A Checkup on that Palinoscopy

September 11, 2008

“That’s not change, that’s just calling some of the same something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

– Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama

These comments by the Illinois Senator set liberals a’clappin and the McCain Campaign a’cryin “Sexism”, “Sarah Palin ain’t no piggie!”. Of course, the bourgeois media quickly took up this vapid discourse, even though Barack was talking about the McCain campaign, and the Republican nominee himself said the same thing about Hillary Clinton’s health care proposals. But is that quote actually calling Sarah Palin a pig, in light of her RNC speech?

As I wrote in my last post, the humor of Sarah Palin’s “lipstick” joke revolves around implying sameness through a superficial non-difference. In the case of the joke, the non-difference and the punchline was “lipstick”. Considering the structure of Sarah Palin’s joke, the signifiers of “Sarah Palin” were the words “Hockey Mom” and “Pitbull”. The “lipstick” was merely the non-differentiating agent, and Palin’s joke in no way implies that lipstick is unique and essential to either Hockey Moms or Pitbulls. Therefore, the notion that Sarah Palin was called a pig is utterly false. If that notion were true, that would also imply that anything wearing lipstick is Sarah Palin: Vultures, Rabbits, Shirt Collars, Tetris, Tugboats, etc.

If anything, Obama’s quip reinforces the idea of sameness that Palin was coyly pushing. In that case, any equivalence between the two jokes lies in their rhetorical usage rather than their signifiers. Obama’s quote is a scathing critique of Sarah Palin’s rhetoric, jabbing at the pretention of differentation. Even if you are convinced that the Obama quote referred to the Sarah Palin identity (although the context implicates the McCain Campaign’s borrowing of the “change” motif), Obama wasn’t saying “Sarah Palin is a pig”, but rather “Sarah Palin is full of shit”.

– s

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A Painless Palinoscopy

September 5, 2008

“You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”

– Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin

This unscripted quip by the Alaska Gov’ner and VP Nom drew cheers at the RNC and punning headlines all throughout the media. Not that I’m one to take anything a politician says seriously, but this impromptu joke is worth some critical assessment, not because I’m trying to prove anything about Sarah Palin, but because I think the joke isn’t funny.

Let’s begin with the speaker. I imagine that Sarah Palin was looking to bolster her own aggressiveness within the context of maternal responsibility, more vulgarly, she was going for the “I’m a hot bitch and a small town mom at the same time” impression. What better way to do this, than witha a punchline? Within the context of the speech, the joke came as she was transitioning from the nowhere USA working class credentials, to the political resume. She wanted to spice it up with the notion that the fight (rather than the flight) is essential to her.

The humor of the joke lies in paradox between the superficiality and uniqueness of the stated difference. Because the joke is all about “differences”, the sameness that it actually conveys becomes masked. Sarah Palin was just a shade of grey away from saying “Mothers are bitches”. The phrasing of the joke seeks to shift the responsibility of the content away from the speaker with a downright sophism, hence the “they say”. Sarah Palin doesn’t actually say “mothers are bitches” (although she does), they do. The anonymity of the source is as much a projection of self as it is an affirmation of content.

Then there are the terms chosen:

“Hockey Mom” – a media-fabricated label for white bourgeois women. According to Slate, the median income for Hockey Moms is around twice the national average. On the “Mom” scale, being a soccer mom is a step below, since youth soccer leagues tend to be cheaper and filled with minorities of all shapes and smells.

“Pit bull” – a domesticated dog that’s a breed of a bulldog and a terrier. Since they are tough, sturdy dogs, they have been used for ranching, hunting, rescuing, as well as cocaine sniffing. Pit bull’s have recently gotten bad press, they are used in illegal dog-fights and have been known to kill babies. Wikipedia states that “with guidance from its handlers, [Pit bulls] are obedient and show a high desire to please. However, when left without direction they can become stubborn and may become aggressive”.

“Lipstick” – although it’s been around since ancient Mesopotamia, most people associate lipstick with its modern form, that is, as a commodity that enhances superficial appearances.

Given Palin’s motivation, these qualifiers are rather odd. First, there is the choice of “Hockey Mom” rather than “Mom” (a term that’s profoundly universal). A Black mother of two in Alabama and a Orthodox Jewish mother of eight in Williamstown don’t fit the qualifier, unless their kids play hockey. They are excluded from this representation of toughness, determination, etc. Then there is the “Pit bull”… Sure, people think pit bulls are “badass” or whatever, but they are domesticated animals designed to be subservient to their masters. That Sarah Palin chose a small domesticated animal over a wild one (Bear! Tiger! Penguin!) is telling. It’s also interesting that Pitbulls aren’t even a pure breed, they are a cross. They bear the indignity of design (essence preceding existence). Finally, there’s the “lipstick” punchline. Considering the mechanism of the joke, “lipstick” carries the weight of “the difference” between white woman and domesticated animal. It’s interesting that she chose “lipstick”, a symbol for female superficiality, a commodity fetish. For the punchline, Sarah Palin could have pointed to her breasts and said “these” (although she was at the RNC), or she could have said “chap stick” (a more poetic choice), or “birth control” (but she’s evangelical), or any number of things… So what does this all add up to?

