Thursday, 29 October 2009

Monday, 26 October 2009

The New Naturalism

What you post here about the video installations got me reflecting back on some of the Taiwanese scholars/artists I've worked with (writing promos for their exhibitions, rewriting academic journal articles, dissertations etc). Mostly what I've found though is an attentiveness to "invented traditions", such as, for example, digitising a famous old painting such as City of Cathay with a view to acquainting a younger generation with its significance through a medium they are more interested and familiar with (which entails giving them avatars so they can walk around in the painting, as it were).

Perhaps your posts are closer in some respects then to Thailand's "Pink Man", which has appeared on this blog. It got me thinking more about the characterisation of a "new naturalism" allegedly permeating contemporary pop culture. I don't mean this in the sense that the Taiwanese works are exemplary of that, but rather how to go about setting a more appropriate context for reading them. I think it's tricky because the Jumpcut article in question is lumping together a number of American programs to buttress its case, but we know that if they are read as a commodity form then this implies a certain serial process of translating difference into equivalency. Those bloggers who talk about "capitalist realism" and the Jumpcut author's thesis of "the new naturalism" would probably converge on this basic point. But how much explanatory power does it have when you consider something like the globalisation of anime culture? Is it simply the embodiment of a Manichean world view or is it irreducible to the tropes of disenchantment presupposed by such an assessment? So I know you have published on anime of course already, but how about that (i.e. the applicability of "the new naturalism" to anime) as the topic of a collaboration? Afterall, there is another tradition which acknowledges how a "turn to the East" [sic] has often served as a tonic of re-enchantment for an exhausted, "nihilistic", Occidental rationality.

The other reason I raise this with you is as a pretext for justifying my guilty pleasures of late, which have been keeping me, along with other stuff I've been doing, away from blogging. I've been watching a bunch of Adult Swim American animation on DVD, and I am stunned by not only the animation techniques themselves, but the quick fire darkly satirical style, which might possibly be described as the "New Naturalism".

For example, I am amazed to watch something such as Metalocalypse, which depicts a black metal band who are so commercially successful that they generate profits larger than the economies of some small Scandinavian countries. There is a surreal juxtaposition in the program between their public image as demi-gods, intermediaries in the Great Chain of Being, and their everyday banality. In one episode, for example, the band stage a concert promotion for a brand of coffee on an epic scale; inviting hardcore fans to a remote location, some of whom carry injuries as a result of the previous concerts they have attended. As night falls, the tribe gather on the plain on a mountain top: the band's military style helicopter drops an enormous cube, which misses its intended target- crushing to death some fans and mutilating others. The sides of the cube fall away to reveal a stage- the band had descended from the heavens like gods from a machine- and so the concert begins, to rapturous applause. Apparently the worship of the commodity form disguises itself as a form of re-enchantment, substituting "rock stars" as its followers subsist in increasingly feudal conditions (as opposed to the representation of spirits in contemporary anime?). Or rather, to quote Matt Stahl:

"The contemporary popular musical performer - as author - embodies a robust form of the labor theory of property as it is codified in copyright law and fixed in the popular imagination. This represents not so much a special creative achievement of authors, or a qualitative difference in the form their labor takes from those of others, but rather their ability to preserve themselves, through fortuitous alignments and alliances with capital and the state, from conditions of appropriation endured by the vast majority of working people in capitalism, conditions that Jason Read has identified as the ongoing process of what Marx's translators call the 'primitive accumulation' of capital".

Yes, I'm interested in how "primitive accumulation" works in conjunction with "the new naturalism", but am just wondering how we might qualify its global representations? Similar questions prompt some other reading I've been doing to follow up on my earlier "Heathen Harvests" post, which can be made more vivid by inclusion of video clips, but alas this post is already taking longer than I had planned, so I have to turn my attention to more pressing matters. Here then is the definition of "the new naturalism" I'm interrogating:

"In this manner, shows like BSG, Enterprise, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and 24, among others, can be called a new genre, the New Naturalism, one marked by a kind of violent ambivalence. In the New Naturalism, no guiding moral tone is taken about dubious characters whose actions grow increasingly suspect. Without a guiding moral tone — which represents, in addition to a potential naiveté or sentimentalism, a courageous decision to put one’s values out there — the series can maintain a detached, neo-Naturalistic outlook on its characters. But as the New Naturalism shows evince, this detachment can be duplicitous and serve as a cover for a highly cynical desire to offer an unremittingly pessimistic social view. Much more troublingly, it can be a deeply hypocritical stance, one that purports to be objective but actually is much more idiosyncratically and commercially driven. These days, despair sells. Watching any number of reality series or fictional ones in the New Naturalism vein, we see people and scripted characters writhe in torment and humiliation. We see human nature at its most “raw,” its most “willful,” in its most “natural” state. This is no less a construction and a fantasy than Star Trek’s prevailing utopian future of peaceful, cooperative humanity. It’s just the cynical and no less adamantly maintained alternative to utopian optimism".

