Archive for the Apocalypse Porn Category

Polygraph Issue 22: Ecology and Ideology

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism with tags , , on September 13, 2010 by traxus4420

aka What I’ve Been Doing For The Past…er, I’d rather not say how long. Look, it’s an academic publication. By graduate students, even. Read more on the homepage.

If any of this sounds interesting, you can buy it on Amazon, which I normally wouldn’t recommend but it’s sort of hard to find otherwise. Don’t worry, I’m not making any money.

Not on the cover: a long introduction by the editors, and a (critical) review of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World and Graham Harman’s book on Latour by me. Both can be found in PDF form via the link to the homepage. Don’t worry, collegiality is strictly maintained throughout.

As co-editor I’m not allowed to pick favorites, but even the pieces I disagree with (some more violently than others — readers of this blog will probably be able to guess which ones) are at least well put.

UPDATE:

Individual article summaries here via co-editor Gerry Canavan.

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Nothing to See Here

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Crisis theory, U.S. Politics on January 29, 2010 by traxus4420

I know the Citizens’ United ruling wasn’t a major change from earlier campaign funding regulation. I know the spending freeze will not be nearly as sweeping as it sounds and is probably just ‘politics.’ I know Bernanke’s reappointment was unsurprising despite everything. I know most of the international aid does get permission to land at Port-au-Prince, and that the U.S. military is ‘providing invaluable assistance’ in addition to securitizing it in the U.S. national interest (which is itself, of course, not unprecedented). I know the selection of Bush and Clinton as point men for this operation is not that weird if you think about it. I know both that the Goldstone report isn’t saying anything that wasn’t obvious to everyone and that Israel and the U.S. could never find it acceptable.

I even know that Barack Obama ran as a centrist.

So really, media, you can stop talking nonstop about how unsurprising, how ordinary, how banal the steady erosion of democracy is. I know.


Aesthetics of Stupidity (2)

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art/Media, Film, structuralism with tags , , , , on January 21, 2010 by traxus4420

In May 2009 Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, wrote the following hilarious account of the situation at Cannes, in which he called it “the stupidest Cannes ever”:

A deconstruction of what was wrong must begin, I suppose, with Lars von Trier. It would be futile, and, in a way, pointless, in any year to cherry-pick ridiculous observations made during Cannes, but, to begin with a cliché to end all clichés: After the initial screening of Antichrist, a blogger (having read and physically ingested so much about this film I cannot recall who wrote this) stated that he felt he was present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general. One can only wonder which month of last year this person started to watch film. But, I digress. To discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game. Despite having nine of his ten features screen at Cannes (does anyone have a greater batting average?), he’s always struck me as an overhyped TV director—his best work remains the first Kingdom—so when he abandons storytelling for disjointed proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror, well, the wheels have fallen off Lars’ notorious bus. In the context of Cannes, it was hard to completely discount Antichrist: this was, after all, something, or so the argument went. And something is better than nothing.

Antichrist was certainly one of the most calculated ‘art’ films I’ve ever seen, though I have no idea if its auteur had much to do with that. The viewing experience remains inextricable from its neatly packaged behind-the-scenes narrative: Von Trier wrote the screenplay during a “deep depression” from which he hadn’t fully recovered by the time of shooting; he terrorized actress Charlotte Gainsbourgh (after famously having caused Bjork to claim he “destroyed my soul”) into one of the most abject performances of any actress ever; introducing the film at Cannes he announced, apparently in earnest, that he is “the best filmmaker in the world.” All this lives up to his reputation as a neurotic, egomaniacal, misogynist provocateur, while suggesting he might exceed it. Since he is well aware of his media presence and knows how to make films that polarize critical responses into a few predictable genres, he poses something of an existential challenge to critics, who are his target audience. It’s very easy to write about — the streamlined definition of ‘artistic genius.’

Like much recent non-‘art’ horror film, it tries to make outdated cliches effective again. There is no investigation into the issues superficially referenced: the persistent ideological pull of the Judeo-Christian genesis myth, medieval Christianity’s simultaneous demonization of paganism and women, gender roles in the wake of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis as a ‘modern’ justification for the repression of women. Nor is it a treatise of the Godardian type on the cinematic history of these themes.

