Ktismatics

25 August 2008

The Lives of Others, 2007

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 7:53 am

From Wikipedia:

Donnersmark’s parents were both from East Germany. He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state. He said the idea for the movie came to him when he was trying to come up with a movie scenario for a film class. As he listened to a piece of music, he recalled Maxim Gorky’s anecdote about Lenin listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata:

“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!” Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: “But I can’t listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm—– what a hellishly difficult job!”

Donnersmarck told a New York Times reporter: “I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment.”

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37 Comments »

  1. Hm—– what a hellishly difficult job!

    And how atrociously he did it!

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    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 25 August 2008 @ 9:09 am

  2. This was a very well crafted and moving story, with the Stasi spy (reading Brecht and listening to headphones) turning in a nicely nuanced, touching performance. In this story the East German spy starts turning against his own job, covertly intervening on behalf of his targets to save them. Zizek says the plot is unrealistic, that the spies never worked alone and were constantly surveilled themselves, precluding any sort of individual agency countervailing against the State apparatus.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 25 August 2008 @ 9:18 am

  3. “One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people.”

    They don’t want to bite just anybody’s hand off, just the ones who want to beat them on the head. I’d seen this before, but never realized how abjectly stupid a man he was, to say something this flippant, contorted, sick and meaningless.

    It’s much on the level of this purple-prose specialist of the New York City Ballet, who describes Darci Kistler in a Movado Watch ad a few year ago. She is sometimes (not nearly even always) described as ‘Balanchine’s last muse’. But she has been for many years MARRIED to the current director of the company, and still dances. She was just doing the ad for the money, and not a single word of Toni Bentley’s prose (incredibly, she was allowed to publish this in the New York Review of Books) is anything but her own jerk-off fantasy. I’m surprised Darci didn’t sue:

    “In the full-page ad, her beautiful, mournful gaze, twenty years after losing her maestro, peers like a blond widow out of a black web. She, the last muse of the Man Who Knew Time, is posed with her arm across her neck like a noose.”

    I guess that was an alcoholic hallucination or something, but it is enough like Lenin’s fatuous ejaculations to merit juxtaposition.

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    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 25 August 2008 @ 9:21 am

  4. Here’s Zizek’s take on this movie. He says that it fails to capture the true horror of GDR totalitarian paranoia because it leaves too much room for individualism. So the reason for spying on the playwright is that one of the top governmental figures has the hots for his girlfriend: corrupt but understandable in terms of ordinary human motivation. Zizek contends that the sheer impersonal inhumanity is what made the East’s regime so horrible. He suggests that the individual integrity acted on by both the playwright and the spy would have been inconceivable in the GDR. Leaving space for heroism in the GDR is, Zizek implies, a form of “ostalgie,” or nostalgia for the East, that continues to sustain the fantasy of a “good communism” immanently flowing beneath the state oppression and waiting to be released. Zizek contends that this ostalgia persists while Nazi nostalgia is completely absent because no one has yet fully exposed the terror of totalitarian Communism.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 25 August 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  5. You might like 1999’s Est-Ouest with Oleg Menshikov and Sandrine Bonnard, a beautiful French actress. And superb Deneuve as a wonderful over-blown actress who helps them escape. Sandrine moves from PARIS–get that!–to Stalinist Russia and you get the total sense of that lovely combination of shabbiness, paranoia and claustrophobia the minute they move into their horrible apartment.

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    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 25 August 2008 @ 5:11 pm

  6. A good example of the Master’s sloppiness and intellectual slobbery

    using ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism?

    the Master here attempts to make an argument on the basis of dialectic negation: just because there is an absence of Nazi-stalgic movies, this SURELY must mean that there is emancipatory potential in Communism!!! But, dialectic negation is not the only possible basis from which to make a comment on this phenomenon; and besides it is technically accurate, because Zack Snyder’s 300, for example, is a Nazi-stalgic film in the way it fetishizes Leni Riefenstahl imagery.

    The rest of the article is pure nonsense as well: ”The Lives of Others” performs on essentially Communist premises (Marxist humanism). It is not an effective critique of COmmunism because it is a Communist film: backed by Buena Vista, it promotes the Bambi agenda.The same goes for its general bening and positive outlook, which Clysmatics being my cognitive-positive dad could not help but underscore (well-crafted, nuanced, touching…)
    Homosexual undercurrent? None that I could detect; why does every friendship and brotherhood have to be gay.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 25 August 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. technically accurate should be technically inaccurate

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    Comment by parodycenter — 25 August 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  8. I didn’t get the homosexual thing at all either. It’s curious that people regard Zizek as some sort of Marxist, since here he’s denying any underlying possibility of a purer humanistic Communism, that the underlying ideology of really existing communism is just as repulsive as the ideology of Nazism. It’s interesting that you regard the premise itself as communistic, since it has all the trappings of neoliberalism, with individual morality and will overcoming the collective oppression. But then there’s the suicided director who’s mourning the ideological and aesthetic purity of Brecht. Brecht I should learn more about: during Hitler’s reign he went to the States, where he eventually testified against Communist sympathizers even before the McCarthy era, then he went back to East Germany.

