Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ethics in Pulp Fiction

Quick post. Just rewatched Pulp Fiction (1994) and aside from the amazing, intricately woven storytelling and some beautiful long shots I noticed something else to love about the movie. There are two main transformations that occur during the film, and both point toward the ethical potential of the death drive, or at least toward the possibility of an ethical act (in the most Zizekian meaning).

The first occurs with Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is out to get Butch because Butch double-crossed him: he was supposed to go down in a boxing match but won brutally instead. After being cornered in a pawn shop by Marsellus, both characters are taken hostage by the store owner, Maynard (Duane Whitaker), and his police officer friend Zed (Peter Greene). It is revealed that Maynard and Zed are perverts who plan to rape Butch and Marsellus. They choose Marsellus to go first, and while they are in another room Butch breaks free. He is on his way out of the store but he pauses at the door and goes back to try to save Marsellus. He thereby decides to doubly risk his life at the hands either of Maynard and Zed (who want to rape and probably kill him for pleasure) or of Marsellus (who wants to kill him for the double-cross). Here we have, I believe, the ethical act at its purest: realizing that if the roles were reversed and he was being raped and tortured he would want Marsellus to come back for him, he does so for a man who not too long ago was firing a handgun at him. It seems to me this act takes the form of the death drive since Butch is driven even towards to uphold his ethical code. The problem with interpreting this as drive is that, as I mentioned above, this is something of a transformation for Butch. He is normally not a very ethical man: double-crossing a man who has given him a large sum of money to go down in a fight, even just the basic act of taking money to fix the match itself. And because Butch's story ends with this act, there is no real element of repetition in the diegesis of the film, an element which seems quite necessary to the drive.

The second transformation occurs in the character of Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and takes almost the exact same structure. At the end of the movie Jules is in a diner which is being robbed. when one of the robbers attempts to take the suitcase which Jules has been trying to deliver to Marsellus Wallace, Jules turns the situation around, taking the robber's gun and pointing his own. He then recites Ezekiel 25:17 to the robber:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

He quotes this line one other time during the movie, and claims to quote it whenever he is about to kill someone. In this case however he does not kill the robber and instead of interpreting himself as the "righteous man" or even the "Lord" himself as he seems to previously, he tells the robber, "you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd". He then gives the robber the money in his wallet and lets him leave the store. Here we have what is definitely an ethical act (side note: As I was thinking about it I considered that maybe the ethical act would be to force the robber to give everyone their money back, but that seems to fall into the trap of believing in the power of money, which at this point in the movie Jules definitely doesn't, and which we all probably shouldn't. On the other hand, money isn't going away, and maybe we need it to change the system. I don't know.) but this act takes the form of the drive slightly more than Butch's. Jules has a strange, pathological compulsion to repeat this quotation, and here at the end of the movie he transforms this previously unethical repetition into an ethical one.

I may elaborate on this post in the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hegel Watches Zombieland

Several days ago, my good friend and I were rewatching Zombieland, a movie we both rather enjoy (not exactly a top 10-type movie, but good enough to warrant multiple viewings). About a third of the way through the movie, after Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) steal Tallahassee's (Woody Harrelson) Escalade and discuss their plans to escape to Pacific Playland, my friend commented that he really doesn't like this part. Specifically, he didn't like Wichita's and Little Rock's seemingly illogical attachment to and belief in a zombie-free Pacific Playland. Why are Wichita and Little Rock convinced Pacific Playland is zombie-free? The only response I could come up with at the time was that the movie is revealing Wichita and Little Rock's pathological side. I argued that this was supposed to help you sympathize with the two characters since everyone has their weaknesses.

Whether this is a convincing argument or not aside, I came across an answer which I find more appealing and which seems to fit the disaster genre better. The answer came from Zizek's The Ticklish Subject (Verso, 2000) which I was reading at work. As with most of Zizek's writing, I'm not sure if I have interpreted this passage correctly since I have only very minor exposure to Hegel. However, I will try my best. Zizek begins the section by describing "stubborn attachment", a term from Hegel's Phenomonology. According to him, it "stands for the pathological attachment to some particular content... scorned by the moralistic judging conscience" (121). Simple enough: Wichita and Little Rock are pathologically attached to the idea of Pacific Playland and "conscience" tells us that this is bad (i.e. our reaction when watching, especially on multiple viewings). Wichita even admits to Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), "I know this Pacific Playland thing is nuts, but it's been so long since she got to be a kid." Here we have a perfect example of fetishistic disavowel: I know very well (that something is not the case), but I still believe (that it is the case). On the other hand, Hegel (via Zizek) actually thinks stubborn attachment is (or could possibly be) a good thing:

Such an attachment is the ontological a priori of an act - the hero's (active subject's) act by means of which he disturbs the balance of the socio-ethical totality of mores is always and necessarily experienced by his community as a crime... [W]hen, irrespective of circumstances, I stubbornly attach myself to some accidental particular feature to which I am bound by no inner necessity, this 'pathological' attachment enables me to disengage myself from immersion in my particular life-context... The paradox, therefore, lies in the fact that I can arrive at the Universal-for-itself only through a stubborn attachment to some contingent particular content, which functions as a 'negative magnitude', as something wholly indifferent in itself whose meaning resides entirely in the fact that it gives body to the subject's arbitrary will. (121-2)

With Zizek, "act" is always a loaded term with more significance than any simple action. An act for Zizek is "an 'immoral' lie which answers the unconditional call of duty, enabling the community to start again from zero" ("The Act and its Vicissitudes") or, as in the quote above, a "crime" to the community which disrupts the "socio-ethical totality of mores" in order to create new socio-ethical regulations. An act, therefore, is always something that doesn't quite fit within the symbolic order, which in fact ruptures the symbolic and allows the community to create new symbolic rules. In this case the "crime" Wichita commits is breaking her only rule with Little Rock to "trust no one, just you and me" and trusts (albeit temporarily) Columbus and Tallahassee. The fact that her stubborn attachment happens to be to Pacific Playland is unimportant because it "functions as a 'negative magnitude'", its only important lies in the fact that it embodies her will. When confronted with the choice to leave Columbus and Tallahasee behind, Wichita temporarily wills away her ethical stance of trusting no one in order to create a new community. This act, however, is not enough. Later on she confronts the Real of her desire when she and Columbus are drinking in Bill Murray's house and they become somewhat romantically attached. The next morning Wichita and Little Rock leave without Columbus and Tallahassee and the community that had been formed is disbanded.

It takes a second act, this time on the part of Columbus, to truly form a new community. At the very end of the film Columbus commits the "crime" of violating his rule "Don't Be a Hero" in order to save Wichita from a zombie-clown. This act reunites the four heroes and allows Columbus to realize "that those smart girls in that big black truck and that big guy in that snakeskin jacket, they were the closest to something I had always wanted, but never really had: a family... we had each other. And without other people, you might as well be a zombie." While this initial failure of Wichita's act followed by Columbus's successful act may seem to shed an unfortunately anti-feminist light on the film, what is actually at work here is Hegel's "negation of negation":


The inner logic of the movement from one stage to another is not that from one extreme, to the opposite extreme, and then to their higher unity; the second passage is, rather, simply the radicalization of the first... '[N]egation of negation': its matrix is not that of a loss and its recuperation, but simply that of a process of passage from state A to state B: the first, 'immediate' negation of A negates the position of A while remaining within its symbolic confines, so it must be followed by another negation, which then negates the very symbolic space common to A and its immediate negation... Here the gap that separates the system's 'real' death from its 'symbolic' death is crucial: the system has to die twice... The passage from In-itself to For-itself thus involves the logic of repetition: when a thing becomes 'for itself', nothing actually changes in it; it just repeatedly asserts ('re-marks') what it already was in itself. 'Negation of negation' is thus nothing but repetition at its purest: in the first move, a certain gesture is accomplished and fails; then, in the second move, this same gesture is simply repeated. (79-83)

Thus it is not simply that Wichita's act fails, her act is necessary for the complete elimination of the old symbolic network (of distrust). "The system has to die twice", and Wichita's 'failed' act simply bears witness to the first of the system's two deaths. In order for the new community/symbolic to become "For-itself" the old community/symbolic must die twice, the first time when Wichita betrays her rules of trusting no one for the sake of Columbus and Tallahassee, and the second time when Columbus betrays his rule to not be a hero for the sake of "family" (i.e. community).