“Conciliatory laughter is heard as the echo of an escape from power; the wrong kind overcomes
fear by capitulating to the forces which are to be feared.”
I have used terms like radical pedagogy, or aesthetic resistance (and they aren’t mine, I’ve just overheard them or read them, and find them worth using).
Today, not just culturally, but especially culturally, the authoritarian and fascist sensibility is channeled into categories of sentimental applause, or binary divisions of like/not-like, and more subtly, it assists an already existing condition of thought on the left, or in all opposition, for cynicism and snideness. There is almost a spacial metaphor here: the outsider sniping from beyond the walls. I suspect if one were to examine studio or network TV, one would find subtle indicators of this, and encouragements, and narratives in which this metaphorical space is expressed.
The “sniper” as a military metaphor has already found a degree of traction in popular culture, actually. But it goes well beyond that.
One of the intended results of hyper-branding, and advanced marketing (including the state dept PR division) is the orchestrating of reaction — the pre-arranged response, and this includes criticism. Part of this is simply the mirroring effect. Establish a one dimensional master narrative, the answer appears as its mirror opposite. There is more, though, that has to do with space — both figurative and literal. It is also the logic at work, the embedded tropes, and pseudo truths of the system. One form of this is the reliance on jargon from the left. And I am probably as guilty as anyone of this. The colonizing of intellectual discourse by the academy along with the trend in capitalism toward specialization, results in an increasingly hermetic private language for criticism.
The U.S. embraced sociology as soon as it arrived — it is the perfect science for a marketing consciousness.
In culture, the left is as distrustful of Dionysian emotion as the far right, of anything seen to be too ineffable or mysterious, because of a hard insistence on *scientific* Marxism. In the 60s, thinkers such as Norman O.Brown, and the Frankfurt school, as well as those even marginally related to the school, Benjamin and Bloch as well as radical psychoanalysts such as R.D.Laing, or second generation Reichians, were still part of intellectual discourse. Auto didacts still were seen as acceptable, by and large, participants in public intellectual dialogue. All of those writers and thinkers embraced culture, and art, as constituent to social change. Utopian constructs were less ridiculed.
A number of factors began to erode the idea of the importance of culture. Norman O.Brown was a classics professor firstly, and his reliance on works of antiquity were a casualty of some of the response (legitimate) to what was seen as white patriarchal supremicism. The problem of course was that Dante is not the enemy. The custodians of empire — the elitist class of white privilege had created a canon, used (!!) to reinforce a new Hegelian pseudo scientific anthropology (coded versions of what were really racist eugenics, so if Madison Grant and Otto Reche were too vulgar and obvious, a new set of codes were going to be needed)were in fact discovering structural variations on the same racist and misogynist beliefs. Unfortunately much writing on arts and culture got thrown out along with the obvious and too crude fascist thinkers.
Now, not to overstate things here. This was the left. The state remained unwaveringly supportive of racist legislation and the furthering of class domination. A side bar worth remembering is the role of intelligence testing from WW1 on through to today, really. As Anna Stubblefield wrote:
“… in the early twentieth century, the concept of feeblemindedness came to operate as an umbrella concept that linked off-white ethnicity, poverty, and gendered conceptions of lack of moral character together and that feeblemindedness thus understood functioned as the signifier of tainted whiteness.”
The practices of forced sterilization, anti miscenegenation laws, definitions of insanity, all persisted right through WW2, and it was at that point that new revisionist version of these same principles were implemented. (A quick google of Mankind Quarterly is fairly illuminating, actually).
However, to return to culture — the master narrative had adjusted its presentation, and as the 60s unfolded, and Viet Nam, and after, as the state regrouped around the realization that marketing was the key, and as new financing poured into the State Department budget to be used for propaganda (under cover in a sense for the *fight against communism*) there were clear structural changes in public discourse.
