CSI: Lacan

Walking through a Barnes and Noble the other day with $20 still to burn on a gift card, I spotted a new book on the shelf absolutely determined that I take it home: Lacan at the Scene by Henry Bond.  It’s the most recent installment in the MIT Press “Short Circuits” series edited by Slavoj Zizek, and I doubt there are many other books so perfectly conceived to part me and a few thousand other people from our money.  Here is the project, put in the form of a question, on the book’s front flap: “What if Jacques Lacan—the brilliant and eccentric Parisian psychoanalyst—had worked as a police detective, applying his theories to solve crimes?” 

Well, what if?  I'll admit it, I'd much rather watch that than Monk. 

To explore this possibility, Bond subjects old crime scene photos from the National Archive in London to intense Lacanian scrutiny.  The taxonomic imperative here is to categorize the various crime scenes as either “neurotic,” “perverse,” or “psychotic.”  Take the following as a warning or a promise: Lacan at the Scene is copiously illustrated, reproducing many of the horrific photos of the bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated bodies produced with such abandon by English murderers in the post-war era.   Bond supplements these with his own enlargements of various details drawn from the original photos--seemingly insignificant marginalia that, in true psychoanalytic tradition, migrates from the margins to take center stage in diagnosing…….

Well, who is actually being “diagnosed” here is sometimes unclear. For the most part Bond appears to read these images for their pro-filmic significance—sifting through the murderous mise-en-scene for signifying material that might provide insight into the subjectivity of the killer.  On other occasions, however, the analysis seems more interested in the image/photographer as analysand.  For example, the photographic record of a woman lying on a brick wall, her throat meticulously slit by an almost experimental array of crude instruments, proceeds as a series of ever-closer shots taken on axis from a single angle (as opposed to the more typical 360 degree coverage in crime scene documentation).  “It is as if the scene can be read in only one way, or seen only one way, as if it were dependent upon an entirely one-dimensional idea or thought,” writes Bond.  “And it is just such a lack of controversy—a single-mindedness, if you will—that is characteristic of delusion” (117).  This would appear to suggest that the poor sap who had to roll out of bed in the middle of the night to photograph this horrorshow somehow succumbed to a delusional state (perhaps cleverly forced upon him by the killer?).  True, the police photog probably could have moved over 45 degrees for another angle, but my analysis of the image suggests anything more ambitious would have necessitated jumping over the brick wall and fighting through some bushes—so perhaps this civil servant was not so much seized with delusional ideation as with arthritic laziness.     

Complicating these diagnostic procedures even further, Bond necessarily places great emphasis in his analysis on the “punctum” of these photographs--Barthes’ celebrated notion of a haunting detail in a photo that “pierces” the surface of the image to assume great affective import for the spectator.  Of course, Barthes argued the “punctum” was a profoundly personal and subjective matter, so when Bond’s eye wanders to an open purse, or a pot on the stove, or a cup of tea by a bedside, a third diagnostic subject comes into view: the author himself.

So where exactly does the “neurotic,” “perverse,” and “psychotic” reside here—in the killer, in the image, in the author, or in some slippage between all three?  That’s difficult to say, perhaps by design, inasmuch as Lacanian analysis so often revels in a series of seemingly infinite relays and reversals between gazes, subjects, and signifiers.  Really, just trying to keep track of who is looking where at what while constituted in the gaze of various Others big and little is a major challenge in all Lacanian work, and in the end, following this chain almost inevitably leads to Lacan himself as a master presence who, like Santa Claus or Jesus, somehow seems to be passing silent judgment over you for being too big an idiot to keep track of it all.  I’m not saying Lacan is a God--but he is often treated as such.  And whereas Derrideans, Deluezians, and a few straggling Baudrillardians can talk themselves out of an argument almost as quickly as they can make it—Lacan has instilled in his disciples a sense that he really is the one supposed to know and what he knows above all else is that he is indisputably right. 

But the weird transferences that occur in Lacanian prose actually work quite well in a book about crime scene photography.  Lacan is most definitely “at the scene” here inasmuch as his mythos helps reanimate the now vacant subject positions of these camera views, and conjures--around the corpse itself--the ghost of some long lost psychopathological eye.    

Bond's analysis of the murder scenes themselves is extremely interesting, and also provides a number of illuminating flashes within the frequently dense thickets of Lacanian thought.  But the strongest sections of the book, for me at least, are the opening two chapters that set up the rationale of Bond's project by placing Lacan in dialogue with the logics of photography, detection, and criminology.  Particularly fascinating is a section contrasting the almost nauseating entropy of the crime scene photo with the banal and ordered “repressions” bound up in staged photography—an analysis guaranteed to make the reader reconsider the frequently unexamined relationship between photography and “reality” and/or the Real.  Here Bond draws on Barthes again, but also Rosalind Krauss’ work in The Optical Unconscious.
There remains a structuring absence in the book, however, that merits some consideration.  At one point in the discussion, Pierre Bourdieu makes an unexpected and ultimately telling appearance.  I say “unexpected” since Bourdieu is typically one of the more reviled figures on the French theory scene, routinely dismissed as an empiricist, positivist, and rank sociologist inasmuch as his work often displays the bad taste of engaging material institutions and historical practices.  Bond cites Bourdieu’s statistical research in Distinction describing what people find to be “interesting or beautiful” subject matter in art.  Thus 78% of respondents believe a sunset to be “interesting or beautiful,” while only 1% would say the same of a car wreck.  By way of transition to his discussion of photographic repression, Bond notes in passing the “modern” photographers who sought to disrupt this hierarchy of “beauty and interest” by pointing to a type of “unconscious” that might be excavated in photographing the more unpleasant detritus of the social world.  Obviously, a necessary maneuver for looking at and through images of crime scenes.  