Instead, Von Trier imagines a world in which every patriarchal ideologeme feminism fought to repress has returned, through the body of Gainsbourgh’s “She.” Willem Dafoe’s hapless psychotherapist husband “He” mistakes the site of this return for her mind, when it’s ‘really’ her Satanic Nature. The ‘turning point’ of the plot — when she cock-punches him with a piece of wood, jerks him off, then drills a stone wheel into his calf — comes just after he concludes that his wife’s psychosis is due to self-loathing. But her slide into insanity, apparently predating their toddler’s death, is unstoppable. Even before arriving at their surrogate Eden (the name of their cottage in the woods) – at once a retreat from their lives and a confrontation with their suffering – it becomes ‘natural.’

There are two ways in which this deeply annoying film is nevertheless worth paying attention to. In both visual style and in the attempt to recreate for the screen what the movements of the ’60s and ’70s confronted and tried to overcome, it is a kind of summation of the U.S. Aughts’ various horror trends, especially J-horror and ‘torture porn’ (there’s a piece by Christopher Sharrett in the Winter 2009 issue of Cineaste that exposes the pretensions of the latter to recreate ’70s horror). This allows it to be be read as a coda in advance to Von Trier’s unfinished U.S. trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) — America as an exotic locale, a computer-generated fantasy land. As infinite thought notes here, the forest around Eden looks as if it were always digitally rendered. The landscape shots are also reminiscent of recent photography, such as that of Martina Lindqvist and Simen Johan, where forests, animals, and coastlines are given a properly uncanny quality, their typical (and typically American) significance as reminders of timeless innocence détourned.

Martina Lindqvist, from Rågskär Island, 2008

Simen Johan, from Until the Kingdom Comes, 2006

The film’s inchoate aura of doom links it not only to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo), Hideo Nakata (Ringu), and David Lynch (everything from Lost Highway on), but also American formalist doomsday films No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Road. But the distinctive thing about Antichrist is that America’s vision of nature, not just its capitalist culture, has become decadent; what at first resembles a Native American vision quest (the three creepy animals who might be spirit guides, Eden’s initial appearance in a hypnosis-induced dream) is revealed to be a regression in the wrong direction, away from settler Enlightenment and toward a distinctly medieval, European vision of apocalypse.

The second way is as a visual example of structuralism. She” is not a proper name, a person with a psychology to be penetrated and rehabilitated, but the name of a set: all women, just as “He” is all men. Adam and Eve are figures of nostalgia when ‘Eden’ is a well-heeled couple’s private vacation spot. “He” and “She” are the archetypes of gender itself, artifacts of psychology’s quixotic (or cynical) and all too liberal attempt to describe in the jargon of personality what it has already determined to be better represented by the jargon of objects. Lacan derisively calls this contradiction ‘ego psychology,’ and the film is equally contemptuous of “His” CBT-inspired theorizing. But Nature rhetoric aside, the hysterical violence of Antichrist’s final act forecloses conservative nostalgia for ‘pre-modern’ gender relations. Something rather different is at work here. I’m reminded of the term catmint coined to diagnose Zizek’s op-eds, ‘structuralist pornography:’

The affectivity of structuralism is built around the logic of (pre whig era) conservatism. Structuralism isn’t selling conservatism but it does dramatically ask: what if conservatism is after all reasonable? It restates the idea of a mysterious quasi-divine social order, not as the basis of political commitment but as a horrifying possibility undermining political commitment. It’s surely of a piece with the vague politics of the middle class; predicated on a worried sort of liberalism. But again it’s not too far from conservatism proper, which was always an orthodoxy of absent arguments; the arguments of conservatives being nearly always bad (there’s also a relation to masochism).

One can hear this almost literally announced in the dialogue, which is that of archetypes talking to each other. As is typical of Von Trier, it would feel more ‘at home’ on the stage (and despite the woodland setting sounds as if recorded in a studio optimized for radio or musical performance), and this is what one notices before anything else. Take this typical exchange:

She: If human nature is evil, then that goes as well for the nature of…

He: Of the women. Female nature.

