All Stories are…

Joseph Seigenthaler

Joseph Seigenthaler

“As ever, then, the imaginations of urban life in colonized zones interacts powerfully with that in the cities of the colonisers. Indeed, the projection of colonial tropes and security exemplars into postcolonial metropoles in capitalist heartlands is fuelled by a new ‘inner city Orientalism’. This relies on the widespread depiction amongst rightist security or military commentators of immigrant districts within the west’s cities as ‘backward’ zones threatening the body politic of the western city and nation. In France, for example, postwar state planning worked to conceptualize the mass, peripheral housing projects of the banlieues as ‘near peripheral’ reservations attached to, but distant from, the country’s metropolitan centres. Bitter memories of the Algerian and other anti-colonial wars saturate the French far-right’s discourse about waning ‘white’ power and the ‘insecurity’ caused by the banlieues – a process that has led to a dramatic mobilization of state security forces in and around the main immigrant housing complexes.”
Stephen Graham

“Stories..every day they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together, they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories.”
Michael de Certeau

Whenever a mainstream critic says a character or a theme is worn out, they tend to mean the opposite. For these writers, the people at places as divergent as Variety and VICE, the LA Times, or New Yorker, the reality is that in almost every instance they don’t know what it means to call something a cliche.

But I wanted to focus a moment on VICE, because they represent a new faux journalism, and therefore their betrayal is far worse. For their branding, the style codes employed, are all regressive. The orientalism, the overt masculinity, the cartoon machismo of their *field* correspondents, who of course have the same credibility as those CBS dorks embedded during the Iraq invasion. The self labeled “conflict journalist” is to journalism what the WWF is to real sport. Its news-tainment. The prose is close to Sax Rohmer. The deeper problem with this Murdoch owned faux news organization is that their political positions are decidedly pro Imperialist. Go back to their piece on the Balkans.

Never mind the egrigiously patronizing tone, virtually every single historical observation is factually incorrect. This is frat boy pretend journalism. It is racist, it is sub-literate, and so astoundingly patronizing to anyone not white and western as to be the very definition of colonialist. It is also vividly narcissistic. These are the people who one day will run banks, or become start up CEOs or some other functionary of empire, proto capitalists, secure in their privilege. This is kegger journalism, and the flip side are the more hair chested conflict hacks. If central casting had to come up with a cartoon version of clueless westerner hanging with *authentic jihadists*, VICE could provide them. These are the merc protected wanna be’s of the Newstainment industry. Remember, Murdoch runs VICE. Murdoch, you think Murdoch allows dissent? Allows anti Imperialism to have anything like an effective voice in anything he owns? The conflict journo is always accessorized with the proper *field hair* (per Letterman) and at least some native drag tossed in. The hyper masculine is always self feminizing.

The deeper issue is the ideological mechanisms at work. For even if they were factually correct, the problem would remain.

Tang Sancai-Glazed Horse; circa  618 AD to 906 AD

Tang Sancai-Glazed Horse; circa 618 AD to 906 AD

All colonial settler states are based on the violent dispossession of the native peoples – and as a result, their fundamental and overriding aim has always been to keep those native peoples as weak as possible. Israel’s aim for the Palestinians is no different.”
Dan Glazebrook

The faux activist journalists at VICE are really just appropriating the stories of the third world to then commodify and sell as part of their lifestyle webpage. The default setting for all western journalism today, from the NY Times to WaPo to VICE is the same; it is the inherent superiority of the white western world. And given that, its not surprising that there is a tacit agreement that U.S. military intervention (and by extension NATO) is somehow just necessary.

“Amidst the global economic crash, so-called ‘homeland security’ industries – sometimes more accurately labeled by critical commentators the ‘pacification industry’ – are in bonanza mode. As the post 9/11 US paradigm of ‘Homeland security’ is being diffused around the world, the industry – worth $142 billion in 2009 – is expected to be worth a staggering $2.7 trillion globally between 2010 and 2012. Growth rates are between 5 and 12% per year.”
Stephen Graham

The business of security is part of this default setting. The current police response to Ferguson Missouri after a police murder is an example of transferring the war zone to the domestic landscape. Never mind that half of the technology one sees trotted out in Hollywood film and TV is almost useless, the narrative is what matters ( And some of that high tech equipment serves to give a sophisticated gloss to the exercise of basic brutal force. So just like VICE, the selling of a threatening underclass which, whether in Detroit, Missouri, Iraq or Nigeria, is in need of pacification. Today’s architectural projects, from new airports to new malls, from the Olympics to financial summits, the first order of planning is the installation of security systems and personnel. There is a two way migration here, too. The U.S. prison system, largest in the world, is now the model globally, while the U.S. created conflict zones are now the model for U.S. domestic control apparatus and deployment. The pernicious part of this is the narrative eliding of context in the new infotainment business. The reductive narratives of Empire. These are the presentation of the most lurid aspects of war zones and conflicts, and the erasing of the historical record, because, well, history is so boring.

