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Category: Criticism

Remix Aesthetic

In my last Kill Bill post, I wrote “I much enjoy the collage aesthetic (I usually call it a remix or DJ aesthetic), but I prefer the playful expressiveness of, say, Moulin Rouge to the cynical play of Kill Bill.” Now, it’s possible I’m a little obsessed with Moulin Rouge, so I’d better say more about it!

Walter Benjamin, in 1935, wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Here’s what he had to say:

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

And a bit later:

Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. […] With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. It is easier to exhibit a portrait bust that can be sent here and there than to exhibit the statue of a divinity that has its fixed place in the interior of a temple. The same holds for the painting as against the mosaic or fresco that preceded it. And even though the public presentability of a mass originally may have been just as great as that of a symphony, the latter originated at the moment when its public presentability promised to surpass that of the mass.

With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.

Benjamin’s idea is that a work of art loses its intangible “aura” of authority and authenticity when it becomes mechanically reproducible—the Mona Lisa becomes a little less special when you can get it on a refrigerator magnet and don’t have to go to the musée du Louvre to see it. The quality of a work of art, which used to be all about its special aura of artness, now becomes much more a matter of its exhibitionary and entertainment value.

This may lead to one a big question of (post)modern thought: nihilism or anti-nihilism? When fundamentally authoritative things lose their authority, does that mean there is no authority—or that everything has authority? Nothing is worth anything, or everything is worth something?

There’s another consquence: if art loses its authority, we no longer have to ‘respect’ it. The original isn’t what’s important, what’s important is the exhibition of a reproduction of the original which “meet[s] the beholder or listener in his own particular situation” and “reactivates the object reproduced.” Interpretation may supersede original meaning. Recontextualization may supersede original context. The text stops being a cathedral and becomes a playground. We get Troy and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (hilariously referred to as Wiliam Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet).

And there’s another thing to consider: information overload! Meme invasion! Thanks to the Internet and mass media, we have access to a ridiculous amount of information. What do we do with all of it? There’s no way we can process it all. Things are decontexualized. A lot of kids probably think “Revenge is a dish best served cold” really is an old Klingon proverb. What to do?

Remix aesthetic is a response to all this. Mash-ups. The Grey Album. Moulin Rouge. For artists like Luhrmann, everything is worth something, but not for whatever it’s ‘supposed’ to mean. Decontexualization and crises of meaning provide opportunities to play in the text, recontextualize, make new meaning.

“This would be a good death…. But not good enough.”

I think Frank Miller really wanted to be writing 300 when he was working on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It’s clear from the mention of porn star Hot Gates (= “Thermopylae,” for those readers who’ve let their Greek get rusty) that the story wasn’t far from his mind. But Batman is no Leonidas. In fact, he’s explicitly an antihero. Miller has set him up to reject heroism in the classical mode, to deny himself the pinnacle of immortality, Heroic Death.

I keep meaning to post my translation of some of Tyrtaeus’s poems, because there’s nothing like a good Spartan number to make you want to go out and throw yourself onto a spear. At any rate, Miller’s Batman is aware, instinctively if not consciously, of these Greek heroic tenets, but is in the odd position of having to hold himself above them while exhorting others to take them up. It’s a beautiful thing for a young man to die in battle, but Batman is no longer young. He’s not entirely willing to take on the role of an old man, training youngsters to fight and imparting wisdom and rousing slogans. He wants to be out there on the front lines, but he can’t give himself over to the lure of martyrdom.

Steven has already taken on Batman’s final words, but I’m interested in the other bookend, the face that stares from the first page of that story straight into its mirror in the last panel (and not a true mirror; the faces tilt in the same direction, symmetry broken by the story) Bruce Wayne descending into flames. “This would be a good death… …but not good enough.” It’s a call to heroism, a split-second decision that a literal blaze of glory is nothing compared to superpower. Does he know in that moment of fiery certainty that he will end up creating his own status quo? Or perhaps this is what makes DKR epic, a struggle over so much with so little really gained, a play of principles and ideals to give meaning to the stretch of living before death. Batman’s name lived on (in infamy) after his retirement, but nothing he had done seemed to matter. Gotham was falling apart and memories of a mythical figure were no deterrent against the collapse. Heroism was a sham and Batman knew it. If he died fighting, his death would mean nothing. There would be no lasting fame or glory as a monument to his deeds. Even his life so far had left no impact. Something needed to change, and each of the major foes he faced - The Mutant Leader, The Joker, Superman himself - helped Batman mold himself into his new heroic mold, his bourgeois good-enough heroism, his only hope for lasting change.

