the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, May 12, 2006

Naked Gaze has moved!

Naked Gaze has moved laterally, and received a face-lift.
Our new home is
all existing content has been transfered over (with a more functional interface), and new content will be coming soon.
take care,

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Obscene Images (2)

In 2001, there was a small scandal when images appearing to depict a Chinese man eating a human fetus began circulating on the internet. The excitement surrounding the images—shocking enough in their own right—was further fueled by claims that they depicted a cannibalistic delicacy served in certain Taiwanese restaurants. Eventually, the furor died down, in part because it was ultimately revealed that the images had been taken out of context—that they actually depicted a performance art work by Beijing-based avant-garde artist Zhu Yu 朱昱 (of course, Zhu Yu’s claim that he was consuming an actual human fetus for the piece is just as shocking as the original claim that human flesh was being served in Taiwan restaurants, but it does not appear to have received the same international attention). (For further discussion, see here and here.

A similar scandal unfolded recently after John Dower’s and Shigeru Miyagawa’s course page and research project “Visualizing Cultures” was featured on the MIT home page on April 23rd. A vociferous protest developed among some Chinese groups on campus (protests which quickly spread, via the internet, far beyond the physical campus itself) about the use of these images, focusing in particular on the inclusion of a woodblock print of a war-time decapitation of Chinese soldiers by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War.

The original image (which appeared with the caption “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers”) was accompanied by a detailed explanation by John Dower specifying its historical context (a pdf copy of the original page is reproduced here):
The subject itself, however, and the severed heads on the ground, made this an unusually frightful scene…Even today, over a century later, this contempt remains shocking. Simply as racial stereotyping alone, it was as disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-Oriental racism in the United States and Europe at the time – as if the process of Westernization had entailed, for Japanese, adopting the white man’s imagery while excluding themselves from it. This poisonous seed, already planted in violence in 1894-95, would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.
Nevertheless, this detailed explanation would not necessarily have been obvious to more casual viewers—particularly among readers whose first language was not English (for discussions of this image among overseas Chinese language newspapers, see , for example, Chinese News Net, Ta Kung Pao and World Journal).

For instance, in very measured and reasonable early (April 25th) letter to the MIT administration, the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) drew attention to these issues of contextualization:
In particular, the vivid images of the wartime atrocities inflicted on the Chinese conjured up haunting emotions of loss and rage, not unlike those emotions people around the world feel toward the much better-known and more talked-about events of the Holocaust. Already, the outcry from MIT's Chinese community has been thunderous, and the distress levels severe. We do understand the historical significance of these wood prints, and respect the authors' academic freedom to purse this study. However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images.
Phrases featured prominently at the top of the page under Old China, New Japan include "Still, predictable patterns give order to this chaos. Discipline (the Japanese side) prevails over disarray (the Chinese)," and "In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way—disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements." The only circumstance under which these very racially-charged statements might be possibly acceptable is if they are being used to describe the depictions of the images. Yet at first glance, that purpose is far from obvious; instead, the text seems to suggest that it is reporting history itself. The issue of the blatant racism so prominently exhibited in these images and descriptions is not addressed until much further down the page, almost at the end of the article.
The CSSA’s claim in this letter (corrected four days later) that the events in question derived from an “art exhibit” (term used in the CSSA’s second open letter; the first refers to it as simply an “exhibit”) further illustrates the point of how even careful viewers might separate powerful images from their detailed textual commentary.

This problem of context was, of course, further compounded when the image started circulating (in e-mails, blogs, etc.) completely independently of its original “Visualizing Cultures” commentary. These issues of the global circulation of disturbing images mirrors the case of Zhu Yu’s cannibalism photo five years earlier. Another important parallel between the two cases concerns the issue of different epistemological orders. That is to say, in both cases an implicit distinction is drawn between how images are perceived and understood within the aesthetic context of an art exhibit vs. the more empirical context of a news article or a history project (though, curiously, while in the case of the cannibalism photograph, the revelation that it was part of an art performance apparently functioned as a mitigating factor, in the case of the decapitation print it was the inverse clarification that it was not part of an art exhibit which helped to calm some of the initial furor).

These questions of epistemological orders come to the fore in a somewhat different way in another exchange a few days later. On April 27th, CSSA published a second open letter to “CSSA Members and Other Members of the Chinese Community Worldwide” following its meeting with “MIT administration,” in which they announced, among other things, that it had been agreed that,
The Visualizing Cultures research team will address how it contextualizes sensitive content by providing appropriate language to prepare users for the graphic material depicted. The research team is looking to CSSA for feedback and future dialogue.
As stated previously, CSSA is strongly opposed to any irrational behavior. Any feedback from individuals on this issue is welcome.
Precisely one day later, however, MIT History professor Peter Perdue published a lengthy “Open Letter to Chinese Students at MIT,” in which he made a number of forceful and cogent arguments about the importance of intellectual autonomy. At several points in the letter, Prof. Purdue addresses his intended audience directly:
You are some of the best and brightest young people of China, who have come to MIT in order to pursue education mainly in scientific and technological subjects with the leading researchers in the world. Many of you, I am sure, plan to return to China to use the skills you learn here to help China become a truly modern country. […]

