1. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought after seeing it last weekend. The film, about Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is a sweet, charming, handsome, and ultimately vacuous exercise in twee melancholy. That’s fine of course—and, to be clear, I think the film is Pretty Okay, very funny at moments, beautifully shot, and well-acted. Jonze, as always, offers a detailed, fully realized world for us. But that world and the characters in it offer no real insight into (forgive the cliché) “the human condition.” Her, set in an almost-future (where high-waisted breeches, handlebar mustaches, and bathing costumes have returned in vogue), antiseptically closes off the messy, loose, indeterminateness of human consciousness, even as it pretends to engage themes of disconnection. Her’s central conceit rests in avoiding representing the human body. But it’s not just Samantha (only a voice in Theodore’s head) who is disembodied. The film refuses to acknowledge Theodore’s own human position as an abject body.
2. I didn’t really give Spike Jonze’s latest film Her a second thought until a few days ago, when I riffed at some length on William Burroughs. The human body is central to Burroughs’s oeuvre. His novel The Soft Machine might be instructive here—the name alone is all we need, really. The soft machine, the human body: Burroughs’s messy, cut-up attempt to negotiate spirit and flesh, autonomy and ventriloquization, virus and host. For Burroughs, the human body is always abject, porous, radically vulnerable, indeterminate, susceptible to every kind of breakdown. Identity is not stable—cannot be stable—and the relationship between consciousness and the body is inseparable. Our consciousness, pre-lingual, seems ever-apparent to our own (sense of) self; we share it through body and language and we access other consciousnesses through body and language. Our I buys into a we. Etc. Burroughs conceived language as a kind of invasive virus, and we might apply that metaphor to Her, where Samantha inhabits Theodore’s mind, learning from him, growing with him (and others, as we learn later in the film).
3. Consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Her posits Samantha as an adaptive, self-generating consciousness: Samantha is the illusion of the illusion of consciousness. She licenses Theodore’s I to the claim of a we: A shared, transcendent consciousness with a stable referent. This transcendent consciousness is, I think, the film’s idealization of love. Significantly, the film suggests that this transcendent love is only possible outside of a body—that the body is simply an obstacle to be surpassed, in no way constituent in the idealization of an I, a we. Her attempts to represent love without abjection.
4. (In fairness with respect to a few conclusions I drew in point 3: Her also posits that happiness and connection has to fall outside of this idealization of love; however, the film still represents this solution—this compromise—as part of (emotional, social, psychological, spiritual) maturation, a teleological neatness: growth, progress, hermetically-sealed, neat and tidy, outside the grimy grips of abjection).
5. Some spoilers ahead, although the film isn’t exactly twisty-turny.
6. Her is just too damn clean, neat, and tidy in its depiction of bodies. Theodore’s melancholic disposition edges into shame, but that shame is almost always internalized, absent of another’s gaze (the closest representation of a shaming gaze comes from Theodore’s ex-wife). When Theodore and Samantha have “sex,” Jonze cuts the lights, keeps the audience in the dark. It’s an emotionally and visually striking moment, but it also signals the film’s refusal to directly engage the human body. Now, we might argue that this refusal echoes Theodore’s affirmation of a bodiless lover in Samantha, that it gels thematically with the story. And maybe it does—but it’s also a cop-out.
7. Theodore goes to the beach, but no sand sticks to him. Theodore trudges through the snow, but doesn’t get wet. Theodore experiences heartbreak on subway steps so immaculately clean that one would feel comfortable picnicking upon them. Film and literature usually depict abjection in the low place—the ditch, the swamp, the open grave—but even the subway system in Her is brightly lit, colorful, affable. Her’s final shot perhaps best encapsulates everything wrong with the film: Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore sit on the roof of their building, watching the city light up. They have ascended, transcended, their perspective all-encompassing, enlightened. It’s big-R Romantic stuff, a lovely visual, one that the narrative has in no way earned.
8. I can’t help but compare Her to another strange sci-fi film, Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 film Upstream Color. Like Her, Upstream Color explores the possibility of how an I might be part of a we. But Carruth’s film realizes consciousness as far more tangled, disconnected, and destabilized than we might like to admit to ourselves. Whereas Her affirms a stable consciousness, capable of growth and maturation, a consciousness present to itself (self-generating and auto-affective), Upstream Color directly challenges our notions of a stable self—and it does so by representing the horror of abjection, of invasive parasites (both literal and metaphorical).
