“Sincerity is the beginning
and end of existence; without it, nothing endures.
Therefore the mature man values sincerity above all things.”
Zisi (Tzu Ssu)子思子
“One day the man demands of the beast: “Why do you not talk to me about your happiness and only gaze at me?” The beast wants to answer, too, and say: “That comes about because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say.” But by then the beast has already forgotten this reply and remains silent, so that the man keeps on wondering about it.”
Use and Abuse of History
“Much of education and journalism has been captured and superseded by entertainment. Even public discussions have to be entertaining and are judged by how skilfully the protagonists attacked and how courageously they hid their weaknesses, and not by the contents of what they had to contribute with to solutions for a serious public issue.”
The ascension of irony has coincided with a rise in cynicism, and with a reluctance or refusal to engage with society. But today, I suggest that new terms are needed to denote the post modern ironic and post modern cynical. For cynicism as it is traditionally understood would include a set of select values, however nihilistic. Today’s cynic does not harbor select or elite values, and whose cynicism is not a rejection so much as an ignoring of social issues. Timothy Bewes suggests it is now in the service of political rhetoric. It is used by reactionary commentators to denote apathy, meaning as a cover for the material corruption of political institutions.
The retreat from politics, or rejection of political concerns is linked to postmodernism as a rhetorical mechanism. And it’s true that the post modern rejection of meta-narratives quickly morphed into the excuse for accepting the status quo. Engagement is regarded with disdain, and accused of naivete. Cynicism once contained a form of melancholy, but that has morphed into simply disengagement (albeit anxiety laden), and hostility toward Utopian ideals. Cynical is often used as a synonym for dishonesty as well. But the post modern rejection of meta-narratives became soon, simply a disregard for any narrative, and replacing these with simple coded fragments in use for career decoration. How much of the erosion of narrative is linked to the inherent qualities of electronic media is an open question, but I suspect its not entirely the telecom industry structuring things a certain way, but at least partly if not largely the imprint of pixels and the speed and the fragmenting and re-fragmenting of information. It is perhaps hard not to be cynical in the post modern sense.
I was thinking this week of the Axial Age; of Confucian China, and of Zoraster in Persia and the rise of Judaic prophecy. In Greece the development of tragic drama. From the 7th century B.C. to the late fourth century B.C. was an age of enormous change in cognitive patterning. Scientists recently discovered in Indonesia, paintings on cave walls that are even older than those at Chauvet in France. The world was very dark and empty forty thousand years ago. In Confucian China I suspect it was still dark and empty, but not nearly the same. But in both there was nothing remotely similar to life today. But I digress…
“Politics, governed increasingly by an ethos of supply and demand, has become a realm of consumer sovereignty in which the concepts of leadership and inspiration are important polemical commodities, but are maintained only in this mediated way. Cynicism appears in the space left empty from mass cultural retreat from politics itself.”
The role of post modern thought in Academia has been to further distance the grammar of the upper and educated class from the working class and the non working poor. Of course *educated* is a pretty nebulous term. Educated for many at expensive Universities means knowing the right kinds of discourse, the acceptable cynicism to display. Discourse today is saturated with irony and sarcasm. It is not even really specific. It is gestalt irony. There is no subject often, or often just a vague one. There is also an implied belief in the person of the ironist that his or her position is superior. But superior to what? Superior how? Irony today avoids answering such questions. It avoids answering anything.
