On the Need for Perpetual Protests

With the Strzok testimony dominating the outrage cycle this week & reports of an impending Rosenstein impeachment haunting the news again, I have a few thoughts on our national inaction & apathy in the face of creeping fascism.

Every time the threat that Mueller is about to be fired or Rosenstein will be removed from office arises, someone (usually the top comment on the reporting Reddit or Twitter thread) always links to MoveOn’s Rapid Response protest plan. (Here’s the link, which I don’t mean to fault in & of itself, FWIW.) The problem with this pattern, however, is twofold: On one level, it promotes only a reactionary politics, suggesting no progressive alternative that would curtail the need for protests in the first place. On another level, focusing only on and formulating responses only to the possible (even probable) firing of just the top level brass ignores the whole host of other outrages for which Americans should right now be taking to the streets.

When only the most unconscionable & over-the-top actions warrant formal, nationwide responses, the line for what is acceptable inherently moves closer & closer to those extremes. Moreover, it has meant that we by & large do absolutely nothing in response to the innumerable other, smaller iniquities, which get treated as acceptable just so long as this final, arbitrary line doesn’t end up getting crossedIt’s as if we have collectively said that top-level actions A & B are totally out of bounds, while meanwhile those in power make their way through the rest of the alphabet, from C to ZZZ, without consequence. Simply put, as is clearly evident simply by looking around at the crumbling of our republic, as a plan of political action, this is an utter travesty & total failure.

What is instead needed is near ubiquitous & relentless protest without specific cause, organized from sea to shining sea every damn weekend until those making a mockery of our democracy are removed from office. Perpetual protests should be there bare minimum (while, at least as I see it, perpetual revolution would be the ideal. At this point, we don’t need any more reasons for protesting or resisting, we don’t need to see any specific outrages to take to the streets—we should all be out there, holding up signs & chanting every day, en masse. We saw an example of this already this past week in London, as huge crowds met Trump with scorn, & it should embarrass every American that our national response to authoritarianism on our own soil has paled so thoroughly in comparison. And frankly, considering where the real power lies in this country—to quote a film as true for today’s politics as it was for its era, “follow the money”—we should be organizing general strikes until these simple demands are met.

Until we confront our collective apathy, until we protest the general state of our failing republic, things will only get worse & our goals only harder to achieve.

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Yellow Submarine, 1968 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

After finishing a screening at the Alamo of the new 4k restoration for the film’s 50th anniversary, a friend gushingly said that “movie’s like this are a gift”—and really, that could be said about nearly the entirety of the Beatles oeuvre. It’s striking to me how consistently great the band was, each song almost impossibly crafted on every level, from theoretical underpinnings of the songwriting to the pitch perfect arrangements and production, song after song, album after album, leading a culture wave for a decade. While their five film projects were somewhat more erratic in quality, considering how piss poor even the most fondly remembered rockstar “jukebox” projects are—think “Purple Rain” or “One Trick Money,” which lack in cinematic scope what they make up in musical brilliance—it’s still pretty astounding that two of the movies are so groundbreaking, thoroughly entertaining, and thoughtfully put together.

Ostensibly a movie made for kids, “Yellow Submarine” is a film overflowing with artistic energy and creativity, with political goals and social commentary. In typical Beatles fashion, the audience is all embracing, the point is pointless, hole-y (wholly/holy) love, lovingly made not to widen the burgeoning generation gap, but to bridge it. The jokes are clever, punny, referential, erudite in a way that only adults might pick up the punchline while kids nevertheless can revel in the playful absurdity; likewise the animation is both geared toward the hippy-dippy psychedelic set, and at the same time, perfectly attuned to a child’s sensibility for the strange and looney. The movie is working on so many levels, every gear turning, experimental yet commercial, subversive yet receptive, pop-art embracing its own paradoxical status; yes, this is absolutely a product that aims to fill a contractual obligation with a record company, but the logos of the band’s own label are the weapons of the bad guys!

While I remember liking this movie as a kid, even decorating my room with knickknacks and paraphernalia—not just a lunchbox (which I movie stubs in, not sandwiches), but a lava lamp!—I don’t think I really appreciated how intelligent and beautiful it really is until now. This is a movie both of its time, utterly and unmistakably of the 1960s, and timeless in its message and music, as engaging today as it was engaging in/of its own time. It is a core message worth remembering: To say yes to love, to each other, to art—and no to outright authority, to fascism, and to blue meanies.

It’s all in the mind, y’know.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.
Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Barry Lyndon, 1975 – ★★★★★ [Movie Log]

Of course, everyone who sees this knows already the story about how Kubrick chose to light the film with only natural sources—but consider the effect in a scene like the one where Barry chats late one night in a tent with his avuncular officer. Lit by only a handful of candles, the actors were told to remain as perfectly still as they could muster so as to stay in focus. Or in the many zoom outs, like the one with Barry gazing hopelessly over the edge right after being embarrassed by Bully during the recital: The camera pulls back slowly with Barry kept dead center, perfectly still even as he shrinks in comparison to the wider world just revealed. Or in the duels which bookend Barry’s ambitions, always underscored by the same instrumental variation from Handel: Unlike a chaotic gunfight in a mythologized western, here the participants stand utterly motionless, as if dead already.

The point is that this is a film of paralysis, where the lighting, camera movements, stage blocking, and even music contribute to the film’s sense of overwhelming stagnation—all this even as the story has a truly (albeit ironically) epic scope, ranging across a lifetime, social classes, combatant countries, Europe in war and in peace. In an age (and a genre of filmmaking) we often look back upon as deeply sincere, of a burgeoning romanticism, and utterly passionate, Kubrick drenches the whole thing in a comic irony truer to the wry spirit of Byron and Thackeray than period pieces ever know to try. A BBC adaptation of Austen or Tolstoy this is not, lacking all pretense of billowing emotion and heartbreaking sensibility.

Rather, Kubrick’s choices aim to show the romantic age with romanticizing it, without looking back with the artificial light and gloss of retrospection. What does it mean to portray an era with authenticity? Does it merely mean getting the costuming, the set design, and the specific cant right? For Kubrick—who here is following up his very similar speculative forays into the future—I think veracity means exposing how the accoutrement, the style and look of an age, in fact betray its bones, its spirit (this is all very Hegelian, obviously, and so once more true to the time). And what is more true of this pre-Napoleonic period than its sense of paralysis? It is an era when rising above one’s born lot was practically impossible, as it finally is for the futile Barry, whose efforts are for naught in the end. It is an era when women (to say nothing about people of color, who quite literally could say nothing, and so don’t here) have absolutely no political or social influence outside the confines of domesticity, utterly stuck in their patriarchal role. It is an era when change—in hat style (a very subtle detail in the second half), in musical variation, even in army uniform and allegiance—is only artificial, ultimately functioning to keep the social system fully in place.

It is Barry’s sole redeeming quality, and the thing that makes him both the most modern and the most human character in the whole affair, that he aims throughout for change, to break the cycle of social stagnation and personal paralysis through his great ambition. But Barry is still of his age, and so his efforts come to nothing but his own demise—there is a revolution happening somewhere in the wings, across the pond, but Barry is on the wrong side of things, giving money and men to the King, paying tribute to the phallic master signifier of the ruling order. And so the Oedipal cycle—for of course this all comes down the Oedipal dialectical, the son’s attempt to outdo the father and claim the love of the mother (country or personal)—remains unbroken, Bully replacing Barry at Lady Lyndon’s side, the (e)state returned to its “proper” lineage in a classically tragic ending.

 

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Dissertation Progress Update

Last week, after attending to the feedback from my chair, I finally finished editing my first two dissertation chapters to a point where I felt comfortable sending them off to the rest of my committee. As part of that process, I took a step back and tried to give my readers a brief overview of how I see the project shaping up—a prefatory synopsis which I thought it would be good to share here, too:

In the first chapter, “Burke and Lacan on the Symbolic Mechanisms of the Unconscious”—sexy title, I know—I investigate a parallel between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Burkean rhetoric, in that both, at roughly the same midcentury moment, developed a “symbolic” theory of the unconscious/an unconscious theory of the “symbolic”. At the same time, I show that both Lacan and Burke, in these same texts on the unconscious, make acute reference to the emerging field of cybernetics—the former using cybernetics to explain the unconscious, an inhuman machinery at the heart of the human, while the latter denigrated “thinking machines” over and against the human as a privileged subject. Rhetoric might therefore look to Lacanian psychoanalysis as a way of rethinking those concepts Burke introduced to rhetoric as a way of moving beyond the discipline’s traditional humanist leanings toward a posthumanist frame of distributed ontology, nonhuman agency, and decentered signification.

My second chapter, “Purloined Messaging Between Rhetoric, Psychoanalysis, and Cybernetics”—really killing it with these clever chapter titles—further refines and develops Lacan’s cybernetic reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious as a way to rethink our field’s historic reliance on traditional ontological frameworks, as especially exemplified in the humanist figure of the “letter.” Having identified some of the issues with how Burke incorporated psychoanalytic terminology into modern rhetorical theory, I expand here on the Lacanian alternative through a careful elucidation of the analyst’s reading of Poe’s “the Purloined Letter.” Contrasting the post-Poe letter with rhetoric’s more conventional epistolary practices—exemplified especially by reflective pedagogies that aim to foreground consciousness and human agency—I attempt to show how Lacan’s rethinking of the letter (as a signifier) provides rhetoric with a theory of communication that aims toward a posthuman compositional praxis of distributed and nonhuman agency, foregrounding a rhetor’s envelopment in material ecologies and autonomous signifying networks.

Like Lawrence and his match, or Moon Watcher and his nuclear warhead, we have Lacan and his letters: With a conceptual flash cut, my third chapter—tentatively titled “Freudian Typos and Rhetorical Para-Praxis”—will continue along the path of the letter, shifting ever so slightly toward the graphemic, alphabetical material that makes up any given written word. This section of the dissertation will outline a theory of “Freudian typos,” a form of computerized parapraxis that reveals what I call our emerging “digital unconscious.” Again, this will develop the idea first set out in my discussion of Burke that Lacan’s reimagining of the Freudian unconscious, misread by our foremost twentieth century rhetorician, can help push rhetorical theory beyond humanist conventions toward a posthuman praxis better suited to contemporary communicative media. Toward this end, my final chapter will follow Lacan’s own trajectory toward what he called the “sinthome”—a compositional praxis that revels in its own breakdowns, interruptions, and ambiguities; that is to say, a form of writing based on decentered human subjectivity, one which enjoys its material embeddedness not as a limitation, but as an inventional possibility.

Ragtime, 1981 – ★★★★ [Movie Log]

In a strange way, especially for a film so surprisingly straightforward, the scope here is both overwhelming—an enormous ensemble piece telling a set of often seemingly unrelated stories—and yet quite narrow, in that it sticks to and utterly nails a specific era, place, and peoples. When the film focuses in on those smaller details, when it scales somewhat back and away from its source material—from what I understand, Forman’s adaptation tells only a small slice, one section of the novel—it is hard not to be caught up in the wonderful Randy Newman score, the lovely cinematography, and the minutia of the perfect production design. But at just over two-and-a-half hours in run time, those finer points get muddled and less charming as the narrative stretches on at a slackening toward a foregone and inevitable conclusion.

But what a powerful conclusion, made so much richer by its all-star performances. How timely a last shot (pun intended). How grisly a truth that, a century later, this is (still) America, land of the free and home of ragtime. As an allegory for my country—beautiful, overwhelming, violent, stuffy, racist, auspicious—Forman captures something hopeful in its brutality, a patriotic optimism that often comes strongest from the immigrants who strived so hard to get here. Perhaps that is a truth, that America is and always has been a country where murderous privilege mixes with blind opportunity, we need reminding of at this moment in our history
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

Marathon Man, 1976 – ★★★★ [Movie Log]

Political paranoia thrillers from the mid-70s are one of my favorite niche genres, so of course I dig this. The convoluted plot, unexplained connections, lack of clarity: It all works in combo to create an affect of conspiracy, where nothing can be trusted and the viewer is just as lost as the protagonist. There is a weird sincerity to that positional fear, since without any separating or exterior knowledge—the audience knows no better than the characters what lies behind the next corner—there is a lack of irony. Accordingly, the horror and the confusion are omnipresent here: The bad guys are just as paranoid as the heroes, the government as psychotic as the criminals. The specters of the past—the residue of our pain, whether that means the memory of a dead father or the survivors of the holocaust—continue to haunt the present, able to pass through whatever walls appear to keep us safe.

So is it safe? The answer is decidedly “no,” no matter the subject of the question. “Is it safe?”—the paranoiac’s version of “che vuoi?”—a question that haunts, that terrorizes, that causes pain and touches a nerve just in the asking. Nothing can keep us safe, neither ignorance, which leaves us unprepared and ambushed, nor knowledge, which only exposes us to more privileged sort of danger.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan

The Post, 2017 – ★★★★½ [Movie Log]

In one of the strangest (and I think most telling of our times) critiques of any even semi-political movie, I’ve seen a number of people suggest that the movie’s major failure is that it is a bit *too* timely, its resonances with today somehow *too* on the nose. This, to me, is absurd—perhaps if the film was made in a less politically wrought, less civically wrecked, less necessary time, then I suppose a movie explicitly attempting to marshal the past so as to address our present (and future) might seem somehow hysterical—though this particular film, grounded by an exceptionally talented ensemble, never even approaches that fever-pitch delirium of so much of our political discourse. But in times like these, I can only see it as a virtue when a movie takes aim at some of our most terrifying social issues so as to engender hope and resistance.

Of the movie itself, it might not be the best of Spielberg’s “dad who reads biographies” later period, but it is still unmistakably a Spielberg film. And on that front, what can one say about the filmmaking? He is truly a master, and his mastery of the form is on full display here—with the added genius that this collection of American icons on and off the screen have put together something so important for the country to hear (and see). For this is a movie about real bravery and resistance, even if it is made by the most powerful members of Hollywood who suffer little in making—which, in many ways, is a story that newspaper owners and journalists, elites now of the media themselves, should remember, too.

Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.

Vía Letterboxd – Jake Cowan