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Lipstick.”

Probably the reason why I didn’t care for the joke isn’t that Sarah Palin says she’s a bitch, but that she’s someone’s bitch. She manages to convey both bourgeois entitlement and a dehumanized submission. All with reductive and dehumanizing qualifiers. The way the media is treating Sarah Palin, and it’s own sexist treatments is an issue unto itself. What bothers me about Sarah Palin isn’t that she’s a religious conservative, or that she’s inexperienced or slightly fascist, or that I would rather die than have her as my mother… She’s bound to the paradox of a woman with a pregnant teenage daughter who flies around with a special-needs baby about to be born and returns to work three days after its birth, that’s to say, a woman who forsakes being a human mother to being a political mother… Surely, she’s entitled to seek political office while raising five kids (more power to her!). She also happens to think that she’s entitled to everyone’s reproductive rights and to ban books, but that’s another matter… What bother’s me about Sarah Palin is that she seems to be nothing more than strategic advertisement for the McCain campaign, down to the Juno-esque pregnancy and the snowmobile racing husband. She chose to become an image, a commercial. You can argue the same for Barack Obama, although I find him a much more compelling image because of its historical implications.

If Sarah Palin had been a reincarnation of Descartes, she would have probably said:

“You know what they say is the difference between a bourgeois white mother and a domesticated animal? Reason.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sarah Palin touched on an essential question. What separates us from animals? This summer, I read “The Lives of Animals” by J.M. Coetzee. In it, a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello gives a rather radical lecture about animal rights at a university. What interested me most about her arguments was the refutation of the Cartesian argument that reason separates us from animals. This notion of reason is unprovable. Testing the “intelligence” of animals with mazes and puzzles, only forces them to think the basic thoughts we want them to, such as “how the fuck do i get to my food?”. A more essential thought would be “why am I here?”, “why has this scientist taken me from my home?” or “how do I make him return me to my home?”, which is harder to prove, if at all possible (Kafka wrote a great short story about this). It’s just an absurd methodology as if we threw people in a jungle and see how well they “reasoned” things out. That we are different from animals is so obvious to us, yet so hard to pinpoint. A classical Marxist would say that Sarah Palin’s joke has truth to it, if it’s spun properly. That is, if “lipstick” were taken to mean a totality of social processes rather than a fetish. Marx believed that the difference between us and animals was in the fact that animals at most collect while men produce. While, I think this thought goes in a good direction, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer… What about language? Or society? How would this be tested given the complex and variable relationship between self and environment…

I digress… all this for a joke? you may ask. It’s only a fucking joke!

Yeah… i guess.

– s


The Maccabean Theater of Judgment

August 4, 2008

There is much talk within film scholarship about the complicit passivity of audiences… Complicit in that the audience’s eyes aligns with the camera’s gaze, and passive in that the alignment (the images on the screen) and its direction doesn’t at all care for the audience’s agency. In a sense, watching a film is like stepping into a different world -or better yet, like taking a guided tour of another world. Stanley Cavell talks about how there is a moment of awakening after a movie ends, the audiences realigns with reality. Walter Benjamin likens the aesthetic experience of film to that of architecture. While it seems that film theorists like to talk about the passive audience as if it’s a “film thing”, something similar can be said about audiences at a classical music concert (just try coughing during one!) or even at a play. The big danger with this whole logic, is when it begins assuming that observers are essentially passive. Such an assumption belies a Eurocentric tradition of a non-participatory audience, where they can aspire to be, at most, loud tomato-throwing critics without any bearing on the course of what they are observing. In all this, different traditions are obscured. A notable exception to this entire passive audience talk is “the Maccabean Theater”.

