Transcendental style in film Part One: The Ascetic Aesthetic

I know, I know, that’s the least inviting title to a blog post ever but don’t go! There’s videos and everything!

Still here? Okay then. First of all you should know that  I adopted/poached/stole the term ‘transcendental style’ from the great Paul Schrader‘s only kind of great book Transcendental Style in the Films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. The term ‘the Ascetic aesthetic’ is all mine though, which I guess is something of a Pyrrhic victory but anyways, the point is that there exists a kind fo religious film that exhibits a certain style suited to religious topics. Sure, movies about religion and religious topics have always existed but no-one is ever going to mistake the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer for this thing, for example:

Or even for that weird-looking Heaven is For Real movie that was the number 2 box-office film in America after Captain America: Winter Soldier but not even released in cinemas here because of the UK’s general, if diminishing, trend of not being insane.

Also, I’m not arguing that there is a definitive, objective thing that we can call ‘transcendental style’ and then piss our pants when a film does or does not conform to that particular style because A) who gives a shit? and B) there already exists some debate as to the merits of Schrader’s analysis and its efforts to produce what Colin Burnett calls an, ‘hermeneutical monopoly’ which leaves no room for other interpretations. And the last thing any of us wants is to accidentally create a hermeneutical monopoly. No sir.

However,  ‘transcendental style’  seems like a useful model or metaphor for considering how certain films choose to present  spiritual and religious themes. It also gives us a way of suggesting a link between the films of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer that Schrader analyses, with the more recent films such as Darren Aaronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) , Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The bridge between them being, I want to argue, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More on all that in part two. In these posts I’m going to suggest that the different forms of ‘transcendental style’ in these films is akin to the differing approaches to transcendence in various mystical and religious schools. One is ascetic, based on self-control, abstinence from sensual pleasures and deep, quite contemplation of the ineffable. The other is ecstatic, finding transcendence in sudden ego-loss, immersion in sensual pleasures like sex or drugs, and the experience of cosmic consciousness.

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What’s the point of big ideas?

Scott Jeffery (noun):  Carbon-based biped of Earth. Has a PhD and teaches sociology. Often wonders how this happened.

First things first, I never expected to become an academic. When I was young I was told I was smart, perhaps very smart, but that never really translated into academic achievement. What I did know, even as a very young kid, was that I loved big ideas. Give me a big philosophical concept-Why are we here? What is reality? What is the purpose of art? – And I was happy as a pig in shit. If the shit was made out of abstract philosophical concepts. (Feces – Antifeces – Synfeces. The Hegelian Diarrhoealectic)

To me, knowledge was a kind of food. An idle thought, that’s like a starter, and then a theory, that’s your main course. For pudding I might have a hypothesis. Notions and conceits, they’re like a light-snack, something you might have for supper. The point is I dug philosophy and art and poetry and foreign films and just thinking and talking about big ideas. I didn’t JUST like those things, I liked a lot of stupid, ephemeral shit as well, but my favourite thing was when those two worlds collided. Really smart, stupid shit. Like Monty Python or Woody Allen or that Daffy Duck cartoon where he’s talking to the animator and keeps getting rubbed out and redrawn (by the way, it’s called Duck Amuck and you can watch it here).

My point being, I loved all that shit already. In my own time. For fun. School wasn’t a place where you learned, it was a place that distracted you from learning.

(I’m being overly emphatic by the way. I did have good teachers, great teachers even, but this is a blog post not a peer-reviewed journal article so get off my back, lady!)

