Saturday, June 29, 2013

We hate Paula Deen so that we can hate Rachel Jeantel

Sitting in the house where my grandmother was dying, I half-watched some midday TV news program the hospice nurse had turned on, laptop in front of me, my twitter list expanding too slowly to abate the boredom and despair, everything insufficient to abate the boredom and despair. The lead, their main story, was Paula Deen's continuing collapse into racist infamy. She's remained a story, despite the fact that nothing changes: she made a televised apology? She gets fired from different jobs? Always a new headline to keep her at the top of the hour, and indeed, the whole week of hospice she was all over afternoon TV- from The View to CNN.

But this particular program, one I had never seen before, one which for me was as totally anonymous as I was to it, not being in its target demographic of old women and housewives (the midday ads remain cleaning products and arthiritis medicine, just like I remember from watching Judge Joe Brown at 1PM after faking sick from school, it is ever so, cleaning products and arthiritis medicine, because after a life time cleaning grout your joints wear down, begin to fail you, a smooth transfer which you don't even see as it happens, the ads a comfort, saying: "Someday you'll be just another old lady, but don't worry, you can watch the same shows, at the same time, with the same ads"), cut from a teary eyed apologizing white Paula Deen, back to the lily white newscasters, then to an image of Rachel Jeantel.

And it was so obvious, the footage of Jeantel, it was so clear where it was going. The whole process is so immediate, so deeply ingrained, that you don't even need to hear the newscasters, just to look at her.

Her? A star witness? But look at her giant hoop earrings, look at the gold necklace and the frilly bright orange blouse and the hair do cut straight over her eyes, look at the shy way she looks down as she's questioned, nervously, look at her fatness and her black skin.

Rachel dressed up for court, she knew that she had to look nice and formal, and she did, she's put together and she's well dressed, but it doesn't matter, because she's not dressed up "correctly", she's of the wrong class, the wrong race to even be able to dress up. In her dressing up, in her inability to dress up for court, she reveals herself as "not-of-the-right-sort" in a way that her informal day to day wear never could.

And what about her words, her attitude, how does the media describe them? Defensive? Angry? Combative? Evasive? Where have I heard these epithets before?

The most sustained exposure I ever had to the court system was in an eviction proceeding against a squat I was living in. The way the proceedings were being brought meant we went to court almost once a week. And I lived with a woman, an artist, who was very smart, very self-confident, a woman of color who, as soon as she got into the courts, as soon as she was addressed by judges or lawyers, started stuttering and stammering, avowing that she didn't understand things because she was "too stupid", "just an artist" etc.

The courts have their own language, their own atmosphere of authority and power, their own special discourse which, if you lack that form of authority yourself, an authority only gained through privilege and education of a certain sort, mostly the privilege and education of being a rich white man--although in post-racial America just speaking and dressing like a rich person will get you through if you bust your ass--if you don't have these privileges then court will always fail you. Access to the courts is reliant on thick legalese, on the belief that procedural nonsense is more than just magic tricks, the deployment of "calm" "rational" "dispassionate" language. Any show of emotion, any fear, any disquiet, any anger, altogether appropriate responses to the inhumanity and cruelty of a court which wants to put you in a cage, which wants to take away your home, which wants to find out that the man who killed your friend in cold blood acted righteously, these reveal that you are not a member of the court, that you can never be its subject, that you do not deserve its respect or the respect of the jury.

A poor black woman can never be a star witness, because a poor black woman testifying in court is always already undermined, the way she dresses the way she speaks, it always already lacks the truth, because truth is power but more fundamentally power makes truth, and look at how nervous she is, look how powerless she is, what she says cant be true, look at how the rich white lawyers can humiliate her, look at how the media gawks at her, she can't know anything really, she can't.

And so the spectacle of Paula Deen, of this unreconstructed racist scum, the way everyone agrees she's scum, shows us how racially just we are. And immediately following looking at Deen we look at Rachel Jeantel, and the newscasters tell us: "look at how stupid she is, look at how poor and powerless she is, clearly Trayvon Martin was the same". But we don't have to worry, we're not racist, we hate Paula Deen, we hate her, we fire her, we love how much we hate Paula Deen, and that makes it safe for us to hate Rachel Jeantel, because we're not racist, we're just interested in the Truth.

