Old Major’s Daughter: The Lens of “Okja”

Some quick thoughts on what “Okja” achieves, and how we might consider it.

In a recent interview, the musician Josh Tillman remarked that children are incredibly “binary with the recognition of hypocrisy.” As the saying goes, “See yourself through the eyes of a child,” or something like that. The point, it would seem, is the reduction of preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations conditioned by experience to an outlook more innocent; in other, crasser words, forget all of the bullshit you’ve accumulated along the march to adulthood.

“Okja,” the latest movie from Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, has come under fire for at times feeling half-baked, having one foot in overt satire, the other firmly planted in the real, sort of like a noncommittal and self-conscious Wes Anderson film. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the earnestly grotesque, Sinclairian depictions of production and corporate greed with the often deadpan absurdity of the characters; the whole is not subject to the same treatment as its parts. But I think this incoherence is useful, because, whether intentionally or not, Bong has presented the world as his protagonist, Mija, perceives it.

At 11 or 12, Mija, the surprisingly resourceful granddaughter of a montane Korean farmer, is not naive enough to see things as overly cartoonish, but still green enough to notice, and perhaps be hypersensitive to, nonsensicality. One scene, in which animal rights activists explain to Mija their philosophy and mission in the back of a semi-truck, teeters on the edge of sincerity and comedy. Two activists, played by Paul Dano and Stephen Yeun, engage in a subtle skirmish about the importance of nuance in translation, the consequences of which, we’re later shown, are anything but playful. All the while, they’re being pursued by an orderly line of dozens of cop cars. One is rather unsure how to contextualize these events. Is Dano’s character a little socially aloof, or a man of conviction-to-a-fault, or maybe both, or…? And then one of the activists passes out because apparently, he doesn’t eat at all on account of all food having at some point been dirtied by unsustainable practices. Should we laugh? This uncertainty, however, mirrors the “almost-thereness” of Mija’s take on the adult world. By being unable to ascertain the exact difference between mature dialogue and stupid, sacrosanct social curtsies, the end effect of the whole tirade is that, instead of sympathizing with the righteous cause, Mija just wants to take her pig home. The audience can hardly blame her.

The beginning of the film, a Ted-Talk-from-hell keynote by the neurotic CEO of the agriculture conglomerate, Mirando, is similarly unnerving. While it pretty neatly gets all of the necessary exposition out of the way, it is also a moment that heavily satirizes faux corporate “wokeness,” illustrating the contradictions inherent to a campaign committed to both sustainability and reality TV theatrics. In real life, there’s just no fucking way a talk of this creepy intensity and literal wide-eyedness would ever survive a board room review. But that is, of course, the point of satire.

A cynical but interesting observation: The keynote is supposed to take place in 2007. The problem here is that the aesthetic and cultural zeitgeist it is lampooning didn’t fully exist back then. The graphics in the slide deck, for example, are simply out of step with graphical conventions of the time. So, too, does everyone look like they’re dressed in accordance with the Summer 2017 Yves Saint Laurent catalog. Where are all the fancy pockets and mini-vests? Simply put, it uses post-iPhone memetics in a pre-iPhone world.

This theme – an ethics that can’t keep track of itself – is more or less the core focus of the film. The hypocrisy of corporate PR is on full display in Mirando’s efforts to clean up the mess Mija has made for them, going so far as to even install her as their poster child. Likewise, the aforementioned Animal Liberation Front, though at times laughably adherent to their creed of non-violence, are far too prone to ironic statements and actions that undermine the foundations of their project. This is most evident in a scene where Dano physically assaults Yuen while verbally assaulting him for not adhering to the ALF’s pacifistic tenets. If we return to the approach of interpreting “Okja” through the eyes of Mija, we see a world that writes off moral black-and-whiteness as a childish ideal, yet that toils feverishly to organize complex, contradictory ideologies into a neat little good vs. evil paradigm, and in doing so, destroys the possibility of a neat little good vs. evil paradigm. What’s more, the film does all of this with incredible cinematographic technique.

