Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Kansas troglodyte ponders the death of the movies

There have been times in the past when I've told people that I live in Kansas and I can see in their eyes or hear in their words a subtext the landscape of which (not to mention the people who populate it) bears a close physical and cultural resemblance to that which you see in the above image. Combine the sepia landscape of the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz and this state's very public debates about what should be taught in its high school science classrooms, and the opening sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey are what you get in the imagination of many, though those barren wastes you see also echo with imperfectly-rendered imitations of Margaret Hamilton hoarsely-screeching, "I'll get you, my pretty . . . and your little dog, too!" There is no help for this, of course, apart from good old Education; until or unless that happens, though, "Kansas" is a pop-culture creation that Kansans, no matter whether they subscribe to that creation's truth, have no choice but to live in. Still, I will make a modest beginning in that educating process by informing my audience that we have very few outhouses left in the state these days.

While reading 3 Quarks Daily today, I stumbled across an intriguing essay called "Selected Minor Works: Where Movies Came From" (note the past tense) by Justin Erik Halidór Smith. Smith is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, but I don't recall having read any of his work there before. At any rate, the piece's larger thesis is implicit in the past tense of his essay's title: that film may have been the 20th century's predominant art form, but "if we agree with [Stanley] Cavell that a movie is a sequence of automated world projections, then movies are no longer being made." The whole piece is pithy and worth your time, but it's the following passage that I wanted to share with you:

Dreams are not weird movies, even if we recognize the conventions of dreamlikeness in weird movies. Weird movies, for one thing, are watched. The dreamer, in contrast, could not be more in the world dreamt. It is the dreamer’s world. It is not a show.

However problematic the term, cinematic ‘realism’ shows us, moreover, that movies can exhibit different degrees of dreamlikeness, and thus surely that there is something wrong with the generalized movie-dream analogy. In dream sequences, we see bright colors and mist, and, as was explicitly noted by a dwarf in Living in Oblivion, we often see dwarves. When the dream sequence is over, the freaks disappear, the lighting returns to normal, and in some early color films, most notably The Wizard of Oz, we return to black-and-white, the cinematic signifier of ‘reality’. My dreams are neither like the dream sequences in movies, nor are they like the movies that contain the dream sequences. Neither Kansas nor Oz, nor limited to dwarves in the repertoire of curious sights they offer up.
It was not long after I met the woman who is now my wife that she and I had a fairly heated argument about the merits of The Wizard of Oz. At the time she, a native Kansan, said she hated it because of how its "realistic" scenes depicted Kansas: "No wonder Dorothy wanted to run away!" She had also grown weary of all the Oz-associated jokes (see above), and I, being from a state with several ten-gallon hats and Cadillacs with longhorns on the hoods full of its own pop-culture assumptions, can empathize. Texas' mythos, though, is such that it really is "bigger" than all that. No brag--jes' fact. Kansas, I'm sorry to say, does not capture people's imagination in the same way: People see the landscapes in Giant--bleaker by far than the Kansas landscapes of The Wizard of Oz--and they're awed by them. They don't want to run from them. Of course, the plot of each film shapes the audience's perception of its landscape. On my own trip to Dodge City back in June, I didn't think of the landscape out that way as bleak at all. But neither can one hide out there, not even figuratively. If the city is a site of what Jacob Moreno has called "surplus reality," a space in which one is exposed to and can try on different psychic guises for oneself, I'd have to say that out in western Kansas, there ain't a whole lot of surplus anything out there. As emawkc wrote in response to a comment I'd left on his own post about western Kansas, "I think SWKansas is more about being, than doing and seeing." (my emphasis)

Below the fold: Smith's argument about what film was, what (in his opinion), it's rapidly becoming, and an attempt to explain why there's a picture of a (cinematic) caveman at the beginning of this post.

Smith agrees with Cavell that the narrative space of film is the same as that of myth, in which characters appear as types but not as individuals, but almost no sooner does he say that than he says this:
The increasing cartoonishness of movies--both the increasing reliance on computer graphics, as well as the decreasing interest in anything resembling human beings depicted in anything resembling human situations (see, e.g., Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond for a particularly extreme example of the collapse of the film/cartoon boundary)—may be cause for concern. Mythology, and its engagement with recognizably human concerns about life and death, is, it would seem, quickly being replaced by sequences of pleasing colors and amusing sounds.
These are sweepingly-broad statements, of course, but compelling to think about--especially when, as Smith claims, we at present have no other art form that performs the work of myth-telling. Novels, by the way, don't, as Russian Formalist Mikhail Bakhtin tells us.

So: we're left with cartoons or whatever "reality" is. Myth, which Nietzsche said, in "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music," the horizon must be ringed by in order to unify a culture, may not be dead, but with no cultural medium with which to convey it, it might as well be. It's intriguing that Smith does not see religion as taking up that particular baton. Religion has traditionally been the keeper of a culture's myths, and I get the feeling that, no matter Smith's faith or absence or lack thereof, he would have no quarrel with that. Perhaps implicit in religion's absence is Smith's claim or assumption that religion is no longer culturally relevant--that, indeed, the cinema supplanted religion to become the new Church and religion was left to its own devices. If one of results of that was ID, I'd have to say that cultural exile is not healthy for the church.

As the recent debates here in Kansas over whether or not to teach Intelligent Design make clear, ID's choosing not to name God as the Designer for all life make the debate one about competing, diametrically-opposed descriptions of material reality, one rooted in directly-observed and -testable experience, the other a sort of mutation of the platonic forms that simultaneously claims and denies a supernatural origin for the planet and what lives on it. Which, of course, is nuts--the simultaneous claiming-and-denying, I mean--and not just from a scientific standpoint, either.

Enter the second essay by Smith I read today, the provocatively-titled "The Hairless Apes of Kansas," which originally appeared last year in Counterpunch. What is striking about this piece is that, once it covers the fairly familiar ground of last year's news and arguments about ID, it heads, in its conclusion, in what I found to be a surprising and provocative direction. Apologies in advance for the long quote:
[A]fter more than 200 years of steady evidential consilience in favor of the theory of evolution, the supernaturalists still prefer to hold their ground, rather than seriously consider the theory in the light alone of which so much about the way the world is now starts to make sense. Why? What really hangs on this?

I personally can think of few things I enjoy less than camping, and indeed I stray as seldom as possible from the scattered urban centers I think of as home. So it is not from what might be ridiculed as a 'granola' standpoint when I complain that creationism, in its roots, is motivated by a hatred of nature, a desire to not be part of it, to have some special link to a transcendent order in virtue of which this earthly sojourn may be downplayed as a mere detour on the soul's path.

This hatred is responsible for no small amount of suffering. Animals suffer, since, as mere earthly bundles of drives and aversions, lacking savable souls, they embody everything we resent about our current predicament. It is no surprise that we take our resentment out on them, and so no surprise that the so-called culture of life, which takes human beings as sacred in virtue of their unique supernatural liaison, is nonetheless happy to tolerate the atrocity of factory farming. And people suffer, for as long as thisworldly experience is dismissed as irrelevant to the sort of creatures we really are, thisworldly virtues like justice remain that much easier to neglect.

The irony, of course, is that it would be difficult to find more convincing evidence that men are in fact apes than in the fang-baring and chest- pounding territorial battles being played out in school districts throughout America, in which rational argument serves only as a ritualized ornamentation of what is transparently just another instance of the survival of the fittest already familiar to us in countless examples from the animal kingdom. Fitness here is measured in abstractions the other species of apes have not yet managed to comprehend, like the superior performance of one's view in a Zogby poll of Kansan parents, but this in no way diminishes the usefulness of thinking about the struggle in Darwinian terms.

