Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions of Value: THE HURT LOCKER and Critical Misreading

The question of value is one of the most difficult of questions that we have to face in matters of culture. It is most difficult precisely because it is burdened by the vagaries of individual temperament, constitution and character and also it is shrouded in the relativistic view that cultural value is little but a transparent window into the ideologies and makeup of the society and individuals who are entertained by this or that work of art. This theory of relativism takes some kind of immediate reception as constituting the meaning of a work and holds that works don't have intrinsic value apart from the peculiar and particular subjectivities of those who made a work and those who consume it. This is almost an utility based model of culture.

Yet, nevertheless, works that authors create - whether those authors are collective ones of script dramatists and costume designers and art directors that play partial roles in the end result, or single painters at their canvas - have things inside of them or about them and still other things which are not a part of them. Thus it follows that there are better and worse ways of looking at what the theory minded among us call texts.

I will illustrate this principle using a case of a poor reading of a popular movie, a movie that was indeed so popular as to win the Oscar for best film this year. I mean, of course, THE HURT LOCKER. By looking briefly at just a few comments by a critic more suited to political advocacy, anti-war journalism than she is suited for basic aesthetic understanding or indeed even her own cherished political and ideological ways of approaching a text. Thus she gets both the politics and aesthetics wrong, and it is as if she did not see the movie in front of her but rather some other movie that she imagined due to her emotional responses and to her beliefs about how movies with war as their content should proceed.

As a result she can be said to have misread The Hurt Locker. The critic is Tara McKelvey and she wrote of the film in The American Prospect. I don't mean to pick on McKelvey in particular but the fact that a major political journalist has failed to comprehend a rather traditional narrative feature by issuing in elements that are in fact not present in the film and that the critic failed to see the purpose and intent of the film shows how deeply our culture of arts and letters has failed in some basic understanding of some of the ways works of art make meaning and in generally create their effects.

THE HURT LOCKER is not a masterpiece. It may, as veterans point out, have historical innacuracies. (But it is also extremely faithful and accurate in other respects). It is organized around some traditional tropes concerning suspense, perennial interest in and delight with the energies of male warriors, and an almost voyeuristic curiosity with charismatic males who "get the job done". Part of this is in keeping with director Bigelow's ouevre in general as she has always been interested in male bravado and technology as being inherently exciting and interesting. (The LOVELESS, BLUE STEEL, POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS for example).

But these features in no way implicitly make the film guilty of the charges McKelvey brings against it, when she claims it is an advertisement for the US military. To put it bluntly, the film in no way endorses the Iraq war in particular nor any war in general. That is not really the film's subject. Rather, like many good works of art, the film picks up where such political evaluations of a thumbs-up and thumbs-down variety LEAVE OFF.

From beginning to end THE HURT LOCKER, like TIm O'Brien in fiction, and perhaps Peckinpaw in cinema, and even the structuralist avant-garde (the latter in which Bigelow was involved before she started making large budget studio films), is part of a long and noble tradition in which the author attempts to give us an EXPERIENCE of something rather than to exactly tell us what to conclude about it. This emphasis on EXPERIENTIAL style throughout THE HURT LOCKER - through the editing of its sequences, the tight and intense focus on the soldiers, the use of immersive camera techniques, and above all the emphasis on opposed and opposing character types who argue their differences through word and action - has always been misunderstood in different periods and in works that operate in this manner. Because the emphasis is on immersive experience rather than discursive moral teaching, such works always fail to satisfy a certain political Left as much as they fail to satisfy certain conventional expectations about psychological character.

Indeed the charismatic, daredevil lead is utterly mysterious and inaccessible. We admire his bravery but we also sense he is a borderline sociopath. He may be sexy and yet represent that which most frightens our sense of morality. This denseness and opacity of him - he is a man of action is a way for Bigelow to make our belief in easy psychology one of the questions she raises in the film.

But make no mistake about this film: in no way can it be considered pro war or an advertisement for the military as McKelvey saw it. This is a film that wants us to reflect and ask questions, yet it does so through perceptual relations. What makes it truly different than the commercial so-called "anti-war" cinema like Platoon or other middlebrow work, is that it makes us ask those questions by its very action. The "action" of the film is a way to get us to disable our normal moral evaluations. (Whereas in the other kind of war films the action is a way to do precisely the opposite to freeze us into a final decision about war). That is, the film neither heroizes and glamorizes its figures nor does it condemn them. It shows us a process, even to the point where, when a soldier is shown back in the civilian world it is all too clear how traumatized he is by his experience and how ill suited he is for his normal life (crucially, in keeping with pairing of family and domestic versus military and public, in the supermarket sequence).

Now a more propogandistic filmmaker like Oliver Sone would try to make a point about war in a most obvious and childlike fashion. Not once does Bigelow indulge in this. The fact that Bigelow conspicuously and conscientiously avoids the simplistic and reductionistic and does so chiefly through STYLE, through a mode of artistic presentation, is reason enough to recommend the film. I wonder if, in the end, McKelvey would be more comfortable with Oliver Stone's approach to "history".

But as is usually the case, many of our journalists don't know or care how or why art works the way that it does and merely evaluate the work based on preconceived and ideological checklists. Luckily, however, given the reception of the film there is a hunger in people for serious works of art that address "topical" subjects without being "bogged down" by the topic alone.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why I am a Feminist

All of us, at least those of us who consider ourselves human, have a moment, usually quite early in life, when we become aware of our embodiment, of our corporeality. Despite our ability to imagine and mentally travel anywhere and at anytime, and to feel our thoughts as flowing and unbounded by space and time, we nevertheless find ourselves to be embodied creatures, and that the particulars of our embodiment set limits and possibilities upon what is within our capacity.

Moreover, we can break down our bodies into parts that seem salient and important and at other times trivial. Further still, we can have emotions and feelings about the parts of other bodies of those around us. In particular we have an experience of having specific sexual organs and the ability to experience the organs of other people in the same general category as us, or, as is more common, with different sexual organs.

We have great pleasure and pain about these organs - both those of ourselves and of others. We are now attracted to and now repulsed by this state of affairs. We create and sustain symbolic and exchange values to these aspect of our bodies. We change our mind about ours and others' bodies. And, of course, our very bodies change through time.

Above all, if we are fully honest with ourselves, we will come to realize we had absolutely nothing to do with our particular embodiment. It was not originally an act of will or decision. Even the feelings, positively or negatively, about our particular embodiment are not something we choose: rather it is something akin to hunger breathe, however unnatural and ostensibly cultural aspects of the symbolism might appear.

Since we have no choice in this aspect of our lives and since this embodiment is a very important aspect of our lives and part of a web of dreams wishes and real life achievements, as a logical consequence we must develop practices and theories which respond to this state of affairs, a need that takes the form of two very opposed yet equally necessary moves.

Since this embodiment is not freely chosen, we must honor our lack of responsibility for how we find ourselves in ways that make no notice of or discrimination on the basis of our particular case. That is, our embodiment should play NO role in, for example, our function as citizens, in friendship, in work, business, and aspects of leisure, in intellectual endeavors and certain athletic endeavors. In short, we need a neutral space where the case of our embodiment is not an issue. We may not always succeed at this since we will always have special feelings positively or negatively over that aspect of our embodiment over which we had no responsibility; we will always have values and feelings over being male or female or transgendered. Indeed, in certain aspects of life we ought to have values and feelings about those states. But in many aspects of our public and private lives such values and feelings ought to be rendered irrelevant as is hopefully the case in our employment practices.

Conversely, since aspects of our embodiment do matter deeply in certain circumstances, (for many of us this is in our sexual life for example), we need the freedom to escape neutrality, to exercise bias, discrimination and desire and express ways of valuing those very aspects of our embodiment that we did not in fact choose. (As of late even the decision to alter our embodiment would appear to fall under the right to not be neutral and to express preference about our bodies).

