More Odds & Ends

"TV glasses", inventor Hugo Gernsback.

“TV glasses”, inventor Hugo Gernsback.

“Mystery is the essential element in any work of art”
Luis Bunuel

“The question remains as to why the government had need of it {war}, as to why it was necessary to impose the improbable reality of this lie. The reason was apparently to create consent in order to wage war. But why start a war if the danger was known not to be real? Out of anticipation? Due to possibly exaggerated feelings of insecurity? If remains necessary to invert the terms of the problem. Imagined feelings of insecurity did not neccessiate the war; the war was necessary to impose feelings of insecurity.”
Jacques Ranciere

“The petty bourgeoisie is undoubtedly the social class most sensitive to the fascination of nationalist mythology.”
J. C. Mariategui

This was one of those weeks in which the Spectacle goes into warp speed (to use a Trekkie cliche). The unsettling regime change the U.S. intends for Venezuela continues, though so far with little success, and now the orchestration of a Ukrainian crisis is underway (gee, all that Pussy Riot Russophobic nonsense that has bombarded the media for months has to be a coincidence, right?) Then the Oscars. Watching the Oscars is equivalent, psychologically, to a hemmorrhagic virus that you cannot avoid because the mucus and blood from the electronic killing floor aerosolizes and covers you, and so Jared Leto’s speech is causing bleed out in my brain even as I write this. It’s odd I haven’t watched this awards show in almost thirty years, and last time I “did” watch it was from a low end motel room In Tobago, which was sort of amusing because the commericals kept interrupting regardless of what was going on. Local commericals. But, you cant escape it I guess. The following week is a constant bombardment of info and replays.

So I wanted to link a few things quickly, to sort of dispense with having to really talk about this horrid event. And I will add, if you cannot see the Colonial narrative being played out at the Academy Awards every year, and the Imperialist narrative, then you are not looking very carefully. This is a not dissonant value system….that of Mr Ridley. 12 Years a Slave fits perfectly into the ruling class world view.

Here is a piece by crypto fascist and 12 Years a Slave screenwriter, John Ridley.

Paracus culture, Americas, 100 A.D.

Paracus culture, Americas, 100 A.D.

Per the Academy Award winning film:

Then there is this piece by Thomas Frank

Usually I’m not a big fan of Frank, but there is a good deal he gets right in this. And it also begs a few bigger questions about popular culture. That the films of Harold Ramis are so popular with both the Reagan white house and the Obama white house, and all the cultural and political minions and clerks of Capital is no accident. I never found anything even remotely funny in Animal House, or Caddyshack. But one could extend this to Hangover 1-3, and Adam Sandler and it is interesting to see how American jock culture has embraced this particular strain of pop culture, of entertainment. Bill Simmons is now the poster boy for insecure white males in today’s empire. His internet magazine Grantland in fact merges sports fandom with movie and TV fandom. The writing is snarky, patronizing and works very hard at a kind of nerd cool. Now, Id extend to this to Dave Eggers and his posse, for they’re the ivy league version of this, expensively educated (badly educated, but whatever) and affluent to a man. The same class that attends Abramovic performance pieces are the ones who read Eggers, and who applaud Harold Ramis. This is the liberal white bourgeoisie. Haute bourgeoisie, really. And this class clings, in desperation almost, to this manufactured populism. And even if they don’t openly endorse Ayn Rand, they secretly do, and even if they don’t secretly, they do unconsciously.

John Stezaker

John Stezaker

“Everyone believes that they’re standing up against unjust authority of some imaginary kind or another—even those whose ultimate aim is obviously to establish an unjust authority of their own. Their terms for it are slightly different than the ones in “Animal House”—they talk about the liberal elite, the statists, the social engineers, the “ruling class.” But they’re all acting out the same old script. The Tea Party movement believes it’s resisting the arrogant liberal know-it-alls. So did Andrew Breitbart, in his brief career as a dealer in pranks and contumely. So do the people who proposed that abominable gay marriage discrimination law in Arizona. Hell, so do the pitiful billionaires of Wall Street—even they think they’re standing bravely for Ayn Rand’s downtrodden job creators.”
Thomas Frank

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

It is easy, I think, to underestimate just how big an influence Reagan’s presidency really was. He is rightly seen as the worst president of modern times, and while Reagan himself is mostly irrelevant, his presidency signaled the comming together of several strands of reactionary thinking, and of white supremicism. The Reagan crew were hugely ambitious in terms of global finance, and maybe more, they marked a sea change in perception; this was the selling of the Harold Ramis, Bill Simmons white guy-as-cool-heroic trope. It was the counter revolution to the sixties where radicals and minorities were getting laid, and white jerks were being laughed at. The revenge of Bill Kristol (et al) and the resurggence of WASP ruling class values, or rather ruling class WHITE values were now openly glorified. The 60s were branded a failure, rock bands were hosting golf tournements (and people thought it was cool), and there was something else, the return of the Puritan. This was the perception, mind you, but it was largely a manufactured perception. Much did shift, but much didnt, but the selling of this idea achieved a lot of traction. The media bought in, and ran with it.

