Imago Mundi

Watching what appears to be the final act in the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, I was struck again by the need for an aesthetic resistance, the development of skills needed to deconstruct the Empire.

There are narratives that instantly smell like State Department creations. They arrive fully made, and carry with them a sort of Conde Nast vibe — meaning they have a carefully crafted shiny wholeness about them. There are no dark shadows, no ambivilence, no warts or moral ambiguity.

The sense of actual history is missing, leaving a strange sense of vertigo in the viewer. These are characters in a pre-formed story-line, and the anitromic feeling almost leaves a hole in the image, the photo op; but they so strongly invite consensus that a public well trained in consuming these images and plots, relfexivly embrace it in toto.

When one reads Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky, the sense of the world forces itself on you. What is not in the scene is still there, and it cannot be forgotten. Reading Herman Broch or Thomas Bernhard, it is the same, but via another aesthetic strategy. The world is erased when the propaganda machine is the author….as it were. For the world is dark and menacing and always, at every turn, ambivilent. Now, the actual story of any political or public figure may or may not have real significance, but that’s not the issue. For the PR machine will remove real history, for real history is an inconvenience. Usually, the real person has receeded behind the mask.

The person is now a product, an image scrubbed clean, de-historicized and politically neutered. Rendered fit for consumption.

The fact that fiction can better portray the world seems obvious, but Western education has instinctively, if not consciously, emphasized that art and fiction, film and poetry is there for recreation. It is a bit frivilous, and the pastime of the young or the simply deluded. If the real person is simply too complex, if the image cannot be made-over, then they are consigned to the dead file. They are erased. Martin Luther King has been made over into a kindly de-politicized Santa, an avuncular Uncle, and his very cannonization has really been an erasure.

The narrative is white supremicist. It is pro capitalist. It is always an exercise in authority worship.

If the President of the United States has his arm around someone, be alerted — this is PR, the person is a wax dummy. Now, one of the reasons I happen to think the reading of Marx is crucial to any education, any pedagogy, is, if for no other reason, that class is analysed. Americans don’t believe in class. However, look who the Prez has his arm around… is rarely anyone from the under-class. Aung Suu Kyi always has bugged the shit out of me, and it’s partly my class radar registering something I of which I have come to be suspicious. I dont suppose it’s an accident that Aristide is led out of his country at gunpoint, and that the Burmese “dissident” is having tea at the White House. Aristide came from the slums. There is no statue in Washington for Malcolm. Class and race — they trigger a lot of alarm bells in the corridors of power.

But back to aesthetic education. I actually believe just the reading of Dickens, Shakespeare, or Dante, forces an internalizing —if only of form, but almost always more, upon the reader. The constant consumption of cliche, of sentimentality, and of kistch story-telling will, if no antidote is provided, permanently impair the audience. The already fragmented psyche of an internet addicted, iPad addicted, ADD afflicted populace is going to recoil from the first sentence of a Conrad novel, or Melville … and the lesser known voices… a Robert Walser, or Von Kleist or Turgenev, will today feel as if one is reading a text in Albanian.

People have argued with me that reading certain philosophy today, the work of Medieval theologians, seems pointless….science has advanced, math has advanced, etc. In fact, to sit and read through a work of St.Anselm is a singular experience. Anselm follwed Duns Scotus, and was, broadly speaking, a neoplatonist. But it is a deepening experience to follow him as he thinks through relationships between an absolute God, and our known perceptual world. Anselm wrote in 1100….so it is also a link to the past, a dialogue with death …a reconfiguing of our own vision of mortality.

“Nothing therefore happens in nature which is contrary to its universal laws. Nor does anything happen which does not agree with those laws or does not follow from them. For whatever happens, happens by God’s will and eternal decree, that is…whatever happens according to rules which involve eternal necessity and truth.”
–Spinoza, from the Theological-Political Treatise

It is, partly I think, a form of resistance to the ever increasing trivialization of daily life. The infantalizing of the populace. The corporate media and U.S. State Department spin the Israeli assault on Gaza, and it is helpful I believe to have a keener sense of the real world, of narrative, to see clearly the fascism at work here.

