Notes on Turning Seventy

Barthel Gilles, 1930

“As long as the truth of art remains a mystery to us, the untruth of kitsch will continue filling us with unrest.”
Ludwig Giesz (Phänomenologie des Kitsches)

”…activity is not to be regarded as an appendix,as merely what comes after thought, but enters into theory at every point and is inseparable from it.”
Max Horkheimer (On the Problem of Truth, 1935)

“It must not be forgotten that every media professional is bound by wages and other rewards and recompenses to a master, and sometimes to several; and that every one of them knows he is dispensable.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)

“Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.”
Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War)

I turn seventy this month. Its one of those markers that makes one sit back and ponder how one got to where they are.

I will spare the reader my thoughts on that and rather look at what I think of art and culture today. But from some personal perspectives. This blog began as a way to write about art, meaning mostly theatre. But it soon became about a lot more because you cannot isolate art or theatre from the world in which it is created. Now, there is a nice short essay this month at Hyperallergic (a rather good online art site) titled Why do AI Generated Portraits fail at Realism. And while its not meant as an exhaustive interrogation of this question, itself a rather superficially framed question, it does serve as an interesting starting place for to discuss what I see as a crisis in western culture.

“We are curious about how we would have looked like in a 19th-century portrait forgetting that only very few had the economic means and political power needed to be immortalized in a painting. Most of the bourgeois portraits made at the time show a very selected group of sitters and weren’t meant to be on display in public galleries and museums. It’s our contemporary sensibility and approach to the art of the past — made so widely available thanks the internet — that lets us look at the portraits of that societal group as just another visual style that doesn’t carry any political value. We miss so much when we think of this imagery as just one filter among many others to choose from when we upload our picture into an AI app.”
Filippo Lorenzin (Hyperallergic, June 2021)

Roni Horn

What is interesting about the AI portrait ‘ap’, if anything about is interesting, is that the results are so stupefyingly bad. Of course on one level this is just click bait, profit driven idiocy. On another level, though, it does manage to activate a certain public discourse around questions of realism and taste.

“Kitsch could not, in fact, either emerge or prosper without the existence of kitsch-man, the
lover of kitsch; as a producer of art he produces kitsch and as a consumer of art is prepared to acquire it and pay quite handsomely for it. In a broad sense art always reflects the image of contemporary man, and if kitsch represents falsehood (it is often so defined, and rightly so), this falsehood falls back on the person in need of it, on the person who uses this highly considerate mirror so as to be able to recognize himself in the counterfeit image it throws back of him and to confess his own lies (with a delight which is to a certain extent sincere).”

Hermann Broch (Notes on the Problem of Kitsch)

It is interesting that Broch immediately turns to architecture in his essay. And he makes a perceptive point about the lack of an architectural signature for Romanticism. The great buildings of antiquity, in each period, however one demarcated these periods and eras, evoked something transcendent, something enduring. And that question of endurance, as it were, is something to which I will return. But for the moment, the great buildings of antiquity expressed a truth, and however mediated, that truth would outlast its own period. Now Broch suggests that each epoch is defined by its greatest artists. But that the substance of the period comes from the lesser figures, who, though not profound, still create valuable and estimable work. With the advent of Romanticism, there developed a chasm, a gulf between the works of genius (sic) and simply bad self parody, or kitsch. There are no good minor Romantic artists. This is an interesting idea, which I mostly agree with, though one could, if one wanted, punch holes in it. Still, the minor work of the Gothic and Renaissance are very fine, indeed. Not so Romanticism. And not so today. But today there has been a complete evisceration of taste altogether, so such historical perspectives are largely (and wrongly) rejected. In fact I would argue that history has never been more necessary.

Piero della Francesca (Madonna del Parto, detail. 1459)

Now first digression. Though its not really a digression, but still. I deactivated my Facebook account a few days ago. There were several reasons. First, the censorship, which was increasing. Second, it had served a certain purpose for me, for meeting a lot of people, and getting visibility for this blog and the Aesthetic Resistance podcasts.And third, there were the insufferable comments. Now, its probable that a good many were trolls, paid or otherwise. How many is hard to say. But many were people I could verify as real, some I knew offline, most I did not. And what became intolerable was what I am calling (per Debord) this generalized autism. People cannot read tone, and in fact, it seems, can barely read. And, I began to feel I was engaging with very damaged individuals. With people who were traumatized and who were increasingly invested in this own opinions. And social media, as I’ve noted before, is driven by negative emotion (see the first podcast, and the next one with just me and Guy Zimmerman at Aesthetic Resistance) and so people tend toward hostility and defensiveness. And perhaps most disturbing was this assumption that everyone had a right to their beliefs, no matter how insane they were. The fringe thinking about Moon Landing hoaxes and the like were taking on greater and greater prominence. And as a side bar note: the term conspiracy theorist is greatly feared (as I and others have said before) and it was, it seems, a CIA invention. But this does not mean there are not crazy conspiracy theories out there. And the first sign of the latter is that one’s interlocutor will have all the answers. He or she will have an answer for everything. There is nothing uncertain, nothing they have doubts about, and nothing they file under ‘unknown’. No, the conspiracy theorist, in the true sense, has an answer for every question.