Then there’s the titular Okja, an outlet for insidious the elevation of the “Natural.” We see in her the possibility of all our primal fantasies. She is the original, “uncooked” being that, in a cruel twist, almost everyone wants to cook. Damn us! I greatly enjoyed the film’s ending, and think it’s treatment of the relationship between Okja and Mija made the film’s message far more resonant: they didn’t die, but everything else is still pretty screwed. The worst part is that the viewer is left with the deep down impression that nothing will change. As far as Mija is concerned, however, (our eyes and ears, remember) things turned out quite alright.

I don’t believe “Okja” is without problems, though. I found Tilda Swinton’s character(s) rather confusing: Lucy’s arc felt underdeveloped, whereas the introduction of Nancy felt unpolished. They certainly set up her arrival throughout the film, but that didn’t stop it from coming across as any less clunky. The obscuring of her face, for example, was almost laughable, because it was so clearly Tilda Swinton, such that when she finally turned around, I was left with the sense of having been disrespected by the device. Without ruining things, they also use Nancy’s ruthless profit motive as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve the film’s climax. Although, I’m not too against this, as it was a bit of dry humor, and could also be construed as the moment Mija “eats the apple,” so to speak, by succumbing to the dirty tactical imperatives of capitalism. I didn’t fully get Jake Gyllenhaal’s zany Steve Irwin character but wish he would’ve played more of a pivotal role. It seemed like he could have been a man full of history and motives relevant to the story, but instead, Dr. Wilcox served mainly as an off-the-wall set-piece.

Yet it could be that, in keeping with our method, these characters need no coherent arcs. They’re real people that make no sense, that have bizarre idiosyncrasies, and whose motivations might differ from one moment to the next. I don’t mean to use this as a cop-out in justification of the film’s shortcomings, but our use of Mija as a narrative lens does lend itself to this.

All said and done, Bong (such a great name) gave us a work that is at once awesome, intelligent, and distinctly gorgeous, an E.T. meets Spirited Away meets The Jungle for the Facebook era. I dug what this film had going on.


I, Too, Tour

“We’re just stopping by for a quick look around.”

In the context of travel, is there any phrase more casually damning? The implication of general interest, in the form fleeting of capitvation by a commodity, is to me at once suspicious and very sad. Suspicious because such lukewarmness casts a shadow of doubt on the motives of a trip (assuming, that is, that they in some way need be justified). The sadness is rather self-explanatory: no one wants to believe that the magic of travel is just an illusion masking ruthless consumption and self-importance. This being said, one Sunday afternoon, I dropped by the Trevi Fountain for scarcely ten minutes. It was majestic. But in doing so, was I?

I think there is a suppressed, unadmitted selfishness to the idea of travel as enlightenment. It fetishizes the other (in many cases, but perhaps not all) by rendering them an object for personal gain. Curiously, attacks on the commodification of “traditional” cultures seem to be marred by their own implicit condescension, the demarcation of the progressed and progressing, the entrenched, normal sphere of humanity and the backwards zoo of yeomans and nomads at which they gawk. If we arrive in expectation of experiencing a place only to marvel at its divergence from our own Alltag, then we are behaving with criminal arrogance.

Of course, I’m assuming a sort of “science of emotion” that may be far too non-rigorous to proclaim. What is the processual cognitive difference between “experiencing” and “appreciating”? When does one become the other? Why is one not the other? Now we risk descending into a Derridean abyss, but these are questions worth raising, if for no other reason than to allow them to become felt, and thus mediators of experience. That’s not to mention that, in light of such proscriptions, every act is selfish simply by being an act of “the self.” Maybe the question is then at what point does a thought, action, journey, thing, mutate from an act of the self into a selfish act?

Then you have to consider that authenticity can only exist in relation to a percieved inauthenticity. Were the migrant women peddling cheap Italian bracelets in the Piaza del Trevi any less authentic than the Travertine stone behind them? Certainly, the bracelets themselves couldn’t have been anything more than the symbol of an imaginary Other, a product, in theory and fact, of New Age Primitivism. Or is that the new Italian reality? Is that the sign of a modern pilgrimage, the mark of today’s “Trevian presence”?

