Sunday, 20 February 2011

Anal/yse: Godard's Weekend

Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967)

This is not only a film found on a scrap-heap, but we might say a film found on a dung-heap, considering its relentlessly ‘excremental vision’, a veritable scatological apocalypse. This is a ‘shit film’, quite literally as we will see.

The obvious reference is to Georges Bataille, the image ‘anal/yse’ appears before Corinne’s monologue – fantasy or nightmare or reality – of scenes which deliberately mimic the anal eroticism of Bataille’s 1928 novel Story of the Eye (which makes it to wikipedia’s cultural references for the novel), and we could also add the more esoteric reference that ‘Emily Brönte’ appears as a character in the film and in one of the ‘case studies’ in Bataille’s Literature and Evil is dedicated to her work. But, at the most general level, Godard adopts Bataille’s ‘heterological’ vision he articulated in the 1920s and 1930s of ‘an irruption of excremental forces’ (1985: 92) that void value. The revolution, for Bataille erupts from the ‘materialist bowels of proletarians’ (1985: 35), while class struggle, for Bataille and Godard, is an excremental apocalypse in which everything turns to shit.[1] Here the excremental is revolutionary, the apocalyptic crisis of the bourgeois order, although Godard casts this in the satirical form of cannibal revolutionaries, producing one last ingestion of the bourgeois order and voiding we don’t know what.

In fact, as Godard’s film registers, this ‘excremental vision’ is, however, split: we have the revolutionary anality of Bataille, in which the heterological forces open a re-enchantment and re-sacralisation of reality, but also the anality of capitalist production, with its cycles of digestion and voiding in ‘creative destruction’.

Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (1959) analyses this split vision. First, we have Jonathan Swift’s ‘excremental vision’ that reveals the anality of culture and the psyche, and Swift’s Menippean satire seems an obvious antecedent of Godard. In Brown’s words, ‘for Swift [scatological imagery] ... becomes the decisive weapon in his assault on the pretensions, the pride, even the self-respect of mankind.’ (1977: 179) And yet the revelation by Swift of the excremental core that wrecks human dignity is also the historical revelation of the anal economy of capitalism itself, as Eli Zaretsky notes: ‘Capitalism at root, Brown argued, was socially organized anality: beneath the pseudo-individuated genitality of early modern society, its driving force was literally the love of shit’ (2003), and the chapter on Weekend in the discussion between Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki on Godard is titled ‘Anal Capitalism’ (1998: 85-142).
If the excremental is under the sign of sacred then it displays the typical equivocation of the sacred: revolutionary or bourgeois? Terminal regression or re-birth? If the ‘driving force’ of capitalism is ‘the love of shit’ then this ‘driving force’ is appropriately figured in the equivocation of the status of the car, which in Weekend is both ‘treasured commodity’ and ‘worthless junk’ (Silverman, 1998: 89). The ‘weekend’ break from production leads to the heterological space of stasis, in which production is reversed into voiding, the traffic jam the blockage of this driving force, the indigestible moment of failed flow and the accumulation of the excremental. The famous long tracking shot of the traffic jam, as Brian Henderson points out, finds its future echo in the tracking shot of the car production-line in British Sounds (1970), and figures, again, this equivocal reversal of ‘value’. Anti-production and production change places, in the oscillation of excremental vitalism.

The equivocation of the ‘driving force’ of capitalism, the question whether this anal economy of incorporation, digestion, and excretion that Bataille traces can be derailed into an ecstatic and apocalyptic voiding, is redoubled in the moment of the scatological apocalypse. Again, we equivocate on the waste of a decomposing culture, and can ask is this ‘a nourishing decomposition’? (Badiou, 2007: 45) Is Godard’s vision of the termination of capitalism, and the re-birth of a new order, or merely mired in on the scrap-heap? In Swift’s words, will we find ‘Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung’? (‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, 1732). In what sense can this rotten core revealed by Godard surpass the capitalism it relentlessly anal-yses; are we left in the shit, or can this rot manure a new order? The turn of the screw Weekend applies is that we no longer have socialism or barbarism, but barbarism per se, but is this barbarism as the way to socialism? For Farocki, ‘there is the suggestion that under the thin veneer of this “civilization” beats the heart of a more affectively vital “barbarism.”’ (Farocki, 1998: 91) For Godard’s ‘revolutionaries’: ‘We can only overcome the horror of the bourgeoisie by even more horror.’ (Godard, 1972: 98) An excremental vitalism emerges, based on the ‘nourishing decomposition’ of capitalism, the revelation of ‘a disagreeable and terminal stagnation’ destroying ‘the prestige of industrial reality’ (Bataille, 1985: 92). This is the promise that ‘Weekend is not about the end of the world – it is simply about the end of our world.’[2] (Wood, 1972: 11) In this case one world ends in horror to give birth to a new world presumably without horror, although whether this horror will operate peacably as a vanishing mediator seems unlikely in the terms of the film. Ironically before the moment of May ’68 that would lead to its re-invigoration, in Godard’s film we have a kind of terminal vision of Badiou’s ‘passion for the real’ (Badiou, 2007) – the revelation of the real is the revelation of cannibal extinction. The dialectic in this ‘passion’ between voluntarist vitalism and historicist confirmation is ruptured in Godard’s film through a regression as ‘vitality’ detaches itself from history, and pulverises history into a mythic space of social degree-zero and auto-consumption.

If capitalism is all shit, if we have an ‘anal capitalism’ that levels all into general equivalence, then the end of everything is required in a final voiding. The apocalyptic tone is required prior to some ‘future’, a full decomposition to consume that rotting culture. Godard, as Silverman notes ‘launches an extended assault upon all forms of abstraction.’ (Silverman, 1998: 96) With abstraction, itself the organisation of levelling and equivalence through value, voided, we have what appears to be another abstraction of absolute barbarism. This voiding and levelling of abstraction takes its own revenge, as a kind of capitalist nihilism or exhaustion that turns the film once again into shit. The signs equivocate again, and the ‘liberation’ of the anal, of the ‘excremental forces’, is, to again quote Silverman, ‘not the utopian sexual liberation hailed by Hocquenghem thirty years ago, but the catastrophic end of all singularity. What we might call “anal capitalism” decrees the commensurability of “male” and “female,” but only by consigning both, along with Weekend itself, to the cosmic scrap heap.’ (1998: 111) The apocalypse reveals then not another revolutionary order, the film as gate to May ’68 which redeems its hippy-cannibal revolutionaries into the ‘good hippies’ of libidinal revolt, but watched again at the point of the voiding of the capitalist order in crisis, seems also to reveal a terminal levelling of capital itself.
Does the equivocation of satire have to be met with a full politicisation to escape the relentless dialectic of reversal between satire and object? Are we forced to depart from satire to depart from this intimate dependence of satire on what it satirises? For Godard Weekend was the last film before the collective experiment of political filmmaking the Dziga-Vertov Group. Writing in 1973 Thomas M. Kavanagh argues Godard’s turn to explicitly political and didactic cinema as the only possible response:

Few films declared their horror, their contempt for the Western bourgeoisie as explicitly and as unrelentingly as did Godard's Weekend, the work immediately preceding Le Gai Savoir. Yet the bourgeoisie adored it. In spite of some critics' outrage, this film remained eminently recuperable: it had the largest commercial success of all Godard's films. Denouncing a certain way of life, its viewing became one more obligatory ritual making up that way of life. Something more had to be done, some way had to be found to shortcircuit this embarrassing complicity with an audience he no longer sought to please. If a revolutionary film was to be made, if a film was actually to embody, rather than comfortably proclaim an absolute refusal of the status quo, it presupposed a radical reconsideration of what film is: a stepping outside of all conventions, even those of parody and satire. (Kavanagh, 1973: 52)

Recuperation, re-digestion, an anal biopolitical economy à la Salo beckons. The irrecuperable ‘foreign body’ becomes an object of jouissance, of self-disgust that returns to bourgeois narcissism. Revolution itself is circular: ‘There is even the familiar suggestion, rendered concretely in the film in terms of similarities and parallels in their rituals — eggs and fish between girls’ thighs – that the revolutionary society will be another formulation of the murderously bourgeois one we knew already.’ (Williams, 1971: 13) The exit is out of satire.

And yet the collapse of Godard’s political certainties, and those of his critics, re-locate the satire or parody of Weekend in our moment: the Weekend of crisis, the bursting of the bubble, abandonment of house and car as debt-loaded ‘hostile objects’ (Williams, 2011), and excremental or cannibal hostility that shapes the decomposing culture of capitalism. The impasse of Godard’s film was to be saved through political praxis, but the decomposition of capitalism and of that praxis makes the ‘levelling’ of Weekend if not ‘radically funny’, at least necessary again.

Badiou, A., 2007. The Century. Trans. Alberto Toscano. Oxford: Polity.

Bataille, G., 1985. Visions of Excess. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brown, Norman O., 1977. Life Against Death. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Godard, J-L., 1972. Weekend / Wind from the East. London: Lorrimer Publishing.

Kavanagh, T. M., 1973. ‘Godard's Revolution: The Politics of Meta-Cinema’, Diacritics 3.2: 49-56.

Silverman, K. and H. Farocki, 1998. Speaking About Godard. New York: New York University Press.

Williams, C., 1971. ‘Politics and Production’, Screen 12.4: 6-24.

Williams, E. C. 2011. ‘Hostile Object Theory’, Mute.

Wood, R., 1972, ‘Godard and Weekend’, in Godard, 1972, pp.5-14.

Zaretsky, E., 2003. ‘Obituary: Norman O. Brown (1913-2002)’, Radical Philosophy 118.

[1] ‘In Weekend the class struggle is seen as a violent, anarchistic, apocalyptic clash rather than as a struggle between socialised forces.’ (Williams, 1971: 13).
[2] See also Wood’s rather touching remark: ‘The film postulates, rather convincingly, the irrelevance, uselessness, and ultimate disintegration of everything I have always believed in, worker for, and found worth living for, and I don’t think I can be unique or even unusual in this.’ (11-12)

Monday, 7 February 2011

Objective Spirit

In his Notes on Literature Adorno offers his reflections on the re-issue of Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrat ('Professor Garbage'), and notes that the re-issue has been retitled The Blue Angel after the Sternberg film that took the novel as a source (amusingly the only thing Adorno likes about the film are 'Marlene Dietrich's beautiful legs': 'The venerable film masterpiece is one of those revoltingly false and also - apart from the famous legs - fairly boring products that make the excursion into full human life only to trap customers[...]'. He speculates that this title change is the work of some committee of tycoons and filmmakers.

He then receives a reply from the publishers that no-one wanted this change of title. As Adorno comments: 'If one could lay one's hands on the committee I invented, it would presumably turn out that every individual had already indignantly rejected the title The Blue Angel and that it had been decided upon by a majority that consisted of no one.'

In a long passage Adorno anatomises this situation in which 'Although positivist science indignantly rejects the concept of objective spirit as metaphysics, this concept is becoming more and more palpable.' In the culture industry individuals experience a 'split consciousness' between what they consider correct and 'what they believe corresponds to the schema of the industry they disparage'. But they choose the schema, so there is no need for heavy-handed 'discipline', and when one attacks any concrete instance 'there is nothing one can get hold of'.

Adorno links this to a generalised dispersion of responsibility, and certainly I've been involved in more than a few meetings in which such 'decisions' have taken place. The worst decisions are made but no-one is responsible, because responsibility is displaced onto the imaginary Other. As a very minor example, virtually every book I've published has had its title changed by publishers, and not on their own behalf but that of 'prospective readers' (few enough...). Adorno goes on to note the effect of 'reified guilt' as we all become responsible for these 'decisions' that are never made by anyone and so made by all...