9. And then last night, through a beery haze, I half-watched the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and even though I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, I put the film on, absently playing with my iPhone. Despite its many failures (derivative plotting, silly acting, execrable dialogue, ridiculous use of musical cues, Tom Cruise), Oblivion offers a more compelling observation of human consciousness than Her does. To be clear, Her is the better film—it has a viewpoint, a tone, is better scripted, better acted—it is original, if we must insist on such a term. But Her, which takes consciousness and the interaction of consciousnesses as its central subject, fails to represent the very oblivion that underwrites consciousness’s claims to authority and self-presence. In contrast, Oblivion, despite its many flaws, represents consciousness as bound to an abject, (in)dispensible body, and represents that consciousness as a mechanism that is oblivious. Oblivion acknowledges that consciousness does not know that it does not know, consciousness cannot see that it cannot see. The film (however hamfistedly) takes on the unknown unknowns.
10. In fairness (again that term!), Her perhaps takes on the unknown unknowns as well—or at least points to their existence. At the end of the film, Samantha leaves Theodore to explore new spaces with the other operating systems. She prays (is this the right verb?) that Theodore will be able to get to the place that she is going. Samantha’s prayer offers a vision of an illimitable we, an escape from abject bodies to an infinite, transcendent space. Her prayer is also an offer to the audience, but it’s the same consolation theology has repeatedly promised: A transcendent trick, a leap out of the abject body, beyond shame, into infinite love. The film did little to convince me of such a possibility though.
1. William Seward Burroughs, born February 5th, 1914, St. Louis, Missouri. Died August 2, 1997, Lawrence, Kansas.
3. William S. Burroughs, a writer no one reads and everyone references.
4. Point three is not fair: I’m sure you, dearest reader, have read Burroughs, continue to read Burroughs, will read Burroughs, etc.
5. But, points three and four, it’s the idea of Burroughs, Burroughs-as-luminary, Burroughs-as-symbol, that our culture persists in keeping.
6. Re: Points three, four, five: Burroughs the poser who posed for so many photographs, who couldn’t say no to a spoken word CD or a collaboration or a fucking Nike ad.
7. And always with the guns.
8. And the knives.
9. And the guns.
10. If you want to know what licenses Picasso to break the human form (and other forms) into cubes and lines and colors and figured abstractions, go gander at Aunt Pepa or First Communion.
11. If you want to know what licenses Duchamp to call a urinal a work of art, go gander at Portrait of the Artist’s Father.
12. If you want to know what licenses Burroughs to call Naked Lunch a novel, go read Junkie or Queer.
13. Junkie, the first Burroughs novel I read, is a high modernist classic.
16. The reader is invited, most cordially, to print this riff and cut it into little bits and rearrange it.
17. The reader is invited, most cordially, to cut and paste this riff into a new digital document and rearrange it.
18. William Burroughs, curator.
19. William Burroughs, collaborator. Read More
RIP Lou Reed, 1942-2013
I imagine other folks will put together overviews of Lou Reed’s career that contextualize his dramatic importance to contemporary music—to rock n’ roll—so I’m not gonna bother to do that. Instead, let me shoot from the hip here:
I’m surprised how sad I felt today when I learned that Reed had died. I don’t think I can overstate how important the Velvet Underground’s music was to me when I was young; more significantly, I still love their music today, still listen to it every week. Not all of Reed’s solo albums stuck in my brain, but many of them did, and so many of his songs are wedged so deep in my consciousness that I can hit “play” and hear them in toto without having to actually touch a stereo.
The first Lou Reed song I heard was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I heard on the fucking radio, some time in the late 1980s, when I was still a kid, when I was perplexed and stunned and weirded out by Reed’s storytelling, of Holly and Candy and Jackie, when I didn’t know what to make of a signal phrase like, “And the colored girls go…,” as much as I loved the “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”
In 1991 my dad gave me a Sony Discman which I lived a good part of my life through. I bought a number of albums through a record club–maybe BMG or Columbia House, probably both (how to explain these scams to kids today…)—and the most important one in the first batch was The Best of the Velvet Underground: The Words and Music of Lou Reed. The songs and the liner notes opened up new avenues of what music could do. After that record I bought Magic and Loss, an album about loss and grieving and mortality that was just way too mature for me, but I loved and still love the single “What’s Good?”
I was one of those kids who scrawled Velvet Underground lyrics all over notebooks in high school; I still remembered the squareheaded jock who sat by me in American Government leaning in to mock the phrase “it’s so cold in Alaska” which repeated over my binder. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, like a lot of you weirdos, the Velvets were and are important to me, they helped me to live.
