Narrative and Empathy

Raymond Hains

Raymond Hains

“Just like the operations of the consciousness, these scriptural graves are defective: there is a fissure in the construction, a leak in the system. In an almost totemic way, historiography is infected by what it touches as the past always seems to overhaul the present. And thus the real not only reveals itself in discourse, it also makes a disturbing appearance when writing is confronted with its own limits or, in other words, when the factory of history suddenly has to face its industrial waste.”
Alex Demeulenaere

“Strategies are undermined by unpredictability. Tactics make an ally of unpredictability.”
Stan Goff

“Narration created humanity.”
Pierre Janet

There is a fascinating dialogue between Fabio Akcelrud Durao, and Robert Hullot-Kentor, from just a couple years ago. Hullot-Kentor is a translator of Adorno. He’s a very interesting figure, though one (as I wrote last post) who I disagree with a good deal. But…the topics of both mimesis and space are introduced. And I have to confess, re reading his essay on Barbarism I find I am not at all sure what exactly the point is, but then perhaps it is that such points themselves are barbaric. (but Im not sure).

RHK: “Where there is space, there are objects of systematic management”.

That’s not exactly right, or rather not right at all. Hobbes wonderful quote is cited; “Space is the phantasm of a thing existing without thought”. But Hullot-Kentor does say “Mimesis is primordial to empathy”. One has to dig into the idea of mimesis, which almost everyone has accepted as Adorno’s impossible idea. Hullot-Kentor calls it ‘the involuntary karaoke of the self’. Which is more or less what I’ve meant when I say we re-narrate as we engage with narrative. Watching a film, we practice this karaoke, when we read a novel or short story, we re-narrate as we go along. In theatre, we don’t quite. And in poetry, I might argue, some poetry anyway, operates in a way much closer to theatre. Any good play is also always a poem. Its one of the reasons I’ve always suggested that playwrighting students read poetry. Read *about* poetry, and read poets on poetry.

Cleve Gray

Cleve Gray


Now I want to dig a bit into this idea of barbarism, but more as it relates to mimesis, and that is not really Hullot-Kentor’s focus. He writes :“Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, this becomes the thought that art as form is the unconscious transcription of the history of human suffering.”
This is correct, I believe, but the problem is a bit later the idea that Paleolithic rock paintings are *exclusively* mimetic participation in a magical object… and that Neolithic artifacts represent a significant change of consciousness, and of the human relationship to the group. So maybe in a sense, this is not correct, or not completely. Adorno was interested in the ways in which artworks enhance our relationship to the world. The artwork is only art if it changes you somehow. Hullot-Kentor is quite right, when he says this however:

“If art—when art is art—understands us better than we can intentionally understand ourselves, then a philosophy of art would need to comprehend what understands us. Thinking would need to become critically imminent to that object; subjectivity would become the capacity of its object, not simply its manipulation. That’s the center of Adorno’s aesthetics. It’s an idea of thought that is considerably different from the sense of contemporary “theory,” where everyone feels urged to compare Derrida with Nietzsche, the two of them with Levinas, and all of them now with Badiou, Zizek and Agamben. That kind of thinking is primarily manipulation. It’s the bureaucratic mind unconsciously flexing the form of social control it has internalized and wants to turn on others.”

Adorno saw much of human misery through the Freudian lens. His growing despair at the idea of effective change was probably pretty prescient in a sense.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler


But let me return to mimesis. The idea of mimesis cannot be separated from the past. Nor, really, from the uncanny. And from space — and by extension, from home and homelessness. And homesickness. History is the creation of a place; the past. Michel de Certeau suggests that history creates the past, as a place, to be studied from this other place, the present. That history is both made, and in the making is entombed. It is placed away in the tombs of the present. But this history is written down. Michel de Certeau wrote about the writing of history — in the sense that writing included a partial forgetting, and besides, there were traces of oral history that kept returning — returning as sort of trace elements. As accusations. I am approaching this for the moment from the perspective of art. And especially of theatre. Last posting included a comment thread debating various playwrights. I have kept thinking about why some writers, some playwrights anyway, feel so different. I have talked about the space on stage, but I wanted to add to that that the speaking of text is a way of recapturing the forgotten oral traces of history. Now de Certeau and Adorno both (and Benjamin) were interested in Freud’s anthropology, if that’s what we want to call it. And writing began to change the idea of exile, of home and of homesickness. Shakespeare enters at exactly this point. For the 16th century marked the ascension of writing, of writing as discursive. And of writing that was then spoken as memorized text. And I think this is largely neglected when people talk about or write about theatre. Theatre is memorized writing. And this process of memorization is then presented, performed, and all that takes place on stage is a revealing of this fact. One way to say this is that theatre fails when it forgets the history of its own making (rehearsal and memorization and direction and blocking etc).

Sadhus, streets of Mathura, 1950s. Photographer unknown.

Sadhus, streets of Mathura, 1950s. Photographer unknown.

De Certeau sees the *uncanny* as a clash or confrontation with the surpressed or forgotten voices of the past, those that written history left out. Edgar Allen Poe implied this in several places. Most good writers know the experience of voices coming to you. And no amount of scientific psychiatric or rational explanation is even close to satisfactory in regards to this. Sometimes things write you. You don’t write them. The play isn’t a thing anyway, it is a process of revealing. And to be etymological, it is revelation. This is one reason that improvised dialogue is so unsatisfactory. I have never believed ‘improv’ had any value for actors. It simply takes them away from their central job which is to transcribe something of those uncatalogued voices — the history of memorization, of memory. The history of memory is what all plays are about.

There is a very trenchant sentence in a review of Adorno’s early book on Kierkegaard that is cited by Hullot-Kentor. It was by Siegfried Krakauer, Adorno’s early mentor and friend.
“In the view of these studies {Benjamin’s} the truth-content of a work reveals itself only in its collapse…the work’s claim to totality, its systematic structure, as well as its superficial intentions share the fate of everything transient, but as they pass away with time the work brings characteristics and configurations to the fore that actually images of truth.”

Mounir Fatmi

Mounir Fatmi


This is true of theatre, for theatre is so welded to time, and space, and the ephemeral — or the West’s idea of ephemeral — and a play cannot be repeated, only made anew. It is is transient. But this also touches on the psychoanalytic aspect of the artwork, which operates as a dream. A recurring dream, per Hullot-Kentor, that as it recurs and becomes familiar, the *content* of the dream fades away leaving what Adorno would call its *truth content*. So today’s audience for Shakespeare is not the same as the audience of 1600, the truth content of his work, of any one play, has emerged over four hundred years. But like dreams, it is impossible to nail down what that truth content is exactly. Historical truth emerges, again, a bit as revelation. This is also related to tragedy. The tragic drama of Greece were rituals of revealing. This spatial model, the idea of truth emerging, or something arising from the depths of the sea, a submarine or some submersible leviathan surfacing, or flesh falling off the body leaving only the skeleton — all of this is found embedded in myth and the artifacts of antiquity and pre history.
Nigel Cooke

Nigel Cooke


So, truth is revealed in the disintegration of the artwork. This is history as it interacts with memory, but also with the system of domination. And at this point, the questions of class and mediation by propaganda, and of screens — of learning, education, all come together. To return this to the discussion of individual artists, and in this case to playwrights, is perhaps useful. And it is important for how one approaches both education, and interpretation. Looking at, say, Caryl Churchill, the subject of a long testy debate on the comment thread of the last posting here.
A Party for Boris, (Ein Fest für Boris ). 1970, by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Martin Frauenhofer. Passau, Germany.

A Party for Boris, (Ein Fest für Boris ). 1970, by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Martin Frauenhofer. Passau, Germany.

There is something conceptual in her plays, it is a theatre of the conceptual. This overlaps with metaphor, but the narrative is enclosed and contained within a concept. This might serve to explain her extraordinary popularity. For the theatre of the conceptual (which I guess I’ve just coined) is one in which the play runs into a brick wall interpretively speaking. This is not to pick on Caryl Churchill particularly, for there are many far worse examples of this conceptual expression. Tom Stoppard is another example. The themes, and in Churchill’s case this is very true, tend toward an acceptable controversial posture. Some of this, I admit, is beyond the control of the playwright.The objections made in the Churchill debate, if I understand them, are countered simply by my saying that I find something manipulated in such cleverness. She is offering a new buffet item each time out.

The past is the past that has been written about. The historian, the historiographers are writing *worlds*. They create worlds to which the reader must travel. The question of fact is very interesting here because one of the problems I find in aesthetics today, as well as politics, is that it seems not to matter anymore what is true or not true. But this journey in reading, to this place located in the past, is another of those spatial models.

Dunhunang Star Atlas, detail. 1000 A.D.

Dunhunang Star Atlas, detail. 1000 A.D.

For in fact it is mimetic, the spoken word karaoke in your head. And not just in your head. Given the emphasis on the optical, the gestural language of performance is atrophying. When radio dominated things, the voice subsumed the gestural. Today, the body, as an instrument of performance, tends to be subjected to a lot of abuse, from starvation to cheek implants to personal trainers. The facts of the past matter, however. For they return, over and over. They return as rats return, as dogs to their vomit.

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything
turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

W.H. Auden

Kirsten Klein, photography.

Kirsten Klein, photography.


When I have tried to write about space in art, specifically in theatre, I often feel the frustration of of how illusive this idea is. The conventions of just talking include these tacit ideas about space, “He knows where he is going” for example. Well, where? To the land of success, or Elysian fields, or the land of milk and honey. The whole idea of ‘goals’ is imbued with this illusion. Progress. Destination. Great art punctures these assumptions, in the introduction of an awareness about exile and homelessness. A walk in the park is not easy, actually. When narrative forgets place, and forgets the journey — that the journey is itself a place, it fails. Space in theatre is not Euclidean, it is a mimetic space. It is that unconscious and uncanny disruption of conventional location, and of the autonomous subject. Suddenly the familiar is haunted by the unfamiliar. In a sense, as De Certeau seems to suggest, it is by what is not written, not spoken, that something disruptive occurs. The act of explanation includes its opposite, this ‘space’ in which one hears what isn’t said. Theatre is so disruptive for this very reason. Pinter and Bernhard both (though differently) probe the elliptical in narrative. Their stories point the listener toward what isn’t said. Maybe what cannot be said. To step back and look at the control exercised by today’s authority apparatus, what you find is endless explanation. And this is the role of mainstream journalism, too. Asking for explanations, and not caring if those explanations are real or not. What would happen if the answer was ‘we don’t know’, or ‘ We won’t say’?

Dirk Skrebert

Dirk Skrebert


I want to talk about what I mean by a theatre of the conceptual. The word *conceptual* is very complex, and can be used in a variety of ways. It is impossible not to wade into very dense material here, for it is at the very center of aesthetic experience. Adorno’s dialectic was Hegelian, but owed a good deal to Benjamin. The dialectic is seen in the object’s opposition to its other, and whereby this opposition constitutes a kind of dependency. The object’s resistance to its other becomes an incorporation of the other into itself, so the more it is itself, the more it is not itself. For the purposes of this discussion, the point is that in art, in any medium, the extreme of this dialectical operation results in the truest picture of reality, of life. For there is always an excess that is the byproduct of this operation. And it is in this excess that I suspect the uncanny is, at least partly, located. This process denies the existence of fixed concepts; and it means the artwork’s meaning is found not as a reflection of the social, but in its opposition to society, its negation. The negation of what was for Adorno, a societal system of domination, means that the artwork has transcribed the suffering and unwritten and denied forces of history. The artwork that predicates itself, justifies itself, through a conceptual rationality, is then erasing or obscuring history, no matter how cleverly they discuss it.

Philosophy *is* conceptual, however. But it is a dialectical process. It could be said, that the conceptual I speak of is the undialectical conceptual. Here Benjamin enters the discussion.

“Authentic art knows the expression of the expressionless, a crying from which the tears are missing.”
Adorno

Ken Currie

Ken Currie


Hullot-Kentor is very good on the influence Benjamin had on Adorno. I have written before about Benjamin’s ideas on tragedy, and it is related to what Hullot-Kentor says about Benjamin’s notion of allegory. Both are very close to what I think theatre is really trying to do. Hullot-Kentor writes; “the idea is to phenomena as is an expression to a face.” This is what the performance is to the text I think. It is not deductive, or conceptual (though concepts clearly play their role {sic}) — it is a presentation, an activating of something that finally cannot be rationally known. Allegory is a sort of double dialectic then. To place these thoughts again in the context of theatre, the form of the play (a play) is its expression of buried history, at the same time that it is a negation of the false authority of society (nature). It is of course hugely more complicated than I am laying it out here, but the point is that the meaning, the value of theatre cannot be summarized, or abridged in various explanatory cliff notes. The truth of theatre is in its performance. And that which *can* be summarized is, finally, not theatre. It is an illusion.

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno

Tragedy is not a theme, it is an act of revealing. It is part of that dialectical extreme, and it participates in something very close to Benjamin’s ideas about *naming*. This was the very Judaic/Kabalistic side of Benjamin. There is that famous line in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “there is said to be no difference between the totemic animal, the dream of the ghost seer, and the absolute idea”.The sedimenting of terror into language, specifically into the naming of things, is that magical element in spoken text that differentiates it from reading to oneself silently. Both can be mimetic, but the range of the frightening is greater when it happens on stage.

“For Adorno, understanding a work of art is not a matter of conceptual analysis.”
Shierry Weber Nicholson

Wittgenstein oddly, sort of, comes to mind here.

“Think of the recognition of facial expressions. Or of the description of facial expressions — which does not consist in giving measurements of the face. Think too, how one can imitate a man’s face without seeing one’s own in a mirror.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Martial Raysse

Martial Raysse

The domination of nature coincided with the neutralizing of language. Shorn of terror, the cry became the concept, Dionysian energy was expelled, superstition replaced by logic. This was the force of Enlightenment thinking, and the correctives were real, but less observed, the cleansing of that which allowed for the tragic to reveal itself. The tragic as a sensibility; and without that sensibility, the infinite domination, unchecked rational horror grows on the underside of the image and word. Negation, radical extreme negation — the concept’s self critique, destroys itself but becomes a memory, both of nature and of the individual. This is the Lacanian gloss on Benjamin/Adorno. This is the center of the Adorno aestheic. The reversing of Kantian aesthetic sublime, the incorporation of Hegel’s dialectic toward a radical negation, and Benjamin’s ideas of allegory. The second issue is, of course, mimesis. But in the context of this post, and the shadow of mass culture today, I think it is worth exploring why theatre is so often bad. And in what ways is it bad?

“…thought dominated by the hierarchical, subordinating concept, for which material is always reduced to examples of concepts, becomes increasingly irrational in the loss of the adequacy of form and content.”
Robert Hullot-Kentor

Hullot-Kentor was writing about Adorno and Shoenberg and the essay form in the above quote. What matters here is that this is exactly what happens today in almost all discussions, of both culture and politics. There are always appeals for justification that reside within a narrow conceptual format. I hear people refer to polls, for example, even people who don’t trust polls. It is just reflexive to nod toward the authority of instrumental thinking. So in artworks, the question of autonomy is crucial now. This is why Churchill fails for me. And it is why Handke or Bernhard do not, and why I think there is distinct difference. It is interesting to look at Adorno’s ideas on atonal composition in this light. For the demand for completion, for an end of equilibrium and rest is challenged by Shoenberg’s density. Suddenly the horizontal and vertical models are upset. In one way, one might look at Beckett and Ionesco and Genet and Pinter as operating out of a strategy of density — albeit a density worked through absence. There is no appeal to rational authority in these writers, whose form denies the authority or legitimacy of the status quo. For it is in form that the most reactionary expressions of capitulation occur.

The Water Hen, by  Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1972.  Tadeusz Kantor dr. (Cricot2)

The Water Hen, by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1972. Tadeusz Kantor dr. (Cricot2)


Now the question of autonomy touches on the reality of popularity and commodification. The great nightmarish machinery of digesting oppostion that is the hallmark of a society of domination is a very effective machine. I realized during this debate on the last comments thread of the danger of demanding any sort of purity. It doesn’t exist. Bernhard’s posthumous declaration that his work was not to be performed or published in his native Austria was a last gesture of recognition of this impossibility. Still, the institutional creep affects all theatre artists. The durability of Capitalism is undeniable here.

Still, distinctions can be made. The artist who remains too friendly to his or her jailer is suspect. That friendliness is found in subtle form, in the relationship of the artist to the producing entities. To popularity itself. As Jameson says, “the traditional image of the rebel is not merely objectively precarious but perhaps even subjectively illusory.” Innovation in and of itself is just an audition for the producing studio (or to a lesser degree the institutional theatre) to co-opt and put in use as a new *style*. New marketing. Corporate interests eliminate the outsider. There is no outside now, or almost none. This is a discussion of class and of what the artist’s role might be in the great Spectacle today. All of which is not to say that differences do not exist, for they do. It is just that the mediation of finance goes far deeper than it did sixty years ago. Still. I think Jameson might be wrong. And I think he is wrong because he is ignoring class segregation. It is a fetishizing of the idea of rebel, or rather rebel artist. The lone genius etc. But in fact, the political artist, the radical voice is today, still, kept out of the mainstream. Handke isnt done much. Bernhard less frequently than many. And it is interesting to look at Cricot, and Kantor, who brought The Water Hen to Edinburgh in 1972, to the Fringe festival. They performed Witkacy’s absurdist play in Polish. Nobody quite knew what to make of it. But the astute critic, like Michael Billington, recognized something of some significance was taking place. Barber of the Daily Telegraph called it “distressing”. The sound, the memory, the sense memory of radicalism was recognized even in Polish, to an English audience. So, yes, the posture of rebel is often now a style code, but the politically radical, the aesthetically radical, remain anathema.

In fact, it may be that the mediation is so extreme, so hegemonic, that new forms of aesthetic appearance are taking place from within. It may also be that they are not.

Dosso Dossi. early 1500s.

Dosso Dossi. early 1500s.


I want to conclude by finally getting to mimesis. The idea of mimesis as Adorno formulated it (influenced hugely by Benjamin) was as a way out from under the crushing conformity and standardization of mass culture, to trace authentic artworks and to trace the path of their occurrence. He wanted to focus on the concrete, the thing, without allowing its subsumption by the general. The particular was to be dialectically engaged, as I’ve written above. But what does this mean? It means several things, but among the most important things it means, in terms of art, is that spontaneity not be surpressed. The spontaneous fantasies of children are literally beaten out of them. School…the Job, as Burroughs called it…is in the business of extinguishing that fantasy and creativity. That might be a cliche, but it’s true. One of the things children lose, or forget, is the ability to sustain the tension of a seeming contradiction. When children play they allow for things not to make sense. And they experience little anxiety in this tension. I can remember much of my fantasy life as a child. The invented worlds, and the invented names, or the configuration of real names, and invented ones. Voices spoke to each other. They had names. What is interesting, and this was remarked on by Benjamin in several places, the name often didn’t have a form, or a body. The name was enough.

Mimesis on a primary level is simply incorporating the object, the other, into oneself. I am like that. I am that. Immediately the disintegration of the self begins. The negation of what I am like, or what I am. Naming these others is part of the continuing tension set in motion. What I am like has moved, perhaps. Adorno wrote of the opening of Kafka’s Amerika (Stoker); “The novel takes place in an America that has moved while the picture was being taken.” The reference to photography is very meaningful here. It echos something of the destruction of time (per Shierry Weber Nicholson). Kafka’s narrative exposes something of the American inner life, and it does this without conceptual practice. He later says the novel is about the awakening that we are not who we think we are. This is the negation. An extreme negation in a “spaceless space”. Perhaps it is a space without things in it. With only processual agitation. Mimesis, the re-narrating of both story and image, is contour, it is that childlike ability to keep contradictory balls in the air. Names without form. Benjamin famously saw the gesture in Kafka as akin to classical Chinese theatre. Adorno saw it as film. I once thought Adorno was right, but I think Benjamin is right. The dissolution of language, the loss of meaning; this is Caliban as much as it is Kafka. In fact The Tempest remains the almost scriptural evocation of a kind of samsara.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Prospero, act IV The Tempest

Artist unknown, 1640s.

Artist unknown, 1640s.


Mimesis then is that which is the foundational act in creativity, but it is also domination of Nature. I take that into myself. It is hard to arrive at any summary of what Adorno saw as mimesis. But it is worth looking at Erich Auerbach’s famous book of that name, and one thing stood out for me when I read it twenty years ago; and that was the idea of that the voices of the Old Testament were speaking another language from later voices such as Dante of Shakespeare, or later still Tolstoy and Dickens. They were not providing an externalized map of that character’s feelings. They were not directing the listener to plot points. Edward Said wrote about this opening chapter in Auerbach:
“[There is an] externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies beneath is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only suggested by silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole is permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background'” For me, Adorno’s mimetic action is in that obscurity Said speaks of….the undefined time and place. These are the contours of the imagination. We hear, we invent, we are deaf — but all of it is engaged with, and absorbed.
Gotou Hidihiko

Gotou Hidihiko


Amresh Sinha wrote: “Adorno’s critique of mimesis proposes a method of dialectical reflection which goes against the grain of the positivistic tendency of modern consciousness, which has a tendency to substitute means for ends. “Art’s expression is the anti-thesis of expressing something,” for Adorno, implies that it remains non-identical to a tendency that is related to the exigency of commodity exchange.”

Mimesis is a form of expression, not a Xerox copier in the head.

In a culture in which everything is reified, and commodified — pretty much literally so — the impulse toward an instrumental rating or indexing of experience is intensified. Exchange value. The inner life is calculation now. And such calculation diminishes the mimetic. This is actually obvious. The new Spiderman or whatever summer block buster is a pure calculation. Cha ching. The entire fabric of image and sound is imbued with exchange. Tragedy cant not be marketed. It becomes bathos. Sentimentality is joined at the hip to the grotesque, which is one of the altered futures of Tragedy. Tragedy is a form of expression, and revealing.

Mobutu and the Queen Elizabeth.

Mobutu and the Queen Elizabeth.


So, it strikes me that in theatre there is simply a very narrow tolerance for error, for regressive performance. In film and TV, there is, for reasons worth talking about … in another later post… a much wider tolerance for error. One’s attention isn’t as focused, its a bit more passive. But I suspect there are some fallacies in much theory on media. Most of it seems not to grasp that narrative operates as narrative wherever it is. Now, the harvesting of attention, the labor value of social media users, etc, is certainly germane, but there is still a sort of glossing over how people reflect on the stories before them. How much does that part change? The narrative part I don’t know. But I think it does, even if I think the effects are often exaggerated. And it does matter because a form of expression is stopped short electronically at some point. There are thresholds for mediation by technology.

The mimetic process of reflection, of engagement, is especially complex when narrative is added. I was looking at some photos this week, for reasons I cant remember, of Mobutu. Some with the Queen, others with Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, or with various U.S. government officials. What struck me was that Mobutu can be understood in light of Imperialist foreign policy, neo-colonial thinking, and Capital. But he can also be seen echoing Ionesco, and Shakespeare. Mobutu invented a style of dress that was based on nothing at all African. His abacost was a simulacra African dress. He had a delusional fear of neckties and western suits being worn by associates. His eyeglass frames were from the elite store in Paris that made Le Corbusier’s glasses, and Cary Grant’s. He would charter a Concorde to take shopping trips to Paris. He brutalized his underlings, slept with the wives of all the men close to him. And he was America’s boon ally and close buddy. He looted billions from his country. The US and UK had helped orchestrate the murder of Lumumba, and installed the young the army officer as head of the country. He ruled for decades.

Ambrose Tezenas, photography.

Ambrose Tezenas, photography.


The story of Mobutu is a comic-tragic drama, and his fall, the story of Kabila and Rwanda, and the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana is a story that echos in our heads. It is haunting in its way, as a continuation of Imperialist pillage and destruction. The aesthetic appropriation of a Mobutu story is a fascinating idea. An opera? Perhaps. But it is in the writers of greatest weight that one can best understand a Mobutu. That too is part of aesthetic resistance.

I end with a fragment from an interview with Heiner Muller in which he tells a brief story:

“And I have another story. At the concentration camp Oranienburg there was an extremely brutal SS soldier. After the war the Russians went to his wife and told her about the things her husband had done in the camp. The wife didn’t understand. He had only done his job, and he had always been a good father to his children, always very loving. The Russians persisted, asking whether nothing at all had seemed odd to her? She considered, then said, “Now and then he would come home with bloody boots.” When she asked him where the blood came from, he would say, “We killed a pig today.” All those years, the woman never knew. She killed her children, set fire to the house, went mad, and ran screaming across the moor. In the concentration camps the low-ranking members of the SS were often farmers’ sons, so they were accustomed to killing animals. All that had to be done was to supply them with the ideology that the prisoners were not humans but animals.”

This returns me to that quote of Hullot-Kentor at the top. “Mimesis is primordial to empathy.”

