“The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.”
“…the judgement of taste does not reside in the positive characterization or knowledge of an object.”
There is something strange and disquieting that takes place in season three of House of Cards, for Netflix. The first two seasons of this very well received prestige drama were enjoyable enough guilty pleasure viewing. Based on a UK series of the same name (created by Andrew Davies) the U.S. version was lushly produced, and well photographed, and Frank Underwood was a pretty enjoyable villain. It was a sort of schadenfreude experience, a predatory amoral back room political hack finding his way, almost in spite of himself, to the vice Presidency, and then, at the end of season two, to the Presidency. David Fincher was the creative force behind things, even if Beau Willimon was show’s creator (worth noting that Willimon, a Columbia and Julliard grad, was also an intern for Charles Shurmer, and worked later for both Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley). It was slick and the supporting cast was mostly quite good. But then Season Three happened. Now I bring this up because it is representative of the way even marginally decent drama will be corrupted. Season three firstly becomes a very different sort of show. It is different in intention, in execution, and certainly in meaning. The writers forgot (?) that the Frank Underwood character (now President) was a murderer and sociopath. Apparently by virtue of becoming President, Underwood grows a conscience. Or, is it just the reflexive impetus to parrot U.S. political propaganda?
Every bourgeois conceit that one can think of is trotted out. Every shallow bromide about American exceptionalism is restated, and every liberal concern is focused on, to the exclusion of all that made the show rather enjoyable. The need to create a cartoon version of Putin (including the cringe inducing appearance by Pussy Riot) seemed too much to resist. This was a show pandering to the perceived tastes of its target demographic. Couple this to a general lack of actual plot, and to suffocating tedium of having to watch increasing screen minutes devoted to Robin Wright’s one wooden expression, and the result was the poster child for American culture; a relentless presentation of ruling class concerns. One episode, focusing on a gay rights activist in jail in Moscow was perhaps the zenith of tone deafness. From the perspective of a country that leads the world, by a large margin, in torture and incarceration, in military war crimes and domestic repression, it was rather stunning to see the sociopathic Underwood and his now ever more noble wife, looking to defend the rights of those horribly oppressed by the evil Empire (the USSR…er…..Russia). Suddenly the audience is transported to Aaron Sorkin-land. This is imperial propaganda, and also, in a sense equally important, it is sentimental melodrama. But the codes in play remain *edgy*, and adult. It’s simply The West Wing with added nudity. There are only caricatures of class, and race issues. The foregrounding is American political legitimacy.
There are also wholesale revisionist asides concerning U.S. history (North Korean aggression for example as the cause of the Korean war). But most disturbing perhaps was the way in which the totality amounted to a strange simulacra of drama. Of story. For really, there was no story. Looking back, there wasn’t all that much story in the first two seasons, but least a genuine cynicism distracted from this. There is also in Spacey something oddly reminiscent of Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad. By this I mean a sort of acting that constantly reminds the audience of the actor. It is smug and self conscious and shallow. But then there is just the wholesale banality. The utter and mind numbing banality, the triteness and cliche, the blandness and lack of basic storytelling coherency. This is what I want to get at here. The quote at the very top is from an article at The Guardian. It’s worth reading here:
One of the byproducts of technology has been the loss of verbal descriptions. Images replace them, but more and more often it’s with shallow generalized images. The individual no longer has to describe, to employ language. One can technologically reproduce or characterize via scientific (or usually a sort of ersatz science) means, by computer graphs or algorithms. Nature is distanced. Nature is, in a sense, reified. It is made user friendly by a reductive model put in place, or it is simply disappeared. The language of commerce has replaced poetics of description. The only remaining description is one intentionally pared down to emotionless dry technical classificatory measurements. Poetics is no longer associated with precision. To know a word such as shreep is, to say the least, unusual. But those words one doesn’t know, are often looked up, but just as often they are not. I never looked up every word I wasn’t sure about. Still, those sounds, the context, is planted in the brain somewhere. Its like the first time one reads say, Hegel or Kant, or Husserl or whoever. I started Hegel when I was seventeen and thought ‘what the fuck’? I persisted for a while but gave up because I figured after 100 pages that I couldn’t remember any of what I had read. Then, a year or so later it popped into my head. Reading something else. And I realized, ah, it did have meaning. In some remote tangential way, it marinated there in my brain and now auto accessed. This is how I believe learning works. One has to become as immersed as possible in subjects, and also in reading. But very few people read after college anymore. The age of books is over, sadly. I had the wisdom to never attend school after high school.
