Friends of mine are stoked to hear that I write this periodic column for Salon, but they seem slightly confused that it's about books and not film, television or music. Evidently, they're under the impression -- and who in this reality TV metaverse would disagree with them? -- that books are relics of the past. Well, either that or they're what Hollywood uses to make their movies, which then go on to make lots more money and cause people to forget the book ever existed. "Does anyone even read anymore?" the standard rhetorical question goes.
To which I answer that you need only take a hard look at the world around you to understand that fiction is the sociopolitical currency of the moment. Whether it always has been is a question for the philosophers and marketing agencies of the world. But a cursory listen to the findings of the 9/11 commission and the Bush administration's response is instructive -- to mangle John Lennon, fiction is bigger than Jesus right now. Lies are too: As Gabriel García Márquez famously said, "Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale."
See, books are just the portable commodities into which we pack our fictions -- and nonfictions, if we can tell the difference -- and unlike other media, they've got serious staying power. Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 commission made high-impact news for a few days, while his book "Against All Enemies" remains on the bestseller list two months later. Whether you view Clarke's book as daring truth-telling or out-and-out fiction depends, of course, on where you fall on the political spectrum.
But look, when you hear Condi Rice argue with a straight face that a White House national security document, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" -- and I quote -- "did not warn of attacks inside the United States," then you know that fiction, lies and the books they come in are doing just fine, thanks.
By Valerie Solanas
Foreword by Avital Ronell
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"Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex." -- Valerie Solanas.
Widely dismissed as a raving madwoman with no recognizable talent and an excess of personal demons -- until '90s revisionism painted her as a complex victim in Mary Harron's well-received but self-conscious film, "I Shot Andy Warhol" -- Valerie Solanas has now become a cult feminist along the lines of Medea, Lizzie Borden and the cock-chopper herself, Lorena Bobbitt.
After a year that netted Charlize Theron an Oscar for her sympathetic portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, another underground feminist hero of sorts, a consideration of Solanas' "SCUM Manifesto" is well overdue -- and Verso, the postmodern leftist publishing house to end all postmodern leftist publishing houses, is the perfect fit for her rant.
As is Avital Ronell, whose lengthy introduction, "Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas" (which takes up almost half the book), is, at least for me, the real draw of Routledge's release. Ronell chairs the German department at New York University, and is as close to an academic superstar as anyone can be -- and she knows it, as you can tell by this badass photo taken back in the day by the very cool Bart Nagel of Mondo 2000 fame (whom I knew when I spent one ridiculous year there in the early '90s).
Ronell has a sure grasp of addiction, fiction and critical theory; her short but potent "Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania" delved into the dark corners of Freud's cocaine habit and Baudelaire's hash fancy while coining the cool term "Narcocissim" -- man, academia ain't what it used to be (that is, fun and interesting) back in the '90s! Meanwhile, her labyrinthine tome "The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech" rivals Pynchon and Beckett in its density and power, even though it is, for lack of a better term (see the running theme above), nonfiction.
Ronell and Solanas share some ground, in that both are feminist icons who don't really occupy any middle ground; they are either reviled or respected -- for different reasons, of course. Lou Reed probably disliked Solanas because she tried to kill Warhol, one of his good friends; as he sang in "I Believe" on his (and John Cale's) love letter to the late Warhol, "Songs for Drella," "Valerie Solanas waved her gun .../ From inside her idiot madness spoke/ and bang, Andy fell onto the floor/ I believe life's serious enough for retribution/ I believe being sick is no excuse and/ I believe I would've pulled the switch on her myself."
Decades later, though, others might consider Solanas' "SCUM Manifesto," as Ronell does, to be like Jacques Derrida's "Ends of Man" essay -- they were released in the same explosive year, 1968 -- in its illumination of deteriorating male supremacy. And to be fair, Solanas has some interesting things to say about technology's exponential progress, social and sexual prejudice, and the sometimes bullshit poses of various art scenes.
But make no mistake, this lady had some serious issues. If you're a "Harry Potter" fan, skip this one. If you're a big fan of Burroughs, Beckett and beyond-the-pale literary excursions, take a long, strange trip into Solanas' troubled mind. And hope you make it back.
"Lacan and Contemporary Film"
By Todd McGowan and Sheila Kunkle
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Speaking of unhealthy delusions, the 9/11 hearings were a bracing primer on the ways reality can rear its ugly head and disrupt the best-laid plans of postmodern America, a place where sound bites, confusion and capitalism casually trump material evidence on a sometimes daily basis. That mechanism of delusion, whatever its form, has continually fascinated thinkers and doers everywhere, although the French seem particularly taken with it. Shortly after the first Gulf War, the notorious Jean Baudrillard -- a guy who takes particular glee in pushing buttons and punching holes in reality -- wrote an audacious book called "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place," which categorized Bush 41's cowboy excursion to save Kuwait as a bloodless media event. That piece of Swiftian scholarship cost him dearly, but his penetrating insights about media and war (and media war, to be specific) seem like prophecy today, as the American military wades through a similar quagmire in the same damn country.
While Baudrillard's work often touched every base in the stadium, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's output seemed to stick most capably to film studies. For a time there in the '60s and '70s, if you were studying film, most likely you were doing it through Lacan's prism, because his theories of the self involved a subject struggling to distinguish its own desires from the real world. What made Lacan cool was the fact that he realized that human beings constructed fantasies they convinced themselves were reality, while the material world they occupied resided far outside of their constructions. He might have partially agreed with the popular advertising slogan -- "Perception is reality" -- because so much of his work is built upon misrecognition.
