Wednesday, August 23, 2017
BY GREGG LAMBERT
In the light of the recent violence and sovereign personages, I have been reflecting on the conclusion of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which should be read as an introduction to our century, and not as a summary judgment on the past one. As Arendt forecast, “it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form . . . only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” What does Arendt mean by this conditional statement except that with the deaths of Stalin and Hitler, the fall of National Socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full phenomena of both fascism and totalitarianism is not behind us, since its causes still remain on our contemporary horizon. Here, Arendt is probably employing the understanding of the “origin” from the German word Wurzel, meaning “root”; as with any weed in the garden, if you cut off the head without digging out the root, it will flower again.
But will this plant assume the same form in the future as it did in the past? No, and this is where Arendt’s definition of an “authentic origin” of the causes of the historical phenomenon is so prescient for approaching our current predicament, since her own definition vacillates between a makeshift arrangement that emerges as the symptom of the crisis of a historical arrangement of the body politic (such as socialism, or democracy), or as a completely unprecedented and novel form of government. In fact, the question is whether there is, strictly speaking, something like a single nature of a totalitarian governmentality—in many respects, already prefiguring Foucault’s question regarding the nature of sovereignty—that could be defined like other forms of government recognized by Western political traditions. As she writes: “It is in the line of such reflections to raise the question whether totalitarian government, born of this crisis and at the same time its clearest and only unequivocal symptom, is merely a makeshift arrangement, which borrows its methods of intimidation, its means of organization and its instruments of violence from the well-known political arsenal of tyranny, despotism and dictatorships, and owes its existence only to the deplorable, but perhaps accidental failure of the traditional political forces-liberal or conservative, national or socialist, republican or monarchist, authoritarian or democratic” (Arendt 461).
In short, what Arendt constantly underlines as a novelty is a “monstrous” form of sovereign right (i.e., “justice”) without the need of either politics or legality, both of which this sovereign believes he can do without, since he certainly does not need to concern itself with the consensus of his own subjects, nor with the positive laws that determine the rights of other national subjects, especially given the justification of war. “If it is true,” Arendt wrote concerning the last century, “that the link between totalitarian countries and the civilized world was broken through the monstrous crimes of totalitarian regimes, it is also true that this criminality was not due to simple aggressiveness, ruthlessness, warfare and treachery, but to a conscious break of that consensus juris which, according to Cicero, constitutes a ‘people,' and which, as international law, in modern times has constituted the civilized world insofar as it remains the foundation-stone of international relations even under the conditions of war.” Moreover, today it is important to see that the monstrous crimes of the current century are not only committed by new totalitarian regimes, as in the case of Syria; by so-called “non-state actors” in international territories where, as in the case of a civil war, there can be neither right or wrong committed on either side without the reciprocal recognition of a common principle of civility (consensus juris) but; finally, by the democratic states themselves in their relentless global pursuit of an “unknown and indeterminate enemy.”
What we find among all three contemporary parties, in different respects and according to different measures, is the evidence of this conscious break which has extended from the last century and has only widened in the present one to engulf the entire planet. Thus, today the sovereign can still murder his own people, or the populations who dwell within the boundaries his territory; the terrorist networks can send their human drones into the crowded streets of London, Paris, and Barcelona; the states themselves can target “individuals” in other territories without this act producing too strenuous a contraction in the principle of international law. Nevertheless, this still constitutes a contradiction within the idea of "right," which is founded upon nothing less than a permanent threat of violence (and which in our century continues to inform the permanent threat of nuclear war). As Kant already foresaw the nature of this contradiction at the end of the 18th century when he wrote that the notion of a Right to go to war cannot be properly conceived as an element in the Right of Nations, adding that for such a Right to be conceivable at all, it would amount to this: “that in the case of men who are so disposed it is quite right for them to destroy and devour each other, and thus to find Perpetual Peace only in the wide grave.”
