The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

8

The Devils (1971)

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First time with Ken Russell.

The design is what stands out the most. Derek Jarman‘s sets are like sweeping edifices; crowds are often stacked vertically in seats or on flights of steps, architecture soars, tall flags flutter in a way that often evokes Kurosawa’s Ran (there’s an apposite sense, also, of Mordor). Especially the contrast between the baroque contraptions and costumes and the austere, alabaster architecture; something about the capacity (or even tendency) of depravity to thrive under structured constraints – this especially when considered alongside the visually consistent convent of St Ursula (this discontinuity also creates an air of atemporality which helps drag the political allegory into the present). There are some particularly standout sets: the swooning transvestite court of Louix XIII; early shots of the public plague pyres with Hard To Be A God squalor where you can almost smell the fear; the baron’s steaming and low-lit lair like something out of Star Wars; Richelieu’s Gilliam library like the vaults of a bank with nuns crawling like ants; the KKK trial; the final public execution, with its hypnotic Wicker Man totemism and Boschian sideshows like the cheering revellers spinning in the mouth of a painted dragon.

“There’s a man well worth going to hell for.” Oliver Reed is awesome as Grandier, completely magnetic and overblown. Pretty early on he delivers a speech on bodily transcendence which is lyrically Shakespearian, and this is definitely a tone which sticks with his performance. Most of his lines come in these powerful soliloquies: a tirade against national authority in the forum of Loudun; a passionate defence of his honour on trial (in which he rather chillingly evokes conflicts between an individual tyrant and national sovereignty); a plea for the people to “look at your city” screamed through a veil of flames at laughing skeletons. I think TD gains a lot from G’s very clear and honest fear of the physical pain promised to him – it tempers the bleeding romantic heroism (“I need to turn them against myself”) in such lines as “Do you love the church?” “…Not today”.

Vanessa Redgrave is perfect opposite him as Jeanne; the way she writhes under his unwitting influence, her conscience pulling her in different tragic directions as she rips the stability of the city apart like Samson – a sympathetic victim and a mad villain in one. Trapped in her half-height cubbyhole, praying and self-flagellating as her hatred and desperation grows, she’s like some creature of the sewers, a C17th Gollum or Pennywise. Obviously the absolute zenith  is the reverie before the crucifix spliced with the set-piece at Golgotha with the screaming wind, but this can overshadow her equally powerful first reverie: G gliding across the lake, J tormented under the gaze of the nuns, exposing her deformity. The bodily transcendence exalted by G is precisely what is denied her. Again, her demonstrations of fear are humanising, particularly at the exorcism, pleading that she speaks with her own voice.

Understated how funny this film can be: G fighting off an assailant with a taxidermied alligator; the fact that the bad guy looks like Warren Zevon; “bye bye blackbird!”; the pure extravagance of the king’s visit to the mass exorcism, the complete abandon by which everyone involved infuses the scene with infectious energy, laughing and screaming at the ferocious absurdity (the maggot-infested skull at the beginning recalled, for me, the sculpture at the wordless centre of Come and See). Down from these hysterical heights to the cold, tellingly sinister political symbols: the nuns almost shot in the forest like captives of the Nazis, the image of bookcases toppling behind the prosecutor as he torments G in his own house.

The single scene which appears to show any obvious restraint is of course one which, I have read, KR trimmed to attain that X rating: the crushing of G’s legs. Other censored scenes manage to suggestively imply the footage that was cut from them, such as when a self-tormenting J is finally presented with G’s charred femur. As a result, TD is, while still remaining satisfyingly intact, a dismembered but breathing testament to the savage dynamics of censorship, by which cinema can be both hurt and enhanced. In its openness and inviting, contoured incompleteness it is therefore absorbingly textual.