Underlying all this is a persistent misconception about art. And it is evident even in Guy Debord, writing about a review of Godard…
“CHATEL THINKS THAT if a portion of the population recognizes itself in a film, it will be able to “look at itself, admire itself, criticize itself or reject itself — in any case, to use the images that pass on the screen for its own needs.” Let us first of all note that there is a certain mystery in this notion of using such a flow of images to satisfy authentic needs. Just how they are to be used is not clear. It would seem to be necessary first to specify which needs are in question in order to determine whether those images can really serve as means to satisfy them. Furthermore, everything we know about the mechanism of the spectacle, even at the simplest cinematic level, absolutely contradicts this idyllic vision of people equally free to admire or criticize themselves by recognizing themselves in the characters of a film. But most fundamentally, it is impossible to accept this division of labor between uncontrollable specialists presenting a vision of people’s lives to them and audiences having to recognize themselves more or less clearly in those images. Attaining a certain accuracy in describing people’s behavior is not necessarily positive. Even if Godard presents people with an image of themselves in which they can undeniably recognize themselves more than in the films of Fernandel, he nevertheless presents them with a false image in which they recognize themselves falsely.”
The problem is an assumption about identification. And by extension, about *communication*. Art is not about either of these things.
and later…..” On the contrary, the revolutionary movement must accord a central place to criticism of culture and everyday life.”
There are a host of issues here. Firstly, the dynamic of spectator and spectacle is reproducing a capitalist dynamic….at least partly. The problem with Debord (and not just Debord) is generalizing exactly what the Spectacle is. You cant have it both ways in a sense. Yes culture is critically important for a revolutionary consciousness. The question though, is, in what ways does the individual engage the artwork, engage with culture. What does it mean to be a spectactor?
From Timothy Clark, Christopher Gray, Donald Nicholson-Smith & Charles Radcliffe, 1967.
“Cop art, cop artists. The whole lot moves towards a fusion of forms in a total environmental spectacle complete with various forms of prefabricated and controlled participation. It is just an integral part of the all-encompassing reforming of modern capitalism. Behind it looms the whole weight of a society trying to obscure the increasingly transparent exclusion and repression it imposes on everyone, to restore some semblance of colour, variety and meaning to leisure and work, to “organise participation in something in which it is impossible to participate.” As such, these artists should be treated the same way as police-state psychiatrists, cyberneticians, and contemporary architects. Small wonder their avant-garde cultural ‘events’ are so heavily policed.”
“Purely contemplative nihilism is no more the special province of artists than is modern reformism. In fact, neo-Dada lags way behind the misadventures of the commodity-economy itself — every aspect of life today could pass as its own parody. The Naked Lunch pales before any of the mass media. Its real significance is quite different. For pop art is not only, as Black Mask remarks, the apotheosis of capitalist reality: it is the last ditch attempt to shore up the decomposition of the spectacle. Decay has reached the point where it must be made attractive in its own right. If nothing has any value, then nothing must become valuable. The bluff may be desperate but no one dares to call it, here or anywhere else. And so Marvel comics become as venerable as Pope. The function of neo-Dada is to provide an aesthetic and ideological alibi for the coming period, to which modern commerce is condemned, of increasingly pointless and self-destructive products: the consumption/anti-consumption of the life/anti-life. Galbraith’s subordination of economic to aesthetic goals is perfectly summed up in the Mystic Box. “Throw switch ‘on.’ Box rumbles and quivers. Lid slowly rises, a hand emerges and pushes switch off. Hand disappears as lid slams shut. Does absolutely nothing but switch off!” The nihilism of modern art is merely an introduction to the art of modern nihilism.”
That these are writings from almost fifty years ago is suggestive of several things. The most obvious is the incredible rise of marketing hegemony, and the vast expanse, now, of electronic media, 99% of which is corporate owned. What were only structurally embedded tendencies in 1960 have become overt and powerful forms of the new propagandized experience. Perhaps the first casualty of this enclosing of experience has been language and speech.
But before getting to that, I want to question a prevailing assumption that lies behind almost all of this. And that is the nature of cultural experience. Or, the manner in which the individual spectator experiences an artwork. The acceptance of “identification” as the primary aesthetic reading of any narrative, but especially a *fictional* one — and this includes film, TV, theatre, the novel, poetry, and painting … and I suppose dance and possibly even some music, almost goes unquestioned.
I want to dig up a couple quotes from an earlier dialogue I had with Guy Zimmerman, about theatre and the tragic.
“…But the point is that this temporal inversion becomes more and more the explicit subject of theater as the modern era unfolds, and the reason for this has to do with the growing “spatialization” of time (to use Deleuze’s phrase), where the subtle interplay of memory and presence is reduced to a strictly linear flow of mechanical time.”
and then something I wrote…
For our purposes, for the modern theatre, I think what is relevant here is to think about what that Dionysian energy was, what was its form.
