The Act of Killing

Exceedingly late blog post woo!

Since this is my last post for remake/remodel, I’m not going to talk about Apocalypse Now. I am, instead, going to talk about a film called The Act of Killing, that in many ways I consider a remaking of Apocalypse Now.

The Act of Killing is, like Apocalypse Now, an attempt to cinematically represent an event that represents the depths of human violence, in this case the 1965-66 Indonesian genocides. However, whereas the scale of Apocalypse Now is grand, The Act of Killing is intimate. It focusses on Anwar Congo, former leader of one of the most feared death squads of the genocide, who personally carried out over 1000 killings. While it would be easy to vilify and demonize him, what’s more disturbing is just what a normal, pleasant old man he is.

Where it gets interesting is the conceit of the film. We talked in seminar about where film crosses with documentary in Apocalypse Now, but The Act of Killing is the inverse; ostensibly a documentary that is increasingly filmic. The film-makers invite Anwar and his friends to re-enact their killings in the styles of their favourite movie genres. The lines between reality and the acted scenes become increasingly blurred and surreal.

I’ve harped on about the role of media, fiction, narrative, and portrayal in the Vietnam War, and how that constructs a narrative of the War, but what’s interesting in The Act of Killing is how direct the role of cinema is. Anwar and co. acknowledge the influence of cinema in their lives as gangsters and criminals, and the film, through the way it tells its story, implicates itself in the cycle of violence that it both presents and represents, documents and perpetuates.

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Things Fall Apart

Huh, our last book proper for Arts One. I’m glad it was such a short and easy read.

Still, if I could describe my experience reading this book in one word it would be: underwhelmed.

I was expecting a lot more from Achebe, especially given his scathing criticism of Conrad. The book itself just felt like a commercial novel. Very middlebrow entertainment . The novel taken in tandem with Heart of Darkness and other works feels a bit more worthwhile, but then there are other works that are primarily canonical endeavours (contingent upon a canon or asking questions of said canon) that managed to be more promising stand-alone works. It was a good story, a good portrait of another society, a nice subtle critique against colonialism, a humanist vindication, but until the very last part it doesn’t feel thematically cogent.

A dilemma I have been grappling with: Is moral imposition imperialism? I believe certain cultural practices can be immoral; examples within this book being the status of women and children in Ibo society, ritual sacrifices, the abandonment of twins, etc. But post-colonial scholars are apt to attack this as moral imposition of one society’s values onto another, a sort of attempt at imperialistic homogenisation? The debate first came to my attention when I was reading about Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation (depending what side of the debate you’re on). This argument bothers me on several levels, but then, I can’t help but think of the Prime Directive. Thoughts?

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It doesn’t matter if you’re yellow, black, brown, or normal!

UPDATE: 1:15 AM, attempting to write my essay that was due Monday, scouring the text, having my mind continually blown. There is so much in this novella. It is so dense. I feel like I could spend my entire life studying it and still not be able to pierce its impenetrable heart of darkness.

Conrad’s portrayal of race is really very interesting. I don’t know whether or not I would call it racist. It might be, but well meaning, if that even makes any sense. The specific description of the natives as distinct from Europeans tends to make me hyper-aware of racial difference, and at least for me, that dehumanizes both groups of people (I will admit, that a few benign descriptions me profoundly uncomfortable, “woolly head” was one).

Achebe’s criticism feels a little bit unthought out for me; trying to shoot at an easy target without really thinking it out. I think Marlow’s distaste and alienation upon his return to Europe.

A weird thing I wa picking up on in this text is an almost primordial association with sound, voice, and language. Sound is often an act of creation, the entire tale is framed as a onversation. I think even more than the light/darkness dichotomy which is really played with in this text, the sound/silence one is more prevalent. Ultimately though, silence in the text proves futile.

Anyone played Spec Ops: The Line? Really good adapation of Heart of Darkness. In fact there’s a lot of videogame adaptations of Heart of Darkness. Wonder what it is about this story that resonates particularly within the videogame medium?

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Wollstonecraft Me

Wollstonecraft’s argument was really not what I was expecting. It’s basically the “legalize, regulate, and tax” argument but applied to women’s right. I mean her argument is basically: Women are naturally inferior, so don’t make us more inferior else we won’t be able to be good mothers and wives; besides, women are going to try and ‘educate’ themselves illictly anyway so we might as well have control over it. The entire argument is an appeal to men as well; Wollstonecraft seems rather contempteous of other women.At least on first glance. The thing is her writing style changes so drastically, and sometimes her opinion, it’s hard to get a handle on her (it would be in poor taste to make an ironic ‘WIMMIN M I RITE FELLAS?” joke here, wouldn’t it?). Sometimes she gets so righteously indignant, and other times almost apologetic and pandering, and I wonder if her whole deal with women staying naturally inferior could just be for placating people to what otherwise would be an extremely contentious argument.

Examining the writing style is really interesting too, in the way in which she mixes the masculine and feminine rhetoric of the day. While she says she’s going to ignore the language of sensibility (empathy, delicacy of sense, etc.) and use simple, rational rhetoric her style does get a little bit flowery (and dare I say, overwrought) at times. I can understand why she would want to avoid being associated with sensibility though, because that was one of the main arguments against women being able to think rationally (women have keener nerves ergo women feel more keenly ergo women are overcome by emotion and unable to think rationally). She vociferously decries sensuality, sexuality, sex, the body, and love, and that’s very interesting to observe: a women as an entity then was basically her body and her sexuality (and still today sometimes, sadly) and Wollstonecraft almost desperately tries to discard the flesh, to transcend the body to find rational thought. Love terrifies her because it makes people dependent, and for Wollstonecraft represents the real fear that women ARE dependent (which is one of the things that irks me about some feminist thought: to quote the great Poet Laureautes of our generation, The Black Eyed Peas, “Where is the love?”).

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Paine and Gaine

Snow is just passive-aggressive rain.

I’m still not sure what to think of this book. I really like Paine’s writing style, and I find him pleasingly sarcastic and sassy. However, I  have the some problem with this text that I have with most Enlightenment texts. Seinfeld syndrome. The ideas which were so radical at the time have proliferated and embedded themselves into everyday thought and discourse that when I read this, my reaction to most everything Paine says is “So what?”

I also find the text to be disappointingly uncritical. The majority of a text feels like a bit of a slap fight between Burke and Paine, and most of the text comes off as Paine just going “Nuh uh, cause this and this and this” with everything feeling a bit cursory. Quite often Paine will be laying something out and then saying “its time to move on to the next point.”

The book is littered with ad hominems of Edmund Burke and it prevents actual critical analysis, both of Burke’s argument (I would barely have any idea what Paine was talking about if I hadn’t had previous knowledge with the book, and my edition comes with both The Rights of Man and Reflections on the Revolution in France, so I was able to flip through both texts. My edition has terrible binding though). Josh gave this criticism of my last essay “you tend to focus too much on attacking Freud wherever you see fit, and it ends up eroding your argument instead of his. Try not to be frustrated with Freud himself, instead give solid criticism of his case study”, and I think that applies for Paine too. And because Paine is so focussed on defending and vindicating the French Revolution he does not adequately discuss why the Revolution was necessary or the principles it was predicated on (at least not so far, not finished, but even if he does get to it, he takes too long to do so). History has shown that the French Revolution was far from the perfect, principled moment Paine portrays it as (he was later imprisoned by The Terror, grand irony) and opportunity was lost for critical reflection both by Burke and Paine.

Interesting though is that I found some almost Foucaultian (proto-Foucaultian I suppose) themes in the work, when he discusses despotisms that reside on the institute of monarchy and “this species of despotism, proceeding on through an endless labyrinth of office till the source of it is scarcely perceptible, there is no mode of redress. It strengthens itself by assuming the appearance of duty, and tyrannizes under the pretense of obeying”. Proliferation of despotism through multiple institutions that manipulates our desires. Sounds like bio-power to me.

I’ll end it with a casual moment of anti-semitism from within the book (it was so blatant it made me yell out “Oh no” on the bus, completely involuntarily): “By the universal economy of nature it is known, and by the instance of the Jews it is proved, that the human species has a tendency to degenerate, in any small number of persons, when separated from the general stock of society, and intermarrying constantly with each other.”

You’re a gem, Thomas Paine.

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Squeeeeeeeee

Because I can’t come up with a good title, but also because this book (what little of it I’ve read, but ascertaining from what I’ve read of it) is sort of everything I’m coming to love about philosophy i.e. goofy mental wanking combined with methodological rigour to create something genuinely insightful. What’s interesting is that I find most of the conclusions he reaches, like “action is action under a description” to be those conclusions that seem painfully obvious in hindsight but is hard to come to. The way Hacking approaches his questions is actually kind of a joy to behold.

Also, I don’t rely buy Jung, but the things I’ve ended up studying in Arts One seem to be eerily synchronous with the things I’ve been thinking about. His exploration of the assumption that “memory is the key to the soul” (p. 20), and how we understand ourselves by the causal descriptions we apply to our past are pretty much the theme of a play I’ve been writing (which also makes me a little apprehensive to finish it because I’m always terrified of over-intellectualizing my creative writing).

An idea that raises dizzying, and honestly a little disturbing, possibilities is that of ‘semantic contagion’. That possibilities and causalities present themselves as we describe them is something that I feel most people intuitively grasp, but when it’s implications are laid out like that the far-reaching effects of it is stunning.

To just add one closing remark: I love the ambition of this book. The questions it tackles have implications beyond its field (philosophy of science) and the fact that it makes those really big mental wanky questions (what are our memories? why are our memories? how do I understand who I am?) into something coherent is something that amazes me.

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Black Skin, White Masks, Brown Corduroy Pants

I knew there was something I was meant to do Sunday. I’ll get the hang of this “blog post every week” business eventually! I swear!

I loved this book, inasmuch as I’ve read (at like page 150, almost there). It’s funny, because I find equal amounts of validity and plain crap in both Freud and Fanon, but Fanon was an immensely pleasurable read. He does the kind of scholarship that I would like to do (‘disjointed’ according to Jon, and ‘not very rigorous’ according to a translator’s footnote; wonder what that says about me). It’s work born out of real feeling, authentic passion.

I identified very strongly with the accounts of the black children and the comic books. In fact, the entire drive to be white is one that typifies a lot of my childhood desires, and I don’t think it’s uncommon. I was raised on a diet of pop culture that was mostly anglocentric. I was the only brown kid in a school full of athletic white, blonde haired, blue eyed kids; compare soft, doughy, short me. None of the girls I liked ever found me particularly attractive, with probably more factors beyond just colour; still I did feel this urge to be white. I even at one point that white was ‘default’ human. Another brown friend of mine, who like me was reared on a lot of anime, once told me that he spent many of his years wanting to be a thin, Asian boy. He grew up in Richmond. Hmmmm.

And Chapter 5, despite its difficulty, I found amazing. Prose-poetry scholarship. Brilliant. I feel like it allowed me to comprehend the alienation of ‘the black man’ viscerally in a way that I don’t feel I would if it was written more traditionally. It worked through impression, not through explanation, and achieved its goals better for that, especially given its literal central position in the book. It’s sort of the nexus of the book (and as Jon said, functions as an allegory for the rest of it too, a functional synecdoche) and really grounds the emotional anguish of the rest of the arguments. I think that lends a certain level of validity to the text, even the parts I disagreed with.

Still, I did have some qualms with the book. For one, Fanon really does fail to substantiate a lot of his sources. He often will quote a passage, and from there repudiate it without thorough critique, and use that as a jumping off point. Chapters 2 and 3 also, in my opinion, overpoliticize interpersonal relationships, which is a big problem I have with a lot of things. Also, in reference to Chapter 5, though it allowed me to identify with ‘the black man’ it conversely dehumanized ‘the white man’. And, as I tried to humorously suggest with my title, where are the Arabs, Asians, and Jews that Fanon always references yet makes no attempt to integrate? Fanon acknowledges this himself, but these are still important parts of the discussion that remain to be addressed, because without them, it can turn into a binary that is every bit as stifling as the racialised structures Fanon decries, and becomes the zealotry he wants to avoid.

Also, Jon, did you write the Newsweek quote on the cover, because your lecture and that quote basically said the same things: you even used the word ‘melange’! Still, great lecture.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Back with the first post of the new semester, and true to form it’s late and hurried and rushed. Some things never change. Rather apropros given the nature of our course. These sentences are blatant padding. I am going to obligatorily bitch and moan about how far behind I am on things and how overworked I am. I’m starting up a theatre company. Its hard work.

Unfortunately I didn’t go to the lectures, so I’m working from a place of (relative) ignorance, particularly regarding the connection between Northanger Abbey and Shaun of the Dead (Shaun with a ‘u’!).

I found Northanger Abbey to be a complete slog. Like it was a total chore, I couldn’t get through it. There’s something particularly alienating about Jane Austen’s narration style. I talked in seminar a while ago how reading The Kingdom of This World was strange after not reading a novel for so long; that the novel had become defamiliarized, and alienating for me. I find it particularly amusing that I found this novel in particular alienating because we always talked about the High Victorian concept of a novel, which is probably very much typified by Austen.

I get that Austen’s works rely on subtlety and parody, and that they’re comedies of manners, and that Northanger Abbey says some interesting things about the relationships between the real and the fictional, but for the life of me I can’t bring myself to care. Everything is so dull, and flat. The characters are boring and unlikable, and I just don’t care about what the novel is saying. I don’t even think the things it says are particularly interesting. Other works take up similar subjects and do it better, in my opinion. At one point reading the novel I actually fell asleep.

In my mind, the most interesting part is Austen’s lengthy digression at the end of Chapter 5 on the public opinion on novels. I feel like there’s a lot to be read into that passage but I haven’t the inclination to do so.

Shaun of the Dead on the other hand is one of my favourite films ever. It’s well-written, excellently paced, inventively shot, and excellently plays with its own genre conventions. I love the whole Cornetto Trilogy, really.

Zombies are such a great monster, because like all good monsters, they’re reflections of ourselves. Probably why they are both so disturbing and fun to kill. They’re us with the likable bits taken out. The savage other. They stand in for every dehumanizing force we’re afraid of.

A lot of the inspiration for the movie comes from an episode of Spaced (the TV show that Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost all previously worked on) where Pegg’s (who plays Shaun in the film) character takes amphetamines and hallucinates he’s in Resident Evil 2. The very same media panic we talk about in the context of romanticism. Even Wright’s hyper-kinetic directing style lends itself to this, bombarding you with cuts, information, dialogue, etc. News reports are always cutting, music is always playing, there are loud arcade noises and videogames, Shaun works in a consumer electronics store. At one point in the film when Ed and Shaun are drunk and singing a Grandmaster Flash song, they mistake a zombie as some drunk sod singing along with them. Throughout the first half of the film Shaun fails to notice all the very clear signs of the zombie apocalypse. A case of media-induced ‘savage torpor’, or are the zombies simply indistinguishable from the people?  At the end of the film, the zombies are just another media trend to be exploited.

A blog post from another seminar said that at the end of the film, Shaun is back where he started, and I have to disagree. Shaun is actually the only character in the entire film who changes (everyone else is dead, though). He survives the zombies, and in them sees the reflection of his own life. At the end of it, he’s matured, taken responsibility for his life instead of cruising through on auto-pilot. What’s interesting though, is that the rest of the world doesn’t change.

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Are you Spanish or French?

I struggled for a while with pronouncing Carpentier’s name because he was Cuban but Carpentier isn’t a Spanish last name; then I learned that his father was French. All my questions are answered.

This is only semi-appropriate because I can not for the life of me think of any good questions for this text, but I’ll try.

1) The role of sons. Ti Noël has 12 sons. Henri Cristophe has one son, his legitimate heir, assassinated 10 days after he killed himself. Ti Noël’s sons are barely mentioned. Cristophe’s is never mentioned at all, though his daughter’s are; why does Carpentier ignore sons in this novel?

2) After Macandal’s “execution”, it is stated that “Macandal had kept his word, remaining in The Kingdom of This World”. Of course, the end of the novel makes explicit that The Kingdom of This World is a world of suffering. What does this say about the role of suffering in revolution?

3) Ti Noël by the end of the novel (before his metamorphoses) is reduced to a pathetic figure: wearing a stolen coat every day, talking to dolls, living in ruins, entertaining himself with delusions of power. If Ti Noël represents the black everyman, then what is Carpentier saying about the state of the black man, or of Haiti?

4) Queen Marie, both in this novel and the Césaire play, is the only female that is not sexualized. Why?

That’s all I can think of for now.

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Rousseau Durden

Oh I so rue the day I saw this text (oh the puns). I found this text extremely frustrating, not because it was hard to read, but because goddamn it everything Rousseau said felt so wrong. While reading the text the only thing I wanted to do was learn French, grab a time machine, visit Rousseau and tell him off.

What this text reminds me a lot of is Fight Club, with it’s espousing of anarcho-primitivism as the best stage of human life. I enjoyed both Rousseau and Fight Club when I was 14, but visiting it now a lot of the revolutionary, dissident charm has worn off. But like Tyler Durden, Rousseau is extremely charming and well-spoken, but also gratingly condescending.

For one, he’s so Euro-centric and surprisingly colonial. The way he refers to ‘savages’ and how they’re closer to the state of nature than we are, which completely undermines the civilizations of these people that have developed completely differently from our own. Inevitably, for Rousseau, civilization means ‘European civilization’, and he even says at one point that Europe has been “continuously and better civilized than the rest of the world” (p. 116). Even when he discusses the evolution of language, he paints its developmental trajectory as basically following that of English, of discovering all the clauses and tenses and cases which are not necessarily endemic to language.

Also, his ‘scientific reasoning’ in the text now seems hilariously backward and completely unfounded on any biological, anthropological, or historical research. The book is ridiculously conjectural and some of the claims it makes about human nature seem very logically underdeveloped and not as sound as Rousseau would have us believe (the number of times he uses ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, and etc. is ridiculously smug). Also, why does he spend half the discourse establishing the state of humans in nature?

I just find that Roussea picked the least interesting section of the question ‘What is the origin of inequality among men and is it authorized by natural law?’ He focuses on the first half but all that he establishes is that, yes, people are unequal. Well, Rousseau what (I’m so sorry, my puns are getting worse)? Maybe it’s because of this text, but I feel like that is already established. But even of the state of nature Rousseau describes, a state he himself said that we may never have been in, it’s clearly one we can’t return to. So where is the constructive criticism? A Discourse on Inequality feels to me almost childish; it’s blatantly reactionary, but instead of providing anything useful, it just nostalgically pines for a lost ‘golden age’ that probably isn’t as great as Rousseau thinks it was, and completely ignores the benefits society has given us.

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