Filed under: Detachment theory, Encounters, Ordinariness, Politics, Theory of this Blog, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: 4_Months_3_Weeks_and_2_Days, abortion, Encounters, ethics, film, morality, Mungiu, Politics, revolution, sexuality
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.
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