Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On the Cliche and Jim Jarmusch

The cliche is incredibly seductive. It almost always feels like a good choice. Sometimes in fact it is the right choice. However, too often it's the first, easy choice. Why does pop music feel so banal most of the time? Why are Hollywood movies usually predictable? Because they fall back on the cliche, usually with an argument that blames the audience for such choices.

The movie Avatar, for example looked like a new kind of movie. But, and this has been pointed out so often that I don't want to say much about it, the movie was a total fucking cliche. Outsider becomes insider, saves insiders. Woohoo outsider. Making a cliche more visually stunning does nothing to remove the cliche.

Now, consider the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's wonderful film GhostDog: Way of the Samurai. This film operates within a genre - it's a gangster/revenge film. The plot is pretty straightforward - gangsters wanna kill Ghostdog, Ghostdog has to kill gangsters. However, the film never becomes a cliche.

In the film we have an overweight black samurai, an aging Italian gangster who can quote Flavor Flav lyrics, a french-speaking ice cream man who is best friends with Ghostdog even though they can't talk to each other and the film is scored by RZA. The film takes diverse cultures and stitches them together, forming a collage, a pastiche.

The wonderful thing is that Jarmusch uses these elements to make a larger point about culture and language. For Jarmusch, culture is not a boundary - it does not seperate communities. In the same way language is not a system that needs to be shared in advance. Ghostdog and his best friend don't understand each other's language, but they communicate very successfully throughout the film.

So the difference between Avatar and Ghostdog is that Avatar lives in the box, stays comfortable in the cliche, fearful that any innovation may reduce revenues. Ghostdog exists in a genre, but it rearranges the pieces, constantly playing, showing what is possible if only a few pieces are moved.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


We are storytellers. We make sense out of the world not by a set of facts, but by beliefs about how facts are connected. This leads two people to be able to view the same event and believe something totally different happened.

Narratives, though, always conceal as much as they reveal. Every story is at the expense of other stories, counter-examples. Often people make grandiose narratives about human progress or the immanent doom of humans by referring to some kind of past that sounds beautiful, if only it ever existed.

There is no master-narrative, no final story. All of our stories are networked - all pointing to each other. This narrative weaving, of course, leads to problems when trying to determine what happened. If one wanted to learn about WWII, s/he could start reading today and never stop. What becomes interesting is that reading more material never makes the event in question more determinable; rather, it does the opposite. The event becomes more opaque and confusing.

Think of it this way. The noun "WW II" is said as though it is a singular event. However, WWII is a collection of millions, literally millions of events. Certainly a Japanese citizen in an internment camp would have a different take on WWII than Lemay.

After these events become written about in personal letters or secondary literature we are adding complexity, not reducing it. Think about the number of books written about the Bible. Is the Bible any simpler because of the many commentaries? No, it's far more complex. Commentaries are a form of proliferation. Text 2 attempts to explain Text 1. Text 3 explains both. Every text that attempts to explain also adds another interpretative problem to the world, it obscures while it clarifies.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Living without a Center

A certain strain of philosophy since Nietzsche has steadily and sternly fought to remove what Derrida will name the "transcendental signified." Derrida's fancy coinage means terms that we deploy that function as God-terms, terms that center a metaphysics; in fact, "God" is the most popular transcendental signified. One way to think of it is this: when I make the sound "book" that sound corresponds to an object in the world; however, "God" doesn't. When we say a word like "God" what we invoke is a history of people talking about the word "God" - essentially we talk about the talk about - we don't talk about GOD. (this goes for other such words as "truth" and "just.")

Looking around popular culture, no matter what people say when they are polled - a viciously stupid practice - we live in a secular culture. I don't mean what anybody thinks the culture should be. I mean when the church bells ring there is no unified sense of meaning. For some it's a clock, a louder more structurally sound microwave; for others it represents the spiritual; for some it's just an annoyance. This is all outlined incredibly well in a book too big to finish by the philosopher Charles Taylor called appropriately A Secular Age.