The Cynicism Industry

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photography

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photography

“Sincerity is the beginning
and end of existence; without it, nothing endures.
Therefore the mature man values sincerity above all things.”
Zisi (Tzu Ssu)子思子

“One day the man demands of the beast: “Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?” The beast wants to answer, too, and say: “That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say.” But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man keeps on wondering about it.”
Nietzsche
Use and Abuse of History

“Much of education and journalism has been captured and superseded by entertainment. Even public discussions have to be entertaining and are judged by how skilfully the protagonists attacked and how courageously they hid their weaknesses, and not by the contents of what they had to contribute with to solutions for a serious public issue.”
Heinz Steinert

The ascension of irony has coincided with a rise in cynicism, and with a reluctance or refusal to engage with society. But today, I suggest that new terms are needed to denote the post modern ironic and post modern cynical. For cynicism as it is traditionally understood would include a set of select values, however nihilistic. Today’s cynic does not harbor select or elite values, and whose cynicism is not a rejection so much as an ignoring of social issues. Timothy Bewes suggests it is now in the service of political rhetoric. It is used by reactionary commentators to denote apathy, meaning as a cover for the material corruption of political institutions.

The retreat from politics, or rejection of political concerns is linked to postmodernism as a rhetorical mechanism. And it’s true that the post modern rejection of meta-narratives quickly morphed into the excuse for accepting the status quo. Engagement is regarded with disdain, and accused of naivete. Cynicism once contained a form of melancholy, but that has morphed into simply disengagement (albeit anxiety laden), and hostility toward Utopian ideals. Cynical is often used as a synonym for dishonesty as well. But the post modern rejection of meta-narratives became soon, simply a disregard for any narrative, and replacing these with simple coded fragments in use for career decoration. How much of the erosion of narrative is linked to the inherent qualities of electronic media is an open question, but I suspect its not entirely the telecom industry structuring things a certain way, but at least partly if not largely the imprint of pixels and the speed and the fragmenting and re-fragmenting of information. It is perhaps hard not to be cynical in the post modern sense.

Alesso Baldovinetti. Annunciation 1447, tempura on wood.

Alesso Baldovinetti. Annunciation 1447, tempura on wood.


I was thinking this week of the Axial Age; of Confucian China, and of Zoraster in Persia and the rise of Judaic prophecy. In Greece the development of tragic drama. From the 7th century B.C. to the late fourth century B.C. was an age of enormous change in cognitive patterning. Scientists recently discovered in Indonesia, paintings on cave walls that are even older than those at Chauvet in France. The world was very dark and empty forty thousand years ago. In Confucian China I suspect it was still dark and empty, but not nearly the same. But in both there was nothing remotely similar to life today. But I digress…

“Politics, governed increasingly by an ethos of supply and demand, has become a realm of consumer sovereignty in which the concepts of leadership and inspiration are important polemical commodities, but are maintained only in this mediated way. Cynicism appears in the space left empty from mass cultural retreat from politics itself.”
Timothy Bewes

The role of post modern thought in Academia has been to further distance the grammar of the upper and educated class from the working class and the non working poor. Of course *educated* is a pretty nebulous term. Educated for many at expensive Universities means knowing the right kinds of discourse, the acceptable cynicism to display. Discourse today is saturated with irony and sarcasm. It is not even really specific. It is gestalt irony. There is no subject often, or often just a vague one. There is also an implied belief in the person of the ironist that his or her position is superior. But superior to what? Superior how? Irony today avoids answering such questions. It avoids answering anything.

Darren Almond, photography.

Darren Almond, photography.

One of the problems with ironic stances is that they dissolve the subject even when there is no subject. The ironic mustache, or ironic golf shirt, worn in Palm Springs ironically, creates the hall of mirrors effect, and thereby introduces itself as a potential object of irony as well. *My* ironic mustache ironically comments on *HIS* ironic mustache, and I’m an ironic hipster that parodies the other ironic hipster etc. But beyond such tedious subjective leisure time mental games, there is the fact that very few people have time or money to be ironic. Politics is ironic as well, just another platform for ironic performance. Obama is ironic. Bush was more parody, but Obama is clearly, as part of his marketed persona, a cool urbane cynic — and contains a blank distancing from actual events, actual politics. Its fascinating that US media wants to demonize other world leaders as cartoons and demons, but in fact Putin, as an example, even with his bare chested horseback rides, is simply not ironic material. Russians in general are not a particularly ironic people or culture. The role of careerist *left* writers of mainstream publications .. Laurie Penny or Molly Crabapple, or star academics like Zizek, are all of them simply print versions of stand-up comedy. Jon Stewart is the TV comic now looked to for guidance by the liberal class. Penny, and Natasha Lennard, and Crabapple are all just vaudeville acts. And often, or usually, these acts are performing in a gentlemen’s club straight out Chinese Gordon. http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2014/778-the-establishment-andrew-marr-and-owen-jones.html

The affluent white population of the U.S. today is so deeply mired in irony and snark that they cannot take a breath without it being ironic.

Invincible (2001). Werner Herzog dr.

Invincible (2001). Werner Herzog dr.

But there is something else here, too. And that is that in American culture the ‘idea’ of the individual is preserved no matter the conditions of the material world. There is, obviously, a whole complex of factors at work here. The Puritan history, and the Protestant work ethic, the business minded culture that worships the “self made man”. The only marker for worth is economic. Nobody who is poor is valued existentially. There is though, a dialectical process that needs to be observed in this. The individual of consumer America is really he or she who identifies with the culture. It is an individuality in the form of a brand. And the destruction of language, its degraded state in marketing and advertising and popular culture overall has contributed to this leveling of culture and discourse. The new rise in branded journalists, especially, actually, on the *left*, even when some of the writing is useful, has created a deeper attachment to the status quo. Language as it’s used in popular culture feels as if it no longer is even attached to the world around us. The late writings of Adorno expressed his despair at the possibility of intellectual integrity in mass culture. And this is where it is important, as I continue to say, that aesthetic awareness be cultivated. And it is clear today that almost always the missing ingredient in cultural discussions is a class analysis. The ironic and cynical processing of the world must be resisted exactly because it further petrifies class distinctions. But this is a topic resisted acutely by the educated class, even those who are out of work.

Benozzo Gozzoli, 'Journey of the Magi' detail 1459

Benozzo Gozzoli, ‘Journey of the Magi’ detail 1459

My experience with students over the last few years has been, even in classes with very bright enthusiastic students (rare), that there is an inability or at least reluctance to examine work and narrative in ways other than than an imaginary neutrality. By this I mean that the forces of production are rarely considered, and even when they are, the role of class antagonism is ignored. It is invisible almost. This lack of class is replaced by a belief in, or subscription to, an ideal state of the purity of truth. Truth is also never processed in relation to memory or history, to suffering, or political violence. There is a tacit acceptance of the surface (or top text), and simultaneously a sort of new age inwardness that is bathetic and puerile. The political violence of the world is redacted from narratives that are even ABOUT political violence. I screened Herzog’s underrated 2001 film Invincible to a class recently, and surprisingly the students were deeply attentive, but the specifics of what this fable implied were at best very murky to them. Still, exposure to the halting rhythms and strange visual grammar of the film seems to disturb the audience, which was mostly third year high school students. And this has always been my experience; complex and difficult artworks destabilize, and that in itself is the start of awakening. Such work, because it cannot easily be processed in conventional ways (as surface, as advertisements work) lingers in the memory.

Now this particular small group of students were Norwegian. I cannot image such openness in the U.S. And here lies another problem; in the United States cynicism has bled into other beliefs and theories. It participates in other forms of distancing. A culture that parades its liberal virtues through the most fascistic representations, where multiculturalism means the exclusionary practices of individual defensivness, is one in which culture itself is colonized, and by several different colonizers, all of them at bottom the same.

“The faults indispensable to this operation of accountancy consist in
the morality of the terms used. According to an old terrorist device
(one cannot escape terrorism at will), one judges at the same time
as one names, and the word, ballasted by a prior culpability, quite
naturally comes to weigh down one of the scales. For instance,
culture will be opposed to ideologies. Culture is a noble, universal
thing, placed outside social choices: culture has no weight.
Ideologies, on the other hand, are partisan inventions: so, onto the
scales, and out with them! Both sides are dismissed under the stern
gaze of culture (without realizing that culture itself is, in the last
analysis, an ideology).”

Barthes

Mosque library, Cairo, 1950.

Mosque library, Cairo, 1950.

Class analysis disappears in a variety of ways. It is subsumed by various identity themes, as well as by a general logic of catering to the mass public. Under cover of this populism is an eradication of critical thinking, and in most artforms there is a sentimentalizing and simplification of message. But there is also the creation of platforms and contexts; platforms for entertainment, and contexts that favor this false notion of the individual. White gay men and women have tended to disporportionatly imprint theatre and the perfomative avant garde, for example, in the United States. But where once there was Charles Ludlum, or Jack Smith, today there are bland bloodless academics, self branded as gay or lesbian, and enclosing within that an absolute reduction of what is acceptable *theatre*. The once marginalized now perform the role of marginalizer. Radical voices have been domesticated. This is the calculation of a lost avant garde. Ludlum was really a tragic theatre artist, because his theatre could not exist except as oppositional. Now its not this simple of course, for both the civil rights movement and gay rights, there were hard fought struggles. However, the proprietor class has worked at a control of the assimilation, managing what was visible and what was not. In the arts self identified “-fill in blank- artist” has tended toward compromise to the prevailing system over the last twenty five years. The writer or artist is not grouped according to content or movement, but according to self created identity (brand).
Dan Christensen

Dan Christensen


MFA programs create brands. They are apprenticeships in ideological shaping. If anyone, ANYONE, can name a single radical piece of theatre to come out of U.S. Universities I would be happy to listen. So again, class disappears. Sexuality has replaced it. Where black and brown writers emerge, they must emerge homogenized. Sentimentalized and sanitized. I rarely see young black or brown or even Asian playwrights who don’t write other than as bourgeois voices for the establishment. Now of course there are exceptions, but again, in theatre there has been almost nothing of note to come out of University programs for several decades. In fine arts the tally is better, slightly. Film schools are an entire other topic. I taught at the Polish National Film School for five years full time, and eight if I include my workshops the first three years. I was the lone instructor to lecture in English. I consider the school, on balance, far from the worst such institution. There were virtues, first among them that this was an international school. Students coming all over the world created a great cross pollinating of ideas. There were also absurd deficiencies, a sclerotic bureaucracy and backward looking administrators — often reaching the level of irrationality. And there was a deep cultural defensiveness among many of the Polish instructors. Still, the memory of communist discipline lingered, and there were many truly exceptional teachers, in editing, and in the cinematography departments.

I asked once at a faculty meeting what we were trying to do at the school. Nobody even tried to answer. For there is no answer. The relationship of such schools, in film, in theatre, in music even, in writing, is blurred and contradictory.

Charles Ludlum, in 'Camille'. 1973

Charles Ludlum, in ‘Camille’. 1973

The neutral reception of culture denies the real concrete reality of the culture industry. Heinz Steinert wrote:
“It (culture industry)is a form of domination that reaches deep into what people know about society and world. It is domination not by fear and repression in the first place but by subtly determining what and how we know about the world. Its center is the cult of the factual.”It is a cultural production of commodified knowledge, whose appeal is always to the authority of statistical or measured proofs. Popularity is often taken as if it occurs in a vacuum. If a film is hard to see because distribution is limited, it already is marked as underground or difficult. The entire structure of *entertainment* is involved in creating audience attitude. As technology now increasingly allows a mastery of access … one can view a film whenever one likes on his computer or even cell phone, the audience is provided with a sense of specialness. Of ownership. I’ve written before about the sense of being an insider. A peak behind the scenes of the making of a popular film or TV show invites the audience to feel unique and privileged. Steinert calls this a “false privilege”. The rise of *reality TV shows* is another form of this insider construct. The specialness is linked, in an oddly contradictory way, to identification with other privileged shoppers of cultural product. There is the manufacture of a sense of ‘belonging’.
Cynthia Daignault

Cynthia Daignault


The audience today is encouraged to perceive their attention as empowerment. The advertisers and network and studio want them to view their product. Neilsen ratings are published throughout the season, box office figures are published, and marketing targets the public by appealing to their wisdom, by critiquing their profile, their particular market niche. All of this shapes how the individual sees the narrative, or artwork. It is not all that different from the appeal of astrology columns or click bait polls that posit if YOU were a Western movie, which one would you be?

Last posting I touched on the ways certain works avoid homogenization. In the comments Molly Klein made an astute observation, as is her want, in relation to watching an Ionesco play. And it struck me that the question of space is significant, and that Adorno and Horkheimer mention architecture right at the start of Dialectic of Enlightenment. Public housing has always, with a few marked exceptions, valorized the Capital put into them. Not only is today’s city a fortified militarized battlefield, it is also a monument to Capital. Architecture is increasingly meant to be viewed from the perspective of a movie screen. One must gaze from a distance, or view the shifting panals and walls as in a film reel. The streaming effect is pronounced in architects like Hadid. And this perpsective, in a sense, resists place. Buildings are seen as if they could be anywhere. Even when landscapes are included, for they seem to absorb the landscape and turn it into a film set. This perspective is how everything is viewed today. And it closes off space rather than opening it up.

Korean man, early 19th century.

Korean map, early 19th century.


In the 15th century, the public viewing a painting, even the illiterate, would recognize certain figures; John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Christ, but even less obvious figures such as Ishmael and Croesus, or St Jerome, and St Paul the Hermit. They certainly recognized certain scenes as representations from stories; The Visitation, the Expulsion from Eden, the Annunciation, and so forth. Gesture, eye color even, and placement on the canvas all contributed to this ‘reading’ of the painting, and how it fit into a narrative. Memory was triggered, and this memory was both personal, but also societal. The viewer was not manipulated. And I could well make an argument that manipulation is one of the, if not *thee* most significant aspect of mass culture today. Manipulation is marketing. And alongside manipulation is the focus on innovation. For innovation is a form of trickery, a sleight of hand that is in the service of producing effects of *newness* and novelty. These effects tend to wear off rather quickly.

I post here a couple pieces by Toba Khedoori. Jerry Saltz called her a “an artist of metaphysical refinement and restraint.” Khedoori’s work is silent. If Tirelli is quiet, Khedoori is absolutely silent. Saltz ended his review of her recent show this way:

“Strangely, I found myself thinking, “If I were in prison, I’d like to have one of these drawings on my wall.” Then I remembered a story by Herman Hesse: a prisoner paints a landscape on the wall of his cell, showing a miniature train entering a tunnel. He makes himself very tiny, enters into his picture, climbs into the little train, which starts moving, then disappears into the tunnel, leaving his cell empty.”

Toba Khedoori

Toba Khedoori


This is work that does not manipulate. The mute space is not exactly disturbing, but an accusatory quality exists. But there is another aspect and that is where the viewer is situated. This is not a film screen, it an architecture of dreams.

And it reminded me of what Rita Valencia wrote about The Mandala of Compassion Project, at the Hammer in Los Angeles.

“The project entails four accomplished meditation masters, fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist monks, constructing a sand mandala of intricate design which represents the enlightened mind of Chenrezig, a Buddha who is the embodiment of compassion. The design is like a very elaborate blueprint of a sacred architecture…it is common to use sacred architecture in Vajrayana meditations as representation of mind and metaphor for body, which is itself to be seen as a metaphor.”

but at the end makes the very cogent observation regarding the staff at the museum itself.

“The staff seemed generally very conscientious about the limits on break time afforded them, and never seemed to tarry. I heard guard talking about their work, worried about people they had found on the third floor of the museum with backpacks or beverages (a no-no), commenting on the constant influx of newcomers. The newcomers were students from UCLA with little to no training and widely variant work ethics. Conversations of the staff were generally casually personal. But there were quit a few anxiety-laced “work” conversations, which centered on concerns about staffing and personnel trends, particularly shrinking staff, replacement of full-time with part-time workers(students), dissatisfaction with supervisory staff. Others spoke of long hours and long commute times:12 hour shifts, huge amounts of overtime, which supports the ‘shrinking staff’ comments. Plus, the pants they are issued to wear at special events are scratchy. One got the feeling that on the whole it wasn’t such a bad gig, especially given the options, but the break room with its low ceiling and sallow light was not a particularly cheerful place and was more than it appeared…
Through the heady scent of lilies being clipped and groomed wafted the pungency of the all too predictable discontent…workers placed in a distinctly different class of beings than the educated museum staff, having fewer privileges and perks, and held in much lower esteem, signified mainly by the bleak little break room. A diagram of the museum emerges, a kind of mandala of museum life. At the center top are the Great Museum Benefactors surrounded by their retinues, without-whom-none-of-this-would-be-possible. In the next circle reside the curatorial staff. The antechambers below are occupied by a transient population of artists and their management. Next, at the base and on the perimeter, are the support staff of guards, janitors, attendants. The ruling principle of this mandala is ignorance that values ‘this’ over ‘that’ as though such valuations are real, manifest through exclusivity and enforcement of status. Perhaps it is empty of meaning or concrete reality, and the suffering it creates, as the benefit, is also transient and empty; but the karma it is generating, for those who enforce and control and administer this edifice of public culture, is inexorable.”

Toba Khedoori

Toba Khedoori


The work of Khedoori is one that opens space, and it is work that expresses a practice, and a commitment. There is a correlation between the repetition of rehearsal in theatre, and Khedoori’s practice. She creates a context, a ritual space, through her meticulous attention and focus. One does not draw such work without practice of a very particular and focused kind. The value of Khedoori’s work, like a majority of great painters and artists is in the embedding of this practice. Nothing even approaching irony or sentimentalism is present. The austerity is beautiful, not because it is minimal, but because it is imagines something we cant normally experience. The memory of practice is felt, and this is in part what constitutes allegory and the presence of an unconscious that is conjured and appears beside the viewer. We are looking at thousands of hours of repetitive work, at process. In another sense this is what mimesis really is. Theatre like that of Peter Handke, or Harold Pinter is the work of practice, of whittling away the inessential, the message and the ‘effect’, the novelty, the gimmick. There are no invitations, nothing to chat about. Only memory and something destabilizing that comes out of the time spent, the life’s work that is unapologetic.

Now, Adorno warned of dangers in the retreat from popular mass think and commodity culture. That one’s search for authenticity could lead one to resemble that which was being retreated from. It’s worth noting that Zizek confuses Adorno’s position on reification because Zizek actually has suggested that authenticity resides in one’s role as consumer. The revolutionary shopper I guess. In fact Robert Hullot-Kentor, an admirable translator of Adorno, is oddly also much like Zizek is his essays *on* Adorno. My suspicion is that the problem is again Marx, and class analysis. This is the regressive side of leftist thought. Faux leftist thought. The left (that term itself is a symptom) without Marx. The left also called *progressive*. This is very evident in Hullot-Kentor’s notions on the culture industry, which he claims is an obsolete concept, and then explains this by describing “how we hear this term” — but who does he mean by *we*? Honestly, this is a very American sort of stance. Hullot-Kentor’s insistance that barbarism is an outmoded concept again speaks to the reactionary lurking within. For the tenured American professor, ideology is also outmoded, by and large. Fascism is just too ‘too’ a word. Hullot-Kentor’s animosity toward Adorno smacks of career anxiety, actually. But it’s also a startlingly shallow (intentionally I suspect) reading of Adorno, but one that will appeal the affluent white post grad student at NYU. But I digress.

Claudia Wieser

Claudia Wieser


The space I refer to in theatre, the opening to an allegorical space, a mental breathing in a sense, is — I am convinced — the crucial and single most consequential factor in all artworks. It is just that in theatre the experience is most immediate. As much as I value film, there is something about the screen, the great wall on which shadows are thrown, and then followed in a way similar to reading, but subtly different, that stops the opening of space at a certain point. And it’s a difference of enormous importance. I suspect film is closer to the novel than it is to theatre. For the narrative in film is engaged with mimetically much as one does in a novel. The novel of course usually means many hours reading, and hardly even in one sitting. The limited duration of film and TV, enforced by economic concerns, is one of the difficulties in the film form. In theatre, the narrative follows on the creation of this architecture of thought, in the ritualistic repetition — which is the re-creation of the same text, anew, night after night — the narrative is revealed rather than read. Watching a film, one narrates alongside the film narration. Mimetic adjustment, or memory. In theatre, the memory is activated, not reflected upon. This is not exactly a huge gulf opening up between the mediums, but only that the activation of space, as it occurs in theatre, is expansive, not contractive. Novels, finally, contract as well. But this entire discussion is mediated by the manufacturing of *the real*.

One aspect of this constant creating and re-creating of an illusory *real* is the cynical, but also the supervising of emotions. Mestrovic wrote: “…contemporary emotions are dead, in the analogous sense that one speaks of a dead current versus a live wire, or a dead nerve in a tooth or limb.” Emotions are blurred by constant bombardment from advertising. Deep emotion is limited. One is chastised for being too ‘emotional’. The rise of emoticons are obviously a sort of symbol of all this. But going back to Reich, the ever shallower feelings of people was noted. The real, that *real* that mass media enforces, is the bland flavorless shine, a sort of indistinct quality of business and (per Adorno) affability. It is non determinant science, and technology. Most of all it is ‘progress’.

The Department of Energy's Human System Simulation Laboratory (Idaho National Laboratory ).

The Department of Energy’s Human System Simulation Laboratory (Idaho National Laboratory ).


Today’s sense of inwardness is as indistinct as the ‘outside’ real. I’ve sensed a huge resurgence of new age platitudes of late. They are the corrective to the too authoritarian 12 step process. Both can co-exist, of course. There is cynicism in this, too. Those mouthing platitudes don’t believe them, they just use them. Their use value is social cohesion. Careerism. One mustn’t pledge fidelity to some Guru, but its perfectly ok, desired even, to utter meaningless bromides about banal psychological traits. This is the emotional plague Reich wrote of. It is a version of false consciousness, and today the cynical affluent educated class must constantly reiterate their contentment, and deny the suffering of not just others, but of themselves. Minor boredom is OK, that’s what therapy is for. Boredom can be appropriated as style, too. It’s fine to have a shrink or therapist, just be clear you don’t really believe in them. The therapeutic culture accepts this manufactured real. It teaches its clients to adapt. Life is something that one must *succeed* at. Therapy is just a career choice. Death would seem to question any idea of success, but then death is a taboo subject. Death doesn’t go away however.

Molly Klein wrote:
“The meticulous illusion of the irreducible individual, the non-type (post-type), is not (only) the (technical, philosophical, ‘psychological’) enrichment advertised by the schools and traditions producing it but a hollowing out of the function of reference, so that the more elaborate the portraiture of ‘individuals’ grows, the more entirely empty each unique and eccentric exemplar becomes with regard to meaning generation.”

This all works at closing down ‘space’. Film without space (digital mush), architecture without space (Hadid, Foster, Meier et al), and theatre without space — pretty much everything on stage in the U.S. The loss of mimesis has meant new psychic mechanisms for processing. The post modern cynical is one of them. It demands everything be fungible. Everything is already dated, and obsolete. The cynic insists on the ‘new’, in order to have something to label already dated. Anything emotional is rejected. Anything demanding attention is rejected.

Memory is overrated, don’t you think?

Sibylle Bergemann, photography.

Sibylle Bergemann, photography.


A final quote from William Blum this week. In a very direct way this is related to the *real*. Which of course is the pathological unreal.

“You can’t believe a word the United States or its mainstream media say about the current conflict involving The Islamic State (ISIS).
You can’t believe a word France or the United Kingdom say about ISIS.
You can’t believe a word Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, or the United Arab Emirates say about ISIS. Can you say for sure which side of the conflict any of these mideast countries actually finances, arms, or trains, if in fact it’s only one side? Why do they allow their angry young men to join Islamic extremists? Why has NATO-member Turkey allowed so many Islamic extremists to cross into Syria? Is Turkey more concerned with wiping out the Islamic State or the Kurds under siege by ISIS? Are these countries, or the Western powers, more concerned with overthrowing ISIS or overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad?
You can’t believe the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels. You can’t even believe that they are moderate. They have their hands in everything, and everyone has their hands in them.
Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have been fighting ISIS or its precursors for years, but the United States refuses to join forces with any of these entities in the struggle. Nor does Washington impose sanctions on any country for supporting ISIS as it quickly did against Russia for its alleged role in Ukraine.
The groundwork for this awful mess of political and religious horrors sweeping through the Middle East was laid – laid deeply – by the United States during 35 years (1979-2014) of overthrowing the secular governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. (Adding to the mess in the same period we should not forget the US endlessly bombing Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.) You cannot destroy modern, relatively developed and educated societies, ripping apart the social, political, economic and legal fabric, torturing thousands, killing millions, and expect civilization and human decency to survive.”

Thoughts on Pedagogy

Open City, Valparaiso, Chile.

Open City, Valparaiso, Chile.

“The best place to teach architecture is in a simple box.”
Odile Decq

“The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies.”
Herbert Marcuse

“Collegiate traditions and the preppy, Ivy League look were some of my earliest design inspirations and the starting point for our signature style.”
Tommy Hilfiger.

“As the US war machine increases the intensity of its bombing of Muslim fundamentalists and political extremists in various parts of the world, but especially in Syria and Iraq at the present moment, the official “workstations” of CNN and other news outlets engage in a kind of grotesque production of moral panics in their appeal to fear, insecurity and imminent danger. Violence is not something to be condemned but to be appropriated as a productive source for higher Nielsen ratings and more advertising revenue.”
Henry Giroux

The future is going to happen or not happen depending on pedagogy. The war machine of the United States cannot be stopped. No amount of protest or organizing can stop this train heading toward the cliffs. How many survive the inevitable crash is the crucial question. Can mankind avoid extinction.

