Friday, August 1, 2014

July Reads

Every Day by David Levithan
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

A very light reading month because of the end of school. Nothing much to say about either of these books. They were easy reads and were mostly forgettable. I liked them both well enough, but I can't say I'll remember them in a month or so.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction


It's a common criticism of Hollywood that films are nothing more than advertisements, either for subsequent films in the series, or, more predominantly, for licensed products. It's common knowledge that film studios such as Disney are not in the business of making films, but of making opportunities to sell products. The Transformers films are hyperbolic representations of the criticism of Hollywood's utter soulless capitalist excess. What are the Transformers films but feature length advertisements for toys, predicated on nostalgia for earlier versions of those toys, directed by a filmmaker known primarily for his excess of style and paucity of substance? Each film in the series functions on the same logic that I outlined in a previous essay, one of illusory escalation and increased returns on the initial investment. The Transformers films are the epitome of the reification of nostalgia and capitalism. However, I want to suggest that with the most recent iteration/repetition of the series, that no longer are the Transformers films advertisements for toys, but rather advertisements for late capitalism itself.


I will start with Fredric Jameson's helpful definition of reification from his influential 1979 essay, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture":
The theory of reification (here strongly overlaid with Max Weber's analysis of rationalization) describes the way in which under capitalism the older traditional forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and "taylorized" analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency and essentially restructured along the lines of a differentiation between means and ends
What is most relevant to this discussion is the phrase, "instrumentally reorganized." Human activities, such as affects, are instrumentally reorganized, ruthlessly by the market into a system of equivalence. Affects such as nostalgia are instrumentalized and restructured for consumption. In the Frankfurt school of thought, this instrumentalization is the hallmark of the culture industry, in which culture, especially pop culture, is a tool of distraction, keeping the masses complacent and ignorant of the machinations of greater powers. Transformers, then, would be a classic example mobilized by grumpy old Marxists like Adorno to contend that mass culture is corrupt, the apotheosis of politically unproductive, and formally and aesthetically inert.

Of course, it is no stretch to say that the fourth reiteration of this film series is aesthetically deplorable; its garish teal and orange palette, over-reliance of low angle shots, and its ludicrous and grotesque reproduction of the male gaze. It is a film without characters, but rather types, ones without clear motivations, and emotions amplified so that even non-English speakers can parse the affect. But these criticisms wholly miss the point of films such as Transformers: Age of Extinction. This is not a film, not an aesthetic object to be interpreted, understood, studied or appreciated. Rather, this is a vehicle of ideology. This is a product that advertises its very nature as product. It is the reification of affects such as desire. This movie consumes the viewer's desire, affects, wants and needs, and hands it back. This is a film that does not care not ounce about the audience. This is a film without an audience.

Let me expand on this. This film has no audience in the sense that it circumvents the circuit of desire, affect, and art. In traditional aesthetic philosophy, art is understood as "as a 'finality without an end,' that is, as a goal-oriented activity which nonetheless has no practical purpose or end in the 'real world' of business or politics or concrete human praxis generally" (Jameson 131). Art, any art really, whether mass culture such as television or high culture such as "Rites of Spring" are meant for us to "suspend our real lives and our immediate practical preoccupations" (131). Jameson, Adorno, and countless other Marxist critics teach us that the commodification of art has short circuited this process of enjoyment (or, process of affective call and response, whether "negative" or "positive" feelings). Mass culture objects become instruments of commodity satisfaction, ones that fulfil the ever-present and contiguous desire to consume. This desire is mechanically produced in the system of late capitalism, an era of universal commodification. But what we are presented with in this late stage eternal moment of late capitalism is the circumvention of the desire to consume. I posit that Transformers: Age of Extinction has no audience in the figurative sense because there is no desire to consume, no desire to enjoy. Seeing the film is simply the mechanical repetition of the act of consumption. It is the empty repetition of the act, the automatic performance of consumption.

The film provides no affect, no real feeling. It doesn't even provide a sensation of irritation or frustration. There is no catharsis because there is no real feeling. There is no joy and there is no joylessness. The film is utterly and wholly empty, devoid of anything but the own logic of consumption. It is the Ourobouros of consumption.

