Movie notes: Stake Land

I've decided to start keeping short notes on movies I watch, because my memory is getting? has always been? so damn bad. I keep reading notes, of course, too, but those are often of a more motivated / focused sort. And not on a blog. Why would anyone else want to read my movie notes? Why would anyone else want to read this blog in general, except for the once-every-six-months entry I gussy up for Facebook? These are questions I am not in a position to answer, gentle reader. If this seems like a silly exercise, I'll stop doing it (or make the entries for myself only).

Anyway, Stake Land. This movie ought to win an award for synthesizing the most genres without being a deliberate send-up or homage. It's a vampire / post-apocalypse movie where the vampires behave like fast-moving zombies, a la I Am Legend or 28 Days Later. Come to think of it, post-Y2K zombies are mostly fast-moving. The undead in Stake Land are vampires, though, even if their growl and makeup is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Jackson orcs.Read more...Collapse )

Writing from depression

Throughout the dissertation, I held the personal at bay. Or at least in a separate box. Theorizing the affective structures of depression was something I needed to keep separate from the experience of depression, somehow. I’m thinking about Ehrenberg’s observation that all the American cultural theory books on depression contain this confessional, group-therapeutic element which he finds either perplexing or disgusting. I think he actually finds it a little indecent, though he doesn’t quite come out and say so. I don’t find it indecent, of course; if you had asked me a few years ago what I might want to write about depression, I think I would have said, well, the personal is political, I can’t help but write about this at least partly from my own experience. I couldn’t help but care about the cultural space of depression as a potentially creative thing. But then it seemed like the memoir gremlin might take over everything if I let it out of the box even a little bit. I couldn’t afford it, not in a dissertation. So I drew myself up. Tight.

Foucault says genealogy is gray and meticulous, and I think the spirit I tried to enact was one I found in History of Madness. I think I wrote a depressing, laborious dissertation about depression and labor. Not a bad one, necessarily. Of course there’s a lot I want to develop much further for the book, but I kind of like it, for what it is, for where it is; it manages to achieve a feeling of a kind of completion of thought despite being a waystation towards a finished book. But it is just … a little grim, and sort of structuralist, not in a precise historical sense, but in the sense that the structuration of affects and mental health and labor pressed down heavier and heavier into what I was writing, and questions of agency, some of which had prompted the exercise, began to feel outside the parameters of what I was doing.
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Retro review: A Bullet for the General (El chucho, quien sabe?)

I expected to be more engaged with this movie plot-wise than I ended up being. The main characters are compelling. Dollars Trilogy bad guy Volonte is brilliantly cast here as a morally ambiguous figure who wavers between gangster individualism / opportunism and commitment to a cause. Castel combines the silence of a man-with-no-name type character with the clean cut looks of a Neil Patrick Harris who never turned to drugs. And of course Kinski is brilliant as a principled killer priest. Most of the plot is kind of winding. Maybe it's supposed to have long patches with confused, muted motivations, and this is a commentary on what real revolutions are like? There's not a lot of drama around the titular (at least, titular with respect to the English language title ... hmm) bullet and general. The epilogue of the movie is quite interesting, though, reflecting on Bill Tate's Yanqui individualism, and this in a sense made me rethink the whole movie as being a deconstruction of the black hat / white hat / gray hat dualisms of even "morally complex" Spaghetti westerns. Classic "man with no name" figures in Spaghetti westerns have a moral complexity because they don't follow "good guy" moral codes; they are often bandits or outlaws, yet they achieve a kind of moral justification through their decent treatment of individuals they run into, especially the weak, downtrodden, and excluded. A Bullet for the General flips this script. Is Bill Tate a condemnable mercenary or a man-with-no-name type who will achieve a kind of justification through individual decency? With cunning and a surprising amount of risk, he stops a woman from being raped; she is the wife of a local governor, and neither of them are especially sympathetic, but Tate's willingness to intervene to stop a heinous act recommends him for the man-with-no-name justification. He treats Chucho (who I'm pretty sure is really named "Chucho," and not the Francophile "Chuncho") with unnecessary friendship and decency, complicating Chucho's feelings towards him. Yet in the end, the viewer sees, through Chucho's eyes, another aspect of Tate's personality and political existence which have remained constant: his disgust and contempt towards poor Mexicans as a class / nationality / race, despite his ability to befriend individual Mexicans. If the typical man with no name achieves a kind of filmic salvation through a staunch refusal of the social through his gentleness with individuals who are somehow weak or outside the boundaries of societal protection, Tate achieves a kind of inverted filmic damnation. His bad deeds and greed, which initially may seem excusable in light of his individual decency, are put in perspective by the fact that his individual decency only extends to those people who are humanized and individualized within Tate's own moral code. He still treats Mexicans-in-general like dogs, and Chucho ("mutt" or "cur" in vernacular Spanish) responds to this realization with a kind of existential, a-logical choice.