She: The nature of all the sisters. Women don’t control their own bodies. Nature does. I have it in writing in my books.

He: The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those texts. That was your thesis! Instead, you’re embracing it! Do you know what you’re saying?

She: Forget it. I don’t know why I said it.

This dialogue is technically bad because it is too meaningful; both too clear about what it means and too abstract to be clear beyond the ‘domain of the signifier.’ Its transcendental dullness kills the possibility of subtext, reading it is a matter of plug & play. It’s up to the violence and delirious imagery to give affective force to what would otherwise be an unbroken string of banalities. However, Von Trier is unwilling to let horror fans ‘indulge’ in making sense out of the bloodshed, whether merely as visceral thrills, or aesthetic appreciation (like in Dario Argento), or as socially significant (like in George Romero’s zombie movies). Instead the intended audience of cinephiles, professional critics, and academics is made to feel the power of apocalyptic patriarchal mysticism, even to suffer from it (to feel physically sick, emotionally terrorized), all while being unable to interpret it in a way that isn’t repellent. In this way Antichrist is as emptily sermonizing as the rest of the director’s recent oeuvre.

“All determinations become bad and cruel when they are grasped only by a thought which invents and contemplates them, flayed and separated from their living form, adrift upon this barren ground. Everything becomes violence on this passive ground. Everything becomes attack on this digestive ground. Here the Sabbath of stupidity and malevolence takes place. Perhaps this is the origin of that melancholy which weighs upon the most beautiful human faces: the presentiment of a hideousness peculiar to the human face, of a rising tide of stupidity, an evil deformity or a thought governed by madness. For from the point of view of a philosophy of nature, madness arises at the point at which the individual contemplates itself in this free ground — and, as a result, stupidity in stupidity and cruelty in cruelty — to the point that it can no longer stand itself…Stupidity is neither the ground nor the individual, but rather this relation in which individuation brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form (this ground rises by means of the I, penetrating deeply into the possibility of thought and constituting the unrecognized in every recognition).

— Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

The presence or absence of the self at the root of every bad thing, the ambivalence of bourgeois morals, rests on a certain spiritualized intransigence, something ostensibly disowned but in fact kept as close as a security blanket. Von Trier, quite knowingly, can only replay what he pretends to punish, in himself as well as his audience: yet one more complex, paradoxical, brilliant route to abject stupidity.

The Aesthetics of Stupidity (1)

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Film with tags , , , , on December 9, 2009 by traxus4420

This is the first in a series of posts in which I outline a certain aesthetic fixation on what I am simply calling ‘stupidity,’ which seemed to be at the front of my brain when considering this passing decade. I make no claim as to its ubiquity, dominance, or even frequency.

[UPDATED below]

The prophecy was first heard in 2006 , but by then it was mere journalism. America is dumb and getting dumber. Mike Judge’s dystopian Idiocracy assumes the logical outcome of consumer society is cognitive and cultural retardation, encapsulated in an infamous montage where the Fuddrucker’s logo gradually morphs into:

That the film was made a martyr by its distributor 20th Century Fox probably has less to do with its vision of cultural decline (buttressed by the eugenicist argument that the greater popularity of breeding among the lower classes is mass stupidity’s efficient cause) than with this montage sequence, along with the other spoofs on mass market brands — ‘Brawndo’ energy drinks, Pepsi and Carls Jr. as government sponsors, Starbucks gives handjobs, characters are named after brands — crossing the line of acceptability.

These corporate defacements are the best thing about an otherwise unremarkable and poorly conceived comedy, such that it’s perhaps better thought of as an Adbusters-style toolkit for ‘culture jamming’ (sort of how it’s used in the above link) than an actual film.

That said, it was one of the few satires the American film industry managed to produce in the ’00s, and probably the most effective in the traditional sense of the genre. One could comment here on the failure of narrative to capture the complete and total travesty that was American life in the first decade of the new millennium, that only the most fragmentary and/or ad-drenched forms of media (television, the Internet) managed to say anything coherent about the present as a historical moment that didn’t consist of 100% recycled material.

