November 30, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As I become older, the fizzy, frothy sparkle of Jane Austen novels becomes less so. What remains is the dark heart of its centre, the knowing, acerbic, always too-smart-for-its-own-good femininity chafing against the ruffles of propriety. Yes, I just said “the ruffles of propriety” – because whenever I think of good breeding, good behaviour, propriety, and manners, I think of ruffles. This is even the case when I myself hold steadfast to the values of good breeding, good behaviour, propriety, and manners. I just feel swaddled in imaginary ruffles, scratching at my neck. As I become older, I love and appreciate how Jane Austen is less polished Regency lightweight – as I thought of her when a teenager, nevertheless while still enjoying her – and more the world-weary cynic. Because it takes effort to be a world-weary cynic with wit. To be able to wink, slyly, and cough out a dry joke from under your lace handkerchief while fulfilling all the fizzy-frothy-sparklyness that others expect from you. It’s a delicate balancing act, and rather exhausting. When I read Jane Austen, I think of her on a high-wire, weighed down by petticoats, triumphantly waving a parasol in the air.
I tend to reread her every year. Each time I told myself I’ll stop once I get sick of her, say, once the Austen reread becomes less of a pleasure and more of an ego trip or particular idiosyncrasy to share with the world for the sake of sharing. But I find myself always looking forward to it with an unexpected deranged thirst for all that resides between the pages of her books.
Right now I’m reading Northanger Abbey. In the words of the book’s Henry Tilney:
And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else. You will allow all this?
Indeed. Enter any nightclub in Changkat Bukit Bintang on a Saturday night and ask the “dancing couple” the same question. Nightclubs are our 21st-century ruffles.
November 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I’ve been meaning to blog about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion for some time, if only to say that I found it one of the most disturbing mental screw-up films ever. And I mean this in a good way, if such a thing is possible. I was surprised to read movie reviews where people apparently fell asleep from boredom while watching it, or almost died laughing because it was so… funny.
But then, people are strange. As Repulsion will show you.
(But first! THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW.)
SPOILERS. THE SPOILING OF THE MOVIE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET.
This review over at the Sunset Gun caught my attention in particular, because I share most of the sentiments even if I may not agree with her take on the Polanski statutory rape case. What I sort of agree with but also kind of disagree with (yeah, it’s that kind of a blog post I’m writing today – apologies, gentle blog reader) is this passage:
Roman Polanski knows women because he understands men. He knows both sexes because he understands the games both genders play, either consciously or instinctively. He understands the perversions formed from such relations and translates them into visions that are erotic, disturbing, humorous and, most important, allegorical in their potency.
I don’t know if Repulsion necessarily worked because of Roman Polanski’s knowledge of women via his understanding of men so much as it worked because of his lack of knowledge. And from the way in which it is shown in the film, Polanski seems to want to imply that most men lack this knowledge, as well, especially when desire enters the picture. That games are played, consciously or instinctively, is something that I understand. But in Repulsion, Polanski has shown what it’s like when only one person – the man – is hitting the ball, while the other person – in this case, the woman – is, hello, not even consciously present in the game.
Catherine Deneuve does such an outstanding job conveying her character’s jittery awkwardness undercut by a vaguely-terrifying sense of seemingly harmless bewilderment. Carol stumbles about in a daze; when men pass her on the street, they can’t help but stare. Yet, the collective male gaze is one of appreciation and/or sexual objectification precisely because Carol is such a lovely woman. It seems somehow inconceivable that someone who looks the way she does can have trouble recognising, and subsequently harnessing, her own sexual power. Does anyone expect a young Catherine Deneuve to be an awkward, nervy mess when they take a look at her? Men look at her and probably assume she knows she’s being watched because she’s beautiful.
