Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Revenge of the Blob

Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (1998) is another title that promises to use popular culture to examine political theory. Entitled The Attack of the Blob, the book aims to analyse Hannah Arendt’s theoretical concepts, invoking monster movie imagery to propel the argument. The author explains:

Arendt’s remarkable way of depicting the social is, of course, the source of my title, The Attack of the Blob. Initially I employed the phrase in my teaching without giving it much thought, to capture the clich├ęd horror-fantasy quality of Arendt’s images, but the expression in fact derived from one of the rash of kitsch science-fiction films popular in the 1950s, the period in which Arendt wrote The Human Condition (and in which I reached adulthood). The particular film, which, it turns out, was called simply The Blob, concerned a monstrous, jellylike substance from outer space, which has a predilection for coating and then consuming human beings and grows with each meal (Pitkin, 1998: 4).

Pitkin also offers a footnote listing nineteen more 1950s monster movies (nicely alphabetized and offering director, producer, and distributor of each film) and two paragraphs suggesting that some respectable theorists (Susan Sontag, Naomi Goldenberg, and Michael Rogin) managed to pinpoint 1950s sf as “reflecting people’s sense of personal isolation, fragmentation, helplessness, and dehumanization” (p. 5) as well as “a widespread sense of collective life out of control, headed in disastrous directions in the age of Cold War nuclear confrontation.”

The quoted text is remarkable as it largely exhausts the attention Pitkin has to offer to the central metaphor of a 300-page book. It also illustrates the disdain she feels, and clearly expects the readers to share, towards the monster films (“rash of kitsch... films”). She distances herself from any knowledge of the genre: the film The Blob only “turns out” to bear its title.

The Blob itself continues to reappear throughout the book, but only as a derisive name for social theory concepts (mostly Hannah Arendt’s “the social,” but also totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Hegel’s “world spirit” and visions of society employed by both Marx and Tocqueville). It appears in chapter titles (“The Birth of the Blob,” “Excising the Blob,” and “Why the Blob?” and in scathing dismissals of conceptual abstractions which, apparently, presents society “as if these people had been swallowed by some Blob” (p. 252), and as a mass of selfish fools who “let loose the Blob” (p. 190). Not surprisingly, it exhibits very little agency on its own: it is described as “invented,” “conjured up,” “excised,” and “dismissed” by Arendt, always referred to as an object rather than a subject of action.

The question arises, then, of whether such superficial reading of The Blob, particularly in contrast to the thorough analysis of Arendt’s body of work, offers a useful interpretational tool for Pitkin’s examination of “the social.” I would argue that it does not and, indeed, that Pitkin’s unwillingness to explore her main metaphor hurt both the incisiveness and the effectiveness of her argument. The main charge against Arendt’s Blob is that “the social” is an artificial abstraction of actual society, presented as highly threatening and yet left conveniently amorphous and underdescribed. But Pitkin’s decision to describe Arendt’s writing as rooted in political discourse while at the same time separated from popular culture (as represented by the filmic Blob) allows for examination of Arendt’s theses in purely logical, rather than sociological terms.

Pitkin’s book was written in the 1990s, and she draws upon the body of social theory both preceding and following Arendt’s own time. The Blob, however, is left to linger in the 1950s, and neither the film’s 1972 sequel nor 1988 remake receive any attention in Pitkin’s argument. This is not to claim that any of the abovementioned films qualifies as good cinematography: they most certainly do not, but they are of strong interest to a cultural theorist, particularly one willing to devote a whole book to analysing the Blob.

When Pitkin’s describes the (social) Blob’s early history: “by the end of the book Arendt has begun hinting that it may not yet have reached its real or ultimate form” (p. 96), comparisons with shape-shifting alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing, (the 1982 film was ostensibly a remake of Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing from Another World, a film mentioned in Pitkin’s list of Blob-like movies) or the rapidly changing monster from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979, cf. Bukatman, 1999) would seem more appropriate than those with the amorphous Blob. The messiness of Hannah Arendt’s theories, described as “almost enough to make one yearn for a Blob to hide the theoretical chaos” (p. 225), invite comparisons to the dialectics of human/inhuman desire invoked in Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997). But Pitkin’s single-minded focus on philosophical (or political studies) underpinnings of Hannah Arendt’s concepts brackets out those references and any insights they might bring into the discussion.

These insights might be crucial for understanding the constitution of Arendt’s “the social,” which lends itself best to examination not on the grand level of political theory, but as an organizational phenomenon. Pitkin recognizes that to some extent, and devotes some attention to forms of institutional and organizational relations: bureaucracy, market, and flock. But, curiously, she does so in isolation to discussing the Blob, while I would see the understanding of organizational ties as crucial for analysing the concept of "the social."

Zygmunt Bauman (1989), absent from Pitkin’s argument, drew heavily upon Arendt in his interpretation of the Holocaust as played out largely on an organizational level: reduced to a managerial problem, with its Final Solution facilitated by rational workplace relations, functional division of labour, and the growing separation between decision making and its human consequences.
This line of argument is, interestingly, paralleled by the 1950s monster films, typically portraying struggle against outer space or radiation-fuelled menaces (i.e. the Blob) against the background of small, suburban communities: threatening middle-class America and W.H. Whyte’s (1959) Organization Man rather than any global socio-political system. Both social and filmic Blobs are constituted at the organizational level, and the failure to recognize that is largely caused by Pitkin’s reduction of the Blob to a caricatured insult.

In the end, it is with obvious relief that Pitkin reasserts, in a phrase repeated twice on the final page of the book that "the social is no Blob" (p. 284). I remain neither reassured nor convinced. But then, I do not believe the Blob to be as straightforward a figure as Pitkin makes it out to be.

Bibliography:
Bukatman, Scott (1993) Terminal Identity: The virtual subject in postmodern science fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel (1998) The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s concept of the social. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Whyte, William Hollingsworth (1959) The Organization Man. New York: Doubleday.

Filmography:

Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon.
Alien 3 (1992) Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Screenplay by Joss Whedon.
The Blob (1958) Directed by Irvin Yeaworth. Screenplay by Kay Linaker and Theodore Simonson.
The Blob (1988) Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay by Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont.
Beware! The Blob (1972) Directed by Larry Hagman. Screenplay by Anthony Harris and Jack Woods.
The Thing (1982) Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster.
The Thing from Another World (1951) Directed by Christian Nyby. Screenplay by Charles Lederer.

1 comment:

Dariusz said...

very interesting! I can't wait to read your book, once it is out