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Interviewer: Is there a major film you’d like to remake?
Paul Schrader: Well, that’s all we do.. I mean you’re just picking and choosing you don’t actually originate anything, you just go through this huge buffet of cinema, and make your own plate. And even though all the elements are out there at this endless buffet, everybody’s plate is different.
Régis Debray, Socialism: A Life Cycle
‘Since 1789, ideas alone have constituted the strength and salvation of the proletariat. It owes to them its every victory’, wrote Blanqui (one of those who passed the ideas of 1789 on to the Paris Commune). Abstract concepts were the abc of a militant’s apprenticeship. The notions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, like those of labour power, surplus value, relations of production, etc., that underlie them, are not apprehensible by the senses. Secondly, whether project or myth, the idea of the Revolution as ‘what should be’ is the denial and transcendence of the immediate, the overcoming of the present. Both as logical discourse and as moral undertaking, the socialist utopia demanded an inner break with the ‘stream of everyday life’, an act of faith that mobilized the powers of conceptual analysis to break the accepted social imagery down into elemental abstracts, like ‘exploitation’.
Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds; it is fundamental for the idea of socialism. When it is cold outside and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone. Alphabetical memory, as Hegel would put it. Contrasting ‘the inestimable educational value’ of learning to read and write with alphabetical characters, as opposed to hieroglyphics, he described how the very process of alphabetical writing helps to turn the mind’s attention from immediate ideas and sense impressions to ‘the more formal structure of the word and its abstract components’, in a way that ‘gives stability and independence to the interior realm of mental life’.
All the revolutionary men of action I have met, from Che Guevara to Pham Van Dong by way of Castro (not the autocrat, but the one-time rebel), to say nothing of the walking encyclopedias known as Trotskyists, were compulsive readers, as devoted to books as they were unreceptive to images. A Hegelian would explain this by saying that reading leads to critical detachment, and—given that there is ‘no science that is not hidden’, nor future without ‘rehearsal’ of the past—to utopian anticipation. Abstraction encourages action, as remembrance leads to innovation. The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. Columbus discovered America in a library, through the perusal of arcane texts and cosmographies. The Ancien Régime in France was overthrown by admirers not of Montgolfier or Washington, but of Lycurgus and Cato. Chateaubriand and Hugo revolutionized literature by dint of Gothic ruins, Nietzsche vaulted over Jules Verne with the aid of the pre-Socratics, and Freud revisited Aeschylus.
Debray is the initiator and chief exponent of the discipline of médiologie or "mediology", which attempts to scientifically study the transmission of cultural meaning in society, whether through language or images. Mediology is characterized by its multi-disciplinary approach. It is expounded best in the English-language book Transmitting Culture (Columbia University Press, 2004). In Vie et mort de l'image (Life and Death of Image, 1995), an attempted history of the gaze, he distinguished three regimes of the images (icon, idol and vision). He also strove explicitly to prevent misunderstandings by differentiating mediology from a simple sociology of mass media. He also criticized the basic assumptions of the history of art which present art as an atemporal and universal phenomenon. According to Debray, art is a product of the Renaissance with the invention of the artist as producer of images, in contrast with previous acheiropoieta icons or other types of so-called "art," which did not primarily fulfill an artistic function but rather a religious one.
Cliff + Hotcha
If you’re into Stereolab, you’re almost certainly aware of the odd, grinning cartoon character who stared out accusatorially at the viewer on the cover art of many of Stereolab’s early releases. That weird little dude—gal?—was featured on Peng!, the groop’s first album, and the two important early compilations Switched On and Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On Volume 2) as well as a bunch of early singles.
Indeed, if you were following Stereolab in their first couple of years, that character constituted almost all of the band’s visual image up until the 1993 release of The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music”, which cannily repurposed the cover design of a series of Vanguard releases of “stereophonic demonstration discs” featuring French conductor Vladimir Golschmann interpreting the works of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, among others.
The Stereolab gang apparently referred to the little fellow as “Cliff,” as was revealed in a super-early interview with the band that Chickfactor did in 1993:
Not surprisingly, the Stereolab gang were up on their shit. “Cliff” indeed was derived from a cartoon by Antonholz Portmann that appeared in a 1970 issue of Hotcha, an underground newspaper that was based out of Zurich. Most of the sources I’ve seen say 1970 instead of 1969, but there’s rather little out there on the subject, so anything’s possible. Hotcha looks incredibly cool, actually, similar in spirit to the International Times and Oz and a hundred other independent periodicals from the period.
Hotcha was founded in 1968 by a writer named Urban Gwerder with the subtitle “Fun Embryo Information.” It lasted until 1971, and during its brief existence more than 60 stimulating issues were published. Hotcha was a major player in the international independent press movement, publishing original material by Kupferberg, R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Gary Snyder, Ed Sanders, and Frank Zappa, among many others.
Sometime in 1969 or 1970 Hotcha ran a single-page comic called “Der tödliche Finger” (The Deadly Finger) by Antonholz Portmann. It’s worth pointing out here that “Antonholz” is a made-up name, it’s a combination of the German version of Anthony (Anton) and the German word for “wood,” which is Holz. So clearly Portmann used it as a pen name. Here’s the comic—the translation provided at the bottom is perfectly serviceable:
Secondly, in the tradition of material culture studies within anthropology, function is only one aspect of the meaning of goods (and indeed one that is only really analytically separated out by western observers). Goods and their uses reflect, communicate and are instrumental in reproducing cosmologies. Mary Douglas writes, ‘Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty'. In Douglas' work, consumption goods and rituals make up a social information system through which schemes of social classification are deployed and controlled. Douglas is particularly concerned to demonstrate that consumption systems are, in effect, complete 'cosmologies', they order an entire moral universe: 'The choice between pounding and grinding coffee, is a choice between two different views of the human condition'.
Such a perspective also makes perfect sense to any author working within a framework of objectification derived from Marx or Simmel. Objectification suggests that the relation of need between the individual and the object world is an essentially dialectical one of constant mutual transformation through praxis. Modern consumer culture is one aspect of the monumental development of productive, transformative forces under capitalism, which is simultaneously a world-historical-transformation and development of human need, or, to use Simmel's terminology, a massive development of objective culture, which subjective culture struggles hard to assimilate.
Finally, we might point to the tradition of cultural studies, in many respects a development of both semiotic and of the anthropological notion of culture as the meaningful patterning of a whole way of life. However, cultural studies has always had a populist and spectacular dimension - exemplified in studies of subculture and popular expressive forms - that regard consumer goods as site for the articulation of contradiction and opposition: for example, the punk's transformation of black bin-liner into enactments of working-class, urban nihilism. Cultural studies emerged from a heavily structuralist phase (emphasizing ideological determination of meaning), as well as a fixation on the spectacular and oppositional (rather than on mundane or conformist) consumption. However, over the past 15 years, it has increasingly recognized that all consumption involves creative symbolic labour. Willis for example, focuses on how people make sense of, and therefore make different sense of, objects in the act of assimilating them. Consumption is therefore always an active cultural process; at the same time, it is clear that capitalism has delivered into the hands of ordinary people a massive cultural resource for the making of meaning, a huge site of ‘common culture'.
Often life itself appears to be colorless and meaningless. One's ability to pattern a life of their choice depends on their attitude towards life as instanced by biographies of well-known people. It is a process of mutual transformation that one transforms themselves into a creative force. Through one’s attitude towards life, one transforms the world in which they live. Art in effect helps one in such a process of transformation by pointing towards various patterns of lived experiences.
The Death of the Author
"The Death of the Author" is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes's essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated.
In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of an author's identity to distill meaning from the author's work. In this type of criticism against which he argues, the experiences and biases of the author serve as a definitive "explanation" of the text. For Barthes, however, this method of reading may be apparently tidy and convenient but is actually sloppy and flawed: "To give a text an author" and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it "is to impose a limit on that text."
Readers must thus, according to Barthes, separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate the text from interpretive tyranny (a notion similar to Erich Auerbach's discussion of narrative tyranny in biblical parables). Each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a well-known passage, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that a "text is a [fabric] of quotations," drawn from "innumerable centers of culture," rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the "passions" or "tastes" of the writer; "a text's unity lies not in its origins," or its creator, "but in its destination," or its audience.
“A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward, eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Manny Farber has died. The great iconoclast of American film criticism was 91. He coined the term "underground film," contrasted "termite art" with "white elephant art" in a way that started you thinking about movies in such terms, and once described the auteur theory thusly (I quote from memory): "A bunch of guys standing around trying to catch some director pushing art up into the crevices of dreck." Never known to the great masses of filmgoers, he started reviewing movies in The New Republic in the 1940s, The Nation in the 1950s, many other magazines in the 1960s, and finally settled at Artforum magazine in 1967, where he referred to the film I wrote as "Beyond the Volleyballs." He published one collection of his reviews, first titled Negative Space, later expanded with Manny Farber on the Movies.
He was an advocate of smaller, tougher, moxier movies. "White elephant art," he said, referred to vast and vacuous studio productions that look big and can't be ignored, but contain little of real interest. In contrast, Wikipedia quotes him: "Termite-tapeworm- fungus-moss art goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, like as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."
He appreciated that. He liked movies that forged ahead in their own obsessive way, looking to neither side, intent at arriving at no place more grandiose than their endings. Even before the auteur critics of France, he championed such muscular American directors as Howard Hawks. Once when Russ Meyer and I were in San Diego, working on a screenplay, we had lunch with Manny and the love of his life, Patricia Patterson. He regarded the King of the Nudies with a quizzical, not unfriendly, grin, and said "So you make the whole movie yourself, by hand?"
Although many film critics read and loved Farber, most of us knew only vaguely of the other side of his work. He was a highly-regarded painter, once referred to by the New York Times as the finest still life painter of his time. I went to one of his exhibitions, and thought I saw Termite Art in practice. He often took an overhead view of an assortment of odd little objects, seen against a semi-abstract field. There was wit and playfulness in everything he painted.
In addition to films, Farber was a critic of art, books, music, anything. Ken Tucker at ew.com says he has this Farber quote taped to his wall: from "I get a great laugh from artists who ridicule the critics as parasites and artists manqués — such a horrible joke. I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can't imagine anything more valuable to do."