In House of Cards, I remember a scene early in the first season. It was one of the early moments when Underwood addresses the camera. A conceit that anchored the style codes for the U.K. version, too. Underwood’s real voice is meant to be heard in these tete a tete’s with the audience. And I cannot recall the exact scene but I do remember thinking, that was terrible writing. Underwood used a metaphor, meant to be a Southern regional bit of homey hyper cynical wisdom, and instead we got a bland generic sort of cliche. And this has continued to be the case throughout the run of the series. The writing is simply not very memorable. I hear nothing of Underwood’s supposed South Carolina background in anything he says. But that takes one back to the issue of form, as well. For poetics in language can create an aspect of heterogeneity in form. In the case of Raymond Chandler, as an example; Chandler’s similies are so extraordinary and distinct that the entire form of the novel often hinges on this singular quality of the prose.
“Mostly I just kill time,” he said, “and it dies hard.”
“There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”
“She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.”
These quotes (first two from The Long Goodbye, and the last one from Lady in the Lake) are quintessential Chandler. In thirty some episodes of House of Cards there is nothing remotely close, that I can remember. There is only the generic blandness of Hollywood hacks. A greater actor than Spacey might know that, might find a way to suggest Underwood’s impoverished verbal gifts, but not here. In fact the bland cliches are uttered as if they were bits of Chandler level wit and poetry. Now, I don’t want to particularly pick on House of Cards, because I can’t think of a TV show that ever approached Chandler. But if one looks at American culture today, it would be difficult to find that vivid sense of writing anywhere. It isn’t what comes out of MFA programs, certainly, nor does it come from Hollywood. There are writers, of course, (though ever fewer in English it seems); Bolano, or McCarthy, whose writing is rich, and poetic. Sebald, Handke, and probably a couple others over the last thirty five years. But the suffocating repetitive blandness is what has begun to unravel the spools of memory in our brains. Honestly, these ersatz third generation dupes of real writing, real acting, real image, have accumulated and accrued to stop up the paths of collective thought. Couple to that the profoundly childish and fascistic politics of this 99% of popular culture, and no wonder the audience processes in a less attentive manner than before.There is another issue (well, several, but…) connected to the tsunami of bad corporate manufactured mass culture and it has to do with, or falls under the umbrella of, what does a society think artworks are doing? Popular or otherwise. In other words, since the rise of mass commodification the idea of pleasure is connected with consumption. Before that, though, is the idea of what pleasure really means, aesthetically speaking. I have never believed that art was particularly dependent upon, or even very closely connected to pleasure, per se. Beauty itself is a mostly regressive concept, and almost beside the point in this discussion. But anxiety on the other hand is, I think, increasingly important to understand in aesthetic terms. Freud saw anxiety as beyond the pleasure principle. It was an affect of something larger, even perhaps universal. Now, it is important to touch on several other things before returning to anxiety. The idea of beauty always implied a category of the ugly. Just as pleasure, in its connection with beauty implied the category of displeasure. The ugly was seen by Adorno (in contrast to 19th century German aesthetics) as a defense against the trivializing of beauty by mass commercial culture. This in turn touches upon the autonomy of art. Peter Uwe Hohendahl suggests that the most important aspect of Adorno’s treatment of the ugly comes about in relation to his, Adorno’s, ideas on the primitive and archaic. And this will bring us back directly to the function of art and mass culture in Western society today.
The ugly, for Adorno, was usually an issue raised in relation to music. It was the refusal to return from dissonance back to consonance.
