Stone Age Brain

Roberto Fonfria

“…the artist who has the habit of art has a hand that trembles.”
Dante ( Paradiso 13.77–78)

“Newspeak is the new lingua franca. All Ur-Fascist literature, including scholastic texts, revel in the use of an impoverished vocabulary and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments of complex and critical reasoning. A related objective is also to undermine culture and the cultivated taste for quality, because quality, in the fascist’s book, is retrograde.”
Anjan Basu (Fascism Come in All Shapes and Sizes But the ‘Family Resemblances’ Can No Longer Be Denied, The Wire, July 2021)

Here we have the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by things whose qualities are ‘at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’. This principle is absolutely fulfilled in the Spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a set of images that are superior to that world yet at the same time impose themselves as eminently perceptible.”
Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle)

“The sense of mystery is found manifestly in artists of genius, in great scientists and scholars, in philosophers who are worthy of the name of “philosopher,” in true theologians, and, above all, in the great contemplatives. “
Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.(The Sense of Mystery; Clarity and Obscurity in the Intellectual Life)

Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post titled Blind Sight. And I to quote from that piece…

“And the idea of control, the idea of controlling the emotions, has evolved into something that mirrors other contemporary ideas, ones which have changed and evolved over time, that seem oddly linked to a new tension that centers around containment. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that mental maps, or images, have become mini Panopticons. People increasingly observe themselves as they might observe a prisoner from the standpoint of the guard. And I suspect this is partly the influence of film and TV. And it also feels related to the Austism question. Just the form itself, it is the screen dominant system of experiencing psychological affect. The darker side of how this works, or rather *one* dark side of how this works, is what Gearoid O’Colemain calls (in response to the Paris bombings) a coming “intellectual terrorism”. Radical voices, politically radical, but also artistically radical, are going to be disciplined by the mainstream media, and governments. Calling everyone a *conspiracy theorist* as a pejorative term was the front edge of this tendency. But the very conscious containment of radical dissent is likely to pass unnoticed for many because they are already primed to mis-read such propaganda campaigns, but also on individual and micro levels those who view psychology as a series of processes tuned to containing and restraining and limiting emotions — wayward or uncontrollable emotion — are going to feel comfortable in this sort of diluted politics of self. And the equating of foreigness and threat with the emotions seems logical. My emotion is the *other*.”

The entire post is in the archives of this site.

Anyway, I find today that very many friends, acquaintances, and just people I can not even describe as acquaintances, are not just less able to interpret news stories, or events, but have ever less desire *to* interpret them, or much of anything, really. Some of the people I am thinking of are people I would (at least previously) have described as very smart, literate (to some degree anyway) and often creative. Many are artists in fact. And yet one person told me, when I opened a discussion of Ukraine/NATO/Russia as a topic, that they sided with Ukraine and nothing was going to budge them from that position. That they had no inclination to be budged.

Perle Fine

But this is not an anomaly. This is exactly how today’s western bourgeois subject engages with the world around them. There are almost always bathetic anecdotes about refugees and warm hearted Poles or Germans or whatever (and none of those I am thinking about have ever said a word about Yemen, Syria, or Iraq. Not a word about black African refugees or any Muslim refugee whatsoever). And there is a coming together of several tendencies going on here; one has to do with sentimentality (more below) and another is simply a relatively sudden resurfacing of anti-black racism. And this coupled to rank Orientalism. And there is this psychological set of mechanisms that mimic autism. And are maybe actually a kind of mild autism (if that is possible and I actually don’t think it is, but the entire spectrum question seems fraught with problems). The question is, then, in what ways has the colonial mind of the 19th century, the values of colonialism and then the later onset of a rabid anti-communism, pitched at a feverish nearly surreal level, contributed to this, and how has technological change been a reflection of these ideological positions, and how these ideologies were themselves a reflection of technological change.

Now a brief side bar; the critical work I see pushed by mainstream publishers, media, and so called influencers, constitute, as a whole, a sort of counter measure to the actual critical thinkers out there (precious few though they may be) and these countering voices, ruling class correctives, share a certain trivial quality. They are like extended TED-Talks. Eva Berger’s new book Context Blindness is an example. While there are copious facts and excellent observations, (the premise being that screens; social media et al, encourage people to abdicate their reading of context to the digital technology they use. A tendency that results in a kind of autistic state of *context blindness*). All true enough, if also a bit facile, but the problem comes with Professor Berger’s insistence on the inherent truth of the status-quo. Dissent is designated conspiracy theory, or some closely related pathological state (her attacks on Robert Kennedy, Jr is a good example). And she manipulates the stories she chooses, the examples she chooses, the better to end up conflating Kennedy, Jr. with those who believe the earth is flat. Berger is an Israeli professor and has numerous institutional titles in her home country. She is an agent of the status quo.

It is a pernicious and effective form of propaganda, such stuff. For that is what it is. End side bar.

Hiroh Kikai, photography.

One contributing factor to the ease with which Europe and North America (and really, the Commonwealth) have slid into a new intolerance is that media — and perhaps specifically Hollywood — has manufactured a representation of reality in which a half of humankind is invisible. The normalizing of surveillance in Hollywood spy movies or cop shows or military stories includes a fantasy of absolute technological superiority for the authority apparatus. And this superiority means an ability to spy on anyone at any time and in any place. Of course this is note remotely true but if one is only speaking of Europe, say, or only the UK, Germany, France, and Scandinavia, then it *is* true (to a degree). But only to a small degree (even in the Uk criminal prosecutions used security cameras in only 3% of criminal cases). The depiction of these god like powers of the CIA or MI6 is always exaggerated, just as forensic skills are wildly exaggerated. And the exaggeration is actually expressed through a sleight of hand where the global south is rendered invisible. If there are no security cameras on every street in Khartoum, say, or Colombo, Sri Lanka, then Khartoum is largely absent to the narrative. The representation of the global south follows certain formulae. All of which western audiences digest via pattern recognition, and very little more. Africa is seen as though through the window of a passing motorcade, with running barefoot and smiling children (like the one Samantha Power’s motorcade ran over and killed in Camaroon, and which the US government made right with a payment of $1700 and a cow or maybe it was two cows…but generous needless to say) and it features shanty towns and heat, both desert and tropical, and insects. It does not include remnants of colonial occupation, British concentration camps in Kenya, or anything else that is unpleasant. And it has many white saviours.

