A Puppet Life

Sculpture underwater, Cancun Mexico, Jason deCaires Taylor

Sculpture underwater, Cancun Mexico, Jason deCaires Taylor

“For if they fell upon one kind of strictness, unless their care were equal to regulate all other things of like aptness to corrupt the mind, that single endeavour they knew would be but a fond labour: to shut and fortify one gate against corruption, and be necessitated to leave others round about wide open. If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing of dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth, but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies, must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale: who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebec reads, even to the balladry and the gamut of every municipal fiddler, for these are the countryman’s Arcadias and his Monte Mayors.”
John Milton,
Areopagitica, 1644

puppett theatre

This week David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald is *detained* at Heathrow by UK security forces. The US had been advised of this detention (and more significantly, destruction of Miranda’s hard drive and cellphone) ahead of time.

What did that conversation go like? Hi, this is MI5 and we’re sort of thinking of fucking with David Miranda…Greenwald’s boyfriend. You’re good with that, right?

Sure, yeah, get us the contents of his hardrive though, would you?

There was nothing to hide for the United States. They see nothing wrong in this, and clearly they don’t care if there is public outcry of some sort. There is the growing sense that the United States government WANTS you to know, WANTS to make clear, that they will punish those who dissent.

As I say, nothing is being hidden. Nothing. How does this narrative play out, exactly? And why does it play out the way it does? Partly, the mass culture of the U.S. has prepared and shaped a specific form of ‘cynicism’. There was a moment in the 1960s, I think, though clearly this goes back to the 1940s, where there was created this model of “anti hero”. Sam Spade and Philip Marlow were precursors. The Continental Op was another. Those figures were reacting to the corrupt state, and its corrupt institutions.

That was a cynicism based on idealism.

Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander

Also this week, TIME magazine senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tweeted his longing to write prose justifying the drone murder of Julian Assange.

This month also marked a couple very obviously pro-state and pro-capitalist and pro-Imperialist apologies in what are self indentified as leftist journals (Mother Jones, In These Times). Gavin Aronsen, the erstwhile editor of MJ, penned this bit of strange character assasination (in support of the LAPD). http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/08/michael-hastings-coroner-report-conspiracy-theory-debunked

Now, one does sort of wonder what Aronsen is on about with this. I mean the LAPD has a sixty year history of corruption, brutality and lying. Why is it one should believe them on the obviously suspicious death of Michael Hastings? One can only assume either Aronsen was paid off, or is scared.

But this links with the master narrative of the entire culture. David Miranda’s detention is not a problem for the likes of Gavin Aronsen. It’s not really a problem, certainly, for the NYTimes of LATimes, TIME, of any other major corporate owned news source. Michael Grunwald can long for extra legal murder and he works for the, in theory, flagship news magazine of the entire country.

But going back….The anti hero morphed into several branches, it seems to me. The steely professional, unfeeling distant and methodical. The assassin. There was also the vigilante that started in its current form with Dirty Harry. And most pronounced was the world weary cop, the police homicide detective with a drinking problem. Joe Wambaugh signaled this sub-phylum of anti hero with The Onion Field, and later with The Choirboys. In all cases these were anti heros who were not “anti”. They were flawed, or obsessed, but they worked FOR the state. They believed in social domination and law and order. They believed the loss of emotions and a shrivelled inner life were perfectly aceptable costs for increased efficiency in killing.

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer

This directly leads to what I wrote last posting on Orange is The New Black. I have heard Aura Bogado recieved more angry letters and tweets about her article on OITNB than she had on any other single article. Jenji Kohan is not terribly far from Gavin Aronsen or Michael Grunwald or the director of Iron Man 3 when we check accomodations in the third circle of Hell. The lords of mass media, of telecoms and corporate news, of the whole vast apparatus of the culture industry, they are a privileged white class, almost all of whom were born into that privilege, and that sense of entitlement provides a pretty seamless path to cooperation with state authority. The anti hero character had, by the 90s, become simply a fascist in need of a tune up.