Or one could just watch Southland Tales. Released in 2007 and set in an alternate 2008, also a ‘satire’ of sorts, it attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of media ubiquity: a digital interface that handles cutting between different narrative threads (complete with news ticker), an ‘ironic’ cast of B-list celebrities, the cinematography of a music video or luxury car ad (when not via handicam), bad sketch comedy,  old-fashioned metafiction, comic book tie-ins, and lots of stuff happening all the time. Yet as packed as it is, and despite the literally apocalyptic buildup, the film is oddly boring. Maybe because the End Times are already here — the reality the film assumes from the beginning. Director Richard Kelly attempts to provide structure via Justin Timberlake’s interminable voice-over narration (added after its panning at Cannes) and a pointlessly complicated plot that tries to disguise the fact that it has nothing to do with anything and could in fact have been plagiarized from a ’90s postmodern conspiracy novel (itself ripped off of Robert Anton Wilson and/or Thomas Pynchon). As Gerry and I discussed in conversation, it collapses three historical moments into the same ‘present’ — its references are contemporary, its aesthetic sensibility is ’90s, and its nostalgia (as with Kelly’s earlier Donnie Darko) is for the late ’80s, just prior to the End of History. Though perhaps tempting, it’s hard to deny that the film tries to be, now and again, a satire, even a political satire. The attempt fails catastrophically.

It is of course a film that was ‘too big to not fail,’ so all appropriate slack should be cut.  And its failure is an interesting one. Steven Shaviro gives a more positive take here, in what is overall one of his best pieces of online writing:

Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles.

Toning down this hyperbolic praise, I would say that, at its best and worst, Southland Tales is ‘about’ a very specific sort of stupidity, albeit one that has been building for quite some time, a kind of apocalyptic cognitive failure, what would happen if we lived in Jean Baudrillard’s alternate universe  but with his transcendent, guiding intelligence replaced by the 24/7 cliche flow of a comic book nerd. Because, insofar as the media world of absolute commodification really does ‘map’ reality, then that is exactly what has happened to ‘critical discourse on culture’ in this decade, in which I include satirical and ‘serious’ films, novels, visual art, etc. as well as niche genres like academic monographs. If we were to grant all the absurdities assumed by those who have been making such claims since the ’80s (?), it would be even more of a misreading to try to label Southland Tales as creative ‘genius’ or a ‘masterpiece.’ In order to read its intelligence failure as a virtue instead of a symptom — to read it as ‘naive,’ as an epic instead of a failed satire — one paradoxically has to ignore its own botched attempts at distinguishing parodic frame from parodied content. One has to decontextualize it from itself.  Analogous to the way that vital bit of postmodern folklore, “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is so often taken as the beginning of analysis rather than its dead end. All this leads me to hypothesize an identifiable strategy of misreading emergent in this decade, one perhaps necessary for the application of traditional aesthetic criticism to certain new kinds of material, and again not limited to academic or intellectual critique.

UPDATE BEGINS: An update, if I can call it that, of camp:

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

UPDATE ENDS

As a completed, reified product, Southland Tales is more clearly looked at as a bigger (and thus more ‘epic’) enclosure and/or recapitulation of media forms and stereotypes than would be possible for entry-level users like you and me, its sublime (yet context-minimal) moments no more or less so than any available on the myriad Internet video networks into which they’ve already been displaced. A chunk of media time, regurgitated. And then, (seamlessly) reintegrated.

Minstrelsy Now

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Film, Media with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2009 by traxus4420

Radio City Music Hall

TH1B3

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zizekdvd

BORAT

large_bw_bruno_baby_no_logo

If I had to pick one feature of the development of minstrel-type performance from the past 30 years as the most pivotal, it would have to be the spectacularization of their audience. The white working-class demographic of original minstrelsy served as the basis for an entertainment that simultaneously redirected proletarian ressentiment toward racial stereotypes and appropriated/celebrated the racial other’s folk culture. The minstrel performer produced a fraudulent image of the black, Chinaman, etc. as a fraudulent citizen. The effect was the same regardless of whether the performer was racially black, Asian, etc. or not, though this of course did not negate whatever power was gained for individuals within these racial groups (or the group as a whole) by exploiting the minstrel images.

