On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”

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The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

2009 Movie Recap

I saw 169 films for the first time this year, about 70 of which were films actually from 2009, and 30 of which were foreign films. 37% of my total were dramas, 28% were documentaries, 18% were comedies, and 17% were thrillers or action flicks.

Most Overrated:
1. Invictus: moralizing, expositional, tension-free… strong performances couldn’t save Eastwood’s mediocre telling of an interesting, complex story.
2. Up: the first minutes are gold, up until the house lands in S. America. The introduction of Indiana Jones-esque pseudo-adventure and talking dogs sadly killed this.
3. The Hurt Locker: I would’ve liked this better if it were called GI Joe: Rise of the Defusers. That way I would’ve gone in prepared for wildly unrealistic scenarios and larger-than-life superheros. At least the acting & direction were superb.

Surprisingly terrible: The Box
Surprisingly good: Away We Go
Predictably terrible: 2012
Predictably good: 500 Days of Summer

First seen: Synecdoche, New York on 01/01/09
Last seen: Nos Que Aqui Estamos Por Vos Esperamos on 12/31/09

My favorite films, loosely ranked in order:

1. I Killed My Mother
2. A Prophet
3. Everyone Else
4. 500 Days of Summer
5. Dogtooth
6. The Cove
7. You, the Living *
8. The Road
9. It Felt Like a Kiss
10. Moon
11. Home
12. Food, Inc.
13. District 9
14. The Class *
15. Where the Wild Things Are

* These were released overseas earlier, but Roger Ebert (using US release/distribution dates) counts them for ’09 so I will too.

2009 Book & Music Recap

This is the first part of my annual recap of my year in media. Tomorrow I will probably look back at the movies of ’09.

I didn’t really keep up with music this year as much as I normally do. But in no particular order, the releases I was most fond of from this year were:

1. Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
2. Chuck Ragan – Gold Country
3. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
4. Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – s/t
6. The Monsters of Folk – s/t
7. M. Ward – Hold Time
8. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love

I should probably confess to loving half of Only By the Night but hating myself for it.

The books I read this year are listed below. I again fell short of my goal, but in this age of illiteracy I consider any number over zero to be a personal triumph.
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A Christmas Message

This is by Brynne Lewis Allport, from “An Impression” on The Church and Pomo Culture:

In God, Death, and Time, Emmanuel Levinas claims that the immanent experience of a transcendent God amounts to a reversal and referral of the desirable (God) to the nondesirable (the Other). This correlation results in a mission to approach and engage the Other, especially as the Other is figured in the needy, the oppressed, and the forgotten. In this sense, God’s presence is experienced in those persons in whom God is least expected to be found (absence).I visualize this concept in the following way. God’s inbreaking into existence is a stone, thrown against wet sand. The moment of impact is unobserved (unoberservable?) and the stone is absent, bounded off somewhere unknown. What remains is a small dent, an impression left in the soft shore line. The impression is the shape of the stone, the size of the stone, retains the fine features of the stone. However, as an impression, these features are preserved in reverse. In this way, God’s presence, if it is to be found at all, is found in those places where God is most absent. The Old Testament is full of reminders that worship of God is only as good as the care extended to widows, orphans, and the poor. The epistle of James makes this same claim.

It is important to point out that it is not simply the existence of these Others that is God’s presence in the world, but our caring engagement with them. To return to my metaphor, when the impression is all that remains, the only way to experience the stone is to press into the shape it has left behind. This absence is filled with engagement in the same way one takes a plaster cast. In approaching, meeting, ministering to those in need, the community conforms to, fills out the shape of God in the world. The mold is as much the shape as what is poured into it. Holiness therefore is not a characteristic retained by either party alone, but a quality that emerges from the touch-point of the two.

I recently had the pleasure of helping our community fill its annual Christmas baskets. These baskets (boxes really) are distributed to area residents who apply for aid. They include clothes, basic food stuffs, and toys for the children. Because I had the job of matching mittens with hands that might need them, I had to read each application to determine the number and size of each pair. The requests were simple, the situations similar and familiar: illness, unemployment, injury. As I passed each box, read each name, I held each person in my heart for just a moment. As I placed each pair of mittens inside each basket, I was overwhelmed by the privilege of sharing a holy meeting in the presence (absence) of God.

Merry Christmas.

