Saturday, May 30, 2009

God Is Dead, And Nothing Is Permitted

As Jacques Lacan observed, after God is dead, nothing is anymore permitted. Or rather, although everything is permitted, it is hedonism devoid of its vitality: it is fat free and decaffeinated, deprived of its malignant property. Nothing is more heinous, it would seem, than the possibility of someone indulging in excessive enjoyment, as anymore enjoyment is perceived not as enjoyment but as excess. Rather than inhaling with deep pleasure, the postmodern individual does it without inhaling. Virtual sex is an acceptable alternative to actual sex. Although it seems utterly absurd, our media technology—televisions, CD and MP3 players, DVD players, and game consoles, for instance—are purchased on the assumption that we will limit its capabilities, deprive it of its full potential. Our televisions are equipped with V-chips, and our cable TV boxes, DVD players, and game consoles have installed in them parental control features that can block, disable, and filter information. Our CDs and MP3s exist in “clean” or bowdlerized versions which, like decaffeinated coffee, alcohol free beer, and fat free cream, have had the offensive, malignant property removed; it has been cleansed of its dirty element. Hence our technology is actually a control technology, enforcing and supervising our values and morals. The irony of all this is that the very media that once were perceived as so pernicious in their effects, that presumably required such severe restrictive legislation and policing, is now that which legislates, polices, censors, and bowdlerizes (“bleeps”). The fact is, the function of media technology is not to present us a “window” to the world, but to defend us from the world, to show us The Real, perhaps—but not the Too Real.

An example of the power of media technology to invisibly censor is the infamous Stalinist practice of retouching the photos of nomenklatura. Just a few years ago, the United States Postal Service erased the cigarette from the stamps with the photographic portraits of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and of Jackson Pollock, yet another instance of issuing a “clean,” edited version. God forbid we should see these historically significant figures as having indulged in a vice. The impulse for such bowdlerization reveals that today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism is really premised on the experience of Other deprived of its Otherness: the idealized Other, for instance, may smoke (that is, have an offending characteristic) but the practice must remain out of sight, and hence, out of mind, hidden. Depriving the Other of what makes it Other is, of course, an expression of the politics of fear, which is why the blocking, disabling, and censoring capabilities of media technology enable and enact the liberal form of the politics of fear: its purpose is to protect us from the Too Real.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nerd and the Poseur

Last time I wrote about the movies Diner (1982) and High Fidelity (2000), both of which suggest the way that the homosocial behavior of the narrowly obsessed record collector prevents him from having neither a fulfilling relationship with, nor a serious commitment to, a woman. Although I am by no means the first person to make the observation, I pointed out the way record collecting is almost exclusively a male activity, and is all about plentitude: the size of the collection is yet another form of male competition, yet another game of one-upmanship.

Since writing the previous entry, I’ve had the opportunity to read Will Straw’s article, “Sizing up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture,” which can be found in Sheila Whiteley, Ed., Sexing the Grove: Popular Music and Gender (Routledge, 1997). Straw argues there’s a difference between what he calls a “dandy” (a person who accurately mimics the dress and behavior of the musical artist but has only superficial knowledge and no deep passion for the music itself, a “poseur”) from the “nerd.” The nerd collector possesses real knowledge and real passion (if unutterable), but is unable to mime properly the correct masculine codes like the dandy, and hence exhibits the characteristic “performative social failure” of the nerd, so “blatantly indexed” by the nerd’s “unmonitored self-presentation” (p. 8). Straw observes, “Collecting is an important constituent of those male character formations, such as nerdism, which, while offering an alternative to a blatantly patriarchal masculinity, are rarely embraced as subversive challenges to it” (p. 10).

Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) depicts one such nerdy record collector, named Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi (at right in the above picture). Seymour happens to come to the attention of Enid (Thora Birch, left), a recent high school graduate who exhibits a profound sense of alienation from the culture and who takes an instant liking to anyone who seems different. She finds Seymour, a solitary, unmarried man roughly twice her age, different, primarily because of his atypical musical taste. One day, Enid and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) happen to encounter Seymour selling records at a garage sale. He recommends to Enid the vinyl LP Country Blues Classics, Vol. 3 (an actual record in an actual series). Following his advice, perhaps because she sees the record as a strangely alluring sort of fetish object being offered to her, Enid takes the record home and listens to it. As it turns out, she is drawn to the recording by Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman” (1931)—a track that, strangely, is not actually on that particular record [!] At any rate, I think we are encouraged to believe that Enid is drawn to Seymour precisely because he is a nerd, that is, he presents what Straw describes as a subversive challenge to “patriarchal masculinity.” (Remember that Enid embraces anything different.) However, Seymour tells Enid that “loser collectors” like himself basically define themselves by filling their lives with worthless junk.