“The first atonal works are depositions, in the sense of psychoanalytical dream depositions.”
A crucial aspect of Adorno’s thoughts on the ugly have to do with the false-ugly, which reflects social and political barbarism, and the revolutionary and liberating form of ugly which must not cede to an enshrining of unmediated primitivism. But primitive is a loaded and dubious term. And care must be taken when using it as an aspect of the ugly. Here one needs to see that 19th century aesthetics in Europe privileged a bourgeois notion of European progress and an Orientalist notion of *primitive* African and Asian cult beliefs about totems and religious icons. This is related to the idea of pleasure again, for once one grasps that all art is, in a sense, a cultic practice, then the question of pleasure and beauty can be more easily set aside.
Now the primitive has another meaning which is linked to the return of the repressed. This is partly the argument in Dialectic of Enlightenment. That the subsumption of myth was incomplete and ushered in or created space for the rise of fascism in the form of National Socialism. But let me leap ahead a tiny bit here, for the ugly must be more closely articulated. Too often in contemporary culture the ugly is a celebration of the cruel and barbaric. Of totalitarian logic. Art as opposition to a society of domination includes the ugly not as contra-beauty, but has a formal question. Violent and sadistic TV shows are aestheticizing the violence of society, because of the naturalistic form (even if not at all realistic, the audience has been trained to recognize the codes). This is an eroticized violence, and one that through its form is reconciling societal cruelty with itself. The ugly precedes the beautiful. “The affinity of all beauty with death has its nexus in the idea of pure form that art imposes on the diversity of the living and that is extinguished in it.” In a sense, what Adorno is saying is that the beautiful was historically compromised, that it was false reconciliation with the prevailing society of unfreedom. One cannot, however, simply recreate the archaic, for the archaic has been absorbed, and hence the futile emptiness of all *new primitivism*. The ugly, or archaic, must revive in terms of form, and in that return is found the discussion of pleasure and anxiety.The origin of art is complex, and perhaps there are a multiplicity of origins, but the making of things may well have followed after the narrating of things. I have never accepted outright the idea of art and aesthetic practice as purely religious or magical. That said, art was and is a mimetic practice that the individual engages in as a way to reconcile his or her own history with History. It is always, even at its origin, a way to overcome the status quo, and to posit imaginary futures.
Nobody knows why early man painted on cave walls. But I personally doubt it was because of religion. It may well have been a learning exercise, a cooking blueprint, or teaching aid for hunting. Either way, it was of course also magical on some level for the world had not yet been disenchanted.
The sense of rationalizing away that Dionysian energy that found no contradiction in the magical and unseen with daily life, was the legacy of the Enlightenment. But there is always a process of synthesizing that reconciles earlier aspects of aesthetic practice. The point here though, for Adorno beauty signified a broken promise. In modernist art the expression of the ugly was an echo of the incomplete rationalizing and as said above, it had both regressive and progressive aspects. On the one hand it signaled an embrace of bondage and oppression, and on the other it signaled the opposite. The ugly is a resistance to the false reconciliation of contemporary society. The issue of anxiety then, and pleasure, have to be seen in this light.
Now all art is partaking of those trace elements of the archaic. The ugly is that deeper layer of refusal that had been rationalized by ideas of the beautiful. And in beauty comes anxiety for as Ruth Ronen puts it “In beauty, losing sight of desire elicits anxiety in the observer.” Lacan saw beauty as partly desire and partly agony. This is really not very different than Adorno. I have never understood Kant’s idea of moral feeling and beauty, but in any case it’s regressive. Beauty I think triggers a recognition of that promise which has been broken, and hence the desire felt when looking at the object is not quite the same desire one feels in narration. That is an entire other posting, but this beauty and its containing of desire, produces a particular quality and kind of memory. This is reverie and Bachelard wrote a lot on the subject. He wrote “I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading…”.