What Bond avoids in this brief encounter with Bourdieu, however, is the actual sociology involved in this research.  When Bourdieu writes that 78% of people find sunsets to be “beautiful or interesting,” this is not a random result drawn from a random sample.  And by holding up “ugly” photography as an “unconscious” to this world of normalizing imagery, Bond replicates precisely what Bourdieu sought to critique: the assumption that taste is somehow universal, natural, and without material/political origin.  The 78% who find sunsets to be “beautiful” practice what Bourdieu dubbed “popular” taste, an appreciation of art associated with a “habitus” grounded in quite specific distributions of economic and cultural capital.  This audience, Bourdieu argues, tends to value “function over form” in art, and that “function” is to be pleasing to the eye, "beautiful," harmonious, etc. 

But Bourdieu also notes that among educational/cultural elites, those who have advanced college degrees, art school pedigrees, or contracts with MIT Press, this scale is completely inverted.  Just try getting your dopey little painting of a sunset into the next Whitney biennial, friend, at least without suffusing it with the proper amount of irony to connote your disdain for those who might actually hang such a painting in the kitchen as a pleasant enough distraction or decoration.  In this inverted world (where commercial success and popular appeal = aesthetic failure), participants tend to value “form over function.”  Every joke you have ever heard about modern art stems from this divide—perhaps most classically conveyed in the now stock satire of the egg-headed bohemian staring contemplatively at a blank canvas. 

Which brings us to Lacan at the Scene’s semi-repressed secret:  It is a book precisely for those cultural elites who do indeed find a car wreck to be “beautiful or interesting,” or who, in this case, find the collision of abject murder scenes and continental theory to be an exhilarating experiment at the level of form.  Sensitive perhaps to potential accusations of exploitation or sensationalism, Bond goes to great lengths to defend the functional utility of his project (even going so far as to point out similarities between Lacan’s architecture of psychopathology and the FBI manual for crime scene investigation).  Toward the end of the introduction, for example, he makes an interesting appeal to integrate the book as a forensic resource alongside the CCM (Crime Classification Manual) and the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder):

Although it is unlikely to become a reality, I shall also stress here that the most relevant readership for my annotations below would actually be the various employees of the state (“the apparatus of the prosecution”) who are involved—day to day—with the crime of murder, and are currently using CCM and DSM.  For, despite the seemingly flippant title of the book, the following assessments are in no way proposed as merely a fascinating ruse or what have you (35). 

A "fascinating ruse" or "what have you"?  The unconscious speaks!  For the book does indeed
evoke the fascination of those aesthetes capable of transforming this index of material horror--the more gritty, tawdry, and "psychotic" the better--into stylized emblems of theoretical proof.  And what I do have, apparently, is a shared interest in rewriting the brutal socio-political materiality of murder--a crime linked to poverty, stress, drugs, and the sex-trade as much as anything else--into a tableau of timeless psychical structures (3 and only 3!) that might be gleaned from the seemingly purposeful positioning of a muddy shoe. 

This is not to pass moral judgment on Bond’s project.  Quite the contrary.  Like I said, the moment I took this book from the shelf and comprehended its premise, I knew it was my destiny to purchase it, read it, and maybe most perversely, look at it.  I can’t help it. It called to me as a fellow traveler, speaking to that same impulse that occasionally throws a Throbbing Gristle disc in the CD player to revel in the titillating sublime of absolute negation--an aestheticized death trip.
Not that Bond should have necessarily foregrounded such self-reflexivity in his analysis.  But there is something symptomatic, psychoanalytically AND sociologically, in conceptualizing such a project in the first place, and in knowing full well that a sympathetic audience exists to take part in such theoretical play.  And that audience, as Bond seems to recognize in his interesting sidestepping of "fascination" and the “what have you,” is not the grizzled F.B.I. veterans at the Quantico unit, but is instead the not quite yet so grizzled post-graduates in art history, philosophy, and comp. lit. that share in the Lacanian habitus. 

Truly, if you actually wanted to solve crimes (in London, no less), Raymond Williams would probably be the more successful theory-hero to press into service here ("That wrapper is from a gum sold only at a little shop in the East End, favored in particular by Pakistani immigrants on their way to clerical positions in the banking district. Let's begin our search there!").  But if the goal is to read crime, not by sifting through the densly messy confusions of material culture and practice, but through a hermenuetics that traces these diverse atrocities back to three fundamental dysfunctions in the signifying chain, Lacan--as always--is your chief suspect.  

Now is Topsy's Time!

There is a look of intense satisfaction in the eye of Topsy as she leaps over the fence with Lizbeth's new doll in her mouth.  Again and again Topsy's precious little puppies have been taken away and drowned.  And now her time of vengeance has come!  Lizbeth's brand-new doll is making quite a sensation in the family.  Everybody praises its beauty and the splendor of its clothes.  Now is Topsy's time!  And she has seized the new favorite and is over the fence, while Lizbeth comes screaming after.  In a few minutes Topsy will have torn and dissected this very beautiful doll, and then she will be avenged.

Bedford's Annual (date unknown)                                                                        

Quirk: Tim Burton at MoMA

There is a huge Tim Burton retrospective currently up at MoMA—an arrangement that is obviously mutually advantageous to both parties.  MoMA gets major traffic through the gallery, and Burton gets the gold standard in gallery-cred--not to mention added publicity for his upcoming Alice In Wonderland film with Disney.  It’s a rare win-win for both art and commerce (and runs through April 26). 

The exhibit is set up pretty much like you would expect.  After passing through a room of black-lite art to get your whimsy revving, there follows a “Pre-Pee Wee” section that gathers drawings, paintings, and short films (some already fairly well known, like Frankenweenie [1984]) made by Burton before his debut as a director of features in 1985. Especially striking is a 1983 adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, a short film that trades in such an oddly dated minimalism that it is now wholly current once again.  The drawings, meanwhile, suggest Burton was at some point really smitten by both the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine (1968) and Gerald Scarfe's work in The Wall (1979). 

