The Bitter Night

Sam Laughlin, photography.

Sam Laughlin, photography.

“Our understanding of ourselves is a narrative understanding, that is, we cannot grasp ourselves outside of time and hence outside of some narrative. There is an equivalence therefore between what I am and the story of my life.”
Paul Ricoeur

“I confess that I am much more concerned about the current growth of the “desire not to know,” as Julia Kristeva puts it, and the seemingly triumphant success of the pharmaceutical cocktail over the spoken word. There once was a brilliant, if chilling, ad for a certain tranquilizer: “Not a pseudo-solution for problems, but a solution for pseudo-problems.”
Ernst Falzeder

“One of the effects of this shift in the focus of production is the speeding up of the turnover time of capital, which helps the process of the production of profit. But of course a side effect of this is to speed up the experience of time, and by speeding up time to bring about situations where forgetting is enhanced. Forgetting is absolutely crucial to the operation of this kind of obsolescence and absolutely basic to the functioning of the market.”
Paul Connerton

“The day is short, the bitter night long–
Why not take a candle and go wandering?”

Anonymous poet
Han Dynasty

It is something I have written on before; the odd degrading of taste in the U.S., but also largely in Europe as well. Cutting across this topic are two other issues; one is the hegemonic power of film and TV, and the second is the reluctance of western cultures to see in art, popular art certainly, any political or spiritual value. And perhaps thirdly is, under this hegemonic rule of film, why there is so little serious analysis of the industry that produces it.

First though, there is a real question about how Western culture has come to think of art. In terms of narrative, fiction, or journalism, and then by extension in film and TV, the sense of ourselves-as-stories has faded. In other words where once the telling of stories meant, by common agreement, that something of our own life was being told in every story, today the notion of story is connected to film and TV and this medium is presented to people as NOT being about their own story. This is one of the key semi hidden realities of *entertainment* and mass culture, I think. Nobody believes TV shows are foundational myths, nor are they narratives that shape our morals, nor are they roads toward insight and awakening. They are entertainment. They only nominally are seen to reflect society back at us. Lip service is paid to that idea, but nobody believes it. Entertainment is a production of forgetting, but in that lies a contradiction. The contradiction is that while officially designated as ephemeral, the entertainment industry encloses all discourse today.

Hans Cranach, early 1500s. St Boniface, detail.

Hans Cranach, early 1500s. St Boniface, detail.


But there is something else, which is a deeper question in a sense, and one linked, I think, to mimesis. I am reminded of this almost daily whenever the subject of art is brought up. I am reminded that the parameters for any discussion of art or entertainment are very vague, and almost produce a kind of anxiety in people. There are critiques, and reviews and gossip, but in very little of any of this is there a reference point for why anyone is bothering with the topic, unless of course it’s money. But if one puts aside the economic issues, the discussion of culture becomes very vague.

Mimesis goes back much further, as a concept, than the Greeks, but it was in Greece that today’s conventional ideas about mimesis were formulated. The base level, from the word mimos, means imitation. But it also always meant representation. Mimema were persons who imitated, and the action was mimesis. Homer did not know the word, but Aeschylus did. And it was during the fourth century it was associated with representation through dance. Now the significant juncture in this evolution, at least in the Grecian world, was with Plato, for his third definition (following emulation and imitation…narrowly, of a thing) was *metaphor*. Plato said mimesis was interpretation of a speaker. Someone, an actor or dancer, can imitate something absent, or general, i.e. metaphoric. Now this is a very reductive explanation of the Platonic position, but the point is, I think, that imitation very early on was recognized to exceed the idea of a guy pretending to be a horse he just saw gallop past.

Sarcofago dio portonaccio, Rome, detail.

Sarcofago dio portonaccio, Rome, detail.


There is an important aspect to Greek thinking on mimesis, and Jean Paul Vernant points to it when discussing Plato’s Cratylus. Gunther Gebauer writes …“According to Vernant’s analysis, these Platonic ideas of the image are bound to archaic ideas from Homer’s time, for which the characteristic factor is that something nonimagistic, something invisible, comes to expression in the image.” The example are cemetary statues, figures meant to conjur the dead in the sense they can take on the psyches of the dead. The dead made visible. But the dead are being made visible by first clearly establishing themselves as dead. Or absent. As Gebaur says, the mystery and otherness of death becomes visible. It is metaphor again. The statue is a metaphor for not just a dead person, but for death. In the cold grey stone we see *death* represented.
Polixeni Papapetrou, photography, media.

Polixeni Papapetrou, photography, media.


Now, Plato marked the disappearance of the old oral culture and the arrival of the new alphabetic culture of writing. That is a huge discussion by itself, but for the purposes of this post the written had subsumed the oral by the end of the fifth century B.C. In the middle ages the notion of mimesis actually shed much of the literal imitative aspect of this idea, and followed imitatio Christi, the imitative act was always an action toward the divine. It is also simply a relation to a previous mimetic act. Layers accrue. One detail is added to another to another to another over hundreds of years. A simple cross or an arch or vault for buriel take on details of imitation. It is also the installing of *Nature* as a conceptual idea. Or at least formalizes it. It is worth noting that the Medieval idea of mimetic deeds, done properly, with an eye to the past, bears a certain resemblance to Chinese aesthetics in the pre Confucian period. Chinese aesthetics is rooted in ritual and practice, with an idea (at least the classical theory) to harmonizing emotions. Representation was not the goal. Recognition was not the goal. Or rather, not the recognition of the outer world. One did not paint a mountain in order for the viewer to stare and then recognize, ah, a mountain. In the morning. In the mist. But then this emphasis on harmony came out of music, firstly. So the mimetic was de-linked from the visual reading of similarity. And rather was bound to familiar repetitions of form. Mimesis was always metaphor in a sense.

But representation changed forever with Shakespeare. This is another level of writing, if one thinks about it mimetically. Now Gebauer and Wulf, in their exhaustive book on mimesis (Mimesis; Culture, Art and Society) peg this change to Montaigne and before that in a sense to Erasmus. And then to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare was theatre. Theatre means actors. So, if mimesis is not simply imitation, and if written text changed how representation was perceived, theatre…Shakespeare’s theatre, invented modern mimesis. This jump cuts to Adorno, of course, and modernist aesthetics, but for the moment I want to look at Shakespeare. The recitation of text, dialogue, is not simply representation. It is a form of thinking. The text thinks the audience. This is one of those ideas that start to sound absurdist, but in fact something very significant happened with Elizabethan drama. Mimesis in Shakespearean narrative returns the listener to something distant, something from the oral past. But it is heterogenous, and the mimetic action is personal at the same time that it is collective. This is the exact moment of de-stabilization. Why do people create? I know that if mimesis were only imitation, and representation, few people would bother after the age of seven or eight. But the mimetic action, when it becomes metaphor, becomes much more than metaphor. It becomes a sort of existential reflex search for who we are. It links the personal to the collective. To the *other*. The actor is in our head and he or she is on stage. The formation of our psyche, our Oedipal narrative is echoed on stage, as is the story of our society. The listener is invested in the story. Stories are always stories of ourselves (except when they intentionally try not to be). All stories are crime stories, and all crimes are emotionally pegged to guilt and shame. And all stories are about homesickness.

Loris Greaud. Installation.

Loris Greaud. Installation.


There are no facial expressions for shame. Shame is hidden. Guilt is partially hidden, at least in western society. The infant born into estrangement, and rivalry, recognizes that feeling the rest of his or her life. But the trauma remains occluded. Death, the death drive, thanatos, is absence. The cremorial and cementary statues metaphorically present the absent. Looking forward and looking backward, we see only absence. The role of narrative is a very large discussion, but one of the dimensions of theatre is that it is recreating a psychoanalytic experience in mediated form. Our repression is linguistic, on one level. Lacan said the structure of the unconscious was the same as that of language. The repressed material is always a story. The narrative, on stage, is always re-narrated (mimetically) by the audience. Our desire is why we have theatres, why there is a stage. For desire is performance. As Ricoeur says, the analytic cure is bringing to language what has been excluded from language (I paraphrase). This process of excavation entails metaphor, but also symbol, or more precisely desymbolization (per Mitscherlich). It was Freud who saw the censoring mechanisms of our psyche as linguistic. In any event, the narrative on stage is re-created in our interior and simultaneous narration, which I always sort of imagine like the UN translators speaking into the ears of various foreign diplomats. Or the Polish *lektor* used to speak the subtitles of films. In this process, to reference Lacan again, the other is never the other we desire, or think we desire. This is the essential reason for art in my humble opinion. The imaginary is simply the working through of our own trauma, and, significantly, the working through of our experience of absence, and its relationship to the *other*. And by other we include society.

However and to what degree one accepts the Lacanian opposition between the imaginary and symbolic, the narrative exists on this border, this, again per Ricoeur, ‘border between two countries, two political regimes’. As he says there is a linguistic exclusion, and only narrative is there to reunite this exiled material. These are the primordial metaphors that are reborn over and over. Psychoanalysis is the reconstituting in narrative of the memories of father and mother, and childhood desire and ambivalence. In theatre then, to return to Shakespeare as the example, the actor becomes hugely important. The unspoken, the gestural, the facial expressions, and all that cannot be said, are the techniques for reconciling our schizoid psyches.

Ralf Dereich

Ralf Dereich


“Shakespeare instills in mimesis an unprecedented intricacy. Mimesis is not only a force that refers people to one another and renders them similar to each other, but one that divides and destroys them; merging and diverging, that is to say, appear in equal measure in mimetic desire…Shakespeare represents entanglements in mimetic desire in plays with comic and tragic outcomes. In the former case, the mimetic conflict is playfully resolved; in the latter it is unresolvable. The destruction of the social order in a mimetic crisis, the sacrifice of a scapegoat, is the result.”
Gunther Gebauer

Adorno would suggest that mimesis was the genesis of being human, of being civilized (a loaded word). The fear was a return to the irrational, to the nightmare of Nature. Hovering over all this is, of course, a fear of death. Mimicry is also always a miming of the dead. The death instinct, stasis. The tendency is for all people to submit to their surroundings. And here is the strange haunted contradiction of existence; as Freud and Adorno both recognized, that in the development of adaptation (including mimesis) there is a submission to this adaptive process that as it is repeated leads to the character armoring and rigidity of the modern man. If the earliest humans mimed the world around them, in fear, then as metaphor entered, as text shaped the stories people invented, the self control intensified.

Balthasar Burkhard, photography.

Balthasar Burkhard, photography.


“Man’s domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken.”
Adorno

Art is magic, but a magic removed from goals of control. Still, on the Shakespearean stage a form of thinking takes place that is a thinking about ourselves. The mimetic narration is now more directly connected to our own history, our own story, and therefore is more directly linked to the social and political.

Larry Tye, Boston Globe journalist quoted Edward Bernays:
“This whole matter of effective counter-Communist propaganda is not one of improvising,” Bernays noted in a 1952 memo to United Fruit’s publicity chief. “What is needed,” he added, is “the same type of scientific approach that is applied, let us say, to a problem of fighting a certain plant disease.”


Domination has become the framework for narrative. If American Sniper broke box office records this week, it is testament to the pathological endgame of our civilizing process. A process it seems now fully broken for the societies of the Imperialist west. Most acutely, naturally, in the U.S. As Gebaur and Wulf write: “Subjective self empowerment entails a commitment to universal disposability.” The subject sees self domination as the reasonable or patriotic or responsible. Where once the role of art, or even of community ritual, of shamans and selfless cooperation was mediated by how story and image were employed, today the western world operates under the logic of men like Edward Bernays. Self loathing is seen as self disenfecting, but you cannot cleanse yourself without first cleansing the world around you.

U.S. soldiers somewhere in central america, apprx 1898. Guarding United Fruit interests.

U.S. soldiers somewhere in central america, apprx 1898. Guarding United Fruit interests.


Art is crucial. But not entertainment. Being entertained is actually regressive. The Shakesperean stage was the coming together of several strands in mimetic evolution, and it introduced formally the actor speaking our own narrative at the same time as speaking societies story. The rise of instrumental rationality was a belief that one thread of observation, one that produced remarkable results in the material world, could be relied upon for all things. The conceptualizing of self, the separation of the subject from the object, and by logical neccessity, then, the shunning of mimesis, leads to isolation and alienation. Here Marx enters the discussion. This is what Adorno and Horkheimer called disenchantment. Sacrifice is internalized. Advanced mimesis becomes a taboo, a prohibition. In this sense, Bruce Alexander and others like Gabor Mate, in their work on addiction, are suggesting the need for connection is primordial.

Johann Hari wrote:
“But in the 1970s, a Professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”

The war on drugs is a war on several things; connection, desire, and dreams. It’s a war on Dionysian energy. Wilhelm Reich saw a version of this, too. In Portugal, as Hari recounts:
“The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system.”
In other words, the rigidity of adaptation means shunning and shame, the hidden realm, without even facial expressions, is the cause of not just addiction, but self punishment on many levels. The internalized sacrificial victim is ourselves, but that mechanism doesnt work. Not as myth. It works our logically only as self extermination.

Four Mandala Vajravali, Thankga. 1430. Tibet, Sakya School.

Four Mandala Vajravali, Thankga. 1430. Tibet, Sakya School.


Work such as American Sniper is not engaging the viewer in mimetic search. It is a cartoon retelling of a message that says the armored self, the emotional plague, the violence and inequality around us is good. Killing is good. It is not mimesis, it is a schematic for death and violence. You read without that interior narrator, for its only a blueprint. A blueprint for building a death machine.

Art, aesthetic experience, is partly the viewer submitting to the recognition that the *I* is similar to the artwork. But similar because the artwork is allowed its narration. It is not the rigid mimicry of fear, that prehistoric fear of Nature; it is the submissive relaxing of those anxieties in an effort to reclaim what we have lost of ourselves. In theatre this submission is shared. The actor recites the dreams of everyone. It is no surprise that today the only validated theatre is that which shrinks this realm and props up in desperation the world of disenchantment. Bourgeois melodrama is Nurse Ratched reciting the rules, it is not Hamlet or Prospero conducting dream analysis.

Adorno came to the United States in 1938. He studied the effects of radio musical broadcasts. The effects on the music. But he soon forgot that and realized that what mattered was the audience that was evolving in the U.S. It was one, he thought, that art could not reach. Hullot-Kenter wrote:
“Adorno observed the contemporary American has been so overwhelmed by real and constant anxiety, has been so broken in on by heteronomous forces, that this autonomy and its capacity to breach subjectivit’s own claustrum could no longer be presumed. Adorno thought that this incapacitation of the person began in earliest childhood, and he noted several aspects of what he believed had happened: first the world no longer provides actual images to the American child, but only images that arrive with the insignia of their own untruth stamped on them; second the objects of action have all become technical objects that primarily demand adaptation to their own instructions, third the collapsed family no longer provides a buffer between society and person, which is part of why the American child is so flooded with anxiety, fourth the traditional language of people has been supplanted by a language of advertisement that no longer fulfills but instead leaves people speechless. Fifth the libido is directed toward tools…and sixth…the transformed relation of people to their own nature, their own bodies.”

This is 1938 mind you. Seventy five years ago. A year after Freud died.

Tofer Chin

Tofer Chin


Amy Buzby wrote: “No radical political project can succeed today unless it simultaneously resists domination as it operates both in society and in the mental life of individuals.” Yeah, I’d say that’s right, and it is where art and mimesis come into importance. But it is also because of the mental costs of resistance. The percentages of madness among both radical artists, and activists is very high. It takes a toll to refuse. The retreat from radical form in art is given false compensation by notions of success and agreement. This is as Ive said before, the society of agreement. Robert Hullot Kenter wrote that Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is a book “that stands in utter opposition to what we are.” He goes on to posit that taste needs a project of reclamation. An exactitude. I would say that this then connects to a reclaiming of the radical nature of psychoanalysis as well. For mimesis is not engaged because we can cry at Pepsi commercials, or laugh at the neurotic comedies Hollywood spews out. Mimesis is the tragic confrontation with ourselves, with that which a system of domination is even now working overtime to erase.

The runaway success of a film such as American Sniper speaks directly to the repressed guilt of the white bourgeoisie today. To the continuing attraction of false fathers, to a worshiping of authority. But more than that it is structurally appealing on a psychic level for really this is the film version of the death instinct. It is interesting to compare it to a film such as Foxcatcher which questions the idea of power and domination, that suggests the military industrial complex and its links to extreme wealth contains erotic components, and this makes today’s audience, the one Adorno saw as incapable of cultivation, uncomfortable. Better to just give in and embrace Death. The resurgent racism seen today, from U.S. police departments to the demonizing of Muslims, is intertwined with guilt, and with an atrophied mimetic potential. In The Authoritarian Personality Adorno and his collaborators identified a refusal to deal with guilt among those predisposed to align themselves with fascism. As Amy Buzby writes (in her very fine book Subterranean Politics and Freud’s Legacy); “Where prejudice and the disposition toward authoritarianism is found, the unconscious is dissociated.”

Klavdij Sluban, photography. Youth Detention Center, Tibilsi.

Klavdij Sluban, photography. Youth Detention Center, Tibilsi.


The individual who identifies with American Sniper is one who, (again per Buzby) has “failed to develop the capacity to test and engage reality.” Art was a hedge against conformity and blind obedience. The autonomy of the artwork was exactly there to allow for the dialectical process of mimesis. Without such challenges, art is simply propaganda. The mass hostility toward Muslims today, in the U.S. and Europe, is proof of a group psychology of bad conscience. The obvious emotional shut-off and disconnect of such mass prejudice serves Empire, but is constructed on the basis of a disfigured and immature personality. The modern individual in the advanced west is one who believes in the appearance of his *individuality*, but is really a lonely rat in the cage. The evolution of mimesis is linked at it’s most advanced stage, with narrative. It is worth pondering again the effects of a society in which narrative has been reduced to almost first grade reader levels. The appeal of sentimentality is, of course, an aspect of sadism. It sets up a world view in which emotion is channeled into infantile desires and rewards. Couple this to projection, perhaps Freud’s most cogent theoretical construction, and it’s not hard to understand the reflexes of bigotry and hatred. The guilt of the white bourgeois populace today, built on two hundred years (or more) of colonial crimes and violence is never dealt with. It is projected onto Muslims or black teenagers or just generally the poor and vulnerable. But guilt is complex, and in the deformed mass culture of the U.S., guilt has no meaning outside legal contexts. It is mute and silent. Like shame, it really has no face. The projection of white men in particular is directed at, I think, firstly women. Second it moves outward to include Muslims, and blacks and Latinos. But the misogyny that resides at the core is worthy of an entire post, probably, for it is the most masked and buried, and hence the most volatile. The loss of ability to mobilize mimetic readings means that the individual today is inextricably tied into a sado/masochistic dynamic of punishment and violence. The population is treated to endless kitsch stories of faux guilt that require endless confessions of *taking responsibility*. Guilt is both accepted and projected out. But that which is accepted is never really for actual crimes. It is for crimes that takes place in this manufactured false reality of screen life and mass culture. This dynamic only intensifies the repression of real feelings of guilt. The false admissions of responsibility are approved of ahead of time, and the entire 12 step cult and new age self improvement guides are there to salve the real psychic wounds, but only temporarily. This is a society now, in the U.S., that tacitly accepts torture and mass killing. At least among the more affluent and educated classes. The deepest pathologies are those of the upper twenty percent. That educated white demographic that determines taste and defines culture and also among the ruling class that make policy.

Bharti Kher

Bharti Kher

Beneath this pop psychology that rules public discourse are the very structures of Capitalism. The individual may not own property, but he can treat himself as property and divide and sub-divide himself into various ownership allotments. Alongside this the individual is primed to accept his treatment as property by the ruling class. The culture of therapy provides ever new psychic self improvements akin to a fresh coat of paint or new rust proofing. The personality is a DIY self improvement kit. And beneath all of this is the stunted caged rat suffering in an isolation it cannot identify. Hence the intensified projection and sado/masochism. And, ambivalence. The failure to grow up in Western society has resulted, I suspect anyway, in a particularly ruthless super-ego. For the individual is always still a child, and as such has never abandoned the childhood fear and ambivalence to the father. There is much more to say about all this, but I had wanted to raise the issue of mimesis, and its absence in popular cultural product. For all self expression and creativity is at its origins, mimesis. Technology has increased isolation, and eroded notions of a real public or material commons. What Hullot Kentor calls *a public world*. Each year hundreds of films and TV shows are made, thousands, for which there is no reason except profit. There is no primary imagination behind them, no basic mimetic or creative impulse. They are no more essential to their creators than are chewing gum commercials. Art’s justification is in its failure, in a sense. It must, through its form, its semblance more accurately, critique semblance. But there is another layer here, and a significant one, and that is memory and history. One cannot create without participating in that mimicry of birds of prey, or predators, that frightened early humans. The traces of that rigid body and reading of portents in Nature, remains in all metaphor. It is there in Shakespeare, in the body of the actor, in his or her expression, or eyes. Just as this mimicry allow access to our own story, and to the mistaken desires we follow. The abject shallowness of accepted culture today, the bourgeois gatekeepers of middle brow bromides or the corporate paeans to violence and mayhem. There is really not much separating American Sniper from whatever play is going up at Lincoln Center. The audience, Adorno knew over seventy years ago, could not engage with more than mere cartoon.

“…there is an element of the historically dynamic, whose form is dialectical, in all great myths as well as in the mythical images that our consciousness still carries. The mythical fundamental elements are in themselves contradictory and move in a contradictory manner (recall the phenomenon of the ambivalence, the ‘antithetical sense’ of primal words). The myth of Kronos is just such a myth in which the most extreme godly power of creation is coupled with the fact that he is a god who annihilates his children. Likewise, the mythology that underlies tragedy is in every instance dialectical because it includes the subjugation of the guilty man to nature at the same time that it develops out of itself the reconciliation of this fate: man raises himself up out of his fate as man. The dialectical element here is that tragic myths contain at one and the same time subjection to guilt and nature and the element of reconciliation that transcends the realm of nature.”
Adorno
“The Idea of Natural History”

Where Dreams Die

Joachim Bandau

Joachim Bandau

“Well, Cassady was a benign version of that figure. Gary Gilmore may be closer to what I mean, a vicious drifter of the kind America seems to produce in greater quantity than does any other country, probably because there is no moral center to our middle class. This society is so fractured. It never really had that period of high bourgeois cultural development that most European countries had. The American underclass has never had the tradition and stability of a European peasantry so it could never develop feudal loyalties. Instead we get these institutionalized personalities whose arrested emotions oblige them to mimic mood, feeling, love. This is the origin of their violence.”
Robert Stone
Interview with, Paris Review 1985

“I am more impressed than ever about how totally indoctrinated
is Hollywood.—For those of you unfamiliar with George Clooney’s MO,
when he’s not accepting Lifetime Achievement awards and saying “ Je
suis Charlie ,” he’s denouncing the Official Enemies of his favorite
state. Clooney really knows how to fake it. And remember, in the States,
this counts as courage.) ( PS . The only thing missing from the 2015
Golden Globe Awards was video of United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights Special Envoy Angelina Jolie sharing Thanksgiving dinner with
U.S. troops as the United States blows up yet another country.)”

