Sunday, 2 March 2008

Is Boredom Always Counter-Revolutionary? On Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989)

Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?
Raoul Vaneigem

Q. Who wants to watch a film of a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?
A. The viewer of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent [Der Sebiente Kontinent] (1989).

For the viewer of Haneke’s film supplementary questions impose themselves. If, as Debord and the Situationists contend, boredom is always counter-revolutionary, then should such a film have been made? That it obviously has been made, should we watch such a film? Isn’t a film like Haneke’s, in which we witness the reduction of the family of husband Georg, wife Anna, and daughter Eva, to mere appendages of objects, itself the most obscene ruse of the spectacle? The cynicism of the spectacular society would have reached such a level that it would now ‘entertain’ its audience with the spectacle of its own alienation in all its banal tedium. The studied repetitions of the rituals of bourgeois life, the drawn-out shots, the horror of the banality of consumer culture itself, would all figure that now, in Benjamin’s words, our ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that [we] can experience [our] own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’. Our decadence is such that we no longer even experience that pleasure in the ‘grand’ form of war, but only in the terrible banality of the slowly unwinding self-destruction of bourgeois existence.

Guy Debord’s own final film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) – a Latin palindrome meaning ‘We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire’ – itself films the boredom of bourgeois existence. The film opens with a scene showing a cinema audience, leaving us to face the spectacle of our own passive viewing. Over images of (then) contemporary bourgeois life Debord intones a lugubrious and devastating critique of the misery of the cinema audience, composed of ‘the stratum of low-level skilled employees in the various “service” occupations that are so necessary to the present production system: management, control, maintenance, research, teaching, propaganda, entertainment, and pseudocritique.’ The audience Debord identifies corresponds closely to the class position, and situation, of the family of Haneke’s film; in Debord’s words ‘compelled to reside within a single space: the same circuit of ever-identical dwelling units, offices, freeways, vacation spots, and airports.’ But Debord’s own insulting of his audience of middle-ranking service professionals is broken by the dialectic of the film. These scenes are the opening to be negated by the banal filmic images infused by Debord’s commentary to embody the passions and adventures of the Lettrists and later the Situationists. Although these revolutionary passions have been overcome by the tides of time and counter-revolution Debord’s film is an act of memory posed against the boredom of service to the spectacle that denies any such passions except the passions of consumption.

Haneke breaks off the dialectic of Debord’s film. There is no moment of negation, at least not in any revolutionary form. This is a film of the stalled dialectic, decapitated from any revolutionary memory or hope – a film of 1989. What is retained is only the insult to the audience, not in the form of the insolence of Debord’s commentary but in the test with which we are faced with in trying to watch and make sense of the film. The repetitions of each year force us to an attention at the displacements that take place, the only variation coming in terms of the emergence of various explained and unexplained affects of anguish – Eva’s feigned blindness, the almost psychotic grief of Ana’s brother. The narrative ‘arc’ is here something like that of the Lacanian drive: an idiotic circling around the (absent) ‘Thing’, in which jouissance gains its true sense of pleasure in suffering. Our only ‘advance’ is not towards any re-starting of the dialectic of the negative but the negative of pure (self-) destruction. In this we face the most eerie moment in the film in which Georg reveals to his parents that, despite the seemingly ‘normal’ life with its daily trials we have witnessed, he and his family have lived an existence of utter horror. The negation here is inherent, but finally, and literally, fatal. This is the prelude not to any memory of revolution, but only the erasure of the traces of all the elements of bourgeois life, from money to clothing, fish tanks to the stereo.

The final lengthy sequence of the family’s destruction of their own ‘world’, and finally themselves, itself transforms the harrowing into the boring, and vice versa. As Haneke has commented:

They carry out the destruction with the same constricted narrowness with which they lived their lives, with the same meticulousness as life was lived, so I see this as the opposite of the vision of total destruction in Zabriskie Point. The sequence is portrayed as work. I have tried to portray it as something unbearable. As the wife says, “my hands really hurt from all that arbeit,” so all this hard work of destruction merely precedes the self-destruction.

We are denied even the pleasure we might take in this destruction. Instead Haneke offers us a kind of pure ‘labour of the negative’ in which the negative has become absorbed within the capitalist labour-process without any remainder. At the same time that labour process becomes the planned and methodical act of the taking apart of the world. Here we find a bitter and ironic reversal of one of the Situationists’ favourite quotations, from Marcel Carné’s film Les Enfants du Paradis (1943–5): the character Lacenaire says ‘It takes all kinds to make a world—or to unmake it’.

So, although the consumption of the scene of alienation is put into abeyance it is obvious that we are hardly left with a way out. Of course this reflects a desire to offer no false utopia, no simple reversibility of signs in which this suffering would be magically transformed into some sense of ‘revolutionary’ agency. The political affect of boredom is one of discomfort and unease against the blandness of the aesthetic of television and against the passive contemplation of suffering, even as we passively contemplate suffering. This equivocal affect is a sign of the non-responsiveness of the film to the alternative of ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ – in the absence of any meaningful capacity to pose this choice. To use the language of Alain Badiou we could say this is the film of the saturation of the sequence marked by the passion for the real in the ‘drama’ of 20th century war and revolution. Not exactly a film of the restoration, this is rather one of the first films of the new pathology of the involution of that ‘passion’ – drained and turned inwards. It is the film of our bad times.

Benjamin Noys

Benjamin, Walter (1968) Illuminations, ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Debord, Guy (2003) Complete Cinematic Works, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb. Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press.

Sharrett, Christopher (2004) ‘The World that is Known: Michael Haneke Interviewed’, Kinoeye 4.1.

Vaneigem, Raoul (1983) The Revolution of Everyday Life [1967], trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press.

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