A Knocking of the Gate

Desiree Dolron

Desiree Dolron

“It is the lack of the experience of the imagery of real art, partly substituted and parodied by by the ready-made stereotypes of the amusement industry, which is at least one of the formative elements of the cynicism that has finally transformed the Germans, Beethoven’s own people, into Hitler’s own people.”
Adorno

“(the knocking makes us aware) that the reaction has commenced, the human has made its reflex upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.”
Thomas DeQuincey
‘On the Knocking of the Gate in Macbeth’.

It is too easy, and I’m guilty of this, too, to simply lump ALL TV and film (U.S. studio film anyway) into one generalized basket. When the topic of violence comes up, it is easy to say, and it’s true, that popular culture is saturated with depictions of violence. The volume, the sheer staggering numbers of guns being fired and bodies blowing apart, has by itself an importance that cannot be overestimated. But…but Shakespeare was violent, too. So was Sophocles and so was a good deal of classical literature. Beowulf, Homer, the Old Testament, and Milton. So, one cannot just dismiss material because it is violent. There is violence and then there is violence…so to speak. Or rather, in narratives, film, and TV (these days, that’s really what we’re talking about) there are varieties and qualities of violence. So its important not to confuse Crime and Punishment with Saw.

The tragic impulse contains within its Dionysian energy a form of violence. I suspect, however much one subscribes to Lacanian psychoanlysis, or even Freudian, that there is something about our psychic formation that includes rivalry and aggression. To reproduce those tensions, and the outlines of our amnesiac childhood trauma, is a basic originary impulse for all creation. The durability of crime fiction and film is connected to our own guilt, our primal mimetic sense of alienation. To deny the shadow side of ourselves is a greater harm than perhaps any, if we are speaking of the possibility for real transformation, for raised consciousness. The power of great meditations upon violence and murder, like Macbeth, or Crime and Punishment, focus on the terrible interim before the act, before the irreversible. Or upon the guilt that follows such an act. There is at bottom a deep respect for life that drives these stories of violence and murder. So one definition of what is wrong in contemporary writing, and film and TV, is the trivializing of the value of life, the tearing down of the idea of life’s dignity. The greatest harm though, I believe, is the sentimental kitsch that stands in for actual human emotion. For it eradicates the human. It is a violence to form and soul. It is the basic lie of storytelling. But I will get to that. First, I think there is an intersection here with the entire way in which “reality” is manufactured by media and the state, and by corporate cultural entities. A film such as Capt. America, the one with a pretentious subtitle, is a cartoon. I am not sure the wholesale violence in such junk is the primary problem. The ideological backdrop is far more disturbing, and the jingoism. Now, does this cartoon patriotism serve and form part of the ideological and intellectual fabric of the enthusiastic audience that consumes it? Probably to some degree, certainly. But I suspect there is a larger audience of educated white kids (mostly male) who see this with a jaundiced cynical eye, and these are the media savy well schooled cultural dilettantes of the post modern U.S. Now, the violence is pretty much a given part of the structure of DC and Marvell comix. All of them reactionary in the extreme, but Im not sure these savy cynical consumers arent themselves aware of this. They just don’t care. Consciously anyway.

Guido Reni, 1610 (David and Goliath)

Guido Reni, 1610 (David and Goliath)


Then we have the violence porn of films like “Saw”. This is just degraded material on all levels, and one wonders at who makes this stuff? It is linked to the malformed sexuality of patriarchal white America, and it serves as (take your pick) an outlet for would be rapists, or training material for would-be rapists. But it is wildly misogynist and almost always, as an added bonus, politically reactionary. For in all this material, the status quo is reinforced. Then you have the ‘disposible populace’ cop franchises. This is the Bochco and Milch realm, and Dick Wolff and all of it is strikingly authoritarian. This was that turn that began with Dragnet in the 50s, where film noir became Jack Webb — the protagonists were not Knights Errant any longer, but clerks of the state, the jack boot anal retentive Webb served to usher in the era of “exploring the inner lives of the police”. From Chandler and Hammett and Cain to Law & Order and Hill Street Blues. These are the franchises in which certain models are put in place; black inner cities are criminal wastelands full of hoody wearing gangbangers, or Latino drug dealers, or even Vietnamese human traffickers. This is the world view of White men, it swings between mock liberal and trenchent open racist fascism. From “24″ to the new Chicago PD, another Wolff project, that squarely hits at all the same buttons that he’s hit for twenty years. White masculinity projects. There has been such a staggering number of these shows that the audience is now watching as if watching an enshrined myth being played out. There are no surprises, only the reassuring replay of the same racist reactionary tropes they already know. And these shows depict a lot of violence. Usally “bad guys” (often poor, black and latino) do bad things and “good guys” (cops) do good things. The violence is often graphic, but not always. But then we arrive at the new prestige violence. Hannibal, and Game of Thrones. In each, there are curious elements at work. But in both, in different ways, violence is the subject.
Sophy Rickett

Sophy Rickett


It is important I think to examine why, say, a film such as the 1969 Jean Pierre Melville masterpiece, Army of Shadows, differs from Game of Thrones. The violence in the Melville, especially the killing of an informer, is disturbing and the implications have deep political resonance. In Gary Oldman’s 1997 Nil by Mouth, the violence is seen in light of the social conditions that produced it, the texture of abuse diminishes everyone it touches, and it is suffered through generations vis a vis the criminal justice system, down to individual domestic battery and the general hopelessness of an entire oppressed class (Oldman was essentially making a film about his family).

But lets take the curious case of Hannibal this season. Yet another spin off from the Thomas Harris series of novels. Now, this is perhaps the prime example of elevated kistch one could find. It is beautifully shot, remarkably shot, really, and has a number of very good actors. It is vaguely literate in the sense that cliches are avoided , and familiar formula explanations are excised in favor of all things baroque; and this is all good. But what interests me here is the nature of prestige products today, and their evolution. Hannibal is visually stunning, smart, savy, and I admit a decent sort of guilty pleasure. The audience is not meant to be horrified. A few people might go “ew…..yuck”, or “gross”, but nothing in this show will ever haunt anyone’s dreams. Why? For all the sort of middle mind erudition on display, it is still just treading water, reconfiguring what Thomas Harris did decades ago with Red Dragon. As pulp novels go, that was pretty good. However, it also wasnt really about much. So in fact we have the new Bryan Fuller Hannibal, doing Red Dragon over and over and over and over, (with the intention of going for 7 seasons) and in the service of what exactly? Im not asking for a moral justification, but that would do fine; I’m more looking for the reasons that drive the success of this show, the aesthetic choices are …doing what? Well, perhaps I need to amend that earlier comment about avoiding cliches. This is a show constructed on certain recognizable associations. The audience knows these characters. Anthony Hopkins, Jody Foster, yeah yeah, are now Mads Mikelsen, and Hugh Dancey in effect, we know, we know. Hannibal Lecter, sure, we get it. And the entire depiction of psychoanalysis is worth a moment’s reflection. Evil lurks within the analysts office. The intellectuals are evil, or insane, or autistic, or idiot savants of some kind. The vulnerable or different are dangerous. The show is an indictment of intelligence.

Vera Lutter

Vera Lutter

It is the aestheticizing of violence and sadism, yes. Now, that by itself, even if that were all it was, I could even defend up to a point. The problem is, that nothing occurs in an historical vacuum. This is a show whose currency is familiarity. It is shot as it were a Rolex commerical, or a Porsche commercial. The camera is forever caressing the material, usually shot in a palette void of primary colors. But it also frames things in a very sophisticated way. First off, the show is endlessly stressing a shallow focus. So extreme that one can see lips in focus but nose hairs out of focus. Couple this to the restrictive framing, and the effect is striking. The color correction is extreme, too. Now I admit I waffle at times about this show. Because in a sense the camera is interrogating the viewer. You see high resolution items at the expense of other things. And yet, the editing is wonderfully slow. The score dissonant, and overall this world starts to take on the quality of a dream. The primary actors are very good (well, Hugh Dancey is less good, but ok) and so there is something ceremonial in a sense, or the simulcra of ceremony. Still, if the discussion is violence, then one might defend this show long before defending Dick Wolff. Once aesthetic choices are employed, there are harder questions to ask. Hannibal, for all Ive already said, is a far cry and a universe away from Capt. America, the Pretentious Soldier. Or, more, a good distance from Boardwalk Empire’s second season, in which the violence was so pervasive and so constant that it became unnerving to watch. That was just prestige violence porn. Lavish art direction in the service of junk. And of sadism. Hannibal, while lurid, and while self consciously solemn, is also pretty tongue in cheek. And it is that subtle wink to the informed viewer/consumer that places it not that far from Harold Ramis, in a sense. There is a lot of blank-stare humor, mixed with the artificial gravitis, that once, The Sopranos lived off. This is an intentionally over-serious presentation, which means of course, its not serious at all.

I think my point is that art and aesthetics are complex matters and they exist in real time. One the one hand, corporate produced cultural product is 99% reactionary, and 99% kitsch and is almost always reproducing the familiar, and all of it in service of reproduciung ruling class values. But there is stuff, worth examining, because it, in different ways, reveals a good deal about the society we live in, and more, about the mediated sub conscious of the American psyche. Or at least a good chunk of it. And there are contradictions, and one of them is to see the ever (seemingly) increasing white tours of the underclass. From Out of the Furnace, to Bad Company, to The Place Beyond the Pines, to Killing Me Softly, you have youngish white directors, from privileged backrounds, touring the “authenticity” of the underclass. Usually with white male movie stars in the lead.

Alfred Menzel

Alfred Menzel

These white tours of the lumpen masses end up aestheticizing poverty, and making the degradations of daily life for the working poor a sort of aesthetic petri dish. The poor, who they basically detest, are still envied. So the appropriation of their stories is like stealing the last thing they have. The point is not the suffering for such directors, but to see what is’cool’ and marketable, what image might emerge from the experiment that can be reproduced as a commodity. The poor are not the subject, only their style.

Tom McKinley

Tom McKinley

The violence of Capt. America is a cartoon. It is propaganda. The violence of “24″, (back this season…again) is the perhaps the most pernicious expression of the collective lack of compassion in the society. It is violence as spiritual regeneration (to paraphrase Richard Slotkin), violence as cleansing, as morally uplifting, and as sexy. The majority of studio and network film and TV presents violence as entertainment. Not just the story, in which violence may occur, but the actual violence itself is presented as pleasurable. In Hannibal it is literally served to you, as a fine meal is served, and the cannibalism is part of the joke, as is the overwrought presentation. But in the Kiefer Sutherland/Jack Bauer franchise, there is no joke. This is the humorless world of the angry white man. And it tries very hard, as do other shows of this genre, to make violence attractive. This takes several forms; the coolness of weapons, the coolness of killers, the coolness of body parts exploding or of punctures or slices or chokings (this is akin to 12 year old boys stomping on a frog and marveling at the gushing entrails). Or, there is the entertainment that is meant to proceed from revenge motives. This overlaps, I suppose, with keeping society safe from whatever, terrorism, seriel killers, etc. We are meant to view their death in a way not dissimilar from Puritans watching fellow citizens in the stocks. Or public hangings. It is curious, really, that the U.S. doesnt televise executions. One would think, seriously, that such a thing falls perfectly within the value system that also manufactures stuff like Zero Dark Thirty. So, look at violence in films such as Army of Shadows, or recently, in A Prophet. These are political and metaphysical acts of violence, and in each case there are profound repurcussions.

Army of Shadows, 1969. Dr. Jean Pierre Melville

Army of Shadows, 1969. Dr. Jean Pierre Melville

It is also, all of it, creating and reinforcing a climate of fear. Who are you to fear? Not the police, not the CIA or NSA, no, you are meant to fear the psychotic cannibals that lurk on every corner, live in almost every rural cabin or farm, and especially, are housed in prisons and asylums.

Melanie Manchot

Melanie Manchot


When I wrote of the war on imagination (Henry Giroux’s term) I think the new prestige TV product is a pretty good indicator for what is going on. There is a populace now living primarely in a screen world, and in that screen world, an artifical world, there must be constant reminders of its legitimacy. And there is no better reminder than to actually, literally, use an extant film as a jumping off point. And this familiarity is pegged to shopping expertise, and this turn is pegged to irony and sarcasm.

Its curious that David Foster Wallace wrote about this twenty years ago, albeit from within a white male world view. Still, he was pretty much correct. Matt Ashbi wrote about the Wallace essay recently:

“Today’s painters understand the challenging work of the early postmodernists only as a hip aesthetic. They cannibalize the past only to spit up mad-cow renderings of “art for no sake,” “art for any sake,” “art for my sake” and “art for money.” So much art makes fun of sincerity, merely referring to rebellion without being rebellious. The paintings of Sarah Morris, Sue Williams, Dan Colen, Fiona Rae, Barry McGee and Richard Phillips fit all too comfortably inside an Urban Outfitters. Their paintings disguise banality with fashionable postmodern aesthetic and irony.
Likewise in contemporary fiction, Tao Lin has made a reputation off reproducing disaffected, hipster malaise. In “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” Lin inserts himself as the protagonist Sam, a vegan writer who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sam often feels vaguely “fucked” in a generally affectless world of name brands, Gchat and Facebook. He shoplifts a couple times and winds up in jail for a night. Occasionally, he mindlessly mistreats others for a laugh: inexplicably throwing a friend’s drink, hitting someone with a stick, and ordering someone to jump over a bush. The entire narrative is as disconnected from the larger society as the characters are from each other, and therefore it reads as a mimetic rendering of a soulless world rather than satire. New Tao Lins publish every day, feeding the culture’s desire to watch its own destruction.”

Alvin Langdon

Alvin Langdon

The Adorno quote at the top is relevant here, and often, I think, misunderstood. There were plenty of SS officers who could play Beethoven or Bach on their violins, and many were great lovers of high art. That is not the issue. The issue is that a society which degrades the idea of art and culture, and the sense of redemption through awakening, through collective trust and hope, is one that finally can no longer respond to the stories of the world surrounding it in any manner other than sarcasm and insult.

I came across this story this week; http://tellmenow.com/2014/04/women-prisoners-sterilized-to-cut-welfare-costs-in-california/

I think the reality of the U.S. gulag remains obscured, opaque, and remote to the average American, if we can even use that term.

http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/why-solitary-confinement-degrades-us-all/

Why are these realities not in network TV? That is worth thinking on. The torture and killing seen on Hannibal, however beautifully realized, still premises violence on pscyhotic *individuals*. We do not see the forced sterilizations of women in the California prison system, we do not see the charred body parts of children in Yemen, or the horrific birth defects caused by depleted uranium, in the war zones of the U.S. military empire. However much legitimacy I can squeeze from a show like Hannibal, in the end it is deflecting and shielding the reality of U.S. terror, and creating lurid villains as a way, conscious or not, to deflect the gaze from the greatest villain of all, the U.S. government. Who has more blood on his hands, Hannibal Lecter or Dick Cheney?

Alina Szapocznikow

Alina Szapocznikow


But, Cheney is finally, so unremittingly banal, so lacking in Shakespearan scope, that one feels sympathetic in the desire for the inventing of a Hannibal Lecter. In a sense, if ABC’s Hannibal really had the courage of it’s conviction, or probably, rather, if it was at all aware of them, then the landscape of Hannibal could well begin to enclose the Dept of State, Rumsfeld’s wing of the Pentagon, and would begin to find in its creation of *evil* the authentic metaphoric expressions of, say, a Jonathan Pollard, or Aldrich Ames, or Richard Holbrooke…and there would be a knocking of the White House gate. In other words, the individualized landscape of Hannibal becomes reactionary by virtue of never exploring the outer real world. Or, rather, implying an outer world of stability and sanity.
Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames

Our mortality is the most serious of subjects, and I might argue that the manufacturing of fear is one way, one adjustment, instinctively, by the propriator class, to change the subject. From the existential abyss, to simply projecting such anxiety onto figures such as Lecter, of whatever weekly serial killer crops up on a half dozen shows running right now. Time will tell if Hannibal can even reach the level of Grimm’s fairy tales, or Hoffman’s Der Sandmann. The question really comes down to what artworks manage to resist reification, since in a sense, all of them are commodities.

But when examining cultural product today, it’s impossible to avoid the effects of mass marketing in the construction of the ‘real’. I think even I have underestimated the influences of authority. That most technology, by virtue of the instructions needed to operate it, instills a sense of following orders. Together, the role of learning instructions (Ikea like) and the erosion of community vernacular and grammar, the populace from an early age are encouraged to watch for what to do, and to wait to be told what to do, and to simply, not question things. The language of marketing is, additionally in fact, designed to create muteness. Popular culture, and most TV series, play upon the idea of familiarity. Except its a false falimiarity. A sort of false recovered culture memory.

Hannibal, CBS TV, 2014

Hannibal, CBS TV, 2014


Another show, From Dusk to Dawn, (El Rey productions, via Miramx and Netflix) is a spin off from the decades earlier Robert Rodriquez film, co-written by Quinten Tarantino. It is another example of the familiar comic book world. The basic incoherence of the narrative, the saturated pinks, and reds, the anti-freeze greens, and the essential emptiness and focus on style, suggest, perhaps, the inner life of the U.S. The *dead now* if a film strip, might feel a lot like From Dusk to Dawn. In an early episode one of the locations is a border motel. Now, this is a familiar image, and a sort of ersatz archetype. There is NO one Southwest border motel. There are many, sort of. There is no single image that comes to mind, only a generality, a sort of memory trace, which in fact is only a dim ‘feeling’ of something associated with ‘noir’. And as such it triggers a vague style code trace,a regression, and what is familiar is the falseness of the memory. The feeling of this triggering effect is familiar. The audience really thinks, oh, Ive had this indistinct association before…..I think….sort of…..enough to place the image in the correct general category. Sharing and collective experience has been narrowed down to shared aknowledgment of popularity. Game of Thrones….oh, that’s a really popular show, ergo I need to watch it. The southwest border motel stands in for historical meaning. It is “style”, nothing more.