David Peterson

“The Arabs joined the non-aligned world, which was undergirded by the global struggle against colonialism as described by Fanon, Cabral, Nkrumah,and Cesaire….For Freud, writing and thinking in the mid 1930s, the actuality of the non-European was its constitutive presence as a sort of fissure in the figure of Moses – founder of Judaism, but an unreconstructed non-Jewish Egyptian none the less.”
Edward Said

This was a week in which politics as spectacle was dialed up to previously unimaginable levels, and a week in which mass culture, meaning especially Hollywood, overlapped in unusual and revealing ways. It was also the week that one of the great novelists of the last forty years died. I will get to Robert Stone but first, it is hard to have avoided the narrative construction built around the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. Firstly, much like the Boston Marathon bombing, the official story is rather too familiar. It feels very much like the work of patsies, and the fact that the police commissioner in Paris committed suicide right after the arrest only further adds to the surreal nature of this entire storyline. But most important is the public reaction, carefully guided by media. And then the egregiously grotesque spectacle of Netanyahu and Sarkozy and Hollande and Merkel waddling down the street for their cherished photo op. This is the obvious anti Muslim theme of Western states in full bloom. Watching war criminals and their stenographers joining in this appropriation of other legitmate protest, serves as distraction and erasure. That Charlie Hebdo was itself a vaguely distasteful and pretty racist bit of irrelevancy is totally beside the point. I am sure more details will emerge. Jonathan Cook has written a pretty succinct summation of the absurd official story.
http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2015-01-13/what-hebdo-execution-video-really-shows/

But for now the Golden Globes took place and photographers could be seen handing out the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ signs to various and sundry celebrities so they, too, could pocket their cherished photo op. Instant credibility, and seriousness. Meanwhile, it is instructive to look at what films and TV won awards. (Remember that the Golden Globes were once the butt of jokes, where Pia Zadora had her *future star* award bought by her husband, and the foreign press service was viewed with disdain by most Hollywood influence peddlers).

F. Parizot, Agence France Presse photo. Casbah, Algiers 1962.

F. Parizot, Agence France Presse photo. Casbah, Algiers 1962.

From Wes Anderson’s twee The Grand Budapest Hotel, to HBOs turgid white person melodrama The Affair, there was a seamless adherence to work ratifying the status quo. This was all work that held up the superiority of Western society, of petit bourgeois sensibility, and the values of the affluent quasi liberal. It is too tedious to list all of this and it depresses to do so, but as a side bar note this is the week (roughly) in which the soft core Gary Webb biopic came out, and the season that saw the one other formally *dissident* bit of drama, Selma. I only wish to remark that Selma was the slightly more disturbing of the two by virtue of its mushy aesthetic core. This was a Doctor King as small and earnest, not majestic and revolutionary. I did rather enjoy, for once, Tom Wilkenson’s performance, an inspired bit of casting as LBJ. Directed by 42 year old Ava Marie DuVernay, a black woman graduate of USC whose wiki entry informs the reader that disillusioned with journalism (she had been an intern for Connie Chung) she turned to publicity. Well, yeah, that makes sense. This is a slick film, made for broad approval and certainly geared not to offend. It is a revisionist Martin Luther King, and one that shrinks before our eyes. Never mind the portrayal of Malcolm X, which was simply…well….bizarre.

As is usually the case, such awards shows are paeans to in the inherent goodness of the culture industry, and it fit well with the Netanyahu/Sarkozy perp walk in Paris. The ‘White People are Special’ parade.

Glen Rubsamen

Glen Rubsamen

David Peterson wrote: ”
“To the victims of military occupation; to the people in the houses that
bore the brunt of “shock and awe” bombing in Iraq; to those whose
bodies were disfigured by white phosphorous and depleted uranium; to the
parents of children who disappeared into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib;
to all of them – what but cruel mockery is the contention that Western
“civilisation” fights its wars with the pen and not the sword?
And that is only to concern ourselves with the latest round of atrocities.
It is not even to consider the century or more of Western colonial
policies that through blood and iron have consigned all but a tiny few
among the population of the Arab world to poverty ajnd hopelessness.
It is not to even mention the brutal rule of French colonialism in
Algeria, and its preparedness to murder hundreds of thousands of Algerians
and even hundreds of French-Algerian citizens in its efforts to maintain
the remnants of empire. It is leaving aside the ongoing poverty,
ghettoisation and persecution endured by the Muslim population of France,
which is mostly of Algerian origin.
The history of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world – a
history of colonialism and imperialism, of occupation, subjugation and war
– cries out in protest against the quaint idea that “Western values”
entail a rejection of violence and terror as political tools.”

Hollywood continues to produce shows and films that are staggeringly white supremacist, and more, are consistently Orientalist. Just a quick viewing of some episodes from Homeland, Madame Secretary, State of Affairs, Tyrant, The Last Ship, to name only a few, will provide evidence of this. But this is all pretty obvious and really hardly needs repeating yet again. What is of more interest I think is to examine a few examples of more ambitious film and TV, in the light of this week’s political burlesque. Paul Thomas Anderson’s career has been fascinating if frustrating. But with The Master, from two years ago, he seemed to have found, finally, a meshing of his technical cinematic skill with the perfect story, a story that encapsulated all the preoccupations that had surfaced in spots throughout his earlier films. But it always hard to follow up such an artistic success. Anderson decided to transfer Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, Inherent Vice into a film.

Daoist Scripture of Constant Purity.  Zhao Mengfu, calligrapher of the Yuan dynasty.  Apprx. 1292.

Daoist Scripture of Constant Purity. Zhao Mengfu, calligrapher of the Yuan dynasty. 1292.


Now, it is essentially impossible to do this successfully. And that is likely why it was chosen. I understand that, and I think it’s maybe even a wise instinctual move. So from the start the problems are sort of evident in ‘Vice. How much are to be laid at the feet of Pynchon — not counting just the impossible factor — is hard to say. The clearest ancestry for Inherent Vice is Altman’s The Long Goodbye. This was also a detective as myth project, and it was also Southern California. And SoCal occupies its own very particular mythos, and one that has resisted film expression more often than not, but one that is intimately linked (obviously) to Hollywood. I’m not an Altman admirer, particularly, so I was never going to really be on board with ‘Vice. That said, Anderson does possess remarkable cinematic vision. This film is shot in 70mm, is deceptively beautiful, and I have to say absolutely riveting while viewing. At least for me. But maybe two thirds into the film I started to feel myself questioning the project, riveted or not, because unless this was going to be a ten hour film, the looming incompleteness started to encroach on every scene. And every scene began to feel less justifiable in it’s fragmentary and elliptical placement. And this sounds like something one could say of Pynchon, too. Since Crying of Lot 49, and certainly Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon has been both monumental and trivial in equal measure. There was always something self admiring in Pynchon, and I think in some weird cosmic synchronicity the death of Robert Stone this week serves as a side bar commentary on Pynchon. There are American prose writers; Gass, and Gaddis, Barth and Barthelme, who emerged in the second half of the 20th century out of whose group Pynchon emerged as the clear star. Of the rest it’s possible only Gass can claim any real traction, today, but the heavyweight champ of that epoch is undoubtedly Thomas Pynchon…at least in the undergraduate imagination. I cant remember a book shelf during the 70s that didnt have Gravity’s Rainbow on it. Pynchon felt like the anti-Irving. A random sampling from ‘lists of the best novels of the last fifty years’ (etc) will include for sure at least two Pynchons. In not one list did I find Robert Stone. Not one. Shit, even rubbish like James Ellroy made several lists. But this is the nature of mainstream media lists. I suspect if I polled English lit professors I would find more Denis Johnson, Tim O’Brien and Maryanne Robinson. Probably some Gass, too. But Stone I suspect not. Richard Ford made a few lists, so did Joan Didion. But Stone came out of a lineage that includes Melville and Conrad, and probably Poe. It is a decidedly unfashionable lineage today. It is sincere writing, it is writing in search of meaning, and it feels closer to Sartre and Camus than it does to Updike. Certainly it is the apotheosis of Palahniuk. Pynchon however, was something else altogether from the Melville to Hemingway through line, and what that is might be hard to describe. Updike suggested he didn’t like the cosmos that Pynchon created, because it was leaden. Updike didn’t like the funny names, either. Gore Vidal said Pynchon marked the end of the American novel (as in *killing* it). All of this is sort of true, I think. Pynchon has always felt just slightly too self conscious, too in need of de-coding. There is no David Foster Wallace without Pynchon, and there is no Cormac McCarthy without Stone. You can draw your own conclusions about who to blame in all that. But Wallace’s virtues, limited though they are, are in spite of the Pynchon effect. So, back to Paul Thomas Anderson and his adaptation of Pynchon’s 1992 novel.
Johan Creten

Johan Creten


Or rather, to his gloss on Robert Altman. Anderson is a vastly more talented artist than Altman. More grand, though probably that is also his greatest flaw. The operatic isn’t gauged well in Anderson. In fact for all the sort of virtuosity, Anderson loses control of his projects. Inherent Vice got free of his hold about the third frame of the credit sequence. This isn’t to say I think its not among the better films of the last few years, because I do. Sort of. If Anderson is using Pynchon to explore the Raymond Chandler world view, the film never finds that core essence, at least to my mind, at least not *my* Chandler. The El Lay of the mind resides in Fante, Nathaniel West, and James Cain even, as well as Chandler.

Mysteries don’t have to be solved, in fact are often, if not usually, more interesting and valid if they aren’t solved. But, the ‘not solving’ has to be there, the narrative has to take the reader to the place where ‘it cannot be solved’. Anderson is really only saying, oh, there are mysteries here, plots, conspiracies, all kinds of things…. but we won’t be getting into any of that. Come along now, lets look what’s over here.

*The mystery*, really, of course, is never solved. That is the hidden truth of all crime and mystery narrative. The secret truth of mystery is that we are ourselves the mystery. Anderson’s film never gets anywhere close to having that discussion. The Master did, and that is why it is so significantly better a film. That all said, Inherent Vice is a film of great complexity, as film. That is what Anderson is, a filmmaker. His mise en scene, if you will, is what allows one to forgive his indulgences, his anachronisms (not they are not Pynchon jokes…at least I don’t think so) and his failure to fully ever grasp ‘place’. In There Will Be Blood, the sense of place was certainly foregrounded, and yet…and yet it was a reader’s digest version of historical place. I dont know if this is just something one learns (Anderson is only 44) or if it’s only me that thinks Anderson is an acutely immature artist, still.

But, Anderson is not trivial, even when he bases his films on a writer whose chief defect might be well his juvenilia. Anderson is serious, too, and for that I will forgive most anything these days.

Post Office, Truth or Consequences, NM. Nick Waplington, photography.

Post Office, Truth or Consequences, NM. Nick Waplington, photography.


Robert Stone is the *not* post modernist. He is often called a realist, but usually what the person saying that means is that he is a modernist. Stone though wrote wonderfully cauterized prose, books that feel like ship interiors, in that nothing not needed intrudes, and yet, everything is in fact there, just stowed away properly. Stone is related in ways to everyone from Conrad and Melville, to Le Carre, Graham Greene and indeed, Raymond Chandler. Or perhaps more Dashiell Hammett. Stone was not an MFA creation, neither was he a pulp writer who climbed into *literature*. He was one of those writers who served as guide to his readers. He knew more than us, but he shared what he knew. He was humble, self examining, prideful. And in Dog Soldiers (later a hugely overlooked film, Who’ll Stop The Rain) Stone created the quintessential Viet Nam era protagonist in Ray Hicks. I remember reading that book for the first time and being unable to put it down. I had known men very close, very very close to Ray Hicks. He was that American drifter, noble but capable of viciousness. Lost. On a spiritual quest, but a highly masculine version. I suspect West coast natives, like myself, feel affinity with Stone. He didn’t write of the deserts much, but he might as well have. He wrote of the other absolute space, the sea.
"Who'll Stop the Rain" (1978), Karol Reisz dr.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978), Karol Reisz dr.

Stone knew Ken Kesey, and was a fringe presence in the California (Northern mostly) hippie/artist scene of the 60s. He traveled to Mexico, the Caribbean and then to the stark Yankee New England coast. These were the ripe cultural tributaries for the collective post Sixties consciousness. In Hall of Mirrors a character says “..there are like a few billion people walking around and every one of them has a head with a lot of stuff going on in it…. ‘I want to find out about humanness.”

Stone said something else in that interview from 1985…
“My difference with those writers {Gass and Barthelme} is that they take realism too seriously and so have to react against it. I don’t feel the necessity of reacting against it. I don’t believe in it to start with. Realism as a theory of literature is meaningless. I can start with it as a mode precisely because I don’t believe in it. I know it’s all a world of words—what else could it be? I had the curious luck to be raised by a schizophrenic, which gives one a tremendous advantage in understanding the relationship of language to reality. I had to develop a model of reality in the face of being conditioned to a schizophrenic world. I had to sort out causality for myself. My mother’s world was pure magic. And because I had no father I eventually went into a sort of orphanage when my mother could no longer cope. So at the age of six I went into an institution, which taught me to be a listener. I had to deal with all the ways people were coming on to me, had to listen to all their trips and sort them out. Realism wasn’t an issue because there wasn’t any. I always had a vaguely dreamlike sense of things. There was no strong distinction for me between objective and imaginative worlds.”

Inherent Vice (2015), Paul Thomas Anderson, dr.

Inherent Vice (2015), Paul Thomas Anderson, dr.


It makes sense that Stone would admire and feel close to Conrad. In the same ways that it makes sense to me that Edward Said loved Conrad. Stone’s work is realistic or not in the same way Conrad is realistic or not. It’s not an issue, because they are so steeped in the emotional reality of the world. The material emotional if you will. Conrad is dispassionate, but acutely tuned to emotion. And that is something that has almost utterly gone missing in American writing over the last thirty years. Utterly. There are certainly maybe two or three fiction writers I can site as exceptions; Richard Ford at his best, and maybe McCarthy at his best. The problem is the best of the rest are inherently minor writers, they are genre writers. Kem Nunn for example, maybe there are others, but it is hard to be as big as Stone anymore. The best writing in fiction over the last thirty years has rarely been in English. Bernhard and Handke, Sebald and Bolano, but there is, I think, a place for Stone in the pantheon. Perhaps not at the top, but close. It is a useful comparison, actually, to look at Inherent Vice and then at Who’ll Stop the Rain. Both based on writers who came into artistic maturity at about the same time. Both were writers shaped by a failed sixties idealism, and by Viet Nam. Both books are about crime, California, and a doomed bittersweet romance. The differences are telling, too. One is paranoid and drugged, the other is romantic and existential, and finally fatalistic. Both are about how dreams die.

Doc Sportello would have understood Ray Hicks, and vice versa. And perhaps that is important.

In the shadow of, as someone put it, a new moral hysteria courtesy of whoever planned to knock off a few aging grey cartoonists in Paris, the better to sell Europe and NATO as protectors of the virtues of non-Arab, non-African, non-Asian society. The fact is that the United States today is all but unlivable. It depresses me on a personal level that so many friends I know stay there. There are excuses and reasons and justifications…and often many are valid. But often many are not, to my mind. This is personal, of course, but I cannot think of a country today as unpleasant to live in as the United States. The cultural and social climate that produced Robert Stone and Thomas Pynchon isnt there anymore and that feels sad. One of the things I believe David Foster Wallace also realized was that that moment was gone.

Ken Kesey and Robert Stone, somewhere, 1960s.

Ken Kesey and Robert Stone, somewhere, 1960s.


Today, the mainstream media encodes its racist message is ways that make it more palatable for wider consumption. As Thomas Deltombe wrote, (paraphrased)…’Islamophobia is a machine for refining crude racism’. This is right of course. And this is the ploy used by many pseudo left journalists and public intellectuals. Take Zizek’s New Stateman op ed. I quote…
“Such thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with the cheap relativisation of the crime (the mantra of “who are we in the West, perpetrators of terrible massacres in the Third World, to condemn such acts”). It has even less to do with the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia.”

This is pretty transparent manipulation. The suggestion then is, Islamophobia does not exist. Its pathological, in fact, to believe it does. Its cheap relativism to suggest anything to do with the history of colonial subjugation, of rape and plunder and torture and systematic repression has importance. A machine for refining crude racism into refined *opinion* suitable for the dinner party. The cultural atmosphere, that societal soup that fed the artistic energy of the mid 20th century feels very dead today. Part of that death, the death of art that springs out of experience and feeling and hidden energy, is being presided over by fakes like Zizek, or by Murdoch empire pop scribes, or a moribund Academia — an Academia like an exhausted intellectual mine vein, now in the empty colliery of the soul, spectral figures shuttling around trying to look busy, pretending it is still 1975. Nobody has a cultural destination. There are very little that feels like artistic work. There are growing numbers of trivialities, of amusements.

Alec Soth, photography. "Utah".

Alec Soth, photography. “Utah”.

The fact that Pynchon created a detective novel structure for Inherent Vice is interesting (and came up in the thread from the last posting). I am going to wander around this topic a bit, digressing here and there, because I believe it’s that kind of topic. In the 1880s, a student of Lavater named Alphonse Bertillon began to work with the Paris police department using his photographic studies of faces, cataloging physiognomic features and their linkage with moral qualities and abnormal behavior. This was sort of the first racial profiling. Needless to say, the backdrop to such projects was always scapegoating, but was presented as the latest in scientific rationality. As Mary Bergstein wrote: “A sort of predestined social schema was given occupational and moral categories (aristocrat versus criminal for example) provided a teleological substructure for photographic classification of the human face. Ethnic and moral norms together with visible qualities of social class such as inherited ‘nobility’ rarely strayed too far from Lavater’s scale of classical versus anticlassical as an equation for good versus bad in the natural composition of the human head.”

Freud was fascinated with Egypt and it’s linkage (he believed) to Jewish history. The period of Bertillon, and of Francis Galton, and various eugenicists hung in the background during the last decades of the 19th century. Edward Said, in his very last book Freud and the Non European, investigates the ideas of difference and the details that were codified by the Nazis in the Nuremberg Laws. The detective had become a state apparatus for designating *foreign*, for outsider. By 1948, Said posits, the foreigner (meaning non European) of note was the Arab, especially those of Palestine, but also Lebanese and Syrians and Jordanians. There was in the 1930s, in Vienna, a kind of Jewish orientalism that featured varieties of exotic, in salon life, including even Theodor Herzl. This is one of those oddities that might be historical coincidence, but it feels like a page from a Pynchon novel.

Katharina Fritsch

Katharina Fritsch

The detective of Inherent Vice, also a medical doctor, is the detective who searches for his own desire. But where is desire to be found? Pynchon’s real thrust has always been detection, coupled to paranoia. And Inherent Vice is a retroactive detective story with a stoned detective who seems to connect to a dying 1950s white America as well as to the counter culture of Kesey and Stone, the Beats and Viet Nam. There is something one feels is just out of reach in Pynchon, and that is his particular road to the uncanny. In Anderson’s The Master, the sense of historical weight was what really made the concluding ten minutes of the film so effective and poignant. Here I am hard pressed to even remember the last ten minutes. It didnt matter. And that can be alright, but to swerve back to Freud, to Bertillon and eugenics circa 1880, to the salons of Vienna and the rise of the optical instrument, I somehow think that psychoanalysis and the detective are forever joined at the hip and that Said was probably onto something when he looked to excavate the Arab identity from the ruins of colonial history and Zionism and see it from inside but in relation to the Orientalist paradigm. Adorno returned again and again to the figure of the exile. If Moretti is at all right, and I’m not sure, that guilt is individual and conformity equals innocence, then perhaps that is the real point of Inherent Vice; which is in it’s way the point of Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain) and that is that a society of domination has meant that difference is now materially guilty, not just mythically. Bly once said that when a society can no longer distinguish between the mythic and the everyday, that society is sick. The Salem witch trials being the example he used. The ruling class has always needed to create false difference.

The detective novel, and film, or really, just crime story, is always a story of accumulating clues. The discovery of that which is not normally visible. Something left behind, a sign that you were there. Clues are the past. The current fascination with ruins is partly because they are the evidence of a past. In the society of amnesia, today, there is comfort in seeing that not everything is *now*. Of course ruins are more than that. They express defeated desire and hope. But do they?

The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman, dr.

The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman, dr.


This is the nagging doubt attached to photographs of ruins. The detective though, from Sherlock Holmes to Marlowe is pitted against the state. The clue is encrypted with both the story of the criminal, but also of property owners. There is a class dimension to the activity of detection. It is always the story of the private eye vs authority. And when that was lost, in the late 1950s probably, and detection was the province of the state, there was an accompanying change in the nature of clues. Clues became simple ID cards. Ruins are a reminder that the ruling class can lose their foothold. So…clues to TV cops are not expressions of overdetermination. In Holmes or Sam Spade, or Poiret, the clue is ambivalent. The clue feels woven into guilt, not just of the suspect, but of the detective. But from Jack Webb to Dirty Harry, to Batman even, the clue is distanced from the discoverer of the clue. The clue is not psychoanalytic, it is only part of an apparatus of control. The de-facto given now is that criminality resides in the underclass, in some outside, a sort of kitsch Id region where monsters dwell. That term is even used, often, by mainstream media when describing terrorists (Muslims) or criminals. Even liberals and leftists, who can blame the Imperialist West for its violence, will resort to calling the latest villains manufactured by state department PR, *monsters*. As in ‘we created these monsters’. There are no *monsters* at home, in the domesticated ego. Perhaps the psychic creation of *monsters* is a part of the failure of the detective, of finding too few clues, or clues that cannot answer the growing societal demand for completion; that imprint of one dimensionality that advanced technological systems ask for. The private eye is growing archaic. He is now part of the landscape of ruins.

The photographs of sculptures and ancient buildings that Freud loved and collected are of the same index of meaning as today’s ruin-photography. This is the fugitive past, the traces of something now gone, but something that left behind clues. Today, from Eric Garner to the Charlie Hebdo killings, the clues are embedded in videos. Usually the videos are from cellphones, and imperfect, grainy and often the sound is indistinct or missing. Besides the obvious documentary and evidential value of these videos, they are where a certain aspect of sympathetic magic has migrated. The guilt of the detective in his or her search for clues can be found, again, I think, in the talismanic properties of amateur videos. These images are fetishes of evidence, watched repeatedly, analysed and interpreted. The Zapruder film was perhaps the precursor to this. The continuing racist propaganda of the U.S., and its quisling allies and the craven use of NATO as global cop, is somehow an expression of not just Capital, and neo-liberalism, but of what feels like the maimed psyches of the ruling class, and perhaps of white people at large. Looking back it is hard to avoid the obvious shadow of colonialism hanging over nearly everything in Western culture. And looked at through the lens of Freudian analysis, this level of viciousness and absence of compassion speaks to the pessimism of Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud feels very useful right now, as memory and history are destroyed further every day it seems.

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/09/shel-j09.html

The Occupied Mind

Taizokai Mandala painting, late 9th century, Heian (Kyoto) .

Taizokai Mandala painting, late 9th century, Heian (Kyoto) .

“The capability to overkill and to overburn, and the mental
behavior that goes with it are by-products of the development
of the productive forces within a system of exploitation
and repression; they seem to become more productive
the more comfortable the system becomes to its privileged
subjects.”

Herbert Marcuse

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

“It is precisely this fear of education as a building block for both critically engaged youth and a broader public and for a radical politics that inspires a great deal of fear in the billionaire, anti-public (un)reformers.”
Henry Giroux

“With neoliberal deterritorialization, no new production of subjectivity takes place. On the other hand, neoliberalism has destroyed previous social relations and their forms of subjectivation.”
Maurizio Lazzarato

Someone once said to me, when I was still very young, that if you believed the exact opposite of both what the government and media said, and what is socially accepted as received wisdom, that you would be far closer to the truth. He said, whatever passes for *common sense* is almost always wrong, and in fact it is exactly the opposite of the truth.

