Bright Lights Film Journal

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ho Meng-Hua

How to strike at the heart of a beast with the heart of a beast

When it was announced in 2002 that Celestial Pictures would be releasing on DVD the entire Shaw Brothers film archive — for decades tied in legal knots and available only in miserably inadequate video prints — one of world cinema’s holiest of grails finally came into breathless view. These DVD releases would unearth a long-buried chest of nostalgic treats (The House of 72 Tenants, 1973), guilty childhood pleasures (Inframan, 1975), esteemed literary adaptations (Ann Hui’s Love in a Fallen City, 1984), heretofore exotic genre landmarks (Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, 1972), an occasional overproduced travesty (Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, 1983), genuine masterpieces of international cinema (King Hu’s Come Drink With Me, 1965), and countless Chang Cheh martial arts semi-classics (Have Sword, Will Travel, 1969; The Heroic Ones, 1970) available for decades only in prints as mutilated as the martially savaged bodies that populated them. But the Celestial DVDs also allow us to see — in pristine remastered prints — those micro-budgeted grindhouse exploitations the Shaws presumably used to subsidize their prestige productions and balance their accounts, alleged cult items like Gwai Chi Hung’s The Killer Snakes (1974), a softcore bondage thriller bound in psychoanalytic hogwash gynephobic enough to embarrass Brian de Palma, or Gwai’s Bamboo House of Dolls (1973), an S/M WWII adventure that suggests the Nazi-enforced prostitution chronicled in Ka-tzetnik’s House of Dolls becomes exotic international fun when the villains become whip-wielding Japanese imperialists and the word “bamboo” is inserted before the title.

Though even the lowliest Shaw productions are initially irradiated by the brand-name aura of the Shaw studio, like so many cult films made exotic flowers by prohibitive distribution, they wilt when exposed to daylight: when we see in a pristine print what was once shrouded in a bootlegged cloud of fifth-generation mystery, the fetishistic enigma enveloping the once-forbidden cult film submits and dies. For example, no longer preoccupied with imagining what taboo sensations lie beyond the forbidden corners of a cropped bootleg print, we all-too-quickly realize Sun Chung’s Human Lanterns (1982) is far too simplemindedly plotted to sustain its feature-length, and that the film’s lack, really, exists not beyond a cropped, limited frame but within an integral, delimited one (even if Celestial keeps Lantern‘s mystique partially buoyant by delivering us a print shorn of the film’s legendarily gory decortications). Thus illuminated, the Shaw Brothers’ brand-name “intertextuality” is undermined, and the fanatical underground rumor which has historically mystified such films is disillusioned. The fetish value of films like Human Lanterns is proportional to the inflated wistfulness with which we desire them, and surpluses of pristine DVDs make us wistful no longer, deflating our infantile fantasies of cult-film deviance and transgression into a hesitant sigh of belated self-examination.1

Two such “deflationary films” by Shaw Brothers workhorse Ho Meng-hua have hereby resurfaced: the rape-revenge yawner The Kiss of Death (1973), and the nonsensically moralistic horror-fantasy Oily Maniac (1976), whose utterly inexplicable existence as a film prompted me to write what you now read. Though Ho Meng-hua’s career began with Shaw films as well-regarded as Till the Clouds Roll By (1961) and Susanna (1967), in a burgeoning exploitation marketplace he discovered a more idiosyncratically gruesome (I dare not say auteurist) voice with The Flying Guillotine (1975), and Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic 2 (1976), alongside which the even more ridiculous, and far lesser known, Oily Maniac can be filed. I was blissfully uncontaminated by any preconceptions about Oily Maniac — I had never seen a review, poster, advertisement, or inflationary fannish blurb — and thus enjoyed a rare chance to naively, purely experience a text without the mercenary intermediation of commerce, criticism, or fanaticism. Oily opens with a title informing us the film’s scenario, dubiously based on a “Nanyang legend,” will demonstrate that justice will always prevail — a theme (if one could call that a theme) not actually borne out by the film. A very young Danny Lee stars as a polio-cursed cripple who, thanks to his uncle’s shamanism, transforms himself into the preliterate, drippingly oleaginous humanoid of the title, who specializes in administering retribution to various rapists and land-grabbing gangsters intending to seize the local coconut oil concern. His uncle portentously warns him about seeking oily vengeance: “You can’t use [the magic] maliciously, or else you’ll die,” he moralizes, though there is no suggestion that the innately homicidal abilities we’ll come to equate with “Oily Maniac” could possibly be used non-maliciously. Just as Popeye grows manly with spinach, and as the Hulk needs only naked id-anger to overwhelm his clothed superego, Lee requires only a reminder of his polio-stricken bones’ caged fury and a quick douse of native coconut oil to become Oily Maniac, able to egest from his mouth debilitating oils, ooze himself into closed spaces, and rejoin severed limbs to his torso with the aid of stop-motion animation, all accomplished to a sawing, John Williams-esque ostinato bass. But while his glowing crimson eyes strike terror into the hearts of sundry rape-obsessed rascals, the exposed, bleedingly liberal heart that beats outside his crustily resinous hide implores us to view his crusade as just and his murderous sensibilities as righteous rather than Draconian, or even Hammurabian.

One can well imagine how a foaming film cultist will approach Oily Maniac. Gratified his wistful lust has been finally satiated — but saddened the film cannot live up to the imaginary expectations produced by a fearsome DVD box showcasing Oily Maniac as an unfathomable demon rather than the imbecilic beast he turns out to be — the cultist will likely rationalize Oily Maniac‘s “deflationary disillusionment” by reactively treating it as a camp spectacle, gloating over slipshod sets and production values that even Shawscope anamorphics cannot glamorize, and reveling in histrionics whose limited repertoire of pouts, eye-bulges, and sinister sneers wouldn’t pass muster on a Guatemalan soap opera. As is the case with most Shaw exploitations, the portrayal of women is both puerile enough to titillate a mentally adolescent target audience and puritanical enough to mortify even the most retrogressive, cosmetically enriched postfeminist. Whether long-tressed temptresses or sheltered virgins, Oily‘s women automatically excite unspeakable male sexual anxieties, rape and vaginal integrity are motivating plot factors, and when one lady bares for the camera her surgically deformed bosom, the soundtrack’s flatulent synthesizers sourly honk a disapproval that, while probably intended to shock, provokes only irresistible titters. Archetypal Hong Kong crudity surfaces when two merrymaking villains exchange backslaps and congratulatory toasts of whiskey after raping innocent Little Yue (“Yes, that was a great idea!” they boast), whose subsequent ice-pick suicide goads Oily Maniac to further rounds of vengeance. Admittedly, when our monstrously slick hero glides down hospital pipes to decapitate an unlicensed doctor in the midst of aborting a prostitute’s baby, or slithers into a hooligan’s car to interrupt his coitus and squeeze his noggin into watermelon pulp, one cannot resist applauding his homicidal feats too vigorously. Indeed, “homicidal” seems the right word, because he, once transformed into an animalistic behemoth incapable of willful deliberation, cannot understand his own actions as “courage” in the Platonic sense, as a logos-based judgment. Yet if his heroism is instinctual and irrational, the film’s opening screed about justice becomes nonsense, for the moment Lee’s character becomes Oily Maniac he is incapable of logically delineating the boundary between justice and lawlessness, between immorality and amorality — we thus have no more right to pass judgment on him than we can apply rational law to the criminally insane. Of course, this is rote genre film conservatism: we should conflate amorality and immorality just enough to enjoy Oily Maniac’s monstrously violent (i.e., amoral) rampage, but not so much that we cannot pass herd-judgment on him to excuse the abject pleasure we take in his vigilantism. In the end, it is Oily Maniac’s inflammable organic fabric that become his Achilles’ heel (as opposed to hubris, which, to be fair, requires a human brain), as his long-suffering girlfriend reluctantly instructs bumbling policemen — the very ones whose generic incompetence necessitates vigilantism — to set him ablaze.

Just as Oily Maniac‘s narrative rotates around an axis of rapes and vulvar imperilments, so does Ho Meng-hua’s rape-revenge prototype The Kiss of Death (later remade as Her Vengeance, 1988) center on nubile females ever at the mercy of phallocentric Cantonese knavery. In accordance with rape-revenge schemata, Kiss‘s violated vigilante heroine needn’t depend on an oily male savior to grease the wheels of vengeance, but unlike American rape-revenge models, whose heroines are amateurishly retributive and dirtily Darwinian in their survival tactics, Kiss takes as an implicit model the ritualistic, professionalized violence of Shaw martial arts films. Whereas the traditional kung fu pupil undergoes redemptive training to overcome the shame of his lacking technique, Kiss‘s rape heroine is transformed by both male and female masters into a professionally, martially empowered acolyte trained to overcome the equivalent female shame of bodily ravishment. But if her martial empowerment needn’t necessarily be read as “masculine,” her castrating assaults, rather than reflecting the red-herring pseudofeminism for which rape-revenge emplotments typically plead, mainly reflect the penile anxieties of the male filmmakers who manipulate her deterministic plight.

Before we compare the fatalistic plight of these two films’ protagonists, we must first decide whether Oily Maniac should be understood as a rational, if nihilistic, agent of extralegal justice, or a deviant whose vigilantism becomes inextricable from the natural — and thus asocial — coconut oils the film’s various characters attempt to contain, socialize, and industrialize. Democratically-minded comic books frequently (if not always) subvert Nietzsche’s superman by reimagining his will to power not as an ivory-tower exertion of will that explodes the line between the physical and metaphysical, but as a random accident of birth (Krypton), allegorical victimhood (exposure to radiation), or through the kind of guinea pig fantasy-science that allows Danny Lee elsewhere to become Inframan. Yet Oily Maniac’s ascent to power is both semi-accidental (received shamanic wisdom from the uncle) and semi-voluntary (a cripple, his “choice” to become empowered as Oily Maniac is not a moral decision but a fait accompli), and the shambling, murderous ego-ideal which he becomes destroys (rather than intensifies) his will as part of the Faustian bargain. Nevertheless, the normalizing disguise Oily Maniac adopts each time he reverts to his human form reproduces the superman’s “closeted” heroism, originally an allegory for many comic-book authors’ Jewish identity, but which became a universalizing allegory of the pariah status imagined by their insecure, adolescent readers. If the superhero’s “closetedness” imagines a pseudo-Christian ethos that paradoxically fantasizes that the meek (i.e., subaltern) will inherit the earth if only they would, firstly, stop being meek, and, secondly, keep up “colonial” appearances by disguising their cessation of meekness, he also engages two complementary stratagems of deferment through which the subaltern negotiates fantasies of normalized desire: closeted assimilationism, and an exaggerated martial heroism designed to prove that beneath seeming deviance lurks a noble, legalistic martial hero waiting to emerge, just as — according to Manifest Destiny — a capitalist lies dormant in every Chinese peasant, or in every heathen a Christian awaits birth. While Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s self-reflexive framing of the postcolonial subaltern “project” has come into —

— Please shut up.

Excuse me?

— Please, just stop right there; I see where you’re going, and I don’t want to follow you. “Coconut oil monster as subaltern?” Your little film review started out cute, but right now I can’t handle the postcolonial routine.

Oh, Reader, is that you? In a bad mood today?

— No, just a sane one.

Hmm…What gave it away? ‘Stratagems of deferment?’

— No, I just unforgivingly overlook phrases like that. Actually, it was “desire.” Whenever I see the word “desire,” I immediately become suspicious, and have a moral obligation to speak. Desire is like eating cake — there’s no point in talking about it. Or reading about it. And before you open your mouth again, you can pick from it the dead words “pleasure” and “subversion” too.

I can sympathize with you — actually, I rarely read myself anymore.

— Forget about reading; you should stop writing, too. The bottom of the mountain on whose top you write is coming undone. You’d better come down before your feet slip.

Hmm…if I stop writing, you won’t exist either.

— I can live with that. I don’t have to read. I don’t need mountaintops. I am content to exist as something else; I can become a gardener and vegetable-tender. I want to bury my hands in the soil.

You must be the salt of the earth, like the noble folksong peasants of Tolstoy’s What Is Art?

— Actually, I’m probably more like Rousseau’s noble villagers about to become corrupted by the decadent, leisure-class theater that D’Alembert wanted to bring to the uncorrupted Genevans.

Then you, I suspect, don’t need beauty or leisure-class art, only a zesty reality whose liveliness resists those aesthetics that dangerously conflate reality with realism.

— Indeed, though art has its pleasures, I don’t need its misty fantasies! But I’m worried about you — your restless confusion is transparent, and your little film review shriveled the moment you quarter-heartedly reverted to academic jargon. You’re being led astray, obsessing about ideas received from cruelly professional books. You don’t really care about the subaltern in Oily Maniac, or whether the pseudofeminism of Kiss of Death can be rationalized away with a wave of the genre-film studies wand. Don’t you have any ideas of your own?

Once, perhaps, when life was still a hobby, an idling, a fable. But now I discover flocks of culturalists, perched on my doorstep with conical hats beaming “film studies” in neon, pressuring me into caring about such things.

— Just hop over them. You need to return to the soil, grow some juicy red tomatoes.

Well, here is my problem: I fear these mad hatters may have a point. The existence of Oily Maniac is indeed tantalizing —

— Because you get an erection when confronted with the promise of the Shaw Brothers logo? And yet Oily Maniac made you flaccid, disillusioned. But you’re still not disillusioned enough.

I’m getting there. As I was saying, the film’s very existence tantalizes, yet its text leaves me analytically fumbling, resorting to undirected, flailing jargon — but I still feel compelled to write, to remain egoistically active. This compulsion began the moment I beheld the mysteries proffered by Oily‘s DVD case, which reveals a bizarre, shambling monster prefiguring the fiend Rick Baker fashioned for The Incredible Melting Man (1978), as well as a shadowy sequence promising either birthing horrors that might echo Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974), or gruesome pregnancies whose visceral spillage —

— None of this sounds very fascinating.

But you should see the DVD box — it looks quite amazing. I am only human, and though suspicious of advertising even at its most triumphant and despicable, I am still highly susceptible to visual sensation.

— Nevertheless, you must blame yourself for succumbing to advertising.

But I attempt to combat advertising — and by extension my own weaknesses — through interpretation, egoistically using films so they can’t use me. But as I endlessly interpret, I get carried away, fall into traps. When speaking of genre films, however, the traps were sprung long ago.

— Explain.

One becomes dependent on easy, prearranged generic comparisons. In this instance, I initially suspected Oily Maniac, who derives his lethal powers from naturally-occurring yet industrially processed coconut oils, should be understood as an ecological aberration, as are the calculating amphibians who undermine wilderness-raping Ray Milland in Frogs (1972), or the pesticide-infected vineyard zombies of Jean Rollin’s Les Raisins de la Morte (1978), who, according to a single line of dialog in that film, represent eco-hazards that must be understood in global, not local or particularized, terms.

