Monday, May 30, 2005

Good morning—before I get to anything else, please check out Congressman John Conyers' petition to the White House re the infamous (yet strangely negelcted in this country) Downing Street Memo. The truth will out.

Pleasant if unfocused weekend at farmers' market, dinner with Aaron and Wendy, D&D yesterday (party schism! the elf's acting strangely! the gnome goes it alone!), grilling. Friday night I showed Emily my DVD of Fearless, a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it in the theater way back in 1993 and which still resonates strongly today. It's a very religious film, really, and it makes an interesting accompaniment to a Slavoj Zizek book I've been reading: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. I've never read Zizek in an extended way before and this is an exhilirating if sometimes daunting ride. His argument is difficult to summarize, but one intriguing concept is "the negation of negation," the process whereby one first negates the world as you find it, then that first negation is negated and you re-enter the world altered. It's really just a more nuanced view of Hegel's dialectic and the encounter with the sublime (or the Void) that is also at the center of The Extravagant. Christianity provides the central example of this movement: the coming of Christ is the severest possible criticism of the existing (Roman) world, but after his death the institution of Christianity returns the Christian to that society, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's (but also enabling the transformation of that society into a putatively Christian one). As far as I understand, the experience of being "born again" is a kind of re-enactment of this: and yet how marginal, how infrathin, this transformation can appear from the outside. Is Bush's born-againness anything other than another layer of camouflage for his underdeveloped conscience? But the negation of negation can appear in purely political terms: Zizek's example is the French Revolution, which first negated the ancien regime, then was itself negated (sublated) so that a civil bourgeois society could emerge in which the principles of the Revolution (libery, equality, fraternity) remained latent, capable of being resurrected at any time in all their destructive/creative power (May '68 was the last, most recent flicker of this—though perhaps yesterday's vote agains the European Constitution was another dim echo).

The experience of Jeff Bridges' character Max Klein in Fearless is a powerful illustration of the negation of negation. After surviving a plane crash (rendered with terrifying realism and precision: don't see this film before you have to fly), he exists in an exhilirating liminal state in which his old attachments (to his wife, to the family of his business partner who died in the crash) no longer mean anything to him. He is no longer of the world, in fact is barely in it. The film follows his connection with another survivor, Carla (played by Rosie Perez in a performance she's never equaled), a devout Catholic who feels enormous guilt for the death of her baby in the crash. "We're ghosts," Klein remarks to her as they float out of reach of their spouses (Max's wife is played by Isabella Rosselini, beautiful and passionate as you'd expect; Carla's husband is an almost unrecognizable Benicio del Toro). When Max shows Carla that she couldn't possibly have saved her baby, she is returned to the land of the living: in a remarkable conversation with Max's wife, Carla calls Max an angel. "He's not an angel, he's a man," is the reply, "and he cannot survive up there." At the end of the film, another near-death experience (eating a strawberry, to which he's allergic) recalls Max to life, negating the original negation and restoring the flow of ordinary human feeling (the primary signifier for which is fear, as the title indicates). The Zizekian (or Badiouian) question might be then whether Max will maintain any sort of fidelity to the Event that transformed him, or if it will be falsified by a total return to the bougeois reality that denies the challenge, if not the very existence, of death.

In some ways I feel this is the best film ever made about 9/11, though years in advance of the event. And how saddening to realize how that trauma failed to be a Truth-Event: do you remember the moments and days after the attack when it seemed a terrible meaning had been born—that the skin had been ripped off of reality? If we somehow as a nation could have held on to that feeling through the necessary negation of the negation (that is, the return to earthly contingent life, since we cannot long survive "up there"), what transformations in our political life—in the American soul—might have been possible? Instead, we papered it over: we got our war on and then covered even that up, so that hardly anyone who doesn't have a family member in military service feels their daily life much affected. We went on as if nothing had happened, and only a few of us, it seems, are still pointing at the giant crack in the facade that was made by the Towers' fall, feeling alienated by the American flags waved by the warmongers—flags that, for a few days and weeks in 2001, seemed possessed of a new, more human immanence. I was wearing an American flag pin when I met Emily for the first time at the end of October, and already its meaning was changing, flattening. I won't wear it again until I recognize it again as the bearer of some sort of truth of transformation. Strange, writing all this, to feel the force of what I can only call my religious sensibilities—the religious sensibilities of a semi-Marxist Jew who speaks no Hebrew and denies the notion of a personal god. I guess I believe in the imagination, and the negative, and what the negative might give birth to. A theology of the anti-? A humanism.

1 comment:

Ginger Heatter said...

"[D]o you remember the moments and days after the attack when it seemed a terrible meaning had been born[?]"

Yes, I do. I remember watching CNN and seeing newspaper headlines from around the world which expressed condolences to the U.S. If I'd been too shocked to cry earlier, I did then. I cried because I was overwhelmed by the feeling that we might be on the verge of an unprecedented peace. I'm not at all religious myself--an atheist, in fact--but for a brief moment I believed that the deaths of my former co-workers in 2 World Trade Center might be endowed with meaning and purpose.

I was shocked out of my cynicism then, and have not returned to it since. When I protested the Iraq War in Washington and NYC, it was my way of honoring the dead. Because war is not an inevitable consequence of human nature. It is the responsibility of the men who wage it, and of those who give them the power to do so.

Thanks for this post, and particularly for the link to the Conyers petition.

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