The point of this post is really to look at two closely related topics. One is the cognitive and psychological damage (or alteration) of consciousness under the digital empire. And the second is the ruling classes and ‘their’ psychological damage, especially regards AI and digitalization and what those who make propaganda think they are making or not making or hiding.

Tracey Adams

“Yet artificial neural networks do not ‘learn’ like we do, ‘cognitive’ computing does not think, and ‘neural’
networks are not neurons. The language is purposefully saturated with anthropomorphism. Rather than worry about the dreaded moment of Singularity, we should be concerned about the dominance of a small number of corporations who have this computing power and about the social consequences thereof. Such political questions are too often lost in our obsession with the robotic revolution we are set to witness. “

Judy Wajcman (Automation; Is it Really Different This Time?)

One example of how AI is marketed has to do with the social character of much health care. And there is another topic included here, and that is a latent misogyny that is operative in the way AI is discussed in areas where the gendered division of labour is most pronounced. Nursing is one example. There is nothing even close in ‘intelligent machines’ that could duplicate what an experienced nurse provides. I often wonder if any Silicon Valley billionaire would opt for a robot over a living nurse should he (usually, but she, too) get sick. In any event there seems scant evidence that automation is taking over global labour. The problem is, rather :

“…the extent to which the pursuit of profit, rather than progress, shapes the development of digital technologies on an ongoing basis, and the ways in which these very same technologies are facilitating not less work but more worse jobs. This is the proverbial elephant in the room. They seem blind to the huge, casual, insecure, low-paid workforce that powers the wheels of the likes of Google, Amazon and Twitter.”
Judy Wajcman (Ibid)

Capitalism, in its Deborian *Spectacle* phase is there to pacify and distract. It is there to artificially (or by counterfeit) resolve contradictions.

Julian-Charriere, photography.

There is an unconscious content, in some fashion (more below) to the technological object. And this is more than just projective identification, though I think that is real and extensive, but this is more the embeddedness of history in technology, but also that technology itself (at least digital but almost certainly back to the Industrial Revolution) expresses this unconscious. Expresses history. There is a dialectical relationship.

And here I will interject a summation of Lacan’s mirror phases, because Lacan curiously anticipated the digitally configured psyche.

“With the mirror stage, Lacan offers us a materialistic theory of subjectivity. The ego (moi) is the image reflected in the mirror. Thanks to the mirror, the child uses his or her imagination to give himself or herself an identity. The child defines himself or herself through the imagination and tends to present himself or herself to others through the imaginative construction he or she created. The mirror stage is the initial moment that allows every intersubjective relationship through which the subject identifies itself. For Lacan, the psychic development of the human subject passes from the identification with the imago in the mirror to the imaginary identification with other persons. Following the mirror phase, the child passes through a series of identifications: first with the mother and then with the other members of the family, especially brothers or sisters. However, this process is a source of pain and instability: the “other” self is simultaneously the source of and a threat to the identification.”
Luca M. Posatti (The Algorithmic Unconscious)

Algorithms are created (in social media) to read our desires. The problem with this is that almost nobody has any idea of what they desire.

Wilhelm Trudner (Moor smoking, 1873)

I wanted to digress just a moment here. And discuss prose style. I am often accused of meandering and having no structure to my writing, and this was true even of my plays. And I think such opinion is (perhaps obviously) the product of Academic learning as it exists here in the 21st century. It is also the ubiquitous presence of corporate policy papers, government and legal documents and even marketing proposals. If one wanted to apply for a job, one would have to correct all this meandering. But I don’t have to apply for anything. And I firmly believe that style is content (not the only content, but a part of the content of anything written) and that difficult textuality encourages a different kind of reading. End digression.

Bernard Stiegler touches directly on the issues of this new digitally trained mind.

“I began explaining to my students that the world that took shape after the Second World War, a world that took the ‘American way of life’ as its model, a world globally ‘rationalized’ and ‘Westernized’, was, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, actually in the course of losing its reason.”
Bernard Stielger (The Age of Disruption; Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism)

And one of the results of what Adorno and Horkheimer described, and what, certainly, was accelerated by digitalization, has been the retreat of thought. This retreat encompasses both ‘reason’ and the inclination for interpretation, but also a literal physical retreat which suggests the Covid lockdown policy became an allegory for something that had been happening since the end of WW2. Our cognitive skills have been locked at home, masked when in dialogue, and vaccinated (with constant boosters, to push this metaphor) by the constant stream of digitally expressed propaganda.

Stielger points out that all analog radio and TV stations would switch to digital by the end of 2003. That was the date for the total digitalization of media.

Betty Merkin

“I argued that in our ‘epoch’, which should be understood as the fulfilment of the new barbarism anticipated by Adorno and Horkheimer, what is occurring amounts to a murderous dis-articulation of the I and the we. We have now also passed through the crisis of 2008, and this epoch has shown itself for what it is: the epoch of the absence of epoch… { } I tried to show that the processes of psychic and collective individuation characteristic of the life of the mind and spirit have slowly but surely been wiped out by the culture industries, now exclusively operating in the service of the market and the organization of consumption…”
Bernard Stiegler (Ibid)

Stiegler posits the loss of primordial narcissism leads to madness. And more : “… to the loss of reason, and, more precisely, to the loss of this reason for living that creates and gives the feeling of existing.” The addiction to smart phones exemplifies this age of distraction. And what I am calling ‘the retreat of thought’ is just another way to approach this loss of meaning. I have found on an anecdotal level, with people I know, friends often, that there is an acute loss of the transcendent dreams that are the staple of one’s youth. There has been a dramatic loss of dreaming altogether.