It’s also, surprisingly, utterly pop. An urgent plea through madness. Bold, B (look at that poster!), and brassily British. Somehow, rather impossibly, feels totally staged as spectacular enjoyment but also completely immersive as a riotously fun project to indulge in (Gilliam, again, in this sense of participation). I think its for this reason that I kept thinking of Life of Brian, a 1979 film which, considered as a potential double-bill with TD, illustrates the bizarre parallel universe that British cinema was in throughout the 1970s. TD puts a massive grin on your face even after the Dali horror of the raised, spinning gibbets and the winding path recedes behind red credits.

10

Baby Driver (2017)

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There’s plenty bad about this: for around the first hour most of the action feels like an advert (either for cars or coffee shops or an app or something – there was an Uber advert before the film which featured some worryingly similar choreography); too much of the car chase footage is internal, which is less exciting and confuses perspective; Ansel Elgort is MDF; Jamie Foxx is given too many lines, which deflates any menace in his performance; Kevin Spacey looks tired; the extended hog-roast/weapon-stash metaphor sucks; the ending sucks. On the positive side some of the choreography in the longer shots is great (horribly torn on the credits because it flows great but its far too reminiscent of Toby “Tugboat” Maguire’s street dance); the music usually stands up and keeps momentum; John Hamm has a Sin City cartoonish menace; there are a couple of surprises. Its greatest asset is Edgar Wright and his own enthusiasm, which is kind of diffused throughout the film and becomes infectious when BD starts going up the gears after the foot-chase scene. It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.

So yeah, there’s plenty bad about this. Totting it up in retrospect, it doesn’t look great (I think a lot of critics have been giving it an easy ride because of a sort of backdoor Tarantino effect: EW is an anthologist). But a slight surprised satisfaction still pushed through the garbled ending and out of the cinema. I won’t be watching it again (and I’m worried about returning to Scott Pilgrim) but I hope lots of people love it.

5

The Martian (2015)

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Two halves: a “Science” half and a disaster half. One of its successes (or, at least, the successes of the tv edit that I saw) was a gradual transition between the two (around the point at which David Bowie comes in / bilateral preparation for the rescue mission begins).

After an encouragingly brisk start, the first half is a very inefficient film about spartan, survivalist efficiency. I count only ten somewhat-to-majorly important characters but at least twice as many are introduced with terminal txt captions (which also list job titles) – shoots for documentary of key players, instead contributes to the uneasy sense that we apparently need a walking tour of the plot. This sense is continually pushed by running exposition, mostly Damon’s but also from NASA quarterbacks (was reminded again of the Kurosawa Every Frame A Painting, on visual storytelling c/ Avengers) (the exposition also describes what’s going on right now; cf Inception with its delayed-gratification rewards for paying attention). This is where the Science comes in; I like TM‘s attempt to dramatically deploy the physical curiosities of our universe as directly as possible, though this needn’t have meant getting MD to say “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!” (any doubt that this is for the Nerds disappears with the joke about Boromir. The sci-fi/fantasy CatDog declares a brief truce.)

Unless you like Neil deGrasse Tyson the exposition will get on your nerves. Worth a look from a literary-historical perspective, though (I see you, Ridley). Given that The Martian is Robinson Crusoe (as indeed are lots of stories) the ship’s log is consistent with Robinson’s own autobiographical scribblings (likewise just about the first task he undertakes upon waking up stranded, surrounded by raw material but with no companionship and no long-term hope). Defoe wrote in the tradition of protestant autobiography, which drips with the anxiety to critically self-analyse in order to construe one’s own tribulations as a dark night of the soul before inevitable and exemplary redemption. MD’s tone, in contrast, is immediately victorious (see: “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!”) which puts The Martian in the lineage of recent post-Musk sci-fi, one place along from Interstellar (if Brian Chippendale’s review is anything to go by, which it might not be) (See, in contrast, 2001 on the abortive impossibility of technological transcendence, and Gravity writing back to that with humility in the face of space’s inhuman physical hostility). This confidence is The Martian‘s distinct angle – one which, again, charges the scientific push – but it also short-circuits any existentialist introspection from Damon in his log entries (of which there is little, unlike Moon or the big beast, T’s Solaris. [M‘s Gerty is an ingenuous rerouting of the exposition problem, though the film admittedly (probably) requires less in the first place]). C/ Robinson Crusoe, whose autobiography enables him to set his own house in order in a more philosophical sense than that of resolving to tape over a hole made by accidentally exploding a depressurisation chamber. I’ll take fear and trembling over the Martian Dream (checkmate athetits).

