I have been finding a sort of crypto-reactionary critique surfacing in places that purport to be either leftist or “progressive” (and yeah, I don’t know what that word means either) or at least liberal. And it seems a new class of apologetics has joined left leaning but corporate owned publications.
The largest problem, or at least the one I want to respond to, has to do with aesthetic critiques. Take for example, this piece on Arrested Development by Peter Queck and Bhaskar Sunkara.
This is fairly typical of this new crypto reactionary apologetics. Now, first, I happen to believe that Judith Butler is right ….(I take this quote from Eilif Verney-Elliots fascinating piece, ongoing, on gay male porn…from his blog, link below)….
I oppose the notion that the media is monolithic. It’s neither monolithic nor does it act only and always to domesticate. Sometimes it ends up producing images that it has no control over. This kind of unpredictable effect can emerge right out of the centre of a conservative media without an awareness that it is happening. There are ways of exploiting the dominant media. The politics of aesthetic representation has an extremely important place.
Judith Butler , Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal (Interviewers). “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler.” in: Radical Philosophy. 1994.
Indeed, increasingly, I think what Butler says is true, while at the same time, there is an increasingly totalitarian feel to corporate culture. But back to the Sunkara and Queck piece.
Here is the first sentence:
“Humans will always have needs. What we won’t always have are unfulfilled needs.”
Well, I know they cant meant to be taken literally, right? Not even in the *advanced* west is this remotely true. So, what might they mean?
Well, lets continue…
“Throughout history we’ve faced a world defined by scarcity and lived in response to it. We’ve connived, killed and exploited one another, and struggled to even imagine a better way of living. But 10 years ago, Mitchell Hurwitz’s “Arrested Development” managed to conceive of what an escape from such a world might look like. “
OK, so, somehow or other, the belief driving this inane TV criticism (sic) is one that simply ignores climate change, water shortages, GMOs and factory farming, as well as militarized domination of populations and and increasing prison gulag — no, all that is beside the point, because its possible utopia is right around the corner (we wont always have unfulfilled needs) and this Utopian dream sort of resembles a sit com.
It gets worse…they suggest ‘ensemble comedy is inherently communist in form’…. well, no it’s not. Comedy has an historical context, laughter comes from a shared recognition of suffering, in fact, and the laughter is often based on a shared sense of cruelty, both of others and of, tragically, ourselves. Buster Keaton knew this, Chaplain knew this, and even George Burns knew this. Ensemble comedy is a sort of vague term anyway. If they writers mean, and I am guessing they do, that an ensemble cast (in a network TV comedy primarily, since that is the limit of their understanding) is communist because…..I dont know….because there is not one *star*? Was “I Love Lucy” an ensemble comedy? Was the “Dick Van Dyke Show”? Reading further….they reference Seinfeld, and Friends…(of course, because this is the middle brow sensibility on display). What is glaringly missing here is any notion of exactly what the forces of production are behind these corporate products. “Friends” was a witty enough show if one could suspend one’s revulsion at the dishonesty inherent in the premise. This is not a truthful reflection of working life in the U.S., especially, a reflection of rent costs for most workers. Queck and Sunkara mention in off handed way, “scarcity free” as if that is a mere trifle that might get in the way of their fan boy enjoyments of this crap. The word “scarcity” has a sort of Marxist flavor anyway.
At this point it’s idiotic to go further. One does sort of wonder why the Washington Post published this junk? How does that work? If I were paranoid, I would suspect psy-ops. But, I’m not paranoid…..no, really, I’m not.
But here is one more snippet…
“More than any other show, “Arrested Development” drew economics into its texture — harping on the corporate scandals of the day and constantly building plots around the Bluth family’s financial juggling.”
Well, no, economics is NOT drawn into the texture, except by superficial reference. Financial juggling is a way of saying, in fact, economic hardship is invisible in this show, as it is in almost all network TV. The apology goes something like this….oh, this is JUST a comedy…etc. Perhaps bland mention of Enron qualifies as a drawing of economics into the texture, I don’t know. But the continual conflating of the spirit of Marxism with the spirit of this kistch network pablum is not just dishonest, but almost sinister.
Here is the final paragraph in this review…
“We’ve dealt with a lot over the past years — jobless rates over 10 percent, cuts hampering the social services we rely on, the massive burden of debt and foreclosure. Now that pain has come to one of the greatest comedies of all time. The spirit of “Arrested Development” is the recession’s latest casualty.”
