Monday, November 12, 2012

The Moral Climber

I just wrote this in response to my  friend pointing out a high-horse post by Chris Hedges abiout how liberals suck but he doesn't....

I just co-organized a panel of public housing activists here in Chicago, and work, and therefore have colleagues who work, in some of the city's poorer communities.  And I just presented a project on police torture I worked on with my students, and showed another piece about a former student killed for being gay.  

And I have to say, people like me are obnoxious.  The whole Thomas Paine "Humanity is my religion and the world my country" thing has undeniable moral force, and equally undeniable arrogance.  The somber, reverent candlelight-vigil recitation of every place in the world where there is suffering is a masquerade of ethicized piety; not that it can't inspire good action, but it is a masquerade.  

And it is obnoxious because it's so often all about ME.  Where's my Pulitzer?  Where's my Nobel?  Where's my emeritus professorship?  I got this innocent tortured man freed from prison, but where's my honorary plaque?

Anyhow- I understand the emotional strain of the well-intentioned person, since I experience it, and I understand how good validation feels-- pride, as an aspect of gratitude, is not all bad.  But there needs to be another reference point beside oneself as St. George and the corporate-ogre dragon.  There needs to be some happiness and giddiness and celebration, not of or against trauma, but as a universal side-effect that can channel transcendence.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hysterical Plastical Tragsicle

Roman Jakobson may say language has six functions- eat, breathe, sleep, mate, poop, die-- but who needs flowcharts? Anyway, I believe in diluted mutilations of Lacan, so I say any language chunk does these three things all at the same time.

1) It is technical. This is what you (your body) can make happen. Not just descriptive or referential, but connecting things "outside" language in a way that is meaningful "outside" language. Not to comment on the possibility of anything existing outside of us thinking about it (except of course it does), but "don't touch the hot stove," or "my horse likes raisins," or math... all of those generalities can be reliable or unreliable, partially or completely true or false, but to be useful they have to point at something. Usually we think that this is why we talk. Language as content./

2) It is nonsense. This is what happens to you (your body), including your drives and sensations and ineffable experiences. It's the plenitude of negativity holding arbitrary phonemes in circulation around an empty center, with every part given a place negatively, a gap representing a gap, as structuralists say. But now you've forgotten what the "it" is that I was even talking about. Case in point. This is that which is so submerged in chaos that only the teeniest nub(s) actually even expresses that chaos, This is "semiotic" space, the first thing that has to exist before one can operate "technical" -- or, if you like, Symbolic-- language. Nonsense gets mined for humor and cosmic enlightenment, but also all attempts at objectivity; that all happens in the next and last step before we get back to technique.

3) It is magical. This is the murky mirror that is also a warped prism, the confounded bridge between nonsense and technique which situates you in your body by forgetting your body. It subsists on the delusion that subjective experiences can be represented in the same way that physical phenomena can be repeated, but it can only fail as a mirror. Anything unquantifiable or nonexistent belongs here in this pure realm-- because it can only not exist once you've thought about it. It's the way in which we use language as a tool in and of itself, as an extension of our inner experience (which is all external, and all nonsense). Commands, declarations, names, metaphors, pure narrative. Language as form.

So, anything we could call an "idea" is a syllogism, a story, and a song at the same time. Because time is built into language, like everything else, so linking syllogisms together makes a story, putting songs together makes a syllogism, and whether or not it feeds the poor or induces mass suicide, it's too easy to say that anyone isn't using language right when they take a story for a syllogism or a song for a story. Because in a way it is.

But it also isn't. Stories are "presence," the bugbear of deconstruction, but they motivate every way in which we relate what we experience and what we do- if any thought is involved. Sneezing happens to your body, just like sunburn or poverty. If there is anything cohering those things together, it is a story. And the value of stories is not their transparency at revealing nonsense or technique, representing either our personal experiences or our proper behavior-- it's the way in which the story does what a story does-- appreciates a song or formulates a syllogism for use outside the story. A story is neither the reality we experience or that we act upon.  But the stories about this isolation from reality are also stories.   And they will not be televised.

The End

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Modernists Are Snootified Typographers

Has anyone seen that Family Guy where Chris' English teacher says something like "So basically, Orwell was saying, give a little, get a little?" Anyway, This is Noah and I talking a little about Frederioc Jameson and post-Marxism.


I guess this is what you have to do if you're a marxist, but he basically just dismissed folks who are concerned about Stalin as reactionaries and blames counter-revolutionaries for making the revolution violent.

Maybe I'm just a wishy-washy liberal, but I really don't think that's adequate. Sneering at 1984 is fine, but the thing about 1984 that I've been discovering recently is that it actually isn't as horrific as reading memoirs from the Stalin period. There's nothing in 1984 that's as hideous as the Ukrainian famine. Orwell basically seems to say that the Moscow Trials were the absolute worst thing about Stalin. I really don't think that's the case


I don't think Zizek dismisses Stalinist mass murder. Jameson is neck-deep in academic Marxism though, Lukacs vs. Althusser etc. He illustrates, despite Zizek's best efforts, that Marxists are classic idealists- and thus somewhat fascists.

NoaH:'s hard to imagine Zizek downplaying Stalin, isn't it?
Anything that apocalyptic he'd like to make the most of.

I've hardly read any of the academic marxist debates, so when Jameson
gets into it at the end it was a bit of a shock. He spends a bit of
time arguing that representations of struggle interfere with the
struggle, and he means the media but it's hard not to wonder how it's
possible that his own endeavor never crossed his keyboard. He's great
and really smart, but to the extent that he thinks he's advancing the
revolution (and he definitely thinks that to no small extent) he's
kind of a clown.

Which is why people make fun of academic Marxists, I guess. Zizek and
Eagleton both manage to be public intellectuals, which makes their
pretensions to actually be talking to somebody less absurd.


Yeah, exactly! Zizek says Stalin was a bloodthirsty criminal, and then goes on at length to talk about how interesting he was. It would mean something different to utilize Hitler in that way.

Zizek and Eagleton are also less serious-- they're less modernist. They may not reject the revolution-- nay, they may in fact pine for it-- but they are more or less willing to talk about it as a miracle on par with the Second Coming, rather than the thing that will put all of this silly capitalist nonsense to rest for good.


It's interesting...I think that they're Christianity is actually part of their populism, isn't it? The revolution is a spiritual need, which everybody has; it's about people's souls. Whereas with Jameson — he's really insightful and smart, but the revolution never really rises above the level of a technocratic, academic fix. It's not about souls, it's about Althusser.


Althusser would agree (about himself being the revolution, that is). Which is why Ranciere rebelled against him and said that modernists were all just snootifed typographers.


Hah! I don't even know who Ranciere is! That makes him even more postmodern I think.


Also unlike Eagleton and Zizek, by the way, Jameson actively sneers at scholars who take up religion as part of a philosophical/theoretical perspective.

And you've heard me talk about Ranciere before-- he wrote that Politics of Aesthetics book I've talked about. He had a great Flaubert quote about how Flaubert wasn't interested in the poor, he was interested in the lice infesting their bodies.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Some Magic Wall That Keeps His Violence and Fecundity From Being Similar To Our Own

Reviewing some not-so-recent dialogues... here’s Noah and I talking about a blog post I can’t find anymore, from 2009, where I got into it with Adam Kotsko, atheist Marxist and author of Zizek and Theology.


I went back and looked at your conversation with the zizek scholar now that I'm reading Zizek. I don't know that I understand Zizek as well as I might, but I do know that when that guy says this:

"He's not just trying to keep up his materialist cred: he actually is a materialist. He's also actually an atheist and his reading of Christianity is meant to demonstrate that the radical core of
Christianity shows us a way to the most radical atheism possible."

he is so utterly full of shit that even the absent God is going to have trouble finding room to not inhabit him.

Saying that Zizek is "actually" anything simple seems pretty fucking brash. I mean, if your atheism involves embracing the radical core of Christianity, in what sense are you an atheist? If your materialism involves sneering at naive materialists for denying transcendence, how
exactly are you a materialist? Zizek has complicated answers to those questions, but he's so steeped in dialectic and eating his own tail that I don't see how you figure out which end is up without qualifying your answers in a way that doesn't just depend on "i've read
everything he's written, nyah nyah."

For example:

""all that happens in the passage from Objective Spirit to Absolute Spirit is that one takes into account that 'there is no big Other'," in this case meaning there is no God."

But Zizek's whole point is that the big Other is *not* God, or doesn't have to be God, or isn't God after the incarnation. One of the takeaways from a Christian perspective, it seems like, is that for Christianity God is not separate from Creation/man, or both separate and not separate, so that the killing of God is both really, especially, truly the death of God (Christ dies, God dies) and not the death of God, in that God is not transcendent and distant in the first place. God is not the big Other is different than saying "there is no God." It's more like saying "there is nothing that is God," with all the ambiguity that Zizek squeezes into (or out of) nothing.

