Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”

published 1965

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.

The fantasy to be discovered in science fiction films does both jobs. These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something which is painful and in deadly earnest.

Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. But in science fiction films we have to do with things which are (quite literally) unthinkable. Here, “thinking about the unthinkable”—not in the way of Herman Kahn, as a subject for calculation, but as a subject for fantasy—becomes, however inadvertently, itself a somewhat questionable act from a moral point of view. The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity. But collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious. This nightmare—the one reflected in various registers in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality.

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Saturday morning cartoons

Two animated shorts that I think are super. Both deal with the idea of a person’s impulse to protect what he sees as his private property, to the point of using violence. And to which circle of hell does violence lead us? I think we both know the answer to that question.

The first is Fioritures (1987), by the Russian animator Garri Bardin.

The second is Neighbours (1952), by the Canadian Norman McLaren.


Nothing new under the sun

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Last night’s Plantopic screening of Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 is, in a word, depressing. It’s post-May ’68 and everyone is officially off the high that comes from the explosive hope abundant during times of progressive social movements. There’s no real linear plot or Hollywoodian driving force behind the action. The plot is instead structured more like a collage showing the interactions among four couples living in the Geneva area.

Two of the major conflicts presented in the storyline are 1) the issues faced by people who work in Geneva but live just over the border in France because there’s no work in France and no affordable housing in Geneva, and 2) the rampant land speculation/urban housing shortages in the Geneva area that play into the fact that it gets harder and harder to find and be able to afford decent housing. Luckily, we’ve moved on since the 1970s.

Ha! I kid! It’s worse.

Jonah, as they say, could have been filmed today. Change May ’68 to Occupy Wall Street and swap out some of the superfly turtlenecks and platforms and you’re good.

The conversations the Jonah characters had, the long and meandering debates, philosophizing, ranting — all of it pretty much sounded like the sorts of conversations my friends and I have on a regular basis. I am well aware that there’s nothing new about discussing the means of production, wealth inequality, environmental degradation, wage slavery, etc, but the situations and conversations in the film nevertheless had a pin in the balloon effect on me. The bad guys were doing the exact same thing they are doing today, and the little guys had the exact same anger and frustration, the same discussions, the same desperate searches for alternatives, and the same disillusionment and sense of hopelessness that so many utopian minds have today.

Crisis Resolved + Tonight’s Film

I managed to relocate my sanity (or perhaps happily lose it again?) after an existential crisis this weekend, so I’m back to believing that crochet will save the world. It really helped my spirits to focus myself on doing things I feel are productive and that make me happy. I did a good bit of reading yesterday, got caught up on some video links that I’d been saving for a gruesome mood, finished an assignment for next week’s predoctoral seminar, and learned how to double crochet. That, it turns out, was why my baby slipper prototype looked nothing like the tutorial’s baby slipper — I was doing a half double crochet instead of a double crochet. Rookie. In any case I’m going to have to do two fresh slippers (which I tried for last night but kept messing up), because my friend Mélanie pointed out that the one I did was too open and would probably fall off a baby’s foot. Above all I do not want young Pepper’s feet to be cold, ever, so I’m going to start from scratch.

And that, friends, is all I’m going to write for today because since I am not yet living in a bureaucracy-free utopia, I need to spend the rest of the afternoon taking care of Life Administration (health insurance, post office, residency papers, bank). All of this must be finished before 5 pm, when I have a meeting followed by a Plantopic screening of Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.

A clip:

The whole thing is available on YouTube in French with Italian subtitles, if that’s of any help to you. Otherwise it might be possible to download or rent it from somewhere. I’ve never seen it before — in fact, I’d never even heard of it before a few weeks ago, but apparently it’s cult in the US. So go watch and be cult.

Les sentiers de l’utopie

Sharing a film here done by the art-activism collective Laboratory for Insurrectionary Imagination, a project of Isa Fremeaux and John Jordan. I did a weeklong cartography workshop with them last week that was occasionally surreal, hippie-fying, a profound learning experience, and the start of a beautiful continuation of collaboration with the other people in the group. Isa and John are lovely human beings. I’d like to go crash their farm-laboratory in Bretagne … and possibly never leave …………….

For non-French speakers, some of this is in English, as well as French and Spanish, but even if you can’t understand the words you can understand the images. Description of the film can be found here.

And here’s the film:

Part I

Part II