Monday, April 14, 2008

The Relations of Film/Cultural/Critical Affect

There's been sort of a critical scuffle over at Jason Sperb's blog in the past few days about certain opinions of There Will Be Blood. It started with Cynthia Rockwell writing over at Wild Sound that

After seeing There Will Be Blood, and thinking about it a bit, I said that Paul Thomas Anderson was the false prophet Eli Sunday and those raving about his film are Eli’s sheep. It’s certainly a gorgeous film, an epic one, a mammothly forceful and visceral one, I’ll give him that. But ultimately is anything being said? I see nothing more than was said in Citizen Kane ages ago, or Chinatown, or 2001, all of which the film heavily borrows from visually. I’ve seen it said many times that this film is doing something new, but can anyone explain to me what exactly that is? I see a film student’s orgasm of references and allusion, but little else, and ultimately an empty core.
It's not exactly a new opinion about the film. Virtually every negative review of the film I've seen has lodged the same complaints: gorgeous and visceral, but hollow and stagey. What struck Jason most about the post was the amount of vitriol sent out to fans of the film:

What frustrates me about the post in question is the utter condescension displayed towards people like me who actually think There Will Be Blood is a twisted masterpiece, and that PT is a legitimate, even thought-provoking, auteur (and I say that as someone who sees Magnolia and, to lesser extent, Boogie Nights, as at times excessive and over-the-top).
He offers up as a rebuttal a similarly familiar argument that the film's entire point is its theatrical staging of emptiness.

What I find interesting about these posts (and the many comments on them) is that it replicates something that seems to happen again and again in critical discussions of this film. Both writers seem to agree on the interpretation of the film (that the film is to some extent about how people "go on with their orgy of trying to pry some meaning out of his films," as Rockwell writes, when emptiness seems to reside at the heart of them), and yet they differ radically in terms of how they actually relate to it. My favorite example of how this dynamic works is the pair of dueling reviews of There Will Be Blood over at Slant Magazine: Ed Gonzalez calls it "another film-school-in-a-box by Paul Thomas Anderson" and Nick Schager praises how the film "immediately establish[es] a mood of dread pitched somewhere between the frightening awe felt by the apes upon discovering the monolith in 2001 and the empty malevolence of the Overlook Hotel's hallways in The Shining." Am I the only one who sees these as essentially the same comments (both about the allusive structure that defines Anderson's work), differing only in the author's tone toward the object? In fact, such a parallel persists throughout both of the reviews: every performance, every shot, every scene, every sound cue is read in exactly the same way, and yet both come away with very different feelings toward the film.

This particular blog discussion, however, is fascinating to me because it not only lays bare this constant doubling in critical opinion about the film for all to see, but because both writers seem to be aware that this is precisely what the film hinges on. In her original post, Rockwell writes,

[M]any critics who say they love this film say they are speechless, dumbfounded, don’t know what to say…implying that it’s because the film’s so powerful, but in my opinion, it’s because there’s just nothing to say. There’s nothing to be wrung from the film.

I think she may have unintentionally hit upon something crucial here, even if it is precisely what she is reacting against. This film has (as Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love seem to have done before this one) somehow managed to hit upon a curious kind of affective chord in which no justification is going to be powerful enough, ever, to convince someone who feels differently about the film. After all, many critics have offered plenty of evidence to support their claims about why the film is either wonderful or terrible, but in the end, because this evidence is always drawn from the very same pool, this is always reduced to a completely unjustified opinion supported only by the "speechless" feeling that one either loves it or hates it.

But this is about more than a single film which breaks down all of our best critical faculties. An instructive comparison would be the other critical darling of last year, No Country for Old Men, a film that shares with Anderson's the themes of emptiness and greed, gorgeous shots of wide desert vistas, and an interrogating camera that peers at its characters as if they were subjects of a nature documentary on the Discovery Channel. The Coen brothers crafted a film which inspired probably the most critical debate in years (I've linked to some of that discussion in the past), but no one seems to really write about the film with any real passion in either direction. It has its fans and its detractors, but something about the film (I would argue, irreducible to its text) seems to inspire measured, classical criticism from a variety of different vantage points (strictly formalist seem the most common, but I've read metaphysical, marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic critiques, etc.). On the contrary, something about There Will Be Blood (also irreducible to the text itself) inspires the kind of "speechless" review in which evidence to support claims (the classical mode of textual analysis) becomes superfluous, in which any critic is reduced to a singular affective response.