— Films that hold their cards in a single line — and these usually are genre films, whose creators and audiences can’t support more than a single idea — are inherently suspicious. The luxury of exploitation films is their very ineptitude: when a semi-competent one conjures bogus hermeneutics with a few conspicuously inserted, tell-tale lines of dialog outlining the semblance of a theme — because the filmmaker is too deficient to handle a real theme — it is claimed a relative cult-film achievement. But we see this thematic singularity more generally in contemporary film scores, which usually lack counterpoint — again, only the reflection of a single idea is permitted.

Oily Maniac‘s ineptitude is so great, however, that it cannot logically support even a single line’s worth of theme.

— Its ineptitude, or the transparency of its ineptitude, denies you participation, delivering you into the ether of advertising’s false promises. But it isn’t your fault Ho Meng-hua doesn’t know the difference between amorality and immorality. Exploitation films have the luxury of insulating their inanities within the low expectations generated by exploitation conventions.

Stop saying “exploitation films” — it’s a meaningless term, as all commercial films “exploit” something for profit.

— You yourself used the term in your blatherings about Oily Maniac.

I was wrong to do so; I was mindlessly following the journalistic trend that falsely equates the sensational with the exploitative. Ingmar Bergman should logically be history’s greatest, profoundest exploitation director, for what he publicly exploits for profit and prestige is his own psychic torment, not the anonymous bare epidermises and pulsing stage blood that for pent-up puritans constitute innocuous “controversy.”

— Very well, then, “genre films” can insulate their inanities in convention, but non-generic films lack such inherited defense mechanisms. No?

Certainly, I agree, and this becomes obvious when thematic inanity hasn’t the protective insulation of genre or a genre director. Auteur Mike Figgis has a film called The Loss of Sexual Innocence (1999) — I beware its very existence, as its title alone confidently bespeaks a singular thematic inanity that, assuming one has grown beyond Romanticism and Victorianism, seems far more clichéd than anything genre hacks could toss together.

— What does Paul Cox entitle his film about two reunited, geriatric lovers, now contemplating a present-day affair while surrounded by visions of unretrievable youth? Innocence (2000)! Cox, at least, understands the paradox that golden innocence is not corrupted in youth, but earned with the ripening of time and emancipated through mature self-awareness. But the formula suggested in Figgis’ title is only one of the infantile solutions and portion-controlled pills — or so-called “themes” — with which the cinema has always festered. Think of Spencer Tracy conservatively reconciling Darwin with the Bible by clasping both to his chest at the close of Inherit the Wind (1960), Alejandro Jodorowsky “deflationarily” — I’ll use your coinage — ultimately reducing the nutty multicultural mysticism of The Holy Mountain (1973) to a mere parody of The Wizard of Oz (1939), or, even worse, Kenneth Branagh climactically forcing the arms of his unusually naturalistic Hamlet (1996) into the unnatural cliché of a crucifix. And how do we rationalize our embarrassment at such easy solutions, such deflations or betrayals of theme? Who doesn’t recoil at Chaplin’s antiwar rhetoric at the end of Monsieur Verdeoux (1947)? Who is not disgusted to witness the gentle pacifism we’ve always known resides in the Tramp’s heart being explicated with such reductive propaganda? How much more fearless would it have been for Chaplin/the Tramp to reappear after the crematoria had been scraped clean and remain furiously, impetuously silent, just as the guileless boy of The Tin Drum (1979) refuses to blossom into murderous maturity?

Let’s go back for a moment. Sometimes, a singly-themed image, when currying a certain historical awareness and properly juxtaposed, can effectively illuminate a theme better than an entire witless tract. For example, in Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo (1995), the camera — for the first and only time — vertically rises above its gritty milieu of desperate Saigon street poverty to give us a bird’s-eye view of the rooftop of an exclusive, ivory skyscraper, where white-shorted aristocrats enjoy tennis in ignorance of the criminal horrors below. This image, though thematically simplistic, strikingly illustrates power hierarchies with a transparently effective vertical-sociological metaphor, and forces us to rethink and politicize everything that has come before in class terms.

— What you’ve described is not revelation but relief. Not only is the film’s perspective on criminology obvious, but this vertically symbolic — and symbolically vertical — crane shot simply acknowledges the socioeconomic discrepancies a halfway intelligent viewer is already aware of. We’re merely relieved the director acknowledges what we already know to be true.

But if a director’s vision is vital and thoroughgoing enough, he not only reminds us of truisms, but renders truisms as enlightening truths. Consider Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936): though its legal melodrama too-tightly bundles themes within bromidic expressibility — vengeance is reserved for God, two wrongs don’t make a right, etc. — the realistic, nuanced characterizations enrich its clichés such that they approach three-dimensional truthfulness.

— The film’s themes must be redeemed, then, through the “thoroughgoingness” of old-fashioned psychological realism! Let’s reconsider the tennis-playing image in Cyclo. One could recast the same class critique more efficiently and effortlessly using anti-realist, expressionistic devices, having, for example, a beggarly street rascal incongruously, comically clad in aristocratic tennis whites wielding a harmless racket like a loaded gun — an image whose absurdist meaning is both immediately transpicuous and obviates recourse to elaborate crane shots dependent on expensive, exclusive production values.

So your point is…?

— If we continue this argument, I’ll argue for ascetic, dispassionate logos, here understood as absurdism and expressionism, and you’ll side with pathos, understood as psychological realism. But we needn’t really go through with this old argument; you know where it will end.

Of course. I suppose your radically ascetic rationalism would also want to ban art not in service to the state?

— Don’t underestimate the ironies of Plato’s Republic, itself far greater dramatic art than the sophistic myths its final book pretends to forbid. Plato may be our subtlest myth-spinner, but unlike the Sophists he knew how to ironically pit form and content against one another. Thus, in the Protagoras, Socrates sways his irrational listeners with the mythos of Prometheus and Epimetheus when they refuse to bow before logos, and in doing so reminds us the Platonic dialog, though itself a mythos, becomes through its self-critical content a subcategory of logos. A self-critical content trumps an uncritical form, just as the alienation effect of a criminal thug in preppie tennis shorts would disillusion psychological realism’s status-quo. But without this kind of self-criticism, be it Platonic or Expressionistic, artists risk calamitous misjudgments and easy answers: when Branagh has his fallen Hamlet disgracefully assume that Christlike pose, he reduces multi-tiered psychological complexity to a received, monothematic simplicity, a childishness, whose jejune symbolism willfully seeks the approval and legitimation of unimaginative critics, and perhaps even audiences of schoolchildren, who, presumably, are instructed to seek out Christ figures and other textbook symbolisms.

You sound like Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation — let me retrieve my copy of it from underneath my coffee zarf. Impatient with the critics who unimaginatively insist a phallus pokes from the barrel of the tank in Bergman’s The Silence (1963), she says, ‘Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.”

— There’s a lack, yes, but it exists not in the audience (the effect) but in the deficient filmmaker (the cause) — every second a film pointlessly, “realistically” ticks away showing someone walking across a room or a car roaming down a street, a lacking content pleads to be paved with the viewer’s imagination. Likewise, every time filmmakers revert to stale Christian symbolism, or other unearned, prefabricated themes, I grow vengefully angry that they aren’t fulfilling their half of the creative bargain.

Indeed, I was saddened that the HBO series Carnivale (2003) thematically wraps its worthy subject matter — circus freaks — in exotic Tarot and neon crosses, replacing the good, simple sociology of Browning’s Freaks (1932) with bourgeois ideology.

— But Sontag’s ostensible point is obvious: purely generic associations must, of course, be discouraged brutally, lest form replace content.

All meaning is generic.

— But genres must be at least flexible, and able to resist academic standardization. Nothing is more tedious that the Freudian who perceives a phallus in every obelisk and Oedipal theories in every filial glance, the Marxist who sees class struggle in every forbidden romance, or the postcolonialist who insists any sycophantism can be empowered if understood as a parody — as if parody, the weakest, easiest, most infantile, and most unearned form of comedy, could be magically inflated, through academic wishful thinking alone, to the level of fully intentional satire. Such rote interpretative strategies betray a lack of imagination, like the cocktail-party boor who laughs at every wisecrack.

Pauline Kael likened such ideologues to gardeners who use the same tool to trim all varieties of shrubbery. You said you wanted to garden tomatoes, no?

— Only with the appropriate tools. At least the gardener is an independent contractor, functional, rational; if he chooses the wrong hedge-cutter to trim around the “heterosexist gaze in Hitchcock” bush, it is his own responsibility. But the cocktail-party boor surrenders moral responsibility to please his peers, and, eternally tipsy on fearfully received ideas, his inebriated interpretations are a poor substitute for sober logos. But I cannot blame such alcoholics, for filmmakers’ lack of content drives them to an external addiction. Besides, aesthetic moralists exhibit the same rote behaviors. Pauline Kael went on endlessly about the corruption of cinema audiences, chastising the alienated masses of the 1970’s for understanding only how to be titillated by Ken Russell’s giant plastic penises, but when it came time to reveal what was redemptive, it turned out to be nothing more than the chicken-hearted medicine of Truffaut and the predetermined oceanic revelation at the climax of The 400 Blows (1959).

Who doesn’t disappoint? We are devastated when Nietzsche, the greatest mind we can fathom, claims the solution to Parsifal is Bizet’s Carmen.

— Yet the earthy, lively subject matter of Carmen — deemed lascivious and vulgar in 1875 — did rebuff Parsifal‘s pompous, life-draining pieties.

Bizet’s dramaturgy is irrelevant. In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche seeks not a new naturalism in Carmen, but rather to exchange that Wagnerian endless melody, whose circularity hopes to redeem us with enigmatic “infinity” and divine allegory, with Bizet’s accessibly discrete melody. Unfortunately, the discrete delights of Bizet’s melody are as lustily bourgeois as the carefree exploits of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel.

— Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s return to interpretation and the onus of criticism, and say a lack of content on the part of the filmmaker always begs an excess of criticism, and an excess of criticism, in turn, retroactively inflates content. So if our interpretation is too often the interpretation of a lack of content, the result is our de facto confessional autobiography, or a reader-response that is disproportionately egoistic response.

But the critical object that was Oily Maniac! What ripe potentials for egoistic response! What a rare, undiscovered country it was!

— Only because you had never seen a prejudicial advertisement for it, and today films can be no more separated from their advertisements than limbs can maneuver without a brain. Besides, Oily was not complex enough to make you seem intelligent.

Undercomplexity is more challenging than overcomplexity. One can always play with symbols and close-read a complex text into comfortable ideology. But undercomplexity is the absence of a text to move against — it is a mirror in which one flounders for semiotics where none exist. In such vacuums, academicism rears its hydra-heads, vomiting out those goddamned block quotes of Homi Bhaba, reducing scholars to epigones and scholarship to a sycophantism much like that demanded by colonialism itself.

— We are all epigones. For the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human, poets are “always and necessarily” epigones, “backward-looking creatures [who] procure for the present new colors through a light which they direct upon it from the past.” But what “light” is cast by the epigones of today’s cinema? We are blinded by Tarantino-ism and precious schoolboy homage — the light blinds without re-illuminating past colors which haven’t even faded sufficiently. Homage — the unintended, sentimental residue of postmodernism — has replaced interpretation and true creativity. Sontag’s line in Against Interpretation, “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world,” is now more relevant today than it was in the 1960s, for interpretation has become not only unnatural, retreating echolalia, but coolly sentimental, cryogenic homage.

Interpretation may be an impoverishment, but life itself is interpretation. As Benjamin said, before there was writing, there was reading. To say understanding depletes the object understood, and by extension the whole objective world, is merely to say that specificities limit infinitude. But should we cower before infinity, berating ourselves for the anxiety of influence, for our always-paltry words? Life itself is a depletion of existence, for every specificity, and every experience, is a depletion of infinite possibility. The paradox of creativity: the more you produce, the less can possibly exist.

— This is why poetry, as produced by Nietzsche’s “backward-looking creatures,” is never enough. Art is never enough; catharsis is a fraud. If it weren’t, then satire, rather than preaching only to the converted, would really alter behavior, and The House of Lords would have collapsed moments after Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1971) was released.

Well, if satire only preaches to the converted, it’s because those with passionate personality types, who respond well to Dionysian catharsis, are the same people who would be already sensitized to the social problems satire usually addresses. But, yes, art is not enough when we, forward-thinkers ruined by followers, literates at the mercy of ill-cultivated teachers, are frozen with regurgitated style and “cryogenic” homage, instead of being enflamed with real ideas.

— Let’s be clear. By “ideas,” we mean philosophical solutions to problems, which non-linguistic, strictly visual media can never offer. Kuleshov’s juxtapositional effect and Eisenstein’s mise en cadre are no more ideologies in themselves than the camera is the gun the Surrealists wished it were, and the self-proclaimed “international language” Vertov constructed with his intertitle-free Man with a Movie Camera (1929) could ably trade in simple analogy, metonymy, and spliced synecdoche, but could never explain to the masses why a cinematic Esperanto should be their only future.

Still, the Soviet filmmakers could non-linguistically illustrate a call to arms, which is a kind of philosophical solution to problems. However, exactly how a call to arms could be most effectively organized and implemented is something anti-linguistic Vertovian method must leave to the linguistic imagination. Besides, Vertov’s Esperanto is an infrequent, expensive, one-way communication — you can’t have millions of people all making time-consuming montage experiments to communicate daily meanings and disagreements.

— We must always seek enlightenment and specificity in lingual content, not form alone, nor style, nor structure. The final scene of Godard’s Tout va bien (1972), where anarcho-communists run riot in and overwhelm a gargantuan, oppressively ultramodern supermarket, transparently illustrates, without recourse to dialog, surface facets of Marxist ideology, but Godard must still have Jane Fonda give endless speeches about revolution to fill in the specific details. Excepting films wholly predicated on a content of lingual intellection, such as Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), with its lengthy discussions of Pascal, or Ruiz’s deconstructionist Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), or the filmic dialogue Mindwalk (1990), where characters neatly symbolize Science, Art, and Politics in the manner of Everyman, visual semiotics will always threaten what you call the trap of “deflationary” interpretation, where the linguistic subject is saddened by his intellectual superiority over a non-linguistic, cinematic object. And what happens when our American films do try to communicate themes through dialog? We get those damn single-line themes. Life goes on! Be thankful for what you have! Don’t think too much! Robert Zemeckis once claimed the thoughtlessness of Taoism inspired Forrest Gump (1994) — is there a more horrid example of American pseudophilosophy than the comparison of Chuang Tzu’s literary and intellectual exertions to a genetic mental defect? Even cinematic sophisticates roll in thematic manure to cool their heads. Consider the thematic disingenuousness of Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Even if Preston Sturges truly believes the underclass, here labeled as criminals, will be redeemed not through social justice initiatives but by the antics of Mickey Mouse, are we really to believe that Sturges himself — as represented in the personage of Joel McCrea — will be redeemed by such anti-intellectualism? Just as the film’s prisoners rediscover noble innocence not through self-revelation or personal striving, but by being infantilized through the external, falsely idealized, industrial art of cartoons, Sturges-McCrea falsely idealizes the simple folk character of the prisoners, rather than seeking true redemption in the intellectualism the film is compelled to populistically decry. Here, Sturges is being “sentimental” in the Schillerian sense of the word, affecting a selfconscious theme that intends to flatter the (anti-intellectual) sensibilities of the audience, rather than being “naïve,” or achieving unselfconscious, sublime realizations without regard to social convention or opinion.