I think that if one accepts the basic outline of Freudian and Lacanian theory regarding the infant, then that early sense of lack drives on the acquisition of language. Of grammar. Of writing eventually. From there the story of the world begins. In the beginning was the word. And contained within that story is both anxiety, and forgetfulness and by extension homesickness. This is all part of the originary script for our consciousness. And so we must dream. Why would the noble savage dream if not because he forgot something? All of this is to say that beauty, and the relation of that concept to society is mediated deeply by the creation of an abstract pleasure. Real pleasure is erotic and sensual. The aesthetic pleasure is tinged with melancholy, which is why entertainment is so fraudulent an idea. Pure pleasure….as in partying and orgies and amusement parks and recreation, all of this is closer to failed tragedy. It is the tragic of the bureaucratic soul. The conceptual beauty is a beauty of disappointment. And it’s hard not to agree with Lacan, too, when he suggests the connection of this conceptual beauty with death. If the primal story formed in our originary psyche is one of lack, of rivalry, and of anxiety — a desire to keep our secret hidden, then the beautiful is the limit of the tragic (per Lacan). The idea of catharsis, and identification, all of that is just the shudder we feel when force ourselves to think of death. And beauty, at least the beautiful object, is most beautiful when it returns our gaze. But today…and maybe I am finally reaching what I wanted to talk about …the deforming impulse in mass commodified culture is one that has absorbed such ideas, and regurgitated them; or like cultural cud, constantly chewed and mashed and redigested and then the returned to be chewed again. An Intellectual/aesthetic ruminant society. The compulsive anxiety driven repetition of the same story, the same camera, the same scenes, all this is cud. But it is not quite that easy or simple. House of Cards, Season 3, serves an example of something more.
Beauty marks the limit of desire, said Lacan. Here one has to separate out a couple different registers of beauty, or of the experience of beauty. Sexual desire may relate to beauty, but often does not. In fact, it often is in closer relationship with the ugly or ambivalent. The individual only identifies beauty from a catalogue of learned associations. The first among which is likely Nature. But the experience of pleasure is not quite directly linked to beauty. This is where contemporary mass culture has altered notions of pleasure. One must consume what one identifies as pleasurable, or, it is only pleasurable by virtue of consuming it. Contemporary mass culture is neither autonomous nor does it care much about beauty or desire. These are narratives to be consumed, and they pander to and flatter their target audience. Part of what happened at the end of modernism, if one can say it this way, was that art became conceptual, distanced from the experience of the artwork, and ideas of revulsion or disgust were introduced as objects of aesthetic consideration. This is all a bit beside the point here, for the point is that commodities were encroaching on aesthetic experience. The commodity preceded the artwork. The psychoanalytic aspect had shifted the focus to the conditions of the audience/subject. Here is it worth a short few thoughts on audience. I wrote before on Adorno’s sense, over sixty years ago, of there no longer being an audience for difficult or demanding artwork. This is obviously even more true today. But I fear it erodes the psychic mechanisms of even those remaining few who do look to art and culture for some sense of Utopian imagination and mimesis. For the sense of I get is that the relentless presentation of the fake has taken a toll on everyone. The anxiety of society collectively is also contributing to this sense of imaginative torpor. Anxiety has no object, but its about something (which paraphrases Freud). I think many people are afraid, too. The most vulnerable are increasingly afraid. The more privileged, relatively, are anxious. Anxiety produces inhibitions, a general slowing down of activity. But it also, as Lacan noted, produces an inverse desire. The desire not to have a desire. In today’s culture there is a desire not to imagine. In a sense anxiety disguises relationships by inhibition. There is a growing sense of fear though fear of a specific kind, a specific psychological use; the fear of anxiety, for occluded behind anxiety is our shriveling desire. We are a society now reaching a saturation of lack, of absence in dreams and imagination; we desire escape from anxiety, certainly, but know only how to further inhibit. The I-desire-distraction, for in distraction comes the ability to compulsively repeat, and compulsively avoid. That primordial mimetic engagement is deflected, again, and then again.
