/1/ – War wind weathered bones
Let’s risk a fairly ridiculous argument – the western, as a film has exploded in popularity during times of a kind of colonial fear – world war II, 1957 (the height of the cold war due to the launch of Sputnik) and most recently during the first and second Gulf Wars. Previously I’ve suggested how Westerns embody a kind of ‘Enlightenment obscenity’ – it encapsulates the very violent core of the enlightenment project – illustrating the excess that serves as the foundation and disruption of (ie the symptom of in Lacan’s terms) the notion of progress.
The question becomes – do westerns, at their fundamental core, simply reaffirm the barbarity of humanity (the reckless id, the undeniable unconscious) or do they, perhaps more radically, display the very violence of the notion of reason itself?
Nick Cave’s The Proposition is brutal in a variety of aspects – it is episode after episode of extreme violence painted over a landscape of unbearable whiteness. The film seems to weave two large themes together – the fragility of the word (the symbolic) and the animality of humanity. One of the more heavy handed scenes of dialog in the film is when Guy Pierce’s character comes across a drunken bounty hunter. The bounty hunter rants about Darwin’s theory of evolution – laughing manically at the idea that ‘white men’ could be on the same level as natives. The entire film stages a battle between (or maybe just institutes a confusion of) civilization and barbarity. If there is one scene that crystallizes this antimony, it is a shot that only lasts a few seconds but is deeply disturbing. After the youngest of the criminal brothers has been flogged 38 times, the whipper rings out all the blood in the flayed-end whip and it pools sickly in the dirt.
The film seems at once condemn and find sympathy for those who seek to ‘bring civilization to Australia’ One of the main character’s of the film (who seems to shift from villain to anti-hero) is that of Captain Stanley who has convinced himself he must civilize the land in order to keep his delicate wife safe. Stanley tries to stop the flogging of the criminal (especially since he is to die by hanging 5 days or so later) arguing that that would kill him.
Despite the horrid dying landscape what is important to notice is that there are no skeletons only skeletal structures (the captain’s fence, the house where the rape occurred has a bare roof, the bullet riddled hide out of Pierce’s character, the strangely empty wire crib, the porous cave hideout etc). Humans are constantly grimy, bloodied, yellowed like wet paper – what’s important is that we’re never giving direct access to the base of the primal – we never get to see the most basic framework – the always already lost origin. It is namely homes that appear barren and skeletal – representing the uncanny unnaturalness of creation itself. The stark, at times almost blinding, landscape of the film seems to suggest a sort of pre-natal haunting, a haunting that is tumbling over itself trying not to remind us of a sunken weight but the sharp pang of a memory constantly trying to be formed.
To draw a connection to my entry on porosity – the genetic, the forming of experiences as well as the actual genetic, is easily evident in the case of family. At one point in the film two of the characters are discussing what a misanthrope is and another asks, based on their violent past, ‘aren’t we misanthropes’ and the film’s true villain answers ‘no we’re a family.’ The concept of family (fused with that of loyalty) is the how the genetic is construed in order for the ‘civilized characters’ of their film to enjoy their horrific acts. During the flogging scene there is a series of shots where the backs of the onlookers are focused upon. On their yellow and white vests dozens and dozens of flies gather and buzz ominously. The flies are indirectly linked to the natives in the film when the drunken bounty hunter rambles about how when you kill a fly more just appear. Later on the pretentious gentleman tells Captain Stanley that ‘if you’re going to kill one native make sure to kill all of them.’ His tone when he talks about the native in an earlier statement suggests that they are driven by revenge, even though, the most brutal acts of vengeance in the film are carried out by whites.
/2/ – Kant’s Civilization or Freud’s Fons et Origo
Kant’s short introduction to his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View gives off a very proto-Hegelian vibe and also reverberates well with Laclau as well as Lacan. Kant’s argument perfectly highlights why Hegel’s later argument about teleological history – is not ‘eventual’ or to be actualized in praxis, but as a necessary fiction. While Kant proposes a definite end for history, his apparent idealism is more tempered than a naive reading of Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit. Besides the capacity for reason Kant prefigures another Hegelian text when he states that ‘man is the only animal who requires a master.’ Kojeve’s lectures on Hegel, attended by Lacan, provide the perfect intersection of these ideas. Kant argues that humans require a master because of the social nature and because reasons drives them to dominate others (following a vaguely Nietzschean argument). The fact that this drive towards domination exists is what results in the aforementioned fundamental tension – the split being of ontology that Kant, according to commentators such as Žižek, could never come to terms with.
