Archive for December, 2012

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity
Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought
Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett, Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology
Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property
James C. Scott, “Scott’s Law of Anarchist Calisthenics,” Powision #11

One way to proceed with reading five texts at once is to read the Table of Contents and conclusion of each book first, taking notes. Think of any connections that bring the texts together or separate them, but otherwise maintain a sense of chaos — that you don’t know why you are reading five texts at once and you cannot know what will come of this exercise. Then begin selecting chapters of each as suits your fancy, taking notes.

Perhaps some new insights emerge by combining books that are not obviously on the same topics. Perhaps your reading structures your thinking in ways you are not aware of, ways that will only emerge in conversations with friends and colleagues in the near future.

Selecting which five books to read might just be a consequence of chance and keyword search, or it might emerge as a consequence of beginning with one book and then branching off to others that are cited or otherwise relevant. Who knows? The point is to have fun with it. Listen to some music while you’re in the thick of it; keep the television on silent playing an old movie; keep the window open so you can see outside. Have a pot of coffee.

This is exploratory research. You aren’t putting together an academic essay. You’re just broadening your knowledge and developing your own subjective inheritance.

And perhaps most importantly: do it all in one day. Don’t draw it out over a week. Take fourteen hours and leave it at that. You won’t finish all five books. If one or two of them are really important to you, read them after you get some rest.

Politicians say they are not in charge, that they at most regulate the framework for the market. Scientific experts say they merely create technological opportunities: they don’t decide how they are implemented. Businesses say they are simply responding to consumer demand. Society has become a laboratory with nobody responsible for the outcome of the experiment. — Ulrich Beck

The usefulness of Beck’s language depends upon who is reading the text. Is the very act of implying the possibility of taking responsibility for “the social experiment” somehow absurd, naive, utopian, subversive, socialist, elitist, populist, proto-fascist, neo-colonialist, totalizing, and every other possible attribution worthy of credulity and loathing?

The meanings of responsibility are difficult to sustain even from sentence to sentence; they are transformable ( a la Derrida, depending upon the scope of what is considered a plausible sphere of action. For example, I may discuss altering my own behaviors in light of a description of the world and consider this sufficient for discharging self-imposed obligations constructed during the present occasion of writing; or I may consider this insufficient due to the complexity of the world outside the text and the self-awareness of my own naivete.

This morning I ventured into the cool, crisp air and continuous sunlight of Phoenix, Arizona to read an interview with Ulrich Beck in Nicholas Gane’s 2004 book The Future of Social Theory, and to ask just this question: what does the world look like from where I sit? Obviously, this is a shifting reference point, one that is constituted momentarily, subject to moods, vulnerable to inputs/unexamined attitudes/flaws of all sorts.

I was struck by Beck’s mention of the “globalization of emotions” through media. This is a feature of cosmopolitan identity:

“One constructs a model of one’s own identity by dipping freely into the Lego set of globally available identities and building a progressively inclusive self-image. The result is a patchwork, quasi-cosmopolitan, but simultaneously provincial, identity whose central characteristic is its rejection of traditional relations of responsibility.” (5)

Is the sense of responsibility for the outcome of the social experiment thus exposed as a merely mythic tool for constructing a cosmopolitan identity? I think so. “Taking responsibility” is an experience that seems disconnected from an all-important expectation that in taking responsibility one deserves the trust of others.

Perhaps the reason why Ulrich Beck speaks as a sociologist, about gathering data and building models of reflexive modernity, is that this critical relationship between taking responsibility and trustworthiness — legitimacy and reliability issues — extends far beyond (and before) the individual to the social/ecological process of subjectivation as such. How do we promote conditions in which individuals will formulate their own cosmopolitan identities more effectively? How can we assist in reconstituting the techniques individuals use to decide who to emulate, who to model, who to follow, whose plan is worthy of adoption, whose economic and social policies are most likely to solve complex problems, who to vote for, et cetera? Taking responsibility for the outcome of the social experiment in this sense entails describing and explaining emergent forms of identity, constantly revising “the Lego set of globally available identities” that circulates through network culture.

I don’t have a model or system for deciding how to relate to technoscience, military power, and politics, social movements, and the contemporary. I swim idiosyncratically through network culture, but I find myself wondering: Is my growth as a cosmopolitan subject somehow stunted due to the cognitive and emotional habits I demonstrate in this particular suburban milieu in Phoenix?

This is the situation in which the desire to migrate to another country arises.

Ulrich Beck suggests that I do not have to travel to another country to experience alternative experiences of modernity, other cultures, other modes of interaction between domestic and foreign — other realizations and formulations of responsibility. I could simply alter my relationship to the place where I find myself. My desire to migrate to another country is actually — perhaps — a symptom of what Ulrich Beck considers a nationalistic fallacy. In fact, traveling to a distant land geographically for a shift in perspective may not be necessary.

However, there is something to be said for immersion. To provide but one example, consider the call from Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) against all forms of Israeli culture, which is starting to pick up steam. The movement has 3 main aims:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Now, while I have empathy for Palestine, it seems strange that anyone demonstrating solidarity with the BDS movement is implicitly committing to a cultural boycott until these demands are fully accomplished. What would I do, for example, if I were a famous musician headlining the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel this coming January, asked to cancel my gig in solidarity with the BDS movement? My spiritual condition is somewhere between empathy and solidarity. But I cannot go all the way to solidarity because of my cognitive reservations with UN Resolution 194, and a deep consequentalist uncertainty related to the possible outcomes of a successful boycott.

In response to this, Palestinian activists say there is no substitute for traveling to Israel/Palestine and seeing for oneself. The cognitive apparatus one constructs through network culture, on this view, is insufficient for motivating one to do the right thing. This is a serious problem for theorists of network culture and liquid modernity to deal with. Do new forms of digital culture need to be constructed — information aesthetics, digital humanities, cloud filmmaking, etc — that can visually motivate people to change behaviors despite the fact that users have detailed and sober knowledge of the massive complexity of social and ecological problems, and thus are aware of the naivete and hypocrisy of an incomplete, insufficient, and perhaps unnecessary call for behavior change?

There are risks involved in deciding what to do, what to take responsibility for. One’s life is but one venue in which responsibility for the outcome of the open-systems socio-ecological reality experiment plays out. Assessing my situation gets dizzily complex the more I sit in the crisp Phoenix sunlight. It’s time for a breather.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
County Kildare
The World
The Universe

—You are a great stranger now.
—Yes. I was born to be a monk.
—I am afraid you are a heretic.
—Are you much afraid?

from James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


There are thirty-one minutes left in the film, and I cannot bear to watch. Instead, I scroll through the remainder, seeing still image sequences that allow me to construct the story’s ending in abstract. I am afraid of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

What am I afraid of? I feel that I am being shown the truth about human/nature, and I long for a more childish ending.I feel viscerally that my own sense of mythical purity is in danger. I am protective of my capacity to decide whether or not to watch the ending. The film sent me signals that seemed toxic to my own self-management. The ur-spring of my conventional decency is threatened by some demigodish light or filmic honesty. I can only proceed in small doses.

I finish the film only by controlling the pause button. What a Beautiful Soul I am! …[sigh]

In the beginning of Antichrist, opera and slow motion caress a fragile audience. Because the audience doesn’t know how fragile (and ignorant) it will be shown to be, how intensely the film might penetrate our distant/dichotomous psyches, Von Trier takes care in the Prologue to establish an aesthetic and ethical relationship with audiences. The Prologue is shot in black and white, impeccably lit; but in hindsight, the scene is also a critique of the gentleness and childish myth-making role of consumerist cinema. Von Trier’s ironical palette in the Prologue is not without intense reverence and genuine appreciation — after all, he dedicates the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom black and white cinema was a gold standard. Rather, Von Trier utilizes high symbols of film culture — opera and black and white cinematography —  as a technique for managing expectations of an ethico-aesthetic relationship between director and audience.

Von Trier goads the audience deeper and deeper into his portal, with utmost consideration for our nerves. In the hospital scene, however, the persistent camera zooms in on the murky turbulence of water inside a vase — a key moment. The flowers in the vase have been ripped from their place of belonging. However, as the camera zooms further and further, beyond the boundary of the glass vase, the audience is taken into the vase. From that vantage, any claim as to where the flowers belong is ambiguous, or undecidable. For me, the transition into the vase functions as a boundary-dissolving  philosophical statement, that the subject of this film is the hybrid realm of what I will call “human/nature.”

In this hybrid realm, boundaries separating diegetic world from actual world are ambiguous and permeable, as are boundaries separating fantasy from fact, power from submission, and human behavior from animal and ecosystem dynamics.

The grief process explored in Antichrist can only be adequately described through a systems analytic. There are hormonal aspects that seem gender specific, molecular aspects (pharmaceutical drugs), linguistic instruments (psychoanalysis), “oeconomical” contexts (hospital, home, cabin), and a deep ecological order that connects the psyche of the characters to animals, plants, and terrain. The question of whether or not the animals, plants, and terrain are actual or fantastic is part of an underdetermined film ontology.

As the film progresses, the increasing importance of the motif of gynocide in the Inquisition — where thousands of women were tortured and put to death for exemplifying the allegedly defiling characteristics of women — opens up questions about autuerian intent. What is Von Trier doing allowing this woman to become possessed? But wait, what kind of paternalistic view of film asks such a question? Like the torturous iconography adorning the cabin attic walls, the destruction of souls depicted in this cinematic world provokes a response from its victims and perpetrators alike. On this viewing, Von Trier shares in a powerful, on-going struggle among audiences and characters in the history of film. The auteur theory meets a systems analytic. Critical questions of the writer/director’s capacity for self-determination and portrayal of truth ensue: is Von Trier a tyrant? A misanthrope? A curmudgeon? Or is he taking great compassionate care to show us what deep shit we are in, as Zizek would say? On the latter reading, the auteur is a philosopher operating beyond good and evil, showing us some major problem or major task that must be taken seriously.

Antichrist is full of  horror and grief shared differentially among men and women. Here, in the midst of complex passion, human/nature as the Garden of Eden is nothing more than a children’s story that foregrounds such unspeakable cruelty, such a terrible fate! Who can deny that the proposition “Nature is Satan’s Church” seems true in the circumstances of inconsolable grief depicted in Antichrist? However, when Gainsbourgh’s character is possessed by the culminating truth of this proposition, the force of that conviction alters all the systemic relationships connecting bodies, ecosystems, and cosmic forces. Suddenly the distraught woman, once dominated by the disciplines of pharmaceuticals and psychoanalysis, begins negotiating with a deeper symbolic order, one that yields phenomena indistinguishable from demonic possession and satanic power over nature. Animals from the woods lay at her feet; she mutilates the body of her analyst; in a flashback the camera portrays her willfully choosing the death of her child.

These are powers that are conventionally kept in check by rationality and conventional institutions of moral order or civilized conduct. What Antichrist depicts is the unleashing of these primordial historical forces at the extremes of the normal, i.e. in conditions of extreme grief over the accidental death of a child.

These are deep, volatile issues to be depicting on film, to say the least. It is no wonder that Von Trier provokes such strong reactions from audiences!

Despite the trust I have as a viewer, at this point, that my creative mind is fabricating a visceral experience of horror from the un-reality of the film’s diegetic world, I also have an utterly convinced sense of Antichrist as parrhesia.

“For, as we shall see, the commitment involved in parrhesia is linked to a certain social situation, to a difference of status between the speaker and his audience, to the fact that the parrhesiastes says something which is dangerous to himself and thus involves a risk, and so on.” (Michel Foucalt, Discourse and Truth lecture 1, see link above)

Von Trier makes a statement with Antichrist: I myself am of this and that opinion about human/nature; I believe we are uncovering the truth about human/nature. Importantly, the revelation of this truth places everyone at risk — the director, the characters, the actors, audiences, et cetera. Antichrist seems to assault the present moment with a weighty sense of fearful volatility and uncertain directionality. It seems to speak beyond itself, to a domain of world history whose outcome is not looking good.

“That’s all very touching…if it was a children’s book.” …

But it’s not a children’s book, says Von Trier. I could have made a children’s book version of my opinion, but the only place for that version is in the Prologue. The Prologue appropriates the fearful and mysterious Power of manifestation for an audience of children; but it does so in a transparent style that hints at the fearless speech to follow.  The strategies of film-making and culture-formation devised to edify consumerists are not appropriate for conveying my impressions. I am concerned with the big questions of philosophical history: how can mankind be saved, if such a question can even be asked, given the mysterious complexity of human/nature that continues to elude adequate portrayal in film?

If my view of Von Trier’s attitudes is somewhat accurate, then Antichrist is a prolegomenon framing any utopian strategies for the long-term salvation of human/nature. It is also a very serious discussion of the difficulty of reconciling demands of consumerism in film with the artistic demand to develop new idioms in a more divine/philosophical register.

When the main characters make the following exchange, I view Antichrist as a parrhesiastic documentation of a crisis moment in the philosophy of film.

“Your grief has entered a new phase….Anxiety.”

“Will it get worse?” …


In the context of the religious symbolism that structures much of the film, the only Garden of Eden of any importance to film as a medium is the one that might exist in the future once these tensions between consumerism and development of more realistic idioms advances. The grief of the characters is thus also a sublimation of the limited identity of the consumerist audience.  The grief of the characters penetrates the dichotomous separation of audience from auteur — an invitation to appreciate the tension between consumerism and development of new idioms in film. In the meantime of this grieving process there is a choice for the auteur/ensemble and audiences between stories for children and divinely volatile stories that speak meaningfully to humans who pretend to be consumerist demigods.

It is the very urgency of the historical situation of mankind that prompts Von Trier to point out our fragility. If audiences cannot watch Antichrist and cope with its content, is there any indication that global citizens have the capacity to witness history and improve its outcome through collective action? What language of images could even begin to coalesce a new cultural imagination that strengthens and reconstitutes the Darwinian consciousness? While cinema has often been treated as a site of political activism, I find Von Trier’s approach to be something like a prolegomenon to any such role for cinema given the true ferocity, atrocity, and fragility of human/nature.

I could not watch the last thirty-one minutes of Lars Von Trier’s devastating diegetic world. Not at first. I took it in small doses, a few minutes at a time. I suppose the ending of Von Trier’s film seemed toxic to my system when viewed in real-time. It is precisely this perceived toxicity that made me appreciate the Prologue, with its slow motion and black and white cinematography. I did, however, finish the film. Two thumbs up.