For a variety of cultural and historical reasons, Feminism has been the word to describe the negotiation of these two opposing but equally necessary responses to our embodiment. Feminism wants both to honor and value what might be a consequence of being female, however that is understood, yet, at the same time to ignore that very embodiment when it is considered prejudiced or unfair to take such embodiment into account. Feminism is a way of negotiating these dual needs - the need for both relevance and irrelevance - that arise from having a body that is not freely chosen. This deeply relates Feminism to other social justice movements that arise from other identities over which we have no will or control, as in skin color or the economic station into which we are born.

This has been called Feminism not because those in the female sex are the only ones to whom the issues I have been discussing apply but because historically it has been women for whom the balance between neutrality and preference has been most askew and, above all, for much of human history it is men who have had a relationship of dominance over women in certain aspects of life that has been most injurious to women. Thus the word Feminist seemed the most natural and appropriate word for ways of understanding this state of affairs.

At one time, as I was the victim of a particular and peculiar teacher who expressed the view, (though I nevertheless dearly loved her), I was under the impression that no man could be a Feminist by virtue of having only male experience and male body.

I now see, for the reasons I logically laid out here, that Feminism is (potentially) for everybody.

I leave to one side all sorts of perennial controversies about our embodiment. It is not necessary to agree about what is the proper meaning of woman or man or indeed the correct behavior that would be expected from either or both. All that is necessary, to accept the truth in Feminism, is to acknowledge that it would be cruel and unjust for us to hold ourselves and others responsible for matters over which we have no control, and to create undue emphasis upon such matters. All that is necessary for us to embrace Feminism is to realize that we are embodied and that part of that embodiment involves experiencing particular sexual organs and all of the historical weight that hangs upon us by virtue of being female or male. We should be Feminist because we live in History and are human, because we owe it to ourselves to honest about that History, because until now the business of being male and female has not been so easy or straightforward or transparent. However part of nature being male and female has been, if we are honest with ourselves it is never feels entirely natural. We have had to reflect, to theorize, above all to Critique.

Feminism is a way of negotiating our daily reality of being embodied. We are not Platonic ghostly forms hovering in the ethers. We deal daily with being and having bodies. That is why a word like humanist is not always sufficient. We need ways of theorizing and knowing that take into account certain particulars of our embodiment. Whatever one's beliefs about souls or minds or bodies, all of us find ourselves with particular sexual organs and feelings and relationships about those organs. This fact alone, along with the fact that we had no choice in what form we take, any more than we had any choice in the families into which we were born, should make Feminism a necessary part of human intellectual inquiry and physical practice.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Brief Word on Contemporary Modes of Attire, With an Emphasis Upon the Male

“Man is a creature who who is designed to live on the surface; he lives in the depths at his peril.” Susan Sontag

I was inspired by a wonderful blog called An Affordable Wardrobe to write my own admittedly idiosyncratic thoughts on dress. Where I agree with that blog is in the writer's belief that there is something childish about contemporary dress. This childish attitude was best expressed by an indignant woman I overheard complaining about having to dress like a grownup and wishing she could be a child. One upon a time, people aspired to maturity and it was considered a real ritual when a boy first wore long pants. But as we shall see there is something rather darker in our dress than a desire to regress in age.

Everyone really does dress the same today and for the most part its dreadful. Tom Wolfe put it best when he quipped, “people wear rags practically and they look like the are fleeing an invading army.”

Indeed, we can usefully draw out an implication in Wolfe’s comment (whether he intended what follows or not). What has happened for about thirty years or so is that people choose for everyday leisure wear clothes originally intended for the roughest of menial labor - in the dirt, factory or farm etc. - and sport (football). And in a semiotic sense it does seem that fleeing the invading army is an apt metaphor as this is clothing for apocalyptic minded times (global warming and terrorism). This is clothing that must be low maintenance in the extreme and have about it an air of indestructibility. The denim revolution of the nineties, with its newer fabrications certainly did not help matters.

