Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"If someone tells you this is difficult, it is class propaganda by the enemy!"

We are obsessed by being entertained. If media can hold your attention, if they can entertain, then you can be sold products through advertising. If you like playing games on the internet, you can be sold services, too, or "apps." Entertainment, neither in form or content, transgresses our expectations. If it is shocking, it is only by intensifying our expectation: sport becomes more violent, boxing gives way to cage fighting.  

We might expect this of sport and soap operas, but we all know that it is serious topics that perform as entertainment, too. The television news is like this: explosions, shootings -- all a drama. I remember my uncle telling me as a child about the coverage of the 1st Iraq war, "We all watched those planes dropping bombs onto buildings, and I thought, 'those are apartment buildings, people live there.'" All of this in support of toothpaste commercials and that new Fiat (there's a dealership in Berkeley now).

These are the types of media I grew up with, which exist as pure enjoyment, that are unchallenging, whose truths are all self-contained, a fantasy world you enter into, that do not tell you anything about yourself that you do not already know.  And more, we select media because we know that it will not challenge us. 


This what Roland Barthes called "readerly" texts, ones that confirm our prejudices and embody our desires. But he described a second category, the "writerly" text, one that can be transgressive and truly shocking, that can attack our beliefs and make us uncomfortable, that can rend the fabric of our settled and self-satisfied perceptions of reality and through this opening allow us to attain new truths and understanding.  This is the ultimate goal of great art, but we don't like it, because it interrupts our gluttonous self-amusement.  

Well educated people are subtly aware of this, and it causes them to be ashamed of themselves and their indolent minds and lack of moral courage.
So we have invented new forms of entertainment that will deal with this dilemma, this crisis of conscience caused by these forms with their appearance of "writerly" content.  One example is the provocations of contemporary art: sharks in embalming fluid, the photographs of Robert Maplethorpe, etc.  The late Robert Hughes called these, "...not a critique of decadence, they are merely decadent."

And this takes another subtler form, to another medium,  radio, and for that we must come to NPR.  The hosts on public radio not only play to their audiences desire to be merely entertained, they are in essence the internal voice of the passive listener. Slavoj Zizek says that canned laughter in television does not tell you when to laugh, it laughs for you. In this way reports about Iraq give way naturally to discussions of the complications of providing your dog or cat with health insurance, or an elk in Yosemite that has its own blog. Indeed Terri Gross listens for you, and asks inane questions on your behalf.  To some aging protest singer she will yawn, "I mean, um, 
for you, was that time, like a good thing or a bad thing?" 


These serious entertainments, form subverting content, function to suppress discourse in our society. The excuse is, of course, that real discourse is too difficult. And so I will end where I began:

"If someone tells you this is difficult, it is class propaganda by the enemy!"

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Plague of Sorrow and Grief

"It occurred only in the summer months. As with dancing mania, people would suddenly begin to dance, sometimes affected by a perceived bite or sting and were joined by others, who believed the venom from their own old bites was reactivated by the heat or the music."

Yesterday, Bradley Manning was convicted of Espionage because he reported to the world that our military and our politicians were engaging in crimes against humanity. As political refugee Alexander Solzhenitsyn told Americans of Stalin's vast network of prison camps, Edward Snowdon revealed that the American Government is spying on our calls and emails. Ed Snowdon today sits in a Moscow airport seeking refuge from political persecution: in Russia. 

But the nation is fixated upon other issues.  Why?  

In 1518 a "dancing mania" broke out in Strasbourg.  A woman named Frau Troffea was struck first, dancing uncontrollably in the street, and soon the mania spread with hundreds of the residents of the town joining in. Observers of those held in this trance were even attacked if they didn't join in, while many participants, exhausted, panicked and tired, danced till they died.  The church, the city government and the medical profession did not know how to respond, but the record survives of their concern and confusion.  Then, in the hilarious logic of the medical profession of medieval Europe, a cure was found: If music was played to accompany the dancers, they'll dance their way out of it!  The City Council accepted this therapy and so cleared two guildhalls and a grain market, even setting up a stage and paying musicians to play for the entranced. The solution to mass hysteria was to encourage it.

The cause of this mania, it has been suggested, was an atmosphere of danger and fear present in the city because of poverty, failed harvests: what we call today, economic insecurity.  In times of extreme stress and crisis, when the causes of our pain and anxiety seem to be outside of human control, there is a sublimation of dread and panic onto the body, and the mind -- the performance of a ritual, no matter how improbable its efficacy, becomes a command that all must obey...

...even if it makes everything worse.   

