The recent school shooting in Newtown Ct is going to elicit a good deal of hand wringing and lip service to reform. The anti NRA liberals will demand action. It is clear that affulent white liberals are the most adamant about gun control. I suppose that makes sense, for they do not fear the police in the way the poor do. The poor know that it’s just not a good idea to allow, in principle, the police to be the only group with weapons.
I am in the process of trying to imagine an *Anti Institute for Cultural Research*… thats the sort of name I came up with. I am writing grant proposals and trying to see what it would cost to even have a single summer forum where a radical pedagogy took place, and where an emphasis was placed on culture, on aesthetics, and on art and its intersection with politics. For, what has struck me most this week, before the school shooting, was the failure of institutional art. The failure to find gravitas. It is such a tawdry shallow frivilous and insipid cultural landscape right now.
I want this posting to suggest some of what I mean when I speak of aesthetic resistence. What are the correctives to Zero Dark Thirty and the lastest Ben Affleck or Adam Sandler or Speilberg or Milch franchise or whateverthefuckever. Its far too big a subject to even attempt anything like a comprehensive exploration of aesthetics, today. So I want to just sort of write some intuitive responses to the spectacle, as it looks to me right now.
There have been sixteen mass shootings in the U.S. in 2012.
SIXTEEN. I mean holy shit. Here are a couple random examples….
April 6th, Tulsa Oklahoma. Two white men shoot into a group of black pedestrians, killing three. All three victims were black. One of the shooters had a father who had been a shooting victim, two years earlier, almost to the day. The father was shot by a black man, who is now in prison. Race, Oklahoma, and a grim landscape of unemployment, racial tensions, and an ethos of masculinity defined by aggression. Football is god in Oklahoma. Football and rodeo. One of the shooters, the younger man, 19, Jake Englund, was depressed because his fiancee (with whom he had a child) had recently committed suicide. The narrative is grim, feels as emotionally empty as the flat hard terrain on which it took place feels empty. It is the world Capote captured with In Cold Blood, and Mailer in Executioner’s Song. I thought the best aspect of both those books was the sense of lonliness and emotional deadness in rural America. The strip malls, discount super markets, 99 cent stores, auto parts franchises …. which serve, often, as the defacto social club for young and not so young men in the area.
May 12th, Seattle, Washington. Forty year old Ian Stawicki opened fire on people in a cafe. Stawicki had a history of volitility and “erratic” behavior. Stawicki was the eldest of three children born to Walter and Carol Stawicki in Santa Barbara, Ca. The family soon settled in Beacon Hill, Seattle. Stawicki displayed early signs of autism and had trouble learning as a child. He joined the Army at seventeen. He suffered a concussion in traing, in Panama, from a grenade, and was discharged.
Stawicki is an almost Dostoyevkian character, an isolated unhappy man who suffered social and romantic rejection throughout his life. He worked odd jobs, on commercial fishing boats in Alaska, and later as a roadie for rock bands in the Seattle area. Stawicki loved guns and owned several. A former girlfriend, from a short term relationship, remembers him sleeping with a gun under his pillow. Seattle and Kittias County issued him gun permits.
A girlfriend in 2007 filed for a restraining order against Stawicki. She said he had grown more paranoid, more angry. In March 2010 he attacked his brother and beat him severely. The family cut off contact with Stawicki after that.
He adopted the moniker “Spider Wolf” around this time. He started hanging out with local musicians at the Cafe Racer. Two of those regulars were victims in the later shooting spree.
He would tell people he was part of a CIA hit squad. He grew more unstable and aggressive. People increasingly avoided him.
August, College Station, Texas. Home of Texas A&M. Thomas Caffall shoots three in a thirty minute rampage of violence. On his facebook page, Caffall lists among his inspirations and people he admired, gun desginers Samuel Colt and Mikhail Kalashnikov. Caffall was a big video game enthusiest. His father described him as “crazy as hell”.
August; forty year old Wade Page, avowed white supremicist, goes on shooting spree at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, killing six. Page was a member of several different skinhead bands and toured Europe with one of them. Page was an Army veteran who worked in the mid nineties as a repairman for the Hawk Missile System and later for Psychological Operations (PSYOP). He received a general discharge after a pattern of misconduct usually involving being drunk while on duty. He worked in the Denver area as a truck driver after that until he was fired for driving while intoxicated. Page had permits for the guns he used in the shooting.
