Tuesday, November 06, 2007

From Slavoj Zizek: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (Commonplace Book)

I normally hate theory but cannot help but come back, again and again, to psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Zizek. Theory bothers me because it too often ignores, or sets the stage for ignoring, questions of aesthetic value. Slavoj Zizek does that to some degree, but he rises above it because he is the only theorist I know who can claim aesthetic value of his own -- he is entertaining. You could argue some of the French philosophers are writing a kind of prose poetry -- and I can see that to some extent in some places -- but I never find them anywhere as entertaining as Zizek. For your enjoyment today -- two brief clips from a television show I saw in the UK -- The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. Slavoj Zizek is in many ways big hero of mine because he is able to make stuff like this, and make it fun.


Geoff Klock said...

If you suscribe to my RSS feed you will have seen that I accidently hit the "publish" button at a bad moment when I was working on this -- you will have gotten an empty post titled "Slavoj Zizek: The Pervert." Yikes.

scott s said...

I feel the opposite-- theory helps me see aesthetic value in something I would otherwise blow off. Psychoanalysis is the worst for subverting "questions of aesthetic value," but Zizek is so fun because his nut job ideas create new categories of enjoyment. The Psycho house/ Freud connection is funny and interesting and complementary of Hitchcock's aesthetic. I get so caught up in the screenplay or film technique that I forget that there's even more to like about movies... theory makes this possible

Geoff Klock said...

I agree that that can happen sometimes, but more often the clever theory is being illustrated by a really bad movie. Do this often enough and you start thinking horrible movies are great because it is possible to do an interesting psychoanalytic reading of it. As I have said again and again on this blog -- it does not matter if your story has intersting ideas if it is badly told. If all you have is interesting ideas, write an essay or something.

The above paragraph is not intended to sound at all harsh. I appreciate your comment in part because it allows me to bring out one of the points that is most important (and about which I can be over passionate).

scott s said...

Sure, I totally agree with you. Good concept/bad story is why I don't buy all those random Warren Ellis comics.

I think clever readings of bad art have its place. It gave us Kill Bill, right?

Geoff Klock said...

"Good concept/bad story is why I don't buy all those random Warren Ellis comics." HA

"I think clever readings of bad art have its place. It gave us Kill Bill, right?"

But there you are using "clever reading" as a metaphor for what Tarantino is doing -- again, like Slavoj Zizek and unlike Foucault, Tarantino is doing something intrinsically fun.

I don't know why I feel the need to write these things -- I see we agree with each other.

scott s said...

Right, which is to say: don't hate theory. Hate bad, masturbatory, boring theory. We agree. Derrida can be really incisive and exciting.... or full of shit and needlessly complex. The same goes for Harold Bloom. It's all about picking and choosing, which is why Rorty is so great.

I bet "hyper-theory disorder" Neil Shyminsky has an opinion

neilshyminsky said...

Heh. Thanks Scott - as a matter of fact, i do. I'll try not to blather on, though. (Update upon finishing this post: I failed, and I do blather on. I think it's good stuff, though.)

Geoff wrote: like Slavoj Zizek and unlike Foucault, Tarantino is doing something intrinsically fun

I have two immediate questions:

1. Why is Foucault not fun, exactly? (And i ask this as someone who absolutely loves reading Foucault, in part because it's so difficult to parse the ingenuous from the disingenuous in his writing, to recognize when Foucault is being sincere or ironic, and whether he is undermining his authority or authority as such. Foucault is writing about writing even when he is ostensibly writing about something else - and picking at this tension is utterly delightful.)

2. What does "intrinsically fun" mean? This seems like a rather haphazard way of cloaking a theoretical investment in very particular notions of 'fun' that are not actually 'intrinsic' but rather, as i suggest, philosophically motivated.

