Friday, January 30, 2009

Boggle with Zizek

If you like your Marxist cultural theory "Seinfeldian," then Slavoj Zizek is your man.

Violence is his latest volume of highbrow Lacanian philosophy, eastern European jokes, Hitchcock fandom, capitalist critique, and revolutionary yearning. The Zizek mode of writing is to identify the liberal democratic consensus position, turn it upside down playfully, let himself be reminded of a movie that he loves, and finally decide that the West has got it all wrong...maybe. There's enough obscurantism and slapstick comedy to have readers scratching their heads over whether the book is an earnest denunciation of the "systemic violence" of contemporary life, or just provocative schticking.

Take Zizek's arsenal of pop culture references. He calls The Sound of Music "one of the great achievements of Western civilization," and has a silly soft spot for The Matrix (Welcome to the Desert of the Real is named after a line in the Keanu Reeves film). Zizek is capable of illustrating American mores with a description of the TV show Nip/Tuck, then wandering into an exploration of the way that Europeans number the floors of buildings differently than Americans do. In Violence, Elton John is cited for his views on organized religion.

This is cheeky. These wanton departures from academic philosophy are attention-grabbing, and draw the ire of responsible liberals. But Zizek deserves credit for operating outside the cloisters of academe. His appeal beyond the philosophy department is the envy of his critics and rivals. The media needs more rigorous thinkers than this guy, even if what it gets is a slobbering Slovene who embraces buffoonery from time to time.

Violence is most astute when describing the 2005 violence in the Paris banlieue as a post-ideological attempt "to gain visibility." The rioters lacked a coherent program, evidence to Zizek of the death of our political imagination. Zizek's enthusiasm for Christianity, in conflict with his devout atheism, is also a sumptuous feast of contradiction. He stares into the abyss of the Israel-Palestine conflict and outrageously calls for Jerusalem to become a radical free zone, open to all, purged of religious affiliation:

Israel--officially representing Western liberal modernity in the area--legitimizes itself in terms of its ethnic-religious identity, while the Palestinians--decried as premodern "fundamentalists"--legitimize their demands in the terms of secular citizenship...the further irony is that according to some polls, Israelis are the most atheistic nation in the world: around 70 percent of them do not believe in any kind of divinity. Their reference to the land thus relies on a fetishist disavowal: "I know very well that God doesn't exist, but I nonetheless believe that he gave us the land of Greater Israel."...The U.S.-Israel alliance, this strange association of the most religious (developed) nation in the world insisting on the separation of religion and state, and the most irreligious people in the world existing on the religious nature of their state, can thus present itself as an axis of victims...

Love him or hate him, take him as a serious commentator or a comedian, Zizek is hard to put down.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Guy

It's almost time. The President is muttering about Harry Truman. There are no hotel rooms within 100 miles of Washington D.C. It's almost time! Europe is excited. America is excited. Kenya is excited. But what about Pakistan?

He will be loved in Europe forever because of his cosmopolitanism, or if you like, his Omni-Americanness. Loved for just what was supposed to cancel his support in "middle America," wherever that is.

The main thing is that the eight year-long suspension of American diplomacy is over.

Of Paradise and Power

Robert Kagan's book-length essay Of Paradise and Power is about Iraq, mainly. That's at least the sharpest instance of the policy divide between the two titans of the West: Europe and the United States. Kagan argues that there is growing a perhaps irrevocable shift in the two powers' styles: one deliberative and process-based, the other urgent and unilateral. Kagan thinks he knows who should be behind the wheel and who should be fussing with the map.

But in the years since he wrote this manifesto, Europe has gained power both economic and military. It would be hard to argue that the inevitable clash between the two modes of governance has been approaching. Any damage to the transatlantic alliance can be ascribed to actions that Kagan himself has argued for.

Kagan co-founded the Project for the New American Century in 1997, and urged Bill Clinton at that time to invade Iraq. The 21st century, his recent article in the New Republic claims, will look like the 19th. Kagan has no faith in the consensus of the Enlightenment's ideas, no faith that democracy will prevail. This, from a man born in Athens, Greece. He sees the civilized world as hanging on by the barest of threads. And of course the only way America could escape this imminent standoff is to shoot its way out.

Of Paradise and Power faces the irony of this situation. America, Kagan argues, is a land of naturally progressive people who could only justify military intervention if it was carried out in the name of protecting or advancing civilization. Europe, on the other hand, is the land of mercantilism and colonialism and imperialism, what Kagan calls machtpolitik. How did these roles get reversed, with America now belligerent and Europe reliant on "soft power"?

Who knows? The main thing is, Russia's got oil and they hate us. Kagan foresees a long miserable ideological conflict wherein the petrostates, China, maybe even western Europe too, will fall like...wait for dominoes, and religious fundamentalism and autocracy will reinstate itself all over the world.

The anti-pessimists and the starry-eyed Wilsonians and I disagree.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

La Haine, pt. 2

...President Nicolas Sarkozy debated Mathieu Kassovitz in 2005 on the riots that swept suburban Paris, when Sarkozy was Minister of the Interior. Sarkozy retains his notoriety for the blunt and unsympathetic way he described the rioters: he used the term "la racaille," which means scum. You can see "Sarko=Fachot" (Sarkozy equals fascist) graffiti all over Paris.

He angers the left mostly for an apparent anti-humanism in the face of suburban welfare slums, which is the French incarnation of the world's most pressing social crisis. Mathieu Kassovitz and Sarkozy have a robust exchange on this subject on the Criterion Collection's website for La Haine (translated from Kassovitz's blog)

As president of France, he has certainly earned a reputation for a heavy hand. He called a press conference on a beach to tantalize the world with his beautiful new wife's body. Apropos the global financial crisis, the former Minister of Finance, a putative friend to the free market, said "le laissez-faire, c'est fini."

