Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mr Lonely

Its been ages since I watched Mr Lonely by Harmony Korine, but for some reason the penny dropped for me just this week and then somehow I couldn't stop thinking about it..

I didn't really join the dots previously, but now see how it makes the link between colonialism/religious missionaries and hollywood celebrity culture / us geopolitical and cultural hegemony . And one of the real masterstrokes in the film is that the impersonator play in one of the final scenes so much resembles a religious nativity play, though it was totally illegible to me then.

I am a big fan of his films, largely because they seem to be constructed around perfect iconic scenes (maybe in the true or even religious sense) where image, music and story all come together, and these moments seem to materialise on some atemporal plain that is parallel to the plot. Anyway, so many of his films rely on viscerality and abjection, that in contrast perhaps this film might have been overlooked. 

Anyway, in posting this I can now stop thinking about it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Trade Routes - New Museum 1993

In 1993 the New Museum in New York ran a three part exhibition series looking at globalisation. The first exhibition focussed on global migration ('we live in a period of forced migration' according to John Berger), another entitled the "Final Frontier' seemed to focus on the body and biopolitics, and the third "Trade Routes" focussed on international trade and was curated by a team including Sociologist of Globalisation, Saskia Sassen.

The archive, including the exhibition brochure can be found here

The education room at New Museum has dusted off the archival documentation for display until mid April, having noticed that the discourse is still largely focussed around these themes. While this exhibition was very alive to its contemporaneous surroundings, it is interesting to think what has changed and what new knowledge we have acquired in the course of the past 21 years.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pre-production II

Pre-production within my conceptualisation was linked to your comment that "there are no new forms to be made". And perhaps the conclusion will be expanded to suggest that the process of making new cultural forms is for the most part limited to big socio-historical shifts (ruptures?) such as modernity or the renaissance, followed by periods in which those forms are developed and exhausted, rather than a condition inherent to modern culture itself. 

Thus the questions I want to ask are (a) is it true that "there are no new forms to be made?" and (b) if so, what does this mean in terms of responding to our cultural present? A preliminary step in responding to this condition, if it is true, might be to think about contemporary culture and classical structuralism together. So here are a few preliminary notes.
  1. Within this hypothesis I mentioned the idea that pre-production might be a method displayed by traditional cultures, which is to say "cold" cultures (Levi-Strauss) characterised by stable patterns and circular time which seek to naturalise, stabilise and cement the social order by using a fixed set of cultural forms. However traditional cultures were never as rigid as all that, and when social circumstances changed there would always be methods for rearranging meanings while still keeping the illusion of eternal circular history. Is this not precisely what Levi-Strauss' structuralism is about: a fixed set of signs that can be recoded and rearranged so that a society can both change cultural meanings will not purporting to do so on the level of the signifier.
  2. Of course structuralism has been superseded entirely by various post-structuralist readings. Nevertheless I wonder if the ideas of the postmodern (which is increasingly fading to obscurity) overplay a "newness" of cultural forms with its emphasis on floating signifiers, remixing  etc etc. Under postmodernism we are presented with a view that modernity abolishes all inherited meaning in favour of a capitalist culture that constantly churns meaning and signs, and this further suggests that an "authentic" relation of meaning is foreclosed owing to a condition in which signs no longer are attached to referents so much as other signs. I wonder now if this reading misses a possible cultural development in which this process reaches a point of entropy and stabilises over time into a new fixed set of forms, albeit expanded. Or alternatively, whether this represents not a methodological change of meaning production (eg through media etc) but rather a highly individualised culture in which these meanings can be democratically remixed, and while this leads to an increased dynamism, is in fact no less of a fixed palette. I thus wonder whether this is equatable to a stabilisation of the social order as certain modes of resistance run their course, and we continue along the axis of the "post-political" which is some way might suggest a finite palette of signifiers.
  3. In Levi-Strauss structuralism we are presented with a fixed set of signs as a readable system that progresses by way of homology or a transposed topological mapping, that is: A is to X what B is to Y and C is to Z. And while the reductionist simplicity of this model is appealing and implementable, it has been criticised  by Clifford Geertz, to take just one example , who said that Levi-Strauss was merely seeking to project a French Enlightenment paradigm of  "a rational,universal, eternal, and thus (in the great tradition of French Moralism) virtuous mind." So equally perhaps traditional cultures were not dealing with fixed palettes quite to the extent that Levi-Struass wished to suggest.

