Brendon Lemon is a stand-up comedian from Chicago who hosts a podcast called The Madness Continues. On the latest episode I talk with him about my book Laughing at Nothing, Scotland, comedy, 9/11, and all things nihilistic:
I have gained a great deal of mischievous glee from telling people that lately I have spent a lot of time reading Porno. Responses to my confession have ranged from amused laugher to uncomfortable embarrassment. Upon telling this to my sister-in-law, she awkwardly wondered if I meant that I had been studying scholarly commentary on pornography. “No,” I answered. “I’ve just been looking at page after page of Porno.”
Everyone seems relieved when I go on to explain that Porno is the title of Irvine Welsh’s nearly 500 page sequel to his book Trainspotting. This, apparently, makes things more respectable, though if they were familiar with the book’s content, they might still be prone to blush. Porno is filled with explicit scenes of drug use, violence and descriptions of just about every kind of sex act that you could imagine. If books required ratings, it would earn an NC-17.
Porno is the source material for the recently released movie T2: Trainspotting, although the actual similarities between book and film are very slim. Both pick up the story of Renton, Sick-Boy, Spud and Begbie after the events of Trainspotting, but whereas the film rejoins the characters about 20 years later, the book takes place about 10 years after Renton has ripped off his buddies. The film highlights Renton, the most likable of the characters, while the book focuses more attention on Sick-Boy, perhaps the least likeable of the crew, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Simon. And while in the book the plot is driven by Simon’s plan to make and market a porno movie, in the film it is his plan to open a brothel that is central. Overall, the film and book are more different than they are similar, with the film, I think, being the superior piece of work.
The main failing of Welsh’s novel lies in how scattered and disjointed its episodes are. It is not that the book is uninteresting or boring, but rather that there are too many threads that never get tied together or fully resolved. While in the film all of the various stories have a purpose and place in the overall plot, in the book many of these same story lines are initiated, but then go nowhere, getting dropped as if they were unimportant. And this is disappointing; particularly in the case of Spud, whose failed effort to write and publish a history of Leith is transformed in the film into a really fascinating subplot that reveals important aspects of Spud’s personality, Begbie’s personality, and even, perhaps, the personality of Irvine Welsh himself. In the film, Spud’s writing project is not a history of Leith at all, but appears to be the beginning of what will eventually become the book Trainspotting. In this it is suggested that it is Spud (and not Renton) who is Welsh’s real alter ego. In Porno, nothing comes of Spud’s writing, and this intriguing subplot just fizzles, as does the subplot having to do with Renton’s troubled relationship with his Dutch girlfriend, Begbie’s inner struggles with his masculinity, and Dianne’s struggle to complete her dissertation. The film does a better job of tying up the various story threads by eliminating the superfluous ones and more deeply developing and tying together the really interesting ones.
I do love the fact that Porno begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Without cruelty there is no festival…” This gives us an initial philosophical articulation of Welsh’s literary strategy, which is to explore and celebrate his characters by following them through the gutter, taking cruel joy in describing their participation in acts of debased sex, substance abuse and senseless violence. It is all of these things that I want in a novel about my favorite Scottish hooligans. But now that they are in their 30’s, there is a danger that they might start to grow out of their old ways. Awareness of growing old is one of the major themes in Porno, but we soon find that despite the characters’ recognition that they are no longer kids, their general patterns of behavior have not really changed. Sick Boy is still a schemer, a drug addict and an exploiter of women. The only difference is that now he fancies himself an artist, who uses his charms to make “erotic” adult entertainment. Begbie, who has just been released from prison for manslaughter, is still a thug who thinks himself superior to heroin junkies, even though his addiction to violence is perhaps even more destructive than his friends’ substance abuse. Spud now has a son, but he still cannot break his drug habit, even though it is ruining everything. All of these characters have, in a sense, started to experience the challenges of adulthood (career, prison, fatherhood), but they seem not to have learned anything, and so they endlessly repeat their past mistakes in ways that are at once revolting and hilarious. And this is precisely why I feel personally drawn to their stories. I take perverse pleasure in laughing at them, while also sympathizing with their struggles and rooting for them to overcome their defects, even though I know that they won’t.
Renton is the most sympathetic of the group, and in both the book and the film he seems to be the only one who has matured to any degree at all. He has moved away from the UK, starting a career overseas, kicking heroin, embarking on a program of physical exercise and developing a concern for his health. It soon becomes clear, however, that even in his case, he can’t resist the temptation of being drawn back into the seedy world that he fled from. He once again becomes entangled in the schemes of Sick Boy, he can’t turn his back on the self-destructive Spud, and ultimately he can’t resist the urge once again to scam his pals out of money. All the while, he anxiously tries to avoid running into Begbie, who wants to murder him.
It is the absurdity of it all that is both so funny and disturbing. I, for one, sympathize with many of the anti-establishment sentiments of the central protagonists, and in reading Welsh’s book, I find a bit of myself reflected in the histrionics, the dramas, as well as in the proclamations and smug decrees made by the book’s characters. At the same time that I see hypocrisy in each of them, I’m reminded of the same hypocrisy in myself as well. For instance, Sick-Boy’s closing monologue, as he sits next to Begbie’s hospital bed, sent a shiver of self-recognition through me:
I believe in the class war. I believe in the battle of the sexes. I believe in my tribe. I believe in the righteous, intelligent clued-up section of the working classes against the brain-dead moronic masses as well as the mediocre, soulless bourgeoisie. I believe in punk rock. In Northern Soul. In acid house. In mod. In rock n roll. I also believe in pre-commercial righteous, rap and hip hop. That’s been my manifesto. (p. 483)
In reading this I tremble in self-serious accord; and then I am reminded that not only are the characters laughable, but so am I.
There are some of us who criticize the pointlessness of capitalism and of consumer culture while still participating in patterns of behavior that reinforce empty and meaningless excess, indulgence and consumption. “Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, speed, poverty and media mind-fucking: capitalism’s weapons of destruction are more subtle and effective than Nazism’s and he’s powerless against them,” (p. 384) Renton says of Spud at one point. But he is really talking about himself and all of the rest of us who express antiestablishment sentiments while still participating in ways of life that are no less absurd than anyone else’s.
People are trapped, as Renton says, “consuming shite that does them no good at all, often just because they can.” (p. 408) The “shite” he is referring to could be drugs, porn, consumer products, poetry, literature, violence, movies, fame, power, a career, or a family. The absurd tragedy of it all is that even though nothing is all that important, you have to do something to fill up the time that you are alive. Heroin or fine wine? Porn or fine art? Punk rock or symphony orchestras? Anarchy or totalitarianism? Communism or Capitalism? The freedom to choose is endless.
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? (Trainspotting, 1996)
Information 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.
I’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 Screen. Other 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!
My 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.
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.
After 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.
I 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.