Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Skinning the cat

The host/editor of a blog I participate in started a discussion recently, premised on arguable "Facts" and I tried to introduce something of this thread into the discussion there, but I've decided it really should be another entirely different discussion — as it's not about facts at all.

Back in my college days I had a good friend, a house mate of mine for a while, who was a film major. Our friendship first took root in the rich soil of Freshman year commiseration. We each of us were wrestling hard to wrap our heads around the thinking, as it was being taught to us at the time, that underpinned the work we wanted to take up. For me it was listening to lectures on 'Deconstructivism' from an Architecture faculty that seemed to have not a single native English speaker. Dense theory is particularly hard to absorb when it's being delivered in a crowded hall with terrible acoustics by someone with the kind of accent Sid Ceasar used to imitate. For my friend, the would be filmmaker, the scourge was Semiotics, and the source of so much pain was the writing of the then most prominent theorist on the subject, Umberto Eco. My friend would mutter to himself and then to me about what he called 'semi-antics' —and postmodern meaning — signs and signifiers.

I'm not sure I ever fully grasped the importance of Semiotics to good film making, but at the time it sure was central to that particular school's curriculum, and my good friend did his damnedest to figure it out for himself —and to explain it to me. I remember he had this deck of flash cards. There was a card with the word "cat" ...and a picture of a cat ...and some circles and arrows. My friend used to try to point out how this card with the cat was hilarious ...if you thought about it.

It was a couple years later that Eco went mainstream, publishing "The Name of The Rose" —heck, they even made a movie of it. My sense from my friend at the time was that he was disappointed. By then he'd developed some command of the Italian academic's theories and now it was as if an artist he admired was selling out. Dylan hadn't yet begun to market lingerie.

But I guess that's all back story —only the sketch of an almost apologetic premise.

I found myself reading a collection of Eco's political writings recently —and I find myself wrestling still. A good deal of the material likely had a lot more meaning (and was a lot more accessible) for someone who had a greater interest in or knowledge of Italian politics of the past twenty or thirty years. But delving further into the collection it started to make sense, it seemed knowing the particulars of policy questions or the personalities involved was less important than an appreciation of the larger pattern unfolding —and that larger pattern —the way it even elegantly meshed with some of the age old (post modern?) theory. Perhaps what most tellingly began to part the clouds for me were Eco's deconstructions of Silvio Berlusconi.

Americans might know the Italian Prime Minister by virtue of his faults, his penchant for scandal, be it plain old corruption, or lurid playboy misadventures, or the occasional loutish demagogue remark. For us, he is occasional comic relief. In Italy he is a way of life. More than one political pundit has wondered aloud what it is that makes for Berlusconi's survival —his staying power. Some attribute it to his stranglehold on the media —and the fact that a goodly amount of the man behaving badly actually resonates with the darker dreaming of il popolo. Eco acknowledges this secreted appeal, but more importantly his thinking is a key to the door —the very one that appeal moves through (in stocking feet —dark socks with the garters). The term Eco uses to describe is 'Media Populism.'

But as he expounds on the theme, I think it's that same sign and signifier game again —what with the cat —where it's not the fur, but what it stands for.

In the game of politics —and for many it —is— a hilarious game after all— what gets said really can be taken out of the equation. What really matters —where the game is often decided—is in what the thing that is said (or the persona saying it) can be taken to mean, what these are an emblem —or a signifier—of. In Italian politics, Berlusconi reaches for the gut level with his antics, and he knows exactly what he has a handle on. With a delicious mischief (and the media control he does enjoy) he can fashion and market his identity as Italy itself —just as Stephen Colbert wryly winks in that same direction with his "I Am America (And So Can You!)"

The hilarious and the horrific combine when you come to realize how this mechanism has actually secured the levers of power in Italy —and how not everyone in America realizes Colbert is kidding.

Of course there is more than one way to skin a cat —and the knife cuts both ways. Just as an adeptly semiotic politician (or is that an adeptly political semiotician?) can cultivate these signs and symbols —a hapless one can have them affixed against his or her will. Was Sarah Palin the victim or the perpetrator of this kind of politics? Or a bit of both? Can any of us recall her stance on a given subject? Wasn't the campaign more concerned with what she stood for? I cite her as an obvious case to consider, knowing full well Conservatives will point back at the successful branding of 'Hope' —I don't think this is an indictment of one side that vindicates the other in the hilarious horrific game of our politics. I think of it as more about the game itself —the method of what it offers —perhaps an entirely different question from —what— it has to offer.

I don't know if my friend from college went on to make successful films or not. We lost touch a long time ago. But I do remember the heartfelt conversations we had about what it was we each of us wanted to do in our work. I still have some sense of the stories he wanted to share. It was something substantive —and of himself that he wanted to offer. It was that that drove him so hard to learn about the mechanisms of perception involved in his craft —even the games with meaning.

At the core there was love.

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