Roger Herman

Roger Herman

Michael de Certeau wrote about the celestial eye of medieval painters. He rightly suggests that today, the imaginary totalizations are increasingly hard to escape — the panoptic sense of space that today’s population of the West operates in effects a kind of blindess. The architecture of today’s star architects and their prestige projects is one in which (as I’ve said) the human perspective is removed. De Certeau calls this an opaque or blind mobility. We walk around and do not see. This is the manufacturing of a space cleansed of heterogeneity. Class and political community are not included. The relevance this has for the new surveillance society is seen in the ownership class and their semi-conscious panic. The entire basis of algorithmic and biometric surveillance and security technology, while ineffective, still plays a role in directing the ocular organizing of the world, both on a minute by minute basis, and in imaginary geographies.

This is an instrumentalization of not just systemizing information, but of predictive thinking.

“However, this ‘captured’ face image is only of use if it can be matched with an identifier. It
requires a database of face images with associated identities. Unlike fingerprints or DNA
samples, which are only collected when there is a reasonable level of suspicion of a crime, face
images are routinely collected in society by a variety of institutions, such as when we apply for a
driving licence, or a passport, or a library card, etc. It is the most common biometric in use by
humans to identify other humans. Indeed, in any western society, if one would somehow cover,
or be seen to attempt to disguise one’s face, then there is almost an immediate assumption of
guilt. One could almost say that there is an implicit common agreement to reveal our faces to
others as a condition for ongoing social order.”

Lucas D. Introna and David Wood

Matthew Monahan

Matthew Monahan

It is worth pointing out that surveillance can be broadly broken down into two major forms. One is salient; observable and conspicuous, the visible, a cop with a radar gun, or any uniform taking down information. The other is silent, hidden, passive in a sense, and whose operation is often secret. Now facial recognition is based on a template, and geometric one, and there are obvious implications (assuming these technologies work, which they don’t) in how people will learn and adjust the reading of faces. One can imagine the atrophy of subtle facial readings by other humans. The look in someone’s eye starts to have less importance.

But back to mainstream criticism, which isnt really criticism, it’s reviewing. And in this context reviewing is consumer advocacy. The critic is trying to, essentially, predict the show’s popularity. He or she may or may not contribute to that popularity, but more often the role of entertainment reviewer is to validate the shows that reflect what is perceived to be the consensus thinking of the public. Increasingly this means to avoid anything not flattering to the demographic targeted by the show or film. Reviewers for fiction or poetry are in an entirely different realm for the audience for new novels or poetry or even such rarified mediums as dance or symphonic music is very small. For fine arts the situation is not terribly different, but more incestuous. Galleries and curators dictate to a large degree the success of new artists. These reviewers are often nothing more than interns. Often not even paid. Some, the star reviewers, those with a brand, are widely read and compensated. But gone are the days when a Pauline Kael could invest reviewing with something like an independent intelligence and knowledge. Even a Roger Ebert stood out, even if not exactly visionary, he still cared about the idea of film as art. And he was unafraid, usually anyway, to take unpopular positions. Today the group think of reviewers reflects the consolidation of corporate media. The message of VICE covering the middle east or Balkans is really the same message as VICE reviewing movies; and the New York Times or Hollywood Reporter or New Yorker or Huffington Post about anything. The ideological underpinning is identical.

The Balkans still looms as the trial balloon for expansion of NATO, and for creating client state-lets that serve as business opportunities for the West. Madelaine Albright and her bid for Kosovo telecom (from which she eventually pulled out) and Wes Clark’s mining interests in the region are not material covered by VICE or the New York Times. The break up of the former Yugoslavia was naked western aggression. Here is a link to Ed Herman’s 2007 in depth analysis of what happened.

The linkage of VICE, Hollywood, film reviewers, and the FRY may seem remote, but stories are how we organize our sense of the world, and even of our daily lives. So a direct connection actually exists, for this is how propaganda works.

Richard Holbrooke, Kissinger, Bush, awarding Kissinger prize to Gabriela von Habsburg, grandaughter  of the last emperor of Austria and Georgian ambassador to Germany.

Richard Holbrooke, Kissinger, Bush, awarding Kissinger prize to Gabriela von Habsburg, grandaughter of the last emperor of Austria and Georgian ambassador to Germany.

There is a reason the U.S. state department spends tens of millions of dollars every year on propaganda. The vultures that descended on the new mini states of the former Yugoslavia are the same ones plundering Africa, Iraq, and Haiti. I mention the Balkans because it probably still stands as the single most successful government PR campaign in modern history.

But nothing of U.S. foreign policy is really secret.

