The Immunity Bath

John Hoyland

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.”
Charles Bukowski (Post Office)

“Life and death. Already no physiology is thought scientific if it does not consider death as an essential element of life, life’s negation as being essentially contained in life itself, so that life is always thought of in relation to its necessary result, death, which is always contained in it in germ. The dialectical conception of life is nothing more than this…Living means dying.”
Freidrich Engels (Dialectic of Nature)

“Fear of crime does not correlate with actual crime…”
Anna Minton and Jody Aked (Prevention Working Paper‘Fortress Britain’: high security, insecurity and the challenge of preventing harm.)

Ferenc Pinter

I am noticing a strange inability, in mainstream media and in the arts, at least institutional arts, to construct a meaningful narrative about the Covid pandemic. Now, partly this is because all the state propaganda gets in the way. But that aside, there is a failure to find an approach to mortality. One sort of watches Hollywood film and TV and realizes how much of it is, at least partly, tethered to a denial of death. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron during the Black Plague, the Black Death, that killed probably in excess of 50 million people, and likely closer to 100 million. The Decameron might well be a follow up to Homer and The Odyssey in the sense Horkheimer and Adorno saw Odysseus, as an ur-merchant/bourgeois individual. Giuseppe Petronio noted that Boccaccio wrote of a rising merchant class, and one that (per Petronio, and per Rachel Rikel) had left behind the feudal values of virtue, generosity, valor and excellence.

“According to Petronio, Boccaccio writes of a rising social strata and “brings about a change in the philosophy of life,” putting such values, such as practicality and economic savvy, at the forefront of his art, giving the mercantile concept of what should be the socially accepted norms in a new world. “
Rachel Rikel (The Black Death and The Decameron)

Bubonic Plague had an 80% mortality rate. Actually there were 3 plagues associated with the Black Death. The septecemic version had a mortality around 95%. I only note this, briefly here, because Bocaccio’s tone, despite the humour and ribald tales, was somber. He saw the erosion of an old way of life, and he maintained a constant critical perspective on the ruling class and Church, and the cowardice of the rich and the clergy. There came a double edged shift in values, with increases in ideas of practicality, pragmatism, and realism. And the weakening of the hierarchies of social importance and birth.

Olga Chernysheva

But also a loss of the chivalric codes of honour and courage, loyalty and excellence. This is much the theme of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lake. Those who know me or have read me for a while know how much I love that film. And it may be, that if I were to put together a film series for the Pandemic period today, that would be the starting film.

What I am curious about is why there has emerged no coherent narrative of resistance to the current lockdowns (and masking and distancing etc). And one problem seems to be the relationship the public has to science, but also the conditions of anxiety that preceded the Pandemic. Things like the Great Reset, and the general fear mongering about climate (while at least partly legitimate, certainly in terms of pollution and oceanic destruction) which had taken the baton from Islamic terrorism. Cutting across all of this is the endless toxicity of racism and bigotry. And the growing inequality. But the racism was and is an especially anti-black racism (and, really, anti-semitic).

But the new phobias of ‘the other’ are tied into both climate and viruses. And there has emerged a renewed scramble for Africa and an accompanying denigration of the poor. And here there is a need to at least mention the role of religion.

Alex Nelson, photography.

“Religion is a field that brings together three keystones of psychoanalysis; anthropology, history and the philosophy of enlightenment. But the point is that, as Alfred North Whitehead has shown, religion as a compound phenomenon embraces at least four elements: 1) feeling and experience, the existential side, 2) rite, the aspect of performance, 3) myth, the narrative complex, and 4) dogma, the explicit discourse. I would add; 5) institution and power.”
Wolfgang Müller-Funk (Moses’ Heritage. Psychoanalysis between Anthropology, History and Enlightenment)

And there is the question of cultural atrophy. The loss of artistic interest and importance. The loss of an educated audience for art, and the question of a populace that no longer sees anything meaningful in culture per se.

The 21st century bourgeoisie has yet to be graphed either psychologically, or culturally. And its possible that part of the reason is what I just listed above; the near complete erosion of active cultural practice. In its place is an ersatz marketed version, and even very talented and smart people I know seem to have lost the thread, so to speak. I feel, often, I have lost the thread.

The so called golden age of western literature was brought forth out of a shift of focus in narratives. Classical maturity was replaced by youth (this is Franco Moretti’s insight) as it first appeared in Goethe at the very end of the 1700s.