Or maybe it's that way because, as author Todd McGowan explains, Lacan fully understood how tangled the knot of desire and confusion can become, especially in cinema. "The focus of Lacanian theory on the operations of desire and fantasy make it invaluable for film criticism," McGowan says. "Lacan orients psychoanalysis around the desire of the subject, and he relates all questions -- ethical, religious, aesthetic -- back to this desire. Cinema is also organized around the desire of the subject. As spectators, we choose the films we see because of the way that they promise to mobilize our desire. Lacan understands that this desire is always unconscious -- so that we don't know why we desire what we desire. So Lacanian theory allows us to interpret films in a way that uncovers their unconscious appeal, not just their conscious appeal."
McGowan and Kunkle's book is doing its best to reclaim film studies for Lacaniacs, and that is a good thing, because film culture is filled to the breaking point with characters continually misrecognizing their personal fantasies for reality. Almost everything Kubrick and Hitchcock made comes to mind (although the latter was partial to Freud), as well as most of film noir and the cinema of Charlie Chaplin. But "Lacan and Contemporary Film," as its title suggests, slaps scores of more recent films -- "Pi," "Memento," "Holy Smoke," "Breaking the Waves," "Eyes Wide Shut" and many more -- beneath Lacan's microscope to see what pops up.
Even better, these essays keep the jargon to a minimum; the excellent Slavoj Zizek (who helped explode Lacanian film study with "Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out") dives right into his critique with barely any setup at all. "Lacan's theories are notoriously -- and even intentionally -- difficult," McGowan added. "All of our contributors, however, are fully committed to presenting Lacan's thought in an accessible manner. This is one reason why each of them has been drawn to the analysis of film. Film allows us to see Lacan's theories in action, to transcend the difficulties of terminology that haunt many readers."
The result is a collection of brainy film essays that make Michael Medved look like a hack (well, like the hack he is).
"The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am"
Edited by Richard Greene and Peter Vernezze
Open Court Press
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I might be painting myself into a nerd corner here, but reading theoretical analyses on popular culture brings me endless satisfaction. I'm not sure why, but thumbing through sharp essays on phenomena like "Twin Peaks" or "The X-Files" or reality TV or, God help me, even Madonna can seem more rewarding for me than treading the same critical waters that run over Melville, Foucault, Shakespeare (OK, maybe not him), Dante and other canonical artists. There's beating other critics to the punch, and then there is beating the living hell out of a dead horse.
So it was with much satisfaction that I found this collection of essays on television's favorite wiseguys, one that might make even Dr. Melfi's head spin. It's the latest entry from the same Open Court series that brought "The Matrix and Philosophy" to dark-clothed cyber-nihilists everywhere, and it's a hoot to read. Salon already has tackled Lisa Cassidy's excellent analysis of Carmela Soprano's burgeoning feminism -- and Tony's early-season emasculations -- but there are many other interesting analyses to be had as well.
Some of you may laugh at collections like these, but you're probably the same people who argued in the early '80s that hip-hop was a passing fad. See, books like "I Kill Therefore I Am" and "The Matrix and Philosophy" explode the comfort zones we construct around pop-cultural production on the way to pretending that it's just garbage-in, garbage-out business as usual. It would be a mistake to think that a narrative that has galvanized an entire nation and generated obscene amounts of revenue -- if only for a short time -- is somehow detached from the desires and concerns of society at large. For those who are still hanging onto the highbrow position that TV and cinema are degraded forms of narrative, well, how absolutely charming!
"In Me Own Words: An Autobiography of Bigfoot"
By Graham Roumieu
Manic D Press
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In my online magazine, Morphizm, we have a section called "Whatcha Missed" that reexamines work that floated right on by while everyone was obsessed with whatever the flavor-of-the-month standout was at the time. In that spirit of rediscovery, I had to include this insanely hilarious graphic novel.
See, I already had another, newer, more hype-worthy book set aside for this spot -- never fear, it'll be here next time around -- but I made the mistake of grabbing "In Me Own Words" at my local indie bookstore (a shout out to Santa Monica, Calif.'s Midnight Special), and it has come to dominate my life ever since. And not just mine, see, but also the lives of everyone I have shown it to. Trust me, this thing is catchier than gonorrhea, and much, much funnier.
Like the title says, this is more or less the autobiography of Bigfoot, the resident alien that used to rule conspiracy theorists everywhere until Chris Carter rewrote the rule book with the aforementioned "X-Files." And don't think that the fact that his profile has pretty much disappeared has escaped Bigfoot's mind -- in fact, it has violently galvanized him. "What happen world, me ask?" Bigfoot writes. "Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit just like Bigfoot screenwriting career."
Emblazoned with crude watercolor hilarity, courtesy of Mr. Foot himself, and splashed with coffee and other stains from who knows what, "In Me Own Words" is the authoritative account of Bigfoot's life, loves and, most important, seething dislikes. Chewbacca gets taken out ("He ride Bigfoot coat tails"), Pat Morita gets beat down ("He snob ... Maybe I smash with log"), Sam Donaldson gets threatened ("Me take him hair and eat man"), Koko the gorilla gets love ("He talk with hands ... Change me life") and much more. The crappy drawing of Bigfoot's annual Halloween costume as Stevie from "The Deer Hunter" (Christopher Walken's character) playing Russian roulette is worth the price of the book all by itself.
Let me be clear about this: No matter what I write or how I describe this book, it will not do it justice. It is so freakin' funny that you'll be out of breath by the time you get to Bigfoot's "Police Academy" screen test. And after browsing through Solanas, Ronell, Lacan and philosophical treatises on "The Sopranos," you're going to need a chaser of some sort. Let Bigfoot be your guide.