narrative interruptus

One of the things I noticed while teaching at the film school in Lodz, was that students watched shows on their computers. They watched them, series anyway, in seasonal form. In other words if The Wire was making the rounds at the dorm, it was on a disc with the first two seasons. This allowed the sense of expanded narrative. Obviously, the old network formula, a stand alone one hour show, no longer seemed very compelling. Now of course most network TV is so awful as to be unwatchable anyway, but there was a new wave of cable material that defied the old formula; Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, et al. Putting aside for a second the relative value of any of these shows, one thought did occur to me this week. It has to do with how corporate product is exactly that, a product. A commodity. The public in general has come to accept the narratives they view as a commodity. The corporation deems the show cost inefficient, and cancels it. In mid season often.

Mailer, years ago, remarked that a generation was growing with the expectation that narrative would be interrupted. He meant commercials, but it’s the same thing, really. I don’t think this an insignificant matter. One watches a narrative, never mind the quality, and is left with a cliff-hanger ending at season’s end. Then the show is cancelled. The narrative is interrupted, terminated. Mostly this is simply accepted. A few fanatical viewers will write letters, oh, please save “Invasion”…or whatever. By and large however, the termination is simply accepted because it’s a business decision and business decisions are law. In fact they are almost religious law. The oracle has passed a mysterious decree, secretly arrived at, in the corridors of power (i.e. the marketing dept and accounting). These secret decrees carry enormous weight, they are passed down by a priest class. So personal psychic discomfort…I want to say trauma… are internalized, quietly, because to suggest corporate violence is to be seen as insane. There is a violence in this, of course. It’s a form of systemic sadism in a sense. Now, one might say, well, look, its only Invasion, or its only Rubicon (a fascinating show whose rating failure probably had to do with its emphasis on low tech crime fighting) or the singular example of the Canadian series Intelligence (whose cancellation was reportedly the result of government pressure). Its only pop culture. But popular culture contains within its parameters a violence to the psyche.

How does a people, a society, routinely accept that narratives it consumes…for again, we are talking products here…how does a people so passively allow this? We allow it, for we have no power. But how do we so reflexively tolerate such insult? The mimetic dynamic with artworks, a huge topic I expect to write a lot about, and a difficult one, is nonetheless important to how a society orders its inner life. The applied narratives for electoral politics is quite deeply ingrained. Narrative matters. It matters because all narrative is our own narrative. Our own lost encounter, forgotten trauma. I think this leads into several other topics; the identification with the criminal, for we are all criminals in our Oedipal drama. The trivializing of our collective discourse by the obsessive consumption of these narrative commodities links to our stunted awareness of class. Our allegorical understanding is truncated by linking it to bad television drama. Nonetheless, the toleration of the Oracle’s passing of a prohibition on the ending, the withholding of an ending as it were, is a fascinating subject. A narrative coitus interruptus, a reinforcement of puritan asceticism, and the deeply entrenched belief that hard work pays off, and this is all just leisure time activity and of not great import. One is trained to believe culture is pop culture, unless it’s labeled as ‘serious art’ by the mandarin class of curator or artistic director or museum director. Otherwise it’s simply something to kill time between working hours. Of course, it’s become work too (Jonathan Beller is very good on this topic and I will return to it). The attention economy. There is no leisure, its all work. And hence, in truth, even pop narrative has resonance. And our engagement with it is now connected to the economy.

“The media are not merely engines of representation, they are economic engines. which as they represent also monetize.” Jonathan Beller, Cinematic Mode of Production

That the production and reproduction of subjects is part of social domination, is clear, but the role of culture in this process is far less clear.

Beller sees visual technologies as scrambling language function.. and while this may be true, and he’s certainly right that the question of culture, pop or not, is always, for example, missing from accounts of Imperialist war — most recently Iraq and Libya. What is possibly missing from Beller is how ‘narrative’ works in all this. Adorno saw the culture industry as a tool in creating compliant workers, and Althussar saw all state institutions as ideological instruments for producing subjects who could return to work. Church, School, the Military even, and now media. Today, Althusser’s notions of the fungibility of workers, treated simply as replacement parts were in the old factory system, takes on new almost metaphysical dimension when we link it all up with narrative commodities. The process Althusser called ‘interpellation’ — the invention of a worker-subject psychologically — defining the parameters of this subject — is today achieved through the silent decrees of media accountants, or in the fictive mouth of narrative authority figures from pop melodrama. And those authority figures are handed down by studio and network executives, from an elite financial class of soothsayer.

Hence, this internalizing of narrative termination suggests rather profound mental consequences. What they are exactly, I don’t know. But like the threatening zombie hordes, there is fear expressed in these decisions, and that fear, financial on one level, is also allegorical on another.

Here is Beller discussing related matters…

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