Sarkozy also drastically and controversially redefined the role of EU president during his stint at the end of 2008. The heads of state of member nations rotate the still largely undefined role of president. When Sarko's turn came up he began to dictate policy directly rather than casting around for a consensus view.

All this identifies Sarkozy as a tough and somewhat nationalistic leader, in the grand tradition of tough and somewhat nationalistic French leaders. Like Bush, he entered the presidency as a scrappy conservative outsider, and also like Bush, it is hard to imagine a career more entrenched in the political elite.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

La Haine, pt. 1

I can hear a police helicopter now above Oakland. This is due to last night's riot, where 105 people were locked up as they protested the January 1 murder of a young black man by a transit policeman.

Quite coincidentally I had been planning to review La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film, which rocked France for its depiction of the hostility between public housing denizens and the police. Kassovitz is an actor/filmmaker best known outside France as Amelie Poulain's crumpet. La Haine presents a decidedly different vision of Paris than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fairy tale.

It's the story of three young men, a Jew, a black, and a North African, and of their hostile, bored, tragic lives in the city's banlieue (poor suburb). They pass their underemployed days clowning around and getting high. But when Vinz (Vincent Cassel, maybe France's greatest actor) comes into possession of a gun, their frustration is concretized into violence.

La Haine is distinctively French in its style and setting. The boys hang out on a rooftop and imagine that they can kill the lights of the Eiffel Tower. They speak in verlan, a slang of inverted French vocabulary that owes its roots to Africa. And its hard to imagine the three main characters' ethnic mix coming together anywhere other than Paris' banlieue.

But the influence of this film went far "beyond the hexagon," as the French say. It is not an exaggeration to say that it began a new genre: the tense, funny and tragic urban survival film. City of God and Slumdog Millionaire belong to this genre. Costa-Gavras, in the DVD's liner notes, said

I consider La Haine to be a metaphor for our world. More than ten years ago, Mathieu Kassovitz showed us at the scale of a neighborhood what is happening today at a global level. The peacemakers, those who are supposed to spread democracy and justice on behalf of our sated and self-satisfied societies, are spreading death, contempt, racism and humiliation.

Kassovitz's film is not only prescient with respect to the conditions of outer Paris. It identifies a very contemporary sort of malaise and precarity. It's the condition of marginalized groups on the immediate outskirts of the consumerist paradise of the First World. This is a phenomenon not just in France or Europe but all over the world. The response of world leaders has been less than inspiring...

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Solar Anus

A few excerpts in case you don't have the stamina to get through this Georges Bataille essay:

Coitus is the parody of crime...

An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup of his masters are to love what a battle flag is to nationality...

Love and life appear to be separate only because everything on earth is broken apart by vibrations of various amplitudes and durations.

However, there are no vibrations that are not conjugated with a continuous circular movement; in the same way, a locomotive rolling on the surface of the earth is the image of continuous metamorphosis.

Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun...

Communist workers appear to the bourgeois to be as ugly and dirty as hairy sexual organs, or lower parts; sooner or later there will be a scandalous eruption in the course of which the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois will be chopped off...

I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl to whom I will have been able to say: you are the night.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Marilyn vs. Marlene

Who is your feminine ideal? Is it a smoking hot, utterly clueless blonde who needs a big strong man to take care of her? Or is it a smoking hot, fully empowered blonde who leaves a trail of dead big strong men in her wake?

Marlene Dietrich has international appeal. She belongs to the world, and conquered it like Bonaparte and Hitler never could. In Paris cabaret legend, she tamed Ernest Hemingway. Poets and presidents were reduced to crumpled, whimpering fools, but she claimed her heart belonged only to Orson Welles--a love never consummated. Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939 but is buried in her native Berlin.

But Marilyn Monroe is the one who enjoys the status of ultimate starlet. Maybe this is Andy Warhol's fault. Marilyn is always depicted as completely vacant, lost in the world, and totally unprepared to think for herself. Is this what endears her to moviedom, this quality of being easy to manipulate?

Quentin Crisp, the noted midcentury moviegoer and homosexual, puts a fine point on the difference between the two in his memoir The Naked Civil Servant:

I was still a devotee of the divine woman...In my lifetime she changed her name three times, calling herself first Brigitte Helm, later Greta Garbo, and finally Marlene Dietrich. I thought about her a great deal, wore her clothes, said her Sphinxlike lines, and ruled her kingdom. I came to the conclusion that beauty was not a girl but an Aryan face seen through Semitic eyes. This was what gave her that tragic and remote quality. If what the Wandering Jew (who might by now have changed his name to Fritz Lang) most longed for was unbearable pleasure indefinitely prolonged, then he had to invent for himself a woman who was both beautiful and unattainable.

We have come a long degrading way from Miss Helm to Mlle. Bardot. The fault lies not in our movie stars but in ourselves. Those beauties of the last generation symbolized hopeless love. Now it is too late for tears. What modern young man has the time to play a guitar under his true love's window or the energy to climb up the ivy into her room? In bed, he is embracing the bomb. Someone had to invent espresso sex, and to serve each cup of this tasteless beverage there had to be a mechanical doll whose only recommendation was her infinite availability. The woman who came to embody this ideal to the full was Marilyn Monroe. Her directors persuaded her to flaunt her astonishing sexual equipment before us with the touching defenselessness of a retarded child. She was what the modern young man most desires in life--a mistress who could be won without being wooed. She was the football pool of love.