One of the problems with ironic stances is that they dissolve the subject even when there is no subject. The ironic mustache, or ironic golf shirt, worn in Palm Springs ironically, creates the hall of mirrors effect, and thereby introduces itself as a potential object of irony as well. *My* ironic mustache ironically comments on *HIS* ironic mustache, and I’m an ironic hipster that parodies the other ironic hipster etc. But beyond such tedious subjective leisure time mental games, there is the fact that very few people have time or money to be ironic. Politics is ironic as well, just another platform for ironic performance. Obama is ironic. Bush was more parody, but Obama is clearly, as part of his marketed persona, a cool urbane cynic — and contains a blank distancing from actual events, actual politics. Its fascinating that US media wants to demonize other world leaders as cartoons and demons, but in fact Putin, as an example, even with his bare chested horseback rides, is simply not ironic material. Russians in general are not a particularly ironic people or culture. The role of careerist *left* writers of mainstream publications .. Laurie Penny or Molly Crabapple, or star academics like Zizek, are all of them simply print versions of stand-up comedy. Jon Stewart is the TV comic now looked to for guidance by the liberal class. Penny, and Natasha Lennard, and Crabapple are all just vaudeville acts. And often, or usually, these acts are performing in a gentlemen’s club straight out Chinese Gordon. http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2014/778-the-establishment-andrew-marr-and-owen-jones.html
The affluent white population of the U.S. today is so deeply mired in irony and snark that they cannot take a breath without it being ironic.But there is something else here, too. And that is that in American culture the ‘idea’ of the individual is preserved no matter the conditions of the material world. There is, obviously, a whole complex of factors at work here. The Puritan history, and the Protestant work ethic, the business minded culture that worships the “self made man”. The only marker for worth is economic. Nobody who is poor is valued existentially. There is though, a dialectical process that needs to be observed in this. The individual of consumer America is really he or she who identifies with the culture. It is an individuality in the form of a brand. And the destruction of language, its degraded state in marketing and advertising and popular culture overall has contributed to this leveling of culture and discourse. The new rise in branded journalists, especially, actually, on the *left*, even when some of the writing is useful, has created a deeper attachment to the status quo. Language as it’s used in popular culture feels as if it no longer is even attached to the world around us. The late writings of Adorno expressed his despair at the possibility of intellectual integrity in mass culture. And this is where it is important, as I continue to say, that aesthetic awareness be cultivated. And it is clear today that almost always the missing ingredient in cultural discussions is a class analysis. The ironic and cynical processing of the world must be resisted exactly because it further petrifies class distinctions. But this is a topic resisted acutely by the educated class, even those who are out of work. My experience with students over the last few years has been, even in classes with very bright enthusiastic students (rare), that there is an inability or at least reluctance to examine work and narrative in ways other than than an imaginary neutrality. By this I mean that the forces of production are rarely considered, and even when they are, the role of class antagonism is ignored. It is invisible almost. This lack of class is replaced by a belief in, or subscription to, an ideal state of the purity of truth. Truth is also never processed in relation to memory or history, to suffering, or political violence. There is a tacit acceptance of the surface (or top text), and simultaneously a sort of new age inwardness that is bathetic and puerile. The political violence of the world is redacted from narratives that are even ABOUT political violence. I screened Herzog’s underrated 2001 film Invincible to a class recently, and surprisingly the students were deeply attentive, but the specifics of what this fable implied were at best very murky to them. Still, exposure to the halting rhythms and strange visual grammar of the film seems to disturb the audience, which was mostly third year high school students. And this has always been my experience; complex and difficult artworks destabilize, and that in itself is the start of awakening. Such work, because it cannot easily be processed in conventional ways (as surface, as advertisements work) lingers in the memory.
Now this particular small group of students were Norwegian. I cannot image such openness in the U.S. And here lies another problem; in the United States cynicism has bled into other beliefs and theories. It participates in other forms of distancing. A culture that parades its liberal virtues through the most fascistic representations, where multiculturalism means the exclusionary practices of individual defensivness, is one in which culture itself is colonized, and by several different colonizers, all of them at bottom the same.
“The faults indispensable to this operation of accountancy consist in
the morality of the terms used. According to an old terrorist device
(one cannot escape terrorism at will), one judges at the same time
as one names, and the word, ballasted by a prior culpability, quite
naturally comes to weigh down one of the scales. For instance,
culture will be opposed to ideologies. Culture is a noble, universal
thing, placed outside social choices: culture has no weight.