And then he does it again:

"saying there is no big Other is the same as saying there's no God."

Then why didn't he just say it, smarty pants? Did he lose the letters on his keyboard?

And good lord, could he possibly be more condescending? What a putz.


Say what you want about fundamentalists and psychoanalysts, you can;t beat a Marxist academic for smug assurance in their totally unjustifiable faux-rational opinions.

Speaking to your "he couldn't find the keys on his keynoard" point, I really think the whole rhetorical concept of "begging the question" was invented for Zizek-style (a)theology. If you don't have the slightest suspicion that there might be some kind of God character, and you're not doing anthropology, or some hideous Joseph Campbell breathless syncretism self-help, WHY in Gaia's name are you talking about religion?

I do like Milbank, and I think I might actually be a little more behind him on the eros issue, actually, than I am with Zizek, Lacan, or Barth. I think I really am dismissing the gay utopia out of hand if I don't acknowledge the spiritual centrality of libido (which I really don't unequivocally say in my Glory and Hole essay I realize). You can't have the murderous energy of apocalypse without some white-hot repression. I'm less with Milbank on atavism and the evils of Protestantism, obviously, and some of his stuff on paradox and mist kind of reminds me of myself at age 20, but his out-materialisting materialsts thing about that one guy (Heinrich Friedrich Jacobi-- ed.) who sort of said to Kant that there are no a prioris before the existence of your body, was brilliant and really helped me think that out. And I was reading my Eckhart book at the same time as that book-- I should lend you that. What Barth is to ecstatic modern orthodoxy, Eckhart is to mystical medieval postmodernism.

You'e right, it's definitely all about love-- love cannot be easily dissociated from sin. It's almost the only reason to keep a transcendent God-- so that there's some magic wall that keeps His fecundity and violence from being similar to our own. That magic wall became the death of Christ-- it's almost as if what died on the cross was not only the certainty of a transcendent dimension, but also the banal self-identiity of the tangible world. Take that, equivocal/univocal/paradoxical academic philosophers!

And so... here’s Noah and I discussing Meister Eckhart.


reading Meister Eckhart, who I'm not that into. is interesting that he appears to be a Buddhist.


Detachment is a Buddhist term, but it's also a Christian one. Christianity is every bit as much about controlling (if not extinguishing) desire as Buddhism is. When Christ talks about "Blessed are the poor in spirit," that's generally interpreted to mean people who aren't attached to their things and even their lives and kin. It's sort of a key feature of most modern religions.


I think Eckhart is definitely talking about extinguishing desire. And he's not just saying that people shouldn't be attached to their possessions and kin; he's saying they shouldn't be attached to God. Which seems pretty Buddhist to me.


I don't want to dismiss the Buddhism charge completely, because it's not totally baseless-- and it's a nice "touche" to Zizek. But what keeps Eckhart from being a heretic is his attention to grace, ethics, etc-- and his really subtle theology. He's sort of Buddhist, but he's also sort of neoplatonic, which is a weird combination, and deserves some serious attention before being dismissed out of hand. I'd kind of like to compare him and Bataille as weirdo dissident but nonpartisan believers (Bataille of a different variety, obviously)..


Well, I'm not against it receiving serious attention from somebody else maybe. The New Ageyness of it is just really putting me off. I'll finish the book, but I don't know that I'm necessarily going to search out more....


I love that you're calling a 12th-centruy Christian theologian New Agey. And thus tarring Milbank, Zizek, and a large number of Catholics by association.

Philosophy is really not like music for you, is it? It is for me.


Ummm...sometimes? Like I said, my negative reaction to him is really aesthetic more than logical. So maybe it's just liking different bands?


You know, I don't think I could have articulated my artificial/natural idea without Meister Eckhart. "God" might even be the insertion into nature of the artificial "Godhead," which is far from unimportant. It is the vastness underneath actual reality, that Badiou wants to be math-- which is an attempt to insert nature into artifice, highly useful but not necessarily meaningful.

I think you're actually somewhat allergic to ontology yourself, which is understandable. But it might be something you could think about. If not Godhead, what can possibly lend coherence to universes? Time-space continuum? Superstrings? DNA?

I'm about to read the Brothers Karamazov. Have you read that?

(P.S.: After beginning the Brothers Karamazov, I discovered the line Zizek derides, about how without God everything is permitted, is uttered by Ivan, a demagogue-ish character advocating theocracy, who is corrected by the elder Zosima. So there.)

And finally, here’s a conversation we had about a new book on evolutionary psychology that Noah handily demolishes:


I love that the evolution-psych holy trinity is comprised of groups that are not hard to cast as subhuman-- at least from an evolutionary-psych perspective. Chesterton would relish that irony.
I keep being a little amazed that you are so willing to defend Biblical truth-claims; of course the Bible is quasi-objectively far more subtle and complex that eugenics, so it's a fairly clear aesthetic choice.

Yeah-- realizing that self-awareness is hooked up with language is central to Genesis. We get language to name (and thus control) all life, but God names us and gives us Law, we break Law immediately and achieve self-awareness (naked!!! shame!!!), and then receive punishment, which essentially is the part with awareness of death and universal contingency. For all of Lacan's critique of religious types as caught up with the Imaginary, it frankly seems as if the leap of faith is really to posit a fundamental Symbolic level. The power of science involves pushing the Symbolic to its breaking point-- not in nonsense dada, but in a fundamental figuration of the Real-- the nothingness of Divinity that allows language to exist by its sheer inexpressibility. If DNA isn't concrete structuralism, What else is? Beisdes, you know, culture and everything it generates.

I have to share this John Stuart Mill gem with you that I'm glad you reminded me of-- he wrote in a letter:

"Besides these I have been toiling through Stirling’s Secret of Hegel. It is right to learn what Hegel is & one learns it only too well from Stirling’s book. I say "too well" because I found by actual experience of Hegel that conversancy with him tends to deprave one’s intellect. The attempt to unwind an apparently infinite series of self–contradictions, not disguised but openly faced & coined into [illegible word] science by being stamped with a set of big abstract terms, really if persisted in impairs the acquired delicacy of perception of false reasoning & false thinking which has been gained by years of careful mental discipline with terms of real meaning. For some time after I had finished the book all such words as reflexion, development, evolution, &c., gave me a sort of sickening feeling which I have not yet entirely got rid of."


That's Mill quote is awesome. He and Hegel definitely deserve to make each other ill.

I'm trying to unravel your bit about Lacan and religion and the symbolic. I'm not sure I agree that the fundamental religious more is faith in the symbolic...but it seems like the symbolic has to be pretty important? The idea that there's a law...I guess Lacan doesn't think there is a transcendent law, which is why he claims that religion is in the imaginary, whereas someone with faith would argue that the symbolic is in fact from God?

Not sure I get how science pushes the symbolic to the breaking you mean by pushing it closer and closer to the real, demanding that the symbolic open up directly onto the real? DNA as symbolic which creates real would then be a kind of barrier case as you say; the real as coded message creating the real.

It's kind of amazing how banal ev psych guys are when they do decoding. Corballis was talking about mystery novels and the best he could come up with was, well, they must be narratives about evil being punished which is obviously evolutionarily ideal. You sort of think, have you ever *read* mystery novels? Is it possible that treating everything as a one to one code could, conceivably, be somewhat reductionist?


Yes, getting math to duplicate the vibrations of possibility is what science does-- but without fundamentalism. It's just that you do get totalizing dicks who write about evoliution and bell curves. Christianity holds that the Word is in the beginning. The chicken and the egg is solved in favor of the chicken. Narratives are always connected to desire and lack, but that doesn't mean Lacan isn't kind of a hermeneutically refined Protestant of sorts.


Chicken and egg is not exactly solved; God is around there somewhere with the word....


It reflects the entire Bible narrative. God made chickens. Adam named chickens. The Word was chicken, and it was good.

Mmmmm, chicken.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Device That Kills With Gravity

So, I decided that queerness, idealism, Plato’s world of essential forms, but also the transcendent, the conscious mind, intelligence, love, math, self-awareness, God, could all be collapsed under the term “artificial.” Sexuality, materialism, physics, death, catastrophe, the Spinoza substance, all these things can be collapsed as “natural.” Noah found this fairly grandiose and sloppy, but I still like it.


All intelligence is artificial. That is the prime religious frustration. Also why aspects of Christian poststructuraslism are less annoying than New Age pantheist poststructuralism. But I probably never would have started attending church if it wasn't for the gay utopia.


Isn't the Christian idea that intelligence is primary — the one thing that's not artificial? In the beginning was the word, etc.?


Artificial, as in always already constructed, and in opposition to all things that function in obedience to forces of inertia. The Word was in the beginning. Artificiality exists without and previous to nature.


Yeah, I'm not following that. God's intelligence is before the world; it's the most natural thing. It's what creates everything else. So intellect isn't artificial, or at least God's isn't.