“We’ve” dealt with a lot? What does that mean…we the TV audience of clerks to Empire, the fatuous fan boy elite who write this shit? The reality is, of course that unemployment in real terms is closer to 22%, and cuts havent hampered social services, they have all but eliminated them, causing the most dire suffering, and last count, the US has something like 42 million people defined as ‘food insecure’. Har har har.
This is essentially prose and content suitable for Entertainment Weekly, but with the word “communism” tossed in. It is blatantly dishonest courting of the status quo.
The problem is again, that this is essentially conformist prose and a middle brow aesthetic, tricked out with radical accessorizing. The other problem is holding up David Lynch as somehow the paragon of authenticity. However, it is a “review” and that is the essential flaw here. For the form is that of a consumer guide to cultural shopping. It is interesting, though, that mention is made of the U.S. version of the originally Danish series, The Killing. A show with almost no violence. The death has occured before the show begins, and what transpires over the entire season is a character study of alienated single mom Detective, Mireille Enos, and her recovering crack head partner Joel Kinneman. I mention this because the show was not renewed, a decided NOT hit. This suggests the point missed by Doyle, and that is that the countless (Hawaii Five-0, CSI franchises, Rookie Blue, Southland, etc etc etc) police state apologies are the real normalizing of authority worship, AND of misogyny. The Killing is one of the few programs that mitigates the idea of police goodness as an absolute.
But there is more going on here. Each day there seems to be another news story about out of control cops beating someone to death. Innocent everymen, beaten for no reason.
Fear is rarely a theme of Hollywood’s unless it is fear of Vampires or Aliens. Fear of cops? I cant think of any examples. One would have to go back to films such as Straight Time, Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 crime drama based on an Eddie Bunker book. The sense of institutional irrationality, of blind authoritarianism at work, as rarely been as well captured as this film. But then, Eddie Bunker wrote it, and Bunker always wrote from the p.o.v. of the criminal. Of the outsider.
But back to fear, as it appears in cultural product. The difference, they say, between anxiety and fear, is that one knows the source for fear. Anxiety is vague, undifferentiated. Often there is a sort of cognitive incongruity and sense of dread, almost confusion. Fear is more direct. One senses that the societal disintegration that is all around citizens of the West, has culturally disappeared to the degree that *fear* rarely appears in narrative. Anxiety does, and that is an entire subject unto itself, but fear does not appear except in very specific ways. Fear is fear of aliens, of criminals, of zombies or monsters. There are few films or television shows that depict fear of the state, and yet, that fear is palpable in daily life.
Here is a 30 minute film on the new surveillance state:
Cultural depictions of this sort of totalitarian apparatus are pretty rare. One can think back thirty years or so, or forty, to films such as The Conversation, or The Parallax View, to find expressions of justifiable paranoia and fear. The violence in culture today, at least in corporate film and TV is cleansed of existential grounding. It is almost entirely a violence that resembles cartoon violence. It is interesting that amid this tidal swell of daily orgies of violence, real photographs or video of violence are still too upsetting for the public; there are no photos (or rarely) of actual dead bodies, and when a video does appear, such as the one wikileaks released of men massacred from above, it has caused great discussion, and remains highly disturbing. When police violence is captured on cell phones, the sense of pain and the real destruction of the human that stares back at the viewer is cause for much public dialogue.
The violence in a Stallone of Willis film might go on for fifteen minutes, body counts in the hundreds, but nobody blinks. One man in a cell phone video being beaten is collectively disturbing. The background sound track of daily life is one of TV explosions, screams, crashes, and gunfire. It is now simply the grammar of mass culture. The paradox is the near Puritan prohibition on images of real death. Lethal injections by the state are not televised. In fact, state executions are highly controlled in terms of image. Dead or maimed soldiers in Iraq are rarely shown. The Pentagon makes sure of this. What studios and networks do, in collaboration with the Pentagon, is present an idealized, almost wholesome, heroic brand of violence. Abstract, in the very manner that drone murder feels abstract. In terms of aesthetics, this is a crucial point. Death remains something avoided, as if it were the result of some failure of the system. As if it were an aberration.
There is something else creeping into popular entertainment, and that is a more formal voyeurism of violence. HBO’s current Game of Thrones in a recent episode included a beheading (both heads dumped out of a sack) and the severing of a penis. It was counter-weighted by equal amounts of female nudity.