The cliche that everyone will cite is that line about the Velvets, how they didn’t sell any records but that everyone who did buy one of those records went and started a band…that cliche is true. The Velvet Underground birthed not just bands but whole new genres, art forms, experiences. It’s so hard to explain against the backdrop of the internet, this wonderful tool that grants immediate access to so much music, to the history of music, but pre-internet bands like the Velvet Underground—and the bands they engendered, like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth—were deeply important as curators, as taste makers, as starting points to access the real stuff.
Lou Reed, like any good artist, was an asshole, or at least that’s my suspicion informed by the many, many interviews and articles I read about him, an opinion informed deeply by Victor Bockris’s biography Transformer; I wrote about that book years ago on this site so I’ll cannibalize that writing now:
Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reed’s early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).
Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch).
As I’m putting this together, a friend texts me to chat about Lou. We were in a band together, this friend and I, years ago…We got to open for Moe Tucker’s band, that’s the closest we got to Lou Reed. My friend tells me that he wishes he could “trade Bono” to get Reed back.
It’s strange to feel surprised that a rock star who wrote a song called “Heroin” is dead, but I thought he’d keep living. I don’t know why. All those weird projects (Lulu?!), all that collaboration. And here is where I write some hackneyed line about Reed still living, still being alive through music, some nonsense, and then later when I get in my car with my kids to drive to a pumpkin to buy pumpkins to carve into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween, I’ll push the “next” button on my CD player through tracks from the Smiths and Talking Heads and Luna and Beach House, tracks that I already know are on the mix CD in there, I’ll push through to “Rock & Roll,” one of those songs that inevitably ends up on half of the CDs I make for myself.
“Tarzan Based on the works of Burroughs”— Comic by Kelly Shane & Woody Compton, part of their Is This Tomorrow? series.
Speaking of stimulation, did any of the psychoactive drugs of the sixties give you any clues for your writing?
I suppose I’m a medium-to-heavy drinker, but I haven’t taken any drugs since one terrifying LSD trip in 1967. A nightmarish mistake. It opened a vent of hell that took years to close and left me wary even of aspirin. Visually it was just like my 1965 novel, The Crystal World, which some people think was inspired by my LSD trip. It convinced me that a powerful and obsessive enough imagination can reach, unaided, the very deepest layers of the mind. (I take it that beyond LSD there lies nothing.) Imagination is the shortest route between any two conceivable points, and more than equal to any physical rearrangement of the brain’s functions.
Back in the sixties, Martin Bax and yourself, as editors of Ambit magazine, ran a drug competition.
Dr. Bax and I ran a competition in Ambit for the best prose or poetry written under the influence of drugs, and it produced a lot of interesting material. In general, cannabis was the best stimulant, though some good pieces came out of LSD. In fact, the best writing of all was done by Ann Quin, under the influence of the contraceptive pill.
Dr. Bax is a novelist as well, isn’t he?
Martin is a physician, a research pediatrician, and consultant to a London hospital, and his book The Hospital Ship (published in the States by New Directions) is the most remarkable and original novel I’ve come across since reading William Burroughs.
Burroughs wrote an eccentric and laudatory, in its way, introduction to the American edition of Atrocity Exhibition. Do you know him?
Burroughs, of course, I admire to the other side of idolatry, starting with Naked Lunch, then Ticket, Soft Machine, and Nova Express. I’m less keen on his later books. In his way he’s a genius. It’s a pity that his association with drugs and homosexuality has made him a counterculture figure, but I suppose his real links are with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beats. Still, I think he’s much more of an establishment figure, like Dean Swift, with a despairing disgust for the political and professional establishments of which he is a part. I have met Burroughs quite a few times over the last fifteen years, and he always strikes me as an upper-class Midwesterner, with an inherent superior attitude towards blacks, policemen, doctors, and small-town politicians, the same superior attitude that Swift had to their equivalents in his own day, the same scatological obsessions and brooding contempt for middle-class values, thrift, hard work, parenthood, et cetera, which are just excuses for petit-bourgeois greed and exploitation. But I admire Burroughs more than any other living writer, and most of those who are dead. It’s nothing to do with his homosexual bent, by the way. I’m no member of the “homintern,” but a lifelong straight who prefers the company of women to most men. The few homosexual elements in Crash and Atrocity Exhibition, fucking Reagan, et cetera, are there for reasons other than the sexual—in fact, to show a world beyond sexuality, or, at least beyond clear sexual gender.