    I did like this movie though. It had an old-fashioned feel to its narrative, satisfying even in its predictability. I also liked the bit at the end where the director tracks down the files documenting his surveillance, then goes to see the guy who saved him.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 25 August 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  9. It’s interesting that you regard the premise itself as communistic, since it has all the trappings of neoliberalism, with individual morality and will overcoming the collective oppression

    well but you know about my theory that neoliberalism conquered by adopting the strategies of Communism, most notably humanism-through-political-correctness. The whole love-desire part, angelic voyeur observing the love affair between Christa and Max, borrowed from Wim Wenders’s cloying WINGS OF DESIRE, is very Disney, Bambi-style. And the film ends up rooting for the ”common man” as well. The crudely neoliberal part, of course, is that the Western society the Stazi officer ends up encountering in the end is just flawless. Capitalism is just perfect.

    Nostalgia is the one thing worth discussing in this regard… more on the Wong Kar Wai post

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    Comment by parodycenter — 25 August 2008 @ 11:28 pm

  10. As I wrote in an old CPC post, the movie should have ended by showing how neolib and Communism are woven into a Moebius strip, but its conclusion, rather, is that neolib is inevitable is what I mean

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    Comment by parodycenter — 25 August 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  11. The Moebius seems more like common ground: democratic humanism. Corrupt forces are at work, which may be bureaucratic or very personal evil. These forces infringe on personal freedom and compromise integrity through hegemonic use of power: to spy, to coerce, to incarcerate. Resistance seems futile against such forces. And yet, the human spirit is not completely crushed: there are glimmers of hope in even the most seemingly compromised individuals. Through exercising their commitment to human virtue, individuals find lines of flight together through the most unlikely of alliances; e.g., a playwright and a Stasi spy. As you’ve noted, this is the story in Wall-E as well, with the humanism enacted by post-human robots. I see this theme not as communistic but as democratic.

    The only direct link to capitalism occurs at the end, as you say, where the well-stocked bookstore, named after Lenin as I recall, now shows the new book by our saved playwright hero. The book is dedicated to the old spy. “This book is for me,” he tells the clerk with pride: it’s an inspirational remark — the author meant it as an homage to him — but it’s also a statement of personal ownership, which he buys on the free market with cash.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 August 2008 @ 4:45 am

  12. the human spirit is not completely crushed: there are glimmers of hope in even the most seemingly compromised individuals.

    that’s Communism – the human being is intrinsically good and has to simply develop his potential relieved of the constraints of private property

    I’m not sure what ”democratic humanism” is but based on your description may be just the kind of a truism that allowed capitalism to appropriate COmmunism

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    Comment by parodycenter — 26 August 2008 @ 6:18 am

  13. is book is for me,” he tells the clerk with pride: it’s an inspirational remark — the author meant it as an homage to him — but it’s also a statement of personal ownership, which he buys on the free market with cash.

    struck me more as a Lacanian statemaint – we only want to be recognized in the gaze of the Other (tht is the central thema of the film as well: the lives of Others are our own lives)

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    Comment by parodycenter — 26 August 2008 @ 6:19 am

  14. “Removed from the constraints of private property” is the main distinction between communistic and capitalistic versions of humanism. Democratic institutions can operate in either economic ideology: as in Singapore and China, capitalistic economies can thrive in totalitarian regimes as well as democratic ones.

    I would certainly be pleased if somebody someday recognized something good I had once done but that had gone unnoticed. This spy certainly hoped his heroism would one day be recognized, otherwise he wouldn’t have left his telltale fingerprint in red ink on the last page of the dossier. I don’t think he “only” wanted this recognition from the other, any more than he did it out of some repressed homosexual desire for the playwright. He wanted to do the right thing AND he wanted to be recognized by the other. “The lives of Others are our own lives” is I think a humanistic impulse, a closing of the circuit where the desire to do good achieves fulfillment. It’s a hope I would like to cultivate in myself.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 August 2008 @ 6:38 am

  15. Zizek argued that the corrupt but all-too-human lustful motivation of the governmental higher-up failed to recognize the inhuman systemic totality of the GDR’s corruption. Then he says that the spy was motivated by his own repressed lust for the playwright, which nullifies any sort of latent humanism among the socialist people. This I think is perverse on Zizek’s part, as well as politically suspect.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 August 2008 @ 8:18 am

  16. that’s Communism – the human being is intrinsically good and has to simply develop his potential relieved of the constraints of private property

    Yes, and one will note that the ‘purest, most vulgar Communist’ will wish to crown and champion the MOST compromised individuals just so long as they don’t still have the property, whereas the pure and vulgar Communist still does possess it. But a choice between an odious beast (forget about a truly pathetic suffering poor person) and a highly accomplished person or just innocent victims–why, there’s no contest at all, which accounts for the deep sympathy by the stupidest leninistas for all death-penalty candidates (I don’t like the death penalty either, but it’s for selfish reasons, too fucking weird-oh, but as for the serial killers, I lose interest in their formative years of trauma rather quickly at this point.