Even with Batman back in the saddle (though not yet literally) the Mutant Leader is clear on where he stands, what makes him a leader and vigilante:

We will kill the old man Gordon. His woman will weep for him. […] I myself will kill the fool Batman. I will rip the meat from his bones and suck them dry. I will eat his heart and drag his body through the street. (p.44)

It may be more likely this is a universal threat than a sign that the Mutant Leader read The Iliad a few too many times in his formative years, but I still think the lack of references to dogs gnawing on genitals is probably more a sign that dogs are as absent from Gotham as horses than that the sentiment is not present. The Mutant Leader likes to talk big, but he wants to be a hero. He wants his visage and voice to be known, feared, remembered. “We are the future. Gotham City belongs to the Mutants. Soon the world will be ours.” (p. 44) Batman’s seen the preview for Troy; he knows how these things work. No matter how many minions he mows down, what matters is the mano a mano, and he buys into this heroism, at least for the moment. He cuts off his escape routes and fights. And yet it isn’t enough to be pure of heart (or whatever the singlemindedness driving Batman is); muscles matter. The Mutant Leader is young, tough, and stopped by someone younger and wilier and more female, Carrie Kelly, who won’t adhere to the rules of heroism if it means letting Batman die. This heroism isn’t dead, though. A barely healed Batman sets up a rematch on the Mutant Leader’s terms, turning them around and doing what the Leader had done to him, shifting the advantage of the “fair” fight. The Leader doesn’t die a hero. He had no name and his stunned followers immediately turn to Batman in his stead. How could this be heroism if it leaves no legacy even among those who claimed loyalty to the ideal?

Then there’s The Joker, who knows the value of a trademark. He doesn’t fight fair but prides himself on his ability to outsmart anyone. Batman can’t fight him squarely on those grounds, can’t afford to take hostages the way Joker does, although he’s not above manipulating and attacking the police. This is a Batman who takes time out in a busy fight to admonish a child who almost said “ass!” (p. 145) Being the anti-Joker won’t work either, though, since every person the Joker threatens is under a greater threat because Batman is present. The Joker knows that killing people Batman can’t protect hurts him at least as much as personal physical damage.

The Trojan Horse is a hero’s trick because the Trojans don’t get to tell the story. The Joker doesn’t care about the way he’ll be portrayed when this is all over. He wants control of the narrative Batman will replay to himself for the rest of his life. He wants the last laugh, and he gets it. Killing Batman would have been satisfying, but reminding him of the limits of his heroism is the best legacy the Joker could desire. Batman beat the Mutant Leader playing by his rules, but who set the game here? Who was the winner? Again, the one who saves the day and Batman’s life is Carrie. Again, she doesn’t seem to wonder about whether this makes her a hero.

And then there’s Superman, the biggest Good Guy of them all. He clearly believes Tyrtaeus that “it is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.” Well, ok, it’s not his country or planet, and he falls but can’t manage to die, but at least his heart is in it. He does right because he is right and he doesn’t question. He’s not a guilt-creature like Batman but the sort of principled person Batman longed and failed to be. Batman, still haunted by the Joker, sets up another role reversal. He wants to bruise Superman rather than defeat him, wants to defiantly die in his arms. But he doesn’t want that death. It wouldn’t be good enough. He has a message, more universal and less personal than the Joker’s revenge narrative. “They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to,” he tells Superman (p. 194). This is perhaps the conceptual heart of the story (as well as the emotional epicenter, according to J.W. Hastings). Batman admits his insanity and the cognitive changes he’s put himself through, defends his masochistic crusades: it was all to make the world make sense!