It occurred to me that Seymour—a character who is not in the film’s textual source, the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes—seems remarkably similar to the nerdy Jack Isidore character in Philip K. Dick’s great novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written 1959, published 1975, and adapted into a French film, Confessions dun Barjo, released in 1992). Socially inept, Isidore’s life is devoted to collecting “kipple,” useless bits and pieces of matter that rapidly multiplies as if duplicating itself overnight (the character re-appears in the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which, as everyone knows, was adapted into the film Blade Runner). Like the autist, Jack Isidore is fond of collecting odd and worthless minutae (autists often have improbable collections, such as old bus transfers and obscure birthdates). Indeed, I suspect most of us have known people who have collected odd items and pondered the reason why, and I am not speaking of coins, stamps, beetles, or butterflies. It is interesting that Philip K. Dick was a classical music collector, once worked in a record store, and as a young man was mocked by certain individuals for the vast number of records in his collection. In any case, later in the movie Ghost World, when Seymour admits to Enid that he is just a “dork,” she takes issue with him, saying that he is not at all a “dork,” but rather, her “hero,” perhaps because she admires the way he holds on to himself, while she herself is elusive, still forming an identity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Enid avers Seymour is her hero, their story doesn’t end happily. By the end of the film, Enid has left town and Seymour is left only with his record collection. The film is yet another example of the way our culture represents the male record collector, a troubled, solitary individual perceived as accumulating worthless and arcane knowledge, and immersed within an incomprehensible fetishized world. Somehow, the behavior of these individuals, particularly their remorseless accumulation of records, is linked to the failed internalization of appropriate masculine codes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Collector

Movies such as High Fidelity (2000) explore the perils of record collecting, the way that the homosocial behavior of the obsessed collector hinders, if not actually prevents him, from enjoying the pleasurable company of a like-minded female. Around thirty years ago, when visiting the local record stores was part of my daily homosocial routine, it never occurred to me to ask why there were so few women with whom I could discuss the music I loved. Of course there were many girls around, but you didn’t talk with them about Eno, Pere Ubu, King Crimson, or the Buzzcocks, for instance. I remember falling heavily for a girl who told me she loved the Pretenders’ first album, an album that I also happened to think was tremendous (still do). It didn’t hurt matters that she was pretty, intense, and had what is colloquially referred to as “tons of personality,” but I think I fell deeply for her primarily because she loved that Pretenders record. She also happened to indulge my passion for music. One night, over a couple of Margaritas, she actually endured one of my hour-long lectures on that album’s many virtues, its precursors, and its probable historic significance. I envisioned myself a connoisseur of both rock and avant-garde rock, and after we hit it off, I thought I would introduce her to my collection, hence what serious rock music was all about—Eno, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, the Residents, some later Velvet Underground, and so on, everything important, in other words, so I invited her over to my place for a serious listen. She readily agreed. So she came over to listen to some records . . . and I thought I’d fall on the floor and die when she showed me the records she brought along with her to play for me: Pat Benatar’s In the Heat of the Night, Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s An American Dream, the band’s then current hit record, and a couple others that I can no longer remember, probably due to traumatic amnesia. I was polite to her that long evening, as I endured the playing of two or three of those awful records, but the long-term effect of the evening was that she dropped in my estimation of her, because her musical taste was so bad. Our relationship was immedicably damaged that evening, and while we saw each other often for the next year or so and had some good times together—we both loved dancing to reggae, the music then having a mild resurgence in local clubs—I knew any serious romance between us was over. What a naïve, pompous fool I was.

Looking back, I think I was very much like the character Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995), the novel upon which the movie released in 2000 was based. Near the end of the novel, Rob is introduced to the CD collection of his girlfriend’s friend. The narrator is confronted with “the sort of CD collection that is so poisonously awful that it should be put in a steel case and shipped off to some Third World waste dump. They’re all there: Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Simply Red, The Beatles, of course, Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells I and II), Meat Loaf . . .” (p. 279). While I’ve mellowed somewhat since then, I perfectly well understand the sort of disdain being expressed in that passage, as that sort of attitude was mine at one point in my life. So, too, was the inability to engage in any meaningful romance with a single, available female. Predictably, there was no sting of truth, as there should have been, in the memorable scene in Diner (1982), when the Daniel Stern character rebukes his wife, played by Ellen Barkin, for misfiling one of his James Brown records. Several of my friends and I went to see that film when it was released, and while I can’t speak for the rest, I was actual siding with the Daniel Stern character in that scene rather than his poor wife: how dare she treat his filing system as capricious! How dare she put the record in the wrong place!

