Archive for October 2010


As you make your way through your liberal arts education, the thought might have come to you: Are there no men real men on campus? Do not worry. I am glad to tell you that yes, totally, emphatically, there are real men on campus. Not too far away, most definitely in the still-green fields behind the football stadium. And they do something rather unusual and foreign to most Americans. No, no need for an investigation committee on these Un-American activities. Not quite. Not yet. Yet, it is a rough game, “a terrifically fun mess” as Joseph “Joe” Sheeran our interpreter of this peculiar man mostly man-gathering calls it.

So, if your curiosity is somewhat tickled, whether you call yourself male or female or are an undefined/fluid/transitional creature in between dichotomous gender polarities, get yourself out there, rain or shine, to check them out most Saturdays at 1 p.m. I am telling you, there real men in shorts, with no helmets, no gloves — and some of them are not big on socks either.

They are the Oberlin men’s rugby team. They display contempt for art and beauty in their attire. I have seen no mascot. No cheerleaders. They do it for the fun of it. Not for mom and dad. Emphatically, not for money. Not for the liberal-arts curriculum either. This is strictly an extra-curricular activity. Dressed in blue jerseys with no names printed on them, no numbers, some with stripes, some with crosses, some don’t even bother, no matching colors… Always outnumbered, out-coached, out-moneyed. But there they are: a happy few, a handful of Spartans against whatever may be in front of them, the troops of Persian Emperor Xerxes, or tribes such as John Carroll, Ohio Northern, and Kenyon. These are real men: I told you. There they are: unsung heroes, as frugal as frugality has it, taking the nice out of niceties, happy to be left alone.

A piece of poetry signals the beginning of the game:

“We’re gonna Ruck, Maul, Pillage, and Burn,

We’re gonna Ruck, Maul, Pillage, and Burn,

Eat the Babies!

The poetry is repeated a few times in crescendo. Yelling. Screaming. Jumping up and down. Hugging each other. Six verbs. One subject. One undefined direct object (no: it is not “we” or “gonna”!): “babies.”

Is “babies” (note the plural) the other team? The children of the opposing team? What is the sense of the poetic metaphor? Ruck, maul, pillage and burn… the babies? Do these men do baby-talk? There are no instruments. This is no conservatory activity although there are some music players involved in this strictly male ritual. I told you: your masculinity will be tested. No real men will be by the sidelines.

The total number is about 25 men: 3 seniors, 13 juniors, 4 sophomores, and 8 freshmen. I have seen fewer players on the field. And I have seen them exchange jerseys when they leave the field. So they do not have enough: players and jerseys. There is no guarantee the hurt player will be replaced by a healthy player. Having enough is clearly not part of this game. “Enough” is for girly men. And blue is the chosen color (new black jerseys are coming, I am told, and we will marvel with Marvin). Any available coaches out there? I can see some players running up and down doing some screaming and yelling and also carrying water containers.

I am told the tradition is shaky, like all American traditions, and that they rely on the knowledge and experience of the older players. The names of the captains: John Crittenden and Erin Huntington. Two big rocks upon which to build no church, but this is not a religious endeavor, not even of the New-Age kind. It is closer to some ancient sacrifice. Doesn’t the chant allude to cannibalism? A hint of pre-Hispanic human sacrifice? The game satisfies “a lot of primal urges and thirsts of the more physical variety while also presenting an interesting intellectual/mental challenge… A bit like learning a new language, except it’s physically punishing as well as mentally taxing.”

Do you have what it takes to “eat the babies”? Are you game?

Love must be something like this: “We were playing an away match at Hiram and mauled out of a lineout.  I was at the back of the maul and as we lost momentum, I took the ball and peeled off.  I hadn’t realized how close we were, being mostly focused on pushing at the moment, but as soon as I broke off, I realized that we were right in front of their try line and dove over as quick as I could,” said Joe Sheeran. This is deceptively called “a try.” American football calls it a touchdown. Soccer calls it a goal. Hollywood closes the movie with the pretty girl giving the hero the “yes I do” kiss. Try? It is a big thing.

And it happens with these men who try the try. I saw one in three games. And I am told that when it happens for the first time, there is a great tradition of celebration, the so-called “zulu.” What does this mean? The powerful male achiever does a naked lap, except for socks and cleats, around the pitch after the match, and everyone sings “It’s a Small World.” So, there you go: let it all hang out! Let the out hang it all! All hang the let it! Hang all let it the? Is this PG-13 Disney-appropriate entertainment?

