Friday, September 19, 2014

The Giver (2014) and the Return of the Repressed

The 2014 film The Giver, the latest of a series of dystopian movies based on young adult novels (e.g. Divergent, The Hunger Games), is set in a futuristic city where every aspect of life is strictly regulated. Babies are genetically engineered rather than born. Children are observed like lab rats throughout their formative years, and upon reaching the age of 18, they are gathered in a formal ceremony where a group known as The Elders dictates their career to them. Adults are paired with a mate of the opposite gender with whom they raise the children that The Elders assign to them. At the end of life, old people are “released to Elsewhere,” a euphemism that has erased the concept of death. The result is a peaceful, ordered city, but one in which there is no freedom or choice.

Such control cannot be achieved through mere coercion and intimidation. Rather, citizens in this society are given daily injections which numb the passions. As a result, everything from color to romance ceases to exist. Inoculated from desire and emotion, people follow their prescribed courses in life obediently and without hesitation. Just as emotions are controlled through the injections, knowledge is also strictly regulated. No one other than a privileged and carefully-selected few may know anything about what history and society looked like before the present one.

The events of the film are centered around the protagonist, Jonas, who, upon reaching eighteen years of age, is assigned a unique position in society. Unlike his co-graduates, who are to occupy ordinary positions in the community, Jonas is designated as the community’s next Receiver of Memory. This position requires Jonas to travel far from the main city center, to what is known as “the Edge.” Here, he receives training and instruction from the previous Receiver of Memory (who refers to himself as “the Giver” of Memory). By and by (and usually through visions transmitted to Jonas through skin contact with the Giver), Jonas learns about life before the great war out of which the present society was formed. In these visions, Jonas sees color, feels sexual desire, experiences the terror of war, and mourns the death of friends. Jonas realizes that The Elders keep this history hidden as a way to rob the community of its humanity, and it becomes his mission to let everyone feel the same emotions and passions that he now feels after his training with the Giver. He further learns that there is a boundary, far beyond the Edge, which, if it is crossed, will send all of these memories rushing back to the community.

The story of The Giver is directly analogous to Freud’s structure of the mind. At the base of one’s psychology is the unconscious Id, driven by the pleasure principle. The Ego, or self-aware part of a person’s psychology, regulates which desires in the Id may come up into conscious thought, and represses unacceptable desires back down into the Id. Sitting atop the Ego is the Super-Ego, often associated with God or the father, which sets the rules by which the Ego regulates and represses these desires. The goal of psychoanalysis is to open up the entire unconscious Id to the Ego, shining conscious light on unconscious neuroses. This is accomplished through a process known as transference, wherein the psychotherapist assumes the role of Super-Ego.

In The Giver, then, the Super-Ego (at the beginning) is The Elders, who govern the society. The Ego can be any person who follows the rules set by The Elders, but for the sake of the film it is Jonas. The Id, of course, is the repressed history of the world before the great war. The Giver, like a psychotherapist, displaces The Elders as Jonas’ Super-Ego, giving him a new set of rules to live by. These new rules allow Jonas to delve deep into the repressed unconscious of society, where he finds out about love, hate, music, and other passions. The result is a complete transformation of Jonas’ Ego, such that he is able to do what had once been literally inconceivable. He crosses the boundary, and in so doing he brings color, love, and (presumably) hate back into the community.

The result is a very progressive, even radical message for today’s young people. Today’s neoliberal consensus has arrogantly proclaimed the “End of History” – with the result that modern cynical liberals think that history is irrelevant to the present. The Giver illustrates that turning a blind eye to history will lead to a sterile, stagnant society where people only do what the state demands of them. The message of The Giver is that the youth of today must set free the repressed past of our world – including all of its evils and contradictions – if they are to be free.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Paranoid and Dilemmatic Ideology in Punk Rock Music

The term “punk rock” is applied to diverse artists that often have a hard time fitting underneath the same umbrella. As such, punk (like other mega-genres such as hip-hop and metal) is further broken down into seemingly infinite sub-genres like hardcore, emo, ska-punk, and folk punk. Songs and artists are placed into one sub-genre or another based on (aural) aesthetic characteristics like instrumentation and tempo. In this post, I propose a new way of sub-categorizing punk music, based on lyrical content rather than aural features. In so doing, I split the entire mega-genre of Punk Rock into just two branches, which I call Paranoid and Dilemmatic.

Paranoid Punk

The term “Paranoid” is borrowed from the work of the American historian Richard Hofstadter, who wrote about “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” According to Hofstadter, the Paranoid Style is characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Similarly, Paranoid Punk features lyrics about conspiracy theories, stereotypes, and paranoid suspicion.

Source: Wikipedia
The song “9/11 was (an inside joke)” by Star Fucking Hipsters is exemplary of the Paranoid style in punk music. The song, as the title suggests, endorses the paranoid conspiracy theory that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by members of the United States political and economic elite: “G-Dub played the king / to wipe the crime scene clean / smart folks know what I mean / Giuliani fixed the job / abetted by the mob / Air Force and CIA / NORAD with Dick Cheney / erased the facts away.”

Star Fucking Hipsters is just one project of prolific front-man Stza Crack, whose other bands include (now-defunct) Choking Victim and Leftöver Crack. Interestingly, Leftöver Crack’s first album Mediocre Generica was released on September 11, 2001. The band’s next album, Fuck World Trade, features cover art of the burning Twin Towers and lyrics boasting about “the tower-tumbling Mediocre Generica.”