Trompenaars' model of national culture differences

Here is another business model of cultural difference. I guess they have no focus on meaning or culture systems as such but rather on traits or self-identified values so that they can be used to facilitate business transactions. Maybe they are like static cross sections of culture, like the rings of a tree, but give you no sense about what you are looking at as a whole. Nevertheless I wanted to post this to remind myself I had read about them.
Trompenaars' model of national culture differences has seven dimensions:
  1. Universalism vs. particularism (What is more important, rules or relationships?)
  2. Individualism vs. collectivism (communitarianism) (Do we function in a group or as individuals?)
  3. Neutral vs. emotional (Do we display our emotions?)
  4. Specific vs. diffuse (How separate we keep our private and working lives)
  5. Achievement vs. ascription (Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status or is it given to us?)
  6. Sequential vs. synchronic (Do we do things one at a time or several things at once?)
  7. Internal vs. external control (Do we control our environment or are we controlled by it?)

Its interesting to think of these in terms of how cultures might change over time. For example, the trend towards the commodification of all social relationships based on the end of the welfare state and also the internet would suggest that the distinction between private life and working life has changed a lot in many countries. Likewise, the more highly specialised labour becomes perhaps there is a tendency towards more sequential thinking, if I were to hazard a guess

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory

I decided I wanted to look at some of the empirical / positivist models of cultural difference. I think they will be of limited use being quite top down in nature, but they might either foster a sensitivity to the environment (possibly a negative) or alternatively suggest blind spots or arrogances of the west.

So in the fields of organisational studies, management, psychology, marketing and cultural studies, one framework academics use to look at cross cultural communication is Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory which posits up to 6 factors with which to compare cultures:  

(1) power distance (strength of social hierarchy) --> "ways of coping with inequality". Low power distance cultures expect power relations that are more consultative or democratic.

(2) individualism - collectivism  --> "the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group / degree of integration of people into social groups". It has been suggested that as countries become more wealthy they become more individualistic.

(3) uncertainty avoidance --> "ways of coping with uncertainty". People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to be more emotional and implement more rules and regulations, while those that accept uncertainty are pragmatist.

(4) task orientation versus person-orientation (also called masculine feminine or Quantity of Life vs. Quality of Life) --> "emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy " ie competitivenessassertivenessmaterialism, strict gender roles vs value on relationships and quality of life.

and he later added:

(5) long-term orientation (initially called "Confucian dynamism" following Chinese field work). Reward oriented, persistence, saving and capacity for adaptation (long term) vs short term values on  steadiness, respect for tradition, preservation of one's face, reciprocation and fulfilling social obligations.

(6) indulgence versus self-restraint. (less commonly used) . Relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun vs conviction that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms.

Hofstede is an international business sociologist and is concerened with international organisational management. He worked for the personnel research department of IBM who wanted to look at differences in values across their offices in different countries which caused him to produce this model.  Obviously its a reductionist, generalised, positivist empirical type model, mostly suited to instrumental (ie business) uses.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Capn Pouch

 In 1607, beginning on May Eve in Haselbech, Northamptonshire and spreading to Warwickshire and Leicestershire throughout May, riots took place as a protest against the enclosure of common land. Now known as the Midland Revolt, it drew considerable support and was led by John Reynolds, otherwise known as "Captain Pouch", a tinker said to be from Desborough, Northamptonshire. He told the protesters he had authority from the King and the Lord of Heaven to destroy enclosures and promised to protect protesters by the contents of his pouch, carried by his side, which he said would keep them from all harm. (After he was captured, his pouch was opened – all that was in it was a piece of green cheese.)  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Coloniality and Modernity

A good overview of arguments relating to Coloniality and Modernity by Decolonisation theorist (different from Post-colo as I understand), Walter Mignolo

from Potosi Principle

"...To flesh out these parallels between past and present, we draw on Marx's concept of primitive accumulation—a global principle of value-creation and exploitation, but also of resistance, that, we claim, has been operative across time and territory. Then as now, primitive accumulation is accompanied by a globalized art business that purports to act as a guarantor and messenger of positive values—Christianity in the past; human rights in present-day Dubai or Beijing—
 but instead furthers economic agendas..."