A “Post-Pee Wee” section, meanwhile, concentrates on designs, mock-ups, props, costuming, and other items from Burton’s career in Hollywood.  The cowl from Batman (1989) was especially magnetic on the day I was there, as one would expect of any vessel that once contained the head of Michael Keaton.  Scattered throughout the exhibit, finally, are some larger sculptural pieces, all of them rather suspiciously dating from 2009, suggesting Burton must have realized at one point: “Oh shit, I’m doing a show at MoMA? I’d better get some ART-art together…and fast!”  The best of these by far is a nicely creepy carousel piece in the black-lite room (accompanied by its own tastefully discrete score from Danny Elfman).

The space is a bit over-stuffed in places, but overall it is well worth the time of anyone with even a passing interest in Burton’s filmography.   Critics have really taken to describing the show as “quirky,” but I suspect many will find the vibe of the exhibit extremely familiar.  Anyone born in the ‘50s and ‘60s (and no doubt after) probably knew quite a few Tim Burtons in high school—those kids who were always drawing weird menageries and anachronistic battles in their notebooks—monsters, tanks, ray-guns, volcanoes, ghosts, hot-rods, dinosaurs, UFO’s and other props of the adolescent imaginary vying for loose-leaf supremacy.  Maybe one or two of those kids would really get far out and start drawing Nazis, naked girls, and ritual disembowelments—securing them a place either in art school or the penal system—but most stayed well within the vernacular of basic horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and boyhood ghoulishness.  In this respect, the Burton show can only really be considered “quirky” from the perspective of those kids who sat on the popular side of the cafeteria.   To those who have even a little bit of geek in their pedigree, Burton’s visual and thematic preoccupations should be extremely familiar. 

Packing all of this goofy stuff into one space provides even more evidence that REGRESSION is the single greatest force powering U.S. entertainment in the post-war era. And before any Burton fans freak out and break the sissy bar on my banana-bike, I say this knowing full well that 90% of the posts on this blog are about awesomely bad movies, infantile television programs, and “sleaze” harvested from a very narrow and thus quite revealing historical window.  No one escapes.  No one.  Beginning in the 1960s, the entire nation started slowly falling into its toy chest.  And now it has almost given up the struggle to crawl back out again. 

Before continuing, let’s let the films speak for themselves:

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985): regression in quotation marks, but regression nevertheless. 

Beetle-juice (1988): magical children fighting to throw the boring adults out of their playhouse.

Batman /Batman Returns (89-92):  comic-book adaptations (yes, I know, “graphic novels”—the very fact that some feel the need to make that continual correction only reaffirms the problem).

Edward Scissorhands (1990): the Ur-text of high school trauma, at least until all the sexy vampires arrived.

Ed Wood (1994):  hagiography of a geek demi-god. 

Mars Attacks! (1996): love-letter to an adolescent culture that predates even Burton’s own birth.

Planet of the Apes (2001):  remake of a film worshiped by every 10-year old boy alive in 1968.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): ditto.

Alice in Wonderland (2010):  do I really need to go on?

And now IMDB reports that Burton’s next film will be a feature-length version of Frankenweenie, suggesting he’s now even regressing back into his own oeuvre. 

This isn’t to single Burton out.  The same could be said of Spielberg’s decision to remake War of the Worlds, Peter Jackson’s desire to spend two years remaking King Kong (after churning out 6+ hours of LOTR, no less), and George Lucas’ decision to basically pack it up after Star Wars. So many directors seem to love the cinema in such a way that, when given the chance to do anything they want, they end up retreating into childhood memory rather than forging ahead into any new territory.  Not that appeals to regression necessarily foreclose all possibility of interesting work.  I’ve always thought Ed Wood was Burton’s most accomplished film precisely because it honors so beautifully the childlike sensibility that must exist on both sides of the screen to keep Plan 9 alive decade after decade (the fact that the production design for the film demanded some degree of restraint in its fidelity to Wood’s vision didn’t hurt either, not to mention Martin Landau’s truly incredible performance as Bela Lugosi). 

Burton’s "regressive" aesthetic, echoing in particular through so many other males of the past half-century, probably isn’t psycho-sexual so much as psycho-social, the product of living in a culture that actively tricks young boys and teenagers into thinking they have “discovered” certain popular objects at an imaginary “margin” and then to fixate on them, perhaps for life.  This is a consumer strategy the culture industries are all too happy to pursue, of course, not simply because it helps eliminate some degree of uncertainty in the marketplace, but also because it helps narrow the entire field of popular culture around a more predictable set of memories, properties, and pleasures.   The strange thing is that we still think of such properties as “quirky,” when really they simply narrate the pyrrhic victory of the delusionally “unique” consumer over the “normative” field of mass culture. 

Burton’s whimsical grotesque is in many ways an extremely stylized realization of a world first revealed in old movie mags like Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Forrest Ackerman publication of the 1960s that promised boys they might live forever in a world of magic, monsters, and misfits.  And truly, if we were to inventory the franchises that currently inspire the greatest commitment among fan communities, how many of them would ultimately be about some permutation of “magic,” “monsters,” and “misfits?”  How many of them thrive on the regressive logic of “magical thinking?”  As a critic for the BBC (whose name escapes me, alas) said of the current cycle of comic-book superhero movies: “I get it. I get it. I want to have power and I never want to die.”    

One would think spending 5, 10, 15 years wrapped up in a single artifact or genre—Star Wars, forgotten Midwestern prog-rock bands, “Kustom Kulture,” James Joyce—would eventually lead to an overwhelming sense of boredom verging on despair.  But the brilliance of “convergence” is that industrial culture keeps finding new strategies, not only to repackage what you have already consumed, but also to create the illusion that one is moving ever-forward into new discoveries when, in fact, the exact opposite is true.  Each new installment, spin-off, and transmedial reincarnation is not so much an added layer of nuance and depth, but is instead the reaffirmation of a certain primary attachment —one now increasingly sealed in those adolescent years when the brain is not yet fully wired.  We know cigarette companies are desperate to hook new customers during the teenage years—why should we expect anything less from global entertainment conglomerates? 