If you follow hoops, one of the stories of this season is the somewhat manufactured and hyped rise of rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo …nicknamed ‘The Greek Freak”, because of his preternatural athleticism. Giannis is an African born, Greek raised teenager blessed with insane length and huge hands. He is, however, still at best a very unskilled basketball player. But he is Bill Simmons favorite and most every other white jock journalist in mainstream media. Stories are trotted out almost daily about cute things the unsophisticated Giannas does (sent all his money to his mom and needed to borrow money for a taxi home, etc). This is much like the Oscar show lavishing adoration on Lupita Nyong’o,– OH, how beautiful, how gorgeous she is, etc. These are the pets, they are entertaining, and this sort of diminishing of the “man”, the turning all young black athletes into amusements, products, commodities, and sort of intellectual jewelry is very prominent. Black actresses are not women. Ive not heard a single black hoop writer talk about Giannas. Only the white guys, Simmons, Chad Ford, Matt Moore, Chris Mannix, Joel Brigham, et al.

Kacper Kowolski

Kacper Kowolski

The appearance at Court; the Academy Awards is a sort of ersatz Versailles, and with each passing year the commentary on the actual films nominated lessens, and is replaced by critiques of gowns, of pop psychological mini melodramas (Oh Leo lost, look at him the moment he lost, etc), and all of it invented, on one level. The real drive behind such spectacles is the valorizing of class distinction. There is always a “newcomer”; it is part of the ritual. Some die and are replaced, a new annointed prince or princess. Such terms are even employed quite often. The red carpet…I mean, what the fuck is the red carpet actually about? Well, nothing. It is perfect in its nothingness. It is about being seen, about image, images, many images, instantly thrown into circulation. It is instant NOW, chatter and tweets, and instagrams of hair cuts, of seating plans, of whatever. Jared Leto’s dim vacant eyes, slightly glazed, looking into some pool made of his own grateful tears..a B list Narcissus thanking the court, mouthing platitudes. It is an effete class of court eunuch.

Artist unknown, American colonial, appx 1670

Artist unknown, American colonial, appx 1670

Then there is the other America, the invisible one. The influence of Hollywood and marketing, and they overlap in all sorts of ways, cannot be overestimated. Watching US television for example will expose you to a constant repetitive propaganda that makes surveillance ‘cool’ and stigmatizes the underclass as inherently criminal. But less obvious is the way that models for receiving information are put in place. If the average viewer watches shows such as House of Cards, or West Wing, they are going to assume this is how ‘politics’ really is. There is a backdrop that is less direct than this even, and that is the idea of a technocratic state of experts who monitor things and fight crime and terrorism. And ‘technology’ itself is heroic. Any of it, all of it, in any white or western hand…technology is good. And rarely does anyone ask where it came from, or what it cost. It’s just there. Like God. Like nature. One of the continuing themes of pop narrative is “we cant let those weapons get in the wrong hands”. Literally Id bet that line is uttered at least once a week on US television. The assumption is, of course, that we know the right hands from the wrong hands. What does that even mean? Harry Truman and Curtis LeMay were the right hands? The ATF are ‘experts’ and knew the right thing in Waco? But so deep is this fantasy that people now want to believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. As soon as anyone resorts to a non TV trope or fact, they are called ‘conspiracy theorists’. So much so, that people know to shut up at job interviews or social gatherings. And when I say this is the age of snark, I am suggesting a thought process that looks to stigmatize, and usually in the service of appearing cool. Or hip, or inside. And this snark extends to political narratives of all sorts, and to cultural ones. I read a twitter string this week where someone was being snide about True Detective. I am finding this show seems to elicit a good deal of agitated response. Probably a sign it has some value. But when anyone quotes a show, and then is sarcastic….oh dude, mind blowing, har har har, I am reminded of being in Junior High School first off, but secondly, I wonder if this person has any real love of anything cultural? I mean I can snark at Shakespeare if I want…Winter of our discontent dude, seasonal angst…har har har. Sniping is the very most easy critical stance to take. Now, I mention this because it is what goes on in another fashion (and its reverse) when political narrative occurs. The “everyone is wrong” stance. Well, I dont like the US foreign policy, but Putin is just as bad. Or, well, Saddam WAS a terrible dictator. This goes back to the “we cant let those weapons get in the wrong hands” trope. Presumably Saddam with hydrogen bombs is far worse than George Bush. Why? Oh, wait, because Saddam gassed the Kurds…well, and flew US made helicopters (IF he even gassed them) and got increased trade advantages AFTER so doing. The simple equation here is: Wrong hands are non white, non christian and non capitalist.

