Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Straight Line and the Void: Hundertwasser, Hiroshima, and the Horror of Forgetting

Hundertwasser, the most important Viennese artist of the second half of the twentieth century, despised straight lines. Straight lines he thought immoral and atheistic. Painting is a religious experience. There are no straight lines in nature.

I have been photographing straight lines lately. They do seem mostly man-made, inasmuch as they can be called 'straight' - building cranes, jet streams, telephone cables, poles, railway tracks. But Hundertwasser is right - there are no straight lines in nature, even man-made. Everything is crooked, curved, bent, distorted, twisted - if you look close enough. Or inversely, if you stand back far enough. Straightness is a metaphor, or a mirage - and a dangerous one at that. A jet stream is nothing but a shapeless clutter of gusts, clouds, particles, hyperbolic streams.

"I venture to say that the line described by my feet as I go walking to the museum is more important than the lines one finds hanging on the walls inside. And I get enormous pleasure in seeing that the line is never straight, never confused, but it has its reasons for being the way it is in every smallest part. Beware of the straight line and the drunken line, but especially of the straight one! The straight line leads to the loss of humanity." (Hundertwasser, 27)

Hundertwasserhaus, a low-income apartment block in Vienna designed free of charge by the artist ("to prevent something ugly from going up in its place"), features undulating floors, an earth and grass-covered roof, and large trees growing inside rooms with limbs extending from windows. "An uneven floor is a melody to the feet," Hundertwasser was reported as saying.

Among the architectural features of the new Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind is a Holocaust Void - "a void space that embodies absence, a straight line whose impenetrability becomes the central focus around which exhibitions are organized." (63) The straight line: the loss of humanity, the Holocaust.

In the novel We, a somewhat superior forerunner to Orwell's 1984, credited by Orwell himself as a major source of inspiration, Yevgeny Zamyatin writes: "Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes. You see, the line of the One State - it is a straight line. A great, divine, precise, wise, straight line - the wisest of lines." (4) The straight line: totalitarian state.

"Everything straight lies," a dwarf tells Nietzsche's Zarathustra. "All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle." Even space is curved, as Relativity would have it.

According to the author of a book on the Sarajevo Hagaddah, the Nazis' aim in looting Jewish treasures from around the world was to house them in a "museum of an extinct people." All museums and galleries, to a greater or lesser extent, unwittingly or not, furnish this project: the past is another country. The gesture of putting on display a work objectifies and distances it; the work becomes the index of a complex absence, it opens up a space of alienation, a void. Every exhibition space is in a sense a 'museum of an extinct race'. It commemorates the absence of the artist, who no longer exists, who is extinct.

(*The inclusion of the Holocaust Void in the New Jewish Museum in Berlin, implying a negative content, could be a saving grace or counterweight to this tendency, by displacing the trauma of extermination not on a fixed positive content, but on a kind of vanishing mediator, fixing the gesture of petrification/alienation in a state of incompleteness, a straight line whose emptiness negates itself, and its 'straightness', opening up an empty space for thought and remembrance.)

Something to this effect happens to be the theme of an exhibition at Futura Gallery in Prague titled 'Key Figures in 20th Century Art'. It consists of a series of portraits of artists who, according to the authors of the project (Avdei Ter-Oganian and Vaclav Magid), have "contributed to the elimination of avant-garde tendencies" and given rise to the capitalist notion of the work of art as an object of consumption or 'commodity'. The logic of the commodity is inimical to the work of art, leading to what Ter-Oganian and Magid call an "ecological catastrophe in the cultural sphere". The artists whose portraits are hung on the 'wall of shame', ranging from Gustav Klimt to Tracey Emin, have "left the world of art and sold themselves to the production of worthless yet luxury commodities." The artists have vacated their own bodies.

A series of works by photographer Susan Hiller titled 'The J Street Project', accompanied by a lengthy printed volume, documents 303 German streets that contain the word 'Jude' - 'Jew'. Hiller's research resulted in over 300 photographs, a list of places and streets with a map of Germany, and a video installation. Given the perverse logic of the Nazis' collecting habits, however, the persistence of the street names that Hiller documents is not at odds with the 'traumatic absence' they indicate. Street names are like museums and galleries, for the most part - they are not there to help us remember, but to help us forget. They obliterate the past in its immediacy, sublimate the horror - the 'past present' - in a petrified image, an always-was.

Forgetting is the recurring theme in all this - in the film Hiroshima mon Amour, the phrase 'horror of forgetting' appears. No longer the horror of the event itself - of the bomb, of torture, of the loss of love - but horror at the loss of memory of the horror. Horror when confronted with the possibility that such intense love or suffering can fade in spite of all efforts to the contrary, that one can eventually go on living 'as if nothing ever happened'. That objects lose their signifying power. That the meaning of a sign can be reversed.

It is in this that the horror of intense love and intense suffering are one. "Just as in love this illusion exists, this illusion of being able never to forget, so I was under the illusion that I would never forget Hiroshima." (212) The woman from Nevers is constituted by the horror she suffers; she preserves her identity by preserving the memory of lost love, its intensity. Underneath, the true horror - the horror that there is no horror, that the animal survives, that no pain, torture, death, or love can kill it. This is the truly horrifying thing - the animal in us that overcomes the horror. The remainder, the muselmann of Auschwitz, the straight line that perseveres. Vertigo, as Kundera put it, is not the fear of falling, but the fear of our own longing to fall.

One of the pitfalls to any resistance struggle, as Michel Foucault warns, is attachment to an identity of subject instituted or coagulated in a situation of oppression, the constitution of an identity permanently marked and defined by subjugation. By taking one's own victimization permanently for granted one easily forgets its objective moral imperatives, ignoring one's own capacity to do evil, freeing one's conscience to subject others, to become the very thing one struggled against, in another struggle. (As Israel's treatment of Palestinians shows, most recently in the attacks on Gaza the past week...) True resistance must lie somewhere inbetween - between the horror of forgetting and total oblivion. It must entail a real, mobile multiculturalism - hybrid, rhizomatic, chameleonic - rather than the liberal pandering to the Other as other, which fixes the Other permanently in a state of subjugation and/or permanently assigns to it a positive content. A transcendental multiculturalism whose horizon of possibility includes not mere understanding of but being the Other through/as oneself, recognizing one's own experience in the experience of the Other.

The Nazis never managed to get their hands on the Sarajevo Haggadah on account of a clever ruse by a Muslim librarian and Islamic scholar named Dervis Korkut. When a German officer came to collect the book at the National Museum in Sarajevo, the museum curator informed him that another SS officer had just collected it and left. The straight-thinking German took the bait and left, frustrated. Korkut left by the back door, Haggadah in hand.

Korkut took the book to his home village, and hid it in the home of a Muslim family (or in a mosque, according to another version of the story), mixed in with Islamic texts. As the Germans assumed all Muslims were collaborators (on account of the simple dichotomy of Muslim/Jew), they were not in the habit of searching Muslim homes. Like Poe's purloined letter, the Sarajevo Haggadah becomes a Deleuzian virtual object, by definition displaced - it is what it is by virtue of never being where it is expected. It eludes the grasp of its pursuers because it is by definition a Jewish book rescued by a Muslim librarian.