In many ways Freud seems to complicate Kant’s discussion of reason, society and reason by interjecting enjoyment. This move can be seen in terms of a more direct affront to Kant when Lacan, taking up Freud, points out that Kant’s vaunted reason fails in the face of excessive enjoyment (jouissance). In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant states that sexually crazed libertine faced with the choice between survival or a night with whom desired and then the gallows, would clearly pick survival. Lacan argues against Kant stating that a true libertine would find the threat of the gallows as simply adding to the excitement. The connection of enjoyment to a sort of pure (or impure?) antagonism in society is taken up by the notorious Dr Freud.
Early on in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud suggests a model of the psyche which, in some ways, seems a rough precursor to Paul MacLean’s model of the Triune brain (this is the idea that there is a mammal brain laid over a reptile brain etc.). Freud likens the psyche to the archaeological history of a city where the remnants of past infatuations remain in one form or another as a kind of mental ruin. Freud makes the clever move of seemingly dismissing this argument – that the ruins of a city cannot be easily compared to the psyche. In effect, Freud makes the argument in regards to the usefulness of the ruin argument by making the argument itself into a ruin, a ghost existing in the body of the text.
There is another crossover between Freud and Kant which seems to support ruins/fallen bits of society as haunting human life itself. Reason, for both Kant and Freud, seems to be the retroactively created cause which is beyond the material yet, at the same time, only ever arising from the material, from the actual world. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud lampoons humanity for endlessly trying to find purpose in reality. Here Freud’s concept of will should be seen as a more ‘honest’ view of Kant’s reason – both force humanity onward illogically, or at least in a way that runs against ‘nature.’ The ultimate tension for humans, according to Freud, is the desire to change the world to fit our particular form of happiness and trying to be happy without unnecessary struggle – being happy in avoiding unhappiness, in not doing more than one should.
Let us focus on the struggle to change, on the old ‘westward ho’ kind of mentality.
/3/ – The Science of Expansion
It has no doubt be mentioned in passing, in several texts, that the collusion of science fiction and the western has mostly to do with their shared use of the ideal of the frontier, the view of virginal territory. The very promise of space, however, is shaded by the extreme violence of the frontier – due to the lack of law, of any set coherent rules, and by the sense that once the promise has been fulfilled (once the treasure has been acquired) it is one’s right to obliterate any thing or anyone who would attempt to take it from you. In the Dominion War Arc seasons of Star Trek DS9, there was a simple but startling comment from Sisko’s father in regards to war in space: ‘You’d think with all the room in space people wouldn’t have to fight wars.’ Sci-fi and the western are brought together particularly well in the Firefly series and the anime Cowboy Bebop.
Both of these universes are in the wake of civil war and both fuse the western aesthetic with a non-western aesthetic (Chinese culture in Firefly and Japanese culture in Cowboy Bebop). The unreliable presence of the Law is both creations, is what crystallizes the ‘western feeling’ best. Cowboy Bebop seems to directly connect the destitute state of existence to the failure of rapid expansion in that the construction a gate on the moon (a device allowing for rapid interplanetary flight) resulted in the near destruction of earth. Cowboy Bebop is, at its best, about the irreconcilable tension between past lives/pains and the senseless march towards the future, which, often feels little more than biological survival. Just looking at the three main characters Spike has a past he can’t forget, Faye has a past she can’t remember and Jet lies somewhere in between.
The cross over between the excess of reason/reason’s limit remains murky and, in many ways calls to task the relationship of cognition to the sublime in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. For Kant the beautiful belongs to the faculty of understanding whereas the sublime belongs to reason. For Kant reason exhibits a kind of purpose (which going back to his writing on history mentioned above) can be misconstrued as supporting a notion of god. To return to Freud and more importantly to Darwin, one could assume, in a similarly naive way, that Darwin supported a divine force simple because evolution has a ‘purpose.’ The need to assume a consciousness is why Freud’s ‘final insult to humanity’ is the penultimate one – because it points out the irrationality that highlights how we want to explain away the mysteries, the gaps in our existence.
The truly devastating nature of humans expanding their terrority may lie in Agamben’s discussion of the work of Heidegger. In The Open, Agamben discusses how animals are in a truly free state of being because they see the open, the very blankness of space, with ‘all of their eyes’ whereas humans are always looking back upon themselves, always confronted with ‘a sense of no’ (p. 57). Agamben goes on to discuss Heidegger’s complication of this relationship and argues that while animals seem to have a more direct access to the open, it is an open where nothing is concealed or unconcealed. Heidegger’s most well known piece of evidence for this is that of the moth endlessly circling the flame.