The figure of the law enforcement officer has subsumed the outsider protagonist. The cop with an ex-wife, a drinking problem, and better, a history of excessive force, is the new (NOT) anti hero. He works FOR the system. If one reads the comments on the Gavin Aronsen paid propaganda piece, one can hear the sound of white crypto-fascism, of white panic, of white snark and anger. And its white male anger. Those comments are white men. I can think of no single film that so imprinted the American pysche as did Dirty Harry. It so perfectly captured and prophecied the coming white panic, the anger and sense of impotence. The sixties meant a threat to white male potency.

*Make my day. Punk*.

This is the sound of every other police state franchise over the last forty years. Make my day, punk. Three generations of white men feel the power of these short staccato sentences. The economic language of the fascist. The totalitarian centurians. The frustrations and intimidation of state bureacracy, of insurance forms and registrations and mortgage and the hollowness of contrived ‘boy’ culture, the NFL, hunting trips, beer drinking — all of cloaking a desire to stick a .357 magnum in someone’s face, a hippie, a fag, a nigger, a spic, or your wife. SOMEONE. Make my day, punk.

Roman Centurian, Tomb of Facilis.

Roman Centurian, Tomb of Facilis.

So, the appropriation of black and poor stories by white cultural tourists like Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan, is going to end up feeling perfectly acceptable to a liberal audience. If the right conservative lesser educated 80% (Chomsky wrote of) gravitate to Dirty Harry, the more educated (sic) liberal white audience will embrace OITNB and feel perfectly alright about it because after all, it is addressing *real* issues, too (too !!!!). No really. It is.

Now, the problem in one sense is that the work of serious art, or even serious popular art, has just totally given way to the works of (a growing) prestige division in studio and network production.

Here is an interesting quote from R. Crumb:

“Before industrial civilization, local and regional communities made their own music, their own entertainment. The esthetics were based on traditions that went far back in time — i.e., folklore. But part of the con of mass culture is to make you forget history, disconnect you from tradition and the past. Sometimes that can be a good thing. Sometimes it can even be revolutionary. But tradition can also keep culture on an authentic human level, the homespun as opposed to the mass-produced. Industrial civilization figured out how to manufacture popular culture and sell it back to the people. You have to marvel at the ingenuity of it! The problem is that the longer this buying and selling goes on, the more hollow and bankrupt the culture becomes. It loses its fertility, like worn out, ravaged farmland. Eventually, the yokels who bought the hype, the pitch, they want in on the game. When there are no more naïve hicks left, you have a culture where everybody is conning each other all the time. There are no more earnest ‘squares’ left — everybody’s ‘hip’, everybody is cynical.”

This new prestige product has actually come to define cultural discourse. The creators of Breaking Bad or OITNB are spoken of in the same sentences as Dickens and Mozart or Tolstoy. The audience has not read much Tolstoy, but no matter. A few did in college, or they read part of a book. But here, several topics need to be sort of delineated. First is the new totalitarian state. The detaining of David Miranda is a blatant gesture of symbolic intimidation. The destruction of his files and hard drive is, I suspect, the front edge of a new Inquisition. Only, perhaps the titillation remains, and probably a good deal of pure pornography, although it may be useful to sweep up other material under cover of cleaning up public morality, but there will be heavy restrictions on research and access to certain materials. The plan to control the internet is step one. The moral codes at work in Jenji Kohan, or any other major franchise — Law & Order, or Walking Dead, or Falling Skies, is a system designed to reinforce the ruling class’ power in the name of the greater good. How long one can blog the way I am here without problems is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think its unrealistic to imagine the state chanelling internet activity away from independent sources and opinion, to state sanctioned material. Gavin Aronsen is already doing his part. Zizek and Jodi Dean do their part. The reactionary liberal press of people like Rachel Maddow do their part. Dissent is very soon synonymous with *conspiracy theory*- The quickest way to discredit journalists is to call them conspriacy nuts. It is worse than calling them perverts or child molesters. There is treatment for pervs, but no treatment for conspriacy theorists.


