Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: film

All cats are girls and all dogs are boys: further notes on Slavoj Žižek

Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

OXZ8B

It was gratifying to see, in his latest response to me, that Slavoj Žižek is finally engaging with the psychoanalytic concepts that are (after all) his intellectual speciality. I happen to have some disagreements with the way in which he uses them, but I’ll come to that later. The dispute over certain terms – desire, fantasy, culture, and so on – spirals out from a parenthetical observation I made in my initial critique of Žižek. He writes that migrants should abandon the unrealistic demand for a better life in a ‘Norway’ that does not exist, and should agree to be settled wherever a coercive European state apparatus decides to send them. I respond: ‘Isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?’ In our subsequent exchanges Žižek argues that my invocation of objet petit a is not legitimate, and that the desire in question has instead the structure of a fantasy. These are not, in the Lacanian cosmology, opposing terms; if what we’re dealing with here is indeed a fantasy, it needs to be taken seriously as such. Žižek disagrees; the fantasy must be ‘traversed.’ In this contest – who’s using the terms correctly, who’s abusing them, the gotcha game of faultlines and connections, the gasping slapfight for legitimacy, all of it largely irrelevant to the issue at hand – something was passed over: the question of whether migrants do, in fact, have an unconscious mind. The question was supposed to be absurd, but apparently I should have insisted on it with more force. Because the answer, according to Žižek’s recent essay in the New Statesman, is actually no, they don’t.

Here, Žižek builds on a structure proposed by Alain Badiou in the wake of the massacre in Paris, a division of the world into three forms of subjectivity: that of the liberal-democratic West (this is a neutral quantity, and demands no further investigation), and two modes of response to its global dominance. First, the ‘desire for the West,’ which manifests itself in migration and in what Žižek scorns as the ‘miserable copies of western prosperity’ – coffee shops in Lagos, shopping malls in Luanda. How dare they! (It’s not clear why Žižek invests these places with the horror of the unreal; you don’t have to be a Baudrillardian to recognise that the coffee shop in London or Lisbon is fundamentally also a miserable copy.) Secondly, the ‘nihilist reversal’: a zombie plague. The envy of the non-Western subject is inflamed into a fascistic, insensate rage, something that collapses into ‘hatred pure and simple.’ It’s here that Žižek diverges from Badiou. For the latter, our task is to ‘go and see who is this other about whom one talks, who are they really. We have to gather their thoughts, their ideas, their vision of things.’ For Žižek, this is impossible. This other is ‘utterly disoriented;’ behind their frantic psychodynamic torque there is no ‘”deeper” human core of global solidarity.’ So much for the depth metaphors of Freudianism; we cannot talk with these people because they are incapable of speech. It’s not just that we don’t share the same symbolic terrain; it’s a landscape on which they simply have no presence. They are incoherent Orientals, speechless and psychotic, objectively robbed of everything by the disposessive whirlwind of global capitalism, but on the subjective level terrifyingly uncastrated. This is the framework that Žižek uses to talk about the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne.

His primary theoretical referent here is not Lacan or even Badiou, but the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight. Who, he asks, is the hateful figure in this film? It’s the entire cast: the black man fighting off armed racists is every bit as ‘mean, brutal, and revengeful’ as his enemies; the forces of law and order are as venal and sadistic as the gang of criminals. (He doesn’t mention it, but the friendly black inkeepers are also virulent anti-Mexican racists.) The lesson Žižek draws is that everyone is bad: refugees might be fleeing from terrible horrors, but that doesn’t give them any great moral virtue; they’re still capable of carrying out violent and inexcusable crimes. The idea that everything is bad should be pretty much axiomatic; I’m certainly not interested in contesting it. But I think Žižek has engaged in a significant misreading of the film. The Hateful Eight is not a film about good or bad people; it’s a film about the State. Everything in it centres around paperwork; when they’re not killing each other, the characters spend most of the running time scrutinising each other’s documents. Samuel L Jackson’s character has a letter from President Lincoln which is occasionally demanded of him; he also has warrants for the deaths of the three bodies he carries around with him. With these pieces of paper he is a lawful bounty hunter; without them he is a criminal. Tim Roth’s character is a travelling executioner; his paperwork entitles him to hang the guilty for a living, and if the message weren’t already clear he gives us a long monologue on the difference between State force and personal violence. The real lesson is that neither can be considered independently: each produces, structures, and limits the other. I didn’t particularly like The Hateful Eight, but it does demonstrate a fairly obvious Marxist dictum: it’s pointless to consider any instance of violence in its isolated abstraction, you have to position it within the concrete historical totality of human relations. It’s no use talking about good or bad people; any action is necessarily a product of the social field in which it takes place.

To be fair, Žižek makes a feint in this direction, referring (in a rushed, unenthusiastic moment of obeisance to the leftist liturgy) to the ‘systematic violence of capitalism itself, from the catastrophic consequences of global economy to the long story of military interventions.’ But this doesn’t really inform his analysis. Fundamentalist fascism is something other to the civilised West, attached by a gossamer-thin dialectic; women were attacked in Cologne not because migrants don’t understand that Western sexual etiquette is different, but because they understand that perfectly well, and they hate it. Here the societies of the West are figured as free and open and (on the level of gender, at least) egalitarian; those of the Middle East are not, and the events in Cologne mark the point of friction between these two codes. This is patently untrue. Societies in Europe and the Middle East are both of them patriarchal and repressive (it’s not as if sexual assault was unknown in Cologne until the refugees arrived; such atrocities are epidemic throughout the continent), and feminist movements in both regions have to contend with an overwhelming tide of male violence. There is a long and heroic tradition of Arab and Islamic feminism: the question isn’t one of why the West is more permissive but why oppositional movements within the West have had more success in influencing their social fields. It’s impossible to answer this question without looking in detail at the history and politics of the regions concerned. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has experienced a brutal repression of womens’ rights – compare, for instance, photographs of street scenes in Kabul from the era of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with images from today, and compare how the women are dressed. Throughout the twentieth century, peoples across the Islamic world attempted to build secular, socialist, egalitarian states, and time and again they were met by Western imperialism. The West’s geopolitical aims in the Middle East require repressive governments, subdued populations, client states that will obediently facilitate the extraction of value – and social repression in general is inextricable from the oppression of women. Fundamentalist fascism is not the dialectical antithesis of the values of a bourgeois West, but something entirely immanent to it. The cruelty that displayed itself on the streets and squares of Cologne was not the result of a cultural difference, with cultural causes; its causes were political.

It’s this notion of culture that returns us to Žižek’s critique of my critique of his critique of my critique. Beyond some minor terminological wrangling (no, fantasy is not a symptom, and I didn’t intend to suggest that it is; the notion that a fantasy is symptomatic of a ‘deeper’ ill comes straight from Žižek’s own essay), his main objection is this: by using Lacanian concepts to consider the relation to an other that is constructed along racial or cultural rather than sexual-libidinal lines, I am distorting and misusing those concepts. Naturally, I disagree: properly deployed, a concept would not be a border clamping down on its object, but something that allows it to open up, form connections, and reach out to further non-identities. This is why theory is useful: it provides a way to alternately bring things together and spread them apart, to form ways of thinking that cut across phenomena in their isolation and allow us to think things in their bubbling totality. Here I think the Master might be on my side – after all, Lacan famously declared that ‘Marx invented the symptom’; he’s generally open to the ability of a signifier to drift through various regimes.

