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