Grief in a blasted world and re-distribution as ethic.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes.”
- Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
The movie Pig (many spoilers ahead) written and directed by Michael Sarnoski is about a reclusive man living off the land in a small cabin in the deepwoods of foggy Oregon. It presents itself as a sort of pastoral John Wick. Rob (Nicholas Cage) sets about his work, taking time to hunt for truffles with his vibrant, orange-furred truffle pig. We can see from the start that he loves her dearly, that her existence is a bounty for which he is grateful. Their existence is tough but they are persist happily. Then the outside comes in the form of Amir (Alex Wolff) in a bright yellow Camaro to collect the fungus flower (worth around $800/lb). Rob doesn't speak a word to him. He simply lives and cooks gourmet food and trades truffles with Amir trades for supplies like flour and batteries. The exchange is not even, but Rob doesn’t seem to mind. He has, for the moment, transcended the value system. But this breaking of the code of value attracts attention. The keen businessman senses market disruption like the predator smells blood.
Soon, the pig is stolen by two addicts at the behest of a truffle kingpin. The addicts are questioned but not blamed; greater mechanisms are at play. Just as truffles, the causes and concerns of the film are buried deep below the surface: theft and loss, absurdity and community, the negation of the libertarian ideal, and how to live in a world that is riddled with the greatest perversions of the movement of matter, of redistribution.
Rob heads into the city, where he reconciles brutally, stolidly with his past in which he was the famous chef. A lost legend. The seedy, glitzy world of the restaurant industry is made to stand for society in general, and Rob cuts a Zarathustra-like path through these worlds which are made to seem meek and absurd in his hulking shadow. The master that has given up fame for a more “authentic” existence comes back to haunt the dying city.
The winter, the theft of abundance in the pig, which we learn is also a cypher for Rob’s dead wife, the manipulation and artificiality of the actors, thirsty for meaning and legend but devoid of feeling, paints a picture of our time, a time where the plentitude of our ancestors is quickly disappearing at the hands of sad, weak men who consolidate their power in gilded halls while the rest of society is put to the service of the destitution-machine, which is dressed up in absurd ways. The excesses of gastronomy illustrate this absurdity.
In a surreal series of encounters that includes an underground fight club made up of vengeful restaurant workers, the story unfolds. Amir confused and then in awe, and Rob, indomitable, but dependent on Amir in a city that has moved on without him. Not wanting to engage at all, Rob’s gruffness comes up against Amir’s brokenness. s The rugged individualism starts to shift. The figure of the enlightened, jaded one who has forsaken society becomes softened, and the unbridled emotion that Nick Cage does so well starts to crack the hardness of the character Rob.
While sitting in Amir’s apartment, eating eggs, Rob breaks his silence at Amir’s frustrated questions, he explains that the West Coast is due for tsunami that will wipe out most everything. Nihilism rushes to answer questions of the heart—a thoroughly contemporary condition. The master of craft, the mover of the social scene, is dominated by nihilism as the craft is hollowed out by market influences and false consciousness.
This nihilism doesn’t explain Rob’s connection to the animal that animates his search. Despite Rob’s reason and foresight it has been stolen from him by a greedy capitalist who keeps his own comatose wife (the mother about whom Amir lies and says is dead) alive against her will. But Rob’s fixation on the apocalyptic is a cope out. The real struggle is much more micro, and soon Rob reenters the world of his own emotion. After finding out that it is indeed Amir’s father that had the pig stolen because of the threat the cheap truffles posed to his business, Rob heads to the father’s house, where he is threatened. Rob leaves and then teams up with Amir (whom Rob blames initially for letting his secret slip to his father).
For Rob, “if you love something you need to hold on to it” (or something like that, about the pig), and he says as much later in the movie to Amir’s father after making him, with Amir, a meal from ingredients drawn together from Rob’s old life, a meal which we learn was one of the last happy moments between Amir’s mother and father (at Rob’s famous restaurant). This gesture shocks the capitalist back into humanity, only to reveal that the pig is dead, it was dead on arrival in Portland. Rob falls to the floor in mortal agony. There is no redemption, only further realization. The big confrontation ends in bathos. The villain is pathetic, the game, worthless. Only the projects of mutual comfort and of art remain, and, even if it is a cliche, the forced relationship between Amir and Rob reveals another sort of plentitude that exists even under duress or unwillingness, that of the movement of knowledge, of savoir-faire.
