April 30, 2010

One-Dimensional University

    Dear all,
    I am writing with news of an an exciting open workshop on the relationship between University, knowledge and neoliberalism, to be held in the Department of Sociology (12 Woodland Road) on the 5 May from 2-6pm (followed by a drinks reception), here in the University of Bristol.
    A fine panel of speakers, from a number of different disciplines, has been assembled to share their insights on contemporary developments taking place in the Higher Education landscape.
    The speakers are:
    Susan Robertson (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol) 'The business of universities: four tendencies in the transformation of the higher education sector'
    John Holmwood (School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham) 'Disciplines, interdiciplinarity and the neo-liberal University'
    Mark Fisher (Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths) 'Eliminating Business Ontology from the University'
    Harriet Bradley (Department of Sociology, University of Bristol and Vice-president of the UCU at Bristol) 'What is to be done: unions, collectivism and resistance to neoliberalism'
    Each of the speakers will provide a short talk on the subject from their own perspective. We hope that these talks will then provide a basis for a broad discussion about the content and the political implications of the ongoing changes as well as the possibilities of response and action. The event is open to all students and members of academic and support staff and we very much hope that you will be able to join the discussion on Wednesday 5th May.
    Best wishes,
    The Philosophy of Social Science Study Group
Posted by mark at 12:56 PM | TrackBack

Middlesex closure

Many readers will already be familiar with the news that administrators at Middlesex have announced the decision to close the Philosophy department.

Infinite Thought will obviously be a major hub in the struggle against the closures ... go there for latest news ....

There is a Facebook group

As Necessary Agitation argues, "Whatever party wins at the coming election, there are going to be massive, and I mean massive, job losses and departmental closures across the country. We haven’t even began to feel the pinch yet." We are entering a new terrain, in which the struggle over education will be absolutely central. I would urge people to write to the Middlesex administrators in question:

    Vice-Chancellor of the University, Michael Driscoll, m.driscoll@mdx.ac.uk;

    Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise, Waqar Ahmad, w.ahmad@mdx.ac.uk;

    Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic, Margaret House, m.house@mdx.ac.uk;

    Dean of the School of Arts & Education, Ed Esche, e.esche@mdx.ac.uk.

    (The full set of emails is m.driscoll@mdx.ac.uk; w.ahmad@mdx.ac.uk; m.house@mdx.ac.uk; e.esche@mdx.ac.uk).

    The co-ordinators of the campaign against the closures request that if you send an email, you also blind copy (BCC) it to the campaign email, savemdxphil@gmail.com.

My letter is below:

    Dear Professor Driscoll, Professor Ahmad, Professor House, and Professor Esche,

    I wish to add my voice to the wholly justified discontent about the proposed closure of the philosophy department at Middlesex University. It is one of the very few philosophy departments in the UK which seriously engage with Continental philosophy, and the consequences of removing such a well-renowned centre for the study of European philosophy will be extremely serious for intellectual life in this country. Since the issues and theories with which Continental Philosophy engages are so important for students and academics in the humanities in general, you can expect the sense of outrage that has already been expressed to intensify over the coming months. Many have benefited from the work going on at Middlesex directly (by being students there, as many of my most gifted friends were), but many more have benefited indirectly from the numerous conferences that the department has organised and the publications it has overseen.
    The decision comes at a moment when the terrible consequences of allowing narrowly defined business interests and ‘the market’ to dominate all aspects of culture are becoming increasingly clear. The time when closures like this would be meekly accepted is over. If this decision is not reversed, expect a long and bitter struggle.
    Yours sincerely
    Dr Mark Fisher
    Tutor in Philosophy at the City Literary Institute, London
    Visiting Fellow, the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London