But what sense does it make? Enough, perhaps, or enough for both of them to know what they’re fighting for, or at least why they’re still fighting at all. And just as Batman has subsumed and digested and reformed his adversaries’ techniques, Superman keeps a spark of Batman alive inside himself, letting it show in a roguish wink. This is a world where the old ways don’t work, where there are now several ways to be a hero, none of them wholly successful. The Achilles trajectory doesn’t work for superheroes who can wrap themselves around a nuclear warhead and come back ok, either. But Superman can go on trying to resolve the dissonance between state and justice while Batman tries to figure out what it means to be a hero and a leader. I think he has a good idea. Good enough.

the pain of backward-glancing thoughts

This could be a long, meandery post, so I’ll get right to the point. Arguments about morality (and plenty of other things) often get phrased in a way that creates some link between the activity in question and historical precedents. I have an example here, but all I want to know is what mythical past these people are interested in finding again. I’m not one to think we live in the best of all possible times or anything absolutist like that, but I’d rather have the freedoms I have now than ones I would have had in plenty of other historical contexts. And so I don’t know what to do when I read in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s letters to the editor:

“Sexual abstinence and monogamy are major pillars of a lasting society. Children deserve to hear the truth regarding life - anything of true value must be obtained through self-control and seeking to honor the interest of others above self. Without more emphasis on abstinence training in the culture, promiscuity will continue to defraud the masses of true beauty and eventually life itself.”

I’ve succeeded so far in staying out of the marriage debates, because my views are strong and not going to convince anyone who disagrees with them. In fact, I’m not sure it’s right to call them debates when all the terms are contested. I’m just interested in the idea that there’s a way things used to work and that we ought to be working our way back to that. (Well, ok, I also have a lot of interest in the ideal of self-sacrifice, to the extent that this would be one of our categories if I wrote what I think about most often. I think there’s a lot of good to be found in placing the “interests of others above self” and am in many ways not yet comfortable choosing my desires over others’, but I’ve also hurt myself almost irreparably in the past by doing this. And so I’m very conflicted and thinking a lot about it.)

Anyway, going back to going back, in last night’s episode of Quicksilver, Isaac Newton was trying to work backwards to figure out what laws god had set to govern the world, and he (Newton) was using geometry rather than calculus because it was less abstract. Because calculus was an abstraction of geometric issues, using it would necessitate distancing himself from the truth. If I still had my copy of The Search for the Perfect Language I’d be able to cite all the arguments about in what language god spoke the world into existence. According to Herodotus, who didn’t have the Genesis god to contend with and merely wanted to know what language children raised without language would speak, I think it was Phrygian. So I know there can be a primordial urge to know and understand and contend with who we were, and that’s what the whole thorny “creation of self through narrative” is supposed to address, and I will come back to that theme soon. I’m just not sure how people hope to do this on a cultural level. And I’m not even being pedantic about being in a pluralistic society and all that. I just want to know where people want to be, I guess.

I don’t even know what it means to have a society supported by “sexual abstinence and monogamy” (presumably as a binary opposition, not simultaneously for any given individual) because I can’t imagine there’s ever been one and I’m not sure what criteria a person could come up with to force any past history into this simple a setup, even after nipping off unnecessary heels and toes. I’m always interested in the personal metaphors and touchstones that people create for themselves, but it’s hard to imagine anything that would make me want to project them onto some sort of system of norms. David Fiore has lots of fascinating and fun theories about big-R Romantic and Transcendentalist influences in Marvel comics, but that doesn’t mean (I hope!) that he goes around on message boards telling readers that it’s the only way to read these comics “correctly”. That was really the core of my initial realization about the “creation of self” thing. I understood taht it was a theme that linked most works I really, really enjoy, and that it seemed to be this aspect of them that I found attractive. I don’t think other people have to see this or like it, but it’s become a useful system for me.

Growing up, I read a lot of historical fiction, and I haven’t entirely given it up as an adult. One thing I often find exasperating is putting a modern protagonist with modern sensibilities and tone in the guise of a legitimate historical picture, which can happen in books from The Moon Lord (where it was fascinating in its own way) to the Oprah-approved The Secret Life of Bees, which annoyed me a lot. Then there’s the aforementioned Quicksilver, which I’ll have to blog on more when I’ve finished it, because the same narrative tricks used in different places in the text seem to be giving me vastly varying impressions. What made history interesting was that it was different from my life, and there are translation issues involved for me to understand (to the best of my ability), and I’ve always enjoyed thinking about that. I thought about what it would be like to translate myself into a Greek context or a medieval Christian one, but that doesn’t mean I’d advocate moving society in that direction. I’m not sure I advocate moving society at all. I’m much more interested in individuals. And it’s because I’m interested in them that I wonder why so many of them long for something they never knew, something that exists only in their imaginings, and yet they feel the pain of its absence. I follow my own advice: forget your nostos, but keep your eyes open. For me, at least, it’s better that way.

