Woody Allen, he’s such a mean old man

by Gabriel Szünder

Dylan Farrow concludes her world-famous therapeutic letter with the phrase: Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? (To be fair, the letter starts the same way). The text was published on Nicholas Kristof’s blog and, in case there’s anybody who doesn’t already know, it is an account of the sexual molestation Dylan says she experienced, some 21 years ago, at the hands of her adoptive father, the great Woody Allen. So, what Dylan is actually asking is this: now, that I told you, that because of your beloved movie director (writer, occasional musician etc.) I find it to this day difficult to look at toy trains, now what’s favorite Woody Allen movie? The sensible answer to this question would of course be another question: what does one (toy train – trauma) have to do with the other (favorite Woody Allen movie)? But you can’t say this of course.

(I would actually be tempted to answer: Manhattan, now more than ever, but this would be very-very tasteless.)

It would be unthinkable to say that it doesn’t matter if Woody Allen abused children or not (Dylan Farrow or anybody else). It would be an unbearable burden for our postmodern morality. To be more precise, if we would know for a fact that Woody Allen did abuse a child, it would be unthinkable to go on as if nothing happened. By continuing to support mean Mr. Allen’s career in this case (by buying movie tickets, DVDs, books etc.), we would imply that it does not matter if the man is a child abuser, his art makes up for it. We could of course do and say so, but only in as far as we are perfectly capable of doing and saying unthinkable things.

The Allen incident actually tells us a lot about how today’s cynical materialism functions. An idealist would say that it’s the idea that counts, not the virtues and the vices of the individuals that brought it into being. Oddly enough, a non-cynical materialist – e.g. an old-school Marxist – could say the same. But being neither idealists, nor idealistic materialists, we cannot excuse a man’s actions by his art.

Being a post-Marxist phenomenon, cynical materialism states that the materiality of (the production of) an idea makes it ontologically weak, so to speak. But being a post-Marxist phenomenon, cynical materialism further states that the mere materiality of an idea also makes it ethically dubious. Ethically, not ideologically. And that is because cynical materialism is a post-ethical, moralistic variety of materialism. So, it makes every idea dependent precisely on virtues and the vices of the individuals that brought them into being. And, as no man is without sin, any idea – be it artistic or political – is discredited from the start by the sad humanity of its maker.

Nowadays we always know too much. About everybody. At the same time, this is not even a problem of knowing anymore, because the breeding ground of cynical materialism is what Debord called the society of spectacle. One of the basic principles of modernity is that what is private must be public, that all that is private must be shown. The basic principle of the society of spectacle is that all that is private must be made a show of. Not just any kind of show: an obscene show, a show of obscenity. Simply put, what the society of the spectacle does today is that it kills the idols it creates. It’s not about showing how so-called stars and famous people really are. It’s about showing what they are: nothing. There was a time when idealization was integral to the show. Now it is not. There is no “greatness” in the society of spectacle. There are only participants. That’s actually the point of it all: universal participation must be ensured.

Most of people are of course willing participants. But Woody Allen is and was not. That’s what makes him such a perfect victim. It must indeed be said that, regardless of his guilt or innocence, Woody Allen is also a victim here. He might be the only victim. He was never charged with sexual abuse, so as far as any socially produced knowledge is concerned he is innocent. And that’s precisely the point. Nobody really needs or wants to know if Woody Allen is guilty.

So what if Woody Allen is innocent? This would change nothing. Page twelve-retractions might follow, but headline-accusations have been made.  Facebook and Twitter smear campaigns have been set into motion. The not-so-guilty pleasure of ressentiment does not take any censorship from reality.

So what if Woody Allen is guilty? What if Dylan Farrow’s accusations are true? This would change nothing, because, as Debord put it some decades ago, in the society of spectacle, truth is a moment of falsehood.