“Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives.”
What is radically evil. Now, I wrote about snark before, months ago, and here Gawker (Tom Scocca) came out with a very interesting article on exactly this topic.
And both of these topics come together in a culture that is driven by a profound denial of the society around them. I think what strikes me, and this was touched upon in the privilege debate, and that is that the real enemy, the victimizer, is left out of the discussion. The ‘radical evil’ is left for later. First, other people and things need to be assaulted or critiqued. The Gawker piece was pretty sharp, and efficiently outlined the cultural effects of snark, even if not quite getting at the causes.
But what I am getting at is this quality of masking that goes on in the hyper branded reality of day to day life. Laughter masks aggression, and perhaps it always has, but it is an acute phenomenon in this culture. Agreement masks the darker aggreement of the lynch mob. And snark, well, this is a slightly more multi faceted phenomenon. But before getting to snark, there are questions having to do with aggression. My personal and anecdotal sense is that the United States of 2013 is a far far far more angry society than it was in 1961, when I was ten years old. Far angrier. But then the contradictions of Capital are more acute, the economic ruthlessness of the ruling class, and the deeper and more predatory power of corporations is more intense. In fact, corporations, on a day to day basis, are among the worst culprits for increasing anger. The basic lack of a human face, or a privately owned business that knew their customers on a first name business, the sense of insult that so much technological labor saving has caused, on multiple levels, is hard to quanitfy. One could acquit one’s honor, even if just symbolically, with face to face confrontations. As the corporate model grew, so did the excuse of professionalism. Im just doing my job. I don’t ask questions. I do what I’m told. To cause disruptions was a sign of not understanding the ‘reality’ of things. It was always a sign of immaturity. Agreement walks with mature, among the virtues. As Gawker points out, disagreeable attitude is one thing, but a disagreeable fact quite another.
Of course the working class has a right to be angry. Im angry. The destruction of unions, of infrastructure, and the eroding of the social safety net makes almost everyone angry. But, my sense, increasingly, is that anger is often targeting the wrong people. This is not quite the same thing as scapegoating. The search for a sacrificial victim is something humans have done since they first formed groups. Today, it might actually be the case that the scapegoating mechansim, structurally, and otherwise, has stopped working its logic out to the end.
There was a nice scene is a small New Zealand film (Tracker) about the British, a Boer veteran (a cynical anti nationalist) and a wrongly accused Maori laborer. Its a perfectly enjoyable small piece of history, a film about colonialism, about the distortions of “home” and about white narrative making. At any rate, there is a scene between the Boer (Ray Winstone) and the Maori (Temuera Morrison), who has been captured and is being returned to the British. Winstone starts to answer a question the Maori asks him, but he stops. He won’t finish it. The Maori says, it is a bad thing to leave a story unfinished. It is a wound on the soul (or to that effect). It is actually a small but memorable brief scene. Because it is true. There is some connection between being put on hold by an automated answering system, and the repeated interruptions to our private narratives. The society presents entertainment narratives on TV all the time, as part of “series”, and more often than not the show is cancelled before the first season even ends. There is no recourse. It is like being disconnected after waiting twenty minutes to speak to customer service. Nothing to be done. No person, no human, no way to tell your story. So our own stories are interrupted, or disconnected, and the stories of others are interrupted or stopped. Soon, one begins to expect it, and its a little bit like dumping your girlfriend before she dumps you. Because you are afraid she will. You stop listening when not listened to yourself. Now of course to describe network TV as “our stories” is perhaps a bit disengenious, but nonetheless, the fact is that the idea of story itself has changed for everyone, at least to some degree.
In one way, it seems under Capital, that as hard as it is to love, it is harder still to receive love.
Rene Girard, in an interview, said this:
“We must establish first of all that there are two kinds of sacrifice.
Both forms are shown together (and I am not sure anywhere else) in the story of Solomon’s judgment in the third chapter of 1 Kings. Two prostitutes bring a baby. They are doubles engaging in a rivalry over what is apparently a surviving child. When Solomon offers to split the child, the one woman says “yes,” because she wishes to triumph over her rival. The other woman then says, “No, she may have the child,” because she seeks only its life. On the basis of this love, the king declares that “she is the mother.”
