Friday, February 28, 2014

What feminism is up against

Right from its roots, feminism has sought to transform society in ways that go far beyond just relations between the sexes. Which is why Ann Althouse's question is such a challenge for feminism:
What if women became fully autonomous, empowered individuals and nothing changed? What would that mean?
Althouse was, in turn responding to something Kim Gordon, who sang with a band you've probably never heard of called Sonic Youth, had said about sexism in the music industry then,
"In rock music people have certain assumptions that it makes people more enlightened and it really doesn't. It was the same thing playing for Neil Young's audience [in 1991] and being reminded that hippies can be really narrow-minded. We were around people who felt like, 'We're groovy, we're cool,' but they were so sexist. It was just in your face all the time."
 and now,
"Are women using their sexuality to sell records because they're empowered? In which case yeah, great. But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest? Male executives don't have to say anything because women know. And it's all aesthetically pleasing but it gets a little boring after a while if that's the only side that gets promoted."

I want to slow the music down a bit here because there was an explicit detail about "sexism" then that has gotten lost. The way Althouse has clipped the first paragraph leaves out something that I think is rather important. Here is the head she clips off:
When Sonic Youth signed to Geffen Records after 1988's alt-rock landmark Daydream Nation, Gordon's lyrics became more explicitly feminist in songs such as "Kool Thing", "Tunic (Song for Karen)" and "Swimsuit Issue", which she wrote after discovering that one Geffen executive was being sued for sexual harassment. "I guess I had an authority problem," she says. "In rock music people have certain assumptions ... [here the quote carries on as above].
Back in 1988 an executive at Geffen was being sued for sexual harassment. Gordon wasn't thinking just of men thinking about women in certain ways but of something vile that an actual man had done to an actual woman. And her point wasn't that there was sexual harassment back then too but that men right at the heart of an industry that presented itself as "cool and progressive" did this.

Next, let's note that the song Gordon wrote about the incident was called "Swimsuit Issue". So how did Sports Illustrated get into this mix? It got into the mix because there was an unspoken premise at work that might be expressed like this, "When women's sexuality is used to sell magazines or pop songs it creates a social environment where men think of women themselves as products available for consumption."

You could argue for or against that proposition but even if, like me, you are skeptical, you have to take it seriously. It's a legitimate, coherent and plausible argument.

If we return now, to the second half of the Gordon quote, we can see that that hypothesis has somehow been undermined in Gordon's eyes in the ensuing years (and Althouse takes that as read).
Are women using their sexuality to sell records because they're empowered? In which case yeah, great. But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest?
Gordon is not just allowing that women might be willingly doing the dirty work for male executives.  She is allowing that these women might be doing something for themselves that is a positive good as in, "yeah, great" by "using their sexuality". That really muddies the water. It's almost as if she is arguing that the means can justify the end.

The earlier argument was that if you use women's sexuality to sell product, you commodify women along with the product. But now Gordon, and many others, want to allow that the intention and the person who does this intending can change the moral status of the act. This new premise might be stated as follows: "If a woman freely and willingly uses her sexuality to sell product because it makes her feel empowered that is not only acceptable but good."

We might wonder what exactly causes this empowerment. Suppose, for example, that a woman set out to use her sexuality to sell music and it didn't work. What would she feel if the product was ignored? That wouldn't be very empowering. The product is now her sexuality after all. Or, suppose no one bought her music but that the promotional material became very popular because people liked the way her sexuality was presented but didn't like her music. Would that be empowering? Or suppose she sells both her sexuality and her music and she feels empowered by this but a collateral result is that the millions of men who buy her music start treating the women in their lives as sexual commodities?

Gordon's challenge is that she fully understands all these issues but she can see, as anyone can see, that millions upon millions of women are actively seeking empowerment by presenting themselves as sexual beings and that they are even willingly competing with other women as sexual beings. And they are not doing this to get sex so much as sexual status. They seem to regard the recognition this status brings as important, if not essential, to their happiness.

