Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Eric Naiman, “Nabokov, Perversely”

2010

Naiman’s book is premised on the idea that “the ‘good reader’ of Nabokov must be alert to the hidden meanings suggested by all sorts of seemingly chance or inconsequential details in the text; he must work to distort the normal meaning of language” 2. One of the most refreshing experiences of reading Naiman’s book is the feeling of being liberated from the enslaving attitude of genuflection so many critics of Nabokov have indulged in over the years. Naiman reads closely, carefully, and responsibly, but he also reads Nabokov’s instructions to us themselves as riddles and contradictions, rather than as orders we must follow blindly. Still, Naiman says that his book is about “loving Nabokov as he wanted to be loved. It is also about why it is difficult to do so” 14. 

Nabokov invites us to read perversely, but also ridicules the too-close reader, placing our anticipation in a fearful and anxious place. Nabokov naturalizes “perverse” forms of reading. Lolita, for instance, is “a perverse book, if by ‘perverse’ we mean a book that induces readers to express symbolically and vicariously impulses they normally censor and suppress,” he quotes Sarah Herbold 10. Perversion in the Freudian sense is the lingering over intermediate objects or regions of the body that are not directly involved in genital sex – this is also, however, the erotic. 

The chapters of Naiman’s book exploit the Shakespearean resonance of “nothing” as female genitalia in Lolita and moves on to queerness and aggression in reading Pale Fire and the use of con and chat in Pnin, an argument that has defined my reading of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. 

Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”

1790

Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.

 

 

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”

1936

Marx’s analysis of capitalist production was prognostic: that it would exploit the proletariat in new and intense ways, and that it would create the conditions for its own undoing. We must theorize art as it is under the conditions of production today. The dilemma seems to be between aestheticizing politics (fascism) or politicizing art (communism), and clearly Benjamin favors the latter.

Works have art have always been reproducible, but now they are more technically and accurately so. From the woodcut to engraving, lithography to photography, this process has rapidly improved. Photography finally “freed the hand” from the task of reproduction. In Benjamin’s idea of history, “Just as the illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in photography” 102. Benjamin therefore undertakes the study of art as reproduction and the art of film as the two greatest influences today on art in its traditional form.

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in a particular place” 103. Authenticity thus eludes the whole sphere of reproduction – it concerns the object as the very same one throughout time, including its wear, its history, its owners, etc. 103. But whereas the reproduction made by hand can be called a forgery, 1) a photo can be reproduced to trick the naked eye. It can even focus in slow motion or zoom on objects “natural optics” would miss in the first place 103. 2) “Reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” 103. The work of art can meet the viewer halfway – music on a gramophone, a cathedral in a studio.

What is threatened here, for Benjamin, is the aura: the authenticity, the historical weight, the physical duration, the testimony of the object as it is here and now 103. (I have to say, this has always seemed like a bourgeois value to me!) “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” – its aura “withers” 104. The most powerful “shattering of tradition” is film. Film is both positive and has a “destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” 104. (Abel Gance is cited – historical figures “await their celluloid resurrection,” he claimed.)

“The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history… And if changes in the medium of present-day perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social detriments of that decay” 104.

“What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” 105. [this is the opposite of trace, which is the appearance of nearness, no matter how far]

Mountains have an aura on a summer’s day, but the aura’s decay now depends on 2 factors: 1) The masses desiring to ‘get closer’ to things and 2) the masses desiring to supersede the uniqueness of a thing “by assimilating it as a reproduction” 105.

“Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image, or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image… The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique” 105 [internet memes]

Benjamin provides the increasing use of statistics as an example of this, and demonstrates that the alignment of “reality” and “the masses” signals a change in perception.

The earliest artworks with aura had cult value, and “the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function” 105.  (This model of binaries opposes uniqueness to reproducibility, aura to mechanical reproduction, ritual to political, and cultural value to exhibition value.) Photography is the “approach of that crisis which a century later has become unmistakable,” which coincided with the rise of socialism 105. This crisis has given rise to “a negative theology, in the form of an idea of ‘pure’ art, which rejects not only any social function but any definition in terms of a representational content” 106. For Benjamin, however, this crisis need not entail a loss.

“For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual… the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility… As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” 106. [I might think here about faceting as camp and this together.]