The Haggadah survived the most recent Bosnian war and the burning of the National Library in Sarajevo by Serb artillery. It was again rescued by a Muslim, a museum curator this time. It lives, invisibly. The asymptote, the zigzag, the wandering path of an ancient book defeats the straight line of the howitzer barrel.


* * *
Restany, Hundertwasser (2008)
Saltzman & Rosenberg (ed), Trauma and Visuality in Modernity (2006)
Wolf, Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (2008)
Zamyatin, We (2006)

New York Times article on Hitler's plans for a 'museum of an extinct race'.
New Yorker essay on Sarajevo Haggadah

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Post Scriptum: Hei-digging the Tao in Haneke and the Apocalypse that has Always Already Occurred

A new piece I wrote for Kino Fist, on the theme of film and apocalypse is available here. A few addenda for future re-workings or writings on the same topic...

Heideggerian temporality, the always-already of apocalyptic time in Haneke's films, the silences that speak volumes and the words that say nothing, the subversion of dichotomies (war/peace) all point to what ancient Chinese philosophy calls the Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

It is also what Agamben refers to in a discussion of Debord, Godard, and the Jewish Messiah (perhaps referring to the more subversive, mystical, kabbalistic interpretation, although he does not explicitly say): "In the Jewish tradition, there is a tremendous irony surrounding calculations to predict the day of the Messiah's arrival...The Messiah's arrival is incalculable. Yet at the same time, each historical moment is the time of His arrival. The Messiah has always already arrived, he is always already there." (Giorgio Agamben, 'Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord's Films', in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, p. 328).

The film Hiroshima Mon Amour, the subject of a recent screening/talk at the Courtauld Institute of Art by artist Lisa Kolbowski ('After Hiroshima Mon Amour', a 22-minute video) takes a similarly Heideggerian/Hanekean approach, relying very little on shocking footage and far more on personal relationships and how the cataclysmic event is sublated in the ordinary, everyday present, with or without the atom bomb. The real measure of a tragedy is not difference drawn from identity - not how my plight compares to that of another - but internal difference, which asks: how do I differ from myself? How have I been alienated from myself? How is the tragic always-already event expressed or sublated in my ordinary everyday experience? The real tragedy, in other words, is when the tragedy is legitimized/normalized; when the power of shock subsides and we accept some horror as simply a part of everyday experience; when we fully identify with/assimilate the ideology of our own repression. The novel We by Russian dissident Evgeny Zamyatin, for instance - an early inspiration for Orwell's 1984 - opens with a reflection by the narrator on the pleasant sensation he gets from being watched over by his minders, who peruse every page of the book he is reading on the train.

In Society Must Be Defended, a series of lectures given at the College de France in 1975/76, Foucault elaborates the notion of political power based on the model of war, famously characterizing politics as the 'continuation of war by other means', rather than the conventional inverse way of putting it. War is everywhere, and this is perhaps one of the underlying messages of Haneke's 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, as discussed in the Kino Fist piece. Very scary, very prescient (the book, that is, although based on an analysis of history, but hey it's not all as obvious to everyone as it was to Michel in '76) - and increasingly relevant today in a world of 'disaster capitalism', market crashes, neoconservative ideology, and the 'war on terror'...

And finally, there is a fridge magnet I once saw somewhere with the following series of quotes (sadly, I couldn't find an image):

To do is to be - Nietzsche
To be is to do - Kant
Do be do be do - Frank Sinatra

Heh heh.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Early Chaplin Shorts: The Little Tramp as Critical Tool

I have been going to the BFI a lot lately, mostly to watch the selection of early Chaplin shorts they have been showing, with live piano accompaniment. What strikes me after watching these early gags is that they amplify my (already substantial) appreciation of Chaplin's later, and truly great work a la Modern Times, City Lights, The Circus...

They illustrate retrospectively the enormity of the critical leap made by Chaplin: transferring the 'little tramp', a comedic character designed for these 15-20 minute slapstick, slapdash, silent 'sitcoms' whose sole purpose is entertainment, into the radically different context of full length feature films dealing with 'big themes'; turning the Tramp's apparent weaknesses as a 'serious' dramatic instrument - principally his vaudevillean, two-dimensional silent-screen naïveté - into a superb critical tool, and casually deploying along the way a wealth of excellent commentary on everything from love and relationships to social class, capitalist industrialization, and the rise of Nazism. (at a time when Hitler was still somewhat of a visionary hero in America and Time's 'man of the year', while Chaplin's The Great Dictator was received with derision by the public at large, only later to be hailed as a work of prescient genius.)

One could argue that Benigni does something like this in La Vita è bella; but the achievement is clearly nowhere near as original, extensive, or impressive. I do not necessarily agree with those of his critics who found his treatment of the Holocaust as offensive; he simply never achieves anything like the same critical depth or richness. One could even argue that there are grounds for 'offensiveness' in Benigni's treatment, not so much for his use of comedy, but for his doing it without the two-dimensional naïveté and innocence of Chaplin's Tramp, without the proper distance (Benigni's is ultimately a serious character who knows what is going on but protects his son by inventing a fairy tale)...

Admittedly, even in some of Chaplin's early shorts there are occasional flashes of brilliant social commentary, particularly on matters of social class. And the Tramp's very being who he is, is in a sense already a subversive move which it is all too easy to take for granted: it is not simply that he is a 'tramp', a specimen of the lowest of the 'lower classes'; it is precisely his free-wheeling nonchalance, his lack of any acute awareness of or anger about his own plight - his two-dimensionality - that is most subversive...

The Tramp, despite the passage of time, is simply unparalleled.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Those Theremin Blues

Tuesday night I went to an experimental/noise gig at Oto Cafe in Dalston, PAMELIA KURSTIN + JOHN BUTCHER. Pamelia Kurstin (the headline act) plays the theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments, and the first instrument ever to be played without being touched. It was designed by Russian scientist Leon Theremin in 1919.

Theremin demonstrated the theremin shortly thereafter to Lenin (that's Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, not John...Lennon); the latter was so impressed that he started taking lessons on it, and later commissioned hundreds of them to be built and distributed around the Soviet Union - and the world, to demonstrate Russian technology and promote electronic music.

A modern-day theremin; the rod controls the pitch/modulation, while the loop controls the volume/texture, which is done simply by adjusting the position of your hands in the air.

Anyway, Kurstin is apparently one of only a very few people who play this instrument as a real instrument, and as a trained musician (rather than a geek fooling around with a sci-fi gadget); and she is bloody good, in spite of being very drunk from the start. Watching someone play it, especially in a particular kind of setting, with dim lighting and in total silence, was a bit surreal. It inspired me to make an eerie horror/mystery film using only her music. Something to think about.

John Butcher was good too, and way more experimental. Tapping on the saxophone keys, on the reed, without blowing, passing air through the holes, squeaking, grinding, twisting, turning - at one point stuffing the microphone into the hole of the sax...