I don’t know. This is making my head hurt. Let’s start over.

I had a great time in Rome this weekend. The Trevi Fountain and Colosseum were really cool. It reminds you of the potential of humanity. The Italians were great hosts, and I love the way their voices lilt. If nothing else, the gelato was delicious. I bought a pair of fake Ray-Bans from a man on Via in Arcione. I’ll probably sell them.

Much better.

The Exceptionalism of Nothing

In 1988, some guy from the Midwest dressed up in a tux, brought along a mic and a camera, and conned his way into the Oscars. It appears that this blog has done something similar. Remember that weird Zizek post I wrote? Who cares. Either way, we’ve managed to hoodwink PBS, and I guess they featured it in one of their YouTube videos (around the 10:30 mark).

Before anyone gets too excited, remember that President Trump will soon be defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so ultimately this is a meaningless accolade. It’s like someone saying that they used to play quarterback in the XFL.

Jokes aside, many thanks to the PBS Idea Channel and Shane Tilton for the praise. It is not unappreciated.

Slavoj Žižek Reviews Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa

I can’t imagine Slavoj Žižek, the frenetic philosopher and sex symbol, has many occasions to eat Taco Bell. This means that it’s safe to say we won’t be reading his thoughts on their new Naked Chicken Chalupa anytime soon. I think that’s a shame, because it is actually a pretty interesting chalupa, and Žižek is renowned for his outside-the-box analysis and eclectic writing style. So here’s how I imagine his ideas about the Naked Chicken Chalupa might read, should he ever get stoned past midnight and realize he forgot his credit card in Slovenia and that he only has three dollars and some loose Parliaments on him. When else do you eat Taco Bell?

We can see that Taco Bell, in spite of their globalist wisdom, has misnamed this so-called “naked chalupa.” It is like the art critic John Berger once said, “To be naked is to be oneself.” Yet the nakedness of this chalupa does not come from its status as a pure being, a sublime entity; in other words, the perfectly Real chalupa, as Lacan would say. Instead, it is only born bare in the sense that we are fetishizing its inversion, the chicken itself as the shell, the fetus turned womb, and so on and so on. You can only be nude if you are clothed because the clothes obscure the objects of desire. We then see that nudity is the symbolic object elevated and misrecognized by the observer. In this way, we should instead be discussing Taco Bell’s new “Nude Chicken Chalupa.”

I am reminded here of course of the old Soviet joke about the peasant and the grain collector: The Soviet grain collector, you know, is traveling in the countryside, making sure harvests are as they should be. He is talking with one particular peasant about his yield when the peasant complains that they are giving so much grain to the State that they have to make their bread partially with dirt. The collector replies, “I assure you it still tastes better than the bread in the Gulag!” This nude chalupa is how I imagine that Gulag bread must have tasted.

As we have already mentioned, the novelty of this chalupa is in its inversion, the fake and unnaturally shaped chicken on the outside rather than in. It is one of the great powers of capitalism that it can convince people that misshapen meat paste is somehow desirable. In reality, it tastes like stale saltine crackers. Beyond the chicken, we have to endure that which it contains: vegetables that still taste of the exploitative wages used to harvest them, cheese that is a condiment, not a culture, and so on. I guess the avocado ranch is a highlight, though. I suggest, then, that the only way to find real pleasure in eating this chalupa is to hope, at least, that the hot sauce packet you use to numb your taste buds has one of the funny messages on it.

If transference is the apriorism that behind the absurdity of the Law there is some sort of Truth, then so too is it the belief that behind a chalupa that costs $2.99 and smells of urine there could be some sort of Taste. I mean, seriously! If you tried to give these things to Napoleon’s soldiers in the dead of the winter of 1812, they would call you a monster!

