Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedInformation on Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now appearing on the Edinburgh University Press website. The publication date of the hardback edition is listed as September 2017.

In the US, Cinematic Nihilism will be distributed by Oxford University Press.

Exposing and illustrating how an ongoing engagement with nihilistic alienation may contribute to, rather than detract from, the value of life, Cinematic Nihilism both challenges and builds upon past scholarship that has scrutinised nihilism in the media, but which has generally over-emphasised its negative and destructive aspects. Through case studies of popular films, including Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Dawn of the Deadand The Human Centipede, and with chapters on Scotland’s cinematic portrayal as both a site of ‘nihilistic sacrifice’ and as ‘nowhere in particular’, this book presents a necessary corrective, re-emphasising the constructive potential of cinematic nihilism and casting it as a phenomenon that need not be overcome.

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!

The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular

homeHeaderTitleImage_en_USMy paper, “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular”, appears in the latest issue of International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen.

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Perfect Sense (2011) and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012),The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand- ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice

12.2cover[1]My paper, “Scotland as a Site of Sacrifice,” appears in the latest issue of Film International (Volume 12, Number 2, June 2014). The journal is available from Intellect Publishing:

http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=2731/

Friedrich Nietzsche delineates three stages of sacrificial behavior. The first stage consists of the sacrifice of particular human beings to a god. The second stage involves the sacrifice of one’s own instincts to a god, and the third stage culminates in the sacrifice of God himself. This last stage describes the death of God and signals the “final cruelty” of our present times. Our age is the age of nihilism, the point in history during which humans “sacrifice God for the nothing,” fulfilling a kind of nihilistic sacrifice.

In this paper I examine three different cinematic depictions of sacrifice, two of which clearly illustrate Nietzsche’s first two stages and the last of which suggests the possibility of the third, nihilistic stage. The films I have selected all share a common thread insofar as they all take place in Scotland. The first two films, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and Breaking the Waves (Lars Von Trier, 1996), take place in rural, northern Scotland, capitalizing on what scholars have called the myths of Tartantry and the Kailyard in order to depict sacrifice as something disengaged from the modern world. The third film, NEDs (Peter Mullan, 2010), takes place in modern Glasgow and draws on a myth that scholars call Clydesideism. This myth highlights the postindustrial, gritty, urban face of Scotland. In NEDs, the sacrifice made by the main character is of a sort thinkable only in modern times and in an urban setting, and it comes very close to what may be a kind of nihilistic sacrifice.

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014

homepageImage_en_USAfter returning from a month and a half long visit to Scotland at the beginning of the year, I was back on the plane to Glasgow for the 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference, held during the first week of July.

Jet lag hit me hard this time around. I arrived the day before the start of the conference, not anticipating the adverse effect such an abrupt interruption in my normal rhythms would have. I was unable to sleep my first night in Scotland, and as a result I operated in a haze the following day until I was able to slip back to my accommodations out in the suburbs (a subway and a train ride away) to catch up on my sleep that afternoon. Over the course of the week, I struggled with a disrupted sleep cycle that only settled down once the weekend commenced and the talks had come to an end. In the future I’ll try to arrive a few days early to ensure that my old bones can cope with this sort of annoying reality about international travel.

The atmosphere at the Film-Philosophy meeting was different from most US philosophy conferences I have attended. First of all, as might be expected in Europe, the vast majority of presentations were in the Continental tradition, with the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche and Badiou playing the most prominent roles. While I admit that it is precisely with such thinkers that my greatest interests lie, I must also confess that there were points at which I began to sympathize with some of the complaints voiced by my Anglo-American/Analytic friends concerning the obscurity of much Continental thought. At some of the talks I wasn’t sure if the effects of jet lag were interfering with my comprehension, if I was stupid, if the presenters were being unclear, or if the ideas being discussed were just very difficult. There was probably a bit of all four of these things going on, to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it was good to feel like I was being challenged with new and sometimes unfamiliar ideas.

A welcome surprise was how polite the attendees were with one another. Every comment made by audience members was prefaced with thanks and appreciative remarks to the speakers. There were no personal attacks or hostilities at any of the sessions I attended; things which are, unfortunately, not uncommon at many US philosophy conferences. Hostile verbal abuse became so bad at US conferences that at one point there was an official plea from the offices of the American Philosophical Association imploring its members to remain civil and tolerant with one another at meetings! In fact, the first time that I myself ever delivered a paper in the US, I was angrily attacked by a couple of men in the audience who heartily agreed with one another that I was both a racist and a sexist due to my interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Ironically, it was a group of women philosophers who came to my defense during that episode. (A funny side note is that the following year I was on a panel with one of my attackers who did not even remember me!) In any case, there was none of that sort of nonsense at the Film-Philosophy conference, where the atmosphere was quite friendly and welcoming.