Both acts, but especially John Butcher, made me think of Heidegger and 'tools'. How things emerge in consciousness only when they break down/cease to function as they should; how any instrument, even when played 'normally' makes a whole range of sounds that we never hear or associate with it - a whole world of sonic exertion that in 'normal' circumstances remains hidden from our ears.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

In Praise of Invective

Reading Zizek's recent piece in In These Times on the 'audacity of rhetoric', and on the heels of my vituperative tirades against leftist apologia for Serbian ethno-fascism in a lengthy exchange of comments on Lenin's Tomb (of which I will write more later), an SWP mouthpiece operated by blogger Richard Seymour ('Lenin'), I was reminded of this piece (below) published in the 'Readings' section of Harper's a few years ago. Despite its vaguely anti-Communist or at least apolitical stance, I like the way it smacks soothingly of Heideggerian 'resoluteness'. In fact, given that Simic is writing here as an American for an American audience, the neutralising sentiment perhaps isn't even vaguely anti-Communist; it aims precisely at leveling, insisting that even in "our democratic society" one must equally be alert as in any the 'Communist countries', suggesting that the liberal notion of 'freedom of speech', in its negative determination defined according to constitutional prerogative - a freedom embedded or 'objectified' in collective thinking in a liberal society - is, well, a bit of a myth. (I love the bit about the boy writing to President Johnson.) So perhaps it isn't even so much apolitical as anti-ideological, encouraging the cleansing operation of undermining or disturbing the background, encouraging one to reveal the hidden suppositions embedded in our speech and thought, the almost inevitable embeddedness of our daily existence, the pernicious presence of 'the they'. (And mind you, given Simic's Yugoslav background, I might add, if there is a single reason for any foreigner to learn our needlessly complex and obscure language, it is for its notoriously rich and varied 'stock of maledictions'):



From an essay by Charles Simic in Orphan Factory, a collection of Simic's writing to be published in October by the University of Michigan Press. Simic was born in Yugoslavia; he now lives in New Hampshire. Simic received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

At the end of a murderous century, let's curse the enemies of the individual. If, in order to do so, we must fall back on the vocabulary of abuse, so be it.
This is what I learned from twentieth-century history: Only dumb ideas get recycled. Every social reformer longs to be the brains of an enlightened, soul-reforming penitentiary. Everyone who is vain, dull, peevish, and sexually frustrated dreams of legislating his impotence. The image of a billion people dressed in Mao's uniforms and shouting from his little red book continues to be the secret hope of new visionaries.
So, against ideologies from nationalism to racism, let us wield what the poet Cornelius Eady calls "the tongue we use when we don't want nuance to get in the way."

The first and never-to-be-forgotten pleasure that language gave me was the discovery of "bad words." I must have been three or four years old when I overheard my mother and another woman use the word "cunt." When I repeated it myself, when I said it aloud for all to hear and admire, I was slapped by my mother and told never to use that word again. Aha, I thought, there are words so delicious they must not be said aloud!
I had a great-aunt who used such language every time she opened her mouth. My mother would beg her, when she came to visit, not to speak like that in front of the children, but my aunt paid her no mind. To have a temper and a foul mouth like that was a serious liability in a Communist country. "We'll all end up in jail because of her," my mother said.
There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language. "I do not wish to be weaned from this error," Robert Burton wrote long ago in his Anatomy of Melancholy. I agree. If there is anything I want to enlarge and perfect, it is my stock of maledictions.

Once one comes to understand that much of what one sees and hears serves to make fraud seem respectable, one is in trouble. For instance, long before Parisian intellectuals did so, my great-aunt had figured out that the Soviet Union and the so-called people's democracies were a scam and a lie from the bottom up. She was one of these women who sees through appearances instantly. To begin with, she did not have a good opinion of humanity. Not because she was a sourpuss and a viper's nest of imaginary resentments. Far from it. She liked eating, drinking, a good laugh, and a quick roll in the hay behind her elderly husband's back. It's just that she had an unusually uncluttered and clear head. She would tell you that our revolutionary regime, which regarded loose tongues and levity as political crimes and those caught in the act as unhealthy elements, was a huge pile of shit, and that included Marshal Tito himself. Her outbursts were caused by what she regarded as other people's gullibility. As far as she was concerned, she was surrounded by cowards and dunces. The daily papers and the radio drove her into verbal fury. "Admit it," she'd yell at my mother and grandmother. "Doesn't it turn your stomach to hear them talk like that?"
If they agreed and confided in a whisper that yes, indeed, these Commies are nothing but a bunch of murderous illiterate yokels, Stalinist stooges, and whatnot, she still wasn't happy. There was something about humans as a species that worried her to no end. Cursing them, I imagine, gave her royal pleasure and, unknown to her, gave pleasure to me too, listening behind the closed door with a shameless grin.

I knew a thirteen-year-old boy who wrote a letter telling off President Johnson for the conduct of the Vietnam War. It was some letter! Our president was an idiot and a murderer who deserved to be napalmed himself, and worse. One evening, as the boy and his mother and sister were sitting around the kitchen table slurping their soup, the doors and the windows leading to the fire escape flew open at the same time, and men with drawn guns surrounded the table. "We are the FBI," they announced, and they wanted to know: Who was Anthony Palermo? The two women pointed at the boy with thick glasses and crossed eyes. Well, it took a while to convince them that he was the one who wrote the letter. They were expecting a full-grown assassin with long hair and an arsenal of weapons by his side.
The obvious point here is that the vileness and stupidity my aunt found so enraging is not limited to Yugoslavia or Eastern Europe or Communism but is alive and well and should be railed at, with our most pointed and inventive tongues, in our own democratic state.
"What do you want from me, blood?" I once heard an old woman shout at the workers in a New York City welfare office. She then kept cussing for another five minutes, not because she had any expectation that the wrongs done to her would be righted but simply in order to make herself feel good and clean for one brief moment.

-Charles Simic


Amen and Hallelujah. So, here's to Richard Seymour 'Lenin' and all the other proto-fascist imbeciles and leftist apologists for Serb genocidal pretensions, at the SWP and elsewhere, for whom my only wish is that they rot forever in hell, preferably under intense Serb artillery bombardment with their friends Karadzic and Mladic at the helm.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Weaning Hearts and Minds

Present-day British and American colonialists in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the bullshit rhetoric about 'winning hearts and minds' could really learn something (about not invading countries) from the Partisan example. The only real victory in war is 'moral' victory, and after more than five years - longer than WWII - neither conflict (Afghanistan/Iraq) is over. Here are a couple more interesting bits from Hoare's book, Genocide and Resistance in Hitler's Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943:

"The Serb Partisan Ilija Vukoman recalls that in Central Bosnia: 'The Muslim women used to hide themselves - they wore the veil. I passed hundreds of times by the house of Muharem Baric and his wife without ever seeing her face. When the uprising began and work for the People's Liberation Movement got underway, Muharem's wife and many other Muslim women ceased hiding themselves from us.' [footnote omitted]"

"Zaga Umicevic-Mala recalls a young Muslim woman she met in Banja Luka, Nazifa Isakovic, who was recruited into the NOP by her brother Zaim, a Communist. Nazifa worshipped her brother and would carry out any task for the movement that he asked of her but, she told Umicevic-Mala, 'the only thing I could not do would be to take off my veil'. Two years later Umicevic-Mala met Nazifa again, as a Partisan and without her veil. 'Her blonde hair was flowing in the wind and her big blue eyes were happily gazing at the world around her.' Umicevic-Mala asked: 'Naza, what's happened to your veil? Do you remember what you said to me at Banja Luka?' Nazifa replied: 'I did not know how wonderful it is to gaze at the world without a headscarf'."...(287)

Yep, that's what happens when you actually inspire people. And guess what, boys - you don't inspire people by invading and demolishing their countries and homes, terrorising them, murdering their relatives, putting them in prison, cuffing them, stuffing them full with McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King and bullshit rhetoric about democracy and human rights, and shoving ballots in their faces. Nope. Capitalism inspires fuck all.