The second half – the disaster half – is more successful (telling that the tv-edit appeared to have cut down on later exposition as if impatiently hurrying up the transition). Ejiofor is a little Mega Shark at times but Sean Bean was surprisingly effective as a moralistic counterweight to Jeff Daniels’ micro-managing Machiavel. Donald Glover does the Q thing well too. The rescue trajectory is much less innovative than the I-Fucking-Love-Science-cosmic-humanism of the first hour (it’s classic Ridley Scott, or Independence Day or anything else like that). Some of that asphyxiating 2001 frailty creeps back in through the technological peril – see the tense and understated supply-shuttle docking scene and even the sub-Gravity space-tagliatelle finale.

Consistent throughout is Scott’s showcased world-building (concede all quibbles before the post-podracing space suits and the humming martian desert-scapes) and a likeable if unremarkable turn from Damon (remember True Grit?). Fine overall; a good alternative to boyish Abrams over-saturation and a temporarily passable one to Duncan Jones’ smarter, more dextrous imaginative flights.

Don’t watch: Prometheus, any other Scott film since American Gangster. Do watch: MoonGravity, 2001, even Contact. Unless you want to be a space scientist.

6

The Garden (1990)

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First time with Derek Jarman.

Gardens are claimed spaces; marshalled and worked-upon but essentially open and flowing, personal and impersonal. “I want to share this emptiness with you” says J over frenetic opening footage of a floodlit set, swimming dizzy like a memory, “this wilderness of failure.” The Garden is explicitly presented as an alternative to directed and directing narrative; a negative space of uncertainty. A retreat, a holing-up inside the mind. Yet it has a lot to say and buried themes slowly surface and coalesce.

Tilda Swinton as a Madonna, a paragon mobbed by paparazzi in balaclavas like terrorists. She burns out and is left scrubbing the rocks, sifting; isolated in a cabin with a scream and a candle. A Tiresias figure: when the tragic couple above are introduced (their story constituting the closest thing to a narrative through-line) they throw rocks into the sea idyllic, sunshine idleness like A Single Man; cuts to TS wind-battered grubbing for mushrooms. Boys fighting with pillows; TS bitterly plucking a pheasant in the dark.

Frequent use of green-screen staging like a Platonic cave: the fire of ambient scenes – Super 8 burning hurtling – projecting onto portentous women running fingers round wine glasses, a Spanish dance upon the table, later scenes of distress. Conscious revelling in artificiality. (To me this ties in with a theme of broken promises and dashed expectations, the naïvety of the couple as fragile self-representation) Later scenes of boys washing disturbed, clouds over and the eldest furiously pushes J himself and his camera away.

The Think Pink song is amazing, dazzling jingle over a backdrop of a gay rights march (in Cambridge?). A hanged Judas, gnawed tongue purple and exposed, a ponytailed suited man with a spotless motorcycle using his corpse to flog credit cards.

The seemingly more personal memories are often the best: the public school boy frantically spinning a globe on that table while old masters slap their canes or open-close books like automatons; a sprinting PE-teacher furiously blowing a whistle (later horrifyingly interpolated as a tuxedoed observer to a stoning in dresses, those paparazzi flashing. – these image bleedthroughs string scenes together and add to the aurora of nightmare)

Environmental disaster. Jesus beneath the pylons. “This year winter never came…”

Lynchian feel throughout and the apotheosis is the cafe. The couple silent, gagged and bruised as police build simian laughter; smearing treacle on the captive condemned, tar and feathers as they bellow operatically. (the main guy looks like BOB) This is horrifying.