I don’t know.

But if one is to survive after, for life to be worth living, then one must begin to think of the pedagogical models that can serve to sustain life. The current issue of Uncube magazine…here http://www.uncubemagazine.com/magazine-26-14231695.html#!/page1
is about education. Radical pedagogical solutions (focused primarily on architecture, but not exclusively). There is the Catholic University of Valparaiso’s School of Architecture and Design (Escuela de Arquitectura y Diseño de la Universidad Católica de Valparaíso), there was HfG in Ulm, Germany, Forensik Mimarlik, in Turkey, and almost a hundred years ago there was The Bauhaus.

Ethel Baraona Pohl, architect and writer, said to learn we must now unlearn. The future is about learning, not acquisition. From peer education, listening to those around you, and from teachers who also want to learn. If you teach and you do not want to learn you are a bad teacher.

Toba Khedoori

Toba Khedoori


To unlearn means unlearning more than the basic commodity form, and the stuff channeled to corporate media by the U.S. government. It means unlearning cultural assumptions that are masked and marketed as something else. Thomas Frank actually wrote a pretty cogent piece back in 1995 (http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=30469) in which he pointed out that conformity was sold as a brand of non-conformity, and with a different label. It seems to me that somehow organically developing communities should actually develop around schools. That the idea of school itself should be retired. Everything should be a school. Not a village, but a school. Why else do people gather together? To share, ideas, food, clothing, sex, and art. And by art I mean anything at all creative. And that’s the problem today. In the West the hyper specialization of education has meant that nobody equates planting cauliflower with creativity, or building a small yurt. Is it art? Is cooking art? Is shoemaking? In a sense yes, but in another sense, no. But, in the context of learning, of radical pedagogy, the need to fetishize genius or make art a regressive cultural fetish would be unneeded. The problem is that if one looks at Open City, in Chile, you see they built an ampitheatre. And design students designed a great seat to place on the brick floor. Someone is always creating theatre. For theatre is everywhere all the time. There is a feeling of liberation in such places. The fact is, yes, Shakespeare and Bach and Miles and Bolano and Genet are not the same as cauliflower cultivation. But, they ARE related.
Olimpia Hotel, Tallinn, Estonia. Kallas & Kersten architects. 1980

Olimpia Hotel, Tallinn, Estonia. Kallas & Kersten architects. 1980


And this is, I think, my point. If one rids oneself of the idea of seeing the world in terms of category and calculation, reduces instrumental thinking, then a village becomes a school by default. Everyone should know how to plant vegetables and cultivate them. Everyone should know basic boat building and basic carpentry. And everyone should be curious. Everyone, literally, should be students until they die. The greatest teachers should remain part time students. Lecture on St Augustine at noon, and take a seat for someone else’s lecture on the history of the Chinese junk rigged sailing or basic trigonometry in the afternoon. And then take part in communal cooking at dinnertime.

I don’t think the general public in the U.S. or Europe any longer can even imagine a world without commodities. Without shit to own. Without the turning of nature into objects to measure and probably sell. They cannot *not* imagine money, making money, hoarding money. But there is a real depth to this perceptual process. It is not just Capitalism that it hard to imagine gone, it is, for such a population, the difficulty in letting go of hierarchies, of power, of domination, and of control. The controlling of things, and people and people *as* things. This is basic; curiosity dies in exact proportion to the increase in instrumental thought. The more thinginess there is, the less questions there are.

Carlos Cruz Diez

Carlos Cruz Diez

As Frank pointed out, marketing today is always selling individuality. Or, branded individuality. The illicit is the new conformism. Titillation is in hyper drive all the time now. Politics is couched in titillation. Style style style. The province of the MTVification of news departments. I’ve heard people say, oh Badiou is (or Derrida or Marx, or Freud, or Gramsci, or Obama or Bush) not *sexy*. Sell different, but not too different. You are sold a certain kind of difference. Sexy different. This has always been true under Capitalism, to some degree anyway. You have four hundred tooth brushes to choose from, all of them almost identical. But if you thought to stain your teeth and not brush them, to walk around with stained blue teeth you would be arrested and put on medication.

The role of education, in the sense it is thought of today, began prior to World War 1 (building on Rousseau by way of Fichte and Shiller), but it was between the wars that a more heated discussion began to take shape. Herbert Read’s Education Through Art, is both an historical curiosity of a kind, but also a somewhat prescient look ahead at mass culture. Read was a singular case, a man of very wide learning and a surprising radicalism.

“…But uniqueness has no practical purpose in isolation. One of the more certain lessons of modern psychology and recent historical experiences, is that education must be a process, not only of individuation but also of integration, which is the reconciliation of individual uniqueness and social unity.”
Herbert Read

It is worth looking back at the writings of people such as F.R. Leavis (and Q.D. Leavis) and their concerns about the growing standardization of society. They saw this from that rarefied vantage point of Cambridge professors, but F.R. Leavis saw nothing good in dumbing-down education, and was hostile in general to most technology. The Cambridge creators of the Scrutiny journal feared the ‘rise of the machine’, and the educational system submitting to middle brow entertainments (this was the time of the BBC’s birth). Lurking as background to what was, in a sense anyway, a sort of nostalgia for British gentlemen’s role in running the world, was the slightly perverse concern with children. Education and *children* are of course linked. But I suspect linked in ways that mystify the actual problems.

Patrick Heron, portrait of Herbert Read.

Patrick Heron, portrait of Herbert Read.

But before I discuss the interface between notions of morality and educating the young, it is useful to look at a few facts and a couple recent articles on education. A recent poll by The National Science Foundation, found that around 25% of Americans did not know if the earth orbited the sun or vice versa. Of course the polls on religion and education are more widly talked about (a third of the U.S. population believes in angels, and an even higher percentage deny evolution). I suspect that if you asked most adults to explain basic science or answer questions such as what is gravity, or what are stars, they would not be able to, nor would they be able to tell you if DaVinci lived before or after Rembrandt. Ask them who is Secretary of State and most wouldnt know, and ask them to name, say, twenty countries in Africa…any twenty…and Id wager about 10% could do it. What does this mean? When I was a boy, I know that my father’s generation certainly had been taught more practical math skills, and taught history, far better than my son was. The public today both revers a kitsch idea of science; a reverence that is almost cultic, while at the same time, largely, are ignorant of science.

One of the problems with leftists today is that they deny culture in the name of this materialist sobriety….what they perceive anyway as sober minded materialism. On the one hand its a corrective to mush headed romanticism, and liberal petit bourgeois relativism (meaning Capitalism). But the shadow side of this tendency is be instrumental and cynical. There is a connection between the need for titillation, and this instrumental sobriety. On the surface this seems contradictory, but in fact that cynical snark of white male America bleeds into factory Marxists in their denial of allocating a greater role to culture in social change. Aesthetic resistance does not mean valorizing only stories about the proletariat. In fact, to imagine a future of documentaries about heroic grain harvests is pretty depressing. The youthful leftist today is more concerned, however, with the titillation factor in theory. (Oh Adorno is sooooooo boring, and Badiou is such a rock star, and etc). The academic left is, with a few exceptions, pretty much not the partner to revolution, and not even a partner in social change. Talk to organizers in grass roots movements, anti death penalty, organic farming, prison reform, housing, and they will almost to a person tell you how bankrupt Academics are, and worse, how totally unhelpful are most Trotskyist movements. A friend once said to me, yes I’m a communist in a party that is labeled Stalinist. When people ask me why, he said, I tell them because its more democratic than the Trotskyist parties.

N.Y. stock exchange, 1908.

N.Y. stock exchange, 1908.


The privileged white University student, attending lectures on Ranciere or Badiou, is not part of the working class. They are not likely to ever be part of the blue collar work force. Their interests do not coincide with janitors, cab drivers or short oder cooks.

My personal experience with Academics has not been good. They can’t help but fear for their position. Their job, they professorship, in the end comes before all else. The same as home owners in the Hamptons put their property before all else. They work for the corporation. They work for the man. Where are the public intellectuals who live on the margins? They exist, but they have trouble gaining visibility. And if they do find an audience, the snarky white post grad student will recoil. Why? Because any voice from the margin is a threat. This is the shift that has occurred since the 60s. Outsiders were searched for by University students, and welcomed, in 1960, while today the most outside the University student wants to go is VICE or Salon.

Peter Doig

Peter Doig


The academic (again with some exceptions, but I can count on one hand those exceptions) is afraid of being fired. He of she will not teach certain things in certain ways. They do not offend if they can help it. How many academics would openly praise Fidel Castro, for example? Or tell the truth about the Balkans and Milosevic? The answer is none. I don’t know any. There is this subject position that academics take; it is the false neutral. Lets hear from both sides, etc. Well, its false because one side monopolizes visible discourse today. They own media. So, no, lets not hear from both sides this time, lets hear from the side shut out 99% of the time.

I want to touch again on education, and youth. There was in the decades between WW1 and WW2 an assumption that promoted the idea of self expression for the child. That self expression went hand in hand with self fulfillment or perhaps self realization. But whatever the term this was the beginning of the educated classes condescending to discuss the poor, and the start of a very particular offshoot of narcissism. This was the handed down Romantic idea of the ethical man who has learned from literature and the arts, and which was German was well as English in national origin. As James Donald put it, this was correction through self expression. So today, public education in the U.S. the elite classes can purchase elite education, the kind geared to social networking more than anything else. And for the rest, only the most basic skills are taught, those which would allow one to work as a security guard at a mall, or at Burger King.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photography. Portrait of Fidel Castro.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photography. Portrait of Fidel Castro.

So the destruction of public education means, thirty or so years down the line, that half the population thinks angels are hovering above them as the sun circles the earth. At the rarefied end of the educational spectrum are elite schools producing snarky young men and women who are mostly adept at networking. This non critical class of mostly white haute bourgeoisie are the readers of everything from the Atlantic to the New Yorker to NY Times to VICE and Rolling Stone. They believe in gentrification (morally as well as selfishly) and they think, honestly, deep down, that tribal societies (you know, A-rabs and Africans and such) just need help. Its kind a cool to visit those places and get hammered with some tribesmen, or guys in turbans, but, yeah, its dirty and fucked up and, well, they need help — that’s all. Its not racist to say that. Look at their fucking country, its dirty and the toilets smell.
City of God, Augustine. Illuminated manuscript. 15th century.

City of God, Augustine. Illuminated manuscript. 15th century.


The thrust of state mandated education was predicated on several unspoken beliefs. Firstly, that providing students with structure AND with a model of ethical and moral rectitude (the teacher) would generate a sort of osmosis, or thermal-intellectual reaction in the unconscious, or sub conscious, and thereby resulting in a more unified person, both better morally, but better as a citizen. Now the specifics were not addressed, in terms of what makes a good citizen. There is the faint odor of a Puritan cloud over this. The whole person was MORAL. Meaning repressed. Meaning obedient. Herbert Read, a sort of quasi Jungian, was one of the few thinkers of the early 20th century, who openly questioned such ideas in the context of education. In the U.S. the Kennedy presidency marked the start of re-thinking public education. Modernizing it, and also, to genuinely offer it to the poor and disadvantaged. There was a sense then, in 1960, that society was expanding and the system for shaping the young, morally, but also for purposes of control, was in need of overhaul. But it was also the last gasp of a genuine belief in school as a place to develop an ethically good and well rounded person.

There are several side-bar topics related to education today. The dominant narrative for white Americans is colored in with patriarchy crayons. (to sort of abuse metaphors myself). The paint by number program is white, male, and Imperialist. Along with this comes the rote violence of today’s United States.

Popel Coumou

Popel Coumou


The entire side industry of trophy hunting, or really almost any hunting (and we can semi exempt certain small indigenous communities, the few that are left) is an expression of the pathology of the society overall. Factory farming, hunting, both express such an acute sadism toward nature that it requires a total burial in the consciousness of the West. People simply compartmentalize, almost completely, such facts. Trophy hunting is a useless activity that is given cover in popular culture by the morbidity of western masculinity and its attendant narratives. Hunting is a symptom of a larger sickness.

Cruelty toward fellow creatures is a kind of self hatred. A deep anger that seems to be surfacing ever more frequently in irrational outbursts. Honestly, if someone sat down and collected date on internet comment threads, the conclusion would be that this is an emotionally starved society, enraged and unable to cope with daily life. There is a desperation to *win*. Winning is everything. Win or you lose. And what do you win? Doesn’t matter. Its barely a consideration. As long as one *wins*. Comment threads are internet road rage.
Notice how few questions are asked in comments threads. Comments are about owning your opinion. Not about asking questions. Questions are for weaklings.

” We need people who are not moved by the hysteria of the majority. We need people who openly admit that the majority are often, if not usually, completely wrong. This will not be easy. Westerners, of all social classes, have a strong belief that if Western domination of the Third World were to end, their already threatened lifestyles would suffer – if not entirely collapse. In effect, there is an unspoken consensus that these imperial wars are the best bet the West has for economic recovery. Not only has the Left failed to challenge this consensus, but, by its words and actions has actually become part of it. It may well be that Western culture no longer has the vitality to produce an active and worthwhile Left. This is a possibility we must consider.”
Donnchadh Mac an Ghoill

Classroom, 1900 apprx. Jacob Riis, photography.

Classroom, 1900 apprx. Jacob Riis, photography.

The erosion of curiosity is tending toward a return to medievalism. It is a technocratic dogma with its own priest class (technology experts and scientists) and a mass public for whom curiosity is now something suspect. Not only has curiosity been blunted, it is perceived as possibly dangerous. Asking questions smacks of dissidence.

“One inhabits a world in which long-standing notions of shared experience atrophy, and yet never one never actually attains the gratifications or rewards promised by the most recent technological options.”
Jonathan Crary

The public is subjected daily to almost unlivable and impossible demands to synchronize itself to electronic media. Bank accounts, on-line ordering, all bureaucratic activity is mediated by technology. The user is ever more helpless and powerless. There is nobody to talk to face to face. There is only submission.

Provide a phone number, an address, a shipping location, a billing location, an ID number, etc. The subject is reduced to compliance and little more. The student is being educated, increasingly, in adaptability. This is the clear message of most educational templates. Adapt.

Klavdij Sluban, photography. Youth detention center, Mojaisk, Russia 1998

Klavdij Sluban, photography. Youth detention center, Mojaisk, Russia 1998


The working class, or the non working poor, are continually disempowered by the ever more rapid production of meaningless innovation in gadgetry. This is the shopping model for people who can’t afford to shop. Everything is framed by disappointment. By what you cannot afford to have. The modern model for education is both broken and outmoded. It fails to provide even an iota toward a sane communal sense of life. It is geared to create anxiety, insecurity, and frustration. From grade school through high school the class divide is obvious and insidious both. At the University level, the class divide is even more pronounced, and additionally, in a hyper specialized technological universe, a research based corporatized value system is imparted and results in not curiosity and a growing imagination, but in career competition and fear and loathing of your fellow students.
Tommy Hilfiger ad. Fall 2013. (Craig McDean , photography).

Tommy Hilfiger ad. Fall 2013. (Craig McDean , photography).


The formation of open schools, the mixing of disciplines (Forensik Mimarlik in Turkey focuses on architecture but includes politics, art, and geography) is what must happen. No more diplomas, no tuition, no grades, and a system of sharing knowledge. At Forensik, projects included installing a kitchen in a bus station where stranded refugees live. But it is less the content, finally, than it is the practice of being a student. One must learn from those who know more, but everyone should submit, in a sense, to being a student. Professors must learn from others. One must always be learning something, a discipline, a craft, a philosophy. And there is another terrible burden placed on those who seek to learn past the accepted age. *Adult school* is one of those pejorative terms that stigmatizes. Why not learn math at the age of forty? Or Sanskrit or Greek or Russian or Thai or Polish at the age of fifty. Learn how to grow things. Learn farming or beekeeping. I learned beekeeping a year or so ago. An entire other world opened up. Learn how to write, how to think. There is an assumption that the young must be groomed, and cared for. There is a cut off point, a number, what is it? Twenty five? Thirty? Forty? I don’t know. I studied old Roses a few years ago. Suddenly an unknown history opened before me. Roses from the crusades, from Russia, from Bulgaria, for scent, for color, some cultivated since Roman times. Or apple trees. The tragic loss of apple varieties is an almost unknown story. The last real apple nursery in England closed a couple years ago (Scott’s Nursery in Merriot, Somerset. I had the pleasure of buying from 85 year old Frank Naish before the premature death of one of the other owners. Here is a link to the few remaining places to find heirloom apple trees http://www.fruitwise.net/links.html). History is embedded even in the names of apple varities: Hoary Morning, Frederick, Brown Snout, Sweet Alford, Broxwood Foxwhelp, King Thompkins Co., and Laxton’s Fortune to name only a few of the literally thousands one could, at one time, find. Here is a personal favorite of mine: http://www.treesofantiquity.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=102
Edward Dugmore

Edward Dugmore


The citizens of the United States, more than any other country, live lives devoid of joy and wonder. Of course, not everyone, but as a sweeping generalization, it’s true. I see none of that wonder in young children. They are often too busy learning to operate their cell phone. And those who do have it, lose it soon enough. They usually lose it as soon as they go to school. I had an argument recently about the teaching of penmanship. My father had beautiful handwriting. That was another time. The debate was around the question of usefulness. One woman said no, no, teach them how to write code. I was a minority voice, though not totally alone, in arguing that learning to write well, and learning about scripts and fonts and lettering is a part of what links us to our history, and teaches something profound about how to look, and it is a basic primal activity — making signs on rocks and in the dirt, and finally on paper.
Heirloom apple varieties.

Heirloom apple varieties.

There is another aspect to institutional education today and that is the deep reliance on bureaucratic models, and its connection to sociology. It is important to think about who exactly is to be educated.

“In the Renaissance, no Fredericks or Voltaires blossomed behind the scenes; rather they never existed. Among the guild masters of the medieval city, there were no modern entrepreneurial types or trust managers who simply lacked appropriate outlets for their activity, nor among gilded journeymen, was there the unnoticed and silent consciousness, as it were, that characterized the industrial worker today…The doctrine is false that even though times change, the psychological makeup of human beings remains the same.”
Max Horkheimer

Horkheimer wrote this in the 1930s. He went on to suggest that history was not to be ignored just because people from different eras remain far murkier to us than we like to imagine. This would mean even the study of other cultures would be pointless, and clearly this is not the case. But the historical issue, that is historical research, in our own time has largely forgotten that the vast majority of the world’s population in any given time was forced through various means to renounce their instincts. The desire for equality is always driven by those under the boot heal of domination. The rulers seldom want social change. Why would they? So, when discussing the idea of education, of school, it is worth trying to see from what and where the discussion is to start.

Office, CERN, Geneva. (courtesy Lars Muller publishing).

Office, CERN, Geneva. (courtesy Lars Muller publishing).

If education means children, the question of family influences arises. The focus on children is natural, up to a point, but it only mystifies things to restrict the idea of pedagogy to the very young and adolescents. If the discussion is about the U.S., then it is worth remembering, according the those very unreliable polls (Pew and Gallup and the like) that a vast majority of people believe science should be the primary field of study and that grade school and junior high and high school should be preparatory for advanced specialized technical learning. At the same time, as I mentioned, the vast majority polled have very little understanding or knowledge of science themselves. There is disdain for the arts, and honestly, this is completely understandable given how art is taught today in high school and college. Pyschology has become popular but disliked, a sort of second career for many, oddly. (I know personally five or six people who once worked in the arts and later became accredited therapists, and several of them I think are very good, but still, its an odd phenomenon). Philosophy and the classics are almost obsolete in terms of numbers for post graduate programs. English literature and the humanities are very low, but business school has a long waiting list. But even the idea of evaluating how the public feels about something, based on surveys and polls is itself a symptom of what is wrong.
Tim Gardner

Tim Gardner

The presumption of polling and surveys is that people have some degree of self knowledge. Never mind that in certain restrictive contexts polling can be very accurate, but those are specialized circumstances. Polling is largely manipulation, and usually paid for by a corporation of government agency that is looking to buy validation. But the secondary sale is that of opinion itself. And this takes us back to those comment threads in cyber space. People shop for ideas the way they shop for everything else. That the vast majority of Americans think Castro is an evil dictator proves only that propaganda works. Very few people will answer poll questions by saying they dont have enough information or knowledge of the topic. This brings up Horkheimer’s observations again. Today sociology, a badly corrupted version of the discipline, is what shapes policy for most of what affects people’s daily lives. Including education.

The public looks at history, and historical figures, as if they were the same as you and I. Scratch the surface of anyone and you find the *family of man*. This is the pablum that fuels opinion makers, and it is what shapes kitsch history and biography. As Michael Parenti wrote ‘history’ is written to “enforce the existing political orthodoxy”. It is written by the privileged classes and it presents their value system. This is all sort of obvious, but what is more telling, in a sense, is that the background to historical study, as one finds it in textbooks, is that of a kitsch ‘family of man’ model. Certain rulers were *evil* because they were, well, evil. So pedagogical resistance means firstly, I think, giving up any bureaucratic institutional setting, and secondly, starting with philosophy and the arts. It may be that we’ve had enough science for the time being. This is not to suggest that science be abandoned, but only that it be freed from its corporate research based and sociological base. My fascination with CERN has to do with the fact that what is going on with the Halldron Collidor is probably closer to philosophy than it is to what conventional thinking terms science. I want more of that and less research on how to extend the shelf life of candy bars.

I want pedagogy without textbooks. I am not sure that anyone who has not recently opened a U.S. textbook knows just how horrifying these things are. I do not want children or anyone opening textbooks written in a mind numbingly bland prose, ahistorical and predicated on sociological premises, that teach generic history and social truisms divorced from all political awareness. Why is that the goal? When did this thing happen in which *not offending* anyone became the goal? When was it decided that giving offense to a few people was bad, was terminally bad? Sociology simply measures things that shouldnt be measured, or counted, or statistically analysed. It may have been a useful tool at some point, when it seemed oppositional to dogmatic state narratives, but today, textbook sociology is a brain eating protozoal infection whose generalized grammar obscures rather than reveals. Open schools must offend, must drive some off, must never be bland or generic. Better to be wrong.

Albert Renger-Patzsch, photography. Zeche Bonifacius, Essen 1948.

Albert Renger-Patzsch, photography. Zeche Bonifacius, Essen 1948.


The presumption of self knowledge is a fascinating topic. It implies this person, this self, with abundant self awareness and willingness to comment on any question asked of him or her. It implies that backdrop to our lives from which we pluck available data when needed. This is a large topic and I will return to it in another, later, post. But, for the sake of thinking about pedagogy, it is important to realize that, for example, the Malala Yousafzai and her winning (co-winning recipient) is a fable straight out of a kitsch Conrad. Edleman PR represents Nestle, Oracle, Microsoft, and Hewlitt Packard among others. They handled the *Malala story*; which was essentially her rescue from an evil Muslim menace. Her story is getting to meet the President, and Angelina Jolie….er….Dame Angelina Jolie, and a photo op with David Beckham. This is white society rescuing third world girls. Nobody in the teary eyed audience in TV land USA stops to think, how come Malcolm X. never got one, or Huey Newton or Subcomanandante Marcos, or, even Dr. Mads Gilbert. Of course who the fuck wants this diseased blighted trophy anyway, one that sits on the mantle of several war criminals. Chavez didn’t get one, neither did Castro. Why? No, a teenager rescued and brought back to *civilization* gets one. This is marketing, a sentimental narrative of white compassion, and tolerance. The girl herself is manufactured as an image, a symbol, of moderate Islam, and a friend of the U.S. Mostly she is shown in photo ops with white men. All of it a feel good distraction because, of course, the bombing continues even as the applause dies down. This is all very obvious. And yet, it works. A resistance to such manipulation seems almost the first goal of pedagogical resistance.
Marco Maggi

Marco Maggi


Malala serves as a fitted component in this background ideology. This ideological backdrop is also an image, and a grammar. The story is inseparable from the political reality manufactured by corporate media and the government. This is the *real* against which all entertainment takes place, and all narrative. I suppose in a sense what Derrida did with the Collège international de philosophie is one version of what should happen all over. It is crucial that from kindergarten onwards the role of authority be transformed. Authority is repressive because of how it is practiced. After that the individual should be allowed to attend, or not attend, and to study what they want. If someone chooses to remain illiterate, I’m not sure that’s bad. Not many would so choose. The sociological system demands answers, it privileges answers over questions. It is an anti-philosophy. Answers are fine if ask the right questions. Heidegger, while still studying theology, suggested that the modern individual’s concern for his or her own problems ‘unfolded’ in a way that tangled them with the alienated world. Hence only ontological intellectual pursuits served personal development (of course for Heidegger this later came to mean exterminating Jews and Gypsies and anyone not German, with a Germanic ontological orientation). The constant assault of literal and allegorical clutter was turning pedagogy into intellectual housekeeping.

Peer relationships change. This is my idea of socialism. Self regulating. Class is abolished. I want universities that won’t inspire Tommy Hilfiger. I want no more Tommy Hilfigers. I want no more PR firms. But to reach that place, amid the violence of the state, police and military, much would be to change and I can’t even begin to imagine that happening. I imagine only small autonomous zones of such little importance to the Imperialist power that they are left alone. Reading Mao, reading Lenin, reading Marx. After that Freud and Adorno and Fanon and whoever you want— the point is, read those who worked to make life better. Once that’s done with, choose who you want to read, what you want to study. Start building, tending bees, and gardening. Then read Freire on pedagogy. That is about as Utopian as I can get anymore. Teaching people to *see* and *hear* is the first thing. And then to stimulate the mimetic in relation to all of it. To relearn narrative and story. That is the beginning.