You, despite your passion, are not specialists in East Asian history. Like any field in the sciences or engineering, historical study requires intensive concentration, acquisition of essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing. Those of you who think that you know the history of East Asian better than these distinguished scholars lack the authority to make this claim. No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased. It is disrespectful of the dedication of serious scholars to make such emotional charges based on no evidence.
What strikes me as interesting about these statements is that that they appear to blur two different epistemological orders. Purdue posits a contrast between the students’ “passion” and the scholars’ “essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing,” and clearly valorizes the “thoughtful” approach” over the more “passion[ate]” one. He concludes that “No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased.” Perhaps, however, that is precisely the point—the controversy does not seem to be about empirical issues of “mistake[s]” in the first place, but rather the claim that the images are, by their very nature, disturbing to many viewers, regardless of the historical accuracy of the discussion in which they are embedded.

Stepping away for a second from the details of the MIT controversy itself, I would like to point out that, although the CSSA in this case is merely requesting more clearly contextualiztion, it would perhaps not be unreasonable to argue that certain types of images might, by their very nature be inherently unsuitable for reproduction on a nationally or globally visible forum such as the MIT web site.

In fact, there are actually many examples of images which one might reasonably teach in an academic context, but which many might object to their being distributed on a globally visible forum such as the MIT homepage (regardless of how much context is provided). To take an obvious example, Constance Penley teaches a famous course at UCSB called “Porn 101,” in which the students view and analyze an array of hard-core porn flicks (she also has guests speakers, such as director, writer and actor John Stagliano—otherwise known by his screen name of “Buttman”—whom Penley notes is actually more thorough and organized as a guest lecturer than many of her more “academic guests”). While this controversial course is very popular and well-received (she, Linda Williams, and Susie Bright are even working on a textbook), I suspect that many advocates of free speech within academia (including not only the participants in the current debate, as well as those who were critical of American newspapers’ general refusal to reprint the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons a few months ago) would be apoplectic if some of the images from Penley’s course (say, stills and clips from Stagliano’s most recent opus, Buttman’s Ass Adoro; or images from Zhu Yu's "Eating people" performance) were to be directly linked to their own university’s home page, irrespective of how much contextual explication were to accompany them.

To conclude by citing another open letter by MIT literature and culture professor Jing Wang:
The most important issue neglected in this debate is the questions regarding public access to educational and research materials posted online. OCW is a global medium and a global classroom. But is there such a thing as a singular "global" or "universal" audience for digitally delivered open content? What kind of room do we (or should we) allow technologically enabled audiences (of different ethnic cultures and nationalities) to partake in knowledge production? Do professors have the sole monopoly over knowledge production and dissemination in the age where knowledge is collectively produced?
[On May 2nd, the same day as Wang’s letter, it was announced that the page would be reposted, but even now, a week later, the original “Visualizing Cultures” link on MIT’s “opencourseware” site simply redirects to a page containing a number of official statements about the controversy by the MIT administration and others.]
(Part 2 of 3)

Obscene Images (1)

Sigmund Freud, who would have celebrated his 150th birthday on Saturday (one day after Marx’s birthday), began his scientific career, as Benedict Carey noted in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, dissecting eels:
He examined hundreds of the animals, working long hours amid stench and slime, peering through a microscope at countless tissue samples, in search of an organ that had eluded earlier anatomists -- male testicles.

''Since eels do not keep diaries,'' the investigator, 19-year-old Sigmund Freud, wrote to a friend in the spring of 1876, the only way to determine gender was to cut and slice, ''but in vain, all the eels which I cut open are of the fairer sex.''
He ended the letter by sketching an eel, swimming through the text, its face fixed with a slight, Mona Lisa smile.
As psychoanalyst Mark Solms noted recently on NPR (and repeats again in the exhibit catalogue), this biographical detail is uncannily appropriate: the father of psychoanalysis, whose reputation is closely linked (for better or for worse) in the popular imagination with the notion of castration anxiety, appearing in an adolescent quest to visually confirm the existence of male reproductive organs of eels.

[And furthermore, to state the obvious, eels themselves can be considered quintessential “phallic symbols” (a theme developed in fascinating detail, for instance, in Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland; the subsequent film version of which was directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, 1992)—thereby yielding a paradox similar to that which the more mature Freud will later attribute women, whereby women function as symbols and visual reminders of the possibility of castration, while at the same time themselves standing as phallic symbols or phallic substitutes.]