On the day following the violence in Charlottesville, the comedian Jimmy Kimmel suggested that one way to correct the mistake of the last election is to elect Trump as King of America! After laughing, I stopped for a moment to consider this joke exactly as a pronouncement of an unconscious truth. As Rousseau once said concerning the Right of the Strongest, “the strongest is never strongest to be master all of the time, unless he transforms force into right.” But as Kant added later, the very principle of right is contained in the possibility of a reciprocal constraint or coercion (wechselseitigen Zwanges) which is the principal of law in the concept of Right. Without this reciprocity and legal accord, the sovereign often appears as a man without a state, a captain without a crew (a people), adrift and alone on his ship like a brigand or a Rogue.
Perhaps it is just that after these events Trump appears more and more each day as a sovereign in search of “a people,” even though this is not necessarily “the American people,” but rather a mob, a gang, a ship of fools (even though, we are told, “they are very fine people!”). Recalling the allusion to Melville—which is not insignificant as a prophecy of our “Sick America”!—we can only take comfort in the hope that this crew is doomed to perish along with their insane captain. However, Melville chooses to explain this inevitable fate using the scientific theory of magnetism according to which filaments of lead can hold together only so long as an electric current is passed through them, binding them together. Remove the electric current, and the splinters fall apart; remove the magnetism of hatred, and the crew disappears into a thousand tiny fascists who are powerless, even though a single rogue is still capable of doing horrible violence.
Therefore, in response to our century of violence and war, one can only pray--Fiat justitia, pereat mundus. According to Kant’s 18th century translation: “Let justice reign even if all the rogues in the world should perish from it.”
"This is a timely, relevant book. By drawing from Deleuze and Guattari's philosophy, especially their concept of friendship, Gregg Lambert offers an important reconceptualization of Kant's essay on perpetual peace, and in doing so he sets the stage for a post-war philosophy that remains true to Kant's ideal."
—Jeffrey Bell, Southeastern Louisiana University
Wednesday, August 9, 2017
BY NICHOLAS DE VILLIERS
I have just returned from a lovely experience filming an interview segment for Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film (forthcoming 2018), which she has conceived as The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995) for sex workers: primarily sex workers discussing tropes in representations of sex workers in Hollywood movies, independent cinema, television, and documentary. Although I made a deliberate choice to exclude purely fictional films from my book on sex workers as documentary subjects, Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary, and to mostly exclude the now vast number of international “sex trafficking” films that wrongly conflate sex work with trafficking and violence, I still feel it is urgent to address the effect of genre filmmaking on perceptions of sex workers. I am especially supportive of a sex worker-produced film with sex worker perspectives on the effects of cinematic representation.
It was also an important learning experience for me, as someone who has researched the interview as a genre for over a decade—specifically the negotiation of the interview situation by queer and other sexually marginalized subjects—to experience an on-camera interview, that artificial but significant form of discourse. Luckily, Juliana and I share distaste for confessional discourse around sex work, resulting in conversational rapport rather than interrogation. But I am inspired to continue the necessary task of interrogating fiction films: Why do audiences, both non-sex workers and sex workers, remain fascinated by sex workers as figures of both identification and desire?
Here, I will address three recent films that deploy visual elements of documentary film modes (like the fly-on-the-wall surveillance camera approach) but hybridize those techniques with conventions from other genres. First, I will discuss a potential reading of Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) as a science fiction allegory about a major contemporary discursive shift in the U.K. from criminalizing “the prostitute” to viewing her (always female) as a victim of “human trafficking.” Next I will address two films that celebrate the resilient sisterhood of trans women sex workers using both documentary techniques and the conventions of the Hollywood comedy and the music video: Tangerine (Sean S. Baker, 2015) and Mala Mala: A TransFormative Documentary (Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, 2014). I argue that the latter two help us reappraise debates over documentary ethics in Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), the first film discussed in Sexography.
