Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek: The Wrath of Kant

The new Star Trek is a veritable self-righteous orgy of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism, and regressive politics. Shatner may have been snubbed; young kirk may be cockblocked, strangled, punched, and beaten black and blue; and spock may initially get the big chair and the girl. But at the end of the day, the old series uneasy, tense balance between the interest of community and individual, between head and heart, between justice and revenge is absolutely smashed to smithereens.

The history of Star Trek, and by implication, the Federation, is rewritten thanks to the revenge fantasy, nihilistic "rage against the it was" illogic of David Lewisian anti-philosophical possible world theory that rewrites spock, whose the dual origins posed the dilemma upon which the always tenuous moral and intellectual weight of the original series depended, as simply human. As Kirk.The principle dilemma of the film, a film that at every turn underlines, repeats, and adds exclamation points to its kirk-egaardian moral lesson (and, at the end of the day, this movie is Sunday School; it exists, with all its shiny whizbangery, soley to convey a Message) is, appropriately, the logical inconsistency of that message: don't be governed by reason, unless passion demands it.

Let's put this another way, so that the last great moral philosopher (because last moral philosopher--his successors are consequentialists, or amoral, philosophers, and so not comptetion), Immanuel Kant, can roll over in his grave more thoroughly: it is unreasonable to be too reasonable, where too reasonable is determined by the law of non-reason. In Kant's language: the movie proposes a hypothetical rather than categorical imperative: act independently of your inclinations only if you are inclined to do so. Or, more radically: your duty is to act in accordance with duty if and only if it is not done out of duty.

This moral appears in multiple ways, but most clearly, of course, in the twin, and morally clone, tales of revenge that move the plot. First, there is Nero, a Romulan seeking revenge for the death of his wife, which he tenuously blames Spock for, but in the true spirit of the passion for retribution, takes out first, on the entire population of Vulcan, with the intention of expanding his wrath to every planet in the federation.

Second, there is his mirror, Spock, who watches his planet be destroyed and, under the careful moral tutelage and urging of author and audience, follows Nero's example and does the same: destroying the (in the original timeline) last Romulan, in effect, succeeding in his own act of genocide in retribution for Nero's failed act of genocide. This mirror moral (il)logic is endorsed explicitly by Spock's father, Kirk, and by Spock's older self, who he encounters at the end of the movie preparing to seek out his own private Palestine to rebuild the Vulcan race.

The moral, explicitly put: It is immoral to restrain the passion of anger by reason. One should not ask whether righteous indignation is being expressed proportionately, justly, or effectively. To do so is an active wrong against the inviolate holiness of personal passion. This is the same moral that Kirk (in virtue of the leap of faith into the absurd!) effectively and consistently always stands for as a character, but now with out any counterbalance: the Star Trek universe becomes a thoroughly homogenous, manichaen, one-worldview-universe. Kirk's law: no one has a right to law, we ought to break law on principle, we have the right to make our lawlessness into a law has, in a parody of Kant, been transformed into a law of nature.Let's make it more explicit. Spock learns that Nero was right, that his action was just, because he did not commit the grave moral crime of the Vulcans - doubting that passion = justice. If Nero was wrong, it was only in his failure to successfully eradicate his arbitrarily chosen enemy.

The beauty of this movies attempt to positively portray this deeply, deeply illogical moral worldview is that it serves as a practical demonstration of Kant's refutation of moral relativism. Kant argued that you are welcome to reject the notion of morality altogether, but if you affirm it, you--out of conceptual necessity--affirm a categorical, universally binding and unconditional imperative at its basis. If this is true, then we can demonstrate that a purported moral law is false by "universalizing the maxim", imagining it as a law of nature, and discovering that it is logically impossible. For example, we cannot make a natural law out of occasionally lying for consquentialist reasons, since a world in which this is a natural law would be one in which trust is not possible, making lying impossible.

