I recently mentioned and referenced Ruth Fowler’s sharp and amusing take on the Sindead O Connor open letter to Miley Cyrus. Now, over at Counterpunch, Jeff St.Clair has redacted the, apparently, offending sentence or two and issued an apology. A fawning apology. It strikes me that as the society becomes ever more violent and toxic, the language must become ever more pure and chaste.
This is coupled, again, to the idea of hurt feelings. Jesus fucking god, is everyone just offended all the time about everything?
I hated the racism in Captain Phillips, the Hanks vehicle and ode to commercial shipping, but Im not “offended” by it. Every time I see Joe Lieberman I might be queasy but my feelings are not hurt. Anyone who has worked in theatre knows that one must quickly develop a very thick skin. John Simon once wrote of me,
“For sheer excrutiating boredom, nothing will ever equal Mr Steppling’s new play”. Who you calling Mister? The point is, fuck John Simon. Who cares. I still write and he’s long into his dotage. A nasty feral sort of man, and a terrible critic, but probably worth more consideration than either Miley or Sinead. I mention this because I wonder at people who read Fowler’s piece and wrote letters of complaint? What drives such indignation exactly?
“I am offended by Ms Fowler’s use of the term “cunt””. Im imagining that is the sort of irate letter St Clair recieved. So…here we have all this energy devoted to the material sourced by a Miley Cyrus performance. Think about that. Daughter of Billy Ray.
The real aggression in this discussion lies with O’Connor’s condescension and used car salesmen sincerity. This sort of faux concern is far more offensive and angry then Fowler’s aside to “kick her in the vagina”, a comment made with a fair amount of comic intent. If a male writer had said kick him in the nuts, most people would chuckle. Such sort of male bonhomie passes for sublimated affection with men. But this culture can no longer read tone. This is the Asperger’s effect, where the culture seems unable to distinguish layers of meaning and feeling. O’Connor was acting out a sort of text book passive-aggressive posture.
But I do think that one of the problems in the public reading of politics has to do with this schizoid break between public and private, and also between the “present” and the forgotten past, or history. The interesting thing is, though, what and how exactly does this ‘public’ narrative function and inform? I suspect that as the political theatre of debt crisis and Republican star turns on the great stage of malignant idiocy that is the U.S. government, that most people…or at least a lot of people, sort of impose this very simplistic and almost crude template on the story. If you asked the average American what socialism was, they would give you very odd answers (I know, I’ve asked) and if you asked what they thought capitalism was, you would get only very slightly more complex answers. Sort of like this…
So, the narrative now is that somehow Republicans are holding Obama hostage and standing in the way of all these good liberal things he wants to do. The other narrative, the FOX news narrative, suggests Obama is a socialist, and Obamacare some strange intrusion on the free market and individual freedom. Of course these are equally retarded and sort of childish stories. Like children’s stories. And that is the point. I remember doing an article once on Swingers’ Clubs and pornography. This was thirty some years ago. And what was clear (in California at least) was that millions of people had signed up as members for these clubs. MILLIONS in just California. They attended official social meet & greet parties. Those who were members paid dues sometimes, and a lot of these places and organizations made a good deal of money. During this same period there was a great public debate (sic) going on about morality and media. Legislation was being passed to ban ‘Adult Shops’ and X-rated theatres in certain suburban neighborhoods. There was also a lynch mob sort of hysteria about prostitution and public nudity (even nursing mothers). If you added up the numbers you realized, rather obviously, that huge numbers of people who privately belonged to swingers clubs and organizations promoting “orgies” were also voting against allowing these organizations to exist. They wanted to put people like themselves in jail.
This is an almost cliche example of this public/private split.
It was also the era of the pre-school sex scandals and the ‘recovered memories’ pogroms.
I was thinking this week about the McMartin Pre School case, and the dozens that followed. For this was a perfect example of what Reich labled ’emotional plague’.