I think it is important in this discussion to understand that the consumption of mass cultural product is an integral component of the apparatus of state control. If the educated classes have forgotten enough of the experience of artworks, of that questioning and engagement, then it becomes all the easier to work the sound bites and propaganda without fear of opposition.

“The relations of producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labor.” Karl Marx

One cannot, it seems to me, escape returning to Marx and Freud, in some sense. One cannot really clearly discuss the propaganda, and the state domination of media and its affects, without returning to mimesis, and to commodity fetishizing. There is then, behind even this, an ontological level of discourse that, honestly, ought to be put in play, too. But philosophy, theory, is rapidly becoming an object of dersion. The new intellectual model is either total computer geek, an Aspergers de-socialized character with savant like talents, or it is the dogged researcher, the relentless details man. The puzzle solver.

Michael Dumontier

Michael Dumontier

The simple Marxist reading goes like this: the social character of our labor is given this objective character — the social character transforms into an appearance of a characteristic of the commodity, product, itself. Then the exchange value is designated in the market (in theory) and a general equivalence further erodes the specificity and particulatiry of the item.

But before returning fully to the mimetic, I wanted to try and suggest more of the linkage between propaganda, psychology, and the new totalitarian state that one sees in the David Miranda incident, or in such news items as this:


and this:


There is a second generation raised by media rather than biological parents. Most families in the US need two jobs, and even the rich who don’t need that income, parcel their children out to TV and internet and iPhone to occupy them while the parents themselvs often have to get back to the hard work of leisure.

These two generations have been taught most everything by film and TV and advertisers. How to look, how to act, and how “feel”. I have always sort of thought that the prevailing beliefs that modern culture has about “primitive” (sic) socities and peoples was distorted. When Benjamin suggests that “..the gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else”, I wonder that there isn’t an element missing in this, and it has to do with certain Enlightenment assumptions about progress. It also leaves out something having to do with narrative. But before getting to that, there are a number of other questions being implied. This is a big topic and I leave a lot of this for future postings. But for now, there are two areas I want to sort of raise questions about. The first leads to Adorno and his remarks about mimesis vis a vis earliest childhood. The childhood that is prior to ego formation. Michael Taussig’s fascinating book “Mimesis and Alterity” is a wealth of speculation on the effects of mass media and especially film.

Taussig quotes Miriam Hanson (in her essay on Benjamin) on the theory of modern experience that “hovers around the body of the mother”. Benjamin of course wrote of the child holding the folds of his or her mother’s skirt. These memories helping define the basis of mimetic meaning. Here is the importance of the storyteller, for all of Benjamin’s notions of allegory and mimesis. The storyteller was archteypically the stranger returned. He spoke to those who had remained at home. Taussig mentions that for Benjamin the storyteller was always feminized and maternal. The male traveller returns as maternal touch. The story is told with gesture as much as voice. And a language (per Adorno AND Benjamin) that is not the language of communication. This is one of the deeper enigmas or mysteries of this entire discussion. For one only creates space, triggers mimesis, by invoking the language of the uncommunicable. What is of interest to me, in this posting, has to do with the figure of the migrant. The returning stranger carries within all the connotations and projected meanings of those who have remained. This dynamic also links directly with theatrical space, with masks and ceremonies. The mask, the daimonic, the Dionysian energy of pre-rational forms of thought are recreated in ceremony, and all ceremony links with the mother’s touch, and with the folds of her skirt. The child’s fear of losing the mother then also links with genital anxiety, with castration fears, and with the idea of becoming other.

All stories are crime stories. All stories are also, probably, stories of the mother’s touch. It may be, and this is something I want to write on later, that it is also the sound of the father’s voice.