We don't have to worry about our society if George Zimmerman is acquitted, because we found Paula Deen guilty.

Friday, June 21, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hollywood

In a piece of abject film “criticism”, Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin, has declared “I Love Man of Steel and I’m Not Sorry.” The fact that the review starts with a defense of Zizek’s defense of 300, probably the most fascist Hollywood film since the introduction of color (not to mention strong evidence of Zizek’s unreconstructed not-so-leftist authoritarianism), should give us a good idea of where this is going.

Kilpatrick tries to cover his ass right out the gate: the first sentence of the essay is “There’s a special place in hell for people who say nice things about Zack Snyder films”—as though there’s some sort of dogmatic conspiracy of opposition to Snyder rather than, say, intelligent people who have watched his movies and understood them to be terrible (Kilpatrick is right, however, that Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was pretty kick ass). By associating himself with Zizek at his most openly totalitarian and then placing himself as the victim of an imaginary and impossibly biased film-critical establishment, we already see the defensive projection of guilt and self-recrimination—and we’re only through the first paragraph.

But this paranoiac anti-Snyder left is only the first straw man Kilpatrick creates—he attacks critics of Man of Steel with the wise realism of the liberal who says “of course Obama kills brown babies with flying death robots—he’s a president, what did you want, utopia?”:
In the lefty blogosphere, I’ve seen a few complaints about Man of Steel’s tie-in campaign with the National Guard. The movie is certainly far from critical about US militarism…Here, like in the Silver Age Superman, Kal-El enters into an alliance (albeit an uneasy one) with the US military…But I’d have to ask: what do you expect? This is Hollywood. This is bourgeois art…to be honest, this kind of thing has never bothered me. I just expect it.
In other words: critique this on the level of its material production or its ideological deployment all you want like some sort of, I dunno, Marxist? But you’re wasting your time, because you should have already known, like Kilpatrick did, that it was ‘bourgeois art’.

Ok fine, but he will have no cake that goes uneaten. Earlier on, Kilpatrick pointed to a materialist critique of cinema production, but only to defend the film from its critics.
I saw another critic say that Snyder’s “no auteur.” Though, really, what the fuck does that even mean in the age of $225 million movies?...Great cinema as the result of a single, uncompromised genius is just as much a bourgeois illusion as the idea of a billionaire having “earned” his wealth.
A proposition with which I totally agree. The only problem is that this entire fucking review is in an auteurist mode, from the opening sentence on. One paragraph later:
Snyder goes out of his way to keep every single punch, jump and crash interesting…Somehow, Snyder makes the physics of the film feel real — one of the few decent skills Hollywood’s picked up from video games
Uh, yeah, that has absolutely nothing to do with Snyder, and everything to do with the 100s (1000s?) of underpaid special effects employees working on the film. Special effects workers picketed outside this year’s Oscars to bring attention to both the centrality of their work and the exploitation that they face, exploitation which is reified when you give the director credit for their work.

Though film production is one of the last private industries which is still heavily unionized, the increasing reliance on non-union effects workers, the dramatic increase in international outsourcing of film labor and contract work given to small pre- and post-production firms, not to mention the totally non-unionized distribution networks through multiplexes and Best Buys, mean that cinema production these days is, like the production of all commodities, incredibly and increasingly exploitative.

If Kilpatrick was against Hollywood auteurism as a matter of principle or even just theory, if he actually had a critique of cinematic production, he never would have written the way he does about special effects, but he's only muddying the waters. This inconsistency not only doesn’t matter to his argument, it elucidates what's really going on here. This piece isn’t about (this) film('s) production or the production of meaning through (this) film, but rather, how can Kilpatrick's enjoyment of Man of Steel reconcile with his politics? This piece, along with the abominable “Friends is Full Communism” Washington Post op-ed from Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Queck, reveals the worst tendency in 'leftist' thinking on culture. I don’t mean to pick on Jacobin exclusively—they are by no means the only people who produce this form of “critique”, although they seem to produce a lot of it—but these two articles are the most recent and blatant examples of this trend that comes to mind.