“As providence has it, Mr. Bush likely launched the last large-scale U.S. land war in the Middle East. U.S. funding and development of al Qaeda in the 1970s and 1980s could have taught that proxy militaries have a propensity to eventually fight their own battles. Through the CIA current U.S. President Barack Obama funded and developed the Syrian opposition that has now morphed into Islamic State. This leaves al Qaeda, Islamic State, neo-Nazi thugs in Ukraine and a few remaining dictators as the residual representatives of U.S. foreign policy in current U.S. conflicts. Lest this seem less than evident, while the U.S. undoubtedly ‘deserves’ these ‘partners,’ they aren’t likely to (mis)represent U.S. interests as enthusiastically as sequential U.S. Presidents and militaries have (mis)represented them….Finally, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s dim blather about ‘who we are’ as a people in the U.S. U.S. foreign policy in my lifetime has included grotesque slaughters against the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Iraq and ‘lite’ wars in Panama, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Syria and now once again Gaza. Domestically the U.S. has the largest overall prison population and the greatest percentage of the population in prison in the world. Mr. Obama himself has claimed the rights of absolute monarch to kill citizens and non-citizens alike at his whim without evidence. In Iraq the U.S. resurrected the Abu Ghraib prison and ran it pretty much as ‘one of the worst dictators in world history’ Saddam Hussein ran it. And as events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri illustrate, America is a racist, quasi-fascist open-air prison for poor people of color. This is who we are as a people Mr. Obama.”
Rob Urie

 Andrei Tarkovsky. polaroid photograph.

Andrei Tarkovsky. polaroid photograph.

So it is not fringe rhetoric or conspiracy theory to state the obvious. As Mr Urie says, the government dimly blathers about abstractions such as patriotism and freedom, but says nothing. And huge chunks of the populace accept this because they have been trained by faux news services, infotainments, by Hollywood narratives of militarism and white superiority, and by the billion dollar advertising industry who colonize consciousness at almost every level of our existence. They accept and will defend these lies. They embrace the familiarity of denuded language and endless homilies. One of the greatest fears of the public today is that someone might call them crazy, or a conspiracy theorist. They fear for their professional lives, and they fear being ostracized by their friends.
Anne Truitt

Anne Truitt

“police forces are getting militarized globally, and global military organizations such as the UN “peacekeepers” can be used for police purposes when they come back home. Police organizations in Europe are being gathered into multinational military structures like the European Gendarmerie Force (EuroGenFor, or EGF). Brazil’s favelas are undergoing a “pacification” process administered in large part by former UN “peacekeepers” who have been recalled from Haiti. In general, soldiers from all over the world return from occupation missions overseas, habituated to urban warfare, to serve at home in newly militarized police or private mercenary forces such as Xe (formerly Blackwater).”
Gilbert Mercier

What is to be understood in the Ferguson police reaction, and the original murder, is that the new U.S gendarme has absolute impunity. This was true to a degree even when I was a kid. In my youth, which included a decades long interface with the criminal justice system and with cops, it was understood that the police had total and absolute power. They could and did plant evidence, they could and did beat you. I’ve had both happen to me. And I had the slight advantage, though poor, of being white. It was a given. Cops were to be feared and avoided. The roll call of Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Kendra James, James Perez, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner…are the product of a new escalation in police executions. The difference between my youth forty years ago, and today, is the lethality of police aggression. Forty years ago a cop might beat you with night stick, kick you, break your arm, but he didn’t kill you. Not as often anyway.

“The War on Drugs and the War and Crime carry a heavy price tag. A generation’s worth of “wars on crime” and of glorification of the men and women in blue have engendered a culture of law enforcement that is all too often viciously violent, contemptuous of the law, morally corrupt, and confident of the credulity of the courts. In Chicago, police ignored witnesses, dis counted testimony, as they bustled the innocent onto Death Row…Those endless wars on crime and drugs – a staple of 90 percent of America’s politicians these last thirty years – have engendered not merely 2.3 million prisoners but a vindictive hysteria that pulses on the threshold of homicide in the bosoms of many of our uniformed law enforcers. Time and again, one hears stories attesting to the fact that they are ready, at a moment’s notice or a slender pretext, to blow someone away, beat him to a pulp, throw him in the slammer, sew him up with police perjuries and snitch-driven charges, and try to toss him in a dungeon for a quarter-century or more.
The price for decades of this myth making and cop boosterism? It was summed up in the absurdity of the declaration of the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2000, that flight from a police officer constitutes sound reason for arrest. Actually, it constitutes plain common sense.”

Jeffrey St.Clair

Christian Houge

Christian Houge, photography.

Stories, the narratives of the culture industry, have affected not just a mentally numb public, but it has shaped the self image of the American cop. The steriod epidemic among cops is widely known, documented, but rarely reported. The steady diet of police drama in which heroic police violate all civil liberties and basic evidentiary protocol has provided the white affluent class with the mind set of the fascist. This is joined at the hip with the also constant fear mongering. The demonizing of the poor. The criminalizing of everything.

“The truth of the matter is that Michael Brown was murdered for walking in the street while black. The cop who shot him several times, even while he begged for his life, committed murder. He was not in any danger, except perhaps in his own mind. As the police response to the protests against the murder proved in a very graphic way, this cop was part of a force whose first response is to weaponize on as grand a scale as possible. The fact that a fair number of US residents seem to support the cop and the department he belongs to is evidence of a very disturbed society. It is not a society that believes all of its members deserve the same justice. In fact, it is a society that seems to consider its poorer members as something approaching savagery.”
Ron Jacobs

Dan Holdsworth, photography.