So I didn’t get school. School, as any sane child knows, is boring. My entire early education was marked by could-try-harder syndrome. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, I just made it up. If I liked a project and wanted to do it then I would produce outlandishly detailed presentations like a ten-page critique of the history of censorship when I was thirteen. Of course, it helped that I had a love of horror movies, so I had an emotional stake in whether the British Board of Film classification wanted to stop me seeing splinter go into someone’s eye (which I totally did) but still, this was in the days before the internet, so a guy had to go out of his way to research that shit properly, dig? Continue reading

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 3: Robots, cyborgs, posthumans

In this final part I want to investigate one final common assumption-that there is a fundamental difference between the artificial robot and the natural human being. In reality the lines between the biological and the machinic have been blurred for some time, and any future scenario must acknowledge that rather than the quaint sci-fi B-movie vision of a world of easily distinguishable humans and robots, we must also account for the possibility of cyborgian hybrids of flesh and technology. This corporeal transformation, coupled with the societal impacts of robotics can be seen as paving the way for an effectively posthuman future.

Which, if you’ve never read my blog before, I think sounds brilliant fun. Having written  a fair bit about posthumanism on this blog  I’m not going to try and sum it up here. Instead, let’s just keep that background knowledge in mind while considering some concrete examples of the cyborg in action, because just like robots cyborgs are creatures of social fact as much as science-fiction.

Starting small, how about some remote controlled insects?

Or this monkey controlling a prosthetic arm with its own brain. By the way, if you’ve been reading these posts and quietly worrying about the robot uprising, I hope you will now include roving armies of techno-monkeys and swarms of insectobots into your paranoid and pessimistic fantasies. Continue reading

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 2: Let the machines do the work

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

After a brief overview of robots and their form and history in Part One, this post consider the place of robots in industrial economies.  In many respects, the history of the robot is inextricably linked to questions of work and labour. The first use of the word robot was in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by the Cheokslavkian Karel Capek . As Dennis G. Jerz points out, “the Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.” This link between the robot as worker or labourer is also found in Fritz Lang’s  Metropolis (1927) in which the robot Maria serves as a catalyst for a proletariat revolution. The connection between machine and wage-slave is even implicit in Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist manifesto in which they warn that, “owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine“. There remains the possibility that industrial robots might one day gain sentience in which case the robot uprising will be less like The Terminator and more like Battleship Potemkin.

Setting the question of robots developing class-consciousness aside (its difficult, I know, but let’s try) we first need a better understanding of just how common the use of industrial robots has become.While we might still be startled to see a robot trundling down the street it is easy to forget the robots are everywhere, often out of sight, whirring away feverishly in factories and warehouses. As the roboticist and human friend Dr Tom Larkworthy once astutely noted, “most robots are just arms“.

A few decades ago this was pretty whizz-bang stuff, as in Hugh Hudson’s iconic ‘Hand Built by Robots‘ advert for the Fiat Strada in 1979:

What once inspired awe and fascination is now taken for granted, if considered at all, but since Hudson’s hymn to the workerless factory the use of industrial robots has increased significantly. In October 2000, the UN estimated there to be 742, 500 industrial robots in use; more than half of which were being used in Japan. By 2011, According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study World Robotics 2012, there were at least 1,153,000 operational industrial robots and  estimated to reach 1,575,000 by the end of 2015. The annual turnover for robot systems was estimated to be US$25.5 billion in 2011.  (thanks wikipedia!) Continue reading

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 1

For many humans, perhaps most, the term ‘robot’ brings to mind images from popular culture; a C-3PO, maybe, or, according to your age, Metal Mickey (see video above) or Robby the Robot . Den of Geek has an entertaining Top 50  Robots and AI Computers in the movies if you need more choices. One by-product of this reliance on fiction to give us our visions of robotics is that many people forget that robots are, you know, REAL. Some anecdotal evidence: I once introduced one freind to another by pointing out that he built robots. The first friend expressed disbelief, stating her conviction that robots were the stuff of science-fiction, and the presence of a living, breathing roboticist before her would not dissuade her of that belief.

This is not an usual assumption. It’s easy to forget that we live in the 21st century, or, as I like to call it, THE FUTURE! Truth is, robots are everywhere nowadays, and their presence is only going to increase. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but in order to understand the rise of the machines and what it means for the human race, we first need to address some common assumptions about robots. As such, this here Part One of Robots! Robots! Robots! sets out to demonstrate that 1) robots are not from the future but  have been with us since the Ancients; 2) contrary to film and television’s default depiction, most robots do not look like humans; and 3) robots are not going to kill us all (but humans using robots might do). Part Two discusses the social and economic implications of our robot world, while Part Three investigates the more radical Post/Human possibilities.

