Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pornosophy :Your Friends & Neighbors

There is a scene in Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors (1998) where a character named Barry  (Aaron Eckhart) desperately tries to give himself an erection while masturbating.  One hears stories about the unsatisfactory porn in clinics afforded sperm donors. However, the scene in the LaBute movie is far more profound since it is so painfully solitary and actually represents a more primal and emblematic line between the life force and death wish. The light switch goes on or off and there’s no controlling it. You can’t will an erection. Sexual fantasy is obviously a part of sex and many people fantasize right during the sexual act with one degree of success or another. Without a doubt there are some lovers who would have to confess that the person in bed with them is almost in the way when it comes to enjoying what's basically a masturbatory experience. But LaBute is really bottom fishing in a particularly trenchant way in Your Friends & Neighbors. Barry’s dilemma has the quality of classic tragedy. His marriage has failed and this is the sole camouflage in which pleasure is still able to manifest itself. Yet his character can find nothing that's stimulating enough to produce arousal. Yet is the other alternative any better? Let’s say he were able to proceed with his project in which he's able to attain pleasure without the messiness of other people’s needs and demands. Relationships are complex and there's something almost appealing about the self-sufficiency that the universe of masturbation provides. Let’s say he’s able to find utter delight in a world of fantasy and even sleeps well at night. Of all the cruelties LaBute has imagined in his predatory universe, this might be one of the most painful to watch since it might strike closest to home for many filmgoers. And what would the sequel be  called, As You Like it?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tales of Incredible and Horrifying Mediocrity!!!!!

                                                                                             photo: Evan-Amos
The sublime and fantastic have a hold on the imagination. Paranormal phenomena like bending spoons and spirits of the dead being channeled are the stuff of bestsellers and big grossing movies. But little credence is given to terminally inane events, those phenomena that evince a tawdry indifference to meaningfulness, the ones that cause you to yawn right in the face of a speaker, Have you ever had the experience of falling asleep right in the middle of a deadly cultural event or conversation? It really makes you appreciate sleep because it was what you have had to stave off throughout the dreadful activity in question. Think about the time you went into the department store to buy a belt. Belts are not high up on anyone’s list. No belt is going to change anything. It’s a utilitarian item. You simply buy a belt so your pants won’t fall down. Even sales people whose job it is to sell belts often have to work to stay awake as they go about their thankless job. You go to the belt area, sliding yours off and trying new belts on to make sure they’re the right size and have the necessary holes. The belt specialist comes by with the most bored look that you have ever witnessed in all of your years of buying things in a store. He or she is not going to become a retail star by selling you that belt. No fantasies of fame or fortune attach themselves to the buyers or sellers of belts.  Nevertheless, you almost can’t believe your ears when you hear the words “it’s a very happening belt,” intoned behind you as you walk towards the mirror. The phrase is even worse than the belt itself since the false promise created by its haunting vapidity makes you want to totally give up. Yes, you feel like sitting down right on the floor of the men’s or women’s clothing department and staging a sit in, a protest which will call attention to the utter absurdity of your predicament.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Altruistic Terrorist?

“La Terroriste” (1910)
In an essay/review in The New York Review of Books (“The Biology of Being Good to Others,” NYRB, 3/19/15), H. Allen Orr revisits the question of how altruism can be equated with natural selection. The occasion of the piece is the publication of a book by David Sloan Wilson, Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. Orr starts off by declaring “Altruism may seem a good thing—unless you happen to be an evolutionary biologist. Then it may seem a mixture of a mystery and a curse. The reason isn’t hard to see. How could a ruthless process like Darwinian natural selection give rise to altruistic organisms, human or non human, that act in ways that are costly to themselves and useful to others?” In the course of his review Orr mentions the work of W.D. Hamilton which would have an enormous impact and the understanding of how altruism can be natural selective. “Hamilton saw mathematically that a gene that encourages an organism to act altruistically can actually increase in numbers from one generation to the next by natural selection if those who benefit from the altruism tend to be relatives of the altruist." Orr uses an example of heroism to make his point. “If I carry a gene that causes me to throw myself on a hand grenade, this gene can increase in numbers through time if I preferentially save my brothers and sisters, who often carry the same gene.” But let’s look at altruism not as a genetically inherited characteristic but in the old fashioned way, as an attitude. Social organization depends on group solidarity and an acceptance of certain governances or rules of the game (i.e. the social contract) which allow human beings to thrive. But solidarity becomes even more important in organizations in which the self is subsumed to the needs of the greater whole. Terrorist organizations provide what Max Weber termed “a calling” in which the individual is filled with a sense of purpose that overrides his immediate concerns. Ultimately the member of a terrorist cell is ready to die for the cause. But what happens when the sense of hardened purpose begets subversive feelings? What happens when the positive affects that ISIS generates in its members become a gratuitous feeling (say like  “free floating anxiety”) that interrupts the deadly persecution of the other? ISIS is one of the best spin doctors in the world, but what happens when film production on one of its ads has to be stopped when one of the executioners starts experiencing the same feelings for his enemy as he experiences towards his brethren?