Partisan Women: Bloodthirsty Harpies of National Liberation?

Since I started writing about my communist partisan grandparents, I have done some casual research into Yugoslav/Bosnian WWII history. One interesting recent book I came across covers the period 1941-43, and in particular the 'civil war' between the Partisans on one side, and the Chetniks - Serbian nationalist/royalist paramilitaries, predecessors of contemporary Serbian nationalists. The Chetniks, on account of very effective propaganda through a long-established and influential Serbian lobby in the West (descendants of the Royal family reside in England to this day)**, actually received Allied support until 1943, when Allied spies dispatched to both sides reported that the Chetniks were in fact collaborating with the Germans while the Partisans were fighting against them. The Allies officially (and grudgingly, given the Partisans' communist agenda) switched their support at the Tehran conference.

The feats of the Yugoslav Partisans in WWII are the stuff of legend. These were not mere warriors - they were a representative cross-section of the society that spawned them. They even included some of the greatest artists and writers of 20th century Yugoslavia, who immortalized the struggle in literature, film, and fine art. For those of us who grew up with these stories the names of places and battles reverberate with a mythological power - The Battle of Sutjeska, The Igman March, the Battle of Neretva...Through the haze of childhood recollection the protagonists of these tales are endowed with an almost super-human strength and cunning in overcoming their far more powerful Nazi opponents. But what if there is indeed a real dimension of this struggle that is, well, not super-human, but super-(man)?

It is generally accepted that in spite of their technological and military weaknesses early in the war, the Partisans had two main advantages over their enemies:
1. a small but very effective cadre of Spanish Civil War veterans from the International brigades who, unlike even many German troops, had valuable experience of modern warfare (the Spanish Civil War is arguably the first truly modern war, at least on European soil), and
2. broad popular appeal due to the fact that their founding aims were political rather than ethnic or religious, allowing them to draw recruits across national, ethnic, religious, and other boundaries.

There is one under-explored dimension of this second point: the role of women. Many people don't realize just how radical Tito and co's project of national liberation was, and how deliberate they were in taking measures to reshape society from top to bottom. Here is one interesting passage from Hoare's book:

"...The group of Bosnians most excluded from political life prior to the Axis invasion was the female half of the population, which represented a larger proportion of the country's inhabitants than Serbs, Muslims, or Croats. In his seminal study of the Chetnik movement, Jozo Tomasevich noted the role of women in the Partisan victory: 'One of the fundamental differences between the Chetnik and Partisan movements was in their attitude toward women. The participation of women in Partisan fighting ranks and mass organisations of the Partisan movement was of such importance that all Partisan officials agreed that without the women the Partisans could never have won.' [footnote omitted] ...Male supremacy over women was as much a part of traditional rural society as religious semi-segregation. In overturning the one the KPJ helped to undermine the other, for the dissolution of traditional boundaries between men and women and between Orthodox, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews was part of the same process of turning 'peasants into Bosnians', a process inimical to the Chetnik project that upheld traditional social distinctions." (Genocide and Resistance in Hitler's Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, 285-86.)

On the point about 'turning peasants into Bosnians' my grandpa's story, as told in the previous post, is a case in point. How successful this was, well, my grandma may have a few things to say about it, but I think we're in overall agreement. (Apparently whenever people tried to psychologize my grandpa's behaviour, she would explain that, as a peasant at heart, he had no such thing as a 'psyche')

Nonetheless, it gets even more amusing. To anyone interested in this topic I would recommend reading the entire chapter in Hoare's book which chronicles, among other things, touching episodes of Muslim women shedding veils and other niceties in joining or collaborating with Partisan ranks. Here are some other interesting bits:

"The prominent role of women in the Partisan movement inevitably found a role in the demonology of its right-wing enemies. An Ustasha report on Partisan atrocities in Prijedor, following the capture of the town in May 1942, claimed: 'Women, both from Prijedor and from the surrounding area, played a particularly prominent role in these bestialities'. [footnote omitted]...The Ustashas' Department of Public Security claimed in an internal report of September 1942 that the Partisans 'are in many places bloodthirsty, particularly the female persons in their ranks.' [footnote omitted] For their part, the Chetniks distributed a pamphlet in eastern Hercegovina in late 1942 claiming that among the Communists were many 'fallen and unfortunate women and girls without morals' [footnote omitted]...Partisan women were therefore the polar opposite of true, martyred Serb women. In Draza Mihailović's view: 'Communist women are recognisable by the fact that they are immoral; using free love they approach and seduce our men, particularly those who place fun above duty.'[footnote omitted]" (288-89)

While I am having difficulty picturing my grandma as a bloodthirsty berserker harpy, I find it amusing to imagine the chill these fascists must have gotten to see women carrying guns and screaming communist slogans. One old Partisan anthem we all sang as kids is about a mlada partizanka - a young Partisan woman - who threw grenades at the enemy...

One could even argue that the presence of women helped turn the tide of the war not just quantitatively by inflating the ranks of the Partisans, but additionally in a qualitative way, by the effect on morale - building solidarity in the ranks irrespective of religious, ethnic, or gender differences, and demoralising their enemies, or simply scaring them shitless at the sight of this weird hybrid fighting machine.

This should in no way lead to any sympathy with the contemporary American project of nation-building or reshaping other societies: the partisans, who sought to reshape their own, were strategically precisely in the position of the mujahideen - the crucial difference being that they were fighting for unification and liberation, rather than segregation and imposition of strict religious codes. The crucial element lending to the effectiveness of their struggle, and to the unique position of Yugoslavia in the Cold War world after its break with the Soviet Union, is national self-determination.

Going back to the broader issue of political appeal and the enfranchisement of the excluded, does this not go some way toward explaining why the vast majority post-colonial national liberation movements worldwide - even those spawned without any direct outside superpower involvement - were communist or socialist? Doesn't any national liberation struggle, in order to be truly successful, require this kind of breaking-down of ethnic, religious, gender, and other boundaries?

This is precisely the way to unite the different struggles: workers, women, oppressed minorities... In order to effectively confront a common external enemy, a nation must first shed its own internal demons; and perhaps the reason why Yugoslavia broke apart in the end is because this work was never thoroughly completed. The decades of Tito's 'brotherhood and unity' only relatively froze the post-war breakdown, nationalism in particular was never properly dealt with...(And here it may be worthy to concede, grudgingly, Žižek's point about the Jacobins and revolutionary terror - the French republic they inaugurated remains intact 200 years later, and it looks like it will survive even Sarkozy - so perhaps the Partisans simply weren't extreme enough...)