As intriguing as this account of the adolescent Freud’s compulsively cutting open of figuratively castrated, phallic eels might be, what is perhaps even more intriguing is the description of the Freud’s doodle of an (effeminate?) eel, “swimming through the text” of his handwritten letter to his friend. Dating from the very beginning of Freud’s scientific career, when his focus was more on anatomy and physiology rather than the workings of the psyche, this playful doodle suggests an early attempt to engage with issues located at the limit-point of visual representation—using a visual sketch as a displaced substitute for the invisible (or non-visible) object of investigation.

By the same token, this eel doodle similarly stands at the figurative entry-point into the on-going exhibition of drawings from throughout Freud’s career at the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s press release describes the exhibit in explicitly visual terms:
Freud’s stockpile of must-see scientific drawings and diagrams from throughout his nearly 60-year career has been largely absent from public view. […]

“This is the Freud you don’t know,” said Miriam Mandelbaum, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Academy. “This is Freud as he has not really been presented in popular literature. His scientific training is overlooked.”
In using terms like “must-see,” “absent from public view,” and “overlooked,” the NYAM press release deliberately plays off of the same issues of visibility and invisibility which lie at the heart of the exhibit itself. The exhibit demonstrates the degree to which Freud, who was an accomplished draftsman, systematically moved from illustrations of visible anatomical and neurological structures, to schematic illustrations of inherently "invisible" delocalized mental processes. A similar progression can be seen within the history of psychology itself, from Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous photographic catalogues of hysterics in the 1870s and 80s, to Freud’s eventual use of the “talking cure” to diagnose the non-visible, unconscious foundations of hysteria and other neuroses. In other words, one of the central elements of the Freudian method consists in making visible the non-visible, while the same time stressing the a priori importance of that nonvisiblity in the first place.

Indeed, within Freudian theory in general, the unconscious tends to be described as that which remains buried from view, though Jon from Posthegemony in a very interesting post notes that, in a late essay,
Freud turns this metaphor on its head. In "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," ruins stand for what is clearly in view, in front of the analyst's face. And the issue here is why what is so straightforwardly visible, uncompromisingly material, should be strangely denied or disavowed.
That, indeed, is perhaps one of the central paradoxes of the psychoanalytic inquiry--that it purports to reveal that which is, be definition, not visible, though the method of this inquiry is, at the same time, predicated on the conviction that the workings of the unconscious are nevertheless ubiquitously visible, if only one knows how to look for them—a paradox concisely summed up in the tag-line of the X-Files (which Zizek is fond of citing): “The truth is out there.”

Speaking, however, of talking cures and adolescent angst, Freud’s eel doodle brings to mind the recent brouhaha over “Harvard sophomore” Kaavya Viswanathan’s alleged plagiarism in her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (for which she signed the half a million dollar book contract two years ago at the age of 17—coincidentally the same age as Freud at the time of the doodle). Joining a growing list of memoirs which turn out to be not what they claim (see James Frey and JT Leroy), Viswanathan ultimately defended herself by claiming that “I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words...Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Although subsequent commentators have been openly skeptical about the truth value of this claim, most nevertheless appear to accept the inherent intelligibility of the terms of the explanation itself. As the Harvard Independent remarked, for instance,
Viswanathan’s explanation certainly sounds reasonable — what young writer hasn’t been inspired, perhaps to the point of slavish imitation, by the work of a particularly affecting role model? But was McCafferty truly such a figure for Viswanathan? [emphases added]
What is perhaps most interesting here, therefore, is not so much the question of whether Viswanathan did or did not “unintentional[ly] and unconscious[ly] adopt other writers’ words, but rather what the incident reveals about the status of psychoanalytic concepts and terminology within contemporary culture. That is, even in an intellectual climate in which Freud is routinely mocked for his over-reliance on sexual explanations (a caricature I like to refer to as “vulgar Freudianism”), concepts such as that of the unconscious (a foundational element of modern psychoanalysis) have by and large been successfully naturalized and internalized by contemporary American culture.

On a similar note, the same NY Times article further observed that
Some of the plagiarism may have happened because she has a photographic memory, Ms. Viswanathan said. ''I remember by reading,'' she said. ''I never take notes.''
Although the Times doesn’t explicitly attribute the phrase “photographic memory” to Viswanathan, the choice of words here is revealing. To begin with, it would appear that the term “photographic memory” is being used here in a very colloquial sense, rather than necessarily implying a precise analogy with workings of a camera. Indeed, Viswanathan’s claim of unconscious appropriation would appear to closely mirror Helen Keller’s similar explanation that she had internalized (though, we may safely assume, not in a “photographic” way) Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King":
I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind.
[In Slate, Joshua Foer uses the Viswanathan incident as a pretext for unleashing a detailed critique of the whole notion of “photographic memory”—a term which he rather mysteriously insists on interpreting very literally (in the sense of the mind functioning like a high-resolution camera) though it is not at all clear that Viswanathan or anyone else was using it in that way].

