Matt Taibbi on Presidents & Mitt Romney

Most presidents have something under the hood – wit, warmth, approachability, something. Even the most liberal football fan could enjoy watching an NFL game with George Bush. And even a Klansman probably would have found some of LBJ’s jokes funny. The biggest office in the world requires someone who buzzes with enough personality to fill the job, and most of them have it.

But Romney doesn’t buzz with anything. His vision of humanity is just a million tons of meat floating around in a sea of base calculations. He’s like a teenager who stays up all night thinking of a way to impress the prom queen, and what he comes up with is kicking a kid in a wheelchair. Instincts like those are probably what made him a great leveraged buyout specialist, but in a public figure? Man, is he a disaster. It’s really incredible theater, watching the Republicans talk themselves into this guy.

From here.

Leigh Alexander and Slavoj Zizek

A reminder that this talk by Leigh Alexander exists:

She makes the following claim quite near the end of her talk:

“…we need to trigger that panic response that gives birth to new societies.”

And a quote from Slavoj Zizek in this NY Review of Books piece on his two newest ones:

“The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.”

Perhaps, just perhaps, Zizek is not literally advocating mass murder and class-based genocide… perhaps he’s trying to evoke the “panic response” that Leigh is talking about. But I don’t know, I’m no Zizek expert. Interesting parallel anyway.

Pity the NYRB review is so down on him and his stuff, despite (seemingly?) giving it a pretty fair shake. I’m pretty interested in ideas with novelty at the moment, so I’m inclined to at least entertain Zizek’s weird “violent visions”. Maybe that makes me horribly complicit, but so far it’s entirely imaginary violence.

Addendum: in ‘Slavoj Zizek responds to his critics‘, Zizek excoriates the NY Review’s selective quotation and says his own position is the absolute opposite of what they describe. I had hoped this was the case, and reading some of the longer quotations that Zizek posts in reply is illuminating. For Zizek, violence is not the typically straightforward planting-of-fist-into-face, but instead is more about an abstract imposition of force. With this knowledge, it’s clearly easy to see how and why Zizek can label Ghandi the “more violent” than either of Hitler and the Khmer Rouge:

Instead of directly attacking the colonial state, Gandhi organized movements of civil disobedience, of boycotting British products, of creating social space outside the scope of the colonial state. One should then say that, crazy as it may sound, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. The characterization of Hitler which would have him as a bad guy, responsible for the death of millions, but nonetheless a man with balls who pursued his ends with an iron will is not only ethically repulsive, it is also simply wrong: no, Hitler did not “have the balls” really to change things. All his actions were fundamentally reactions: he acted so that nothing would really change; he acted to prevent the Communist threat of a real change. His targeting of the Jews was ultimately an act of displacement in which he avoided the real enemy—the core of capitalist social relations themselves. Hitler staged a spectacle of Revolution so that the capitalist order could survive – in contrast to Gandhi whose movement effectively endeavored to interrupt the basic functioning of the British colonial state.

I find that a rather more compelling vision of ‘violence’ than the typical. It also gels with how I think of Leigh Alexander – a ‘violent’ person but not in the punchy sort of way – as a person willing and able to “do violence” (of the Zizekian sort) to “trigger [the] panic response that gives birth to new societies.”

Liquid nuclear reactors powered by Thorium

Christopher Person put me onto this documentary about the energy potential of Thorium and I gotta say, it’s mighty convincing.

Some interesting takeaways: it almost doesn’t matter how perfect a thorium/liquid salt reactor is, it just didn’t have the allies it needed to be successful. Very Latourian.

Jon McCalmont on Prometheus, Myths and Calvinball stories

At his consistently exceptional ‘Ruthless Culture’ blog Jonathan McCalmont has a great meta-review of Prometheus, in which he locates the film within the broader constellation of ‘myth-making’ in films and modern popular culture that is so prevalent right now. Having not seen Prometheus yet, I can’t really agree or disagree, but his analysis of wider popular cultural obsession with mythmaking is very convincing. But I had a few reservations – possible fault lines in his argument, I guess you could call it.

McCalmont (rather convincingly) argues that “as a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies” and he suggests that Prometheus is an attempt at critique of  that obsession with mythologies (coming at the expense of the ‘neat, self-contained story’ which has indeed rather taken a backseat to trilogies, series and the rise of the ‘franchise’). McCalmont says:

I believe that Prometheus is best understood as vicious critique of the tendency to seek answers to big questions and to weave these answers into some kind of escapist fantasy. Far from providing us with a mythology that makes sense and answers all questions, Prometheus suggests that life is nothing more than a series of random events leading not to Tolkien’s meaningful ‘turn’ but to a sense of profound bafflement.

As I said, I can’t really comment on this aspect of the film, and whether or not it succeeds. But there’s something funny about the way he mixes up the difference between “Big Questions” (aka the metanarratives that post-modernism has been so utterly against since forever, but which it has never really gotten rid of) and questions of the decidedly non-big variety. He notes that,

Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions.

But some of the questions he lists are not big questions: they are (or should be) answerable, quite straightforwardly, e.g.:

  • What did the android say to the alien upon its awakening?
  • Why did the alien respond to a first contact situation with psychotic violence?

The answers to these are not “because there is a god” or anything meta like that. And that’s the crux of it, I think: if Prometheus is like LOST and other “Calvinball” type stories, it’s only because such straightforward questions are warped, twisted, or deliberately obscured as if obscurantism were somehow a statement about the degeneracy of meta-narratives (or even a statement about anything at all other than the arbitrary whim of a storyteller/mythmaker). And this is why I was a bit on the fence when McCalmont states his thesis as the following:

To my mind…attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.