But to other women, it seems, Carol’s skittishness can’t help but draw attention to itself. In the beauty parlour where she works, her boss and her colleagues alternately watch her with exasperation and a burgeoning sense of wariness. There is something in Carol’s blank expression that conveys complete and abject terror if you only take a moment to look at her – really look at her – as opposed to merely looking at her to appreciate. Other women can perhaps sense something in Carol that men, then, do not. For example, Carol is does not seem fully present in the very moment, in her immediate surroundings. Her physical body – beautiful – is there, and perhaps some will assume that is there to merely be enjoyed. But in the film, the women look puzzled: where is Carol? She’s certainly not present.
This brings me to another passage in Kim’s review:
Deneuve’s loveliness makes Carol’s madness more palatable (her unfortunate suitor thinks she is odd, but he can’t help but “love” this gorgeous woman), but eventually it becomes horrifying. Carol is not simply a Hitchcockian aberration of what lies beneath the “perfect woman,” she is the reflection of what lies beneath repressed desire — in men and women. Polanski has a knack for casting women who are nervously exciting (Faye Dunaway in Chinatown is a blinking, twitching mess), and therefore dangerous to desire. He makes one insecure about longing for them.
I like that idea of Polanski “making one insecure” about longing for a woman who is a “blinking, twitching mess”, but I think a key part of desiring an anxious woman – especially if she’s beautiful – is the inherent attractiveness for the desiring man to conquer this insecurity that it arouses and make sense of his own lack, seemingly embodied by this womanly object of desire. And in Polanski’s framing, this type of desire can apparently – and quite literally – result in the death of the man. I can’t help but relate this to Jacqueline Rose’s conceptualisation of one of Lacan’s fundamental theories: “As negative to the man, woman becomes a total object of fantasy, or an object of total fantasy, elevated into the place of Other and made to stand for its truth. [...] It is from the Other that the phallus seeks authority and is refused.”[i] Um, yes. Or dies, Polanski seems to want to say.
It’s intriguing how Carol is shown as being out-of-control in the purest sense; everything she does seems to come to her realisation only after the act itself. That weekend when she’s alone and experiences her own private descent into hell, she commits two acts of murder brought upon by unwanted male sexual attention. Her well-adjusted sister, for example, or any other woman who is sexually-experienced and/or mature might handle the attention in another way, or else that’s the assumption we’re supposed to make. How? By deflecting, perhaps, or engaging in repetitive avoidance, or maybe even, by succumbing – either willingly or unwillingly. These are things rational women do when a man desires them. But Carol kills them off! There is an internal logic to this solution from Carol’s perspective; she apparently knows that the “dark sludge of desire” (I like that particular phrase from Kim’s review) knows no bounds; the only way to shut it off is to shut it off at its source.
It is ultimately fascinating that this movie is a result of Polanski’s imagining of female desire gone awry, especially in light of what he finally did with an underage girl in his actual life. I don’t mean to draw any conclusions or say anything profound – couldn’t even if I tried – but it is something to think about, even if art doesn’t replicate life and life doesn’t replicate art. (Right.)
[i] ‘Feminine Sexuality – Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, pp. 74-75.
November 16, 2010 § 4 Comments
… at the Big Bad Book Sale, and bought twenty-one books. But one of it is for someone else, so that’s okay. Right?
November 14, 2010 § Leave a Comment
What makes someone feel anti-internet while being on the internet? I don’t know. The weird, fractured ways in which relationships/friendships are played out in random comments between people too far away to see each other, perhaps. You’re supposed to be on Twitter and Facebook to connect to people you can’t see on a regular basis but are often made to confront, instead, the ways in which these connections can exclude, limit, leave out, and just plain confuse. The internet seems to have taken all those ghastly real-life opportunities of feeling left out or being on the outside of things and magnified the effects by a hundredfold. Sometimes, connections over the internet are just one fail whale after another. There is no body language to read, there are no facial expressions to decipher. It’s interesting how even for writers for whom WORDS! ARE! EVERYTHING! the capacity for excitement and adventure and mystery in personal relationships, even between very good friends, can be brought to a deadening halt by the proliferation of words on a screen. These words are the only clue to what the other person is thinking or feeling. Sarcasm might misfire, a joke falls flat, casual irony comes off a bit cruel. You talk to two people and forget to talk to someone else about the same thing that all of you are aware of. The space from which you can go from feeling friendly towards someone to feeling animosity, or worse yet, uncertainty, can occur within the space of a single tweet.
