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|Tuesday, August 10th, 2010|
|My review of OSF's Throne of Blood
One of the highlights of this summer was seeing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's stage adaptation of Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood."
Alright, let's get this laid out here. Yes, "Throne of Blood" is a film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," so this was a stage adaptation of a film adaptation of a play. It's kinda like The Producers as The Producers as The Producers, only with Japanese instead of singing.
We were fortunate enough to go on a backstage tour, guided by one of the actresses from the cast, so I was able to ask her what kind of training had been utilized in creating this performance. She warned me that, if I was expecting actual Japanese theatrical techniques, I would be disappointed. It was better to think of this as a fusion piece, she said. As OSF is a SHAKESPEARE company, the emphasis was on how Shakespearean acting techniques could be used to construct a play like "Throne of Blood."
The problem was in the aesthetic. The Shakespearean-style delivery and larger, declamatory movements were excellent, as one might expect. However, the visual and aural aesthetic, the text and the basic movement vocabulary were clearly traditional Japanese, specifically kabuki, which is an interesting conflict since the movie used mostly noh for aesthetic, and large parts were staged in this production with noh influence in mind. Unfortunately, the internal contradictions were exacerbated by the presence of the leading lady.
The woman playing Lady Asaji, the Lady Macbeth figure of the story, was an Equity actress called Ako. She is a graduate of the Takarazuka Academy, where she garnered a number of awards, and has since moved to the US to start a professional career here. According to our tour guide, Ako has kabuki training, although this might have been an easier way to say she was trained in buyo, since few people in the US know what buyo is. From the performance, it was clear that Ako had buyo training and at least a passing physical familiarity with noh. The problem was what we learned in "Judith of Shimoda": you can't put Noriko on stage next to D'Neka, in full wig and make-up, and expect D'Neka to look Japanese anymore. One of the most breath-taking moments in "Throne" was Asaji's first entrance, as she glided onto the stage. Lighted on stage right were four comic samurai, being silly. The rest of the stage was dimly back-lit with blue lights, so only Asaji's silhouette was visible as she shuffled from up left to center. Ako's suriashi was impeccable. With each step, the gentle scrape of her foot against the stage was audible, and even in the back-light, the elegant lift of the toe as she planted her foot was visible. Gasps were evident from the audience. Her body was held in a perfect kamae, adjusted for the clothing, which was more Heian-style court robe than noh kimono. Matt's arm might still have marks where I dug my fingernails into him to keep from crying out in joy. After a minute or so, she arrived at center stage and lifted her arm in the traditional shikake pose. Then, she froze. And didn't. move. again. She was captivating in her stillness. The other moment when her training shone through was when the King died. Blood spatters covered an up-stage shogi, and as she approached, she turned and "fluttered" away, exactly as the lead dancer does in "Sagi Musume." Never in my life had I wished so badly that kakegoe was acceptable in American theaters.
From that point on, nothing the other actors could do could compare. Many of the other characters used suriashi, but they either ran in a naturalistic style, or they bounced up and down as they walked, unable to keep their bodies in a parallel plane to the ground. In contrast to their feet, most characters were stuck somewhere between kyogen posture and kabuki posture. It was enough to suggest the style, but the rigidity in most of the actors' bodies suggested that they were attempted to force a style of movement alien from their own, rather than taking the essence of the form and incorporating it into another movement style. In this case, Shakespeare and his actors had been grafted into Japan, rather than the other way around. Notable was the leading character Washizu (Not-Macbeth), who used a movement style that evoked samurai characters of kabuki. He was big and bold, but unsteady and too intentional. Watching him go from seza to standing was like being stabbed in the eye repeatedly. They even used kabuki-style koken, running on and off stage like little black-hooded ninjas to move props. They scurried fast, but they tried to use suriashi, poorly, which made me go, "Oh, that's so cute! Look at you try."
There were other moments that showed a cast unable to physically handle the material. One part, and this was appalling from any perspective, was the lack of unity between actors. Synchronicity was missing in a number of places. One, which was extremely obvious, was the in which Lady Asaji convinces Washizu to kill the King. Elevated along the back wall were three samurai, all wielding naginata, and they would flip them from one side to the other every so often. Clearly, this was supposed to be in unison, but inevitably, one of the actors would be behind the others, or ahead, and it ruined the effect. Instead of a seamless background motion, it became a sloppy distraction.
The other was the surprising inclusion of a stunning tachimawari. Most of it was fairly tightly choreographed, but a few of the actors just did not have the control and focus necessary for a large movement sequence. On one hand, yes, it's a large kabuki fight scene, which is challenging and rigorous. On the other hand, it's not mentally different from learning a dance routine. Choreography is choreography and being unable to synchronize it is inexcusable from any perspective.
I also have to mention one excruciating part, where one of the lords performed a shimai at the banquet celebrating Washizu's rise to power. Maya, you said it best once many years ago: "Never count your chickens until they've had a banquet." People from the noh recital at SFSU were better than this guy. It was clear he had very little experience with dance at all. He had no idea how to control his body, his movements were sloppy, he bounced with every step he took, and his arm movements were more like flailing. Also, he clearly did not know the difference between neutral grasp and release grasp on the fan, but that's completely beside the point...
The other reason the show leaned too strongly towards Japanese aesthetic was the text itself. The production was a shot-for-shot staging of Kurosawa's film, directly translated and adapted. This was problematic for a number of reasons.
First, the production made use of projections across the top of the screen to set locations and occasionally, translate for a noh chorus. At the opening and closing of the play, the location projects were actually the opening segments of the film itself, with a chorus chant that came directly from the soundtrack. Then of course was the title. Projected in in big characters and written on a large pillar on stage was: 蜘蛛巣城, or "Kumonosu-jou," meaning "Spider's Web Castle," the ACTUAL name of the movie and the central castle of the story. Written across it in big English letters was "THRONE OF BLOOD," the translated title of the film. In my opinion, tt's one of the biggest problems/mistakes of the original subtitling, and to keep that kind of incongruity announces something very specific about the level of sensitivity the production is recognizing.
Second, and this is another personal pet-peeve, the text evoked a strong sense of place and aesthetic by not translating the Japanese honorifics. This is of course a long-standing argument in translation circles. When subtitling or dubbing anime or translating manga, should "-san" and "-chan" be kept? The argument there of course is that viewers and readers are seeing original cultural material in a new language. Subtitling an anime does not adapt it to a new culture, unless you go so far as to, say, translate "Tokyo" to "New York" and try to utilize the same images. In a play like this, where the characters are samurai, should they be addressing each other as "-dono" and not "lord so-and-so?" In my opinion, if the general assumption is that all these characters are speaking the same language, translate the idioms. It was the same problem I had with Gekidan Shiki's production of "Wicked," where Glinda and Elphaba were "Missu Gurinda" and "Missu Eruphaba." Of course, that production was even more problematic because the Wizard was called "Ozu-heika," or "Your Majesty Oz" and in some parts of the play, but not others, Glinda was referred to as "Gurinda-sama" by the rabble. By not translating honorific idioms, it smacks of the original culture. If that's the goal, then it's fine (inconsistency by Shiki aside). But if the production is supposed to be a fusion, then leaving in honorifics like "Outono" instead of "Great Lord" or "My Liege" evoke too strongly the feeling of trying to be Japanese.
Third, the language sounded like it was a stereotypical direct translation of Japanese to English, complete with unusual cadences and choppy sentence structure. Of course, this is one of the biggest problems with translation, especially in a work that is being adapted scene by scene. It would have been nearly impossible and maybe even worse, but if the dialogue had been translated into iambic pentameter, it would have sounded more appropriate. If the goal was to fuse Shakespeare and Kurosawa, that would have been the way to go. An interesting exception was during the "Out out damned spot" speech, when Asaji switched to speaking Japanese. Without supertitles, it gave the impression of going mad without having to do much. On the other hand, it again reveals the veneer that is the translation by reminding the audience of the underlying "true" text.
Okay, so it sounds like I completely hated this production. Actually, I didn't. Things like the title mis-translation were amusing, though not overly harmful, and it evoked the film nicely. Where the production really stood out was in the visuals. Technically, it was a superior show. The Forest Spirit (the Witch, singular) was stunning, played by the only other Japanese actor in the cast. Microphones amplified and then distorted the voice in several directions, creating the same other-worldly sound that the creature had in the film. It was dressed in a white Shishi wig, full white kimono and painted all white, just like a ghost. In this case, the text worked in full support of the character, as both actor and writer took the unnatural dialogue to alien depths.
The tachimawari, while uncoordinated, was actually stunning. The aesthetic for executing it was spot-on. Non-realistic combat that bore more of a resemblance to dance, several combatants, and furious music made this segment one of the most fun to watch in the show.
Across the board, the costumes were amazing. Each samurai was constructed a little differently, so even though the general look was the same, some were stitched in different patterns, others constructed of panels rather than whole piece of fabric, some had design variations, just to keep the characters unique. The helmets were the most extravagant part, each one bearing the symbol of a different animal, such as antlers or large crab claws.
A few very elaborate special effects really set off the production as well. One was the aforementioned blood-splattered shogi. After Asaji sent Washizu off to kill the King, she waited in the adjoining room, where a koken brought in a shogi and placed it up-left. At the exact moment when the King died, dark red liquid spattered the shogi from behind, slowly seeping through and dripping down the screen as Asaji stood and smiled.
The other moment was the very end of the play. For those of you who don't know "Macbeth," here's the spoiler: he dies. In "Throne," in order to compress the story for length, Kurosawa simply cut most of the extra characters and reduced the final prophecies about Macduff and Burnham Wood to just the one about the woods. When the men see Spider's Web Forest marching on the castle, they turn on Washizu and while he's trying to rally them, they shoot him down in a massive hail of arrows. The finale shot of the film is Toshiro Mifune standing in the empty courtyard, impaled by hundreds of arrows head to foot. In what was one of the shortest quick changes ever, Washizu took of his entire armor, put on a new set that had been covered with arrow tails, then moved to center stage for the final climactic pose, avoiding arrows that were raised out of slats in the floor in the dark. The entire change took about 13 seconds, covered by the sound of arrowing flying through the air. Of course, some people in the audience laughed because the ending is preposterous. On the other, it's an exact replication of the closing of the film, and a pretty impressive one at that.
I've been dreaming a lot lately, especially about people I knew. It's weird how the mind recalls people you haven't thought about in years and then fondly wonders what happened to them and whether you'd kill them with an axe if you saw them face to face again.
|Wednesday, July 14th, 2010|
I need 16 of the most representative musicals ever written that I might be able to get scripts for. I'm starting with a general list of "The Biggest Musical Evar".
