this, that, and the Other

identity, alterity, and everything in between

Category: Film

an anecdotal review of a film i saw on a weekday once

It begins at a mall with my father and youngest brother. It is interesting where we begin, or rather where we find ourselves beginning to speak. And it’s a mall, across the street from yet another mall, and it’s my father who says it’s a fun movie which I doubt, and it’s my younger brother who tells me I probably won’t like it. We pay. We watch previews and advertisements respectively which, given their ordering, I am assured are discrete things. Welles was obsessed with the camera as an eye. As a view and an ordering of things. Cinema is an answer. Maybe the questions are always asked after the fact, but what you walk into a film asking seems salient at any rate. And when walking in, and yes, paying, paying to be let in, and see The Avengers, one asks questions or presumes them.

The ultimate feeling one gets before the giant vision of a screen of men is an comforting finitude.  There is a woman somewhere in the film who thrives on the insecurities of less heroic men. Some have made mention that this is a radical statement about the subjectivity of being a woman or maybe it’s a radical statement about the movie industry or maybe it’s an ironic critique of the sidelining of women or how sexuality is always a failure. Maybe we are all black widows to the corporate America we are led to believe S.H.I.E.L.D. fails to be. Tony Stark succeeds and we know this because he is an all American heterosexual white male hero—a category the slightly flaccid Rogers reminds Stark he fails at. Supposedly the ending of the film disproves Rogers because Captain America fails to have wings or a jetpack or anything really other than nationalistic virtue and a proclivity for sticking around. Tony Stark due to presumably not going public or by dipping into the company pocketbook bravely teaches us that only CEO’s can enter the void of the universe. This is what the film means by vengeance.

On more than one occasion the film whispered to me I was Banner who is perpetually avenging himself against himself which gives him definite contours of self-reflexivity. Banner is something of a William Burroughs without conviction. Perhaps the most relatable in his awkwardness, which is yet another failure, but also most complicit in his passivity, Ruffalo plays a sort of Kubrick Joker or Alex or whatever Tom Cruise’s titular male porn star character in Eyes Wide Shut was called. This is perhaps why Mark Ruffalo makes so many romantic comedies. In both his romantic comedies and The Avengers, Ruffalo’s nudity plays a prominent role.

Stark wants you to think the Hulk is the real Banner or that Banner is some alter not-Hulk, meaning the dissonance or resistance to capital is a sort of negative narcissism. To be angry is to succumb. Unless of course you smash which is something sadly Banner never quite does to Stark or S.H.I.E.L.D. but who knows what will happen in the next movie or two. For now he dares not destroy our big American submarine-boat-helicopter, but of course we do with our imaginations, if not for justice ,at least for the spectacle of justice. And this is why they chose Loki as the protagonist of the film—an honestly corrupt fellow with nude paradoxical limbs rendered seamlessly explicit.

And here we have these various men who bring with them worlds, both literal and metaphorically literal, and politics and ideologies and general mythos to bear on our protagonist’s oedipal problems. We are led to like this or that particular instantiation according to plot and whim.  These moments of dissonance, world scraping world, seem the most pleasant—who doesn’t love the frottage of a Captain America and Iron Man after all? Of course we know the phallus of corporate America will win out in the end, the flaccidity of post-WWII America having become an overstated albeit nostalgic fact.

I must tell you at some point in the center of the film I left to use the bathroom and I don’t think I missed too much or rather I experienced something other people in the theater probably didn’t get to. There is a fight near the end and some extra stuff if you stick around through the credits which, as an exercise, is meant to lead us to believe is not part of the film. When I saw Thor eating a sandwich it was the closest I came to sympathy with any character throughout the film. Oh and someone died near the beginning which was sad because he was being paid by the government to make guns.

We left shortly thereafter and argued about this and that about the film but really we were talking about each other and how afraid and guilty we all are. If we could truly love each other I bet I would’ve liked the movie a lot more. If I had to remake the movie I think I’d cast Jack Kerouac as Captain America, Esther Newton as Tony Stark, GWF Hegel as Thor, Teddy Roosevelt as Hawkeye, Bjork as Black Widow, Loki played alternately by Michel Foucault and VI Lenin, Leonard Cohen as Bruce Banner, and Nina Simone as the Hulk. Of course Samuel L. Jackson would reprise his role.