Zadie Smith said some things about The Social Network, Facebook, and the general weirdness of online “friendships” here. Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic responded with some comments that I thought missed some of her key points over here. What I found most intriguing were the comments in response to Madrigal’s piece, clearly showing that half of the commenters agree very much Smith, while the other half disagree strongly and agree very much with Madrigal.
I, like probably everyone else who live most of their lives online, am consistently drawn to these endless debates about the “humanity and its nature on the internet!” particularly if they attempt to intelligently parse or make sense of the inherently contradictory and endlessly error-prone nature of our online interactions. Lately I find myself being more drawn to arguments that focus on the emotional value of relationships conducted online. I mean, I still wonder if the internet makes us dumb, knowledge-guzzling, unreflexive androids at some level every once in awhile. But more interestingly I just wonder how it shapes and thus alters our interactions with people – more precisely, with the people we already know.
This particular comment to the Madrigal piece by someone named VrDrew in particular caught my attention:
That is the fundamental problem with all computer processing: it wants, inexorably and inevitably, to break everything down to a binary state. But real life tells us that there are literally an infinite range of shades between black and white, between true and false.
Think about the most basic level of Facebook relationships: The “Friend.” One has two choices – either one is a Friend, or one is not. But does that, in any way, mirror our real life experience? Who among us does not have acquaintances with whom our relationships are not, perhaps, more complicated? Real world “friends” – and yet who periodically drive us crazy? People with whom we’d gladly spend an evening carousing or watching football on TV – but yet whom we’d be loathe to tell our medical or financial woes to.
There is that, of course. There is also the friend-who-is-not-quite-the-friend-but-someone-we-know-and-want-to-stay-in-touch-with friend. But as another commenter named Lois Beckett points out:
Whenever anyone posts on a friend’s wall, he or she knows that mutual friends will see the post. If I just wanted to ask a friend a question, I would email or direct message them. Anything I post on a wall has a bit more of a flourish; it’s raising your virtual voice so other people can overhear and jump in.
This is also complicated, when the “people who overhear” comprise friends, good friends, people from your past whose friend request you could not refuse and whom you may or may not like in their current incarnation, relatives, former lovers, current friends, professional acquaintances, and the aforementioned friend-who-is-not-a-“friend”friend-but-more-than-an-acquaintance friend. So there is this sense of this talking to everybody thing that is really underlined by a fundamental sense of uncertainty. Person A tweets or posts a wall comment on really liking band X. Person B wants to say, “Hey, I like Band X too… just discovered them!” Person B goes ahead and says this. Person A says nothing in reply. Sometimes, this is okay. Sometimes, it is not.
Imagine if this conversation was conducted in person. Person A may not have to say anything in response to Person B at all. She can just nod her head, smile, sparkle her eyes at Person B (yes… sparkle), etc., and it is understood that the remark was heard and acknowledged. But the silence on Facebook or Twitter can be the equivalent of Person B talking to Person A, and Person A getting up from the table and leaving. It makes both the intention of posting a random comment on Twitter or Facebook and the intention to reply extremely vague and yet rigidly narrow. Do you want someone to reply to you or not? Are you meant to reply or not? When you write something, you leave tantalising trails for others to pick up on and respond. But the person might respond too late, or at a time when you don’t care anymore. So you don’t reply. Then the other person is uncertain. Then you’re uncertain. Fuck this shit, both of you say, we’re friends but we’re not talking to each other on Twitter or Facebook at all, so la la la la la.
Person B is pissed off, and posts a passive-aggressive tweet or better yet, blogs about this in one-long drawn out article referencing Zadie Smith. Person A reads this and goes, “…” There are so many different ways to be rejected and/or bewildered with your friends and acquaintances through Twitter and Facebook. With the really good friends, you just text or email them and say, “What the fuck?” With the in-between friend who is not a friend, there is only silence potentially leading to massive confusion or a sense of hurt, and then inevitably the “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered anymore” wall that goes up in response to the nature of these online interactions, thereby reducing what could have been a sensitive, interesting interaction to a flat, stale back-and-forth of properly proper responses: “I read this.” “Yeah, I read it, too.” “Cool.”
I’m not sure I’m going anywhere with this so much as thinking out loud, especially since these thoughts have been churning around in my mind ever since I read Eva Illouz’ Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. I’ve been thinking lately about how registering emotions online often seems to be either a very ironic or ridiculous thing to do. There is no place for hurt feelings or anger online; it just seems excessive – Why are you angry? For fuck’s sake, take a chill pill – or endlessly hilarious, like when you read insanely enraged troll-comments to an article. How do you register proper joy or happiness or delight besides smiling, by yourself and to yourself, or to the computer screen? You can insert a smiley face or say *smile*. None of this can convey the exchange of warmth between two people actually smiling at each other. That the internet does this to personal interactions is nothing new or earth-shattering, of course, and countless people have blogged and talked about this, but for me personally I seem to want to talk about it because it’s becoming increasingly harder to deal with. These random uncertainties and fears all coalesce in certain theses in Illouz’ book, which has its “Er?” moments (notably in that out-of-nowhere rant against cultural theorists and their “reductive” readings of the internet’s effects on human relations and subjectivity), but it also has its very acute and perceptive moments, especially when Illouz talks about internet dating and the psychology of the self. While she specifically talks about internet dating and its relation to traditional romance, much of what she says applies to how friendships in general are conducted online.
She talks about the internet’s “disembodied textual interaction”, and it is this “textualization of subjectivity”, I think, that proves to be what is hardest to get around:
The work of self-presentation becomes many steps removed from actual social performance and is performed both visually and linguistically not for a concrete, specific other, but for a generalized and abstract audience.
Illouz says this in relation to self-presentation online on internet dating sites, but this statement is true of online interactions between friends who live apart – and who may have not seen each other in years. In this context, however, the twist is that for those of us who are friends in real life and friends on Facebook and Twitter, we’re performing our psychological self for both the concrete, specific other and the generalized, abstract audience.
The Internet provides a kind of knowledge which, because it is disembedded and disconnected from a contextual and practical knowledge of the other person, cannot be used to make sense of the person as a whole.
Again, Illouz is referring to the initial online getting-to-know-you stage between strangers intend on embarking on a romantic quest, but this also applies to people who are your friends but whom you’ve not seen in years. What you’re doing, most of the time, is connecting this sarcastic tweet from a deliciously witty friend to the memory you have of them being sarcastic in person. It was probably a weird experience even in the past when all we had were letters and telephone calls, but particularly indecipherable at times now via applications like Twitter and Facebook. The email is still decipherable, largely, because it is one-on-one conversation; even if it’s to a group, the receiver understands that the message is indeed intended for him or her, as opposed to the vague, generalized audience of Twitter or Facebook.
Illouz also ties together some intriguing points about the body itself as being a repository of social experience – there is the information you freely give, and the information you “give off” via body language and physical presence/proximity. When you see a group of your good friends talking in a cafe, for example, you don’t have to think twice before going up to their table and pulling up a chair to join them. When an online conversation takes place, however, if your name isn’t tagged in the conversation, you spend a good many minutes wondering if you’re supposed to join in… or simply be present while it happens without participating. It is utterly, utterly bizarre at times. It is also potentially heartbreaking and time-wasting and needlessly exhausting. How to respond? The internet also robs the cold shoulder of its value. The cold shoulder, of course, is the preferred weapon of choice for passive-aggressive types everywhere. Online, a cold shoulder is simply… a non-response. The intense drama of it, sadly, is removed. No one is satisfied, no one says a thing, no one knows that something needed to be said in the first place. And on and on we go, tweeting and commenting…
Every week I tell myself to go on a week-long Twitter and Facebook “detox”. Inevitably, this will last a day or two before I find myself spilling over with something to tweet or retweet – the latter being the most cherished way of saying something while saying nothing at all. I told myself to do a Twitter detox over the weekend. I was back on Twitter about 6 hours ago. I can never shut up, it seems, and also, I never stop wanting to know what everyone else is up to. Sometimes, it’s the only way to keep in touch – with the slightest of touches. It seems that we would all really take each other’s tweets and wall posts about this and that, aimed at a generalized, vague audience, or maybe aimed at each other (no one has a clue), than have nothing at all.