Ideologies, on the other hand, are partisan inventions: so, onto the
scales, and out with them! Both sides are dismissed under the stern
gaze of culture (without realizing that culture itself is, in the last
analysis, an ideology).”
MFA programs create brands. They are apprenticeships in ideological shaping. If anyone, ANYONE, can name a single radical piece of theatre to come out of U.S. Universities I would be happy to listen. So again, class disappears. Sexuality has replaced it. Where black and brown writers emerge, they must emerge homogenized. Sentimentalized and sanitized. I rarely see young black or brown or even Asian playwrights who don’t write other than as bourgeois voices for the establishment. Now of course there are exceptions, but again, in theatre there has been almost nothing of note to come out of University programs for several decades. In fine arts the tally is better, slightly. Film schools are an entire other topic. I taught at the Polish National Film School for five years full time, and eight if I include my workshops the first three years. I was the lone instructor to lecture in English. I consider the school, on balance, far from the worst such institution. There were virtues, first among them that this was an international school. Students coming all over the world created a great cross pollinating of ideas. There were also absurd deficiencies, a sclerotic bureaucracy and backward looking administrators — often reaching the level of irrationality. And there was a deep cultural defensiveness among many of the Polish instructors. Still, the memory of communist discipline lingered, and there were many truly exceptional teachers, in editing, and in the cinematography departments.
I asked once at a faculty meeting what we were trying to do at the school. Nobody even tried to answer. For there is no answer. The relationship of such schools, in film, in theatre, in music even, in writing, is blurred and contradictory.The neutral reception of culture denies the real concrete reality of the culture industry. Heinz Steinert wrote:
“It (culture industry)is a form of domination that reaches deep into what people know about society and world. It is domination not by fear and repression in the first place but by subtly determining what and how we know about the world. Its center is the cult of the factual.”It is a cultural production of commodified knowledge, whose appeal is always to the authority of statistical or measured proofs. Popularity is often taken as if it occurs in a vacuum. If a film is hard to see because distribution is limited, it already is marked as underground or difficult. The entire structure of *entertainment* is involved in creating audience attitude. As technology now increasingly allows a mastery of access … one can view a film whenever one likes on his computer or even cell phone, the audience is provided with a sense of specialness. Of ownership. I’ve written before about the sense of being an insider. A peak behind the scenes of the making of a popular film or TV show invites the audience to feel unique and privileged. Steinert calls this a “false privilege”. The rise of *reality TV shows* is another form of this insider construct. The specialness is linked, in an oddly contradictory way, to identification with other privileged shoppers of cultural product. There is the manufacture of a sense of ‘belonging’.
The audience today is encouraged to perceive their attention as empowerment. The advertisers and network and studio want them to view their product. Neilsen ratings are published throughout the season, box office figures are published, and marketing targets the public by appealing to their wisdom, by critiquing their profile, their particular market niche. All of this shapes how the individual sees the narrative, or artwork. It is not all that different from the appeal of astrology columns or click bait polls that posit if YOU were a Western movie, which one would you be?
Last posting I touched on the ways certain works avoid homogenization. In the comments Molly Klein made an astute observation, as is her want, in relation to watching an Ionesco play. And it struck me that the question of space is significant, and that Adorno and Horkheimer mention architecture right at the start of Dialectic of Enlightenment. Public housing has always, with a few marked exceptions, valorized the Capital put into them. Not only is today’s city a fortified militarized battlefield, it is also a monument to Capital. Architecture is increasingly meant to be viewed from the perspective of a movie screen. One must gaze from a distance, or view the shifting panals and walls as in a film reel. The streaming effect is pronounced in architects like Hadid. And this perpsective, in a sense, resists place. Buildings are seen as if they could be anywhere. Even when landscapes are included, for they seem to absorb the landscape and turn it into a film set. This perspective is how everything is viewed today. And it closes off space rather than opening it up.