One should equally not be deterred here by the fact that Capital - once the sole preserve of wealthy white men - has in the meantime found ways to accommodate, commodify, and even commandeer the rhetoric of multi-culturalism, human rights, equality, etc. This is in its nature, as Deleuze and Guattari argue - deterritorialization. Yet we should never forget that these are the fruits of hard-won battles against Capital - even against liberalism,in its earliest incarnation. Why simply give up on this legacy and allow liberal Capital to mediate its impact and reterritorialize the gains for political 'street cred'?

One thing that some people today are shocked to hear, for instance, is that Swiss women - Switzerland being the darling of Global Capital, hosting a number of multinational corporations way out of proportion to its size - only gained the right to vote in 1971, by a national referendum in which one-third of the all-male electorate voted against suffrage. (One Swiss canton only granted women full suffrage in 1990!) And even after suffrage many discriminatory measures remained in place for years, such as husbands' control over their wives' property and capital, the husband's right to decide on the couple's place of residence, etc. Switzerland, until fairly late in the 20th century, is like some perverse modern capitalist version of the Taliban. Isn't this the best proof that modernity alone, not to mention its capitalist variant, is no guarantee of freedom, equality, human rights, etc - and that simply imposing 'democracy' is a hollow gesture when it comes to true liberation?

Without overemphasizing the value of the democratic vote - one always has to wonder why a particular freedom is being granted at a particular time and to what end the political credit gained by those in power is being deployed. The end of colonialism is often seen as merely the transition or sublation to another form of colonialism - a version of what Hardt and Negri call Empire, what others have called economic imperialism (although 'Empire' goes beyond political economy, as a new incarnation of old state sovereignty); similarly, one could say that democratic reform is permitted when the power elite has sufficiently insulated itself from it, and this is ultimately the problem with gradualism.

But the answer to this predicament is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is rather, keep the bathwater, and throw out the baby - insist on change, democratic or otherwise, but insist on it, as Martin Luther King did, now. Not when those in power find it suitable to throw some scraps from the table. Seize the revolutionary moment, intervene to change the very coordinates of what is deemed 'possible', to put it in Žižekian terms.

**This same lobby/propaganda machine has in recent years caused much of the confusion surrounding the Balkan wars of the 1990s, ironically pulling many Western leftist intellectuals (notably Chomsky and Parenti) into the ranks of apologetics for military aggression and ultimately genocide, under the banner of Serbian nationalism. This is largely due to the grossly mistaken impression that people like Milošević- a rabid nationalist who inaugurated his tenure in 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, by annexing Kosovo and Vojvodina and thus giving Serbia 3 votes in the 8-member national council, prompting the walkout in protest of Croatian and Slovene members - were somehow carrying on the legacy of Tito's Yugoslavia, rather than actively working together with the West to destroy it. One prominent and oft-quoted (ironically even by Chomsky) figure in this project was Gen. Lewis Mackenzie, a Tory politician in Canada and commander of UN forces in Sarajevo early on in the war, who gave testimony before the US congress in 1992 arguing against any intervention - even humanitarian aid - in the conflict, saying that "all three sides were equally guilty". Mackenzie was later revealed to have been on the payroll of a Serbian-American lobbying group while on a speaking tour following the publication of his book on Bosnia. Similarly, Diana Johnstone, who published a book supposedly debunking Serb atrocities in Bosnia, was refused further publication by In These Times - a leftist paper in the US for which she had regularly written - when the editors discovered that she was an old college friend of Mirjana Markovic, Slobodan Milošević's wife. (For the sake of comparison, just imagine a supposedly objective journalistic account justifying the Iraq war, presenting 'evidence' that there were indeed WMD in Iraq, that the Abu Ghraib photos were faked, there was no torture, the civilian death toll was exaggerated, etc - written by an author who turns out to be an old college friend of, say, Dick Cheney's wife. I actually had an e-mail debate about this with Chomsky, and I gotta say, Noam, I know it's hard to admit you were wrong, let alone taken for a complete fool, but sometimes you just gotta do it.)

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Panta Rei: My Grandpa's Rags-to-Socialist Glory Tale of War and Peace

My grandpa was an economist. He was recently mentioned by a former student - now a middle-aged magazine columnist - in a piece for Dani, a popular political weekly in Bosnia; this inspired me to write a few words about him. The above photo is of him and my grandma - my mom's parents - in Bosnia circa '68.

My grandpa was born in Donje Selo, a small village near Konjic, in Herzegovina, the southern bit of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is a region known for its rugged, craggy landscape of rocky mountains and wild deciduous and evergreen forests dotted with limestone plateaus - and some very stubborn people.

Konjic, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Back in those days (between the world wars) and in that social milieu, education was not valued very highly; my great-grandpa preferred to have his children tending the sheep and goats rather than studying and doing homework, so my grandpa had to just take a book along when doing his chores around the pasture. Sometimes the goats chewed up his books, or the odd greasy page of homework.

As the village school only had two grades, education typically ended around age 9, and this was the fate of my grandpa's brothers and sisters. It was the village teacher who convinced my great-grandpa to send my grandpa to the city to be schooled further. This was initially arranged with some cousins in Mostar, who provided him with room and board in exchange for chores around the house; later he got his own place and supported himself by tutoring younger children in mathematics.

He graduated from the gymnasium (high school) in Mostar in 1942, and promptly joined Tito's communist partisans.

People from Herzegovina, as I said - and Bosnians in general - are known to be very stubborn, or 'hard-headed' (literally and figuratively); so it is no surprise that almost all the key battles on the Yugoslav front in WWII took place in and around this area. It is also notable that Yugoslavia was liberated with little or no direct British, American, or Soviet involvement and spawned the first, largest, and most successful resistance movement in WWII - a ragtag multi-ethnic band of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, men and women, unified under the command of Marshal Tito. By the end of the war they numbered around 650,000 combatants, of which around 100,000 were women (impressive representation for any army, even by today's standards).

"Death to fascism-freedom for the people."

They won in spite of seven major German offensives, over 1 million civilian and military casualties (the second-highest in Europe, after Poland), mass executions, ruthless Nazi 'anti-terrorist' tactics, and the combined anti-Partisan efforts of the Wehrmacht, the SS, fascist Italy, Croatian nationalist Ustaše, Serbian nationalist-royalist Chetniks, as well as Hungarian and Bulgarian collaborationist forces. Phew!

According to historians, the partisans' ideological appeal - which cut across ethnic and gender lines - was a key competitive advantage in terms of morale and popular support for the struggle.

My grandpa was wounded in the Battle of Neretva, the 4th Anti-Partisan Offensive. There is an Oscar-nominated feature film about it, starring Yul Brynner and featuring an original poster by Picasso. In the battle, the far-outnumbered, under-nourished and ill-equipped partisans manage to thwart the Nazis' aims by an elaborate and very clever ruse. It is a true modern-day David and Goliath story.

My grandpa carried to his grave (at age 82) several pieces of shrapnel in his chest from the injury. During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, which we both spent mostly under siege in Sarajevo, my mom teased him saying he must be bulletproof, what with all that metal in his body... It never gave him trouble though, and he never had any health problems until prostate cancer hit him in his late 70s. (That should make you wonder about all the chemicals generations since have ingested that our grandparents weren't exposed to.)

