Have a Good Time

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.

June 28, 2011

Coined sovereignty, brought justice, promised joy

“Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).”
—Judith Butler, “Jacques Derrida”

“No, they cannot touch me for coining; / I am the king himself.”
King Lear, IV.vi

A year ago, Daniel wrote here about the Israeli military’s conclusions regarding the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, and the verdict of a Los Angeles jury in the trial of Oscar Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle (who, two weeks ago, walked free); and, following a line of thought traced by Jakada Imani, asked: “What would justice look like?”

I just want to ask that question again in the middle of 2011, a year that seems fated to be widely remembered as a special year for justice, or even as the year in which justice was done. Announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, President Obama used the word “justice” five times: once, at the end of his speech, in an effort to situate this assassination as a marker of the blessed utopian potentiality of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (on which suggestion, see Kai Wright’s “The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”); once to pay tribute to the American intelligence community’s “pursuit of justice”; once, of course, to assure the families of bin Laden’s victims that “justice has been done”; and twice, elaborating on and deepening that same point, in reference to the fulfillment of a promise made ten years ago—that the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would be “brought to justice.” One detail that these references conceal, but that the video I’m posting below recognizes and illustrates, is that the promise fulfilled on May 1 was not (literally) that promise. It was George W. Bush’s assertion on September 20, 2001 that “[w]hether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

This is an instance of antimetabole, a term defined by Wikipedia as “the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order,” and etymologically based in the combination of the Greek anti (“opposite”) and metabole (“turning about”). It’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that tended to be put forward admiringly as evidence that, when the occasion demanded it, President Bush could get serious. Is there any other recent moment of American political antimetabole at once so meaningless and so plainly, terribly significant? To speak of this alternative possibility of “bringing justice to our enemies” is to speak not just to the belief that, in Butler’s words, “one has already arrived at justice,” but to the unspoken faith that justice is proper to the United States, that it has no authorization or meaning beyond the reach of the United States. In other words, I would argue, it only indexes in the most explicit way what was already present in this specific invocation of the act of “bringing our enemies to justice,” heralding as it does the Global War on Terror. It clarifies what kind of “justice” this war will entail, and in what spirit it will be pursued. It might not be adequate to say that “bringing our enemies to justice” (with its air of righteous self-assurance—and maybe, when spoken by Obama instead of Bush, of convincing ethical seriousness) and “bringing justice to our enemies” (with its suggestion of a vengeful, far-reaching violence, inflicted on bodies to whom justice itself is foreign) are two sides of the same coin. They might be more like the same side of the one-sided coin of imperial American power. Which is why I would say that right now it’s possible to know exactly what justice looks like, or at least what this justice that has just been done looks like.

[A TV ad for The Justice Coin. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

One expectation we might have of any reference to justice figured as a coin, a “justice coin”—an expectation which I think this ad helpfully overturns or turns about—is that it would necessarily come in the service of a recognition of some sort of inherent doubleness: a tribute paid to what Henry James said he was looking for in What Maisie Knew, in his pursuit of “themes” that would “reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.” Jamesian passages like this one, as Phillip Barrish notes, are often taken to indicate an ideological overlap between literary realism, with its portrayal of “a complex world where actions always have multiple ramifications and effects,” and a political “realism” according to which justice must always be sought and paid for in compromises with injustice and violence. In this view, true maturity comes with a kind of happy acceptance that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill bin Laden and that in the pursuit of such justice it was necessary to get our hands dirty: by, say, extracting evidence through torture, or killing untold numbers of civilians with drones and bullets, or shooting our extrajudicial enemies in the head and burying their bodies in the sea.

Now, with respect to James and his work, this is why I basically prefer to agree with Eve Sedgwick that the most interesting content of such passages isn’t related to justice at all, but rather to the shameful pleasure of queer sex. (Which puts the “bright hard medal” in a long and broad history of literary queer money, bearing in mind that one of the earliest meanings of “queer” is “counterfeit.”) But it’s also exactly why I think something like a TV ad for “The Justice Coin” is a valuable document. It seems to reveal something about the counterfeit nature of the maturity of realism—about what Jodi Dean, in her post on obscenity and assassination, identifies as an infelicitous attempt to cover “an obscene enjoyment of violence and arbitrary power” with “the big Other of justice.” (As Dean goes on to say, “we remain stuck in a realism of the worst, excusing our worst impulses as ‘realistic.'”) The “bliss and bale” of the United States alone mark each face of this coin, respectively: one side shows the Navy SEALS who “carried out Operation Geronimo” and the words “YOU CAN RUN / BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE”; the other side shows the spectral twin towers, the signs of a horror that everyone remembers, but already overlaid with the words of both President Bush and President Obama, promising first that justice will be done and then that it has been. In what looks like a material answer to zunguzungu’s question as to whether bin Laden’s death marks “the conclusion or the final normalization of ‘9/11’,” ten long years (in which of course bin Laden did hide, and in which a totally incomprehensible number of people who weren’t bin Laden were killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced) are collapsed into one moment of trauma and resolution, to be commemorated forever—in this case through the purchase of a collectors’ item, valued at $99, which could be ours now for $19.95. That seems obscene, and I think it is. But I also think it might be a mistake to regard the obscenity as merely a counterfeit addition to the justice that has been done, like a layer of gold on a brass coin. On the contrary, I think a text like this ad—weird, upsetting, straining so hard and so unsuccessfully to convey authority and legitimacy—is what does justice to these events.

