Note: This week’s piece has been written by guest columnist Jonathan Liebembuk.
Some of us, maybe you even, have wondered: ‘what’s the use of cultural criticism?’ Is it just about which movie to watch, and which album to hear? Which book to buy, and which clothing store to shop at? Or is there something else there? Some of us, maybe you even—definitely me—occasionally look to newspaper columns to find an answer to this question. This essay will not provide an answer; at least not a definitive one. But I do hope to think through, if you’ll allow it, one such response that philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno provided in 1967.
Adorno is famous for his dictum that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This is from his essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society” in Prisms. This has come to mean, in Humanities classes the world over, that we cannot write or make art about historical tragedies. And yet we do. So, it comes to mean, it’s hard to make art about historical or even personal tragedies. Everything from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Joyce’s Ulysses, to Anne Frank’s diaries, and to two big films of this year: Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises, and Steve McQueen’s adaptation of an autobiography by Solomon Northup, the new historical drama, Twelve Years a Slave. Both are artistic mediations of tragedy. These are all populated by beloved and not-so-beloved ghosts.
And yet, we, as viewers, want to make a distinction between historical fiction and fiction, proper—as though these aren’t all just stories. Stories we tell ourselves to live, or stories that we tell to fall in or out of love, or the stories that we tell to survive, to remember.
Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave traces the life of a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. as a runaway in 1841, and sold into slavery. He worked in Louisiana for 12 years, before finally returning to his family. This film is making waves in the United States, partly because there are so few films of this magnitude and star power (Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbinder, and Chiwetel Ejiofor) on American slavery in the 19th century. As a good friend of mine said, this film is like a ‘black Fiddler on the Roof’, or as I then retorted, a ‘fiddler in the muddy plantation’. This film attempts to address the problems of racism today, and functions as a kind of allegory for the state of blacks in the U.S. today. Many who self-identify as African-American have ancestors whose history is slavery and servitude in America.
The film features, brilliantly, three or four songs that are sung to the clapping slaves’ hands or slave-owners’ hands. This induces the audience into a kind of somber complicity: either we watch and clap along, or we don’t clap. The question of clapping or not clapping, while in a movie theater in NYC is seemingly not a question at all, might have induced a different reaction. This question about active versus passive participation is precisely why thinking about cultural criticism is still a valid and important enterprise in which we should endeavor to engage.
Of the film’s many problems, I will remark on solely one: its beauty. Part of the film’s attraction as a blockbuster film is that it, under the cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, provides beautiful shots of Southern slave plantations, of weeping willow trees and Victorian mansions. We hear the shimmying sound of sugar cane being diced, the sound of a woman moaning, a preacher preaching, the sound of the word play of ‘clabbering’ around the hammering of a wooden house. All of this involves us in a crime, a beautiful, cinematic crime, just by listening quietly, as if to a nursery rhyme we might sing to kids at bedtime that may cause nightmares years later.
It is the film’s very beauty, sonically and pictorially, that makes the film dangerous. If this film were made by an MFA video art student overnight on a digital camcorder, on a $30 pizza budget in a dorm room, it would have been a different film. But the screenplay by John Ridley, a production budget of over $20 million dollars, and the on-location filming in Louisiana make it the film that it is. We see, in tragic glory, lynchings, rape, blood, abuse, and scarring wounds. We hear cries and yelps and tears. But this is a movie made in 2012, for a 2013 audience—a period piece, 160 years after the fact. Additionally, it does not draw on a history of blacksploitation films, which to this reviewer, Steve McQueen did not address. Instead, we get a beautiful story of an incredible man—Solomon Northup, who was literally a horrifying hero, a man against the world, carrying a satchel full of ghosts.
So maybe, I’m just telling you that you should go see this movie, just for the moment when the working cane croppers meet a group of Native Americans and hear their song, or when we get a relieving cut of a rope of an almost lynching, or for a picture of a fight around a pen of pigs, muddied and bloodied. These are the film’s best moments. Maybe I’m telling you to watch more films, or to watch whatever you like. But let us just remember that Adorno’s dictum has two other lines that follow it, often left forgotten. He pronounces:
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposes intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely.”
This means, as I read it, that one needs to create something, like Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, or Tarantino’s Django Unchained, or maybe a conversation that even this little essay might incite, in order to think something through. And it is only through creating that we can actually deal with our ghosts, both beloved and unbeloved. The ghosts that are dead, and some that are very much alive.
Jonathan Liebembuk is a PhD Student in Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center and teacher at Hunter College in the English Department.