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    Comment by Patrick J. Mullins — 26 August 2008 @ 9:25 am

  17. Says Zizek with regard to what he considers the implausibility of the playwright character: One cannot but recall here a witty formula of life under a hard Communist regime: Of the three features—personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence—it was possible to combine only two, never all three. If one was honest and supportive, one was not very bright; if one was bright and supportive, one was not honest; if one was honest and bright, one was not supportive.

    I infer that Zizek regards the threefold combination as possible in the West, and that he himself manifests this possibility — a possibility that was denied him in the East. On the other hand, he may be fully committed to the “honest and bright but not supportive” combination wherever he lives. Both the playwright and the spy shifted away from supportive, and in order to do this they consciously also pursued a course of dishonesty relative to the order of the regime. They were honest and supportive in the alternative reality of democratic humanism.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 August 2008 @ 10:25 am

  18. The lives of Others are our own lives” is I think a humanistic impulse, a closing of the circuit where the desire to do good achieves fulfillment. It’s a hope I would like to cultivate in myself.

    I always knew there was something angelic about you, dad. Even your low-key depression resembles that of the gentle-eyed Stazi officer. Coupled with the news that my mom is breast feeding a stray cat, it all just closes into a perfect do-gooder cycle of fulfillment this week.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 26 August 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  19. I just knew you’d understand.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 26 August 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  20. “Homosexual undercurrent? None that I could detect; why does every friendship and brotherhood have to be gay.”

    I enjoyed the thriller aspect of this film but not the characterisation, which I found unconvincing. So, overall I wasn’t keen on it. I did not see any latent homosexuality in it at all. The kindest thing one can say about Zizek’s comments is that he has thrown another curveball at readers to make them say, “Eh?” or “Wha-a-at?”. This is a constant feature of his output. He throws the curveball to pique interest, it does not matter if the argument doesn’t stack up. It’s also his way of maintaining the image of philosopher as the man who sees further, or what is hidden. An unkinder way of seeing Zizek’s reading of supposed homosexuality in the film is that he is homophobic and suggests that homosexuality and the impersonal state can coexist, and are maybe coextensive: THE STASI MAN IS A GAY!!!! – And, as we all know, gays hate women! Zizek’s huge popularity astounds me. The man is an idiot. Well, I suppose there are more popular idiots in the world…

    Zizek’s main task in his article, it seems to me, is to dismantle any suggestion that what Ktismatics calls “democratic humanism” would have been able to operate under such an impersonal regime, primarily because he wishes to expose such democratic humanism as a Western fantasy. Who knows? It is a fact that the Wall came down. People in East Germany took pickaxes to it. As far as I remember, no one was shot dead by the East German authorities then. So, it is not inconceivable that something that could be called democratic humanism was operating there before the Wall came down.

    “It’s curious that people regard Zizek as some sort of Marxist, since here he’s denying any underlying possibility of a purer humanistic Communism, that the underlying ideology of really existing communism is just as repulsive as the ideology of Nazism.”

    Ktismatics, I think he is suggesting that communism still contains good, utopian ideas rather than Nazism, which is intrinsically repulsive to anyone who is not a Nazi. He is not into humanistic communism because he is more utopian. Communism will transform man (for the better) beyond humanism, which is too much like democratic humanism. As a utopian ideal, communism is intrinsically better than Nazism because it follows a similar line of thought as “All men are created equal”. In terms of raw economics, this is a utopian idea rather than statement of fact.

    Zizek believes all too naively in the totality of totalitarian regimes. Totality is their fantasy – and one that can never be fully achieved. Even in Huxley’s ironic vision the protagonist is aware that something is wrong with his life that Soma just won’t soothe.

    Zizek also complains that there are no records of wives/girlfriends informing their male partners. Again, how naive is this man? Just because the GDR did not record it does not mean that it could not have happened.
    Unlike Zizek, I think that totalitarian regimes cannot be total because they are personal rather than impersonal. Anyone who was on the receiving end of Stasi surveillance and interogation surely felt a personal brutality, even if the interrogator was “just doing his job”. Any regime which desires to inflitrate every area of a person’s life is involved in the personal, and that flows both ways. The fascists understood this. The communists pretended that this wasn’t the case.

    If neoliberalism has appropriated some communist structures it is like this: nationalisation of the individual (through things like DNA databases etc) and the privatisation of the state (through private prisons, Blackwater or what have you). What links them is the fantasy of control.

    Politically, the systems, whether privatised or state, should be immune to appeal because it is assumed/demanded that they are perfect and have perfect knowledge. This is what gives them their impersonal character and makes people “just do their job”. However, behind this the personal remains. Those that have power, or a sliver of privacy, can indulge their whims, including democratic humanism or lechery. This was the case with the politburo and with the Honeckers and anybody the state favoured. Jealousy and other human emotions remain despite the glorious surveillance of the state.

    It’s been some time since I saw the film but I seem to remember that the writer does not impossibly embody all three of the qualities that Zizek claims precisely because, until that point, he had written nice Soviet-realist plays (the play rejigged in 1992 looks even worse!). The new play that he is writing is different. All the writers, Christa and the Stasi man are taking risks by getting involved in this.