I also remember the one evening I spent with William Burroughs, when I was also still pretty young. The one comment I remember from him was;
“When in doubt, always look for the most banal explanation, it will be closer to fact”.

What has struck me recently is how easily, and gratefully, the American bourgeoisie will choose the fascist alternative. They will choose the authoritarian, the punitive, and the cruel. There is also a growing resentment in the U.S. public having to do with the ‘other’. This is the rising Orientalism in media, for one thing, but its also a return, in starker terms, of that latent Puritanism and institutional spiritual intolerance that founded the country.

Giacomo Brogi, photography. "Chiasa della Trinita de Monti". Rome. 1870.

Giacomo Brogi, photography. “Chiasa della Trinita de Monti”. Rome. 1870.


Before returning to this, I wanted to digress a little and discuss an idea I raised last posting. The idea of history receding to the point where it effectively has ceased to exist. The above photograph is by Giocomo Brogi, whose work was very popular in 19th century and early 20th century post cards. His work was important to Freud (and I use Mary Bergstein’s very fine book Mirrors of Memory; Freud, Photography and the History of Art for some of this). I was particularly struck by this photograph. There is something in that central figure on the steps, the man in black, walking toward the photographer. One wants to ask who was he? What day was this? Where was he going? And to the 21st century eye, the streets of Rome seem quite empty. In many of Brogi’s photos there is a Di Chirico like quality, a sense of something not being quite right. Now in some of the shots used for post cards there is also an assumption that a bit of touching up had gone on, but that’s not likely the case with this photo. The viewer is haunted, literally, by the all the questions imposed by this image. This is Benjamin’s ‘optical unconscious’. It is also the uncanny, and this is a good part of what Bergstein writes about in her book.
Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte


Now, Barthes suggested that the optical unconscious was built up of material and detail unintentionally included in every photograph. But when Bergstein writes that the zoom feature or other enhancing techniques makes this even more pronounced today, I think she is wrong. The material that is unintentionally included is not available through any technical feature. I suspect this was what nagged at Antonioni when he made Blow Up. It’s there, but it’s not there. For Freud, the photographs of ancient ruins, or statues, or archaeological sites was a distilled experience of the passing of time. Or rather, it was a reminder of history, and all that implied. Now, Freud wrote of an experience he had in 1907, in Rome, where a canvas screen was hung from a rooftop and various slides (diapositives) were projected. The images were varied, intentionally, and included many advertisements of the time. The common wisdom here has been to compare the unconscious (Freudian) with a screen. A sort of interior spatial structure on which memories are played as if in a movie. But I think it is wrong to suggest *screen* as if there is only one kind of screen. Today, the experience of sitting before a lap top is very different in it’s effects from, say, looking through a ‘View Master’ or other stereoscopic instruments from fifty years or a hundred years ago. And here it is useful to remember that Freud’s time was also one of microscopes, X-Rays, and other new technologies of the optical. It marked the transformation of the very idea of ‘detail’. The growth of the detective novel coincided (more or less) with this new world of normally unnoticed detail, or clues. The dream state of antiquity, therefore, probably was very different. And this is perhaps one of the reasons why psychoanalysis applied to pre modern characters is usually so unsatisfactory.
Giocomo Brogi, photography.  "Tower of Pisa", apprx. 1870s.

Giocomo Brogi, photography. “Tower of Pisa”, apprx. 1870s.


The development of medicine paralleled this psychic shift, as a world of microbes and sub-optical causes was being unearthed much as a police detective discovers clues. But the detective finds clues to a *crime*. And this seems important to me. But it also signaled a shift in how space was constructed mentally. It also established a sub-text of criminalized disease. In a sense, as has been noted before, there is a great similarity between Freud and Sherlock Holmes. And the durability of Holmes as a fictional character is probably not an accident. The connoisseur of difference and detail was born. And no doubt something related to reason as an actual idea was lost in this transformation (more on that below). The excavation of memory that is partly the goal of psychoanalysis involves a host of metaphors, and most of them relate to space. As telescopes (per Bergstein) bring distant objects near, the new images of photography were like telescopes into the past, and of course the light of distant suns are in a sense a making close something that is very remote in terms of linear time. The world of new details were also linked to memory in another way, that of what is forgotten. And here it is worth mentioning the effects today of automobiles (and trains, and even in modified ways by planes) where the landscape passes framed by the window.
Justin Fantl, photography. "Death Valley, CA.".

Justin Fantl, photography. “Death Valley, CA.”.


Today, the technological assistance imposed on nearly everyone, in varying degrees, shape and inform the way people talk and hear, and most significantly, how they see. Social subjection and machinic enslavement, as Lazzarato puts it. And together, looked at in this way, there is a production of subjectivity that is increasingly barren and superficial. Even in the partly radicalized individual, too often I sense this denuded human, an ahistorical organism of basic reflex and almost empty of contemplative imagination. The theories of Guattari, and to a lesser degree Foucault, were largely looking at this idea of the manufacturing of subjectivity. In another sense, however, returning to Freud, and specifically to his dream analysis, something of a more acute sense of history emerges. Psychoanalysis is a theory of history. It is through this theory of history that the analysand is to arrive at some kind of self awareness. The nature of that self awareness is important to examine, but first it is important to revisit exactly what Freud was saying about history. The analysis of dreams was a way to understand the past. First, of course, one had to understand the dream. Or maybe that’s *understand* the dream. The process for analysing dreams first posits, or works from, a spatial model. And it is, I think, hugely important in understanding both aesthetics and contemporary life. Or the destruction of life.
Tatiana Trouve

Tatiana Trouve


Freud may have wanted to see himself as a scientist, but he was only such in a very limited and narrow sense. Charcot told him to look at things over and over until they opened themselves, or spoke. This mimicked the scientific process. But in fact for Freud there was always, at bottom, an interior landscape made up of relations between signs and symbols, and fragments of narrative, a poetics of space. In this ‘space’ there emerges associations. And it is exactly this; the process of generating associations on which psychoanalysis rests. Freud thought all things had meaning, and that nothing was accidental or coincidence. In fact, he thought all things had multiple meanings. This starts to approach both religion and philosophy, but it also suggests that the mediation today of daily life by a societal system of domination is predicated on disrupting association making, or more, simply quarantining inner life from the self; in other words making the self the sum of exterior behaviors. The idea that we ‘create’ our world is an alibi to avoid saying everything is accidental and nothing has meaning, which mass culture refuses to even discuss as a topic. And when the cynic says, as contrarian, ‘nothing has meaning’, this is a positing of the idea that the passing events of daily life are simply arbitrary. Arbitrary has the sound of the no-nonsense man, while meaningless feels weak and perhaps even feminine.

The hostility today to Freud (less to psychology and therapy) has to do with the fact that a society of control is compelled to deny forces at work that cannot be seen, or often understood. Freud saw society as sick, and hence dreams as a symptom. The illness caused pain, usually acute and debilitating psychic pain. Dreams are made up of things from the material world. The association making process is based on recovering forgotten meanings, or peeling back historical obfuscation. In dreams the details matter, they confer meaning, or reveal clues. And clues are there to help solve mysteries. Except that for Freud the mystery never quite goes away, and that is a part of the pain. The part that can never be resolved. And that resolution itself, the idea of resolution, is connected to the forces of destruction. And to the death instinct. More important however is the historical weight applied to all analysis of dream work. Nothing is universal. Freud is accused, often, of the opposite. But its an error in the reading of his work, for all that is universal is that meaning must be historically situated, or rather interpretation must be. In the end, the pathology is never completely removed. The associations are also always magical. This is the irrational Adorno saw in the heart of the societally manufactured individual. Fascism, the forces of subjugation, are deposits of cruelty sedimented in the psyche. And some of that is long forgotten consciously, but it is also forgotten collectively, or culturally. And if not forgotten, it is repressed. And what is the difference?

Lynne Cohen, photography.

Lynne Cohen, photography.


The meaning of dreams has to do with the uncovering of the wish embedded as the driving force of dream narrative. Without going into too much detail here, the question raised, really, is what do mean by *wish*? In terms of aesthetics, the wish is there in how the viewer mimetically engages with the artwork. All paintings and photographs — even abstract or medieval or prehistoric are mimetically powerful by virtue of an element that interrupts, or shocks the mimetic narrative that is being carried out silently in our head. Something strange, uncanny, or something that is a reminder of our own past. It is a small surprise. There are some photos by Fred Herzog, of Vancouver in the 1950s, that I find painfully haunting and this is because I can remember that world. That was my childhood, except in Los Angeles, and sometimes it is easy enough to identify what triggers this melancholy; an old wooden house, or the clothes worn by down at the heels men as they walk dejectedly on the sidewalks. Other times it is not at all clear, it is a feeling, a ghost emotion, a sense of some pull, something I should but cannot remember. For me that childhood world is associated with sickness, humiliation, and loneliness. I suspect almost everyone’s memories are melancholy, and for those who say otherwise, well, they probably are the ones who discount Freud, too. Ronald Reagan believed he had a wonderful idyllic childhood. Or that’s what he felt he had to say. But I believe him. I believe he believed that, even though we know his father was an alcoholic. In the paintings of, say, Velasquez, or Watteau, I find certain things that ‘feel’ personal. I don’t know why. I feel less personal relationship to Degas say, or Rubens. I can admire, but not feel pulled. Still, this changes over time. For the individual changes, as society changes. Guattari is correct, I think, when he emphasizes the language of imperialism, the grammar, the semiotic rules that produce a capitalist subjectivity, also produce a hardening of sensitivity to the aesthetics of life. Of course how is it that such grammar has evolved? In another sense, this is the overlap of politics, economics, and aesthetics. Lenin’s ideas on the creation of tools — politically — to shape organizational projects, are possibly the model, or *a* model for intellectual or cultural reorginzation. But first, organize the dreamwork. There is a vague implication of something like this in Lazzarato, but more, it is there in Deleuze and Guattari, too. The problem has been that somehow the intellectual thrust of the 1960s and the two decades following, ended in Zizek. And Zizek is the 400 pound gorilla on the living room sofa. It seems very few intellectuals want to openly admit that he is a farce, a reactionary who is not even a good magazine level thinker.
Egypt, 2130 B.C.E. Old Kingdom.

Egypt, 2130 B.C.E. Old Kingdom.


The institutional structure has become another Imperialism. And the permanent state of schooling a form of erasing dreams. Cultural institutions now appropriate stories from the poor, worldwide, maintain exclusionary practices domestically, and seem to validate only based on market values. But, to return to dreams. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams was positing a system of perception outside our conscious selves It is a system in which, as I said, material from daily life and history is stored for easy access later to the conscious mind. The third system is the one that has no access code. It is the secret self, the hidden self. But it is also, as Freud alluded to a number of times over the years, the truest part of ourselves. More, it is the true reality. However, there is another part of this psychic structure, and that is censorship.

“We may therefore suppose that dreams are given their shape in individual human beings by the operation of two psychical forces (or we may describe them as currents or systems); and that one of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream wish and, by the use of censorship, forcibly brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish.”
Sigmund Freud

The nature of the Freudian unconscious is a topic to which an entire library could be devoted. But one thing is clear, in psychoanalytic terms, and that is that censorship is dialectical. Low value symbols replace ones with too high an intensity, only to later, via condensation, to see those tolerated symbols acquire problematic intensity. Everything is subterfuge and everything is a mask. The associations overlap as well, threads of associations jump the tracks. They become part of a new repressed narrative. But as Jose Brunner points out;
“For Freud the transformation of an expression from one mode to another was never simply a matter of translation, transcription, or transfiguration. It always involves antagonistic forces in conflict with one another and leads to a double edged result.”It is safe to say, I think, that Freud saw the political world operating in the exact way that dreamwork did. He even frequently used political metaphors. There was always potential revolution in the psyche. The censoring apparatus is not to be seen crudely as a little man in a government office blacking out forbidden words. The censoring apparatus is fluid, and in the end mysterious. The only certainty, for Freud anyway, was that everyone wears not just one mask, but several. There is a quality of Kafka in Freud’s similes and metaphors. It has always struck me that the large empty halls, the drawing rooms and the various guards one finds in Freudian examples are the stuff of Kafka’s writings. The spatial model of Kafka’s Castle is one remarked upon by Lacan and Benjamin both. Segregation is therefore an immutable quality of Freud’s mental system. There is a dialectical interchange between society and our unconscious. Between our unconscious and the world men have created.

Laurent Grasso

Laurent Grasso


As Brunner put it “…the psyche’s aboriginal population of infantile impulses is banned into the depth of the unconscious, where it remains separated from the subject’s consciousness by an internal police force.” The psyche is almost colonial in the Freudian model, and I think this is often terribly misread. The space of the psyche is interrogated in art. Theatre is perhaps the most obvious medium, but all the qualities of the uncanny, all the emotional tugs that certain rooms, or valleys or empty halls give us are somehow reflecting an unconscious topography. That this topography is historical is obvious, and pivotal. It is at this point exactly where Jung goes awry. Woman and men are born into worlds already with histories, but those histories have been created, and evolve, and this is the dialectics of the unconscious. And, the Oedipal structure is one in which the super ego bases itself. The Father helps form the controller of boundaries. The inner cop. The sense of guilt, or suspicion is the trace element of this formation. All stories are crime stories. There is always a primal crime. Today, as the U.S. leads the western world toward a new global police state, the triumph of the inner cop may well be the consequence of the forces of Capitalism, the psychic legacy of a society bent on on destroying memory and inner life. If one cannot access even the censoring apparatus properly, and if imposed on this attempt are greater and greater penalties in the material world, then those interior mental spaces close their doors, and so to speak, throw away the key. The agencies of authority for the state are now disproportionate to the psychic agencies of authority, or repression. Everything is subterfuge, everyone wears a mask, and nothing is what it seems. This is the basis of all storytelling. But the storytelling has stopped. What happens when it is stopped in the material world? The shriveling of the mimetic can only result in flight into authority — any authority, any father, and the current adoration of the violent warrior cop, or killers in uniform, feels like the lonely exile seeking the last approval on offer.
Fred Herzog, photography. Vancouver, apprx. 1957

Fred Herzog, photography. Vancouver, apprx. 1957


The topography Freud detailed increasingly took on qualities of the theatre. It became more Shakespearean in fact. The mind’s stage is where the narrative begins, and is acted out. The stuff of this play is found in the material world. Even the dialogue. The off-stage is being cemented over, the exits shut and locked. The compulsive repetitive expressions of violence and cruelty are all that is left. There are, of course, a number of secondary aspects to this sort of reductive model. One is the effects of, today and for the last century anyway, photography and film. But also mechanical travel. The film became identified with as similar, perhaps, to the constant passing images and symbols of the unconscious. The cunning unconscious. The primal crime was now being investigated. Clues were found, clues were disguised, and the temporality of cinema increasingly became the default setting for self evaluation. Everyone lives in a movie today. It is interesting that this cannot be said, ever, of theatre. And really not of photography. It was in moving pictures that dream work found its double. The Private Detective always solves the crime, and hence we are always guilty, even if we didn’t do it, and we never do it.

Ed Valfre, photography. DIa de los Muertos.

Ed Valfre, photography. DIa de los Muertos.

An added note on Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper. It may be the most psychotic piece of American filmmaking ever. I think that in years to come when looking back at Eastwood’s career, this is going to seem the logical conclusion to his madness. All the lurking sadism, the misogyny, the jingoism has reached completion. All the personal issues that were always half hidden, the abuse of wives and girlfriends that was hinted at, the strange perverse relationship to animals and children, all of it is now unveiled, unmediated, stark naked insanity. Its an ugly experience. It is soul deadening and I had a hard time washing it out of my head. From the almost murder of a dog to the murder of a child, and a mother, and later an an almost second child murder. To the curious and total lack of context for the story. Bradley Cooper has always been a limited actor, a sort of beefy not very intelligent presence that in one way is perfect casting for this. At least in terms of what Eastwood is doing. For Eastwood questions nothing about this narrative. Nothing. It is as if this were the political world view of the WWF crossed out with Oliver North. There is no moral complexity, there is only a shocking hatred for Muslims, a cartoon U.S. military machine, and even that cartoon lacks depth. It is a truly depraved film. It has all the value of a snuff film. Its really the zenith of white supremacism and disregard for the lives of all others. The end of the film, after 120 some minutes of this shit, the end of Chris Kyle arrives. But Eastwood shows it off screen. Why? Presumably because it is, for him, a sacred moment. Too hard to film. How can we do justice to such a horror. Sniper head shots of children …well, thats OK. Showing the ‘War God Kyle’ meeting his banal but rather karmic end at the hand of another psycho vet is sacrosanct. As a footnote of sorts, the real Chris Kyle was a racist sadistic killer who enjoyed death. He was a not very smart and very unpleasant man, exactly the sort of figure Eastwood lusts for. The erotic sub text to this film is as unwholesome as is the rest of it. It resides within a camera that is forever seeking out the manliness of Cooper’s ‘Kyle’. Rarely has such fetishizing of the male body been filmed as if a dirty secret. There is no nudity, little skin really, there is only a constant nervous camera that wants more of Cooper, that seems more alive after killing. The accumulative affect is a bit like watching someone’s unspoken lusting for a nun. Or a killer nurse. I am struggling with exactly what simile might be most appropriate. Eastwood is shooting a lot of this film as if he were channeling John Ford. Cooper is framed over and over as Ford framed John Wayne. Excpet Cooper is not Wayne. Cooper is the fifth generation dupe of Wayne. But his faux epic framing serves only to underscore all that is actually missing in this narrative. The constant return to these straight on shots of Cooper are very odd. Cooper is looking past the cinematographer, he is looking back at Eastwood. It is awkward. It is sexually ambivalent. And it is finally, flaccid. The erection is found only in the gun, the ejactulation is the exploding head, or the hole in someone’s chest. One hopes Eastwood stops now. Enough. For I don’t want to contemplate what might follow.

Chris Kyle funeral, Texas Stadium, Dallas, 2013.

Chris Kyle funeral, Texas Stadium, Dallas, 2013.


But this is a film with uniformally good, if not great, reviews. The liberal (sic) Hollywood press cant line up their praise quickly enough. The bourgeoisie wants to love the Chris Kyle’s of the world. They want what Kyle wanted. If American Sniper wins best film I would not be surprised. It will certainly continue to be lavished with praise. And its useful to remember this is an acutely racist film. An Orientalist film, and the few Arabs with actual speaking parts are treated much like Eastwood treats the animals and women in the film.

So What

Rosemarie Trockel

Rosemarie Trockel

“The military-police mindset has been embodied in the creation of Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country, bringing local cops together with Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal agencies. At the same time, billions of dollars worth of military hardware, from assault rifles to armored vehicles, are being funneled annually from the Pentagon to local police departments, creating a militarized force suitable for deployment in a domestic war.
The real significance of these developments was demonstrated first in the martial law lockdown of the Boston metropolitan area following the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013. An entire population was turned into prisoners in their own homes and subjected to warrantless searches by helmeted and machine-gun toting police backed by armored vehicles—all supposedly to capture one 19-year-old youth.”

Bill Van Auken

“Dispossession is now the fiercest form of possession.”
Robert Hullot-Kenter

“The US wants from Cuba the complete servility that Poroshenko displayed when he visited Washington and addressed the US Congress asking for help. His speech called to mind the words of Brutus to Cicero about a letter he wrote to the aspiring emperor Octavian, “Read again your words and deny that they are the supplications of a slave to a despot.”
Christopher Black

“Contrast the mild treatment the media gave to the recent large-scale hacks into Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan, in which millions of credit cards and personal information were stolen, with the coverage of the cyberattack on Sony Pictures. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that political considerations are driving the media furor over the latter case.”
Greg Elich

I was thinking about, again, the anti-Freudian sentiments I continue to run into. And I realized this week, after my earlier posting about the Oedipal narrative, that in a certain sense the significance of Freud has diminished for very clear reasons. They are not the reasons most of today’s critics claim, however. They have diminished because today the sense of history has receded out of sight. Out of conceptual grasp. In much the same way that the resurgent fascism seen now throughout the world has reduced much political debate pointless. Or rather the pointlessness is the result of an overarching uniform one dimensional irrationality having blanketed almost all of experience. If one reflects for a moment on the Sony hacking story — the one featuring a new film starring Seth Rogan and James Franco– what one takes away from this is an absolute mutability of meaning in all public discourse. The film itself, The Interview, is not just arrogant fascistic and pro-Imperialist; it is indifferent to itself. Its not even a cartoon. It’s not that good. Not that substantive.

Jared French

Jared French


To contemplate the real disappearance of an active historical imagination, and of historical memory (they over lap) is a hugely disturbing prospect. It’s worse than hugely disturbing, it is psychically catastrophic. And as a society today, that catastrophe is teetering. There is a side bar issue I’ve mentioned before and that is the very particularly white resistance to the idea of manipulation. (Even scholars like Axel Honneth tends to discredit Adorno by accusing his theory of the culture industry of being “just a crude version of a theory of manipulation”. That this is patently not the case, at all in fact, one wonders how Honneth still has a job…..or maybe not). But I digress — for the horror of our world finally and irrevocably slipping away from itself and into a swirling psychic muddle of homogenized reflex is too much to think on for too long.

It is in film and TV that the most obvious enclosing of memory takes place. Consider the shows cancelled recently; The Divide, one of the few anti death penalty legal shows ever produced for US television. Written by (largely) and created by Richard LaGravenese, and Tony Goldwyn, this was a show about a lawyers working pro-bono to correct state injustice. Not a perfect show, but close enough. With an outstanding cast including Marin Ireland, Joe Anderson, and Clarke Peters. Cancelled. The Paradise, a UK adaptation of a Zola novel, created by Bill Gallagher, this was in a sense the corrective to Downton Abby. Cancelled after two short seasons. The Canadian show from 2008, Intelligence (not to be confused with the recent US series). This was a singularly compelling bit of crime noir with too many political themes, so many in fact that Canadian government stepped in to help terminate the series. The story of government bribes taking was deemed too sensitive at that moment for the Canadian state to tolerate. So much for free speech….again. Anything that demands a questioning of the real world can count on being cancelled. One could go on, and it might be an interesting thought experiment, but the point is that mass culture is largely, say 99%, product that is strongly reinforcing of the status quo. And the mechanisms by which this is accomplished are very directly linked to this narrowing of world view; for there is usually a very pronounced theme, and a theme that is expressed in very familiar almost formulaic terms. Product must be reassuring.

Seth Rogan in "The Interview" (2014).

Seth Rogan in “The Interview” (2014).

The Sony hacking story suggests that the U.S. government is growing indifferent in its propaganda attempts. Who are they trying to convince, anyway? Obama increasingly looks bored, and for any sentient human the cover story about the North Korean state’s hacking was so idiotic that Obama looked like one of those once famous actors reduced to reading ad copy for denture cream when he, Obama, was forced to give a press statement. Anything for a pay check. The email exchanges between Sony execs pretty much felt like half the story conferences I ever had in Hollywood. These are not literate or sophisticated people. They are well connected rubes. They are nouveau riche philistines, and they are mostly liberal racists and pro-capitalist and they rarely if ever EVER EVER question themselves about anything. They are also petty, vindictive, morally fluid, and deeply self interested. Business acumen, or ruthlessness is not to be confused with intelligence or erudition.