Pirates of Penzance
Porgy and Bess
Sound of Music
West Side Story
Fiddler on the Roof
Phantom of the Opera
Caroline, or Change
|Tuesday, April 27th, 2010|
|Uhhhh, Robot Unicorns, Attack?
And, finally, something that has nothing to do with politics or immigration or any anti-gay sentiments, I found this little nugget of, well, sparkle power: Canned unicorn meat.
ThinkGeek, for the low, low price of $9.99, is offering Spam-inspired containers of precious unicorn meat, which is noted as “an excellent source of sparkle.”
In a moving tale of selflessness, we learn about the Sisters at Radiant Farms, who “have dedicated their lives to nursing these elegant creatures through their final days.”
Then they chop the unicorns up and process them for a profit. Mmm, mmm good.
|Saturday, February 27th, 2010|
|My list of cinematic indoctrination
So, I'm trying to remember The List. Here's what I have so far:
Romy and Michele's
Angels in America
Nightmare Before Christmas
Serenity + Firefly (TV)
Invader Zim (TV)
There we go.
|Monday, January 11th, 2010|
Somehow, I missed all the news that the first Federal trial against Prop 8 begins today.
Whether or not this case is going to prevail is hard to tell. Anything that involves federally denying the power of citizens to vote has a long, up-hill battle ahead of it. On the other hand, Judge Vaughn R. Walker, overseeing this particular trial, has asked for evidentiary support for the major claims on both sides, that domestic partnerships are inadequate legal protection, and that allowing same-sex couples to marry will damage 1) marriage as an institution, 2) children, and 3) society.
It's also interesting that the leading defendants in the case, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown are refusing to defend Prop 8. Instead, the organizers of Prop 8 are having to step in, with support from the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona, work their way to defendants in the case, and proceed without support from the state government.
Judge Walker originally ordered that the trial proceedings be broadcast on YouTube, due to the need for transparency in what could result in legalization of gay marriage in the United States. The anticipated magnitude of this case is enormous. Undoubtedly, it will be appealed to the US Supreme Court, so whatever the outcome of this particular trial, it will be a while before a definitive judgment is reached. Still, this has the potential, whatever the outcome, to be the be-all and the end-all for gay marriage in the US. Moreover, the case hinges on the status of gay men and women as a legitimate minority, deserving of the protections of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution - "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, Perry v Schwarzenegger is going to be interesting to hear.
|Wednesday, December 9th, 2009|
|Saturday, December 5th, 2009|
|And more theory
I forgot to post last week's entries, so I'm doing a split post. This is this week's stuff. Only one more post after this, I promise.
Probably most well known for his novel "Things Fall Apart," Achebe brings post-colonial discourse to "the dark continent" and shatters a number of historical notions about Africa by eviscerating Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in the publication "An Image of Africa." Achebe begins by looking at how Conrad uses England and the English as the standard for civilization, placing Africa as the pre-human. Conrad further de-humanizes the African continent by denying its inhabitants language, reducing communication to a system of grunts and feral gestures that he takes great care to remind are wild and mysterious. The actual Africans themselves are marginalized and become like phantoms in a white-man's world. Achebe reminds that the "Heart of Darkness" is so dangerous because it is considered good literature and is widely read; the image of Africans as non-humans is easily and readily disseminated through the novel.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Partnered closely to Achebe's speech, Ngugi wa Thiong'o looks at Africa through linguistic colonization. He examines how Africa has been subjugated through the use of Europhonic languages and then denied its own voice, just as Conrad denied the African people a voice in "Heart of Darkness" by not granting them a language. "Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship" attacks directly the problem of university education in Africa, which has been almost exclusively in European languages and therefore on Eurocentric literature and materials. The way education should proceed forward is where Ngugi and Achebe differ. Achebe, in other texts, recommends creating an African culture out of the roots of the colonial language. Ngugi, on the other hand, declares that indigeous tongues and customs are the true roots of identity, and supports the establishment of true African language-based departments and educations. Europhonic language education is still important, but only in the context of communicating with Europeans. Everyone should become a polyglot and thereby resist colonization. Reclaiming a pre-colonial identity is key, rather than moving to a post-colonial identity built on a hybridization of European and African language.
Gayatri Spivak's essay, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" integrates feminist discourse with post-colonial ideas to address how the feminist ideal heroic character is categorically a white colonialist. The three texts she analysis are "Jane Eyre," "Wide Sargasso Sea," and "Frankenstein." Spivak looks at how Jane, as the English woman, is give a position of power over the other female characters who do not represent acceptable types. "Wide Sargasso Sea" naturally fits into this analysis, since it tells the story of Jane Eyre again, but this time widely exposing the colonialist nature of the novel through Bertha, a servant character. "Frankenstein" is an interesting addition to this set, but I can't figure out exactly how the novel is a critique of imperialism. Yes, it has clear implications for women and attacks the Romantic notion of science as ultimate progress. What is harder to see is where the imperialist implications lay, either affirmed or denied.
Overall, all three works point to blind spots in various progressive discourses. "Jane Eyre" might present a female hero, but the novel still supports colonialism; "Wide Sargasso Sea" reveals that blind spot. "Frankenstein" attacks the importance of science while simultaneously supporting and disavowing the reproductive role of woman; Victor Frankenstein creates his Monster, which both implies that a woman is vital for successful, non-monsterous reproduction, but also not necessary since man can reproduce on his own.
Homi K. Bhabha
The Bhabha text, "Signs Take for Wonders..." deals primarily with hybridization, using India as a focus. The primary example Bhabha gives is a story of Christianity arriving in India, in English, with the Indian converts refusing the possibility that the Bible was brought on the backs of the English to the country because the English eat flesh. An angel handed it down, so the converts believe, not the English because no pure race would ever eat the flesh of an animal, a taboo long-descended from Hindu culture. The irony here is that the truth of history is denied because of an indigenous, unrelated cultural expectation. This is a kind of Indian Christianity, in which native beliefs subsume and internalize imported ones, creating something new and different. Yet this new system is passed off as being native, even traditional, even though it took the introduction of an entire structure from a foreign land to create it. This is a form of internalized colonization, one which disavows political rulership of the colonizers but has been completely changed culturally.
A big example of this is the criminalization of homosexual behavior in Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Mugabe claims that such persecution has been the tradition of the country since time immemorial, when really the legal prohibitions against homosexuality were introduced from Europe during the Victorian era. Many cultures frowned on same-sex relationships, that's true, but making it a criminal, and in many cases now, capital, offense was a colonialist invention. The irony is that even after political control was returned to local government, the laws remained on the books, as did the cultural stance against it, so that the homosexuality prohibition appears to be a long-standing tradition, even though it's not.
So the term is nearly over. I'm just waiting on a few things to wrap up, got a few final readings to do and a small presentation to put together.
I took the Japanese language placement exam yesterday and tested into third year first semester, exactly where I want to be. Now I can start next fall with the right classes and save this spring for my big academic course load.
And of course, theory. Only one more set of entries after this week! Hurray!
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick is a preeminent voice in queer theory. Her two works, "Between Men" and "Epistemology of the Closet" set a theoretical standard for evaluating literature and history from the viewpoint of sexuality. Although her works deal in large part with male sexuality, the construction of male sexual standards in contrast to female sexual standards retains a large resonance in her work. The reading from "Between Men" asks primarily why male-male relationships, from friends and working relationships to intimate, homosexual ones, are not placed on a continuous, incremental scale. Male bonding is a discreet activity from gay love, considered to exist on a different social spectrum. For women, relationships exist on a single continuum. The shift from friends to lovers is considerably more fluid for women than it is for men. "Axiom 6" from "Epistemology of the Closet" addresses what place of importance sexuality should have on the construction of a queer minority canon. The prevailing notion is always that a writer's sexuality should not be known. Literary criticism has been constructed as a closet where sexual difference is categorically repressed, even if other qualities such as gender and ethnicity are not. Sedgwick does not call for an outing of every gay writer in history, but she does theorize that a writer cannot escape from his or her material considerations, which include sexuality and the reception of queer behavior. Evidence that Shakespeare was queer is theoretical, but should that stop someone from including him in a queer canon? Should a queer reading of his famous sonnet be acknowledged or not?
Sexuality's influence on a writer is a big question. Some authors, like Tony Kushner, use his experiences as a gay man to fuel his art, creating critiques of the great systems of gender and capital in works like "Angels in America." There is no doubt that he is gay and he has something to say about it. Looking back in history though, especially at Shakespeare, how much of a role did his sexuality play in his writing? Was it a circumstance at all? And more importantly, where could evidence of that influence be found? Segdwick claims that such influence is blatantly repressed in analysis and deserves to be examined, even if it turns out not to be a factor or true at all.
"Imitation and Gender Insubordination" is a key text that lays out definitively the separation between sex, gender, and sexuality. Borrowing from previous feminist writers, Butler extracts the biological component of identity, sex, sets it aside along with the sexually interative component of identity, sexuality, and focuses on gender as a system of displayed behaviors. In this triangle, one point does not necessarily indicate another. Gender, Butler claims, is entirely performative, signified exclusively through the reception of gestures and signals. To say that a biological male in a dress on stage lip syncing the song "Respect" is any less of a woman than the average biological female in this view is ridiculous because what makes a person appear as woman is entirely constructed and contexual. In otherwords, all gender is drag.
Something that has always interested me is a comment a previous professor made about women in kabuki. He saw one of the only women to ever perform on the kabuki stage in Tokyo as an onnagata, but complained that after centuries of being developed for men, the kata and training of onnagata "looks weird" on a biological female. Yet Jingju had no problem making that switch. Mei Lan-Fang might have been the greatest performer of dan roles in the 20th century, but he had many very popular, well-loved female students who obviously picked up on performing their own gender. Is kata really so different as to prevent a woman from being as feminine as a man?
Edward Said - presentation, so, long.
Edward Said is one of the pre-eminent figures of Post-Colonial theory. His quintessential text, Orientalism, fundamentally challenged and altered the way the Middle East and Asian have been studied. Responding largely to what is known as Oriental Studies, now usually called Asian studies in reaction to this text, in both Europe and North America, Said makes the claim that all scholarship about "the Orient" from the West is inherently and inescapably tinged with political bias, emanating from a presumed position of power and authority of the West over the East. His text is critical to anyone studying cultures to which they are not native, starting obviously with scholars that study Asia (Near, Far, or in any capacity), but including scholars of other native or indigenous populations, urban/rural dichotomies, straight right on gay events, etc. Any time an insider versus outsider dialectic could be constructed, the ideas Said presents are vital to a sensitive, receptive approach.