Now, again, I am called a conspiracy theorist often. Its just the price of dissenting opinion. But the loss of a desire to learn has resulted in a resistance to assuming the intellectual posture of a student. It is as if, the role of the teacher is fading from western culture entirely. Ok, end of digression.

Roberto Cuoghi

For Broch, industrial capitalism coincided and caused the ‘flowering’ of kitsch. For Broch the 19th century was the century of kitsch. The bourgeoisie and capitalism, joined at their origin-hip, so to speak, ushered in the very idea of kitsch.

“…if we anticipate the outcome of this study, we can say that however deep the mark left by kitsch on the nineteenth century, it in fact derives predominantly from the spiritual attitude we define as Romanticism.”
Hermann Broch (Ibid)

The bourgeoisie driven by a desire for power, assimilated, as Broch put it, ‘the traditional patrimony of the courtly-feudal class’. This courtly tradition was primarily an aesthetic one. As Broch notes, the bourgeoisie embellished their lives with ‘exuberant decorative splendor’. It was certainly the age of excess decoration. This was the legacy of the Baroque. The counter trend was the merchant mentality that aligned itself with both Protestant and Catholic moral validation.

“…as they then found themselves in the midst of the Enlightenment, and, as we know, the Enlightenment did not favour the ascetic spirit (it is not mere chance that it produced libertinage). On the other hand the spirit of enlightenment was not to be quenched in the age of industrialization, nor was it possible to restore the old faith which had provided the incentive for asceticism. To preserve this ascetic spirit, despite this, but without abandoning the rationalism of libertinage was, therefore, the insoluble question that the bourgeoisie had to solve.”
Hermann Broch (Ibid)

Que Viva Mexico (dr. Serge Eisenstein, 1930)

I want to stay with Broch here a bit longer because I think his analysis is so germane to an evaluation of today’s cultural malaise. So, enter the Reformation. Man became concerned with (actually he was never not concerned with) the infinite and with God. With the absolute. With revelation. This spirit of reform then, was the driving force that shaped the emergence of Romanticism. But there is a dialectic buried in this, beyond Adorno and Horkheimer, or rather, there are several dialectical oppositions. Allow me a longer quote here from Broch:

“This is the origin of Romanticism; here is the origin of, on the one hand, the exaltation of the man who is full of spiritual (and artistic) energy and who tries to elevate the wretched daily round of life on earth to an absolute or pseudo-absolute sphere, and, on the other, the terror of the man who senses the risk involved. That uncertainty which is peculiar to the Romantic mind and which is timorous and hesitant, longing to turn back and hide in the bosom of the Church, to take refuge once again in its absolute certainty, derives in fact from this mixture of exaltation and terror. To forestall this relapse, the Calvinist-Puritan movement pointed out the exclusive guarantee of the Holy Scriptures and forced men to accept that cold asceticism, totally foreign to any form of effusion, which was destined to become the middle-class way of life. But when asceticism began to lose its strict dominance, the bourgeois felt that the veto on exaltation had also been swept away, so he exalted,of paradoxically, to save the ascetic tradition. Any asceticism, any repression of pleasure has its sexual centre of gravity. Puritanism certainly did not impose a monastic type of chastity, but strict monogamy. It was precisely this monogamy that was to be reaffirmed and reinforced; all the more so because in this way it could strike at the heart of libertinage.”
Hermann Broch (Ibid)

The kitsch artist is also an imitator. The kitsch artist seeks to work beautifully. To create beautiful works. The serious artist seeks to work well. One can hear echoes of Adorno (the wrong life cannot be led rightly). Genuine artwork seeks the ethical, too.

Willy de Sauter

“In accordance with the exclusively aesthetic character of the convention which he follows, the libertine will make his life a sybaritic work of art, while the monk, who lives according to an ethical convention, will allow himself to be conceived as a transcendental work of art. Both are unequivocal, and conform to reality, the sybarite’s life being suited to worldly reality; the monk’s to celestial reality.”
Hermann Broch (Ibid)

As Broch notes, its hardly an accident that Hitler was a big fan of the worst sort of kitsch (think George Bush and his white fluffy puppies). But then think of those awful portraits of the Obamas. Think of Reagan and his love of ‘western’ kitsch (little wolf cubs as bronze sculpture).

Broch wrote this essay in 1950.

