“Yes it’s me again,
And I’m back.”
i. On Reflection
I’ve not ever been particularly good at introductions, and perhaps even worse at reunions, but I’ll try to do my best here. I am back, and here again are the little tidbits of writing I was able to force out of my brain on some of the things I read last week. I suppose it’s a reflection of sorts, as it definitely reflects the decentralized mess that is my cognitive process. For every thing I read, I find myself needing to write it into the phantom of a non-existent paper, so as to really understand myself.
I know it’s messy and the unifying principle is shaky at best. It could benefit from more close-reading of Errol Morris and his work specifically. But I am the Collage Lady, as you must know, and sometimes a collage makes no sense, or is haplessly experimental. I suppose we will see on both fronts.
Whilst writing, I must admit, I’ve been haunted by the incessantly unhelpful spectre of Perfection, and so I am hoping for the last time, this can be my exorcism.
ii. On Truth
Exorcism, like many processes, is a religious ritual designed to expunge a corrupting spirit from inhabiting the person of another, and leave only the rightful owner. I think this process actually is analogous to the way documentary film handles Truth… The way that, over the course of a film, the director, through the magic of editing and montage and ambience even, extricates a single (though often contradictory) Truth from a litany of evidence.
Though quite appealing an approach to me now, in writing this post, I originally took to a more Devin Orgeron-approach. In his essay Visual Media and the Tyranny of the Real, he compares the process of critique to that of the seasoned photographer, “in the darkroom […] awaiting an explanation for the inexplicable, waiting for history itself to develop.” This idea really spoke to me, and told me that I was yet “waiting” for my insights to develop. I stood waiting for the right ideas to strike me in my mind like lightning, but I realize while the photographer waits, I am not a photographer, but a writer, and so I must write the history before it exits my mind, and then do the work of the critic, and reveal the truth within my own words. In realizing I was wrong, I admit I also felt a bit foolish.
So whom does one go to when they are contemplating both truth and their own foolish nature?
Friedrich Nietzche, obviously.
Nietzche is, well Nietzsche, and while his clear disdain for humanity is a bit… off-putting, to say the very least, I found his words in On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, somehow inspiring even in their despairing emptiness. Nietzsche writes,
“It is only by means of forgetfulness that man can ever reach the point of fancying himself to possess a “truth” of the grade just indicated. If he will not be satisfied with truth in the form of tautology, that is to say, if he will not be content with empty husks, then he will always exchange truths for illusions.”
Nietzshe offers that Truth is at odds with illusion, and that as human beings, we are prone (perhaps due to our errant stupidity or inherent madness), to choose illusion over Truth. This kernel of an idea really incensed the inner workings of my mind, and for once, I felt the rusty gears begin to move at an introductory pace. Not because Nietzsche is right (a very appealing perspective these days), but because of how much he is not.
I think it is entirely possible, within the medium of film most specifically, that Truth is not at odds by illusion, but rather often served by it. Not to rely on my previous scholarship too heavily, I do believe that the major tenet of Collage theory as it appears in film, and most specifically in Errol Morris’ American Dharma, is that the collage process, when two media are juxtaposed in manner that is unnatural, that Truth can be revealed. In this way, I think the collage process is somewhat illusory, for what it often depicts are things that could never occur in nature together, but when they are formed together by the artist, they reveal an otherwise incommunicable Truth. In this way, Illusion serves Truth.
iii. On Hierarchy
But to imply that Illusion serves Truth, one would also have to contend with the idea that the opposite may exist. And perhaps it does, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque. As I’ve attempted to explore this idea of the carnivalesque and the unique challenging of attempting a comparison between this theory and Errol Morris’ American Dharma, this is so far what I have learned:
The carnival is the return to folkism, and in a similar way, this return and subversion is reflected in the alt-right ideology propagated by the likes of Steve Bannon. In a similar way to Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival, he has responded to the current conditions of society by arguing for a complete reversal of social norms: the power now in the hands of the “common Man,” the revival of sexism, racism, the total destruction of “PC culture,” that has become largely mainstream.
Elizeta Gaufman writes in her paper, The Trump Carnival: Popular Appeal in the Age of Misinformation,
“The specific characteristics of carnival culture stem from the anti-hierarchal push of popular culture against the official. It is also intrinsically anti-elitist, which also makes it a populist phenomenon. While there are numerous definitions of populism, what most scholars agree on is that populist movements juxtapose the ‘pure people’ against the ‘corrupt elite’, which makes the carnival framework analysis especially poignant in the light of the current ‘populist Zeitgeist’. Even if it is supposed to be short lived, carnival is a power transfer to ‘the people’ from the established ruler. It is supposed to assuage the discontent in the population by creating an illusion of power of the masses and that it also makes carnival very suitable for analysis of the Trump campaign given that his persona is a quintessential simulacrum of a ‘popular’ candidate.”
I think this is a fascinating element to the comparison of the carnival to alt-right politics, and I think it is relevant to a discussion about American Dharma, the film, given its status as a story about Steve Bannon. For even Bannon himself, a wealthy, Ivy League educated man, seeks this reversal of norms, cosplaying as a stylized image of what he no doubt perceives to be the ‘Common Man.’ In this way, viewing American Dharma and Bannon himself through a Bakhtin lens lays bare his hypocrisy; Bannon cares to only empower the Common Man if he can appropriate that identity for himself.
Much in the way Bakhtin advocates for the bodily grotesque in the carnival sphere, Bannon’s ideology is revealed to have an interesting subversion. As opposed to a focus on the body as something gross and uniquely human, the body is a tool, a weapon, and the collective body of humanity can be wielded by the likes of Bannon as a revolutionary object. Much like how Thor (a comparison Bannon would no-doubt appreciate, given how White supremacists love to misappropriate Norse mythos), wields his godly Hammer, Mjölnir, as a way to strike his enemies, so does Bannon seek to wield the collective body of humanity as a revolutionary object.