Difference & Repetition

June 9, 2008 at 1:31 am (Books, Philosophy)

by Gilles Deleuze (trans. by Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) [orig pub. 1964].

From one of the prefaces: “We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other.” (xxi)

Introduction: Repetition and Difference

“Repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities.” (1)  He repeatedly asserts that “repetition is difference without concept” (e.g. 13).  It is the realm of twins, not generality.  It is a thing repeated, falling, it seems to me, in the realm of the uncanny and anomaly.  The thing exists twice, but is not equivalated.  How would this sit with a Saussurian linguistics?  What kind of linguistics would this be?  Repetition seems here like a pure difference, a difference in the being-in-itself of the things, but in no other way.  Thus: “In every respect, repetition is a transgression.” (3)

“In the theatre of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link it directly with nature and history, with a language which speaks before words, with gestures which develop before organised bodies, with masks before faces, with spectres and phantoms before characters – the whole apparatus of repetition as a ‘terrible power’.” (10)

On page 16, he claims repetition is diametrically opposed to memory.  A thing is only repeated through its lack of memory.  Once it remembers, generality imposes itself and replaces repetition.  “In all these cases, that which repeats does so only by dint of not ‘comprehending’, not remembering, not knowing or not being conscious.” (16)  What implications does this have for the double?  The twin?  Is the point of memory the point of destruction?  That old legend where if you meet your doppelganger one of you must die?  The meeting is the remembering, the generalizing… and thus the destruction?  Should we link generalization and destruction?  What happens when we do?

Then, Deleuze links repetition to the simulacrum: “Repetition is truly that which disguises itself in constituting itself, that which constitutes itself only by disguising itself.  It is not underneath the masks, but is formed from one mask to another, as though from one distinctive oint to another, from one privileged instant to another, with and within the variations.  The masks do not hide anything except other masks.” (17)  With repetition, there is no origin, but. . . what?

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Thank You for Smoking

July 10, 2007 at 7:48 pm (Comedies, Films)

directed by Jason Reitman, 2005.

It seems like the sort of movie that should be a satire.  It kind of has a satirical feel to it.  But I honestly don’t think Thank You for Smoking is a satire.  At the end of the credits, when all is said and done, the flick ultimately endorses the “moral flexibility” of its protagonist.  And it makes us feel good about that.

Now, I’m not saying I came out of Thank You for Smoking hankering for a cigarette (I think others have remarked the irony that cigarettes fail to make an appearance in the film) or liking the tobacco industry.  I just didn’t leave it with the sort of judgmental self-righteousness that normally accompanies a satire.  I don’t like the tobacco industry or lobbyists any less.

The film doesn’t expose anything.  Doesn’t really comment upon anything except the importance of personal relationships.

How does a film that by all indicators should be a satire avoid taking a position?

It reminds me of Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne, 1996), the only artistic work on abortion that is neither pro-choice nor pro-life.  I had always thought it was impossible, but there it was.

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You, Me and Dupree

July 6, 2007 at 9:02 pm (Comedies, Films, Fluff (Movies))

directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, 2006.

I have HBO free for a month, so I get to watch stupid movies guilt-free. You, Me and Dupree is one of them.

The marketing for this movie was rather disingenuous. From the previews, I was expecting just another stupid low-brow comedy. You know, slapstick and poop jokes and the like. It did end up having these things…for the first act. And the first act was sort of funny, but after Molly’s (Kate Hudson) inexplicable character transformation, the flick spiraled into a sappy almost-drama.

Carl’s (Matt Dillon) already thin character stretched himself even thinner, so that he came across like a puff of taut smoke. I couldn’t care less whether he worked it out with his girl, and I couldn’t understand why he suddenly turned from loyal buddy to emotionally distant asshole.

The only two things about that film that I really enjoyed were Dupree’s (Owen Wilson; always a fave) fascination with Lance Armstrong and Michael Douglas onscreen presence.

Sometimes, it makes you feel really good knowing you didn’t pay to see something.

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Moby Dick

July 6, 2007 at 8:50 pm (Books, Novels)

by Herman Melville (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).

In a letter to Sophia Hawthorne, Nathanial Hawthorne’s wife, dated 8 January 1852, Melville wrote of Moby Dick:

“At any rate, your allusion for example to the ‘Spirit Spout’ first showed to me that there was a subtle significance in that thing – but I did not, in that case, mean it. I had some vague idea while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were – but the speciality of many of the particular subordinate allegories, were first revealed to me, after reading Mr. Hawthorne’s letter, which, without citing any particular examples, yet intimated the part-&-parcel allegoricalness of the whole.” (537)

There is so much in this book, I don’t think anyone could’ve set out to mean even half of it and pulled it off. It seems such an intuitive venture, containing so many essayistic passages and forays into soliloquies for the stage, woven in organically with the “main action,” and I have trouble deciding what I think the whole thing is “about.”