Or you're saying it's artificial precisely because it's previous to nature? That the Word is artificial? It seems bizarre to call god artificial...shouldn't he be the one thing that's natural if anything is?


no, see- God as nature is pantheism. that's the transcendence thing.


There's a difference between saying it's transcendent and saying it's artificial though, surely. If anything it should be reversed, I'd think. Transcendence means god is natural and nothing else is. Push that far enough and you get gnosticism, I guess, but gnosticism is a christian heresy...


Heresy is heresy. Nature is trees. God is distinct from trees, although hardly irrelevant to trees.


I deny that nature is trees. Trees come from nature. But nature isn't necessarily the natural. It could be artificial. Like in Solaris.


Not trees. So... nature is laws of nature? Deep math? Whatever you call it, it's a process, an aggregate of force vectors, something that we are intimately part of at all times. Not our intelligence, our awareness of ourselves, which makes everything strange and secondary and reducible to deep math. The possibility of an absolute that creates nature comes from an absolute that perceives nature, which is our intelligence. Giant brains, weird bodies, straining at the surface of the shrink wrap around totality, totality itself starts to change as it is perceived and understood, and an outside seems as clear as the fact that somehow the space in our heads has become a space outside.


Nature is Bacchus, like in C.S. Lewis. But Aslan is natural.

I was just reading Hume, who argues that procreation creates intelligence rather than the other way around. Our intelligence is as much a part of nature as our loins, surely. If we make a watch, that's artificial. If God made nature, then that's artificial. Artificial is what's built, not the builder. I guess you could say our intelligence is not part of nature since it's connected to God...but I don't think that makes God artificial still...


Brains and loins (and lions) are natural. But, in fact, so is a watch. Metal and glass (or sand) are natural. The concept of its purpose is what even makes it a watch.

There is no outside to nature, unless you are aware of yourself, or of God.


But putting metal and sand together into a watch is different than having just metal and sand. A watch is metal and sand plus artifice. Reading Kristeva, who seems to agree with you re consciousness being un-natural. She doesn't call it artificial though....


Right-- the watch is natural, except for the artifice. Same with the brain.

Kristeva is writing in a different language (perhaps), but she's also an atheist. If you want to say that "artificiality" is somehow an anthropomorphic fallacy, you need to explain what the difference between "artificial" and "unnatural" might be. I certainly have no problem with de-anthropomorphizing the term "artificial." Birds' nests are artificial. Footprints are artificial. But the simple cause-and-effect logic is not enough to sustain a distinction between nature and artifice.


So you're saying the brain is different than the rest of the world becausethe brain is the only bit that has been created using artifice?

That doesn't seem right...?


The brain is natural, except for the artifice. The intelligence itself, that you could call a property or effect of the brain, I call artifice. It puts a hole in reality through which reality can operate upon itself. It inaugurates the possibility of a world. That's why it's like God.

Kirkegaard said "I choose the absolute than chooses me. I posit the absolute that posits me." That was my Facebook post a couple days ago.


Hmm. Artifice still seems like the wrong word. Transcendence works better I think. Or noumenal.

Yeah, I think material and noumenal or material and transcendent is much better here than natural and artificial. The latter have too many other connotations; it ends up being confusing.


Sometimes being confused is worth it. I'm proposing a concept, not just a definition. God and Not-God is too vague-- because either everything is one or the other. God is everything and there's no Not-God, or, well, God is just dead.

I'm talking about something that involves not cutting off spirituality from the "normal" world. That's the whole point. The cross is artificial. It's a device that kills with gravity, and spreads fear among people, and then a symbol allegedly repudiating those things. The Word (as you point out) is artificial. Language is technology. It's not spiritual, as such, when you call someone an asshole or order a latte. What makes it transcendent is the artificiality, the outside-reality. This possibility allows for a much more complicated environment that doesn't let the "numinous" be mistaken for indigestion and subsumed in DNA.


I knew it wouldn't be that easy.

You should use whatever concepts you like...but it's just very hard for me to see how the Word which is the base of everything isn't more natural than the tree that it makes. Artifiice may make the world, but the artificer isn't artificial.

I think...maybe paradox would help? Neibuhr's idea that love is both the fulfillment of the law and the antithesis of the law...perhaps what you need is to see the Word as both the fulfillment of nature and the antithesis of nature? It's both outside nature and the definition of nature. Neither gnosticism nor pantheism but holding them in tension.


I have fears about cozying up to paradox. William Desmond and betweenness and the metaxological. It makes me think of wholeness and wonder and following your bliss. It's as if God could only exist when you're satisfied and happy and warm-- but of course God matters most when you're desperate and hungry and crazy and sick. Balance is a supremely pantheistic notion in the first place. If you're that balanced, though, how can you move or change or think or act?


Neibuhr's notion of paradox isn't a static whole, though. It's not between and balance, but both and tension.

For love and the law, it's the idea that love is the thorn in the heart of the law; the thing that denies the system and fulfills it. The need to satisfy love through the law is impossible and imperative. It's not a pantheistic everything is happy. It's more like Cioran; religion as unendurable ache.

For intelligence as the basis of nature and as the beyond of nature it could work somewhat similarly I think. The need to reach God and get beyond nature/the material is the impossible fulfillment an denial of our nature. It's a description of fallenness; nature holds us, but intelligence (like love) demands we wrest ourselves from it.



Sure. I mean, Christ announces Himself as the fulfillment of the Law. And he is love, and of course he goes around defying the Law and ticking off the Pharisees and Saducees all day, and gets killed for it. Love is Other and irruptive and disruptive, true, and it allows healing and defies death.

What happens both in the Eden story and on the cross is that the artifice that arose from within the universe doesn't just bump into but spills over into the artifice from which the universe arose. The intelligence, which I maintain is not "false" but denies mundane ideas of reality and authenticity that are bogus precisely because they are based on phenomena that arise and dissipate, is a wound, or a thorn... love is not obviously the same thing to me, although it does work quite well as a superior substitute for "balance."

Or it's just that I'm talking about ontology and Niebuhr is talking about ethics. It may be a fine analogy.


"The intelligence, which I maintain is not "false" but denies mundane ideas of reality and authenticity that are bogus precisely because they are based on phenomena that arise and dissipate, is a wound, or a thorn..."

This is why I think calling it artificial is a problem. You're not saying it's artificial, but that it's more real than real. It is the gnostic thing; the world is a transitory veil; the thing that is solid is god.

I'm not saying that reality is love (though that's not an unChristian idea, come to think of it...) but that the way Neibuhr put together the ethical paradox might work ontologically as well.

Maybe thinking about Eden would work? Eden is both "really" real and outside reality; it's the platonic ideal. What causes the loss of Eden is the knowledge of good and evil — so intelligence both casts you into the real (material) and causes you to lose the real (Eden).

It seems like that should sync up with intelligence specifically as well. The knowledge of good and evil is why you exit Eden; intelligence tosses you out of reality, though it is also your link to it — or at the same time intelligence hooks you to reality, though it is also your passage out of it.....


Nature is still nature. It is what really is. That's why it's different than you saying God is natural and nothing else is. We are divided between our natural and artificial aspects, and God is as well. Nature is tangible but not immortal. God is an idea but not mortal. I'm not saying one is more real than the other.

Eden is a great example, as is the proto-semiotic state before language. Love exists naturally before language, but then must be reconstructed, artificially, both through and in spite of ethics.

Intelligence destroys us, it destroys everything around us, it is clearly not in harmony with nature. It also makes us free like nothing else around us, and capable of experiencing destruction, violation, and suffering like nothing else around us.


Intelligence is natural though. It's what makes us mortal, first of all, if you accept the Eden story. And it's natural to us; it evolved. Our intelligence isn't *that* much different from a chimpanzees'. They can even talk to us.

And surely God is supposed to be what really is. Moreso than nature even, which is why he'd be more natural than nature, and why in C.S. Lewis the wood between the worlds is a wood.

Intelligence here is kind of becoming free will, isn't it? The thing that separates us from nature and requires from us ethics. It certainly makes us free like nothing else. I think it's maybe presumptuous to say that it makes us more capable of suffering...?


Using Eden AND evolution against me. How diabolical. And, according to you, natural.

Evolution is natural. Creation is artificial. Brains (to reiterate) are natural. Consciousness (which still seems like something bugs might have) is perhaps also natural. Intelligence is something else, whether humans or robots or dolphins or aliens or chimpanzees have it.

And it includes free will, but that's hardly everything it means. It means limitless desire, language, problem-solving, and two big aspects of the Eden story, shame and the awareness of death. There is a site that is a subject, a space that should not be a space, that violates conservation of matter-- if it was actually matter and not just thought.

And this is not to devalue nature. The importance of wilderness as that which we are somehow in an undeclared war with, that overwhelms and envelops and, tamed or not, sustains us-- extends to our own bodies. We are not in any way better than our bodies. But we are not at one with them.


