Archive for the ‘Everyday Life’ Category

Don’t Protest, Think!

June 8, 2010

The revelation that the Canadian Harper government will be spending close to two million dollars to produce a media centre replete with a fake lake for the upcoming G20 summit only reinforces the fact that whatever actual political discussions take place will be secondary to the statement about modern power that is made by the spectacle surrounding the talks themselves. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the primary political content of these types of events consists of the security and media regime that the governments involved are able to mobilize, with Canada’s 1.2 billion security budget proving that we can play the game in the same league as other First World nations. The overall effect of three metre high, 3.5 kilometre fence that will cordon off a large section of downtown Toronto and implement a check point system for entry and exit is to naturalize a militaristic model of urban regulation, an intrusion of totalitarian control structures into the realm of the everyday that a largely frightened population is coerced into accepting as necessary due to the heightened “threats” posed by protesters, malcontents and dissidents. But to what extent are these threats configured and produced by the implementing of the control structures themselves?

The two elements of protest and repressive state action are mutually supporting and dependent. To this extent, the protesters, though acting out of what might seem as politically justifiable motives, are unintentionally supporting and strengthening what Agamben calls the politics of security (the process by which a politics of governance is replaced by a reactive politics of fear that reinforces the state’s claim to power). Far from showing the world that there are still people in the West who don’t buy into the system of global exploitation, protesters are actually contributing to the G20’s hold on power by giving countries like Canada an excuse for implementing more spectacular and draconian security measures. The result is a restructuring of public space to produce the kind of “state of exception” that Agamben argues was manifest in the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two, but which also provides the hidden model for modern political power.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the protester needs the police truncheon just as much as the truncheon needs the protester’s head: the two acts of spectacular repression and resistance are mutually dependent and reinforcing. What would be a more effective tactic, one that actually points out the cynicism and excess of the governmental strategy, would be to not protest at all. By simply not showing up, protesters would prove that Harper spent 1.2 billion dollars of taxpayer money unnecessarily, thereby destabilizing his government’s claim to power.

The Harper government’s strategies, however, such as providing a designated protest zone replete with satellite feed so that dignitaries can watch the show while they eat their lunch in the Convention Centre lounges, or the refusal of the Canadian government to recompense property owners whose buildings might get damaged due to protester activity, are calculated to both incite reactionary protest and undermine public support for it at the same time. Through strategies such as these, the spectacle of protest is recuperated by the spectacle of power, and the protesters reinforce the very position they would hope to undermine or refute. There is nothing like a little state oppression to make a protester feel that his or her actions are more crucial and necessary than ever, but once the media frenzy subsides, the stories of incarceration and police abuse are circulated, and the “freedom fighter” endorphins wear off, what we will be left with is increased public sentiment in support of the stability, order and coercive control that politicians like Harper are only too happy to provide.

Better would be to stay home, read some Gramsci, and reflect on the social conditions that contribute to the dissolution of engaged public discourse productive of the climate of political apathy in which governments like the current Canadian regime can flourish.

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Thicker than Water

March 18, 2010

When I was jobless and living in Victoria, B.C., I had very little to do each day save for skateboard and make dinner for my girlfriend, who was working at a call centre. It was extremely hard for “out of towners” to find work, and we were just scraping by. One night, we splurged and went out to see the documentary The Corporation, which was playing at a local theatre. After the film, the director was actually there to answer questions, and after he was done talking, the radio station that sponsored the event had some prizes to give away. As luck would have it, my ticket was one of the ones called, and I went to the front of the theatre to choose my prize. There were an assortment of mostly CDs which must have been sent to the radio station as promotional items, and which they were giving away as prizes. In the semi-darkness of the theatre, I picked one that had an interesting looking cover. It turned out to be the Thicker than Water soundtrack to a movie about surfing made by musician and surfer Jack Johnson. My then girlfriend, who has excellent taste in music, was very happy with my random choice, as she had been looking to own that album for some time. It was just a little thing, but because we were so broke, it seemed like a major windfall.

So whenever I hear songs from this album (there’s one or two that make it on the radio, or the Starbucks’ feed from time to time) I associate the music with a sense of the Pacific Ocean, skateboarding, unemployment and the feeling of being very far from wherever it is that one is meant to be. The light, ethereal songs collected on the album carry for me a kind of nostalgic feeling for a time when being utterly lost held a certain liberating appeal.