I taught Under the Skin recently in a course on our tendency to read science fiction films allegorically for the way in which they reflect political and social anxieties. We examined the recent Jump Cut dossier on Under the Skin which offers a brilliant range of readings of the horror/science fiction/surveillance footage film, specifically Amy Herzog’s article, “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin” where she wonders about the oddly familiar yet strange labor of the main “alien” character (played by Scarlett Johansson) hunting for unattached men: Is she a sex worker? A commodity? A predator? (None seem to fit.) “Is this affective labor? The alien learns quickly how to survey her marks … but she lacks, at least at the beginning of the film, the faintest traces of empathy.” The contemporary discourse around “sex trafficking” is implicit in Herzog’s title and theoretical reading, but I think the real world political and legal context deserves to be made more legible.
Herzog is right to focus on empathy: the film’s plot takes a sharp turn once the predatory alien apparently starts to feel empathy, and once we feel empathy for her as we realize that she is apparently herself being controlled by a mysterious motorcycle-riding “pimp” alien. The major turning point is where we see the once-predatory Johansson character after she has temporarily “escaped” the city of Glasgow to the countryside and is asked by a kindly (but also sexually attracted) male bystander who sees her shivering alone on a public bus, “Do you need help?” Here I see an allegorical connection between the film’s dramatic shift and a major discursive shift from viewing the prostitute as a criminal to viewing her as a victim of human trafficking in need of rescue. I attribute this international shift, in part, to diplomatically powerful organizations pushing for the “Nordic model” like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women [CATW] and Polaris.
Thankfully, like all good science fiction, the film’s symbolism exceeds this reductive reading. But we can follow Herzog in examining the fraught symbolic connections between the body of the prostitute, the body of the actress, and money. The anxiety such connections provoke might help illuminate a recent event where a number of wealthy Hollywood actresses—some of whom have played sex worker parts in movies but also participate in antitrafficking missionary/charity campaigns—signed on to a letter advanced by the CATW condemning Amnesty International’s call for the decriminalization of adult consensual sex work (as the best, evidence-based means of protecting the human rights of sex workers). What if we were to read the Hollywood celebrities’ vehement objection as a means of distancing the long historical linkage between actresses and sex workers?
Similar ethical concerns about differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, and sexual stigma between filmmakers and subjects can be seen in the independent films Tangerine and Mala Mala addressing the real experiences of transgender women of color engaged in street-based sex work (in Los Angeles, California, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, respectively). The films were also made by cisgender men from outside of the subcultures they depict, a matter sometimes addressed in press for the films.
In a TribecaFilm.com story titled “In Tangerine, Trans Cinema Takes a Major Leap Forward with Nothing But an iPhone,” Matt Barone investigates “how a New Yorker managed to shoot a wild comedy about transgender prostitutes in Hollywood with a cell phone.” The story’s framework echoes the long history of white “discovery” of urban underworlds (aka “slumming”): Donut Time on Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard is framed as “cinematically uncharted territory.” Sean Baker explains “I don’t know what it is about me, but I’m always drawn to the edgier parts of town … It was basically an unofficial Red Light District. I couldn’t understand why I’d never seen a story take place there. I knew we could find one there.” Barone explains how,
Acting on that hunch, Baker and frequent co-writer Chris Bergoch visited a nearby LGBT center and met an aspiring transgender actress named Mya Taylor, who quickly introduced them to her friend/roommate/fellow transgender woman Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Soon after, Taylor and Rodriguez told Baker and Bergoch a story they’d heard about a trans woman who found out her boyfriend had cheated on her with a biological woman and went on a warpath through Los Angeles to find both her heartbreaking lover and his “actual fish,” their term for a biological female. And with that anecdote, Baker and Bergoch had the central plot for what would become Tangerine. Eight months’ worth of research and interviews with Taylor and Rodriguez later, they were ready to rock.