We would film on location at the edge of the universe and the earth respectively and I imagine we’d shoot on an iPhone. I’d then project it on my breast, film it with my webcam, and upload it in segments to youtube. Naturally, I’d sue any theater or distributor who dared play it for copyright infringement (and maybe something about distributing pornography as well). No one would die though and we’d open with everyone eating sandwiches and end with a shot of Charlie Chaplin as a marine alternatively crying and trying on outfits but sort of smiling in between. If you stuck around until the very end you’d get to see a special little scene where we show you the names of all the people who worked on the film.

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a Thought

What if every

time there was

 

a sad or scary

scene in a movie

 

instead of crying

or shrieking or

 

turning dolefully

into the arms of

 

a nearby friend you

rather turned and

 

spontaneously made

love? Whole droves

 

of men and women

in theatres, naked,

 

shocked, crying

perhaps, pulsating

 

to the rhythm of

the lighted screen.

 

I would watch a lot

more horror I think.

But Why the Binarism? On “For the Bible Tells Me So”

I started watching the intriguing documentary For the Bible Tells Me So the other day (it’s on instant watch on Netflix)–a documentary that is an “exploration of the intersection between religion and homosexuality in the U.S.” The film follows five families, all “strong” conservative and Christian, and how each has dealt with a child or spouse coming out as “gay or lesbian” [sic]. The film also includes a list of notable theologians, most of whom take a very favorable stance towards the inclusion and acceptance of homosexuality.

I give the caveat that I haven’t finished the film yet, but, given what I am to talk about, I really don’t think that is too, too relevant. The film does a good job at first of supplying “alternative” interpretations to passages from Leveticus, Romans, et al. Most of these have to do with the complete lack of context, both literal and historical, that so-called “literalists” bring to the passage. Aside from the eating of shrimp being an abomination, the wearing of wool with cotton being an abomination, etc., the film also makes the (all-too-well-known) point that other abominations of sexual origin include male masturbation and “pulling-out” (Onan is struck dead by God for this). It also dismisses the Sodom and Gomorrah interpretation that God-hates-gays as ludicrous given that god destroyed S&G precisely because Lot is the only hospitable human in S&G. Lot simply refuses to let his guests get gang-raped. This is why the reason he is righteous–he is the only one who upheld Jewish hospitality laws by accepting the angel/guest/neighbor/other inside. In other words, it was Lot’s tolerance that made him righteous.

The film continues along these lines with touching narratives about the families interjected with theological banter. That being said, I have agreed so far with these theological and practical implications of the film. I admit it’s not terribly in-depth and if you have any deep-seated theological reasons for thinking homosexuality is a sin you probably won’t walk away persuaded (but hopefully a little more open-minded at least).

BUT….

The film had this ridiculously offensive cartoon shoved right in the middle that includes among other things, the stereotype that all male homosexuals are biologically more “feminine” than straight men (whatever that means), that all lesbians are angry feminists, that gay men are attracted to any and all men (awkward glances and flirtation of the male homosexual character towards the straight character throughout), that bisexuals are really weird, as well as the classic argument “well because identical twins are oftentimes of the same sexually orientation it must be determined by one’s genes (and has NOTHING to do with ANY social constructions).” I am not trying to say homosexuality is a choice. Really. But it also seems incredibly miopic and reductive to take the stance that an entire community and culture (i.e. the male homosexual culture with its general association with “feminine” posture, clothing preference, etc) is equivilant to whats in one person’s genes, DNA, et al. This strongly essentialist view of orientation is one of the reasons that has lead to physical reparative treatments as well as the sad question almost every parent asks throughout the film, “are you sure you’re gay?” It also leads toward a certain hostility of less biologically definable gender identities and orientations (thus the bisexual joke in the cartoon).

I really do not see why this rank binarism (omg bisexuals are so funny!!1!), ciscentrism (transgenderism has yet to be mentioned), gender essentialism (well, she always liked pants, so, I guess we should’ve known she was a lesbian) and reduction to obvious cultural stereotypes belong in this film. I really appreciate what the makers of the film are trying to do, I do, I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of other members of the LGBTQ community.