It is interesting to look at the impaired ability to process narrative, and how this intersects with repression, and Puritanism. There was a barely concealed hostility and sadism at work in a lot of self appointed feminists during the eighties. The age of Dworkin. But this was only one branch out of a society deeply imbued with a sensibility based on punishment. Now, I wanted to narrow this issue down a little and be able to look at the erosion of public education over the last sixty years and how it effected the public’s ability to discriminate layers of meaning in the world around them. Now, to narrow it down a bit further, I am thinking mostly of what I see as the one dimensional narrative that seems so dominant now. In one sense this was my point a month or so back when I was discussing Greek tragedy and ancient texts. There has been a consistent push in this culture to ‘make clear’ what an artwork is about, what political narrative means, and to generally just reduce complex layers and levels of cultural production to something easily grasped, the better to utilize it as part of a larger argument. At the same time, writing was accomodating itself to this interpretive trend. Writing became more and more infantile, and then post-infantile. Mere gibberish. Gibberish was rewarded. Complexity was not. Creative writing more and more resembled either this infantile kids books, or Ikea instruction sheets.
My sense is that there about four tones operative in most mainstream media. And in most mainstream critics. One is the very simple bland reportage. The blank sort of faux autistic. Another is the fawning bathos and sentimentality (O’Connor being a good example) and in a way this is Oprah and all self help practioners. It is sentimentalized carny barker speak. Another is white snark. Just be snarky about everything all the time. Snarky, sarcastic, and ironic. Now when snark lets up, it usually collapses into sentimental. The culture seems to rally round the sentimentalized expression of anything. This includes those mass orchestrated outpourings of grief seen when Princess Di …well….died…and after 9-11. Most recently there was the well honed and marketed narrative of Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan girl shot by the Taliban. In fact, her message was reduced to bathos, de-politicized for the most part, and in the service of valorizing the humanity of Obama and the U.S. war machine. Oh sure, she said, Mister President, please dont shoot us with drones anymore. But the subject of drones was drowned out by the personal story of this girl. And when her request was ignored, as of course it would be, her marginal status was reinforced. Appealing, sort of courageous, and in the end meaningless. When Pat Tillman’s death very quickly became uncomfortable for the U.S. military, his story was just dropped. It couldnt be made sentimental. His parents wouldn’t cooperate, anyway. Nothing of use for marketers.
Now of course, millions of people out there are perfectly capable of reading insincerity. And they do so all the time. Millions are acutely aware of all this manufacturing of subject position vis a vis cultural commodity. That doesn’t really alter or much change the privileged dynamic. And this is one aspect of the core problem. Language itself shows the effects of the structure of the Spectacle.
One interprets narrative and image, firstly, according to what is present. In other words, one cannot return to 1612 and see The Tempest as Shakespeare’s original audience saw it. One can only analyse what we know, or think we know, of Elizabethan society, and extrapolate from there. The bare contour of the material conditions of England at that time. And this is where Marxism has it’s greatest importance. As Fredric Jameson pointed out, anytime one asks ‘What does it mean?”, one is asking for an allegorical process of re-writing the existing text, in relationship (and the nature of that relationship is complicated and contested) with the prevailing system of codes and narrative functions of the society one is living in. You cant not read or see or hear Hamlet today without Freud somehow, even if only slightly, intruding on the experience. Now, this model is pretty derided and dismissed by Academic thinkers of the moment (except for guys like Jameson) because of the Deleuzian and Derridean introduction of treating the text in terms defined by post modern (post structuralist) practice. Accepting that everything is evaluated in light of the present, doesn’t mean one discard history. Yours or anyone else’s. What I am trying to get at however is that this re-narrating must use the materials at hand. The language we all must ‘use’ daily. Our dreams use this language, and our language uses this language (which is, besides sounding sort of Heideggarian, in the bad sense, is also in truth much closer to how Benjamin thought of language production). I may despair at times over the denuding of language, the strip mining of its richness and poetics (and lets say Im speaking of English right now) but when I fall asleep, the sound I hear is collected in pieces from my daily sensory life. It is almost an unconscious dumpster diving for meaning. For allegory.
