Saturday, 24 August 2013

Getting Down to Details

Some analysis is so abstract it reads like a foreign language, though its words bear no relationship to ordinary usage, and there is no dictionary to help us decode them.  It is part of a modern trend; the academy detaching itself from the reality it is supposed to investigate by devising its own concepts that only its adepts can understand, creating a self-insulated world free from the layman’s intrusion.i   We see this particularly in departments of literature where many academics no longer have any interest in the books they study.  Thus novels, whose meaning lies in their overall unity, are too often used simply as data mines; the original material broken up, smashed into pieces, the rubble then fed onto conveyor belts, from which trucks take them to the university… where they are turned into citations which prove pre-existent theories that are copied wholesale from secondary sources; themselves abstracted from their original disciplines (such as Freud from psychology, Marx from political economy and de Saussure from linguistics).ii  Decontextualised, these theories are inevitably simplified and distorted, and domesticated - they are no longer part of a battlefield of contested ideas (inside their home countries the fighting would be fierce) but are turned into hallowed ground, on which ecumenical cathedrals are built, their walls decorated with the trinkets picked up on the pilgrims’ travels.

At a certain level of generality all abstractions are true.  It is why they excite us.  Our truths are so close to hand!  We reach out and… Love.  Freedom.  Competition...  We touch them!  A place to stay, something to eat, and good health...  These are such simple truths.  It is why mislead so easily: looking at the Englishman full of roast beef in the Frenchman caricature we forget the woman from Hull who is a vegetarian...  Simple abstractions, they are perfect for the lazy, our natural mode of thought is to generalise,iii and the busy – one obvious idea will solve a hundred problems we lack the time to think about.  Never can we have enough of them!

If we wish to uncover profound truths we have to be a lot more subtle and patient than that.  We must look intensely at the particular case, analyse the individual film, and examine the single novel if we are to intuit their essential qualities.iv  Only then, once we have collected our impressions, should we work out how they correspond to some general trend that we ourselves perceive – there are few if any laws in the social sciences, despite the pretensions of those who believe all things conform to their one big idea.  All social thought contains degrees of vagueness and uncertainty, art more than most, and it cannot be reduced to the clearly formulated simplicities of the hard sciences; albeit rather foolish academics, ideologues and party intellectuals have always tried to do so.v  Marxism, Freudianism, and now Evolutionary Psychology, the source of spurious certainties on which such characters depend both for their thoughts and their livelihoods.

When it comes to art it is the individual artwork that it is the most important area of study; its very distinctiveness the source of its meaning; its unique qualities deriving from the character of the artist who created it.vi  Thus any attempt to understand a film has to take as its starting point the film itself, whose details should inform and inspire the critic to see above all else its individuality.  Only then can its relationship to the author’s oeuvre, the specific artistic tradition, and wider cultural trends be properly investigated.  But this is so difficult!  For we have to be alive to the film’s particularities; we have to share the intuitive sympathies of the director who made it, and this depends upon an aesthetic sense very different from the bureaucratic rationalismvii that dominates the academy.  To be wholly successful the critic must recreate the film in a new form that at the same time retains something essential of the original; the greatest critics artists in their own right.

Most academics are not so gifted.  The banality of their clever but overly rational minds prefers facts and pre-existing ideas (which are themselves turned into facts by being copied wholesale) to the creation of original thoughts and autodidactic theories.  The result is that too often art works are turned into illustrations of a theory that has been thought up by somebody else.  A safe and successful enterprise that guarantees respect and facilitates promotion – the ideas will be fashionable; an independent measure of quality that assures peers that our judgements are sound.  For the risk is slight in making small emendations to someone else’s mediocrities; and is far safer than being original, with its inherent risk of error and absurdity; even if, like William Empson, one’s mistakes are brilliantly conceived.viii  His errors more insightful than the common little truths of many an unimaginative scholar.ix

One of the film’s themes seems to be the political double bind in which representative democracies necessarily find themselves: they are there to guarantee equality before the law, yet because this very principle stands in a tension to the articulation of uniqueness, ‘roots’, particularity, it means that the difference reappears elsewhere in the system, whether in the form of taste and ‘distinction’, or as the ‘identity politics’ of invented traditions and genealogies.  The question raised by such phenomena as urban guerrillas or ‘revolutionary cells’ was thus how is the singular connected to the collective, to which one answer was the figure of the terrorist, as at once the existential subject (by the mimicry of ‘armed struggle’), the embodiment of the singular (the saint), and self-conscious martyr (the ascetic, preparing for fast and sacrifice).  The terrorist is a representative, but one with a false mandate, trying to inscribe him/herself ‘positively’ into history.  In the absence of a ‘representative’ who can credibly figure both the singular and the collective (as does a fascist leader), s/he buys into ‘representation’ in the form of spectacular action and the highest visibility.  Yet to the extent that the terrorist ‘responds’ to this double bind within the political system of representation, he is a figure not altogether unfamiliar to the Fassbinder hero: he is his alter ego, his ‘positive’ shadow and diabolical double.  (Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany, History Subject Identity)

Thomas Elsaesser wishes to situate Fassbinder within a corpus of ideas that were common in the 1970s during his extraordinarily productive peak.  By contextualising his thought he seeks to explain the films, while giving due allowance to the personal quirks of the director.  He thus correctly writes that Fassbinder is more interested in exploring the micro histories of radical groups than seriously thinking about conventional politics.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t follow the logic of his argument to its more sensible (and illuminating) conclusion – he doesn’t concentrate on the details of The Third Generation -, but instead uses the film to illustrate some ideas about identity politics in West Germany in the seventies.   The result is that somewhere in the argument the film is lost – he is a Hansel who loses his Gretel.  However, because the professor’s prose is so clogged with abstraction, it takes us a while to realise this; his generalizations like steam on kitchen windows – only when the glass is misted up do we realise we can no longer see out...  “Mildred!  Put the lids on the saucepans.  And open that damned window!…”