Writing about this movie convinced me that I liked it better than I thought I did. It is a sort of deconstruction of the value system of the (less clearly radical, Leone-style) spaghetti Western that still remains within the genre. But don't expect the tight plot and dramatic tension of a Leone film! If you like interesting characters and this ideological, deconstructive element, this film is definitely worth your time; if not, Duck, You Sucker! / Once upon a Time, the Revolution is probably a more digestible Zapata western.

The dub was terrible - especially since a) materials suggest the dub edits out most of the politics (I definitely noticed this a bit in the beginning, where the Spanish speakers were talking about revolution and nothing about revolution was dubbed into English) and b) unlike in the Leone films, to my knowledge none of the main characters were speaking dialogue in English. This film is worth a modern criterion collection type treatment with original language tracks and subtitles!

A couple of thoughts that sound naive when I think them but keep bothering me. MOOCs and communes

I often wonder if how we radicals can play a useful role with regard to fights where we seem to be on the losing side of history. I keep thinking of debates over early capitalism smashing peasant communes, e.g. in Russia. Marx thought that capitalism in that era was historically progressive with respect to feudalism, so we should not mourn the peasant communes overly much; I’ve heard a number of folks who take Marx seriously lately criticizing him on precisely this point. Federici, for example, saying that capitalism was not historically progressive; it was always barbarous.

Of course resisting MOOCs may be ethically even more murky and seemingly less worthy of high stakes. If sub-elite research, comprehensive, and regional public universities in 15 years offer many lower-level, required courses in the form of MOOCs, employing fewer teachers to teach these courses, that is less optimal education than offering the courses, fully staffed, but how does it compare to offering the courses only half the time (which I take to be the status quo in many places)? Do we try to change the macro-political discourse through social movements that have a hub in the university? Do we mourn what is lost, with all its contradictoriness, and probably get smashed? What are the ethics of taking or not taking that stance? Or do we embrace innovation without embracing the (neo-)liberal techno-futurism of some versions of it; with the altermondialistes, is another MOOC possible?</span> (Of course this is just one example ... one which has been on my plate recently.)

A much bigger question lurking here is whether capitalism still has “progressive” (whatever we take that to be) developmental potential or whether late capitalism is just an evolution in the rottenness of capitalism. The theory of late capitalism was always that capitalism has reached a point at which its development is just rot, but that seems hard to square with contemporary reality unless you take a pretty technophobic stance. (Not to mention ignore developments in social structures of gender and sexuality, which, while far from uniform, are certainly not uniformly negative or static.)

Bipolar writing

Writing today about Kathleen Norris's theories around bipolar habits in writing. There's something about it that doesn't sit quite right, beyond what I've said in the diss. It seems to me that she (and the other writers she cites) are using bipolar as a metaphor for an alternation of zeal and lulls in the writing process that probably don't, in most cases, add up to a clinical bipolar diagnosis. It seems appropriative. Yet, if somebody referred to her own writing process as depressive in the unipolar sense, I wouldn't care whether she could be diagnosed for depression; it wouldn't seem appropriative. I've been diagnosed with depression at least a couple of times and when I first heard the explanation of dysthymia, I thought, oh, there's a word for the way my mom and I function most of the time. It wouldn't seem appropriative to me if a normally content person had a couple of bad days and said he was feeling depressed. Is it just because depression is now a quality that belongs to "normal" experience, while bipolar somehow seems to be a condition which should be accorded a shred of distinctness despite its broader cultural resonances? Or am I exacerbating an othering / stigmatizing tendency towards bipolar by considering it that way?