Like the “unintentional and unconscious” phrase, however, what is most interesting about the reference to “photographic memory” is perhaps not so what it says about Viswanathan, but rather what it reveals about contemporary culture. More specifically, the impulse to think of memory as operating photographically is arguably a symptom of a more general phenomenon which Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” famously referred to as the “optical unconscious” ("The camera introduces us to unconscious optics…."), or the degree to which visual technologies such as the camera have come to inform the ways in which we perceive the world.

If Freud’s eel doodle as a 17 year old can be viewed as a figurative entry-point into his subsequent engagement with the non-visible during his professional career, another, much more famous, image (or rather, a pair of images) marks one symbolic end-point of that same trajectory. The image in question is a famous portrait which Salvador Dalí sketched of Freud when he was 82. On July 19th, 1938, Sefan Zweig introduced Salvador Dalí to Freud, during which meeting Dalí made a surreptitious sketch of Freud, which subsequently provided the basis for ominously morbid pen and ink drawing. Zweig, however, refused to allow either sketch or drawing to be shown to Freud, on the grounds that the sketch revealed Freud’s imminent death (Freud passed away a year later, on Sept. 23, 1939). Like the eel doodle, therefore, the Dalí sketch similarly uses visual images to represent that which effectively lies beyond the reach of the gaze (i.e., the eel gonads, and Freud’s deadly cancer. From the non-visible to the visible, from eros and thanatos, these twin images nicely encapsulate one component of Freud’s legacy.
(Part 1 of 3)

Friday, May 05, 2006

As Time Goes By (3)

On this day in 1818, Karl Marx was born in a three story house in the town of Trier, the oldest town in Germany. Although baby Karl and his family only lived in the house for a little over a year before moving to a smaller one nearby, this house (which was not definitively re-identified until 1904, nearly a century later) has been made into a small museum in Marx’s memory.

Recently, as an extension of the increasingly popularity of “Red Tourism” 红色旅游 in China (in which Chinese tourists visit the route of the Long March and other locations enshrined in CCP history), more and more of the guests visiting the museum come from China. In fact, of the 35,000 visitors to the museum each year, a third come from Asia, particularly China. As a result, Chinese visitors currently outnumber German ones, and that the majority of the signatures and comments in the guest book are in Chinese. Accounts differ on the question of the attitudes of these Asian tourists, with some reports describing the Chinese visits in quasi-religious terms (of their making a “pilgrimage” to a “shrine,” etc.), while others stress the more commercial dimensions (one stop among many arranged by commercial tour groups)—two dimensions which are nicely brought together in the NY Times’ use of the phrase “mecca of the Chinese tourist class” in the title of their article.

What do these visitors encounter when they visit this figurative “house next door”? Is it inhabited and occupied, or merely an empty shrine? The tourists see several small exhibits, including both biographical information on Marx as well as material relating to the Marxist legacy in countries throughout the word, including China. Richard Bernstein in the NY Times reports that part of the exhibition is devoted to Chinese Marxism, referring to the Long March led by Mao in the 1930's as a ''mythologized'' event and speaking of the massacre of thousands of students and others during the violent suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement in China in 1989. The museum also contains a number of first editions, including ones of The Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital, as well as “photographs, manuscripts, letters, a small volume of poetry handwritten by Marx for his father, and a further volume of folk-songs compiled for Jenny von Westphalen, his future wife.” In addition, the house features furniture that “dates to the period in which the Marx family lived and reflects contemporary living conditions,” although, of course, none of the Marx family’s original furniture has survived.

What are the implications for Marxism’s legacy (and, more importantly, our understanding of that legacy) of these large groups of Chinese tourists—some apparently devotees of Marxism and Maoism, while others converts to the new deity of capitalism—visiting Marx’s birthplace, filling the guest book with Chinese autographs and commentaries, and responding to the museum’s characterization of Chinese Marxism ? To understand the implications of this possibly rather queer scene, it would be useful to begin with the physical setting, and specifically the house’s furniture—that is both original and reproduction, authentic and imitation (dating “[from] the period,” yet not the original Marx furniture).

Marx himself was not uninterested in furniture, and one of the most famous passages in Capital uses furniture, and specifically the figure of the wooden table, to illustrate the “queerness” of the commodity form:
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. […] The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” every was.
While the popular mid-nineteenth century practice of “table-turning,” or spirit divination, was originally of American origins, it is nevertheless clear that in making this allusion Marx also had in mind another corner of the world that he was following closely during this period: China:

[In an 1850 discussion of China’s Taiping Rebellion, for instance, Marx made some uncannily prescient remarks about “Chinese socialism”:
The hitherto unshakeable Central Empire experienced a social crisis. Taxes ceased to come in, the State fell to the edge of bankruptcy, the population sank in masses into pauperism, broke out in revolts, maltreated and killed the Emperor’s mandarins and the priests of the Fohis. The country came to the verge of ruin, and is already threatened with a mighty revolution. And there is even worse. Among the masses and in the insurrection there appeared people who pointed to the poverty on the one side and the riches on the other, and who demanded, and are still demanding, a different division of property and even the entire abolition of private property. When Mr. Gutzlaff, after twenty years’ absence, returned once more to civilised people and Europeans, he heard talk of Socialism, and asked what that was. When it was explained to him he exclaimed in consternation, “Shall I then never escape this pernicious doctrine? The very same thing has been preached for some time by many people among the mobs in China.” […]