Any memorable history in this home of the brave and land of the free? Any legends? There are rumors of bad behavior. I hear that these men, secretly called the BGGs (“Billy Goats Gruff”), some people are very mistaken in thinking that our men are the cousins of the Bee Gees, so the Goats used to win quite a bit, but this must be a very long time ago, before you and I were born, in some mythical past, and that they wore different colors (red and black), and that they “partied so hard they were legends even on Denison’s campus.” This is old. This is history. We now live in 21st century America. Small-world America. Legend goes that the administration wasn’t happy about it it! and that once the men stole an Oberlin Campus Security vehicle and drove it to the pitch (make no mistake, not the parking lot), and that they unloaded some kegs plural — probably not containing soy milk or orange juice, and in an outrageous fit of collective creativity put a jersey on one of them.” I would kill to know: what color was this jersey? Whose jersey was it? This Dionysian ritual emerges from the mist and fog of history, war and mythology. The administration some kind of United Nations? revoked their charter, but only momentarily.

Glad to see the team is back, only in its fifth year and always fighting against much more established teams. You bet these Oberlin men are not afraid to take “some hard lessons on the field.” The harder, the better. The better, the harder. They wear tooth-protection devices and they can digest iron. I am sure they can roll the “rs” to “Herrero” (blacksmith in Spanish, my dear Obie) with no problem. It turns out the Oberlin women (called “Rhinos,” roll the “rs” again!) also do the chant. So, there’s an awful lot of baby-eating going on campus does Marvin know? and your feminism can take pride in their better record. Check out their fierce looks au natural in this year’s calendar. Rhinos and Goats: a happy animal farm out there on Saturdays with cuts, bruises, thumps, runs, yelling, screaming… What is going on?

You will wonder about the poetry. It has unknown origin. Peel back your hairy ears: “rucking” and “mauling” are specific actions to the concrete game in question. In this game you don’t “pile on” (Remember Rove’s self-declared motto (“Find the bastards, and pile on,” from the (“Blackhorse”) Regiment?). In this game, you cannot lay on someone who’s down. You don’t pile on. “Rucking” is what happens when someone gets tackled and places the ball back towards his team. The two teams bind together over the ball trying to push each other off the ball while attempting to kick it backwards with their feet. You cannot use your hands until the ball has made its way to the back of the “ruck” and someone can pull it out from behind the very last foot in the “ruck.”

So, bears and rocks. You throw rocks at the bears and bears at the big rocks in front of you. Or you throw yourself like a bear at the rocks. “The players not in the “ruck” must stay behind the back foot of the last player from their team “in ruck” or else they are offsides and liable to be penalized by the referee.  Once the ball rolls out into the open, it’s up for grabs,” and grabbing there is. A bigger, more organized version of this is called a “scrum,” the binding together in rows, and the collective pushing forward. It is used to restart play after a forward pass or “knock on” which is when a player drops the ball or hits it with their hand and it travels forward.  “Mauls” are like “rucks” and “scrums” except the player carrying the ball has not been successfully tackled and is still standing up with players from both teams trying to push him and the ball in their preferred direction. It is much harder to defend a maul than to attack with one, teams will typically try to pull it down and turn it into a ruck. That is how Mr. Sheehan explained the foreign language to me. This is how I pass it to you. Got it? “Pillage” and “burn” were not explained. About the eating? How many of them? Sauce? More real than real, this thing. Vegetarianism is as unlikely as humanitarianism among these real men.

So, this is a man’s world, but, as you know, it would be nothing without a woman out there. Not one, but two good women. The “Billy Goats Gruff” club is lucky: Betsy Bruce, Director of Recreations & Club Sports — and Jen Schwinne, the Athletic Trainer currently assigned to Club Sports. These two big Mamas keep a good eye on these gentlemen that is how they address each other — making sure cuts and bruises are fixed, swellings are iced, attention is paid to the wounded, etc. Betsy’s official historical record: “The win-loss record of the “Billy Goats Gruff” is more losses than wins in my memory, the club was revived in about 2006 after a long hiatus (not sure exactly when or why but the club had been suspended prior to my arrival in 1999).” The hiatus must be a reference to the previous keg-shirt myth. Hiatus is Latin word for suspension and Betsy is slowly improving her Spanish skills. In her third year, “Mama” knows it is a useful skill in America. In her second semester, Ms. Schwinne works with eight out of eighteen club teams that have chosen to participate in the sports medicine program. Give them a good raise, Marvin!

