The end of the world has never looked so good – at least that’s how you might feel if you’ve watched the recent string of apocalyptic movies. These films include something for everyone, from the highly stylised (Melancholia) to the ‘realist’ (The Turin Horse), although these distinctions cannot always be clearly made, and there is also the inevitable rom-com option. Exiting the cinema after watching ‘The Turin Horse’, having gone through the ‘Melancholia’ experience just a few days before, my companion joked that Béla Tarr’s film could be described as ‘Melancholia for the 99%’.
What I find interesting about many of these films, which include Another Earth and Seeking a friend for the end of the world, is that they seem to be more about the inner world (collapse of the human psyche) than the ‘outer world’ (collapse of the physical environment). The guiding question for Mike Cahill, the director/co-writer (with Brit Marling) of Another Earth, for instance, is about forgiveness: ‘Who needs to meet themselves the most?’ And how would they react? The only material destruction in the film appears to be that of one character’s body – whose reaction to a possible meeting with himself ends in self-mutilation to rob himself of his sensory perception. In Lars von Trier’s film, the ostensibly most stable, rational character turns out to be the most fragile, and the most fragile, irrational character’s state is revealed to bear the greatest strength.
Amongst all the celebratory and condemning reviews (there does not seem to be anywhere in between) only one article (in the New York Times) seems to touch on this theme. The quote, to me, could have been taken straight from Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on ‘cosmic terror’:
‘There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe’.
One could argue about the differences between the ends for Bakhtin – to embrace chance, death and other disturbing features of the universe as a means of counteracting fear of earthly (political) power – and the ends for von Trier. According to A O Scott’s New York Times review, von Trier’s aim may be to show how the world ‘deserves its awful fate’. Indeed, the director himself comments that he intended to make a very pessimistic film. In an interview he mentions how he watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in preparation:
‘Tarkovsky constructs all of his films as worlds. And each time, he gives the impression that this world explodes. It’s because of him that I believe in spirits, in phantoms. Do you remember the last plan of Solaris, which included this hallucinatory camera movement? This was really my source of inspiration for the end of Melancholia. I wanted the concluding moment of the film to be the most pessimistic that I’ve ever done, as, as far as I am aware, my films all end too nicely.’
In Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the human-cosmic relations seem equally present, but they take a much more material dimension. In his book Béla Tarr, Le Temps D’Après, Jacques Rancière notes how The Turin Horse sees ‘cosmic relations’ taking the place of social relations. Instead of human characters putting obstacles in the protagonists’ way, the latter are pushed back to the house by extreme winds or become increasingly paralysed by dwindling resources. The story is centred around the very basics of life: matter and energy. This is not a film about individuals, but about infrastructure and about humans-as-infrastructure, supporting and perpetuating patterns. Béla Tarr sums it up as follows:
‘We are doing very little things, but every day we are doing the same things – you are getting weaker and weaker, you have less and less energy and you are getting older. You cannot live with anything in your life, you can do the same thing but in a different way and unfortunately, you are going down, and I am going down, and everything is going down.’
According to Tarr, this material commonality is also reflected in the casting process, in which the same characteristics are sought for in human, animals and the landscape equally. In fact, Tarr notes how the horse is more important than the human characters.
In terms of their sensory approaches, Tarr’s and von Trier’s films also move in opposite directions. Although they can both be described as beautiful, hypnotic and interested in transmitting the reality in which the characters live, there is a marked difference, which already begins with the different speeds at the films are shot. Tarr uses 30 cuts for 147 minutes to show the slow disintegration of his characters. Von Trier also messes with time, however his inspiration is less realism than surrealism, notably Dali’s soft clocks. In Melancholia, the apocalypse takes place in a spatially and temporally distorted, dream-like state, although this, for him, has not always worked to his aesthetic satisfaction. After previewing the first scenes of the film, von Trier found them too stylised: they looked too much like a perfume advert– ‘but I wanted apocalypse!’ Another inspiration seems to have been opera and its dramatic expressiveness, which, for von Trier consists of the condensation of strong emotion into short intervals of time. Every image was supposed to announce the end of the world.