Note that it does not matter who is the biological mother. The one who was willing to sacrifice herself for the child’s life is in fact the mother. The first woman is willing to sacrifice a child to the needs of rivalry. Sacrifice is the solution to mimetic rivalry and the foundation of it. The second woman is willing to sacrifice everything she wants for the sake of the child’s life. This is sacrifice in the sense of the gospel. It is in this sense that Christ is a sacrifice since he gave himself “for the life of the world.”
What I have called “bad sacrifice” is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.
But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been “deified,” he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).
But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate “scapegoat”—precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.”
These are the factors involved in storytelling. They are not the only ones of course, but it is interesting to sort of re-examine what the idea of story means, and why, perhaps, the unfinished story can be collectively problematic.
A society that refuses to come to terms with its history of violence, and that insists on a continuing identification with the victimizer, is lodged firmly within an idea of its own entitled redemption. One of the things I’ve noticed amid the current resurrgent racism in the U.S. is that white men, far more than women, but certainly not entirely men, have constructed a de-facto blind redemption for the powerful. The U.S. in this version of things is not exploiting anyone but rather is a force for good. And this goes deeper than just the vulgar neo-con political script. The Imperialist project is easy enough to point toward, but domestically there is a renewal of the scapegoat narrative. Only now, innocence and guilt are relative, and deemed, finally, unimportant. Post modern scapegoating.
The identification with the aggressor is embedded into most Hollywood film and TV narrative. Which, in the unfinished story allows for, or creates even, the sense of the naturalness of aggression.
But, I think its useful here to go back over Jameson’s excellent analysis of Joseph Conrad (in particular Lord Jim). For, Conrad is, and not just for Jameson, a sort of fulcrum or borderland in classic novelistic narratives of the mid 19th century, and of modernism, and, most interestingly, as a prophetic glance forward toward modernism, and post modernist expressions of genre. For Conrad allows of existential, mytho-critical, psychoanalytic, and even Nietzscian readings. But is also relevant for something that arose in the long comment thread of the previous post, and that is the metacommentary of Conrad’s work (or any work). For it was my point before, and is now, that there exists a tendency in much criticism today to minimize the idea of textual art, of writing, to mere craft. And to lump it, not exactly wrongly, into the “expertise” basket, the better to dismiss it. For in Conrad, the idea of description changes. As Jameson points out, it probably was changing already with Flaubert. But in Conrad the density of the text, the richness of the sentences, suggests something well beyond mere description. The fascinating part is that image, in fiction, in all descriptions, carries with it an ideological meaning and history.
There is increasingly, by the time of Conrad, a literary impluse to look upon narrative, the writing of narrative, as part of a decoding of these ideological traces, and of an investigation of, at a micro level, what is the life of sentences in relation to one another. Now one of the reasons for anyone bothering to write a book of fiction, has to do with the embedded history of the story. Even in invented lanscapes, there are historical trace elements, or residues of material life. Conrad wrote of the sea, as did Melville, and as later did Bowles of the desert. And certainly contemporary novelists such as Robert Stone, and before him Hemingway, or even Robert Louis Stevenson, found a portal to, for lack of a better word right now, the unconscious, in landscapes that were more naturally isolated (island locale is another related example). Or the absolute (as Bowles put it). For such landscapes, serving as both narrative containment, and of metaphysical symbolism, are highly attractive to the modernist mind. But it is in such landscapes of clarity that questions of form can be more clearly inspected. The ideological is there as in relief, or in a psychic petri dish, to be dissected. Or, as anti dissection, to be ignored. And, as Jameson adds, the ‘penetration’ of the Imperialist west into such empty spaces, and the resonance of the various responses, is part of the weight of Conrad as an artist. Adding even more, this is again, why narrative is always in some fasion a political narrative. But it is not political in the sense that it can be easily read through a concluding message. For Conrad, the message, the resolution of story, was always highly ambivalent. And not just ambivalent, but almost illegible. Among the reasons Conrad serves as a transitional figure, if not a structural fault line (Jameson) is because his work is always ammenable to a genre reading. Adventure story, sea story of courage and heroism, dealing with honor and cowardice. It is at this point that one sees how, right away, the contemporary narrative of non-completion is also one of obscured content. Or of solipsistic content. Novels are written about the writing of novels of heroism and courage and honor.