Consider again this fact: Tim Burton, who by my count is now 52 years old, is about to make a feature version of a short film he made when he was 26 about a dachshund who dies and is brought back to life a la Frankenstein. I hear there might be some girls there too. 

Meanwhile, the next post on this blog could very well be about The Shaggs, a ‘70s bondage movie, Wacky Packs, or the most obscure “women in prison” paperback I can find next time I’m digging through a thrift-store basement. 

It’s too late for us.  It’s too late for entire generations.  I never thought I would say it, but to the young folks out there, turn off the goddamn TV and go outside—talk to someone you don’t know—read a book, preferably one not based on a movie or TV show—build a miniature ship in a bottle---learn to play bridge---anything. 

And I beg of you.  Thirty or forty years from now, if anyone catches me watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn in my nursing home, please smother me in my sleep. 

The Sacred Feather (1942)

I bought this book assuming it was some form of campy bondage sleaze from the 1960s. Teen debutante with her arms tied behind her back and a flaming pot of oil between her legs.  A masked man clad in black brandishing an exotic feather.  The entire spectacle unfolding in a space that looks like Gidget’s bedroom transported within the walls of Versailles.  The sacred feather?  I mean, come on, look at the cover—how could this book have not arrived in a plain brown wrapper? 

Turns out The Sacred Feather is one of eighteen stories in the “Kay Tracey” mystery series, originally published between 1934 and 1942. Here’s how the book jacket describes Kay’s scene:  Meet clever Kay Tracey, who, though only sixteen, solves mysteries in a surprising manner. Working on clues which she assembles, this surprising heroine evolves the solution to cases that have baffled professional sleuths. Written by a team of women under the pseudonym Frances K. Judd, Kay was essentially a knock-off of Nancy Drew and appears to have shadowed her in reprints through most of the 20th century.  This particular S/M iteration of The Sacred Feather is the 1961 paperback edition published by Berkley Books.

Like most mid-century fiction pitched at teens, the Sacred Feather is very good at avoiding any cultural references that might later date the books to a specific era—making their generational reprinting that much easier.  Although, given that the Kay Tracey books were last on the shelves in the 1980s, I would imagine any future attempts to bring her back will necessitate replacing her frequent phone calls with fingers-aflame texting  (OMG-BDSM guy brought a feather! LMAO).  She also has a friend named Wilma who likes to interject whatever couplets of obscure verse she finds appropriate to a given situation, but these nuggets of wisdom could probably be rewritten and reattributed to a Taylor Swifty character of some kind.  And adding a vampire or two probably wouldn’t hurt, especially a sexy, sexy vampire who stands longingly under Kay’s bedroom window all night, hands jammed in the front pockets of his drain-pipe jeans, mumbling dark poetry to himself until at last running off into the woods to suck a raccoon dry.

Despite the lack of topical references, there remain a few clues that give away The Sacred Feather’s origins in depression era literature—like the very first scene.  Kay and her mother are cooking dinner one night when they hear a knock on the back door.  It’s a tramp!  An honest to God tramp--going door to door in search of food, no less.  Equally charming, Kay actually invites the tramp in for dinner.  And no one worries for even a second that this drifter might disembowel them all and dance around the living room with their entrails draped around his neck.

I don’t know how often backdoor hobos got fed in real life during the Depression, but as a story convention it certainly survived for many decades as a sign of basic American decency.  A man comes to your door hungry, you feed him. Don’t mention it pal, you’d do the same for me.  Based on the documentary evidence of Leave it to Beaver, however, I think this convention was beginning to wear a bit thin by the late 1950s or early 60s.   You might remember that Beaver, home by himself for the day, once let a tramp into the house who quickly ate his way through the Cleaver pantry.  Then the guy went upstairs, took a long bath, and stole a suit and new shoes from Ward’s closet.  No one got too mad at the Beav, seeing as he never was the brightest rodent in the burrow to begin with, but you also got the sense that the next tramp wandering through Mayfield might be met with shotguns and torches.

But Kay’s tramp isn’t an ordinary tramp, he is, as the chapter title says, “picturesque.” In this case that means he’s from Egypt.  Kay’s mother offers him a bowl of soup, prompting the book’s first eruption of effusive “Egyptian-speak:"

Soup! A plebian name for one of your magnificent American dishes.  A mixture of the commonplace and the sublime.  Madam, if I might say so…Ah, yes, it would warm not only the inner creature, but the soul as well.  It would induce a divine peace to descend upon my humble spirit, I assure you!"

Like other exotics prowling the teen imaginary of the era, “Abou” speaks with the gloss of a colonial British education and yet with the undertone that he is awaiting an ancient God to return and turn the world’s oceans into sand.  In this respect, the book echoes the equally stilted and bizarre discourse of Fuad Ramses, the Egyptian caterer in H.G. Lewis’ Blood Feast (1961) who also finds himself entangled in the uniquely American customs of teenage girldom.  Only in that case, Ramses' offer to prepare “the feast of Ishtar” for a young debutante really does mean disemboweling her and dancing around the living room with her entrails draped around his neck.

But I digress.  No sooner does Abou finish his “commonplace but sublime” soup, Kay’s friends arrive with big news: the city library is on fire!  Not only that, but a strange looking tramp was seen in the library’s “Egypt Room” not an hour ago, and that is exactly where the fire started!!!  You might suspect that you’re not supposed to suspect Abou because he is so obviously suspicious, and you’d be right (congratulations, you have just outwitted a 13-year-old girl circa 1942).  Just to make sure, though, Kay’s caretaker, her older cousin Bill, tells her as much later that night.  “Purely circumstantial evidence,” cousin Bill declared, “The fellow shouldn’t be condemned on hearsay. If I were you, Kay, I would say nothing about it to strangers until we’ve had an opportunity to investigate."