In his book Hinterland Phil A Neel paints a picture of a land that is already forsaken, blasted out, with exurbs pumping what’s left of a falling resource base and rate of profit into the urban cores. “Our subcultures are evacuated of all sacrifice and intimacy until they resemble little more than many minor bureaucracies propping up the great palace of consumption. When some fragment of the communal does find some space to congeal...this fragment is ultimately found, pieced apart, drained of its intensity until it also can be thrown into that same dead, world-rending dance. The ritual has neither name nor mother tongue, but we communists call it the material community of capital,” he writes, his prose is lyrical—deep, geological in the style of McCarthy.
Pig, regardless of intention, signals an acknowledgement of this world, a world where everything is connected and no one’s resources are safe. The libertarian fantasy of retreat into the forest is shattered by the necessity of sports cars transiting materials and the inevitability of violence. There is no retreat into the woods. Even Rob who has shed his individuality is pulled back in. While the movie can be read as one depicting the retreat from life of the person grieving a spouse, its narrative of grief runs far, far deeper; and the stakes of redemption (there is some) are high. Who do we have to become and what do we have to give up when everything is taken from us? What new individual comes out of this ambient sense of loss? It is interesting that only through tragedy is the psychosis of the retreat into the woods broken and the passing of knowledge re-instituted in the figure of the teacher/student.
The food/knowledge theme makes sense as a primary narrative device, with each “chapter” of the movie labeled by a recipe that takes place within it. The bounty of food is the organizing unit that cuts through the chaos of the human economy of motions and materials. A sort of culture or excess of naming that comes with cooking is maintained over and above the absurdity of the economic culture of the city.
Post-individuality comes at the draining of resources from the project of the self; even the illusion of plentitude is gone; the world of the past is dead or on life support. We will never return to the bounty of paradise; we are like Odysseus staring down at his bag of winds used up too soon, recklessly, with miles and miles to go. His journey quickly became a very different one, as has ours. As the systems of extraction continue, the horizon of a post-scarcity future becomes less and less. It is ridiculous that we have to choose what to cling on to, but we do need to choose and choose well. Nothing good can come of retreating from the world.
There is no retreat into the woods but there is a way to convert the liquefaction of subjectivity into certain organizations. Aesthetics and tastes outlive the individual; at the end of Pig we see that Rob’s hut, which we only got dejected glances earlier in the movie, is beautiful with an array of cooking utensils, books, art, radios. This remains. Giving up the city, moving into simplicity, has its uses but it is only by both maintaining this and the connections to the species that we can preserve through the systems of losses.
Of course, if and when we will be living in a world of post-plentitude is up for debate. More optimistic political programs rely on the belief that we still live in plentitude, we only need to get our re-distribution right. On the other hand, the tradition of the lamentation of the nature that has been around since at least the Romantics. The sun and its human metaphors have not been exhausted. But still, the feeling remains. The imagination too is a figure of plentitude, but one that goes too often unexamined. We can talk more about this later.
In order to get passed individualism, we need to become hulking shadows of ourselves. Cageified, we become ghosts and haunt ourselves. We become enraged and enflamed, bringing our pain and skill into the homes of the thief; nameless, what then can we lose? We are, after all, capable of continual reinvention.
In regard to re-distribution aesthetically—is it not the natural state? Entropy and movement. We are built on the model of this constant draining, but also a constant repurposing of material and energy towards some sort of equilibrium. As Michael Serres once wrote, “The parasitic relation is intersubjective. It is the atomic form of our relations. Let us try to face it head-on, like death, like the sun. We are all attacked, together.” All life is redistribution, and ethics are the guiding of this redistribution to maintain the passing of knowledge and ways of life. If we eat death; why not make a recipe? The recipe over the genius; apocrypha over individualism.
For people interested in more pig-themed things, I found this absolutely bizarre cultural archive dedicated to pigs in culture: https://www.porkopolis.org. You’re welcome.
Also, please see my recent review of the inimitable Neo-Decadence: 12 Manifestoes at Maudlin House: https://maudlinhouse.net/each-analytic-entitled-pestilential-essayist-choke-a-review-of-neo-decadence-12-manifestos-edited-by-justin-isis/