A recent talk here on We Are Many (with China Mieville) touches on topics I think worth discussing.
Now, a good deal of this is very good. In fact it echoes a lot of what I’ve written myself over the years. It’s also expressed through this mummified lens of the Trotskyest party in the UK.
There is one area in all this which I want to focus on, and this is the idea of art as commodity.
The fact that one pays to, say, see a film — doesn’t preclude an analysis that extends beyond its commodity form. In the end, there is importance in distinguishing the difference even among commodities. There are, if we push it a bit, different kinds of commodity, but aside from that, it cuts to core issues of what ‘art” is exactly. There is a big trap involved in even using that word. So, yes, there are certainly truths in how profoundly over-invested we are in the commodities we purchase or pay for. In what we consume. Still, is Dark Knight the same as a coke can? Well, perhaps. Is it the same as Pasolini’s Salo? I mean Salo IS a commodity. It failed as a commodity. But it was a commodity. So the question is, do some commodities actually neutralize their commodity function, or form a dialectical relationship with that property that allows an emergent property to exist simultaneously A commodity remains a commodity. Still, I am hard pressed to see a Pasolini or a Fassbinder as purely commodities. As only a commodity in the way a Coke is. Its not ‘just’ a question of to what degree I find pleasure in it.
In the above talk Mieville dodges this topic. There is a subtle slight of hand in this — one moment all art is akin to the coke can, in the next the word “art” is used without that commodity declaration eclipsing the discussion …so in a sense the area worth examining is really how to define what ‘art” is, and more broadly how the commodity function of almost all cultural production impacts what we do with our own valuation of all this stuff we purchase.
I continue to encourage the subject of “narrative”, as opposed to “art”, which has simply become so broad as to be meaningless. Now, the topic of pleasure is introduced, too. Yes I enjoy Fassbinder. Yes I enjoy Kafka — or Flannery O’Conner — or whoever you want to place here for the purposes of this discussion. I would argue that the enjoyment is not the only thing going on. But, whatever else is going on is very hard to talk about in any reductive way. I suspect complex narrative, that which introduces the truths of our own personal history and of societal history and dynamics, has value — that its value resides in a complex matrix of readings. If it didn’t I suspect the fascists wouldn’t expend so much energy in making sure narrative is reduced to the crudest bluntest most one dimensional versions possible. At least in their emphasis on propaganda. Propaganda tends to have simplistic messages. My definition of kistch is about this as well (which is different that the pod cast linked above), it is intentionally purposefully manipulative. Complex narrative reaches back to older structures, and reflects the dreams history has shaped, and how our own are often shaped and manipulated, and interact with the social. The colonizing of consciousness is a big part of the culture industry — which is an organ of corporate social domination. However…does this mean that everything a studio makes is propaganda? Does this mean any narrative created to be sold is reflective of the values of the fascist ruling class? These are pertinent questions. The thing is, I would say, yes largely, in both cases. But not ALWAYS. Not 100% of the time. The author of the pod cast would accuse me of overly “identifying” — but thats wrong. It’s an easy out — because “indentification” is certainly rampant in the US public — its an almost hourly occurance in fact — but it is not the same as finding this (film, TV show, novel, painting) is valuable, has deeper meaning, is worth talking about. And that’s part of it, for talking about it is how the engagement extends itself…and involves history and the political, even. That is a good part of the social importance of culture. All cultures tell themselves stories. Fascists tell stories, too, and often complex ones. So its really important to identify the context. What’s being sold. It’s also important to learn how to read.
Again, there are layers of commodification in a sense. Cormac McCarthy is now a best selling author, by virtue of a couple of his books being made into films. At one time he was not a best selling author, but he ‘was’ published. His books were commodities. Is this the same as Transformers? Structurally there are similarities. And in fact both meet the definition of commodity. One however is pretty much an orgy of self congratulation for fascists and for fascist ideology, and one is…..what? Well, one is a ‘complex narrative’ that I am of the opinion reaches a level of resonance– at least for me, and has meaning for me, that makes it both pleasurable and somehow awakens. Do I enjoy it? Yes. Do I think its importance is universal? No. Do I think it has value in a political sense? Ah, well, only if we were to vastly extend the definition of politics. So, no, its not going to foment revolution. However, does the reading — does learning the abilities to read — this more complex narrative help individuals awaken to the world around them somehow? Yes. I think it’s part of a cultural heritage that helps create what is human as opposed to barbaric and robotic. So when I say “resonates” I am pointing to a complex and difficult to define fabric of mythologies, histories, allegories, as well as connections to whatever one wants to define as ‘spiritual”. Now I loathe the word spiritual. I would even prefer religious, such is my distaste for the word spiritual. That said, the sense of history incorporated in us is not simply a collection of facts, or research data about what happened on Promontory Point in 1869, or in the straights of Thermopylae in 430 B.C…….Its about the values and beliefs and visions of those societies, as well as of individuals in those societies. Does the truth of Leland Standford and the Golden Spike and Manifest Destiny reach us most cleary via history or art? The truth is it’s hard to distinguish what any of those terms mean. But if its Upton Sinclair, or McCarthy, or Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, the truths of American expansion, genocide, and land theft are connected to a layer of our unconscious that perhaps pure data cannot reach— art, narrative, ends up being a dialogue with the dead, and the pleasure of those novels are as significant as the histories of the period. Howard Zinn AND Sinclair is this alchemy of narrative realized and reproduced in new form within us. A discourse about power and politics, but also about prophecy and magic and — an entire world of almost impossible to define acts of thinking. This takes us back to what Guy Zimmerman and I were discussing regards Tragedy. A performative act, a mode of thought (in the case discussed, on stage) that opened to reveal ….well, something. A sensibility and vision of the Dionysian. Something that serves to awaken impulses toward the anti-institutional and non conformist.
When I stare at Pharaonic wall carvings, am I able to tie the distant past with my own pathologies and fears and obsessions? Yes, far more than I can reading histories of that age. Which is not to say I don’t need those readings as well, for the vision is in the end mine, it’s always going to my vision — the truth remains in the past, largely. We can only access it up to a point. The reading of the past needs whatever material can be found.
The problem is, of course, the destruction of public education and the extraordinary rise of marketing has led to a culture indelibly etched with the imprint of the commodity. It is so ritualized and so embedded in even base perception, that factors of anticipation and information processing is totally mediated by it. We reflect on ourselves in commodity form. Pleasure is mediated by the commodity form. And the sense of commodification is ever more ubiquitous . This is a big topic and one that I suspect will recur in any discussion of culture and art. For the purposes of this entry, the point worth further thought is the way in which our narratives might resist commodity. The problem with the left is often that in the interests of a rigid materialist Marxism, the baby is sort of tossed out with the commodified bath water.
Narrative is maybe, at this point in history, best looked at….at least as a starting point….from a perspective of desire and lack. To stare at a photo, such as the one below (from Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre…to be found here….http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/index.html, )is to tap to a small degree into the forgotten Dionysian, and our own childhood amnesia, into mystery and wonder and mortality. What Benjamin so often wrote about.
The narrative of a coke can (and probably of Transformers, too) is meant to kill all those things. The role of corporate cultural product is the erase memory, induce an almost autistic form of truncated story, a dependency on the sentimental trope to achieve a reliance on a kistch emotional stability — when the commodity is there to kill inner life, it is in another register from the narrative Pasolini gives you. It’s not an accident that when the US invaded Iraq, they encouraged the looting of the National museum…the better to erase cultural identity and history.
Velasquez painted for the Catholic Church…and there is no more disgusting institution one can find. There is, and this is a topic for a lot further analysis, a multi-dimensional relationship between money and narrative and image and code and language. Shakespeare somehow is emergent in a new way, when we think on Benazir Bhutto, and Pasolini and Goya live on in images of Abu Ghraib.The reason fascism always puts in motion measures that are meant to destroy art and memory and anything Dionysian is intentional. To that degree, then, art (narrative) “is” political.