And so, the narcissistic child can retain a sense of emotional primacy, by simply retaining itself as the center of attention. Narratives that produce this shallow identification must be repeated over and over at accelerating rates of transfer. Ruth Ronen wrote that Lacan saw the camouflaged cause of desire serving to block out anxiety. The desire for creativity, acts of creativity and imagination are deflected to the desire to consume, creative shopping etc, and so such *shopping* (or whatever) serves to, short term, block out anxiety. For finally, the subject today is gripped with profound levels of anxiety. People dare not dream, unless the dream is sanctioned. Surveillance wears at the psyche, as well. Do not step outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior, literally. Look at airport security; that space of optimal securitization of person. Strip, submit to xray, to various magnetic fields, and all the time you are watched, and your belongings examined. We live, in one way, in a permanent state of airport passenger stress.
Now, a number of writers have taken to theorizing about *theatre* (in the broad sense) and violence. Brad Evans wrote that “theatre is often deployed to describe all manner of events from sporting occasions to forms of protest that display something of the carnevalesque. But how very real deployments of brutal force are framed by consciously appropriating theatrical discourse.” Evans is correct, although I want to look at, again, this notion of violence in relation to beauty and pleasure and anxiety. Theatre, and I’d include film and TV here, in this context (though they are indeed quite different in other contexts) is making ideas of pleasure and beauty obsolete. For the beginning of any narrative marks the raising of a curtain. And as Blau said, even theatres without curtains remember that a curtain was once there. At that moment, with any artwork…from an HBO series to an amateur community theatre production, the audience has signed on for and anticipates a process of dreamwork, of mimesis — that re-telling of something that is both our own story, always, and a story of the *other* always. And in each case History, collectively, is activated as well. There is a great problem in discussions of violence and morality, in artworks, in culture, because this fact is so often ignored. Everyone, it seems, has grown so used to the idea of manipulation and propaganda, that the more fundamental and essential experience of all art is forgotten. Adorno wrote that because of their distance from any purpose, artworks resemble the “superfluous vagrant who will not completely acquiesce to fixed property and settled civilization.”
“When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality…We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.”
And this is such a marvelous quote, and speaks to this question of qualities of violence. Representations, in fiction, of violence is part of why humans tell each other stories, why we paint, even compose music. There is, in fact, a great dignity is ceremonies of mourning, of re-enacting the violence. The horror of WW1, as Treverso rightly saw, was that it marked the first war in which rationality had caught up and overtaken the violent impulse to strike out or back. This was industrial death, planned, and efficient. That rationality has continued to develop. From Los Alamos to HAARP, to the new militarized police on main street. Art is not complicit. The artist is not the enemy or the creator of violence. That would be the ruling class bankers and CEOs, the generals and politicians and wealthy elite. When I start to hear that artists are complicit, I worry. But let me return to that Adorno quote above on the superfluous vagrant.
This is an elusive idea, but it is germane to considerations of propaganda and celebrations of domination and cruelty. I asked at the top what society expects from culture and art today. The very question demands more from critique than simply another form of coercion. More than just moral indignation, for the endgame of such logic is join up with the Roundheads and Cromwell. Adorno also said that in all artworks something appears that does not exist. And this takes one back to early man drawing on those cave walls. Artworks encipher and fuse elements that ‘do’ exist, but in service to the inescapable truth of our inner lives. The failure to see the extent of ruling class fear is a failure to include the encipherment of artistic expression, and mimesis. The rich have more to lose, and yet they feel exempted from the various interpretations of mass culture. Pleasure today is the aftertaste of manipulation, and it is only the reflexive guilt born of that preartistic anxiety, and of a realization of art’s antisocial or anticultural character. When those archaic traces have finally been erased, then culture has, as Adorno said, capitulated.
This is the horror of mass culture today. It is the horror of House of Cards, created by a 36 year old former Clinton flunkie and go-fer. The culture has capitulated. The audience cannot distinguish qualities of pleasure or beauty because it cannot even grasp fully its own anxiety in the face of narrative. The sheer duplicity of Season three, the Pussy Riot appearance, the Russophobic cartoon characters, the sentimentalized astro turf dialogue about injustice; all of it is served up for purposes of flattery and validation. A validation for a system in which war criminals and blood soaked ghouls are held up for applause. In which nobody notices that a sociopath has become President because in fact, that is almost the only kind of person who really does become president.
The critique of violence as intolerable is complex, and it raises an issue that Adorno himself raised repeatedly; the truth content of art.
“By its form alone art promises what is not…” Adorno.
That desire in the face of beauty, coupled to the boundary marked by the same experience, is still (per Adorno again) the longing for the fulfillment of what was promised. Art cannot be reduced to theoretical analysis, not completely. In a society of pure exchange value art represents that which cannot be exchanged, is unsubsumable. The language of art, even in a visual vocabulary, cannot only be that which cannot be exchanged. Art is a foreshadowing of radical praxis, but itself is only a dream of it. But dreams die when they succumb to the reality principle. Violence is done in far more insidious ways than representations of violence. They are done in centering narrative in white male ruling class worlds for which the poor are only visitors, or unwanted poachers. How hard would it have been to ridicule the State Department creation of Pussy Riot? To suggest U.S. foreign policy is Imperialist and trailing blood and body parts behind it? How hard? Why are writers so easily bought off? Is the money really the reason to betray what you know and believe? How much does it cost the participant in this orgy of disinformation when allegory is removed, when only the suffering of the rich matters? There is a real history, one that most everyone knows at least a little about, so how does it go so totally missing? The dream is not a real dream because of form, said Adorno. And in the form, and poetics resides something untranslatable. The opinions don’t matter if the form were truthful. But everything in Season three is counterfeit. It is a TV show about celebrity, and about the rightness of social domination. Murder is alright if you are white and a *winner*. Collateral damage. The violence to be concerned about is not the image of a knife going into a throat, it is in the smug expression of celebrity actors, in the snarky treatment of cartoon Russians, and in the familiar repetitive and predictable camera and editing. We know what comes next. Everything is there to tell us what comes next. Anxiety permeates the subject-viewer, for such ‘entertainments’ create anxiety. If *I* depend on the gaze of the Other, of knowing who I am because of something I missed, an appointment, a forgotten fleeting memory — then make sure there is no room for the uncanny, for the correctness you hear in those Chandler similes, or in the language of archaic Nature. Double down on banality. Jump through the hoops. Curry favor with the wealthy. What artist signs on to work for Hillary Clinton? That is not the consciousness of opposition. Nor of revolution. Deny the richness of difficult work, accuse it of elitism. The left has to take culture seriously, though. The endless emphasis on themes and applause for bad theatre or film because of the overt politics is really a reactionary position in the end. For it is falling under the same bus that runs over the entirety of society. The streetcar named anxiety, the streetcar of disenchantment.
Still, there are aesthetically other problems at work. Adorno is criticized as out of date, and in the sense of method, that seems true (I don’t believe it is) but its most certainly not theoretically. One has to realize that the post modern or post structuralist program has dismissed the idea of understanding art. That part Jameson got right. That Adorno by virtue of being outdated, was actually far more critically insightful than all of the Badiou, Foucault, and god forbid Zizeks out there. It is worth considering that the calls for Adorno as out of date usually focus on the dismissing of critical resistance through artworks. Aesthetic resistance which demands that the contemporary educated class give up their favorite TV shows, is just not going to be popular. Hohendahl quote Adorno, in his excellent analysis apropos of fandom:
“The injustice committed by all cheerful art, especially by entertainment, is probably an injustice to the dead; to accumulated speechless pain.”
Academia today is a career driven enterprise. I can’t teach, for example, nor do I get invitations to various conferences. None of the many very smart and politically aware people I know, friends, are invited either. The endless blather about pedagogy, which sometimes I lose patience with, never addresses the naked exclusionary practices of the University. The academic world probably needs to address this in the same way the writers for shows such as House of Cards need to address their own prostitution. In the post modern era though, an easy excuse has already been provided.