The Maccabees were a Jewish fundamentalist terrorist organization seeking to liberate the holy land from the foreign occupation of the Greek empire-state (well, the Seleucid Dynasty). They were ultimately successful and today they are mostly known for two Apocryphal books and a surprisingly effective energy sustainability policy (even though they blew all the energy saved on a party). Little is known about “the Maccabean Theater”, probably because it wasn’t an actual theater. The Maccabean Revolt was as much of a struggle against an occupying empire as it was a civil war between Jewish Nationalist and Jewish Hellenists. Violence against the Hellenists was widespread, it was so common that it gave birth to a curious tradition. Maccabean fighters began rounding up Hellenists on an elevated platform, forcing them to act out their profane gentile rituals, utter prayers, and prepare offerings. As the captive Hellenists acted as they were told to, the Maccabees would shoot arrows and throw spears at the actors. Some would even rush up to the platform, bloodthirsty sword in hand. These performance ritual were also cleansing rituals, fervent homages to the High Priest Phineas (Pinchas). They grew in popularity and became more and more elaborate. The forced reenactment of rituals evolved into the forced reenactment of histories and mythologies. Thus was the “Maccabean Theater” born, a theater of sentencing, a theater of judgment and execution.

Unlike the Roman gladiators, who were mere spectacles, the Maccabean Theater reached a brief peak before the newly liberated Jewish theocracy ushered its decline. None exemplified the apex of the Maccabean Theater better than Zedekiah the Danite. While many question the historicity of Zedekiah, reasoning that he represented a small amorphous collective movement, his projects sought to elevate the performance purges to a different level. Zedekiah often crafted his own reenactments, binary morality tales based on Jewish struggles. He created a reenactment of Book of Esther where all the captives played Haman. There’s evidence that suggests that Zedekiah even trained some captives to act, as the more capable actors were often killed last to greater general enthusiasm. Zedekiah reasoned, that if the audience were to play G-d’s will and punishment, the reenactments shouldn’t simply be some glorified shooting gallery. There must be a dynamic between the audience and the actors. So Zedekiah the Danite began toying with sympathetic gentile characters (how much longer will the divine arm let this sinner live?), but then he wanted to take a step further. He imagined an opulent Passover pageant, in which the story would change according to the death of each captive. This task was harder than imagined, since a vast array of plot permutations had to be planned and rehearsed. Zedekiah would have also required captives with significant acting experiences, capable of memorizing all possible outcomes and improvising smooth transitions, as a captive never really knew when the “Will of G-d” would smite again. The historical record doesn’t indicate whether Zedekiah’s plans ever came to fruition, although it’s said that one time, as a big finger to Hellenic culture, Zedekiah staged a minor comedy by Menander.

With the liberated Jewish state and the decline of heretical crimes, the Maccabean Theater became less about killing the actors and more about letting the better actors live. Crowds began sparing the better performers before killing off the inferior ones. Once the Romans took over, even the hands-on killing started to cease, as the Roman state usurped the state’s judicial power of execution, and death by stoning made a rollicking comeback among smaller religious courts. By then, the performance rituals forsook plots and stories, to become a kind of holiday variety show, where the most popular captive criminal act would be spared execution. Such was the case when Jesus Christ competed against Barabbas one Passover morning (a detail the gospels poorly address). By choosing a majestic silence over the actor’s craft, Jesus was promptly dispatched to the nailing yard, while the thief Barabbas was set free (according to Luke, Barabbas beat out not only Jesus but two others).

While largely forgotten, the Maccabean Theater of Judgment does have some spiritual children of sorts. The concept of torture as theater is probably more common than it’s been in awhile, thanks mostly to the Bush administration, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. It’s in no way limited to post-9/11 politics. Take, for example, the shitty Korean movie Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows. But I think what best inherits the tradition of the Maccabean God-audience is the current fad of judge based reality TV shows, such as American Idol, or the one with the fashion designing cooks. The audience retains a faint semblance of Maccabean empowerment. The leap from Zedekiah the Danite to American Idol is certainly long, but as any good Czarist would attest: the Jews own the media.

– s


Batman and His Problems

July 28, 2008

Everyone just loves the new Batman movie. After only two weekends in theaters, The Dark Knight is the #1 movie of all time according to imdb members. Critics have been gushing with glowing reviews (though the New Yorker or A.O. Scott beg to differ). The movie’s success is evident, it is the fastest to gross over $300 million domestically. Heath Ledger is even generating Oscar buzz… but with all the hype aside, the best I can say of The Dark Knight is that it’s a “superior superhero movie”, which is pretentious-filmspeak for “the hype’s total bullshit”.

The “superior superhero movie” qualifier should be elaborated. The Dark Knight features a very competent cast with a remarkable Heath Ledger to go along with a cool chase, some neat cat-and-mouse scenes, and some Stygian Gotham atmospherics. Seeing it on an IMAX screen is definitely and all-encompassing (and loud) experience. What’s interesting about Dark Knight (and what everyone fawns over) is how it questions the superhero genre itself within a “post 9/11” context. But that’s all it does. It questions and questions and questions as loudly and succinctly at every possible moment. Writers Cristopher and Jonathan Nolan bring up just about every liberal post 9/11 talking point: Torture! Wiretapping! Due Process! Just let the Joker make a phone call! All of this makes for a story that’s richer than usual. Only all these hot-button topics dissipate as Batman does what the genre invariably tells him to do.

The dissipation problem is more than thematic. The movie frantically weaves in and out of scene without giving each a sense of cohesion or closure. As a result, scenes with dramatic potential get the same slap and dash treatment as unnecessary exposition. There’s an entirely absurd Hong-Kong mission where Batman comes off like some glorified American James Bond. In spite of all the razzle dazzle, the final confrontation between Batman and Joker reminded me of a time I went flaccid during intercourse. You’d imagine that a $185 million dollar budget would afford some script editors… But no… Even Two-Face’s little coin flipping trick is a pallid replica of Anton Chiguhr’s.

I have always had issues with superhero movies. I just can’t accept a superhero world and the myth of exceptionalism that the genre bases itself on. In the proud American tradition, the superhero world presupposes a simple good versus evil polarity, which The Dark Knight questions without betraying the assumption. The superhero itself is equally problematic. A superhero is the sublimation of the human entity into a weapon, into an instrument of order and security. The apotheosis of the superhero requires that the individual leave behind his real identity in order to become an abstracted citizen, a symbol of a man, an image (The Dark Knight uses all the batman imitators to briefly toy with this idea). As a symbol, the superhero is essentially a fetishism. In the case of Bruce Wayne, whose “superpower” is his wealth, he spins amazing technologies out of thin air, a batmobile here, a wire-tapping infrastructure there… as if Batman and Lucius Fox built it all themselves. No one expects a superhero movie to discuss labor. After all, the superhero must be divorced from his material reality to be super. Such distinction is clearly only allotted to the exceptional, while all other hard-working citizens must depend on this symbolic exception.

Just as Batman is a symbol, so is the Joker. They mirror each other (another idea that the movie brings up to little consequence). That the Joker is the most compelling character in The Dark Knight attests both to an incredible performance by Heath Ledger and to the staleness of the other “human” characters. The Joker is a non-entity. Unlike Batman, he has no human context, no mask, only a grotesquely painted facade, making his unmotivated acts of destruction all the more palatable for its symbolism. The Dark Knight becomes the Joker’s movie. He gives the best lines, diabolically catalyzes most of the action, and brings Batman’s entire moral universe into question. Is Batman doing more harm than good? Has he brought Gotham down a road of no return? Perhaps this will be answered in the third installment. But by the end of The Dark Knight, even the Joker becomes problematic.

The problem is not that the Joker’s acts of destruction are a symbolic challenge, but that the movie insists that the Joker is a terrorist… After the movie, I remembered Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism”:

This is the spirit of terrorism. Never is it to attack the system through power relations. This belongs to the revolutionary imaginary imposed by the system itself, which survives by ceaselessly bringing those who oppose it to fight in the domain of the real, which is always its own. But (it) moves the fight into the symbolic domain, where the rule is the rule of challenge, of reversal, of escalation. Thus, death can be answered only though an equal or superior death. Terrorism challenges the system by a gift that the latter can reciprocate only through its own death and its own collapse.

As exceptional symbols, both Batman and the Joker enjoy a quasi-omnipresence and an unlimited supply of resources. Although Batman has everything money can build at his disposal, the Joker uses real, functional structures (the domain of labor). In using these structures, the Joker becomes a truck driver, a nurse, a soldier -and always a terrorist. Therefore the Joker, the symbol of unmotivated chaos, the non-entity, is also the symbol of terrorism. And as such a symbol, terrorism becomes depoliticized, it is no longer a reaction against the dominant order or calculated political violence. It is reduced to being evil, to being the unreasonable and unmotivated desire “to watch the world burn”, and to being only vincible with weapons or superheroes.

This new batman movie posits fundamental questions about itself, and for a second, the entire superhero framework appears absurd. But that’s only for a second. Maybe these limitations are placed by the genre. How much of Batman would the studio’s allow to be deconstructed, torn from its roots and set on fire?If I ever decide to make my own superhero movie, I want to create a dashing hero experiencing all sorts of superhero adventures, blowing all sorts of shit up… there’ll be chaos and destruction… but at the end, the superhero confronts an angry mass… guerrillas? workers? students? only to be swarmed and killed, dismembered, torn apart. The antithesis of the American-brand exceptionalism: the “super power” of the collective.

– s