Record collecting, like home video collecting, is all about plentitude: the more you acquire, the bigger your collection, the more masculine you are (and we all understand the Freudian phallic symbolism implicit in that remark). Besides High Fidelity and Diner, few movies have explored the psychology of the white male collector. The only other movie besides these that I can think of that understands the fetishistic psychology behind collecting is Free Enterprise (1998), which probably owes a debt to Diner in the way it accurately depicts the homosocial activities of a group of males seeking to maintain permanent adolescence. Free Enterprise is not about record collectors, but home video (laserdisc) collectors and completists. Unfortunately, the film was finished just months before the DVD boom (made now, it would probably depict the lives of high-definition home video fanatics), but in its depiction of white male nerds (one of the characters happens to be black, but he is not one of the two primary protagonists) and of the obsessiveness of the completist collector—one character had his power shut off because he couldn’t pay his electric bill, because he preferred instead to spend the last of his money on the latest laserdisc issue of Dawn of the Dead—it ranks with both Diner and High Fidelity as movies wielding the sting of truth (I know because I belong to both worlds, as many of my generation do). Free Enterprise works well in showing how its characters’ love of the movies is connected to an idealized past, but happily its protagonists are willing to let go of their self-indulgent behavior long enough to make a serious commitment to a woman who loves them. Sometimes, nerds can become men.

Monday, May 25, 2009


In Richard Brooks’ film, Blackboard Jungle (1955)—the movie that demonstrated the appeal of rock ‘n’ roll to Hollywood studio heads by virtue of its use of “Rock Around the Clock” on its soundtrack—there is a white male character, Josh Edwards (played by the late Richard Kiley, right), who is a jazz music collector. A nerdy, bespectacled mathematics teacher, he collects “Swing” music. There is a scene in the movie in which Edwards, along with his fellow teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford, left), are sitting in a bar having drinks (pictured), listening to Stan Kenton’s “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet” (1952). Inspired by the recording, Edwards tells Dadier (nicknamed “Daddy-O” by his students) that he is going to play some of his valuable jazz records for his students. Daddy-O warns him that the students may not like his kind of music. In response, Edwards tells Daddy-O that he’s going to do so anyway. He says it took him many years to collect his records, and that “half” the records can’t be replaced. They are good records, and perhaps he can win over the recalcitrant students with music.

His plan fails, of course. The students, led by the villainous juvenile delinquent Artie West (Vic Morrow), smash Edwards’ rare and valuable records, despite his desperate pleas to stop. Soon after this terrible event, we learn that Edwards is so emotionally devastated by the students’ act of iconoclasm that he resigns his teaching position. Apparently, he resigns because he takes their smashing of his records as a personal affront. His mistake, of course, was to presume that the students would share his musical taste and also his enthusiasm for record collecting. But what the audience understands, though, is that they smash his records because he is a weak teacher, a pushover: the destruction of his property occurs not because of the records themselves, but because he is a weak male authority figure. The symbolic affront is to his (male) authority as a teacher. In contrast, the film’s protagonist, Richard Dadier, is shown to be a strong authority figure: he is intense, committed to teaching, and has the courage of his convictions, unlike Josh Edwards, who means well, but fails as a male role model for his students.

Proper masculine role models most certainly were the subject of many Hollywood films of the 1950s: Rebel Without a Cause, for instance, released later the same year, is also concerned with the issue. The association between a passion for music, record collecting, and weak masculine identity (“nerdiness”) is a cultural trope that continued on well into the 1960s. Along the way, though, late in the 1950s, the issue was revisited again, in Elvis’s film Jailhouse Rock (1957). In this film, released just two years after Blackboard Jungle, Elvis shows his disdain for jazz music when he is invited to the home of his female manager’s nerdy parents, who happen to be playing jazz music for their party guests. Asked his opinion of the musical career path of a particular jazz artist, Elvis rudely storms out of the house, telling his hosts he doesn’t know “what the hell” they are “talkin’ about.”

In 1966 (by which time Elvis was no longer the cultural force he was in the 1950s), during which time the Beatles were the most popular band in the world, John Lennon made his infamous remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ. (I’ve written about this remark before, in a blog in which I argued that what Lennon really meant by his remark was that the Beatles were more popular than Elvis, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. For John Lennon to have averred that the Beatles were more popular than Elvis would have been more blasphemous to him than the remark he made about being more popular than Jesus.) One wonders whether the backlash that occurred in response to Lennon’s vituperous remark isn’t somehow bound up, in America anyway, with the association of musical taste with weak male authority. After all, in Jailhouse Rock, Elvis didn’t say he loved music, he indicated rather a strong distaste for jazz (and snobbery), which isn’t the same thing as saying he loved rock ‘n’ roll music. Following John Lennon’s remark, in August 1966, there were a number (the precise number of which I do not know) of record burnings and the smashing of Beatles records around the United States. Thus, in 1966, a significant portion of the American population responded to John Lennon’s remark in the same way that the juvenile delinquents responded to Josh Edwards’ playing jazz records in Blackboard Jungle: by smashing his, that is to say, the Beatles, records. The motive seems uncannily the same: to undermine the Beatles’ cultural capital as authoritative male role models. The hope was to undermine their credibility in the same way the students undermined Edwards’ credibility in the 50s film.