The sections presented in the Richter anthology are passages II and III from the introduction, which lays out the basic assumptions and premises that Said follows in creating his much larger study of how the Orient has been constructed over time. Section II deals primarily with the idea of the Orient as a construction. Said's major statement is "...that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either," (Richter, 1801). This does not mean, Said says, that the geographical landmasses do not exist. The Orient is not exclusively a concept or imaginary. However, what Said claims he intends to examine is "... the phenomenon of Orientalism [which] as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient (East as career) despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with the 'real' Orient," (Richter, 1802). The second qualification is that "...ideas, cultures, and histories cannot serious be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied," (Richter, 1802). Basically, Said claims that the Orient was created because the West held dominance over the East and subjugated it in such a fashion that the West claimed authority over, and on behalf of, the East. The third qualification, and what separates Said from Derrida and Foucault, whom Said claims great influence from, is that Orientalism is not just a discourse. "Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been considerable material investment... Orientalism [is] a system of knowledge about the orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness... " (Richter, 1803).
Orientalism becomes a discourse of "Us" versus "Them," of "Self" against "Other." As Said points out, it is the idea of cultural hegemony in the Marxist sense that allows Europeans, and recently Americans, to establish themselves as the "Us" and everyone else as the "Them," allowing Europeans to place themselves in a constantly fluctuating, changing position of superiority over the East, "...which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand," (Richter, 1803). Immediately, Said identifies a problem with how to control for this kind of doctrinal superiority in examining materials dealing with the Orient. On one hand, if everything is taken at too general a level, then discourse becomes dogmatic and idealized. If works are looked at one the individual level, however, one misses the larger picture of trends and thoughts. Said decides on three major aspects that guide the study in an effort to avoid these general/individual traps.
Section III lays out and develops these three aspects, but only two are presented in the Richter anthology. Aspect 1 is "The distinction between pure and political knowledge." The assumed difference is that one type of knowledge is scholarly, academic, or non-paritsan and the other about political movements and ideologies. Said reminds that "[n]o one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life... from the fact of his involvement... with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society," (Richter, 1805). He gives several examples of how this works, though he caps it off by saying that all knowledge about the Orient is in fact tinged by political fact. A political viewpoint is inescapable. Here, the biggest challenge for a Western scholar is that he approaches the Orient "...as a European or American first, as an individual second," (Richter, 1806). Again, Said qualifies his statement. It does not mean that everyone approaching Asia is an imperialist. "It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts," (Richter, 1806). Yet, the awareness of imperialism is unavoidable. Thus is the greatest challenge: "In fine, how can we treat the cultural, historical phenomenon of Orientalism as a kind of willed human work... in all its historical complexity, detail, and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination?" (Richter, 1808). Said's conclusion is that if one keeps track of these perspectives, then how knowledge and politics are related becomes a matter of context for each individual study.
The second aspect in section III then is Said's address to the context of his study. Said's heavily Marxist roots come to the front here as he attempts to locate his problematic in the Althusserian sense and find a workable canon for examination. Unfortunately, given the massive breadth of texts that could qualify as Orientalist, Said sets several artificial boundaries. The first is the definition of "Occident" and the source nations for the writings he has chosen. He settles on Britain, France and America "...because it seemed inescapably true not only that Britain and France were the pioneer nations in the Orient and Oriental studies, but that these vanguard positions were held by virtue of the two greatest colonial networks in pre-twentieth-century history; the American Oriental position since World War II has fit - I think, quite self-consciously - in the places excavated by the two earlier European powers," (Richter, 1809). The other limiting factor Said decides on is the nations that will be written about, and settles on the primarily Muslin and Arabic nations, which traditionally stand for the Orient. His position does allow for the British involvement in India and Egypt, but is limited primarily to what is known today as the Middle East.
In order to evaluate the texts themselves, Said takes two approaches: first, the position of the author in the text in relation to the Orient, and the location of the text in relation to other texts. In this way, Said claims the way in which an author claims authority over, and position to speak on behalf of, the Orient can be discovered. What is said "...is meant to indicate that the Orientalist is outside the Orient, both as an existential and as a moral fact," (Richter, 1811). Orientalism is a network of authority, pieced together through audience, text and author to "render its mysteries plain to the West." Said's last major point is that the Orient has been created purely in relation to the Occident, and primarily because the Orient was perceived as not being able to create itself. The Western facsimile does the job, and does it better than the East could, because the West assumes from its outsider perspective that it can better describe the Other. In short, the West believes that what it sees is "correct," and anything attempting to challenge that view, including the factual existence of the East itself, is ignored or written off as inferior.
|Saturday, November 14th, 2009|
These are the entries from both last week and this week.
"Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms" frames the history of "cultural studies" and Hall uses the essay to point out the various flaws that cultural anthropolgists have had in past studies. There are two major streams of cultural study, he claims, one which is based entire on centered facts and objective, quantifiable measurements. This stream Hall compairs to Structuralism, with formal rules and logic that govern the inner workings of such cultural examinations as a linguist studies grammar and syntax in a language. On one hand, such approaches help because they set up comparable structures which then can be evaluated in terms of absolute values. This type of analysis misses a large part of the point though, which is the subjective experience of an individual within culture. Structural comparisons are helpful, but ignore the de-centered, or multi-centered experience of different subjects within a given cultural setting. This vein of analysis Hall calls "Culturalism." Yet, Culturalism misses another point, which is the totalizing general experience of all subjects within a culture. In other words, even though everyone in a culture has a different experience individually, and that individuality must be accounted for, there are still general trends that culture undergoes, and movements and shared philosophies most or all individuals experience or react to. Calling Christianity a total belief in America is incorrect, but it is a totalizing experience, for example. Nothing in America escapes the Christian discourse, although not everyone chooses to accept that discourse. Hall offers a hybrid solution for Cultural Studies, in which both the Structural and the Cultural, essentially the Objective and the Subjective, are taken together, using the Stucturalist techniques for finding formatted points to analyze, but filled in with the subjective experiences that Cultural elements provide as data.
This is an interesting way to examine the Neo-Con movement that Habermas had sound soundly rejected. The ideology is based on individual experience, but fights against the Lacanian belief that truth cannot be located. The combination of "don't tread on me" rights with religious dogma is a stroke of genious because on the one hand, it allows for subject experience of individuals. On the other, it claims loudly through the insertion of God into the discourse, that although everyone still has different experiences, an immaterial, spiritual truth still exists. To quote Tony Kushner from Angels in America, "That's what Reagan's done for this country. He says truth exists and should be spoken proudly." Individuals are free to still experience the world, but the terror that Lacan and Derrida inspire with the idea of a completely subjective, de-centered world is countered by a re-affirmation of God and the objective fact that His will and truth exist. God is an impermiable discourse that allows for truth to exist beyond all rational logic because belief in God cannot be proven or quantified, onloy experienced. It is the perfect thing to put at the center of political discourse because the discourse cannot be disproven, and the surity of God's objective, continuous, centered presence eliminates all fear of "what if?" It is in short, the perfect example of Hall's blending of cultural studies.
Bourdieu is another major figure in cultural studies, who examines at length the nature of taste in his work "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste." Through this, he introduces the concept of cultural capital, which is a perceived value of a person's interaction with a given field, from art to cooking. Cultural capital is accumulated through one of two generally oppositional means, that give rise to two distinct groups of aesthets: through life-long emersion and class-based exposure to a field, or through analytic development of a field essentially as a discourse. Under Bourdieu, neither is technically more valid than the other, and both have very similiar markings as individual cultures, but they are distinct groups that can be identified as cultures.
A way to demonstrate this kind of separation is viewing Van Gogh's Starry Night at the NY MOMA. People who have been emersed in impressionist art throughout their lives, generally those of the upper-middle and upper classes who have had the time and money to devote to artistic enrichment, appreciate the Starry Night on the grounds of the mystique and familiarity that Van Gogh's works evoke. People who have come to art through analytic experiences, such as art history courses or formal academic training, approach the piece through its technical aspects and the place the work holds in history. Different aspects of color and texture, traditional marks of an artist, are evaluated in such a group, taking the mystery out of the painting. This is a separation of the gut from the mind. On the otherhand, those that are instinctively familiar with the Starry Night are in a much better position to talk about their reactions to Van Gogh's other works in relation to their reactions to the first work, evaluating it from a much stronger subjective position. It becomes, as Hall discusses, Structuralism (analytic cultural capital) in contrast to Culturalism (intuitive cultural capital). Both are "true" evaluations of the painting from the perspective of "true" cultures, at odds with each other, but not right or wrong. Individuals can jump from one group to the other, such as a person who attempts to understand why they react so strongly to a given image and attempt to learn the structural reasons for that reaction, or someone who becomes so initimately familiar with the structures of one form that others become intiuitive, indicating that the boundaries between intuitive and analytic are not rigid and impermeable.
For anthropologists of all varieties, the work "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture" by Clifford Geertz is of seminal importance. The work attempts to differentiate between "Thin Description," or the simple description of an action, state, or gesture, and "Thick Description," which Geertz creates to surround an action, state, etc., with the appropriate cultural context to which it belongs. Any gesture, Geertz argues, changes meaning drastically when put in appropriate context. To explain, he uses the wink, which for one situation might be a suggestive gesture, but for another it could be mocking, or communication of a secret, or so forth. It all depends on context.
This text essentially starts a new trend in theory called "new historicism," in which all works, actions, plays, etc., must be placed in their appropriate historical contexts in order to be "correctly" evaluated. For the students in our program, this kind of approach is critical to analyzing theatrical practices in other cultures, as systems of signs and expressions native to one culture are easily misconstrude in another. Theatre is one of the most complex sign systems in any culture, and thus in order to properly understand how theatrical forms are "intended" to be received, the home culture must first be understood. My field of emphasis, shingeki and post-shingeki is a perfect example because without a background knowledge of social and political forces emerging at the turn of the 20th century, understanding why the Japanese would choose to immitate Western theatrical practice letter for letter makes little sense, until the wider ideal of Westernization during that time period is applied. In addition, perfection through emulation has a long-standing tradition in all of Asia, though emulation of the West was the standard in Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Theatrical practice was no exception.