Sentimentally calculated themes such as Sturges’ are not doomed to fail — they are failure itself. Likewise, we cannot believe that King Vidor thinks shattered love can be mended and economic depression eased by resignedly participating in the collective illusions of the cinema, as the final shot of The Crowd (1928) suggests, or that Bergman-worshipping Woody Allen has finally overcome his existential crises by making self-reflexive (that is, sentimental) fluff like Hollywood Ending (2002), the kind of “entertaining” film the eavesdropping aliens of Stardust Memories (1980) once demanded. But if all fiction is a lie — either glorious or inglorious — I don’t mind artists lying. I just wish they’d stop playing innocent, and tell us more intelligent lies.

— You really mean more naïve lies, that is, more honest lies, no? But then one must surrender Platonic self-consciousness to romanticism. But is Schillerian naiveté our only bulwark against the postmodernists barking at your door?

The only bulwark? — no. But, since you brought it up, it seems like a decent, humane starting point if you want better films. When once-naïve Hong Kong cinema became sentimental and driven by external goals, we received multiculturalized slush. For Tsui Hark, sentimental “maturity” meant abandoning the unsuspicious charm of Shanghai Blues (1984) for the posturing, arrogant coolness of Time and Tide (1998); a transcontinental, homogenized John Woo has become an unwitting (and witless) self-parodist bedazzled by the megalomaniacal budgets Hollywood has placed at his feet; and Jackie Chan has traded the naïve, unaffected joys of Project A (1983) to whore in Hollywood products I can’t watch and whose titles I won’t even mention — watching him now is like seeing a slave auction where the slave wields his own lash.

— Oh, I’d best alert Homi Bhaba — I have him on speed dial.

Maybe he can also remind Jet Li that he isn’t a black gangster.

— Wait, wait…there was something I wanted to say before, but I can’t remember what. We’ve digressed away from the point, which was…come on, remind me…

The epigone? Undercomplexity? Anti-interpretation?

— Yes, anti-interpretation and Sontag. It’s hard to believe in her rebellion against interpretation when her critical vocabulary is as stale as that of her despised Freudians. “The beauty and visual sophistication of the images [of Bergman’s Winter Light and The Silence] subvert before our eyes the callow pseudo-intellectuality of the story and some of the dialogue,” she says. But can a radical manifesto really ask us to believe “beauty” means pleasing cinematography, or that “visual sophistication,” when left undefined, probably means no more than it does when callow journalists use such terms? Because the film’s dialogic-linguistic ideas are admittedly “pseudo-intellectual,” sophistication can only mean a technical professionalism whose image-producing capabilities are more striking, pleasing, arousing, fanciful, etc., than those produced by technological amateurism. If one argues for transparent self-evidence, for sensualism, for a Schillerian naiveté uncorrupted by competitive, external influences, for a primordial time when instinct was purer than intellect, when mimesis existed without interpretation, you’d think one would support unpolished amateurism over exclusive technology and its re-imaginings of nature. As Chuang Tzu says, the Way is found in the piss and dung.

Don’t expect “intellectuals” to abandon value-based aesthetics, the Beethovenian beauties Tolstoy decried in What Is Art?, or even professionally pretty photographic compositions. But like Plato and Tolstoy, Chuang Tzu was an artist who railed against art. Fleeing from order, he rediscovered it again in his writing. The circle can be reordered but not escaped.

— Oh, it can be escaped — I told you before, just get your hands in the soil, and put down your pen.

It’s funny you say that. I once complained to a psychiatrist that, whenever I left home, I continually forgot to take a pen with me to jot down whatever thoughts came to mind. Equating the pen with the phallus — as critics might do with the tank canon in The Silence — he likened this forgetfulness to impotence. I told him the stock metaphor was insufficient: my penis does little for me — solace stems from the sword-beating pen.

— We are so inured to Freud that we treat his meanings as transparent rather than simply internalized. But exactly what is transparent meaning, unmuddied by history or interpretation? A melody, a heartbeat, a scream, an erection — these can be transparently meaningful, if not universally so. But the meaning of language is like war: it is the creation of the few and the burden of the many, imbedded in fogged histories.

And the least transparent meaning, certainly, is satire. Because the now-defunct structuralism for which Sontag once argued avoids historicism and assorted relativisms, it sidesteps satire, too, which is transparent only to its contemporaries. The arch, up-the-minister British satire of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969) was transparently understandable to the beardless antiwar idealists of the 60s, but would be incomprehensible to today’s corporatized, baseball-capped youth. Nor would they grasp why in Head (1968) The Monkees use the non-phallic canon of a tank to defiantly destroy a Coke machine representing the only life-giving liquid in a surreally cruel desert. Hardly as cynical as the media believes them to be, today’s students believe mild, magazine-article skepticism of the culture industry is enough to neutralize its influence over them. But standard-issue skepticism is a poor substitute for worldliness.

— It is easy to criticize the follies of interpretation, as Sontag does, but only a genius can live without them. And we’ve only been talking about audiences. What happens when filmmakers also shun interpretation, and shun meaning itself? When anti-interpretation is adopted on a broad scale, the unforeseen result is omnivorous anti-intellectualism, cynically genuflecting now in that backlash culture represented by Johnnie To and Takashi Miike, whose reactionary, inherently conservative genre exercises pose as oppressive pop nihilism and pomo redux for the festival crowd; these glistening, proudly empty anti-texts extinguish the viewer’s power, deny him the interactivity afforded by non-generic ideas, and force him to shamefully bask in an infinitely jaded curve of disorienting style. These filmmakers oppress with style because style is all they have. In the 1980s Johnnie To was a poster boy for Hong Kong naiveté — now he’s sentimental corruption incarnate.

I, too, am thoroughly fatigued by posturing Asian hipsters angularly extending industrially-manufactured firearms into fish-eye lenses…my intestines are knotting just thinking about it. Sontag’s solution for confused 1960s critics bloated on Bergman and Antonioni was a liberated, active “erotics of interpretation” — how could she have foreseen that unchecked “erotics” would become corrupted as our passive, ritualistic culture of film festival pseudo-nihilism?

— But on larger a scale, “erotics of interpretation” is an inherently useless term. You might as well say we need an aesthetics of aesthetics, a subjectivity of subjectivity. You need at least one objectivity, one known; with two unknowns you’ll get an unsolvable quadratic equation. We need not a doubly-subjective erotics of interpretation, but a logos of love, a finite infinitude, a rationally-controlled subjectivity. Criticism mustn’t gravitate between fabricated poles of irrational impressionism and rational academicism; we must instead rise to a new level, and make criticism fiction and fiction criticism — then the Platonic balance between form and content is maintained.

A “finite infinitude”? You mean that rule-driven logos is finite and pathos, or impressionism, or erotics, is infinite?

— Yes, as infinite as the world interpretation lessens. Oily Maniac, if I understood you correctly, would seem to be the opposite, an infinite finitude, that is, a finite text whose self-contradictory theme makes it infinitely uninterpretable. But erotics must have finite limits, lest it become mere impressionism, a reactionary pathos that, attempting to reject standardized meanings and their “false objectivity,” cannot possibly cure a logos corrupted by postmodern epigones who eat erotics and shit style.

Granted. But between the two nouns — erotics and interpretation — it is easier to make erotics objective, for at least our sexual or sensual arousals are verifiable, undeniable, and empiric. But first, we’d need to be completely open with one another. If we knew what people fantasized about when they masturbated, we’d begin to approach a basis for true, unveiled democracy. Anti-essentialist postmodernists may argue that anybody can be aroused by anything, but in the end some things will give you bigger erections than others. When Mishima tells us he first onanized to the image of a multiply-pierced St. Sebastian, we, needing to know only a trace of history, can understand his position with maximum transparency and minimum interpretation.

— Perhaps we shouldn’t so quickly jump from transparency to objectivity, but I’ll let it slide. But what can it mean for you to be erotically aroused by the possibilities of the Shaw Brothers logo? Whatever meanings lie therein seem hardly transparent, and meaningful only to yourself, not to the onlooker wanting to interpret something. It seems your eccentrically socialized arousals prove the behaviorists’ point that sex is a sublimation of art, not the other way around.

My arousals are too eccentric? You’re sounding authoritarian.

— It is objectivity itself, not I, who is authoritarian. You can be as eccentric as you want; just don’t ask me to interpret your life.

But for Sontag, an interpretive “erotics” seems more lingual than sensual or genital. For her, “loving description of the appearance of a work of art” should replace standardized interpretation. I suppose the empiricism of description is as far as she’ll go in terms of objectivity; even then, empiricism is tantamount to sensualism, which is tantamount to uncorrupted interpretation.

— More romantic nonsense. Those who lovingly, novelistically describe their objects of desire presume the same theistic faith in language held by Romantics who spy evidence of God in their endless, rambling nature descriptions, who, by merely describing natural leafy surfaces, delude themselves into acceding divinity. But even if it were possible to access the beloved thing-in-itself through novelistic romance, what kind of love are we talking about? This is not the universal love of Paolo Freire, but the obsessive decadence that makes us, like Woody Allen, a slave to the deflationary orgasm; it’s the love of looks, of award-winning novels, of the culture of adjectives and adverbs that, as Karl Kraus knew, reduces criticism to a zealous journalism shivering beneath a threadbare cloak of democracy.

Here you’re on the mark. I even berate myself whenever I indulge in pointless adjective-spinning or awestruck simile. Nevertheless, we cannot reductively pretend, as do social scientists, that nouns represent loveless objectivity, and adjectives lovely subjectivity.

— Particularly when the use of these adjectives has become rote, generic, deflationary, depletive. Loving description, not merely the rancid meat of the novel, is the sophistic footing of journalism, whose adverbs and adjectives must mechanically disguise and humanize journalism’s “inverted pyramid” writing style, which foregrounds the trivial “whats” and “whos” while burying the philosophical “hows” and “whys.” Indeed, journalism’s attempt at transparency, its anti-interpretation, is anti-historical and fascistic, presenting third-hand knowledge as first-hand power, listing effects whose causes cannot be examined.

Well, the media can’t even examine its own causes. The cabbage-headed “liberal-versus-conservative bias in the media” debate conceals the fact that the news media, beholden to its concise, uncritical, anti-Socratic inverted pyramid, is inherently conservative. By extension, all those who benefit from its cultish form — including self-professed liberals — are a priori conservative. Meanwhile, movies have been made the scapegoat for journalism’s destruction of our ability to understand. The public foolishly blames film editing for corrupting the human attention span when, really, Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, or even Tony Conrad’s hypnotic, seizure-inducing The Flicker (1966), sought to explode the associative possibilities of the attention span beyond its natural limits. We cannot blame montage itself if certain practitioners have normalized what was once an enlightened or provocative clash into a treasonous techno-fetish whose “postmodernism”…

— Let’s try to limit our use of this word, please?

…standardizes two-second cuts into a vapid, stunted state-of-the art. Instead, we must blame the journalists and top-ten novelists who insult our attention spans with singly-themed sentences and three-sentence, singly-themed paragraphs. I have seen an English instructional manual cite “scientific” studies claiming student writers should never be recommended sentences over seventeen words in length, for these necessitate troublesome rereading. Only a culture as functionally illiterate as ours could misappreciate the values of writing to think all writing — even Tom Clancy’s seven-word sentences — is somehow inherently healthy. Illiteracy combined with American religiosity will believe the word itself is holy, and with the right typeface simplemindedly spare prose instantly becomes heartfelt autobiography or road narrative lyricism.

— What you really mean is that modern semiliteracy has become democratized into an accepted yet misunderstood standard of literacy. The semiliterate mystify the origins of language, just as Luddites reject technology or Mormons insist that Jesus pilots a starship. People over-ambitiously blame visual media not for semiliteracy, but for an era of “post-literacy,” not realizing that if we actually were post-literate, we’d cease being human. Just as minor contentions about workplace salaries and brassiere-torching have not magically delivered us into “postfeminism,” confusing the prefixes “semi” and “post” cannot fool us into believing sociohistorical change can occur without a sufficient investment of time. I recall seeing some media studies professor lambaste the Rodney King jury for misinterpreting video images that revealed King’s torture so transparently that no interpretation should have been necessary. But because defense lawyers intermediated jurors’ interpretations with legal language, jurors had to interpret what was perceived as a non-linguistic logos (the video image) through a linguistic pathos (the lawyers’ sophistry). It is for these semiliterate — not post-literate! — jurors that we need a more honest logos.

This same semiliteracy flows torrentially, excrementally from American high schools, which teach journalism and television production while refusing to teach media criticism or McLuhan. On a job interview, I told a high school principal as much and he stared at me as tourists once gawked at Bedlamites. Trying to further explain my position, I made the grave mistake of offending precious journalism by questioning its latest catchphrase, “derail a process,” as in “Terrorist acts threaten to derail the peace process.” But a circular process cannot be derailed, as if it were straight and linear. Trying to forcibly straighten the hermeneutic circle into a transparent, walkable line, journalism’s false realism finally achieves its ideological dictum of destroying interpretation itself.

— This is why mankind’s hope lies in the convolutions of the uncomfortably, tortuously elongated sentence, the kind that demands rereading — the limits of grammar stretch the limits of understanding, and of the attention span, beyond any “derail-able” linearity.

Good! I have a theory about this very subject. Serious writing — we understand this as long-sentenced academic writing — is defined by the generality of its explicit politicization, and leisure writing — this is short-sentenced fiction — by the particularity of its implicit politicization. Do you agree?

— More or less, insofar as academics place value on how textual evidence can be expanded into general sociology, and insofar as fiction writers merely suggest a character’s tics and fancies imply universal states of race-class-gender being. But we see also see this content disparity in American independent film production, which juxtaposes earnest documentarianism with indulgent fiction-peddling. After September 11, the “Sundance Channel” began showing a slew of sociopolitically conscious, moderate-leftist documentaries, such as 14 Million Dreams (2002), about Sub-Saharan AIDS orphans, Life After War (2003), about reconstructing bombed villages in Afghanistan, and Lifting the Veil (2002), about the bloody battle for women’s rights after the fall of the Taliban. Yet Sundance’s fiction offerings retained the apolitical, narcissistic status quo, and continued to bombard us with road-tripping, monosyllabic slackers and postgraduate, lovelorn whiners, all of whom happily lack a world-consciousness.

I’m not surprised. This is the curse of humanist realism — as political or investigative ethnography, understood as documentary, it has objective value; as fiction, it’s patently worthless. But mainstream journalism’s inverted pyramid and slushy adjectival narratives not only negate the objectivity of this ethnographic value, but its commercialism mandates that investigative content be reduced to one of two levels of violence: soft violence, whose sociology is as implicit as that of leisure writing, and hard violence, whose sociology is as explicit as that of academic writing. Soft violence — senatorial molestations, subway-shovings, street theft — is individualized, particularized, yet poses, like bad fiction, as an expanded allegory of goings-on at large. Hard violence — wars, genocides, white collar crime — is formalized, collective action whose generalized allegory, like that of academic writing, tells us the world is a stalemate of alienated observations, forever beyond our practical influence.