There is a strain of Marxist critic who will want to know why a question of honor matters at all to those of us under advanced Capital. And I’m not sure I can answer that without appeal to the poetics, and the metacommentary. If one looks at Hollywood commodity film, the kistch narratives of genre; whether of sci fi or western or rom-com, the ‘natural’ world is one drained of material history. Increasingly all genre resembles science fiction in the sense that sit coms take place in worlds as imaginary as does Gravity or The Walking Dead. The latter zombie fest is not unatural because Zombies do not in fact roam the streets, but because the streets they roam in this show have also never existed. The pre modernist narrative of, say, the 19th century, was still able to harken back to fictional unity, to production of story that inhabited a world where storytellers still might serve a role, and be observed, and by extension, however tenuous, have purpose. The mass cultural post modernism of Hollywood tv and film does not even ask their narrative to end. There is a clearly liberating potential to the unfinished, the fragment, but this is not that kind of unfinished. These are narratives predicated upon a rejection of structural coherence. The resulting incoherence is only contemptuous. The audience doesn’t matter. The profit for the network and its sponsors does. And the new post modernist ironic that manufactures a literary style based on fan appreciation of kistch, is really the production of a simulacra of style. It is the image production and text production that isn’t really positioned anywhere. Radical art disunifies, but it does not disunify by never caring, by a contempt for the reader or viewer.
But there is something else about Conrad. Something observed by Edward Said and Jameson both, though in different ways. And that is that the creation of points of view in Conrad, his somewhat experimental shifting of perspectives, is inseparable from the materiality of language. Or, they are created through a dialectical relationship with speech, and text, and with the history of each. In other words, per Jameson, it is thinking that has discovered the symbolic. For in Conrad the ‘meaning’ of the writing is unclear because Conrad has not planned a message. The decoding machine at the center of his fiction is active, but not in pursuit of narrative theme or message. There is an end. The narrative concludes. But the plot is almost always revealed to have been an illusion. Or, as in Nostromo and Outcast of the Islands, not quite the plot you thought you were reading.
I go into all this because I believe that there is something that can be called art, an art of writing, that is not as simple as craft. I am far from sure I can place the border between these ideas, however. In Conrad, the colonial imagination is present in every description of jungle or ocean. Conrad is useful in how class is revealed, how modes of production and buisness take place, and there are also a number of additional questions of literary legacy, including the influence on Sartre, and of Camus, and finally how Sartre saw Genet, and derealization (this all per Jameson). Sartre’s description of Genet, today, has an eerie similarity to what has happened to three generations raised on television. And indeed there ‘are’ similarities, but there are also differences. But let me return to scapegoating, and try to tie this into this discussion on Conrad and writing.
Everything from the Milgram experiment, to Hannah Arendt’s essay on Eichmann, have been used to reinforce the truth of at least part of Girard’s theories. For the purposes here, I want to look at two things; one is the sense that mimetic desire trends toward the replication of desire throughout society. Everyone becomes a bit more like everyone else, because we all want more or less what other’s want. And two, that narrative as expressed by the culture industry, serves an ever more stripped down and similar feeling prose. And in film, accompanied by similar image styles. And that the heterogeneous narrative, only possible when prose reaches or rises to the level that the reader must engage on a mimetic level (more on that in a second) functions as a sort of antidote. Now, dont hold me to what I know is a highly simplistic model here. But…I think that even the political left today, has forgotten that culture serves to issue metacommentaries, and that from within such dialogues the sense of liberation can exist. The language of revolt can only serve as opposition if it IS oppostional. The language of the opposition becomes a mimetic replication of authority if it fails at this, no matter what it is ostensibly saying.
“Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization.” This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.” There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. The late Herman Kahn spent a lifetime making nuclear war palatable (On Thermonuclear War, Thinking About the Unthinkable), and this strangelovian phoney got very good press. ~
In an excellent article entitled “Normalizing the Unthinkable,” in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists of March 1984, Lisa Peattie described how in the Nazi death camps work was “normalized” for the long-term prisoners as well as regular personnel: “[P]rison plumbers laid the water pipe in the crematorium and prison electricians wired the fences. The camp managers maintained standards and orderly process. The cobblestones which paved the crematorium yard at Auschwitz had to be perfectly scrubbed.” Peattie focused on the parallel between routinization in the death camps and the preparations for nuclear war, where the “unthinkable” is organized and prepared for in a division of labor participated in by people at many levels. Distance from execution helps render responsibility hazy. “Adolph Eichmann was a thoroughly responsible person, according to his understanding of responsibility. For him, it was clear that the heads of state set policy. His role was to implement, and fortunately, he felt, it was never part of his job actually to have to kill anyone.”
from Triumph of the Market
I think that one of the insidious effects of the culture industry, of The Spectacle, has been to make oppositional forces forget that culture is humanizing, and emancipatory, and that the dream of utopia is, perhaps always, born of the creative imagination. If mimetic desire is correct, it is only the one dimensional form of mimesis that results in rivalry and violence. Now Lacan suggests perhaps rivalry is an unavoidable by product of separation from our mother, but even if only partly correct, there remains the distinct imagination and creative life of children. Today, the language of snark and sarcasm is linked to the first register of mimetic desire, to the cheapened rivalry of resentment. And the mask of sympathy is that, a mask. The vengeful crowd is behind every reflexive aggreement. Click like. Its for their own good. Its just my job. This is the culture of aggreement, but not of spontaneous agreement. I think the default setting is snark. Put down. Agreement must be signaled by authority. There is no authority needed for snark and disdain. That’s de facto agreed upon. Conspiracy theorist……har har har. On the left, or with liberals, don’t dare question climate change, for example. Because a lynch mob appears. These same people will not find the energy to get indignant, even, about child servitude, say, or depleted uranium and consequent birth defects. There are only certain pre approved subjects, and this is true even within sub groupings. And usually with a target audience. Pussy Riot is no doubt a USAID or state dept narrative. But there is an intended audience. This isn’t even about the veracity of the story. For the story has no end. Its neither true nor false. Does Pussy Riot whateverhernameis ever leave prison? Who knows. The point is that 2 million men and women are in prison in the United States but magically a lone Russian ( pouty cute not surpisingly) girl artist (a hated category among US citizens) is being cheered. Snark is the falsification of empathy in a sense. Its not just the flip side, its the negation of human feeling. Its a manufactured posture. And the flip side is really this secondary kitsch compassion. The sympathy. Pussy Riot sympathy.Recently in St Louis the police came and stopped a local Church from handing out free hot meals to the homeless. They lacked a permit. Again, I mentioned the same thing last posting. This in the shadow of recent food stamp cuts. What is the story here? I wonder if its not possible that a population brought up and conditioned to accept the fact that many narratives don’t end…that interruption is a likely outcome of all stories…is one that stops thinking in terms of consequences? I realize I have said something like this before, but I hadn’t quite connected this failure to grasp repurcussions as part of a training in narrative. On a sort of symbolic level, the creation of domestic war zones, is not just about flying bullets or police SWAT teams roaming the neighborhood, it is about a damaged landscape of ruins and unfinished public works. Do people internalize the idea of the highway overpass not being completed with a sense of their own life narrative not having a possibility of completion? I see in the faux left, the Zizek followers, that upon the death of Mandela, that he be described as a “bitter old man”. That compromised reality of the ANC is animportant topic, the neo liberal destruction of Africa, almost all of it, but acutely South Africa, is a real story, but one that won’t quite get told, and Mandela was a force for genuine change and was labled a terrorist by the U.S. and Thatcher, and the Queen (after all, she just adored Ian Smith) and was derided for his friendship with Qadaffi. He was the symbol of opposition to the Empire. He may not have been a revolutionary in the sense Troskyists want, but the fawning laudatory “official” public ceremonies this week will include the erasing of his story. Steve Biko wont be mentioned, and I doubt Qadaffi will. The complex history of colonial rule in Africa wont be. So, that on the one hand, the story will not be a story. Mandela will be a marketing emblem. The left will forget the victimizer and pick apart imperfections of those, like Mandela, who just are never good enough.