I'm not using them against you. I am helping you clarify your ideas. Naturally.

Evolution is natural. Creating an ant hill is natural. Creating a toupee is natural (though the toupee itself is not exactly.) Creating the universe seems like it should be natural as well.

We may not be at one with out bodies, but is the disjunction there well-described by saying that our mind is artificial and our bodies natural? We're not a calculator chained to a dying tree. We're an angel chained to a dying animal. Both angels and animals have minds; just different kinds; and while you could argue that an angel isn't natural, I don't think you'd usually call it artificial.

Eden is a metaphor for the world before intelligence; prelapsarian infantinnocence. It's also a metaphor for a world outside nature. Intelligence shackles us to the world and cuts us off from it — neither of which is whole oneness happiness, both of which are crucifixion/castration. I don't deny your being in the world and not of it as our tragedy, but I think our tragedy is also being in the world and of it. We're natural and not, but that includes our minds. The binary isn't mind/body and isn't nature/artificial. God's natural but not nature, and we are too, though less naturally.


Paul says, "If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away. all things have become new." i can expand more later. but my goal is to deal with atheist materialism on one hand, and Zizek and Eckhart on the other, who insist that God needs us as we need Him.


"New" isn't artificial, though. Surely the metaphor there is a
rebirth, not being smelted out of plastic....

What does the "need" consist of? Parents need children...


Rebirth is not natural. Resurrection is not natural. You can have some issue with calling it artificial, but the whole zombie/cyborg as Messiah totally works for me-- it is a thing that should not be, except that it must be.

It also comes down to a queer thing. Not that homosexuality is unnatural (although the term itself is weird), but its very natural-ness throws off the way we equate natural with real-- and heterosexuality with procreation.

Artificial is not false. Angels are perhaps the only intelligence that is artificial, so far-- God is divided between natural and artificial, as are we, as I have stated previously.


Yeah; zombies don't seem artificial. Unnatural, yes.

I think your terms don't really work for you if you don't want artificial to be false, is what I'm saying. Artificial really does mean false in most ways it is used.

If it comes down to a queer thing, maybe you should use natural/queer?


I think it's perfectly fine to alternate terms sometimes-- "queer" is a pretty good synonym, insofar as "all sexuality is artificial sexuality" seems equally valid to "all sexuality is quer sexuality," and for basically the same reasons.

"Queer" is also properly a term meant to designate a specifically marginalized community, and I sort of think honoring that community from a Christian standpoint should also mean acknowledging siblinghood without wholesale appropriation.

But I do think "artificial," especially post-Warhol, post-Terminator, is just as ripe as "queer" for rehabilitation as a term. Christians should be allowed some divergence of opinion on sexuality (although that's ethically uneasy, it seems as valid a discussion to permit as the one over abortion), but by no means should Christians be comfortable with the eliding of all differences between nature, reality, and truth.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Barfing into the Void

Noah and I discuss the possibility of ineffable transcendent anythingness, based on his article about a philosophy book about film that argues against philosophy about film:

Albert Stabler

From your account, that book sounds like one big steaming pile of dissected cow hearts. Are you sure it's not supposed to be some big joke on his name (heap of mullarkey)? The caveman Tarantino line and the Zizek's nostril line are priceless.

But then again, I'm looking at a review in a journal ( that contains a lot more detail about his actual philosophical orientation (Bergsonian, it would appear). That sort of dynamist vitalist evolutionary becomingness that C.S. Lewis makes fun of and Alfred North Whitehead propounds (as does Deleuze). So really, this guy has a philosophy he's imposing on film-- even if it's yet another in an endless series of examples of what Badiou in that Paul book calls "antiphilosophy."

I don't think you're someone who denies himself a cheap shot or ten, and I support you heartily. But, along with not fleshing out his probably banal point, you don't make much of an argument for your (thoroughly defensible) "nothing is new" view. For example, complaining about Sofia Coppolla's incredibly stupid interview on Fresh Air, where she and Terri talk about the bliss of watching some actor smoke a cigarette with no edits-- a reiteration of the "time-image" motif that has become an avant-garde cliche.

Noah Berlatsky

Oh...he's definitely Bergsonian. I thought about talking about that more, but it didn't really seem all that worthwhile; he ends up just saying that film is ever becoming new, film is a Heraclitan fire, etc. etc. The main point for me was the claim that film is uncontainable in thought, but that philosophy is containable, therefore philosophy contains film and not the other way around. I don't think it was unfair to make fun of him for that without necessarily making fun of him for anything else. He really makes his own philosophy secondary to claiming that philosophy doesn't get film; the second is his main point, the first gets much less attention.

I guess I felt that the fact that there's nothing particularly new under the sun seemed like a fairly obvious point....

Albert Stabler

Yeah, good-- it's basically all about narratives (which definitely distances you from Bergson and Mullarkey, as well as Kristeva and others). I appreciate your examples. I'm a sucker for hard content. Like a Tootsie Pop.

Well, far be it from me to tell you what you think. It's just that you haven't offered your own theory of how film can be theorized, other than as mere illustration of philosophical points, which is apparently what Mullarkey is saying it has been thus far. Like, how is Zizek's viviosn of narrative different than it would have been without cinema as an example?

Maybe one thing I find curious about your approach to philosophy (which is not unlike your approach to theology) is that you are consistently reverent toward historical precedent without positioning yourself as in any way participating in any tradition(s). It's sort of your own kind of pragmatism (Dewey and James et al, a recent American strain of antiphilosophy that, frankly, I imagine you would have mixed feelings about being lumped into), this commonsensical anti-scholasticism that kind of overlaps a bit with the intuitive poetics of Bergson, frankly.

I get the sense that you still think most any philosopher is basically full of horseshit when talking about film-- which, ironically, may be sort of what Mullarkey is saying. It's just that you believe in being more polite and unpretentious about saying so. In your version, film is still just film, philosophy is still just philosophy, but, you know, they represent each other sometimes, and it's all good. Which I'd certaily rather read than some Marshall McLuhan blather about hot and cool running media formats.

Noah Berlatsky

My ideas about the gay utopia are totally built on reading films. If you look through that essay, you can see me saying, "well, kristeva says this, but if you look at this film, it actually seems to say that things work more like this." Or that line about the opposite of love being paranoia; that's a philosophical point (more poetic than rigorous, but still) which comes directly from watching a movie. As does the idea that a big part of the attraction of homosexual panic is that it's pleasurable.

I just think it's an accumulation of particular ideas and details rather than through some all-encompassing traumatic mechanism. Philosophy and film just aren't that different. They're both products of human thought. It just seems bizarre to me to posit this huge rift between them which you have to overcome in order to have them communicate.

Also...not to be too grating...but the whole point of the fecund horror piece was based not so much on the narratives I picked as on the fact that the emotional identification of the narratives were intentionally binary; they read both as themselves and against themselves. So the philosophical point I was making wasn't based on the narrative example, but rather on the the an aesthetics of identification, which is based partly on narrative but also very much on image (and sexual desire, which is pretty important, is also a function of image as much as of narrative — and a lot of the way that the films read against themselves is by contrasting image and narrative, so we're told diagetically that our protagonist doesn't want sex, but the film keeps showing us semi-naked women in fetishized ways, or throwing poop/phalluses at us.)

I think one of the big methodological problems with Mullarkey's book is that in order to claim that philosophers separate out narrative to use it as examples, he forced to himself separate out narrative to use it as an example, implying that one can talk bout narrative without having other things bleed in. He also, as I said, abstracts out philosophy itself, turning it into a series of propositions or a chain of thought and thereby hiding the extent to which aesthetics is important to philosophy too, and the way that metaphor and syntax can't be abstracted from philosophical argument. Those things are what make philosophy like film in the first place, and why there isn't as much of a different between them as all that. Or so I'd argue anyway.

It's something of a traditionalist argument...except that I think many philosophers are a little chary of owning the extent to which metaphor and aesthetics is important to what they're doing. Or perhaps I'm wrong about that, I'm not sure....

I don't actually think philosophers are full of shit when talking about film. I mean, no more than anyone else. I think Zizek is often funny and insightful. Cavell sounds pretty interesting. Mullarkey had some interesting readings, even. It would really be case by case as to whether I thought they were worthwhile or not. I think it's silly to state categorically that film hasn't influenced philosophy because examples don't count as influence, though. I think there's a conversation which can be dumb or can be interesting, but dumb or interesting, it exists.

I think seeing film as unique among the arts is hard for me to sign onto. But philosophy as an art and art as philosophy seems like it's an idea that's been around for a long time, and one with a fair bit of validity.

T'aint all about narrative. The exhilaration/enjoyment of homosexual panic is mostly expressed through special effects. And I talk about the acting and the images and so forth. Narrative is pretty important in narrative film, but I think you can respond to other aspects as well.