It gets worse.
But with some women it's almost inbred and there's pressure of competitiveness: who can be the sexiest? Male executives don't have to say anything because women know. 
First of all, notice that there is no necessary connection between the claim made in the first sentence and that made in the second sentence. The earlier argument makes a clear and arguable claim about a link between the cause (using sex to sell) and the effect (women being reduced to objects for consumption). Now it's women who are doing the thing that makes Gordon uncomfortable and men aren't actually doing anything to bring it about (but we know it's what they want). Blaming men is more of a reflex reaction than an argument. (And just try reversing that and claiming that you know women want some sort of sexual outcome even though they aren't overtly doing anything to bring it about.)

"With some women its almost inbred..." That "almost" is doing a lot of important fudging work. What Gordon means, but is having a hard time bringing herself to say, is that some women have a very strong desire to achieve sexual status in their own eyes and in the eyes of others that cannot easily be explained as the result of social conditioning; that's the point of saying "almost inbred". And that was part of the point of my earlier post, for while it is certainly true that you can sell beer, music and domain names to men by using women's sexuality, it is also true that you can get very rich using women's sexuality to sell, wine, beer, music, condos, chocolate, cigarettes, TV shows, panties and many other things to women. And you can so far more relentlessly. The Go Daddy ads stood out for two reasons: they stood out because they featured scantily clad women and they stood out because they used sex to sell corporate services. The vast majority of ads for corporate services don't use sex. Ads for products aimed at women are drenched in women's sexuality.

If you want to sell a product to anyone, you have to link the product to their aspirations. What Gordon and Althouse are implicitly acknowledging is that as they have gained more autonomy and sense of empowerment,  women have become more and more likely to seek out products that are associated with women they can see as sexually aspirational role models. This has become so obvious that it cannot be denied anymore.

Go to the New York Times bestsellers lists and visit the web pages of the authors. Look especially at male writers who appeal primarily to male readers and at female writers who appeal primarily to female readers. Ask yourself which group is most aggressively using their own sexuality to sell product? Don't worry, it won't be hard to tell; the difference is not subtle. Men are far more able and willing to separate their sexual status from other issues when determining their own worth and the worth of other men than women are able to do when determining their own worth and the worth of other women. Sheryl Sandberg has to be a sexually aspirational role model to attract large numbers of women to buy her book. Yes, some women would buy her book anyway but most would not. If Sandberg were the male equivalent of a man like Donald Trump (which is to say a man who is only attractive to women because he is rich and/or powerful and otherwise is a bit of a joke) women would not have been nearly as interested in her book.

It wasn't always this way. In the 1980s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer succeeded as a sex-advice columnist by being the very opposite of sexually aspirational. People who listened to her needed to be able to separate the woman giving the advice from what they thought of as sexual. If Dr. Ruth had been young, slim and sexually desirable, it would have detracted from her credibility. Today, the opposite is true and that is due in a large part to market choices made by autonomous, empowered women.
 What if women became fully autonomous, empowered individuals and nothing changed? What would that mean?

I don't the full answer but one thing it would mean is the end of feminism as we know it. That's why somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of women tell pollsters they don't identify as feminists. It's why so many female pop music stars tell journalists that they believe in equality of the sexes but not feminism.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The way women think men see women

This is from Leonora by Maria Edgeworth. Let me set it up for you. It is an epistolary novel and the letter in question is from General B ____ to his friend Mr. L_____. Mr. L is Leonora's husband and he has fallen in love with Olivia. Olivia is the house guest of Leonora who has, out of purest charity, set about helping Olivia restore her reputation, which reputation, we have come to realize she thoroughly deserved to have lost.

It's all sooo loaded that it would take a heart of stone not to hope that Olivia and Mr. L have a wonderful erotic affair that leads Leonora to throw herself off a cliff and that they are both so blissfully happy they don't even notice she is missing.

Anyway, in the middle of this, Edgeworth has Mr. L's friend General B write him a series of letters in which he tries to convince Mr. L to see the many virtues of Leonora. This is so wide of the mark as to seem crazy:
If you cannot believe in love without sacrifices, you must have them, to be sure. And now, in sober sadness, what do you think your heroine would sacrifice for you? Her reputation? that, pardon me, is out of her power. Her virtue? I have no doubt she would. But before I can estimate the value of this sacrifice, I must know whether she makes it to you or to her pleasure. Would she give up in any instance her pleasure for your happiness? This is not an easy matter to ascertain with respect to a mistress: but your wife has put it beyond a doubt, that she prefers your happiness not only to her pleasure, but to her pride, and to everything that the sex usually prefer to a husband.
If a man wanted to manipulate another man into having cheating on his wife, he couldn't do it better than that.

