Category Archives: Culture

Highlights from Berlinale 2017

It had been a long time – too long, in fact – since I had been able to go to the Berlinale film festival. This was the year we finally corrected that. The joy of the Berlinale is what would seem to make the event frustrating: the hunt for tickets and the duds you see are as much a part of the fun as the surprise discoveries. The duds can themselves be the most memorable part: I still get a laugh when I recall one unfortunate case done in blindingly overexposed sepia.

While a bit of Mystery Science Theater quality has to be, the point of going is to take in films one would never otherwise have encountered. This year, for instance, we saw another film by Naoko Ogigami, whom we first discovered at the Berlinale in 2008, and whose other works we have followed, even though they can be hard to get in Europe and America.

The consensus in the German press this year was that Berlinale 2017 was rather ho-hum. Monday morning I listened to a discussion on Westdeutscher Rundfunk that essentially concluded that the festival’s organization needs some fresh blood. This conclusion seems mostly based on the competition category, and I’m of the school that would just as soon wait on those films. The other categories hold more promise for delivering some insight onto the world we live in.

We took in seven films and a series of shorts over the two weekends we spent in Berlin this month. A few of the highlights:

Honeygiver Among the Dogs: a Buddhist themed film from Bhutan following a detective tasked with investigating the apparent murder of an abbess. The prime suspect is a young woman assumed to be the embodiment of some sort of demon. The film borrows and reworks elements of the noir tradition, as the detective comes to realize that he has unwittingly become an actor in a contest between the spiritual community and those plotting to take the land from the monastery and exploit it for mineral resources. The film was beautifully shot, and I was glad not only that I saw it, but that I saw it on the big screen.

Centaur: We left Honeygiver Among the Dogs only to get back in line for this second screening. The protagonist in this film from Kyrgyzstan steals the occasional thoroughbred out of an affinity for horses. He identifies with an origin myth of his people as nomadic riders, and as such cannot stand to see the abuse of the animals in modernity. His affinity is his tragic downfall. This film, too, has some remarkable shots of the countryside, and while I have an intellectual and political commitment both to the representation of landscape and non-human animals, I confess to having found the main character’s motivation a little forced.

The second weekend we had the chance to take in a couple of films from the NATIVe category, which this year focused on the peoples living in the Arctic circle. Sumé – The Sound of a Revolution was a first-rate documentary on the band Sumé, which made waves in Greenland and Denmark for songs with anti-colonial themes at a time when Denmark exerted tighter control over Greenland. The cover of their first album shows a native Greenlander smiling over the corpse of a Norseman shot full of arrows. The history of the band opens up some of the complicated dimensions of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. For instance, the band formed when its Greenlandic members were studying in Denmark, they were produced by a Danish label and they performed for Danish audiences before touring Greenland. The story of the band also invites reflections on art and politics, as the two members portraited had different feelings on just how political the enterprise should be.

The Tundra Book was our second film in the NATIVe category. The title and division into “chapters” stake an interesting claim to Kipling’s colonial work, and the kind of “soft” colonization by Russian society threatens the dissolution of the community of reindeer herders. The movement of the reindeer herds made this film particularly remarkable from a visual standpoint.

City of the Sun was an understated documentary depicting Tschiaturas, a former Soviet mining town in the Georgian Caucasus on economic margin. We follow the miners into their workplace where night and day are indistinguishable, and observe as one of the characters demolishes a concrete hulk with a sledgehammer in order to remove the frame for scrap metal. The film had a number of aerial shots of the town and its industrial remains couched in a heavily forested valley. I wonder, though, if this kind of photography isn’t quickly on the way to becoming cliché as filming from drones becomes easier and far more common.

Naoko Ogigami’s film Close Knit was a big reason why we returned to Berlin for a second week of the Berlinale. The film was about a girl on the cusp of pubescence who leaves her unstable household and lives for a time with her uncle, who is in a committed relationship with a transwoman. The fact that trans issues have been very much in the spotlight – and have been featured in series such as Transparent and Orange is the New Black – made me wonder if this film could be pulled off convincingly. But the film linked the story of its trans character to larger reflections on family and bodily changes in a way that didn’t seem as if something topical was simply being shoehorned.