Stiegler, as a side bar, became interested in philosophy while serving a prison term for armed robbery. End side bar.

In the nineties Bill Clinton granted huge tax exemptions for a group of tech businesses that would go on to form the ‘big four’…Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. This hegemony reshaped communications. It was the first step in the culmination of what Adorno and Horkheimer predicted back in 1944.

“This absolute novelty is what Thomas Berns and Antoinette Rouvroy are trying to think today with the concept of algorithmic governmentality. What is new is the systematic exploitation and physical reticulation of interindividual and transindividual relations – serving what is referred to today as the ‘data economy’, itself based on data intensive computing, or ‘big data’, which has been presented as the ‘end of theory’ { } Reticulated society is based on smartphones and other embedded mobile devices (chips, sensors, GPS tags, cars, televisions, watches, clothing and other prostheses), but also on new fixed and mobile terminals (urban territory becoming the infrastructure and architecture of constant mobility and constant connectivity). As such, it contains unprecedented powers of automation and computation: it is literally faster than lightning – digital information circulates on fibre-optic cables at up to two thirds of light speed, quicker, then, than Zeus’ lightning bolt, which travels at only 100 million metres per second (one third of the speed of light). Automatic and reticulated society thereby becomes the global cause of a colossal social disintegration.”
Bernard Stiegler (Ibid)

Justin Fantl, photography.

What this reticulated society does, essentially, is penetrate all social relationships. On an individual level, but also more profoundly perhaps, on a community level. It is also an erasing of history, a de-contextualizing of life and experience. What Stiegler calls ‘automatic nihilism’. Local cultures and traditions are stripped of meaning and heritage and engulfed by the parasitic business model of giant telecoms. Entire communities of people live in suburbs that they had no part in building, or planning. There is a constant displacing of community history. Cory Morningstar has said (in fact on the Aesthetic Resistance podcasts) that taking away everyone’s smart phone would be the single greatest act to save humanity — and she is right. Social media (in all its forms and in the broadest sense) de-individualizes and subjects the user to new protocols of association. Basic thinking is interrupted and re-classified, re-shaped, and re-purposed. Desires, expectations, and dreams are appropriated. Everything and everyone is a part of ‘big data’.

“…everything that for individuals forms the horizon of their future, constituted by their protentions, is outstripped, overtaken and progressively replaced by automatic protentions that are produced by intensive computing systems operating between one and four million times quicker than the nervous systems of psychic individuals. Disruption moves quicker than any will, whether individual or collective, from consumers to ‘leaders’, whether political or economic. Just as it overtakes individuals via digital doubles or profiles on the basis of which it satisfies ‘desires’ they have most likely never expressed – but which are in reality herd-like substitutes depriving individuals of their own existence by always preceding their will, at the same time emptying them of meaning, while feeding the business models of the data economy – so too disruption outstrips and overtakes social organizations, but the latter recognize this only after the fact: always too late.”
Bernard Stiegler (Ibid)

One of the key aspects here is that even those who own and operate these systems are subject to them. Stiegler sees this disruption of will, the usurping of certain aspects of reasoning, as the path to madness. And it engenders a loss of the will to live. This is a profound observation, and on another level the result of such madness is the hatred of the other. And often the other is ourselves (our emotions or thoughts). There is a constant *othering* taking place. A streaming of *othering* that occurs 24/7. The loss of reason, its denuding, is a significant factor in the rise of the new fascism.

“The Boxer at Rest,” 330-50 BC

It is worth noting a singular example of the marketing effect on dreams and desires. Stiegler quotes a 15 year old French boy who says his peers no longer dream of a family or career, because they believe they will be the last (or next to last) generation. Insert the pre-fabricated ‘Greta’ figure, a fully corporate bankrolled symbol of ‘youth’ (with a Volkish subtext), pitching draconian green capitalist notions and appearing everywhere in media, including the covers of several major glossy magazines. This is another aspect of appropriation. The fascist sensibility is one already interrupted in a sense. (see Anders Breivik for example). The stories that come from the digital hegemonic media are ones of catastrophe: nuclear annihilation, pandemics, environmental apocalypse. Behind each there is another story, the story of profit. And like the disappearing of Khartoum or Colombo, there is the disappearing of dissent. The disappearing, certainly, of entire populations who evidence skepticism. But Stiegler is very perceptive in recognizing the absence of (what he calls) an epoch. Which is, really, another way of describing the constant de-contextualizing of digital media.

“This is what I have called, in pursuing the reflections of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, societies of hyper-control. These societies, however, are no longer quite societies, if it is true that a society is constituted only within an epoch: they are aggregations of individuals who are increasingly disindividuated (disintegrated). More and more, this is leading to the rise of that new kind of barbarism glimpsed in 1944, the contemporary realization of which is what we are here calling disruption. The reconstitution of a true automatic society can occur only by establishing a true economy of sharing – whereas what the current disruption produces is, on the contrary, a diseconomy of sharing, that is, a destruction of those who share by the means of what they share.”
Bernard Stiegler (Ibid)

“Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever’… ‘the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation… and ‘The phenomenon of separation’ is part and parcel of the unity of the world.”
Guy Debord (Ibid)

“Both Lukács and Korsch (and then Gramsci 1975; and Althusser 1971) suggest a new battleground for political struggle that goes beyond surplus value extraction and is concerned with production and reproduction of social relationships and subjectivities operating at the level of an ideological and culturally material battleground.”
Marco Briziarelli and Emiliana Armano (The Spectacle 2.0)

Koga Harue

Taken together these quotes touch on the essential question of the destruction of the social. (and again, it was Cory Morningstar who used that term in her analysis of the ‘Great Reset’). Capital is still the engine, only now value extraction is situated within a process of extracting the human from humanity.