The poem at the end is really heartbreaking, and for me redeemed any discomfort with the occasionally bald exhibition of imagery. “Old age came quickly for my frosted generation.” Jarman in his garden awaiting his death from AIDS complications, four years after the film four years after diagnosis. Writhing on a bed pushed out to sea. Turning the pages of a journal, scenes of industry, red clouds piling past overhead.

8

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)

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Bracing but also nimble – a level stare and a panoptic one. Its urgency creates an unsettling disjunction between possibility and failure, both in terms of his diagnosis and in relation to the global events since its publication eight years ago. Frequent regret that his voice will no longer reach us tempered by realisation that we had seven more years of his work, which I need to explore.

The idea

Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics. (4)

Here glossing Communist Manifesto on capitalism resolving all forms of freedom into the single form of Free Trade; thereby replacing veiled forms of tyranny (religion etc) with direct tyranny. MF productive on idea of capitalism as “what is left”: speaks to a degenerational / devolutionary trend apparently opposing the growing complexity and abstraction of capitalism’s development. A paradoxical formation both central to and exemplary of his critique, which begins the process of resistance that he advocates:

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasising the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. (16)

Initiates a process of illuminative focalisation: the diverse problems covered in CR are all at root politico-economic, a point he brings home in the conclusive chapter.

Frequently taking off from Žižek. On Live Aid, ProductRed: “It is necessary to act straight away, we were told; politics has to be suspended in the name of ethical immediacy.” (15) Development of Z on Starbucks; ‘ethical capitalism’ as an MO is ‘justifiable’ because most direct. Tessellates interestingly with Z: “Don’t act, just think.” Refreshingly level sense of difficulty.

Difficulty arises through the hydra-like mercuriality of the target, which is often counter-intuitive. See eg. systemic diffusion of responsibility: 

…It is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. … This impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? (69)

Interesting that ‘meritocratic’ critics of the welfare state will happily put blame on “the system itself” instead of “pathological individuals” yet only when punching downwards. MF also here drawing attention to the 2008 financial crash, but chilling to read after Saville: investigation’s vigorous enthusiasm for dismantling the legacy of the individual, but inertia in addressing the systemic conditions that allowed such abuse to thrive and (given the number of abusers uncovered) proliferate (this at the BBC).

Education, time, mental health

MF’s targets for attacks of systemic “inconsistency” – firstly mental health:

Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather. … In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political category. But what is needed now is a politicisation of much more common disorders.

This is astute, and shows potential for implementation (but also appropriation), with apparently increased focus on mental health issues since the 2010s started (Mary agreed and wondered if MF had a direct contribution).

…Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. … I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatisation of stress [EH] that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? (19)

To me this is a vital, direct and somewhat unexpected line. Boiled down to an eminently quotable bald/bold truth: “To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces moods of populations.” (35)

Writing from his perspective as a university lecturer; education and time:

Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many – and these are A-level students mind you – will protest that they can’t do it. [EH] The most frequent complaint teachers here is that it’s boring. [EH] It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be ‘boring’. What we are facing here is not just time- [24] honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. (23-4)

Here evoking (Philip) Fisher on modernist attack on the “boredom of an inhabited world,” Beckett on cessation of habitual action as a moment when “the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being” – now “boredom” is the condition of “suffering”, of cessation of habitual (subconscious) activity-consumption. Difficulty of not looking at phones for a few seconds; situation of workspace and educational space at the same technological site.