And finally there was the dud. In fairness to the film the topic was one that was perfectly fair game for cinema, but that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. We ended up in the theater anyway because I was in line for tickets, studying the board for what was available, and slipped into a Kaufrausch. About five minutes into the film I remembered that I had made a mental note NOT to buy tickets for this movie. Its themes notwithstanding, the film was freighted with a heavy-handed symbolism I found exasperating. I won’t we name and shame, but I will say it would not have been a complete film festival experience if we had not seen one film of that kind!

 

Nuclear Patoralism: Alina Bronskys “Baba Dunja’s Last Love”

One of the earliest television news pieces I can recall watching is Steve Kroft’s visit to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant for a 60 Minutes segment in 1989. A few clips are available here. The piece was possibly the first entry in a larger corpus of media documenting the ruination of the region’s former human settlements. I remember being struck by the strange beauty of the images in the broadcast: the depopulated stretches of landscapes leading up to the site, the empty streets of the city, and strange forms in the building itself, particularly the so-called “Elephant’s Foot.”

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the explosion. The expansion of the internet in the de9783462048025cades since has meant that one need not wait on Steve Kroft to do another Chernobyl follow-up in order to see how far Pripyat has succumbed to the forces of nature. Late 20th and early 21st media have allegedly already reduced the melancholy intellectual pastime of contemplating ruins to “ruin porn,” and ruins in the exclusion zone might well constitute their own sub-genre. The catastrophe would seem to have marked the area’s exit from history – the 60 Minutes piece is now behind a paywall, but I recall Steve Kroft observing that the area had survived crusaders, Ottomans, and Nazis, but not the radiation from reactor number four.

But one of the paradoxes of the exclusion zone is that even while it appears as a fading after-image of mid 1980s Soviet life, it occupies an outsized place as an object of cultural fascination. This is one of the surprising contradictions at play in Alina Bronsky’s latest novel Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe. Baba Dunja, the text’s first-person narrator, belongs to the community of people who evacuated the area around the Chernobyl plant after the explosion, only to return to their former homeland. With mortality looming anyway, Baba Dunja figures it would be better to accept the radiation that is everywhere in her homeland than to die in a shared apartment in an anonymous high rise in an alien city.

The community seems to be living out a kind of pastoral idyll. The text’s treatment of the pastoral motif is signaled by the image of a rooster, which marks the chapter breaks after the opening scene involving the death of the neighbor’s annoying rooster. The returnees maintain gardens and have developed networks of mutual support. To access the world beyond, Baba Dunja walks out of the exclusion zone to a lonely bus stop and rides into town to check her postbox. But radiation is an interesting phenomenon. In the moment of exposure it is not something that is immediately sensible; we cannot see or taste it in the moment of exposure, and we only know it through the effects it sooner or later will have on our bodies. It has an invisible presence, but that invisible presence structures life in the exclusion zone. For instance, whenever Baba Dunja’s hears of the birth of a new child, her question is whether the child is healthy. Behind the grandmotherly tone is an obvious fear of the effects of the ecological reality on the body. Because the exclusion zone is relatively depopulated, it is tempting to see it through the lens of a kind of environmental fantasy, a place where nature is “coming back” in spite of ecological catastrophe. But beneath the seemingly idyllic life in the zone lurk the signs of environmental dysfunction. Baba Dunja was visited by a biologist studying spiders, we learn. It seems that the spider population in the zone has exploded because there are now too few birds to keep them in check.

The biologist, it turns out, is also a sign that the exclusion zone is not as removed from world affairs as one might assume. Baba Dunja, for instance, has been featured in news coverage of the returnees living in the exclusion zone. The novel’s major conflict develops when a man brings his daughter into the community after his wife leaves him. Baba Dunja confronts him over the endangerment of the child, the confrontation escalates, the man attempts to strangle her, and Baba Dunja is rescued by a neighbor who slays the man. The murder is taken up by the authorities, and Baba Dunja goes to trial.