Chinese Socialism, bears much the same relation to European Socialism as Chinese philosophy does to Hegelian philosophy. It is, in any case, an intriguing fact that the oldest and the most unshakable empire in the world has in eight years by the cannon-balls of the English bourgeoisie been brought to the eve of a social revolution which will certainly have the most important .results for civilisation. When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, “Chinese Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity."]
In fact, in Capital itself Marx makes an explicit comparison between table-turning and the contemporary turmoil and tumult in China. As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx,
[The table] goes into trances, it levitates, it appears relieved of its body, like all ghosts, a little mad and unsettled as well, upset, “out of joint,” delirious, capricious, and unpredictable. It appears to put itself spontaneously into motion, but it also puts others into motion, yes, it puts everything around it into motion, as though “pour encourager les autres” (to encourage the others), Marx specifies in French in a note about this ghost dance: “One may recall that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still — pour encourager les autres.
The tables and other furniture of Marx’s house, therefore, speak, on the one hand, to the process by which “common, every-day” objects “step forth as commodities” and are thereby “transformed into something transcendent.” How, in other words, the furniture and other artifacts in the Marx House are invested with value precisely through the process of being placed within a global circuit of ideological exchange. And, more specifically, the in/authentic furniture of the Marx House conjures up the image of Marx’s famous American “dancing tables,” together with the allusion, just below the surface, to China’s own dance when the rest of the world “appeared to be standing still”….or shall we say sleeping?

These questions of how to commemorate Marx’s birthday bring to mind another recent anniversary—that of the Chernobyl disaster which took place 20 years and two weeks ago. In addition to the general amnesia that arguably surrounds the event (particularly in the context of many current discussions of nuclear energy), there is a more specific detail which is often forgotten: the original and official name of the reactor was the “V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station” (the name “Chernobyl” was borrowed by the city by the same name located about 18 km up-river from the reactor). The reactor therefore, functions as a miniature allegory for the Marxist-Leninist foundation of the USSR (and, arguably, of global Marxism), and its own subsequent meltdown--a reactor founded on commemoration and messianic promise coming to be associated with unimaginable devastation and, subsequently, endemic amnesia.

My previous discussion of Chernobyl’s anniversary concludes with a consideration of two movies, both of which conclude with the female protagonist’s reencounter with her former lover and/or his (grand)son after approximately 50 year separations. [In Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987), the former 1930s Hong Kong prostitute returns as a ghost in the 1980s, and is ultimately reunited with her former lover through the assistance of his son. In Samson Chiu’s Golden Chicken 2 (2003), meanwhile, the former 1990s Hong Kong prostitute Ah Kum is united, in 2046, with the grandson of her former lover—though he doesn’t realize who she is. In both cases, the 50 year interregnum alludes to the Deng’s 1987 promise that the political structure of Hong Kong would remain unchanged for at least 50 years following the “return” to PRC control in 1997]. In both of these films, the themes of spectral returns and alienated encounters with (grand)sons (both of which are played out against the backdrop of the hyper-capitalist Hong Kong’s alienated “return” to the communist PRC) can be seen as an illustration or allegory of Derrida’s point about the inherent heterogeneity of Marx’s legacy—of the many different “specters” of Marx are received by his many “sons.” In “Marx and Sons,” for instance, Derrida speaks of a “faithful-unfaithful heritage of ‘Marx,’ unfaithful for being faithful (‘unfaithful for being faithful’; with a view to being faithful and, at the same time, because it is or would be faithful).”

In 1987, the same year as Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, Yu Hua 余华 wrote a short story called simply “1986”—with the year 1986 signifying, in this context, not the Chernobyl disaster, but rather the anniversary of Chairman Mao’s death (in 1976), as well as the anniversaries of the official beginning and end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Like Rouge, “1986” is about the return of a ghost—a high school history teacher who was abducted from his home a decade earlier by the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards, and who was subsequently given up for dead and forgotten. He returns now, in the middle of the Dengist economic and political reforms of the mid-1980s, but finds that no one , not even his former family, recognizes him, and consequently proceeds to impart horrific violence—first, symbolically and imaginatively, on the other townspeople, and second, literally?, on himself (ritualistic performing the traditional Chinese “five punishments”—branding, castration, dismemberment, etc.—on his own body).