But let’s back up. The Egypt room?  What a wonderful fantasy of a bygone era that never existed in the first place, when even a humble little library in an imaginary crapburg like Carmont had its own Egypt room. Personally, it brought a tear to my eye imagining girls and boys on the way home from school stopping by the library to check out a darkened room full of jewels, mummies, and sarcophagi, perhaps followed by a round of root beer floats at the maltshop and excited speculation over the possibilities of an ancient curse creeping through the town.  Sadly, public libraries long ago became little more than a refuge for flashers, peepers, and people too old and technically incompetent to steal music and movies out of them Internet tubes, so this detail would also doubtlessly require updating should Kay sleuth again in the new century.

Abou still seems like a good fit for the fire, and soon libraries and other buildings are burning down every other night in all the communities surrounding Carmont.  Then, in another rather stunning turn of orientalism, a new batch of suspects arrive in the mix:  the Iran family!  The Irans are a really loud and combative clan that live in the poor part of town, speak only Arabic interlaced with pidgin English, and are somehow trying to swindle an estate away from one of Kay’s best friends.  In one of Kay’s many hare-brained ruses, she and her friend dress up as door-to-door jewelry salesgirls to spy inside the Iran home.  Like any other vaguely Araby-Persianish-Gypsylike-middle-eastern woman, Mrs. Iran is utterly bedazzled by the sight of a stupid rhinestone Kay has brought along for the performance, prompting Mr. Iran to yell abusively from the kitchen, “Go way. No money.”  So we hate the Irans because, unlike Abou, they have bad taste, lots of snotty kids, and can’t be bothered to learn proper English. 
But in the end, even they are not the real culprits.  That honor goes to the eponymous “Sacred Feather,” a cousin of the Irans who works at a theater in a nearby town as a magician and sword-swallower.  He also has a penchant for disappearing in fiery puffs of smoke, which is suspicious to say the least.  In the exciting conclusion, he finally catches up with Kay and her friend in an old warehouse, knocks the friend out, ties Kay up, and then tries to burn down the building—and yes, like on the book cover, he has a big feather with him, the sacred feather of an Ibis bird, which somehow figures in his exotic shenanigans.

Here’s the final Scooby-doo:  The “Sacred Feather” is a total pyromaniac, or as the police chief says later, someone who “has an insane desire to start fires.”  Worse yet, he practices pyromancy, which means he believes he can “learn things from heaven by means of fires of sacrifice” (word for the day!).  Somehow two local crooks found out about Mr. Feather’s proclivities, and then decided to exploit his pyromania so that they could disguise themselves as workers “rescuing” valuable items from his various fires.  Case closed.

There’s an excellent website on Kay Tracey from which I have cribbed some of the background here.  As the site says, these stories are much weirder than the Nancy Drew yarns and “part of the fun in reading the stories is seeing how bizarre the plots are.”  I would have to agree.  A typical day for Kay, at least based on this one story, might involve cracking a secret code before breakfast, going to school all day, seeing a fire on the way home, hiding in someone’s trunk to see where their hideout is, jumping into a river to save a little girl with absolutely no relation to the plot, helping Mom chop celery for dinner, going to the school mixer with “Ron,” exchanging barbs with her nemesis “Ethel,” tracking suspicious figures lurking behind the school, discussing the case at home with Bill, hearing a strange bird-cry outside her window, and then going to bed to start all over again the next day. Proof once again that ADD is a complete charade perpetrated by the pharmaceutical industry.  Teenage brains have always been addled by the overexcited emplotment of daily life.  

Outcast Beavers

A fanciful notion prevails among the Indians, that if young beavers... fail to pair, they are allowed to return to the parent lodge and remain until the ensuing summer; but as a mark of parental disapprobation, for their ill matrimonial success, they are required to do the work of repairing the dam.  There is another ramification of the same conceit, to the effect that if they fail again to mate in the ensuing summer, they are not allowed to return a second time, but that they become from thenceforth 'outcast' beavers.  The existence of such a class is believed in, to some extent, both by the Indians and trappers, and the two notions together furnish the only foundation for the fiction at one time believed that there was a class of slave beavers.  

Lewis Henry Morgan
The American Beaver and His Works (1868)

100% Weird Histories

Before becoming Admiral Harriman Nelson on ABC’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, actor Richard Basehart starred in Hitler, an exceedingly odd film about the “private life” of der Fuhrer.  Released in 1962 by Allied Artists, the film speculates about Hitler’s possible psychosexual dysfunctions in relation to the three most important women in his life: Geli Raubal, Eva Braun, and, of course, his mother.  In this respect, the movie is oddly prescient of Male Fantasies (1988), Klaus Theweleit’s two-volume study of the primary architects of Nazism and their exceedingly bizarre relationships to women (Hitler, in fact, was also released under an alternate title, The Women of Nazi Germany).

In the bygone era of syndicated movie distribution for local television, Hitler would occasionally play on affiliates and independent stations in the middle of the night.  Eventually absorbed within the Turner Broadcasting empire, Hitler played at least once on a TBS showcase called 100% Weird, the forerunner of TCM’s intermittent “Underground” slot (now blocked late on Friday nights whenever the hell TCM feels like it).  As a part of 100% Weird, Hitler stood alongside Plan 9 (1959), Eegah! (1962), and, oddly, his decapitated self in They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1964).  Like these other films, Hitler was a seemingly impossible artifact—a movie too strange, too outrĂ©, too weird to be believed.  And yet, unlike the low-budget pantheon of “badfilm” that typically played on 100% Weird, Hitler was actually a competent, professional, even accomplished production (earning a Golden Globe nomination that year).

What made Hitler “100% Weird?”  No doubt it is the strange effect of seeing Hitler, as one of the 20th century’s most over-determined signifiers, inserted into the look and logic of a 60s biopic—an extremely melodramatic one at that. While the film certainly does not try to generate any sympathy for Hitler, the sight of the emotionally flummoxed dictator repeatedly tricked and betrayed by the women around him does foster a strangely comic empathy.  Or perhaps this empathy is not so much for “Hitler” as it is for the cast of Hitler, if only because the very idea of dramatizing Hitler’s romantic life seems so profoundly tasteless that one cannot help but be embarrassed for everyone involved.  Hitler has always been available for humor—from Hal Roach shorts like The Devil with Hitler (1942) and Nazty Nuisance (1943) to the current viral cycle of Downfall videos (see below for Hitler’s outrage over Jay Leno).  But the “weird” humor of this particular Hitler stems from a “failed seriousness” (to invoke Sontag on camp) so failed and yet still so serious as to invoke a palpable sense of uneasiness in the viewer. 
The same effect can be glimpsed in the illustrations below, take from the 1976 edition of A Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History.  A 25-volume set, the encyclopedia details the history of “America” from 1540 up to the election of Jimmy Carter and the nation’s Bicentennial.  No doubt to save money (and/or to keep squirming kids focused on brightly colored displays), there are no photographs of any kind in the encyclopedia.  Moreover, every single event deemed worthy of illustration is rendered in the same highly recognizable style of commercial art common to textbooks of the late 60s and early 70s.  Overall, this gives a strange sheen to the year-by-year progression of American history, everything from Ponce de Leon to the Warren Court awash with the same shadowless array of primary colors.

But things get especially “weird” in 1967-68—a year so notoriously tumultuous that it is one of the few to receive an entire volume’s worth of coverage. 
The above illustration for Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral service is a particularly bizarre image, and one of only a few in the entire encyclopedia that allowed the artist to embellish a bit on the historical scene.  Here we see the famously large Kennedy clan filing into (out of?) the chapel while RFK’s disembodied head floats mysteriously in the background.  Assuming there was no gigantic cut-out of RFK’s face set on black velvet at the actual service, one has to surmise this is some invocation of the Kennedy "spirit" watching over the family and nation in its time of mourning.  Perhaps this was meant to comfort the elementary age children who might consult the encyclopedia—but it is easy to imagine how this image might also instill nightmares of ghostly surveillance, especially in children still too young to fully make sense of the visual convention at work here.

Even more horrifying is the artwork accompanying the account of the Apollo 1 launch-pad fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward Higgins White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967.  While many other “gruesome” events in American history are tastefully displaced in the encyclopedia’s pictorial review, the artist in this case has chosen to address in most explicit terms a horror that otherwise has remained invisible to the public.  There are many images of the charred Apollo capsule in the public record, but as far as I know, images of the three men either during or after the fire do not exist (or at least have never been circulated).  Strange then that the artist, on this occasion at least, would make the decision to place us (or more to the point, elementary-aged children) within the claustrophobic confines of a burning command module at the moment of death.

For the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., finally, the artist has once again chosen an “impossible” and extremely unfortunate perspective.  The most famous image of Dr. King’s assassination remains the photo taken immediately after King’s collapse on the balcony of the Lorraine motel, the other members of his party pointing in unison to the apparent source of the assassin’s bullet.  Rather than mimic that photo, or perhaps follow the “memorial” model established by the portrait of RFK’s service above, the artist here goes for a more dynamic “action” image, freezing the moment of the bullet’s impact.  No doubt designed to emphasis the dramatic import of the event—again, a moment that does not exist in the photographic archive—the end result is King’s death essentially rendered as a “cartoon” (he could just as easily be slipping on a banana peel here).

Looking through the entire 400-year scope of the encyclopedia, I would argue these 3 illustrations in particular are the most pronounced in their sense of unsettling “inappropriateness.”  Other gruesome spectacles are included, certainly, but more often than not these are handled metonymically (a “generic” group of soldiers fighting and dying at Iwo Jima) or through a process of photographic reinterpretation (the picture of JFK’s assassination, for example, stages in close-up the image of Kennedy clutching his throat, first captured—at a distance—in the famous Zapruder footage.  Still somewhat tasteless, and yet somehow less egregious than MLK’s wholly hallucinated death above).  Many horrific events closer to the encyclopedia’s publication date, like the massacre at My Lai, are simply elided (in fact, Vietnam’s sporadic appearances in the encyclopedia routinely feature WWII-like images of soldiers making their way through rice paddies).

Was this artist just in a particularly strange state-of-mind when s/he hit this particular stretch of American history?  Or was there something about the import and proximity of these events (only 8 years in the past in 1976) that demanded illustration and yet thwarted arriving at more “appropriate” strategies of representation?  Or is it, finally, that these images—painted at the threshold of the photographic record’s exponential expansion across all public life in the 70s, 80s, and beyond—are simply particularly dramatic in emphasizing how utterly arcane graphic illustration has become in documenting history and popular memory?  

Friday Book Review

Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet by Blake Savage (1952)
Newly-minted “Planeteer” Rip Foster (of the Federation of Free Governments) sets out to capture a mineral-rich asteroid and bring it back to earth.  On the way he must fight the “Consops”—short for the Consolidated Peoples’ Governments (aka: communists). In an inexplicable and wholly gratuitous detail we are told he is commanded by one of only five remaining “full-blooded” Hawaiians.    When Planeteers are in a hurry, they are said to “show exhaust” or “get flaming.”  At one point Rip eats something called “space-meat” and no one laughs.

Reformatory Girls by Ray Morrison (1960)
17-year-old Laura has ‘been around,’ which is Eisenhower-speak for a total slut. She takes the rap for her stupid boyfriend Earl and ends up at Ferndale—a home for wayward, insane, and otherwise delinquent girls.  There she meets the 30-something Miss Edwards, a reform-minded counselor who thinks bad girls can be saved if adults will just listen to their problems and take them seriously.  Miss Edwards tries to show Laura that Earl is a jerk and she should move on with her life. Convention would dictate this to be the beginning of a lesbian affair conveyed through euphemism and innuendo.