If new historicism is based on the work of Geertz, then Stephen Greenblatt's essays, "Introduction to the Power of Forms in the English Renaissance," and "King Lear and Harsnett's 'Devil-Function'" display the technique exactly. "Power of Forms" talks about how Dover Wilson analyzes Richard II as being a complete upkeepig of English monarchical order, but ignores that historical evidence suggests that Queen Elizabeth I felt strongly otherwise. New historicism, Greenblatt writes, "...erodes the firm ground of both criticism and literature. It tends to ask questions about its own methodological assumptions and those of others: in the present care, for example, it might encourage us to examine the ideological situation not only of Richard II but of Dover Wilson on Richard II," (Richter, 1444). This perfectly exemplifies how new historicism works by questioning Wilson's conclusions about Richard II in light of historical facts against those same conclusions. Greenblatt then goes on to say that perhaps in order to understand how Wilson reached those conclusions, an analysis should be done on Wilson's historical context as well. "King Lear" works in much the same way, as Greenblatt picks apart the influences on King Lear to determine what impact a work by bishop Samuel Harsnett had on the play. Both essays are direct uses of the new historicism technique Geertz proposes.
|Monday, November 9th, 2009|
|Wednesday, November 4th, 2009|
|The International House of Lies: A Manifesto
1. It's is late at night, I'm hungry and bored, and I want to hang out with you but not do something serious
2. I just came out
3. I just failed an exam
5. the curtain just came down, time for food and alcohol. In some order
6. I missed you like the movie Pearl Harbor missed the point
7. Misc. Trauma
8. Intention to inflict Misc. Trauma
9. Post-D&D, leading to re-hash of session, complaints from players, DMs, and plot-holes
10. Study for exam that will likely result in failure.
And also bees.
|Monday, November 2nd, 2009|
|Something that's not theory
So, I just looked back at my journal and saw text and makes even my eyes roll. Therefore, an update that isn't theory! Sorta.
I survived the 705 mid-term today!! Hurraaaaaay! Everybody daaaaaance! yaaaaaaay!
Matt left yesterday after a great two-week visit. (Honey, I promise that it's not humid anymore here. In fact, it's overcast, rainy and cool today.) We got to see things all over the island and had a great time eating and exploring.
Rehearsals for White Snake are going pretty well. The pace has picked up dramatically and it's time to put my nose to the grindstone. If I can get my research done during the nights I don't have rehearsal, it'll be easy to finish. Hurray!
And with that, off to begin the slavish drive to learn a whole show!
|Sunday, November 1st, 2009|
This is really long... I apologize.
Moving to Post-Modernism (Po-Mo to steal from a previous professor) is a real challenge both theoretically and intellectually. The ideas of Po-Mo thinking are complex and varied, but largely center around a few key ideas: 1. There is no core "truth" to any single movement, idea or philosophy, and thus Po-Mo is characterized by a breaking-down to barriers between different schools of thought and styles of criticism. 2. The present is invalidated by the past and so Po-Mo is futher characterized not only by barriers collapsing, but by different periods of history being used to criticize another. The specifics of what "Post-Modernism" actually are are highly contended, even by the various thinkers who tried to define the term. Is it a period? A phase? A theory? A reality?
Lyotard addresses these questions in "Defining the Postmodern" by treating Po-Mo as a direct response to the hope of Modernism. All movements in history, Lyotard offers, have called themselves "Modern," and all have promised that something great is just over the next historical horizon. There's an interesting infusion of Marx's historicism in Lyotard's theory, as Lyotard acts essentially as the Angel of History, looking back and seeing that all the promises of Utopia (in the generic, non-Hegelian/Marxist sense) have brought about nothing but complete terror and destruction. Po-Mo then, for Lyotard, is marked by a return to the body and the inner reality of the self, and finding the legitimate value of, to borrow from de Saussure, a signified, over a signifier. The physical meat of reality has been disregarded for the mental air of imagination. What importance is a theory if one can identify a sign in the wake of the atomic bomb?
The negativity of Lyotard for me conjures up a heavily Po-Mo, gothic game called "The World of Darkness" and specifically the branch of the game, "Werewolf: the Apocalypse." In Werewolf, there are three major aspects of reality: the Wyld, the Weaver, and the Wyrm. Originally, all was balanced and the Wyld created, the Weaver named and gave form and function, and the Wyrm consumed and allowed for reneweal. However, the world has been changed forever and the Apocalypse approaches. The Wyrm has been driven mad and seeks now to consume all life forever. The Weaver in her grief progresses faster and faster, trying to freeze the world in a permanent static state of technological supremance. The Wyld sits on the sidelines, slowly dying as all things natural and organic about the world shrivel and die. The World of Darkness focuses on the hopeless, Nihilistic, often pitiless struggle of a group of beings to literally keep the world alive as technological development rages beyond control and corruption warps progress into madness. The "collapse" Lyotard sees is the world brought to the brink when all beings on Gaia look around and realize that the end has come. The promise of technological enlightment has led to the atomic bomb, which in the World of Darkness is called the Roar of the Wyrm, one of the signs of the End Times in motion. Globalization, in Lyotard, threatens to trap the world in an ever-expanding net of signs and universal "rules," just as the Weaver plans to ensnare all of reality and through technology, codify and solidify reality out of meaningful existence. All that can be done is stand at the brink of destruction and try to realize where it has all gone wrong and what can be do to fix it before it's too late.
Keeping the science fiction/fantasy bent in mind, jumping from Lyotard to Baudrillard's "The Precesson of Simulacra" isn't hard. Baudrillard writes of a world in which the Weaver (technology) has already won. Everything has been reduced to simulacra and there is no "real" reality left in the world. Everything is now a conglomoration of signs and sign-systems that signify nothing but themselves. Everything that happens is a stand-in for something else.
Baudrillard clearly marks the distinct shift from deconstructionism to Po-Mo because he liberally and intentionally applies general lables, like the word "everything," to his ideas and attempts to create a totalizing view of the world that cannot be escaped. What he says is fascinating, and is actually quite popular now that The Matrix has achieved its fame (specifically the first film, not the later two where Neo=Jesus). The Matrix is Baudrillard's theory of Simulacra brought to eerie mechanical life, where all of "reality" is actually an expression of a machine. The real truth of any sign or event is completely controlled and calculated from beginning to end. The theory is as totalizing as the Matrix.
He presents a highly criticized argument that war is not really the killing of people, but is a stand-in for political maneuvering between countries, by claiming the Vietnam War was not a conflict between the US and Vietnam, but between China and the US, and that by "losing" the physical fight, the US actually won ideological victory over China. What Baudrillard is really asking, and trying to explain, is why no one seemed to care that the greatest militar force in the world lost to what is essentially a po-dunk little country in the ass-end of nowhere. What he completely disregards is the reality of the experience of the people who fought in the war. Baudrillard ignores the physical experience of the body that, unless the existence of a totalizing force like the Matrix is supposed, is a truth statement that permates the Simulacra.
Habermas aruges in "Modernity vs. Postmodernity" that Po-Mo is not really a thing, or even a period, but a fleeting phase that will pass and be just another stop-gap to the next real period of history. Yet, Habermas cannot deny that the world has begun to move beyond the Modern period, which for him is marked by a return to Enlightment and rationality. As Modernity developed, and it had been developing for a long time, just as Baudrillard contended, the focus drifted from thinking about what was on hand, to things like chains of signifiers, and concepts that moved away from a bodily, logical reality towards an ephemerial, imaginary one.
The shift in tone between the previos two theorists and Habermas is distinct and obvious. Habermas takes an immediate political bent and characterizes the difference between now and the Modern period by political discourse. The return of rationality is marked by the ability of political discourse to engage with opposition opinion. It is the "dialectic of secularization," as the immediate, obvious world, the one which Baudrillard claims has been completely replaced, comes back into focus and attempts to find common ground for all people. Habermas's relation to Adorno however cannot be overlooked, as Habermas still champions the process of creation, over the end product (and ends his speech with a cheer for Adorno himself) though Habermas shows Adorno's influence by insisting on politics as a moving vehicle for debate. Habermas shifts Adorno's view on the primacy of work and thinking away from aesthetics and towards political engagement and states that only by keeping discourse alive is the process truly productive. It's Adorno's reaction to the Culture Industry without being engaged in the direct exchange of money and goods at all. By engaging in and keeping the debate alive, the masses are elevated back to a state of enlightenment that allows culture and society to remain productive and rational. Thinking masses means thinking society.
Engagement in political debate is the key to Ranciere's essay, "The Politics of Aesthetics," as he establishes an entirely new order for not only Po-Mo, but also Modernism. Ranciere focuses on "the distribution of the sensible," which means that which is capable of being understood by the senses. The key again becomes the body, through which all things must be filtered. Anything that is not perceptable by the body literally is non-sensical. For Ranciere then, politics is not about which way the debate goes, nor driving the debate, but it is about actually being able to engage in the debate at all. Anything that tries to sway the senses, as aesthetics does, is automatically political. The essay continues on to explore the ways in which people are disenfranchized from the debate and thus to whom politics are non-sensical.