Many critics of this film will make mention of the copious product placements, such as Hugo Boss, Bud Light, Chevrolet, and other multinational corporations. They point at these advertisements as proof of the film's lack of soul, or lack of artistic merit. However, the film doesn't do anything with the products, neither an ironic use nor a enticing use. Rather, the film mechanically features the products because this is what films of this scale do. In fact, the film, without affect, presents both an aside about the nature of sequels, and the image of post-Fordist industrial production itself. Yes, the means of production are built into the logic of the narrative. But first, let us discuss the "ironic" aside uttered by the aging owner of a decrepit film theater.

During the first act, genius inventor but poor capitalist Mark Wahlberg visits the closed theater in his small town. He and his assistant are there to purchase parts of the theater that might be repurposed/appropriated and vivified by its reintroduction into the market, whether in a new form, such as a robot with questionable use value, or rejuvenated by his recuperative skills. As they enter the theater, the owner remarks that the establishment closed due to the proliferation of sequels and remakes, all of which are stupid. His remark, we are supposed to gather, is an attempt to inject a knowing self-aware nudge of the elbow in the audience's collective ribs. But one might justifiably ask, what is the purpose of this self-awareness beyond the desire to circumvent criticism based on the film's reiteration of the blockbuster format?

We know from David Foster Wallace's influential essay that irony is the dominant form of discourse because of television. He argues that the form of television matched the medium of television in the sense that the gaze is literalized. The form of TV reverses the uncomfortable constant gaze of the audience so that the audience watches the audience. This leads to vibrating hum of irony that circulates, simultaneously invisible (it is ever-present) and self-consciously visible (it calls attention to itself). This is, of course, only one of many explanations for the sheer imperial dominance of irony as a mode of discourse, and that, in reality, there is probably a complex web of factors. Nevertheless, we have irony as our dominant mode, meaning that non-ironic objets d'art are perceived as "corny," "hokey," and "cheesy." We regard this objects with suspicion. An excess of "real" emotion makes viewers uncomfortable. Thus, we shield emotions with a patina of irony, a measure of self-protection, as contact with "real" emotions is unbearable. Cultural objects, produced within the dominant mode — of late capitalism of course — then automatically use irony in the creation of the object's overall tone or atmosphere. This is to say, then, that the use of irony in Transformers: Age of Extinction is mechanically reproduced, a rote deployment, because that is what other cultural objects do. Other films made x amount of money at the box office by doing y, and so this film must do that as well in order to maximize profits. Because after all, as I have been repeating, this film is not a movie but rather a commodity. The aging theater owner's snarky aside is meant to elicit a titter from the audience. The gesture allows the audience to assuage their guilt from engaging with such an empty text. We know we should know better, and yet we still partake in such cultural “trash.” The film mitigates this uncomfortable feeling by acknowledging on its surface that this film is nothing more than a stupid sequel and/or remake. This patina of irony that shields the audience from both “real” emotions and guilt from consumption is the production of the “quasi-material 'feeling-tone' which floats above the narrative but is only intermittently realized by it” (Jameson 133). This “feeling-tone” is imminently consummable and a hallmark of the era of late capitalism. Transformers: Age of Extinction reproduces – or possibly better, replicates the feeling tone of emotional distance and obligation. The inclusion of irony is obligatory; I contend that even attendance for this film is obligatory.

The film is produced not by an auteur (Michael Bay) but by an army of labourers, all working diligently to create this tableau of CGI, this 165 minutes of zeros and ones bleeding across the screen. Surely, the 21st century version of Marx's assembly line (the Fordist model, we've already mentioned) is the sea of terminals where "code monkeys" program commands for the computer to obey and produce. The objet d'art of film is already a multiply mediated affective experience: filmmaker, camera, projectionist, screen, audience. Now, the sheer dominance of CGI means more layers of mediation, resulting in alienation from the labourer (recalling the boy making the watches) and alienation for the audience. The modern CGI blockbuster is an example of what Jean Baudrillard "calls the simulacrum (that is, the reproduction of 'copies' which have no original) [which] characterizes the commodity production of consumer capitalism and marks our object world with an unreality and a free-floating absence of 'the referent'" (Jameson 135). This alienation from the Real sustains an ever-present desire for the Real. The image of the simulacrum “consumes the event, in the sense that it absorbs it and offers it back for consumption” (Baudrillard 21). It is the irrational desire for the Real, to see beyond the symbolic order. Due to the dangers inherent in violating the symbolic order, there is a “fundamental paradox of the 'passion for the Real': it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle like spectacular terrorist acts” (Žižek 9). Thus, films such as Transformers: Age of Extinction reproduce the mass destruction of other films – which are always more real than actual terrorist spectacles – but this film does so mechanically. To the point that the film allegorizes its own production by including images of the assembly line within its very own narrative. This film is so utterly layered in mediation that its inclusion of the assembly line is without affect, without comment, without an apparent ideological stance.

