Issue 9 Writers in Profile: An Interview with Bradley Tuck on elitism, films and phenomenology

Issue 9 Writers in Profile: An Interview with Marc James Léger on Radical Politics, Cinema and the Future of the Avant-Garde
December 15, 2012
Issue 9 Writers in Profile: An Interview with Nick Hudson, The Creative Mind Behind Letters To The Dead
January 5, 2013
By James Marcus Tucker
In this, the second blog post of our Issue 9 writers in profile series, I asked Bradley Tuck – fellow One+One Filmmakers Journal editor and contributor – some questions about his article that appears in our latest issue.  Bradley has been one of the driving forces behind One+One and consistently brings challenging, eye-opening insights on a whole range of issues related to film, tv and critical theory.  His current article – the first in a series entitled “Adventures in…” begins with a rethinking of the misunderstood notion of elitism and elitist culture.

 

James Marcus Tucker: In your article, you state that “an unhealthy anti-elitism plagues this country”.  How does this anti-elitism manifest, and what can we do to immunise ourselves from this plague?
Bradley Tuck: I think this specific anti-elitism, which I allude to in this part of the article, is a product of Neo-liberal economics and the ethics of individualism. We are living in a reactionary period, where being an individual means being free from grand narratives, collective projects and state intervention. Our lives are atomised and insular. Alain Badiou describes our current epoch as one of a “call for renunciation, resignation, the lesser evil, together with moderation, the end of humanity as a spiritual force, and the critique of ‘grand narratives’.” We have given up on grand projects and all that is really left is the individual. We have come to believe that no one has the right to intrude on our private life. The individual should be free to consume and buy as they see fit and capitalism should be free from state intervention. These ideas go hand in hand. In a free market it is hard to take genuine artistic risks; economically speaking, there is no safety net. People find themselves needing to survive and pleasing the public is usually a guaranteed success. It really doesn’t encourage an interesting and exciting culture.
What has emerged is an ethics of tolerance and individual choice. This might seem as if it is the product of political correctness and lefty-liberalism, but it flies in the face of a lot of the very militant radical politics of the 60s and 70s. It is true that in the 90s the liberal left attempted to become more tolerant and inclusive. But the ethics of tolerance and respect for individual choice is also the perfect halo for the neo-liberal project. Through this way of thinking we can largely treat people as atomised and separate, grander collective ambitions are off the table. There is an undercurrent of suspicion when someone has standards other than money or pleasing the people. I think our fear of snobbery and elitism is tied up with this. It gives birth to a kind of anti-elitism, but for all the wrong reasons. It is very sad when people’s only ambition is to make money or serve the lowest common denominator. This is what I think is unhealthy about today’s anti-elitism, it is really just a covert economism. It has no aspiration other than serving the market.
A lot of what is populist today is not in the interest of the people, it is propaganda or it is there to make someone like Simon Cowell richer. It is basically populism in the service of an elite. You might appear like a snob if you challenge it, but right now it is needed. Part of the remedy is developing a more radical and ambitious way of thinking, we need to embrace our inner-snob and start learning from the greats of the past. We need to be prepared to take responsibility for the culture around us, rather than simply assuming that we are individuals and no one need tell us how to think or what to do. Ultimately we need bigger social and political changes, but learning to be suspicious of the “anti-elitist” narrative would be a start.
JMT: Doesn’t much “high” art offer the same soporific distraction as “trash” or “mainstream” culture?
BT: Some of it certainly does. The term “high art” often implies that it will be better and sometimes it is, but that is not always the case. The problem with the idea of “high” art is that it is bound up with a lot of class pretence and pomposity. High art is usually easily identifiable and it gives those people who are culturally challenged, but anxious about their social status, a way of feeling less stupid and more sophisticated.  Sometimes liking high art is code for having good tastes, rather than having good tastes par se. This is a pretty pitiable situation too. I am not really defending high art as such, I am defending the idea of good art and the idea that there can be standards. There is a lot of trash and mainstream art that is beautiful, thought provoking, innovative or stimulating. I love trash films and some mainstream films. I love watching the Nicolas Brothers perform their amazing dance routines in old Hollywood films, the crazy cabaret of the Mystic nights of the Oingo boingo, the icons like Mae West or Marlene Dietrich, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or Powell and Pressberger, the 70s decedence of John Waters or the Kuchar Brothers, blaxploitation Cinema, the films of Noribumi Suzuki, B-movie flops like Myra Brekenridge, the  body horror of Cronenberg, Kubrick or films like Night of the Living Dead or the Evil Dead trilogy, the list could go on. To lose these moments would be a great loss to cinema, but I also know that a lot of formulaic garbage gets chucked out there. I think we should be challenging these, especially what they seem to be saying.
JMT: In this relational universe, don’t we need a mainstream to enable the concepts of “alternative”, “underground”, “radical” and so on?  Shouldn’t we be thankful for the deluded masses?
BT: No. This is elitism of the worst kind. I don’t want to live in a society based on delusion, where the majority are kept stupid, so a minority can have their access to greatness. Art has the power to break down boundaries and speak to people from diverse backgrounds. We should relish this! The true elitist thinks that the people don’t get art,  that it is only for a select few. If I can be called an elitist it will be elitism for everyone, a desire that we are all able to aspire. This is the only elitism worth fighting for. I am not saying that everyone should watch Godard, listen to Schoenberg or read Proust, but I do not believe the idea that mainstream should simply be a collection of dull monotonous cliché films or shallow superficial talent shows. Why shouldn’t the masses be given great art?! If the mainstream starts experimenting, this means that the “alternative”, “underground” and “radical” can go even further. Let’s not forget that the Beatles were as mainstream as you get, but they also got increasingly experimental. It’s a Wonderful Life! is a pretty mainstream film, but politically it is a lot more radical than some films that pass themselves off as underground or edgy. If this was mainstream today I would love it. In an ideal world, great art would be mainstream and X Factor would be underground, so underground that you would have to go to some dark dingy shop and have to ask for it from behind the back of the counter. Surely that is a better situation. Who would need the underground if great art is mainstream?
JMT: Who is your favourite academic or thinker? Who articulates your world view most pertinently?
BT: I love the spirit of philosophy. A lot of philosophy neglects that spirit, but I love the ideas we find in Plato. Plato’s philosophy emerges out of the concept. The idea is that we can rationally determine a particular concept and grasp its eternal nature. So if we truly understand the concept of justice, we then have an idea of justice that speaks to everyone because it is grounded in reason. The idea is that we engage in dialogue and questioning in order to grasp these eternal ideas. Our path to the universal is through questioning and thinking. We reach out to these eternal concepts, but we bring them back to life. We believe that if we grasp the true concept of justice, goodness, beauty, knowledge or truth then we will know how to act rightly in life. This is really a philosophy of aspiration towards an eternal idea, but one ultimately grounding our praxis in the world. Today many people would rather deconstruct this and they have some good reasons; they see a hint of cultural imperialism in it. But without it we risk creeping into a kind of cultural relativism. Increasingly our ethics rotate around identity politics and individual choice, what is missing in these is collective aspiration. It is hard to think of universal emancipation, justice and equality without larger aspirational ideas. We need to resuscitate the idea of the eternal. We find this idea through the history of philosophy. I really like a quote from Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which I will share with you.
“I raise my hand to the threatening rock, the raging flood, and the fiery tempest, and cry, I am Eternal, and I defy your might! Break all upon me! and thou Earth, and thou Heaven, mingle in the wild tumult, and all ye elements, foam and fret yourselves, and crush in your conflict the last atom of the body which I call mine! —My Will, secure in its own firm purpose, shall soar undisturbed and bold over the wreck of the universe: —for I have entered upon my vocation, and it is more enduring than ye are: it is Eternal, and I am Eternal like it.” (Fichte, Vocation of the Scholar p.182)
I am not really a Fichtean; his ideal of humanity heavily relies on a strict division of labour and, as many will know, he later became a nationalist. But I love this passion for the eternal. It is so rarely heard these days, but isn’t there something beautiful about living for a cause, a universal cause? I think it is close to what Badiou calls his “militant of truth”, which he contrasts to liberal self-interested individualism. It seems all too easy to deconstruct great ideas or attempt to ethically consume or use the right politically correct language rather than fighting for genuine justice. It is for this reason that I am really into reading Žižek and Badiou at the moment. I think they are really challenging the liberal left and calling upon the left to rethink their relationship to class politics. They also challenge a post-ideological left pre-occupied with tolerance, democracy, diversity, identity politics, political correctness, ethical capitalism, populism, non-violence and anti-authoritarianism. I think they are helping us rethink these concepts for a new left for our time, one that doesn’t sacrifice its militancy to make peace with the status quo.
JMT: Tell me more about your “Adventures in…” series.
BT: One of the aims of this “Adventures in…” series that I am working on is to challenge this liberal-left complicity in right wing politics. I was trying to rethink politics for an age where ideology was coming back on the agenda and where the current economic and environmental turmoil is causing us to have to rethink politics. So I wrote these collected antagonistic notations as a way to stimulate debate. My aim wasn’t so much to provide clear answers but to think about ideologies and what passes for progressive today. My aim is really to create dialogue; I really think these are part of the first steps to any new enlightenment.
JMT: What is your own background and can you explain your path to phenomenology and your philosophical interests?
BT: When I first went to university I studied theatre, during that period I really got into performance art. This may sound cliché, but I really liked the way it challenged us to rethink the relation between art and life. What role should art play in life and what role should life play in art? It is not far from questions about what constitutes the good life. These were the questions that were on my mind. So, although it may sound a strange u-turn, I went off to study philosophy to continue to explore these issues. I am currently doing my PHd on Edmund Husserl – the founder of the 20th century Phenomenological movement. Husserl’s aim was to develop a way of understanding consciousness without reducing it to psychology. His background was in mathematics and he wanted a way of understanding mathematical thought that didn’t reduce it to “how we happened to think”, he wanted to say that mathematics was more than how I happened to think, but mathematical knowledge was still revealed in consciousness. It is similar to concepts like pain, colours or values, we might be able to give a psychophysical explaination of them, but something fundamental is lost. Phenomenology aims to simply describe consciousness as it appears, to grasp the implicit evidence that lines our appearances. It borrows from Immanuel Kant the idea that there is an essential necessary structure to our experience, but it attempts to articulate these structures by attending to how they appear in experience. Phenomenology is an attempt to describe our subjective experiences.
Whilst Husserl wasn’t a political or social thinker his analysis expanded to include the lived body, the lifeworld, intersubjectivity and history. He also has a big impact on Marxists like Enzo Paci, Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Other Marxists like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse certainly read him and there are parallels with his though and the work of Max Weber, Georg Lukacs and Jürgen Habermas. His last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology brings a lot of his ‘political’ concerns to the fore.  It is really about how the current science fails to address values, norms and existential questions, especially after the First World War. Husserl wants a rational way to address these questions and tries to develop phenomenology as a science which could address them.  I am really interested in how this relates to broader philosophical approaches, such as non-reductionist philosophy of science (Gaston Bachelard, Hilary Putnam, John McDowell), Moral Perfectionism, and Marxism and communism.
I also edit One+One; I love the opportunity to step outside of the academic world to collaborate with filmmakers. I love the opportunity of creative release that comes from editing a film journal and collaborating in films. I also think that it is good for philosophers to get out and get involved in broader worlds. That doesn’t have to be filmmaking, it could be politics, art, therapy or science. It is good to see how people in other disciplines think. I don’t think it is good just to get wrapped up in one way of thinking.
JMT: Communism is a theme which emerges frequently in your work.
BT: A lot of people have very negative ideas about communism. They think about Stalinism and that is it for them. But there are still interesting currents that are very relevant today, even in Orthodox Marxism. I have also been reading about Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, this is a very different communism than Stalinism. After the English civil war, peasants took over land and attempted to dig it in common. Winstanley continually talked of land as a common treasury, this was their justification. This was the idea that the earth wasn’t owned by anyone. This communism has a very long history.
Ironically, the north American Indians were considered communists too, by their enemies. Here is a fascinating passage from Theodor Allen’s The Invention of the White Race.
While the Paris commune was yet within living memory, in the era of Hay Market and the robber barons, the destruction of tribal relations was polemically associated with the threat of socialism and communism. In the year the Second Socialist International was formed, Indian Commissioner T.J. Morgan showed, more than most socialists did, an instinctual grasp of the vital link between white supremacy and anti-socialism. “The Indians,” Morgan said, “must conform to ‘the white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. The tribal relations should be broken up, socialism destroyed and the family and the autonomy of the individual substituted.” The year before, Commissioner Oberly had pointed out the great moral gulf fixed between the two societies. He condemned “the degrading communism” of Indian tribal ownership, where “neither can say of all the acres of the tribe, ‘this is mine.’” With the allotment to individuals of Indian tribal lands, he theorized, the Indian would be able to emulate “the exalting egotism of American civilization, so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘we,’ and ‘this is mine,’ instead of ‘this is ours.’” If the Indians rejected this tutelage, he concluded, it should be forced on them, as it were, for their own good.
As abhorrent as these views are, they reveal the broader scope of what communism has been. Communism has existed for millennia in tribal form, the question is how do we reinvent it for our own modern times? In a time in which the growing gulf between rich and poor is creating a planet of slums, slavery and exploitation and a time where access to resources (from water to the internet) is becoming an increasing issue, the idea of communism becomes pressing. The question is how do we reinvent it without falling into Stalinism or losing many of the benefits of modern culture.
JMT: Who is your favourite filmmaker?  Who should people be watching or searching out in order to rise above our “degraded misery”?
BT: Having an eclectic film taste is good.  There is great stuff in many genres. Reiner Werner Fassbinder, David Lynch, Todd Solondz, Alajandro Joderowsky, Michael Haneke, Ralph Bakshi and Lars Von Trier interest me a lot at the moment. There are a lot of interesting and thought provoking ideas floating around in their work. I like cinema that challenges.  When I started planning to write this ‘Adventures  in…’ series I was thinking about filmmakers that had interesting things to say about our current predicament, filmmakers that have interesting critiques of liberalism or ones who could in some way help reopen the question of ideology. Many of the above filmmakers came to mind, but I certainly don’t want to limit myself to analysing them. In this issue I discuss X Factor, Wife Swap, Richie Rich, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, Kevin Smith’s Dogma, The Hunger Games, Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series. I also read them alongside thinkers such as Hurbert Marcuse, Walter Benn Michaels, Hannah Arendt, Edmund Husserl, Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Oscar Wilde, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Iris Murdoch and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. It is so liberating being able to write like this. It is more about painting a picture, then making one clear precise argument. My aim is not to prescribe tastes though, it is rather to provoke, challenge and hopefully inspire. I really hope people take that from these articles.