Ranciere ends up asking then, if everything is driven by politics, how is "art" defined? If certain knowledge is required for something to be sensible, like a grid of definitions, is that good or bad? For Ranciere, making art sensible, thereby allowing discussion of it, and thereby making it political, is good. This idea highlighted a recent trip I took to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with a very good friend. He and I had grown up together, had similar educational experiences and had both been students of music and performance. He was a trained saxaphone player who played in a band and was a great fan of Frida Kahlo, which was the reason we had gone to the MOMA in the first place: to see the Kahlo exhibit that was on tour. After seeing Kahlo's exhibit, we walked the rest of the museum and came across a 10' by 10' white canvass, untitled. I had seen similar exhibits like this before, monochromatically painted square canvasses hung in random order, and so this wasn't a huge jump for me to ask, alright what is the point? Is this art? The tag next to the white canvass pointed out various things that remove the signature of the "artist" include the use of white, generally thought of as "lacking" color, and the completely smooth surface texture that removes the physical trace of the artist having touched the canvass with brush or roller at all. In its technical aspects, the work is literally challenging the idea of art. What was more concerning was my companion's reaction. He looked at it and simply said, "No, that's not art, that's stupid," and walked away. When I tried to ask him why, he just shrugged and said, "It doesn't make sense. It's dumb because if you have to ask if it's art, then it's not. Something is either art or it's not; it's not just a white wall hanging in a museum." I was surprised at the time to hear this come from someone who I know is a trained artist, but looking back on this experience, I'm forced to wonder, what was really the issue? Was it that he wasn't "trained" enough, the sensible not been distributed enough for him to engage in the debate? Am I just buying into a giant joke about what art is and isn't, accepting made-up justifications about what the debate on the nature of art contains? Or is the painting bad because it clearly doesn't allow for opposition discourse?
|Monday, October 26th, 2009|
|Deleuze and Guattari, and Derrida
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
"Anti-Oedipus" is by far one of the most confusing and esoteric texts I have ever tried to tackle. "Capitalism and Schizophrenia" is a good sub-title for the essay because it uses Marxist-inspired words and presents them in a completely scatter-shot, almost incomprehensible manner, designed to jar the reader out of a sense of normalcy. What is most striking about the reading is the use of the phrase "desiring-machines" to describe humans. It is misleading because of the Marxist bent that implies that humans are automatons, and in the wake of the industrial revolution, mechanized into units that desire and consume, existing outside of free will or thought. What Deleuze and Guattari are actually saying however, is that people really only exist in their purest forms, as organically mechanical as nature is. "'He thought that it must be a feeling of endless bliss to be in contact with the profound life of every form, to have a soul for rocks, metals, water, and plants, to take into himself, as in a dream, every element of nature, like flowers that breathe with the waxing and waning of the moon.' To be a chlorophyll- or a photosynthesis-machine, or at least slip his body into such machines as one part among the others," (Deleuz and Guattari, 2). Nothing, in this view, is ever really lacking. The idea of lack is bad because it sets up a positive/negative dialectic and thus declares something to be missing from the body-machine. Lacking is in fact productive because it inspires desire for. Lack is not negative and absent in the Freudian sense, but positive and productive in the Marxist sense.
Deleuze and Guattari are clearly Deconstructionist in their approach to the body and being-ness. A favored phrase for them, a "body-without-organs" is the idea that all things are constantly in a state of being defined. Nothing ever really stands apart from another thing because there is no natural state of distinction. To say something is one thing and thus not something else is, in this view, untrue. The dialectic is the enemy. Returning to the basic example of the body, a body is a body, but it is also organs. The body is defined by "and/and," rather than "either/or." The idea of a body without organs is that the various parts cannot be differentiated from each other - an individual is always in a state of flux as it moves from connection with one machine to another.
Clearly, this is a radical theory. On the otherhand, the basic principles of the theoretical technique are inspired, at least in part, by another extremely influential thinker, Jacques Derrida.
The influence of Derrida's work in all fields of study can hardly be overstated. Although our readings cover barely an infintessimal amount of Derrida's total canon, the two selected are very interesting. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" takes Levi-Strauss's work on myth and nature vs. culture to task when Levi-Strauss himself admits that certain prohibitions, like incest, seem to stem from both nature and culture and refused to be confined to one or the other. This basic incongruity is what Derrida uses to state that the reason the definition cannot be made is because no such central definition exists. The idea of "center" in a discourse, that which is objectively the stable, internal truth, does not exist. Removing the idea of the center allows for the signs and structures built around the presumed center to enter into freeplay. Deleuze and Guattari clearly borrow some ideas from Derrida here, as Derrida objects to the idea of fixed, binary oppositions. In rejecting the idea of core, nothing is ever really in opposition to the core; there is no fringe or outside.
What Derrida talks about is reflected heavily in what are called "syncratic cultures," which is a term regularly applied to Japan. Although native animistic systems of belief, the origins of Shinto, have a long history in Japan, when a completely alien system of practices, Buddhism, entered the country, one did not supplant the other. There is no core that is the truth and thus both systems are able to exist simultaneously. Going a step futher, such syncranicity can be found again in Kabuki, where aesthetics and conventions of numerous different styles, including Noh and Bunraku, can be readily observed and picked out, yet not seen as being in conflict with Kabuki aesthetics. They are sympathetic, not antagonistic.
The second essay, "Differance" is an attempt to buck the primacy of speech over writing. Derrida accomplishes this by pointing out that writing is a sign that is repeatable. Speech is privaledged historically because speech is of the moment and cannot be preserved. Before writing as always come speech. Derrida attacks this priviledge by pointing out that all speech, in fact, is scripted. Much as de Saussure points out that language is a system of rules, Derrida observes that words are signs that are created and established outside of the control of the speaker. Speech is developed from an reiterative trace, or a set of scripts that are passed down through established convention. One can never say something that someone else, speaking the same language, couldn't.
For me, this called to mind Bahktin who had said that we as individuals are nothing more than a collection of quotes, pasted together over our lives. Everything we do is actually taken from something else and Derrida cements that by claiming that virtually every act can be observed, repeated, and originated. What individuals do is create themselves, even without knowing it. Even if our sentences are our own, the words in fact belong to someone else.
|Saturday, October 17th, 2009|
|705: Barthes and Foucault
Barthes is an interesting character, especially in the readings presented because the writings cover a span of philosophical life. Of the four essays read, "Striptease," and "The Structuralist Activity" come earlier in Barthes' life, and it shows. Both of these essays work on development of cultural theories and placing various activities, such as the aforementioned erotic dance, but also expanding in to areas like painting, popular fiction, film, etc. "Striptease" talks about the power of the burlesque dancer in France to reconstruct the mystery of the female body, not by removing clothing, but by hiding the body in symbols. The objective, he claims, is not to lay bare the body, which in turn de-mystifies and vulgarizes the woman, but to make the woman a sorcerers, capable of shedding and re-constructing layers of signs to establish her as something other than human. "The Structuralist Activity" ties to that when Barthes discusses how culture can be read as a system of complex signs a la de Saussurean philosophy, but instead of relying on philosophers to find and reveal those signs, Barthes claims, it is better to look at artists and writers. Creative figures reiterate the structures of their time through their work and as a functioning part of Author-Reader-Text (which I will expand on momentarily), the creative figure is in a better position to be analyzed for cultural relevance. A painting from 1680 will tell more about the culture of the period than a theorist from either the same period, or the contemporary age looking back.
The second two essays, "The Death of the Author" and "From Work to Text" jump track a bit and shift from focusing on cultural theory and signification to talking about the place of a work in society. Rather than talking about how the structure of a work can be revealed and its cultural context, Barthes starts to talk about what a work means in relation to the external. Barthes talks about the "Author" from the standpoint of "authority," or the leading voice in a discussion of a text, and then makes the claim that the position of priviledge the Author has enjoyed is now dead. The importance of a text does not derive frm who wrote it, but from the relationship of the text to the Reader. To illustrate this, imagine a triangle, with "Author," "Text," and "Reader" placed at the three corners. Barthes focuses on the leg of "Text" and "Reader," giving it primary importance. "Work to Text" analysis just the "Text" corner, and draws certain differentiations between the concept of a "Work" and the concept of a "Text." "Work" in this case is almost exactly what Antoinin Artaud wrote about when he wrote "No More Masterpieces," in which Artaud calls for the destruction of the belief in a piece's inherent authority. Barthes eerily echoes this, claiming that as the Author is dead, and the only relationship remaining is between Reader and Work/Text, the piece itself should not have the authority that was once granted to the author. A piece is not great simply because it is called great; only the Reader/Viewer can decide the quality of a work, in relation to the self. "Text" then becomes the perferred term, which establishes the importance of process, over production, and allows the Reader to interpolate himself into the piece as part of it, rather than attempting to accept the piece on its own authority.
As one of the most influential theorists of the 20th century, reading Foucault is intimidating. Fortunately, Barthes provides an excellent roadmap to breaking in to this set of essays. The first essay, "What is an Author?" asks basically the same questions that Barthes addresses in "Death of the Author" but does it from a different standpoint. Instead of declaring the Author to be dead and examining the remaing connection between Text and Reader, Foucault challenges the definition of Author and then deconstructs the various historical ways in which Author is defined. Before, the idea of attributing non-scientific writing to a single person wasn't a vital concept. The idea of Author does not directly refer to a single person, but is more of a signifier of a set of styles and concepts that may or may not have actually been correctly attributed to a single creator. Foucault quotes Saint Jerome in identifying four ways that Author is conceived: 1. a level of quality/value of writing, 2. Doctrinaly and through theoretical coherence, 3. Stylistically through words and expressions, and 4. historically by biography or timeframe (ie something written 100 years after a given date of death probably does not belong to an older canon of texts). Keeping the Author-Reader-Text triangle in mind, Foucault focuses on the other two legs that Barthes does not: the relation of the Author to the Reader and how the Reader has constructed the Author; and the Author to the Text and how the Text has constructed the Author. Of course, the idea of copywright has drastically changed how the Author is conceived and placed a new importance on singular names belonging to singular texts, but this only enhances the fact that Author is a discourse, changed over the course of history.
"Las Meninas" is a fascinating text that deconstructs the gaze in the painting "Las Meninas" by Diego Rodriguez Velazquez from 1656. This is a very famous essay in which Foucault applies post-structuralist concepts to a painting and breaks down the discourse of the time. The painting is incredibly complex and difficult to describe without re-stating the entirity of Foucault's essay, but a few salient points emerge. One, in the paintng, which is of a painter creating what is presumably a portrait, the actual focus of the gaze is unknown, as the painter is looking straight forward at the viewer. The painter is essentially focused in return on the viewer. Not only that, but Velazquez himself becomes the view of his own work, as he presumably stood in the same spot as the spectator, and thus created a work that perfectly embodies the triangle of Author-Reader-Text. The other thing that is powerful about Foucault's essay itself is that, beyond idenitifying the Reader with the Author, is the way that his post-structuralist technique is actually applied to the discourse of a given period, and how that discourse is constructed. By analysing "Las Meninas," Foucault steps away from the standard idea of "Text" and applies his theories to a greater work of artistic culture, proving the versatility of his theories and his writings, which in turn prevents him from easily being categorized in terms of his philosophies.
The final text is an excerpt from "The History of Sexuality" in which Foucault traces the discourse on sexuality across history. Sexuality, he says, is a construct and a discourse, just as all things are, that stems from a relationship of power. He identifies four categories of sexual discourse: 1. the hysterization of women's bodies, 2. infantalization of child sexuality, 3. socialization of procreative behavior, and 4. institutionalizing perverse behavior. The core unit for dealing with this, the Insititutional State Apparatus if you will, is the family, but in modern times, the family is so over-burdened with the job of placing sexuality in proper discourse, it his collapsing under its own weight. Personally, the discovery of this essay comes at a very significant time, with October being Gay History month, National Coming Out Day on October 11th, and this year, a national movement to march on Washington, DC to demand action on LGBT rights. The fourth type of discourse relates immediately to homosexuality now, which as Foucault points out wasn't a discourse or type of isolated behavior until the mid 1800's, and even today, the LGBT community is a group of people who are told from the outside that they're different because of a single behavior. That single behavior has become the lynchpin of an entire global community that has banded together for the express purpose of combating the discourse surrounding institutionalized perversion. Is there an inherent quality that causes this behavior? All jokes about Cher and Madonna aside, there do seem to be common personality traits and tastes among gay men and women, sexual behavior notwithstanding. Returning to family as the basis for upholding sexual discourse, we find that those things that don't fit the "correct" patterns, like homosexuality, are removed from the family. So, gay men and women have been quick to create our own. It's an ironic statement that we call the LGBT community "the family," much like a big, gay Mafia. It only requires being kicked out of one family to realize exactly how constructed the ISA really is. I find myself correcting the community acronym even as I type (in the last five years, it has switched from GLBT to LGBT) and am surprised at how much the discourse within our own community has changed. Has Foucault revealed an even deeper, more frightening truth though? Once a discourse has been created, can it ever truly be removed? Will we ever move into a post-racial, post-genered, post-sexual society? To parrot Tony Kushner, can the forces of race, taste, and history ever really be overcome? Will they find their negations?
|Monday, October 12th, 2009|
|Critical theory (a day late)
At least I got this done last night and sent in. The post is just late.
First, Ferdinand de Saussure.
Why is a tree called "tree?" Why is a horse called "horse?" Nietzsche touched on something similar in his essay "On Truth and Lie," but Ferdinand de Saussure goes a step further than simply declaring that there is no relation between word and concept, and attempts to understand how these relationships function on a linguistic level. In "Nature of the Linguistic Sign," de Saussure breaks down "signs" and "symbols" to component parts and attempts to map out and describe how these things are composed and function.
Section 1, "Sign, Signifier, Signified" takes the whole object, the "sign," and breaks it down in to two parts: the "physical"or material component of the perceived sound, and the concept the "psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses," (Richter, 842). De Saussure provides diagrams of what a word-sign looks like, an idea Jacques Lacan would later appropriate and mutate into mathematical equations, with the words "Concept" and "Sound-image" enclosed in a circle and divided by a line. Outside the circle, an arrow on either side points up, or down, which de Saussure uses to indicated that "the two elements are intimately linked and each recalls the other," (Richter, 82). Only if a word indicates a particular concept can it be considered a true "sign." To clarify, de Saussure provides further diagrams with an image of a tree above the word "arbor (tree)," encircled and arrowed, showing that each component recalls the other.
Section 2, "Principle I: The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign" is a revolutionary idea that puts forth not the Nietzschian view that signifiers and signifieds have no relationship, but that signs, meaning "...the whole that results from the associating of the signifier with the signified," is completely arbitrary (Richter, 843). There is no inherent link between the material sounds of the signifiers and the concepts they signify, as is clear from the plethora of languages spoken by the human race. The section goes on to address three other kinds of signs, with arguments that all of these as well are arbitrary. Natural signs, such as those used in pantomime, are arbitrary as well de Saussure claims. "Every means of expression used in society is based ... on collective behavior or ... on convention," (Richter, 843). All forms of semiology then, not just linguistics, can assume this arbitrary nature as a guiding truth and principle. Arbitrary then means that signs lack natural connection, but are still bound by social convention, thus preventing any one person from displaying anything as a sign. De Saussure also addresses onomatopoeia and interjections, which in French, simply by demonstrating that both of these types of words have evolutionary changes as well as drastically different material components in different languages, proves that neither of these forms can be considered natural or inherent to their signifieds.
Section 3, "Princple II: The Linear Nature of the Signifier," lays out that linguistic signifiers, unlike physical signifiers, necessarily have an order of time to them. Syllables must be pronounced in a certain order to correctly signify. These signs can be determined through opposition of one syllable to the next. If a number of phonemes fall in a given order, it must be one word and not another because of the way the phonemes oppose each other in placement.
Principle II serves as a bridge to the next work, "[Binary Oppositions]," which explores signs in relation to each other. Language, de Saussure argues, functions through an opposition of signs in sequence. "2. Linguistic Value from a Conceptual Viewpoint" points out that "language is a system of interdependant terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others," (Richter, 845). Value in this case is different than signification, as values are composed of: "1. of a dissimilarthing that can be exchangedfor the thing of which the value is the be determined," ie money for labor, and "2. of similar that can be comparedwith the thing of which the value is the be determined," ie pounds of silver to pounds of gold (Richter, 845). Value is not fixed if a word can be exchanged for a different word with a similar concept. "Its content is really fixed only by the concurrence of everything that exists outside of it," (Richter, 845). The example given is moutonin French, which has both the concept of a living creature and a piece of meat, but in English, the living creature is denoted by "sheep," the cut of meat by "mutton." The value of the word moutonis not fixed in nature, but only in the context of the system of French signs.
After looking at the concept part of the sign, de Saussure analyzes the material component in "3. Linguistic Value from a Material Viewpoint." By pointing to examples of styles of conjugation and pluralization, he arrives at the conclusion that "signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position," (Richter, 847). Sounds and especially written letters, are determined not by what they are, but that they cannot be mistaken for something else. The sounds are not derived from an inherent, natural value, but are given value because they are not mistaken for something else and thus, is arbitrary because sounds and letters could be used to denote anything. Their given values are upheld by convention, not by nature.
"4. The Sign Considered in Its Totality" finishes this section, with the claim that only difference matters in language. Values of terms can be effected without changing their singular composition by removing a neighboring term. If two terms are not different enough, they will tend to merge and become the same term in the end. "Putting it another way, language is a form and not a substance," (Richter, 849).
The final part of "[Binary Oppositions]" presented is "Chapter V: Syntagmatic and Associative Relations." In this part, de Saussure looks at how, if all things in language are based on relationships, do these relationships function? This is the section Lacan takes to task in "Agency of the Letter" as he attacks Saussure's conclusions on how relationships between words (signifiers) work. De Saussure starts by defining what Syntagmatic and Associative relations are. Syntagmatic relations are the way words fall in a sentence, referring to the grammar and the syntax of discourse. It is a linear progression that links two or more terms together. Associative relations on the other hand are words that are associated in memory through similar meanings, roots, or conjugations. Syntagmatic relations reveal how terms can change value based on their placement in a structure of other terms. De Saussure lists several examples of idioms to support his claim that these relations are relations of language, and not just of speech. An example from another language could be the Japanese phrase, "Sumimasen ga chotto..." which is used to mean, "I'm sorry we (don't have/are out of) that," though it literally means "Excuse me, it's a little..." However, outside of a request, such a phrase would make little sense, even grammatically. On the other side, Associative relations can be thought of as word-maps, with a single signifier as the center and all other kinds of words branching out from it. These types of associations are not generated by convention, as Syntagmatic ones are, but by the mind as it links from one term to another through similarities in either sound or meaning. Two characteristics are given: indeterminate order and indefinite number. With term chains like "painful, delightful, frightful," the "~ful" ending, the association between the words, can associate terms nearly forever, nor is there a particular order that calls these words to mind. On the other hand, de Saussure claims that some terms will eventually reach a terminus and be unable to chain further once the associate exhausts itself.
This is where Lacan steps in and makes his claim that, due to the linguistic character of the subconscious, which in and of itself functions like a system of language, ie arbitrary signs, such association chains have no limit because they are not bound by the forms de Saussure describes. In the Saussurian view, "painful" might conjure "delightful" because of the similar material component, or it might conjure "torture" because of the similar conceptual component. By introducing the machinations of the subconscious however, Lacan is able to support the evidence that the term "painful" might call up the term "beach blanket" through the arbitrary relationship of signifiers to other signifiers.
Levi-Strauss has an interesting take on how myth funcions and how to find the "true" narrative in myth. Drawing on the ideas laid out by Saussure on signs and their relationships, the work "The Structural Study of Myth" examines not the individual parts of the content of a myth, such as what the moral of not killing your parents might be, but what the individual parts of the myth say in relation to each other. These parts, called "mythemes," have their own relationships to each other just as signifiers have a relationship to one another, and it is what the mythemes indicate in their totality, rather than their explicit content, that gives the true structure of a myth. Oedipus is the example Levi-Strauss uses, breaking down the mythemes into categories. Similar content in the mythemes, such as Oedipus marrying his mother and then Antigone burying her brother, relate in one way. Another set, Oedipus killing his father, or Eteocles killing his brother, relate in a different way, yet also show a direct contrast to the first set of mythemes. The relation of these two sets of mythemes is where Levi-Strauss derives the structure of the myth, which is in a conflict of the values of the blood-related origins of man. Family conflict, one over-valued and considered, the other under-valued and disregarded, reveals a conflict about the root of man through his relatives and blood-ties.
This way of breaking down myth uncovers new interpretations of what various myths mean and how their constructions can share universality. Even if a myth is later re-interpreted and completely restructured, temporaly and in terms of content, if the relation of the mythemes do not change, the structure of the myth does not actually change.
"The Myth of Superman" was actually fun to read. It was interesting how Marxism worked its way into the critique, both via content of the comicbooks, and via conception of "consumption." Eco's approach to myth differs from Levi-Strauss in that Eco through writing about Superman, is dealing with an essentially "living" myth that changes and alters itself over the course of various issues and decades. The interesting key about this type of structure is a plot which does not "consume" itself.
The way Superman and other similar "modern myths" are created necessarily relies on a form of storytelling that cannot be terminated. Superman is important because he is ageless and will exist forever alongside society of any period. This requires that he never advance because if he advances, it becomes inevitable that he will reach an ending point and die [this analysis was written long before the "Death of Superman" storyarc and before the creation of Watchmen]. This means Superman exists outside of time, with an indetermined future. Thus, in order to change his future, it becomes necessary to change his present by way of the past. This act is coloquially known as "Ret-con'ing," or "Retro-active Continuity" in which an author (or authors) go back into the past of Superman and literally reconstruct events so that the past is more extensive and detailed. These changes create a new character not by giving Superman a future, but by creating a new past that alters the idea of who Superman currently is. It's a way to grow character without having to advance the character at all. Eco labels this type of myth-creation "Parcifalism" to indicate a kind of person who never grows beyond childhood. Superman never really advances as a person and instead is a constant product of his past, which he can never move beyond.
The last part of the Eco analysis is interesting because it addresses Superman as a local hero. Even though he has to power to change global events, he's more content to fight robbers and organized crime, seemingly in a fight to protect the right of private property. The majority of his stories revolve around the events of cleaning up Metropolis, and more than that, global crisis is hardly ever considered. The ability to act on a global scale is preemted in his case by a drive to do the Right Thing, which seems to be to protect the private home and property. Justice over Good, and especially over Evil. In this manner, Superman reflects in its structure the American Dream of ownership and right to ownership.
|Saturday, October 3rd, 2009|
|Weekly critical theory
Lacan - Part 2
Two substantially longer works by Lacan came this week. The first, "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud," by title alone indicates the kind of obfuscated thinking Lacan plans to lay out. The second paragraph of the essay states, "Writing is distinguished by a prevalance of the text in the sense that this factor of discourse will assume in this essay a factor that makes possible the kind of tightening up that I like in order to leave the reader no other way out than the way in, which I prefer to be difficult." What this essay tackles, in all its dense obscurity, is the idea that words and symbols do not have an inherent relationship to the concepts they represent; in specific terms, the relation of a signifier to the signified is arbitrary and random. This concept was not developed by Lacan, as he points out, but by Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguistic scholar. What Lacan takes to task is a Saussurian assumption that signifiers eventually run out of things to signify, by introducing to Saussure's semiotics Freuds concepts of displacement and condensation. Lacan states that a signifier not only has a relation to its signified, but also to other signifiers which, when analyzed through unconscious desires and associations, reveal that the subconscious mind works like a language, ie when giving the signifier "A glass of water," it signifies not only the physical object, but for each speaker or listener, it can signify a host of other meanings, either through metaphor or metonym (a closely related phrase or concept) that are not universal or seemingly related to "A glass of water." This is called the "chain of signifiers," which becomes a critical part of analysis, for the relations between signifiers and therefore of any given signifier and signified is constantly in flux. Analysis of a signifier down to the "true" signified is impossible because the chain of signifiers redirects analysis through an infinite number of channels.
Lacan's second essay, "The Meaning of the Phallus," takes this same idea of a chain of signifiers and applies it to the Freudian concept of castration. With "castration" as a signifier, the relationship between castration and biological fears are shifted, as Lacan introduces the idea that the signifier itself has different meanings and relations for different individuals, based on multiple factors including gender. If castration is not a biological fear then, it takes on a new meaning which Lacan interprets as a need for power or control. In the West, historically speaking, since political power has been associated with male biology, the penis has come to be a signifier of that power. The true meaning then of castration is not, as Freud suggests, a biological fear, but an internalized fear of a lack of control and force. In men, it can mean that lack of power as traditionally observed by the Super-Ego, but in women, the phallus stands in for a fear of a lack of sexual allure and the inability to have a recognized self outside of the self.
After Lacan brought a new interpretation to Freud's theory of the phallus, several later critics picked up on that notion and expanded further on it. One is Mulvey, a film critic who's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," applies both the idea of phallus and of the mirror stage to mainstream cinema of the 1940's, 50's and 60's. Her approach reveals both a scopophilic pleasure in watching ideals of beauty, and a gendered gaze in mainstream movies that attempt to link the viewer with the leading man, watching the woman on screen as object. As a feminist critic, Mulvey's first claim is that woman in film is reduced to object, designed to provide visual pleasure for a male audience. Even when the woman is an object of power, like the femme fatale, she is a force to be domesticated or removed so that the man can again resume dominance. Often, this view is invited by making women the passive, incapable figure who can exude sexual desire, but is unable of affecting real change or control. The male figure on the other hand is the active, demanding more space and ability than his female counterpart (Richter, 1176). Both of these images are put up as mirrors for the audience, inviting the male viewer to identify with the male lead and because of her sexual allure, objectify the female lead, but for women, the mirror works much differently. Women are invited to identify with the female lead, but because the male lead is active and while desireable, not a sexual object, objectify herself as an object of desire for another person. Mulvey's criticism lacks a few recognitions, including homosexual identification and objectification, which she writes off as the focus of "buddy films," and assumes a male/female dialectic that is unalterable. Also, she clearly did not consider Lethal Weapon when Mel Gibson's muscular butt garnered more female attention (and more fans) than the action and heroics did for a male audience.
"Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing" addresses the fantasy of the Knight in Shining Armor in relation to the Lady. By looking at representations of ideal love and perfected courting, Zizek reveals that the Lady is not a real woman, but an idea, a construct that signifies a concept of perfection that no woman really lives up to. She is a narcissistic projection of what a woman should be, dreamed up by the male to create a fetishized object. Looking beyond the signification and at the relationship between Lady and her creator, the existence of the man becomes less as seeker of the Lady, and more a slave. This can be seen especially when the Lady returns the gesture and seeks consumation, which automatically destroys the relationship between Lady and subject, turning from object desire to complete rejection. It's interesting to look at this concept in relation to the musical "Man of La Mancha." This idea of a perfect lady projected on to any woman is completely obvious through Quixote's views on Aldonza, the whore he dillusionally believes to be his lost noble love Dulcinea. The banner song of the show is even called, "The Impossible Dream," which champions the act of striving for goals that, like the existence of Dulcina, are impossible. In the musical, the relation between Quixote and Aldonza is complicated by the basic story, which is actually of Don Miguel de Cervantes in prison, telling orally the story of Don Quixote and using his fellow prisoners to act out the play with himself as the title character. Aldonza is gang-raped half-way through the second act, which spurs on a violent and vulgar number in which she vehemently declares that she is and never could be this imaginary Lady, but is "only Aldonza the whore." Throughout the number, Quixote insists that she is Dulcinea, if she will only admit it and ultimately brings her number to an end when, hysterical, she can do nothing but scream her refutation. The musical culminates in a different fashion from Zizek's essay though, as Zizek continues to claim that courtly love is insiduous. At the conclusion of "La Mancha," though, Cervantes is lead away and the other prisoners are left to their fates, but as the cell door closes, it is the actress playng Aldonza who rises and begins to sing the reprise of "The Impossible Dream," not as Aldonza, but as a nameless individual. This championing of the impossible dream by the object herself says that sometimes, these illusions are all that keep the world in order. It is a hopeless dream that allows individuals to survive the absolute worst conditions, even if the dream is revealed as a construct. On the other hand, this woman is still in prison. She is trapped inside this dream because she has no where else to turn to escape her almost-certain fate of life in prison. While her self-creation as the Lady might give her some control and order that helps her to survive, she cannot escape the fact that society will not let her live in any other fashion; the Lady is still a dangerous construct because the woman herself has no where else to turn than to the identity which man gives her.
|Saturday, September 26th, 2009|
|Althusser, Williams, and Lacan pt. 1
The first part of this entry is much longer because Althusser and Williams have been written as a lecture topic for class. Please bear with me.
A hotly contented point of Marx's theories is the content and relation of "base" to "superstructure." In order to understand at all what Althusser theorizes about, it is first vital to understand what the words "base" and "superstructure" mean in Marxist criticism. As a material historicist, Marx claimed that all movements in history are based not on wars or movements, but on the physical, material concerns of human beings. Chiefly, these material concerns result in trade and transaction and thus, in economics, roughly, as the driving force of history. Thus, the "base" of all societies is the material-economic concerns which drive the force of history. All other concerns are ways that individuals mis-represent the centers of their lives as relating to something other than the base, be it God, the family, art, culture, politics, military, law, or crime. All these secondary concerns are termed "superstructure." Although Williams take umbrage with this model in his essays, most typically civilization is illustrated as many buildings on a street. The street itself is the base, the buildings the various parts of the superstructure, labeled according to their focus, ie religion, politics, art, etc. The higher up in the structure individual is, the more falsely conscious the individual is of his or her actual connection to the base.
Althusser, in another section of "Ideology and Ideoligical State Apparatuses" explains that there are two general groups within the superstructure that a government or society uses to influence or force behavior of its members: the Ideological State Apparatuses, and the Repressive State Apparatuses. The ISAs, generally "soft" forces that demonstrate mental or emotional control over an individual, influence the way members of a society think and believe. Popular examples of the ISAs include religion, the family, and art. None of these areas have the ability to directly force someone to behave in a given pattern, though each has a proscribed method of behavior and thought considered appropriate to the related sphere. The RSAs on the other hand include law and military, by which direct, physical control over an individual is possible and desired. Although the ideology created by an ISA can be as influential on an individual's behavior as an RSA, only an RSA has the ability to physically control a subject through incarceration or secular sentencing. Under Althusser, all individuals inherently live caught somewhere between the base and the ISA/RSA-composed superstructure. The relation of the base to the superstructure that the individual experiences results in the ideology an individual espouses.
The section of "Ideology" presented in the Richter anthology tackles the word "ideology" itself and demonstrates that ideology is rooted not in the physical conditions of the world, but in the relationship of an ISA to the base. The individual, as previously stated, caught in that relationship comes to believe certain things about the world and thus develops the ideologies and beliefs that sustains his or her world view. As Althusser states, "it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that 'men' 'represent to themselves' in ideology, but about all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there," (Richter, 1265). For example, a clergyman walking past a beggar on the street as a different reaction than a politician passing the same beggar because the relationship of the characters involved is already influenced by the ideologies of their respective stations. On the other hand, the ideology itself has a material consequence. The clergyman might stop to give money or benedictions has an expected physical response to the ideology of God, whereas a politician may give money or nothing, depending on the expected behavior of his ideology.
Moving past that, Althusser claims that all individuals are automatically interpellated as subjects in relationships always and forever. Every concrete thing is immediately and always put into relation to something else, and thus, every person becomes a subject in relation to any other. What this sets up is an eternal paradox where to be outside of ideology is impossible because one must first recognize that one is in ideology to begin with. Thus, stepping outside of ideology to examine how the ideological beliefs are influencing one's actions means that one is necessarily evaluating one's own ideology from the perspective of one's own ideology. On the other hand, if one does not step outside of ideology, then one is always inside it and blind to how ideology is affecting one's behavior. In short, there is no escape from ideology because, "...ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality)," (Richter, 1270). A general example is given on the last section of the presented essay, describing how an individual becomes subject to ideology; although religion is presented, Althusser states that, "...the formal structure of all ideology is always the same..." (Richter, 1270).
Raymond Williams also addresses the premise of base and superstructure, but takes a strong stance against the image of "street and building" usually associated with vulgar Marxism. Instead, what he emphasizes in the first section from Marxism and Literature, "Base and Superstructure," is the various ways that these two concepts have been presented in Marx's original texts. For superstructure, Marx, "had been mainly against the idea of separation of 'areas' of thought and activity... by the imposition of abstract categories," (Richter, 1274). Marxist criticism, Williams claims, has been made unnecessarily complicated by attempting to separate the ISAs from each other and find a relationship between them, rather than remembering the fluidity of the base, which is less like a street than a fault line, is the reason for numerous seeming changes in the relations of the superstructures. The base itself is in constant motion and thus, its relation to the superstructure is eternally in flux, which is why those relations must always be re-examined, rather than trying to find relations between perceived parts of the superstructure which, under Williams, do not exist independently from each other anyway.
The rest of the essay addresses various influences on theory and application, starting with the more formal processes and working toward subjective or less discernible processes. Section "6. Hegemony" addresses the role that dominant culture plays in how the ideological relationships of base and superstructure are perceived. The most salient point of the section is that "hegemony" is not rigid or unchanging, nor is it a formal process or line of thought. It is in fact a culture, and not just a stagnant set of ideologies. What is hegemonic or dominant changes constantly through a Hegelian dialectic of thought, resulting from pressures both within and from beyond the hegemony itself. Ideology is a formal procedure, as Althusser demonstrated with his examples of material consequences, but hegemonic ideologies shift as less formal cultural processes, and thus when examining a given period, it is vital to examine how ideologies shift in relation to the hegemony itself. New or independent ideologies need to be understood as reactions to, or attempted breaks from the hegemony, essentially pre-cursors to revolution.
After hegemony, Williams addresses traditions, which he claims are often relegated to superstructure and non-influential and inert. Williams argues this assumption by postulating that tradition is one of the most powerful segments of the hegemony because it allows various and even conflicting ideologies to exist together in the base under its guise. The various institutions then hold a tremendous sway on the hegemony because these institutions are allowed to support or discard traditions as desired. Tradition is not the same as a residual ideology, however, since traditions are allowed to stand in opposition to hegemonic values without challenge and are recognized as belonging to the historical past, whereas a residual ideology is absorbed into and established as a process of the present. A residual ideology has an equivalent negation however, unlike other ideological processes, which is the emergent ideology, developed in reaction to the hegemony. The final process Williams addresses, the "structure of feeling" is very vague and addresses the ideas that are emotional reactions to thoughts, or experiences that are still "in solution," rather than a social formation that has already been processed and established. It is related to ideology, but a structure of feeling is not a formal thing of the past, easily understandable or, as Williams recognizes, easy to analyze with current theoretical tools, but it is vital in reactions to the arts or literature.
The predominant through-line in both Althusser and Williams is undoubtedly ideology, but the various ways to construct and examine the concept depends on how the entire structure of Marxist is viewed. On the one hand, ideology is reflective of the individual and the place between base and superstructure. On the other, ideology is a tool of analysis, reflective of a constantly changing and restructuring base and superstructure.
Jacques Lacan - Part 1
Lacan marks the jump in tracks for this class from Marxism to psychoanalyst criticism. For this first analysis, as with Althusser and Williams, some basic terms need to be defined. Lacan takes his analysis practices from Freud and for the following essay, delves in to the concept of Ego. The mind, Freud believed, is made of up three fundamental parts: The Id, the Edo, and the Super-Ego. The Id is the primal unconscious part of the psyche that is chaotic and generates spontaneous desires and wants. It is irrational and asks for anything and everything. In opposition to that is the Super-Ego, which is the sense of conscience that acts in accordance to the rules of society. Our sense of guilt and right and wrong and opposes the desires of complete and automatic self-gratification. In between is the Ego, which filters the desires of the Id and the guilt of the Super-Ego in relation to the real world. The conscious mind functions in part of the Ego, though the Ego is not entirely consciousness.
The first of three essays that will be read, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience," hereafter referred to simply as "Mirror Stage," focuses on the emergence of the Freudian concept of ego in children 6 - 18 months old. The basic premise of this argument relies on the ability for a child to see its own reflection and recognize an Other in the mirror. Internally, the child at this phase feels a lack of refined control over the body, unable to force all of its gangly, incomplete limbs to behave as it wishes. When the child sees itself reflected in the mirror though, the image is of a complete, integrated whole, which the child does not and cannot believe of itself. The Other in the mirror is capable of manipulating with a perceived degree of finesse that the child in this stage of development does not feel itself having. In seeing itself, the child automatically interpellates the image in the mirror as an idealized Other, capable of being a whole being, which the child then aspires to be. From this moment, all individuals begin aspiring towards the concept of an idealized "I" that is brought about by fundamental misrecognition of the self.
Before seeing and misrecognizing this Other, the child is free to feel and experience without guilt or constraint. After this vital moment however, in order to fit the perfected ideal reflected in the mirror, the child begins to repress desires and feels for the first time a fundamental lack of control. As this lack and the repressed desires surface, the child begins to find ways to express its repressed desires without actually having to express them, signifying them as sounds or movements. Thus, Lacan argues, is the root of language and the reason children begin to speak between 6 and 18 months. All human verbal communication, he argues, is driven by lack and desire.
Although later Lacanian essays recognize a strong influence from Ferdinand de Saussure, a founding Structuralist critic who's work on Semiotics revolutionized the nature of linguistic theory, "Mirror Stage" does not delve deeply in to the relation of signifier to signified. Lacan is content with stating that when a child initially perceives the Other in the mirror as an idealized self, the ego, that which filters desires and represses spontaneous impulses to better fit social norms, develops in an attempt to become the perfected self. How ironic that our first efforts to be better than ourselves is simply an effort to be ourselves. It is an interesting take on the idea that, "you are your own worst enemy."
|Sunday, September 20th, 2009|
To be honest, I completely misunderstood the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." It seemed that from the opening arguments about aura and the unique qualities of art, that Benjamin was arguing in favor of wonder and discovery as positive in regards to art. Benjamin uses "trigger" words and phrases like, "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of are is lacking in one element," which sets up the idea that a reproduced art is bad because it lacks. However, the influence on me from conversations about mass production and commercialization of art was clear in my reading of this text because I was unable to read sentences like "The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition," closely enough to catch the negative implication of art being tied to the ages of past.
The main new forms of "art" that Benjamin examines are film and photography, the two forms that he argues are most capable of direct and complete re-creation and mechanical reproduction. The other reason this essay reads as an indictment of mechanical reproduction is because Benjamin basically declares that neither film nor photography are art forms. The introduction of sound films he treats as a complete revolution in spectacle and capability, defying all possible aesthetic limitations.
The big point of the essay, and what really makes Benjamin stand out as a Marxist critic, is the epilogue of "Work of Art," in which he declares "art for art's sake" to be Fascist. All art, he implies, is bound by aesthetic rules and regulations, created by the elite that ultimately end up as expressions of Fascist culture. Traditional art does not affect the viewer, but instead consumes the viewer and inundates him or her with rules and regulations, completely taking away the ability of the individual to create an impression independent of the artwork itself. Technical power, on the other hand, through mass reproduction and de-mystification, creates a subliminal quality that influences the viewer without taking over complete control of the psyche. Film and photography take the focus away from the perform or subject and establish the viewer as the camera, capable of viewing objectively the world around himself. Bejamin believes that by taking the power of technical reproduction and giving it to the masses, art will be freed from Fascist control, as every person will soon be able to be a camera. Film, he conjectures, will never be as bound by the rules of art as all other forms in history have.
The essay by Brecht in this set, "The Popular and the Realistic" is unusual for Brecht in that it does not talk about his pet theory Epic Theatre. It is a slight departure from Benjamin, who champions the right of the masses to produce their own work, as Brecht seems to say that as long as someone is speaking for the masses, subjected through barbarism, then art is succeeding.
The title of this work is mis-leading as well, as Brecht talks about two non-traditional definitions of "Popular" and "Realistic." "Popular" in this case means "of the people," rather than the more American "well-liked" and thus, refers to folk traditions as well as widely-praised art. "Realistic" is more akin to documentary, something that reveals the truth at the heart of things, rather than Stanislovskian psychological realism. As a side note, this definition of "Realist" seems much more akin to how the Japanese translated "Realism" in Shingeki, which was treated as a vital political theatre that exposed the heart of problems. Together, these two words suggest the kind of art that Brecht does support through his Epic Theatre, which would be a work that was a revelation of the conflicts of the degredated masses.
Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno
In direct contrast to Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno speak loudly the common side of artists in the 20th and 21st centuries, decrying mechanical reproduction of art as commodification. It takes real effort on my part not to be trite when dealing with Adorno, because he has a very rigid and specific system that he uses to objectively declare art good or bad. His Marxist quality emerges predominantly when dealing with art that can be easily reproduced, creating thus what he and Horkheimer label "The Culture Industry." The section reprinted from "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment Through Mass Deception" revolves around the creation of "style" as a commercial concept. "Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organizing, and labeling customers." In effect, everything is marketing strategy and formula. This essay has no strong champion, but it can be inferred that what constitutes good art is something that defies labels. Only in challenging convention can something be free from easy reproduction.
Easy reproduction is bad because it allows art to be objectified, fetishized, and consumed as a thing, rather than as an idea. Reproduced art allows the masses to remain undifferentiated masses, all thinking the same and allowing total control over their individual thoughts. What Adorno never addresses however, is the concept of personal taste. What causes emotional reaction and rebellion in an individual is different depending on several factors, up to and including taste for style. A piece does not have to be revolutionary in regards to its general style, as Schoenberg is generally considered to be revolutionary in regards to music, in order for someone to find the new piece exceptional and inspiring. Someone who spends all his or her time listening to musicals for example, could be brought to completely new levels of idea and invention simply by being introduced to jazz. The challenge to taste creates a desire for something new.
I am thankful that I now have an academic way to express my disdain for Adorno; I can now claim that he is an elitist. Although I do agree that the inundation of mass art and reproductions in contemporary culture is dangerous to artistic integrity, the key in my mind is not attempting to step so far outside of all existing labels and boundaries that it becomes impossible to identify a new piece. Being able to do that requires time, and ironically, money, in order to continue securing the basic necessities to live, which one generally does not have unless one already has both of these things to begin with. Finding and personally discovering something that has already existed, perhaps for hundreds of years, is often just as inspiring as finding something completely new and avant-garde, once personal taste is taken in to account.