One of the most prominent qualities of the US/NATO/Russia discourse is that the US project, the NATO expansion as part of total global domination, does not even quite make sense to those driving it. The Rand Corporation and CATO institute et al are home to singularly myopic sociopaths. Men and women who are actually among the least aware of history and least able to grasp the contours of the destruction they cause. The CIA and Pentagon are home to equally disturbed individuals. One of the things Debord hinted at was the detachment from reality in the ruling class.

But returning to the psychic disfigurement occurring through screen habituation. I think one of the very under explored subjects in analysing the current malaise is how cyberspace affects childhood development. How the loss of attention (more on that below) in the caregiver or parent, the mediation of screens, effects social relations for the child later in life.

“In the Oedipus complex, the subject identifies with the father, who imposes the prohibition of the child’s desire for the mother. By identifying with the father, the child no longer identifies with a mirrored image or with a similar one, such as the mother or a brother. Through the father, the child identifies with a language and culture.”
Luca M. Posatti (Ibid)

Clay Johnson

“What is the force that, from the beginning of life, draws the child into reproducing what an adult says or does? This force of attraction, interest, and attention is so much a part of the fabric of humanity that it is taken for granted. A young child has no power to resist that attraction. To feel such attraction is the child’s very nature, to the degree that he or she is “normal.” A child lack- ing this capacity would be deprived of something basic to his humanity; he would become isolated, autistic. That natural force of cohesion, which alone grants access to the social, to language, to culture, and indeed to humanness itself, is simultaneously mysterious and obvious, hidden in and of itself, but dazzling in its effects—like gravity and the attraction of corporeal masses in Newtonian space. If gravity did not exist, life on earth would be impossible. Similarly, if this remarkable force that attracts human beings to one another, that unites them, that enables children to model themselves on adults, that makes possible their full ontogenesis and, as I just said, their acquisition of language—if this force did not exist, there would be no humanity.”
Jean-Michel Oughourlian (From the Universal Mimesis to the Self Formed by Desire)

“…the crucial reference narcissism contributes to an understanding of psychosis. Two aspects, which will henceforth be orthodox, are distinguished: the withdrawal of libido and, more generally, of “interest” from the outside world—this detachment in relation to external objects, the “negative” aspect of the process, being often translated in the first stages of a psychosis by an impression and even a delirium of the end of the world—and, secondly, in correlation with this withdrawal, the necessity for this libido to be fixated to a different kind of object: internalized objects.”
Jean Laplanche (Life and Death in Psychoanalysis)

Franky Verdickt, photography (Xiamen, China)

Jung referred to this withdrawal as ‘introversion’. It is a withdrawal to the privileged internal object; the ego.

“…even if there is subsequently a recreation of a new fantasy world, it is only in starting from this radical retreat that the new elaboration will be effected. It is first of all, in an initial phase, within the sphere of the ego and within it alone that the attempt to “bind” the libidinal energy released by the end of the world occurs, and this in two apparently different forms: megalomania and hypochondria.”
Jean Laplanche (Ibid)

So, the foundational mimetic action of the child is tied into a recognition of the Father symbol. The culture, the social heritage. And Laplanche is discussing in this chapter, Freud’s ideas on narcissism. The digital society (kind of a society) is one with a diminished inheritance of tradition, a fractured sense of the Father-symbol, and an interrupted sense of mimesis, is one that will find refuge (psychologically) for its libidinal retreat, in meglomania or hypochrondria. Now meglomania is a blurry sort of definition, as psychoanalysis goes, but the point is still relevant. In schizophrenia, too, the anxiety of deciphering communication often will end in a withdrawal from the outside world, the better to avoid anxiety producing questions.

“Viewers, who are synchronized with each other by repeatedly watching the same programmes as one another, tend thereby to find their secondary retentions homogenized. In this way, they tend to lose the singularity of the criteria by which they select the primary retentions that they see in the programmes that they interiorize, their protentions being transformed little by little into behavioural stereotypes concretely expressed in the form of purchasing behaviour.”
Bernard Stiegler (Ibid)

Old Tasacosa, Northern Texas, 1907. Photographer unknown.

What is left, by adulthood, of mimetic experience is homogenized and it is only partially reconciled or resolved. Interruption is the prevailing experience of 21st century Western society. At one point Stiegler refers to the ‘tyranny of lifestyles’. And we might then say of digital lifestyles. And then notes, ‘capitalism has lost its reason’. And this is one of my points; the ruling class, the experts, the technological priests, are no more immune to the prevailing psychosis than anyone else. Probably they are less immune to the very propaganda they create than the average worker. Stiegler suggests that a line has been crossed (around 2003) — a rupture in consciousness, globally. This is perhaps too general a sort of statement, and I think there are huge swaths of humanity that have not fallen into this despair and submission. But he is right in terms of the educated white westerner, a subject whose functional stupidity (per Stiegler) has reached levels of crisis. Psychological crisis. One need only look at 19th century photographs of people and see the difference. Not only are there very few obese people, but there is another expression to the faces, another quality to the way people stand. A groundedness, and this risks a kind of romanticizing, I realize, but try it as a thought experiment.

Now, this libidinal withdrawal, this introversion, often the result of narcissistic fear, or of schizophrenic anxiety, is given expression through an aesthetics of sentimentality and bathos, and in the intellectual comfort of a manichean simplicity that makes clear who to cheer and who to boo. The master narrative for most NATO aggressions follows the trusted formula of enemy depravity and the redemptive quality of American violence. To use the title of Richard Slotkin, regeneration through violence. The narcissistic bourgeois culture of north America tends toward both Rockwellian sentimentality, and fetishistic visual caressing of weaponry. The sentimentality is so ubiquitous that it passes without real notice. Narratives in Hollywood TV drama, cop shows in particular, are saturated to a degree hard to describe. It is so pervasive that even the most rudimentary gesture or remark has linkage to the familiar emotions of sentimentality.

Amalia Ramanankirahina

The abdication of cultural authority to commericial product began in earnest after WW2. It accelerated greatly in the 70s. I have written of this timeline before. It was the week Freidkin’s masterpiece Sorcerer was released, a week in which Star Wars was also released. One made a lot of money and one did not. The political in art is not in the content. In fact the agit prop end of culture is among the most boring. No, the political is the unconscious, the contemplative, and the spiritual. I use political in a very broad sense, but it is the examination of otherness.

“I believe, however, that aesthetic ambition in this sense has today largely collapsed. And this is because a huge proportion of the population is totally subjected to the aesthetic conditioning of marketing, now hegemonic for the vast majority of the world, and is, therefore, estranged from any experience of aesthetic investigation.”
Bernard Stiegler (Symbolic Misery)

When I think of great film art I think of Bresson, or Fassbinder, of Antonioni perhaps, and Pasolini certainly. Of Dryer and Val Lewton and Siodmak and Welles and Ford. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching film (as I did at the Polish National Film School) is breaking down this functional stupidity in the students. The difficulty of explaining why Bresson is radical, and even political in a very real sense. Or trying to correct why these same students saw the wrong political in Fassbinder. But I am meandering again. The point is that the loss of aesthetic ambition, as Stiegler put it, is a greasing of the path to fascism. The camp and kitsch aesthetics, too, soon imploded on themselves and were unable to prevent the evolution to wokeness and the policing of opinion. The idiotic pronoun wars feed the simplistic ahistoricism of NATO/Ukraine. Virtue signaling is the backdoor of authoritarianism. Women’s sports infiltrated by men expresses a pathological misogyny. For genuine aesthetic ambition is in the mysteries of our desires and fears.

Art (and culture) also include a moral and ethical dimension.

“Deleuze defined the act of creation as an “act of resistance.” Resistance to death, first of all, but also resistance to the paradigm of information, through which power is exercised in what he calls “control societies,” to distinguish them from the disciplinary societies analyzed by Foucault. Each act of creation resists something—for example, Deleuze says, Bach’s music is an act of resistance against the separation of the sacred from the

Giorgia Agamben (Creation and Anarchy)

Sidival Fila

Agamben notes Wittgenstein’s remark (in his notes for a preface to Philosophical Investigations) that “how having to resist the pressure and friction that an age that is lacking in culture—which his age was for him and certainly ours is for us —opposes to creation ends up dispersing and fragmenting the forces of an individual. ” (Ibid) The language of art and culture today has been trivialized, and this has made for some rather significant problems. But these problems overlap with the loss of interpretation. For the artist is always his own interpreter. The automatic reticular society, the society in which the artist lives, is (per Stigler) always too late. When philistine critics speak of artists ‘exploring’ this or that, they have no idea what they are writing. Its just filler. It means nothing, literally. Now, to back up a second, Agamben spends a good deal of time in one of the essays in the Creation and Anarchy collection on this idea of potential. I don’t want to get too far into that right here, but the superficial quality of contemporary culture speaks to a kind of creative exhaustion. Not that there is nothing to create but that artists (sic) create anything. Writers write whatever pops into their heads, painters just go about wasting paint (if they are affluent) and never contemplating that *resistance* is partly a choosing not-to.

“…tastelessness is always a not being able not to do something.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

The ethical aspect is tied to these various forms of withholding. In a culture of such absolute commodification, the reified haunts all creative endeavour. And it is worth quoting this paragraph from Agamben, because what is being said here can be extrapolated further in the social:

“What is poetry if not an operation in language that deactivates and renders inoperative its communicative and informative functions in order to open them to a new possible use? Or, in Spinoza’s terms, the point at which language, having deactivated its utilitarian functions, rests in itself and contemplates its potential to say. In this sense, Dante’s Commedia, Leopardi’s Canti, and Caproni’s Il seme del piangere are the contemplation of the Italian language; Arnaut’s sestina is the contemplation of the Provençal language; Trilce and the posthumous poems of Vallejo are the contemplation of the Spanish language; Rimbaud’s Illuminations are the contemplation of the French language; Hölderlin’s hymns and Trakl’s poetry are the contemplation of the German language.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

Frank Mason Good, photography (Koum Ombos, Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, 1856)

Rothko’s work was a contemplation of colour — but such a contemplation becomes more than just about colour. Take Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, a film I think is often miss-read. And far from my favorite Bresson. But one aspect is that it’s Bresson’s contemplative unpacking of the American western. Somewhere in an interview Welles spoke of hating things, activities, artforms, that had become folkloric. He meant bullfighting in that instance but it applies to any form that has lost its social relevance (and relevance is an insufficient word but will have to do for now). Japanese Noh drama is now folkloric. The writings, the theory, the form remains exquisite, but it is no longer a part of Japanese culture. I think cinema is going through a stage of transition. The other end of which is not yet clear. But one cannot make L’Aventura today, or Out of the Past for that matter. Or The Searchers or Ordet. I am not sure ‘feature length’ films can be made that are relevant. And part of the change is because of digital technology and streaming services and how extended narratives are consumed (experienced). The ‘binge’ phenomenon became popular for a number of reasons, including economic (its cheaper to stay home) but most importantly because even if the series is terrible, the extended narrative provides relief. It may be a transitory and superficial relief, but it provides space for something resembling contemplation.