“When celebrants chanted ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful ‘us versus them’ mindset?

Once again, no.”
—Jonathan Haidt, “Why We Celebrate a Killing,”  The New York Times

I had just finished thinking about this post a few days ago, on June 24, when the New York state legislature legalized gay marriage: an impressive victory in a fight which—to make this clear quickly—I, as a queer person, have felt for a while not to be mine. (See Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the violence of assimilation, Sassafras Lowrey on priorities and the queer homelessness epidemic, Kenyon Farrow on racism and the marriage movement, or “Beyond Marriage.”) It was my last night in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d been working for three months as an anti-Walker “field organizer” (but not really—more on this later, maybe), and I was sitting in a coffee shop looking at Twitter, when suddenly my feed went into overdrive and almost everyone was ecstatic. I saw that Amanda Marcotte had written, “I love the USA chant. Exactly. That’s what it should be for,” and I realized that for the second time in as many months there was a public celebration of justice in New York, with that chant in the air. Implicit in Marcotte’s remark is a normative distinction between the celebration of marriage rights and the celebration of a killing that the chant shouldn’t be for—which, of course, is a distinction that really matters, and I don’t want to imply that these are similar events. Part of me wants to express nothing but solidarity with my gay American sisters and brothers who want to get married, and happiness at their ability to have intimacy publicly recognized and respected in the ways they want and need. But another part of me wants to add, hegemonic American nationalism is hegemonic American nationalism, and sometimes it’s homonationalism; which is to say that the spectacle of “USA!,” in the wake of a decision to expand a circle of privilege for one subset of New York state’s queers, can’t be abstracted from an ideological environment that privileges the “tolerance” of states like the USA, the UK, and Israel while systematically and violently conflating Orientalized bodies and cultures with homophobia and queer death.

 

So I just sat for a while at the coffee shop in Appleton considering these two photos—one taken just after the New York legislature’s announcement, the other taken on the night of bin Laden’s death and shared by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—and remembering the night, two months earlier, when I was at a bar down the street with Ben and other members of our campaign team, and suddenly the music was turned off, the TV volume was turned up, and everyone at the bar, including others at our table, was loudly toasting the death of bin Laden. I realized that in reaction to each of these very different experiences—sitting in a bar that had become a space to celebrate a killing, and sitting in a cafe reading endless online expressions of joy, over victory in a struggle I felt pressured to be invested in, but wasn’t—the shape of my feeling was approximately the same. I remembered Sara Ahmed’s recent work on moments when we become “affect aliens,” in her book The Promise of Happiness and more briefly in the great essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” recently shared on Twitter by SubaBat. As Daniel helped me see, there’s something here—in Ahmed’s “We are not over it, if it has not gone”—that could be akin to a rewriting of Derridean justice into the affective sphere: where, at least for a certain kind of willful subject, (political) joy is fully conceivable only as spectral, as to-come. This possibility is obviously there in the title of her book: maybe I’ll report back soon, when I’ve actually read it. In the meantime, in the language of the infomercial, I’ll try to sum up my feelings about these two moments of justice by saying I’m not sure I buy it, and I’ll end this post by reframing it as a quiet invitation to join me in feeling like a justice killjoy.

[Ad transcript.

Narrator: September 11, 2001.  The terrible events of that day will live in infamy.  But the United States would ensure that those responsible would pay the ultimate price.
President Bush: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Narrator: Finally, after ten years, our nation savored the taste of justice.
President Obama: Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world: […] Justice has been done.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. [Gunshot] We give thanks to the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. 
Narrator: And now the Historic Coin Mint is making available this rare commemorative coin paying tribute to the Navy SEALS who carried out Operation Geronimo—featuring SEAL Team 6, with their distinctive trident and their classified stealth helicopter.  On the other side, the tragic reminders: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, along with the powerful words of our presidents.
President Obama: Justice has been done.
Narrator: A collectors’ item, it’s forged from brass and coated in magnificent 24-karat gold.  It’s valued at $99, but for a limited time is now available for just $19.95.  You’ll also receive this acrylic protective case to preserve it and this certificate of authenticity.  But wait: be one of the first 500 callers and you’ll also receive this distinctive SEAL Team 6 lapel pin to wear with pride, and the Operation Geronimo military briefing packet.  With photographs, maps, and operational details, it’s a $79 value.  Today, it’s yours free—just pay shipping and processing.  Altogether, an over $200 value, still for only $19.95.  You’ll even have a 30-day inspection period to get a full refund of your purchase price.  This offer won’t last long, so order right now.]

