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This abbreviation of the distance between Behzad and the villagers does not exonerate his insensitive behavior, but it does suggest that we need to look elsewhere for a more accurate explanation of his disorientation, which goes deeper than the narrative alibi implies. Like other Kiarostami protagonists, 244 Penumbra Behzad behaves, I will argue, less like a rootless or deterritorialized modern man than like one who has been uprooted from his modern unrootedness to experience himself as riveted to a culture, a land, an ethnicity that remains inscrutable and that he tries to understand, without much success, by engaging in a quasi-ethnographic exploration of them. That modernity melted everything solid into air is an exaggerated claim, but it was expected that it would at least soften all that had once been solid to the consistency of clay, to render everything, including the subject, infinitely pliable. Contrary to expectations, however, supposedly malleable modern man found himself stuck to something; something tore him away from the free-flowing current of modern life.
We know that modernity was founded on a definitive break with the authority of our ancestors, who were no longer conceived as the ground for our actions or beliefs. Yet the undermining of their authority confronted us with another difficulty; it is as if in rendering our ancestors fallible we had transformed the past from the repository of their already accomplished deeds and discovered truths into a kind of holding cell of all that was unactualized and unthought. Suddenly it was the desire of our ancestors and thus the virtual past, the past that had never come to pass or had not yet been completed, that weighed disturbingly on us. The theorization of this unfinished past was focused in the West around the concept of anxiety.11 If it seemed necessary to come to terms theoretically with anxiety—as it did to Kierkegaard, Freud, and Heidegger, among others—this is because this affect bore witness to an altered relation to a past now conceived as incompletely actualized. The assumption that modern man would become pliable (to market forces or even the force of his own will) rested on the belief that the break with the authoritative past placed a zero in the denominator of our foundations, rooted us in, or attached us to—precisely nothing. But anxiety, the affect that arises in moments when radical breaks in the continuity of existence occur, belies this assumption; subjects find themselves, rather, to be “not without roots,” which is significantly different from feeling rooted in the past, to a race or ethnicity that is transparent to us. For what is affirmed in the experience of being riveted is nothing that can be objectified or personalized as one’s own.12 It is, rather, the experience of being attached to a “prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget,” even if—in being without attributes—it offers us nothing to remember.13 The Censorship of Interiority It has been observed that anxiety often overtakes revolutionaries immediately after revolutions, and seems not to free but to paralyze the hand that would draft a new constitution. What accounts for this curious phenomenon?
While many psychoanalysts were insisting that anxiety was an affective response to loss or abandonment, Freud reasoned that this could not be so, since the proper response to loss would be mourning, not anxiety. Like Freud, the philosophers mentioned maintained that anxiety is not dependent on any actual condition, albeit one of loss, but rather on “a condition that is not.” Kierkegaard offers a clarifying illustration of the difference: The feeling of anxiety is not captured, he says, by the complaint, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” but rather by the entreaty, “What you are going to do, do quickly!”14 Anxiety is not the experience of a loss that has taken place;
it is the experience of some impending event, the anticipation of something that, while connected to what precedes us, has not yet happened. It is the looming of the unknown, the awakening of a possibility whose contours are indiscernible.
In other words, the break instituted by modernity did not render the past totally dead to us. It did not abandon us to a solitary present divorced from the past, but handed us over to a present that felt overpopulated—not, as is usually said, because of the increasing density of cities or our bombardment by an increasing number of new stimuli, but because we seemed to be parasitized by an excess that refused to disclose itself to us. Anxiety is the feeling of being stuck to an excess that we can neither separate ourselves from nor lay claim to, of being tied to a past that, not having happened, cannot be shed.
Our implication in the past thus took on a different complexion. For, while formerly a subject’s ties to her past were rigidly binding, they were experienced as external, as of the order of simple constraint. One had to submit to a destiny one did not elect and often experienced as unjust. But one could— like Job or the heroes and heroines of classical tragedies—rail against one’s destiny, curse one’s fate. With modernity this is no longer possible. The “God of destiny” is now dead and we no longer inherit the debts of our ancestors, but become that debt. We are unable to distance ourselves sufficiently from the desire of our ancestors to curse the fate it hands us, but must, as Lacan put it, “bear as jouissance the injustice that horrifies us.”15 Jouissance—roughly equivalent to Freud’s libido—names our capacity to put ourselves forward and determine our destiny. Yet unlike libido, it characterizes this capacity as something we cannot possess and thus as horrifying: a monstrous otherness that is not at our disposal, but must rather be suffered.
If we think once more of the revolutionary whose hand is paralyzed by anxiety, we will see how closely Lacan’s account hews to Freud’s account of anxiety. If, stricken by anxiety, my hand goes on strike, refuses to write, this is because it has become saturated with libido, gripped by jouissance. My hand behaves, Freud explains, like a maid who, having begun a love affair with her 246 Penumbra master, refuses to continue doing her household chores.16 In the moment of anxiety, one loses one’s taste for ordinary, routinized life; cooking, cleaning, all practical interests; it is this automatic way of life that is paralyzed by anxiety. This analogy is, however, as Freud himself says, “rather absurd,” insofar as it fails to account for the real situation of the maid, who, while torn away from her mundane duties, is now bound to a terrible, inscrutable master: her own libido, or potentiality. Elsewhere, Freud will dispense with the analogy and define anxiety more straightforwardly as fear of one’s own libido.17 As with Melville’s Bartleby—the scrivener who goes on strike, refuses to write—we are struck by the involuted refusal, “I would prefer not to,” the preference or clinamen, the flash of potentiality that will not unfold itself, but that manifests itself only as a tension-filled paralysis.
Kiarostami’s protagonists exhibit a paralysis of this kind, one occasioned by their inability to comprehend the desire of their ancestors and thus their own place in the very culture to which they nevertheless maintain a feeling of anonymous belonging. One of the primary locations in The Wind Will Carry Us is a cemetery to which Behzad continuously repairs to pick up a stronger cell phone signal and where Youssef, a gravedigger, continuously digs, remaining thus underground and invisible throughout most of the film. We surmise that the purpose of his efforts is ultimately the installation of a telecommunications tower, but since Mrs. Malek is on the verge of death, the digging simultaneously hints at preparations for her funeral. That a burial ground would become the site of telecommunications efforts bespeaks an anxiety attendant upon the loss of any clear signals issuing from a past that remains inscrutable. Eventually, the earth beneath which he digs caves in on Youssef, who has to be dug out. But the unsteadiness of the ground is not unique to this film; it is a constant in Kiarostami’s work, where the salient characteristic of the earth is its unsteadiness: it is always caving in, buckling, quaking.18 The ground in all his films seems ungrounded, hollowed out—or more precisely, catacombed. While earthquakes are a difficult geographical fact of life in Iran, Kiarostami’s continuous reference to this datum in his films turns it into a fact of another order; no longer just an uncompromising truth of the terrain, it becomes a cultural fact the meaning of which cannot be unearthed. Like the past buried in it, the ground turns out in Kiarostami’s world to be active and shifting, an unsettled affair. It is as if the past itself were under construction in his films.
In The Wind Will Carry Us, it is not only Youssef who remains invisible to us throughout the film; several characters—eleven by Kiarostami’s count— remain out of frame and thus unseen. Asked by an interviewer what these curiously insistent visual absences signified, Kiarostami replied that the film is about “beings without being.”19 In Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986), “being without being”—that is, being that is not, but which, remaining unrealized, perplexes characters by affixing itself to them—assumes the form of a The Censorship of Interiority notebook which a young schoolboy is certain is not his own, though it appears in all particulars exactly like his. He spends the majority of the film trying unsuccessfully to return it, mysteriously deciding in the end not to give it back to its ostensible owner. Effectively, the notebook has no exclusive owner but becomes the bond between the two students. In Taste of Cherry (1997), the anxiety-provoking element fails to take the form of a putative object and instead infuses the film with a perplexing textual opacity. The film follows a middle-aged man, Mr. Badii, who has no discernible reason for discontent (far from it) and yet spends the entire film trying to find an accomplice to his suicide, one who will promise to cover him with twenty shovels-full of dirt and double-check to make sure he is really and truly dead. From this we suspect that Mr. Badii is bothered by a fear of being buried alive. It is as if he were trying not simply to kill himself, but to extinguish some surplus of self that does not respond to his wishes and thus impresses him as capable of surviving even his death.
Speaking in an interview about Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami offered this comment: “The choice of death is the only prerogative possible […] because everything in our lives has been imposed by birth […] our parents, our home, our nationality, our build, the color of our skin, our culture.”20 Though Mr. Badii has no personal complaint, the thick presence of militia, the oppressive evidence of poverty, and the dust of industrialization visible in the urban perimeter through which he drives suggest choking. His suicide is thus readable as an attempt to escape the suffocation brought on by a world where one’s identity is laid down by authorities who leave no room for freedom, no chance to choose what form one’s life will take. And yet, if that which is imposed on us by birth is as enigmatic as Kiarostami’s films tell us it is, then the rigidity of a life laid out by law must be read as a means of dodging a more primary experience, that of anxiety, which is stirred in us by an encounter with our capacity to break from this rigidity.21 What Mr. Badii cannot abide is being riveted to the inscrutable desire of his ancestors, imposed on him by his birth into a culture that appears radically heteroclite. It is the incomprehensibility of “unrealized being,” of his own potentiality, which suffocates him. He seeks through suicide to escape not the actual restrictions his culture imposes, but the overcrowded space in which he finds himself bound to its unreadable imperative.
THE AFFECTIVE TONALITY OF CAPITALISMMy reason for lingering so long on anxiety is this: shame only becomes comprehensible in relation to anxiety. Fundamental to both shame and anxiety is the sense of being able neither to integrate nor to divorce oneself from a strangeness that is “closer to [oneself] than [one’s] jugular vein.”22 So similar are these affects that Levinas, in his early work On Escape, differentiates them only by the tiny hiccup of hope that is present in anxiety and dashed in 248 Penumbra shame. Like others, including Freud and Lacan, Levinas characterizes anxiety as a kind of state of emergency, a signal or imperative to flee, to escape the alarming strangeness that grips us. It is only when this imperative faces the impossibility of success that anxiety turns dejectedly to shame. But where Levinas takes it for granted that it is the hope of flight that fades in shame, I will argue that what disappears is the imperative of flight.
While many Lacanians claim that anxiety is an exceptional affect (much like respect for the moral law in Kant), Lacan himself called it the only affect. I prefer to merge the two by approaching anxiety as the stem cell of affects, which is transformed in situ, in different social theaters, to produce guilt and shame.
The society of others serves a civilizing function not, as is usually said, because it tames primitive animal instincts, but because it colonizes our savage, inhuman jouissance. Unable to tolerate being alone with this inhuman partner, we find in the company of others, in society, some means of mollifying the anxious sense of our estrangement from ourselves. This point prepares us to approach again the distinction I made at the outset between shame and guilt as two different relations to our culture, or as we can now say, two ways of distancing ourselves from the stifling sense of foreignness imparted to us by our own culture.