CTT Slacker and Structure

Capture the Tag Slacker:

 

In the blog post “Slacker and Violent Media”, Madison asserts: “while there may not be much happening in the film, there is a lot happening on the periphery of what is being shown”. This decentralizing of content in Slacker is but one way in which the structure of the film can be discussed in terms of Adornian fragmentation and queer passivity/nonproductivity.

Stephanie, in her post “Thoughts on Slacker” notes how Linklater’s pseudo-scientific “alternate realities” monologue at the beginning of the film might be read to echo Halberstam’s “detours”, i.e. alternative methods of solving theoretical problems within an “undisciplined zone of knowledge production” (Halberstam 15). To supplement Stephanie’s point, I would add Halberstam’s citation of Foucault, which highlights how hegemonic ways of knowing and relating are a constructed phenomenon: “The social worlds we inhabit…are not inevitable…in the process of producing this reality, many other realities, fields of knowledge and ways of being have been discarded and…”disqualified” [Foucault]’ (Halberstam, 9). In his rambling speech about reading in dreams and missed opportunities for bus station romance, Linklater also mentions how each choice a person makes theoretically denies countless other realities. We can stretch this a bit and consider Foucault’s concept of the construction of history in hegemonic discourse as a series of chances, either taken or ignored, that give way to one reality only in the suppression of others. In this context, the conspiracy theories that crop up repeatedly in Slacker can be understood as a paranoid response to literal or figurative violence inherent in the production of a single historical reality.

More generally, the anti-narrative structure and lack of character development can be usefully considered from the angle of Foucault and Halberstam. “We [don’t] get to see any of the characters develop” Stephanie states, “so, by society’s standards, they are all unproductive”. In allowing characters to disappear, the structure of the film also facilitates a characterization of them as failures. The characters are denied profit-based success not because they don’t have jobs (although it seems almost certain that most of them don’t) but because Linklater has manipulated what we see andas a result, how we interpret his characters’ (non)productivity. As Stephanie astutely notes, this fragmentation of form can be read against Adorno’s “false totality”. I want to elaborate on this idea, for it is this fragmentary formal constraint that offers us a disruption beyond that of mere characterization. If fragmentation betrays the truthful counterpart to a totality that, in its generalization, hides holes and disqualified realities, then, by denying the hierarchical structure of narrative, the fragmentary condition of Slacker reveals such realities by its commitment to pursuing the secondary, tertiary, quaternary, etc. characters that standard narrative disqualifies in its orderly pursuit of central character(s), climactic event, resolution or other such formal mainstays. “Never looping back to main characters in the way other vignette movies do” Angelica states in her entry “Transaction and Meaning in Slacker”, “the film…[resists] traditional movie storytelling.” She goes on to say that this resistance mimics the resistance to capitalism many of the characters demonstrate, which I think is a fair assessment. For considerations of length, however, I will only say that the content of resistance is as complex as the form (free weapons giveaway, anyone?).

Formally, Angelica is concerned with a device that she has deemed the “switch off”—a kind of passing of the baton that the camera follows. This is precisely how the film gives us the ability to encounter so many characters in such a short time, while still maintaining a structural through-line and providing what Stephanie calls a “wandering or lingering” quality that cultivates the feeling of nonproductivity. Angelica sees this transference of attention as a “transaction” between individuals that, although it may involve goods, “isn’t mediated by goods at all”. I agree that the switch off is a human interaction, but I think it is most certainly mediated by goods. It is the qualities of these goods that make the switch off different. Firstly, they are often free (although sometimes they are not, ex. the latte, the soda, the diner coffee—mostly beverages, it seems) or stolen. Cigarettes, entry stamps, cameras and books are passed without charge from one person to another and incite the switch off. Secondly, the goods are arguably only valuable in the Slacker economy—the tape of the student hostage-taker, “oblique strategy” cards, the old man’s cassette—and sometimes not even in there (the Madonna pap smear). The transactions themselves often involve bartering, charity, or the aforementioned law-breaking:  when the old anarchist tells the would-be burglar to “look around, take anything [he] like[s]”, or the guys steal the car parts from the pick n’ pull. What makes the economy of Slacker go ’round may not be typical goods or exchange transactions, but both are still present.

Madisonduarte’s observation that there is much happening on the periphery of the film is important, I think, because in a standard narrative we wouldn’t be asked to concern ourselves with it. Slacker draws out peripheries from peripheries from peripheries, and, as a result, is peripheral itself in both in its non-normative form, subversive content and cast of ephemeral “ultimate losers”. As such, the film lends itself to a queer reading that encounters these decentralizing, disruptive elements as a rejection of standardization, normative historical methods and adherence with the global exchange economy.

Quicksand, the Aesthetic Gaze and the Heterogeneous Subject

I would like to look at how the role of aesthetics in Quicksand relates to the “irritation” noted by Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings  and informs Helga’s racial consciousness.