Dan Holdsworth, photography.

Stories. The stories told and re-told nightly in kitsch entertainment product. The public that supports the police is one that perceives poor neighborhoods, of any color, but especially black, as strange frontier regions from which only the thin blue line protects them. This is a manufactured mythology. But it is part of the same fabric of myth found at VICE, or FOX News, or CNN, or the Washington Post. It is exactly the psychological ligaments connecting the valorizing of Quintin Tarantino and 24 with State Department propaganda about ISIS and the Ukraine. It is the same story that was told about Milosevic and those non-existent rape camps, or with the Israeli settler/colonizer as victims of dastardly Arab malfeasance, or babies torn from incubators or yellow cake or those evil socialist dictators in Latin America. This is why even when VICE tells the truth (accidently, or on purpose) they are lying. Because you cannot, finally, separate the ideological frame from the picture within the frame.

I have said all stories are crime stories. But all stories are also travel stories, as Michael de Certeau points out.
“Every story is a travel story — a spatial practice.”This is why the deterioration of culture is so significant. Stories are a labor that transforms the map into the tour (per de Certeau). The ever more reductive stories of Empire are now transforming public space into distinct class segregated areas of fear or safety. The imaginary totalizations of the public exist in a dialectical tension with that propriator class that helps actually build the material world we live in. New buildings in that sense reflect the stories being told. Gentrification of old neighborhoods reflect this same narrative.

Leandro Erlich

Leandro Erlich, photography.

“The map, a totalizing stage on which elements of diverse origin are brought together to form the tableau of a ‘state’ of geographical knowledge, pushes away into its prehistory or into its posterity, as if into the wings, the operations of which it is the result or the necessary condition. It remains alone on the stage”
Michael de Certeau.

On early atlases as on the theatre stage, there were several forms of knowledge coming together in a ritual space. Euclidean geometry, the observations of people, handed down, or immediate, coupled to historical knowledge, cultural inheritance, formed something in which people experimented with a practice. Perhaps this is why theatre remains so disruptive and why it is always so quickly suppressed. One has to be able to see the building of a bridge as theatre. It inhabits this space where cultural memory meets instrumental logic. But is creates a new space. Or dams, or even roads.

Roman road, Tall Aqibrin.

Roman road, Tall Aqibrin.

All stories are crime stories, and all crime stories are travel stories. Or all stories are travel stories, and all travel stories are crime stories. It is probably both. It is obvious, if one steps away from the regressive pedagogy that is bound to the master narrative, that Shakespeare understood this, for his stage is alive with several registers of meaning. Genet, Pinter, Beckett; this is the essential intuited poetics at work. I believe it can happen in film. Maybe this is what mise en scene really means, I don’t know. Pasolini, Bresson, Dreyer, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Tarkovsky, and perhaps a few others. This is a society in general that has lost that sensitivity. The ability to deeply place these vectors of meaning. If space is being rendered opaque, but marketed as transparent, then a certain sensory shut down is bound to follow. The culture industry then doubles down on the pornographic, and the literal. Today’s kitsch film is without subtext. To watch, say, Django Unchained is to see what the disappearance of sub-text means and feels like. There is no uncanny in Tarantino, just as there is no uncanny in James Cameron or Speilberg or anyone working in Hollywood features.

Ron Jacobs has a telling post script that I shall end with:

“Missouri has an especially racist legacy. The last of the slavery states, it was a launching pad for numerous raids into Kansas by slaveowner militias hired to turn the vote in that state in favor of the slavers. It was from Missouri that raiders went to the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas and burned it to the ground. This led to a guerrilla war that involved John Brown and his band. Symptomatic of the US’s racism is how so many history books cover that war. John Brown’s campaign is consistently labeled as murderous, while the actions of the raiders is often portrayed as a response to Brown’s tactics. This is despite the well-documented attacks on Lawrence, including one known in history as the Lawrence Massacre. The coverage of the Michael Brown murder in the mainstream press suggests that the actions of those who carry on the raiders’ task (in this case the Ferguson police) continue to be excused for their violence.”


  1. Molly Klein says:

    ” To watch, say, Django Unchained is to see what the disappearance of sub-text means and feels like. ”

    That’s great. Someone wrote an essay once showing how the US public’s memories and attitudes toward the Vietnam war were pretty quickly altered by a series of movies, like Deer Hunter. We know the effect but can;t explain it scientifically. It’s at once kind of obvious and very mysterious. Or not at all mysterious. But here is another effect — hasnt Tarantino as you suggest and others of that 80s faux indy hipster film and teevee style softened a generation up to accept VICE, to accept the complete cartoonization of the public discourse and — I fear — of reality as they directly perceive/experience _and reproduce_ it.

