I See You Thinking

Hasham al Madani, photography. (Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1950s).

“I wonder if it is possible to give an intelligible explanation to the passage from principles to action without employing myths.”
George Sorel

“Well, a lot of art has become a version of show business entertainment, so what strikes me as significant is that you have the Whitney giving a show to Jeff Koons, you have Damien Hirst as the star of it all, the man who says he has no integrity, explicitly. You have two pseudo gurus, Marina Abramovic, who I think is very dangerous, and Yoko Ono at the Museum of Modern Art. So you have what you might call celebrity art. To me it’s “non-art…”
Donald Kuspit

“Pen in hand, he wasn’t a had fellow; but he was not, and could never heve been, even on paper, a dandy; and for that I shall never forgive him.”
Baudelaire – on Proudhon, letter to Sainte-Beuve, 1886.

“Art is not an end in itself, it is a medium in service of sacred understanding.”
Rene Daumal (Rasa, Essays on Indian Aesthetics)

“There are things that must be approached with fear and trembling. Death is undoubtedly such a thing, and how does one, at the moment of filming such a mysterious thing, avoid feeling like an imposter?”
Jacques Rivette

I sometimes feel that there has taken place a deep erosion of, for lack of a better word (and more on that below), *taste*. The U.S., as a society, has never had any sense of taste. Certain individuals, certain classes, had profound taste, but overall the Protestant and Calvinist ethos restricted notions of sensuality and pleasure. When I was a boy, I knew men who were representatives from the tail end of another era of the underworld, of criminality and outsider culture. Oddly I knew two men both nicknamed *Easy*. One was white and one was black. The black Easy was quite a bit older than me. I lived with him, actually, for about six or eight months when I was twenty two or three. He came out of New York and Detroit (by way of San Quentin). He would talk about pimp style, and pimp *taste*. Those old Stacey Adams shoes, in exotic leathers (‘gators’ they were called, since Alligator was the most popular leather used) and which encouraged a certain posture and stance. One could rock just a bit while standing, the same way very old work boots from the late 1800s also exhibited this turned upward toe. Shoes, far beyond any other article of attire, create attitude by way of posture. The old Church shoes from Jermyn Street in London (the old ones mind) made one walk like a Prime Minister. The early Florsheim long wingtip brogue from the U.S. did the same thing in a sense. These were shoes of authority. Now, what does this have to do with anything, exactly? Well, it has to do with taste, I think. Today one can buy shoes from, say, Yohei Fukuda, the Japanese shoemaker, who makes beautiful bespoke men’s shoes. But which I find, like I find many other shoemakers today, makes very oddly trivial looking footwear. There is something that has been lost, I think. Alden Shoes today still make long wingtips, and they are very fine shoes. They have integrity. But even here the last is relaxed in comparison with those old Church bluchers or Derbys. And this is the key element in terms of taste, I think. The relaxed last …the posture of the shoes, really, is the result of the subtle and not so subtle forces of a regressive faux egalitarianism. The slack last posture is actually imitating the posture of cheap dress shoes, the kind that came to prominence in the 1970s. It is really just a product of cost cutting (like cementing soles and not stitching them) and nothing else. (Im sure I will get arguments about this). Now technically Oxfords are defined by a closed lacing system, while Derbys and Bluchers use open systems. To be even more technical, the Derby has a second piece of leather that includes the eyelets and goes around the entire shoe while a Blucher is a single piece (whole cut) with the eyelets attached at the top of the vamp. Hence, Derbys are the least formal. And, really, the least attractive. So says I. Also to be hyper technical a *Brogue* is not a shoe style. Broguing is the decorative perforations (including the ubiquitous *W* perforated design on the toe) around the sides. Also a Derby has a heel cap and an Oxford does not. In any event, it is the ‘last’ that really creates the character of men’s shoes. And it is perhaps the classic era Pimp who best grasped this truth. But back to the idea of taste.

Joan Semmel

I continue to marvel at the American hostility to art and culture. Like the cheap mass produced shoe style creeping into bespoke shoe designs, the hostility to difficult artworks, in fine arts or literature or anything, is the result of an insecurity about knowing how to discuss art. The caustic put down is far easier than an enthusiastic defense of an artwork. The cheap and superficial is valorized ..and often without irony.

