antichrist 1 – when the political unconscious isn’t anymore
It’s going to take me a little while to get there, but I’m going to say something about Antichrist, which I saw today and loved. Bear with me for a minute though – there’s some introductory material to get through first…
Funny thing about art, the way it relies for its power on a failure of knowledge on the part of the artist, a failure of knowledge about herself or himself. Awhile back, Jane Dark posted a nice, crisp definition of the concept of the artistic political unconscious in one of my comment boxes:
The most compelling approach to “truth” in the novel is probably Jameson’s account of “the real of history” in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can’t be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.
The really nice thing about Jane’s definition is that he brings it forward as part of a list of “Some thoughts, not syllogistic, and based in part on extensive experience observing and teaching fiction writing.” What’s nice about that is that it focuses in on the problem of the political unconscious from a direction a bit different from that of Jameson in his book on the subject. That is, Jane stages it here as a problem of writing rather than simply one of reading, composition rather than interpretation. I hope Jane forgives me if I’m bending his comment away from what he was saying or would say, and whatever violence Jameson (rightly!) does to the truth-effect of literary art, it still seems true that one of the principle places from which a work draws its power (truth, “truth,” uncanniness, mysterious appeal, bend, break, heave, whatever) is the presence of this political or, slightly more broadly, ideological unconscious at work in/behind the text itself. And as Jane says (and his saying this is why I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating his comment in the direction I have) this unconscious is something that the artist can’t simply press into the work. In order to operate effectively, it can’t be chosen or even visible to the artist herself or himself. Unconsciouses are just that, unconscious.
So tempting to riff you all asleep on this point, but just one thought experiment for now. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a powerful (wish there was another word – there really isn’t though) novella in large part because it couldn’t come out and name and in naming critique the malign situation and system that it represents. If Heart of Darkness took the shape of either a political pamphlet polemicizing against the situation in the Belgian Congo or a fairy tale resolution of the problem of European imperialism in Africa, it might be a nicer work, but it wouldn’t be as interesting.
I suspect that I might get into a bit of trouble for saying all of this. I’ll admit being worried, and I’ll further encourage you to disagree with me. But if you do disagree, remember that you will be arguing for a work that tempts profound platitude, which is a different thing than just being boring, and will take some real explanation. Further, I understand that I am redeploying Jameson’s concept here in a radically simplified form. This is my version of the political unconscious – I understand Jameson’s very well, but I’d simply rather use this shorthand model for now.
So, as I said about the top, one of the funny things about art is that it relies perhaps as much on what the artist does not and really cannot know as it does upon things at hand, available for the artist to view. But we might go on to say that there’s something even funnier. And that is the fact that the artist, given what I’ve said above, might well find himself or herself in some deep shit were he or she to stumble upon, to discover, the unconscious material that’s been giving the work its power. If Conrad had, in the course of writing Heart of Darkness, become somehow enlightened about the political (and, I would argue, politico-personal) undercurrents that were informing his work, aesthetic disaster might well have ensued. Of course, another crop unconsciousness would grow up in its place, but there’s no guarantee that Conrad would have been the right man for the semi-articulation of the new one. Perhaps the creation of great art depends upon the fortuitous (non)emergence of just the writing sort of unconsciousness for just the right sort of writer.
I am quite sure that the politics of this piece, and the thoughts that inform it, are for sure political chaotic and perhaps deeply suspect. But I further believe that the politics of art are so complicated that no one else is getting them right, so I might as well try this out. So what the hell.
I believe that something like this even funnier turn of events, in which a strain of unconsciousness ceases to be unconscious and instead is directly and consciously dealt with on the level of thematics and plot, and thus screws up or at least severely problematizes the inner working of the piece or oeuvre as a whole, is fact what is afoot in Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist. The backstory: Von Trier has for quite awhile been accused of misogyny because of the treatment of women in his films. If I could summarize (or even develop, in some cases) the argument in this regard, the issue is that he makes us (or tries to make us) fall ever so deeply in love with his feminine characters – specifically with the “femininity” of his females, their spirit of (often sexual) self-sacrifice – and then systematically inserts them into positions of rawly violent abasement. One his raped to death on a fishing boat, another one hanged by the patriarchal state, and so on. In doing so, he not only plays into age old myths and stereotypes of the woman, but the acts of violence that he subjects them to work along the unclear line between we love women when they suffer and we love to make women suffer. Of course, that ambivalence isn’t all that strange – its a basepoint artistic trajectory, the ideological-affectual DNA of tragedy, for instance. Still, we know what the critics mean when they make this accusation, and its hard not to see Von Trier’s treatment of his female characters as deeply retrograde if (for me anyway) at the same time incredibly affect.
The somewhat frightening, destabilizing thought is that it’s effective because its retrograde. It may well be true that these films work for me because they work with characters and plots in a way that we’re not supposed to do anymore, but in a way that is all the more powerful because it breaks a sort of high art prohibition. Then again, before I get too self-accusatory here, one would have to be a wee bit naive not to realize that the sudden reassertion of gender normativity – in art, in clothes, in sex – is something that has an extremely widespread and especially contemporaneous effectiveness at present day. I’ll say no more, but maybe you know what I mean.
There are some discrete and vivid signs that this may in fact be the case when it comes to Antichrist. For instance, the papers have been chortling over the fact that Von Trier lists a “misogyny consultant” in the credits whose job, according to The Guardian, “was to ‘furnish ‘proof’ of ‘the fact’ that women are evil, beginning with Eve and the apple, through Shakespeare and in modern society'”. And just to turn the screw again, it turns out that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, listed simply as “She,” could well have been a good candidate for the consulting work. She is some sort of graduate student who has been driven a bit mad in the course of writing her thesis (tell us about it, right?) on gynocide. And, true to form, quite a bit of this “going mad” has to do with the fact that she, um, discovered in the course of her research that women are evil, and may in fact have deserved to be murdered. The logic behind this discovery is a little, well, complicatedly uncomplicated. We learn via some very fast talking between husband and wife that since a) everything human is natural and b) nature is evil that c) gynocide is natural and thus (?) that d) women, because part of nature, are evil too. I’m not sure that taking more time with this discussion would have shed all that much more light.
At any rate, we don’t even have to dig all that deeply into the film to see that the ostensibly unconscious or at least underdeveloped romantic misogyny of the earlier films has been drawn up out of the subtextual murk and pressed to the front of the stage for all to see. “She” is murderous and the early cliched self-blame that we reflexively want to talk away just as “He” does returns later with a vengeance. (Sorry for the spoilers, but evidence turns up mid-way that “She” was the softest, subtlest child abuser perhaps ever imagined – yet the very maternal softness of the abuse renders it rather mindbendingly fucked up – you’ll see what I mean when you see the film. I told my wife about it tonight, solid mom that she is, and it made her shiver…) Everything that was ambiguous and powerful in its ability to make us uncomfortable with the women in the earlier films is gone, melted away in the glare of the stagelights.
Now, retroactively, I’m wondering whether the reasons that the third part of the USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy, Wasington, hasn’t and likely won’t be made has something to do with all of this – he simply couldn’t put Grace through the ringer again.
All that said, I still really liked the film, and I want to say more about what’s good in it. Another post. The affectual energy does get translated elsewhere, and its not (or at least not primarily) simply into the gross-out stuff that you’ve read about – the cock spurting blood and the infamous cliterectomy, though it does have something to do with these things. The film seems to think that it’s shifting the issue to this question of “nature,” which I think isn’t quite right… More to come…