The contemporary world of TV in the US is aiming awfully low, even in the age of its target audience. Shows about high school (with actors in their thirties playing freshman) abound, usually with aliens and vampires. Do these shows attract young audiences? I have my doubts. I think middle aged men, and hipsters watch them, but I could be wrong. Embedded in all of these are jingoistic elements and clear valorizing of the status quo. The “president” and anyone in a uniform is almost always good. Courage is good IF, and only IF, it is in the service of patriotic sacrifice. Courage for its own sake, existential courage, is depicted as madness.

There is in ALL of this, a sense of a shrinking or suffocating landscape being established. Perhaps it is simply the result of the technical meeting the economic. Cost saving is paramount in the minds of studio and network heads. So, for example, shows are filmed in LA, and pretend to be El Paso, or Iraq, or Harlen County, or a pacific island. There are streets in the loft district of Los Angeles (where I once lived) that must have been filmed ten thousand times. Probably more. The First Street bridge at least ten thousand times. Maybe fifty thousand times. But the sky is always LA. Its not a Miami sky, it is a Marina Del Rey sky, no matter how many signs you hang reading MIAMI. This must have the accumlative effect of homogenizing the sense of place. TV execs dont think skies are different. And this takes us back to Reagan who said “Seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all”. Ha ha, early executive snark, is really what that is. So Frank is correct, its Reagan era pop culture. Its Harold Ramis, its Animal House. A sort of attitude implant was stuck in the collective. Those tweets about True Detective are only the fourth generation of Reagan signing away California forests for the lumber industry. Today, new pirate shows are modeled on venture capitalists. Pirate as wall street raider, not the other way round.

Richard Serra

Richard Serra

The impulse for tragedy, even if unsuccessful, and for a variety of reasons perhaps, is anethema to the post modern hipster. The college educated white guys who loved Ramis now love Spike Jonze. The shrinking world. The eulogies for Ramis death seem to be from some collective recovered false memory. Oh we grew up laughing at Harold Ramis movies. What? Is that dialogue from a Speilberg movie? Implanted memories of some idyllic childhood in suburbia that NOBODY ever had. The shrinking world is a world as seen in a three camera sit com. The world as the set for Star Trek, and this is really the world of a screening room, or recording studio. Battelstar Gallactica; the bridge, Captain we have incoming whatevers…cut to radar screen. Blip blip blip blip…ok, time to go out into CGI space. And so we do. The real space is limited to the sound stage. After all, the world is all the same; Harlen County, Miami, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Same. Iraq and Mexico. Same.

I think one of the reasons for the success of Breaking Bad was that it was filmed on location. The skies of New Mexico sustained that show.

Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley

I wanted to go back for a second to the Puritan figure in American consciousness. Cotton Matther is never far removed from the liberal classes. The Puritan wants those who disobey …well, anything, to be put in the stocks. The enduring symbol of early American society is probably the stocks, and later, the slave market. And then Indian killers and buffalo killers, and railroad camps. That is the United States in a three line history. In another sense, the Ramis films did something else, too. They undermined an idea of utopian dreaming. “You fucked up, you trusted us”. Sucker. Mark. The idealist is equated with poverty and there is nothing less acceptable than being poor. Reagan values were embraced by the soft left. Today the fall out from Reagan liberals is seeping into the support for US foreign policy. The endless making of equivalencies. There are fascists on all sides. Sadam was a dictator. Qadaffi was crazy and wore eye liner. White guys are, even if we don’t like them, rational and civilized: like Tony Blair and David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy and Holland, and Bush. The confidence man, from Melville through James Cain was an anarchist, and an outlaw. The shrewd cheat of Harold Ramis is a reactionary.

