What’s Interesting about Roussel’s Impressions of Africa

It’s fairly easy to summarize Roussel’s Impressions of Africa: ca. 1900, some French people set sail for South America, but a storm ruins their ship and blows them toward Africa, where after they drift ashore they’re captured by an African kind who decides to hold them for ransom, sending a messenger to France stating that if he doesn’t receive the ransom, the survivors will all be killed. While everyone’s waiting for a response (which is never really in doubt—the ransom will be paid and everyone will return to France) the African king decides to hold a coronation ceremony, and to make it interesting he invites everyone to present some spectacle, deciding that whoever presents the best spectacle will win some prize. The spectacles are performed, the cat battle wins, the coronation wraps up, and finally the ransom arrives from France and everyone returns home. None of this plot stuff happens, however, until the second half of the book. The first half, chapter after chapter, is entirely given over to describing in intricate and context-less details the individual spectacles. Characters are named as if we know them already and without any explanation; some characters are executed beautifully though we have no idea of their crimes. If you want explanations or reasons for any of the spectacular objects or events or performances described throughout the first half of the book, it would be very difficult to get through; but the spectacles themselves are so interesting, so elaborately and minutely described and so wonderful and fantastic that if you give yourself over to these descriptions the book is very fun. If this first part of the book relies on the reader accepting that the spectacles are interesting in and of themselves, though, the second half provides all the back story, presumably satisfying the resistant reader who wants to know what all these things mean.

The thing is, the second half of the book is actually where the book becomes intolerably boring. Contrary to one of Jameson’s comments about Roussel—“his unimaginably detailed and minute description of objects—an absolutely infinite process without principle or thematic interest of any kind—forces the reader to work laboriously through one sentence after another, world without end” (Postmodernism 73)—I found the real labor of the book to be in trying to make it through the second half, where the endless descriptions give way to chapter after chapter explaining the shipwreck and the various other histories that led each character to appear in the coronation, along with (usually) their individual discoveries of the objects or spectacles which have already been described to us. What we find is that where we might expect such back stories to fill in emotional resonances behind some of the scenes, instead the only parts of the second half of the book that rise to the same level of interestingness as the first are the moments when these back stories branch off into their own elaborate descriptions of completely irrelevant objects or events. It is precisely in those parts of the stories that should ostensibly provide meaning for the earlier spectacles the book becomes intolerably boring.

I mention Jameson because I happened to be slogging through the second half of Impressions of Africa just when I was also reading Jameson’s postmodernism book, and because one easy reading of Roussel would be that his narrative techniques radicalize the surface—an essentially postmodern move, according to Jameson—I was curious to note that Jameson makes several offhand comments about Roussel. Unsurprisingly, Jameson does appear to view Roussel as a sort of modernist seed of postmodernism, thought it’s Jameson’s location of the difficulty of Roussel in his endless descriptions that got me really thinking. Because what potentially makes these descriptions difficult—and what conversely makes them so fun to read—seems not to do with anything inherently boring or difficult about the, but rather with a reader’s potential willingness to disregard narrative’s normal creation of desire for the meaning behind events.

I think a typical Jamesonian reading of the radicalization of surface in Roussel would link it to the way surfaceness in postmodernism is supposed to tear discourse from its historical boundedness, contributing to the peculiar late capitalist difficulty of mapping our situational within material history. Roussel would either then prefigure or perhaps inaugurate the postmodern invitation to enjoy this unboundedness—enjoy the surface in all its lack of meaning or material determination. A more sympathetic reading, and the one I most often considered while reading Impressions of Africa, is that this is a critique (for better or worse) of the form of meaning-making by consultation of historical narrative—whatever is explained by our awareness of the material conditions that bring about a beautiful or interesting surface, the explanation fails to exhaust the meaning of that surface. But, then, I’m not sure it’s actually a critique. After all, every last one of the wonders of the first half of the book is wholly and adequately explained to the reader in the second half. What really happens is not that Roussel critiques the possibility of explaining the meaning behind these spectacles so much as he deflates the potential for these explanations to be interesting. In fact, part of what’s so boring about these explanations is how totally and simply they account for every aspect of the elaborate spectacles.

