Groys, Mana, A Bit Less Confusion

A recent, brief conversation with a friend may or may not have given me more insight into Boris Groys’ economy of suspicion.

In essence, she came back from  Africa with an extra sensitivity to occult imagery and its relative pervasiveness in the American milieu. Having spent a much shorter amount of time in Africa myself, I could confirm that there is a higher folk sensitivity to all things spiritual, especially in the more remote regions of South Africa and other similar places on the continent. Pictures and words of devils and demons would have a noticeable effect on people. In America, and the west in general, the use of occult imagery is, exempting a few extreme wings of a few subcultures, totally steeped in irony. It’s a big joke, more of a mean-spirited nod to the weird kid in the 7th grade who carved pentagrams into everything rather than a component in some arcane ritual to summon evil spirits.

How this relates to Groys: the economy of suspicion becomes a bit more comprehensible when spread out over cultural boundaries. In the west, occult imagery and spirituality in general have no mana. We educated westerners do not by default perceive this imagery as sincere, as a brief glimpse into the truth of the world. We are suspicious. In Africa, it is the scientific rationalism of the West that carries no mana. They are suspicious. Spirituality and its accompanying iconography are experienced as sincere.

This is all very simplistic and reductionistic in regards to the complexity of Groys’ work, but the economy of suspicion finally seems useful in explaining cultural differences. The flows of mana and suspicion and sincerity are useful concepts to examine the way the power of symbols work on some fundamental level. There is no need for judgment at this level, that comes later.


The New Brutalness

In my thesis research, I became rather compelled by the work of the film critic and theorist J. Hoberman, specifically his discussion/explication of what he calls “The New Realness” in his work Film After Film. The basic premise of the book is to find the essence of film in the 21st century. Hoberman finds that 21st century film is no longer directed towards an absolute realism or total representation of reality, but instead finds itself primarily concerned with churning out increasingly fantastic spectacles, more or less due to the development and perfection of CGI and other digital image manipulation. Film is now in the business of constructing new realities rather than reflecting our own. What Hoberman terms “The New Realness” is the counterflow to the overarching trend; the attempt to simulate reality in an almost totally digital environment.

The New Realness is reality TV (Survivor, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, etc.), the use of documentary style in fiction (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Borat, etc.), or the graphic depiction of a physical ordeal (127 Hours, Saw, Hostel, etc.). It is the construction of the authentic and sincere by any means necessary. For Hoberman, the defining film in The New Realness is The Passion of the Christ, which made real through the use of digital imagery and horror movie make-up effects the unrelenting suffering of Jesus Christ.

Starting with the premise of The New Realness, and borne of my own ill-advised haste in identifying some new cinematic sensibility, a couple recent films constitute what I want to call The New Brutalness.


The first is Craig Zobel’s Compliance, a ripped-from-the-headlines-type psychodrama that prompted many walk-outs on the festival circuit. The film follows the decisions of a beleaguered fast-food manager who receives a call from someone posing as a police officer accusing one of her employees of petty theft. What follows is a series of escalating humiliations visited upon the young girl, beginning with a strip search, ending with sexual assault, carried out or abetted by the manager, who follows the increasingly bizarre instructions from the “police officer” without question. The film is not particularly explicit or exploitative, but is nonetheless a grueling, uncomfortable and enraging experience. Unlike many of the films characteristic of The New Realness, Compliance is not concerned with the sublime spectacle of the physical humiliation at its core, but the social relations, constructs and systems that enable such dehumanization. This is The New Brutalness: the true savagery is not in the physical act, but the conditions that support it.

The Comedy

The second is Rick Alverson’s The Comedy. Unlike ComplianceThe Comedy is not overtly shocking, but is in a sense equally as uncomfortable. It takes as its subject Swanson, an aging trust-fund kid on the precipice of inheriting his father’s immense wealth, who does nothing much other than engage in petty cruelties and get drunk with his equally affluent and irreverent friends. The film is as aimless as its protagonist (not an insult) as it follows him through New York City as he makes sport of every social interaction, attempting to get a rise out of people with cruel jokes and disgusting conjectures (A scene near the beginning details Swanson’s interaction with his father’s nurse, in which Swanson muses about the possibility that his father’s shit may have become embedded in the nurse’s fingernails. Which leads to a lengthy description of prolapsed anuses, naturally, as the nurse looks on blankly). In the end, there is no conclusive evidence that Swanson himself actually feels anything. Is his behavior a cry for attention and understanding, or has he simply become totally numb from a life of privilege? All signals indicate the latter.

The New Brutalness is at the same time more intimate and more abstract than The New Realness. It is The New Realness exploded across the social plane, exploring the humiliating ordeal in the most petty of social interactions, and the social structures that aid and abet those ordeals.

Von Trier and the Squandered Potential of 70s Pornography


A tidbit published on Salon a few days ago reveals that Lars Von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac will feature explicit sex scenes using porn actors as stand-ins for respectable Hollywood actors, whose faces will in turn be digitally superimposed over them. This is interesting not because it’s a hokey technique (Fincher and co. pulled it off spectacularly in The Social Network) but because of the implications regarding the use of unsimulated sex in “mainstream” film.

Of course, there is a proud tradition of depicting actual fucking in arthouse and underground narrative cinema, and Von Trier undeniably finds his roots in those sensibilities. Featuring real sex in his films is not necessarily new for him (he used “hardcore inserts” in Antichrist), but to digitally splice together the bodies of porn performers and respectable, rather high-profile actors is quite novel.

