“Violence so permeates society that popular pleasures are organized around an ‘aesthetics of vulgarity’, with the state staging public rituals in which ‘the masses join the madness and clothe themselves in cheap imitations of power to reproduce its epistemology’, and when power, in its own violent quest for grandeur, makes vulgarity and wrongdoing its main mode of existence.”
Achille Mbembe (quoted by Randy Martin in Empire of Indifference)
“Women are not drawn to indicators of evolutionary fitness. If they were, they’d be all over me.”
“(fascism is) the sum total of all the irrational reactions of the natural human character.”
“What needs to be recognized is that the problem lies in the lack of an authentic self; narcissism is merely a symptom of this condition, not its cause. In order to deal with a deficit in a patient’s feelings, therapists must first realize the person before them is completely incapable of feeling.”
I lived for a few months, forty years ago, in Isla Vista, California. The University of California at Santa Barbara is situated there. I snuck in a couple times to hear Hugh Kenner lecture. I wasn’t enrolled. I was hanging with my girlfriend of the time (who wasn’t really enrolled either). She painted. I didn’t do much of anything, but go to the beach and lay around. Its beautiful there on the coast. Once Chumash villages dotted that coast, and later it was land granted by the Mexican government to Nicholas Henry Den. Over fifteen thousand acres in fact. There was a flood in 1862, which destroyed the livestock. Den sold the land. The U.S. military, as its want to do, purchased most of it. A Marine Base was situated there (well, in Goleta) during WW2. Goleta and Isla Vista are adjacent to each other. In the early 70s when I was there, it was a sleepy coastal California town with a newish and minor campus of the U.C. University system. It was the southern cali answer to UC Santa Cruz. There was a Rexall Drug Store, and an independent book store. I spent a lot of time in that book store. There was a small tobacco and pipe shop, and a few typical health food co-op markets. Today all of that is gone. The Redevelopment Agency is gone, too. The RDA could have redirected tax monies for infrastructure improvements. Isla Vista has, over the last three decades, given little thought to organizing the spike in student enrollment. The student body has doubled since I hanging around there. The Magic Lantern theatre is still there, but owned by the University. The Bank of America Riots in 1970 marked a change in administrative thinking, probably. I arrived right after that. But like I say, I wasn’t there long. It was quiet and seemed always sunny, and had remarkable sunsets. It was a place I recall as hedonistic and chill, and you could buy organic Basmati rice back when Ralph’s didn’t carry such things. Today they approach 25 thousand students, 76% of which are white, 23% Latino, and 17% foreign born. Its a white school mostly. Always has been. Nearby Santa Barbara is one of those reactionary enclaves of white wealth that dot the California landscape. Reagan loved Santa Barbara, had his ranch nearby. I think one reason I always loved Cutter’s Way was that it captured something of the languid quality of that city, as well as the nasty pinched white millionaires who run the place. Back then I would go to State Street in Santa Barbara proper, to eat at one of the small Mexican restaurants down by PCH. Those and the migrant workers who ate there and cooked there are all gone now. Its GAP and Burger King, and a few fern bars. This last week the latest mass shooting took place in Isla Vista, by a young man who ‘was’ enrolled at UCSB. Elliot Rodger comes across like a lot of other privileged children I knew from families whose primary work was the Hollywood film and TV industry. Startlingly familiar in fact.They attend pricey schools in the Los Angeles area; from pre school through high school, to college. They go to Crossroads, or Harvard-Westlake, or Brentwood. None of them attend Freemont, or go to Dorsey High, or Manuel Arts, or Indio or Van Nuys even or Palmdale, Servite or Long Beach or Carson. Later they go to Ivy league schools if they’re more driven, or they go to UCLA or USC or UCSB – like Rodger. They are privileged, and if my own experience with Hollywood brats is any indicator, they are often highly dysfunctional. They all go to shrinks, they take industrial amounts of anti depressants, and they rarely really do very much. They almost never actually work. Of course some do, eventually, its a nepotistic town, and some work in film and TV with jobs to which their pedigree gives them special access. But a good many drift off into vague alienated existences of emotional atrophy. None of that is the issue though. There are a lot of stories over the last twenty years about disaffected youth; from Jesse James Hollywood, to the Bling Ring, to the Menendez brothers, to the Robert Chambers Central Park killing, Michael Douglas’ son and on and on.
A recent mass killing case, that of George Sodini makes for an interesting comparison.
