We’re back in the full swing of the semester and I have been working hard on my dissertation as well as other writing projects. I’ll be presenting dissertation chapters at two upcoming conferences, if you are interested. The first is this weekend, the Cornell Psychoanalysis Reading Group Conference. It has a nice flyer.
If you want to hear me talk about the circuits of jouissance involved in the FBI surveillance and analysis of Black American literature, come on by.
The next will be in mid-October. This one also has a flyer, though commensurately less nice due to my name not being on it.
What is nice about this conference is the who’s who of Lacanian intellectuals who will be giving keynotes, including Sheldon George, Patricia Gherovici, Kristen Hennessy, Azeen Khan, Dany Nobus, Annie Rogers, Stijn Vanheule, and Jamieson Webster. I’ll be presenting my third and final dissertation chapter about representation, cinematic reality, Trinidadian street gangs, and Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance. Pretty good stuff. My panel will also be chaired by the legendary Clint Burnham, who may or may not be reading this right now. You can see the full schedule here.
All of this is to say if you are asking why the newsletter might be a little shorter here and there, you have your explanation. If you want to see longer, more elaborate letters, with audio content, original research, more analysis, more obscure movies, more nonsense… you could consider a paid subscription. If enough of you do it, I can stop working 80 hours a week.
Double Booked Horror
I waited to published on Barbarian (2022) until everyone has had a chance to see it because I think there’s some value in going into this film blind. The marketing is very obscure and does a good job of preserving the secrets of the film. But if you’ve seen it, you’ve realized that in many ways the film doesn’t have any secrets. There’s nothing to play coy about. It really is just a movie about a woman who goes to an Airbnb and a strange man has supposedly double booked it. But, uh, don’t read ahead if you haven’t seen it yet.
This fundamental mistake of over-interpreting is what sets everything in the film in motion and serves as the centerpiece for the film’s thematic concerns about gendered power imbalances and misogyny. To a point, everything in the film is precisely what it appears to be. Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) really is just a well-meaning but slightly sexist creep. AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) really is just a rapist. And Frank (Richard Brake)… well, he’s every bit the monster he appears to be.
The way this film is advertised suggests that Tess Marshall’s (Georgina Campbell) visit to the Airbnb she’s double booked with Keith would quickly give way to some incomprehensible subterranean mystery. Who or what is the titular barbarian of this story? The marketing worked. But the film spends a lot of time in this rental property and a lot less in the underground catacombs that turn out to either be made or simply exploited by Frank, a serial killing rapist who owned the home in the 1980s and resides in its caverns like the unbelievable plot twist in The Boy (2016).
What is the most potent critique of masculinity made by the film is the continuum that exists from Keith to AJ to Frank. They are all different faces of one overarching social force. Keith isn’t setting out to harm Tess, but he diminishes her legitimate fears regarding the double booked rental — something terrifying even to me. He’s accommodating but, again, dismissive of her fears of being drugged when pouring her a drink. And he still tries to shoot his shot in a creepy, lingering fashion after Tess is somewhat endeared to him.
AJ exists on a further remove of this continuum as a man who has exploited his position of power in Hollywood to rape one of his co-stars. The film presents AJ’s wrongdoing, first, as indeterminate, then lets AJ himself disclose the horrific reality of what he’s done. As for Frank, the less said about him the better. He’s depicted as pathological and sinister, the most abhorrent manifestation of misogyny possible to imagine. His crimes, recorded for his own enjoyment, are too much for even AJ to stomach. These men are variations on the same theme, and the illustration of their interconnectedness is potent.
Another remarkable thing about this film is the genuine achievement of horror-comedy. Though you might be fooled by my account above, the film finds opportunities to be very funny, mostly aided by the performance of Long as AJ. He is the most detestable, incompetent piece of shit you could imagine. And the film doesn’t let him off easy, although it gets a lot of juice out of the idea he might get away with everything. Justin Long is also very, very funny.
Barbarian is a movie about trusting intuition, especially for women who are imperiled in a situation where their power imbalance with a man becomes obvious. For director Zach Cregger, that intuition is at the most basic level of interpretation rather than requiring deep thought or exhaustive analysis. It is the threatening qualities of Keith, AJ, and Frank that are made obvious in the film and don’t require a depth of analysis to uncover — only a depth of feeling. Cregger’s film suggests that to over-analyze means risking giving up that initial intuitive response. While one could read this as anti-intellectual, it seems to me that Cregger’s point is that something simple can serve as a rich object of thought.
Weekly Reading List
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1971/04/one-out-of-many/663698/ — “One Out of Many” is my favorite V.S. Naipaul short story and perhaps his best. For all of Naipaul’s unflattering, racist opinions about the Trinidadian literary scene, this man was going through it. Clearly, I mean, based on this short story — I feel comfortable with succumbing to the error of reading too much of the author into their work in this case.
The first time I read it was as an undergraduate. Along with the philosophy courses I was taking at the time, it felt like a gateway into the core concepts of existentialism. Santosh’s problem is one of an existential nature, after all. He has no sense of self and is defined relative to the many people who make him a subordinate.
When I started teaching the short story, I did so through the lens of postcolonial alienation. A Fanonian account of the colonized subject is very generative read with this text, but Santosh’s bizarre attitude toward Black Americans and Black Power struggles seem to rest in a spot between demographic realism and Naipaul’s individual racism.
To read Naipaul’s treatment of these movements more charitably, one might think of him as a nihilist or even an anticipator of a certain strain of Afropessimism. In the ending of the story, he writes:
I am a simple man who decided to act and see for himself, and it is as though I have had several lives. I do not wish to add to these. Some afternoons I walk to the circle with the fountain. I see the dancers, but they are separated from me as by glass. Once, when there were rumors of new burnings, someone scrawled in white paint on the pavement outside my house: Soul Brother. I understand the words; but I feel, brother to what or to whom? I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.
The profoundness of the alienation here results in some profound political questions. One, most crucially: “who is the ‘we’ in a political bloc?” Santosh believes himself to be radically alone in a way that no individual relationship, group membership, or subject position could ever breach. This assertion of extreme difference at the most basic subjective level means the subject is divided from the other at the level of being. If there are two human essences, never the twain shall meet. But the fascinating mistake of Naipaul’s depiction of Santosh is that Santosh believes he’s not internally divided, between conscious and unconscious, as he looks at himself in the mirror and decides to be free. Whether that notion is endorsed or subverted by Naipaul is another of the short story’s key question.
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Until next time.