The Hungry Sheep Look Up

I have noticed lately that a lot of both leftists and liberals are resorting to bullying and manipulation around, mostly the US elections, but in other matters as well.

Rebecca Solnit’s piece is such an example. Now, I’ve always like Solnit, and I love her book on Muybridge, but this is just a very stupid and very sort of duplicitious piece.

I have been thinking lately of activists and of occupy wall street, and of the enviornment. But because of who I am, and in this format, I’ve been thinking, as I always do, of how the populace today is being educated and how the master narrative is being formed. One thing I want to say first, and in a way this follows in the shadow of this bullying I keep seeing. Everyone has special gifts (well, not everyone, but most people) and special talents. And everyone can contribute in their way to the common good. I’ve witnessed too many organizational meetings where ONE activity was demanded. That’s fine, if we are striking. It’s a lot less fine if we are building a community, or growing vegetables, etc. And it’s the very antithesis of what “education” once meant. And what it should mean. But this is a consensus society, and aggreement is a demand, a tacit foundational setting. It’s better to agree. It leads, in education, to rather stupid conformist thinking. To rote calculation and memorization. The trend in the US has been to data compilation and not thought. And its been to find the paradigm and to stick to it.

So….to return to this bullying and manipulation. One of the obvious causes of this is that people are scared. They are very scared but often, if not always almost, they don’t quite know why. There is the constant ridicule of Romney. Ok, fine. Romney is a horrid petulant robot. However, he is no worse than a LOT of the rich you find in both public and private life. Is Romney worse than most of the audience at Linclon Center, or some opening at the Guggenheim? My guess is not. If we went out to the Hamptons and kidnapped the homeowners and submitted them to interrogation, would their real beliefs be any more humane or compassionate than Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan? Now, I know this is an exaggeration, I do. I wonder, though, how much of an exaggeration?

Also, this bullying on both right and left is a sign of how deeply the internalized worship of authority has become.

I cant tell you how many conversations I’ve had where one of two things was said:
“if you don’t vote you can’t complain”, and “if you dont vote at all its a vote for Romney”.

I often wonder if the average craftsman in 16th century Venice was this stupid. Or in Shakespeare’s audience. Or in fourth century Athens. I don’t know, but I think not. The most uneducated rural worker usually has a very firm grasp of the material world. And if you have a firm hold on the material natural world, you have by neccessity learned a good deal about it. Today we are in the second or third (if not more perhaps) generation of US citizens who can’t think. They have are cut off from the material world. As a boy I remember going to busy lunch counters with my father. There was ONE guy taking orders. He never wrote anything down. This phenomenon was everywhere. He also never made mistakes. He’d take six orders in his head and when the time came to pay the bill he would add it up in his head as well. How many counterpeople today do you think can do that? Now, I know I might get accused of a certain nostalgia here, and that’s probably true.

Now, there are also millions are amazingly intelligent people out there. The feeling though, somehow, is that we remain in a minority and while this may not actually be true, the experience of ‘mass thought’, or illogic and rote beliefs is an experience manufactured by a system based on propaganda and obedience. I was watching (don’t ask me why) an episode of Sorkin’s new show, Newsroom, and it was about the announcment of the murder of Osama Bin Ladin.

It’s impossible to list all the things wrong with these scenes. But the thing that struck me is that this is how history is now transmitted. It’s fiction. Nowhere in the entire episode is the obvious fraudulance of the 9-11 cover story ever even raised. Nowhere is US foreign policy discussed. Nowhere is Bin Ladin’s execution mentioned as such. The question of why not bring him to trial is never raised. Gosh that Aaron Sorkin sure is a liberal.

The real questions here are in describing how the parameters of the new model of social interaction and communication works. The fact that facebook and other social networks actually intensify isolation and alienation must be factored in. Alienation not just from each other, but from daily life of the sort accepted as given for centuries. We are, ourselves, products. Commodities. It is the recontexualizing of social interaction.

Dmitry Kleiner speaks to some of this here:

One point he makes is that the show, say Newsroom is not the commodity, its just a delivery system to deliver the real commodity, the audience. The viewer. Data retrieval, data sharing, and the privitized consciousness industry, the attention economy, is the model for post modern financialized capital. The labor force is gone. Now given this, the show still exists, and its existence has become a central force in shaping the values of its audience. There are bad metaphors I can think of, the electronic platform is now the town square. All these metaphors are very flawed, however. The enviornmental crisis is partly the result of a numbed consciousness, of this distance from the material world. It is also the result of, more significantly, corporate and state destructions and domination of entire peoples. The United States arms almost all the sides in almost all conflicts on the planet. At this point it’s important to remind oneself that buying “green” light bulbs, or a Prius, is totally meaningless. In one sense, the shape that resistance is to take is, obviously, crucially important. I don’t have answers. I know, for example, that if you live in the US, and if you have a record, a police record, if you have paper on you, a jacket — then you are going to be very reluctant to go out in the streets at all. I know. Anyone who has done any time at all knows how vulnerable they are. Never in the history of the world has such power been concentrated in quite this way. The recent NDAA is just the last ‘official’ legislation for what has been practiced for a long time. You cannot fight the state on its own terms. The state now is very content to build as many prisons as they need. So, the future may well hold either prison, or “special developmental zone”.

the body of human rights District Attorney Manuel Eduardo Díaz Mazariegos

Willaim Burroughs prophecied this sort of future. Gated communities for the ruling elite, and slave labor zones for the rest, unless you were an unruly young male (or female) for which prison was the likely destination.

(and for pure propaganda, you might read this:

What this is, actually, is a slave labor zone.

But back to learning, bullying, and human connections. I think this new form of bullying follows from two sources. One is a desperate fear in the populace, and more on that in a second. The other is that it mimics the values of the culture industry. It mimics the behavior of the celebrity actors in the spectacle. This can be Barack Obama, or Jeff Daniels, or George Cloony. It doesn’t matter. All of them are scripted by marketers. Sometimes the hack TV writer serves as intermediary, but the end result is still what the marketing department creates.

There was a scene in that episode of Newsroom where Daniels’ bodyguard is detained by the police. The bodyguard is black. He even makes a sarcastic remark about being stopped for being black. No matter, at the end he is proud to tell those two cops, oh, Osama Bin Ladin is dead. What is the message?

This sort of enclosing of oppositional tropes within the greater corral of ruling class values is very pernicious.

So, with the Solnit piece, what we have is a three card monte rhetorical gambit that equates support for Obama with the Zapatistas. It is, in the end, part of the maintenance of the status quo. It is simply a manipulation of reason whose final fusillade is to blur radical critique and reformist apology. It is the voice, sadly, of the affulent white person who has a comfort zone that allows Obama to seem better, because after all, they won’t be the first or even second target in the next SWAT team assault. And after all, “their” kids go to private school.

One of the memes out there is that radicals are the selfish ones. This runs alongside the ‘a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Romney’ slogans, or to support real radicals like Clemente and McKinny, is to be “unrealistic” (the worst of all sins”)….and cue Sorkin theme music. The ideology of the culture industry always includes a reassurance that one has dignity even while begging to be allowed crumbs from the master’s table. The cheap nostalgic sentimentality of the “little person” who matters is a trope that runs throughout all popular cultural narrative. Demonize resistance in Honduras, in Mexico, in Libya, in Greece and Spain and of course in Venezuela. If one can find a favorable portrait of Chavez in western corporate media, I would be shocked. Trust me, you wont. Under all this there remains an indellible racism.

So here we have Brand Obama, cultural celeb. The entire spectacle is running in hyperdrive. Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb, apparently the same artist who drew Colin Powell’s mobile anthrax trucks. But did Aaron Sorkin see fit to investigate even one tiny moment to questioning the status quo? No. The Jeff Daniels’ character cannot be seperated, literally, from ABC news anchors, or CNN or MSNBC. It’s all the same. And buried just below the surface is an encouragement NOT to differentiate. The viewer is being told, it’s good you cant tell the difference. Its OK.

So the people down at the occupy encampment, or latest march, those protesting Monsanto and GM foods must struggle with finding a vocabulary for resistance that is, at least, less amenable to co-option. And this is not easy, for our public discourse is utterly dominated by the grammar of the dominant ideology.

This grammer is not just narrative, but behavioral and gestural. I tried in an earlier post to define the sense of the uncanny in certain actors. One way to possibly look at this is to recognize those performances that manage to exist outside these grammars of domination. I recently watched a BCC film, Appropriate Adult, directed by Julian Jarrold, and with Dominic West. It is based on the investigation and arrest and long interrogation of killer Fred West. Jarrold had directed Red Riding Trilogy, which also captured something of the angst of proletarian England today. Dominic West’s performance was inspired simply by virtue of existing outside the norm. It was in one sense, almost incoherent. Which fact is probably worth an entire posting. In any event, if we have generations who absord the presentation of a cyborg world as the normal, then it’s going to be hard to establish contexts for teaching a new aesthetics. A radical aesthetics is, however, what is required. The other problem that runs together with this is that of the culture of the fan. If presidential elections are conducted like American Idol, and if voting is the same as the judges do on Dance with the Stars, then a binary model of “I like” and “I don’t like” is going to be pretty deeply entrenched.

Protesters willingly portray the role of protester, as if cast by Central Casting, later to be a second camera background shot on Sorkin’s show.

ADX Supermax prison, Florence Colorado

The sound of wisdom, Michael Silverblatt once said to me, can be recognized even if you’ve never heard it. I’d like to believe this is true. The body responds in a divergent manner, in another way, to that which does not cohere to the normalized generalized models for acceptable. That does not smell or sound the same, or read the same. It is, of course, ever harder to find that space that hasn’t been colonized. A space to actually “hear”.

The branding of everything, and the gradual occupation of more and more of consciousness, a consciousness already marinated in electronic town squares, in the self commodifying economy of data sharing, of a daily life where information has replaced thought, and where decisions are binary, and context pre-given. The communal dimension of life, say, in the medieval city, contained far more ambiguity, and while it also dealt with one one thousandth of the amount of data, it exercised a good deal more autonomous thought.

There will be people who disagree with this, and I know the dangers of historical generalizations and a relfexive anti modernism. As I’ve said before, the mind of Dante is very distant from our own. Dante was on that cusp. We recognize Shakespeare far more. Anything pre Dante I fear is all but lost. My feeling is that the ruling apparatus of branded reality, this colonizing of consciousness, is so hegemonic now that resistance to it requires serious consideration. It requires people begin to read again, and to feel again. The walking dead as a title would work for almost any show on network or cable TV.

I leave you with Derrik Jensen. I have my issues with Jensen, but I guess they are pretty minor. His is, at least, a voice of sanity, and its probably a good deal more. He is pushing against many of the things I tried to raise in this entry, but better. For that he is very worth listening to.

And with a quote from one of my favorite poems, and one that has been rattling around in my head all week. I’m not sure why.

The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.



  1. I’m really disgusted and shocked by Solnit..I probably should have listened to the little voice in my head about her moralizing and that priestly exhibitionism of aesthetic sensitivity…very American transcendentalist really…but I so appreciated paradise built in hell I dismissed my bad feeling as prejudice. Anyway I left comment there alas truncated…in two parts with my phone typos and endless nicotine fit impatience. Sol it Nos us a zizney spokester hammering those bogeys the bruchetta brigade…alway unreasonably not speaking like sexist racist cretins (so snobby and condescdng they song even call their colleagues n….rs! Aren’t they fussy?) now they go so far as to kvetch about torture into death slave labour imperial assaults despotism and other trivial matters.


  3. John Steppling says:

    yeah, its very dissapointing by Solnit, who has written a good deal I really valued. The Muybridge is simply terrific. But……….that is what she can do. Its a journalistic piece on a specific slice of history. When it comes to stepping outside this world view, she suffers the same fail as the michael moores and amy goodmans. And both of them have done good work. ITs interesting to compare to Naomi Klein who hasnt fallen in lock step yet with the democratic party mandate. Its why i guess people like Jensen are so welcome. Whatever his shortcomings (as in, read more marx) his voice is utterly rejecting the prevailing model of reformist apology.

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