Anyway, acknowledging a metaphorical rather than clinical use of this term, and underlining that they are not the same: what is the difference between a "bipolar" cycle of writing or some other kind of subjective labor and pre-industrial, pre-Taylorist "natural work rhythms" in which everybody alternated between slow, unproductive days and intense bouts of work when something really needed to get done? Is it just that today, lulls in work are colored with guilt and zealous bouts of work are colored with confident uninhibitedness, while in a pre-industrial context, the working would have just felt like hard fucking work you had to do and the slow periods would have felt like an earned, delicious rest?

I feel like the last bits of my dissertation are being written either in a pre-industrial harvest rush or in a (non-clinical, metaphorical) state of PTSD and walking through a burned out field. These metaphors are quite different. But I can't quite figure out which it is. In my low moments, I look back at my own prose and it seems lifeless. I feel like something about this process may have killed my writerly sensibilities, and a project that was indubitably interesting to everyone when it existed as pure potential has become just miles of complete but deadening drabness, interrupted every few pages by an isolated, outlandish philosophical claim. Other times it feels plodding, workmanlike. And other times, it feels like a decent first or second draft of a book is emerging that will need a fair amount of spit and polish to shine, but that all of this work is getting me closer to being able to conceptualize it as a real thing.

I promised myself that when I published my dissertation as a book, I would write up some excoriating criticisms of it under a pen name. Would that sort of thing be considered intellectually dishonest these days? Driving discussion of the book? I don't care if my excoriating criticisms are published in an academic press. I will throw them up on some blog somewhere. I just think I have a pretty devastating handle on the weaknesses of this thing and might kind of enjoy tearing this young turk down to size.

It's weird to write for so long with so much restraint. I've held memoir at bay almost completely, save for a couple of tiny glimpses, and the further it has gone, I realize I'm holding praxis at bay too. Memoir and activism feel like they could just take over; I want this thing to have some rigor and a bone structure. But maybe the rigor is scraping away all the sinews and connective tissue, and once they're gone, they cannot be restored.
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The final throes

I keep referring to myself as being "in the final throes" of my dissertation. While of course this is a metaphorical statement, the more I think about how I much I use this phrase, the more I realize that I must have a serious commitment to it. The medical model of the pathology of physical diseases is a terrible one for mental health, but it turns out to be surprisingly apropos for the process of writing a dissertation. The pathogenesis of a dissertation is not unlike chronic bronchitis. You might develop pneumonia; you might lose a lung. You might get better quickly and end up with a slight cough and a decent first or second-ish draft of a book. But at some point, you will reach "the final throes," that spasm of chills, coughing, and hacking up gobs of unexpectedly dense mucus and/or prose which tends to precede either a general improvement and rapid alleviation of the condition or a sudden turn for the worse and a prolonged bedridden torpor.

The person who finishes a dissertation is indeed due "congratulations," but these congratulations are much less like the congratulations due on the occasion of a baby's birth or a marriage or a promotion and much more like the congratulations due to a friend who has finally kicked a particularly persistent case of bronchitis. "Congratulations, John. You beat it. It was really touch and go there for a few years. This last time, I really wasn't sure you were going to pull through. You've said you were getting better so many times, only to relapse into a paroxysm of coughing and hacking. I was sure you were going to go to bed again and tell me you had to read everything there is to know about yet another minor aspect of your work. But you really licked it this time! You're the man, dogg. I'll see you bright and early Monday morning."

Mania is its own end

I seem to be in a tiny minority in my social network, but I’ve become a big fan of post-Broncos Tebowmania: the way in which the mania has grown and become partially detached from its erstwhile object in inverse proportion to the football importance of that object. Can somebody ask Zizek to write an article about Tebow, or maybe Tebowmania and Christopher Nolan?


The Changing Character of May Day in the US; Heterogeneous-Populist Movement Forms

I am fascinated by holidays, how they are received, and how that changes over time. I suppose my interest lies at kind of a juncture of cultural studies and something you might call political theology. I first developed this interest in El Salvador, where I lived in 1997. There, the use of a calendar of holidays both Catholic and secular, broadly recognized in society and contested, was used there as something of a starting point for ongoing cultural / political debate. I suppose that happens in the US too to some extent; I notice it a lot more now, with the existence of social media, than I did before. But in El Salvador the layering of a liturgical calendar and a secular calendar was much more obvious. I suppose my starting place is that holidays always have something of a liturgical character - there are words we are supposed to say and actions we are supposed to perform. And those liturgies are contestable, either in whole or in part: we should celebrate it like this, not like that, or not at all.