Nathan Oliveira

Nathan Oliveira

F.R. Leavis when writing of Alexander Smith’s poem Barbara, said; “It doesn’t merely surrender to temptation; it goes straight for a sentimental debauch, an emotional wallowing, the alleged situation being only the show of an excuse for the indulgence, which is, with a kind of innocent shamelessness, sought for its own sake. If one wants a justification for invoking the term ‘insincerity’, one can point to the fact that the poem clearly enjoys its pang…”. Leavis later, when speaking of Conrad, adds:
“Creative art here is an exercise in the achieving of precision (a process that is at the same time the achieving of complete sincerity– the elimination of ego interested distortion and all impure motives) in the recovery of a memory now implicitly judged-implicitly, for actual judgement can’t be stated – to be, in a specific life, of high singificance.” Disciplined memory, this is what can happen only when the writing is connected to the material world, and the material forces that shape it. Not in that reductive Iowa Writers Workshop way of eliminating ideas, but of placing ideas in a concrete context. Of making ideas into material, in actual emotions, into dreams, as well. Nothing is so real as a dream. So foreign is this today, in a culture saturated with the inauthentic, with snark and sarcasm, and more, with self branding, and with an advertising of self, with just the commodity addictions, that I think it’s all but forgotten as a way to read or view. Still, yes, it is useful to know WHICH border motel, and to know for whom that knocking of the gate serves as a wake.

Privatized Suffering

Abelardo Morrell

Abelardo Morrell


“And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him.”
Karl Marx

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity
has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have
stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully
human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an histori­
cal vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical
vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair”
.
Paulo Freire

I have been thinking on the way the vast majority of the U.S., at least the majority of white and educated (even if badly) people seem unable to think in any terms but those of the most simplistic and reductive. I am always, for example, stunned that ANYONE, could feel anything but repulsion toward Hillary Clinton. From her earliest days as a Goldwater girl, to young and only semi competent lawyer in Little Rock where she defended utility companies and Coca Cola, to her final grotesque incarnation as assassin. Her gleefull cackling on CBS TV when the topic of assassination came up is among the more chilling public displays of inapproprate visible sadism in US political history. And still…and still, the ogre marches on and in her toxic wake swim countless female voters shrieking defense of ‘bad ass Hillary’. Now, is this just the product of watching TV news, and news-tainment, and Hollywood film and TV? I think largely it is. But there are other things at work.

Jacob Riss

Jacob Riss


There is a race divide I suspect (I’ve not looked at poll numbers) with regard to Hillary. There is something lurking within the Hillary phenomenon that links directly to white quasi-feminism, the sort that never gives a thought to the mothers and daughters in Iraq or Syria, or Haiti or Venezuela. The narrative of U.S. politicians as war criminals is suppressed. It is, effectively, censored. A culture now tells itself stories about conquest, and revenge. Revenge even for small offenses. And those who extract revenge are applauded. I used Hillary Clinton to start a discussion of this topic because she is obviously an emotionally unwell person. I remember how George Bush pere used to have that strange habit of de-linking what he was saying from his gestures. If he were saying come here, he would be waving goodbye. Hillary has something like that in her the odd cadences of her extemporaneous speech. Her laughter (cackle) is never timed right, as if these laughs and smiles were spasms of some sort, not genuine amusement. But that American politicians are pathological should be fairly obvious, and yet it is not. John Kerry? John McCain? Susan Rice? Joe Biden? Obama? Tom Coburn and Mario Rubio?. Step back and look at these figures as human beings. They look unwell. Not physically sick, but emotionally. They look actually insane.

John Kerry

John Kerry

One of the more surprising things encountered in day to day life is how so many Americans retain a default belief in institutional authority. In other words, the tendency is for people to believe what they are told, if the voice is institutional, or already a voice of authority. The sense that, well, its the New York Times, they couldn’t just, you know, *lie*. Where does this come from? This belief in authority. In institutions. One might say, well, most people who have to work learn quickly to distrust their superiors. Yet that logic rarely extends to elected officials, even if, in a seperate conversation those same people will say, oh, well, all politicians lie. There are these wide compartmentalized belief systems, and they dont interface. The narratives of power, in news, in Hollywood, are about structural integrity. If someone does something corrupt, they will be punished. Eventually. Still, often the idea of punishment is not the driving force behind these narratives. It is the pleasure of identification with power. If, if if only *I* could powerful one day! So on the one hand, a populace cynically expresses how corrupt politicians are, and at the same moment defend the greatness of their country, will go vote for Hillary, or Mitt, or whoever, and will argue until blue in the face why Kerry is better than Bush, or Obama better than Mitt. How do these contradictions co-exist? Well, part of it is the distance now created between the images on screens, on computers, plasma tv, movie theatres, and iPhone, etc. That is one world. A world in which a narrative is played out. The real world (sic), the non screen world, is one of shopping and branding and lifestyle choices. On the screens, “important” political figures do important political things. They burn up brown people, saving them. They burn up black and yellow people, to save them. The arrest poor people, to protect society. They *lead* the backward people of Africa, and Asia and South America toward prosperity. And now, of Eastern Europe, and in these global screen narratives crowds will appear. Crowds only appear to fight oppression!! Cheer the crowd. Cheer cheer. I will support their right to fight oppression. What does it mean to say “support”? Means little more than I will watch this crowd more than that crowd, on one of my screens. At home. At home where I have shopped wisely to create an effective brand-of-self.

Gilbert Mercier wrote recently:
“Politicians, especially the heads of state, are marketed and sold to the public like big-ticket items. Most citizens have become consumers of political products. As in advertising, political campaigns are tested on focus groups. Once a political brand is established, consumers develop a relationship to the brand either of trust and fidelity or hostility. In the United States, Bush, Clinton and Kennedy are well-known political brands. In France, the brand Le Pen is trending strongly. The symbiosis of politics and marketing is symptomatic of this age. Once addicted to a brand, the political consumer will keep buying it (voting for it). In Orwellian times, branding is king.”

Rut Blee Luxemburg

Rut Blee Luxemburg


As Seamus Milne points out:
“From Ukraine to Thailand and Egypt to Venezuela, large-scale protests have aimed at, or succeeded in, ousting elected governments in the past year. In some countries, mass protests have been led by working class organisations, targeting austerity and corporate power. In others, predominantly middle class unrest has been the lever to restore ousted elites.
Sometimes, in the absence of political organisation, they can straddle the two. But whoever they represent, they tend to look similar on TV.”

And how they photograph is keyed to their brand.

“From the overthrow of the elected Mossadegh government in Iran in the 1950s, when the CIA and MI6 paid anti-government demonstrators, the US and its allies have led the field: sponsoring “colour revolutions”, funding client NGOs and training student activists, fuelling social media protest and denouncing – or ignoring – violent police crackdowns as it suits them.”

Diego Velasquez, portrait of Felipe IV.

Diego Velasquez, portrait of Felipe IV.

The poor in the U.S., are increasingly deprived of education, and increasingly are targeted for arrest and punishment. The poor distrust authority. The working class tend to be aware of the danger of interaction with the police. However, for many poor, the only opportunities existing are police and military. The pathologizing of the poor, the unrelenting assault both psychic and phyiscal, has left poor youth with their own contradictions. Join the Marines, maybe be killed or maimed, and get free education to train me for jobs that don’t exist. Wow, sign me up.

Perhaps this suggests something of an unconscious (and often conscious) desperation.

Now, these narratives, pegged by class, run concurrent with the basic catastrophe that is capitalism. Take plastic and packaging as an example. One sees vegetables, increasingly in fact, wrapped in shrink-wrap, or pliable plastic wrap. Countless studies for twenty years almost have proven that carcinogens are leeched into the vegetables. But, nobody seems to concern themselves with this. Its not a tiny bit of carcinogen, its rather a substantial amount. The packaging industry is behind only defense and pornography/prostitution as the biggest industry in the world. Blister wrap, blister packs, polystyrene tubs, bubble wrap, styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and all outer pliable plastic coverings make up close to half of the plastics industry production. All of it non-essential, and all of it contributing to cancer. We have increases in childhood cancer, increases a thousand fold in prostate cancer and breast cancer… and the oceans are literally suffocating from floating islands of swirling plastic debris. The narrative goes like this…plastic wrapping of vegetables keeps these foodstuffs clean. Clean from what? The dirt they grow in? In fact, obviously, plastic packaging doesnt keep anything safe and clean and hygenic. But its the third largest business in the world, so you think these people will let the narrative get of hand. Hardly. The narrative is related, additionally, to racism. For from what are we keeping our vegetables safe? From what FILTH and DISEASE? From the handlers. For we all know the poor are filthy. Most poor are dark skinned (and even if that, in many places is not literally true, its always metaphorically true) and the white housewife or househubby feels better, just below that conscious threshold, if their food is protected from black and brown and mixed yellow splotched race scum.

Marc Dennis

Marc Dennis

This is, in one sense, what Brad Evans describes as “insecurity by design”. The American brand, “individualism” is now yoked to survival. As Henry Giroux says; :“The catastrophes and social problems produced by the financial elite and mega corporations now become the fodder of an individualized politics, a space of risk in which one can exhibit fortitude and a show of hyper masculine toughness.”

This is the privitizing of suffering. Everything in the master narrative is now, at least in part, driven by a destruction of collective purpose. Nothing ever really changes in this new master narrative. It is adjusted and fine tuned to produce a dead *now*, a constant zone of alienated activity that is absorbed and neutralized. Protest and dissent are either criminalized and punished, or rendered invisible. The narrative reproduces itself regardless, and the distraction of ersatz crisis serves to obscure real crisis, and all of it is homogenized in screen time to deliver a strange difuse and passive state in the population. Contradictions are called conspiracy. Adjustment to contradiction is valorized as maturity. Social media and electronic engagement is under suveillance, and a constant hum of paranoia and dread accompanies each waking moment.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones


The dead *now*, the post modern zone of simulcra in which language is reduced to either specialized jargon, or instrumental vocabularies of tecno expertise, or just sentimental expressions of false emotion, has resulted in larger and larger numbers of people the inability to recognize their own emotions in minute to minute daily life. A young woman once said to me, a couple years ago, “I don’t know when I’m sick, if I am really sick or not”. She said, I have to go see my shrink more often. Not trusting your feelings, even feelings of pain or illness, suggests a terminal collective. The energy devoted to burying anxiety today has left people exhausted. Both physically and psychologically.

The expression of collective and collaborative feeling is udermined by the near hegemonic colonizing of language by kitsch psychology, in which the favoring of *I* and *self* results in conflicted dialogue, and raises almost imaginary tensions to levels of importance, and this loss of a grammar of community is reflected as well in the heightened defensivness I find throughout western society. Defensiveness that breeds sarcasm, and more, a fear of sincerity and a fear of real love if its not either sentimental or genital/sexual. Desire is cheapened culturally. Desire becomes more brand loyality, a group think of shared opinions. The organizing of thought in collective terms is constantly undermined by all these factors. Cooperation is mediated by a colonized vocabulary of self, of individualism, and the creation of a new language of community dissent and collective culture is vitally important.

Hillary Clinton, 1967 appx.

Hillary Clinton, 1967 appx.


In another sense, this goes back to what I posted recently about Harold Ramis, and the effects culturally of the Reagan revolution. The birth of snark. “There you go again”, may end up the political birth of attitude. Reagan registered as the acceptable stand-in for Manifest Destiny. The growth of prison population, the changes to sentencing laws, the re-labeling of foreign policy (as an adjustment to Viet Nam’s marketing failures) and the re-introduction of race animosity. Reagan’s welfare mothers trope haunts daily life even now.
Anatomical drawing, 1750, Persia

Anatomical drawing, 1750, Persia

In foreign policy, the demonizing of religions (Islam mostly, but not exlusively) and of races and cultures (Arab mostly, but not exclusively) is linked to the ratification of authority domestically. Today, city and county police departments operate with close to total impunity. They exist outside the law. They kill and beat and sexually assault innocent and guilty alike. And guilt is a fluid concept these days anyway. In the U.S. today, the poor classes grow up in what Giroux calls “zones of social abandonment”. Schools are simply holding tanks for the young. And what precious little education that actually does take place is geared to test scores and the training of future workers. Critical thinking is almost totally absent. High school and even junior high students must pass through metal detectors, accept CCTV surveillance, security guards, and pat downs. For “security” is the all inclusive buzz word for 21st century America. Life is defined as ‘high risk’.The white ownership class, who rarely has to suffer these insults to person, disbelieve the reality of the poor — it is experienced as an anomaly somehow, or, they might admit, sure, in inner city ghettos full of drug crazed AKC armed drug dealing gangs….well yeah, sure. Because all these factors are linked. The white ownership class, the affluent educated 20%, which is more like 15% now, have been taught to fear the inner city. Fear black teenagers in hoodies. Fear black and brown people, and especially black and brown men. And more, young men. The white class identifies, even self defined liberals, far more with white Republican values of golf courses, first class air fare, expensive cars and more expensive educational privilege, than they do with the working class. The working class today is the working poor. If you work for an hourly salary, or even a monthly salary, if your labor is pegged to time increments, you are the working poor. If you dont live off inheritance or investments, you are the working poor. And finally, you are disposible. So this is an important culture feature; the white liberal who will vote for Hillary as President, will tell themselves its a sign of progress that a woman is President, but really, they are voting for the exact things Reagan stood for, and Goldwater, and back through to those WASP white elite that created the CIA, and has run defense ever since WW1. They are voting for the continuation of their own privilege.
Predator drone,  Indian Springs NV 2010, Trevor Paglen photography

Predator drone, Indian Springs NV 2010, Trevor Paglen photography


The white liberals today are defending Obama and Hillary because they don’t recognize their own dead zone and because they really dont care about the poor anymore than the ruling 1% do. They don’t care about the targeted abuse of the poor, espcially black and brown, and they are able to provide expensive education for their own children, so they don’t care about the absence of education for marginal classes. And that same expensive education is the one that trains people for shopping, for compliance to authority, and to think just like they think. The reproduction of a dead *now* is by design. Liberals are not in conflict with Reagan values, they only tell themselves they are. This is intellectual three card monte.

Education cannot be simply the providing of historical facts because even when that happens, it is ignored or insantly forgotten. Oliver Stone’s admirable history series on TV is just compartmentalized, stuck off on a shelf out of cognitive awareness, another piece of information amid a tidal swell of data, none of which is given unique importance.

Corporate domination is felt at every level of daily life. Family owned businesses and the personal contact with owners of these businesses has been replaced by corporate anonymity and less and less responsivness to individual greivances. The corporate ownership of media and domination of cultural expression has suffocated creativity. Spiritual pursuits are routinely ridiculed, and even daydreaming is now being pathologized as a symptom in need of pharmaceutical treatment. The difficult questions of existence, of mortality and meaning are treated with sarcasm and snark. The most significant accomplishment of today’s system of domination has been to eradicate imagination. Imagination and curiosity and creativity. People do not trust their vision for change. They cannot really find the cultural expression for transcendence, for transformation. Today, imagination is just a variant of ADHD. To dream is to be sick.

Admore, AL. State Death House. Stephen Tourlentes photography

Admore, AL. State Death House. Stephen Tourlentes photography

Revisiting The New York School

Clyfford Still at SFMOMA

Clyfford Still at SFMOMA

“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
Le Corbusier

“The fact that a work of art has a politically radical content therefore does not assure its revolutionary value. Nor does a non-political content necessarily imply its irrelevance to revolutionary action. It is in the larger context of the social movement and its positive historical results that the practical significance of partisan art has to be judged.”
Meyer Shapiro

“If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.”
Harry S. Truman

I like this photo of Still’s painting at the SF Modern. One feels the presence of that painting. Still was a bit of an outsider to the Abstract Expressionist movement; if one thinks of the big three (or four perhaps) as Pollock, Rothko, and DeKooning, with maybe Franz Kline as the fourth. He was part of the next group, Newman, Motherwell, Gorky and Gottleib. But unlike Gottleib, he was only a visitor to the New York scene. I happen to love Newman, and Still bears some resemblance to Newman, and both inspired in viewers a kind of awe; like the feeling you get looking into the Grand Canyon, as someone wrote. Born in Grandin, North Dakota in 1904, he studied at Washington State and taught on the West Coast mostly, though for a time at VCU, too. Still also painted differently than most of The New York School painters. He applied a thick impasto, and worked with a palette knife, not brush usually, and he created the very largest canvases of any Ab Ex painter. Now I think Still suffers some because he painted a lot of less than great work. In fact more mediocre work than anyone else. And he created a LOT of work. But in his best work there is something undeniably grand, majestic, willfull. Self conscious yes, and with a sort of manufactured heroism and an arrogance, but amid that, Still was a brilliant colorist. I dont think he gets enough credit for that. His blues, reds, yellow, and pinks are wonderous. And they are singularly his. If one sees a Still ‘blue’, you know its a Still blue. He is finally redeemed by his colors.

Clyfford Still "1944".

Clyfford Still “1944″.


The painting “1944″ is singled out frequently as representative of the work he did during his best period. Still was also influential. Pollock said he was the best of any of the Ab Ex painters (save for himself of course) and Newman clearly borrowed from him.
Clyfford Still, "1948".

Clyfford Still, “1948″.


One sees certain things about many of the Ab Ex painters looking at them now. The first is, as I’ve said before, sincerity. Belief in, it seems, either a spiritual/existential practice, or an unconsicous pursuit of Universal primal truth, or of origins perhaps. The spiritual resolution was best personified by Rothko, and the unconscious Id was Pollock. Newman was a spiritualist, and Still was, too, finally. Kline another Id painter, and DeKooning. Gottleib was a spriritualist. The paradox perhaps is that decades later the sense of collectivity that was the implication of all these painters, had been subsumed by the Clement Greenberg’s invention of Ab Ex as “american individualism” (and thanks in part to the CIA, whose influence while minor, was still not insignificant).

I think its important, actually, to re-think the Abstract Expressionists today. In 1940, Pollock was just getting out of New York State Hospital in Westchester, where he had been treated for severe alcoholism and incapacitating depression. The work he did upon release marked the start of his abstract painting. Pollock suffered depression for the remainder of his life and was only intermittently sober. Donald Kuspit wrote:
“Paradoxically, it is their aura of destructiveness and catastrophe — unrelenting violence — that makes the paintings innovative and gives them staying power. Ironically, Pollock’s art, which gave him a temporary sense of identity — Arloie noted that after a binge, and after enduring another bout of depression, he was able to paint and draw with remarkable concentration and intensity, at least until the cycle of binge and depression recurred — demonstrates his otherwise complete lack of identity, or at least his deep insecurity and annihilative anxiety. It was as though Pollock had been dismembered — or had never come together — in the remote prehistory of his childhood, and that, however much he attempted to put himself together (create himself, as it were), by the creative act of making art, he could only futilely re-enact and ritualistically repeat, in artistic terms, his dismemberment.”

Adolph Gottleib

Adolph Gottleib

Kuspit again;
“Abstract Expressionism has been socially assimilated and institutionalized since its heyday, but that does not mean that its transcendental ambition has been understood and appreciated. It is doubtful that American society can tolerate the sense of “silence and solitude” — Rothko’s words — that informs and sustains the best Abstract Expressionist art. Its aura of “human incommunicability,” as Rothko called it, had to be intolerable to a busily communicating society. Abstract Expressionism has been dipped in a sea of ordinary language, as though that could purge it of its ineffability, and make us forget its mystery. But until the incommunicability of what it struggles to communicate is recognized, Abstract Expressionism’s extraordinary character cannot be truly grasped. “
Its worth noting again, that the U.S. Information Service (CIA and State Dept) appropriated the Ab Ex painters and repurposed them as symbols of American individualism and of heroism. Kitsch biographries were invented, and the previously derided New York abstract painters were suddenly on the cover of TIME magazine. None of that changes the essential mystery and almost sacred ritualized project of this relatively small group. This is work that cannot be comprehended; it is difficult and untranslatable. And Gorky and Gottleib both made paintings that looked like hieroglyphs, but in an unknown anti language. The attempted domestication of this art was both successful and unsuccessful. Rothko frequently complained of the art market, Still hated it, and Pollock simply couldn’t deal with any of it. This was magical art, mysticism, and romanticism. But it wasn’t manipulative, and it wasn’t intended for easy consumption. There is no irony.

The cultic quality of *genius* at work was certainly not resisted by any of these artists. There is something theatrical in this work, too, and in the individuals as well. Perhaps nothing quite this monumental and of such hubris has been attempted since. This was myth making, on aesthetic terms, but also in personal terms. Most importantly, this was collectively a radical vision, in all senses of that word.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

The world of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons is meant to be sold, it is media friendly, it is ironic and aware of its own culture. Pollock’s deep mental instability, Rothko’s suicide, Gorky’s psychic wounds, from a childhood exile in which his Armenian parents and their community were exterminated by the Turks, and Still’s ongoing hostility (paranoia) to the world around him suggest the tensions that existed, that this was Shamanistic work, it was tension in the service of liberation, it was work that rejected all institutional conventions, and I return again to sincere, it was sincere serious work. It was a search for revelation, as Rothko said. This work owed little, finally, to European art (that was the gloss put on it by Rosenberg). This was something else, and the specific else that it was is worth reflecting upon. There is a lot of hostility to this work today, especially on the left, partly due to the political uses (however minor) to which the U.S. government put it, but also because it came to be seen as too masculine, too much like Manifest Destiny, too NOT revolutionary. Yet, it WAS revolutionary, probably far more than almost any other pictorial art movement of the last two hundred years, or perhaps more.

There is a sexual energy in all of these painters. An erotic dream of fertility and Dionysian granduer. It is counter-Puritan. But there is also a profound and bottomless despair. For the search cannot be fulfilled. That Dionysian urge is obliterated. World wars, and soulless wage slavery. There is something anti social in this work, too. And yet, it is closer to anti materialist, anti capitalist, anti conformist. The personal trauma is made into a reflection of social trauma. Post WW2, post holocaust, post Hiroshima finally, eventually. All of these men were born in the first decade or two of the 20th century. They were the witnesses to mass industrial slaughter, of organized efficient killing. Warhol’s electric chair turns execution into a shiny commodity. The work of Pollock, Gorky, Motherwell, Kline, and the rest was an ‘expression’ of what that electric chair actually means. The social place for capital punishment, for Imperialism, for war can be read in the titles of their work: “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”, “Agony”, “Conflict”, “Stations of the Cross”, “Cataclysm”, “Memoria in Aeterna”, etc. The narrative of Rivera was radical, but the form of the narrative far less so. Here, as Adorno said, it was in the form not the opinions of the work, that radical potential was to be found. These were artists obliterating the idea of form itself.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko


Pollock’s work is melancholy. It is also angry. All of these painters, even Rothko, the most sublime, expressed anger at an increasingly irrational world. There is nothing ornamental in these paintings. Motherwell said, clearly, it was mysticism. Kline said nothing was meant to be interpreted. Many painted emblems, pictograms, and often repeated ad infinitum the same ur-forms. Like Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, each painting was a biography. But it was not JUST a biography, it was a refusal of biography. Pollock suffered an abusive controlling mother and an absent alcoholic father. His own de-socialization caused he bouts of depression. Many were European Jews, alienated, marginal, others came from prarie or western lands, empty, big sky country, working class and they saw themselves as workers. In today’s fashionable left leaning critics, this is seen as self conscious. Such observations betray more these critics own white bourgeois pretensions when faced with the actual working class. The work was not meant for polite society and it became an enduring irony that Ab Ex painters became so famous, and shown in the most exclusive circles, and today a Clyfford Still would cost you about 7 million dollars. Rothko and Pollock even more. But the actual vision was not elite, it was not a pose, it was the last genuine avant garde moment in western art.

Franz Kline

Franz Kline

There remains hostility not just from the left, but the new populists of post modernism (or faux post modernism?). One article I read interviewed the security guards at a New York museum housing several Barnett Newman works. The guard didnt like them. This is the same call for “ordinary” folk’s opinions, being the more *real* (read Eileen Jones on Gravity), to be given more weight. and this sort of philistinism is rife today. I think it’s true in general that the Ab Ex painters may have been a masculine expression of something. But I’d say its the good masculine, the masculine of honor and integrity and sensitivity, and of a certain male maturity. Bly actually was right about the creeping softness in masculinity today, under cover of sensitivity (and the over compensation of hyper violent expressions of masculinity). So I suspect that this work contains something masculine. That’s how it feels to me anyway. But I see no misogny. DeKooning is accused of that, and there may be some grounds for it. But over all, the crucial questions have to do with what I see as a kind of rejection of this work by many because so much hangs on the wall of Bank headquarters or is auctioned for millions by Christies. Again, this is the irony of this narrative. But these questions extend into other areas. I wrote last posting about the grotesque coverage of the Ukraine situation, and of the US government’s efforts to destablize Venezuela (see Bhaskar Sunkara’s latest at Jacobin for quisling reportage). There is a failure, a breakdown somehow, in actually looking at the world around us today. There is such cruelty directed at the most vulnerable, at animals (unbearable actually) and such wholesale myopia about issues of white privilege that I see again, what Reich termed the ‘emotional plague’. The crisis of Euro/North American culture is reaching critical mass. Never before has there been such open racism expressed, such contempt for the poor and suffering. From Israeli attacks on African immigrants, to the 2 million deporations carried out under Obama (termed *removals*). The spikes in homelessness and food insecurity. The brutality of domestic police departments, which now extends to a pandemic of pet shootings. I guess if no black teenagers are around, just shoot the local dog. These issues have aesthetic parallels in the embrace of kitsch, in sentimentality (Bush Jr.’s paintings) and formula. Technology is developed with a goal of furthering numbness. Ambition has replaced curiosity. The dreams of white America seem directed at little more than accumulation and developing their own brand. Talk to 17 year olds and you hear about marketing, about brand.
Kline, at MOMA

Kline, at MOMA

From an excellent article on critic David Craven:
“Craven insists that among the Abstract Expressionists’ various political beliefs, one of the most forceful was their particular support of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the most notable evidence of this was the endorsement of the ‘Freedom Rides’ sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) by Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt and other notable members of the New York School who donated paintings for a sale to raise money for the cause. Another art sale to support Civil Rights was sponsored by the artists’ committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Jacob Lawrence, chair and Ad Reinhardt, vice-chair) benefited from similar contributions.” This article by Brian Winkenweder is very pertinent here. Allow me a couple more quotes.

“Craven emphasizes the abstract artist as a representative of the working classes (even if his/her labour is not disalienated). Craven adopts this position not only from his reading of Mariátegui, but also from his study of Meyer Schapiro, whose Marxist approach enabled this renowned art historian to perceive his New York School contemporaries as engaging in a form of disalienated labour resulting in an ‘immanent critique from within of the overall logic and attendant ideological values of the corporate capitalist mode of production”

“Craven reveals how some artists in Latin America discovered an ‘insurrectionary’ meaning in Abstract Expressionism. This recognition of artistic dissidence ran counter to the government propagandists who sent Abstract Expressionist works abroad through the CIA-financed auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as signifiers of ‘total freedom’ in the United States in contrast to the repressive policies of the Soviet Union.[90] Craven cites Latin American scholars (largely unread in the US), notably Juan Acha in Peru and Marta Traba in Colombia, who admired the New York School’s oppositional stance to ‘the salient ideological attributes in the West of the corporate capitalist mode of production (specifically its pervasive instrumentalist thinking as manifested in scientism, technophilia, and positivism)”

Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky


Abstract Expressionism looked for the role of emptiness. Of what has gone missing in the technocratic corporate neo liberal societies of the West. It strikes me as particularly relevant today. But more than anything, I believe the ernest even naive sincerity of these painters, their belief in their own artistic discipline, to be what bothers many critics, critics who increasingly provide tacit support for U.S. global policy. On the right the fear of abstraction in general is born of a need to validate their own ignorance. Realism is important because it provides ratification of the status quo. That George Bush, who knew he could paint so darn good. For the educated classes it is the sincerity, and the revolt against authority, against mass man, and the soul deadening instrumental world view of academia and bureauractic hegemony that paradoxically foments this affluent class resistance to Ab Ex. These works lack the requisite cleverness. For the hard left, somehow, without a clear message, the earth underfoot becomes too unstable. The collective must be provided moral instruction, and political instruction, for there is no time for introspection.
Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman


It is interesting today to examine trends, popularity, and who is selling, who isnt, whose reputation is rising, etc. Neo Expressionism went into a stark decline for a while, but I suspect is resurfacing, and probably it should to some degree. But these labels are problematic, firstly, and secondly the idea today, taken from critics like Hal Foster and the late Craig Owens, is that in fact sincerity is so five minutes ago. In fact they take a position that modernism is and always was overrated. The problem for me is that Cindy Sherman, or Richard Prince, seem very trivial indeed. And I think I am probably arguing for a restoration of what was good in modernism. The Neo Expressionists for example, so passe’ for a while, are no doubt ready to be reclaimed soon by University art departments. I cant believe the best of that work wont survive, even if the large majority of it was indeed quite bad. But the purposes of this post, the anti expressionist stances of critics like Owens and Foster ends in a sort of post modern cul de sac in which irony replaces pretty much all else. When in doubt, be ironic. The self promoting aspect of Ab Ex painters may be worth criticizing, but it shouldnt be confused. It wasnt ‘self promoting individualism’. That again is allowing Greenberg and Rosenberg to set the terms of the discussion. For there are always two levels at work (almost always, and probably almost always five or six more than that) with artworks…basically the reproduction and emotional expression of our own childhood trauma and mental development and maturation, AND the meditation on, and engagement with history, with our civic selves, and the ruins of the collective social past. Those traces are part of what fascinated both Adorno and Benjamin. The use of mass produced banality, in the production of ironic individually created mass banality is in the end only the reproduction of banality. The raw material of mass culture today is its own topic, it is solipsistic, and self referential without historical perspective. What gives a work like the Still, at the very top of this post, a resonance is that is cleary stands as a
totem, a powerful energy beam of uniqueness, and this because of the deep energy that went into its making. The security guards at the Modern may not like it, may not “get it”, but that only speaks to a culture trained NOT TO SEE what is front of them. Its odd because I always hear the voice of FOX news when I think of ordinary white men (sic) — and the seepage of masculine power, potency, and strength as unions and collectivity and community were erased. Roger Ailes is poster boy for the pushing of resentful self loathing narrow minded mental phlegm as news-tainment. But I digress slightly.

I fear the onslaught of electronic corporate media has desenitized the viewer. The loss of education in the arts has erased a heritage of learning, which had become emdedded on a personal level in communities, but those communities are gone. And all that is left is an ever more atomized and isolated and reified collective. One used to and anticipating more banality.

Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky


“Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes, so that there wouldn’t be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for example, or do anything that would involve these people in the organisation. And it couldn’t have been any closer, because most of them were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.” Donald Jameson, CIA case officer.

Hugh Wilford and several other critics still see Ab Ex painters as useful to the CIA because, BECAUSE, they were mostly Marxist leaning and displayed non conformist attitudes. (Never mind the artworks, who needs that….) And that somehow the CIA was smart enough to calculate that the leftish bourgeoise of Europe would prefer Rothko to “Roses for Stalin”. This is precisely the problem, in a nutshell. I’ve had different people over the years say to me, “oh its common knowledge the CIA created Abstract Expressionism”, or “The CIA did it to deflect attention away from Diego Rivera the REAL political artists”, and on and on. These same people, and I can think of five or six over the years, also all said their professor had told them this. So here you have another example of bad education. Unsophisticaed junior college instructors, from inferior schools, and even often from up market institutions, relaying a simplistic distorted history, in the name of a sort of insider cool liberalism. And what happens is that great work, transformative and *radical* work is neutralized. This is how the Spectacle handles radical work, today. It markets it as its opposite. Or it just ignores it. For you see its not hard to find the “message” in, say, Diego Rivera, or in Norman Rockwell for that matter, and its far more enjoyable to write about Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst, because the material is familier. Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson, and seriousness begins to be equated with the U.S. state department. Art cannot be written about anymore as the experience of art, the engagement with it. It is always a strategy. Analyse the message and repackage the message as criticism. Wilford and a host of others view matters from a deeply instrumental pov, and they sort of engage with matters of aesthetics from a Marketer’s logic. Nobody looks at the work. This is what Meyer Shapiro discussed, what Adorno worked so hard to explain. And why dissecting instrumental reason was and is so crucial. If you think like a cop or junior high school principle, or an advertising executive, then yeah, you are going to examine currents at work that effect sales, not aesthetics. And such scenarios always give too much credit to agencies run by people like Allen Dulles. These are not fucking geniuses. Dullus was a wealthy provincial with markedly narrow tastes and interests. Much as today, its important to remember Suzanne Nossel, or Samantha Power, or James Clapper, or Richard Holbrooke, or Marc Grossman, or Susan Rice et al are not any of them very smart. You hear that about Obama,too, oh gee, ran the Harvard Law Review. Again, that requires a certain sort of political acumen, and ability to turn off individual feelings. It is a certain kind of narrow smart. Adaptive. It is the company man. Period. Company men are most often prone to sadism, and we can see that now clearly enough. THAT’s the actual propaganda. Samantha Power is a boot licking rodential little woman who shapes herself to fit the needs and desires of her masters. The real political import, and certainly the spiritual, has to do with the awe, the emotions, the awakening of something resistant to domination, that is the product of engagement. It is the exercise of a refusal to authority, to conformity, and to repression and control. Art doesnt create revolution. But it affects the individuals who make revolutions.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

A War On the Imagination

Masahisa Fukase

Masahisa Fukase

“The exemplary person (junzi) seeks harmony (he) rather than agreement (tong); the small person does the opposite.”
Confucius

“All the consumable time of modern society comes to be treated as a raw material for varied new products which impose themselves on the market as uses of socially organized time.”
Guy Debord

Henry Giroux said there is a war on communal relations, on solidarity, and the imagination. I sense this every day when I read mainstream media. Not just the bought hacks who write the disinformation about world affairs, or whitewash U.S. foreign affairs, but even the cultural matters, the human interest (sic) stories and then to read comment threads is an experience akin to choking on your own vomit. This war on communal solidarity has affected an entire population. From top to bottom. I read comment threads in black papers, corporate but aimed at black audiences, where Bill Cosby will be heartily defended. Where Russell Simmons is defended. I read the corporate hipster organs like Vice and Gawker, and find stunningly openly fascistic rhetoric and the most almost royalist values on display. Or liberal papers like Guardian, where vixens of Empire hawk their gonzo racialist apologia for the new Imperialism, the sexy Imperialism (Laurie Penny, “Obama is so sexy”), and Penny, like Molly Crabapple, and like the court eunuch, Richard Seymour, there is a blathering stomach turning F E A R that runs through all of it. FEAR. Cowardice. Fear of jobs, fear of brand erosion, fear of style lag, and fear of, bascially, the totalitarian surveillance state which slices like a cheap razor across the cultural stubble of the electronic cyber world. They basically will take a collaborator position couched in the syntax of cool. All the road kill on the information highway is now piling up. And we are reaching endgame. One senses the U.S. state department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs are all increasingly blinkered to the reality around them. Like saggy assed old men in speedos, unaware their potency was lost long ago. There is method in their madness, of course, but there is also just madness.

Culturally, the new corporate media of places like Vice, or Dead Spin, and Grantland, or even the Nick Denton Gawker blog empire, are driven by a particular hysteria, a particular panic that is born of a reality, a daily existence, so enclosed and so mediated by power and authority and rules and laws and the psychic prison cell of solipistic pop ephemera that each thought is painful. Each fetid and wheezed breath is forced out to further revenue and readership and click-baity news items.

Mugi Wayang (shadow puppet) Co. Jakarta

Mugi Wayang (shadow puppet) Co. Jakarta


That even such a word exists is profoundly depressing, actually. None of these corporate entities, media outlets, ever writes anything of a serious nature. Everything is designed for easy consumption, for banality, and with a fair amount of prurient titillation. Obama signs away human life, awards blood money to the onwership class ghouls, and yet, pseudo left journalists describe him as “sexy”. Think about taking the time to write that. Think about the logic at work.
http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/03/28/can_vice_make_news_hip

Culture and politics, or at least the presentation of politics, have merged. Politics are entertainment. They are thought of as a movie, for the most part. Violence is expected in movies. What is perhaps more troublesome, however, is the trivializing of the entire culture. The validation of taking pride in one’s immaturity. The consciousness of, I think, a majority of the U.S. population, and probably a clear majority of those under thirty five, has created intellectual mechanisms to fuse and synthesize categories of experience. Watching Vice TV specials becomes the same as critical theory, and the same again as fictionalized History channel specials, and the same too with kitsch science fiction. I am not sure Battlestar Gallactica is percieved much differently than, say, 60 Minutes.

“Reception in distraction, which is making itself felt with increasing emphasis in all areas of art and is a symptom of deep transformations of perception, has its central place in the cinemas. And here, where the collective seeks its distraction, the tactile dominant that is reorganizing apperception, is hardly absent…nothing reveals more clearly the tremendous tensions of our time than that this tactile dominant is asserting itself in the optical realm.”
Walter Benjamin

Jacob Epstein 1913

Jacob Epstein
1913


Benjamin of course saw urban life itself as historically linked to war and danger. That urban concentrations of people were reproducing a kind of political danger. He went so far as to say that film corresponded to this real danger of urban life, a life he was experiencing as authoritarian. For indeed, it was. The most intriguing aspect of Benjamin on film was an off handed remark that singled out the nature of film acting. Acting by habit, is how he described it. He never elaborated on this, for his concern was, at the time, with the optical unconscious. But there was an implication, I believe, with how this habit, the indifferent activity of performing for a salary, was qualitatively different than acting as practice. In the context in which he wrote that sentence, Benjamin was actually emphasizing the progressive aspect of this. I suspect Benjamin wasnt clear in his own mind about the nature of rehearsal, or of the intricacies of performance in general, but there is an artifical and probably wrong division made between reflection and contemplation, and action. And some confusion regards how optical perception and the role of the “expert” interact. This is all part of a long essay by Benjamin that focused on physiognamy; mind and body, really. The implications of this remark wasnt really his concern. My point has to do with this intuited sense of acting out of indifference, even hostility or something like self disgust. The sense of focused attention, the craft or practice of ritual performance somehow, is lost … and it is lost amid this increasingly unstable urban world (speaking the late 1930s) or today, in the land of hyper-branded screen reality. That the sheer volume of these ambivalent and mediated performances has an effect. I spoke with a teacher here in Norway (well, my wife did, actually) who mentioned the increasing problem children had learning simple acts of balance and recognizing physical weight, material characteristics out in the world due to excessive time in front of a screen. In other words, a surfeit of actual play in the outside world. Now this sense of lurking danger, and of neurotic repetition, instead of the repetition of mimetic process, is I think, connected to this new seamless rise of fascist values. The body of the indifferent narcissist actor becomes iconic.

Now this line of thinking is periously close to occult, and Benjamin was guilty to a degree of this, too (as Adorno reminded him). Still, there is something hugely important in examining the trivialized and infantile culture of 21st century American entertainment, and the growth of brutal and vicious domestic police force, the turning of the urban landscape into a laboratory of violence.

Sam Francis

Sam Francis


Frederic Schwartz, in his really outstanding study of 20th century German aesthetics, Blind Spots, spends a good deal of time discussing Adorno and Benjamin, and takes pains to disintangle the distinctions between Ausdruck, and expression. In English translations there is no distinction made, and this has led Jameson and others to criticize Adorno’s opaque definition of mimesis. For the purposes of this posting, the distinction goes like this: Ausdruck is the non subjective in the subject. It is objective without having to be correct and its meaning usually does not correspond to the subjective psychic state of the individual. ‘Expression’ is the reflection of those subjective states that is NOT objective, and thus not within the realm of art. Ausdruck is transubjective. It is in theory the bridge between subject and object, and the form of knowledge peculiar to art. It is seperate from psychology and Adorno implied it may once have been conscious in the world but survives in a new form in art. In a sense, for me anyway, this comes as close as one can come to explainging the ineffable fleeting trace of the past, or history, in art. The photos of Ravens by Fukase (see below) trigger something in us, some strange recognition of omens and mourning, of grief, suffering, and it is something that cannot be conceptualized. And the failure to examine this is the result of instrumental thought having eclipsed all culture, and having led humanity to this new nearly global fascist state.

Ausdruck is a subjective state, as Schwartz says, that is turned into an objective form without being reified. Expression remains simply subjective. Kitsch is reified expression in other words. Expression is regressive, and leads back to myth (the Adorno idea of backward myth) while Ausdruck is a form of knowledge. This is pretty much what Jan Kott and others have described as theatre. A form of thinking, of knowledge. This is the progressive aspect of ritual.

Kent Bellows

Kent Bellows


“This leads to a subjective paradox of art; to produce that which is blind.”
Adorno

This is really the core of Adorno’s ideas on form. The blindness of the sense of form is a necessity in the object, it is in opposition to rationality and order, and most significantly, this aporia of mimesis breaks down the distinction between self and other, and divests the relationship between them of domination. The instinct to dominate the other is subsumed. This is the liberation embedded in art.

As Adorno said: “Artworks are self likeness freed from the compulsion of identity.”

The cultic status of identity in today’s culture, of subjectivity as a brand to be constructed through shopping at lifestyle bazaars, leads inescapably toward an aesthetics of authority, of vanity and amnesia. Or more, to a false history. This aesthetic is exactly what is at work in pop journalism from Gawker and Vice, to Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny, to the Oscars and corporate TV. It is all based on the same regressive return to colonialism, anti semitism, racism, and authoritarianism. There is an undeniable link, I think, between instrumental thought, kitsch films and narratives that erase memory, and even to Barbie dolls and steroid growth hormone physiques; airbrushed versions of the human body (most acutely in women, but in both genders, really) and the gradual clear loss of grace in movement that one sees in daily life. The conditioning that comes with reading Vice or Buzz Feed, or Huffington Post even, is one that is far more reactionary than I suspect most people, even on the left, would think. And the readers themselves usually describe this stuff as liberal.

Now, Nick Denton (another Oxford grad, gay, and deeply reactionary) advertises himself as very liberal (and sexual identity is no small factor in this), while Jonah Peretti the founder of Huffington Post and Buzz Feed, is also deeply reactionary, a millionaire, and graduate of MIT, and Kenneth Lerer, another media magnate, co founder of Huff Post and managing editor of Buzz Feed, and also a millionaire, and we could on, but if one looks at what passes for liberal media, what you get is actually rather profoundly reactionary organizations. From giant telecom corporations to relatively minor blog empires (still generating six figures easily each year) the vision remains much the same. Arianna Huffington, who began Huffington Post in 2005 as an expansion of her first internet site, Resignation, which was founded to give voice to those wanting Bill Clinton to resign, and was the voice of ultra conservatives before re-purposing and re-branding as the voice of liberals and Democrats, finally sold Huff Post to AOL for 315 billion a couple years ago, is an opportunistic vampiric presence in media, but one who while on occasion can hold a progressive opinion, in the end is a Capitalist, and one that travels amid the rich white folk of her class. The point is, media is controlled by rich white people with expensive educations from expensive elite Universities, who are not likely to tolerate social change that might take some of that money away from them, some of that privilege. They are racist, but paternalistically so. They dont really like Arabs unless those Arabs attended University, too (or carry their bags). They don’t really like the poor, because, well, they’re so poor. Deep down, or even not so deep, these are all people who are scared by anyone unfamiliar to them at the country club, or golf course, or hip trendoid restaurant or gallery or auction house. When they travel they travel first class, they stay at five star hotels, and they effectively cut themselves off from the people of wherever they go.

August Sander, photographer

August Sander, photographer

I am reminded of the treatises of Zeami, the ‘father’ of Noh Drama, in Japan. I recently wrote something about theatre in Los Angeles, for Stage Raw, a small publication that covers theatre in So Cal. I thought again about the teaching of playwrighting. The teaching of aesthetics in general, but specifically about writing. How many young playwrights have read Zeami? I’d be willing to bet almost none. I doubt that many have read very much at all, but its curious that if one chooses to be a writer, one doesn’t have the curiosity to discover this stuff. And how many MFA programs for creative writing would insist on reading Zeami, or for that matter even have a reading list? I wonder. I know a number of very good young writers who do demonstrate a unquenchable curiosity, but I feel they are a decided minority.

Zeami was a Buddhist, and a devout believer in harmony. He thought ritual pacified the demons that plagued the populace. But pacify through awakening, and harmony. Not through numbness. One interesting aspect of Zeami was his extreme sense of secrecy. This is probably worth an entire posting, actually. Zeami saw the arts, and acting, as almost monastic undertakings. He cautions against pandering, against the desire to flatter the audience. The desire for applause!

Zeami uses the word hana, which is translated various ways, but usually as essence or literally as flower, or the scent of a flower, or bloom. Zeami Motokiyo was born in 1363 and died in 1443. The actor in Noh was, in a sense, a priest class, initiates in the secrets of this ritual theatre. Interestingly, the texts of Zeami were only discovered in 1908 (having been kept in private hands for centuries) and the definitive texts only published in 1940. The teachings of the flower, or transmission of the flower were designed as meditative practices connected directly to nature, to the physical world. There is a variety of interpretation involved in translations of Zeami, and one concept needs to be clarified. “Yugen”, which literally means grace, but here is connected to mimetic practice. The vulgar translations tend to think of it as ‘role playing’, but obviously it is not that at all. Its meaning is really ‘darkness’ and ‘mystery’, in connection with mimesis. The beauty and mystic element in performance, for the Noh actor, lies in witholding. I have always thought that the translations of Aristotle, and the interpretations of the Poetics, to be widly reductive. I suspect the western translations of Zeami do much the same thing. Now, beauty itself, in Japanese aesthetics is always mediated by effacement, and by discretion. This is the basis, in fact, of the tea ceremony. The aesthetics of wabi. You see this in Chinese painting of the classical period. The idea of beauty is processural. There is no ‘realism’ per se, there is only ritual. Noh drama is a theatre of dance and song. But those terms have different connotations in Japanese thought than they do in Western thought. Now, there is debate about the influence of the Tokugawa shogun, in the 1600s, who removed Noh from the daily culture of the people. I suspect that this actually did little to the actual essence of the discipline, but it no doubt formalized the canon.

Kalimba, Chinese built and infinished living complex, Angola

Kalimba, Chinese built and unfinished living complex, Angola


Zeami carefully delineates the ways to prepare for certain roles. The most significant is the role of a dead person or ghost (usually a warrior), and these are close to, but distinct from, the roles of insane people. He described the playing of a demon as a “flower blooming from amid the rocks.” The point here (and I will post more, I think, on Noh Theatre soon) is that what is taken as naturalism in the West, in the U.S. in particular, is actually the reproduction of the dominated body. In Noh, the ritual subsumes the question of even narrative, for everything is connected to a primordial tragedy, a grave meditation upon mortality, and, more, on secrecy, or the hidden or secret meaning of life. If one doubts the profoundly simplistic and regressive aspect of arts education today, just google Theatre, theory and curriculum and see what you get. Stunningly stupid material, there is no other description. What is removed are all things of any weight or gravity, anything not ready for quick consumption. There is a simple formula, usually sociologically based, superficial and geared for easy grading. Nothing is quite so depressing as mid level academia today (and honestly, I suspect there are a handful of good departments at various Universities, but over all, the landscape of Academia even at elite schools is pretty sad). The Noh Theatre is ceremonial rhythms, and movement, ritualized, repeated, and always inward looking, in the service of philosophical questions. It is a sort of manifestation of hiddeness. That hiddeness, however, is not psychological. It is metaphysical, or meta psychological, and maybe, in this context, that is what spiritual means.

There is nothing sentimental, or ironic. This austerity eschews any desire to entertain. Zeami wrote about audiences, and was concerned with their pleasure, but it was a very specific pleasure, the contentment of harmonious thought and being. Balance.

Now if one wanted an example of what Hollywood encourages in their workshop culture, here is a sample (and I hope this is only marketing, and not REALLY what they believe, but it might be). A friend sent this to me in disgust, and its rather perfectly encapsulates the sensibility at work.
http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/latinobuzz-5-tips-for-screenwriters-from-a-feature-film-program-fellow#

Rackstraw Downes

Rackstraw Downes


This is creative writing advice for a fourteen year old, and really, a smart fourteen year old would laugh in derision. But its quick fix writing for sub literates. Make it about ME, and find a few recipes or formulas so I can write about ME. But this fits seamlessly with the prose of Mother Jones, or In These Times, or New Statesman, et al. Recently Mother Jones ran a piece about artists performing for dictators. Now, Steven Segal was taken to task for hanging with Putin. Segal is a near psychotic piece of self parody, but hanging with Putin? That’s his crime? And this is how we define dictator at the “leftist” Mother Jones? No mention was made, by the way, of Beyonce or The Rolling Stones performing in Israel, and no mention was made of about a million corporate deals with death merchants and their Madison Avenue henchmen. No, just a few “amusing” pieces about threadbare third world despots (most of whom are clients of the U.S.) and done in a wildly Orientalist prose. And where U.S. foreign aid, military sales, or training to these dictators would actually be interesting, we get only an Ivy League version of TMZ. The coverage of Russia and the Ukraine election was treated by a default subject position, as ‘just what Empires do’. Venezuela is always referred to as a ‘regime’, while the U.S. is never so described. Nor the UK, nor Germany, or anyone else in the EU. No, only this racist prose that equates the southern hemisphere as a land of banana republics and dictators in aviator shades.

The Vice and Gawker empire, and their imitators, are targeting the youth market. Now the ‘youth market’ today includes forty five year olds, but never mind, and the writers tend to sound like frat boys, almost always WHITE frat boys, and they are part of that same frabric of snide you hear echoed in a show like Girls. One article I read about the Harvard Library discovering books bound in human flesh began with this sentence:
‘There is something undeniably creepy about big expansive libraries…’. This is the tone adopted in most of these lifestyle blogs. Attitude as a substitute for style. The truth is the U.S. is closing most of its libraries, and the resource of free libraries for the poor is dying because of those cut-backs. But never mind, lets not let an actual perspective and social reform get in the way of my snark. And anyway, big expansive libraries are wonderful and magical, not creepy. Now this is not insignificant, because aesthetics and politics, all run together and those who read Molly Crabapple at the ‘liberal’ Guardian are the same ones think Chevy Chase movies are just the funniest and think Gravity is a masterpiece of filmmaking, think Harold Ramis is a genius, and think Dave Eggers is a great prose stylist, and…. will by accumulation, if nothing else, become the Good Germans of the new American feudal state.

Henry Fuseli, Prometheus, 1770

Henry Fuseli, Prometheus, 1770


The top photo is by Masahisa Fukase, perhaps among the very most important photographers of the century despite a relatively small body of work. Fukase was born in Japan in 1934, placing him in the center of Japan’s lost generation. He led a troubled brooding melancholy life and despite some commercial success, his fatalistic vision darkened as time went on. When his marriage fell apart, Fukase returned home to Hokaido by train. He noticed ravens collecting at the train stations and gradually became fixated on these dark harbingers from Japanese mythology. His last book, “Ravens” (in English now, The Solitude of Ravens) is as mesmerizing as any single book of photographs I can think of, and not long after publication, the despondent Fukase, drunk, fell down a flight stairs and into a coma that would last for twelve years until his death in 2012. Greg Fallis wrote:

“These photographs of crows and ravens most definitely do not fall into the category of wildlife photography. Fukase’s approach emphasized the eldritch power of the birds. The images aren’t really about the birds as birds, but as visual representations of the photographer’s emotional state. In spirit and form, the photographs resemble traditional Japanese sumi-e, an ink and wash art form famous for its stark style. The birds—and even the non-bird figures—look as though they were sketched with the same sort of intensity of purpose used by the practitioners of that art.

Masahisa Fukase

Masahisa Fukase


Ravens, by the way, occupy an intriguing place in Japanese mythology. They belong to a class of supernatural creatures called tengu. These beings are often portrayed as disruptive spirits, harbingers of evil times. Even those tengu which are sometimes protective of people are also considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous.”
Fukase’s other work varies, but his final book, and some of the late photos (many are of groups of people, often engaged in mysterious activities, who feel as if called forth from the underworld), are works of genius. These photos are full of portents, and their singular tragic totemic quality allows one to consider the very triviality about which I began this post.
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/may/24/masahisa-fukase-ravens-photobook
Masahisa Fukase

Masahisa Fukase

Absence

Oscar Bony

Oscar Bony

“No one shows such a knowledge of God as he who says one can know nothing.”
Thomas Aquinas

“I define “scientism” as the ideology of science, the way that science tells stories about itself, especially stories that are supportive of the social status quo.”
Curtis White

I over heard a discussion not too long ago on the subject of aesthetics. It was of course related to film. And then I read another brief discussion the other day that took place on social media. What came out of both these discussions was what I think is a threshold phenomenon in how artworks, visual arts anyway, are percieved. It is almost as if certain images, certain tropes in narration, provide a sense of freshness, even if they are resoundingly cliched. They are sort of training wheels artworks. Some of this is connected to inexperience in a sense, which is actually a pretty interesting issue.

I remember first year students who came into my class at the film school in Lodz, and often they had favorite films, and there were certain films that cropped up again and again on these lists; Donnie Darko was one, David Lynch often, and if one loved this stuff, then the natural progression was to embrace The Godfather, or Taxi Driver as an elevated version of this. Elevated kitsch. Now, in fact I think Taxi Driver is not really a bad film, but it’s quintessentially middle brow in a sense. It’s an exercise. It’s not a vision, it is facile visually, and inventive, and none of that is in and of itself a deficiency. But by itself, these are films that reinforce the status quo, and that finally, cohere into nothing much at all. They look ‘good’. But they look good in a particular sort of way. They are like cheap perfume, and they never quite exhibit the courage of their convictions. They are all appearance. Nobody is ever disturbed, or offended, or not very much, by such work. Coppola came closer to something enduring with Apocolypse Now, but even there, the fingerprints of the congruent sensibility are all too evident. Whenver cultural product enters into the lexicon of pop culture, one should be suspicious. These films are like fast food, like self identified cuisine cooked in a plastic bag. Just boil and serve. Yes, its better than Burger King, but it’s still crap. Watching Apocolypse Now, today, is uncomfortable because the pre-fabricated quality is more visible. The patina of art has worn off, and one is left with what are really only placeholders for something more significant. Now, the question is, what does significance mean.

I am reminded of Curtis White’s essay The Middle Mind:

“I had to ask myself, were these things out there on every car radio and on every beach-reading lap all just independently hopelessly mediocre, or were they part of what might be called a Mind? The new American Mind. The numbing (if not dumbing) Middle Mind?
I concluded that in fact they did have something in common, a shared cultural DNA of some kind. So I began to think about how this Mind could be described politically. Would this Mind like Bill Clinton? Was it liberal or conservative? In fact, I think the Middle Mind is generally liberal and did like Clinton more than it might have cared to confess in certain dark moments of that regime. In this country, conservatives have no particular need for the Middle Mind since they have been quite content to have demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Mathews, and Bill O’Reilly do their nasty thinking for the for them for many years. More importantly, I asked what the Middle Mind wanted? What was its reason for being? My conclusion was: it didn’t want us to think. If conservatives have no desire to think, while liberals imagine that they do, the Middle Mind is there to provide a culture of thought that ensures that it all amounts to the same thing: no thought from any quarter that is a threat to business as usual.”

My late friend Ork once said, Kurosawa was the kind of director did well at film festivals. It’s true. Bergman was the same. In a sense, this accord with institutional sensibilities, with bourgeois ideas of beauty, is often all too evident in both of these directors. But I think they appeal to a younger audience. Bergman is sort of perfect for University audiences. Kurosawa, really, has never surprised me. Dersu Uzala has merit, and I think Ran, does, too. But Im not sure they (as they said of Verdi) are as good as they look (sound).

Gabriele Basilico

Gabriele Basilico

Now, if one looks at Apocolypse Now today, the issue is about the entrance or entry-way to the narrative. It almost brings us back yet again to discussions of mimesis. And it’s a very difficult discussion to have. For onone level, Apocolypse Now is remarkable, and I don’t want to diminish the achievments of this film. But it remains a film that isnt really interrogating the ideas its presents. It is extremely facile and technically realized, and yet, the whole is far less than the sum of the parts. And this has to do with the ease with which the viewer engages with the story. There are only various levels of familiarity, and if one hires enough very good film actors (and Brando is actually a movie within a movie) then the essential banality of the vision is obscured.

My point, however, has to with a certain class of film (its true in fiction, too, but film sort of eclipses all else these days) that flatters the pseudo erudition, or just pop-culture savy, of its viewers, and part of this is, of course, to mention other pop cultural product. The other way, the more complex and subtle manner of creating iconic material (middle brow) is to reinfoce the hierachies in place, while chiding them with mild criticism. It is, as Chomsky said, and White quoted, you can say whatever you want, except for saying the ruling class hasnt the right to rule. But, let me approach this from another direction. One of the more fascinating books on aesthetics in the 20th century is Kuki Shuzo’s The Structure of Iki, Reflections on Japanese Taste, published originally in Japan in 1930. It is one of those sui generis oddities, a bit like Rene Daumal’s Rasa, that take on increased significance with the passage of time.

 Hisamatsu Shin'ichi

Hisamatsu Shin’ichi

One of the things Shuzo talks about, as he defines ‘iki’, is how memory can be triggered, but in a very specific way, by scents (this is true of sounds and images, too, but in a slightly different way) and that what is evoked by, for example, the scent of the rose, is recollection itself, before any specific recollection. We remember that we can remember. And this is also where youth intersects the discussion. As one gets older, one has more memories. At nineteen or twenty six, the recollection of being sixteen hasnt the same melancholy sweetness that it does at fifty five or sixty five or seventy five. Bergson, who Shuzo quotes, says ‘we scent the recollection’. That’s rather nice, I think. The past is sensory. This is also mimetic. Our memory is always fatal in some way. It has to be. We die eventually. Suddenly the writings of Anselm or Hildegarde of Bingin, or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and this recognition of God as sensory stimulent, take on new meaning. That God should work like a narcotic seems quite reasonable, to my mind anyway. And that God appears at the moment one awakens to mortality somehow. And that awakening often is scented.
Retablo, Alter, Church of Santa Domingo Puebla Mexico

Retablo, Alter, Church of Santa Domingo Puebla Mexico


To take this back to “what is significance”, and to these middle brow aesthetics I find so frequently today, I would argue that it is very directly linked to a cult of bad science, which is not much more than instrumental thinking, and of power. And more, of control. The esoteric and mystical problems and concerns of medieval monks and nuns looms today, it seems to me, as forgotten ways of thinking. I am ever more acutely aware of how strident and almost apoplectic is the fear of remembering in today’s 21st century West.

The strange philosophic concerns of Shuzo, are really a complex exploration of manners. It is a Japanese version, in one sense, of Lord Shaftsbury’s rules of etiquette. Shuzo’s examination of the spiritual aspects of style, however, are deceptively intricate and weighty. And they are linked to the erotic (stripes are to be worn by courtesans, flowers by ordinary middle class women, because parallel lines embody the most exquisite extensional qualities of the sublime). So, significance in a sense is linked to both the quality of sensual memory, and to the courage of telling the ruling class they have no right to rule.

Jade cong, from tombs,  Neolithic Liangzhu, China

Jade cong, from tombs, Neolithic Liangzhu, China


The issue of instrumental thought, however, continues to crop up, for me anyway. Lately, the quality of false individuality is being pimped from both right wing sources, but also increasingly from liberal media and public intellectuals, as well as artists. The science of the brain, for example. Ive mentioned the before a title I saw in a bookshop; ‘The Brain Explained’. I mean how can you write that title and think you are to be taken seriously. But part of what drives this new scientism is the desire to erase the collective aspect of making art. Not collaboration even, but the fact that artists always borrow and always create using images and language and story that is anchored in complex historical contexts, and even in community contexts. One doesnt “explain” the brain. I mean, what do you have when you’ve explained it? Anyway, but back to the politics of scienticism. If only YOU could harness the drugs and electrical charges in your explained brain, you could write a masterpiece. But this is the junk science of FOX news and MSNBC. It is the junk science, identified as such even, that is currency in the new pop comic book cultural landscape today.
William Perehudoff

William Perehudoff


Now this false individuality is clear also in the default setting for shaming, both economic shaming and sexual (slut) shaming. The individual fails one way or another, by standards of the ruling class and must feel shame. Pop psychology is rife with various notions of shame and shaming. The electronic kangaroo court jury is always out there. Failure is not acceptable, its always ALWAYS “your” fault. And this hyper inflation surrounding ideas of individuality accounts in part for the indifference in the public toward those in need, or suffering. It is the Puritan once again, rearing his ugly head.
Roberto Aizenberg

Roberto Aizenberg

Couple this Puritanism with instrumental thought (and they clearly reinforce each other, even if they did not quite come from identical origins) and you have a collective that thinks of itself as individual. So artworks are going to reflect exactly this. A book well worth reading, and it connects to this, is Neil Websdale’s Policing the Poor, and Websdale followed this up with a book on Familicide. The case studies of 211 murderers of intimate family members. The volumes go together. So, there is always a quality of the reactionary mind that will surface in today’s popularity. I have said this before, and people laugh, and dismiss it as an eccentric idea and silly, and UNREASONABLE; but in fact, anything that reaches a certain level of popularity is suspect. Of course it is, because that level, and I will try to define that level, cannot be reached if the work evokes memory, the past, mimesis, the history of suffering and oppression. I would say as soon as allusions are made to a character or scene from film, mention made in other forms and mediums, one has to question that work. The nature of ‘my’ engagement with it. Now the curious From Dusk till Dawn, the mini series produced by Netflix, has so much film nerd inside stuff that it might serve as the perfect example of, well, several different things. Jokes about Budd Boetticher are not, I admit, found in everyday TV pop culture. I even laughed. But I also sensed the fraudulence at work. I dont want to belabor this here, but only to point to this question of what broad appeal means today. The culture industry, and all the sub-phylums of cultural operations, including theatre, and University creative writing programs, are coming out of an anti-community, from that same set of ideas that valorize individuality. Except its not ‘actual’ individuality, really, it’s an ersatz branded individuality. I know farmers here in rural Norway. I like them. But they are largely de-socialized. They make curious conversation partners. They certainly know what isolation means, hard work, and they know something deep and intuitive about the physical world around them. But, they are either indifferent, or just unable to think in terms of the group. They don’t organize very well, at least in my experience. They are the absolute absence of “friendly”, they are stoic, taciturn, and even suspicious.

Daido Moriyama, 'Stray Dog', 1971

Daido Moriyama, ‘Stray Dog’, 1971

Still, they are not ideologically “individualistic”. They think of what’s best for the group, for the community, even if they lack the social skills usually associated with community. The new individualism, the branded individualism of the 21st century West, is one predicated upon this idea of shaming, but also of Capitalism. Websdale’s book on family killers touches upon that other surprisingly widespread phenomenon of men who leave their house and family each day, pretending to go to work. (There is the famous French version of this, made into a very good film by Laurent Cantet, Time Out, 2001).

This is the world that is also linked to the notion of ‘scientism’. The nature of that linkage is not immediately apparent. But I want to digress just a bit here, and make use of Francois Jullien’s terrific book The Great Image Has No Form; On the Nonobject Through Painting. In discussing Chinese classical painting he writes; “Instead of being taken over by things, it paints their effacement…”. This is, in a sense, very relevant to theatre. For it’s another version of my ideas about the ‘off-stage’. I have said before that Aeschylus was one inhalation, Sophocles one inhalation and one exhalation, and Euripides was finally simply breathing. This was the landscape painting of the Song Dynasty. When mist and haze introduced absence as a subject. When mountain peaks barely appear through cloud coverings, when branches seem to be there, and yet are not. This is an aesthetic that does not privilege display. Things, objects, are no less concrete or material for their absence. They are simply not presented for consumption. This would seem to very closely allign with the eliptical in narrative, and with the ‘off-stage’ in theatre. It is there, but not for you.

Thermal Baths, Switzerland, Peter Zumthor architect, 1996

Thermal Baths, Switzerland, Peter Zumthor architect, 1996


Western art has been partly, always, an antidote to the scientific rationality that assumed ‘presentation as display’, that assumed things and phenomenon were there to be observed. This led to great achievments, no question, and one has to look no further than modern medicine. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, the advance of capital has forced this logic into the pathological. And because capital needs a profit, the selling of science, ideologically, has taken a particularly toxic turn. Science is really the new magical thinking in the West today. In fact, the birth of tragedy was about an event that revealed that which could be experienced no other way. This was the point of having a stage (and an off-stage). The Dionysian was the introduction of absence (partly, it was more things as well). So today’s artworks tend to reflect an ideological belief in display, both in story, and in form. Things must be there, explained, and ready for consumption. The adding of decoration, of various ‘strange’ effects is really the introduction of quite conventional material, all of which reinforces the prevailing system of beliefs. The problem, or danger, here is that western 21st century artists, for theatre and film and painting in particular, is to fall into a subjectivism that dis-connects from the material world, and from history and memory. This is the realm of new age mysticism. There is an obfuscation of the subjective as much as there is of the objective. The new subjective is built of material from shopping, from the collecting of lifestyle purchases, of hyper-branding. And in reality, the scientism we speak of is actually comfortable with this new subjectivism, because it is actually the same world view. The same amnesia.
Adminstrative lab, NASA

Adminstrative lab, NASA


I want to discuss all this in terms of theatre. And if I talk theatre, I have to talk architecture, too. In classical Chinese painting, as Jullian describes it, one of the principle ideas was of to ‘come out and go back in’. This is a bit related to what I wrote about before with the new Zumthor design for LACMA. The ramps that suggest entering a forest. This is breathing, again, as a design principle, and it is perfectly suited to discuss as an element in theatre. Dissapearance preceeds appearance. The end comes before the beginning.

“Men in the distance are without eyes”
Wang Wei

But to return to those discussions I overheard, and this idea of what becomes iconic and established in popular culture, the pertinent thing is perhaps this quality of presentation that favors ‘display’. For this kind of display is linked to consumption, and to a manufactured “now”. And to, by another path, the hidden shame that permeates western society (at least the U.S. anyway).

“People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This feature has constructive and creative sides, but it has at least two other implications: alienation and the hiding of shame.”
Thomas Scheff

This is quite interesting if one looks at it aesthetically, or in terms of aesthetics. For Chinese painting there was an almost moral purpose, or spiritual purpose, to artworks, and had to do with latency. As Jullian puts it; “The term latent (you)expresses the withdrawl into absence, the sinking down into the stage of confusion and hiddeness, whereas the term subtle (wei) expresses invisiblity-intangibility at the stage before the actualization of forms and their differentiation.” In other words, the hidden confusion is what brings us together, not seperates us. And in art, the off-stage, the dark corner, the silence, the pause where only breathing is heard, is community, not alienation. Alienation of social relations today is plastered advertisements and labels and brand names, and it is all there to prevent the questioning of authority, of the status quo. And lurking about the edges of this topic is another and that is sincerity and cynicism. Mass popular culture today is so permeated with cyncicism that it goes unnoticed, actually. The invention of ‘popularity’ is pretty recent, as an idea, as a sales principle, and it has deep ideological resonance today. For there is something amnesic in these films, Coppola and Scorsese, and in almost anything that is able to carve out a place of acceptable importance. These films do not question who rules. They do not destablize the master narrative. This is not to say their haven’t their virtues, for they do (sometimes), but the invention of popularity means erasing that which is NOT popular.

Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), St John the Evangelist.

Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), St John the Evangelist.


And that erasure is increasingly built into the meaning of the artwork, to its constructive fabric. I WANT to be popular. When one reads Websdale’s book Policing the Poor, it is hard not to be struck by the psychic costs paid by the American underclass today. And it is hard not to sense, acutely, the rise of an arrogance in white upper classes today, an arrogance and a sadism. So, to try to bring this back around, and I intend to post a good deal more about connected to Jullian’s book, and to this idea of the missing in aesthetic discussion. For there is a new cunning, and sort of intentional cruelty to much that I see or read today, that which comes from the U.S. anyway, mainstream media and art, and is missing the humility that is there when the artist is receptive. There is a Chinese saying from Shitao; “if you know and then are receptive, that is no longer receptivity”.

Naoya Hatekeyama, lime factory

Naoya Hatekeyama, lime factory

White Unreality

Elio Ciol

Elio Ciol

“The history of white people has led them to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality – to lose touch, that is, with themselves… They do not know how this came about; they do not dare examine how this came about.”
James Baldwin

” A national culture under colonial domination is a contested culture whose destruction is sought in systematic fashion. It very quickly becomes a culture condemned to secrecy. This idea of clandestine culture is immediately seen in the reactions of the occupying power which interprets attachment to traditions as faithfulness to the spirit of the nation and as a refusal to submit.
… the oral tradition – stories, epics and songs of the people – which formerly were filed away as set pieces are now beginning to change. The storytellers who used to relate inert episodes now bring them alive and introduce into them modifications which are increasingly fundamental. There is a tendency to bring conflicts up to date and to modernise the kinds of struggle which the stories evoke, together with the names of heroes and the types of weapons. The method of allusion is more and more widely used. The formula ‘This all happened long ago’ is substituted by that of ‘What we are going to speak of happened somewhere else, but it might well have happened here today, and it might happen tomorrow’. The example of Algeria is significant in this context. From 1952-3 on, the storytellers, who were before that time stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and the contents of their tales. Their public, which was formerly scattered, became compact. The epic, with its typified categories, reappeared; it became an authentic form of entertainment which took on once more a cultural value. Colonialism made no mistake when from 1955 on it proceeded to arrest these storytellers systematically.”

Frantz Fanon

Mike King wrote:
“60% of working–class white Americans feel that racial discrimination against whites is at least as great as discrimination faced by racial minorities, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute report. 49% felt that the government had done too much in recent decades to benefit the conditions of racial minorities, while 57% “agree that illegal immigrants taking jobs that would otherwise be filled by American citizens are responsible for our current economic problems.”

“What the stubborn persistence of aesthetic mimesis proves is not that there is an innate play instinct, as some ideologues would have us believe, but that to this day rationality has been never been fully realized, rationality understood in the sense of agency in the service of mankind and of human potentials, perhaps even of ‘humanized nature’.”
Adorno

RDC - Congo, Carl de Keyzer, photographer

RDC – Congo, Carl de Keyzer, photographer


This may seem an incongruous set of epigraghs, but I have been struck recently, repeatedly, by the reactions of the liberal and new sort of post modern left to the events in Ukraine, as well as to debates around multiculturalism. When I read that the problem isnt imperialism, but rather, that the real imperialism is actually anti imperialism, I begin to think such discussions are just crudely missing wider issues and questions. Questions having to do with how instrumental logic has infected culture. For indeed, from a purely formalist perspective, there is a glint of truth in how the default backdrop is western notions of civilization. However, nobody ever wanted to be slave.

And here mimesis enters the discussion. I return to this topic regularly, because I think its so crucial to understanding art and culture. And the thinker who most profoundly understood this was Adorno. For Adorno, mimesis is that component in aesthetic expression which remembers historical suffering, to sort of put it reductively. It is that dissonant memory fragment which resists affirmative corporate kitsch. The memory of suffering has an ideological role in refusing the false positivity of the Spectacle. And the expression of mimesis is often in subtraction, not addition. There is this whole strange tension between concept and mimesis. The point for the purpose of this posting is that concept in a sense supplants the mimetic, but then must, dialectically, incorporate another advanced level of mimesis into itself. As Adorno said, neither mimesis or the conceptual is sufficient unto itself. This is important for understanding, for intuiting, as both artist and viewer or reader, the importance of subtraction. This also touches on what I wrote last posting about Japanese aesthetics, and things like the tea ceremony. But more on that, I hope, in coming posts. The fact that the conceptual must re-introduce the mimetic means that a tension is sustained, not reconciled. What Adorno would call falsely reconciled. This is the province of Hollywood and kistch. The conceptual simply replaces the mimetic. Now, also, the mimetic is the realm of the Dionysian. It is the realm of the tragic reveal. The mimetic, however, is not a reflection or imitation of false reality. Its not an imitation of reality at all. It is an interior requestioning of those contours of memory that contain man’s suffering; mimesis is not real, but it is the repudiation of the false. It is not real, because there is no ‘real’. This is semantic to a degree, but it is also the causation driving creation of any kind. And in a way, Benjamin’s dialogues with Sholem always skirted around the Kabalistic taboos on graven images. Islamic art, too, approached this but, like Japanese aesthetics, via practive, and repetition. Not mechanical repetition, the neurotic compulsive, but the repetition which erases motive.

Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor


Adorno worried that the growing hegemony of image manufacture, of narrative, was leading toward a shriviling up of the mimetic. That all that was being incorporated was another layer or register of reified social relations. This is where, for example, the left’s pro war consensus (well, not quite) is an instrumental logic that has removed the dialectical. The narrative is one dimensional but masquerading as complex. And here one might say, the colonial frame starts to poke through the thin membrane of liberal humanism that has kept it, in theory, out of sight.

“…the contemporary loss of any subjective capacity for experience is most likely identical with the tenacious repression of mimesis today.”
Adorno

Now, this eclipsing of the mimetic process by instrumental conceptualization has the additional effect of substituting a sadistic violence for practice. Without that mimetic memory, the instrumental repetition is neurotic and violent. This is Rumsfeld saying they are running out of targets to bomb. Saying it as if such a statement were not a clear sign of insanity. Today, narrative fiction increasingly conceptualizes experience. Hollywood TV and film relies on high concept projects. Theatre organizations will reward that which can display a clear “concept”, a clear meaning. So that the anti war play becomes a form of war itself. The anti racist melodrama ends up reinforcing a system that includes and creates racial inequality. This is not the same as the Zizekian formulas of false contrarity. For that narrative says, anti war is actually war, war is actually anti war. It does even rise to the level of erasing the mimetic, for it is no more complex than a set of Ikea instructions for putting a bed together.

Daniella Rossell photog; "Janita in her Father's Office".

Daniella Rossell photog; “Janita in her Father’s Office”.

There is something in the West today that is now completing what Adorno feared, I think. The compulsive reaching for recognition, for attention, is so pathological that it drives almost all mainstream media. The drive for money then, is both a drive for power, for control, really, and a need for imprinting this authority on history. It is a need, too, for recognition though. And this is an acute desire, now. Daniella Rossell’s photo series, focusing on young women of the Mexican ruling class, in which the participants arranged their own presentations, is only a lurid childish narcissistic version of various board room portraits. The cultivation of power is anti mimetic. Mimesis is suffering, and it is fraught with a certain caesura or gap in narrative. A certain eliptical unavoidable pause. Discussions of art today tend toward a fear of really exploring what certain effects represent. The elipse in narrative or dialogue, the pause in music, the enjambment in poetry… and maybe in a sense this really is linked to that Lacanian ‘stain’. But even if not, the disruption of rationality, the rationality of a false totality, is today a telling radical strategy I think.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Hiroshi Sugimoto

There is a pause, a silence, or a blank space that can open portals to the unconscious, in a sense. The ‘man without qualities’, the blank businessman, the emotionally dead soldier, the button downed cypher is another kind of blank. The former welcomes in, or allows the suffering its status, its memory. The latter is the denial of memory, or pain, and it is the sadistic fascist sensibility, which is no sensibility at all.

As Martin Jay put it, speaking of Adorno and mimesis; “..it could only be understood as comparable to a permanent allegory without symbolic reconcilliation”. This is the negative dialectic. One cannot today, under the hegemony of instrumental logic, purposfully create allegory, or even meaning. One must remove, and leave blank, silent, or empty. And one must practice to be quiet in this way. It is not the absence of noise or activity or image; it is the creation of “space”.

The fascist is always, and because of the desire for control, looking for absolute congruity between generalized reality and its narrative or depiction. But this is the story of western civilization in a sense. Certainly the story of the Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer drew it up. The non allegorical. The master narrative is completed. Always.

The ritualistic is, in a way, the preserving of the non identical. It re-enacts the lack of reconciliation.

Clegg & Guttman photog. The Board of Deutsche Bank.

Clegg & Guttman photog. The Board of Deutsche Bank.

If one examines the films being applauded this year, at least the ones from Hollywood, what you get are sentimentality (Nebraska, and Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, etc), or jingoistic revisionist pro military and pro capitalism films like Captain Phillips or American Hustle, or Wolf of Wall Street). So, what is it, in any of these films, that people “like”? Well, mostly it is exactly the reconciliation with the false, the non allegorical. None of these films, and not the white savior Ayn Randian 12 Years a Slave, are even remotely engaged with real aesthetic choices. Not a single one. Not one. Zero. NONE. And yet, such is the destruction of aesthetic education that people “like” all the various products that put them further to sleep. Now, I digressed for a moment, because the chasm between films such as Philomena, or Dallas Buyer’s Club, and discussions of aesthetics at all, is very deep indeed. In a sense, the reclaiming of culture begins with the readniss to hate this junk. This culture of the West, circa 2014, is one that calls anyone with an opinion a “hater”. Films like Nebraska are worth hating. Captain Phillips is hateful shit. Why apologize for it. If you “enjoy” it, fine. Enjoy it, but hate it. Now, to return to the congruity of these false myths, it is occuring to me more frequently these days that the mimetic process, due to the ever withering sense of spirit and interiority, and of state controls, must look to realms outside traditional expressions of culture, and/or bring these realms of experience, or practice, to bear on art. Zoology, architecture, micro biology, boat building….quantum physics…whatever it is, the natural sciences at their origins. The crafts, at their originary place, their originary impulse, original curiosity.

Aristotle Onassis, leaving Opera.

Aristotle Onassis, leaving Opera.

The recreating of the same that is the hallmark of today’s popular culture is really a profound defense of Freud’s death drive. This returns again to the difference between mechanistic repetition, and practice. The re-packaging of the same, always with very slight differences, is in the service of numbness. The service of stasis. Practice is in the service of awakening, of finding the outlines of our manufactured subject position, our vain idea of ‘identity’. This is, of course, a huge topic. Ownership, property, and hoarding. These issues are enclosed within the idea of repetition, of barren deadness, of the status quo. When a public has stopped ‘looking’, the appeal of reactionary and authoritarian aesthetics, of militarism, is going to be very huge indeed. Violence gives the appearance of, paradoxically, life. Even as it metes out and apportions death.

Mimesis is today, in the age of the Spectacle, connected not to seeing, or feeling, or listening, but to dominating. And domination is that which is today serving the new rise, or return of, the colonial world view. To validate this colonial narrative, the history of human suffering must be forgotten. In other words, the mimetic is enclosed, and stopped. Reification is valorized in all sentimental narrative and image. The very use of the word “like” tends toward the reified. Domination is a form of not-seeing. Domination is blind action.

Daan Van Golden

Daan Van Golden

One of Adorno’s late concerns was with what Robert Kauffman called a “reductionist left ideology-critique that finds its raison d’etre in ritual demystifications of artistic illusion, in triumphalist revelations of artworks’ sociohistorical determination.” This discussion is found in a radio address Adorno made in the 1950s in the Federal Republic of Germany. And the topic was actually lyric poetry. My point here is that one of the problems with leftist engagement with culture in general has been to demystify, which while important, and often cogent and necessary, has tended toward a cynicism. That cynicism has too often been put in the service of what is really not leftist ideological argument at all, but actually a deeply reactionary reinforcement of white Anglo Imperialist privilege.

Even the best leftist quasi sociological critique of art often veers off into a totalizing and blanketing policing of taste. An attack on the very belief in the importance of culture. Often this includes an assumption that ‘culture’ must mean Western culture. Which takes me back to the Marx quote at the top. Now Adorno believed that no sociological conceptualizing can be applied to artworks unless it is born of the artwork itself. This would depend, I suspect, on the medium, but for the moment, the point is that the ideological implications are discovered after a submission (Adorno’s word, interestingly) to the material. Adorno famously said, “artworks give voice to what ideology hides”. The point is really that too often in terms of art and culture the left has tended to belabor isolated ideological interpretations, at the expense of wider and deeper utopian meanings.

It is of course true that as the mimetic shrivels up, as interior life is ever more colonized by mass media and the Imperialist state, that such belabored positions are usually correct. The problem is, not always, and those special cases are deserving of attention. And this has largely been the engine behind my writing this blog, however successful or unsuccesful I might be.

Mimmo Jodice

Mimmo Jodice


However much Adorno decried mass culture, and engaged in, himself, attacks on bourgoise culture, he remained convinced of the transcendent potential of art. This came to mind this week, as I was reflecting on the inconceivable and almost macabre transformation of social critics such as Richard Seymour, from relatively insightful and reliable (if Trotskyist) political commentator, into corporate tool. Or the various pro interventionist faux leftists and as I happened to be reflecting again on the racism of U.S. culture and the ongoing hunger strike by Georgia State convicts.
http://blackagendareport.com/content/striking-ga-prisoners-name-names-allege-sexual-abuse-ongoing-threats-maltreatment-staff
I thought about the default hostility on the left toward Cormac McCarthy, as I happened upon this piece…
http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/17/the-latecomer/

and this paragraph in particular:

“In the Judge’s vocabulary, the word “war” refers not only to human conflict, but in a more general sense to the passage of time, time which gives birth and deals death, clearing the ground for new creation. In this sense, time in McCarthy’s novels is not so much historical time as glacial or geological time, an arc the curve of which cannot be measured by any human means and certainly not by rational calculation.
‘Along the face of the stone bluffs were old pictographs of men and animals and suns and moons as well as other representations that seemed to have no referent in the world although they once may have. He said in the sun and looked out over the country to the east, the broad barranca of the Bavispe and the ensuing Carretas Plain that was once a seafloor and the small pieced fields and the new corn greening in the old lands of the Chichimeca where the priests had passed and soldiers passed and the missions fallen into mud and the ranges of mountains beyond the plain range on range in pales of blue where the terrain lay clawed open north and south, canyon and range, sierra and barranca, all of if waiting like a dream for the world to come to be, world to pass’. (The Crossing, p. 135.)”

William Wendt

William Wendt


McCarthy is accused of being overly masculinist, or just ornate, and recently often accused of racism. I found the same response in a way to True Detective. Not that I’m really comparing McCarthy to HBO, but the knee jerk hostility was interesting, and in places coming from the same people who ‘liked’ Captain Phillips or 12 Years A Slave. One does not write lines like those above, from McCarthy, without a practice. Maybe some of my appreciation for McCarthy has to do with my being a Westerner. With having grown up on the Pacific coast, and in the deserts and the dried shrubs and fires and endless roads to nowhere.

Adorno valued the idea of the spontaneous, and valued in it in writer or artist as well as in audience or reader. That previously hidden truths about history and society are revealed. Today I feel that writers often re-write with a desire to polish and make attractive, not to deepen — either the world or the work. They re-write to pin things down. Revising as if washing your car’s interior. The pursuit of something that lies outside the rational, or logical, is rewritten OUT. For that is the impulse. Improve the product. Research and testing, to find the perfect user-friendly model. It strikes me McCarthy, even in light of his current quasi popularity, never feels rewritten. I am certain it is, and there are even examples of his first drafts around, and it seems what he does is to erase the emotionally hysterical passages, but still, this seems different, of a different character. For writers such as McCarthy, the reworking is to say with more clarity, what drove the image or sentence. For many writers, I feel the reworking is to obscure the first choice. The first choice is too close to the Id. Rationalize. Rewriting should not be rationalization. In McCarthy the narrative careens forward, directionless as his character’s lives. There is something serious in McCarthy. And sincere. That quality of seriousness is hard to define, or even explain. Part of it is the fact that psychology has no motive force.

John Sepich writes of McCarthy;
“[t]he landscape of McCarthy’s Southwest
is composed not only of deserts and mirage effects, but also of heavenly
phenomena. The novel begins and ends on nights of meteor showers. It
is the sun that powers the book’s hallucinatory mirages.”

Blood Meridian has no real plot. It is a story, though. And it resembles something that can be traced back to, if not the oral tradition, at least the inherited myths of something that ‘once had meaning’. It is a long meditation not on violence, but on white men infecting the natural world. And for all the complexity of the syntax, subtraction remains a guiding principle of this prose.

Edward Burtynsky, pivot irrigation, Yuma Arizona

Edward Burtynsky, pivot irrigation, Yuma Arizona

So, finally, I might make the argument that large chunks of the public today approach popular culture from the point of view of producers. It is more fun to imagine the box office than to actually engage with the story. They approach museum or gallery art, and serious work in general, whatever that means, from a sociological perspective that by default puts them in the managerial subject position. All of this can be related to things gone over many times before, and for almost sixty years. What is happening now, however, is this instrumentalized new racism, the instrumental white manufacturing of a post modern identity. There are works worth reading, or seeing, and a few films being made, but it strikes me that there is a correlation between corporate rounding off of corners, and leftist ideological fixations, at the expense of form, and this new colonial white snark. As I watched Fruitvale Station, I kept thinking, this is a white film. Its a white film made by black filmmakers and produced with at least some black money. (Maybe no money is black but thats another discussion). And yet, so deeply imprinted are certain editing rhythms, certain camera positions, that it resembles those first generation writers from previously colonial countries, writing in the language of the colonizer. It ends up, always, or almost always, the colonizers story.

How does one ‘like’ Nebraska? Why do so many critics want to defend work like Zadie Smith or Jonathan Safran Foer? Or the films of director Darren Aronofsky? Why? Aronofksy, the theoretical in-house Hollywood radical has a film coming out called Noah, about, yeah, the dude in the flood. Russell Crowe and lots of CGI water I guess. Why in the fuck does ANYONE look forward to seeing this?

There was a good article, review, in the NYRB this month, about commercial shipping. I add the link, for this piece certainly reflects my limited experience with docks and ports and commercial trade. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/apr/03/passage-hong-kong/?page=1 And it speaks to what writers like Conrad understood over a hundred years ago, and what others like Robert Stone grasped half a century later.

Glenn Brown

Glenn Brown

It is not a world you see in media. But then nothing of the real malignancy that is the exploitation of unskilled labor around the planet is seen in mass media. The fact is, that narrative out of the west, either Hollywood kitsch, or New Yorker highbrow, is predicated on a basic dishonesty, a basic sleight of hand that psychologizes, makes white inner life more important than other matters, white identity more meaningful, and white control the highest of virtues. White problems all the time, and everywhere. Its not as if there are not working class artists out there. Hollywood’s effect is pernicious, in this respect. For it always goes slumming, and it manufactures the authentic, as a style component, and meanwhile, the background is given as one of threat. The threat is Muslim or Chinese, and these days Russian, or it is North Korean, or it is Serbian or from Castro or Chavez (even after death), while tight sphinctered white men in crew cuts are now being cast as hunky FBI or NSA agents, and long limbed coltish young models…er….actresses strap on a weapon and kick some ass. Criminal Arab or black gang ass. Or Russian sociopaths, for all Russians are sociopaths, right? And finally, its useful to remember the former Yugoslavia in light of Ukraine…from Diana Johnstone: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/21/ukraine-and-yugoslavia/
Rodolpho Morales

Rodolpho Morales

A Fish Swims like a Fish

Muqi Fachang,, 1200s Song Dynasty

Muqi Fachang,, 1200s Song Dynasty

“The more laws that are written, the more criminals are produced.”
Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu

“Doctors are no doubt correct in warning us not to touch wounds; and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which has long lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is plainly suffering from mortal illness. Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty now seems no longer natural.”
Etienne de la Boetie
The Politics of Obedience

“Clear water all the way to the bottom;
a fish swims like a fish.”

Master Dogen
13th century (tr.Kazuaki Tanahashi)

There is a long article in the current Harpers by Adolph Reed, but I cant afford to read it, so I have to wonder if that irony is lost on Reed or not.

Still, there is a very fascinating interview Thomas Frank did with Reed at Salon. And among the points made has to do with the loss of labor identity, culturally and as community.

“FRANK: The labor movement. You said to reverse all this, it requires a “vibrant labor movement.” How on earth is that going to happen? Actually I’ve made this point to progressives and they don’t understand. They’re like, “What’s so special about labor?”They don’t particularly like labor. Culturally, it’s not them. They don’t really get it.

REED: They like their workers when they’re brown and really abject and getting the shit beaten out of them but they don’t like them when they try to work through institutions to build power for themselves as a class. That’s one way to put it.”

The affulent white liberal and increasingly corrupted left, in the US and UK, dont identify with labor. In Hollywood all union themes are nostalgic, and period. Labor is nostalgic. Work today is either sentimentalized or idealized. The poor are happy and simple. And the attention economy, the harvesting of time and the uses and circulation of image have given work the appearance of leisure. Or rather leisure IS work.

“FRANK: Obama’s a highly intelligent man. You’ve met him.

REED: Yes.

FRANK: Maybe he’s a cipher in the sense that he’s a symbol. But he’s not a cipher of a human.

REED: I don’t know. Look, I’ve taught a bunch of versions of him.

FRANK: You mean you’ve had people like him as students?

REED: Yeah. So his cohort in the Ivy League. His style. There’s superficial polish or there’s a polish that may go down to the core. I don’t know. A performance of a judicious intellectuality. A capacity to show an ability to understand and empathize with multiple sides of an argument. Obama has described himself in that way himself in one or maybe both of his books and elsewhere. He’s said that he has this knack for encouraging people to see a better world for themselves through him.

FRANK: Yeah, he’s like a blank slate.

REED: Right. Which in a less charitable moment you might say is like a sociopath.”

Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages


Most everyone can see the ideological seepage. Obama belives (as Reed points out) that the best students should be taken out of the ghetto or barrio and put in special schools rich people attend. The remaining poor, those not identified as special, can just fuck off, essentially. This is really a return to feudalism. And it is increasingly accepted as a reasonable idea. For increasingly the goal is, as Reed says in different words, the sharing of privilege. If Condi Rice as Sec of State is seen as progress for women’s rights, the Obama is seen as this, too, for racial equality (though of course Lyndon Johnson and Nixon gave more to the poor and to minorities than Clinton or Obama) then perception has eclipsed reality and become its own reality. In fact, its really the structural imperatives that reinforce this stratification. And its marketing. The selling of gentrification, and elitism as favorable, and the underclass as pathological and criminal.

Trayvon Martin's 'hoodie' entered into evidence at Zimmerman trial.

Trayvon Martin’s ‘hoodie’ entered into evidence at Zimmerman trial.


The affluent class, the same ones who like their causes distanced from themselves, also are comfortable with the sending of troops (US military troops) on missions of “caring”. They won’t volunteer for the military, but they love to fawn over ‘others’ in the military, almost all of whom are poor. Send them, let them go fix Ukraine (fix US interests and prop up a fascist government). Let them rescue those poor (but not so attractive) women in the rape camps in Bosnia (even if they never existed). When Clinton plundered Haiti, that was ok, that was familiar because that is how they treat their own gardners and maids.

One of the things that strikes me, in light of, for example, this: http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/216667/that-viral-20-strangers-kiss-for-the-first-time-video-is-just-trying-to-sell-you-clothes/

The response of many was only to reaffirm that they “enjoyed it”. Even if its ersatz, fake and manipulation …. this really no longer matters for many. The events in the Ukraine, obviously orchestrated by the U.S., is met with confusion by many on the left, because almost without realizing it, their training in reading history is shaped by TV and film. The formal Open Letter to the EU, signed by such ghouls as Bernie Kouchner, Zizek, and arch reactionaries like Tim Garton Ash and Adam Michnik, is representative of this weird false memory. http://euobserver.com/opinion/122880 It is enough to see ‘people’ in the streets. Oh, our Hollywood implanted sense of protest means we are on the side of these ‘people’, never mind history, the US state department and CIA, or even fascists openly backed by the U.S. in the service of IMF, WB, and Chevron. If one cannot read the video of paid models kissing for what it is, then how can one read more complex matters, more complex images?

Example of Kintsugi, the art of repair. (Listeningtoleaves blog)

Example of Kintsugi, the art of repair. (Listeningtoleaves blog)


Today’s aesthetic education assumes (as I’ve said before) a certain idea about ‘reality’. And art is seen to be predicated upon volition. And this idea of volition exists outside history, or individual relations to material and means of production. It is simply there, apriori. It is connected to varying and changing notions of ability. This was the result, mostly, of Alois Riegl, but of Lipps, too, but of Worringer, and Wolfflin, and a great many others. And missing in this is mimesis. I don’t want to sidetrack too deeply into this, but only to point out that there is a general sort of assumption (which dates back two hundred years) that prior to the decision to create a work of ‘art’, there is the same universal impulse, and that it has a relationship, however vague, to nature. And increasingly, this culture sees the past in light of, and as if it were the same as the present. The past is just the present with different styles. Anachronisms are not read as anachronistic anymore. But its deeper than that, of course. It is that aesthetics are linked to a common sense idea of nature, as its been handed down (and increasingly commodified and marketed) and with this idea of volition, and of ability and skill. I forget who used the term “a dread of space” (maybe Joseph Frank) but much critical art writing and theory appeared in reaction to the rise of abstraction on the 20th century. And one of the truisms about abstraction, at least from, say, Pollock onward, was that this was an art about ‘surface’. I suppose this is the influence of Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg. And while I think this is wrong, one would have to really sit down and explore what one means by ‘surface’. Rosenberg actually contested the Greenbergian notion of Ab Ex as concerned exclusively with surface, and insisted, rather, on the idea of the act, of a certain expression of chance and training (like Japanese calligraphy) that come together in a moment of awareness.

It is this awareness that is the creating of space. Abstract expressionism has always been mis-perceived because of Greenberg, mostly, but also by a lot of those artists following after Rothko, Pollock, and Kline.

Todd Hido

Todd Hido


“An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”
Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows

In Japanese aesthetics a key concept is yugen, or mysterious beauty, and sabi, the veil of history or antiquity. The dualism of the West is not addressed in another way, it actually doesnt even come up as a topic. Sabi is the quality of aging well, the creation of a patina or even rust on objects, which then take us back in reverie to our past, and to our ancestors. It is connected in one way with the tea ceremony, with the beauty of insufficiency. This also leads back to the idea of calligraphy, which under Confucian influence in Japan (in the 1700s, the Edo period) what had been simply called the ‘art of writing’, became Shodo, or ‘way of writing’, meaning a meditative practice. I actually called this blog The Practice of Writing, with this in mind. Calligraphy as the indexical embodiment or expression of dharma, not simply part of a message pointing toward dharma. In a sense, for the medieval Zen teacher, each brush stroke was a self portrait. And it was about practice. I hope to return to a long posting sometime soon on No drama, because I feel somehow one of the keys to reimagining theatre lies within practices that dispense with the decorative, and mediate the idea of recieving a message. A key concept of Zen aesthetics is makoto, or natural sincerity.

Gautier de Metz, 13th century manuscript page

Gautier de Metz, 13th century manuscript page

One of the effects of advanced capital and its mass production of everything, and its embedded militaristic ethic is that practice became repetition, and the machine like reptition of industry has imprinted itself on all cultural expression. Adorno saw the increasingly militaristic in certain conductors, the baton more and more resembling a implement with which to beat the audience. Technology needs no practice. And without practice, there is no self portrait. The camera is finally an intermediary that cuts the user of the camera, the technician, off from his creation. Now, there are alternative routes to get to the final artwork, the photograh, say, and partly this alternative route is what is so compelling. There is an occluding of this step, in most writing on photography, and probably, too, on cinema. One of the qualities in Ozu that destabilizes, still, all of his films, is that the camera becomes a field of practice. By placing it on the tatami mat, same height each shot, and then by rehearsing his actors at compulsive length, Ozu was offering something closer to makoto. I think Bresson might be the only other director that so looked to cross the technical divide, or gulf, or maybe, abyss.

Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto


In corporate cultural product today, there is what Adorno called a “narcissistically self-staging positivity…”. It is the art of the ego. A shreiking self advertising ego.

“The growing relevance of technology in artworks must not become a motive for surbordinating them to that type of reason that produced technology and finds it continuation in it.”
Adorno

Instrumental reason, today monopolizes everyday thought and experience, and language. Metaphors are created by reference to technology, and there is no vocabulary for genuine practice, and by extension there is no appreciation not funneled through the prism of technological categories. Appreciation is shaped by the audience’s growing sophistication in recognizing technological limits and in their recognition of a societal profit driven ethos taken as fixed in nature. And this internalizing of a techno model is what (partly anyway) leads to a culture of ‘fans’. There has evolved an intermediary step in the process of viewing the world, or interpreting all narratives, and that step is this new specialized appreciation of the characteristics of the system. In other words, there is an audience who are made to feel, encouraged to feel, like insiders who can judge — with great cyncicism — the process of profit making. On the flip side there is an utter blindness to the reality of their own exploitation. This culture seems not to mind, consciously anyway, that the ownership 1%, or 2%, have made their fortunes by naked theft and supression of individual human rights.

Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice; Yasujirō Ozu dr. 1952

Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice; Yasujirō Ozu dr. 1952


The valorizing of power, of brutality, has led to the erasure of humility. The spectacle presents a narrow self serving brutality as if it were an inner strength. Humility is weakness, forgiveness is weakness, and compassion is simply a pathology. Compassion is presented again and again as if it were an aberrant condition in need of medication. One of the things I’ve noticed, repeatedly, in popular culture is a basic refusal to accept apology and the witholding of forgivness. Forgiveness must be, almost magically, *earned*. The default setting is always to withold forgiveness, resulting in the cessation of considering it, the subject knows it will not be forthcoming, so the knee jerk reaction for mistakes is to double down, to make bigger more selfish mistakes or actions. And of course selfishness is not a problem.

Ordet, Carl Dryer dr. 1955

Ordet, Carl Dryer dr. 1955

Selfishness only becomes a problem, if it does, if it is accompanied by failure, by losing. It strikes me that the ascension of irony and snark has eliminated even the discussion of sincerity. And this elimination is reflected in secondary ways, in the basic construction of image and narrative. The fragmented and unfinshed or interrupted narrative is easy to cast aside sarcastically, because injury, emotional wounds are perceived as weakness. Audiences increasingly sense not to invest, not to watch too carefully, because so little pays off in corporate product. On the personal level of kistch psychology, hurt feelings can be navigated — sometimes — but the admission of deeper emotional relationship to culture, to art, is sneered at and ridiculed. In fact, ANY deeper concern for the creative tends to be ridiculed. One aspect of this is the hyper masculine (the brutal masculine) presentation of self that is so valorized. Where once the lonely cowboy, emotionally witholding, who liked the company of his horse better than family or wife, has become the sadistic and violent vigilante, the uniformed psychopath, the professional assassin. Writers and filmmakers as varied (sort of) as Neil LaBute, David Mamet, Zach Snyder, Clint Eastwood, Stephen Bochco, and David Milch et al, are also all prone to expressions of crass sentimentality. That sentimentality is often fused with jingoistic patriotism and a Norman Rockwell level cherishing of ‘family’. But these are fantasy constructions of family and country. Speilberg, that avatar of Reagan era white values, and his progeny like Joss Whedon, Vince Gilligan and J.J. Abrams, have repeated the tropes perhaps first ushered in way back with Frank Capra. The palatte of American kistch expression of family owes a lot to Capra, Walt Disney, and Speilberg.

On another track it is useful to look at the careers of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. This is the subsumption of counter culture expressions of dissent. And this goes back to Harold Ramis again, too. The contrarian posture was co-opted by social critics such as Zizek, but also in the nerd white guy culture of Zuckerberg and about a dozen film school graduates and children of nepotism (Sofia Coppola comes to mind) who churn out the reactionary and very white hipster product in which contrarian or oppositional is expressed through a face lift re branding of racism and mysogny. Racism in Ray Bans and an ironic haircut.

Tang Yin, 1420 Ming Dynasty

Tang Yin, 1420 Ming Dynasty


To be oppositional now means to embrace the previously rejected values of the far right. Niall Ferguson is the Oxford version of this, and Zizek the critical theory (as clown show) version. That all of this is horribly infantile and often just factually wrong is never a problem, because the instrumental values of technology, the belief in progress, and the revanchist stance on race and gender are fused with snark, sarcasm, and historical amnesia. Racism isn’t the problem, anti racism is the real racism. Patriarchal hegemony isn’t the real problem, feminism is the new hegemony. And on and on. The need for the ‘new’ fuels this endless almost scatter shot revisionism for the new fashion collection for Spring needs novelty. Facts are for sissies.

Reed says in his essay that the U.S. is left with a choice “between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.”

The branding of race. Race as a style question. In favor of multiculturalism means what? For most of white America the question of race operates as a cosmetic indicator of lifestyle choices.

Yagi Kazuo, 20th century ceramic

Yagi Kazuo, 20th century ceramic


The question of race hangs over this discussion, at least in terms of the U.S. like a toxic mental cloud of methyl isocyanate and white phosphorus that eats into every discourse. It actually encloses all the values of white gentrification culture, of arch irony, insincerity, and trust in authority. Race is outside the intellectual gated community of white affluence. Curiosity is bracketed away much as humility and compassion. A totalizing positivism. Self staging.

Bruce Levine wrote a pretty sharp piece here: http://www.alternet.org/story/151850/8_reasons_young_americans_don%27t_fight_back%3A_how_the_us_crushed_youth_resistance And it cant be over-emphasized, I don’t think, the role of both student debt AND psychiatric medication. There is no more NUMB country in the world. No country that on a simple biological level, ‘feels’ less. So to tick off the boxes: Heavily medicated, afraid due to constant fear producing propaganda, fear because of being in debt (either student debt, mortgages, or just business failure), loss of autonomous thought, the ability or inclination to think about resistance, to meditate on their own existential condition. A marketed snideness that would make fun of existential philosophical questions. Reflection itself has been bartered away for the latest iPhone or high resolution brain scan…er….computer screen. Fear of the police. Full stop. The police today are simply objects that elicit fear.

Reason #3 for Levine:
“Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy. Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” A generation ago, the problem of compulsory schooling as a vehicle for an authoritarian society was widely discussed, but as this problem has gotten worse, it is seldom discussed.
The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation.”

Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon


In the same way that the institutional authorities have domesticated the wild, regulated camping and even walking in National Parks, so has the intellectual landscape been narrowly regulated and stringently enforced. A majority of Americans will see a wilderness landscape and imagine a place to drive dune buggies or ATVs, or dirt bikes. There is a default setting that all nature needs is a mechanical application of some sort applied to it. Again, aesthetic reflection tends toward the anti authoritarian analysis.

Jean Genet wrote about theatre; “As to the audience, only those would come who knew they were capable of a nightime walk in the cemetary to be confronted with a mystery…if such a location were used…writers would be less frivolous, they’d think twice before having plays performed there. They might accept the omens of insanity, or of a frivolity bordering on insanity.”

Bada Shanren, 1600s

Bada Shanren, 1600s


I think the theatre of the dead is a perfectly sane idea. In fact theatre IS about the dead, not the living. A performance in crypts, atop graves, would, no doubt, cause outrage. But why? Such dialogues, such discourse, is forbidden in today’s west.

There was a famous essay, which appeared in Cahiers du Cinema, titled Blind Man and The Mirror, The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk. Written by Jean-Louis Comolli. It hinted at, and pointed toward, some ineffable and delicate transcendent quality that Sirk managed to create in the midst of overwrought melodramatic scripts. Tag Gallagher wrote;
“Imitation of Life was Sirk’s biggest success and last commercial film. He had been all but ignored during his career and was resurrected only a decade after it by tiny yet earnest coteries scattered around Europe and America. If his most famous apostle was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his most Pauline apostle was Jon Halliday, whose interview, Sirk on Sirk (1972) – one of the greatest film books ever – reappeared in Sirk’s centenary year 25 percent longer and ten times better.” There has been, at least since Godard first waxed enthusiastic in 1959, in an early Cahiers piece, something in Sirk that brings out the language of devotional practice and ecclesiastical metaphors. I bring up Sirk here, after Ozu because if I put aside my personal favorites, of films that meant something personal and special to me, and really seperate the very most elite cinema, the impossible, those that achieve something outside conventional analysis, I think I am probably left with maybe only four, at most five, films, or directors, who have reached this ‘impossible’. One is Bresson, and one is Dreyer, and one is Ozu. These are the holy triumverate that Paul Schrader wrote about in his influential and very smart book Transcendental Style In Film. I would add Rossellini, at least the Rossellini of Louis XV, and Blaise Pascal. I would add Pasolini, of Gospel According to St Matthew. And Fassbinder, in Year of 13 Moons, and certainly in Berlin Alexanderplatz. That might be it. Mizoguchi maybe. Maybe. There are others that suggest but never quite realize the spiritual; the best of Welles, and Von Sternberg, and Eisenstein. Que Viva Mexico is certainly a talismanic masterpiece of unfinished fragments. The best of Hitchcock should be considered. And revisiting those odd auteurs whose body of work was small, Clarance Brown for one. When I first started to seriously watch films, with Terry Ork in New York, and the bible was Sarris’ American Cinema, we went to at least three films a day. There were small private film clubs, and there were triple bills on 42nd street. It was all we did. Well, almost all, but thats another story. People came to blows over Tay Garnett and if Sarris was right about his inconsistency. Or if Ford’s master shots were better than Hawks. And everyone read Cahiers. There were debates late into the night on the merits of Edgar G. Ulmer, and Blake Edwards, on Tashlin and Preminger. But nothing was ever snide. Nobody was anything but serious. I mention this personal memory because sometimes I wonder how a culture of such seriousness has so completly disappeared. There was politics, too, and it was taken as a given that radical revolutionary thought was an indispensible part of the fabric of the search. A search for revelation. Nobody really worked. I had odd jobs, working for a small rare book dealer on Greenwhich St. I catelogued W.H Auden’s library. Most of his books were ancient history and I remember the pleasure of just handling these books, smelling them, feeling them. I ended up never being paid for that job, but I didn’t care.

Roberto Rossellini, on set of Blaise Pascal, 1972

Roberto Rossellini, on set of Blaise Pascal, 1972


There is something elusive, and hard to pin down in the Rossellini, and this despite the paradoxical intentional ‘realism’. Its an almost meta naturalism. Fassbinder felt Sirk to be his greatest teacher. And in some sense, Berlin Alexanderplatz is his most Sirkian film, though many are overtly refrencing Sirk. In Dreyer, it is purity. Simply a chaste gaze, and Bresson follows upon this, that looks to create religious alters of clarity. If the brushstroke of Edo Period samurai monk/calligraphers is spiritual autobiography, then perhaps Sirk is that paradoxical cinematic monk. Dreyer is the Lutheran abbot, and Pasolini, the homosexual union organizer, a Marxist Jesus. In each case, though, and I guess this is my point, there is mokoto. Sincerity. But actual sincerity. Kierkegaard said something to the effect that we never know when we are being sincere. Perhaps. But I suspect that is artistic practice is involved, here.

Statue, English Cemetary, Florence Italy. (Ed Snyder photo)

Statue, English Cemetary, Florence Italy. (Ed Snyder photo)

Creating space, for reflection, seems crucial. It is interesting, Genet in that same essay I believe, said it took endless time to finish Brothers Karamozov. He would read a page and sit for an hour. He also called theatre rehearsals ‘trials’. Rehearse, conduct the trial, atop a crypt. Say what cannot be said in any way in any other place.

A few weeks ago a grad student, a young woman, argued with me about something, but at the end she challanged my reading of this particular thinker, and said, ‘but there are hundreds of professors who agree with me’. I thought about that. Where does such craven obedience to title come from? The answer is, it is the lesson of school today. One lesson, all the time, OBEY. In an odd way, I come back to Unions. Without a culture of unions, the psychological make up of the working class is damaged. Perhaps thats the most obvious sentence I’ve ever written, but let me explain further. Its not just the economic protection, job security, and such, but its the sense of being cared for. The sense your neighbor is cared for. And his neighbor. Others, others are protected and looked after, and even if unions were corrupt, that sense of belonging and pride is gone now. Students who attend school today, whose parents work shit jobs, temp jobs, humiliating jobs, are not going to enter school without carrying a lot of anxiety. Shit, you enter school with anxiety in the best of all worlds. Today, you enter more afraid. More anxious. And less willing to argue. In High School they must pass through metal detectors. Armed guards roam the halls.

People will debate this to a degree, citing movements off the radar. But honestly, those are small, not large movements. They are great and they often accomplish a lot more than their numbers would predict, but, there is no sign of mass mobilizing. What there is, is a sign of mass confusion, mass acceptance of propaganda, and mass fear.

And in plain sight of everyone, the growing underclass of the U.S. Disproportionately black and latino, the growing numbers of working poor, of homeless families and of hunger are impossible to miss, even from the back seat of your Range Rover or Lexus SUV, through your tinted windows, with your GPS in front of you.
Fear. Fear of ridicule. Fear of drawing attention to yourself in the age of mass surveillance, and fear of punishment. The U.S. public clings to the belief that the world operates like a movie. The narrative they follow is one constructed by, largely, the U.S. government. This is not fantasy, it’s fact. This was obvious as far back as 1977 (thanks to Molly Klein for this reminder).
http://www.carlbernstein.com/magazine_cia_and_media.php

And running alongside the master narrative are films that each year lurch further into pure totalitarian kitsch. The loss of sincerity, of humility as a product of deep practice is anethema to the corporate culture industry. Sincerity is vulnerability, it is the deep strength of a practice not designed to ‘work on yourself’, but to work on the world.

A glimpse of how disconnected are the very rich can be found here: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/bill-gates-the-rolling-stone-interview-20140313?page=2

Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall


I close with this piece on the mental health industry. And below that, one of Kuniyoshi’s prints that I used as a model for a tattoo that the great Greg James did on my left leg at the old Sunset Tattoo.

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22266-psychiatry-now-admits-its-been-wrong-in-big-ways-but-can-it-change

Kuniyoshi, early 1800s.

Kuniyoshi, early 1800s.

More Odds & Ends

"TV glasses", inventor Hugo Gernsback.

“TV glasses”, inventor Hugo Gernsback.

“Mystery is the essential element in any work of art”
Luis Bunuel

“The question remains as to why the government had need of it {war}, as to why it was necessary to impose the improbable reality of this lie. The reason was apparently to create consent in order to wage war. But why start a war if the danger was known not to be real? Out of anticipation? Due to possibly exaggerated feelings of insecurity? If remains necessary to invert the terms of the problem. Imagined feelings of insecurity did not neccessiate the war; the war was necessary to impose feelings of insecurity.”
Jacques Ranciere

“The petty bourgeoisie is undoubtedly the social class most sensitive to the fascination of nationalist mythology.”
J. C. Mariategui

This was one of those weeks in which the Spectacle goes into warp speed (to use a Trekkie cliche). The unsettling regime change the U.S. intends for Venezuela continues, though so far with little success, and now the orchestration of a Ukrainian crisis is underway (gee, all that Pussy Riot Russophobic nonsense that has bombarded the media for months has to be a coincidence, right?) Then the Oscars. Watching the Oscars is equivalent, psychologically, to a hemmorrhagic virus that you cannot avoid because the mucus and blood from the electronic killing floor aerosolizes and covers you, and so Jared Leto’s speech is causing bleed out in my brain even as I write this. It’s odd I haven’t watched this awards show in almost thirty years, and last time I “did” watch it was from a low end motel room In Tobago, which was sort of amusing because the commericals kept interrupting regardless of what was going on. Local commericals. But, you cant escape it I guess. The following week is a constant bombardment of info and replays.

So I wanted to link a few things quickly, to sort of dispense with having to really talk about this horrid event. And I will add, if you cannot see the Colonial narrative being played out at the Academy Awards every year, and the Imperialist narrative, then you are not looking very carefully. This is a not dissonant value system….that of Mr Ridley. 12 Years a Slave fits perfectly into the ruling class world view.

Here is a piece by crypto fascist and 12 Years a Slave screenwriter, John Ridley.
http://www.esquire.com/features/essay/ESQ1206BLACKESSAY_108

Paracus culture, Americas, 100 A.D.

Paracus culture, Americas, 100 A.D.

Per the Academy Award winning film:

Then there is this piece by Thomas Frank http://www.salon.com/2014/03/02/baby_boomer_humors_big_lie_ghostbusters_and_caddyshack_really_liberated_reagan_and_wall_street/

Usually I’m not a big fan of Frank, but there is a good deal he gets right in this. And it also begs a few bigger questions about popular culture. That the films of Harold Ramis are so popular with both the Reagan white house and the Obama white house, and all the cultural and political minions and clerks of Capital is no accident. I never found anything even remotely funny in Animal House, or Caddyshack. But one could extend this to Hangover 1-3, and Adam Sandler and it is interesting to see how American jock culture has embraced this particular strain of pop culture, of entertainment. Bill Simmons is now the poster boy for insecure white males in today’s empire. His internet magazine Grantland in fact merges sports fandom with movie and TV fandom. The writing is snarky, patronizing and works very hard at a kind of nerd cool. Now, Id extend to this to Dave Eggers and his posse, for they’re the ivy league version of this, expensively educated (badly educated, but whatever) and affluent to a man. The same class that attends Abramovic performance pieces are the ones who read Eggers, and who applaud Harold Ramis. This is the liberal white bourgeoisie. Haute bourgeoisie, really. And this class clings, in desperation almost, to this manufactured populism. And even if they don’t openly endorse Ayn Rand, they secretly do, and even if they don’t secretly, they do unconsciously.

John Stezaker

John Stezaker

“Everyone believes that they’re standing up against unjust authority of some imaginary kind or another—even those whose ultimate aim is obviously to establish an unjust authority of their own. Their terms for it are slightly different than the ones in “Animal House”—they talk about the liberal elite, the statists, the social engineers, the “ruling class.” But they’re all acting out the same old script. The Tea Party movement believes it’s resisting the arrogant liberal know-it-alls. So did Andrew Breitbart, in his brief career as a dealer in pranks and contumely. So do the people who proposed that abominable gay marriage discrimination law in Arizona. Hell, so do the pitiful billionaires of Wall Street—even they think they’re standing bravely for Ayn Rand’s downtrodden job creators.”
Thomas Frank

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons


It is easy, I think, to underestimate just how big an influence Reagan’s presidency really was. He is rightly seen as the worst president of modern times, and while Reagan himself is mostly irrelevant, his presidency signaled the comming together of several strands of reactionary thinking, and of white supremicism. The Reagan crew were hugely ambitious in terms of global finance, and maybe more, they marked a sea change in perception; this was the selling of the Harold Ramis, Bill Simmons white guy-as-cool-heroic trope. It was the counter revolution to the sixties where radicals and minorities were getting laid, and white jerks were being laughed at. The revenge of Bill Kristol (et al) and the resurggence of WASP ruling class values, or rather ruling class WHITE values were now openly glorified. The 60s were branded a failure, rock bands were hosting golf tournements (and people thought it was cool), and there was something else, the return of the Puritan. This was the perception, mind you, but it was largely a manufactured perception. Much did shift, but much didnt, but the selling of this idea achieved a lot of traction. The media bought in, and ran with it.

If you follow hoops, one of the stories of this season is the somewhat manufactured and hyped rise of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo …nicknamed ‘The Greek Freak”, because of his preternatural athleticism. Giannis is an African born, Greek raised teenager blessed with insane length and huge hands. He is, however, still at best a very unskilled basketball player. But he is Bill Simmons favorite and most every other white jock journalist in mainstream media. Stories are trotted out almost daily about cute things the unsophisticated Giannas does (sent all his money to his mom and needed to borrow money for a taxi home, etc). This is much like the Oscar show lavishing adoration on Lupita Nyong’o,– OH, how beautiful, how gorgeous she is, etc. These are the pets, they are entertaining, and this sort of diminishing of the “man”, the turning all young black athletes into amusements, products, commodities, and sort of intellectual jewelry is very prominent. Black actresses are not women. Ive not heard a single black hoop writer talk about Giannas. Only the white guys, Simmons, Chad Ford, Matt Moore, Chris Mannix, Joel Brigham, et al.

Kacper Kowolski

Kacper Kowolski

The appearance at Court; the Academy Awards is a sort of ersatz Versailles, and with each passing year the commentary on the actual films nominated lessens, and is replaced by critiques of gowns, of pop psychological mini melodramas (Oh Leo lost, look at him the moment he lost, etc), and all of it invented, on one level. The real drive behind such spectacles is the valorizing of class distinction. There is always a “newcomer”; it is part of the ritual. Some die and are replaced, a new annointed prince or princess. Such terms are even employed quite often. The red carpet…I mean, what the fuck is the red carpet actually about? Well, nothing. It is perfect in its nothingness. It is about being seen, about image, images, many images, instantly thrown into circulation. It is instant NOW, chatter and tweets, and instagrams of hair cuts, of seating plans, of whatever. Jared Leto’s dim vacant eyes, slightly glazed, looking into some pool made of his own grateful tears..a B list Narcissus thanking the court, mouthing platitudes. It is an effete class of court eunuch.

Artist unknown, American colonial, appx 1670

Artist unknown, American colonial, appx 1670

Then there is the other America, the invisible one. The influence of Hollywood and marketing, and they overlap in all sorts of ways, cannot be overestimated. Watching US television for example will expose you to a constant repetitive propaganda that makes surveillance ‘cool’ and stigmatizes the underclass as inherently criminal. But less obvious is the way that models for receiving information are put in place. If the average viewer watches shows such as House of Cards, or West Wing, they are going to assume this is how ‘politics’ really is. There is a backdrop that is less direct than this even, and that is the idea of a technocratic state of experts who monitor things and fight crime and terrorism. And ‘technology’ itself is heroic. Any of it, all of it, in any white or western hand…technology is good. And rarely does anyone ask where it came from, or what it cost. It’s just there. Like God. Like nature. One of the continuing themes of pop narrative is “we cant let those weapons get in the wrong hands”. Literally Id bet that line is uttered at least once a week on US television. The assumption is, of course, that we know the right hands from the wrong hands. What does that even mean? Harry Truman and Curtis LeMay were the right hands? The ATF are ‘experts’ and knew the right thing in Waco? But so deep is this fantasy that people now want to believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. As soon as anyone resorts to a non TV trope or fact, they are called ‘conspiracy theorists’. So much so, that people know to shut up at job interviews or social gatherings. And when I say this is the age of snark, I am suggesting a thought process that looks to stigmatize, and usually in the service of appearing cool. Or hip, or inside. And this snark extends to political narratives of all sorts, and to cultural ones. I read a twitter string this week where someone was being snide about True Detective. I am finding this show seems to elicit a good deal of agitated response. Probably a sign it has some value. But when anyone quotes a show, and then is sarcastic….oh dude, mind blowing, har har har, I am reminded of being in Junior High School first off, but secondly, I wonder if this person has any real love of anything cultural? I mean I can snark at Shakespeare if I want…Winter of our discontent dude, seasonal angst…har har har. Sniping is the very most easy critical stance to take. Now, I mention this because it is what goes on in another fashion (and its reverse) when political narrative occurs. The “everyone is wrong” stance. Well, I dont like the US foreign policy, but Putin is just as bad. Or, well, Saddam WAS a terrible dictator. This goes back to the “we cant let those weapons get in the wrong hands” trope. Presumably Saddam with hydrogen bombs is far worse than George Bush. Why? Oh, wait, because Saddam gassed the Kurds…well, and flew US made helicopters (IF he even gassed them) and got increased trade advantages AFTER so doing. The simple equation here is: Wrong hands are non white, non christian and non capitalist.

The contemporary world of TV in the US is aiming awfully low, even in the age of its target audience. Shows about high school (with actors in their thirties playing freshman) abound, usually with aliens and vampires. Do these shows attract young audiences? I have my doubts. I think middle aged men, and hipsters watch them, but I could be wrong. Embedded in all of these are jingoistic elements and clear valorizing of the status quo. The “president” and anyone in a uniform is almost always good. Courage is good IF, and only IF, it is in the service of patriotic sacrifice. Courage for its own sake, existential courage, is depicted as madness.

There is in ALL of this, a sense of a shrinking or suffocating landscape being established. Perhaps it is simply the result of the technical meeting the economic. Cost saving is paramount in the minds of studio and network heads. So, for example, shows are filmed in LA, and pretend to be El Paso, or Iraq, or Harlen County, or a pacific island. There are streets in the loft district of Los Angeles (where I once lived) that must have been filmed ten thousand times. Probably more. The First Street bridge at least ten thousand times. Maybe fifty thousand times. But the sky is always LA. Its not a Miami sky, it is a Marina Del Rey sky, no matter how many signs you hang reading MIAMI. This must have the accumlative effect of homogenizing the sense of place. TV execs dont think skies are different. And this takes us back to Reagan who said “Seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all”. Ha ha, early executive snark, is really what that is. So Frank is correct, its Reagan era pop culture. Its Harold Ramis, its Animal House. A sort of attitude implant was stuck in the collective. Those tweets about True Detective are only the fourth generation of Reagan signing away California forests for the lumber industry. Today, new pirate shows are modeled on venture capitalists. Pirate as wall street raider, not the other way round.

Richard Serra

Richard Serra

The impulse for tragedy, even if unsuccessful, and for a variety of reasons perhaps, is anethema to the post modern hipster. The college educated white guys who loved Ramis now love Spike Jonze. The shrinking world. The eulogies for Ramis death seem to be from some collective recovered false memory. Oh we grew up laughing at Harold Ramis movies. What? Is that dialogue from a Speilberg movie? Implanted memories of some idyllic childhood in suburbia that NOBODY ever had. The shrinking world is a world as seen in a three camera sit com. The world as the set for Star Trek, and this is really the world of a screening room, or recording studio. Battelstar Gallactica; the bridge, Captain we have incoming whatevers…cut to radar screen. Blip blip blip blip…ok, time to go out into CGI space. And so we do. The real space is limited to the sound stage. After all, the world is all the same; Harlen County, Miami, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Same. Iraq and Mexico. Same.

I think one of the reasons for the success of Breaking Bad was that it was filmed on location. The skies of New Mexico sustained that show.

Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley

I wanted to go back for a second to the Puritan figure in American consciousness. Cotton Matther is never far removed from the liberal classes. The Puritan wants those who disobey …well, anything, to be put in the stocks. The enduring symbol of early American society is probably the stocks, and later, the slave market. And then Indian killers and buffalo killers, and railroad camps. That is the United States in a three line history. In another sense, the Ramis films did something else, too. They undermined an idea of utopian dreaming. “You fucked up, you trusted us”. Sucker. Mark. The idealist is equated with poverty and there is nothing less acceptable than being poor. Reagan values were embraced by the soft left. Today the fall out from Reagan liberals is seeping into the support for US foreign policy. The endless making of equivalencies. There are fascists on all sides. Sadam was a dictator. Qadaffi was crazy and wore eye liner. White guys are, even if we don’t like them, rational and civilized: like Tony Blair and David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy and Holland, and Bush. The confidence man, from Melville through James Cain was an anarchist, and an outlaw. The shrewd cheat of Harold Ramis is a reactionary.

But once Obama came into office, the momentary hope became something else. Instead of white guys, it was a black guy let into the fraternity kegger. Not even a halfback. The well spoken regulated black man. He was able to kill even MORE efficiently. He carried out the wishes of the ruling class with more aplomb.

Depara

Depara


And just to make mention of a very intelligent analysis of the Dieudonne affair (sic).
http://www.leninology.com/2014/03/dieudonne-through-prism-of-white-left.html

This echos, in a more articulate manner, what I tried to say a dozen postings back. More important is the analysis of the left, and if this were moved to the U.S., there would much that is similar. In some ways identical. For the racism of the Obama age is expressed under cover of paternalistic concern for racism. We are so concerned we award 12 Years a Slave best picture, and yet, as Houria Bouteldja says, the structural left is complicit with Imperialism. It is a failure of memory partly. The liberal and most of the left will never defend Qadaffi or examine US covert wars in Venezuela. They will do somersaults to criticize the percieved impurity of Chavez — Chavez, the only black face to ever become President of a country in post colonial South America. The left pulled back defending Aristide. The left will often excuse the Islamophobia of the French veil ruling under cover of feminist independence. The foreign wars of aggression in Afganistan are given a partial pass because after all, the Taliban put women in a hijab or burka. Now today, the US has created chaos in Ukraine, taking advantage of a corrupt government, and the post Soviet chaos of former satellites and Eastern bloc countries. The same thing with the lack of rigor in dicussing Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. How many on the left in the U.S. will defend Milosevic?

The demonizing of Chavez (and of Castro, too) has taken place through an extraordinary bombardment of propaganda, but also because the Trotskyist trained hard left is never going to trust state power. If there are images of “students” in the streets, then a lot of left leaning critics in the U.S. will ask (as I read) “whats going on”? Now the first reaction should be, which state department front group is funding these efforts at destabilization? The tilt toward Imperialism is really the most surprising thing to me, I think, in many left circles. A blanket NEVER, NEVER support the US military in anything they do, is the most appropriate position. NEVER. They cannot be doing good, anywhere, at any time. NEVER. But so deep are the narratives implanted, the bathos of countless film and TV show, and even if the films are anti war, ostensibly (Full Metal Jacket), the result is to somehow humanize the war effort. The enemy is not humanized. The face of the enemy is invisible. It is useful to remember just how reactionary Hollywood really is. It’s not overt (except in a few cases) but it is structural. War movies, jingoistic war movies, often make money. Ergo we dont care the content or pov of this war movie. We care it makes money. Lone Survivor is making money. There will be more just like it, soon. WHY is it making money? That’s a bigger question. But maybe that is a seperate posting. The thing that *is* relevant here is the treatment of the Afghan people in this film. And by extension the treatment of all Muslims, or third world people in Hollywood film. They are *simple*…a bit like Giannas, the ‘Greek Freak’, simple, often charming, but children, really. Lone Survivor has an intertext insert at the end, as a sort of coda (well, one of many codas to that film) that explains the quaint but supportable value system of these tribal people. They defend their guests blah blah blah. Its some sort of appalling and neo colonialist condescension and a good many leftists will buy into that. Paternalistic.

N. C. Wyeth

N. C. Wyeth