Žižek’s objections, when taken seriously, indicate a strangely non-Lacanian approach. He writes that the lack of an appropriate signifier for the other is something that ‘does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture’ (ie, between a subject and its libidinal object) and that my position implies that ‘each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures.’ It does not; I’m talking about relations between subjects: as I’ve written before, I find the abstract notion of a distinct and cohesive culture to be fairly useless. Žižek’s insistence on upholding this idea in these circumstances is revealing: to do so, he ends up having to assert that the division of people into cultures is primary, primary even to the division in gender that Lacan is talking about. First people are arranged into different ‘ways of life,’ then we get Oedipus. This isn’t Lacan, it’s Samuel Huntington. Lacan, as far as I’m aware, does not tend to use the word ‘culture’ very much: what Žižek is talking about are his four discourses, those of the Master, the Hysteric, the University, and the Analyst – and not, I should point out, the European, the Arab, the African, and so on. Discourses are, as the name suggests, discursive; a structure of relations that will operate whenever there is any kind of relation. (As Žižek points out, this being Lacan, discourses are not spaces of mutual comprehensibility but different forms of mutual misunderstanding.) A subject can operate within a discourse, but to formulate an encounter between subjects – one that will necessarily take place under a certain set of conditions – as an encounter between discourses is nonsensical. These arrangements can meet, and have their agonisms – Lacan’s name for this is politics, and keeping in mind his dictum that ‘the unconscious is politics,’ it’s clear that this political clash of discourses should in no way be read as a clash of subjects.

Collapsing the notion of culture into that of discourse is, arguably, a far greater distortion of the terminology than anything I’ve achieved – most of all, because its operation is not expansive, but restrictive. With the discursive character of the discourse passed over, with its collapse into the blankness of culture, Žižek is capable of figuring migrants as a cultural null point, as those who do not and can not speak. What Žižek performs is an ossification of forms into static categories. All cats are girls. And all dogs are boys.

PS: I can’t finish without noting Žižek’s complaint against my ‘intellectual sleight of hand’: where he said ‘fundamentalist Muslims,’ I only quoted the second word. It’s a bit like one of his own parables: the word that’s missing is the one that gives the sentence meaning, etc, etc. I’ll admit to the misquote, but I’m not sure that the appended word alters the meaning in any significant manner; the opposition between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘moderate’ Islam is a fairly insidious nonsense. Cracking kernels and so on.

PPS: In their discussion of the barbarian State, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as a train: the grand paranoiac, followed by his obedient perverts – ‘the conqueror and his elite troops, the despot and his bureaucrats, the anchorite and his monks.’ This came to mind while reading Adam Kotsko’s defence of Žižek. He argues that the best way to understand Žižek’s position is through the lens of his own book. (Well, of course.) Kotsko argues that the worst elements of Žižek’s stance on the migration crisis are in fact a provocative overidentification with the false terms of the debate. This is fine. He also writes that, unlike his critics, Žižek is providing concrete, sensible, workable solutions to the problem. This is also fine. I would suggest, though, that you can’t really have both.

Advertisements

The Englishman and the Octopus

If you’ve seen Spectre, it should already be obvious to you that the James Bond franchise is a spinoff, taking place entirely within HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

Say 007 arrives at Mexico City Airport at four in the afternoon. He goes through customs. He takes a taxi to his blankly intercontinental chain hotel. He makes himself a slapdash vodka martini from the little bottles in the minibar, pouring the entire stub of vodka and a passionless vermouth glug into one of the film-wrapped plastic cups from the bathroom, and drinks it on his balcony. He looks out at Mexico City, and something looks back. The Cthulhu mythos only works if its characters don’t realise that they’re in it. When done right, Cthulhu stories don’t need to actually portray the Great Old Ones; they can lurk in the deconstructive background, appearing as a hollowness in the mise-en-scène, a spacing and a vastness suspended just beyond sight. Another recent film about Anglo imperialists in Latin America, this year’s Sicario, was an example of what could be called ‘landscape horror’, fine-tuned to Yanqui racism: long panning shots of barren or broken landscapes, the blasphemous edge between lawnmower-perfect American suburbia and the desert beyond, or Mexican cities that seem to sprawl without reason over the hills and valleys, protoplasmic shoggoth-blots poised to gobble up the border. This isn’t the ordinary Burkean sublime, but something far stranger. Ciudad Juárez is ‘the Beast’; the scarred and hollowed-out Earth is itself a cosmic evil. Bond on his balcony faces a city that does not end, from horizon to horizon. Where are the goons? Usually this is when some gormless lunks try to jump him, and from there it’s only a short kidnapping to the supervillain’s lair, where someone will tell him everything he needs to know, saving him the trouble of doing any detective work. Instead, there’s CNN, complimentary soap, and blithe miles of homes and highways. It’s hard not to feel lonely. It’s hard not to feel afraid. He’s in Lovecraft territory; those trillion-tentacled monsters from outer space that intrude upon stately New Englanders were always a barely concealed metaphor for one man’s horror of black and brown bodies in their nameless shoals, leaking degradation over a world fissuring from imperial decline. But over and above that, they stand for a universe that is not required to make sense.

James Bond, meanwhile, is a man in search of the transcendental signifier. It’s hard to do a Bond story these days, with the end of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, and an inherent ridiculousness to the form that perfectly crystallises itself in Austin Powers, which managed to carry out a satire of the Bond films simply by replicating them in every detail. But before there could be Austin Powers, there was Thomas Pynchon. His novels (especially V, with its deliberate Bond insert) subject the spy story to the (un)logic of post-structuralism. In spy stories the hero jets off around the world in search of the Thing that allows disparate events to reveal themselves as products of a singular Plan. In Pynchon, this structure is preserved, but knowing as he does that the object petit a does not exist, he simply takes away the MacGuffin. Bond’s shark-sprint for the truth falls apart into a messy and ever-widening entropic spiral. Postmodernism posed a far more serious threat to MI6 than Soviet spies ever could. Bond’s response was sloppy. At the start of the Daniel Craig era, the franchise put away most of Pierce Brosnan’s silliness for a lot of dark and gritty po-faced nonsense; the resulting films were basically terrible. In Skyfall, it reacted with a kind of watered-down postmodernism of its own, a plot barely held together by its spider’s-web network of smug self-references. Spectre – by far the best Bond film in recent decades – was at this point probably inevitable. Orbis non sufficit: the world is not enough. The villain in Casino Royale was only a puppet of the villain in Quantum of Solace, who was only a puppet of the villain in Skyfall, who was only a puppet of the villain in Spectre: you can only take this kind of thing so far before the evil grows beyond one lonely planet’s capacity, and plunges into outer space. With his metanarrative collapsing around him, James Bond escaped into a new one, a lair where Pynchon or Powers couldn’t find him. He escaped into HP Lovecraft.

This film doesn’t exactly hide its place within Lovecraftian mythology. You really think that creature on the ring is just an octopus? Uniquely for a Bond film, it starts with an epigraph of sorts, the words ‘the dead are alive’ printed over a black screen – a not particularly subtle allusion to the famous lines from the Necronomicon: ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die.’ In the credits sequence, vast tentacles coil around him as he murders and fucks his way to an absent truth. In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. The villain’s base is built around an asteroid, glossy and scarred, that fell from the sky millions of years ago. You almost expect alien ooze to start trickling from its cavities. With 1979’s Moonraker, heroes and villains invaded outer space; in Spectre it’s the other way round. And in its Lovecraftian context, everything starts to make a lot more sense. Why do Bond villains always explain their entire plan to 007 before killing him? Real-life conspiracies (like the financial markets, the internet, or history in general) are not so much secret as unspoken; they fold themselves into the basic fabric of social life, so that it’s often impossible for anyone at all to stand outside their situatedness and articulate what’s going on. Lovecraft’s monsters, on the other hand, live in the permanent outside; they don’t need to worry about revealing themselves to you, because they know that as soon as you clap eyes on even the shadow of their true form you’ll go irretrievably mad. For Cthulhu to reveal himself is not weakness but power.

Spectre is a film that deliberately resists any sense for the climactic or any libidinal payoff; all we get is lingering dread. The first post-credits chase scene is downright weird; Bond and his adversary race sports cars through the centre of Rome, but the gap between them never closes, the backwards-firing machine-guns don’t have any ammunition, and the sequence just keeps on going, all thrill long dissipated, until it takes on a kind of shambling undeath. ‘The longer the note, the more dread.’ Brecht calls this Verfremdungseffekt: by refusing to simply give pleasure to an audience, you prevent them from ever being entirely immersed in narrative events; they begin to consciously interrogate the fragility of the social conditions that hold up any action. But overall the Italy sequence is short. Bond’s never really been at home in Catholic Europe; he’s a creature of the Western hemisphere, and in particular the Caribbean. Gorgeous, tiny islands with their histories bayoneted out of existence, places where the hotels are luxurious and the bar staff eager to please. So Spectre gives us Moroccan scrubland instead, flat and impoverished, neither beautiful nor sublime, just two thin tracks plunging through a plane without interest forever. When there is an invocation of orgasm, it directly undercuts any myth of the secret agent’s sexual prowess. In the third act, we get an ironic version of the usual Bond structure: he’s taken to Blofeld’s secret lair (white cat and all), invited for drinks at four, and told the whole plan. So far, so good. Then, after nearly being killed in a pointlessly baroque way, he escapes, fires six shots, and the whole base explodes. Is that it? There was a big bang, sure but it was all over too soon. If you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to have sex with James Bond, Spectre is here to tell you.

But of course that’s not it. After orgasm, nightmares. The traditional ending is followed by a strange and shadowy coda in London: Bond, collapsing into a ruined MI6 building, finds his name and an arrow spraypainted on a memorial to the dead. He follows it. Shades of Lot 49: for the entire film, he’s only acted on the instruction of the omniscient dead. Older Bond outings allowed us to notice the essential powerlessness of the hero in a world always determined by its villainous Big Other, and feel very smart for having picked up on it; here, it’s thrown mercilessly in our faces. A mural at the mountains of madness. Spectre constantly frustrates the pleasure principle; it’s an awed testament to a Todestrieb that, itself unrepresentable, appears only in the spacing and repetition of something else. James Bond is no longer a brutal, neurotic male wish-fulfillment fantasy: he has no will of his own, no love for his own life, and he can’t even fuck. He falls into the grasp of something else, vast and pitiless, the key and the guardian of the gate, that watches the tiny escapades of Her Majesty’s Secret Service from far beyond the stars.

The grey scale

The architectonic structure of the Kantian system, like the gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies and the schematised principles of the early bourgeois freemasonry, reveals an organisation of life as a whole which is deprived of any substantial goal.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

1. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2014 direct-to-DVD dystopian action film directed by Curtis Lumpus with a screenplay by Jott Prittsteck. In this terrifying vision of the year 2146, the United States of America has collapsed, to be replaced by a totalitarian state called Canesco, one ruled over by the secretive tyrant Christian Grey. Canesco enjoys a high standard of living and is entirely free from crime; however, citizens are subjected to constant surveillance, and all colours are banned. Grey’s belief that the unknown Cataclysm that destroyed the old world was caused by the blasphemy of colour has led him to create a barren concrete wasteland, in which chemical defoliants are used to extinguish all chlorophyll-producing life, except the crops grown in vast underground gruel farms. Drones on round-the-clock cloud-seeding flights maintain a dense layer of cloud over the entire North American continent. Only Grey can now remember that the sky was once blue. Female citizens of Canesco are required to sign a personal contract with Grey on reaching puberty in which they promise to keep the existence of the colour red a secret, in a ceremony known as the Initiationing. However, one plucky young girl called Anastasia STE-313, who always felt that she was somehow different from the conformist society that surrounds her, refuses to sign. Soon she finds herself on the run from the brutal government agents in an epic flight across three identical warehouses and one nondescript desert. Her desperate fight to survive against all odds pits her against the powers of the Grey Castle, but, as a hunky resistance fighter in head-to-toe tie-dye teaches her, it’s also a fight for the future of humanity. In the dramatic final scene, Anastasia hijacks Christian Grey’s personal helicopter, binds and gags him, and blows it up in midair. The explosion opens up a rift in the layer of permanent cloud, and as strings swell the people of Canesco see the sky for the first time. The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics, with many criticising its drab visual style, derivative plot, and clunky CGI. The casting of teen icon and YouTube pencil vlogger Jophia Splutt as Anastasia STE-313 was met with mockery from partisans of high culture and officially denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Commentators have also noted that the regulation grey boiler suits worn by all citizens of Canesco are clearly several sizes too large for many of the actors, and that as a result everyone in the film appears to have a tiny head. In a 2015 interview, the director insisted that this was deliberate.

2. Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2012 British romantic comedy film set in a retirement community in the Cotswolds. It was directed by Tom Flan with a screenplay by Polandria and Chimera Hugankiss. Herb is a mild-mannered former accountant whose life has settled into a comforting routine: morning walks, crosswords, cups of tea, and a slow, resigned wait for it all to be finally over. But his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Dorothy, an outgoing and vivacious dame with an idiosyncratic haircut and one very saucy secret. As Dorothy tries to entice Herb out of his own head and into a pair of furry pink handcuffs, their romance grows from the pace of a zimmer-frame stroll into a full-blown bingo-hall Bacchanalia. But when his three large and prudish sons turn up on an unannounced visit to find Herb scrubbing his floor, wearing nothing but a pair of assless chaps, his old and new lives find themselves in a hilarious head-on collision. Can Herb’s weak heart cope with the demands of a late-blooming love? Can arthritic hands train themselves to perform Japanese rope bondage? One thing’s for certain: life at Bumpy Acres will never be the same.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey is an unfinished novel by D H Lawrence, intended as a further sequel to 1915’s The Rainbow. The story follows the lives of the Brangwen sisters after the end of Women in Love. Gudrun leaves Dresden for Paris and, unable to rid herself of the coldness that had come over her ever since being strangled half to death by Gerald, finds herself falling into an algedonic underworld of sadistic sexual violence. Her sister visits from England, husband in tow, but Ursula is appalled to discover that Birkin sees an aesthetic authenticity in Gudrun’s new lifestyle. After watching a performance in a secret theatre in which Gudrun, dressed as a voodoo witch, simultaneously anally penetrates three nervous, hogtied young poets with a trident-shaped strap-on, Birkin declares his passion for her. As they make love he tightens a collar firm around her neck, and she feels the kindling of a fire in her breast long thought extinguished. The two declare themselves to be the Dictator and Dictatrix of Earth, and lead a violent mob to the Palais de l’Élysée, promising them the domination and servitude that the lower orders secretly crave.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey is a patented proprietary colour matching system devised by Pantone. Launched in 2004, it has been one of the company’s most successful products, used to design magazines and decorate apartments for boring people the world over.

5. Fifty Shades of Grey is a handbook distributed to medical workers from 1978 to be used in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It identifies the causes, symptoms, and treatments for radiation poisoning, and included the notorious ‘grey-scale test’, in which it was asserted that patients whose skin had become discoloured beyond a certain shade of grey were beyond saving and should be left to die.

6. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day in rural Somerset. It was disappointing. The cinema – if it could be called a cinema – was a rickety lean-to crumbling against the side of an ancient and pungent ciderworks. In this dense, hot room, sharp with the aphrodisiac tang of rotting apples, surrounded by the cacklings and fumblings of drunken locals, I felt almost immediately disoriented. At first I thought the cidery fog had Vaselined my vision: the screen wasn’t the prim white square I was used to but an indistinct shape, rippling and whorling, almost organic, almost alive. It took a while before I fully realised what I was seeing. Behind me, above the entrance of the shack, the projector was flickering, and the film was being projected onto a cow. Huge, almost entirely white, and clearly in pain. The poor beast had been chained up by its front and hind legs; a leather strap connected its nose-ring to the far wall, and a farmer in a Venetian mask and three-piece suit was flogging the creature with a riding crop whenever its laboured breathing or feeble attempts to escape interfered with the performance. Following the plot was hampered by the cow’s plaintive mooing and shifting, but from what I could make out it was about a woman who I assumed to be the tambourine player in an indie-folk band, who falls in love with an extremely powerful twelve-year-old boy. Sadly I didn’t get much further than that. As the first sex scene began, the imprisoned cow gave an almighty grunt and began to thrash around wildly, kicking up angry sprays of hay and manure. The timber of the shack, already weakened by several centuries of super-strength fumes, gave way. The cow was free. As I watched in mute horror, Christian Grey’s tight-lipped mid-coital face seemed to bulge and stretch, as if he were about to pop; I wondered would kind of fluid would seep out. Just before the beast burst through the image, I was dragged away by my viewing companion. We fled across sodden fields as the local folk took their revenge on the creature, but before we reached the safety of a nearby pub I could hear the cow’s desperate lowing and the sadistic yelps of its torturers turn into something else, a cold, seething reptile hiss that I thought had not been heard on this planet for sixty-five million years.

7. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey as part of a programme organised by the London Institute for Studies in Psychoanalysis, a subversive radical organisation I had been ordered to infiltrate. I didn’t understand much of it – all this stylised, highly sexed foreign cinema is frankly beyond me – but for the sake of appearances I jotted down a few observations. Typical Left propaganda: an industrialist billionaire and handcuff-happy sexual sadist seduces a young woman; what he doesn’t know is that she’s part of a revolutionary cell trying to take him down. For the most part, though, the film seems to be about contract law. The plutocrat tries to force his prey to sign a legal document waiving all her human rights protections, including the right to life; in this he’s thwarted by a series of increasingly abstract legal manoeuvres – by the end she’s stalling for time by demanding the contract include definitions for perfectly ordinary terms such as ‘and’, ‘but’, and ‘buttplug’. Procrastination seems to be her favourite tactic. At another point the capitalist, on discovering that she’s a student of English literature, asks if it was Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy that made her fall in love with the written word. None of them, she says, before launching into a lengthy exegesis on contemporary literary theory before a man at first visibly aroused but who rapidly goes limp once it becomes apparent that poststructuralism isn’t just the text meaning whatever you want it to mean. So much for the film. Making idle small talk at the post-screening drinks reception (or about as small as talk can be among these self-important charlatans), I learned that for the LISP screening all the actual pornographic scenes had been cut from the film – this because of some Freudian dictum about sex never just being about sex, apparently. It was a shame, but it was also all I needed. Tampering with the film violated the terms of its rental from the distributors: finally, I had them on tape admitting to criminal activity. As soon as I could I pushed the button on my secret radio receiver. Most of the Institute were arrested alive; a few hid out in the building’s toilets and, regrettably, had to be shot by police snipers.

8. I saw Fifty Shades of Grey with my parents.

9. You ever feel like you’re living on the point of a knife? I really did want to write a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But there’s that feeling of a knife at your stomach, just pricking the surface of your skin, so you know that if you take just one step forward your guts will pour out like slimy confetti. When people talk about their plans for the future, careers, families, don’t you want to stare at them with crazy eyes, ranting, breathing in manic gasps, and hiss: but it won’t happen! Don’t you understand? We’ll all be dead by then! Melting ice caps! Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall! Everything’s fucked! Life in the crumbling, developed West isn’t great (people are starving to death, even here), but it still has the sense of an incredible precariousness, a bubble waiting to be popped. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a good film. But will sneering at that fact make it better? Will it save us from the coming bombs? Without God or communism we’ve been told that the point of life is to collect meaningful experiences, happy memories, and interesting opinions; to be entertained; to carve out some kind of expression of individuality that will, in its uniqueness and initerability, last forever. History suggests something different. Mostly people are destroyed, in their thousands, for no good reason. Why wouldn’t it happen to us? How many shiningly unique individuals were burned up in Dresden? When the Mongols came to Baghdad – a big urban cosmopolis, full of self-regarding educated types who, in the end, probably didn’t live too differently from you – they killed everyone. Like a nuclear bomb in slow motion. Scholars who’d spent most of their lives airily abstracting about the finer points of poetic technique and the exact arrangement of the heavenly spheres ended up with their heads suddenly piled up in a sloppy pyramid outside the city walls. (The scholars are remembered; more than, say, the women. Massacres of the educated are an affront to humanity, while men killing women is business as usual.) And why? The Mongol warlord Hulagu attacked the Abbasid caliphate on the advice of the usual gang of viziers and astrologists, but the loudest voice for war came from Nasir al-Din Tusi – a scholar and poet who’d become enraged after the Caliph, apparently disdaining its metrical and lexical subtleties, had lazily tossed one of his poems into the Tigris. One million people died, arrow-shafts through their bodies, knives through their necks, coughing up blood. Cultural critics beware.