It begins with the “human connexion” as Lawrence called it (583), between Ishmael and Queequeg, so perhaps it is about some deep friendship? “But no. Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday’s newspaper. Human things are only momentary excitements or amusements to the American Ishmael.” (583)

Then, perhaps it is about the darkness of an obsessive heart? Ahab’s need to overcome the whale? That was the point drilled in when I read it for school (I even think we read it back to back with Heart of Darkness or Lord of the Flies), but while I was reading it this time, Ahab’s inner turmoil felt a mere side-point. Something to drive the novel toward its end, but not something that occupied much of its meaning.

Even the White Whale himself is just an apparition in the back of the mind for most of the book. Melville spends the bulk of the novel detailing the sperm whale’s anatomy and behavior and recounting operations and quirks of the whale fishery.

Moby Dick seems a fabric of zoology, mythology and folktale. Science and superstition and an adventure plot, told to us by a meticulous narrator. The mythological aspects most clearly emerge in passages concerning the White Whale.

“Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another though, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” (178)

Furthermore, how much can we even say Ishmael is a character to himself? His voice is that of an overhead observer as opposed to a protagonist. Yet, if Ishmael is not the protagonist, then who is? Ahab? The whale itself?

Perhaps, in Moby Dick, we have a novel without protagonist or antagonist, though there is no shortage of conflict.

“Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!” (587)

I know this post is disjointed, but so are my thoughts on this book.

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Reds

June 19, 2007 at 8:06 pm (Drama and Melodrama, Films)

directed by Warren Beatty, 1981.

An acquaintance of mine recommended this film back in October or November when it was finally released on DVD.  He claimed Reds was his favorite movie and that I had to had to had to see it.  This fellow and I don’t often have the same taste, and I’m eternally skeptical of Warren Beatty, but I threw it in my Netflix cue anyway.

They dropped the two discs (its a 194-minute film) into my mailbox December 15, and it has taken me until two nights ago to finally watch it.  Yes, I’m one of those people that maintain Netflix’s profit margin.

First, I want to give props to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who also shot Apocalypse Now) and production designer Richard Sylbert (of Chinatown fame).  The film looked fantastic.  Storaro really pulled out all the stops on the lighting design.  In fact, at points I’d say it even gets excessive.  As if he decided that since the movie was so long, with such diverse locale, he would jam every technique he knew into it.  One part where the lighting was lovely but obvious was during a scene in Jack (Warren Beatty) and Louise’s (Diane Keaton) New York apartment, during their first major spat.  It’s raining outside and the windows have crotcheted curtains, so the amber light (presumably from streetlamps) from outside throws dripping patterns onto the walls, the furniture, and over Louise’s distressed face.  Beautiful.  Far from subtle.

Still, for most the movie the lighting and sets were just lovely, especially at the beachhouse, where the light played off the set perfectly.  There, a nice nuance of shadow and brightness played in the backgrounds, warm-toned and low-key, owing itself to The Godfather and Gordon Willis.

So, one might say about the film’s “look” that though beautiful, it lacked focus, and the same seems to be true of the script.  Perhaps this is just my personal preference speaking, but I really felt that Reds was more Louise’s story than Jack’s.  She absolutely stole the film away from him, if it could even be said it was his to begin with (we do open and close with Louise).  Unfortunately, Warren Beatty and co-writer Trevor Griffiths crafted the film as a Warren Beatty vehicle, giving his character, John “Jack” Reed prominence.  But Jack didn’t have the character arc.  He didn’t have the inner turmoil.  In the end, though perhaps slightly disenchanted with how the revolution turned out, he was still the same idealistic, outspoken charmer that he was in the beginning.

Louise presented the audience with a bit more complexity.  She was a woman who felt this desperate need for independence, to assert herself as an autonomous woman, to create work for her sake and for the sake of itself.  Yet, she didn’t quite know exactly who herself was.  She hadn’t managed to formulate her identity, so her assertions came off as vacuous.  She asserted herself, but in not knowing herself, asserted nothing.  So then much of her journey is in discovering her work, her purpose, what it means for her to be her own woman.  She finds this when they go to Russia, and it is not until this trip that she stops being defensive about her prose and starts completing stories.  Once she finds herself, she can commit herself to Jack without reservation.

Wonderful character.  I only regret that the film didn’t delve more deeply into her inner struggle, because so much more could’ve been done with a character such as her.  But then, I suppose, it would’ve been a very different film.

The inclusion of the witnesses, I thought was a nice touch.  Henry Miller is the only one I recognized right off, the rest (including Jack and Louise) I’ve been looking up.  Such an interesting period!  And I really don’t know enough about it.