Morton Bartlett

Morton Bartlett

The age of the media mother is an age with only dead gestures. The robotic authoritarian, and the infantilized sexual encounter.

“Before, the fetishes were subject to the law of equivalence, now equivalence itself has become a fetish”. Adorno and Horkheimer

This leads back to the Spectacle, to mass media, and the backdrop of realism. The space that narrative allows, in which language can ascend to the non-communicative, and in which the ritual performance describes contours of thought, of the audience engaging in something that symbolists and surrealists both looked to capture…as Roger Callois puts it (quoted by Taussig): “…becoming space, dark, space where things cannot be put”.

Or in the conclusion of Von Kleist’s small essay on marionette theatre:

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean”, I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course”, he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

Von Kleist killed himself a year later, in 1811. at the age of thirty four.

So, here in the growing police state of the US and UK (and to a degree in the rest of Europe) there are generations who identification is with power, with empire, with the brutal aesthetic of the SWAT team. Is this why so many of the Columbine style shooters were dressed like Robo-cop? If the mother’s touch if mechanical. If its not even a touch, but the illusion or image of a touch, if it is a cyber touch, then a generation of the children of bourgeois parents who subcontracted parenting to mass corporate control are growing up willingly facilitating the spread of cultural totalitarian principles and culture. If Terminator was a parable about the mechanical droid parent as superior, then it is the parable of our time, perhaps. The educated class, as Gramcsi knew, was vitally important to spread the values of the ruling class and state.

“The language that central
fascist figures employed to speak about fascism,
its principal policy doctrine (corporativism), and
its artistic production suggests that style was a
formal and invariant component of fascist
ideology, whereas content was contingent and
dependent upon changing political and social
circumstances. Given this view of fascism, the
fascist theatre did not choose form over content;
fascism was form itself”.

Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, 1659

Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, 1659

“There is no anti semite who does not basically want to imitate his mental picture of a Jew…” Adorno and Horkheimer.

This early 21st century epoch is the tallying of accounts from colonial history, from fascism, and advanced capital. The Nazi’s imitated the gestures of Jews, and Israel imitates the actions of Nazis. In the US, the continuation of racist practice is facilitated by a repression on mimesis, on this because of the need for control by the ruling class owners of property. Taussig reads, rightly I think, Adorno & Horkheimer’s critique of fascism, that control and domination meant, crucially, the control of mimetic faculties and senuous knowing. Repressing the experience of culture — the experience of affirmative life. The rise of irony is, in part, a coping mechanism for mimetic repression. Jews, homosexuals, blacks, anyone…for everyone feels more alive, more potent, than “I” do. The ruling elite experience a strange splintering here (of which I intend to write more) in that they are both self created myths of hyper fertility and vision, as well as seeing themselves as the sucky and angry rodential little men they are. The contempteous treatment of bellboys or waiters is the indelible mark of this splinter. Get my bag you lazy fuck, and here….(big tips to assauge the guilt, and/or exhibit power). There is a place here for a much longer discussion of the misogynous dynamic of both the white elite and the bourgeoisie.

What are products such as “Act of Killing” if not the white man’s desperate need to ingest the potency of the *other*. What better other than our own creation, the ‘youth death squads’, and what better tribute to this magical ingestion than to give the death squad leaders a camera to make a movie! A movie about killing. Perfect! And of course, OF COURSE the US public loves it. How could they not.