Yu Hua’s image of the ghost-like history teacher, abducted at a moment of political extremism and returning now, during a period of political and economic “reform,” unrecognized, and finally dismembering himself in order to attract attention—strikes me as a very suggestive metaphor for the position of Marxism within today’s world.
(Part 3 of 3)
(Cross-posted with Long Sunday)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

As Time Goes By (2)

In one of Johnny’s (David Thewlis) many rants in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), he suggests at one point that the Chernobyl meltdown was one of the signs of the impending apocalypse:
In the same Book of Revelations, when the seven seals are broken open... on the Day of Judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison
a third part of all the waters, and a third part of all the land, and many, many, many people will die. Now, do you know what the Russian translation for "wormwood" is?
- No.
- Chernobyl. Fact!
[This monologue has also been adapted into a song by The Orb in their 1997 CD Orblivion]. Although Johnny’s etymology cited is slightly inaccurate (the name of the Ukranian city is actually derived from the word for mugwort [Artemisia vulgaris], which is related to but distinct from wormwood [Artemisia absinthium]—and this is not even considering the question of whether the New Testament Greek term apsinthos [ἄψινθος] itself necessarily refers to the absinthium genus), the resulting association between the Chernobyl meltdown and the Biblical prophecy has, nevertheless, become enshrined within popular culture.

As it turned, the Chernobyl disaster, horrific as it was, did not presage the impending apocalypse (despite what some might think of the current world [dis]order), though it may very well have contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union three years later. The issues of premonition and anticipation, furthermore, are relevant now as we observe the recent twenty year anniversary (on April 26) of the disaster.

Anniversaries are solemn occasions, moments to reflect, to both look back and to look ahead. It is surely not a coincidence that this anniversary has coincided with a energetic lobbying drive on the part of the US nuclear industry. For instance, on April 25th, the eve of the Chernobyl anniversary, it was announced that Christie Whitman, “former administrator of the EPA,” and Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, had agreed to lead a public relations campaign in favor of nuclear power. As the NYTimes noted at the time, however, the choice of Whitman is rather ironic, given that during her two and a half year period at the helm of the E.P.A., she oversaw the creation of rules for the storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain--rules which were subsequently thrown out by the courts “because they covered only the first 10,000 years of waste storage, while peak releases of radiation were expected after that time.”

[For its part, Greenpeace has released several reports on nuclear power over the past couple of weeks, noting, among other things, that since 1986 (the year that Patrick Moore himself left Greenpeace), there have been nearly a quarter of a million cancer cases (nearly 100,000 of which were fatal) as a direct result of the Chernobyl disaster, and tha,t in the US, there have been nearly two hundred “near-misses,” any of which could have resulted in an “American Chernobyl.”]

In other words, the recent nuclear energy campaign is not only seeking to foster what Limited, Inc. forcefully calls a “monument of amnesia,” but furthermore its central arguments are grounded on a sort of inverse amnesia—an unwillingness or inability to look, not into the past, but rather into the future. This inverse amnesia applies not only to the nuclear energy lobby’s refusal to reckon with the very real possibility of another catastrophic failure, but also to its failure to effectively address the problems relating to the long-term problem of effectively storing radioactive nuclear waste. This double amnesia—this simultaneous obliviousness to both the past and the future—results in a sense of being myopically trapped in the present.

A fascinating engagement with of this chiasmatic intersection of anticipation and amnesia can be found in the recent Hong Kong comedy Golden Chicken 2 金鸡2 (Samson Chiu Leong Chun 赵良骏, 2003), the sequel to the 2002 box office smash and critically acclaimed Golden Chicken (also directed by Chiu). Drawing on the tradition of the (in)famous late nineteenth century courtesan Sai Jinhua 赛金花 (featured in many literary and cinematic works, including Zeng Pu’s 曾樸 1907 novel A Flower in the Sea of Sins [Niehai hua 孽海花]) who allegedly helped save China during the Boxer Rebellion), as well as Shi Shuqing’s 施叔青 more recent “Hong Kong trilogy” 香港三部曲, that similarly takes a late nineteenth century (fictional) prostitute by the name of Huang Deyun 黄得云 as a metaphorical figure for Hong Kong—the Golden Chickens center around the eponymous figure of a prostitute (a “chicken,” in Cantonese slang) by the name of Ah Kum 阿金 (her name literally means “gold”) (Sandra Ng 吴君如), who then becomes an allegorical figure for Hong Kong itself.

While the original Golden Chicken features Ah Kum at her physical prime in the early 2000s, Golden Chicken 2, by contrast, opens in the year 2046, with Ah Kum already in her 80s. Like the Sai Jinhua in Zhang Chunfan’s 张春帆 informal sequel to Flowers in the Sinful Sea, Jiuwei gui 九尾龟 (Nine-tailed tortoise, 1910)—in which the now-elderly Sai must rely on her stories (rather than her body) to satisfy her customers—Ah Kum, in the 2003 sequel, is now a rather youthful-looking octogenarian (thanks to extensive plastic surgery), and when she encounters a young man (played by Chapman To 杜汶泽) disconsolate about losing his girlfriend (whose name is written [tattooed?] in black ink [and in English] under his eyes) and his consequently about to take a handful of “memory-erasing pills,” Ah Kum must rely on her memories and stories (rather than her physical charms) in order to cheer him up.