Part of Sianne Ngai’s account of the interesting as an aesthetic category  has to do with the way declaring something interesting is always in some sense asking after why it is interesting, a call for justification that it is interesting. In this way, “the aesthetic of the interesting thus has the capacity to produce knowledge” in a way that is unique among aesthetic categories (815). Impressions of Africa seems very much to play with the way the interesting works on this level. What is either exhilarating or frustrating about the first half of the book is the way it confounds our desire to have these spectacles explained to us (a desire partially created by the fact that they’re presented to us as part of a larger narrative we at first get almost nothing of). By confounding this desire, the reader is invited to suspect that their question “why is this interesting?” is the twin question of “what does this mean?” or “what is the cause of this?” so that explanation and justification of interestingness become conflated. The latter of those questions is then answered to an almost exaggerated level of certainty, while because of the absence of the interesting that we find in this explanation the former begins to take on more importance even as the reader increasingly realizes the impossibility of satisfactorily answering it. To the extent that the interesting really does raise questions of justification or promise some production of knowledge in the pursuit of those questions, what is troubling and exciting about Roussel here is that he makes us aware that conventional narrative guides us to expect this knowledge will be looked for in a certain way, and forces us to confront that we have little idea as to really what sort of knowledge we should expect interestingness to lead us to.

This is complicated, though, by our awareness after the publication of How I Wrote Certain of My Books that Roussel’s composition method prefigures much of contemporary procedural and conceptual poetics. The question then might be to what extent this awareness satisfies the search for justification and/or the production of knowledge inherent in first finding Roussel’s work interesting. Is it that the material conditions of composition are what is interesting and therefore meaningful and Roussel’s little play at exhausting explanation is really just a ruse?

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Roussel’s Procedural Handel

From Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910), trans. Mark Polizzotti, 2011, (204-06).

According to Corfield, a musical phrase hatched by a brow endowed with such a divine spark could enliven many pages of score with its breath, even when banally developed by a mere technician. On the other hand, the speaker added, an ordinary theme, treated by even the most inspired mind, would necessarily preserve its heaviness and awkwardness, never managing to conceal the indelible stamp of its undistinguished origins.

At these words Handel let out a bellow of protest, claiming that, even on a mechanically devised motif furnished solely by chance, he was quite sure he could write an entire oratorio worthy of inclusion among his works.

This assertion having provoked certain murmurs of doubt, Handel, stimulated by the libations of the feast, stood abruptly, declaring that he wanted, then and there and before witnesses, to establish honestly the skeleton of such a work.

Feeling his way, the illustrious composer headed toward the fireplace and plucked from a vase several branches of holly left over from the previous Christmas. He lined them up on the marble mantelpiece, drawing everyone’s attention to their number, which rose to seven; each branch was to represent one not of the scale and carry some kind of sign that would make it identifiable as such.

The maestro’s elderly housekeeper, Madge, an expert seamstress, was immediately sent for and ordered to provide—that very instant—seven thin ribbons of different hues.

The ingenious woman, hardly put out by such a trifle, returned after a brief moment with seven ribbons, each partaking of one color of the prism.

Corfield, at the great composer’s request, knotted a ribbon around each stem without disturbing the regularity of the alignment.

This done, Handel invited his guests to contemplate for a moment the gamut spread before their eyes, each attendee attempting to keep in memory the correspondence of colors to notes.

Then the maestro himself, his sense of touch prodigiously refined by blindness, proceeded to a minute examination of the clusters, scrupulously registering in his memory a given particularity created by the arrangement of leaves or the spread between their thorny points.

Once he was sure, Handel gathered the seven branches of holly in his left hand and pointed toward his worktable, bidding Corfield bring his pen and inkwell.

Guided out of the room by one of his faithful devotees, the blind maestro had himself led to the stairway, whose flat, white banister lent itself perfectly to his designs.

At length, after shuffling the branches of holly, which no longer retained a trace of their initial order, Handel called for Corfield, who handed him the plume dipped in ink.

Brushing haphazardly, the the free fingers of his right hand, one of the spiky clusters, which for him had individual personalities recognizable to the touch, the blind man approached the handrail, on which he easily wrote, in ordinary letters, the note indicated by the rapid contact.

Descending one step and again shuffling the thick bouquet, Handel, by the same purely random process of touch, gathered a second note, which he inscribed a bit lower on the rail.

And so his descent continued, slow and regular. At each step, the maestro conscientiously rearranged the sheaf in every direction before seeking, with his fingertips, the designation of some unpremeditated sound immediately inscribed in sufficiently legible letters.

The guests followed their host step by step, easily verifying the rectitude of the process by checking the variously colored ribbons. Sometimes, Corfield took the plume and dipped it in ink before handing it back to the blind man.

After ten minutes, Handel wrote the twenty-third note and descended the last step, which left him back at the ground floor. Reaching a bench, he rested a moment from his labors, telling his friends his main reason for choosing such an unorthodox form of notation.