Walked back from the park holding CR and thinking about the first half that I’d read that afternoon, particularly the mental health/education angle. What experiences are most accessible to me? Self-assessment is very difficult. May seem obvious to say that university friends who have confronted problems are made most aware of them (presumably ie. feel the worst effects) during the run-up to examination period, but I think CR illuminating on temporal disjunction: external enforcement of a definite/linear scale, maximum conflict with internalised/present/repetitive stream. T short-term, brief panic under pressure is all I know. But it’s more about what I don’t know. “How has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”

Mental health and habit

…Indeed, in expanding the critical adoption of the conceptual and linguistic framework of psychological conditions, MF edges closer to modernist psychological discourses:

It is not surprising that memory disorders should have become the focus of cultural anxiety – see, for instance, the Bourne films, MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Bourne’s “transnational nomadism is rendered in an ultra-fast cutting style which functions as a kind of anti-memory, pitching the viewer into the vertiginous ‘continuous present’, which Jameson argues is characteristic of postmodern temporality.

We see it above in the “communicative sensation-stimulation matrix.” MF continues:

The complex plotting of Ludlum’s novels is transformed into a series of evanescent event-ciphers and action set pieces which barely cohere into an intelligible narrative. Bereft of personal history, Bourne lacks narrative memory [IEH], but retains what we might call formal memory [IEH]: a memory – of techniques, practises, actions – that is literally embodied in a series of physical reflexes and tics.

Perhaps Bergson more appropriate here, on the difficulty of enacting active “representation,” cutting through generative and predictive “habit memory”.

Here Bourne’s damaged memory echoes the postmodern nostalgia mode as described by Frederic Jameson, in which contemporary or even futuristic reference at the level of content obscures a reliance on established or [59] antiquated models at the level of form. On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolise attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty. (58-9)

Clearly Bourne’s habit memory is, while constitutive of the kind of psychological splitting that Fisher identifies as an actually prevalent and even definitive state under CR, nevertheless itself a largely symbolic stand-in for the real split (skeptical of the comparison between cultural “formal” retrofetishism and Bourne’s own “formal memory). Still, similarities with modern period seems worth probing, especially because of investigation of “normal” psychological conditions. Chiming with O’Toole on new habitual, technological rhythms in the 21st century:

…Spinoza shows that, far from being an aberrant condition, addiction is the standard state for human beings, who are habitually enslaved into reactive and repetitive behaviours by frozen images (of themselves and the world). Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved [EH] only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the ‘sad passions’ that intoxicate and entrance us. (73)

Self-diagnosis, non-habitual self-awareness (though not sure about the situation of this in relation to Sp’s reading of Genesis).

Education and dissemination of responsibility/authority

Sticking with distortion and fragmentation of norms in educational environments:

Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. … Ironically, the role of disciplinarian is demanded of educators more than ever at precisely the time when disciplinary structures are breaking down in institutions. With families buckling under the pressure of a capitalism which requires both parents to work, teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioural protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases only minimally socialised. (26)

Sort of observation that is eminently apparent; throughout CR despite vaulting tonal deviations. As more responsibility is loaded onto schools and universities re developing the individual, they are likewise burdened with postmodern (or CRist) responsibilities of authority. Transition from “heavy inspection” which comprised “many lesson observations and a large number of inspectors present in the college,” to “light inspection”, which outsources “surveillance and monitoring … from OFSTED to the college and ultimately to lecturers themselves,” rendering them “a permanent feature of the college structure (and of the psychology of individual lecturers).” Maps onto distinction between Kafka’s “ostensible acquittal”  (“you petition the lower court judges until they grant you a non-binding reprieve”) and “indefinite postponement” (keeps your case at the lowest level of the court, but at the cost of an anxiety that never ends.”) (51) Foucault’s “technologies of the self.” Broad social political mission begins with students: “What must be discovered is a way out of the motivation/demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy.” (30)