Albert Stabler

Of course, ironic subtext is not merely the domain of cinema. Which doesn't invalidate you observing that philosophy has style. It's so content-centric, there's no wonder it keeps ending up barfing into the void. It could do a lot more with itself if it was overall less formalistic, although it then has the problem, as you mentioned, of being recognized as philosophy. But Paul still pulled it off. As did numerous film directors.

Special effects and acting and images are tools of narrative in film, as metaphors and imagery and characterization are tools of narrative in literature. I'm not saying you're saying it's all about plot or dialogue, and I'm certainly not saying your points are anything but sensitive and worthwhile-- but I am saying you might be subsuming everything to the Symbolic (storytelling) element of the experience, rather than the stuff that interrupts the experience. This email, like philosophy in general, can make gestures at describing horror, laughter, and ambiguity, but it arguably can't necessarily convey it in the same way as a virtual reading or viewing experience can.

But then again, the idealist romantic tradition, since Schlegel and Schelling and what not, have maintained that poetry is the highest of all human pursuits, for much the same reason.

Noah Berlatsky

Yeah, that's not entirely unlike what Mullarkey says. He's very interested for example in the way that people desire the iceberg to miss the titanic in way which involves them actually experiencing involuntary bodily motions. And he's fascinated by what's experienced as real or unreal. And in everyday time. And in nervous systems.

I'd say I don't have any problem with people talking about the non-symbolic aspects of film if that's what they want to do. An important aspect of the Lord of the Rings is that the films are so damn long that the need to urinate is a vital part of the experience. Or, less diuretically, the Bible is not just what happens in it or how it is organized but the fact that it's a living religious system, and people believe the word of God is there. Or lego instructions are about building something and it doesn't work and that sucks. All reasonable insights. Your world exists while you are in the world of the film (or in some ways it doesn't, which is worth thinking about as well.)

But. Two points. First, the symbolic immersive aspect of film, just because it is shared by other narratives and is not alone particular to film — that does not mean that it is not part of film. Wrting about that symbolic aspect and philosophizing about it, that's still engaging with the movie. It's not denying its particularity or filmness; it's not reducing film to a philosophical example. The symbolic is part of art; engaging with that part of art is engaging with the art. It's not missing the forest for the trees; it's just looking at these trees rather than some other trees which are no doubt interesting as well.

Second. The specificity of film as an experience separate from its narrative is specific only in the way that different symbolic content is different. That is, the symbolic content of the Bible is different than the symbolic content of lego instructions. Similarly, the specificity of the experience of the Bible is different from the specificity of the experience of the lego instructions. But specificity of experience is itself not specific to film; any aesthetic experience (very broadly defined) is going to have that content which is outside the symbolic.

Mullarkey wants film (not specific films, but film itself) to have something special to teach philosophy. He rejects symbolic content because that ends up just being illustrative. So then he goes to the time experience of film itself; the idea that film's essence is no essence or motion. But there's no reason I can see why any of those concepts is central to film in particular. You could say the same thing about lego instructions, really (I mean, I wish you wouldn't say them because the whole conversation is kind of banal and tedious — it's all like, motion, man. But the point is you could say it if you wanted to.)

So the point is: I think philosophy can (and often does) enter into conversations in which it engages with the symbolic/interpretive content of particular films. I think philosophy can (and does somewhat less often) engage with the way people engage with or experience film in an-extra-symbolic or extra-aesthetic way. I think philosophy can think about the particular formal elements of film in general and what that means and doesn't mean. All of those seem to me to be legitimate ways in which philosophy is influenced by, or is in conversation, with film. (And it can go the other way too, of course— film often picks up ideas and things other than ideas too, perhaps, from philosophy.) But I don't see why any of this has to be particularly fraught, or why one needs to pretend that philosophy is some sort of imperialist conqueror of film when it does the first but is authentically learning from film when it does the second. I'm willing to admit that having to pee while watching LOTR is as much about film as the homoerotic tension between Frodo and Sam, but I don't see why having to pee is *more* about film than the homoerotic tension.

I don't think it's true that philosophy or non-fiction prose can't convey those experiences. I really think we're just talking about different genres. I find Feyerabend more inspiring, funnier, more exciting, more ambiguous, than Gilbert Hernandez. I find much of zizek more moving than many of the films he describes. I don't think that's an especially aberrant or even unusual state of affairs.

If everything I've been discussing is the symbolic, what are you saying are the things that interrupt the experience?

Albert Stabler

Actually, I'm at least somewhat off. Maybe it's more accurate to say that the symbolic aspect of culture, which applies to all narratives equally, does more than just organize and structure reality (the realm of plot and superego), thus reinforcing or revising the order of life. It also shapes the imaginary (the flying poop and phalluses you mention, as well as the character identifications and the ineffable sense of meaning and belonging that go along with it), and generates the death drive, which is sort of the meta-symbolic level of repetition that denies orderly progress and change-- instead manufacturing more desire and lack.

But all this synthesizing and virtuality, which happens inside the experience, is (perhaps) different from the things that take you out of the experience, not necessarily by being unconvincing, but by happening to you in the everyday time of your world rather than the world of the book or movie. So, things that are uncanny, shocking, incorrect, funny, illogical, sublime. Which is tough to describe, but it matters that something separates the Bible and a sitcom and a personal letter and instructions to assemble a propane grill, other than subject matter and/or genre. They all point to things outside the text but in our nervous systems. which then refer back to the texts. Time passes in various ways all at once, and memories and meanings create feedback.

There are some very good reasons not to make film special and unique-- it's a modernist wet dream of ever-becoming. Like-- if it's all about sounds and lights and drives, why not TV or video games?

Of course the reason is that the film director has supreme auteur status to control your experience, more than perhaps any other creator before or since. I think semiotic stuff is important. Things that don't break down hermeneutically are important. But there's something masochistic, as I think you imply, about wanting Hitchcock or whoever to reach out of the screen and spank you as some kind of apotheosis of truth-excess.

Yeah, like I said, the concept of antiphilosophy makes sense to me, but film being super special is lame. So that settles that.

Noah Berlatsky

Television is a big question. Mullarkey discusses some television (a Star Trek episode) but doesn't really deal with the fact that it's got at least some decent claims to being a distinct medium. And video games don't come up.

Auteur theory is auteur theory; it's a philosophical container. Which isn't bad, but is a problematic way to claim film's special status as distinct from philosophy.

Also...I'm a little skeptical about antiphilosophy, because I think philosophy tends to include lots of antiphilosophical elements which aren't really acknowledged as such. In order to create an opposite for philosophy, you have to have a fairly reductive notion of philosophy, which assumes that philosophy has a well-defined purpose/program that doesn't include aesthetics (among other things.)

Albert Stabler

I absolutely don't think antiphilosophy is in any way separable from philosophy, It's kind of central to the project, but just comes out explicitly in some writers more than others.. That was pretty central to my spiel at the MCA-- I talked about Paul, Meister Eckhart, Jacobi, and Whitehead as a tradition of philosophers speaking against philosophy on behalf of transcendence. I personally like thinkers that deal with ineffability as something separate and supremely important, like Paul and Kristeva, rather than something that can be reinscribed into the immanence of reality, like Derrida or James. Thus my sympathy for Mullarkey.

Of course aesthetics exists as a branch of philosophy-- some obscure freaks like Aristotle and Kant wrote quite a bit about it. I think you should decide if you really want to be saying that style is really the part of reality/experience that can't be captured by systematic description. Christopher Hitchens might agree with you, but Terry Eagleton probably wouldn't.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't think I'm saying that style can't be captured by systematic description. I'm just saying that systematic description is not description alone. It has style. I'm saying they can't be separated, not that they can.

I'm not so sure that Mullarkey is claiming that ineffability is transcendent. If anything he's claiming that immanence is ineffable. He's not unDerridean (Derrida being kind of the ultimate antiphilosopher in a lot of ways.)

Albert Stabler

Okay, see, that's the thing. I know we're throwing around the "antiphilosophy" term, but I'm sticking to Badiou's use of it to describe Paul, which is pretty different, for me, than what Derrida is doing. Derrida, despite his latter-day becoming-humanist, was a nihilist. Paul was not. The sophistry Paul (according to Badiou) dismissed under the term "Greek" is precisely where Derrida discovered his Zen insights.

Again, exalting film as the Word of God is distasteful, and I haven't read the book. But if you're seeing style as the great unifier of discourse, that's an idealist move I'm not really willing to commit to. Style is different from semiotics.

Maybe we should talk about music to clarify this thing. Music cannot help but have a style, and largely be defined by it, but style doesn't capture the experience of listening to music.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't know that I think style is the great unifier; I'm not saying it's the essence of discourse. But I don't see how you have a discussion that doesn't have style. (All discussions have content too, I'd say.) Style doesn't capture the experience of listening to music, but so what? Experiences are particular; you can't transfer them from one medium to another anyway, though you can transfer bits of them.