But once Obama came into office, the momentary hope became something else. Instead of white guys, it was a black guy let into the fraternity kegger. Not even a halfback. The well spoken regulated black man. He was able to kill even MORE efficiently. He carried out the wishes of the ruling class with more aplomb.



And just to make mention of a very intelligent analysis of the Dieudonne affair (sic).

This echos, in a more articulate manner, what I tried to say a dozen postings back. More important is the analysis of the left, and if this were moved to the U.S., there would much that is similar. In some ways identical. For the racism of the Obama age is expressed under cover of paternalistic concern for racism. We are so concerned we award 12 Years a Slave best picture, and yet, as Houria Bouteldja says, the structural left is complicit with Imperialism. It is a failure of memory partly. The liberal and most of the left will never defend Qadaffi or examine US covert wars in Venezuela. They will do somersaults to criticize the percieved impurity of Chavez — Chavez, the only black face to ever become President of a country in post colonial South America. The left pulled back defending Aristide. The left will often excuse the Islamophobia of the French veil ruling under cover of feminist independence. The foreign wars of aggression in Afganistan are given a partial pass because after all, the Taliban put women in a hijab or burka. Now today, the US has created chaos in Ukraine, taking advantage of a corrupt government, and the post Soviet chaos of former satellites and Eastern bloc countries. The same thing with the lack of rigor in dicussing Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. How many on the left in the U.S. will defend Milosevic?

The demonizing of Chavez (and of Castro, too) has taken place through an extraordinary bombardment of propaganda, but also because the Trotskyist trained hard left is never going to trust state power. If there are images of “students” in the streets, then a lot of left leaning critics in the U.S. will ask (as I read) “whats going on”? Now the first reaction should be, which state department front group is funding these efforts at destabilization? The tilt toward Imperialism is really the most surprising thing to me, I think, in many left circles. A blanket NEVER, NEVER support the US military in anything they do, is the most appropriate position. NEVER. They cannot be doing good, anywhere, at any time. NEVER. But so deep are the narratives implanted, the bathos of countless film and TV show, and even if the films are anti war, ostensibly (Full Metal Jacket), the result is to somehow humanize the war effort. The enemy is not humanized. The face of the enemy is invisible. It is useful to remember just how reactionary Hollywood really is. It’s not overt (except in a few cases) but it is structural. War movies, jingoistic war movies, often make money. Ergo we dont care the content or pov of this war movie. We care it makes money. Lone Survivor is making money. There will be more just like it, soon. WHY is it making money? That’s a bigger question. But maybe that is a seperate posting. The thing that *is* relevant here is the treatment of the Afghan people in this film. And by extension the treatment of all Muslims, or third world people in Hollywood film. They are *simple*…a bit like Giannas, the ‘Greek Freak’, simple, often charming, but children, really. Lone Survivor has an intertext insert at the end, as a sort of coda (well, one of many codas to that film) that explains the quaint but supportable value system of these tribal people. They defend their guests blah blah blah. Its some sort of appalling and neo colonialist condescension and a good many leftists will buy into that. Paternalistic.

N. C. Wyeth

N. C. Wyeth


  1. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    The phenomenon of “True Detective” makes me wonder — what are the preconditions for popular entertainment with a nugget of something true, authentic and uncomfortable in it emerging from such tightly-regulated market economy for art and entertainment? How does something good sometimes slip through on the commercial programs?

  2. John Steppling says:

    exir………thats a complicated question. And TD is a complicated case to study. Its fraught with contradictions, and yet, on the level of just line by line writing its very good. And I found the sense of despair, the lonliness, really moving actually. Middle aged bachelors being the saddest thing …of a certain sort anyway. But its still an HBO show, and adheres to many of the formulae (or forumlas I guess, if you prefer American english)…so, I don’t quite know, and its always intriguing to me how and why this happens.

  3. Kacper Kowalski is brilliant. thanks for the into (for those interested in seeing more:

  4. Jack Littman says:

    Glad to hear your thoughts on Ramis. It’s astounding the amount of radical perspectives lost during reagan’s america. I mean the hollywood blacklist of the 50’s was only the beginning in a long slide to preserving a population that wouldn’t question the white colonialist way of entertainment. Now is the end times. Now 12 yrs a slave is glorified. Does any one care that Brad Pitt represents the all too necessary white leader. The paternalism in that film is so offensive.
    As for TD. Its clear the writing and the perspective of the poor against authority is good. However, I find Woody and McCaunohey really hard to watch. Their awareness of the camera and false “machismo” gets in my way. Maybe its just me.