Like Forest Gump, Ah Kum proceeds to launch into a detailed account of the highs and lows of her own life, on the logic that bad memories make the good memories all the more memorable ("Looking back over all my years, even the saddest ones offer sweet memories"). She focuses in particular on two periods of her life: the early 1980s when she was still a school girl, and the SARS epidemic of 2003. She describes with gusto an array of bizarre (and occasionally tragic) characters, such as the mental patient who is unable to recognize his wife and therefore is constantly searching for her or her replacement (and who, as a result, has developed a body-hair fetish under the belief that when she ostensibly first left him, the only thing she left behind was a strand of hair). The narrative thread which stitches together all three time periods covered in the movie, however, is Ah Kum’s on-again, off-again romance with her cousin and childhood sweetheart, Quincy (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau 张学友 ), whom she marries for a day in 2003, after which he divorces her and is immediately imprisoned for embezzlement. During their earlier reunion during 1990s, however, she had accidentally gotten pregnant, secretly borne his child, put it up for adoption, and now (in 2046) one of her goals is to track down and make contact with her grandson.

Revolving around the theme of memory-erasing pills, GCII is located at a unique juncture of commemoration and anticipation. The 2003 SARS epidemic, for instance, is presented as Ah Kum’s flashback, but the movie’s use of deliberately distressed archival footage of the epidemic and other contemporary events gives the movie a sense of a prophetic “nostalgia for the present”—an uncanny anticipation of how the present will be remembered several decades in the future. Similarly, just as GCII looks back at the precedent of early twentieth century novels such as Flower in the Sea of Sins and Nine-tailed Turtle, it simultaneously looks forward—in its thematization of memory-erasing pills and, in the separate subplot about the mental patient constantly searching for his wife because he is unable to recognize her—to movies such as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Peter Segal’s Fifty First Dates (both of which were released in 2004, the year after GCII).

The most obvious instance of this sort of anachronism, however, can be seen in director Samson Chiu’s dialogue with the celebrated HK auteur Wong Kar-wai, and specifically his long-awaited film 2046 (also released in 2004, the year after GCII). Part of the significance of the year 2046 for both Chiu and Wong is that it represents the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control—an anniversary which is particularly significance because it represents the outer limit of Deng Xiaoping’s famous promise that “Our policy on Hong Kong will not change for 50 years after it is reunited with the motherland in 1997.” [Another Hong Kong movie which similarly brings together Deng’s 50 year promise with preternaturally young former prostitute searching for her lover & sons from a past life, is Stanley Kwan’s 关锦鹏 1987 film Rouge 胭脂扣. In Kwan’s film, the protagonist is a 1930s prostitute who attempts to commit double-suicide with her lover, and then returns looking for him 50 years later as a ghost.]

Chiu very explicitly plays off of these political connotations ("You know what Hong Kongers are gifted at--they are gifted at forgetting"), but also uses the Dengist notion of arrested anticipation and suspended temporality to gently poke fun and the notoriously slow production of Wong’s long-delayed 2046 (GCII concludes with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the debut screening of Wong’s film—more than 45 years after he started working on it at the end of 1999). [This dialogue between Wong Karwai and the more popular director Samson Chiu is remiscent of the long-standing dialogue between Wong and his former collaborator Jeffrey Lau 刘镇伟. For instance, Lau's 1993 film was an explicit take-off (based on the same Jin Yong 金庸 novel and featuring many of the same actors] on Wong's long-delayed Ashes of Time 東邪西毒 (which did not appear until 1994, the year after Lau's parody of it).

Ackbar Abbas famously argues, in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, that Hong Kong cultural identity only became an object of intense concern under the shadow (during the late 1980s and 1990s) of its anticipated extinction following the 1997 Handover. Samson Chiu’s GCII, meanwhile, implies that it is precisely the under the threat of potential amnesia (in the form of the memory-erasing pills) that memory and commemoration in turn become possible (both in the form of Ah Kum’s extended flashbacks, as well as her confirmation that the broken-hearted man she encounters on the roof-top in the year 2046 actually represents a tangible link to her own past).