For now I can leave it to Killface to serve as the spokesperson for the New Naturalism...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Studio Banana TV interviews Taiwanese videoartist Chen Chieh Jen

Taiwan has become a ‘fast-forgetting’ consumer society that has abandoned its right to ’self-narration’ and this has spurred me to resist the tendency to forget. One of my methods of resistance is to view each film I make as an act of connection, linking together the history of people who have been excluded from the dominant discourse, the real-life situations of areas that are being ignored, and ‘others’ who are being isolated. In this way, I resist the state of amnesia in consumer society.

-------Chen Chieh-Jen

"All of Chen’s video works are produced and shot on high-quality 16 or 35 millimeter film, which is then converted onto DVD format and looped for museum presentation.

Chen’s video works are also produced without spoken lines, voice-overs, or music; in his view, this is a reflection of the condition of marginal areas that have been silenced. The exception is Lingchi, where tiny sounds may be heard on and off for a few seconds at a time. These sounds are recordings of the electromagnetic waves emitted by Chen’s own skin; in this way, the artist physically inserts himself into the work. 'Chen’s video works are unique in so many ways. For example, Chen looks intently into the morphological differences and similarities between photography, video, and film,' said Miwako Tezuka, curator of the exhibition. 'His slowly panning video images, as sleek and grand as film, move out and away, slowly, from the medium of photography for which he is also well known.'

Studio Banana TV Interviews Chen Chieh Jen

The Gaze of Revolt: Chen Chieh-Jen's historical images and his aesthetic of horror

History has been lingchi-ed, that is, chopped and severed as human bodies. Violence is also gradually internalized, institutionalized and hidden. We do not see where we are and what was before us. We do not see the violence of history or that of the State either. That is the reason why we need to gaze at the images of horror and penetrate through them. Is the dark abyss of wounds not the very crack that we need to pass through so as to arrive at the state of full-realization and self-abandonment?

---Chen Chieh-Jen, About the Forms of My Works

"The trilogy of Lost Voice reaches at the pinnacle of the display of extreme horror. These pictures are based on a photo taken in 1946, during the Civil War period, when the Communist armies took Chongli, 90 miles northern to Zhang Jia Kou, and slaughtered the whole village. The lumps of corpses appear already like a scene in hell. The ecstasy displayed on the face of the self-masturbating and auto-mutilating figures, Chen Chieh-Jen as the models, in transport of joy, dancing on the lumps of corpses, looking back at us, pushes the exasperating painful scene to the extreme."

"We have to view these pictures as an epic, not of the heroes or victories, but of the fate of Chinese in the first half of the twentieth century. It is also an epic of the happenings of human psychic underneath the historical traumatic events. Through these historical photographic images, the histories of Chinese penalties and its residues, Chiang Kai-shek’s slaughtering the communist members during the Qingdang period, the massacres between the Communists and the Kuomintang armies during the Civil War, the Japanese’ colonial domination and manipulation over the Taiwanese, and the intra-ethnic slaughterings among the Taiwanese aboriginals, all re-emerge in front of the audience, but in a very ambiguous and phantasmal mode. The play of the spectatorship and the perverse jouissance make the scenes much crueler than the original historical photo-texts originally intended to be. The recurrence of the double motif in all these pictures seems to further suggest Chen Chieh-Jen’s interpretation of the Chinese-Taiwanese condition, or the splitting of the human psyche. Moreover, Chen Chieh-Jen placed himself in all these pictures, in various roles, as signatures of different identities, and multiplies the ambiguity of the subject position in these acts of violence."

"The Gaze of Revolt:Chen Chieh-Jen's historical images and his aesthetic of horror" by Joyce C. H. Liu

Lingchi:Echoes of a Historical Photograph
Chen Chieh-Jen

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Plug into the new American dream
Sleep Dealer

"Set largely on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sleep Dealer depicts a world in which borders are closed but high-tech factories allow migrant workers to plug their bodies into the network to provide virtual labor to the North. The drama that unfolds in this dystopian setting delves deep into issues of immigration, labor, water rights, and the nature of sustainable development.