The argument for a poverty of identity in modern capitalism is an interesting one, although whether this explains the rise of identity-based politics in the 1970s is questionable - the causal relationship is surely the other way around.  By stripping the social content out of communities - which do have their own alternative and meaningful cultures based on beliefs, personal interaction and public and collective rituals - state capitalism has empowered the individual to find their own identities, which in the 1960s and 70s were based largely on race, sex, politics and gender (though pop music enabled the general population to create personas out of commercially transient cultural products).x  With the benefit of hindsight we can see that this was a transitional period, where older sentiments of communal identity still influenced people’s sense of themselves, particularly amongst the older generation, radical intellectuals and political activists.  Today, identity is focussed even more on the individual personality, whose sense on self is manifested in work and lifestyle choices determined mostly by the design departments of multinational corporations.xi   Capitalism far from impoverishing our sense of ourselves encourages us to develop them; although it always a surprise when we discover how limited and conventional these new identities are – crazy clothes often camouflage dull people.xii

It is therefore seems unlikely that terrorists created their groups to foster an identity denied to them by capitalism.  There are easier ways to do so: they could have joined a chess club or rented an allotment.  Their problem was almost the complete opposite: they already had an identity which the mainstream society rejected - in the 1960s the New Left were effectively arguing for the return of the collectivist social relations of pre-industrial societies; a real threat to the established order if successful as it would have undermined the individualist assumptions on which so much of modern life is based.xiii

The conception of human life which I call ‘expressivist’… is in part a reaction to [associationist psychology, utilitarian ethics, atomistic politics of social engineering, and ultimately a mechanistic science].  It is a rejection of the view of human life as a mere external association of elements without intrinsic connection…  Expressivism returns to the sense of the intrinsic value of certain actions or modes of life…  and these actions or modes of life are seen as wholes, as either true expressions, or distortions of what we authentically are.

We might be tempted to think that this current touches only a minority of intellectuals and artists, leaving the majority of ‘ordinary’ men unaffected.  But the wide resonance of this kind of critique has been shown if nothing else in periodic outbursts of unrest which have troubled industrial civilisation.  Deep expressivist dissatisfaction contributed to the success of Fascism, and underlies the revolt of the many young people against the ‘system’ in many Western countries.  (Charles Taylor, quoted in Ernest Gellner’s Spectacles and Predicaments)xiv

I think Charles Taylor is wrong in believing that “expressivism” is a common desire; while a more convincing argument for the general student unrest can be found in Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols, where she argues it is arises from the differences in social texture of two different types of community – the relatively unstructured lives of university students against the highly organised routines of adult work to which most of them would quickly acquiesce.  Nevertheless, he is right to highlight this desire for expressive meaning, for it certainly exists amongst quite specific sectors of the population, most of which he mentions, and who, as Mary Douglas argues, have quite specific ways of looking at the world, the reason for their discontent.

The Third Generation shows how a “student” identity is transformed when it enters the world of organised society; its content gradually emptied out until it leaves only the outer forms, such as the ideology, the rituals and the general subversive atmosphere.  In the end only the identity remains.xv  Though now it means nothing at all.  These characters are not self-consciously choosing a terrorist persona; they have acquired it, and have come to believe in it - they do actually think they are terrorists -, even though in reality they are typical bourgeois, even down to their mild transgressions, like Hilde’s identification with a neurotic female poet.  This terrorist identity has no substance; it is a remnant of a mindset acquired years earlier and which through inertia and habit they have not thought to change.  Their self-image, and this is made very clear in the film, is very different from their actual lives; the reason they are so easily used by P.J. Lurz – having no ideals they have no strategy, and therefore no resistance when goaded into actions that appear, at least superficially, to correspond to their ideas. 

These characters are closer to the kinds of highly individualised culture we are familiar with today: a game of appearances that does not conflict in any fundamental way with the political, economic and cultural systems that structure our daily lives (and which most people accept as entirely natural, and with a minimum of rebellious strain).xvi  Fassbinder was very explicit about this in interviews he did at the time.

‘[T]he main problem [the reason I made the film], is that people who have no reason, no motive, no despair, no utopia can be used by others.

Proper terrorists have a vision of an alternative reality.  These characters, as Fassbinder again makes clear, do not.  They are playing a game; their terrorist activity an illusion which they have come to believe is the truth.

The third generation… just indulges in action without thinking, without ideology or politics, and who, probably without knowing it, are like puppets whose wires are pulled by others.

The key phrase here is: “action without thinking”.  They behave reflexively.  Over time this removes the meaning from their original ideas.  Thus what may have began as a genuine rebellion against a seemingly repressive state is turned into a lifestyle choice; although, and this crucial, these characters are unaware that this change has taken place.  They are living inside a fiction they take to be real.  Elsaesser touches on this when he writes about the interpenetration of the TV world with the lives of this group, and which gives a certain “flat monitor” feel to their existence.  However, I think he misses the key issue: the confusion of these two worlds in the minds of these amateur terrorists.  They believe that they inhabit the same world as the professional politicians, when in fact they are just ordinary citizens engaged in a hobby.  Such behaviour is not unusual.  Think of the large numbers of people who regard themselves as socialists and anarchists even though the whole texture of their lives contradicts their ideas – I leave you to supply the examples.  For most people ideas are merely opinion, and are no different from their views about the “fake baroque” neighbours or the local football team.  Most people are little more than passive spectators, who like to comment but not act (or even think).  Fassbinder recognised this banality in what at first glance appears to be an extreme case.  It is this insight that makes this film a masterpiece.   However, he also recognises that these characters are unusual – so conventional in so many ways their ideas are nonetheless odd, and it is precisely this oddness that leads them astray.  Believing in ideas they do not understand they are amateurs who stumble into a world of professionals who know exactly the significance of what they do.

