Author Archives: jacob clark

Poetry After Auschwitz

The gruesome legacy of Nazism is unavoidable in any discussion of Western (and especially German) culture. Theodor Adorno was one of many figures to address this bloody imprint, in his maxim that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The specific meaning of this statement is much-debated, but its relevance is unquestionable.

The Dadaists, following the First World War, formed their movement based on the credo that mankind didn’t deserve art for their complicity in that maelstrom of carnage. The result was an upsurge in ‘anti-art’, which was labelled degenerate upon the rise of Nazism. While this intent was not echoed directly after the Second World War, it is easy to see Adorno’s credo as an invocation of the same sentiment – the perpetration of these evils, by humanity at large or by the Germans specifically, is so great that those responsible, for the fact that this was allowed to happen, do not deserve the catharsis found in art.

The critical slant of the statement is the fact that art can be used for catharsis, and can relieve pain and anxiety; most chillingly, it can do this by glorifying actions that cause this pain and anxiety through the brutality of their perpetration. The banality of evil and the subtle contributions of an entire people to the crime make everyone complicit to an extent, and make it to easy to brush aside an evil that makes such gradual demands. To remember and learn from the horror of Nazism is to see inhumanity in its more pleasant and unassuming guises, and so to never forget the ultimate conclusion of the power that, a decade prior to its fall, had a sufficient portion of the popular vote and outspoken praise, even by some of those outside its borders. To take solace in poetry, that which can nullify the horror of participation, however insidiously in this brutality, is a greater offense than drowning it in liquor or offering tear-stained prayers for forgiveness, because it allows a conscious denial of responsibility where such is plainly an affront to sanity.

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Comical Conjectures on the Art of Comics

According to my father, there is a play out there titled simply Art. The main issue in this play is apparently that one character buys a canvas painted white for an exorbitant price, which leads to a series of jokes/conjectures regarding the state of the art world. While not be the most original sentiment, its relevancy does point out an issue in the art world, an issue which makes the question of whether or not comics constitute ‘art’ seem slightly comical in itself.

A frequently-invoked example of modern art preparing to eat itself is a 1961 work by Italian artist Piero Manzoni, wherein he produced 90 cans supposedly filled with his own excrement. There is also the found objects of people like Marcel Duchamp, most notable for his signed urinal ‘Fountain’.  Manzoni’s cans (which may have just contained plaster) were originally valued at their weight in gold; Duchamp’s signed pisser ended up reproduced in the Tate Modern. The fact that these are considered art may be bothersome, but it makes sense; you can get snobs and idiots to invest meaning and money in just about anything if you play to pseudointelllectual posturing or a regressive obsession with irony. What is bothersome is that comic creators put stories and images on a page and these twits put the contents of their bathrooms in museums, yet it’s the former who aren’t credited as the creators of true ‘art’.

Debating as to what constitutes true art in this scenario seems about as healthy and plausible as attempting autofellatio. Tezuka’s Buddha blends surreal comedy with a layered and at times touching story about a prominent religious figure, presented without overwhelming rhetoric or contemplation. Alan Moore’s Watchmen blends story arcs featuring themes of political divide, Cold War culture, human fallibility and ethical preponderance in order to create a powerful, unforgettable story about the human and superhuman. Even Jeff Smith’s Bone, a bizarre comic series that combines its own take on high fantasy with middlebrow cartoon humor, manages to sustain a suspenseful, emotive and contorted story arc in spite of its silly presentation. If one could do any of these things in a book, film or other ‘established’ form of media, it is not likely one would be so quickly disregarded as an artist. The fact that this is apparently an issue may actually lend some credence to Manzoni’s excremental enterprise –  the art establishment, whoever that is, has decided that this is art and that comics are not, probably because they and those cans are full of the same thing.

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Is This Karma?

In ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey makes a point of saying, on page 12, that men ‘cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’. When she made this observation in the 1970s, the media climate was certainly much more one-sided in that it objectified women not exclusively but much, much moreso than it objectified men. Forty-odd years later, the cultural landscape has changed, and the balance is still skewed, there has been a leveling of sorts in that men have become more exposed to the same exploitative media trends that women have been exposed to for over a century. While this is a legitimate concern, it also has an overtone of ironic justice to it, which is even more disturbing.

In Laurie Penny’s excellent book, Unspeakable Things, she points out that both genders are held up to impossible standards, taken to illogical extremes by the media they consume. Advertisements, implicit or explicit, create self-hatred and envy, which drives one to uphold the convictions or buy the products therein. She also points out that, while eating disorders in women are well-cataloged (however ineffectually) and well-researched, the rising trend of dysmorphic disorders in men is largely unexamined despite coming from the same source – the self-hatred provoked by people whose jobs focus around how to make you give them your money for something that probably isn’t worth it.

What Mulvey predicted and what Penny flatly states boils down to ‘women like to look too’, and that’s perfectly fair. Culture is inescapably visual, and the increased presence of worldviews that are not those of white, straight men within a certain age bracket broadens the potential for turning the gaze on the gazers. There was always pressure on men the same way there was pressure on women, but it didn’t intersect this directly. The ideal woman, according to (broad) media trends is feminine, passive, sexy (but not sexual), thin, and white (or if not, titillatingly and stereotypically exotic); the ideal man is strong, wealthy, sexually insatiable, emotionally inscrutable and capable of (victoriously) inflicting violence. Those stereotypes still exist and in force, with the technological advancements required to present them all with even more unrealistic aesthetic appearances. When people are exposed to hundreds of ads in a day (and that’s before they get to what’s depicted in their recreational media), it’s pretty understandable that things are starting to go into the domain of equal-opportunity misery, although it’s still a decent way away.

It’s pretty well impossible to fit these criteria, which advertisers, producers and their associates know full well. This perceived deficiency has made a decent number of people quite wealthy, and to an extent they probably don’t or didn’t know how things would fall out on their consumers. Coincidentally, an overwhelming percentage of these people are (like this writer) white, male extroverts with a remarkable deficit of ethics and shame. When Mulvey was writing, visual culture was nowhere near its prevalence today and thoroughly dominated by this demographic. Now, those standards are multifarious, absurd in their presentation and near-completely inescapable, and the demographic that benefited from them the most is now visibly suffering from it. That, at least to some, is a prime instance of gruesome irony.

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‘Til The Funding Runs Out

In Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy, the Anthony Quinn-lookalike, Discordian anarchist pirate/lawyer Hagbard Celine (try to fit that on a business card) follows three laws in accordance to his personal philosophy. The first two overlap eerily well with Foucault’s writings, especially considering that the Illuminatus books were published two years before Discipline and Punish.

Celine’s First Law is that ‘public security is the chief cause of public insecurity’. He uses the example of Soviet Russia, wherein the recursive levels of secret policing and rampant paranoia essentially devoured itself. Everybody spies on everybody ‘until the funding runs out’, and a fear of subversive artists dominates despite the fact that they could do little to no more harm than the average citizen in reality. The notion that everybody is being watched means nobody can trust anybody else, and the uncertainty is the greatest fear therein – when is one alone? When is one safe? The fact that the panopticon only requires that inmates think they are being observed, when they may or may not be, is naturally conducive to this state of mind, and this example serves to elaborate on the terms that Foucault established in his view of Bentham’s prison.

Celine’s Second Law relates to the concepts of truth and power. To Foucault, the two fuel each other. Truth informs power, which when exercised creates truth. Celine’s definition is somewhat different: ‘truth is only possible in a non-threatening situation’. As an anarchist, Celine uses a counterpoint to this as an argument against hierarchy, stating that there is always the subtle pressure to tell one’s boss what they want to hear to avoid a loss of security. His example is the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s obsession with Communist infiltration led the organization to focus on hunting the Red Menace despite the very low threat it posed compared to, say, organized crime (which Hoover didn’t believe existed on a national scale). Agents who disagreed were at best declined promotions, or at worst branded Communists themselves and fired/blacklisted. The two views of truth seem to mirror each other in a way – Foucault’s belief is that truth is tied to power, and Celine’s is that truth is estranged from power (that said, their definitions of the term are not necessarily identical).