Stanley Tucci's character is a multimillionaire genius inventor who reverse engineers his own Transformers from the dead bodies of robots, killed either in action (in Transformer battles) or more likely, killed by a black ops outfit sanctioned by the CIA. The first half of the film has scenes set in Tucci's Chicago offices where his scientists work to engineer better more efficient Transformers, while the second half of the film depicts Tucci's China factories. In an almost metafictional move, the film recognizes its own globalized production, which allows the film to include product placements aimed at Chinese filmgoers. The factory in China (versus the laboratories in the US; not a coincidence, I should think) provides the film with the chance to literally depict the assembly line that produces the Transformers. The assembly line, the Fordist symbol of endless and efficient production, spits out Transformers to be wielded by the American military. Tucci's genius inventor has made a deal with the US and Chinese government to produce, via assembly line, what are essentially drones.

The better, more efficient Transformers are controlled remotely by "pilots" tucked safely away in a military area. The drone metaphor, neither subtle nor obvious, is presented without comment. It is simply the nature of warfare, the film contends, that machines of war will be physically and psychically distant from the operators. The act of killing and its subsequent and constitutive affects, like all affects in the late capitalism era, becomes utterly and totally mediated through screens, joysticks, and distance. This mediation is mirrored in the film's very presentation of drone warfare: without comment, without affect. It simply is, as if the film is presenting drone warfare as fait accompli. However, in the film's defence, the drones are taken over by Megatron, and there is a late third act attempt to comment, but this is only to provide necessary plot resolution; Tucci's inventor realizes that a contract with the American military can lead to external corruption. However, his business with China continues, which is literalized in a burgeoning romantic relationship with the inscrutable, martial arts expert, beautiful Chinese head of the Chinese company, a common and pernicious Orientalist trope, and not the film's only one.

The inclusion of Orientalist tropes in Transformers: Age of Extinction should come as no surprise. The Transformers themselves are depicted using flat stereotypes in order to aid the audience in differentiating between each heap of CGI. John Goodman voices a grizzled old veteran who shoots indiscriminately, has a beard(?) and chews on a cigar(????); with this, the film deploys a recognizable American stereotype. In addition, the film includes Drift, a relatively new Transformers character (introduced in IDW's series of series) who is modelled after a samurai, composes a haiku, and is voiced by Ken Watanabe. It is a classic case of the fetishizing, exoticizing Western gaze. It is also boring. Drift is given nothing to do other than provide wise-sounding phrases and pablum for almost no plot-driven reason. It is the empty expression of Orientalism simply because that's what these films do.

Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects that:
The objects of mass desire enact the dream of sheer circulation itself -- travel, instant communication, movies, catalogues, the lure of new lifestyles patched together from commodities gathered into scenes of possible life.
The experience of being "in the mainstream" is a concrete sensory experience of literally being in tune with "something" that's happening.
But nothing too heavy or sustained.
It's being in tune without getting involved. A light contact zone that rests on a thin layer of shared public experiences. (51)
Transformers: Age of Extinction is the ultimate expression of the late capitalist era: a consummable, mass produced and easily duplicated, that signals its own ease of duplication within its mode of reproduction. It is a boring slog of a movie meant only to provide momentary respite from the unending demand of balancing work, family, and leisure. This movie perfectly encapsulates the necessary labour required to enjoy something. It is a piece of shit.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." Social Text 1 (1979): 130-148. Print.
Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.
Transformers: Age of Extinction. Dir. Michael Bay. Perf. Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci. Paramount Pictures, 2014. Film.
Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

June Reads

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Coldheart Canyon by Clive Barker
The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

