Queer Aesthetics

Wednesday, 29 December 2010 09:47 am
cjbanning: (Symposium)
Last September, I made a series of posts detailing the ways that the futurist message of The NeverEnding Story movie trilogy ruptures and the reality of the death drive, manifesting here in the form of the incest fantasy, is given a chance to shine through. It is instructive to note that this happens just as the producers of the film lose control of the text—the loss of control being metafictionally, but by necessity unintentionally, paralleled in The NeverEnding Story III itself as the erratic behavior of the recording stylus for the book itself.

The first film is painstakingly crafted, extremely faithful to Ende's novel, and generally considered to possess much in the way of cinematic merit. The sequel is, as sequels often are, less worthy aesthetically, less faithful to Ende's novel, and is in places clearly hobbled together from the pieces the producers found to work with it; the seams are visible. The third film is a cinematic mess—and if it can be said to have any saving grace, this is it, for in this messiness a truth is able to assert itself which is elided in the previous films. (Or perhaps it is a postmodern masterpiece whose brilliance is unacknowledged. Can questions of aesthetic worth be divorced from those of queerness? Need they be? Should they be?)

But are we then merely valorizing bad movies as queer, in a too-simple inversion? The question is, and must be, on some level question-begging. Insofar as we embrace an aesthetic standard which requires reproductive futurism—as a hegemonic understanding of futurism would lead us to expect—then of course a film is capable of being queer only by not being "good.: But while I think cinematic moments of truth are most likely to be found in films like The NeverEnding Story III, Edelman's analysis, found in No Future, of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds demonstrates that this quality is possible, if rare, in films of generally-accepted quality whose production has been (we assume) tightly controlled by its producer. (The issues of intentionality and aesthetic worth seem to be, while not the same thing, to be closely related; that is, The NeverEnding Story III is "bad" because we are unable to see it as either a finely-crafted work or the spontaneous eruption of sufficient genius. The reasons for this seem to be largely rooted in our pscychology as viewers.) Indeed, there may even be some sense in which this distinction might map onto the Kantian one between the "beautiful" and the "sublime."

Neither would one expect being bad to be in itself sufficient to queer a text--one would not expect it, but I do find it surprisingly difficult to support this claim. Those films which are most memorably bad—those of the Plan 9 from Outer Space ilk—do seem to possess this peculiar type of queerness in spades. Perhaps the best exemplar of a non-queer "bad" film would be one of a thousand forgettable romantic comedies. Still, a negative proposition is always a tricky bet.

Whatever the circumstances necessary for this type of queerness to appear in a text, however, it is only with Edelman's queer theoretic approach that it is able to be seen. By its ability to uncover this truth (almost certainly unintentionally) encoded into a text like the third NeverEnding Story film, Edelman's critical theory demonstrates that it is capable of more than just contrarian inversions.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
Last week, my parish priest, Father Nathan Ferrell, responded to the Pew Report on The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap:
There is a direct correlation of all of these factors: most non-college educated people live in urban areas (in my urban parish area, only 6% of adults have college degrees), most of these young adults are not married, many of them are having children out of wedlock, and most of them do not attend church or get involved in any civic organizations of any kind.

[. . .]

One can see the trends very clearly if you follow what has happened among the Christian churches in the USA. Until 50 years ago, all of the largest congregations were in urban areas. Today, all of the largest ones are in suburban areas.
I really don't think we can make any automatic connection between conformity to socially conservative mores (pro-marriage, pro-children, as if simply producing more people were a good in and of itself) and the role of Church. There may be a correlation between people who get married before having children and the churched, but there's no straightforward causation in either direction. So there's no reason to automatically assume the absence of a "need to attend church" just because people have had children out of wedlock, anymore than because they are LGBTQ, pro-choice, or believe in evolution.

