Sunday speculations (disjointed), February 2, 2014: Here’s what we [don’t] talk about when we talk about Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Allen

Dear Friends of the Unreal —

Today is a very strange day. Superbowl fever rages, while:

a. an amazingly talented young actor was found in his Village apartment, dead from an overdose of heroin.

b. a scandal/controversy rages (sort of) around a well known New York filmmaker.

Words spew forth, and here I am spewing too. Words like art, humanity, torment, innocent until proven guilty, we’ll never know the truth and morality are being thrown around like mad, as though these events needed to be dealt with and put to rest or as Roxane Gay of Salon puts it, “compartmentalized” — as quickly as possible, because we have to move on to the next crisis/event/scandal/game.

So, I’m a little suspicious of this rush to “figure it all out” and move on.

But I’m also part of the rush of words, because I like words and I’m an intellectual, and I love Hoffman’s work, and once upon a time long ago, I actually really liked Woody Allen’s work. So here I am  — unable to help thinking about Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Allen together, because they are appearing in the news together, and I’m a person who thinks in comparisons.

So — what have they got in common? First of all, I should point out that they are not both Jewish (too bad — as I’d really like to claim Hoffman as an MOT). They are both white, CIS, straight, and middle class (and now pretty rich), but I think the comparison may end/be useful with their representing opposite poles of the artistic genius continuum, which is really more of a binary.

I have to say that I really don’t like this binary.

The binary says that: to be brilliant you have to be either a tortured, depressed (David Foster Wallace)/drug addict (Heath Ledger, allegedly) and/or a terrible person who sexually or otherwise abuses women/girls/boys (Michael Fassbender, allegedly and a host of others).

What bothers me more about the choices is that they seem to be routinely seen as “the way it is” aka “unavoidable.” The guy who blogs for the NEW YORKER says as much, when he says that “genius is unnatural.” Who is he citing? Schopenhauer? That’s just silly. Human beings are geniuses when they have extra access to practice-time. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, for Pete’s sake.

I know plenty of geniuses by the way.  And they are all to the woman, man, and 3rd, 4, and 5th gender, lovely people who are not addicts, nor deeply disturbed, nor abusive people.

Once again, I am very grateful to Gay’s Salon article that calls on public intellectuals to critique

“the culture that makes this conversation possible, the culture that leaves too many people wondering whose side to take, and the culture where people are contemplating (and compartmentalizing), in any way, Allen’s “artistic legacy.”’

But, just a second.  Not so fast.

Anthony Cristofani — a public intellectual if ever there was one — points out another displacement. That is — importantly — the criminalization and incarceration of a large proportion of our population — disproportionately men and persons of color. So, the fact that both these white guys are involved with illegal acts (drug purchasing/taking and sexual abuse/rape), as well as our knowledge of what happens to people who aren’t white who are accused and convicted of these acts, gets disappeared under the veil of alot of talk about greatness and art and the creative personality of the genius.

This means that when we talk about Allen and Hoffman during the Super Bowl, there’s alot we are not discussing. And it can’t even come up in the quick rush (my rush too) to analyze 1 death and 1 scandal so quickly that I don’t have to think about the big picture.

In a facebook conversation with my friend Samantha Updegrave, I posted about how important it was for artists, art, and people to expect artists to be decent individuals who try to do the right thing. But Anthony is suggesting that we need to think more deeply about how the system — which, let’s face it, is market capitalism, with all its racist, ableist, sexist, classist, ageist underpinnings — shapes and distorts the conversation so much, that we never get to what matters.

For starters, how about dumping the idea of “genius” in the first place?  That gets us out of the “he gets to be awful because he’s a genius” dodge.

And maybe we white CIS middle class artist-people need to look around the room and see who’s not in it with us.  Because alot of people seem to be missing.

I’m sure there’s lots more to do after that. But I have to go watch the Super Bowl.

Just kidding. I don’t like football (Go Seahawks).

8 thoughts on “Sunday speculations (disjointed), February 2, 2014: Here’s what we [don’t] talk about when we talk about Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Allen

  1. So many aspects of this inequity come to mind, but one that strikes me is the tendency to play these issues out in the court of public opinion. I’m not saying that’s wrong—and certainly Dylan Farrow is justified in doing so at this point—but it seems too many people rely on vested interests to tell them what to think. Makes me glad I no longer pay much attention to the news—especially celeb news.

    Thanks for the great perspective.

    1. Thanks so much Joe. There’s a lively discussion over on Facebook about many of the issues the blog post raises, but the one your raise — the element of what Baudrillard called “spectacle” — didn’t really come up explicitly. There’s something borderline creepy about mourning an actor none of us knew personally (or at least I didn’t), and freaking out about a very famous — if icky — movie director, as if somehow, to quote somebody ( I forget who said this), celebrities are somehow more alive and more real than we are, and that their lives “matter” more than ours. I think there’s a danger in so much public interest, and it drains energy from the matters that matter to us, privately and politically. There’s alot to explore here, but I’ll leave it at that, and thank you for your — as always –insightful comments.

      1. “celebrities are somehow more alive and more real than we are, and that their lives “matter” more than ours.”

        Well, only if we let them.

  2. Love it! Love the courage to identify as an intellectual in this country where it’s just another minority cops and prison guards like to beat on.
    The demand even from liberals for woody jail time is another example of the insidious way Power has sculpted things so that so often even when their enemies protest, they strengthen their position in the sickness of the protest. Namely: that we’re so hopeless and ideologically bound we think that the oppressed underprivileged could never get the privileges of the privileged, and instead of demanding the bottom gets the top’s lack of draconian punishment (ie demand EVERYONE get treated as if prison is not an option, so we explore more just solutions), we demand the privileged get the same punishlust draconian treatment as the oppressed. Backwards. Thus, in fighting for one cause we play right into Power’s hands vis-a-vis another one, perhaps the one that most directly and effectively keeps the oppressed oppressed: the prison industrial complex and it’s concomitant truisms.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment.
      As you know there’s been a lively discussion on fb about the issues that the woody case raises but your response makes me think of an issue that is highly pertinent – and that is the way masculinity gets shaped when connected to creativity AND criminality. The asymmetry of the gender relations gets brought up in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, and in other places that I am forgetting. I can’t quite formulate what I want to say, but there’s something UP, with this distribution which disappears sexual violence and yet empowers it too.

      1. Yeah this dynamic of hurting one cause in defense of another is common. I think of people trying to “save” sex workers and other forms of paternalistic feminism; the pervasive killing of solidarity by trying to police whose oppression “counts” or is worse, (I.e. Trying to build more empathy/understanding by having little for potential allies who accidentally hurt the cause in one or more instances); and REALLY often: perpetuating the individualism that powers the neoliberalism you’re fighting in almost any cause. What else?

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