Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Really Immature Femme?

This is a movie review of a film you've never seen. Don't worry: it's absolutely not important that I'm right about the movie. If I am or I am not will make no difference to whether or not you should see it, and the only way you can see it is by going to a dimly flourescently lit video store or belonging to Netflix. The film du femme is "A Real Young Girl" ("Une Vraie Jeune Fille") written and directed by Catherine Breillat.

So, why write about a suppressed and virtually unknown French film? Well, imagine the most unrealistically gynephobic voice from The Vagina Monologues and imagine that voice got over the class consciousness and was given a 16 mm film camera and a cast and crew. Also imagine that, instead of being a poor or bourgeoise woman of the usual sort, she went to the Sorbonne around 1971 and got a head full of ecrit feminine and, amazingly, believed it. Astonishing, stretching credulity, I know, but you have to imagine the combination of "writing is done by the vulva" with "I hate my vagina" and keep all the narcissism that leads to a one-woman show. You then have to put all of that into the amazingly cold and treacherous medium of film and ... wait until you hear this ... expect people to think the result is deeply real.

The star of the film is a very, very beautiful young lady whose other films are confined to pornography of the lighter sort. All the men show their penises, and pretty much all of the women show their mons veneris, while our heroine is inserted, opened, and given metonymic close ups. Remember: this is feminism. This is truth. Essentially, our heroine loves disgusting things because she disgusts herself, even as she desires the disgusting things that disgust her, and she is compelled to sitting wrong way on the potty, denying would-be lesbian lovers, and rejecting the boys she finds arousing because of her disgust, while she has to look longingly at her father's inappropriate genital display because it's disgusting. She's a filthy whore, her mother tells her, and so she feels ashamed and desirous of shame and being violated by men who simply don't give a f....

Haven't we heard this story before, and didn't we find it unconvincing? Didn't it seem like hyperbole already? What's worse is that this compulsion to document is doubly complicit. On the one hand, the author (of the "novel," Breillat, when there might be six pages of dialog in the whole movie...but dialog isn't something she's interested in, as that involves other people) is inflicting her vision on an actress and some actors, so, if she's out to tell her personal story of shame and nymphomania, she's making someone else go through it. On the other hand, the moment you film a woman's vagina being dressed in earthworms, you have committed pornography. If there is supposed to be some healing process back there, some way that the director is getting over her bad upbringing and shame by pictorializing it, then she's picking a medium in which she must, by the very nature of it, do exactly as she complains: expose her genitalia to express her revulsion of it, become a pornographer to complain about pornography. It's chowderheaded in the extreme, or else it's smugly recidivous. This is pornography from Andrea Dworkin, psychotherapy from Mark Foley, a reformation of manners from Heidi Fleiss.

If you, personally, do not get along with your naughty bits, that's a matter for the couch. Filming it and enacting it means that you have some hope or some doom to seek. Later on, Breillat would continue her pornography as protest with Romance (which is even duller and more disconnected from its own medium than A Real Young Girl is, as its central conceit is that a woman is only interested in a man who is gay/impotent with her, while she goes about getting raped and accosted and whipped in sadomasochism and provides us with exceptionally leaden monologs about her vagina), and there a baby and the timely death of its father would prove to cure the problems.

I know I'm doing nothing to get you interested in these films, and I'm not trying to. Instead, I'm thinking about the powerful mystery of sex. It is a powerful mystery, because we make it one. Give a person enough time, and he or she will become convinced that accidents of birth explain everything, that the root of all problems is some thing that can't quite be examined. Usually, it's parents. This is a good ticket for a while, but being a boy (when you wish you could cry at movies) or a girl (when you wish you could just charge through life without a care) will show up at some point. Being small/large, top heavy/top light, ugly/beautiful, dark/fair will explain most of your problems, if you're left alone for long enough.

