Žižek and the dawning light not quite dawning; or, a little self-knowledge is a dangerous – but unlikely – thing

Admit it. For the longest time you’ve suspected there’s a reason these two men have never been photographed together.

 

Ben Stiller, of all people, was the first to draw attention to the rhetorical strategy that the professional contrarian and incessant Lacanian shares with the Sphinx. But since it pissed Stiller off so much, we were so busy relishing his impotent fury that we failed to think through the implications – that beneath the Sphinx’s masks must lurk not the excellent Wes Studi but a certain Slovenian philosopher.

Over the last decade, fractures have appeared in Žižek’s work that suggest even he is beginning to suspect himself of being one of the Mystery Men. For example, 116 pages into Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador 2008) Žižek writes:

It is, however, all too easy to score points in this debate using witty reversals which can go on indefinitely.

However, the remainder of the book and many of his subsequent pronouncements  merely indicate the depths of his denial.

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Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

A70-9170Last week I was invited to introduce a screening of Contact – a film I had seen twice in twenty years and then saw twice in the same week – as part of this series at Bristol Cathedral. (The last film I saw there was The Medusa Touch (1978), which was partly filmed in the cathedral. They sat us in rows where, in the film, the ceiling collapses on people sat in rows.)  This did not seem quite the right place to detail the film’s profound intellectual dishonesty, so this, more or less, is what I said:

When we think of science fiction, if we strip away all the space battles, alien monsters and big explosions, it might seem that we would be left with a genre that is profoundly secular and materialist, free from any concern with the supernatural or the spiritual. But sf is also part of our wider culture; it plays off it and builds on it in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2006) argues that one of the sources – or perhaps an early manifesation – of sf is a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debate, primarily Catholic but also taken up by Protestants, on the plurality of worlds. Could there be other worlds inhabited by other beings like us? Were they fallen races? Did Christ have to die again for each of them?

As Roberts writes, ‘unsupported by scriptural authority, the very notion of other inhabited worlds flirts with heresy, which lends the topic a dangerous flavour for more than 100 years’ (50). Both Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac wrote fiction in which the Moon is inhabited – but chose not to have these tales publish while they were still alive. Palingenius – real name Pietro Angelo Manzoli – was less careful. As Roberts states, in his ‘speculative cosmology … Zodiacus Vitae (‘Living Zodiac’), originally published in Italy in 1537’, Palingenius pointed out that some people considered every bright star to be a world, and supposes that their inhabitants count our dark planet as the least among all the heavenly bodies. Despite his circumspection in attributing such ideas to others, he was ‘classified as a heretic of the highest class in the Papal Index’ (50).

Leap forward into 20th century sf, and the same sort of questions are explored in CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), books I find hateful – the more mean-spirited they become, the worse the quality of the writing (and thinking). American writers also explore such questions, as in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958), Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998).

In a rather different vein – weirder and more horrific – HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of the 1920s and 1930s create a thoroughly non-supernatural universe the age and immensity of which renders alien species as kinds of mad, diseased gods.

Perhaps more interesting as a backdrop for Carl Sagan’s work is a tradition of atheist but nonetheless religious sf. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is overwhelmed with awe at the unbelievably vast magnitudes – both space and time – of the universe, itself just one cosmos among many, that in the end novel it copes with the sublime by imagining a kind of prime creative energy or force. Stapledon’s his successor in this tradition is of course Arthur C Clarke, especially in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both of which are set in quite rigorously material universes, but in which the possibility of transcendence remains – albeit as an evolutionary experience cast in in quasi-spiritual terms. (Clarke’s 2001 provides Sagan with the notion of hyperspace or wormhole travel as a kind of massive interstellar railway system; in the later stages of the film, John Hurt’s character increasingly resembles Clarke.) Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001 (1968) is much more oblique and ambiguous, skipping exposition in favour of a kind of overwhelming sensory experience – which Robert Zemickis’s Contact (1997) also attempts – as did films such as The Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before it. But all of them lack Kubrick’s cool, misanthropic tone – unsurprising with Zemeckis, who is kind of a Spielberg discovery.

Sagan’s own position seems to lie somewhere between Kubrick’s film and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel. In 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan said that

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

He would describe himself not as an atheist but as an agnostic. In a 1981 interview collected in Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006), he said that

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In his novel Contact (1985), protagonist Ellie Arroway makes the same point when questioned about her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

In one of my favourite passages, as she is driving through the early morning desert, her headlights sweeping ahead of her, she notices rabbits gathering on either side of the road. As each one in turn is hit by the beam of light, it stands up on its hind legs and watches until the light has past. This has obvious resonances with her team of radio astronomers – and by extension, the whole human race – picking up the alien transmission. But but she also explicitly wonders if, in that moment, each rabbit is having a religious experience.

It is one of many moments in the novel where religion, spirituality and awe are probed from various directions.

And it is worth recalling that the novel itself expresses grave concern – omitted from the film – with the growing power of varieties of dispensationalist, prosperity-gospel Protestant fundamentalism, whose influence of American public life – and the practice of science – has only increased since then.

A few words about the film Contact.

In 1979, the production company Casablanca Pictures commissioned Sagan, who had recently won a non-fiction Pulitzer for The Dragons of Eden (1977) to develop a story for them to film. He was the most famous astronomer, possibly the most famous scientist, in America at that time, even though he had yet to make the PBS series Cosmos (1980). By the end of 1980, he and his co-author Anne Druyan had completed a 100 page story treatment. (Druyan was an author, who had also headed part of the NASA project about the golden discs of sound recordings that were attached to Voyager 1 and 2, in which Sagan was also involved, having previously designed the plaque for Pioneer. They married in 1981, his third and final wife, and she co-authored his later non-fiction books. She appears very briefly in the film on an episode of Crossfire debating Rob Lowe, who seems to be in the film for no reason other than to be pretty. Which is kind of his career.)

Casablanca took the project to Warner Bros, where it go stuck in development hell. So Sagan and Druyan wrote the novel (the extent of her involvement remains unclear; he alone is credited as the author). It attracted a $2 million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster, and became a best seller, selling 1.7 million copies in its first two years. This led to renewed interest in the film. Roland Joffe, fresh from Best Director Oscar nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), was initially attached to direct. When he dropped out and it was offered to Robert Zemeckis, who turned it down, then to George Miller, who had just made Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Miller was fired because he was taking so long, and it was offered to Zemeckis again, who this time accepted, having recently wrapped up the Back to the Future trilogy (1989, 1990) and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he’d won best director Oscar. Gump seems to have inspired the use of digitally altered footage of Bill Clinton (after Sidney Poitier turned down the role President) – footage which includes his serendipitous August 7 1996 press conference about the announcement that an Antarctic meteorite – almost certainly from Mars – seemed to contain microfossils of bacteria

Sagan died in December 1996, while Contact was still in production. Released the following June, it is dedicated to him.

Before we start, just a few words of warning. If there are any Matthew McConaughey fans here tonight, be aware you have to wait a full and seventeen and a half minutes for him to get his shirt off.

If it is any consolation, the first several of those endless, utterly unconscionable minutes contain what was in 1997 the longest continuous CGI sequence in film – a record it held for seven years.

It is, I know, no consolation (sotto voce: But such is the nature of the universe.)

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve 2017)

blade-runner-2049-posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is not that no one seems to have beaten me to calling it La La Landroid or calling Ryan Gosling’s beautiful and puppy-eyed state-sanctioned murderer Pigolo Joe  (the film becomes oddly like Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence at times), nor is it the unbelievably audacious line of exposition given to Edward James Olmos, nor is that they saved money making the film by just setting some of it in pompous evil hipster Jared Leto’s own house where he does all that weird shit anyway, nor is it that the digits in the title indicate when the film is set rather than enumerating which of Sir Diddly Squat’s re-edits it is, though that is a relief, nor is it that Hampton Fancher trolls Sir Diddly’s endless tinkering by beginning the sequel with a variant on a sequence he wrote for the original film but that could not be restored because it was never actually filmed, no, the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that as sequels-to-cult-classics-with-dates-in-their-titles go, and despite everything, including its flaws, longueurs, idiocies, nipples and truly devastatingly funny effort to capture the horror of orphan child labour in its full Dickensian aspect, it is not really really embarrassingly bad, it is not Blues Brothers 2000

Mother! (Darren Aronofsky 2017)

mother-posterJust back from finally seeing Mother! at a late screening. For me, it reiterates with startling clarity Aronofksy’s three key themes, all of which are evident throughout, but each of which in turn comes to the fore in the film’s three sections.

Part one: men are dicks, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.
Part two: other people are just unbearably awful, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.
Epilogue: people who consider themselves ‘Artists’ are complete assholes, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.

I must confess to be being baffled at all the fuss and controversy. I can only assume that audiences were upset that, despite its fair share of laugh-out loud moments, Mother! just wasn’t as continuously hilarious as Aronofsky’s earlier comedies, The Fountain (2006) and Noah (2014).

Guess who just spent an hour submitting a couple of reader’s reports and trying to get ‘paid’ for one of them?

A couple of days ago Steve Shaviro posted on FaceBook about the burden of doing peer review as an academic with a clear sense of responsibility and commitment to the development of the field in which he works (and he is brilliant at it – I have called on him sooooooooo many times over the years). Reading articles, book manuscripts, proposals for books and series, marshalling your thoughts, thinking about what is good and what doesn’t work, thinking of potential solutions to problems – and then writing it down carefully enough that the author is not heart-broken by your comments –  is massively time-consuming and mentally exhausting. But is what we do. It is part of our vocation, and sometimes we are even paid some token amount for our labour.

But there are things that make the whole process even more of a burden. Such as:

When the journal sends you a review form to complete but then uses a site like ManuscriptCentral which disaggregates the form into separate boxes into which you have to cut-and-paste the answers rather than just submit the form. It took a couple of times for me to stop being diligent about this. Now I just type a single character in each box and submit the form. Cos fuck ’em – I mean the publishers, not the editors or authors –  they’re already getting my labour for free. Academic publishers will find every way they can not to pay for the labour of academics.

When the publisher will only pay you in so many dollars worth of their books. This means you are selling them your labour at not merely way below minimum wage but also at effectively no cost to them. And you have to spend time scouring their minimally navigable catalogues for a handful of books that are of interest – or would make good gifts, or that you can give to a student or donate to a library or a charity shop – that add up roughly to the amount they are willing to ‘pay’.

I always order the books even if there is nothing I want, cos fuck ’em, they’re not getting my labour without at least the pretence of paying for it. And I always go a little over, cos fuck ’em, I’m certainly not going below what they’ve offered to ‘pay’.

Guess who just spent an hour submitting a couple of reader’s reports and trying to get ‘paid’ for one of them?

And guess who is turning into an angry voice in the local paper?

Typo of the day: passive-egressive

Adjective

  1. denoting or pertaining to a personality type or behaviour marked by the desire not to be there in the room with you, expressed in passive, indirect ways, as through noncooperation:

a passive-egressive academic who ‘just nips to the loo’ during a faculty meeting, leaving all their stuff behind so as to imply they will return imminently, but does not come back for hours until it is all safely over

a passive-egressive acquaintance who you insist on thinking of as friend even though you barely know them and who, when trapped in an unwanted ‘conversation’ by you, slowly nods off

Origin of passive-egressive
Belatedly coined to describe the great wave of self-defenestrations, initially believed accidental and coincidental, that swept away-days back in ought-six.

Also, of course, this guy.

Deleuze & Guattari, Melissa & Joey, fascism & the war machine

MV5BMTYwMzk2NTQ0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg3MDgyMDE@._V1_UY1200_CR178,0,630,1200_AL_In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari reject the conflation of fascism with totalitarianism, arguing instead that ‘There is fascism when a war machine is installed … in every niche’ of daily life.

Having narrowly avoided Big Bang Theory re-runs by having lunch a little later last week, I found myself trying to chew a sandwich while slackjawed in front of re-runs of Sabrina (no longer a teenager or a witch) and some guy called Joey (who thank god wasn’t the one from Friends). The broadcast of this “comedy” is sponsored by the Royal Air Force as part of their recruitment and public relations. Godalone knows who they think they are going to recruit, or impress, this way.

Also, it was broadcast on some variant of Channel 4. That is, I as a tax-payer was paying for it to be on the air on a commercial channel (taxes converted straight into private profit rather than being spent on something useful, like welfare, health or education) as well as paying for it by sitting through the ads – in addition to the emotional and intellectual cost of being opposite it with eyes and ears open. (And mouth. Half-chewed sandwich all down my front.)

D&G were right. The war machine is in every niche.

What would Salem – let alone Stouffer – make of it?

(Still, nice to see Melissa again, and that she still hasn’t bothered – or found reason – to learn to act. Unironically: good for her!)