Recent documentary clichés

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Documentary, Film reviews

In his new film, The War You Don’t See (UK?, 2010), Australian journalist John Pilger explains that ’embedded’ journalists are often ‘in bed with’ those whose story they are trying to get/represent.

That is to say, journalists are less likely to be impartial when embedded with soldiers in a military conflict zone, a practice that dates back to the First World War, and which in terms of specifically film journalism has happened at least since 1912 when Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had films made about him from the front line of his rebellion against Victoriano Huerta and others in the burgeoning Mexican democracy.

The reason provided is that one is given access to only that which the unit with which one is embedded wants the journalist to see. Furthermore, Pilger documents as best (?) as he can how journalism in the present day and age is a question of back-scratching. That is, if journalists ‘play ball with’ (i.e. do not criticise or seek to investigate the veracity or otherwise of what is told them by) governmental sources, then they get exclusive interviews with leading politicians, etc. Given that newspapers need to sell stories, stories that are often spun in a patriotic and nationalistic way, it is often (seemingly) in the interests of the news companies and journalists not to question what they are told. That and the fact that investigative journalists are systematically denied access to information and, according to a WikiLeaks document, are a worse threat to contemporary government than spies and terrorists.

Pilger’s film is a critique of journalism in the contemporary age; why did journalists go along with stories concerning non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when even at the time there was some evidence for and people willing to speak about how there were no WMDs. It is also an attack on journalists who privilege only the ‘official’ story – be that in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere. Although as much is denied by some of Pilger’s interviewees, journalists live in fear for their lives – not simply as a result of being in dangerous places, but because they will actively be targeted, like the Al Jazeera offices in Kabul, if they report on events in a way that does not please those who are trying already to write the history of events.

I shall return (briefly) to The War You Don’t See later, but in many ways the critique of embedded journalists that Pilger’s film offers does bring into question the potentially one-sided nature of the otherwise remarkable Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, USA, 2010).

Restrepo follows a year in the life of a unit of American soldiers in the Korangal valley, and who under the leadership of Captain Dan Kearney manage to secure an outpost that overlooks the valley and which is named after Juan Restrepo, a private and member of the unit who dies in combat.

The outpost comes constantly under fire from an invisible enemy, upon whom the soldiers fire back, although again we barely see their targets. One could easily criticise not the film for what it shows, which on the whole is an extraordinary display of endurance and bonding, but some of the behaviour that is shown. That is, one could easily take the film to be a critique of American attitudes towards locals in Afghanistan when Kearney and his men resort to the kind of foul-mouthed swaggering we expect from the movies when talks break down at one of the regular powwows he organises with the local leaders. One might also be suspicious of the soldiers who claim that they had to put the cow of one of the locals down after it got caught on barbed wire – for it seems that they enjoyed eating the cow as much as they carried out this slaughter for ‘humanitarian’ purposes. Either way, when inevitably that cliché about winning ‘hearts and minds‘ is bandied around by one of the soldiers, it is spoken in such a way that one does not know whether anyone believes in this perhaps meaningless motto anymore. In other words, the film does show us these soldiers not so much in a negative light, but realistically: we see their flaws as well as their admirable coping strategies for being in such a remote and (as the reviews repeatedly tell us) desolate place.

(To butt into the discourse surrounding the Korangal: most mountainous valleys, particularly in that region, are not exactly oases. However, obviously vegetation grows and locals get by – and the region does have a relatively successful timber industry. I appreciate that this is not exactly Beverly Hills and the world of Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2010), but it’s not the middle of the Atacama, either.)

In the light of, and in some respects against, Pilger’s documentary, then, Hetherington and Junger’s film does not necessarily come across as too one-sided. We do not get translated (or even untranslated) interviews with the local population without the presence of the soldiers, in which – perhaps? conceivably? impossibly? – they would speak their mind about the American presence in the valley. Nor do we have investigations into how the Taliban that are in the area – we know this since they shoot at the Americans more or less relentlessly – are supported (but – in a manner akin to Des hommes et des dieux/Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France, 2010), one wonders that the locals must see the ‘terrorists’ from time to time, since they will need to come to the village for supplies and medicine, even if the locals do not outright support the Taliban). We do not get too much access to the other side of the story, then, but the story that we do see has many sides itself, and by showing the behaviour of the Americans, the film implicitly involves at times its own critique/we see their bad as well as their good points – and if lingering on the bad is what one wants to do with the film, then one can happily do that.

Rather than an embedded reportage of any great victories, then, Restrepo gives us what seems to be a pretty even-sided take on its topic (although how we would ever know if truly it was even is impossible – since, as per another truth turned cliché developed during the Vietnam War, ‘we weren’t there’).

However, while I want to be clear in articulating the strengths of Restrepo, I also do want to criticise the film for perhaps the major scene around which the film is based. And this is a scene in which the soldiers come under heavy fire and are engaged in close combat.

This is the film’s ‘million dollar footage,’ and in some ways I understand how and why the filmmakers need to showcase this material in order for their film to have maximum impact. Besides which, they were not fooling around and this is not Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, USA, 2001), which, although based on a true story, is, after all, a realistic mock-up of events – but not footage from those events themselves.

I also understand how and why the filmmakers would want to build tension prior to this scene – giving us emotional testimony shot after the fact from soldiers including Misha Pemble-Belkin and Brendan O’Byrne. As they come to tears, however, then to ‘drop us’ into the combat situation seems, to someone of my frail sensibility, pornographic.

That is, I am grateful to see the effects of war on the soldiers who have been touched by it; this is knowledge that rationally I can use to understand the world in a better way. I am grateful perhaps to see combat footage for the same reason – to make me understand the true horror of war. But the way in which the testimony is deployed in this film before the combat footage seems exploitative.

We know that this is a manipulation: Hetherington and Junger conducted their interviews with the troops after they had returned home – and so we could easily have seen the footage and then gauged their reactions to what happened in order to understand it. But instead their emotional responses/recall of events is given to us first so as to lead us into understanding these events in the way that the filmmakers think that we should – and not necessarily in a realistic way at all (and by realistic, I hypothesise – admittedly, hypothesising is all I can do – that events happen and we do not understand them at the time, let alone in advance – and it is only in the act of remembering that we can make sense of them, which is the opposite of what Hetherington and Junger do to us here). Junger and Hetherington can hide behind the respect that they are showing to their subjects in privileging their understanding of events, as opposed simply to showing the events themselves. But this would be disingenuous in certain respects – for Junger and Hetherington, without giving us their reactions to events (and it is they who are also they and they who are also filming), show us the combat scenes anyway. If this was about the soldiers’ memories and their attempts to deal with what happened, then we might have seen their reactions after the combat sequences, or not even seen the combat sequences at all.