10. I loved the book of Fifty Shades of Grey; I really loved it, with that total and unquestioning love you can only have for the utterly deformed. I loved its alternate psychoanalytic triad of the Subconscious, the Psyche and the Inner Goddess. I loved the catastrophically unsexy cor-blimey interior monologue. I loved the relentless commodity porn. It’s a universal story, an utterly bleak one: the story of power and its essential idiocy, and the tendency to read it as a wide-eyed paean to the titular pervert only demonstrates a critical failure of imagination. Yes, it started as fanfiction, but then so did the Aeneid. Yes, the relationship it depicts is fundamentally abusive, but safety, sanity and consent weren’t a major concern for de Sade, Bataille, Réage, or any of the other icons of literary sadomasochism either. With all its obtrusively terrible language it’s a book that constantly calls attention to its own writerly, textual quality, that’s constantly returning to its own meta- and inter-textual fabric. Fifty Shades had an overwhelming, effortless literariness, in a way that far outstripped the squalid grunting efforts of this century’s self-appointed guardians of high prose. Karl Ove Knausgård, Haruki Murakami, God help us, Jonathan fucking Franzen. They’re all squalid hacks, sad clowns, overinflated, overserious; it’s hard to imagine them keeping a straight face as they make their vague bromidic pronouncements on the Human Condition, shitting out watery insights as if anyone actually asked them, but somehow they do, and the same reading public that dismisses Fifty Shades as mere pornography nod wisely as they lap happily from the putrid trough. I’ll take bondage over coprophagy. Reviews of the Fifty Shades film have grudgingly commended it for turning a terrible book into something vaguely tolerable, competently produced if not exactly groundbreaking. As if descending from the mad and terrible stratospheres into Franzen-lite mediocrity is somehow an achievement. In fact, the film’s made a category error. A proper film adaptation should be pornography: ill-fitting suits, wobbly handheld cameras, and queasy lighting that makes the rippling flesh look like so much offcut meat, bright pink, churning out of an industrial mincer. Or it should resurrect not just the Inner Goddess and the Psyche but all the screaming others that crowd the mind of the modern schizophrenic; have the superego as a pale disappointed father, the id as a ravenous twelve-headed beast, doubt as a constant looming shroud, all watching every vaguely kinky sex session with drawn, horrified faces. Or it should delve deeper into the discourse of force and power and punishment, really take these concepts seriously. Every shot and every line of dialogue could remain exactly the same; it could be fixed in post-production. Black-clad jihadis parade hostages past the window of Ana’s hardware store. Christian’s helicopter is buzzed by Syrian MiG-23s, and as he flies over the city we see a dazzling constellation of explosions flashing in the streets below. Sniper rounds ping off the windscreen as the new Audi blithely swooshes past a rebel checkpoint. And as the couple stand naked before the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city beyond rises up to meet them: Aleppo, the final truth of our era, a thicket of gaunt ruins, concrete crags as lifeless and inhuman as a stranger’s face, drenched in the dust billowing from mortar strikes, coating the world in fifty thousand shades of grey.

The last of the cowboys

Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history, died on the 2nd of February, 2013. He’d served four tours in Iraq, been injured twice, involved in six roadside bomb attacks, and killed up to two hundred and fifty-five people; Islamist insurgents had offered a reward of $80,000 for his head, but when he died it was at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort, an elegant ranch-style resort offering fine dining and a spa, plus a pool and tennis courts, an unremarkable flash of blue and white off Route 67 near Fort Worth, Texas. The man who killed an American icon, Eddie Ray Routh, was another Iraq War veteran; since his discharge he’d been in and out of psychiatric wards, bouncing between a bureaucratic state apparatus that tried to keep him sedated and a bureaucratic family apparatus that just couldn’t understand the horrors he’d lived through. But neither could Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American military history never worried about what he’d done. Every Iraqi he’d killed was an American life saved; his only regret was that he hadn’t killed more people, saved more lives. It was a job, and he was extremely good at it. Afterwards, when he came home, he set about making regular TV appearances and publishing a folksy ghostwritten memoir in which the reader is consistently addressed as y’all, a book that ended up staying on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks. He loved his wife and kids. He made it his mission to keep on saving American soldiers, and he went about it in the only way he knew: he’d take injured veterans out shooting. And then one of them killed him. He never thought that for someone still shaking from the slaughter in Iraq, the best therapeutic option might not be to put a gun back in his hands and let off rifle fire all around him. He never thought that the cure for war could be anything other than war. All this was something America’s greatest killer simply wasn’t capable of understanding.

If Chris Kyle had been killed in Iraq by someone who’d got lucky, or was simply better than him, it would’ve just been part of the general idiocy of war. Instead, he died because of that bullish indifference, the precise same buried trait that made him so successful in combat. Kyle was something somehow more or less than human, a man capable of not just killing without remorse but of laughing about it on Conan O’Brien afterwards. Someone who just couldn’t understand. His death in the flat fields of Erath County, Texas isn’t a strange coda or an anticlimactic end to a life of action; it’s a perfect catharsis, something out of Sophocles, a moment of pure Greek tragedy in the modern age. It’s an incredible story.

So how on Earth was it fucked up so badly?

American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood biopic of Chris Kyle, isn’t just a piece of gratuitous military propaganda; it’s a godawful, artless, bloated, cowardly failure of a film. Defending the abomination he’d created against accusations of propaganda, Eastwood insisted that it isn’t political, but a character study. Except the encounter between Kyle and Routh, the essential character-defining moment of the story, is entirely absent. All we see is Kyle’s wife watch him driving off with a stranger who, as we’re meant to infer from the slow zooming of the camera and the shot’s framing through a crack in the doorway, is somehow evil. Then fade to black, the words Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help, and stirring music over real footage of Kyle’s funeral procession. Roll credits. That’s it.

In fact, none of Kyle’s actual character seems to have made it into this character study. The real-life Chris Kyle was a strange and unpleasant man: not just a killer but a liar, a braggart, and a thief. There’s something weirdly childish about him. He said he’d shot thirty armed looters from the top of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Katrina (despite also boasting of having himself looted from apartments in Iraq), was successfully sued for claiming have knocked out the former politician and wrestler Jesse Ventura in a bar fight, and insisted he’d once effortlessly killed two Mexican carjackers in Texas. His uncle works for Nintendo, and he knows a secret karate move called the Touch of Death, and he totally had sex with all the girls at school, but don’t ask any of them about it, because they’ll only lie. It’s hard to take anything he says seriously. Chris Kyle served in Ramadi and Fallujah: in both cities American forces set up arbitrary no-go zones without any signposts, and shot anyone who stepped outside their homes or took a wrong turn while driving. Residents were afraid to even go near their windows. In Fallujah a sniper was positioned outside a hospital and fired on ambulance crews as they tried to leave. Was it Kyle? Who can say? In his book Kyle never really approaches Iraqis as being fully human, never takes a moment to try to comprehend why the people he kills might resent being occupied by the same empire that starved five hundred thousand of their children to death. It’s because they’re evil, he decides: playground morality. He never wonders what he’d do if a foreign power took over Texas. Your character study’s all here, ready and waiting, but this isn’t the film Clint Eastwood makes.

And then there’s his name: Chris Kyle. There’s always something slightly unsettling about people with two first names (and I say that as someone who is, sonically if not orthographically, among their number). There’s always the potential for a dangerous kind of play, like Yossarian with Irving Washington and Washington Irving. People with two first names can be mirrored, inverted; they always have Gothic doubles or ghostly opposites hanging around them somewhere. Who is Kyle Chris? Obviously someone like Eddie Ray Routh. But Eastwood takes a different approach.

The problem with a character study that refuses to study its subject’s character is that it doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go. Chris Kyle’s real military career was a monotonously brutal series of unconnected killings; day after day of waiting, watching, shooting, without any narrative beyond the scattering of the Iraq War into entropic meaninglessness. One scene illustrates the problem nicely: a car full of insurgents attempt to fire a rocket at an American convoy; the machine-gunners instantly reduce it to bloodied scrap metal. When the forces are so mismatched there’s little scope for narrative tension, but a film needs a plot, so Clint Eastwood invents one. It’s a Western; a cowboy film. Bradley Cooper stars as the grizzled bearded stranger who rides into town with an uncanny knack for straight-shootin’, an inexplicable nonchalance towards murder, and a keen, Godly sense of right and wrong. As the armoured vehicles crawl towards Fallujah, someone says: welcome to the new Wild West of the old Middle East. One of the only aspects of Kyle’s book that Eastwood actually leaves in is his habit of referring to Iraqis – who, let’s not forget, invented irrigation, writing, and the State – as savages: these are Injuns here, warlike and whooping. And any Western needs a shootout: enter Kyle Chris, in the form of Mustafa, an invented Syrian sniper that Kyle faces off against throughout the film, culminating in a gunfight that across the dusty Main Street that is Baghdad’s Sadr City. Our hero draws first. He wins.

It doesn’t work. Nothing works. For a start, American Sniper seems to have been plotted by a wandering amnesiac or a slightly dim child. At first the main villain is ‘the Butcher’, a sadistic and fictional al-Qa’eda enforcer who vanishes from the story midway through and is never captured or heard from again. Kyle’s grisly tours of duty are interspersed with scenes in which he returns to an America of rolling wheatfields and sun-speckled copses, as if he’d briefly ascended to a patriotic Thomas Kinkade version of Heaven. The point might be to introduce pacing, but it ends up turning the story into half-chewed vomit. The action scenes are basically tedious, and in the end the constant gunfire just sounds like someone stepping on bubble wrap. But it fails on more fundamental levels as well. It’s interesting to compare American Sniper with Eastwood’s earlier cowboy adventures, many of which were masterpieces of the anti-Western genre. In Sergio Leone’s films the heroic trick-shooting cowboy of American mythology is transformed into the Man With No Name, someone skidding on the edges between avenging angel and brutally intrusive psychopath. A figure without past or future, only impish wit, venal greed, and silence.

This is a contradiction heightened in High Plains Drifter, one of Eastwood’s first films as a director. A mysterious Stranger rides into town from the mountainous wilds; all he claims to want is a drink and a haircut, but there’s an incredible violence to him, a seething, bodily violence, barely buried. Some local toughs start on him, and he kills them almost effortlessly. But there are also bandits coming for the townspeople, and with their protectors now dead, the Stranger agrees to organise their defence. But the Stranger is a rapist and a glutton, and his brief rule is very strange. He makes a grotesque dwarf called Mordecai the town’s mayor and sheriff; when the enemy approaches he paints all the buildings red and suddenly retreats, allowing the bandits to murder half the townspeople before returning to finish them off. The whole town is guilty, and he’s punished them. As the Stranger rides off again Mordecai comments that he never did know his name. Yes, you do, he says. If you know your masques, your lords of misrule, and your Bulgakov, you do too. It’s the Devil: justice in excess of itself and law as the right of the stronger is the Devil.

American Sniper feels wrong. It’s all hollow; there’s a constant sense of dislocation, like we’re looking at everything from the wrong angle. It wants the blood and brutality of the Stranger or the Man With No Name, only without his strangeness or his namelessness. It wants the Devil of Ramadi, but can’t accept that he might have been a devil. In fact, the opposite: Eastwood relentlessly humanises his hero, showing us all the pain and stress that the real Chris Kyle never suffered. He wants us to like this guy, this mass murderer, to like him unproblematically – because he’s a good guy, a sheepdog. It’s strange: he’s trying to resurrect all the stupid cowboy clichés he and Leone so thoroughly dismantled decades ago. But for all he rides in rodeos and prances around in a big hat, his Kyle isn’t a friendly cowboy. He kills too easily. He kills children. (At the start of the film, our hero kills a child holding a grenade. His mother rushes towards the body – and then picks up the weapon, forcing Kyle to kill her too. She can’t have loved her child, and so the infanticide is justified. In Kyle’s book, it’s just the woman, who he describes as being evil and having a twisted soul for trying the resist a foreign invasion of her home.) So with both poles of the cowboy continuum barred, the role can only escape into the dangerous wilds of the third term. Kyle is the bandit, the invader: Angel Eyes.

It’s still a cowboy film, but there are no great American cowboys any more. Cowboys don’t have helicopter support; they don’t provide covering fire for armoured columns, and no matter how morally ambiguous, they don’t kill kids. But the Man With No Name still rides. Mustasfa, the Syrian in the film, is a clumsy fiction, but he’s based on a real person: Juba, the Baghdad sniper, the terror of the occupiers, the hope of a nation. Unlike Chris Kyle, his TV appearances are grainy and functional. Somewhere in the haze of pixels there’s a soldier on patrol; a thunk, and he drops to the ground. Only occupiers: never Iraqi troops, never civilians. Perhaps Eastwood’s made his most daring deconstruction of the cowboy genre yet – something outwardly terrible, but which encodes another, very different film; one visible only by its negation, by the tiny cracks in the filmic facade. See how Mustafa runs across rooftops and jumps over alleyways, see his split-second moment of domesticity, his wife and infant child, his framed Olympic photo. Mustafa is killed in the film, but Juba never was. Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his face. He is everyone and no-one. He doesn’t talk, he acts. When armed cavalrymen from the West storm the city, when they burst into people’s homes at night and shoot children on the streets, one man makes a stand. The strange and savage invaders have cruise missiles and helicopter gunships; this hero is armed only with a rusting old Russian rifle, a gift for marksmanship, a moral code that’s firm but obscure, and his enduring faith in God. One man against a whole army! Can he survive? But a horse races across the deserts of Anbar province, and a low nasheed mingles with the billowing clouds of dust. Out from the freedom of the open range rides something cruel and strange. Our last best hope. He is the last of the cowboys. He is the American sniper.

Defying Gravity

The new film Gravity does something quite brave: it doesn’t make space beautiful. We all have an idea of what outer space should look like: all those vast pink and blue nebulae draped in purple stars, swirling at the slow pace of cosmic infinity into (of course) phallic or pudendal forms. Space has gas clouds and supernovae and green-skinned alien babes and, quite possibly, God. At the same time we know that the sublime images we get from NASA are all in false colours; that for all the fascinating things in it (and there are plenty of them), most of space itself is actually quite boring as far as our libidinal imaginations are concerned. It’s a dead black void scattered with a few dead grey rocks, and they crash into each other according to a precise mathematical senselessness. But in our fiction, at least, we can have it all: black holes, asteroid fields, c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not for Alfonso Cuarón; he’s got a real pedant’s eye for this stuff. The Earth is beautiful in Gravity, its clouds burning orange as the line of sunset crosses its surface, its cities shining in the night like diamonds on a lace – but space beyond its orbit is just a cold dark nothing. There’s only one shot that throws a sop to our aestheticised vision of the universe: our hero drifts out briefly into the void, and we see her framed against a galaxy of stars – but even here it looks washed out and anaemic; a semi-skimmed Milky Way. No grandeur, just emptiness. It’s incredibly impressive.

Cuarón does something else that’s pretty extraordinary: in a film where every shot and effect is fine-tuned to perfection, he’s managed to craft a plot that’s entirely unremarkable, dialogue so corny as to border on the emetic, and characters who might be floating in infinitely extended space but are entirely lacking in any depth themselves. It’s strange. In Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men Cuarón showed that he’s every bit as capable a writer as he is a director, but the plot in Gravity hugs so closely to genre that you can pretty much work it all out from the trailer (if you can’t, look away now). There’s a disaster in space; Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are cast adrift; he dies heroically saving her life; she has a crisis of confidence but then looks inside herself to find the strength that she needs to survive, and ends up setting foot once more on the friendly soil of Earth. Along the way there’s some seriously embarrassing dialogue (“Will you pray for me? Nobody ever taught me how”) and a seemingly unnecessary backstory about the death of Bullock’s young daughter in lieu of any actual characterisation. It’s interesting that Clooney’s space fratboy – for all the wacky stories he half-relates – never has his emotional past strip-mined in the same manner; clearly the psychological depths of hysteria are still only to be plunged by women. In this really excellent post at Wasted Ideology the dodgy gender politics of the film are thoroughly taken apart, and the result isn’t pretty: in the end, even a disaster film in space needs to continually reaffirm ‘the centrality of love and family to everyone’s experience, weak women and strong men.’

This doesn’t mean that there’s not room for some significance in the film: after all, it has all that terrifying empty space gnawing at its periphery. The psychotherapist Aaron Balick gives an interesting reading, in which the repeated motif of ‘letting go’ (including in the film’s tagline) and the subject of Bullock’s lost daughter is read against Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, turning the film into a psychological parable:

For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (or let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole. When Dr. Stone [Sandra Bullock] decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt [George Clooney] comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides to towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”

Letting go, yes – but something of a Leninist approach is needed here: letting go into what? There’s something crucial in Mourning and Melancholia that’s missing in this approach; Freud’s text isn’t a self-help guide. Freud describes melancholia as a turning of the ego against itself – ‘the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished.’ What’s interesting is that Freud doesn’t necessarily disagree: the melancholic patient isn’t delusional, he probably is worthless, his sickness is that he’s lacking the narcissistic delusions that let most people ignore this fact and go about their days as normal. Freud connects this falling-away of delusions with the loss of a desired object (this loss isn’t necessarily death, but a rejection or disappointment) that the ego continues to strongly attach itself to. It’s not just a simple matter of ‘letting go’ of a loved one – the point is that the ego directs its hatred against itself because it unconsciously hates that same object of desire, but still identifies with it too strongly to express that hate. When you love someone, that other person becomes something of a master-signifier; the point around which your entire life and subjectivity gains meaning. It’s an impossible task; in the end we’re all just bags of flesh and offal, and loving someone is a terrible thing to impose on them. When that person inevitably fails to be perfect, it’s felt as a loss and a betrayal. Hatred results; if you love someone, you can’t help but hate them at the same time. Sometimes you can manage that hatred, but if you’re really in love, full of fire and passion, all your hatred is turned inwards on yourself, and the only way to recover from this is to admit to yourself how you actually feel. Letting go isn’t Sandra Bullock finally managing to move past the death of her daughter and value her own life. It’s a furious exclamation: fuck her, fuck her for dying; how could she do that to me? Letting go means floating off alone into the seething blackness of space.

You let go into empty space, but space always carries meaning. Since Kant we’ve known that spatiality isn’t an objective prior substance in which things exist but something that we create when we conceive of relations between objects. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari posit two modalities of space: the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is intensive nomad space, in which ‘the point is between two lines;’ striated space is the extensive space of the State, in which ‘the line is between two points.’ Felt is smooth; woven cloth is striated. Earth orbit in Gravity is a heavily striated space; movements are always made between fixed positions. We go to the shuttle, and from there to the ISS, and from there to the Chinese station; as Bullock tumbles into the void Clooney tries to fix her line of flight through reference to points. What can you see? Can you see the shuttle? Can you see the moon? However, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the two forms of space are always in a dialectic: farmers put up walls and pastoralists tear them down. At the beginning of the film there’s a catastrophe: an anti-satellite missile test goes horrible wrong and suddenly a deadly tide of debris is circling the planet at lethal speed. Now every fixed point must be considered in terms of its relation to that moving line. Striated space comes with all the blockages of bourgeois subjectivity – the nation-state, the family unit, the Oedipal triangle – and, of course, Bullock only survives in the film by upholding these striations. She doesn’t let go, she doesn’t admit that she hates her dead daughter, she keeps on going to preserve her melancholic attachment, to carry on affirming that desire is a lack. But there’s another way.

The Earth is beautiful in Gravity. Space isn’t beautiful, but it is smooth, a void in which nothing is stable, crisscrossed by tumbling objects and lines of flight. However tightly focused the action is onscreen, it’s always lurking there in the background, a silent rebuke to all the striations arcing up from the planet’s surface. As he floats away to die, Clooney’s character has a choice: he can disappear among the stars, or he can use the last few breaths of fuel in his jetpack to nudge himself in the direction of Earth. After a while, floating will become falling. Gravity will get him. He’ll burn to a crisp, but he’ll do so under the blue skies of home. What would you do? Clooney chooses the stars, and he can do this because he hasn’t been subjected to the same bullshit characterisation as Bullock. The narrative demands that she risk her life re-entering the atmosphere because she’s been thoroughly interpellated as a woman, a grieving mother, and a melancholic. Clooney still has a touch of the everyman about him, and out there in empty space you can approach what Badiou calls the ‘generic.’ You become your own movement. Gender and nation and subjectification mean nothing for a human body spinning powerlessly in the void. In a way, God is out there; the promise of the New Testament is fulfilled: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. The film can’t endorse it, of course – that’s why it’s only ever presented as a danger – but it’s still haunted by this idea: the communism of outer space.

Superman: Man of Steel, or, hot XXX drone-on-drone action

 Spoiler alert: this guy wins in the end.

What is Superman? Everyone knows that Batman is a fascist, a jackbooted Il Duce-style thug who defaces the night sky with his symbol and tries to forge a society of class collaborationism between the haute bourgeoisie and the ‘law-abiding’ sectors of the proletariat. Similarly, it doesn’t take much critical discernment to see shades of postmodern neoliberalism in Iron Man – his world is one of panoptic openness, in which he’s not afraid to let the world know that he is the industrialist Tony Stark and Iron Man is just one of his trademarked brands; meanwhile his deadpan pseudowitticisms bear the mark of contemporary pastiche, what Jameson calls a ‘blank irony’ without referent,  ‘amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter.’ Aquaman, of course, has unwittingly represented since the 1940s the uselessness of our 21st-century corporate environmentalism. Green Lantern is a Posadist, Thor still speaks for reactionary monarchism; Avocado Woman is the heroine of the recent body-oriented (bio)politics; Fatty Lux symbolises Enlightenment rationality, the Bauxite Band anarcho-syndicalism (although Kaolinite Kid displays some Tuckerite tendencies), PenguinDude3000 a kind of Saint-Simonian utopian communitarianism. But then there’s Superman. What is Superman?

