Announcing John David Ebert’s new book…
Art After Metaphysics
Promo Video by Chris Boyd and John David Ebert
Announcing John David Ebert’s new book…
Art After Metaphysics
Promo Video by Chris Boyd and John David Ebert
UNDERSTANDING CONTEMPORARY ART
Taught by John David Ebert
Hosted by Open Online Academy
For Eight Weeks
Class Begins: September 29, 2014
Class Ends: November 21, 2014
Number of Video Lectures: Approximately 60
To Enroll, simply press a button at the following link and sit back to begin watching the first week’s lectures on Sept 29:
Have you ever wanted to understand contemporary art, but weren’t sure how to go about it? Well, this course will give you the tools you need to understand ANY contemporary work of art, no matter how obscure or difficult it seems. From Pop Art to today’s museum installations, from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst, this course will cover that past five decades of the main developments in art history. It will take you close in, and close up to the works of the most famous, and famously difficult, artists of the past five decades. By taking you on a guided tour of the works of contemporary art’s most important artists, you will develop the skills to recognize and appreciate this art’s major protagonists. Artists covered, week by week, will include Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franics Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Odd Nerdrum, Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Jannis Kounellis, and Christian Boltanski. The detailed discussions of their works, in jargon free and comprehensible language, will enable you to understand the significance of contemporary art as a whole.
Week One: Introduction and Abstract Expressionism: Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko
Week Two: Pop Art: Andy Warhol, Paul Thek and Jean-Michel Basquiat
Week Three: Postwar German Art Part 1: Joseph Beuys and Odd Nerdrum
Week Four: Postwar German Art Part 2: Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer
Week Five: The Postwar Art of Rome and Paris: Jannis Kounellis and Christian Boltanski
Week Six: Postwar British Art: Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor
Week Seven: Land Art: James Turrell and Andy Goldsworthy
Week Eight: Media Old and New: Susan Rothenberg and Bill Viola
The student will come to have a grasp of the main developments of contemporary art and will be conversant with its vocabulary and ideas. He or she will be able to recognize the main thematic debates of this art and be conversant with them.
The student will read chapters from Art After Metaphysics by John David Ebert; as well as selected online readings. The student will watch through the videos, approximately 448 minutes worth of viewing.
The main textbook to be used in this course is Art After Metaphysics by John David Ebert. It is available on Amazon here:
There will be multiple choice quizzes for each video.
No prior knowledge is required for this course.
For those students who are interested, a certificate of completion is available for this course.
John David Ebert
John is the author of eight books examining various topics of cultural criticism. These include Dead Celebrities, Living Icons (Praeger / Greenwood, 2010), The New Media Invasion (McFarland, 2011), The Age of Catastrophe(McFarland, 2012), Post-Classic Cinema (Create Space, 2013), Art After Metaphysics (Create Space, 2013) andGiant Humans, Tiny Worlds: Adventures in the Universe of Graphic Novels (Create Space, 2014).
R.I.P. H.R. Giger: A Review of Jodorowsky’s Dune
by Benton Rooks
“A medicine man shouldn’t be a saint. He should experience and feel all the ups and downs, the despair and the joy, the magic and the reality, the courage and fear of his people…You have to be God and the devil, both of them. Being a good medicine man means experiencing life in all its phases. It means not being afraid of cutting up and playing the fool now and then. That’s sacred too.”—Alejandro Jodorowsky from Psychomagic
In a recent piece I did for my website called “What is Entheodelic Storytelling” I propose that Alejandro Jodorowsky is the veritable proto-Entheodelic wizard. This is a term I co-coined with Graham Hancock, Jeremy Johnson, and Rak Razam.
I first had my soul permanently seared by the original cult midnight film The Holy Mountain in the proper setting, at a theater in NYC where I used to work, at the tender age of 18. I thought serving popcorn to Gandalf and looking into the hyper stoned eyes of the munchy loving Dave Chappelle would have been enough to add to my accomplishment lists for the time period—I was attending film school at the time and very much caught up in the 2-D avataric world—but this was almost an initiation into modern shamanism itself.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is a must see high-budget documentary that reminds one of how visionary artists can be shut down by a studio only to have serious intellectual copyright infringement follow thereafter. Outside of the slick editing and the perfect lively narrative that accompanies the film set to the tune of Jodorowsky’s undying enthusiasm, the filmmakers should be seriously commended for giving justice in providing solid proof of exact frames that were completely ripped off by Hollywood execs, of course with all of the dense metaphysical inquiry completely stripped bare.
With the recent passing of the legendary visionary artist H.R. Giger, we are also treated to the last glimpse of the clearly haunted man on film, as he describes his early conceptual involvement with Dune. We find out that nearly all of the team that Jodorowsky initially assembled was later taken from him without permission, for various other projects as Hollywood saw fit (such as Giger’s involvement with Alien, and more recently Prometheus). Another central highlight is hearing the major relief Jodorowsky feels when finally watching David Lynch’s now infamous mega-mistake run itself quietly into the ground in the theater at the premiere.
But more than these measured injustices, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a serious look into a mind that was far ahead of it’s time, and as one of the commentators remarks in the film itself, it is really one of the few film scripts that warrants this oft repeated phrase.
Another highlight for me was seeing the actual conceptual comic script for the film (illustrated by the french comic artist Moebius). It is a medieval looking tome that appears to be close to 900 epic pages. Apparently only two versions still exist, a sort of Holy Grail of psychedelic sci-fi that the viewer is treated to (though still too briefly!). One may hope that this fantastic relic will eventually be released, along with the financial support to actually manifest this version of Dune into reality, though it would unfortunately now have to be filmed without Salvador Dali as the mad emperor of the galaxy, and without Giger’s help.
While much has been said about Jodorowsky’s films, (I eagerly await the sequel to El Topo, called Abel Cain, and the new film Dance of Reality as much as the next geek) the proto-Entheodelic founder’s comic books were one of the central inspirations for my own work with my epic graphic novel trilogy KALI-YUGA. When I first stumbled upon his work I marveled; here is an author with a thoroughly European mindset on art, one that utilized sci-fi and fantasy tropes as a jump off point for some insanely awesome mystical ideas, with influences from techno-shamanism, magick, the tarot and the good ol’ psychedelia from the visionary plant world. Jodorowsky’s work in comics also introduced me to the fantastic French artists Enki Bilal and Philippe Druillett, each of them equally underrated and underappreciated as masterful epic storytellers.
The non-fiction version of these heady intellectual influences can perhaps best be understood by reading his excellent book Psychomagic, where Jodorowsky details his ideas on shamanism and how they can be applied for modern psychotherapeutic practices.
But part of the reason his comics are not as well known is also due to a lack of proper English translation. Much of the stuff that has made it into a version Americans can digest is downright verbally clunky, and in need of a desperate re-work. Nonetheless, The Incal is a comic equally at home with space-opera metaphysics and careful satire. In many ways, it was a kind of test run for the more refined Metabarons, a prequel of sorts which even contains a sly reference to the Yoga of Sound (Surat Shabd Yoga), when one of the main characters undergoes an initiation that rips off an ear to be replaced by a cyborg implant, a not-so subtle remark on the hallmarks of the Iron Age.
The gorgeous art by Juan Giménez also lends Metabarons a more serious and cinematic tone that can’t quite be captured by the slightly more cartoony work that Moebius did for The Incal. The epic story includes the typical subject matter; worlds made of pure marble, cybernetic weaponry allowing for psychic prowess, hermaphrodites, disembodied heads spouting off futuristic philosophy, samurai influence from the Bushido code, androgynous cyber shamans and other typical zaniness that is equally at home with the alchemical mixture of sacred and profane, an unconscious response to Mircea Eliade’s closet-Catholic mindset on the subject.
It’s incredible that it takes a full length documentary to prove that there is still a huge audience for such a daring artist, but hopefully Jodorowsky’s entheodelic storytelling prowess will continue to pave the way for many future artists inspired by stories that are informed by visionary transhuman states and the return of the sacred healing narrative that is often induced by shamanic medicine.
Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds: Adventures in the Universe of Graphic Novels
by John David Ebert
This book can be ordered here: https://www.createspace.com/4683141
At first glance, a graphic novel is simply a comic book with a spine.
But a spine implies an organism with a higher, more evolved form of life—composed out of the vertebrae of individual comic books–especially when contrasted with, say, a more primordial organism like a comic strip, those early single-celled narrative protozoa whose advent not only preceded, but made the existence of the graphic novel possible in the first place.