Elliot Rodger made a video. A startlingly narcissistic bit of performance. What first strikes one is that Rodgers pathological make up reflects the pathology of the ruling class over all. Narcissism, projection, lack of empathy, misogyny (obviously), loss of affect and a mirroring of autistic process, and a deeply entrenched raw festering self hatred.
Rodger wanted girls. Sex. Except he didnt have much idea exactly what that meant. Sex was pornography. More important was possession. Status. Power. A BMW needs a trophy girl. Rodger apparently frequented ‘How to pick up girls’ sites, and body building magazines. But this son of great privilege exhibited no curiosity about the world. As my friend Exir pointed out (in the last postings comments section) Rodger could only think in the most generic way about what he desired. He dreamed cliches. And not even, from what we know, very convincing cliches. He obsessed about being an Alpha Male, without quite knowing what this meant. This is the world of an evaporated imagination. Rodger wanted a cyborg girlfriend. He wanted to live in a graphic novel. He thought only terms of accoutrements.
“Popular culture is largely colonized by corporations and is increasingly used to reproduce a culture of consumerism, stupidity, and illiteracy. Mainstream popular culture is a distraction and disimagination machine in which mass emotions are channeled towards an attraction for spectacles while suffocating all vestiges of the imagination, promoting the idea that any act of critical thinking is an act of stupidity, and offering up the illusion of agency through gimmicks like voting on American Idol.
… There are a number of registers through which popular culture produces a subject willing to become complicit with their own oppression. Celebrity culture collapses the public into the private and reinforces a certain level of stupidity. It infantilizes as it seduces and promotes a kind of civic death. Surveillance culture undermines notions of privacy and is largely interested into locking people into strangulating orbits of privatization and atomization. A militarized popular culture offers up the spectacle of violence and a hyper-masculine image of agency as both a site of entertainment and as a mediating force through which to solve all problems. Violence now becomes the most important element of power and mediating force in shaping social relationships.”
Aesthetic resistance is not simply the awareness of history, but the ability to use history, to inform and grow an awareness of the world around one, and to fashion Utopian futures, and to awaken from the numbness of advanced capital. Culture is meant to stimulate curiosity, for the lack of curiosity today in large numbers of the young is staggering. The architecture of the city today is one of a militarized zone where conflict is to be expected. I cannot think of one, not one, studio film or TV show in which surveillance, for example, is not treated as absolutely positive, as a tool for protecting people. Nobody writes TV drama in which people must be protected from the police. Never once ever have I seen a show or film in which questions of privacy are raised. Where the Orwellian aspects of surveillance are raised (unless one includes the odd sci fi futuristic fantasy, and then it only rarely occurs). So pervasive is the belief in institutional authority and white male power.
“…the extent to which American movies have become a self-reinforcing system driven by white male executives and producers convinced that they know what the audience wants, and also the extent to which they are, in a sense, correct: The audience has been conditioned, over the decades, to expect a certain kind of male-oriented stimulus and spectacle, a cinematic grammar of “violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger,” in Hornaday’s phrase. One could go so far as to say that mainstream cinema is a gendered cultural form, something that Oscar-winning pioneer Kathryn Bigelow, director of the controversial action films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker,” understands and has turned to her advantage.”
Complex narrative structure is met with bewilderment, if not hostility. The audience is so deeply trained for passive reception, that the demand for engagement, on any level, is met with derision. The snark culture. The fan is getting to experience their own private mini privilege. A privilege without material reward, but no matter. There is a feeling of control in getting to choose the channel you want to watch. Never mind every channel essentially shows the same thing. All of it is predicated on a model for society that Elliot Rodger lived in, in which his imagination atrophied.
There are some exceptions in corporate TV that warrant a mention here. Two of them developed by Sundance (sort of surprisingly). Rectify, and The Red Road. Both in different ways provide something of an alternative vision of American society. They examine institutional corruption, and a culture of masculine violence. And both provide a sense of the deep alienation found for many on a daily basis. For that is the real story of Elliot Rodger. Beyond the deep toxic misogyny, Rodger was additionally a child of consumerism and reification. Treat your friends like appliances and your appliances like friends (Russell Jacoby). The rise of militarism coincides, both as cause and effect, with a fear of women. The Christian conservative features writers like David Murrow, who has compared a failure to denounce the effects of the mother to Norman Bates in Psycho. The threat of minorities and women is expressed in a belief that masculine power is required to restabilize society. George Sodini, the killer who walked in a fitness center in Pennsylvania and shot three women dead, and wounded ten, kept a diary that recorded his deep racial resentment and confusion, and a core fear and hatred of women.
“I have slept alone for over 20 years. Last time I slept all night with a girlfriend it was 1982. Proof I am a total malfunction. Girls and women don’t even give me a second look ANYWHERE. There is something BLATANTLY wrong with me that NO goddam person will tell me what it is.”
Also in Sodini’s diary:
“I predict I won’t survive the next layoff. That is when there is no point to continue.”
Reaganomics coincided with a rise in individual shooting sprees. The difference between Sodini and Rodger is firstly class. Sodini was middle class, but also white and had a good enough job. But a job that also included submission and boredom. Sodini also, most interestingly, wrote this:
“While driving I radio surfed to a talk show. The caller was a 30ish black man who was describing the despair in certain black communities. According to him, life is cheap there because you are going to die anyway when you get old. It is the quality of life that is important, he said. If you know the past 40 years were crappy, why live another 30 crappy years then die? His point was they engage in dangerous behavior which tends to shorten the lifespans, to die now and avoid the next 30 crappy years, using my example. The host got sarcastic and ended the call instead of trying understanding his point. Agreement wasn’t necesary. I put music back on. But it was an interesting, and useful point for me to hear.”
Sodini was in great pain. Rodger seems incapable of great pain. Both felt rage. Both directed that rage at women. But it is also interesting to read reactions in media to these events. The collective lynch mob rage is triggered. Very little effort is spent in understanding these events, beyond the idiotic anti gun sentiments of a liberal class. This is a society that now not only practices torture (well, one could argue has always tortured) but creates entertainment out of it. Torturing “bad guys” (criminals, terrorists, suspected terrorists, etc) is routine in studio film and TV. In fact, its hard to go a day without seeing a show in which someone is tied to a chair and being tortured. Torture is perhaps the purest expression of repressed sexuality. During Jim Crow, black women were raped by white men, and black men were lynched for violating white women (and often for no real reason). There are reasons race and misogyny intersect.
Adorno wrote of the authoritarian personality that they shared a belief in conventionalism of thought, aggression, submission (sado masochism), anti-interpretation, obsession with gender norms, cynicism, fascination with power (and destruction) and sexual repression. The fascist, repressed himself during childhood (almost always) is particularly upset at the idea of ‘others getting away’ with licentious behavior. The fury triggered at the idea of those getting away with something is also projection. And projection is rising as a tendency within western society today. Obama’s West Point Speech might be a textbook example of projection.
The submission to authority is double sided, of course. While projecting onto those seen as ‘not pulling their own weight’, as being needy and parasitic somehow, the authoritarian represses his own weakness, his own submission to bosses or leaders or institutions. The toleration now, of same sex marriage, is acceptable because the marriage institution is itself so repressive. As long as the institutional authority is validated, the moral uncertainty is accepted, to a degree anyway. After all, society is reinforced through marriage, and not through freedom. Better to let ‘them’ get married, providing at least partial integration in the paternal state power. They can be allowed to mimic traditional marriage and values. Additionally, one can see in most expressions of institutional power, narratives that sink to the most simplistic and sentimental. Same sex marriage is *sold* to the public with kitsch images and sentimental storylines.
There are new levels of disconnect today in the West. Elliot Rodger, in one sense, is a poster boy for this. Rodger’s stunted imagination was self enclosing. What did Elliot Rodger dream? I can’t quite imagine. He lived in the new fortress city (per Mike Davis), and he lived and interacted primarily on-line. Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza exhibited a similar disconnect from the real world. Rodger was, I’ve read, diagnosed as high end Aspergers. But his de-socialization cannot really be explained by this. And it also raises questions about why all those shrinks his parents paid for didn’t think to help him with this social awkwardness. The Aspergers tag is, again, for families like the Rodgers, another accoutrement. Another identity fashion of the bourgeoise class. (And yes, there is no question about real sufferers of Autism, even those high functioning, and this becomes an interesting secondary discussion for if the society as a whole has taken on qualities associated with autistic perceptual processes, then perhaps one needs to find better definitions for all of this.)
“The suppression of the sexual activity of children and teenagers is the basic mechanism which produces the characterial structures adapted to political, ideological, economic control [... ] The repression of natural sexuality in the child, particularly of the genitality, makes the child apprehensive, timid, obeying, apprehensive in front of the authority, ‘nice’, ‘quiet'; it paralyses its rebellious tendencies, because the rebellion is associated with anguish; by inhibiting the sexual curiosity of the child, it causes a general confusion of its critical sense and of its mental faculties.”
The character armoring Reich described has become something else, to a degree anyway. Elliot Rodger could not give, or perhaps more importantly, receive love. What did he enjoy? His BMW? Doesn’t seem like it. It is probably good to access Klaus Theweleit at this point. His study of the German Freidkorps, fascist militia formed after WW1, is pretty relevant right now. One of Theweleit’s insights was that two things stood out as causes for insecurity and fear among these soldiers. One was the aquatic, and the other was dirt. Threat was described, very often, by resorting to metaphors of liquidity, The fear of losing onself was described as being carried away by a river, or washed away. The second, dirt, was associated with the enemy, the demonized Bolshevik or outsider, and with disease. Women came in two forms; red and white. The White was the nurse, the school marm, the sister. Sexless and chaste and patriotic. The Red was a Commie whore, essentially. And the Red was described in, again, symbolic terms associated with water and fluids. Sexual ecstasy was a whirlpool sucking the militia cadet downward, into sin and moral slime. The fluid was a threat to stability, to personal stability and social stability. Now, this suggests a lot of what is already clear; the fascist must repress his own weaknesses and project them outward. Sex is dangerous. It is stigmatized as unclean and those who enjoy sex are also unclean. Women who have sex with communists, blacks, latinos or Asians are particularly filthy. Most mass killers could be seen to fall into the Freidkorp critique. Elliot Rodger however, strikes me as a more post modern version of this, but still essentially a product of authoritarian thinking. He was so utterly unable to form an ideal, to make his desire take some recognizable shape, that his violence was in the end very immature in his verbal expression of it. He could not grasp why he could not have what he wanted….except he didnt know what he wanted…not quite. In a sense his rage was ‘why dont I feel what I want’? He knew a few generic versions of want, in his photoshopped imagination. But he did not really understand what connection meant, connection to other people. I suspect Rodger feared intimacy, greatly. I cant get what I deserve, for Rodger, was I cant get someone to explain what I want, and then give it to me, and I will feel passion.
Elliot Rodger’s object choice, his feminine ideal, was not even a cinematic fantasy. It was a pre-fantasy. It was a category that his class and upbringing had provided an awareness of, but one that he couldn’t fill. It was a mail slot at the office without any mail. Rodger knew, or suspected strongly, that other people got mail. He didn’t. His empty category of desire was rendered (literally almost, if we use that cooking metaphor) into a vindictive rage against those he guessed, could only guess, were failing to complete his picture of desire. His picture of himself. His class, his racial and economic background meant somehow or other he should have a sexual trophy. He had no idea what emotions are connected to sex. His emotional palette feels limited to petulance and self adoration. Again, though, his self adoration was generalized. What had he done? He had a nice sweater from Neiman Marcus. A nice car. Love me for I shop at Neiman Marcus.
The idea of pleasure becomes a germane question when the crimes of an Elliot Rodger (or Adam Lanza) come to the attention of the public. Elliot Rodger is familiar because we’ve all seen him on TV, in fictional crime drama. Part of his persona feels scripted, by hack writers and his very grammar is that of a cliched TV show. There is a feeling watching Rodger’s video that we’ve seen it before. And we have. Therefore the idea of enjoyment when watching crap recycled TV cops shows is transferred over to watching the new True Crime show, The Elliot Rodger video. And its 24 hour a day news cycle set of reviews.
Friends will be interviewed, parents talked to, and the images….the endless circulating images will finally coalesce into one or two iconic images. Horror becomes irony. Horror becomes entertainment.
The cult of shopping, of commodities, justify domination. Look, I have a nice BMW. The depersonalized ego can only relate to a vague collective sense of guilt. There was no person to individualize guilt. Elliot Rodger related only to generic categories of anything. There was no self, no viable ego.
For Elliot Rodger, I suspect, the sexual had been double sublimated; or rather the frozen embalmed ego served only a morality of aggression and domination. There was no play, no fun, only a fractured libidinal tension that erased the body. Elliot Rodger had no body, only a repressive process that produced lack. Killing women served the reproduction of domination. That this power was illusory was irrelevant.
I wanted to end with some very useful bits and pieces. Manyfesto’s excellent piece on nature of Imperialism.
and then this bit of background on US meddling in Ukraine, on Pussy Riot and US state department.