Helga relies on the semiotic capabilities of beauty in order to string together a rational narrative of her life from the outside in, despite the inconsistency and tumult of her psyche. It is evident from the beginning, when Helga “smiles inwardly” at the message her small hats and elegant shoes send to the prim-minded employees of Naxos, who find them “positively indecent”(52). Early on, too, we learn that her entire life Helga has “loved and longed” for beautiful and pleasing “things” (41). It is in this desire for material beauty that we can find Helga’s method of anestheticizing the pervasive irritation that motivates her throughout the novel.

When the signifiers of her appearance are co-opted by the Dahls Helga enjoys it—at first. Helga invests her emotional capital in the “business” of her manufacture as an exotic aesthetic product, “[giving] herself up wholly to the fascinating business of being seen, gaped at, desired” (104). It is important to remember that Helga consents to this “aestheticization” in the beginning and that it is “intensely pleasant to her” (104). The eventual pleasure Helga finds in her beautiful appearance dissolves the initial “perturbation” (103) or irritation Helga experiences at being a “peacock” (103). In this moment Helga rejects any racial obligation to feel ashamed of her marketability in Copenhagen as an exotic and beautiful object. Her willingness to “try on” the identity the Dahls fashion for her, to try to locate her subjectivity through the eyes of her aunt, uncle and Copenhagen society, echoes the impulsiveness with which she relocates herself geographically. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness. By cultivating her own objectification Helga obtains the ontological glue, so to speak, that temporarily alleviates her riven condition.

In Copenhagen Helga purposefully seeks to claim her blackness through the gaze of the Danish. “Intentionally” she speaks the “slow, faltering Danish” she thinks makes her more attractive for its indication of foreignness, and is gratified by the attention she receives (104). In the same turn Helga criticizes black Americans as hypocritical, denouncing that they “didn’t want to be like themselves”, and desired instead to “be like their white overlords” and “were ashamed to be Negroes, but not ashamed to beg to be something else. Something inferior” (104). In adopting her aestheticized and fetishized identity Helga cultivates a counterintuitive racial pride in opposition to both whiteness and blackness. In her above critique we can read Helga’s earlier criticisms of racial uplift, here characterized as the white washing of an essential quality of blackness. That this critique emerges from Helga’s being recast as a fetish object—a luxury item with the power to promote social buoyancy—is problematic, to say the least. Helga’s attempt to locate or identify herself from the outside-in can be viewed as an attempt to arrest the queer condition of her ontological flux and non-binary racial consciousness.

If Helga’s racial consciousness only manifests from the outside-in, as mediated by her beautiful environment, possessions, or appearance, then it follows that this identification exists only in that it is refracted through the eyes of another. In accordance with this triangulated aesthetic gaze, instances of beauty in the novel become representative of a symbolic observer that has the power to confer upon Helga a particular kind of social capital. Aesthetically objectified and “appraised” (81), Helga is contracted into a value (product) and thereby unified into a singular subject (paradoxically) by another’s objectifying gaze.

To be beautiful and to have beautiful things is a way to surrender to the gaze of another and so solicit the unified value that evades her internally. The pursuit and attainment of beauty alleviates temporarily the irritation Helga cannot seem to escape. In Helga’s characteristic attraction to beauty we can read her desire to anestheticize the irritation that stems from her incongruity with an ever-nagging racial binary. Even the “miraculously beautiful” (149) community she experiences in Alabama is refracted through the fervently religious eyes of Reverend Pleasant Green, her marriage to whom was tonic to the irritative rupture that occurred after her final meeting with Dr. Anderson. Helga chose, chased and conquered the Reverend as a way to still herself, to arrest her roaming consciousness and identity in favor of the numb bliss of religiosity and domesticity. Of course, at the end of the novel, in the bed after childbirth, Helga returns to her nomadic state, if only psychologically, and by the last sentence teeters on the edge of self-obliteration.

Slacker and Adorno’s Aesthetics

I spent a great deal of time studying/spiraling into Adorno’s aesthetic theory, both in Minima Moralia and Aesthetic Theory  excerpts. This is what I’ve produced and its hardly anything. I feel like I’m on a drug I don’t want to be on anymore. The drug of Adorno.

Pt 1: Adorno and Art

The artist can preserve the integrity of her productive activity by turning the relationship between producer and consumer against its own goal. By collapsing the labor of the artist and the consumption of the observer in time, either by manipulating the temporal condition of the art object or creating an art object that disappears or is destroyed, artists can resist incorporation of their art objects into the exchange economy. This collapse keeps the artist from being alienated from their labor because the consumer/observer of the art cannot possess the product or divorce it from its active creation. This active creation can be conceived in the context of what Adorno would call the art object’s “laws of movement”. Adorno holds that good art is constituted by “moments” of encounter or expression that render it irreducible to criteria and keep it in a state of flux. It is not exactly that good art must be temporary, but the unique relationship of the art object to time is what can prevent its being located or stabilized. If it is these “moments” rather than any specific content that make the art object what it is. As such, the art object, impossible to corral, defies commodification—you can’t sell a horse you can’t catch.

