Monday, September 21, 2015

Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie


As we have seen, Doc’s career and dilemmas illustrate consequences of the pleasure principle. In contrast, Shasta Fay’s choices dramatize the reality principle. Her career and her careerist motives are salient in the novel . Anderson drops Shasta Fay’s motives and omits almost all mention of her career  from the movie. In their absence, the competition between the two principles and the implicit political contrast between the ex-lovers disappears.

The novel repeatedly mentions Shasta Fay the aspiring actress.  The movie retains only two remnants of these references. In the more salient of them, a voice-over describes the end of Doc and Shasta Fay’s relationship with a metaphor borrowed from another scene in the book.  After Bigfoot Bjornsen calls Doc to maliciously tell him Shasta Fay has disappeared, Doc drifts into a reverie of the couple’s happier days. In the voice over, Sortilege tells us, “It wasn’t any clearer what had driven them apart. They each gradually located a different karmic thermal, watching the other glide away to different fates.” Anderson has added the first sentence in this quote, and with this addition the image describes a situation the opposite of that described in the novel.

Rather than invoking an unfathomable destiny, the novel simply attributes the separation to Shasta Fay’s ambition. In the first of the novel’s back stories, we learn Shasta Fay was the prettiest girl in her school, starred in high school theatricals, and “fantasized like everyone else about getting into movies.” Like Doc, she is inspired to her career by commodity entertainments. More realistically oriented than Doc, she wants to emulate the actresses rather than the narrated characters. Shasta Fay and Doc remain together briefly, then “Soon enough she was answering casting calls and getting some theater work, onstage and off, and Doc was into his own apprenticeship as a skip tracer, and each, gradually locating a different karmic thermal … .” The forces that drove them apart do not perplex Doc and never did. Their decisions on their respective careers separated them. The metaphoric “karmic thermal” hews closely to the original sense of karma, the emotional causality through which those choices lead to their separation .

The people around Doc and Shasta Fay recognize this causal connection clearly. Doc’s mother Elmina, who does not appear in the movie, expresses her lingering hope that Doc and Shasta Fay may yet end up together. At the same time, she sympathizes with Shasta Fay’s ambition and validates their separation, “She had her career, … It’s hard but sometimes you have to let a girl go where her dreams are calling her.” To the novel’s characters, as to us, Shasta Fays’s choice of career over romance forms such an obvious, common sense corollary of the capitalist reality principle that we barely notice it.

Shasta Fay’s commitment to the reality principle entails a dilemma particular to it for her, just as Doc’s commitment to the pleasure principle did for him. Her realistic choice does not end Shasta Fay’s spontaneous humane, social impulses. Because she has chosen to disavow affection and caring in the direction of her life, she must struggle against instrumentalizing these feelings in her personal life and must attempt to deny them a place in her professional relationships. Pynchon conveys this struggle subtly and intensely in the two extended scenes in which Shasta Fay appears in the novel.

Like Doc, Shasta Fay feels these caring impulses deeply. Accordingly, the choice to subordinate romantic love to the requirements of her career has profound emotional consequences for Shasta Fay. She quickly recognizes the possibility of instrumentalizing her looks and sexuality. After a year in Hollywood, her career seems to consist more of dreams and ambitions than of successes. An encounter between Doc and head shop owner Ensenada Slim gives us a glimpse of these limits. Slim asks if he had really seen Shasta Fay’s car the previous evening, and Doc confirms she dropped in on him.  Doc adds that he had thought that when he saw her again, “… it’d be on the tube, not in person.” Slim concurs, “Sometimes I think I see her at the edge of the screen? But it’s always some look –alike.” Shasta Fay’s on-screen roles are scarce, her success limited. As Shasta Fay confronts the economic insecurity of selling her abilities as an actress, the reality principle quickly fosters a calculating employment of her looks and sexuality.

Shasta Fay’s calculation leads to her allowing Mickey Wolfmann to keep her. But she avowedly employs this rationality more broadly in assessing her relationships to men. In the scene where she and Doc have sex and talk, the talk turns to her connection to Coy Harlingen.  Shasta Fay had taken it on herself to ask Burke Stodger for help in finding Coy access to treatment for his heroin addiction out of a basic desire to help. Even then, she had to think over her feelings for the sax player. She weighed romantic and pragmatic considerations, and chose realistically “He was not, could never be the love of her life,” good friend and talented musician though he be. Her choice follows from more than a judicious caution regarding heroin users.  She sums up her attitude for Doc, “... I was never the sweetest girl in the business, there was no reason for me to waste half a minute on a sick junkie like Coy … .” She makes explicit the same utilitarian calculation that motivated her relationship with Wolfmann, and implies that if she had considered the opportunity advantageous, she would have cheated on her sugar daddy. Shasta Fay strives to consistently treat her relations to men as business relations.

Shasta Fay’s relationship with Mickey Wolfmann also demonstrates the equivocal emotional outcome for her of her utilitarian deployment of sex and the balancing of the pleasure and reality principles that it demands.  In the first chapter of the novel, before Shasta Fay has even told Doc that it is Wolfmann who is keeping her, she describes his wife’s plot to gain control of his fortune and her own ambivalence about the wife’s invitation for her to participate in the scam. Doc asks whether she has had trouble deciding if it would be right or wrong, and she replies, “Worse than that. … How much loyalty I owe him.”  Coy presented no temptation worth considering, but a share of Wolfmann’s fortune is another matter. In response, Doc reduces the relationship to its essence, “Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money. How much of the rent’s he been picking up?” She answers, “All of it,” and in a notably affluent neighborhood at that, in contrast to the “low-rent living space in Hollywood” that she had so recently sought as she started her career. Her entry into an unscrupulous milieu of property owners and exploiters has amplified the dilemma of Shasta Fay’s instrumental ethics. The potential she sees in herself scares her.  Her request that Doc investigate the situation resolves her ambivalence in favor of caring.  By involving Doc she acknowledges to herself that she loves Wolfmann and recognizes that her affection and care have been subsumed into an unambiguously instrumental relationship.

Opting for the pleasure principle gave Doc an emotionally satisfying career but did not pay the bills. Inversely, opting for the reality principle pays Shasta Fay’s bills, but stifles her fundamental emotional and social impulses, leaving them sublated, co-opted and unsatisfied. Even when Shasta Fay can indulge her impulses to care and protect for their own sake, the oppressive milieu into which her realistic decisions have brought her ensures that the results still harm the people she cares for. Earlier in the conversation in which she and Doc discuss Coy Harlingen’s recovery from his addiction, she infers from Coy’s repeated visits to Chryskylodon that he might still be using and reaches this realization ”With an unhappy look on her face.” She reflects that Coy is incapable of handling addiction or recovery and that he is thus putting his family in jeopardy, as she explains to Doc “… and that’s why I’m worried.” From their first encounter, Coy’s addiction has appeared to her as an opportunity to help, “ … it was luck, dumb luck, that had put them each where they were, and the best way to pay for any luck, however temporary was just to be helpful when you could.” Yet as Doc bluntly lays it out for her, Shasta Fay’s well-intentioned intervention has resulted in Coy becoming a police infiltrator and informant, complicit through his activities in three deaths. Once rationally subordinated to capitalist ethics, the communist impulses of the pleasure principle thwart themselves and serve the forces that oppose them.

The subjective subordination of her erotic impulses to the reality principle also has directly harmful consequences for Shasta Fay herself.  As her relationship with Wolfmann ends, Shasta Fay realizes how her prioritization of the reality principle snared her into a perverse devotion to Wolfmann. “Fast, brutal, not what you’d call a considerate lover, an animal, actually but [his wife] Sloan adored that about him … we all did … .” After relating how Wolfmann exploited her sexually, Shasta Fay masturbates Doc and herself to orgasm. At climax, ““You fucker!” she cried – not, Doc guessed, at him, - “you bastard … .” Deciding on intimate relationships in accord with the reality principle could not immunize Shasta Fay against caring and affection.  Unavoidably, the reality principle has tainted her feelings, however tender or devoted, and infiltrated them with the selfishness and exploitiveness of capitalist relations. Because Shasta Fay still yearns for some comfort and sustenance within her relationships, her adherence to the reality principle can only disabuse her cruelly and fill her with fury at her exploiter and abuser.