*Blog title nicked from Keane lyrics. Not that I listen to Keane. Maybe. Sometimes.
November 9, 2010 § 10 Comments
My review of Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman appeared in last weekend’s The Sunday Star. It’s an important, intelligently-argued book, and I highly recommend that the world reads it. Yes, the world. I’ve reproduced it in full here:
For all of us who happily imagine contemporary feminism to be a uniform and linear yellow brick road that delivers us right into the heart of the Emerald City of equality, there’s no one better than Nina Power to take a sledgehammer to that useless utopian dream. With One-Dimensional Woman, Power, a British philosophy professor at Roehampton University, has set out to untangle and reveal the underlying irrationality and contradictions of much of modern-day feminism – wedded as it is to the ugly and false emancipatory “ideals” of capitalism. The title of Power’s book comes from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a treatise published in 1964 that offered a critique of the false needs created by modern industrialist society – the idea that people were “free” in their choices when they were actually deeply bound to an insidiously rigid system of production and consumption.
One-Dimensional Woman is a slim book that packs a wallop; it is both angry and hopeful in that it charts out a problem – “What looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” – and sets out to imagine ways in which work, culture, and gender issues can be radically transformed. Power beams a laser-sharp clarity on topics as diverse and intricately-linked as burqa-banning and Sarah Palin to current labour and economic conditions and pornography to show readers how the commodification of both subjective autonomy and freedom of choice have lead us round and round in a self-defeating loop where feminism is concerned. It attempts to show how people who could care less about the increase in crime rates against women or domestic abuse will suddenly come out of the woodwork to defend a woman’s right to enter a beauty pageant or become a porn star, or lament on how Wonder Woman’s costume transformation from underwear to leggings is an affront to ideal womanhood.
Power describes the subtle yet potent dangers of feminism being co-opted for political, economic, or social purposes that serve to only defend the status quo and further entrench policies of inequality and imperialism. As she puts it, feminism is now used for everything besides the actual fight for equality. In the example of the burqa-banning hysteria that has besieged large parts of Europe, Power adopts a different spin from typical secular proselytizing to explain how conservative zealots and pro-imperialist “feminists” have stepped up to the plate to defend a Muslim woman’s right to wear less clothes, but not to wear what she pleases.
In the market-logic of capitalism, it’s required of women to bare more, reveal more, share everything. Quoting French philosopher Alain Badiou, she writes: “It is used to be taken for granted that an intangible female right is only to have to get undressed in front of the person of her choosing. But no. It is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant. Let’s argue the following, then, a pretty strange point: the law on the hijab is pure capitalist law. It orders femininity to be exposed.”
So while contemporary urban feminists hoot and holler about being able to wear less clothes and trot about in heels because it’s their “choice” to do so, Power brings up the uncomfortable notion of how much of a choice is really a choice if it’s the only option available? The moment a woman opts out of the “game” – and chooses to cover-up and not wear make-up, for instance, certain doors start closing in her face – doors that would have opened to jobs, financial success, relationships. Power basically asks: Is this what true emancipation feels like?