Here we can see a common mixture of “knowingness” and “research” regarding sex worker and trans subcultures that speak to differences between insiders and outsiders. By knowingness I mean using terms like “hookers” and “pimps” already known to the worldly reader (knowingness, Eve Sedgwick reminds us, is about privilege, open secrets, and not necessarily the opposite of ignorance). Here stereotypical images get activated, what David Halperin calls “a message … waiting at the receiver’s end.” Research means understanding the language and world of the LGBT center’s inhabitants and the side of Los Angeles unrepresented in Hollywood films. But note that the LGBT center remains conspicuously off-camera in Tangerine as well, thus the conditions of researching the film are occluded in the final product. Taylor and Rodriguez are framed as native informants, clarifying specialized vocabulary (like “actual fish”).
Barone’s article underlines the significance of the film being a comedy rather than a documentary. Baker explains how Mya Taylor said, “I’ll make this film with you only if you promise me two things: one, that you’ll make this as realistic as possible and show the brutal reality of what these women have to go through on the street, and two, I want this to be a laugh riot.” He eventually agrees with Mya that a different approach—one that was more traditionally anthropological, observational, or tragic—might be more condescending, whereas, “if we’re laughing with our characters and participating in the chaos of that day, and not laughing at them, we’d make a film that the women who actually work in that area could enjoy.”
While I am critical of the “discovery” framework of the article, these last points actually align with the findings of Susan Dewey and Tiantian Zheng’s collection Ethical Research with Sex Workers: problematizing insider/outsider distinctions and centering the needs, interests, and desires of those being “researched.” Baker suggests that not everyone will like their feature film comedy—rather than documentary—approach to the subject, but “in the end the only people I’ve have to answer to are Mya and Kiki.”
Mindful of being both an insider and outsider as a cisgender female sex worker, Tits and Sass reviewer Lolo de Sucre incorporates quotes from transgender reviewer Mey in Autostraddle and another trans woman, the sex worker rights activist Morgan M. Page. She considers both transgender and sex worker versions of the “Bechdel test,” and contextualizes the film in relationship to Hollywood and “mainstream audiences” (usually presumed to be white and cisgender, and not sex workers). I am interested in how such reviews reckon with these questions of identification and sympathy, and the fact that Tangerine is a fictional comedy, not a documentary, although the plot was drawn from real stories and the film was promoted for its unique approach to on-the-fly realism shot with an iPhone camera. Tangerine also gained attention for being one of the few fiction films about transgender women to star transgender actresses (Mya Taylor was nominated for a best supporting actress role, a historical first with the exception of a write-in campaign for Holly Woodlawn in Trash ).
In contrast with the Hollywood comedy genre aspirations of Tangerine, Mala Mala is a crowd-funded documentary about drag queens, trans women, and sex workers (as overlapping communities) in Puerto Rico, but it aspires to a more “glossy” music video-inspired aesthetic standard to “glorify” the women it documents. Comparing Mala Mala and Tangerine can help us further probe questions of cinematic realism, indie distribution and press coverage, and the ethical quandaries raised by “outsiders” documenting the complicated place of sex work within the transgender community and the movement for trans equality and representation.
These films also provide a new vantage point from which to revisit debates concerning similar issues in Jennie Livingston’s now iconic drag ball documentary Paris Is Burning, which featured the testimony of a young trans woman Venus Xtravaganza about her experience with sex work, but framed in terms of the tragic story of her murder. We must consider the considerably high stakes involved in Mala Mala and Tangerine’s deliberate departures from “tragic” narratives in favor of musical spectacle and comedy, even as they recognize the extreme level of violence directed toward transgender women of color and sex workers. Clearly, these are fictions and fantasies that matter, as Juliana Piccillo’s documentary Whores on Film intends to demonstrate.
Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary (Minnesota, 2017) and Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol (Minnesota, 2012).
"de Villiers has sought to be, as he says, “a queer ally” to sex workers — meaning that he seeks to assist in the process of destigmatization and to problematize the discourse of sex worker as victim. In a world that is dominated by anti-sex work bias, such an analysis is sorely needed."