Appropriate. Steal and re-package.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

The US prison system stands as the great momument to several hundred years of brutal punishment on the poor. It is the shadow across a landscape of such exhausted creativity, and such trembling fear, that no wonder the public cant bother to look up and notice incidents like the Miranda detention. If they do, if they notice Trayvon Martin or Troy Davis, or Assata Shakur or Leonard Peltier, they reach quickly for some mental calculus that justifies these incidents. These stories. But see, they dont read them as stories. We have fewer and fewer stories. We have sound bites and twitter. And facebook and the surpressing of narrative runs hand in hand with the supressing of all mimetic activity. That the ceremonial space of real narrative, that which activated the stage for hundreds of years, is now smothered. It is smothered and replaced with movies and TV. The mother’s touch, the portal to an archaic self, or secret knowledge is now only the gloved fist. The gun, the pepper spray. Infants gaze up at their botoxed expressionless mothers, and narrative is reduced to cell phone texts. To sit and watch a film in which characters are reading text messages is perhaps the ultimate expression of our collective divorce from the ‘stranger’s’ return, the fire, the storyteller and that fetishizing of mimetic engagement. Benjamin said there is a sexual appeal in the inorganic, when it is linked to the death instinct. And that happens in ceremonial performances.

The figure of the exile haunted Adorno throughout his life. Odysseus and the wandering Jew. The exile’s longing was to return with his story. A story that cannot be told while still in transit.

The prison system continues, almost impossibly, to grow. Two million plus, and over seven million under some formal custodial control. Lets make a comedy about a white woman, in prison, and lets keep it light. Lets make a series about a meth cooking white man, a high school teacher, and lets make it all about his white family, and their white inlaws, and exactly like OITNB, we can add an aside of compassionate liberalism. In one, the trans person of color. In the other, a son with a disability. We are enlightened, are we not?

The mimesis of mimesis. One of Adorno and Horkheimer’s more difficult concepts, but one that certainly seems apt when we encounter work like Act of Killing. There is no deeper horror one can find than to slip into the colonial consciousness of the last two hundred years. From the Belgian Congo, to the Carribean, to what Taussig’s mentions, the slaughter of the natives at Tierra del Fuego. The *Scalp Hunters* of the American west engaged in much the same severing of body parts. Ears, scalps, fetuses, and much like the genocide of Native Americans, the Europeans in Tierra del Fuego had to mimic a savagery of their imagination upon the *other*. The savagery WE enact must bring order and civilization to the barbarians. The barbarians who HAVE to be more savage still. And if necessary, we will create their savagery. The colonial imagination has never ended.

The US admits to using white phosphoros in Iraq, in Falluja. Oh……ok, ok. Yeah yeah, we used it.

When I read reviews of Act of Killing, when people suggest ‘its as much about the viewer’, I wonder what that means.

I have had an inordinate number of people argue with me about OITNB. “Its Swiftian satire” one said.



Michael Hastings was working on a story about the CIA and Director Brennan. His car hit a tree, the engine was ejected (a Mercedes no less) and it exploded into flame. But hey, the LAPD says its all good, nothing to see here, move along now.

It’s a movie. Speeding car, a crash, flames, and the CIA. A movie. Call Jack Reacher, call Bourne, call Bond.

Corporate media is run by rich and influential white men. The underclass never get access to this hegemonic system. Oh occasionally an outlier will make a film, perform on a big stage, and certainly the system scavenges and takes what it needs of material, stories, fashion, or even people, but once stolen everything is put through the machine. Even when its not put through the machine, its put through the machine.

Pierre Molinier

Pierre Molinier

“The ivory tower — in disdain for which those who are led in democratic countries and the Fuhrer of totalitarian countries are united — has in its unwavering mimetic impulse, which is an impulse toward self likeness, an eminenetly enlightening aspect; its spleen is a truer consciousness than the doctrines of didactic or politically engage art, whose regressive character is, almost without exception, blatantly obvious in the trivial wisdom those doctrines supposedly communicate. “

Adorno continues this long sentence by saying radical modern art is progressive, despite the inclination of critics to dismiss it. In spite of…“the summary verdicts of those politically interested…” . In other words, the mimetic narrative exists only outside the didactic one. The progressive art of good intentions is almost invariably bad art. It is bad because it has forgotten the enchantment required from storytelling and a return from exile, even personal exile. For the bourgeois audience will reject the semblence of the ‘other’ however it appears. OITNB is the ghost image of white power. The ruling class feeds off this pandering self idolotry the way dogs return to their vomit.