Where Werner Herzog decides not to play for us the noises of Timothy Treadwell being eaten alive by bears in Grizzly Man (USA, 2005), here we do see the combat sequences. (This is not to overlook Herzog’s strange decision to listen to the noises of Treadwell’s death and then to tell us and his mother that we should not hear them, but the implications of that choice will be left for another time.)

In other words, Restrepo verges on the exploitative and is a poorer film for it. Not only does this ‘objective’ film – which does not engage with the wider politics of the war in Afghanistan, as Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom have in part done in their recent Shock Doctrine (UK, 2009) – thereby reveal something of its allegiances (meaning that in part the film does, perhaps naturally and both for better and for worse, become complicit with the unit with which the filmmakers have been embedded), but it also proves that it is prey to the logic of sensationalism that drives the audiovisual media industry.

Whereas we might criticise The War You Don’t See and Shock Doctrine for being sensational and manipulative in quite obvious ways, since both are making large claims that it is hard to justify without being a bit knowingly one-sided, Restrepo is more subtly sensational perhaps, but sensational it is.

If hearts and minds are truly the object of war – that is, if wars truly are about ideologies, whereby people over there must be convinced of the truth and righteousness of the way of life over here, such that they adopt our ways – then not only does this reveal that war today is absolutely religious (in the sense that it is about convincing people of correct beliefs and codes of conduct), but it also means that cinema is a key ingredient to war. For cinema affects humans in two conjoined and inseparable ways: it makes us think (affecting our minds), and it makes us feel (affecting our hearts). One might say that there is not so much a battle between types of cinema, although this battle has surely been waged, as we have seen through Nazi and Soviet as opposed to Western/American propaganda, but also between those nations that are cinematic and those that are not.

By this I mean to say that it is not so much which cinematic images you believe in that is the root of today’s ideological conflicts (although of course this is the case), but it is whether you believe in cinematic images. In some ways, what I am saying does an enormous dis-service to a massively long history of icons and iconography – that is, the use of pre-cinematic images in order to convey ideas and feelings, in order to exert power, to impose fear, and to indoctrinate. But in other ways, the coincidence of modernity (and now postmodernity) with the advent (and proliferation) of cinema means that this technology, the cinematograph, be it analogue or digital, is the tool through which as much ‘shooting’ has taken place as has been carried out by humans wielding guns.

By making itself suddenly and at the last cinematic, and however perverse this might be in a culture in which that which is ‘cinematic’ is indeed esteemed worthy of the highest praise, Restrepo does itself a dis-service. And my reasons for arguing this will hopefully become clear in my consideration of another recent documentary, which has nothing to do with the contemporary system of warfare that governs the planet, Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 2010).

Catfish tells the story of New York photographer Nev Schulman, who receives in the post one day a painting of one of his pictures. The painting is allegedly by an eight-year old girl, Abby, who lives in Michigan. Nev likes the painting and so writes back to Abby – and soon becomes Facebook friends with Abby, her mother Angela, and her sister Megan. In particular, Nev and Megan start to talk online and then on the telephone. The photos of her on Facebook show a hot 19-year old whom Nev obviously fancies, and so they begin something of a long distance relationship.

One night, while photographing/filming some ballet in Colorado, Nev and the two filmmakers, Ariel and Henry, discover that a song posted online by Megan is not – contrary to her claims – by her, but is in fact a sound file taken from a video on YouTube. Nev investigates a bit further: not only are other of Megan and Angela’s songs in fact sound files of performances by other people, but the building that supposedly Angela had bought as a gallery for artist prodigy Abby is in fact a former JC Penney that is still on the market.

As a result of these incongruencies, Nev, Henry and Ariel decide to go to Michigan to investigate – and there [SPOILERS] they discover that Megan does not exist (or at least is estranged from Angela and her family), that Angela looks nothing like the photos she puts of herself online, that Abby does not even know how to draw, let alone paint, and that as many as 14 characters had been invented by Angela to flesh out the world of her Facebook avatars.

As has been said, at a time when The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010) seems to be dominating end of year polls, this is perhaps the ‘real’ Facebook film. But generally positive reviews aside, I want to discuss a key scene from Catfish by way of comparison to Restrepo.

Nev, Ariel and Henry arrive late at night at a farm that is supposed to belong to Megan. They have the address and they have seen the photos of this place – so they recognise it when they arrive. Nev decides that, late though it is, they will drive up to the farmhouse and take a peak at what is there. Naturally, the farmhouse is empty and no one is there.

Trying to describe the creepiness of this moment is difficult, but both I and the friend with whom I saw Catfish discussed afterwards how tense this film made us feel, particularly this moment. And for me, the reason why this moment was so tense was because suddenly, having thought that this was a documentary, I found myself questioning whether I had been the victim of some profound hoax – as if somehow this film was going to become [Rec.] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, Spain, 2007), and be in fact a fiction film that had strung out its documentary appearance for over 45 minutes. That is, I literally wondered whether suddenly a crazy zombie was going to ambush these three from the bushes. Certainly, a 3am arrival at an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the American countryside is the right setting for such a film.

Interestingly, it felt as if Nev, Ariel and Henry were also prey to this kind of logic. Not only is there a terrifying shot where Ariel (I think) approaches a dark window to see if, as per Megan’s reports, there are some horses within the barn, which is terrifying almost in a metaphysical way, since with the camera we approach the darkness and it is the sheer lack of knowing what we will see that scares us, but also when they go round to Angela’s house the next day, the filmmakers are worried that they are going to meet a bunch of psychopaths who will murder them.

In other words, both Nev, Ariel, Henry and I all felt scared when something that I/we had considered to be real life suddenly become uncanny, something that we did not easily recognise, and what was driving our fear/tension was not our ability for remain calmly rooted in reality, but the invasion into our thoughts of, precisely, images from movies – the psychopathic family of in-breeds that has some weird cult that lures in New Yorkers to feed their vampire children.

In and of itself, this is interesting, but I want to take this further. For while I criticise Restrepo for resorting to ‘cinematic’ tactics, Catfish holds off on the ‘cinema.’ Had zombies or in-breds actually attacked Nev et al, this would have been a jump-making moment to rival any we have seen in cinema, and we might normally have called this a ‘cinematic’ moment. But it is for me the fact that Catfish does not – indeed, it cannot – deliver this ‘punchline’ (because it is a documentary of a world in which zombies do not necessarily exist), that the film takes on its real power.

Angela, it turns out, is not a psycho; nor even, really, a pathological liar. She lies compulsively, yes, but she knows that she is doing so, and the truth, or most of it, does eventually come out. In fact, rather than being a liar, she seems a sweet woman who is far more creative than her lifestyle gives her opportunity to be, and so she paints, creates a kind of Facebook novel (which involves Nev), and more in order to occupy herself apart from looking after her husband’s two retarded and self-abusive children (from another marriage), her husband and, of course, Abby. In fact, Angela turns out to be, in many respects, lovely.

In other words, whereas zombies would have terrified initially, such an ending would, in comparison to the endlessly complex and brilliant weirdness of humanity/Angela, have been ultimately unsatisfactory. The ‘cinematic’ would have, as it does in Restrepo, cheapened the film. Paradoxically, by avoiding the ‘cinematic,’ a better film is made as a result.

And here I can talk about why Restrepo, The War You Don’t See, Shock Doctrine and even (as I shall explain) Catfish disappoint in some respects. And this is because all resort to clichés, by which I mean that they adopt the techniques of other films, the likes of which we have seen over and over again. They give us what we expect them to deliver – and as a result, they do not overwhelm us the way in which reality can and does overwhelm us by never conforming to that which we expect, but instead they deliver precisely what we (are supposed to) expect.

Of course, any fule know that documentary cannot grasp reality in its entirety, and any documentary is always a manipulation of reality. But how that manipulation is put together can be done in a brilliant and original fashion. And while so much of what Restrepo shows us is never before seen and fascinating, the ‘pornographic’ exploitation of the battle seems too hackneyed a device to give it its full power. The War You Don’t See in particular involves too many well-composed talking head shots, complete with non-continuous reverse shots of Pilger, typically nodding in approval of what is being said (why? do we need his approval? for whom does Pilger take himself?), while Shock Doctrine involves that image of napalm being dropped in Vietnam (as well as some dodgy inserts of its own, particularly around Naomi Klein, whose words are definitely manipulated via inserts, such that we cannot be one hundred per cent sure of what she is saying). When Pilger interviews Cynthia McKinney, the camera, sensing that she might well up as she discusses how disappointed she is in Barack Obama’s presidency, begins to close in. And this, too, is the cliché that Catfish finally falls foul of, too: the film does not rest until Angela has had her cry on camera, even though such a ‘redemption’ is entirely unnecessary.

Yes – so the shedding of these tears happened, what we see is ‘real,’ and we have no reason to believe that these are crocodile tears in any of these documentaries (even if they are tears shed with full knowledge of the presence of the cameras). But it is the hackneyed, exploitative and cynical way in which, like a shark closing in on its prey, the camera zooms on McKinney in Pilger’s film even though she does not cry, the way in which Catfish hangs around Angela until she cries, the way in which Restrepo builds the tension up via testimony before its violent ‘money shot,’ that gets me. In other words, it is not the ‘truth’ of the subjects that is disappointing here, but they way in which that truth is captured, edited, actively sought out that is disappointing.

This is what I am calling cliché – the need to simplify through symbols the larger-than-cinema reality that is rendered merely cinematic. I call these symbols, because rather than combat being hard to understand, rather than Angela being unfathomable, rather than McKinney being angry, the filmmakers reduce what they record to what they what it to mean, as opposed to letting tears fall onscreen for what they are. Tears are made symbols of; and given that these are tears from a human, to render them symbols is to demean the complex being from which they came.

Paradoxically, then, the ‘truly’ cinematic – that which exceeds our expectations, that which defies simple understanding because we have seen it all before – is that which avoids conforming to, precisely, the pre-existing cinematic clichés.

In the case of the Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom films, we might say that these filmmakers need to use shorthand because they have a bigger story to tell, an argument to put across – and peddling in images and types of images with which we already familiar is an easy way of doing this. But my point would be: why? What are the demands that mean that a film must take short cuts in order to make its point?

Recently, and by way of a final comparison, I was lucky enough recently to see Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall (USA, 1979). This is not a ‘real time’ film, but in some ways it almost could be, because it is a document of a debate in New York involving novelist Norman Mailer, feminist scholar Germaine Greer, writer Jill Johnston, literary critic Diana Trilling, activist Jacqueline Ceballos, and various members of the crowd that attended the event (including the likes of Susan Sontag).

The debate is about the fate of feminism, and the film lasts 85 minutes – while the debate in real life itself probably lasted nearer two hours, maybe more. Given the discrepancy, there are omissions for certain in this film, and Town Bloody Hall is almost certainly manipulative in its own way, not just by shortening the debate to 85 minutes, but by choosing certain shots and angles that pick up on details during the debate that did not necessarily happen at quite the time that the film makes us think that they did.

But what is interesting about Town Bloody Hall, in comparison to Pilger and Whitecross/Winterbottom’s films, is that it is modest in ambition. It depicts a single event that took place and does not try to make an argument concerning an entire generation of foreign policy or journalistic practice. There is perhaps some ‘judgement’ in the film, but it is hard to discern. But in 85 minutes, we run through the philosophical, the political, the emotional, and, in short, the human, without any recourse to the cheap(er) trickery these other filmmakers feel obliged to deliver. No tears, no beautifully staged and lit interviews and slow zooms in when the tears start to flow; Town Bloody Hall is (deliberately) messy in terms of the cinematography. But in some ways this means that the cameras feel less like a trap waiting for a specific and money-making response to come out, and more like something that will emerge as unexpected and human. And in a single debate, rather than a year in the trenches, something remarkable comes out of it.

If we wait long enough or look hard enough, we can find evidence to confirm whatever beliefs we happen to hold. That life is messy, that humans are complex, that reality can be overwhelming are perhaps all the beliefs that I have and I wait patiently for the films (and moments in life) that can deliver confirmation of those things. Town Bloody Hall, meanwhile, despite being 30 years old (because 30 years old?) avoids the clichés that have become the norm of recent documentary practice, and which would have made Restrepo and Catfish the truly remarkable films that for so much of their running time I was convinced that they could be.