There are obvious artworks with direct political content….whether Brecht or Picasso or Goya, but there are also works that in the radical nature of their form, in the extreme perspective from which a real world is seen with renewed precision, that provide an anti-toxin to Franco, or Netanyahu, or Pinochet and Papa Doc.

Trujillo visits Franco

Class. Aung Suu Kyi wants to bring “western development” to her country. Jose Mujica, of Uruguay, owns a VW beetle, and lives in a small proletarian home. Mujica is not going to be photographed with Obama’s arm around him, I’m guessing. Class. The Queen loved Pinochet….had him over for tea, often. I wrote before about the history of the modern Olympics…of Samaranch, friend of Franco, a royalist pro-Fascist and grandee of Spain. White surpemicism. The master narrative, the system of colonialism and imperialism.

Someone recently suggested to me, well, argued with me, that everyone has the potential to wake up in the morning and take leadership. This is part of the master narrative as well. It’s only laziness or some deficiency that keeps the poor from wealth and power. If one reads, say, Dante, however superficially unrelated, I believe that sort of fairy tale will seem obvious. One knows…ah, the inner circles of hell, that is where Franco goes, that is where Netanyahu goes and Dick Cheney and Mobutu.

Jose Mujica

The narrative will insist, over and over and over that Chavez is a thug, a caudillo….race and class. Castro is a tyrant. Milosevic was going to ethnically cleanse the Balkans. No, its Israel that is ethnically cleansing.

The form of artworks is a complex topic. It’s not amenable to simple sound bite explanations….as theme or ‘message’ is. Literary Theory is useful, certainly, but so is just reading. There are countless ways in which the world is made more clear. The directly political writings of Fugard, or Lorca, but also the Romantics (what M. H. Abrams called ” a habitual reading of passion, life, and physiognamy into the landscape”) who drew upon Neoplatonist metaphysics. There is the social realism of Zola, and there is the sci fi dystopic visions of Philip K. Dick. There has been, and Adorno and Horkheimer saw this, a by.product (if not just the logic) of the Enlightenment having de-mystified the landscape. The psychic resonance that once attached to the idea of a journey to the Poles…north or south…with the attendant residue of the imago mundi, the allegorical mapping of our souls has given way to the game show or reality TV show where contestants battle each week in one or another utterly pointless contest (with the accompanying masochism). Trivializing, distraction, infantalizing.

In the 17th century, Torcelli was visited by a French diplomat…who wrote in his journal of the meeting….

“We have a demonstration in an account of a voyage to Italy made by the Frenchman Balthasar de Monconys. Monconys met Torricelli during his stay in Florence, in the autumn of 1646. In his Journal, published in Lyon in 1665, he recalled that the Italian scientist spoke to him of the movements of the celestial bodies, explaining “how the bodies turned about their centre, how the Sun, the Earth and Jupiter cause all the ether which surrounds them to turn, the closer parts turning more rapidly than those that are further away, in such a way that experience shows when one turns a stick in the centre of some water, and the same happens to the planets, with respect to the sun; to the moon with respect to the earth; to the Medicean stars with respect to Jupiter”

This is outdated science, but it is not an outdated vision. The truth of the thought lives on, even if the science does not. Today we have science in the service of corporations bent on selling us things and in service to the Pentagon. The military has usurped definitions of reality. Drone terror…if the logic of science leads here, then one needs to re-think science. Of course its Capitalism, not science. The end game of Capital is the growing poverty throughout the world, the destruction of community and history and an uptick in wholesale violence. The U.S. today is a society in which the murder of children can be rationalized. In which people’s inner lives, or too many of them anyway, are geared toward punishment, and the forgetting of compassion. Domination and control. The creation of imaginary threats. Oh…..terrorists are out to get us. The fact is, the largest terror organization in the world is the U.S. Military.

Marx said, in the Economic Manuscripts….“Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is essentially the production of surplus-value. The labourer produces, not for himself, but for capital. “

Resistance requires a careful close reading of propaganda. It requires the production of the human, and not the commodity. To do that, the terrible effects of the mass brainwashing of corporate news and entertainment must be corrected. The mass man leaves doubt behind. I have Japanese style tattoos …many….including the Kanji symbols for ‘doubt’ and ‘fear’. I remind myself to doubt everytime I glance at my left arm. The society that numbly tolerates secrecy, that tolerates SWAT teams kicking in doors and shooting women….as happened this week in Maryland, and as it happened, no arrests were made at this house. Only a murder. By the police. If the Palestinians can be herded into an outdoor prison and bombed mercilessly with U.S. made weapons, then the next logical step is the poor in the U.S. will be rounded up too, and the poor everywhere. The colonial system used the colonized as labor. The apartheid state doesn’t use the colonized at all, it merely wants to be rid of them. I have the impression in the U.S. today of a white crisis, a sense of powerlessness and anger. People love to talk tough. They love depictions of police brutality — fuck the legal process, cut to the chase, and the chase it to beat on the *bad guys*. Who are the *bad guys*? They are whoever the authority structure says they are. Trust us. We can’t tell you, but they deserved this.

Here is a sermon of John Donne.

Donne wrote in the early 1600s, was a lawyer, a poet and cleric. I’ve always thought the sermons among the most beautiful English ever written. Its obviously not the religious that makes up their lasting value…it is a vision. This from Christmas Day, St. Paul’s….

“But, if thou canst take this light of reason that is in thee, this poore snuffe, that is almost out in thee, thy faint and dimme knowledge of God, that riseth out of this light of nature, if thou canst in those embers, those cold ashes, finde out one small coale, and wilt take the paines to kneell downe, and blow that coale with thy devout Prayers, and light thee a little candle, (a desire to reade that Booke, which they call the Scriptures, and the Gospell, and the Word of God;) If with that little candle thou canst creep humbly into low and poore places, if thou canst finde thy Saviour in a Mangers and in his swathing clouts, in his humiliation, and blesse God for that beginning, if thou canst finde him flying into Egypt, and finde in thy selfe a disposition to accompany him in a persecution, in a banishment, if not a bodily banishment, a locall banishment, yet a reall, a spiritual banishment a banishment from those sinnes, and that sinnefull conversation, which thou hast loved more than thy Parents, or Countrey, or thine owne body which perchance thou hast consumed, and destroyed with flat sinne; if thou canst find him contenting and containing himselfe at home in his fathers house, and not breaking out, no not about the worke of our salvation, till the due time was come, when it was to be done. And if according to that example, thou canst contain thy selfe in that station and vocation in which God hath planted thee, and not, through a hasty and precipitate zeale, breake out to an imaginary, and intempestive, and unseasonable Reformation, either in Civill or Ecclesiasticall businesse, which belong not to thee; if with this little poore light, these first degrees of Knowledge and Faith, thou canst follow him into the Garden, and gather up some of the droppes of his precious Bloud and sweat, which he shed for thy soule, if thou canst follow him to Jerusalem, and pick up some of those teares, which he shed upon that City, and upon thy soule, if thou canst follow him to the place of his scourging, and to his crucifying, and provide thee some of that balme, which must eure thy soule; if after all this, thou canst turne this little light inward, and canst thereby discerne where thy diseases, and thy wounds, and thy corruptions are, and canst apply those teares, and blood and balme to them, (all this is, That if thou attend the light of naturall reason, and cherish that, and exalt that, so that that bring thee to a love of the Scriptures, and that love to a beleefe of the truth thereof, and that historical faith to a faith of application, of appropriation, that as all those things were certainly done, so they were certainly done for thee) thou shalt never envy the lustre and glory of the great lights of worldly men, which are great by the infirmity of others, or by their own opinion, great because odhers think them great, or because they think themselves so, but thou shalt finde, that howsoever they magnifie their lights, their wit, their learning, their industry, their fortune, their favour, and sacrifice to their owne nets, yet thou shalt see, that thou by thy small light hast gathered Pearle and Amber, and they by their great lights nothing but shels and pebles; they have determined the light of nature, upon the booke of nature, this world, and thou hast carried the light of nature higher, thy naturall reason, and even humane arguments, have brought thee to reade the Scriptures, and to that love, God hath set to the seale of faith. Their light shall set at noone; even in their heighth, some heavy crosse shall cast a damp upon their soule, and cut off all their succours, and devest them of all comforts, and thy light shall grow up, from a faire hope, to a modest assurance and infallibility, that that light shall never go out, nor the works of darknesse, nor the Prince of darknesse ever prevaile upon thee, but as thy light of reason is exalted by faith here, so thy light of faith shall be exalted into the light of glory, and fruition in the Kingdome of heaven. Before the sunne was made, there was a light which did that office of distinguishing night and day; but when the sunne was created, that did all the offices of the former light, and more. Reason is that first, and primogeniall light, and goes no farther in a naturall man; but in a man regenerate by faith, that light does all that reason did, and more; and all his Morall, and Civill, and Domestique, and indifferent actions, (though they be never done without Reason) yet their principall scope, and marke is the glory of God, and though they seeme but Morall, or Civill, or domestique, yet they have a deeper tincture, a heavenly nature, a relation to God, in them.”


  1. Love the Donne!!

  2. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    Nice, John. I think “real history”, as you say, is not only inconvenient but also unentertaining to a society raised on entertainment. When everything is edited, tailored, shaped, as it were, I get the sense that what’s left is rather like those Japanese Noh masks, with their seemingly blank faces. Yet, the features are just so slightly off that the viewer can paint whatever “emotion” they want onto that face. In this case, one nostril is slightly larger than the other; the right eye is just a tad bit higher than the left and the corners of the mouth bend in opposite directions indicating joy or pain. The audience sees animation in these faces and thus the image, despite being carefully and meticulously manufactured, is seen as organic, interesting, real with just enough imperfection to make them seem “human”. The irony is that the removal of the mask, the revealing of that real human underneath is often accompanied by a great fall and suffers the righteous indignation of popular culture. Oh how the media love to manufacture and then destroy.

  3. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    It also occurred to me tonight that theaters are doing the same thing with Shakespeare. They desperately attempt to mold Shakespeare, to cut it to ribbons, to make it “more accessible” to a young audience. They rape the text of anything they themselves are too lazy to understand or interpret; sprinkle the stage with gimmickry acting tricks and sets that serve only as distractions, and reshape the play to squeeze into the prescribed, and now seemingly ubiquitous, 90 minute time frame, frightened that the ADD-ers won’t return after intermission. I think this is what you are talking about, this cannibalization of the image, the person, the play, the history that ultimately commodifies it and makes it suitable for mass consumption. It’s like cotton candy- tastes good, but no real nutritional value.

  4. john steppling says:

    Vocalis……..(I keep wondering who you are?)…….anyway, yes…..the entertainment fixation. @kasper…..saying much the same thing. Both correct. The pattern must be familiar. Must feel friendly. Part of what arts institutions do today is emphasis the idea of shared experience…….even if they call it something else at times. What this means is shared banality. Institutions predictably elimate politics, as well. Lets NOT share that. So the news, which is entertainment, is shaped to be presented in this packages…….shiny and friendly, and always focused on a message that says ‘ you the viewer are special and you are also RIGHT’…… doesnt matter what the details are….you are right. and we are right. We’re all right. The news chat shows might have faux debates, even yelling, but nobody is in fundamental disagreement. Or rarely anyway. So Shakespeare then is made to a pattern, too. Presented with simple parallels……romeo and juliet is just like bosnians and serbs…..etc. A croat boy and a serb girl…….ah, they fall in love…..their families dont get it. Darn. This is seen as highbrow. Because again, all ambiguity is removed….its the biggest sin for corporate media. That one might hold unclear moral positions, be conflicted………and Ive said this before but its about reinforcing consensus. The audience development folks that go around pitching how to increase your audience are all about this. Reach out to the community to see what they are interested in. Where I live that would be cross country sking and muscle cars. I mean, this is what pandering to the lowest common demominater gets you. MacBeth in a 72 Plymouth. WIth a ski rack. I guess I was trying to emphasize in this post was the mysteries of antiquity, the sense of wonder in meditative thought, is being erased……the temmplate now is always about technology, progress, and that means entertainment. Look…Shakespeare in 3D………..and of course ahead of that is the erasure of the political. MSNBC in five hours of news yesterday devoted FIVE minutes to Gaza. And that was from a pro Israeli pov. Its this trivializing. Endless brain dead trivializing.

  5. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    Yes, it’s very troubling, both on the macro and micro levels. Actors today do not know how to think or experience in metaphor. They lack the basic skills necessary to tell a story. I’m still working on formulating my thoughts on this, but when I watch plays nowadays, it is merely information being relayed with a generalized sense of mood. The beauty of Lorca is the archetypal nature of the characters, the non-specificity of the play, the respect Lorca has for the audience to think in metaphor. I feel as if actors today are merely describing the character’s feelings, not experiencing them. The banality of the language is also troubling. I recently saw a play in which every character, apparently in some attempt at verisimilitude, was given lines that contained phrases such as “it’s like”, “well..” and “you know?” Shakespeare never felt the need to use the phrase, “it’s like”. The simile was written and animated by the actors and their voices. The phrase “you know” seems like a constant begging for approval, not understanding. Writing like this actually seems more artificial because the author is telling the actor precisely how to deliver the line, what the thought is and, therefore, what the character is feeling whereas in classical drama, the author simply let the words do the talking. Now, obviously, the actor must formulate his own understanding of the text, but that’s precisely where his artistry lies.

  6. John, I appreciate this post very much. Especially because the day you posted it is the same day I started re-reading Dante’s Inferno – coincidentally. I first read it 12 years ago in college, but I’ve decided to pick it up again, and I’m struck by the invocations of history and culture it continually makes. I’m reading it both in Italian and English and the text conveys a much similar emotion to reading the Donne sermon above. The text becomes the space in which to explore, to wander with your eyes at the sky, and to be fully aware of a world that is at once unfamiliar and eternal. I had a difficult time starting the poem, adjusting to the cadences of translated verse (much like your eyes adjusting to a moon lit night after sitting all day in front of a computer), but once my ear and tongue became accustomed to the rhythm, I found considerable latitudes of meaning within the Medieval words. It’s the closest I’ve come to traveling back in time. There is incredible value to reading old texts – the essence of the human spirit still looms. I felt the same way looking at the cave paintings in France or the Aztec ruins in Mexico.

    The first group of sinners Dante encounters before he enters hell, before he crosses the river Acheron, are the waverers, those who refuse to take a stand in life against good or evil, those who indulge a passionless outlook, even the angels who took no side when Lucifer challengeded God. Their eternal damnation is irrelevance, forced to chase false banners of meaninglessness. Dante is overwhelmed by how many people he sees and recognizes. And all I could think of is that this represents the mainstream, the group of people standing on the sidelines, lacking any moral conviction to fight for what they believe in. This is particularly of interest because Dante is saying that turning a blind eye will land you in a place that is not even INSIDE hell, but rather in a pre-hell, which is somehow the most abject and pathetic of all.

  7. john steppling says:

    Great comment Joe. (and why did i say kasper….its both Vocalis…sorry…..must have been tired)……….anyway, yeah Joe, I think thats exactly how I feel. There is some quality in those texts that feels untrivialized. So much modern fiction for example is occupied with these small trivial observations that seem connected only back to the author….not the world, not to history. There is only this shallow narcississm. Dante’s italian is so beautiful to hear, even if you dont speak Italian………there is something really magical in the sound if you’ve heard anyone read it aloud.

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