Precious: Based on the Story of Racism

It’s still another 3 months until the Oscars are handed out, but naturally buzz is building around certain films. I recently saw Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a real contender that’s holding an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered high acclaim at Sundance, TIFF, and Cannes. Precious portrays a year in the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese teenager growing up in Harlem in the late ’80s. I won’t record all the sordid details of her life — the molestations, pregnancies, diseases, handicaps, abuses, etc — but suffice to say that life is pretty shit for Precious. It’s a gripping viewing experience, albeit difficult to watch (multiple viewings are out of the question), and the acting by the leads is beyond reproach. Mo’Nique’s (Precious’ mother) final monologue is absolute killer and she deserves an Oscar nod for those minutes alone.

There are several problems here, a few of which started to surface while I was watching. Early on, I distinctly remember thinking, “This would be a terrible film to show to racists.” Some of my questions were further muddled by two writers who are among the few to categorically denigrate Precious. They are, respectively, “Pride & Precious” by Armond White, and “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” by Ed Gonzalez. [if you only read one of the two, read White’s]

Let me state up front that I am deliberately choosing to interact with two other writers because I do not feel capable on my own. As a privileged white male, I’m going to confess ignorance at the start and admit that I have more questions here than answers. However, even I have to start to wonder about rave reviews given to a film that unabashedly portrays an obese black girl stealing a bucket of fried chicken and devouring every piece herself. (more…)

Tricknology Built All This

A couple weeks ago I came across this really interesting photo of Detroit, taken in 1930:

(Click for higher resolution awesomeness)

Then just this week I started reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, where he has this passage:

My grandparents’ eyes glazed over at the sheer activity, streetcars rumbling, bells clanging, and the monochrome traffic swerving in and out. In those days downtown Detroit was filled with shoppers and businessmen. Outside Hudson’s Department Store the crowd was ten thick, jostling to get in the newfangled revolving doors. Lina pointed out the sights: the Cafe Frontenac… the Family Theatre… and the enormous electric signs: Ralston… Wait & Bond Blackstone Mild 10¢ Cigar.

It made me think Eugenides looked at this same photo when envisioning those days. So I contacted him to find out:

Dear Mr. Cole,
It was either that photograph or one very much like it. The giveaway is that Blackstone Cigar. Thank you for sending it my way.
I hope you like the rest of the book.
Sincerely,
Jeffrey Eugenides

Oh, the internets are magic. This reminds me of the time Richard Rorty wrote me, about 2 years before he died, and, to my everlasting chagrin, I didn’t save it before Groupwise auto-purged it forever. I think writing awesome people will be my new hobby, even if it’s only half as exciting as Letters of Note.

Decade Recap

Has this been, like, the worst decade ever or what? Time Magazine seems to think so. They don’t hold back: “Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.” I’m surprised this got published, but I can’t say I disagree (some hyperbole notwithstanding). My decade started with promise, then took a sharp downturn real fast. Maybe this New Year’s Eve I’ll rub the belly of a white rabbit to ward off the curse of the fukú.

I like that 2009’s end-of-year lists are all turning into end-of-decade lists. Here’s Telegraph’s list of the top 100 films, and here’s The Times Online’s version; I’ve seen 64% and 68%, respectively, of the films on there. Both lists are pretty shite though, with the possible exception of The Times putting Cache/Hidden at #1. (I may be re-considering The White Ribbon too. We’ll see.) Oh, and Telegraph putting an unreleased film on their list, not to mention Fahrenheit 9/11 at the very top, is pretty LOL.

This has really nothing to do with this past decade, but Zizek’s got a new essay on Lacan.com called “Denial: The Liberal Utopia” that’s worth reading; at least the first section is, I zoned out a bit on the Confucius stuff. His discussion of 1988’s They Live and “critico-ideological glasses” is really top-notch, imo.

Lastly, I have to at least mention this Afghanistan travesty, which I’m hoping will somehow pull the public away from the Tiger Woods drama. I liked Bob Herbert’s NYT essay on this, mostly because he quoted Eisenhower:

“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower,  “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

I suspect the impotent Left will wave & holler for a while before giving up and not even protesting when their congressmen quietly vote to fund this escalation. I was hoping the Right would oppose this out of knee-jerk hatred of everything Obama does/says/thinks/is, but it looks like their love affair with cluster-bombs and nifty predator drones will win out; militarism ekes out racism FTW. Well, FTL for Afghans, who will see their “Decade From Hell” stretched a little further.

You, the Living

One of my favorite films is a little-known Swedish tragicomedy called Songs From the Second Floor, made by first-time director Roy Andersson in 2000. His ostensible sequel (there’s supposed to be a trilogy) was released in 2007 but still not widely available. This second outing is entitled You, the Living (Swe: “Du Levande”), named after the Goethe quote that opens the film: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

An equally appropriate (albeit less high-brow) quote could’ve come from Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy Singer says life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Suffice to say, Andersson’s outlook is bleak and misanthropic to the core. Which makes me think of Michael Haneke, since I also just watched The White Ribbon, the punishingly dark winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But if I’m going to sit through such misery, at least Andersson delivers with a mordant wit and deadpan humor that keeps You, the Living afloat.

And unlike Haneke’s, in Andersson’s films if there’s anything unwatchable it is only on-screen for a few minutes. You, the Living is composed of 50 absurdist vignettes, all filmed in one take and almost always using one fixed camera. Like Songs From the Second Floor, the film’s occupants are primarily ashen, lethargic, and mostly anhedonic. Some characters pop up in multiple segments, but often the individual stories have next to no connection to one another. Most of the pieces deal with life’s humiliations in one form or another, although You, the Living is still lighter and more accessible than Songs From the Second Floor. In my favorite storyline, a girl named Anna is approaching despair over her unrequited love affair with a band’s singer. Even her dreams mock her, in what has to be one of the most beautiful film sequences I’ve ever seen:

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Lessons in Sensationalism (Palin Edition)

Reddit was all hot-n-bothered yesterday because a Daily Kos blogger (citing another blogger, citing an anonymous blog commenter) says Sarah Palin’s bus tour is a sham & a fraud. More specifically, that Palin has been jetting around to book signings via private plane and only pretending she’s touring the country by bus. Furthermore, there’s the explosive revelation that Palin’s plane is actually owned by Samaritan’s Purse, a shadowy cabal that uses charity work as a front for Franklin Graham’s own nefarious plots. To add insult-to-injury, she’s using this charity plane to fly to forts (Bragg & Hood) and defame our Commander-in-Chief (heil!) in front of our own troops!

Let’s be frank up front: the people peddling this non-sense are pulling the Left-wing equivalent of a Glenn Beck move and that these folks cast their ballot for the same man I did makes no difference whatsoever.
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Maguindanao Massacre

If you look at a map just right — try squinting or unfocusing — the islands of the Philippines together look like the profile of the head of a donkey. I assure you this is no commentary on the character of the Filipino people. In fact, I was born in a small town in the eye of that ass. Alas, I am not actually a Pinoy, but I still can’t help but share in the highs and lows of that country. Some 10 days ago I rejoiced with them when homeboy Manny Pacquiao once again triumphed; from that high, we now get tragic news of a mass slaying in the South. Monday, right in the mouth of the donkey, 100 armed men slaughtered 52 unarmed civilians, many of them women, in order to prevent their participation in elections.

The political extremes in the Philippines are astounding. On the one hand, it is a nation that endured decades under an oppressive (CIA-backed) dictatorship, then promptly embraced democracy by electing a woman, a womanizer, and a born-again believer. This is the nation which has had two non-violent coup d’tats, both successful, and one of which I personally participated in. Their peaceful revolutions, and the attendant concept of alay dangal, have motivated pacifists worldwide. On the other hand, it’s a country still rife with political corruption from top to bottom, usually of a form more overt than what we know in the US. The beauty of People Power is unfortunately starkly contrasted with the deep ugliness that can also characterize Filipino politics, an ugliness made violently manifest on Monday in Maguindanao. GMA, a major media outlet, echoed my thoughts:

The crime that occurred in Ampatuan was uniquely savage, but it was also an extreme example of the violent tendency in our politics. At the other extreme are the many citizens who are bravely committed to the difficult and complex process of peacefully deciding who our leaders should be, such as those souls who perished on Monday. It is this tension between savagery and peaceful process that has marked our electoral history.

I wish I felt much hope for the capture and prosecution of those responsible, but I don’t really, especially since the alleged perpetrators appear to have tentacles reaching across vast swaths of power. Tomorrow, Thursday, is a National Day of Mourning.