The first technology versus second technology divide is of cult/exhibition, human sacrifice/remote control, serious/play, and master culture/interplay of human and nature. Cult objects are hidden – paintings on walls or large sculptures, versus canvas paintings or busts made for exhibition 106. Cult made use of human beings, whreas exhibition “reduces their use to the minimum” 107. The scope of reproduction has quantitatively shifted towards the pole of exhibition: the work of art is a construct with qualitatively different functions 107.

Film is the perfect medium to study the center of the second technology: the means by which “human beings first began to distance themselves from nature… in play” 107. [think camp!] “The first technology really sought to master nature, whereas the second aims rather at an interplay between nature and humanity” 107.

“The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily… technology will release them from their enslavement to the powers of the apparatus only when humanity’s whole constitution has adapted itself to the new productive forces which the second technology has set free” 108.

“In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance…. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time” 108. [think Barthes, Camera Lucida]

But exhibition value wins out – it is superior, as photographs from which the human being withdraws will show. Captions direct our viewership in an ongoing evidence of history on trial, and in film, the sequence of images powerfully directs us as well 108.

The Greeks could not very well reproduce their art, so it had to produce eternal values 109.  “Film is the first art form whose artistic character is entirely determined by its reproducibility” 109 [not the novel?]. Unlike the singular artistic object, the film is amassed and asembled from a large number of image sequences edited and manipulated (a Chaplin film that is 3,000 meters but took 125,000 meters of film to make).

“Film is therefore the artwork most capable of improvement… linked to its radical renunciation of eternal value… the pinnacle of all the [Greek] arts was the form least capable of improvement – namely sculpture… all of a piece… the decline of sculpture is inevitable” 109. [again, literature?]

Early film and photography theories waste energy focusing on whether these media are art (Abel Gance called film ‘hieroglyphic’) 110. The focus should not be on whether they are, but how they are actually transforming art (the example of film that is marvelous or supernatural, rather than realist, is offered) 110. To photograph a painting or an actor acting is not art. Art is produced “only by means of montage,” says Benjamin 110. How does this occur, if the stuff of this art is not art? [faceting]. For Benjamin, it is in the repetitive takes, of which one is selected “as the record” 111.

“Film makes test performances capable of being exhibited, by turning that ability itself into a test. The film actor performs not in front of an audience but in fornt of an apparatus… Interest in this performance is widespread. For the majority of citydwellers, throughout the workday in offices and factories, have to relinquish their humanity in the face of an apparatus. In the evening these masses fill the cinemas, to witness the film actor taking revenge on their behalf not only by asserting his humanity (or what appears to them as such) against the apparatus, but by placing that apparatus in the service of his triumph” 111.

It would be interesting to compare this form of identification with Oudart’s suture or Mulvey’s gaze. The actor is a character to the audience, but he is himself to the camera. “For the first time – and this is the effect of film – the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person, while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura” 112.  Unlike in the theater, where this can be sensed, “the camera is substituted for the audience” 112. The film actor must not overact, unlike the stage actor. “His performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances” 112. “Art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance,'” since the film actor can be startled by a gun and the sound edited out, or several shots of a jump out the window grafted to make the perfect scene 113. [pure artifice?]

“The representation of human beings by means of an apparatus has made possible a highly productive use of the human being’s self-alienation… the film actor’s estrangement in the face of the apparatus… is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance in a mirror.. But now the mirror image has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable… To a site in front of the masses… It is they who will control him” 113.

[Is faceting looking at a broken mirror, trying to cathect onto something so fragmented it has no sense or unity – but this is like us, too? We are fragmented?]

For Benjamin, capitalist (Hollywood) film supplants the commodity as the cult of the star (sex and surfaces), whereas fascist (Third Reich) film supplants class struggles with a fantasy of the cult of the audience:

“There can be no political advantage derived from this control until film has liberated itself from the fetters of capitalist exploitation. Film capital uses the revolutionary opportunities implied by this control for counterrevolutionary purposes. Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character, but its counterpart, the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses” 113.

[Eisenstein’s ‘dialectical collisions’ in his montages are a form of politicizing art against the unity of fascism. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s proposition here is more one of play – moving through pop culture rather than against it in the interplay of human and nature. For Benjamin, it is not so much about a worry over whether film can have aura as a distinction between cult value (embedded) and exhibition value (Chaplin)].