The movie omits Shasta Fay’s career, just as it omitted Doc’s. This omission removes the history of motives and decisions that give emotional depth to her character and political complexity to her emotions. Only two pieces of the characterization we have discussed reappear. In the first scene of the movie, as in the novel, we hear Shasta Fay’s unhappy perplexity at her willingness to consider betraying Wolfmann. In the scene of Shasta Fay and Doc’s sex, we hear of Wolfmann’s brutality as a lover. But we do not hear her fury at him. Without the history behind her mercenary decisions and her charitable friendship with Coy, what remains is an inexplicably thoughtless and selfish young woman of whom we know only that she has rejected and hurt Doc. To flesh out her character, the movie, as it did with Doc, adapts and adds material to elaborate Shasta Fay’s feelings within her relationship to Doc, but at the same time to confine and focus them there. Anderson concentrates this revision in two short scenes, which together last barely three minutes and come late in the movie. Although very brief in comparison to the scene in Doc’s apartment, they convey much about Shasta Fay’s feelings toward Doc and her desire to reestablish their relationship.

 The first very brief scene follows directly on the scene in Doc’s apartment and shows Shasta Fay’s delight in their reunion. In the scene’s thirty seconds, Shasta Fay and Doc walk along the beach. This scene adapts the final paragraph of the chapter in which they talk and have sex. In that paragraph, Shasta Fay leads the way from the apartment to the beach, where they walk in the dark and the rain. Doc trails her, seeing, “the nape of her neck in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of.” Her bearing is actorly and generic, and shemanipulates the posture of separation to create attraction. For Doc’s part, he “followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did.” Shasta Fay’s trail leads to neither past nor future and disappears before his eyes.  Doc himself empties out bleakly, “The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.” He confronts the ambivalent outcome of his career, that, as Shasta Fay has suggested, he has like Coy Harlingen become an agent of the police and, as he infers himself, of the property-owners behind them.

The movie takes this scene centered on Doc, suffused with his dejection at their irrecoverable romance and his dismay at the ethical precarity of his profession and transforms it into one devoted to Shasta’s Fay glee that they are reunited. Free of dialog, the scene is the most carefully and strikingly choreographed in the movie. The camera follows the couple down the beach in the light of day in relative close up, Doc on the right in the foreground with his back to us, Shasta Fay to the left in the midground and facing Doc and the camera. Their motion and the motion of the camera brings them closer, separates them, lets her leave the frame to the left and return.  This pattern evokes the difficult history of their relationship. Shasta Fay’s face forms the expressive center of the shot. Her gaze repeatedly turns and returns to Doc.  She smiles and smiles as the sight of him. As they move to the left of the frame again, Doc turns about and walks down the beach backwards. At this familiar frivolity, Shasta Fay’s smile bursts into a grin. She circles him, reversing their original disposition. Doc walking backwards and facing backwards deftly reverses the sense and feel of Doc’s orientation to the past in the novel.  Doc can confidently advance while looking back, and Shasta Fay savors the intimacy her initiative has restored. The simple but elaborate motion and Shasta Fay’s radiant smiles convey clearly her desire to restore their romantic relationship.

The second scene closes the movie and reveals Shasta Fay’s desire as more trying and less happy for her. It traces the tension in Doc and Shasta Fay’s reunion to an ambivalent conclusion. It adapts the final scene of the novel so thoroughly that it becomes in effect a new one. The conclusion of the story transforms from a vision of Doc’s political solitude and longing to a portrait of Doc’s unsettling assertion of dominance and independence in his relationship to Shasta Fay. In the novel, Doc drives south on the Freeway through a thick fog. With the vision of all the drivers on the road almost fully impaired, they form a spontaneous caravan on the highway. Doc thinks, “It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.” Doc drives on and imagines how the fog might last for days and the small and great adventures that could result.  The final imagined outcome, in the most noted words of the novel, is “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.” This tender, nihilistic yearning ends the novel on a subdued visionary note of revolution.

The movie, instead, places us face to face with Doc and Shasta Fay in a tight close up as they apparently sit in the front seat of a car, although the vehicle does not seem to move. From the final scene between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen, a voice over bridges to this scene, as Shasta Fay reminds Doc of the day they ran through a rainstorm and then cuddled in a doorway, the scene which contained the image of the “karmic thermal.” We cut to the close up of the couple in the car, and Shasta Fay draws the parallel between that situation and the one we are watching, “Just us – together. Almost like being underwater – the world – everything – [she shakes her head] gone someplace else.” Her imagined disappearance of the world closely resembles Doc’s imagined ending in the novel, but here the world vanishes to make the lovers’ intimacy a world in itself, a conventionally romantic vision. Doc looks at her, then away and suggests that Sortilege was simply attempting to set them up (a claim inconsistent with the story’s chronology). But Shasta Fay insists on the cosmic nature of their relationship, “She knows things, Doc, things about us maybe we don’t know.” Doc looks at her, ahead, away to his left, up to his right, and finally responds, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” In both the novel and the movie, Shasta Fay said the same to him after they had sex. The symmetry makes the ambivalent balance between their past experience and their present desire the dramatic resolution of the story. Shasta Fay replies “Of course not,” but with a grin, where Doc had responded with these words solemnly in the earlier scene. Doc sighs. Shasta Fay looks down out of the corner of her eye toward him, her brow furrows, and the screen goes dark. This conclusion concentrates the substance of the story into the mutual expectations and disappointments in a love vexed by a woman’s inexplicable infidelity. Doc has turned the tables and asserted his dominance in a continuing contest to set the terms of the couple’s relationship.  The reformulation of the resolution to this wary negotiation of a conventional romantic transgression removes the sense of the story far from the novel’s inclusive social aspiration to a fresh start where cooperation and care do not such forbidding odds. The dynamic interaction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle within and between the characters has become an exemplary power struggle in the battle of the sexes.

In adapting Inherent Vice for film, Paul Thomas Anderson eliminated a network of political themes that integrate the novel from its surface through its substance. This revision does not merit criticism in and of itself. Movie makers adapt literary sources when they find in them material suited to their own concerns. In Inherent Vice Anderson found much that appealed to his interest in men’s emotional devotion and women’s disruptive impact on them. Even Anderson’s reduction of the complexity of Pynchon’s writing cannot be faulted. The movie does evoke much that the brevity of its form cannot explore at length. Anderson’s reworking of the story troubles me on another level where the political themes themselves contribute to a broader theme.

 The movie’s viewers and reviewers saw the movie foremost as a representation of the 60s. They differed on the appeal of the image of that period according to the view of those years they brought with them. Yet regardless of whether they find those elements attractive or objectionable, Anderson has constrained the range of elements and of the discussion. As Anderspm depoliticizes the story and deradicalizes its characters, he impoverishes our image of the 60s and forecloses our connection to deeply important experiences of those years.  A story whose symbolic appeal derives from its representation of an ideologically loaded history reduces those years to hair styles, clothes, drug use and sex. Dressed in those stereotypical elements, Anderson’s story reduces the revolutionary theme of the pleasure principle to the conventional erotics of the romantic couple and this reduction allows the capitalist reality principle to dominate the production of a story based on its marketability.

Pynchon values the 60s for what he calls the “prerevolution.” He has written about those experiences for over 40 years and has given increasingly detailed consideration to the prerevolution’s virtues, failings and defeat. Inherent Vice dramatizes roots and contradictions of radical political aspirations central to the 60s and frighteningly depicts the most determined opposition to those strivings for freedom. The cold-blooded repression of those aspirations permeates the themes, structures and characters of the story. The aspiration to freedom, to humane self-realization in love and work collides in manifold ways with the interests of the owners of real estate and corporations and with the governments that enforce their interests. Ultimately, to defend himself and those he cares for against those brutally repressive interests, Doc Sportello must kill. That vision of the complex conflict between the forces of liberation and repression deserves serious reflection as a lesson of the 60s. In obscuring this vision, Anderson contributes signally to the ongoing conservative, commercial denaturing and trivialization of the 60s. His movie gives a romantic story set in the 60s rather than Pynchon’s story about and of the 60s. Anderson’s movie silences experiences of the 60s that we should hold on to and cherish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie


Now we can look at the deeper implicit politics in the novel. We will consider love and work in the stories of Doc and Shasta Fay and how the movie redefines and rebalances them . Anderson makes love the primary, self-contained theme of the movie and elides work.  In the novel, love and work share essential emotional affinities, and the two commitments interact crucially in Doc and Shasta’s relationships. Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization provides a helpful orientation to understanding the political nature of love and work and their connection to capitalism and anti-capitalism in the novel.
The German Marxist Herbert Marcuse taught at the University of California – San Diego at the time Inherent Vice takes place. His work was widely read in the New Left, and Pynchon scholars have noted thematic affinities between Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Pynchon’s earlier work. The affinities are perhaps even stronger in Inherent Vice. Marcuse merged Freud’s theory of the psyche with Marx’s theory of capitalism to speculate on a theory of feelings and values particular to capitalism. Freud argued that humans need to live in society in order to more completely satisfy their material needs. Life in society requires us to repress our impulses to pursue our pleasure and subordinate them to the rational requirements of work and social order. Taken as a whole, our urges to pursue our pleasure constitute the “pleasure principle.” The counter-posed necessity to repress these urges constitutes the “reality principle.” The constant effort to calibrate and reconcile these two contradictory principles comprises the ordered dynamics of our emotional lives.
Marcuse maintained capitalist production has specific consequences for these emotional processes. He follows Marx’s arguments that production in and of itself meets our need for food, clothing, shelter and leisure, and that capitalist production must also produce profit.  Capitalism must therefore impose more work on us than is needed simply to meet those material needs. Competition additionally requires capital to produce an ever greater amount of profit at an ever greater rate. The growth in demand for work and repression knows no limit. As we increasingly sacrifice free time to work, our leisure suffers. Work not only shortens our leisure, the drive for profit replaces leisure activities particular to our needs with commercially produced free-time activities. Capital necessarily increases repression and decreases the scope for creativity and self-direction.
Marcuse’s diagnosis of this emotional duress also enables him to see that possibilities for fuller, more satisfying lives inhere in late capitalism. Remove the profit motive from production, and the levels of productivity would allow us all lives of leisure. Remove competition, and in all our pursuits we can practice cooperation and care. The pleasure principle can outweigh the reality principle in every aspect of our lives. In the Freudian terms that label all pleasure and prosocial impulses as erotic, Marcuse anticipates “the erotization of the entire personality,” a transformation that releases the libido, the instinct for pleasure, from its limitation to sex and infuses it into all activities.  Once freedom from work allows us to choose our pursuits, the nature of what was formerly work transforms.  We choose our vocations for the pleasures they provide, and we organize them to maximize those pleasures. A society no longer based on the exigencies of labor but on the materially transformed mutual inclinations of its members is Marcuse’s emotional vision of communism.
 The attempt to live out these aspirations individually and to balance them against the imperatives of work and money define the emotional dramas within Inherent Vice. As Doc and Shasta work and love, they must reconcile the imperatives of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. They struggle to realize their aspirations to affection and fulfillment while confronting the coercion to work and compete.  Doc attempts to live in accord with the pleasure principle while struggling with the reality principle, and Shasta Fay attempts to live in accord with the reality principle while struggling with the pleasure principle. In Doc and Shasta’s daily careers and loves communist erotics and its ethics confront capitalist erotics and its ethics.
Under the auspices of the pleasure principle, work and leisure become one and the same. In the novel, Doc strives for this erotic unity in his career as a private investigator, but his experience demonstrates that work and leisure ultimately cannot fuse in capitalism. The movie retains only disconnected vestiges of this theme.  Anderson omits the glimpses that the novel gives us of how Doc arrived at his career. He also reduces the indications of how and why Doc performs his work as pleasure, although the movie still movingly represents some of these emotions.
In the novel, commodified detective stories in radio, movies and television introduced Doc to the libidinal pleasures of investigation. We hear about Doc’s first childhood pursuit of this pleasure in the scene in which Doc asks assistant attorney Penny Kimball for access to the sealed file on Adrian Prussia. In a stretch of dialog cut from the scene in the movie, Penny needs Doc to reassure her that he is not angry with her for having handed him over to FBI agents for questioning. She maintains she could not have asked him first, because “You people all hate the FBI.” Doc disarms this imputation with an absurd story of his antics in the first grade.
His jocular anecdote assumes he was a member of the Junior G-men, a club organized through a popular radio drama about an FBI agent. He claims to have used his “Dick Tracy Junior G-man” kit to fingerprint all the kids in his grade and ended up with detention for a month.  He has clearly fabricated this story. Not just that he asserts the six year-old enjoyed his detention because he got the chance to look up his teacher’s skirt. In fact, the comic strip police detective Dick Tracy was never associated with the Junior G-men, and the G-men radio broadcast had ended before Doc was born. The memory of the show, however, still remained vivid, even in my own childhood a decade after Doc’s. Doc can plausibly enough for comic effect cast himself as one more child absorbed in a pervasive anti-crime movement initiated and organized through the commercial media and inducing boys everywhere to imagine themselves exuberantly investigating.
At other times, Doc talks more seriously and credibly about the impact of fictional investigators on his aspirations. Deep in the novel, after Shasta Fay returns to Gordita Beach, Doc goes to see her. She tells him about befriending Burke Stodger, the former owner of the Golden Fang and blacklistee turned anti-Communist. She mentions having seen his film .45-Caliber Kissoff, and Doc exclaims, “That picture made me who I am today.  That PI that Burke Stodger played, man, I always wanted be him.” Burke Stodger is a fiction within the fiction, but on another occasion Doc also names fictions from the world of the novel’s readers, the prototypical hard-boiled investigators Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade,  and the less familiar Johnny Staccato, “the shamus of shamuses,” a jazz-playing private eye from a television series that ran at the end of Doc’s teens. The vicarious enjoyments of media mysteries provided Doc with models for emulation, and his mediated pleasure ultimately translated into real enjoyment. After just one week as a skip-tracer trainee locating debtors, Doc remarks to Fritz Drybeam, who has given him his first job as an investigator, “This is fun.” The sheer pleasure of investigation, first as an object of medial consumption, then as job, forms the foundation for Doc’s career.
Over burgers with Fritz, after Fritz has given him the history of the Golden Fang, Doc even provides a little detail about the qualities he esteems in the PIs of movies and tv. He admires them not simply for their abilities, but because they excel the police in investigation, PIs are “always smarter and more professional than the cops, always end up solving the crime while the cops are following wrong leads and getting in the way.” Doc aspires to the success that results from intelligence, investigative discipline and imaginative skills unencumbered by institutional regimentation and routine.  He also laments how the shift in television viewing from PI shows to cop shows results in respect for and reliance on cops and in disrespect for PIs, with the result that “most of us private flatfoots can’t even make the rent.” The career that fulfills his desires conflicts with the realities of earning his living. But when Fritz asks Doc why he sticks with it, Doc can only intimate how unhappy he would be without it. The pleasure Doc finds in investigating outweighs considerations of income, but he must endure the clash of the pleasure principle and the reality principle, as long as work is the precondition of him investigating as he desires.
Doc’s devotion to investigation rather than to earning his living through investigation has deep roots. The novel establishes early on that money does not motivate Doc’s career. It goes on to show that besides investigating for the personal pleasure of fully, productively employing his mind, Doc investigates out of friendship, a social expression of the pleasure principle. Over the course of the story, Doc is commissioned for six investigations. Two of these clients, Tarik Khalil and Coy Harlingen tell Doc when they first request his services that they cannot pay. Doc responds to Khalil, “Groovy with that,” and tells Coy, “When you can.” With the other four clients, all women, money is never even mentioned.
A pair of interactions with people who know him closely establish that Doc’s nonchalance and silences express a deliberate disavowal of money and that this rejection of mercenary motives is central to Doc’s character. In their conversations with Doc, his Aunt Reet, very early in the story, and his best friend Denis, very late, explicitly presume Doc’s disinterest in money. These conversations frame the other examples of non-paying agreements. Right after Shasta Fay has asked him to investigate the apparent plot against Mickey Wolfmann, Doc calls Reet, a real estate agent, for information about Wolfmann, the real estate developer. She fills in some background, advises Doc against tangling with Wolfmann then bluntly asks “Whos’s paying you?” Doc hesitates, “Well … .” Reet retorts “All on spec, eh? Big surprise.” Doc’s aunt anticipates and views with concern his lack of interest in paying work.
Similarly, as Doc and Denis prepare to meet the Golden Fang’s agents to return the stolen heroin that will secure Coy Harlingen’s freedom, Denis expresses his own concern at Doc’s disregard for money. He tells Doc “… I know you’re not dealing smack and probably not making any money out of this trip tonight either. But you should be getting something for your trouble.” Doc responds to Denis’s worry, “I’m getting their word they won’t hurt anybody. My friends, my family – me, you, a couple others.” Doc prefers the intangible reward of caring for and protecting clients, friends and family to earning money. Every one of Doc’s investigations in the novel manifests this desire to help and protect.
Doc’s generous commitment to caring motivates not just the six commissioned investigations. In the most important and dramatic investigation in the story, Doc knowingly colludes with Bigfoot Bjornsen as the police detective manipulates him into investigating Puck Beaverton and Adrian Prussia.  The climax of that investigation almost costs Doc his life, ends only when Doc has killed both Puck and Adrian in self-defense, and leaves Doc raging at Bigfoot. Nonetheless, Doc remains irrepressibly concerned for the detective’s well-being. After Doc has handed over the heroin to the Golden Fang agents, Bigfoot tails them as they drive off. Doc watches him go after them and reflects on the perils of the detective’s grief-driven vendetta, “Bigfoot’s not my brother … But he sure needs a keeper.” Denis, knowing Doc too well, soberly replies, “It ain’t you, Doc.” Doc assents, “I know. Too bad, in a way.” Doc’s bond with a fellow investigator and his empathy with Bigfoot’s pain and rage runs so deep, he can acknowledge the unbridgeable and perilous differences in their values and ethics only with regret. Doc aspires to help all who need assistance solely on the basis of their humanity.  This desire for investigation driven by caring rather than money is Doc’s outstanding communist trait.
No matter how soundly and firmly Doc responds to the impulses of the pleasure principle, these impulses conflict with the reality principle of capitalism. As we have seen, commercial narratives channel Doc’s desire for emotional and social gratification into a career inseparable from the legal institutions that serve the interests of property. In fact, the interests of property open Doc’s opportunity to become an investigator. Doc’s investigative career not only begins with him collecting debts, Fritz Drybeam in fact hires Doc to become a debt collector, so that Doc and can work off his own debts by skip-tracing. When Doc asserted that he “can’t even make the rent,” he understated a bitter truth. The novel’s last chapter reveals that Doc has such substantial debt that a $10,000 windfall will barely cover them. The novel understates this conflict, but the Doc’s struggles with his rent and his debt underscore the idealism of his investigations.
At times, the movie conveys Doc’s caring well, but Anderson retains only rudiments of the frame that contrasts communist and mercenary motives, and he alters the significance of the trait. Reet and Denis’s expressions of concern are cut from the respective scenes in the movie. Without Reet’s reproach, we cannot hear the eloquent silences on money when Doc agrees to investigate for Shasta Fay, Hope Harlingen and Clancy Charlock. Without this frame Doc’s dismissal of Coy Harlingen’s express inability to pay no longer belongs to a pattern. Thus the movie does not represent Doc’s rejection of money and earning money as a consequence of his caring and caring is not the fundamental motivation in Doc’s character. Nonetheless, Anderson still emphasizes the importance of Doc’s caring and adds two scenes of his own to the story to recontextualize it.
The first scene, between Doc and Sortilege, touchingly registers the depth of Doc’s concern for Coy and his family. As Doc broods over a postcard he received from Shasta Fay while she was missing, Sortilege gently, but probingly inquires after the feelings that trouble him aside from his longing for Shasta Fay. Doc hesitantly identifies his distress at Coy Harlingen’s undeserved separation from his beloved wife and child. Sortilege urges Doc to act on his feelings, as he will. The scene is poignant and affecting. But Doc’s reluctant resolve presents his motives not as a constant and consistent personal trait present in all his investigations, but as particular to Coy’s dilemma and rooted in Doc’s own similar loss.