The main thrust of this analysis is that these ideas come from the same place, the Cold War climate that informed Foucault’s writings and The Illuminatus. The former analyses the statements while the latter parodies them. Between the two of them, both works serve the purpose of fleshing out the paranoia and uncertainty therein, with cold logic on one hand and utter absurdity on the other.

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Gothic to Giallo

The Bloody Chamber is a volume of prose that works around bodily fluids. Blood, sweat, tears and ejaculate are where the money is in any media, to be certain, and Angela Carter’s collection of stories deals with a collection of topics that focus on (and in some cases may invoke) these reactions. It’s telling of the material (and the reader) that they reminded me of giallo film.

Giallo is a genre of Italian film that burgeoned during the 60s and 70s. The name means ‘yellow’, for the pulp paperbacks that served as the foundation for many of the stories. Essentially, these are crime and mystery films with elements of horror and eroticism. Hitchcock’s movies influenced the visual style. They are bloody, sexy, awesomely scored, terribly dubbed (for the English versions at least) and questionably written to say the least. The connection to Angela Carter, at least to me, exists in the warped minds of giallo’s three pioneers: Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci.

The films of all of these directors created giallo by taking a similar mixture of high and low culture as The Bloody Chamber, combining a fondness for the finer things in life and a fascination with the viscerally disturbing. Sex and violence are inexorably linked, often through the proclivities of a depraved elite, as in Carter’s prose. The Gothic aesthetic, with its dark, dramatic stories, lends itself well to both. The primary difference between The Bloody Chamber and the average giallo is the unavoidable fact that the latter is, some say inherently, chauvinistic.

A stereotypical giallo plot (used by Dario Argento himself in a recent entry, itself named Giallo) is a black-coated, black-gloved killer, butchering beautiful women (i.e. models) in a very showy, even titillating fashion. The medium ties the emotions of violence with the titillation of sex, and many gialli veer farther into exploitation film territory because of this. Carter is much more ‘involved’ in her subject matter, in that her characters are thoroughly defined and imagined, with the primarily female perspective being the exact opposite of many gialli, which dismiss women as so much meat.

While I cannot defend this characteristic in giallo, especially when it is compared to the progressiveness (and astounding literary quality) of Carter’s work, I do love the genre as a gestalt too much to disown it entirely in the comparison. I can and will recommend films like Deep Red because I find their aesthetic and style undeniable, in the same way that I find the baroque descriptiveness of Carter’s prose to be simply amazing. Before I end, I acknowledge that this perspective comes with the bias of a straight white man, as did the bulk of gialli. Whether Carter did or didn’t successfully subvert this is debatable, but the connection is undeniable.

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Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head

Dennis Hopper, one of the American countercultural icons to have featured in Apocalypse Now, had a checkered career in some the best and the worst that Hollywood had to offer. From a generation-defining role in Easy Rider, to playing the inimitably psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, to the legendary humiliation that was the Super Mario Bros. movie, his niche in pop culture is and was that of a talented man, with great vision – or, depending on the story, a violent lunatic with a fondness for drugs that made the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like Boy Scouts. His harlequin-role in Apocalypse Now worked in either vein, and it’s this centrality that makes the comparison to one of his later (and more obscure) efforts possible.

‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ is the thirteenth track on the album Demon Days, by Gorillaz. It’s one of many of the group’s more oddball ventures, and it takes Damon Albairn’s scientific understanding of pop music to have allowed this song to exist alongside hooky ventures like ‘Feel Good, Inc.’ and ‘Dare’. The hook is sung by 2D, Albairn’s black-eyed vocal avatar, but the verses are a spoken word poem delivered by Hopper. The brief story depicts an idealistic community of Happy Folk, who live at the base of a mountain, worshipping the spirit they see as inhabiting it, Monkey. At some point, a group of (literally) shady Strange Folk come around and try to mine the riches in the mountain. The song ends with some kind of eruption, and fire comes from Monkey’s head as both the Strange Folk and the Happy Folk are destroyed.

The connection to Apocalypse Now is interesting and sinister. The Happy Folk could be read as the wild people, the Montagnards of whom Kurtz appointed himself the general (it would be too much of a stretch to call the Vietnamese government happy or copacetic in their previous situation, on either side), and it’s evident within the story that the Americans in the temple, especially Kurtz and Hopper’s photojournalist, are strange people indeed. Greed is a motivator that keeps more to the Kurtz in Heart of Darkness than the character Brando inhabited, who is more motivated by his desire to fight the war than to gain from it, but the end is the same. In the song, Monkey is the voice of nature bringing wrath on all for wrongs committed, whereas in the film Willard says that even the jungle wanted Kurtz dead, and that was who he took his orders from in the end. The link via Dennis Hopper adds another layer to it, almost as if the photojournalist survived, and went on to employ Kurtz’s mind-expanding rhetoric in this fable about the cost of greed and venality.

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Austrian Putz, American Psycho

It says something about Lt. Gustl that the first thing it reminded me of wasn’t Catcher in the Rye (where I held equal contempt for the insufferable first-person protagonist), but American Psycho. The more I think about it, the more the two texts’ similarities multiply, and the differences diverge more radically.

The interesting similarity beyond the text is in the authors themselves. Schnitzler, a bourgeois Jewish man, doubtless had no love lost for the churlish officer class that Gustl represents, such as Bret Eason Ellis, a notoriously filterless social satirist, viewed yuppies with visceral disgust. Both Gustl and Patrick Bateman are inwardly prejudiced, devoid of substance and represent the worst qualities of their given spheres. The main difference is how far their respective creators go in attempting to prove this.

Both Gustl and Bateman have no sense of self, or at least very little. Both obsess over appearance – Gustl is nearly driven to suicide by the implications of a slight to his image, whereas Bateman pays impossible amounts of attention to his brand-name clothing and accessories (the book is more saturated with luxury product namedropping than Watch the Throne). Both Gustl and Bateman are professionally incompetent, with Gustl having pursued the military because he couldn’t succeed anywhere else, and Bateman working a very lucrative job in Mergers and Acquisitions, at a company owned by his father (not once does he actually appear to be working in the novel or the film). Gustl has little personality and Bateman, short of his gruesome proclivities, has none at all. They are composites of others’ opinions, and fuss constantly over their image because, without it, they have nothing. One may go farther, and say that they are nothing, although they constitute different species of void.

Gustl, simply put, is not evil. Crude, chauvinistic, insecure, daft and hypocritical, yes, but not sociopathic. Bateman, as the title of his story proclaims, very much is. Over the course of the novel, Bateman proves himself to be an adulterer, drug abuser, serial rapist and multiple murderer. He never once betrays any vestige of guilt over his actions, and very rarely any fear of being caught. His first-person narrative segues from idle reflections on Phil Collins and the coloration of his calling cards to cannibalism and necrophilia without warning. There is no relatability in Bateman’s actions – he isn’t a normal person who pursues increasingly horrific depravities because of oversaturated culture or class enabling (although both help him along). He’s the worst kind of twisted mind, without any vestige of humanity to his name. Nothing Gustl does is anywhere near as horrific as what Bateman does on a regular basis.

At the end of things, both characters are a means of satire, and to an extent both are effective. Lt. Gustl was controversial on its release, and despite the vast distance between the explicitness of its subject matter, American Psycho received about the same measure of consternation, which says a great deal about hermeneutic distance, and also just about impales observers on Ellis’s extremely pointed observations regarding desensitization. What scares me is how, looking back on them, both of these stories were immediate at their time, and despite their topicality do not lack for readability in 2015.

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Make Your Own Monster

Gothic is a bizarre film. Directed by the man who cast Tina Turner as a psychedelic  gypsy and Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt and centering around the antics of a man whose depravity would make the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like boy scouts, it’s also one of the strangest horror flicks ever conceived. There’s no Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees on a faceless chopping spree or a cowled Romanian gent sinking his teeth into young ladies. The monster is an unseen, possibly even nonexistent entity, tied in with the psychological flaws of the five depraved main characters. This element of reflection, creepiness, and paralyzing uncertainty combines to make for a film steeped in the uncanny.

It is a stormy evening in 1816 Switzerland, at the island mansion residence of poet, lover, soldier and debauchee Lord Byron. Three people arrive by boat: poet Percy Shelley, his lover and collaborator Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who is dementively infatuated with Byron. Aside from the servants, the mansion only houses Byron and his autobiographer-physician, John Polidori. After an evening of liquor, laudanum, and innuendo, they have a seance around the skull of a monk, as you do. The result is stormy weather, hallucinations, and the brooding fear that their machinations have spawned an eldritch monster.

Percy and Claire spend most of the film in laudanum-induced spells of lunacy, and the majority of the action centers around Mary, Byron, or the good Doctor. Each one experiences some kind of themed torment. Byron plays unaffected for most of the flick, disregarding Claire’s obsession and Percy friendship to hit on Mary and freely abusing Polidori, and takes until the end to fall prey to the lunacy around him. Mary’s gruesome recollections of her miscarriage and desire to resurrect her child form the genesis of Frankenstein, and she remains the only (questionably) sane person in the film. Polidori, on the other hand, is a Freudian bundle of Catholic guilt, repressed homosexuality (the closet’s fairly see-through) and leech-collecting blood-obsessiveness (I did not make a word of that up), which leads to him fleeing in the middle of the night and eventually writing The Vampyre.

Gothic has a share of jump scares and weird images (if you’re not good with pretty people covered in leeches, this is not the movie for you), but there is never any clarification as to the monster’s actual presence. The feeling of fear could owe as much to being stuck in a mansion with a handful of unhinged Europeans during a lightning storm as the predations of an abhuman entity. Retrospectively, the horror could have been entirely within the characters’ own minds. Coming face to face with the skeletons in your closet isn’t a pleasant experience by any means, and the reason Gothic can be so frightening is because, despite the paranormal pretense around the seance, the monster comes from within us. The sense of the uncanny is identification where it consciously shouldn’t occur, the image of ones own depraved doppelganger leering from the mirror. The fear you carry at the core of your being is the fear you can’t escape, and that sense of the uncanny is at the root of the Gothic (The Castle of Otranto), the culmination of Gothic (Frankenstein, the works of Poe and Lovecraft) and the film that ties it all together, in a meta-example too viscerally creepy to be ignored.

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Crossing the Channel (Billy and Jackie)

Last lecture, we talked at length about the poem ‘London’ and the image it carves of a broken and corrupted city. William Blake’s view of a port town in England wasn’t great, and it bore some odd similarities to a much later view of a similar city by a robust Belgian named Jacques Brel.

Jacques Brel sang in French, but has been covered masterfully by David Bowie, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Scott Walker. Both Bowie and Walker have done takes on ‘Amsterdam’, a powerful song about a grim and depressing topic. There are many differences, but the bottom line is that both Blake and Brel’s vision of their city is one of crushed hopes and abundant venereal disease. The contrast deserves analysis.

Both the poem and the song have a cyclical slant, with ‘London’ showing a ‘curse’ (venereal disease) being passed on through a family, and Brel saying that in the same night, sailors die and are born in the port of Amsterdam. There is, within the cyclical, a touch of the binding and hopeless – Blake explicitly states the presence of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, while Brel’s rantlike list of vices strongly implies a stagnation in the low life of mariners and those who service them. The feeling in both is a pervasive hopelessness, the people of the respective cities locked into a grimy life. Children are brought into the world staring down the barrel of this hopelessness, with Blake’s child cursed for its father’s venality and Brel’s young lad born into a class of drunken, whoremongering sailors.

The difference is mainly sympathy, as Blake was significantly more humanistic (and more sex-positive) than Brel. In Blake, the only person really at fault is the father of the child, who has passed the illness he took for his gratification to his unknowing wife and child. In Brel, one can be fairly sure that the acerbic Belgian hates the city of Amsterdam and its inhabitants to his core. He paints a picture of the sailors as unilaterally grotesque, vulgar and brutal, and no kinder to the prostitutes, who he describes as ‘bargain[ing] their bodies and virtue’ to them for ‘a few dirty coins’. Looking at Brel’s discography, it’s hard to find people that he actually likes (his view of the Catholic Church and the upper class in general was very snide), but his most stinging barbs seem to be hurled at women, either specific women in his life or the gender as a whole (that said, he seems to have deeply valued his male friends, as in ‘Jef’, where he talks his buddy out of suicide). Brel’s attitude towards sex seems extremely bitter and distrustful, which makes an exceptionally sharp divide with Blake’s indictment of a time where ‘sweet love was thought a crime’.

In that way, ‘London’ has a more sympathetic set of circumstances, but also a more saddening conclusion when one realizes that even the innocent among them is screwed straight out the gate. If ‘Amsterdam’ sounds like the brandy-abetted rant of good old boy who feels cheated and/or disgusted by their town, ‘London’ rings more like somebody who can feel the Jacob Marley-esque weight of those self-made chains on their body, and opts to take a look around to see that they’re not the only one. I’ll try to end this post on a lighter note (this material is hitting me like a fistful of Seconal, which I definitely wouldn’t recommend in practice) so I’ll say this: Brel and Blake were both brilliant manipulators of language and emotion, and I’m just tickled to be enjoying their work as a graded exercise.

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Does This Make Me a Hypocrite?

Reading Leviathan, I came to a strange realization: I like Thomas Hobbes.

He’s not a favorite of mine by any stretch and his lawyerly writing style occasionally gives me a bit of a headache, but I don’t feel an antipathy towards the man. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that I despised Plato for making a similar proposal.

Hobbes, like Plato, is enamored of mathematics and even structures his arguments like a Euclidian treatise. As an adjunct to this, he prizes logic as a human value (again, as with Plato). He’s also arguing for a moral absolutist dictatorship; when Plato did this, I got so viscerally infuriated that I wanted to take a bat to a guy who’d been dead for over two millenia. When Hobbes does it, I’m not agreeing, but I’m seeing his perspective with a much greater level of patience.

I thought on this, and there are two reasons why I’m softer on Hobbes. The first is the tone of the manuscript. The Republic is a condescending, posturing narrative that mascarades as a dialogue in order to lend its speakers enough credibility to tell their readers that the majority of them are idiots who can’t think for themselves. Hobbes, on the other hand, assumes his readers are well-versed in mathematics, familiar with rhetoric and quite studious about the Good Book. I enjoy the good faith, and I’d rather puzzle over an over-comprehensive proof than feel like I’m being talked at by the droning prick from the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.

The second reason is that Hobbes, despite his sympathies towards a violent and unchecked monarchy, provides some humanist passages in Books XIV and XXI. As Professor Hendricks pointed out last lecture, he provides citizens with the right to essentially protect their own lives, and to forsake their obedience when the state cannot provide protection (i.e. the purpose for which other liberties are sacrificed). Hobbes allows for the presence of disagreement with his own philosophy, which does infinitely more for his credibility than the boundless smugness of Socrates and his fellows’ sycophantic cavilling.

To put this in perspective, Plato is proposing an idealized state for enlightened people, and ends up coming off like an arrogant dictator-wannabe. Hobbes openly proposes an armed monarchy (at a time when the pitfalls of that system were pretty well on full display) for a population of psychopathic brutes, and comes off like a sympathetic, if deeply cynical, humanist. That is a powerful contrast, and I admit it may be informed by my own bias. Given the similarities between the texts’ proposals, however, it’s just too glaring to overlook.

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