May 20, 2010

Taking time for Dior (…in which the mystification of the commodity’s origins is made spectacularly literal)

“The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.” — Miss Prism, The Importance of Being Earnest

Two days ago thanks to Jezebel I watched David Lynch’s newest work, which is a rapturous 16-minute ad for a blue Dior bag, starring Marion Cotillard and titled “Lady Blue Shanghai.”  And, while I’m open to counterarguments, I find it hard to see the ad as much more than an uncomfortable, Mulholland Drive-plus-The Shining-by-way-of-Orientalism exercise in self-parody (albeit one that gives Marion Cotillard much more to do than Public Enemies did).  For just this reason, though—because of just this ambivalence around the question of David Lynch’s earnestness—I’m starting to wonder if the film, as an ad both for a capacious leather bag and for David Lynch’s capabilities as an auteur, could be regarded more than any of the feature-length movies as the quintessential Lynchian text…

It seems way too easy (and off the mark) to accuse Lynch of hypocrisy by juxtaposing the ad with a pretty well-known YouTube clip in which he rails against product placement in film as “Bullshit.  Total, fucking, bullshit,” considering that “Lady Blue Shanghai” (not unlike the “Telephone” video) plays like a massive self-conscious riff on the varieties of placement, replacement, and displacement that products both undergo and produce.  But it’s also easy to be disturbed by the obvious similarity between this cubical blue handbag, mysteriously appearing in Cotillard’s hotel room with a puff of smoke and taking her through a melancholy fantasy of “the old Shanghai,” and Mulholland Drive‘s gorgeously fetishized blue box, which seems to act as a kind of hinge between the life of Betty Elms, the beautiful and successful Hollywood actress, and the life of Diane Selwyn, the wrecked, despairing murderer who, before or after killing herself, invents Betty Elms.  Could it be that this ad, rather than merely echoing Mulholland Drive‘s imagery or representing the kind of thing Lynch always does, in fact concretely strengthens a useful way of reading the earlier movie?  In which it’s possible to say that we know exactly what that blue box is—it’s a Dior bag?

And how easy would it be to separate the move being made here—we’re going to try selling you this bag, but obliquely, with a proper David Lynch narrative film, which can be appreciated in itself and on its own terms—from the strategies of obliqueness practiced throughout Lynch’s career?  Of course there’s a whole world of Lynch criticism to draw from here, of which I don’t have much knowledge, but I’m thinking of a nicely, provocatively polemical passage on Wild at Heart and what it might be selling us, from Sharon Willis’s 1997 book High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film:

[…] Wild at Heart is aiming for an audience that might accept its strategies for neutralizing its own racist and sexist fantasies as ironic.  To imagine that this film always knows the difference between representing racism and misogyny and enunciating them is to presume that we can establish a clear separation between the film’s point of view and the larger cultural discourses incorporated and represented within it.  Part of Lynch’s appeal, then, may reside in his work’s attempt to parade the rhetoric of racism and sexism in a framework that allowed us to feel ironically distant, inoculated from these pathologies, as it were, as the films emphasized instead “fantasy,” “style,” and the “avant-garde.”

The “cool” associated with Lynch has to do with an appreciation of style and technique, but equally important it has to do with the ways that his apparently contingent figures become central to the production of “distinction” (in Bourdieu’s sense) for the audience.

Compare the funny things that Dodai at Jezebel has to say about, specifically, the length of the Dior ad, bringing us back to material conditions:

It’s a trick […] — because while it may be intriguing to see what kind of story Lynch has cooked up, what kind of heroine Marion is and how the bag and the city of Shanghai all fit together, in the end, you realize that you have willingly watched a sixteen-minute commercial. In an age of trigger-happy fast-forward fingers and DVR! It’s sixteen minutes you’ll never get back, and you could have used it to ask your boss for a raise, buy some stock or look into phone sex work — you’ll need some extra cash if you really want the ugly, shiny, awkwardly square patent leather bag, which retails for £1,360 ($2,009).

…Exactly.  Maybe the real question here is, what kind of person gives 16 minutes, or even 32 minutes, to a commercial for a leather luxury item that they will never, ever buy?  Whatever the answer is, I’m such a person.  Maybe you are too!

Does that make us philosophers?  I happened to watch “Lady Blue Shanghai” on the same day I read this post, which unpacks some of the implications of Simon Critchley’s inaugural column for a philosophy forum at the New York Times called “The Stone,” and in particular Critchley’s definition of the philosopher as “the person who has time or takes time.”  And in some sense the stone and the bag do not seem very far apart.

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