In this sense, while the Coens have given us an important film culturally because of the kinds of critical discourse it inspired, I think that Anderson's is an equally important film because it reminds us that such initial affective engagements in many ways form the very basis of all of our social engagements. At its very base, when an individual confronts an object or a person for the first time, the reaction that emerges from that relation is something beyond discourse, and while many scholars have attempted to examine this kind of response, such affect breaks down rational critique and obfuscates exactly the kinds of evidence that could be used to describe it. Cultural theorists such as Lawrence Grossberg, Stuart Hall, Brian Massumi, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have attempted for decades to come to grips with this affective basis which serves as the foundation for all social interaction, and therefore for all politics. These are, of course, precisely those critics who have acted as a kind of counter-tradition to that legacy of the Enlightenment that privileges rational argumentation over an initial anti-rational response.

I think the coin toss metaphor posed by No Country offers us a way of reading these two dueling critical strands (the rational discourse offered in support of the Coens, the affective love-it/hate-it intuition offered in relation to Anderson) against one another as something of a parable for how we are supposed to think and feel as critics. The coin toss represents that contingency and probability of meaninglessness that pervades the cultural objects we encounter in daily life, and yet our responses to those objects are really two sides of the same coin. Without rationalist (one could even say liberal humanist) discourses available, critics will have no vocabulary through which to speak about the encounters of the everyday, no method through which to investigate the political consequences of those interactions, and no avenues through which to stage necessary interventions into current affairs. But without that other side of the coin, that affective, anti-rationalist side (that side so often forgotten by some writers), we would have no sensibility, no empathy or sympathy through which to understand why it is we would even want to engage in such critical, rational discourses in the first place. This affect reminds us of the "human" in such liberal humanist discourses, and it lays the groundwork for the ethics of all of our human relations. In other words, critics need to have a good heaping portion of both in order to remain effective, responsible, and ethical in their work. If only we had more films like these, we wouldn't need the reminder....

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Uwe Boll, Anti-Fan Activism, and the Tensions of Convergence Culture

Uwe Boll has long been something of a joke among the cinema-going and gamer communities, not only because of the generally reviled quality of the films he makes (adaptations of often classic games criticized both by film connoisseurs and by video game afficionados), but also because of the manner in which he has continued to churn out films (see below).

But this joke is now taking an interesting turn. Several months ago, some Boll anti-fans put up a petition asking him to retire from making films. And now, in an interview with FEARNet, it seems that if he garners a million signatures, he might actually quit. StuffWeLike reports on this development:

So there you go. A chance to make cinema history. While we wonder if 1 million people have even seen a Uwe Boll movie, we will still hope that the petition (currently at 21,000+) gets a magical boost by the Will of God.

I sort of wonder whether he'll actually do this. He did challenge critics to fight him in the boxing ring, and he put his money where his mouth was in that case. Of course, that was kind of lopsided: he had been an amateur boxer for years, and he fought a bunch of out-of-shape film critics. One wonders whether this kind of pride will extend to his entire career.

Even so, beyond the novelty (absurdity?) of the whole situation, it fascinates me on a number of levels. First, in terms of fan cultures and taste culture in general, this is merely another example of how aggressive our defenses of "good taste" can be. Certainly, this is something resembling fan activism, but it is a curious anti-fan activism in which people are actively calling for the end of what they perceive to violate their sense of good taste. A number of critics have shown over the years how hierarchies of taste are necessary among taste cultures (and fan cultures) in order to legitimize the authority of those who judge, to legitimize the very subjectivity of those within the culture against those who are outside of it.

