Friday, February 24, 2006

on cultural theory and same-sex relationships in culture

in an effort to make some connections in what will ultimately end in a simplistic discussion, and which may even potentially result in some misinterpretation of Benjamin, Adorno, and Williams. Here goes…

The other day I finally saw Brokeback Mountain, which is in line to win some Academy awards, has already won some awards, is bring praised in many circles for its quality, etc. I haven’t really followed any of the praise or criticism, though I am surprised that I haven’t heard more criticism given the fact that the movie portrays a romantic relationship between two male cowboys, and in fact includes a nearly explicit sex scene. In any case, this movie has been with me for days now, for a variety of reasons (including but not limited to my sudden desire to move to Nowhere, Wyoming and write stories that pull on your heart strings, or even effect change—the movie is based on Annie Proulx’s short story set in Wyoming), part of which is the issue of the movie’s popularity, particularly when in the last major elections a number of states changed their constitutions to definitively ban any ideas of legalized same-sex marriage.

And so, I turn first to Benjamin with the hope that this movie might be considered an example of his idea of the potential democratizing nature of film. I don’t believe Benjamin thought any sort of a utopian society was possible, however, the idea of potential utopian impulses in art and culture would dictate that we all be allowed to love and relate regardless of sexual orientation or whatnot. And so, the utopian potential in art, and particularly in the form of mainstream film, might then be a place for positive political action. If you were ambivalent about whether or not two male cowboys could find true love before you entered the theater, you might have come to a more clear opinion upon leaving. You might then vote differently, next time around.

I don’t know what Adorno would have said if he saw this movie. But I will make something up. I can’t help thinking about the lack of challenge to the movie by the conservative religious right, for example. Maybe there has been some criticism that I’ve not heard because I don’t pay enough attention. But I feel like if there were going to be a cultural filter working toward maintaining the conservative status quo, the religious right would take on this role and make a fuss about the content of the film. I’ve heard no fuss, only praise. The film seems to be doing something new and different in its opening up to the mainstream these traditionally non-mainstream issues; it is not simply the same reiteration of conservative cultural messages. Of course, we could make this argument for many films that come out of corporate Hollywood yet challenge dominant cultural ideologies in some way or another; certainly these are complicated notions that can’t simply be simplified. Nonetheless, here is another simple question: isn’t this movie still just doing the same thing that we have already seen and read a million times? Isn’t it, after all, the same old classic tragic love story, the Casablanca unfulfilled love story, the metaphorical unfulfilled life story? How is the movie actually different than the one we want to hear time after time: that we need passion and pain to know that we are really living, etc, etc… So, does Adorno ultimately win on this one?

Or, is it (silly question) more complicated than this? I am still working through Williams and his reiteration that everything is more complicated. We can’t simply reduce Marxism to basic notions that will help us analyze literature or art, for example. We can’t also simply talk about our social culture in terms of determined and static institutional forms and traditions, but that ‘social consciousness’ emerges through lived, active, relationships, and ‘in relationships which are more than systematic exchanges between fixed units.’ Social consciousness then is a process, and this process can result in, as he says, ‘frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience’ (130). A film such as Brokeback Mountain may then be seen as responding to, or participating in, a social moment of more open feeling for, and understanding of, the difficulty of ‘closeted’ sexual orientation. Although there has been greater (and more genuine) representation of same-sex relationships in the media, one might still argue that this film makes quite a leap away from the more stereotypical gay characters of Will and Grace to challenge ‘real masculinity’ in its portrayal of gay cowboys.

We might also combine the contemporary cultural sentiments of greater openness at the time of the movie’s release with the history of the writing of the story by Proulx, and the torture and death of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student in Wyoming, in the late 90s. We have here a combination of institutional changes (more legislation against hate crimes, and greater awareness of the destructive nature of violent prejudice, etc.) and personal changes in perception by individual members of society. Maybe this film, as an example of Williams’ ‘articulation of presence’ (135) points to the forming of a new ‘structure of feeling.’ He writes:

as a matter of cultural theory this is a way of defining forms and conventions in art and literature as inalienable elements of a social material process: not by derivation from other social forms and pre-forms, but as social formation of a specific kind which may in turn be seen as the articulation (often the only fully available articulation) of structures of feeling which as living processes are much more widely experienced (133).

And I’m going to leave it at that, for now, and keep working on Williams...

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