In the 15th century, the public viewing a painting, even the illiterate, would recognize certain figures; John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Christ, but even less obvious figures such as Ishmael and Croesus, or St Jerome, and St Paul the Hermit. They certainly recognized certain scenes as representations from stories; The Visitation, the Expulsion from Eden, the Annunciation, and so forth. Gesture, eye color even, and placement on the canvas all contributed to this ‘reading’ of the painting, and how it fit into a narrative. Memory was triggered, and this memory was both personal, but also societal. The viewer was not manipulated. And I could well make an argument that manipulation is one of the, if not *thee* most significant aspect of mass culture today. Manipulation is marketing. And alongside manipulation is the focus on innovation. For innovation is a form of trickery, a sleight of hand that is in the service of producing effects of *newness* and novelty. These effects tend to wear off rather quickly.
I post here a couple pieces by Toba Khedoori. Jerry Saltz called her a “an artist of metaphysical refinement and restraint.” Khedoori’s work is silent. If Tirelli is quiet, Khedoori is absolutely silent. Saltz ended his review of her recent show this way:
“Strangely, I found myself thinking, “If I were in prison, I’d like to have one of these drawings on my wall.” Then I remembered a story by Herman Hesse: a prisoner paints a landscape on the wall of his cell, showing a miniature train entering a tunnel. He makes himself very tiny, enters into his picture, climbs into the little train, which starts moving, then disappears into the tunnel, leaving his cell empty.”
This is work that does not manipulate. The mute space is not exactly disturbing, but an accusatory quality exists. But there is another aspect and that is where the viewer is situated. This is not a film screen, it an architecture of dreams.
And it reminded me of what Rita Valencia wrote about The Mandala of Compassion Project, at the Hammer in Los Angeles.
“The project entails four accomplished meditation masters, fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist monks, constructing a sand mandala of intricate design which represents the enlightened mind of Chenrezig, a Buddha who is the embodiment of compassion. The design is like a very elaborate blueprint of a sacred architecture…it is common to use sacred architecture in Vajrayana meditations as representation of mind and metaphor for body, which is itself to be seen as a metaphor.”
but at the end makes the very cogent observation regarding the staff at the museum itself.
“The staff seemed generally very conscientious about the limits on break time afforded them, and never seemed to tarry. I heard guard talking about their work, worried about people they had found on the third floor of the museum with backpacks or beverages (a no-no), commenting on the constant influx of newcomers. The newcomers were students from UCLA with little to no training and widely variant work ethics. Conversations of the staff were generally casually personal. But there were quit a few anxiety-laced “work” conversations, which centered on concerns about staffing and personnel trends, particularly shrinking staff, replacement of full-time with part-time workers(students), dissatisfaction with supervisory staff. Others spoke of long hours and long commute times:12 hour shifts, huge amounts of overtime, which supports the ‘shrinking staff’ comments. Plus, the pants they are issued to wear at special events are scratchy. One got the feeling that on the whole it wasn’t such a bad gig, especially given the options, but the break room with its low ceiling and sallow light was not a particularly cheerful place and was more than it appeared…
Through the heady scent of lilies being clipped and groomed wafted the pungency of the all too predictable discontent…workers placed in a distinctly different class of beings than the educated museum staff, having fewer privileges and perks, and held in much lower esteem, signified mainly by the bleak little break room. A diagram of the museum emerges, a kind of mandala of museum life. At the center top are the Great Museum Benefactors surrounded by their retinues, without-whom-none-of-this-would-be-possible. In the next circle reside the curatorial staff. The antechambers below are occupied by a transient population of artists and their management. Next, at the base and on the perimeter, are the support staff of guards, janitors, attendants. The ruling principle of this mandala is ignorance that values ‘this’ over ‘that’ as though such valuations are real, manifest through exclusivity and enforcement of status. Perhaps it is empty of meaning or concrete reality, and the suffering it creates, as the benefit, is also transient and empty; but the karma it is generating, for those who enforce and control and administer this edifice of public culture, is inexorable.”
The work of Khedoori is one that opens space, and it is work that expresses a practice, and a commitment. There is a correlation between the repetition of rehearsal in theatre, and Khedoori’s practice. She creates a context, a ritual space, through her meticulous attention and focus. One does not draw such work without practice of a very particular and focused kind. The value of Khedoori’s work, like a majority of great painters and artists is in the embedding of this practice. Nothing even approaching irony or sentimentalism is present. The austerity is beautiful, not because it is minimal, but because it is imagines something we cant normally experience. The memory of practice is felt, and this is in part what constitutes allegory and the presence of an unconscious that is conjured and appears beside the viewer. We are looking at thousands of hours of repetitive work, at process. In another sense this is what mimesis really is. Theatre like that of Peter Handke, or Harold Pinter is the work of practice, of whittling away the inessential, the message and the ‘effect’, the novelty, the gimmick. There are no invitations, nothing to chat about. Only memory and something destabilizing that comes out of the time spent, the life’s work that is unapologetic.
Now, Adorno warned of dangers in the retreat from popular mass think and commodity culture. That one’s search for authenticity could lead one to resemble that which was being retreated from. It’s worth noting that Zizek confuses Adorno’s position on reification because Zizek actually has suggested that authenticity resides in one’s role as consumer. The revolutionary shopper I guess. In fact Robert Hullot-Kentor, an admirable translator of Adorno, is oddly also much like Zizek is his essays *on* Adorno. My suspicion is that the problem is again Marx, and class analysis. This is the regressive side of leftist thought. Faux leftist thought. The left (that term itself is a symptom) without Marx. The left also called *progressive*. This is very evident in Hullot-Kentor’s notions on the culture industry, which he claims is an obsolete concept, and then explains this by describing “how we hear this term” — but who does he mean by *we*? Honestly, this is a very American sort of stance. Hullot-Kentor’s insistance that barbarism is an outmoded concept again speaks to the reactionary lurking within. For the tenured American professor, ideology is also outmoded, by and large. Fascism is just too ‘too’ a word. Hullot-Kentor’s animosity toward Adorno smacks of career anxiety, actually. But it’s also a startlingly shallow (intentionally I suspect) reading of Adorno, but one that will appeal the affluent white post grad student at NYU. But I digress.
The space I refer to in theatre, the opening to an allegorical space, a mental breathing in a sense, is — I am convinced — the crucial and single most consequential factor in all artworks. It is just that in theatre the experience is most immediate. As much as I value film, there is something about the screen, the great wall on which shadows are thrown, and then followed in a way similar to reading, but subtly different, that stops the opening of space at a certain point. And it’s a difference of enormous importance. I suspect film is closer to the novel than it is to theatre. For the narrative in film is engaged with mimetically much as one does in a novel. The novel of course usually means many hours reading, and hardly even in one sitting. The limited duration of film and TV, enforced by economic concerns, is one of the difficulties in the film form. In theatre, the narrative follows on the creation of this architecture of thought, in the ritualistic repetition — which is the re-creation of the same text, anew, night after night — the narrative is revealed rather than read. Watching a film, one narrates alongside the film narration. Mimetic adjustment, or memory. In theatre, the memory is activated, not reflected upon. This is not exactly a huge gulf opening up between the mediums, but only that the activation of space, as it occurs in theatre, is expansive, not contractive. Novels, finally, contract as well. But this entire discussion is mediated by the manufacturing of *the real*.
One aspect of this constant creating and re-creating of an illusory *real* is the cynical, but also the supervising of emotions. Mestrovic wrote: “…contemporary emotions are dead, in the analogous sense that one speaks of a dead current versus a live wire, or a dead nerve in a tooth or limb.” Emotions are blurred by constant bombardment from advertising. Deep emotion is limited. One is chastised for being too ’emotional’. The rise of emoticons are obviously a sort of symbol of all this. But going back to Reich, the ever shallower feelings of people was noted. The real, that *real* that mass media enforces, is the bland flavorless shine, a sort of indistinct quality of business and (per Adorno) affability. It is non determinant science, and technology. Most of all it is ‘progress’.
Today’s sense of inwardness is as indistinct as the ‘outside’ real. I’ve sensed a huge resurgence of new age platitudes of late. They are the corrective to the too authoritarian 12 step process. Both can co-exist, of course. There is cynicism in this, too. Those mouthing platitudes don’t believe them, they just use them. Their use value is social cohesion. Careerism. One mustn’t pledge fidelity to some Guru, but its perfectly ok, desired even, to utter meaningless bromides about banal psychological traits. This is the emotional plague Reich wrote of. It is a version of false consciousness, and today the cynical affluent educated class must constantly reiterate their contentment, and deny the suffering of not just others, but of themselves. Minor boredom is OK, that’s what therapy is for. Boredom can be appropriated as style, too. It’s fine to have a shrink or therapist, just be clear you don’t really believe in them. The therapeutic culture accepts this manufactured real. It teaches its clients to adapt. Life is something that one must *succeed* at. Therapy is just a career choice. Death would seem to question any idea of success, but then death is a taboo subject. Death doesn’t go away however.
Molly Klein wrote:
“The meticulous illusion of the irreducible individual, the non-type (post-type), is not (only) the (technical, philosophical, ‘psychological’) enrichment advertised by the schools and traditions producing it but a hollowing out of the function of reference, so that the more elaborate the portraiture of ‘individuals’ grows, the more entirely empty each unique and eccentric exemplar becomes with regard to meaning generation.”
This all works at closing down ‘space’. Film without space (digital mush), architecture without space (Hadid, Foster, Meier et al), and theatre without space — pretty much everything on stage in the U.S. The loss of mimesis has meant new psychic mechanisms for processing. The post modern cynical is one of them. It demands everything be fungible. Everything is already dated, and obsolete. The cynic insists on the ‘new’, in order to have something to label already dated. Anything emotional is rejected. Anything demanding attention is rejected.
Memory is overrated, don’t you think?
A final quote from William Blum this week. In a very direct way this is related to the *real*. Which of course is the pathological unreal.
“You can’t believe a word the United States or its mainstream media say about the current conflict involving The Islamic State (ISIS).
You can’t believe a word France or the United Kingdom say about ISIS.
You can’t believe a word Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, or the United Arab Emirates say about ISIS. Can you say for sure which side of the conflict any of these mideast countries actually finances, arms, or trains, if in fact it’s only one side? Why do they allow their angry young men to join Islamic extremists? Why has NATO-member Turkey allowed so many Islamic extremists to cross into Syria? Is Turkey more concerned with wiping out the Islamic State or the Kurds under siege by ISIS? Are these countries, or the Western powers, more concerned with overthrowing ISIS or overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad?
You can’t believe the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels. You can’t even believe that they are moderate. They have their hands in everything, and everyone has their hands in them.
Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have been fighting ISIS or its precursors for years, but the United States refuses to join forces with any of these entities in the struggle. Nor does Washington impose sanctions on any country for supporting ISIS as it quickly did against Russia for its alleged role in Ukraine.
The groundwork for this awful mess of political and religious horrors sweeping through the Middle East was laid – laid deeply – by the United States during 35 years (1979-2014) of overthrowing the secular governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. (Adding to the mess in the same period we should not forget the US endlessly bombing Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.) You cannot destroy modern, relatively developed and educated societies, ripping apart the social, political, economic and legal fabric, torturing thousands, killing millions, and expect civilization and human decency to survive.”