— You mean the war violence beloved of national newscasts, I presume; my local news is mainly concerned with inciting hysteria over public salad bar contaminants.

But all the hysteria the media incites is, once broadcast in blasé fashion, no longer hysterical, just as interpretation, once standardized by academia, is no longer interpretational, just as journalism, allegedly the pursuit of knowledge, is, once filtered through its concise inverted pyramid, made into an inverted anti-knowledge, and so forth.

— Right, an organized religion is a contradiction in terms. Thus did Chuang Tzu flee organization in life, yet felt compelled to return to it in art. But he didn’t need to write, only to exist.

You’d rather he never wrote a word? Is it hypocritical for an ascetic naturalist or hermit to be an artist?

— Artists, by definition, seek an audience. What does a hermit seek?

You said you wanted to return to the soil, grow tomatoes, yes?

— Indeed.

Let’s say you did. Wouldn’t it be wise, and in the best interests — either social or antisocial — of other tomato-growers if they could benefit from your advice?

— I’m no authoritarian. I don’t seek an audience.

You’d have no desire to help your fellow tomato-growers, perhaps suggesting the best methods of planting, or the most succulent ways to season a tomato casserole?

— I wouldn’t be so presumptuous, nor decadent enough to ruin a return to the soil by publishing a tomato guidebook that would, even unintentionally, promote my own celebrity.

At the origin of all democracy sits a dictator who imagines, and then presents, democracy.

— Thus, hermitage. You’ve assumed I would flock together with other tomato-growers, which is a false assumption. Frankly, I don’t even like tomatoes, but by learning to like something I don’t — by rebelling against transparent meaning, transparent likes and dislikes — I can escape without recourse to art.

But before, you defended the rationalism and anti-authoritarianism that expressionism potentially offers in the hypothetical Cyclo example.

— A compromise. A compromise I tire of making. And incidents of redemptive expressionism are as rare today as they were plentiful after WWI, when they were most needed. But today we struggle in a culture of unphilosophically realistic, neo-provincial novels, of Hollywood prestige productions, of Wong Kar-wai’s freshman existentialism and its countless epigones, all hailed for their style, sensuality, and vividity alone, such that vividity, under the tyrannical aegis of transparency, replaces import. I’m afraid even to read film reviews, which reinforce my paranoia about the culture of style. Reviewers for The New Yorker or even Film Comment are entrenched in the unfortunate capitalist position of writing about the Hollywood children’s films seemingly beneath them —

Yet films to which their allegedly upper-middlebrow magazines are nevertheless subservient —

— Yes, and when a review in The New Yorker doesn’t revolve around the spectacle of how wittily and trenchantly the critic dismisses the film, the critic will impressionistically praise the style of a crass farce or special effects vehicle to futilely demonstrate his knowing anti-elitism, dropping non-adjectives like “poky” or “spiky” — the suffixation of a cosmopolitan “y” makes everything clever — to goad us into marveling at the degree of writerly skill involved in justifying his extrospective appreciation of dross. Oh, and speaking of farces, I assume you won’t be finishing your musing review of Oily Maniac.

I think you’ve taken care of that.

— That’s a good thing, too, lest you join those dilettantes who wink through the pop culture game, whose de rigueur dilute of postmodernism — forgive my use of the word — renders all belief mawkish and all morality the shameful baggage of the pious. Yet their eyes grow more clouded with each jaundiced wink, each time respite is sought in the fraudulent synthesis of high and low culture, each time critics experimentally slum with rap but retire with Beethoven, and clothe their wedding of low populism and high decadence in a robe of journalistic romanticism. And what happens when politicians, with suspicious ostentation, declaim their love of god to win the masses? Quite the same thing: they too express this hybrid compromise borne by today’s film critic, this “decadent-populism.” For the politician, this compromise is a blatant hypocrisy, peddling trickle-down humanism for the theistic multitudes; for the film critic, who rolls his belief in transcendental beauties in the sugar of a somehow anti-elitist dandyism, this compromise does not make social power a direct goal, as it is for the politician, but a byproduct of the culture industry’s gluttonous entrance fees. The tyrannical, elitist, jazz-hating Adorno may be the pop-culturalists’ favorite whipping boy, but no amount of political correctness or decadent-populism can undo his proto-McLuhanite prophesy. Apologizing for the false consciousness manufactured by pop culture doesn’t make one a defender of democracy. It makes one only a pawn of radical industrialism, attempting to excuse our culture of style with a dusting of postmodernism, just as Martin Luther once attempted to excuse inherently irrational doctrine with a dusting of populist sugar.

You’ve just metaphorically used the word “sugar” twice.

— So what? We need less sugar.

Okay, let’s go a bit further. What exactly is “elitism”? Adorno’s narrow prescriptions may have praise only for Schoenberg, but at least they strove towards social justice — and would have thankfully delivered us from the Broadway musical’s shrill and horsy torments.

— “Horsy” torments? Let’s try to curb our clever suffixations of the cosmopolitan “-y.” This isn’t Pauline Kael.

Duly noted. But pop-culturalism — or “decadent-populism” — openly promotes social injustice by excusing the class imbalances generated by leisure culture. This injustice, this genuine, practical elitism — not the merely symbolic elitism represented by cultural capital, which in France may be prized but in America is nearly worthless — grins most sinisterly around something like the narcissistic-journalistic oaken table of Charlie Rose, whose fawning biography and preening personality worship are inherently elitist. There have always been stealthy curriers of influence who parasitically attach themselves to powerful figures, sucking their life-bloods, and then by association becoming powerful themselves. The Chinese took away their genitals and called them eunuchs; we give them an extra set of balls and call them journalists.

— And did you see what happened to the eunuch-journalist Rose when, in November, 2003, he invited Noam Chomsky on his show? He was stunned and silenced by Chomsky’s modesty, self-effacement, and refusal to engage in the journalist’s cat-and-mouse ass-kissing, and left feebleminded when Chomsky told him he should no longer discuss broad social movements in the common journalistic terms that, instead of critically framing events in terms of organizational structure, sycophantically, worshipfully psychologize “great men of history.”

These Adorno-haters should really picket PBS.

— Exactly! What’s Adorno’s real problem? He isn’t demanding enough! For all his omniscient authority, Adorno’s prescription, found in The Sociology of Music, is disappointingly centrist in its agathism: “The manner in which art corrects a socially false consciousness is not collective adjustment; rather, it is an act of carrying that consciousness so far that it will shed all appearances.” But such typically German idealism is nakedly false. The Church, for example, finally pardoning Galileo only four centuries after the invention of the refracting telescope, and still pretending its immobile spires are the sun around which humanity revolves, cannot be disillusioned precisely because it treats appearance — that is, materiality — as inconsequential.

It’s surprising that our government excitedly funds expeditions to Mars — you’d think the fundamentalist theocrats to whom our politicians are beholden would claim the search for life on Mars is tantamount to blasphemy.

— Because God only created life on Earth. False consciousness, carried to the absurd lengths the Church still carries it to, becomes not “collective adjustment” but merely self-adjustment!

So Adorno is disappointing — but again, who doesn’t disappoint us? Even the post-Enlightenment prescription of Bakunin, history’s most practical anarchist, foolishly believes in the bright march of ultimate historical progress. Allow me to quote from my copy of God and the State, which, actually, I’m right now using to balance my unstable aquarium — let me just pull it out. Bakunin agathistically claims, “…once [natural laws] have been recognized by science, and then from science, by means of an extensive system of popular education and instruction, shall have passed into the consciousness of all, the question of liberty will be entirely solved.” But as — to our self-satisfied horror — Creationism is pestilentially scrawled across Kansan chalkboards, in our 21st century science still remains to be both spread sufficiently among the masses and appreciated in itself.

— Oh, I don’t know. I just saw members of The House of Representatives praise “National Chemistry Week” on C-SPAN.

Very funny. Maybe you should also start making preparations for “National Frozen Foods Awareness Month.” There is such a thing, you know. But seriously, Bakunin’s historical optimism failed to see how, just as prejudices are tucked beneath a cloak of patriotism, rationalism can be compartmentalized and tucked away under a rug of blind faith, and how nature and God, like populism and decadence, can be paradoxically hybridized into a slurry more damaging than each of its components alone.

— We should also say that this decadent-populism — this false God-nature — is, like Western religion, a phenomenon as sociologically male as the pop-culturalism it reflects and supports.

By “male,” you mean “privileged”?

— Not to be grossly reductive, but yes. For example, if you want to reform our basally male pop culture, you must begin where androcentrism spawns, in our public schools, where misogyny persists unchallenged in the shape of the beleaguered, middle-aged, suburban, and most of all effeminate teacher-disciplinarian. Unlike other professional classes, our teachers, still enthralled to the fin de siècle ideals of apron-matrons and wet-nurses, are mere child-sitters, enslaved to committees of worrisome parents, professing nothing and oppressively reducing pedagogy to the folksy righteousness of To Kill a Mockingbird and the empty symbol-play of the ever-dreaded La Balón Rouge (1956).

When I was in fourth grade, I had to explain to my teacher what a “tine” was.

— On a fork, you mean?

Yes, a tine on a fork. She didn’t know. I opened up a junior dictionary to her jaw-dropped amazement. But I can corroborate your criticisms from personal experience. When I briefly taught undergraduate college English I was reprimanded, censured, and ultimately fired by an English department dean for discussing homosexual allegory without express authorization, and for suggesting Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom was appropriate university reading material. I was forcing students to read this! — as if thrusting John Updike down their already suburbanized pipes weren’t the true Sadean torture. Yet my insufficiently rebellious students, mindlessly believing in individualism and the talk-show mantra of “personal responsibility,” also complained that I dared offend the ethnic, working-class conservatism they sheepishly inherited from their parents, for whom the university system is a totally vocational enterprise bereft of autological odyssey.

— An inner-city college?

A sausage factory, where the meat-grinders chug at the slowest setting.

— Don’t you mean the fastest, i.e., the most mechanical, setting?

No, the slowest — the machine is too primitive to be efficient even in its short-sighted, malevolent intentions.

— Well, all true teachers must know parents are the enemy, as did Rousseau, whose utopian “Emile” has an expert caregiver, not arguing parents whose contentions remind the child his education, and very existence, is arbitrary, policy-driven, debatable, uncertain.

But for Emile, the expert caregiver reflects singularly Godlike authority.

— I’m not arguing for Rousseau’s theism, only his love, his argument for intrinsic goals that formed the basis of his Letter to D’Alembert. But don’t confuse Rousseau’s amour du soi with Sontag’s erotics simply because both reject harmful social conventions. Emile himself may be puppetmaster Rousseau’s greatest work of art, but it is an art forged from genuine, guileless love, not novelistic “loving description,” an illusory convention unto itself.

Well, you don’t need the illusions of art, right? You’re the salt of the earth.

— It’s no joke. Rousseau was correct to argue against the immoral professionalism of D’Alembert’s Genevan theater, which soiled the humble with extrinsically-directed values, and sought to replace the sensual, natural morality of amour du soi with the historical vanity of amour propre. We struggle still with the problems foreshadowed by D’Alembert’s theater. Our vanity culture stands only for the destruction of internal values: child athletes, who at first nobly toss their balls for self-gratification, quickly become corrupted by stressful, competitive professionalism, and today’s airbrushed celebrities, who ostentatiously present themselves as rainforest-protecting, gay-friendly, anti-fossil fuel, soy-eating owl-huggers, vainly attempt to prove they are not controlled by the vanities of the very amour propre that agitates them. The actor’s immorality is not lasciviousness, as Puritans and neo-Confucians believed, but the vanity culture that makes all pursuits vain, extrinsic, and spectacular.

But how could those poor, ghettoized undergraduate students I so briefly had even imagine a taste of Edenic amour du soi? For them, it was too late for intrinsic values, for love, for Paolo Freire’s quixotic dream. I once had a student puzzled by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed — a student who couldn’t imagine an education bereft of fear, intimidation, punishment, and stomach-trembling anxiety — bluntly confess, “I don’t understand…what does love have to do with education?” There’s your “transparency”! Right there! And so magnificently golden was these students’ illiteracy — not even semiliteracy — that the meaning of the word “prose” was foreign to them — they rolled their eyes and without irony asked, “D’you mean like ‘pros and cons’?” I implored them to at least rebel against me, to mature by resentfully spitting back the monophonic themes their parents spooned them, to avoid remaining entrenched in the unexamined identities we generously legitimize with the label “conservatism.” But for them conservatism was not a passive choice, a label, or a political party — it was being itself.

— I cannot blame them for absorbing the conservatism of the culture industry’s nonsensical paradoxes. I have seen a preschool children’s book tell of a provincial agrarianist who builds greater and ever more forbidding, exclusionary perimeters around his vegetable patch to bar some rabbits wanting a nibble, only to learn the inevitable value of sharing at the life-goes-on conclusion. For small children, this is a transparent diatribe against private property. Yet once these same children are a few years older, when they are told private property is as inevitable and inexorable as the vocational capitalism into which their educational system coerces them, our highly-valued capitalism becomes a fait accompli, posing as valueless math or grammar, whose rules we internalize so we may forget them later.

Well, the death of innocence, the death of amour du soi, is the birth of capitalism — romanticizing innocence is the opiate of the bourgeoisie.

— Actually, reconciling the ostensible charitableness of Christianity with the avarice of its capitalist agenda is the opiate of the bourgeoisie. A Christian form disguises an inherently uncharitable content; this is why, for the revolutionary, a transparent content must boldly trump form.

Certainly, avarice and coercive force must wear a happy smile. Even as a schoolchild I remember being suspicious of the familiar cartoon wherein a cruelly blowing anthropomorphic wind competes with a cheerfully shining bipedal sun to see whether extreme wind or extreme heat would be more effective in making a man below them remove his jacket. While the film supposed that honeyed persuasion (the sun) exacted better results than brute force (the wind), I, who always preferred the wind, thought the film’s actual argument was that violence or indoctrination, when performed sunnily and smilingly, is more praiseworthy than violence performed transparently, for both competing elements were equal in the degree of their coerciveness.

— And what did you say to the teacher about this?

What could I say? I should preach to my uneducated teacher that all coercion is wrong? That the teacher’s own smiling, sunny coercion was still coercion? That the school should be blown up and all the teachers fired? I was eight years old!

— Such is the double-edged sword of our public school teachers’ effeminate amateurism. Of course, teachers are ill-educated bourgeois fools perpetuating the reproduction of class hierarchies and so forth, but in their amateurish effeminacy, in their refusal to join the ranks of masculine-aggressive suit-and-tie professionalism, and in their continual battle against the externally-imposed standards of PTA boards, local bureaucracies, government testing, and idiot parents, lies our last bastion of noble amour du soi. If you professionalize — that is, masculinize — education, you will only invite dispassionate, obsessive-appetitive capitalism to replace the love of intrinsically-directed amateurism.