  5. john steppling says:

    @jack………..thats quite right, I think. McCarthyism just sort of regrouped around Reagan, but it carried on the same program. As for TD, yeah, I wont go to the mat for this thing, but its impressive in a way in terms of how its shot…the landscape, that oil belt of central Louisiana and east texas. The central macho dynamic gets grating, but….but….i will withold final comment until the end and live with it for a while. I mean in one sense macho IS awareness of being watched…so thats intriguing as a question. Its this preening sort of self destruction. The weakest stuff is, as it usually the case, the home life of cops. The best is the tent church preacher, the crabbers and meth cooks. Which is clearly what the writer cares about too.

  6. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    I’ve not had a chance to watch True Detective yet… but I suspect the following article will grate on you:

  7. Jack Littman says:

    yes. Preening. A good word for the two leads performances I think. However it does lend itself to how a lot of cops in positions of power truly act. Hyper masculine, almost steroid sexualization. But the show is majestically photographed, and something profound is in there. Very compassionate towards poverty. The creator worked on a few episodes of The Killing, which makes a good deal of sense.

  8. John Steppling says:

    OK, well. I guess Im forced to discuss this. First….I thought both actors were very good. In fact I thought the show was awfully good. What I dislike about this sort of review (that Exir linked) is that the baseline seems to be “solve the mystery”…wrapping it up in some formulaic way is reassuring. I thought the finale was about perfect. Now…I didnt bother to read that whole review because its too stupid and my brain hurts now…but I saw a couple others like it. These are the same critics mind you who LOVE Girls and Orange is the New Black and Sopranos etc. What made TD more interesting, firstly, is that it wasnt a staff written show. It wasnt assembled in parts by committee. One writer and one DP and the show sustained something important, and that was the atmosphere of failure, and defeat and a tragic sort of acceptance of the fact that solutions dont make you feel any better. Both these “preening” macho men end with their lives in ruins. Out of work and approaching middle age and yet, there is a sense of search for an idea in them both. The idea that a ‘true” detective is (to be overwrought) the detective of the soul. its quasi spiritual….in a sort of dime novel sort of way. Its not dostoyevsky. I find it interesting that critics continue to RAVE about kevin spacey in house of cards, while sniping at these two. The reason (and i think spacey is terrible) is that these are exaggerated performances. Yes, hyper sexualizied, and eroticized, and sensual and stylized. Spacey…using him as an example, is HYPER naturalistic….but since there is no such thing as naturalism really, its a manufactured positioning of familiar codes, that just means familiar, finally. House of Cards is also dishonest, but I mean, ok, its not meant to be more I suppose. TD had the very great virtue of accepting the fact that the story was never going to wrap up….life drains out of people, time takes over, mortality, and age and fatigue. Its grand guignol partly, and pulp, but its very good pulp. I dont remember there being even ONE negative review of Mad Men, as a series. I dont remember one b ad review of Sopranos (save for criticism of the last episode)….but I read a LOT of bad reviews (in mainstream outlets) on true detective. And yet, for me, there is no comparison. None. TD is cinematic, and pulp tragic and yet, people continue to find fault with it where inferior shows, reassuring shows, are not sniped at.

  9. John Steppling says:

    As an addendum: I think its possible I have to live with this for a while. its an effective show lets say. The quality of the writing is, Im confident about this I think, better than most. But its genre, its an interesting exercise in crime fiction. Its heir to james cain or David Goodis or someone like that. And its an HBO show. So, the corporate stamp is still all over it. Its titillating and exploitive in that sense. Its lurid. Its pulp fiction (not tarantino)….its donald goins or the like. But its also very well done, and I certainly enjoyed it. As they say in hollywood, I was plot committed. And the cinematopgraphy went a long way to making it probably seem better than it was. Not a lot of steady cam, a lot of long establishing shots……the tent revival, the landscape, this sinister toxic oil field landscape of east texas and central Louisiana. That made the show in a sense. It was not generic.

  10. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    More NYT dummheit (thanks Molly for teaching me new word!) Related… the smugness in there is hard to take.

  11. Well the fact that Obama would eulogize Ramis I think is frightening enough in and of itself. I think it surpasses Michelle Obama’s presenting of the Best Picture Oscar.

  12. There’s definately a lot to find out about this topic.
    I love all the points you made.

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