    Perhaps Donnersmarck’s point was that someone can be moved by Beethoven (and Brecht) to the point where the do not want to either beat them or pat them on the head. It’s not very likely, admittedly, which is why I felt the Stasi man’s conversion was Hollywood soppiness. Other annoyances were Christa’s death, which seemed less like an outcome of gay wish fulfilment but Hollywood morality of the fallen woman redeeming herself through sacrifice; and the insufferable heroic goodness of the writer. The characters became archetypes because of this.

    As for the last sequence, which really did stretch one’s disbelief and was very cloying, the writer did not meet up with the Stasi man for a gay tryst or anything else. The book is based on the Stasi man’s life. He doesn’t have to pay with cash for ownership. He already owns it – something the GDR (and himself at one time) wanted to deny.

    If he wants to be recognised by the Other, then it is only to say, “This is my life, not yours.” Both the writer and the Stasi man have a curiosity about the other – unsurprising when one considers what they have been through. This seems to me to be a humanistic impulse and connection. I’m not sure what else one would call it.

    To be is to be perceived, said Berkeley. If this really is our only sociology – or even ontology – then, unless you allow a benign God a la Berkeley, this is the paranoid state.

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    Comment by NB — 29 August 2008 @ 12:39 am

  21. Good thoughtful engagement NB.

    “primarily because he wishes to expose such democratic humanism as a Western fantasy.”

    You may well be right. It’s not clear to me whether Zizek regards this possibility of taking a personal ethical stance on behalf of another, where individual conscience resists social structure, as a fantasy of Western provenance or as the West’s exclusive property. I try to take Zizek’s remarks at face value, as if this is what he really believes, then I get hung up on the self-contradictions that seem to follow almost immediately. But it’s almost always an operation that he’s performing, an attempt to expose gaps through which some sort of new insight might emerge — as if he’s a Lacanian analyst exploring the societal unconscious trying to trigger momentary glimpses of the Real beyond image and language. (This psychoanalytic style is what particularly incenses Parodycenter about Zizek — well, that and Zizek’s Slovenian political agenda.) If Zizek really is trying to be consistently Lacanian, then any of this humanistic business he’s going to dismiss as fantasy. Of course we don’t have to agree with his project, nor do we have to believe that he’s being truthful in any sort of consistent way.

    I’d previously seen the actor who portrays the playwright-hero in Verhoeven’s recent Black Book where, curiously enough, he plays a Gestapo officer with a heart of gold. In that movie (which I didn’t care for), the character does what Zizek says can no longer be done; i.e., offer a “nostalgic” glimpse back at Nazism. There the Gestapo officer performs a personal act of bravery not unlike that of the Stasi spy in this movie. It happens also in Polanski’s The Pianist where, charmed by the music, a Nazi officer helps the Jewish officer evade capture.

    “I think that totalitarian regimes cannot be total because they are personal rather than impersonal.”

    I suppose this remark identifies you as humanistic, since you regard “personal” as something that’s actual rather than merely a fantasy generated by a social order that tries to disguise its totalitarian hegemony over hearts and minds. I agree with you, of course. There’s no question that structural forces constrain freedom of thought and action at both the individual and the collective level, and like Lacan I sometimes wonder whether subjectivity isn’t just an empty space hidden under a lot of persuasive camouflage. Hardt and Negri’s multitude seems to eliminate personal agency from the bottom up, as if we’re all just aggregations of subpersonal vectors shot through the world. In that world even the most anarchic of societal arrangements would do nothing to enhance subjectivity. It seems the personal is in constant peril between the subpersonal and the superpersonal. That I believe really is the case, and is what distinguishes humans from other kinds of animals.

    “the fallen woman redeeming herself through sacrifice; and the insufferable heroic goodness of the writer. The characters became archetypes because of this.”

    I agree. Somebody commented on the Batman movie that women are always the lamest
    characters in superhero movies, so it’s no big deal to kill them off. This actress seemed continually unable to find her own agency, despite the best efforts of the playwright (who is Donnersmarck) and the spy (who is Audience). Crush her under the wheels of stagecraft!

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    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2008 @ 9:08 am

  22. Clysmatics these analyses are all interesting in their own right but the movie bombs already on the sheer cutesy-wootsiness factor; you could replace the characters and the plot with any other Disney production practically and you’ll get to the same conclusion, i.e. that humane-ness survives the grossest of circumstances. Why do you think Buena Vista distributes the movie fer Chrissakes, it’s to be sold on the same shelf where they do ”quality Disney productions”.

    Today I was watching Obama’s inauguration news and marveling once again at the way Americans like to smile so much, and all have these glistening white teeth. I always remember a Serbian fairy-tale about the Gypsy who was selling an old donkey by showing off his glistening white teeth – an indicator of health and happiness ™. The nation’s been Disneyised to an almost caricatural point, I propose compulsory smoking in elementary schools.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 29 August 2008 @ 10:01 am

  23. If neoliberalism has appropriated some communist structures it is like this: nationalisation of the individual (through things like DNA databases etc) and the privatisation of the state (through private prisons, Blackwater or what have you). What links them is the fantasy of control.