We have moved from a culture of readers to writers – from the few speaking to the many to the many engaging. Whereas Eisenstein and Vertov allow people to “portray themselves,” whereas “the capitalist exploitation of film obstructs the human being’s legitimate claim to being reproduced… to distort and corrupt the original and justified interest of the masses in film,” Hollywood manufactures the cult of the star 114-15.

“Thus, the same is true of film capital in particular as of fascism in general: a compelling urge toward new social opportunities is being clandestinely exploited in the interests of a property-owning minority… the expropriation of film capital is an urgent demand for the proletariat” 115.

“Film offers a hitherto unimaginable spectacle. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed – the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew (unless the alignment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera)” 115 [suture]

“In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality free of the foreign body of equipment, is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice” 115.

The comparison here is of the distant magician (painter) to the penetrative surgeon (film) [think Lolita and penetration of her organs!] 115. The masses today are entitled to an “equipment-free aspect of reality… on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment” – a paradox 116. The fusion of pleasure and expert appraisal in the masses is a progressive reaction to Chaplin; they have a backward attitude, on the other hand, to Picasso. Normally, the conventional is uncritically enjoyed, while the truly new is shunned. Cinema is an exception. Cinema can present to a large collective audience having individual reactions that swell to collectivity 116.

“The most important social function of film is to establish equilibrium between human beings and the apparatus” 117. Film shows us the microscopic and the macroscopic: “With the close-up, space expands; with slow-motion, movement is extended” 117. Both add new information as well – unseeable details in the former, a gliding or floating quality in the latter. “It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” 117. Montage in cinema would create “figures of collective dream” 118.

Laughter is a medicine against psychosis that films exploit – if technology engenders a psychotic character in the masses, it can also inoculate them against the maturation of these disorders through catharsis [think Deleuze & Guattari: schizophrenia] 118.”Dadaism attempted to produce with the means of painting (or literature) the effects which the public today seeks in film” 118. The point of the dadaists was to explore “the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion… through degradation of their material… linguistic refuse… train tickets… a ruthless annihilation of the aura… which they branded as a reproduction through the very means of its production” [pop art] 119. Film has made this shock effect tactile and physical, rather than moral.

Masses create a different participation in art. They are accused of looking at art with distraction, absorbing it into themselves, (<) rather than concentration, or being absorbed (>). (Think about the gender/sexual difference dynamic here.) Architecture is an example of an art that, by necessity, has never not been 120. We approach buildings by use/habit (tactilely) and perception/contemplation (optically). Both are necessary. Film’s shock effects will mobilize the masses via reception in distraction 120.

Fascism wants to organize the masses without changing the material conditions of their existence. “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life” 121. [We can think of the films of the Third Reich rallies; would Benjamin compare them to Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood?]

“All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations.” 121.

“Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands repayment in ‘human material’ for the natural material society has denied it” 121.

“Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” 122.

Miriam Hansen picks up on this in analyzing Benjamin’s footnote as an aspirational form of play. Benjamin writes, “What is lost in the withering of semblance, or decay of the aura, in works of art is matched by a huge gain in room-for-play. This space for play is widest in film.” She highlights Mickey Mouse, the total disappearance of the human subject, as a kind of Chaplin: “a cheerful barbarian countering the violence unleashed by capitalist technology with games of innervation.” Though he lost faith in this by the time of “The Storyteller” and others, but “the degree to which such practices have become naturalized” should encourage us all to “wage an aesthetics of play, understood as a political ecology of the senses, on a par with the most advanced technologies.”

Vivian Sobchack, “Carnal Thoughts”

2004

CHAPTER 3: WHAT MY FINGERS KNEW

Sobchack begins by acknowledging that while film reviews see film as a bodily experience, scholars often do not. Benjamin himself “speaks of cinematic intelligibility in terms of ‘tactile appropriation’ and elsewhere he speaks to the viewer’s ‘mimetic faculty,’ a sensuous and bodily form of perception” 55. She cites Jonathan Crary and Linda Williams as exceptions, as well as Laura Marks’ “haptic visuality.” As Williams points out, we are uncomfortable with the extent to which the ‘low’ genres horror, pornography, and melodrama take hold of and manipulate us as viewers 57.