In this case: a world in which the total extermination of one's enemy becomes a natural law is impossible, since the original exterminator must have already been exterminated, making the so-called cycle of violence not endless, but impossible to begin. The movie highlights this absurdity by demonstrating that it can only be effected through time travel: through the intersection of two distinct possible worlds. Or: through the rejection of the law of non-contradiction. Put differently, through the completion of Nero's mission: the extermination of logic, of the vulcan in Spock and of the vulcan race.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 40 Year Old Idiot: Steve Correll as Dostoyevskyian Innocent

Michael Scott's crime is innocence. He is a fool, not a villain.

He is, in many ways, the polar opposite of his evil doppelganger in the original version of The Office. His crime is that he fails to be as evil as David Brent. David Brent's character is dangerous, cruel, humilating, precisely because he callously and insincerely manipulates his employees. His means-end reasoning and indifference to anything but consequences is precisely what Michael Scott lacks.

First things first: innocent in what sense? In the Dostoysevskian sense, as portraryed in characters such as Alyosha (Brothers Karamazov) and Prince Myshkin (The Idiot_. The Dostoyevskian sense is the Christian: one is innocent, not of wrong doing, but of sin, where sin is not wrong doing, but wrong intending (Compare Kant: There is nothing good without qualification but a good will).

Now, straightaway we must acknowledge, with qualifications, the quaintness of such a conception (and this is the quaintness, whether contemporary revised Christians like it or not, of Christianity itself -- its alien heart from the dominant, like it or not, worldview of the late modern world). We all know very well that, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions--ironically (and literally, historically), with innocents. In other words, we later moderns say with condescension: how nice that you meant well, but the proof is in the pudding. That is to say: we are consequentialists (our nice name for what Nietzsche called nihilists).

And this is why innocence is a crime, and how an innocent can be a villain: to merely mean well and not do well is not just a misfortune, in a post-moral consequentialist universe, it is a crime.

If anyone is inclined to doubt that Michael Scott does not, in his disastrous, imcompetent way, truly and utterly mean well, I refer you to the authorial center of the show: Pam. By authorial center, I mean that her character tells us what the show--as opposed to the characters--thinks. Broadly: she is the most positively portrayed, sympathetic character. Specifically: she is the only character whose point of view is not even lovingly critiqued and, consequently, is implied to be true. Pam consistently reaffirms Michael Scott's innocence. That is, she plays the Christian counterpoint to the audience, and the office's, consequentialism. For Pam, Michael is annoying, embarrassing, and disturbing, but he is not evil. Again and again, at the bitter end of each new humiliating display, Pam arrives at the end to pick Michael up and reassure him. In contrast, in the judgements, complaints, and mockery of every other character, we always detect something more: moral judgment. To the rest of the audience, Michael is not a bad boss, but an evil one. To Pam, Michael is a fool, to the others a jerk. More precisely, to the others, to be a fool is to be a jerk, since intentions are irrelevant.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Kingdom of Ends is No Country for Old Men: Chigurh as Kantian Hero

18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that nothing in the world is truly good except a "good will."  The radical implication of this claim often goes unnoticed--that a good will is precisely that: no thing.  Put another way: there is nothing in the world that is truly good.  So the best you can do is wish for another world.

This pessimistic ethical sentiment is the guiding thread of No Country for Old Men, and the key to its strange closing scene.  The dream that Sheriff Bell recounts expresses his deep will, despite everything, for the good to be realized, and mirrors his life vainly spent acting as if it could be realized.  His final words, "And then I woke up," are his admission that it was a fantasy.  That there is nothing in this world that is good.  That a good will is nothing.  That hope is a self-deception that contributes to the betrayal of human happiness, adding nothing to its fulfillment.

Anyone who tries to twist this ending into a ray of light at the end of the tunnel has utterly missed the point.  Like Kantian philosophy, one of the film's greatest merits is that it rigorously, unflinchingly pursues its (dangerous and deeply mistaken) worldview to the bitter end of its logical consequences.  Like any great work of art, this film attempts to use fiction to force the audience into a confrontation with reality: to awake us.  The bitter taste it leaves in the viewer's mouth is the memory of that collision--or its near-miss.