    NB what I meant specifically is that neoliberalism adopted Communism’s egalitarian utopia, which even if erroneously was practiced in concretu in Communism, and for a short spell had concretely-humane effects like equal medical insurance for everyone, voided it of concrete content, ergo took it on in spectral form. This was a very specific feature of Yugoslav self-management: the kind of a corporate structure, for example, where the employees PRETEND (in ”as if” mode) that they all have equal salaries, while the difference between the managerial board and the operative are simply too huge for words. Somehow this spectral ”equality and brotherhood” gives a humane face to neoliberalism, but we all know through the wretched debt-ridden lives we live in it, that this isn’t at all true.

    You can sense this spectrality in THE LIVES OF OTHERS as well, because all the while you get the idea that the protagonists are somehow over-the-top idealised despite the film’s po-faced attempt to play out in the ”realism” code complete with Stanislavski acting.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 29 August 2008 @ 10:38 am

  24. In other words I would have nothing against Communist (or Disney) humanism if such a thing as a concrete ”human” entity existed behind the specter, but this ”human”, even if you don’t designate him as an abstraction in post-structuralist terms, is so deeply divided and conflicted that you cannot rely on his consistency let alone goodness!

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    Comment by parodycenter — 29 August 2008 @ 10:40 am

  25. Ktismatics, thanks for your appreciative comments!

    I’ve never thought of myself as a humanist, but there you go.

    “But it’s almost always an operation that he’s performing, an attempt to expose gaps through which some sort of new insight might emerge — as if he’s a Lacanian analyst exploring the societal unconscious trying to trigger momentary glimpses of the Real beyond image and language … If Zizek really is trying to be consistently Lacanian, then any of this humanistic business he’s going to dismiss as fantasy. Of course we don’t have to agree with his project, nor do we have to believe that he’s being truthful in any sort of consistent way.”

    Does this excuse him from being consistent, or truthful? We’re all inconsistent a lot of the time, but why should this be a pedagogic virtue? What meaning, if any, do these momentary glimpses of the Real provide? The clinic is surely different from the newspaper.

    The thing is, once you’ve read one book by Zizek you’ve read them all (I have read more than one!). It’s the same operation over and over again. There is no new insight, just loggorhea. Unless perhaps one thinks that his, for example, gay subtext reading of this film is the Real. Is it not rather his fantasy? And on what criteria does one designate the Real? As something unspeakable? Then you cannot give an example of it.

    I haven’t read Hardt or Negri but I’m wondering about that empty space. It seems to be there to suggest not only is identity hard to pin down – it’s not even there. Maybe it’s not there – but we have to call it something, whether the empty space, the subject, the soul, me, my mind, my body cogito etc. So, even when empty, the identity is made. Where is this empty space exactly? In language? In what language cannot express?

    It’s a bit like if you sat down to dinner with someone and you asked who they were and what they did. They might say, “I’m Jack, and I’m a fireman”. Do we expect him to be sitting there in his fire helmet holding a hose? Is that how we understand identity if we do not have this empty space?

    “the kind of a corporate structure, for example, where the employees PRETEND (in ”as if” mode) that they all have equal salaries, while the difference between the managerial board and the operative are simply too huge for words.”

    PC, I work in a horrible media firm that does not allow unions but is very touchy-feely. There are employee forums where you can talk about chaning the wallpaper but not about pay and conditions.

    “In other words I would have nothing against Communist (or Disney) humanism if such a thing as a concrete ”human” entity existed behind the specter, but this ”human”, even if you don’t designate him as an abstraction in post-structuralist terms, is so deeply divided and conflicted that you cannot rely on his consistency let alone goodness!”

    Yes, but neo-liberalism does not equal life, does not mirror all human relations (even if its advocates fantasise that it does or will eventually). Do you regard your friends or lovers as human? Even if they are divided and conflicted, can you never rely on their consistency or goodness? If you walk down the street do you rely on the other person not to be suddenly inconsistent and stab you to death (this has happened in a few cases)? If there is nothing behind the spectre, then there is nothing. The spectre is the human, so why not call them human. You might get a few strange looks from people if you say to them, “I was talking to this spectre the other day.”

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    Comment by NB — 29 August 2008 @ 11:35 am

  26. The spectre is the human, so why not call them human. You might get a few strange looks from people if you say to them, “I was talking to this spectre the other day.”

    Strange when you said this I suddenly had a flashback to this phenomenal movie by Francois Ozon, LES AMATS CRIMINELES, in which a young French woman, moments before she is to be shot by the French police, remembers for a fleeting second the face of the Moroccan lover she murdered together with her boyfriend. This scene made me think: all we really have is memories – what’s inside the head. I think this, for me, is the post-structuralist insight I mean the reason I believe in the gist of it. If you on the other hand are referring to the commonsensical notion of ”human” meaning ”made of flesh and blood” then I know what you mean and I don'[t think that the post-struct notions are necessarily in stride with that, especially not Deleuze’s (but also only a superficial reading of psychoanalysis would claim that psychoanalysis negates the body; it doesn’t, it merely shows to what extent the body is symbolized by the psyche).