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Anthropology and Human RIghts

A good formulation for me as to how  research and field work might be used towards a critique of international HR law.

Frederic Megret – Where does the critique of International Human Rights Stand

"...In the effort to elucidate the actual meaning of human rights for those actors, it has never been more necessary to understand human rights anthropologically, as a social practice. Both mainstream human rights lawyers and critical ones have at times tended to operate at the level of the ideological superstructure, or of elite discourses about human rights major NGOs, intergovernmental organizations, at the expense of work more rooted in an observation of the actual uses of human rights. More than ever it seems what is needed is to answer the question "what do human rights do?"113 and to answer it in detail with an eye for the local and the idiosyncratic. The goal should be to better understand, from a legally pluralistic perspective, how rights are produced and reinvented by their holders.114 Anthropologists have considerably enriched our understanding of human rights by treating them as cultural practices and shown the benefits of a more grounded perspective to understand the potential and the constraints imposed by resorting to human rights language.115 Legal pluralism can also channel attention to non-­‐legal modes of norm production and the extent to which various forms of resistance, rebellion or civil disobedience are also at heart normative practices.116 ..."

Friday, January 3, 2014

Response to Wes Anderson


"In the past, previous generations were very aware that if you want to change things people in power hold onto power and they talked about power. In our age we live in a Wes Anderson movie, its like we are all happy and we are all twee…. Bill Murray is sitting in his submarine with lots of other like cute little Wes Anderson people and I think he expresses the ideology of our age, which is that we are all a bit crap, but that's ok. OH THAT'S IT.  Well actually no its not…."

– Adam Curtis


Ok I was gonna write something more considered but anyway I'll just say a few things, from the position of someone who is very disappointed by the unfulfilment of Wes' initial promise, and as somehow who feels a tad jilted.


(1)  (1) Patriarchy and Institutions – in every film we have a pretty formulaic version of some sort of faux-crisis in the patriarchal order:

a.     the wealthy industrialist, the barber's son and the private school;

b.     the father above the law, the child geniuses and the new york upper class family dynasty.

c.      the police officer bachelor, the orphan and the boy scouts;

d.     the absent father adventurer, the neglected aeroplane pilot son and National Geographic magazine;

e.     the dead father, three sons with a crisis of masculinity, and the spiritual journey (perhaps this should be read as a crisis in US geopolitical hegemony as the colonialist train ride over India is now made to read American spirituality-of-the-self orientalism, the Other is mere backdrop to American self-important psychologising, faux-struggles, and then a reaffirmation of human experience as universal).

(2) Disembowelling Ashby – As Curtis points out, those crises are always resolved in a really glib simplistic way. So in taking all the dialogical and editing comic tropes from Ashby, Anderson transports them from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction real world of Ashby to a miniaturist escapist world.

a.     In Ashby we have Chauncy Gardiner in Being There (actually a prototype for David Brent because it is about how beyond explanation the power of white male dominance is);

b.     In Harold and Maude we have some sort of dialectic between love and trauma that is constitutive of the subject, then made to play out wrt history and cultural memory and previous generations etc etc.


(3) The Gaze of the Child – All Anderson's films are told through the gaze of the child, and this is their central charm and aesthetic pleasure. He does this by taking on the art direction and stylisation of Children's Books (miniaturist sensibility; the trademark front on angle like illustrations; the uniform costumes that signify character traits; the names: Mr Littlejeans, Bob Bambalam, Applejack etc etc). In this sense his interest in making Fantastic Mr Fox is telling.