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Clock

May 19, 2007 at 7:31 pm (Books, Novels)

by Nick Hemsley (Lulu paperback, 2006).

One can never be sure about self-published books.  They certainly have a bad reputation, and most are likely (though I can’t verify this with actual data) just crap.  However, every now and then you run across a book that should have been picked up by a publisher, but wasn’t for some reason.  Clock is one of these.

The mechanist form of the book mirrors the structure of a clock.  When with our protagonists, Nick and Elizabeth, the story is in first person and present tense, when with the myriad of other characters, it’s told in third person and past tense.  The chapters alternate between Nick and Elizabeth, so that we spend an equal amount of time with each.  They both have secondary characters formally associated with them, but not necessarily associated narratively.  For example, Norman Bowl most often appears in Nick’s chapters while Ivy appears in Elizabeth’s.  The characters are separated roughly along gender lines, though this is not strictly adhered to as the novel progresses.

The book is ruthless in its pacing.  The narrative just pounds forward with nary a break, tightly constructed despite its sprawling list of characters.  In fact, if I just saw the character list, I might think there were way too many for such a short book, but it worked surprisingly well.  I adored the subplots with Ivy, Henry, Emily and Norman.  They worked to balance the tragedy of the main story.  However, I suggest just reading it through quickly.  I feel that if you took a long break, when you came back, you would be completely confused about who was who and what their relationships were to each other.  It’s one of those books that really needs to be comprehended as a whole.  (And it’s short, so this is possible to do.)

“It was a revelation when he worked out that the pendulum, and the cogs, and the wheels, and that strange rocker mechanism (anchor or recoil clock escapement, he was later able to say), were not driven by the spring, they controlled it.” (9)

The only thing negative is that every now and then, you could see where having a good editor would have helped.  Just a correction here and there in punctuation, a slight suggestion to tighten up the form.  It would be the same with any self-published book, though, and I wouldn’t attribute it to laziness on the author’s part.  If it does eventually get picked up, the editor could make those few simple tweaks.

Good lines:

“It was still a secret, in fact increasingly more so.  The secrecy gave it the edge.  There had been a number of unforeseen problems but anonymity seemed to be the key.” (16)

“The little starving girl on the news, holding her nose and poking at the body with a stick: she is dispassionate, detached.  Her expression displays no emotion.  She is just curious; it is interesting to see a body that has not got a person inside it.”

If anyone’s interested, you can order the book off amazon or amazon.uk.

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Paris Peasant

May 14, 2007 at 9:23 pm (Books, Novels)

by Louis Aragon (trans. by Simon Watson Taylor.  Boston: Exact Change, 1994).

On the back cover of the edition I purchased is the following quote from Aragon: “I was seeking…a new kind of novel that would break all the traditional rules governing the writing of fiction, one that would be neither a narrative (a story) nor a character study (a portrait), a novel that the critics would be obliged to approach empty-handed…”

He seems to have achieved his goal of writing a book without story or a fully-formed protagonist (though it is written in the first person).  Instead, we have a novel that reads like a collection of fictional essays.  Or, semi-fictional, since Aragon draws from places and people that really existed.  Breton, Picabia and the like pop in for cameos, and yet none of them really leave a mark.

Nothing really leaves a mark upon this story except the language.  The novel moves from a meticulous list to a philosophical statement to a rambling anecdote, all without a trajectory in terms of content.  Still, I still felt an arc of emotional tension moving through it.  It wasn’t created by the events (if this book can be said to really have any).  It was created by the language itself, and I have to say, I’m sort of amazed by that.

Some passages I thought were lovely or strange or true (prepare thyself for an excessive list of quotes):

“Wherever the living pursue particularly ambiguous activities, the inanimate may sometimes assume the reflection of their most secret motives…” (13)

“Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.” (14)

“Enslaved to a tremor, infatuated with a murmur, I continue to deteriorate in this twilight of sensuality.” (50; LOVE LOVE LOVE this one!)

“myth is above all a reality, and a spiritual necessity” (113)

“The world enters my consciousness gradually and intermittently.” (123)

“…the latter [the conscious self] never pictures itself, is unable to picture itself in its changing forms, and imagines itself, rather, as fixed, static in a sense, and consequently exterior to the unconscious, independent of it.” (125; this was interesting, because I’ve always thought our illusions of a unified self somewhat comical; that we conceive of ourselves as this complete “I” when our minds are anything but unified)

“…sitting in a chair and staring at me, was boredom resplendent in his full dress uniform.” (126; ha! don’t we all know the tedium of a visit from boredom?)

“Night gives these absurd places a sense of not knowing their own identity.” (141; honestly, I adored this entire section)

“I shall never finish this book which you are rather beginning to like.” (182; haha!)