The fact is that your genitals have very little to do with anything. They serve their function, or they don't, but most of the time, even if you're Wilt Chamberlain, or Agrippina the Younger, they're just minding their business and waiting for the next overfull bladder. Oh, there are all sorts of potent chemicals given off by them, and they do tend to "flash and yearn," as John Berryman said in "Dreamsong 14" (read it at the Poetry Foundation). They flash when near an object, suitable or not, and yearn for use, but they don't do a lot else. Men are lucky, in that theirs are usually in view, but then that means that they get obsessed with cyllinders and sizes and such. Women need a step ladder and a mirror and seem to be inhabited by a cranky stranger, and that can lead to all of this mystification and worry and hatred directed at a not much at all.

Sex (not gender, which is appropriately complained of by everyone...even the chick magnet and party girl) is elusive enough and mercurial enough and deeply seated enough to act as a great locus of problems. Why not, after all?

The problem is that you only have a 1:2 choice, and every single thing you suffer from, being male or female, is something that around half the population suffers from. You're not the first one. You're not the proper spokesperson. It's normal. It's normally difficult, normally unsatisfactory, normally obvious and normally obscure. If you let it get to the point where you think your personality, much less your writing, criticism, and speech, are determined by this one extrusion or recession of embryology, I can only draw one conclusion: you're bored. You obviously need a real enemy or friend.

Given how many victims of violence there are, how many starving, how many tortured, how many disappeared, how many discriminated against, how many fattened, how many derided, how many bullied, how many kicked out of home, how many preyed upon by bankers, how many shipped out of the country, how many jobless, how many addicted, how many leading anonymous lives, how many abused in elder care, what the hell are you doing worrying about how much you hate your pee-pee?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cliff's Edge Notes for the below post

The blog entry below this one is dense. I wrote it all at one throw, in a stream of consciousness, and like a lot of bad stream of consciousness writing, it required that you have read the same books as I at the same time and understood them the same way. Well, that might work for some people, but I'm nobody and have ambition to one day be nothing. No clove cigarette from my lips, beret on my shaggy head, no chaps on my broad thighs, no New York acclaim is mine. Therefore, I'll try to be less opaque.

I. Why I failed to communicate:
Well, the big thing is that the first paragraph is comprehensible enough, but then I have two paragraphs of etudes on 18th century philosophers and poets whom I hardly identify and do not explain. I then go to a fully frenzied rant about conservatives. That's normal enough, but no one's reading by that point.

II. The schoolboy philosophy
1. John Locke
Locke's empiricism begins with the senses. He maintains that we are made of our experiences, made by them, and not by an inherent essence. We are not born to be a king or a pauper, but we are made into a king or pauper by our experiences. Furthermore, we know nothing without perception. Percept leads to concept -- the inward shape of the outward sense -- through synthesis and distinction in the human mind. Now, what's important is that you not put a Nehru jacket on him: he is not B. F. Skinner in a periwig. He's closer to Arthur Koestler than that. Locke does not see us as wholly without innate qualities, and he believes that we have a sixth-ish sense, the sense of commonality, the common sense. It is this that allows us to combine disparate sensations into types, to form generalizations, to make predictions. This is coupled with judgment or wit, which allows us to distinguish individuals and to analyze complexes into their components. Remember this common sense.
2. Shaftesbury (the not-Zimri one) and the Killer B.
Shaftesbury had suggested that there is a different innate sense, a sort of common sense of morality. There is, he thought, an inward sense of the right. This (we mustn't call it a moral sense yet, historically, but it was in all but name) sense told us what is right and good, and it responded to that which is harmonious. According to Shaftesbury, we are all inherently inclined toward goodness. Now, we go awry, of course, but, left alone, we would be good if we could. In opposition to this was Bernard de Mandeville, whose "The Grumbling Hive" and "Fable of the Bees," suggested that, in fact, we're much more beastly than that. We are, at heart, selfish, and this selfishness does not result in anarchy. Instead, greedy, carnal, miserly, spendthrift, and rapacious individuals generate a social good by their very vices, that they employ people, that they generate surplus wealth that must flush out into a generalized economy. That's a cheap version of Mandeville, who is really quite nuanced, but it's not unfair. Mandeville saw humans beneficial in aggregate, not in individuals.
3. Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson was going to save Shaftesburian optimism (the sort of optimism even Pope wouldn't have endorsed) by reiterating and systemizing the sense of goodness Shaftesbury had posited in a Lockean system. He's the one who argues that the moral sense is a sense as natural as the sense of commonality in Locke. He suggests something akin to a pleasure sense, a sense of fitness and beauty inherent in the human mind. This allows us to have a universal sense of beauty and a universal sense of morality.

III. The screed about Conservative "Thinkers"
I was pissed off that my edition of Hutcheson came from The Liberty Fund, Inc. The problem is that there are mutliple funds and institutes like this that are interested in bolstering the "heritage" of conservativism. They do this by appealing to the 18th century in England almost without fail. However, they either don't read all of it or they pretend that they're unaware of the debates that the "heroes" of conservativism were engaged in. They seem to have read passages of Locke, but ignore the fact that he was trying to overthrow absolute monarchism. They have headlines from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, but no awareness of Mandeville or Hobbes. They especially like to cut out paper dolls from Adam Smith, but never understand his Theory of Moral Sentiments or even the introduction to Wealth of Nations.

IV. The quick summary of the blog post below
There exists a trend in America where right wing groups have decided that they need "intellectuals." Therefore, they have these groups who have read excerpts from the 18th century and publish them for everyone. The members of these groups then get rolled out on dollies whenever conservatives need "intellectuals." They're not intellectuals, or not intellectually honest, because they have a clip-art view of 18th century political philosophy. By stopping the clock at various points to grab one tired Scotsman or another by his collar and hauling him out to say something, they're missing the entire context of 18th century Insular philosophy, which was a dialog of empiricism trying to deal with its glaring epistemological shortcoming (i.e. "How can we be only our experiences and yet not be plants spinning about in phototropism?). Each of philosopher tried to spackle over the dent at the bottom of the system, and their opponents were no better at system building than they were, but the very imperfection and mortal stature of the philosophers kept them going at it.

Conservatives these days don't have intellectuals, because their practical system is antithetical to everything the empiricists would have endorsed, and their quoted fathers, Locke and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, would have had Barry Goldwater brought to the Old Bailey, while they would have had W. Bush committed to a private asylum. All the same, conservatives fool themselves and apply small dabs of ointment to their intellectual consciences by saying, 'Oh, yes, what we're doing is firmly rooted in the best part of intellectual history.' What they're doing is, in fact, global rape, but they convince themselves of the lie and then expect the gullible and the long gummed to believe it, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Clown of Unknowing

I was listening to my favorite show just a bit ago, "Music for Lava Lamps." Before it could be replaced by "Mambos for the Gormless," I tried to relax and float amongst the astrals, but to know a veil. I'm far too riddled with guilt and riddles to enjoy the echo of thoughts on the vastness of my tiny skull, so, instead, I read a bit of Dorothy Parker and some Francis Hutcheson. One of them was a lot more pleasing to me than the other, I can tell you, and even though it was a story she had failed to finish. My danged fool lava lamp was looking more like a poop lamp than a lava lamp, and I understood why one fool damned himself by putting his on a stove top. It's supposed to be a lamp, and lamps are supposed to be hot.

So, there is Hutcheson, next big thing of 1725, trying to save poor Shaftesbury (the good one, not the Zimri one) from a grumbling hive of killer B's. Bernard (the killer bee) had said that everything was selfishness, and Shaftesbury had talked about an inward goodness that generates a sense of morality, and Hutcheson tried to ... really... just replicate Locke. (He's a major philosopher why?) Locke's empiricism has needed five senses and an inward common sense. I.e. it had specified a sense innate in the human (even tabula rasa) that synthesized and distinguished impulses. This common sense was necessary to save us from being vegetables turning toward the sun. Hutcheson just says that there is an innate common sense of morality that takes actions of beauty and rightness and synthesizes and distinguishes them. Big deal. To my knowledge, Mandeville never returned fire, but it would have been amazingly easy to do so. Even as Hutcheson's "greatest good for the greatest number" (it's his phrase, y'all) turns into Utilitarianism (and you thought it was their phrase), Mandeville's cynical retort is always lodged just beneath the flesh. Let's say that that inward sense of morality and common good is not a sense but a need. Let's say that it is the need for either getting goods or the need for simple company. Let's suppose that humans are naturally social. I mean that they're naturally social. (We know, as clever citizens of the future, that humans are.) Mr. Hutcheson, meet situational ethics, which will knife you the moment no one is looking.