But we tend to forget that these hierarchies are also something of a zero-sum game. While those tastes that exist outside the norm set by the taste culture are necessary to some extent in terms of the power dynamics involved, it doesn't mean that the taste culture doesn't still want to eliminate other tastes altogether. Barbara Herrnstein Smith comments in her fabulous book Contingencies of Value that the effort to evaluate requires both the assumption of a natural, objective understanding of what is "good" and an attendant assumption that those who cannot recognize such "quality" are necessarily pathological in some way. There's the assumption in some older criticism (think of the New Critics, but this goes back, according to Smith, to Hume and Kant as well), for instance, that people unable to appreciate great works of art were not only "deviant" but also somehow socially unfit: in other words, there's a kind of natural selection that weeds out those less sensitive to aesthetics. This doesn't merely apply to cultural elites, though:

The first [point] is that communities ... come in all sizes and that, insofar as the provincials, colonials, and other marginalized groups mentioned above--including the young--constitute social communities in themselves, they also tend to have prevailing structures of tastes and may be expected to control them in much the same ways as do more obviously "establishment" groups. (41)

In this context, (mostly) gamers are performing the same kind of pathologizing of bad taste as Hume and Kant. They are simply doing it on a larger scale and with more consequences: rather than waiting for Boll to be weeded out by a process of natural selection within the taste community, they are actively requesting that he remove himself from the kinds of social circles that would even possibly interact with them in the first place. This is activism of a highly reactionary order, one which doesn't only ignore the contingencies which define that value, hoping to naturalize and universalize these tastes. After all, this is something like a Final Solution for a particular taste culture, actively attempting to eliminate the Other that authorizes and threatens the authority of the taste culture as a whole.

The second point of interest for me is what this means in terms of how consumers are engaging with new forms of production and distribution. Boll's films are not only critiqued for their quality, but for their mode of production. After all (the argument seems to go), it's as though the guy has seen The Producers too many times: Boll uses a particular loophole in German tax law that is intended to stimulate investments in German-made films and thus boost the national film industry. Oddly enough, though, the tax law stipulates that films that make no profit become completely tax deductible. In other words, Boll corners the market on movies that he knows will tank in order to reap the benefits. He and his investors win. According to his many detractors, the German government and the movie-going public loses.

Boll in some ways serves as a manifestation of the weird ways in which capital circulates to produce things that nobody really wants in order to continue its own perpetuation. He is in this way not postmodern in the way that Jameson and others characterize "late capitalism" (seriously, does this mean that capitalism will be "ending" soon?!), but rather in a more Deleuzian sense of how capital operates as a purely productive force: productive of commodities, certainly, but more importantly productive of pure capital (out of nothing, seemingly) and of desire as a byproduct. This process is very rarely so nakedly displayed for consumers, and Boll's spectacular display of his own production/distribution methods has drawn sharp criticism. In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins describes the ways in which this new transition in media culture is above all a convergence between producers who are producing capital and desire in new ways and consumers who now have more power and potential avenues through which to understand and engage with that capital and desire. Jenkins proposes a new political activism to be one possible consequence of this convergence, a possible avenue toward an "achievable utopia." I sort of wonder whether this is what he had in mind.

In case you're wondering: yes, I signed, not to assert anti-fan allegiance but rather as some feeble mark that I can make regarding the weird ways in which these new practices of capitalism in global convergence culture can be exploitative of the average consumer. For the record, there were 18,000 signatures when the interview was publicized, and, two days later, I became signature #100,505. So the numbers are skyrocketing. If you would like to jump on the bandwagon for whatever reason, you can sign the petition here.

As the number of signatures on the anti-Boll petition approaches 165,000, Boll has responded by claiming that he's "the only fucking genius in the business."  See his video response here.  Or, if you feel kinda bad for the guy and want to show "support," sign the pro-Boll petition here.  I say "support" because the justification for saying that Boll should not be forced to quit in this petition is basically that his films are so detestably bad that they're worth a good laugh....

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Nostalgia and the Task of the Critic

I attended a colloquium given by my colleague Jason Sperb yesterday on images of Detroit and the kinds of nostalgia that articulate a really complicated racial politics (as a point of reference, he posted the first few pages of the argument here a few days earlier). It was an incredibly smart paper, well deserving of the awards it has received, and it left me with a few scattered thoughts about nostalgia and critical methodology.

The first thing that came to mind as he concluded the paper is the manner in which his view of nostalgia is radically different than that of many people who study it. He embedded those critical views of nostalgia and its discontents that circulate in the academy into his argument, but his tone was much more personal, and, as a result, he was more willing to concede the point (so often ignored by other scholars) that, much as we want to critique the implications of nostalgia, it isn't going to go away simply because we're critiquing it. Such an argument would be the equivalent of Laura Mulvey's notorious claims from the 1970s that we as critics should actively work toward the destruction of cinematic pleasure. Not gonna happen. And, even if it could, that wouldn't be productive of any alternative affect that could take its place.