But the worst offenders are, at least in matters sartorial, as always, the males of the species, befitting that portion of humanity historically and biologically geared towards hard physicality, adventure and combat. Not only do they affect a uniformity with their sculpted facial hair, buzz cut, and the obligatory tight t-shirts to better show off their gym induced upper body charms. But when a man dresses up, there is scarce improvement. They tend to opt for a garish printed shirt and insist on it’s being worn outside the pants, so that the tails flop about. And the pants are tight black trousers of a sort that could only go by the name of slacks, at least the associations of the word slacks in, say, 1975, as the terms trousers or pants seem off the mark for so low lying, hip hugging a garment.

One of the worst features of fashion in recent history is its penchant for the extreme gesture: if twenty years ago clothing was too large and oversized; today, as if in reaction, it is far too tight and fitted. But neither mode looks good on most real human bodies, as it has been designed not for anyone in particular but rather for some abstract Platonic ideal of sexual fantasy. All the hoopla over metrosexuality and queer culture hides the fact that contemporary gay males, in their designer hoodies, are wearing clothing scarcely better their clueless, straight male brethren, or indeed their little brothers. They just have slightly better haircuts, have showered more thoroughly, paid more attention to nails and nose hair and so on.

One of the most striking historical developments is a kind of devolution in dress. For men, as recently as forty years ago, the minimum uniform of presentability was at the very least an odd sport coat. Now, in some of the most affluent offices in the developed world men go about in their shirtsleeves, a decision of public presentation that in that earlier time would have been viewed as almost equivalent to going about in one’s underwear. Now the mere shirt is considered dressing up. The lounge suit has replaced formal wear, and formal wear appears all but extinct, save for some very special and temporally specific ceremonial occasions.

It is no small matter that clothing is in a bad way. For one thing, our clothing is a major thing with which people are faced in dealing with us. Unless our onlookers are blind, much of what they see will be the raiment that covers our nakedness. For another, the degree to which people push the uglier side of go-to-hell casualness, suggests something more disturbing. One could blame Punk and Grunge and other musical movements in this regard, but in truth the spirit of ugly clothing is not anti-fashion but more specifically anti-beauty. It is clothing that wants to exclaim and announce its resentment of and hatred for anything associated with the beautiful. In the past clothing aspired upwards, essentially to royalty. For men this meant they wanted to dress like Cary Grant or their fathers. The reverse, dress copying the style of the street, is relatively new, and forgets that once the poor would wear bad clothing because they had no choice.

All of which leads us to conclude that this extreme dreadful casualization of dress is in a generous spirit, that it is a product of the left politically. In short, that it offers a humbled, homely clothing as a rejection of the rich man’s wares and a statement against what seems economically wasteful in an unequal society.

But I remember a cover of the New York Times Magazine which complicated this sensible intuition. It was a story on fundamentalist and evangelical Christian youth and wouldn’t you know it, but all of the teens on the cover looked identical to the sort of secular youth you would see at a Phish or Radiohead concert. They both don the same worn jeans and t shirts. This is quite a revolution in dress. Recently we had grown to understand that dress was a semiotic indicator of a clan, tribe, or identity and affiliation. What does it mean when opposing or distant identities wear identical dress? What does it mean for people to reject the surface so completely as being of any consequence? Or perhaps the far left and right are identical in a puritanical rejection of finery and consumption more generally and this bonds the Christian to the Hardcore Punk. This last conclusion seems to make the most sense since both the secular far left and religious right are united in being generally against that which is "this-wordly", and look to a world elsewhere, either after some kind of revolution on an earthly basis, or disembodied eternity on a heavenly basis.

But as Sontag reminded us, (and Oscar Wilde before her) the surface is far more important that we realize. Indeed it is the one thing, much like architecture, which we cannot escape.