I'm only part way through the novel, but let's imagine that the portrait of Leonora above is accurate, as it may turn out to be. It would be pure hell to be married to such a woman. You couldn't please her because she'd always be sacrificing her pleasure to what she imagined was your happiness. The horror, the horror.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Make em stare

Okay, I'll stare.

La Senza, the company responsible for this, sells about a half billion dollars worth of product to Canadian women every single year. Canada is about one tenth the size of the USA.

Further down the road from where I took this shot, there is another shop whose owner has declared February to be feminist month and has added a definition that explains that feminism is the belief that women and men should be treated equally. That last part is necessary because it's a lie. Everyone knows that feminism had more ambitious plans than that.

As Ann Althouse, speaking of another (but related) issue, asks:
What if women became fully autonomous, empowered individuals and nothing changed? What would that mean?
She goes on to answer her own question,
Maybe the unexamined existing culture represents much more of what we want than we expect when we demand power and freedom, but that doesn't mean that power and freedom are not good. You might want to choose the very life that would have been imposed on you if you could not choose. And you can just think about whether that explains Katy Perry, et al.
Except that's not right. Go back to the pre-feminist era, when women didn't have power and freedom and you can see that they didn't dress that way. Yes, she is not fully dressed but that underwear is chosen to make a sensation that will be even clearer once she puts her low-cut top and skin-tight leggings on. Some women did dress this provocatively—strippers and hookers, for example—but they did so at the price of being excluded from what was called polite society.

The difference is that, when given power and freedom, millions of young women chose to use that power and freedom dress like strippers and hookers and not be excluded from polite society. No one guessed that was coming, neither feminists nor critics of feminism. Nobody guessed that women craved sexual status to the degree that it is now so obvious they do. This isn't about an "unexamined existing culture" it's about human nature.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Body Heat: Which Film Noir antihero are you?

The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and always has been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passagework. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes.
Introduction to Trouble is My Business by Raymond Chandler

Chandler goes on to say that this is a perspective Black Mask writers shared with film makers. That's true, although we should recognize that what makes a good scene in a book and what makes a good scene in a movie are often not the same thing. The point is a good one, though, and we can see it well exemplified in Body Heat. If the video file were damaged such that you couldn't see the ending, you could still enjoy it. If aliens brainwashed everyone who had seen the movie and destroyed every existing copy so the end was unavailable, you could still enjoy it.

That's largely because it is a movie about the past. Ned's past, he tells us, "is burning up out there". He's surrounded by it, not as Jameson thinks, because he is unable to face the present, but because he is unable to face the past and it, like a ghost in a movie, will continue to haunt him until he listens.

We are all surrounded by the past. We aren't surrounded by history because history is a story about someone else. The past is something we own and the past is something that owns us.

A key moment in the opening stages of the movie is when Ned first sees Matty. He's wandering along the shore front on a very hot summer's night. It's a resort town and it's full of past. He comes to a bandstand and listens to the band. They are a shade too good to be honest, sounding a lot more like Count Basie's band than any actual community band ever could. And the song they are playing is "That Old Feeling"!

It's a tune that everyone knows so we hear the lyrics in our head:
I saw you last night and got that old feeling
When you came in sight, I got that old feeling
And, just at that moment he sees Matty. For the first time. The song is not about seeing someone for the first time. It's about seeing an old lover and realizing that you are still in love with them. That doesn't matter because we, and Ned, think we know what the old feeling is. He is in love with this new woman and must have her.

It's erotic love in the Greek sense. It unbidden and it hits him like a sickness and seems to drive him to his fate.

But what old feeling is it really? And who is it for? Because who is Matty? She isn't who he/we thinks she is.