I was hoping for more. It's not that I thought I was going to get very much more from Hutcheson, and his aesthetics are great for swinging the hinge on Samuel Johnson's more out-of-depth Rambles, but it was rather sad all the same. What's worse is that the edition I got was published by some highly suspicious group. It's published by (and I say this to my great remorse) The Liberty Fund, Inc. of that mecca of metropolitain thought, Indianapolis, Indiana. Oh sadness! Finally, 18th century philosophers reprinted, with decent introductions by real philosophy types, and done by a Liberty Fund, a fund, no doubt, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and that all governments are created in Hell. Oh, my! How does the introduction begin? With a quotation of the Commonwealth of Virginia declaration of rights. What is the spirit of the introduction? Francis Hutcheson is important for American independence. All of that is true, but all of it is worrisome.

I don't worry that they stop the clock in 1765. I worry that they excerpt the clock. Bernard de Mandeville is much closer to David Stockman and Ronald Reagan's philosophy than Shaftesbury (the good one) is. John Locke would take one look at Alfred W. Newman, the current Prednisent of the US, and shriek. Heck, the entire ship load of 18th century philosophers would stand, mouths agape, staring in disbelief at Goldwatery conservativism. They never once thought of their "liberty" as the defense of the rich against obligation. They never once thought of freedom as being the tax cheat's rally cry for his survivalist time share in Montanna. Furthermore, they were men always in dialog with one another. The certainty of each brings out the skeptic in the other. Because the "John Locke Society" (click on that only if you have taken your dramamine) and Liberty Funds of this world present only the selected highlights of the thought they think instrumental, they leave out what that thought was thinking about. They leave out the earlier positive statements that their demurrals refer to, the earlier provocations that their assertions seek to stabilize. They also cut out all those nasty clarifications and challenges that would make these versions of empiricism look naive.

You want to read Locke? Do. Read Swift, too, though. You want to read Essay on Man? Do. Read also Caleb Williams.

I'm a long way from Music for Lava Lamps, I'm afraid, but this is why I couldn't space out. There are people out there who swing dead philosophers like truncheons, who know not one end from the other but who nevertheless shove them forward whenever their absurdity and illiteracy is pointed out. Those people, then, are exalted as intellectuals by the manifestly anti-intellectual "conservative movement." "Oh," they say, "you should read George F. Will! He's an intellectual!" No. He's just another craven egoist.

Conservativism as it exists in the United States is all about selfishness. It might reach as far and climb as high as being vaguely eugenicist, but it's generally the life of the market, and the market is about a profit now, not about an investment. The only miracle is that these people managed to ever plan anything, given how much instant return they demand, and they only planned in the sense that they kept repeating themselves for lack of anything new to say. Conservativism isn't about "values," except as they allow the conservatives to beat up on others and define themselves as Not Them. (Do we really need the rogue's gallery of GOP congress golems caught with their pants down this year alone? Do we really need to name all the ones divorcing multiple times, leaving dying wives, and sleeping with same sex partners of various ages?) It isn't about Christianity, except that it gets them elected (as Bush makes fun of fundamentalists while claiming to be one and the GOP national convention arranged the rostrums to look like Calvary, which would shock a devout person with its hubris). It isn't about the market, except that it is about profit. (Can we find one who hasn't enriched himself with shady deals?)

Conservativism is about denying the common sense, the moral sense, the universal sense of the beautiful. It is about appetite and cancerous expansion. It is voracious, anti-moral, and as thoughtful and intellectual as a reflex.

How can I mellow out? How can I rest and listen to Sigur Ros noodle meaninglessly in authentic New Norse Gibberish? I was better off reading Dorothy Parker, I think. She only had the horrors of Warren G. Harding's illegitimate daughter and the profundity of Calvin Coolidge to complain about. While she never seemed to go see a good play, at least there were plays to go see that hadn't yet been subverted to glorifying the greatest dunces of her age. In her day, the conservatives at least had the good sense to wear top hats and spats, so the poor people weren't so duped as they are now.

My stupid lava lamp still looks like a stool. Everything kind of does these days.