Thursday, 25 February 2016

When relativism becomes sinister

‘The intellectual’ is often an archetypal ‘outsider.’ This is a cliché – and, as another cliché would have it, there is truth in clichés. The intellectual doesn’t partake in popular culture. He is critical of trends; he lives in an Ivory Tower. This leads the intellectual to rail against ‘power’ and, another yucky word, ‘imperialism.’ He will assiduously rail against all of its manifestations. Power covertly manifests itself in everything – it is, to a degree, ‘pan-power.’ However, the intellectual instinctively identifies himself with the person who stands out from the herd. This is often the madman, who is institutionalised by agents of power and henceforth labelled and repressed. Hence, French intellectuals will relativise and say there’s no such thing as madness. Or they will say that the entirety of the western canon is imperialistic, that both Bach and Kant are imperialists.

These intellectuals identify with mad people and racial minorities. They are ‘the voice of the voiceless.’ What I find is that this is completely disrespectful to those demographics. It is nothing more than self-aggrandisement and empty posturing. By reading the entire canon of western though as being ‘imperialistic,’ it does not seem like an honest assessment. It’s a cheap way of overlooking a complex body of knowledge. Viewing mad people as poetic outsiders who defy society is disrespectful to those people. So is being a ‘voice’ to ‘voiceless’ third-world people. By using obfuscatory labels such ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism,’ you are hardly empathising with their plight. You are simply putting yourself on a pedestal.

As someone who has had issues with a mental illness in the past, I do find it troubling to hear that madness isn’t ‘real.’ I had an episode and it was a disgusting, frightening and horrifying experience. I find that both psychiatry and psychotherapy both have their uses. But when psychotherapists use that rhetoric, it just becomes political. It employs that relativistic trick beloved of those French relativists – psychiatrists wield power and hence must be bad. Foucault even goes on to speak of madness as being a ‘choice.’ This is a way of rallying against the Enlightenment and ‘reason.’ Madness isn’t a way of rallying against the Enlightenment, reason and agents of power. For largely chemical reasons, it happens. Literature – especially the Romantic movement – romanticises it. Anyone who has lived through it – and relatives of people who experience it also live through it – realise that it is anything but romantic. It is often mundane, painful and burdensome.

Institutions are needed to taxonomise madness. Psychiatric medications are not always the solution, but they do work. It is great that we have institutions like the NHS – free at the point of use – that are able to intervene in such incidents. This kind of intellectualising and relativising becomes sinister when it profits from people who go through hell. 

Thursday, 18 February 2016


Surely we are just a bundle of rational and irrational processes. I am capable, just like any other person, of making reasoned judgements. I can make logical propositions. I can do basic arithmetic. Other humans, endowed with higher cognitive abilities than mine, can solve gargantuan mathematical equations.  Equally, I can be irrational. Not all of my actions are intentional or even voluntary. I have desires, which I often cave in to. I might make judgements that are capricious and not informed by reason.

There is nothing earth-shattering in all this. In fact, the further back in western thought you go, the more prominent this type of thinking is. The pre-socratics often thought in these dualistic terms. Plato came up with an allegory of a carriage. Reason was represented by the person who steered the carriage. One horse represented reason and logic whereas the other represented the irrational. The person who steered the carriage had to make sure that reason prevailed. This was symbolic of Plato’s conception of the soul, which was a composite of rational and irrational tendencies.

Schopenhauer believed that, like the rest of nature, we are driven by a will. This will, however, is not under our control. It is bodily and irrational. It can be controlled, however, by the faculty of reason which is able to make sound judgements on complex matters.

All these philosophical theories are corroborated by recent science. The left side of the brain, apparently, is the rational side whereas the right side is creative. We clearly are driven by desires and needs that defy our ability to make sound judgements. If we introspect, we quickly arrive at these conclusions.

Yet it does seem to annoy a lot of humanists and preachers of reason when you bring up this blindingly obvious observation. I don’t really need to be told that we need to follow reason, that we need to be logical and that democracy is a great thing. It is a wholly unoriginal argument that smacks of banality. If you want to promote the cause of reason, surely there are more interesting and nuanced ways of promoting your argument?

 I like believing that I am in a perennial liminal state, that sooner or later I may go stark raving mad. I like having the choice between Dinosysian excess and Appolonian purity. (More Greek stuff right there.) The Greek pagan gods were great. Heresy or blasphemy weren’t really things as such. If you offend a God, it’s not a big deal because there are other gods to offend. They even a God for wine, ecstasy and excess! To counterbalance that, there is a God for purity! I like that idea of dualism. It’s much more closer to the truth, and much more liberating, than a staid monotheism. Millennia later,  it paved the way for a kind of Protestanism that said that you can never have fun, that everything must be drab and grey and that all of your energy must be devoted to work and the economy, which is God’s will…

I make room for the rational. There is something about the Protestant work ethic that I admire, too. I like the notion of putting all your energy into your profession. Still, you could make the argument that a quotient of unreason is healthy. Without a quotient of unreason, reason can become stifling and might even tilt you 180 degrees toward madness. There is something healthy in random acts of senseless destruction, if they are utterly harmless to others. This is what I like about Freud. We are sick creatures which can’t be cured, but we are all the better if we expunge our irrational impulses.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Thoughts on David Cronenberg

Cronenberg is a director who has always fascinated me. He is a 'director of ideas' if there ever was one. He often draws explicitly from literary sources. His films have striking, and often lurid, imagery. His films have become subtler and more sophisticated over the years. I will go through a few of his films and offer a few perfunctory notes.

The recurring theme that crops up in Cronenberg's film is the body and, more specifically, the relationship between mind/body and technology. This theme has been explored both in his early 'horror' film as well as his recent arthouse and thriller films. Cronenberg is interested in the way in which our bodily functions and our mental perception are altered by putatively benign technological developments. Most memorably to most people, this results in horrendous bodily deformations. James Wood memorably asserts at one stage in Videodrome, 'Long live the new flesh!' Cronenberg is also interested in pathologies and the way in which these technologies derange his characters. Several of his films could be seen as accounts of psychotic episodes. Still, Cronenberg is no luddite. He even embraces the notion that humans can defy natural selection and take control of nature.

Cronenberg is a Cartesian dualist. This means that the believes in the existence of both mind and matter. He sees the body as being concretely apart from the mind. In this sense, when the body has a transformation, the mind is independent from it. This is explored in Shivers, an example of a chemical experiment gone wrong. This results in the growth of parasites that tear through the bodies of its victims. The film is set in a large building complex. Cronenberg has always been interested in psychology, even in these early horror films. The film confines itself to the large building complex and documents the mental collapse of its inhabitants. The growth of the parasites ultimately degrades the mental state of the characters. The film is also somewhat critical of the permissive society at the time, with the phallic parasites in many ways representing STDs.

This mind/body dualism is similarly explored in The Brood. The protagonist's wife is institutionalised in a building that resembles a cult rather than a psychiatric unit. Bedeviled dwarf children spawn out of a lurid new body part growing out of her stomach. These dwarfs wreak havoc and kill several of the protagonist's relatives. Made at a time in which is own marriage was in turmoil, the dwarfs are symbolic of the wife's psychological manipulation. Out of all his early horror films, this is the one which is most interested in character development.

My favourite Cronenberg film, and the most characteristic of his entire career, is Videodrome. It is inspired by Marshall McCluhan's prescription that 'the medium is the message.' It explores the potential that audiovisual media has to corrupt has. The lead character is the purveyor of a 'video nasty' TV cable show, where he airs lurid pornography videos. Once he sees a video called 'Videodrome,' he develops a brain tumor that triggers a bizarre psychotic episode. Interestingly, there's a shelter home for homeless people where they can watch television. People who are deprived from television need to be exposed to it for the sake of their own sanity. At one point it is called 'the retina of the mind's eye.' Yet the mass proliferation of pornography and violence seems to have a sinister impact on the minds of its consumers, as it seems to harbour the onset of psychosis.


The theme of sinister technology is explored in Videodrome. However, Cronenberg also explores the theme of sinister scientists in both The Fly and Dead Ringers. In The Fly, a scientist messianically develops a technological invention that will lead to progress. However, it malfunctions and, instead of transporting inanimate objects, he gradually metamorphoses into a fly. An attempt to defy the laws of physics backfires and, more tragically than Frankenstein, the scientist turns into a hideous insect. Interestingly, as a scientist, he views his transformation with precision and wry detachment. He implicates his friends and close relatives and exposes them to danger. Dead Ringers explores the way in which trust is assigned to doctors and the ways in which this can be broken. Two twin gynecologists, both roles played deftly by Jeremy Irons, develop a sexual attraction to a patient. The film explores the notion of synergy. One twin is more confident whereas the other one is shy. Both are chronically dependent on one another. The film explores sexual inexperience and the way in which formidable, academic and socially awkward men feel entitled to the pleasure of women. The twins try to overcome the same sets of problems as a pair. The film ends with a lurid experiment in which one twin disembowels the other with bizarre gynecological instruments to 'end the Siamese twins' and to hence gain a sense of autonomy.