The novel is a compelling read because of the kinds of contradictions that structure life in the zone, as the story portrays it, such as the fact of making a life in and on a poisonous landscape, or the condition of being both removed and the center of media attention. As I read it I thought about the ambiguity of the language we use to talk about radiation in general. “Strahlen,” from which we get the language of “Strahlung” (radiation) and “verstrahlt” (irradiated) has both positive and negative connotations. While the English “radiation” is connected to “radiance,” there seems to me to be more distance between the two forms in English than there is in German. The ambiguity to the term “strahlen” is nicely captured in Horkheimer and Adorno’s famous line from Dialektik der Aufklarung that “die vollends aufgeklarte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils.” The “verstrahlte” landscape in Baba Dunjas letzte Liebe literalizes the radiant disaster of progress.

Chemical Decadence: Pfisters Mühle on Stage in Stuttgart

In a 2012 interview on NPR religion scholar Elaine Pagels suggested that the enduring appeal of the Book of Revelation is that it provides a language that has been useful to movements of all sorts of political stripes since the early Christian era. “[P]eople who longed for justice have always felt that the book speaks to us now and we are now on the cusp of that great change,” she observes to Terry Gross. In appropriating the rhetoric of apocalypse, more recent environmentalist camps are in that sense only the most recent iteration of a longer tradition. In tactical terms, apocalyptic rhetoric can be a double-edged sword, as when those parties with a vested interest in the ecosocial status quo attempt to portray their adversaries as so many Chicken Littles. But as I sat in the Stuttgart State Theater recently watching their stage adaptation of Pfisters Mühle, I was reminded of the particular pleasure that can be taken when the material of Revelation is effectively deployed.

The stage version follows the plot and conventions of Raabe’s novel: Ebert Pfister and his bride Emmy are on a honeymoon at the Pfister family mill in the weeks before its destruction to make way for a new factory. Ebert sets about writing his “Sommerferienheft,” recounting how the factory Krickerode opened up upstream, how the hydrogen sulfide killed off the fish in the stream and released a stench that drove everyone away and ruined the mill. The play develops the humor of its source material: in a novel concerned also with the status of the image in the era of its mechanical reproducibility, the characters gather before a nineteenth century camera mounted upon a selfie stick. On the other hand, the humor is layered on top of the play also explores the commonplace that the memory as narrated in the text itself is somehow dangerous. When we arrive at the description of the degraded stream for instance, the dead fish rise up from the stage to haunt the characters in the present.

Everyone is a partisan in the world, as a line from the story reminds us, and Pfister’s Mill is in many ways an exploration of how nature ultimately loses out to the various ideological commitments of everyone in the years after German unification. Adam Asche, the natural scientist who helps the Betram Pfister in his court case against Krickerode in spite of his stated wish to pollute every river, stream, and bubbling spring in Germany, is in this sense different from the other characters only in his openness about his own partisan loyalties.

The play imagines modernity as an era of chemical decadence – decadence being, of course, a close relative of apocalypse. At one point Adam Asche falls into a vat of his own toxic brew. It overtakes his body and he breaks out dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” which is, I might add, a well chosen anthem for this particular story. Lippoldes, meanwhile, the novel’s living anachronism, dances down the throat of the enormous industrial drainage pipe that is the play’s main set piece.

Out of principle I find comparing adaptations to their source material to be like comparing apples and oranges, but all the same the stage adaptation gives the “where do all the pictures go?” speech to Ebert. The speech is core to the novel’s thinking about art and aesthetics in an era when nature is yoked into the process of industrial production. But the melancholy discomfort that comes with going to an art exhibition in modernity is not Ebert’s, it’s Emmy’s. Ebert dismisses it, and then later appropriates it, but what strikes me about Emmy is that she makes some very incisive observations about how urban and industrial modernity affects our perception of the world. Interestingly, it is a circumstance that has often been either missed in the reception history or has received very little comment.