I don’t think that logically follows. It seems you’re trying to link Rousseau’s corruptive amour propre to Carl Rogers’ critique of extrinsically-directed action, but I don’t think corruption follows naturally the moment social incentives are added. One can be both a professional and a lover. One sees this in film all the time. That stale synthesis of high and low cultures isn’t even necessary, for it’s not difficult to sift out decent middlebrow art, to find mainstream cinematic professionalism that still holds true, internal strivings. For example, Mario Bava —

— A provincial atmosphericist.

Early, pre-Hollywood Tsui Hark…

— A wearisome sitcom artist and plot-spinner.

Ridley Scott…

— Another atmosphericist, and with age growing into a reactionary warmonger.

Juzo Itami?

— A bourgeois, mock-anthropological ritualist!

Mani Ratnam?

— Oh! Bollywood’s slickest hoi polloi humanist. The didactic pacifist song that closes his Roja (1992) is mortifying.

Miyazaki?

— Like attending a touchingly illustrated Greenpeace symposium.

But you’re touched nonetheless?

— Reluctantly. I’m cynical, not petrified.

But whether or not you’re touched should be irrelevant, really, in determining whether Miyazaki’s motivations are intrinsic or not.

Oh, I’ve no doubt they’re intrinsic, but in this case, Miyazaki’s beautiful professionalism — don’t forget this is the other, equally dangerous half of the equation — tries to convince us his single-line theme is greater than it really is.

Chang Cheh?

— Elegant Confucian imbecility decorated with muscles and shiny red paint.

Howard Hawks?

— A talented dilettante whose witty narcissism makes cringe true lovers of wisdom.

You mean His Girl Friday (1940) — but not Red River (1948), I presume.

— I suppose.

Object to Allan Dwan?

— No, actually. I approve of Robin Hood (1922).

You don’t find it hypocritical that its extravagant castle set, the most expensive of its time, is the centerpiece of folk socialism?

— No, that’s a hypocrisy I rather enjoy.

And the deflated prospects of Oily Maniac, the attempt to discover pure, unaffected emotions within an extrinsically, commercially-directed film, were a hypocrisy I wanted to enjoy. But I was disappointed…

— Oh, you were crestfallen, Shaw Brothers logo and all.

…because the film was too transparent, its meanings, or lack thereof, so baldly nonsensical that even genericism could not protect them. Interpretation became not unnecessary, but embarrassing.

— Perhaps we should stop using the word “interpretation.” It’s getting us nowhere. Instead, let’s coin a new word, “interpretivity.” That is, as Rousseau’s “perfectability” is to perfection, interpretivity is to interpretation: rather than creating static standards or genres of understanding, interpretivity, like perfectability, forever strives toward a self-knowing corruption in the pursuit of meanings resulting from the inevitable clash between the intrinsically-directed, associated with amour du soi, and the extrinsically-directed, associated with amour propre.

A “self-knowing corruption”? Sounds like deconstruction.

— I don’t know anything about that — it’s just Rousseau’s perfectability transposed to aesthetics.

Well, let’s not academically invent gratuitous neologisms for preexisting ideas — I don’t think Rousseau would approve. We don’t want to become like those neologists who say, “…what Professor X calls ‘basal tendency’ I will call ‘fundamental affinity,’ though by fundamental I simply mean elements relating to the base, and by affinity I mean those things one is tended toward…”

— Touché.

So what exactly does this new jargon-word you’ve created solve?

— Admittedly, it is jargon, but it is not merely the deconstructionist jargon of uncertainty; it is rather the jargon of humility — the antithesis of the fascism Adorno called the jargon of authenticity. The uncertainties of postmodernism have not rid us of the jargon of falsely militant arrogance. We can no longer pretend that we can negotiate with abstract ideas as we do with a sentient diplomat, or that words can interrogate a thing with the political effectiveness of a brass-knuckled fist.

Please, say no more. I myself am guilty of decoupling when I should have split, of interrogating when I should have tortured, of navigating when I should have crumpled the map, of negotiating on paper when I should have destroyed in real life. Yet generic usage convinces us negotiate is “exactly the right word” — quasi-fascistically, ambiguity and exactitude are made indistinguishable, faddish indistinctness becomes accuracy, behavior replaces interpretation, form replaces content. And those fucking puns! Impersonating cleverness, jargonists, brandishing flimsy puns as though they were thick shields, indulge in conveniently punning rhyming games…

— “Hetero–textual” is the worst.

And if beloved Freud says puns are infantilisms, is the intelligentsia’s greatest flourish the demonstration that it hasn’t lost touch with innocence?

— “A rhyme is but a ballade…but a good heart is the sun and the moon.”

Henry V?

— Yup.

So where are the good hearts? I don’t want to see puns, I don’t want to see your carefree second childhood! I want to see that you bravely don’t care what I think, I want to see amour propre sent back to the jungle! Cast off your puns, academics, and in your shivering nakedness reveal a new strength!

— But they cannot be brave, for they are beholden to professionalism, and no matter how much they complain about their academic prison, most choose not to saw the bars.

They do gnaw at them, however. I believe academic jargon’s oft-mocked burlesque, the skewed pith of its adjective-noun permutations, is willfully intentional. The elitism of academic jargon represents, in a socially acceptable form, the comic futility of professors’ struggles in academia. If intellectuals are declassed and humiliated by the culture industry, and then made prisoners of petty academic bureaucracy, it is logical that they should, in retaliation, make language itself their hostage.

— So the tortuousness of jargon is in fact veiled political resistance, much like the anti-Stalinist codes into which Shostakovich twisted his symphonies?

A good analogy, though Shostakovich was resisting a bureaucracy already unrivaled in its denunciatory, lip-smacking nonce-isms: “Bonapartism,” “rightist deviationism,” “leftist adventurism,” “counterrevolutionary agitationism,” and, my favorite, the understandably arcane “opportunistic Menshevik liquidationism,” whose tripartite slur nicely prefigures the “Bolshevik Jew commissars” from Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969).

— What’s “liquidationism”?

A slur aimed at moderate Mensheviks who, presumably, wanted to impede or ‘liquidate’ Leninist extremism. As a product of direct repression — i.e., Stalinism — resistance becomes the goal of an individualism writ large and covert, i.e. the martyred Shostakovich inserting Jewish melodies into his First Violin Concerto and making ironic the mock-triumphal finale of his Fifth Symphony, or the fifteen auxiliary trumpets of Khachaturian’s Third Symphony sounding acidic caricatures of Stalinist trumpery. But as a product of indirect repression — i.e., the culture industry — resistance is writ small and overt, i.e. postmodern academics hiding behind the elitism they allegedly rebel against.

— But political correctness pre-selects our martyrs anyway. Rationalizing poor, drunken Shostakovich’s tensile middle-period symphonies as cryptic “protest music” is only half the picture. We never question whether the musical jargon of 18th century court composers and their merry, apolitical ditties were complicit in shrewdly diverting monarchs’ attentions away from mass poverty, for the blasé cruelty of the European noblesse is more historically permissible — and whitewashable — than the banality of Stalin’s body-bag pogroms. Even today we don’t criticize composers for their complicities in oppressive Western regimes: rather than taking to task Górecki for writing Beatus Vir (1979) and Totus Tuus (1987) for his beloved, bigoted John Paul II, we instead laud his “deep convictions,” and give thanks for his rare redemptive spirituality.

Indeed, in the face of religion, the rebellious individualism we hope conquers Stalinism politely shrinks. But here we can again redress the rote interpretations of spineless critics. I recall a BBC music journalist characterizing Prokofiev’s two string quartets as “attractive” but ultimately worthless because they failed to meet the angst-ridden, vein-throbbing, dictator-resisting standard of Shostakovich — the oppressive regulations of generic criticism unintentionally reproduce Stalinistic single standards.

— This is why you need the humility inherent in “interpretivity.” But if Shostakovich enjoys a higher reputation today than Prokofiev, it is because he was stubborn rather than adaptable; this is called “having principles.” When bowing before capitalist regimes, however, abandoning one’s principles is excusable. On that job interview you mentioned, where you honestly expressed to a school principal your objections to journalism, you were punished for your courage, for your leftist deviationism, for “not playing the game.” When relativism is confused with capital opportunism, cowardice and deceit become excusable virtues.

Hmm…but is the “attractiveness” of the Prokofiev quartets “leftist adventurism” or “rightist deviationism”? Or, if these “-isms” are different political crimes, are they ultimately the same aesthetic crime?

— Well, by 1948, when the sadistic Andrei Zhdanov condemned just about everything save Khrennikov’s choral odes to wheat-threshing, even “transparent” conservatisms, like Prokofiev’s folk opera The Story of a Real Man (1947-48), were not conservative enough. But if what was for capitalists leftist adventurism was for the communists rightist deviationism, today’s transnational capitalism renders all adventurism merely academic. Would you believe “Land Rover” has sponsored a BBC recording of Prokofiev’s Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937) and Shostakovich’s early, revolutionary Second Symphony (1927)?

Who knew the suits at Land Rover were closet Leninists?

— Ha! They’re merely participating in a once-sour joke made consonant with the crawl of time. The mythology of Shostakovich’s martyrdom allows us all to briefly enjoy his lovely agony, at least as long as we listen to or perform his pain, just as Caucasian suburbanites can vicariously taste rude urban rage by plugging into hip-hop. For the alienated subject, charisma lies dormant in the object performed.

But how can you measure this dormant, objective charisma? When the bourgeoisie mechanistically holler and stamp each time Rachmaninoff’s suffocating and noxious Third Piano Concerto is performed, how does one tell to what degree the performer’s charisma informs the work (the content), and to what degree the work’s charisma informs the performer (the form)?

— Vladimir Horowitz’s wife used to retreat to the next room when he played, so she could hear the Chopin without being swayed by his charisma.

It seems that in the case of the Rachmaninoff Third, the pianist is granted charisma from an animistic work whose virtuosity exists mainly to generate personality worship. But when a conductor invokes the deeper charisma of Shostakovich’s once-banned Fourth Symphony, for example, he fantastically relives and allies himself with a noble political content, not just a technical form. The animistic animus lying dormant in Shostakovich’s middle-period works — whose resistances to Stalin are, current consensus would have us believe, more demonstrable than those of Stalin-era Prokofiev — has been socially constructed as a sort of mass exorcism, a Munchian scream that frees us from past resentments by endlessly restating them in ritualistic concert.

— But the construction of middle-period Shostakovich as protestor, victim, and musical saboteur is again a rote, monothematic interpretation — the stuff of psychoanalytic biographers — that reduces all his works’ animisms to animus.

People need to believe that the animistic charisma held by a piece of music, or any object, has a redeeming sense of social justice. Without this just content, the object is reduced to a capitalistic fetish whose value reflects, in turn, only the fetish value of the rare talent that can acquire the object. If the talent is rare and in-born, as it usually is with musicians, it is perceived as exclusive, anti-democratic, and, by extension, authoritarian. However, if we can believe the content of the music speaks to social justice (like anti-Stalinism), the elitist talent that performs — and indeed composes — the music is tempered, redeemed, and justified through a historical construction. We see this phenomenon in simpler form whenever Liszt and Paganini are criticized for having used their elitist talents to “sentimentally” pursue celebrity, rather than create “naïve” music.

— Classical music always centers around elitist talent.

Elitist, yes, but the culture industry can pump out scores of these musical prodigies almost as easily as it molds dollish pop idols, and a violin or piano prodigy’s precious natural gifts, her amour du soi, quickly transform into expendable amour propre the moment she signs a contract.

— Perhaps, but a musical prodigy’s self-enclosed talent can’t be faked, as it can be in film, where charisma resides not within unique individuals but within a bureaucratic, industrial form, within a position of visibility bereft of intellectual content — the phenomenon Weber called the “depersonalization” of charisma. Charisma has become so depersonalized that our momentary celebrities, our Ben Afflecks, are not Godlike but instead mock-Olympian mediocrities, pillars of averageness, decadent in existential form yet average-Joe populist in content, in looks, in beliefs and values; their immeasurable blandness is both a limitation and an infinity, and the meagerness of their talents, barely fulfilling the fetish function of the celebrity, ensure that the position can be quickly replaced by any other body of similarly minimal talent.

That’s why they called it Warhol’s factory.

— Depersonalization’s logical conclusion is found in the nonentities of reality television — merely mouthing these words incites loathing and vengeance — whose rags-to-riches “celebrity” allegorizes the upward mobility that capitalism, in non-allegorical reality, so frequently forbids. Our hybrid of decadence and populism is even rendered in the word “star,” which dually describes a being as both heavenly and scientific, as unreachable as God and yet as empirically verifiable as nature’s sky.

Yet the two meanings of the word “star,” the celestial-heavenly and the celestial-scientific, are equally unreachable for the common man.

— Equally unreachable, yes, but not equally real. For the masses, the unreal meaning overtakes the real one; the degraded meaning of “star” soon signifies that which is unreachable only because it is heavenly, not because it is a certain number of miles above our heads. Science then becomes a subcategory of religious fantasy: stars are unreachable not because they are in the sky, but because God put them there. Celebrities, similarly, are unreachable not because of who they are — they are nothingnesses — but because a hierarchical, irrational power, i.e. the culture industry, put them there. As we’ve already said, this “religious irreligiosity” also finds voice in politics. When oil baron politicians hide behind a mask of Christian populism, they defend their irreligious avarice as being part of a religious world view. And scientific, unalloyed reality has suddenly vanished; it is now as untouchable and unimaginable for the common man as either oil-gotten riches or celestial objects.

And what’s the solution? If we split the populism from the decadence, stretch them apart wide on a plane, and affix each element to one pole, can we then locate a happily democratic middle ground between them, between the depersonalized, bureaucratized populism represented by the movie star and the religious, Napoleonic, romantic genius represented by the musical prodigy?

— The solution is not a middle ground, but a rationalism that lies on a different plane altogether. Depersonalization is the fascism of pantheistic corporatism, posing as populism; romantic genius is the tyranny of oligarchy, which may, but never does, bring forth a philosopher-king. Yet each of these poles is equal in its overriding religiosity. In his Religion and Philosophy in Germany, Heine suggests the worship of Napoleonic genius is an idolatrous “irreligion,” but there’s no need to call it anything but religion, as the form is the same; and decadent-populism, though toying with anti-elitism and postmodernism, is still professed by those who hold hierarchical values, whether the class hierarchies produced by theocratic capitalism or the intellectual hierarchies produced by academic jargon. Therefore, anything lying between these two poles will also become corrupted by hierarchical values.

The rationalism “that lies on a different plane” is, I assume, something like Bakunin’s communistic scientism, but that science can become —

— Whatever you say, don’t repeat jejune clichés about science formally replacing religion. Science’s self-critical, self-correcting form, like that of the Platonic dialogue, redeems its untested content, while the content of religion refuses to be tested at all.

Scientists and Darwinists are self-correcting, yes, but they cannot correct the intractable, pious dogmatisms of others, any more than satire can. Driven by amour propre, by their careers, by propriety, timid in the face of the culture industry, and fearful of being branded elitist, scientists still let religion use them as a doormat, failing to protest loudly enough when theocracy claims it is democracy.

— Indeed. Like atheists who enjoy the form and overlook the content of Górecki’s papal odes, scientists, believing in a politically correct, Einsteinian notion of the supernatural, still give thanks for vague spiritual forms to answer whatever the scientific method cannot. Scientists have utterly failed to create a safe popular culture where atheists can speak openly without fear of reprisals. Anyone who criticizes the antediluvian follies of The Ten Commandments, or suggests children shouldn’t be indoctrinated with the militaristic theism of The Pledge of Allegiance — anyone, in fact, who exercises undergraduate levels of reason — risks being labeled elitist by people who think Charlie Rose represents democracy. On television I saw Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Moore fighting to prevent the demolition of his beloved public monument emblazoned with the Ten Commandments. After admitting to being offending by a public statue of Venus — fundamentalists are offended by non-abstract love, you understand — he defended his fundamentalism with a galactic irony: “It’s not about religion — it’s about the acknowledgment of all-mighty God.” That is, form sits above content, even when the content is actually a misunderstood form, i.e. religion itself.

Okay, now you’ve really made me lose my place. What were we talking about before?

— Science and religion, the depersonalization of charisma, the form of celebrities…?

Yes, the form of celebrities. We must stop digressing.

— An unbreakable habit, inherited from a culture where each film, each blaring newscast, each mote of misinformation, is already a preplanned digression from truth.

Returning to the form of celebrities: if they, lacking content, take form as their content, how would you characterize Schwarzenegger? Didn’t his aura originally stem from the content of his striated torso, his internally-produced, natural, material charisma, quite apart from the machinated forms of the culture industry?

— Perhaps his unique, self-created body did once represent the psychotic arch-materialism that even technology, photography, and airbrushed magazine covers cannot counterfeit. But what happened? With The Terminator (1984), he instantly became technology incarnate, bureaucracy incarnate, and with greater fame his musculature became as automatic, external, and merely decorative as the musculature of his pricey cyborg. His self-created body was reduced to an other-created, industrial style, just as the anti-hierarchical ideology that Jesus preached was negated when he himself became institutionalized.

Oh, that’s a horrible analogy. But almost funny.

— Did you see how the October 8, 2003 headlines celebrated Schwarzenegger’s winning the California governorship? The headline on “MSNBC” gloated: “A Governor [Gray Davis] Terminated by Style.”

There’s your transparency. The Democrats should run Warren Beatty.

— And the Green Party?

They are scientific rationalists, and thus for Americans already graceless and uncharismatic. If the Greens were handsome in addition to being rational, their ideological content could appeal to more than the handfuls who voted for scruffy Ralph Nader.

— But that’s the point. As ethos pretends to be logos, Hollywood’s bureaucratically empty charisma goads us into retroactively reading logos-content into an empty form, as long as that form is sexually attractive. This deceit is perfectly realized in the allegory Gattaca (1997), where pretty Ethan Hawke must hide his biological imperfections from the sort of eugenicist Orwellian state that we pretend exists only in science fiction. The irony is supposed to be that beautiful Hawke is not a superman but an inferior race, and thus qualified to allegorize universal victimhood; yet in real life Hawke, another untalented, immanently replaceable pretty boy, owes his capitalist success to the very eugenics the film critiques. The film’s real, albeit unintended, irony is that its Orwellian future, rejecting the conservative equation between appearance-beauty and reality-truth, is actually more perceptive than our illusory, image-hungry present.

The film, then, would have avoided this unintentional irony had malformed dwarf Danny DeVito been its hero?

— No, not Danny DeVito, just someone truly average, slightly plump, occasioned with pimples, perhaps lacking a tooth, and without the constant ministrations of Hollywood makeup artists. Cosmetology is ideologically opposed to democracy. The moment you put makeup on Ralph Nader he ceases to exist.

Charisma, though, was once held by the physically grotesque and misshapen — Charles Laughton, Sidney Greenstreet, Robert Morley…

— But they had genuine talent. They could subtly deliver literate, polysyllabic dialog without having to awkwardly strain, as do our young actors today, who grow up with the illiterate cinema, not the stage.

The agonizingly creased, Cro-Magnon Charles Bronson was untalented, yet indefinably charismatic.

— His charisma grew from his lard-luck, coal-mining biography; he was never handed anything. Besides, the dictates of the culture industry have changed since then. Indeed, they may change again.

What about Dennis Franz on NYPD Blue? He’s lumpily grotesque yet mildly charismatic.

— Or made charismatic through the cosmetology of lighting and camera angles. Even then, he’s limited — he wouldn’t be allowed to carry a mainstream feature film by himself. Today charisma must be the illusory combination of perfect normalcy and perceived superhumanity. It is the Bollywood belief in the well-groomed, lip-synched avatar, whose pelvic dances symbolize a collectively thrusting, procreative populism, but whose impeccably-tongued Queen’s English betrays a lingering, incestuous, and hardly vestigial colonial aristocracy.

Bollywood often mocks the inbred excesses signified by the English accent; you have seen, I am sure, Amitabh Bachchan’s silly parody of an Anglicized, stiff-upper lip general in Hum (1991)?

— Yes, everyone knows this scene — but we’ve already addressed the impotence of parody.

And the impotence of psychoanalytic metaphors.

— But charisma, by definition, cannot be democratized.

And if one has preternatural talent? Should he, like George C. Scott refusing his Oscar for Patton (1970), practice humble self-denial?

— Humility is a start. The only point on which I concur with Christianity: pride is indeed a sin. Yet Christian bigots always declaim pride in their race, heritage, and country. Why is this pride not sinful?

Well, celebrities who sweatily thank humble Jesus don’t decline prideful awards either. You’re right, though — we lack not honest men, but humble ones. No American today will follow George C. Scott’s example. Or Glenn Gould’s.

— Noble Glenn Gould’s error was his reactivity — becoming a mystagogic recluse could only amplify the worshipful mystique he sought to flee. He should have rather demystified his godlike virtuosity by dirtying himself, wandering amongst the plebs, giving free concerts in junior high schools, noodling out Bach on ghetto street corners with a ratty synthesizer. Trying to democratize himself through the media, he confused its alienation with anonymity.

So community service is the answer?

— Yes, insofar as lifelong community service, joined to humility, is our only antidote to alienation and elitism. But we hesitate over the inherently amusing phrase “community service” — we are so alienated that the word community seems ludicrous on our lips.

And how do you reinvent community?

— I’m glad you asked. Certainly, we know the issue turns on class. But we don’t need The Communist Manifesto; we don’t need rural reeducation camps, or to worry about healthcare, The World Bank, crooked CEOs, wall street inner circles, mass unemployment, war profiteering, tax rebates, race, gender, or sexuality. All we need to do is eliminate a few people.

Explain.

— We could catalog endless taxonomies of attack, compiling like Sei Shonagon cozy lists of hateful people in a bedtime pillow book. Really, though, only one group of people needs redress: entertainment celebrities, the organic incarnations of corporatism, its walking showpieces. As presidential debates are patterned after the one-liners of Henny Youngman routines, as Humvee military transports are remodeled as grand bourgeois leisure craft, as the morally repugnant verité cable series K Street (2003) allows Washington insiders to preen for the camera in fictionalized settings, and as governor-elect Schwarzenneger appointed Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman to his transition team, we transparently understand that the “entertainment” in “military-industrial-entertainment complex” is now the principle, engineering ingredient, the felonious mortar that binds together the edifice. The age of political assassination, of The Battle of Algiers (1966), of replacing the biases of one statesman with those of another, is both defunct and irrelevant, and because the Bush election definitively showed us we cannot vote away our Versailles on the Potomac, as the pundits call it, we must reinvent the French terrors as a new age of cultural assassination.

The entertainment industry’s skullduggeries may be hegemony’s “felonious mortar,” but when you lay siege to a castle, you target the bricks, not the mortar.

— The mortar is now the clearest target, it has grown so fearsome and unwieldy. Tell me, if Tom Cruise and Dick Cheney were both assassinated, who would be the more oft-wept? Whose death would strike deeper at the popular consciousness, and more acutely unnerve the social fabric? Look at the untimely deaths of Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in Hong Kong: the entire culture — and admittedly it’s an extraordinarily insular one — was brought to an instantaneous standstill, and that’s without murder.

Hmm…this idea is not novel. I recently heard how Stalin once plotted to gain the upper hand in the cold war by assassinating rightist agitator John Wayne.

— Stalin failed because he needed to act in secret, like those CIA operates who schemed to embarrass Castro by stealing his charismatic beard, or those FBI agents who tried to disrupt the Black Panthers’ organizational meetings by sneaking laxatives into their refreshments. We need no secrecy. We will stand for content, not form. We should, in fact, be thankful that the culture industry rapes charisma of its content, for then charisma’s bearers can be destroyed without fear that we are actually killing a person, a content. If you bag, smother, and drown Pat Robertson, he’ll be martyred instantly; but if you fell Tom Cruise, he, logically, cannot be martyred because he does not stand for anything save his own vacant form.

Your rationalization, though fanciful, gives the culture industry too much credit. John F. Kennedy, Jr. was pure form, but the media martyred him for his handsomeness and visible musculature alone. Had he the passé physique of Robert Morley, or, for that matter, the ideology of Ralph Nader, his death would have passed unmourned. Besides, celebrities are merely hegemony’s degenerate totems — why not knock down those who prop them up? Why not, in a Shakespearean frame of mind, kill all the lawyers, agents, studio bosses, advertisers, and especially publicists, who referee celebrity and mass consciousness as priests intermediate God and belief? How unspeakably satisfying it was to see the offices of The National Enquirer bombarded by anthrax letters, even if the millions secretly pleased by the infestation could never admit to sympathizing with terrorism.

— Attacking institutions is pleasing, yes, but ultimately ineffectual, for the enemy can be demystified only when it is understood in real, concrete, particular terms. No, you cannot vandalize hegemony in its abstract institutions, where it is strongest; rather, prick its Achilles’ heel, its pretentious individualism, its celebrities — particularly since the culture industry infects us where and when we are weakest, targeting preadolescents whose unformed minds cannot understand boycotts, protests, or other rational, resistant actions. Furthermore, celebrities must be targeted directly, without intermediation: the anthrax terrorist who mailed his presents to news anchors forgot that anchors’ nameless assistants would run the risks, as food tasters once sacrificed their lives for royalty. So here’s the scheme. We’ll begin with the two most obvious candidates, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, really two halves of the same primordial entity, both of whose careers derive from a eugenic physical beauty that celebrates, rather than disguises, a lack of talent-content. DiCaprio is not an Apollo but a straightened Ganymede whose post-adolescent emaciation symbolizes the tottering brink between youthful freedom and the conscriptions of adulthood, whose biscuit-thin male frame is of rare value in a capitalism where consumptive obesity is forever measured against the exposed bone of abdominal famine. If on occasion we’re asked to believe DiCaprio is Rimbaud, it is only because his waifishness is conflated with youthful sensitively, if not romantic genius per se. This aestheticized, fashion-industry anorexia is a masochistic corruption of that pederastic moment of hairless bodily awkwardness so beloved by the Greeks, who didn’t need to pretend to the sexual innocence of children, nor justify their pedophilic intent with the faux hedonism with which the culture industry punishes us. DiCaprio’s prolonged boyhood thus paves the way for Cruise’s premature adulthood, as he, an arrested boy, continually matures through professions of heterosexual commerce — a footballer, a pilot, a bartender, a racer, a lawyer — that necessarily increase in maturity as Cruise in real life slowly ages, in an attempt to disguise his biologically aging humanity. As these man-children grow into maturity, treacherously sliding from amour du soi to amour propre, they become indistinguishable from their maturing characters, and ultimately sacrifice their human biology for the synthetic skins the culture industry crafts for them. Once a biosynthetic part the culture industry, partaking of its exclusive pleasures, they make us wish we, too, were no longer human, and in this their professional “success” cruelly violates the brotherly social contract. Their success becomes a vain treachery we can endure no longer: to reclaim the social contact, their vanities must be eliminated.

And then?

— And then! What do you think would happen if these two oppressors, these idols — we needn’t say false idols, mind you, for that is a redundancy — were fatally brained, on the same day, in the same fashion, their biosynthetic corpses splayed in ungodly poses, and on their bodies pinned letters warning that each day henceforth the same fate will befall another two mock-Titans?

What would be your demands?

— No, no, no…this isn’t a kidnapping. There can be no scrawled ransom note, for our demands are unlimited and dumbfounding, inexpressible in one or two singly-themed sentences. Let them worry about interpreting our utopian terrorism, and from the boil of that daily-gnawing anxiety will brew a slow raising of conscience.

You’re a fantasist, an entertainer. No Chang Cheh, I’ll grant you, but a fantasist all the same.

— Everything — especially violence — becomes entertainment in a culture of alienation. That’s Walter Benjamin. But entertainment value will finally end with the end of entertainers.

Hmm…I’ve heard these sentiments before, albeit in milder form. After 9/11, so many leftists, scavenging for a silver-lined residue around the scorched earth, searching Diogenes-like for the vanished American soul, had a similar dream, thinking that, at last and at least, the murderous apocalypse would bury our culture of complacency, tabloid egoism, capitalist sadism, adolescent idolatry, and so forth. But after the dust settled, after some perfunctory moralistic hand-wringing, the opposite happened: from the settled dust arose a propaganda instructing us to raise our tabloidism and status quo idolatries up to the soaring heights formerly occupied by the fallen towers. Otherwise, we’d appear defeated, we’d automatically be “giving in” to terrorism, and begin questioning whether our capitalist indoctrination camps–our public schools — should continue brainwashing nine-year old American boys into reproducing the entitled avarice that makes nine-year old Pakistani boys seethe with envious, genocidal jihad. It is no accident that the surge in idolatrous reality television you so abhor coincided with this call to propaganda. American revenge was not bombing Afghanistan or liquidating Iraq, but newly propagating industrial culturalism through the pseudodemocratic ideology of reality television, the summit of what you yourself have called decadent-populism. And European anti-Americanists use this reactivity as their fuel, believing from a distance in American decadence more than those who live it first-hand, not realizing, as so many singly-themed, sophomoric exercises such as American Beauty (1999) and One Hour Photo (2002) would have it, that the American suburbanite quakes with John Updike-ish neurosis and Sartrean nausea, just as the privileged celebrity trembles with paranoia and chemical addiction.

— Please, let’s not sympathize with the personal failures of alienists who submit to the excesses of amour propre. We’re talking about sociology, not individual psychology. As for the 9/11 terrorists, they foolishly stormed institutions instead of human symbols, not realizing that what lies between the common man and Wall Street is not Wall Street itself, but the quasi-religious belief in hierarchy, as represented by celebrity, that blocks his vision. What would have happened had the twin towers of Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio been struck down instead? To attack the Pentagon or World Trade Center is obvious; but to attack celebrities is transparent.

So what would have happened?

— Need I tell you? Can’t you use your imagination? Daily business would become tenuous, if not halt entirely, and over the screams of the media, the newly disillusioned masses would be shaken down to the core of reason itself. No more could they look outwards, to cinema, to fill their lives — they would turn inward, not as penitents, but as children turning six again, re-arriving at the age of reason and self-awareness. As we are children longing to be adults, and they adults longing to be children, celebrities’ literal deaths will be our symbolic deaths, whence will spring our literal lives as newborn human beings. I don’t preach social apocalypse: you may keep your sewage systems, mass illiteracy, pay inequalities, phlegmatic road construction crews, food-service industry racism, corporate tax shelters, budget deficits, surgically enhanced news whores, PTA bazaars, Christian-conservative conspiracies, the concentration camps you call schools, even the more responsible parts of your capitalism. Nor am I bloodthirsty fiend. I’m not Sade and this isn’t Philosophy in the Bedroom — it is unnecessary to subject the oligarchs to the tortures of Sade’s poor Madame de Mistival, within whose vaginal lips is surreptitiously sewn a syphilis to end her days of oligarchic procreation —

Actually, your plan, perhaps unconsciously, has more than a taste of Sade, who suggests violence, like grammar, like all education, must be experienced so that it may be, if not actually forgotten, at least transmuted from a form of institutionalized repression to a content of self-governing pleasure. How else can Sade claim the libertinage that codifies violence into parlor bawdry — a libertinism that is his sensual, yet politicized, incarnation of amour du soi — will ultimately result in brotherly republicanism?

— This isn’t parlor bawdry, nor any kind of literature. I only aim to remove peoples’ chimerical ego ideal. Once fame is no longer the ultimate goal of all human striving, the masses will stop punishing themselves for being only themselves, intrinsic values will be re-understood, democracy will ebb back into all facets of society, and my leftist adventurism will come to its preordained end.

But if the masses remain semiliterate, dazed with religious fervor and its attendant illusions, aren’t they beyond redemption, beyond revelation, and, as we’ve already said, beyond educability? Isn’t this the point of Chayefsky’s Network (1976), where the studio audience — so alienated it can no longer distinguish between content and form, between pseudo-insurrectionary Black Panthers and snake-oil psychics as long as they share the same stage — can’t even tell if Peter Finch’s assassination is entertainment or truth? The culture industry makes revolution a fairy-tale for madmen, and the futility of revolt our only, singly-themed reality.

— If the shock is noble enough, a transparent meaning can cut through even the daze of semiliteracy.

Ha! Though you deny it, you really do echo Sontag’s Against Interpretation. You believe in transcendental naiveté and revelation.

— Naiveté is the revolutionary’s privilege, but my transparency is real action, not aesthetics or “erotics.” It is the revolutionary’s bloody duty to rouse the slumbering imagination, to summon muses smothered by cynicism, and yet to rescue logos from the jail-keepers we call pathos and ethos. The subjugated masses may not even have consciousnesses to raise, but even the addict can be sobered with the noble intervention of a shock. And then! Then imagine that eagle-spread before us were celebrities’ undignified bodies, naked from our sane punishments, and then we, like soul-reclaiming modern primitives, could devour them happily in exocannibalistic rites, reclaiming our stolen bloods, becoming whole again, content with ourselves at last!

Uh, this is getting very convoluted. At this point I’d start exclaiming that you’re mad, but I’m not self-righteous and you’re not Frankenstein. Really, though, you’re as beholden to your illusions as much as Chayefsky’s media zombies. You speak of annihilating elitism, but still fantasize about beauteous, onanistic heroism, seeing yourself like David Chiang at the end of Chang Cheh’s Vengeance! (1970), a stony prince whose charisma makes James Dean seem a slobbish Ernest Borgnine, undulating in a sterling white suit soaked to the crotch in erotic gore, the sort of fairytale bellicosity that so aroused Mishima.

— I’m not an eroticist!

Cannibalism is erotic.

— A literary equation. But this isn’t literature or Jean Rollin’s La Morte Vivante (1982). And don’t speak about Mishima, for whom the Promethean pen was ultimately feebler than the Epimethean sword, who showed us the backwards path to violence. What I advocate is anti-heroic, insofar as it is anti-illusory. Content —

Yes, I know, “content trumps form.” It’s quite interesting, though — Celestial Pictures’ English-language DVD packaging claims David Chiang’s character in Vengeance! is “psychotic,” though when he avenges his brother’s conniving killers his acts of bladed savagery seem appropriately Confucian, and therefore socially rational. There’s a whole doctoral thesis on relativism right there.

— Stop “derailing” me with your film babble. I am saying something serious here.

As am I. You’re advocating anti-illusoriness and rationalism — and I understand what you mean — without realizing there is no single rationalism. Rather, the idealized, logos-based rationalism spawned from the Enlightenment stands opposed to the functional or neopragmatic rationalism advanced by sociology, which argues that the culture industry, like religion, popular illusions, pathos, personality worship, etc., is useful as long as it maintains social order, engineers the economy, gainfully employs thousands of Hollywood hairdressers, makeup artists, set designers…

— All of whom are collaborationists, not innocent bystanders.

I know, I know. But as long as people are neopragmatic apologists for false consciousness, anarchic, Bakuninian rationalism can mean nothing more than the terrorism desperate leftists cling to as a life preserver in a sea of ever-fleeting last resorts.

— Whether it’s the first or last resort is irrelevant. It is the correct resort.

Alright, let’s say Messrs. Cruise and DiCaprio have been laid to rest, or exo-cannibalized, or whatever you wish. Since charisma has been depersonalized, can’t the spaces they’ve left unoccupied be instantly refilled?

— And who’d dare step into that position if it means volunteering to be the next victim?

But, again, no one will sympathize with your message as long as it is delivered in the form of terrorism. If the alienated — Chayefsky’s zombies — can no longer distinguish between the social and the natural, how will they critically distinguish between two types of terrorism, the legal terrorism which artificially diverts limited funds to subsidize Tom Cruise’s twenty million dollar salaries, and your illegal terrorism that seeks to end the same injustice? Even the tyrannical, mock-Stalinistic Pierre Boulez was arrested, shortly after September 11, on suspicions of terrorism by philistine-zombies who, knowing nothing of art, mistook his old bomb-throwing doctrines against musical populism for clarions to government overthrow.

— Perhaps, then, I have faith in revolution, albeit a qualitatively different faith than that maintained by religiosity. But if I’m mad with faith, what’s your sane solution? Don’t turn to academics, who, though allegedly advancing our sanities and anti-hierarchical consciousnesses, have ironically adopted Hollywood’s star system to stratify their published prestige.

I don’t know —

— Oh, please don’t say it. I can already imagine your response. “I don’t know what the solution is,” you’ll respond, “but I know violence is not the answer.” This is your greatest rebuff, your Constitutional right claim to ignorance and yet administer prescriptions, without even enacting the Gandhian passive resistance to which your argument would be tantamount. You will be content to sit in a theater, in an armchair, and proclaim the futility of all action. And you’re not even a nihilist — even that requires a little belief. You’re just content with confusion, and content to be angry with postmodernism.

Very well, here’s a more practicable idea: you could counter celebrities’ charisma with humiliation and mockery, mass-distributing pirated copies of their movies, standing guard outside their fortresses with flaming effigies, tossing fetid lambs through their windows, hurling rancid raccoons into the limousines they purchased with your money. It makes a point, without being politically correct. And then the revolution will be televised.

— There’s no need to drag moribund raccoons into this, and I have no desire to pointlessly spend ninety days in prison.

You’d rather get the electric chair for murder?

— I’d rather accomplish something. Civil disobedience grants the pleasures of righteous indignation, but in a bureaucratic society it always becomes an illegitimate act, for you must be contented with disobeying the mask — that is, the intermediary authority, the police, the priest, the parent, the pedagogue — instead of the grimacing face. You cannot disillusion the police, or other professional killers; the masses, however, may have some amateurism yet in them, and may be savable.

Before you used the word “vandalism” as a metaphor for assassination, but why not really vandalize, desecrate, and thereby rehumanize celebrities’ bodies? If you shave their scalps clean, your Night of the Long Knives will rob these Samsons of their charismatic hair rather than their commonplace bloods.

— Night of the L…! That’s a rather tasteless analogy.

You, of all people, now care about good taste?

— You’re prescribing a mild Maoism that reeducates with shaming signs and dunce caps. Or, your logic is Old Testament — they shame us for not being famous, and we shame them for shaming us. But I’ll not use a poison to cure a poison, for, as our immunities would increase, so would shame’s dosages, and soon you’d have a culture full of poison doctors. Besides, if shame were truly effective, the most heinous, unscrupulous, dastardly politicians would make the best leaders, for they, most of all, would need to push forth progressive social policies to conceal and disguise their shameful misdeeds.

Again, you give the powers that be too much credit. Shameless politicians have no qualms about their misdeeds.

— Oh, they have qualms, big ones. No one raised in this country can escape being a prisoner to shame. Nationalistic bigotries pretend the ritualistic art of “face-saving” is reserved for brandy-soused Beijing tycoons and two-faced North Korean diplomats, but the whole American politic — its clerical hypocrisies, farcical drug war, Iran-Contra conspiracies, corporate welfare bailouts, and news anchor toupees — is equally designed to secret the oligarch’s blushing cheeks from public scrutiny. I call this Die Volkschmiere.

Very well, then, if shame works, use it, and go shave their heads. Indeed, it’s better to use the enemies’ own weapons against them, as Rousseau instructs in the Letter to D’Alembert.

— What does Audre Lorde say? “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Revolution is no longer a decollatory farce coordinated by the intelligentsia. It surges from society’s bottom.

And you represent the bottom?

— Close enough.

And today Lorde is more relevant than the Rousseauan intelligentsia because the marginalized have exclusive truth claims?

— Not exclusive, just transparent. Particularly for a lesbian such as myself.

But the content of Lorde’s words should curry the same meaning regardless of your own self-identity. You, of all people, stand for pure content, right?

— I never claimed to be perfect; it is difficult enough trying to remain consistent. I admit, I cannot overcome self-identity, particularly as the very word “lesbianism” makes us wear philosophy on our sleeves.

Because lesbianism is a philosophy unto itself?

— The “-ism,” I’ve been told, denotes a philosophy. Exactly what philosophy, I’m still not sure.

There is no equivalent male “-ism,” no “Ganymedism” or “Thebism” — probably because the political legitimacy associated with an “-ism” is already built into male —

— We’re digressing again.

Right. As I was saying, you cannot redress violence with violence. Only softness can counter hardness.

— But my loving motivations are soft — content trumps form. Violence is only a method, not an ideology.

Every terrorist pretends his social outrages are acts of self-defense. Just as suicidal madmen scar their wrists to scald society, the terrorist believes the needs of the other lie within the needs of himself.

— “Madness”! You keep saying this, and you could not be more wrong. The problem is not madness, but cowardice. We’re too cowardly to actually commit insurrection, and its impossibility becomes a grimly mocking reminder of our impotence.

Well, let’s be honest. The problem is not cowardice, but comedy. Because cultural industrialism is beyond parody, is its own satire, and because capitalism reframes its critiques as unintentional Modest Proposals, making new Swifts from even the heaviest, most humorless of Maoists, all critique — impotent satire and real revolution alike — is now a conventional response to powerlessness, shorn of deviant possibility. If the incongruities produced by alienation are inherently comic, we must reject comedy as well.

— Yes, and by rejecting comedy, we also reject modern warfare and its Ionescoan admission that logos still lies beyond human grasp. You like framing reality in terms of film, no? Though Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush are self-aware, historical figures filled with amour propre, not naive clowns ignorant of time, insubordinate of space, and blissful in their amour du soi, their actions mirrored the preliterate, belligerent dyad of a Laurel and Hardy silent film…

As do the irreconcilable binaries of our American two-party system.

— Just as the silent medium’s preliteracy renders what would have been in the talking film a verbal dialectic into a physically violent game of warlike, escalating one-upmanship, belligerent politicians who exchange semiliterate sound bytes for logos engage in a dyadic Laurel-and-Hardyism, where logos-speech is merely the absurd mouthing of absent reason. And then CNN soundtracks play like music hall pianos, and news anchors behave like the Japanese bensho, obviating our own interpretations with their narrations, and the stages of our wars explode silent comedy’s pie-throwing farce into macroscopic genocides. Would that only a suburban house were destroyed as a result, as it is in Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business (1927), and not an entire country.

Okay, you’ve just proved my point. We must therefore realize conflict, leavened with logos, needn’t become violence, even the violence of your fantastic, ostensibly utopian neo-Trotskyism. Can I call it neo-Trotskyism?

— Sure. But if conflict doesn’t have to be violence, neither does violence have to be conflict. Reactionaries oppress; radicals liberate. My violence pacifies violence, liquidating rightism more benevolently than Leninists liquidated Mensheviks.

But how uncreative and unchallenging it is to turn one’s guns on robotized rightists! We at least know their violence is their pacification, and are not hypocritical about their vilest illusions.

— Why do people begrudgingly respect ideologues for the depth with which they hold their beliefs? Respect someone for the quality of their beliefs, their content, not the quantity with which they’re held, lest cruel irrationalism become valued for its very excesses.

Nevertheless, by definition, you can’t transform irrationalists. Instead transform those who are partially open to reason.

— You mean centrists? Those who adopt middle positions usually do so out of fear and uncertainty rather than logos. Semi-rational centrists deplore war but lionize warriors, speaking ill of the abstract and rhetorically of the real, and in doing so automatically bend right while pretending to look ahead. Feigning bandwagon nationalism, centrists “support troops” without realizing the courage of our military’s adolescent warrior-children — if it is indeed courage and not ignorance — cannot be loosened from uncivil aggressiveness and dutiful bloodthirst. They don’t understand that the very idea of troops is barbaric, and would blink at the wisdom of Mencius: “In wars to gain land, the dead fill the plains; in wars to gain cities, the dead fill the cities. This is known as showing the land the way to devour human flesh. Death is too light a punishment for such men [warriors and warlike rulers]. Hence, those skilled in war should suffer the most severe punishments.” Mencius advises punishment not for those with hands bloodied after the fact, but for any and all possessing deadly skill, whose inbeing swims in slaughterous professionalism, whether it’s actually been put to use or not.

Hmm…I thought, at some point, we had implicitly agreed to detest the echolalia signified by the slavish block quote.

— You taught me how to curse.

But here, Mencius deplores all violence.

— No, only those who are professionally violent, where professionalism is the form, and violence the content. I, however, am not skilled in warfare, but a fumbling, intrinsically-guided amateur. But I’ll confess something about my amateur anarchism: it grew directly, causally, and cancerously from exposure to media violence. I’ll confess to what censor-fearing, decadent-populist leftists will not: absorbing thousands of hours of film violence has indeed corrupted me, and though I hope my violence is by its content ennobling, I suspect, at root, that it’s pitifully reactive, a learned, Skinner Box reflex — from personal experience, I tell you this must be the case. Sadly, leftists believe defending media violence makes them hip crusaders for freedom; no, it only it makes them pawns, dupes, slaves.

So films have taught you how to curse. I was right — films like Vengeance! still hold you in their sway.

— But I try to resist their influence — a crucial difference. I do admit, like Trotsky, that a period of violent overthrow is required. But we cannot overthrow our present cruelties with artistic games, reactionarily wallowing in cult-film violence to dispel our excitable despair, or trying to exorcise present pains by conjuring, mastering, and finally dispelling history’s disturbed ghosts, as does the conductor of Shostakovich’s middle-period symphonies. We must exorcise the curses of our present, our films, which have not merely taught us how to curse, but have taught the wrong curses.

They’re not all so bad. You should approve of the mocking curse, quoted from Mao, with which Sergio Leone begins his Duck, You Sucker! (1971): “The revolution is not a literary event…it is an act of violence.”

— Quoting Mao can only be a dim joke. Though an ardent socialist, here Leone mainly intended to satirize his countless imitators and their trend of “leftist” spaghetti westerns, like A Bullet for the General (1967) or Sergio Sollima’s Run, Man, Run (1968), which attempts some feeble stab at anti-imperialist commentary when Tomas Milian’s scruffy, nearly Wertmüllerian vagabond hero ridicules colonialism in the figure of an Aryan Salvation Army woman who distributes to Mexican peasantry shame alongside loaves of bread.

Leone may have passed off Duck as a satire, but the film’s second half seems transparently sincere, particularly when Rod Steiger discovers his massacred family to the elegiac tones of Morricone. And what should we make of Steiger’s unwitting revolutionary peasant, who rails against privileged revolutionary leaders — like Rousseau — leading clueless peasants to their graves, and yet who, in the film’s coda, hasn’t any clue how to proceed without the leadership of James Coburn’s fallen Anglo terrorist? Is this supposed to be a parody of Sollima’s overly simplistic anti-colonialism, or a more “realistic” incarnation of the colonial problem? Is Leone critiquing phony resistances, or creating them himself?

— Even if he’s creating them himself, he can hide behind his satirical form. Were the form transparent, the phoniness of the resistance would shine through, as it does in Rosanna Arquette’s achingly unenlightened Searching for Debra Winger (2002), a documentary that allows millionaire Hollywood actresses, lazing in mansions and posh restaurants, to vent and whine about the institutional sexism that denies them “good roles,” and thus, presumably, the humanity that only “good roles,” hair stylists, and successful press agentry can afford. Seeking true change, these actresses should reenact Lysistrata, or flee Hollywood to finance and distribute their own female-empowerment productions — at least, this would approach feminism. But they do not want to be truly free; they only want to be free slaves.

This is unsurprising. As we’ve already said, preening journalistic media is a priori conservative, regardless of its humane intentions. I assume Debra Winger, which I haven’t seen, is basically journalistic…

— Nauseatingly, fawningly so, more than Charlie Rose.

Such phony resistances and non-debates, though, makes fugitive pockets of rage more delightful for their rarity. What a fresh breath of old air it is to hear the unaffected black Marxist diatribe of Melvin Van Peebles’ autobiographical documentary Classified X (1998), which reminds us the Black Panthers once made Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (1971) — and by extension its hero’s amazing male appendage — required viewing. Today youthful black Marxism is almost inconceivable — Sweet Sweetback has been supplanted by the illiterate thug worship of Scarface (1983), ironically the product of lily-white film school sophomorism. For Peebles, the blaxploitation film’s “technical colonization of the white film aesthetic” betrayed his outlaw low budgets and deliberate, anti-Hollywood ugliness, which, one might argue, were analogous to the irreverent, anti-Hollywood “aesthetic of hunger” that emboldened Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio Das Mortes (1969). Peebles has open contempt for the slickness of Gordon Parks, whose whitish, counterrevolutionary Shaft (1971) not only trumped Peebles’ crude wrath but traded in his fractured montage and derelict, prowling camera style for a polite, courteously linear narrative. But Peebles could have gone theoretically further in his critique, likening Parks to the buffoonish Senegalese bureaucrat of Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1974), made impotent and subalternized —

— Oy!

…from a dependence on imported bottled water, much unlike the anti-colonial villagers of Sembene’s later Guelwaar (1992), who defiantly tear and spit at truckloads of patronizing UN grain provisions.

— Unfortunately, Peebles’ neo-Black Panther screed against the white power elite was depressingly undone when the only cable channel that deigned to show it — at least in my neighborhood — was “Black Starz.” (sic) Anti-ghetto politics are relegated to the ghetto, where pro-ghetto advertising still thrives. If people love crying racism, why is the advertising industry’s ghetto demography excused? Even the more astute members of the adolescent demographic rightly perceived McDonald’s recent ad campaign as being patently racist…

This is the one with the insidiously ambiguous catch-phrase “I’m lovin’ it”?

— The same — perhaps they “love” all that sodium benzoate? The demographically white ads in this campaign reveal McDonald’s yuppies frolicking in offices and suburbs, while the black specimens, whose hip-hop rhythms are only slightly more pronounced than those of its paler counterpart, envision shantytown soccer tournaments and destitute, smiling youths making merry in abandoned parking lots, while adding the indoctrinating lyric, “It’s the taste I was raised with since I was a little boy.” So where’s the NAACP?

Well, because this commercial, touching on the fleeting Big Mac joys corporate suits imagine lurk in ghetto life, turns on a pathetic, sentimental narrative, popular outrage will be quelled. Likewise, had Peebles rendered his screed in Classified X not as documentarian logos but as pathetic narrative his opportunities for distribution would have been expanded, at least a little.

— But there’s the rub: Peebles cannot, like Gordon Parks, sell out to pathos. Consider, too, John Sayles’ Sunshine State (2002), an involving film as long as it explores the sociopolitics of its story of racist land developers colonizing oceanfront property. But its momentous import drains whenever its recognizable actors — like Angela Bassett — enact the Edward Yang-ish quilt of emotionally realist narratives required of art-house distributability. The film’s political content is trumped by its innocuously humanistic form.

Good; I think we’ve now come full circle, albeit in a roundabout way, to the issue of true charisma, or what you’ve variously called internality, noble amateurism, or the ghost of amour du soi, as pitted against depersonalized charisma, or what we’ve identified with bureaucratized professionalism and the hybridized decadent-populism produced by cultural industrialism. In the Sayles film we are painfully aware that famous, extrinsically-directed actors — like Angela Bassett — merely impersonate populist ideology in an attempt to repurchase their humanity, or internality, or natural affinities. Because Basset’s charisma is the false manufacture of cultural industrialism, anything her character says, any ideological content she conveys, will be rendered invalid.

— Therefore: If the meaning and value of art is inextricable from how it is represented and disseminated by the culture industry, we must revise Bakunin’s famous axiom. We cannot say, “If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist.” Rather, we must now say, “If art is, man is a slave; art exists, so man cannot exist.”

You mean, we must destroy art because art, now representing only industrial culture, stands in the way of man’s existence?

— Right…

But can’t you just destroy the culture, and rescue the art?

— Well, this, obviously, is Rousseau’s fantasy in Emile. But I don’t pretend we can return to the state of nature. I don’t know how to rescue art; I can only destroy culture.

I’m not sure I consent to your premise’s overgeneralized pessimism. Art is no longer art, but represents only the culture industry that disseminates it? Even Adorno, who probably wouldn’t have objected to his beloved Schoenberg being distributed on LPs, wouldn’t say this.

— We’ve already agreed Adorno is too tame. I must now say the culture industry does not corrupt man, it destroys him.

I’m surprised you keep using “him” as a universal pronoun.

— Why?

Because you’re a lesbian revolutionary.

— Maybe I’m not. I could have lied. I could be anything. It makes no difference. You can’t see me or hear the tremble of my voice. You can only read what I am writing here.

Good; now you’re trying to be consistent with respect to your pure “content.” But returning to the Sayles film, when we say Angela Bassett’s privileged professionalism prevents her from convincingly delivering a class-conscious political message in Sunshine State, we are really talking about a realism, or lack thereof, within the text, but not of the text itself. Were the same political message delivered by an unrecognizable actor, the validity of that same message would increase, and the validity of the film as a whole would also increase, for you cannot separate the validity of a text from the “realism,” or believability, of those who enact its themes.

— In other words, neorealism or social realism. We’ve come all this way just to proclaim the value of social realism? Or should I say “socialist” realism?

You may reject psychological realism as an aesthetics, but what we’ve been calling the problem of charisma can be reframed as the problem of non-individualistic social realism, insofar as both charisma and realism turn on believability, or the belief in logos, which is, in turn, understood as the lack of vain, ethos-driven charisma and decadent, elitist values. It is thus the aesthetic of realism — if understood not as the stupidly shaking verité cameras with which realism is usually signified, but as a genuine, sympathetic understanding of social reality — that will inevitably oppose decadence. The neorealist ocean people of Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948), improvisatory, makeup-free amateurs muttering guttural dialect and essentially playing themselves, know too well the class hardships whereof they act. They needn’t act, as does Angela Bassett in Sunshine State, to prove they are decent, liberal human beings, for in their naiveté lies a vestige of amour du soi. Likewise, Pixote (1982) can avoid hypocrisy only because its amateur street performers are doomed to the fatalistic lives they reenact. In the case of famous actors, however, the most we can hope for is that they’re convincing enough artists to make us believe their charisma is not granted by cultural industrialism alone, and to make us forget they aren’t poor in real life. Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) is a good example of this.

— The boys in Pixote, though, did become celebrities, of sorts, in Brazil. So does this mean the film “convinces” only when it was first released, but retroactively becomes unconvincing in proportion to the increased fame and notoriety of its street actors?

Actually, that’s exactly what it means. Convincingness is not a fixed quantity; it is, rather, a volatile, unstable element that fluctuates in proportion to the social or political elements with which it comes into contact.

— That’s nonsense. That would make all value judgments rest upon chaotic contingencies.

Of course it’s nonsense. What right does a nonsensical culture industry have to be anything but nonsense?

— Oh, I see. You’re really trying to go back in time, so you can split art from culture. Now you are becoming the fantasist. It is too late to split art and culture, just as it is too late to split populism and decadence. This is why, as I have told you, the solution lies not between two polar extremes, but on a different, forward-thinking plane. It is the plane of decapitating idols, not shaving heads. Don’t think you can go back. You can only return to the state of nature by plowing further ahead.

Okay, you want to return to this. You’re familiar with Thomas Szasz?

— Of course, the author of The Myth of Mental Illness, the rebel psychologist for whom diagnostic psychiatry is an authoritarian priesthood, and “insanity” an institutional dysphemism for “minority.”

Yes. In the introduction to his Ideology and Insanity, Szasz refutes Rousseau’s famous dictum, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Szasz says, “… if freedom is the ability to make uncoerced choices, then man is born in chains. And the challenge of life is liberation.”

— Rousseau may have misspoke when he said man is born free. He should have rather said man is born pure — freedom, certainly, is not purity. In fact, if man is freer in society than he is in the state of nature — the essence of the social contract — freedom is most impure. But the social contract suggests man achieves freedom when the chains are not destroyed but change their form, just as Sade, as you had said, sought to transmute violence from an institutional oppression into a self-governance. But Szasz’s critique is impossibly individualistic. We cannot make uncoerced choices. Because coercion is inescapable — even Freire eventually admitted this — we must rather seek the healthiest, more productive forms of coercion possible. We fear coercion because we believe in dignity; but dignity is nothing more than a perverse, bourgeois euphemism for shame. It is dignity and “self-esteem,” the foundations of entrepreneurial capitalism, which are the true opiate of the masses. What a meaningless phrase is “self-esteem”! If one is not a Buddhist, lama, yogi, hermit, or solipsist, what is the real difference between “esteem” and “self-esteem”? Let us negate dignity — that is, shame — and celebrity — that is, publicity — and surrender our freedoms to a set of chains healthier than the aspirations of any one individual.

So tell me, how will you, seditious pamphleteer, disseminate your message? Will the content of your message be rendered decadent-populist the moment it is published? Will you become unwittingly Swiftian? Besides, who would even publish what you have to say? At recent George W. Bush speeches, protestors were cordoned off behind roped “free speech zones.” Even free speech is longer free. It’s now subject to zoning and redistricting laws.

— If I yell loud enough, one person, at least, will hear. You only need one.

“The reprobate whistles.”

— Pardon?

Defiant Mephisto’s final line, as he’s being carried off amidst the heavenly chorus, in Boito’s Mefistofele.

— I am not whistling angrily, and this is no Faustian bargain. If you listen to me, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

You’ve spoken a good game, but you cannot really convince me.

— Because everything is a joke, right? And when you spend what precious few moments you’ve been allotted on this planet belletristically musing over Oily Maniac, is that not a joke of far more cosmic proportions?

That’s it! I’ve got it! That’s who you are!

— Pardon?

You… you are Oily Maniac! Like Oily Maniac, you will vengefully molest wrongfully empowered villains, not caring whether your crimes are immoral or amoral, for the distinction became erased the moment society shunned you. Your liberally beating heart, like that of Oily Maniac, reassures us your deeds are just, even though we question the limits of your self-awareness…

— No, no, no. That’s all wrong. Unlike Oily Maniac, I need no disguise, no double identity, no split between form and content.

You want to be a maniacal hero.

— But unlike Oily Maniac, I have a theme. And it’s a good one, too, not one of those single-line themes.

Fine, you’re Oily Maniac with a good theme.

— But Oily Maniac is incapable of logos-based judgment. Are you saying that I…?

I say what I like, but I don’t like what I say.

— If I’m Oily Maniac, who are you? My interpreter? Or just a deflated spectator? Are we now back at the beginning?

I think we’re finished now. You may leave.

— I’ll leave when you put down your pen.

Don’t you have some juicy tomatoes to grow?

— I think you should come with me.

So you can tell me how to live? I thought you weren’t an authoritarian.

— I’m not an authoritarian. I’m just someone who cares more about you than you do yourself. But I won’t even tell you how you should grow your tomatoes. I won’t give you any recipes. You can grow whatever you want. Just put down your pen first.

Go. Please. Go back where you came from. Okay? Good! Have you gone? Are you still here? I don’t see you writing anything. Are you still here? Hello?

— Yes, I’m still here.

You can’t leave, can you?

— Not until you put down your pen.

  1. This deflation is especially true of Bamboo House of Dolls. Though meretricious enough to make Don Edmond’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) seem like a James Ivory crumpet party, Bamboo‘s smorgasbord of titillation is arch-conservative indeed, from stock lesbian wardens to ogling scenarios where Anglo prisoners-of-war — whose milky skin and blonde locks excite an Occidentalist gaze — joyously soap their bosoms in concentration camp showers. Clearly, the film’s cult status stems not from any “oppositional” content, but from its mere formal existence, i.e. being the rare forbidden fruit of hegemonic distribution practices. []