Monday, March 23, 2015

China Is Near

Marco Bellocchio’s China Is Near (1967) which is currently being revived at Film Forum hearkens back to a time when sex wasn’t so much political, as it has become today, as an allegory for politics. The film is reminiscent of Renoir’s La regle du jeu (1939) to the extent that the satire resonates the class conflict which is the movie’s underlying theme. Vittorio (Glauco Mauri) and his sister Elena (Elda Tattoli) are two aristocrats who get tricked into marrying the help, in the form of their two bookkeerpers Carlo (Paolo Graziosi) and Giovanna (Daniela Surina). Vittorio, who's running for political office, is as promiscuous politically as his sister Elena is in bed and it’s his 17 year old younger brother Camillo (Pierluigi Apra), from whom the movie’s titled derives, who flirts with Maoism. The first scene of China Is Near sets the tone in a particularly ingenious way. Camillo is organizing a gang bang, but while it would be fun to employ the sex as an attack on the bourgeoisie, he’s decided that only a working class girl will allow herself to be in an ecstatic state where she no longer notices where one lover’s ministrations begin and another's ends. Everything in China’s Is Near, including a bomb that fails to do much damage at Socialist Party headquarters, to two out of of wedlock pregnancies, fails to have dire consequences. In fact rich and poor walk off into the sunset with the musical beds leading to a paradigm of a classless society. In this sense the ending of the movie is a little like Macheath being freed from the gallows at the end of The Threepenny Opera. The dark underside, along with the social critique come in the self-conscious improbability of the denouement. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Max Weber Didn’t Plow the Field

photo: Adrian Pingstone
In a review of Peter Ghosh’s Max Weber and 'The Protestant Ethic'; Twin Histories (TLS, 2/13/15) Duncan Kelly quotes Weber as saying “I am not a donkey and do not have a field” on the subject of academia. Kelly earlier remarks about Weber, “He never wrote a big book, neither founded or had any interest in founding a school, and never cared about the accoutrements of academic fame even as those around him recognized his presence and power.” Weber may not have written a big book, but along with The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism , he was responsible for coining terms like the “the routinization of charisma” that left an indelible imprint not only on sociology but thought in general. He was part of a school of German sociology that included George Simmel and Ferdinand Tonnies that had an almost novelistic reach and which turned inquiries that could have been undertaken with dry analysis into poetry. Those who practice sociometrics and look at the discipline of sociology as a science might not cotton to many of Weber’s assumptions. Weber’s concept of “disenchantment” whereby scientism looked askance upon metaphysical suppositions perhaps reflects a world that would eventually cast wandering intellectuals of the kind he himself epitomized aside. Today a lot of people know a lot about a little, but few people know anything but what they know a little about. Academic disciplines are religions, spewing forth their own jargon, which is often intentionally impenetrable to outsiders. Weber was a true polymath. As Kelly says, “In a relatively short life, the sheer bulk of what he wrote about with seriousness, purpose and commitment, from agrarian history to rationality and music, from abstract methodological pronouncements  to the workings of the stock market, from the major world religions to war and revolution, is staggering.”  Weber would probably have disagreed with the seventh and last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”