Make my day, Punk.

Stephen Shore, photography

Stephen Shore, photography


  1. I suspect the reason for the harassment of Greenwald’s spouse has to do with this very interesting article that appeared last Sunday:
    Greenwald and Poitras have amassed a huge database of incriminating documentation through their Snowden connection.
    These are people who have become the special new form of pariah, like Agamben’s “Homo Sacer”, for the reinvented state of exception we inhabit, where the rule of law is giving way to the brute sovereignty of executives. One has a reason to fear for investigative journalists who
    oh and
    The mother as bad guy…come on John!! Parental narcissism and over-sheltering aren’t nearly as bad as rampant child sexual abuse, over prescription of behavior modifying meds and child poverty rates. It’s just that narcissism and over-sheltering are really irritating to people who have to watch. Kids can generally handle mildly neurotic parents including botox moms just fine.

  2. John Steppling says:

    @rita….how did you get mother as bad guy from this? Id say, and i wrote on this already, that over prescribed meds go hand in hand with a general absence of parenting. Its just easier, and often perceived as better, to give kids a technological upbringing, and one with lots of behavior modyfing drugs—-. The chemical warehousing of children seen as problematic is actually a topic to which Ive devoted two whole postings……..but when people say “come on….” I always hear the sound of personal defensiveness. And of course poverty is a significant blight…but I wasnt writing about the underclass, who oddly escape some of this (while suffering more acute physical abuse). I think there is a very large repository in white affulent homes of denial about how these things work …..vis a vis class. The bourgeois family, and those who can afford certain things for their kids, tend to follow the advice of the system, and that means shrinks, and it means medications and expensive schools, again if they can, and yet none of these familes , it seems to me, escape this: because the markers for sucess and failure are so clearly drawn. Why would mothers be exempt from any of this? And no, I dont think botox moms or “mildly neurotic” moms are not destructive. But again, i wasnt writing about mothers per se. I have writing far more about a dynamic of white priviliege that is just not examined by those who have it. And its more the male side of it. The boys grow up with the madness of certain expectations, and a hatred of and fear of women, and I think the nature of this system distances the mother (women) in an equation that becomes more pathological as economic polorizing and a war on the poor escalates. Im afraid i dont see this as “narcissistic and over sheltering”…….and I dont think you can find anywhere I said anything like that. I think its far worse than that. And given the pathology of white male behavior, how is it that parents would not play a constituative role in this? The techological parenting is just a fact in a culture so encouraged to accept the authority of privilege and what one can purchase. Its a fact that children grow up with a numbing distance from the world at large and a blindness to their own social role (and privilege), and the violence AGAINST women is now so acute that it seems bizarre to suggest that this just the fault of poverty (by implication this would mean the poor are more destructive and violent, which I think we know isnt true). The violence of a rape culture at universities is at least mostly white….though its more based on class resentments and, well, a complex set of things. I mean how did that happen? Clearly a lot of children are NOT handling this stuff just fine.

  3. John Steppling says:

    @rita……….yes the poitras article is very interesting. I sort of am stunned, as i said above, at the openness of it all. And really, the same with michael hastings’ death. I continue to see people willing to bend over backwards to believe the LAPD story. Why is that? And the obvious harrassement of Miranda is hardly being hidden. And yet I find an awful lot of people sort of just shrugging or laughing but hardly upset… they are MORE upset at Game of Thrones ONLY having ten episodes and not 12 this season. – I suspect there is a complex of reasons for all this, but my personal feeling is that the mass psychosis of the collective now has a traction not ever before witnessed.

  4. John Steppling says:

    it is the MISSING maternal that is the problem. There is not a mediate shield for the child, and alientation intensifies. Until the role of the maternal is re-established….and that would mean a return to long ago…I suspect pathologies to intensify. Of course its far more than this, but id say this is a significant factor.

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