June 3rd, 2005

Downfalls

Tonight -- yesterday, technically -- Skylar insisted that we keep our promise to take her to see the Star Wars movie during our vacation. She loved it, even though she had to stay up past her bedtime. I had a good time too, despite the fact that it wore a little thin in places on third viewing. Compensating for my excessive familiarity with the film was the fact that I've started reading The Phantom Menace to the Bean during our trip. I haven't watched Episode I or Episode II since they were in theaters. But the sense I had watching them that they would seem profoundly tragic in retrospect was confirmed indirectly while I was telling Skylar about nine-year-old Annikin's life on Tatooine. When she announced to me, during yesterday's father-daughter time at Legoland, that she was in the mood for a "ruby bliel," it nearly broke my heart. And that was before I saw Episode III again.

Kim emerged from the tent around 10:30pm to tell me her analysis of the film, which is that it's just like the scenarios boys like to act out when they play pretend. "Of course," I replied, "all the Star Wars movies are that way." But that's what makes Annikin's story so strangely compelling to me. It contains all the war games of the previous five films, but manages to turn them all into something else at the same time. I've already made this point, I realize, yet it's one worth making again and again. Recognizing that fate is not always reliable -- Annikin wasn't the "chosen one" after all, at least in a literal sense -- is a powerful insight. Understanding that the best intentions can lead to the worst results is richer still.

Right now, my thoughts on Episode III keep converging with my thoughts on the film Downfall, which happens to be playing at the theater in downtown Enicinitas. Downfall is a far better film from a cinéphile's standpoint. The acting is superb instead of wooden. Subtleties of plot are magnified, not ironed flat. And the subject matter itself is a lot more grave. What Downfall shares with Episode III, however, as different as the two films are, is the capacity to make viewers identify with the dark side and then question their willingness to do that afterwards.

I want to write more about Downfall at some point, because it's such an interesting picture to think about from a film-theoretical perspective. By obeying all the conventions of the two genres it merges, historical epic and biopic, and taking care to meet all the criteria of the traditional well-made film -- there's nothing avant-garde about it, formally speaking -- Downfall manages to generate a negative alienation effect. Because it goes out of its way not to disrupt the workings of the classic cinematic apparatus, the film encourages viewers to equate their own complicity with those workings with the complicity of its main protagonist, Hitler's "innocent" secretary.

Episode III is far less clever on the surface. Yet it also manages to bring about a classic form of cinematic identification, the precise sort Brecht railed against, that subverts the identifications that the first three Star Wars films, not to mention Episode I and Episode II provoked. Even young viewers seem to recognize the strangeness of this effect, as far as I can tell based on audience responses I've witnessed. Skylar certainly does.

Of course, the Bean has, in her inimitable way, taken deep thinking about Star Wars to a new level. Not only has she spotted "continuity editing" problems in the relationship between the book version of The Phantom Menace and Episode III, she has also managed to out-ponder Yoda. On the drive back from the film, I told her that I liked the fact that even the Jedi were undone by pride, both when Mace Windu decides to take the law into his own hands and when Yoda deludes himself into believing that the time is ripe for him to dethrone Darth Sidious on his own. She responded that this was proof that even the Sith lord was not wholly bad.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "You can only fail," she answered, "if someone makes you fail. When Darth Sidious makes Yoda fail, he teaches him not to have too much pride. Yoda wouldn't get that important lesson by himself. So Darth Sidious is actually Yoda's teacher. He has to have a little bit of the good side of the Force in him to do that." While this is not a conclusion that the Jedi would necessarily be able to embrace, it has a definite logic to it. Whether it would be possible to extend it to the case of Hitler, though, is another matter. I'll have to ask Skylar when she's older.

Another View

While I'm indulging my insomnia for free on some Encinitas backstreet, let me refer those of you who are at all interested in Star Wars: Epidsode III, about which I recently posted, to my friend Annalee's column on the subject. It makes several points I wish I'd made and better than I would have made them.

Rat Pack

"You're real a pack rat." It's a comment I'm familiar with. When people learn of my tendency to save what others throw away, there is a good chance they will direct some version of this sentence my way. Some inflect it with affection, some with scorn; most strike a balance between the two, as if this character trait were endearing to the precise degree that it's ridiculous. Whatever tone this comment assumes, however, I always hear it as a call to acknowledge my deviance. The interpellation insists on my self-identification. "Yes, I am that sort of person you liken to a 'pack rat.' I do the things that make the metaphor work." But even if I refuse the name of "pack rat," the words still carry their force. To deny the hail – "No, that's not me" – is to invite my response to be read as denial, a stronger confirmation that I am what I say I'm not than to have admitted that I am that thing in the first place.

When I ponder the peculiar structure of this mode of identification – one that also characterizes the far, far more serious naming that defines people as "black" or "gay" – I realize that the only way to free myself from its bondage is to confront it head on. What is a "pack rat"? Why is that name the name people pick for someone like me? What is the source of the animus that underpins that particular choice of words, even when it is made with affection? And, finally, isn't there a better way of describing someone who refuses to regard the odds-and-ends of everyday life as refuse?

As I noted in a previous entry, my friend Laura posted a series of entries on her blog earlier this month in which she recounts an invasion of her home. The third of these entries was particularly marvellous. My favorite part concerns, you guessed it, a pack rat:
Most of my wildlife encounters in Arizona have been like this (and I have had quite a number of them). They are thrilling because they are so alien. Javelina are weird and wild, seemingly filthy beasts that hardly know fear. Coyotes are inscrutable. I don't even want to start on the snakes. The animals that come into our yard, eat our kittens and chickens, tear up the trash and spread it down the street, give birth to young on our lawn, devour the garden, lay eggs under the lawnmower (quail), and wake us up in the morning with their piercing yells cannot be anthropomorphized. I don't understand anything about them except I am certain eating is a main objective, and my observation is that they spend a great deal of time eating each other. They are not like people, at least not in any literal sense.

Not so the pack rat. He is a little man, a fussy one, who collects useless items against an imagined impoverishment in which, for some reason, he believes that limes, fishing bobbers, corks, bottle caps, hard macaroni and cheese and a quantity of marbles will save him from disaster. Apparently he thinks that the space underneath our stove is the most desirable residence. He finds our trap laughable and our crumbs irresistible. When David pulled out the stove this morning we saw just how human he is with his messy piles of useless possessions, things he can neither eat nor play with but only sleep with, only collect to "take up the struggle against dispersion" as Benjamin has said.

Still, as Benjamin has also pointed out, the productive disorder of the collector is also the canon of the memoirist, which is sort of to say that the pack rat and the blogger are sisters in archiving. I myself am the pack rat! The attempt is to defeat scatter, but in the pack rat's nest, and probably here as well, the residue of the collection is mainly scat.
I have more to say about this wonderful passage than I have the time or space to state here. For now, I will confine myself to two details. First, I think it revealing that Laura identifies humanity with "imagined impoverishment" and "useless items." What makes the pack rat easy to anthropomorphize, in her account, is the fact that it appears to act on the basis of a fantasy that diverges from the reality of its everyday existence. The pack rat seems, in other words, to imagine a future that will never come to be, a time when its tireless collecting will retroactively turn out to have had a practical purpose. This fantasy of a moment still to come when the "useless" will metamorphose into the "useful" correlates to the fantasies that animate the daily exertions of human beings, who see the blurry goal, whether mirage or not, on the horizon of their expectation that transforms the steps of their wandering into "progress." Second, I wonder whether the "residue of the collection" that Laura likens to excrement is the same thing as the collection itself. Does the collection transcend the materiality of its physical manifestation? Is there something there besides what is left behind when its sanctity is violated and the items that comprise it dispersed?

Bearing these questions in mind, I've been spending the past few weeks reconsidering my designation as a "pack rat," particularly as it relates to this blog. As the note on the sidebar to the right of this entry indicates -- scroll down past my links to read it -- I'm especially interested in the archival dimension to blogging. Rather than just archiving the moment, however, I go out of my way to retrieve memories and the items from my personal "hard copy" archives that trigger them and present them in this space. It's important to me that the archive I construct here encompass more history than the 22 months in which I've been blogging. If nothing else, I want to make good on a promise I make to myself when I set something aside for posterity: "I will one day find a way to make new use of this item." In one sense, I suppose I do that much just by going through one of the many boxes that constitute my "archives," since I must remember my reasons for saving each item, refreshing the memories that it serves to organize, or I will discard it as no longer valuable. That minimal form of reuse never seems wholly satisfying, though, so I'm glad that I finally have a venue in which I can do something personally significant with some items from my archives.