Today the screen includes the stage along with the whole theatre; and on to the town, state, and region. This allows the middle to upper middle class to join in the fun, albeit on different terms. Only natural that they consist of ways to avoid getting one’s hands dirty, of establishing proper distances. We’re seeing the gradual decline of the paternalistic standpoint of ‘learning about the other’s authentic culture’ (already a form of detachment from supposedly ‘direct’ or obscene pleasure) that was still present in the early years of gangsta rap. The last vestiges of those expectations are now reserved for representations of poor brown people and ‘the (vanishing, white) working class,’ and are more often the province of the documentary than entertainment. It is poverty and suffering, not culture, that truly authenticates today. Borat, for example, proved that 300 million dollars worth of Western audiences don’t give a shit about the indigenous culture of Kazakhstan. As soon as we know it’s poor, white, and backwater, we think we know all we need to.

Today, middle class liberals are not after authenticity from the minstrel show, but the patina of sophistication that comes from being in on every joke. The appreciation of skill is wholly concentrated on the performer, and wholly disassociated from the role. The minstrel character is talentless, whereas the performer’s skill is displayed by drawing out reactions from rubes which confirm that they are in fact rubes, and by transgressing (thereby reproducing) the laws of ‘political correctness.’ With Borat/Bruno/Zizek, the central minstrel figure is an obvious cliche — the joke the knowing audience is supposed to ‘get’ — even as it is the one we have to be taught: we are presumed to know nothing about Kazakhstan or Slovenia; we are presumed to find Bruno’s queer diva shtick outdated; we’re told how to find them funny. The on-screen targets of the ‘satire’ (various species of dumb whites, usually, though in Bruno there’s an episode with overly-sensitive blacks) are also reduced to stereotypes: these are the ones we are presumed to accept. A vision of a ‘real America’ is assembled via these performances. It is just as dumb, ugly, racist, arrogant, and fradulent as anyone else who aspires to what we’ve rather arrogantly branded The American Dream, and inferior to anyone who happens to be watching.

Superficial symmetry

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , on June 18, 2009 by traxus4420

…and category errors:

“But two of civilization’s institutions, though not physically present, are constantly alluded to in the act of torture, and so hover behind and arch over the physical reality of the sealed room. Like the domestic objects, these institutions are unmade by being made weapons. The first is, of course, the trial. In its basic outlines, torture is the inversion of the trial, a reversal of cause and effect. While the one studies evidence that may lead to punishment, the other uses punishment to generate the evidence.”

— Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

via

“The second institution ubiquitously present by inversion is medicine…the institution of medicine like that of justice is deconstructed, unmade by being made at once an actual agent of the pain and a demonstration of the effects of pain on human consciousness.”

— E.S.

“There are highly trained professionals questioning these extremists and terrorists. We have professionals who are trained in this kind of work.”

–George W. Bush

“Holding the Bush administration responsible for torture would give us some high political drama that would feed the media goat for the next two years and also sap the body politic. The healthcare system would go unfixed, schools would crumble, basic public services would deteriorate, all so that the left could have at the right. I am an old museum-quality Northern liberal, and I know something about the righteousness of my confreres. I’ve been with old lefty friends who can get emotional about the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the innocent men railroaded to the gallows, but dear hearts, it happened in 1886. Let’s move on.”

Garrison Keillor

“Though indisputably real to the sufferer, [pain] is, unless accompanied by visible body damage or a disease label, unreal to others. This profound ontological split is a doubling of pain’s annihilating power: the lack of acknowledgement and recognition (which if present could act as a form of self-extension) becomes a second form of negation and rejection, the social equivalent of the physical aversiveness. This terrifying dichotomy and doubling is itself redoubled, multiplied, and magnified in torture because instead of the person’s pain being subjectively real but unobjectified and invisible to all others, it is now hugely objectified, everywhere visible, as incontestably present in the external as in the internal world, and yet it is simultaneously categorically denied.”