But Reformatory Girls has other plans. One night Laura tries to escape through an air vent to go meet Earl in town.  On the way she crawls under Miss Edwards’ apartment and overhears the creepy warden trying to seduce her. A few nights later in another vent crawl, she overhears the warden on the phone and learns he is a liar and a cheat. As eavesdropping from an air vent proves to be such a convenient device for revealing narrative information, Laura sneaks out a third time--discovering on this trip that Miss Edwards is a virgin!   This significantly changes their counselor/counselee relationship, which so far had been based on the fiction that the older Miss Edwards knew more about life than Laura.

Laura busts out, gets caught, is sent to “real” jail for a week, and then returns to Ferndale just in time for the mandatory prison riot.  And then the twist ending: Laura breaks up with Earl, realizing he really is a creep.  But Miss Edwards—big on college smarts and yet stupid about men and their ways—has decided to marry the creepy warden.  In the final scene, Laura and Miss Edwards embrace and have a good cry.   Says Laura to herself: I cried because I was back at last after a long, long trip down nowhere road, and because she was taking that same lousy road.  I cried because I didn’t have the power to stop her, and because I wasn’t sure she’d make it back.  So, basically, Reformatory Girls bills itself as “the shocking story of untamed she-cats in a jungle behind bars,” but then turns out to be more a generational meditation on what constitutes emotional/sexual/intellectual maturity.  Didn’t see that coming from the cover.

The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq  (2005)
Because evolution is still basically the strongest force behind all human behavior, identity and culture remain wholly subordinate to an ongoing quest to secure younger sexual partners.  This process tends to drive middle-aged men and women increasingly insane, albeit for different reasons. If you think having kids and throwing yourself into parenting saves you from this fate, you're an idiot.  Cultivating an asexual culture based on absolute segregation and antiseptic cloning may seem like an appealing solution to the brutal horror of existence, but this too has its complications.  Dogs are awesome because they love you no matter how old, pathetic, and decrepit you become. 

Rod Serling Did a Bee Bite You????????

She swings a mean paddle.  Anything at all that mother nature asks of me.  Helen is the mother of God. She is jealous and then you read back to me everything that displeases the Lord.  Ask her...Let me show you, George, how to mind your mother, and how to make the blood tests, that are essential to my escape and return to Mya.  Mother Nature calls once a month on the Sabath--no relations on that day perfume of life and death take under--anesthesiologist undertaker--a gold digger.  Men untrustworthy.  Heat glasses paper flowers Preferably Gladiolus Shadows = Ghosts Jack Pot = for your thoughts at any moment.  The sands of time fly by fast.  Wow what a figure. Eileen Moore or Murray or glasses and sun flower.   Please get me plenty of writing paper to scribble on.  Scratch pad for suggestions to be analized, help him and keep him from sin and danger all days.  Call a priest I would like to make a confession.  Father Gallagher "brain surgeon."   Come into my cell said the spider to the fly.  there is only one living person who knows all my thoughts--that is you Eileen.  The End. Goodnight AMES.

"There is something cooking with or between rare medium well "The Shadow knows"--line a day--pays the way.  Patient Adiletta better known as Frankie.  There has been an eruption on the moon? Sun? Venus? Mars?  Wishes patent cure for arthritis.  With this table here. Agreements up to JEAN.  "Calling all cars be on the look out for Frankie. A-Z __ ___ __ __ Ace, able, asob, a kiss, amakup... Operation a Success--patient dies of heart attack at age of 27.  Heroin for the stomach and lower celestial triangle.  Mr. A Mrs. Z . Clockwise Zodiac CELESTIAL EXPERIMENT IS OVER. Nothing like living in the past. From Henceforth my name will be ZORRO for  justice.  A brain with no muscles left for contraction.  TURN YOUR HEAD LIGHTS ON--ZORRO.  HOME AGAIN HOME AGAIN "JIGG DIGG."
Written testimony from a 27 year old high school teacher in The Method in Madness: A Unitary Neuro-Physiological Theory of Neurosis and Psychosis by Zdnek .J. Vaclavik.  New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961. p. 221-223. 

I'm Not with Smart

The Diesel company, an enterprise that apparently recycles old petrochemical products into body oils and sexual lubricants, has a new ad campaign—and boy is it a whopper. We are advised to “Be Stupid!” There’s even a website that “recruits” people into being stupid.  “Are you stupid?” we are asked.  “Well, we can help you to promote your stupidity.”  All you have to do is upload a video of yourself…doing something “stupid.”

But wait!  That’s outrageous!  People should be smart, not stupid, right?  Luckily, the campaign features a little poem to help explain things:
Like balloons, we are filled with hopes and dreams
But. Over time a single sentence creeps into our lives

Dont be stupid.

Its the crusher of possibility.
Its the worlds greatest deflator.

The world is full of smart people.
Doing all kind of smart things...
Thats smart.

were with stupid. 

I double-checked on a few other websites to make sure I quoted this “manifesto” correctly, and it seems that I have.  So one of the things we have to look forward to in the sexy new stupid future is the further erosion of basic grammar and punctuation.
Yes, I know this is intentional on the advertiser’s part—that this copy was most likely written by some Sloane just out of Oxford (Diesel has hired a British firm, apparently) and that his little nugget of Footloose philosophy just bought him an ace flat in London.  And yes, I know this twaddle is designed to provoke predictable chains of viral transmission and thus make Diesel’s line of sex lotions even more visible and alluring to young miss and young master.  And deep down inside I know I shouldn’t allow Diesel’s stupid RNA to further replicate itself through this blog and continue spreading its stupid “be stupid” infection. 

But they went too far.  You see, Diesel has virtually wallpapered these ads all over the B-Train’s 42nd Street station--which is the subway stop right beneath the main branch of the New York Public Library.  Yes, the one with the famous lions, embattled refuge of book learnin’, sacred temple for a century of New York intellectuals.  Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Charles Fort, Kurt Vonnegut, and Franz Boas are only a few of the “smarts” who stopped engorging their genitalia just long enough to go inside and read a book there. 

