Delayed reflections on Jim Jarmusch and Talal Asad

I watched Jim Jarmusch's pensive postmodern vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), two years after it came out, and, as is fitting for a Jarmusch picture, it accumulates meaning slowly. For weeks after, I mulled over the penultimate scene, when Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan performs Hal ("Solution") in the wee hours of a crowded Tangier café. Her song seems to share an understanding with anthropologist Talal Asad's remarks last May on that same word, "hal," during an interview on modernity and emancipatory politics. In the interview, Asad, known for his critiques of modern power structures, voices his reticence to jump to political solutions, even during times of strife or unrest. Hamdan's haunting, painful refrain “I have no solution” in Arabic, and Asad's cautious embrace of the same phrase feels paralyzing, particularly now--but perhaps they are also defiant. As Trump’s administration implements its own misguided solutions, these resonances between Jarmusch and Asad seemed to take on a new urgency.

In the Tangier café, during the final moments of Only Lovers Left Alive, the crowd listens with increasing intensity as Hamdan’s song crescendos. She sings about the pain of separation from a loved one. "I have no solution," she repeats in Arabic. The story's titular vampire couple, Adam and Eve, listen from the street. As much as Hal says something about the inevitable resilience of their relationship--they’ve stayed together despite hundreds of years of marriage--it's also about their survival. They have run out of their principle source of nourishment: pure O negative blood. Until this point, they’ve easily found vials of “the good stuff” in hospital blood banks, but now humans--"zombies,” Adam calls them--have polluted their own blood. Starved and weak, the vampires are left without a figurative or literal solution. Hal isn't only about love, but about the degradation of the human condition. Even immortal bloodsuckers cannot escape modernity’s toxic reach.

Throughout the interview last May, Asad expresses to his interviewer, Fadi Bardawil, a sentiment akin to those penultimate notes of Only Lovers Left Alive. He recalls living in Egypt in the early 1970s. His taxi driver showed him the favelas of Cairo, the corruption and poverty there, and Asad asked: "What is the solution to this?" The driver, at first puzzled, replied casually: "Ma fish hall” (“There is no solution”). This response surprised Asad. He wondered why he had presumed that such a deep-set problem correlated to a solution; that his question could be answered as easily as it had been asked. In the interview, Asad emphasizes the value of reflection, particularly in turbulent times. He is cautious of the ways that modern states have wrought havoc by jumping to solutions--as in Euro-America’s political interferences across the world--and the ways in which emancipatory politics, quick to search out "solutions" in revolutionary struggles, often backfire, as they did during the upheavals in Egypt over the last few years and in decades past. He believes this “get up and go” attitude is particularly tangible in America:

I just find it deeply disturbing that we assume that we know what we are doing. I don’t think that we have thought enough about where our drive for freedom has brought us. We’ve come (to use the old cliché) to various crises in the world as a whole. You know the freedom of capitalism has given us not only many good things but also all these fantastic meltdowns. The fact is that we don’t know how to deal with this monster that has the world in its grip. I don’t see how talk about freedom is going to help us in this crisis. It may even be that many of those grand projects of freedom have contributed to creating this megacrisis.

Asad is uncomfortable with, and acknowledges, the privilege of "sitting back and thinking" as people struggle with far more than contemplation. But the alternative--emancipatory politics geared toward purely practical solutions--doesn’t satisfy him either. He believes this narrow approach is a symptom of the modern state’s rigidity. Asad values reflection about these quandaries; he wants to imagine ways of living beyond the state.

The interview provides rare insight into Asad’s otherwise unarticulated social, moral, and political commitments which, like any great intellectual’s, are shifting and difficult to locate. Asad’s work is best known for reframing anthropology, twisting questions that the field directed downward toward colonized peoples back onto the so-called neutrality of anthropology itself. This project has transcended the discipline, revealing the paradoxes and imbalances of secularism, liberalism, and postcolonial authority. As Bardawil puts it, Asad’s “work produces estrangement effects in his readers, rendering what they take for granted unfamiliar--anthropological building blocks, liberal moral precepts, or tenets of Islamic politics--while refusing to domesticate unfamiliar practices and beliefs such as those of medieval Christians or contemporary Muslims.” Because Asad’s work tests the boundaries of academic categories, challenges the field from which he arose, and, as Bardawil writes, “recoils from the complacency of dwelling in the familiar,” readers often neglect or misunderstand his vital critiques of the fundamental power structures we face today. After hearing Hamdan sing in Only Lovers Left Alive, Eve remarks that “she’ll be very famous,” to which Adam replies: “God, I hope not. She’s way too good for that.” The vampires may as well be discussing Asad, whose indispensable interrogations deserve broader attention. Of course, Asad has prioritized candor above popular appeal.

Appropriately, Jarmusch’s film takes place in sites like Cairo's favelas. It oscillates between Adam's reclusive life in Detroit and Eve's conversations with her old friend, the vampire Christopher Marlowe (the true author of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, in Jarmusch’s world), in Tangier. Jarmusch has remarked that both places contain immense histories of music, art, and creativity. For him, Detroit--like parts of the postcolonial world or like the dying, cultured vampires--is the remains of a great civilization that has come to pass. In the film, even modernity itself has become such a place, housing a humanity that once thrived with life and culture but has now stagnated and self-polluted. Its rottenness is marked by the decline of the human body (impure blood) and the social, economic, and political efforts that made this possible. Perhaps this is Asad’s “megacrisis.”

From this milieu, Hamdan's Hal both emerges and intervenes: the song is new but feels old. It begins pensively but, as if embodying modernity's throes of death, escalates; so too do the lives of Adam and Eve as the final scene of Only Lovers Left Alive jolts out of the languishing, contemplative movement of the previous hour of the film. After listening to Hamdan, they wander, starved, into an alley, contemplating humanity’s unsolvable wars for oil and water. They spot a couple in the open beyond the alley and, in mutual silence, decide to perform the act they've foregone for so many years. No more blood banks. No more pure O negative drunk from vials. No more civility. “What choice do we have?” Adam says. In moments of despair, they yield to their most basic intuition and, just before the screen cuts to black, leap forward as the uncannily-agile, fanged monsters the viewer knows them to be. Ma fish hall. There is no solution, only a return to who they are, an acceptance of the state of affairs.

Asad, too, wants to forgo the presumed civility of intellectual trappings. He feels that any intellectual argument is received or rejected according to a person's "suggestibility," their proclivity to accept a claim due to "something prior" shaped by social experience. For an intellectual, ideas and narratives, not merely living, mean something. Intellectuals and artists can become paralyzed by contradictions, whereas, as Asad writes in Genealogies of Religion, “Life is essentially itself.”

Asad's reactions to the driver reminded me of Michel Foucault's delighted bewilderment upon reading a story by Borges about a Chinese encyclopedia whose categories lacked any possibility of order. In The Order of Things, he wrote that the tale was so shocking it made him laugh. It had "shattered… all the familiar landmarks of my thought--our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age." He called it "heterotopic," for the way in which it reflected and contested the categories of knowledge that people use to compartmentalize life. Talking about Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch cited the multiplicity of languages, cultures, religions, and histories in Tangier. Suitably for a term describing the breakdown of definition, “heterotopia” is difficult to define, but it’s hard not to read Jarmusch’s description of overlapping practices in the single space of Tangier--disintegrating a monolithic idea of culture--as other than heterotopic.

Like Asad, Foucault was reticent to write about emancipatory politics. (The French Revolution had birthed the guillotine, after all.) But Foucault did protect student protesters when he lived in Tunisia and was fascinated by the Iranian Revolution, meeting Ayatollah Khomeini in France in 1978 between two trips to Iran during that same year. Notably, his scant writings on heterotopias seem loosely connected to his equally scarce associations with revolutionary struggles. Around the time he was in Tunisia, he wrote about heterotopias in The Order of Things and delivered a radio broadcast and a lecture on the subject. He did not allow re-publication of the lecture until near the end of his life, when he was following the Iranian Revolution. As historian Jon Wilson has remarked, the clear-cut polemic of emancipatory politics didn't appeal to Foucault, who likely saw heterotopias as more potent spaces for resistance. Utopias reflect an ideal construction made possible by clear, rigid categories of knowledge. For Foucault, heterotopias were the ultimate form of resistance.

Maybe this is why Foucault ended The Order of Things with a haunting, heterotopic passage about the impending dissolution of “human,” the pinnacle category in his archaeology of power, fading away like “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Foucault seemed to believe this dissolution would set people free from the power structures that rigid categories sustained, undoing the social constructions that shape what Asad calls "suggestibility."

The final moments of Only Lovers Left Alive--like Foucault’s reading of Borges or the Cairo driver’s remark--surprised and confused me. They seemed to act out what political philosopher Hannah Arendt desired as a resolution to modern meaninglessness and alienation through their sociopolitical horrors: a return to some essential kind of self, something “anthropomorphic,” in her words, or "something prior," in Asad's. Adam and Eve become the most essential part of themselves, no longer the cultured, self-aware, apprehensive intellectuals they've been for centuries. They move from a life of paralyzed contemplation to living. They are only lovers left alive.

Yet “ma fish hall” feels incomplete. Asad values reflection, but his reflections can fall into the kind of intellectual trappings of which he’s skeptical. He wants to access “something prior,” to shatter “suggestibility” like Foucault’s heterotopias do. However, while eschewing essentialism, he nevertheless risks entering the kind of orderly reasoning and rushed polemic that gives him pause. His notion of “life” as “essentially itself” might itself be a construction. Furthermore, it’s not obvious that simply “living” will rid people of the social, political, and economic problems that occupy Asad, Foucault, and Jarmusch’s unease, or that intellectual categories are unrelated to Asad’s “ways of life.” Also, the Borgesian origin of Foucault’s heterotopia seems to imply that literature is a fundamental kind of resistance, while Asad regards narratives as constructions of power, not actual engagements with “living.”

In fact, while interviewing Asad, Bardawil expresses discomfort with Asad's skepticism about solutions. What else are people to do? Doesn’t this attitude encourage inaction? At one point, Bardawil interjects to argue that intellectual contradictions, even if not realized by laypersons, might still affect them.

But Asad’s anxieties hold water. The intellectual clarity of rational approaches does not always work in practice. As the new presidential administration dominates all three branches of government and grinds the fourth under the boot of exclusion and ridicule, calls to resist pervade. Certainly, not resisting is not an option. But analysis-porn has plagued the reasonable-minded in the months since 11/9 as they attempt to "understand" what happened in order to find a solution to this supposed mess. Donald Trump is a product of a state of affairs in America that is not new, a fact Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock captured on SNL when they scoffed at white liberal trauma on Election Day. “We’ve been here before,” Chappelle said in his monologue that night. Even Martin Luther King Jr. told Harry Belafonte shortly before his assassination that while he felt they’d fought long and hard for integration and believed they would succeed, he feared they were “integrating into a burning house.”

Is there a kind of resistance that can realize justice as something other than a rational, practical political solution? It is crucial that resistance takes many forms. Foucault described heterotopias as haunting, disturbing, spooky, discombobulating--an apt description of Hal and of Only Lovers Left Alive's final shocking moment. Perhaps they are, in their confusing, mystifying, and painful ways, fists in the air.