— E.S.

Abu-Ghraib-Coffee-Table

“It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department.”

— Attorney General Eric Holder

“Although the torturer dominates the prisoner both in physical acts and verbal acts, ultimate domination requires that the prisoner’s ground become increasingly physical and the torturer’s increasingly verbal, that the prisoner become a colossal body with no voice and the torturer a colossal voice (a voice composed of two voices) with no body, that eventually the prisoner experience himself exclusively in terms of sentience and the torturer exclusively in terms of self-extension.”

leviathan

“The motive for torture is to a large extent the equivalent, though in a different logical time, of the fictionalized power; that is, one is the falsification of the pain and one the falsification after the pain. The two together form a closed loop of attention that ensures the exclusion of the prisoner’s human claim. Just as the display of the weapon (or agent or cause) makes it possible to lift the attributes of pain away from the pain, so the display of motive endows agency with agency, cause with cause, thereby lifting the attributes of pain still further away from their source. If displaying the weaponry begins to confer the prisoner’s pain into the torturer’s power, displaying the motive (and the ongoing interrogation means that it is fairly continually displayed) enables the torturer’s power to be understood in terms of his own vulnerability and need.”

— E.S.

The House today passed a $106 billion bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through September, as House Democrats backed President Obama despite misgivings among the ranks about his strategy in Afghanistan.

The 226 to 202 vote came after Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner had called some reluctant Democrats during the day imploring them to back the bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had strongly pressed her colleagues in a closed-door meeting to vote for the bill in a show of support for Obama, even if they oppose his strategy for increasing troops in Afghanistan. . . .

“We are in the process of wrapping up the wars. The president needed our support,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had earlier said he opposed the war funding but voted for it in the end. “But the substance still sucks” . . . .

House Democrats had put off the vote for more than a week, looking to win support for the bill. President Obama, who had pushed to insert a provision in the bill to bar the release of photos depicting abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad, demanded the Senate take out the provision to win votes from House liberals who said they would not support the war bill if the photo ban was included.

In the end, 19 House Democrats backed the bill who had opposed it the first time, although some cited loyalty, not agreement with Obama’s plans, as their reason.

“I want to support my president,”said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who changed her no vote to a yes.

via Greenwald

Notes on Horror

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Film with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2009 by traxus4420

“Certainly I will never again take for granted that audience males identify solely or even mainly with screen males and audience females with screen females. If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish, is construed by her author as a latter-day variant on Samson, the biblical strong man who overcame all manner of handicap to kill at least six thousand Philistines in one way or another, and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object. No accident, insofar as it is historically and, above all, politically overdetermined, but also no object — no impediment whatever to the audience’s experience of his or her function. That too is one of the bottom-line propositions of horror, a proposition that is easily missed when you watch mainstream cinema but laid bare in exploitation cinema and, once registered, never lets you see any movie ‘straight’ again.”

— Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (1992)

This striking paragraph makes clear that while the horror film as a whole has never been primarily about reinforcing the current patriarchal status quo, neither has it ever been about ‘celebrating difference.’ Regardless of how politically reactionary or radical the individual filmmakers, the genre has instead been progressive, in the bourgeois avant-garde sense of making the erasure of differences a violent spectacle. Underlying the rest of Clover’s book on changing gender roles in horror is a second narrative, variation on an old story, in which mainstream cinema first resisted then assimilated the extreme boundary-crossing of the low-budget, indie and semi-indie horror of the ’60s-’80s, now read in auteurist terms: things like the gore, the gender-bending, hermaphroditic figures, the mixed identification between stalker and victim/hero, the faux-vérité camera work, and the tone, constantly shifting between quasi-snuff and self-parody. When Silence of the Lambs swept the major Oscars (the genre’s moment of gentrification), the rules for popular cinema had plainly changed. By Kill Bill, they had been replaced.

*

The critics who missed the point, whether mainstream moralists or academics, mistakenly assumed horror filmmakers make things frightening in order to make them unappealing. Thus Robin Wood, who prefers that monsters be represented in (conventionally) sympathetic terms, says of Shivers (1975), an early David Cronenberg about nympho zombies, “it is a film single-mindedly about sexual liberation, a prospect it views with unmitigated horror…Shivers systematically chronicles the breaking of every sexual-social taboo — promiscuity, lesbianism, homosexuality, age difference, and finally, incest — but each step is presented as merely one more addition to the accumulation of horrors. At the same time, the film shows absolutely no feeling for traditional relationships (or for human beings, for that matter): with its unremitting ugliness and crudity, it is very rare in its achievement of total negation.”

Total negation, however, is a term best used to describe most mainstream films of the ’70s, in which homosexuality either didn’t exist or appeared as unthreatening comic relief. Shivers, on the other hand, is an affirmation of sexual revolution which is simultaneously denied to be possible. Horror’s aesthetic has always been negative. What horror makes hideous is what it desires, and not what it pretends to morally justify. Underline makes — the construction and shooting of the monster, or the gore effect, the performance of the villain, like the viewing of the above, is the chief source of pleasure for everyone involved in the genre’s reproduction. The accumulation of horrors ensures the pleasure of producing and consuming horror film.

The events and characters depicted in these photoplays are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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In a history of forms, one notices an increasing degree of indifference in the horror genre to traditional distinctions of all kinds. Those constitutive of the capitalist social body (or ‘civil society’): gender, class, race, sexual preference, etc., but also between monsters and between genres. The zombie subgenre is the latest realization of a long trend, traceable from the Gothic hybridizations of science, folklore, and literature to produce what Franco Moretti calls “totalizing monsters,” Draculas and Frankensteins, demons which refuse traditional categories, whose true horror is their inevitable promise to ‘go viral.’

That is, their threat is not due to their powers (easily altered to suit contemporary needs, thus guaranteeing ‘timelessness’), or their function as signs of a greater (Satanic) evil. The queer aristocratic vampire, immortal, the bestiality of the wolf-man and Mr. Hyde, the implied sexual perversion of the psycho killer, reduce a system of social differences to some founding trauma that defines the monstrous archetype. Its supernatural power is also its curse, the evidence of its exclusion from modern society, a mutation it threatens to replicate in the population at large. Monsters thus mediate social violence, substituting in an alternative mechanism, which as far as I can tell has always been some pseudo-biologial form of infection.

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Between the unreal monster and the normal functioning of society, a fantastic, unbelievable narrative implies a deliberately spurious social theory, one that pretends to offer universal history complete with future apocaplypse. The ‘modern,’ ‘totalizing’ monster is formally parodic, but with no clear object beyond its own genre history.

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Buffy is one possible apotheosis of horror, close in style to Tarantino and in tone to Scream. It adroitly stages a reconciliation between the horror genre and anyone who could possibly find it disturbing or offensive, by inviting its audience to replicate its cast, a ‘nerdy’ clique that isn’t socially disadvantaged, unfashionably misogynist, or even very awkward. The “Scooby gang” is a morally ambiguous secret elite, who while using the same skill set as Dungeons & Dragons, engage in the far more productive activity of ethnic cleansing. We don’t really notice this, though, as the the show makes a point of ‘not taking seriously’ its one truly horrific premise, preferring instead traditonal soap opera, blended with a kind of simulacral ‘nerd culture’ composed of various trivia categories which are referenced in clever ways. The nerd demographic gets to flirt with legitimacy, and the ‘average viewer’ gets another flavor of ‘ironic’ romantic outsider. Everybody wins.

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The other is the faux universalism of the zombie virus, which completes horror’s reduction of this colorful gallery of ‘supernatural’ deviances to the dialectic of life (vitalistic, soulful, individual) vs. death (automatic, dull, anonymous). ‘Sexy’ monsters are nowhere to be found. The apparently innocent gesture of speeding up the zombies, employed in 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, by eliminating their intrinsic silliness, further reduces Romero’s often witty play with the roles of collective ‘monsters’ and individual ‘protagonists’ into a contentless opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The difference between human and zombie now seems based on a kind of bone-crunching nominalism, with self and other replaced by proxy and object.