Our bodily response is unclear, however – “our lack of ability to explain its somatism as anything more than ‘mere’ psychological reflex or to admit its meaning as anything more than metaphorical description” 58. Sensual description in film criticism is considered “excess” (again, think Williams!).

“Contemporary film theory has had major difficulties in comprehending how it is possible for human bodies to be, in fact, really ‘touched’ and ‘moved’ by the movies” 59.

“Film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” 60.

“We need to alter the binary and bifurcated structures of the film experience suggested by previous formulations and, instead, posit the film viewer’s ived body as a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and the objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception” 60. [re: the chiasmus as suture, the dialectic – what about multiplicity or faceting?]

“The lived body both provides and enacts a commutative reversibility between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, between the senses and their sense or conscious meaning” 61.

Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano – in terms of touch: “my fingers comprehended that image, grasped it with a nearly imperceptible tingle of attention and anticipation and, offscreen, ‘felt themselves’ as a potentiality in the subjective and fleshy situation figured onscreen” 63.  “Those fingers were first known sensually and sensibly as ‘these’ fingers and were located ambiguously both offscreen and on” [suture] 63.

“Our common sensuous experience of the movies; the way we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air… smell and taste are less called on than touch to inform our comprehension of the images we see… I did not think a translation of my sense of sight into smell or taste; rather I experienced it without a thought” 65.

“Our lived bodies relate to ‘things’ that ‘matter’ on the screen and find them sensible in a primary, prepersonal, and global way that grounds those later secondary identifications that are more discrete and are localized” 65 [diffuse sensuality].

For Sobchack, then, we exist as both here and there, sensing and sensible, subject and object: “Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” [think Irigaray, Poulet] 66.

“Meaning, and where it is made, does not have a discrete origin in either spectators’ bodies or cinematic representation but emerges in their conjunction. We might name this subversive body in film experience the cinesthetic subject – a neologism that derives not only from cinema but… synaesthesia and coenaesthesia” 67. [Nabokov, metaphors that cross senses]

“The cinesthetic subject both touches and is touched by the screen – able to commute seeing to touching and back again without a thought and, through sensual and cross-modal activity, able to experience the movie as both here and there rather than clearly locating the site of cinematic experience as onscreen or offscreen” 71.

Of course, as Ricouer points out in “The Rule of Metaphor,” this is not literal – but it represents a confusion of the senses “from the single system of flesh and consciousness that is the lived body” 73. Thus cinema is presentation and representation – a chiasmus [again, suture?] 74.

“Our sense of the literal and the figural may sometimes vacillate… However, insofar as I cannot literally touch, smell, or taste the particular figure on the screen that solicits my sensual desire, my body’s intentional trajectory, seeking a sensible object to fulfill this sensual solicitation, will reverse its direction to locate its partially frustrated sensual grasp on something more literally accessible… my own subjectively felt lived body” 76.

“I will reflexively turn toward my own carnal, sensual, and sensible being to touch myself touching, smell myself smelling, taste myself tasting, and in sum, sense my own sensuality” 77. [faceting – sex imbricated in this?]

“In the film experience, because our consciousness is not directed toward our own bodies but toward the film’s world, we are caught up without thought… in this vacillating and reversible sensual structure that both differentiates and connects the sense of my literal body to the sense of the figurative bodies and objects I see on the screen… my experience of my sensorium becomes heightened and intensified at the same time that it is perceived as general and diffuse” 77.

Thus the fabrics and feelings are “somewhat vague and diffuse… even as it may be quite intense… my gesture of specifically intending toward the screen to rebound diffusely on myself ultimately ‘opens up’  my body to a sensuality that is both literal and figural” 78. For Sobchack, touch is no longer a stretch in film, but a catachresis – not a proper metaphor in that it is a place we are forced to “confront and name a gap in language” like the arm of a chair or head of a pin, because we are supplementing linguistic deficiency 81.