One criticism I have concerns a number of the speakers, some of whom should have been more organized and prepared to operate in the time-frame scheduled for them. Most of the panel participants had 20 minutes for the reading of their papers while the various keynote speakers had over an hour to deliver their addresses. It was unfortunate that quite a few of the participants tried to cram too much information into their talks and thus found themselves editing their presentations as they went along. This was complicated by the fact that a lot of them also wanted to show film clips; something that was not always possible within the time constraints. The chairmen and chairwomen of the sessions were pretty good at enforcing time limits; however this resulted in presentations that sometimes ended up a bit fragmented and rushed.

I was part of a panel titled “Globalized Myths of Anywhere and Elsewhere.” Lucy Bolton, from the Queen Mary University of London, was the session chair, and Tiago De Luca, from the University of Liverpool, kicked things off with his paper “Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film.” His presentation analyzed films such as Babel, The Edge of Heaven and Amores Perros, all of which contain multiple, parallel, but only loosely connected narratives. His argument was that this sort of narrative structure reflects current trends in globalization in which people worldwide find their lives intertwined in ways that can lead both to meaningful connection and to a sense of passive fatalism. Andre Fischer, from Stanford University, continued the session with his paper “Mythic Thinking in Werner Herzog’s new grammar of images,” in which he drew on the ideas of Nietzsche to suggest that Herzog’s films express a Dionysian leap into the abyss, and the attempt to create a “grammar of images” that offers a mythic response to our modern malaise. I concluded the session with my paper “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular,” in which I applied Heideggerian insights concerning art to an analysis of movies filmed in Scotland. I argued that there is currently an emerging cinematic countermovement against past Scottish mythologizing that I call “the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.” In this new “myth,” Scotland is used as a setting for dramas that downplay traditional Scottish stereotypes, evoking worlds that could be anywhere at any time.

Our session went well, and afterwards there was an interesting, friendly conversation among the participants and the audience. I had a really good time and met some very interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.

A particularly interesting session was conducted later that afternoon by Laura U. Marks, from Simon Fraser University. Her keynote speech, “A World of Flowing, Intensifying Images: Mulla Sadra Meets Cinema Studies,” addressed issues in Islamic philosophy and applied them to film analysis. Marks focused on the idea of the “imaginal realm,” which is developed in the works of the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra. Islam is often thought to be hostile to the use of images and representations, but Marks argued that this is not always the case. In Shi’ite Islam there is a great degree of tolerance for the use of images that are believed (in a Platonic way) to be capable of functioning as conduits for the Truth. In the writings of Mulla Sadra, the concept of the “imaginal realm” – a realm of imagery existing halfway between the illusions of  the senses and the absolute Truths of the eternal Forms – offers a way of thinking about filmic representations that grants them a role in the human aspiration toward ultimate reality. This was fascinating stuff.

DARK-LIGHT-SCREENING_Poster2-160x160I began the last day of the conference by attending a screening of the film Dark Light, at which the filmmaker, Maria O’Connor, was present to discuss her work. The film consists of a 70 minute montage of horse imagery overlayed with an audio track in German, French and Italian. The audio consists of enigmatic utterances referencing thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Badiou, provoking viewers to consider the relationship between humanity and animality. Alongside images of horses being groomed and galluping we hear about Nietzsche’s collapse as he protectively threw his arms around a horse that was being beaten by its owner. There are references to Heidegger’s views on how animals don’t “die,” but simply “expire.” All of this raises questions in the viewers mind: What is the difference between how a human and a horse experiences the world? Are horses aware of death? What sort of spiritual bond exists between horses and humans? I found myself a bit befuddled by the film, and I confessed to O’Connor that I felt “discombobulated” after watching it. She laughed and seemed to be pleased with this reaction. On the first day of the conference she had been on a panel where she made comments about how her film experiments with ideas about the withdrawl of Being, and with ideas about how Being is revealed through the lives of children. As I later reflected on these thoughts it shed some light – even if it was a dark light – on the significance of her work. In any case, I enjoyed the opportunity to see her film and to hear her speak about it.

Over the course of the three day schedule I attended a number of other notable sessions dealing with the ideas of Deleuze, the politics of film, and the nature of remakes. By the time the conference concluded, my jet lag had passed, and once again it was time for me to hop on a plane and head back home to the US, away from the grey, cloudy, wet Glaswegian summer.