I do agree, though, that considerations of narrative and execution are too often ignored in certain theoretical work. In some cases, though, the failure or success of the story speaks to its theoretical under-pinnings: it's appropriate that Morrison's New X-Men falls apart because he's writing from a position of critique that can't help but recenter its target and, in so doing, become complicit in its reproduction.

Likewise, The Incredibles seems to succeed despite the disturbing implications of its self-congratulatory take on the obviousness of specialness/greatness, perhaps because what we privilege as aesthetically desirable has some relation to or investment in those same conservative (or regressive?) politics. (There is, after all, something conservative in any story that asserts a certain obviousness about its hero and villain roles, especially when there is good reason to find the villain's evil scheme more progressive than the hero's nostalgia.)

So what i'm saying is that i certainly think it's necessary to evaluate the aesthetic success of the text, and that this success is inseparable from the more obviously theoretical aspects of the text. (This is obviously because i think they're different ways of conceiving of exactly the same problematic. I think of aesthetics in terms of a success or failure in relation to variable artistic standards that are themselves informed by theory, and i entirely avoid trascendental language when i'm being in any way critical.)

All this said, i think that we can account for ignoring either the aesthetics of the cultural studies aspect of a work, depending on our stated goal. (And assuming that we account for what we've elided when called to do so.) In my latest blog, i write about film adaptations that i haven't seen about a book that i haven't read. And i'm not entirely sure that it matters - the fact that they have been produced is, i think, enough to lend credibility to the theoretical work in which i implicate them. (Though it helps that the reviews i've seen of the dramatic film have been mostly middling-to-poor - which is suggestive of a film that has been rushed or produced haphazardly - it would hardly escape the political implications that i draw out if it were a masterpiece. But it certainly might complicate them.)

And lastly, (wow, i'm really going on, aren't i?) though i'm no huge fan of Zizek, (and this has more to do with not needing to read him than purposely avoiding him) i'm under the impression that he's lost a certain amount of status and credibility over the last decade. It's my understanding that many feel his work has become increasingly superficial and uncritical - that it is entertaining writing but bad theory. The exact reverse of what you decry, actually, Geoff. :)

Geoff Klock said...

Neil. It is amazing we are getting into this discussion THE SAME DAY that I archived the first time we did this in the first of the Best of the Blog: Comment Threads.

Neil. I will have to be brief.

"it's so difficult to parse the ingenuous from the disingenuous in his writing, to recognize when Foucault is being sincere or ironic, and whether he is undermining his authority or authority as such"

this is obviously some obscure definition of "fun" of which I was previously unaware. :)

I guess what I should have said when I wrote "intrinsically fun" was "intentionally fun," which Zizek is and Foucault is not, I think. You are right about the philosophical motivation behind my definition, but we did this conversation already -- see the Style v Substance link. MAN AM I GLAD I MADE THOSE LINKS!

Having a necessarily limed set of interest I am going to return again and again to the same topics, but this will be a really useful shorthand thing.

You are great NeilShyminsky. You keep me on my toes.

neilshyminsky said...

Ah! But Foucault is intentionally fun. Try reading The History of Sexuality (again?) and note that Foucault will do such things as assert that historians of sexuality have erred by attempting to catalogue 'turning points' or seminal moments - change, he says, is incremental and ambivalent. And then, 5 pages later, he will proceed to describe the exact day, place, and time of the turning point in which some new understanding of sex was achieved. It is very intentional and it is very funny.

As for the Style v. Substance discussion - I must have forgotten about it, because I don't think that I ever saw your response! Without writing to excess again, though, I think that you're absolutely wrong. :) As Patrick says, I am absolutely dismissive of metaphysics or any sort appeal to transcendence. (Patrick says he is mildly offended by my dismissal or metaphysics, whereas I am mildly offended by the invocation of metaphysics - so I figure that we're even on that count.)

sara writes at one point in the thread that "there can be concept-based art...and there can be simply art", and I am left wondering how one can even make sense of art without recourse to concepts - that is, the symbolic. The symbolic order itself is never neutral or innocent, so why would we ever believe that it's constituent parts aren't implicated?

Geoff Klock said...

The intentionally fun Foucault you describe, if you are right in describing him that way, is being fun for a very narrow audience of which I am not a member.

You wrote: "The symbolic order itself is never neutral or innocent, so why would we ever believe that it's constituent parts aren't implicated."

Yeah, fine, it would just be stupid of me to try to argue against that, cause it is just TRUE. But I still don't care. It's like the Woody Allen joke at the end of Annie Hall to explain what love is: Guy goes to a psychiatrist and says "my brother thinks he is a chicken, he goes around clucking and flapping his arms like wings and eating feed off of the floor." And the doctor says "Well you should bring him in to me and I will cure him" and the guy says "I would but we need the eggs."

I need the eggs Neil.

neilshyminsky said...

Foucault's method can be aggravating - but rewarding - precisely because he doesn't allow fun to come without some pain. It's at once a philosophy and a methodology for the examination of philosophy, rather than simply a philosophy. We could, of course, argue that there's no difference between those two positions - but Foucault's methodology can be turned on itself, (as Foucault does, in fact - he implicates his own work within an epistemological era obsessed with categorization and classification, if only by virtue of the fact that he has named and analyzed it as such) where the latter is confident in the self-evidence of its own truths.

So I have no eggs to offer - I don't like these eggs and I suppose that I don't need them. ;) The fundamental weakness with someone like Foucault - or with me - is that the egg isn't there and, if it is and we can't see it, can't be recovered anyway. (We can only ever understand it in a degraded sense through our relationship to the symbolic order, so why bother?)

But the alternative would appear to be the positing of an egg that is transcendental and, to some degree, beyond critique. (The art that is art rather than art that is politics.) And, more troubling for me, the suggestion that we can somehow step outside the symbolic - or that we can access some neutral realm of the symbolic - in order to grasp for it. It sounds entirely too religious for my liking, y'know?

But now all this talk about eggs is making me hungry... :)

Geoff Klock said...

You wrote: "Foucault's method can be aggravating - but rewarding - precisely because he doesn't allow fun to come without some pain."

I said that if Foucault was fun he was fun for a narrow audience. Reading that sentence I now remember the name of that audience -- masochists.

So it all boils down to two bad options, a literal dilemma: no eggs, or the illusion (or perhaps more accurately delusion) of eggs. Is there a third way? I will keep thinking about it.

We should totally co-wrote an article called "The Delusion of Eggs."

This totally off topic now, but I heard a story about a guy who wrote a thesis that was a class conscious reading of the Fairie Queen -- the only reason he wrote it was because he liked his title: "Marx and Spencer." Did I already share that story. I have found that, nearing 500 posts, I am starting to repeat myself to a disturbing degree.

neilshyminsky said...

Heh. I certainly do like a certain masochism with my theory. Foucault needs to be opaque because his theory demands it - here's a guy that's writing about the disciplinary character of discursive authority from the problematic position of academic, textual authority. If he tells us precisely what he means, then he simply enacts what he's critiquing. Ironically, in undercutting himself and appearing disingenuous he can provide some model for a sincere opposition to authority. (Never totally outside of authority, mind you, but working violently from its margins.)

I don't necessarily see why the two options you list are both bad, though: If there are no eggs but we concede that their illusion is necessary - we need to believe that human rights are essential, for example, even (especially?) if there is no transcendental guarantor of human rights - then we simply have to work that much harder to justify ourselves. I tend to think that eggs make us sloppy critics - we rely on them as obviousness, and that doesn't strike me as a particularly secure position from which to work.

Cute title. It would work better if he didn't have to misspell 'Spenser', though. Or is that part of the joke and I'm missing it?

Geoff Klock said...

No, Neil, I just mis-spelled "Spenser"

neilshyminsky said...

Oh, okay. Actually, I think I'm wrong about it 'working better' with an "s" - I think that I would've completely missed the joke.