The reason I’m thinking about all this, is that for the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating which of two projects to pursue for my PhD thesis. I was leaning, recently, towards a revised project that looks at the undead and film, whereas my original proposal that studies the political and community aspects of skateboard culture was seeming less interesting. But then today in a class where we were looking at Ranciere’s rather narrow redefinition of the political, we were asked to come up with some local examples of political action that would fit Ranciere’s template. My suggestion of skateboarding came under some heavy criticism from a fellow student who couldn’t see how the struggle of a skateboard community to gain control over a historic skateboard spot could be considered as in the same league as, say the struggles of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. And there is a difference in scale between the struggles of skateboarding youth to frame a recognized identity and sense of agency, and the fight of a displaced indigenous population, but I also saw in the student’s inability to recognize the skateboard community’s plight as a political one a symptom of just the kind of “lack of visibility” of the “people that have no part” that Ranciere is talking about.

This exchange left me with the conviction that the political dimensions of the struggle of disenfranchised youth to have both their historical narrative and sense of agency recognized within the larger social realm (what Ranciere calls the process of “subjectification”) is a narrative that needs to be written, and so I am now leaning towards my original proposal, with the hopes that the undead will continue to haunt popular culture long enough that I can come back to them at a not-so-distant date.

This change of direction was affirmed on my way home from dinner at a friend’s house tonight (although I should probably sleep on it before making any firm resolutions). I had my new skateboard with me and caught a late bus “down the mountain” as they say around here. The bus was empty save for a few people, including a couple of St. Patrick’s day revelers, scantily clad and clutching text-messaging devices. I made my way to the back corner seat (always my favourite spot). Sitting in the opposite corner was a lanky, older man in jeans and a grey shirt. He had long, oily brown hair and thin features, and was listening to music on some kind of portable MP3 player with a tiny speaker that was clipped to his shirt. It was hard to hear anything but the tinny beat over the dull roar of the bus engine, but when the bus stopped I was surprised to make out the familiar moog effects from Dark Water & Stars…one of the memorable tracks from the Thicker than Water soundtrack. (Could this have been one of Hamilton’s fabled surfers who ride the waves on the breakwater beneath the Burlington Skyway?) When this atmospheric song ended, and My Guru started (the next song on the album), I was having a hard time believing the uncanny manner in which this music, and the sense of unearthly displacement affixed to it in my mind, had tracked me down in the back seat of a Hamilton bus tilting its way down the escarpment, with the lights of the city spilled out below like so many flickering constellations.

The Lost Toy Archive

March 14, 2010

As dreamworld symbols of alienation and enchantment, then, the toys of my youth are both a sign pointing to certain social and personal wounds and a reservoir of potentially revolutionary energy. The answer to the question of how to liberate this energy from the obscurity of shoe boxes and eBay pages was stumbled upon accidentally when, instead of going through the trouble of scanning a cache of family photos assembled by my mother, I decided to make hand-drawn copies of them. In the meditative process of tracing these photos, of translating them into a new medium through the filters of consciousness and motor effort, the anecdotal material for much of this essay resurfaced. Just like the model builder in Stewart’s example, or the imperfections of the hand-made Russian toys in Benjamin’s, my tracing of the toy translates it from a product of alienated labour, a reified simulacra of the social, into a more humanized, imperfect and accessible copy of the past. […] To this extent, the process fostered Stuart’s redemptive nostalgia practice, making “further inscriptions on the landscape of encoded things” which “reopen cultural forms to history” (Stuart 232). The reclaiming of the personal and historical context behind the spectacular simulacra of my youth was one of the most exciting products of this entire process, brought to realization, it should be added, due to the maternal principle of preservation inherent in my mother’s photo archiving practice.

This paragraph best sums up the project of the Lost Toy Archive, the critical unpacking of which took me most of the weekend to revise. I suppose that near endless revising is the name of the game in academia, but this section made me feel that the process of trying to communicate ideas might be worth all the effort.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

March 13, 2010

The title of Josh Safdie’s 2008 indie film debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed makes more sense if one reads the hand-written notes on the folded poster that serves as an insert to the DVD release. It seems that Safdie and his friends (including the actress Eleonore Hendricks, who plays the kleptomanic protagonist in the film) were themselves victims of a New York city thief who broke into Sadie’s car and stole thousands of dollars of film equipment. We learn that this occurred on the fifth day of shooting, which precludes reading the event as the traumatic kernel that informs the movie’s plot, as one would assume that by the fifth day of actual filming, the director would already have some idea of what his film was going to be about. And yet, upon reflection, the trope of life imitating art does provide an interesting reading of the film’s narrative structure, as well as offering a possible explanation for some of its instructive blind spots.

