It strikes me that so much of what passes as a default setting for general agreement in the public is based on this manufactured “subject” — both collective and individual. This is seen in more and more obvious ways in mainstream cultural product.
In other words, there is a kitsch person who is the template for what being human means. This is the “subject” who is appealed to in all culture industry narrative. This subject, at least on one level, is a binary creation, a product of an essentialist logic.
In the culture industry there are manufactured identities: black teenager (criminal), arab man (terrorist), etc…these are obvious…but there is also another layer of manufactured identity, and this is the bourgeois white identity. It exists in another register in a sense by virtue of how pervasive it is. The white westerner remains the model for normal and healthy. All other identities are given in relation to the white male identity.
This is also, though, how individuals identify and ‘read’ themselves. Because of the frightening saturation of image and manufactured (corporate) narrative today, everyone is ensnared in this web of essentialist thinking, in the white man narrative. Now…one of the problems encountered here is that resistance to this model often operates from its own false identity. Much feminism, gay rights, and anti racist activity is simply attacking ALL of something, rather than delineating the false manufactured narrative, the corporate state validated narrative. It often becomes a structural problem — a constructed identity that is posited, that is created, from within the enclosed master narrative. It becomes totalizing.
The logic of a totalized world view simply reproduces hierarchical models, and usually binary simplifications. The real enemy is obscured.
The logic of domination demands everyone has an identity. Or rather, a definable one dimensional identity. A marketable identity. And this identity is there in relation to the “normal”….and in TV and film this idea of the “normal” is pervasive. In the real world, the logic of domination and control is reflecting its globalized nature now. The security state almost has no borders on one level, and the sharing of surveillance and information between police and military operates outside all borders…at least at times. So there is a weird cross pollinating with the essentialist ideas of identity.
I often wonder how much the policing operations of various militaries ape the sense of identity they have learned from watching TV cop shows, or Hollywood films that depict this heroic military ridding the world of the dangerous “non normal”.
The impetus toward a leveling of perspective has been going on for forty years, and the marginalizing of dissenting viewpoints, and the pathologizing of dissenting individuals. This is the logic of the therapeutic, as well. The adjustment to this model of identity is described as health, and the oppositional as sick. What has gradually changed though is that resistance has become more and more contaminated by this model for the normal subject.
So there is a false resistance going on, too often. Those in opposition to the forces of control, are often mediated by the learned idea of “identity”. The recognition of male power too often fails to see the honorable masculine, the recognition of racism too often identifies with corporate products of resistance, with the pre-fabricated “rebel” product. The “youth” market is encouraged to engage the world from a position of snark and irony. One of the things Marcuse noted (in the 1960s) was that even conservative culture, art, had a critical role. Today, that conservative realm has become a totalized corporate anti-culture. The once (albeit few) curators and artistic directors of even big institutions, in the post WW2 period, had at least a sense of rigor and a set of critical judgments which served to open a space for discrimination to form into a dialogue. Today, those curators have ceded authority, have given off their role to being that of a Hollywood producer, or agent. So much more is now, at least in appearance, given over to market forces (sic). Today, what was once the possible imagining of a ‘different’ world has been swallowed by the hegemony of a manufactured sense of identity. The managerial class, the agent, the broker, is the new arbiter of taste.
The repetitions of false difference make everything into fashion (as Barthes pointed out). Politics is fashion, art is fashion, and all of it is predicated on a pre-fabricated subject. The “normal” serves as a backdrop for the marketing of abnormal, sick, criminal, addicted, and insane. And this binary sense of essentialism has the de-facto effect of limiting any areas of grey — you are either with us or against us. You are either sick or you are normal. And if sick, you must get to work getting “well” (normal). And if you are normal, then you are in fact, a snitch, an agent of the state, and a cooperating member of a system bent on ever further limiting autonomy.
To plug into the system means one actively participates in one’s own domination. Now, we all do this to some degree. But the basic thrust of being a “normal” and “healthy” member of society is that one has turned over almost all of one’s leisure time (the little that is left) to activities narrowly controlled by the system. The overriding sense of this culture now is that of the “Do Not Step on the Grass” signs posted in the psyche. The DO NOT sign is marketed as there for your own good. Credit checks are for your own good, surveillance is there for your own good, the prison gulag is there for your good, too. To actually carve out time for activities not connected to work or state bureaucracies is almost an act of resistance all by itself. This is why community gardens, and autonomous spaces of any kind are so quickly shut down. And where many actual acts of resistance (say, in the food movement, home gardens, etc) take place, they are quickly the targets of corporate takeover. This happens of course on a daily basis in culture.
The normal is happy. But nobody is happy. But if you admit you are not happy, you probably are sick and if you are sick you need medication and therapy that will help you be better able to pretend to be happy. To be always happy, to desire to be always happy, is infantile. It is childish.
Behind all these dynamics, though, is the rise of an ever more rigid sense of identity, and the narrowing of subjectivity. The structural form of identity is essentialist — binary and oppositional. Hierarchical.
The subject operates within an enclosed grammar, and a structural imperative that creates as simplified and easy to digest master narrative as possible. Debate is argument; and a sign of pathology (a difficult person). Conversations take place with strict codes of consensus. To debate, to object to received wisdom is guarantee you won’t be invited to many dinner parties. But even social life, dinner parties, is mediated by ideas of “purpose”, of utility. Its an extension of business. It is self branding, for one thing, it is a demonstration of lifestyle. One is what one drives. One is what one eats, what dietary regime fits best with a constructed identity. One is who one fucks, desire is regulated…or self regulated anyway. Entering into desire one enters into the final space, almost, where ambiguity cannot be washed away.
All institutions today contribute to enclosure. School, whether grade school or post graduate university, are there to create clear messages quite apart from the material studied — business school programs have waiting lists, and classics and philosophy programs are nearly empty… the subject is reflecting ‘personal choice’ by what he or she studies. What good is philosophy anyway? Now, there are big exceptions to this, but such aberrant activities are usually the province of youth. Immaturity. One thing I’ve noticed is that at the age of 61, if I am seen sitting and reading a philosophy text, or difficult literature, then its obvious quickly I should be treated as a ‘crazy eccentric’. Now I may be a crazy eccentric, but not because I read Wittgenstein.
This all returns to the ‘subject’. The construction of identity. The learned messages of “identity”.
Within this construction, there is a dynamic that seems to erase appeals to fact. This week the Obama administration saw to it that the “Protect Monsanto” rider was attached to the agriculture bill. This is a fact. The bill limits almost all penalty to Monsanto if it turns out all that frankenfood gives people cancer or causes migraines or miscarriages or whatever. Monsanto is protected. Think about that for a second. Monsanto is apriori INNOCENT. How is this possibly even legal? How can a corporation be protected from future wrongdoing?
Or..a recent study came out which said that drone attacks killed 1.5% of their intended target — in other words, 98.5% of those killed by hellfire missiles, launched from air conditioned booths in the Nevada desert, were collateral damage, innocent. That is madness. That is barbarism. That is fact, but it is fact that has little to no traction in the mind of the vast majority of the citizens of the West. How does that happen? How does a system work to manufacture an identity in which wholesale murder is alright?
It is interesting in this respect to look at one of Marcuse’s contested positions: that in earlier forms of capitalist society, a degree of autonomous space was still possible in the privacy of one’s home (for example). The feminist critique would question, rightly, if women had any of that autonomy, or at least that what they may have had was deeply compromised. True…yet, Marcuse isn’t wrong either. He is right that a distance, a space, separated from the prevailing system of control, provided relief. It also provided space to reflect. Today, this space is electronically colonized, if not outright materially mediated. Surveillance exists so pervasively today, and the data footprints of the individual tracked so totally, that the ‘idea’ of desiring privacy has been made a weakness. The refusal to be searched is another sign of weakness ….’if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’. Except that, anytime you are searched you are guilty — nothing may be found, you may be released, but you’re guilty. You are in a dynamic of acquiescence to authority. But the new ‘subject’ sees objection in almost all contexts as unreasonable. Its a sign of immaturity. A sign clearly bad for career. Cooperation has come to mean acceptance of domination. Real cooperation, in fact, seems a target for extinction. In a culture of snark, there is little room for cooperation. Career is the road to the normal, it is a moral catagory, now. Private reflective time has been co-opted.
Really, career is among the blighted and toxic concepts of the western capitalist world.
So, it strikes me again and again that people today both desire to flee identity, and are wracked with guilt because they desire it, and are more and more dependent on the process of narrowing that identity.
One of the crucial things Lacan understood was that subjectivity is based on a lack. The post modern take on the subject, the critical take anyway, is that of a subject made up of signifiers — whereas Lacan additionally saw this subject, or anti subject, as alienated…alienated for failing to see himself or herself in the Real, in the symbolic order, and it is this failure, this space of signification, that sets in motion the contours of a not quite identity..and of surplus meaning. Without going deeply into Lacan right here, the point is really just that there is an indelible contradiction at the heart of the human — it exists within language and without, and so finally the project of domination reaches some kind of critical mass, for there is no consciousness to colonize after a certain point.
There are movements out there, anti capitalist, anarchist, the occupy folks as well as just radical reformers and dispirited liberals — and so the constant reproducing of the same narrative, the same story of normalcy and its constant restoration (after mild upsets), is, I think, finally experiencing the setting in of diminishing returns. However, the aesthetic resistance seems to lag behind. How does that work?
Now the principle of utility–mentioned above — extends, obviously, to desire as well. Its not hard to see the electronic porn world — the constant exhibitionism, the branding of oneself as sex-object, or sex process as expressions of a failed eros — for this releases little tension, and in fact just reproduces mechanisms of guilt, and anger. How this interfaces with the slowly growing awareness of surplus repression, the loss of traction that the narratives of the master discourse expect, has meant an intensifying of that narrative. So all coherent and unifed narrative must open themselves in a manner that negates the prevailing master discourse.
I was trying to think of a few people I often neglect, for various reasons, who are probably more deserving of attention.
Here is a bit of a discussion on Straub and Huillett…
Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet made about twenty or so films between the 1970s and 2006. They were both fringe members of the French film community of the time, Straub working on films by Renoir and Bresson. They made films exclusively based on extant material….two of which were based on operas of Arnold Shoenberg, and held fast to an austere sense of form and anti-melodramatic narrative. It is interesting, I think, that their sense of the stationary camera, non professional actors, and direct sound still seems utterly resistant to co-option — the films of Straub and Huillet will likely never be sampled for chewing gum adverts.
It was Engles who early on recognized that the meaning was in the form. To expose the truth of material oppression was accomplished not by agit prop sermonizing but by the depth of the expression of what the artist saw as the truth of place and character and history. I suspect that its no accident that the culture industry, and the system of domination in general, has so emphasized “message” and “theme” over form.
The insistence in corporate cultural product on ‘effect’ — either sentimental or realistic (meaning that which reinforces the narrow definition of the real) or of that which is ideologically effective; patriotism and heroism. I recently happened to see a sort of dystopian bit of kitsch on TV, “Revolution”, in which (in this future without electricity or power of any kind…..don’t ask) a resistance fighter says to his motley group, “We will make our stand here, we wont let them do to us what the Germans, the Russians and Al-Qaeda tried to do…if we die, we die fighting like Americans” (I paraphrase). Now, besides the obvious historical revisionism, this is the sort of sub literate appeal to some vague abstract notion of patriotism, a patriotism that has proven very effective since movies were invented. It posits the United States as, actually, the plucky under-dog fighting against all odds, and overcoming the bigger forces of *evil* (another abstraction, but one with theological overtones).
This brings us to Adorno again, from a sideways direction because in a sense this emphasis on effect…reality effects, sentimentality, etc, disolves the form, if what we mean by form is the sense of the shape of the whole. For the whole, the form that retains a logic of integrity with itself, is still made up of parts. But great artworks, for Adorno, were those in which the form was ascendant and no kistch cheap effect was there to disrupt it. This is tricky, because one must not confuse this with art’s other capacity to de-unify the totalitarian whole. For even with the fragmented work, a sense of integrity in form is possible, even likely in a sense, because it is rejecting the manufactured plot, with its reductive world, its kitsch cliched characters, and its borrowed image. For form that comes together as a whole is a rejection of the enclosed discourse of domination.
But the point here is that the constant repetition of this narrow model of normalcy is a presentation of a totalitarian society and that the resigned albeit anxious subject is the model of healthy normalcy. That validating of cowardice, of passivity, and of willfull ignorance of a factual material world, is the meaning of the never ending assembly line of police state TV franchises, heroic military films, and snarky comedy (and i must write about comedy more soon). The take over of Detroit….a shocking stunning bit of domestic neo imperialism (Detroit is now the colonies, the Haiti or El Salvador of the US) and yet little press addresses this, in the same way few people at any level of comfort really get upset by NDAA, or the increased police powers granted by the Obama justice department. The creation of this subject, the training of this subject, is however, additionally upping the tensions that come from the inability to hide the contradictions and lies of the state. This is why I continue to draw upon Lacan to some degree, for that sense of the split psyche, the imperfect self, will no matter how mediated by mass media, by propaganda and the culture industry, retains this recognition of a lack, of its own lack somehow. Our nightmares continue anyway, right alongside the material nightmare of the growing fascism of the US state.