Comfort Zone

There seems to be a comfort level that western liberals cling to. This comfort zone keeps the relatively affluent liberals in a position to turn away from unpleasant facts as they exist throughout the world.

Culturally, since that is mostly what I write about, this is reflected in an increasingly hallucinatory production of new revisionist historical projects, as well as just blatant jingoism, and an ever more frantic reinforcing of the status quo. The latter can be seen in the constant, but more hysterical, recycling of familiar motifs and narratives. What seems to have changed within this system is a new sense of almost desperation in the propping up of the childish and trivial — the cultural gatekeepers of taste now lavish awards and critical praise on stunningly narcissitic and juvenile material.

I sense a cultural tipping point has been reached. Three examples are worth noting: the most obvious is Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty. Purported to be the story of the capture and execution of Osama Bin Ladin, the film employs an unquestioning acceptance of the Pentagon version of events.

I linked Patrice Greenville’s review last posting, but here is another, from Glenn Greenwald.

The second piece is Speilberg’s historical drama Lincoln. Added to this comes news that Lena Dunham, creator and lead actress of the HBO show Girls was given a three million dollar book advance.

Now, we have in these items not just money making product, but material praised by mainstream critics. In fact praised by alternative critics as well. Yes, there have been voices against, such as Greenwald above, but the fact that cultural debate now circles around material of such vacuous and puerile emptiness suggests a number of things.

This brings me back to thoughts about this comfort zone. Leading up to Obama’s re-election, one heard of lot of the lesser of two evils trope expressed. I took note especially of the arguments suggesting the appointment of judges would be so much better under Obama….usually from people who had no idea about the record of Obama’s justice department. But that’s hardly the point. In the face of a drone terror policy, of increased militarization of domestic police, mass incarceration and expanded military base construction…especially in Africa….it felt weird to have to debate minor judicial appointees, or even potential Supreme Court appointments. Does Elena Kagan somehow mitigate 137 (and counting) dead children?

The comfort zone does not allow for real historiical reflection. Allow me to link part two of the excellent three part series The Power Principle.

To actually examine the record for U.S. foreign policy would disrupt the comfort zone. It is enough that Willard Romney is not president, but that a charming face, an articulate appealing face is put in place, a successful brand….that is enough. But it is not enough if one were to be reminded too often of the reality of U.S. Imperialism, of the reality of the prison industrial complex, or of the desperation of the poor in the U.S. and around the world.

Enter Lena Dunham. Enter Kathryn Bigelow. Enter Speilberg.

Dunham’s show is an exercise in insularity, made by children of the rich and famous. There is a good amount of titillation, of a singularly unappealing variety, nudity and toilet jokes, all of it a strained attempt at a kind of gravitas. None of this is unique to Dunham, most of the same formula is used in almost all corporate programming. What is a bit more distressing is the critical reception this work has received.

Raw, ironic, brilliantly raunchy, wise warm and fresh. Such descriptions are echoed almost uniformally throughout mainstream press.

In fact, what the show primarely does is to flatter the closed off universe of the liberal white class that is depicted. It is the definitive show of the comfort zone. The world of Dunham’s show is one of a very narrow consumerist fantasy writ universal. However, there is something of a disequalibrium happening — the actual ugliness and vanity and self involvement of these characters cannot withstand a sustained viewing. Ah, but turn turn away. It is the work that begs its audience to turn away…from itself, the world, and history. Now, of course the same could be said for most corporate entertainment. But most corporate entertainment is not received with this level of adulation. Dunham is the sharp edge of the final collapse of all critical discrimination.

This is the Obama universe, the petit bourgeois self congratulation machine in full bloom. If race intersected in the branding of Obama, feminism does the same with Dunham’s show. Now set this against the vision of Zero Dark Thirty, the state department and Pentagon fairy tale of the killing of arch enemy Osama Bin Ladin….himself a branded villain. The support for torture (which of course played no part in the actual story, assuming we have any idea what the real story was) is symptomatic of the denial of the liberal class. What better way to create an acceptance for torture and military adventure than to give it a wide screen presentation with Dolby Sound.

Couple all this to the Speilberg exercise in hagiography — written by *acclaimed* playwright Tony Kushner, and the trifecta of comfort zone politics is complete. Now, what is missing here? Well, the poor for one thing. The 7 million in prison in the United States, the homeless and desperate, the compulsive anti depressant addicted anxiety of today’s actual population. The real history of Lincoln and slavery and Reconstruction is replaced with familiar bromides uttered by appealing actors. The net result of all this is that of a kind of mental erasure that now effectively neutralizes the little real content that does creep into corporate product…not to mention a reinforcing of the structural aspects of the Spectacle. It reinforces the validity of fan culture, of fake storytelling, and of infantilization.

I saw a not terrible indi film the other day, The Sound of My Voice. It’s not very good, really, but there was something valid in the premise. But….what was so telling was that the two protagonists were documentary filmmakers. Its as if you cannot tell any story unless the frame is about filming something. The new found footage (a misnomer, but never mind)device (while cost effective) is an example of this. Life IS a film. Our memories are film strips, our dreams more and more so. The colonizing of consciousness has taken place via the screen. The civil war was a movie. And at some point the doubts one might have about what “really” happened to Osama Bin Ladin (whoever he might have really been) is irrelevant because the movie is MORE real.

The photos of Mathew Brady, the famed photographer of the civil war resonate with a sense of the tragic that cannot be faked. But…the ability to “look” at them probably has been eroded.

Mathew Brady, Civil War Camp, apprx 1862

There is no question that the electronic media age has bombarded a population with image and data. Social media is part of the system that circulates these images and valorizes them. It is a topic of enormous scope, but one that will intrude now on almost anything one writes. Still, those who look to find convenient villains; Romney, Scalia, the Tea Party, FOX news, or manufactured ones such as Syria or Muslim terrorists — the level of validity is irrelevant, because none of this stuff is more than just the flotsam of daily discourse. History is, in a sense, the first victim. For today most people think of history as a Speilberg film, or a PBS hour, and not the paralyzingly complex narrative that it really is. People will wring their hands about Syria, but ask them about the Ottoman Empire or who the Hashemites were and you get blank stares. Ask about something as significant as the Suez Crisis and again, blank stares. Still, they will have opinions. They will write or click “like” or comment, or just blabber on to a friend or neighbor…and these “opinions” are protected like property. People own their opinions, and in a sense, they HAVE paid for them.

I often wonder if two hundred years ago, or five hundred, if people spoke in the same compulsive manner they do today? I don’t think so. I think there were forms of discourse that have evaporated over time. I think advertising and marketing has effected how the spoken word is used….if “used” is the right term.

Patrice Lumumba

So, today the court stenographer is Kathryn Bigelow, and Lena Dunham the court fool. Or maybe court eunuch — hard to say. But the complusive blather, the empty immature babble, held up as if it were Moliere. For the infantilizing of the populace is the driving principle at work. Denham for girls, and Bigelow for boys.

To be able to really hear what is being said has priority over even being able to “see” the image. For there is a difference. The post modern world, in a sense, is the result of endless co-opting of narrative. Radical pedagogy, aesthetic resistance….terms I’ve come to use to describe what I see as the only way out of the occupation of our minds. I know one of the knee jerk responses to such discussions is to say, oh, it’s only a movie, only a TV show. But under advanced capital, in the US and parts of Europe, that IS the reality. This is how narrative is reproduced in the individual’s brain — it confers permission to be a child, to not grow up, to remain passive. These narrative extend to larger issues; Obama’s foreign policy, or SCOTUS. The conditioning is so deep. The waving flag is everywhere, the IMAGE of the heroic soldier is everywhere.

You cannot seperate Monsanto seed policy from Brand Obama from Zero Dark Thirty, or from HBO or Showtime. The comfort zone allows those not in complete desperation, to trust in the world view of the corporation, of the Pentagon, of Imperialist ideology. Who wants to think about Super Max prisons, or the cost of phone calls for the poor families with loved ones in prison, or the misery of wage slavery at Wal-Mart or in sweat shops in Haiti. After all, Lena Dunham is original, funny, raw and nuanced.

Bigelow’s film received an unprecedented 99% approval rating at metacritic, and 100% positive at Rotten Tomatoes.



But hey, I am really worried about the Surpreme Court, and sure am glad Obama won.


  1. Joanna Folino says:

    Brilliant and persuasive, John. I used to struggle with what to do in the face of this. Now I think it needs to play itself out to the inevitable end and even that choice makes me queasy and not like myself for doing so. All I can think of is just keep growing gardens, supporting grassroots movements towards spiritual, economic and social equity. Keep pushing. I watched Dunham 4-5 times and grew bored and disengaged with her and her show. Bigelow I can’t stand at all. And Lincoln I refused to see. I don’t like Kushner’s work too much and I was certain they would not show the ugliness of Lincoln’s character regarding Africans. Yet now I can have no dialogue with friends. They poke fun of me and say “Everything is prop according to you now”. They “liked” and “enjoyed” and “found value” in such films. No one even the most intelligent really want to think too hard or too deeply and resent it when you ask them to.

  2. Stephen Birch says:

    I had my annual employee review today; and guess what. It was fundamentally, bottom line, about branding and image. Nothing to do with the reality and context of the job I do. Blah, blah, your excellent at what you do but, there is a problem with how you interact with customers which has a negative effect on the image of the company.
    Image appears to be everything and reality, well let’s not discuss that, it’s just too uncomfortable.

  3. john steppling says:
  4. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    The recent Golden Globe nominations provide evidence of this. Are people really being duped by this revisionist history or, as I suspect, is there just a preference for ignorance, which is seen as more “real”? The irony there is nobody knows what the hell is real anymore. It’s smoke and mirrors everywhere you look, and it’s all designed to centralize power and keep it in the hands of those who already have it. That’s why idiots like Buffet are calling for tax hikes and more estate taxes. Most people who inherit money will pay one half to the government automatically and be locked into the middle class forever. Meanwhile, people like Buffet will hide their money in trusts and take small hits in the year, while sealing their status among the ultra-elite. It’s a club, and the members are from both parties, Hollywood and business. It’s also why they are so quick be the gatekeepers of what’s considered “art” in society. It keeps people from taking a closer look at the failures of the past 60 years of government policy. The Hollywood elites scratch the politicos back and the Hollywood scrubs get to keep their lifestyle and their secrets. Meanwhile the businesses can have the marketing rights. Everybody wins…well, maybe not everybody.

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