The second scene forms a thematic counterpart to the first. Doc drives Coy home from the treatment facility Chryskylodon, and the two take their farewells in Doc’s car. Coy walks up the sidewalk onto the porch, and Hope answers his knock. They embrace quietly, then go inside, where jubilation erupts. In the foreground Doc sits pensively behind the wheel. The scene emphasizes that Doc has brought Coy and Hope back together because Coy’s situation mirrors his own separation from Shasta Fay. While Doc’s success in restoring the Harlingens’ marriage may console him, it cannot assuage his longing. Doc yearns to restore his own romantic relationship, not to rectify the injustices his friends and clients suffer at the hands of the propertied interests of Southern California. Doc in the movie is a sad and lonely man possessed by his loss rather than choosing an exile from work and wages in order to devote himself to assisting others. Anderson has divested Doc’s caring of its social dimensions. Doc’s libidinal impulses are primarily sexual and romantic and his social impulses derived from his internal emotional conflicts.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Inherent Vice


Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie


When I heard Paul Thomas Anderson was making a movie from Thomas Pynchon’s novel inherent Vice, I was tickled. I knew nothing about Anderson’s filmmaking, but I have been reading Pynchon devotedly since Gravity’s Rainbow was published. It gratified me to know a movie by a noted director would bring Pynchon’s writing to new audiences. I looked forward to the movie for months. Yet I did not expect the movie to satisfy me. Even Pynchon’s simplest writing challenges his readers in uncommon ways and would challenge a film maker no less.

On the way to the theater, we listened to a podcast interview with the director. Anderson described the movie as the story of the ex-lover you remain devoted to. His description confirmed my expectation that the movie would not tell the story on the same levels as the novel did. Watching the movie, I was struck by the near total absence of the book’s political themes. In the podcast, the interviewer had raised the question of 60s influences on Pynchon’s style and themes. This question nagged me. He mentioned names like Lenny Bruce, but not Herbert Marcuse or Chairman Mao, whom the novel actually mentions. I want to discuss this political blindspot and the resultant difference between the stories Pynchon and Anderson tell.

Politics figures in the novel on two levels. The first level of politics is explicit. On several occasions,  characters interpret experiences in terms of “capitalism.” In their mouths, “capitalism” indicates their political consciousness and thereby frames the story as political from their own perspective. On several other occasions, private eye Doc Sportello’s investigations turn up lengthier background histories of characters and organizations. These explicitly political histories reveal deadly forces of covert repression that threaten Doc, his clients and friends. On a second, implicit level of politics, the dynamics of capitalism pervade the characters’ very feelings and their relationships. The explicit examples of politics suggest the political themes that permeate every aspect of the novel and demonstrate how Anderson’s adaptation systematically elides these fundamental themes.

On the level of explicit politics, Doc Sportello, his lawyer Sauncho Smilax and the sex worker Jade, whom Doc befriends, each interpret particular experiences in terms of capitalism.  For Doc, capitalism defines the values that govern his complex relationship to the police, his most important relationship in the novel. After talking to a witness about the disappearance of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, Doc finds police detective Bigfoot Bjornson waiting for him. They talk, and once Bigfoot leaves, Doc works out that Bigfoot must have lost a partner and, torn up by that loss, now works alone. The narrator elaborates in language that mirrors Doc’s thoughts, “This bond between partners was nearly the only thing Doc had ever found to admire about the LAPD. … No faking it, not question of buying it with favors, money, promotions – the entire range of capitalist inducement couldn’t get you five seconds of attention to your back when it really counted, you had to go out there and earn it … .” Relations conducted on capitalism’s terms cannot secure care and devotion. Doc prizes these intimate social values and the kind of relationships that can only thrive outside capitalism. These emotional consequences of capitalism and their significance for the pursuit of justice form one of the novel’s main themes on the deeper political level.

Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax watches tv absorbedly while stoned and often interprets his viewing for Doc. During a visit to fill Doc in on information he has gathered about the schooner Golden Fang, an animated ad for StarKist tuna unnerves Sauncho. The ad features Charlie the Tuna in his ongoing attempts to impress the cannery StarKist with his cultural tastes and ends as always with the punchline, “StarKist wants tunas that taste good, not tunas with good taste.” Sauncho explains the ad’s distressing premise, “Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! Suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of supermarket America, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it … .” Sauncho’s absurd outburst expresses his fear of an unthinking acquiescence in the destructive exigencies of commodified work and commodified pleasures. These further emotional consequences of capitalism also form one of the novel’s deeper political themes.