“And if you ask yourselves to what extent you are affected by this avalanche of kitsch, you will find -at least I find it as far as I personally am concerned – that a liking for kitsch is not all that rare. The conclusion that we are heading towards an ever-increasing universal neurosis does not seem to be unfounded; it is not in the least absurd to think that the world is tending towards a schizoid rift, even if this has not yet become schizophrenic, which embraces all of us, and behind which we can still see the theological antimony of the early Reformation.”


Agnes Martin

In another essay on art, Broch wrote “The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil.”
Hermann Broch (Geist and Zeitgeist)

Now Adorno wrote that kitsch simulated non existing emotions. And, most importantly, kitsch does not want to be taken seriously. The loss of seriousness cannot be stressed enough. I saw this in theatre critics during the 80s and 90s in LA and NY. They would instinctively praise work that was not seeking perfection or purity. That was not seeking transcendence. They also would tend toward derision of work that was too rigorous. That rigor suggested too much seriousness. Seriousness was experienced as accusation. The distrust of the ‘too serious’ is the vestigial inner sermon of the Puritan. For seriousness of a sort that encloses an ethical command is actually stepping outside the circle of approved community. Its the Mama Bear thing…not too serious, not seriousness enough, just exactly the right serious.

The rise of the ironic over the last fifty or sixty years coincides with consumerism and the ubiquitous commodity form. I’ve touched on aspects of this for the entirety of this blog’s existence. So rather than repeat those arguments, I want to look more at the way mass culture itself has suffered degrading qualities. The degrading of the already degraded.

I think if one watches any vintage news film from the 50s or 60s, especially of urban life in the U.S. or Europe, one cannot fail but to be struck by something that has gone missing. It is ineffable and difficult to articulate, but I suspect any reasonably sensitive viewer over the age of, say, forty five or fifty, will recognize what I am trying to describe. Film shots of busy streets and urban life feel energetic in comparison with today. There was a spirit in the crowd. That is often missing today, or almost always missing. The current Covid lockdown then, feels like a coda or almost caricature of what was already energetically dead. It happened gradually, and was nearly imperceptible — (see boiling frog syndrome).

Ida Applebroog

“Is not art then a tool we employ to peel the kitsch off life? Layer by layer art strips life bare. The more abstract it gets, the more transparent the air is. Can it be that the farther it is removed from life, the clearer art becomes? What a backwards contention it is to claim that life is more important than art! Life is good as long as it holds up to art: That in life which cannot be employed for art’s sake is kitsch!”
Robert Musil (Black Magic: Posthumous Papers of a Living Author)

Advanced capitalism accelerated to manufacture a kitsch version of existence, one that was reinforced as normal by mass culture, and especially by Hollywood film and TV.

I remember when I read Musil’s Man Without Qualities, in New York, and I was about 27 or 28. It is one of those books everyone should read, of course. I was impressed but not affected to the degree I had anticipated. I read Broch’s Death of Virgil about twenty years later. And it was a revelation. I mention this because I feel affinity with Broch’s militancy, and a certain distance from Musil’s rationality. But I digress. Musil’s notes on kitsch are excellent. And one point is very prescient and timely. He wrote that with kitsch there is an automatism of emotions. He also said kitsch turns emotion (which is always valued very highly by kitsch-makers) into concepts. These two comments are worth pondering. The automatism especially, for this echoes aspects of Von Kleist’s famous essay on the marionette theatre (which is online, and if you haven’t read it, you should I think). But it also feels relevant to this current schizoid and autistic qualities so present in contemporary society.

This is what one feels on social media. The platform itself encourages this, as it was shaped by men and women who themselves are profoundly damaged. It is a machine for alienation. The restrictions are also metaphors for contemporary restrictions. Twitters 280 characters are a kind of communicative lockdown. Social media is, then, a training ground for the sinisterly named ‘new normal’. But back to kitsch for a moment. Musil felt kitsch turned emotion into concept. But then, in a secondary stage, it reified those concepts. As Musil wrote, it reifies by “depriving them of the imprint of lived experience, by erasing the singularity and ambiguity of emotional life.” This feels like Broch, in a sense. It is a process of creating that lacks the ethical.

Robert Musil

The emotions of elicited by kitsch artworks are unreflective. Something Matei Calinescu noted when he included under the rubric of kitsch “a real Rembrandt hung in a millionaire’s home elevator.” (Five Phases of Modernity). On some level, then, intention matters. Broch also notes (in another echo of Adorno) that kitsch ‘anesthetizes’ pain. Kitsch reflects back to the viewer of a false sense of not just reality and world, but of himself. And as Adorno noted about Kafka, it is the very strangeness of his work that creates that uncanny familiarity. For that strangeness (among other things) creates anxiety and frustration, conditions which most who live in the contemporary western world will be acquainted.

