“…the issue is not freeing ourselves from representation. It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations, which means we are able to be critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told.” (bell hooks, “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.”)
“Brooding at the end of the world on my island of Sal in the company of my prancing dogs I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.” (Chris Marker, Sans soleil.)
« 27 octobre
Qui sait? Peut-être un peu d’or dans ces notes ? » (“Who knows? Perhaps a bit of gold in these notes?” Roland Barthes, Journal de deuil.)
I’ve been told that when I was very, very young—so young I practically consider the period pre-cognitive—I had an eidetic memory, like my father. There was a period of tests and appraisals, of which, ironically enough, I remember very little. I don’t even know if I believe the story, memory having so much to do with faith, after all, and the notion of eidetic memory being highly controversial in the first place.
What I can remember is occasionally frightening other people with recall of particular landscapes or interior layouts—my memory having mostly been limited to perceiving objects in space, not information or sounds—and thereafter quietly, and only partially-consciously, training myself not to remember things in this way. Not to hold onto things in this way. (This is also what I meant by pre-cognitive: to member something, to hold something—all of these were enfleshed gestures, synesthetic, anti-dualistic. Memory was something that happened to your body, to the mind of your body. The opposite of remember wasn’t forget, but dismember. Pulling the limbs of memory apart.) And if I couldn’t help but hold onto things, I made sure, at the very least, not to talk about the things I held with anyone except my family, the only people I trusted (have ever trusted). And so, in this way, the “ability” (which had nothing to do with ability) mostly disappeared, although to this day I still find myself regularly lying to other people about not remembering things that I do remember in detail.
When I think about the memory of the Internet, and especially of the memory-repository of sites like Twitter or Google Books, I often think about what an eidetic memory would feel like for an amnesiac. The opposite of Ireneo Funes in Borges’ “Funes the Memorious,” the man who remembers everything and can’t forget anything—instead, someone who remembers everything and must forget it all. Someone for whom memory might be like Chris Marker’s eternal magnetic tape, but faulty; everything being remembered or recorded is at the exact same time being erased.
I read “previewable” texts on Google Books; often I come across that line, “Pages XX to XX are not available for preview.” When I do, it begins to appear to me that Google is now assuming the work once performed by time, by environmental disaster, by neglect, by zealots hovering over papyri: which is to say, all the persecutions, accidents, customs and habits that have historically removed pages from manuscripts. Frequently it even occurs that a page I have definitely read, only seconds before, will no longer be there when I click back—I, as a reader, having exceeded some mysterious page viewing limit whose parameters I have yet to identify.
It’s true that Google is making a global library, but its model is Alexandria. Google Books makes every book you read a ruin. Every act of reading, a glimpse into a book’s destroyed and partial future.
I begin with memory to talk about Masha Tupitsyn’s extraordinary new book of cultural criticism through film criticism, LACONIA: 1200 Tweets on Film, not only because to write cultural criticism is necessarily to write back to cultural memory, but because the book’s use of the tweet-form dramatizes the kinds of remembering and thinking at stake in contemporary social media and the culture it informs and is informed by. How can we begin today to think about the relationship between virtual memory and cultural memory; between digital memory and embodied memory?
In an interview, the filmmaker Eugene Green said:
In my conception of cinema, it’s impossible to make real cinema in digital because it doesn’t capture any energy; it just gives an intellectual image of what the director wanted to put in the frame, it is not the reality, the real presence, the spiritual presence of what has been filmed; because in order to capture energy, the energy which is in matter, you need other matter, the matter of film, the chemistry of film which captures that energy. And digital image is a virtual image, there is nothing real there, so there cannot be any real spiritual presence either. Nevertheless, there is a sort of economic pressure to abolish film, to make it impossible to shoot in film.
The argument disdaining the emptiness of digital in favor of the richness of film is by no means a new one, and I have serious reservations about it, mostly to do with the race/gender/class inequalities that dictate who is typically able to use digital and who is able to use film—however, what Green is pointing out here about the crucial difference between the virtual and the material is at the heart of LACONIA. So much of what is moving in Tupitsyn’s criticism is her way of locating, animating, and mourning the loss of the material, the loss of texture, the loss of the real (“abolish film, make it impossible to shoot in film”)—where material, texture and realness are qualities as spiritual and moral as they are embodied; where fidelity to those qualities can be a way of calling out a culture of violent alienation and commodification.
