quarta-feira, 21 de agosto de 2013

The Dude and the New left by Stacy Thompson

The Coen brothers are not, to my knowledge, communists. Yet they have maintained an interesting relationship with communism, the “Old Left,” throughout their work. It runs beneath the surface of their films as a counterpoint, sometimes referenced directly, sometimes obliquely. In the first five minutes of their 1984 film Blood Simple, private detective Loren Visser meditates on the differences between the Soviet Union and Texas, musing, in voice over, “Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. An’ down here... you’re on your own.” Later he contemplates how much someone will pay him to murder two people and comments wistfully, “In Russia they make only fifty cents a day.” A few years later, in Raising Arizona, H. I. McDonough, an ex-con and factory worker, thinks about how he and his wife can’t have chil­dren. He compares his situation with that of an Arizona millionaire’s wife who was treated for infertility and gave birth to quintuplets. He comments, “It seems unfair that some should have so many when oth­ers have so few.” There’s a whisper of Marx’s “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” in this maxim, and, in fact, the film eventually implies, not unlike Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, that the woman who most capably loves a child—who demon­strates that “ability”—deserves to be its parent more than a neglectful birth mother. But while Blood Simple invokes communism as a sadly unimaginable otherness, and Raising Arizona thinks of children as the product of socialized labor, and therefore the property of society and not the individual, in The Big Lebowski the Coens take a different tack in relation to communism.

In the 1998 film, communism is referenced in more complicated ways than in earlier Coen brothers work. While first attempting to fig­ure out who kidnapped Bunny Lebowski, The Dude half-remembers a line from Lenin that begins “You look for the person who will ben­efit and . . and the Dude trails off. But when Donny assumes that the Dude is referring to John Lennon, Walter shouts, for our benefit as much as for Donny’s, “V. I. Lenin! Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!” Later, as Donny rolls his apparently first non-strike ever and leaves one pin standing, an event that somehow foretells his imminent death, Walter waxes nostalgic about the North Vietnamese communist foot soldier, “the man in the black pajamas,” who was a “worthy fuckin’ adversary,” unlike the Iraqi soldiers of the early 1990s and the First Gulf War. Add to these examples the Dude’s fondness for White Russians, which share their name with one of the Russian groups that opposed the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution, and the Dude’s explicit connections to the New Left—Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Port Huron Statement, the Seattle Seven—and what are we to make of how or why the film needs communism and its offshoots as a touchstone? Granted, the film’s dabbling in communism might not initially strike the viewer as the film’s major concern, and if it’s interesting at all it is probably because of its persistence across several films more than its importance to any single Coen brothers picture. Nevertheless, and even though the film points us more directly toward the New Left than the Old, it is ul­timately a set of myths about Old Left communism that structures and ultimately explains one of the logics underlying The Big Lebowski . But before we consider the Dude as a cipher of vulgar communism—which I believe he is—I want to consider two other possible readings, the first one more dismissive of his politics, the second one more celebratory.

The Dude as Death of the New Left

To begin, I should note that I’m not using the term Old Left in the pejorative sense that it acquired in England, where, in the 1960s and 1970s, it referred to the supposedly retrograde remains of traditional, party-based, labor-oriented, leftist organizations and politics, in short, precisely what the English New Left was supposed to offer an alter­native to. Instead, I’m thinking of the Old Left much more broadly as Marxism, socialism, and communism in general, in their pre-New Left forms. In contrast to the Old Left, the New Left, in its U.S. context, like its English counterpart, turned away from labor, economics, and materialist issues as its overarching concerns. The Students for a Demo­cratic Society (SDS) spearheaded the New Left movement in the U.S., and, consequently, the 1962 publication of the Port Huron Statement, the SDS’s manifesto—the Dude claims to have helped write an early draft—marks a seminal moment for the New Left. While the Statement itself only mentions Vietnam once, the SDS eventually helped focus the New Left’s social activism on opposing the Vietnam War, working for free speech and civil rights, and practicing civil disobedience. Unlike the Old Left, the New Left drew its supporters from college campuses more than from industrialized capitalism’s working class, which tended to constitute the rank and file of earlier leftist movements and organi­zations. For my purposes, the most important differences between the Old and New Left are the latter’s turn away from Marxism, especially economic analysis and materialist critique, and its attention to indi­vidualized concerns (the individual’s sense of alienation with which C.