Let’s get started… Continue reading

Dark, Deranged and Disney

What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From  Dorfman and Mattelart’€™s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971),  Henry Giroux’€™s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward€’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.

Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror.  Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released.  The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,

awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. 

In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the  “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading

Let us rest and catch our breath a while…

Laughter on the Outskirts, August 1st-25th, 19.45, Jekyll and Hyde

Hello humans!

Nth Mind has been rather quiet for a while. Events in the meat world have meant that this blog has had to take a back-seat.  These events include finishing my thesis and handing it in for the examiners, with a viva set for late September. So you will have to forgive me if am both drained and deranged. But fear not, gentle reader, posts existing at various stages of completion include a three-part exploration of the economic, social and philosophical implications of robots; a delve into Disney’s darker and more deranged cinematic output; a theory on the two modes of transcendental style in cinema; an exploration of the links between transgender and posthumanism; an examination of language as a control mechanism by way of Genesis P-Orridge and William S. Burroughs (“language is a virus from outer-space”), and more. Towards the end of the year I will also be writing about my Quixotic attempt to watch 500 films in one year. I warn you now: there will be unnecessary charts and graphs. With the thesis in the bag (writing-wise, if not examination-wise) there should be some time to hammer these out.

Not in August however, when I leave the world of failing miserably to become an academic behind for a while to enter the world of failing miserably to become a comedian, The show Laughter on the Outskirts (with partner-in-crime Woodward) starts at the Edinburgh Festival in August. It’s on at 19.45 everyday, from the 1st to 25th August at the Jekyll and Hyde, Hanover Street. It’s free! And there’s also the possibility of getting a free souvenir fanzine!

Not that academia and comedy can’t mix. I’m super-excited to be taking part in one of the many Bright Club shows at the festival, all of which are worth your time. More details on Bright Club and its inspired mix of academic research presented as stand-up comedy here.

I’m also involved in a few other bits and pieces, details of which are below.

And that’s about all. if any regular readers of the blog (are there any regular readers of the blog?) find themselves in Edinburgh during August then please come along, track me down, buy me drinks, and chat about posthumanism, comedy, comics, occultism, and all the other fine diversions Nth Mind specialises in. If you are not in Edinburgh in August I promise I will be writing about those same things in September.

If I survive…

Dates, dates, dates:

August 01- Laughter on the Outskirts, 19.45 Jekyll and Hyde Continue reading

The Box of Bad Nightmares Issue 23

Hello everyone. Something a little unusual today: a rare copy of The Box of Bad Nightmares Issue 23! Alas, it has hardly been kept in mint condition and all that remains is one tale from the anthology, Eddie Johnson’s Diminishing Paciderm Formation (complete with the original misspelling of Pachyderm that made the issue such a coveted collector’s item).


The Box of Bad Nightmares

The Box of Bad Nightmares

Eddie Johnson's Diminishing Paciderm Formation

Page 1

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Comics are Magic 6: Jodorowsky, Gurdjieff, Morrison and The Flash#54

Hello you.

Welcome to the sixth edition of Comics are Magic (click link for the archives). This is just a short one because its been a while. It concerns the magical influence of classic Silver Age story The Flash Stakes His Life On You! from The Flash#54 by way of two modern magicians and comics creators.

The first, Alejandro Jodorowsky is probably best known for his films, the alchemical allegories El Topo, The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. For those unfamiliar with his work here’s the trailer for  his masterpiece The Holy Mountain. That’s subjective of course, and they are all stunning, mind-warping films, but The Holy Mountain is I think clearest in its alchemical intent.