I have felt that since about the time of Beckett, although maybe stretching back to Kafka, the narrative artwork has been partly, if not largely, about the battle to reconstitute meaning in both language, in individual words even, and in, more importantly, narrative. They all over-lap, of course. The accomodation of language to the needs of marketing firms and advertisers, as well as politicians, has meant the reducing or removing of multiple layers of meaning. And for professional PR people, to control those layers that remain. One reason I think Heidegger is valuable when he writes on the Pre Socratics is that he is restoring at least the idea of a Dionysian energy and mythic repository latent or hidden under the first instrumental use (meaning) of the word. In another sense this is what Wittgenstein obsessed about his entire life. And this is addressed by Adorno’s comment that ‘Beckett was putting meaning on trial”.
Laid across all of these issues is the ever resilient ‘bourgeois identity’. The world of hyper branding and constant fragmented information has as its primary, or at least secondary purpose the constant reiteration of the ‘self’. Advertising appeals to this manufactured identity. It forecloses on any interrogation of identity, for without this idea of the self, there is nobody to buy the product. As society moves away from consumer based identiy to a more amorphous role in the “attention economy” the idea of narrative and the interpretation of narrative is becoming linked to media and film in increasingly direct ways.
“Since the early 1990s, pre-internet, I have been arguing that during the last century in and as cinema and other media technologies, capital, that is, leveraged exchange with productive labor for the purpose of profit, has undergone a metamorphosis—not just imperialism or globalization, but cinematicization.1 By the last decade of the twentieth century, it was possible to see that Marx’s labor theory of value, in which workers gave capital more labor time than they were paid for (for Marx, this dissymmetrical exchange with capital was the source of all profit), was being superceded not by marginal utility theory (which comfortingly suggests that profit does not inhere in exploitation but from differentials of supply and demand) but by what I call “the attention theory of value.” By abstracting the assembly line form (in French, the chaine de montage), and introjecting that form itself into the visual realm such that spectators’ practice of connecting a montage of images moving in front of them was not just analogous but homologous to workers in a factory assembly line producing a commodity, cinema brought the industrial revolution to the eye. In an emerging interpenetration of the economic and the visual (in which the filmstrip became the assembly line of the visible world), spectators “assembled” the image-commodities, at once valorizing the cinema and producing continuously revised versions of the world and of themselves within a matrix of industry and profit. This new machine-body interface known as the cinema acted directly on the imagination to harness attention as a force of social production.”
So this operation of re-narration was now a movie review. The individual, this self, was appearing in his or her own film. This doesn’t happen in any sort of obvious way, however. People dont ‘think’ they are acting in their own movie. They wouldnt tell you this. In fact, as consciousness becomes further colonized by telecoms and media conglomerates, there feels as if a reflexive response is taking place that insists on individual autonomy. Volunteerism is a big meme out there, and I think the public is sold this idea as if its just altruism of some kitsch sort, while obscuring the idea of the attention economy. That work never stops.
And the individual is ever more in need of identity accoutremonts to reinforce this belief. The nature of the self as presented has changed. And a part of this change is linked to the effects of hyper branding and mass media on how narrative is processed. There certainly feels as if there is dulling in what the audience is able to hear. Concentrated listening seems effectively destroyed in daily life (in the West anyway). Culturally, the individual really does not approach the experience of narrative artworks looking for an allegorical meaning. The approach is more directed toward shopping. And once the selection of commodity is made, the approach is one of personalizing the owning of this shopping choice. Since Freud, the idea of desire has been a sort of central platform for explaining human behavior. One of Jameson’s most interesting asides (which was also a theme introduced by Benjamin) is that as experience became more abstract, less direct, more mediated, the role of desire (sexual desire?) became more foregrounded. Into this Freudian narrative came a variety of hermenuetical theories. And one of the problems with Jameson, in fact, is that his impulse to demystify becomes reductive and instrumental. Though he is certainly correct in saying Lacan’s reading of Freud was the first clear interrogation of the idea of this fixed subject — in the post Freudian world anyway, his reading of Freud remains singularly restrictive. But Jameson, who in his early major works, certainly retained an integrity of vision, even if he ended up guilty of exactly that which he was trying to dismantle. By which I mean, the Freudian critique, which in its most speculative areas (anthropoligical), was allegorical, can only be dismissed it seems by subjecting it to a strict policing mechanism. Or maybe engagement with that narrative itself elicits a police like response, I dont know. Desire is related to transgression, but not dependent upon it. The problem is always that to write is to participate in the society into which one is born. One is compromised apriori. And if this is true, the construction of identity is not easily going to go away. Which is why those narratives that demand concentrated attention, regardless of other factors, have a value in their de-unifying of the master narrative, almost regardless of other factors.