Initially, she reminds us of Lana Turner playing Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice because of the white dress she is wearing. Soon, however, she will seem more like Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity. (Both these are based on James M. Cain novels and there is probably something worth noting about that but I don't know much about Cain.)

Originally, the script called for two murder attempts just as happens in Postman but they scrubbed one when reviewing the dailies. It slowed down the action too much. My point in mentioning it is to show that the confusion was intentional. Contrary to what is often said of it, Body Heat is not a remake of anything. The movie, like Matty Walker, is deliberately hiding what it is really up to by pretending to be something it isn't; the movie deliberately trades on mistaken identity. We see it, we get "that old feeling", meaning we think we know this story already, and so we think we know how it has to go.

The effect is a little like those quizzes that we see all over the Internet that invite us to find out which character from a show or movie you are. The trick is that anyone who sat down to do a Which character from a particular film noir are you? quiz already knows who these characters are and the temptation is to fill out the answers so you get to be Sam Spade rather than Miles Archer. Who, after all, wants to be the chump? But the trick the movie is playing on us is that it keeps shifting ground so we don't know which film noir we're in and, consequently, we don't know how to play our part; what Matty does to Ned Racine, the movie does to us.

Only one of the classic film noir is called Out of the Past but that title would work on many others in the genre. A recurring theme in film noir is the guy who is trying to shake off, forget or hide his past and that past gets him every time. But what is Ned's past? What is it that's "burning up out there"?

Well, it's his sense of being not good enough. That's the thing that keeps haunting him—he can't admit he has needs because he thinks that will lead others to abandon him. When Ned reveals his needs to Matty early on he immediately has to undercut himself:
Ned: I need someone to take care of me, someone to rub my tired muscles, smooth out my sheets.

Matty: Get married.

Ned: I just need it for tonight.
Actually admitting he wants love is too dangerous.

Robert Glover, in a brilliant book, says that nice guys are guys who don't think it's okay to be just as they are. They believe they have to hide their failings because they believe they are bad. They assume that anyone who really gets to know them will reach the same conclusion. You may think Ned isn't terribly good at hiding his inner shame above but he's seeking approval through self deprecation. Lots of people do this.

Glover identifies two strategies nice guys use to hide their inner shame. One, obviously, is to suppress it. Another is to exaggerate how bad we are and essentially defy others to prove us wrong. That's Ned.

Poor Ned, he has to live with constant reminders that he isn't good enough and he hides it with a lot of acting out bad-boy behaviour. The point of all this behaviour is to get approval from women and the most important kind of approval is sex.

One of the most revealing moments is the anal sex scene. We see Matt's face in pain and her hands gripping the satin sheets (a lovely touch that) as she just barely endures what she is going through and it is very clear to us that she isn't enjoying it. Ned senses this too but, when he asks if she is okay, he mixes up the message: she says, "Don't" and "stop" and these are two separate statements but Ned hears them as a single sentence and starts driving harder. Why can't he see it? Because what really matters to him is the approval; what matters to him is that a woman has granted her approval by agreeing not just to sex but to anal sex. This external agreement "confirms" that he is the nice guy that his internal sense of self perpetually denies him.

Glover reminds us that nice guys aren't really very nice at all and Ned confirms this over and over again in the movie.

The scene that separates Body Heat from all the pale imitations that it inspired is the restaurant scene where Edmund unwittingly talks Ned into murdering him. Edmund accomplishes this by tapping into Ned's weakness. He does so because he has seen Matty playing with Ned's lighter and Edmund's possessiveness obliges him to drive it home that Ned can never have Matty. Edmund thinks he is winning because Ned confesses that he is just the sort of weakling that Edmund took Matty away from in the first place. But those of us who know the nice guy modus operandi, know that this confession is really just a way of hiding inner shame; Ned's joking about himself masks a violent rage at his not being able to get what he wants. And then they both laugh and we are chilled to the bone.

Ned is so firm in his conviction that he is a nice guy that he insists that he and Matty not "pretend" that Edmund deserves to be killed. That's a beautiful example of the lengths we can go to when doing really monstrous things but needing to believe we are nice guys. The odd thing is that it is sort of true: it is self-hatred that drives Ned to kill Edmund.