Angela Dufresne

“Youth, or rather the European novel’s numerous versions of youth, becomes for our modern culture the age which holds the ‘meaning of life’: it is the first gift Mephisto offers Faust.”
Franco Moretti (The Way of the World)

The old ways of rural Europe were dying out already, and the young migrated to the cities. The backdrop was social instability. Today, in the heavily marketed youth culture of commodity capitalism (well, we are at the end of that epoch, but more on that later) the interiority created by Goethe, and Stendhal, and Balzac, Dickens and Eliot and Pushkin has all but entirely faded.

“Already in Meister’s case, ‘apprenticeship’ is no longer the slow and predictable progress towards one’s father’s work, but rather an uncertain exploration of social space, which the nineteenth century – through travel and adventure, wandering and getting 1ost, ‘Bohême’ and ‘parvenir’ – will underline countless times. It is a necessary exploration: in dismantling the continuity between generations, as is weIl known, the new and destabilizing forces of capitalism impose a hitherto unknown mobility. But it is also a yearned for exploration, since the selfsame process gives rise to unexpected hopes, thereby generating an interiority not only fuller than before, but also – as clearly saw, even though he deplored it – perennially dissatisfied and restless. “
Franco Moretti (Ibid)

Oli Kellet, photography.

Moretti notes this new ‘youth’ is more symbolic than real. It is spiritualized and most importantly, it is the new voice of deep interiority. Today we have the voice of no interiority, but of manufactured and shopped exterority, of voyeuristic and exhibitionistic narcissism. This 18th century *youth* was, again per Moretti, Europe’s need to find an expression for modernity, a too sudden eruption of the modern. To give meaning to modernity. The title best describing the first half of the 18th century would be Great Expectations.

Moretti then says something very important. The instability and dynamism of youth, both must be, to some extent, curbed. But this is the paradox, in a sense. This eventually finds expression in Freud and Ferenczi and later The Frankfurt thinkers.

“Only thus, we may add, can it be ‘made human’; can it become an integral part of our emotional and intellectual system, instead of the hostile force bombarding it from without with that ‘excess of stimuli’ which – from Simmel to Freud to Benjamin – has al ways been seen as modernity’s most typical threat. “
Franco Moretti (Ibid)

The birth of the novel coincided with a latent desire for thinking about ourselves as part of a continuum. This was partly the influence of Christianity, but if so it was the desire to escape from certain beliefs couched as dogma.

Rudolf Polanszky

“Focillon’s treatment of the year 1000 reflects his interest in the way not only the millennium but the century and other fundamentally arbitrary chronological divisions—we might simply call them saecula—are made to bear the weight of our anxieties and hopes; they are, as he remarks, “intemporal/ but we project them onto history, making it ‘a perpetual calendar of human anxiety.'”
Frank Kermode (Sense of an Ending)

The symbolic youth of the Bildungsroman, from Goethe onward to the start of the 20th century, when another sort of shift occurred, is the voice, or the subjectivity of capitalism. It does, in fact, harken back to Bocaccio, and emergence of the mercantile voice; the voice that was escaping the strictures of ecclesiastical law, just as that voice was escaping the Black Death. The narrative frame for Bocaccio is the plague. The small group of friends who gather in the hills of Tuscany, away from the virulent stench of death in the city, amuse each other with stories. But beneath Bocaccio’s belief in romantic love is a deeper rejection of hierarchy and Church law. Bocaccio though, was the early extension of Odysseus, the bourgeois man reflecting upon himself in the world, and in some kind of *time* — some form of beginning and end.

There have been several articles in mainstream magazines asking ‘where is our Bocaccio’? The idea being to compare bubonic plague with the Corona virus. Such is the power of propaganda. It also suggests a disturbing quality of resignation in the populace today, a somewhat forlorn (but still optimistic) acceptance of this new turn in authoritarian governance.

“At the heart of Jacobean tragedy we find a consciousness devoid of autonomy, an agency devoid of freedom. It is not surprising that these figures impersonate the essence of melancholy: ‘I have lived Riotously ill, like some that live in court, And sometimes when my face was full of smiles, Have felt the maze of conscience in my breast. Oft gay and honoured robes these tortures try: We think caged birds sing when indeed they cry’ (White Devil, V, iv, 118-23). This is the lament of inauthentic existence that, as Hegel was right to say, finds its most nearly complete objectification in the servant.”
Franco Moretti (Signs Taken for Wonders)

Van Hanos

The contemporary bourgeois consciousness is that which most closely resembles the servant. It may be Downton Abbey will be looked back upon as the purest expression of western bad faith in the early part of this century, and as the purest expression of this unsettling dialectic of subservience and superiority. One could look at Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan (first names will do) as another example of kitsch suffering and the residue of Kingly worship and the ventriloquism of the aristocracy.

