. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought


A Barrel of Acid and a Barrel of Water, or “Things happen like this.”

I am having an amusing physical problem now–lex talionis, almost literally. My tear ducts periodically clog and swell, as though some ungrieved grief has decided to mark my head with a little deadpan realism. Of course since I think it’s funny I’m not learning the lesson I should.

Anyway, in the mornings and evenings now I put a hot compress on my eyes for 10 minutes. Then I wash them with baby shampoo (also ironic, as they promise “no more tears”!). I find the 10 minutes excruciating and useless, which is also funny and ridiculous: so I have been trying to make up productive labor for the daily episode, such as listening to films to understand the atmosphere and environment of action apart from what’s embodied in spectacle, character, and flesh.

But this morning I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Cristian Mungiu, director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a remarkable film about a bad day during a bad period of life, Romania 1987, during the regime of Nicolai Ceausescu. People talk about it as an abortion film but Mungiu finds this thematization irritating: clearly, he thinks that the melodrama of abortion in the U.S. narrows our capacity to see what’s going on right in front of us.  His principle of realism is to track the extended present of the flat phrase “Things happen like this.”

Here is what he said about what the case of abortion stands for (along with standing for state-invested blockages to women’s sovereignty), more or less accurately transcribed.

“The suppression of abortion was the suppression of moral action, practices of decision-making, and intensified contexts of friendship, and solidarity. . . You know, whenever you have a strong enemy in front of you and you have a problem which is common for a group of people, the solidarity belonging to the period is going to be much more important. . .It’s a film about decision-making, and responsibilities in life, and freedom during that period, and compromise, and friendship and solidarity . . . The story came to me with all the details and with all the emotions, but not with the all the motivations, because people don’t know why they acted the way they acted, they just acted.They just reacted to a specific situation…It has to do with the situation, and it has to do with the kind of friendship that they were having. “

Mungiu thinks that abortion isn’t that great, either. “It is said that nearly half a million women died in the process of having illegal abortions between 1966 and ’89 but at the same time after 1990 when abortion became illegal we had a million abortions a year because people were uneducated [about ordinary birth control and self-responsibility].” He tells an amazing anecdote about cascades of irresponsibility.

“An abortionist tells a potential client about the contract she’s entering. She pays him to do the abortion. But there’s a second stage. He shows the client two barrels near the table where the procedure will take place. One has water in it, the other acid. If things go well, “in the water you’re going to wash yourself and walk back home. if things don’t, I’m going to put you in [the barrel full of acid] and bury you and no one will know.”

Mungiu seems to think that state suppression of abortion is immoral because it atrophies ethical skills in individuals and in the body politic; women’s run to abortionists after abortion became legal again also exhibits immorality toward something (health? consequences? fetuses? unclear). But mainly what the film and the anecdote show is that when things are forced underground the provider of the illegal service wields ungodly unethical power over the needy clients, by performing pseudo-ethicality, acting as an arbiter of pseudo-liberal contractual responsibility.

Like the man with the two barrels, Mr. Bebe in the film does this: if I do x, you must do y, as though in choosing y the subject is practicing her freedom. The abortion day in the film is a day where people in need bargain with people who are not in the same situation of need but who are also unfree in a situation of so many other kinds of constraint. But the people requiring the illegal aid are so terrified of being on the bad end of the bargain they feel that they can not not make that all that remains is the promise of a solidarity amongst survivors, and no more than that. Treading water against drowning is not an ethical act. But in this film fidelity to an ideal of the open secret is, which shows you something of what happens to moral and political action under vicious regimes. Democracy is not excluded from this demand for fidelity to the open secret.

Mladen Dolar talks brilliantly about the pseudo-freedom of “forced choices”, but I don’t know of other writing that talks about state discipline producing ethical atrophy amongst citizens. I don’t even know what I think about it. I’m more comfortable with Rancière’s view that the masses are always exercising a sovereignty that is disrespected by elites, an exercise of desire and identification that he calls democracy. Yet Mungiu’s claim makes me pause.

Mungiu joined Terry Gross from “Radio Guerilla”; this reminds of the great stations “Radio Ragazza” and “Radio Phoenix” from Lizzie Borden’s brilliant Born in Flames. I’ve always utopianized the pirate radio from that film, the mobile revolutionary ferocity and joy for organizing counterpublics that the creatives incited. AI Weiwei, in a recent Believer, says something about this energy too: he says “fuck is the reality” and “fuck you” has to be the ethical commitment of the radical artist who refuses in advance to accommodate the comfortable hegemony in any politics. Part of the thought behind Detachment Theory is that it’s a lot harder to live a serious fuck you than the flipness of the flip-off would predict.


2 Comments so far
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I had a lots of thoughts and a lot more visceral reactions seeing this movie. I think it is about a lot of things, and I cannot decide which is the central one. I can’t tell whether the abortion (and something else, I don’t want to spoil the sheer shock for those who have not seen the movie yet) or “the system,” or the excessive mistrust that turns citizens, neighbors, lovers into masses or cruel individuals plays the main part.

All I can tell myself, while I fight feelings of anxiety and disgust that turn into sadness and then become fear, is that it is not really about picking a winner from the list above, but of seeing how they are related. How the sheer fact that women have bodies that can be fucked and in the process feel pleasure as well as become pregnant complicates their quality of agents. How they are turned not into objects, because objects cannot choose and their world cannot spin out of control as they wonder how they ended up in an impossible situation, and not into subjects, for subjects have real choices to make, and they may even hope to create their own world, but into something completely different, maybe helpless, hopeless spectators to their being turned into something they have not been prepared for, and do not even have words for. And how they can become heroes in the process.
That where a powerful state (or is it a state that makes everybody believe it is powerful?) makes both abortion and contraception very costly, women, especially young and poor, are so vulnerable as to make unimaginable choices. That under vicious regimes people do create allegiances, but that’s of little help to the most vulnerable, who have only each other to help? Or to choose between non-choices together?
That someone can want nothing more but to forget her own heroism, which overcomes nothing and brings no hope.

Comment by Mara

Wow, that’s very powerful. “maybe helpless, hopeless spectators to their being turned into something they have not been prepared for, and do not even have words for. And how they can become heroes in the process….[who] can want nothing more but to forget her own heroism, which overcomes nothing and brings no hope.”

Who is prepared for what confronts them, we’re all creatures of the improvisational lag when an event (a perturbance in the atmosphere that destabilizes our sense of control over some part of our continuity) happens, no? Helplessness and hopelessness, as I’m always saying (so afraid of my own repetition here) are structures, emotions, and affects. There’s an empirical and intuitive sense of their truth value, their projection as fear, and the need to defend against too much drive to hope and agency, since having an impact that lasts is so rare and requires so much tending. What strikes me so much about the end of that film is the “caring” (as opposed to the “cared for”) protagonist’s desire to break the toxic circuit of obligation/bribing/false contractuality by delegating what we’ve just seen to the dustbin of history, that which cannot be recycled for future claims on bonds of intimacy or obligation. She wants to make it a situation they got through, rather than an event they are living. She wants to dedramatize it between them, because she can’t experience it when she’s in service to the obligation. She hasn’t had her moment yet, apart from the brief vomiting.

Comment by supervalentthought




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