Kids these days!

I got an ad in the mail today offering me a free issue of Teen People and I’m going to have to turn it down because I’m afraid I’d want to subscribe. Now, as a teenager, I didn’t read such things, but now I’m fascinated with youth culture and the messages given to teens. I suppose Teen People might somehow be more sophisticated than other teen magazines and have some sort of pseudonews content, but I’m sure the makeup tips would still be too sophisticated for me to follow.

Also, is Valentine’s Day really a big deal? I mean, people actually do the dinner and flowers bit? See, debate has sprung up over the propriety of scheduling regional quizbowl (team quick recall) competition for the hardcore academic format quizbowl on that date. Clearly it’s a point of pride to be unnerdy enough to get a girlfriend, and I’m sure that’s a worthwhile endeavor for some, but it’s ridiculous to watch people bragging about it on a public forum. And then making jokes about other people’s masculinity to improve their own social standing. Somehow masculinity jokes have never been high on my list of things I find hilarious and biting and I have plenty of thoughts about the roles women get put into in such interactions. So I’m linking, but I can’t say I recommend anyone going to read, unless there’s some comparative analysis of geekdoms being done by any comics fans. At any rate, it’s just useful to see the same sorts of comments in different male-dominated niches. I’ll have to ask my brother if sports works this way. Sometimes it seems like everything else does. What I really wonder about is these girlfriends, whether they want this or are just using tradition as leverage for something else. Or whether the girlfriends even care about Valentine’s Day, I guess. It could be one big ruse. So many options!

In other news, I’m headed out of town for the rest of today and tomorrow. The blog is in good hands with Steven, and I’ll come back exhausted and with little to say, I imagine. And I’m off.

More Decadent Baby Talk

Tiffany jewelry offers the perfect reward for a hard-working mother, a $7K diamond watch suitable for diaper changing!

I’m really not sure who the target audience is. I assume it’s not 1950s-era glamour girls with new babies, and it’s presumably not for people who imagine themselves that way, since that seems like a fairly specialized fetish. But do people who appreciate irony spend thousands at Tiffany? Some must, I suppose. I certainly don’t. And yet I’m fascinated with the picture. I’d appreciate a poster, even. But it doesn’t make me want a watch, only an explanation.

I guess fashion photography has its own idioms. I enjoyed the New York Times weekend magazine spreads in my early teens for their sheer lunacy, the high-gloss hideousness they portrayed with a poker face so that I never knew if people really wore parts of these outfits or if the whole industry was a colossal joke. Even crazier are the ads for perfumes, since anything beyond the despised stinky envelopes in magazines or mailings is only about conveying a mood, and I really don’t see the connection between my self-esteem and scented water, but perhaps that’s a personal flaw. I’m also wondering who’s sold on the right-hand diamond phenomenon (temporary link, requires free login), a marketing campaign designed by the diamond cartel to get women to buy themselves diamond rings, since engagement ring sales aren’t doing enough for the industry. I’m sure it’s terribly liberating not to wait around for a ring, but why not just ditch the diamonds altogether if the symbology of the engagement ring is so oppressive?

Then again, I’m not immune to the power of advertising images. I went head-over-heels for a car commercial (I thought Volkswagen, but I can’t find anything about it on their website) showing a South Asian American family. There wasn’t anything special about the commercial, but it was so refreshing to see a “different” look from what’s usually given that I got all excited and happy. This is yet one more reason I don’t watch much tv.

Derridean D&D!

Bruce Baugh uses Dungeons & Dragons to illustrate some very basic concepts of deconstructionism. I think I don’t like the term “deconstructionism.” I think deconstruction is a fine critical strategy, but I don’t see that it needs to be elevated to an ism. I mean, it’s a pretty basic and obvious (to me, anyway) concept—meaning is unstable, hierarchies and oppositions in texts are unstable and deconstruct themselves. Actually deconstruction doesn’t destroy stability of meaning, it shifts the site of meaning creation from the text to the reader. Well, meaning is not so concrete… meaning is not objective. Shall we say it is subjective? I say no. After all, there isn’t one Reader of a text, but many, readers who analyze and critique and discuss. Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities. Meaning is a social construct. That is a central concept of postmodernism as I think of it.

Which is not to say I think there’s any problem with Mr. Baugh’s blog post. That’s a great little essay, I hope he writes much more.