Now I think actually this is such a good stylisation to mine for an artist or film-maker, because it gets at something quite primary and formative in the acculturation of people, being a sort of zero level base language on which most of us have built a more complex cultural forms.

(4) So before I go on to mention the taking up of Wes Anderson in culture, it really remains to be seen how he accounts for this crisis in the patriarchal order – is it related to the 1970s decline of manufacturing America as we would all first guess? – probably not even that. Perhaps it is only Wes playing out his own childhood dynamics without being able to extrapolate out more generally.  But to Wes it is always played out through the local institutions and the family – so maybe he would make an interesting comparison with Mike Kelly (same archive).

The other comparison I would want to draw is actually with Tarantino, who also makes second-order pastiches (second-order in the post mix sense – I don't want to say pomo because I mean it more precisely) - but basically to paraphrase Tarantino "my films are the films that characters in films go to watch when they go to the movies." Hence the caricaturising of all the characters in both directors' work.

(5) BUT you can also see here that with the storybook childish gaze there is the massive risk in this strategy, which has lead to its uptake by the twee, hipster/start-up culture: its nostalgic infantilism. This is the aesthetic of the generation that rejects the aesthetics of adulthood, formality and in turn, political engagement.

While I do think that hipsterism sucks, it is only for its lack of criticality, because I think more so than any aesthetic for a long time, this is an aesthetic very strongly caused by material conditions outside of their control (liberalised work force, decline of middle class and manual jobs, decline of nuclear family, super capitalism etc etc) and they are often blamed for it too unfairly ("how to deal with lazy Gen Y in the workforce").

So yeah while Anderson may have started this twee US folk nostalgia, one would be unfair to draw no distinction between his work and the terrible spin offs such as artisanal anything (apropros to children's home made craft activities especially around the house eg cookies, family unit, mum at home etc), banjo baby voice songs (Wes used a whistful nico as emblematic of romanticised new york, he used The Who and John Lennon to talk about turbulent adolescence – they weren't just formal choices) and stylised adds (start up culture > being so tech driven > being so nerdy aspergery unsocialised teenage male drive > being the most infantilised working culture ever).  

(6) So with Wes I feel Rushmore showed a bit of promise because it was a little bit less stylised and a bit grittier, it dealt with some real ideas and issues and had some sense of being grounded in reality. Then Tennenbaums a more Boroque version but still strong because to me the milieu, the characters (especially the family dynamics – I absolute oppose those readings that see it as just a random assemblage of zany characters, for eg the child orderings were very well correlated with their characters and family roles), the issues all fit together and were a fair miniaturist rendering of society New York, which is also an important story of America. So for me it resonated up to here, but then after this it becomes mannerist and becomes formulaic, in the most literal sense, he just transposes the forms.

(7) So I would say at that point Wes could have either (a) driven himself to improve by challenging himself and changing style etc, or (b) if he was to stay with his aesthetic then become more critical and deal with interesting issues.

One way he might have done the latter would have been to take more widely from children's culture. There is nothing inherently apolitical about children's culture at all, if anything it can be more subversive owing to its lack of realism, not being taken seriously, and the increased openness of thinking that allows children to think in metaphors or by logic of sense or whatever. So there's no shortage of opportunities to draw from children's books but without Disney endings.

Or not even that, he could have just not done things like trivialise cultural difference in India as some sort of collection of 1 billion individual idiosyncrasies (although that is kinda a funny lost-in-translation cultural gap to think about!!!)

(As an aside, it is strange he likes to tie things up so nicely because not even historically were children always entitled to a sugar coated version of things, so I'm not sure if it come from Victorian era invention of childhood or from US style Disney / Hollywood culture.)

(8) So basically I am saying that Wes makes children's books, which is not necessarily a bad thing in principal.  But in his case, he has let it spawn a culture of nostalgic infant-adults who want to be told time and time again that everything works out well in the end, that all the problems of the world are just idiosyncratic neuroses, and that they can go on making cupcakes at home just like when they were little and everything was so nice and perfect and abdicate politics forever. A real director would see this and rise to the challenge, and not let them all get off so easily.



Adam Curtis Ripping on Wes Andersen at 1:36:00