It was a domesticating and secularizing of the daimonic. This, in effect, was an assault on the paradoxes and mysteries of the Tragic sensibility. Benjamin said the death of tragedy was a death or exhaustion of possibilities. But here is the fascinating point in all this; both Nietszche and Benjamin saw tragedy as intimately connected to sacrifice. There was a double meaning to sacrifice though. It was both atonement to the Gods (of myth) and as an act that gathers together the community – (which is where Rene Girard enters the conversation).
I have always felt that the best theatre is that which somehow exhausts the excuses for conventional senses of identity and value, or, to put it another way, for bourgeois demarcations of self and society. Whether Beckett or Pinter or Bernhard – or Kane for that matter – the play is a deed, an active performative act of destruction.
The acceptance of this notion of identification eliminates the more complex questioning of what our experience of ritually presented narrative does. Identification means a fixed idea of self — which must be insisted on with strict discipline.
Allow me to quote Molly Klein here, when she interviewed me (and while it is about my work, it applies to the questions being raised).
“Right off the bat I’ll say my hunch is that what your works produce is an alternative to the spectacle as Debord described but that has some points in common, as if in some kind of similar but inverted relation to quotidian reality, but whereas the spectacle seeks to enclose, replace, control and exploit quotidian reality, the drama as you practise it enters into a relation which informs, sustains, assists in the enrichment and reproduction of reality. It seems to me the reassertion of spoken language – which is impoverished and dominated by images in the spectacle – is a major aspect of the construction of a literal space.”
All of this is to point up the problem I see in a critical response to mass culture in leftist writing. So total is the script of the master narrative, so strong is this mediated corporate colonized world, that even critical responses take the shape of the ruins and destruction to which they are witness. “Identification” means, now, identification with domination. And some strange slippage has occurred whereby the left’s rage at the vast architecture of death and sadism is displaced — or rather, even if not displaced, it is articulated in a mechanism of self denial, in a setting where real life and artwork are interchangeable.
I’ve noticed in much critical discussion of media, a liberal demand for reform — and the primacy for reform in representation even before that reform in the real world.
“If the structure of narrative, of the instrumental reason, causes the domination of mimesis, if mimesis is repressed, dominated and tamed by instrumental reason, then, it also, ironically, survives through the existence of the myth of enlightenment itself. Thus mimesis’s “aggression” is purely bound up in its efforts for survival.”
on Adorno and Mimesis
There is a point for both Benjamin and Adorno, where art (and mimesis) connect with an archaic heritage, with the persistence of mimesis as expression of no-thing. Nothing except itself.
“The dialectic of mimesis, Adorno claims, is absolutely “intrinsic” to art, a proposition mostly misunderstood by the “naïveté” of modern aesthetic thought. For it fails to appreciate the progressive disenchantment of the world in the work of art as a means for securing, however through technology, the life of magical heritage of art. The dialectic of mimesis and rationality reveals the compatible but irreconcilable tendency of one to the other. Art’s mimetic character is revealed in its disenchantment from and secularization of magic from the archaic period. It thus conveys the rational side of art, as well as its refusal to allow the domination of rationality to turn it into a technological perfect being. In art the resistance is felt in both directions as nothing but the mute suffering of its expression.”
The questions raised by Situationists could not be resolved by them because of this basic confusion, this simplification of mimetic experience. The truth of SI , and of Artaud, both nonetheless ended in a kind of nihilistic frustration. For the larger form of domination, that of the illusory rationality of scientism, masking a deep irrationality, a self destructive repression, and sadism, presented on the stage of world conquest, a conquest by white patriarchal power, had now been sold to the public as Nature. Aesthetic resistance cannot simply treat mimetic expression, mimetic re-narration, as if it were engaging with a shipping container of dead mackeral, whose history extended no further back than six days.
“Works of art acquire their life only when they renounce their likeness to the human”.
There is in that quote something echoed by Zuidervaart, when he says “modern art is virtually an identification with the aggressor…”. It is this most difficult, I think, of all Adorno’s topics, that is also the most crucial to grasping the false negation of the sensual in art.
