Cath Kidston as Utopia

In the essay “Utopia as Replication”, Jameson suggests we consider Walmart as an example of how “the most noxious phenomena can serve as the repository and hiding place for all kinds of unsuspected wish-fulfilments and utopian fantasies”. Jameson intends this as a bit of a provocation, but I wonder if Walmart isn’t actually too easy a choice for the “paradoxical affirmation” of “what is most exploitative and dehumanizing in the working life of capitalism”. Walmart’s vastness of scale and remorselessness give it an aesthetic alibi, allying it with a tradition of modernist creative destruction which is likely to be attractive, at least to the sort of people who read Jameson. To really follow through Jameson’s project of unearthing the “utopian impulse”, we need to consider an aspect of capitalism that is not just exploitative but also in bad taste; for a certain strand of contemporary opinion, that would be “twee”, the kind of cutesily-retro faux-petit-bourgeois capitalism of cupcake shops and Cath Kidston.

We need, that is to say, a dialectical appreciation of twee. There is an indie lineage that runs from The Smiths to Keep Calm and Carry On posters, and we need to explain both how it is that The Smiths are David Cameron’s favourite band and how this lineage was the basis of a genuinely oppositional subculture (“twee as fuck”). Tom Gann suggests that the utopian core within twee is “gentleness”, which sounds right, or at least part of the answer, but I want to consider a couple of slightly different aspects, although ones which might end up themselves adding up to a certain type of gentleness. The occasion for my thinking about twee is having recently seen Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film turns out to be in large part a painstaking defence by Anderson of his work, and, because Anderson is often criticised as twee, this defence is also inevitably a defence of twee. Read the rest of this entry »

You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch

I wouldn’t usually crosspost something about Britney here, but her new song does seem to have tapped in to a current interest in the topic of work; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics.We need this dialectical approach because of work’s contradictory position within capitalism: official capitalist ideology extols the virtues of work, but capital hates work and wants to minimize the amount of wage labour it employs, while at the same time wage labour is the source of capital’s profits and so ineliminable. So capital is itself anti-work, but in a contradictory and destructive way. It seems to me that our response to this shouldn’t be the social-democratic one of attempting to re-valorise work (which just embeds us further within capital’s contradictory attitude to work), but instead to try and trace capital’s anti-work position out past capital. Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Breakers’ anti-human communism

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. It’s Faith, steeped in the dubious transcendence of church youth groups, who describes spring break as “the most spiritual place” she’s ever been, but the film-making seems to back this up. The bright colours, the visual and temporal distortions, skips and, repetitions, suggest  (the fantasy of) a spring break outside mundane time. This interesting review suggests the film is a “music video,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Rather, the film produces visually the affective structure of a dubstep track (or specifically of its theme tune, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” by some distance the best brostep track); sharply switching between an ethereal straining at the limits of reality and a brutal pulverising of it produces a kind of transcendence, or an aesthetic effect that hints towards transcendence, at least. Read the rest of this entry »

An und für sich: the TV adaptation?

I don’t want to muscle in on jms’s and Craig’s territory by posting something about TV on a Thursday, but ABC’s new show Revolution does touch on a few themes which struck me as of interest to AUFS. The show is about a post-apocalyptic future in which electricity no longer works. This is a pretty neat idea, although it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny (if “electricity” doesn’t work, how come “nervous systems” still do?); unfortunately, the show does seem to be encouraging scrutiny of the premise by making the characters’ attempt to discover how the apocalypse happened an ongoing plot thread. High concept aside, Revolution isn’t really a “good” show; its post-apocalyptic hardships are pretty off-the-shelf, as are the characters (idealistic teenagers, surly dudes with a soft heart, etc), but there are a couple of interesting things about it. One is its presentation of cities as objects of nostalgia; the main character, who was a toddler when electricity stopped working, keeps an illicit collection of post-cards of the major American cities (I’m reminded of David Simon saying he made Treme in response to people who asked him why anyone would live in the city depicted in The Wire); indeed, on one level at least, the show presents an argument against the lo-fi localism which is something of a liberal consensus. Read the rest of this entry »

Laclau’s post-foundationalist humble-brag

Let us accept that all identity is a differential identity. In that case two consequences follow: (1) that, as in a Saussurean system, each identity is what is is only through its differences from all the others; (2) that the context has to be a closed one – if all identities depend on the differential system, unless the latter defines its own limits, no identity would be finally constituted. But nothing is more difficult – from a logical point of view – than defining those limits. If we had a foundational perspective we could appeal to an ultimate ground which would be the source of all differences; but if we are dealing with a true pluralism of differences, if the differences are constitutive, we cannot go, in the search for the systematic limits that define a context, beyond the differences themselves. Now, the only way of defining a context is, as we have said, through its limits, and the only way of defining those limits is to point out what is beyond them. But what is beyond the limits can only be other differences, and in that case – given the constitutive character of all differences – it is impossible to establish whether these new differences are internal or external to the context. The very possibility of a limit and, ergo, a context, is thus jeopardized. (Laclau, Emancipation(s), 52)

This far, Laclau’s argument seems pretty reasonable, and the consequence presumably would be that, indeed, “no identity would be finally constituted,” that is, the differences that establish any identity would be indeterminate, there would be no point at which we could say we could say we “had” the full determination of the identity, and so any discussion of a particular identity would always be open to further questioning and the need for further investigation into the specificities of that identity. Oddly, though, that’s not the conclusion Laclau draws. Having “jeopardized” the possibility of a total context, Laclau nonetheless goes on to assert that a total context is possible, with the limit being provided not by a difference, but by an antagonism, which “poses a threat to (that is, negates) all the differences within that context.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Sociopathic subjects

I really enjoyed Why We Love Sociopaths, in part because of the additional perspective it gives on Awkwardness. The “fantasy sociopath” the book studies is introduced as the opposite of  awkwardness: where awkwardness is an anxiety in relation to social norms, sociopaths, at least in TV fantasy, never experience social norms as something that makes them anxious, only as tools they can use to manipulate others. But what unites awkwardness and sociopathy is that these anti-social experiences reveal something fundamental which underlies the possibility of sociality. That is to say, Adam’s project is a kind of dialectical redemption of the anti-social, in which anti-sociality, by revealing the conditions of our sociality denaturalize it and provide ways of thinking about an alternative sociality which we might choose. Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths thus I think have something in common with what Judith Halberstam calls “anti-social” queer theory; the connection is perhaps clearest in the anti-familial theme that surfaces periodically through Why We Love Sociopaths.

One thing that is suggested in the book but I think it would be interesting to think about more is the possibility that the liberal subject as such is sociopathic. Read the rest of this entry »

The tension between non-violence and solidarity

The new issue of Street Spirit, a paper put together by a group of Quakers and sold by homeless people throughout the Bay Area, is mostly made up of articles on non-violence. In an astonishing (in a bad way) interview, George Lakey, “longtime nonviolent activist and trainer” manages to outdo Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s infamous claim that protesters linking arms is “not non-violent”:

Lakey: Running does not heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence. The running, to a T.V. or a news photographer or a bystander just looks like a riot and it gets reported in the news, that black people rioted on the streets of Birmingham or whatever. So sometimes you need to heighten the contrasts in order to make your point, and if that means getting people on their knees so they won’t run, great.

A good example of the movement not understanding that was Chicago in 1968 in the Democratic National Convention, where demonstrators coming from all over the country were set upon by the police. They started to run away and the police chased them and bloodied them even in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, where the police finally caught up with some of the demonstrators and beat them to a pulp inside the lobby on the expensive carpet. But the way it was covered in the media was: Activists Riot in Chicago. It took a national investigation to determine it was actually the police who rioted; it wasn’t the students who rioted. There’s no reason for Occupy people to make all of these same mistakes again.

Street Spirit: Something very similar to that occurred in Oakland. The police attacked marchers on January 28 and were terribly violent to them. But when they ran, and escaped through the YMCA, it looked to the public like they were at fault when they were just trying to escape the violence.

Lakey: Exactly.

So, a nonviolence expert assures us that running away from the police when they are beating you to a pulp is “not non-violent.” Read the rest of this entry »

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