“Reciprocating the figurally literal representations of bodies and worldly things in the cinema, the spectator’s lived body in the film experience engages in a form of sensual catachresis… it fills in the gap in its sensual grasp of the figural world onscreen by turning back on itself to reciprocally (albeit not sufficiently) ‘flesh it out’ into literal physicalized sense” 82. [think Lo-lee-ta]

“As cinesthetic subjects, then, we possess an embodied intelligence that opens our eyes far beyond their discrete capacity for vision, opens the film far beyond its visible containment by the screen, and opens language to a reflective knowledge of its carnal origins and limits. This is what, without a thought, my fingers know at the movies” 84.

 

dir. Mary Herron, “American Psycho”

2000

Mary Herron’s production of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel expertly nips and tucks the 400-page novel and makes of it a neat and resonant feature film. Starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (Owen), Chloe Sevigny as secretary Jean, Samantha Mathis as Courtney, and Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn. The way in which the film renders the flatness of the novel is partly by Patrick’s monotone voiceover, as well as a successful integration of the kinds of intermittent repetition that typify the novel’s prose: reworkings of the same bogus, overdone, expensive foods at the latest restaurant, Patrick’s dull informative lectures on the discographies of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston and the emptied-out lyrics of their meaningless love ballads, and, perhaps most insistently, Patrick’s “I have to go return some videotapes.” These are interspersed with routine depictions of extreme violence (Herron often cuts from the initial stab to the aftermath, with slightly more dramatic elisions than in the novel). As Namwali Serpell points out, these repetitions do not so much build to a cathartic climax as build to more repetition.

Patrick’s splitting of the world into atomized parts, places, and strata extends to his extreme splitting apart of female bodies, but this seems only the final and most perfect realization of the American cinema’s own desire to use the male gaze to synecdochize the female body beyond recognition into a series of disjointed fetishes (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality”). It has been suggested that the film is a feminist reworking of the novel, but I think the novel is, in a sense, already feminist, at least in the sense that its baroque excess invites no other interpretation so much as parody. We are gagging with disgust, but probably also with laughter. The novel’s famous puns (“Mostly murders and executions” is heard as “Mostly mergers and acquisitions”) remind me of Nabokov’s misheard phrases as well (Quilty: “Where the devil’d you get her?… I said the weather’s getting better”). Herron plays these to great effect in a picture of American surface and corporate culture that is just overperformed enough (Evelyn’s party, where everyone says “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”)  to resonate as satire.

Her excision of certain key moments of violence is also a way of letting us feel our temptation to witness those missing reels of film – diegetically, too, since Bateman films all of his sexcapades and murders. In emptying out the film of portions of the sequences of gore, she also interrupts the suture of the horror film, and forces us to jump from one moment uncomfortably into another. Herron told Christian Bale to think of the character “not in terms of psychology, but rather as a collection of impulses and modes.” Like Foucault’s model of power, then, perhaps the best response to such horror is an art that is large and proliferative enough to respond in kind – a faceted one. She has said in an interview:

[Christian Bale and I] talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

(In an interesting detail, in the novel, Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise in the elevator one day because he lives in the same building.) The eeriest aspect of both novel and film is not that Jason Bateman is secretly another person (one who either really kills people or really fantasizes about it all the time), but that he is openly so (at least in the imagined narrative he gives us), and that no one hears or sees him. Whether he has actually killed anyone or not, his thoughts irrupt the surface of his speech often enough to disturb. One of the cleverest shots of the film is the mid-range shot of Jason in the mirror after the opening sequence (knives and food), when he is detailing his morning cleansing routine to us. He describes his face mask and tells us that he is “simply not there.” As he says this, he peels a perfectly transparent mask from his face, encapsulating the way in which surface is content in this story.

The end of the film makes it even more tempting to see the murders as imaginary, perhaps because the special effects of the taxi murder scene are so familiar from Hollywood that we are prepared to read them immediately as false. As in Psycho, the facile psychological explanation at the end of the film does not ameliorate our horror in watching Mrs. Bates’ face dance over Norman’s and realizing that he killed those girls. In a similar way, the realization that Patrick Bateman (whose name carries the “Bate” of Bates and the “man” of Norman) may not have committed the crimes he describes is not enough to erase the ghastly experience of having imagined that he did  right alongside him. 

dir. Adrian Lyne, “Lolita”

1997

Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake of Lolita is a surprisingly well-made film. I say surprisingly because Lolita is the sort of novel that is almost impossible to render in film – long, highly detailed, and dependent on the manipulations of one exclusive perspective (Humbert), whose psychological status remains wonderfully uncertain in Nabokov’s prose. Jeremy Irons is adequately ambiguous and externally uninteresting as Humbert Humbert, Dominique Swain (what happened to her? she’s amazing!) is an almost impossibly perfect incarnation (monkey-limbed and cherub-faced) of Dolores Haze, and Melanie Griffiths is perfect (if a little too trim!) as the prosaic dull-and-dawdling Charlotte Haze.  There are still a few things I don’t love about the film, so let’s get them out of the way straight off so I can move on to “fondling the details,” as Nabokov would say, of the object itself.