On Facebook, On The Social Network (David Fincher, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

I’m not entirely sure I have that much to say about The Social Network that has not already been said.

Zadie Smith has written an excellent article on the film in the New York Review of Books, and countless others have chimed in with, predominantly, praise for Fincher’s film, some critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s rather too stylised dialogue and the possible sexism in the film aside.

As for Smith’s article, it seems strange that she had not yet come across ‘software studies’ before writing it, but this is perhaps only my own small-world view; given that I research the role of digital technology in cinema, among other things, software studies entered somewhere into my feeble brain a couple of years ago – and I just assumed that I was as usual late in thinking about software.

But either way, Smith is correct in thinking about how the choices given to us when using software are not necessarily liberating. Perhaps we should all learn how to write code in order to be able to write our own software that can allow us to express ourselves as opposed to having software (arguably) always compromising what it is that we want to say. Software, in other words, is as ideologically constructed, consciously or not, than is a film.

Facebook is, as Smith also points out, certainly a simplification of life, as is a business card, as is a biography, as is everyone else’s opinion of us, as Jerry Thompson has so memorably found out. As is a sled, for that matter.

Shopping malls and the likes of Tesco are successful, because they save us the bother of having to go to lots of different shops, or at least lots of different shops in different places. Everything is brought to one place – and life is made easier. And while buying everything in one mall/megastore is easier than traveling around town or further afield for the things one wants or needs, buying tout court is easier than having to source raw materials and make and/or grow everything one’s self.

You bet that Tesco has transformed, say, the book market because it offers to readers a small selection of choice titles that satisfy the need for books in most people. As a result, Tesco, HMV, and the Oprah Winfrey/Richard & Judy book clubs ostracise the majority of authors from the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Chris Anderson has argued that Amazon reverses, to some degree, the ‘Tesco’ trend (as I am terming it), since Jeff Bezos‘ baby allows buyers to find the books that they want – because they have a larger choice online than in, say, even the wonderful and massive Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London.

And yet even Amazon comes at a price. Even though the Amazon marketplace does help many booksellers to work with and not against Amazon, its sell-everything approach and its tight grip on the online book sales market has put paid to many individual booksellers in the flesh and cyber worlds.

Smith points out at the end of her essay that audience members laughed when the characters of The Social Network discussed the primitive predecessors to Facebook, such as LiveJournal. Strangely, I do not find myself laughing in a similarly superior fashion when I think about what would otherwise translate into the ‘ineptitude’ of the independent second- and first-hand booksellers that Amazon has put out of business. I find myself saddened in some respects. Some types of obsolescence, it seems, we can cruelly laugh at; others will always make us feel sad (especially when it is our own turn to go on the old scrap heap).

What is linking Tesco, Amazon and Facebook, then, is the fact that each unifies in a single place a bunch of things that might otherwise be dispersed and hard to find. As such, they are simplifications, of course, and saddening ones in certain respects. But their success is based upon the fact that they save humans from having to learn a computer language, hire some web space, and put themselves online – as seemingly we all should do (a position that is replete with its own ideological assumptions concerning the ‘superiority’ of a technical and mediatised presence).

In other words, Facebook is the internet redux before it is life redux; the internet, the bigger version of what Facebook is, is life redux, such that we have an order of largesse: Life > Internet > Facebook. In the same way that shops saved us from growing our own, so, too, does Facebook save us from making our own websites. Facebook is the fast food of the internet, its prefab apartments; if you want a mansion or even a nice house, you have to pay someone more dearly to build it for you, or you learn the skills to build it for yourself.

Now, there is a difference between Tesco and Amazon and Facebook. Facebook is about people, while the former two stores sell stuff. Beyond truisms and urban myths about how family members have discovered the copraphilia of relatives, etc (if you’ve seen that fake, viral Facebook page), and the odd gaffe that most people do not notice (because most of us don’t have time to read other people’s Facebook profiles all day long – as most people don’t read these blogs – a pet hate: people who assume that you have kept up with their life because they report on it via Facebook), and beyond UK murders based upon slurs made on Facebook (revealing that we really do believe erroneously that everyone is looking at us and – more particularly – judging us?; as per one of Smith’s commentators, Facebook allows us all to be famous in our own postcodes; perhaps there is an element of ‘becoming light’ attached to Facebook that does appeal to the appeal of being mediatised, turned into an image, made into a star), Facebook is not really the be-all and end-all of our lives. Indeed, it is only when we confuse Facebook with the internet that we begin to think this way, while my ‘identity’ online consists of numerous email addresses, membership of various sites, some obsolete stuff, comments left in hundreds of forums (to which I never return), and so on. I don’t think anyone takes Facebook to be real life, in the same way that there has been a now-long-standing backlash against the ideological critique of films, because audiences are not dumbly passive to the questionable messages being peddled at them in movies. Facebook alone might constitute something of an implosion of the self, a shrinkage as Smith puts it; but the internet as a whole, especially when considered alongside that even greater medium for (compromised and intersubjective?) self-expression, reality itself, constitutes what Sean Cubitt once described (perhaps rather hyperbolically) as a ‘big bang of the self,’ so many ‘identities’ (or aspects of a single identity) can and do we have floating around in cyberspace.

Jean-Paul Sartre has said that looking at a dice in real life/in existence is a richer experience than imagining one. He says that while in our heads/imaginations we can see all six sides of the dice at once, in real life we can only see at best three or four (unless the dice is in suspension and we have mirrors, although this is my own cheeky contention, not Sartre’s). As such, existence trumps the imagination, hence Sartre as an existentialist who feels that it is better to engage in reality than to disappear into self-invented worlds.

Now, the internets as a whole might be self-invented worlds (though there is grounds to defend them, not least from a postmodern perspective). My invocation of Sartre, however, is not to call people to reject Facebook (as Smith has done), but to suggest that when we look at Facebook, we are only seeing two or three of the many sides of the people we are regarding. Reality is always more rich than Facebook; we know Facebook is a simplification, in the same way that we know a hammer makes simpler the task of making some shelves. Sometimes we would be fools to bloody our hands for the sake of not using simplifying tools to insert some nails in the construction of our lives.

By this rationale, The Social Network is a simplification of the story of Facebook, and this is not surprising given how stylised the film is, with its signature Fincher shady interiors, its dialogue that normal people can only think of after the opportunity, and other flourishes, including, as Smith has also explained, a memorable sequence in Henley, which, as Smith fails to mention, borrows the tilt shift technique made remarkable recently by Keith Loutit, and a good example of which, Mardi Gras (Australia, 2008), can be seen below.

I’m not sure how to interpret Fincher’s tilt shift sequence, except perhaps that, by rendering human endeavour into a cartoonish, or better a stop-motion-like and seemingly toyish form, Fincher is directly commenting upon how his film involves a simplification of a reality, a toyification of the raw material from which he ‘sculpts’ his work.

(It might also suggest that Fincher is uncomfortable shooting outside of the USA. Considered in the light of other of his films, especially The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [USA, 2008], it might also suggest that Fincher is offering a prolonged consideration in his work of the effects of cartoons/simplifications on the human psyche – though in some respects this is no profound thought.)

Even though my last paragraph has dealt with the use of tilt shift in The Social Network, it is time to say that, quite a ways into this blog, we finally are talking about the film as opposed to its subject matter. Smith makes no claims to be talking solely about the film in her essay, so this is not something to hold against her, but it is worth pointing out that no one – myself included – seems capable of talking or writing about the film without using it as a platform for talking or writing about the Book of Face itself.

So Facebook has us in its grips – but we really did not need a film to tell us that. Even several years after joining, I still use it regularly, still ‘stalk’ pretty regularly, and still feel that it is the best self-updating address book I have ever owned (and feel that the rest is fun when I want it to be, and annoying when I don’t). But it’s not as if Facebook is not working alongside various other bits of hard- and software in changing our worlds: mobile phones, the internets themselves, iPhones, iPods, iPads, YouTube, Bit Torrents, and more. Facebook is only a small component of this. We have quickly become habituated to them, so one wonders whether The Social Network might one day be the You’ve Got M@il (Nora Ephron, USA, 1998) of a slightly younger – but still Radiohead-listening – generation.

More important, then, than Facebook, is, after Sartre, reality and people. What does The Social Network have to say about society, about ‘the soul’ and things that Facebook no doubt slightly influences but which more importantly it simply allows to be expressed, whether or not what it expresses is only the Harvard sophomore in all of us?

Rather than being a rewriting of what has been written, and certainly rather than being the final word on The Social Network (which is a superior film by a superior filmmaker, but not necessarily his best), this blog, then, is only supposed to bring out an element of the film that seems to be overlooked by most commentators.

The element that I wish to discuss is the grouped idea of class, private property and commons in the film.

One thing that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is to be recognised as the author of Facebook. The fact that Facebook for a long time in real life contained the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production’ on every page has been pointed out. This implies that the internet, like television before it, aspires to the movies in order to be considered legitimate, but it also implies that Zuckerberg is interested in authoring something that is supposedly a collective enterprise. “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook,” says the fictional Zuckerberg, before he allows all of his collaborators to get screwed over. Zadie Smith reads this Zuckerberg as someone who wants to be liked, but he is also one of those odd types, whom I can see sometimes in myself, who will screw over his close friends, precisely, perhaps, because Groucho Marx-style, he disrespects anyone who actually does like him, because they must have lousy judgment in human beings.

I have no interest in the real Zuckerberg, but the fictional one at least is a self-absorbed but complex chap who wants to give to the world something ‘free,’ but who, megalomaniacally, also craves recognition for the same. And this is the real paradox in the Zuckerberg character presented here, which does make it perhaps a 2.0 Person created by a 1.0 Person, as Smith says, but which also hints at the 1.0 that holds back the 2.0 in all of us: he talks of an open and free society, but he walks in a privatised world of intellectual property. Zuckerberg’s real genius is not having written Facebook. Contra the ‘great man’ of history (or at least computer programming) that Zuckerberg self-servingly espouses (much like Steve Jobs has done recently on the similarly self-important TED), Zuckerberg’s real genius is in winning his legal battles. Someone else most certainly would have designed Facebook or something like it (indeed, we know this, because various other people are working on this idea in the film), in the same way that someone else would have come up with the fonts for word processing software that Jobs claims as making him/his computers so special. That it was this Zuckerberg – in the film – is simply a twist of fate, a moment of hazardous (inevitable?) chance. But getting the world to recognise that he was the author of this phenomenon – this was the greatest coup. And yet this recognition relies solely on the notion of being a 1.0 person – someone whose ideas are shaped by the rights of private and intellectual property – while claiming to be a 2.0 person – someone who believes in the common, the free, and the abolition of intellectual property. Someone who pretends to be a team player but, whether he ‘actually’ stole from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) or not, is anything but a team player, as Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) finds out.

In this way, Fincher/Sorkin’s Mark Zuckerberg is not the face of the future, but the Janus face of the past in the present as it comes head to head with the future. Is Zuckerberg a breed that is dying out, however, as thousands of anonymous programmers work for minimal money or for free on open source software around the globe and around the clock in a real self-organising commons of soft wares? Or is he the lingering face of capitalist greed, regardless of whether the real Zuckerberg has pledged to give away a large proportion of his wealth during his lifetime?

The Social Network is not about Zuckerberg, then, but about a world that is on the brink of potentially undergoing huge social change, upon the brink of becoming, or at the very least welcoming into its fold a generation that is, a network society not of homogeneised kids putting their mindlessness down in their live feeds, but of heterogeneous and collaborating humans who will pool information and resources in such a way that private property, both intellectual and material, is replaced by a sense of a common wealth. A society in which, pace Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, emphasis is not on the individual, but, after Hardt and Negri (whom I am quoting a lot at the moment – apologies!), on the multiple singularities that we are both collectively and ‘individually.’ A generation that recognises its own participation in a reality that is far too complex and ‘existential’ than any single film or piece of software might be able to convey.

Zadie Smith should know well that Judith Butler has, among others, argued that gender is, or at the very least can be, a performance. And while Smith might decry Facebook as a reduced or impoverished life, I would contend that we must think about the performative aspects of Facebook, and understand that few are the people who take it for real. In fact, the performative aspects of Facebook are what make it a liberating tool. A tool for prevarication, perhaps, but also a tool that perhaps also makes a political statement out of prevarication; like the Goldman Sachs employee who preferred networking to making money.

To perform is to perform for others; it is fundamentally an act of communication. As such, performance is fundamentally a means of building relationships with others. Rather than isolating us, Facebook, and the internets more generally, can be considered as a means of bringing us towards a multitude.

To be circumspect, this is unlikely to happen with Facebook as it currently stands. Facebook is indeed too homogeneous/homogeneising, too simple, simplistic and simplified. But given how creative people are and can be with Facebook even now, when we all come to be contributing to an even more complex site at even more complex levels of creativity, and without laughing at Facebook as we would not laugh for poor, defunct booksellers, then perhaps we can see the creative impulses of Fincher/Sorkin’s Zuckerberg as a step in the right direction, a 2.0 wish, that was stymied by 1.0 desires.

As a meditation on authorship and private property, it is intriguing that The Social Network has Fincher and Sorkin stamped so clearly over it. Perhaps this film remains too steeped in the mythology of cinema as the work of a single auteur. On the other hand, Smith has attributed to Fincher a genius for casting in her article. In some senses, we need not attribute this to Fincher; certainly, we need not attribute the great acting solely to Fincher. For even if some elements and the general high standards of the film suggest the presence of his genius, it is not the only one, and actors, editors, cinematographers, writers, directors, and others all deserve credit for what they have achieved here.

Cinema, in spite of a(n understandable – and still in some ways rightly influential) detour into auteur theory as the main means of understanding it, has always been a collaborative process. Even for productions the goal of which is to make the maximum amount of money for the least amount of effort, many people contribute such that cinema is often a work of a/the multitude. Indeed, when one lets one’s collaborators do their own work, such that they are not just actors or crew members but what Gilles Deleuze might term intercessors, or people who truly bring their own genius to the pot, then something great can be born. Filmmaking is no doubt about teamwork, even if great teams also have great managers, trainers and captains.

Paradoxically, then, Smith might have it all wrong: cinema was always already (at its best? anyway?) the 2.0 endeavour, while the younger media, including the internet, are still stuck – as per the people versus Mark Zuckerberg court cases brought here – at the 1.0 copyright level. In some respects, Thomas Edison‘s insistence upon claiming copyright for his cinematographic invention stymied early cinema production, even though Edison shamelessly copied Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon (France, 1902). In other respects, by going away from Edison to the West Coast, and by in effect shamelessly pirating his hardware, the film industry got going.

Even though it is easy to decry Hollywood for its overriding power and seemingly (but unfairly) homogeneous products, sometimes perhaps we can interpret it in a different way. Whatever it has become, the film industry in the USA might well have been founded upon a collaborative, multitudinous principle. And software, or the internet, is still in its Edison stage, with Zuckerberg as the (counter-?)Edison of his time. Even if the movies have had to evolve, as Dudley Andrew contends (rather self-evidently) in his latest book, sometimes cinema has evolved in beautiful directions, perhaps because through its multitudinous and emergent means of production it is flexible enough to change. As software, similarly, evolves, hopefully it, too, will have some beautiful iterations that allow the multitude to realise itself.

Bad thoughts on recent events

Blogpost, Uncategorized

Opinions are the mind’s way of taking a shit.

We take in much information, and a good amount of it we digest and use to nourish our minds. The rest, the excess, we dispose of. These are opinions: the worst of ourselves, the excess.

I feel as though I have heard a lot of opinions recently on the issue of university fees, and without wishing to add too much to the growing pile of shit that has been spoken about it, I have out of desperation had to sit down and offer up a few stools.

So the big stink is that university fees in the UK are set to rise from £3,000 to £9,000 per annum.

As a result, students have gone out into the streets in their thousands and on several occasions. They have destroyed some public and private property, have sat in on university property (students have actively carried out ‘occupations’), and have on some rare occasions undergone police violence.

What is at issue?

For student protestors is the obvious case that fees for higher education are trebling. Some students will now leave university with debts of around £40,000, if we allow for maintenance loans to be included as well. The government has pledged that students will not need to start paying back this money until they earn £21,000 a year or more. But even with this system in place, one can imagine students being 48-50 years of age before being clear of their debts – which means that they might conceivably get on the property ladder at about 65 years of age, just in time for retirement at about the age of 75 or so.

Also at issue is that the Liberal Democrats have lied. Having pledged not to increase the cost of universities, they have in their Tory-coalition-assemblage-form done an about face and done precisely that.

I don’t know how many of these students voted in the last election, how many voted Lib Dems, and how many will next time around be voting, presumably, Labour. But while Lib Dem followers do have a right to feel aggrieved, the general rhetoric of the anti-Lib Dem ranting seems somewhat pointless: if Nicholas Clegg’s policies had been popular, he might well have won more votes at the election, in spite of his supposedly ‘miraculous’ performance on the X Factor-style TV election debates, and in spite of consistent arguments that the Lib Dems would be a real force in politics if the UK moved to a system of proportional representation.

Even though I find it somewhat odd for people to point out that a politician has lied, or at the very least had to back track, I similarly find Mr Clegg’s defence of his decision somewhat baffling. He tells angry students that he has had to become realistic and to face facts and this is why he is not proposing blue sky thinking with regard to free education and similar ideas. If this is so, how poorly informed was he before the election, such that he made promises he would be in no position to keep?

Not only this, but one can imagine Clegg, like David Cameron and George Osbourne, being taken to some back room of Downing Street after his election ‘success,’ or perhaps to an underground tunnel, and being told the ‘truth’ – something that is kept from Joe Bloggs, because he would not understand it, but which those in power are told upon accession to its seat. Armed now with ‘the truth,’ all arguments against are unrealistic, naïve, idealistic, and other words that are unthinkingly branded as negative – even though we know full well that reality is malleable, that the future is not written, and that anyone who dares precisely to think differently (which is to have ideas, which is to think idealistically, which is to think about not reality as it is, but as it might be, i.e. to think unrealistically) offers up the greatest potential for contribution to this world. Invention is the mother of success – and invention requires bringing what was previously unreal into reality. So the disempowering discourse whereby we people in the street do not understand matters well enough to be able to act upon them, is baffling, even though Clegg in person seems to justify this given his U-turn in thinking and policy.

For me, this highlights what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have, among others, correctly identified as the crisis of representation. Not only is Nick Clegg part of a coalition government the Frankensteinian and monstrous nature of which no one – I repeat no one – voted for, therefore meaning that we are being represented by a government that in some respects was not elected, but it shows that politicians do not feel themselves to be representatives of their voters (by which I mean the people as a whole and not just those people who voted for them), but rather they feel that they can tell their voters what’s good for them. They do not represent anymore, then, but they dictate, even if we do not have one single dictator to identify (recourse to Hitler).

Let’s backtrack a second here. The preceding paragraph might have slipped into the assumption that everyone is behind the students and their protests. And yet I am not sure that this is the case. The tone of much press coverage has been damning of the violent behaviour that the students have shown, although this might be another form of dictation as opposed to representation, and there has been little in the way of solidarity movements from elsewhere. Against the student protests, then, might be the fact that the students and their lecturers are somewhat alone here, which suggests on at least a certain level a conservative desire not to change but to keep/conserve things as they are. In other words, maybe Clegg is representing a/the majority of people – and the students are in a minority, even though they and their teachers will themselves try, at least implicitly, to make out that this is because ‘normal’ people don’t know what’s good for them. That is, academia as a whole does seem to employ some of the same tactics that government does: you don’t understand, and you can’t (unless you pay me, and then I will tell you my secrets).

In addition, what I find interesting is that many of the students that are protesting will not be affected by these government decisions, which are set to come into being in 18 months, by which time a number of these students will be working as brand managers and management consultants. Perhaps those who are currently 16 years of age are too young to be out protesting, but that current students are fighting for future generations of their ilk, laudable in many ways as it is, might also be a case of misrepresentation. That is to say, this battle is not necessarily their battle at all. And while those who will really be affected (future redundancies in higher education notwithstanding) are perhaps too young (they don’t understand?) to do anything, perhaps it is they who should be protesting, whose voices we should be hearing.

A common and somewhat inevitable argument against the student protests is that the UK is running with a huge deficit. I shall return to this later, but within the logic of late capitalism, it seems inevitable that ‘luxuries’ like studying, or more particularly studying the Arts and Humanities, would face the chop. The Olympics, Trident, and various other British/British-backed endeavours that cause controversy seem to continue unabated, and from another (supposedly better informed?) point of view, this makes sense; but it also seems to outrage many people that it is students that suffer while these particular money pits suck yet more funds into their abysmal depths.

Here we can come to the issue of violence. The UK is an implicit supporter of violence, given the wealth that the country is willing to spend on defence, wary as it is that terrorist attacks can break out anywhere, while certain other dictators might need toppling in Iran or North Korea before too long. Okay, so the UK invests in violence in order to ‘prevent’ violence, or so we are told; but it is not the bookworm that is too busy learning to get involved in a fight. No, the UK is at the gym, pumping iron, despite being, in international terms, the 5’1” slightly aggressive small guy who once won a few fights and now likes to trade off his hard reputation (i.e. the UK is a bit of what in my world we call a cunt).

Now, I am neither here nor there (in this blog) with regard to whether defence spending is a good or bad thing. Even though I don’t, I want to – or perhaps just have to – trust politicians on some things – particularly because they tell me that I would not and cannot ‘handle the truth’ – and with regard to defence I’ll therefore let it go for the time being (I reckon I can handle the truth; it can’t be any more agonising than the frustrations of feeling like one cannot know). However, if implicitly the UK is investing in violence, it seems rich that the violence perpetrated by some of the student protestors is so roundly condemned.

So the students have smashed a few windows and chucked paint on a Rolls Royce (that happened to contain members of the royal family). Why is this violence so poorly regarded? To resort to violence is considered the ultimate in self-defeat, not least because any act of violence immediately raises the ghost of the t-word (terrorism). In some respects I can follow this line of reasoning, but in other senses I find it baffling given the allegiances and tendencies of those making the accusations. Personally, I do wonder that non-violent protests along the lines of (I here must take out a further loan from/increase my debt to Hardt and Negri) the White Overalls kids from the late 1990s in Italy might be more productive: irony, carnival, jubilation in protesting, as opposed to rage. However, I do also query the logic of the condemnation of violence. Almost certainly some humans have been caused harm by these protestors, especially perhaps some ‘psychological’ harm to those fragile minds that cannot take a smashed window. But the media coverage seems to focus in particular on violence conducted towards objects: smashed windows, paint on a car and (amusingly, as far as I am concerned) a burned Christmas tree. Counter-coverage, meanwhile, talks of students beaten with truncheons, and police brutality.

In other words, the violence seems to me to be rather one-way in that the powers of the state are carrying out brutal acts on their fellow humans, while, it seems, the protestors are venting their anger on objects. That this violence to objects is condemned, though, is revelatory. Even though 3,000+ people died on that day (RIP), it seems that since 11 September 2001 the worst violence one can commit is to objects, particularly buildings, especially buildings that can have invested into them some symbolic meaning. That is, the violence committed here, by the UK protestors of 2010, is the apparently insufferable violence towards established meaning. In other words, seeing objects not carry out their supposed use, to eke some excess of meaning out of them (they look better smashed, splashed with paint, or burning), is to be condemned, apparently. And yet it is the development of new meanings that drives humanity into the future, along the lines of the making real of the unreal outlined above.

Furthermore, this violence towards objects which is considered to be the most outrageous violence, such that it justifies police retaliation on people, serves to show that we invest in our objects, our cars and windows, as much if not more than we invest in other people. In some senses, then, the coverage of the protests as involving self-defeating acts of violence in some senses is self-defeating, too, since it shows that we are prey to the logic of late capitalism to such a degree that we do not even think twice about this absurd investment in objects such that their safety takes precedence over the safety of humans. Personally, I am not going to mourn the paintwork on Prince Charles’ Rolls; worse acts of ‘violence’ are daily carried out in the name of ‘humour’ (perhaps there is more irony from the Punk’d/Summer Heights High generation than I am able most of the time to recognise).

(How this is reminiscient of Cameron Fry trashing his dad’s Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – apparently the nation, like Mr Fry, loves not its children, his son, but a fucking car.)

If, to borrow a now-cliché from student favourite Fight Club, our objects own us more than we own them (Michael Landy, where are you now?), then this is no doubt a result of the systemic privatisation of matter and time. Violence to our property is violence to us (“get off ‘my’ land”). And nothing is worth anything if it does not make a profit (serving a purpose that helps the owner, a window being a shield, as opposed to helping someone else, a window being an object to smash).

The current emphasis on STEM subjects in higher education is also endemic of a society beholden to privatisation and profit. If it don’t make money, it’s useless (and can be destroyed?). But let us remember that the production of knowledge in all realms happened long before the privatisation of knowledge took place, such that people had to produce knowledge that was suitable for trading on the markets of commerce. One might – almost certainly legitimately – say that artists and those who understand and follow art will find a way to exist regardless. But then again, if we add footballers and bankers into our swathes of people who seemingly will not have to undergo any substantial cuts or debts in order to progress in life, it seems unfair that students are footing the bill for something that they most certainly did not provoke nor could have provoked.

A man, whom I shall name Keith Bellend, was decrying on the London Tube yesterday about how he does not want his taxes to pay for students that are not his own kids. In some sense, Mr Bellend’s point of view is fair enough, although while he does not want to pay for students to learn, presumably he is happy, as a friend explained to me last night, to fund various alcoholics and others who will piss his money directly up the wall. However, Mr Bellend is also misguided in many ways, for it is not really him that is potentially funding other students (well, luckily for him, it seems he won’t be), but it is students who are paying now for whatever systemic advantages he has had in the past. Mr Bellend did not look loaded; he was not Paul de Gascoigne getting commoners to push-start his plush car. But Mr Bellend has reaped rewards that a whole generation will perhaps never be able to know now.

A realist might say: “Well, the party’s over. And the young, ecologically-minded generation in fact needs to live an austere life to save the planet. Sorry, kids, but it’s the truth that we fucked up – but we’re too stuck in our ways these days to change, so you guys can do the hard work of bailing us out.”

However, as David Mitchell has pointed out (in an article that was pointed out to me by the same friend who brought up alcoholics), it was in Britain’s most impoverished moments after the Second World War that the welfare state and the free higher education whose death we have long since been mourning came into being. Of course, a lot of young people had just been killed at that particular moment in time, meaning that fewer universities needed to educate fewer people (something that I always think Lucky Jim should have explored but stubbornly did not). As the next generation grew up and needed training in order to be useful in the world, alternative/additional institutions needed to be created, and these have only grown in terms of numbers, not least despite the fact that the permanent UK population is relatively stable (the large and fluctuating numbers of more or less temporary visitors aside).

Perhaps, contra Mitchell, those post-war kids got a little treat in the form of higher education to compensate for their experience/make useful the shell-shocked and potentially useless men who had come back from war. While some subsequent generations also managed to sneak into the back of this club, now that club has to shrink or shut, and raise its cover charge to keep going.

A further defence of the increased student fees is that higher education in the USA is more expensive than here. I can understand this as a reasonable line of argument, but from what I understand, the difference between the rich and the poor in the USA has not recently been shrinking. To invoke common examples, the housing crisis, Hurricane Katrina, and other elements of post-industrialisation/rationalisation have left a huge number of people more hungry now than they were before, even though others have money coming out of their ears.

If it is practically impossible to get a well paid job without a degree (let alone the fact that, as per another friend of mine, huge debts upon leaving university will discourage entrepreneurship, Dragon’s Den-obsessed though this nation is, because students will have to take that job they might not otherwise have gone for because they know they’ve got to start paying the government back), then higher education is a massive tool for social mobility. Say what you want about pissed students drinking the whole time, watching Jeremy Kyle, and eating Pot Noodles (actually a relatively expensive commodity), the students at my university are more often than not working – and up to 40 hours a week – in addition to studying, such do they understand that if they want to get somewhere in life, they need to have a degree (even in something as supposedly ‘useless’ as Film Studies – although my views on how fundamentally useful this discipline is will wait for another time).

If my students with their current fees are working the hypothetical equivalent of 4 x 7.5 hour working days per week (like fuck people only work 7-8 hours a day anymore; like fuck they get rewarded for this), then, to continue a reproductive theme, fuck knows how they’ll afford £9,000 a year. In other words, as per the USA, the proposed cuts will stifle social mobility.

Here is where I wonder not about the motivation of the protestors, but about their closed-mindedness. No one likes to be accused of closed-mindedness, and I suffer from this ailment as much as anyone else, and almost certainly do not know enough protestors to be able fully to judge them, but it does seem as though the government is making noises about increasing support for students from impoverished backgrounds. That is, the present government claims to be ‘right’ behind social mobility, and perhaps in an astute way it is not going to fund middle class kids whose parents can afford to pay for their kids until they are in their mid- to late twenties anyway (like the parents want to!).

On this topic, people I have spoken to seem to become unclear: are poorer potential students being thrown the bone of a loan to cover these fees, or will they get the equivalent of scholarships and reduced fees? If the former, then in fact they are offered less incentive than they might be, since what social mobility their degree is supposed to afford them is seriously compromised by the debts that they will accrue (but who said social mobility was either one way or easy?). If the latter, then perhaps this government is not so bad. In fact, no one I have spoken to seems to know, and I am not sure that this has been made entirely clear. Universities that charge the full £9,000 per annum (and which universities will – have to? – do this has not been announced either – although it is thought that ‘most’ will) will have to offer scholarships, while those students who have been eligible for food money at school apparently can apply for two years’ free tuition – meaning that they would only pay for their third (and typically final) year to receive their degree. This is not ideal, but there are some laudable thoughts behind it. More importantly, I report on the confusion about this matter in order to say that, in spite of all of the good reasons to protest (above and beyond the point of protesting in and of itself – people need reminding that we are the people, and we are the makers of our own destiny), the protests seem somewhat confused and confusing themselves.

Again, confusion is not necessarily a bad thing, and for the protests to have more direction might be to fall into the kind of thinking that is already too rational to be truly effective in forcing the world to pose questions about the consequences of its actions.

But there is some (deliberate?) sense of misguidedness in the protests that we are seeing, however unpopular conveying this opinion might make me among those who feel most involved in the actions. But the reason that I say this is because these protests show the libido/desire for change, but not necessarily change with regard to higher education. Higher education is in some respects not the point of what is going on. Instead, the point of what is going on seems to be the constitution of a generation through its conflicts that will endeavour, like those that have come before it, to strive for an alternative means of existence. Perhaps it will be one, after Hardt and Negri, based on common wealth and a simultaneously singular and plural multitude. In which differences are tolerated and actively supported, rather than homogeneised.

Ecologically speaking, it seems as though we have to change the world if we are to survive within it, and if it is to be able to support life in its current manifestations. In some respects, these protests are proof that we are stepping up to the task. But in the same way that the tools we used to dig this hole (the spades and shovels of capital) now are not going to help us necessarily to get out of it (when you are in a hole, stop digging!), then perhaps we need different tools to get out of it. If we might think about filling the hole in with one thing, it might be with shit. These opinions of mine, then, might be a modest and malodorous contribution to that mission.