But the issue of free speech probably needs a bit more attention in this context. First off, that many liberal journalists have proclaimed righteously that one must not be cowardly and cave in to the dastardly North Koreans is evidence of just how poorly educated are young graduates of English departments, or Journalism MFA programs. It was obvious, from the start, that the DPRK did not hack Sony.

Gary Leupp writes:
“It’s as though the managing editors of the entire corporate press, deferring by habit or inclination to the pronouncements of the FBI, had for weeks instructed their talking heads and print journalists to spin the story as they did–as a clear-cut case of North Korean “cyber-vandalism” if not “cyber-terrorism.”
It’s been oh, so typical! After the sarin gas attack in Syria on August 21, 2013, the Obama administration declared that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible, although that allegation was questioned then and now, by the Russian Foreign Ministry and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, among others.
After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, the U.S. State Department immediately blamed pro-Russian separatists and by association Moscow for the tragedy. But Robert Parry, another award-winning investigative reporter, has questioned this and suggested that the Pentagon actually suspects that Ukrainian government forces are responsible, as intimated by the Russians. The latter have provided some of their surveillance data while the U.S. has provided none.
It’s still not really clear who’s to blame in either episode. What is clear to thinking people (a category excluding most bought and paid for cable news anchors) is the U.S. proclivity to fix intelligence around policy–to lie to the people to justify aggressive moves, whether against Serbia or Iraq or Syria or Libya or Iran or Russia or North Korea.”

Vincent Desiderio

Vincent Desiderio


One has to remember that the DPRK was one of the axis of evil, a member in good standing. But where is the alternative press on this? As I say, decrying the cowardice of Sony to ‘cave in’ to terrorists, or some such shit. Lets take a look at this film though, before going off on free speech much longer. This is another in a long line of white men comedies, featuring young white slackers of some variety, or just anxiety ridden, and it is the legacy of Harold Ramis’ films and John Belushi, and even Adam Sandler. Rogan, a Canadian whose parents met while working on a kibbutz in Israel, is a supporter of Zionist/Israeli policy, and clearly is in line with the politics of the picture. Franco, another in a long line of pretty boy/men determined to find cred, to be taken seriously, is also, sadly, visibly stupid. His endless sort of self conscious and earnest attempts at art films are mostly unwatchable (The Hart Crane biopic for example). The Interview was co-directed by Rogan and frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg. The point here is twofold: first, OBVIOUSLY North Korea didn’t fucking hack SONY. Second, Obama spun the story as if they had, well past sell by date. And third, the film itself is noxious, racist, orientalist. Fourth, if the DPRK had made a film with Hillary’s or Barry’s or Cheney’s head exploding….after first depicting them *partying* with naked models, and discussing *pussy*, I’m thinking that all of Washington and its press lackeys would be up in arms with froth spitting from their blue lips in furious indignation. Seth Rogan comedies do not quite rise to the level of Ulysses or Naked Lunch nor is Rogan quite Henry Miller or Sinclair Lewis or even Brendan Behan.
Korean postcard, appx 1920. Seoul.

Korean postcard, appx 1920. Seoul.

The question of censorship and the banning of films is more a legal issue than anything else. I can see almost no reason ever to censor anything. Now, Hillary the Movie was prevented from its release, but later overturned, as I understand it. Scientology has prevented the film The Prophet (about L.Ron Hubbard) from release, but rarely does anyone care. Why do people care about this? And there is the issue of SONY execs Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin. And the issue of the increasingly tiresome (he was never NOT tiresome) Aaron Sorkin. Rudin and Pascal said things that were probably more offensive than what Danny Ferry said as general manager of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Ferry had to resign. I’m guessing Amy and Scott won’t. And as for Sorkin, saying that he is not that many years himself from blacklisting is so extraordinarily offensive, and more, so ignorant of history (that receding history thing again…)that it takes one back. First, you only got blacklisted for a being commie, or put in jail for not naming names. What are the morning odds Sorkin would snitch? The only comparison here is the making of a movie attacking the DPRK, a communist country, a nation formed after US supported a government in South Korea made up of ruling class collaborators. The country was unable to unify, and in a sense this echos the history of Viet Nam, too. Sorkin, admitted former coke head (presumably vis a vis the *former* part) and self plagerizer, may want to market himself as a sort of *leftist*, but in fact is rabidly right wing, but beyond that is a court eunuch for SONY. He is also the purveyor of the most bloated repetitive dialogue to which I’ve ever had to listen (watch the last episode of The Newsroom if you think I exaggerate). Sorkin’s self aggrandizing indignation is simply running interference for Sony, anyway.
Hans Vanm Vrouwerf, photography.

Hans Van Vrouwerf, photography.


The only interesting aspect, really, about this story is that the U.S. state department was supportive of this film getting made, and supportive of the final scene of the leader of North Korea having his head shot off. In other words, such actions fit perfectly with U.S. foreign policy. And secondly, to return to my original point, it is representative of this narrowing of intention, and of expression, and the receding of actual history. It is perhaps worth adding this piece by Greg Elich as a sort of footnote to this whole saga. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2014/elich291214.html

I have wondered this week about the lack of government action on climate issues. This of course is the same question that has been asked of other national leaders throughout history. The difference is that this is now a time of extinction, perhaps. It has begun to occur to me that as this Empire comes apart like a bad suit, as the unraveling of both the economic and of the social, the “hear no evil see no evil…etc” trope is typical, in a sense, of dying civilizations. The potential catastrophic consequences of climate disruption, due to rising sea levels, or methane emissions is literally not seen by the leaders of Empire. They are too busy fighting proxy wars and disseminating propaganda. And in winning elections. And in securing resources. So in one way, those in charge of the government ARE aware, but aware in a limited way, aware only in terms of continuing their own privilege and power. The possibility of large scale social unrest is clearly behind a good deal of the militarizing of the domestic police forces and the new tactical crack downs on dissent. Look back no further than Katrina to grasp the plans for mass encampments and carceral solutions to a population that will increasingly be without basic necessities. That the U.S. is already planning covert actions against North Korea is almost a given. For this is the logic of Empire. An Empire that is sensing itself more and more insecure in global terms. So in what ways does the culture of 21st century America feed into this blindness, this dystopian irrationality in regard to its own survival (along with everyone else on the planet)? There is a sort of closed feed back loop in the thinking of the ruling class, today. Rather than work to prevent catastrophe, they work to manage the unrest caused by catastrophe and to protect their interests, never mind they will die with the rest of us.

Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher" (2014, Bennett Miller dr.)

Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher” (2014, Bennett Miller dr.)


I wanted to mention a film that came out recently, Foxcatcher. As studio funded films go, this is about as good as one will get. And it is a film that expresses something of exactly this pathology of blindness in the ruling classes. Based on the real story of a murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schulz by billionaire John DuPont, the film is a strangely unsettling experience. I cannot think of another film in which the expectations of storytelling, and of the rhythms of editing are so disrupted. Within each sequence the anticipated resolution never comes. If this were music it would be Shoenberg. It may not be a masterpiece, whatever that is, but it is a haunting film. And Steve Carell and Channing Tatum are very good, but the performance that stands out is that of Mark Ruffalo as the elder of the two wrestling brothers. Few actors today have the sort of gravitas that Ruffalo has, and his performance is the moral center of the film. His character is not exactly the moral center, but by virtue of Ruffalo’s presence, the narrative coalesces around his near tragic resignation. It is his eyes when a camera crew asks him to speak of DuPont’s role as mentor. Knowing that to lie is the only choice he has, he goes ahead and lies. But it is his eyes, the choice, the history of taking care of his brother, his vulnerability born of responsibility to his wife and children, and brother, all of it is there in a couple brief hesitations before speaking.

Lauren Fensterstock; "Black Garden".

Lauren Fensterstock; “Black Garden”.


Lauren Fensterstock’s installations have been getting a lot of coverage lately. And they’re very effective pieces. I am not sure quite how to evaluate this work. But they did remind me of this:

http://www.archdaily.com/49230/rosa-muerta-robert-stone/

There is an undeniable feeling of sublimity in Fensterstock’s installations, while she simultaneously is negating that sublimity. They are simple on one level, and yet subtly nuanced in terms of their manufacture. It is unclear, at least to me, just how significant this work might be, but it’s clearly a genuine achievement that at first glance invites an anticipation of further work. Is this work to which one wants to return? I don’t know. But it made me think, to return to this idea of historical distance, that it was the 1950s in which the U.S. began a certain cultural lurch to the right, and to the valorizing of conformity. It was post WW2, but the start of the Korean war (!) and soon McCarthyism and the government focus on anti-communism. And it was the start of television. Adorno’s essay on television, written only a few years after Dialectic of Enlightenment, and written upon his return to Germany, is worth revisiting here. Adorno saw something very specifically related to an unconscious hostility in the viewer, toward both him or herself, and toward his or her life.

“The world, threateningly devoid of warmth, comes to him like something familiar, as if specially made just for him: the contempt he feels for it is the contempt he feels for himself. The lack of distance, the parody of fraternity and solidarity has surely contributed to the extraordinary popularity of the new medium.”
Adorno
“Prologue to Television”

Something dreary, as Adorno put it, of the viewer’s own life is reflected back at them. It is worth thinking about the technical advances in TV, and to compare a new 50 inch flat screen plasma TV with those black and white boxes from the 50s. The viewer no longer sees dreary, they see The Spectacle. But the dreariness remains, covertly. The dreariness is now moved into narratives of punishment and cruelty and revenge. The shared experience of popular shows is now the material of daily discourse, masking the fact that people have less and less to say to each other. And this, too, is because history is receding.

Lauren Fensterstock

Lauren Fensterstock

The narcotizing effects of electronic media merge with this false sense of community, and a feeling of shared unconscious aggression is the result. In a sense, this burying of dreary, replacing it with an impossible shininess, is — at least in one sense — a another degree of alienation. And probably another mechanism for ratcheting up the aggression and resentment of daily life in Empire. And this is, to quote Yoshikazu Takemine (on Adorno) “…television is nothing more or less than an apparatus that ferments an authoritarian mentality at an underlying level.” And it is here that Freud enters the equation once more. For if society itself can never fully satisfy us due to repression and sublimation, there will always be a surplus libido. A surplus unconscious in another sense, and it seems likely that screen addiction today is a direct two way current to this repressed material.

There is a sense I have of white men, masculinity in white society, that today is more authoritarian than at any time in the last couple hundred years. The rape culture on University campuses is a brutality learned and experienced seated in front of a screen. The historical forces that produce misogyny are enhanced and intensified in this case.

Simon Harsent, photography.

Simon Harsent, photography.


“The culture industry makes use of the intimate effect of television to ‘engender a community’ as a kind of lure, which, to put it in Freudian terms, could be explained as the effect that creates a libido group bound by narcissistic ties.”
Yoshikazu Takemine

The fascist mentality today is not created by TV, it is only more easily formed by social forces because of this pseudo narcotized mentality that is the result of prolonged exposure to mass media. And there is another dimension to this transformation into the authoritarian I see so much today and that is with the receding of ‘real’ history, and with the resulting amnesia almost, the belief in authority, or in specific leaders or political agendas matters less and less. The cynicism of a TV generation means that *belief* is only an instrument, a tool, wielded when needed. The “its only a TV show, or its only a movie” sentiment is just a way of saying I dont really believe in anything. Its only *truth*. Its only my belief, who cares. Mass culture today is always winking at the audience. The message is, this is only ironic, and you are only ironic. And if you rape that girl, that’s sooooooo ironic. Blowing up Baghdad is ironic, too. Drones are hugely ironic.

The heterogeneous artwork then, is disruptive because it is serious and not ironic. The Fensterstock piece is not ironic, at least I don’t think it is. And in that sensual black surface resides something rather profound, even if elusive. The gradients of black, the evocative quality of the water within this blackness, all of it is both artifical and allegorical. So on one level, or in one case, the artwork that manages a distance from the false fraternity of electronic media is de-facto destabilizing. There is also in the heterogeneous artwork a quality of something elemental. And in that sense of elemental lurks, often, something uncanny. And this sense of the elemental or primordial is, at the mimetic level, destabilizing.

Hiroyuki Hamada

Hiroyuki Hamada


Adorno wrote his essays on TV over fifty years ago. What is most striking in his analysis is the equation with fascism that is inherent in this medium. Not that it had to be so, but that under Capitalism, it was going to be so. The fact that TV, and by extension the entire mass culture of electronic media does not hide its basic fraudulence is the critical factor, I think. This is partly a debt to Freud. The blatant but insistent lie, as Adorno wrote. Narcissism and cynicism are linked. The unserious, the openly dishonest is nevertheless identified with (privately) and this is the unconscious activation of primary aggression. Fast forwarding to the Sony hacking story, and to the Rogan and Franco vehicle, the fifty year old critique of Adorno remains intact, only history is retreating ever further in the rear view mirror. The fact that The Interview is a comedy only underlines the blurring of such categories. The cynical identification is with the ‘product’, with the system that manufactures it. The system is always right.

The degrading of tragedy to simply suspense, or inconvenience is really the result of expectation in the audience for an identification first. Everything else follows after the cynical and secret identification with what is already cynically *known* to be false. The insider isn’t fooled. The hip media savy viewer enjoys his or her position as connoisseur of the cynical. And this insider identification is one saturated with repressed resentment. There is also an obsessive need to classify. The making of lists, awards, ironic or otherwise is where the enjoyment takes place. This is a sort of vandalized version of ‘camp’. The other end of the spectrum is the prestige product, the appropriating of cultural cache by ‘knowing’ which prestige film is the most fashionable. At no level in this is the artwork, and an autonomous tension ever really engaged with. It is the end of mimesis, for mimesis cannot exist without history. That re-narrating is only possible (except as pure cartoon mimicry) when the voices of the past intrude, when one hears what one has forgotten previously, or never knew. This is always a knotty proposition, and not really to the point here, but the aesthetic resistance that art potentially provides is the first victim of a surplus aggression.

Stehan Balkenhol

Stephan Balkenhol


Yugoslavian Stjepan Mestrovic, in 1997, coined the term *post-emotional society*. For him, human emotion has gradually atrophied, leaving only a shadow version.
This is the TV interviewer asking a victim of violence “how do you feel?” There are no answers and yet there are always answers. Only those answers are the answers of a marionette. For Mestrovic, the termination of genuine emotion was linked directly to mass culture, especially to TV. The ironic has subsumed sincerity. This has been a trend since the Enlightenment, of course, and it was Kierkegaard who said (I paraphrase) that we never know when we are being sincere. This loss of emotional connection, however one exactly traces its erosion, is accompanied by a deformed version of friendship. Today, the screen has replaced fraternity and family. It acts as a filter, too, in that with a gradual loss of affect, close relationships take on a quality of surreality. Identifying the emotions in another’s face is now more difficult — the imitation of the symptoms of autism — as well as, I’m pretty sure, an incremental paralysis of the face. Botox might just be a response to a new ideal post emotional human. The rise of marketing has meant a rise in the language of marketing. The inflated emotional vocabulary of ad-copy has worn down the meaning of a grammar of intimacy. Today, popular mass culture produce an ersatz version of family, solidarity, friendship and love. I have personally known more than one person tell me “I never know how I really feel”. As if feeling were something outside of them that they were failing to recognize, like trying to read a street sign written in a language you don’t speak. Friendship, like in The Interview, is where you kill people together. For men, every friendship is part of a private cop buddy movie.

Adorno called this (over fifty years ago) deformed false presentation of humanness; *affability*. It is an ‘almost’ emotion. A population ever more encouraged toward not growing up has meant that boys stay boys until middle age, or longer.

“…that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to
do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny”

Aldous Huxley

The epidemic use of anti-depressants falls in line with all of this. Psychotropics re-create the familiar numbness, but at a manageable frequency. They only dial down what is already there, a disconnect.

Amy Pascal and Aaron Sorkin.

Amy Pascal and Aaron Sorkin.

Culturally, the attention economy has served to neutralize ideas of discrimination. As William Deresiewicz wrote this month in The Atlantic

“When the Modern Library asked its editorial board to select the 100 best novels of the 20th century, the top choice was Ulysses. In a companion poll of readers, it was Atlas Shrugged. We recognize, when it comes to food (the new summit of cultural esteem), that taste must be developed by a long exposure, aided by the guidance of practitioners and critics. About the arts we own to no such modesties. Prizes belong to the age of professionals. All we’ll need to measure merit soon is the best-seller list…”

and then…

“…’Producerism’ we can call this, by analogy with consumerism. What we’re now persuaded to consume, most conspicuously, are the means to create. And the democratization of taste ensures that no one has the right (or inclination) to tell us when our work is bad. A universal grade inflation now obtains: we’re all swapping A-minuses all the time, or, in the language of Facebook, “likes.”
It is often said today that the most-successful businesses are those that create experiences rather than products, or create experiences (environments, relationships) around their products. So we might also say that under producerism, in the age of creative entrepreneurship, producing becomes an experience, even the experience. It becomes a lifestyle, something that is packaged as an experience—and an experience, what’s more, after the contemporary fashion: networked, curated, publicized, fetishized, tweeted, catered, and anything but solitary, anything but private.”

Abraham David Christian

Abraham David Christian


The implications are clear enough, really, but also, the psychic state that allows, or rather invites this absolute flatlining of taste, judgement, even the capacity for difference, is the post emotional, if we choose that term, or post cynical autistic or whatever one likes. The salient factors, all referred to above, begin with the stoppage of history as an idea, as reason, as material, as mattering. The distance in that metaphoric rear view mirror is right at the edge of the horizon now. It may not even be there, in fact. The reclamation of history, in the individual, is found in the material, in the concrete of experience. As paradoxical as that sounds, the full experience of a night sky is only complete with some, however fleeting, sense of place and continuity. With history. The appearance of a fox in the woods, suddenly awakens one to the accumulative metaphorical currents of that animal, of the ‘coming upon’ moment in the woods or forest, and the glance of the animal itself. The animal eye is historical. For evolution left him behind. I forget who said that, that the eye of mammals suggest accusation. They ask why did you leave us behind? All of this is carried forward by history. There is no allegory without it. One of Adorno’s criticisms of psychoanalysis, as it developed in the U.S., is that it worked to deny the suffering rather than facing it, and making not just the patient but the community understand it. The pharmaceutical trend in treatment is in the interests of hiding, of masking that suffering ever occured. Rarely do people announce that they take anti depressants.

I ran across a correspondence between Einstein and Freud. I shall end with a relevant quote from Freud:

“This recognition of a community of interests engenders among the members of the group a sentiment of unity and fraternal solidarity which constitutes its real strength. … I have set out what seems to me the kernel of the matter: the suppression of brute force by the transfer of power to a larger combination, founded on the community of sentiments linking up its members.
Thenceforward there exist within the state two factors making for legal instability, but legislative evolution, too: first, the attempts by members of the ruling class to set themselves above the law’s restrictions and, secondly, the constant struggle of the ruled to extend their rights and see each gain embodied in the code, replacing legal disabilities by equal laws for all.”

The Unserious

Richard Billingham, photography.

Richard Billingham, photography.

“Deep contempt and indifference to the spirit is a trait of the ideal type of the modern bourgeois…”
Max Horkheimer

“Nowadays, the moral efforts of the intellectuals are no longer directed at the owners of the means of production, but at the members of the lower classes, who are being bound against their interest to the whole. This change has meant that influential members of society now treat intellectuals with disdain, regarding them as servants and entertainers whose activity is of no relevance to the lives of the powerful.”
Heinz Steinert

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
Guy Debord

“Great shame and sorrow of that fall he tooke;
For neuer yet, sith warlike armes he bore,
And shiuvering speare in bloudie field first shooke,
He found himselfe dishonored so sore.”

Edmund Spencer, The Faerie Queene
Book 3, Canto 1, stanza 7

The effects of TV, and now of internet, more than film, create an idea of access to an *inside*. Heinz Steinert wrote; “Political journalists have become *insiders*, and they are treated as a kind of courtly entourage.” But it goes beyond this, for the nature of screen image is to establish a world that the viewer can own, and a world that bestows a specialness on this viewer. The viewer is invited inside the residence of this ‘world’. The viewer is a VIP guest. I suspect that this constitutes and shapes a good deal of what is expressed as *populism* today. And as this new *home* has grown, so real homes have shrunk, in concrete social terms. To be invited backstage on the new Mily Cyrus tour is a lot more exciting than being invited to your friend’s house down the block for a christmas party. The growth of ‘Reality TV’ shows is testimony to the fact that there is now a population accustomed to a view of the world set against the backdrop of this idea; in other words everyone can get a backstage pass for almost anything.

The sense of passivity found in large chunks of the population (speaking of the U.S. and parts of Europe) is the outcome of viewing politics as a personal personality quiz. There is a cynicism that results. Politicians are not viewed hugely different than Real Housewives of Atlanta, or Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, or even The West Wing. The endless stream of banality that makes up 95% of reality TV establishes a sense of familiarity for the viewer. Their own lives are full of banality, too. I wonder if people today talk more than in earlier eras? Did people chat this much in 16th century Italy or France? Or in the time of Chaucer? I don’t know, but if they did, their conversations were different. Today there is a kind of chit chat that constitutes a disposible language. It is neither personal, nor work related. Nor is it critical or pedagogical. It is an empty sound intended to echo through the halls of people’s private backstage. But there is, additionally, the endless stream of disposible image that runs from the candid photos of celebrities, to the video of reality TV, to cell phone snapshots. All of it is transitory, and barely really examined in any conventional way. It may be that the lack of deep emotional response to the torture photos at Abu Ghraib, or the various dashboard videos of police misconduct fail to gain traction because they can’t really be differentiated from all the other endless image and noise that is circulated daily in the West.

Ed Van der Elskin, photography.

Ed Van der Elskin, photography. Hong Kong.


The erosion of a critical vocabulary, or more, a vocabulary that registers heterogeneity, has seemingly made it ever harder to express seriousness. The rise in corporate media coincides with a growing criticism of the working class. This the right wing pundit syndrome that cites the poor and workers for laziness, criminality, and a host of other character flaws. There is a paucity of answers to this from below, partly because, in the U.S. anyway, of the fetishizing of *individuality*. Rather than answering as a class, and critically dissecting social domination, the answer is too often framed in individual terms. There is hence no shortage of stories about some singular individual who bucked the odds and found success. Those odds are rarely even examined.

Edmund Spencer

Edmund Spencer

Additionally, the criticism from below, against various injustices, is often also very narrowly framed. This the better to secure small correctives (in the form of state monies often) that is absorbed by the system which is quite happy to grant token reforms as long as the entire society and capitalism itself is not questioned. Again, the individual is foregrounded. Everything is seen through the lens of individuality. An individual posited in a sort of historical vacuum. And running alongside this is the general degrading of language, and the endless stream of media *invitations* to participate as a back stage insider. One fully expects to see someone invited backstage to see the preparations for his own beheading. This is the Spectacle operating in overdrive. And it now outstrips anything Debord imagined for it is not just social relations mediated by images, but a pseudo-reality, a series of nearly identical narratives that have digested the critical sensibility and replaced it with a manufactured reality in which the public engages in increasingly atomized ways. The *I Cant Breathe* protests will reach the point where these screen narratives must be addressed, but to succeed this will mean a reclaiming of reality itself.