In exactly the way that violence is cleansed of emotion, is removed from existential grounding, so is critical writing removed from actual life under State mediation, and in related manner, the accompanying loss of aesthetic acumen is then unable to differentiate articles and products of resistance co-opted and pre-digested by the courtiers of Empire. The pseudo left represented by Zizek, or on a more parochial plane by Jodi Dean and Sunkara and the like, are really writing critical prose that is the equivalent of a Bruce Willis film.
One of my favorite artist/photographers is Trevor Paglen. I bring up Paglen because in a sense, what he is doing is the opposite of this erasure of existentiality, of the genuine emotive dimension of narrative and image. It struck me this week, as I looked at some of Cindy Sherman and Geoff Crewsdon’s work, that something always nagged at me when I looked at their work, and I left the engagement feeling as if I had been taken on a seductive but manipulated tour of subjectivity. In both cases, I feel there is stuff going on, and it is not without value. But I thought of Paglen then. Paglen has sort of pointed his camera(s) at U.S. military bases, secret sights, government activities (mostly connected to the military) and also found the flotsam and jetsam of the Pentagon’s global activities. The result is never manipulating, it is haunting, though. It contains the inexpressible edges of a vast horror. One can feel it.
What he does is not agit-prop. The narrative is obscured, elliptical and in fact, what one is often left with, in Paglen, is a palimpsest, an erasure, or just a fragment. It is presented, though, with the austere respect of a cabalistic, recondite offering. The emotion connects to the mortal — to oracular pronouncements the answers to which we will never hear. In fact, silence is a constituent part of the experience of his photographs. They are silent.
In “Other Night Skies”, Paglen worked with amateur astronomers and photograhers to track secret satellites and space probes. In the series “Limit Telephotography” he adapted the super-strength telescopes, normally used to shoot planets, to reveal top-secret U.S. governmental installations, often forty, fifty miles away; and covert bases, secret and remote and usually unseen by the unaided civilian eye. In all of this, Paglen’s sense of aesthetic is extraordinary, for one is never not reduced to silent contemplation. There is no message. There is nothing for sale. There are only the ghostly hermetic images of the U.S. death machine.
Here is a long exchange in an interview with Julian Stallabrass:
“Stallabrass: That’s something that intrigues me about your work, the apparent disjunction between process and visual result. When you photograph secret
military installations or black sites from very long distances, using extreme
telephoto lenses, in one sense you seem to be spying for citizens against
unaccountable power; yet, softened and distorted by heat haze, the results
evoke painting or pictorialist art photography in a range of “styles,” from
Edward Hopper to color-field painting. How do the apparent art-historical
references and the process of producing the work come together, and do
such art-historicalreferences work towards bringing out the politics and relations ofseeing that you talk about?
Paglen: You’re bringing up two really important aspects of my work. On the one
hand, we have what we might call the politics of production. By this I mean
the kinds of relational practices that are behind the work and go into its
making. On the other hand, we have things like the visual rhetoric and aesthetics of an image: here we find more of the questions about spectatorship,
art history, and so forth. Taking both sides of this seriously is fundamental to
what I do. If we’re talking about the politics of production, there are a lot of
things going on. On the one hand, I might be camping out on a mountaintop taking photos of a secret military base, determining the location of CIA
“black sites”so I can go photograph them,researching front companies used
in covert operations, or working with amateur astronomersto track classified
spacecraft in Earth orbit. These are all relational practices and they all have
various sorts of politics to them. Photographing a secret military base means
insisting on the right to do it, and enacting that right. Thus, we have a sort
of political performance. Finding CIA black sites means, well, finding secret
black sites. Working with amateur astronomers has a politics of collaboration
to it, as well as something I think of as“minoritarian empiricism,” which has
to do with experimenting with radical possibilities of classical empiricism.
All this happens long before I even think about making a piece of “art” and
putting it in front of other people to see.
When we get into the question of what the image actually looks like, I use
a lot of art-historical references as a way to suggest how contemporary forms
of seeing (and not seeing) rhyme with other historical circumstances that
artists have responded to. I look at a lot of abstract painting as a response to
its historical moment. In someone like Turner, we find a vision of what the
nineteenth century’s “annihilation of space with time” looked like; in Dada
or in some of the smarter Abstract Expressionists, we can find responses to
some of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors suggesting the utter failure
of representation in relation to the bomb or the Holocaust, for example.
There was something radical and profound—at those historical moments—
in the kinds of abstractions some of those artists came up with. We’ve moved
way beyond that, however. Some contemporary artists have retreated into a
sort of pseudo-Greenbergian abstraction, and Ifind thatreally disingenuous.
All in all, I think we’re right to be suspicious of representation right now.
