Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” is a movie that insists upon a moral framework but refuses to provide one. It is generally a movie about framing, about how we see and what we look at. The camera is incredibly motionless, emphasizing the fact that just because something is imperceptible, that something is outside the immediate frame, it is still a part of the cinematic universe. There’s much that we can’t see in this movie. Sometimes we hear it and imply the actions, and other times we don’t have anything beyond a fragmented understanding of what’s just taken place.

Accidents, horrifying events, torture all take place in this small town, but we have no real way of explaining things. In fact, we often don’t know what has occurred. A man hangs. Suicide? Murder? No explanation. A fire. Arson? Accident? The movie refuses to tell us even what mystery we’re dealing with, let alone whether or not we should look and ask questions of culpability–this despite the fact that it’s structured like a classic detective story with one character trying to explain everything that’s been going on.  It all remains a mystery. And, if so, we need to be playful with our reading of mystery itself.

The idea of a “mystery”cult, or even the Christian mystery, is that once you’ve been exposed to the mystery, the mystic aspect, everything becomes clear. Haneke leaves us on the outside. Without knowing the mystery, the events remain not only obscure but insoluble.  We can only guess since we don’t even know the hermeneutic frame. The film’s narrator suggests the Holocaust, but that appears to be a gambit: it offers one inexplicable tragedy as a solution for another. The question, again, is one of framing: how do we even start looking at these problems if we don’t know what mystery governs, ties every(some)thing in place? Read the rest of this entry »

Find Yourself a Nemesis

February 18, 2010

In case you missed it, the hot news in the world of American public intellectual culture is the tit-for-tat between the Literary Editor of The New Republic Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan who now blogs at The Atlantic.  The New York Times recently offered a useful recap of the who-said-what.  The New York Times is now the Us Weekly of the world of letters.

The argument is about one man accusing the other of antisemitism; it offers insight into a once and actual friendship and prompts questions about the relationship between public and private selves, between emotions and opinions. It touches on issues that I ordinarily would love to comment on, but something very different occurred to me when I decided to post about it.

This argument shows above all the importance of debates, particularly those of an adversarial nature, for the making and defining of ideas and careers. Often our thinking is shaped through dialogue, sharpened by disagreement and reinforced in the face of contrary convictions. Even more often intellectual careers are launched, propelled and defined by famous debates. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal; Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein; Edward Said and Bernard Lewis; the list could go on for quite some time.

And so I say to you, my own cyber intellectual community: Find yourself a nemesis. Start a fight with a foe or friend over quibbles real and imagined. Distinguish, define, deliberate and discourse. Most important of all make sure there are people around to see, hear or read about it.