May Day in the US is a very interesting example. What follows is anecdotal and impressionistic, so I'd be interested if anybody has arguments to the contrary. 10 years ago, hardly anyone celebrated it except for lefties - and not even a lot of lefties, but the real history buffs, a population that overlapped with membership in the IWW and CPUSA quite a bit. I remember in student activist, union organizing, community organizing, and to my memory even soft/post Trotskyist scenes, talking about May Day would cause most people in the room to roll their eyes. May Day was a day for a few historically minded anarchists to try to do something, the CP to have a barbecue, and everybody else to carry on with whatever.

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This is kind of a weird topic for a first entry after months of non-posting, but I've been thinking about how strange it is that I've never become any better than passable at facilitating meetings or discussions, after five years as a union organizer and another five or so as a pretty involved rank-and-file activist, thirteen years as a member of an organized left group, and eight years as a teacher. (Those time periods overlap, but really I've been doing work that involved some kind of long, intense meetings that needed facilitation since at least 1992.) One thing that got my thinking about this was a somewhat difficult set of meetings over the weekend, where the section I facilitated got reviewed by several people as the most opaque - though no one explicitly critiqued my facilitation, I certainly felt that I might have been partially at fault. Another thing that got me thinking about this was processing a set of student evals - actually a very positive set of evals - that had TA performance broken down in 11 different areas of teaching. All of my marks were quite good for this class, but the two lowest categories were "enthusiasm / motivates students" and "facilitates discussion well" - and I'd say that's a fair appraisal of my relative weaknesses as a teacher, or at least areas where my challenges arise.

What I find weird about it is that I actually value good facilitation quite a bit and think about facilitation and group process in fairly careful ways when I'm not at the front of the room. There's something about being at the front of the room in front of a group, not performing, really, but facilitating, that gets me really velocitized and makes me unsure who I am and what my relationship is to the people in front of me. After all these years, there's still something uncomfortable about it. (I wouldn't say I'm necessarily always dynamic at giving lectures and talks; sometimes my stuttering gets the better of me. But I usually understand who I'm communicating with and what a good talk would look like, and sometimes I pull it off.)

Maybe I'm just not any good at it? Or maybe I should fault my institutions for not teaching me facilitation as a skill? Or maybe I'm even experiencing some kind of psychodynamic confusion at the front of the room? (Come to think of it, I facilitate all the time, naturally, in groups of 2-10 where I know everyone really well. Usually I'm thinking, explicitly or implicitly, about everyone's individual needs and feelings. Perhaps in facilitating a larger discussion or class I want to be doing the same thing, but I don't know people well enough to do it, too many egos abound, and I get confused and overwhelmed?) Perhaps I want to take a facilitation class, once I've finished the dissertation, at some point when I have some free time, which of course might be a very long time from now. (Not the finishing, which is coming up sooner than I can handle, really, but the ever-elusive free time.)

Philosophies of Praxis vs. the Philosophers' Philosophies: Choose Your Interlocutors Carefully

I've been thinking lately about the differences between the philosophy of praxis (or, as I prefer, philosophies of praxis, since I think in the present moment a number of strands could be identified, including from outside the Marxist tradition) and philosophy or even theory as professional, academic enterprises. Of late for applications I've been presenting the philosophy of praxis as if it were a potential branch of philosophy nestled somewhere between political philosophy, ethics, and the philosophy of action, which it is & isn't.

One sense in which this is a lie, and the philosophy of praxis to be anything meaningful must have other dimensions: for the philosophers' philosophy, or the theorists' theory, almost the entirety of contemporary interlocutors are located within academia, and even historic interlocutors are located within an academically defined canon, even if some of the figures involved are not themselves academics. I'll make the perhaps ugly claim that this is true even of academic radicals who attack the traditional (white, male, Eurocentric, Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian) canon, but tend not to escape fully the logic of canonicity, ending up creating more or less successful counter-canons.

For the philosophy of praxis, all of these interlocutors are like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and here the metaphor is not entirely a throwaway. The academic conversations tend to be of a superstructural nature which are useful to the extent that they can be brought into relationship with other kinds of philosophy: those which are implicit or explicit in popular culture, common sense, mass media, and the political action of social groups. The webs of relationships between theory and these more embedded forms of philosophy tend to be what makes the former interesting. (This should be obvious, but I'm barely reworking Gramsci here.)
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