Taste, then, includes those things that are now decreed old fashioned or obsolete. And they may be obsolete. Complex emotional responses, refinement, and sensibility; and that artworks somehow contribute to a consciousness altering internal process. Our lives are made richer, deeper. But this then leads into the question of exactly what alienation means anymore. I think this is an era of post alienation.

“Our society stinks of death. I think the United States is a killer country. “
Donald Kuspit

Marvin Stupich, photography (Carbon County, Wy.)

Mass culture, especially TV and film, manufacture narratives that are really just strings of effects. The endless creation of ‘suspense’ is usually, in fact almost always, a superficial set of images and sound cues and performances that are meant to trigger familiar responses that are labeled suspense. None of them actually are suspenseful — in the traditional sense. They do however serve to stimulate the already existing anxiety in the viewer.

“Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”
Jean Baudrillard

Edvard Munch

The problem, of course, is that the concealed real is all too real, only the all too real is somehow intolerable. And this makes it, in the end, as Baudrillard suggests, unreal. But it is important not to skip that extra step. The endless effects of Hollywood narrative then reflect the anxiety of those who produce and create these entertainments. Anxiety is made ‘easy’, it is as Hannah Segal pointed out, the difference between art and entertainment… art is difficult and entertainment is easy. Easy to *get*. Anxiety is then presented as banality.

“And I raised the question of what happens to dreaming and dreams when the ego is temporarily or permanently not capable of carrying out the tasks involved in producing a neurotic or a normal dream. In the acute psychotic there is often no distinction between a hallucination, a dream, and a real event. I remember sessions early in the treatment of an acute schizophrenic, when he would give me a jumbled account of his night in which it was impossible to tell what really happened, what he hallucinated whilst awake, or what he hallucinated whilst asleep. Bion describes a patient who was terrified because he had dreamed of his analyst and therefore concluded that he must have devoured him, and was amazed to find his analyst alive in the real external world. In such cases, the patient is unable to differentiate between the psychic event which is a dream and actual events in the external world.”
Hannah Segal

Sayre Gomez

It was Fry, quoted by Segal, who suggested that artworks, or visual art anyway, stimulated something forgotten, some trace of an earlier emotion without the limiting factor associated with the actual event. The manufacturing of ever more infantile narratives, stories which are really little more than a string of manipulative effects, is part of a cultural regression I feel has taken place over the last forty years. And figuring out exactly how this corresponds to digital media and the wholesale unhappiness of western society is the key. I have noticed that the sexual assaults of Weinstein, and now dozens of other famous men, had led to a lot of discussion of (and mis-labeling) of pedophilia. And there has been here in Norway a good deal of discussion of this because of the police break up of a very large ring of pedophiles. There was also the making and selling of sex-dolls which were modeled on pre pubescent children. One would, I think anyway, have to believe there has been a huge increase in this aberrative behavior. But this is also far from clear. The drastic increase in the use of anti-depressants, for example, has had, probably, enormous influence in group behavior. But its not at all clear what that influence means or what form it takes. I suspect that the addictive role of screen technology looms large in all this. The psychic sedation of the populace and their anesthetized emotional life segues with the obsessive compulsive use of technology, but mostly in this case of smart phones. The role of smart phones might be hard to over estimate.

Vincent Desiderio

And the fact that the government encourages and even mandates that people own a cell phone suggests, if I am paranoid, that the authority structure knows all this. And its almost self evident that the society is ever more infantile. And this infantilization takes a number of different forms and operates in different registers. But another quick note on *effects*. Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s Moses astutely notes the tension of the hand. Bob Fosse’s entire vision of dance was based on the hands. And if Nureyev had a failing, it was his hands. In other words, these are artistic effects. T.J. Clark in his analysis of Courbert’s The Stonebreakers touches on something of the enduring bourgeois sensibility when *looking* at the working class. Especially rural workers. For this painting is more about the point of view of the viewer, courtesy of Courbet. Josh Mcloughlin writes… “the two men are defined by their labour: their faces and identities are hidden in an image of constructed subjectivity, not individuality. Nameless, the men are carefully represented by Courbet as they are in ideology, and the image foregrounds the ‘kind of visibility’ which interpellates rural individuals and therefore defines the ‘nature of [their] subjectivity’.” The viewer is probably passing in a carriage. One thing is clear, he is not a fellow worker. If extrapolated forward this is the encrusted sensibility of Hollywood TV even today. It is worth watching a few British crime shows and then watching a few American ones to notice something rather striking. And this even putting aside the rabid jingoism of U.S. TV narrative, and even putting aside the sentimentality of American product; for what one sees in the U.K. shows, beyond just better actors, is a quality of self awareness about class. And when I say ‘better’ I mean that British actors, by and large, are transcribing something of their own training and its history. This is perhaps rather obtuse, but even the worst of U.K. drama, and there is more and more that is bad, will exhibit something anti mechanistic — and I mean this in terms of the manipulation factor. The actors are not looking to showcase effects. The American actor is, and at present this showcasing quality has reached a level painful to watch.

“In my opinion what grips us so powerfully can only be the artist’s intention in so far as he succeeds in expressing it in his work and in getting us to understand it. I realize that this cannot be merely a matter of intellectual comprehension; what he aims at is to awaken in us the same emotional attitude, the same mental constellation which produces in him the impetus to create.”
Freud, 1914

James Ensor

The encounter with the digital age, though, is one that is mediating any discussion of emotional attitude. And also, to question more than is meant by infantilization. And finally, to wonder a bit more about the loss of taste. The mechanisms that manipulate in any artistic production are not uniform or monolithic. The tension of Moses’ hands is, today, a tension of anxiety. Now, I appreciate that such observations about the relative merits of TV shows from the U.K. or the U.S. may seem unimportant, or even neurotic somehow. And both may be true. But, I also know that to watch a Stephen Dillane in The Tunnel, as a nearly random example, is to see something very distinct from any American actor today. And Dillane appears rather regularly, I believe, in U.S. television. But the point here is that the crudeness of American storytelling is now evident across mediums. And criticism long ago stopped even being written, really. And the viewer in the passing carriage is now the viewer of the screen, a position that inculcates a hierarchical perspective, a kind of surveyor of the implied inferior world around him. The estate owner touring his grounds. The gaze toward the screen suggests something similar. But there is something else that distinguishes most UK TV from U.S. TV; and that is that in British shows one is watching people think. Characters think. The camera stays on them. I remember teaching in film school a very useful exercise was to shoot someone coming to a decision. But this is more, in a sense. For in American shows nobody is seen thinking. At most they are seen having a cartoon Satori. Oh, the husband did it !! But they do not think that through. They do not *arrive* at that revelation. They simply have it, and usually they do not even have it. They have nothing. The pace of reflection is different. Dillane, since I am using him, is a very patient actor. His naturalism is very unnatural, in the best sense. One happily watches his eyes for as long as it takes those eyes to turn back out onto the world. Compare that to Ben Afleck in…well….anything. They Live By Night, in which he gives among the worst performances in U.S. film history. But his eyes are dead. You want the camera to leave them. Please. For his eyes are always cast out on his personal future (I imagine). On something, but not on contemplation of anything.

Marc Yankus, photography (Holland Tunnel).

“In the first year of life, before the human being is able to reflect and to distinguish himself properly from his surroundings, he is already in good measure being determined by society, right down to those aspects of his being which will develop only much later. For, among the capabilities which every man possesses as a biological being is the ability to assimilate and imitate. His behavior and gestures, his tone of voice, his very walk are all an echo in the child of the ways of some loved and admired adult. Psychic reactions are acquired, in the form if not their content; moreover, if a rigid separation of form and content leads to error in the analysis of a work of art, how much more in the interpretation of human feelings!”
Max Horkheimer. Critique of Instrumental Reason.

This idea of thinking, the thinking of a character, can be extended a bit (if we are speaking of cinema here) into that sense of ‘the present’ of which Serge Daney speaks. He could still speak of cinema as an art form, something one rarely encounters today.When Daney writes…“In other words, since filmmakers hadn’t filmed the policies of the Vichy government, their duty fifty years later wasn’t to imaginarily redeem themselves with movies like Au revoir les enfants but to draw the contemporary portrait of the good people of France who, from 1940 to 1942 (and that includes Vel’a’ Hiv raid), didn’t budge. Cinema being the art of the present, their remorse is of no interest”. Daney adds how revulsed he is by after the fact aestheticization of fascism, of the pornography of stuff like The Night Porter. The erasing of inner life, of thought, in film and TV today is a part (only a part) of this false remorse, and its alibi is adorned with an over aestheticization in presentation — except that this is an aesthetics of digital amnesia, of manipulated poses. There is no tension in the hands. Someone asked me my favourite living actor. Its an impossible parlour game, but I thought about it and said Rory Kinnear. But I could have said Aiden Gillen, or probably a half dozen others. But what I find so compelling in Kinnear is that his artifice is about removal. Dany quotes Lacan’s saying about “that which is missing from its place”. When I say ‘removal’ I mean it is a kind of performance I associate, I guess, with theatre. With both the memory of rehearsal, of memorized lines, the residue of that repetition, and yet is somehow naked. Naked in the sense Artaud spoke about. The performance in which all is forgotten except the learned lines. What one sees in the increasingly obvious fascism of American film and TV are performances predicated on people who exist only in the electronic imagination. There is a very distinct speech pattern one finds in U.S. cop shows. The authority figure, usually the policeman or policewoman, will answer too quickly, without any thought. It is aggressive, over confident. It is meant to indicate power. Listen to Marina Abramovic speak and you will hear the identical same thing.

Brenda Goodman

These film performances from actors like Affleck, or countless others, is additionally a kind of practice for their peerage. It is training an audience to identify with their new lords and masters. The new patrician is assembled from borrowed parts based on images of both the bourgeoisie and the working class. But as if borrowed from vintage images, historical photographs, and repurposed as something new, and something beyond reach. The entire history of the *star*, of film celebrity, was manufactured, to be sure, but it contained the enchantment of beauty, handsomeness, charisma. Today it is based on something else, undefined and sinister, really. For it is not living. It is a memory of an image. And not even that. And partly this is linked to what Lynn Spigal calls “televisionland”.

“The supposedly deterritorialized geography of our postmodern era is, I want to suggest, much more legible if one reads it as a set of secondary (or shadow) geographies created through the history of Imperialism.”
David Morley

David Orr, photography .

This quality of unreality is now actually cited by critics (admittedly in the worst mass media outlets) with terms like ‘our aspirational homes’. The focus on real estate in American TV is pronounced, and this is another comparison for British or Australian TV, or even French. For in the shows from England or France there is a kind of nostalgia at work, to be sure, regarding the landscape, but there is also a certain reality. This reminds one of Winnitcott’s notion of the ‘false self’. Or, imaginary compensation. Without going into any detail about this, the relevant aspect is that he “false-Self” provides the dimension of the subject where an imaginary identification compensates for the barren deadness of imitative relationships, which however help establish a continuity of being. And this is what living in *televsionland* is like.

Serge Daney

Now the loss of taste is not unrelated here, for the tendencies wrought by motives of profit, and not just profit but maximum profit, will always work as a regression. And they will sell what is exactly opposite to the truth. In fact there is a distinct marketing branch, incidental almost, that is always deriding the very idea of truth.

The particular form of contemporary over-aestheticization, if one wants to use that term, is one that sells itself almost as its opposite. And it takes cover beneath these manufactured mechanisms, stuff like ‘suspense’ — all alongside a constant stream of *innovation*. It is an over-aestheticization that panders to and reinforces all the various populist tropes of entertainment. For entertainment is a large umbrella that encloses everything it chooses to enclose. Shakespeare becomes entertainment. Sophocles, Dante, Beowulf, and Cervantes. Let alone the useful novels of 19th century England in particular. The Bronte sisters, and Dickens, and Jane Austin. The atmosphere of aristocratic landscapes, estates and servants. The aristocratic landscape of earlier heroic epics, and even early Gothic romance and horror, was diluted in a sense to become a milder and more ‘friendly’ form of Empire. Not that those themes and stories are not used, but they are used as fantasy and horror. They are cartoons. Under this ran dissident currents of course, Dickens being one example in fact. But the same uses are harder to achieve with Dostoyevksy or Tolstoy, Lermontov or even Flaubert (though Dumas and Hugo certainly have been well mined). German literature seems, perhaps, to have peaked a century earlier, but the point is that the more colonial cultures (and England in particular) seem the most appealing for contemporary uses. For uses that translate into foundation stones for this digital land of make believe future and make believe past.

