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The sincere fiction of disinterestedness

Forgive the broad-strokes history here: The rise of capitalism enshrined calculating self-interest as the governing principle of rationality, elevating it to an almost invisible and always operating social principle, raising it to the level of unquestioned common sense. This created an opportunity to define some behaviors extraeconomically, giving an easy way to demonstrate that some things are not contingent but permanent, and operate out of motives that transcend immediate self-interest and calculation. Such behavior was held to reveal the individual's emotional core, and when it first appeared in the late 18th century in conjunction with capitalism's stirrings, it went by the name of sensibility. Sensibility is what enabled people to feel pity for others and to burst out with spontaneous fits of emotion and grief when confronted with various events -- basically it was ostentatious emotion, the first hint that capitalism was going to make everyone stop taking mutual, communal sympathy for granted -- it had become something that required caluclated display, and it had become a status signifier, a means to communicate to the world that you are at luxury to feel. (Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, an 18th century novel, is a good place to start to see sensibility in action -- Mackenzie seems to have been purposefully exploiting the vogue while codifying it formally via cultural entertainment.) Sensibility becomes the antithesis of interest but is at the same time reified as a precious positional commodity. As it is refined as a concept, it also helps to sharpen the notion of interest dialectically and expand its usefulness (leading in a direct line to the current prevailing idea that all behavior can be understood as an analysis of incentives).

The notion of sensibility morphed into the romantic conception of the artist as someone who rises above the money-grubbing fray as an elevated man who can speak poetry for all, who can see the eternal truths that people in their petty quotidian lives are blinded to in their daily hustle to get by. Unlike mere mortals, people like Wordsworth can exhibit "disinterested interest" in things -- the workings of nature, the magic of childhood and other junk like that. At this stage, the common sense starts to separate material interest from cultural interest, and one is used to define the other in a neat tautological package. As Bourdieu points out in Outline of a Theory of Practice, artists and writers become more and more invested in the production of this "disinterested interest." But "practice never ceases to conform to economic calculation even when it gives every appearance of disinterestedness by departing from the logic of interested calculation (in the narrow sense) and playing for stakes that are non-material and not easily quanitifed." Bourdieu is anxious to justify his approach of analyzing "cultural capital" and "social capital" or "symbolic capital" in economic terms -- his case is that we blind ourselves to the way economic calculations guide behavior we find to be "unthinkable" in economic terms, that the rise of rational self-interest forces a split between economic and symbolic capital, things which were integrated and inseparable in pre-capitalist economies. (In his view, this leads to ethnocentric distortions when we attribute artistic aims to pre-capitalist "artists.")

One of the strongest proofs for this lies in the way people who marry for "love" also manage to marry people in their class and replicate the existing boundaries to social mobility through intermarriage (a la that other quintessential 18th century fiction, Richardson's Pamela. Bourdieu regards this sort of thing as an "institutionally organized and guaranteed misrecognition which is the basis of all the symbolic labor intended to transmute, by the sincere fiction of a disinterested exchange, the inevitable, and inevitably interested relations imposed by kinship, neighborhood, or work into elective relations of reciprocity." Indeed, "the labor required to conceal the function of the exchanges is as important as the labor needed to carry out the function." In other words, the ability to mask the interested motivations of love requires as much energy as loving itself, and is love's prerequisite. The ability to make art is contigent on the ability to suspend one's awareness of the art market shaping one's creativity, an ability that requires as much effort as the art-building itself. We expend a great deal of mental effort invisibly in sustaining this ideology, that love and art are autonomous, that they function independent of the economy in general. Perhaps this is one of the strains marriages buckle under, the invisible and unacknowledged work of supporting the relationship's unmotivated purity in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, which merely builds as the relationship lasts. It may be that as marriages progress, people stay in them for reasons other than magical soul-mate love for their spouses, namely reasons that correspond with the existing order of society as one comes to appreciate it with maturity. And artists too may squander a great deal of productive energy unawares in creating the conditions in which they can make art, in carefully detaching themselves from the market and from the ideology of economic incentives and so forth so that they can inhabit what capitalist society dubs as the authentic artistic space.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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