And here we have to go back in time, to the frustration of democracy and the rise of business and empire in the 1960s.  Fifty years ago many Baby Boomers set out to take control of the government itself and make it equitable and just. And the Government fought back. After the civil rights victories of the middle 60s, the idea that activist politics would transform government in America and take control of its institutions was abandoned in the wake of COINTELPRO and other government attacks upon those activists. President Nixon set in motion the globalization and financializaiton of the economy and a consequent decline in the welfare of the majority of Americans for the last forty years.  The void of lost prosperity was filled, by subsequent Presidents and their marketing campaigns, with the endless waving of little American flags and an increasing fixation by Americans on sports -- leaving middle America in 2013 a gibbering unemployed fool in a football jersey cursing Arabs, buying Cheetos, and ammunition at Walmart. 

A Plague of Sorrow and Grief:

Those still interested in politics since the 1970s. accepting as they did that the government and society couldn't be changed for the better, thought perhaps that the new role of government could be to spread the existing benefits enjoyed by the white middle class to minorities.  And thus began the descent into the mad dancing world of identity politics.

Remember: the from the mid-70s globalized trade and production caused America to de-industrialize.  Production and jobs were transferred and lost abroad.  Always among the first to lose their jobs in an economic downturn were African Americans; without meaningful work, black life in America was "recriminalized", the new Jim Crow.  In the 80s Americas prison system expanded dramatically to house a larger and larger population of the unemployed.  All indicators of prosperity were dismissed in favor of a mania for indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average... ...Today the stock market is at an all time high, while unemployment is endemic, and 1 and 6 Americans are feeding themselves with food stamps, and 4 of 5 live in poverty during their lifetimes. 

They play that Tarantella...

Undaunted by the real: on the parade of policy trinkets, among them Affirmative Action.  Instead of Civil Rights for African Americans, we have a policy that says: if you survive eighteen years of degrading poverty and crime in America's collapsing cities, then we'll let a tiny percentage of you into the universities. Championed by university professors who wish away the first two brutal decades of life and meet those famished in body and mind with a performance of postmodern concern and a featherweight aria of enlightenment. "Come dance with me."

Here in the midst of these crises. the law is bent to token inclusions: like gay marriage, marriage itself the extension of a Medieval privilege, and our listeners can look forward to something called "Trayvon's Law" a bill that will not address unemployment, destruction of the natural environment, rotten schools, and government corruption and government criminality, but will outlaw some set of accidents, circumstances of a celebrated an instance of crime.

Now every major newspaper and website is running dozens of articles on racism and gay rights and the dance is on.  The causes of globalization and global warming are not to be considered, only the symptoms of our hysterical anxiety are to be treated.  And if you question this dance, the trance of Americans suspended and whirling in terror and hallucinatory elation, if you don't join in, you may yourself be attacked. 

Presently in the United States, there is a fear and dread in all of us.  In history, this anxiety is usually the private reservation of the poor, but because of global warming, a globalized economy, a wrecked environment and our vanishing civil liberties, this dread can no longer be escaped by the rich and middle classes, those people formerly invincible in their ignorance of the problems of the world.

Like the Dancing Plague of Strasbourg, in their moment of confrontation with the what they believe to be the inescapable decline of our World, strange distractions and manias have captured the imagination of Americans. Our ever-dancing issues, gay marriage, abortion and the pageant of mourning over the death of a teenager, who died not of race, but of social and economic collapse, these eclipse reality: and the prescription of our medieval doctors? The journalists and intellectuals in America say today, "Dance yourself to Death."

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Executioner's Thong

We live in an increasingly absurd and corrupt world in which the simulation of violence in movies is perfected, convincing us that we are indeed watching real explosions and tortures, while in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon one paper, The New York Daily News, photo-shopped carnage, rent limbs, out of images of the explosions' aftermath to make them less horrific: the simulated is real, and the real must be faked. We are surrounded by a ferocious whirlwind, an opaque cloud, churning performance and verity, beyond which, unseen, mythical, lies history.  

This condition terrifies us, and our reaction is acquiescence to empire, war and the mad shattering of civil liberties. If there is a reason to admire bad history, "ecstatic truth", and those stories sometimes called conspiracy theories, it is that at least with half-baked history there is a narrative that one can engage -- allowing us to talk about history -- because what we have more commonly is no history.  And with no history everything is predestined, wealth, intelligence, cancer, poverty, sexuality, all conditions of existence only sourceless phenomena in a lonely chaotic landscape -- no source and no subject.  

This is the way we feel.  It reminds me of my hometown; those people who got tattoos to commemorate the deaths of friends and family -- the guys with the Chinese symbols on their shoulders that just as surely read "Panda Express" as "Brothers Forever"  -- these men and women feel so lightly present in the world that they try to inscribe on their skin some memory as though any thought not literally present upon their bodies would be sucked into this gyre of unmeaning.  In the West the tattoo was once a mark of sub-human status, sailors in their unfixed world, legionaries, soldiers and gladiators marked for and making death, and criminals, outlaws, prostitutes inviting hire.  These ink runes told of their wrecked state; specifically threatening, they read "I have less to lose than you".  Some women tattoo their lower back -- a desperate indelible lingerie framed by a gesture of underwear, not an open erotic invitation, but the cattle brand of surrender to humiliation and contempt -- commonly called a "tramp stamp".  

In the solitary free-fall of American unknowing, men and women hope to preempt what they believe to be their necessary or inevitable degradation by tattooing themselves, the foreword of a violent and hopeless life. These feelings often exist unconsciously within the tattooed.  Once the mark of the proletarian, this retreat of expression onto the body has become popular with the middle class in America who previously branded themselves through material possessions -- their combination, once the Apple logo on the back of the VW, now a scarf, a garlic peeler, a designer baby-carrier and bicycle rack upon their Leaf.  They too now, in the loss of their future, in the absence of history, are exploring the proletarian arts of the condemned.  These are the Faux-letarians and their affect of danger, these account managers in leather and IT girls at the gun range, abrade their bodies in an act of mourning, to manifest the shards of this broken vessel Enlightenment through which their future has fled. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

All this buttoning and unbuttoning: fun against fun

In the old order of the 1950s we were all repressed and that was good; it meant society would be stable. People couldn't enjoy the physical experience of life, sex, and pleasure because we had been trained to repress our desires and not to express them. This goes back to Freud.  He believed that inside of man were powerful unconscious, violent and sexual urges that if we didn't control, we would tear each other to pieces, but not before raping each other. Then Wilhelm Reich came along and said the opposite; he thought, if we don't express our primal sexual urges, then they will drive us crazy and then we will all tear each other to pieces, but not before raping each other.  This latter idea, Reich's idea of the libidinal ego, forms the foundation of the 1960s counter-culture, particularly in California; essentially that unconscious desires must find expression, and that our bodies, and one's individual experience, one's pleasure, might provide solutions that old politics were not producing, the revolution people wanted.  Herbert Marcuse at UC San Diego said if enough people pursued non-traditional relationships, homosexuality, whatever, just not the mom-dad-kids patriarchy, it might cause a social transformation.  In a similar vein, Norman O. Brown at UC Santa Cruz championed the idea of the "polymorphous perversity", sources of sexual pleasure not directly related to sex organs, or at least to the biological sexual function of our species.  Politics was refocused upon our bodies.  We would be find pleasure in the weird, and it would change the world.  

Fast forward 40 years, and this is our ideology, and in places like West Marin, our religion.  We are all focused on our emotional lives, the struggle to be our "authentic selves", self-expression, and our sex lives -- a trance of pseudo-Buddhist detachment from reality and spiritualized hedonism.  And it is a terrible trap.  For a few reasons -- one, it doesn't know what to do with concentrations of power, like the corporations which control the economy; as other authors on Local.org point out: our belief in our individuality and separation from the whole, and its deliberate indifference to concentrated power, is the "scafolding that supports Empire" itself.  Two, it disregards politics, the weak uniting to negotiate with the powerful, because the process of organizing politically means the individual is no longer the center.  And alone in nature, we all think about the terrible things going on in the world, but don't think we can do anything about them.  Finally, it is a totally regulated and conformist ideology, in which pleasure becomes an order, i.e. "you must enjoy."  The liberty of experience, of sexual experience for instance, with liberty its essential quality, is forfeited -- people regulate and obsess over all aspects of sex; in relationships, people act as though they were each other's sex therapists trying to do the right thing for each other's sexual health and satisfaction; sex becomes a grim sacrifice, similar to the sex of the 1950s that we rebelled against. And more, people do outdoorsy adventuring because they feel they need to do it. We get anxious if we can't conform to "the dude let's go rock climbing" command we all apparently have to obey now.  We shameless suit our aging bodies in Lycra outfits, patronize coffee shops, and discuss our stamina.  More importantly, to not be focused on pleasure, our ecstatic aerobic selves, would be a betrayal of one's being; it would be dehumanizing. 

And this is why we are so maniacal and unhappy. Our "I wanna have fun!" answer to everything treats other people as instruments of our own pleasure and emotional fulfillment. The humans that our eye pans across exist to play a role, two dimensional place-holders for humans, and if the 2D people come off the page, when they leave our script for them, we are forced, sadly, to replace them with new actors. Worst of all, this new ethos described, makes me sound like the Pope, an instrument of social control. We are confronting, ascendant, invincible banality.  But if you say today that we have inverted and created a more extreme form of the social control of the 1950s, you are considered to be the enemy of freedom.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Groovies in motion and at rest


These two posts were originally read on Local.org Radio Blog on KWMR  (http://kwmr.org/show/281) and are reflections upon the American Groovy, a privately educated Imperial Idiot coming in many varieties. The most refined and exalted of those is, no doubt, the Bay Area Groovy. I note in passing that a rare subspecies, the West Marin Groovy, is unsurpassed in pure copper-bottomed groovitude.   

Groovies in motion...

For those wealthy Americans with an empathetic concern for Africa – usually highly romantic in their conception of history and purpose – there is charity adventure travel: Stanford grads spending two weeks at a time studying the Meerkats of Africa or setting up solar panels in Kenyan villages before returning home to post photos documenting their exotic humanity sans fronti√®res to the websites containing their internet identities, their post-ideological public selves. Aside from the natural wincing their 'Orientalism with a human face' causes me, what is wrong with African charity? So what, one solar panel more is a worthy thing (and even I admit that Meerkats are cute). 

Take these two statistics: the West gives 50-80 billion dollars in charitable aid to Africa every year, and in the opposite direction 500-800 billion dollars of African wealth is transferred by African businesses and government officials to off-shore Western banks, every year. Essentially, for every one dollar we give in charity, the West takes ten.  And that process of capital being dislocated and then reconcentrated in the West is just part of the massive transfer of wealth from Africa that is constantly occurring.  

I met a professor who raises money for libraries in villages in sub-Saharan Africa.  He told me that it was wrong to discourage or defame charitable giving, that what it helped regardless of the larger context of globalization.  This is the essence of the post-ideological, post-historical mindset – he is saying that we can operate independent of reality, because reality is beyond our control. Regardless of the hypocrisy of American's offering advice on primary education, I think he was wrong to exclude the context – along the lines of Oscar Wilde's criticism of charity:

 ...it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they [the givers of charity] very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right.

... and at rest

I am conflicted over the present obsession with the sensual enjoyment of food.  I do prefer good food, the quality of flavor and production (organic, non-GMO, etc.), but those who focus upon the consumption of this food – whose price is indicative not only of the cost of production, but the market it serves as well – indulge in this sensual experience because they are simultaneously wealthy and convinced that they have no power to change the world.  They seek pleasure out of unconscious despair. They are perfectly adjusted to the deep cynicism of our age. In this, the lovers of great and expensive cheese are deeply contemptible and to be treated as fools, the traditionalists of no tradition.  

The industrial world has existed barely 150 years. The dislocation of the population from farm to city undermined the mores and traditions of these new industrial men and women. The dynamics of community, family, love, politics and labor were in a state of radical flux. It gave rise to many of the political ideals we still hold.  But because of the attendant uncertainty of this new city life, the figure of the liar and dissembler found a boundless new stage on which to perform, while the standards for the criticism of their arts disappeared.  A butcher sells rotten meat; the old enforcer, the collective judgment of the village – voodoo death to the transgressor – is gone; in its place the police, the anonymous men from another neighborhood, are open to bribery. And this new level of cynicism and mistrust in the society gave rise to a reaction – political movements who sought to use government to reestablish village law. 

But the problem of centralization gave the world an irresistible indifference to justice, and as the peasants and laborers attempted to reassert the law, the Second World War began.  In the wake of this catastrophe, touching nationalism, fascism and communism – all political ideals, all conceptions of justice, were lost to cynicism, sometimes called realism; while born of centralization and industrial empire, it embedded itself squarely in the mind of the individual.  Cynicism is the parasite that came to control its host – Western man. 

Our terror at the consequences of political ideas was institutionalized; it is built into the dominant post-war economic philosophies – man as a lone selfish actor strategizing against all other men for survival.  This, bolstered by the pop gene theory of later day social Darwinians, is the present consensus view of man.  For my generation, say everyone from 20-40 years old, this has been wholly internalized, the history lost.  So we now take for granted that politics are irrelevant and the economy is unchangeable.  If we are rich, we focus on what we are unconsciously certain is the last meaningful realm of human activity, pleasure.  Pass the cheese.