The Monkey

The monkey on your back, as they say — an intriguing analogy for a burdensome problem or perhaps an addition. I wonder if this old idiom works well as a nod to the primitive brain, for the unconscious as it sits within the body, like a parasite on the spinal cord, filtering out messages and sending missives of its own up the wire. The monkey on my back has kept me in bed for a few days. I sleep a lot and the mind calms but the body aches. My back hurts especially.

I keep coming back to old Cormac McCarthy interviews, drinking in his short comments on the nature of the unconscious. He speaks with a poet’s brevity that leaves you craving so much more.

“The same thing that tells you what to write tells you when to stop writing it”, he tells Oprah. Somewhere else — I can’t remember where — I think he says that the only thing you need to be an artist is an interesting relationship with your own unconscious. (This might just be something I have said to myself.)

“Interesting” is an appropriate word here. It feels free of judgement. It says little with regards to whether that relationship is good or bad, positive or negative. It must simply be interesting.

I started rewatching Twin Peaks: The Return last night. I was recently asked about David Lynch and Mark Fisher in an interview, due to be published in Spanish in a few months’ time. I want to share the response given in English out of context here and now, if only because it is on my mind:

David Lynch is of course renowned for his ability to unveil the dark surreality of American life. His films reveal the nightmarishness innate to the political passivity of the American dream. In this sense, we might refer to Lynch’s nightmares as critiques in their own right. Their political content may be obscure, but they feel innately political to me, if only for the ways they make manifest an oneiric plane upon which we might begin to think differently. And yet, the elevation of Lynch to the status of auteur, the elevation of his particular cinematic signature to the singular term “Lynchian”, transforms the many curtains that define his works into brick walls. Those viewers who denounce his works as weird in a pejorative sense do so to restrict their potential affects. In fact, the affectivity of his films should not simply be understood as the work of a singular genius but rather the work of a man who has found a particularly affective (and effective) way of visualising our collective unconscious. When we go to see a film by David Lynch in the cinema, then, we should not welcome our momentary visitation to his world, but rather acknowledge the ways he allows us to think differently about our own.

The use of curtains in Lynch’s films is of central importance here. As Fisher writes in The Weird and the Eerie:

“The division between worlds [is] often marked by one of Lynch’s frequently recurring visual motifs: curtains. Curtains both conceal and reveal (and, not accidentally, one of the things that they conceal and reveal is the cinema screen itself). They do not mark a threshold; they constitute one: an egress to the outside.”

Here we gain an insight not only into Fisher’s interest in Lynch but his interest in cinema as a whole. These films are not simply dreams, detached from reality; they can affect reality profoundly, and indeed, portray for us a reality affected. To make a film, then, is to document the manifestation of another reality. Shakespeare’s oft-repeated adage that the whole world is a stage is inverted, such that the dreamwork of Hollywood soundstages constitutes the very real production of worlds other to but nonetheless inside this one. (Fisher: “There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.”) 

Deleuze writes on this same non-Euclidean folding at length in his two books on cinema, in which he attempts to conceptualise what we might call the “visual language” of cinema itself, whilst being careful the emphasise the ways that cinema’s regime of signs is profoundly other to all of the languages that make up the written or spoken languages on this planet. Indeed, his concepts of “movement-image” and “time-image” become ways of conceptualising the “language” of cinema that purposefully refuses to borrow too readily from the already-familiar mechanics of other signifying mediums. This newness is important and radical, and uncovers a truism we take for granted. For instance, whilst we might recognise how most cinematic “scenes” are structured in ways that make narrative sense to us, we cannot say that a scene is constructed like a sentence. Thus, cinema, Deleuze concludes, “constitutes a whole ‘psychomechanics’, the spiritual automation, the utterable of a language system which has its own logic.” 

What is so fascinating about Lynch’s works – as well as those of the other masters of surrealist horror and the cinematic weird and eerie, such as Bergman, Kubrick, et al. – is that they seem to channel the unconsciousness of our cinematic systems. They play with the common logic of cinematic sense to demonstrate other ways of thinking cinematically. We call their strangest films “dreamlike” perhaps because we recognise how the non sequiturs and non-narrative visual collages found in their works echo the non-linguistic communications of our own unconscious, but we have far more agency over the production of cinema than we do over the production of our own dreams. Indeed, whereas our dreams seem strangely inaccessible to us, emerging from the darkest realms of the self, cinema appears before us with unprecedented clarity, making it an innately and unprecedently psychedelic medium.

Films are dreams alive, and therefore have more purchase on our imaginations than we may give them credit for. Cinema is innately hyperstitional, in this regard; films are fictions that make themselves real. To talk about film as a “first step”, then, is to undervalue the constant movement that makes cinema what it is. Deleuze writes: “Those who first made and thought about cinema began from a simple idea: cinema as industrial art achieves self-movement, automatic movement, it makes movement the immediate given of the image.” He continues: “Automatic movement gives rise to a spiritual automaton in us, which reacts in turn on movement.” The relatively new medium of cinema, then, begins to feel like a new conduit between new thoughts and new representations. 