Wright Mills was concerned, for instance1) in place of more socialized or collective concerns, which is to say concerns related to class. Returning to The Big Lebowski , it is tempting to read the Dude as a representative of what the New Left has become by the early 1990s of the film’s historical setting or the late 1990s of the film’s release. After the implied coitus scene between Maude Lebowski and the Dude, he recounts his biography, such as it is, for Maude, explaining that he “was one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement... the original Port Hu­ron Statement, not the compromised second draft.” He then asks Maude, “Ever hear of the Seattle Seven?” and adds, “That was me . . . and, uh ... six other guys.” The film encourages us to fix upon the New Left as having generated the Dude, for which, in addition to these diegetic pointers, there are historical and biographical reasons as well. To begin with, the Seattle Seven included Jeff Dowd, a 1960s radical who called himself “the Dude.” But he probably did not have a hand in writing any draft of the Port Huron Statement, the SDS manifesto written primarily by Tom Hayden and published in 1962, because Dowd was twelve years old when the Statement was released. Nevertheless, in the Port Hu­ron Statement’s “Introductory Note,” the authors write that the State­ment “represents the results of several months of writing and discussion among the membership, a draft paper, and revision by the Students for a Democratic Society national convention meeting in Port Huron, Michi­gan, June 11-15,1962” (emphasis added). So there was a first and possibly less compromised draft. But the historical correlations between Dowd and the Dude interest me less than the points where their histories di­verge. Specifically, Jeff Dowd, ex-Seattle Seven member, didn’t become a washed-up 1960s New Left radical. Instead, he became a film producer and, in the early 1980s, met the Coen brothers and helped find them a distributor for their 1984 film Blood Simple, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985 and established them as independent filmmakers. So without Dowd’s help financing Blood Simple, there would have been no Coen brothers as we know them and no Dude.

JeffDowd was also one of the early organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, which raises an in­teresting question: why did the Dude of The Big Lebowski have to be unemployed in the early 1990s, when Dowd had “achieved” in the straight world as an independent film producer? Why did the Coens take Dowd’s job away from him for the movie? The obvious answer is because The Big Lebowski ’s Dude em­bodies a stereotype, just as Walter Sobchak is the archetypal Vietnam Vet, for whom nothing is completely unrelated to his traumatic war ex­periences; Jeffrey Lebowski (a.k.a. The Big Lebowski ) is a roughly drawn caricature of a captain of industry from the early twentieth century; Maude Lebowski parodies the avant-garde feminist artist; the Dude’s landlord, Marty, pastiches avant-garde dance; Jackie Treehorn is a Hugh Hefner-style porn magnate; and all nihilists wear black, speak with thick German accents, and announce that they “believe in noth­ing.” So there are really only two choices for the Dude within the film’s possible world. He can follow the path laid out by received lore about members of radical 1960s groups: they became the yuppies of the 1980s, in which case the Dude would have become Jeff Dowd, organizer of Sundance and independent producer. Or, and this is the choice that the Coens made, the Dude can embody a second stereotype, the ag­ing liberal, nostalgic for the good old radical days, not unlike Christo­pher’s Lloyd’s pop-eyed Reverend Jim character from the sitcom Taxi, who remembers little from his radical past apart from the fact that he spent a year making a macramé couch. In similar fashion, when The Big Lebowski ’s assistant, Brandt, assumes that the Dude didn’t go to college, the Dude answers, “Oh, no, I did, but I spent most of my time occupying various administration buildings ... smoking a lot of Thai stick... breaking into the ROTC ... and bowling. To tell you the truth Brandt, I don’t remember most of it.” Bowling is the ringer here, a point to which I return later. More to the point, the Dude was clearly more invested in radical drug use than radical politics, and his contemporary protestations about the compromised Port Huron Statement sound like residual, half-remembered slogans that have long since ceased to mean much to him.

So it is easy enough to read the Dude as the failure of the New Left and its exhausted state in 1991, the moment infamously described as “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama, when the world economic order had supposedly evolved to its inevitable telos, capitalist liberal democracy. In such a historical moment, the postmodern moment par excellence, archaic political monikers like left and right cease to signify, and any allegiance to them is risible. But to test this reading dialectically, it is worth inverting its structure and reading the Dude directly against this interpretation, not as the failure but as the triumph of the New Left.

The Dude as Faithful to the Event

What if we, as viewers, along with most of The BigLebowski’s characters, misrecognize the Dude as a loser, a bum, a ringer for authentic politics?

What if the Dude does more than embody a parody of the New Left’s ruins and, rather, remains faithful to the New Left and, in particular, to the “event” of the publication of the Port Huron Statement in Alain Ba- diou’s sense of an “event” as an occurrence that punches a hole through its historical moment’s established knowledges and reorganizes its “situation” (42-43). The Dude’s fidelity to that event, to what Badiou would name the “truth-process” whose possibility emerged with the event (41-42), manifests itself throughout the film as the Dude’s refusal to give up on the ideas of the SDS and the Port Huron Statement. The film’s most glaring sign that everyone around the Dude misrecognizes his fidelity to an event begins with the first scene after the credits, in which two of Jackie Treehorn’s thugs mistake him for the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski until, realizing their error, they dismiss him as a “fuck­ing loser.” In fact, though, the misnomers precede this scene, beginning instead with the Stranger’s opening narration, in which he comments authoritatively that the Dude is “a lazy man . . . the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.” But when is the Dude lazy? Apart from the bird’s-eye shots of him lying on the purloined Lebowski rug listening to, appropriately enough, cassette tapes (a soon to be completely superseded medium, not unlike the SDS and perhaps the Dude himself), we never see the Dude exercising (if this is the correct word) his supposed laziness. The Big Lebowski   cult mem­bers). What if he abides precisely in Badiou’s sense that he continues? Badiou’s slogan, his maxim for those who remain faithful to an event, is “Keep going!” (79).