A graphic novel, however, is not just a series of comics collected and bound into a single volume. There are many such collections, like The Essential X-Men, let’s say, that are produced and marketed to look like, and resemble, graphic novels, but they are merely expedient ways to sell off old comics that would otherwise be lying around in archives collecting dust. Such volumes are not really graphic novels at all because they do not tell a story (they tell many). A graphic novel, to be more precise, is a series of comic books bound together with a spine that has a beginning, a middle and an end. The presence of a spine and the enclosing front and back covers gives the medium a self-contained completeness that demarcates it from that of the comic book proper, for a comic book is merely a temporal slice of a potentially infinite series of stories clustered around one or another superhero(es).
The graphic novel, in other words, provides boundaries to a specific comics narrative. It captures that narrative and removes it from the magma of an infinity of other such narratives, extracting it like a singularity from a flow, a singularity that grabs and arrests a story from the endless oceans of such stories that are daily produced by our culture industry. The graphic novel draws a membrane around such a story-cluster, one that is not unlike the lipid wall of a cell that encloses its contents within a tiny universe, a microworld that, when one steps up for a closer view, turns out to be full of giant humans.
In that respect, then, the graphic novel is an entirely new medium with its own bias that makes it uniquely different from other literary media like the novel and the poem. And yet the graphic novel, like all new media, is also a hybrid of earlier media forms, for, like the ancient Byzantine mosaics with their images of giant humans capable of mighty deeds, such as the Emperor Justinian or Christ Pantocrator, the graphic novel is likewise composed out of a sequence of tiles
–or tesserae as the tiles of the mosaics were technically known–which, however, do not weave a static and frozen image of an Eternal Christian icon, but rather a motion picture sequence of tiles that is animated by the viewer’s highly participatory imagination into a temporal sequence of moving images. The graphic novel, that is to say, substitutes the viewer’s mind for a mechanical apparatus: instead of a movie projector, it is the reader who has to set the whole thing in motion, even perhaps, providing his own sound effects as he plays through the tiles. We can regard the medium, then, as a sort of cross between a Byzantine mosaic and a motion picture film.
But from the point of view of the morphology of history, rather than media studies, the graphic medium can be regarded as a contemporary reiteration of a certain type of folk art that comes into being at the tail end of all the great high civilizations as they are lumbering on their way down toward earth like a mighty Leviathan that has been dealt its final, mortal blow. Both India and Egypt, for instance, had their graphic novel analogues.
In India, the equivalent of the graphic novel came in the form of so-called palm-leaf manuscripts, made from the dried strips of the palmyra palm tree. Once dried, these strips were incised with little styluses known as lekhani, which left dark runnels in the fibers that were then later inked in with a mixture of soot and water. Sequences of pictures were created, sometimes painted in color, sometimes left in black and white, which illustrated epics like The Ramayana or the Gita Govinda, or else old myths and legends in pictorial sequential form for easy digestion by the masses who were too illiterate to read the longer epics. The dried palm fronds had holes punched into their corners, so that the strips could be hung from a single cord that tied them all together in between two leaves of hard wood that functioned as front and back covers. Such books became popular from about the time of the Mughals (especially under Akbar, who was the first to commission an illustrated version of The Ramayana around 1580 AD, although this was not a palm-leaf manuscript). It is, therefore, a largely late development in the history of Indian media.[i]
The Egyptian equivalent of the graphic novel came in the form of the Books of the Netherworld that began to adorn the walls of the tombs of The Valley of the Kings from about the time of Tuthmosis I (c. 1500 BC). For the Egyptians, however, the image was never merely an image, but the visual equivalent of a magical spell that was designed to make something happen by the principle of sympathetic magic. This is why dangerous animals such as crocodiles or scorpions are never depicted in such art unless they are being slain by solar heroes like Horus, or have spears thrust through them, thus neutralizing their magical power over the soul travelling through the afterlife. Such Books of the Dead—and there were many—were roadmaps, as it were, to help guide the soul of the deceased through the perils of the afterlife. They had a magically effective purpose, and over time, image began to predominate over word on these funerary papyri until, by the 22nd Dynasty, images are almost the only thing rendered upon them.[ii]
So, the graphic novel is not an entirely new medium, but rather today’s equivalent of very old mediatic phenomena, which is to say that, as the culture forms of a society slowly break down, and the high plastic arts become ever less and less competent and sure of themselves, so the slack is taken up by the folkloric media of the masses who fill the semiotic vacancies opened up by the collapse of the metaphysical signifieds with their own popular “tales of the soul’s conquest of evil,” to borrow from the title of a Heinrich Zimmer book.[iii]
Like the Indian palm-leaf manuscripts and the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld, the graphic novel, too, is a constantly obsessive reiteration of the soul’s conquest of evil, in image form.