First, as monkey-like and crass as Lo is, there are a few moments that seem too 1990s and not 1950s enough in their tenor. The flip side of that is that Lo’s crassness really comes out in the fighting scenes, which rescue her subjectivity for us, and Lyne does them expertly. Secondly, the scene at the end where he experiences what Ellen Pifer calls his “moral apotheosis” actually occurs in Elphinstone, three years earlier, and does not change his attempts to recapture her – an important proof that he does not morally change in the way he wants us to believe he does. Finally, I think Lyne slightly overdoes the role Lo plays in “the seduction” – there are a few too many crop-tops and sultry glances at the start, and the controversial comic-strip orgasm scene later in the film is beautifully made, but potentially too lucid in its portrayal of her pleasure (vs. the novel’s ambiguity).

Still, it’s true to the novel that Lo is young enough to wear more freeing children’s clothing, and that she is deeply curious about sex. In a sort of characterological parallel to what Linda Williams would term the “long adolescence” of film, Lo herself is in an extended period of desire without knowledge, passion without understanding. This is where Lyne’s film is so great. In emphasizing that Lo herself is a product of the cinema she consumes, Lyne captures the way in which Lo knows what the movies know about sex – which is also what we know about it. In this way, the treatment of history in the Lolita film is much more exciting than, say, The Help, because Lyne inserts the shocking, violent, and material reality of Humbert having sex with this girl into a visual landscape of 1950s America in a way that ruptures our sense of sex and the movies. Lyne, in other words, succeeds in making Lolita cinematic in and through the medium of film, which is something I believe the novel achieves in language, but it’s remarkable to see it play out visually.

It’s too bad Lyne cut the “davenport scene,” the famous bit in the novel where Humbert gets off by bouncing Lo on his lap and singing “My Little Carmen” to her. You can find the excised clip on YouTube, and while the script for its beginning isn’t great (it gets to the novel’s focus on Dali and “My Little Carmen” by way of Humbert calling Americans dull and stupid, which I don’t think he would say to Lo in the novel…), it’s actually one of my favorite of Lyne’s negotiations of the difficult bits of the text. As he bounces her on his lap, shots of Lo in a sort of ecstatic, glowing, movie-montage three-point lighting scheme are interspersed with actual shots of her and with reaction shots from Humbert. The effect is to let us know that Lo is enjoying herself, but that Humbert is also making her into an object of cinema in order to complete his aim. When the phone rings, she jumps right up, flushed and seemingly aware that something is different, though it’s unclear what.

The attention Lyne pays to the material body is great. The split between Parts I and II of the novel shift from a cinematic, dreamy, synecdochized treatment of Lo’s body to an obsession with its innards, its whole, its growth, and its betrayal, especially as Humbert becomes paranoid and pursued, eventually loses her, and is left only with memories and rage. In the novel, this shift takes place largely through the final list of items he buys her, including sanitary napkins, a sign of Lo’s new fertility and a bodily marker of “the wound” Humbert continually probes.

The scene towards the end of the film that parallels this is brilliantly done. Humbert goes to the market to buy Lo bananas (she’s constantly eating them in a suggestive way in the film), and comes back to find her sitting on the bed with dirty feet and sticky lipstick on. As in the novel, he tears the clothes from her body, sniffing her for signs of betrayal, and ends up violently kissing and raping her. The close-up shot of Lo’s face during this sequence reveals the smudge of red on her cheek in the violent beginning, and as our shock and fear that it is blood yield to the more erotic realization that it is smeared lipstick, we undergo a sort of sexually charged shift, which I think wonderfully captures the texture of Nabokov’s prose: our torture as reader and viewer is to find ourselves constantly torn between horror and arousal as we consume the text before us.