Let’s discuss the flame before we discuss the endless circling…
/4/ – Burning the flesh off the bones
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine embodies the enlightenment tension in science fiction well. The film centers around a group of scientists who must ‘reignite the dying sun.’ The whole point of the movie seems to be about confronting the irrational kernel of the enlightenment through the vague ‘tarrying with the sun as a platonic object.’ Three aproaches seem to emerge in regards to dealing with the sun – as scientific object, as sublime object, as communicative object. For most of the crew, the sun moves slowly from scientific to sublime object – the most violent/courageous characters in the film are those who are more ready to accept the sublimity of the sun.
When the captain Kaneda must go on space walk, just before he is incinerated, several of his crew are screaming for him to move to safety. Searle, who spends an inordinate amount of time in the observation room, simply staring at the sun (almost to the point of blindness), asks Kaneda just prior to his death ‘What do you see?’ Searle is also the character who sacrifices himself, almost without even a painful expression, in order to save the rest of the crew. What’s particularly startling about the scene where Searle agrees to doom himself is that instead of the standard unspoken nobility, Searle engages instead in a kind of eager child like excitement at the prospect of being obliterated by the sun.
The villain of the film’s second half, Pinbacker, makes the common mistake of those reading both Kant and Hegel, of attributing the jump of the enlightenment to romanticism requiring a divine consciousness. Pinbacker believes that trying to save the sun is an insult to god and that man has no right. Again we see how see the split between the ‘purpose’ of humanity and a divine intelligence – Capa, the ship’s physicist, is the rightful hero of the story because he asserts that the technological capability of humanity is more of a purpose, in and of itself, than any attempt at arguing for a divine consciousness.
To return to the aforementioned circling of the moth, one should take care to mention the notion of repetition. Repetition itself seems to stand as a kind of tipping point between rational and irrational behavior. While repetition is the essence of practice, laboratory verification, etc. it is also one of the most well recognized symptoms of mental imbalance – the old saying about insanity being when one does the say thing expecting a different result.
Deleuze brings the sameness between repetitions into question in that he argues that difference is primary, and that every iteration creates a difference, that nothing is self identical. (Here one can easily see how Judith Butler is often described as a Deleuzian despite her clumsy attempts to deny it.)
/5/ – Again and again
To bring things to a close then – if progress itself is as irrational as our animalistic desires are the two simply ‘two sides of the same coin (to play Žižekian games) – is progress an animalistic need or desire? One might also argue, via Lacanian psychoanalysis, that because subjectivity is fundamentally intersubjective (our very being is social – composed of our relations to other subjects) society is the complication that arises between the will (or Kant’s reason) and society. As Freud puts it in Civilization and its Discontents society is that which allows an attack on nature via the will (p. 27).
What the western seems to be about then, in regards to all the strands I have tried to pull together in one bloody palm, is the uneasy tension between the most base sense of our being (the skeleton, the bone of our existence) and how that base continues to endlessly betray us and propel us. The western highlights the very violence of the Lacanian symptom, or in the terms of Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven, the tension between biological time (the time of repetition) and historical time (time that can be represented). The western plays out the impossibility of experiencing ‘first causes’ in Kant’s terminology – while first causes are required by reason to make experience intelligible – this starting ground can never be fully experienced (Time Driven, p. 40).
In terms of the subject there is always a noumenal kernel – the structure which we always miss with the eye – we always see through it – it is porous, skeletal. The only experience of this kernel is the slips of the tongue, the mistakes, the meaningless and enigmatic symbols that we encounter over and over again. What makes this argument non-transcendental however, is that such a structure doesn’t actually exist, it is simply a prerequisite for the very possibility of our thinking. The horrible violence of The Proposition, is the attempt to repeat differently – to tweak our animalistic, non-historical behaviors, in a way that benefits us in the long term, that benefits us in a historical fashion.
It is no wonder that the western is so much a genre of revenge – the strange sense that the circle of violence will some day come to an end. To end on a strange pop culture note – the Gnarls Barkley song Crazy contains a sample from the spaghetti western Django, Prepare a Coffin in which the title character drags a coffin behind him that contains a machine gun (and as luck would have it, this element was paid respects to in an episode of Cowboy Bebop). One would be hard pressed to find an image of the violence and ressentiment more fitting than that of Django. Cee-Lo’s lyrics which simply discuss the madness of being an artist/entertainer emphasize the openness of that kind of creative insanity ‘even your emotions have an echo.’
Reason is a kind of horribly violent progress because it sees itself as without ‘experienceable’ ground and therefor the only ‘reasonable’ thing to do is an irrational jump of faith which is accomplished through a series of odd repetitions.
Filed under: film, Freud, Hegel, Kant, Lacan, psychoanalysis | 3 Comments