This is really not a book to be rushed through, since it is so fragmented (vestiges of Dada on in its format).  It reads quickly, but I suggest taking your time with it and rereading passages to get a sense of the structure, rhythm, and repeated imagery.

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Heart of a Dog

May 14, 2007 at 12:03 am (Books, Novels)

by Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. by Mirra Ginsberg. New York: Grove Press, 1968).

In this book, a slightly mischievous – but still sweet – street mutt named Sharik begins transforming into a human after an experimental operation. The most interesting thing in the novella, stylistically, was how Bulgakov grants us direct access to Sharik’s thoughts when he’s in canine form, but denies them to us while he’s human. We’re only allowed to directly sympathize with the dog, not the dog turned man (dog turned extremely scandalous man), and the dog’s heart is shown to be purer than the man’s.

While reading it, I couldn’t help thinking that Sharik was some sort of allegory for the pre-Soviet average man.  Sweet, good-natured and taken care of when in his rightful place, but when transformed into something he’s not, he becomes an unscrupulous cad.  Not necessarily sentiments I agree with generally, yet within the story I’m convinced.  The rest of the satire is obvious, but still cleverly done.  Bulgakov has a knack for pointing out some of the more ridiculous aspects of Soviet society.

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The Secret Life of Puppets

March 17, 2007 at 5:03 am (Books, Culture and Politics, Religion)

by Victoria Nelson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

I initially bought this book for my thesis (on the short puppet animations of the Brothers Quay), picking it up based on the title and nothing more.  The Secret Life of Puppets?  Too good to pass up, even if the pages were covered with nonsense.   Luckily, they weren’t.

The title is slightly misleading, in that the book is less about puppets as such and more about the cultural history of religious iconography, the effects of the Enlightenment on religious structures and how those changing beliefs are manifested in fictional (both literature and film) representations of reality, meta-reality and simulacra.

I have to say, although the book didn’t turn out to be terribly useful for my thesis, it was useful to me in a general, personal sense.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  Nelson’s writing style has a direct, but engaging quality that reminds me of Marina Warner.  She doesn’t let the ideas get weighed down by rhetoric and tediously academic jargon.  Since I read this after a string of philosophical texts from the likes of Adorno, Sartre and Baudrillard, Nelson’s book was a breath of fresh air.  No pretensions.  Just a comprehensive history mixed in with astute observations.

One thing that stood out was how well-researched this book is and the breadth of topics covered by it.  Nelson details the evolution of representations of western spiritual beliefs from the grotto to the Golem to Lovecraft to what she terms New Expressionism to the implications of contemporary virtual worlds.  The chapter on the New Expressionists was especially interesting.  I’m not sure if she introduced the concept, but it’s so applicable to contemporary artistic movements that are seeking to move away from the trappings of the postmodernism of the previous generation.

She writes:  “Consciously or (most often) unconsciously, the New Expressionism revives the system of a living cosmos in which all things in this world exist in a hierarchy of interconnections with one another and with a timeless, invisible otherworld.” (214)

Another point of hers that I agreed with concerned post-Enlightenment spirituality.  She talks about how the move toward rationalism has largely either sanitized religion or removed it altogether, so that we categorically deny the supernatural simply because we cannot fit it into an explainable category.  Except in a few surviving folk traditions, the possibility of transcendence has disappeared.  The result of all this is that we have also removed (or subordinated) types of expression that cannot be consolidated with the rational.  However, the latter half of the 20th century saw a surge in effort to reclaim this part of ourselves repressed by Enlightenment in such things as New Age spiritualism and new technologies.  These have proven inadequate, but that doesn’t mean that the trend will not continue toward a satisfying spiritual expression that doesn’t regress to pre-Enlightenment religious structures.  “Even as we see all too clearly the kitsch of much New Age religiosity and fear the rigidity of rising fundamentalism, we remain alarmingly blind to our own unconscious tendencies in this same direction.” (288)  For myself, I see these tendencies manifested in my reactions to Die Große Stille, Landscape in the Mist, the films of Tarkovsky and the novels of Dostoevsky.

One more quote to top off the post:

“When the inner life of the psyche is allegorized so concretely, the outer world of objects becomes a perfect mirror in which to view the fragments of one’s projected soul.” (110)

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Baudrillard, we’ll miss you

March 9, 2007 at 3:44 pm (Authors & Filmmakers)

June 20, 1929 – March 6, 2007

Wanted to give a nod here to Baudrillard and say that we’ll miss that caustic fellow.  I rarely agreed with his theories, but they always provoked interesting ideas (such as chapter 3 of my thesis, which would not exist without his writings on the simulacrum).  Isn’t that what philosophy is really about?  Inspiring interesting ideas?  Challenging how we view the world to push us to some new way of seeing?

We’ll miss you telling us how we don’t exist, sir.

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