By contrast, Tarr’s imagery, while also intensely sensually engaging, seeks to underline materiality and the absence of emotion – including the absence of the spiritual. Prompted about this fact, Tarr comments:
‘The god created this fucking shit, what we have. We just wanted to show you how we disappear, and I don’t know who is the god. But if you remember, Nietzsche stated, God is dead.’
Yet this focus on representing materiality does not only seem to be about the non-existence of God, but also about the non-existence of (productive) thinking and doing. The sudden monologue in the middle of the film appears to mark this lack, the impossibility of change. Not only, according to the deliverer of this speech, has there ‘never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth’, but ‘change has indeed taken place’. This change is being described as the dissolution of potentially resistant forces through their self-destruction after the realisation that neither god(s), nor good and bad exist. In Melancholia, the world, too, appears to have been lost already, as embodied in the character of Justine. Even before the planet is destroyed, she ceases to connect to it: food tastes ‘like ash’ and the earth ‘is evil’. The apocalypse comes as a much needed release.
Does this leave us with two unrepentantly hopeless films? Here, Rancière offers some rare optimism: while, in all of Tarr’s films, the characters never manage to break out of established patterns and always end back where they started off, the closure this implies also suggests openness. Not only is there an infinite variety of patterns and ways to explore these patterns, but with every repetition there seems to be room for something more, something that suggests that the ‘closed circle is always open’. As he aptly puts is: even ‘the last morning is still a morning before’.
Tzvetan Todorov presenting at the RSA
Ok – haven’t been able to find the first part of this blogpost that I’d written into a notebook or onto some other pieces of paper. But here comes the second attempt… Bascially, during the last few weeks, I have ended up reading a number of authors who engage with the definition of ‘critique’ (and I have just realised that they all happen to be French!). The first one I read was Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘In Defence of Enlightenment’. Currently, the Enlightenment is being blamed or lauded for one thing or another, from disenchantment and the destruction of the environment to freedom of speech and critical thinking (an audio programme on the topic can be found on philosophy bites). Here, Todorov’s book presents, in accessible format, an interesting and thought-provoking position. Through re-engaging with key topics such as autonomy, progress and truth, Todorov seeks to unsettle our preconceived notions of Enlightenment thinking. Ultimately, Todorov seeks to further a more productive engagement with the project of the Enlightenment – and, by extension, our current political/intellectual situation – not necessarily by accepting his interpretations of works, correspondence and events surrounding the birth of the movement, but by inviting debate.
Debate is, for Todorov, what characterises Enlightenment thinking. In his opinion, the movement appears not as unified by ideas, but by method: question everything. As this method or ‘attitude towards the world’, as he puts it, is becoming more and more undermined – from interpretations of critique as inherently destructive and misguided, as furthering a detachment from the sensual reality of the world or as inhibiting care for one’s human or non-human surroundings – what is needed, according to Todorov, is a reminder of the dangers of abandoning certain Enlightenment premises, or rather, the danger of losing the subtleties of certain debates, the majority of which are still going on today. Rather than dismissing certain consequences of Enlightenment thinking as a failure of the whole project, he draws attention to the solidarity between positive and negative effects, as pointed out by thinkers such as Rousseau. As Todorov writes, we need to ‘re-establish Enlightenment thinking in a way that preserves the past heritage while subjecting it to a critical examination, lucidly assessing it in light of its wanted and unwanted consequences’.