And please, Oberlin alums: give these men in their fourth or fifth season your big money. For shirts and lots of soy milk. Win or lose. Who said there are no real men on campus? Go out there and check them out playing the beautiful game. Take these babies out and feed them. Whatever happens next, it is up to you. I decline all responsibility.

Any comments?  Questions, issues for FGH to address? Get in touch,


Sometimes popular culture affords windows of reflection about difficult topics — such as violence — that  other spaces typically do not. The Saw series present tremendously violent films that keep good company with the Guantanamo-and-Abu Graib conditioning of America, currently fighting two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan). Or is it only one, with covert operations (read: “dirty war”) surfacing occasionally in the paper of record? Can America as a nation be directly responsible for inflicting a tremendous amount of violence out there and still process such violence emotionally and intellectually? Do “we” have the language and the guts? What does it mean to “end” a war, to “lose” it, since the official language of “nothing but success”also the language of “customer service” and controlled environmentssays that  “we” are always winning? How many Americans out there can convincingly explain the brutal euphemism of  “rendition” — an official, covert operation of  kidnapping and entrapment of a (foreign) nationals in complicity with situations of torture? Catch the funny butterfly with your butterfly nest:  the concept of “state terrorism.” The more “we” do it, the less “we” talk about it. Or do anything you want, as long as you don’t write it down.

So, where good critical language fails us, popular culture delivers torture films, like the Saw series. Who can doubt the coarsening of the cultureflip through the television channels, witness the rhetorical discourse, surf the web (check out Paul Virilio for good analysis). Older generations might still be tempted to hide with Adorno’s ghost and their high-culture favorites underneath their pillows and behind the barricaded doors of their house.

(via Ukelaney)

But there is no hideout and no retreat. I saw two of the film series, Saw II and Saw III, and they provided enough for me to get a visualization of the sadistic logic wrapped around the main criminal mastermind playing games with his unfortunate victims and supposedly getting titillation, suspense, horror-pleasure in their torture and final destruction; but also confirmation of man’s depravity. You may have heard of the Hobbesian line: manthat means you and me and everybody else is predator to man again, that means you and me and everybody else from the beginning of human history to some no-future no-way-out endgame. The Saw series takes it to another level of American depravity (and the most distressing thing is the political argument that I will make at the end of this piece).

The unrelenting fast-paced camerawork makes viewers go through the anxiety of the victims trapped in some abandoned house or non-descript warehouse basement with poor light, at the same time “marveling” at the seemingly omniscient figure of the cancer-suffering character John Kramer, “Jigsaw,” or “Saw” for short. He is the evil-beyond-evil one who frames the Rogger Rabbits of the other characters who will be fried by the end of the game with clocks ticking.

Leave your buffalo wings and the popcorn and the soda on the floor: I bet $5 you will not be able to eat while watching. Saw is some kind of Deus ex Machina device, who leaves written signs on the wall, macabre toys, videotaped messages for his kidnapped and trapped victims to decipher as they have to play the “games” he has designed. If our Baroque ancestors had the fight of fate and free will (hado and libre albedrío in Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño), we less lucky postmodern creatures now have a less generous free play, more Calvinist than Catholic, courtesy of the individual sociopath who wants his prisoners to appreciate their miserable lives once in the thick of misery. There is no way out of their own destruction and viewers are witnesses of such futility, holding hands, metaphorically speaking with the mastermind John Kramer.

Remeber, the ugly premise of Saw Series is Hobbesian. Man you and me — is a rat to another rat also you and me. And this is nothing but furious rat business. So the best thing is to kill that thing with some joy in it. Their exercise of free will results in futility: their own destruction or somebody else’s. Also ours, as viewers, since we are supposedly occupying a different plane of reality while being part of these horrors and fears. There is extreme emotionalization and very little intellectual exercise at work here (more about this soon). Saw visualizes situation after situation of futility that after a short while the viewer knows will go the wrong way, or the right predictable way, assuming that you look at it from Saw’s shoes, which is what the camera movement does — with you and for you. Saw tests the limits of human desire for fatal self-disgust taking it out on oneself and others with revenge and vengeance. The consequences are mortal, final. The solution, total. No one is left untouched here. No good guys. All the guys are very, very bad. The social, historical landscape: none. The suggestion: history is nothing else but this entrapment of surely grotesque and excessive violence.


(via IsLoveAtEnderThing)

Saw effectively means the normalization and visualization of tortureand this is happening in historical moments of grotesque conceptual impoverishment and perversion of the political vocabulary in 21st century America. Each chapter is a crescendo of tension bringing the charactersand the viewersdeeper into the game, so to speak, always within clock-ticking minutes of their own destruction. The game is this: if you do not help someone you hate get out, he or she will be destroyed; if you do not get out of your chains, you will get destroyed as well. If you do manage to get out, going through some process of pain, dismemberment, or assassination, you will be “freed,” but presumably you already feel dead inside, and Saw appears to know how the characters feel intimately. But what guarantee is there that Saw will not catch you again?

All-seeing, Panopticon-like John Kramer is also your intimate, inner-child unconscious bundle of fears and desires in the marrow of your mind and body. He knows what makes you tickle and you are, sorry to say, oh-so-easy prey to his predatorial gaze and grasp. So this is a bit of a Calvinist version of “damned if you, damned if you don’t.” Sorry, good works will not set you free. Or at least this is some popular-culture version of this Calvinist ethos inviting you to the participatory thrill in the enjoyment in others’ pain and death.

The visual commodity culture wants your money and your investment, more emotional than intellectual, in a Foucaultian nightmare of total “control and [total] punishment. “It is light entertainment culture — relax, FGH,” some would say while quickly turning to their buffalo wings, popcorn and sodas. Yet I would steadfastly defend the view that there are profoundly disturbing assumptions embedded in such entertainment culture, especially when compared to the current regime of visualization of war conflict, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the recent Obama administration’s opposition to further investigation of alleged torture by the CIA. 

The visual commodity culture inside the increasingly violent structure of capitalismlately not exactly enjoying a robust configurationwants you to go through the thrill of suspense, tension, uncertainty, fear and disgust of games normalizing torture, yet without affording big questions about what comparative type of social landscape might welcome such visuality of violence. If the visualization of it is surely excessive, is it fair to ask if such violence is ordinary or extraordinary? (remember the complete euphemism, “extraordinary rendition”). Words like “rendition” and “state terrorism” are missing in action in the Saw series but the situations are perfectly comparable and transferable to not so distant circumstances never too far away from current events that have to do with your government. The Saw series renders some of the pathologies of American popular culture visible, insufficiently imitating and responding to the state of exceptionality that the German jurist Carl Schmitt theorized some time ago. Lowbrow culture is never purely and simply about having a good time in your free time.


(via MoreHorror)

Saw, the character, tests the fabric of what it is to be human. His own apparent super-humanity allows him, in a sense, to do so. His dying of cancer pushes him to take revenge on those who do not value the life they have. He is pushing them to do so by putting them through bodily pain and psychological misery, degradation, and destruction. Lots of pain. The gain? Difficult to say. Saw II has characters trapped in the basement of an abandoned building in some self-destructive pursuit of a way out. The combination number that will open the locked door is tattooed on the back of their necks. One number per neck and the gradual discovery of such cleverness gets caught up in getting rid of each other in the middle of the tension of fear and distrust. The point is for gore to triumph. And there is gore galore. One body-builder-type character with visible tattoos will remove his own number from the back of his neck with the help of a big blade and some appropriate yelling. Get the picture? Saw III has an aggrieved father, dead inside, who lost his son to reckless driving facing up to different situations in a poorly-lit, dungeon-like setting that put him one by one with those around the fatal situation yet who did nothing to save the kid (climax scene, the black young driver crucified with clever twisting and turning motion of the cross tearing the limbs apart and the protagonist, always with a clock ticking, desperately trying to fight his feelings to find the magic key that will let the crucified kid free).

In a cute kind of way, the DVD includes the selection menu projected on the background of the anatomy of a human arm dangling from a hook, surrounded by other body parts (teeth included) and some macabre-laughter music in the background (play the film in one hand, parts of the film in the radius, highlights in the elbow, etc.).