As I haven’t seen this campaign elsewhere in the city, I have to assume this particular buy was intentional on Diesel’s part.  Really, Diesel, do I stand outside your corporate office with a “What Would Adorno Do” sign?  No, I don’t, and I would respect a little common courtesy on your part as well.  Putting this campaign under the NYPL is like booking a cheerleader camp and a Star Trek convention in the same hotel at the same time—it’s just mean and gratuitously cruel. 

The website popsop.com describes the aim of the new campaign:  

The well-known brand Diesel has launched a new provocative campaign ‘Be stupid‘. The global jeans manufacturer is assuring that there is nothing dumb about being stupid.  It is sure that the brightest ideas appear in the heads of those who are not afraid to express themselves. At first, these ideas may seem stupid, but over decades they start to rule the world. So, be brave, be spontaneous, be yourself.
The bright posters are conveying the idea that if you are tending “not to be stupid”, you kill your dreams, the world’s greatest treasure.
The campaign is rebellious, it’s calling you to arms. The victory comes only if you break the rules and listen rather to your heart than to the words of other people. Follow your inspiration, be stupid, the prints say.
Are there really any commodities left on the planet now that don’t routinely tell us to “break the rules,” “listen to your heart,” and above all, “be yourself?”  At this point, I’m sure there’s even a camouflage company out there somewhere that had a temporary brain-cramp and signed off on a campaign proclaiming their gear would help you be seen as an “individual” and “stand out in a crowd.”  

Obviously, the main binary at work here isn’t all that difficult to understand.  “Smart” people worry about things that ultimately don’t matter—mortgages, oil changes, warranties, cholesterol, grammar, STD’s, gravity, etc.  Meanwhile the “stupid” comprise a tireless dynamo of spontaneous creativity, outrageous fun, and recreational sex.  In other words, the “smart” want you to be on time, read long boring books, take on bogus responsibilities, develop some capacity for empathy, and perhaps carry the spark of civilization—however faint and endangered—onward to other smart people in the future.  The “stupid,” on the other hand, are the young and rebellious who know it’s always better to act than to think—thus making them the bedrock of an economy based primarily on the cyclical excretion of hormones.  

For years we’ve labored under the delusion that Nike’s “Just Do It!” slogan was a call to athletic commitment, but in reality it is a ruse to distract customers from questioning why they are standing in line to buy a 4th pair of sneakers in less than a year.   

Then again, maybe Diesel is right.  Perhaps the answer to curing cancer, unlocking the mysteries of cold fusion, achieving social justice, and solving the riddles of existence resides in standing in the middle of the road with a traffic cone on your head.  I’ll admit, I’m just smart enough to have not tried anything that stupid.   

Well, Diesel paid handsomely for these ads, so I guess the least we can do is take a closer look at them.  
I think this one is my favorite, if only because it requires the “stupid” to decode a visual pun and thus engage in at least a modicum of critical activity.  Apparently this young lady’s erotic voyage of personal discovery has ended in an animal park of some kind.  While it may appear this image is capitalizing on the current furor over "sexting,” please note she is not using a cell phone to snap her snatch, leaving us to assume this act is purely for her own autoerotic enjoyment (either in the “taking” or later in the “looking,” we cannot say).  But won’t she be surprised when that giant…let’s see, what shall we call it…PUSSYCAT jumps her from behind!  But, I’m sure she’ll get away just in time to laugh about her near mauling with her equally stunning boyfriend, probably a trust-fund poet named Pablo with his own condo overlooking the Mediterrean where they will later screw each others' brains out on the patio beneath the Leonids. 
A few months ago Justin sent a demo for his band to one of the more significant minor labels. After getting really drunk on Jaeger shots one night, the whole crew started bitching about how the label had sat on the demo for six whole months!   “Well whaddya expect?” offered Steve the drummer, “that label only signs crap bands anyway.”  “Hey, you know what would be hilarious?” offered bass player Chad.  “I saw a dead rat in the alley when I came in.  We should put it in a box and mail it to them!”  And so they did. But the next morning when Justin checked his voicemail, it turned out he just got a message from the president of the label—they love the demo and want to sign Justin's band to a 3 record deal!  Justin runs over to their rehearsal space to tell everyone the good news.  But then Steve remembers….uh oh.  Okay, so it’s an old Honeymooners plot.  But how else can this image be made “cool?” Or is greasing up your head and sticking it in a mailbox some new form of erotic deterritorialization the kids are into these days?  
With all the smoke and the ersatz belly-dancing move, this image seemed like some type of veiled reference to I Dream of Jeannie—but then I realized anyone still possessing knowledge or (worse) memories of Jeannie is so outside Diesel’s demo that any similarity is probably just a coincidence.  As the copy is of little help, I guess you either have to be extremely stupid-smart (or is it smart-stupid) to really understand just what is happening here.  I'm thinking either a failed attempt at a more efficient crack delivery system or a profoundly abstract metaphor for skilled fellatio. 
Yeah, I get it Diesel. Thanks. Nice auto-inoculation against "critiques" of your campaign.  And congratulations on "creating" Magritte once again. Does "Be Stupid" ultimately mean too derivative for the Whitney, too arty for Levis?  Thank god you've found a home at Diesel!  

I would rage further, but what’s the point?  In the end, these ads only reconfirm what most “smart” people know already:  If you are young and sexy enough, you can take a crap on the Magna Carta and most people will just stand around applauding.  Personally, I guess I’m so tiresomely smart that this campaign only makes me want to lie down on a stack of Michel Houellebecq novels and light myself on fire.  

Then again, there is always hope.  Going back to the NYPL a few days later I noticed that a fellow misanthrope had defaced one of these ads.  Over the pasty-white, half-shaven face of yet another guy in sunglasses proclaiming, "smart critiques, stupid creates,” someone had written “Creativity comes not from stupidity but from partially ignorant aspirations toward intelligence.”  God bless you fellow B-train rider and library patron. When they come for us, I pledge to barricade the reading room and then fight and die by your side.