In general, Humbert invites us to critique Lo for her superficiality, but ironically, his problem is that he reads her as a product for consumption among so many others. His crimes are rape and murder, but also objectification, animation, and solipsism. She is “Lo, plain Lo, standing four feet ten in one sock… Dolly at school… Dolores on the dotted line… but in my arms she was always Lolita.” Humbert believes he is individualizing her here, but he is actually emptying her out of herself and renaming her, as well as duping himself about “consumer’s choice,” as it were.

Robert Lowell: Poems

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was a confessional poet interested in history and writing as forms of repetition and revision. His characteristic style emerges in 1959 with the publication of Life Studies, the collection that led the critic Mendenhal to coin the term “confessional poet.” The poetry of the Beats caused him to reexamine his old work, which he saw, much as Yeats did in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” as “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” with “a stiff, humorless and even impenetrable surface.”

LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, 1946

“COLLOQUY IN BLACK ROCK”

Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions

End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyrs Stephen who was stoned to death.

Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,

House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Stephen the martyre was broken down to blood:
Our ransom is the rubble of his death.

Christ walks on the black water. In Black Mud
Darts the kingfisher. On Corpus Christi, heart,
Over the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir
I hear him, Stupor Mundi, and the mud
Flies from his hunching wings and beak–my heart,
he blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.

Here, Lowell slowly moves from the localized construction site with its jackhammers penetrating the mud to the high language of Yeats and Eliot: “Stupor Mundi” (the marvel of the world) and “the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir” remind me of Yeats, while “Corpus Christi,” “House of our Savior,” and “In Black Mud Darts the kingfisher” remind me of Eliot.

“MR. EDWARDS & THE SPIDER”

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy

On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

Lowell takes apart Edwards’ sermon piece by piece, returning its wrought metaphors to the material world, where the spider does not struggle in hell, but dies. The ending of the poem, “To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death,” parallels the spider’s hourglass marking – the curse is not the fear of death, but the knowledge – the fact of it. Could be compared to Larkin’s “Ambulances.”

LIFE STUDIES, 1959

“MEMORIES OF WEST STREET & LEPKE”

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
Like Williams coming to terms with his domestic madness in “Danse Russe,” Lowell contemplates his age here – he feels old, at 40, to be a new father, so different from his youthful days as a conscientious objector to the war and getting a year of jailtime for it. He falls further back in time to those radical days, so starkly different from “bookworming” in “the tranquillized Fifties.”

“SKUNK HOUR”

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
nobody’s here—
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Nautilis Island is the location of the poem, but it’s also interesting that Lowell sets the scene with reference to this natural object, whose spiraling chambers reproduce the Golden Ratio perfectly. The rich woman buying up the houses to watch them die and the idea of “our summer millionaire” are reminiscent of Gatsby. The poet, painfully aware of death, climbs “the hill’s skull” to spy on lovers, and the insertion of the pop Lyrics and the speaker’s assertion, “I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat… I myself am hell” refers to Satan in Milton, but also feels like Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. The foul but beautiful persistence of the skunk, swilling for sour cream in the trashcan, is an odd and visionary moment for the times Lowell describes.

“FOR THE UNION DEAD,” 1964

Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam. (They sacrifice everything to save the Republic.)

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his ‘niggers.’

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

In the first 2 stanzas, Lowell displays a ruin to the reader and weaves it in with his childhood memories of desire and excitement. In the next stanzas, Lowell likens the ancient life of the sea (linked by “scales” to “fish and reptile” to “dinosaur steamshovels”) to the construction of a parking lot with “Puritan pumpkin-colored girders.” He turns to the monument to the Colonel Shaw and the Negro soldiers of the Civil War, imagining their suffering. Just as the Puritan girders and steamshovel dinosaurs create a flattening historical parallel, so do the Negro soldiers and  “the drained faces of Negro school-children [that] rise like ballons” on his TV, during the period of desegregation. The blank of the parking lot, too, being built underground, resonates with the boiling hole of Hiroshima (15 years before). “Space is nearer,” the speaker proclaims, ushering in a postmodern sensibility. He returns at the close of the poem to the ancient grease and fishiness of the technology around him, circling back to the start of the poem.