Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watching "Fargo" and thinking about David Denby's accusation

The other day I went to the agora, where I met a man (David Denby) peddling strange notions. He looked into my soul and said, "A____, you are a deep believer in the force of the Coen, but this means at heart you are a misanthrope. You are not laughing with, but at."

When I think misanthropy, I think Farrelly brothers films, for crude examples, or films by Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute, for more compelling examples (like Happiness [1998]). But you can see it in Kubrick's The Killing (1956), too, as well as many other places.

Misanthropy is an ethical disposition and it speaks to your person, who you are, how you treat others and what is of value (to you). And it's not a pretty one. The misanthrope lives above the world. For him, all others are silly or stupid or shortsighted, and he regularly forgets, if he ever knew, the wisdom of Spirit (Hegel), which is that in his greatest achievements, his sense of possession in knowledge, he will be deceived. So, ironically, the misanthrope does not know himself, but not because he lacks knowledge of himself, but because he doesn't appreciate the limitations in his self-knowledge.

And David Denby writes—or perhaps asks—if of all of the Coen brothers films, only No Country for Old Men (2007) is a straight story, in which the misanthropy falls aside.
For almost twenty-five years, the Coens have been rude and funny, inventive and sometimes tiresome--in general, so prankish and unsettled that they often seemed in danger of undermining what was best in their movies. Have they gone straight at last? (Do the Movies Have a Future? 235)
This analysis even extends to Fargo (1996), where to some degree it is true that it hits the mark. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is meant to be laughable at first, just as are his co-conspirators Carl and Geaer (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), although by the end of the complicating action their stupid depravity and toneless violence, respectively, become apparent. Even in their kidnapping, Carl and Geaer seem brusque but still concerned for their quarry (they check her pulse after she falls down the stairs). Then they are pulled over by a state trooper, and three murders quickly result.

More pointedly, one of the greatest problems with the film is the ending, which while it hovers over the pregnant sheriff, Marge (Frances McDormand), she leaves us with a shallow comment that there are more things that matter in the world than money. Peter Stormare's "mute" Geaer, by contrast, seems to offer the commentary her platitude deserves.

Since I saw this film in 1996, I've always hated its ending precisely for this empty moralism. But if Denby is right, then Marge's platitude is just another joke. Perhaps the dilemma is false, that one must not choose comedy over empty platitude, and that Marge's comment is an exasperated response to what otherwise is unworthy. She is not horrified Geaer's actions, just disappointed. She does not make him into a monster, just a foolish, misguided man.

Marge is not wrong, there are greater things than money, and when people act for the sake of those things alone, they end up doing horrible things. This is the case with both Carl and Geaer, as well as Jerry (perhaps especially the latter, who seems otherwise oblivious to his evil). But … so what?

To put this point more broadly, I cannot accept that most or even all of the Coen brothers films are misanthropic, although they are certainly peddling laughs with some wild abandon. For, to me, despite the comic moments, Miller’s Crossing (1990) is a serious, dramatic film. As one commentator put it, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is a tragic character caught between his friendship and his love. As is No Country For Old Men. And True Grit? But let’s turn to the comedies, to which I must also protest that they are not misanthropic. Even the most foolish Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or The Big Lebowski (1998) are also filled with a love for their wayward, foolish characters. Similarly with Intolerable Cruelty (2003). This kind of laughter is not belittling because these characters are never meant to be realistic portraits. They are buffoonish, exaggerating the qualities we already recognize.

And yet, I feel as though Denby might respond, “thou dost protest too much.” He might be right. Maybe I'm upset because of what it says about me.

Original questions from an email to Adriel Trott, prompting her response


thanks for answering my texts the other night. I reckoned that I better send you an email rather than text the other things that I was thinking. I also thought you might guest blog on my blog on the issue, if you were interested. I wouldn’t require more than answering these questions off the top of your head, if you wish.

Anyways ...

What do you think about that passage in the Nic Ethics where Aristotle says that (1) friends must live together? When I talk about that with students, they are skeptical because they think about long distance relationships and how that could be possible. They take their friendships as a fact, etc. So their articulated answer would be, the (2) different technical conditions of human social life today have enabled friendship over distances. And so one of the thing that they also take as explicit is that (3) communication is the primary part of friendship (and that this is something that can be done over distances).

I think that answer is compelling in certain respects. It does seem that if there is something like “complete friendship” for us today it would be rooted in intimate communication. For example, when we say things like “she gets me” or “I can talk to her.” But, on the other hand, there (4) are different forms of friendships and some of those (along the masculine forms) attempt to channel personal communication through non-verbal expressions. They may focus on shared activities through which a man can spend another time with another without having to try to explain himself. If the latter is true, then it would seem that distance would nullify a relationship.

And I think, even more so, that we learn a lot about other people through shared activities, time spent in that person’s presence. Those types of experiences are at least as valuable as the things that other people say, if not more so. That is (5) when we are capable of seeing how people act and those actions are a reflection of character, which I do not think that we could trust language to convey.

That being said, when I teach virtue ethics I mostly say this does not describe contemporary ethical life, for a number of reasons, and so I’m not sure (6) to what degree we can even speak of friendships in the same way that Aristotle does. In my syllabus one of the classes on friendship is labelled “Is Aristotle misusing the word ‘friendship’?”, which seems particularly appropriate in view of the fact that we would not call friendships of utility friendships, but instead might call them acquaintances or professional relationships, etc.

But this leads me to at least two more questions that I’ll pose to you. First, and this is something I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t taught or discussed in class, that I wonder (7) if romantic relationships make (same-sex) ‘friendships” impossible (or significantly impair them) or (8) if romantic relationships may be what Aristotle might have meant, given that they satisfy many of Aristotle’s other conditions. I don’t think this is the case, because of sexual difference and sexual desire and because of the meanings of contemporary marriage (which are political, financial and … ). It also seems simply wrong because women were not human in the same way as men for Aristotle (on which you would have more to say, I imagine, given your interest in Agamben, etc.).

Second, and this is really the problem from my teaching that forced me to write to you about this, I had my students try to write an essay criticizing the capacity of different forms of friendship (in which I included, merely for the sake of example and specifically not because I told them these categories were exhaustive, masculine and feminine friendships) to achieve friendship. I’ve attached the assignment for your perusal, and any comments you may have would be greatly appreciated. But it seems to me that (9) if friendships are necessary for happiness (and this we would agree with Aristotle, although we might disagree on what that means) then different types might be more capable than others (assuming happiness is one thing, culturally).

I could say more … much more.


Response to Guest Blogger, Adriel Trott, on friendship and proximity

I am deeply surprised by Adriel’s disinterest in and perhaps doubt about the importance of friendship, as for me it is deeply rooted in the purpose of the Nicomachean Ethics, which is not merely to teach us about virtue, but to inculcate it within us (and this is not to mention the connection between friendship and justice). For Aristotle true or complete friendship is not for the sake of companionship (in as much as this can be abstracted from the following) but because it makes us into the people that we want to be--it allows us to be virtuous, and thereby to be happy.

My questions to Adriel emerged from teaching the NE for many years and, this semester, although encountering tremendous resistance, pushing the line that friendships are gendered--that there are (at least) male and female friendships. If we learn how to be friends and what friendships are by observing others and by having these friendships, and there is a preponderant tendency toward same-sex friendships, this seems to suggest that friendships are different between genders (see endnote).

If this is the case, many significant consequences follow from it. I asked Adriel about many of them, but she focused on one very interesting one (and actually abstracted it from the issue of gender and friendship, but I’ll come back to this). Namely, Aristotle says that friends must live together. When I teach this, my students often discount this because of the technical conditions we enjoy, that Aristotle did not, which make long distance friendships possible today as they could not have been for him. This seems reasonable, yet I wonder if there is not another way in which Aristotle may be right.

Adriel parsed this as bearing on our inability to see ourselves as we are: “proximity allows you to perceive one another and reflect the friend back to herself, sharing what you see.” She then develops this questions about whether complete friendships are possible and if complete virtue is possible, both of which, I must admit, are questions that I find absurd (yes and where does Aristotle say anything about “complete virtue”!, the notion of which contradicts Aristotle’s concept of virtue!). I think she’s right about proximity, because there is a natural kind of myopia in our experience, which has at least in part to do with our relation to the world and inability to “perceive the whole of the world,” by which I take her to mean the things outside our control and knowledge.

But it also has to do with the fact that concrete human experience is bodily, and we are our bodies or perhaps our bodies are us, but, at base, life is embodied, sexualized existence. That experience is most meaningful when we spend time within the physical presence of others, because that is when bodies communicate with each other. At those times bodies observe how to comport themselves, how to be the body that each is. Bodily expression includes communication in language, in tones and inflections and with the facial expressions and gestural tics that make each one of us what he or she is. All of that is inseparable from the things that people say--that is, the content of our talk, and that is precisely what we want to separate therefrom, these days. That is, these days we want to pretend that bodies and words are very separate things, such that our distances are superable and our intimacy is whole. But they are not and it is not.

It seems that this point then connects with my line that friendships are gendered. If bodies communicate in proximity, then gendered friendships are friendships in which bodies learn to be what they are (or what they want to be, might be a better way to put it).

Endnote: I grant that this is a more complicated issue confronting the relation between gender and sexuality. Also, I admit that these categories are at best models of which actual friendships partake to greater and lesser degrees, as well as that friendships have different meanings at different historical and geopolitical times and places.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Are the Coen brothers' films misanthropic?

David Denby makes this claim, first, I think, in a New Yorker blurb published after No Country for Old Men was released (I read it in his book Do the Movies Have a Future?, which I would recommend, but not as much as David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, which I highly, highly esteem).  He says, this is the first film in which the Coens tell the straight story, so to speak, whereas all of the previous films were comedies, the punchline of which was, look at these stupid pathetic humans.

I'm shocked, actually. This seems right, in some respects. But I do not think it is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Guest blogger, Adriel Trott: "My friends, there are no friends."

 My friend Ashley Vaught sent me a long inquisitive email about teaching Aristotle on friendship. Let me just say to start that I really don't like thinking about, writing about or teaching Aristotle on friendship. When I teach the Nicomachean Ethics, I rarely teach the friendship bits. I have always wondered what the philosophical point was. And as someone interested in how political life is foundational for Aristotle, I have bristled at readings that maintain that Aristotle's account of friendship implies a pre-political ethical life. Moreover, I've never understood what the purpose of this account was except just explaining more about friendship. And what is the point of that? Do people read this and start pursuing more complete friendship? I can just picture someone sitting down and graphing her friendships to judge which friendships are complete and which are for pleasure and which utilitarian, I don't know, to keep things organized? I don't think it makes me a bad friend to not enjoy theorizing about friendship. But I do think good friends respond to their friend's serious inquiries, so when I got a long email from Ashley about friendship in Aristotle, I agreed to have some thoughts.

Two questions Ashley raises seemed worth considering further. One is the question of whether friendship requires living together and the other question is whether romantic friendships are instances of complete friendship. Since today people tend to organize their living together with romantic partners, the two questions are related, but I'm interpreting 'living together' more broadly, as Ashley did, to mean living in proximity and not at a distance. I'm going to discuss the first point in this post and the second in another to follow shortly.

I moved to Texas in my early 30s and then to central Indiana in my late 30s so I have thought a lot about how to make friends as an adult and speculated about why and how it is harder to do the older one gets. Having lived in the same city as my parents and siblings for all but six years of my life up until I left for Texas for my first tenure-track job having just begun a romantic relationship with my now-husband (we were friends for years before), I was grateful for Facebook and Skype which made those who were quite far away seem close. Facebook and Skype, I came to realize, could only prolong and fill in friendships for the time that we could be together again. They didn't themselves constitute the friendship. Aristotle says that complete friendships involve the concern for the other for their sake. Surely, we can do that from a distance. But he also says that complete friendships involve deliberating with one another, reflecting who the friend is back to them so that they can have a more complete view of themselves and of virtue. That last part is more difficult to do at a distance.

A couple weeks ago, a good friend, one of my best friends, a friend with whom I lived in the same city for about five years, I'll call her Emily, called me for a long ruminative conversation. It was great to talk. We keep up on Facebook, but it's not the same as a good long talk, working through the details of life, examining your feelings and thoughts, listening to one another. But the funny thing is our conversation actually made me miss just sitting around watching television or making dinner or going out on the town. Emily had begun by laying out an agenda of the questions and issues we needed to consider in the course of the conversation. Amused, but also at home in the comfort of years of conversations, I gamely took up the topics with her, and I loved that she could begin a conversation with a story and an agenda. This might be what long-distance conversations between friends sometimes require. But I wonder whether friendships lived together need agendas. It's not just that sitting around doing nothing fills in the spaces of a friendship between all the things that you can report about your life. It's not just that the proximity makes life something you do in fact share together rather than just report. It's that proximity allows you to perceive one another and reflect the friend back to herself, sharing what you see.

At a distance, friends can report to us about their own lives and we can then reflect on what our friends say they see about themselves, but since the friends can't see themselves fully, from a distance we can't tell whether the friends see themselves as they are. From a distance, you have to accept the friend's limited perception and think about the friend's life on these terms. Close up, a friend can share what she sees in us. And this it seems is much of complete friendship, sharing a life and the perceptions of the other's life. Aristotle tells us that we deliberate with others when considering the serious and difficult things. We need others because we cannot see the whole of things ourselves because of our habits of character.

To say that we cannot see the whole of things ourselves and that this is so because of our character is not to say that even those of complete virtue and capable of complete friendship are not entirely virtuous. But rather that we cannot perceive the whole of the world from our position within it. Someone could pursue living well and cultivate ethical perception, the capacity to see what a situation requires of her, but still not see that there are things in that situation she doesn't see. Studies on implicit bias show us this clearly--we may want to pursue diversity in hiring and promotion practices but because we cannot see the ways that we have become habituated to see the world, we need others to help us see. One might even say that others who have different life experiences will help us better see what we do not see than those who have similar backgrounds. That is, that we would be more complete if we took sameness in friendship to mean only sameness in virtue and allowed the differences to cultivate and provoke our ethical perception to see more.

This reading that I have presented then seems to make the friendship complete but it recognizes that the virtuous life is something that is always underway. If that is not the case, if complete friendship is only possible when virtue is complete, the profound question of Aristotle's account of friendship then seems to be whether it is possible. It seems to require that which is beyond human capacity. Shared life has the enjoyment of one another as its end and friends take pleasure in seeing virtue in their friend that they cannot see in themselves. Friends are glad to see their friends fulfill themselves because it allows the friends to see what they cannot see in themselves. That much would seem to allow complete friendship in a virtuous life that is underway. But if friends offer something more, and really, it seems that they must because could we get to complete virtue without a friend, then what are they before they and we are completely virtuous? But surely our pleasure friends aren't going to be the ones who get us there, only the friends who care about us for our own sake would. But then what do we make of those on-the-way friendships? Or are these last friendships always only on-the-way friendships?

In an article on friendship in which he discusses his friendships with Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben translates a passage from Nicomachean Ethics 1171a30-35 thus:
But as we saw, the good manʼs existence is desirable because of his perceiving himself, that self being good; and such perceiving is pleasant in itself. In that case, he needs to be concurrently perceiving his friend – that he exists, too—and this will come about in their living together, conversing and sharing (koinonein) their talk and thoughts; for this is what would seem to be meant by “living together” where human beings are concerned, not feeding in the same location as with grazing animals.
The living together doubles the good of the existence of the virtuous life, because we come to see it more fully in the other and because the virtuous life is more virtuous, more full of the conversing and sharing of thoughts that comprises human life, when shared. I think that's why I tend to see friendship and political life as more integrated than distinct. Friendship like political life is a concern with living together not just for the sake of living, but with the shared concern for living well. But that also suggests that we can't do this living well alone, which Aristotle claims early in Nicomachean Ethics I. And if we can't do it alone, we can't become virtuous and then set out on our way to find a friend to share a complete friendship with. We need friends to help us get there. But if we aren't there yet, then the friendships don't seem to be virtuous friendships or complete friendships yet. So then are they use friendships? Use + on-the-way friendships = complete friendships?

Maybe this is what Derrida means when he draws on the claim attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius, "My friends, there are no friends."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fight Club: can heterosexual homoeroticism be homophobic?

The more I think about the conclusion at the end of my last post, the more it seems to me that FC is homophobic, whereas I was initially just trying to say that it was homoerotic.  To reiterate, it is homoerotic because of the way in cherishes, even idealizes, male-male relationships, particularly in the experience of the physical struggles of fighting. Moreover, the visual presence of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) throughout the film is continually sexualized, zenithing (if this could be a verb) in his emergence from the bedroom, coitus interruptus, nude from his pubic hair up.  I might even say, although Tyler and the narrator are alter-egos, their relationship does seem to have some romantic suggestions (co-habitation, the jealousy produced by Angel Face …)

I would say that the film is heterosexually homoerotic because although it indulges formally and diegetically in homoeroticism (feeding same-sex desires), it can only admit heterosexuality (men can only touch others when fighting, whereas women can be engaged sexually).  The message is, a woman can be a sexual object, but a sexual object exclusively (not a sexual, beloved subject) and men cannot be sexual objects (except to the gaze …).

But this conflict means that the film is ultimately homophobic, although I would say that it is not through intention but strictly through interpretation.  That is, I think the intention is homoerotic in some sense and heterosexual in some sense, but when one instance of potential homosexuality appears (Angel Face), it is “destroyed”.  Thus, only in reflection does it become apparent that the homoeroticism that is acceptable, perhaps encouraged, in the audience’s perception, is in conflict with the tacit misogynistic heterosexuality of the narrative, and that the result of this is homophobic.

That is really interesting.

The more I think about how this film is idealized by young, seemingly heterosexual men, the more I think it is as hilarious as popularity of the Village People's "YMCA".

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Is Fight Club depressing?

FYI: this is not a polished or even especially organized piece of writing, but develops in response to a Facebook conversation.  Second, I'm talking about the movie, not the book (I don't have time for crap like the latter).   

