of treason and gunpowder and things

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.

Image nicked from http://bit.ly/ca28z3

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.

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Mummies from the past and virtue incarnate

July 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve always had a crush on Egyptian mummies. Underneath the shrouds of cloth lay… such mystery! Such glamour! Such EXOTICNESS! And I’m apparently not the only one. In The Professor’s Daughter, Lillian Bowell, daughter of famed Egyptologist Professor Bowell, is having an “illicit” romance with one of her father’s most priceless objects – the mummy of Imhotep IV. However, one day she makes the mistake of taking Imhotep for a walk, and while out, they drink some tea. Imhotep, formerly dead, is a little rattled, shall we say, by the tea. He becomes deliriously drunk. Chaos ensues, but rest assured that after minor tragedies and fiascos, there is a happy ending. There is also a situation involving Queen Victoria, plump, smug, and lovingly impervious, being carted off hither and thither with her bum up in the air. While The Professor’s Daughter lacks the gravity and depth of Joann Sfar’s masterpiece, The Rabbi’s Cat, it is no less the worse for it. This comic is clearly meant to be a whimsical, dreamy romp through a quirky imagination of both Sfar and his collaborator, Emmanuel Guibert. Imhotep’s dead children reappear in a deliciously-fanciful dream sequence that made me salivate over the masterful combination of artwork and writing. The art is, to a non-artist novice like me, simply delightful – it appears to be a combination of pencil and ink illustrations with watercolours. The use of colours within a limited palette sets the mood as both romantic and potentially dark, but never truly disturbing. Sure, there is a danger of getting carried away and becoming all wrapped up in the whimsy, the whimsy, the whimsy! However, it is balanced quite nicely by a story arc that doesn’t take its readers to be idiots. There is wit and endearing dialogue throughout, as when Imhotep sees his children in the dream sequence and tells them, “I’m an antiquity. I belong to the country of one who found me,” the children reply, “We find that most humiliating.” Or when Imhotep, on the run, takes refuge in an antique shop – only to be met by the most kindly antiquarian who tells him, “It’s the first time so expensive an object has entered my shop,” and Imhotep, debonair and well-mannered as ever, tells him, “The pleasure is all mine.” Or when Imhotep tells Lillian, “Mind you, in my country we didn’t treat foreigners too well either.” Oh, bother. Just read it – one of the nicest ways to spend an hour.

Brothels! Prostitutes! Murder! Pleasure! Wait… what? But yes, indeed, in the case of Miss Don’t Touch Me, a comic I’d never heardabout until I borrowed it from my good friend Devious Devi. (That isn’t her name, but she is rather devious… I had planned on borrowing more books had she not spotted them tucked away in my bag and questioned me about them.)  Despite some seriously wonky production in terms of jacket copy – which gets a few facts wrong – the comic itself is wonderful, glorious, marvellous. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly wonderful, glorious, marvellous. Set in the turn-of-the-20th-century Paris, Blanche and Agatha are two sisters who work as maids. Blanche is a virgin, and seems to possess all the stereotypical attributes of a typical virgin; she is stern, moralistic, prudish, awkward, judgmental… except that she’s all those things, combined with a solid intelligence, an utterly wayward perspective, and loads of gumption and pluck. Agatha is the fun-loving sister with the free spirit and the liberal values; the one who goes for all the dances and gets all the guys.  Their relationship is a sweet and affectionate; tragically cut short by Agatha’s murder done at the hands of the ‘Butcher of the Dances’ – so named because the Jack the Ripper-style murderer would target young girls who liked to go out and attend dances. The hunt to avenge her sister’s murder leads Blanche to the Pompadour, a luxury brothel where she manages to nab a position that makes her one of the girls while allowing her to keep her virginity intact – as a “Special Girl”, a dominatrix. Blanche turns out to have a particular aptitude for this – she’s a “virgin of steel”, as one satisfied customer says. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that only the French can do this, but allow me to say – only the French can do this; mix pleasure and delight and beauty with death, ugliness, and perversity. Once I started Miss Don’t Touch Me before bed, I couldn’t sleep until I had finished it, and when it was over I wished I was reading it for the first time all over again. There’s an underlying menace suggested throughout the story through words and occurrences, but the art focuses on the sumptuous decadence of the interior of the Pompadour; and the naked and clothed bodies of the women, as well as their expressions, are just breathtaking to look at. All throughout one can’t help rooting for Blanche, even at her most unpleasant… or dominating… because she’s alone in the world and she takes care of herself the best way she knows how. Prickly, reserved, and inherently distrustful, Blanche rescues the typical purse-mouthed virgin stereotype from the shackles of hypocritical morality while kicking some ass (quite literally) – a “perfect Miss don’t touch me,” as the Pompadour Madam says when she first sizes Blanche up. Highly recommended to everyone who loves a good story well-told and gorgeously-illustrated.

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