If you like gore, this is your thing. Yet I would like you to consider the unsatisfactory political dimension of these films in its explicit disconnection, individualization and depoliticization. There is a certain dissonance between Saw’s elaborate game situation and his explicit motivations. His dying of cancer? The impossible happiness to receive the love of a woman? Why does the lone wolf go so criminally psychotic in such superb fashion? Surely there is an excessive, indeed monstrous, quality to the actions of the main protagonist, the big brain on bread so to speak, that is fundamentally less biting and genuinely unbelievable precisely in such a social decontextualization (the interrogation into the theme of violence is thus arrested). Saw is some kind of next-level Hannibal Lecter, there is virtuosity but it is dangling from the air. A good inquiry into the conditioning of this type of social being would have been very interesting indeed inside a society that produces such pathologies. The characters trapped are not lambs. They are anything but silent. There is lots of yelling and screaming. They are not lame either: they appear to be fighting some super-human dimension inhabited by the metaphysical Kramer who kind of goes down to the human level. And such level is exclusively gratuitous pain and suffering delivering no enlightenment.

These films are not intellectual vehicles that will give us insight into such ugly realities of the human dimension. Instead, the “safe” assumption is that “we” are dealing with a big rotten apple in the middle of the barrel with a few good rotten apples around it. And “we” are watching it, somehow, from a different space having thrills of horror and anguish. Yes, these films will never make big statements about the deliberate planning of the violation of human rights in the making of a self-described democratic collective and this is precisely the nature of Kramer’s games: the deliberate and pleasurable violation and destruction of  the enforced community. Yet, as mentioned, the “us versus them” political formula is not explicitly present in this cheap horror-and-torture thrill of popular entertainment. Such vehicle is driving, metaphorically with the main protagonist of John Kramer at the wheel—on the freeways, but also networks, websites, of the less cheap and much more horrific collective dimensions embedded in own immediate society, yours and mine, at least for the time being.

Are you following the war situation? Have you seen the news about the experimentation discovered recently by Susan Reverby about American researchers in Guatemala in the 1940s? Have you read the gruesome detailswith dismemberment includedof civilian killings in Afghanistan “Case of Accused Soldiers May Be the Worst of Two Wars” by Charlie Savage? The Saw series is exceedingly careful not to make any connections with the larger political climate, but there is no doubt that it cannot be understood without the larger increase in violence in our daily lives. The Saw series is an escort service within the general offering of American popular culture, and a cheap one at that, finding inspiration in the larger horrors of the larger political landscape, yet retreating from going deeper into these horrors, intellectually and emotionally.

Do we all have to inhabit the petty existence of this miserable Americana trapped in its own political misery? Saw’s “experimental laboratory” has something of a eugenics-inverted phantasmagoria: imagine a Fellini-like circus-atmosphere gone very wrong. There is the insinuation of the value of work here: torture games require carefully planned and executed effort. The film setting conveys AbuGhraibesque detention there are lots of chains, metal props, hooks and wood containers and also oppressive Guantanamoesque corridors of humans running in isolation towards their own destruction.

Underdeveloped character interaction finds the expressivity of abundant blood splashed on walls and body parts left dangling behind on hooks, lying on floor, etc. What is going on here if not the transfer of political images from the strictly political and a very ugly face of politics at that to the realm of a “more neutral” public space of entertainment that refuses to ask tougher questions about violence? For all its gruesome qualities, the Saw series will not push your intellectual curiosity further about such a difficult theme. What it wants is your complicit titillation in these games.

So, what we get is cheap-thrill entertainment in the form of the visualization of the torture and destruction of the body politic, also curiously desexualized. It is as though there is a sublimation of mechanisms of abjection that does not here sexualize the predatorial impulses of Kramer or his victims going at each other. There is in this a perhaps surprising coyness in the camera display, despite the occasional display of the female naked body. So, when the mind fails, all except the big brain of John Kramer, the body will come with the vengeance of unrelenting disgust that will stop at nothing but its final solution of (self-)destruction. There is no way around the endgame in entrapment, self-mutilations, dismemberments, gushing body fluids, opening of wounds, scars, bodies immobilized, trapped, left dangling, being exposed to heat or freezing temperatures, needles, knives, tattooed, etc. (incidentally, you must have noticed the mainstreaming of the tattoo culture in sports and semi-underground environments, for example boxing and fight clubs, pornographic and fashion sites and “celebrities” including Nazi paraphernalia; think Jesse James’s mistresses). It is as if the increasing discursive awkwardness finds the extreme expressivity of the body in situation of (symbolic) pain. And this I find demonstrative of the pathologies of capitalist culture at large, and of the intensities embedded in particular in American culture. There is abjection and disgust, forced sociability and zero-ground nihilism that will go one way: destruction. In the end of Saw III, John Kramer teases the aggrieved father with the religious language of forgiveness knowing full well that he is to get the final cut in the neck with predictable blood gushing out.

This religious insinuation is kind of there in the Saw Series. It is more pretext than anything else. Saw places his voice in white-faced puppets with red-striped-circled cheeks, also in tape recorders left behind in strategic places for the characters to find them side by side a white piece of paper including their proper names. These are the instructions to play the game that also activate the immediate countdown. Saw is a popularized-version of Old-Testament wrathful God who wants to slow down the process of the destruction of the human insects watching them inflict it to each other.

A virtuoso performance: someone catches up and does what Saw thought of doing beforehand. The formula of the series is rather simple: the game has to be futile and impossible for the characters. It is an excuse for the visualization of bodies chained, trapped, immobilized, body parts caught in chains, twisted around, torn out, cut off, displayed naked. The viewer will also confirm the predictions of John Kramer, also the feeling of total surveillance. Nothing escapes the criminal mastermind of the invalid and ailing Kramer. His arms and legs are the ones of the faithful follower former-junkie and beautiful Amanda, also assassin, is charmingly endowed with the occasional tinge of jealousy. Yet, your feminism will find no women worthy of rescue. And the film is after all stronger on the father/son broken bond.

I would finally argue that film series such as Saw make good use of the current regime of visuality without pushing the envelope of the status quo. I mean good in the sense of conventional: these films move in a “safe” territory doctoring and blocking significant violence from mainstream American popular culture. Such an adjective, significant, will have to do with larger-than-individual motivations, reasons, contradictions, tensions, and yes politics. For example, what your government does, but also your position in your own society, and the position your society occupies in relation to other societies, and also with how you make a living, your labor conditions and what your working place treats you. Think of violence intelligently, if you wish. There is an entrapment that is historically tremendously significant, far exceeding this or that product of the visual popular culture. Saw has been my pretext to indulge a reflection that I am passing to you. There is an easy solution that I invite you to put on hold: the individualization of cruelty and violence the lone, crazy wolf in some kind of messed-up turn of life events and I invite you to do this suspension precisely in the thick middle of collective dimensions of increasing violence that are not out “there” but in “here”. Good violent, much more intelligent films, you may ask: check out Z by Costa-Gavras, the Letters from Fontainhas by the colossal Pedro Costa, classic noir such as Sweet Smell of Success, a tribute to the recently deceased Tony Curtis; pretty much anything by Buñuel, pretty much anything by Pasolini, pretty much anything by Lars Von Trier, The Crying Game by Neil Jordan, even with the whole gender-bending decoration, the recent Baader Meinhof Complex, Sam Peckingpah’s Straw Dogs, Cronenberg’s great films History of Violence and Crash, etc. These are films that put violence in a larger collective horizon. These directors and actors covey some sort of emotional rendering and intellectual perspective on violence that must always have a larger social configuration in relation to the society in which such cultural product was originally produced (I gave 6/7 different nationalities in the previous list). The crucial point is to try to show the violence critically and expansively informing, and also deforming, our minds and bodies, the structure of everyday life, our symbolic production, our conscious and unconscious structure of dreams and fears. The final point I am making: the individualization or de-socialization of the violence of Saw personified in the main character is finally insufficient and unintelligent. I see it as a retreat from politics with gore galore but with no bite, culturally. Anti-intellectualism is on both the Right and Left sides of the political spectrum, as American as violence and apple pie (Fredric Jameson dixit). And what is needed is, I would say, is more intellect. So, dare turn it around and Americanize this sort of sadistic logic rigorously in relation to two abstractions: the State and institutionality.

Any comments?  Questions, issues for FGH to address? Get in touch,