This book can be ordered here: https://www.createspace.com/4683141
[i] See Joanna Williams, The Two-Headed Deer: Illustrations of the Ramayana in Orissa (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 44.
The link below is a web page detailing Wikipedia’s reasons for deleting me from existence. I highly recommend you take a look at it because the implications of it are staggering:
I am the author of 8, count them, 8 books. The first, Twilight of the Clockwork God, was published in 1999 by a small press out of Oklahoma, but it was reviewed in some high profile periodicals like Publisher’s Weekly, etc.
The second book, Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons was published in 2005 by Cybereditions, a publisher out of New Zealand which was also NOT a “vanity press.”
My third book, Dead Celebrities, Living Icons was published by Praeger / Greenwood in 2010, a very old and well-established New York publisher of works of philosophy.
My fourth book, The New Media Invasion was published by McFarland Books in 2011, not a vanity press, but an academic one. The next book, The Age of Catastrophe, was also published by McFarland in 2012.
In 2013, I decided to gather up all my film reviews from this site and self-publish them on Amazon’s Create Space, largely because I am not a film critic and it would have been very difficult to get these reviews published anywhere else.
In 2014, I decided to self-publish a collection of essays on contemporary art, entitled Art After Metaphysics, also on Create Space. And this year, I am publishing a series of reviews of graphic novels, once again on Create Space, entitled Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds: Adventures in the Universe of Graphic Novels.
Even though only three of my eight books have been self-published, the editors of Wikipedia think it is their right to delete me from existence, claiming in the article that I am largely a “vanity author” who has only self-published. They also claim that I have made contributions to my own article, which is true, insofar as I have continued to add to the list of its bibliography the very same publications which I have just mentioned above.
The reader should also note that I published an essay on Wikipedia in my book The New Media Invasion, which was entitled “Wikipedia, or The Catastrophe of Knowledge.” I stated in that essay that Wikipedia is a poor example of an encyclopedia and not, in fact, really an encyclopedia at all but something more akin to the status of an electronic rumor mill. Wikipedia is full of rumors about knowledge, and is an unstable database since “facts” come and go as they please, as anyone can delete or add to them as they choose. I have a feeling someone over at Wikipedia did not take kindly to this criticism of their “free” database.
The publishing industry is currently in BIG trouble. It has been hit by the meteor of the Internet, which has sent it scrambling in all directions, looking for a way to continue to survive by making big bucks. In the process, the industry has marginalized generalist authors such as myself, a type of public intellectual whom the big publishers once upon a time used to publish, like Marshall McLuhan and Lewis Mumford, but will no longer do so because such authors DO NOT SELL. It is all about the bottom line these days, so public intellectuals such as myself, or Morris Berman, who has also self-published on Create Space, have been forced into other avenues to get their work out there. This website, for instance, is one of those avenues.
According to the logic of the editors of Wikipedia, the article on “Morris Berman” should also be deleted from the website, since Morris Berman has self-published two books on Create Space. Indeed, I got the very idea for self-publishing on Create Space from Berman himself, when he self-published his book A Question of Values on Create Space and recommended it to me. So I followed suit. Berman has also self-published other books with other self-publishing firms.
The list of authors who had to resort to self-publishing, and who have since become icons of our culture, is huge: Friedrich Nietzsche self-published most of his books, as did Arthur Schopenhauer. Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, William Strunk, Jr., L. Frank Baum, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Deepak Chopra, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Walt Whitman, etc. etc. Indeed, the list goes on and on and is a VERY long one.
So self-publishing, it is apparent, is no grounds for delegitimizing an author and deleting him from a public database, even if that database, as I’ve said, is an unstable one based entirely on rumor and hearsay. Which, of course, it is.
I like self-publishing. I am now making more money than ever before because the deals are better (the author gets 60 percent of the take instead of the humiliating 10 percent of most publishers). I like having the control over every aspect of the production: I enjoy designing the cover, for instance, and since I am a professional editor and proofreader, I can do all that myself. I don’t need editors telling me to change the book’s title, or to change chapter titles, or to delete this or that “offensive” reference. And I don’t like waiting a year or two for the book to come out. With Create Space, the book is published within two months.
I highly recommend Create Space to any new author wishing to make his or her way, since I believe it is the wave of the future.
