Beautiful handwritten affect

Her is the kind of film I didn’t like, but would like to teach. Given the number of excellent critical reviews already out there, I don’t so much want to add to them as to use the film as a node from which to lay out a network of ideas from several visual studies texts.

I. In Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), Vivian Sobchak writes that “many people describe and understand their minds and bodies in terms of computer systems and programs (even as they still describe and understand their lives in terms of movies)” (137). I’ve come to think of this split and disconnect metaphorized in different media as Her‘s central drama. Theodore has all these cinematic desires and needs and can’t figure out which circuitry inside himself they connect to; instead of film programming his own mind and body cum computer system he channels all of his efforts at connection and narrativization into a store-bought one.

II. Like the beautiful, handwritten letters Theodore gets paid to squeeze out, Jonze churns up all sorts of affect in Her but only succeeds in moving those spectators who confuse affect with emotion. For the rest of us, as Marie-Luise Angerer has so succinctly put it, this “enthusiasm for the affective, then, conceals an actual fear of affect, the fear of having (and being) nothing more than the need to dissolve oneself (one’s ego).” (“Feeling the Image: Some Critical Notes on Affect,” in Imagery in the 21st Century, Oliver Grau and Thomas Veigl, eds., 219)

III. Re: character names and their tells: Theodore (Roethke?) (Cy) Twombly? The perfect mash-up of sad macho confessionalism and epic unfinishedness. Samantha should have been named Dolores, I think. All of the actresses cast in the film were such purposefully underage-looking nymphs that this name would have given us a matching impression of Theodore’s Tinkerbell/girlfriend.

IV. There were plenty of aspects of the future in Her for which I found I could not suspend my belief: the universal wealth, climate change apparently being a complete non-issue, the nonexistence of anyone outside of the 25-45-year-old demographic. Most intriguing and unbelievable, though, was the centrality of the voice to cutting-edge technology. Leaving the theater and looking around me at all of the humans in silent communion with their devices, I wondered: how would Jonze have us go from an instant message and photo culture where people no longer feel able to leave voicemail to a culture in which early adapters thrill to the grain of the cybervoice?

V. The majority of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha is replete with the “working on myself” vocabulary of contemporary theraputic culture. In Her, the perfect woman is not virgin nor whore but mental health care professional.

VI. In “Death Every Afternoon,” André Bazin wrote,

Like death, love [i.e., making love] must be experienced and cannot be represented (it is not called the little death for nothing) without violating its nature…I imagine the supreme cinematic perversion would be the projection of an execution backward like those comic newsreels in which the diver jumps up from the water back onto his diving board. (reprinted in Rites of Realism: Essays in Corporeal Cinema, edited by Ivonne Margulies, 2003. 30, 31)

I thought of backwards executions as Jonze made us listen to the sounds of Theodore and Samantha’s virtual sex in the dark. Perhaps fading the screen to black during this was supposed to be a romantic discretion? It only made the sequence more voyeuristic and lonelier, like listening to the couple next door through a motel wall.

VII. Several critics have commented on the retromoding of Theodore’s smartphone. In Artforum, Melissa Anderson compares it to “an index-card-size daguerrytype camera.”

I don’t see the camera similarity, but I, too, thought of daguerreotypes in their protective Union Cases while watching Her. Indeed, the dominant atmospheric color in the film could be called “Daguerreotype crimson” in honor of the soft protective lining in these mid-nineteenth-century cases.

Daguerreotype, circa 1850. Image accessed at

Impossible not to be reminded here of Walter Benjamin and his writing on the metonymy of plush cases for the nineteenth century:

The nineteenth century, like no other century, was addicted to dwelling. It conceived the residence as a receptacle for the person, and it encased him with all his appurtenances so deeply in the dwelling’s interior that one might be reminded of the inside of a compass case, where the instrument with all its accessories lies embedded in deep, usually violet folds of velvet. What didn’t the nineteenth century invent some sort of casing for! Pocket watches, slippers, egg cups, thermometers, playing cards and, in lieu of cases, there were jackets, carpets, wrappers and covers. (The Arcades Project, 221)

If for Benjamin, the twentieth century had lost its cushy protection, Jonze’s after-the-twenty-first century restores that bourgeois coziness in the form of clothing as well as technological accoutrements.

VIII. Her is not a cautionary tale or a dystopian sci-fi film. It’s not a romance, either–comedy or tragedy. It is a self-defensive diorama of interpersonal failure. Emily Maitlis nailed it with the term “fetish fantasy;” what feels safer than waxing moralistic on the taboo behavior in which one secretly wants to indulge, like falling in love with oneself via an all-knowing avatar?

It is the exquisites who are going to rule

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: "The last of the Teddy Girls"

The Party Line, Ken Russell, January 1955. From the series: “The last of the Teddy Girls”

The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule.
— Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

Unbelievably, I’ve never seen a Ken Russell film. Now that I have enjoyed his photography, I’ll make a point to watch some. Slideshows of Russell’s photos can be found here and here; particularly intriguing are his photographs of Teddy Girls, made with participative humor and candor at a time when all the subcultural attention was going to the boys. If indeed the Teddy Girls were flouting postwar austerity with their get-ups, they were also thumbing their noses at late modernist consumer culture and its suggestions for acceptable femininity.

The 7,000 Year Old Woman

Betsy Damon, The 7,000 Year Old Woman, New York City, 1977. Photograph taken by Su Friedrich.

Above: an arresting and exhilarating photo by Su Friedrich of Betsy Damon’s performance piece in Jennie Klein’s “Goddess: Feminist Art and Spirituality in the 1970s.” Klein’s essay is one of many in the wide-ranging, informative, eclectic and breezy read, West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977, edited by Elissa Auther and Adam Lerner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Klein writes,

Betsy Damon’s The 7,000 Year Old Woman referenced the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus, associated with a Neolithic Goddess site in Turkey where she had lived as a child. Covered in small bags of colored flour that she ritualistically punctured in a public ceremony on Wall Street, Damon eventually formed a spiral/labyrinthine pattern on the ground. Damon based The 7,000 Year Old Woman on a dream that she had had years before. She resolved to realize the images in her dream.  (227)

Citizen Feminist

When Vladimir Putin announced to international media outlets that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich of Pussy Riot “shouldn’t be judged so harshly” and that he hoped the court decision will be “well-founded,” it became clear the women would receive a guilty sentence that would be the most of the least: just long enough to be onerous and just short enough to (hopefully) turn worldwide focus away from their plight.

There are two specific things about the events which have unfolded around Pussy Riot’s arrest that fascinate, provoke and inspire me, and which have been under-examined in reportage I’ve read:

1. The “attack” on Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral was only significant in so far as it supplied the staging and mise-en-scene for the music video which the group created–the one that, according to Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov, got the members arrested. (Both versions of the footage here.) The trio was charged with “hooliganism” in name only; in reality, they had proven alarmingly effective counter-cultural advertisers, and were being prosecuted for it.

Although it’s easy to argue that every stage of this conflict (from provocation to show trial to “Free Pussy Riot” web platforms to this blog post) played out in the realm of the virtual, Pussy Riot must be lauded for their courage in allowing this virtual battle to inflict itself upon their own plane of immanence. History proves that this, and only this is the way activism “makes a difference.”

Moreover, in her lucid and brilliantly-engineered closing statement, Yekaterina Samutsevich pointedly connected Putin’s co-option of the Orthodox Church and the national media to Russia’s quotidian plane of immanence, as well:

That Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities was clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyayev took over as leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.


Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.

Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity. In our performance we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.

Translation from Chto Delat News, n+1

We can read here the clear influence of Guy Debord’s theory on Pussy Riot–indeed, Maria Alyokhina gives him a shout-out in her closing statement.

2. The charges themselves as well as the disapproval voiced against Pussy Riot are tinged with unmistakable gender bias, when not misogyny. Unsurprisingly, the Western press has called little attention to this. Major news outlets in the United States are naturally eager to report on the women as a.) anti-Putin activists and b.) colorfully-clad, winsome young women (just count the number of glamor shots of conventionally beautiful Tolokonnikova alone) but bulk at explaining the group’s larger and more systemic critique of patriarchy.

Witness the barely-veiled misogyny (and the prejudice against Judaism and Islam) in Putin’s less-reported follow-up comment that, had the women performed this act in “Israel” or “some sacred Muslim place,” well, “there are some pretty strong guys there, you know[…]we would not even have time to protect them.” Implicit here is the conviction that it might have been better if the three women had indeed been violently attacked by men–obviously they were ungrateful for the restraint Russian police had shown by not “giving them what they deserved.”

The offenses they were charged with (violating “conceivable and inconceivable rules,” emphatic vulgarity, “deliberately provocative” gesturing, parody and their clothing, “inappropriate in a church”) and the disapproving psychological evaluations they received (“proactive approach to life,” “a drive for self-fulfillment,” “stubbornly defending their opinion,” “inflated self-esteem,” “inclination to opposition behavior,” and “propensity for protest reactions”) are to my mind saturated in historic discrimination against women who dare to make a claim to power. Whores, shrews, slatterns, hysterics, bitches: these are the stereotypes latent here in the language of psychologist, judge, and prosecution.

Wisely, Pussy Riot didn’t make this maddening injustice the center of their closing statements. They had already accomplished the most forceful feminist act of the past several months by becoming for however short a time the sine qua non of vital leftist contestation. For the past several weeks, these women have demonstrated that, in contrast to the narratives put forward by “identity politics” disaffecteds, feminism does not detract from the wider struggle against state oppression, religious hypocrisy and capitalist hegemony, but is in fact a universal synecdoche for it. Importantly, the same can be said of artistic expression. This is at the heart of Maria Alyokhina’s closing statement…:

There is [currently in Russia] no “individual approach,” no study of culture, of philosophy, of basic knowledge about civic society. Officially, these subjects do exist, but they are still taught according to the Soviet model. And as a result, we see the marginalization of contemporary art in the public consciousness, a lack of motivation for philosophical thought, and gender stereotyping. The concept of the human being as a citizen gets swept away into a distant corner.


Today’s educational institutions teach people, from childhood, to live as automatons. Not to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age. They inculcate cruelty and intolerance of nonconformity. Beginning in childhood, we forget our freedom.


An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.

Translated by Marijeta Bozovic, Maksim Hanukai, and Sasha Senderovich, n+1

…as well as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement:

Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties. The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the aughts have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo [the holy foolishness] of punk.

Translation by Maria Corrigan and Elena Glazov-Corrigan, n+1