As friends have pointed out, David Fincher’s dark aesthetic sensibility seems to encourage this conclusion, but I have to say I do not know why.  I mean, the landscape, the milieu, of the film is dark.  It is not a world most people would want to live in, what with continuous fluorescent, bluish illumination.  But depressing is not the affect I’ve ever gotten from the movie. 
As someone initiated in some of the mysteries of masculinity in our country and in our time, I think it is actually a fairly affirmative, encouraging narrative.  Unfortunately, I think one of the things that it encourages is misogyny—and this is not why I think it is not a depressing movie.  In terms of that subtext, yes, it is troubling.  But in terms of the affect that it is trying to produce, I do not think it strives to depress, but to excite and even inspire.
For example, one of those exciting moments appears in the montage of fighting scenes, after the fight club is underway, where the nameless narrator (Tyler’s alter-ego) says, “we were learning things about ourselves.” Given that fighting has a meaning of being a man in our culture, and that the fight club is very inclusive, leveling out class and race differences, such that some of the very men who may have hitherto been excluded from its category (the geek, the loser, etc.) are now included—in these respects the movie is inspiring.  If you do not want to be a part of it, at least a little, I guess I would be surprised. 
Moreover, it seems like the film is enacting some kind of social change, particularly towards financial institutions, which are like the movie industry’s go-to bad guy (and with good reason, to some degree) through this fight club.  That seems exciting, and no matter what your politics are (assuming they are pro-masculinity) I think people are affected by that.
Certainly, the film is told from the perspective of someone experiencing very, very serious psychological problems.  Yet, despite our intimacy with the narrator, I don’t think we feel pity (or maybe even sympathy, broadly put) for him.  Yes, he’s going through some dramatic changes, but they are exciting changes.  And even good for him!

That said, let me address the sexual subtext.  I suggested that the character is “deeply closeted” in one of my comments.  Since I’ve said that, I’ve been thinking that perhaps that was poorly phrased.  I mean, if pace a sophisticated view of sexuality, heterosexual men are simply men who have successfully suppressed same-sex desire, then deeply closeted would mean men that are successfully heterosexual.  But of course, usually when we say deeply closeted, we mean someone that has some genuine same-sex desires (so this is an essentialist view, I guess) that he expresses, although never consciously. 
I guess I think that is what Tyler is.  Tyler/the narrator develops a fight club with other men.  For as inclusive as it seems to be, it assiduously excludes women.  Tyler has a sexual relationship with Marla, but it is not a romantic relationship in fact, and it seems to view Marla as almost exclusively a sexual object.  Now just because Marla is a sexual object (although not for the audience), I do not think that means Tyler is wholly heterosexual.  The reason for that is that he doesn’t really treat Marla like a person, and there is little sense that he respects her in any meaningful way, or even likes to spend time with her.  Moreover, there is a scene in the house where Tyler is taking a bath and talking to the narrator, describing how he would consult his father perennially, after certain achievements, on what he should do next.  And at one point the father say, apathetically, get married.  To which Tyler replies, that he does not think that “another woman” is going to solve his problems.  And this seems to imply that women are part of the problem.  Moreover, lots of the problems with the narrator, from Tyler’s point of view, are that he has consumer desires that are womanly and not masculine.
So maybe I’m saying that homosexual desires, essentialist-ly conceived, are misogynist.  I’m not sure I would want to defend that. At the very least, that seems to be true of the film, namely that to the degree that it is homo-erotic it is also misgynistic.
But there are also parts of the film that express homosexual desires.  One of the subplots that I’ve always found quizzical, is the inclusion of Jared Leto’s character ( calls him “Angel Face”, which I’m guessing is drawn from the book), the closeness he develops with Tyler and the subsequent beatdown that he receives, because the narrator “wanted to destroy something beautiful.”  That destruction is necessary to avoid having to face same-sex desires, as well as to fend off the closeness that Tyler is developing with Angel Face (after the restaurant, scrotum-threatening scene), which is the cause of a certain tacit amount of jealousy (“Why does Tyler love Angel Face more than me?  Because he is prettier than I am.”  This is my imagined narration).
Lastly, what is more homoerotic than the loving gaze of the camera on Brad Pitt’s sweaty, sculpted body, particular when he emerges from the room where he is (violently) fucking Marla to confront the peeping narrator (at whom is he peeping?) and then offers him to tag in and fuck Marla himself. 

Fight Club is not homophobic to a great degree, except insofar as it is unwilling to admit same-sex desires (they need to be beat down).  In fact, as a film (and by this I mean its formal construction, more than its discursive content) it is deeply homoerotic.  It’s not gay porn like 300, but it does imagine a woman-less landscape.