Would you be surprised if I told you that eating at Taco Bell captures perfectly our perverse ideology? Nobody in their right mind sets out to consciously indulge in a shitty culinary experience. That would be sadistic. Rather, they have been induced by ideology to find, in some sense, enjoyment through the disappointment of eating shitty food. It is a reminder that we only exist through our false consciousness, not that we ate Taco Bell because we thought it might be good, but that we only ate Taco Bell because we knew deep down that it never could be good; in other words, we can have expectations, as well as have them thoroughly shattered by underpriced fast food. In the case of the Nude Chicken Chalupa, it is appropriate then to use Marx’s famous phrase, ‘Sie wissen das nichts, aber Sie tun es’ – ‘They don’t know it, but they are doing it.’ When we go to Taco Bell, we don’t know that we’re condemning ourselves to several hours on the toilet, but we are doing it nonetheless.

Der Bau der Mauer: Constructing an American Embarrassment

When the Berlin Wall was erected in the late summer of 1961, then Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, called it die Schandmauer, the Wall of Shame. The East Germans preferred something more heavy-handed, referring to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” Clearly, they had not studied Bernays. As typical as this sort of semantic jockeying between East and West was, it revealed the true kernels of post-war ideology: fascism against liberal democracy, communism against capitalism, facelessness against humanity.

In building the Wall, Generalsekretär Walter Ulbricht and the rest of the East German regime offered the Allies the ultimate political device. How better to draw the line between good and evil than through a physical divide? In the West, the Berlin Wall came to be seen as a startling symbol of oppression, an embodiment of the enemy, and in the hearts and minds of those still free, a reminder of their fortune. However, what was it to the people of East Germany?

Less than three decades after its tireless effort to bring down the Wall, America is contemplating a Schandmauer of its own. Like its German predecessor, this wall, our wall, should it be built, will be the product of reactionary policy and populist dogma, a facile solution to the endlessly complex issue of illegal immigration. Rather than attacking the problem comprehensively, President Trump is bullishly standing by his border wall proposal, a directive that has been met with near universal derision from policy experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Yet as of the writing of this piece, Mr. Trump remains steadfast that approximately $21.6 billion of taxpayer money, more than the budgets of the EPA, NASA, and the entire Judicial Branch, will be allocated for his misguided pet project, and what’s more, that Mexico will pay for it. Imagine the scene if Brandt had received a bill for $200 million, courtesy of East Germany.

Much as the Berlin Wall was a physical embodiment of the Soviet system, so too is the border wall an embodiment of Trump’s opportunistic rhetoric. His campaign operated as a sort of unintelligible dialectic. He would make wildly absurd, potentially campaign-ending statements, on stage and on air, before offering pseudo clarifications of his “true” position a few days later. In between the ad-libbed oration and the curated responses, what we got was a sense that the man could not even keep track of what he himself believed. That was fine when he was seen as simply a spokesman for the naïve underbelly of American political thought. Now, though, he speaks for America itself, and we should not stand to settle for a mouthpiece that can conjure no more colorful adjectives than “big” and “huge.”

Two days after the election, the German newspaper Der Spiegel questioned whether or not the President-elect might prove to be the second “Unifier of Europe.” What the paper meant was that in Trump, as they once did with Stalin, continental governments might again find a common enemy dangerous enough to warrant genuine European solidarity. A friend of mine who lives in Germany recently expressed that much of the country, and the EU, feels America can no longer be relied upon, the betrayal of a relationship marked by such moments as the Berlin Airlift and President Kennedy’s infamous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. The Germans are a people in whose recent memory lives the specter of populism, and for whom a wall, whatever one should choose to call it, can quite literally stand for much more than just the protection of a border.

President Trump, I ask you this: How will you react when foreign leaders implore you to “tear down this wall”? What will you tweet when it is you and Stephen Bannon whose likenesses are graffitied in fraternal embrace? And most importantly, will you choose to call this wall an “Anti-Illegal Protection Wall,” or will you call it what it really is, a Wall of Shame?

To support the border wall is to support the inheritance of a legacy that is antithetical to everything Americans have fought for the past century to defend. It was not our past, and it cannot be our future. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America, “the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men.” Let us exercise this power of the majority and assure President Trump that we do not consent to his error, lest we stand idly by and watch our moral demise as it is built, brick by brick, along the southern border.