Posted by mark at 06:45 AM | TrackBack

April 14, 2010

Return the gift: Richard Kelly's The Box



I wouldn't say that Ricard Kelly's The Box is a hauntological film, but it shares certain affinities with the way someone like Ghost Box redream the Weird. The Box is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, who occupies something like the same position in the American Weird that Ghost Box's touchstone, Nigel Kneale, does in the UK Weird. Both Kneale and Matheson operated in an interstitial generic space - between SF and Horror - proper to the Weird, in a pulp infrastucture - paperbacks, television, B cinema - that has now largely disappeared. Matheson has yet to quite acquire the auteur status that Kneale enjoyed, but this only adds to his pulp-anonymous artisan allure; there's a special kind of delight in realising that films you'd likely as not first encountered apparently randomly, on late night TV - The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Omega Man, Duel (as recently discussed by Graham) - were in fact written by the same individual. (Matheson also wrote the screenplay for what - leaving aside the Kneale-scripted Quatermass and the Pit - is perhaps Hammer's greatest film, The Devil Rides Out.)

Much like Jacob's Ladder, which it resembles in a number of respects, The Box is a Weird take on the 1970s. Or rather, it draws together a number of Weird threads that were already present in the 70s. Like Jacob's Ladder and much hauntological music, The Box captures a certain grain of the 70s. The Box feels like a redreaming of the Weird rather than a revival in part because of the very incoherence that some have complained about. This "incoherence" is of a particular type; it isn't simply a failure of coherence so much as the generation of an oneiric (in)consistency which doesn't add up (into a final resolution) but which doesn't fragment into nonsense either.

The dream atmosphere is reinforced by the way that Kelly incorporates aspects of his own life into the film - the characters of Arthur and Norma Lewis are apparently based closely on his own parents - into the diegesis. But rather than the destranging tendencies at work in something like the new Dr Who - the Weird subordinated to familialism and emotionalism - The Box goes in the other direction, introducing the Weird into the family home - in parallel with how television used to do the same thing. The lines between what Kelly's home life and the Weird must have been soft in any case: his father worked at NASA at the time when the Viking probes were landing on Mars.

The Box is based on Matheson's 1970 short story, "Button Button", later adapated into an episode of the revived Twilight Zone in 1986. To be more accurate, The Box uses both the original story and the Twilight Zone episode as elements in a simulated dreamwork which simultaneously extrapolates from the two versions and condenses them into an unstable compound. The result is a labyrinthine structure which bears some relation to Lynch's Inland Empire (Inland Empire, incidentally, was the last film to creep me out as much as The Box did). The Box is defined by the tension between the structure of the labyrinth - an absolute labyrinth, leading nowhere except deeper into itself - and the structure of the dilemma - in which reality seems to resolve into a set of disjunctions.

It's possible to delimit a number of distinct but connected levels at which the film operates.

The ethical The most simple level on which the film works - the film's entry level - is that of the ethical. All three versions of "Button, Button" turn on a dilemma: not so much an ethical dilemma as a dilemma about whether to set aside the ethical altogether. A well dressed stranger, Mr Steward, arrives and presents the Lewises with a box with a button on top of it. If they press the button, Steward informs them, they will receive a large sum of money (in The Box it is a million dollars); however, someone that they don't know will die. In all three versions, it the wife who decides to push the button. Here, the versions diverge: in Matheson's original story, after Norma pushes the button, she receives the money as insurance compensation for the death of her husband. When she complains that Steward had told her that the person who died would be someone she didn't know, Steward asks: "did you really know your husband?" In The Twilight Zone version - which Matheson reputedly hated - the ending is different. Here, when Steward has handed over the money, he pointedly says to the couple, "I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don't know." The Box adopts this version of the story, but this is only the beginning of the film, the first act, as it were.


Unitended consequences "Button, Button" is clearly an update of W.W. Jacobs' story "The Monkey's Paw" - in which a family wishes for a sum of money, only to receive it in compensation for the death of their son. Jacobs' story was itself a play on older tales about the unintended consequences of wish fulfilment. As Wiener observed in God And Golem: A Comment On Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges On Religion, such unintended consequences arise because "the operation of magic is singularly literal-minded [in that] if it grants you anything at all, it grants you exactly what you ask for, not what you should have asked for or what you intend." "The magic of automatization, and in particular the kind of automatization where the devices learn," he adds, "may be expected to be similarly literal-minded". Like the cybernetic machine, the wish-fulfilling object (the monkey's paw) delivers exactly what it says it will: but what it gives you may not be what you want (or what you think you want).