The strange thing about this process is that once I've recontextualized something in the context of this journal, it loses much of its power to move me. The locus of interest shifts from the item itself to the way in which I present it here. In making the leap to this electronic filing system, the item undergoes a kind of "defilement" that pries it loose from the thread of active memory. So long as an item remains packed away in a box -- one that is typically filled with "cricket scat," come to think of it -- it retains a potential energy that is only loosed upon its excavation and recontextualization. I suppose there's still a conservation of energy, in the end, but one that sees its transfer, through a complex psychological gearbox, from the internal combustion engine of my mind to the movement of my typing hands. If I save, then, it is under the assumption that all that storing up will one day result in creative destruction.

What strikes me about the "pack rat" metaphor that Laura's entry does such a nice job of transubstantiating into mortal flesh is that people usually deploy it as a critique, however loving, of people who save without the prospect of realizing the value of their savings, of those who save, not under the assumption that all that storing up will prove to have been worthwhile, but under the delusion that it will. The human being imagined as pack rat is a human being whose superficially productive bustling about is subtended by a fundamental irrationality.

Now you may be wondering whether it is true, as Laura suggests, that even though other desert creatures radically resist our anthropomorphizing, the pack rat invites it. And indeed I'm not sure where I come down on this question myself. What I do know, however, is that the pack rat does things that seem inconsistent with the imperatives of brute survival. The one we had in our backyard a few years back, for example, was fond of chopping off the tops of flowers and dragging them back to its lair where they would dry out uneaten and, unless their function was ceremonial, unused. If we regard the actually existing pack rat as confirmation of the metaphor of the "pack rat" we apply to certain of our fellow human beings, it is because we identify the senselessness in many of its actions as being homologous with the senselessness in many of our own. In both cases, interestingly, we discern the absence of a reason in a surplus that cannot be converted into energy, an excess that will always linger on in a remainder.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins," concludes the speaker of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, but he doesn't make it clear whether those fragments' value is intrinsic – these fragments as opposed to ones less suitable – or merely a function of context. More often than not, the work of shoring something up is one in which a variety of raw materials are brought together without regard for their particularity. It is, in short, the work of the allegorist as Walter Benjamin describes him in his Passagenwerk, what we call the "Arcades Project" in English. To put this another way, revisiting the idea of "brickolage" invoked by my Legoland entry from earlier this week, Benjamin's allegorist has an affinity with the bricoleur who solves everyday problems with whatever is ready to hand, without excessive regard for what belongs where and why. The difference between them only opens up when the allegorist is unable to find a problem to solve, when she or he keeps assembling fragments to deploy in some future work of shoring up for which the time will never be right. In that case, the unused items in the allegorist's collection constitute a remainder – "shit," to put it more bluntly – that will never be dissolved into work. That's what we fear when we call ourselves or, more likely, others "pack rats." Could it be, though, that this dehumanizing name actually refers to what is most essentially human in us, the part of us that acts on the basis of a future that may never come?

As I feel the need to wrap this entry up, I'm frustrated to discover that the rhetorical questions I've already deployed, no doubt excessively, are ramifying, not into answers, but further questions. I've been reading Giorgio Agamben's The Open: Man and Animal off and on lately, but in that slow-proceeding, intense mode that I reserve for only a few texts each year. It has been a rich and rewarding experience on its own merits. Yet it is one I undertook principally in order to ponder the metaphor of the "pack rat" with which I began here. Agamben does a great job of provoking us to reflect, both on the boundaries we set up between ourselves and those we exclude from that first-person plural and on the ways we transgress those boundaries in words and deeds. What inspires us to anthropomorphize? What leads us to recognize resistance to that anthropomorphizing gesture? Why, finally, do we call people "dog" or "pussy" or "bear" or "vulture" or, yes, "pack rat?"