These narratives share much in common, at the same time they exhibit great variety. Putting them altogether provides a picture of American society you rarely see in corporate TV and film. Cop shows tend toward reductive portraits of the “bad guys”, and if the focus IS on a killer, he is usually a gifted psychopath, an evil mastermind. The truth is, these real life killings are narratives of absolute banality. It is the banality of daily life for so much of the underclass in the United States. Running throughout these stories is a palpable lack of hope, an absence of opportunity, and a painful sense of alienation. In almost every case there was a failure for these men to get mental health treatment of any kind.
As I read through the stories, I happened on various news outlets…CNN, ABC, MSNBC, et al. In each case the story was surrounded with advertisements…often for violent video games, or just with adverts for the newest Hollywood film about killers or the military. You cannot even report tragedy without trying to sell something. The obsessive display of violent imagery is everywhere. It is constant. What is the message? I also found I had to sit through commercials for various items….commercial videos I was unable to turn off. One was for car insurance, another for stomach antacid. More banality, more bombardment of image and marketing message. More things to sell and buy. You are what you buy. It all feels slightly old fashioned these days, though. The economy is not really pegged to consumerism anymore, though its still present. It is just about SEEING the image, and somehow reproducing it. Circulating it. If you sit back to reflect at all, it is unavoidable not to remember cultural expression as it intersects here. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, and Shakespeare…or McCarthy, or poets such as Roethke and Hart Crane, Lorca and Vallejo and Trakle. Assuming one has been exposed to them.
Here is a Robert Bly translation of Trakle:
In the farmyard the white moon of autumn shines.
Fantastic shadows fall from the eaves of the roof.
A silence is living in the empty windows;
Now from it the rats emerge softly
And skitter here and there, squeaking,
And a grey malodorous mist from the latrine
Follows behind them, snifﬂing:
Through the mist the ghostly moonlight quivers.
And the rats squeak eagerly as if insane
And go out to ﬁll houses and barns
Which are ﬁlled full of fruit and grain.
Icy winds quarrel in the darkness.
If there is nothing to fill the inner lives of people except advertisements, coercion, marketing, or TV violence with disposible people, and the endless worship and adulation of authority, then what happens to these lonely people? Almost all these killers were men. Where is the intersection of misogyny and explosions of violence? These were almost all men who felt powerless, inadequate, and marginal. Community once upon a time had a sense of how to care for them. But that was long ago. Feudalism, now being reproduced in our new feudal era, has royalty and serfs. And no care for the damaged.
What really is the role of art? The barbarism of Capitalism, of motives pinned exclusively to profit, to exploitation of our neighbors; is this moment of random and usually impersonal murder somehow the logical culmination? If children are read to at night, do they create neural connections more ammenable to compassion, to nurturing rather than destruction? The institutions of learning today are mostly not interested in this. Success is not measured by compassion or empathy. How many public figures and politicians are psychopaths? Don Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, Eric Holder, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Netanyahu, Cameron, Tony Blair, Rupert Murdoch, every Admiral and General in the military (and there are some nine hundred of them). When Obama wipes away a tear at the press conference following the latest massacre, do we believe him? The man who draws up kill lists, drone bombing complete with ‘double taps’- the man who has signed off on the torture of Bradley Manning and pushed through NDAA. Do we believe him?
The sacred in art is today viewed in cynical and even ironic terms. The post modern posture, at least the reductive self promoting variety of buffoons like Zizek, where permission is granted to indulge and enjoy the racism and misogyny of Empire, has no place for the sacred, for a practice of awakening, of cultural transcendence. A nation that has seven million of its citizens in prison, and the death penalty, is not a compassionate society. A large percentage of whom have done nothing more than enjoy recreational drug use, but sit in prison for years, decades often. The puritan underpinnings of American society grant allowence for public pilloring and humiliation. Reality TV is built upon public humiliation.
The spectacle of U.S. football, with the known long term brain damage, remains the sacrifical ritual of weekend life for American men. Factory farming, rendition and torture: so much to have to ignore. Except you don’t really, you can’t. So, you fetishize it, and make it entertainment. The schizophrenic contradictions of Bigelow’s orgy of anger and sadism becomes a totem for expunging guilt. Don’t ask questions about the collective. Who are we as a society? Don’t ask.
How can the response to this week’s massacre of children in Newtown take the form of attacks on the NRA? Is that REALLY what we believe? I mean sixteen mass shootings in a single year, and that’s not counting the murder suicide of an NFL player (game took place anyway, because, you know…..) and does this not connect to watching Israeli assaults on a powerless population in Gaza? Or a drone terror inflicted on innocent villagers in Afghanistan. Is there not a rather obvious connection?
There is an obvious climate crisis, whatever reason you give for it. There is enviromental degradation everywhere one looks — yet the leaders of the West talk of budget deficits and exactly how much to prosecute marijuana users. Such titantic levels of hypocricy create insanity.
To drive across the United States is to feel the bitter shrivelled economically depressed towns of what is often referred to as the ‘Heartland’. There are few places for youth, there is rarely much history, for family run farms have all been bought out. Little real education. Almost no libraries are left. The suburbs of most large cities are culturally barren places, too, without jobs, without a sense of purpose. They simply house people. And a good many of those people take anti depressents, or, just look for relief in narcotics or booze. Factory work has never been exactly pleasurable, but sixty years ago, if you worked, had union protection, you could buy a home and car. Today, the few factories left are run like sweat shops. Nobody buys a car from the wages at any of them. Wal-Mart has come to symbolize the dysfunction of American life. Cheap junk sold cheap, and stocked by sub minimum wage labor. There are exceptions, of course. Usually, in my experience, immigrant communities that have staved off the predatory-culture of the U.S. There is no ur-culture in the U.S. Nothing that has survived. Today culture is for profit. Or its a hobby. MFA programs, poetry workshops, readings for your friends. Nothing inherently wrong with it, except it’s usual triviality.
The photo at the top is by Atget. I’ve always liked it because that black shadowy entrenceway at the end of the street beckons one. An unconscious off stage siren. The plenitude of emptiness. Narratives usually, in my opinion, recreate our own pychic history somehow. They do other things as well, of course. We respond to the criminal because it is us. Part of how the failure of American life has evolved is connected to the puritanical feel good hygenic liberal sense of paternalism. Air brush the cigarette from Robert Johnson’s mouth before you put him on a stamp. Because we only allow a Disneyland version of Robert Johnson. Artists should be commited to telling the truth, not to having hits or huge book deals or congratulation. Nobody trusts failure in American society. Nobody trusts themselves.
Turn on the TV tonight and count the guns. Count how many you see.
Count how much is being sold during commercial breaks. Count how many cops you see, and how many soldiers.
To be able to think you need quiet. You need time. You need space. Meditate. Read.
Art does many things in many different ways. My love of film noir connects, I’m coming to see, with the fact that those directors, German Jewish emigres who fled fascism, were men who believed in culture. The last act of American film may have been in the 50s, or early 60s. Sam Fuller, right up to Point Blank. A coda appeared briefly after Viet Nam. Today you have to look to Europe. Culture is probably moving gradually to the southern hemisphere. Capitalism is dead. The colonial Imperialist west is dead. The denial of this doesn’t change the reality. Today, the marketed crack spewed out by corporate bean counters and their minions allows for no meditation.
The great age of noir, 1942 to around 1951, contained something deeply haunting. A subtextual panic and fear. For the knock on the door at midnight could come any night.
The term mythic would require an entire posting to try to tweeze apart. There is a mythic level, though, at which much narrative and image operates. Gods and ghosts and beggers and the insane. Criminals and outcasts and fugitives and holy sinners. That and those which confront the status quo. If you continue to accept the bribes of Empire you eventually become a martian.
The dark at the end of the street. Culture is located somewhere past the entrance. It is not illuminated. The studio heads, the award winning castrati performers, the tap dancing but self important hacks of film and TV, as well as the pompous self aggrandizing curators of academia or prestige galleries….these are people consigned to one or another circle of Hell. That is why we read Dante. It is why we read Milton, or Chaucer or Sophocles. You feel it, but it’s not easy to define. Thelonious Monk, Hank Williams, Webern and Bartok…..Bach, or whoever it was drew those figures on the walls of the Lascaux caves….there is a connection, and they are linked. That is part of the joy and wonder of culture. Without it we run around like rabid dogs, biting and snarling and eating our own shit. Advanced capital reproduces its own sadism at ever faster rates. The desperation is now clear, and visible, and you can see sweat form on Obama’s upper lip, you can see the psychosis in Bush’s eyes, or the deadness of Rumsfeld’s soul. Or what was once a soul. Cheney has no heartbeat. How perfect.
We are in a society in which we sanction the death of children. Oh, only Arab children, only Muslim, only Congolese or Haitian. Well, now it is kids in Connecticut.
Welcome to the nightmare.