On the Excess of Effects over Causes, or All Those Movies about Hollywood

There’s a particular type of movie, the kind that depict bourgeois capitalist decadence, usually in the art world, or more specifically in the film world. La Dolce Vita is the iconic example, and all of the followers reference it; the recent examples I have in mind are The Great Beauty and Knight of Cups. They often depict listless men wandering from place to place through a city of decadence, sleeping with women and watching modern art performances.

In The Great Beauty, the scene that sticks in my mind is that of a child painting abstract expressionist paintings, while a crowd of adults stands around and praises her. Our protagonist, Jep, watches all of this, silently judging everyoen for their shallowness: all these frauds, he thinks, enjoying the performance. They all speak of the child with hushed tones and abstract academic terms, tones and terms of which Jep is wholly suspicious and disdainful.

And yet, the paintings are beautiful, and the performance is beautiful, despite, or because, of the child that is their origin. This is how the film can eat its cake and critique it, too. We can be struck by the visual beauty of the paintings and the performance (and can forget the fact that, in the real art world, this form of Pollockian abstract expressionism died in 1964) and still assuage whatever guilt is left around (whether it is because the style is not politically relevant, or about not “getting” it, or about whether or not the fact that a child can make it undermines it as a form).

We get a similar moment in Knight of Cups, as the camera wanders away from Christian Bale’s meandering to watch an experimental film playing on a nightclub wall. The camera lingers for far longer than you would expect in these films, until one forgets the context and is simply watching an experimental film. It is actually by placing the works clearly within a narrative context that the viewer can ultimately engage with them outside of a clear context; if they were presented without context, simply as a film presented on its own in a theater, many viewers – myself included, sometimes – would be too distracted trying to contextualize it (what is the artist trying to say, is this all pretentious bullshit, will I seem pretentious if I enjoy it) to enjoy it without context.

This same ambivalence towards artistic decadence shows up in other places, too. I think primarily of The Neon Demon, a movie people insisted was supposed to be critical of misogyny. Despite what my friends told me, I didn’t see much criticism actually present – reading Refn’s interviews ahead of time, in which he argued that since most fashion magazines were run by women, the sexism was mostly women’s fault, probably dampened the possibility of seeing any. But me searching for that form of criticism distracted me from what I think I actually did enjoy about the movie itself. There is a visual brilliance happening, images of intensity that are ultimately not reducible to the question of whether or not the film is critical or uncritical of the underlying sexism. The intensities of the images of modeling overcome theiuur apparent social causes.

It also reminds me of a common criticism of Cronenberg: that he is ultimately a conservative figure, fearful of technology (at least before his turn from excessive to “realistic” at Spider). But ultimately, this is just an assumption: his creatures are excessive in a bizarre way, and we have been trained to assume this form of excess, of images that operate on the level of intensity rather than reasoning, is in some way satirical or critical. But in a pure sense, trying to read a film like Videodrome as a moralistic tale on any side, whether it is criticizing the new technology or those who are fearful of it, can’t explain the desire to watch and rewatch the movie. Like Gulliver’s Travels, if we think of the attempt to satirize as cause and the excessive images as effect, we miss the degree to which the images exceed their cause.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the most visually brilliant TV series of the last few years both revolve around mentally ill characters: Legion and Mr. Robot. Not just visually brilliant in a dull “One. Perfect. Shot” way, but brilliant at the level of the editing and timing of the visuals. Both shows interrupt our understanding of cause and effect, making us always unclear what the base level of reality we are operating at is. Of course, that might sound boring as hell, like it will lead to another Inception-inspired conversation with insufferable film nerds: “Like, what is real, man? Is it just our perception of things?” Luckily, neither series does too much of that, but even when they do, it’s not ultimately relevant. Like the paintings, the brilliance that the concept of the characters’ mental dissociation inspires is not reducible to their contextual inspiration.