Heinz Steinert’s very good book Culture Industry makes the point that, per Marx, that criticism must always work with the conceptual tools of domination. The loss of cultural seriousness is rarely addressed in the post modern epoch. Among the most insidious of the these tools is an unseriousness that has become attached to almost all discourse. The rather admirable Hyperallergic online art magazine made a list of the things problematic in the art world. Its one of those end of the year lists. But there are only a couple of items I might take issue with, the accumulative effects of reading it is to sense the lack of seriousness overall in art today. http://hyperallergic.com/170748/the-20-most-powerless-people-in-the-art-world-2014-edition/

Richard Artschwager

Richard Artschwager


And this is directly related to this manufactured populism. And to capital, as is everything I think. There has evolved an assumption that goes something like ‘this appeals to a very small number of people, therefore it is elitist and conservative’. Well, in fact, this democratization of arts and culture is fairly recent, as ideas go. And I have never been sure that a wide audience is necessary or even desirable for art. Art is not there to foment revolution. Its purpose, as I repeat endlessly, paraphrasing Adorno, resides in its purposelessness. From the autonomy born of this recognition, one can begin to forge an emancipatory vision, and to create works of art that provide experience, stimulate dreams, and I dont know what else. But that is important. However, it is not something the majority of people are going to have an interest in. More people might, under a better education system, but not a majority. Its like martial arts. I’ve known genuine masters. Guys who have practiced for fifty years. Old men. They have devoted everything to this study, and a monk like existence. That is not for everyone. Not everyone wants that, or can do that. But its magnificent that some can. Great artists are rare. Great poets, playwrights, anything. Rare. Valuable. But not everyone wants to read Spencer’s The Faerie Queen. I read it, but I didn’t exactly enjoy it. I appreciated something in it, in its influences, in the language. Mostly in the density of syntax and the sound. You should read it aloud I think, in parts anyway. That sound matters. But it’s also a tedious exercise to pour through this very long book, a poem of 800 pages. But that is part of the deeper reward in work that demands a good deal of the viewer or reader or audience. There are artists that if you asked me do I *like* them, I would say yes. With qualifications, but yes. But what does it mean to *like* an artwork. Someone like Amy Feldman, a very talented painter I think. Talented and facile. Not very deep. Very close to decoration, but I still *like* Feldman. If I lived in a cabin with a Feldman on the wall I would not go crazy with the tedium of it. And that I consider a compliment. If I was to use Alberto Burri, or even Anne Truit, I would say there is something more demanding in each of them, and perhaps especially in Burri.

In theatre, a Pinter say, is not really entertaining. His plays are demanding. But that mimetic journey is the point, really, of all aesthetic discussions. Otherwise decoration serves as well. There is a relationship between artist and critic, and this has changed over the last thirty years. It exists, too, between the political and critic as well. Today, the critic is almost always, in part at least, a media critic as well as art critic or political commentator. Because nothing can be fully separated from the delivery system: media. So this is gradual ascendance of a media reality, one in which the audience, or viewer is flattered and made to feel special, to be an insider, mediates all criticism. Operations such as VICE for example, are pseudo journalism. They are really in the entertainment business. At the other end of the spectrum are the prestige outlets that cater to an educated and affluent class. And even arts institutions, museums and galleries and large theatres are involved in marketing and commodity tie-ins, and celebrity associations. All of this, whatever the principle focus of any particular campaign or event, has a secondary theme and that is self validation. The media critic is validating media. It is actually very hard to critique media without this affirmation taking place. But perhaps that is just unavoidable today in a world where media touches everything…and increasingly touches how we think. This has spawned an *attention economy*. Gradually this has taken the shape of a system that projects the image of a populist trend. Because the goal is sheer numbers of viewers, that which is being viewed matters far less. And work that is difficult, that by its nature is not meant to be engaged with by large numbers of people is more acutely marginalized than ever before.

Amy Feldman

Amy Feldman


People don’t talk about culture or art, they talk about *cultural services*. Culture has become something very close to a financial service. Ben Davis wrote 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, and in a very cogent review Adam Turl wrote; “What Ranciere does for political art is what Jean Francois Lyotard did for philosophy. Beginning with an exaggerated sense of the subjective–in art and politics for Ranciere, in politics for Lyotard–the subjective and objective are then completely blurred and their distinctions made meaningless. All this is philosophical cover for political retreat.”

It is not just political retreat, but spiritual retreat as well. Ranciere has, I think, a conflicted relationship to mass culture. And he is hardly the worst offender, and in fact often makes very astute observations and criticisms. But it is true that he is doing something not hugely different than Zizek does and that is foster a retreat AND then grant permission to embrace the mass manipulation of this marketed domination. This is why Adorno remains such a crucial thinker, and a target for media experts who decry his elitism. For elitism is now the fall back accusation for anything that smacks of criticism of this system of mass deception. Elitism is anything that rejects accessibility. This leads back to the topic of seriousness. For what I mean by serious is work that looks to overcome the inherent disposibility of most everything today. And it is more than just the appearance of the work, artwork, it means the entire trajectory of the body of work of a particular artist. And there are certainly contradictions in this idea. The first is that the fetishized notion of individual genius has to be both negated, and then absorbed. This is the dilemma of working with the tools of domination. Now, there is another concurrent issue, one of class exclusion. Social exclusion, and in the U.S. the lower classes and working poor, designated as less valuable consumers, are hence less likely to see themselves or their concerns reflected back at them. But this is also an advantage for without, as it were, a backstage pass, the marginalized population has the potential to be far more able to discern the mechanisms of manipulation, but more, to nurture a seriousness of vision. To what degree the poor are less influenced by media is an open question, however.

Phillippe Cognee. 'Brasilia'.

Phillippe Cognee. ‘Brasilia’.


If one sticks to painting for the moment, there has been a good deal of debate about *Zombie Formalism*. This mini-art war was started by Walter Robinson in an essay at Artspace last year. I quote:

“With their simple and direct manufacture, these artworks are elegant and elemental, and can be said to say something basic about what painting is—about its ontology, if you think of abstraction as a philosophical venture. Like a figure of speech or, perhaps, like a joke, this kind of painting is easy to understand, yet suggestive of multiple meanings. (Kassay’s paintings, for example, are ostensibly made with silver, a valuable metal that invokes a separate, non-artistic system of value, not unlike medieval religious icons, which were priced by both their devotional subjects and by the amount of gold they contained.) Finally, these pictures all have certain qualities—a chic strangeness, a mysterious drama, a meditative calm—that function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design.
Another important element of Zombie Formalism is what I like to think of as a simulacrum of originality. Looking back at art history, aesthetic importance is measured by novelty, by the artist doing something that had never been done before. In our Postmodernist age, “real” originality can be found only in the past, so we have today only its echo.”

Lucien Smith

Lucien Smith


It is easy to dismiss contemporary painting because so much of it is so bad. But that’s also the response of the philistine. Much harder is to tweeze out the valid work from junk. Lucian Smith, a current darling of the auction scene is junk. It’s simply lazy, intentionally trivial, and wouldnt even make good wallpaper. In Smith though, it may be an end has been reached for a kind of socially adroit user friendly pandering gregarious artist peddling easily branded art designed as commodity first (and yes, useful in contemporary interior design). Smith and perhaps Alex Israel are the in some sense a truly toxic mixture of greed, superficiality, desire for fame. To follow the logic at work here, in the not too distant future a Smith or Israel or Dan Colon or Parker Ito will be commissioned to make *art* works that serve as exclusive head rests on the corporate jets of Goldman Sachs; superior craftsmenship, exclusivity, in shiny pastels and all signed.

Jerry Saltz wrote a piece here, which is quite good and in the discussion: http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/why-new-abstract-paintings-look-the-same.html

Ulmus Parviofolia. Chinese Penjing  (Wu Yee Sun, Hong Kong).

Ulmus Parviofolia. Chinese Penjing (Wu Yee Sun, Hong Kong).


But the Zombie tag is a snide dismissing of Clement Greenberg values, and while I’m hardly going to defend Greenberg much, he still was a man of some seriousness about art. But perhaps the problem with discernment begins with the mediation of galleries and curators and collectors; from Castelli to Saatchi the brahmins of the art market have distorted perception. One can value a Jered Sprecher for example, while still knowing this is the work of a minor artist. But I think its legitimate work nonetheless. The second issue is educational. It is daunting to suddenly walk into a gallery opening, or group show, if you’ve never thought about painting. This is why there is a tendency for many to resort of virtuosity as a criteria. So that Odd Nerdrum might be better received than Thoba Kendoori. Figurative work (of a certain sort, but more on that later) is, on the surface of things, a safer place to dwell, intellectually. The beauty of Marco Tirelli’s work is more elusive than George Shaw. But looking at Shaw, the uneducated eye (sic) is likely not ‘liking’ Shaw for the right reasons. And on the other hand, Nerdrum (and I’m largely sympathetic to Nerdrum on the whole) the lay viewer is likely not seeing what there is to dislike in his caricature of Renaissance masters. Now, the idea of an educated audience for meaningful, or *high art* came into existence, as we understand it, around two hundred or so years ago. It evolved as a sub-category of class marker. The bourgeoisie could claim superiority over the less educated (even if successful). Now there are differing ways to look at the idea of ‘demanding’, and they differ as well if, say, painting is examined as opposed to theatre or dance. That is a whole huge topic, and one that I will return to, hopefully, soon.
Opening cocktail reception; Whitney Biennial, 2014

Opening cocktail reception; Whitney Biennial, 2014


But all this finally ends begging questions having to do with the society on the whole. That art has value is a premise I adhere to, and which I will try to elucidate here in some adumbrated manner. And I think aesthetic resistance is, in fact, of great importance today. But I continue to believe that the contemplation of the artwork far exceeds what is often a vulgar reductionism from the left, and an even more vulgar dismissal from the right. The right wing defenders of class hierarchy are there to mystify the production of culture in an effort to maintain the status quo. There is in all creative acts of any ambition a sense of search. Tom Huhn, in an essay on Kant and Adorno, says; “The sublime is not itself redemption but the persistent performance of the expectation that redemption ought to be at hand.”

For both Kant and Adorno, art was where a wounded (and repressed) Nature migrated. Or, rather, where the sublime migrated. This is really a dissection of subjectivity in the form of the modern individual, and in a sense this was seen by Adorno as the product of historical forces that *emancipated* the individual’s self awareness. In other words the ‘modern’ idea of self. This can certainly be debated, but for the purposes of this posting, I’m just going forward from that presumption. For the germane issue is the development of a disfigured subjectivity that was prey to the reification of modern life. That beauty (Nature) is the residue of the nonidentity of things that have been destroyed by a Universalizing subjectivity. In one sense this was the dialectic of Enlightenment foreshadowed. There was a promise in nature broken by the reification of the social — that in simply accepting the beauty that is given, we are betraying something not yet possible. In fact, Adorno comes very close to Heidegger when he writes of the subject’s too close proximity to the beautiful in Nature, where Nature will always conceal itself anew. But in truth, that proximity is itself a lie, and art is the realm or activity in which carries forward this tension between particular and universal; it bears the weight of this promise. The dreams and dreamwork of humankind are then embedded in art, and which accumulate historically, and it is in this growth of the autonomous that art realizes something of its impossibility. And this is why one of the discernments between meaningful work and kitsch is a self awareness of the artwork that the artwork always fails. Art that warrants contemplation is always an expression of the impossible. Art’s importance is as the repository of human freedom (autonomy).

Kaiho Yusho, apprx. 1602

Kaiho Yusho, apprx. 1602


There is, though, the disfigured human. The political goals of genuine freedom require that something of culture (art) has to be included as a ongoing de-briefing of the subject. This is mimesis, or an aspect of it, anyway.

Those early communities of people, twenty thousand years ago in a distant past of great night darkness were looking at things and beginning some tactile and sensual appraising of the particular and this expansive just germinating idea of Universal. It is possible, also, that this germination was far more penetrating as to the great-time-continuum on which consciousness glides than is the contemporary man or woman.

Crypt area, beneath Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire. (courtesy Anglo Saxon Yorkshire).

Crypt area, beneath Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire. (courtesy Angol Saxon Yorkshire).

Today, in this media reality the cultic aspect is found in an almost addiction to ‘celebrity’. There is this question, again, of proximity. The pilgrims who have come to, as just an example, the Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire, to visit the crypt of St. Wilfrid, who built the original stone church in the 7th century, make their journey to be in contact with something sacred, something of almost impossible age and whose duration at this specific spot has accumulated great significance. What that significance might be depends on the pilgrim I suppose, but if celebrity worship is the secular arena for a similar impulse, it speaks a need for something of proximity to a space or person or image that alters the normal experience of daily life. Steinert points out the way politicians mingle with crowds in an effort to generate a sense of specialness, in both the politician and the spectator. Somehow though, space has obviously been obliterated in the post modern media, and all that seems to be left is a painfully artifical intimacy.
Chair by Philippe Hiquily

Chair by Phillipe Hiquily


What needs to be remembered, per Debord and Adorno, is that marketing and PR do not operate in isolation, from each other or society overall. Their most profound influence is in a long term administration of desire and labor. The creation of, and control of social integration — as Steinert put it. But even he doesn’t probably go far enough by saying that. For the long range impact is in not just the creation of this faux reality, but in the erasing of unwanted experience. Unwanted by the producers of media, by the state, by global Capital. It is, also, often a process of substitution. Instead of the mystifications of Church idolatry, you get Kim and Kholoe or Angelina and Brad, or Barry and Michelle. As Adorno put it, the public today is captivated by the myth of success. And it only one of the myths that cast a strange spell on the population. This is, it needs be said, the more affluent workers, the bourgeoisie that have the leisure time ‘for’ captivation. I have found, on a personal level recently, that what I perceive as a desperation in the white population (mostly white men) overlaps with an aggression bound up with a *need* to believe the myth. The white man today KNOWS he is not manipulated, for he is too smart for that. And his success, the success he hopes for and strives for is to be learned by a through familiarity with the world and teachings of mass media.

These believers, of course, in their familiarity, are prone to imitation. For they feel their own image must match that which they are bombarded with 24 hours day. Keeping up with the Joneses means now keeping up with the characters in their favorite TV shows. The fact is that individual commercials or marketing campaigns are not fooling the public, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because seeing through the manipulation is their assigned role, and hence the great rise in cynicism and snark. It is an encouraged subjective posture. Snide is cool, and makes you …again…an insider. An insider where there is no inside.

350 year old Black Pine bonsai. Mr Kobayashi, Tokyo. (K. Olson photo.)

350 year old Black Pine bonsai. Kunio Kobayashi, Tokyo. (K. Olson photo.)


The question that I always think is a bit neglected, is how is it that in varying ways, all societies create art. They create artifacts anyway, or shrines, or relics. They paint or draw something. They scratch on walls or invent complex processes to give image another quality from the ordinary. Whatever the ordinary is. It is a way to change reality. Children do it. Children spin in circles until dizzy — as a way to alter reality, an inner reality. Mind altering. Almost all children take pleasure in drawing. They are almost intoxicated with color and shape. I cannot imagine a culture or society in which something of this process isn’t going on. But it is capitalism, or the Church, or basic psychic aggression that changes that children’s impulse for joy into the Whitney Biennial, with underpaid servants scurrying around to refill the chablis, and little brie on bisquits for the rich and contemptuous in attendance. When I have read explanations for cave paintings or those neolithic carved stones, in shapes resembling jaguars or snakes, suggesting animism and religion and how this was crude imitation I am never convinced. It sounds wrong. It is patronizing and schematic and linked to some moronic idea of *progress*. People carry far more complex mental processes than that, and probably most of what early humans created is lost and not yet discovered. The Pharaonic Egyptians had already developed several layers of writings, sophisticated (if perverse) ideas about image and story and symbol, and the relationship to death, to violence and the sacred. Considerably more complex than modern European culture. The seductive aspect of certain materials; gold, and silver, and bronze, carry emotional associations. Gold and lead are heavy, and their weight seems unnatural, while glass both feels a friend and a betrayal somehow. Pottery, and screens, and wood, and endless qualities of wood, and the use of shadow and light on these materials, especially in Japanese and Chinese cultures. The Japanese and south Asian culture valued candle light, and roofs were gold fractyls to reflect the candle light. As Tanizaki made clear, the garish gold and reds and silvers of South Asian and central Asian architecture was meant to be seen by candle light, not electric light. Japanese aesthetics remains in some ways the most multi tiered, with a sense of the importance of not revealing things too quickly. Everything is delayed gratification. The fetishistic character of gold, to pick the most extreme and historically accidental example, doesn’t mean that somehow the artworks use of gold is invalid. In both the progressive and regressive sense, artworks are historically mediated.
Jered Sprecher

Jered Sprecher

There has to be a dialectical aspect to all art, I think. In any painting, there is always a beauty that is dominated in the process of its representation, but which overcomes or transcends that domination by virtue of its objectivity. This is Adorno channeling both Hegel and Kant. That objectivity is, however, also reified, or alienated, depending on a host of factors, and must reconcile itself to this alienation, but then illuminate in its aspiration to the sublime what is otherwise unseen by humans. The paint, in the Sprecher above, in those little circles, is set against the movement of the brush stroke (or sprayed application) and distances itself from the composition in its essential color. One’s eye returns again and again to those circles; one teal and one grey. Now, after that the viewer is essentially activating that inner karaoke, and this is how mimetic process plays out. But it also says something about history, and the allegorical aspects pregnant in any artwork. Sprecher’s painting is not overly complex, nor is it overly emotional, or intellectual or anything. But it retains a kind of elemental integrity, and there is a sly intelligence to the color. An infirm yellow is the central figure here. It is not a yellow of spring or of canaries, but one of pestilent infestation. The teal is, perhaps as teal shall always be, a sort of profligate slightly middle brow color and it serves this painting very effectively. Now, one could go on and try to (and should) look at more of Sprecher’s work. There is a lot to discover. How substantial is this painting? I don’t know yet. Nobody does I don’t think. It is hard, though, to say the same thing about Lucian Smith (or dozens others). There is just nothing there. Its like shopping for bedsheets.

This is where the importance of the uncanny sort of intersects with mimesis.
My point though, is that one has to be able to see what is alike about Sprecher or Toba Khedoora, a 350 year old Bonsai black pine. I can’t tell you, but I know in some transcendent realm of ur-mimetic respect the great one-mind of existence is revealing something and I suspect we just dont get it yet.

Paintings become much like a Maserati or Patek Phillipe watch, or bespoke St Crispin loafers, or a private jet. Lucien Smith or Alex Israel WANT their work to be used in the decor of private jets, in fact. But this value system affects everyone. The artwork becomes a bespoke wall fixture, and nothing more. So I return to the bonsai masters again and it becomes clear that those bonsai projects are not commodities in the usual sense. They are expressions of personal vision, but they are also long term projects often lasting beyond death of the first artist, and more, they are part of a strict set of principles and rules about form. History is incorporated in them much as the crypt at Ripon accrues sacred value. They are a practice and a craft as well, in which the individual is not reified or commodified. The *artist*, the bonsai master, is only the conduit through which something comes into being. And it is in that respect that he aquires a seriousness.

Saburo and Tomekichi Kato with Ezo Spruce. (Photo from Thomas S. Elias).

Saburo and Tomekichi Kato with Ezo Spruce. (Photo from Thomas S. Elias).

“In contemporary art, the greatest value adding component comes from the branded auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s…What do you hope to acquire when you bid at a presigious evening auction at Sotheby’s? A bundle of things: a painting of course, but hopefully also a new dimension to how people see you. As Robert Lacey described it in his book about Sotheby’s, you are bidding for class, for a validation of your taste.”
Don Thompson

The professionalization of art is serving over the last fifty or sixty years to neutralize its oppositional character. Art may not exist in a rarefied realm free of class tension, but it exists differently within that class system. That said, the values of the dominant class confer a special character to specific creative endeavors in any particular period. The ownership class not only designates who has value among various artists, but it designates who and what doesn’t. The artist must be amendable to the court, or at least serve as a novelty, but must never *really* offend. The rise of mass electronic culture, mostly in film and TV, has resulted in a merging of this new false populism (which is its opposite, in fact) with fine arts. And all of it increasingly merged with marketing. Through this entire evolution of a marketed reality the autonomous character of all art forms has eroded. This is probably the most pronounced issue with contemporary culture; how to reclaim some portion of autonomy for the creative act. Certainly it wont be found at the Whitney Biennial or at major museums today. Not in contemporary work anyway. And the exceptions to that monopoly, which exist, further blur the ability to discriminate the autonomous. The second issue is pedagogical. If the underclass is to fully sustain the movement toward change, it must articulate itself with the tools of domination, but find ways (and some, if not many) are going to be aesthetic.

Barnes Jewish Hospital, NYC. Early 20th century.

Barnes Jewish Hospital, NYC. Early 20th century.


Kato Shuichi wrote that “Japanese culture became structured with its aesthetic values at the center. Aesthetic concerns often prevailed even over religious beliefs and duties.” This the result of long isolation, Shuichi suggests, but that result was that religion (Buddhist, prior to Zen) became an art. “The art of Muromachi Japan was not influenced by Zen, rather Zen became the art.” This is from Donald Richie’s book on Japanese aesthetics. At the end of which Richie laments Japan’s too great absorption of Western values. The most pernicious Western influence was to destroy the value of solitude and simplicity. Or, of seriousness. A seriousness that aestheticizes the everday. Or rather, more precisely, the concrete materiality of the everyday. For that materiality was invested with attention.

Something Else We Want

Nathan Hyland

Nathan Hyland

“The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at most can defend themselves if they are attacked. They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus.”
Sigmund Freud

“For Freud, all social relations, private and public alike, share a hidden Oedipal typicality which underlies their various manifestations.”
Jose Brunner

“A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked lovliness,
Actaeon like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.”

Shelley
“Adonais”

I suspect that the most virulent anti-Freudian rhetoric and opinion comes these days from younger white men. It seems not to matter much if their political position is to the left or right. This links to the over-all general sense I have of white panic having been dialed up a couple notches recently.

What are the implications for the reality that this month’s protests over Police murders is being driven largely by women of color, but more, by queer black women. Not entirely, certainly, but largely I think. There is a lot to unpack in this vis a vis gay white man culture, mainstream media, the Oedipul narrative (accepted or not) and in a sense of where aggression comes from in society. Stan Goff has written a good deal on white men and guns. I keep coming back to the sense I have these days of white male sickness.

But let me backtrack here. The logic of Oedipal theory foregrounds a primary anxiety born of that recognition in the infant that mother’s breast is not completely under his or her control. Is it correct that the infant’s next response is to want to devour the breast? To control through incorporation, bodily incorporation? This is, needless to say, a contested area in psychoanalysis. Is the breast separate from the mother? Is there an identity attached to the source of food, and pleasure? Is this impulse in the infant toward control? Is this is primary sort of ur-control instinct, or response? There are countless X-factors in theorizing about the inner life of infants. Melanie Klein, Winnicott, Jung even, and on through to Lacan.

Apostolos Georgiou

Apostolos Georgiou


Jose Brunner wrote: “the child’s recognition of the parents’ control over his needs and wishes also turns a possible loss of their love into a dreaded prospect. Since children fear to lose their parents’ love and the concomitant feeling of safety, the parents can, by granting or refusing affection at will, deploy their love as an instrument of domination and control.”