Elsaesser's abstractions miss these subtleties, and thus he misinterprets a movie which shows us how fake terrorists are transformed into real ones by a member of the professional political class.xvii  

…the collusion between terrorists and international capital seems to be the meaning of the film at first viewing, and it is how reviewers saw it when it first came out, endorsed by Fassbinder’s own comments.  But two things are striking, upon re-seeing the film, especially in the context of Fassbinder’s other films.  One is that the power-relations it deals with have been captured within a set of terms that are more widely applicable than to this specific instance, and secondly, that the careful work on both sound and image creates another kind of reality altogether, more inside (every)one’s head than in a specific place or period.

Here abstraction fails to explain exactly what the author means, though we can interpret for him: the terrorists and the authorities are independent entities, but the confusion of the group and the cynicism of P.J. Lurz results in the terrorists performing actions that unbeknownst to them benefit the state and the corporations.  The film, therefore, is not about the collusion of the like-minded but the convergence of different interests.  If only he was more clear!  But then again if he was…  His reference to a sort of inner space contradicts the specificity of the film, which is clearly set in a Germany on the verge of a new technological era – the computer.  

There are two social levels in this film which remain autonomous even if there are times when they appear to collapse into each other – the professional world of the modern bureaucracy, and the play acting of a bourgeoisie that has plenty of leisure time and has imbibed the myth of revolutionary action.  Elsaesser, obsessed by abstract political analysis beloved of Left wing academics, is unable to separate out these different levels, and thus he misses the essential fakery of the terrorist’s pose (they appear to be “integrated” into mainstream society precisely because they are conventional citizens).

[I]t finds that… direct confrontations and neatly arranged battlegrounds no longer exist.  Consequently, the frictions and resistances by which such a society communicates with itself are more difficult to pin down, giving prominence to what one could call the micro-structures of betrayal, of double crossing, of overidentification and disaffection by which the ‘system’ begets its own ‘other’ and also, finally, talks to its ‘other’.  Hence the complicated lines of force that link the characters in THE THIRD GENERATION, where Hanna Schygulla is both the director’s secretary and a member of the cell, and Volker Spengler has infiltrated the terrorists’ network, betrays them but when in drag, is himself curiously vulnerable and insecure…  All of the characters slide effortlessly from their day-time jobs to their night-time activities, proving how reversible their selves and identities are (they constantly rehearse their aliases and alibis), but also how ‘integrated’ they are in their disparate and seemingly incompatible lives and lifestyles.  (My emphasis)

The terrorists have no ideological road map, and thus no concrete plan to fundamentally change the society.  Inevitably they drift on the surface of life, and are easy meat for the corporate institutions that do have a stable and fixed identity, a clearly defined purpose, and the resources to direct activity into areas of their own choosing.  The film is a record of this conflict between these two types of mindset: one the modern consumer citizen; the other the corporate bureaucrat who works on behalf of an institution.  The latter will always succeed in the long run, because they are stable entities that exist to carry out quite limited and carefully articulated tasks, although, as in this film, they may suffer short term failures, such as the collapse of the computer market when a series of spy scandals shocked a public afraid that West Germany could turn into a police state.

Here are two separate worlds.  The terrorist one is vague and floating, a sort of dreamscape; the other is the workaday world of corporate business and professional politics.  What this film shows is the interaction between them.  And it is the depiction of this interaction between what is essentially illusory and what is essentially real where its brilliance resides.  Elsaesser is vaguely aware of this,xviii  but instead of looking at such relationships - the interstices between inside and outside, professional and amateur, the real and unreal - he refers fleetingly to the types of character that interests the director, and with whom he believe he identifies.

…Fassbinder’s fascination with pimps, dealers and double-crossers and agents provocateurs.  These shady figures are, in many Fassbinder films, more credible, more likeable than all the upright citizens, the official representatives, political delegates, or other visible bearers of the social mandate which the director never put into his films…  Only…[such characters] have access to the energies which the ‘extra-territorial’ relations signified in the films by drugs, money and sex make possible. 

But…the “agent provocateur” and “cross-dresser” in The Third Generation is not likeable.  He is so clearly a villain.  Indeed, the only truly heroic person in the film is Bernhard; the one character who both knows the truth and acts upon it.  Tellingly, he has learning difficulties.  He is thus completely outside conventional society (a distance increased by his interest in Bakhtin.  That’s right: Bakhtin!).  According to Elsaesser, though, such a character cannot exist in this film:

For the only way a Fassbinder hero avoids responding to a false mandate, avoids becoming a terrorist, is by his negativity, his refusal to ‘confront’ the system or rebel against it.

Of course Fassbinder is interested in socially ambivalent characters.  However, his interest is far complicated than Elsaesser suggests.  Their very ambivalence creates unstable situations, which leads Fassbinder to give them different evaluations from film to film, and even from scene to scene (August from being completely trusted is eventually frozen out of the group; the reason Lurz is kidnapped – it is a surprise to him).  It is true that such interstitial characters do represent the artist, a figure that Fassbinder knows only too well; with her power hunger and her moral ugliness.  Thus August’s multiple disguises suggest the artistic persona, a suggestion reinforced by his emotional coolness, which Lurz clearly recognises – thus his comments about August’s cynicism in holding a meeting in the restaurant where one of the group was recently murdered.  August has the power to make these terrorists real because he oscillates between the two realms of the professional (fact) and the amateur (fiction), and is able at will to take on aspects of both.  Nevertheless, we have to be careful – actual power resides in P.J. Lurz.  Only he can fund the terrorist activity, and so make it happen.  Elsaesser, desperate I think to conform to intellectual fashion (is the reference to “extra-territoriality” a nod to Deleuze and Guattari?), wants to give these vagabonds more influence than they in fact have, and so reads a treatise into a movie that constantly rebels against it.

Possibly under the absolute priority of the economic, whether in the form of personal status, the profit motive or the expansion of markets, the body politic manifests not the stasis of hierarchical institutions, but radiates movement, releasing through its myriad conspiracies and collusion, its commerce in drugs of whatever kind, a sort of frenzied spiral of energy, regulated if at all around the magnetic poles of sexuality, high technology, the mass media and the new kinds of struggles for power they entail even in the private sphere.  If… Fassbinder’s ‘political’ analysis may have been conventional, his ‘social’ analysis nonetheless had an eye for a certain dynamic one can recognise as contemporary, where corruption, drugs, crime, terrorism name at once social evils and ‘safety mechanisms’.  THE THIRD GENERATION shows that society – in order to function at all – has to have built into its fabric the kinds of unconventional, ‘illegal’ circuits that allow for direct and unmediated confrontation of rich and poor, the interweaving of the powerful with the powerless, of the insiders with the underdogs, of the ‘lumpen’ with the ‘arrivistes’…

August and the other characters are incidental to the main plot – the accumulation of capitalist profit, which today depends on the bureaucratic routines of large corporations.  They are by-products the society throws up, and which though sometimes useful (such as a West Germany suspicious of the secret state) they are more often than not an aggravating irritant.  It is precisely this double nature of these outsiders that Fassbinder captures, while at the same time showing how much they are conditioned by the society they are rebelling against.  Indeed, it may be a misreading of that cultural conditioning that led to the belief that this film is about a collusion between the state and the terrorists; a typical explanation of “mechanical” minds (prominent in academia and radical political circles), who tend to prefer an obvious and over-simple behaviourism to the more subtle and evanescent cultural causes behind individual and collective action.  Thus it is precisely because they are conventional middle class people that there is no content to their ideas.  And it is because their ideas have no reality that their actions are empty of purpose and direction; the reason they are so easily manipulated by outside forces.  It is P.J. Lurz and August who propel them to kill people.

[They] are like puppets whose wires are pulled by others.

When they do act it is generally reflexive, and determined by the contingencies of the moment; brilliantly portrayed when Petra gets very excited about blowing up the Rathaus Schöneberg.  None of these characters are freely choosing to be a “saint” or a “martyr” or an “ascetic”.  No!  They are ordinary middle class people who are lost inside a situation they do not control nor understand.  It is their confusion and their helplessness that we see, together with their moments of ecstasy when they eventually do something in accord with their ideas – then they behave like children at a funfair; surely the significance of the carnival.  Fassbinder was very precise in his formulation: the third generation act without thinking.  Elsaesser is too much the academic to accept such an insight; instead he wants to give these characters much more instrumental rationality than they possess; a tendency that leads to a serious misreading of an important scene.

They kidnap the director of an American computer company, not realizing that this is part of the trap into which they have been lured.

The group are provoked into carrying out terrorist actions.  However, Lurz didn’t envisage that he himself would be kidnapped, and it certainly wasn’t part of his plan, even though it turns out to be to his advantage; that terrible irony at the end of the film.  The world is far more chaotic and contingent than the plans of any of these characters.  Even Lurz, who has engineered the current spate of terrorism, loses control of the situation, and the film leaves it open if he will personally benefit (it is possible that he could be killed – this group are amateur terrorists, and therefore highly emotional and unstable; witness Petra’s earlier murder of her husband when he recognised her.  Will Susanne do the same?).

We have to separate out culture, which is a powerful background presence that conditions much of our thinking and behaviour, and which is largely unconscious, from carefully planned (that is thought out) actions which are themselves often shaped by that culture and determined by contingencies.  It is exactly this interface, between the essentially mainstream mentality of these terrorists and their self-conscious ideas about themselves, that this film explores, and which shows how the latter is far weaker than the former, which defeats them in the end.  They will not overthrow or even weaken the West German state.  In fact they will strengthen it.

In the 1970s there was a turn away from politics into “self-motivated and inner directed" pursuits,xix which were both a recognition of political weakness, the student rebellions of the 1960s failed to transform the society, and a means to circumvent the commodity culture of state capitalism.  It was a time when many in the middle classes were turning away from the Left and finding fulfilment in alternative religions or in other forms of counter-culture activity; such as environmental activism, sexual identity, abstract academicism...xx  This film captures this transformation, but it does so in its own curious way: we see the desire to escape into one’s own inner space, but it is a desire that manifests itself in group action that gives the appearance of being political.  Even in their rebellion they are acting like normally disaffected bourgeois!  Although in this case they have retained the ideas of their youth, which gives the “inner-directed” pursuit such an eccentric form.  Fassbinder, as always, is quite explicit.

The third generation… just indulges in action without thinking, without ideology or politics, and who, probably without knowing it, are like puppets whose wires are pulled by others.

Of course Fassbinder is referring to the West German state or corporations like BMW when he refers “others” pulling the “wires”.  However, we can be more general: people who don’t think carefully and critically for themselves will tend to blindly accept the underlying assumptions inherent in all cultures.xxi  In this case a terrorist group, because it does not seriously think for itself, acts in exactly the same manner as their middle class colleagues, their differences nullified by their similarities; the reason they ultimately fail.  To make a revolution one has to change the culture, and to do that the assumptions on which it is based have to be fatally weakened; for only then will the underlying forces that structure a society be transformed.xxii

Because they don’t think for themselves the actions of this group become mere habits; their “subversive” activities a simulation of the real thing until they are propelled to act by the machinations of Lurz.  Far from terrorism being a means of becoming a historical celebrity it is a bad habit they cannot kick; or more prosaically: it is like continuing to meet an old university friend with whom you no longer have anything in common. 

These are fake terrorists who are turned into the real thing by the corporate state, who needs to scare the public into buying its products.  It is also the reason why the media is so prominent in this film: television has the ability to make the unreal appear to be real; that last scene an extraordinarily complex statement about the media’s ability to mix fact and falsehood to create a reality that for all its apparent sobriety is crazy.  What truth in those final moments!  They are extraordinary!  Cartoon figures who think they are holding a man to ransom when in reality they are advertising his merchandise.  Little wonder that Elsaesser slips into incoherence in that last sentence. 

Yet to the extent that the terrorist ‘responds’ to this double bind within the political system of representation, he is a figure not altogether unfamiliar to the Fassbinder hero: he is his alter ego, his ‘positive’ shadow and diabolical double.xxiii

Of course the characters are doubled up; we all are in our own ways.  But this has little to with terrorism.  Educated with one set of ideals, and conditioned to living a life of the senses and the mind, we find themselves trained to become obedient workers and happy consumers.  For the majority these tensions are resolved into a passive acceptance of their fate; while a minority seeks to escape – into drugs, sex, religion, art or radical politics.  For this minority the tension inherent in their position can break them unless they are able to create a lifestyle that is insulated from the mainstream culture.  This group appears to have done just that; but it is an illusion, and the tensions come to the surface when Lurz (who represents the corporate state) faces a crisis and forces his world into their own.  It is at that point they begin to collapse.  They are normal bourgeois people, whose rebellion against their society is only superficial; and the introduction of some real action exposes their essentially inauthentic existence.  However, because their ideas are odd instead of returning to mainstream society when their illusion is exposed they are forced by the contingencies of the situation, Paul’s murder, to turn into the real thing.  Of course they are inept, though clever and resourceful – they are able to capture Lurz, but are completely unaware of what this actually means.

Real terrorists, like artists, pimps and gangsters, are able to separate themselves entirely from mainstream society to create their own self-created worlds.  August is their representative.  He is essentially anti-social, and thus amoral (and therefore a very different kind of person from the rest of this group).  Although such outsider characters also have many other qualities, which Fassbinder explores in films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Satan’s Brew.  But we have to make a distinction between August and “aesthetic” characters like Petra von Kant and Walter Kranz, who are both more creative and imaginatively wild than he.  All are individualists, with their bizarre and unique traits, which only careful study can properly illuminate.  Academics who use large abstractions miss these nuances entirely.  It is like trying to describe the lives of Jacques and Marie-Claire when you pass over their cottage in a Zeppelin…

The meaning of an artwork is found within its subtleties; and it is these that distinguish the first rate from the mediocre.  Fassbinder, being an artist of the first rank, knew this, and is almost certainly the reason why he was wary of the clear-cut statements and hard-edged concepts that the critics tried to foist onto him. There is an interesting interview with a German journalist where he seems irritated above all else with the ideological nature of the questions, which simplify the ambiguities his films portray; ambiguities that transcend the relatively straightforward expression of ideas.  Elsaesser summaries his concerns well:

Intellectually attracted to the ruthless radicalism of the Baader-Meinhof group… Fassbinder had to keep faith with his own political project, which was to make movies that moved people, even if it was in spite of themselves.  It was not a matter of making films that ‘exposed’ the illiberal state or ‘condemned’ the RAF (‘Red Army Faction’, the name the Baader-Meinhof group gave themselves), but to put in the picture the inner workings of anguish, paranoia and the unbearable tension that result.

Anybody interested Fassbinder has to concern himself with these “inner workings of anguish, paranoia and… unbearable tension[s]…”  Elsaesser, however, is not interested in these feelings, preferring instead to write about fashionable sociological theories which can be moulded in such a way as to explain this director’s oeuvre.  This concern with large abstractions leads him to at times seriously misread the action; thus this short summary at the end of his book.

Financed by an electronics firm, the terrorists are tricked into kidnapping the firm’s chief executive, whom they endlessly rehearse for his ransom note video appearance.  The charade culminates at the annual masked carnival, where the terrorists not already betrayed by the infiltrated informer are shot by the police.  The pattern, now much more politicized, is similar to that of the early gangster films, especially GODS OF THE PLAGUE YEAR and THE AMERICAN SOLDIER.  What is different is the emphasis on politics as a branch of show business in which the powers that be are as implicated as their opponents.