—Los Angeles Review of Books
Friday, August 4, 2017
|Fritz Kahn, "Der Mensch als Industriepalast" (2d ed, ca. 1929).|
Artist: Fritz Shüler. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart. National Library of Medicine.
BY MICHAEL SAPPOL
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala
In recent decades, scholars have begun to reckon with the visual turn in the popular science of the 18th and 19th centuries — the plates of the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, the lantern-slide lectures and theatrical electricity and magnetism shows of the Victorian era — a reckoning that nowadays is sometimes paired with desperate calls for a renewed “public engagement with science” as a response to the displacement of the industrial economy by the information economy, and by the political rise of climate denial, intelligent design creationism, and alternative facts.
Less well-attended is the visual turn in popular science of the early 20th century, and the key role of the German-Jewish physician-author, Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Kahn commanded a mass readership in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Even so, his enormous oeuvre of printed illustrations — several thousand — has been mostly overlooked. The small amount of scholarship on Kahn focuses on his most famous work, the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” (“Man as Industrial Palace” or “Man as Industrial Factory”, with art by uncredited illustrator Fritz Shüler). That scholarship treats “Der Mensch” as a peculiarly Weimar cultural production. But “Der Mensch” had, in translation, a global impact. And more obscurely, direct American antecedents.
This blog (loosely based on the longer account in Body Modern) tells the back story: the antecedents and origins of “Der Mensch”:
In the early decades of the twentieth century a modernizing imperative took hold. Suddenly it seemed that a new age was dawning — an era of new technologies, fashions, and political philosophies — modern times. In the aftermath of the mass carnage of the Great War (1914–18), and the overthrow of the German, Russian, and Hapsburg empires, it seemed especially important to rethink things — to strip off old-fashioned ideas and decorative motifs that choked the preceding era. The new era needed new designs and inventions, with design elements that emphasized industrial production, machine power, strong practical lines, bold colors, and smooth surfaces of metal, glass, concrete, and rubber.
|Hanns Günther, Wunder in Uns (2nd ed., 1923).|
Cover design: Walter Thamm. National Library of Medicine.
Wunder in Uns (The Wonder in Us) bears the marks of that moment. In 1921 Hanns Günther (pseudonym of the German popular science writer Walter de Haas, 1886–1969) compiled a book of twenty-eight essays on the human body “for everyone.” Furnished with a cover illustration that showed a boldly minimalist outline of a human heart, Wunder in Uns presented illustrated lessons on “recent developments” in medicine and “modern physiology” — and a chapter that compared the human body to an industrial machine. Central Europe was then greatly afflicted by political and economic turmoil. Everything was unsettled by the terrible destruction wrought by industrial warfare in the Great War. But even in troubled times Wunder in Uns attracted a wide readership and quickly sold out its first edition.
Part of the book’s appeal lay in its unusual color plates, which featured stylized cutaway diagrams of the interior of the human body. Although anatomical illustrations had long been a staple of popular medical books, they typically presented a view of static structures. In contrast, the striking illustrations in Wunder in Uns deployed images of industrial technology and process inside the human body as a way of visually explaining the body’s functions.
The head was depicted as the most technologically modern part of the body, the “Headquarters”. The brain was figured as bundles of wires connected to telecommunication offices staffed by little switchboard operators, file clerks, and messengers, who sort and redirect sensory electrical messages received from the eyes, nose, mouth, and lower body. In contrast, Plate III’s lesson on the physiology of digestion shows foods tumbling off a conveyor belt down the esophageal chute into the stomach and intestines, a sweaty corporeal furnace room or mine, tended by manual laborers. The body then had a class production system, an industrial organizational structure — the “head office” directed the body factory.
|Wunder in Uns (1923), Plate III, another plate redrawn from illustrations|
that appeared in a 1917 edition of the encyclopedia Pictured Knowledge.
Artist: Paul Flanerky. National Library of Medicine.