The days of believing that there’s something out there in the word that can be
transparently represented by a photograph or image are over. Certainly that
notion has been over in philosophy pretty much from the start, but it has
taken popular culture and vernacularforms of seeing a long time to catch up.
Artists and photographers have always “manipulated” images—there’s no way
to make a photograph or image without manipulating it, partly because
there’s no “it” prior to the image. This poses a useful challenge to cultural producers: how to work with images or visual material in a critical way, given a lack of faith in representation. Some folks are talking about affect and nonrepresentational theory (Nigel Thrift, for example, in human geography) as one
way of moving beyond representation, and others are taking up different flavors of “speculative realism” and ontology. I’ve certainly learned a lot from these thinkers, but I often find my thought drifting towards contemporary
variations on old-fashioned Frankfurt School criticaltheory.”
To return this, then, to what I continue to label the kitsch culture of corporate product, of studio film, and network and cable TV. Indeed, Judith Butler is right, and sometimes they don’t know what they produce. Most often, they do. The problem then, aesthetically speaking, resides in two areas. One is (as Paglen put it) the politics of production. The other is, the commodification of artworks, the consuming, the shopping. The second problem, branches out into many sectors, but since the subject of David Lynch (and Cindy Sherman and Crewsdon) has come up, I think the problem has to do with the creation of the “weird” as a catagory. Lynch creates the weird as his, almost, entire raison e’etre. By creating work that posits a category of ‘otherness’, the implication is that the viewer is NOT weird. The viewer is part of the normal — safely contained within a world of capitalist white patriarchy. I always feel as if Lynch’s work is a sort of safety valve for adolescent boys — and older — undergrad, hell, post grad, males, to provide a place to point. To point and say, oh that is not me. My friends are not THAT. *That* is weird.
Someone once asked me, as a cocktail party parlor game, if you had to divide the world into two camps, what would they be. I said, the serious and the not serious. I still sort of like that answer.
Paul Bowles was once aksed why he chose to live in Tangier, on the edge of the desert, and he replied, ‘to be close to the absolute’.
I have detected something else that seems to be running alongside the new totalitarianism of Zizek and Badiou, and that is a new revised form of “New Age” mystification. It is almost always, it seems, coupled to ecology somehow. It is also, at least in the versions I’ve seen, announcing itself as a corrective to Enlightenment thinking. It is anti Darwinian and anti instrumental logic. This is the danger in a sense, for instrumental logic is the logic of domination, of the Pentagon and Manifest Destiny, and Colonial privilege. It is dangerous because it de-politicizes the critique of instrumental logic. Of Adorno and Horkheimer, and even of borderline reactionaries like Habermas, or of Marcuse and Debord, and Delueze. But this is a serious topic, and taking the politics out of it by suggesting minerals have feelings, or water has memory, is rather a problem. And it is not a problem because water *doesn’t* have a memory — we would have to spend a lot of time deciding what those words mean in this context, but FIRST, one has to prevent the ruling elite from owning all the fucking water, and owning all the food, and most of the pollinating insects. The impulse to reject corporate dominated science is justified, but an embrace of mushy headed mysticism is not.
I think in general there is a desire for refuge in the populace. The system offers more and more faux refuge, while simultaneously ridding the world of ever more of real refuge. The commons, both physical and metaphorical, are increasingly colonized. A new militarized police intrude and dominate the urban landscape much as telephone poles once seemed an intrusion, and metaphorically the culture industry provides constant fantasy distractions. To confuse these distractions with anything serious is the cultural problem for pedagogy. This is what aesthetic resistance means, a learning to identify those rogue images or narratives Butler referenced at the top, while also keeping clearly in mind the politics of production (as Paglen put it). But there is the natural desire for refuge. The daily assaults of hyper branding, of constant propaganda, and all of it embroidered in the grammar of fear naturally create a longing for a safe haven. Of fear and anxiety. The non-stop buffering of the psyche with the narratives of violence, of punishment, or revenge. This is a culture that has been purged of compassion. There has been an increasing tendency toward a Manichean model of black & white, right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, and a parallel encouragement toward never forgiving. In the culture industry, nobody accepts apologies. I’m sorry. That’s not good enough. Revenge is stamped as an approved emotional compass. Forgiveness is weakness, is for losers.
A quick final note on the American sit com. One of the changes seen in comedy (and I touched on this before) has been the disappearance of humility, of the tragic. If tragedy appears, it does so in the cloaks of the freak — it is Andy Kauffman. The anger of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor is now the snark of Seinfeld, or the arrogance and elitist codes of an Adam Sandler. In some respects, Sandler is the bench mark for absence of talent being no obstacle. Comedy became a strange spectacle or ritual of self abjection. There is no more gruesome psychic abattoir, no den created by the Inquisition, no site of mental torture that quite equals a trip to a Comedy Club. It may be that there are, dialectically speaking, currents of mental health that emerge from these vestries of humiliation, I don’t know. But the evolution in U.S. society, and even U.K, as to what is funny, reflects something of the fall out from Reagan and Thatcher’s revolutions. Laughter is now a nervous laughter. The American sit-com as it evolved, has reflected this. To watch Phil Silvers or Burns and Allen today, is to watch something that still connects to Comedia and folk community, to Yiddish genius and to Vaudeville. The death of those last connections to an earlier model of funny…Milton Berle and George Burns, and Jonathan Winters this year, means what remains developed under the aegis of marketing; in the rapidly rising tide of the three camera laugh track formula, and of careerism, of the constant repetition of formula competing for limited corporate slots. But if The Honeymooners at least retained a sense of real working class life, shows such as “Friends” were simulacra of life, not idealizations, just pure invented attitude and as far from working class reality as its possible to get. In a sense, Arrested Development is the Mannerist stage of what is already a cheap motel print. It is so divorced from communism, to bring this back to the start, as it is, probably, possible to get. But who cares, its the attitude anyway. This post gonzo prose of snideness and glibness as political.
This is the petit bourgeois left today, the post modern dissolution of real Marxist analysis, replaced with elitist codes of cool, or branded diversity, or co-opted feminism and gay rights. The reality of corporate production, of the white male dominated corridors of cultural power, isn’t somehow incidental to what is on the screen. It is exactly productive of what is on the screen. What is on the screen (99% of the time) is a vision reflecting the values of the people paying to have this crap made. SONY, Time Warner, FOX, News Corp, Vivendi, Disney, Viacom…..these are billion dollar entities, and they made Arrested Development, and they didn’t make it to resemble communism.
Watch that surveillance documentary. Think about Time Warner/AOL, and FOX, and SONY, and think about the integrated communication system, across various platforms; phone, TV, computer, etc etc….and that just Time Warner’s revenue last year was in the neighborhood of a hundred billion dollars. In 1983 there were around 250 media corporations, and today 6 control over 90% of all media. In other words, 229 media executives control the culture industry for an audience of close to 280 million Americans (this doesn’t count overseas audiences). It is worse than naive to forget this. And the new totalitarian white supremicist quislings like Zizek (and really, Molly Klein was one of the earliest writers to recognize the fascism lurking in Zizek’s writings), are the court eunuchs for Imperialism and not, as advertised, radical critics of Imperialism.
One of the problems with cultural consumer advocacy (engaging as a ‘fan’)is that it is hierarchical, and duplicates the existing structures of Imperialism. The substrata of appreciation is now terminally linked to pre-existing structures as defined by, really, the state. One of the real problems is how enclosed our very language has become by corporate culture. These are patriarchal, white and imperialist. Resolution in plot, the emphasis on message, on rationality and logic, and not just the obvious worship of authority and the normalizing of police as a necessary ingredient in daily life, all express these underpinnings. The unsettling fear though, is because deep down most people know, or are learning, this is not true. Cops beat people to death. Cops are by and large not punished for these crimes.
The kitsch violence of network TV and film has a numbing quality, and its very distance from daily realities contributes to a cognitive state in which I suspect real coping mechanisms are short circuited. There is a more immediate experience of helplessness. Does this relate to the increased use of anti-depressants? I’ve no idea, but I suspect so.
I leave off with Paglen, from that same interview…
“The utopian aspect is the not-so-secret secret of negative dialectics, as I
understand it.Ithink it pointsin the direction of unfulfilled forms of freedom
and justice, but only indirectly and obscurely. This is related to what we were
talking about when the subject of avant-gardism came up in our conversation.I
really do want to believe in a more just world.I often think of Fanon, who insisted on a “new humanism” without ever really articulating what that might look
like. I’m not sure even what it might mean to articulate that as a meta-theory.
Perhaps that’sthewhole point of it—which leaves us again in the space of negative dialectics, no? For me, this is what art can do—orient our seeing and suggest practicesin waysthatsuggest (even negatively) liberatory forms of being—
but it’sreally hard to say what those forms might be.”
and the link to Verney-Elliot’s blog: