Friday, June 16, 2017

from "Buffy's Two Bodies"

[...] Buffy, and all of Whedon’s productions arguably, concern what Foucault called “new modes of relation.” More than anything else, I think this is what attracted me to Buffy. Beyond the nostalgic pleasure of the late 90s television series format and the whip-smart dialogue of the show, Buffy, from the get go, offers images of affiliation: the team, the band, the gang, the ‘non-traditional’ (which is to say, non-straight, non-nuclear) family. As much as Buffy is about gender politics, and specifically a populist (white) feminist discourse in the 90s a la Naomi Wolf, The Spice Girls, and “girl power,” it is also about how the collective is conceived through a common struggle. This common struggle is ostensibly against the apocalypse-happy demons that populate Buffy and Angel. It is also against the negative feeling states and social forces that those demons would often project: whereof Willow’s fascination with magic, and her use of magic for the team, contribute to her addiction in the 6th season; and Xander’s anxiety about his contributions to the team make him literally split into two separate people (“The Replacement”). This constant play of the metaphorical with the literal is what sustains Buffy as a document of a shared imaginary, where the monsters embody anxieties in the larger culture (and this would seem true of all monster movies and films, since the very beginning of the genre).

I believe that the primary anxiety of Buffy concerns the family, and how specifically the family intersects with a larger sociopolitical condition. Thinking back to 90s cultural politics, Buffy also seems to ask whether certain affiliations can be considered a family. Can a gang, for instance? Or a gay couple? Or an unruly assemblage of subcultural identities, such as are a vampire slayer, a vampire with a soul, a watcher, a gypsy, a werewolf, lesbian witches, and a poorly educated working class white male. In José Munoz’s Cruising Utopia, he makes an interesting, if passing and somewhat dorky, remark: that Marvel Comics can be differentiated from DC Comics by its preoccupation with “the freak.” Which is to say, the mutant, misfit, abject, and socially non-normative. Something similar can be said of the characters of Buffy, who for the most part are marginalized by some aspect of their identity or social position. The Scooby Gang constitutes a band of outsiders. Though Joyce (Buffy’s mom) and Giles (Buffy’s watcher) are parental figures, Joyce eventually becomes more like one of the gang, and of course is ultimately offed in an episode that showcases the muteness of her maternal presence (“The Body”). Giles is not Buffy’s father, and only assumes a paternal function with reluctance. Buffy’s biological father only appears in nightmares, and in the particular episode where she experiences the divorce of her parents as a trauma at the core of her adolescent development (“Nightmares”). In the 90s, when so many of my friends parents were getting divorced; when so many of my parents’ contemporaries were dying from AIDS; and when gay culture, as a result of the prominence of AIDS activism, was coming into its own as a national political constituency, of course the family would be the privileged site of cultural contestation. Not to mention on the right, where the phrase on every politician’s lips was “family values.”

At times in Buffy, the monsters would seem to represent right-wing America quite literally. The most insidious representation perhaps being that of the secret government laboratory underneath the UC Sunnydale campus, in the fourth season. Curiously, throughout this season of Buffy, it is the demons who have become an embattled minority, and the humans who undertake experiments reminiscent of Nazi and America genetic experimentation. In this regard, Buffy coincides with another popular program from the same era, The X Files, which also imagines an elaborate governmental conspiracy based on genetic hybridization with an alien race. What one realizes through the fourth season of Buffy is that Whedon’s vision of the demon world and the human one is not Manichean, but relational; we might even say ecological. One needs the other to coexist. And with the genetic experiments comes a dangerous imbalance in that ecology of humans/demons, as Giles points out.

Though Whedon purports publically little interest in left political histories or statist communisms, the most radical images he offers us are of a fluctuating set of relations between his characters, who at their most antagonistic still practice forms of mutual aide. I think of Spike as a limit case of mutual aide, where he is gradually converted from a cynic to a messiah (he is after all the key to preventing the apocalypse in Buffy’s concluding episode). At Spike’s most evil/other, there is still a desire to nurture the tenuous ecology formed among the characters, and this is part of his appeal as a reluctant, though eventually converted, ‘good guy’ (by the fifth season he is practically a member of the Scooby Gang). All of Whedon’s work, from Buffy to his most recent films, Through Your Eyes and Much Ado About Nothing, concerns relations of affinity after the erosion of the traditional family by ‘globalization’ (i.e., post-Fordist neoliberalization). In Buffy, Angel, The Avengers, Dollhouse, and Firefly specifically, the team offers an alternative affiliation based on mutual aide, cooperation, and a minoritarian identity politics. I find it amusing that the dramatic tension of The Avengers revolves around such a simple conflict: How will The Avengers cooperate as a team to defeat their collective enemy? After a prolonged period of dissensus and antagonism, this resolution comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, when it is nearly too late.