Great artists are picked apart as well. Or erased. Story is, these days, being changed into non story. Memory comes to feel unfinished as well. Forgetting. There are subtle lines between adulation and hagiography, and cultural hostility. Hermeneutics matters, but so does the memory of culture, the experience of the artwork. This is my feeling when someone says, oh, that Shakespeare, I don’t care about Kings and Royal courts. It is the same hostility to cultural and artistic memory. And snark bleeds into academia, it is the post modern sensibility and it has helped shape the subject position of the left, I think, which has suffered too much defeat. Social change comes out of communities where snark is least active. Attitude, first cousin to snark, is just a sort of unsuccessful snark. Attitude is provincial snark.
The U.S. government now seems mostly in the business of creating chaos and theatres of war. Rebuild them, but not well, and bomb them again. Baghdad or Detroit, Kabul or Newark, Sana’a or Oakland. The business of destruction is big business. And the psychic landscape lurches foward without a narrative that can find its completion. If narratives (as Girard suggests) are transformative for the author and the reader, then stopping the journey of both serves to stop that transformative moment. Artifical demographics…an extended adolescence…has leaked into psychic formation at the basement level. Political analysis, increasingly, feels like the dry bloodless vision of the boardroom, even when it is attempting to tear down boardrooms. Girard says myth does not resist mimetic rivalry. Scripture does. But then he’s a Catholic. Still, the introduction of the pardon is, in fact, what changed the narrative of revenge and scapegoating.
Roberto Calasso ends his small book on art (Literature and the Gods) with this;
“Literature is never the product of a single subject. There are always at least three actors: the hand that writes, the voice that speaks, the god that watches over and compels. Not that they look very different: all three are young, have thick snaky hair. They might easily be taken for three manifestations of the same person. But that is hardly the point. What matters is the division into three self sufficient beings. We could call them the I, the Self, and the Divine. A continuous process of triangulation is at work between them. Every sentence, every form, is a variation within that force field. Hence the ambiguity of literature: because its point of view is incessantly shifting between these three extremes, without warning us and sometimes without warning the author. …Every vibration of the word presupposes something violent, a palaion penthos, an ancient grief. Was it a murder? Was it a sacrifice? It isnt clear, but the world will never cease to tell of it.”
Shifting perspectives. An off stage and an on-stage. An elsewhere, and a present. The unseen and the illegible. The forgotten. The erased. That text carries around a relationship to an ancient grief is done both independent of the plot or theme, and intertwined with it, though often in mysterious ways.
“The poets mind is full of myterious laws…” said Proust. I think the bureaucratization of art is a fatal virus to the creative. It is hard to speak to people more interested in an instrumental ordering of things. Artists have revolutionary impulses, but are not revolutionaries. They contribute to revolutionary awareness, however. But all sides will in the end attack them. The poet, in any medium, provides that shiver, that shock, the small but profound awakening. Coomaraswamy called it, literally, an “aesthetic shock”. This is what the pre Socratic poets wrote of when they wrote of the oracle, the diviner and sleep. The sleep of oblivion. Across this is the technological forms of social domination. For, as Deleuze says “modernity is defined by the power of the simulacrum, by the free circulation of images without truth”. So the final frontier for control has been reached in one sense. And this is the abridged narrative as the normal, the state of surveilled present as the normal, and the instrumental logic of domination now the currency of even the opposition to the state. Everyone speaks a language freed from truth, from poetry, and from mystery. The revolution will be declared and strangely sound like a phone marketing message. Debord was right that the Spectacle now sells desire, but its the simulation of desire. The appearance of desire. Is it desire? Or is it memorex? Debord retained a confidence in the difference. Deleuze less so. As Matt Potolsky points out: “Real criminals take their cues from movies and TV, which in turn obsessively fictionalize true crime stories”.
Baurdrillard saw in hyperrealism a manufactured simulacra that served to reinforce the idea that only ‘certain’ things are real (the President, the government, etc). In the U.S. the culture of toursists and collectors and hobbyists look to recreate an infantile version of daily life. It is the society of mimetic desire shorn of magic. And it is the society whose oracles cant finish their sentence.