What it reminds me of, primarily, is one of those famous books that everyone references and few have read: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, volume one of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (It is also one of those rare books, like How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which gives you permission to talk about it without having read it cover to cover.) The book is most infamous for its conception of schizophrenia as a positive way of life, one that creates images without being bogged down in concepts like cause or origin, and which psychology tries to destroy by “healing” it with rationality.

Now, obviously, if you have ever met a schizophrenic, this will seem absurd, even repugnant. It definitely can be read as an example of that extremely shallow valorization of mental illness that ignores the very real damage it causes to those afflicted and their family. I think this is actually where the co-authors diverge (despite their claims that as writers they are indissoluble, and that the writer “Deleuze & Guattari” cannot be reduced to either “Deleuze” or “Guattari”, or even “Deleuze” and “Guattari”). Felix Guattari, radical psychoanalyst, is definitely searching for a Wilhelm Reich-ian openness to life that can help the mentally ill accept themselves, which may or may not be a helpful approach. Gilles Deleuze, on the contrary, is not particularly interested in the mentally ill as people, but as an idea, a way of thinking that is more than the actual, often miserable, lives of the mentally ill. It’s Deleuze, then who writes one of the most revealing lines in the book: “No, we have never met a schizophrenic.”

If D&G’s work is to have any impact on thinking about art, and, particularly, film – and it seems he/they are the new growing go-to French author, replacing Lacan – it is essential to understand that in the end, one should not assume that any author, but particularly Deleuze, is actually talking about what it looks like he/they are talking about. For example, it seems (from brief skimming through a few new books) that the new wave of Deleuze was delayed because film writers assumed that the most relevant books would be his two volumes on film, helpfully titled Cinema 1 and 2, when in fact those two books are very little help at all.

What I am trying to get at is this: these series, ostensibly about mental illness, are actually about something much broader: life today, in this culture, at this point in time. We should not be beholden to only using these modes of presentation, of seeing and editing, within the context of mental illness, because even though a desire to depict mental illness was the cause of their creation, it is not the totality of their effect.

One image from La Dolce Vita always sticks in my mind. It is from one of the final doomed parties of the movie. Someone rips open a pillow and throws it in the air, and the feathers float in front of a window. I don’t care what the goals of the movie are, to depict a form of cultural burn-out – that image will always be serenely beautiful to me.

To make the connection explicit: this form of artistic decadence, endless parties of bodies swirling in free expression, is still of immense worth, regardless of the attempts a film makes to be satirical or critical. These parties are presented as the ultimate pleasures of the bourgeoisie, but the bourgeoisie in this context are taking their fullest place as a class: by accruing material wealth and freeing themselves from physical desire, they can fully express themselves. Their crime is not expressing themselves fully, but privating that right to expression from others. This is how we can all participate in their excess with just the cost of a movie ticket. (This would require a longer, fuller essay by someone more qualified than me, but I think this point counteracts the constant criticism of the “materialism” of young black men and popular rap music.)

In this excess of effect over and against cause is united Legion and Mr. Robot’s depictions of mental illness; La Dolce Vita, Knight of Cups, and The Great Beauty’s depictions of the film world’s gluttony; Cronenberg’s ambiguous criticisms of “the new flesh”; even Scorcese’s two-faced critiques of excessive masculinity, whether in mobster or capitalist form.

It is absolutely possible to go too far in this celebration of excess. Causes are still real. Sexism is still real. Racism is still real. It is too easy to end up reading all absurd excess as a positive, joyful object – a mistake Deleuze and Guattari make in their somewhat absurd reading of Kafka. I don’t know how to synthesize these two points together, but it is definitely one of the key projects of future analysis of art, not simply more ideological criticism or lazy populism.

Narrative and Religion and Absorption and Stuff

The current default experience of narrative, the factor that gives it its character, is a sense of probability. [1] That is, the sense that what is happening on the screen (whether it’s a movie, TV show, graphic novel or traditional book, everything happens on a screen these days, whether virtual or real) could happen. Even with narrative films based on real life, things are frequently altered to make a better story, with the actual names still slapped on the characters. [2] I want to talk a little bit about the traces of this definition of being “realistic” by connecting it with some very old ideas, and talk about it in the context of political change.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, as mystical theology grew in the Catholic church, one common practice was one of imagining oneself present at Biblical events. One was to close one’s eyes and imagine oneself at the Nativity, seeing – and smelling – the animals gathered around and the tired parents gazing at their new child. This was said to work with all of the stories of Jesus: him staying at the temple when his parents left, him sending the disciplines on a mission, and so forth.

Francis of Assisi went farther. He brought the sense of presence into the service itself. On Good Friday, a tomb was built in the center of the sanctuary and a “body” placed inside, and, on Easter Sunday, the stone was dramatically wheeled away, with no body to be found. Protestants picked up this tradition, and some of the more grandstanding megachurches do versions of this today. (Often a moment from my childhood worms its way in to my brain: my father playing Jesus in an Easter performance at my small church from childhood, being taken backstage. Fake sounds of nails, fake yelling from my dad. Very peculiar memory.)

It’s a much more natural fit with Catholic theology, though. For Protestants, communion is a mere reminder of the Last Supper. (No one usually asks why, since we are supposed to be thinking of Jesus more or less the whole time, we need a special time to really remember him, but I digress.) For Catholics, in communion the flesh of Christ (and blood of Christ, once they finally let anyone but the priest drink the wine) is just as present in the bread and wine as in the first communion.

Let me go off book a little on this – most Catholics wouldn’t see it this way, but it’s definitely a strain within the theology. Let’s think about the first communion in this circumstance. Christ was present in the bread and wine (that is, mystically, the substance of the bread and the wine, regardless of its affects – that it seems to be just bread and wine, is the substance of Christ, to use Aquinas’ explanation). It is just as present in the communion that was had last Sunday. All subsequent communions after the first are replications that are supposed to point, symbolically, to the first communion. But at the same time, the first communion was already supposed to point to all future communions: Christ commands them to do all of this every time they meet. Iteration is already baked in to the concept from the beginning; there is no original untainted with iteration.

To move back to the mystical experience: Those who engaged in this practice pictured themselves within the original event. And when the true mystical experience comes, they are able to bridge themselves from merely imagining a copy/iteration of the original event, but to experience the event itself – and, like communion, it is a divine experience, outside of rationality.

Again, I still hear this kind of rationality from evangelical Protestants all the time. “I want you to really imagine you’re there,” they say. “Imagine you’re with Jesus hearing this story.” Except, without the mystical addendum, they’re just imagining a possible story. They have no contact with the actual moment. They’re stuck in a very strict logic of original/iteration, when the mystical experiences originally challenged and overcame this distinction, with the original already permeated with a logic of iteration that allows the essence of the event to overcome the distinction.

For a metaphor: A work of art in the age of representation. The sense of what a painting “is” is much harder to define. But even before reproduction, this was more difficult than people think. Take, for example, the endless English paintings of countrysides, which, although they technically depict different things, are in substance indistinguishable. There is a famous story of one painter [3] who painted hundreds of countrysides; one was stolen from a collector’s house, and he came down to the police station to determine which of three paintings from the artist was his. He was, needless to say, completely unable to do so.

The actual “work” of art is not reducible even to the original – in the same way that work itself is no longer reducible to physical action. Neither is the religious historical event. But the fact that it is more than its event leads to considerable confusion in the modern world.

To return to narrative, finally: The mystical experience of imagining oneself there is replicated in every theater. As they attempt to compete with watching movies at home, theaters try to engross the viewer even more: bigger screens, 3D surround sound, chairs that rumble to the narrative action, 3D visions. But all of this is predicated on a narrative structure that wants the narrative event to be “probable”, within certain accepted rules.

Of course, these rules have nothing to do with real life. Any set of rules can be accepted into the sense of probability. This is partially how capitalist-structured literature absorbed the originally radical literature of “magical realism” and made it wholly pedestrian. But the magical aspects of these stories must be introduced at the beginning, not at the end: they must be part of the starting conditions.

Let’s think of probability in terms of the famous “many worlds hypothesis”, which appeals so much to so many authors and people [4] today. From comics to cartoons, it pops up again and again. Why? Because many worlds lets us imagine a set of starting conditions, like an experiment wound up to run – a metaphor used by Zola in his The Experimental Novel, by the way. That is what a movie being “probable” actually means. No matter how absurd the starting conditions, it must proceed logically according to its own rules towards an ending.

This, of course, misses the entire point of the mystical experience of “imagining oneself there”. The original formula says: This is how it was. It could not have been otherwise. By imagining yourself there, you can also be in the presence of the reality of this event. The modern version says: This is how it could have been. It could have not been this way – and, in another world, it is not this way. You can watch that movie later. There is a promise of experiencing all possible worlds, and thus overcoming the anxiety of particularity. The particular is all there is in the former formulation.

There’s an interesting set of analogues to all of this: ancient Greek tragedy. As is well known today, Greek tragedy was originally a kind of ritual that was supposed to play out events that “really” happened in some way. (Literally or figuratively – the substance of these events are part of this particular world.) By the time of Aristotle’s Poetics, he is explicitly describing satisfying narratives in terms of what is likely to happen. The cultic narrative is a series of thens: “First this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Aristotle expands this in a way totally compatible with his logic: he turns the thens into if… thens. “If Oedipus’ father is told Oedipus will kill him and sleep with his wife…” His reasoning is explicitly based (in the section on beginnings, middles, and ends) that there is a generic base of the world from which we can take a beginning, with nothing prior to it.

This, again, makes sense. For Aristotle, the world is eternal. It’s interesting to wrap this around to another 12th century writer, Aquinas. On Aristotle, Aquinas is between two camps. On one side is Bonaventure and those like him, who are suspicious of Aristotle and more or less ignore him completely. On the other side are the Latin Averroists, a small group who accept almost everything Aristotle says and try to make it cohere with revealed Christian truth (well, Aristotle as interpreted by Averroes, of course).

Aquinas accepts Aristotle’s reasoning, but when it contradicts revealed truth he basically says, “It’s rational to believe this based on human reason alone – however, because revealed truth says it’s not true, it’s not true.” Pure example of this: Aristotle says the world is eternal. Aquinas says, “That makes sense – but Genesis says it’s not true, so it’s not.” The universe is contingent, then, on how it actually is.

To wrap all of this up. The modern/Aristotlian/Many Worlds version of narrative, which sees things as possible, ignores that it creates a basic version of the world, a basic set of rules, and then creates initial conditions: if x, y, and z are true, then it plays out this way. A narrative experience may seem like a radical challenge to what seems “possible”, but it still narratively satisfies – it still fails to challenge “the way things are” – if it does not challenge those rules themselves. The mystical experience of it is this way, which challenges ideas of iterability and of an “original event” prior to its repetitions, actually provides a basis for radical thinking of the possible. Narrative is the substance; narrative rules of possibility are secondary.

Political cynics want to look at failed attempts at radicality in the past and say: If we bring about those starting events again (increased desire for change combined with great inequality and whatever else), then the horrific violence that followed must follow. And this follows the sense of structural rules exactly.

Actual change has to come from changing that structure. Then the radical event happened. What follows does not have to follow again, because events to not so rationally cause one another. We can be present with the substance of that event, the material substance that is not reducible to its historical antecedents (whatever house the Last Supper occurred in, for example, or even the grander structure of Roman/Jewish meals). Narratives of absorption want us to absorb the affects of the event and ignore its substance, and that’s exactly the mistake stability wants us to make.

[1] It’s a strong statement, and I reserve the right to contradict myself on it later.
[2] It is bizarre, by the way, that this is acceptable in films, but would never be acceptable in a book.
[3] The artist’s name is slipping my mind, and my goal for this blog is to look nothing up.
[4] Strictly speaking, authors are not people.