Sheriff Bell is not really a character in the film, but rather its voice.  Like the narrator of a novel, his words take place outside of the story, setting the scene and establishing the very limits of the universe in which the film takes place.  That the world is without light or warmth, that it survives only upon the dream (not the hope) of light and warmth, is not a point of view expressed within the film, but the film's ground rules, the very location of the story.  Bell's dream is analogous to the film, and his final words are a comment upon the film, not an event within it.  

We might be inclined to object, and I hope we will, that this is not an accurate portrayal of our world, but that doesn't change the fact that this is the world in which the film takes place.  That must be made clear: the story is not one that takes place in the human or moral world, but a desert world, an entirely natural world stripped of moral truth or meaning.  Its principle characters (excepting Bell) are thoroughly natural creatures; they neither have nor fail to have moral motivations; their actions are neither good nor evil, the consequences of those actions neither just nor unjust.  The film takes place, to put it another way, after the "death of God"--the news of which, as Nietzsche insisted over 100 years ago, has still not reached us.  Its world is "beyond good and evil" in the fullest sense that morality (in the fullest sense) is demoted to the status of a comforting fantasy.

True, Sheriff Bell and his fellow officers do not, at the beginning, realize this.  Their profession, their very identities are built upon the attempt to keep hope alive that good and evil do exist, upon the belief that the justice must win out in the end.   The development of the film, insofar as its ground rules allow any, is external to its story: the audience, via Bell, must be forcefully made to recognize their fantasy as fantasy.  This is part of the essential impossibility of the film--and the greatest obstacle it poses to the audience.  Its narrative development is toward the conclusion that all development is a lie.  It asks us to become aware of the utter pointlessness and hopelessness and endlessness of the very story it asks us to care about--and of every human story.

Sheriff Bell's initial stance expresses what we might call religious Kantianism (Kant, for the record, was a believer in name only): the belief that the human world is profoundly screwed but that we may, with good will and God's help, repair it.  This is not accidentally religious.  Kant is beginning from secular grounds: there are no moral facts on the model of natural facts.  It is because Kant accepts the secular, scientific interpretation of the natural world that only a second, supernatural world can save us.  You see the dangerous game he's playing: if his Deus ex machina doesn't work, we go from a perfectly acceptable form of ordinary morality to a dramatically different point of view: a world without intrinsic value and no external source of value to redeem it.  Kant without God, I submit, is nihilism.  Or: Bell without hope is Chigurh.  

I'm tempted to add that the contemporary western world is--that we are--somewhere between the two, and that the film would have us believe there is no alternative to this path and only one possible end: a world populated entirely by Chigurh's.  But that might be taking on more than I can chew--or swallow--at the moment.

So, if Bell is Kant in his most optimistic or self-deceptive moments, then Chigurh is the disallusioned Kant.  I take Kant at his word when he claims that his ethical philosophy is, in essence, nothing but the presuppositions of any ordinary conception of morality whatsoever--that his ethical philosophy is a description of what it is for something to be a morality.  So I'm just going to go ahead and say it: Chigurh is the disallusioned moralist (insert whichever flavor of contemporary, fat-free morality you personally subscribe to).  He represents the reductio ad absurdum of any attempt to preserve morality after rejecting its objective ground and universal application.

What makes Chigurh so damned scary is that he kills dutifully and dispassionately.   He is not "insane" or "psychopathic"--he is far too calm and careful for that.  He is not "evil"--he has no motives, no passions, so surely no badly-intentioned ones.  Surely no one seriously believes he gives a damn about that money.  Or that he's capable of "wanting" anything at all, even revenge or sadistic thrills.  When he plays a game of heads or tails with his victims, letting them realize that he'll let them live if they win, he does not even seem to enjoy making them squirm.  Sickeningly, the audience enjoys this sadistic game more than he does.  