Okay, I could just keep going but I have to stop somewhere. If we go back to Raymond Chandler, we see that he has a solution to the problem he describes most crime fiction suffers from.
As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made it happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard, dangerous work.
Well, that's a nice little fantasy but it hardly matches what actually happens in a typical Raymond Chandler story where, more often than not, the detective is more concerned with a distorted personal standards that had little to do with, as Chandler himself put it, with any scruples or ethics.

When Ned digs the truth out about Mary Ann, he isn't pursuing justice. He isn't likely to get it as, best case scenario, the only way to prove he wasn't responsibly for one murder would be to implicate himself more deeply for the other. The very most he can hope for in digging out the truth about Mary Ann is a little self knowledge. That, however, is something.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A little light culture: special Barbie™ edition

This week a whole lot of people got their thrills mocking a blog that is called Mommyish. Sports Illustrated is putting Barbie™ on the cover and this required a Mommyish response:
The tagline of the campaign is called “Unapologetic” — so too bad if your kid feels shitty she’s not tall and blond and perfect like Barbie, because they are all UNAPOLOGETIC. The swimsuit issue is fine. If you don’t want to see it, don’t look at it, don’t buy it, whatever. But adding Barbie to the lineup of impossibly gorgeous, airbrushed beauties doesn’t do a lot for the self-esteem of young girls. It just doesn’t.
Anyway, everyone (including her loyal readers) recognized that Eve Vawter had said something silly. She, and I admire her for this, didn't back off though; she doubled down.
I love Barbie. Growing up I owned many Barbies. I purchase and encourage my own daughter, who is nine-years-old, to play with Barbie. I probably spend a bit more time than average explaining to my child why Barbie is not an attainable standard of beauty for my own kid to aspire to. 
You can imagine the arguments she is responding to here even though she doesn't cite them. She must have gotten one mighty load of pushback from women who said that their daughters love Barbie, that they loved Barbie when they were girls and that they even love Barbie now that they are adults.

And that's the key point: girls and even women love Barbie! Not every single one but lots and lots of girls love Barbie. And even the girls who don't admire Barbie, along with the women who don't want girls to admire Barbie, may not be wholehearted in their rejection. We reject lots of things in life not because we don't like them but because we think we shouldn't. I, for example, don't use porn but I know with one-hundred percent certainty that porn would work on me and that I could, if I let myself, enjoy it. Why don't I? I'll get back to that.

Let's go back to Vawter's valiant attempt to make her original reflexive action against Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated into a coherent reaction
Barbie is problematic for many reasons. She is tall and beautiful and amazingly thin. She is perfect. For a plastic doll she is perfect. For an iconic image of female beauty she is perfect. She is also plastic. And she was created for young girls to play with. Which is why placing her in the Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Swimsuit edition is also problematic. 
Barbie is iconic. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is also iconic. It features some of the most gorgeous women in the world in sexually provocative poses, and has become standard around the world for an example of “sexiness.” It’s exemplifies what many people in the world consider “sexy.”
They're both iconic! Well, yes. Shouldn't that be an argument in favour of having Barbie on the cover?

Here's a question: Why are little girls attracted to a doll that has a tiny waist and huge breasts? Men aren't attracted to Barbie; except for a few really odd guys you hope don't move into your neighbourhood, Barbie isn't a sexual image to an adult male. She has no nipples and no vagina. That's not sexy. And the joint between her legs and hips is really inhuman looking. Even the sort of trenchcoat-wearing loser who gets off on inflatable dolls because he is inacapable of bonding with an actual human being would reject Barbie.

So why do little girls like Barbie?

Because they can dress her up and imagine what it would be like to be an adult. Little girls not only want to be Barbie, they are convinced they can be like Barbie.

And do you know what? They're right. Most little girls can and will grow up to be sexually attractive adults. Barbie is all about looking forward to womanhood and that is a healthy thing. It is every child's moral duty to become an adult and the sole value of childhood is in the growing up. And a huge part of being a woman is being sexually attractive. When they get their first Barbie little girls still think of sexiness in terms of outward signs like clothing, or cars, or cute boyfriends or even careers. Later, they will realize that the outward display is actually about the inward secrets that Barbie does not, in fact, have.