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    Comment by parodycenter — 29 August 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  27. PC, I take your point that this movie could be replaced by any number of others where a character takes a heroic ethical stance against all odds and against the forces arrayed against him: Rocky, Star Wars, Schindler, Wall-E,… This brought to mind another movie I saw recently, on which I didn’t post: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a recent Romanian movie about a girl helping her friend get an abortion. It too is set in the 1980s and focuses on a character trying to work her way through a system that’s set against her. But the system is never foregrounded; in fact, subjective agency is the entire focus precisely because it’s the only way to get this abortion accomplished. The girl who needs the abortion seems to have lost all common sense and ability to function effectively, and the abortionist turns out to be a sexual predator, the black market in Western cigarettes seems to operate mostly so people can pay little bribes to petty bureaucrats for doing little favors around the edges, etc. The friend becomes repulsed at her pregnant friend’s uselessness and resentful about all these heroic deeds she’s forced to do for the sake of this useless friend. So while the social system sets up the situation in which the story takes place (criminality of abortion, not enough money to pay for a “good” abortionist), everything in the story itself is about subjectivity, humanity, personal agency.

    NB, you observe that the Stasi tormenters are personal in their cruelty, thereby showing that the system isn’t total. One could, of course, contend that the system had dehumanized the torturers, or that cruelty was the state’s weapon of choice to dehumanize its rebels. But this discounts the sense of sadistic glee which seems all-too-human, that the system exists in part to enable those in positions of privilege to exert their will and their force on the less well-positioned. A true-blue humanist I suppose would have to contend for the fundamental goodness of the unfettered human subject, but free and willful exercise of spite, envy, arrogance, sadism, etc. makes the case just as strongly for the resistance of the subject to automatism.

    Barack Obama begins his speech retelling the American dream about how anyone can achieve his dreams if he sets his mind to it and never gives up. This is the myth of subjective agency in full flower: everyone can become a hero if you give him half a chance. What struck a different note for me in this speech was at least a nod toward the idea that we need to be able to rely on each other to reach heroism together, rather than just getting out of each other’s way. This is the socialist note that’s never sounded by Republicans and rarely any more by Democrats. But the fundamental promise remains highly suspect and fantasizing, befitting the arena-rock setting of the speech.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  28. After a poor night’s sleep I’m drawn back to the issue of agency in neoliberalism, especially in work. PC, you contend that the neolib manifesto adopted communistic egalitarianism, but if we regard the USA as at least the most visible practitioner then equality has always been intrinsic to the American Dream. Usually it takes the form of “equal opportunity for any individual to get rich” rather than equality of economic outcome. And equality as a function is individuating: A=B=C=D… rather than something like Badiou’s collectivist set theory of (A,B,C,D,(AB),(AC)…).

    The systemic oppression in the US (and probably in the UK and the Netherlands as well) comes not from collectivist bureaucracy, nor even from capitalism writ large, but from specific corporations and the specific jobs any individual is likely to find him/herself occupying. It’s possible to climb the corporate ladder and get one of those high-paying management jobs, but you must support the corporate mission in order to do so. This means not just going along but actively promoting and even embodying the mission, which in the language of marketing is always “what’s best for the brand.” Exerting subjective agency is what it’s all about: contributing proactively, creatively, passionately, etc. to the corporate mission. The critical mass generated by all these energetic employees aligning their passions with the corporate calling to maximize the brand generates an energy field that’s hard to recognize as totalizing. Those who do recognize it tend mostly to demonstrate resistance passively, by denying the corporation their best efforts, choosing instead to go along, perhaps never rising in the hierarchy or at least maintaining a sardonically ironic psychic distance from the operation, finding self-expression outside the job. NB wants to organize worker energy around “pay and conditions,” but would this infuse the work itself with greater value to those who perform it? Those guys in top management might be able to exercise greater authority and have a fatter paycheck, but they’re still selling their souls for the sake of the same old consumer-oriented, profit-generating shit.

    PC, I know you’ve attempted to exercise your creative individuality within the corporate environment and found yourself cut loose for your trouble. I’ve done it entrepreneurially more than once, and found it difficult to put forward my interpretation of excellence when clients wanted “best for the brand” from me. The usual self-justification is something like, well, I got some of my ideas accepted, we all have to compromise, etc. This might be an inevitable sort of realism when confronted by collective forces beyond your control, but incorporating it into your own way of doing the job seems like a walk down the road to perdition. Not that I have any great solutions to offer, but I think turning subjective agency toward excellence in one’s work, regardless of whether the brand or shareholders benefit, is intrinsic to the American dream and its international equivalents. The difficulty comes when, by exerting one’s independent agency, the brand does benefit and one finds oneself taking another step or two up the corporate ladder. This, however, is fear of success in its most obvious form and need not concern us quite yet.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2008 @ 7:08 am

  29. then equality has always been intrinsic to the American Dream.

    well but Clysmatics it’s been known for decades in our waters that America is a Communist country. I always quote Edvard Limonov’s writings from the 1970s, before he became a raving lunatic; he used to describe his painful realization, upon migrating to the US in order to live on the dole, that America is the same Stalinist Hell as the one he supposedly fled when he boarded Azroflot to New York. On the other hand, you have a point in that all good systems are a little bit totalitarian (and thereby also faux-egalitarian). It’s certainly better to even have an amorphous middle class mass of relatively equal individuals than a world totally divided between the haves and the have nots.

    My problem with the Firm from Hell was not so much the corporate system or their demands towards uniformization – not the capitalism – but the socialism, the self-management. They’re pursuing non-excellence over there, and in design, especially media design, that’s like taking a suicide pill. I was not even trying to propose something avant garde or even remotely daring, but the COMMERCIAL stuff they make is just so totally below the par.

    Here the worrying thing is that standards seem to be continuously falling. Everything sort of degenerates, and you can best see it in culture because culture reflects creativity. It doesn’t matter anymore whether it’s beautiful or not, whether it makes any sense, and so on. It only matters that you produce…something…in the cheapest possible fashion.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 30 August 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  30. Hi, apologies for the delay. My baby’s been running a temperature. She’s on the mend now, sleeping it off.

    “all we really have is memories – what’s inside the head. I think this, for me, is the post-structuralist insight I mean the reason I believe in the gist of it.”

    Sounds like a good film. I’ll have to check it out. Never seen a film by Ozon, actually.
    I’m not against that insight per sé. Only, I think we are much more than memories. I also feel that this has to be the case, otherwise it might prove impossible to have or develop memories at all. In terms “having” – posessing – then perhaps they are all we really have. But we ARE much more. Our process of forgetting, for example, is just as essential. These are social, psychological, natural phenomena, and they are extrinsic as much as intrinsic. (This is the sort of stuff I gleaned from Deleuze, among others.)

    On the whole, I don’t like spectres. They tell a story, give understanding, but – as spectres – do not exist. There are people behind the machinations – the spectres – of neo-liberalism or East German communism. Trouble is, they usually believe in the spectre actually existing. It is people who lend the spectre reality. This is especially true of philosophical concepts, from Plato’s cave to cogito ergo sum to RSI.

    I never did think that psychoanalysis denied the body. Not even CBT does that.

    “One could, of course, contend that the system had dehumanized the torturers, or that cruelty was the state’s weapon of choice to dehumanize its rebels”

    Yes, I agree with this idea, but I’m not sure it evacuates the personal. The importance of the personal in torture and regimes is what I took from Pasolini’s Salo. One could imagine a kind of Situationist poster showing the SS at Auschwitz with the slogan: “Human after all!”. The concept of dehumanisation demands that we think better of ourselves, and do better by others. We are not animals etc. Although, I don’t think animals ever designed a holocaust. Maybe an anteater.

    As for Obama, I’m not going to wave an Obama/Biden poster around the UK but he’s got to be better than McCain or the last eight years. No doubt he’ll piss me right off. But pretty much all politicians piss me off. That’s down both to their disgusting duplicity and the fact that it is an impossible job.

    “NB wants to organize worker energy around “pay and conditions,” but would this infuse the work itself with greater value to those who perform it?”

    No. But the money helps. I tend to find that people find value anywhere, even in rubbsh jobs – they try to do a good job etc. People find personal value in being a sadist. Perhaps pay and conditions is the best we can hope for as a legislative and social convention. (I don’t know.)

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    Comment by NB — 30 August 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  31. Of course I never lived in the original Stalinist hell, but if it was anything like the USA it must have been a much more benign state than all those gulags and pogroms would have led me to believe. Maybe if you “played ball” in the old USSR things went generally okay for you. It is true that America has the highest per capita imprisonment rate in the world, but that’s a relatively new development and probably wasn’t so in the 70s. Of course if Limonov intended to live on the dole he may well have found himself in a worse predicament than back in the USSR. However based on your assertion I’ll generally have to regard him as already well on his way to raving lunacy. It’s curious that, while there are great disparities in wealth and income in America, the idea of class distinctions just isn’t something people give much thought to. So all this blog debate about Mike Leigh’s depiction of the proles is kind of lost on the American audience.

    I’m in agreement about falling standards in pursuit of corporate profitability. So we’re in agreement here. The question is whether the worker can take a stand for excellence in spite of corporate demands to compromise, where the workers maintain the standard for excellence in resitance to corporate pressure toward mediocrity.

    I’ll have to return later, but meanwhile NB, I’m glad to hear the baby is on the mend.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  32. At the individual level I like spectrality as describing those thoughts, affects, etc. that don’t quite make it into intentional expression but that were competing for attention as it were in the synaptic processes. It’s like you’re leaving something out even in the most cogent conscious expression, something that lurks around the edges, blurring the sharp boundaries with shadows and ghosts of things that never quite appear in substance. This sort of thing happens at the collective level as well too. But to regard the ghosts as the real agents of subjectivity and intersubjectivity seems to dismiss intentionality as the illusion, as the ghost haunting the expression of immanent unconscious vectors that really shape individuals and societies. That sort of inversion of figure and ground seems unwarranted by the way I (and most other people) experience themselves and one another. Intentionality is haunted by unconscious trajectories, but it’s possible to bring them into awareness — they bring themselves to awareness. I’d say it’s part of the responsibility of being-human to acknowledge the spectres, to bring them out of the shadows, to let them have their say without repressing them again.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 30 August 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  33. Of course if Limonov intended to live on the dole he may well have found himself in a worse predicament than back in the USSR…

    the gist of his impression (of the US) is that it has that same totalizing drive that characterized Stalin’s USSR, hence a bureaucratic behemoth full of uniformity. which kind of figures, because take New York as an example: though it’s big and varied enough to provide parallel reality levels, when you look at the architecture, what’s actually the difference with Moscow? One big vast Kafkian contraption next to another and they all look the same. Then ride down to Florida and all the way it’s Wendy’s next to McDonald’s next to another palm tree and a condominium. Social realism in bright colors. Limonov wrote this completely amazing book in the 1970s, THIS IS ME EDWARD (ETO JA EDICHKA) which is a memoir-cum-indictment of the rich and the powerful, but the main thread that goes through the book is his observation of similarities between the USSSR and the US, rather than differences. He later went nuts and joined the extreme-nationalist bolsheviks, though he remains a sharp writer, so I occasionally read him on the ‘”Exile”.

    I was laughing a few months back when Comrade Hatherley in all of his youthful enthusiasm and earnestness started on something very smart about the movies of Slava Tsukerman. In the 90s I spent a few days with Tsukerman’s best friend, another Russian emigre from the 70s, connected to Limonov’s circle of emigres, and Slava told me that ever since his breakthrough movie he’d been washing dishes in New York – the movie industry was equally hostile to avantgardism in the USSR as it was in America. But Owen would really suffer a stroke if he knew that Tsukerman LOVES Halliwud movies, and was all the time dreaming of getting hired by Dreamworks or some such other behemoth.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 31 August 2008 @ 12:23 am

  34. On the whole, I don’t like spectres.

    NB in context I was talking about the way capitalism adopted certain tropes (specters) of Communism sans their MATERIAL content, which was exactly how selfmanagement operated for some fifty-odd years in Yugoslavia. Like in a corporation nowadays you have this ”spectral egalitarianism” where the workers are encouraged to partake of strategic discussions, and are allowed to speak their mind or even make contributions beyond their designated position, while their salaries remain say six times lower than that of the managerial board. In this instance the equality is truly spectral, due to its being detached from physical reality (of the cash).;

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    Comment by parodycenter — 31 August 2008 @ 12:26 am

  35. But we ARE much more. Our process of forgetting, for example, is just as essential. These are social, psychological, natural phenomena, and they are extrinsic as much as intrinsic. (This is the sort of stuff I gleaned from Deleuze, among others.)

    Whether you designate the image as a material image (Deleuze) or in some other, idealistic way, what I’m saying is we go about the business of living more on the basis of our impressions, reminiscences, memories, and even the lacuna that forgetting creates is related to an absent image, while if there is any afterlife we sure won’t be bringing this body along, so you end up with not much more than…memories/images (here I include other sensory perceptions that say blind people would have and not just visual images).This for me has been the valuable insight of post-structuralism.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 31 August 2008 @ 12:32 am

  36. PC, I wonder how much of the alienation can be attributed to being expatriate. Many of the Americans we knew who lived in France found it very difficult to adapt, even though the way of life really isn’t radically different. But everything is a few degrees off-kilter experientially: the language, the architecture, the pace, the food, the etiquette. I suspect you find yourself more alienated from Dutch society than most of the native Hollanders do. The outsider has a more objective point of view on things the natives take for granted, but at the same time they’re always a little bit excluded from full participation. The expatriate confronts France or Holland or the US as a totality from which s/he is always regarded as outsider. E.g., our daughter attended French school and after a year could speak French fluently. In a conversation with the maitresse of the school my wife suggested enthusiastically, “pretty soon our daughter will be a French girl.” With a very serious look on her face, the maitresse said, “Oh no, madame, she will never be a French girl.”

    I suspect that every region of the world imposes implicit standards on the “look and feel” of local life. American business has been the driving force in replacing the many local uniformities with a global one. Still, everywhere in Western Europe looks more like itself than it looks like anywhere in the US.

    With respect to economic stratification disguised behind the egalitarian facade, do you support decentralized worker-owned socialism in some form, or do you want to climb the capitalist ladder?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 31 August 2008 @ 6:29 am

  37. An example of expatriate spectrality: During our third year in France our daughter attended school with a girl whose parents were American evangelical missionaries to France(!). The family returned to the US in some turmoil and distress at the end of the year. The girl’s mother writes a blog which I visit from time to time. Yesterday she wrote a post about her time in France, how horrible it was for her, how it broke her spirit. This is a recurring theme on her blog. Each time she revisits the French experience she puts a slightly different spin on it, trying to understand why it went so badly for her (France is a spiritually dark place, God was testing her, the schools were ruining her children’s self-esteem, etc.). Reading these blog posts I get the sense not just of memory but of spectrality, of France revisiting her like a ghost despite her wishing that France would leave her alone once and for all. It’s the return of the repressed, coming back to haunt her despite her best conscious willful intentions to keep it buried.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 31 August 2008 @ 8:10 am


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