And all of that was modern. In both form and content, the illustrations of Wunder in Uns signified their modernness, their adherence to new ways of thinking and doing. The mixture of text, drawings, and photographs was in the graphic style that had only recently been developed in American newspapers and magazines. The application of that style to visually explain the workings of the human body through industrial metaphor was a particularly clever innovation. And the way it was done was also new: each colored plate was dressed up with a tissue-paper overlay printed with captions, a slick modern packaging concept. The modern was a kind of performance that could be almost anything, so long as it was new, a novelty, the latest thing.
America was another signifier. Wunder in Uns tried to do things the modern industrialized American way. Its illustrations of the industrial body were borrowed from an article, “The Body We Live In,” written by Northwestern University physiologist-educator Winfield Scott Hall (perhaps in collaboration with his wife Jeannette Winter Hall), that first appeared in an American encyclopedia, Pictured Knowledge (Chicago, 1917).
|"A look into headquarters," Pictured Knowledge, vol. I (2nd ed.: Chicago, 1917).|
This version has one less worker than the redrawn colorized plate in Wunder in Uns.
|Fritz Kahn, Life Magazine 19 April 1943.|
Photograph: James L. Hussey.
Later in the 1920s and 30s, Wunder in Uns essayist Fritz Kahn, then a very minor popular science writer, took the idea of visual explanation and built a career out of it. His most esteemed work was the 1926 color poster “Der Mensch als Industriepalast.” But, in a succession of popular illustrated books and articles, and in collaboration with a cadre of commercial artists, Kahn developed many different strategies and genres of visual explanation. They amped up the modernness of the pictorial content and style every step of the way, and revolutionized — to a large degree invented — the entire genre of conceptual illustration.
And in the 1940s, in exile in New York as a refugee from the Nazis, Kahn returned conceptual illustration to America.
Kahn’s commitment to visual explanation was based on an underlying premise: the modern way to communicate and instruct, the modern way to move readers (“the masses”), is through pictures that entertain while they instruct and persuade. Words alone are inadequate. “The picture is worth a thousand words.” An advertisement for Kahn’s Das Leben des Menschen (The Life of Man) boasted that the five-volume set on the science of the human body had 1,200 images.
|"Twelve of twelve hundred . . . illustrations from 'Das Leben des Menschen'" (ca. 1931).|
Two-color promotional insert. Artist: Roman Rechn. Leo Baeck Institute,
New York. © Kosmos Verlag, Stuttgart.
Pictures had powerful emotional and cognitive effects. They still do. The public thirsted for novel images, was addicted. It still is. And, using an array of media technologies, powerful industrial media machines churn them out. Today, in that proliferating picture and design environment, Kahn’s tropes and genres of visual explanation are our tropes and genres of visual explanation. Not just body factories, but body architectures, fantastic voyages inside the human body, aestheticized flow charts, dramatized statistics, mixed-media bodies, body dynamism, body abstraction, visual synopsis, and so forth. We see these visual tactics deployed so frequently in animated cartoons, instruction manuals, videos, websites, comic books, and magazine illustration, that they are nearly invisible to us, like the air we breathe. And we don’t imagine that they have a history, a history that lives on in us, in the present. Kahn’s prime directive — don’t just say it, show it — is the prime directive of civilization, our common sense, reproduced in every creative writing class and television show and video game and website. Kahn’s pictures showed the modern world in the human body and the human body in the modern world, using modernist aesthetics like surrealism, Jugendstil and Bauhaus functionalism. They were a striking part of the visual rhetoric of modernity. But his reliance on pictures in bulk also performed the modern, was part of a modern rhetoric of visuality that has only accelerated in 21st-century post-modernity. And that history is what Body Modern is all about.
Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Dream Anatomy, and the editor of A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Age of Empire and Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine.
"The book is nicely illustrated and the history of our relationship between biology and mythology is brilliantly addressed." —The Daily Heller