[ADDED: Think of the attitude of little boys to sports heroes. The overwhelming majority of little boys will ever get to be anywhere near as good as their heroes just as less than one tenth of one percent of girls will end up looking anything like Barbie. But that isn't a problem for little boys. Vawter is clearly projecting her own fears onto others here and she tells us exactly what those fears are when she talks about, "the lineup of impossibly gorgeous, airbrushed beauties". (Note that she implicitly admits that beauty matters.) How do forward-looking little girls who treat Barbie and Disney princesses as aspirational guides become hurt and damaged adults who can only see their own sense of inadequacy when they look at beauty icons? Perhaps your initial response is to blame the media or men or both working together? If so, let me remind you that is what a hurt little child would do.]

I say most because not all little girls will succeed. Some will suffer from disfiguring diseases, some will die, some make disastrous life choices that will close the door on sexiness forever. It's the possibility of failure that makes it so important to little girls to play at being adults so they can begin to learn how to do this.

And there we find the real problem with iconic sexiness. It takes sexiness and projects it into the heavens so that only angels like Heidi Klum and Christie Brinkley can have it. Feminists have for decades now complained that images of women in the media and in porn create a standard that is impossible for real women to live up to. Really? Then why is it that so many ordinary-looking women have devoted husbands and boyfriends? [And we should remember that only a tiny percentage of the work models do is aimed at men; the basis of any model's ability to earn her livelihood is her ability to appeal to other women.]

There is a standard that is being set here and it is impossible to live up to but it isn't men who are doing it or being affected by it.

I promised I'd get back to porn. One of the buzz lines going about now is that every no begins with a yes. Like a lot of buzz lines it caught on because it is fundamentally right. Any time you want to say "no", you need to ask yourself what it is that you are saying yes to by saying no. If all I am doing by refusing porn is saying yes to guilt for wanting it then I'd be better off using the porn. My experience is that porn neither twists the male mind nor does it create impossible standards that real women can't live up to. What it does is use an incredible amount of time and energy that could be better used in other ways, such as actually pursuing real sex with a real woman. (Or even, and you can hate me for putting this way if you want to, pursuing a real woman to get real sex.)

Let's go back to Vawter now. She wants to reject iconic sex figures in her life and her daughter's life. Okay, but what is that alternative? What's the yes? She says little girls will feel bad about themselves because they can't be Barbie but that, as thousands of people noticed, is ludicrous. Hiding in Vawter's argument is a something else. I think she is right to feel anger but her anger is misplaced because she isn't saying yes to anything worthwhile—while saying no to "impossible gorgeous, airbrushed beauties", she is only saying yes to her own feelings of inadequacy. Sports Illustrated isn't the problem and men aren't the problem. The problem is a lot closer to home.

Back when the Lemon Girl and I first started to get attracted to one another there was a movie out called Sex, Lies and Videotape. It was one of those movies that people talked about and a lot of women used to quote the following line from it with approval:
I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love the person that they're attracted to, and that women become more and more attracted to the person that they love. 
Notice that, like a lot of comparisons between  men and women, it isn't balanced: men have to learn to love the person they're attracted to and women are so superior that they just become attracted to the person they love. It's nonsense. Men almost always fall in love with women they are attracted to and often do so even if those women are selfish jerks. And lots of men become friends with women and then become more and more sexually attracted to them. On the other end, one hell of a lot of divorces are caused by women being unable to maintain a sexual interest in the man they love.

But here's the thing, you can't love anyone else and no one else can love you unless you love yourself. The old admonition that you should love others as yourself depends absolutely on this. To be a sexy, a woman has to learn to become more and more attracted to herself. It's her responsibility and it's no one else's responsibility, certainly not that of Sports Illustrated, to make it happen for her.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Body Heat and the uses of nostalgia

Let's stick with Jameson a while (see Part 1 if this doesn't make sense to you). He singles out Body Heat for discussion in his essay because it is a nostalgic film. That's important because, as he correctly notes, it isn't self-evidently a nostalgic film. On the surface it looked like anything but when it came out (it is now necessarily nostalgic because it is an old film).