A couple weeks before Fr. Nathan's blog post, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat responded, in a column and a couple of blog posts, to a similar, albeit socially conservatively-premised, study by the socially conservative National Marriage Project--The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America--looking at the so-called "marriage gap," only in terms of beliefs rather than behavior. Douthat writes:
On some questions (the morality of premarital sex, whether a divorce should become harder to obtain) well-educated and less-educated Americans seem to have converged over the last few decades. [. . . T]he convergence [. . .] is absent on the most hot-button issue of all — abortion. There, the country still divides pretty cleanly along educational lines, with high school dropouts strongly opposed to abortion-on-demand, college graduates tilting in its favor, and high school graduates somewhere in between. And surprisingly, that divide hasn’t really changed since the 1970s, despite the changes on other issues, and the shifting pattern of religious practice.
It seems natural, therefore, that immersion in a culture which opposes the reproductive freedoms of women would result in an the type of increase in children born out wedlock demonstrated by the Pew Report, while immersion in a culture which respects those freedoms would result in a corresponding decrease. Call it the Bristol Palin effect. And since those cultures continue to correspond with education/wealth, so too would the number of children out of wedlock, so that poorer and/or less educated people would be more likely to have children outside of wedlock--and births out of wedlock would correspond to lack of religiosity only insofar as education and religiosity correlate, as recent evidence indicates they now do in U.S.-ian culture. (I think that was the fundamental point Fr. Nathan was trying to make.)

Obviously, one of the primary things the Church needs to do in order to speak to those who do not easily fall into the social conservative's model of how the individual and/or family should be ordered is to abandon the type of legalism which proclaims that model as normative.

However, in the face of the failure of the social conservative model of reproductive futurism, the Church has failed to step into her prophetic role to articulate an alternate vision inclusive to both the married and unmarried (including those unmarried with children), to those called to be parents and to those who are not, to those who are straight, gay, and/or asexual, an understanding of sexual expression firmly rooted in the liberatory (queer!) nature of Jesus Christ. But as long the Church stands for nothing, no one will listen to what she has to say.
cjbanning: (Default)
In The NeverEnding Story III: Return to Fantasia, Bastian is given a stepsister, Nicole, played by Melody Kay. Bastian is thus positioned within two major heterosexual pairings—one with the Empress (here played by Julie Cox), one with his stepsister—but only one of these pairings is properly reproductive, and that one, not accidently, is sexlessly so. (Although not nearly so much so as with Tami Stronach's Empress in the first film. Julie Cox's portrayal is only a hair's breadth from downright coquettish; she practically flutters her eyes when Bastian enters the Crystal Cave and remarks, "The Auryn has sent me a hero.")

The other is incestuous. The desire for completion which in psychoanalytic schema like Edelman's lies at the root of heterosexual desire manifests itself not as the desire for a mate, but for a sibling. "All his life," Bastian reads about himself in The Neverending Story, "Bastian wanted a sister or a brother, to share his dreams and confide in his secrets. Now, at last, he would have one."

It is Bastian's stepsister, Nicole, still coping with the reality of her parents' divorce (and now her mother's remarriage), who assumes the rôle of synthomosexual. Thus, in this third film the figures of the Child and the synthomosexual are set up against each other. Nicole refuses at first to embrace the futurist vision of her mother's remarriage: "They are not my family and this is not their house." Nor does she find anything commendable about her new brother's taste for the fantastic: "Spare me this New Age nonsense," she says. Even when she is forced to accept, on the evidence of her senses, the existence of magic, she does not automatically subscribe to the futurist vision of her brother and the Childlike Empress. Instead, she uses the omnipotent Auryn, which she stole from her brother thinking it was only an attractive piece of jewelry, to go on a shopping spree.

This prompts the following exchange in Fantasia, explicitly setting up the two girls as foils:
EMPRESS: You know something? In all the time I've been Empress, it never occurred to me to go shopping with the Auryn.

OLD MAN: Well, that's because you serve a higher purpose, my Empress.

EMPRESS: (vaguely disappointed) Oh.
For the Childlike Empress, the Auryn's powers must be always used in service of the "higher purpose" of reproductive futurism, but the synthomosexual Nicole subverts this purpose by using the Auryn for her own satisfaction in the present. As Nicole usurps the position of the Childlike Empress in terms of effective power by taking the Auryn, she also does so in terms of the girls' relationship with Bastian, transferring his cathective relationship with the Empress and Fantasia to their "real world," unprocreative brother-sister relationship. (Of course, since Bastian and Nicole are not biological siblings, the impossibility of procreation is itself fantasmic, forbidden only--but crucially--on the level of the symbolic.) "I want you to be my brother," she begs Bastian at the climax of the film in a rainy alley, inspiring him to face the Nasties and save the day. If they were not written as stepsiblings, this is the moment in the film where they would have kissed (and I always not-so-secretly want them to do so).