 

Pt 2: Adorno and Slacker

Slacker literalizes Adorno’s metaphor of “movement” or momentariness as requisite to truthful art through its ever-mobile camera and characters. The motion of the camera resists a totalizing narrative, a point made recursively by the scene of the super8 bouncing between operators splicing and dicing a water bottle-banging performance into grainy and indecipherable morsels. The observation of the performance through the super8 camera is a deliberate attempt by the artist (the super8 supplier) to keep the art moving, temporary and changing. Although fragmentary, the super8 film has the potential to be productive because of its pretense of reproduction or possession of the performance. Lucky for Adorno, the viewer doesn’t get to see where this narrative thread might take us.

 

The last scene of the film mirrors the above in many ways. The super8 filmmakers pass the camera between each other, filming each other haphazardly. To the viewer the effect is building disorientation that culminates when the camera is thrown off the cliff. The kids’ penchant for destruction, and what is revealed as a fundamental irrationality in the production and (lack of) consumption of the art object falls right in line with Adorno’s theories about aesthetics. By destroying the camera the kids ensure that their art is unable to be possessed, thereby precluding its recruitment into the marketplace and preserving its autonomy and uselessness in an act of brutality. This is a perfect example of Adorno’s active violence against utility (121).

 

It is in such a way that, according to Adorno, we may come close to preserving arts use value, and genuine benefits to society. By denying the marketplace the opportunity to identify the art’s commodity character and giving that mediating power back to the artist, the artist may then wield his/her mediating power by manipulating the execution of the art object in time. Thus the artist can deny the art’s productivity in the marketplace by allowing its use value to circulate in a manner that subverts the temporal scale of industry. A quick non-Slacker example that I like is a John Cage piece, the execution of which involved stamping “listen” on every audience member’s hand and having them board a bus to be chauffeured around. Lets check in with Adorno:

  1. The art is decidedly temporary (it appears and disappears as it is consumed)
  2. The art cannot be taken away and reproduced, for its moments of experience and expression are spontaneous (car horns, birds, etc)
  3. By literally inducing motion the piece fragments itself (in a Slacker-like-move)

 

Part 3: Performance, Fetishism and the Replacement of Use Value with Exchange Value

The fact that much of the art is encountered for free in Slacker can be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim the value of the labor of the artist and challenge the logic of dominant exchange relationships. The artist-as-producer in Slacker creates art that doesn’t really satisfy the demands of the marketplace/monetary exchange but rather affirms the abilities of the individual and is shared for communal benefit. If we cannot rightly “possess” something like a free performance, for example, then we cannot exactly conceive of the exchange value that “possessing” the art would offer. Spontaneity as a formal constraint would push performance even further from desirability as a marketplace commodity as it cannot be reconciled cleanly with marketability.

 There is, however, a way in which the performance can still produce exchange value, and it occurs when what is qualitative in art (use value) is transformed into something quantifiable. If I understand correctly, this is the definition of fetishism as it pertains to Adorno. As he articulates: “No humane exertions, no formal reasoning, can sever happiness from the fact that the ravishing dress is worn by only one, and not by twenty-thousand. The utopia of the qualitative—the things which through their difference and uniqueness cannot be absorbed into the prevalent exchange relationships—takes refuge under capitalism in the traits of fetishism.” (120) If the audience at our spontaneous performance art nightmare estimates the social value of the performance, the art object begins its journey towards capital and fetishism. The individual who witnessed the performance can exchange the memory of the experience as cultural capital by soliciting recognition of the consumption of the artistic experience (1:“I saw the nightmare performance xyz did on Friday and it made me cry.” 2:“You must be a sensitive and profound individual! Come meet my friends/come to my party/send me your manuscript”). The audience member exchanges his/her experience for other social capital ex: entry into certain social groups, network contacts, or publication of a review of the piece. This activity could potentially transform the cultural capital into economic capital by allowing the audience member a bit of upward mobility in the labor market. For example, an audience member could “name drop” the performance and/or artists and so convert what was unproductive, the art’s use value, into the realm of financial gain and careerism, i.e. the economic marketplace. By the time this happens, though, there are already postcards for sale at Starbucks with the artist’s face on them, the purchase of which people believe constitutes a transformative artistic experience. This entire process also confers onto the labor of the artists an exchange value, essentially robbing them of their artistic autonomy and pushing art and artist into the economic sphere of usefulness. “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death”.