Sensing his end was near, Handel had bequeathed his entire house to the City of London, which planned to turn it into a museum. A large quantity of manuscripts, curios, and memorabilia of all sorts already promised to make any visit to the illustrious home highly worthwhile. Still, the maestro remained haunted by the constant desire to augment the attraction of the future pilgrimage site. This was why, seizing the propitious opportunity, he had that very evening made of the handrail in question an imperishable monument, by autographing onto it the odd and incoherent theme whose length was alone determined by the previously unspecified number of steps, which thereby added a supplemental peculiarity to the mechanical and deliberate aspect of the composition.

Restored by these few moments of rest, Handel, accompanied by his friends, went back up to his study, where the evening ended on a gay note. Corfield volunteered to transcribe the musical phrase spawned by the whims of chance, and the maestro promised to follow its parameters strictly, reserving only two liberties for himself: the duration of the notes and the pitch, which could move unrestrictedly from one octave to the next.

The very next day, Handel set to work with the help of a secretary accustomed to taking his dictation.

Blindness had in no way lessened the famous musician’s intellectual faculties.

In his hands, the theme with its bizarre contours acquired an engaging and beautiful grace, through ingenious combinations of rhythm and harmony.

The same twenty-three-note phrase, repeated over and over but each time presented in different form, alone constituted the famous oratorio Vesper, a powerful and serene work whose success continues to this day.

 

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Coke as Queer Utopianism

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
-Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

“In it’s everyday manifestation such an object would represent alienated production and consumption. But Warhol and O’Hara both detect something else in the object of a Coke bottle and in the act of drinking a Coke with someone. What we glean from Warhol’s philosophy is the understanding that utopia exists in the quotidian. Both queer cultural workers are able to detect an opening and indeterminacy in what for many people is a locked-down dead commodity.”
-José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

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On Raoul Eshelman’s “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism.”

The new notion of performativity serves neither to foreground nor contextualize the subject, but rather to preserve it: the subject is presented (or presents itself) as a holistic, irreducible unit that makes a binding impression on a reader or observer.
-Eshelmen, “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism”

As a piece of writing, I don’t find Eshelman’s “Performatism” to be very convincing at all. It seems as if Eshelman essentially establishes post-postmodernism by fiat, from which two other main assumptions follow: 1) that postmodern thinking, basically defined as thinkers in the latter half of the twentieth century but prior to, like, 1997 or something, are wrong, or that we no longer think like them, and 2) that postmodern is purely pessimism and nihilism. Therefore, the answer to postmodernism, performatism, must be diametrically opposed to postmodern thinking: optimistic and defined by belief. The logical structure of that argument just bothers me, and in addition to that I find almost none of Eshelman’s readings of films or literature or art to be convincing at all, either in those places where he attempts to articulate the obsolescence of postmodern art, or more often in those places where he tries to describe how his selected artworks are performatist. This could just be because American Beauty seems like a profoundly stupid movie in every way to me, so it’s hard for me to accept it as a paradigm of the new direction in thought.

Particularly egregious in this essay are those moments when he tries to outline a performatist politics, as are his arguments about the reassertion of the phallus. His notion about performatist politics seems to boil down to a replacement of politics with the achievement of personal transcendence and wholesome living. He correctly points out that because of the size and complexity of the most dire political problems we’re faced with (environmental problems, for example, cannot be adequately addressed by a politics of resistance and emancipation, really, and the contemporary economic world creates problems whose solutions very likely cannot resemble the sort of mass revolutionary politics nor the critical acts of localized resistance that early and late modernism tended to envision), new ideas of the political are needed. But the solution offered by performatism borders on the solipsistic: “If we do not become the sort of people–more reflective in our demands, more modest in our needs, more attentive in our actions–who could inhabit a responsible economy, such an economy will not come to us by law or government. Because it will not come without law and government, changing ourselves is all the more important” (6). Essentially, we are invited to performatively change ourselves to good people who believe in love (or just believe in things more generally) which will create a new space that through a kind of osmosis of goodness will draw out a new government and economy. I’m sorry, but this is stupid. His argument about the re-invigorated phallus seems likewise to be incredibly problematic. If he were just arguing for a way that the phallus can now be understood as not necessarily oppressive or dominant, that would be one thing (not unproblematic, but maybe less so, at least), but here he seems to base his sort of call for this reinvigoration on that really simple and old and wrongheaded classic division of masculine/active and feminine/passive, and when that’s your starting point, calling for the reassertive (but friendly! I promise!) phallus as a basis for the new performatist subject doesn’t get the benefit of doubt.

Backing away from those complaints, though, there is something here, in Eshelman’s idea of performatism. The basic idea behind a turn away from the endless ontological undermining of thought (and language and the subject and what-have-you) that characterized the 20th century does seem to bear a certain resonance in the present. For it to happen just as a naive and stupid rejection of all that critical work would, I believe, be likely to lead to the negative side of this possibiliity, and Eshelman’s insistence on treating all his examples as representative of a new transcendent hope for our present seems to lead precisely to those problems (see, as I just mentioned, his solipsistic politics). But the careful deployment of thought toward constructively building new ideas and concepts, of politics toward concrete localized actions of community-building, etc., these do seem to be aspects, and useful aspects, of the present. Within that matrix, a theory of performatism that begins with the holistic treatment of subjects and ideas as non-reducible could potentially carry some weight.

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1990: In some ways, not at all long ago.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990:

Always already a cultural sign, the body sets limits to the imaginary meanings that it occasions, but is never free of an imaginary construction. The fantasized body can never be understood in relation to the body as real; it can only be understood in relation to another culturally instituted fantasy, one which claims the place of the “literal” and the “real.” The limits to the “real” are produced within the naturalized heterosexualization of bodies in which physical facts serve as causes and desires reflect the inexorable effects of that physicality.

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Thinking Django Unchained through Nat Turner’s “Confessions”

A few weeks back, the spectacular Jacobin published this pretty great little critique of Django Unchained, not taking the usual direction of asking questions about whether or not the movie is racist, but instead calling it out for failing to treat Django’s violence as potentially revolutionary. The gist is in the final paragraph:

“There’s nothing remotely Fanonist about any of the film’s violence. No suggestion of solidarity or collective action. Nope, just one nigger in ten thousand.”

In other words, Django’s violence remains isolated, a matter of personal revenge, as there’s no mechanism in the film by which it could be connected to the possibility of larger class-based action directed against slavery or the slavers. Fair enough. Although to a certain extent this critique is grounded in an idea that Django Unchained should first be read straightforwardly as a historical piece, whereas I think the movie has a somewhat more complex relationship to history than that.

But that aside for now, the Jacobin article suggests looking back to the history of slave revolts, claiming that Django Unchained, in staging its violence as merely the personal vendetta of its ultra-masculine movie hero, elides the actual revolutionary content of historical slave rebellions. I admit, while I was watching Django it occurred to me both how interesting and how improbable a really high quality Hollywood Oscar-bait style historical movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion would be, and I’m still harboring a little pang of regret that Django is probably the closest we will ever get to that—because as that sort of movie, Django is absolutely a disappointment.

I’m not familiar at all with the rhetoric surrounding the Hatian revolution, which the Jacobin piece cites, but when I went back to read Nat Turner’s confessions it occurred to me that from a historical perspective what Django is really missing is not necessarily a connection to class-based ideas, but to a particularly violent and potentially revolutionary interpretation of messianic Christianity that formed the basis Turner’s revolutionary awakening.

The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia” (1832) is a really fascinating document, representing something of a cross between a brief autobiography and a detailed confession of the violence and murders of Turner’s rebellion, all as recorded by Thomas Gray. Because the whole document was actually written down by Gray, whose motives are clearly to portray Turner as the scariest sort of monster to a white Southern reading public, we can’t be sure the extent to which the document really retains Turner’s own voice. The document’s title page promises in exaggerated text “An account of the whole insurrection, with lists of the whites who were murdered,” and it’s clear this step-by-step story of how and who they killed is supposed to be the focus of the whole thing.

But before the confession gets around to this part of the story, we get the brief and sort of amazing autobiographical story of Turner himself, in which Turner more or less lays claim to being a prophet who has carried out his rebellion under the command of God. The differences between the tone and quality of language in these two sections makes me suspect that the first part is a much closer to Turner’s actual confession—it’s halting and circuitous, much more like speaking a story aloud, than the final half, which adopts a much clearer and more proper grammar as it relates in precise chronology the night of the rebellion. On top of that, the first part presents a lot of rhetorical flourishes that suggest the sort of Old Testament fire we might expect from someone who claims to be a prophet.