The lost pre-Darwinian conception of man that we should really be mourning is not as image of God, but, in the old nomenclature of the Aristotelians, as rational animal. The pagan Greeks could acknowledge our kinship with the animals while still making maximum use of the specific differentium of humanity, namely, reason. The currently prevailing strain of Christianity in the US, in contrast, seeks to remove us from the animal kingdom altogether, but in the process has gone a long way towards removing us from the kingdom of rational beings as well. (emphases mine)
We do not have to look at "the currently prevailing strain of Christianity in the US" to find examples of this hatred of nature leading to a reducing of the capacity for reason. We have the example of the Puritans, with their extreme suspicion of those who spent time in the woods alone, their characterizing the Indians as children of the Devil, the bizarre logic of their tests to determine whether someone was a witch, etc. But what is most fascinating to me is Smith's starting point in his argument: that ID is rooted in a hatred of nature. Smith rightly notes that that hatred drives the desire to be seen as transcending our own nature. But what's odd to me is that that hatred, too, seems to run counter to what ID wishes to argue: that God is revealed through the irreducible complexity found in the handiwork of His creation. Christianity assumes that that creation, having originated with God, is good. The fact of our material nature is something assumed throughout the Bible; the promised resurrection of the body on the last day is indeed contingent on that material nature. It strikes me, sitting here, that--if Smith is right--to hate nature, to hate one's own materiality, one's own transience, is to hate one's own Maker . . . or, at the very least, to doubt His promises to us.

Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, attempts to draw converts to what he calls a Church without Christ. Throughout much of the novel, Motes imagines that Jesus is stalking him; try as he might, Motes cannot escape him. ID is similarly absurd: it seeks to argue, via empirical methods, that life has a supernatural origin and yet, at the same time, argue that we can't give a name to that origin. It denies a need to meet the basic premises of both reality and myth so as to even begin to talk about it in what we'd hope would be a meaningful way, and so ends up being a cartoon of both, a sequence of pleasing colors and amusing sounds . . . though "pleasing" and "amusing" are not adjectives I'd use in the case of this particular cartoon.

So what remains? No more movies--which means no more conveyance of myth. Discussions of reality's nature driven not by truth but by agenda. But there is the beautiful, ever-changing play of light and shadow on the land, the cycling of the seasons, the need to survive, the need to give and receive love. Myth, after all, doesn't deny the material nature of existence; indeed, its origin--its gene pool--lies in the things of this world.

I've talked your ear off long enough. Time to go chill with my homies.

Technorati tags:
, , , , , , , ,

1 comment:

Conrad H. Roth said...

You are getting good at these rambling, fitfully-transcendent essaies, John. Obviously, this is the key to my heart. I have driven through Kansas myself, en route Denver to St. Louis... we stopped at Topeka, Wichita, and Kansas City (yes, I know). I had no sense of cliche. But I do remember how big was the sky--and the factories in the plains--and we had dinner at a little steakhouse in a five-store townlet, outside of which a field containing hundreds of anti-Clinton agitprop sculptures... now there's outsider art for you.

Now all your ecology reminds me of Lynn White's influential 1967 article, 'The historical roots of our ecologic crisis'--he talks about the growing contempt of Christianity towards nature in the Middle Ages.

But the problem you broach is of enormous metaphysical import, and is fantastically complex. It is really at the heart of that uber-text, Lovejoy's "Great Chain of Being", which you must read if you haven't... it describes a conflict between worldviews which posit a direct continuity between God and man/nature, and those which understand a fundamental break between the two. It all comes from Plato--like everything else. This powerful conflict is why statements like "Christianity assumes that that creation, having originated with God, is good." are problematic. Even the New Testament is difficult on this score--the more Greek (Platonising) elements, ie. John and Paul, are not always harmonic with the Synoptics in their root philosophical assumptions. Thus you get a lot of 'world=bad, soul=good' philosophy among the Judeo-Christian Platonists of the period, from Philo to Origen. It is in fact what underlies 'the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life', and the Christian portrayal of Judaism as an evil earthly religion. Revivals of interest in Plato's Timaeus through history generally brought with them a renewed appreciation--even reverence--for Nature, eg. Alan of Lille's satire De Planctu Naturae (c. 1170). Too often though, what the Platonic intellectuals were writing was not in accord with what Christian dogmatists and powerbrokers were actually doing. It was like that 1000 years ago, and it's still like that.

As for myth--it has merely become deinstitutionalised--the split is old--even the New Testament has been convincingly described as a novelistic satire on Near Eastern mythology. But myth is a function of a collective society. We live in a fragmented world where journalism and now the internet and communal storytelling, and where rumour and gossip are the sceptical equivalents of allegorical (truthlike) fables. And then of course there is the urban legend.