I'm pretty sure Mullarkey is just using antiphilosophy to mean "things that are not philosophy." Especially things that are experiential rather than looking for transcendent insight. From that perspective Derrida fits and Paul probably doesn't. Which just goes to show that the main thing that unifies philosophers is that they don't want to be called philosophers.

Albert Stabler

I keep coming back to the Hegel thing about the perfect State is no State. All philosophy wants to kill philosophy. But that's different from saying that all experiences are ineffable-- like you said, it's just the actual parts of experiences (that basically everyone has) that, arguably, cannot be represented, but merely reproduced. THis has been a big frontier for antiphilosophical philosophy, since before Nietzsche. I bet that's what Mullarkey thinks he's talking about.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Black Beacon in a Blinding Storm, or, Annihilation Irrationalized

I actually finally saw the original rape-revenge cinema classic I Spit On Your Grave tonight. Not only is the cinematography lovely (not unaware of echoing the gaze of the predator, slasher movie style), but the portrait of the viciously tyrannical but ironically (and literally) castrated “primal father” after the death of patriarchy is an entirely appropriate response to the whole Othering of the primeval countryside. Here’s a statement I made on black metal that sort of applies:

“I think you could go so far as to say provincialism itself has acquired a certain globalized character-- it's the voice of negativity. Isolationism universal! And that sort of worldview has to be strictly negative. The struggle to resist the imperialist is (in a general abstract way at least) pure, but the land and invented history being defended are never pure.”

Anyhow, this whole conversation with my pal Noah was prompted by his article that is now readable here, in which he refers to the new and old versions of I Spit On Your Grave, as well as the old and new versions of Michael Haneke’s movie Funny Games.

My misgivings about I Spit are probably still relevant (for me anyway) and are enumerated below; I would add that I find dubious Noah’s claims about it being a “subtle and thoughtful” treatment of “how class works, how gender works, how that provokes violence, how that affects us and our morality.” But it’s a provocative movie that anyone who cares about radical feminism and/or likes violent movies should see.

We refer obliquely to some nice things Noah wrote on evil and pacifism, in these pieces on Spiderman, Superman, and Terry Eagleton.

And we begin…

Noah Berlatsky

I discovered that Andi Ziesler, one of the editors at Bitch magazine, apparently hates I Spit on Your Grave on the grounds that...well, you can probably figure it out. I found this more irritating than I expected, which is stupid of me. If you're going to get irritated because not all feminists like I Spit on Your Grave, you're going to be getting irritated a lot....

Albert Stabler

Feminists are probably touchy about long rape scenes and rape-revenge being yet another dom/mommy castrator fantasy thing. Which is sort of why I like absolute violence more than justified violence, in movies anyway. But I still want to see Spit.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't think you get around domination or castration fantasies with absolute violence, actually. But that's maybe just me....

I wish Andi Ziesler were smart enough to see it as castration fantasies on the part of men. As far as I can tell, she just sees it as sadism and exploiting women. Just the long rape scenes in other words. (She doesn't like the fact that Jennifer seduces the men afterwards either, which might be a dislike of castration fantasies, I suppose.)

I've probably made this clear enough...but I don't know that male masochistic investment in feminism is a bad thing. Men have an erotic investment in patriarchy — as indeed do women. It seems like if you're going to present an alternate model, you need an alternate erotics as well. I know the alternate model is supposed to be egalitarian sharing with everyone treating each other with respect, etc, but if other things work perhaps that's not so bad either. William Marston thought so, and he was a kook...but Gloria Steinem agreed with him....

Anyway, I think I Spit on My Grave has problems from a feminist perspective, and there are lots of reasons to dislike it. But it's so clearly engaged with feminism, and so clearly trying to talk about issues of patriarchy and violence...I don't know. Dismissing it out of hand just seems really wrong-headed.

Albert Stabler

So you're thinking that her critique would be that the movie is sadistic rather than masochistic, and you disagree-- and so then either you or she would be saying that masochism has more moral value than sadism. Which is pretty fair, for obvious reasons, but is interesting to just come out and say.

I was actually thinking of Funny Games being more about absolute violence, and Spit (and Rambo and every war movie ever) as being about justified violence. And, I gotta say, justified violence sounds a lot more masochistic and absolute sounds more sadistic.

Noah Berlatsky

I think Funny Games is pretty masochistic, though perhaps less so than I Spit. Haven't seen Rambo, believe it or not!

Albert Stabler
I mean, there's catharsis and empathy in every horror movie. But when that's bracketed the way it is in Funny Games, it feels more sadistic. There's more about evil in that. Power without the excuse of trauma.

Albert Stabler

The "absolute violence" thing is an idea I'm appreciating. The Old Testament (Job is a pretty profound example) locates the origins of violence in the arrogance of man and the mysterious machinations of the Divine. And then the New Testament rejects any justification of vengeance. As masochistic as "turn the other cheek" sounds, it's not a seduction strategy, it's a denial of all force.

Noah Berlatsky

Yes, the vision of justice and violence in Job is definitely congruent with that in Funny Games.

The problem with Funny Games, I'd argue, is that it puts the director in the place of God — and implicitly argues that man-made violence should be treated like divine violence. That's both blasphemous and, I would argue, unjust.

The existence of violence qua violence is a mystery. The existence of specific acts of violence by human beings is not transcendent; it's imminent and explicable. Funny Games is in a way even more of an incitement to revenge and violence than I Spit; it suggests that there is really nothing that can be done with folks like Peter and Paul except to kill them, right? Whereas I Spit offers an analysis of violence which at least suggests the possibility of interventions before you get to everybody killing one another.

I like Niebuhr's idea that mercy is the refutation and the fulfillment of justice. As a result, justice for him is not the fulfillment of divinity, but is still part of God's work.

As I sort of said in the essay, there's a way to read I Spit that suggests that Jennifer's revenge is a failure, not a triumph; acquiescence in destroying herself, which is the result of all violence. In Funny Games on the other hand, if she had shot the guy with the rifle...there's no implicit critique of violence there that I can see. When your enemies are inexplicable all-powerful demons, there's no moral stain to killing them.

Albert Stabler

Here's where I would invoke Simone Weil's reading of the Iliad. Brutality just projects itself, it's always spilling over. Which absolutely doesn't excuse anyone-- rather, it convicts everyone. It can only be tricked, as it's a function of desire.

How does Funny Games convict the killers? They're not convicted or justified, they're evil. They are sharing our pleasure. Whereas, the rapists in I Spit are justified in some small way by the trauma of their poverty and ignorance, which actually feeds into the logic of the victim's revenge.

Noah Berlatsky

Trauma doesn't justify evil. Evil is evil, whether there's trauma involved or not. But explanations allow us to intervene in evil, for prevention or justice. Human understanding is flawed, but it's also a presumably god-given tool. Job's faith is the correct response to the divine, but faith in human evil is an error.

I would argue that only God can perform evil without reason (which in that case is not evil.) Restricting evil to a definition which involves no reason is what Eagleton does in his book. It's a bad move because it simultaneously causes you to demonize your enemies (resulting in violence) or to sink into despair (which is a sin.)

I Spit doesn't make a whole lot of the rapists' ignorance, I don't think. They're definitely poor, but that doesn't justify the rape. If anything, it convicts the poverty. That is, the movie implicates us not only because of our potential as rapists, but because of our participation in a class system which generates violence.

Albert Stabler

See how it goes-- trauma doesn't justify rape in I Spit, but then you blame the poverty, aka the trauma. Your whole point about evil happening for actual reasons, versus Terry Eagleton, and focusing on the act itself, indicts the murders by the rape victim. The cycle of retribution leaves her and the blonde boys in Funny Games in basically the same place, except there's the illusion of contracts being fulfilled in I Spit.

But yes, we can intervene in evil. But the trick is in deflecting the desire to punish. That's the irony of modern therapeutic justice, is that the deflection ends up abstracting the act of evil-- essentially, the straightforward vengeance in I Spit is a relief from modern suspension of moral distinctions, just like Dirty Harry. But then the ones playing God aren't the pleasure-seeking murderers of Funny Games, but the avenging angel of I Spit.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't blame the poverty. Rape is wrong, no matter where you are or what's happened to you. Explanation isn't excuse. Or are you on to the republican talking points about how we talking about conditions in the middle east is mollycoddling terrorists?

There isn't an illusion of a contract in I Spit. There's the actuality. Violence between people doesn't come out of the sky like a hurricane; it's part of human interactions and conditions — or karma, if that's your poison.

It is hard to hate the sin and love the sinner, of course. And of course I Spit doesn't solve the problem. But I don't think incarnating the sin in human beings as in Funny Games is an especially useful fix either.

Albert Stabler

Aw heck no! So you're on the bipartisan talking point that since someone in a cave in Afghanistan told someone else to blow up our building, we should invade Afghanistan? With feminist pretensions at that?
I think Funny Games provokes worthwhile thoughts, unlike I Spit, which is basically just scratching an itch.