No, Jason highlighted for me (and, in the Q&A it became clear that I may be the only person to come away with this message, so he'll have to correct me if I've just radically misinterpreted his work) the ways in which nostalgia is an affect that actively produces things. It produces a complicated and potentially harmful racial politics, to be sure. But it also can be productive of a certain "humility," as he describes it, a humility to the power of the affect itself and to all that it represents on a purely non-linguistic level. Most importantly, he suggests (by his own example in this paper) that nostalgia can ideally be productive of its own critique. There is thus a productive capacity here (not in the standard marxist sense; I mean the term in the more Deleuzian sense of a kind of imaginative creation that is not really produced by anything other than pure affect itself) that often goes ignored in the academy.

This is especially important to realize since nostalgia (almost by definition) implies the fond remembrance of something that never actually existed. Nostalgia only ever refers to an idealized past, one that intrudes affectively into the present and thus determines present and future politics from a non-existent ground. (Brief aside: For an example of how this is even working in the election right now, compare Clinton to Obama in their appeals to the history of American politics. Clinton seems to promise a return to form before Bush, in other words a return to the Clinton years: Clinton, Part Deux, if you will. Obama uses the complicated networks of history to promote a change into the future. The politics of a productive nostalgia versus that of a presentist historian. What I find so interesting is that so few people have stopped to ask themselves, "What was so great about the 90s? Was that our Golden Age?!" This is nostalgia actively producing a movement into the future that is also a movement into a non-existent past. What we need to do is to allow nostalgia to produce its own critique, in the manner that Obama uses it fairly frequently.) But if we allow nostalgia to produce its own critique even as we are affected by it, we can use this nostalgia in an oppositional manner to produce a new ideal in the future. In some ways, this coalesces with how I discussed the Hitchcock images that only exist for the sake of nostalgia for a past that literally never existed (it is a past of Hollywood fictions): not a desire to produce something that moves forward, but to produce a fake past within the present. And this again provides another contrast with the Lohan/Monroe images: these are a brand of nostalgia that produces a criticism of its own nostalgic affect. It's something that requires more investigation in all kinds of facets of our collective nostalgic experiences, in any case.

The second thing that struck me was the personal tone of his paper. Not a minute passed in which he didn't use the personal pronoun "I" in order to define his own position in relation to the material. As a result, not only the tone but also the structure of the argument shifted: it was occasionally meandering into personal asides that became crucial to the overall argument a few moments later, an recursively worked backward at times to mimic the kinds of nostalgia he discussed. It resembled nothing so much as a blog (I mean this in the most affectionate way possible--I find I read much less "real" criticism ever since I set up my RSS feeds). What was so great about this is that it tended to foreground not only the mediating role of the critic in relaying this argument to an audience: it also foregrounded the contingency of that mediation. This argument could not have been delivered in the same way had Jason not given it; had he not lived in Detroit to get his MA; had he not randomly decided to indulge his nostalgia one day to watch a 46-second clip on YouTube. The same could certainly be said about all of us and what we do as critics, but we so rarely acknowledge that our understanding of culture and the politically-inflected arguments we construct around it are defined entirely by how we are affected by pure contingency. It's a lesson that should provide the scholar with some humility...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Conferences and Professionalization

