Splinters: October – short essays on the here & now
This month: Family life... Chatter .... Great little men... DeepTrust ... Against Extinction
Family life: Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2018)
by Leonie Rushforth
In a film in which every human exchange is about defending, exerting or extending power, it’s a suggestive fact that one of the early shots is of the massive collapse of a concrete retaining wall in the foundations of a building under construction. We see it bulging then buckling and crumbling and then a great avalanche of earth and rubble.
The film is bracketed by footage shot on 12 year old Eve’s mobile phone; this gives her and her ways an authority that sits just outside the power relations of the Laurent family. Suspended between innocence and experience, her figure allows for some carefully limited play of hope and feeling in the viewer. Eve is interested in drugs; prescribed tranquillisers for depression, she confesses later in the film to her grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), that she ground them up and fed them surreptitiously to a friend at school. We watch her kill her hamster by giving it her mother’s medication. And Haneke allows us to consider the possibility that Eve is also responsible for her mother’s overdose and eventual death.
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Later Eve films her baby half-brother tumbling around in his cot. We learn her older brother died some years before and, filming the baby, she posts a message to a friend saying how much she’s looking forward to having a brother again – but this time she will be the one in charge. The dread we feel watching the gurgling baby through the camera on her phone tells us everything we need to know about power in Eve’s world - which is also ours. A little later we see a shot of a young woman with a buggy shoving an elderly couple off the pavement.
If Eve is the recorder of events (two ambiguous suicides) that bracket the film, the low-key key player she is observing is her aunt, Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) whose impassive face betrays an occasional flicker of impatience when someone, usually her hopeless son or her brother, makes a claim on her time and attention. Expressive only in public – and on these occasions she is all eloquence and grace – she is the hardworking vehicle for the transmission of power in this exemplary company – a construction company located in Calais. She is the guarantor of its continuation. If the castration and sacrifice of her miserable son is part of the price, it’s one she’ll pay without hesitation, as we see when she writes him out of the company structure as part of the London deal her future husband brokers, and again at the end of the film when she breaks his finger to shut him up at the wedding. ‘What else could I do?’ she whispers with the bully’s deft vehemence, as he stares in disbelief at his mangled hand.
Anne’s mask is the one Eve is learning to wear. We suspect the almost noiseless tears Eve cries early on in the car with her father will be her last. As, in the film, they are.
Haneke’s film records the myriad microscopic ways the bourgeois family prepares its members to survive and win. Human impulses that might compromise the defence of privilege are systematically cauterized, the weak are abandoned in every way except the material. We know this is how things work and we see it in action in Anne Laurent’s unhappy and unlikeable son Pierre, (Franz Rogowski) who is looking for cost-free redemption. Consumed by self-loathing he lurches from one humiliation to the next in search of something more real than humiliation, but everything dissolves on contact. His karaoke performance in front of a mirror that reflects an impassive audience of three in a basement bar is a paroxysm of despair. He knows he is dispensable, contemptible, but is shackled to the family and its money – to give them up would be to cease to exist. Pierre is a brilliant portrait of what a society capable of long-distance bombing by drone, condemning displaced and traumatised people to a migrant life (or tents in Calais if they make it that far) might call domestic collateral damage.
From start to finish Happy End anatomises a loveless society. Eve expresses this most simply and clearly, speaking to her father when he visits her in hospital after she herself has taken an overdose. Dismissing his mumbled expression of concern, and asking him for one reassurance, that when he leaves his second wife he will take her with him so she doesn’t end up in a hostel, she says: Don’t pretend you love me, I know you don’t. Not me, nor my mother nor Alex. You don’t love anyone. Nothing transcends the self – and at the same time the self only survives by parsing itself into the structures of power. This is the knowledge available to Eve.
Adorno’s “great little men”
by Samir Gandesha
“Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” published in 1951 is an important statement summarizing and clarifying Adorno’s extensive engagement with social psychological accounts of fascism. It appeared one year after the publication of the monumental, theoretically-informed empirical study Adorno co-authored, simply entitled the Authoritarian Personality. This personality type is characterized by obsequious subservience towards authority and excessive cruelty towards the socially weak and marginalized.
Adorno was seeking to answer one over-arching question, and one that has become crucial in our own age of populism: how do people become a mass? Or in Freudian terms, how to understand the crisis of the individual and the alacrity with which individuals “yield unquestioningly to powerful, outside collective agencies”. Adorno argues that Freud crucially differs from theorists of crowd psychology by refraining from denigrating the masses. It is precisely the nature of this crisis that is in need of explanation.