Indeed, my friend the very great poet Michael Aaron Kamins is publishing his first book, Absences on Create Space because he too enjoys the creative freedom that they give to the artist to design the book as he or she sees fit. I have sent several other young artists and writers to Create Space and I will also continue publishing with them because they treat authors fairly and with courtesy.
I will NOT be returning to the world of mainstream publishing, which is predatory, unfair and treats authors like low-bred scumbags.
The editors of Wikipedia, rather unsurprisingly, are badly misinformed: self-publishing does not cause an author to “cease to exist.” He or she only ceases to exist in the badly edited and knowledge-poor disaster of a public encyclopedia that calls itself, rather pretentiously, a FREE encyclopedia. Wikipedia, after all, is run by amateurs, not professionals. And so the amateurish–not to say, childish–conduct of their editors in deleting an already VERY well-established author from their database for choosing to self-publish his most recent books, is unbecoming to say the least.
But after all, you get what you pay for.
A Review by John David Ebert
Lars von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac–which opened on Christmas Day in Denmark in its five and a half hour version, and is just now being released in the US as two separate films, each approximately two hours in length–is not, in actuality, an erotic film at all. In fact, though it is being touted as the most “sexual” film ever made due to its reputedly “pornographic” imagery, it is the very opposite of an erotic film: indeed, watching it may very well do as much damage to the viewer’s sex drive as going on an SSRI. The film is loaded with close up shots of human genitalia from start to finish, but unlike the airbrushed images of porn, the genital images of Nymphomaniac have a sickly look about them that conveys von Trier’s evident disgust with the human body in clinical fashion. Some of these shots were reputedly taken from actors in the porn industry, but they invite comparison with photographs of genitals in science and medical textbooks. There is nothing in the least erotic about them. Or in the film’s sex scenes, for that matter, which are observed with a coldness and visceral brutality that is less shocking than nauseating.
So, let’s not get confused, people: this is Art, not Porn.
The film’s point, rather, is that it is the story not of a woman looking for pleasure, but of her attempt to create a private system of Transcendence using her body as a surface of inscription upon which to incise a network of signifiers that will serve to link her to the metaphysical Beyond. The only problem is that she doesn’t know this is what she is doing.
The film’s narrative is told as a series of confessions by a woman named “Joe,” to a man who finds her tossed aside in an alleyway, bruised and physically beaten. The man, played by Stellan Skarsgard, listens patiently and sympathetically to the confessions of Joe, serving her cups of tea while she rests in bed and unfurls her life story to him throughout the course of one night. The man, named Seligman, lives like a monk in a bare, sparsely furnished room with a Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child hanging upon the stained wall. He is highly literate and has built a life out of books and reading, and he listens to the shocking tale of Joe’s indiscretions with compassion and interest. The aura here, very deliberately constructed on von Trier’s part, is that of a Catholic confession to a priest. But of course, the sacrament of confession in the Western tradition was transferred to the analyst’s couch where it was intercepted by a Jewish doctor of the mind named, appropriately enough for his profession, “Dr. Freud.” And so it is no surprise that Seligman, as his name indicates, is a lapsed Jew. (Every detail of von Trier’s carefully constructed narrative counts).
Joe tells the story of a woman who discovered the pleasures of masturbation as a very young girl (she was not raped, or molested–rather surprisingly) and of her teenage loss of virginity with a young man named Jerome (played by Shia LeBeouf) to whom she forms a lifelong attachment. However, she very quickly develops a desire for intense sexual experiences that evolves, over time, to seeing a succession of seven or eight men a night, all carefully scheduled out into a series of appointments so that they do not overlap with one another. Joe, (the older Joe doing the confessing is played brilliantly by Charlotte Gainsbourg in one of her very best performances; the younger Joe is played, less interestingly, by Stacy Martin), eventually attempts marriage with Jerome, who, however, cannot satisfy her insatiable appetites for constant penetration (Joe’s elusive orgasms become fewer and fewer, in inverse proportion to the increase of her sex drive). They have a child, but Jerome knows that the marriage isn’t going to work, and so he tells her to go see other men.
In the second film, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg steps into the role throughout, Joe’s life very swiftly descends into a series of dark encounters with what she calls “dangerous men.” Still married to Jerome, she begins to see a sadist on a nightly basis, who bends her over a chair, ties her up, exposes her buttocks and whips them viciously, night after night. Her vagina, she tells Seligman, had long since gone numb by this point, and it was not until the sadist inflicted the 40 lashes upon her of the Via Dolorosa, that she finally managed to have a thorough orgasm, although it was entirely stimulated by pain, not pleasure (a true image of Lacanian jouissance in action).