It strikes me as an avenue to deliver on the hopes of those most optimistic pornographers of the 70s. The release of Deep Throat in 1972, at least according to the reflections of its creators, didn’t represent America’s moral decline, but a moment for an entire culture to reflect on its own attitudes towards sexuality and representation. It’s relative mainstream success, the rise of “porno chic”, and its indelible pop-cultural impact certainly laid the groundwork for a more honest dialogue about sex and the movies. Even Hollywood seemed to be moving in Deep Throat‘s direction, as the auteur-driven decade of post-Hayes Code New Hollywood and the Movie Brats churned out increasingly incisive, intelligent, and graphic (violently, sexually, etc.) films for mainstream audiences. Then two monumental media/cultural events seemingly reverted American mainstream film back to the sexual mores of 50s suburbia: Star Wars and home video. The spectacle of the blockbuster eclipsed the slower-burning auteur-driven pieces of years past, and home video drove pornography deeper underground and into the darker recesses of the human psyche. At the moment pornography could have attained a social conscience, it became even more tied to the whims of the mighty dollar and the nastier demons of human nature.

Since that brief moment, there have certainly been flirtations between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, but nothing much more than winks and nods, and certainly nothing that resembles an honest conversation about sex.

Von Trier’s gimmick could act as a bridge to get the discussion going again. Admittedly, he is not what one would call a “mainstream” filmmaker, and Nymphomaniac is certainly not going to be released on any wide scale at first, but the fact that fairly well-known and respected actors (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman… Shia LaBoef…) work with him does give his work a kind of mainstream appeal. Though the film’s subject matter will certainly deal with sex itself in an interesting way (“It’s about religion, about God, about philosophy.”), the use of the aforementioned visual technique does raise questions of respectability. Will the mainstream actors’ reputations be sullied by appearing to actually have sex on film? Will the work of the porn actors as body doubles in a prestigious, serious film elevate their status?

The questions and implications will take time to unravel themselves, and only time will tell if Von Trier’s latest provocation is actually good or not. It is unlikely this film will start a cinematic (semi)-revolution on the level of Deep Throat, but it seems to be one of the first proper responses from the other side since 1972.

Groys, Phenomenology, Confusion

I’ve just made a dent in my summer reading. I’ve finished Boris Groys’ Under Suspicion, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.

I have recently been enthralled with the use of phenomenology in film criticism, the work of film theorist Vivian Sobchack figuring heavily into my undergraduate thesis. I went into Groys’ work expecting the sort of applied theory that Sobchack deals in, only to find his work to be much more abstract. This is not to say I was disappointed, just caught off guard. Groys instead presents a theory of all media and mediums.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the articulation and implications of what Groys calls submedial space. Submedial space is, for Groys, that which lurks beneath the medial surface, be it the “hidden” meanings of a painting or film, or the inner thoughts of a human being. Groys then goes on to argue that the natural attitude towards this submedial space is one of suspicion: we, by default, believe we’re being lied to by the medial surface. Within this schema, the task of the medial is the production of sincerity, that is, the production of the moment when we believe we have encountered what lies beneath the medial surface. It is the moment the medial reveals its true self. Groys is in no way sentimental about this sincerity, his choice of illustration being the Alien films. The truth of the submedial is not encountered subjectively, on 1 to 1 basis, but simply bursts forth as the alien bursts out of its victims’ chests. We become subject to its whimsical violence.

That being said, Groys insists that the production of sincerity is not a static thing. Sincerity exists within an economy of suspicion, its value waxing and waning in the constant exchange of symbols and meanings. Groys views this deeper level of symbolic exchange and suspicion as the pre-existing economy upon which all other economies are built. He then explores five thinkers and concepts that contribute to his theory of an economy of suspicion. He starts with Marcel Mauss’ analysis of the gift, and how the procedures for giving and receiving provide the baseline for a symbolic economy. He moves to Claude Levi-Strauss to articulate the accumulation of value in an economy, specifically Levi-Strauss’ articulation of mana, that undefinable source of meaning that saturates some signs and divests in others. The third part is a matter of regulation and excess, and here Groys turns to Georges Bataille’s theory that all human action within all of time is based on mankind’s reaction to the literal excess of solar energy, the gifts of the sun. In Bataille’s model, the only proper response is to enter into, in Groys’ words, a potlatch with the sun. This concept is based on the actions of ancient chieftains who would destroy gifts they had been given, causing others to do so and thus alter the symbolic value of those gifts. In the case of the sun, this terrible excess can only be met with destruction. Human life, according to Bataille, should be oriented towards waste, a symbolic rebuke of the sun’s power over us. For Groys, this illustrates the terrible excess of a symbolic economy, in which signs signify and will continue to signify for all time, outliving all human persons.  Next Groys takes on Derrida to further elucidate the effect of time on signs and the flows of mana that shift their meaning. I must admit to not fully understanding this part. Groys ends this section with a critique of Lyotard’s notion of the avant-garde in postmodernism. It seems Lyotard sees the avant-garde’s function to be the encounter with the sublime, a series of shocks that causes the viewer to encounter directly her own finitude. In light of Groys’ economy of suspicion, he views the avant-garde’s function in this manner to be an utter failure. Rather than the sublime, Groys argues that the avant-garde serves as a means to sincerity, to proclaim the message of a given medium and therefore regulate or change value within a symbolic economy.

Overall, I’m not sure what to do with Groys. His arguments are expansive and convincing, but my pragmatic, applied-theory tendencies leave me sort of lost. I simply don’t know what to do with an economy of suspicion and its flows of mana that give and take meaning from signs and media over time. Part of that is my oddly ethical stance towards media and some need for a solid grounding in something. Though I’m a bit frustrated at the moment, I don’t think I’ll be throwing Boris Groys under the bus anytime soon.