Rabbits vs. Tigers

January 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a new piece on the London Review of Books Blog about a vicious South Park-style cartoon that has been banned in China. WARNING: some animated rabbits get hurt.

Their sullen adoration

January 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Right wing of the diptych Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet, c.1450. Wood, 93 x 85 cm Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.

Yukio Mishima once wrote about a picture of St. Sebastian whose ‘only purpose had been to lie in wait for him’. Whilst I disagree with Mr Mishima about many things- for example, the irrelevance of women, the need for emperor worship, the advisability of staging a coup -I did feel ambushed when I saw this on the cover of a book about 15th Century European painting. The angels’ faces are sullen, threatening. I don’t know if the angels are red and blue because they represent different types, or if this is just for visual impact. As for the enthroned Virgin, she is said to be modelled on Agnès Sorel, mistress of Charles VII, who died of mercury poisoning aged 28, and whose cousin took her place after her death.

As for Mr Fouquet (1420–1481), he is thought to have been the inventor of the portrait miniature.

How to play a tiger

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

‘Tippoo’s Tiger’ is a life-size tiger of carved and painted wood, seen in the act of devouring a prostrate man in the costume of the 1790s. Concealed in the bodywork is a mechanical pipe-organ with several parts, all operated simultaneously by a crank-handle emerging from the tiger’s shoulder. Inside the tiger and the man are weighted bellows with pipes attached. Turning the handle pumps the bellows and controls the air-flow to simulate the growls of the tiger and cries of the victim.

Tipu (Tippoo Sahib to his European contemporaries) was Sultan of Mysore in South India from 1782-99. He was the implacable enemy of the East India Company, a commercial enterprise with its own armies and civil administration, which during the late 18th century was engaged in extending British dominion in India. Tigers and tiger symbols adorned most of his possessions, from his magnificent throne to the uniforms of his guards.His armoury included mortars shaped like sitting tigers, cannon with tiger muzzles, and hand weapons decorated with gold tiger heads, or inlaid in gold with tiger masks formed by an arrangement of Arabic letters meaning The Lion of God is the Conqueror.

The tiger is currently in the V & A in London, and if you don’t think it’s scary enough, listen to them play the organ inside it.

A heart-shaped face

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the end of the first chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas looks at a painting and cries. The painting is by the exiled Spanish artist Remedios Varo and depicts

a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void. (CL 13).

What upsets Oedipa is that she identifies with these girls, not only their sense of captivity, but also their impotence. It is with terror she thinks that

what really keeps her where she is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all… if the tower is everywhere and the proof of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (CL 13)

But when I look the painting above, I don’t see anything to justify this kind of fear or paranoia. It’s something Oedipa brings to the painting. The rest of Varo’s work doesn’t have this tone either. It’s more playful, more interested in the surreal than in being allegorical.

Please note the cat in the floor.

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was born in Spain and educated in Spanish convent schools. Her father was a hydraulic engineer, which had a recurring influence in her work. Her artistic training was strict and academic, from which she fled into Barcelona’s bohemian artistic circle. She was married to the poet Benjamin Peret, and her widower, publisher Walter Gruen. She moved to Paris where she became involved within the Surrealist movement. Forced into exile by the Nazis, she settled in Mexico City where she died of a heart attack at 55. There only seems to be one biography of her in English, Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varo (1988) by Janet Kaplan, and I have a feeling she isn’t that well critically thought of (there’s a lot of snobbishness about ‘fantasy’ art, sometimes with good reason). But to me there’s something distinctive about these pictures that elevates them from a lot of stuff that’s come since. The trouble is that the waters have been muddied so much.

‘Not enough smoke, and the snow is too loud.’

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

A few obscure Wes Anderson clips, the first from the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, where the Max Fischer players from Rushmore stage some popular films.

This second is a 2004 American Express commercial that’s a homage to Truffaut’s Day for Night. My advice: click on the YouTube bit on the right hand corner of the screen, and it will get bigger.

In Defense of Lost Causes

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative.  As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.

The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).

In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)

He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:

“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)

Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:

True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)

At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):

The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)

Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.

Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)

Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)

On the anti-globalisation movement:

This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)

On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:

The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)

With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.

For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.

The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)

One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:

The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not…  merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)

Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:

They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)

Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)

Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:

When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)

Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.

Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)

The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)

One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)

Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).

Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)

It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for

a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)

However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.

What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)

As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be

located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)

This is about as unambiguous as it gets:

Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)

However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.

There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)

The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.

An unremembered dream

January 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

I rarely remember my dreams. But I am assured that they still happen. Or at least the same patterns of electrical activity that correlate with waking reports of a dream. Though this is fine for my brain, it leaves me feeling a bit cheated. Thankfully I own a copy of The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, which has many fine short pieces I can recite and pass off as my own whenever the conversation during the party/train ride/hostage situation turns the sad corner to ‘Dreams’. This is one of my current mainstays, which you may of course feel free to appropriate, should you also suffer from the same deficit, and are at a different party or bank to myself.

My thumb is embarking on a great adventure.

“Don’t go, please,” say the fingers. They try to hold

him down. Here comes a black limousine with a

veiled woman in the back seat, but no one at the

wheel. When it stops, she takes a pair of gold

scissors out of her purse and snips the thumb off.

We are off to Chicago with her using the bloody

stump of my thumb to paint her lips.

Where Am I?

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