After WWII he was appointed president of an administrative court in Konjic, although he had no legal training, or any kind of post-secondary education for that matter; the Party just didn't have enough qualified personnel.

It was there that he met my grandma, Olga, who was a middle class city girl from Trebinje and had also taken part in the underground resistance during the war, as part of a SKOJ unit in Mostar. SKOJ (pronounced SKOY) was the youth wing of the partisans, and stands for Savez komunističke omladine Jugoslavije, or Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia.

My grandma Olga (right) with a friend and fellow resistance member in Mostar, 1942. The Nazi Scourge had never yet encountered such a tough nut.

She was the court secretary, and according to my grandpa, regularly paid secret home visits to the pre-war judge whom my grandpa had replaced - a trained professional from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia - to get tips on handling cases, which she passed on to my grandpa. It would have been a disaster had the Party got wind of their scheme.

Sadly, my grandma died when I was about seven years old, so my memories of her are very vague and infused with an aura of childhood ethereality. I do know that throughout their marriage she teased my grandpa mercilessly for his peasant ways, on account of certain habits he just never could shake, I guess. "Peasant!" she cried. (Or, "Seljak!" in Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian.)

Olga and Momir circa 1947, near Konjic, with my aunt Dubravka as a baby.

As a public official in charge of the Jablanica dam construction project, my grandpa was responsible for the flooding of the Neretva valley, including the orchard that my dad grew up in with his aunt. (I'm not kidding) This is about twenty years before my parents met while they were both studying philosophy at the University of Sarajevo; they only later discovered the coincidence. And yes, it's the same river on which my grandpa was wounded in battle.

Prior to the flooding my great-aunt, Danica - we called her 'grandma' because my dad was an orphan and she pretty much raised him - made a living selling the apples and pears in her orchard. Every year she loaded the produce on a truck and took it to the market in Dubrovnik, on the Croatian coast. My dad talked about evenings spent reading or just hanging out in her attic, laying on a bed of apples.

When they evacuated the valley, she was given a cramped flat in Konjic as compensation. The rest of her working life she spent as a waitress, which certainly didn't help the varicose veins she ceaselessly complained about in old age. (Before she died, though, she passed on to yours truly her best-kept secret - her recipe for šape, the tastiest mold-baked walnut cookies ever.)

After a couple of years working for the court, my grandpa enrolled in classes at the Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade. The Party considered this a bourgeois move, and reprimanded him. Despite this he continued his studies, because he figured the Stalinist mood wouldn't last, and that the country would need a trained professional cadre. He was soon proved right when Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948.

As the kind of work he eventually did in government mostly had to do with the economy, at some point he completed a PhD in economics and became a full-blown economist. He later worked at the UN for a few years, in Iran and Indonesia, before taking up a teaching post at the university of Sarajevo. My mother claims that somewhere she has a photograph of him meeting Indian president Jawaharlal Nehru on a state visit, however I have yet to see it. (Yugoslavia became part of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War - the only European country to do so - and had strong ties to other non-aligned countries)

Among many crazy stories from that time that come to mind, one that my mom once told me was of the two of them driving through the desert to Tehran when she was about 18. My grandpa hadn't slept and the journey was long; my mom couldn't drive. Nonetheless, since the road through the desert was pretty much straight for hundreds of miles, he put her at the wheel and fell asleep. Hours later, the city emerged from the dunes like a mirage...

Once, while on a Ford Foundation fellowship lecture tour in the US, extolling the virtues of Yugoslav self-management, my grandpa was blacklisted and later barred from entering the United States. He eventually cleared that up with the help of his friend, the American Ambassador in Jakarta. Yugoslavia wasn't part of the Soviet bloc, but it was a socialist country...

The McCarthyite censors must have gotten spooked when they realized the idea of workers councils voting on management decisions in non-state but socially-owned and run enterprises - something between workplace democracy and institutionalized/constitutional unionism - might actually sound kind of nice to populist American ears. You can't really dismiss that as 'evil empire' stuff. At the same time, I can think of no better real-world embodiment of Marx's 'factories to the workers' premise. (The fact that it was screwed up reflects more than anything the incompetence of generations since who inherited this great idea...)

One summer at the seaside, my grandpa gave me a swimming lesson. He pushed me off into the deep water with my inflatable, which he had first unplugged, so that the air would slowly escape as I got further and further out. Needless to say my parents were horrified, as I struggled to stay afloat kicking and screaming, but looking back on it I kind of like the guy for that.

At other times, us kids climbed on his back and rode him like a donkey, so it wasn't all that one-sided.

From left to right: grandpa, my brother Igor, me, and my cousin Jelena.

One long-time colleague of his referred to him as 'Moby Dick' - because he "swam alone". I wonder what it must have been like for him to see another war at home, having lived through WWII already and having grown up in the aftermath of WWI. I never got to ask him that, or at least I don't remember him ever talking much about it. (Though he was quite keen on reminiscing about a lot of other things, in particular our family history.)

We left Sarajevo together two years into the siege, in 1994. Although there was a ceasefire, only those too old or too young to join the army were allowed to leave. After being delayed just outside of Sarajevo in the town of Visoko for two days, we spent another 2 days on the bus to Zagreb, usually a 10-hour journey. I vomited a lot by the end of it.

After a couple of weeks staying with friends in Zagreb, my sister and I joined him at his house in Orebić, on the Dalmatian coast.

It was a welcome change for all of us, except when he and I argued; we were all pretty stressed out and traumatised by the war, I suppose.

One day, he took me out fig-picking. There were some figs in our yard and some neighbours also kindly offered theirs. I climbed trees and picked the figs and handed them to him, and he put them in a basket. We took them home and he made a horrible jam out of them - so hard you could stick a knife into it and it would stand up straight. It was practically sugar candy, and the taste was awful. He made us eat it for breakfast - there were jars and jars of it - until even he couldn't handle it any more and agreed to buy some decent jam from the shop. He was just no good at cooking, and he finally had to accept it.

Anyway, so there was this piece in Dani by the columnist Svetlana Cenić, a former student of his. In the column she recounts an anecdote that might get you, the odd reader, to appreciate my grandpa - and the note of socialist self-criticism - even more than you already do (my translation):

"I remembered my professors who even in those days debunked the demagoguery of power...I remember well what Momir Ćećez once told a colleague of mine, who during an oral exam stood on all fours to unreservedly sing the praises of the economic system of SFRJ [Socialist Yugoslavia]... Professor Ćećez then asked her what her mother says when she comes back from the market. Confused, my colleague replied that her mother curses, swears, moans about high prices, and so forth; at this the professor, handing back her indeks [a marking booklet], simply informed my colleague that while mother would most certainly have passed the exam, her daughter, at least in this term, would not."

Yep, that sounds like grandpa. A hard-nosed old bastard he was, but we loved him. And he had a point - he wanted critique. You kiss ass, you fail. Here's to you, grandpa. I hope that the socialist dream you took all that shrapnel for isn't totally dead, yet.