“He who thinks and does not learn is in great danger.”
Confucius

As a footnote to discussions of aesthetic resistance, there is this:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/07/creative-writing-killing-western-literature-nobel-judge-horace-engdahl

Everything Is Not As It Should Be

George Grosz

George Grosz

“Challenged, the coherence of myth became the myth of coherence. Magnified by history, the incoherence of the spectacle turns into the spectacle of incoherence (eg, pop art, a contemporary form of consumable putrefaction, is also an expression of the contemporary putrefaction of consumption). The poverty of ‘the drama’ as a literary genre goes hand in hand with the colonization of social space by theatrical attitudes. Enfeebled on the stage, theatre battens on to everyday life and attempts to dramatize everyday behaviour. Lived experience is poured into the moulds of roles. The job of perfecting roles has been turned over to experts.”
Raoul Vaneigem

“…let’s assume that there is a cinematographic modernity and that it confronted the classical cinema of the link between images for the purposes of narrative continuity and meaning with an autonomous temporality and the void that separates it from other images.”
Jacques Ranciere

Film is no more of a dream than theatre, it is only another kind of dream. It is the vast influence of film and TV today that has caused endless writing on the subject. I have said before that all discourse, or almost all, is now enclosed within the metaphors of film. More, people’s ideas today are shaped from within a cinematic framework, employing the narratives of film and TV. There is also something about the flickering lights on a large screen in a dark room, although they flicker less now due to digital technology, and I suspect there is a real oneiric loss in that.

Mario Schifano

Mario Schifano


Actors are doing something very different in film and TV than they do on stage. The reality of film’s effect has no doubt altered the dreams of people. The film actor is not even an actor, quite, if compared with the actor on stage. Certainly different directors have made quite different use of actors. Ozu rehearsed until there was nothing left of performance, and Bresson hired non actors, untrained at all, and moved them like puppets. Godard managed several things at once, often in the same film, and Melville had a knack for creating a distance between an actor’s persona and his performance. Elia Kazan treated acting much as one would in a certain kind of Stanislavksi based (by way of Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and perhaps Harold Clurman) theatre frame. Sidney Lumet was working out of that same method acting model, but working it out differently in terms of cinema. Pasolini worked in ways not unlike Bresson, and probably Antonioni was pretty close to Pasolini, and Fassbinder was working out of a model linked to Antonioni and Pasolini, but by way of Sirk. And that is a fascinating linkage here. Douglas Sirk, the most enigmatic and difficult of major film directors to talk about. One famous essay was titled “The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk”. And it’s true. Sirk actually used the most dreadful of Hollywood stars and starlets (by necessity) and transformed their wooden emotionless beauty into the appearance of grace. I always think of Von Kleist on marionettes when I see Sirk. But Sirk was not unlike Hitchcock in that sense. There is a subtle form of irony nipping the edges of each frame.

The idea of the performance on stage is implicit with a direct relationship to the audience. Everyone is in the same room. There is ritual space created, an unconscious looms off stage, and however that ritual is played out (and I’ve written of this before) whether in Noh, or south Indian dance, or in Pinter and Beckett, the actor is both spiritually naked (as Artaud desired) and reciting a memorized text aloud. He or she is performing a text, from memory, in some sort of *performance*, some deep relationship with story as allegory. In film, the actor is not present. He or she is rarely really reciting any complex narrative. The ritual does reside within a special space. Film is image, it is the ritual of the camera. The camera documents something.

“This space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context.”
Vilem Flusser

Harold Hausewald, photography.

Harold Hausewald, photography.


The audience for film (and photography in another way) creates temporal relationships. The memory of rehearsal in theatre, of memorization, becomes a recurring process of mimetic re-narration in film, the actor’s job has migrated to the viewer. Flusser points out that in photography, which is meant to be a map (partly anyway) the actual role has become a screen. This is even truer, I think, in film. People project movie screen images outward, and life becomes a movie. Flusser suggests amnesia is linked to people forgetting they created these images, and they created the technology that creates images. The result of projecting a screen world outward is that imagination dries up. Flusser says imagination has become hallucination. Now one of Flusser’s ideas is that the invention of linear writing was born of the need to create comprehension of the sensory world. The circular world of pre-history became the linear world of modern history.

There is a complex set of relationships still being worked out between language, technical image, and traditional image (say painting). If one believes Flusser the invention of technical image signaled the start of post linear history. I’m not sure that’s quite right, but it has certainly mediated conventional processing of memory and what is thought of as history. And the hegemony of film and TV narratives have replaced the de-coding of everyday images with the de-coding of technically produced images. A new magic that valorizes the technical which created the process. The constant flow of images is so great that that, per Flusser, the dam (his metaphor) starts to overflow. This is also related, I think, to Beller’s idea of a surplus unconscious. Humans can longer process images fast enough. Now in movies, the narratives are imbued with this new sense of magic. I think that the resistance felt to ideological readings of films and TV has to do with the sense that the technical image is self justifying. It is accurate. This reproduced *reality* is more real, more historical, more truthful that linear language based reality. Except of course it’s not. Mass culture is digitalized memory mush.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Rainer Werner Fassbinder, dr.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Rainer Werner Fassbinder, dr.


What interests me here is less the philosophical implications of technology, but how films have served to manufacture consensus about certain things. Or maybe, more accurately the ways that film has shaped discourse and consciousness, and the role of art in destabilizing this.

Brad Evans recently posted in social media this quote of Ranciere, and I think it speaks to this:

“We have to revise Adorno’s famous phrase, according to which art is impossible after Auschwitz. The reverse is true: after Auschwitz, to show Auschwitz, art is the only thing possible, because art always entails the presence of an absence; because it is the very job of art to reveal something that is invisible, through the controlled power of words and images, connected or unconnected; because art alone thereby makes the inhuman perceptible, felt.”

The democratization of creating technical images has also trivialized the role of narrative, of de-coding the world. The casual indifferent photographer sees no responsibility in creating images. But movies are created in a way that mirrors theatre in a sense, or the creating of any art. They negate the everyday indifference, in theory, and present special moving images meant to be received as narrative. Now the amazing volume of film and TV narrative however has come to be almost as incomprehensible as the numbers of cell phone photos. The ritual has been worn down. And more significantly the vast majority of film and TV is manufactured by corporate entities, by the ruling establishment and it’s lackeys. It is recreating over and over again a picture of a false reality. It is ratifying and validating a very specific set of illusions. But it also in the truest sense fetishizes images. Images are narrated. They are given codes. The current NED sponsored demonstrations in Hong Kong are sold to the U.S. public who has learned the narrative for ‘crowds in the street’. If there are crowds, it must be an organic protest to fight injustice. Same as Venezuela when right wing students, a minority, agitated and made sure to photograph it. Same in Georgia, and Ukraine. The narratives are the narratives of coded imagery.

The Film Sufi blog wrote this about Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac:
“Similarly Bresson tends to avoid establishing shots from an “objective” perspective and instead presents fragmentary, impressionistic static shots of body parts or other objects that reflect mechanical operations. They are the kinds of odd images that might be stored in one’s memory, like mental snapshots associated with a remembered scene.”
This is a very astute observation for that is exactly the experience for the viewer of Bresson’s work. One remembers. But what does one remember? That is the enigma.

L'Argent (1983). Robert Bresson, dr.

L’Argent (1983). Robert Bresson, dr.


Bresson was one of the three directors Paul Schrader singled out in his now quite well known book “Transcendental Cinema”, along with Ozu and Dreyer. It is possible that Bresson remains the most complex of these three. Dreyer is probably the most austere, and Ozu the most reconciled to the tragic in life. Its also possible none of that is true because in each of these directors there is an infinite amount to experience and re-experience. A student asked me once for my favorite Bresson film. I wanted to say Pickpocket, and many people would, or A Man Escapes, or Au Hazard Balthazar. Few would pick any of this late color films. However, as time has passed it is quite possible that in differing ways both L’Argent and Lancelot du Lac have emerged as just staggering masterpieces, but ones that it takes years (decades?) to find affinity with and fully appreciate.
Incineration plant. Roskilde, Denmark. Erick van Egeraat architect.

Incineration plant. Roskilde, Denmark. Erick van Egeraat architect.


Now this incineration plant is of an architectural design shaped by film. This is movie set built to mask the actual plant. Its decorative, though rather appealing, but the message is filmic. Its kitsch architecture. Hardly the worst by any means, but the vision for this incineration facility was one born of Hollywood’s apocalypse themed movies.

Magnificent Obsession (1954), Douglas Sirk, dr.

Magnificent Obsession (1954), Douglas Sirk, dr.

One of the realities of the new magical post linear narrative is that it justifies white supremacism and erases class.

“This produces racism. Racism isn’t just a bad feeling in your heart, as a liberal believes when she insists that she isn’t at all racist. It’s a force that emerges from the pressures of maintaining one’s own position, and the resentments that spring forth from this process. It produces fear and hatred of the poor for being poor, for having any pretense of being on equal footing with the propertied. It is a hatred for the potential threat to the property values which underpin a tenuous future among the professional middle class: blackness.”
Gavin Muller

In mass cultural product, and I’m thinking here of corporate news, Hollywood film, and TV, those manufacturers of technical image, the narratives have coalesced around the selling of fear. This is logical since the people who own the means to make and more importantly to distribute technical image are very wealthy and almost always white. They create a magical story that connects fear with the poor. And especially with poor black men. They spread it around though, for barrio neighborhoods are increasingly used for variation, but function much the same as black ghettos have for thirty five years. It’s not hard to de-code network cop shows for example. Now increasingly there is the creation of imaginary landscapes of white stability. It is interesting and instructive to watch the UK mini series of a year ago, Broadchurch, and compare it with the U.S. remake this year titled Gracepoint (starring the same actor, Scotsman David Tennant). The UK series was really about the malaise of a dying seaside town. The frustrations and pathologies of those deprived of hope. The mystery was far less important than the personal struggles of the populace to keep their sanity. It wasn’t brilliant but it was intelligent genre television. The U.S. version — of which it has to be said only the first episode has aired — is set in a fantasy small town the likes of which exist nowhere in the United States. The rhythm of the editing, the camera’s creating of artificial tensions, and the sense of mechanical rote storytelling all serve to register this small town as ordinary. The culture industry loves this faux ordinary. It’s not ordinary. Its dishonest and a fantasy. The characters are dishonest and unreal. There is no such town or any town that resembles it. It is supposed to be set halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border. You know what towns are like up in Humboldt County? In Mendocino county? Where the ONLY prospering industry is illegal marijuana growing, now encroached upon by cartels and policed by private security firms (i.e. mercenaries).

Abandoned NWP train yards, Eureka Ca. 2002 (photo courtesy of History of Fortuna.)

Abandoned NWP train yards, Eureka Ca. 2002 (photo courtesy of History of Fortuna.)


The towns up there are paranoid and economically marginalized, they are culturally narrow and intolerant of outsiders. Is Gracepoint a version of Fort Bragg? Where one could visit ‘glass beach’ the site of decades of dumping by residents and small business, on land owned by the Union Lumber Co. Where garbage is so high its often burnt off. Georgia Pacific shut down their mill, terming it a ‘non performing asset’. Median family income in Mendacino is around 37,000 dollars a year. In Humboldt over a third of the economy is pegged to marijuana, so statistics are unreliable. Maybe Gracepoint is supposed to be a version of Eureka? The mean family income is 27 thousand a year, and the racial make up is 80% white. The lumber and fishing industries are dead. That leaves….mostly marijuana again. Roughly a quarter of the population of twenty five thousand live under the poverty line. Maybe its meant to be Del Norte county, one of the smallest and poorest in California. Mean income 28 grand a year. Notable for *Bigfoot* sightings and home to Crescent City, a town routinely devastated by tsunamis due to the peculiarities of the its coastal geography. Speaking personally, Crescent City remains among the most depressing places I’ve ever passed through. But Hollywood doesn’t investigate reality, not personal, not social, not political, not anything. This is a world based on other movies which were based on yet other movies. Every show reflects the schools, dinner parties, clubs, and streets of the creators of these shows. Ergo the streets of affluent white people. Women who have a fair amount of plastic surgery and time for a personal trainer. Men who have a fair amount of plastic surgery and time for a personal trainer. Both can afford shrinks. Most make use of them. Anytown Kansas looks now like Brentwood or Pacific Palisades or Santa Monica. The entire story of Gracepoint is washed away because it takes place at Disneyland USA.
Broadchurch, created and directed by Chris Chibnall, ITV, UK, 2013

Broadchurch, created and directed by Chris Chibnall, ITV, UK, 2013


Now it is worth pondering why, say, a Sirk, a director who transformed trite melodramas into something surreal and unsettling feels so different than shows like Gracepoint. Imagine Sirk shooting the opening episode of Gracepoint. Even in the hands of Todd Haynes the difference would be substantial. But Hollywood works off copies of copies of copies.

This takes us back to Bresson and the enigmatic. For there is something very different in the eternal recurrence of myth and allegory, which is housed in deep memory, and that endless loop of mass mush that is the product of corporate owned film and TV. Those narratives that repeat, compulsively, the same unreality are there to destroy imagination, and to make the viewer forget. Image is now circulated as a marketing tool.

Fra Angelico (detail).

Fra Angelico (detail).

So, here this question of performance is raised. Part of the memory that is triggered in Bresson has to do with the presence of the actor. This is why the Ranciere quote is so useful. The presence of an absence. The actor is not reciting lines, performing them, from the memory of long rehearsal. He is presenting himself or herself to the camera. The camera reports on this. Here there are questions of where that camera is placed. We all know the editing of image in network news, but now, there is an entire litany of editing cues and expectations in the viewer when watching mass product. The viewer has done the memorizing. The long hours of viewing, of attention to these false narratives, image narratives, has allowed the viewer today to store up a huge inventory of familiar shots. This is why the Coen Brothers are so valued and rewarded; they create very classy effects from these inventories of the familiar, from the storehouse of the images of other films. Tarantino does the hyper kinetic sadistic version of this same thing.

Thinking however, of great film acting, means looking at Brando in The Fugitive Kind, at George C. Scott in The Hustler, or Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. These were performances that defied the camera. But in both Scott and Brando there was always the sense they were acting in a different movie from everyone else. They did something that posed a negation of the camera’s tacit role in memory. Today I think, if asked, the two greatest living actors are Rory Kinnear and Jeffrey Wright. Both have certainly done a good deal of crap film and TV. But both have, at times, in places, captured that fleeting magical sense of deep memory. But both are technically brilliant actors. I am not sure that this, in the end, means very much. At some point, at least in film (Kinnear did a now nearly legendary Iago a couple years back at the National Theatre, in London) they must reach past whatever it is HBO or Showtime is offering. But these are the contradictions of film, and they can be traced back through the economic aspects of film, and the very origin of it. Photography is different. And perhaps worthy of an entirely separate discussion.

George Shaw

George Shaw


“Cinema revokes the old mimetic order because it resolves the question of mimesis at its root.”
Jacques Raciere

Ranciere quotes Jean Epstein from a 1921 essay, saying that in effect film is a form of mind. I think this isn’t quite right. I think theatre is a form of mind, a form of thought perhaps. Film is a form of memory. And this Ranciere would probably agree with. For film is also inherently about nostalgia. It is, in its technology, part of a civilizational moment of promise, the instrumental dystopia of progress and with that, of conquest. Film was bound to quickly turn to stories about film. But film is, like theatre, connected to dreams. The audience does not dream film, film dreams the audience. The audience is snared, in a sense, caught in the spell of the apparatus and its documenting, for the film camera is a machine to which actors sacrifice themselves. They do it both in career, but more interestingly they do it before the illusory alter of the apparatus. The screen *performance* is one of abjection and supplication. I suspect Brando knew this better than most. Nobody was beaten up more convincingly than Brando. Nobody sensed the ways to counter the documentary machine quality of the camera, and appear to it as a surprise.

A Man Escapes (1956), Robert Bresson, dr.

A Man Escapes (1956), Robert Bresson, dr.

There are directors today, Bruno Dumont, Amat Escalante perhaps, Guiraudie, maybe Michael Haneke, that I think are aware of and trying to work through the possible disruptive techniques of the camera. Dumont is an obvious legatee of Bresson. Jacques Audiard, and maybe Lawlor and Malloy, and a few others, are working through the sense of text more. Of mainstream directors its possible David Fincher deserves some credit for at least a semi formalist approach to making junk. Paul Thomas Anderson is another conflicted case. The Master was elegant, both cinematically and textually, even if the whole was less than the sum of the parts. He has made dreadful stuff like Magnolia, and then made an operatic somewhat de-politicized adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel Oil (There Will Be Blood). But even here the film is working off the *star* doing some version of a *star* performance. Its effective. But it diminshes what might have been something more. Fincher and Anderson are astride the commerical world of technical dreams and the world of deep memory and allegory.

But, if one sits back and watches Fincher’s films again, something unpleasant takes place. For these are the films of a man who graduated from advertising, and directing commercials (Pepsi, Sony, Nike, etc) and music videos. He is the very talented child of regressive consumerism. Fincher will always be a bourgeois filmmaker making bourgeois films. Anderson seems far more intriguing, and in fact, with The Master has made a pretty memorable film that is working off the ideas of subverting the false present. The Master is about memory. It is a movie about failed memory.

Party Girl (1958). Nick Ray, dr.

Party Girl (1958). Nick Ray, dr.


Still, compare to Bresson. Ranciere wrote that in what defines Bresson’s cinematographic art is that which is found in theatre in the *third character*, or unknown, or inhuman. I wrote recently about the idea of what defined theatre, and why one-character plays were missing something crucial. This is a closely related topic. For Ranciere has touched on a profoundly important aspect of creating film (or theatre). That is the unknown voice, or the off-stage, or in film, more specifically, a reconciliation with the camera. The camera is the voice that doesn’t speak. If you do not understand that, you can only make elegant commercials like Fincher, or inelegant commercials like Tarantino. The voice that is mute, or refuses to speak, is that same force of memory and the uncanny that one experiences from the off-stage.

Sam. P.K. Collins, writing in Think Progress:

“Americans are more depressed now than they have been in decades, a recent study has found. San Diego State University (SDSU) psychology professor Jean M. Twenge analyzed data from nearly 7 million adolescents and adults from across the country and found that more people reported symptoms of depression — including sleeplessness and trouble concentrating — compared to the 1980s.
Twenge’s findings show that teenagers in the 2010s experience memory trouble 38 percent more often than their 1980s counterparts. Teens are also 74 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping and twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues. College students in the study reported feeling overwhelmed by academic and personal demands 50 percent more often than their 1980s counterparts.”

Now this is admittedly not exactly the most scholarly of journals, but one thing is interesting. Teenagers with memory problems.
This is the generation of the screen. The generation born of a generation that was half screen. Of course they suffer from dysfunctional memory, mass culture has seen to that.

Now, one other aspect of kitsch film today, at least of Hollywood film and TV, is the glaring narcissism of the white world. I cannot remember a show where someone did not have hurt feelings. Deeply hurt feelings. I cant believe there has ever been another culture in the history of the world in which any peoples have so enjoyed and desired and luxuriated in feeling affronted, or insulted, or shown insufficient respect. Hurt feelings are ready to pounce at every turn, same as those serial killers/rapists/child molesters/aliens/zombies that are around or behind every pillar or car, or in every shadow of the parking garage or stair well. Any part of the urban landscape in which the poor might have access is treated as hostile.

Max Klinger

Max Klinger

The white liberal class today deems the world inadequate to it. And this finds expression in the racism that haunts daily life as well as cultural production. Narratives reflect this larger feeling of the world’s deficiencies by making it personal. Stories are about others letting you down. Father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, friends; they come to stand in for the sense of dissapointment the narcissistic white West feels today. The poor are disruptive wherever they appear in this world. Class segregation is mandatory. The appearance of the poor, especially black poor, disrupts the sleepwalking daily life of the affluent class. Running alongside the sub-text of the inadequate world is one that seeks to create menace lurking in the marginalized masses. The disruptive effect that occurs when the poor become visible is narrated as a disruption having justification. The Ferguson Missouri resistance is narrated by suggesting “outside agitators”. The implication is both that the poor black community could not organize themselves, and that no doubt some form of dissident outsiders have infiltrated the protests. This is a narrative with a long history in the U.S. Either way, the fact that poor resist is an affront to white sensibilities. That alone is enough. (See the Manyfesto blog here: http://manyfesto.org/2014/09/05/red-baiting-as-the-cliff-approaches/) The emphasis in mainstream cultural product, in TV and Hollywood, is always on individual accomplishment, and it discourages any idea of community. I’ve also noticed that the most popular villain in mainstream material is one now labled as ‘eco-radical’. Environmental extremists. Its pure fantasy, but it creates yet another excuse of police power. Driving these fantasy story lines is the desire to believe, to keep in place, the constructed movie screen being projected on the world.

Our Hitler (1977), Hans Jurgen Syberberg, dr.

Our Hitler (1977), Hans Jurgen Syberberg, dr.


The role of aesthetic education is to start deconstructing these thematic issues, but also to question the form. The constant non-stop bombardment of amnesia producing kitsch. If the most critically acclaimed film of this past year is Boyhood, then it is clear that only the most glaringly superficial depictions of white virtue are going to be disseminated. The endless stream of hyper violent cop shows feel ever less meaningful in terms of conditioning. The educated class are being trained to evaluate art in terms dictated by the corporate ownership class. By business directed criteria. There is nothing in Boyhood that is not regressive. Performances take place in a fantasy landscape borrowed from earlier films, it is the SAME landscape as Gracepoint. This is a more insidious and pernicious film than even Zero Dark Thirty. It appeals to an educated audience, and it is validated and described in ways suggestive of serious art. This brings me back to the Ranciere quote. There is no depth to Boyhood. There is no memory, and yet it is a film *about* memory, and the 12 year shooting schedule ‘proves’ this. There was an understandable but small rejection of Zero Dark Thirty (or Lone Survivor et al) but it only has served to soften the response to stuff like Boyhood. At least its not violent. My argument would be that such craven sentimentalizing is every bit as violent; it is a violence that erases dreams, it extinguishes memory, and obstructs mimesis. People today do not want to be accused of ‘hating everything’. Of being ‘so negative’. There has never been a time in which to be more negative. There will be a predictable response to saying this, the inflated ‘reasonableness’ of the educated white liberal will denounce such talk as exaggerated, as sweeping generalizations. But this is exactly the sound of characters in corporate entertainment. They are speaking lines from their favorite TV show. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t write dialogue like people talk, people talk like Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue. They talk like Michelle and Robert King, like Joss Whedon, like Dick Wolf staff writers, like Bochco and Milch, like Howard Gordon.
Francesco Furini, 1640.

Francesco Furini, 1640.


But there is plenty of stuff not to hate. Only it requires effort to find it. Mister John is not an easy film to see, as an example. Neither is Stranger at the Lake, not even Blue Caprice was widely seen.

When one looks at the films of directors like Nick Ray, as an example, it is easy to miss just how strange and disquieting his images actually are. Ray himself probably didn’t quite realize the extent of his cinematic gifts. To watch, anew, the strange poetics of Ray’s films is to suddenly see the potential of film art. I cannot even remember the plots of most of Ray’s films. I do remember my emotional state when viewing them, however. The west today is taught not to look. If I take a moment and sit and look at Francesco Furini’s paintings, as an example, I see what somehow feels as if it should be familiar, but it is not. The viewer is gazing from an indeterminate location, and the atmosphere feels exotic, though nothing specific suggests the reason. A student of Caravaggio, Furini is the toxic shadow to Caravaggio (if that were possible). His paintings suggest an erotic distress, if not morbidity. Something is not as it should be. Certainly his paintings do not suggest happiness or joy. I’m not suggesting Ray is the filmic Furini (though thats a sort of cool idea in a way) but just that in his films, things as not as they should be. This is a negation of the standing world, but it is not explicit. The banality of Linklater’s work is acute. It is mentally paralyzing. Hence, he will be critically rewarded. It is important to teach how to *see* Ray. And Straub & Huilett, and Bresson, and Godard, and Pasolini and Fassbinder, and Tarkovsky, and Antonioni, and Syberberg, and etc etc etc.

Art is not the only thing possible, but it is one of the only things. The atomizing, snitch centered, shame driven and punitive culture of white America is eating its own brains. It is a vampiric Ouroboros, a soul killing culture of blatant racism and fascist sympathies and it is in flight mode, like a mad King backed into a corner.