Whether or not I’m right to suspect this first part is more authentically Turner, in this section we do get a sense that Gray was perhaps fairly awestruck by Turner, and one of the things that I find so interesting about the document is that it ends up almost in spite of itself putting into public circulation a way that the isolated violence of Turner’s rebellion could be understood as a more total symbol of insurrection. Obviously, this was meant to scare the white South about the possibility of a nationwide insurrection, and I’m not sure how likely the language of this document would have been to have made it to the ears of many slaves, so I don’t think we can really read it as a pamphlet calling for revolution. But Turner’s rhetoric does suggest a way that he at least understood his actions to be warranted not simply by his own desire for revenge, but by a divine command for vengeance against Southern society.

Turner begins by relaying an origin story, in which his mother recalls overhearing him when he was a toddler tell some story about something that had happened before he was born. So she gathers everyone around to bear witness: “others being called on were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth. And my father and mother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast.” He goes on to explain that one day as a young child he suddenly knew how to read, which, no one having taught him, further astonishes his fellow slaves. These things, along with his extreme devotion to prayer, mark him out among other members of his society.

When Turner explains how he came to conceive of and plan his rebellion, what’s striking is that these ideas, as far as he’s concerned, are external ideas that are delivered to him in a series of signs and visions. He never consciously comes to a revolutionary awakening, instead casting himself as something more like a tool for bringing into reality a vengeance whose origin is purely divine.

After a beating by an overseer, Turner escapes briefly and lives in the woods for 30 days, before coming back to his plantation. His fellow slaves are upset upon his return: “And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.” And as if to justify his return, Turner explains that “about this time I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’”

Following this vision, Turner witnesses a number of miracles, finding in the corn fields morning dew made of blood, and coming across mysterious hieroglyphs composed in the leaves of the forest. In typically Biblical fashion, the signs are later explained to him: “And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me—For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew—and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.”

We see again as Turner takes the next step of beginning to think these abstract ideas of justice as material goals that he experiences the motivation as an external force: “And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” The agency behind the next step of laying out actual plans with fellow slaves is likewise attributed to divine action: “And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence, (Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam).” And finally, another sign reveals to Turner the exact moment to take action, at which point the narrative takes on the flat form of reenactment, recounting in precise order the events of the night of rebellion.

To the extent that Turner’s “Confessions” could be said to approach or demonstrate any kind of revolutionary awareness, it is only to be found in the way Turner figures himself as a prophet who is shown the violence it will fall on him to make a reality. It’s also notable that there is not really any idea here of freedom as an ultimate goal. Turner’s visions do not suggest he is bringing about the liberation of slaves, but instead is annihilating society (at least, white society) wholesale. The vision is of “white spirits and black spirits” at war, because Christ has “laid down the yoke” he bore for the sins of humanity, as if the forgiveness contingent upon Christ’s sacrifice is being nullified, opening the way for direct conflict between white society and the slaves.

The utopian end of this violence is the time “when the first should be last and the last should be first,” but the purpose of this violence is not to bring about this time; instead it’s like it operates under a sort of reverse causality, where the violence is ordained to happen because that future time of utopian reversal is “fast approaching.” The nearness of this future time justifies and calls for the violence, rather than the violence leading to that end. The aim of both the actual violence Turner enacted and the rhetoric he develops to support it might be directed squarely at the evil of a cruel ruling class, but this is very much not a Marxist (or even Fanonist) materialist revolution. It’s much closer to the idea of revenge, or perhaps better, vengeance as a generic category: vengeance against a twisted societal order that is unsanctioned by an immaterial divine truth, vengeance enacted backwards through time by that divine truth.[1]

Where the sort of critique we find in the Jacobin piece really misses the mark with Django is that Django is a thought which comes out of and is addressed to our present, a present whose inequality and injustice is of a qualitatively different sort than the world of antebellum slavery. A movie that purported to be an account of the actual history of slave rebellions and their violence would have to answer for why it had focused the cause of rebellious slaves’ actions into the isolation of personal revenge for a loved one. But Django is not that sort of a movie, and it doesn’t really claim to be, so the question of just what it is doing in imagining and asking us to enjoy this violence is a very different one.

It seems like Django’s relation to history is something more like that it hijacks our awareness of one of the greatest historical sins of our culture in order to enact a revenge fantasy against its perpetrators in our present thought. This is actually a kind of weird maneuver. There’s a sense in which it’s more like the thinking of vengeance as a generic category we see in Turner’s confessions—that is, it’s not a violent tactic taken in order to bring about a real material goal, but is instead conceived of and justified entirely because of a prescient certainty about the eventual overturning of the situation. And so the question might then be what is that doing in our present.