Jodorowsky started out as in theatre, co-founding the Panic Movement in 1962 which drew on Antoin Artaud’s Theatre of  Cruelty and staged violent and surreal performance pieces. From wikipedia:

The movement’s violent theatrical events were designed to be shocking,[2] and to release destructive energies in search of peace and beauty. One four-hour performance known as Sacramental Melodrama was staged in May 1965 at the Paris Festival of Free Expression. The “happening” starred Jodorowsky dressed in motorcyclist leather and featured him slitting the throats of two geese, taping two snakes to his chest and having himself stripped and whipped. Other scenes included “naked women covered in honey, a crucified chicken, the staged murder of a rabbi, a giant vagina, the throwing of live turtles into the audience, and canned apricots.”

In his excellent memoir The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky he describes how he moved to Mexico to undergo initiation with a number of female shamans. Like Alan Moore, Jodorowsky views art and magic as inseparable. He later combined theatre, magic and psychotherapy in his practice of psychomagic where the patient’s personality and family tree are studied to come up with symbolic performances to be acted out, based on the principle that the unconscious mind accepts symbolic acts as fact. Here is one example of many from his book on the subject (page 132):

A young Chantal, at four years old, found herself placed in a school directed by the sister of the mother of her mother…The great-aunt sadistically tyrannized the child. In working with me, Chantal discovered all the hate she held towards to this woman. She could not forgive her, and she had no way to avenge her because the torturer was no longer in this world. So I advised her to go to the grave of this woman and, once there, give free rein to this hate: that she kick, scream, piss, and defecate on the tomb, but provided that she dedicate herself to paying close attention to her subsequent reactions to her demonstrations of vengeance. She followed my advice, and after letting off some steam atop the sepulcher, she felt a deep desire to clean it up and cover it with flowers. And, little by little, she couldn’t help but surrender to the evidence that she, in fact, felt love for her great-aunt.

A true polymath, Jodorowsky has also developed his own reconstruction of the Tarot of Marseilles, which he summarises in the video below:

Jodorowsky has worked regularly in the comics medium. His earliest comics work included the strip Fabulas Panicas, which debuted in 1967 (and ran to 1973) in the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo de México. Below is one of these strips. There are many, many more over at, dedicated entirely to reproducing the strip and well worth your time. Even if  like me you don’t speak Spanish.

Fabulas panicas

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Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

Part One of this ‘thesis review’ introduced the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and suggested that the field of Comics Studies could be considered as rhizomatic. It then went on to demonstrate how approaches to studying superheroes that utilised structuralist theories and/or analysed the superhero comic in terms of representation and ideology could be understood as broadly humanist and based on an arboreal model of knowledge whereby the ‘meaning’ of the superhero could be reduced to a single explanatory trunk. It then went on to argue for a Post/Humanist approach to superhero comics that, rather than an arboreal model, adopted a rhizomatic approach. To aid this understanding a cultural history of the posthuman body in superhero comic was adopted. It was then demonstrated how this moves the analysis of the superhero away from ideology by understanding the development of the superhero through the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comic books in terms of historically situated assemblages.

 If the rhizomatic cultural history was suggested as a theoretical corrective to the limitations of ideological analyses then it was also important to address the implied reader at the mercy of ideology in these approaches. As such my thesis involved another strand in which I interviewed comic book readers about their views on the superhero and posthumanism more generally. This was seen as a methodological corrective to the problems outlined in Part Two.

In this section then I intend to familiarise the reader with historical approaches to the question of texts and reader/audiences. Having done this I next offer a model of text-reader relations that draws on the concept of assemblages outlined in Part One. Because of the ethical issues involved and the fact it’s not officially complete yet I will not be presenting the data from my interviews here on the blog at this time. Instead this review presents a brief history of audience studies, highlighting some of the dualities that have informed scholarly understanding of reader/text relations, and how these dualities follow on from the same historically established philosophical dualities that critical Post/Humanism is generally engaged in critiquing. As such I offer a model of reader-text relations as an assemblage, illustrated by a brief overview of historically situated comic-reader assemblages in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comics. Continue reading