Aesthetic Pacification

Henry Moore

Henry Moore

“Militarism is closely intertwined with the interests of U.S. capital. U.S. leaders are not misguided when they impose sanctions against some poor nation or launch a war. As dreadful as the consequences may be for the victims, such aggressive measures have been remarkably effective in achieving the aims of Western elites: control over the labor, resources and markets of other nations. No challenge to the political orthodoxy of the free market can be tolerated and no corner of the globe can be allowed to remain free of from plunder and exploitation by private interests.”
Greg Elich

“The US’s psychopathology of strength, dominance, hatred of difference, driving America into a cul-de-sac of ideological hardness and inflexibility, rather dead than red (even when red is not around), is like a locomotive rushing downhill, no brakes, almost, beneath the toughness, craving oblivion.”
Norman Pollack

“Something in narration escapes the order of what it is sufficient or necessary to know, and, in its characteristics, concerns the *style* of tactics.”
Michel de Certeau

I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which political propaganda entrenches itself, and how aesthetic values shift, and aesthetic propaganda (which it is, but more below) entrenches itself. There are class segregation, certainly, in that elite Universities assist in artist careerism, and there are also ideological (all of these over-lap) niches, and niche markets, and increasingly certain, not all, niche artistic mafias operate separately. As this new first chapter in the official permanent war saga starts, I see this increased punishment meted out to those who dissent. While everyone, in a way, realizes that Obama and Clinton are both far to the right of Nixon, fewer people see that branded alternative journalism is now to the right of where the Wall Street Journal once was, say, forty years ago. Such a blanket statement isn’t quite right, but the basic impulse of that sentence is true. Now in terms of art and culture, with the now complete disappearance of the avant garde, any kind of avant garde, there remains only specialized niche producers with their niche target audiences. And the revisionism starts with the de-politicizing of the artist.

Statue of Shiva, outside CERN, Geneva.

Statue of Shiva, outside CERN, Geneva.

There are two currents running through both journalism and artworks today. One is the branding. The second is is a nakedly dishonest re-writing of history. They work together, of course. There is an intellectual sectarianism, too. In literature, in theatre, in poetry to some degree, and in fine arts, there are very well defined mafias at work. They manufacture codes to communicate with the novitiates. There are words, or behavior, and certainly values (expressed as commodity loyality, brand loyality) and now such style codes have subsumed actual thought in many places.

In journalism, I think these structural dynamics are newer. I’ve mentioned VICE before, but a writer (sic) such as Danny Gold, as an example, is deeply reactionary. If Obama is to the right of Nixon (and he is) then Gold is to the right of some Hearst tabloid hack from the 20s, and no amount of cool coding can change that. He reminds me a bit of another bilious reactionary, Marc Cooper. Both spend great amounts of time on attacking leftists for, well, left politics.

L'Eclisse (1962), Michelangelo Antonioni, dr.

L’Eclisse (1962), Michelangelo Antonioni, dr.


Gold is not unlike Nick Kristoff, too, but it’s the VICE version. Meaning, the manufacture of the brand targets a younger audience, more garage band and less Bono. What is insidious with faux journalists like Gold is that they create empty rhetoric. Empty ad copy. Words like *progressive*, as a way not to say socialist. And not to say liberal, because the connotation for liberal is now too negative. Its all about brand. There are other versions, more academic, more grounded in the style codes of higher elite (expensive) education. Words like *agency* are stuck into the middle of a sentence, for no apparent reason. And it’s tricky, because these meanings, these marketing strategies are ever changing. *Progressive* meant something else five years ago. But then the meaning of meaning has shifted. Outside of the most rigid scientific context the idea of meaning floats above our heads like Zizek’s signifiers. Empty, gaseous, and reactionary.

But, back to branding in art. The point is that heterogeneity is being subsumed by an intellectual and ideological flatlining. Everything is everything else. Running sideways across all of this, I sense, is a new return of Puritan moralizing.

Phillip King

Phillip King

There is an almost meta register in which the American public (and increasingly Europe and other places) are existing in purely delusional space. The reality of what bombing human beings means has no traction in their consciousness. It is simplistic to say that everything is like a TV show, but its true. It is horrifyingly true. It is not true all the time, and it is not fully true, but it is usually and mostly true. People feel no brand identity as strongly as they feel that identity forged to their favorite TV show(s). They do not think they exist in these shows, but they position themselves in such a way that a tacit encouragement for their lives to start showing features of these shows or films. They try to shape their environment to function as a series would. They look to friends for good Neilsens, they fear mid season cancellation, their boss is perceived much like a network executive, and so on. In another way, they adopt behavioural patterns that imitate characters in Hollywood film and TV. This is nothing new, but it has intensified. There is also this sense I get of, again, franchise association. People who love the Coen Brother’s films will associate in some degraded mimetic fashion, their value system as a reflection of their shopping expertise vis a vis Coen Brothers movies.

The irrationality, the contradictions in all this, is partly what is driving the escalation in violence throughout the society. Now American society has always been violent. Always. But the violence is now untethered from cause. People are, and cops especially, increasingly violent for no apparent reason. No stimuli is needed. And the consumption of violence breeds the need for more. New medical shows now show in close up, in agonizing detail, every drop of blood, every bit of splintered bone or tumorous growth. The autopsy is now the most consistent narrative trope in Network TV dramas. Hands down. If aliens landed today on earth, and watched people for a few weeks, they would go away convinced that the primary occupation of mankind was forensics and that we suffered some form of death obsession.

Eva Besnyo, photography.

Eva Besnyo, photography.

We are the new pharaonic Egypt. Medical TV is our version of Canoptic jars. This is not real death, however. Real death is kept at an absolute distance. The fact that American soldiers, if killed, are returned home in secret serves as an example. The media, that great world of democratic free speech is prohibited from photographing military corpses, not even the coffins. This deformed Puritanical anxiety is the same kitsch emotion (superficial emotion) that drives much of the new branded white pseudo hipster journalism. From a Danny Gold to Laurie Penny to Molly Crabapple, there is always a stance of superiority bought at the expense of those deemed insufficiently hip. But vibrating just below the surface is a voice suggesting the opposite. I find a lot of Hollywood comedy draws from this same dynamic. Seinfeld or Adam Sandler or Seth Rogan, are all members of a club to which they assume everyone wants to join.

Now, one of the problems today in trying to critique culture, or maybe just aesthetics, is that of an enforcement of the constant “now”. Jonathan Crary writes quite cogently about this. For the very idea of intentionality is dismissed, and as Jameson points out, it is very hard to do this because of the very success of the critique of instrumental reason exemplified by the Frankfurt School thinkers. And by Freud in an odd sort of way. In philosophy the ascension of a Zizek speaks to the very same mechanisms of reactionary politics and self branding as a tool of Puritanical punishment. And that punishment is reserved at every turn for anything suggestive of radical or socialist thinking. In other words the mechanisms of branding entail at the foundational level a demand to respect the status quo. Everything dissident is derided as perverse or is called Stalinist or authoritarian or just old fashioned. Anything that asks for historical vision is called a-historical. Anything socialist is called Capitalist, anti racists are called the real racists, and so on.

Pablo Palazuelo

Pablo Palazuelo


I find that all artworks, contain a relationship to death, and included in that is contemplation of the infinite, either macro or micro, and there are countless ways of approaching this. If art is kitsch, one of the things it does is to remove anything that engages with cosmic forces, with questions of eternity, with looking backward to our beginnings or looking forward to what might be. Kitsch is about right now. Now I might argue that any artwork that actually raises a sense of awareness, even if fleeting, about the cosmic implications of our existence, is also, inescapably political. I have made the case before that abstract art is often, if not usually, more political than the overtly message oriented themes of, say, a Diego Rivera (and I think Rivera is very good). There is also the uncanny. The uncanny is a sense of something familiar, that, probably, we have repressed. Or, we have forgotten. Great artwork, even good artwork, is trying to remember. There is a built in politics of liberation attached to memory. Which is why corporate kitsch is always either about removing memory (now now now) or it is about creating false memories. The very idea of a mystery is linked to the cosmic. To the impossible. Most artists I know are fascinated with CERN and the Hadron Collider. Why? Because of the sheer practical pointlessness of it, but much more, because it is directed at what is mysterious in our existence.
Canopic Jars, found Deir El Bahri, Upper Egypt.  21st dynasty.

Canopic Jars, found Deir El Bahri, Upper Egypt. 21st dynasty.

The sense of infinity usually overlaps with the uncanny, and/or with Utopian dreams. Irony, this rise in a post modern ironic, is essentially a way of neutralizing an awe and wonder at the world. It is an intellectual cannibalism. The commodifying of things has, in a sense been replaced by branding. Much anti commodification artwork is there to build brand. In any case all of it removes mystery and memory, and certainly the dream life of people, and of Utopia. That is what it is does. If the Imperialist project of the ruling class is to CONTROL EVERYTHING, then promoting work that suggests there is ONLY our specialness (meaning the ruling elite), and our unique talents and beauty will be standard. Work that asks too many questions, aesthetically, is removed. When innovation is rewarded, what is meant is the opposite.

A certain quality of meditative attention is an implicit question; the infinite, and eternity are all gathered under the aegis of immaculate detail and craft. The opposite, a craft, meticulous or otherwise, without memory or without dreams is artist as simply technician. The contrived attempt for *weird* effects also is a way of removing the uncanny. For the genuinely uncanny can never be planned for, and attempted, consciously. The one link in artworks from antiquity through today is that of seeking the unknown, a revelation, a recognition of the infinite, and perhaps that is best or at least most clearly realized in contemplations of mortality. The obsessive splatter films and zombie films, along with all else they are, are also ways to crowd out reflections of mortality. The vampire, that product of bourgeois hysteria, is also in its overdetermined way, a stand in for the genuine spiritual dread of our own death. Fear and trembling is now the cruel superiorities of Jerry Seinfeld or Lena Dunham.

Ian Stephenson

Ian Stephenson


In theatre, one can go back to an avant garde in Germany after WW1; the writings of Piscator and Toller say. Now they shared similarities while politically taking somewhat different paths. This was still, all of it however, an answer to the naturalism of Ibsen and Chekov and even that outlier Strindberg. As Raymond Williams wrote; “Sexual liberation, the emancipation of dream and fantasy, a new interest in madness as an alternative to repressive sanity, a rejection of ordered language as a form of concealed but routine domination: these were now seen, in this tendency, which culminated in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, as the real dissidence, breaking alike from bourgeois society and from the forms of opposition to it which had been generated within its terms.”

Now, Piscator’s Fanen (Flags), a sort of Brechtian epic about strikers and labor, is today, in spite of an intelligence applied to its staging, largely forgotten and feels like something of a relic. Why? Well, one, the writing lacks that attention to the cosmic, if that’s how we want to describe it, and its finally a *message* melodrama. In England at this time there was mostly George Bernard Shaw and a bourgois cynicism. In Ireland there was, however, work of some lasting merit in O’Casey and even W.B Yeats. Today this works seems in some ways more radical than Piscator or Hollar. But it was Brecht with whom a certain confluence of factors collided. I still find Baal and In the Jungle of Cities his best work. But Brecht is a special case and worth an entire posting to try to tweeze apart. My point here is that in Brecht, in Baal, one hears the hallucinatory echos of Buchner, while by the time of Mahagony, that has gone silent, replaced with didactic oration (of course the inclusion of Eisler changes everything). One of the continuing problems with the left today is their failure to look past artworks that just serve as echo chambers for their preferred political rhetoric. In painting its the crappy community center murals everyone feels compelled to applaud, or it is the never ending endorsement of overtly political message. The day a socialist openly endorses Genet or Pinter or Beckett as great playwrights, or prefers Rothko over Rivera, then I know progress will have been made.

Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons


The left today, is often guilty of falling prey to the accommodation demanded by the logic of the Spectacle. The tacit rejection of much of the Frankfurt School has to do with their emphasis on the subjective, Freudianism, distrust of proletariat organizing (elitism) but most of all, their preoccupation with art and culture. Of course, the Trotskyists out there are simply stuck in a vocabulary of 1918, and what Russell Jacoby called a ‘dialectic of defeat’. Nothing is ever socialist enough. So they can agree with attacks on Chavez by cretins like Danny Gold because to them, Chavez wasn’t a *real socialist*. I can’t count the times people have said to me, ‘oh, if you were a real leftist’. I’ve no idea, finally, what they mean. Except that it is a form of delusional thinking.
Boesendorfer Piano, limited edition #225. Design Hans Hollein, 1955.

Boesendorfer Piano, limited edition #225. Design Hans Hollein, 1955.

Now on the other hand, it is time for radical voices to stop whispering or looking to be reasonable. The people in Serbia are not fooled by U.S. rhetoric, the people In Iraq certainly are not, nor in Rwanda and Ivory Coast and Haiti and Yemen and Venezuela or Guatemala. It is therefore important to know who your enemies are, if you are looking for social change. But it also important to start seeing the aesthetics of politics as well as the politics of aesthetics. In the First World, there is a need to develop aesthetic resistance to the overwhelming effects of a business culture. A business culture in service to the ruling elite whose desire for control is absolute. The aesthetic codes of, for example, the Coen Brothers are reactionary. They are regressive, and they culminate in a belief in and for the status quo. The form, the intentions, the lack of dialectic movement in narrative, and perhaps most of all, it is what ISNT there that is most telling, all of it contributes to their marketability, popularity, and superficiality.

Lewis Baltz, photography. 'Anechoic Chamber', France Télécom Laboratories

Lewis Baltz, photography. ‘Anechoic Chamber’, France Télécom Laboratories

The Coen Brothers are to film what, in a certain sense, Jeff Koons is to fine arts. They are a franchise. That Godard hates Coen Brother movies only adds to their appeal for many. If Roz Krause can call Koons repulsive, this, too, only assists his reputation, because popularity is its own justification these days, and because, well, Koons is nothing if not IRONIC. But its an ironic whose operative nature works quite differently, I think, than say Warhol did. But let me return to the Coen’s here, too. Coen Brother movies are not exactly ironic (even the comedies). They function, however, as if they were. True Grit was a Jeff Koons gold polycromed homage to Jeff Bridges, but Bridges as if he were not quite John Wayne. Koons makes a statue of Michael Jackson and there is no depth there, it IS Jackson, only the real subject of Koons is always Koons, and the second topic is the manufacturing process. Koons is about how Koons makes Koons. The Coens are about how they feel about film history. Not ABOUT film history but how the Coen’s feel about film history.

See, anyone who makes a movie is reflecting something about film history. This is true with any artform. They are also, to a degree, making a statement about how the artwork is made, and about the labor value and cost of production etc. What Koons does is simply frame the cost and process as art. In so doing he erases the history of Jeff Koons. Certainly there is no unconscious, and no memory. In Hollywood today, there is an increasing stridency to the comedies, and an increasing bathos to the drama (if that were possible). The dramas, however, allow for this chronic addiction to violence. The Coen Brothers make movies, and this is to their credit, that are not orgies of violence. What they are, however, are mean spirited and cruel. True Grit was not an homage to either Wayne or Bridges. It was an unpleasant homage to the Coen’s own brand. Everything is brand.

Hu Qinwu

Hu Qinwu

I can hear someone somewhere say, oh, but wasn’t Shakespeare a brand? And the answer if, of course, no. Was Brecht a brand? No. Is Beckett? Well, no, although it gives the appearance of it. The employment now of the Beckett image is perilously close to that of Che or Mao. That does not change the fact that Beckett is undeniably the end point of something that began with Ibsen. What sustains Beckett though is the meticulous language, the extraordinary attention to both memory and Utopia, even if he doesn’t believe in Utopia. It is work of rigor. So was Strindberg, and so was, in fact, Ibsen. Piscator far less, and that is the problem. Artwork without rigor, regardless of how radical the *message* is too easily open to neutralization by a system of homogenizing and ironic co-option. The form must rise to the level of autonomy, somehow, in order to survive being turned into a kitsch trinket. The mechanisms that absorb artworks, and those are numerous and diverse, actually, still cannot absorb great work no matter how many t-shirts are made out of Rembrandt self portraits. For in a sense, Rembrandt (if we are using that example) is not reducible to any of his parts. One can only take a familiar component, a familiar image or painting, and sell it on a t-shirt; but that is not Rembrandt, for Rembrandt’s depth and complexity resist that. Koons is already a t-shirt. Koons’ work does not have to submit, it already is. If we use the Coen Brothers’ work, the question would be is there any single film, or is there as an entire oeuvre, anything resistant or subversive or destabilizing in their work?

“The common consent to be positive is a gravitational force that pulls all downward. It shows itself superior to the opposing impulse by refusing to engage it.”
Adorno

The smiley face subjective, the constant enforcing of strategic thinking, the insistence that to be too critical is ‘not useful’, has rendered the populace mute in the face of endless horror. When some, unable to endure more, speak out they are usually shamed, ridiculed and scapegoated. They are not being useful. This position, in narrative, is often masked. The superficial cynicism or meanness of the Coen Brothers is actually just a fragile patina that obscures their basic smug contentment. Their world is one where every meal is a ‘happy meal’.

The Coen’s only make genre films. Everything is a gloss on other films. If I were to single out the most, at least, ambitious of their dramas, I might end up with Inside Llewyn Davis, The Man Who Wasnt There, A Serious Man, and No Country for Old Men. In each there is a strange sort of quality to the narratives, which seems to revolve around an absence of the uncommunicable. Now, I have a certain sympathy for each of these films. But there is at the heart of all of them something dishonest. A certain tricking of the audience’s engagement. The failure of narrative is presented as a failure of the audience to ‘read’ the film, the film is just too good for us.

Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.

Awoiska Van der Molen, photography.


In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed Crane, the character played by Billy Bob Thornton, is presented as a sub-everyman (“I’m the barber”). The voice over is both a parody of a noir device, and a way to suggest that its ok if nothing is actually happening on screen. Shot in black and white, by Roger Deakins, the neo James Cain story is a deconstruction of work from writers such as Cain, Goodis, and Cornell Woolrich. The central device is a variation on the ‘wrong man’ theme. The problem is, there is so little there that we are left to (and meant to) contemplate the cleverness of individual scenes. Critics (like Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian) suggest the Coen’s world is both familiar and unfamiliar, and that they therefore achieve something unique:

“As in so many of the Coens’ films, an entire universe is summoned up, partly recognisable as our own, and yet different, a quirky variant on real life with its very own fixtures, fittings and brand names.”

Man Who Wasn't There, 2001, Coen Brothers.

The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001, Coen Brothers.

This is the heart of the problem, and a very revealing sentence. The world of this film is not our own. It is a world made of up signifiers from other films. It is a film about the style of the film. Even the black and white is a device that screams for attention. And Deakins work here is heightened, without much of what, say, one can find in L’Eclisse, the 1962 Antonioni, in which there are reasons for the architectural fixation of the camera, for it reflects a brutalism of the soul. Here, this is just Deakins showing off. One can imagine screen shots serving as perfect advertising imagery for shampoo. It is also, for all its insistence on crime and the subject of death, an agonizingly shallow text in which the crimes and transgressions serve merely to allow for yet another style cliche. Clever/cute observations on hair, from *Ed the barber*, are the stuff of 90s commercials. The blankness ala Chiat Day, the ad hoc camera affectations, all of it, finally, is predictable and numbing. If I asked anyone, and I’d love to ask Bradshaw, why exactly this film was so brilliant, Id be curious to know the answer.

One of my very favorite photographers is Awoiska Van der Molen. There are very few photographers of her weight and sense of the cosmic. In one sense she serves as another example of what deep looks like contrasted with shallow. For there *is* a difference. Here is a recent excellent review from Sean O’Hagan: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/sep/26/photography-awoiska-van-der-molen-sequester-canary-islands-landscape-nature

Veronika Voss (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder, dr.

Veronika Voss (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder, dr.


The Coen’s recieved a huge amount of adulation for No Country for Old Men. As a kind of disclaimer here, this is a book I have a certain attachment to, and respect for, and one, as it happened, that I read in one night while sitting at the Warsaw Airport Hilton, in the lobby, where I was stranded. Perhaps that was the perfect place to read it. But there are scenes in that book of such chilling cruelty that it’s hard to find the comparison. And part of the reason is that Chigurh, the proto-demon who ravages all in his path, a sort of colonial ghost, Indian killer, and Puritan all wrapped up in one, stalks the landscape of the book as an Old Testament curse. He is described by McCarthy economically, mostly it was his pale blue eyes. This minimalist vision was clearly the European conqueror, the scourge of Manifest Destiny, returned. So what do the Coen’s do? They cast a brown eyed Spaniard. Of course.

The strange absent elements in the Coen’s work is not that taciturnity of character, or voicing, that one that might find in Hemingway. For it doesn’t come out of the moral tensions of their work, and that’s because, well, they have none. These are astoundingly empty films in the end. Often well made and I think on balance they are highly competent technical film-makers. But even that, as is the case with Deakins work on The Man Who Wasn’t There, the sense of looking, that sense of deeper scrutiny you find in Antonioni or Bresson, is missing. Another film shot in B&W, as an exercise in dissecting nostalgia was Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss, (1982), and shot by Xaver Schwarzenberger. It is a spin on the Sunset Blvd theme, but it is inextricably tied into post war German society, to the spell of American culture, and of moral cleansing. Compare the sense of dread, of moral sickness, or failure and disappointment in that film, with the Coens work. In A Serious Man, the Coen’s perhaps come closest to actually making a movie about something. Its failings are familiar to us from all Coen Brothers work, but at least there is a sort of odd purpose to the elliptical narrative, and more, to the witholding of the central character. Its possible the ironic title is actually self-analysis, and if so, that might serve as their smartest bit of product. Larry Gopnik is another of the Ed ‘the barber’ Crane characters in Coen Brother films. I desperately wanted this film to be better than it was. For watching it, I kept thinking, this is being driven along by exactly what is so often missing in their work, the uncommunicable, the fleeting meaning that lives in the interstices of story. But even here the final scene resorts to a goofy unseriousness. These are guys who just cant handle the real. That impulse to destroy even their own work is mirrored in the passive aggressive nature of so many of their characters. The gratuitous nastiness. It is there in every film. Still, the brothers clearly are more at home in a small mid western city, the Jewish tract home end of it, than they are in the Southwest, amid Mexicans, narcotics, and preening Texas machismo.

Kenneth Armitage

Kenneth Armitage


That the Coen Brothers are the most respected filmmakers in America today speaks to the shallowness of the society at large, because they have yet to make a single memorable film. I would wager they are, if one polled mainstream media critics, the number one film artists in the country. Given that Speilberg is aging, and P.T. Anderson is too operatic. Even mainstream America is suffering insulin shock from Wes Anderson’s work, and that leaves only Linklater, and honestly I’d sit and watch all thirty years of the Coen’s before I sit through another Richard Linklater film. And yet, it may be that Linklater is soon to take the populist baton from Joel and Ethan. And honestly, who else is left in American film? Darren Aronofsky is essentially a hack, David O. Russell an elevated hack, and David Fincher a talented hack with elevated ambitions. Cronenberg is Canadian, and has made fascinating work (Videodrome is a small Dickian masterpiece) but most recently has taken to high brow literary adaptations with disastrous results (well, stooping to Bruce Wagner for a parody take down of Hollywood is just, so, well bad on so many levels I don’t know where to begin). I despise lists, and I refuse to indulge one here, but Tommie Lee Jones might be the most interesting American director working right now, with two pretty admirable films made (The Homesman, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). If not Jones then certainly Todd Haynes, whose Mildred Pierce is a far more radical re-thinking of noir than the Coen Brothers managed. In fact Mildred Pierce might have been one of the best films in the last five or six years. Or ten. Lynne Ramsay (who in fact is Scots, but whatever) is interesting, as is Kelly Reichardt. Both may develop and produce work of importance. The allure of Hollywood is a sickness, though. And its not an easy minefield to navigate, to employ a cliche. And that is the effect even thinking about Hollywood has on me. I start writing in cliches. The first feature of Alexandre Moors (Blue Caprice, 2013) and the remarkable Mister John (2013) by Irish husband and wife team Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor were both exceptionally good films. And I’m writing here only of English language films. It is interesting that Mister John is here compared with Antonioni. http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/quiet-irishman-mister-john
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Tommie Lee Jones, dr.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Tommie Lee Jones, dr.


It is important to see in Hollywood film, that it is remarkably rare to see films that are not so mediated by studio interests and values that they don’t turn out as simply pure propaganda for the ruling class. Either that or valentines to the Pentagon or to U.S. police departments (increasingly the same thing as the Pentagon). But to go back to L’Eclisse, and see it now, there is such an acute aching desire that activates that film, and perhaps in varying ways it activates all of Antonioni. The spatial distances of that film, far more than L’Aventura or La Notte, are part of the dying of the possibility for love. The financial markets, the coldness of Alain Delon even when trying not to be, and Antonioni’s sense of searching for presentments, portents, amid the congestion of modern Rome. The film is about both the aliention of business, the soul killing surrender to money, and of the spaces of memory, and all of this is just off screen, just behind the walls, just in the next room of the cafe.

The duration of scenes, the patient wary observer of the strangness of each house, each street, is what invites the viewer to share in the dream. Is there any such moment, even one, in any Coen Brother’s film?