Superman’s mantra of ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ recalls a more honest era, one in which deconstruction was still something you did with hammers and explosives, but all the same there’s a sinister note in there, a faint whiff of something very different from the image of the wholesome all-American hero in his mythos. He carries the mark of the Other. Clark Kent might be from Kansas, but his birthplace is Krypton – a place with four consonants next to each other in its name, a foreign planet that somehow manages to sound just a little Mitteleuropean. The other names that surround him are similarly un-WASP-y: Superman, or in German Übermensch, with its connotations of Nazi-tinged Nietzschean amoralism; the Man of Steel, or in Russian Stalin, who named weakness, idleness and stupidity as the only things that could be called vices; Clark Kent, or in Serbian Slobodan (lit. a low-level office worker) Milošević (a flat, grassy province near Belgrade, analogous to the English county). Whether of the left or the right, there’s something totalitarian about him; we recollect, with a rising nausea, that democracy is not among his tripartite principles. Of course, as Superman’s defenders continually remind us, he was created by two liberal-left Jewish high school kids, the children of immigrants. Hence all the Europeanisms: with their hero Siegel and Shuster packaged up all the neuroses of the shtetl and gave them a red-white-and-blue sheen. He’s not an expression of an all-encompassing class-State complex, but the fantasy of its disenfranchised underlings. Superman is a hero by the nerds, of the nerds, for the nerds. He’s weaponised nebbishness, and that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous. He can’t even be subsumed into the paradigm of healthy American libidinality; with Superman, Bataille’s connection between eroticism and death assumes horrifying proportions. As I watched Zack Snyder’s new Superman film, this year’s Man of Steel, it all started to make sense. Superman isn’t a man at all. His otherness is that of the inhuman. He’s a Predator drone.

We should have seen it from the beginning: he’s a man of steel, a robot. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Almost, but not quite. The weak gravity of our world lets Superman fly through the stratosphere. He can pinpoint and target anyone on Earth with his X-ray vision, but nobody knows who or where he is. And in the meantime, he maintains a cover, a secret identity. Through this subterfuge, the drone maintains a privileged relationship with the news industry; what’s more, he sometimes even goes so far as to report ‘objectively’ on his own activities. When a drone ejaculates, people die. His is the murderous, cold-blooded victory of the CIA nerds over the jocks of the armed forces. That’s why so many of Superman’s enemies are evil geniuses: it’s not anti-intellectualism, they’re his mirror-images rather than his opposites, they’re encroaching on his turf. At the end of Man of Steel, Superman downs a US spy drone in front of a horrified general. “You can’t find out where I hang up my cape,” he says. So, the drone battles his doubles. But might there not have been, before the crash, a moment of tenderness between the two drones? “I’m sorry,” Superman says as he straddles the unmanned plane. “It’s nothing personal.” His legs clamp like pincers around its shapely fibreglass body and it begins to sink. As it does he can’t help but extend a hand to stroke with surprising delicacy her big bulbous head. His feet hook under her tailfins. So close. Two drones on a single trajectory, becoming their own motion. They’re falling faster now; the shuddering of their descent synchronises with the expertly timed revs of her spluttering engine, sending out warm vibrations that spread through Superman’s body and pool at the base of his torso. She’s getting excited too: her bomb hatch slides open with a metallic click. For the first and last time, both drones have found someone strong enough for them. And so, falling and fucking, the flapping red cape preserving their modesty and the film’s 12A rating, they spin towards the earth.

~

Of course, the main problem with drones is the collateral damage – as I’ve discussed in another post, drones retroactively designate their victims as targets; any male over 16 killed by a drone strike is assumed to be an enemy militant. And in Man of Steel, there’s a lot of collateral damage. At the end of the film Superman kills the evil Zod rather than let him murder a group of terrified humans, but only a few minutes earlier the Man of Steel is shown flinging his enemies through buildings – buildings that could well be full of people – at such high speed that they leave explosions in their wake. The death toll is presumably enormous. In this, he’s following the logic of the drone: all strikes are a priori ‘surgical,’ and the facts on the ground can be altered to fit the image on the computer screen. I’m not alone in noticing this; in the New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan makes a similar point:

In 1980’s Superman II, […] when Superman knocks a baddie into a building — an act that sends the skyscraper’s spire tumbling towards a crowd of people on the ground — Superman actually halts the fight to grab that spire before it lands, a quaint moment that still reminds us that the lives of innocent citizens are at stake. In Man of Steel, however, the superhero seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Buchanan is right about the 9/11 imagery; the film is overflowing with it. For a good half-hour the screen is filled with footage of skyscrapers in slow balletic collapse, skyscrapers spitting flames as they’re punctured by flying objects, skyscrapers reduced to billowing dust-clouds that pour through gridded streets, characters trapped under the wire and masonry of demolished skyscrapers. This is hardly unique; there’s another 9/11 in Olympus Has Fallen as the Washington Monument vertically collapses on itself; San Francisco meets a similar fate in Star Trek: Into Darkness – but nowhere is it more overt or more seemingly gratuitous. That said, Buchanan doesn’t really attempt to diagnose this trend, he only complains of it – and in an age of consumer culture, this kind of thing would only keep cropping up if people in some way wanted to see it happen. For an explanation, you’ll have to head for the comments section, in which it’s alleged that such scenes are for the benefit of the raving America-haters of the international distribution markets – nicely summing up why you should never read the comments section. Well then, if it’s not that (and it’s definitely not that), then what’s the cause?

Extreme violence is in itself an aesthetic object, but, as Buchanan observes, what we have here is a ‘bloodless massacre.’ One could advance a crude Freudian analysis. Man of Steel is the famous fort-da game writ large, a compulsive repetition and re-repetition of a traumatic event, a neurotic fixation, a recurring image through which the collective psyche tries to expunge the horror of that which actually occurred. You destroyed our buildings, the film says, well guess what – we wanted them destroyed, and we can do it better in representation than you ever could in reality. Of course, the compulsion to repeat exists beyond the pleasure principle, and the apocalyptic blockbuster is entertainment. There’s a visceral pleasure in the images of falling skyscrapers and ruined cities. We could posit a kind of allgemeine Todestrieb, a societal will towards its own violent destruction, manifesting in the sheer pleasure of carnage and atrocity. Maybe there’s even a kind of egalitarian impulse at work, a buried desire to see all the big fancy towers flattened as every mountain is made low. Maybe we all secretly want to be castrated.

None of this is quite sufficient. The answer is elsewhere. Man of Steel has received some flak for its epidemic of product placements (its brand partners brought in $160m before the film was even released) – as if we’re not all prostitutes, critics and commentators more so than anyone. This product placement takes something of an unusual form, though. The International House of Pancakes shelled out a presumably hefty sum for its recurring appearances in the film, but rather than showing Clark Kent chowing down on a hefty stack of syrup-glazed goodness, we instead see one of IHOP’s fine establishments systematically destroyed by two duelling aliens. They want us to buy their pancakes, so they show us a bunch of pancake-eating patrons being interrupted and (possibly) killed by superbeings from beyond the stars. Why? Like all brands, IHOP doesn’t just want our money, it wants – it needs – our loyalty and, most of all, our love. But love is something fiery and unpredictable; it can burn you up, reduce you to tears and ashes. If you really love something, in some small but present way you want to see it destroyed, you want to be there as it slips into the void – and the International House of Pancakes knows this. And so we’re thrilled by the destruction of our cities, because we love them. And so Superman, heaving the drone from the vaunted empyrean of the infinite gaze down to an earthy extinction, whispers three short words into its listening device as he snaps his red undies back on. “I love you,” he says. And then it dies.

%d bloggers like this: