Thursday, 31 August 2017

Stiegler’s University and the Horror of the Orphan in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn


Mark Featherstone

Apart from spending the summer working on a number of projects concerned with the idea of utopia in eastern thought; the philosophy of the German thinker Peter Sloterdijk; and debt and indebtedness, a couple of pieces I have been thinking about and working on for a year or so appeared in print. 

My article on the French writer Bernard Stiegler and ideas of higher education called Stiegler’s University was published in the journal, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. This article, which concerns Stiegler’s theory of higher education as a battleground between stupidity and intelligence, connects to very real debates in education today about the impact of financialisation upon the way people learn and think about knowledge. Do people enter into education in order to pick up information that they can use in the world of work? Or do they want to learn and translate information into knowledge that will change their understanding of the world around them and the way they behave in that world with the consequence that they might be able to change it for the better? While Stiegler privileges the latter model of education in the name of improving people and society, the problem with higher education defined by debt is that people need to pick up knowledge, and more precisely information (which I think about in terms of undigested knowledge), that will enable them to make repayments and ultimately survive in a world defined by money and monetary valuations of everything. For Stiegler, the financialisation of higher education is, thus, what ensures its stupidity, and prevents the production of real intelligence that comes when people are able to think, change themselves, and as a result, the world around them. But, what, then is to be done? For Stiegler, we must rethink the role of higher education, which is not simply to teach skills for the workplace, but also to encourage people to think, explore, and develop with a view to both individual and social improvement. Of course, this can only happen in the context of an institution that enables and foregrounds freedom of thought, as opposed to a model of education concerned with economic returns, which in turn relies upon educational policy sensitive to the need to protect this space from market forces that constrain freedom by forcing people to think in narrow economic terms.

Following the publication of this piece, I also published an article on the cinema of the Danish-American Director Nicolas Winding Refn, called The Letting Go: The Horror of Being Orphaned in the Cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn in the Journal of Cultural Research. This piece emerged from a long standing engagement with Winding Refn’s film, which led me to include a chapter on his cinema in my recent book on utopia and globalisation (Planet Utopia), and my desire to extend my exploration of his focus on estrangement and loneliness in urban environments. After writing about Winding Refn’s lost child in my utopia book, I extended my discussion into orphan identity in his three most recent films, Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, in order to show how he envisages the fate of the individual in contemporary global society. In Drive the main character, who importantly has no name (he is simply called Driver), lives a lonely life characterised by a desperate search for family which is endlessly thwarted by criminality, violence, and the evil of money. The same is the case in Only God Forgives which tells a similar story in the Thai capital, Bangkok. The difference here is that where Drive represents the main character endlessly on the run, trying to escape violence and find some form of comfort, Only God Forgives introduces Buddhist thinking to suggest that the solution to the problem of loneliness is ‘the letting go’ of the self and its various desires which translate into economic imperatives to consume and so on. Finally, I turn to Winding Refn’s most recent film, The Neon Demon, in order to show how he restages the problem of Only God Forgives in the LA fashion world. The choice that faces his central character (Elle Fanning’s Jessie) here is between the living death of the model (the women who is transformed into a thing by the fashion industry) or the real death she finally experiences when her vampyric rivals throw her into an empty swimming pool. That her rivals then consume her body in the name of trying to steal her beauty, which was always premised on her purity and naivety, shows that Winding Refn wants to leave the horror of the orphan in a state of suspension. While Jessie’s death symbolises her escape (her Buddhist ‘letting go’ of the world), her rivals continue their battle ‘to be somebody’, ‘to make it’, and ultimately ‘to belong’ somewhere in a world defined by alienation and estrangement.


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