306. Until quite recently I don’t think I really understood what actors we all are. I believed some people were actually still real.
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(This is also why, while LACONIA‘s introduction names Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse as a formative influence, I’ve quoted his Journal de deuil, or Mourning Diary, which I think should be read in partnership with A Lover’s Discourse; two books of fragments about being a lover, of loving another. Of loving an Other.)
LACONIA often feels like a book of (a work of) cultural mourning, and while it gives credit to Mies van der Rohe and compares its form to “an architecture of thinking,” I am reminded also of the way the work of German writer Georg Büchner (see my recent post on Georg Büchner and Paul Celan here at Big Other) is conceptualized in John Reddick’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Büchner’s complete works:
It helps if we recognize what is surely the paradox of paradoxes in Georg Büchner: his disjunctive mode with its relentless insistence on fragments and particles is always the expression of a radiant vision of wholeness… but almost always a wholeness that is poignantly elusive: it was, but is no longer; or will be but isn’t yet; or—most poignant of all—it is in the present, but can be possessed only partially or transiently. Büchner is thus forced to be a maker of mosaics.”
From LACONIA‘s introduction: “LACONIA contains a nexus of themes. Rather than expanding upon one idea at length, it connects the dots, using a hybrid of sources to build a mosaic of patterns that emphasizes and explores the correlations and juxtapositions between films.”
The idea of a radiant wholeness only elusively possible through fragments is an apt way of thinking about LACONIA. But Büchner was also a radical left-wing writer—anti-ruling-class, anti-Cartesian, anti-systems—deeply disturbed and disillusioned by the viciously unequal and exploitative social order of his day. This is the the political context of both his mournful idealism and his recourse to the fragment; LACONIA‘s context is comparable. The book’s radical and engaged nostalgia (about New York in the 70s, about real noses and faces with character, about pubic hair, about mystery, about real love) is also a radical and engaged anger, indignance and grief. What has been lost? And what can be recovered?
549. While most people struggle with a depression of the self, I think what I have, or have always had, is a feeling of Weltschmerz (world
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550. sadness or pain), or “depression caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” In Stagestruck, Sarah Schulman
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551. refers to Weltschmerz as cultural grief.
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What interests me with LACONIA’s use of the tweet-form is not only its engagement with the kind of memory storage made possible (and impossible) by such social media, but also the way in which the form itself—its immediacy, its succinctness, its outreach—can be used in thoughtful and subversive ways. During the Arab Spring, the mainstream news media was (and still is) regularly and simplistically linking (and sometimes outright crediting) the revolutionary wave of protests and demonstrations to social networking sites like Twitter, as if the form in and of itself had made such acts of solidarity and dissent possible, rather than acknowledging the agency of the users, and thinking about the inspiring ways in which resistance movements must spontaneously take advantage of all available and imaginable resources (for example, in Egypt and Libya, the use of makeshift directional antennae to get around the communication crackdowns).
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about social networking media in general—if anything, the structures of interaction they provide are often deeply conservative and neoliberal—but there is, of course, a long literary history of finding the radical potential in forms so quotidian as to have become naturalized (I’m currently re-reading Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, to give one example); works that performatively examine the popular forms that construct our thinking. LACONIA is dedicated “to the late Robin Wood, for whom criticism was a form of living,” and it’s for this reason that the book’s tweet-form feels, to me, so just and so urgent: making criticism a form of living, by using the one of the most prevalent forms of communication shaping contemporary life (Twitter as the “virtual watercooler”).
Still, using the tweet-form potentially exposes the book to the kind of criticism that is often made about popular cultural communication in general; that it’s so abbreviated and informal, that it’s given to shallow and solipsistic inanities, that it only encourages our postmodern narcissism, et cetera. Furthermore, the concision necessary for a great aphorism or one-liner is nowadays more often reserved for the tagline, the advertising slogan, the PR soundbite. Compression, speedy assimilation, but to what end? (To sell more shit and lies.)
But rather than respond to this corruption of brevity with a long-form book or essay, LACONIA does something more provocative; it takes brevity back. So that the wit, clarity and concision of the short form are organized around, rallied around, the kind of criticism that currently feels as sorely needed as it is sometimes sorely lacking: a deeply feminist criticism, invested in the personal and the interpersonal (and their burgeoning degradation at the hands of individualist and capitalist culture), a profound attention to how dehumanizing and exploitative gender relations and equally dehumanizing and exploitative systems of production manifest themselves in popular representation—and perhaps most of all, an attention to attention.
From careful observation of the change in Al Pacino’s eyes post-1970s, to the disappointment of hearing about Sibel Kekilli’s nose job (I grieved it, too!) among many others, to the gendering of time travel, to fame and the loss of intimacy, to the relationship between Mike Tyson and America, to the new-old phallocentrism of Apatow films, to the troublingly revelatory combination of Haiti, James Cameron and Lady Gaga on an episode of Oprah, to the “trope of beauty” of blond hair, to the “spirituality of accountability” in Pasolini’s Teorema, to the radical optimism of Sally Hawkins’ Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky—LACONIA is testament to the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute act (each fragment time-stamped and dated) of what Susan Sontag called paying attention to the world.
“When the social is hypostatized and enshrined as an ideal of transparency, when it itself becomes commodified in a form of sheer administration (better service, better control), the interval between the real and the image(d) or between the real and the rational shrinks to the point of unreality. Thus, to address the question of production relations… is endlessly to reopen the question: How is the real (or the social ideal of good representation) produced? Rather than catering to it, striving to capture and discover its truth as a concealed or lost object, it is therefore important also to keep on asking: How is truth being ruled?” (Trinh T. Minh-ha, The Totalizing Quest of Meaning.)
“‘How you put together a thought, a life’—rather than simply an essay or a book—and how you think on a day-to-day basis, in an age that leaves you with very little time or space to do either, is ultimately the focus of LACONIA. Put simply, this collection concerns the person, not just the work, for as Joe Baltlake writes on his blog, ‘The Passionate Moviegoer,’ ‘The way a person connects the lines; the way he or she responds to a movie, says a lot about them.’” (Masha Tupitsyn, Introduction to LACONIA.)
Now, a coda—for anger, indignance and grief. There’s a passage towards the end of LACONIA about the movie Fatal Attraction.
953. When Penelope Cruz asks Halle Barry what movie she likes to watch over and over again on Oprah’s Oscar special, Berry says Fatal Attraction.
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954. Then, later in the show, Glenn Close and Michael Douglas “reunite” to share their nostalgia about making Fatal Attraction as if the movie
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955. were some true romance. How sad for Berry and Oprah and Glenn. When Fatal Attraction came out, and continued to attract record crowds,
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956. director Adrian Lyne gushed, “It’s amazing what an audience-participation film it’s turned out to be. Everybody’s yelling and shouting and
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957. really getting into it. This is a film that everyone can identify with. Everyone knows a girl like Alex.” “Everyone” being men because in
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958. 1987, when Fatal Attraction was released, male movie-goers were reportedly shouting homicidal phrase like, “Punch the bitch’s face in,” and,
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959. “Do it, Michael. Kill her already. Kill the bitch” at the screen. In her book Backlash, Susan Faludi writes that a female teenage usher named
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960. Sabrina Hughes reported that in 1987 the men in the audience would scream things like, “Beat that bitch! Kill her off now!” while “women
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961. would ‘just si[t] there, real quiet.’” …
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Lest we think that the era of Fatal Attraction is over and the patriarchal anxiety-nightmare about the aggressive sexuality of the liberated career-woman already dealt with, one only need watch the trailer for the upcoming summer film Horrible Bosses to be reminded of how long 1987 (and all the years before it) still lasts.
Three male friends conspire to murder their “horrible bosses,” one of which is Jennifer Aniston’s sexually-harassing dentist. The young man who works as her dental assistant is initially hesitant to participate in the plan, but then Aniston’s nouveau-Alex Forrest, Dr. Julia Harris (Forrest/Harris, that near-phononym), shows photos of herself and the young man in compromising positions, apparently taken while he was under anaesthesia. Dr. Harris threatens to show the photos to his fiancée. (The fiancée is of course blonde; Aniston’s own famously famous hair has been dyed dark.)
The trailer cuts to the young man, abruptly entering a room, where presumably his two friends and co-conspirators are waiting.
He’s already uttering that immortal line: “I’m in—let’s kill this bitch!”