Some of the details are curiously wrong – how can the film end with Lurz rehearsing his lines if all the terrorists have been shot?  It is a minor slip, of course.  What is more telling is his belief that Lurz engineered his own kidnapping.  Clearly Elsaesser's first viewing, when he believed the film showed collusion between the state and the terrorists, has seeped into his subsequent criticism.  It is indicative of his lack of interest in the details; and his obtuseness towards the changing relationships within the group, where, as the paranoia increases, the surviving members detach themselves from August’s influence.  To understand this film we have to understand these particular characters; then we will realise that The Third Generation isn’t about politics as “a branch of show business”, but rather how a group of conventional middle class people have mistaken it as such.  This mistake leads them to commit atrocities when tricked by the authorities who are more knowledgeable and devious than they; and who know the difference between showbiz and real political action.xxiv  The “powers that be” are not “as implicated as their opponents”.  No!  The “powers that be” implicate their opponents, Lurz pouring the petrol into the empty bottle and August adding the rag and providing the matches.  The group may throw its Molotov Cocktails, but it is the state and the corporations that have first prepared them.  Fassbinder, more interested in the nuances, fascinated by the details, is so much sharper (and radical) than an academic who can use only clumsy abstractions.  Elsaesser types out his thesis wearing oven gloves….





[i] “…the increasing gulf between current literary criticism and the words of the literary texts it in some sense discusses.  Modern criticism is powerful and imposes its own narratives and priorities on the writings it uses as raw material, source, or jumping-off point.  It many be interested in feminist, or Lacanian, or Marxist, or post-colonial narratives and vocabularies.  Or it may play forcefully with the words of the writer, interjecting its own punning meanings.  You can discover African obeah women and racist fear in Keats’s Lamia by noting one description of the possible African origin of lamias in Lemprière’s Dictionary which Keats used, or you may find an anal obsession in Coriolanus by observing the ending of his name and ignoring the fact that multitudes of Latin adjectives end in ‘anus’…  Such secondary cleverness distresses the reader and the writer in me.” (A.S. Byatt, On Histories and Stories),
It is here perhaps where we see resemblances to medieval scholasticism – their tendency to build highly complex (or not so complex) intellectual constructions on slender and the unstable foundations.  In Byatt’s book there is a wonderful quotation from Penelope Fitzgerald, which predicts that the same thing will happen to modern science…
“Let me tell you what is going to happen, over the centuries, to atomic research…  The physicists will begin by constructing models of the atom, in fact there are some very nice ones in the Cavendish at the moment.  Then they’ll find that the models won’t do, because they would only work if atoms really existed, so they’ll replace them by mathematical terms which can be stretched to fit.  As a result, they’ll find that since they’re dealing with that they can’t observe they can’t measure it, and so we shall hear that all that can be said is that the position is probably this and the energy is probably that.  The energy will be beyond their comprehension, so they’ll be driven to the theory that it comes and goes more of less at random.  Now their hypotheses will be at the beginning of collapse and they will have to pull out more and more bright notions to paper over the cracks and to cram into unsightly corners.  There will be elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and anti-matter which ought to be there, but isn’t.  By the end of the century they will have to admit that the laws they are supposed to have discovered seem to act in a profoundly disorderly way….”  (Quoted from The Gate of Angels)
See also David Lodge:
“The exponents of post-structuralism do not even try to be lucid and intelligible.  There seem to be two motives for this.  The respectable reason is that these writers believe there is no single, simple “meaning” to be grasped anywhere, at any time, and the experience of reading their books is designed to teach that uncomfortable lesson.  The less respectable reason is that their command of a prestigious but impenetrable jargon constitutes power – the power to intimidate their professional peers.” (Write On; Occasional Essays 1965-1985)
It would be interesting to compare the jargon of the academic literary establishment with that of the porn industry, another insulated world – see the essay in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster.
[ii] For an unsophisticated early example of the technique see the reference to the academic who wrote a book cataloguing various authors’ descriptions of the weather in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.
[iv] V.S. Pritchett had a genius for this kind of analysis.  See his The Living Novel.
[v] Although the best sort of social thought is more certain and insightful than mere opinion, which is worthless as knowledge – the reason we all have a right to our views.
Perhaps this is one of the distinguishing features between a democracy and autocracy.  The former knows that opinions are worthless, and thus its leaders accept them knowing they will have little purchase on the functioning of the society.   To properly effect change we need knowledge of how the system and its institutions work; the kinds of knowledge very few people are interested in acquiring.  Although we have to be careful: knowledge is not the same as certitude or simple transparency…
“In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact.  Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions.  Our reasonings grasp at straws for premises and float on gossamers for deductions.”  (A.N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas)
[vi] Whitehead calls humans the most plastic element in nature which itself is plastic.  This is certainly true.  However, it needs one modification: the great thinkers and artists are the most plastic of all.
[vii] The phrase is Bernard Williams (See Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy).  See My Dear Mr Albert… for more comment.
            See also A.N. Whitehead:
            “It is an erroneous moral platitude, that it is necessary to know the truth.  The minor truth may beget the major evil.  And this major evil may take the form of the major error.  Henri Poincaré points out that instruments of precision, used unseasonably, many hinder the advance of science.  For example, if Newton’s imagination had been dominated by the errors in Kepler’s Laws as disclosed by modern observation, the world might still be waiting for the Law of Gravitation.  The Truth must be seasonable.” (Adventures of Ideas)
[ix] This is not a paradoxical statement.  It simply recognises there is more than one level of truth.  A fact is true, so is a myth, even if all the facts it contains are wrong.  Realising the multiple nature of truth, and accepting that values can have a meaning at variance with facts, is to recognise that literature, whose essence is imagination and intuition, is different from most academic subjects which rely on precise classification, and various forms of measurement and generalization.
            Academics in a very real sense have to be unimaginative and bureaucratic; it is the reason for their success, and the source of our present-day knowledge – creative intuitions have to be captured within a rational framework that both preserves and develops them.  A.N. Whitehead describes the process marvellously.
            “Philosophy is at once general and concrete, critical and appreciative of direct intuition….  It is a survey of possibilities and their comparison with actualities.  In philosophy, the fact, the theory, the alternatives, and the ideal are weighted together.  Its gifts are insight and foresight, and a sense of the worth of life; in short, that sense of importance which nerves all civilized effort.  Mankind can flourish in the lower stages of life with merely barbaric flashes of thought…
"Now it is the beginning of wisdom to understand that social life if founded upon routine.  Unless society is permeated, through and through, with routine, civilization vanishes.  So many sociological doctrines, the products of acute intellects, are wrecked by obliviousness to this fundamental sociological truth.  Society requires stability, foresight itself presupposes stability, and stability is the product of routine…
"The special sciences were founded.  Their principles were defined, their methods were determined, appropriate deductions were elicited.  Learning was stabilized.  It was furnished with methodologies, and was handed over to University professors of the modern type.  Doctors of Medicine, Mathematicians, Astronomers, Grammarians, Theologians, for more than six hundred years dominated the schools of Alexandria, issuing text-books, treatises, controversies, and dogmatic definitions.  Literature was replaced by Grammar, and Speculation by the Learned Tradition.
"These men conventionalized learning.  But they secured it.”  (Adventures in Ideas)
            The study of literature in the universities, which is full of “conventionalized learning”, is very different from a literary culture made up of people with the sensibility of the artist (with her “insight… and a sense of the worth of life”).  Once literature entered academia its essence began to be eroded, until by the 1970s the universities were filled with people who had not feeling for the culture at all (see the David Hawkes quote in Can I Have a Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?)  Here is the real danger for literature – it is being destroyed by the very people who should be preserving it; and this process is almost inevitable in a society where the literary culture depends on the institutions of learning for its survival.  (For further comment see my Dear Mr Albert…)
[x] For some of the tensions this caused see my Good Lads, Really.
[xi] For a marvellous account of the emptying out of the public realm and how identity-politics is closely allied to this process see Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man.  The details have changed significantly since the book was written – a new culture of identity now exists – but the trend it describes has continued.
[xii] Richard Sennett’s book has many interesting things to say about the reasons for this phenomenon: striving for authenticity contemporary man has replaced an artificial and self-created public character with “the real me” which believes that to properly express oneself we must be emotive and empathetic.  Yet feeling, as Sennett shows, is less expressive, because less subtle and rich, than make-believe – we can see someone’s pain, but may not be able to feel it.
            One foundational reason for this trend seems to be the very nature of capitalism.  It is fundamentally an activity, which requires all its citizens to be busy.  At some point in the twentieth century capitalism went from being the most important activity in the society to becoming a monopoly, and this has had profound effects on the way we view the world.  For example, as early as the 1920s British anthropology had become functionalist.  According to E.E. Evans-Pritchard (in Social Anthropology) in the 19th century anthropological thinkers were obsessed by origins, but in the 20th century their obsession became one of function.  The implication of his analysis is that just as the importance of origins was a 19th century illusion so is that of function in the twentieth.  However, whether this is true or not, such a theoretical orientation is revealing - purposive busyness not only operates in our lives it structures our deepest modes of thought.  The everyday consequence is that to be somebody is to do something; our identities defined by our behaviours, and not by what we think. 
In pre-modern times most people were also defined by what they did.  However, what often differentiated communities was the culture they adhered to – that is, that body of ideas they collectively believed in (individuals were thus doubly identified: by their private function and by their communal beliefs; as well, of course, as by their own personal characteristics).  This led to great doctrinal conformity inside communities but plenty of variation between them; while there also existed little areas of indeterminacy in the gaps in-between communities where the eccentrics and outsiders could prosper (see Ernest Gellner’s work on the saints of the Atlas mountains, referred in his Muslim Society).  Today, as a single global monoculture is formed, the numbers of communities are being reduced and the interstitial space squeezed into ever-smaller crevices: there are fewer places for the really odd and the eccentric to go.
[xiii] A strong emphasis on the individual can coexist with a belief in and drive for monopoly, indeed they are complementary, as both squeeze out the intermediate spaces which allow for the creation of a public realm (it was called civil society during the Cold War).  For a fascinating analysis of how an autocracy actually depends upon a form of equalitarian individualism see Edward Crankshaw’s history of 19th century Russia, The Shadow of the Winter Palace.  Everyone was essentially equal under the Tsar.
            For some wonderful pages on how our rather simple ideas of individualism were made obsolete in the early 20th century see A.N. Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas.  He correctly notes that individuality has been redefined…
