A New Year

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI have submitted the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings to the publisher, Edinburgh University Press. It looks like the cover has already been posted on the Amazon UK website. The official release date is quite appropriate: Halloween, 2017.

In April, I’m looking forward to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where I’ll make a presentation to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor. My presentation, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” will address the ways in which nihilistic incongruity is implicated in both the humorous and the horrific aspects of films like Trainspotting and The Human Centipede.

Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a paper about spiritual homelessness and punk rock that will be part of a collection, edited by Juneko Robinson, tentatively titled Thinking Through Things. The collection focuses on the interconnection between artifacts and human thought.

The new year is off to a nihilistic start!

Punk Rocker

punkrockerpinsmediumtransPunk Rocker (previously Nihilism on the Prowl) is a website containing an amazing collection of old school punk rock reviews, interviews, profiles and music links. Peter from Wolverhampton, UK, has poured his heart and soul into this project, archiving material that would otherwise probably be lost and forgotten. The result is a real treat for anyone into punk rock music and culture.

I have already spent hours exploring the material on this site. Peter’s own reflections on his life in punk – and his life in general – made me think about how similar all veteran punks are, regardless of where we come from. We start off playing in bands and publishing zines and then, as we age, move on to dealing with health issues and taking care of ill and aging loved ones. Peter writes about this common life trajectory with humor and honesty.

Although there are many nooks, crannies and dark corners of the website that I have not yet fully investigated, here are some of the gems that have grabbed my attention so far:

swazjrrippeddestroy77Peter’s article “Swastika & Punk” is an interesting exploration of the use of the swastika as a symbol by such early punk artists as The Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Sex Pistols. Peter (rightly) observes that an advocacy of Nazism was not the inspiration behind the punk appropriation of the swastika; rather it was used as a gesture of provocation, inspired by the Situationist art movement and employed in order to inflame discomfort among the mainstream. Peter points out that while many anti-racist bands punk bands did flaunt the swastika, ironically an explicitly racist band like Screwdriver never did.

Scotland Uber Alles” is a 1979 piece by Garry Bushell, first published in Sounds Magazine, that focuses on a variety of Scottish punk and new wave bands, mostly from around Glasgow and Edinburgh. Not a lot of well known punk bands came from this part of the UK – The Exploited, Rezillos, and The Skids are the most familiar names – but Bushell’s coverage of this scene is especially fascinating as it highlights the idea that much real British punk, even in 1979, was happening outside of the London spotlight, in places like Scotland, “the land of the strapping jocks.”

various-allquietcovershadowCloser to my own home, “Thrash and Blood” is a 1983 article first published in the New Musical Express showcasing California hardcore bands from the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Some of the bands highlighted here are still among my favorites: The Angry Samoans, MDC, Social Unrest, Flipper. The article puts a lot of focus on the compilation album Not So Quiet on the Western Front, a record that came out when I was a teenager and that featured underground bands from Northern California like: NBJ, No Alternative, The Church Police, UXB, and many, many others. This was music not fit for mainstream radio, made by people we all knew and hung around with. As was the case in the UK, this album emphasized the fact that in the early 1980’s some of the best and most confrontational underground music came from places outside of the big, high profile cities, and was made by kids playing in garages in front of their friends.

avengerspenelopelive1977jamesstark An article on Penelope Houston, lead singer for the Avengers (and now the head archivist of Special Collections at the San Francisco Public Library), is hilarious for the inane questions asked by the interviewer and for the old photos from 1978. First published in Search and Destroy, the interview covers everything from Houston’s violent behavior (she once hit someone in the face for playing a Damned album while she was trying to sleep), to her hair color, fashion sense, and the loss of her virginity. Silly and fun, it brings back memories of what it was like to be an angry, creative, emotional teenager.

There is a huge amount of material on this website, and with each click there is more to be discovered. Peter has put together a vast scrap book of punk rock memories; a music and culture fanzine for the internet era. If you are into old school punk this is a site that I highly recommend checking out!


existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 3

directoryThe third volume of The Directory of Wold Cinema: American Independent 3 is now available from Intellect Publishing. Edited by John Berra, this installment of the directory consists of a series of essays addressing the work of figures such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Larry Cohen, Zalman King, and Ti West.

My contribution, “Sublime Nihilism,” focuses on the films of Darren Aronofsky, who directed Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah.