In other words, what if we read the film as a testi­monial to the Dude’s commitment to an “impossible wager”—Badiou’s term, again—to a non-consensually-arrived-at truth, embodied in the New Left’s origins in the Port Huron Statement. After all, who takes the Statement or the SDS seriously today? Who grasps the Statement’s pub­lication, dissemination, and possible enactment as anything more than historically interesting now? It is the Dude who maintains a fidelity to the Statement as an event that shattered and reorganized the situation of his mid- to late-196os California life. We could also ask in what sense he abides (the Stranger assures us that “the Dude abides,” a phrase which has become a watchword for

But where does laziness (as a sign of a failed New Left) fit into the SDS, the Statement, and fidelity? A clue can be found in the fact that the Port Huron Statement can be read as a lazy Communist Manifesto, where its laziness is precisely what allows for the Dude’s apparent shiftless­ness.2 Where Marx and Engels list the famous Ten Steps Necessary to Move from Capitalism to Socialism and insist upon the “[e]qual liability of all to labour” (490), the Statement lists a series of “root principles” that must be implemented to move from a “dominating complex of cor­porate, military, and political power” to a “participatory democracy.” In relation to labor, the Statement argues that “work should involve in­centives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated, encouraging independence, a respect for others, a sense of dignity, and a willingness to accept social responsibility.” Isn’t it possible, then, that in the context of the Statement laziness can be something more than itself? Perhaps the Dude is not lazy but refuses to work at stultifying, non-cre- ative tasks. The Dude takes the Statement at its word and refuses work (or refuses to look for work) that doesn’t interest him. Only when The Big Lebowski offers the Dude a sleuthing gig, ironically after recently upbraiding him for laziness, does the Dude, intrigued, accept a job.

In this light, his relations with Marty, nominally his landlord, take on an interesting hue. The Dude’s seeming surprise at being reminded that he is in arrears to Marty for rent emerges from the fact that he grasps, perhaps intuitively, that he and Marty operate within a barter economy rather than a capitalist one. Marty the landowner allows the Dude to live rent-free, and the Dude reciprocates by assembling his friends and providing Marty with an audience for his solo dance opening. Granted, neither Walter, Donny, nor the Dude seem much interested in Marty’s “art,” but they nevertheless hold up their end of the bargain: they consti­tute an audience, and although they are uninterested in Marty’s current project (interpretive dance?), they hold the potential to be interested in a future one. In this exchange, both the Dude and Marty acknowledge the other’s authentic job or work: Marty is not a landlord but a dancer; the Dude is not a deadbeat renter but a patron of the arts. Both embody the Statement’s demand that politics “be seen positively, as the art of collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations.” While the viewer might easily recognize the cliched signs of creativity (if not the value) in Marty’s work/dance, the Dude’s parallel creativity is not immediately obvious. But a generous reading might point out that the Dude’s life itself is his creation, that he determines its shape to a large extent and embodies the Port Huron Statement’s exhortation to find “a meaning in life that is personally authentic.”

Another point that undermines the Dude’s supposed indolence lies in the film’s structural pairing off of his idleness against the Little Leb­owski Urban Achievers and, more exactly, against The Big Lebowski as the ultimate Urban Achiever. Maude’s eventual revelation that her father is no Achiever, big or little, folds back on the Dude’s supposed laziness and tempers it. The Big Lebowski   married into his fortune, was briefly allowed to run one of the companies that his wife owned but “wasn’t very good at it,” according to Maude, and was finally positioned by her as the titular director of a charitable foundation. In short, Leb­owski is a ringer; he brought no capital to his marriage and only plays at being a tycoon. What if the Dude similarly plays at being lazy? More to the point, what does laziness mean within the context of the Port Huron Statement? Wouldn’t the realization of its aims render laziness anachro­nistic? In short, hasn’t the Dude found a way to fulfill his means of sub­sistence without laboring at alienating jobs, preferring instead to enjoy his “authentic” path to meaning, which he tells Maude includes driving around in his car, bowling, and “the occasional acid flashback”? Taking the Statement seriously, or living as if its aims have already been real­ized, means more leisure and no guilt. Units of time no longer serve as measures of their possible valorization through labor. So the Stranger, an impossible and over-the-top homage to sarsaparilla-sipping singing cowpokes, functions not as an unreliable narrator who begrudges the Dude his leisure and fantasizes over the end of ideology in the early 1990s, hence the end of American imperialism (“westward the wagons,” as he expresses it) but as our culture’s mythic narrator who ushers out the old capitalist myth of the Big Lebowski and ushers in the new myth of the Dude. In Los Angeles, where the Pacific perforce stopped the North American expansionism—mythologized as the Stranger—The Big Lebowski undergoes a transformation and becomes the Dude, who embodies the individualism explicitly praised in the Statement (which in one register reads as a paean to American liberal democratic individ­ualism). And it is the Stranger who benevolently oversees this metamor­phosis of 1950s into 1990s America. Yes, he labels the Dude as lazy but not pejoratively; rather, he grants the Dude his imprimatur and is glad that the Dude is “out there taking it easy for all us sinners.” Speaking from within his patently obsolete vernacular, he has yet to find a word other than “lazy” to describe a person who does not labor for others, who does not “achieve” at useless but surplus-value-producing tasks, but his approval of the Dude’s situation nonetheless shows through.

So what, if anything, is wrong with the Dude’s fealty to a middle way that is neither capitalist liberal democratic nor ardently leftist? My concern lies with the Dude as a cipher of vulgar communism. Finally, it is not we who misrecognize the Dude as lazy but the Dude who mis- recognizes the Port Huron Statement as an event rather than a compro­mise. He takes its praise of individualism seriously and thereby upholds the New Left’s concerns but sacrifices the Old Left’s attention to com­munitarian concerns. In short, he should have adhered to the authentic first draft of the Statement—the Communist Manifesto-rather than the lazy drafts (first and final) that became the Statement. One telling difference highlights  his mistake.  While the Statement concentrates on improving the quality of the labor experience, the existential and individual experi­ence of working, the Communist Manifesto makes a different demand: “Equal liability of all to labour” (Marx and Engels 490).  The brevity of this commentary on labor is not an oversight on the part of Marx and Engels, because, as historical materialists, they assume that the charac­ter of labor cannot be rehabilitated using a top-down, superstructural approach. Rather, the material underpinnings of labor, the social rela­tions within which it occurs, will ultimately determine its quality. In sum, the Port Huron Statement fails to be materialist enough, dictating a series of superstructural changes, including the “feel” of labor (a phe­nomenology of labor), in place of the materialist ones of the Communist Manifesto: “Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes”; “Abolition of all right of inheritance”; “Exten­sion of factories and instruments of production owned by the State” (490). The Statement wants to leap peacefully over the revolution that will reshape the mode of production and the exploitative social relations of labor under capitalism to alight upon the better future of enjoyable work and creativity. The Communist Manifesto rejects that option, rec­ognizing that the nature of labor won’t change through an act of collec­tive, but idealist, willing.

The Dude as Cipher of Vulgar Communism

It is with the Communist Manifesto in mind that I want to present a third possible reading of the Dude, not as a mediation of the first two but sim­ply as another option. There is a hopeful side to this reading, albeit not as positive as the narrative of fidelity to an Event that I have just sketched. To begin to talk about the Dude and the Communist Manifesto, though, I need to revisit the issue of labor, to the fact that the Dude has no job within the capitalist economy, while Jeff Dowd, his namesake, does. If we leave behind The Big Lebowski as an ultimately unconvincing cel­ebration of laziness—although a laziness that now figures as an avoid­ance of exploitative social relations—then we return to the Dude who does not work, who pays no rent, who somehow acquires food, clothing, and Kahlua, and whose healthcare is provided for by others (Maude arranges for it). What intrigues me about these characteristics of the Dude’s life is that they parallel the characteristics not only of the New Leftist gone bad (see above) but also of a mythic “citizen under com­munism.” In other words, maybe the film encourages us to connect it to the wrong manifesto. In 1998, the year that the film was released, the Port Huron Statement was 36 years old, but 1998 also marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, a document that I think has more to tell us about the film than the SDS’s manifesto. This earlier, more famous and infamous manifesto is the pivot around which the film turns. While Walter, The Big Lebowski , Maude, Marty, Jackie Treehorn, and all the other broadly drawn character types spread a postmodern veneer over the surface of the film, assuring us that we aren’t really seeing representations, not even parodic ones, of Vietnam vets, feminist artists, etc., the Dude is different. He goes to the end. Maybe he takes his stereotype (failed New Leftist, failed communist) to its logical conclusion and beyond, and thereby dialectically passes through it and comes out the other side.