What Matheson's tale adds to Jacobs' story is the question of knowledge. Matheson's story brings into play the old philosophical "problem of other minds", now applied to the marital situation: even those closest to us are ultimately opaque, black boxes into which we can never see. Naturally, this also rasies the equally ancient problem of self-knowledge, but given a psychoanalytic edge. We are alien to ourselves; our real desires may be unkown to us, emerging only in parapraxes and dreams. Here the oneiric form of The Box collapses into its content - the box, like the dream according to Freud, fulfils our wishes. The inevitable psychoanalytic conjecture into which Matheson's story tempts us is the thought that perhaps the wife does get exactly what she wants - that the death of her husband was her wish all along.) In this sense the box would be like the Room in Tarkovsky's Stalker: the stalker Porcupine goes into the wish-fulfilling Room hoping for the return of his dead brother, but receives instead immense riches. In its very unreflective automatism - giving Porcupine exactly what he wants - the Room judges and condemns him.

The political What Matheson's story also adds to "The Monkey's Paw", of course, is the fact that the bad consequences are not simply unintended; they were just supposed to happen to someone else. This is what makes it so much nastier than Jacobs' tale. Whereas the family in "The Monkey's Paw" are guilty only of foolishness and greed, the couple in "Button, Button" knowingly trade another's death in exchange for wealth. In The Box this is especially shocking because both Norma and Arthur Lewis seem to be "good" people - Cameron Diaz's Norma in particular is immensely sympathetic. Perhaps what allows her to press the button is the unresolved ontological status of the box itself; the thought that it might be a prank (Arthur establishes that the box is empty) allows Norma to perform a kind of fetishist disavowal ("this might not be real, so I might as well do it"). As Hauntagonist put it on his Twitter feed: "the button in The Box is a nice example of how interactivity creates anxiety & fetishistic disavowal. Diaz doesn't believe but she believes 'the subject supposed to believe' does, Arlington Steward being the stand-in for the Big Other."

Here we are back in the realm of the ethical - but the ethical bleeds out into the political. The choice to press the button has a special force in the era of globalization and climate change. We know that our wealth and comfort are achieved at the price of others' suffering and exploitation, that our smallest actions contribute to ecological catastrophe, but the causal chains connecting our actions with their consequences are so complicated as to be unmappable - they lie far beyond not only our experience, and any possible experience. (Hence the inadequacy of folk politics.) What the Lewises are in effect asked to do is affirm their plugging into this causal matrix - to formally accept the world and worldliness. The significance of this is that only the negative choice counts - to not press the button would be to choose a freedom that is not available to anyone at present (we are all so intricately embedded into the global capitalist matrix that it isn't possible to simply opt out). But to press the button is to give up on freedom, to choose blind determinism.

The existentialist Which brings us to the most explicit intertext that Kelly introduces into The Box: Sartre's Huis Clos. Huis Clos is everwhere in The Box; Norma, a high school teacher, is teaching it; she and Arthur attend an amateur dramatic performance of the play. At the point when it is becoming evident that the Lewises' choice will not be some private shame but will infect and destroy every aspect of their lives, the couple find the words "No Exit" written in the condensation of their car's windscreen.

The resonance of Huis Clos is clear: this is a text about those who can no longer choose, who have ceased to be subjects. Fearing that they will be killed, the Lewises try to return the briefcase of money immediately, the very instant that Steward tells them that he will be sure to give the box to someone who doesn't know them. But the horror is that Norma and Arthur have made a choice that means that it is now too late: they are already (as if) dead. There is no returning the gift.