From: Noah Berlatsky

I really don't think we should have invaded Afghanistan. But not because we can't understand justice.

Watching Funny Games the first version again...I don't know Bert. It seems really shallow and glib to me. Very well done, but with really little to say except the usual stupid serial killer moral. "There are bad people." Oh yeah, and also "Feel guilty for watching TV."

I Spit, on the other hand, actually is interested in how people relate to each other; how class works, how gender works, how that provokes violence, how that affects us and our morality. It's really subtle and thoughtful. I don't know; maybe you'll feel differently about it if you ever see it....

Albert Stabler

But basically, I have some avant-garde-oid investment in a pedagogical approach to morality. I mean, what moral authority do these blonde young nihilism-Nazis have? None! They're not even tough-- but they're not gay either. They're ideal-- they're supermen.

Everyone loves being blamed for their privilege, EXCEPT when it's by someone who shares (and exceeds)that privilege. Basically, the beauty of Funny Games is that of a vulture feeding in the desert, not a cockfight. It's not a guilty pleasure that excuses itself with self-awareness-- it's bloodthirsty pornography that reminds you that actors in pornography have actual lives.

From: Noah Berlatsky

They're pretty tough. They're inhumanly competent, and have the keys to the universe too.

How does it remind you that the people in pornography have lives?

Albert Stabler

That's okay-- we can argue until the 8th. Hey, you should REALLY download the Stargazer/Invocation split from Cosmic Hearse.

The blond predators are clever enough, but they sucker-punch all the way through. And, as good as that keys line is, they don't control the universe- someone gave them a remote, like someone gave them everything else they have. Because it's a fable, a parable, an allegory. It doesn't have characters (even caricatures) like realist/fantasy cinema.

And this is what makes the movie a way to think about the traumatic Real, the contained impenetrable actuality of the people involved. It's a distanced Brechty thing, but with a different kind of materialism-- the figures' physical/cognitive autonomy (or lack thereof) is only elliptically relatable to anything having to do with socioeconomic circumstances. Everyone is wealthy and guilty, but not everyone is a torturer.

Noah Berlatsky

I don't know, Bert. The stuff about the media and violence is really heavy-handed. It's winking and ironic. Brecht is Brecht because he has an ideology; he believes in a Real, which is why there's a distance and something to be distanced from. If it's an allegory, it's an allegory of finger-wagging.

It's well done, and the first time I watched it I was disturbed. But the second time through the glibness got to me. Again, there's a connection to the Eagleton book; I don't actually think the idea of evil as without motivation is either true or helpful. The universe is without motivation that we can parse, and there's certainly a ineffable core of human beings as well. But evil isn't some transcendent projection. It's involved with us. It leaves prints. Their gloves are too white.

Albert Stabler

What stuff about the media? Looking at the camera and using the remote control? No one after Samuel Beckett (or John Hughes?) is allowed to mess with the fourth wall?

I think the truth of evil is sort of banal, as they (all those Hannah Arendts) say-- thus the rather odd dramatic flaccidity of trying to isolate it as a positive force. It's an attitude toward desires and prohibitions, though, more thana cause-and-effect narrative. Those narratives are the stuff of ideologies (laws) that simultaneously proscribe and encourage violence.

People don't really need a motivation to kill, just need permission and an opportunity. It's like sex. And, on that level, that base unspeakable level of evil, white-gloved unending expanding brutality is more interesting than the tired cyclical economy, the historical morass of triggers and targets that feeds on resentment and retribution. But on the level of drama, the cyclical economy is where it's at. The fingerprints are what stoke the promiscuous furnace of endless punishment.

Noah Berlatsky

There's lots of stuff about television and entertainment in that movie, Bert. The first thing Anna does after her son is killed and she gets to her feet is turn off the tv. Haneke's said it's about media violence in interviews too, I think.

I'm really not sure that it's true that people don't need a motivation to kill. There's always a motivation for sex; there's a fairly clear biological imperative. And, you know, even with wars and all, people have sex a lot more often than they kill each other.

Evil is a negation, not a cause and effect; I agree with that. Male bonding doesn't make those men rape. But I Spit acknowledges that; it specifically makes them individually responsible for their actions, even as it shows the way that that individual responsibility is expressed and takes on shape through a social world. Funny Games just abstracts evil — which to me makes it a lot less interesting — especially when the abstraction ends up being recursively about media-images self-generating their own violence and guilt.

I get what you're saying about law being the cause of crime and crime being the cause of law in an endless circle. Obviously, that's part of what rape/revenge is about. At the same time, I don't think justice or the desire for it is evil. Justice and mercy aren't opposites.

Albert Stabler

Justice and mercy are totally connected. But it's not like commenting on abstract evil is some kind of tired trope, in the way rape vengeance is (lynching?).

I mean, FG is a meta movie-- that's its genre. I can imagine he said it's about "media violence." But, like the Iliad, it's also just about violence. Do you think any media isn't "about" other media? The family having NASCAR on while they're being tortured is a pretty fantastic mise-en-scene (if I'm using that right), but the rape-revenge conceit is absolutely about other narratives, even if it's not trying to provide a "meta" perspective (which it ends up doing anyway, I think you'd agree).
You think people have sex (or kill) for primarily (or even vaguely) rational reasons? Come now.

Noah Berlatsky

Sure, I Spit is about other narratives. It doesn't explicitly suggest that violence is caused by viewing media, or that the primary way we're implicated in violence is through watching TV. Funny Games comes awfully close to suggesting both those things.

Biological imperatives aren't rational in the way such things are usually understood, are they?

Albert Stabler

I think it's worth bringing in Quentin Tarantino here. His movies are full of consciously aesthicized brutality that comments on aestheticized brutality, and he takes a lot of flak for it. But his end result is humor, not horror. Not that I object, quite the opposite. But he uses humor, as well as the righteous vengeance fantasy, so that probably makes him more palatable.

Biological imperatives are seperate from vengeance. It takes a complex (if not always human) mind to come up with vengeance. Killing and fornicating are pretty universal to life. It's worth thinking about what a motive actually adds to that equasion, especially in a voyeuristic situation.

Noah Berlatsky

Tarantino is very interested in reasons, though, and in individuals. His characters are never just supercompetent avatars of evil; on the contrary, his evil characters tend to be doofuses and fuck-ups. He has a sense of karma, too; not just vengeance — that is, one's actions tend to have an effect. You get what you do.

I'd say that Funny Games obviously owes something to Tarantino's films — Funny Games is definitely very ironic, and not entirely unfunny. I find it a lot thinner, though — precisely because the iconic treatment of evil seems to add little to the insight that killing is something some (bad) people do.

Albert Stabler

Quentin Tarantino makes his women wild and mean-- but his movies are a lot more fun than Funny Games. I agree. They're partially comedies-- action comedies, basically, with romance and a lesson at the end. The plot lines and elements are strictly humanist realist-- so you get dipwads blowing off someone's head when the car hits a bump. Funny and not funny. You feel bad for laughing, but you laugh.

Whereas the Funny Games comedy, such as it is, is Osama bin Laden (or Dick Cheney, pick your cave-dwelling mass murderer) doing standup. So when you feel bad, it's not because you laughed, or because you actually wanted the family to be humiliated and tortured and murdered, or even because you can't help them, but because it's just straightforwardly pleasurable to witness cruelty-- and easy to not really care about perfectly normal, non-quirky, sympathetic characters.

And, when you root for the underdog, or seek justice, or pray for karma to punish the wealthy, at bottom it's the same drive. We are people who took picnics to watch Civil War battles, and now we get the same pleasure from watching the news. And it's not the excusable swaggering pulpiness of Tarantino, or Natural Born Killers, but a long static silence as a woman who could be your co-worker weeps quietly over the corpse of her only child. Lots of people get angry at the director, but that just seems like one way to cope with the complicated experience of watching that undeniably beautiful scene.

Noah Berlatsky

But a lot of people just find the film irritating or unpleasant...or a little boring my second time through. I don't think it is straightforwardly pleasurable to witness cruelty at all. I mean, it might be masochistically pleasurable — but that's almost by definition not straightforward.

I think the movie may posit that it's straightforwardly pleasurable to witness these acts; that's the implicating the viewer part. But just because it wants it to be true doesn't make it so.

Albert Stabler

Well, that's the sublime for you. People aren't accustomed to thinking of a hurricane or a volcano or a wildfire as beautiful, but that was once the fashion. It's kind of the way tragedy was translated into Romanticism, and then tragedy became horror.

It's not entertaining, it's beautiful. There's a difference. Slow-motion kung fu is a lot different than a landslide.