Liberalism and doublethink

Good on Lacan’s notion of the “big Other” (“a collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead, we only ever confront its stand-ins.” 44) Elsewhere explicitly taking over from Orwell, here evoking doublethink: “division … between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” (46) This a stinging attack on resultant liberal preference for critique over action (Mao: Liberalism is: “to indulge in irresponsible criticism in private instead of actively putting forward one’s suggestions to the organization. To say nothing to people to their faces but to gossip behind their backs, or to say nothing at a meeting but to gossip afterwards. To show no regard at all for the principles of collective life but to follow one’s own inclination.”) The weird illogic of this cognitive dissonance – Ratners jewellery: “Customers might previously have known that the jewellery Ratners sold was poor quality, but the big Other didn’t know; as soon as it did, Ratners collapsed.” (47)

…doublethink and habitual self-deception: “Capitalist realism … entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment.” Cites his line manager, who, re OFSTED self-inspection, had, while “extolling the virtues of the new, light inspection system … told us that the problem with our departmental log-books was that they were not sufficiently self-critical.” Yet he urged that “any self-criticisms we make are purely symbolic and will never be acted upon…” (52) Here the manager

asserted with full confidence a story about the college and its future one day – what the implications of the inspection were likely to be; what senior management was thinking; then literally the next day [EH] would happily propound a story that directly contradicted what he previously said. There was never a question of his repudiating [EH] the previous story; it was as if he, only dimly remembered there ever being another story.

This man is a model of health in CR: “such cheerfulness can only be maintained if one has a near-total absence of critical reflexivity and a capacity, as he had, to cynically comply with every directive bureaucratic authority.” (55) Though dependent upon disjunct between internal feelings and external actions , as liberalism, still evocative of The Secret Agent‘s Assistant Commissioner:

It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception

Doublethink, hauntology and technology

Tending towards MF’s later interests: discussion of UKLG story about a man whose dreams come true, and are enacted upon others, who “accept the incommensurable and the senseless without question,” a strategy which

has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but … has a special role to play in late capitalism, that ‘motley painting of everything that ever was’, whose dreaming up and junking of social fictions is nearly as rapid as its production and disposal of commodities. (56)

Describes Gordon Brown’s transition from Glaswegian socialism to New Labour neoliberalism as representative of Labour’s development: “gutted, and gutless, its insides replaced by simulacra which once looked lustrous but now possess all the allure of decade-old computer technology.” (58)

Depressing diminishment of Fisher’s own vision of technological basis for change: disputes Adam Curtis’s notion that the internet

facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits. (75)

Suggests (here vaguely) instead that “blogs can generate new discourse networks that have no correlate in the social field outside cyberspace,” that “some zones of cyberspace offer resistance to a ‘critical compression’ that is elsewhere depressingly pervasive.” k-punk (and Zero Books) – but tumblr, facebook and news bubbles, fake news 2016.

Like the focus on student mental health, CR is often eerily prophetic: destructive notion of “flexibility” of “casualised” workforce evokes later row on 0 hours contracts (33). Elsewhere MF visions sadly perverted: populism (less so Trump, more so NF, UKIP-Conservatives) has stepped in to a space that MF identifies as a pitfall for new progressivism:

…an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitaliism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality. (79)

MF advocates an austerity of resources and consumption that was instead seized upon (a year later with the election of Cameron) as a tool for Neoliberal ‘recovery’:

…the proliferation of certain kinds of mental illness in late capitalism makes the case for a new austerity, a case that is also made by the increasing urgency of dealing with environmental disaster. Nothing contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth more than the concept of rationalising goods and resources. Yet it is becoming uncomfortably clear that consumer self-regulation and the market will not by themselves avert environmental catastrophe. There is a libidinal, as well as a practical case, to be made for this new ascesis. … Rationing of some sort is inevitable. The issue is whether it will be collectively managed, or whether it will be imposed by authoritarian means when it is already too late. (80)

Again though, like I said, we had another seven years from MF. He isn’t just a ghostly voice from the past. Will be returning to this.

Today hospitals around the country and NHS computer systems were hit by a cyber attack demanding ransom payment in bitcoin.