I read Coldheart Canyon back in 2002 or 2003, and I remember being impressed by the misnomer of "Hollywood ghost story" on the cover. The traditional ghost story structure, which this novel tricks you with, features hauntings and the protagonists' disbelief until the second act. Well, just like other Barker novels, this text dispenses with the traditional structure amazingly fast and provides a long (700 pages!) series of connected setpieces. It's the little things that make this novel good; specifically Barker's innate understanding that scenes should be connected by a "because this happens" rather than "and then." The prose and dialogue is almost as good as I remember it. Though the characters are less well drawn than my recollection would have it. The novel traffics in Hollywood stereotypes, but that could be on purpose. As for the explicit sex? It's less extreme! than I remember. Quite tame, actually. Not sure why the Goodreads community is clutching their pearls. Coldheart Canyon represents the first part of my newish project to reread his novels. I think I might have read them too young to appreciate them. I'm satisfied that my first step was not disappointing. This bodes well for the project. I might add that Barker still qualifies under 2014's "No Straight White Dudes" policy as Barker has been openly gay for his entire publishing career.

Laura McHugh's debut novel, The Weight of Blood tickled quite a few of my fancies, such as the Southern Gothic, the rich lush descriptions of the deep rural South, the oppressive heat, the looming ominous canopy of trees, and the inevitable crime that occurs in such deep poverty. McHugh's novel is very similar to Daniel Woodrell's middle career works: Southern noir, sexy, sweaty, and violent as all hell. However, McHugh appears to have set her sights higher than Woodrell, and she attempts to weave theme and meaning into her text. It's not always successful: a painfully obvious symbol is mobilized to demonstrate the already stated theme. McHugh's prose is good, and her characters well drawn. As with most debut novels, I can only presume that the next novel will be an improvement.

Americanah so far holds the title of best novel I've read all year. And this has been, so far, a year of great novels.

Monday, June 2, 2014

May Reads

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
about 1/2 of Rosi Braidotti's Metamorphoses
The Post-Human by Rosi Braidotti
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

This was a rough month due to school. I had no idea that Okorafor had a new novel out. I immediately snatched it up and read it in two sittings. It was a good novel, but not great. It could have been expanded by another 100 or so pages, just to develop the characters a bit better. But, then again, the novel is about the city of Lagos in Nigeria, rather than those living in it. Kress's novel, the first in a trilogy, is an excellent example of what science fiction can do. Her prose reminded me a lot of Arthur C. Clarke's, actually, in its precision and verbosity. Every character speaks in beautiful complete sentences, but not realistically. Still, I enjoyed it. I was a bit nervous starting the novel, because it appeared to advocate for libertarian ideals (science fiction is rife with libertarianism, ugh) but then appeared to critique it and Marxism. So who knows where Kress stands ideologically? On the other hand, Slonczewski's novel, a difficult yet rewarding text, was much easier to classify: eco-feminist and damned proud of it. I quite liked it, despite the difficulty and the slowness. McCaffrey's book was for a class and I disliked it immensely. I hate fantasy. I hate dragons. Oh well.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Winnipeg Public Library and Triggering Artwork

UPDATE: The Library's response below

In the public's interest, I am reproducing the comment form submission that I have sent to the Library in regards to Bruno Wojnicz's photo series "Angst" which appears, in my opinion, to glamorize violence against women. I plan to edit this page when I have received word back from the Library. The letter is as follows:

Hello,

I wonder if somebody at the Library could provide information regarding the decision to display the "Angst" series of photographs by Bruno Wojnicz on the second floor. Considering that when I noticed them, an employee of the library immediately apologized and attempted to distance themselves from the display of the work.

I understand that Bruno Wojnicz is a local artist, and we should promote local artists. Yet, I'm quite disturbed by the series of photographs. Several of which appear to be high contrast, glossy images of models appearing to be beaten, bruised, and bloody. One particular caption provided with one of these photos reads, "I luv u so much."

The aesthetics used in the photos distance the subjects from the necessary realism required to make political commentary, in my opinion. Rather than an attempt to "bring awareness" to gendered violence through the medium of photography, the glossiness of the photos appears to be glamorizing the violence, and glamorizing the models for their status as victim.

I would like information on the selection process for this particular art display in order to understand the series of decisions that led to this.

I am very fortunate to not have been affected by gendered violence, but I know people who have, and considering how prominent gendered violence is, I wonder why the Library would condone such triggering material. How many people walked by this exhibit only to be reminded of the violence they've experienced? And for what purpose?

The Library is meant to be a safe space for all. Why in the world would you make it inhospitable for those seeking refuge from the gendered violence that occurs daily in the world?