But what does it mean to say Rothko’s paintings were a contemplation of colour?

“For this reason, the crisis that Europe is going through—as should be evident in the dismantling of its university institutions and in the growing museification of culture—is not an economic problem (“economy” today is a shibboleth and not a concept) but a crisis of the relationship with the past. Since obviously the only place in which the past can live is the present, if the present is no longer aware of its past as living, then universities and museums become problematic places. And if art has today become for us an eminent figure—perhaps the eminent figure—of this past, then the question that we must never stop posing is: what is the place of art in the present?”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

This is a question that I posed in the last workshop I conducted in LA about four years ago. For it is a crucial question, and this idea of an erased past, a lost sense of history, is tied into both computational capitalism and the psychic effects of media, both in an ideological sense, but also a psychoanalytic sense. Our retreat from the world, the substitution of a virtual real for the actual real, is an allegory. Kafka certainly looms as the most prescient writer of how ‘living’ allegory might work — the pandemic created an allegorical frame for wealth transference (further wealth transference) to the top one percent. It also framed a narcissistic hypocondria, and a sense of foreboding that has been a big part of the rise of this new fascism globally. And smart phone usage has intensified the repetitive compulsive part of small motor function, but it also has changed how people read, when they do bother to read.

Graciela Iturbe, photography.

Adam Garfinkle, in National Affairs, has a piece on just this. Needless to say, since this IS National Affairs, the general points made tend toward the reactionary, but that said, it is more than a little interesting to see Henry Kissinger quoted and then to agree with him.

Garfinkle writes: “Deep reading alone creates the possibility of a private internal dialogue with an author not physically present.” (National Affairs, Spring 2020) And this reminds me of a very distinct memory I have of reading. I was only about 16 or so, and was reading Nietzsche. And I had a feeling of ‘knowing’ Nietzsche. Of having this conversation in a sense, with a man dead for a hundred years. And it is a profound memory, and I remember it with great clarity. Now Garfinkle quotes Ortega y Gasset, from Revolt of the Masses:

“The Fascist and Syndicalist species…characterized by…a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: ‘the reason of unreason’.”

But there are a couple of points I want to address, because I wonder if they are actually true, per se. One is the idea that, what Garfinkle calls (well he quotes Richard Cytowic), ‘stone age brains ‘ were not as reflective, not as active in some fashion as our own. Actually hunter gatherer societies only spent 20% of their waking lives hunting and gathering (sic). What were they doing the rest of the time? Watching the stars I suspect, watching nature, tracking the changes of the seasons. But little is really known of those very early communities, other than they changed very little for thousands of years. But by the time of the ancient Egyptians, who were highly sophisticated thinkers, man was likely just as agile mentally as humans today. So here we have a contemporary scientist falling prey to his own critique. He is assuming technology equals progress and I have to come to suspect it doesn’t equal progress even a little bit.

“In science fiction, the typical worry is that machines will become human-like; the more pressing problem now is that, through the thinning out of our interactions, humans are becoming machine-like. That raises the possibility that the more time we spend with machines and the more dependent on them we become, the dumber we tend to get since machines cannot determine their own purposes.”
Adam Garfinkle (Ibid)

But this is pretty much just an interesting popular magazine version of this topic, though one with surprisingly cogent points.

“For absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfree­dom of the whole.”
Theodor Adorno (Aesthetic Theory)

Janise Yntema

The importance of art lies in its relationship to culture, and culture is social. There is no culture if everyone is at home staring at screens, regardless of what is on those screens. Even in film, the audience, sitting together, and together focusing their attention on that particular screen, is a kind of communal experience. And even if I sit in an empty theatre and watch that particular film, my experience is shared (unless I am the only one who ever watched that particular film). For I am aware of that absent audience. There is something in digital technology, something perhaps even beyond the manipulations of social media platforms and the like, something in the very technics of cyber experience that is isolating. It siphons off the sort of attention one associates with reading, or watching theatre, and it replaces it (without ones knowing it or being aware of it) with another kind of ersatz attention. This ersatz attention is deadening. By which I mean it is an attention that eliminates the social and the shared, and replaces it with unawareness. A kind of morbid focus from which it is actually hard to break free. Television does something like this, too. People watch in a way that makes them oblivious to the space around them. When one reads or listens to music attentively, contemplatively, one certainly withdraws from what is going on near them, but it is not a withdrawal from the world. Like my experience with Nietzsche, I felt I knew this voice, and I knew others, millions of others over a hundred some years, had known this voice as well. This is one aspect of ‘tradition’ that I keep returning to, though I fear the word tradition carries the wrong connotations. When watching a computer screen the viewer is alone, and has always been alone in a sense, and will always be alone, too. There is no cultural horizon, and today’s viewer is anyway uninterested in a shared interior discourse. Its important to note here that the real war going on remains a class war. For most of the planet don’t own screens. These people are not the target demographic for any marketing firm. They are surplus humanity in the eyes of the 1%. And increasingly in the eyes of those whose identification is with that 1%.

“Philosophical aesthetics found itself confronted with the fatal alterna­tive between dumb and trivial universality on the one hand and, on the other, arbi­trary judgments usually derived from conventional opinions.”
Theodor Adorno (Ibid)

Adorno, interestingly notes two examples of scientific discoveries launching aesthetic correctives (as it were) Piero della Francesca’s discovery of arial perspective, and the Florintine Camerata, out of which Opera originated. And pointillism and some impressionism that (wrongly but never mind) sought to manipulate retinal discoveries. But nothing has come out of digital screen experience. If anything it has simply taken much away. These reflections are to be considered in the shadow of cognitive decline — or if you are an optimist –change. The contemporary subject cannot escape consuming the junk out there. (unless you follow the Ted Kaczynski path). When I asked the question of what is the role of art, in that workshop in LA, the best non answer I could find was that we who believe in the seriousness of art are to be like Coptic monks in the desert who keep safe the sacred scrolls of antiquity. Our retreat as allegory, again. But a retreat that is not nihilistic. For computational capital IS nihilistic.