“Before the End there is a period which does not properly belong either to the End or to the saeculum preceding it. It has its own characteris- tics. This period of Transition seems not to have been de- fined until the end of the twelfth century; but the definition then arrived at—by Joachim of Flora—has proved to be remarkably enduring.{ } The death of Frederick ten years early, in 1250, could not halt Joachite speculation. It was condemned in 1260, and subsequently thrived best in unorthodox contexts. Its evangelium aeternum was transmitted by the Brethren of the Free Spirit, by the Anabaptists and by Boehme, by the Family of Love and the Ranters. The Jesus of Blake’s Everlasting Gospel is the Christ of Joachim’s third phase. Some aspects of this brand of apocalypse survive in D. H. Lawrence. More dangerously, the ideology of National Socialism incorporated Joachite elements; “the Third Reich” is itself a Joachite expression.”
Frank Kermode (Ibid)

Kermode notes a comment of Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein to the effect that the Joachite triad allows people to feel they are living at a turning point in time. The death rattle of the royal houses of Europe does not, or has not, prevented this sclerotic and decrepit class of parasites from launching a variety of schemes to eliminate unwanted peoples (in mostly the global south) and for them to buy up most anything left to buy (see link above on the hegemonic control of African food). They partner with the new high net worth class like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zukerberg. And the essential marketing theme is criticism (conspiracy theory) is a dangerous activity, and that all dissent is akin to illness. And dissent is hence dangerous. And irresponsible. How much of the new propaganda surrounding Covid and the Great Reset has lingering Joachite structural elements is unclear, but I think there are Christian eschatological qualities in it all. It is ‘end times’ and ‘rebirth’, build back better, for the disciples. I think the whole eugenics subtext fits rather nicely with this. There is a sense of cleansing to the Covid narrative. Its a quasi religious narrative, actually. And the vaccine is treated as baptism, which I have noted before also (actually Phil Greaves was the first who made that connection) but its highly unreflective. The quasi religious without an interior.

Emilio Scanavino

Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the new courts of Empire, and the narrative expression for this new decade is one of exclusion from the interior. The subjective is a personal gated community to which one has lost the key (or cell phone code). The eugenics of spokespeople like David Attenborough and Baroness Jane van Lawick-Goodall, are manufacturing a revanchist colonial map, but of the mind. Well, it’s both literal and allegorical.

“And here, Vermeer’s break with so-called genre painting is crucial: one looks at his scenes and realizes that no one is laughing anymore; at most a smile, but seldom, because usually his figures have the intent, composed face of the woman in blue: serious. Serious, as in the magic formula that defines realism in Mimesis (and already for the Goncourts, in the preface to Germinie Lacerteux, the novel was la grande forme sérieuse).”
Franco Moretti (The Novel, vol.1)

The above quote is connected to Moretti’s discussion of classical Dutch painting, and in particular Vermeer. And he talks of ‘seriousness’, which in this context means more somber and sober. It was the style of the new bourgeoisie, one that distanced themselves from the vulgarity of the working classes. And this seriousness was to infuse the novel throughout the coming hundred years. And it was modernism, in one sense, that disrupted this style. It never disappeared, however. But this is a very large discussion, the history of the novel, and to stay on the topics at hand, the point is that the mid 20th century saw, in fiction, the appearance of another form of seriousness. The crime novel, by then well established, was already pushing definitions of what ‘genre’ meant in art. Hammet, for example, was very serious. He was funny, too, but he was serious. You could take certain branches of popular music (doo-wop for example) where the artists took that form very seriously, something Madison avenue later had a hard time understanding. And in the fiction of Bernhard, Walser, Handke, or even Beckett, there emerged a kind of meta-serious quality. Serious but not sober. But by the 80s, the establishment had circled the wagons. The sixties had been neutralized, and the U.S. State Department and CIA began an intense effort to control news and information. By the birth of the internet this control effort went into overdrive. And one sees today both its successes and failures. Both are entwined with the erosion of culture overall. With the loss of literacy. And the loss of the interiority of the late 18th century. In this context its interesting to consider the Adorno and Horkheimer critique of the Enlightenment.

Guido Guido, photography.