As R.D. Laing said, we tend, especially as children, to torment ourselves as a defense mechanism, to identify with the reified world, as a strategy of reifying ourselves before the system does. Pre-emptive self alienation — is reflected in the subsequent denial of a deeper (and Dionysian, or sensual) mimetic re-narrating of the artwork. It is in culture that political resistance allows itself to punish the other (which it represses in social life, as part of a moral and admirable project of resistance). A hatred of the non-administered artwork emerges as a prevailing ethos on the left. The artwork that does not cleave to certain notions of class and worse, lodges itself as something to be approached without identification, and without actionable lessons of revolt, or that does not suggest clear political readings — will be recoiled from. One never even gets to the place where form can be discussed. It is this critical approach — spectacle and deserving suplicant (or spectacle and undeserving revolutionary) that is actually the fall out from a solidifying of dynamics between workers and management. The left distrusts management…and confuses artworks with a managerial class.
Works by John Sayles, or Mike Leigh, or painters such as Rivera and the Mexican muralists, or even Picasso, are almost uniformally endorsed on the left. In fact endorsed with an almost shocking uniformity. This is not to discount Rivera or Orozco as valuable artists, though I think they remain highly over-valued right now, but to point to a predictable set of taste standards on the left. If the liberal (especially educated and affluent and white) gravitated in their own private scripted story line to the adjusted paternalism of white man Redford, or Aaron Sorkin, then left found their comfort zone in directors like Sayles.
This is a complex topic, and it also raises an interesting question about violence. There are several competing versions of explanation for the hyper violence of cultural product today. And I fear there is a subtle secondary question that too often is ignored. I am guilty of this, and I think most who write about cultural representations of violence are. There is no question that daily life is now saturated with images and sounds of violence. However, there are also a host of issues not yet touched upon.
This is, of course, not just the left. Teaching aesthetics is almost not done, and where it is still a part of the curriculum, its mostly just perfunctory ‘art appreciation’. The result is that by the time students get to college, those that do, there is a total absence of cultural background. The University lit crit field was probably both reaction and creation. In any event, the destruction of public education took a form in which the humanities were the first place the plug got pulled.
If, one some level, narrative always reflects, partly, our own intellectual and emotional development, then one dimension of creative expression is a repetition compulsion as search-for-lost site of trauma in childhood.
The reproduction of this desire *for* that which has been forgotten. The truth is that, it is a search for that which may not exist, or have happened. It doesn’t matter.
In one of Adorno’s denser paragraphs lies a partial answer:
Ultimately, aesthetic comportment is to be deﬁned as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps
were the ﬁrst aesthetic image… . Consciousness without shudder is reiﬁed consciousness. That
shudder in which subjectivity stirs without yet being subjectivity is the act of being touched by
the other. Aesthetic comportment assimilates itself to that other rather than subordinating it.
Such a constitutive relation of the subject to objectivity in aesthetic comportment joins eros and
Actual contact with Nature, when children, yields the first sense of awe and wonder — both positive and negative — that human’s experience. Those childhood traces, all that remain often from a life lived under the boot heel of capitalist domination, of an increasingly administered and bureaucratic life, are criminalized as illicit, unconsciously. The 21st century individual, in the West, lives within an enclosure of growing laws, regulations and punishments. I think often, the *crime* story is the platform for mimetic responding to those prohibitions. What strikes me is that the gratuitious violence increasingly attached to corporate narratives of crime, serves the function of wiping away the possibility of actually re-narrating and reflecting upon, our own sense of being transgressors. We cant be, if there is an endless supply of “bad guys” out there, to murder, torture, and mutilate. The problem is not too much violence per se, its that an identification is encouraged with state violence and its agents, an identification with social repression and with incarceration. The manufacture of hyper violent entertainment serves to normalize the idea that violence has no cause. It drops from the sky. It is just ‘there’.
Violence itself occupied writers from Sophocles to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, up through Melville, and Chandler and Hammet, to `Kiefer and Bacon. But it is also possible, that the violence that achieves a mythic stature, the psychological crimes of Pinter or Beckett, of Tarkovsky and Bresson and Fassbinder, or the meditations on death and mortality one feels in the works of Franz Kline or Gottleib, as well as Kafka and Juan Rulfo — that all of these artists are recreating tracings of our personal conflicts from which the formation of a real existential resistance takes shape.