            “In the immediate present, economic organisation constitutes the most massive problem of human relationships.  It is passing into a new phase, and presents confused outlines.  Evidently something new is developing.  The individualistic liberalism of the nineteenth century has collapsed, quite unexpectedly.  So long as the trading middle classes were dominant as the group to be satisfied, its doctrines were self-evident.  As soon as industrialism and education produced in large numbers the modern type of artisan, its whole basis was widely challenged.  Again, the necessity for large capital with the aid of legal ingenuity, produced the commercial corporation with limited liability.  These fictitious persons are exempt from physiological death and can only disappear by a voluntary dissolution or by bankruptcy.  The introduction into the arena of this new type of ‘person’ has considerably modified the effective meaning of the characteristic liberal doctrine of contractual freedom.  It is one thing to claim such a freedom as a natural right for human persons, and quite another to claim it for corporate persons.  And again the notion of private property had a simple obviousness at the foot of Mount Sinai and even in the eighteenth century.  When there were primitive roads, negligible drains, private wells, no elaborate system of credit, when payment meant the direct production of gold pieces, when each industry was reasonably self-contained – in fact when the world was not as it is now –; then it was fairly obvious what was meant by private property, apart from any current legal fictions.  Today private property is mainly a legal fiction, and apart from such legal determination its outlines are completely indefinite.  Such legal determination is probably, indeed almost certainly, the best way of arranging society.  But the ‘voice of nature’ is a faint echo when we are dealing with it.  There is a striking analogy between the hazy notions of justice in Plato’s Republic and the hazy notions of private property today.  The modern artisan, like Thrasymachus of old, is apt to define it as ‘the will of the stronger.’”  (Adventures in Ideas)
            What this quote suggests is the plausible unreality of our reigning myths – while they appear true they actually contradict the essential nature of the society they justify.  Thus today we have the myth that man is an animal whose essential nature is to adapt to its local environment.  There is much truth in this idea, especially when it comes to the relations between individual humans.  However, compare this idea with that of Christianity, especially in the Middle Ages, when it exalted the uniqueness of Man, even though for most people their lives differed little from that of the animals – like them they had to adapt to local conditions in order to survive.  Contrast this existence with modern life, which is the outcome of Man’s dominance over nature, which has allowed him to create man-made environments that are effectively insulated against the natural world.  Thus the idea that Man simply adapts to nature actually hides an obvious truth about the nature of the contemporary society.  So obvious, in fact, that we need a myth to camouflage it.
[xiv] For empirical evidence that the New Left’s assumptions about the working classes were incorrect see Richard Sennett’s, The Culture of the New Capitalism.
[xv] Elsewhere in Elsaesser’s book he seems to see this idea as if from atop a distant hill:
“[I]t is less the doubts about the effectivity of direct action than the contradictory motives of the activists that seem to interest Fassbinder…  it is precisely the duplicity of all motivation and the gaps between intention and its consequences that make up the politics of Fassbinder’s films.  More likely, at least from a Dramatist’s point of view, he subscribed to the German enlightenment philosopher Lichtenberg’s golden rule: ‘do not judge human beings by their opinions, but by what these opinions make of them.”
[xvi] For a real conflict between a private and a public identity see Satyajit Ray’s masterly The Big City.  However, in this film there is no simple conflict between good (private) and bad (public) identities.  Ray, a sophisticated artist of genius, knew life was more complex than that.
[xvii] It is interesting to compare this film with Nobuhiro Yamashita’s My Back Pages, which is also about a fake revolutionary.  (See my He’s A Fake).
[xviii] “Thus, while outwardly (the daytime image) German society in THE THIRD GENERATION appears solid, immobile and (made of) concrete, a slight change of perspective reverses the terms, and a curiously liquid world envelops one, more like an aquarium, constant movement behind glass, transparent but enclosed, claustrophobic and untouchable.”
[xix] I use Elsaesser’s terminology which was current at the time.  For an interesting sociological account of these ideas see Ralf Dahrendorf’s, The New Liberty. 
For a brilliant analysis of this shift see two documentaries by Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self (the third programme), and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (also third programme)
[xx] This is wonderfully captured in Shiva Naipaul’s Black & White.
[xxi] See my lengthy discussion in Dropout Boogie.
[xxii] For additional comment see my Dear Mr Albert…
            A major example of such a cultural shift is the scientific revolution of the 17th century.  It introduced a mechanical philosophy that was to undermine and eventually destroy the assumptions of medieval Christianity.  However, the assumptions of that mechanical philosophy were themselves highly questionable and began to fall apart in the late 19th century, by which time the philosophic outlook reverts back to something like the earlier medievalism, but with a significant change: God has been removed as a causal element from the universe, which is now seen as self-generative – that is, the creative urge and dynamic force is imminent within nature itself.  (For a lucid exposition of this view see A.N. Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas.  For related comment see particularly the footnotes of my Tantrum.)
[xxiii] Though elsewhere he seems to be grasping at the truth (he swings, he lunges, he misses…):
            “The very artificiality of the situation, its model character, set against the elliptical tightness of the plot, gives the most caricatural kind of identity to the characters, yet the electronic and audio-visual presence in which they are immersed creates its own invisibility and even opaque substance.”
[xxiv] There is some wonderful discussion about this mismatch between how a society is actually run (essentially through institutions and bureaucratic procedures) and how people attracted to identity politics think it is run in Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not altogether happy with my argument in footnote xii. The modern world is suffused with ideology, although it tends towards justifying a narrow form of naturalism – that we are animals who work and consume. Today our value lies in our individuality, which is defined by what we do in a marketplace that requires everyone to be at least nominally equal (ideas of self that conflict with this theology are condemned or even outlawed - see my Civilised Bigotry). The difference from say medieval Christianity was that then the ideology was separate from and a comment upon everyday life. In the modern world there is no distinction between what we do and what we think - all of our lives are suffused with ideology, because ordinary life is now the basis of our myths. Capitalism is our religion.

    Clearly, I need to do a lot more work on this.

    For an interesting study on the prejudices of an equalitarian naturalism see Bharati Mukherjee's The Management of Grief (in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories). In this story the Canadian social worker recognises cultural differences but unconsciously dismisses them as mere decoration. That is, she believes in equality but denies it in practice, and she doesn't recognise what she is doing! She simply cannot grasp that material benefits are less important for some people than their beliefs (one Indian family prefers poverty to acknowledging their son’s death). This short story is a classic study of the ideological gulf that separates those cultures whose ideology is founded on the mind (like the Hindu one here) and those centred on the body (ours).

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