For this third reading, we must first think of the Dude as traveling along a different trajectory than the film’s other walking stereotypes. To do so, we need merely see the Dude as the negative embodiment  endpoint of all  myths that Marx and Engels’ mani­festo aims to dispel. The second sec­tion of the Communist Manifesto is organized as a series of theses and antitheses, where the former are myths about communism or social­ism and the latter are their negations. For instance, Marx and Engels write that it is commonly claimed that under communism, “all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us” (486). The Dude in­stantiates this fear; he’s unemployed and, in spite of the fact that he’s kept hopping throughout the film, would probably prefer lying on his rug listening to old bowling league games to the more arduous task of sleuthing. No rent or mortgage payments compel the Dude to work for a living, so he doesn’t. In 1991, he has discovered the impossible situa­tion, a landlord in Los Angeles who lets him live rent-free. Marty does make a half-hearted attempt to remind the Dude that the rent is late, but no one is fooled. The Dude almost completely misses the oblique reference to arrears, and when he finally grasps it, he betrays surprise that it was mentioned at all and barely troubles himself to go through the motions of agreeing to pay. Clearly, no money has passed between these men in years, unless the Dude has borrowed some. So he has shelter provided for him; he needn’t work, and he seems able to keep himself in food and clothing, judging from his waistline and lack of concern about his next meal. The only time we see him buying any­thing approaching food, he is writing a check for less than a dollar—that for all we know will bounce—to pay for the half and half that goes in his White Russians. Again, isn’t this a slightly veiled image of someone who needn’t work any longer for his means of subsistence and, con­sequently, has become fat and lazy? Didn’t the U.S. government once drop doctored pictures of Castro, corpulent and happy (the antithesis of the image of the hardworking communist) on Cuban citizens to turn them against their government? The Dude’s food, clothing, and shelter are taken care of somehow, perhaps by the state, and it is precisely their satisfaction that frees the Dude to pursue unabashed laziness. It is as if he has found an odd communist space in L.A. that’s just large enough for one.

We return to the Manifesto and read the next myth: “We Commu­nists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour” (484). The Dude owns nothing. Granted, he does not work, either, but isn’t he the image of the man who will not labor because even if he were to do so, the fruit of his labor would be expropriated from him? He probably owns his bowling ball and his car, although the latter burns up in the course of the film. And unlike the famed aging American cars of Cuba, the Dude isn’t even inspired to maintain his jalopy, if not by an embargo then by necessity. Again we are faced with a Cold War propaganda im­age of communism gone bad, a bad faith version of utopianism designed to force us to choose capitalism as the only legitimate option.

Much more telling, though, is the film’s allegiance to—and the Dude’s embodiment of—a prevalent anxiety in U.S. culture in relation to any form of utopian thought. The film assumes that, to paraphrase Marx and Engels’s description of this concern, all desire will cease if all persons’ minimal means of subsistence can be met within a society. In other words, it is the film’s treatment of desire and its objects that highlights its apprehensions about the imagined shortcomings of a vul­gar version of communism. For instance, how might we respond to the question, “What does the Dude desire?” He tells Jackie Treehorn, “All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back,” and his use of the third person nicely distances the Dude from his own wish. The rug is certainly the first obvious objet petit a, the first object that the film situates as some­thing that seems to be a little piece of the Lacanian Real, the “Thing” that, if it could only be acquired, would fill out the gap in the Symbolic Order of representation and satisfy desire.3 Not surprisingly, then, it is precisely the loss of the rug that initially sets the Dude, and the film, in motion. For this reason, it is striking that the Dude’s interest in his lost rug inexplicably vanishes two-thirds of the way through the film. He never retrieves it (or its substitute from the Lebowski mansion, the second rug which he also loses), and the film doesn’t reference it again. In a documentary on “The Making of The Big Lebowski ," Joel Silver, the film’s producer, commented on this disappearance after his first reading of the script for The Big Lebowski . Ethan Coen remembers Silver sug­gesting, “The movie should have ended with [the Dude] getting his rug back or some mention of the rug, which would have been a nice resolu­tion.” Ethan also mentions that he and Joel probably should have taken Silver’s advice but then, at a bit of a loss, admits, “but we never did do it.”

The next objet petit a, the missing toe, functions like the first one. It is an obvious loss, a lack, or a representation of castration, and the Dude’s desire, and ours, for a time revolves around compensating for that lack by finding the toe’s owner and reuniting her with her toe. The toe, like the rug, serves as a Hitchcockian McGuffin, which functions, as Slavoj Zizek frequently argues, as an objet petit a. But two excessively deliberate shots in the film rid us of this object as well. In the first, the camera cuts from a medium shot of Bunny Lebowski driving a sports car to an extreme close-up, from no one’s perspective, of her left foot in open-toed sandals and intact, followed by a slight pan to her right foot, also fully intact. In a parallel scene in a diner, where the nihilists are ordering pancakes, a slow tilt shot reveals that one of the nihilists sacrificed her own toe as a ringer for Bunny’s. Again, an objet petit a is introduced and in this case doesn’t fly away, as the rug does in one of the Dude’s dreams, but is dismissed with ham-fisted camera work. The film’s subtext is clear: “this is the objet petit a you’re looking for,” or, in other words, “this is not an objet petit a,” since the force of the objet is derived from its desirability and from pursuing it, from not arriving at it, because it is not, after all, a piece of the Real but only seems to be. In Lacan’s language, it is taken as the object of desire but is not, in fact, the cause of desire, which is the impossible jouissance that it seems to veil. While even Ethan Coen seems nonplussed about the disappearance of the rug, there can be no mistaking the elimination of the toe as an object worthy of desire. It is just another ringer for a ringer. The desired object does not stand in for the Real as jouissance or plenitude but for its ob­verse, the repulsive side of the Real, the death drive and desirelessness.

In other words, the film plays fast and loose with its objets petit a, because in the Dude’s microcosmic communist existence there is no need for them, a point which the film’s treatment of the rug and the toe underscores. Here we face off with the film’s starkest expression, or exaggeration, of the idea that a communist utopia meets all material needs and, consequently, leaves its subjects desireless. The Dude, with his means of subsistence satisfied, is, as it turns out, more than lazy; he is without desire, which is to say that he is close to death. The Dude’s lack of desire also explains the wide berth the film gives his sexuality. The only sex that he can possibly engage in is a purely mechanical act initiated by Maude for procreative reasons. In her first interaction with him, she asks if he is interested in “coitus,” the Latin word serving to situate sexuality within the domain of science, much as her following definitions of sexual pathologies do. She also has a doctor screen the Dude before they engage in coitus—which she presumably would have foregone if the Dude had failed his screening—and after intercourse she immediately begins a series of exercises designed to improve her likelihood of conception. The film’s editing follows suit, cutting from a low shot of the Dude’s robe falling around Maude’s ankles to the two of them in bed, the Dude with an arm uncomfortably and momentarily stretched out behind Maude’s neck. The editing passes over the Dude and Maude’s sex in silence, and we can only imagine their awkward, groaning coitus. We are spared even seeing a kiss or an embrace, be­cause we cannot imagine the Dude, or Maude for that matter, as sexually desiring. Even the Dude’s arm behind Maude’s neck seems odd, for both of them, like an assumed attitude or a pro forma acknowledgment of a supposed intimacy. Later, the Dude describes their relationship to Da Fino, the private detective: “She’s not my special lady, she’s my fucking lady friend. I’m just helping her conceive.”

What the abbreviated coitus scene dramatizes, finally, is the suspi­cion that the libidinal economy of communism (but a vulgar commu­nism, a bad faith utopianism) —its supposed satisfaction of all desires— doesn’t correlate with a more genuinely “human” libidinal economy, which presumably would have left the Dude more sexually desiring and Maude less utilitarian about procreation. The point is that capital­ism, however, does more exactly parallel the human libidinal economy. The scarcity of the means of subsistence under capitalism, their partial prohibition, seems more exactly to parallel the libidinal economy of an individual who has been successfully Oedipalized—in other words, an individual whose desire is born in the shadow of an initial prohibition, that of incest. In short, my fear is that The Big Lebowski gives expression to what, in the cultural imagination, and in the Dude as its symptomatic manifestation, we envision communism as, the satisfaction of all desire, not just material but sexual. At the level of the unconscious, we grasp this fulfillment of desire, this desirelessness, for what it is: it can only be correlated with death, with arriving at the Real, with the satisfaction of the original incestuous desire. Isn’t this precisely what Maude and the Dude fulfill when they have sex? Maude chooses the Dude for his name, which is literally the Name of the Father, the name of her father, Jeffrey Lebowski. But their incestuous relation is no longer prohibited, because in this vulgar image of communistic plenitude, all prohibition has van­ished. But with the loss of prohibition, we also lose desire. And this, finally, is the reason that all of the objets petit a vanish over the course of the film. Without a Real characterized by fullness or jouissance to drive toward, a cause of desire, there can be no imaginary pieces, or objects of desire, to set desire itself in motion.

In the end, I find two options most useful for understanding The Big Lebowski , both of which emerge from this third reading that I’ve proffered. First, the more dismissive reading: in one register, the film acts out the hoariest myths about communism, while expressing a wide­spread cultural anxiety over utopian projects. Communism, if actually applied and practiced, would lead to a joyless society replete with lazy, propertyless, desireless, incestuous subjects. Second, the more celebra­tory reading: in another register, something more dialectical is going on here. In this view, the film traverses the cultural fantasy around utopia, a fantasy that supports a capitalist reality in which utopian thinking is fit material only for broad parody and, in its negative form, dystopian fic­tion. The film can then be grasped as asking, rhetorically, “Is the Dude truly what we imagine as the endpoint of leftist politics and utopian thought? Can’t we, instead, recognize in him the ridiculousness of our own apprehensions about a post-capitalist era as well as any attempt to think such an era?” And these questions, hopefully, would bring us to a conclusion: “No, that’s not socialism. No, not all utopian thought leads straight to Soviet-style communism.” In other words, can we see the Dude as a parody not of communism but of our peculiar anxieties about the Stalinist version of it, as well as our linking of those anxieties to any sort of thinking that attempts to envision a non-capitalist and col­lectivist future? I should add that this is precisely the kind of thinking that I take to be “utopian” in nature, rather than visions of a perfect-but- impossible world that will banish need and with it desire. The latter is bad faith utopianism exactly, calculated to drive us to the forced choice of capitalism as the only viable system for structuring the social order. It is this brand of cynicism that could be what The Big Lebowski , in the Dude, holds up for critique through underscoring its absurdity. Over against this defeatist, realpolitik option stands what I take to be the necessary type of utopian thought, which is simply the imagining of a non-capitalist and possibly socialist future, which the Dude could be read as pointing toward through his negation of the most hackneyed fictions about communism.

Perhaps this reading grants the film too much credit, though, par­ticularly in light of The Big Lebowski ’s final handling of its objects of desire—the rug/s, the toe, Maude—which appear on the scene only to disappear, be dismissed, or become mundane—as well as its figuration of death. Donny’s passing, for instance, is played for laughs, which is especially telling if we take death as a final outpost of the Real. Death, at least, must mean something, even if what it means is only the fact that it veils its own nothingness, even if beyond death there is simply void. In other words, can’t death be read as a last-ditch effort to think utopically, where utopian thought is reduced to the bare-bones ability to imagine change? No matter what death is or isn’t, shouldn’t it at least figure as a sign of difference from life, which is to say difference abstracted or difference in general? Love might also enjoy this kind of valence, for how many so-called postmodern cultural productions resort, after all their irony and dissembling, to love or death to find some kind of last- ditch ground or meaning? Even the most profoundly ironic, supposedly postmodern films repeatedly revert, at last, to love or death, having dis­missed all other possible places for meaning. Exemplars of this move­ment through irony and back to love include The Matrix, Fight Club, Lost in Translation, and The Royal Tenenbaums, among other examples too numerous to mention, while The Matrix Reloaded, Adaptation, American Beauty, and The Life Aquatic, again among many others, traffic heavily in cynicism, only to hold up death as the last enclave of significance. Similarly, or perhaps not, The Big Lebowski dispatches numerous fields of human experience that have traditionally rubbed shoulders with profundity, including war (through Walter), politics and love (through the Dude), aesthetics (through Maude), and even pederasty (through John Turturro’s character). The pederast is named Jesus, and, if that’s not enough to let his pathology play for laughs, he is shown in flashback knocking on his neighbors’ doors to alert them of his condition. The flashback ends just before he confesses—or chooses not to, perhaps— his forbidden desire to a character decked out in the most conventional signs of traditional masculinity and working classness, including hir­suteness, a stained and sweaty T-shirt, and an impressive girth. In this film, for the most part denuded of traditional signs of meaning, where half-remembered communist slogans and child molestation are equally humorous, we might expect the film to capitulate, in its dénouement, to one of the twin psychoanalytic drives, love and death, that infuse the final moments of so many ironic postmodern productions with a hint of depth.

How, then, does The Big Lebowski approach death? Donny suffers a heart attack in a bowling alley parking lot and dies offscreen. The film cuts directly to the Dude and Walter opting for a Folgers coffee can in which to stow Donny’s cremated remains (“cremains,” as the “death care industry” labels them). As he sprinkles Donny’s ashes into the wind on a bluff overlooking the ocean, Walter comments,

He was a man who loved the outdoors ... and bowling, and as a surfer he explored the beaches of Southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and... up to ... Pismo. He died... he died as so many young men of his generation before his time ... [like] so many bright flowering young men at Khe San, at Lan Doc and
Hill 364____ And so, Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, in accordance
with what we think your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Good night, sweet prince.

As Walter carries on, it becomes clear that Donny’s death is directly related, in Walter’s mind, to Walter’s experiences in Vietnam, and that Walter didn’t really know Donny. The references to surfing seem par­ticularly anomalous, since no one looks less like an outdoorsman or water sports enthusiast than pasty-skinned Donny, and Walter doesn’t seem to know exactly where Donny surfed. Walter also falls back on a cliché when deciding where to sprinkle Donny’s ashes, since he doesn’t know what Donny would have wanted, while the Dude’s silence dur­ing Walter’s impromptu ceremony indicates that he might have known Donny even less than Walter did. In short, Donny’s death is played off as a joke, and the punch line comes when Donny’s cremains blow back into the Dude’s face and stick to his hair and goatee. Having voiced his disgust with Walter’s Vietnam obsession, the Dude turns away, Walter says, “Fuck it, man; let’s go bowling,” and the scene has concluded.

There is nothing coincidental about the film’s final shift, here, from death to bowling. The simple cut from the “dust in the wind” scene to the bowling alley communicates, through editing, the film’s displace­ment of death—as a potential place of the Real—onto, or more exactly behind, bowling and, specifically, onto the Dude bowling, the film’s most consistent and final objetpetit a. This final object is the audience’s, though, not the Dude’s. We never see the Dude bowl. Why not? To read this elision ungenerously, I could argue that in a world in which the signifier is not aimed at the conventional signifieds of presence (and especially those of Marxism and psychoanalysis that I’ve been empha­sizing), it can aim at anything, so why not bowling? What could be more important? Like breakdancing in Napoleon Dynamite, bowling could figure as the object that veils the place of the Real and of an impos­sible jouissance, and, for this reason, we must be forbidden access to it. We must not arrive at the object that promises happiness itself, be­cause, as Lacan remarks, “concerning happiness ... absolutely nothing is prepared for it” (13). But an important difference separates The Big Lebowski from Napoleon Dynamite, and it this difference that saves the former film from a wholly postmodern fate.

In Napoleon Dynamite, Napoleon finally breakdances, and the film thereby risks our dismissal of his act as “merely breakdancing” and nothing more, or, conversely, the film hopes to evoke our enjoyment of its displacement of all the old teleological narratives onto breakdanc­ing. In short, Napoleon Dynamite offers us a quintessentially postmod­ern pleasure: if we find its conclusion satisfying, it is because we enjoy its acknowledgment of the loss of all the old tele (plural of telos) that weight down Marxism and psychoanalysis. We no longer strive for freedom from exploitation, cooperative ownership over the means of production, or a profound encounter with the Real. Instead, we revel in the impossibility of such tele and in our freedom from them. We are the non-duped, no longer enslaved to the Stone Age dreams, the ulti­mately discursive meta-narratives that mask the Real. This is exactly the “pleasure” (if that is the right word for it), that The Big Lebowski   denies us, and, paradoxically, through this foreclosure upon pleasure, the film preserves it. In sum, the film maintains the structure of the libidinal economy as Freud and Lacan envision it, by recognizing that the final fulfillment of desire during life is forever deferred, that we are initially (in relation to the incest taboo) and ultimately (in relation to the death drive) prohibited from gaining that final jouissance at which we aim. The pleasure is actually in the movement toward the supposed object of desire, not in its attainment. If we were to see the Dude bowl, then bowling would be reduced to itself, bowling as such, which has its place in the Symbolic Order, and desire would be forced to move on. There­fore, instead of giving us the Dude bowling to fill out the empty place in the Symbolic Order, as an object standing in the place of the Real, the Coens establish a properly psychoanalytic structure for desire through the film’s libidinal economy and treatment of this final object. This last objet petit a is not disclosed but maintained, and the Real therefore re­mains foreclosed upon. Granted, the Real isn’t hidden behind any of its usual names or objects, but it nevertheless remains offscreen in the film, as a placeholder for something beyond the Symbolic Order, which is to say beyond the film’s representational capabilities. This impossible Real is the space that allows The Big Lebowski to mediate between Marxism and psychoanalysis, because it is the radically utopian space in which the world as we know it through the Symbolic Order vanishes and the possibility of the socialist world as it could be, but isn’t yet, emerges. In other words, the film offers us, in conclusion, an odd but provoca­tive wager and equivalence: if we could only imagine the Dude bowling and all that that would signify, then and only then could we imagine a representation of communism that isn’t vulgar, the communism also invoked in the Coen brothers’ other films. For now, though, both the Dude rolling and a positive figuration of communism lie just beyond the limits of the film’s imaginary, and, consequently, The Big Lebowski provokes us to undertake that imagining ourselves.


1. For a founding definition of the New Left, see C. Wright Mills’s “Letter to the New Left.”

2. I have Aaron Jaffe to thank for several ideas in this chapter that emerged from his comments on an earlier draft. He proposed thinking of the Port Huron Statement as a lazy Communist Manifesto, raised the question of what laziness would signify in re­lation to the Statement, and noted that the Dude could be read as a cipher of bad faith utopianism.

3. I understand the differences among Jacques Lacan’s ideas of the “Real,” the “symbolic,” the “imaginary,” and “reality” as Alan Sheridan describes them. For
Sheridan, “[t]his Lacanian concept of the ‘real’ is not to be confused with reality, which is perfectly knowable” (x). The Real is “that which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached but never grasped” (x). I see the objet petit a functioning as the object of desire, the object that one takes to be a little piece of the Real and that organizes desire. Knowable social reality, on the other hand, is covered by Lacan’s notion of the symbolic order.

In: The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies. Bloomington, 2009. pp. 124-148.

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