Avant-Prof: An Interview With Steve Shaviro

by Novella Carpenter


Steven Shaviro is a professor of Film, Culture, and English at the University of Washington. He was my professor for English 345. He was a great professor, but I didn't realize how extraordinary he was until I saw him at the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Show. Dancing. Professors don't usually go to rock shows, you know. So I did a little research: he has been a professor at the University since 1984, he was on the jury of Seattle's International Film Festival last year and has written two books. I read his second book -- The Cinematic Body. It is based in film criticism and examines works such as Romero's living dead trilogy, the movies of Andy Warhol, and Cronenberg's films (The Fly, Dead Ringers). But, The Cinematic Body is also, as Shaviro says in the preface, "about postmodernism, the politics of human bodies, constructions of masculinity, and the aesthetics of masochism."

After agreeing to do an interview, Steve gave me the address of his newly finished book, Doom Patrols, on the Internet. The book is incredible -- a study of pop culture ranging in subject from Grant Morrison's comics to the computer world of MUD (multi-user dimension) to neo-Darwinism.

What follows is not supposed to represent a real-time interview, but more of an amalgam of e-mail exchanged and conversations recorded between Shaviro and myself. Strewn throughout, you will find various quotes from Shaviro's books. This is an attempt to present concepts of a man, I think, that deserve attention.


"Film should be neither exalted as a medium of collective fantasy nor condemned as a mechanism of ideological mystification. It should rather be praised as a technology for intensifying and renewing experiences of passivity and abjection." -- p.65, The Cinematic Body


Q:
You finish every chapter of The Cinematic Body with the word abjection.
A:
A lot of theorists have been writing about abjection, most notably Julia Kristeva. I was trying to write in an abstract way that a lot of our pleasures are kind of abject and difficult to admit to. Even though s&m is becoming kind of popular in some quarters, people don't really want to talk about it. What I am trying to say is that a lot of pleasure that humans have in general is tied to abjection. The trouble with analyzing it is that analyzing becomes a way to distance it. Too many people want to say that artistic or aesthetic experiences (including sexual) are supposed to be nice. That is a Disney idealogy that is the official American dogma; but I don't think that is true. I think very often the things which really turn people on aren't particularly nice. Am I defending this? Well, how can I defend the indefensible? How can I like violent films where bodies get hacked up? Which I don't very much. It is indefensible, but I think that is what pleasure in our society is about.
Q:
You compare porn and horror movies to each other -- how are these types of movies similar?
A:
They are both visceral. They both are about things happening to human bodies, having bodies on an intense sensoral level. Part of the point of those films -- often precisely because they are exploitative -- is to get the audience to react in the same visceral manner as what is being depicted on the screen. I think there is a way we should value that rather than just criticizing it. That is a position which can get me in trouble with a lot of people but I think it is hard to deny or get away from.

"Puke spewed over an abandoned banquet, fat, repulsive worms swimming in snot sauce and heaped on a plate; decaying body parts immersed in beds of gravel and quicksand, lit in lurid pink or blue. These images may be ludicrously cheesy, but they manage to disturb you all the same."

-Ch.7 Doom Patrols describing photographer Cindy Sherman's Food and Debris show.


Q:
You say your reaction of excitement and revulsion to Cindy Sherman's Food and Debris series of 1987 is heightened when you realize that you've been cheated, and that it is all just a spectacle mounted for your entertainment. Is this realization that Sherman has created an artifice similar to these reactions to porn or horror movies? That they are, in fact, artificial?
A:
Yes, I think all these things are similar. Revulsion and excitement are emotions that are in fact quite close to one another, which is why books, movies, etc trafficking in sex and and/or violence are both the most popular ones, and the ones most frequently subject to censure and taboo. It's often been observed, for instance, that few things are more luridly pornographic than writings denouncing the evils of pornography. (It is no surprise that several of Andrea Dworkin's books were recently banned in Canada on the basis of the Dworkin-inspired anti-pornography law). And of course spectacle, which is to say artifice or fakery, is a big part of what makes things like horror and porno films enjoyable. That shudder of simultaneous pleasure and fear, when a grotesque murder or an outlandish sexual act takes place on screen, is entirely dependent upon exaggeration, upon a kind of theatrical grandiosity. This is something the literal-minded opponents of pornography, or of violence on TV, are simply unable to understand. Just like s&m, violence and pornography on screen have this hyperreal, larger-than-life quality, which is extremely absorbing and yet at the same time always being placed "in quotation marks". That's the way fantasy works, isn't it?

"...I offer a theory of cinematic fascination that is a radical alternative to the psychoanalytic paradigm. Such an approach is affirmative and transformative, rather than critical or evaluative: it evokes the capacity of the cinematic apparatus to produce and multiply 'lines of flight'"

-pg. 24, The Cinematic Body.


Q:
You use the term 'lines of flight' in your film book, is it a metaphorical way of thinking?
A:
Well, the term comes from two French theorists -- Deleuze and Guattarri -- who have greatly influenced me. They are trying to point out the way nothing aesthetically or politically or socially is really closed off; there are always points where you can make fresher and change things, and do things differently. That's what they are calling lines of flight. You are trying to escape the dominant conditions, but you are not in a void. Any situation contains tools you can use in a different way. That is their post-modern vision of invention and politics which is very different from the traditional Marxist let's-have-a-revolutionary-party kind of bullshit.
Q:
They just do the exact opposite of something they don't like?
A:
No. Let's use the example of computer technology. It is being used for the government to control our lives more, to know everything about us, to standardize who and where we are, to exclude poor people from even minimal participation in the whole process. But is is also true that computer technology gives openings -- think of hackers who are doing pranks with computer technology. Technology may be more oppressive in some ways -- it is, but it creates more opportunities for people to do something subversive or different, too.
Q:
New technology is developing and, in turn, is being manipulated. In an article by Mark Dery, he discusses something that he call 'culture jamming' -- sabotaging media images. Bands like Negativeland come to mind...
A:
I think it is some of the most creative stuff going on right now. Of course, this brings up legal hassles with copyrights, which happened with Negativeland. This also happened with one of my favorite films by Todd Hanes -- Superstar -- The Karen Carpenter Story. It features Barbie and Ken dolls as the characters. This film is very campy and very moving, at the same time. It has a lot of different sources of information and thought about the medical aspects of bulimia and anorexia and the way in which eating disorders are tied to the nuclear family and suburbia. It is a really smart and powerful film but is banned now because they lifted the Carpenters' songs for the soundtrack without getting permission. Now nobody can see it.

"Some people think it's important to be sincere. Me, I think sincerity is overrated. After all, even Ronald Reagan was sincere. Especially Ronald Reagan: that's why he never lost an election. It's high time we get rid of all this California New Age crap. Sincerity is a post-modern malady, an all-too-human invention."

-Ch.2, Doom Patrols


Q:
The tone of your third book, Doom Patrols is almost gleeful; why is this one so different from The Cinematic Body?
A:
I don't like to repeat myself. I get bored too easily. So I wanted to write something different from anything I had written before. In this book I'm looking for a new language; I'm trying to write in a style that is less academic, less abstruse, than my previous books. I'm still writing what has to be called 'theory', or 'criticism', but I'm doing it in a way that I hope is more engaging, more open and outgoing, more available to intelligent readers who haven't necessarily gone to graduate school in literature or philosophy. There's no point in writing about contemporary culture if you are still stuck inside an ivory tower. I think this is a very interesting time to be alive, and I want to get as much of the sensibility of the present moment as I can into the book. And that does mean being in a way, gleeful, as you put it, rather than fastidiously judgemental in the manner of so many academics both on the left and on the right. If I'm ironic, sarcastic, hysterical, injudicious, ridiculous, etc., it's out of a need to open things up, to let in a bit of fresh air. And if I'm putting the book out to be read over the Internet, rather than waiting for it to be published in a conventional manner, that' s also out of my sense of a need to hook up with events that are vital and immediate.
Q:
Do you see the Internet as being a force in changing the way people use computers?
A:
I am really influenced by Marshall McLuhan who wrote all this stuff about media in the 1960s -- he basically said that changes in media are changes in both human conscious and the human body. Media includes not only writing, radio and TV, but things like clothing and houses; they are extensions of our bodies and change the way we relate to the world. He sees electronic media as especially radically changing our relation to the world from the time when we were dominated by print. He was talking about TV but a lot of things make sense now thinking about the Internet.

Obviously there are some problems: one is expense, not everybody can afford a fast modem and a computer like almost all people can afford a telephone, or a TV. Also it is hard to set up the computers to receive the networks, etc. I am pessimistic that because of the privatization of a lot of Internet stuff, prices will probably increase, too. But I have heard of a place in San Francisco that has computer terminals set up in cafes so you can check your e-mail, set up an account, etc. A similar thing will be opening up here in Seattle in a couple of months.


"Strands of DNA replicate themselves ad infinitum. But in the course of these mindless repetitions, unexpected reactions spontaneously arise, alien viruses insinuate themselves into the DNA sequence, and radiation produces random mutations. It's much like what happens in the children's game 'Telephone': even when a sentence is repeated as exactly as possible, it tends to change radically over time."

-Ch.10 Doom Patrols


Q:
Doom Patrols showed a particular interest in something you call post-modern biology---what is post-modern biology and why is it important to your work?
A:
Biology is crucial to me because we are, basically, biological beings, basically we are bodies, and it is impossible to understand anything about human culture and society if we ignore that fact. Recent literary studies in the academy, from deconstruction to cultural studies, have tended to ignore the biological, and to focus almost exclusively on the effects of language and culture. But this is ridiculous, both because language and culture are themselves products of biological evolution, and because the ways in which languages and cultures evolve have much in common with the ways biological organisms evolve. Culture studies people also tend to equate the biological or 'natural' with what is unchanging and deterministic, the 'cultural' with what is historical and variable, but this is equally ridiculous.

For on one hand, human culture tends to be extremely conservative, inflexible, and self-perpetuating. A patriachy based on cultural norms is no easier to overthrow than a patriarchy based on genes. While on the other hand, recent developments in the life sciences, in what I am calling 'postmodern biology', have increasingly demonstrated how mutable and unstable organisms and their environments are, and how variable genetic inheritance really is. Biological evolution has a much longer and more bizarre history than human culture can boast of. Notions of 'organic unity' and of fixed 'male' and 'female' behavior patterns are just cultural fictions; biologically speaking, they do not exist. At best, they are statistical averages taken over large populations. So it seems to me that, ironically, the culture relativists or constructionists turn out to be more rigid, more 'essentialistic', than the biologists.

Q:
You discuss this idea of inventing gender roles in the Andy Warhol chapter of The Cinematic Body and in Doom Patrols -- how do you think femininity has been invented?
A:
A lot of recent feminist criticism has pointed out the way in which we think about gender constructions. Like I said, there is no necessary leap from biological facts about human bodies and the shape of their genitalia to all the extra attributes which we give to what is feminine and what is masculine. In a male dominated society femininity becomes a kind of fiction which is treated in very bizarre ways -- both put on a pedestal and degraded.
Q:
Your book, Doom Patrols, is named after the comic book series Doom Patrol. Is Doom Patrol's main character, Cliff Steele, a man who is trying to re-invent masculine gender stereotypes?
A:
I'm using the character of Cliff Steele as a way to discuss the dilemmas of masculinity in contemporary American society. There's this ugly tendency just now for white heterosexual males to get all resentful and self-pitying, to whine about how they are supposedly being discriminated against, and consequently to vote Republican. It's high time we got rid of all that Michael Douglas-style backlash, and all that Woody Allen or Robert Bly 'sensitive man' horseshit as well. I'm not looking to define some new model of straight masculinity; I'm suggesting that we abolish such role models altogether. Make your life a work of art instead, as Oscar Wilde and Michel Foucault both recommend; try to be as singular and eccentric as free of models, as possible.
Q:
You propose that "our only chance lies in this: to remake ourselves over and over again, frenetically chasing fashion, keeping up with state of the art technology, and purchasing (or stealing) the newest upgrades." Is this a tongue in cheek attitude or do you really think this is a good way to approach things?
A:
It may sound flippant, or excessive, but it really is more or less the way I tend to approach things. I just don't see the point in clinging to the past. There is no such thing as permanence in values or ideals or customs or works of art. The most interesting and pleasurable things are transient and fleeting. They have their moment, then they are gone. It's like eating a delicious meal at a fancy restaurant: you have a wonderful time, you spend a lot of money, and twelve hours later it's all been processed and turned into shit. I think that's great.

Doom Patrols is easy to get to! Just point your browser to: http://dhalgren.english.washington.edu/~steve/doom.html



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