But obscurantism is not anti-metanarrative, in fact it’s just a reinforcement  the meta-narrative of an “indifferent” universe. McCalmont makes the claim that “Mythologies differ from scientific explanations in so far as the logic they use to explain events is narrative rather than causal” which I’m also not so sure about. Science is, after all, it’s own mythology. Chris Bateman’s forthcoming “The Mythology of Evolution” touches on some of these issues, with Bateman saying,

the imagery of evolution threatens to distort our understanding of the incredible history of our planet. There is no science without mythology, and the only way to reveal the facts is to understand the fictions.

Bruno Latour has a great quote about the operation of science, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that it has to explain one thing in terms of another thing, and then that thing in terms of a third, and so on until it ends up looking more and more like a fairytale. Count the number of intermediaries between “you” and the alleged Higgs-Boson.

So where are we, then, on the issue of Big Questions or metanarratives, and why does McCalmont’s piece seem so indicative of the current? I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, and his term “geek spiritualism” encapsulates it perfectly, but I don’t think we’re even remotely close to a myth-less state, and I don’t narrative obscurantism actually does point to a lacuna or disavowal of metanarratives. I think we’re in a situation where we’ve internalised the post-modern disavowal of metanarratives (the “Big Questions” will never be answered satisfactorily) but perhaps the effort has not been taken seriously, since we can’t disavow the metanarrative of science, as it works so damn well for us at the present. (As an aside, many critics of postmodernism have pointed out since the very earliest phase of its adoption that a disavowal of metanarratives can become itself a metanarrative.)

I find myself agreeing with McCalmont’s analysis of the dual cultural and market forces that are driving the increased mythologisation of popular culture:

The problem highlighted by the very existence of Prometheus is that the demand for synthetic mythologies is now so intense that it is beginning to distort the nature of popular culture. With fans demanding mythological depth and investors demanding the type of monies that accompany owning people’s fantasy lives, the market for self-contained stories is beginning to shrink.

But I think his  argument is a bit of a kludge – narrative obscurantism of the Calvinball type isn’t the same as a real or genuine disavowal of metanarratives (including the metanarratives and myths of science). To my knowledge, one of the few people to take seriously the challenge of a meaningless, indifferent universe is Quentin Meillassoux and his acausality. But again we find the same tension as in McCalmont’s piece – Meillassoux believes in a fundamental, hyperchaotic and meaningless layer of reality as the only necessary and non-contingent layer of the universe, yet at the same time, the universe at present remains contingent and explanatory mechanisms like science remain accurate, and may remain so until long after humans have disappeared from the universe.

McCalmont ends his essay by saying that he fears for the future of “self-contained stories” in the face of increased myth-making, and that Prometheus, while terrible, perhaps “contains the future of all popular culture.” Which I think is an accurate assessment, but I don’t agree that self-contained stories are a “solution” to the problem of metanarratives. But I remain sympathetic to the desire for less mythologising – though perhaps only because most, if not all, modern attempts at it are so utterly shit.

David Wenham’s pitch-perfect ‘Bogan’ in Gettin’ Square

David Wenham is the Ur-bogan in the film Getting Square, Part 1 (the sound is very quiet):

And part 2:

Even without any of the wider context of why he’s going out the window with no pants or shirt (something about escaping from either the police or a drug deal gone wrong – if memory serves) the amount of character portrayed just by the way that he runs is simply amazing:

Diablo 3’s missed opportunity

You know how the story of Diablo 3 just doesn’t make any sense? And you know how Deckard Cain is kind of like the unofficial “hero” of the story, even though he gets killed off in the first act (OOPS SPOILERS)? He does all that research on weird esoteric stuff, and he knows all the batshit-crazy lore about which devil fought which angel and when, and then all he managed to do is tell it all to you as a disembodied voice over… I mean, the guy basically knows everything. According to this reading, Diablo 3 is an expression of the tortured mind of Deckard Cain and his attempts to stave off dementia and senility.

Read this way his own “death” in Act 1 becomes a transcendent event that, far from being a fearful one (Deckard is suppressing the reality of his condition by retreating into his deteriorating mind – that’s why the story keeps getting worse as it goes along!), is actually his imaginary escape from the limitations of his own body, into the safe realms of disembodied knowledge.

Small wonder then that the hero/player-character is such an insufferably confident egomaniac: “guided by prophecy” is just the convenient excuse to express the innermost desires of Deckard’s repressed Ego (scholars are always repressed). It’s also a fantastically simple explanation for why every character repeats the same story four times! The repetition reveals Cain’s desperate attempts to hold onto his failing memory, as he goes over and over his knowledge again and again, returning to rote learning exercises in a tragic, yet futile gesture. No wonder it’s so grindy.

This “story” would only ever end, if – or rather, when – the player forgets to ever return to Diablo 3 and never plays again, thus completing Cain’s slide into mental oblivion.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Diablo 3 actually supported this interpretation? Now that would be a story.

Fuck everything about this.

A violent excess of “realism” is being forced upon young people.

“…I’ve kind of made sure i’ve been involved in a lot of extra-curricular stuff.”

“You were actually thinking about your CV, age 19 or 20?”

“I was. You have to have a CV at the back of your head…”

And you can forget about holding onto anything like your precious “values” as a politics student. How are you going to eat:

“As a politics student [with values]…you never want to become a careerist… someone who’s always looking for what kind of job you can get… but actually you don’t have a choice to think about that. You don’t have a choice but to become a sellout always thinking about how to get a job.”