“Identification is the lowest form of appreciation”
The compromised mimesis of totalitarian society is seen in the robotic gestures and ossified grimaces of corporate cop show stars and fashion models alike. This petrification is expressed in the stiff lifeless prose seen in of most post grad. writing programs, and in the constant repetition of rigid formula in TV comedy. The anal sadistic tightness of a new body type — steroid induced and gym trained resembles nothing so much as a walking corpse. That the wealthy white men producing the kistch cop shows, and military themed films, see in their nightmares the marching poor as zombies at the gates of Paramount, the parallel artistic reality is in the imitation of a zombie shuffle, even if just mentally, in those competing for day player jobs in the waiting rooms of Century City, Culver City, and Burbank, or any employment agency. The erasure of the human externally is a mirror for the erasure of the natural mimetic properties internally. The ruling class demands a pessimism in everyone but itself. The approach to works of culture therefore start at this default setting of skepticism which is the byproduct of patriarchal judgement, not the natural affection of childhood. Even the left, then, requires proof of validity somehow, and in the ‘impurity’ of corporate manufacture and financing a reflex judgement is issued by this outsider subject even before the experience.
There is another register of dialectic here, and that is the stunted mimetic capacity that connects to the weakened ego. Horkeheimer suggested Nazi brutality and anti-semitism was related to a frustrated childhood bully, the poor impluse control of childhood maladaptive egos, became perfect fodder for the SS. Today, the false picture of the *real*, the regulated ersatz Nature one can only see through car windows or in rented camp grounds that are regularly patrolled by park police, is a projection of a living death. It is lifeless and withered and the mimetic reading of this projection will of necessity be reptilian cold and deformed. In that sense, the elite are the actual zombies, projecting outward a cartography of lifeless bloodless “happiness”. Beneath the almost hysterical laughter of audiences watching Hangover 46, or Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, is a short circuited mimetic process of emotional austerity — of that same frustration as the spoiled child. It is a culture of mimetic tantrums. The laughter of the adult is the narrative of childhood disappointment (Adorno).
For the left, the self regulating takes the form of endless micro adjustments in evaluation — the distorted calculus of what can be taken from the artwork, rather than what can be shared in a fusion of mimetic abandon. The strict school teacher, ruler in hand, is always looking over their shoulder. The psychic wrist slap keeps the notion of a masculine ideal of self denial at work.
The misogyny of a system that extols the feminism of Lena Dunham, and continues the puerile titillation of its endless “prestige” work, also creates constant re-telling of stories in which nobody can be trusted…especially women and the poor. It is a trust averse culture. For the left, from their sniper’s nest, the party seems to have invited everyone but them. The left cannot submit or yield to the paramour artwork.
Risk averse and trust averse. The right’s new heroes are military murderers, or men in suits. In both cases their currency is that of sadism. The fascist has never really believed art is supposed to matter. The left has forgotten it. In their attempt to destroy the authority of the father, they repeat their own small drama of brutality on the cultural offering.
The society that yearns for ever greater control, more information awareness, and technological command, has imposed a script on the public that insists on an equation of yielding equals weakness. The inability to accept love. A suspicion of the *other*, a by product of all binary themes of competition. It is interesting to see the countless bad murals on community center walls, and the endless genius of graffiti art throughout urban centers. For art to contain life, it must reject the idea the dominant logic of the state. Transgression is the cornerstone of the discovery of eros, and Dionysis. Consensus is the Apollonian compromise. It is the flaccid dry sterility of the committee.
The politcs of production are now uniform and absolute. I think the colonizing of consciousness is almost total. In the last posting here on the blog, there was a long extended debate about for the forces of production, as well as the art market, and Pentagon, and US state department and their role in shaping taste. And it is no doubt true these financial sectors, and government agencies, played a huge role in shaping taste for forty years, or maybe in just removing taste as a consideration for appreciation. I am not sure, though, at all that such agencies can, finally, dominate the human psyche to the degree that our dream life is completely occupied. And clearly, given the protests around the planet right now, it has NOT colonized everyone totally. What I see though, as a problem, is an increasing primitivism and cynicism in aesthetic awareness. For even if social change takes place, on a material level, a world in which Speilberg is screened or Zizek lectures, or Jonathan Safron Foer is reading, is not a world free of the totalitarian structures of thought. The left must develop its sophistication in aesthetic matters — the insistence upon an instrumental and linear logic in appraising artworks, is the residue of totalitarian structures of domination.