To Take Up the Incomprehensible

by Adam Rothbarth

“[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience. Our work as critics is to recognize it. Can this be done best, or done at all, within a new interdisciplinary field of visual studies, or theoretical frame, of such a field? Twice at Cornell over the past decade we have had meetings to discuss the creation of a visual studies program. Both times, it was painfully clear that institutionalization cannot by itself produce such a frame. . . .” - Susan Buck-Morss

“No one has ever made a good movie.”  - Robert Altman


Today I watched three films: Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (which I was seeing for a second time), and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. Anomalisa can be viewed as a companion piece to Kaufman’s prior film Synecdoche, New York in the sense that they both seek to understand alienation through the experience of a protagonist who, despite his efforts, necessarily fails to grasp his own essence. This process occurs in Synecdoche primarily through the theater director Caden Cotard’s comically long preparation for his magnum opus play, which he believes will objectively and authentically capture the substance of his experience. Through exponentially increasing degrees of abstraction, Cotard becomes more and more disenfranchised with the impossibility of his task, working so long that eventually he is the only person left alive in the world. The robot narrator of his life story, who speaks to him through an earpiece, tells him to die, and he does, unable to do even this simple, final, and most human task of his own volition and autonomy. Anomalisa trades in Cotard’s art project for a more direct, psychological study of Michael Stone, a self-help guru who seems to be willfully ignorant of his own intimacy problems. At one point Stone becomes vaguely aware of his own estrangement through a technological malfunction deus ex machina à la The Truman Show. Ultimately the film renders most clearly Kaufman’s schtick on alienation and experience and, as a result, it is his most boring film, lacking the mystery, abstraction, and playfulness of his earlier works. When I finished watching it, I felt nothing. I had a similar response to 45 Years, which has the most imaginative premise I’ve seen in a film in years, but ends up to be very boring. The Hateful Eight is arguably the most boring of these films—my brother fell asleep during it and my father complained that it was way too long—but I found it remarkably compelling and entertaining and I do not lament its three-hour runtime. I think it is possibly the best film of the year, and definitely Tarantino’s best, which is saying a lot, because I do not like Quentin Tarantino.  

The point here is that I can watch these films and I can reflect on them, contemplating with disinterested interest my aesthetic experience, but it does not bring me much closer to any feelings of comprehension, meaning, or pleasure. On the surface Kaufman’s film seems to come closest to asking poignant, relevant questions about social reality, so why does it feel so goddamn benign? To quote Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, “I’m sure I don’t know.” In this strain of contemplation, one that happens frequently, I second-guess myself, wondering whether my ambivalence actually means that the film is “great” and that the seemingly legitimate pleasure I got from watching The Hateful Eight means that the film is actually “bad.” I suppose one could argue that this discrepancy is produced by the logic of modernism, namely and reductively, that music had to sound “bad” and art had to look “bad” in order to actually be aesthetically good. Finally, I wonder if anything today can even really be called “good” or “bad.” The Hateful Eight boasts a great musical score, seriously interesting characters of profound psychological depth, a masterful sense of pacing and drama, a surprisingly nuanced use of violence, and an approach to the Civil War and the 1860s that could actually be called interesting. Shocking, I know. But is it art? And if so, does it require critique?

In my opinion the goal of art criticism should be to locate the truth content in the artwork through dialectical immanent critique. This process should operate outside of taste. Through this kind of critique one would engage exclusively with the internal phenomena of the artwork, coming to an understanding of the ways it contradicts itself and whether it makes good on its own claims. Via those contradictions one then becomes able to make judgments about the tendencies and pathologies in the society that produced it, understanding how or whether it points beyond itself. In the end an artwork can teach us, as a form of social knowledge, about how we experience our own experience in the face of the total industrial domination of life and, of course, art. To this end one criterion that I always include in determining a work’s quality is the question of whether I believe it to be affirmative or critical of empirical reality. But these rules for thinking about art are predicated on a belief that art is still possible, and I am not sure where I stand on that one anymore. I feel like art criticism today has degenerated into essentially three camps: 1) those concerned exclusively with taste (narcissism!), 2) those concerned with providing competing allegorical narratives for the artwork (projection!), and 3) those concerned with carrying the torch of the Frankfurt School and its followers (melancholia?). 

The one that points most toward the poverty of art today is the second camp. The new Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was released a few months ago, and I went to see it. I won’t provide a review of the film here, but I hated it. And I am, historically, a very big Star Wars fan. After critics and friends started posting responses to the film, I was surprised to find that almost everyone I knew—as well as all critics—loved it. Of course there were those who loved it because it was nostalgic for them, placing them in the first camp of criticism. Most people I know fall into this category. Others, however, who attempted to deal with the film intellectually, exposed an interesting latent problem in contemporary criticism. Some saw the film as being an allegory for the evils of capitalism, others saw it as being about the confusion of the Left today. Some believed that the film was important because of its diversity and purported identity politics.  Some believe that Luke Skywalker, through his actions in the original trilogy, can actually be read as a terrorist, and some genuinely think that the Empire is actually good and that the Rebellion (Resistance?) is actually bad.  At one point even I wondered whether there was use for an allegory about Return of the Jedi/The Force Awakens as French Revolution/1848, which I actually still think is a pretty good and original thesis.

How can there be successful system for art criticism in place today if people can’t even figure out what Star Wars: The Force Awakens depicts, means, or accomplishes? Surely one should not need a Ph.D. in comparative literature or philosophy to understand such a work. As for the Marxist pop culture fetishists today that would claim that Star Wars: The Force Awakens can simultaneously be great as a symptom and horrible as a work of art, I just have to wonder whether we can or should aim a little higher and clearer. For even if the fetishist could convincingly argue this point, it wouldn’t really illuminate anything about society that wasn’t already presupposed going into such a critique. And then I wonder, like earlier, whether I’m wrong here and whether The Force Awakens actually can be most successfully formulated as both a good symptom and a bad artwork. My gut says no, but I am willing to entertain otherwise if presented with a solid argument.

For me, as a musicologist, art was bound to a particular state of consciousness—problematic in its own way—until the time of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose work brought into light a schism between the idea and the mode of representation. Of course, it should be noted that this emerging autonomy—as well as the fact that Bach's music can even be categorically understood as "art"— appears only retrospectively; the only way we can access Bach today is through the lens of the commodity form. By modernism, art had reached its extreme, becoming essentially a form of social knowledge, which is to say that its primary export was what it unveiled about empirical reality through critique. The greatest works of music under capital are the ones that, to put it very reductively, harness musical time and space in a imaginative and meaningful way, forcing the listener into some sort of critical moment. Adorno called this the cæsura in Beethoven and Mahler and believed the works of Schoenberg and Webern to be equally successful in this respect, albeit much different in terms of form and structure. I wonder whether any film has ever actually achieved anything like this. Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar? Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie? Lynch’s Inland Empire? Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander? Kiarostami’s Certified Copy? And if they do, what is the art critic to do with it?

Susan Buck-Morss, in her response to a visual culture questionnaire, wrote: “A critical analysis of the image as a social object is needed more urgently than a program that legitimates its ‘culture.’ We need to be able to read images emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life.” This is, of course, completely right. I think that the realm of art criticism, for me, needs to navigate this process of understanding the image or sound as a social object, while taking into account the conditions for the possibility of aesthetic experience, even if the author’s position is that aesthetic experience today is precisely the inability to have a meaningful aesthetic experience. 

What does that mean in light of our publication? And how should we think about approaching our task? Again, I’m sure I don’t know. When Roger Ebert died a few years ago, I jokingly told my friend that I no longer knew how I would be able to discern what I thought about film. It was a good joke, but on some level I actually wasn’t kidding. I think probably the best thing that I can do, or at least part of what I will aim to do for the purposes of the publication, will be to merge the approaches of the Frankfurt School and its followers with a more earnest, guttural attempt to understand my own feelings of alienation and estrangement when it comes to thinking about aesthetic experience. As I finish editing this essay I am watching Robert Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women. I have a vague feeling that it is good, and I like the music, but I can’t really say what specifically is good about it. I predict that a critique would include the words “alienation,” “female,” and “American,” but I know I will never really think through this film. According to Altman’s own standards for cinema, this means the film is succeeding, that I acknowledge some sort of positive auratic experience, but find it incomprehensible. Perhaps our goal is to take up the incomprehensible. 

3 Women . Directed by Robert Altman. 1977.

3 Women. Directed by Robert Altman. 1977.