The new(ish) identity based artwork is really just a means to sanction conformity. The acceptable novel or play today is petit bourgeois complaint, the author (if one reads the dust jacket) is always *exploring* gender, or race, or body, or some other identity marker. And into that exploration is, de-facto, a degree of narcissism.

“The much decried notion of universality is simply a way of acknowledging the incontrovertible fact that literary works can resonate with readers from many different backgrounds. Antigone has intrigued straight men and lesbians, Norwegians and South Africans; you do not need to be an Irishman to admire James Joyce. Such an experience of extending the self, these critics conclude, trumps a sectarian aesthetics which decrees that women see themselves only in works by and about women, which would restrict gay men to a diet of Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, and Edmund White.”
Rita Felski (The Uses of Literature)

Donatello (St John the Evangelist, 1415).

The slow but inexorable erosion of public education is very clear. But, this was a system that was never really about education anyway. It was about creating compliant workers amenable to corporate domination.

There was and is an inevitability to the current autistic/schizophrenic mind set of the contemporary Western populace. There is a feeling today of strangulation on the streets of America. Never mind the presence nearly everywhere of homeless encampments or the tents that fill nearly every empty lot in every American city. For those are the outward expressions of inner crisis. In the most simple terms, the age of Capitalism (and one could discuss at great length the origins and early forces of capital) with its clear class hierarchies, and exploitive nature, was destined to eventually become impossible to uphold. The suffering of those at the bottom was more acute, and itself a kind of commentary on the ruling 1% (which itself has contracted from something more like the ruling ten percent). But the reason the Broch notes on kitsch feel so relevant is because they afford a way to look at cultural production. Remember that institutions are themselves expressions of pathology. There are no ‘good’ institutions. There are necessary ones, perhaps, but not good ones. And it has always interested me how one can identify works of importance, of endurance, from minor work. Thomas Bernhard keeps coming to mind. Melville. Kafka, too, and Pinter. Broch himself, and *maybe* Musil, and Walser. This sense of being outside the bourgeois norm is itself an impossible idea.

Hermann Broch

I watched Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew the other day. I’d not seen it in a few years, start to finish. The first time I saw it was forty some years ago. I saw it again when I taught at the Polish Film School in Lodz. And twice more since then. Each time I can feel its importance growing. Now as I approach seventy I find it almost unbearably beautiful. Unbearable because something quintessential in its vision touches exactly on what is lost of the human. One cannot *analyze* such things. This is the language problem, or one aspect of it. To successfully and philosophically engage with, in this case, an artwork, one has to interrogate the parameters of analysis, at the same time, and to subvert one’s own intention. Art is impossible, and critique is impossible. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, because I believe it should. I once wrote, decades ago, in some interview, to ’embrace failure’. It was of course misunderstood entirely. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Correction is another work of art that is barely tolerable. It is so profound in its self examination (in a way totally other to Pasolini) that it is all but impossible to write about. Broch’s Death of Virgil is another such masterpiece. Melville and Moby Dick . Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is another, a short opera unbearable to take in its entirety. The sculptures of Donatello. Eisenstein’s abandoned, unfinished and fragmented film Que Viva Mexico is another work that demands something from the viewer that the viewer simply doesn’t possess. Its sublimity is unbearable.

“Understanding that the prevalent circumstances are conditioned and transitory is not immediately equated with transcending them and cancelling them out. (…) Materialism (…) insists that objective reality is not identical with man’s thought and can never be merged into it. As much as thought in its own element seeks to copy the life of the object and adapt itself to it, the thought is nevertheless never simultaneously the object thought about, unless in self-observation and reflection – and not even there.”
Max Horkheimer (On the Problem of Truth)

The above quote was in a nice piece by Mattias Martinson; The Early Frankfurt School. The recognition, certainly in Adorno, about the ‘impossible’ in Frankfurt School writing looms as very important. Now, it is no surprise (see Robert Hullot-Kentor’s introduction to his book on Adorno, Things Beyond Resemblance) that there is currently such a huge backlash against the Frankfurt writers. Much as there is against Freud. The tendency toward orthodoxy has increased over the last few years, and in all fields. There are always surprising moments, such as Handke winning the Nobel Prize. I’d never have expected that. It means there are still people out there, out of sight largely, who remember and are cognizant of the crisis of the human. I sense more and more people unconsciously mirroring the authoritarian governance — a reflexive policing attitude. This intersects with social media, too. There is a enormous lack of tolerance for opposing views, from all sides. And creeping into the social media discourse one finds the structural elements of antisemitism, again. And it is often left or liberal antisemitism, though those terms mean ever less, I think.

Joakim Eneroth, photography.

“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 signficant consequences for politics, the applied sciences, the legal system and the arts.”
Guy Debord (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle)

And a paragraph later..Debord adds:

“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.”

and then…a paragraph further one…

“All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie.”

Debord notes that once there were experts for Etruscan art. Reliable well informed, but this was because Etruscan art was not for sale. It is remarkable how people seem to rarely notice that anyone preaching to save the planet, or fight US Imperialism, or to cure you of hidden cancers, should not be trusted if they demand money (for their book, their speeches, whatever). Now someone will at this point usually say, oh, but people have to make a living. Yes, they do. And they can clean public toilets, but if they say they care about you, that they can help you, then it must be given free or know they are lying. Art that panders always ends as kitsch. The rigour cannot be professional –there is no career rigour. An Agnes Martin painting achieves the ethical, it is unbearable. It is undeniable. Pollock, too, though it is perhaps harder to experience now since so much commercialism has been layered over his persona. Barnett Newman, Rothko, and Kline. These are outside the spectacle no matter the spectacle’s efforts to sell them.

Peyman Hooshmandezadeh, photography. (Iran)

Debord suggests that is it very rare indeed to have a notoriety outside the Spectacle. I have said something similar a few times, and touched on it above. Outside the spectacle, outside the bourgeois narrative, means you are the enemy of society. Dr. Fauci lies through his teeth every day. He is America’s medical expert. Joe Biden lies through his teeth every day, with almost every breath. He is the President. But certainly Presidents have always lied. World leaders have always lied. Or most of them. The media, and we can limit this specifically to the electronic media, the cyber news amalgam — this cluster of institutional profit driven information servers no longer report news with only a bias, or cherry pick. They do that, too. But they began to invent fictional stories and present them as fact. And now, they no longer know what is or is not fiction. This is part of that Schizoid shift in society. Western society is delusional. I wrote before the populace today, in the U.S. I think without question, suffers minor Dissociative disorder. Or to be clinically correct, Dissociative Identity Disorder.

The Covid narrative, now over a year and a half old, is the political expression of global ruling class anxiety — its tied to the World Economic Forum, Davos. and to the Green New Deal. Its the expression, too, of revanchist fascism. But it is also the manifestation, the externalizing of multiple delusional states in a heavily indoctrinated populace. I repeat myself, but it is a self created allegory. And it feels increasingly like the ultimate post modern fable. I saw an add for new gold jewelry, a necklace was featured, that was simply the world VACCINATED written in gold. The advert actually said, ‘to show you are not an A-hole’. That was the copy. In the fable, the princess must sit in her tower, with a solid gold choker that spells vaccinated. Proof of her virtue, but alas, she is alone in the tower. Etc etc.

I saw another news story that Arizona now wants to use Zyklon-B for its executions. Cost effective apparently.

Jean Baptiste Bernadet

The homeless encampments that run through all U.S. cities, some large, some not, and many that includes families, along with the small single occupant tents that can be seen, literally, on nearly every block — these spectral figures that the bourgeoisie work very hard to ‘not’ see — are becoming allegorical, too.

In a forward to Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka, Reda Bensmaia wrote…

“But what is still more striking, neither does Benjamin try-he doesn’t consider it useful or necessary—to relate Kafka’s work to a structure with preformed formal oppositions and a signifier of the kind in which “after all is said and done,x refers to y”! Not at all. The reading of Kafka both in Benjamin and in Deleuze and Guattari is determined by the prominence they give to a politics of Kafka; but, as Deleuze and Guattari go on to articulate, this politics is “neither imaginary nor symbolic.”…”
Reda Bensmaia (The Kafka Effect)

Harold Bloom (I know, I know) wrote a reasonably exhaustive compendium to Shakespeare. He titled it Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. A better title might have been Crystalization of the Human. But I get his point. Kafka is the most significant creator since Shakespeare. They almost bookend each other in a sense. Both found expression for the contours of subjectivity — for the formation of the human mind, for the scene of trauma. Adorno and Benjamin argued about this. About the space in Kafka. I think Benjamin was more right. Either way Kafka is the impossible prose writer. Kafka was re-creating the human space of the subject, but of that primal trauma that is separation.

Armando (Herman Dirk van Dodeweerd)

“Writing is not simply, for Kafka, an affaire d’esthétique, that is, it is not merely, as the production of literary works of merit, one more valuable activity, to be set alongside others. Blanchot, drawing on the suggestions strewn throughout Kafka’s diaries and letters of a certain illumination that happens in writing, and which is often linked to a sense of freedom in the dissolution of the empirical self, claims that in Kafka, the exigency of writing and the exigency which might bear the name of salvation (salut) have become one and the same.”
Roger Foster (Adorno on Kafka: Interpreting the Grimace on the Face of Truth)

Kafka said that writing was a release from experience, and held the potential to transform the privation of the empirical world. That this release was momentary but it allowed for ‘a’ true self to emerge. This is almost Artaud like. For Adorno, Kafka’s work was the rehearsal for man’s complicity in his own destruction. The destruction of the individual. Today, one might find this hard to argue with. No amount of revolutionary consciousness in the working class can nullify this trend. I suspect it can be overcome, but not stopped. The world will have to live with the ‘the collaboration of the bourgeois commodity culture in its own extinction under fascism’ (per Maurice Blanchot, critizing Adorno). For me, Kafka is the writer of traumatized subjectivity. Post industrial subjectivity. As Dante was the poet of the subjectivity of antiquity. And Shakespeare the writer of the transformation, in a sense. The prophet of an impending transformation. Both Shakespeare and Kafka were oracles.

Mohammad Reza Mirzaei, photography.

The most profound artworks demand something impossible from the viewer. Foster notes the dearth of critical reading of great works now. One problem is this idea that Kafka (but substitute any major novelist) is tracing out the shaping of the modern subject — through capitalism (or mastery over nature, etc) but then leaving capitalism as a universal. As if God created Capitalism on day 8. One cannot write criticism without being critical, of all things. Of oneself. If not, the class system is absolved, class struggle and political repression. They become a form of Nature.

“What I find to be missing in Corngold’s account, in short, is a critical interrogation of the origin of this opposition between the empirical self and the autonomous self. Consequently, the representation of aesthetic autonomy as a form of empirical self-destruction appears on Corngold’s reading as a timeless truth about the act of literary creation, rather than a consequence of the destruction of the empirical possibility of freedom in society.”
Roger Foster (Ibid)

I will note, if I haven’t before, that Foster is among the best readers of Adorno. The sense of our society today is one in which subjectivity has forgotten the sublime. The basic moment, an ur-moment, is one in which the individual — as part of this system of exploitation, turned away from Nature, stopped learning from nature (experience) and then began two centuries of forgetting. Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous quote that ‘all reification is a forgetting’.

Raimund Girke

Foster points out that what is a historical situation, is treated ahistorically –and aesthetics is then magically something autonomous, separate from social praxis.

In the same way that Blanchot treats The Castle as a novel about literary interpretation, so today people increasingly talk about the technology on which they are writing, or speaking, or tweeting or texting. Adorno noted that art is most acutely political when it insists that it is not political. Adorno lectured in the late 50s on aesthetics and he taught Plato, among other things. Adorno wrote at some length about ‘divine madness’, and linked it to aspect of aesthetic pleasure. Something lifted above and out of the ordinary and conditioned.

As Foster put regards to Adorno’s notes on Kafka…“for Adorno, what interpretation is able to wrest from this experience is not a theological insight; it is a truth about social experience.” The term Adorno used in those lectures was *Mitvollzug*, meaning ‘co-performance’. This is close to my ideas about re-narrating. That is the mimietic complex of experiences we find in cultural relations. And certainly in and by artworks.

But what is difficult today is that so much of day to day life, our experience of it, is pre-programmed. We anticipate it. And our time is more regulated than ever. And the new global agenda for, essentially, a passive and obedient sub-class is already underway. The ‘build back better’ mantra is the marketing slogan for this. It translates in real life to build a virtual system of enclosure, that is economic, psychological, and if necessary, physical. Build back feudalism. But worse.

“The sleeplessness research should be understood as one part of a quest for soldiers whose physical capabilities will more closely approximate the functionalities of non-human apparatuses and networks. There are massive ongoing efforts by the scientific-military complex to develop forms of “augmented cognition” that will enhance many kinds of human-machine interaction. Simultaneously, the military is also funding many other areas of brain research, including the development of an anti-fear drug.{  } As history has shown, war-related innovations are inevitably assimilated into a broader social sphere, and the sleepless soldier would be the forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer.Non-sleep products, when aggressively promoted by pharmaceutical companies, would become first a lifestyle option, and eventually, for many, a necessity.”
Jonathan Crary (24/7.Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep)

Raymond Depardon, photography.

Even where there is no work, the system enforces the disciplines of toil and servitude. Even the homeless are herded about, ticketed for temporary housing in lots that resemble outdoor Super Max prisons. If they could, the unemployed and homeless would be punching time clocks, in a virtual factory that produced nothing. The maladjusted billionaires whose images are on every news outlet in the world every single day are clinically mad. The arrested development of man/children like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, or the shriveled infecund affect of Bill Gates, who one suspects long ago lost touch with his natural carnal appetite, are actually listened to. Musk wants space ships to go to Mars because that’s what many 8 year olds want. Gates projects out onto the most vulnerable populations his own sense of failed potency, and sees mass sterility as a virtue. Today headlines and news stories resemble Kafka fables. The official political discourse of world leaders sounds very close to an Ionesco play.

Culture is an indicator for the mental and physical health of a society. The trend toward fascism is sickness. The fascist state is the apotheosis of sickness; physical and moral. The ruling class has no respect for the anyone outside their small circle.