It seems that everyone is writing about conference experiences recently (see here, here, and here, for just a few examples). I missed the SCMS bandwagon, but I did help to organize a grad conference here at IU a couple of weekends ago... It's sort of a rest-stop in the road to professionalization: while it's not a "real" conference, it still performed many of the same functions as one, and then some. After all, this conference kept in mind its demographic at all times, and, as a result, it was something of an ideological apparatus which consciously attempted to interpellate us and legitimate our academic careers (sorry for the jargon--but it seemed especially appropriate for a conference about the political uses of knowledge). In other words,it offered me an interesting insider's perspective on what works/doesn't work in this process. From this perspective, I just want to offer a few (very scattered) notes about the kinds of work that conferences do to young scholars and some of the valuable advice I picked up:
  • Especially from the perspective of someone on the committee, co-organizing it from a logistical standpoint, it really introduced me to the kinds of economies in which academics participate on a regular basis. This was an incredibly small conference (13 panels of 3 or 4 speakers each, with a keynote and a closing speaker, a closing creative reading, and a performance by a departmental improv comedy troupe), and yet the actual financial considerations to take into account were still considerable. There are many strange alleys through which we must travel in order to find these funds, departmental and other university channels. Another major conference was held exactly one week later than ours and it charged a considerable fee for admission to the conference as well. And I haven't even been incorporated into the system of outside grants and funds that could be used for these kinds of events. What is especially strange about the entire process was how self-cannabalizing these financial matters actually were: we ended up requesting a sizable amount of money from a student union board, only to repay it to the Indiana Memorial Union (which had originally given the board its funds in the first place) in order to pay massive fees for A/V equipment. It's an economy all its own, and it's small enough that it becomes increasingly clear how absurd this circulation of funds actually is.... It's 100% a capitalist microcosm, and any elder scholars who maintain the illusion that the work they do promotes a different kind of political-economy have clearly disavowed a great deal of what defines the profession as a whole (think of this as a kind of academic plausible deniability).
  • While the committee argues every year about exactly how inter-disciplinary we want to make the conference become, I still maintain that it's a good thing. This year, more than any other, I saw panels with three different people from three different disciplines working on similar ideas through completely different frameworks. This gave a really exciting feeling to some panels that might have been dull in terms of content otherwise. The real contingency of inter-disciplinarity characterized the best panels that I saw, while others that were more traditional or "safe" were, well, traditional and safe. I know that my own paper (an elaboration of this post on guilty pleasures, although from the perspective that "guilty pleasures" are an experience that can only be characteristic of the kind of transitional consumer culture we exist in at the moment) didn't seem like something that controversial when I wrote it (from very much a cultural studies perspective): it took Victorianists in the English Department and a folklorist from another university to add more depth to my claims about different kinds of experiences of consumerism.
  • Narrowing the scope to papers themselves, I can now definitively say that I don't mind hearing close readings during conferences. This used to drive me crazy, especially since it's pretty much the opposite of my own preferred methodology, which values context and broad strokes. The key is that the close reading has to be very smart and stay on point. There is nothing more boring than someone who does a close reading that relies entirely on clever puns about theoretical abstractions. It's a masturbatory pursuit second only to those scholars who rely on a single lens through which to analyze a single object: if I want a summary of an important book, I can look elsewhere, or, even better, read the original text itself. Close readings can be smart and relevant, especially when positioned next to other papers that offer interestingly different perspectives on the same issues.
  • The most memorable papers (to me at least) are those that don't ignore that the primary purpose of our academic pursuits is to replicate an art of the provocateur. The papers I remember most, that have most inspired me in the past few weeks to investigate my own perspectives, were often those papers which at the time I found to be completely misguided. They were entertaining, but more importantly, while I found the arguments to be off track, they were still conceptually dense enough to evoke a disagreement that provoked more potential viewpoints. (By contrast, a boring lens reading of a single source inspired me to say to myself, "No, s/he's just wrong in that interpretation of the work" or "That reading doesn't really add anything to that object for me"...) The buzzword is that academic conferences are about networking with other scholars, but this simply isn't possible without a little showmanship: no one wants to talk to someone who delivered a boring/pretentious paper. Even someone who delivers a bad argument (but one that can be built upon) can be the life of the academic party.
This last bit is especially important to me. The goal of being provocative speaks in many ways to how I understand the purpose of our profession as cultural critics. Obviously, writing about Shakespeare and youth culture won't change the world in any real way (yes, the delusion that such academic pursuits are that valuable is still shared among a surprising number of my young colleagues), but it can hopefully generate a certain amount of discussion and critical reflection about the culture in which we live. At its best, this "whimsical f-bomb" brand of criticism can even hope to reach beyond the sanctioned academic borders of our professional conferences and journals. It's a goal I'd like to achieve on some level in my own writing at some point (hence the title and purpose of this blog--unsuccessful so far, obviously). But I can--and I think I succeed in this to some degree--encourage this kind of attitude in the venue of the classroom. The point is not to indoctrinate students toward the left (it should be clear from this post that I'm not the most liberal of academics ever, even if I'm really liberal by "normal people" standards). The point is to generate a real discussion, to get people to make real arguments, even those that I find misguided. It's a spirit I find in a lot of my colleagues as we discuss pedagogy, and it gives me hope that we're not totally useless in these changing times.