So, the new trivialization of identity is inseperable from the destruction of listening and of processing narrative. I think it is very difficult to imagine a non repressed world. Marcuse said we have no idea what that would like. So, to return this to what I see as the rearguard action to re-affirm the patriarchal and its aggressions as somehow ‘natural’ is to return to these constant expressions of public shaming, that take place in the current climate of apology. The apology begs for censorship, for a new secular shopping list of offenses. Transgression is even trivilized. And what greater pleasure than to refuse the apology. Sadism. The narrative is reduced to a role in the new psychic police state. A role which demands it be vetted for cleanliness and an antiseptic quality that will allow its hidden aggressions to pass as socially affirmative and that social affirmation is sacroscant. The resulting effects are to valorize material around which easy aggreement is most effortlessly achieved. I also wonder if, as the allegorical is erased, as even potential, as surface is validated as important even at the expense of depth, if this isn’t itself part of the modern project. If, as multi level parking garages continue to get bigger, as skyscrapers grow taller, this isnt part of a compensatory operation to create other layers and levels in concrete to replace those lost in the mind. In any case, the dynamic of the police interrogation room, the human relationship of good cop, bad cop, and suspect is now the shape of most all human relationships under capital. Surveillance is evidence. Everyone is guilty. The state can choose to prosecute or not. But you are guilty. If allowed to continue to work for low wages without medical insurance, to suffer the random sadism of the steroidal ever less educated thug-cop…err…peace officer…is something to be thankful for. If you cross on a red light, apologize. Show remorse. And thank the kindly judge who only gives you probation. The works of Pinter come to mind here. The always acusatory glance, the anxiety, the sense of waiting for the next question that will trip you up. The emptying of all but the weaponized qualities of language, dialogue as cruelty. And the eroticization of power. One can see the rise of paranoia as a trope in the noir cinema of the forties, too. In which again, a landscape of fear and suspicion, drives the individual into an atomized alientated despair.
One can criticize Fowler or not, but what matters is the impulse to censor. The LA Times just changed its letter writing policy to deny anyone they deem a “climate change denier”. One wonders how they define this. Lost in this action (wildly applauded in progressive circles) is that the LA Times has consistently supported U.S. military operations around the globe. The LA Times is owned by the Tribune corporation, which itself is owned by Oaktree, and JP Morgan Chase. Oaktree is run by Howard Marks, and a joint partnership with Sabal Financial, who works at the buying of real estate loans. In other words, this is a multi national corporation with ties to Wall Street and Banking. Sabal specializes in “troubled loans” in Florida real estate. They make money off misery. But such awareness is not the top text, it is the hidden allegorical reading in a sense. The liberal class thinks such censorship by the Times is progress. It is easy to take these myopic and ill informed views. Easy to agree.
In a culture that refuses to approach narrative in search of deeper (sic) meaning, of revelation, what is left is a circus of empty apologies for imagined offense.
The photo at the top is by Hiroshi Sugimoto. I’ve wanted to write about theatre more soon. And Sugimoto is one of my favorite artists because everything he does is about the creation of a ‘space’. I find it interesting that in most of his work he uses a large format, 8 X 10, camera. I find that even digital reproductions cant mask the elemental feeling of large format work. Sugimoto is clearly influenced by ideas of space, of ritual space, and of the theatrical as a primordial engagement with mystery and unconscious forces. He has shot diorams in Natural History museums around the world, and long exposure seascapes in a variety of places. And he shoots architecture. He finds the space, not the building. It is always a meditation on space and narration. I hope to write further soon on his work, for it is among the more resonant today, for recuperating an idea, an alive idea, about theatre.