In Pittsburgh, USA, 1961.Momir Ćećez (10 December 1923-4 June 2006)

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Ideological Mediation of (Feminine) Desire: Sex and the City of God

As I haven't had time to write much lately on account of moving house and other real world annoyances, here is a piece culled from some comments I contributed recently to a discussion on women, cinema, and mediation on Infinite Thought(henceforth known as IT). It started with this post concerning the absence of women talking in mainstream cinema - about anything other than men, babies, and marriage, that is. Does Sex and the City represent some kind of liberation or is it just the same old patriarchal crap, only repackaged for a modern liberal consumerist audience? One recurring theme in the discussion seems to be the search for 'the one' and the theological underpinnings of this notion...

1. 'The One' and for All

IT:...There is something strange about the weird absence of women talking from cinema. Aren't women supposed to always be talking? Of course, they're not meant to be talking about anything important, which is presumably why the camera only turns to them when men are mentioned.

Films that appear to be 'all about women', such as Sex and the City are paeans to a curious combination of ultra-mediation and a post-religious obsession with 'the one'. You go to the City in search of 'labels and love'; the one mediating the other – the nicest thing your boyfriend can do for you is have a giant wardrobe installed for all your 'labels'. Drinks with 'the girls' are dominated by discussions about whether he is 'the one' or not. What does this obsession with 'the one' mean? The bourgeoisie may have 'drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation', as Marx and Engels observed, but certain religious motifs are harder to shake than others. The 'one' as the transcendent culmination of an entire romantic destiny demonstrates a curious melange of the sentimental ('we were always meant to be together!') and the cynical (if there's a 'one' then the 'non-ones' don't count; the sex with them is of no importance, there is no need to behave even moderately pleasantly towards them).

There is no emancipation here, if all effort is ultimately retotalised onto the project of 'the one'; if all discussions with 'friends' are merely mediating stepping-stones in the eschatological fulfillment of romantic purpose. Contemporary cinema is profoundly conservative in this regard; and the fact that it both reflects and dictates modes of current behaviour is depressingly effective, and effectively depressing.

Deleuzer: The notion of 'the one' on a broader level in its basic religious coordinates (as you suggest) I think provides the link between the different levels on which ideology operates (economy, sex, familial relations) - this is what has always irritated me about the Matrix and its pretense to cult status in the geek/techno/alternative cultural milieu. Aside from Keanu Reeves being better suited to roles like Ted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I found the amount of fetishistic reification of his status as 'the one' (who decides these things?) debilitatingly mind-numblingly appalling. The messianic overtone by a kind of short circuit puts it in close proximity to the notion of 'the one' in Sex and the City. (It would be interesting to splice the two together in a montage of sorts, with perhaps some clips of Mel Gibson's crucifixion movie as a possible third...I can just imagine Sarah Jessica Parker in one of those slow-motion fight scenes a la Matrix, karate kicking for a handbag...)

Foucault was right, if we can read him to mean this: that the 'sexual revolution' never took place, or that it wasn't so much a revolution as a repackaging of the same old paradigm for a new era. Two or three thousand bloodyfucking years later, and the mainstream of our culture still revolves around some abstract mass-produced figure of the saviour or messiah, the only original contribution of our post-Fordist age being its reproducibility for personal consumption. (I cannot help but think of the assembly line bread-dough christs in The Holy Mountain, being devoured by a Christ lookalike...)

The absence of women talking (about anything other than men, babies, etc) in mainstream cinema is perhaps not so much an absence as a positive incarnation of what Foucault calls the 'incitement to discourse' - the camera being, for the moment, not an attempt (even a skewed one) at reproducing reality but rather creating it - a directly ideological tool that opens up the space and sets the coordinates within which reality is to take place.

I think the really pressing question is not so much 'does reality pass the test?' but rather 'how do we, or can we, collectively escape from the grip of the incitement to discourse embedded in the cultural output we are daily bombarded with?

2. The (Formula) One of Desire and the Purple Rose of Surplus Value

IT: Dave sent me some comments and a question with regard to the women/cinema debate:

I think it is wrong to assume that, whilst almost certainly an index of unfreedom, women "talking about men" is unambiguously flattering to men. Many men would likely tell you that they find women-talking-about-men-type conversations alienating, in much the same way, perhaps, as they feel alienated and frustrated by an hour or so of Sex and the City.

Perhaps this sense of alienation comes from the fact that "talking about men" points, in a paradoxical way, to the lack of "the one", its eternally elusive character, as if all this Sex and the City-type talk is 'motored' by an absence, by an impossibility of fulfilment. That's perhaps why, watching Sex and the City, it was difficult to imagine how it might be concluded without a catastrophic change in the construction of love relations, or else some 'betrayal' of the 'search', which at its heart is designed to be gratifyingly infinite. To talk about men in the context of "the one" is to talk about no man in particular, just a mirage concealing a no-man-land (sorry).

In short, my question would be: how much "talking about men" really is talking about men?'

It's true - perhaps the only thing worse than wondering about what women are talking about is seeing them actually do it, at least as far as SATC goes. If cinema tends to show women talking to each other only about men (or marriage, or babies) perhaps the most important aspect of this is brevity. An entire film given over to such things would be obscene according to the logic of mainstream cinema, which can barely tolerate a few minutes of such footage, even in its 'unambiguously flattering' mode. I think this is indicated by Dave's comment above that '[men] feel alienated and frustrated by an hour or so of Sex and the City'. A winsome few moments of love-lorn anguish shared between two friends is ok, lengthy discussions of fellatio are not.

Deleuzer: I think it would equally be wrong to assume - if that is being assumed - that because some men find an hour of SATC alienating, this points to some subversive or liberating aspect in SATC. Such an assumption is just one of the pitfalls of the negative in thought...("any enemy of a friend of mine", etc)

And it is certainly not my assumption that "women talking about men" is unambiguously flattering to men, of course - many conversations I have witnessed in reality, at least, are definitely not, but that's not the point, because the issue is simply the choice of subject matter; nor am I suggesting that talk about "the one" is about any particular man. The reason why the Matrix and the adjective 'messianic' (in the mystical/cabbalistic sense) came to mind is precisely because of the impersonal, fetishistic and continually displaced or postponed character of 'the one'. (I like the characterization 'no-man-land'; could this be what Dylan means when he writes/sings: "Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands/where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes..." ?)

Another film that comes to mind - which I think provides a very effective and sublimely comic and touching critique here - is Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. It makes the very same point (made by Dave) about the search being 'gratifyingly infinite' and 'the one' being a mirage concealing a 'no-man land'. The male lead in the film is split precisely between the fictional, 'perfect man', who literally steps out of the screen, and the real-world actor who plays him. At the end (spoiler alert!), she dumps the fictional guy (who is 'really' in love with her) and goes off with the real guy (who has only seduced her so that they could get the fictional character back into the screen), who subsequently dumps her... When dumping the fictional guy she even says something along the lines of "I'm a real person...I have to live in the real world." The fictional mirage, in other words, is the Lacanian objet petit a. He cannot be the 'messiah' because the messiah is forever-to-come.

But there's a great deal more one could mine out of this, I think very telling cinematic critique, one question for instance being, where does this absence/mirage come from, and whom does it really serve? What I think Woody suggests is that the patriarchal figure of the real-world male asshole nevertheless carries a trace of the idealistic mirage (played by the same actor) - 'the one' - as a kind of lure to trap the woman within the confines of the 'real world'...(Her real-world relationship to the asshole who dumps her is, in spite of everything, mediated by the idealistic mirage of his fictional screen persona who is 'really' in love with her and whom she dumps.)

