I have noticed recently an increase in a particular kind of cynicism. This is coupled to the belief, I think anyway, that large numbers of people believe ideas fall out of the sky. That ideology is self generating.
The snark factor, the snide tone that seems to utterly permeate discourse today, is the expression of the weakened ego, the need to somehow identify with a manufactured “authenticity” (and more on that in a second). The cynic today is ahistorical: ‘Oh they’ve always done that’. ‘Oh, that went on long before….blah blah’, ‘Oh, that’s how people are’, etc. The stance is: nothing new under the sun. This logic takes one, of course, to the atribution of certain human behaviors as part of human nature. As universal, too.
This cynicism resists belief in specific models, or thinkers, or movements as having importance, for the cynic thinks nothing REALLY has importance. Enter snark stage right. My old friend and mentor Terry Ork once said, ‘it is far easier to find a vocabulary for dislike and snark, then it is to develop a vocabulary for robust enthusiasm’. The Cashiers du Cinema critics understood this. The snark white audience to culture seek out that which can be comfortably ridiculed, but always with the understanding it’s not really important anyway. Least of my problems as someone said to me this week. Which is another symptom of this strange confusion of category that seems to happen — the ever shifting sands of topic identification. This manifests itself politically — on the left — with a macho real politik cynicism. The self branding of ‘the authentic world weary realist’. This is the province of the deeply dissapointed, the realm of lost dreams.
This is a posture of absolute terror. I think more a condition of men living under advanced capital, actually, than women. For women the authentic remains wed to identifications of power, and the weariness trope takes a different form. The political is treated cynically, and the examination of ideological evolution is stopped short. Why? Because ideas fall from the sky, not the books of Hegel, or Leo Strauss, or Schmitt or Zizek. That ideology is a product of the state, but that somehow the state operates in a vacuum. The cynic says, oh, Zizek is of no importance, nobody listens to him.
Nobody listens to anybody.
Now, the fact is, that statistically, for non fiction books, the average number sold by any author (last year) was under 300. A distorted statistic, I grant you, but still… publishing is in crisis. A figure such as Zizek however, DOES have importance and does effect things. The latent racism and xenophobia that finds expression in countless daily news items is made a trope, a meme, by celebrity thinkers such as Zizek. What is insidious of course is that Zizek is marketed as a Marxist (and Lacanian)…when he is neither.
Of course public intellectuals, whether read or not, influence the behavior, the thinking, and the actions of both individuals and groups.
They shape ideas in ways that effect funding and they appear on panels and at symposiums and colloquies and conferences. The brie and chablis circuit for “guest lecturers” is vast and includes everyone from Don Rumsfeld to Pat Robertson. It includes a good many academics; from the lesser known to the more visible such as Cornell West or, well, Zizek. Now, to what extent, these ideas, these ideological positions, directly effect events? Hard to say. At this point we had better define “directly”, and we need to know what “effect” means. Still, it’s not very hard to track the echos of celebrity thinkers like Zizek on public events. A recent and pretty noxious symposium on “The White Working Class”, (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/poverty-tsar-frank-field-white-working-class-need-own-citizenship-ceremonies-8559004.html) has a distinctly Zizekian flavor to it (and of course this mixes with a Badiou or whoever, an object oriented Nazi…er….Heideggarian…). Now, the difference between Heidegger and Zizek is that Heidegger was a profound thinker, and as such constitutes one of the great 20th century intellectual knots in need of untying. Zizek is not. Zizek is crypto fascist, racist, and misogynist (and not so crypto in his misogyny).
The Cynical posture, the snark I’ve written about before, and the white longing for “authenticity”, relates to the wholesale misogyny of the society at large. It is a posture asking for power where power is known to be embedded in the state and not the individual. It is, again, the weakened ego. It is also, this quest for “authenticity” (which often, is denied, as in “I dont give a shit about the authentic”), a symptom of an age in which emotions have been so manipulated by mass culture, by the sentimentalizing of almost every public tragedy, the over emotionalizing of trivial events, that a reaction formation seems to take place that displaces critical analysis and leaves the increasingly emotionally numb subject in his or her own small cul de sac of identifications and presentations of self. Social media, again, plays a role in this, and encourages it. Like/not like. Twitter, where discourse is limited to fragmentary sentences. And usually under an alias. So the quest for a deeper emotional life seems understandable. I suspect humans feel starved for deeper emotional connections than those felt at the death of a celebrity (who few actually knew or had ever met) and facebook “friends”.
There are social forces, material and historical conditions that compel behavior. However, the ideological backdrop as well as the specific articulation and explanation or justification for behaviors is the result of public discourse. This is what culture is and does. Today, though, the state is managed, as is the military (per Randy Martin), much like a wall street analyst manages hedge funds. A systems analyst. The goal is to manage (risk averse) the *present*, not the future. The future is romantic and idealistic. The past is nostalgic and unimportant.
Aesthetically, this cynicism has as great an effect as sentimentality does — and they’re connected. In a system promoting, compulsively, the *new*, the cynic says, oh *nothing is new*.
I wanted to digress just slightly here; for I was looking at a painting the other day. I cant find it again and it doesn’t really matter. It was of a front seat of a car. The car was parked in the desert, at sunset, twilight. It was rather neo-expressionist I guess, but had an almost hyper-realist patina to it. I glanced at it, and thought, well, nice — struck me as a sort of appealing minor work of what was really illustration. Then I noticed a pair of women’s shoes on the front seat of this car. Suddenly the painting was sentimental. That was the visual cliche that drained all other mimetic readings of the painting. It was suddenly BAD illustration. I bring this up because I see it more and more. The imprint of the cliche. It is often sentimental as well, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the reasons I wrote about the New Topographics a few weeks back was because of the restraint those photographers possessed. If there are no shoes in that painting, one is allowed the process of engaging with the mystery. The painting then asks a question. Where is the driver of the car? That is perhaps the first question, for there would be many. Now…with shoes, there are none. Plus, the suggestion of “barefoot” in the open desert is a doubling of the first cliche. Barefoot is the signifier for kitsch freedom.
Below are two photos. One with a human figure in it, one without. Neither is sentimental. But why is the photo with the figure not sentimental?
What I am trying to suggest here is that artworks ask questions. They interrogate the viewer, they ask simultaneous with our asking. We always ask “who”. In the Baltz photo, the who is not in the frame. It is perhaps the photographer. It is perhaps, as Flusser says, that the camera has absorbed the intention of the photographer. That intention here is to displace the ubiquitous quality of “new” — to provide information that is not the same as we get everyday, the ‘same’ which is always ‘new’. As Flusser said, if newspapers showed up, or internet news displayed, the same photographic image everyday for a year, that would be strange. That would cause us to look differently at the image. The fact that everyday we are provided with ‘new’ images is numbing, and we long ago stopped looking at them. As Sartre said, you *cant* see them. The obsessive demand for innovation is really the demand for the same.
But this relates to the sense I have of this resistance to sincerity, to enthusiasm, and to a belief that ideas are not meaningless abstractions. Ideology is a word rarely used in U.S. mainstream media.
“This view of the photographic universe challanges one to look in two directions: towards a society surrounded by the photographic universe and towards the cameras programming the photographic universe. It challenges one to engage, on the one hand, in criticism of the post industrial society that is coming into being, and, on the other, in criticism of cameras and their programs; in other words: to critically transcend post industrial society.”
Behind each technical image one must see the advertising systems, the marketing, the production apparatus, and the distribution monopoly. All of this is increasingly managed and automated, is linked to the risk averse financialized culture of 21st century Capital. The hegemonic system of reproduction of ideologically mediated image cannot be resisted if one remains trapped in postures of paralyzing subordination to this training in cynicism.
The need for criticism, for engagement with aesthetics, means to open those wounds of our battered psyches, and more, to understand that battering is the result of the learned ideas of a system of social domination. The cynic is neutered, is rendered inert and compliant in his or her posture of disengagement.
One of my favorite painters is Kenneth Noland. There remains a lingering residue of masculinist disdain for abstraction. The far reaches of this leads one to Norman Rockwell (or Thomas Kinkaid), while the less vulgar will still look to what Adorno called “the layer of mediocre tacit agreement”. The technically proficient. Language itself (in its interpretive function) cannot free itself from its communicative dimension. For language “has been devestated by commerce and communication, by the ignominy of exchange” (Borchardt).
A painting such as this by Noland requires firstly, a knowledge of his whole body of work, but also for lack of a better word, an educated aesthetic (and in person the sense of scale is hugely important, for often these are very large canvases). Again, Adorno; “The otherness toward which language moves is indistinct and ungraspable, speaking into a darkness”. That darkness is both within and without, it is our forgotten trauma, and that which we desire. The crude mis-readings by Zizek, his veiled authoritarian ideology, are part of the fabric of a totalitarian society. The arguments of the cynic dismiss all this, because it is not the pre-formed branded authentic world of classificatory ordering. It grants too much significance to the “other”. Its as if acknowledging the power of hacks and charalatans, propagandists, is a personal affront. It is too close to the spiritual wounds that are covered and protected by postures of power. For the addiction to the imagery of power is most seductive to those most powerless. Or those who feel so.
In theatre, the Norman Rockwell effect is clear if one looks at Broadway or even mid sizes houses in New York. The elliptical is avoided, for the liberating effect occurs when gaps appear in narrative that force that narrative to vanish, even if only briefly. And nothing liberatory is allowed. As in architecture, that which announces itself as people-friendly is always the opposite. The neatly contained plot is the denial of the human, it is an acceptance of confinement. The cynical stance (of the left) is often to denounce all culture as bourgeois — it is the last traces of vulgar Marxism, of the fantasy of revolutionary insurgency. Culture is derided as elitist, or soft.
The staggering soul wrenching violence of western Imperialism exists as part of a dialectic with the protestant values of denial, puritanical distrust of the Dionysian, and a deep belief in progress in and of itself. Manifest Destiny, the slave trade, genocide of Native Americans; this is forever the backdrop of the U.S. sensibility (and part of the Euro white supremacist project still alive, but on life support). The psychic damage done to the Colonial powers, the internalizing of this violence, the guilt, are all predictive indicators for the ever thickening mental and emotional carapace of the western world’s white population. There seems a weird almost hallucinatory blurring of public and private, now. This is the tightening enclosure of corporate kitsch and propaganda; the constant reproducing of the same under a rubric of innovation and freshness. Sustained growth, culturally, in artists is less and less possible because of the demand for economic returns NOW. The turn around of product occurs in less time than ever before, almost as soon as a product is introduced (whether iPhone or TV Show) the replacement product is on its way. Sustained narrative, expanded story, in TV, interestingly, has carved a niche market in shows such as The Killing, Campion’s feminist noir “Top of the Lake”, and a few others — indicating at least a small corner of the public desires some release from the “new”. Some respite from the cadances and industrial rhythms of relentless repetition. Of course, in world terms, we are discussing the small educated west. But this brings me back to the cynic and this distrust of ideological creation. We are all enclosed within this, if we live at least comparatively privileged lives in the West — and I think that term is worth discussing. My life, for example, in the U.S. was (to use a term popular these days with sociologists) borderline food insecure, no health care, and with a police record, a life of anxiety connected to random police stops and surveillances. This is the new normal. Still, I had the trappings and appearance of a coherent bohemian/artistic existence. Millions more, living thirty minutes from the gated communities of Bel Air or Beverly Hills, or Malibu live in much deeper insecurity. The paradox is, however, that the communities in which emotional life has the most stability, the most authentic existence, are the ones with the least economic stability. I am reminded of how Raymond Chandler always described the homes of the rich; as mausoleums. Bereft of life and vitality.
The cynical connects very directly to a crisis in masculinity, and that is probably an entire other posting.
The development of aesthetic resistance includes an increased sensitivity to mechanisms of social control, to ideological projects of mass media, and this means to the branding of oneself as well. Social media is insidious in this sense. This is the age of the cult of personality. The transformative aesthetic is that which demands an abandonment of the self to what is not the self. It is the return of what has been forgotten.
As Adorno said, ‘cynicism is just another mode of conformity’.