What is this tendency? This tendency is what actual “identity politics” looks like in all of its pejorative infamy. Criticisms in this mode begin from a political identification on the part of the writer: “I am a leftist”; and then a feeling: “I like this piece of culture”; and then an absurd conclusion about that feeling based on the totalizing force of that identification: “and since I am a leftist, in order to like this piece of culture it must also be leftist.” It's easy to write when you know what you're going to say: justify the conclusion you've always already arrived at through lazy psuedo-deconstruction, drop some block quotes from Marxists, and giddily swat at some critics without actually engaging their arguments. Maybe it’s Zizek’s fault for so repeatedly admonishing us that all you need to know about revolutionary subjectivity can be found in Kung Fu Panda, maybe it’s ideological self-definition through the affective pleasures of consumption, or maybe it’s just boring left-ish guilt.

For Kilpatrick, in any case, apologism is right there in the title: “I Love Man of Steel, and I’m Not Sorry.” (To do a Zizekian reading of the subtext: “I hate that I loved Man of Steel, I know I should be sorry, and I’m using this analysis to publicly display and dissipate my guilt”). Kilpatrick has to prove that the film has a left position, or else the fact that he liked it so much might mean he’s no longer a leftist. Therefore, the villain has to be a leftist bete-noir:
Zod reminded me of an ultra-right Likudnik. The big, loud climax of the movie comes when Zod sends two gigantic robo-drills to terraform Earth into a New Krypton, which would of course end with the total extinction of the human race….He all but says “can’t make Space-Zion without breaking a few eggs.”…For a character dreamed up by two Jewish boys in Cleveland as a kind of Moses-cum-Christ figure, it’s bizarre that no one’s made this connection yet. Which goes to show you just how off-the-radar the plight of the Palestinians is for both mainstream America as well as our circle of liberal film critics.
None of that strikes me, even framed as he does it, as totally self-evident, although it’s certainly an interesting and valid reading of the film. But it’s more important that he makes fun of critics for failing to notice the “krypto-zionism” (a pretty funny joke, gotta give credit where it’s due), while completely failing to mention the overwhelming presence of 9/11 imagery. People say it’s unfair to attack a writer for what’s not in their writing, and though I think that’s often a sophistry meant to elide engagement, it would hold more weight if Kilpatrick didn’t scold other reviewers for missing a much more subtle political undercurrent in the film.

You could just as easily read Zod, via the 9/11 imagery, as the extreme-rightist bogeyman of total terrorism which seeks the destruction of everything American unless something (like, maybe a Christ-like uber-mensch teamed up with the US military) stands in its way. I’m not arguing for that reading, necessarily, just saying it's also there. But even if Kilpatrick were to dismiss the 9/11 imagery as a posturing and empty evocation of pathos, an argument you could certainly make in good faith, he should at least, in reviewing the political content of this film, take it into account.

But all that’s beside the point, because Kilpatrick isn’t interested in reading this film so much as he is in justifying his enjoyment of it. And furthermore, since the movie has been widely panned, he wants to connect the contrarian nature of his personal taste to the contrarian nature of his political brand. As we’ve seen, throughout the piece he distances himself from other (legitimate) leftist attacks on the film, while aligning himself, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, with uber-conservative Armond White (another tactic of Zizek’s—attack the left while agreeing with the right’s premises, but pretend that because you’re aware of it and it’s funny and ‘you’re a leftist’ that you’re not in fact adopting a right position, but some sort of pure and true populist-leftism).

Here’s the thing: if you enjoy a movie, great! In this barren and miserable world of capital’s dominance, good-on-you for every happiness you find. But don’t come at me like it’s a goddamn leftist triumph. There are enough film critics in the world whose entire lives are spent convincing people to keep going to the movies. Perhaps the minimum commitment we should ask of film critique is not to deploy leftist concepts to write paeans to Hollywood.