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

http://www.film-philosophy.com/conference/index.php/conf/F-P2014

Scottish Reflections

250px-Flag_of_Scotland.svgA month and a half is not a long time, but it was enough for me to get at a sense of Scotland’s unique character and way of life. Over the course of my sabbatical trip abroad, I learned a great deal about the ways that the physical and cultural landscapes of Scotland’s cities and rural areas are reflected imperfectly in the popular media, but perhaps even more importantly I learned how Scottish heritage is engraved in my own being, hidden but still recognizable among all of the other – mostly American – influences that have shaped me into who I am today.

I shall attempt here to sum up six of the most important things that I take away from my time in Scotland. These are the impressions that I’ve found myself turning over in my mind again and again since returning home to the US. They are the observations of an outsider; but of an outsider who has continuing blood ties to the country, a feeling of deep fondness for its culture and authentic care for its destiny. Consider these remarks as my own initial, tentative attempts to understand the spirit of Scotland and my relationship to it.

GlasgowMOMA1. Scotland is a place both ancient and modern. From the standing stones on the Isle of Arran, to the Medieval buildings of Glasgow University, the traces of human activity unmistakably mark the landscape of Scotland as a place that has a long, long history. This is a history so long that much of it has become shrouded in mystery or forgotten altogether. The stones on Arran, for instance, clearly were erected by human beings, but for what purpose and with what meaning we can only speculate. And yet, these ancient monuments still attract modern tourists who find pleasure in regarding them and in wondering about the civilization that left them behind. The castle-like buildings of Glasgow University, originally erected in 1451, still attract students and scholars from around the world. The Medieval exteriors contrast with the modern technology and architecture of the interiors, which have been updated in order to keep up with the wants and needs of a contemporary population. The city of Glasgow itself has gone through recurrent periods of growth, decline, urban renewal and renovation, and although it is not as exotic or distinctive in appearance as Edinburgh, it still retains a mixture of the old and the new that reminds us this is a place that has witnessed history, and which is still changing with the times. In both the cities and the countryside, the ancient and the modern co-mingle in Scotland producing a very particular sort of atmosphere.

2. Scotland feels profound. The fact that its past history has not been completely obliterated gives the landscape of Scotland an aura of permanence and stability absent from US cities. It is not just that the land itself has been here for a long time; it is that humans have been living here and altering this landscape for so long, making it a place harboring a multitude of stories and events that will forever remain untold. These constitute the deep roots of Scottish culture. They nourish the contemporary culture, linking those still alive to a past that goes back farther than anyone can remember. As this past informs the present, it acts as a source of hidden, yet palpable, meaning. Scotland is profound because its roots go deep, tapping into a history that cannot be fully articulated, but which everyone knows is there.

Bagpipers3. It means something to be Scottish. The Scots are proud of their heritage, even if theirs is a history that includes failure, defeat and domination by outsiders. There is a sort of tragic nature to the Scottish identity, a kind of fatalism that seeps into their humor, their scholarship and their artwork. To be Scottish is to be an underdog who fights against overwhelming odds in order to retain a sense of dignity and respect. This is, no doubt, connected to the long history of Scotland. A young nation, like a young person, is more apt to regard itself as invincible than is an ancient nation that has developed an awareness of the rhythms of ascent and decline that come along with longevity. Scotland has experienced many highs and lows over its life span, sensitizing it to both its strengths and its weaknesses. The people of Scotland are tuned into this, and they seem to embrace their collective successes as well as their collective failures. The failed rebellion of 1745 is as much a part of Scottish identity as is the defeat of the English at Bannockburn. The success of Clydeside ship building before WWII is understood against the backdrop of the decline of industry after the War. Glasgow’s current renaissance of arts and culture incorporates an awareness of its long-lived image as a gang-ridden “mean city.” The Scots that I met and talked with during my sabbatical all seemed, in their own ways, to embody these contrasts. They were proud to be Scottish, they were proud of their struggles, and they exhibited a kind of down-to-earth awareness of their own fallibilities. I experienced very little arrogance among the Scots, which was a refreshing change of pace from being among Americans!

4. Scotland is undergoing an existential crisis. At the same time that the Scots are proud of who they are, there is also a sense that they are currently struggling to figure out who they will be in the future. The referendum for independence is coming up in September, and while most of the Scots I rubbed shoulders with were in favor of independence, they also expressed uncertainty about where this would lead and what it would mean in terms of concrete consequences. There tended to be two related arguments that I heard repeatedly for independence. First was the cultural argument. Scotland is culturally different from England, and so it should be a separate country. The second argument – usually voiced as supplementary to the first – was an economic argument. Scotland contributes more to the UK in terms of money, resources and goods than it gets in return, thus it would be best for the economy if Scotland was independent. But even those in favor of independence seemed to lack confidence that the referendum will actually pass, and I was told that many supporters are counting on something called the “fuck-it factor,” which is the expectation that large numbers of undecided Scots will enter the polling booth and say to themselves “fuck-it,” voting for an independent Scotland on the spur of the moment and out of a feeling of sheer defiance.

The political controversy over independence is part of a more general cultural atmosphere of Scottish soul-searching and self-reflection, it seems to me. This concern with meditating on Scotland’s future is apparent  in the work of the Glasgow Urban Lab, which studies issues related to Glaswegian society, and in the efforts of various Scottish cultural institutions, like Creative Scotland, that have recently been established to promote Scottish self-expression. All of these efforts indicate that the Scots are currently in the midst of a period of national contemplation, trying to understand where they have come from, where they are going, and how they fit into the global community. In good existential fashion, they are thinking ahead of themselves, reflecting on the past and attempting to incorporate their history into a vision of what they hope to be in the future.

5. Scotland’s cinema is vital and exciting. Because it is going through a period of reflective reorientation, contemporary Scottish culture is dynamic and full of life. In my own research focused on film, I have encountered a lot of scholarly complaints about the supposed “miserablist” trend in Scottish cinema; that there are just too many films being made about the dark and sordid side of the country’s urban culture. However, I see this as just one more piece of evidence that Scottish artists are enthusiastically engaging with themes and ideas that are difficult, deep and important. Nihilism is an opportunity, not a curse, and the miserablist trend in Scottish cinema takes a hold of the chance to look inward and to confront some of the greatest fears and concerns that the Scots have about themselves. By lingering in contemplation on the lowest aspects of culture, Scots open up the opportunity to move upward and forward. “There’s nowhere to go but up when you’re down,” as the song says. It is in the clearing opened up between the highest ideals and the lowest realities that vital, creative and exciting activity may take place; and that is what seems to be happening in Scottish cinema today.

Queen's_View6. Scotland is a part of me. I was taken by surprise when one of the Scottish scholars I correspond with referred to me as a part of the “Scottish Diaspora.” The term “diaspora” is one that I associate with groups like the Jews or Africans who have a strong and solidified identity that unifies them, even when they are dispersed around the globe. Before undertaking my current research project, I never thought of myself as a part of such a group. Yes, my mother was from Scotland, but I was an American. The “old country” was a place to which I felt only very loose ties. My own personality and identity, I believed, were unaffected by my Scottish roots. After spending a more extended period of time in Scotland and thinking about the nature of Scottishness, I have come to realize that I have been shaped to a much greater degree by Scottish culture than I ever realized. This largely comes through the influences of my mother and how she went about raising me. From her I absorbed an uneasy mixture of pessimism and willfulness that she herself inherited from growing up in Scotland. This unstable mix keeps me from thinking of life in terms of achieving grand successes. Rather, I think of life as a struggle that involves the endless overcoming of obstacles standing in the way of goals that I have set for myself. I am responsible for desiring these goals, and though they can never be fully realized or completed, I take a kind of egoistic pride in knowing that they are mine. I am pessimistically resigned to the fact that I will fail again and again over the course of life, but I am also willfully stubborn in pursuing my own projects no matter what the consequences.

I remember my mother once telling me that she didn’t care if I became a bum; she just wanted me to be an educated bum. In her mind, education was the key to liberation, since it gives you the tools and the confidence to be self-regulating and self-directed. The particular goal that you apply your efforts to, in other words, is not as important as taking hold of your life and doing something – anything – with it. This is something that I still believe, and it is a distinctively Scottish attitude. I have always felt like an underdog, battling against forces in the world that are trying to keep me down, and that are trying to make me feel like my own goals and desires are unworthy. And yet this same feeling has made me stubborn rather than making me want to conform. I have a tendency to dig in my heels, take my licks and then carry on doing what it is that I have set my mind to do. My mother taught me this, and Scotland taught it to her.

To be Scottish is to be an underdog and to rebel even if rebellion is doomed to failure. It is to feel rooted to a mythic past that can’t be remembered. It is to accept the inevitability of history’s endless cycles of ascent and decline, while never using them as an excuse for despair. To be Scottish is to be a nihilist of the best sort.