Of Lions and Giraffes: a few Thoughts on Mike Mills’ “Beginners”

If you haven’t gotten around to seeing Beginners yet, I would suggest you do before it leaves theaters. Begginers stars Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Melanie Laurent and is written and directed by Mike Mills. The movie is centered around these three actors and how they approach and deal with love, particularly in regards to de/constructing ideals.

The film deals a lot with personal history. The main character, Oliver, is obsessed with pictoral representation, he’s an artist, and obsesses over historical quips, graffiting property with such sayings as “1985 BUSH FINDS JESUS.” When asked by his friend, Elliot, why, Oliver responds that he’s promoting “historical consciousness.” And indeed throughout the film Oliver is obsessed with being historically conscious. Much of the film consists of a voice-over narration of Oliver reading off historical facts told through pictures (“this is the president in 2003” etc). When Oliver begins ruminating over past relationships we see him draw his past loves rather than see scenes between him and them (compare this to the montages of Oliver and his mother, Georgia). Oliver does not remember these people like he does his mother, as a radical part of who he is, but as mere historical content–things to be conscious or aware of. He is in love with signification, think of the various “point & drive” scenes, Oliver wants historical consciousness to be enough.

Oliver’s father, Hal, at one point tells a melancholic parable of a boy who really wants a lion. He waits years for the lion to show. Finally a giraffe comes along and loves the boy and wants to live with him. Now, you can be alone without a lion and keep waiting, or you can have the giraffe. Aside from the obvious parallel this has with Hal’s life who “settles” for both Georgia and Andy (his non-monogamously minded boyfriend), this also is telling of Oliver’s plight. Oliver is waiting for a lion that will never come, that can never come. If we think of Lacan’s petite objet a (the object of desire), that certain something that makes me desire someone, as the lion, we can see that Oliver in a Hegelian fashion has etched out a sort of ideal lion given the content of his own history, waiting for that perfect lion to come fit. The perfect representation–the image which perfectly represents this lion quality he’s looking for.

But the representation is never the thing–this is Hal’s point with the parable. It’s not just the giraffe is never a lion, but the lion is never a lion. Think of the scene where Hal gives Oliver a pride rainbow–Oliver thinks he knows what it represents–sure, it represents gay pride–but Hal asks him if he really knows. Oliver doesn’t get the distinction and Hal seems concerned for Oliver. In other words, the sign cannot be reduced to what it signifies, gay pride, nor to simple historical content. It is part of who Hal is. This scene is almost repeated with Hal and his pride buddies when watching the documentary on Harvey Milk. Once again, Oliver “knows” who Milk is, yet doesn’t really know who he is.

This is the same with his relationship with Anna. He “knows” her, but when she moves in and he has to face her in his space he feels like he doesn’t. For instance, Anna instantly begins crying when she enters Oliver’s bedroom and Oliver as well as the audience do not know why–this is an event with no historical content, no signification–it’s a trauma that can’t be reduced to content. Even when Oliver and Anna “talk” about this scene the dialogue is shut off–does it matter what they’re saying? Here is a place–grief, trauma shame–where there is no “historical consciousness,” no awareness, just raw pain and people being people (the Lacanian “Real”–beyond signification). Here is the lion who is not a lion. The lion who doesn’t signify a lion.

This is also obvious in Oliver’s relationship with his father’s dog, Arthur, who Oliver speaks for. He signifies for him. This relationship is paralleled when Oliver first meets Anna (at a costume party–Oliver humorously dressed as Freud–a place of carnivalesque “historical consciousness”) and Anna herself (dressed as Charlie Chaplin?) cannot talk due to laryngitis. Here is Oliver’s ideal relationship–like the one with his dog–one in which the person is raw significance, pure indication, dressed up,  silent. Of course Oliver loves her all the more when he finds out she’s an actress with no real home. Here is pure perfomance. Pure signification. Pure consciousness. But there are always moments that go beyond awareness or that we’d rather be unaware of (like the aforementioned “silent” discussion). Anna, in distinction to Oliver, loves this about relationships (what she calls “magic,” that which is unexplainable about people from our individual perspective). It reminds her she is free, and reminds her she can never “have” the other person (indeed Laurent’s performance is somewhat reminiscent of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim).

The conclusion of the film seems to be that everyone is a giraffe. Giraffes are simultaneously too much like lions and yet not enough like lions at the same time. We are too much ourselves and yet never enough. Georgia’s attempts to try to “fix” Hal’s homosexuality is this sort of too much and too little–its a kind of love that is offensive in how far it goes and signifies yet not enough to satisfy him sexually. Georgia wants to make the giraffe a lion. While Hal loves the giraffe (Andy) in spite of it never being a lion (monogamous). Oliver and Anna on the other hand see things as more complicated (there is a line about how they never experienced the terrible historical events their parents did, but this means they have a whole different set of internal pains). Although, like Hal, they both want a lion and realize that no one ever really is, both love the excess, the too-much lion, how people can be more lion than you ever expected, magical. But they each likewise enter severe moments of depression given that people can never quite fit their ideal lion.

The whole film is, in a way, this move from Freud to Lacan–the move from a time when “abnormalities” were analyzed as symptoms and repressions (like Hal’s homosexuality, Georgia’s Jewish descent) that deserved “treatment” to a time when every relationship, even/especially the normative ones, became shot through with symptoms (like the very normal straight, white relationship of Oliver and Anna). Lacan says somewhere that the death of God does not signify that everything is permitted (like the common misquote of The Brothers Karamazov would have it), but rather nothing is permitted–suddenly everything is a symptom, a cause for guilt, a transgression. The film, in its own way, charts the realization of this transition through the juxtaposition of its characters’ relationships and their personal histories.

It ends with promise but without ultimately having made any real commitments. We are left wondering if Oliver has finally realized its him who needs to abandon his preconceptions and prejudices as regards the “ideal-mate” or whether he thinks he finally caught a lion. Or if, like his mother, he thinks he can make his giraffe into a lion. We get the feeling during a scene where he revisits Andy that he has moved beyond reducing people to historical content though, when Andy accuses him of homophobia (a crime of signification, reducing Andy to a movement and orientation he identifies with) Oliver admits that he was really jealous of the love his father gave Andy (a very particular, real, human crime). Here Oliver has moved into the realm of the Real. He feels jealousy, pain, trauma. He moves beyond his symptomatic sadness which pervades the film, a sort of lethargy brought about by historical consciousness (think of the drawings from the “history of sadness” scene), and feels true, traumatic pain. A pain that is his. Finally something that is part of who he is–not just historical content. We are left hoping he will do the same with Anna.


A Carnival’s Carnival: The Queerness of Grace

This is a sort of synthesis between two previous posts, the one on Cabaret as a carnivalesque inversion of the Law as well as my post on the queer-other. Žižek quite frequently throughout his work (here or here) refers to how the breaking of the Law, psychoanalytic pleasure (think here of Civilization & its Discontents—the breaking of the Law is precisely incivility, that is, contentment), is the “glue” of communities even more so than the Law itself. The Law itself is the “ordering” of the social, but it is the exceptions, the cases in which transgressing the Law is more lawful than the Law itself, that are the true binding of a community.

Žižek’s classic example of this is the Ku Klux Klan as the carnivalesque inversion of the social order of the Law—it is the true glue that bound together the 1920s Southern white community, not the Law. Imagine, though, if a member of the white community revealed the identity of key Ku Klux Klan members to the authorities (because, after all, legally these persons are criminals). This person is rightly fulfilling the Law of the white community, but, in so doing, is removing the very glue (that is the invert, the exception) of the community of the Law. The common title for such a person, e.g. Atticus Finch, is a n*gger-lover. The correlation between betrayal of the inner “true” community, the Ku Klux Klan, as the ultimate perversion of the Law (despite the fact that such a person would be literally obeying the Law to the utmost) and the individual’s sexuality is obvious. Here is a person who is not-quite a brother, not really a member of the white community, but yet not really a member of the black community either.

And this is what I meant by queer-other in my previous post—the one who loves the brother-ideal, the Law, the Father, etc., in such an “authentic” way—without irony—that it can only be viewed by the brotherhood as perversion, parriphilia. Another obvious example of this is Joseph of Genesis—the son who wholly embraces the love of the father without irony to the neglect of the brotherhood—thus the brothers must cast him out (into the carnival’s carnival—the inversion of the inversion itself, which is slavery in Egypt—arole Egypt fulfills throughout Judeo-Christian imagery—the land without Law at all: which, in the police/Ku Klux Klan analogy would be the black community).  This point is quite explicit given the repetition of this pattern—Joseph becomes Potiphar’s favorite, but Potiphar’s wife finds this love too authentic, perverted, thus he is outcast again. It repeats yet again when he is put in prison and becomes the prison-guard’s favorite (the homoerotic motif here is quite explicit). In this version of the queer-other myth he is ultimately outcast into the ultimate carnival, that is as carnival-King, Pharaoh’s servant (as a dream-interpreter, a typically eunuch role).

The irony being that Israel, the “handmaiden”/”Bride” of the Father/Law, is ultimately redeemed by the queer-other, specifically by his queerness—that which does not “fit” (is in excess of) the Law or its inversion in the carnival. Just as in the case of the police/Ku Klux Klan analogy, the “n*gger-lover” is neither a member of the white community nor the black community thus s/he is able to go beyond both, so too Joseph, who was neither a “true” brother nor a “true” Egyptian went beyond Israel and Egypt. Further, just as there is a perverse love for the Law/police and a rejection of the double of the KuKlux Klan/carnival tension for the “n*gger-lover”, so too there is the perverse love of Jacob (the Father/Law) precisely in that he was the perverse favorite—the firstborn of Rachel—yet to the rejection of the double of the family, the carnival brotherhood, of which he was not a true brother—remember his dreams which met with his brothers’ violent disapproval. But it is precisely in this otherness, which goes beyond the language of Law/transgression and from outside (from Egypt, the carnival’s carnival), that the ultimate redemption of the community of the Law comes.

This is what in the Christian tradition is called grace. Grace is this perversion of the Law, the transgression of transgression, the ultimate exterior gift.  Joseph becomes, through his very queerness (his love of the Father/Law which goes beyond the community and its carnival-double) the King of the carnival’s carnival (the perverse double of the Pharaoh who is the perverse double of Jacob), and thus is in a position to save the “inside” community from the furthest “outside.” Likewise, this is why the Christian God went beyond merely entering the carnival of creation as a person but entered the carnival’s carnival—the ultimate transgressor, the ultimate criminal and sinner, even to death on the cross (or: if Rome is the carnival of Israel, he became the ultimate citizen of nowhere, the criminal-slave of Rome). It is only from this position of exteriority, outside the dialectic of law and transgression, grace can come as an authentic gift—a gift that is wholly from without, other, queer.

Hitchcock’s “Notorious” & the McGuffin

Connections between the work of Hitchcock and psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan abound. One of the most common ways is through the use of the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s own term for an object, a meaningless object, around which the structure of a film dances, i.e. Guy’s lighter in Strangers on a Train) which can be correlated to Lacan’s objet petite a, a gap in the symbolic order. Just as the McGuffin is rightly nonsense (in that it does not communicate a sense) so too the objet petite a is something which, although an object of desire around which everything is involved, is ultimately senseless.

In Notorious we notice such a structure emerge, particularly around the use of the wine bottles filled with “ore.” This is the McGuffin—the ore itself is desired by Devlin and the US government which, in the great scene where Alex (who desires Alicia) is heading down to get more wine (because the partiers desire more wine), where Devlin has the object of desire in his hand with Alicia (who desires Devlin). Further, we also realize in this scene the falsity of these desires—the wine is not really wine (but ore), Devlin is not really a mere partygoer, Alicia does not really love her husband Alex, Alex is not really just an aristocrat (but a Nazi), etc etc.

I would like to point out two things. One—this “is not really” is very much like Lacan’s characterization of the objet petite a as having too little and too much significance (that’s what the Real is for Lacan). Alex’s mansion, as a structural and topological center, simultaneously has not enough wine (thus why Alex is going to the wine cellar, the symbolic reserve, the unconscious) and has something more than wine (thus why Alicia and Devlin occupy the same space, the wine cellar, but in the hopes of an entirely different significance). The wine is not enough and too much.

Secondly, I would like to pose that the wine bottles aren’t really the true McGuffin—but alcohol, wine in particular, is itself the McGuffin—the ultimate object of desire and structural unity of the film. After all, it is under the haze of alcohol that Devlin and Alicia meet (“the importance of drinking hasn’t started yet,” and, following Hitchcockian desire, it never does) and this interplay of knowing (or loving) too much and too little begins—think of when Devlin hands his ID to the police officer, Alicia both knows too much (he’s above the law in some way) and too little (but how so? Who is he?). When Devlin finally decides for the both Alicia and himself that their relationship is not to be (with a fabulous tracking shot of the back of his head, just how he was introduced, a sort of empty-man as regards the symbolic) he “forgets” the champagne bottle he bought by leaving it back at the embassy/office (a structural parallel to the wine cellar—the super ego, the big Other with its moral injunctions which run against desire). And, of course, ultimately what captures Alicia, what ultimately allows for Alex to get the “object” of his desire, is the murky liquid (just as in Suspicion), the poisoned coffee.

Hitchcock infamously had stated that “a McGuffin is nothing at all”—it rightly is not working on a symbolic level, but on a very real level, it’s radically a meaningless, empty gap in the otherwise “sensible” narrative. And the McGuffin, the object of desire, the objet petite a around which we are presented characters and their desires and ultimately a film, is ultimately the murky liquid, the drink that is not enough—it can never quench thirst, never get one drunk enough, never communicate love, never heal the sick drinker—and too much—one has already drunk too much, is drunk or hung over, bares too much meaning, the cause of the illness.

Seeing the Unseen Exhibitionist in Hitchcock and Maes

The Lacanian mantra that desire is the desire of the other always struck me as similar to the tat tvam asi (“thou art that”) of the Upanishads.  Each seems to have a double-meaning which presents itself as irreconcilable: what defines the “I,” what the interior is, appears as such only by its exteriority, and, likewise, the exterior is only intelligible because “I” am already (in) it. My desire is for or towards the other, i.e. to move outside the self, but this very desire itself is already outside of myself, already in the other.

This becomes more explicit through the gaze—the gaze is both for the interior, myself, “I must see this,” while simultaneously of the other, the exterior, “this must be seen (by someone: an implied onlooker).” Here we touch on the voyeur (who following this alterity of the libido set up by Lacan is also an exhibitionist as we shall see, just an unseen exhibitionist) or the “eavesdropper” trope in much of Dutch painting. The eavesdropper in this particular work by Nicolas Maes is seen outside of a presumed conversation which the viewer is literally “veiled” from seeing yet the voyeur is not. We are tempted to say the painting draws the viewer to “desire” to see precisely what the eavesdropper sees, i.e. makes a voyeur of the viewer, while also cutting off the viewer from the possibility of seeing. We simultaneously see too much, the voyeur who knows “too much,” and see “too little,” are veiled from seeing.

Yet the opposite strikes me as equally/more true. In other words, it is not so interesting to me that we become voyeurs because of the eavesdropper, but that our existence as an outside “meta-”voyeur is the very condition of the eavesdropper. This is the irony of the eavesdropper’s invitational gaze at the viewer which she cannot see gazing back no matter how intensely we stare—the eavesdropper knows this is something we want to see, and that is precisely why she is eavesdropping. The eavesdropper already has convicted the viewer, the “they”-self, the other, as a voyeur, and that is precisely what makes eavesdropping desirable. The desire outside of the eavesdropper “in” us is precisely the eavesdropper’s desire. The eavesdropper’s desire is “in” her in that it is outside of her.

The gaze as cinematic gaze, as the camera-as-eye (or train-as-camera-as-eye as in Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, et al), is a common motif throughout the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. The explicit theme of the relationship of an eavesdropper caught in the gaze (in both cases literally caught by physical constraint) appears in both Suspicion and Rear Window. Like the Dutch maid caught trying to gaze at an audience outside, so too Jimmy Stewart and Joan Fontaine are caught (wheelchair/bedridden) gazing. But the gaze is dialectical—they would not be gazing if not for being in this movie we desire to see, but, likewise, we would not be so fascinated if not for their desire to gaze—in both cases to see the murder (remember Jimmy Stewart slept through the murder he was obsessed with seeing, that he had to see). And this is what I meant by the voyeur as already being an exhibitionist, just an unseen one. Like these protagonists or Maes’ maid there is a glance back towards the theyself, the always already presumed other, an audience. This glance is the desire to be seen seeing, to be the site of the gaze. The desire to be caught trespassing and found complicit in the crime.

300: Brotherhoods and the Queer Other

Every brotherhood presupposes exclusion. If not–how would it be a brotherhood? Clearly there are people not in it. But, also, there are those who are in it, but not “really” in it: a brother who is not-quite a brother. This phenomenon was first made pretty clear to me in college dorm life. I happened to room on an all male dorm hall at a conservative school, and thus there was a lot of homophobic, faux-homosexual behavior/humor. There was a presupposed homosexual other, some stereotype, the brother not-quite a brother, and there was an irony in taking on the role of this other–a humor. The queer other as this sort of presence by its absence strikes me as the unifying structural integrity of the brotherhood as such (the Lacanian Real). The brotherhood of dorm-life precisely was this fear of the homosexual other, the non-ironic other, the other who was “really” actually an other (compared to the faux-homosexual, homophobic humor).

What’s interesting is the way in which this ironic embracing of the homosexual other, the joking and playful eroticism, was itself an authentic expression of affection. It wasn’t a lie–it was true camaraderie. One just couldn’t go “all the way,” i.e. one could express affection for the father-figure of the brotherhood (the brotherhood-ideal: camaraderie, loyalty, honor within the group, etc.), but there was some point at which this affection became too-much, and it was this reserve of affection that made the brother a not-quite brother, a queer other, a pervert (the paraphiliac).

There are countless examples but the first that come to mind are prisons as brotherhoods and the pedophile as queer other, the military and the homosexual other (“don’t ask, don’t tell”), the “Jew” in much of renaissance literature (the Jew of Malta first comes to mind), or even the Roman Catholic Church’s stance and response as regards pedophilia. These don’t strike me as “fringe” phenomenon, but one’s which constitute what it means to be “inside” the group as such. If suddenly the queer other was admitted as a true presence rather than as absent within my dorm, for instance, suddenly the irony would dissipate–there would be no ironic assumption of the queer other as a performative humor role, because there would radically exist an other. Likewise, the camaraderie of this humor as a unifying integrity would decompose–without this irony there would be no “inside.”

Here the relation of the queer other to the disloyal one, the betrayer, becomes obvious. In the movie 300 for instance, this sort of brotherhood is seen in the Spartans (although, of course, they are a substitute for the U.S. military) who display a host of stereotypical brotherhood “virtues”: loyalty, unity, courage, etc. We have the clear “not” brothers, the Persians–in a pathetic and offensive substitute for the U.S.’s relations with Iraq, Afghanistan, et al–who are portrayed as everything the Spartan brotherhood is not: disloyal, scattered, cowardly (this comparison is most obvious perhaps in the juxtaposition of sex scenes between Leonidas and his wife and the orgiac scene with Xerxes). Ephialtes though, the one who betrays the Spartans, fulfills the role of the queer other. He is not quite a Spartan–he cannot lift his shield high enough, he is literally deformed in the movie, and, just like the queer other, the Spartans often wonder why he was let in the brotherhood in the first place (why wasn’t Ephialtes thrown over the cliff with the other “deformed” babies?). Ephialtes is “in” the brotherhood, but yet not “in” it at the same time. His sexual otherness is even pushed further to the foreground of the film when, while going to betray the Spartans, he approaches Xerxes in the middle of an orgy.

Yet, in a very literal way within the film, the so-called virtues of the Spartans, fighting to the death, even in the face of betrayal, can only be actuated in that Ephialtes betrays them. He represents through his otherness the very condition that is the sameness, the brotherliness, that is the Spartans. Even if Ephialtes would not have been shown in the film as the not-quite Spartan, like in the 1962 version of the film, this conception of a not-quite Spartan would still exist and be the condition of Spartan “virtue.” Think again of my dorm experience–there needn’t be a queer other actually for the assumption of the queer other as performative role to exist. The Spartans consistent denigration of the Persians, the messenger, women, etc., all point to the queer other as an absence as the condition of its irony (how could the Spartans mock un-Spartan like qualities without this absence?).

Once the queer other is made present, recognized to be always already “amongst” the brothers, it must be done away with to preserve the brotherhood. Perhaps I’m stretching, but this functionally seems a scatalogical movement to me. Once the brotherhood is forced to come to grips with its insides, what constitutes it as such, it feels the need to expel what it conceives of as “shit.” The queer reveals itself as a true absence, a reversal of castration, a radical unaccounted for presence always already at work within the brotherhood. Thus the language of betrayal. Thus the desire to destroy the other–restore the hegemonic asymmetry which allows the queer other to only exist in its absence, in its irony, and “restore” the “peace” and “virtue” of the brotherhood.

Life is a Cabaret: Carnival & Ideology

Recently I re-watched Cabaret and I was reminded of the function of the carnival in patriarchal societies. The classical depiction of the carnival is one where the normal state of affairs is inverted—everyone is masked, masquerading as equals, there is no more top, no more bottom. Usually some sort of inversion of hierarchy occurs—a peasant-fool is ironically declared Carnival-king, there is feasting (carnival occurs immediately before lent), there are fireworks (as mock bombs), love-making in public, etc. The carnival then is some sort of inversion of regular life.

In Cabaret this is precisely how the Kit Kat Klub functions. “Leave your troubles outside,” declares the master of ceremonies, “in here life is beautiful.” Everyone is an exaggerated inversion of the outside—here everyone wears excessive make-up, there is cross-dressing, the women dress as sailors and soldiers, and it is beautiful—“even the orchestra is beautiful.” Initially we wish to write off the cabaret-carnival function as coping, that is, as a means of coming to grips with the ugliness outside—thus we create an “inside,” an interior space that denies the outer world of violence. We create a space of non-sense, a place where everything is beautiful and possible. I think a musical “equivalent” in this way to Cabaret is Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—a piece where there is no more top or bottom as regards music theory—a collection of songs where the macabre, Bach, cabaret, duet, jazz, may all dwell side-by-side. So too in the Kit Kat Klub, we see noblemen, peasants, cross dressers, Nazis, homosexuals, love-triangles, the sick, etc., all inhabit the same space, side-by-side, as “equals.”

What the film slowly comes to show though is that even the cabaret, a place of Wilkommen, is shot through with ideology. The cabaret reveals itself not so much to be a site of coping as a foil to the outside world—a place where prejudice and violence are reciprocated in ideological forms. This includes the reduction of the aristocrat to the cuckold inherent in Mein Herr, the anti-Semitism in Money, sexual domination of Two Ladies, and, most explicitly, the mockery of inter-racial relations in Through my Eyes. What we think of as non-sense is still speaking the language of sense in other words—although we nonsensically crown the fool as king, we are still crowning the fool as a king. So too although “Through my Eyes” is intended to mock the absurdity of true love, destroy any notion of loving someone despite their social position, familial relations, etc. (as embodied in Fritz and Natalie’s relationship), it ultimately breaks down into a mockery of the Arian being in love with a Jew. The song on the surface provides a coping, a site of humor to deal with relational stress or what-have-you, but it ultimately reveals itself as a negative image of the ideology of the outside world, in this case, the anti-Semitism of 30’s era German Nazism.

Further, the cabaret starts emerging as ideology in the lives of Sally and Brian, most notably in their love triangle with Maximilian. The “negative” image of ideology begins taking positive existence. The cabaret-carnival function then, in short, emerges contemporaneously with ideology—the cabaret appears alongside and at the same time as the ideologies it embodies (and vice versa). In a radical way the cabaret emerges into the ideological systems which birth it. Each is always already birthing and being birthed by each. The cabaret is ideology. Literally. Life is a cabaret.