Finally, the production makes a bizarre choice that I’ve never encountered before in theater. After over two hours we had something like a forty minute intermission to allow for a set change for a kind of tableau vivant. When the intermission began without a curtain, I was actually very confused. Was the play over? In the end it seemed a very ham-fisted solution to the medium’s technical limitation.

The Dubious Politics of “Interstellar”

Techno-optimismInterstellar_film_poster is not a necessary ingredient to science fiction, but one can appreciate more of the genre by looking past the rosy view of human innovation. It’s a stance that holds together Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, which may be no worse than Star Trek in envisioning space as an arena for cowboy-like adventurism. But its political content papers over the murkiness that the Star Trek franchise has had five decades to confront, however indirectly.

The film sprawls over two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving it plenty of time to hit lots of bad notes before finally arriving at its core thought: parent-child relations through the lens of the theory of relativity. The first third of the film is centered around a farmhouse somewhere in the corn belt. The earth has experienced some sort of ecocatastrophe, where dust storms terrorize the community and crop blight destroys one source of food after another. The character of the catastrophe is unclear, but it has forced Cooper, a former NASA engineer and pilot, to take up life as a farmer. Cooper harbors open contempt for the occupation, complaining at one point that whereas humans used to reach for the stars, the species is now oriented towards the earth. The film endorses Cooper’s contempt; his son, who embraces farming more willingly, becomes an antagonist of sorts later in the film, and the others in this agrarian society harbor what the film presents as a reflexive and irrational suspicion towards science and technology. It is as if the only possible ways of thinking about modernity were an all-or-nothing embrace or rejection of an absolute notion of progress (that assumption is also what allows people to toss around “Luddite” as a pejorative, which it most certainly is not).

It’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario that might produce a very justifiable suspicion towards science. Withholding the backstory makes space for us to share the film’s scorn for characters such as the teacher who insists the moon landing was a fake, or the brother who will not leave his farm to take his asthmatic son to fresher air (even though there is no such a place on the planet). The lack of context also strengthens the film’s trafficking in right-wing imagery. An enormous dust cloud descending on a mostly white community of corn growers somewhere in the “heartland?” No symbolic associations there, surely!

What makes the film a right-wing play, though, is the basic plot of projecting a kind of white masculine Americana vision into outer space. The North American continent is an inhabitable wasteland, but the stars and stripes flutter on space stations and planets in other galaxies. Cooper’s frustration at the beginning is that historical circumstances prevent him from a kind of self-realization in a space cowboy career. The film ends with a happy restoration, where we glimpse an idealized vision of small town America recreated in the interior of a space station. Special narrative concern is given to Cooper’s status as a parent, and while the father/daughter plot has its moments, it is mostly there to give Cooper a reason for confronting the adversities the plot presents him with. Supposedly he is interested in saving his family and (and other families, too!), but this ethical motivation ultimately really bends back on himself. The children are extensions of Cooper’s self, the fact that his daughter has children, and has established herself as a savior of humanity in her own right, does not change this, not in the least because her scientific career his contingent on her father’s space adventures. And in one scene on the ice planet between Cooper and Mann, Mann gives voice to what really motivates Cooper: self-preservation for him is really about their surivival. But if that is so, isn’t that equivalent to saying that their survival is important because they are an image of him?

It’s the narrow ethical field that makes Interstellar particularly problematic. The characters’ ethics of care do not extend to anyone beyond the immediate tribe, and we have to listen to extensive dialogue positing this stance as “natural.” It certainly does not extend to the earth, as the characters’ sole objective is getting off the planet and leaving it to its wretched fate. We may have been born on earth, we are told, but that doesn’t mean we have to die here. And if that weren’t enough to complete the film’s death-denying fantasy, we have a selected quotation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” offered as a leitmotif. It’s a far cry from, say, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its retelling in Blade Runner, both of which are profound as explorations of broken people living on a broken world.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a very safe film, delivering an ideology that comports with a view of the world from Silicon Valley while making sure that we get a good cry in at the end. The director Christopher Nolan is famous for giving us such ostensibly mind-bending films as Inception. But like Inception, the film relies on its curious but empty visuals to reach that effect. That’s why it falls short of Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has no choice but to borrow from. Kubrick knows to pull the rug out from under our feet, as with the final minutes of 2001, or the last shot of The Shining. In Nolan’s films we see worlds folding into themselves hoping, perhaps, that we don’t notice that the film is reinforcing our conventional assumptions about narrative, cinema, and the world more generally.

On Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin brought to mind the infinitely cheesier 1995 film Species. Both share a similar premise: an alien is loose in the world in the guise of a human seductress, and male specimens of our own species had best watch out. Species is a fairly conventional entry in the horror film genre, Under the Skin aims for a more muted Grauen.

Laura, the alien in human form, drives a van (no horror there) through numerous environs evocative of different aspects of Scotland: elegant commercial districts, gritty urban streets, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle, and of course the Highlands.The film is beautifully shot, and savors the effect of each of the places it visits. There is a subtle exploration of spectatorship and the way that nature is experienced here. In one scene Laura is standing on a stormy beach at the foot of some cliffs attempting to lure in another victim. Nearby a woman has gone swimming into the surf to rescue her dog, only to be followed by her husband; all of them are ultimately doomed, and their baby is left abandoned on the shore. Together with Laura, we regard the destruction of the family from a distance, so that the catastrophe taking place at the level of the individuals seems very far away as they are destroyed at the foot of the cliffs.

Later in the film, after Laura has begun to experience something of moral agony over her actions, she is wandering in a forest trying to come to terms with her own increasing humanness. She runs into a logger there who asks if she’s out for a ramble, and stutters on about the forest as a space of solitary contemplation. There’s something more going on here other than the ominousness of a woman alone running into a strange man in a forest, although the man will later attack her. The film touches here on the commonplace of landscapes as being devoid of humans. That is, the interruption of the forest solitude (yes, Tieck’s Waldeinsamkeit), the experience the man blubbers about, is precisely what makes the scene alarming.

The film is all about gender and performance, and in that sense it is a very self-conscious film. Sady Doyle points out in her essay “Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism” that in the scenes where Laura finally does her victims in (if they are “done in” in any conventional sense), the film reverses the convention of directing the gaze away from the male body and making the female the object of visual consumption. That is to say, we see some erect male appendages. I might add that this film deserves lots of credit for casting someone who actually has neurofibromatosis in the role of the character with the condition, as opposed to slapping prosthetics on an actor and having him represent somebody else’s experience of social marginalization. In the end, we get to see Laura stripping off her own skin, and contemplating the face that she has been wearing.

Undertheskin2Under the Skin 1

The climax of Species offers us a showdown between final girl and monster. In Under the Skin Laura transitions from being the monster to someone hunted in the forest by a rapist. Without saying too much (my love of spoilers notwithstanding), the more one considers the roles of each character in the resolution, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_posterIf you happen to be of an eco-Marxist frame of mind, it’s tempting to regard global warming as the moment when capitalism will finally hit its limits. Endless growth cannot be sustainable, and so it is not difficult to imagine the planet itself as the ultimate barrier to capitalist development. While it is not outside the realm of possibility, it is a grim fantasy for the incredible human suffering that will likely have to happen first, and moreover it is one that severely underestimates the dynamism of capital. What’s more, it is not impossible to imagine a “sustainable” mode of production that also allows for continual growth.

This is the world of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s entry into the eco-apocalypse genre. The film is set in 2031, after a 2014 geo-engineering project to reverse the effects of global warming left the Earth in perpetual winter. What remains of the human race live in a self-contained environment aboard a train that continually circles the planet. In the front of the train the people live a life of comfort, the rear is a site of immiseration. Poor conditions and political repression of the dwellers of the rear spark a revolution that aims to reach the front of the train.