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  1. One of the best posts from your blog. I resonate with so much here and yet, and yet, when I think back to how I discovered this blog I admit I must have found it through my dumb smartphone— I don’t think I’d ever have connected with this rich vein of thought and indirectly with this amazing community (I would like to meet in person other people who read this blog regularly— where are you?) if I hadn’t — “randomly” — found on twitter or some other stupid machination.

  2. John Steppling says:

    that’s actually a good point. There are upsides to the internet, no question. I wonder though if the peak benefit wasn’t reached ten years ago and diminishing returns are setting in vis a vis positives and negatives.

  3. That photograph of the men at the bar in 1907 reminded me of my grandfather, who was a roustabout on oil rigs in the 1930s. at the risk of romanticizing him, (and i never knew him) people said he had no fear of heights. He once told my mother, “you’re no more likely to fall up there than you are on the ground.” This also reminded me of the Aesthetic Resistance #65 discussion about autonomy and passivity, and Varun Mather ideas of how, now, TPTB want to be our reality. That physicality obvious in people of those days is maybe an aspect of the fact that, not only did they know what real physical danger was, (not the internet scare kind), but also and more importantly, they were a lot less dependent on the system than we are. Their reality was not dictated and hemmed in by what they were forced or coerced into. Yeah that’s also a bit romanticized, because for sure there was real hardship and economic coercion. But I do think that the digitalization of everything has changed our very physicality. (spoken as a dancer who sees these things).
    This is a brilliant piece, and the last podcast too. I”m with Cory Morningstar. I think you’re right, the positive aspects peaked long ago.

  4. John Steppling says:

    thanks and very cogent observations. I think that is all correct.

  5. Regino Robainas says:

    Another masterful contribution to our understandings
    of our culture’s decadence and ourselvesstruggling
    (the Great Teacher F.N.). Or, rather, in.

    Resonantly enough, the street where I lived-without
    screens yet, but with many wondeful food and
    people and fellow creatures like pidgeons that we
    shared stale pieces of Cuban bread, was named
    Empredado in Old Habana. Built centuries earlier, its
    title may be fairly accurately translated as
    cast or constrained by stone. Or,maybe, a fossil egg
    where Being arises.

  6. George Mc says:

    Even with the arrival of the net I reckon the vast majority of the public rely on the TV for their main source of information. After all, the net itself is constantly policed – few media are so easily monitored – and I’m sure the most ferocious tactics are constantly employed to neutralise all effective dissent. And so TV still appears as the main conduit and it is entirely under the control of the ruling class.

    And, speaking as a sixty year old, TV seems to have gradually lost more and more coherence with each year. One perfect example is “Six Feet Under” which I am only just catching up on now despite it being about 20 years old. The basic idea seems promising: the events befalling the lives of a family funeral business where I can imagine general glowing reviews about how the brave creators examine how death impacts on various individuals and communities etc.

    But, even from the beginning I felt something was wrong. It feels as if those various communities – Latino, African American, Oriental etc. and also the “subcultures” of bikers, porn stars etc. – are artificial and live in entirely different worlds, although each world never seems to have money problems. Almost every character in the programme is affluent and self-absorbed.

    Furthermore, the death theme itself seems to lose the script writers’ interest and we get thrown back on the tedious obsessions of the Fisher family who are the most affluent and self-obsessed of all.

    Finally in a later episode, we get a mention of Iraq and 9/11. And what passes for the dissident voice goes to the daughter – a supremely unlikeable spoiled brat who explodes with all this in the context of a funeral for a sergeant who served in Iraq. Thus the “opposition” appears as a “tasteless” matter.

    But the programme now seems to me to stand as a fascinating document of a time when 9/11 was “rewriting” the entire outlook of the West and the world of the Fisher family was apparently the new “community” as envisioned by the entertainment industry – still a community of affluent consumers but with all shred of solidarity ebbing away fast.

  7. Really useful thoughts here. I’m fascinated by the notion of hypochondria as a deformed developmental mode, replacing the mimetic tropism of children gravitating toward humans. As an instructor at a rural community college, I noticed how the students were supremely uninterested in learning anything produced by previous generations. I myself at their age felt it was fundamentally necessary to have an awareness of what humanity prior to my entrance considered valuable. What they do have, other than a desperate desire to accumulate something, is a heightened sense of what constitutes “illness” as defined by BigPharma. This culturally accepted hypochondria was one of the first red flags for me in the covid hysteria. True, these younger generations have been poisoned since before birth (arguably deliberately), but it appears to me as a sadly solitary and non-generative situation.

    I appreciate too the reflections, articulated succinctly by one of your Agamben quotations, that “tastelessness is always a not being able not to do something.” Several years ago, acquaintances urged me to write something (anything!) and ended up being disappointed because the project wasn’t taking me where not only I wanted to go but more importantly what I felt needed to be expressed. I suspect my unwillingness to not act was an affront to them (who publish Hollywood hack work for tidy sums with Graydon Carter’s various enterprises and beyond). My freedom to say no was a bit like Bartleby’s perhaps.

    Steigler’s demarcation of 2003 as a break from analog to digital and its consequences in human psychology is also significant for me since by 2004 I was starting to sense this shift and reacting violently to it without realizing exactly what was triggering it. I feel particularly blessed to have recognized this shift and feel beholden in some way to assist in whatever way in helping those who are waking up to this drastic loss of community. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  8. John Steppling says:

    very interesting ….this experience with students regarding illness. I have to think more on this, but i think there is something there.

  9. George Mc says:

    I wrote before about the decline in any central sense of solidarity in TV. This is a decline from the artificial community feel of e.g. Rowan and Martin’s eager celebrity lists in the US and Morecambe and Wise’s similar in the UK all the way down through the condescending “Yoof” programmes of the 80s to today with what seems a more atomised audience than ever. (One measure of this fragmentation is the absence of celeb impersonators nowadays. Such a comedy mode was only ever valid when there was a large enough central audience who would know the ones being mimicked.)

    As I said, “Six Feet Under” seems to reflect something of that fragmentation. But the final episode delivers something more pernicious. Here’s what happens:

    The last few episodes centre on the trauma of Nat Fisher’s death and towards the end of the final episode, there is a gathering in which everyone raises their glass to toast him. The camera recedes and the audience is led to feel this is it. But instead of that tasteful epilogue leading into the credits, we get a sudden blast of pop music and see Nat blasting Rare Earth’s “I Just Want To Celebrate” (“I just want to celebrate another day of livin’” goes the words highlighting another painfully obvious juxtaposition). This turns out to be a dream of the daughter Claire Fisher who is awakened by her alarm in preparation for being sent off for a new life in New York.

    We see Claire then drive along a highway that becomes increasingly empty to the strains of a thudding dour song with an epochal quality (Sia’s “Breathe Me”). The song continues but the scene fades out into a catalogue of the future deaths of the Fisher family culminating in the death of Claire herself at the age of 102. And then the filmy eyes of the ancient Claire dissolve back into the eyes of the young Claire as she continues to drive along a now totally empty highway.

    The effect is hugely emotional and indeed devastating but there is an enormously depressing aspect in which the viewer is left with a kind of helpless sense of impotence. That final view of the highway now seems endless in a deeper way than the mere receding into the distance. Since we have witnessed Claire’s own end, the road she travels seems circular (Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence?) and Claire seems to have no power to change anything.

    There is a Janacek opera, “The Markopoulos Case”, in which a woman whose life has been unnaturally extended to over three centuries finally comes to accept her mortality. Adorno attended a performance and wrote two short reviews expressing appreciation of the “chill of real existence” thrown up by the opera’s startling premise of the natural order suspended but he felt that the final scene “…reinstates the shattered order of the natural, turns death into a blessing and life into a curse and devalues what came before by installing it post festum as a mystical metaphor that attempts to prove with the pantheistic platitude that life and death are, once again, actually the same. The strongest argument for the music is that it fails to live up to this impoverished pseudo-philosophy and, as is ultimately unavoidable when it comes to pantheistic transcendences, falls into a fundamentally hollowed out ecstasy.”

    Something of this despairing lapse into “Nature” or “Myth” seems to radiate at the end of SFU. The matter of individuals engaging with immediate circumstances around them is completely subsumed under a scheme in which a vast cosmic wheel grinds on, negating all effort and hope.

  10. John Steppling says:

    remarkable comment. The adorno review is actually rather profound. (as was his want). And i have to give this more thought, but there is something here that links to the way narrative exists today in TV and film. Especially in TV. Think The Sopranos, Weeds, Dexter (which did return however)….but there are countless other long running shows that had great difficulty in concluding. As if resolution is impossible somehow in the contemporary world.

  11. George Mc says:

    Dexter had major conceptual problems from the start. A “good” serial killer? The usual moral logic was reversed i.e. instead of making the punishment fit the crime, the crime was manufactured to fit the punishment i.e. Dexter was going to kill anyway and so the only way he could be made sympathetic was to ensure he had a constant supply of “bastards who have it coming to them”.

    But they soon abandoned this. There was one victim who he mistook for a murderer. He found out his error too late. But that was quickly shoved into the background. Then he kills someone just for annoying him and the accompanying ghost of his father, who is supposed to act as his conscience, even justifies this as “The first human thing you’ve done since your wife was killed”!

    I suppose it could still serve as a slide into increasing self-deception. And D gets his true comeuppance in the VERY last series. Ironically my wife thought this was a dismal ending – and I think her reaction was probably a common one. D was seen as a hero – the “justified vigilante”. As such the series leaves almost as bad a taste in my mouth as Breaking Bad.

  12. John Steppling says:

    I wrote on breaking bad way back in 2013

  13. Regino Robainas says:

    “Outside my window
    Is a tree…
    No time for pity
    For the tree
    Or me…”

    Your dialogue elevates me to recall
    Brecht’s “Ballad of the Great Baal” &
    how he felt the blinkings of the (neoliberal)
    vultures with dark grace.

    With respect to the Eternal Recurrence &
    Claire’s existentially nauseated posture to
    it, I believe she expresses what FN aphorized
    as a will-to-fatigue that we must overcome. No
    matter the horro & the dreads, to learn to embrace
    the vistas of our created futures with and courage.

  14. Regino Robainas says:
  15. Regino Robainas says:

    At the core of our being is a toxic sense
    of guilt & expectation that retribution-wrathful
    & divine, even- that awaits us, if not in the
    secularly devoid afterlife beyond, then in the
    beyond of outer space. Citing copious references
    to Stephen Hawkings plus other weird science
    heads across the waters, there are now news
    essays on the threats we face from intelligent
    hostile aliens (!). The counterhypothesis that
    this belief may constitute a projection does
    not seem to make a brief stage entry in the
    black hole technocratic consciousness. This, in
    spite of numerous probable prior courses in
    their cannonical Statistical Mathematics &
    Stochastics. Strangely remarkable, I believe, having
    dwelled among the converts from the wasteland.

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