If Bastian's cathexis towards his stepsister takes on, as I am arguing and as arguably all cathexis must, sexual overtones (strictly speaking, cathexis is the more primitive understanding, the one in terms of which sexual desire must be explained; however, as cathective behavior manifests itself sexually, all cathexis becomes sexualized), it becomes what Edelman calls "the place where sexuality and the force of the death drive overlap":
In this they bespeak what regimes of normativity, of sexual meaningfulness, disavow: the antisocial bent of sexuality as such, acknowledged, and then as pathology, only in those who are bent themselves. (143)
The pathology that Edelman is thinking of here is of course homosexuality, but incest—as antisocial (and in this case) heterosexual sexuality—works at least as well. (Of course, to a less-abstract queer theoretic perspective than Edelman's, this appropriation of the queer on the part of heterosexuality would be noteworthy. On the other hand, simply in terms of psychoanalytic transgression, it seems to be the case that incest is even more queer than homosexuality itself.)

The purity of Fantasia itself, almost as if in response, is warped and mangled in the third film. The fantastic creatures make references to the human world utilizing knowledge they shouldn't have, casually mentioning commercial airplanes, Las Vegas, and Arnold Schwarzenegger; listen to rock music (the pun involving the rockbiter is downright painful); and even watch television. The metaphysics of The Neverending Story are twisted beyond comprehension to serve the purposes of the plot. Even the Empress herself is compromised: the regal innocence of 11-year old Tami Stronach's Empress is replaced by the Empress portrayed by 21-year-old (yes, you read that right--and you can imagine that I felt a lot less guilty about thinking the Childlike Empress was hot once I found this out) Julie Cox, less the solemn ruler and more a willful Valley Girl with a British accent. The fetishistic purity of both the Empress and her imaginary empire is thus revealed to be ultimately, and necessarily, unstable.

This breakdown is exacerbated by events within the (meta)text itself, as a third nihilistic force, this time known as "the Nasty" and controlled by a gang of juvenile delinquents (led by Jack Black and known as "the Nasties") in the (diegetic) human world, and who have gained possession of The Neverending Story, engulfs Fantasia, causing all of its inhabitants to "act crazy," overwhelmed by aggression. What little solemnity this Fantasia had is now lost, and the Empress and her courtiers set upon each other, taunting each other like toddlers.

The Nasty even interferes with the very mechanism of The Neverending Story itself, spilling out beyond the parameters that nihilistic forces were, paradoxically, kept within in the previous two films. The film opens with an old man hunched in front of a book, reading it out loud as words magically appear on its pages, informing both him and the viewer of the metaphysical nature of the Nasty:
The mountains of destiny mark the highest point in all of Fantasia. It is here in a hidden crystal cave that the Old Man of Wandering Mountain records The Neverending Story. [. . .] There will be a day when the recording stylus will start to act strangely, making it increasingly difficult to record the Neverending Story. This is a sign that the Nasty is on the way, an evil force that first takes hold in young humans when they turn away from books and reading.
But already the stylus' strange behavior has become evident, so that this moment, like that of the film, not only represents a rupture, but exists as one.

At the end of film, of course, the necessary futurist logic ultimately takes its inevitable course: the Nasty is fought back, the Nasties are transformed by the Auryn's magic into preppy nerds (the consent issues of which are never addressed), and everyone lives happily ever after. In a sense, however, the damage has been done, as this film admits what the previous two had only implied: this "happily ever after" is purchased only with the complete defeat of the imaginary over the real, whereas within this now-hybrid world, Bastian's cathexis has been successfully transferred from the imaginary Empress to his very real sister. The need for imagination qua imagination has been eliminated; magic is now valued only for its ability to affect the human world, that which was but is no longer the "real" world. Nicole is never forced to meaningfully abandon her synthomosexuality.
cjbanning: (Default)

In my last post, I used Lee Edelman's notion of "reproductive futurism" as an example of a type of hegemonic social structure, and Edelman's queer antifuturism as an example of the sort of theories of radical negativity which seek to oppose such hegemony. One of my favorite examples of how reproductive futurism works in a fictional text is also one of my favorite movies: the 1983 film The NeverEnding Story, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on the first half or so of the novel by Michael Ende. (For a, ahem, creative summary of the events of the movie, check out this recap by a hobo-ified Nostalgia Critic).

In the film, Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barret Oliver) is a young boy with an active imagination who has just lost his mother. He has gotten in trouble at school as a result of his overactive imagination, and his father (Gerald McRaney), also reeling from grief at the loss of his wife, reprimands him, acting as the figure of what Edelman calls the synthomosexual: one who "den[ies] the appeal of fantasy" (35). "Stop daydreaming," Mr. Bux implores his son. "Start facing your problems."

Bastian's father becomes if not the villain of the story then the "heavy," as the Sherman brothers call Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins movie—and it is precisely this sort of figure which Edelman wishes to reclaim: "why not," he asks, "acknowledge our kinship at last with the Scrooge who, unregenerate, refuses the social imperative to grasp futurity in the form of the Child[. . .]?" (49). Bastian's father, focused on the reality of death, is thus able to provide a corrective to the futurism which attempts to mask it.

Bastian steals a book called The Neverending Story from Coriander's Book Shop and cuts school in order to read it. In it, he finds a tale of a land called Fantasia which is ravaged by the destructive Nothing. (Roger Ebert asks, "Were children's movies this nihilistic in the old days?") Here, the force which resists the impulse to reproductive futurism—the psychoanalytic death drive which "names what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability"—is evoked. Indeed, this force is not merely evocative of the death drive but is actually a result of it, as it is revealed later that the Nothing gains its destructive power from events in the "real" world, where people like Bastian's father have ceased to dream. This force (and the two other like it which will appear in the next two films), powered by realism, is exactly what Edelman is extolling.

The land is ruled by a Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) who, in true Grail King fashion, is taken by mortal sickness as her kingdom is slowly extinguished by the Nothing. Edelman notes the rôle of the "image of the Child" in our collective myth: "this fantasmic Child" represents the future for whose sake we forsake the present (9). The Childlike Empress of Fantasia fills this rôle by ruling over, and on some level having identity with, a land which is acknowledged to be imaginary, one populated completely by desires and wishes, and thus exists within a reproductive future which is forever separated (other than through the vehicle of the magical book) from the "real" present. The Empress, like the other Child-figures Edelman discusses such as the orphan Annie or the "waif" from Les Miserables, focuses our concern onto an adorable prepubescent. Indeed, even once all Fantasia (with the exception of a single grain of sand) is consumed by the Nothing, hope is not lost as long as the Childlike Empress survives.

Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to put it the other way: since Fantasia exists parasitically off of the imagination of humans, the Childlike Empress survives as long as hope is not lost. The NeverEnding Story makes explicit Edelman's insight that "[t]he pleasurable fantasy of survival [. . .] requires therefore, more than anything else, the survival of a fantasy" (45). For Edelman, the immortal, eternally-young Empress would be "always already dead, mortified into a fetish animated only by the collective fantasy (48).

Aongside a cast of sympathetic, often comedic fantastic creatures—a racing snail, a rock-biter, a luck dragon—Fantasia is populated as well by synthomosexuals. There is Morla, the ancient one, whose response to Fantasia's dying is utter apathy: "We don't even care whether we care." And there is Gmork, the panther-like creature of darkness who actively seeks to allow the Nothing to destroy Fantasia, "because people who have no hope are easy to control. And whoever has control . . . has the power." Gmork represents, on the level of the imaginary, the perfect counterpoint to the Childlike Empress: if she is what we almost instinctively seek to preserve without fear, then he, no less a fetish or perhaps the direct opposite of one, is what we fear no less unthinkingly.

