There is a continuing sense of life in the United States, in particular, being experienced as a film or TV show. This is obvious. The question is really to map where the far reaches of this hyper-reality extend. To listen to a large class of the U.S. public is to listen to recycled television and film dialogue.
Someone said this week, or wrote actually, during an argument with friends, “I am a fan of drone warfare”.
He later explained this by saying he felt it protected American lives, and was a more accurate way to kill “terrorists”. Of course the now viral Joe Klein comment, echos the same sentiments.
Now, this suggests several things. The point I want to focus on, or try to examine, is linked to cultural production, and to questions of art. In this same conversation this man wrote about Castro’s “killing spree”, and how, as with Chavez, “bodies of political enemies started to pile up in the streets”.
The grammer is straight out of television. I’ve heard it before. It’s part of a short hand or code that really means nothing, because its exactly a form of hyper-reality. There was no killing spree, except on various TV shows.
Now there is simple propaganda. In one of the Bad Boys films, Will Smith uttered something about Castro’s drug syndicate. Thats a very simple and sort of clear cleaving to the State Department line on demonizing all leftist governments.
More interesting are the less clear cumulative effects of thousands of hours of this stuff. The almost impossible repetition of the same. One aspect is the unspoken but clearly expressed ideological messages. Now, these take all kinds of forms. The most disturbing, or at least the most pernicious at the moment, is the worship of all things military. It links to the time honored theme of patriotism. For this class of the U.S. public, this usually means a blind devotion to state authority. To *love* one’s country usually is an emotional attachement, shot through the prism of fear, of the U.S military. Its certainly not American culture that is loved. As Parenti says, “they would starve Athens for an ever stronger Sparta”.
The endless parade of cop franchise or military drama are now produced in this short hand or code. There are countless assumptive positions, or backdrops, that are easily read by a well trained populace. If one sees a bus station, a soldier entering from the rear door, a duffle bag over his shoulder, the association is ALWAYS with virtue and sacrifice. That soldier is not read as the man with a joy stick in his hand calling dead children “bug splat”. Its not a meth driven steroid junkie jar head Delta Force psycho fresh from target practice on Iraqi families stopped, seated in their car, at a check point.
There are key words of course, “freedom” being the most often employed. Here we return to hyper-reality. What freedom might this be? As Malcolm said, the freedom to starve. Of course these narratives do much more than just instill ideological positions. They also reinforce tendencies a healthier society would rationally try to correct; racism, bigotry, projection, and resentment. They provide a form of permission for these darker urges, largely because such urges can profitably be used in marketing campaigns. Today the media saturated public travels in hyper space as a kind of tourist. A shopper for landscapes that appeal to whatever particular fear or rage the individual viewer is suffering. I have often noted that the most popular shows are the ones who provide the most comforting fantasy landscape. Its the characters of course, but they aren’t really characters so much as part of the landscape. The current TV show Vegas, with Dennis Quaid, creates a fantasy of 1960s Las Vegas. The central protagonist, Quaid, is a stoic hyper masculine throw back to the emotionally distant heroic western heroes of the 1950s. Except that if one were to examine a sampling of 1950s westerns, one might find, indeed, emotionally distant men, but none of them as one dimensional as the Quaid character. For it isn’t a character, its a chair. Its a vista of hills and sand. It’s a horse.
The remaining narrative mechanisms are equally coded. There is almost no story, only a space to visit on an hour long vacation. The internalizing of these codes, as many have noted, accumulate into an imagined world where nothing concrete need be addressed. Where one can speak in TV dialogue about events that never took place, and believe fully that they did. Now, there are also a whole host of deep codes at work. Racism is the easiest to talk about I suppose. South America equals banana republic. Caudillos and strongmen and drug cartels and corruption. The inner city is only gangs and drive by shootings. But deeper into these codes, one can uncover the reinforcement of the subject’s inherent superiority. The white supremicism. The white male supremicism. For even when the protagonist is a black woman or, say, a Mexican teenage girl, they are only stand-ins for white men. Even when the script is written by a black woman, it often expresses these same codes. Of course not many black women write for CBS or FOX, or SONY. The normalizing of acting out your own rage and resentment in the body of an accetable figure of authority….thats one sense of what is going on.
For again, these are no longer characters. They are only decor and landscape. This landscape is constantly punctuated with violence and sex. But its a particular staging of sex and violence. HBO has sort of perfected the insertion of bare breasts as part of the landscape’s inventory. The choreographed sex, the editing, all follow a formula perfected in advertising. I remember showing a class the opening to one of the Rambo films, and then the opening to 1970s porn film. The camera did the same thing. The objectifying of the body. The camera caresses the body, and in the case of Rambo, the gun right after it. Porn is actually pretty primitive in comparison. Or porn from that bygone era. The amatuer porn explosion has been only another step on the road of self branding, and altered a sense of body and sex forever. So, with HBO, much like the fiction that once appeared in magazines like Hustler, there must be a breast every twelve minutes, or whatever it is. Or a sex scene every half page. And all of it is interchangeable in the end. When HBO showed its mini-series Rome , it was not hard to imagine most of these “characters” stepping out of Days of Our Lives or Criminal Minds. The acting, in particular in military and police shows, carries a certain deadness, an intentional minimalist authoritarian style. It always is smug, and cynical, but is carefully NOT cynical when discussing patriotism and other abstractions such as freedom. The tone dips further into disgust when dealing with “perps” or “terrorists”. It might be useful, at some point anyway, to trace back these figures as they appeared in earlier genre forms. The Romance novel, the dime pulp crime novel, or even in still earlier painting genres. When Molly Klein and I wrote about Weeds, this topic came up and it’s worth a more in-depth analysis. Speaking of Weeds, the final episode revealed the latent reactionary underpinnings that had been kept more or less surpressed for six seasons or so. Punishment ALWAYS awaits those who reject a petit bourgeois life.
But I digress. For the issue is, at least one issue, the way in which history and the political world view has now almost totally morphed into simulacrum. This has two obvious implications right off the bat. One is that real historical evidence is simply an inconvenience. And two, and maybe even more important, is that where art once reached to express utopian dreams, where it once questioned assumptions, and through even its virtuosity, it suggested truths not spoken before, or hidden, or it provided forms for deciphering the oracular mysteries of community and mortality, it now only projects a blank screen of interchangable cliches. The replacement of this artistic project with corporate commodity narrative, hyper reality tourism, has stunted the capacity to see and hear.
This week I read an article in the NY Times on longevity.
The most striking aspect of this had to do with community. That advanced capitalist society, before all else perhaps, has erased community.
I am reminded of a figure from the 1600s, a Dutchman, named Hugo Grotius. He is credited as the father of international law. He was, in fact, a figure of prominance within the Dutch East India Company constellation, and his work was very narrowly in the service of Empire. For what he wrote was a legal basis for just wars. For wars of opportunity, really, and that the proper authority (previously the state) could now rest with commercial entities. Without getting too deeply into legal history, the importance here is that this idea of prima facie rights, of a natural law of self preservation, has been carried on straight through to today. And in the world of corporate media narrative we find this as a backdrop for the great white father as enforcer of moral causes. Now, this idea of war for profit as a moral right can be read in almost all commerical film of the last eighty years. It establishes the idea of aquisition of “what is useful for life”, meaning property and other peoples, as a natural law.
There was the additional inclusion of the right of taking “unused” land. That is, land not used in a manner that made sense to white European traders and armies. In other words, the foundations for colonialism.
There is in this age of branding, something that starves the spiritual life of a people, which is just another way of saying it destroys community. For all the potential of platforms such as Facebook, it is also a form of self-branding. It is easy to pick apart the flaws in Baudrillard, but the corrective to his vision of hyper-reality isn’t achieved by a Derridean corrective (the free playing signifier), which at least in one way, was a criticism of Baudrillard’s supposed nihilism. I have a feeling that as time passes Baudrillard’s notions about the production of image may seem ever more cogent. The over-exposure (JB), the over illumination of the world renders it impossible to see. The restoration of sight may lie in culture. I’d like to think so anyway. The enclosing of discourse within a grammar, a narrative, and images of corporate and State Department ideology, of this pre-fabricated tourist landscape has provided a large chunk of the populace with pre-digested slogans and faux history that are spewed out as chit chat and little more. They are like affirmations, little Bible quotes to be recited and bantered about. Oh, the bodies pilled up in the streets. WHAT street? WHEN? WHO? Oh, it doesn’t matter, “we” all know this happened. The consensus, or appearance or selling of consensus, is a significant part of what this commodity culture does.
A world where children are killed by hellfire missiles, launched from drones that are controlled by men in air conditioned rooms on some base in Idaho; that this is largely ignored, is almost too depraved to comprehend. That people can speak of being “fans” of this even more so. Just like Kim Kardashian and her 7 million twitter follower fans. It’s all the same. If culture is to ever posit community again, then it must decipher its own prophetic ghost image. This is what art has done in the past. It has, without consciously being aware, dreamed of a future. This desire, the desire of the creative, of imagination, is what is killed off in mass media, in the culture industry. If Haitian garment workers making 18 cents an hour can be seen as props for the hyper real tour of Clinton’s business development project, and can be relegated to stand ins in this epic saga of white supremicism, then artwork has to re-think the form it works in, far more than its message. For messages are neutralized, and over-exposed somehow. They are uttered by Dennis Quaid, the chair. The authority figure, the nostalgic simulacrum. These exercises in an invented nostalgia, that most reductive longing for the nest, for relief from the actual emptiness of modern alienated existence, are now also the vocabulary for political alliance, and for an ever intensifying social domination. Critical judgement is used for false choices between different detergent brands, for who was best dressed on the red carpet. It’s a parade of infantilzed preferences. And the language sinks fruther into almost pre-verbal babble. Tens of millions of people slave in sweat shops while the pundit max headroom class disect Romney’s tie choice, or how cool Obama’s drone jokes were. These are produced associations, they are brands, and they mask the daily violence of a system descending into madness. The soundtrack of day to day life is scored with both real gunfire and simulacrum gunfire.