In this respect, Chigurh is a model case of the autonomy of the will, which for Kant is equivalent to "good will."  An autonomous will acts freely by choosing to act for the sake of duty alone, rather than acting "heteronomously"--that is, in obedience to desire.  Any interest, any inclination or motive beyond doing the right thing, counts, in Kantian morality, as a failure of good will.  The truly good action is motivated entirely by a desire to do one's duty because it is one's duty.

Chigurh plays with this notion perversely, telling Moss' wife that he has no desire to kill her, but that he made a promise to her husband and so he must keep it. We'd find the killing more forgivable if he'd at least take some pleasure in revenge from her death. But no, she dies for absolutely nothing but the duty to keep an indifferent promise.

While to contemporary ears the language of "duty" sounds stuffy, the point is rather mundane: the morally best person does the right thing because she thinks it's right, not because there's some other advantage attached.  And the way we achieve this is by putting aside all of our desires and deciding actions entirely according to the "law" (another painful word for sensitive contemporary sensibilities, but just choose whichever flavor of personal moral rules you subscribe to this week).  Chigurh does this marvellously--by not having any interests or motives at all.

This is where the reductio ad absurdum of modern morality really gets going.  Kant famously suggests a test to see if the rules we're following are truly moral ones.  If they're moral, they should apply universally.  Everyone, for example, should probably avoid murdering strangers for losing a coin toss.  If this is "bad", surely it's not just bad for Chigurh to do.  We are not being old-fashioned prudes for compaining when anyone else does it too: it's a moral law everyone should follow.  

So, the test for a moral law is: would it be possible to make the rule you're following into a natural law, which every human being necessarily and without exception followed? In Chigurh's case, the surprising answer is yes.  The maxim of Chigurgh's action is: if you decide to do something, let nothing else stand in your way.  Could this be made into a natural law?  By all means, for it is the rule of all natural events: simply occur.  In fact, we might describe Chigurh's characters as nothing other than a personification of natural law, or of necessity as such.  He acts without passion or motive and with implacable necessity.  He is no more "evil" than a tornado or gangrene.  The rules he follows, because they are absolutely consistent in their application and have no basis in a personal incentive or motive, are every bit as consistent with morality as the natural laws that slowly but inevitably guarantee the death of every living creature.   

On one level, he is the pure will of Kantian ethics because he has no will.  In this respect, he is the image of what is terrifying in nature: a law that is not answerable to human interest or human justice, the limit of the success of morality.  The moral of this element in the film--perhaps best exemplified in the viciousness of the dog in the river chase scene, and echoed in a story of a human torture victim held on a dog leash--is that the attempt to rid the world of evil is a quixotic battle with the very laws of nature.  (We should well worry about the political implications of this charming moral lesson, especially given the political resonance of the image of the dog-collared torture victim.)

On another level, Chigurh is the pure application of absolutely any arbitrary will, or the logical extreme at which Kantianism self-implodes into universal human degradation.  If nothing in the world has value except duty, then there is no objective end--such as say, oh, I don't know, human dignity--that all must dutifully pursue.  Our duty becomes to do whatever we happen to think our duty is, even if that's punching holes in the skulls of random strangers with a cattle gun.  Duty becomes the rigorous and consistent application of any contingent end any individual happens to assign themselves, and morality becomes the refusal to let any interest--including that of other human beings--interfere with that goal.  In a world in which there is truly nothing good, except good will, good will becomes nothing more than doing whatever you happen to find yourself doing and letting no one stand in your way.

Chigurh is, consequently, more than just an image of the terrifying aspect of nature as blind, amoral necessity, he is also the terrifying image of a humanity that uses its freedom to transform itself into blind, amoral necessity.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Gospel of ABBA in the Neon Bible

Why does Arcade Fire's latest album Neon Bible have three--count them, three--separate songs that reference ABBA's disco hit "Dancing Queen"? In each case, it's the same three step melodic refrain--the one that follows the line, "diggin' the dancin' queen."

In Neon Bible, the ABBA flourish first shows up in the album's soaring, religious-themed organ centerpiece, "Intervention," immediately after the line, "working for the church while your family dies." It appears again in "Ocean of Noise," following the repeating final lines, "It's time to work it out." Finally, in "(Antichrist Television Blues)" we hear it again a number of times, beginning after the line, "Now I'm overcome by the light of day."

There's a simple answer, actually: earworm. "Earworm" is an appropriately unpleasant way of describing a song that you want to, but cannot, get out of your head. At the time the songs on Neon Bible were probably written (before and during the release of Funeral) Canadian television and radio were constantly, endlessly flogging a stage production of "Mamma Mia," an ABBA-based musical put on by Toronto theatre and department store mogul Ed Mirvish (R.I.P.). The commercial featured utterly humiliating shots of over-enthusiastic audience members singing and dancing along to their favorite ABBA hits. Its most cringe and earworm-inducing moment coincides with that three step refrain after the line "diggin' the dancin' queen," made even more cringe-inducing (and fried more permanently into Canada's collective soft-tissue) by the image of middle-aged ABBA fans actually air piano-ing that particular bit of the song. The scars were lasting. From then on, when this commercial was not airing on television or radio, even when there was total silence, Canadians everywhere thought they could hear those chiming notes somewhere in the distance.

The Arcade Fire, of course, are a Canadian band, and their neon bible appears to be infested by this particular earworm. Fine, but they're musicians; they should have spotted it. How could they let this snippet of music which, when taken out of its poppy, dancy context and repeated ad nauseum, becomes so trite and obnoxious, find its way into such a lovely, dark, brooding, and passionate album as Neon Bible?

By accident, of course. I imagine that if someone pointed out this repeated ABBA sample to the band, their response would be a self-administered slap of unhappy realization to the forehead. But there are no accidents. Or rather, there are nothing but accidents, so to call something an accident explains nothing. Why this particular accident in this particular album?

This accident is, after all, thematically appropriate. Consider the album's central image: the neon Bible. The neon Bible is an image that conflates the modern and the ancient, the secular and the religions, the profane and the holy, the material and the spiritual. In other words, the "high" and the "low," both artistically and morally understood.

It is perhaps one of the more striking aspects of Arcade Fire's stellar critical success that its most obvious influences are, within the context of independent popular music, often on the "low" end of the cultural scale. The most notable influences in the past two albums are U2, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen, rather than the less well-known, higher indie-cred influences that critically acclaimed bands and review-writers usually prefer to throw around.

And, let's face it: This band is, at heart, a dance band for people who don't like dance bands. What most of their "hits" (especially"Rebellion/lies", "Power Out," "Keep the Car Running") have in common is an infectious driving rhythm that invites dancing. So who better to perversely incorporate than ABBA? And what better place than in an album laced, literally and figuratively, with the tacky, sexy glow of neon? What better opportunity for the neighbors to "dance in the police disco lights"?

A neon bible is a populist rather than elitist gospel. It doesn't belong to the insider, to those who are hip and in-the-know. It's a street-walking gospel, willing to dirty the pure "word" by selling it with materiality and sensuality--with a rock n' roll swivel of the hips or, if necessary, with a disco ball. Funeral's images of pure light, its lightning bolts ("Wake Up") and candles ("Power Out"), and its earnest appeals to the kids to "wake up," are replaced with buzzing pink neon and a raving evangelist/carnival barker. Funeral's evocation of wordless, almost sacred, acts of communion (lovers meeting on the roofs of snow-buried houses, children meeting in abandoned streets after a power failure, places where no cars go) are replaced by dark alleyways, dirty mirrors, muddy wells, dark shorelines, and two-bit entertainers. And the height of religious communication is portrayed, in "(Antichrist Television Blues)," as a father's perverse, obsessive wish to make his teenage daughter into a star, so that every man in the world will lust after her.

Neon Bible is, in other words, both a "gospel" album--an album with a sermon to deliver (see "Intervention" and "Windowsill," in particular)--and a "worldly" album--an album that uses the world's tools against it, packaging truth and art in neon, rhythm, and sex. It's no accident that the "Antichrist"'s teenage daughter is none other than Jessica Simpson. The neon Bible declares itself to be spiritually on Mr. Simpson's level, and artistically on Jessica's: communicating the high through the low, the light through the darkness. It's literally glory-fied disco. It's a sultry glow instead of daylight. It's ABBA.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Franz Kafka and the Chocolate Factory

Willie Wonka (and/or Charlie) and the Chocolate Factory is puzzling in its politics. On the one hand, it is a sympathetic revenge story of class warfare: the bad guys (with the exception, perhaps, of Wonka) are almost uniformly from the ruling class, the good guy(s) (assuming there's a candidate besides Charlie) is from the working class. We root for Charlie, in part, because he's nice; in part, because he's an underdog; and very much in part because we have an unspoken conviction that all underdogs are basically good people and all top-dogs are at bottom bad ones. By rooting for Charlie, we root for good people who didn't get a fair shake, and by savoring, one little indian at a time, the Alighierishly delicious fates of each little rich boy, beauty queen, and spoiled brat, we delight in seeing our deep conviction that the game was fixed confirmed, and in seeing that fix turned against the winners. That is to say, the film's hooks and pleasures play on our resentment of social and economic inequality.

At the same time, so much of the film directly deflates the hopes these hooks promote:

- The good little boy wins only by being selected as the favored symbolic son of the biggest capitalist in town--by being adopted, as it were, into the ruling class and by implication betraying his comrades.
- He inherits not only wealth but also a position of absolute authority over a microcosmic capitalist universe, complete with its own slave class: the Oompa Loompas. (Perhaps this means that Wonka's croneyism represents a critique of capitalism based in nostalgia for colonialism and non-economically based social hierarchies?)
- He wins by cheating, making painfully clear the injustice of the unequal punishment the other cheaters receive, made outrageously unjust with the additional reward of inheriting the factory and fortune.
- Even if we ignore the indications that Charlie is the shining good person in this weary world, the fact that he can get his due only through the voluntary charity of Wonka further refutes any progressive interpretation of its politics.

All of this amounts, in the end, to a strong suggestion of both the inevitability and moral necessity of class inequality. Little Charlie (and by implication, the entire working class) is every bit as greedy, selfish, and corruptible as the ruling class. He is happy to accept the trophy knowing he does not deserve it. He is even happy to accept it, knowing that Wonka knows he does not deserve it. These elements of the film encourage us, against the revolutionary emotions that underline its pleasures, to believe in the rightness of the system. We never imagine for an instant that, upon taking over the factory, Charlie will (or should!) change it in any significant way. We see that every individual, even within the ruling class, is wrong, only to emphasize more strongly the rightness of the economic system that controls him.

We might try to see this film as a coherently reactionary one: it seeks to make use of rebellious sentiments by turning them against us. But this is unconvincing. The film goes too much out of its way to insist upon its overt critique of its protagonists: the questionable ethics of Charlie and his grandfather, the hints of a dangerous degree of mental derangement in Wonka, and the sheer moral ugliness of both Wonka and grandpa's hypocritical self-righteousness during the big argument scene. This cannot be a film that actively seeks to make us sympathetic to Wonka, Charlie, or the factory, and a coherent reactionary message would have to do just that.

So, to get around this dilemma, I'm going to read it according to the only artistic model I can think of that shares this troubling ambivalence between progressive hope and reactionary despair: Franz Kafka. Specifically, the novels The Castle and The Trial.

In The Castle, an outsider arrives in a village, seeking entrance into the castle that stands in its center. He discovers he cannot stay in the village without the permission of the castle, and that he cannot get into the castle without the help of the villagers. The villagers, in turn, are sometimes unwilling, more often unable, to help him. During the course of the story, it becomes clear that they have no real knowledge of what goes on in the castle or how to gain entrance. While it represents the foundation that supports, and the authority that governs, the entire village, the castle does not directly interact in any way with the villagers--it may as well be empty, as far as anyone can tell.

However we wish to interpret The Castle, the principle theme is the utter break between village and castle; the lack of continuity, connection, or sense between its activity and that of the citizens--and the failure of the people to recognize or acknowledge this gap. This disconnect between authority and subject, law and individual, is also the inarguable interpretative foundation of the more famous novel The Trial. We might think of The Castle as a prequel of sorts to The Trial. The castle may or may not be inhabited; a valid political, social, and moral authority may or may not be discovered behind its gates; the unknown may or may not be filled out reasonably upon entrance to the site of the law. In The Trial, however, we begin to see what's inside, even if ultimately to discover that we have barely glimpsed through the gate. The protagonist of that work, a man arrested without charge and without apparent consequence, discovers that behind the door of the law there is an utter absence of order, structure, or authority.

The ambivalence of both stories is in how we are to interpret the misery of their protagonists. If the castle represents the ideal of what the law or justice ought to be, the measure according to which the village or the human system of justice fall short, then we might be inclined to see "K." (the hero of both stories) as an innocent victim bravely demanding that human justice measure up to that absolute standard.

If, however, the utter inaccessibility of the castle (or the utter absence of any higher authority in the absurdly perverse, corrupt, and amateurish legal system of The Trial) is meant to suggest that the law, or any valid authority upon which to ground it, is non-existent or completely unknowable, then our reaction must surely be different. K. may be a tragic hero, but he is not a victim (there is no one bad guy pulling the strings); his resistance is absurd (he holds humanity to an impossible or imaginary standard); and his goal of proving his innocence, his right to his place in the world, is equally absurd (there is no authority that can affirm his innocence or authorize his existence).

These interpretations have very opposed ethical and political implications. One suggests that the gap between true law and human law justifies rebellion against the present order. The other suggests that this gap exposes the impossibility--and thus irresponsibility--of such rebellion; the futility and even injustice of holding the human world to a fantasized standard of perfection. One makes the system guilty; the other affirms the guilt of those who resist it.

So how resolve this? One way is to understand Kafka's view as a rejection of both sides of the opposition. The human order neither embodies the law nor falls short of it. On the one hand, the system is unjust, but not in virtue of its failure to measure up to a non-existent standard, but because it portrays itself as the pure embodiment of such a standard. By telling its subjects that it is the law, it becomes illegitimate.

On the other hand, the attempt to replace the false law with the true one is a self-deception. There is no true law to replace it with. The law does not exist--or is, at least, absolutely uncertain. So, the proper response for K. is neither to accuse the law of injustice per se (to measure it according to "true" justice), nor to submit to it as the measure of justice (as those he encountered do and advise him to do). The proper response is to resist the system by rejecting the conception of true law, or true justice. This places Kafka at odds with both the status quo and with the classical revolutionary, who insists upon replacing the false order with a fantasized true one.

So, the solution to the Wonka puzzle:

Wonka is not the big, bad capitalist pulling all the strings from behind the walls of his factory. He is not the figurehead of a false order to be overthrown by the workers in favor of a true one. Nor do we find, upon entrance into Wonka's castle, that he is the figure of true justice, the ideal which the outside world fails to meet (he is not, say, a temporary revolutionary dictatorship relinquishing his power to a dictatorship of the people). He does not, by punishing the brats and rewarding Charlie, right the wrongs they've done or suffered.

But Wonka is also not a hypocrite or a diabolical character. His brutality towards the other children, and his choice of Charlie, are not entirely arbitrary. Wonka's character is positioned "beyond good and evil." When he puts these children to the test (on trial, let's say), he does so with awareness of the absence of the law--that is, with awareness that his own position of social and economic authority is contingent (he is not a believer in meritocratic capitalism). So he does not test them according to an assumed true moral standard (for if he did, Charlie would lose), but according to their willingness to recognize the gap between human law and true law.

Charlie wins because he is willing to break the law without claiming the authority to do so. He wins because he breaks the law for the sake of the law: because he steps beyond good and evil. The crucial difference between his own crime and the other childrens' is his absence of a sense of entitlement. The other children, on the contrary, break the rules out of a perceived right to do so. Like the revolutionary idealist, they claim to replace a false law with a true one (this is particularly well illustrated in Veruca Salt's case, since she explicitly appeals to a second figurehead of law, a "true" father, to justify her actions).

Charlie recognizes the injustice of both village and castle, and chooses to defy Wonka while acknowledging he has no higher authority to appeal to in this act of defiance. In doing so, he becomes Wonka's true heir: he makes the law rather than appeals to it, just as Wonka has done. This resolves the ambivalence, but leaves the ending very much open-ended. Charlie recognizes of the absence of the true law, and so he recognizes the falseness of human law's claims to embody the true law. This in turn explains his willingness to take up Wonka's position: he does not have a right to it, but neither does he violate anyone's right by taking it.

Yet it also reveals the dark implications of this realization. No higher law necessitates that Charlie expose the contingency of his authority. Everything suggests that he will, as Wonka has done, allow the people to continue deceiving themselves, to believe that he has a right to his place in the system, and that his authority is true. In other words, he will continue screwing over the other little Charlies and Oompa Loompas of the world.

Difficulties, Technical and Otherwise

The principle difficulty being technical incompetence.

The occasional repeat visitor will notice the missing archives--the blog was intentionally deleted, along with (unintentionally) the backup files. So, everything not retrievable on the cached front page is permanently absent.

The occasional repeat visitor will also notice that some submitted comments never appeared. Also unintentional, since the author had no clue they had to be moderated before appearing. Apologies. You are more than welcome to try submitting unanswered comments again. Hopefully the settings are moderation-free now.

Masculin/Feminin: Remasculating Capital

I know Godard is often treated as an embodiment of the spirit of the 60's, but I see Masculin/Féminin as a critique of the phony progressivism of his day, in particular, of the ideology of sexual liberation. Very much in the spirit of Michel Foucault's critique of the 'repression hypothesis', the view that sex is repressed, that this repression plays a fundamental role in the social and political subordination of human beings, and that the history of the 20th century is that of the liberation of sexuality which is a key factor in political liberation.

Two key criticisms emerge. First, sexual liberation is shown to have no connection with political liberation (a great deal of the film is devoted to exposing the political ignorance and indifference of its young, sexually progressive, characters). Second, the ideology of anti-repression is shown to be reactionary--serving the subordination of the narcissistic pleasure-seeking individual to capital and to consumption. (These are the themes of the "children of Marx and Coca-cola" respectively--with the emphasis upon how this shared lineage is primarily a betrayal of Marx.)

The second theme arises in the saturation of the film with shallow consumption (best illustrated in the interview with the winner of Miss Nineteen magazine's model of the year contest, an interview in which a perfectly harmless and sweet 19 year old is cruelly and hilariously subjected to difficult questions about sex and politics. (A segment given the title "interview with a commodity," though it doesn't explicitly point out that she, like the popstar main character Chantal Goya, is first and foremost a sexual commodity, which would underline the way in which sexual liberation serves capital rather than revolution.)

The politically regressive nature of sexual liberation is further underscored by the constant interruption of utterly random and purely destructive (thus counterrevolutionary) violence from the movie's beginning to its end, closing with an apparent suicide.

The film critically anticipates the complete victory of the pleasure principle. This is not, it should be stressed, a victory of pleasure as opposed to the reality principle, for the reality principle is (as Freud emphasizes) in the service of pleasure. Instead, it is a pure negation of reality, of precisely the kind that dominates present day American culture and, most explicitly, politics. Masculin/Féminin proposes that this victory, so strongly endorsed by the sexual liberation movement, will ultimately release dangerously regressive drives that culminate in murder rather than peace, indifference rather than love. It is an excavation of the hidden, true spirit of the 60's, an era that ends appropriately in the community of Manson rather than Marx. An era whose children inherit the earth only to produce--surprise!--the world we inhabit today.