“The Joachite ‘transition’ is the historical ancestor of modern crisis; in so far as we claim to live now in a period of perpetual transition we have merely elevated the interstitial period into an ‘age’ or saeculum in its own right, and the age of perpetual transition in technological and artistic matters is understandably an age of perpetual crisis in morals and politics. And so, changed by our special pressures, subdued by ourscepticism, the
paradigms of apocalypse continue to lie under our ways of making sense of the world. “

Frank Kermode (Ibid)

If the friends in the hills of Tuscany were distracting themselves from the plague, the dutiful citizens of the West today have had a distraction machine already prepared for them. They are closer to the colonists on Mars in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, as they eat the state provided drug that allows them to really be INSIDE the Barbie doll playhouse they each have.

Jacques Ellul wrote a book in 1980 called The Technological System. What is interesting is that as perceptive as it is, this is a bygone era now. And yet, while much has profoundly changed, the changes still bear the traces of earlier forms of technology.

“Administration becomes bureaucracy in the positive sense of the term when: the best possible people are hired; the social integration is complete; and the operation is active and efficient. Bureaucracy employs more and more complex machines and must itself function like a machine. The ideal administration is one that runs and works like an engine, with each office as a component and each individual as a part. The functioning has to be regular and continuous, beyond any opinions or influences.”

Pieter Lastman (Jonah and the Whale, 1621)

Aspects of 20th century bureaucracy can still be seen in all digital cyber institutions. The changes did not start from zero. They changed from an earlier blueprint and part of the fantasy of AI, for example, is to believe this world they imagine has, in essence, dropped from the sky. Henri Levebvre termed the new bureaucracy ‘planned consumption’. But this was even before 1980. The consumer society was circa 1960. Today, though, the society of services is still a valid point. The key element here is marketing. The technologies of marketing. Mass production, and marketing. But this era is at an end. Capital is no longer, and can no longer expand. Hence Klaus Schwab and his Great Reset.

Propaganda addresses people, individuals, as part of a group with shared interests. That is the key element for effective propaganda. The selling of the Covid lockdown policy, which has gone on for well over a year, has been hugely successful.

“Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins. And that is why, in particular, experiments undertaken in the United States to gauge the effectiveness of certain propaganda methods or arguments on isolated individuals are not
conclusive: they do not reproduce the real propaganda situation. Conversely, propaganda does not aim simply at the mass, the Crowd.{ }… the individual never is considered an Individual but always in terms of what be has in common with others such as his motivation, his feelings, or his myths. He is reduced to an average and except for a small percentage, action based on averages will be effectual. Moreover the individual is considered part of the mass and included in it (and so far as possible systematically integrated into it)because in that way his psychic defenses are weakened,his reactions are easier to provoke, and the propagandist profits from the process of diffusion of emotions through the ma*sh and, at the same time, from the pressures felt by an individual when in a group.Emotionalism, impulsiveness, excess, etc—all these characteristics of the individual caught up in a mass are well known and very helpful to propaganda Therefore, the individual must never be considered as being alone; the listener to a radio broadcast, though actually alone, is nevertheless part of a large group, and he is aware of it.”

Jacques Ellul (Propaganda)

This was written in 1973. But I suspect this remains basically true. If one takes Covid, those who are lining up for the vaccination are acutely aware of others doing the same thing. If they had no idea if anyone else at all were being vaccinated, I suspect they would be more hesitant even if they had bought the idea of the pandemic. It’s a kind of peer pressure, really. But it goes beyond that.

The Passion of Joan of Arc,, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1922.

“…the spectacle’s domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation molded to its laws.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)

Debord was writing his ‘comments’ twenty some years after writing Society of the Spectacle. And reading it serves as a very useful guide to the new techno billionaire class that is driving contemporary marketing and propaganda.

“The spectacle has spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality. It was easy to predict in theory what has been quickly and universally demonstrated by practical experience of economic reason’s relentless accomplishments: that the globalisation of the false was also the falsification of the globe. Beyond a legacy of old books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly highlighted and classified to suit the spectacle’s requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

The legacy of old books and old buildings — destined to continual reduction. That is the cancel culture, essentially. If they cannot yet be destroyed, they can at least be painted with a revisionist history and re-contextualized and made part of some new marketing campaign. Everything is marketed. The idea of marketing itself is marketed.

Pieter Pietersz. Dutch. 1570.

The loss of literacy is also a kind of re-education. The education of and by the Spectacle. Education as propaganda. Or, propaganda as education. It is also not just loss of literacy, but the re-shaping of memory. And everything is, increasingly, interchangeable in one’s media presence. Or those anointed as ‘influencers’. All things labeled virtuous are malleable; hence the growing tendency for governments to restrict rights under cover of health, or climate, or morality. There is a manufactured consensus, usually fabricated, to justify these restrictions. One sees this dramatically with the lockdowns. Restaurants are closed while government officials dine together unmasked, seated closely together, without anyone uttering a complaint. The closing of the restaurants for YOU, are because of concern for YOUR health. Having friends over for dinner is now a violation of the new emergency measures put in place for YOUR health.

“Technological innovation has a long history, and is an essential component of capitalist society, sometimes described as industrial or post-industrial. But since its most recent acceleration (in the aftermath of the Second World War) it has greatly reinforced spectacular authority, by surrendering everybody to the mercy of specialists, to their calculations and to the judgments which “always depend on them.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

Erwin Wurm

Specialists, or experts. One sees this, too, with Covid. Only, the governments of the world get to choose ‘which’ experts are worth hearing. Those not worth hearing, those with dissenting opinions, are silenced. They are made into dangerous and amoral conspiracy theorists. Here the Christian ethos emerges again. The conspiracy theorist is the new witch or heretic. The second film for my Pandemic film festival is The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

“For the great bourgeois culture of the beginning of the century, the destruction of the world is a corollary and consequence of the destruction of the world of culture – since only culture can posit itself as system, hierarchy, and order. “
Franco Moretti (Signs Taken as Wonders)

This quote of Moretti is from an essay on Joyce. Stream of consciousness as part of this autopsy of the petit bourgeoisie.

“Stream of consciousness and crisis of the ideology of the free individual meet under the ensign of advertising.”
Franco Moretti (Ibid)

Allow me a lengthier quote from Debord. This is a stunningly prescient two paragraphs.

“The simple fact of being unanswerable has given what is false an entirely new quality.At a stroke it is truth which has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to the status of pure hypothesis. Unanswerable lies have succeeded in eliminating public opinion, which first lost the ability to make itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether. This evidently has significant consequences for politics, the applied sciences, the legal system and the arts. The manufacture of a present where fashion itself, from clothes to music, has come to a halt, which wants to forget the past and no longer seems to believe in a future, is achieved by the ceaseless circularity of information, always returning to the same short list of trivialities, passionately proclaimed as major discoveries. Meanwhile news of what is genuinely important, of what is actually changing, comes rarely, and then in fits and starts. It always concerns this world’s apparent condemnation of its own existence, the stages in its programmed self-destruction.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

Covid is the bus and truck version of the apocalypse, but one not really believed on that level by anyone. But enough is believed and certainly the rituals and ceremonies of this global affliction are worth any small doubt that is able to pass the secured gates of consciousness. I know people who only half heartedly believe this virus is serious and yet will bemoan those who irresponsibly refuse to wear masks. Who bemoan the fact so many of the advisories are ignored (in the U.S. the Trump affect is part of this). Rituals cannot find traction without unanimous agreement. And this, in itself, is something of a paradox. As effective as the Spectacle is, as refined as the propaganda has become, a effective as social media is in intensifying negativity and resentment, the globe is only half convinced. Sporting events with empty seats but piped in crowd noise, or theatre performances being video taped with paper cut out people in the seats, these diluted pseudo events are becoming anti allegories of this dialectic of disenchantment. But this particular manufactured emergency has, then, served to solidify and intensify class hierarchies. The educated white bourgeoisie has embraced the ritual, the rebirth, the dream to be themselves built back better. And they disproportionately resent those who don’t. And they take solace in looking down on them, stigmatizing them, and ridiculing them.

Kambui Olujimi

It is worth remembering, however, that modernity also re-enchants. This is the role of art, and of culture in a broader sense. The struggle today is to navigate the constant reiteration or reinscription of this process of disenchantment, of enclosure and domination — the now almost rote obsessive repetitions of meaningless activity. And in the pandemic these activities become condensed, concentrated, and accelerated. Disenchantment, as Horkheimer and Adorno saw it (especially the latter) was interconnected with domination. Today, there is a sort of anticipatory kitsch version of re-enchantment that, I think, takes two forms. The first is pseudo naturalists who speak of ‘gaia’ and work within the environmental movement. And the second is the true conspiracy theorist (moonlanding hoax, flat earthers, Area 51, et al). The seemingly deep need exhibited by smart people to cling to these ideas is both an attempt to demystify Nature (in the process, or as the outcome, to re-enchant on a superficial level, and hence is, I think, ambivalent) and to elevate their own cynical conformism to a status of authenticity somehow. In the same way that Adorno and Horkheimer say ‘myth already is enlightenment’, today the digital control of everything, the absolute monopolization of markets (making them essentially non markets…which begs further discussion at some point) already is myth.

Allison Stone in a monograph on disenchantment (Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature) mentions an idea of Bruno Latour’s;

“For example, Latour argues that the scientific attempt to understand and explain nature results in the production of experimental phenomena which have intrinsic meaning in the form of their testimony for or against whatever hypotheses are being tested.According to Latour, if we think that modernity simply disenchants nature, then we exaggerate its difference from pre-modern ways of life.”

The science of quantum physics for example is no longer connected to the conventional notion of the scientific method. Stuff like string theory, which cannot be proved or disproved, is perilously close to what Adorno would describe as a false reconciliation.

Laurie Simmons

Molded by the Spectacle, much of the underlying tension that seems to be surfacing is connected do perceptions of death. For the actual death part of this narrative is oddly missing. There are various videos of nurses and health care workers dancing. There are few if any of dead people. Nearly none of the afflicted suffering. And death is mostly represented as a statistic.

“…the problem of heroics is the central one of human life, that it goes deeper into human nature than anything else because it is based on organismic narcissism and on the child’s need for self esteem as the condition for his life. Society itself is a codified hero | system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”
Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death)

Becker notes that we admire most the courage to face death. And I might argue that today the post Spectacle society is one that most obscures and deflects thinking about death. Now, most advertisers know that death is a key feature of marketing. Death and sex. Look at airline ads (well , back a year or ago when we had airlines)and you see mostly reassurances against dying. The third feature of marketing is power, or authority. The lockdowns are part of a great collective ritual of healing.

“The great triumph of Easter is the joyful shout “Christ has risen!”, an echo of the same joy that the devotees of the mystery cults enacted at their ceremonies of the victory over death. These cults, as G. Stanley Hall so aptly put it, were an attempt to attain “an immunity bath” from the greatest evil: death and the dread of it.”
Ernest Becker (Ibid)

The vaccine program is an immunity bath. But I think what has been lost, or nearly so, in the preceding thirty years is the interiority, the self reflection, that allows for dread.

“…the final terror of self-consciousness is the knowledge of one’s own death, which is the peculiar sentence on man alone in the animal kingdom. “
Ernst Becker (Ibid)

Ekrem Yalçindağ

Becker spends an entire chapter on Kierkegaard. And it has always seemed interesting to me that Adorno did his doctoral thesis on Kierkegaard (for Paul Ricoeur). The screen damaged society that has reached peak irrationality is the society that lacks any existential awareness. I remember reading one of the climate ‘experts’ who said it was inevitable that the life on earth would end in twenty years. This was a decade back now. And I thought but where is the terror? In him or his readers. The truth is nobody believed that. Not really. If they did they would not go about their daily lives, put away money in their 401k, and save for their children’s college education. But partly this speaks to what passes for belief in this society. Perhaps it is more accurate to say they ‘did’ believe that prediction, but belief itself has so atrophied and withered that it only operates on this shiny narcissistic surface personality. All belief today is disposable.

It is curious, though, that again I see people posting in Instagram and facebook about taking their vaccination shots. Proudly. Peak virtue signalling. But it really an announcement that they are now part of the chosen flock, the disciples of progress, and the responsible adults in a world too full of unbelievers.

One can track this increasing superficiality through the choices of enemies, on a collective or state level. From communists way back to the 1950s, Soviets, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Cubans. And later Yugoslavians and Nicaraguans. Then Muslims. These figures still remain, but in modified form. The Muslim was portrayed as base and cave dwelling, rustic and primitive, but magically also could be masterminds of evil. There were countless books about Islam, from Samuel Huntington to Bernard Lewis. One of Lewis’ book titles was “What Went Wrong” (with Islam). Moving on from Islam (though Muslims are still viewed with suspicion) the *othering* function became more abstract. And turned inward (societally speaking). Climate deniers, anti vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and black box anarchists. Running alongside this, always, was a stealth (active but rarely spoken aloud) distrust and misgiving about Africans. This of course meant black Americans, too. I mean it may have been codified but ‘super predator’ meant black teenager. The anti communist hysteria was about grand social experiments, revolutions, and history. Fear of anti vaxxers is about catching a virus, and making an enemy of a climate denier is comparatively personal, even if, in theory, this is about saving the planet. And saving the planet is itself vague enough to almost be meaningless. But it is more individualized, more about oneself, really. There is no patriotic sacrifice needed to hold these positions. These indignations have always felt a bit like bad faith to me. But probably it varies from person to person.

Gavin Hipkins, photography.

“With consummate skill the spectacle organizes ignorance of what is about to happen and, immediately afterwards, the forgetting of whatever has nonetheless been understood. The more important something is, the more it is hidden.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

The third film in my Pandemic film festival is The Conformist, directed Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970.

This feels like only a beginning of this discussion. I leave off with two quotes.

“But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the Others.” By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of wordly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself…does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”
Soren Kierkegaard (Sickness Unto Death)

“The self-transcendence of life, which reveals itself to man as the greatness of life, leads under the conditions of existence to the tragic character of life, to the ambiguity of the great and the tragic. Only the great is able to have tragedy. In Greece the heroes, the bearers of highest value and power, and the great families are the subjects of tragedy in myths as well as in plays. The small ones, or those who are ugly or evil, are below the level at which tragedy starts. But there is a limit to this aristocratic feeling: every Athenian citizen was asked by the government to participate in the performance of the tragedies, thus implying that no human being is without some greatness, that is, the greatness of being of divine nature. The performance of the tragedy, appealing to every citizen, is an act of democratic valuation of man as man, as a potential subject of tragedy, and therefore as a bearer of greatness”
Paul Tillich (Systematic Theology, Volume 3)

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  1. Zach Fresa says:

    worthwhile reading as always. I imagine the possibility that your articles might possibly break through and be heard by at least a few of those plugged into the NYT. Which, I think is important. Although I think the possibility is lessened every day.

    A triviality:

    You grouped “moonlanding hoax, flat earthers, Area 51, et al”. I shift one of those out of that box. Rather, just remove the word hoax: “moonlanding, flat earthers, Area 51, et al”. These fit together well. They’re a set having in common that they all are transparently incredible, and people have, yes, a need to believe them.


    “Suppression of innate immunity, especially in the younger age groups, can, therefore, become very problematic. There can be no doubt that lack of exposure due to stringent containment measures implemented as of the beginning of the pandemic has not been beneficial to keeping people’s innate immune system well trained.

    As if this was not already heavily compromising innate immune defense in this population segment, there comes yet another force into play that will dramatically enhance morbidity and mortality rates in the younger age groups: MASS VACCINATION of the ELDERLY.

    The more extensively the later age group will be vaccinated and hence, protected, the more the virus is forced to continue causing disease in younger age groups.”

  3. The idea of “bad faith” is one I keep coming back to, and how it relates to religion, and how often the people in religions, or cults, who believe the dogma the least are the most rabid about professing their faith and silencing dissent. I grew up in a sort of cult so I saw a lot of this. (I also had a thought after your last post about the King James Bible, and all the later bible versions that attempted to make the language more “accessible,” but which ended up almost making the bible useless as a religious text—i really haven’t thought that out so won’t say any more)
    The problem with this kind of bad faith is that it’s hard to confront, let alone create a coherent narrative in contra. And for endemic, systematic bad faith, it’s harder.
    To relate to your post again, there is no interiority in bad faith, and interiority, at least the way I understand it, and this is very simplistic, is the only thing that allows for a sort of coherency of analysis, either way. Bad faith breeds nothing but more bad faith. And of course the lack of interiority is long term, but I’d say worsened in my lifetime, especially by screen culture. You’ve talked about that a lot.
    It’s also interesting that in the US, those who either believe or act as if they believe the covid narrative are overwhelmingly people who profess to NOT be religious, as in Christian, and who, long before covid, had convinced themselves they were much better than those deplorable Christians. The ones who “believe” (their choice of words) in “the science” (ditto).
    That said, I’m still completely mystified at the left/right divide in the covid narrative, and how the only people acting against the lockdowns are on the right. Again, Trump hatred played a part in that, too.
    But bad faith has brought a sort of cyclical and repetitive quality to any possible dialog, an over focus on numbers, etc., that misses the historical and political aspect of this. Like how the various “hysterias” of the past have changed and become more and more personal and vague—from communisim to Islam to climate change and now a virus, which isn’t really one virus, but endlessly mutable so as to fit any occasion. And wearing a mask and distancing is being sold as “patriotic sacrifice” but nobody really believes that.
    But there is a longing for something in all this compliance that I can’t put my finger on, because quite simply, I don’t feel it. It seems that among my fellow artists it’s worse, which has been an enormous, I don’t know what. Source of depression, desperation. Yes, a year of this has made me feel I’ve lost the thread. Making art right now is difficult, almost impossible, at least a certain kind of art. One can make something and zoom it and boom, everyone rallies around and tells you how wonderful it is that you are “adapting”. I hear that over and over from my fellow (performing) artists—how well everyone is “adapting,” how “spoiled” we were thinking we had the right to perform for real audiences, and how we promise never to be so spoiled again, and how we are so grateful for the great god Zoom.
    (which also relates to your statement about AI, this idea that zoom just happened to drop from the sky just in time for the “pandemic”, to save us all from oblivion.)
    This idea that we’re too small, too stupid, so maybe the only thing we can to do is mask up and stay at home.
    Your last quote relates to that—in bastardized form—in covid case it’s like we can all be great by being compliant—but of course there’s no tragedy in it, because tragedy is almost obscene to most people. And because most of the compliant people have never faced it. Or failure, or anything that throws them onto themselves.

  4. Lorie – interesting insight about the lack of a coherent interiority in cultish faiths. I also grew up in this type of religious environment and I have been grappling a lot with how to articulate the parallels.

    John, as always I so very much appreciate your writing and insights and your very original style. I’m down for the film festival. 🙂

  5. Lorie,
    I think you’re very wrong in adopting the left/right captured narrative in discussing who is against the lockdowns. There are, for instance, many (alternative) health practitioners who would vigorously dispute this false dichotomy. And read anything from if you want a real analysis of how this scenario is going to unspool (researched and composed by a trained art historian). True, there are still those individuals who are thinking in outmoded terms like “communist,” blaming the Chinese, and labeling their resistance “patriotism.” Troubling, definitely, but not divergent from “the script.”

    On a different note, I am so glad I found this site! I have been yearning for a way to yoke this current historical phenomena to ways of understanding I practiced for many years. It has been profoundly satisfying. My cats are seriously irritated that I’ve been caught up in reading this and not attending to their demands.

    I would say, finally, that one commonality I am perceiving with my own thinking on the entire covid drama surrounds the profundity of death, a discussion of which has been lacking in all the MSM hoo-hah. It sounds as if you’re a visual artist. I made a comment regarding this on another site evoking John Berger’s essay on the dead in Hold Everything Dear. This is where the cynicism stops (or could stop), in my estimation. I do not read the Tillich quotation you offer at the end ironically. We are flashes in the geologic pan, but we have our quantity of heroism available if we remember what it means to be human — something involving no masks, if I’m not mistaken.

  6. John Steppling says:

    no, indeed, tillich was not meant ironically

  7. Tamara I wouldn’t say I “adopted” any particular narrative myself, just calling what I see among my own community. And yes, I do want to be wrong on this.

  8. Nameless says:

    The term Artificial Intelligence refers to mere Artificial Thought.
    It’s pure propaganda.
    Intelligence is not some thing manu factured…

  9. Too many thoughts on this translates to zero things to say. So all I will say is I’m grateful to have found this site. Oh, and that Pinter artwork, is there a copyright on that one? I’d like to use it in the future

  10. Lolipop says:

    John have a look at this:

    “Why are vaccines so profitable in comparison to the erstwhile 14% which pharma companies make on their other products?8 Because vaccines are quasi-mandatory, are skyrocketing in price (not cost),9 enjoy luxurious economies of scale, they require no marketing and very lean/leveraged/subsidized logistics, place little demand upon corporate sales general administrative and overhead, and further do not have to pass the same rigor/delay in 3-phase clinical trials which other drugs must suffer.10 Most lot monitoring and factory inspection/certification is borne by the FDA itself.11 Expenses to influence legislation and pay off representatives, squelch countering voices through fake skeptics, media and universities, pay rebates and chargebacks to pharmacy benefit managers etc. do not count as ‘Sales and Marketing’ expenses inside GAAP accounting ethics (as these are simply distributions of profits – and not qualified expenses). Counting this as OSG&A allows vaccine companies to lower their effective tax on earnings to around 10% by ‘expensing’ what otherwise would ethically be considered earnings.12 13 Finally, vaccines do not bear the 4% litigation exposure allocation which do most other drugs (hidden inside the figures used on the left of this chart), and what penalties are paid out in legal compensation, are borne directly by a surcharge on those being injured in the first place.14

    What a deal! I would love to operate a business enjoying all the above competitive advantages. Were I a fake human, I would live like a rock star – having millions in my personal accounts. I would be a fake skeptic to the nth degree, in order to protect such a gravy train. But most of all – I would hide this cash cow at all costs. I would enlist unpaid apparatchiks to help me obfuscate the issue socially. I would enlist the aid of the media and ensure that any government administration of my domain, represented me and not the people who they are there to serve and protect.”

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