The insert’s anecdote fits into a surprisingly common pattern exhibited by supplementary material on DVD “bonus features” which we might describe as testimonies of the uncanny way that, in the course of a film’s production, real life incidents mirror the artistic content of the film. This happens, for instance, in Atom Egoyan’s commentary to the DVD version of his 1991 film, The Adjuster. The scene in which Hera’s sister, Seta is visually assaulted by a man masturbating in her living room window (while she herself is watching banned porn that Hera has surreptitiously recorded during her job as a censor for the Ontario government) is one of the central uncanny moments of the film, wherein a “punctum” is created between the films’ different levels of representation (the taboo video fantasy suddenly becomes a startling and odious reality in her living room window). The uncanny vertigo generated by this moment is augmented by Egoyan’s commentary, which explains that the man in the window (a trench-coated figure who is seen haunting the Render family’s deserted housing development earlier in the film) was written into the script as the bankrupt developer of a suburban project that never got past the initial earth-clearing stages (the Render family, it turns out, live in one of the three model homes built on the otherwise barren plot of earth). The movie scenes that would have explained his otherwise mysterious presence in the film were left out of the final cut, but Egoyan relates how, in a strange example of art imitating life, the actual real-world developer and owner of the land and home which Egoyan had rented as a location showed up with his young daughters on the very day that the above-mentioned masturbation scene was being filmed. The consumer of the DVD commentary is thus faced with a further, startling level of simulation through which the excised sexual content (represented by the censored video being watched by Seta) makes an uncanny return to unsettle, not just the characters in the film, but the people involved in the actual production of the film itself.

To further pull any scrap of rug that might help us distinguish reality from fantasy out from under our feet, Agoyan is careful to point out that the phallus that appears in the film, and which evidently disturbed the developer and his daughters on their fateful chance appearance on the set, was fake. But this brings us back to The Pleasure of Being Robbed and the use of the uncanny “life imitating art” trope employed by the film’s insert. In the course of trying to find their stolen equipment, Sadie and his friends take a tour of New York city in which they “saw a lot of sadness” and “met characters [they] had no business with”, almost “becoming their friends”. Much in the same way the camera follows the Eleonore character in the film, Sadie’s team follow a man who lives in the same building as their alleged thief, even following him into a supermarket and going shopping with him. The real-world thief surrogate is thus subjected to the same treatment that the film’s klepto character Eleonore will also undergo. If we read the lost camera equipment in Freudian terms, as a traumatic incident of castration, then the fact that the male lead (also named Josh, and played by Sadie himself) actually sleeps with Eleonore, the thief character, makes sense of the film’s title.

Sadie’s surrogate Josh character’s act of sleeping with Eleonore (he actually “captures” her in a kind of blanket trap he has playfully constructed above his bed) becomes a symbolic act of recuperation of lost libidinal energy in the form of the stolen camera equipment, while the film itself becomes an act of symbolic retribution. The jouissance of this revenge fantasy (symbolically displaced in the film upon societal control structures like the police and the middle class) explains why depictions that would lead to some kind of understanding of Eleonore’s character or motivations, let alone the actual material conditions of her existence (how does she afford her Manhattan apartment?), are absent from the film. It also explains the lack of sympathy for ethnic minorities whom Eleonore victimizes, the best crafted example of which being the Oriental ping-pong enthusiast, whose lunch Eleonore manages to ruin in one of the film’s most amusing scenes.

I greatly enjoyed this film. It manages to capture the seemingly impenetrable mystique that is held by the everyday eccentricities of big city life, and this along with the excellent soundtrack make it a fun film to watch. The film contributes to the production of a counter-cultural habitus that attempts to come to terms with the alienation of modern life by appropriating some of its negative effects (crime, loneliness, racism). But it never delves deeply enough below the surface of these effects to provide a relevant critique, and thus seems to serve as an artfully constructed testimony to Mark Seltzer’s thesis regarding our modern “wound culture”, or the reconfiguring of social relations around sensational incidents of their breaking down.

University Bus Sets New Record

March 12, 2010

The big squeeze

….or at least I’m sure it would have, if anyone had been on hand to do an official count. On my way to school the other day, the buses had been rerouted for some reason or other, and so there were more than the usual number of people waiting at the stops. Mostly, these were students but some other folks were trying to get to work. I was amazed when the driver, after having just picked up about fifteen students at the previous stop, pulled up at the curb at the next stop where about twenty students were waiting to board. This particular driver made good use of the loudspeaker to coax the morning crowd into moving back. He even had people grinning and chuckling at the jokes he cracked about “tightening up your but muscles” to make room for yet more people. Unlike the majority of drivers on the morning university run, this fellow was chipper and friendly, and he managed to pack the bus so full that we probably could have tipped the vehicle over just by collectively scratching our left ear. When the bus was so packed that we couldn’t possibly squeeze another soul on, the driver started to sing over the loudspeaker. This somehow had a mollifying effect on his captive audience, and made me wonder if perhaps this driver wasn’t training for another career in the broadcasting industry.