The train is an interesting space, as all divisions and functions of society are projects linearly, so that in each car the revolution moves into, we glimpse some new aspect of what sustains the hermetic environment on board: food production, water supply, and in the front education, relaxation in “Nature,” and recreation. The train distills spatially what readers of Foucault will recognize as a kind of biopolitics. Remaining in one’s place is the reigning ideology of the train, as Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, makes clear in a lecture that is laughable for the fact that she is filling the time while the rear dwellers watch brutal punishment meted out to one of their own. As we learn at the end, the biopolitical program extends beyond the organization of the train.

I get pleasure out of seeing the return of decadence topoi as anxieties over economic inequality seep into the motion picture industry (the outlandish fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games films comes to mind), and it makes a productive appearance in Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries push their way through a dance club car where the revelers are tripped out on Kronol, an industrial by-product that is also a drug.

We are treated to plenty of views of the world outside, as snowy mountains give way to the icy ruins of civilization. As we move through the train, we see the front dwellers sit by the windows and watch the scenes of devastation with the detachment in which train passengers have always experienced the sliding landscape through a train window (a history documented by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century).

How one feels about the film will probably depend on how one reacts to its farcical element. Mason’s party line speeches are comically banal. We witness indoctrination at work in the school car in a way that is laughably over the top. I found the violence too to be quite farcical – and there is a lot that could be said about the mutilation of bodies in the movie. The film is even complete with an indestructible Übermensch of the variety that you get in the early James Bond films.

So the train is a distilled image of late capitalist society, complete with the violent policing necessary to maintain the system. But this is where “sustainability” comes in. The term is a pillar of the ideology that structures life on board, it is invoked to justify the sentence of mutilation at the beginning, and it is invoked in a bizarre scene where the revolutionaries sit down to dine on sushi. But it is also a code word for the eternal recurrence that really underwrites the experience of the train, the maintenance of which turns out to be the end of the biopolitical program (without giving too much away, this is the crux of the major revelation in the film). It is not an accident that the train eternally follows a circular route.

While I personally roll my eyes at “spoiler alerts” (because I believe everything should be “spoiled”!), I’ll limit my comments on the ending to this: the film spares the protagonist the full weight of the final ethical dilemma, which from a storytelling standpoint could not have been resolved in an especially satisfying way, I suspect. What we get instead is a perspectivization on eco-apocalypse. In spite of what we thought we saw through the windows, Nature’s history has not ended, and in the last shot it looks back at humanity with a somewhat puzzled indifference.

Labor, Consumption, and the Cadillac ELR

My grandfather was an advertising executive. Whenever we laity found an advertisement to be contradictory, esoteric, or downright offensive, he would remind us that even if we didn’t understand the message, the target audience did.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s stock answer when I saw this advertisement from Cadillac for the ELR, a new hybrid automobile.

The ad is pretty offensive for anyone who thinks that it would be nice to have a café to stop into while strolling home from work, or wouldn’t mind having the entire month of August to do things like read, travel, or spend time with family. But if that’s you, then this ad is not for you, leaving the beat until the next commercial for you to howl in outrage. My grandfather would remind you that the wealthy aging frat boys who need convincing that one can drive a hybrid without sacrificing one’s masculine facade will receive the message Cadillac intended.

Its outrageousness aside, it’s worth looking at how this ad works. The car doesn’t come until the end, and most of the time is downplayed as “stuff,” which is not the real point of working. Instead it softens the viewer up for the arrival of the car by flattering him for accepting the fantasy of endless work as ingrained into some sort of national identity (also, I think we can safely stick to the male pronoun in this instance). There’s a constant invocation of the third person, an act of interpellation underscored in the line “why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?,” where the “that” are less driven foreigners, and the  we are what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community,” only now of people who work endlessly and have something to show for it. Now, many of us do work endlessly and have very little to show for it, but if you are cognizant of that, then once again this ad is not for you. It’s for the people who would like to identify with the speaker. That’s why it’s a good ad, because it creates a need through a wish-image of what we can have once we start out with the “right” attitude.

So what we have here is a fascinating neoliberal fantasy. Holding it allegedly puts us in company with the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Ali. It’s an eclectic group, but they did have one thing in common: they weren’t crazy! “Why do we work hard?” the speaker asks. Because we are hardworking believers.Believers in what? The answer is not supplied, but it doesn’t have to be. In this fantasy we don’t work longer hours over more weeks because that’s what we have to do to pay the rent, feed that family we have for all our high-fiving needs, or to be able to get medical care when we get sick. That falls under the category of “stuff,” the “upside” of an endless labor process that is an end unto itself. One “upside:” the Cadillac ELR. Here we have the ad’s main contradiction, because I thought the upside was the work itself? Isn’t an “upside” the desired result? Maybe not, but for the purposes of the ad it is, because after all, the point of the ad isn’t really to take pride in our labor, but to use the money we earn to go out and buy Cadillacs. And if there’s an upside, do we now admit there’s a downside? No matter, because we are now supposed to be gazing at the car, the “stuff” that was really in question all along.

This fantasy is a problem because if the work is an end unto itself, then the “downsides” don’t matter anymore, as long as you are working. It’s there in the ad: time spent not producing value is time wasted. It’s a logic that does not allow for any pursuit that cannot be reduced to the metrics quantifiable by “the market.” Instead it endorses a “do what you love” ideology, what Miya Tokumitsu calls “the unofficial work mantra of our time” in this insightful critique. As Tokumitsu persuasively argues, it’s a mantra that actually devalues labor.

A couple of other observations:

Gender and the family: While the speaker is strutting about the house preparing for work, we see a woman, presumably his wife, and two daughters. The toys lie discarded (the panda thing, the table hockey, the doll house we saw behind the couch). Instead the girl in the foreground is engaged in her homework before a model of a DNA strand, while in the background the other daughter reads, again, presumably, with an end other than pleasure.

Scene 1

The wife occupies the kitchen and receives his discarded newspaper. But she is in her work suit and drinking a cup of coffee, presumably for the caffeine and not because of the deliciousness of real gourmet coffee. Our male protagonist speaks and he’s the one who leaves the house dressed in his uniform and inside his car to face the day’s dangers! But gender binaries don’t get in the way of labor that generates measurable value, or that might equip one to engage in labor that generates measurable value. In any case, they are all incidental to the scene, they occupy the space of the house much as the furniture does.

Scene 2

Prometheanism and boredom:

Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left, got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

Even as fanciful history, this statement does not make much sense, not in the least because defunding of the space program suggests that we will remain bored with the moon for the foreseeable future. This strange line celebrates the overcoming of a seemingly natural limit, an overcoming done simply for the sake of having overcome, only to admit to admit to the futility of it all. In this vision, for all of the money, planning, and yes, labor that went into the moon landings, we were not even left with something capable of engaging our interest.

Ultimately that is what is puzzling about the advertisement. Why do “we” work hard? The monologue never really answers the question, but if you’re still wondering about it by the time the ad ends, then the ad really isn’t for you.

Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.

Buy Nothing Day Blessings

Reverend Billy appeared on Democracy Now! Tuesday. Reverend Billy is facing jail time for a protest action staged in September against JP Morgan Chase for the bank’s support of the fossil fuel industry. It’s worth watching, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Reverend Billy’s courageous work.

Reverend Billy appeared in a documentary a few years ago produced by Morgan Spurlock called What Would Jesus Buy. In the last scene Rev. Billy strolls through Disneyland shouting a kind of desperate protest as the “park’s” day trippers look on, some enjoying the spectacle, others devoutly ignoring what’s taking place. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, albeit with the exact opposite political program. The scene itself is remarkable, by the point in the film Rev. Billy has traveled across the country visiting malls and big box stores, and after all the amusing stunts and tricks, pleads with the crowd to break through the ideological fantasy. The Disney security promptly descends on him, insisting that he “needs” to stop. At the end of the scene, he is sitting in handcuffs for having disrupted Disney’s carefully structured illusion.

The trailer for What Would Jesus Buy? can be viewed here.

The full film is also now available for viewing pleasure on YouTube.