I don't think the viewer is really implicated, for the record. I think the viewer is included, but the space of the movie is an extraordinary space of bloodletting. There's just nobody who wants to stand around and watch a hanging anymore. Which would be fine, if we didn't pretend we were past it, while consuming the agony of the Other in various sublimated forms in everything from rap music to National Geographic.

Noah Berlatsky

But a hanging is about vengeance and just deserts. It's not random cruelty. And, conversely, I think people are quite used to thinking of a hurricane or a storm or a volcano as beautiful, actually. We're not that far form the romantics.

Funny Games doesn't fit either of these analogies. It's deliberately unreal villains given the power of a force of nature. It undermines genre tropes and narrative closure in the interest, not of the sublime, but of an ironized accusation of cynicism. My dislike of it isn't because I refuse to embrace the suppressed sublime death instinct, but because I'm tired of embracing the not at all suppressed political exhaustion and wise-guy pragmatic nihilism which has been a staple of our political life for decades.

Albert Stabler

Eh. Attending a public hanging (if you're not connected to the victim of the crime or the victim of the hanging) is about having a permission to watch a person twitch on the end of a rope.

This is why I brought up Tarantino. Everyone says, "Oh, he's so ironic and postmodern and glib." And yet he is saying "interracial relationships and loyalty and mercy are good." And Haneke is saying "Rich alienated white people are alienated even vicious to each other." Where are the air-quotes? You think people aren't supposed to feel anything when they see the slaughter? The smug Hitler guy is the hero?

In the like three times the killer looks at the camera? How does that make him our buddy?

Is the movie telling us to vote for Sarah Palin? What's the issue?

Noah Berlatsky

The reason that they feel they have permission, though, is because there's the claim that justice is being done.

The smug guy isn't the hero or our buddy, necessarily. But he's definitely right, in some sense; the filmmaker is on his side, his vision of the world is the correct one (literally — he knows he's in a movie.) And that vision is one which specifically mocks the desire for justice as impotent and naive. The media violence which is denigrated is just violence — and I think the film makes little effort to separate the justice out from the violence.

I'd agree that the film makes some effort to show that rich people torture each other and are miserable. I don't actually find that argument all that persuasive — I don't think rich people are especially more likely to torture each other than poor people, nor that they are more sadistic, nor certainly that they're less happy. It seems like a sop, really, to replace the idea of justice which is so roundly sneered at.

I mean, I don't hate the movie or anything. It's well acted, well directed, and well constructed, and the masochistic tension is really well done. I even like the idea of subverting the rape-revenge narrative, since, you know, I'm kind of a knee-jerk pacifist and I think revenge narratives are really problematic. But, again, I have a real problem with abstracting evil in the way this movie does it.

Noah Berlatsky

You know, it's not entirely different from Baldwin's critique of the Exorcist, now that I think about it. The portrayal of evil as separate from motivations and cause/effect (literally linked to transcendence in both Exorcist and Funny Games) ends up seeming evasive. I think both the Exorcist and Funny Games point in some interesting directions with their evasions — reveal tensions and issues around those evasions — but ultimately they both still feel duplicitous, at least to me.

Albert Stabler

Just for that, I went back and read the Baldwin essay. I see your point-- the evil is banal and unmotivated in Funny Games, just like in the Exorcist, and I think we both appreciate the Exorcist more than Baldwin did. But Baldwin talks about the evil in the eyes of the white sheriff, the housewife, etc., and frankly, I think the white privileged environment is les of a sop than you claim. It's not an excuse for evil-- it's precisely the absence of an excuse for evil. And there's nothing sci-fi about it (except for the remote control thing, which is just an acknowledgement of movie-ness)-- there's no question that the active pleasure-seeking of elites (the torturers) and the insular passivity of elites (the family) has caused a great deal of the world's misery.

So, again, making something a parable does not, to me, make it abstract.

But one point on which I'm sort of with you is that there's a pretty defensible argument that the lead torturer is (if self-consciously so, post- Natural Born Killers) something of an antihero-- "This is the real world, jackass! Eat lead!" I feel like the evil in his eyes is the same blue-eyed evil of the hate-mongering one-man black metal band, though, that stands for something awful and profound even if he's just whaling on a guitar and a drum machine and spewing noxious pablam.

Noah Berlatsky

Yeah, I like the Exorcist more than Baldwin does.

The problem is that the active pleasure seeking and the insular passivity doesn't, I don't think, primarily make the elites miserable. Cutting out the rest of the world makes it hard to see what's at stake. It doesn't excuse evil (which I don't think the exorcist does either) but it doesn't really grapple with what evil is in the world. It's not demons possessing your child or sociopaths taking your golf clubs, you know?

I'd argue that the best black metal actually isn't stupid or banal. Pyha has content, damn it. (Pacifist content at that.)

Albert Stabler

I guess that's sort of the difference between morality and ethics. If you chop down a tree in the forest and nobody sees you, are you still despoiling the environment? Or if you kill a man in the forest and nobody cares, are you still a murderer?

What kind of horror movie would Baldwin like? Night of the Living Dead?

I wonder how he would feel about Rosemary's Baby, or Stepford Wives. Or Turn of the Screw. Insular and claustrophobic is actually really important in horror. That's the nature of the Law. It's moral.

He actually mentions Wuthering Heights disparagingly in the Exorcist review-- there's this idea that the only responsible movie is an edifying portrait of existing social relations, sobering yet inspiring meaningful change. .I'm sorry, that's not horror. It can be drama or comedy, or some kind of cleverly compromised quasi-horror fantasy, but it's not truly dark if it has a clear ethical beacon.

Noah Berlatsky

The opposite of transcendent evil doesn't have to be a story of moral purity, or a story in which there's a clear moral beacon. And I don't think claustrophobic has to mean insular.

The version of the Exorcist that Baldwin would like is Angel Heart. Which is a fantastic movie.

And yeah, I bet he'd find something to like in Night of the Living Dead too.

Albert Stabler

Angel Heart is a really good movie, as I remember it, and as psychological thrillers go. And it has many plot parallels with the Exorcist-- there's possession of secondary characters reflected in a main character.

And yet, I really think of Funny Games and the Exorcist (and probably I Spit) as being (if arguably) not really the same kind of movie. All of these movies are closer to horror than thriller, I think, because of the lack of ethical direction in the plot. Horror, like metal, is at its purest when it's emphasizing a highly symvolic internal experience-- a nightmare-- that the viewer (listener) is supposed to be experiencing as well.

Romero zombie movies and Angel Heart are completely great-- they're just completely transparent. Order is in some way restored at the end, and was never truly absent. I Spit is on the fence, because I imagine the bloody revenge can be, despite its satisfying qualities, experienced as a step further into the abyss, rather than out of it.

Noah Berlatsky

I need to see Angel Heart again. I think it's as much horror as psychological thriller, though. Certainly, order isn't restored in any sense more than it is in the exorcist. In the Exorcist, the demon is expelled; though the main character is killed. In Angel Heart, the devil is revealed to be the main character — only after he's killed just about every other main character, and fucked and killed his own daughter. It's a pretty bleak vision.

Order is ritually restored at the end of slasher films as well. Or in Alien, or Terminator, all of which are arguably horror films. Not so much in The Thing...but again evil there is very much in relationships and anxiety about relationships, not
it isn't postulated as transcendent.

I think there's a way in which Funny Games is actually *less* horror than all those examples. Carol Clover argues that masochistic identification is central to horror. Funny Games is definitely ambivalent
about whether it wants to be sadistic or masochistic. You see that not only in its looks to the camera, but in its careful construction — the focus on time, the playful, icy control with which it puts all the
violence off screen. Even the repetition suggested by the precise remake; there's a rage for order there, an insistent control, that's different from the anxiously abject spewing of horror films.
Funny Games comes off as auteurish in a Hitchcock way.

Albert Stabler

Yeah, Hitchcock has some pretty harsh control, as does Haneke, and Haneke's protagonist antihero. And plenty of people die in thrillers/slashers (Psycho, Blue Velvet, I Spit, Angel Heart), or sci-fi-noir (like Alien and Terminator), but the nature of a movie where everything is revealed to be a torrential void of power lust and total chaos, which may borrow nearly every trope, has an important distinction in terms of content and thus the overall level of despair. Which, yes, is sadistic, I think. Also in The Thing-- there is awe before the monster, and Kurt Russell conquers it like Moby Dick, or a colonized population in Kipling.

Masochism is always about wrapping up loose narrative ends-- wearing costumes, delaying gratification, and looking forward to relieving the anguish. It recalls the distinction you once made between metal and other rock music that metal (like sadism, I would say) absolutely denies erotics-- libido is directed toward destruction. Sadism is ultra-male, always about a sensation of pitiless mastery. It's perhaps the most despicable side-effect of desire, but once you see it, it does (as in the Funny Games antihero) carry a sense of thunderous truth. Tree of Knowledge-- freedom and self-awareness are always about shame and perversion, dissonance and strife, as well as sublimated access to a silent place outside conscious everyday reality.