One thing to realize about the fantasy of a historical Marxist Django whose absence Jacobin laments is that such a movie would actually leave the need for violence and revenge firmly in a historicized past. We would see the ways in which that historical rebellion was brought about, and successful or not, its effects would remain behind us, for us to contemplate and maybe understand, but it would not be not immediately available to us as something necessary in a present not at all defined by slavery. A materialist recipe for a slave rebellion would offer very little for the contemporary movie-going public by means of prescription against the current unsanctioned orders of power. But the thinking of vengeance at the behest of a future when the wrongs of a present will have been turned on their heads, the invitation to a little more outright and unforgiving anger directed against what we know is wrong  about those who wield power in our world (and even the encouragement to enjoy that anger), all of that might be something our present could really make us of.

Of course, there could be problems in thinking about Django this way. In order for this kind of delight in anger and vengeance to be active for us in the present it has to remain somewhat open. It can’t be closed off toward a precisely defined antagonist. This is what differentiates Django  from a historical investigation of slave rebellions, but it also leaves the movie open to the possibility that it just gets channeled into blank and misguided populist anger. One answer to this problem is that Tarantino’s last several films have all been exercises in thinking revenge, and taking them as a group demonstrates a refining of that thought so it becomes more specifically useful as radical anger. I don’t mean to suggest that I think Tarantino is radical.[2] But even so. In the Kill Bill films (and sort of in Death Proof as well), the revenge is directed, from a woman, toward a sort of evil father archetype. In Inglorious Basterds Tarantino took the gamble of linking his revenge thinking with actual historical crimes, but he made the twin mistakes of embodying that revenge in the pseudo anti-establishment figures of the American army’s “Basterds” and of letting the evils of a broader social order coalesce into the single body of Hitler. In Django, interestingly, because we’re aware (and because the movie reminds us rather powerfully) that slavery is a systemic problem that can’t be solved by killing just one person, we can delight in the satisfaction of Django’s revenge, but our desire for more vengeance remains open, even when all the visible villains are vanquished.

In spite of (or really because of) its danger, this thinking of vengeance is potentially disruptive in the contemporary liberal order. In our present, the only sort vengeance that is officially sanctioned is action taken against the marginalized figures of terrorists. Any other anger or desire for vengeance against established powers is denied us, because the liberal order insists at all points that any systemic wrongs are unavoidable facts of reality, which we have to come together benevolently and compromisingly in order to overcome. Django invites us to join it in feeling anger and a desire for absolute vengeance against what we already understand as powerful figures that control the social order of the movie. I’m still not sure it’s totally successful in this, but it seems like it at least leaves itself open to the possibility that it could be successful. And amplifying this possibility for Django Unchained seems to me like a better approach than focusing on its failure to be a different kind of movie.


[1] Notice that Turner’s first prophecy is actually a prophecy about things that already happened; it is just that they happened before a time when  he could have known about him.

[2] The Jacobin piece is really right on in a lot of its criticisms about Tarantino as a whole, especially it’s calling him out for a persistent strain of homophobic violence in his movies. But neither do I think Tarantino’s movies can ever be comfortably classified as reactionary, or even simply as liberal. There’s more going on and it’s worth unpacking to see what that could be.

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Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

I’m having a little bit of difficulty reconciling these two:

self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at ‘nodal points’ of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. Or better: one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass. No one, not even the least privileged among us, is ever entirely powerless over the messages that traverse and position him at the post of sender, addressee, or referent.

Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 15. 1979. (Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. 1984.)

and:

It is therefore impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the relevant criteria are different. All we can do is gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species.

p. 26

On the one hand, Lyotard describes the postmodern subject, which is always located within a tapestry of networks, as in some way fundamentally empowered, a never powerless node through which messages pass; on the other, “we” are left outside of this mess of networks, capable only of “gaz[ing] in wonderment” at it but nothing else, presumably not participating, lacking completely any capacity of judgment or validation. The difficulty here is figuring out who or what this “we” is from the second excerpt. But it only works at all if this “we” is, in actuality, not real, not an actual part of the really existing tapestry of networks that makes up postmodern/contemporary reality. I would at first presume the “we” is the sort of assumed position of the critic, of Lyotard — but then we’re left wondering from what position these actual statements that we’re reading have issued. On the other hand, Lyotard wants to empower the presumably more real “even the least priveleged among us,” but while this subject or node is always granted a power over any statement or message, it would seem that if this subject stepped out to ‘judge’ any of these, it must blink out of existence. An interesting puzzle.

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