John Kirby

John Kirby


The most disturbing aspect of contemporary culture and art is the branded populism that cloaks itself in high brow rhetoric. Where once Adorno and Horkheimer could analyse Astrology columns and soap operas the better to extract structural and ideological meaning, today the critical thrust has been subsumed by institutional ratification of kitsch, of seeing in junk a subject worthy of analysis not because it reflects larger socio-political issues, and spiritual ones, but because it is now the standard for culture and art. When Susan Sontag wrote her essay on Camp, deeming it an elite appreciation of junk, it was done (however simple mindedly) within a larger critique of interpretation itself. In other words the lyrics of Madonna are treated less as revealing of ideological codes than as simply poetry. Part of what drives this is, of course, the acceleration of domination, of neo liberal control of thought, but it is also from another direction the idea that these are popular artforms. The missing ingredient in mainstream analysis of culture is firstly, Marx. Second, and equally important is Freud (and probably Debord and Lacan and etc). But it is primarily the ignoring of how this crap is produced and who produces it. The backdrop of white supremacist neo-liberal Capitalist ideology is just erased. That backdrop actually contains all discourse. That is what is being forgotten. And because of that there is a growing accommodation to the status quo. The unstated but assumed correctness of U.S. Imperialist narratives is rarely questioned. One can argue over racist or misogynist issues from within this contained realm of discourse, because token debate is allowed and even encouraged. But to suggest that, say, a hit show like Homeland is bad, that is an acceptable, if minority opinion, but to analyse it as pure Imperialist propaganda, as political crypto fascist, well that would result in open attacks and ridicule.

Some Thoughts on Theatre

Gerhard Richter, "Kafka".

Gerhard Richter, “Kafka”.

“But after all, it is perhaps to this inhuman condition, to this inescapable arrangement that we owe our nostalgia for a civilization that attempts to venture elsewhere than into the realm of the measurable”
Jean Genet

“The thinking that aesthetic presentation can open up for us is thus not meant to explain and, by extension, to explain out of existence, what in fact remains irreducible, singular, and resistant within the work. Rather, learning to think aesthetically, to think with and through the work of art, means learning to see what exactly the enigma or riddle is. Thinking means remaining open to what threatens to make thinking impossible.”
Gerhard Richter

There was a debate of sorts this week in social media on solo performance, i.e. one person shows. I have always had a certain aversion to one person shows, although there are many I’ve admired. But I think there is an important distinction that has to be made. Theatre cannot exist without two characters. Two voices. Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is often held up, as it was in this debate, as proof that one character shows are theatre. And it’s a great example because it’s not one character. One actor is used, but there are many voices. In a sense it is an interrogation of one character shows. Now I know of solo performers who adopt many voices during the course of their peformance, and yet, I would still maintain a crucial distinction exists. In Krapp’s Last Tape the other characters are the younger version of Krapp. As such, the actor is carrying on a dialogue with his ghost. When a solo artist changes voices, no such dialogue is really possible. So am I suggesting that residing with dialogue is the essence of theatre? In a sense I think I am. I say *think* I am because I am not entirely certain that such a formula, or any such formula, can really hold up. But for now, I think it is worth thinking about the effect of dialogue as a marker for what I consider theatre. Now even in the best one person shows there is a missing prism through which the autonomy of the play must pass. So, let’s discuss firstly, what is meant by *autonomy*.

Before that discussion, there is another factor. In solo performance there can be no *off stage*. That is a tacit admission by the solo artist. That portal to unconscious or allegorical experience is eliminated. Nobody and nothing is elsewhere. Only the audience exists, and is being spoken to directly, as it were. Within this direct lecture there can be mini-playlets acted out, but the frame for them never changes, because there is, finally, only a single voice. The popularity of one person shows is, besides the fact they are cheap to produce, that the discomfort of the *off stage* is removed. That aperture to the mystery of spoken narrative is removed. A sermon is not theatre. A lecture is not theatre. And solo performance is not theatre, for exactly the same reasons. At this juncture Adorno enters the argument. And to do justice, even in the abbreviated short form of a blog post, I have to delve back a bit to both Tragedy and to Kant.

Nancy Baron, photography.

Nancy Baron, photography.


For Adorno, the aesthetic experience of nature followed upon aesthetic experience and the sublime, not the other way round. For there is a basic terror associated with nature. The domesticated bourgeois experience of *nature* is one associated with Sierra Club brochures, camping trips to National Parks, and picnics. It is not the primal fear of survival against immensity and mystery. And it was Kant who said the sublime was born of a recognition of the power of nature, a power so vast that the principal response was fear. It is only from the vantage point of safety that one can *appreciate* the beauty and grandeur of, say, a volcano or tornado.

“Thus, for the aesthetic power of judgement nature can count as a power, thus as dynamically sublime, only insofar as it it considered an object of fear”.
Kant

It is here that *reason* is introduced as a measure for evaluating the force of nature. Now Adorno sort of altered Kant to the extent that he looked at this tensions in light of the conquest and domination of nature. And he then historicized this experience of wonder at nature as a relatively modern experience. I’m not sure this is quite what he intended, but the point is that the aestheticizing of nature began, systematically, in the 18th century. For Adorno, the music of Beethoven was the perfect exemplar. I believe that Adorno continued to theorize about art in light of his basic aversion to the comfortable vantage point. Nothing in art that produced comfort was worthy of respect.

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter

This was what Adorno saw in modernism. A dialectic that contained both fear and the absorption of that fear, coupled to freedom and to submission. This was the reconciliation he wrote of continuously. If Adorno firstly saw this in musical terms (dissonance), it extended to all mediums. The experience of the sublime had subsumed a pre-modern memory of fear, of portents and signs, of the irrational and of myth, and on the other side: reason. This was art’s autonomy. It reconciled man and nature. The missing link in kitsch, in the cheap cruelties of modern mass culture is exactly that fear goes missing, is forgotten. Adorno saw the modern forming part of a unity with Capitalism. It was the particular historical forces triggered by Capital, and those triggered that helped create Capital, that *manufactured* modern aesthetics.

But back to theatre. The comfortable managed vantage point is always going to be one that, in a sense, pacifies the destabalizing elements. This has nothing to do with message, though. The message, say, of an anti-war play can serve the ideological purposes of its opposite if presented in familiar and comfortable form. Those lounging at the bar after a Lincoln Center show that attacks racism or poverty, are only reinforcing a belief that such things are being dealt with, for, after all, they say, didn’t we just see a play acknowledging this? Democracy is great isn’t it. In the solo or monologist performer the legacy of fear, of the unknown, of the sublime is pacified by not allowing for a dialogue. It is never what happens on stage, it is always about lives off stage. And in addition the monologist is somehow enacting the role of him or herself, and in ways that — to me anyway– cant help but feel branded and cultic.

Cantemir Hausi

Cantemir Hausi


But here I think several other things surface. The theatre takes, obviously, all kinds of forms. There is street theatre, and there are dance forms that incorporate narrative. Noh drama is played out in a way that serves as a good example. Or Kathkali. They reside on the intensely ritualized end of the spectrum. One might suggest the monologist is at the other end of the same spectrum. But there is a point at which this idea collapses. And it might just be the nature of most monologists in the West today, meaning Europe and North America mostly. There is strong tendency toward confession and narratives of identity. The other side is sort of agit-prop for various liberal positions and easy to accept bromides asking for racial and sexual tolerance. Rarely does text matter much. The art of writing recedes and performing is foregrounded. There is a weird sort of toxic taste to monologues that I associate with Dinner Theatre quality celebrity impersonations (A Dinner with Abe Lincoln etc). Now performance art per se is, I think, doing something completely different. Or is that true, really? Bob Flanagan is doing something different and there are a dozen others who are exploring the idea of their own body as an installation. But the scripted monologues, Wallace Shawn or Spalding Grey, or Anna Deavere Smith, are ‘acting’ in the sense of characters, and of text spoken aloud. At some point, performance art is destroying the idea of text. Monologists, or whatever one wants to call them, are speaking but they are not reciting a text exactly, and they are erasing the idea of playing anyone but themselves. Creating various masks or voices is just parlour game skill. But then one begins to inch into stand up comedy. What was Lenny Bruce? What is Marina Abramovic? Bruce in retrospect was a kind of Dada political performer who defied conventional category. Abramovic is nothing but a brand. At best it seems to me, most monologists serve as agit prop, politically narrow concerns are railed against, or they are kitsch impersonations, or they are combinations of both of them. The text as something memorized, formally, and then performed in character serves to distance us from the informality of the everyday. Improvisation actually kills the spontaneous, for it is pretending to be natural. The philistine intentions with, for example, Shakespeare, when one hears directors say they want to make the language natural or everyday. They want actors to be erase the poetic unnaturalness of this language. In so doing the ritual space of theatre is mediated by the vulgarity of the normal — except nothing is really normal. So this is the fabrication of a normal. It’s a bit like saying one wants to dehydrate water.

"Bright New Boise", by Samuel D. Hunter. The Wild Project, 2010.

“Bright New Boise”, by Samuel D. Hunter. The Wild Project, 2010.

Theatre in its foregrounding subverts the idea of a stable identity, or of cheap impersonations. And this is the real point of all this. And of tragedy. So at this point, its good to return to Adorno and Kant. I have for a long while suspected that one of the barely submerged influences on how Americans are educated about art, in public schools, can be traced back originally to Kant and his ideas on taste and morality (well, perhaps more directly to Puritanism). Without spending undue time on Kant here, the germane aspect is the Beautiful was moral by virtue of being beautiful. This is a wildly reductive reading of Kant, of course. But as school children I remember being taught art history under an umbrella of morality. The good citizen was moral and the good artwork was moral in precisely the same way.

Peter Uwe Hohendahl says, from his book on Adorno, :“..the turning point in the history of aesthetic theory, the loss of the concept of natural beauty at the moment when the successful bourgeois revolution is completed; while Kant at its beginning still realizes the artificial nature of social arrangements, including those in the sphere of culture.” Adorno built on Kant to a degree that would make Kant unrecognizable to himself, but the point here is that Adorno was redefining and making historical the idea of nature and by extension natural beauty. But Adorno also critiqued Hegel on the subject of beauty. Adorno, Hohendahl points out, saw art and culture as historically and socially mediated and the artist as “a tool for the production of the artwork”. He resisted ideas about genius, and in a sense was a precursor for Derrida in some of this, but the main thrust for this post was that in the early 1800s there began certain trends in how to see culture and art. One was to look for authenticity, much pronounced later, and the other was to realize a kind of freedom in the artwork. All art of importance (and this needs to be talked about) is extralogical. It is not conceptual, and while this is more easily grasped in modernism, it is likely true in other ways for all cultural labor. For Adorno, the sublime (and tragic) is work that emancipates (and kitsch does not) because it releases or allows for mimesis, and this too, though, is dialectical. The sublime and its emancipatory capability is linked to the activation of Nature in the subject. Kitsch, the culture industry, is offering on the whole something very close to simple advertising. They ask for identification; to see one’s position in society, a society of oppression and domination, reflected back to one. This is of course very complicated and Adorno’s most contested idea was probably “truth content”. But I want to try to stick to theatre here. The realistic or naturalistic play is, in 2014, inherently dishonest. Im not sure it wasn’t dishonest when Ibsen wrote it. But I suspect Ibsen was not actually very naturalistic at all. Certainly Strindberg was not, nor Shakespeare, and it is only by the mid 19th century that anything like a formal set of rules for representing *reality* were in play. What distinguishes Strindberg from minor playwrights of his time is that Strindberg was never looking to duplicate anything like an everyday *reality*. Strindberg searched for the transcendent in the everyday, and it was the everyday from which he fled, it was the everyday which tormented him. This year’s MacArthur recipient in playwriting is Samuel D. Hunter. I’ve not seen productions of his plays, but I’ve read them. And even in the photos of the productions it is clear that this is essentially TV. It probably falls into the prestige dramady category. Adorno said “The sublime marks the immediate occupation of the artwork by theology”. Hunter’s Bright New Boise is about theology, or rather ‘faith’, which is discount theology. If in solo performance there is nobody to talk back or to listen, so it is in kitsch where the ritual is erased, the off stage removed, and dialogue goes mute. Even in twenty character plays the dialogue is missing. Another way of saying this is that the naturalistic theatre of representation does not aspire to the sublime because what it is doing, its operation, is as a machine for normality.

Giambattista Tiepolo, "The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew:" 1722.

Giambattista Tiepolo, “The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew:” 1722.


The theatre of representation hangs it’s dialogue on a scaffolding that establishes the limits of experience. The break room in a crappy Hobby store (Bright New Boise) cannot become or inform an actual relationship that exists for tens of thousands of minimum wage workers every day. Kafka was a clerk, too. Melville a customs inspector, and Genet a hustler and thief. In each case something of that reality emerges from their work. It would exist in their work even if they wrote about surfers or card sharks. The unnaturalness of all life in Empire goes missing. The construction of reality has always to be questioned; so that the play reaches backward beyond the individual subject’s history. If the stage is treated as the site of mimetic sacrifice, abandon somehow, then it naturally is linked to suffering and memory. Today’s kitsch playwrights, the one’s rewarded for their service to the status quo, are never in touch with suffering. They are at best in touch with complaints. This is bourgeois ideology. Thomas Bernhard wrote a couple of short plays in which only one character spoke, but he put a listener on stage, too.

To follow Adorno just a bit longer, it is important to mention his ideas on truth content, and to do that means discussing his ideas about *enigma*. For Adorno, the enigmatic in any artwork is there not to be understood, or deciphered, but to expand the experience of it, to stimulate that part of us that is linked to, but not identical with memory. Like Calasso, there is always a reminder of the transitory or fleeting qualities of art. As Hohendahl says, with art there is no answer. There must, however, always be questions. In that sense the artwork is to remain a riddle. But there is, as always with Adorno, a contradiction. For the enigmatic must be engaged with, and what he calls the “truth content” is, in one sense, the solution. At the same time that it also can never serve as such. This is why Adorno stressed that there was a convergence of philosophy and art. The meaningless world is illuminated by what remains incomprehensible. In terms of theatre, the example that Jan Kott used in his analysis of King Lear (and which I have referenced several times) is perfect. And it cuts to the essential meaning of theatre. The empty stage with blind Gloucester and Mad Tom, both climbing a non-existent hill, is a truth that can find expression no place else. Its a theatrical truth. There is no capsule explanation for it. The inability to describe factually the experience of illumination means such work makes for a bad commodity.

Bertrand Fleuret, photography.

Bertrand Fleuret, photography.


“Artworks stand in the most extreme tension to their truth content. Although this truth content, conceptless, appears nowhere else than in what is made, it negates the made.”
Adorno

Now it is unsurprising that Adorno has come under attack over the last couple decades. And especially in the U.S. For one of the implications of his aesthetic theory is any work that engenders mass agreement is to be distrusted. This is because of the fatalistic aspect of art. The aesthetic experience of art must point beyond itself, and in that moment there is a tacit failure of the work; there is no agreement in great work, no collective applause for it. The paradox, if that’s what it is, is that by its revealing of something that cannot be articulated outside of itself the artwork opens up possibilities that mere enjoyment close off. In terms of theatre then, it’s only logical that the commercially popular work will be the most suspect. This is perhaps more true now than even fifty years ago. And here there looms a few additional questions.

Marcia Myers

Marcia Myers


“The context that is invoked to enforce the ideas and practices pertaining to *consensus* is, as we know, ‘economic globalization’.”
Jacques Ranciere

Ranciere has pointed out that psychoanalytic structure of narrative (primarily he means film) has changed since the 1940s. Today the idea of innocence or guilt has been subsumed by a growing global police apparatus. He cites Antigone as, per Lacan, a heroine no longer read as an expression of human rights and liberal piety, but as the harbinger of the secret terror just beneath the surface of the social order. In other words the primal crime that drives narrative is now more intimately fastened to a growing sense of fear that is a sort of collective recognition of how consensus is manufactured; that human beings have become the ‘population’ and that morality is reduced to fact. This is the world of facial recognition technology, which doesn’t work, but which doesn’t matter, and a universe in which everything one does is catalogued. Theatre is economically of little consequence today, in comparison to film. Therefore it exhibits an acute form of condensation. It is very hard to subtract the false, the untruth, in theatre, and far easier to allow it some life in film. The medium of film is more forgiving of lack of unity than theatre. For film is more than closely linked to media and corporate control of information. So if we take this back to ideas about solo performance, and why I feel distinctions are crucial in describing this form, it is because the originary space of theatre is one in which someone must be listening, in person, on that stage. Without that, the narrator too easily is manufacturing consensus. The ‘broken promise’ to which Adorno and Horkheimer both alluded, is also inseparable from the unrepresentable, in the sense that a future community was always there in art’s appeal; and that today the conquest and co-option of all life, the extent of social domination, has meant that the mystifying nature of what is called post modernism is really just the acceptance of that promise being broken, it is further, a new rewards system for those who embrace the lies.

Noh stage, Miyagi Japan.

Noh stage, Miyagi Japan.

The narrative laid out for (today, I think) climate march is one that hides the cooperation with parties connected to 350 degrees, everyone from USAID to countless NGOs with connections to the U.S. State Department, Maddie Albright, and Wall Street. The climate march is kitsch theatre in this sense. The terrors beneath the surface of the social order are mystified. Now I mention this because culture must not remain mute. This is in no way a call for street theatre, although that would be just fine, actually, but a call for an aesthetic resistance. The more careerism drives young artists, the more really autonomous work is made invisible. I should return for a moment to this idea of *autonomy*. An artwork is autonomous not because it is made under conditions of freedom. Tom Huhn wrote this on Adorno and autonomy:

“Art is at once both autonomous and a ‘fait social’. As he (Adorno) puts it, the artwork’s autonomy consists of resembling – but not imitating – the society of empirical reality.”

Then he quotes Adorno (a well known quote): “It is by virtue of this relation to the empirical that artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit.”

The Maids, By Jean Genet. (Living Theatre, 1965) photo by Mark Anstendig.

The Maids, By Jean Genet. (Living Theatre, 1965) photo by Mark Anstendig.

In other words art respiritualizes society by reproducing what was earlier killed off by *spirits* destruction of experience (Nature in one sense) by means of concepts, and instrumental thought, measuring and weighing and cataloguing. And by alienation and reification. But here is a crucially important point, this respiritualizing takes place via mimesis, and not mimicry. Huhn writes: “To formulate this in regard to autonomy would be to understand the artwork’s initial autonomous stirrings – that is, mimetic impulses – as directed entirely against society, and yet the work’s mature, achieved autonomy is one fully at home within society.”

Adorno believed that primal mimesis, if we want to call it that, achieved significance, in its expression, by discarding what it deemed as false or untrue. For the purposes here, I will just try to lay out the reductive simple version; the value of art is in a spiritual awakening, but that awakening or revelation or whatever one chooses to call it, only happens through a process of internal integrity. A process of vetting mimetic material for signs of falseness. The practical meaning of this for artists is one must learn to get rid of cliche and sentimentality and magic thinking and junk science and most of all the narrative expressions, or images that co-conspire with the repressive actions of totalitarian societies, and to fight off commodification, since it participates in all of the above. Great artists don’t have to be philosophers, they simply must learn to sift down through the jumble and chatter and fraudulence of daily life, to hear something integral and honest. Adorno said all art is in movement against society. That unless it is, it is junk. Kitsch. Propaganda. And narcissism.

Jonas Burgurt

Jonas Burgurt

As Tom Huhn writes; “It is specifically the entirety of external reality’s spell that the artwork mimetically opposes – this logic is directed in particular against the spell of that reality rather than its material constituents.” That spell, for Adorno, had to be opposed. Opposed but recuperated later. It is what left Adorno, in his dialectic, to still see art as an enlightening force. The artwork mimetically produces itself by producing its requirement. This happens on levels that are buried, usually, anyway. So, when I have said all stories are crime stories, all stories are travel stories, and all stories are about homesickness…this is because all art reaches backward in the exact degree to which they project or imagine another, different future.

There are myriad forms of the sensible. The contours of tension in mimesis, from its originary impulse, to it’s later grasp for self-identity, make all of this almost infinitely complex. The discourse on culture in the United States, and largely throughout Europe, too, but most obviously in the seat of Empire, is one in which only the most shallow, most familiar, and most domesticated is allowed survival. The gentrification of consciousness, an already colonized consciousness. The single most common response today, I find, whenever anything of a serious nature comes up in discussion, is the response that minimizes, the voice that tries to suggest this is all too familiar. It is the desire to pretend the unfamiliar IS familiar. That the disruptive happened before, nothing came of it. It’s all so ten minutes ago.

Anthony Goicolea, photography.

Anthony Goicolea, photography.


I wonder often at why it is not more obvious that the solo performance, the one person *play* is not experienced as a deficit. That the missing texture of the symbolic listener is not felt more. My suspicion is that the society at large has forgotten the role of the listener. Partly because of electronic recording, and more significantly electronic surveillance, the individual’s relationship to his or her own voice has changed. People certainly speak less to their neighbor, they know fewer words, and they are less interested in hearing the world around them. But then that world around them is falling silent. For all the talk of noise pollution, the natural world is falling mute, and when it’s not, people increasingly plug their ears, literally, to listen instead to their iPad. The phenomenon of blocking out the sound of the world around you is one rarely talked about, but the implications for theatre’s future are profound. The music of language found in the medieval Italian of Dante, or the English of Donne and Milton and Shakespeare, or the French of Flaubert and Rimbaud, the German of Goethe, the Spanish of Cervantes — that kind of density is gone, likely forever. People don’t hear what is said around them, they re-narrate based on guesswork, previous communications, and all of it based on film and TV. The natural world, the sound of rain and oceans and tides moving in, the distinction between summer winds and autumn, or the specific bird song (when there are any birds singing) is lost.
Bernard Faucon, photography and mixed media.

Bernard Faucon, photography and mixed media.

The theatre remains a contested space and medium. Partly because it is the economic poor relative to film, but also partly because the theatre is civic, in theory anyway, and today the increasingly isolated and atomized citizen is uncomfortable in an audience with live actors. Stand-Up comedy is fine, and popular. So are one person shows. Stand Up has become a laboratory of displaced feelings of schadenfruede. It is also, oddly, a medium for field testing eccentricities. It certainly serves some service for cultural barometrics, but it is also masturbatory. The one-man or woman show is almost like the champagne version of Stand Up’s Old English 800.

Anna Deavere Smith, "Let Me Down Easy" 2009.

Anna Deavere Smith, “Let Me Down Easy” 2009.

Adorno is criticized for his pessimism, as is Freud, and it seems to me that anyone not gripped in a pessimistic melancholy is simply not awake. On the cultural front, the sense of deafness, and blindness, and of a waking dream is all that I see. Today, theatre in the United States is in the hands of deeply ignorant people, philistines, and they pander to and cater to a partly imaginary audience, and partly real, but really in the sense that they themselves created this audience. In 2009 PBS, in conjunction with Bill Moyers, presented Anna Deavere Smith’s one person show, “Let Me Down Easy”. The ad copy advertised that Smith played 20 (TWENTY!!) different parts in this *play*. Golly gosh — twenty parts. Now apparently this is the stuff that goes down easy at Public Broadcasting. Smith is another MacArthur recipient, and was nominated for a Pulitzer (though I think you’re not supposed to know, although I was told I had been a nominee too, which always struck me as too pathetic to put on my CV) and is a multiple Tony winner. Does anyone remember what “Let Me Down Easy” was about? Is anything in the text memorable? I suspect all that anyone remembers was that Ms Smith played twenty different characters.

I want to mention Gerhard Richter here, for Richter is one of those rare painters who can articulate what he’s doing. He is also a cogent cultural critic. Richter pointed out that in Adorno’s pessimism there is a promise of redemption, but that Adorno pulls the rug out from beneath you at the last second. Adorno’s promise of redemption, as Hohendahl says, is based on recognizing that redemption is impossible. This is that final sacrificial stage of the dialectic for Adorno. The artwork dies as it points toward redemption. As Jameson said of Adorno’s idea of ‘truth content': “…it seems at least minimally possible that it cannot be philosophically described, since it is inscribed in a situation of well nigh nominalistic multiplicity in which only individual works of art, but not art itself, have their various truth contents…”. This is correct in a sense, but then ‘art itself’ is only a shadow stand in for all culture. Great works….per Adorno: “The understanding of works of art, therefore, besides their exegesis through interpretation and critique, must also be pursued from the standpoint of redemption, which very precisely searches out the truth of false consciousness in aesthetic appearance. Great works in that sense cannot lie.”

The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter  (Peter Hall production 1965 with Vivian Merchant and Ian Holm)

The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter (Peter Hall production 1965 with Vivian Merchant and Ian Holm)

Among Richter’s favorite painters is Barnett Newman. I always find this revealing, for it is Newman who, perhaps even more than Rothko, desired to respiritualize discourse. It is easy to misconstrue this today, in a system of secular vulgarity and under which only the most pathological religious expressions take place. Another way of saying ‘spritiual’ is simply to say serious. For never has any culture in the history of the world so embraced and adored the trivial and unserious as does the U.S. Empire today. So, redemption, truth content, autonomy, and mimesis. How do these come forward as the rapacious system of authoritarian mediation of daily, hourly, life? The trivializing of Imperialist conquest and murder, the orientalism of even much of the left, and certainly of all corporate sponsored news, is growing. The same way in which corporate news creates their narratives, currently its the bombing of Iraq, again, is the same way that corporate PR people create a narrative for the Climate March in NYC, and it is the same way a narrative is created for cultural commodities. Real anger is channelled into reformist band aids via an increasingly corporatized NGO realm. There is such a deep need in the public today for agreement and consensus that narratives are created as if they had existed for a long time, even if they are made out of thin air. Sometimes this takes the form of revisionist histories. Peter Handke is to receive the Ibsen prize:
http://www.cna.org.cy/photoinfo.asp?id=1a78b5df758f4cdd84d1f13a7d083495
Now, never mind that Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter was on the same committee to defend Milosevic (as was I, and Ramsey Clark and many others), nor that the U.S. state department propaganda on the Balkans has been factually refuted for more than a decade. It doesn’t matter, for what matters is a narrative that allows the public to indulge in a faux outrage about a history they clearly know nothing about. Handke’s integrity deserves special commendation, and respect. The rewriting of the Balkans has taken place by institutions funded by the U.S., and NGO’s dependent on U.S. business financing. Essentially they are asking you to believe NATO. The current declarations on Srebrenica are created in isolation, framed as scientific, and promoted by corporate journalism and by NATO and NATO friendly NGOs. And gradually they come to serve as the official history. The long shadow of U.S. propaganda infects everything. It is a simulacra of history, a phantom marketing device and increasingly inimical to the truth, to material history. In the end it is more validation for Capitalism and Empire. Allowing small truths to exist the better to squash greater more important truths. It is the new Brave New World.
Original production of "Kaspar", by Peter Handke. With Klaus Peymann.

Original production of “Kaspar”, by Peter Handke. With Klaus Peymann.

Existential Zombie

Faust the opera, set design Rolf Sachs, Staatstheatre Wiesbaden 2007

Faust the opera, set design Rolf Sachs, Staatstheatre Wiesbaden 2007

“Autistic barriers are erected in order to avoid the pain linked to the traumatic awareness of the gap between self and object. They would appear to involve an overly-narcissistic relationship between the infant and one or other of the parents, a relationship based on the illusion of continuity.”
Prof. Didier Houzel

“Frances Tustin’s (1986) description of autistic barriers took this a step further.
She showed that the autistic manoeuvres which are triggered in order to counter
the experience of the intolerable gap between self and other not only highlight the
traumatic trace of primitive experiences that have not been transformed but also
create an obstacle to any new attempt at transformation and symbolization.”

Prof. Didier Houzel

“The US military operation in Fallujah, largely justified on the claim that Zarqawi’s militant forces had occupied the city, used white phosphorous, cluster bombs, and indiscriminate air strikes to pulverise 36,000 of Fallujah’s 50,000 homes, killing nearly a thousand civilians, terrorising 300,000 inhabitants to flee, and culminating in a disproportionate increase in birth defects, cancer and infant mortality due to the devastating environmental consequences of the war.
To this day, Fallujah has suffered from being largely cut-off from wider Iraq, its infrastructure largely unworkable with water and sewage systems still in disrepair, and its citizens subject to sectarian discrimination and persecution by Iraqi government backed Shi’a militia and police. “Thousands of bereaved and homeless Falluja families have a new reason to hate the US and its allies,” observed The Guardian in 2005. Thus, did the US occupation plant the seeds from which Zarqawi’s legacy would coalesce into the Frankenstein monster that calls itself “the Islamic State.”

Nafeez Ahmed

“We are unknown to ourselves, we gentlemen of knowledge”
Nietzsche

On this week of the anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. nine eleven that is, there remains the reflexive bathos of the official media for the state, meaning all corporate mainstream media. It is automatic and seems to almost intensify as Obama and the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs draw up plans for what is essentially a permanent state of war.

The average American, whatever that is, so lets say huge chunks of the U.S. citizenry, cannot begin to imagine what life is like for the average Iraqi. Imagine if instead of three thousand dead, there were several million dead. Over a third of New York City lets say. Imagine homes from Battery Park to Washington Heights, from Long Island City to Long Island itself in rubble, radioactive rubble. Imagine only limited electricity, and water. And imagine most of all an occupying army of foreigners. An army with a green zone in central park, taking up the entire park and serving Pizza Hut deep dish pizza and Starbuck frappacinos, and with a bowling alley and video games. And you, the average New Yorker, having no access to any of that but instead being subject to constant random searches and detention. Imagine your libraries and museums destroyed. The New York Public library gutted, and the Modern looted. That is life for the average Iraqi today.

Robert Standish

Robert Standish

In one sense, this resembles life for the very poorest communities in the U.S. already. The black and brown communities have a de-facto occupying army in the form of the domestic police force. A police now militarized and openly discriminatory. A police force who can do whatever they want. A police force of almost total impunity.

The U.S. empire however is one in which conquest means fragmentation. I keep using the word destablize, and that’s because U.S. foreign policy intentionally looks to do exactly that. It works well for the eventual reconstruction projects of Halliburton, Carlyse, et al.

“Contemporary US intervention does not seek to secure and take over the existing military and civilian state apparatus; instead the invaders fragment the conquered state, decimate its cadres, professionals and experts at all levels, thus providing an entry for the most retrograde ethno-religious, regional, tribal and clan leaders to engage in intra-ethnic, sectarian wars against each other, in other words – chaos. Even the Nazis, in their expansion phase, chose to rule through local collaborator elites and maintained established administrative structures at all levels.”
James Petras

The U.S. since Reagan, has intensified its saturation bombing, its shock and awe, and it’s wholesale destruction. This is a campaign of creating failed states. Its not Empire building. It’s control certainly, but it’s a peculiar 21st century logic predicated on failure, on control of the global masses by way of control of limited resources. It is designed to build states of permanent scarcity.

Xing Danwen

Xing Danwen

I was thinking also of the solidifying of this idea, a cultural position, of “knowing yourself”. It’s almost a religion today in the West. In particular though in the U.S. I knew this young woman once who always was judging people according to how much, in her opinion, ‘they had worked on themselves’. I think this is a fairly common notion. This woman went to every group available; children of alcoholic parents, survivors of physical abuse, various 12 step meetings, and a shrink. There were probably a half dozen others I cant remember. She was herself close to totally dysfunctional. But she had graduated from an Ivy League university, and imagined herself a writer. She couldn’t write, but did have a sort of preternatural sense of what the next niche market in publishing might be. But, the bedrock stance of such people is the idea of a self you can sculpt, like a lump of clay, into a “person”, an identity, a high functioning adult member of society. And the way that you sculpt, that you ‘work on yourself’, is by various therapies, and self improvement schemes, based usually on surface self affirmation, but which is almost always self training in how to fit in. How to adjust. This is what is behind the idea of ‘making your life work’. And the best working life is the one with the largest bank account. That is the baseline.

David Hepher, Hoxton Gallery.

David Hepher, Hoxton Gallery.


Now, it occurred to me this week that the image of the theatre is actually still the prevailing model for the narration of our lives. The actual medium of the theatre, of drama, of playwriting, is waning, and maybe at its lowest ebb in a couple thousand years; but that idea of a stage remains. In a sense we perform our role, on the stage in our mind. And we have also, an off stage and a green room (a dressing and preparation area). We rehearse our lines, our role, and it’s tried out in small ways, in our own version of a bus and truck tour of the provinces, until it’s determined to be ready for one or another opening night.

Robert Louis Stevenson, circa 1880.

Robert Louis Stevenson, circa 1880.

There is a theme emerging in mass culture these days that might be described as ‘dead inside’. It is Zombie existentialism in a sense. I wrote last posting about HBO’s The Leftovers, which in one way was a Christian tinged ‘dead inside’ trope. This hues very close to the post apocalyptic genre, one that includes everything from the original Mad Max (a film oddly pervasive in its influence) to Night of the Living Dead, up through BBCs The Survivors, or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days. There seems a split though; because the post apoco-genre usually pits the survivor community against the attacking hordes. The Walking Dead on AMC now is a good example. The other though, more interesting sub branching is the everyone is already dead idea. The Leftovers was the Christian version, and these seem to foster the trend toward ‘return’ from the dead themes (The very good French series The Returned) and Resurrection. One has to see this I think in terms relating to crime narratives, and the rise of the Knight Errant as PI, the Sam Spade urban man of integrity, because the search there was for truth. Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow have become Rust Cohle. From Knight Errant to internal zombie. One of the failures, and perhaps really the only failure, of True Detective was in the final two episodes. The heart of darkness, that which has rendered our inner lives dead, cannot be made literal. And it was. The heart of darkness is not a creepy old guy with a shotgun. Same as the final episode tended toward (not completely, mind you) a redemptive optimism. Rust was a complex ‘true’ detective, in that he was looking for ways to fill his own void, his personal lack. But the existential zombie, the dead-inside idea seems increasingly in the Zeitgeist.

There are two things going on with this; one is an adult population now mimicking the autistic processing of information and stimulus. And there are now at least four shows (including the new Chasing Shadows, a UK crime show) with Asperger’s sufferers as primary characters. Obsessive and hyper focused, as in The Bridge, and in Chasing Shadows, they actually are the perfect compliment to the puzzle solving put before them. The other trend is the emptiness of the everyday. My experience, anecdotal, with Aperger’s sufferer’s is that they cant wait to tell you about their condition. There is some sort of pride in this condition, and a sense of actually having superior powers of analysis. In a sense, in the most instrumental world of the 21st century, they probably are an adaptive evolutionary stage. But therein lies the problem. The instrumental. I had an self proclaimed Aspergerite tell me the other day that neurotypicals (sic) are ‘so slow’.

Claerwen James

Claerwen James

It’s worth mentioning again how World War Z included Arab/Palestinians as marauding infectious zombie-ish invaders, ripe for extermination. No safeguard is harsh enough. The Last Ship this season was a curious cartoon recruitment film for the Navy, but it did feature this idea of survivor vs. foreigner. And as seems often the case, the survivor community is in some way ‘special’, or elite. This is the general given. The studios and networks, Im’ not sure, realize just what overdetermination is occurring within these sub genre formulations. But my point here is the dead inside philosophical pseudo zombie is now a prototype. The Existential Zombie. For it links up with this ‘working on yourself’ idea. The sense of societal malaise that seems to be driving stuff like The Leftovers and Resurrection, or even period poaching like Penny Dreadful, are suggesting some search for redemption. True Detective to its credit did not search for redemption. Well, not per se. The literary ancestors probably include the much neglected Robert Louis Stevenson novel (his last) The Ebb Tide.

Allow me a somewhat long expert from the opening page:

“Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease. Some prosper, some vegetate. Some have mounted the steps of thrones and owned islands and navies. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-coloured dame supports them in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps with some relic (such as a single eye-glass) of the officer and gentleman, they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs of the music-hall. And there are still others, less pliable, less capable, less fortunate, perhaps less base, who continue, even in these isles of plenty, to lack bread.
At the far end of the town of Papeete, three such men were seated on the beach under a purao tree.
It was late. Long ago the band had broken up and marched musically home, a motley troop of men and women, merchant clerks and navy officers, dancing in its wake, arms about waist and crowned with garlands. Long ago darkness and silence had gone from house to house about the tiny pagan city. Only the street lamps shone on, making a glow-worm halo in the umbrageous alleys or drawing a tremulous image on the waters of the port. A sound of snoring ran among the piles of lumber by the Government pier. It was wafted ashore from the graceful clipper-bottomed schooners, where they lay moored close in like dinghies, and their crews were stretched upon the deck under the open sky or huddled in a rude tent amidst the disorder of merchandise.
But the men under the purao had no thought of sleep. The same temperature in England would have passed without remark in summer; but it was bitter cold for the South Seas. Inanimate nature knew it, and the bottle of cocoanut oil stood frozen in every bird-cage house about the island; and the men knew it, and shivered. They wore flimsy cotton clothes, the same they had sweated in by day and run the gauntlet of the tropic showers; and to complete their evil case, they had no breakfast to mention, less dinner, and no supper at all.
In the telling South Sea phrase, these three men were ON THE BEACH. … Not long before, a ship from Peru had brought an influenza, and it now raged in the island, and particularly in Papeete. From all round the purao arose and fell a dismal sound of men coughing, and strangling as they coughed. The sick natives, with the islander’s impatience of a touch of fever, had crawled from their houses to be cool and, squatting on the shore or on the beached canoes, painfully expected the new day. Even as the crowing of cocks goes about the country in the night from farm to farm, accesses of coughing arose, and spread, and died in the distance, and sprang up again.”

It is one of the masterpieces of 19th century writing, and keenly appreciated by some (Nabokov for one) but mostly consigned to the oblivion of being the pessimistic adult work of a beloved writer of children’s stories. The image of dawn on the South Sea beaches of an island riddled with influenza and the sound of coughing, is indelible. Also, that Stevenson wrote as perfect an English prose as one might ever find. But it is a story of outcasts, of the ‘dead inside’, the man without meaning.

Emile Hyperion Dubuisson, photography. 'Siberia'.

Emile Hyperion Dubuisson, photography. ‘Siberia’.


But let me bring this back to this idea of our interior thinking being a kind of theatre. This is not an original idea, obviously, for the internal theatre, the one in our heads, is a very old idea. I think there is some primordial spatial, structural impulse that ends in the creation of a performance space; a stage. I don’t know if cavemen acted out their inner lives, or gave instruction that was linked to ideas of their own identity, or if they just saw everything as a collective. But clearly I think there is a natural linkage between groups, our interior thoughts, and a stage.

I think all great writing takes place on, or presumes, some kind of stage. Perhaps something becomes a stage when a performance takes place on it. But defining a performance is as impossible as defining a stage. Here is where allegory needs to be introduced and discussed. Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Der Ursprung des Deutschen Trauspiels) was on one level, probably the most important level, about allegory. It was also because of Benjamin’s prose, an allegory itself. It is a highly discomforting book. I read it the first time when I was in my early twenties. When I re-read it (the first re reading) I was forty and it seemed a very different book. Benjamin had a complicated almost mystical set of ideas about language. One cannot read him and not start to contemplate the very idea of alphabet formation, of oral histories, and of symbol. For Benjmain, symbol is not greatly different than allegory. But it is in allegory that Benjamin saw the fable of mankind, of knowledge, of identity. And that there was something unconscious in all language and all symbol. And that it was, as I wrote a couple postings back, a sort of surplus unconscious, a by-product of all writing. For now, though, this matters because it is related to the idea of a stage on which each individual acts out his or her personal drama. A drama that is, however, shaped by history.

Calasso, a perceptive analyst of Benjamin, quotes Kafka:

“The leopards break into the temple and empty the sacrificial vessels, this is repeated time and again; in the end it can be foreseen and becomes part of the ceremony.”

Antonio Lopez Garcia

Antonio Lopez Garcia


In a very real sense the rise of global capitalism, and with it, now, a resurgent fascism, is erasing allegory. The fetish of the ‘self’ has meant that the self has no stage, that space is totalized or essentialized, or however one chooses to describe it and that it rejects narratives of any complexity. But it also has created a backed up unconscious stream that is spilling into public discourse as a kind of violence. The master narrative is not only one that valorizes empire and white supremacism, but it is one inextricably tied to the new manufactured reality of electronic mass media. There are other implications, for example the political economy and class bias of dyslexia research: http://monthlyreview.org/2014/09/01/the-political-economy-of-dyslexia/

Let me quote from Strauss’ essay:

“The medicalizers have no explanation for a whole range of established facts about real reading. Here is one: proficient reading is not a process of accurate word identification. How do we know this? From observing and analyzing real reading. Real readers who are proficient at reading for meaning do not look at fully one-third of the words on a page. Real reading is not pronouncing words presented individually on flash cards; this is not a communicative event. Real reading means reading authentic text—language generated by an author with the intention of conveying meaning. Only in such cases is the reader’s goal as it should be: to make sense of the print. And making sense of the print now includes taking into account that the text was composed by a human agent who composed the text purposefully. What is this author trying to say? That is a communicative event.”

and a bit later…

“So all the brain imaging research, genetic research, and pathology research on reading is fundamentally irrelevant, because it is generated by and interpreted within an unsalvageable theory of reading. All the proposals about how we need to drill kids hour after hour on letter-sound relationships are entirely counterproductive, because they take the focus off meaning.
So why is this preposterous pseudoscience in the media, in the classroom, and in the laws passed by Congress? What is the big difference between medicalized reading and the alternative?
“The big difference, the one that really matters, is this: the ideas and opinions of the medicalizers are in power; the ideas and opinions of their opponents are not in power. And, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the ruling ideas of society—the ideas that are in power—are the ideas propagated and promoted by the ruling class.”

Trine Sondergaard, photography.

Trine Sondergaard, photography.


This is relevant to the ways in which allegory is being removed by insisting on an instrumental reading. This also diminishes mimetic engagement with narrative. So on the one hand is a culture of self-help, of therapy (though not the traditional Freudian or psychoanalytic kind, because that, as I continue to read EVERYWHERE, is out of date and old fashioned), and of self improvement as an ideal. Americans have always been about self improvement, however. But more on that in a second, and on the other hand we have a society that trains its youth in the absolute most instrumental and mechanical ways for the most instrumental and mechanical ends, and one that also enforces a master narrative of conquest and white superiority. In one way its a society of twelve step colonialists. And across this runs what I think is a subtle adaptive impulse, one that has at times anomalous by products. People are less and less able to process complex narrative. They seem less and less able to integrate into coherent wholes the sum of the parts of their daily lives. And most clearly, things like allegory are soon going to be the vestigial tail stumps of human reasoning. But there is also, attached to loss of allegory, the deeper wound of a removing of the personal stage on which to process the world via a mimetic re-assemblage of stimuli and story.
Brook Andrew, mixed media. 'Dakar',  from original postcard.

Brook Andrew, mixed media. ‘Dakar’, from original postcard.

When Walter Benjamin was interned, not long before his death, by the Nazis, at a camp in Nevers, he spent much of his time organizing to start a magazine at the camp. “Of the highest quality” Benjamin is alleged to have told his camp-mates. It was to try and get certain privileges. He was eventually released from that camp to make his final march toward southern France, and an escape from fascists. He was of course to finally commit suicide. Benjamin never stopped thinking in allegory. His own life is an allegory. His secrets formed part of the construction of this allegorical document. At the end, still writing, even on the margins of newspapers, Benjamin wrote the three vices of the political left: a blind faith in progress, in strength, and in the party. Now, this seems relevant here because of the over-all lurch toward a corrupt form of science and technological thought by the entire society, including the left. Science and progress. That iPads are progress, that cell phones are progress, are things most would not question. Even on the left. And today the new green left (or maybe its the old-ish green left, I don’t know) are no less enamoured of much of this instrumental thinking even as they advocate all manner of Luddite correctives. But, I want to return to allegory. To the inability to recognize it or experience it. Two recent Hollywood films provide ample evidence of the loss of allegory. The Giver and Divergent are both quasi sci-fi, dystopian novels with teenagers as the faux target audience. Today teenager is everyone. So called ‘young adult novels’ tend to be read by a lot of adults. Both can be lumped into the The Hunger Games basket, because the theme seems to about fighting conformity and totalitarian governments, by creating identical movies that conform absolutely to previous models. The Giver is, if possible, even worse than Divergent. So reductive and illogical is the premise that no amount of suspended disbelief can help one. The logical inconsistencies are numerous, but the fundamental problem is with the concept of history itself. It is a commodity here. A ‘thing’. And freedom is merely the escape over the walls of the city. But the real issue here is the way in which freedom (sic) and life and individuality etc etc etc etc are represented. They are montages of stock Reuters photos or CNN footage of Tiananmen Square, or the Berlin Wall coming down, or just generic crowds cheering. Real life is stock photo clips.
El Aura (2005), Fabien Bielinksy, dr.

El Aura (2005), Fabien Bielinksy, dr.


In Divergent, the girl heroine (resembling most of the time a Southern Cali high school prom queen, and always with freshly blow dried hair) is part of a Brave New World of total conformity, and one without real sexual urges. Divergent seems, actually, to be almost entirely about the state and its rulings on reproduction and sexual activity. But it never rises to even the level of a discussion about ‘desire’. Now, ok, this is a movie (I hope) meant for teenagers, no doubt girls, as there just isn’t enough actual violence to cater to boys. Also its about girl ‘empowerment’, meaning these days learning martial arts. Both are sub literate exercises in stupidity. So stunningly awful that one does wonder what is going on in the brains of the people involved. Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep et al. The point is that neither has any potential to serve as allegory. There is no elsewhere. There is no there there in fact. There is only references to earlier film and photography. The amusing part of The Giver is that all knowledge is kept in a library of old books, and its all very Harry Potter and the library mostly resembles an old British gentlemen’s club. The signifiers for knowledge is colonial nostalgia.

A final note on an Argentine film from 2005. I only saw it this week. El Aura (Fabien Bielinsky dr.) is a story of an introverted epileptic taxidermist who day dreams of the perfect crime, and then takes a hunting vacation in Pategonia where he stumbles into a real crime. If that isn’t a pitch that open doors for you in Hollywood I dont know what it is. It stars Ricardo Darin, and apparently there is a law in Argentina that you cannot make a movie without Ricardo Darin. Still, this solemn and slowly developing story, set against the stark Patagonian landscape, has a certain disturbing quality — it reminded me a bit of The Hunter(2011), (a much better film finally) in that the real story is the one that cannot be told, because we as a society, have forgotten it. And nature is now something hard for many to even conceptualize. In this, the bloodless inert taxidermist is not an anti hero, but an irritating confused moralist who causes endless amounts of pain for those around him because of his incapacity to act. Clever but souless, the final image is one of accusation. Had the writing been better, only slightly, and the criminals more than cardboard, this might have been a great film. As it is, there is still a strangely haunting quality to it.

I post two paintings by David Hepher. Hepher is a quasi photo realist, although not exactly, and mostly paints the facades of council flats and tower blocks. The endless repetition of same is disturbing, and their scale somehow resists ever quite grasping what one is looking at. The brutal architecture is juxtaposed to the meticulous detailed painting of it, and in each same block is revealed difference, but a difference mostly of wear. The rain stained cement, the worn dirty curtains, the assaultive greys create talismans of a sort. Some of his earlier work was more illustrative (like below) but still effective, and others more abstract and somehow less effective for it. It is the neutral eye, or the appearance of it, that provides the power in his best work. They are insescapable somehow. Also interesting to compare to John Riddy’s photos of the same subject, or Rux Blee Luxemburg’s or Michael Wolf. Or the paintings of Driss Ouadahi.

David Hepher

David Hepher


Hepher may not be a major artist, but I think the integrity of his vision is worth applauding. It does raise questions however in terms of what the viewer is taking away from such paintings. It is partly an investigation of the trivia of modern life. In this way not unlike what Adorno focused on after he came to Los Angeles in 1944. For in trivia is to be found something closer (even if satirized)to the primal impulse of all culture. Here is the stage for historical memory.

Roberto Calasso suggests the truth of myth, that looking around us we find ourselves in our own myth. And that we recognize, therefore, the familiarity of all myths. This is only another way of saying that all the world’s a stage. And that nature, however it is analysed scientifically, remains terrifying. Our inner lives practice the mimetic narrating of our own myths. This is not the established kitsch and bathos of 9/11 memorials, but the terror that resides in a subtle recognition of history as it appears in those grey hostile tower blocks, and in all the rest of the detritus of modern daily life.

John Riddy, photography.

John Riddy, photography.

A Disenchanted World

Katie Paterson, 'Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight', Haunch of Venison Gallery, London.

Katie Paterson, ‘Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight’, Haunch of Venison Gallery, London.

“This house is far away, it is lost, we inhabit it no more; we are, alas, certain of inhabiting it never again. It is however, more than a memory. It is a house of dreams, our oneiric house.”
Gaston Bachelard

“Important works of art are the ones that aim for an extreme; they are destroyed in the process and their broken outlines survive as ciphers of a supreme, unnameable truth.”
Adorno, Sacred Fragment,
Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron

I want to write about aesthetics more, because I think often there is such a huge neglected political aspect to this topic, and because far more than pure political science, or left dissident criticism, hardly anything is really written about it. When I started this blog, my intention was to write a good deal more about the practice of writing, and the poetics of theatre, of film, and painting. But it’s been increasingly difficult to separate these topics. Adorno wrote about the state of aesthetics fifty years ago: “This abstract and largely mechanical derivation of aesthetics from pre-given philosophies seems to me to be the essential reason for the fall of theoretical aesthetics.” As Andrew Bowie cogently put it, “…if philosophy cannot learn from art, and if its job is just to tell us the truth about art in the same way it does other issues, then ultimately we wont need art anyway.” But I believe we do need art, and rather desperately. In an age of instrumental logic, of almost cultic worship of science, of a science mediated by political forces, society will completely lose touch with how to narrative our lives to each other and to ourselves, and will increasingly forget how to engage with the impulse to create, and will suffer the further deterioration of our imagination.

But, I happened this week to go out to the cinema. I was with my wife. There was not much showing, so we decided, well, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is likely better than Hercules. I think perhaps five minutes into this film our heads turned simultaneously and we looked at each other. It was horrifying. Not just was it infantile, for that almost goes without saying. No, it was worse. And it was worse in ways that I think I need to approach in a very roundabout fashion.

One cannot talk aesthetics without bringing in Adorno. Not today. You can’t. And like so many seminal thinkers, there is a lot of mis-reading of Adorno, reductive reading. And in a sense, this is predictable because he is very difficult. And I have had arguments going back years and years with people about how to read him. But for the purposes to today, I want to start with something I’ve not written about, but which I have taught a good deal, and that is writing for the theatre.

Youssef Nabil, photography. Cairo 1997.

Youssef Nabil, photography. Cairo 1997.