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  1. “The puerile utopia of the school of art for art’s sake, by excluding morality and often passion itself, becomes necessarily sterile. . . The excessive appetite for form induces monstrous and unknown disorders. Absorbed by the ferocious obsession for the novel, the notion of the just and true disappear. The feverish delerium for spectacle is an ulcer that devours what remains; and, as the clear absence of the just and true in art amounts to the absence of art, the entire individual vanishes; excessive specialization of one faculty produces nothingness . . . To dismiss passion and reason is to kill art. This folly is equivalent to the abuse of the mind. These creations engender stupidity, hardness of heart and a enormous pride and self-centeredness. . . . We should not consider these things as childishness. What the mouth gets used to saying, the heart gets used to believing. . . The time is not distant when it will be understood that every art that refuses to walk hand in hand with knowledge and philosophy is a homicidal and suicidal one.” – Baudelaire

    Happy birthday John.

  2. Frieda Vizel says:

    John, I admire your ability to keep creating while engaging (somewhat) with the world. You once wrote that the writer/creator would probably need to retire to a reclusive life in order to create in this age, and sadly, I am afraid that for most it is true. Very hard to write in this climate, and the trolls are a real nuisance. I find the endless focus on conspiracizing to be its own tiresome obsession. It’s a conspiracy when it’s all about mystification, and that’s what many have been turning to or peddling. It’s quite something else to read that nothing is true, not the moon landing and not the wars and not even the nuclear bombs, because once you are engaging with this focus, there is no foundation on which to understand the world. Because after all, the world itself is a conspiracy. Quite absurd, all of it.
    Anyway, appreciate you much, so sending merry birthday wishes from New York.

  3. Regino Robainas says:

    Feliz Cumpleanos, Hermano John,

    Your essay prompted me to think of my
    own age, 73, and how I was before the
    Fall of of 2018, one year after Irma and going
    through some strange tunnels. A dreadful constant
    has been a QA-Non nephew, monstrous in character
    and excesses of theorizing about fake moon landings,
    flat earths, domes sorrounding us, and the perturbing
    saga of the all-controlling Jesuits and Zion Elders ruling a
    pornographic kingdom from which he is resentfully absent.

    I have failed in all attemots to exorcise that uncanny
    presence/bullfight, but cannot escape the arena.

    But, sincere congratulations on the wonderful life you
    have sculpted so far and to follow on your very fruitful


  4. John Steppling says:

    thanks. But you touch on something here…the fake moon landing story links directly to the protocols of the elders of zion stuff. The link is not obvious, but there are structural ties, psychological ones as well. And they follow a certain logic of the exterminationist mind.

  5. georg witzarbeit says:

    A profound and moving peace that does not flinch to approach the moral dimension. Happy Birthday John, and thanks for giving the reader this gift.

  6. Regino Robainas says:

    Reflecting on what you said in your
    Essay & your last remarks re this strange
    familia scene or situation, I’ve come to
    recognize the unstable, sometimes very frightening
    loud and deadly contours of the neofascist
    soul(s). That genocidal shrinkage of a
    view(!)point is like a circle of radius 0, the
    all repressed-of-educated desire that wants to
    “leap over the abyss in a simple leap (F.N. in Beyond
    Good & Evil), pure narrowest selfishness with no
    uncertainty whatsoever, Himler like devotion to skull
    and bones horrible applications of math into the darker
    corners of primal astrology. And what was Hitler’s
    anal-erotic with his niece that may have led to her
    suicide, his insufferable rage & jealousy when she
    preferred the younger chaffeur, which AH had then
    killed. The yearning for the welt transforming Valkyres…
    A point of radius 0, the fundamental premise of Descartes’
    Mathematics are visual ontologies & epistomologies
    that led to IBM punch cards to industrial Hell.

    What makes me feel like an alien in this landscape
    of Dread is the continious dialectics of simultaneous
    & alternate joyful and depressing unfoldings of daily

    But, hey, Amor Fati, in spite of recoverable discomforts
    from the flames below. The link you intimated among
    the various phenomena- fake moon landings Protocols of
    the Elders…, etc.- seems to me to be rooted in the
    Latin Luna and our Amerikan-Germanic adaptation into
    bullying lunatics, & “conquerors” which our historie illuminates.

  7. Happy birthday John! From the locked down US of A, where every day my mind gets another taser-like shock. (the latest is several local theaters requiring proof of injection to attend a show. My Jesus.)

  8. John Steppling says:

    its hard to imagine… what part of the country do you live? Im just curious. Meanwhile texas and florida party on.

  9. New Mexico, which went lockdown crazy early and hard, as if to spite Texas & Az. The theater & dance world here is very MFA-woke, so no complaints from any of them.
    But, my family’s in texas so there’s a way out…

  10. also I’m being reactive–it’s vax or mask basically.