The sex worker Jade might seem less likely to grasp her subjection to capitalism conceptually. Sauncho has, after all, gone to college and law school. Doc at least went to community college. Jade, on the other hand, went to prison. But a consciousness of capitalism as an exploitative, oppressive system is common in Doc’s circles. On the night of Doc’s second meeting with the missing sax player Coy Harlingen, Jade rides back to town with Doc and his buddy Denis. She tells the story of her criminal and sexual career and cautions the men, “Just be advised, boys, … you’ll want watch your step, ‘cause what I am is, is like a small-diameter pearl of the Orient rolling around on the floor of late capitalism – lowlifes of all income levels may step on me now and then but if they do it’ll be them who slip and fall and on a good day break their ass, while the ol’ pearl herself goes a-rollin on.” Jade responds to a society and a job that make her accessible to men and to their abuse by hardening her feelings. This choice allows her to protect herself as well as to inflict harm on those who would abuse her. The interdependent emotional consequences  of physical, emotional and economic dependence, exploitation and abuse, form another of the novel’s root political themes.

In their reflection on personal relations in day-to-day capitalism, the characters of the novel express their interest in living relationships with emotional substance beyond self-interest, in finding gratification in activities beyond isolated consumption, and in shaping their own lives to protect themselves. Their political consciousness and the character traits it divines and guides are lost in the movie. So too is the inescapable impact on them of the repressive networks and institutions that enforce private control over property and lives. On the novel’s explicitly political level, two nexuses of these repressive force interconnect Doc, his friends and clients. The schooner Golden Fang and the murderous loan shark Adrian Prussia embody these deadly networks. Doc’s investigations reveal these focal points of power, and they emerge bit by bit in the narrative until their histories are extensively disclosed. The movie omits the political histories that make sense of the ship and the loan shark and the plots lines involving them.

Doc’s investigation of the schooner Golden Fang spans more of the story than all but one of his commissioned cases. The movie retains the gradual introduction of the Golden Fang:  a note Jade leaves for Doc that closes “Beware the Golden Fang”, a shadow apparently passing in the waterfront fog behind the first conversation between Doc and Coy Harlingen, and the restaurant meeting between Doc and Sauncho where the lawyer introduces the ship’s history.  Uncharacteristically, the movie even keeps the initial mention of the schooner’s political connection. The boat once belonged to actor Burke Stodger,  who sails away on it when he is blacklisted. Anderson even explains the meaning of the blacklist for the viewers, adding  to Sauncho’s account the gloss that Stodger was “branded a Communist.” However, we hear little more than this simple fact, as the movie excises the boat’s subsequent history.

 Later in the same chapter of he novel, Fritz Drybeam, a loan collector who gave Doc his first job as an investigator and remained a friend, has retrieved this history from the ARPAnet, precursor of the internet. Stodger handed the boat over to the government as part of the deal that allowed him to return to work in Hollywood.  This much of Fritz’s information Anderson transfers to Sauncho in the restaurant scene.  But Fritz’s account continues. The schooner reappeared off Cuba on a spy mission “against Fidel Castro.” Later it was deployed on “anti-Communist projects” in Guatemala, West Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere. It monitored radio traffic, delivered weapons to “anti-Communist guerillas, including those at the ill-fated Bay of Pigs.” It ran “CIA heroin” and also took on as cargo “abducted local ‘troublemakers,’ who were never seen again.” The Golden Fang’s history recapitulates decades of the covert repression conducted by the U.S. government against insurgent Communists and nationalists and against its own citizenry. These operations drive the events of the plot. The Golden Fang and the network of government agencies and propertied interests that operates it produce the disrupted lives that Doc investigates.

The exposition of Adrian Prussia’s career is more confusingly abbreviated in the movie. Neither limousine driver Tito Stavrou, who first mentions Prussia,  nor Doc’s former boss Fritz Drybeam, who provides personal knowledge of Prussia’s ties to the LAPD, even appear in the movie. Prussia is introduced in the restaurant scene in which Bigfoot Bjornsen points Doc to Prussia and his Nazi biker henchman Puck in connection with Coy Harlingen’s faked overdose death. As much of Prussia’s history as we are allowed comes in the scene in which Doc’s lover, assistant district attorney Penny Kimball provides him with a sealed file on Prussia’s collaboration with the LAPD. From these records we learn that Prussia was responsible for the murder of Bigfoot Bjornsen’s partner, Detective Vincent Indelicato, that he commited the murder for the LAPD, and that in fact “he might as well have been working for them as a contract killer.” The movie leaves the history of LAPD’s collusion with Prussia at this.

The novel expands on this history and its explicitly political character. In the novel’s climactic scene Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton have abducted Doc and are preparing to murder him. Puck cruelly toys with Doc before preparing a fatal injection of heroin for him. We see this scene in the movie, but we do not hear Puck recount how Prussia became LAPD’s contract killer. A small-time pornographer threatened Governor Reagan’s administration with a blackmail scheme that would have brought it down. To defend Reagan’s career, the Vice Squad commissions Prussia to kill the would-be blackmailer. Adrian arranges a particularly perverse and gruesome murder. The loan shark  is politically conservative and finds that killing for the sake of his political values gives him a “cold keen-edge thrill” with “something sexy about it.”

 Exhilerated by this illicit pleasure, Adrian “felt like his life had turned a corner.” He embraces his new-found career and happily continues to sell his services to the LAPD.  Over the years he “found himself specializing in politicals – black and Chicano activists, antiwar protestors, campus bombers, and assorted other pinko fucks.” When the LAPD asks him to kill a cop, however, the prospect gives Adrian no pleasure, so he hands the job over to Puck, who has particular grounds to despise Detective Indelicato. The omission of this information eliminates the parallel between the covert anti-insurgency conducted from the Golden Fang and the assassinations carried out by Adrian Prussia. It eliminates indications that these foreign and domestic operations are branches of a single network. It also eliminates the defense of his political values as a powerful motive beyond personal animosity and desperate self-preservation for Doc’s readiness to kill Adrian and Puck.

The movie consistently excludes the novel’s explicit political themes at the expense of coherence and depth in the story. The characters lose features, the plot loses motivation and continuity, and the thematic framework loses conceptual integrity. I could present further evidence for Anderson’s treatment of the novel’s politics, but this brief comparison establishes the point clearly enough. The anti-capitalist perspectives voiced by Doc, Sauncho and Jade broach themes that generate the novel’s implicit political substance. Drawing on Herbert Marcuse’s speculative thought on the shaping of the psyche by the relations and processes of capitalist production, in the second part of these comments we will next look at how these deeper political themes fare in Anderson’s adaptation.

Monday, September 22, 2014


In the months after The Times of London and Lord Palmerston appeared the topic of The Times and its political function came up regularly in Marx’s journalism. Most often it was no more than a passing mention, but two articles substantially supplement the analysis discussed in part 1. Both articles comment on potential British military intervention in the Americas. In an article about the Trent Affair, a diplomatic confrontation between Britain and the U.S., that was published in the Viennese paper Die Presse in December of 1861, Marx returns explicitly to the question of how to read the London press in light of its political connections. This article extends the analysis of these connections beyond The Times to include ten more London papers.  In the other article, written for the Daily Tribune in November of 1861, Marx discusses at length the press coverage of the British government’s plans for military intervention in Mexico. This article illustrates at length and in detail both Palmerston’s strategic use of the press to prepare public opinion and the editor’s “cooking” of the news.

The Opinion of the Newspapers and the Opinion of the People is the last of the articles in which Marx reported  the Trent Affair for Viennese readers. Earlier articles had discussed the legal intricacies of the case. This final article uses the diplomatic contentions as a springboard to discuss in detail the emoluments and access Palmerston used to exercise control over coverage of foreign affairs. In passing, we should note that the opening sentence “Continental politicians, who imagine that in the London press they possess a thermometer of the temper of the English people, inevitably draw false conclusions at the present moment” addresses another dimension of the political function of the press. Just as foreign affairs reporting in the press creates public opinion as a factor in British politics, these representations of public opinion are aimed at the policy makers of foreign governments. As the product of Palmerston’s covert arrangements the reports purposefully mislead both audiences. 

The remainder of the opening describes how public opinion and editorial positions shifted in opposite directions over the course of the Trent Affair. When the American seizure of the Confederate emissaries first became news, the public called for war. As the full implications of the issues were discussed, public support for war dwindled. The press followed the opposite track. Initially the press urged moderation. After a time it did an about face and enthusiastically supported war. Marx correlates the position of the press with the development of Palmerston’s policy. As long as the government’s lawyers could not find a legal grounds for war, the press remained moderate. When the government finally had developed a legal pretext for war, the press endorsed war.

The rest of the article explains how it was that the press synchronized its positions with the government and why it adopted positions at odds with the views of its readers. The explanation involves no complex theory. Today in fact it feels like a familiar argument, although I suspect it was unprecedented at the time. Marx simply works through a list of ten daily papers and identifies the source of their position. Not surprisingly, he begins with The Times. This time he introduces the editor Bob Lowe by name and points out he holds a “kind of” position in the Cabinet. Although out of place, at this point Marx also mentions the very popular conservative satirical weekly Punch, which was promoted by The Times. In his Cabinet post, Lowe had in turn secured a remunerative post for Punch’s editor. The first two papers were secured for Palmerston through emoluments.

 The next paper, the Morning Post, was partly owned by Palmerston. Marx notes too that the other owners belonged to society. The odd combination of society news and foreign policy reporting underlines the significance of ownership for content. The third daily paper, the Morning Advertiser adopted its pro-war stance after Palmerston began to invite its editor to his social gatherings. In addition, the noble patron of the guild which owned the paper was Palmerston’s son-in-law. The final example of direct control is not connected to Palmerston. Agents of the Confederacy purchased the Morning Chronicle so ownership likewise determined the coverage. The sensationalizing tabloid the Daily Telegraph was noted for its notorious rabble-rousing support of Palmerston, but Marx does not explain the connection.

 The list now moves on to pro-war papers of a different kind.  Three papers received direct subsidies from Cabinet ministries. The Globe supported the war because it was subsidized by the Whigs, the party to which Palmerston belonged.  The Morning Herald and Evening Standard had been subsidized by the Tories who preceded Palmerston in office.  These papers agitated for war out of hostility to the U.S. and in hopes a war will bring down the Cabinet, after which a new government would restore their subsidies. The list closes with a pair of papers which oppose the war as a matter of principle, both being committed to the positions of politicians other than Palmerston.

After discussing the dailies, Marx briefly treats five weekly papers. Two exemplify the war-supporting majority of these papers. One is paid by the ministries, while the other advocates war simply to display “esprit.”  Marx defines this quality more specifically as, “a cynical elevation above ‘humanitarian’ prejudices.” In other words, a provocative attitude is one of the use values sold by the paper. At the last, Marx mentions the three weeklies that oppose the calls for war, but passes over their motives in silence.

This description of the affiliations and motivations of the pro-war coverage in the London press goes beyond the mechanisms of manipulation presented in the first article. It begins with the award of government posts and the provision of social access mentioned there. But the roster of connections expands to include out-right ownership, family relationships and government subsidies. At the same time, the potential motives also include political principles and even what we might today call pure branding.

The Intervention in Mexico, the second article, discusses in extensive and careful detail six weeks of the coverage delivered by two London papers on the plan for joint British, French and Spanish military intervention in the Mexican Republic. The examination of “one of the most monstrous enterprises ever chronicled in the annals of international history” begins with the respective roles of The London Morning Post and The London Times in introducing Palmerston’s plans to the public, as well as the responses of the French and Spanish governments through their own press. The article then contrasts the positions on intervention taken by the Times in September and November.  After these contradictory reasonings have been dissected, the second half of the article addresses the crucial question about the intervention raised by these incoherent inconsistencies, “What, then, is its real aim and purpose?”

The London Morning Post and The London Times practice a division of labor. The analysis of their collaboration deepens the description of Palmerston’s management of the press. As we have just seen, Palmerston was a part owner of the Morning Post and his ownership accounted for its publication of reports on foreign affairs. Accordingly, Marx calls the paper “Palmerston’s private Moniteur,” that is his equivalent of the French government’s official paper. The Morning Post published in detail the first public account of the agreement among Britain, France and Spain to intervene in Mexico. The French government denied this report through its press. The Times then responded with a report that the French had indeed agreed to the intervention. The Spanish government then clarified through its press that it was planning a unilateral intervention. Finally, The Times followed with a report that the U.S. would join the intervention, a claim promptly denied by the American press.

Marx deduces from this sequence of reports and denials that the plan is undoubtedly an English creation, and demonstrates one of his protocols for reading the press in this kind of situation. In the same issue of The Times that publicized the three powers’ final agreement on intervention in early November, a second article appeared that approved of a recent French military intervention in Switzerland. This recognition signals a diplomatic quid pro quo. Palmerston has given France a free hand for intervention on the continent in return for French collaboration in the Mexican adventure. It is not the content of the reports per se but their juxtaposition that conveys this message. Beyond the mere content of foreign policy reports, their placement in the papers has a political function and inferable meaning.

Marx draws an analogous but more complex inference from a comparison of the reports in The Post and The Times. In its first report, The Post maintained that the goal of the expedition was to collect debts owed by the Mexican government. Because the government no longer exercised effective power, it was necessary to take military measures to occupy port cities and claim customs revenues.  The Times in its subsequent first report dismissed the significance of the debt, and instead maintained that the intervention would encourage the Mexican government in its efforts to restore order and end the brigandage that victimized British subjects. Marx notes the contradiction between the respective assumptions that there is no effective government and that there is a government capable of action.

Marx points out that the Times own reasoning contradicts itself as well, “To be sure! The oddest means ever hit upon for the consolidation of a Government consists in the seizure of its territory and the sequestration of its revenue.” In Palmerston’s designs, these initial press voices were subsequently joined by “minor ministerial oracles,” officials, spokesmen and sources, in the task of “systematically belaboring him [that is, the public] in the same contradictory style for four weeks, until public opinion had at last become sufficiently trained to the idea of a joint intervention in Mexico, although kept in deliberate ignorance of the aim and purpose of that intervention.”  The volume of the reports and the contradictions within and among what are known to be well-informed sources deflect discussion from the intervention itself to the spurious discussion of its motives, while at the same time concealing the real considerations behind it. The orchestrated pattern of disagreement and debate executes a calculated tactic.

These four weeks of preparation ended when the official French press announced that an agreement had been reached. The French papers announced that the Mexican ports would be seized, if the Mexican government did not then cooperate troops would move inland and occupy Mexico City, and “a strong government would be imported into the Republic.” We might note that the latter two points had never figured in the initial reports in London. In November after the governments have officially committed themselves to intervention, The Times speaks to the issue again. Marx underlines the absolute incongruity of its response,  

Everybody ignorant of its connection with Palmerston, and the original introduction in its columns of his scheme, would be induced to consider the to-day’s leader of The Times as the most cutting and merciless satire on the whole adventure. It sets out by stating that “the expedition is a very remarkable one” [later on it says a curious one].

Three States are combining to coerce a fourth into good behavior, not so much by way of war as by authoritative interference in behalf of order.”

Authoritative interference in behalf of order! This is literally the Holy Alliance slang, and sounds very remarkable indeed on the part of England, glorying in the non-intervention principle! And why is “the way of war, and of declaration of war, and all other behests of international law,” supplanted by “an authoritative interference in behalf of order?” Because, says The Times, there “exists no Government in Mexico.” And what is the professed aim of the expedition? “To address demands to the constituted authorities at Mexico.”

Absurdly contradictory in its assumptions and ludicrous its euphemisms, the only way to find a coherent intention in this report is to understand it, as Marx supposes a substantial part of the public already does, as an expression of Palmerston’s designs.

Marx singles out a final decisive contradiction. The Times still claims that satisfaction of debts and protection of foreign nationals are the goal of the intervention, but then concedes that the measures to be taken far exceed what is needed to achieve those ends. From this disproportion between the military means and the ostensible goals, Marx concludes that the purported goals “have nothing at all to do with the present joint intervention in Mexico” and this discrepancy compels him to ask what is really going on.

Turning to the seond argument, Marx reiterates that The Times also disavows the significance of the debt for the intervention. Marx rephrases his question in sarcastic distress at the complete lack of sense on the surface of this subterfuge. “What, then, in all the world is its real or pretended aim?” His answer begins by picking apart the second putative goal of the intervention “an authoritative interference in behalf of order."  The Times has expressed only one reservation about the intervention, namely that the European “order-mongers,” as Marx calls them, would not be able to agree on what Mexican faction to install in the government, “The only point on which there may possibly be a difference between ourselves and our allies, regards the government of the Republic. England will be content to see it remain in the hands of the liberal party which is now in power.” Marx examines this reservation carefully and shows that in fact it assumes that there is a functioning government that has begun to restore order. From these assumptions he draws the conclusion obvious to all involved, that the intervention will “instead of extinguishing, restore anarchy to its full bloom.”

Once “ in behalf of Order,’ is substracted from the rationale, there remains only “interference.” The Civil War momentarily prevents the U.S. from actively resisting intervention, and Palmerston hopes to take advantage of this obstacle to American resistance to overturn the Monroe Doctrine and establish the right of the European powers to use force in the pursuit of their interests in the Americas. In conjunction with his pursuit of the right of intervention Palmerston is strategic expanding of his monopoly over the exercise of that right. He has launched his adventure while Parliament is recessed.  Palmerston is again employing the same tactics of false representations and disregard of Parliament’s power that he has used on previous occasions to initiate wars. He aims to reinforce those precedents for his prerogative to order interventions without the approval of Parliament. Marx describes Palmerston’s ultimate goal in sweeping terms, “With the control over foreign wars, Parliament will lose all control over the national exchequer, and Parliamentary government turn to a mere farce.”
Marx’s reading of the London press on the intervention in Mexico assumes that these press accounts cannot be taken at face value. They furnish evidence of foreign policy, but they do not reliably describe the motives or content of policy. Press reporting functions as an instrument in complex political designs. The press reports are intended by the place and sequence of their publication and by their putatively authentic accounts to render the ultimate intervention plausible while concealing its actual motives and goals. A careful reading can retrieve even from deceptive press reports some of the suppositions about the state of affairs that do underlie the unspoken goals. No matter how careful the reading of logic and publication, however, only informed reference to the history of governments and of politicians allows Marx to construe the policy that wields these reports as instruments to attain public assent to “monstrous enterprises.”


When we read what Marx had to say about public opinion and foreign policy, even after a hundred and fifty years his arguments evoke a sense of recognition and familiarity.  This affinity of his analyses with our own experiences with politics and the press easily furnishes reason enough to read and discuss these articles today. Beyond the resonance of these insights, the articles provide a pertinent example for communist analysis and criticism of the media.  They do not provide a theory of public opinion. We cannot even extract a definitive model of communist media analysis from them. History does no allow us that luxury.
At the very least, though, Marx’s analyses do demonstrate three themes essential to our media analyses: how the accumulation of capital and the capitalist organization of the media establish the technical and social basis for the collaboration of state and media; how this collaboration results not just from the social relations and political institutions particular to a historical moment but from particular individuals acting within those relations and institutions; and how editorial management employs specific techniques to manipulate representations of foreign affairs in order to manufacture public opinion.
Because the accumulation of capital has advanced fantastically, because the technologies produced by that accumulation have proliferated, and because the social relations and political institutions in the U.S. today differ greatly from 1860s England, contemporary media criticism on these lines will necessarily look different from Marx’s criticism of The Times. But Marx made fundamental points about these processes that retain their force. The ruling class and their political executives pursue “monstrous enterprises.” When they organize these enterprises, they employ covert and collusive means. Important among their collusions are the combinations of report-producers and  politicians who manage the media and manufacture public opinion.
Today these points have become harder to convey, in no small part because the “opinion-mongers,” in order to protect themselves, have through their opinion-commodities attempted to immunize their audiences against these very arguments. The mere fact that Marx argued in this way does not make these arguments more plausible or persuasive. Marx's analysis and criticism of the London press in his day does demonstrate that these arguments fall solidly within the scope of a materialist critique of the media. Our challenge is to find the audience for them and communicate persuasive arguments in which we connect concretely the opinion-mongers to the order-mongers and their reports to their enterprises.

Monday, September 08, 2014


The recent twitter controversies about the tag #OpPornPixie involved some serious questions about how communist criticism of the media works. As a follow up, I want to bring attention to some articles Marx wrote in 1861 for the New York Daily Tribune. Marx had a long-standing concern with the press and its political role. Marx worked as newspaper editor in Germany twice during the 1840s.  Throughout the 1850s into the mid-1860s he was a foreign correspondent for several papers. As an editor he regularly analyzed and criticized the positions taken in other papers. As a correspondent in 1861 he began writing about British responses to the Civil War for the Tribune’s readers in America. During a period in 1861 when Parliament was not in session, Marx wrote repeatedly about the coverage of the war in the British press. In these articles Marx sketches a brief, clear, and explicit materialist media analysis. The most substantial part of this sketch appears in the article The London Times and Lord Palmerston.

In this article Marx aims to do more than simply inform his American audience about  British attitudes toward the war. Instead of just telling them what people in Britain thought or what the British press said, he instructs politically interested American readers in how to read the British press and to understand the connection of the press to public opinion. These instructions explain the forces in British politics and their operations. The article describes how the British press became one of these forces and how the government integrated the press into its operations. Marx assumes that for politically conscious readers to grasp the practical meaning of newspaper writing, they would need to understand the press as an active element in political relations.

The article also exemplifies the connection between Marx’s theoretical work on political economy and his journalistic criticism of politics and media.  In 1858 Marx had completed the manuscript known today as theGrundrisse. In it he sketched a comprehensive, conceptually integrated critique of political economy. In 1859 he had published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  In this short work he discussed two key concepts in his critique, money and the commodity, but did not attempt a systematic exposition of capital. In August of 1861, three months before he wrote this article, Marx had begun work on what is today known as the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863 [no longer available at the Mars-Engels Internet  Archive!], his next major work in the critique. The Manuscript comprised the first draft of Capital. Thus when he wrote his article on the Times, Marx had already begun to formulate his scientific theory of capitalism as a fundamental process in bourgeois society. In The London Times and Lord Palmerston we see how this conceptual framework shapes Marx’s criticism of contemporary politics.

The first long paragraph makes up 1/3 of the article and contains the political media analysis. It opens with a quote about the influence of the Times “English people participate in the government of their own country by reading The Times newspaper.”  Marx follows the assessment with his own qualification, “This judgment, passed by an eminent English author on what is called British self-government, is only true so far as the foreign policy of the Kingdom is concerned.” This opening gambit establishes that the influence exercised by the Times is an established fact. Marx will examine that influence, but it is not something he discovered himself. Although Marx does not name Robert Lowe, who was the author of the quote, we should note that in 1861 Lowe was the editor of the Times and that he later served for six years as a minister in the Cabinet. This estimation of the unique role and profound influence of the Times came from a man who was a key figure in the collaboration of the press and the government and who spoke with an insider’s knowledge of that connection.

The opening quote also suggests the specific historically and socially unique features of the press at that time.  When we think of “reading,” we think first of the basic process of interpreting  words and sentences by which readers cull information. But in a second more important sense, the quote identifies a particular social quality of that process. Through reading the Times, its readers “participate in the government.” In a time when political parties as we know them now did not exist, the right to vote was highly restricted by property requirements and the means of communication were much more limited, the Times made unique information about the government widely accessible and provided a surrogate means of participation in government affairs. This participation consisted primarily of holding a share in public opinion. Now, before this first paragraph is through, Marx relates these informational and participatory features to the specifically capitalist features of the Times as a business. So to apply that perspective from the start, we can say that information and surrogate participation are what the paper sells. When readers buy the paper for the use-values of political news and participation, they create the relationship that is the basis of the paper’s strategic function for the government.  This relationship is “public opinion.”

Following the quote, Marx qualifies this claim by limiting it to foreign policy. To prove his point, he mentions several recent domestic political reforms. While the Times had opposed all these measures, its readers supported them. To maintain its readership, the paper had to reverse its editorial positions. Marx then contrasts the way this mediation through the market determined the domestic views of the paper to the way the paper determines the foreign policy views of the readers. He makes this first, fundamental point, “In no part of Europe are the mass of the people, and especially of the middle-classes, more utterly ignorant of the foreign policy of their own country than in England… .” When it comes to foreign affairs, the readership, which is constituted as a public by reading the paper, depends on the paper for information and political interpretations.  

Marx breaks the explanation down into finer detail. In its details, the explanation is historical and institutional. The history relates the class divisions of British society and the effects of capitalist development on the middle classes. Thanks to the enduring medieval features of British political institutions, the aristocracy had maintained control over foreign affairs. This social division of labor and the absorption of the middle classes in earning their living results in public ignorance of foreign affairs. The exclusion of the middle classes from this political power means “the aristocracy acted for them … .” The confinement of the ideas of the middle class to earning money means, “the press thought for them … .” Because the aristocrats and the publishers effective monopolize their respective aspects of foreign policy they have a shared goal, “their mutual interest to combine.”  Marx summarizes the outcome of this combination, “since the beginning of this century, the great London papers have constantly played the part of attorneys to the heaven-born managers of English foreign policy.” The particular configuration Marx describes an arrangement of shared power has existed for only sixty years.