This is both incredibly liberating - I don't want to have to go to Church, but I'm fine with it being there and often I get a kick of the signs in the front of them. And it's incredibly terrifying - at least when the church was the defining institution there was a clear moral order for it's adherents.

So how does one live meaningfully without a center, a culturally unifying principle? How does one escape the pernicious trap of relativism, i.e., is it all up to individuals to just do whatever they want, since who the hell can say otherwise?

Couple a lack of unifying principle with an incredibly seductive range of possible distractions and entertainments and we're really in a pickle.

(Most of this post is coming off of a combination of reading All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, the previously mentioned A Secular Age, and The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Truth and the End of the World

Playing a gig in South Carolina this Saturday, we were all reminded that somebody, I don't even know the guys name, had predicted that come about 6 o'clock or so, (EST?) world go poof. Well, world didn't go poof - it never does.

Now I don't care that some religiously-minded octogenarian thought the world was ending. That's sort of what they do. But behind all the nonsense is something important - an idea of truth that needs to go away.

Truth is one of those big motherfuckers in philosophy. Starting with Plato and continuing far too long, people have thought that "truth" is something that is behind everything, outside of the day-to-day networkings of the world. This belief leads to such rhetorical boners as "really true" and "really real," meaning yes that thing over their looks like it's happening and understandable, but really we're all in the Matrix. This is the split between appearance and reality that branches of philosophy such as phenomenology have tried to do away with for years. They can't get rid of them because most people still think in terms like these.

I believe employing one simple principle helps to rid the world of a lot of metaphysical nonsense: your brain does not pick up a channel that my brain doesn't. There. Done.

So where does this leave us with a concept like "truth" which though annoying and problematic, is pretty necessary for day-to-day interactions. How about this - if a speech-act (talking) leads to results that you planned on them leading to then what you said was true. Basically, if the world is working for us, then we're saying true things.

Heidegger claimed that truth was about the interplay between the veiled and unveiled - between what the world showed and what remained hidden. The world is never giving you a complete picture - when one thing comes into focus, something else gets blurry. Also, nice as long as we remember Heidegger is talking about the world, not something behind the world. (I'll unpack Heidegger in more detail later. His notion of truth is really better than the analytic definition I'm using in the previous paragraph)

The major point here is that if you think something's behind everything you will start looking for that something. And then you'll end up some crazy guy with a calculator and a religious book, spending the end of your life drawing on posterboard with magic markers. Which is bad.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Political

At some point, during most days I will check four or five political websites. And I'm starting to wonder why I do this? I must have spent what would have added up to weeks reading, debating, thinking about global politics - deploying words like "geopolitical" whenever I got a chance - over the last 7 or 8 years. I think if I was pressed about why, I would have said something like "Well, you know, being informed is better than not being informed." But my being informed led to very little in the way of productive action.

Very often I have a better idea about goings on in places that I will not interact with or affect in any way than I do about things happening in my immediacy. I believe without ever thinking much about it, I have often associated "the political" with a compilation of media that always take place somewhere else. Rachael Maddow is political but Horner Blvd is not.

The abstraction of the political realm leads to political groups, camps, ideologies and other collections of nonsense. The political clique comes prepackaged with opinions, terminologies, and so forth - it is a ready-made discourse that sets the limits of what is thinkable by the terms that are used. These ready-made discourses run counter to my desire to be an individual, whatever the hell that word means in a post-everything world.

But who got to decide that the most important issues I should think about would be abortion, gun-control, and the death penalty. Why is it so important for me to have opinions on these issues to show that I am "informed." I feel much more impassioned by my deep-rooted beliefs that the world starts too early in the morning and is moving too damn fast; I am much more concerned about the manner in which the digital world makes me forget that I have a body that needs to move more. The trick, at least for me, is to see these as political realities - realities that affect me more than my opinion about acceptable cars for people to drive.

I'm starting to believe that what I have considered "political" was something akin to sports for adults - a debate club for people who like to hold "positions."