Cronenberg decided to adapt William Burroughs' 'unfilmable' novel Naked Lunch. Avoiding a literal adaptation, the film actually comes off as an innovative biopic. It is a particularly interesting attempt to understand the process of literary creation. William Burroughs is particular notable for his heroin addiction as well as his tumultuous personal life, having accidentally shot his wife in a game of 'William Tell.' The film binds all these elements together alongside elements from Burroughs' novels and an imaginary rendering of the gestation of Naked Lunch. The technological apparatus of interest here is the typewriter, which frequently morphs into a cockroach. The typewriter in this film is a central force of literary creation, as it often interacts with Burroughs in an oft-like humorous manner. The film is interesting in the way it depicts Burroughs' strong anti-authoritarian sentiments in the 'real life' sequences. Meanwhile 'Interzone,' a parallel reality where misfits congregate, is inspirational and where all of the writing of the book takes place. Burroughs' vision foreshadowed the internet and it is clear why Cronenberg was intrigued by it.

Naked Lunch

Another 'difficult book' that Cronenberg adapted soon after was J. G. Ballard's Crash. Like Burroughs' novel, it is notable for being subversive and controversial. The novel is very Cronenbergian, as it explores the relationship between man and technology and the proliferation of sex and violence in mass media. The film loses the novel's somewhat poetic tone and goes for a much colder and more clinical approach. The characters have no affection for one another. The gruesome scenes of sexual violence are approached as quasi-scientific experiments. The lead character Vaughn leads 'car crash' seminars. The film was lambasted for being amoral and it was banned in parts of the UK. Ballard defended it as a 'moral' work. What struck me when I saw it recently is that it is morally ambivalent. When the lead character, Ballard, sticks his dick into gory places, he seems to be all the better for it. The film also drops much of the novel's dialogue and focuses on very stylised sex scenes. The sex scene emerges as a plot device that centres the film. As such, it can lead one to accuse it as being nothing more than a porno.

eXistenZ explored our relationship with interactive technologies, such as video games and the internet. The film has a very 'meta' ending whereby these technologies have such a corrupting effect that we can no longer differentiate reality from fantasy. These fantasy realms, which appear as 'real' as the natural world, allow a newfound freedom in that they allow the subjects to control the outcome of causality. Interestingly, 'isten' is a Hungarian word for 'God,' which could be interpreted as symbolic of the powers conferred to man by new technologies.

A History of Violence is a very interesting film in that it explores the notion of identity in the form of a thriller. Cronenberg's previous film, Spider, was about a schizophrenic and hence about a film in which choice is confused. Violence is the first of a series of films which are far more realistic. The lead character chooses a new identity for himself following a career as a gangster. These gangsters visit him and his wife and the local community soon learn about his past life. Identity here is seen as something which is willed. Interestingly, the film was a comic book adaptation, a medium which has explored the notion of willed identity with the notion of superheroes. Although the character leads a domesticated life, his past 'violent' life remains latent. It re-emerges once he confronts the gangsters. The self is hence seen as something transient and the 'unitary' self is seen as an artificial construct. The film is interested in Dariwinian theory. The character has had to resort to violence in his past life in order to procreate and to later lead a stable existence.

Cosmopolis was an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel. I was interested in the novel as way in which it explored a breakdown in communications. The dialogue is stilted and Beckettian. The characters are unable to talk to one another or show any affection. The lead character is a billionaire who is utterly insulated from the outer world. His limousine is completely sheltered from the outer world. Outside protests erupt about Wall Street whilst he his limousine shields the noise. The characters often speak using grand aphorisms about the state of capitalism. The billionaire is reckless. He bring about a financial crisis and voluntarily seeks his own death. The most powerful person in the world is shown to be so self-absorbed that he does not even notice his own surroundings. He only cares about getting a haircut, sex and, ultimately, seeking his own death.

History of Violence

When Maps to the Stars came out, I felt that most people focused too much on it as being a work of satire. I felt as if, once more, Cronenberg was interested in Hollywood from a psychiatric standpoint. Hollywood in the film is a microcosm. The characters in the film are incestual. I felt that Cronenberg wasn't satirising Hollywood for being insular. I felt as it if he was interested in exploring the pathologies of narcissists. The film is less interested in the socioeconomic inequities of the system; it is more interested in exploring the psychosis of people who live in a microcosm detached from the real world. This is a similarity it shares with Cosmopolis. That film is less interested in expounding economic arguments as it is in exploring the self-absorption of a coldly cerebral billionaire.