"Rivera's film drew attention by winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival — the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film focusing on science and technology. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote of the movie, "Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, Sleep Dealer…combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve."

Rivera spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler by phone from Los Angeles, where the director was attending the local premier of his movie.

MARK ENGLER: How do you describe your film?

ALEX RIVERA: Sleep Dealer is a science fiction thriller that takes a look at the future from a perspective that we've never seen before in science fiction. We've seen the future of Los Angeles, in Blade Runner. We've seen the future of Washington, D.C., in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. We've seen London and Chicago. But we've never seen the places where the great majority of humanity actually lives. Those are in the global South. We've never seen Mexico; we've never seen Brazil; we've never seen India. We've never seen that future on film before.

MARK ENGLER: Your main character, Memo Cruz, is from rural Mexico, from Oaxaca. In many ways, the village that we see on film is very similar to many poor, remote communities today. It doesn't necessarily look like how we think about the future at all. What was your conception of how economic globalization would affect communities like these?

ALEX RIVERA: One of the things that fascinates me about the genre is that, explicitly or not, science fiction is always partly about development theory. So when Spielberg shows us Washington, DC with 15-lane traffic flowing all around the city, he's putting forward a certain vision of development.

Sleep Dealer starts in Oaxaca, and to think about the future of Oaxaca, you have to think about how so-called "development" has been happening there and where might it go. And it's not superhighways and skyscrapers. That would be ridiculous. So, in the vision I put forward, most of the landscape remains the same. The buildings look older. Most of the streets still aren't paved. And yet there are these tendrils of technology that have infiltrated the environment. So instead of an old-fashioned TV, there is a high-definition TV. Instead of a calling booth like they have today in Mexican villages, where people call their relatives who are far away, in this future there is a video-calling booth. There's the presence of a North American corporation that has privatized the water and that uses technology to control the water supply. There are remote cameras with guns mounted on them and drones that do surveillance over the area.

The vision of Oaxaca in the future and of the South in the future is a kind of collage, where there are still elements that look ancient, there is still infrastructure that looks older even than it does today, and yet there are little capillaries of high technology that pulse through the environment.

MARK ENGLER: How far into the future did you set the film?

ALEX RIVERA: I started working on the ideas in Sleep Dealer 10 years ago, and at that point I thought I was writing about a future that was 40 or 50 years away, or maybe a future that might not ever happen. Over this past decade, though, the world has rapidly caught up with a lot of the fantasy nightmares in the film. That's been an interesting process.

But, you know, a lot of times we use the word "futuristic" to describe things that are kind of explosions of capital, like skyscrapers or futuristic cities. We do not think of a cornfield as futuristic, even though that has as much to do with the future as does the shimmering skyscraper.

MARK ENGLER: In what sense?

ALEX RIVERA: In the sense that we all need to eat. In the sense that the ancient cornfields in Oaxaca are the places that replenish the genetic supply of corn that feeds the world. Those fields are the future of the food supply.

For every futuristic skyscraper, there's a mine someplace where the ore used to build that structure was taken out of the ground. That mine is just as futuristic as the skyscraper. So, I think Sleep Dealer puts forward this vision of the future that connects the dots, a vision that says that the wealth of the North comes from somewhere. It tries to look at development and futurism from this split point of view — to look at the fact that these fantasies of what the future will be in the North must always be creating a second, nightmare reality somewhere in the South. That these things are tied together.

MARK ENGLER: It's interesting that at the recent Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America. This is a book that was written over 30 years ago, but that really emphasizes the same point that you are making now, that underdevelopment is not an earlier stage of development, but rather is the product of development. That development and underdevelopment go hand in hand.

ALEX RIVERA: Exactly. And I think that you can also add immigration into that mix. Because the history that Open Veins lays out is a lot about resource exploitation and transfer from South to North. And today, of course, one of the main entities that places like Mexico export is workers.