A seemingly complete contrast to this argument is presented by Bruno Latour in his search for an alternative to critique. ‘Why do we need an alternative?’ one might ask. In his ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ he contrasts critique, which, to him, constitutes a barbaric, hurtful method aimed at the destruction of a ‘veil’, with ‘composition’, which represents a mending, caring approach and is ‘all about immanence’ rather than a world beyond. This statement may come as a shock to people who believe in the constructiveness of a lot of critical thinking. In fact, the manifesto’s lament that ‘there are enough ruins’ produced by critique has led to the joke that if Latour had been part of the Matrix trilogy, he would have taken the blue pill – or would be seen forcing others to take it (this take on Latour actually made me read Joshua Clover’s BFI series contribution on The Matrix – can recommend the comparison). Latour, however, insists that he is not trying to maintain an illusion, but that everyone else is: by insisting on a separation of society and ‘nature’. How is this an illusion? Here, the definition of the Enlightenment becomes a central element to Latour’s argument. According to his definition of it, the Enlightenment represents a consensus on the construction of a certain reality in which entities which belong to society (= humans) are allowed to speak, whereas entities which remain outside society – classified as ‘nature’ – are not. Through their position outside of society, anything other-than-human is made subject to domination by humans: human scientists not only speak for these entities, but also present their interpretations of them as ‘facts’. Against this division, Latour offers a vision of a world where the social is also made up of formerly natural entitities who contribute to the production of it – and ‘matters of concern’ – in many, often invisible, ways.
This new image of the world is not without its discontents and its discussion would exceed the purpose of this post (a useful read in this context is Graham Harman‘s ‘Prince of Networks’). A worry that has been expressed by Latour himself in ‘Why has critique run out of steam?’ is that his argument, that ‘facts’ or anything else are constructed, has been taken up by anyone from climate change deniers to students who do not want to engage with critical theory. Experiencing a sort of vertigo that the ‘sure ground’ has been taken away by the ‘worst possible fellows’, Latour tries to work against this (mis)appropriation (especially regarding the debate around scientific issues), by, as he admits himself, more or less performing the very method of critique he is uncomfortable with. Stating that ‘the question was never to get away from facts but closer to them’ he blames the misfiring of his proposal on the lack of criticality within criticality: that critical thinking does not recognise how it is constructed itself. The remedy he proposes appears to be a breaking with the destructive Enlightenment tradition and to ‘look forward’ and reconstruct a better world – as a ‘commons’ of humans and ‘non-humans’.
In addition, Latour believes that the ‘grand systems’ produced by Enlightenment-influenced thinking prevent us from being able to challenge them. Instead, they need to be broken down into relations between (human and nonhuman) actors, so that we can gain a better sense of how to dismantle potentially unhelpful systems. As he writes in ‘We have never been modern’ (thanks to Gail Davies for the quote):
‘Take some small business owner hesitatingly going after a few shares, some conqueror trembling with fever, some poor scientist tinkering in his lab, a lonely engineer piecing together a few more or less favourable relations of force, some stuttering and fearful politicians; turn the critics loose on them, and what do you get? Capitalism, imperialism, science, technology, and domination. In the first scenario, the actors were trembling; in the second they are not. The actors in the first scenario could be defeated; in the second they no longer can. In the first scenario, the actors were still quite close to the modest work of fragile and modifiable mediations; now they are purified, and they are all equally formidable’.
Another author who writes against the ‘Misadventures of Critical Thinking’ is Jacques Rancière. Like Latour, his ‘critique of critique’ is directed more against ‘melancholic’ writers such as Baudrillard, but is expressed in very different ways. For instance, in contrast to Latour, Rancière evokes the relation between critique and Enlightenment in exactly the opposite way. To Rancière, ‘critical procedures were supposed to be means of arousing awareness and energies for a process of emancipation’. In ‘Hatred of Democracy’, he jokingly sums up the majority of positions arguing against the Enlightenment or Modernism as ‘the Moderns cut off the heads of kings so they could fill up their shopping trolleys at leisure’. To him, the picture that is thus painted and is dangerous in at least two ways: 1) because nothing can apparently be done against both manipulation and the pleasure drive and 2) because the impotence it shows is portrayed as being caused by the failure of critique, thus paving the way for joyful embracings of non- (or post?) criticality. For Rancière, the image of the failure of critique also endangers the struggle for more democracy as a critical project.
Jacques Rancière at UBC
This connection – and rethinking of possibility and political agency – is ever more pertinent today. To come back to Todorov’s view of the Enlightenment, we are dealing with misappropriations or distortions of the Enlightenment ideas. According to him, a key aim of the movement was to ‘reduc[e] the distance between action and its end purpose’, i.e. not to work towards reward of afterlife, but to work for the benefit of humanity on Earth. Todorov critiques that, at this moment in time, we have arrived at the opposite: the ends have become abandoned over sacralised means such as capital. We would act true to the Enlightenment spirit, Todorov proposes, if we ask ourselves, whether we must accept this state. This is exactly the kind of debate that is taking place in all the occupied sites all over the world at the moment. As Open University geographer Doreen Massey, speaking at the Tent University of the London Stock Exchange occupation, put it: so much of what people fought for in the 60s – flexibility, flow, lack of boundaries – has been misappropriated by neo-liberalism. Instead of serving people and their struggle for more equality, it has led to more inequality and the commodification of people themselves e.g. by emphasising their need to be available wherever and whenever, if they want to remain part of the system. Again, Doreen Massey did not merely critique, but offer how we can participate in constructing alternatives: by continuing to look for alternative imaginations to the dominant narrative that is forced upon us (e.g. listeners were pointing to Iceland as a model) and by voicing and sharing them (‘We need an ideological crisis, not just an economic one.’). Thus, against the background of the many Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks in the St Paul’s encampment and in the videos from the world-wide occupations, I would like to conclude that, if critique gains critical mass, one does not have to resort to gunpowder to blow things up.
I have just returned from the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers which took place in Seattle this year. I really enjoyed both the conference and the city (who would have thought that Seattle had so much sun to offer, especially, as it was still snowing in much of the surrounding area!). Due to the weather, I did not manage to experience a volcano up close – and neither did I manage to spot any grey whales – but then, both downtown Seattle and the AAG had other interesting experiences to offer.
Questionnaire from ‘Geographer-artists’ session
I first found it difficult to capture the spirit of the AAG (the human geography side, that is). Something felt quite different from the last time I went. Reading Antonio Negri’s ‘Art & Multitude’ in between sessions (thanks, Gail, for recommending it!) helped me to get closer to what I was perceiving. In ‘Art & Multitude’, Negri uses the term ‘thinkability’, which strongly seemed to resonate within many of the sessions I witnessed or heard other attendees talk about. One could argue that, of course, researchers are all the time working to expand our capacity to think – or think around – certain problems. However, this time, the difference appeared to be a genuine sense that recent physical and political changes had put into question established ways of thinking so strongly that this needed to be raised across a number of subjects. Resulting debates were often very passionate.
Examples are discussions of how to think the immensity of climate change and biodiversity loss or how to rethink the current political landscape and systems. These questions were not only tackled in paper sessions and panels, but also by the lectures. For instance, Nigel Thrift’s presentation, ‘The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing An Untoward Land’, clearly reflected his struggle to encounter recent economic and cultural changes on more than just analytical grounds. What new ways are there to pursue? Similar concerns were addressed by CUNY’s Neil Smith, who, in his lecture on ideology gave the example of the ‘Arab Spring’ and how it achieved an opening of the future for the whole world and an opening to imagine different futures – a sentiment which, he stated, had not been there in the past few decades. Asking questions such as ‘where do ideas come from?’ Smith reminded the audience to think about everyone’s potential agency in such creative processes.
The role of sensory experience as part of the process of re-imagining new kinds of politics seemed to be a particularly prominent theme. An author who was frequently cited in this relation was Jacques Rancière and his linking of perception and politics. Kanishka Goonewardena of the University of Toronto, for instance, used Rancière’s work to point out the neglected ‘centrality of the senses and the human body’ in Marxist thought. One of his first quotes was Rancière’s notion that ‘politics revolves around who has the ability to see’. Geraldine Pratt also drew on Rancière’s notion of ‘play at politics’. Talking about the difficulties in creating engagement and exchange around Filipino temporary workers in Canada, Pratt described her involvement in a ‘testimonial theatre’ play that sought to ‘redistribute the senses’, as she put it, ‘as to reconfigure what can be seen, heard, sensed and thought’ and to stimulate a wider debate. An experiment in shifting boundaries between victims, actors and audiences, her presentation raised the question for many what different courses of action are possible – for research subjects, researchers, different kinds of stakeholders in an issue – which had not been thought possible before. It was a call for examining our common ‘capacity to loosen our established patterns of thought’.
Pratt was not the only one to call for an experimentation with the world, especially the ‘world as we no longer know it’. In this context, a number of references were made to the Situationist movement, particularly in relation to recent ‘urban interventions by groups such as ‘Space Hijackers’. There were more or less sophisticated calls for new practices, new languages, new public geographies. Much of it reminded me of Negri’s plea for the ‘construction of a new language’, for experimenting and constructing, for a ‘creative materialism’, particularly the notion of creating and generating as ‘acts of resistance’. However, I was rather shocked how little critical engagement some of the presenters showed in engaging with creatively building new modes of communicating and living. I found myself spending half of my time at the conference talking about the dangers of uncritical engagement with art practice, sensation and exploration (the other half, I talked about Bakhtin’s negotiation of the ‘inhuman’, e.g. as part of a panel discussing Nigel Clark’s book ‘Inhuman Nature’). Particularly dangers which theorists in both the humanities and the social sciences have pointed out for decades, such as the parallels between communist and fascist aesthetics, or the potentially problematic romanticisation of certain forms exploration, were dismissed by some of the discussants. While I longed for an abandoning of much of the old that resurfacing in such discussions and towards truly new lines of thought (as much as this is possible), I also longed for a re-engagement with some of the ‘old’ that takes the demand for creating something new seriously.
Many of these impressions and thoughts were still with me during my post-AAG journey, which took me, via Ann Arbor, to Detroit. The felt scale of desertion of Detroit as well as the various narratives that are spun about a potential revival of the city truly seemed to illustrate what it means to reach the limits of ‘thinkability’. Visiting a few different downtown neighbourhoods and suburbs with members of the ‘Detroit Unreal Estate Agency’, I discovered some examples of how different groups of people engaged with the hard-to-imagine future of the city, be it citizens struggling to keep a vital and visionary school open, journalists trying to relay the developments or artists experimenting with re-shaping the city’s current trajectory. Unsurprisingly, it has been especially the artists that have been the focus of the news on Detroit. Indeed, signs of artistic activity can be spotted all over downtown, although in some cases it is not quite clear whether a particular aesthetic intervention was done by an artist or an angry non-artist resident (but then, isn’t everyone potentially an artist?). A question that was posed during the visit was: how many artists do you need to create an impact on the city? The city’s issues seemed so monstrous that, even if several hundred artists or architects took to Detroit, their efforts might just ‘go under’ in the sheer scale of things. In turn, this provoked the question: what is thinkable, what is do-able?
I would like to end this post with a passage from an article in Frieze magazine (no. 137) called ‘Good Intentions’, which I happened to come across at one of the University of Michigan’s libraries. It addresses the question whether art can effect political and social change:
‘All of this begs the question: when does dialogue become counter-productive? Are artists really able to levitate above the ugly stuff of politics and effect change? Should there be special artists’ visas? And with them would be open the floodgates of reconciliation? When does the so-called specialist status clause threaten to normalise the status quo, create a safe space from which to critique that, in the end, possibly stands to change nothing? When art provides the cover of a safe space from which one can make vague political statements about dialogue and community – when it allows for representations of violence in places of real and present violence – could it be time to withdraw altogether?’
Negar Azimi’s subsequent call (paraphrasing artist Tania Bruguera) for an art of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’, an art that ‘stems from knowing that we don’t actually have all the answers’, expresses to me the current climate of hope for the capacity to re-think ways of human dwelling and existence on this planet. For me, the same imperative remains that was highlighted by Geraldine Pratt: most of all we need to keep the conversation – our multiple conversations – going.
Related event: Mireille Roddier, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College, will be presenting on the Detroit ‘Unreal Estate’ at the third ‘Creative City Limits’ workshop at UCL on 1 June 2011 (11am-6pm). For further information, please see www.creativecitylimits.org