It is astonishing that the briefcase containing the money is immediately desublimated. Kelly could have had the Lewises spend the money, their enjoyment shadowed by their anxieties about what they had done ... Instead, the briefcase is immediately dumped in their basement, never to be seen or - I think - mentioned again.

There is no possibility of returning the money - no way of taking back the choice to press the button - but there is no end to choosing either. Locked in an endlessly ramifying labyrinth, Arthur and Norma keep encountering further dilemmas - but the choice is now between bad (purgatory) and worse (hell); or else, as when Arthur is offered a choice of three gateways, two leading to eternal damnation, one to salvation, they have a quality of grotesque gameshow randomness.

The religious The mention of "salvation" is part of a persistent religious thread in the film. As the alien big Other, the one conducting "research" into the moral worth of human beings and judging them accordingly, and with the power of damnation and redemption in his hands, Steward clearly stands in for God. Yet he is a God who also performs the Satanic function of tempting humans.

The SF/ conspiracy Steward's position as the (extra-terrestrial) big Other, the subject supposed to know, also somewhat echoes Sartre's discussion of the alien, as outlined by Infinite Thought here:

    Sartre, towards the end of his gigantic unfinished Critique of Dialectical Reason from 1960, suddenly launches into a discussion of Martians. ‘For [the] Martian...who has long known the technique of inter-planetary navigation, we are...an animal species whose scientific and intellectual development have been retarded by certain circumstances…[the Martian] will note that the inhabitants of this underdeveloped planet have certain behavioural patterns orientated towards certain objectives...’ Because the hypothetical Martian will be at a particular scientific level (the assumption here is that it will be a much higher one), when the extent of human knowledge is revealed to the alien, there enters into the conceptual arena an exterior agent who for the first time knows what we do not know as a species – the Martian thus serves as the big Other for the entire collective enumeration of human beings. This limit case of the big Other Martian becomes, as Sartre puts it ‘a deep opacity, shadows in our understanding, a negation of interiority in our hearts.’

The Box is thick with references to conspiracy films (and includes some of the most creepily paranoid scenes since the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The full extent of the collusion of the authorities with Steward's remains unclear even at the end of the film. The threads connecting NASA, the Viking probe and Steward's research project fray off into rumour and supposition. The labyrinth never ends.


Posted by mark at 06:36 PM | TrackBack

April 07, 2010

'I dread him getting his hands on Alan Garner'


There was a great deal of reaction to the Alice post...

Wayne Blackledge:

    Great post on Tim Burton etc. I have no intention of contributing to it's 'boffo', but there are few films where the trailer alone makes me seethe.

    Funny enough, I think Burton - and Depp - represent a lot of the neoliberal arrogance that you point to with regards to 'Captalist Realism'.

    We'll start with Johnny Depp, a pretty good actor - he had a Keaton-esque cachet in his more watchable roles, playing blank, 'masked' AMERICANS in films like 'Dead Man', 'Donnie Brasco' or 'Gilbert Grape'. But now he seems to be determined to colonise British 'icons' with his irritating (and misguided) 'Anglophilia': J.M. Barrie, Sweeney Todd, the Earl of Rochester, Long John Silver ('softened' as junkie Keith Richards), Willy Wonka ('softened' as paedophile M.J.) ad nausaem. He's even done it with U.S. 'icons' (Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen Sondheim and... Dillinger?? Where was Billy Bob Thornton??). I've heard the frequent argument that producers 'have to' cast him as if appropriate/British actors aren't 'bankable' and we're all too stupid to be interested without Johnny's mimicry for two hours - as though you couldn't already 'pre-sell' Alice, Dillinger, Jack the Ripper or Treasure Island-meets-Star Wars! I'm afraid the likelihood of him playing Joseph K, Pip, Merlin, Dracula, or even Bryan Ferry seems a given...