The boy-hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) sets off on a set of ultimately arbitrary storybook quests in order to defeat the Nothing, but it is ultimately revealed that only Bastian, from his position outside the story, can save Fantasia. He can do this, he finds out to his amazement, only by giving a new name to the Childlike Empress. He does so, shouting out the name of his mother, "Moonchild," and finds himself in darkness with the Empress, who solemnly informs him that all that is left of her kingdom is a single grain of sand. Bastian takes this grain of sand and, by injecting it with the vitality of imagination, is able to create a "new" Fantasia:
BASTIAN: Then everything has been in vain.

EMPRESS: No, it hasn't. Fantasia can rise anew from your dreams and wishes, Bastian.


EMPRESS: Open your hand. (The empress puts the grain of sand in his palm, then smiles.) What are you going to wish for?

BASTIAN: I don't know.

EMPRESS: Then there will be no Fantasia anymore.

BASTIAN: How many wishes do I get?

EMPRESS: As many as you want. And the more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.

BASTIAN: Really?

EMPRESS: Try it.
Bastian makes his wish, and soon he is flying on the back of Falcor the luck dragon over the newly restored Fantasia, "even more beautiful than before."

The first NeverEnding Story film, then, while ostensibly a fairy tale for children, is at its heart a heteronormative parable of sexual intercourse and procreation. "Imagination," as a "creative" force which the film so powerfully advocates, serves as little more than thinly-disguised reproductive futurism.
cjbanning: (Default)
Mikhail BakuninFor the past century, and in all likelihood for much longer, philosophical theories of radical utopian negativity have had consistent appeal. From the anarchist atheism of (pictured) Mikhail Bakunin's God and the State to the anti-patriarchialism of radical feminists such as Mary Daly or Shulamith Firestone, this mode of critique has remained popular with academics and political radicals throughout the 20th century and, now, into the 21st. The underlying mechanism remains fundamentally the same: the entirety of power relations are understood to be centralized in a single hegemonic structure—be it theism, patriarchy, or reproductive futurism—and upon that structure war is declared. This is the quintessence of all which is radical; as Lee Edelman points out in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, "the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authentical social order" (2-3). Radicalism, then, is constituted by an attack on the idea of social structure itself.

It is true, on the other hand, that radically negative philosophies have tended to envision their "structureless" utopias as surprisingly orderly if not ordered. Consciously or unconsciously recognizing the incoherence of these utopian visions, most such theorists either de-emphasized them in favor of focusing on critical attacks against the hegemonic system, or abandonment of them all together in Frankfurt-style pessimism.

One of the newest versions of this familiar pattern is Edelman's particular brand of queer antifuturism. Edelman extends the above insight by noting that conservative politics—which is to say, any politics which seeks to affirm a social structure—inevitably "intends to transmit" that structure "to the future in the form of its inner Child" (3).

By pairing such a critical insight with an ethic of change, it would seem that the radical negativist takes on the eschatological requirement of envisioning a new order. Almost universally, however, the radical negativist manages, or at least to claims to manage (while discarding the similar claims made by all who have come before her), to exclude her own position from overall dialecticality. For Edelman it is Lacanian psychoanalysis which provides for him the possibility of an unmediated position of "truth" outside the structures of power. For Bakunin, natural law served a similar purpose; for feminism, it is the lived experience of real women.

Still, few such theorists are able to put forward a compelling positive ethic; at most such a theory can only be what Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault, calls “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). Unable to tell us how we should live our lives, they are only able to tell us, with a Frankfurt school pessimism, what is bad about the way we do. Such insights comprise the bedrock of what is often called, appropriately enough, "critical theory," and lend themselves to the practice of literary criticism—but in a manner which is easily caricatured: fundamentally, the conventional moral order of a fictional world is simply turned upside-down. Evil witches become messianic agents of resistance (as in this post on the queerness of Disney villains), while wise wizards are no longer friendly mentors but indoctrinators of the hegemonic social order.

This is critical theory at its purest, but also at its least interesting. Critical theory is most useful when it finds what are commonly called "slippages": moments when the hegemonic discourse under attack falters and, in that faltering, things can be seen as they (it is argued) truly are. We see that what at first seem to be inversions really aren't; that the text in spite of itself has provided us with, for example, a construction of villany fashioned out of precisely that thing which we fear the most: the truth.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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