Borges, in his story “Funes the Memorious” (Funes el memorioso) argues that the ability to (selectively) forget is an enabling condition for memory itself (not to mention sanity). The implication of Chiu’s film, however, is somewhat similar, that it is the very possibility of forgetting which functions as a condition of possibility for the drive to remember. As Derrida, Archive Fever, argues with respect to the archive (which is distinct from memory, but similarly predicated on “forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory),
There would be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression. Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression or destruction drive. […] (19).
Returning to the anniversary of Chernobyl and its implications for a rational energy politics, we might argue that the very literal "death drive" underlying many current discussions of nuclear energy (together with the “monument of amnesia” on which they are premised) should be viewed, not as a simple negation of the creation of a an archive and for a consideration of future directions, but rather as a catalytic condition of possibility for the same.
(Part 2 of 3)

Monday, May 01, 2006

As Time Goes By (1)

In “The House Next Door,” episode 46 of the 1990s BBC sitcom “As Time Goes By” (Sydney Lotterby, dir.), Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Dame Judi Dench) are startled by noises coming from an empty house next door. While the noises turn out to be just those of the former owner returning to take away some boxes, this disturbance nevertheless sets in motion a chain of events which further strengthens the bonds of the unlikely family at the center of the series.

The premise of “As Time Goes By” is that Lionel and Jean dated briefly, were separated for 38 years when he is sent to fight in the Korean War, and then accidentally become reacquainted (and fall back in love) when Lionel attempts to date Jean’s adult daughter (whom he has recently hired to be his secretary). “The House Next Door” episode, therefore can be seen as a miniature allegory for the series as a whole—the unfamiliar (i.e., strange noises next door, the mother of one’s employee and date) turns out to be familiar; and a space of absence (i.e, the empty house, the 38 year interregnum) provides the opportunity for the strengthening of existing ties.

More generally, the themes of memory and remembrance within the series (Lionel’s and Jean’s preservation of their memories of their former love over nearly four decades of separation) are now doubled back onto the series itself, which concluded its run last year and has now been released in its entirety on DVD.

These themes of memory and commemoration came to assume an unanticipated significance this morning when I visited another “house next door”: Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent film and media blog by that name. Rather than finding the expected discussions of current happenings in the world of cinema, there were instead two announcements stating that Matt’s 35 year old wife Jennifer Dawson had passed away unexpectedly this past Friday (she was reportedly in excellent health, and the medical examiner apparently still does not know the cause of her untimely death [“For now, the chart lists ‘cardio-pulmonary’ as cause of death, which, as the doctor put it, ‘That's a fancy way of saying we don't have a fucking clue’”] The couple has two small children, 2 and 8 years old).

For me, the title of Matt’s blog evokes two associations. First is the image of an empty house (as in the one in the “As Time Goes By” episode), representing an imaginary space or reality parallel to our own, and serving as a figurative reflective screen with which we can both identify but also project our fears and fantasies. That is one way of understanding the function of cinema and television. Second, is the image of an actual neighbor’s house, whom one might visit to borrow a cup of sugar or chat about the weather. That, in turn, is one way of thinking about the virtual communities enabled through the internet.

I didn’t personally know Matt Seitz or Jennifer Dawson. My only connection to them, beyond reading “The House Next Door,” was that several weeks ago I approvingly discussed his review of Ice Age 2 (in fact, it now seems oddly appropriate that that discussion itself took as its starting point Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man, which she wrote in memory of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had passed away two years earlier). The announcement of Jennifer’s passing, though, has jolted the “House Next Door,” for me, from the first sense of “house next door” to the second—creating a shock of recognition, a sense of a vicarious community created around a very real and tangible loss.

Speaking of virtual communities, I don’t (yet) post many comments to other blogs (though I am an avid reader), but felt compelled to write a little something to his:
Hi Matt,
Checking your blog on Monday morning to read about film, and seeing this shocking news leaves me somewhat speechless. Though we don't know each other, please accept my sincere condolences.

For what it is worth, film is inherently about memory, memorials, and commemoration, and therefore, at the very least, it is reassuring to know that Jennifer's memory will be in very capable hands.

"The harder you try to forget something, the more it will stick in your memory. Once I heard someone say that if you have to lose something, the best way to keep it is to keep it is to keep it in your memory."
(Wong Kar-wai, "Ashes of Time")
And, in fact, the last movie review which appeared on “The House Next Door” before Jennifer’s death (one day before, to be precise) was on issues of memory, remembrance and amnesia in relation to United 93:
The unofficial graffiti tag of 9/11 was “We Will Never Forget,” yet this film, which is dedicated to the memory of all who died, is ironically designed to make you erase everything but the 100 most emotionally intense minutes of 9/11. Given all this, it seems no surprise that Greengrass’ last film, The Bourne Supremacy, was a blockbuster action sequel about a government-trained killer with amnesia. This new movie is a different kind of amnesiac agent: It’s propaganda produced by, and for, the malleable center of the American psyche, a place where political leanings are built from Tinker Toys.
Amnesia and nostalgia are, as Andreas Huyssen argues in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, inextricably intertwined, and it is arguably the awareness of our potential to forget which thereby creates the imperative to remember. In this context, the subtitle of “The House Next Door” (the blog, not the sitcom episode) comes to assume an unexpectedly poignant significance: “A long strange journey toward a retrospectively inevitable destination.” The “retrospectively inevitable destination” being our own mortality, or the process of commemoration which it makes possible.
(Part 1 of 3)