Cover for Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI’m currently polishing and organizing the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The process is coming along smoothly, and I anticipate having the final draft completed within the next month.

In the meantime, the folks at Edinburgh University Press have put together a cover, which I think looks really good. It would be great to hear what people think of it.

Ed Ruscha

momaruschaAs I strolled through an exhibit of Ed Ruscha’s work at the de Young Mueum, I fell into a mood that was at once melancholy and humorous. Although the curator’s descriptions of his paintings and photographs emphasized Ruscha’s connection to western landscapes, roadways and cities in California, I myself actually felt absorbed into a world existing nowhere in particular. The exhibit’s repetition of images and words drew me closer not to California or the West, but to open spaces existing in no-place and at no-time. Instead of the western United States, what I experienced in these paintings was the evocation of a vacuum of nothingness.

This reaction was particularly powerful when viewing Ruscha’s “Standard” Paintings. Ostensibly depicting a single gas station, the initial canvases are done  in simple, straight lines with red pumps and a sign that juts outward to the left:









However,  one’s mind is progressively moved away from the initial clean, modernist rendering itself toward an increasing void as, in successive paintings, the station is consumed in flames:









then rendered in dark shadows, as though the station is now burned out and charred:








until finally fading to nothing more than embossed outlines with no color at all:









If you just focused on the initial image, you might think that it was intended merely as a neat and tidy modernist representation of a service station. It is only when viewed  in the context of the other paintings that you experience the progessive destruction of the initial image’s cleanliness, rigidity and control; as though you were watching still shots from a movie about impermanence. The gas station slips away, and what initially seemed comforting and solid is gone, leaving nothing but an outline of an absent entity. In me, this elicited both a chuckle and a shudder. I chuckled in response to the clever way the artist drew my thoughts from something-ness to nothing-ness, while shuddering in the presence of the resultant void.

Throughout the exhibit – from stark, linear representations of streets, to bleak paintings of box-like industrial buildings – a mixture of  humor and melancholy continued to bubble up in me. I think it was the recurring juxtaposition of straight, simple lines against bleak, dark emptiness that provoked this response. On the one hand, the linearity of the paintings suggest stability, order and structure. On the other, this same linearity helps to highlight the open blankness of the backgrounds over which the lines and angles hover. Perhaps it is this incongruity that was the source of my ambivalent reactions to other Ruscha pieces such as “Hollywood/Vine”:








or “Untitled”:








Appropriately, the last paintings in the exhibit were renderings of the words “the end.” The ambiguity evoked here was manifold. Certainly, there was the literal sense in which the exhibit, at this point, was now coming to an end, but there was also the broader reminder that all things must come to an end. The vertical lines on one piece – evocative of scratches inscribed on celluloid film stock – make viewers think of the end of a movie, or more generally of the end of the use of film in the digital era:








The apparent rustiness of a “dead end” sign suggests the end of the road; or perhaps the decay leading to the end of life itself:









And the final piece in the exhibit, “The Absolute End,” signals not just the last painting in the exhibit, but leaves viewers with thoughts about the complete end of everything:









On my way out of the gallery, I checked myself to verify that I still existed. And yes, as far as I could tell, I was still there. However, as I walked through Golden Gate Park, back to the car, my attention kept being called to the backdrops of things; the spaces against which the trees, cars, flowers and the people around me made an appearance.

I chuckled and then shuddered.

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings.

videodrome-3I’ve signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press for the publication of a collection of essays to be titled Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The completed manuscript is due to the publisher by the end of January 2017.

The peer review process has so far been quite rigorous (and sometimes stressful!), but I think this has helped to shape and clarify the aims and purposes of the book. I’m excited about the result.

The collection consists of essays addressing nihilistic themes in an international variety of popular films. Some of the essays have previously appeared in journals such as Film and Philosophy, Film International, Screen Bodies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and The International Journal of Scottish Theatre and ScreenOther pieces new to this collection include an introductory essay addressing the philosophical history of nihilism and its relation to film; an updated and revised treatment of nihilistic themes in George Romero’s Dead films; an essay on Fight Club; and an essay exploring the nihilism of Yukio Mishima.

Part of the fun of working on this project includes selecting screen grabs from the various movies discussed in the book as illustrations. I also get some say in the cover design. Currently, I’m thinking that the image above, from David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome, would make a great cover!