Or more to the point, in anti-oedipal terms, the notion of 'the one' perhaps serves to trap desire in general (male and female) within the Freudian/capitalist logic of 'desire as lack' by situating us within the matrix of a search whose fulfillment is by definition continually postponed. (And The Purple Rose of Cairo being set in Depression-era US certainly hints at this dimension...)

IT: It's surprisingly difficult to break with the logic of the one, even if everything has been secularised to bits. It keeps coming back.

Deleuzer: It must be that dialectical bent. Bloody Hegel...

IT: I wonder if we could do for the one of love what Badiou does to the one of mathematics. Hmm....

Deleuzer: Brilliant idea! So we simply say: there is no one, only sets...I agree in principle, but how does one go about it, or what does this mean in practical terms? Hmm.... I suppose that perhaps the reason why Being from the Greeks onwards was singular is precisely as a consequence of having an ideal, the one (Being) against which everything else is an imperfect copy or simulacrum, marred by a lack - again that logic of the objet petit a.

The psychoanalytic answer is, of course, to formulate that remainder of the unconscious/real; but if the object petit a is as Zizek has it, a surplus meaning or a 'hole at the centre of the symbolic order', then 'plugging the hole' is no way out of the predicament. Going back to the analogy with Marx and surplus value on which Lacan draws, by formulating desire one still remains within the symbolic, within language: no revolutionary seizing control of the means of production there, for the process that generates the surplus in the psychoanalytic case transcends the symbolic order.

To break out of the dialectical/capitalist/theological cycle of production of the one/objet petit a, there must be a (revolutionary) disturbance to the ordinary process of production, a fundamental change in power relations. One must work not through language, but through the (desiring) body itself to grasp that there is no 'one'; or that, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, desire is a productive force; rather than searching for objects to fill a pre-existing lack, we encounter objects that as a result of specific couplings produce desire in us. As Leonard Cohen puts it, "I am not the one who loves...It's love that chooses me."

The object itself does not by definition fall short of some ideal ('the one' does not exist) or haunted by the spectre of a lack that by definition remains unfulfilled. The byproduct it generates, far from being a lack or an unfulfilled ideal is merely an excess of desire - an added value - that keeps the productive-desiring machinery in motion by maintaining a connection to the social body.

In Badiouian terms, if we imagine a set containing a single element(the real, physical object of desire), the surplus value or remainder (objet petit a) - the excess - is a term in the equation defining the set that leaves open the possibility of incorporating other objects and sets into that set. Which I think makes it even clearer why the transposition of this excess into 'the one' is a trompe l'oeil. It is precisely the opposite of 'the one' - it is what keeps the set open, connected to other sets, to the social body.

This is not quite the contradiction in terms that it may appear to be - the one/set, the unambiguous 'one' that contains the germ of a multiple. The point is simply that the excess of desire produced is necessary to keep the desiring machine moving; it is produced not because desire is never fulfilled, but precisely because it is fulfilled: object encountered, desire produced, fulfilled. Yet without the excess then produced, the machinery at this point would grind to a halt; it must always pump out that excess or surplus value (desire=object+x) in order to remain operational, to breathe. So although that excess is something more in relation to the given object (mistaken for 'the one'), it is neither a lack nor another object (a two), but simply a placeholder, an empty place in the set.

Blah blah blah. Well that's about the best I can do with two hours' sleep in oversimplifying D&G (Dolce & Gabbana or Deleuze & Guattari?) and Badiouizing the notion of desire as a productive force.

3. Objectively Fucked: Diamanda's Revenge and the Transmission of Ideology

IT: Mainstream cinema mediates the relationship between men through the odd woman, who rarely gets to mediate anything at all through anyone else. But in the 'real world' do women mediate their relationships through discussion of men? I think this is Dave's point when he asks 'how much "talking about men" really is talking about men?' One could ask a similar question about make-up and fashion. Prettifying for the boys or warning signs for the other ladies? Obviously the idea that straight women are constantly 'competing' for men is an awful one, but they are most definitely supposed to, according to the batshit crazy logic of scarcity that consumerism depends upon. He's the one! That handbag is the one! Hands off my bag/man!

Diamanda Galas has a fine solution to this problem, which acknowledges the issue of mediation but, ahem, subtly undermines it:

'I think women should have an "ideal": the only people you treat as equals are other women. And when you want subordinates, you can fuck a man in the ass! That basically is probably the future. Some men get angry because they think I view them just as sex objects. But I say, "You don't need to read to me - I can read. And conversation - I can get that from my friends. So you should feel lucky that you at least have this service you can offer me.' - from Angry Women, Re/Search #13, 1991.

Perhaps a little harsh, but it might definitely mean that straight women could talk to each other about things other than whether-they-should-ring-him-back-or-wait-for-him-to-call or-is-that-too-forward?'

Deleuzer: Is that a German word? Hm... Yet she is still the subject of mediation between two (or more) men. I mean, it is obvious that she is bitter because - like many women - she has been fucked over by men. So her answer is 'fuck a man in the ass'? Yet this means in effect that through her, the asshole(s) who fucked her over also fuck(s) over the (potentially) nice guy whom she 'fucks up the ass', turning him (potentially) into just another male asshole. (sic)

This is, needless to say, only another way of remaining within the service of dominant (male/chauvinist) ideology; or even more, ideologizing personal relations by turning what was initially subjective violence (getting fucked over by individual assholes) into systemic or objective violence (by/against all men...'if you want subordinates...fuck a man up the ass'). Through her, the dominant chauvinist ideology is communicated/propagated from one man to another. She becomes the incubating medium of ideological transmission, or even better, the ideological 'egg'.

This is why Nietzsche talks about breaking the cycle of revenge - it is precisely about the pitfalls of dialectical mediation. I am afraid that our dear Diamanda simply reverses the roles, replacing one form of domination with another, sublating one within the other in a dialectical reversal that hardly undermines the patriarchal order. Let's imagine that instead of her, we have a man writing the same..."If you want subordinates, fuck a woman up the ass..." etc. My question is, what's the difference? Because I see none. This is just how the initial propagator - the asshole who fucks over Diamanda in the first place - might have put it. So we come full circle.

In fact, by fully internalizing the logic of chauvinist domination, she is - perversely enough - perhaps the ultimate prototype of female subordination, insofar as this is precisely the kind of behaviour that male domination is meant to produce in the female as its dialectical counterpart under the conditions of late capitalism...

IT: I meant, she solves the problem of mediation between women by sidelining men to their sexual role. I don't agree with her, I just thought it was an interestingly aggressive point.

Deleuzer: I see...But you started out saying that mainstream cinema mediates the relationships between men through the 'odd woman'...Anyway, the point still holds - the price of this rediscovered immediacy in relationships between women is more alienation, more mediation (of another kind), deferral of the real struggle against the status quo...By sidelining men to their sexual role, she also sidelines the struggle itself, and any possibility of being truly subversive and effecting a change in sexual relations...This is simply an act of ineffectual subtraction.