Marx then identifies the stages in this collaboration between the governing aristocracy and the opinion creating press over those six decades. As political participation broadened through bourgeois economic and political revolution, the aristocracy that exercised foreign policy power narrowed into an “oligarchy.” The Cabinet came into existence as the formal institutional representation of the oligarchy. Marx characterizes the Cabinet as “a secret conclave.” The Cabinet was a political innovation. It did not belong to the traditional constitutional order and it operated beyond conventional controls over executive action. In recent decades Lord Palmerston had assumed personal control over the cabinet and over foreign policy. With Palmerston’s “usurpation” the political, institutional side of the process is complete. In this very specific political conjuncture of 1861 Marx highlights the ambitions and actions of a single man and describes the formal institution within which he worked in terms of covert collusions. Marx’s close attention to Palmerston in fact extended back for years. In 1853 he had already written a seven-article series about Palmerston’s career  that appeared in both the Tribune and in England in the People’s Paper. These articles were subsequently republished as a pamphlet that sold over 20,000 copies. In this sense, the article on the Times is an addendum to Marx’s earlier reports about Palmerston and his politics.

 Over these same years the developments in the “field of newspaper-mongering” that enable the collaboration of politics and press result from an inherent tendency of capital. Marx attributes the singular potential of the Times to play its role to “the law of concentration” and its rapid operation in the sector of the press.  “Concentration” is a technical term in Marx’s theoretical critique of political economy. In the Grundrisse Marx observes the phenomenon of concentration, but does not derive a definition from his observations. In the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863 the few references to concentration are now collected in Notebook IV on relative surplus value. Ultimately the concept of relative surplus value will provide the terms for the definition of concentration, but in 1861 Marx still has not formulated this definition. The reference to the “law” of concentration, however, suggests Marx does have a particular systematic process in mind already. So let’s look ahead at the definition of the concentration of capital in Capital. (see section 2 of the linked chapter) ‘Concentration’ labels the distinctive aspect of accumulation in capitalism. It identifies the constantly increasing application of technology as an expression of the inherent need to obtain the greatest possible physical output from a constant amount of labor. The incorporation of technology into production on an ever increasing scale leads to, and at the same time results from, the accelerating growth of individual capitals. As the Times employs more and better presses and reaches a larger and more widely distributed readership, it becomes the new and unique medium of “the national paper.”

This conclusion about the Times illustrates a fundamental conceptual difference between Marx’s writing in his critique of political economy and his political writing for broad reading audiences. In the critiques his inferences about concentration are concerned exclusively with the implications of concentration within the processes of production and accumulation. For example, in the Economic Manuscript of 1861-1863, Marx characterizes concentration as a “material determinant for production on an expanded scale.” In Capital the discussion additionally specifies consequences of concentration for the employment of living labor.
In this article Marx is equally concerned with accumulation in the newspaper industry as the material determinant of a social process. But from the ‘law of concentration’ he here draws an inference about political relationships and processes. Their determination by the ‘law of concentration’ means that these political processes are capitalist in their nature and that their very form results from class relations. Yet these consequences of concentration have nothing to do with the immediate process of production or with questions of exploitation and accumulation.  The quantitative growth in the scale of operations of the press determines a qualitative transformation in the character of the print medium. This transformation in turn determines a new form of political participation and this new form of political participation provides a new instrument for politicians operating in the political institutions of bourgeois society.

Palmerston’s sole power over foreign policy and the Times’ sole access to a national readership thus lead to a very particular combination of the government and the press. Marx observes, “Lord Palmerston, who secretly and from motives unknown to the people at large, to Parliament and even to his own colleagues, managed the Foreign affairs of the British Empire, must have been very stupid if he had not tried to possess himself of the one paper which had usurped the power of passing public judgment in the name of the English people on his own secret doings.”  This observation has several significant implications about the combination of press and politics in 1861. To assert that Palmerston would have been “stupid” not to initiate the collaboration implies that the potential  was self-evident. From the perspective of the law of concentration in the press, it was inevitable, since the Times would have needed “more than Spartan virtue” not to combine with Palmerston. Marx also says that both Palmerston and the Times “usurped” their power. We can imagine Palmerston’s usurpation of political power as the result of intrigue and manipulation. The usurpation of power by the Times results from success in accumulating capital to expand operations.  Success in competition in this particular branch inherently produces an undemocratic outcome. In this one sentence Marx also points out twice that Palmerston’s “motives” and his “doings” are “secret.” The reasons and actions of the government are consciously clandestine. The function of the Times is “judging them for the nation” and “representing the public mind," yet in this public function it maintains that clandestine secrecy.  The Times provides a judgement of Palmerston’s motives and actions that does not describe, explain or interpret them factually. This deliberate discrepancy between Palmerston’s clandestine motives and actions and their representation in the press is a necessary, inherent feature of the creation of public opinion.

In this combination at the initiative of Palmerston, Marx says the Times sought to “ally” itself to the minister but Palmerston treated the paper as his “slave.” Palmerston achieved this one-sided relationship through two principal means. To employees of the Times he gave subordinate jobs in ministries and access to his social circle. Marx sums up the role of the Times once this combination was effected, “the whole business of The Times, so far as the foreign affairs of the British Empire are concerned, is limited to manufacturing a public opinion to conform to Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy. It has to prepare the public mind for what he intends doing, and to make it acquiesce in what he has done.” The strategic political function of the Times is not identical with its business as a whole. The editorial positions and reportorial content of the Times cannot be directly inferred from its business interests or even from the more general class interests of its owners. The content produced in the manufacturing of public opinion is determined by political dictates.

In the remainder of the article, Marx uses two examples to illustrate how the Times edits its reporting on Palmerston’s behalf. He bluntly identifies the mechanics of manipulation and spin. In the first example, three members of Parliament had made speeches about Palmerston’s diplomatic maneuvers and political methods in the preceding thirty years. In two cases the Times simply “suppressed” the most damaging evidence. In the third, procedural parliamentary tricks failed to prevent the speech from being given, and the paper then inadvertently reported the speech in full because the “editor specially charged with the task of mutilating and cooking the parliamentary reports” had taken time off. To cover its lapse, the Times attempted to disqualify the criticisms. It argued that the attempts on the floor of Parliament to prevent the speech were justified because the speaker was a “bore.” Marx calls the work of this type done by the Times “drudgery” because its writers must take the Parliamentary reports and literally overnight “mutilate, alter, [and] falsify” them for publication.

 In the second example Marx discusses how, at the drop of a hat the Times reversed its support of the Confederacy and its opposition to the United States in accord with Palmerston’s policy. Marx specifies significant features of this reversal. The Times can even more easily employ “misstatement and suppression” on foreign news than it did on domestic reports. This spin on the news does not follow from any consideration of the business interests of “the British Cotton Lords” nor of “real or supposed English interest.” Instead, the editorial manipulation of reporting “simply executed the orders of its master.”
In addition, the reversal occurred simultaneously in a number of papers “connected with” Palmerston. Not only did all the papers act at the same time, they reversed their editorial position prior to any public statement by Palmerston himself. As his agents, they were preparing public opinion for the change of direction.  In both examples Marx charges the paper with plain and simple misrepresentation. Facts are omitted, they are changed and they are mendaciously misinterpreted. These manipulations are the mechanical execution of the strategic motive driving the creation of public opinion. “Falsifying” public opinion is the paper’s political function. Like the policies it justifies, the process of justification rests on covert and collusive manipulation.

In this first article, Marx establishes the “subserviency” of the “public-opinion-mongers” to Palmerston. He targets the influence exercised by a powerful official whom he singles out by name. Marx represents the instrumentalization of the press as a process of personal corruption and manipulation through “emoluments and advantages.” Both the policies the press supports and the collusion through which they support them are products of covert collaborations. Neither the policies nor the editorial positions toward them can be deduced directly from economic interests of particular participants or from national interests. The inherent tendencies of capitalist development and the specific levels and forms those developments have reached in England in 1861 set the parameters for the political arrangements between the government and the media. Marx criticizes those arrangements for the benefit of his politically conscious readers so they can better understand the relations that produce that reporting and its immediate political functions.

In the months following this article, Marx’s journalism often returned to the topic of the press. He relies on this model to discuss further examples of politically instrumentalized reporting and adds further detail to the model. In a second post I will follow up on these writings.