Similarly, it may be interesting to watch films that Whedon acted as screenwriter for, many of which are not very good, to try to discern his ‘stamp.’ It is always there, however faintly. In Alien: Resurrection (1997), one immediately has the sense that there is a problem of team similar to that in all of Whedon’s productions. It is curious, for instance, that the duration of the film features a group trying to escape the aliens together, whereas in previous installments of the Alien series the escape tended not to be nearly so team oriented. Though a few of the characters are picked-off, most remain until the end and more than in any other of the Alien films actually survive. In Toy Story, which was co-written by Whedon, I wonder if his contribution to the screenplay was not of the cyborg (or is it mutant? I’m not sure what to call them) toys, who help Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear escape from their sadistic, adolescent captor. The cyborg toys present a kind of shadow team, in contrast to the toys of the house next door, who have not had their body parts recombined into novel arrangements a la Frankenstein. That the mutant toys signify non-normative genders through their body parts, such as the fishing rod with Barbie doll legs, also seems to me a possible contribution from Whedon.

After seeing Much Ado About Nothing, I wondered, how does this fit into Whedon’s larger body of work? Much Ado About Nothing is obviously a comedy, and very much about a battle of wits, which may relate to Whedon’s concerns as a screenwriter. One might say that Much Ado About Nothing is about reapproprating the Shakespearian comic genre. But as you watch the film, you start to think about the set, and recognize actors from Whedon’s other films and television series. You start to think: these are Whedon’s friends, his ‘inner circle.’ [Wikipedia: Most of the cast had worked with Whedon before; Acker and Denisof on Angel; Denisof, Lenk and Lindhome on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Fillion and Maher on Firefly; Acker, Denisof, Diamond, Kranz and Johnson on Dollhouse; Gregg, Denisof, Rosemont and Johnson in The Avengers.] You also start to think about what it means for a director to make a film in their home (the film was shot over a period of twelve days in Whedon’s family’s house in Santa Monica, California). What gives so many scenes from Much Ado About Nothing their life is no doubt the fact that they are shot in contemporary, upper-middle class domestic settings, the scenes of Benedick and Don Pedro, shot in the bedroom of Whedon’s daughters, being among my favorites. The team of Much Ado About Nothing consists of Whedon’s closest friends and colleagues; and the drama that they enact, as in all comedies, is about how to bring certain people into a happier or more productive relation.

A certain affect derives from Whedon’s use of domestic spaces and interiors, a common feature among television programs obviously for establishing consistency through the set, but unique, I believe, in Whedon. We might call it a we feeling or a feeling of teamIn Buffy, for example, the characters always have a central gathering place, which becomes a kind of commons. In the early season, it is the library at Sunnydale High, while in later seasons this meeting place is Giles’ dining room, the magic shop, and finally Buffy’s family home. While there are other more intimate domestic spaces (bedroom interiors especially) it is these spaces that form the primary locus of affiliative relation. A similar we feeling is established in Dollhouse, through the house itself, which acts as one large common space; and in Firefly, through the interiority of the ship. It is in these locations where plans are hatched, but also meals are shared, research takes place, and gossip is exchanged. Following Sara Ahmed, these locations comprise “kinship objects,” which “make a sense of relation possible.” (Queer Phenomenology, 81) When these places are attacked one feels that the team itself is under siege, that affiliative relation is threatened. The loss of these places, in Ahmed’s words, would seem to “make social gathering impossible.” (ibid)

One of the most stunning examples of this threat, completely unique in Whedon’s body of work, is in the final episode of Firefly, “Objects in Space,” in which a bounty hunter boards the Firefly, in search if its two fugitives. The racial component of this encounter can’t be overlooked, since the bounty hunter is black, and is marked as black by the way he speaks and his manner of dress (a ‘funky’ red spacesuit and moon boots, reminiscent of 70s era Blaxploitation costume). The threat that he poses, particularly to the white women of the spacecraft, seems especially problematic, where rape is insinuated more than once. One feels in this episode, more than perhaps any other, the power of Whedon’s domestic enclosures, where the occupation of the enclosure by an invading other creates a sense of violation among the characters. That Firefly concludes before Serenity (2005) with an image of such racially marked violence is incredibly disappointing for any fan of the series, where the bounty hunter is finally jettisoned in outer space, abandoned to an absolute outside. This image is terrifying inasmuch as it coincides too accurately with reality. Surprisingly, given Whedon’s sensitivity to a politics of racial representation, he didn’t find some way to incorporate the bounty hunter into the band, as a fellow traveler. A conclusion that would have been more fitting with Whedon’s minoritarian themes.

So many new modes of relation pervade Whedon’s work, and so many of these new modes include those of the non- or barely considered human. Demons, vampires, gods, demi-gods, angels; queer people, ethnic minorities, outlaw bodies and subjects. At the limit of the human, we are also offered to reflect upon the problem of “exception.” Following Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer and other books about biopolitics and sovereignty, we might say that Buffy and many of the creatures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are defined by the fact that they are neither human nor non-human, that, in Agamben’s words they constitute a “zone of indistinction” between the mortal and the non-mortal (animal, demon). The vampire, as conceived within the series, is the spawn of human and demon gene pools, and the slayer is also demonic, being the result of a related hybridization. To be non-human is to be immortal, in the case of the vampire, until they are staked or beheaded. In the case of the slayer, the slayer has super human strength and sensory-motor skills, but remains mortal. Lesser and greater states of exception exist among the characters of Buffy, depending on which species of supernatural being they happen to be. At the limits of team and affiliation, lies a basic problem: to what extent should the Scooby Gang help Buffy and thus be put in danger; also, to what extent should the slayer lead the team and to what extent should she remain independent in her exceptionality? It is an aporia that appears in the first season of Buffy and is not resolved until the final episode, when the powers of the slayer are disseminated among a multitude of girls, whereas power is normally passed from one slayer to another upon the first slayer’s death.

Buffy’s sovereignty—the fact that she is exceptional and therefore outside the realm of social custom and law—is a major problem for the team. How can power be shared when one team member would seem so much more essential than any other? But Buffy’s exceptionality, like that of all superheroes, is more a curse than a gift (we might say that it constitutes the gift as curse). As a result of her exceptionality, Buffy is deemed a juvenile delinquent in the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as she is surveilled and policed by the principles of Sunnydale High. Slaying by night, and sometimes during the day, she is also denied normative relationships among her adolescent peers. Many times she would seem an exploited laborer, inasmuch as she is expected to attend high school and work a full-time job, moonlighting as the slayer. (The situation of her exploitation is foregrounded when she drops out of college to care for her younger sister upon the death of their mother, whereupon she takes a minimum wage position at a demon-infested fast food chain [“Doublemeat Palace”]. It is not until Giles makes out a check for her that she is finally able to have any financial security.) Finally, she is routinely forced to keep secrets from her loved ones and has to die and be resurrected no less than twice in order to fulfill her “birthright.”

The slayer’s job is demanding, infinitely demanding one might say, because it asks that Buffy put herself in mortal danger and offer herself voluntarily in death. As she discovers in a dream, in the fifth season, “death is [her] gift” (“The Gift”). The slayer is herself the munis that binds and unbinds the community (where community derives from the Latin for “those who share the gift”). She is the one who endures the “work’s demand” (Blanchot) inasmuch as she is cursed to die and come back, Orphically returning to reassemble her fragile and embattled community. A cult against the apocalypse; against the triumph of the demonic; for the preservation of the human; for the ecology of the human and the demonic.

In the absence of the law Buffy becomes the law. (So rarely in Buffy do we see the presence of police; it is only in the third season, with the introduction of Faith, that the law seems concerned with the work of slayers and their watchers at all in fact.) From her abandonment by the law issues her power. It is the problem of power—how power is distributed among a demos comprised of her friends, family, and comrades—that she must resolve. Democracy won’t result from consensual politics, but from a counter-public comprised of misfits and young girls (the break-down of consensual political structures is dramatized in the seventh season by the conflicts between Buffy, the Scooby Gang, and the slayers elect). Girlism. Buffyism. Willoism. At the fringes of human society (ban), Buffy represents the anarchic potential of our relationship with death. Through our lack of power over it, our incapacity to administer or administrate it totally, death becomes paradoxically a source of potency. The fact that the sovereign is also the one who has been abandoned by society, and given up in sacrifice to higher powers, is an irony of all exceptional beings.

Buffy embodies the dream of a certain kind of politics. A necropolitics. A politics of the one who has no choice but to tarry with death as the potentiating shadow of life’s total administration. Beyond Whedon’s metaphors of cultural politics, there is the literal fact that in the 90s biopolitics had come to a critical juncture, particularly in the throes of the AIDS pandemic, and with the rise of the Human Genome Project and other bioethical projects of a corporatized scientific industrial complex. Curiously, Buffy concludes at a moment in which state emergencies like 9/11 have come to dictate a larger geopolitics centered upon the United States. Might we say that the world of Buffy in the seventh season, in which Buffy annuls her exceptionality through a spell performed by Willow, forms an antithesis to the Bush regime? Where Buffy represents a sovereign who seeks to annul sovereignty itself rather than prolong its force. While we now know that the era of Clinton in the 90s, while ‘progressive’ in comparison to the Bush and Reagan presidencies which preceded it, was an extension of neoliberal policies and trade agreements that ensured the debt and wage entrenchment of a majority of the world’s population (a diffuse apocalypse if there ever was one), Bush’s two terms in office appear in contrast as a grand apocalypse marking a complete hiatus from any hopes of progress or social justice. [...]

--composed August, 2014

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cornelia Barber on WITHDRAWN

There is always a re-publicization. In a poem like “All I Wanted Was To Be In A Band” we watch the poet, Thom’s process transform from personal to public and in questioning this transformation he questions the “public” itself. The fantasy public. The white public. The capital public. The patriarchal public. The public that both makes and unmakes this book.