    I see it relating to the hideous state of British TV and pop music these days. Lacking any imaginative courage (and worse - any faith in the public imagination), the 'suits' decide what they think makes us interested, the already established and overexposed get another chance to irritate us, and 'what the people want' becomes as mysterious and manipulated as the word of God (does Depp actually guarantee a hit, as only about three stars actually do these days?). It does indeed become a case of being culturally 'policed' by 'lawmakers' who themselves don't have a clue about the 'law' (or indeed if one exists).

    They seem to willfully forget that true 'cultural phenomena' (the ones that actually do generate unbelievable long-term profits and make a cultural impact) were considered very risky when they were 'pitched' - Star Wars, The Simpsons, HBO drama, Pixar, Seinfeld, Marvel superheroes, Dr. Dre's hit machine etc. etc. - they all came from 'the outside' to varying degrees (without anything left to appropriate, all capital has to process is its own washed up imaginative resources?). Now it's all 'tough guy' capitalism with the kind of safety nets considered 'unsustainable' or 'mollycoddling' for smaller cultural enterprises (or indeed the majority of society). The modern 'bucaneer' capitalists pride themselves on AVOIDING risk.

    As for Tim Burton - it seems personal. He's managed to take what I loved as an 8-year old and concoct 're-imaginings' (regime change) into their worst versions (perhaps of any medium) - Batman, Planet of the Apes, Alice, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc. (I dread him getting his hands on Frankenstein, Alan Garner or even Dennis Potter) The 'big questions', subtexts and cultural specifities (which of course any child could understand) become 'therapeutic' allegories about rich L.A. teenagers who feel like 'outcasts' because they liked Siouxsie while the rest of the school dug Duran Duran (what's 'at stake' in a bubble free from peril or risk). He even managed to this with Planet of the Apes - removing any of its obvious pulpified references to class, race, religion, nuclear war and species extinction - all of which was easily contemplated by my inner-city primary school).

    And this becomes neoliberal discourse's extreme of 'weirdness' and 'imagination' (how many articles have we seen about Burton's 'unique' imagination)! Infantilising children indeed. If it isn't (rich) adults shoving dog-eat-dog neoliberalism into children's texts (especially in 15, 18 rated movies/music sneakily 'sold' to kids), it's the shameless celebration of limited, timid 'imaginations'. Although I was never a big fan of Disney, he at least INNOVATED and RISKED with his cultural colonisation.

    Sorry if I've gone on a bit, but Depp and Burton really do touch a raw nerve for me (in a way that sanctimonious dimwit plagiarist James Cameron doesn't). You do seem to have an uncanny knack for bringing up stuff I think about a bit too much!

Ed Field:

    Just a few points that may be of interest – Watching the ‘tea party’ scene from Jonathon Millers version of Alice In Wonderland, I was put in mind of Wittgenstein and his attempts to tease out the nature of our language by estranging it from us. I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that Wittgenstein’s approach to language in his latter works has an affinity with Lacan. In a sense you could see Wittgenstein as trying to unseat our view of the symbolic order/language as founded on objective, rigorous logic. Logic, Wittgenstein argues, is ultimately tautological, which, in Lacanian terms, is perhaps another way of saying that the symbolic order is ultimately self-referential/self supporting. Your insight regards ‘Alice In Wonderland’ as expressing a child’s perspective of the adult world, as made up of incomprehensible rituals and arbitrary conventions, is almost like a dramatisation of Wittgenstein’s point about the fact of ‘rule following’ not having any ultimate justification in logical/symbolic terms. The best you can offer for why you’re following a rule is by ‘pointing’ to or explaining the rule, which explains nothing. I think Wittgenstein’s latter work was trying to invoke the symbolic vertigo of wonderland as a means of pointing out just how little grounding the symbolic order has. Anyway, I’m sure this has all been thrashed out before, and no doubt more lucidly, but I was just wondering why discussion of Wittgenstein doesn’t crop up in your posts? The parallels between Lacan and Wittgenstein seem numerous. Anyhow, sorry to waffle on! I knew the Burton film would be a load of toss, and I couldn’t agree more with your critique. Another thing that may be of interest regards your discussion of the fate of popular music: I’m a music composer for various production companies, or what used to be called a library music composer. A few weeks ago I was discussing with the boss of a new production company the status of the music industry. The music business, as we all know, is in crisis regards record sales. Their solution to this problem is to exploit advertising, by securing deals with TV networks or commercial companies to have their artists featured as musical accompaniment to television shows or adverts. This trend is intensifying to the point that companies who produce music specifically for the media market feel their market niche is threatened. The guy I was talking to even used the political analogy of how notions of left and right amongst mainstream political parties have dissolved to explain how the traditionally conceived difference between popular music and library music no longer held! Strangely enough this new approach to how music is consumed cuts both ways - I find that music I’ve composed for production companies has found its way to Youtube, and is being appreciated outside of its original context. The whole rationale behind this guys business is to capitalise on this ambiguity, by providing music that is amenable to both commercial media usage and ‘private’ usage, (and no doubt the industry is thinking in similar terms). I’m not necessarily suggesting that his approach will become the norm, but the very fact that this notion is being discussed certainly supports some of your arguments regards the declining cultural autonomy of popular music in an age of capitalist realism.