To be sure, Power notes that capitalism’s stringent demands are not limited to only women. In her chapters on the “feminisation of labour”, however, she clearly and intelligently maps out how the market has allowed people to think that women have “made it” when all it has done is only alter the landscape and terrain of jobs and careers. She calls it the feminisation of labour because the labour market is now represented by what is traditionally conceived as feminine traits – the ability to acquiesce and be accommodating – rendering each person a walking advertisement for his or herself. You have to be always “on”; become always ready to sell yourself, lay yourself bare, be willing to give just a little bit more, in order to keep your job or get one in the first place. The reality of the current job market – with its precariousness and instability – has always been the case for jobs held by women in the workplace. Now, it’s across the board. Is it any coincidence that more women are touted as “doing well” in the current job market than ever before at the precise moment when the job market, and the economy at large, is in shambles?
Power is merciless on her attacks on consumer-feminism, which is how it should be. But there’s no need to be alarmed; reading One-Dimensional Woman won’t transform you in a radical Leftist or property-relinquishing, ration-card-carrying communist – unless you want to. But not being able to critique the forward-moving momentum of capitalism is akin to standing by and watching as it subsumes everything meaningful into its machine, spitting out only the detritus. As Marcuse wrote more than 30 years ago, “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority.”
The book does have its weak point: Power’s thoughts on Shulamith Firestone’s radical reimagining of the family in The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, would have been better served with some acknowledgement of Firestone’s problematic conception of race. But Power’s clear-headed critique of feminism and gender relations in relation to economics and politics is bracing and much-needed. It’s a book that attempts to widen the discourse on feminism beyond “I am so happy to be living in a time when I am free to wear to work and drive a car and wear high heels.” And we’ll all do so much better if we can heed its heartfelt call for more, not less, serious thought and critique on contemporary capitalism, economics, politics, and gender relations.
(This is cross-posted at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.)
November 6, 2010 § Leave a Comment
A few weeks months ago I found myself coming to the end of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher the same day the V for Vendetta movie showed on TV. I had to watch it because nearly everyone who had watched it told me I had to watch it. The very next day, I went to the bookstore and bought the V for Vendetta comic by Alan Moore. I read it in a day in order to make up for all the years it took me to get to this masterpiece. What struck me as rather painful and consequently difficult to accept was how similar V for Vendetta, a dystopia of Britain’s imagined totalitarian future, is to Capitalist Realism (which really should have come with the subheading, ‘An Account of the Bleakness of Our Times’). Both books speak of the dangerous, insidious, and often initially-unrecognisable spread of ideological propaganda, be it overt totalitarianism or capitalist realism masquerading as post-ideological “freedom”. While one is a work of art designed to prevent collective stupor and alert us to what we don’t want our world to become, the other is an account of what our world has become, written precisely to shake us out of our stupor.
Both are bleak, yet both are must-reads for anyone –as David Lloyd put it in his introduction to V for Vendetta – who doesn’t turn off the news. But that’s not entirely accurate of Capitalist Realism; it is even more of a must-read for those of us who turn off the news and engage in passive “participation” of culture and consumerism because we can’t bear the news after working in jobs that only remind us of our increasingly shitty quality of life.
In the movie version of V for Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings wrote their screenplay by adapting Alan Moore’s sprawling premise and condensing it into a neat, linear narrative. It worked for the movie, and the extrapolation of the key themes and modification of the characters were intelligently-done. The visual aesthetics of the film is outstanding, marrying to good effect the opulent banality of shiny technology and impersonal spaces with the ornamental, almost baroque setting of the interior of V’s home. Stephen Rea’s performance was strong y subtle; his character, Detective Chief Inspector Eric Finch, was more of the emotional core of the film than Natalie Portman’s Evey. Hugo Weaving’s voice conveyed sorrow, anger, and hope in ways that infused V’s “face” with humanity; after some time I could not get the voice and the mask’s smiling facade out of my head.
Where the movie floundered, then, was in Natalie Portman’s performance as Evey; I realise now that I’ve always defended her acting based on the potential in her performances. I watch her and think she could be better, and I keep rooting for her to do better the next time, but this time I finally accepted the fact that her beautiful, extraordinary face can never really transform itself with each different role that she plays. She’s always beautiful, and THERE, but there doesn’t seem to be much there behind the there, if that makes sense. In this movie, she was very precise and serviceable with her British accent. Her impassive exterior was meant to mask a complicated character, tormented; except this tormented inner soul also revealed itself to be impassive and rather proper.
In the comic, Evey starts out confused and erratic because she is truly confused, being 16 and thrust into this hell of a world with nary a guiding hand or shoulder to cry on. Her naivete is total; she is meant to be lost and adrift. But in Moore’s able hands, however, her growth is gradual and her walls start coming up in a way that is almost familiar to all adults, simply crushing to dust early reader impressions of Evey as a feeble, needy blonde with Bambi eyes. This transformation is also evocatively portrayed through the art. The early drawings of Evey depicted her as wide-eyed and alarmed in nearly every panel; it frankly annoyed the hell out of me until the drawings, and her character, gradually began to take on the subtle nuances of her character’s maturity. The idea of every lost soul needing a mentor or a maker is one that resonates, regardless of whether or not it’s a cliche; and in Evey’s case, she was fortunate (or unfortunate?) to fall under V’s care.
The art in the comic is rather raw; the drawings rough and possessing an unfinished look especially to sensibilities used to the polished smoothness of the colouring and inking work in current graphic novels. But when you read the accompanying essay written by Alan Moore, and about the long genesis and fruition of V for Vendetta between the years 1981 to 1988 (when I was but a wee toddler, and then… not so wee), it dawns on you just how much of a revelation this comic would have been upon its release to readers used to larger-than-life superheroes, detailed captions and proper speech balloons instead of the almost stream-of-consciousness narrative that tends to carry through much of this work.
As for the masked V – monster or everyman? Our collective conscience? His methods are violent and reactionary. For every one person who makes this world a horrible place and must be eliminated, there are others who need to be nurtured and guided in order to save it, according to his logic. Perhaps these twin impulses of destruction and creation are always present in each person and are never meant to be resolved or sublimated; perhaps V is the only honest person among all of us. The thing about Moore is the kindness and pathos with which he’s able to depict people knowing, vaguely or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, how they’ve signed on to their oppression, how they allow it to work within quite legitimate means, but who themselves only work helplessly within the existing totalitarian framework to ensure that they marshal enough power for themselves and come out on top at all costs. There is no real effort and will to change things from the inside out; it is especially chilling in the context of our current situation. People are absolute monsters in the face of their own weakened autonomy; and yet Moore shows us how pitiful they are, even as monsters, even as he holds those characters up as reflections of ourselves in the most discomfiting, repulsive way.
The film shows audiences fragments of American neoliberalism at its most hysterical – footage of the war in Iraq, for example, or anti-war demonstrations that actually took place, while glossing over the comic’s themes of the nature of anarchy and fascism, which of course, are the most important parts of the book in the context of its overarching premise. (Poor Moore; it must be incredibly frustrating to write comics that are every movie producer’s wet-dream. Especially ones who simply jerk-off by making a movie that’s a tribute to a banal personal fantasy than anything to do with the comic, such as in travesty that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) This doesn’t hurt the movie, necessarily, so much as emphasise the importance of having to consider the comic on its own terms apart from the movie adaptation.
Another essential difference between the movie and the comic is that the movie expressly lays out a very clear path for Evey, via V, while the comic emphasises the importance of Evey coming into knowledge and awareness largely on her own, though aided and abetted by V’s hints and actions. Evey wonders if V is a monster, as does Chief Inspector Finch, but the latter’s gradual realisation of the monstrosities done by other people – people he knows and has worked with – leads him to realise his own complicity in monster-making. V’s monstrosity is that he remembers his humanity too well in a world filled with robotic humans. His character never acts without thinking, and not simply thinking within either/or binaries or in terms of cause-and-effect, but reflective, sustained, deep thinking. If Hannah Arendt was right in saying that “under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think,” than V’s true rebellion against society begins long-before he kills people or destroys buildings and places.
Back in our present day, Mark Fisher shows us in Capitalist Realism how the system has essentially configured itsef to make monsters of us all, even as we steadfastly go down kicking and screaming against non-monsterism. “Monster” is not a word he uses – ‘zombies’ is the precise one, as when he writes:
The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, the zombies it makes are us.
This is admittedly fascinating, especially for those of us wondering why these last few years have brought about a cultural obsession with vampires. If we follow Fisher’s analogy, it would seem that we unconsciously find the metaphor of parasitic energy compelling; but at the same time, we seem to imbue these vampires with hopes of redemptive power far more transgressive and useful than our measly and often embarrassingly-insufficient human “power”.
When I said that Fisher’s book is bleak, I wasn’t aiming for hyperbole – it’s not the kind of book that compels you to down half a bottle of Scotch and then slit your wrists. Well, not really. His assessment of capitalist realism owes a lot of Fredric Jameson’s formulation of postmodernism, but as Fisher explains, at the time of Jameson’s postmodern formulation, there were at its basis three assumptions: 1) there are political alternatives to capitalism; 2) modernism as a cultural style AND mode of living still existed as something to respond to or engage with; 3) incorporation of styles, cultures, values “outside” of capitalism was still a concern. Fisher reminds us that now capitalism is taken as the “only alternative”, modernism is only engaged with as a nostalgic past. We no longer have to worry about capitalism incorporating everything into its juggernaut – everything is already “precorporated” into capitalism:
Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or the quasi-propagandastic way in which advertising functions. It’s more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.
Mental health and bureaucracy, particularly within the culture of post-tertiary education (Fisher is a lecturer/tutor at the City Literary Institute in London) are the elements that Fisher focuses on in the book, and the arguments he makes are so compelling, so true to our daily existence, that I can’t understand why this book wasn’t reviewed and discussed in more visible fashion in some of the more big-name publications. But I suppose that’s capitalist realism at work for you.
Capitalist realism posits itself as post-ideological – it borrows Zizek’s theorisation of the unconscious nebulous fantasy that structures everything else, which is essentially Zizek borrowing Lacan, which is essentially, I suppose, Lacan modifying Freud. It’s fundamentally different from V for Vendetta, because Vendetta is about absolute and centralised totalitarianism, while Capitalist Realism describes our decentralised, ever-nebulous forms of power, but the effects are the same among the people – the inability to really do anything, the belief that there is no choice, and the overwhelming “reflexive impotence” as described by Fisher. And even if we believe we aren’t impotent, and are strongly moved to take action, we’re acting within a closed-circuit of capitalist realism that subsumes and incorporates acts of resistance even as it allows it to flourish – ensuring that no act of resistance truly achieves anything lasting or sustained. Sustainability is anathema to capitalist realism.
Like Moore, Fisher wants to remind us that we’re all complicit:
There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.
Capitalist Realism is filled with quotable sentences, not least derived from the theorists and philosophers whom Fisher cites, including Jameson, Zizek, Badiou, Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan, and Butler. I’ve resisted countless impulses to basically retweet the whole book in blocks of 140 characters. But beyond it, it’s a necessary jolt to the collective comatose psyche. The similarities it outlines among societies deadened by too much control is similar; while capitalist realism operates on the premise of “democracy” and “choice” unlike the explicitly totalitarian regime of the Britain we see in V for Vendetta, the net effect is the collective inability to think out of the current operating structure, and thus act in ways that genuinely undermine it.
But while Moore seems to suggest that one person can act as the spark that sets an entire society blazing, Fisher reminds us that in our current world of instability, precarity, forgetting, and endless “choice” and “flexibility”, collective action and management is what is needed now, while “voluntary” action is still a possibility. Or else, authoritarian management is quite possibly, as Moore predicted, the only road left to travel.