In short, Joe’s desire for sexual experiences destroys her life, ruins her marriage and cripples her abilities as a mother. She loses everything, as the addiction creates a tensor field around her life that bends and warps all events inside it like the mass of a planet in space whose curvature causes objects to go tumbling towards it. Eventually, Joe renounces her sexuality altogether and becomes a debt collector, in which she sadistically helps a group of thugs to collect debts from gambling deadbeats, one of whom eventually turns out to be her ex-husband Jerome. After training a young girl to be her apprentice–and having sex with her–the girl ends up having an affair with Jerome, and one night, Joe hides in the alleyway with a gun, waiting for Jerome and her young apprentice to show up. When they do, Joe fails to cock the gun and it does not fire, giving Jerome the opportunity to beat her up and humiliate her by having sex in front of her with her young apprentice, who then finishes by urinating on her.
Which brings the story full circle back to where Seligman happened upon her and took her in for cups of tea while listening to her tale of woes.
And so, back to my original point, which was, namely, that Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex and eroticism–it is far too repulsive for that–but about a woman’s attempt to trace a private line of flight out of the Animal Body and into a Transcendence that her society can no longer provide for her. All of us, nowadays, are on our own in precisely this same sense: we must find ways to construct conduits to Transcendence because all the traditional systems for providing that Transcendence for us in an a priori fashion–church, nation, family, etc.–are in ruins. We are living in an age in which each individual must find a way to the Light on his or her own, and Joe’s attempts to construct private Transcendence are traced out using her own body as a surface of inscription.
At first, her Animal Body, through her vagina as a conduit, inscribes intensities of pleasure upon this surface, but over time, the pleasure waves turn to intensities of pain that, under the hands of the sadist, mark her flesh with the inscriptions of the guilt of her own crimes, much as Kafka’s character in his story “In the Penal Colony,” has his sins carved directly upon his body with a machine that writes it on his flesh as though his skin were a form of displaced parchment.
And indeed, in an age when traditional systems of Transcendence have broken down, the body inevitably comes back as the main surface of inscription–as it once was during the presignifying regime of oral and tribal societies, whereupon it served in place of clay tablet and papyrus as a writing surface to bear the marks of tattoos and mnemonic scars in such a way that the body functioned as one’s own cathedral, a cathedral of pain marks whose incisions correspond directly to the images of stained glass in a cathedral. They are the signifiers, that is to say, from out of which one’s Body without Organs–to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari–is constructed as a surface of inscription for Transcendence.
Nowadays, with the breakdown of all our Transcendental Signifieds, the Animal Body has returned as the primary surface of inscription to serve as a tablet in the age of “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong once called it, in which literacy, together with all its signifieds, is crumbling. Two of the most important of these ancient signifieds were, of course, the Virgin Mother of the Byzantine Tradition (itself derived from the Byzantine conquest of Egypt, where she originated as Isis with Horus on her lap and was transformed into the Virgin) and Mary Magdalene of the Western Christian tradition: virgin and whore.
The Virgin served as the primary Transcendental Signified of Western Civilization throughout the age of the cathedrals and well on into the Renaissance, whereupon she was replaced by the signified of Infinite Space. But in the age of Systems Breakdown, Mary Magdalene as the archetype of the Whore comes forth as the appropriate signified because the whore corresponds to the body as a surface of inscription that hides and conceals the connection to spirituality through and by means, precisely, of the flesh.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, then, is a retranslation of the Magdalen for the age of secondary orality and public Systems Breakdown. During the time of the Romans–another age of Systemic Failure–the Magdalen was the goddess Isis, who was both Virgin and Whore (the West, like the later splitting of the atom, cut her into pieces). Hence, the plight of Lucius, the man who is transformed into a donkey in the Roman novel The Golden Ass, and who becomes a devotee of the cult of Isis, who liberates him from the Animal Body of his somatic prison.
And indeed, Roman literature–in texts like the plays of Seneca or Petronius’s Satyricon–is filled, like the “disinhibiting media” of our own day–with vulgarity, obscenity and pornography, as well, since there again, the body is the only vessel that counts for creating Transcendence during a time in which nobody believes in the old systems anymore. The nomadic body is a portable cathedral and can always be reverted to when the architecture of Public Signifieds becomes, for one reason or another, delegitimized.