Serban Savu

The smart phone deserves a side bar mention here. Morely quotes John Tomlinson on the discourse of texting and mobile conversation. It is a discourse marked primarily by a maintenance of interpersonal contact — as opposed to meaningful dialogue. What Tomlinson calls *phatic*, or gestural. I might question that because I think it is actually rather anti gestural, or it is the gestures of the false selves. The smart phone is a kind of home, but one with subtle qualities of domination — or maybe a kind of sado-masochism. The fact that, as Tomlinson notes, we are all audiences to each other might be contested. For I don’t think that is the subject position of the smart phone user. The maintenance of connection fits well with Winnicott’s ideas about the continuity of being. I think it is hard to argue that there is a profound emotional disconnection in all this. And that this disconnection is the currency, in a sense, of Hollywood narratives. For the alibi, or false remorse, of this new fascistic and authoritarian culture industry is really about normalizing the hierarchies of Capitalism. It does so by creating the appeal of being you, yourself, a fascist oppressor. No surprise to see young Mussolini portrayed as a sexy protagonist, masculine and virile. Dissent is always portrayed as anemic and/or insane. As feminine, often. I’ve written before about the countless signifiers for masculinity — coffee black (if you can find me a single action hero who takes his coffee with milk and sugar you get a gold star), whiskey straight, admiration of expensive automobiles, and on and on. But this is the obvious stuff. The more pernicious is what is missing. The thing not in its place.

Rory Kinnear (Southcliffe, 2013, Channel 4, U.K. Sean Durkin, dr.)

There is another aspect to Hollywood product, today. And this returns the discussion to gesture. The pathologized gesture is everywhere in American film and TV. It is dislocated from voice, and speech.

“In the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to re- appropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss.”
Giorgio Agamben

Except its not trying to re-appropriate what it has lost, but rather to deny anything IS lost. The society of false selves, and one that is not just creating shadow geographies, but shadow geographies of the mind, is never admitting it needs to find what has been lost. In fact the very idea of lostness is itself lost today.

Jens Fange

“When humankind is deprived of effective experience and becomes subjected to the imposition of a form of experience as controlled and manipulated as a laboratory maze for rats- in other words, when the only possible experience is horror or lies – then the rejection of experience can provisionally embody a legitimate defence.”
Georgio Agamben

Again, even if now a cliche, the sight of tourists snapping selfies in front of la Sagrada Família speaks to not just a loss of experience, but more to the deep entrenchment of obedience in Western society. Smart phones record, and then, usually, fail to save. Everyone knows these are not permanent images of anything. But they are registering a personal geographic identity — however fleeting. But the default setting for contemporary life is obedience. One is not allowed to *experience* la Sagrada Familia. You cant just pitch a tent and stay there. Like all officially ‘important’ sites of pilgrimage, it is heavily policed. If humans exist in two hundred years (a big IF) I suspect the 21 century, and at least half of the 20th century, will be viewed through the lens of policing and control. And here I might return, if only briefly, to Freud and Lacan. For as Agamben notes, imagination has always been tied into desire. Hence the psychoanalytical project has always been about an already deteriorating ego.

Sam Laughland, photography.

The cultic devotion to science today is no longer rational and barely even connected to science per se. Benjamin Y. Fong, (quoting Marcuse at the end) writes…“What is truly horrifying about technological rationality, how- ever, is its erosion of the promise ofliberal modernity: namely, authentic, creative individuality. In a social situation that demands that its subjects become efficient users of a rationality detached from human needs, “it is no longer possible for something like an individual psyche with its own demands and decisions to develop.” One cannot know what one wants when there is a near total policing of experience. Daily life feels so draining precisely because of this, the masked or veiled threat of punishment. Or at least shaming or stigmatizing. And the current Russia phobic narrative of the state, in the U.S., shows that even the most irrational project of accusation is met with agreement. It is impossible to calculate the depth of these threats as they weigh one’s imagination. And desire, the emotional sense of lust or any carnal feeling is haunted by doubt, by anxiety. Accusation is now embedded in daily life to an unprecedented degree. The constant litany of ridicule directed at the former Soviet Union and East Germany feels very much like projection, except that everything is simultaneously mediated by screens and the digital make believe world.

“The average man hardly cares for any living being with the intensity and persistence he shows for his automobile. The machine that is adored is no longer dead matter but becomes something like a human being.”
Herbert Marcuse

Mimi Cherono Ngok, photography.

Still, the artwork looms in some sense as a means to discover at the least that we obey as a reflex. And this is why taste is not something arbitrary or trivial. The new fascism is one that is being presented in television friendly narratives; it is altogether friendly, in fact. The friendly fascist, often decorated with the cosmetic attire and trinkets of dissent. For it is not just the jingoism of American TV and film, it is the sense of lost gesture, of lost voice, and of denial — a denial that anything is lost. The therapeutic culture reiterates again and again that one CAN improve one’s life. And yet the usage of anti depressants continues to grow. Learning to read the gestures of the already dead (and perhaps there is no more perfect example than Samantha Power, if we are thinking of public figures) is linked to this idea of taste. The new fascism then, is following the strategy of mass marketing, of a cost cutting that erodes quality. And its style imprint is that of cheapness, of a kind of bargain basement knock off, and it makes clear to deride anything like craftsmanship. Brand long ago eclipsed use value. If it is expensive then it must be good. In fact, the more badly made it is, the more desirable. And this sense of consumer self delusion carries over into personal relationships.

It is the fascism of planned obsolescence. Trump’s appeal to liberals (which they deny) and to the ruling class (who also deny this) is that his vulgarity and crudeness makes their own cheapness and pettiness seem quite the opposite. He is the stalking horse for political and social nihilism. He is also the icon for false remorse, for a kind of operational bad faith. Actionable bad faith to put it in popular military/police terms. His bad taste is the approved cartoon bad taste that serves to mystify the implications of the far more pernicious bad taste of the society as a whole.


  1. This was a good read – thank you

  2. Rolef Ohlroggen says:

    Thanks. Great read

  3. A wonderful piece John. My wife and I haven’t watched an American television show in many years (for many of the reasons you discuss), yet we somehow stumbled across the French police drama “Engrenages” (“Spiral” – in it’s English sub-titled version) and we were fascinated by it. I suppose it is very much like American cop shows in that the typical underlying plot consists of the discovery of a mangled corpse followed by 11 episodes of “who” and “why?” Yet there is something so “foreign” in the character development and acting that we were motivated to watch all five seasons over several months time.

    I’m not familiar with the British TV shows you referenced, but I suspect there may be some similarities in the nature of the acting and character development that parallels what I am drawn to in Engrenages. For example in Engrenages there is simply no black and white rendition of heroes, villains or ethics in general. Unethical behavior is found routinely in the behavior of the criminals, the police, the judges and on up the political hierarchy.

    What makes the police the more sympathetic characters typically, is that their unethical behavior is usually, but not always, in service to solving the case. Whereas as one rises higher in authority up the chain of command and into the political realm, the unethical behavior is more and more about self-promotion and personal greed and aspiration. Rather than use the American TV device of relegating institutional corruption to – “a few bad apples” – in Engrenages it is implied that the higher one rises politically, the more likely one is to become corrupted by the power one possesses. Obviously this is an unsuitable message for American audiences.

    This creates a world I simply can’t imagine being depicted in American television (though since I don’t watch it I could be very wrong about this). The starting point is the acknowledgement of the ethical corruption of the entire society from top to bottom. The main characters of police, judge, attorneys are never “heroic” in some black & white – all or nothing – way, but rather are all deeply flawed and therefore both believable & sympathetic in ways I’ve never found similarly placed American TV characters to be believable or “real.”

    The acting is superb, nuanced, and character development ongoing and unexpected. Technology as “crime solver” or savior is never a plot device. It is alway ever shifting relationships and often flawed decisions and behavior that ground the narrative and keep it rooted in human beings rather than the CSI kind of techno nonsense.

    The gist of this is that while I don’t know that I could force myself to sit through one season of an American cop show, I found Engrenages strangely captivating. Perhaps because it felt like I was following and observing actual fallible limited imperfect “human beings” – on a television show no less.

    When I’ve tried to watch a single episode of cop shows like this on American television the acting is so stilted and predicable and “un-real” that I feel like I’m being slowly suffocated minute by minute. I find I am not in the presence of actual humans, but rather surrounded by bizarre mythic caricatures all acting in service to the “technology will save us from ourselves” narrative, while constantly projecting “evil” onto some “other.”

    “But there is something else that distinguishes most UK TV from U.S. TV; and that is that in British shows one is watching people think. Characters think. The camera stays on them.” – yes – in Engrenages also. It is a striking difference from American television.

    I suppose it is possible that now stuck in the U.S. for the foreseeable future I’m just nostalgic for France, but I think there is more to it. I find there is something at a human psychic level that is qualitatively clearly very different about Engrenages when compared to television shows of similar genre in the U.S. Maybe that “qualitative difference” is exactly why I miss France to begin with. The mind numbing homogenization of the society there seems to me not yet quite as total, not as complete, not as stifling as here in the U.S.

  4. John Steppling says:

    yes Engrenages was quite good. It somehow never felt as, probably, reactionary as it was. In any event, agree, the acting, the sense of just storytelling, was far above anything you can find in the US.

  5. I quite agree regarding your observation that “it somehow never felt as reactionary, probably, as it was.” I sometimes cringed at the all too common nature of the plot lines in which immigrants, the poor and people of color tended to be quite over represented as those committing violent crimes.

  6. David Comdico says:

    Brilliant, as usual. The aggressive over-confidence in American culture, from Abramovic to Trump, is surely the defining characteristic of the current period. It is easy to define this as, say, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and in doing so feel inoculated to it. But it’s more insidious than that.

  7. John Steppling says:

    thanks. And yes, it is more insidious and more disturbing .. perhaps because its so hard to really grasp the core of it.

  8. Thanks for this.

    Re: cameras that don’t show faces, and faces that don’t show thought:

    The most pernicious of bad American actors are the TV “News” crews. Imagine being a viewer who absorbs that stuff for hours every day. How could anyone bear such evident fakeness without sustaining serious damage to all their faculties? It’s a learning experience. The fakeness is in the voices, the faces, the bodies,, even the hair and the clothes. The Concerned face, the Sympathising face, the Smiling-Through-Tears face, the Authoritative face, the This-Is Very-Serious face, the Hey-We-Like-a-Laugh-Too face. They put them on and take them off.

    The voices operate analogously, and always at that bullying volume and speed.

    It’s worst of all in the less blatantly-clownish “serious” hacks like Amanpour and Anderson Cooper. How can anyone take anything they say seriously? Why are they not laughed off the screen? And yet millions of people do take them seriously, as real guides to the real world. Or maybe they know it’s fake and have learned to cling to the fakeness, like Harry Harlow’s baby monkeys to their wire mothers.

    To end on a less pessimistic note: Have you heard S-Town? Now those voices were *alive*.

  9. John Steppling says:

    absolutely true.

  10. Fred Dewey says:

    fantastic pieces, and synthesis, the effort involved in doing this work. to start with courbet, the standard subject for a left analysis, so important, and then the way you slowly build to an analysis of trump – superb. but what is still not clear is how the vritue signalling environment here, the scary hysteria, the terror that seems to be growing beneath the surface in fear of what you beautifully identify as anticipating punishment – how this relates to trump. liberals feel so disgustingly superior. but people are also scared. i mean politics does matter. it was a sick election. the system is breaking down. we have a raving lunatic steering the ship, who was shunted in who knows how, and the alternative was even scarier to the majority. who does this serve? is it to get people to numb out? to get the people to go away? we are complicit. we need to look at ourselves. but it is not just about culture. it is about power!

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