On Tuesday, a few days after my initial complaint, I received a message from a Library employee, informing me that the exhibit had been taken down, and that further information was on the way. I am not reproducing this letter because its core message is easily summarized. However, a few hours after that, I received this letter from the Library.

Dear Mr. Montgomery

Thank you for taking the time to send in your comments regarding the display called “Angst” located on the second floor of the Millennium library in the Blankstein gallery. Artists must apply to display their work in any of the spaces at Winnipeg Public Library. Mr. Wojnicz did this, and his application to display his work was accepted. While staff recognized that the nature of this exhibit could be deemed controversial, Mr. Wojnicz had displayed his work at the Millennium library in the past, and there were no complaints or concerns about his work. He has also exhibited his work at local galleries, and “Angst” was recently displayed at one such gallery.

The library does provide all artists displaying their work with a copy of the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space which state that “the Library retains the right to preview all display materials before, during or after installation” and that “the library reserves the right to refuse displays or request the removal of display items it deems to be offensive to the general public”. In light of the concerns that have been raised, the library has reviewed the exhibit using its regulations and the decision has been made to have the display taken down early. This has now occurred.

The intent in allowing this exhibit to go on display was never to alienate women or glorify violence against women, but to provide a venue for a local artist to display his work. As a public space, the library does strive to make its facilities safe and welcoming for all, and were certainly concerned that this exhibit has caused library customers to feel otherwise. Though there is a place for art and the discussion that it inspires in public libraries, we do not want those who use the library to feel unwelcome or unsafe.

As a result of the concerns raised, we will also be reviewing the library’s Regulations Governing the Use of Library Display Space to determine whether the document and the library’s procedures for approving displays needs to be revised.

Again, thank you for taking the time to pass along your thoughts on this exhibit.


Your sincerely,
Gail
Gail Doherty
Administrative Coordinator of Central Library Services
Millennium Library
In my reply, I asked permission to reproduce this letter which was given in a subsequent reply.

My response to Gail's letter was recommendations, which I will summarize here:
1) An external addition to the application approval body, an addition trained in curatorial studies or related field that can help make better decisions beyond "it was in a gallery before"
2) The reiteration to this body that the gallery space and the Library space have different functions and are not interchangeable
3) Further exhibits should be presented alongside a statement from the Library explaining their approval of the application, ie further transparency

I also thanked the Library for their courteous response, their quick action, and their decades-long presence in the core Downtown area, a space welcoming and safe for all people. I hope this incident remains anomalous and I hope to never have to revisit this post again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Ostensibly a sequel to 2012's reboot of the series (which I hated), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is one of the most frustrating movie experiences I've ever had. I'm not even sure if it counts as a movie, considering its plot is incoherent, its characters poorly defined (or not at all), and its position as advertisement isn't even cogent. Let me say right from the beginning that this movie is awful. There is very little to recommend in it. However, this might actually work in its favour; in twenty years' time, this film might be a campy midnight show masterpiece in which the audience shouts gleefully and sardonically the atrocious dialogue alongside. At this point, thought, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is fucking awful.

Let us begin with a survey of the modern superhero film, the modern blockbuster, so that we might understand where the audience is in relation to the endless waves of production. In 2013, in an essay about blockbuster exhaustion, I wrote that within each blockbuster,
there comes a tease. This is the mechanism of which I meant by the endless waves of production. Once the film is complete, the audience is no longer excited by the film they just watched, but by the anticipation of the next film in the series. Their whole enjoyment is dependent on the promise of continuing adventures.
A blockbuster must be three films in one: 1) a self-contained adventure that depicts the emotional journey of the protagonist(s); 2) a story that picks up on points established by the teases of the previous film; 3) a story that establishes points to be picked up by the next film. The film must engender excitement for the next instalment in order to maintain or increase the box office revenues. In this logic, "each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release" as I wrote in 2013.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we have the ghost of Captain Stacy haunting Peter, Peter's emotional journey in which he gets Gwen killed, and set-up for a Sinister Six film that hasn't even been written yet. Because the first film featured one villain, the inescapable paradigm of superhero films dictates that Marc Webb, the director, must include more villains. Thus, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 features three underwritten and poorly defined villains that seek nebulously defined revenge on Peter Parker.

Jaime Foxx's Electro seeks revenge on Spider-Man because a cop shot at the villain while he was inadvertently holding Times Square hostage. Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn seeks revenge on Spider-Man because the hero wouldn't give up a sample of his irradiated blood which would somehow magically fix Harry's inexplicably accelerating degenerative disease (which seems to have only affected his father in his 50s but affects Harry in his 20s?). And Paul Giamatti's Rhino seeks revenge because Spider-Man thwarted his absolutely moronic theft of radioactive goo in broad daylight. None of these villains are fleshed out; none of these villains have stable or coherent motivations throughout the film.

However, Jaime Foxx and Dane DeHaan prove to be excellent actors stuck working with awful material. Foxx's Electro is quiet, slow to move, and thus all the more terrifying. His presence and ability to instil terror is based entirely on the villain's potentiality for power. It is the possibility of power that makes the city quake with fear. Part of Electro's motivation is to be seen, as his character, the only one of colour in the entire film, is constantly made invisible, ostensibly due to his race. In what can only be a masterful coincidence, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 echoes Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man. At FilmFreakCentral, Walter Chaw provides the connection, which I will quote at length:
"Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form," says the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man as he sits in a room lit with 1,369 light bulbs, plotting to also wire his floor in a scheme to steal electricity from "Monopolated Light and Power." He listens to one record on a loop, Louis Armstrong's "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue," which says, "My only sin...is in my skin/What did I do...to be so black and blue"--explaining, I think, the character design for this Electro as a creature, initially and pointedly clad in a hoodie, who is all black and blue. Max refers to himself repeatedly as "invisible" and his tormentors at Oscorp do the same. Max declares at one point that what he really wants is to be "seen," and for a moment, in a delicious meta-statement in Times Square, he appears on every public viewscreen in Manhattan. The instant he turns is the instant Spider-Man's image replaces his own.
What Chaw does not pick up on, but alludes to, is the semiotics of the hoodie in the public imagination of the current era. It is absolutely not hard to link Electro's potentiality for violence, his garb, and the recent travesty of justice surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. At the risk of assigning any competency to the film-makers of this atrocious film, it seems that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 accidentally provides a smidge of social commentary in the form of Electro's hoodie. However, this is completely undone by positioning the black man in a hoodie as the true villain. Yes, in typical American film fashion, what often appears to be of the left turns out to be deeply conservative. It's almost as if the film is saying that without the white Spider-Man's vigilante intervention, Trayvon Martin could have gone on to be violent. This is, of course, despicable, but certainly not a surprise in this era of politically conservative blockbusters, interested only in the fervent preservation of the status quo.

In my review of the film adaptation of the YA novel, I wrote that Divergent expressed a rigidly Republican/Libertarian version of the Campbellian monomyth. In the film, there is literally a call to adventure, a movement across the threshold of known/unknown, a mentor, death and rebirth, transformation, and a return. However, like many other products in the blockbuster era, Divergent reveals a deeply held fear of the Academy, ie the university/college system that underpins most scientific discovery. Similarly, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Oscorp and its scientific division are revealed to be intensely evil. Science only has the potential to harm, these films posit. In typically predictable fashion, Oscorp is revealed to be working towards a post-human, one that combines the animal with the human, to transcend the Enlightened subject, the Cartesian man. This is, of course, deeply unnerving for the characters in the film and for the audience.

If I might detour slightly, I would offer that the Cartesian man, the Enlightened subject is one defined by what it is not. The subject is defined by the rigid borders that separate man from nature. Man is not an animal, man is not the countryside. This liberal humanism provides ideological justification for, among other things, ecological colonization (nature must be controlled and brought from chaos into order). The Enlightened subject is under ethical obligation to spread the Enlightenment, and uplift those that do not subscribe to the intractable distinction between man and nature (ie racialized subjects who engage in "primitivism").

Subjects that do not respect the boundaries between man and nature are deeply troubling. The vampire, the Wolf-Man, Donna Haraway's cyborg are all examples of the subject that is "between" states, yet "between" is not specific enough for our purposes. Rather than oscillating between states ("man" and "animal"), the non-Cartesian subject is moving through the states. Temporally speaking, there is no subjectivity that comes first. The non-Cartesian subject is always already blurring the boundaries. To recall Kristeva, parameters are established between body and not-body. It is the model for the bounded system. Though, the very idea that the body has limits means those limits can be transgressed. The transgression of the body, either by nature or animal, is unsettling and psychically disarraying.

Thus, we have in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, subjects with porous bodies, bodies that move through states and break down limits between "that" and "this." And of course, in the current political climate, the process by which this Cartesian subject is broken down is through the "evil" of science. Rather than point to magical possibilities, films ostensibly in the realist mode, look to the potentiality of science as the mechanism for terror.

Electro, the Green Goblin, and the Rhino are monstrous in the sense that their bodies break down rigid borders between self and other. In the Rhino's case, the mechanical suit he operates becomes a cybernetic prosthesis. His subjectivity is no longer contained within his body but extends to include the technological. He is a cyborg, and thus worthy of fear. Similarly, Harry Osborn injects himself with irradiated spider venom (he is penetrated by science in the form of a futuristic looking needle) and finds his undefined degenerative disease accelerating even more, turning him monstrous. In order to exact revenge on Spider-Man, he dons a mechanical suit that allows him to function. He is able to fly. His ability-enhancing suit literally becomes prosthesis as without it, he is unable to walk. Again, his subjectivity extends past the materiality of the body. In the case of Electro, the materiality of his body no longer has rigid borders. He is able to turn into electricity, able to teleport himself through the air. His body and the environment literally blur together. He is the epitome of the breakdown of the Cartesian subject. He is made of nature, of a force known as electricity. Additionally, Electro wears a containment suit with undefined apparatuses that measure his voltage. Thus, we have three cyborg villains that blur subjectivity. And always, we must bear in mind, the mechanism for this breakdown of materiality in all three cases is science.

But what of Spider-Man, one might reasonably object. Does his body not also blur the lines between "man" and "animal"? Why yes of course. However, the key to understanding Spider-Man's categorical stability within this framework is the famous refrain that "with great power comes great responsibility." Unlike the three villains who are motivated by profit and selfish motivations, Peter grounds himself in tragedy and responsibility. He obeys the traditional capitalist paradigm by doing honest work for pay. It is his adherence to the traditional social systems of family, work, and school (ideological state apparatuses) that contain his porous body. His race and gender help of course. In the film, Peter upholds the law, assists the police, graduates from high school, makes money in the honest fashion, and helps to overthrow Oscorp's monopoly on energy in the city of New York. Yes, he is pretty much the conservative fantasy.

Most heinously in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter's girlfriend, the pseudo-feminist Gwen Stacy, is punished for her expression of agency and movement through space. Gwen makes choices for herself, and announces it loudly to the audience and Peter (like every other character, exposition is simply shouted at the audience or relayed through the clumsy method of TV news anchors). She decides to go to Oxford, she decides to help Peter defeat Electro, she decides to steal a police vehicle, she decides where to go and what to do. And what fate does the film hold for this expression of feminine agency? Death of course. Superhero films just have no fucking clue when it comes to "dealing" with the female subjects. Either they are masculine badasses (like the undefined and empty Black Widow) or they are damsels in distress. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 puts itself into an awkward position: Gwen is feminine and demands to make her own choices, yet she is unable to defend herself when she puts herself in harm's way. By the logic of the film, Gwen deserves to die because she needs Spider-Man to save her but wants to express her own agency. In order words, protagonists in this new Spider-Universe that come remotely close to social radicalism (ie women choosing their own destiny) will die.

Ugh I hated this movie. I hated it so much. One of the two women of the film is killed for no reason other than she made her own choices, and this is the whitest New York since the sitcom Friends. The only person of colour in the entire film is Electro. I hated the dialogue that is egregiously didactic and I hated the endless lack of logic in the plot's construction. Film Crit Hulk wrote an essay that contains 237 questions about the script, demonstrating that nobody involved in this film really knew what they were doing.

Recalling how I finished my review of the previous instalment, fuck this movie.

Monday, April 28, 2014

April Reads

Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack
Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Mind of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler
The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delany
Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan
The New House by Lettice Cooper
The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Some thoughts: Wolitzer's novel was entertaining, engrossing, but imminently forgettable. It slips away from me already and I just finished it. Oates' novel, the first Oates I read, was very loose feeling, as if with a good shake, the words might tumble out. It was good, but not great. Some trimming and a polish could have pushed it over the edge. Goonan's novel, the first of a quartet, was tremendous: complex, rewarding, engaging. Leckie's Hugo Award-nominated novel was fucking incredible. I can't wait to write on it. Predictably, both Delany novels were hard but rewarding and Butler's novel was almost perfect. All in all, a terrific month of reading.