Hence, on the historical turn of the spiral two thousand years later, our civilization has come back once again to bear the same character of obsession with the Animal Body as was once the case during the age of the breakdown of Republican Rome into the Empire.
Thus, the return of the nymphomaniac Messalina–the depraved third wife of Claudius whose antics shamed him so much–in the form of von Trier’s character “Joe.” (Messalina at one point, actually appears to Joe, in a vision).
So there is nothing in the least bit “erotic” about Nymphomaniac, in which the Animal Body becomes a space whose smooth surface is disrupted by the striations of the genitals, which “fold” (in the Deleuzian sense) so much cosmic power into them that, like releasing energy from the atom in the Bomb, it is only the jouissance of intense pain that can liberate the energy for Joe in the atomic release of her enormous (and the film’s final) orgasm.
Make no mistake about it, though: Nymphomaniac is a great film from one of today’s greatest living directors and, although it is slightly marred by a cynical and sarcastic ending (which I haven’t revealed here), it will stand as one of von Trier’s greatest achievements. His talents are rivaled, perhaps, only by those of David Cronenberg and David Lynch–both of whom, however, seem to have given up–and the three directors constitute what’s left in the time of what I have termed “postclassic cinema” of the tradition of the auteur who pursues a Vision that remains uncompromised by Hollywood sell-outs and future film “fundraisers” that only further mire the director in logistical and financial problems. (These were hard lessons learned by Coppola, for instance, and Philip Kaufman, whose Unbearable Lightness of Being, by contrast with Nymphomaniac, is an example of a truly erotic film).
Nymphomaniac is too gritty and full of genuine repulsion at the human body for it to be an erotic, or even pornographic work: it is more like a Catholic mass turned upside down in which the Animal Body stands in for the wine and the wafer but unlike those cultic relics refuses to function as a vehicle for transubstantiation that allows the Light to come pouring through.
But note that final detail: in von Trier’s film, the female body replaces the Corpus Christi as the vehicle for the mystery of transubstantiation.
Some Reflections on Gravity
by John David Ebert
The appearance, in science fiction history, of a narrative like that of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a cultural watershed indicating that the Twilight of the Space Age is now upon us, despite all appearances to the contrary. By contrast, for instance, with the vectors of the science fiction narratives of the 1950s in the novels of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, in which the earth was always seen as something to escape from into the ecstatic Transcendence of outer space, all the vectors of Cuaron’s narrative point decidedly downward. The earth, in Gravity, is no longer seen as an obsolete artifact of the Age of the Great Mother to be escaped from at all costs into the heavenly realms of the Father, but precisely as what, in fact, it really is: a basin of attraction toward which all bodies fall as a cosmic shelter of protection from the starry vacancies of a hostile Outside. “Life in outer space,” as the film’s opening title card states, “is impossible.” Precisely.
In the pre-metaphysical age (also known as the mythical consciousness structure, according to Jean Gebser), being-in-the-world always connoted being on the inside of a uteromorphic container of one sort or another. For the Egyptians, the earth was surrounded by Nut, the starry goddess of the heavens, and Nun, the watery amniotic abyss which the Mesopotamians called “apsu,” and from which our word “abyss” actually descends etymologically. The earth was always embryonic and the human was always inside the body of the Great Mother, like one of those Gothic wooden sculptures of Mary which open up to reveal the Crucified One in her womb (shown below).
But in the metaphysical age beginning in the Mediterranean with Plato and in the deserts of Judea with the Old Testament, being-in-the-world meant being in the paternal womb of the Great Father, in which the Word as an embryo always lay waiting, ready to resonate a cosmos into being from out of the magical intonations of the creator’s utterance. This was the logocentric age critiqued by Derrida, in which goddesses like Athena were always popping out of male skulls like Zeus’s, and in which Adam gave birth to Eve, rather than the other way around. This was the age in which the Logos, the Word as eidos, was the creative instrument, and in which all material things were subordinated to the power of the Ideas, which shaped them like a magnet organizing iron filings.
It is now a truism of postmodern philosophy that we live in a posthistoric (Flusser), post-metaphysical age (Sloterdijk) in which we are simply thrown, at Heidegger’s insistence, into a shell-less and unprotected world in which all structures are technomorphic and must be man-made as replacements for mythical and Platonic Ideas.