Here, Deleuze adds a footnote, quoting from Elie Faure’s Fonction du cinéma, in which Faure writes that cinema’s “material automatism … gives rise inside these images to this new universe which gradually imposes on our intellectual automatism.” What cinema constitutes is a new feedback loop in regimes of sense-making, such that we experience, in Faure’s words, “the subordination of the human soul to the tools which it creates, and vice versa.” This vice versa is of the utmost importance, and is arguably most felt in all great art, but cinema provides us with a radically new way of thinking this kind of relation. It seems, however, that we shy away from doing this. 

This is to say that when we detach cinema from the means of its own production, we fail to recognise how cinema is not simply a medium that affects us but also a medium that is the product of new affections. A new film with a radical political message, for example, is not an exciting prospect simply because it might change people’s mind; its very existence reveals how thought has already changed. We can watch the Barbie movie as a potent recent example: though its political content may newly inspire young viewers to investigate the histories of feminism, the very fact that the film was made signals that we are living in a new moment, in which the basic tenets of feminism have found mainstream appeal and in which capitalism has found new ways of appropriating radical politics – something which unnerves those on both the left and right of politics, although seemingly not in equal measure. But Mattel’s corporate feminism, as dramatized by Greta Gerwig, is far from self-confident. It is anxious. It is a film that prevaricates on the dwindling relevancy not just of Barbie as a product but of capitalism’s broader ideals.

To reiterate, with this in mind, cinema is not so much a first step as it is the actualising of an always-already moving thought. Films are critiques, which are curtains, which do not mark a threshold so much as they constitute one. Barbie remains a vivid example: though we might celebrate its potential to inspire new thought, its production by Mattel as a kind of relaunch of their intellectual property suggests an anxiety with regards to the affectivity of previously popular commodities. Barbie has re-entered our collective consciousness in a bold and assertive new way, albeit through a film that betrays innumerable anxieties that surround the efficacy of a commodity-politics. We might argue, then, that Barbie is a movie about post-capitalist desire – and our desires are so often anxious – because it illuminates and wrestles with our changing thoughts and habits, which might well leave Barbie, as a commodified ideal of womanhood, on the scrapheap of capitalist history. The film has already made over a billion dollars at the global box office, and this will no doubt increase tenfold when we factor in the sales of movie merchandising. But whereas my friends – it is true – are enjoying a post-ironic moment of filling their wardrobes with pink, Barbie nonetheless still constitutes a shift in our political imaginary. Barbie is not a first step but a much later step on a post-capitalist journey; it is a film that demonstrates a corporation anxiously responding to a future upon which it may have little ideological purchase.

A week or so after writing these words, Phil Elverum makes the connection between Barbie and Twin Peaks: The Return all the more explicit in the latest edition of his newsletter:

I watched Barbie last night. Not that I want to wade into the wide trench of interesting conversation on the internet about this movie, but here’s my one thought:

It reminded me of Twin Peaks: Season 3, “The Return”. There are probably some other deep heads online talking about this, how could there not be? The doppelgangers, the real/fake, dark/light counterparts parallel existing in dream world/real world. Dark Cooper/Agent Cooper, Doll Barbie/Human Barbie Owner, the portal opening between worlds, demonic transformative manifestation of inter-generational trauma, etc. The end of Barbie when she’s in a featureless void space contemplating becoming an “uncomfortable” mortal human reminded me of this part where Cooper is floating on a dream satellite thing between realms. The vast dark sea where ideas come from. And something about the ending of Twin Peaks, returning to Laura’s house, “what year is this?”, the scream of half-recognition, it felt somehow the same as when Barbie Pinocchios into a human and walks into the doctors’ office. That’s my little blip of an observation.

Both not only dramatize but actualise the otherwise hidden affectations of the unconscious. They bring to life those parts that linger in some elsewhere. They represent the life of the mind, rendering the unconscious in rich colours of velvet and plastic. Shadows be gone.

We are all irrepressible-thoughts-of-death Barbie at the end of the day, teetering on the edge of short and long sleeps.

I want to cover over the gaping maw, the pit within. To sleep without dream. The other night someone spoke about how dreams feel like they last the night, but the only dreams remembered are those had whilst you emerge from unconsciousness. Dreams are only remembered when sleep is disturbed. To sleep without dream is to truly rest.

I haven’t had a rest for a while.

I daydream about how to patch the hole that leaks old traumas. I coddle myself in my duvet and open Sappho on fragment 100. I misread the line appropriately, as if the unconscious reorders the words before me, twisting reality in a way too subtle for me to notice on the first pass:

and with delicate woven cloths covered up her well

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