Here is a nostalgic memory of my own. They used to sell a lighter that looked like a revolver. You'd pull the trigger and a flame would ignite at the tip of the barrel. It looked like a gun but it was something else. Jameson's point is that a lot of movies produced in the 1970s were nostalgic even though they look like they are something else.

All by itself, that's a good point but not a terribly original one; lots of people made it at the time. Nor do I think it is terribly difficult to see; as proof, I offer the fact that I saw it and discussed it in previous posts on Body Heat. What makes Jameson interesting is that he claims that the nostalgia is a form of pastiche and that this resorting to pastiche says something about the era that produced such films.
... in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is is to imitate dead styles, to speak through masks and with the voices of the styles in an imaginary museum. But this means that contemporary or postmodernist art is going to be about art itself in a new kind of way; even more, it means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past. (p 18)
And you can see how this will tie to Jameson's Marxism. This sort of argument suggests that the ideology of what Jameson sincerely hopes is "late capitalism" is no longer up to justifying the existence of consumer society.
It seems to me exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonizing even those movies today which have contemporary settings: as though we were unable unable today to focus on our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience. But if that is so, then it is a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism itself—or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history. (p 20)
The key phrase here is, "as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience". If that is true—which is to say, that we have ended up in nostalgia not willfully but because of failure to be able to do anything else—then this is indeed and indictment of our culture.

One powerful hint that this might not be the case is Jameson's hesitancy in making the point. He has so hedged his argument so with the use of various conditional claims that it is easy to suspect that he doesn't believe what he is saying. Let's analyze that argument a little. The key point here, it seems to me, is that this nostalgia is just a delusion; that the sort of take it offers on the past has no rational use. If we can demonstrate that there is a willful rational activity in this sort of nostalgia, we will have an answer to his argument.

First a caveat: we cannot destroy Jameson's position. If a century of economic, cultural and political failure, to say nothing of the greatest mass murder in history, are not enough to make Jameson and others see the futility of Marxism and related types of command and control politics, nothing we can say will. The most we can hope to do is to show that there is a way to read a film like Body Heat as a achieving a meaningful "aesthetic representation of our own current experience".

Next a reminder: Jameson is not making a new point for a Marxist. If anything, his argument is a cliché of Marxist thought that can be traced back to Marx himself:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)
We might say that Marxism begot modernism. What I mean by that is that modernism tries to deal with the past in an objective way just as Marx did. (This is another essay for another time, but I would argue that what Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wagner and modernism have in part is that they are all attempts to reform and restate the Enlightenment project in an efforts to revive it.)

Historians sometimes make a distinction between history, which can be documented, and "the past", which can only be told, that can help us here. For example, in late antiquity we find tribes in the Balkans who claim to be descended from a mighty warrior who came south from what is today Sweden. Now there is some truth embedded here and there in this sort of story. The people of the north were mighty warriors who were feared and respected by those on the European mainland. It is even possible that some might warriors did come south and establish communities. It is even possible, although extremely unlikely, that a tribal group we find moving into the Roman empire from the Balkans in the late fifth century actually is descended from a community founded by a mighty northern warrior. But, and this is the important thing, even if this extremely improbable thing were true, there is absolutely no way of tracing it in history.

In any case, it wasn't true. The story of being descended from a mighty northern warrior was a story whose value was in the telling. The telling of stories like this allowed these people to bond as a people (a process historians call ethnogenesis) and the measure of the its worth for the people who used this story was not its historical accuracy but its effectiveness; if the story inspires people to bond together and to work effectively as a people, then it is a good story, a good use of the past.

Modernists rejected the possibility that the past could have any use independent of what could be done with it objectively. Think of how James Joyce, in moving through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rejects all the mythologies of Ireland. After doing this, he returns in Ulysses with a mythology from Ancient Greece that is picked and applied in a way that is artificial. Joyce doesn't expect that you will see Leopold Bloom as Ulysses. Quite the contrary, he expects you to be jarred by the contrast and so see how little Bloom has in common with a Greek hero. He is using the mythology in an objective way; it is only because you can see it from the outside that it is of any use.

We might imagine another version of the story where a cousin named David Bloom reads Homer and chooses to embrace the manly ideal in Homer and try to become like Ulysses. A modernist would only tell that story to demonstrate how pathetically the old cuckold would fail. His purpose would be to be objective, that is outside the myth; for the modernist, the person who tries to internalize the values of the old story can only be deluded. At the very most, the modernist might admit that these stories tell us something about human psychology because they exist as archetypes in our subconscious.

What the modernist cannot admit is that these stories might serve valuable moral ends. That they can inspire and guide us to be better men. And that, I will argue next week, is exactly what the story of Body Heat proposes to do.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A little light culture: postmodernism , nostalgia and Body Heat

I've been reading what is apparently a classic essay on postmodernism by Fredric Jameson. It caught my attention because Jameson says some fascinating things about my favourite movie, Body Heat, in the course of the essay. I kept reading because what he says strikes me as typical of so much of modern academic thought. This is the first of what will be at least two blog posts on the subject.

Jameson claims to be engaged in a purely descriptive process—that is to say, he claims he isn't judging. The ostensible point being that an objective assessment of postmodernism would provide data that would be useful for analyzing the society that produced this art form. Trouble is, he's lying.

We can tell he is lying because he keeps using terms such as "late capitalism" which tend to give away the game: which is that he's already prejudged the era and is only looking for further evidence to back up the conclusions he has already reached. There is, as I've said before, nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, what matters is how well his arguments do or don't hold together. That said, the self-deception at work here—his charming (in more than one sense of the meaning) belief that he is doing some sort of neutral analysis—is worth keeping in mind as we go ahead.

Where to start? How about here:
The second feature of this list of postmodernisms is the effacement in it of some key boundaries or separations, most notably the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture. This is perhaps the most distressing development of all from an academic stand point, which has traditionally had a vested interest in preserving a realm of high or elite culture against the surrounding environment of philistinism, of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader's Digest culture, and in transmitting difficult and complex skills of reading, listening and seeing to initiates.
That's hardly neutral language and it isn't difficult to guess where Jameson's sympathies lie. Which isn't to say that his interest is simple. As a good Marxist, he has to write "so-called mass or popular culture" because he can't really allow himself to believe that this stuff actually is popular in any profound sense. At the same time, his use of words like "schlock" and "kitsch" and the sneering reference to "Reader's Digest culture" are clearly elitist.

This is hardly new. Except that the attack would have been on middle-brow rather than mass culture, it's not hard to imagine one of the Bloomsburies writing the above in 1910!

The list of postmodernisms he refers back to includes the following: the poet John Ashbery; the architect Robert Venturi; pop artist Andy Warhol, serious composers John Cage, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley, pop artists the Clash, Talking Heads, and the Gang of Four. the film maker Jean Luc Godard as well "a whole new style of commercial or fiction films; and the novelists William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed as well as the French Nouveau roman.

This essay was written more than 30 years ago now and the thing that is most likely to strike us now is how some of the people and types of art listed turned out to be just passing trends. I don't think anyone seriously imagines that Philip Glass, while interesting as an individual, represents any sort of long-term trend in music. The Gang of Four, a now-forgotten new wave band, seem to have made the cut because of the chicom reference in their name and the Clash because they were Marxists as neither was particularly postmodern. Others listed seem, from the longer perspective, to belong more to modernism than postmodernism; John Cage and the Nouveau roman fit into that class.

In the end, we will find that this matters less than we might guess for the only things in the list that Jameson has any profound points to make are the new style of "commercial or fiction films" (a rather broad category) and not so much postmodern architecture as one building, the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

If we read what he has to say about the commercial and fiction film, we find that his primary claim is that these movies operate in what he calls "the nostalgia mode". I think he is on to something there and I'll come back to that next time. Part 2 is here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I was wrong about Evangelii Gaudium

I've been reading it again and have found a deeper vein that I missed last time. More coming ...

More on the inner life

Will Duquette is a professed lay Dominican (something I am working towards). He has some good thoughts on the inner life at the following link.