The paranoia of Paranoid Punk need not be political. Seminal (and apolitical) punk band The Ramones also fit into the category. Ramones song titles (e.g. “Gimme shock treatment,” “I wanna be sedated,” “Teenage lobotomy”) are replete with references to psychosis and paranoia. Even The Ramones’ love songs are filled with obsessive paranoia and the need to control and conquer the object of desire. Perhaps no song exemplifies this more than “Today your love, tomorrow the world,” which compares romantic conquest to the Nazi conquest of Europe: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am / I’m a Nazi schatze you know I fight for the Fatherland…Today your love, tomorrow the world.”

Dilemmatic Punk

The second branch, Dilemmatic Punk, gets its name from the study of ideological dilemmas in the field of discursive psychology. In their influential book Ideological Dilemmas, Michael Billig and colleagues characterize ideology not as something which is rigid and free from contradiction; rather, ideology as studied by Billig et al. is something which is dynamic and paradoxical.

Unlike Paranoid Punk songs, which streamline the complex dynamics of American and international politics into simple, internally consistent (yet totally wrong) conspiracy theories, Dilemmatic Punk forges a worldview that embraces paradox and seeks out a balance between extremes. For example, “‘Merican” by The Descendents takes a look at the love-hate relationship that many progressive Americans have with their national history: “I come from the land of Ben Franklin / Twain and Poe and Walt Whitman / Otis Redding, Ellington / The country that I love / But it's a land of the slaves and the ku klux klan / Haymarket Riot and the Great Depression / Joe McCarthy, Vietnam / The sickest joke I know.”

Just like Paranoid Punk, Dilemmatic Punk can also be apolitical. The Queers, for example, explore how rejection can stir of feelings of melancholy or rage – “I can’t get over you” and “Strangle the girl,” respectively.


I should note that all of the songs and artists I’ve talked about are, in a word, awesome. By labeling them as Paranoid or Dilemmatic, I am in no way making a judgment about goodness or badness. Instead, I only use these terms in order to probe into punk rock in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Paranoid and dilemmatic ideologies are not only characteristic of punk rock music. Rather, this essay has explored punk music as a microcosm of broader social and political tendencies. It should be easy to see how the division I have drawn between Paranoid and Dilemmatic Punk can be applied to other areas – different genres of music, political movements, characters in fiction, etc. For instance, the film (and book) The Da Vinci Code is clearly conspiratorial, fitting into the Paranoid group. On the other hand, a movie like Free Radio Albemuth, in which the conspiratorial fantasies of characters are constantly undermined, is Dilemmatic.

These categories should prove useful in differentiating between more and less neurotic political ideologies. An ideology which fits squarely within the Paranoid camp will be rigidly internally consistent, but will break down and collapse due to its own repressed contradictions the moment that any outside critical thought is voiced. On the other hand, Dilemmatic ideologies are flexible, dynamic, and embrace contradiction.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Voice and the Object Cause of Desire


On typical talent contest shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and The X Factor, competitors walk out in front of the judges, show their stuff, and then find out whether they will advance to the next round. Between performances, personal interest segments highlight the performer’s tragic personal history and their desire to become a star. Successful contestants are those who combine a show-stopping performance on stage with a heart-wrenching sob story in the personal interest segment. There is no better example of this than Susan Boyle, the “never-been-kissed” British woman who became an overnight sensation after she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables on Britain’s Got Talent. It wasn’t Susan Boyle’s singing ability alone that made her (sort of) famous – it was her singing ability plus her tear-jerking back story.

Cases like Susan Boyle’s make it seem that TV talent contests are all about the contestants – who they are and what they want. In truth, however, the contestants never rise above mere objects. The subjects on such shows are actually the judges, who select and reject performers as objects of desire. Quite simply, Susan Boyle had nothing to do with her own success; it was the judges who made her a star.

NBC’s The Voice, with its innovative format, makes the objectification of contestants absolutely clear. The Voice doesn’t follow the simple old formula of whittling down the field of contestants until a winner is finally found; rather, singers are grouped into four teams that are coached by each of the judges.

In order to make it onto one of the four teams, contestants must make it through the first round’s Blind Auditions. Judges listen with their backs turned, and if they like what they hear they can push a button that spins their chair around so they are facing the performer on stage. Notably, when this happens, the chair also lights up with the words I WANT YOU. Frequently, one judge turning their chair and signaling I WANT YOU will cause another judge, and then another, to do the same – kind of like how when Tom tells Jane that he likes her, Dick suddenly feels compelled to tell Jane that he likes her too. Like jealous suitors, the judges compete for the performer’s affection, usually by complimenting the singer’s appearance and making remarks about how similar the singer is to themselves.

We can see that the Blind Auditions are an adapted form of courtship, with the judges as subjects and the performers as objects of desire. The question then is: Why do the judges have to have their backs turned? Shouldn’t the judges be facing the performers so that they can “fall in love at first sight”? Before I explain why the judges' backs are turned on The Voice, check out this TV commercial for

In the commercial and on The Voice, desire is set in motion by a voice without a body. This disembodied voice is what Lacanians call objet a, an “imaginary part-object, an element imagined as separable from the rest of the body.” Objet a is “the cause of desire,” and so whatever it is that objet a leads a subject to desire is the actual object of desire. In the commercial, the man desires the woman because of her voice and vice versa, and then and only then do they turn around to find out what their respective objects of desire look like. Likewise, on The Voice, the disembodied singer’s voice, “separable from the rest of the body,” leads the judges to spin around and declare I WANT YOU, thus objectifying the contestant on stage.

I suspect, then, that the reason for The Voice's success is that it is modeled on a type of romantic relationship that is currently en vogue. The wildly popular and mega-hip Catfish on MTV features millennials who oftentimes have never even seen a photo of their significant other. The only feature of their lover that they can associate with him or her is the sound of their voice. Without even seeing the face associated with the voice, these young people declare – just like the judges on The Voice – I WANT YOU.