The answer that Adorno provides, via Freud, is that it happens through the mechanism of identification. In order for such reversion to happen, an artificial social bond must be created based upon the pleasure principle, which is to say, “actual or vicarious gratifications individuals obtain from surrendering to a mass.” In what is very much the crux of his argument, Adorno argues that the conflicts stem from the contradiction lying at the heart of bourgeois or liberal-democratic society itself, between the political ideal of individual autonomy or self-determination through democratic institutions, on the one hand, and the purely negative conception of freedom that characterizes exchange and production relationships within capitalist society on the other. As a result of this contradiction between the promise of and failure to realize a self-determined life, the individual experiences frustration and discontent with his own image of himself.
The collective adulation and love of the leader is the way in which frustrated modern subjects overcome their negative self-images. Contemporary fascist leaders are not simply the manifestations of the ambivalent image of the father nor the domineering head of the “primal horde,” but, rather, are “great little men.”
In order to foster such collective identification through idealization, the leader must be “absolutely narcissistic,” that is, someone who is loved but does not love in turn. This is what explains the agitator’s lack of interest – in contrast to both the revolutionary and the reformer – in presenting a positive political program outlining concrete policy proposals. In place of the latter, there is only the “paradoxical program of threat and denial”.
At the same time, the leader embodies a contradiction between, on the one hand, appearing to be a super-human figure and, on the other, an average person – as Adorno puts it memorably in reference to Adolph Hitler, “a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber”. This is key to understanding the psychological structure of fascism. These two dimensions mirror a split in the follower’s narcissistic ego: it is thus that the leader represents the follower – as his enlargement. Fascist propaganda is constructed around the basic concept of the “ ‘great little man’, a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks...”.
Adorno then addresses the question of how the agitators came to such precise knowledge of group psychology? The answer is that, given the psychological identity between leader and led, the agitator accesses mass psychology through his own psychology. The key difference, though, is that the former evinces “a capacity to express without inhibitions what is latent in them, rather than by any natural superiority”. Again, key to understanding the leader is the fact that he is an “oral” personality type. The oral-aggressive type is hostile and verbally abusive to others. The very incessant nature of the speech leads it to void itself of sense and becomes magical; it casts a spell over its listeners. The very power he exercises is also indicative of his powerlessness insofar as this suggests ego weakness rather than strength. In the “great little man” the follower is mesmerized by an enlarged image of himself.
Today, this is especially helpful in understanding a host of right-populist leaders who appear to embody the oxymoronic idea of a “great little man”. But no-one embodies this oxymoron more clearly than the current President of the United States. Donald J. Trump exemplifies the “great little man” who can be seen by his supporters as an enlargement of themselves, and when the corporate media (and the political establishment as a whole) attack him for his ill-fitting suits and too-long ties, his fake hair, taste for charred steaks served with ketchup or predilection for serving Big Macs at Whitehouse receptions, it backfires and only reinforces the establishment’s contempt not just for the Commander-in-Chief but the “people” who idealize and identify with him.
So, despite being confronted by a mass of compelling evidence that his presidency’s only real accomplishment – a massive tax cut for the ultra-rich – has harmed them materially, their support remains as strong as ever.
by Rosemary Bechler
For my first contribution to ‘Splinters’, I will take a cameo from three political developments that have impinged on my editorial world in the last couple of weeks, and ask what they have in common.
The first is the decision by Jair Bolsonaro, having accused school teachers of “indoctrinating” pupils, and cut the budgets of 69 federal universities by 30% for allegedly producing “chatter”, to shut down courses in philosophy and sociology in order to privilege "areas that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer, such as the veterinary sciences, engineering and medicine." As reported by Vladimir Safatle:
“We could say that the Brazilian state is another instance of the fight of far-right governments against academic institutions... Such governments know that they will never have the support of the academic world, since it is from the universities that emerge many of the social and educational guidelines that they oppose, and it is from universities that the desires for social transformation and progressive changes in our ways of life are enunciated.”
The second is Elif Shafak’s New Statesman diary entry disclosing that copies of her novels had been among those seized by Turkish police officers and “taken to a prosecutor, who is reading them to see if we have committed a ‘crime of obscenity’ by writing about issues such as child abuse and sexual harassment.” Elif, who has been inundated with abusive messages “like a witchhunt” on social media, attributes the outrage to the political context in Turkey. With sexual harassment and abuse gaining more visibility, social media users are positioning themselves as moral arbiters in cases where they feel state institutions are failing them. She comments:
“Sentences have been plucked out of my novels by people who admit they haven’t read them. The books should be banned, they say, and their author should be imprisoned… Islamist and ultranationalist columnists join the chorus accusing authors of being ‘perverts’ or ‘degenerate’… Turkey has alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and child brides. But instead of dealing with the problem, the authorities prosecute novelists.”
Third is Graham Smith’s discussion of the new interest some UK politicians and activists have taken in citizens assemblies, as a good way to break the polarised impasse created by the Brexit referendum and return the dilemma to the people. In our many-to-many communications era, he makes the following all-important distinction between deliberative and digital democracy:
“ The point about citizens assemblies is that it is not a large group, but it is diverse. Digital people are obsessed by numbers. Proponents come to you saying, ‘Look how many people have engaged with this!’ and the funny thing is that this can very easily end up as an old politics – who is shouting the loudest? How many people are ‘liking’? That reminds me of standard electoral politics.
Online engagement will almost certainly not have the diverse characteristics of the broader population, whereas selection by sortition in citizens assemblies builds this into the process...
Should we make our decision by responding to people’s views as they hold them now, given that their normal everyday interaction is with people like themselves, under conditions in which they may not have engaged much, if at all, with a range of other views? Or should we create a democratic space in which people work these issues through with people who are different from them and hold views different from theirs? This politics of ‘considered judgment’ is simply a different kind of politics.”
The most important feature that binds these three ‘moments’ together, to my mind, is the precious nature of critical thinking – how we think, not what we think – in a pluralist society. What is it that singles out philosophy and sociology for special, Bolsonaro attention, for example?
Martin Rose, in a fascinating book review on ‘Education, Islam and criticality’, offers the following quote from Farid Panjwani:
“Some students coming from … a background with very limited exposure to subjects like literature, philosophy and art, may experience the world in fixed binaries of right and wrong, or true and false, rather than in shades of grey and moral complexities … in short the works of many religious scholars and presentation of the world in scientific and technical education mirror each other ...”.
Surely it is this openness to ‘moral complexities’ that characterises the experience of reading a good novel, and the complications of ‘considered judgement’ over and above the knee-jerk kind ? You can’t just rule out people, interests and arguments you don’t like. The process has to be undergone by those willing to be vulnerable to the other, enough on occasion to have our own minds changed.
Bolsonaro’s denigration of “chatter” takes on a deeper meaning. Democracy as an open and shifting conversation between equals is not only an end goal that we need to defend. It may also be the best means of our survival.
by Christos Tombras
Sergei Eisenstein’s servant was very excited to go to the cinema for the first time. The uneducated young peasant woman had heard so much about the magnificent spectacle that she could not wait to experience it herself. She came back terrified. What’s the joy, she cried, in seeing severed heads, fragmented bodies, cut off hands and mutilated torsos? She never wanted to go to the movies again – or so the story goes. Unfamiliar as she was with the then new medium and its language, a close-up shot of two fidgeting hands was in her eyes evidence that they had been detached from the body they originally belonged to. This is what she saw and thought to be true. Her reaction was not too dissimilar to that of the affluent fin-de-siècle Parisians who are said to have fled from the movie theatre during that famous first projection of Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a train at La Ciotat Station”, allegedly alarmed that the approaching train would eventually run them over.
We are much more familiar with cinematic language today. And yet, with the exception of special effects and cartoons we are accustomed to believe that whatever a film clip shows has really happened somewhere in some way similar to what we see on the screen. So, we might find it hard to believe that we are witnessing a Pharaoh commanding crowds from one side of the landscape to the other, but we can be certain that there was an actor somewhere, dressed as the Pharaoh and acting as if he was commanding crowds of low-paid extras to run around a studio set in California. The camera cannot lie.
That’s why we feel so terrified about the implications of the so-called DeepFake technology – artificial intelligence software that can take a collection of still images of someone’s face and produce a new, fabricated video clip that shows this person performing actions and saying things that they have never performed or said. Amusing, one might think.
An early, “obvious” application of this technology was in pornography. Many would find it interesting – and perhaps exciting – to have the likeness of Marylin Monroe performing in, say, “Cheating Joe’s Naughty Adventure”. Unsurprisingly, there was an avalanche of NSFW DeepFake videos featuring just about everyone.
Admittedly, this is a fad. The novelty will eventually wear off. Five years into the future of DeepFakes it will be hardly surprising or shocking to have celebrities performing unexpected acts on screen. But what about the possibility of political manipulation? What if a video emerges with President Obama promising millions of dollars to Boko Haram affiliated fighters? What if a video circulates showing Jeremy Corbyn laughing off the worries of a no-deal Brexit while sharing a pint with Nigel Farage? This could be very worrying.
We will soon need to come to terms with a new truth: The camera can lie.
Had we wanted to, we might have known that already. For example, it was there for all to see in that famous picture of Lenin speaking to the crowds, with Trotsky in attendance – or not. Trotsky would appear or disappear depending on the political leanings of the publication in which the picture appeared. Now you see him — now you don’t.
So, we knew that the politics of deception do not need artificial intelligence to succeed. In fact, deception doesn’t need technology at all. If you are friendlily disposed to the idea, you don’t need video documentary evidence of the Elders of Zion conspiring to take over the world in order to be convinced. Some article or caricature would do just as well. Of course, image manipulation technology can “help”, but it is not the origin of the problem.
We are fast approaching an era in which photorealistic videos will cease to be taken as indisputable evidence of anything at all – certainly not as evidence of truth, whatever truth is. Videos will of course be convincing, just as convincing as rumours are – no more, and no less.
What we’ll need in this brave new world of massively shared, liked, and retweeted stereotypes is a minimum of collective understanding of what is at stake. Finland’s example with their fake news awareness seminars jumps to mind. We need a constant awareness of the fact that not all that appears on screen is to be trusted as describing or depicting facts or events in any “real” shape or form. Difficult perhaps for those of us who still react in ways similar to Eisenstein’s credulous servant, or to those jumpy Parisian fin-de-siècle movie goers. But perhaps not so difficult if you have ever roamed the streets chasing Pokémons.
Is this possible at all? Hard to say. But such is the task that we are faced with. We need to understand that understanding is an action and not a reflex. It requires effort. It requires thinking.
by Iain Galbraith
A little over halfway into Esther Dischereit's book Rauhreifiger Mund oder andere Nachrichten (Hoar-frosted Mouth or Other News, 2001) comes a one-line poem consisting of seven words: 'Ich geh und lasse meine Splitter liegen' (I go, leaving my splinters behind me). The abrupt appearance of this narrator is nothing if not wayward – someone, a first person singular, is not entering the scene but already leaving, making a break for it, signalling absence, a fragmentary future. No less importantly, the poem announces a strategy of resistance – against extinction: the subject breaks but/and departs, while the part of her that has already parted, so to speak, is left behind. Against abjection, the subject has the strength to survive the negation that has precipitated her "splinters"; after fracturing she continues to speak for herself.
Many of Esther Dischereit's sentences leave a troubled trace on the reading consciousness. One may find oneself (sometimes in irritation) returning to her poems and looking at them from a different angle, forgetting or needing to forget the impressions of a previous visit. It is as if one were studying the several faces of a Cubist artwork (one of Dischereit's essays is entitled 'The Cubist Gaze: Who Writes when I Write?'), whose substance or assertion, one supposes, inheres in the many-faceted simultaneity of different aspects. Angled edges and surfaces often break into the poem, sometimes into the syntax of a single sentence or phrase:
it's neat and tidy here
paddle boats and rowing boats
for hire on Sundays
they hanged them in their underwear
filmed the whole thing
sitting at the bistro table two women
drinking wheat beer
( from 'Plötzensee Beach')
The reading eye stumbles, forced to reorient in a suddenly precarious environment. The banality of the tidied surface splits, an abyss opens: one of Berlin's shallow graves.
The title of Esther Dischereit's book also speaks of andere Nachrichten (Other News): "Hoar-frosted Mouth or Other News" – not "and" but "or Other News". So in one sense the poems (which may themselves be the "splinters") could be "news", but they are Other News – not news that buries what is really going on under "the latest" put out by media corporations, but announcements of things whose effects are happening here, messages that concern us now and will continue to do so later, news that will stay news. In an interview the poet Edwin Morgan spoke of the "writer or the poet being in receipt, if you like, of messages, just like people listening for stars' messages ... Nothing is not giving messages, I think." Here is Esther Dischereit, also in an interview, also speaking of the ubiquitous resources and insistence of messages: "To me, being Jewish meant engaging in the huge struggle of not speaking but listening. Listening to the tones of my voices, which would enable me to decode the unspoken voices. The voices of the dead, the silent voices of the living ... and the messages of things." The objects that are found in our daily lives, she says in another interview, "become charged. What happens when things give each other the kiss of life – behind our backs – a village, a street, the rain, history entering them uninvited." Here is a sensibility to the aura of things: a subject knows what it is to be an object listening to the messages of other things which, given certain circumstances (an open ear), can respond or transmit. This awareness of the edges and aspects of things, the negations, ruptures and endings of voices, imbues the grammar of her poetry.
But who is this frangible "I" that leaves splinters behind her as she goes, and whose leaving them may be considered "news"? It's as if by the time we readers have reached the scene she's as good as gone: we glimpse the splinters and feel the swirl, the displacement of air as she departs. Esther Dischereit has written of conditions that made it possible to begin writing. She could not have written if her relationship with her own body had not changed, ending her hostility towards it, repudiating her internalization of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Inability to fully inhabit the body imposes limitations on thought and the interaction of thought and feeling. Like an embodied memory, the recorded single sentence traces a completed or repeated trajectory from a position before to a position after reaching the possibility of writing: it crosses a threshold of speech that is predicated on the protracted effort of listening, decoding, bodying forth.
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