The need to be loved means what? For this seems to me a different thing than what the infant feels toward the breast, or later toward the source of that food and pleasure. The mother is loved, but that is not the same as saying (I don’t think, anyway) that we want to be loved throughout our lives. Yes, we want to be loved throughout our lives, and that is probably an expression of this very early imprint and association. And even if one accepts the Oedipal thinking in this, there is still a question of what we mean by *love* when it is spoken to the object of one’s love, or to anyone, really, once we are adults. For the infant, the dependency on both parents, and/or adults, becomes intimately linked with authority. And this is the (or one of) the crucial issues here. And perhaps it is *the* crucial issue. The child, as it gets slightly older finds its desire coalescing around an identification. The boy wants to be like the father, the girl like the mother. Just how gendered this identification is remains an interesting question. Meaning, does the boy or girl tend toward more identification or less, and are there qualitative differences in the fabric of these identifications for each gender.

Anton Henning

Anton Henning

The most contested area of the Oedipal narrative circles around what Freud called the *phallic stage*. For Freud, this meant all desire was for the mother. There was having a phallus or there was castration. I think it is relatively safe to say there are problems with this. Although they may not be quite what mainstream thinking believes. But I want to look at this question of love, more, and what is meant by desire and how this evolves in the child. The punishing father is a social construct. The desire for the mother is mixed in with trace elements built upon food and pleasure and safety. The punishing father is the force of restriction.

The idea of *love* is connected with sex. And then with an entire history of institutions built around property, women as property, virginity, disease, law, and probably, too, with immortality. But by adulthood the child has grown, physically matured, and introjected the authority of the Father, and in so doing formed what Freud called the super-ego. This is a complex topic, and no small reason for this complexity has to do with the qualities of authority that are taken in by the child to form this internal police force. Or court of the self. The fact is that the most authoritarian and physically brutish father can be a far less guilt producing parent than Mister Rogers or casper milktoast. In fact, the expression of power and domination is not necessarily the means to the most sadistic offspring. And this has to do with the myriad other ways the child’s ego is formed by society. At the age of five or so, according to Freud, the child’s sexual/erotic urges are sealed like court documents, and the conscious mind ‘forgets’ them. The erotic anxiety of identification (which includes both the desire to be like the father, but the understanding that one cannot be identical, nor is one allowed to do all the exact same things the father does). Now, once this material is repressed, the court documents hidden away, a host of other questions are introduced. And this is more what concerns me here.

Alfred Rethel, engraver. 1851. "Death as a Cutthroat" based on cholera outbreak in Paris during festival.

Alfred Rethel, engraver. 1851. “Death as a Cutthroat” based on cholera outbreak in Paris during festival.


The child has learned that desire is to be regulated. If authority looms as an antagonist to desire, then authority wins, but only by the incorporating of that authority into the subject, thereby, in a sense, conquering desire. This clearly is something less than efficient and produces all the many psychological maladies of modern existence. There is another issue hovering here, and that is the new father of the 21st century west is mediated by factors previous fathers were not. Or not as acutely. The father of my generation is one who grew up himself in a world without telephones, even. My son’s generation had fathers such as myself who grew up and reached adulthood before the computer was widely used. Before any digital technology. The classical bourgeois Father, authoritarian and punitive has been replaced, in the bourgeois West, by a far more passive/aggressive father. One who himself developed a more disfigured relationship to desire, and I suspect who has a less decisive repressive mechanism. In other words those court documents are less effectively sealed. But this might well be the exact opposite. For both might produce what I perceive today as the less authoritarian father, but the more sadistic and ‘affectless’ father.

This is a dissection of white male consciousness. Now, however much wants to accept or renounce Freud’s theories on the Oedipul narrative, there is a real question I think that resides in what I see as a sickness of white society, today. The very regressive ideas of conventional marriage and family are coupled to, at least in the U.S., an internalized patricide, resulting in an internalized acceptance of rules and order. In my experience I know very few men who escape the Oedipal implications of their relationship with the father. The last few generations, however, seem to have a less direct link to the Oedipal, or a more mediated one anyway, and their relationship to authority seems more influenced by a screen life of substitute authorities. That social change may now come from communities in which the traditional family structure is weighted more to the side of the Mother should probably not be surprising (although it is the function dynamic that matters, but more on that later). This is one of the motivations in the intensified demonizing of black and latino culture today, at the hands of white centered culture. White men in the U.S. today are fueled by an additional layer of resentment, and this seems to cut across all political divides, if not quite class divides. I think on a personal level I’ve never particularly felt part of white society. I have felt, if anything, a betrayal by white society. And this is where, perhaps, class resentments enter the discussion.

Charless Harbutt, photography.

Charless Harbutt, photography.


Freud saw the pleasure principle as transforming to the reality principle.

“The animal man becomes a human being only through a fundamental transformation of his nature, affecting not only the instinctual aims but also the instinctual “values” — that is, the principles that govern the attainment of the aims.”
Herbert Marcuse

The submission to authority is reproduced socially at all levels. In other words, phylogenetically, the Father is replaced by the sons as part of a clan, which has become various institutions of authority. The earliest is probably school. The primary experience of early schooling in the U.S. is submission to rules. The Principle is the Father. All institutional authority is social domination. The individual growing up under social domination will pass that domination on to the next generation. But this is never complete. The return of the repressed is where cultural expression finds importance. Hence, Adorno’s belief in the artwork writing the unconscious history of mankind. As Marcuse noted, “The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions.”But there is something occuring in 21st century society that seems an almost de-linking of the Oedipal narrative from later renunciations. The Father is now ‘only’ a symbol, and perhaps this part was always partly true, and a screen authority — in other words the cycle of enslavement and rebellion is mediated by the post modern order of domination, the structures of which are now so abstract and in which the individual so amnesiac, that the screen world of mass culture in the West has created a revisionist interior form. If Marcuse saw reason as a potential liberating force, what has happened is that unreason, the irrationality of modern wage drudgery, is almost an erasing of this primordial cycle. Marcuse saw a repressive modification of happiness. I think this was probably a great understatement, in fact. For the loss of memory has meant a loss of the abilities for inner life containing an emancipatory aspect. The practice of psychoanalysis has shifted toward an adjustment therapy, and this has meant a de-emphasizing of deep memory. Just make your life efficient. Adjust, conform, for happiness is conformity without those unpleasant eruptions of internal contradiction. Of course this really means a doubling down on the repressing of contradiction.

Linnaeus Tripe, photography. South India, late 19th century.

Linnaeus Tripe, photography. South India, late 19th century.


As Marcuse noted again, today the union of servitude and freedom has come to seem natural. Except that freedom is the deformed version of freedom to shop, freedom to conform within a very narrow set of parameters. There is in Freud a clear masculine bias, as Jose Brunner writes: “Moreover, the oedipal vision exhibits a distinct patriarchal bias, it reduces politics to an activity of fathers and sons, while relegating women to the role of passive objects of male desire.” And this is an underlying expression of the Post Ferguson movement today. It is gendered and it is racialized and it is class mediated. The ruthless hegemony of an instrumental logic, and the equally ruthless organization of institutional domination by a ruling class, a white male class in its essence, has meant that any dissent from within this status quo doesn’t even need demonizing for its appearance is automatically perceived as irrational and immature. This logic operates on a very deep level, at the core of psychic formation, and it extends to the very earliest social structures into which the child is thrown. The Spectacle now declares, over and over, the desire for peace, for equality, for a better environment, all the while working ceaselessly to enforce its opposite. In truth, there is a war against aesthetic discrimination today, for all aesthetic concerns are treated much like dissent, finally. As the society becomes ever more infantile, the public is encouraged to reject maturity as conformist. This is a core contradiction actually. The Ferguson protests operate at two levels, perhaps three. For the black community it is a means toward social change. For the affluent liberal class it is spectacle, and part of a manufacturing process of self and conscience, and has no real point beyond that. For the media it is an unruly child acting out.
Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero


But I want to go back to this notion of love. In the advanced West, meaning the U.S. but also much of Europe, there is a decided emphasis on individuality. Love is then an individual experience. The repressed adult is relating to a sexuality that is divorced from those impulses for gratification that the infant felt. This is an individual fetishistic and objectifying sexuality. It is sexual conquest, and it is uncoupled completely from community and Nature. The erotic is genital, and it is aggressive. Increasingly in the U.S. this is not even a gendered issue. Gratification is reified. Reich, Marcuse and others, Norman O. Brown, Ernest Becker, over fifty years ago, recognized that sexual sickness was being promoted as sexual freedom. As long as it stayed an individual skill, a scorecard, then it would not only be tolerated but marketed. The fact that a term such as *Trophy Wife* could even come into existence says a lot all by itself. The infant’s desire to control the breast, to understand the relationship with this source of nourishment, health, and pleasure was fraught with anxiety, and when that threshold seemed to occur around the age of five, the residue left to the child was mostly to do with anxiety. Desire was already alienated desire. That sexual urge became disconnected with reciprocity was no doubt the result of the avenues taken by repression. And this is what I think needs a re-thinking perhaps. Contemporary desire, for men anyway, is deeply attached to aggression, and to institutional authority. That may seem reductive or distorted or simplistic, and perhaps it is all three in some ways, but the anal sadistic spectacle described in the Torture Report suggests that I’m not totally mistaken. The torture report only solidifies what many already knew. There is a marked lack of remorse or doubt in the affluent classes with regard to the report. There is no teeth gnashing or hang wringing, or grief. There is barely suppressed satisfaction in Western power and its ability to dominate inferior races and culture.

“Nature does not know real pleasure, but only satisfaction of want. All pleasure is societal- in the unsublimated no less than
in the sublimated impulses. Pleasure originates in alienation.”

Adorno

Spencer Murphy, photography. From "Architects of War", arms trade show.

Spencer Murphy, photography. From “Architects of War”, arms trade show.

Hollywood’s application of heroism and virtue in the person of the torturer is another testament to a degraded Eros. The man or woman tied to a chair, seated, awaiting torture, or already bloody and abused, and the torturer pacing in front of this victim, is almost an iconic image now in film and TV. One could do a very interesting short film of just seconds from every such scene, strung together, as the montage of sexual sickness that is American sickness today. Such scenes are indistinguishable from scenes of copulation. What is the difference in Hollywood film? In fact, usually the torture scene is shot with more care and attention. But this is all self evident, really. The descent into cartoon level self parody is now simply tedious. In daily life, though, in the U.S. and I think the U.K., there is an increasing sense, in both the left and right, that making conversation a verbal contest, winning the argument, being right, is a new distorted form of libidinal release. On the internet, as I’ve said before, debate becomes cyber road rage. Snark is the only currency, and always, almost totally without exception, it is individually situated. It is ME ME ME ME. I am right, I am smarter than you, I am better than you (as Richard Seymour actually tweeted to me a while back) and I am the effective torturer, the prison guard to myself. This brings up several revisionist theories about the super-ego. For it is in the development of the super-ego, if you follow Freud, that this internalizing of patricide, this entire mental construct bent on effective repression, is clearly not just the pseudo psychological cop in our head. For this mental monitor is too close to the Id; that which it must restrict. Like the sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome, our super ego is constantly being seduced by the powers of the unconscious it is meant to guard. And conversely, the instinctual irrational falls for the guard, too. In one sense this is linked to the uncanny. It is all linked, of course. The figure of the artist, the exile, the scapegoat. The reason that culture, art, has a role in social change is exactly because, finally, all stories are crime stories about ourselves. I suspect a good part of the left, an old left anyway, will never quiet allow this truth. Art is linked to our real individuality, which is, of course communal. We are more individuals, more ourselves, when our desire is cooperative. When the Dionysian energy is expressed, it is not individualistic. The individual tortures. The collective cannot.
Anna Atkins. "Cyanotypes of British Algae.

Anna Atkins. “Cyanotypes of British Algae.

Throughout Greek tragedy there is recurring declaration of war as horror. In Shakespeare the horror drives individuals mad. The madness, though, speaks to the irrational in the individuals makeup. It stimulates a latent potential. The character of humanness is madness, and it is always a fight — thee fight– to stave off the looming insanity, and the insanity cannot be seen, or rather, cannot be recognized. In Shakespeare the failure of recognition runs throughout his work. In the best film noir, the narrative hangs on coincidence, on disguise, on paranoia. There is perhaps but one plot; a stranger enters.

We are strangers to ourselves, that was Freud’s message.

We are also all potentially mad. Delusional. The psychosis of the white ruling class, today, is one with the loss of deep memory. Without memory, it can be postulated, one cannot love. To unseal the sealed documents of childhood gratification, but also of rivalry and anxiety and symbolic cannibalism, must be the goal of the journey of maturation. There is, however, something very else in this discussion; and really, it is two things, but they overlap. One is the *way* we remember. The narratives we construct. And the second thing, and another area critics of Freud like to attack, and that is the Death Instinct.

Nietzsche was the thinker who most emphasized the corrupting aspect of the wrong kind of memory. What Marcuse noted, as well; that we remember duty and obligation, but not pleasure. However, this raises a question about the electronic mass culture today, where the remembering of obligation becomes, itself, eroticized. Or at least it is facsimile erotic. It is sexy to pick up the dry cleaning or get the groceries. The public is trained in a titillation of false memory, for that is partly what marketing does. I have always found the ‘recovered memories’ story, the travesty of justice and tragedy that resulted from the narrative of child molestation, the witch hunts that followed, to be of great symbolic importance. The American pre school child as victim. But also as confidant of the DA. A child adrift, unprotected, in a sea of predators was also starting to seem like an informant. There was something of a Cotton Mather feeling to this whole affair, a projection of that deep guilt of severe repression, both psychically and physically. McMartin Pre School as the cost of preventing children of earlier generations from masturbating.

Susanna Coffey

Susanna Coffey


The mass culture of today is one in which on a deeper level, the soul sickening details of the Torture Report are only the culmination of many morally bankrupt actions from white society, and a society of a particularly sadistic, sociopathic quality. For the unmooring of those previous links to Desire, however anxiety ridden, have resulted in an increasingly blank remorseless cruelty. The police seen in the Eric Garner murder, the police in LA at the Ramparts Division, those cops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; these men all share a particular nastiness, vengefulness, and spite. Going out their way to be worse than even the system encourages. It is a surplus sadism.

There is a tendency now, even in Psychoanalytic circles, to just sort of tip toe around the Oedipal structure and narrative. But I personally have a hard time not seeing it appear and re-appear throughout western culture, today. The entire idea of infant sexuality has been met with resistance by the Cotton Matheresque public. And as for absent fathers in 21st century households; this is another area of debate. For the Oedipul Theory to work, there needs to be a *Father*. If you don’t have one, you will go find one. And the process of ‘finding’ a father is likely to entail a primal Father of some sort.

Hans Memling

Hans Memling

The example of Joe Paterno, former head coach at Penn State is an example. ‘Papa Joe’ was THEE father, the supreme football coach and symbolic father. And more, Paterno was close to functioning as a primal father. The society needs, or thinks it needs, such stories of paternal strength, and the more absent the real father the more curious and distorted are the images of today’s necessary father. The metaphorical father, like Paterno, operates as part of the death instinct. Rather than destruction of the Oedipul narrative, there is a reinforcing of it when the symbolic father is one with aggression and servitude. Freud thought the father must create the prohibition of incestuous desire of the mother and inflict this on the child. Lacan thought the prohibition was directed at the Mother, not the child. As Paul Verhaeghe notes, the end of of Totem and Taboo is “…in the beginning is the deed.”The deed is parricide, and the foundation of patriarchy. I am less interested in defending Freud, or Lacan for that matter, than I am in what is truthful in these writings. And in what way one can glean something of the pathology of American society today. Freud never quite believed the Oedipal myth and kept revising it (most notably in the late writings such as Totem and Tabooand Moses and Monotheism). Freud also corrected one of the newly introduced stages to include a female Oedipal, and also a pre-Oedipul. The germane issue is though, the decisive factor that causes the confusion, is the appearance of the child. A child somatically premature, dependent on both parents, though attached to only the Mother. In both one starts with the Mother and in each we end with the Mother. The narratives of Western literature constantly reinterpret the fundamental laws of the family. It is possible the very act of writing, as historically formed, is one with patriarchy. Although it is hard to fully accept the Word is a gender issue. This is the Christian narrative as much as it is Judaic and Islamic. The Book, by the word comes the installing of authority as an organizing principle. Joan Riviere wrote; “We know too that aggressive, cruel and selfish impulses are closely bound up with pleasure and gratification, that there can be a fascination or an excitement accompanying gratification of these feelings.” Everyone in western society today must deal with this modified pleasure (Marcuse), for all competition is a fusing of aggression and satisfaction, and if not satisfaction, then guilt or remorse or frustration. To function in Capitalist society means, on some level, to master aggression. And that means dealing with the ambivalence of success. Divorce is a statement of personal failure, even if we know better. Losing your job is shameful, on some level. All disappointment stimulates aggression. And all of this is built into the character structure we have inherited. So the Oedipal story is, if nothing else, a tool for navigating a society that focuses much of its attention on the creation of conditions that frustrate, disappoint, and shame. Humiliation is the basic building block of Western culture.
Thomas Houseago

Thomas Houseago


Klein believes dependency to be a primary emotion for society, today. The infant is dependent on the breast. The Kleinian model connects the infant’s anxiety over dependence (and its triggering of aggression) with a first experience of something like *death*. Lacan and Klein both emphasize the infant’s recognition of absence…the breast is taken away. Loss and absence. Thus is born desire for what has gone missing. And need, and finally, love upon its return. Lacan though saw an additional fear; that opposite of absence, too much presence. Which, really, is about being used by this presence, and attendant loss of self determination. But love is intermixed with anxiety, for it might happen again. Truman Capote, in an early chapter of In Cold Blood, wrote of the collective anxiety and fear of that small Kansas town after the murders were made known. What if it happens again. This is why people create stories, narratives, to explain or organize these emotions. In case something happens again. And of course it always happens again. This is the motive ground for human behavior. Today, in the shadow of an official document of societal sadism, and in the outpouring of anger and grief in the aftermath of the Brown and Garner murders (and the hundred other instances of the same police lethality) there is a sense that the sickness of white America is now at its zenith. The majority of Americans, in recent polls, “approve” of torture *sometimes*. Class society enforces humiliation. One can start to feel the odd echos of the infant’s trauma in almost all details of social structure. Every single breath a servant takes he or she must control their own rage at the humiliation. For black communities under the boot heal of an inhuman and brutal occupying army — the police, and imagine the constant state of anxiety and rage. The embargo is lifted on Cuba, just in time for U.S. corporate vultures to sit waiting to pounce. Everywhere the United States has gone, only suffering follows. What is the character formation for such a people? One of the reasons that I believe art and culture matter is that without a serious expression of those things buried in us, our motives, our dream life, there is only the default setting of advertising and propaganda. Manipulation. The impulse to create is one of both making connections, metaphors, and one of discovering what cannot be seen or heard or felt. Freud saw ambition connected urethral eroticism. Abu Ghraib comes out of not just an Imperialist society of domination, it comes out of deep poison in the psyche. Ambition, guilt, rage, all the things that one must cover up. Bury. There is a reason for metaphors. To bury. Underground. Death. Every throne is a toilet seat (Norman O. Brown). The revolution is from below.
Sara Vanderbeek, photography.

Sara Vanderbeek, photography.


It is in the collective that one becomes who one is. The individual is a toxic fiction. Art is not advertising, for advertising is there to blind and deafen. It trains the customer to *not* see, not hear. Absence need not be anxiety. But anxiety is passed on, the parents feel inadequate. My father, my mother, I cannot replace them by becoming adult. I must remain a child. The Racism found in white America is buried, and it is on the surface. It is written on faces, it is reflected in people’s eyes. It is murderous and lethal. It is experienced as a deep need, a panic, a hysteria almost. Someone has to pay for my misery. I am not deserving of this failure, this lack of success, of respect. I am special. Those people, black people, they are to blame. Everyone knows they aren’t as dependable, everyone knows they are not as clean, they are impulsive, lazy, highly sexed, sweaty.

The collective is cooperation, not competition. The problem with this is that there is no corrective. Everyone gets a blue ribbon is not a solution. Competition is serious, and not competing is flaccid and stagnant. Winners are admired. Losers must be admired, too, but not for trying, but because losing is a form of suffering and suffering brings wisdom. The loser as shaman.

Reich’s paper on The Emotional Plague was mentioned in comments here recently. I will leave off with this quote from Reich:

“The individual afflicted with the emotional plague is not content to take a passive attitude–he is distinguished from the neurotic character by a more or less life-destructive social activity. His thinking is completely muddled by irrational concepts and governed almost exclusively by irrational emotions. In the neurotic character, thinking and acting do not coincide. This is not true of the plague-afflicted character. As in the genital character, his thinking is in complete agreement with his actions, but there is a significant difference, i.e., his conclusions are not the result of his thinking. They are always predetermined by his emotional affliction. In the person afflicted with the emotional plague, thinking does not, as in the rational individual, serve to help him arrive at a correct conclusion; on the contrary, it serves to confirm and rationalize a predetermined irrational conclusion. This is generally known as “prejudice,” but one fails to see that this prejudice has detrimental social effects on a large scale. It is universally disseminated and characterizes just about everything that is called “tradition.” It is intolerant, i.e., it does not countenance the rational thinking which could pull the ground out from under it. Hence, plague-afflicted thinking is not accessible to arguments. It has its own technique in its own sphere, its own “coherence,” so to speak, which impresses one as “logical.” In this way, it creates the impression of rationality, without in reality being rational.”

I Am Not I

Justin Fantl, photography. "Glacial Wash".

Justin Fantl, photography.
“Glacial Wash”.

“Every photograph which exists to perpetuate something becomes its grave and tombstone.”
Richard Hennessy

“Integrity is not only a moral condition, but a pictorial task.”
Michael Fried

“Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.”
Walter Benjamin

A discussion of abstraction in art is usually something one has with in-laws, or weird Uncles during the Holidays. It is usually a simple argument about how abstract art isn’t really art, and how anyone could do it, and how modern art in general is junk. Rarely are there serious discussions about abstraction as a history. But it’s a good discussion to have because it forces an articulation of concepts and judgments normally glossed over.

The most convenient starting point (and trust me, this leads somewhere, or at least I hope it does) is Matisse. This is sort of conventional wisdom; Matisse was sort of moving in the direction of decorative and away from impressionism. What is meant by decorative is worth a whole posting, honestly, but for now, the work Matisse did around 1906 was distinctly decorative.

Clement Greenberg wrote, in 1973,
“The word *decorative* is no longer used as freely as it once was in finding fault with works of pictorial art. Too much of the best art of our time was criticized, when first seen, for being too “decorative”. Matisse’s art in particular was criticized for that and it continued to be criticized for that. But if the word is now largely a discredited word, at least in its pejorative sense, it’s Matisse’s doing more than anyone else’s.”

John Gerrard. "Oil Stick Work" installation.

John Gerrard. “Oil Stick Work” installation.


By the 1940s, and especially in his late masterpiece The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, Matisse was not exactly even painting as it was normally concieved. The Church, which I have always loved, and on a personal level I think it incorporates something of a dream many have in youth, an eternal spring, or early summer. For it is not just the light, the white and bright blues, but it is the careless air, the nonchalance and almost insolence of his design that is so seductive — but the church was a work of decoration primarily. The nonchalance is, though, warm, the insolence sweet. It is irresistible, and of course location is irresistible as well. But, Matisse influenced Abstract Expressionism, and minimalism, both. I think Morris Louis must have felt very close the Chapelle, for example, but clearly Rothko did too, and later, Rothko would paint several triptychs for his own Church in Houston. Anyway, the decorative works of Matisse, and then also of the late Monet (a great influence on Barnett Newman) painting was inching into pure decoration, but also not. It was not just decoration, and the reasons for it not being *just* decoration are what is crucial here.
The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence . Design and painting by Henri Matisse. 1948

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence . Design and painting by Henri Matisse. 1948


If Adorno was right about society being ‘in’ the artwork, then that entails something of history. Jameson partly (largely?) defined post modernism a schizophrenic inability to separate the past from the present, and hence also an inability to posit the future, or *a* future. The schizophrenic part, of course, was Deleuze’s influence, but what was really being looked at was a loss of historical truth. A loss of history. And I think history is always both social, planetary, and personal. The societal and the personal are reflective of each other to some degree. What I choose to call the planetary is more the secret history of the world. The world of corporate culture, of mass electronic screen focused culture is one in which, I think, something regressive is taking place. I dont believe it is built into the technology, but I’m not sure. Certainly, however, the ways and the means of production, the forces of production, have stunted the audience’s ability to experience awe and wonder (for lack of better words).
Morris Louis

Morris Louis


Now, I find that this has a political dimension (or several) that is seen in how many in the West fail to process the idea of, as an example, the torture report. This is too closely linked to mass culture. And the real agony of being chained to a wall on tip toe, while having already broken bones in your foot — this does not register because in kitsch TV people can get kicked and punched and hit with a baseball bat and next scene appear only slightly bruised. One punch to the face, in reality, can break bones that never heal. A fractured supra orbital bone, or infraorbital margin, has happened to someone I know, or just a busted jaw, can damage nerves that never heal. Can have long term repercussions, such as headaches, loss of balance and other inner ear problems, nasal inflammation, and impaired vision. But one rarely sees that in TV. People are supernatural in their ability to recover. So torture has no resonance. We had Bush, a President who chuckled when Tammy Faye Tucker begged for her life, and there is Hillary Clinton, cackling at the idea of assassination. The idea of violence and torture has no resonance. So, I think this inability to experience art, and by extension nature, is additionally a loss of the mythic register of life. A failure to imagine the rapture of secrecy or the hidden. Walter Benjamin said Kafka was the last storyteller. This had to do with those levels of secrecy and hiddeness that narrative, good narrative, operates on. Again, the conditioning to expect the trivial stops the search for expanded meanings. The post modern mass culture obviously knows the word *history*, and people know what it means, but there is no sense of historical truth penetrating daily life today. People, the general modern public is addicted to the *now*. The present is emphasized because the present is when you shop, and also because the present can limit notions of future and past. I suspect the future is now more a risk assessment column in a spread sheet, its predictive, but its not a dream, Utopian, or even sensed in its relationship to the past. And this is where, in this light, that one can discuss artworks, and abstraction.
Alexander Archipenko, 1913

Alexander Archipenko, 1913


Adorno believed artworks were the unconscious writing of history. That through their detachment from the everyday, they sustained an autonomy and an isolation that resisted the mass forces of trivializing. This is why it is never easy to accommodate populism and aesthetic idealism. But as Hullot-Kenter writes; “…Adorno details the immediate object of aversion from which modern art and Schoenberg’s music withdrew. There he writes that just as abstract art was defensively motivated by its opposition to photography — the mechanical artwork — Schoenberg’s music developed in ‘antithesis to the extension of the culture industry into music’s own domain’.” As Hullot Kenter points out about Schoenberg, here was music you would never hear in an elevator. Now, it is worth noting that I don’t think its possible to discuss abstraction without also discussing photography. And I want to digress just a bit here, for I look at a lot of photography books, at a lot of portfolios, and over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that separating fine art photography from journalistic is impossible. Of course there are the far ends of each, but there is the larger meeting area where they overlap. This month Ive looked at maybe sixty photographers in some depth. Of those there are maybe, MAYBE five who are special. There were mostly new photographers. There is just something ineffable and very delicate in those five. There were good photographers I saw, professional, with great technique and knowledge and care, but that additionally rare and, I think, hidden or secret quest wasn’t there. Awoiska van der Molen has that nearly religious quality. Perhaps it is partly found more in landscape photography, I dont know. Sugimoto is my favorite photographer, who is living anyway. It is a different sort of hidden you find in Sugimoto. It is more linked to his mimetic re-looking — and that’s an odd sounding phrase and idea — but if one looks at Sugimoto’s landscapes, or seascapes, it is hard not to feel the probing eye of the photographer, but at the same time the quality of almost monastarial quiet and respect. Van der Molen, a much younger artist, is also quiet. She waits. She waits and hardly breathes and eventually things emerge from out of the dark. Jason Fantl’s color photographs of remote landscapes are surgically examining the materials, the feel the sense of space and time. For that is the history embedded in artworks. In photography there must be a sense of history, and almost always expressed by that awareness for time passing.
Simon Harsent, photography.

Simon Harsent, photography.


Simon Harsent’s book of photographs of icebergs is majestic and disquieting. The subject matter itself carries with it a foreboding and melancholy. There have been several photo essays on the arctic and icebergs, but none as good as Harsent’s. Kevin Cooley’s photos of Iceland and the arctic also carry that strange wounded beauty and it is perhaps our awareness of climate change that enhances this feeling of the temporal. Of places one naturally equates with the eternal, with time distanced from the present, but one now fragile and suddenly so impermanent. Joel Tettamnti, too, has some remarkable photographs of Greenland. But this is a particular anxiety being expressed, as climate change and industrial polluting of nature imposes an additional layer of meaning.

But there is another aspect of modern photography, and it has to do with how photography agitates that feeling in all of us of having missed something. This can be seen in the anxiety of people checking their e-mails every five minutes, of people looking around at trendy restaurants to see if anyone notable is there, too. But it is in photography in an acute way. In painting, as Richard Hennessy wrote, details do not break down. In photography they do. And here is yet another meeting point in this discussion between representational painting and abstraction. Hennessy’s remarkable essay from 1979 (Artforum, Vol.19, no.9) suggests that the allure of painting resides primarily in its touch, the fact that it is hand made. In a photograph one can compose but not construct (per Hennessy). The real issue though, raised in this essay, and which I have touched on before, is the decline in taste. That the educated classes today learn of art in the classroom. Today, more, on the laptop. The sense of scale experienced in Abstract Expressionism, for example, is lost. It is hard not to approach art as design if all you know of it is what you glean from the screen of a laptop. This problem is compounded by the ascension of advertising. The non stop production of image, photograph and film and TV. But I disagree with Hennessy on a several points, but with caution. The difficulty has to do with looking at the body of work from, say, Durer, or Goya, or Velasquez, and wonder at the impossibility of such expansiveness today. Or, even in literature, though this gets trickier. But the impossibility of tragedy today would seem a directly related topic. Now Hennessy uses the example of Rodin’s sculpture at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. There were (are?) photographs of some of the sculpture occupying the same room. The comparing and contrasting of the photos with the actual sculpture lands, finally, on the fact of the materiality of the sculpture. As Hennessy says, “It is here.” And that presence, that undeniable fact raises questions about the *not hereness* of screen culture.

Misha de Ridder, photography.

Misha de Ridder, photography.


Today, there is a sense of, indeed, schizophrenic space. Only it is, in urban areas, a militarized schizophrenia. And additionally, perhaps it is being processed increasingly in ways that mirror the autistic’s processing of place. But this also intensifies the class divisions in Western society. The access to such contemplation resides in the educated white audience. Here I will mention Irish artist John Gerrard’s Oil Stick installation. http://simonprestongallery.com/?gallery_exhibition=oil-stick-work

There are striking images in this piece, no question. But the *concept* is more than a little problematic. First off, the catalogue bothers to note that the farm worker is a ‘Mexican American’, for reasons unknown. So here again we have an elite class extracting labor, paid or not, without really addressing the implications of this contract. In any event, the labor is in the interests of extracting image which is to be shown at various galleries for an audience with time and money to view it. There is something perturbing in this. It is part of the class segragation at work again. The artist who hires interns or assistants to help with his or her project seem rarely to grasp for whom their work is being created. But more, to return to Durer or Rembrandt or whoever, there is a question of comprehensiveness in play. It is hard to imagine Durer writing out a conceptual explanation to accompany his painting or etching. As if somehow the materiality of the *thing* wasn’t enough, there was the fact that it would take *time* for the piece to be complete, and etc etc etc. Now photography is part of this question. The reason I value the photographers I value is that their work seems to approach this question from another direction. Contra Hennessy, there is something uniquely linked in the best photography to our sense of the irretrievable past. All photos suggest a temporal desire, a searching for the past, even if only momentarily past. That is what a photograph is, memento from the immediate past in a sense. Mass culture siphons off this desire to create kitsch anecdotes, vacation postcards and this has the effect of soothing the anxiety of amnesia. In this sense in the subjective is organized the nonidentity of the universal and particular (per Adorno) and it is given expression not as domination but as freedom, but this organization is what mass culture destroys, or is always working to tear down. So, all the manufactured images of mass commodity culture work at eroding the transformative potential of autonomous art. Or, in other words, the forces of capitalist production are always at work to prevent that subjective organization that authentic art creates. One of the negative influences of mass culture has been its granting permission for a fake populism to be embraced by left and right alike, for different reasons, but also for the same reason — it is simply easier.

Willem De Kooning

Willem De Kooning

Karl Lowith noted that in the 18th Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, Marx says the bourgeoise had passions without truth, and their truths without passion. There is a sense that he saw their world as one of constant repetitive borrowing and discarding, and the only development was the growth in tension that came out of each cycle of the same. *Indecision* was the defining element. I was struck this week with just far down the road of infantilizing and dullness today’s culture has traveled the last sixty years. A friend I know, a playwright, and a quite good one, wrote me to describe the process of application for this fellowship in theatre. She didn’t get it, there were a couple thousand entries. The finalists all had MFA’s, three of the four were white, all went to expensive universities and all had been workshopped at either Yale, Brown, Colombia or Harvard. Nothing of any quality has come out of this system for twenty five years. Nothing. This new professional class of artist is, like John Gerrard (who at least has, I believe, talent) looking at the world from the vantage point of their superiority. Kierkegaard saw the same culture Marx saw, but through his own Christian filter. And he clocked what he saw as Europe’s spiritual decline. Adorno’s first published work was on Kierkegaard. He wrote “…there is only an isolated subjectivity, surrounded by a dark otherness.” Another of Marx’s insights is that we are essentially acting not as ourselves, but as agents of ourselves. Everyone is manipulated or coerced by history, both collective and individual. One does something, say, pay a gas bill. That is coerced; you are tasked with the reality of the gas bill. Today, the accumulation of empty activity has grown, in fact has grown so far as to be almost the totality of waking life, and hence it has become the culture as well. If art and culture were once antagonists to social coercion, today art is the replica of social coercion. The most experimental *art* today actually IS social coercion. This is what Marina Abramovic has perfected as her brand. Of course there are artists making great work, and experimenting, but they largely remain on the margins. I don’t think ever before has there been such a clear divide between commercial entertainments, regardless if labeled as something else, and serious work.

Adorno in his early writing on Kierkegaard, but also again at the end of his life in his lecture notes, emphasized that these social necessities are in a sense what forms the borders or boundaries of what is called the ‘individual’. We are shaped, deep in our psyche, by the trauma of entering the world, and by this coercive socialization process. So, that *indecision* Marx noted was echoed in “Either/Or”. The spiritual decline was, in crude terms, exemplified by a gulf between ourselves as agents of ourselves, and ourselves as a subjectivity hidden and even secret.

Giorgio di Noto, photography/video. From Tunesia 2011, "The Arab Revolt".

Giorgio di Noto, photography/video. From Tunesia 2011, “The Arab Revolt”.


“The sphere of psychology in which we imagine that we are ourselves is also the sphere in which in a certain, obscure sense we are furthest from being ourselves. This is because we are performed by that being-for-others to the very core of our being.”
Adorno
Lecture 8, History and Freedom, 1964

The coercion of socialization, that performing of the role of yourself, which is necessitated by material conditions, is what captures the last corner of autonomous existence in the human. It is also the historical process at work. And a forgetting of history, a denial of this coercion, eliminates any chance for transformative consciousness. Put another way, today, mass culture, the hegemony of giant corporate electronic screen harvesting of attention is the last incursion of the last assault on being human, or more precisely, on the human capacity to mature into adulthood, and establish the preconditions for genuine awareness, of spiritual growth. Everything in this assault is advertised for its humaness, as help, and asks for conciliatory submission in the individual. The individual as audience. Mass audience. One is instructed to see this role as mass audience as actually the zenith of individuality — the public is told that this is what they ‘want’. So the last remaining corner of old growth consciousness is clear cut. And this is, honestly, for me, what the mass public psyche feels like today. The resistance to this is coming from those most exploited by these forces. And there is much to feel encouraged about in the protests this week coming from both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murders. But nobody escapes this psychic intrusion.

Reich’s term *emotional plague* (of which I was reminded in the last comment thread) is amazingly pertinent today. I knew an old Reichian, someone who had studied with a man who was an early student of Reichs’. I find myself referring back to our discussions probably more than anyone else in my life that I can remember. And often the idea of sexual fascism came up, of the emotional plague. Americans today are astoundingly angry. And this is part of what one can track in Hollywood film and TV. It is a nastiness, a pettiness, a selfish snarky bitter resentment that surfaces under guise of one abstraction or another. Adorno, in those great late lectures in 1964 and 65, writing about the colonizing of consciousness, said: “We are not dealing with arbitrary subjective processes that can be avoided as long as you have a modicum of insight, self confidence and critical spirit. A necessity rules here and you can count yourself lucky if you can keep your head above water long enough to recognize it and give it a name. But no none should imagine that he is immune to it or that a fortunate intellectual disposition can make him independent of such mechanisms.”

Kano Sansetu. Early 17th century, painted screens.

Kano Sansetu. Early 17th century, painted screens.


Adorno was speaking to his University students. I always read his lectures and am surprised at the enormous affection he has for these students, and warmth, and it so flies in the face of the popular conception of him. But then of course this is the time of the emotional plague. Adorno added in that lecture, as an afterthought to his class, for his topic was not social psychology, that if humans today were to be able to really grasp the extent to which they are imprinted by the Universal (the untruth that is the whole) they would likely not be able to bear it. Their self esteem and confidence being so severely crushed, would not be resilient enough to recover.

Today, the striving for profit among the ownership class, and the striving for survival among the working poor, yield the deformities of character Reich spoke of, and really that Freud wrote of as well. The peculiarity of 21st bourgeois character formation resides, I think, in this compulsion to both be meaningful and important historically — this deep identification with the Universal — and the refusal to grow up. The adult children of the West are, today, increasingly strident, hysterical, bitter, maladaptive to any procedure that includes cooperation and sharing. The infantile selfishness of American society is making it the most unpleasant place to live perhaps in the world. And that is not really an exaggeration.

Humberto Rivas, photography. 'Barcelona 1980'.

Humberto Rivas, photography. ‘Barcelona 1980′.


The coddled privilege of white people is true enough, but this same educated class suffers the deepest psychological impairments amid their relative comfort. This is what sublimation really entails, the sacrifice of a certain inwardness. Today, there has perhaps never been so many echos, the constant reiteration of some trope, some meme, some assumption or position that is granted acceptance because of clever advertising or propaganda. I cannot believe in the history of the world that any society has so had it’s citizens parrot each other to this degree. Once something is in the cycle, it must be iterated several billion times, in cyber space, at home, in public, anywhere until the perfect crystalized but empty symbol remains. But to bring this back to the history of abstraction.

That mass public taste today tends toward the infantile, the question of abstraction might seem beside the point. And perhaps in one way it is. The infantilized U.S. viewer, or audience, gravitates toward the cuddly, the fluffy, the inane. Telly Tubby art in a sense. Jeff Koons is more or less an example of this. In narrative, the current abysmal “Showtime” series The Affair (now predictably nominated for awards)is writing that, in its sentimentality and distance from reality, serves as a teddy bear might to a child. Comforting, real but not real. One holds it close and sees in it something wonderful about my family and friends, or in the case of The Affair, and not the teddy bear, about my class; it is quintessentially middle brow, but worse, it is this pretend gravitas that is, in reality, just the talismanic teddy bear of white superiority. Abstraction does have a history, and it is in that historical self awareness, that is, the artworks self awareness (in a sense) that the working out of the ultimate implications of what came before take place. Another way to say this, to look at Matisse is to examine the implications of his technique and touch. Of course it is easy to see why Matisse meant so much to DeKooning. And then why Monet meant so much to Newman. It is not simply technique though, it is social history too. The world is reconstructed emotionally by the artists touch. For Ruskin, a history of abstraction might be hard to imagine. For John Berger it might be far easier. And the same for Robert Hughes, and Donald Kuspit. If Arshile Gorky was working out his childhood exile he was doing it by way of Kandinsky. Still, for all the first generation Ab Ex painters there was certainly an awareness of a history of abstraction. And part of that was to reduce or eliminate references, quotes. I never believed this meant that so called ‘action painting’ was ever about action, OR surface. But it was about the renewal of the spiritual. By the time of the Chapelle, Matisse was no longer searching for technical answers, he was a sort of Zen priest who surveys the world, acceptingly, resignedly, but always sensually. Matisse was among the last of the genuinely unrepressed artists of the century. At least in his work. Summer ended, I think, at Vence.

Alia Malley, photography. 'Los Angeles'.

Alia Malley, photography. ‘Los Angeles’.


The cultural climate today is one that would rather laugh at the Whitney Biennial winners than to experience them. Of course, the Whitney winners are only there to BE sneered at. This isn’t serious work, this is marketing. It is the extraction of attention from a public increasingly hostile to culture and art in general. Without mock controversy there is fuck all to say about the crap usually put up at Whitney Biennial. If public opinion is not ridiculing the work, the Biennial has failed miserably. Those fellowships in theatre, as rigged as the Ferguson Grand Jury, that parse out monies to elite students at rich universities, working with *star* professors of theatre, are no different from any corrupt illegitimate institution. But the idea of Abstraction in painting is not the removal of a story, it is the expansion of it. The very existence of work that defies conventional historical quotes, or that conveniently tells the viewer the *concept* behind the work, is work whose lack of purpose is actually its autonomous unreconciled tension, the non identical Universal and particular. It is also work, at its best, that is a corrective to the emotional plague. It is the anti Puritan relfex.

A final note here. I wrote a piece that will appear at Truthout soon. It was about urban space, freeways, and in particular about Los Angeles freeways. This in light of the protests, and it touched on class divisions marked by this traffic arteries. As I was researching it I came across some photos by Alia Malley. I recognized immediately that they were of LA. I even knew pretty close where in LA. But what I liked was that this was an El Lay that I know, and its an LA that is never seen in Hollywood film or TV. It is the evocative spaces of the far east of the county, Irwindale to Fontana, and Duarte and beyond. These are the empty industrial spaces of a very neglected lumpen Los Angeles. I was born in St Joseph’s hospital in Burbank. I grew up in Los Angeles, in Hollywood actually. The space of Los Angeles, the hills, the deserts, the freeways are ingrained in my vision, and now being away, in the near arctic Norway, it is very powerful to see and so instantly access that imprint on me that are these images.

Alia Malley, photography. 'Los Angeles'.

Alia Malley, photography. ‘Los Angeles’.


We never forget the space of our birth. Of childhood. It always is retained in a secret location in our memory, sometimes not accessible even to ourselves. But this is always a conflicted memory trace, for these memories also are part of the mechanism that chains us to this unsolvable unreconciled idea of life, and is closely attached to mimesis. In one sense, it is directly linked. For *I* am *that*. The curve of those hills, right there. This is, however, an identification premised on a reductive psychology. But this is that coercion, for I am most myself in those photos, and I am also least myself. I am become most vulnerable at this moment to the ideology that created this entire model of experience. The past is what is always being broken with, if you read art critics and historians. What they mean usually is this is art that is NOT breaking with the past. For if it were, we would not be calling it art. The nostalgia for home is a profound myth for the 20th century, and the 21st. Forced migration, the exile, those who never return home. There is no more horrific image in contemporary life than Israeli settlers wantonly cutting down Palestinian olive trees. This they understood, the occupier knows this is how to destroy memory. The looting of the Baghdad museum was another example of removing even the possibility for memory, and then, logically, for culture. In the United States today, there is little memory. There is jingoism and the somnambulant screen culture of a constant now. The somnambulant texting as he sleep walks, while the state continues its practices of waterboarding and rectal feeding. Genuine art is a refuge (Adorno) of mimesis, and this refuge has unmistakable monastarial connotations, but this is almost an inner symbolic enactment (or vice versa) of some Thai and Japanese monasteries in which monks sat in rows facing each other, or sat in rows with their backs to the ‘other’. Either/Or.
Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.

Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.


Abstract art is not a Rorschach test. Nor gestalt. And this touches on the ways in which the artist works out his own logic of mimesis. Until mass culture today is eventually stripped down to allow a painstaking excavation of the ideology of Empire.

I find in U.S. society today a strange paradox as it relates to both culture and politics. The snide infantile narcissistic petulance co-exists with a sort of pseudo positivist need to agree, a compulsion for agreement. The result is this parroting of cliched agreement undercut with an equally hysterical need to be special, to hold special opinions, to own these opinions like one owns a new Mercedes or new Nike trainers. The approach to artworks tilts far toward a positioning of agreement, and this feels like the blowback of the unreconciled. Nobody escapes, but it would be a sign of transformative change to hear critical ideas that were not about ‘winning’ or owning. That were more about simply a kind of distrust. Western society needs far more distrust in the same way it needs a new ability to listen. The white population certainly needs to listen. To shut up, and listen to people of color, and to the poor. Listen to those that the media label losers. Just be quiet and listen. Distrust winning in all forms, but mostly, just listen.

Monochrome

"Gulf Shore Louisiana, 2007" Josef Hoflehner, photography.

“Gulf Shore Louisiana, 2007″ Josef Hoflehner, photography.

“When a couple of local people asked us where we were staying that evening we replied that we would just pull our car next to a park and catch some sleep. Horrified, our new friends told us bluntly that “The Los Angeles Police (LAPD) will pull you out of your car, kick the shit out of you and then arrest you.”
This grim assessment of the LAPD was corroborated in the wake of the 1992 LA riots by a local fifth-grade teacher who told historian Mike Davis that: “In the area where I work, the LAPD is a sadistic occupying army.”

Paul Ortiz,
The Anatomy of a Rebellion (Solidarity)

“…the social contract establishes corporate virtue as an asylum for individual sin, making a moral society out of immoral men; men whose natural inclination, according to Hobbes and Freud, is murder.”
Norman O. Brown

I was thinking about the artists I know personally. In this week of Grand Juries expressly vindicating, almost as a matter of formal announcement, a white supremacist vision for America. The artists I know range from officially non commercially successful, to moderately successful, to famous. I know painters and writers and theatre artists and even a dancer. Somehow, in this week in which black America has begun to find their collective voice and with them the poor in general, and the remaining few sane. But I don’t know if I see enough artists participating, but perhaps its early. Very few white people see this narrative for what it is; a white epic. This is the Epic story of America; slave trader, plantation owner, segregated and hierarchical. Black folk sat over there, white man sat here. There was always racist police in the U.S. In fact, they’re impossible to separate. Police=Racist. There is no police force, as we know it, if there were not clear racial hierarchies to enforce. No police without property, white people property, to protect. No better illustration of this than post Katrina New Orleans. What did the police do? Did they bring water to the dehydrated stuck on rooftops? No, they hurried to secure property from looting. American police have always done the same, and you can look at the LA/Watts riots (uprising or rebellion if you prefer — though I’m happy with the word RIOT…I have no bad associations with that word) of 1965. There was the Fred Hampton murder by Chicago police, and there was those cops beating on Rodney King, or there was Danzinger Bridge, or there were the ‘Rough Riders’ in Oakland in the 90s, and later Oscar Grant. There was Kimani Gray, and Assata Shakur, and there was Hurricane Carter, and going back to 1919, what James Weldon Johnson called *the red summer*, in which twenty cities had “race riots”; culminating in the summer conflict in Chicago. Worth noting that Irish immigrants were later named instigators for a good deal of the violence against blacks, and especially the Hamburg Athletic Club, among whose members was 17 year old future mayor Richard Daley. The narrative though, really, changed very little whether the city was Charleston, or Chicago, Oakland or St. Louis, Tulsa or Knoxville. The cosmetic decorations might change, but the storyline never varies.

Rosewood, Florida 1923, 'The Rosewood Massacre'

Rosewood, Florida 1923, ‘The Rosewood Massacre’

Today the mainstream media manufactures varieties of white supremacist stories to flatter white consumers. It provides ample ideological support for the idea that white’s are not the aggressors in race conflicts, that white’s need to help more, and donate more, and the proof of progress is in the White House, but never do they see that this a story of a lethal white society with it’s boot heal on the black population.

But this is also all rather obvious. And I mean, look, if this ISN’T obvious today, right now, then it is no doubt too late to learn. Eric Garner, a man who was a threat to nobody. On tape. Choked to death. By a white cop. How hard is it to process this storyline? Grand Jury doesn’t indict. So, given the obvious, I want to perhaps look at what I take to be a bit less obvious, and to do so is to delve into the ways in which I believe culture and art matter. Why they are socially radicalizing, potentially.

Fred Wilson. "Cabinetmaking" 1992.

Fred Wilson. “Cabinetmaking” 1992.


But let me return to the artists I know personally. Those I know who had integrity, and were driven by a seriousness about art, have suffered enormously. Quite literally most are insane. At least they are highly dysfunctional today. And that is because they have not been recognized. The degree to which radical voices are made invisible is extraordinary. Not being seen, literally, makes people crazy. It is an unforgiving culture for those in the arts if they have not gained significant recognition by the age of forty. And to be granted that recognition costs one his or her soul. And this raises questions about how society sees art and those who make art. There has been a tendency that runs alongside the commodification of culture and that is the professionalizing of art, and the less talked about hobby-fication of art. If you don’t make it, in art or anywhere else in this predatory system, and you create things, the psychological safeguard mechanism is to treat it as a hobby. George Bush paints, now. How many actors (movie stars) ended their days as hobby painters? Many many many. But these were celebrities: and they were dabbling, staying *creative*. If you were an auto mechanic and decided at age fifty to paint, you might be seen as troubled and your wife or husband might show real fear. And if you painted weird abstract art or made minimalist sculpture, you would be seen as in need of an intervention.

If you painted fluffy dogs, or landscapes…well, ok, still strange, but not dire. The point is that the second half of the 20th century has turned the very idea of an artist into a cliche.

Theordoros Stamos

Theordoros Stamos

The culture of the West, primarily in the U.S. and western Europe, the idea of a commitment to art, irrespective of financial success, is as obsolete as making buggy whips. Or learning to repair typewriters. Today you develop a brand. But this is obvious in a sense, and what is far less obvious is what has replaced the hole in society where artists used to be? The question is not where art used to be, for we still have art. But I am less sure we still have artists. Marx said there is a progressive and regressive side to everything. The regressive aspect to artists resides in the cult of genius, the petulance and primma dona like narcissism. This rise in the idea of a single creative genius is a large topic, but more or less it coincided with the development of the bourgeois burgher, the great businessman, who could buy a portrait, and in this was born today’s idea of individuality. The tortured genius, alone, driven in a search for revelation was the cultural myth applied to the arts. The erosion of this was only in the sense that revelation was abandoned and replaced with brand. What was lost was the sense of radicalism itself, and of conscience. For artists at their best entail a sense, or carry a sense of conscience along with them. Beethoven, Goya, Melville, Tolstoy, or Paul Celan, or even Shakespeare. The work then is unable to separate itself from the material world around it. The culture was defined by this expression, an expression that was oppositional. Even within the status quo, a certain understanding existed, often betrayed, but still, an understanding that the artist was apt to bite the hand that fed it. Material reality was confronted by the historical weight of the artist, and artwork. As Adorno said, “Their enchantment is disenchantment”.The artwork entailed a double character.

“It was plausible that socially progressive critics should have accused the program of *l’art pour l;art*, which has often been in league with political reaction, of promoting a fetish with the concept of a pure, exclusively self-sufficient artwork.”
Adorno

Jean Antoine Watteau, "The Blunder", 1716.

Jean Antoine Watteau, “The Blunder”, 1716.


Artworks, Adorno goes on, posit something spiritual as being independent of the material conditions of production. The artist then, carries with him or herself a sense of guilt and failure, and it is this guilt of being a fetish that is shared by the audience, or viewer, for it is shared by everyone in a society of untruth — and this reaches toward the necessity of fetishes. For in this recognition of guilt, of failure, the artwork (and artist) stand in a dynamic tension with exchange value. Marx noted the fact that Milton’s poems made him little or no money, and to this could be added Moby Dick, a book so vilified by critics and readers that Melville considered never writing again. These works had no market value. No socially useful labor. Art was the hedge against utility, and rationalization.

This is one of the densest sections of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. And there is a crucial sentence here that I want to quote:

“Artworks that want to divest themselves of fetishism by real and extremely dubious political commitment regularly enmesh themselves in false consciousness as the result of inevitable and vainly praised simplification. In the shortsighted praxis to which they blindly subscribe, their own blindness is prolonged.”

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), FX. Kurt Sutter creator.

Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), FX. Kurt Sutter creator.


This relates to, as Adorno says, the division of labor. The false perception that fetishism is only objectivation. In other words, the societal reception to the artwork is secondary to production of the artwork — interpretation or decipherment of the artwork is firstly an understanding of production, not the hierarchical assessment of its effects, message, or socially agreed upon meaning or appearance. Art is always mediated. If this is looked at in flash forward sixty years (since Adorno wrote) the mediation is complete now, and on a socially total scale. Adorno said that ‘every authentic artwork’ was revolutionary, at least internally. It is a schematic for internal change. Today, the tendency toward integration, by means of this absolute mediation, results in the erosion of what is radical in the artwork. Popularity can kill even the greatest work, and trivialize the artist.

“In the administered world neutralization is universal.”
Adorno

Laurenz Berges, photography.

Laurenz Berges, photography.


Neutralization emphasizes again the double character of art. The fact that abstract art is hung in the lobbies of multinational oil company headquarters suggests that what is being tacitly praised by Exxon or Mobil is the titillation of oppositional work which provides the owner with a certain access to that unconscious danger they so steadfastly repress. This is the conflicted area of art’s social role, again. Art is always going to be bad art if it’s intention is to form opinion (per Adorno). The society of domination loves nothing better than to bestow qualities of beauty and nobility upon the very people they terrorize and oppress.

“Real denunciation is probably only a capacity of form, which is overlooked by a social aesthetic that believes in themes.”
Adorno

This truth suggests the pointlessness of agit prop and protest art. It is destined for a bourgeois identification, but this fact is not unique to it, for the false consciousness of all overtly political art is shared by the reception one finds in ironic appreciation of George Bush’s fluffy dogs. There is today, it seems to me, a de facto partiality to all mimetic process. By which I mean, if we take narrative, in fiction, or in film or T.V., the ascension of genre, its spread to almost all corners of human discourse, has assaulted the previously assumed goal of coherence and completion. This partiality or fragmented expression encloses or contains the primary contradictions of Capital. This is why the critique that dismisses, for example, everything that contains violence as harmful, is itself hewing too closely to Puritanical censorship. This is not to say that the wholesale selling of non-stop violence is not a direct goal of a state bent on normalizing the violence it inflicts on its own population, or what the ruling class sees as a surplus population, but that this sort of complaint is simply far too simplistic, and is in formal agreement with the bourgeois structure of policing ideas.

Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya


Take for example the TV series Sons of Anarchy. It is easy to see the profligate excess in depictions of violence and sadism, to see its sexism and florid machismo. All this is true and undeniable. But, this is also perhaps the single show I can think of in which the lumpen class, the lowest rung of the working class in America, is honestly depicted. Is this is an accurate representation of biker gangs? Of course not. But after I believe season two, the addition of Kem Nunn as executive producer, and part time writer, signaled a sea change in the sensibility of the narratives and it did become, partially, an honest representation of minimum wage life. This became a show in which everyone, every single character (save the biker gang) was marked by the work they *have* to do, by the soul deadening monotony of wage slavery. The bikers themselves are the only characters (conspicuously) who flaunt their refusal to take day jobs. That is their perceived heroism in a sense. And they pay the societal price for it. This is a landscape of cheap apartments, cheaper bars, garages, discount furniture stores, and strip malls — all are dismal, suffocating and deteriorating. The racial prejudice is presented as self evident, as it is in society. Everyone is sacrificed because nobody has a choice. A world in which routine custody or prison terms is expected, an incorporated part of the system in which the poor must live. Corruption is systemic, and honor is carved out of the debris that is all that remains for the poor. Truck drivers, waitresses, porn actors and transgender hustlers are allowed moments of actual dignity. Nowhere else is class presented quite so clearly in mainstream product. There is also (and I’m sure this is Nunn’s influence) a tragic resignation to the entire arc of the show. It is surprisingly unsentimental. This is a comic book Sophocles in a sense. Lurid, excessive, and exhibitionistic, yes. But one should not discount the genuine awareness displayed on the subject of working class suffering. Nowhere does anyone *win* anything not utterly transient. I suspect those who grew up in this world, or on the edges of it, anyone who can spent time in prison or jail, will not, at least privately, find something resonant in the stories.
The Servant (1963). Joseph Losey, dr.

The Servant (1963). Joseph Losey, dr.


The point is that this is not the rabid fascistic political fantasy of Madame Secratary or States of Affair, or Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom. The content is here encloses a social truth, one in which there is no universalizing totalism, no generic bromides save perhaps the virtue of honor, however disfigured. This culture of scientific classification and ironic regressivness, a strange fragmenting of genre takes place in which the residue of all ‘Everyman Plays’ is being, perhaps even unintentionally, worked out. Trauerspiels on Harleys.

Now, this is a question of mediation. For the processes of neutralization that take place are today nearly total. If I had to select a film in the last three or four years that I think most highly of, it would be, probably, Mister John. And here it is important to discern the register in which the viewer is mimetically engaged with a film such as this, and the way in which one can tweeze apart something rare but diminished in Sons of Anarchy. It is a question of navigating the ineffabile and of stepping back from a bourgeois insistence on coherence on the part of the audience. Adorno, again, says in art ideology and truth cannot be so easily distinguished from each other. Today, even within ideology can be found grains of genuine negation. Mister John is so masterful in form, in execution, that mimesis is foregrounded and Utopian promise, even if necessarily broken eventually, is there as aesthetic awakening. In the FX television series, this is not so. One clings to an appreciation of something amid the larger fraud. It is a memory trace, a recognition of a contour that reminds us of something lost, but it also can only do this by an aesthetic action that negates from within the form. And this is discovered in the lobby of Exxon, and to what degree artworks survive that lobby and the implications of this survival. But this form, a corporate produced mainstream TV show, is now of such monumental hegemonic totalizing power that it remains an open question how diminished might be even these few grains.

Jean Antoine Watteau

Jean Antoine Watteau


Brian O’Connor in his essay on Adorno and epistemology says; “…the criterion can be adjusted if it seems no longer compatabile with the object” Experience contains a moment of nonidentical intimation of the specificity of the object. Or, a non-conceptual moment. This is really the place where one starts to talk about the spiritual in art. But it is always linked to a physical material concrete object. For without that concreteness, there is only new age mush. There is only conceptual games of intellect. And that is always reactionary. And this leads into why artists like David Lynch are so tiresome. The production of effects (the *weird* effect in his case) is regressive if not linked to the material world, and I think, by extension to history. Subjectivity is not a receptacle for data. It also does not just invent the world. The individual is making sense of the world and in that way is shaping some part of this experience of the object. The relevant aspect of this for aesthetics is linked up with ideology, and of course with mediation by a society of domination. The vast never ending 24 hour a day onslaught of image and narrative manufactured by a very few generators of information, has raised questions, as stated above, about how diminished cultural life has become. Society is *in* artworks and as such, today, is part of the apparatus of mystification. The shape of the artwork, internally, is reliant, most of time and maybe all of the time to the society in which it is produced. In other words, everything is dependent to some degree on the system of domination. And there is no escape. Its only which avenue one wants to travel. Or which is imposed at any particular moment. In art, in that which aspires in some fashion to negate the status quo, the forces of production are separated in a fashion from their previous role in domination. This becomes about how to unravel the reified commodity artwork, and to what extend obedience is understood, for everything in the marketplace, even if not intended for it, is in service to those who hold power. If the CIA tried to use Abstract Expressionism, it probably failed, but not entirely. Anti commercial art is often more compromised than that which accepts partial mediation (everything, again, is mediated) because (per Adorno) the antithesis is abstract and facile. In a Lynch, there is only the decorative fatuity of a valentine to social domination. But in the same way, agit prop or overtly radically political art is often betrayed by the philistinism of its form.

The very idea of beauty is now so threadbare and compromised that it exists only as Hallmark Greeting card kitsch. And here enters the comforting notion of irony. That velvet painting of Elvis is ironically amusing, maybe even by some pirouettes of logic subversive, but it’s also still a velvet painting of Elvis.

Rafal Milach, photography. "Black Sea".

Rafal Milach, photography. “Black Sea”.


Today, the installation or site specific art project, or conceptual (sic) project is a burlesque of sovereignty — for what it is selling is only a pre-shaped reception, complete with free extra attitude thrown in. The very definition of vulgarity is the artist’s insistence on novelty and originality. It is here, too, that genre has arrived in a transformed role. For genre now includes varieties of shopping experience, of marketing, and of its role in relationship to the hegemonic structures that grant visibility to mass product. The affirming of bad taste by mass product, the creation of permission to luxuriate in bad taste is now a stalwart marketing strategy.

The erasure of distance between high and low art has left genre to fill into void. There is really nothing regressive in seeing Shakespeare as a sit com. Not inherently. Not today. The problem is that this usually entails adapting the presentation of Shakespeare to a tradition of formula kitsch, and thereby validating the oppressive state of the audience. So the question of Sons of Anarchy revolves around whether the honesty found in a depiction of working class poverty and suffering is not simply reinforcing an acceptance of this suffering by layering it over with a mock heroism. I suspect this is certainly the case with any number of recent Hollywood films featuring celebrity movie stars slumming it as lumpen characters in cartoon versions of daily oppression. Where once the clown and servant (Losey’s film version of Pinter’s script for The Servant comes to mind) held a place as figures of liberation, today they are simply clowns and servants (Downton Abby). The sentimentality incrusted on comedic or romantic romps featuring Pygmalion like prostitutes or homeless men is the extreme bad faith of this dynamic. Part of this is the erasing of history in such characters. The centuries of sevitude and humiliation that is wiped away by the smile of a rich CEO (Prince) who promises a happy ever after future. In Shakespeare the nobility and royality are aware of there complicity, as are the soldiers or sheriffs in Cormac McCarthy, or Faulkner, or in the criminals of so many film noirs from the 40s. Today’s mass audience, predominately white and educated and reactionary, for film and TV and theatre is one in which contradiction is acute. They survey their cultural market shelf in search of the most flattering forms of titillation, or at least the most normalizing narrative reinforcing their privilege. The catastrophe of Capitalism can only be expressed in a form that echos that catastrophe in form, not in a message that says ‘capitalism is catastrophic’ while humming along in seamless ease. The liberal educated audience today is strikingly reactionary in fact.

Gordon Parks, photography. 1956

Gordon Parks, photography. 1956


The left seems more and more intent on self branding Puritanism, solidifying their hold of micro positions of cool. The buzz kill asceticism of many leftists is only thinly veiled authoritarianism. Attacking Russel Brand for who he dates, or for his good looks or something, rather than seriously examining the fact that his radicalism, however mediated (and god knows its mediated in the extreme) has reached tens of thousands more than those tiresome Trotskyists hawking their tiresome newspapers on street corners. Maybe working with a voice that reaches so many is just common sense. Noam Chomsky has a large stock portfolio, and Naomi Klein is reasonably affluent. This is not a race to the bottom.

So, there is then, running alongside this discussion the recent Ferguson protests, and now Eric Garner. And it is here that in the form of a black community pushed to the absolute brink of endurance, that serious voices of change can be found. For the sense of increasing blindness, or impaired vision, in the white society today, is seen reflected back at them by mainstream cultural product. The overwhelming mono-culture represented not just in news, but in entertainments and art (sic) has a mirror expression in the Grand Jury decisions, absolutely foreordained, in the cases of Michael Brown, and perhaps even more in Eric Garner. The absence of a narrative that actually existed on film in the case of Garner is suggestive of the absence of heterogeneity in all mainstream culture. Garner is invisible except as mannequin/plot point in the never ending saga of white surpremacy. The new story is the same story only told in ever flatter language, in a depthless arid prose and performed by ever more wooden voices; the voices of the both the kindergarten teacher and maitre’d. The district attorney speaking to the assumed superiority of the white audience, a gentlemen’s club wink, a self conscious exaggerated performance of patience at having to endure the bad manners of the crowd, voices of white guidance, and example. For even in the snide ironic narcissism of Lena Dunham or Bill Maher is found the barely hidden stern school marm that will punish after class. All entertainment now is white jingoism, but couched in a narrative sculpted from jailers bent on a bed count once curfew is called. This is entertainment 99% of the time today. And this saturation of sameness is akin today to mental illness. It is also self loathing. Perhaps one reason societies of relative sanity value culture is that atrophied imagination defaults to brutality.

Gaki Zoshi, Scroll of The Hungry Ghosts. Late 12th century. (detail) 日本語: 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし)

Gaki Zoshi, Scroll of The Hungry Ghosts. Late 12th century. (detail) 日本語: 餓鬼草紙 (がきぞうし)


And in a sense this leads me back to my thoughts about the artists I know. But also, two painters I somehow feel worth mentioning here. One was Theodoros Stamos. One of the younger Abstract Expressionists, Stamos had worked odd jobs, florist, hat blocker, and while studying on scholarship at the American Artists School, he visited Steiglitz’ American Place Gallary. This was a seminal moment for Stamos, as was meeting Ashile Gorky when Gorky came into a frame shop at which Stamos was working. Stamos was from a Greek born family, but was himself born in New York. He gravitated to the immigrant painters of the New York School, and his work was keenly influenced by Gorky and Still, as well as by Baziotes. Stamos traveled most of his life. He was a restless inquisitive man, and later became executor for his friend Mark Rothko’s estate. In between travels he taught for a couple years at Black Mountain College. The involvement with the Rothko estate was to doom his career and reputation, rather unfairly in retrospect. The details are well documented (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-grant/theodoros-stamos_b_1327696.html) and the shadow that hung over Stamos work never allowed him the recognition he no doubt deserved.
Stamos was a minor painter in that movement, but the best of the lesser artists to be sure (only Marca Relli looks as good). Looking at his work now, in comparison to Baziotes or Brooks or Jimmy Ernst, there is a tensile strength lacking in the others, as well as the influences of Asian aesthetics, a connection he cultivated, that provide something enigmatic. Never a great colorist, it was more in the sense of distance he provided the viewer, suggested to the viewer, the idea of something suppressed or restrained, something that eventually had to be relieved, but was out of view. He died dishonored in 1997. The reason to mention Stamos here is that his itinerant sensibility, his carelessness about commercial return, probably gave his late work a sense of fatalism that is very much worth revisiting. It is odd perhaps to link him to Jean Antoine Watteau, but I’ve always sort of loved Watteau, and found in him a similar fatalism. To love Watteau means to indulge in a sort of guilty pleasure. His quick brush strokes, his lack of formal gifts are compensated for by a wanton louche eroticism. It is always late summer in Watteau, at least for me. It is always afternoon, even when it’s not. Watteau died young at age 36. He was always frail and sickly, according to accounts, and maybe that is what gives his paintings such poignance. He is the forerunner for Fragonard, and probably others, at least in his creation of Rococo summer idylls, what has been labeled ‘fête galante’. The son of a roofer in the provinces, he rose to some renown at the Regency of the duc d’Orléans, in Paris society. But he was an outsider there, a thin somewhat timid man who learned to paint by being employed to paint copies of famous works by the likes of Rubens, to be sold to tourists. Watteau’s world is bittersweet and also fatalistic. Those summers are seductive but never seem realized somehow. They elicit regret in the viewer, a kind of melancholic nostalgia. It is in the work of such artists that one hears those usually unheard voices of history. They are hushed, perhaps, but not mute. Like Stamos, there was the promise of much more that was never realized. But to reach the level of promise is no small thing.
Theodoros Stamos

Theodoros Stamos


I find with the writers and painters I know, the theatre artists, that it is very hard to see oneself, after a certain age, as an artist. In this society, the parameters for acceptable success are very narrow. One is allowed to be an auto mechanic, one can do that for one’s entire life and be stamped as unimportant, but not deranged or dangerous. In the U.S. there is even a counterfeit kitsch heroism in certain proletarian jobs. Never actual dignity, for mostly the ruling class has a palpable loathing for the poor.

Many artists I know stop their creative work. They stop writing, stop painting, or they do it privately. The situating of an artwork today includes certain presumptions, certain pre-conditions. One is to have official sanction. A gallery or a residency at a theatre, or regular publications. Without that, your work cannot be seen even when it is seen.

Artworks are not the repository of the creator’s feelings or ideas, they are too altered by what Adorno called “the autonomous nexus of the artwork”. The mimetic process is itself creative in a sense, and it is in this meeting place that the viewer or listener or audience is allowed to lose his or her or their identity. Perhaps this is also, partly, what artists do in creating something. That mimetic process is an intrusive moment of objectivity. For this is the world with the screens pulled away, it is something that approaches an instant of non-mediation. One cannot escape, as an artist, the trauma of the social. In a society today, in the U.S. certainly, in which state authority is now wantonly fascistic, and stunningly sadistic, the possibility of *light* entertainment is feeling increasingly depraved. And this moral stain is not easily laundered, and witness the rise in pitch coming from the giant corporate manufacturers of pop culture. It is a kind of shrieking, that is coupled to a form so eroded and emotionally oxidized, that no amount of bought attention or marketing can make it digestible. Only the elite white class, a certain affluent ownership class now even pretends to normalcy. There is an increased awareness, even if the most prostituted of artists or audience that the fictions of the state are unreal. But hence the doubling down on these fictions. In that three a.m. insomniac gaze at the ceiling the voices of unrest are being heard, however. The last words of Eric Garner are heard. I cant breathe.