Petrified Politics and Cosmopolitanism

Continuing my tour of Cultural Front filmic cosmopolitanism, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1936 Warner Brothers film, The Petrified Forest. Like many of the Warners’ movies in the 1930s, The Petrified Forest (which was based on a 1935 play) was attentive to the social reality of the 1930s. But it wasn’t a “message” picture in the sense that it explored a social issue in order to find some kind of resolution; it’s more oblique than that. Instead, by offering a desolate western diner and gas station for a setting, and placing it on the outskirts of Arizona’s Petrified Forest, it poses a metaphor for the decaying status of America itself. Furthermore, because its two protagonists are not American-born, it suggests a cosmopolitan perspective that would be erased a decade later with the onset of the cold war and Hollywood’s red scare.

The Petrified Forest takes place almost entirely at a diner populated by its weary owner, his somewhat senile and alcoholic father—who is obsessed with the mythic west—and his daughter, Gabrielle, who is played by Bette Davis. Much of the film’s commentary is provided by European traveler Alan Squier who arrives at the diner, a disillusioned writer and intellectual from England played by Leslie Howard. Squier and Gabrielle fall in love, although the Brit is nearly too intent on giving up on life to pay much attention. They bond over her having been born in Paris, and her pining to return to France to see her mother. But importantly, the film suggests Europe is decaying nearly as America is; after all, in 1936, Spain had erupted in Civil War and Hitler was preparing to invade eastwards. As Squier explains, “world chaos” was being wrought because powerful men thought they could master the globe. “Nature,” he tells Gabrielle, is “hitting back.” Continue reading “Petrified Politics and Cosmopolitanism”

Against Free Speech Pt. 2

My friends and colleagues already know well my position on matters of “civil liberties” and “free speech”: in short, 1) invocations for such things are often red herrings and/or diversions from real discussions about power and inequality, and 2) they are premised on such liberal utopian notions as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas,” which I argue never has existed, and never will in the context of a civil libertarian free market.

As I read the latest round of responses regarding the “fracas” at Middlebury College, the accompanying rebirth of arguments about the “coddling” of students, and new arguments for the alleged “tyranny” of “intersectionality,” I wasn’t sure if there was anything I wanted to do besides shout curses at Twitter. And there have been some very good pieces written in response to the backlash. But I do wonder if there are ways that we can think about this matter that have yet to be entertained by others. ** WARNING: This is probably going to be a random, impressionistic, and incomplete set of thoughts. **

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Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?

The latest Star Wars film, Rogue One, isn’t “political” according to Disney, the studio that produced the film. But according to Kate Aronoff of Jacobin, it is if we want to be. Aronoff argues that Rogue One is “politically substantive” from a leftist perspective, and a celebration of “rebellion from below.” Other outlets of cultural criticism, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have published similar analyses of the film, ones that posit that Rogue One is anti-fascist, a much-needed boon to progressive discourse at the dawn of the age of Trump.

Aronoff is right to point out that the meaning made from the film will ultimately come from its viewers, and that the potential gains that may come out of making leftist meaning from the film, by coopting its narratives and signifiers, are such that we should not dismiss Rogue One and other pop culture blockbusters like it lightly. I want to argue, not contrary to this, but from a different perspective: that which sees Rogue One as a symptom of and contribution to what Nicole Aschoff calls the “meta-stories” of our neoliberal age. Rogue One may hold out interpretive promise, but it stands from the start as an expression of libertarian myths and symbols. Continue reading “Is Star Wars: Rogue One a Leftist Film or a Libertarian One?”

New England Pastoral

I’m finally finishing up an article I’ve been working on for a while, but instead of revising it, my mind is inexorably turning to the next one. While I was looking over my beast of a dissertation, I think I finally figured out how to turn the first chapter into an intelligible, useful, and provocative story that furthers my broader problematic.

The epiphany came, in part, because I was re-watching one of my favorite “Cultural Front” movies, 1940’s The House of the Seven Gables. Produced as a B-movie by Universal, the film transcends its low budget, and even more remarkably, its heavy source material, as a well-paced, smart, and at times, melancholy, little film.

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What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But a few years ago, high from the fumes of finishing my dissertation and still waiting idly for my defense date to come, I binge watched the television reality show Cake Boss and became convinced that I needed to write an article about it.

Several weeks later, I had a publishable article, or so I thought. After a couple of revise and resubmits I lost interest in the thing, and my fleeting career in cultural studies ended just as it began. But I was thinking of it recently, in the context of how the twin narratives of the mythological American dream and white identity have worked discursively in supporting Trump’s ascendance.

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What Would JB Do?

A few weeks ago, a trip through a very good work of intellectual history led me to take a fresh poke at post-structural theory. (as one does from time to time!) I was revisiting Judith Butler through whatever was available to me on Google when news of the killing in Orlando came out. Over the next few days, I found myself compelled to take a deep dive into one of Butler’s books in particular: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a collection of essays written in the time period that followed 9/11.

As I’ve written before, my own intellectual pursuits have been heavily influenced by writers like Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose, those who in parts of their work have sought to identify, uncover, or deconstruct geneaologies of the idea of the liberal Enlightenment self. Jamesian and Deweyan pragmatist philosophy, that which posited that social experience is what constitutes the self, even pops up when I’m writing about Captain America and the Avengers. And such philosophy, as James Livingston writes, points in a straight line towards Judith Butler and feminist theory.[1]

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Tweep’s Agreement

Starting work on a new essay about the politics of Jews in Hollywood during the blacklist era, I started thinking once again about the 1947 Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Historians nearly universally dismiss the Elia Kazan film as dramatic and preachy and staid. They favor the other philo-Semitic “message” picture of that year, Crossfire, because that film oozes with noir style. They are, of course, absolutely right. But to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement because it’s boring is to miss a great deal. Kazan’s picture is a greater success if only because it is so overstuffed with messages, it is a remarkable distillation of Popular Front ideas about the intersection between ethnicity and social justice.

Consider one scene in which Gregory Peck’s goyish journalist protagonist Phil Green, who is writing an expose on anti-Semitism, encounters a scientist at a dinner party. The scientist’s features are clearly modeled after those of Albert Einstein, one of the physicists that were wildly celebrated in the press in the immediate postwar years. He is on a “crusade,” the scientist remarks, to deny his Jewishness to those that he meets, not because he is ashamed or ambivalent about his identity, but instead because he looks so stereotypically Jewish that such a remark would be a provocation to others to rethink their assumptions about race and “type” (what we call “ethnicity”). He then casually changes his mind however, telling Green that he must abandon his crusade because to claim Jewishness is a necessary moral principle, at least until anti-Semitism ceases to exist.  He explains that Jews today don’t claim to be Jewish because they are religious – he is not – but because the world makes it harder to be one. Nothing in Hollywood since has so shrewdly conjured the tensions and complexities among religious, ethnic, and humanistic or cosmopolitan identities.

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