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Taste

I judge people by the things they like. This has to be a truism the world over, but it feels a little dirty admitting it in writing. This statement has been vocalized, however, with the kind of loud and emphatic gusto that occurs after about drink 4 many times, but never written.

I don't need to know what a person does for a living, where they are from, or who they vote for. I want lists. What does he or she read, watch, get excited by. Information such as this is a better identifier than DNA - hell it is a person's DNA.

Now, arguments over taste, while important to have with friends are only useful for passing time. And the least interesting comment that can ever be said is to simply vote yes or no for something. There are many pieces of art/film/music that I don't exactly like, but that's not the conversation I want to have about them. Take David Lynch's Lost Highway. I'm not sure I like that movie. I don't really want to watch it today, (but I would sit through either Blue Velvet or Mullholland Drive happily) but I would love to talk about how absolutely fucking freaky Robert Blake calling himself on the phone was. That scene is more interesting than whole other movies.

Or the joy I get when Gary Busey yells at Keenu Reeves in Point Break: "Hey Utah! Get me two," referring to the best meatball sandwiches in the world. In fact, it's often these little weird moments in film that have nothing to do with plot that I find so wonderful. In Kill Bill the only part I'd say I just loved is when Uma is informed that she says "arrigato, like we say arrigato." And I'd rather talk about how much I love that part than why I was ultimately kind of let down by the Kill Bill films.

Now, to be fair, sometimes it's important to tell something that it in fact sucks. But even this should be done creatively. For example, "Do you know how much you suck?" requires a response.

Woody Allen

I love Woody Allen films. And I love that I can pretty much bank on the fact that every year, usually in the summer, I will be sitting in a theater watching Woody's newest film.

And this year is exciting - Midnight in Paris looks great. The thing is whenever Woody Allen makes a really good film there are always a slew of reviews that say something like "Woody's best work since Crimes and Misdemeanor's" - which apparently every single critic thinks was his last great film, and some clear line of demarcation.

The problem with the narrative, which is starting to pop up again, is not simply that it's boring and reductive; it's that this is the 3rd time the same argument has been made since 2005 when Allen made Match Point. Then in 2008 with Vicky Christina Barcelona it happened again.

I feel about Woody Allen the same way I feel about the Coen Brothers: I'll take their mediocre work over much of what else passes for good in Hollywood.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Audience (part 2): Interpretation

People say true things all the time and most of what people say is true. I can imagine the stomach-level discomfort caused by such propositions, because we are bred to be narcissists - to think that everyone but us is totally full of shit.

But to simply maneuver the world - I mean to order coffee, to give directions, to find a classroom, to have a normal, everyday conversation - we have to understand how the world operates for us. I would postulate that the world works relatively the same way for everyone.

It basically follows then that if you are surviving in the world, it is because you know how to say true things about the world. You're speech-acts are having predictable outcomes.

So what does this have to do with audience? If I assume that the person writing is saying something that they believe to be true, I will interpret generously. Even if they say something that seems absolutely insane to me, I can try to locate the ways in which a certain belief is causing the fissure. The people who seem ideologically the farthest apart, are usually but one belief away from each other.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Audience

The internet is insane. One talks not to bodies, but to bundles of texts. And these texts talk back. And fuck if they don't get mad.

Why is the internet not conducive to interpretative charity, hermeneutic generosity of you will? Or to say it another way, why is it so difficult to be excellent to one another when we are disembodied? Now, it's not impossible, just as it's not impossible to imagine that the car that cut me off really was going somewhere more important than I was - it's doable, but it's difficult. Much more difficult than being decent to a stranger who happens to occupy a barstool next to me. The stranger on the barstool next to me is a fellow traveler - a kinsmen - one in spirit. The relationship is one of solidarity predicated on actual, lived space. The comments responding to posts on the internet are combative, always seeking contradiction, looking for an "aha, gotcha asshole" moment so the entire piece can be subsequently dismissed.

Since it is quite clear that we will live not just two, but multiple lives, we have to learn to transcend this new space thoughtfully, we need to develop a deep ecology, cautiously leaving behind virtual footprints.