The Wire's Rob Young:

    Great entry on Burton's Alice, which I haven't seen (and had no intention of seeing). But you must, must see the J Miller version - your hunches about it, from an isolated clip, are entirely correct - it IS highly entropic, swirling with the stagnant dust of high Victorian imperialism - no animal costumes at all (a stroke of production-design genius). And your equation of Beatles tracks are bang OTM as well - I wrote about the film in relation to psychedelia in my book - in fact the group went into the studio within a week of the broadcast, on 1 Jan 1967, to properly start work on Sgt Pepper's, and I'm convinced the promotional film they made for Strawberry Fields Forever - shot at the end of that month - is highly Carroll/Miller influenced (backwards/slow motion, sharp focus-pulls, a very weird tree, a disembowelled piano).

Jeremy Gilbert:

    Here's a thing:

    If you want to triangulate Alice with Kafka in a particularly surprising way-

    have you ever read the original 'Mary Poppins' books?

    I'd be amazed, given that I've never met anyone else who has...

    A long way from Julie Andrews' already-retro-Fordist (masquerading-as-retro-Edwardian) supernanny, MP is presented as this sort of cosmic superbeing explicitly because she's able to occupy at one and the same time the position of the inscrutable Other, the pre-Oedipal Cosmic (the Real which, we are told, entry into language directly deprives the ordinary infant of access to...there's an incredible scene in which she converses with a newborn infant who refuses to believe her when she tells him that within a year he will no longer be able to converse with birds or hear the music of the spheres) and the fairytale Imaginary (the only bit that Disney focusses on, of course).

    But it's the persistent inscrutability and inexorability of the symbolic order which she at once embodies and traverses which is central to all of the key episodes, and which lends the books this persistent air of Kafka-ish paranoia (power is always elsewhere, never apologises, never explains). MP is a kind of supernanny I think, but not a Marxist one (more pure Lacan, actually - a sort of Lacanian fantasy of feminine jouissance in full possession of itself). I'm not saying they're up there with Carrol or Kafka, but they're a lot further from the Tao of Pooh than most people would expect...

    I read them all when I was nine and remained quietly fascinated all through my teenage cyberpunk / Lovecraft / High Modernist phases - eventually tried to write an essay about them as an undergraduate just to nail what the fascination had been, and why it was Kafka, of all the books I'd read subsequently, which seemed most reminiscent.

    Maybe they wouldn't seem so interesting now...I wonder...

Meanwhile, Gordon Hon responds with an interesting post on his blog. (Gordon's point on boredom, in particular, is extremely interesting, and it's something that I hope to return to: certainly old school boredom seems to have been extirpated now, replaced with a new boredom that somehow involves a thin fascination ... a kind of dissolute impluse to flick and click that is boring even as it weakly grips us...)

Posted by mark at 02:05 PM | TrackBack