    I saw the John Lithgow King Lear in Central Park. It was just gorgeous, Even Annette Benning was terrific as Goneril. Hard to believe I know – biut her sort of Beverly Hills elite killed publicist trophy wife type really worked. Anyway it was why Shakespeare is still the guide for literature and theatre. Just moving and thoughtful. Anyway this person Ira Glass, this pundit, had written something incredibly stupid that became more of a hot topic of discussion – how stupid and cretinous his tweet and how he had to retract it – than the production. (Lithgow is the son of a celebrated Shakespeare teacher and expert, I just learned, and you can tell. But because of him the whole cast had the language as native. Gloucester is played by the guy who is Lester Freemon on the Wire, superb. Some kind of hardly known guy was Kent, just perfect). ANyway Ira Glass said Shakespeare sux, it’s not “relatable”:. A- this was the most ;’relatable” Shakespeare I ever saw, so moving. But also the idea of relatable – meaning i assume something to which one can “relate” of “identify” rather than something one can relate or tell — is all about needing the cliche. Not being able to accept anything that isn’t from the shelf of tv and comix based action ficgures. The idea of “complexity” is when you redo Hogan’s Heroes and make COlonel Klink the hero…

    ANyway I ramble, I would love to hear more about./discuss more about the Tarantino to Vice transformation. There is something really frightening. This Aris ROussinos the British military officer posing as Gonzo journalist – pseudo Gonzo – this hipster Flashman, wrote this pornographic story

    Its like infantile fanfic, a la neil gaiman. This is the stuff from which these pundits playing Victorian Underworld paper dolls have emerged; infantile, derivative almost to plagiarism, but with explicit sex and violence as if they could make it ‘for adults’. There is “new adult fiction” which is horrible teen novels with fucking. It reminded me of Pan’ Labyrinth, which was a fairytale for kids, with added fascist trappings and violence to make it worth of adults.

  2. John Steppling says:

    Well, so much to answer here. First….there was an article, in the new yorker

    and there was discussion about this in various places. Its a category beneath identification actually. And its like an embrace of cliche in a way. Relate to what you already know. I wish i had seen the shakes……first off, Ive directed that play and may again, oddly, as i was just in conversation about it. Lester Freeman is terrific by the way. Lithgow too. But the way shakespeare has been taught couldnt be more wrong I think. Because its taught in light of *message* firstly. The amazing depth of shakespeare’s stage is ignored, or erased often. I did this experimental Lear in poland in three languages. Two lears on stage all the time. And i wasnt at all sure this would work, but then you realize it can work perfectly because of the amazing depth and complexity. In a sense there ARE two Lears, or three. Its as enjoyable as any play Ive ever directed. The polish actor Marian Opania was in it and he was amazing. Anyway….back to VICE. I think you’re right of course. VICE is like the culmination of some cultural trend that erased all background noise, all ambiguity, all sub text, and I mean even in journalism there is sub text. But with VICE you get this surface style….childish, even infantile, and a lot of attitude and winking. And its a performance, which replaces history or politics. Everything is in some default setting for banality— thats the background, this hyper simple cartoon. And it has to be already assumed, its so totally about validating what the reader already believes. Here, see, dont you agree? Of course you do. You even see this in martin amis for example, this speaking to the other guys at the club. The frat house, the gentlemen’s club. Everything is staged as a subject position that reads *insider*. And that is a paradox in a sense because there is nothing to be inside of….there is no inside. The ArisRoussinos thing is Sax Rohmer…..he;’s writing about Fu Manchu. Its all very colonial. The retro kewl of Kitchner or something. I suspect the vogue for period pieces from victorian england is an expression of this. But without the intelligence of a TE Lawrence. These are not even that. But its also pop, of course. Its an inheritance from many sources. VICE is also warhol. So…yes, yes, this is the progression that started with the horrid indy stuff of Jarmusch and the like. Blank became cool. It wasnt a blankness born of anything. It was chiat day. And chiat day was just copying Songs from the Second Floor, roy andersson. And andersson was a director of commercials in sweden. But i give that film some credit, it was a formal exercise in film, but that style became chiat day’s signature. And the disturbing part is, i think, that the public knows this isnt true, but they dont care, its too comforting this way. Its too flattering. So there is horrid bad faith at the heart of it.

  3. Molly Klein says:

    One thing I think you would have loved about this Lear is instead of trying to “illustrate” as if by the directors hand, between director and audience, the kind of debate about “nature:”, you see people grappling themselves with this problem, emotionally and physically. Lithgow did a great thing where Lear is already a little senile, that is the cause of his misjudgements; often one sees the play staged that Lear is bery regal and authoritative and then is made to go nuts by the circumstances and that is the pretext for riffing on these themes. But this was an exploration of the sinking into the mortality consciously of aging – it was just beautiful. Like instead of the old person falling and breaking her hip, we realize her hip crumbles and so she falls. Lear’s masculine authority has crumbled and so he falls. The one aspect symptomatic of our moment was Edmund was almost hipster in his delivery, snarky in his soliloquoys. But it worked also, and sort of matched his disguise of virtue as the reverse of Edgars poor tom disguise; his repentance was convincing.

  4. John Steppling says:

    one of things that happened, came out of the double Lear we did was in the final scene. Lear cant see well…..he says ” Who are you? Mine eyes are not o’ the best: I’ll tell you straight.” And he was speaking to the other Lear. Suddenly one saw the truth of this. Its almost inconceivable how much there is in Shakespeare. But all the Elizabethan dramatists….Kyd and middleton and marlowe, there is this richness, and this density to the language. This a language not used now, in any way. I had an amazing polish actress as goneril…..who spoke half in polish, half in english. And one could see the Jan Kott interpretation surfacing, too. The problem with most productions is this idea that somehow one must make poetic this language, OR make it everyday. And its neither. Its something else. This is where i think Benjamin was right about language. But your comment about illustrating is quite right. Thats this manufacturing of ‘realism’….even if its consciously not realistic, the substitution is a false realism.

  5. Molly Klein says:

    Some people in the theatre at the interval were talking about the zero being introduced to schoolboys for the first time in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and there still being a lively debate about zero, if it were just a placeholder or would be treated as a number like other numbers, and whether it could be divided. I hadn’t know it was a kind of hot topic…all the famous lines about “nothing” involve this.

  6. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    Excellent comments here all. I’ve already written on another post all I could about the philistine Ira Glass’s comments on “relateability” and how it influences the wider culture of apathy, cruelty and, as you said here, inability to read anything that isn’t a cliche.

    Now, what I find interesting is how does all of this fit into a broader historical context? How is this relatively historically new “metaphorical-illiteracy” (terrible term, but I can’t find better) different from the past where “literal-literacy” was confined to a privileged elite and the masses were “literally-illiterate”?

    Because what I’m trying to drive at is, I still don’t know what is the *psychic* reason for people buying wholesale into the simulated world of capital-produced cliches, blissfully unaware — what makes them willing not to even crave a certain type of greater questioning, and how do they not feel their current state to be unbearable? For example, speaking of myself, I grew up precisely in the sort of simulacra of Disney movies (Bambi was my favorite) and Tom & Jerry violence and play dates and too much computer games, and my parents did (and still do) have the most conventional Hollywood taste in movies which rubbed off on me — and, in short, I was affected (and am still) by this upbringing, with the result that the reactionary thinking that had become instinctive in me became something that I am still, with difficulty, getting rid of. Because understanding it intellectually is one thing, but this shit still incites a gut reaction that is a lot harder to get rid of than intellectual understanding is to acquire. This shit is so stubborn because it satisfies some subconscious cravings, in however incomplete a way. At the same time, there are contradictions in my upbringing — for example, my family was a typically constantly-upwardly-mobile family aspiring to be upper middle class and fully internalization its values, but in my early childhood we still lived in relatively austere conditions, and lived with working class families with which we were genuine friends and had a community with; and even now, although our house is now firmly upper-middle-class, the neighborhood is 100% less gentrified and divided as, say, South Californian sprawl is. We still have spaces that are not totalized — and so reality seeps into my consciousness and plants seeds of doubt that make me dissatisfied with the facade I lived in. But that also brings up another question: a lot of my classmates, for example, also have the chance to see for themselves the not-yet-homogenized reality around them — they come into close proximity with similar sights as I do, and they walk in the same public space as I do, and yet, they are totally satisfied with the facade, and are so satisfied they literally can’t see the reality around. They don’t (seem to) feel the itch that I first felt, which caused everything else to follow. So why the same reality sows seeds of discontent and greater questioning in some, and doesn’t leave a dent in others?

    And my guess is that understanding the psychic basis (as an addition to the economic and political forces which are far clearer to explain) has to go back to the fundamental question of what exactly is this historically new form of illiteracy? I know Adorno’s distinction between false-populist culture industry and real populism is an important analysis, but I wonder if anything can be built on it. For example, I’ve always thought that Hollywood films are like Christian mystery plays in form. (Bear with me, I’m not suggesting they are of equal artistic value. Mystery plays have the uncanny and the sublime in them.) They are concerned ultimately about the *spiritual destiny* of a blessed individual who was only initially lost, but will ultimately be guaranteed to find blessing in the end, and the journey is held in a blank, divorced from material forces. Like a mystery play, the setting of a Hollywood space is a blank, a void. And one can even see that the increasing medievalism of our age is very like the medievalism of Catholic Europe. Catholicism was a totalizing force that seeped into every aspect of society, colonizing even the private spirit of each individual (what distinguished it from Greek/Roman paganism which was largely content to leave private intentions and motives well alone). So is corporatism. And even the way that Catholicism homogenized different European cultures — the Franks and Goths and Latins all came under the same structure — is very similar to the way that we can have Americans and Iranians and Chinese and yet, despite their cultural differences, they’d share the same organizational structure along lines of capital. And corporatism and Catholicism both consumed intellectual/artistic activity so that intellectual/artistic activity is only possible in the Church/Corporation. So I don’t think the similarity of the forms of Hollywood films and mystery plays are coincidental.

    One finds in Hollywood films a lack of anything resembling tragedy. And this is significant, because there’s no salvation in tragedy, Greek or Elizabethan. It’s like what you wrote about Freud — there’s this deep understanding that suffering is a basic human fact, and that life’s worth living (but not because you can somehow *fix things* in an ultimate way). That’s quintessentially illustrated by Oedipus at Colonus, a remarkable play that on the surface seems to show Oedipus finally being “saved” from his fate and becoming blessed — but in fact it ends foregrounding the desolation and suffering of his off-springs. Unlike Jesus, Oedipus does find grace, but his grace has no salvation in it and it saves no one else, much less this fallen world. What set Christianity apart from paganism was not an acceptance that all life was sin, fallen. (Here I think conventional scholarship is almost completely wrong, wholesale.) The Greeks acknowledged this too! they too believed that all life was fallen! — the difference was that they never believed that this fallen world could be fixed in one fell swoop of forgetfulness. THAT’S what distinguished Christianity. Hence, Comedy is not the opposite of tragedy; Mystery Plays are the opposite of tragedies. Comedy is complementary to Tragedy. (Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”, “Measure for Measure”, “Winter’s Tale”, all proves he understood this). So, Dante’s Comedy, for example, is not anti-tragic. But mystery plays are explicitly anti-tragic, and so are Hollywood movies. That’s why King Lear was not “relatable” to that IRA (with his tax-collector literal mindset); Tragedy isn’t even part of the vocabulary.

    And also, it shouldn’t be surprising that the arts have fallow periods and fertile periods. Albert Camus’s excellent essay “On the Future of Tragedy” really drives that point home when he describes what sort of a highly specific environment is required for the flourishing of tragedy. Perhaps Athen’s golden age and Elizabethan drama were bright spots that by nature was hard to endure. Perhaps the same could be said for the brief flourishing of the avant garde between the end of the century and the decades after WWII. Or maybe my speculations are just that — speculation. (There’s something similar in Chinese poetry — Chinese lyric poetry of depth and sophistication flourished in highly specific periods and collapsed into artistic exhaustion just as quickly.)

    But ultimately, my extended digression on the similarities between our emergent medievalism and the Catholic medievalism was actually me trying to get at another point. I’ve thought about the similarity between mystery plays and modern-day entertainment a lot, and I’ve also thought about the parallels between the two medievalisms a lot, and I can discuss similarities and parallels all day, which isn’t that hard to do, but what really baffles me is how they are different, and more importantly, WHY. Because the mystery plays had the uncanny in them, and they had a revelatory power, and they had depth and multiple layers and subtle nuances. They’re very different from Hollywood movies. So again, the question is, if their forms have such similarities, and such similarities are too much of a coincidence to be explained away, and in fact there are similar social and political conditions behind these similarities — how and why were they different?

    And I think that if we can answer the question of what makes mystery plays different from Hollywood movies, we can explain my initial question: what is the difference between “metaphorical-illiteracy” and “literal-illiteracy”. And that question naturally will lead to insight into the question of what is the psychic underground, the seductiveness, of our modern age’s obsession with cliched thinking and manufactured imagery.

    Here are some quick observations of dubious relevance:

    – The “literally-illiterate” of the past had a training in aural comprehension. I often marvel at John Donne’s lengthy sermons, and remember that people stood hours listening to him. People trained in listening to sermons would have a sensitivity to mystery plays. Illiterate people would have understood Homer perfectly well in his bardic renditions, also hours long. By our standards, Homer’s hypotactic syntax with storyline embedded within storyline and explanation within explanation is counterintuitive and knotted, but even to illiterate Greeks they would have been intuitive and familiar.

    – Catholicism could never had become as totalitarian as our age has become. The technology of surveillance and control wasn’t there.

    – With above, hence the commons still existed, and societies would still have been able to develop organically.

    Any other ideas? Is this inquiry on the right track or not?

  7. traxus4420 says:

    hey john, great post once again.

    alongside all the ongoing events in ferguson and in the ME with ISIS, i’ve been having a lot of conversations lately (as you’ve seen) about the demand for ‘relatability.’ one can probably best understand it in the context of the aesthetic paradigm shift you’ve been reflecting on here. if ‘relatable’ in mainstream narrative has to do with the inclusion of certain clichéd signifiers of familiarity (cheap psychologism, easy pop culture references, etc.) at the expense of actual experience or knowledge, or the creation of a space for the uncanny, then someone like tarantino or lynch exploits relatability’s other side — developing a self-conscious flatness or ‘weirdness’ out of taking cliché to its furthest extremes and amping up affect (through gore, sex, or just plain irrationality) in lieu of sensibility or context. the near-universal turn to genre as the font of all narrative is part of this. so realism is replaced by archetype and ‘art’ is achieved by exaggerating archetype.

    and in criticism the effect is this kind of willful stupidity in disguise as savvy whereby shakespeare is ‘over’ and reality doesn’t exist outside its representation.

  8. traxus4420 says:

    and with VICE pseudojournalism and other forms of internet punditry (and ‘alternative’ literature – fiction and poetry), subjectivity and experience return but now (as molly has been noticing) via the conventional signifiers of novelistic ‘detail’ or ‘guerilla documentary’ mise-en-scène, and toward the purpose not of discovering anything new, but of validating clichéd propagandistic slogans and performing a certain niche-targeted identity.

    if anyone has the time, Fredric Jameson’s latest book The Antinomies of Realism is really interesting on realism, specifically on the 19th century novel as a momentary conjuncture of récit (the temporality of the unusual tale or anecdote – unerhörte Begebenheit in Goethe’s language) and affect, or the unnamed/unnamable feeling. with modernism that conjuncture begins to come apart, leaving us with an anti-narrative culture of art on one hand and on the other the ‘realism after realism’ of popular fiction, which deploys realism’s archive of techniques detached from any actual motivation.

  9. john steppling says:

    @traxis and exir:

    I think these are great comments, and raise important questions. I really do think they are important. Because what we see in this resurgent fascism around the globe…driven by western sensibilities, is coming out of this new sort of hatred or rejection of culture. Thats been in the works for a long time I think. And it was expressed in all sorts of ways. I think something shifted in the 80s….where the US ownership class sort of regrouped. And media started consolidating. And marketing was elevated to another level. i like the idea of a new medievalism, and I think thats right. But it doesnt even reach that level culturally. The idea of manipulation sort of took hold of all narrative, everything became a pitch for selling something and the idea of consumerism, of identifying with shopping was internalized. I think part of relatability has to do with shopping as reflex. Ive said before I dont think most people are able to engage with artworks. Not with narrative or with image. They shop for what feels good and what feels good is flattery. All this simplistic formulae…..identification, entertainment, relatability, and above all the deeply engrained idea (and this is what is largely taught) *communication*. This is another way of saying one dimensional.

    Communication is the Ikea instruction sheet. And that doesnt even work very well judging from the book shelf i put together. But this is where instrumental thinking comes into it. The rise of a cultic relationship to science. And the problem is that we know there is amazing science, amazing medicine, or technologies for this or that, but there is more, much more that is just magical thinking, that is a way not to think. I remember being at a party at Cal Tech….and it was mostly math guys, and a few engineers and what not….and it was super depressing and these were the most narrow incurious people Id ever met. They were great at ONE thing. One thing and they didnt care at all about the world. Their world was very narrow. And there is something wrong with that. It has led to the production of certain technologies geared to very narrow models of reality, and driven by selective purposes. And I think this touches on what Exir was saying in a sense. The world is depicted as a global village, and how expanded certain forms of communication are…and thats true, but there is an accompanying shrinking of the world. Nature is ignored. And community is ignored. Its not experienced, it doesnt exist in the West. Whenever i go to north africa or central america or south asia I am suddenly much more relaxed and comfortable. Really, if it were possible I would choose to live in Algeria or tunesia or in Venezuela or Nicaragua or wherever, in Thailand. I did live in thailand for a year. I think there is a deeply suffocating cultural choke hold now in the West and it is part of the matrix of technology and instrumental rationality. And people talk less, and see less, and hear less. Im sure of that. So it makes sense the most simplified forms of expression are going to be popular. Couple that, in the US, to the deep Puritanism of the culture. Most white americans would love to live in the plantation south, they would feel most at home in a colonial set up of some sort. That has been passed on, and it was interrupted for a while in the mid 20th century, but now its back. VICE is just a version of Colonial narrative in a sense. There is a great nostalgia for that stuff. Django unchained is a valentine to colonialism. Strip away the hip/kewl tropes and you have a Mandingo narrative…..which is funny given tarantino’s pretensions. But….back to relatability for a second. YES….its about the people who make stuff now, meaning TV and film, having had no real experience of the world. They didnt work day labor, or even travel very much, and they have existed in this amazing privilege…and they write about a universe they know, which is the universe of the culture industry. Nothing is connected to anything outside that. Its like that cal tech party. So relatability means familiar. Thats the bottom line, it has to be like something else which was also already familiar. There is a lot more to say on this……..

  10. john steppling says:

    and Trax………yes, I had intended to get that Jameson. But i had already ordered (pre ordered i guess) The Ancients and The Postmoderns. But i think he is always writing about that to some degree. Moretti does, too, from another direction. Ive always wondered how film sort of settled into this two hour form, as the cinematic duration that most approximated the novel. I dont have any explanation for this though.

    And thats right about VICE…..the new verite, its a regressive gonzo journalism, its brand building.

  11. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    I always thought that 2 hour for a film most approximated the short story. It’s the multi-season TV series that resembles a novel much more. This is shown by how most novel adaptations to feature films have to cut the majority of their material, while short story adaptations usually don’t.

  12. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    And it’s significant, actually, if you consider Edgar Allan Poe’s famous essay about the superiority of the short story to the novel because a short story can be read in a single sitting, therefore imparting it a unity unavailable to the novel.

  13. john steppling says:

    I think thats both true and not quite true. The feature film usually operates more like a novel. The idea of a single sitting to read a short story is accurate, but films narratively cover the development of character and plot much like a novel, just not as well. But it still sort of begs the question of how this 2 hour form became so entrenched.

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