  11. Regino Robainas says:

    Blood in the Water and in the Sands

    Here in Florida, where the streets are infected
    with Trump 2020 Ford trucks & in Texas, brother
    Neofascist Rasse Uber Alles bro state to our northwest,
    sweet southern belles styled after the more pathetic
    characters in William Faulkner’s novels, at least in
    my neighborhoods are afraid to go food shopping at
    supermarkets -where shopping is a pleasure for fear of
    having their 2 year-olds slaughtered by some random and
    frequent mass shooter. But, our theters and cinemas are
    thriving, provided you gain entrance to the venues by
    providing proof of vaccination and absence of the dreaded
    mark of death. Same with fun cruises to the enchanting
    nearby peninsulas & islands of abject, desperate poverty.
    And in my old hangouts in South Beach in the more southern
    parts of the state young people come down to rage against
    the chains of the slave state and express their unquenchable
    Desire for wet t shirts in the Sun.

    In the meanwhilem, you can be fired or arrested if you
    teach about critical race theory and true histories, or
    sex. I feel like I am entrapped in a K’s metamorphosis
    Cockroach hotel, with a stunning ocean view.

  12. Lorie, If you’re in Northern New Mexico, come visit BLM’s Santa Cruz Lake Rec site in Chimayo. Very few are wearing masks there, including the employees who smile and talk freely. It’s what I’ve needed to revive my faith in humanity.

  13. Tamara, gracias!

  14. Alan Hodge says:

    The only thing I’ve missed about farcebook these past 6 months were those voices of thoughtful dissent, like John Steppling’s. Nice to know I won’t be missing cool posts of his there anymore.
    Foreswore myself to go look for that post of John’s in which the counter-critical crowd swarmed out to ratify his lament on the impossibility of dissenting without being swarmed by, well, them. It was almost funny for the first hundred comments or so, then ick. You, John, are well clear of that morass.
    I don’t comment much, but read every word gratefully, thanks very much–
    Your friend Alan

  15. You enjoy those boys and your spouse on numero setenta, amigo. I haven’t see one of your potent pieces on Dissident Voice in, oh, a year! In any case, John, it is way beyond bizarre. Here in Oregon, we have no water for southern Oregon and Northern California farmers or salmon. We have buckling roads in a 112 degree Portland. Rolling blackouts that occur at 1 pm to 8 pm, you know, when people need their oxygen concentrators on, fans, lifesaving stuff. This is becoming less of a carnival of the absurd and more of collective bi-polar disease. All those colleges and universities forcing mRNA cocktails on staff, students and faculty in order to go back to school. Largest teachers union in USA is voting on forced jabs for the coming fall.

    We have no firefighters left, and now we yank them from prisons at $1.50 an hour while shipping in others from Australia and Israel. The evictions are now the leading edge of another tsunami.

    But, then, it’s not just USA, now, is it?

    Quoting Agneta Norberg:

    Warplanes F-16, from the US´s 480 Fighter Squadron, took off from Luleå/Kallax airfield on June 7th 2021 at 9 o´clock. This was the start for war training and coordination with the Swedish warplane, JAS 39 Gripen.

    The target is Russia. The war exercise, Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) continued until June 18th. The US F-16, warplanes were deployed at Luleå Kallax for three weeks to make recognizing tours in the entire Northern area.

    This particular warfighting exercise is a further development from earlier similar exercises which are conducted each second year. The war training is conducted from four different airbases and from three countries: Norrbotten´s air wing, Luleå, (Sweden), Bodö and Orlands air bases, (Norway), and Lappland´s air wing in Rovaniemi (Finland).

    The US war planes and marine forces have been in the North for war preparations for many years. This is a militarizing of the entire North, which I have described in my booklet The North: a Platform for Warfare against Russia in 2017. This aggressive, militarization have been ongoing since after WW II, when Norway and Denmark were dragged into NATO in 1949. Read Kari Enholm’s Behind the Facade, 1988.

    Arctic Challenge Exercise was launched for the fifth time this year. Seventy warplanes were in the air at the same time. The air wing boss, Claes Isoz, proudly uttered: “This is a very important exercise for all the participating nations and therefore we have chosen not to cancel it because ACE is strengthening not only the national ability, it also contributes to add to a common security for all nations in the North.”

    One of these days, no? The Nobodies will be on their land, free?

    “The Nobodies”

    Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping
    poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on
    them—will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down
    yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a
    fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their
    left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right
    foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

    The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the
    no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life,
    screwed every which way.

    Who are not, but could be.
    Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
    Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
    Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
    Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
    Who are not human beings, but human resources.
    Who do not have faces, but arms.
    Who do not have names, but numbers.
    Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police
    blotter of the local paper.
    The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.”

    ― Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America

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