MARK ENGLER: There's a quote from the film that says a lot. Memo's boss, who runs this sort of high-tech Mexican sweatshop, says, "We give the United States what it's always wanted. All the work without the workers." Can you describe this concept of the "cybracero" that you have been developing?sleepdealer2

ALEX RIVERA: The central idea for this film occurred to me about 10 years ago when I was reading an article in Wired magazine about telecommuting. The article was making all of these fantastic predictions that, in the future, there won't be any traffic jams anymore, and no one will have to ride the subway, because everyone will work from home. Well, I come from a family that's mostly immigrant, a family in which my cousins are still arriving and working in landscaping and construction. I tried to put them into this fantasy of working from home — when their home is Peru, 3000 miles away, and their work is construction.

And so I came up with this idea of the telecommuting immigrant, where in the future the borders are sealed, workers stay in the South, and they connect themselves to a network through which they control machines that perform their labor in the North.

The end result is an American economy that receives the labor of these workers but doesn't ever have to care for them, and doesn't have to fear that their children will be born here, and doesn't ever have to let them vote.

Science Fiction From Below
Mark Engler | May 13, 2009

Friday, 16 October 2009

Back to the future: Moon for sale

Here I update a post from 07.

The idea of a U.S. base on the Moon is nothing new. In a secret study called “A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Outpost” published on June 9, 1959, the military maintained that, “The lunar outpost is required to develop and protect potential United States interests on the Moon; to develop techniques in Moon-based surveillance of the Earth and space; in communications relay, and in operations on the surface of the Moon; to serve as a base for exploration of the Moon…Any military operations on the Moon will be difficult to counter by the enemy because of the difficulty of his reaching the Moon, if our forces are already present and have means of countering a landing or of neutralizing any hostile forces that have landed.”

In 1999, John Young, former Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle astronaut, said that the Moon would also be useful for “planetary defense.”

Recognizing that “control” of the Moon could cause enormous conflict over time, the United Nations created the Moon Treaty in 1979. Much of the Moon Treaty reiterates earlier and internationally-accepted “space law,” particularly the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Article 11 of the treaty maintains, “The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind.” The treaty also prohibits national appropriation, adding the words “by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” In other words, no military bases and no claims of ownership are allowed. The U.S. never signed the Moon Treaty, and in fact it was only ratified by nine nations.

A 1989 study commissioned by Congress, called "Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years" reports that whoever holds the Moon militarily will control the "earth-Moon gravity well" and thus will essentially control the front gate to the Moon.

Former Nazi Major General Walter Dornberger, who was in charge of the entireV-1 and V-2 missile operation for Hitler’s Germany, testified before the U.S. Congress in 1958 that America's top space priority ought to be to "conquer, occupy, keep, and utilize space between the Earth and the Moon." (Dornberger, along with 1,500 other top Nazi scientists, was smuggled into the U.S. under Operation Paperclip after WW II. He became Vice-President at Bell Aerospace in New York.)

The Moon has one resource that is getting everyone’s attention. It is helium-3, and, say many space enthusiasts, could be used for fusion power back here on Earth. In a 1995 New York Times op-ed, science writer Lawrence Joseph asks the question: “Will the Moon become the Persian Gulf of the 21st Century?” Joseph maintains that the most important technological question of our time will be “which nation will control nuclear fusion?” He ends his piece by saying, “If we ignore the potential of this remarkable fuel, the nation could slip behind the race for control of the global economy, and our destiny beyond.”

One person who is not ignoring helium-3 on the Moon is former astronaut and engineer Harrison Schmitt who has created a corporation to mine the Moon for it. Schmitt, though, is concerned about obstacles to his grand plans. In a 1998 piece for the industry newspaper Space News called “The Moon Treaty: Not a Wise Idea” he writes, “The strong prohibition on ownership of ‘natural resources’ also causes worry….The mandate of an international regime would complicate private commercial efforts…. The Moon Treaty is not needed to further the development and use of lunar resources for the benefit of humankind...including the extraction of lunar helium-3 for terrestrial fusion power.”

Some scientists predict that one metric ton of helium-3 could be worth over $3 billion. Researchers at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory have estimated that some one million tons of helium-3 could be obtained from the top layer of the Moon.

If all this turns out to be true and scientifically possible, imagine the gold rush to the Moon and the conflict that could follow in years to come. Who would police the Moon, especially when countries like the U.S. refuse to sign the Moon Treaty that restricts “ownership claims”?

The U.S. Space Command's plan, Vision for 2020, says, "Historically, military forces have evolved to protect national interests and investments — both military and economic. During the rise of sea commerce, nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests....Likewise, space forces will emerge to protect military and commercial national interests and investment in the space medium due to their increasing importance."

I have always been convinced that, by creating offensive space weapons systems, one of the major jobs of the Space Command would be to control who can get on and off planet Earth, thus controlling the “shipping lanes” to the Moon and beyond.

There has long been a military connection to NASA’s Moon missions. In early 1994, NASA launched the Deep Space Program Science Experiment, the first of a series of Clementine technology demonstrations jointly sponsored with the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). The Pentagon announced that data acquired by the spacecraft indicated that there is ice in the bottom of a crater on the Moon, located on the Moon’s south pole — the same venue NASA now envisions as the site for the 2024 permanent base. According to a Pentagon website, “The principal objective of the lunar observatory mission though was to space qualify lightweight sensors and component technologies for the next generation of Department of Defense spacecraft [Star Wars]. The mission used the Moon, a near-Earth asteroid, and the spacecraft’s Interstage Adapter (ISA) as targets to demonstrate sensor performance. As a secondary mission, Clementine returns valuable data of interest to the international civilian scientific sector.”

In the end, the NASA plan to establish permanent bases on the Moon will help the military “control and dominate” access on and off our planet Earth and determine who will extract valuable resources from the Moon in the years ahead.

The taxpayers will be asked to pay the enormously expensive “research and development” costs of this program that in the end will profit the aerospace industry and those corporation like Bechtel that intend to build the bases and extract resources on the Moon.

NASA is not really looking for the “origins of life,” as it tells school children today. Instead, it is laying the groundwork for a new gold rush that will drain our national treasury and enrich the big corporations that now control our government. It is beyond time for the American people to wake up to the shell game underway.

Bruce K. Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space

And thanks to Jeerathida for forwarding this image to me. I consider it a representation of the true face of horror if the back to the future military scenario described in this post is ever fully realised. The piece is appropriately very Giger-esque I think:

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Derek Jarman’s credit card commercial

'The Callous Credit Nexus': Ideology and Compulsion in the Crisis of Neoliberalism
by Alex Law
University of Abertay Dundee

Many accounts of the rise and decline of neoliberalism forefront its ideological nature and capacity for hegemonic leadership. In contrast, I argue that outside of elite groups neoliberalism did not become hegemonic in Gramsci's sense of a 'national-popular' force. Neoliberalism is a convenient term to describe a two-stage process of 'purifying' the coercive nature of the capital relation through what Gramsci broadly called 'a war of movement' in the 1970s and 1980s and 'a war of position' in the 1990s and 2000s. This double-movement compelled credit-worthy individuals to routinely market, sell, purchase and perform for money-wages. New techniques of the self were perfected in the marketised war of position to service the credit-led financialisation of everyday life. Social positionings dependent on financialisation are now subject to a 'crisis of authority'.

Sociological Research Online, Volume 14, Issue 4

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Reprogramming the doomsday machine

Appropriate I think after the posting on "The Coming Insurrection". I'm finding Adbusters "Thought Control in Economics" issue particularly rewarding as they foreground many alternative economic models. In light of our discussions of late derridata, can I ask you if you have checked out Sage's Review of Radical Political Economics (?). I'm trying to come to terms with an edited collection on political sociology at the moment too. The more I see these kinds of things out there, it makes me wonder why the Lacanian pop cultural criticism that dominates the contemporary scene apparently fails to engage with these traditions. I'm bemused by Zizek who is known to comment that his work has "nothing to do with sociology" (thanks to Goran Therborn's alert on this), but given his Eastern European background, I wonder at the opportunism of this statement. What about, for example, the so-called Budapest School of Heller et al that had to leave because of state repression of their work (one of whom ended up in the sociology department of my old Alma Mata)? Has Zizek ever been favorably disposed towards other theorists, such as Erik Olin Wright? Somehow I doubt it. Anything that smacks of "policy proposals" is not Zizek's remit it seems. Theorists in the blogosphere preoccupied with the abstract nature of capital seemingly aren't willing to break with Zizek's reading method either (no sociology/radical economists to speak of).

Unsurprisingly though, I found it relatively easy to find clips exemplary of the pop Lacanian approach in action, and I still have to admit they are not without their charms (in demonstrating that advertising is based on making you feel "lack"/inadequate, which in turn stimulates desire to buy as a solution). But we'd still like to see a broadening of the critical approach as well, inclusive of its institutional base in the university. In that respect I am willing to give some assent to the Paul Bowman stuff you sent me, by way of the kickitover manifesto.