And I want to begin with a couple ideas about dialogue. I used to use an example:
A man walks into a room. Another man sits there. The first man says “Do you have a banana, I’m hungry”.
The second man says, “No, why would I have a banana, get the fuck out of here”.

Thats the worst version.
Second version:
A man walks into a room. Another man sits there. The first man says “Do you have a banana, I’m hungry”
The second man says nothing. The first man finally leaves.

That’s a bit better.
Third version:
A man walks into a room. Another man sits there. The SECOND man says “No, I have no banana, why would I have a banana. Get the fuck out of here.”

That’s the best version. Why? Well, version #1 is obvious, rational and without mystery. Version #2 at least leaves us with an unanswered question. There is a question raised. Tension. Version #3 however is best because someone is answering unasked questions. And by so doing a huge leap takes place. One has bypassed the usual asking of questions which can be answered, and are often answered because of visual evidence. One has skipped the asking when the question is not answered. And one has gone straight to an assumption of previous questions, and suddenly there are several layers of history both revealed and obscured. I think that Pinter probably grasped this better than anyone. It was his primary genius in fact.

Tim Eitel

Tim Eitel


I have spoken a lot about the uncanny. And it is because I think the uncanny is directly linked to mimesis and the non-identical. The uncanny is at work whenever something isn’t answered. Or rather, it is there if the question is legitimate. The above painting by Tim Eitel is, I think, a good(ish) painting. It is not a great painting. It want’s to be uncanny…but I am not sure it is. Eitel is a very talented painter. He studied in Germany, and now lives in Paris. He works from photographs. In a sense, Eitel is doing his own version of the Chiat Day syndrome, albeit doing it very well, and with enough intelligence to offset some of the self conscious “uncanny”ness. This particular painting could be a poster for Songs From the Second Floor, for example.

Jameson said, speaking of Adorno:
“Yet the form of the sentences must now also be seen as a form of philosophizing in its own right.”

Part of Eitel’s problem is that he is not technically convincing. Not enough. It is as if the painter’s tecnique is akin to the actor for the playwright. Better technique, say that of Borremans, and a qualitative change takes place. Not even Beckett could stand up under Steve Martin and Robin Williams. The paintings of another young German, Stefan Kurten, are far more unsettling. Kurten works often with gold pigment, and he paints more architecture than Eitel, and indeed is doing something rather different. But for now, I post one of his paintings, below.

Stefan Kurten

Stefan Kurten


This is a disquieting painting because it seems to about something idyllic, and yet the sky is wrong, there is an indeterminate light, and then that gold. The gold is just unnerving. The painting is answering questions unasked, if one wants to push that model. It is imposing something on the viewer, much as a real estage agent might. The viewer is being pressured. In Eitel, by contrast, there is something just the tiniest big smug. Comfortable. And again, I do think Eitel is a decent artist.

But to return to Adorno, and to Jameson, one of the problems with the culture industry is that is now so effectively assimilates all rebellion. All attempts to create radical vision is quickly (as Jameson puts it) ‘registered’ and catalogued and made into a ‘style’. The style is then marketed in mass. This however is mediated to a degree by genre. And one of the potential escape valves for co-option is genre. Genre is already a registered style in a sense. The radical ‘western’ is still a western. The accommodation can only partly take place with any particular work because there is this prevailing category of genre. The best genre work today, in film anyway, are those that work off of subtraction. They simplify, and remove as a strategy. There is more to say on that, but for now..there is another aspect running alongside this, and that is the economic. The corporate interests eliminate the independent economic subject. The artist is bought out whether he or she wants to be or not. Jameson suggests that a kind of fetishism is the only possible result of the Utopian impulse.

Elio Ciol, photography. 'Mongolia'

Elio Ciol, photography. ‘Mongolia’


In Pinter’s The Caretaker, the triangular dialogue in Act 2 is a constant repetition of unfinished conversation, but it ends with, as Pinter often did, a long(ish) monologue by ‘Aston’. For all this elliptical dialogue must find a way to be recuperated. The monologue does nothing to resolve the plot, if one can say there even is a plot. But what it does is restore the sense of legitimacy to the scene. Memory may be faulty, Pinter makes clear, but that is how we re-form our lives in the end.

Because there is nothing resolved, the audience is left with an uncanny and disturbing, or haunting sense of their own memory of the play just witnessed. Jameson (discussing Adorno) says only when a subject enters the force field of late capitalism does the mimetic occur, that it is a relationship between private property and personal identity. That the mechanisms of Capital, of property, of instrumental logic all serve to diminish the subject, or his inner life anyway.

Adorno says, in Minima Moralia: “…the will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live…”. This is not as simple as man-as-robot, however. For it is dialectical. The forces of advanced Capital, monopoly capital, are all in the service of standardization, and this encroaches on, in fact it is foundational, subjectivity. We think in the language of monopoly, and of Corporate restrictions, we think in terms today, of financialization.

Gregor Erhart, 1520 AD

Gregor Erhart, 1520 AD


This discussion at this point turns to the ideas of the ‘Culture Industry'; the most well known term, probably, in all of Adorno’s works. And one that has always met with resistance by the American public, and in U.S. academia. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the rise of marketing as a science in the U.S., and because of the deep Puritan sediments layered beneath the business friendly Anglo-Protestant values system, the very idea of manipulation was countered by a kind of manufactured populism. This populist trend was also (and is also) married to the American resistance to class analysis. Now, Jameson points out that Modernism by the 1950s was hegemonic in U.S. academia. And this is true, but it’s also not true. For there was a hidden class bias operative in this throughout.

There has also been the emphasis, in this new populism, on amusement, or even pleasure. And here is where a deeper analysis is called for. Kitsch, the products of mass culture, do not provide pleasure. They provide some kind of enjoyment, perhaps (there is a whole discussion, obviously, to be had on the nature of pleasure and links to sexuality). But one of Adorno’s crucial points was the austerity, even monasticism, of genuine engagement with culture and art. As he said: “In the Culture Industry, jovial renunciation takes the place of pain that lies at the heart of ecstasy and asceticism alike.”

It is the ideology of intellectual pacification that runs through all mass culture that must be resisted.

Alexey Viktorovich Titarenko, photography.

Alexey Viktorovich Titarenko, photography.


But back to the uncanny.

“This recalls Freud’s dictum that the uncanny is uncanny only because it is secretly all too familiar, which is why it is repressed.”
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

For Adorno (per Jameson) there is an active hatred of art by those whom is excludes, and because of this resentment the excluded demand validation for mass cultural amusements, and further, those who even grasp all this but reject the sacrifice of denying a shallow momentary happiness in lieu of that deeper spiritual regeneration of society itself. In a sense, this is the position of a fascist mentality.

Freud wrote, on the uncanny; “Yet we expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things that lie within the field of what is frightening.” Anthony Vidier points out that ‘uncanny’ is extremely difficult to pin down, and hence finds itself translated in an unusual ways in various languages. Sinistre, etrange, de mal aguero, lugubre, etc. But in non of these languages is uncanny directly synonymous with fear or terror. Nor with the grotesque, or disfigured. It is too close in conceptual structure to things which are familiar. In German of course it is unheimlich, and the English uncanny is derived from ken, or beyond knowing. The canniness part is simply skill. But it is in German that the deepest resonance occurs. For the uncanny is always linked to home. And home is always linked to exile, to homelessness, and to memory. The uncanny is the deep memory of a lost home. And the experience of the uncanny reminds us of that lost home, the one to which we feel guilt for having forgotten. Certain colors are associated with the uncanny, amber for one. Amber light is the direct expression of that petrified sap in which is lodged lost life, and lost memory.

This is what the Frankfurt School, as a whole, saw in their critique of anti semitism. It is a class analysis, for everyone is promised happiness, and that is what Adorno came to call the *broken promise*. One cannot have real happiness until everyone can have real happiness. This is why art and culture have such marked political significance. Now in the United States, historically, the resentment has been directed most acutely at those whose ancestors were slaves. Black culture is the most potent expression of genuine happiness that it’s possible to find, and it accounts for the dramatic efforts of the ruling classes to commodify, neutralize, and destroy it.

Lassse Lecklin, photography. Iceland.

Lassse Lecklin, photography. Iceland.


The uncanny is connected to a term I’m going to invent, ‘deep memory’. Because the familiarity of the uncanny image is not a familiarity one can access. One cannot sit and concentrate and try-to-remember. Now, it is possible that this is simply the repressed material of childhood. And likely a good portion of it is. But I suspect it is more than that, and it is that part of repressed material that interests me the most, and which I think artists make use of, and to which I believe culture is linked.

There are probably two levels of uncanny. The Pinter play mentioned above, operates on the lesser uncanny level. The play itself is a masterpiece, but the uncanny is tied to the mimetic re-narration of the play itself. The audience is questioning his own experience of spoken text, and there is an examination given on ‘listening’. The uncanny resides therefore in a brief temporal space, even if the deeper layers of meaning continue. There is in the deeper uncanny something that is allied to the tragic. A work may be deeply uncanny and not be tragedy, but it will bleed into the tragic impulse to some degree almost always. The German Romantics were often deeply uncanny, and Von Kleist might be the culmination of this branch. His essay on marionettes remains an indispensable text for understanding the links to myth and Dionysian mystery, the uncanny as revelation. The uncanny is always, on both levels, a mystery. This is why narrative that opens us to the experience of something uncanny is always a story of crime, or primal crime. Architecture is often uncanny, and for reasons similar to tragedy. The sense of our forgotten homes is evoked very acutely in certain buildings. Piranesi’s Carceri are exercises in deep uncanny. Kafka, of course, is the modern giant of the deep uncanny. There is an spatial aspect to the uncanny, and it is partly linked to vertigo. John Martin wrote of Pirinesi, that one always feels as if measuring these spaces from on high. It’s not a rational response, but then this is where guilt begins, and this is also partly an aspect of the *broken promise* We desire to remember where our exile began, but we cannot, and there is a feeling of betrayal attached to this. For it is not only ‘my’ forgotten exile, it is ‘our’ forgotten exile. To get to the forgotten past is akin to navigating a maze, and here that quality of claustrophobia common to the uncanny becomes another artery of the forgotten, of the irretrievable.

Ziad Antar, photography.

Ziad Antar, photography.


Tied into this discussion is the theme of the passing of modernism. Whether that dissipating of energy turned into something called post-modernism, I’m not sure, but probably I fail to see what post modernism actually is. For it seems to be more about what it is not. It is not epitaph, but simply caesura. The pause before the Fall. Everyone today lives in the shadow of transnational corporate business. For this vast realm of devouring insensate destruction not only destroys people, and landscapes, but it eats the inner life of those it leaves alive, and its most malignant form is found in the erasing of both social and individual history. It sucks out memory and reduces it to pixel ash.

The uncanny as mystery, is also I think inseparable from exile, from the experience of homesickness. I think that in Western societies, European and North American primarily, that homes are overdetermined in dreams via the window. Windows, or perhaps only the windows of the second floor, are always somehow the site of both erotic transgressions, and symbolic of religious calling, or communion. Now I’m clearly speaking of a bourgeois identity formed in the late 17th century, but advanced qualitatively in the 18th, and on into the 19th and 20th. The window can be open or closed, curtained or not, and it is at a distance. I’ve always felt a certain unnaturalness to large ground floor windows. They are exhibitionistic to a degree, and more, they are an emblem of class, the owners gazing out over the factory or fields. Today, the erasure of these experiences, the reflective meditations of daily life, especially in childhood, are no doubt more inimical to individual autonomy than can be grasped. The architecture of mall, of office building, of surveilled public space is designed and policed in such a way that people are being drained of their inner lives. The escape from the great panopticon uses up the entirety of people’s waking hours. For never before, at least in the U.S., has the invasion of personal space, of privacy, been so extensive. And that invasion is policing dreams as well. Perhaps there will be a poetics, an uncanny of the mall escalator, but I somehow doubt it. Anthony Vidier wrote, on the topic of structural uncanny, and here on the reflections of Walter Pater, and ancient Roman homes…

“..Pater makes clear, this homeliness was established firmly on its ability to ecompass and overcome death. The foundations of the house were deeply embedded in the catacombs, the villa’s subterranean double, that provided resting places for the ancestors of the Cecilii. The immediate spatial connection between the abode of the living and that of the dead sustained the air of authenticity, of ‘venerable beauty, that permeated the whole estate…The heimlich had finally been reconciled to its apparent opposite in a spatial order that provided rest for both living and dead.”

Elvis in elevator, photographer unknown.

Elvis in elevator, photographer unknown.


So, any narrative fiction, or playwriting, must remember it’s own homesickness. All authors write only their own life. In the end. It can be called Crete, or Denmark, or Uruguay, but my work for example is always Los Angeles. And the United States. But this ‘where’ identity is often masked, sent outward. One of the great geniuses of poetics and writing in the 20th century was Charles Olson. I cannot quite understand his neglect. Many lesser poets have been revived and canonized, but not Olson. If one wants to learn to write, an essential book is Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville. I mention Olson because he is the great surveyor of space and land. The catacombs beneath our lives, beneath everyone’s life, are often ignored. Melville told Hawthorne he dated his life from his return from the Pacific. The Pacific was the dopelganger of the plains, for Americans. In Russia it is the steppes, and Siberia. There is an urban form, too, of space. It more directly turns downward. Toward the catacombs. They create a vertical maze. In those less urban, the horizontal is dominant. The horizon. For the horizon is most clearly seen at sea or in the desert. The horizon is more mausoleum. It is always a maze, though.

Olson quotes Dostoyevsky:

“Even negation has not come from me. Everything has always been petty and spiritless… Indignation and shame I can never feel, therefore not despair”.

Stavrogin. For Olson was writing on The Possessed. In Dostoyevski there is primal crime. Olson said plot was a ‘broken stump’. The poetics of space are always there, of course. Elvis in an elevator is heading for the underworld. Perhaps. Yet, that trip in today’s fiction rarely if ever takes place. Hell has been banished, kettled, deported. This is one of the questions that surfaces with all discussion on aesthetics. Olson felt ancient Sumer, the Summerian world of 3300 BC, was a center of wisdom and it produced myth and allegory and symbol. Somewhere along the way, things got forgotten. The purpose of symbol forgotten. Perhaps, but for sure, *something* was lost, forgotten, and someone had to be blamed for this loss. Inventory doesn’t add up. Fire that intern. The sense of the allegorical has evaporated. Those elsewheres only infrequently occur now, and they are under surveillance. It may well be that the electronic panopticon has reached a state where it damages even our inner monologues.

Let me use an example, that only partially explains any of this. Non representational painting or abstract art as it is often commonly called, reached a place of exhaustion very quickly with the New York School of Pollock, Rothko, DeKooning et al. It was replaced with various secondary schools of color field, hard edge, etc. And none of these is very well defined. Minimalism was another reaction, in a sense. Today, a work like the one below by Bernard Lokai is worth at least trying to talk about:

Bernard Lokai

Bernard Lokai

Lokai is the son of Czech parents, but raised in Germany and a student of Richter. He is often associated with what is called The German New Wave that includes Bruno Kurz, Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, Rosemarie Trockel, Albert Oehlen, Neo Rauch, Kippenberger, and even Stefan Kurten. And further back Beuys, Kiefer, and Richter himself. Now, this is on the one hand a painting about painting, or a painting ‘of’ painting, a painting of abstract expressionism. But it is unnaturally cut off, framed, interrupted, and thereby re-defines the entire idea of touch, or action painting. The point here is that the goals are very modest I think. The grand transcendentalism of Rothko or Pollock is adumbrated, made into something intentionally derivative. And that is not perjorative, it is a perfectly valid strategy. It is also done with confidence, with a pronounced authority of technique. And this is a way into the discussion of Adorno’s ideas on truth content. The internal integrity of a work is paramount in this case. The Lokai certainly possess that, even if it is achieved by way of reduction of ambition. The work of his teacher Gerhard Richter provides a certain clue to evaluating Lokai. Richter purposefully changed styles a dozen times, from photo-realism, to glosses on Warhol, and throughout a tendency to incorporate ready made materials. This all suggests a project directed at sampling to focus on the very notion of ‘style’ as regressive in itself. Lokai is periously close to illustrating an Abstract Expressionist painting. The Bruno Kurz below better, a better version of, if that’s fair, what Lokai is doing (and Lokai does a number of things, other than what he did here). The Kurz, even if working off derivitive material, is not illustrating, for something adheres to his painting that destabilizes. It may not be doing more, but at the very least I think it’s clearly working on that level.

Bruno Kurz

Bruno Kurz


Here Jameson is perhaps the clearest of all Adorno critics, with Zuidervaart anyway, on the topic of truth content. For many works can have great internal integrity, and still only be expressing the untruth of society, or false consciousness. Jameson mentions Adorno’s critique (extensive) of Wagner’s music. That Wagner’s chromatic colorations are both exquisite integral expressions of something Utopian, AND expressions of the disintegration of the classical musical vocabulary itself.

“Yet the very splendor of that technical breakdown, whose tendentially atomistic logic releases all kinds of new ‘productive forces’, is itself a figure of the relationship between his ‘moment of truth’ and the regressive position of the subject in a bourgeois society that has already begun to anticipate its own limits.”
Jameson

But whatever one concludes from the individual assessments of particular artists, the point for this posting is that a seriousness attaches to work that strives for an expression of suffering, that gives voice somehow to those usually rendered mute. Now, the uncanny and deep memory are critical in all this. As are the ideas of the universal and particular. For this is where culture is both cause and effect, and demand art be evaluated, and experienced, in light of both the social totality and the individual.

There is something particularly depressing in today’s populism. One senses, intuits, the dishonesty in glossing over all manner of analysis to rather focus almost exclusively on the commercial success and on the enjoyment principle of any particular work, and on trivializing of the entire idea of culture itself. And that latter point is the real heart of the matter. Generalized and emotionally cheap reviews of this or that work allow for, and give permission for a wilful blindness. It is when no dialectical analysis takes place at all; where everything is just another item on the cultural supermarket shelf.

Jean Christian Bourcart, photography.

Jean Christian Bourcart, photography.


The scripts for 99% of Hollywood film and TV are written in ways that sustain the ideological backdrop of the system. There is no depth, and there is no history. There are only advertisements for the status quo. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the third or fourth (who’s counting) in this franchise, has effectively removed even the tiny bit of social criticism that existed in the original. It is also stunningly humorless (more on that in a second) and entirely mediated by CGI. That this digital soup is no longer read as such is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the entire experience. The ‘Apes’ speak a sort of inconsistent pigeon english, much like *natives* spoke in Ramar of the Jungle fifty years ago. The apes represent the masses; ignorant, easily led and manipulated…unlike the white heroes, the humans, those who *should* be leading. That the ‘bad’ ape is named Koba only reinforces a residue of old time anti communism.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014. Matt Reeves, dr.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014. Matt Reeves, dr.

As inconsequential as earlier versions of this franchise might have been, they managed to keep track of the ironic reversal of man/ape that was the mainspring for the original 1974 film with Charlton Heston. There was a certain wit to that film, and at least there was Roddy MacDowell. Here there is no such wit, if for no other reason than the apes are not apes, but something else, and guns have replaced cunning and animal instinct as a subversive marker. This is just hack junk, and while I saw it in 2D, not 3D, I can only imagine how much more oppressive it would have been. There is no space in such films, and like Avatar and Spiderman, it is a world drained of nature. This is nature as one experiences it on an iPad.

Real nature, is being destroyed. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/sep/03/bernie-krause-natural-world-recordings

Miroslaw Balka, "How It Is" installation at Tate, London 2009

Miroslaw Balka, “How It Is” installation at Tate, London 2009


I suspect that Miroslaw Balka’s installation at the Tate Turbine Hall, a couple years back, was intuitively about the lost uncanny. That Balka is Polish Catholic makes sense. For guilt and atonement seem to somehow intrude on the mysteries of repression. The Balka piece is very effective. The Polish Catholic religion is punishing, it is dark, and while Spanish and Italian Catholicism is equally tortured, the northern Catholics tortured soul is one without color. At the top is a photo of Katie Paterson’s ‘Moonlight’ piece. Working with technicians and science geeks she commissioned a bulb that gave off the same light as moonlight. While close to a junior high school field trip to the science fair, where you see this at one of the booths, it is also curiously unsettling and sort of comforting, as well. And in that sense, it possesses it’s own sense of uncanny. I wanted to end with a comment about a film from Australia. Mystery Road. It is bone simple genre narrative (subtracted genre) about a returning indigenous cop, “abbo copper”, to the outback nowhere town in which he was raised. A teenage aboriginal girl is found beneath an overpass on the highway. The troubled cop goes looking for the killer. Race prevents anyone helping him. He overcomes problems. Its aboriginal noir, or High Noon in the outback. Somehow, however, it’s surprisingly poignant. In the same way The Hunter (2011, David Netheim dr.) managed something similar. The shadow of ethnic cleansing, of colonialism, of white settlers and violence hangs over the entire landscape. Aaron Pedersen is rather stunningly good as the indigenous policeman, too.
Mystery Road, (2013), Ivan Sen, dr.

Mystery Road, (2013), Ivan Sen, dr.


If one watches enough network and studio material, it is hard not see the bankruptcy of real imagination, and not see the truly insane infantilism at work. First of all, a quick survey of exactly what is on TV is pretty telling. So called “Reality shows” dominate scheduling. A quick check of saturday nights revealed (my quick head count) twenty six reality shows. For Monday, I saw sixteen. That is a saturation level. That means the vast majority of air time is devoted to the most inane content free exercises in humiliation and cruelty. Of course these are also very cheap to make. So marketing will push them in all ways possible. But moving along to quality programming. One is given either the very crudest police state narratives, or military narratives, or comedies. That makes up roundly 80% of prime time. The prestige products though, in the end, are most telling. I wont burden you or myself with any detailed coverage here, but only to say the failure of narrative is connected to all the points above. Take HBO’s latest, The Leftovers, based on the Tom Perrota novel. Now Perotta is a Yale grad, erstwhile disciple of Tobias Wolfe, and later a prof at Harvard. The white elite. This is the MFA mafia from Ivy league programs. The show, roughly based on the book, is about the rapture…essentially. Its a very white rapture as God and HBO would have it. One of the creators is arch hack Peter Berg, a director with great ties to military Pentagon approved Imperialist war propaganda. There is no real story, beyond one day a lot of people disappear. There is a pseudo classical sound track, and a credit crawl replete with fake frescos. The entire first season, and yes I suffered through it, is about exactly fuck all nothing. There are plenty of homilies about family, and sentimental teary eyed remembrances of the departed, but in the end, this is perhaps the ultimate example of non narrative. There are odd behaviors, of course. A cult, dressed in white, whose program remains obscure. My guess is that somewhere in this was meant to be an examination of guilt and faith. *Faith* being a word I really really hate…but anyway; the problem is that not much feels at stake. The town cop has a dad in the loony bin. Ok. And…? So maybe down the road all this grand bathos is stitched together. The problem, the core problem is that none of it possesses an urgency, none of it is mysterious in the right way. The mystery of banality is not compelling. Why one’s fuel pump blew today, and not tomorrow, is not interesting. It blew..because of planned obsolescence. But that’s not a narrative. Investing the fuel pump failing today with some mystical significance is what you get in The Leftovers. There is no history evident, this is the post modern facsimile movie town. The landscape is generic, and even the few oddities are carefully cleansed of anything that might offend. There is a horrible creepy ur-whiteness to the whole thing. The narrative? It is nothing, but nothing decorated with self conscious seriousness and a not to subtle idealizing of white family life. Honestly, Walt Disney would love it. Jerry Fallwell would love it.
Michael Tsegaye, photography. 'Ethiopia'.

Michael Tsegaye, photography. ‘Ethiopia’.


“Style is the imprint of what we are on what we do.”
Rene Daumal

In the early 1800s, Calasso described the bourgeoisie as being sick with history. Some connection to the past, in the courts and among the intelligentsia had been lost. The literature of the French noble class was trivial, the language itself had lost it’s depth, no great works of art were being written. Today, there is this massive edifice of pop culture, and the society is sick with with a kind of intellectual starvation. That anyone can watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes without feelings of revulsion is proof of some final stage of bourgeois sickness. I suspect it is deeper now, and the white supremacist feelings expressed in police action, in criminal courts and across the communities of poverty were at least once masked, mediated by some phantom adherence to vague moral beliefs. No such mask exists today. This is (to borrow from Adorno) a dis-enchanted land.Pockets of resistance exist. Collectives, and independent farms, and yet the environmental crisis cannot be halted. There are worker’s organizations, and left parties, but U.S. militarism, the Imperialist march to murder even more, has no rational basis any longer, even for them, also will not stop. The photo of Hillary hugging Kissinger may become an iconic image. The corruption of the flesh matches the corruption of the soul. But those pockets of resistance must start to build a culture, for they often lack, more than any other thing, imagination and aesthetic awareness. Those who are repulsed by the glut of Hollywood junk, often simply reject all culture along with the kitsch culture. It is rejected in toto. There is, even in such groups, the residue of science as the primary solution. Even in places rejecting technology, instrumental thinking prevails. There is, as Marx said, a progressive and a regressive side to everything. Some of the logic of resistance demands Enlightenment values as a corrective to new age sophistry. In other cases, there is a marked cultural deficit. It is the least recognized area of authoritarian colonizing.