Saturday, January 13, 2007

feeling unreasonable

I have been meaning to write about a few things, but have been, in turns, too lazy, or too busy to do so.

I have been meaning to write about nearly setting off a bomb scare next to the Treasury Building in Washington DC. I left my bag in a bar. Can you imagine the scenario? Bar full of DC lawyers and government staffers - brown man, with a scruffy beard, and whispering conspiratorially in a strange foreign tongue just before he leaves, leaves a bag... oh my god!

I have been meaning to write about being completely pissed off (and occasionally approving) of the displays of 'culture' at the National Musuem of the American Indian in DC. 'This is the (pick your tribe) view of the universe divided into (pick your number) binaries.' Is. Culture exists in the timeless now, and has nothing to do with history. Indian culture, that is. Who would make such a claim for the 'West'?

I have been meaning to write about how extremely extremely distressed I was by watching 'Letters From Iwo Jima'. I haven't seen Apocalypto but with all that I have read around it i begin to see a pattern. A pattern tells me that when Hollywood starts making films in foreign tongues, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Because it bestows a claim of authenticity like nothing else does. A claim of empathy, which makes people call "letters...' the best film of the year, and a heavyweight Oscar contender. And yet - I personally found the film to be slow, tiresome and hugely problematic. Though the film is in Japanese, and with mostly Japanese characters, the only two 'noble' Japanese commanders are both people who have spent time in America. All the other Japanese officers are either villainous and scheming or completely psychotic, or both. Not to mention, murderously inept. As is the Japanese soldiery, dying like flies. Betraying no instinct of self preservation in battle. Except for the Saigo character, who actually survives three major assaults, but who is a bumbling fool at everything but survival. Watching Letters... could make you wonder how the Japanese ever won anything in the Second World War?

Is there something common to all the three things I've been wanting to write about, but haven't? To my becoming a potential bomber in a DC bar, to the 'culture' displays of the Native American Museuem, to the 'authentic' portrayal of native violence and irrationality in Apocalypto and Letters? The assumption of superiority by 'the west' (much as i hate to use the term...!) on the basis of being calm, ordered and rational, is implicit in all of these.

Sorry, that's not the most original conclusion in the world, but it has been pissing me off a little. So am taking this opprtunity to post two extract from one of the last intelligent things I wrote for grad school, which is about magic/science and un/reason. Trust me, there are connections!

...But we have still not spoken of technology, of the material presence of modern science and its products and practices in the world. Let us consider, for example, the X-Ray, as Richard Panek does in his book 'The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes'. Briefly, in 1895, working in his laboratory, Wilhelm Roentgen came across a new type of effect which he attributed to an unknown type of radiation (Hence X-ray). He worked on standardizing the production of this effect, though he still couldn't explain it, and then asked his wife to insert her hand between the Cathode Ray tube and a photographic plate. 'A substance passed between the tube and the plate – must have passed, because even though the subject itself was invisible, the effect was undeniable. An image of his wife's hand was slowly burning itself into existence.' This image, with the skeletal structure of the bones of the hand clearly visible, was published in newspapers worldwide in early 1896. No one knew what X-rays were, no one knew what the X-rays did, but they became a sensation, taking on a life of their own in the world. 'An early account cautioned readers who would fool themselves into thinking that if they “go inside the house and pull down the blinds and wait till its dark,” they might feel quite safe in sinning”: “There are the x-rays you know – and nobody knows what other invisible pencils may be registering all our actions or even thoughts -or what's worse, the desires that we don't dare think. They, too, must leave their mark somewhere.” '

This account has an 'uncanny' resemblance to Schelling's definition of the unheimlich as deployed by Freud – 'Everything is unheimlich that should have stayed hidden and secret but has come to light.'...

The X-rays are an unusually resonant metaphor for the uncanny, for they brings to light all that has been covered up, hidden. Or rather, they promise to. No one, in 1896, is quite sure how they work, or what they do. But they has been brought into the world, they have strange effects that cannot be predicted, or controlled, or even understood. Prolonged exposure causes cancer. The X rays seem to have a will, and purification/repression here breaks down under bewilderment and terror and uncanniness, language ascribes agency to cells and rays - they can be malignant. That things can have agency, that they can have a life, is what purification/repression wants to keep hidden but which here comes to light.

'“ In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton, and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up...”' Freud quotes Jentsch at the beginning of his analysis of a story by E.T.A Hoffmann, but then he begs to disagree, arguing that this is a relatively unimportant element in the story. The main theme, according to Freud, is the theme of the Sandman who tears out children's eyes, which Freud links to repressed castration anxiety. Freud was, after all, a man of science.

'Our analysis of instances of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe. the subject's narcissistic over valuation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thought and the and the technique of magic based on that belief; by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers, or 'mana'; as well as by all the other creations with the help of which man... strove to fend off the manifest prohibitions of reality.' Freud then gives us an evolutionary argument, saying that 'each of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to this animistic stage in primitive men, and that everything that now strikes us as 'uncanny' fulfills the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity...'

But these are not residues. Magical thought has never left the world. It only seems to have been banished by the repression of purification, the divide between nature and culture, subject and object, but it is there, just beneath the surface. To quote Latour, 'How could we be capable of disenchanting the world, when everyday our laboratories and our factories populate the world with hundreds of hybrids stranger than those of the day before? Is Boyle's air pump any less strange than the Arapesh spirit houses? ... How could we be chilled by the cold breath of the sciences, when the sciences are hot and fragile, human and controversial, full of thinking reeds and subjects who are themselves inhabited by things? '

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