However, in Cuaron’s Gravity, it is significant that the protagonist is a woman, for she is the ancient Great Mother–Demeter mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone–in disguise, tossed into exospheric orbit by the techno-manipulations bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age, still very much present with us, and functioning as the source and root of our conquest of the earth and now the exosphere with satellites. The Great Mother, in this age, does not give birth to anything, for she now finds herself (in a reversal of the wooden Mary sculptures) trapped and encased on the inside of the paternal Mind with all its exoskeletal structures.
The various techno-flotation devices which the Sandra Bullock character hops to, from one to the next, are actually three-dimensional incarnations of the Father’s Platonic Ideas realized upon the grid of perspectival space (via Leonardo’s drawings, in origin) and transformed into floating world islands. In the absence of the protective body of Mother Earth, the Sandra Bullock character finds herself on the inside of the paternal womb and its techno-realized Ideas which attempt to substitute for the natural productions of her bounteous body: i.e. gravity, oxygen, air, plants, food, etc.
In outer space, in other words, it is not the Mother who provides, but the Father. On his world-islands, you are trapped in Plato’s realm.
But in the Twilight of the Space Age, it is the Mother who now becomes the savior, since the arc of escape to the Heavens that began with Plato’s leaving the cave-as-womb behind in favor of the father-as-sun is now in the process of running its course. The aptly named private corporation known as “Virgin Galactic” promises to send us all to Mars by 2028, yet they seem to have forgotten–or pretended to know nothing about–a phenomenon known as the “Kessler Syndrome,” which predicts that the collisions of space debris in orbit about the earth will slowly accelerate and produce more and more debris over time. And since, as the disaster of the Columbia taught us–in which an entire spacecraft was destroyed by a mere two pound piece of foam rubber insulation–it only takes One Small Thing to disrupt an entire mission, the practicalities of leaving the earth behind and flying to other worlds on a routine basis seem increasingly more and more remote.
Let us not forget the collision of two telecommunications satellites that crashed into each other, for the first time ever, in the exosphere in February of 2009 as the ominous prelude to the onset of Kessler’s Syndome which, like entropy, can only ever get worse, producing more and more debris, not less, over time.
The onset of the Kessler Syndrome, of which Gravity is a stunning illustration, marks the beginning of the end of the Platonic Project bequeathed to us by the metaphysical age of using techno-incarnations of the Father’s Ideas as world islands to escape the body of the Great Mother.
Virgin Galactic–a name which promises to use technology to carry the Virgin herself away to the heavens, just as Christ, once upon a time, carried his mother at the moment of her death–can pour all the money they want into space travel, but cleaning the debris out of the exosphere which will pose a perpetual threat to such flights is another matter entirely.
Welcome to posthistory, the age in which Down is the new Up.
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Introduction to the Last Days of Celluloid:
An Excerpt from Post-Classic Cinema
by John David Ebert
Film, today, now finds itself in exile.
But in exile from what? And from where?
After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the Romano-Jewish Wars of 70 AD and then with the erasure of the Jews from the geopolitical map of Palestine by the emperor Hadrian in 135 AD, the Jews found themselves in exile from their homeland, to which they did not return until 1948. Their particular model of society has been termed “diasporic” by Arnold Toynbee,[i] and appropriated by Arjun Appadurai as the social model of the “diasporic public spheres” configured today by non-local and post-national social formations such as Al-Qaeda, Anonymous, and other revolutionary movements and criminal organizations which now pose the major threat to the world’s locally based Big National governments.[ii]
The Life and Death of Shauna Grant
An Essay by John David Ebert
“‘Transcendence’ always involves departing from the known and familiar “beings” and going out in some way beyond them.”
–Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event)
On March 21, 1984, Colleen Applegate – known to the porn industry as “Shauna Grant” – shot herself in the head. It was a little after 7 in the evening, and her friend Brenda Rosenow, after hearing a loud pop from the other room, rushed into the bedroom and found Colleen lying on two beds that had been pushed together, with a .22 caliber Long Rifle at her side, and a hole in her right temple where the bullet had penetrated, and exited through the left temple, leaving a star-shaped wound as it hit the wall. Brenda saw that her friend was still breathing, so she called for an ambulance, which rushed Colleen to Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, California. There, she was put on life support systems for two days, but she was already brain dead and the life support systems were unplugged. She was buried by her family on March 28.
John Ebert is interviewed by Josh Wagner about his book "Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons." PART ONE
Part two of Josh Wagner's interview with John Ebert about his book "Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons."
Part three of Josh Wagner's interview with John Ebert about his book "Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons."