Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Critical Examination of the Rape/Revenge Flick

Recently I had the pleasure of watching the early 1980s exploitation film Ms. 45. This movie has everything you'd want out of early 1980s exploitation cinema: hot chicks, plenty of violence, early New Wave fashions, ridiculous characters, and a bizzare and rather perverse message which I will describe shortly. The premise is easy enough and the film wastes no time getting down to it, much like director Abel Ferrara's debut "video nasty" Driller Killer.

Thana is a shy mute girl who works as a seamstress in New York's garment district with a few other equally attractive young women who run the gamut of typical male fantasies: a preppy blond, a brunette, and a black haired foul-mouthed tough girl with an adorable Brooklyn accent. An early scene shows Thana, the blond and the tough chick walking to the subway after work and having to deal with leers and comments from blacks, hispanics and an Italian guy who says something like, "Hey, baby come sit on my face!" With dialogue like this you know this film will pull no punches and the viewer is in for some seriously low brow entertainment.

Thana breaks off from her co-workers on her way home and along the way is dragged into an alley and raped at gunpoint by some greasy haired dirtbag in a mask. She makes it home after the attack a disheveled mess with her blouse still unbuttoned. Unfortunately for Thana her misfortune is not yet over. A few minutes after Thana arrives home a burglar makes his presence known and demands to know where the money is. Thana, mute and in a rather fragile state after the brutal rape is unable to articulate anything but fear in the form of a few squeaks. The robber then decides to have his way with her and at this point Thana doesn't even put up a struggle. While he is raping her and has dropped his gun, Thana grabs a small object and bashes his head with it. While the burglar recoils in pain she brains him effectively with an iron. After contemplating her worsening situation she puts his body in her tub, dismembers it and stores the bagged remains in her fridge. Over the course of the film she gradually gets rid of the burglar's body parts in a myriad of ways, including feeding some to her kooky landlady's dog.

Unlike other rape/revenge movies, the rape scenes are not especially gratuitous and the movie features no nudity. Those movies which engage in such graphic detail seek to draw the viewer into a strange paradox whereby one can get off sexually from watching a [simulated] rape but redeem themselves by rooting for the protagonist in the orgy of pornographic violence which is sure to follow. An example of this type of rape/revenge film is Billy Jack, where all the female characters are ultimately helpless and need the stoic Cherokee Billy Jack to protect them from redneck savagery. As I mentioned, Ms. 45 is certainly not this type of film but that doesn't make it's message any less perverse.

In addition, the violence is not particularly gory, but what it lacks in blood and guts in makes up for in body count. While I didn't explicitly keep track, I would assume that Thana kills well over a dozen men in the course of the film. The one exception to the lack of gore comes in a scene where Thana, after succesfully dismembering the burglar, hears a noise from her bathroom and upon going to investigate the viewer is treated to a closeup of pink entrails spewing from the tub drain. Great stuff! In some ways, though, this conservative sprinkling of gore makes it more effective, much like the blood filled toilet scene in The Conversation.

While disposing of a bag of the buglar's body parts, some Gino doofus follows Thana to chat her up but she panics, thinking he's going to rape her, and puts a bullet through his forehead. From this point on Thana is ready for a rampage and begins going out purposely to antagonize men to hit on her so she can blow them away. She sheds her cute but reserved style for a New Wave vampiness of red lipstick and black leather. It would also appear that the outfit she dons when she kills a couple of gang members in a park (it seems she stumbles through an alternate ending to The Warriors) is the basis for the girls in Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to Love' video. Consider:

Thana as Femme Fatal[e]

'Addicted to Love' girl

But the costumes or murders certainly don't end here. In addition to the burglar/rapist, guido idiot, and a few gangbangers, she shoots an obnoxious fashion photographer, an oil sheik and his driver and almost wastes some poor sap she meets in a bar who won't stop talking about his failed marriage, however when the gun jams he grabs it from her and promptly takes his own life on a park bench. Great stuff!

The final scene of the movie is at a Halloween party thrown by the fashion designer for whom Thana works. The designer initally comes off as a typical fag (he's a fashion designer in early 80s NYC for goodness sake!) but eventually the viewer learns that he has intentions on Thana and is therefore either a hetero queen or bisexual (i.e. a pervert). Thana goes as his date to the party dressed as a nun while he goes as Dracula. Here the symbolism gets a bit obvious with the sexual repression of Thana and the parasitic nature of men laid out in open for the benefit of the most oblivious viewer. The designer whispers sweet nothings to Thana during the party and she eagerly follows him upstairs. During the initial stages of seduction Thana whips out her pistol and kills the designer. She then descends the stairs to the party and starts randomly shooting every man she sees. She even shoots some dude in drag who desperately tries to pass as an authentic member of the Sisterhood. The massacre scene is slowed down and is over ten minutes. It's great to see all the partygoes bedecked in their costumes huddling together in fear instead of just getting the hell out of there like any normal person. Right before Thana kick starts her Halloween man massacre, the party band is laying down a seriously funky jazz track which is very reminiscent of the free form jazz experiments of No Wave musicians during that time, especially Lydia Lunch and James White & The Blacks. Personally, I think it would have been better if this track continued to play even as the band scatters in fear. The track that plays instead sounds like one of those Halloween spooky sound records slowed down to half speed. Thana's killing spree is finally ended when her brunette co-worker stabs her in the back with a cake knife. Again we get hit over the head with the obvious symbolism and the look on Thana's face as she dies is one of pure shock at the betrayal from one of the Sisterhood. Clearly Thana wasn't just doing this out of revenge for the rapes she endured, but for the good of all Womankind.

The message of the film is not simply about sex being used as a weapon of repression but the inability of humans to overcome horrific events. As such, the view of humanity is rather pessimistic and sees people as weak and incapable of surmounting the brutality of others. We can assume that Thana, as a mute, may have had very limited contact with men in regards to having relationships. We might even assume that prior to the rapes she was a virgin. As such, while her campaign of revenge is certainly sexy from an aesthetic perspective (handguns, black leather, red lipstick) it is not supposed to be self-affirming. The viewer can root for her when she kills most of her victims (she's just taking out the trash) but the scene with the sad sack who eats a bullet after her gun jams is meant to show she's gone to far. The final scene shows her as a complete maniac who, Valerie Solanas-style, wants to eradicate all men from the planet. There is also a subplot where the viewer is lead to believe she has mercilessly killed her landlady's dog. The purpose of all this is to show that Thana is a desperate, delusional and damaged person, in other words, a victim. That's right, nothing to see here, just another victim. Just another client for the Therapeutic State. Of course, we should keep in mind that this is simply entertainment and for that this movie is the bee's knees.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Telling Conversation

The following is a rough transcript of a conservsation I had at dinner last night with a few friends. In addition to being funny, I found it rather ominous.

Existential school teacher: 'Live Free or Die' is such a cool motto, much better than The Bay State.

Me: The Bay State isn't our state motto.

C&B shopgirl: Yeah, just like New Hampshire is The Granite State.

Existential school teacher: What is it again? The birthplace of America?

Me: The Spirit of America.

Vintage clothing shopgirl: It sounds like we're already dead.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Some Questions for Owen Hatherley

I recently finished Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism which is basically a study in socialist-oriented 20th century modernism with specific respect to architecture. Given that Hatherley is an Englishman, I found the most well researched and interesting parts of the book to be about British public housing. Like myself, Hatherley recognizes that both classical modernism and high modernism contained progressive and utopian elements which recognized the positive potential in human beings to create new and advanced communities for themselves. As he succinctly defines it, modernism is a "movement aiming at transforming everyday life through art, or rather abolishing art by transforming everyday life." It suffices to say that to prefer these older forms to the yuppie garbage which pass for modern today will likely get one slagged off as a nostalgic, something Hatherley is certainly familiar with. This is one of the reasons the subtitle for this blog used to be 'thrift shop conservatism' but was changed due to a new emphasis on redefining an independent Left which seeks alliances with an independent and alternative Right to "confound the corporate center."

This being said, as a fan of his writing there are some things which I would like to see addressed with more clarity. While I found Hatherley's defense of Brutalism in British public housing admirable, summed up with the phrase "nothing is too good for ordinary people", given the history of public housing as well as other uses of Brutalist architecture (which I will soon get to) certain questions are raised which cannot afford to be critically avoided.

The first is a question about public housing itself. Hatherley, like so many detractors on the Right, seems to make little distinction between British midcentury social democracy and Soviet socialist republicanism (i.e. the Lenin years) as Militant Modernism jumps between these two very different socio-economic systems using the common denominator that both were leftist and employed modernist housing schemes. As such he seems either unaware or unwilling to address the role of the state in all of this. In other words, what the state giveth it can also taketh away. Of course Hatherley is certainly aware of this as it became a Thatcherite policy continued up to Brown to either demolish or condo-ize these relics of postwar social democracy. Now I certainly support affordable and utilitarian housing in the shape of modernist high rises for ordinary people. As someone braving the gratuitously overpriced Boston apartment market, a concrete high rise with a balcony and all mod cons (defined as heat, hot water and laundry) would be ideal for someone such as myself. It can be pretty bare bones as long as my books and clothes can all fit. Of course, the same policies have affected this country as well as the far fewer working class high rises this side of the pond have also been either demolished or yuppified. So the question remains as to the price of such social housing policies. Can we really rely on the state to consistently provide affordable and utilitarian housing for lower income folks if it will only sell it off to the highest bidder or simply destroy it when it becomes a budget burden?

Taking this a step further, I would also question the liberatory nature of such social housing. Hatherley uses examples which utilized then cutting edge architectural styles and provided such amenities as balconies and skywalks, as such these were certainly the cream of the crop when it came to public housing. He neglects to mention the much more common housing projects most people associate with social housing policies. Here in Boston, projects like Bromley Heath are neither modern or futuristic in any way. They are cesspools of crime and poverty where residents are met with security cameras outside their doorways and find their common areas patrolled by a projects-specific police force. They are little more than open air prisons with the residents representing a caste under state capitalism roughly equivalent to that of peasants under feudalism with the Boston city-state filling the role of the Medieval landlord.

This leads me to a questioning of the uses and ideology of Brutalism itself. While I am grateful for Hatherley's publicization of the aesthetically forward and socially populist aspects of Brutalism, I have yet to see him bring attention to its uses as the architecture of the intrusive state. As an example, I use the photos featured in this post of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building which now houses the Department of Homeland Security. While I personally appreciate the design and often enjoy sitting on the minimal, concrete benches in front before I have to go to work, the ideology inherent in the architecture which touts the power and omnipresence of the federal government cannot be ignored. For another example, I turn to this previous blog post featuring a rather Mussolini-esque moment for former HUD director Robert Clifton Weaver using a Brutalist backdrop to emphasize his point.

Going back to my first example, I will end with the lyrics of the Jonathan Richman song 'Government Center' (where the JFK federal building is located) which touches on the psychological aspects of working in that concrete palace of statist glory:

"Well we've got alot alot alot of hard work today
We gotta rock at the government center
Make the secretaries feel better
When they put those stamps on the letters

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The World As We Presently Know It

As my brief post 'The Forest for the Trees' defined what the establishment and its opponents will look like in the coming years, the intention of this post is to define the establishment as it is currently and the differing views most people hold regarding what shape it should take. For this I again return to Gary Ulmen's introduction to Confronting the Crisis:

"Today, practically everywhere in the West, Left and Right mean very little and designate, at best, free-marketers advocating a classical 19th-century liberalism, predicated on minimal government and unrestricted economic freedom, and statists preferring its 20th-century welfare-state version, where the state turns into the most important economic agent and seeks to control and regulate all features of everyday life."

The first group would of course include libertarians, paleoconservatives, or those who simply call themselves 'small government conservatives' while the second group properly describes the broad mainstream Left, social democrats, and left-liberals. The policies of this second group are also the most mainstream as we see the 'far right' Bush administration taking them up as noted in this previously linked article by David Michael Green. Due to this stunning revelation, the GOP and its propagandists on AM rabies radio have now began distancing themselves from the Bush years, but not for his police state policies or neo-imperialism, but because of this lazily defined 'socialism.' Of course, the opportunism is clear to anyone not suffering the symptoms of the rabies bite given that they can now return to the phony outsider status they held during the Clinton years and lob accusations of "Communist", "Marxist" and, occasionally, "national socialist" at the current regime. As is noted here, all the past Republican administrations since Nixon have been more than slightly indebted to the ideology of the man long since left to be "kicked around" and ridiculed. This can be understood as a form of symbolic sacrifice whereby the square personality of Nixon was strung up and burned as an effigy by victorious New Left youth while his policies remained entrenched in Washington to be continued and elaborated on by left and right alike. In other words:

"If you believe this story, then conservative politics was not “reborn” after the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and cemented by Reagan. Instead, the Nixonites allowed this new ideological trend to be the face of the party, but they retained control over the institutional functions of the party, as evidence by Nixon’s resurgence. This observation explains a lot of other puzzling feature of Republican politics. This is not the party of small government, it’s the party of national security. The party of individual liberty and self-reliance is actually the party of “enhanced interrogation.” The idea tying it together is national security, with superficial appeals to whatever helps win the election. "

This brings me to my next point, which begins with an examination of Thatcherism (Reaganism being simply American Thatcherism) and the bogus libertarianism attributed to it. As I've written about previously, Thatcherism and its American counterpart sought to roll back the 'Keynesian consensus' of the high modern era and usher in an era of deregulation, entrepreneurialism, sharp individualism, meritocracy and higher achievement. We all know Reagan's famous dictum about government being the problem, not the solution, therefore one would rightly assume he was enemy of the second view of the establishment quoted at the beginning of this post. While the high modern era provided the highest level of prosperity and comfort for the greatest number of citizens than ever before, it came at the cost of an ever increasing government and military. Transatlantic Thatcherism certainly rolled back the welfare state, but the size and power of the executive government in both Britain and the United States remained the same while the military-industrial complex, which is mostly publicly funded, increased. Reagan began to increase US military involvement in the world, especially Latin America, breaking with the relative isolationism seen after defeat in Vietnam. Thatcher meanwhile put British imperialism into overdrive with the ridiculous invasion of the Falklands and a brutal suppression of Irish self-determination (the response to which almost claimed the life of Mrs. Thatcher herself). This is something which I have not yet seen properly addressed by either the left or right. Namely, that the social democracy afforded in Britain and the United States in the postwar era was intrinsically tied with the war effort itself. In other words, one cannot have a benevolent welfare state (as the Left views it) without a state which is also involved in perpetual warfare and conquest and will happily crush personal freedoms at home when it sees fit. From the right, I have not yet seen a critique of the Thatcher or Reagan administrations which notes that they both continued the high modern consensus of an increasingly powerful executive government and military. Thus, it seems whether you have a socially democratic welfare state or one seeking the deregulation of markets, war will remain the health of the state.

From here I will turn to the first notion of the establishment mentioned in the beginning of the post. This classically liberal variant of the political and economic establishment was last seen with the Calvin Coolidge presidency. Coolidge represents the last of the East Coast liberal Republicans who are now at best a footnote in American political history. During his presidency, Reagan stated that he held Coolidge in high esteem, no doubt to cement his credentials as a proponent of small government. Nevertheless, I think even the most ardent trade unionist would regard Coolidge's handling of the Boston Police strike during his time as Massachusetts governor as far more even handed than Reagan's handling of the air traffic controllers' strike. After all, Coolidge only intervened on the issue of public safety after there was violence in the streets. Reagan's bias towards big business was never hidden and so the intervention of the Federal government on behalf the airline companies somehow becomes an example of minimal government in action. Nevertheless, even outside of libertarian support or lionization of Transatlantic Thatcherism, a look at the Gilded Age outside of this revisionism leaves much to be desired. Yes, it was an age where the government was comparatively minimal in respect to it's present size, but economic inequality was severe. Present day luxuries such as the weekend and minimum wage were won only from of the struggles of organized labor against the conditions which the Robber Barons would continue to have us all living under. While I don't have any illusions concerning the radical nature of present day trade unions, the fact that they were able to establish themselves as a powerful lobby for working people and have it so their members could make decent living for themselves and their families is a testament to the power of working class self-determination. A return to the policies of the Gilded Age would have the majority of us working 12 hour days, every day, for $4.50 an hour with the added stipulation that one could smoke a joint at the end of it. While the incorporation of the trade union movement within the political system certainly spelled the death of labor radicalism and from a Marxist and syndicalist perspective an accommodation with the capitalist system itself, in terms of what the British and American working classes themselves actually wanted it was a victory as it established the trade unions as their rightful representatives and an era of relative affluence for those who run but do not own the means of production. This is why, to the chagrin I'm sure of some of my Austrian minded friends, I believe social democracy is the most advanced form of capitalism as it neutralizes to a large degree the social inequalities produced by capitalism.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the High Modernist era and social democracy in general, while admirable for the relative affluence which most Americans and British citizens could attain with ease, a culture of mediocrity and conformity became the staid afterbirth. As such, the appeals to excellence and an unrestrained individualism during the Thatcher and Reagan years were a logical act of rebellion. Nevertheless, the outcome of their reign was a bit different. As is described in this review of James Heartfield's book The 'Death of the Subject' Explained:

"In his analysis of the 1980s, the decade of Thatcher and Reagan and of the slogan 'there is no alternative' (to the market), Heartfield exposes the contradictions of popular capitalism. The defeat of an already moribund left proved much easier than rolling back state support for a stagnant capitalist system deprived of its old enemies at home and abroad and obliged to discover new sources of legitimacy. The result was 'a solipsistic individuation of society', as people retreated from public life and social engagement, rather than the self-assertive individualism promised by Hayek and Popper."

Today not much has changed except that politics has taken on a synthesis of Thatcherism and social democracy, the so called 'Third Way.' Such syncretism just goes to show what sort of dead end the power elite has come up against. As such, capitalism is moving away from the technological advancements and higher standard of living which it certainly can provide in favor of an era of restraint and neo-feudalism. Rich Karlgaard of Forbes draws some comparisons between our current crisis and the beigism of the Carter 1970s:

"Thus does our current mess look like the 1970s more than anything. There are some notable differences, of course: House speculation, poorly understood credit derivatives, crazy leverage, bad accounting rules and lax SEC enforcement created today's woes. In the 1970s, it was oil shocks, inflation, tax bracket creep and a growing welfare state. Those differences aside, we seem to have wound up in the same place. We are led by a government that once again (1) distrusts markets, (2) embraces oddly contradictory Keynesian deficit spending for growth and Malthusian limits to growth (except for the government) and (3) is run by a president with a deep regard for his own virtue.

Then as now, the U.S. economy will recover. But it is hard to imagine anything stronger than a tepid recovery--occasional bright periods of growth interrupted by numerous mini recessions, oil shocks and so forth. On the whole, this will produce European-style growth of 1% to 2%. If you doubt this, then think of the American industries whose top companies will shift capital and creative energy from growth investment to regulatory compliance: banking, for one. Automobiles. Oil and gas. Electric utilities. Pharmaceuticals. Picture yourself at a board meeting at any top company in these fields. You will hear defensive talk overwhelming growth talk.

How did ordinary Americans cope in the 1970s? Many turned inward. Writer Tom Wolfe captured the decade's mood in a 1976 essay called "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening." Wolfe used the term "awakening" as satire. What Wolfe described was far from the religious awakenings led by Jonathan Edwards in the early 18th century or by the abolitionists of the 19th century. Rather, the great awakening of the 1970s was a national plunge into self-absorption.

So here we are: the military-industrial complex and the executive government has been ever expanding since the beginning of the 20th century, untouched, in fact cheered on by those supposed supporters of small government in the 1980s. Meanwhile, relative affluence and ease of life (i.e. not having to worry too much or struggle over the essentials) is now left to the nostalgics. A culture of self-absorption and perpetual adolescence has prompted a new view of society: one outside of class or culture and brought on by a levelling humanism which now sees individuals as either victims or professionals (i.e. those who manage the victims and their affairs). Western capitalism has retreated from production and advancement and now speaks of sustainability and the so called 'New Economy' based around service and security. On either the Left or Right there are no longer any actual bottom-up political or social movements, just useful idiots trying to make the agenda of power elite seem chic. Environmentalism, anti-consumerism, and various charities mark the revival of a Victorian morality whereby regular folks are supposed to feel guilty about their "privileges", like owning a car and a house, and give something back. It has been said that aid to Africa (and related schemes) are the means by which poor people in rich countries give money to rich people in poor countries. In addition to this I would add that the current vogue of charity is really an attempt by the American and British ruling classes to preserve some sense of legitimacy where they can still imagine they are on top and thus in a position to give something extra to all the little people around the world. Meanwhile both countries are steadily on their way to resembling East Germany or Communist Yugoslavia. In closing, I would normally ask readers which brand of poison mentioned in the beginning of the post they would prefer. However, thanks to the Third Way we needn't choose as we can have the worst of both! The economic feudalism of the Gilded Age nostalgics with the ever present statism and beigism of the social democrats. Backwards to a Brave New World which is neither brave or new.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Subconscious Modernism of Graffiti Removal

I was aware of the existence and thesis of this film, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, since it was screened at my alma mater but I hadn't actually seen it until now. In some ways this is actually a good thing as my opinions on art and the-state-of-the-world have only progressed since I was an undergrad art school student. That being said, while the film, like most contemporary art, contains a certain tongue-in-cheek element which unfortunately runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of what is being said, I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis of the film. In addition to this, I will take it a step further and argue that the unintentional abstract art being produced by graffiti removal workers is far better than the intentional art of hipster taggers.

For one, the removal pieces are very much within the tradition of abstract modernist painting, far more so than contemporary 'street art' which is far more indebted to advertising and guerrilla marketing. In addition to the comparisons McCormick makes between the geometric style of buffing and the works of Mark Rothko, I would say that the ghosting style has much in common with the works of Clyfford Still while the radical style mimics the works of Hans Hoffmann, particularly the appropriately titled Golden Wall.

Secondly, the removal pieces blend organically with their urban environment producing a holistic approach to modern living. Here the blotches of color on the walls match the geometricity of city buildings which hint at an integral approach to urban society: one where all the puzzle pieces fit together and each service and job is linked inextricably to the principle of enjoyment for all of the city's inhabitants.

Tagging, on the other hand, is purposely disjointed and unassimilable. It often commits the visual faux pas of trying to walk the line between text and abstraction, leaving the viewer in limbo trying to either appreciate the line work or decipher the meaning of the tag itself. Given the difficulty with and outright hostility to the english language which seems to afflict the tagger community, one would do better to find meaning and intention in the crude scrawlings found in public lavatories.

It is no wonder that urbania (my personal term for the scene encompassing tagging, stenciling, and hipster fashions which often feature the previously mentioned styles printed on clothes) has become the It aesthetic of the cultural classes, just consider the current fame being bestowed on Shepard Fairey and Banksy, when one considers the ideology behind such works. Despite the apparent celebration of the urban environment, this aesthetic actually reinforces the most negative views concerning urban living and the modern cityscape. Looking at a wall covered with tags or an electrical box swarmed with stickers and stencils, the lack of a focal point, something present in all great artworks, is the first thing the viewer notices. As such, the conclusion one is to make from this is a celebration of the visual schizophrenia cited by detractors of city dwelling. The onslaught of various floating signifiers which reign down on the isolated individual producing only confusion and despair. Here the connection with advertising becomes apparent.

The ideology inherent in urbania views the modern city not as a potential Athenian city-state but as a concrete jungle inhabited with modern primitives who compete with eachother over resources for survival, this constant struggle being the only common factor uniting each individual. Nowhere is this more obvious than with tagging. While visual advertising seeks to stand out from the environment in which it is placed so as to impress upon the viewer it's message endorsing a certain service or product, tagging uses the same technique to simply advertise a cool personality or individual, someone to come to your loft parties and drink all your beer and smoke all your weed. As such, tagging and the culture of underground celebrity it perpetuates is no different from the mainstream media's cult of reality TV 'stars', people being famous simply for having their face or name disseminated into pop discourse.

One can't but also note the class difference between the graffiti removal worker and the contemporary hipster. While the former works humbly works with his hands for a paycheck in what is often a public sector job, the latter can't help but impose his personality on everyone under the guise of art in what is nothing more than the aesthetic equivalent of, "Hey, look at me! I'm fucking cool." Perhaps the tagger thinks that he can use such works on his resume when he applies for a graphic design job making corporate logos. So while the abstract buffs of graffiti removal incorporate the general aesthetic of the surrounding environment, aiming for a cohesive and enjoyable visual experience while being produced anonymously, tagging has no respect for it's context and is wrapped up in bourgeois notions of authorship.

As such, the art of urbania, despite it's occasional bogus radicalism (see my previous post on Shepard Fairey), openly celebrates the barbarity of present day capitalism and the accompanying culture of childish individualism and insincerity. This being said, I do not intend to make a blanket statement which seeks to paint all street scrawlings with the same brush.

The face pictured below (featuring two views of the same work) is to be found under a bridge in the center of my hometown. The minimal line work is reminiscent of some of the single cell cartoons featured in mid century magazines and also reflects the linear cuts of the concrete on which it is painted. The face itself contains an element of humor which puts a smile on the face of the passing viewer. This simplicity and humor also seeks to humanize the urban environment in which it is found.

Another street artist whose work I have reviewed in the past, is Oneiric Imperium. Of course, to simply call him a street artist is to deny him some much deserved credit. Bood Samel's gestamkunstwerk includes stickers, drawings, power electronics recordings and performances, photography and experimental film. What ties all these diverse mediums together is a world view based in a mystical individualism which find fragments of transcendence and otherworldliness among the grime and vacated spaces of his native Philadelphia. Rather than imposing an inauthentic personality on everyone and everything, Samel's street pieces provide an area where the irrational and symbolic elements of one's subjectivity can be linked with the external environment. As such, it constitutes a form of psychogeography whereby one can manipulate the urban environment in accordance with one's own dreams. The map is not the territory, indeed!

In closing, the urban environment is not necessarily the concrete jungle which it's detractors make it out to be. In fact, the city could be the nucleus for a decentralized, communal democracy in which the unchecked potential of creative individuals thrives alongside a sense of collective responsibility. For this to occur, however, urban art forms which encourage and glorify competition for it's own sake as well as a crass and puerile individualism need to be recognized for what they are and scrapped.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unsubstantiated Blanket Statements

Other readers may already be familiar with the case of the 'Craigslist Killer' as it has made the rounds in national news given all the lurid details which American society, simultaneously repressed and overexposed (i.e. bored), loves. As a quick aside, I just want to say that the title 'Craigslist Killer' should really have been saved for someone who kills more than one person (I think the Hotel Hooker Homicide should have be used if only for the crassness and clever alliteration), though perhaps it will become more apropos as this jerk-off has promised that there is, "More coming out." Maybe Markoff is putting the serial in serial murder and truly making this case more like a contemporary pulp novel than anything else.

Either way, this post is really a follow up to my previous one on the death-cult, isolated individualism born of the Reagan/Thatcher era. This Markoff kid being another prime example of it. On the outset we have a sloppy preppy Med student from Boston University (more on this later) who lived in a Quincy high rise and was soon to be married, just another unassuming yuppie-in-training piece of shit. He was going through all the rituals for entry into bourgeois society: Doctor job (√), T-accessible, utilitarian pad close to the city (√) and a love-less marriage (almost). But then the dark stuff comes out, he's seeing prostitutes in hotels (who he met through the internet!) and instead of just fucking them like a normal person he's robbing them and even kills one. It is also rumored that he was stealing because of a gambling addiction, which is quite possibly the lamest addiction there is (what? nobody does coke anymore?) Of course, it is understandable why all the accouterments of bourgeois living didn't do it for him, but instead of dropping out or at least living a double life he turns to a fatalistic spree of prostitute robbery and murder. Why? Because There Is No Alternative! Once more, the lyrics from Billy Childish's Thatcher's Children ring true in our ears:

Thatcher’s Children/ The headlines will grab ya/ Don’t go outta your homes/ Or your children might stab ya

And now for the unsubstantiated blanket statements section of the post. As is readily obvious, colleges attract certain personalities given their strengths in certain subjects as well as the power which lies behind their name. From what I have seen, Boston University is a mediocrity factory which attracts only the most mundane and vapid of students. The University has ruined an entire section of the city (half of Commonwealth Avenue) with it's horrid, faceless buildings and dormitories. Those students who don't live in the dorms litter the destroyed neighborhood of Allston like all the other refuse found there. If one wants a snapshot of Generic College Student, BU will offer you an extensive array to choose from. Now while the argument can be made that the colleges of the empire (note to the LaRouchites: universities in a third-world backwater like Florida don't count) attract those only motivated by money and power, BU simply doesn't hold the prestige of those institutions and thus we can assume that those who make up the hordes of body snatchers who clog up Comm Ave are really honestly excited about a banal existence in middle management somewhere. As such, and the Markoff case just proves it, with notable exception, I can truthfully say all Boston University students are sociopaths.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The LaRouchian Madness

The above featured chart comes from a LaRouche PAC rag titled The Noosphere vs. The Blogosphere: Is the Devil in Your Laptop? which starts with the rather wild claim that there is a fascist mass movement based on college campuses these days which has three faces: Facebook, Myspace, and violent computer games. Now obviously I am not going to seriously entertain these claims, nevertheless I find the chart itself interesting on a few levels:

a. I find conspiracy theories (the more intricate & wild, the better) fascinating for they represent a battle between individuals interpreting their own reality in the matter they see fit and the imposition of the Establishment weltanschauung (subjective rationality vs. standardized, objective rationality.)

b. Building off the last point, even by the standards of an objective rationalist (one who believes that something actually exists outside of the collective consensus of individual subjectivities which we can label reality) the conspiratorial view of history or events at the very least qualifies as an existential escape from the mundanity of everyday life. An effort to create an elaborate narrative which makes participation in life exciting. Hence, while I certainly do not truly subscribe to all the theories of Michael A. Hoffman II or James Shelby Downard, their works are on par with the greatest fantastic fiction.

c. Maybe they are really on to something...

Now the LaRouche crew can warrant an entire study all on their own (in fact, they already have) and have also been of particular interest of mine for quite some time mainly because they seem to be the only fully organized, international, youth-based political organization with regularly publishes multiple publications who are beyond the false left/right dichotomy. Nevertheless, this post-spectrum perspective is not generally a good thing in that they essentially support a technocratic, military keynesian system which only differs from the one presently in place in that it would serve their own bizarre projects (Eurasian land bridge) and is based off their own conspiratological metanarrative. So it is that that they at least provide a direct line of connectivity, albeit from the opposite perspective which I hold, from the current social plutocracy to it's origin in the proto-state capitalism of the American School, as presented here:

At that point, Vecchio asked LaRouche to give his view, as an economist, on American economic thinking, and on John Maynard Keynes. LaRouche explained that many people in Europe tend to concentrate on Keynes, when they debate free-market economics, as opposed to other schools in economics; but that the American school of economics actually goes back to President Abraham Lincoln.

Economist Panizza underlined the importance of what LaRouche said regarding three "American System" economists—Alexander Hamilton, Friedrich List, and Henry Carey—given the demonstrated failure of present economic theories to face the world financial crisis.

Now I just want to clarify that I would be open to supporting a global welfare system, but only if it was structured along the lines of something like this. I also want to say that on an abstract level, the methodological nature of the LaRouche crew is something to be admired and replicated along different ideological lines: a tightly knit network of activists organized through meritocratic means, with many methods of propaganda available, around a complex grand narrative which offers a New, Revolutionary world view which combines the best elements of Archaic and Enlightenment values. Of course, the biggest aspect of the LaRouchies which needs to be scrapped is the cult of personality, lest we end up like a certain cretinous family.

[Ed. note: I apologise for the poor scan quality of the chart provided. For a better look, I recommend opening the image in a new window and utilizing the magnifying glass tool available on Macs.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Celebrate the 93th Anniversary of the Easter Rising which birthed an idependent Irish republic. May the principles of the self-determination in regards to ethnicity, association, nation, and economics rise again.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Forest For the Trees

I recently started reading Confronting the Crisis, the selected writings of the late, great Paul Piccone, founder of the TELOS journal. I wasn't even through Gary Ulmen's introduction when I came across what must be one of the best summations of our political climate to date:

Once the Left had collapsed-New and Old-Paul really came into his own: "The categories of 'Left' and 'Right' are paradigmatically modernist. It is not an accident that they date back to the French Revolution, and that they fade with the decline of modernity. In the early 19th century, the distinction referred primarily to the relation to the French Revolution, with the Right defending the status quo ante, and the Left the new bourgeois regime. Later, after it became clear that there was no way to restore the ancien régime, the categories came to characterize the split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But, even that became obsolete with the development of social democracy and the integration of the labor movement into the system at the turn of the century. Subsequently the Bolshevik Revolution introduced a seven-decades-long distortion, which only now is beginning to disappear, whereby Left and Right were identified with political regimes based respectively on capitalism and socialism. The capitalist turn in Communist China and the predominance of social democracy in the capitalist West indicate the extent to which the reduction of politics to economics presupposed by the distinction was a Cold War fraud. Consequently, after 1989, the distinction has become increasingly blurred; it lingers on by default, pending the development of better alternatives and of a political climate that will make it possible to recast the political in terms other than those deployed by the ruling elites.

In other words, how to reconfigure the political is itself a political issue, whose outcome is a function of political struggle. Today, the Left/Right split remains an ideological smokescreen concealing the real distinction: between neo-liberals (as well as neo-conservatives) and communitarians.

The former are committed to ever-growing state intervention, bureaucratic rationality, and the bourgeois values of abstract individuality, formal equality, social justice, representative liberal democracy, and unrestricted inclusiveness. This is the ideology of the therapeutic New Class, camouflaging its axiological particularity as universal truth, proceduralizing politics, and privatizing morality. The hypostatizing of bourgeois values to universal truths warranting their imposition on dissidents, now degraded from political opponents to pathological or criminal cases, is part of that general process of depoliticization entailed by the liberal project from its very beginning: the reduction of politics to administration.

The latter (communitarians) insist on local autonomy, direct democracy, cultural particularity, and traditional values of solidarity, belonging, and the identity of politics and morality. Opponents are neither pathologized or criminalized, but classified as 'enemy' or 'friend' and treated accordingly (within various kinds of confederal, federal, or international agreements) or ostracized, confronted, and, in extreme cases, forcibly coerced."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Is this why I like the HM era?

Once it was power that created high style. But now high styles come from low places, from people who have no power, who slink away from it, in fact, who are marginal, who carve out worlds for themselves in the nether depths, in tainted "undergrounds."

~Tom Wolfe, "The Girl of the Year"

Reach for the Stars!!!

Julius Evola writes in Ride the Tiger:

I can certainly agree with Jünger when he says that these processes of the current world have caused the individual to be superseded by the "type," together with an essential impoverishment of his traits and ways of life, and a dissolution of cultural, human, and personal values. In the majority of cases, the destruction is suffered passively: the man of today is the mere object of it. The result is an empty, mass-produced human type, marked by standardization and flat uniformity; a "mask" in the negative sense; an insignificant, multiple product.

To appeal to the lowest common denominator for a moment, I can't help but think about Bill Burr's stand up bit where he talks about the amount of idiot drivers in traffic: "We already got that guy!" In his essay Superman Comes to the Supermarket, Norman Mailer addresses the same phenomena as Evola but gives it some cultural background:

The twentieth century may yet be seen as that era when civilized man and underprivileged man were melted together into mass man, the iron and steel of the nineteenth century giving way to electronic circuits which communicated their messages into men, the unmistakable tendency of the new century seeming to be the creation of men as interchangeable as commodities, their extremes of personality singed out of existence by the psychic fields of force the communicators would impose. This loss of personality was a catastrophe to the future of the imagination, but billions of people might first benefit from it by having enough to eat -- one did not know -- and there remained citadels of resistance in Europe where the culture was deep and roots were visible in the architecture of the past.

Nowhere, as in America, however, was this fall from individual man to mass man felt so acutely, for America was at once the first and most prolific creator of mass communications, and the most rootless of countries, since almost no American could lay claim to the line of a family which had not once at least severed its roots by migrating here. But, if rootless, it was then the most vulnerable of countries to its own homogenization. Yet America was also the country in which the dynamic myth of the Renaissance -- that every man was potentially extraordinary -- knew its most passionate persistence...

And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unexpected, had a force which could not be tamed no matter how the nation’s regulators -- politicians, medicos, policemen, professors, priests, rabbis, ministers, idèologues, psychoanalysts, builders, executives and endless communicators -- would brick-in the modern life with hygiene upon sanity, and middle-brow homily over platitude; the myth would not die. Indeed a quarter of the nation’s business must have depended upon its existence. But it stayed alive for more than that -- it was as if the message in the labyrinth of the genes would insist that violence was locked with creativity, and adventure was the secret of love.

So it is in this spirit of excellence and desire for adventure that I turn to the Island One Society for a solution. Let us leave this world with all its crass exploitation, human commodities and infernal crises for a better one. Let us rescue space exploration from the militarists so one day we can be able to make love to space women under Buckminster Fuller-designed domes. I want what Billy Pilgrim wants!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Shepard Fairey: Rodchenko for the Obama Age

I was recently hanging out with some old college mates of mine, slumming it (which might be considered ironic if any of us made any money) and drinking down by the docks. We were right around the corner from the giant photocopier which is the Boston ICA so one of my friends suggests we all go over and check out the new Shepard Fairey show. Given that we all have BFA's we figure we have the right to waltz into any art institute, no matter how inebriated, and pontificate loudly on the works presented. So with this as our established aim we went to the show. Given that I find art to be a visual litmus test of where a culture stands within the eternal civilizational cycles described by Spengler, 'street art' and tagging (the human equivalent of territorial pissing) ranks pretty low as to where we are in history. This being said, I was prepared to be quite irritated by Fairey's work but found myself pleasantly surprised. By this I don't mean that the work was by any means 'good', rather that it was the best visual summation of the transparent liberal [non]politics touted by so many of my generation.

These days Fairey is best known for his Obama HOPE poster but his initial claim to fame was the 'Andre the Giant has a posse' stickers. The stickers are the perfect epitome of Gen Y graphic art as they combine media directed nostalgia ("hey remember that TV show?") with the Adbusters-esque undermining of advertising. Of course, like Adbusters, they aren't really undermining anything at all, and unlike actual advertising which is designed to sell some product which may or may not be of some use or enjoyment to the consumer, Fairey's Andre stickers sold nothing more than his career. But the stickers, like all modern art, once disseminated became subject to the same process of appropriation he was utilizing and so other young upstarts took his original formula and made something more interesting out of it. My personal favorite is shown below:

Fairey sees something inherently political in the way his works are shown. He is quoted here as saying:

"I consider myself a populist artist... I want to reach people through as many different platforms as possible. Street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people, but T-shirts, stickers, commercial jobs, the Internet -- there are so many different ways that I use to put my work in front of people."

I would correct this statement by saying he is a mass artist rather than a populist. For myself and many others, populism implies a certain class analysis, one which recognizes that the interests of the power elite run in direct opposition to that of 'the people', i.e. those who operate and manage the means of production. It should go without saying that in the age of millionaires in sweatpants, there is nothing particularly radical about mass culture. It should also be noted that while Fairey's art may be bureaucracy-free, that doesn't mean that it cannot be used in the service of bureaucracy viz. the HOPE poster.

Fairey's works could be classified as a sort of commercial propaganda. The look is heavily indebted to the industrial arts (i.e. screen printing) rather than the fine arts and the subject matter is very straight forward, often ripped from news headlines and popular culture (the second Gulf war, New Left icons, hip hop and rock 'legends.') While there is nothing particularly odious or interesting about any of this, especially when one considers the fact that Pop art essentially broke the mold by using the same techniques and subject matter decades earlier and with much greater success, that Fairey and his supporters seem to view this work as 'consciousness raising' speaks very clearly about their intentions.

For one, the use of New Left icons in the 21st century is a bit questionable. Since the ascendancy of the 68ers to the ruling political class, the continual endorsement of these people, from Angela Davis to Che, as radicals (when even in their day a quick look at their politics revealed a putrid self righteousness and authoritarianism) has always been nothing more than establishment-sponsored radicalism, a safe outlet for young people to vent their frustrations at 'the system' while doing nothing to actively threaten its existence. It's the old trick of controlling the established order and the opposition that make a modern totalitarian system work so well.

Another element is the faux (or is it?) propaganda aesthetic, superficially reminiscent of Stalinist kitsch, which runs through all of Fairey's pieces from OBEY to HOPE. On the outset this all seems rather tongue in cheek, but the humorless HOPE poster of our current God-King just shows how quickly the illusion of irony can come tumbling down when an agenda needs to be put forth. The use of quasi-Stalinist aesthetics is itself very telling. As fellow blogspotter James O'Meara noted when replying to my post on the art world outrage at a Eurasianist artist winning the Kandinsky prize:

As you know, I continue to be fascinated/disgusted by the way Communist affiliations, up to Stalin himself, are treated as no big deal, or even entirely natural, while the slightest hint of "conservative" views is considered a dark stain. James Kalb is probably right: communists, however murderously extreme, are still arguing from the same premises as the media and academic types, which are identical to "reason itself" while to express Rightist views is to be seen as some kind of irrational monster, capable of any crime.

So here the double standard is revealed: the use of totalitarian chic is bad when in the service of ideas which are not approved of by the Atlanticist establishment, but fine when in the service of the Executive branch and their Nashi: Rock the Vote. This is why Fairey is "our" Rodchenko (though personally I find Rodchenko to have been a much better artist), a skilled visual propagandist whose job it is to make the establishment seem cool and radical. Reason #467 that were are witnessing liberal totalitarianism, the last of the Big 3.

As an addendum, I would like to add that Fairey's current legal problems stemming from his "populist" works are just another media generated farce designed to give the impression that he is current and cutting edge, i.e. the complete opposite of someone who would be a shill for the stuffy establishment. Vice magazine, despite it's habit of lauding a lot of lame shit considered hip, does a good job here highlighting the inherent obnoxiousness of 'street art.'

Friday, March 13, 2009

Austin Gets Nostalgic for High Modernism

Despite the fact that I can probably count the readers of this blog on one hand, it seems that my interest in the pinnacle of 20th century American modernism is shared by many. Perhaps the explanation is fairly simple as people start to realize they are witnessing the principles of modernity, specifically liberal modernity, being thrown into crisis. Naturally they want to understand how we got to where we are now. But just imagine my surprise while flipping through ARTnews to see an advert for the show featured above. Now given that this is the art world, it is mostly the look of the era which the folks at the Blanton will focus on. Nevertheless, what is art but the visual summation of the zeitgeist? As the official write up for the show notes:

..designs for residential dwellings are among the iconic midcentury architectural gems captured in Julius Shulman's photographs. Shulman's images, reproduced extensively in period newspapers and magazines, were purveyors of West Coast cool, offering glimpses inside modern glass houses, where carefully staged scenes showed elegant middle–class couples acting out the suburban American dream of home ownership with Hollywood sophistication. On view will be many of Shulman's potent images of midcentury modernist architecture, which have played a critical role in the revival of interest in this period.

I should note that there is a special significance to the fact that this show specializes in Californian design. For one, the British painter David Hockney made California his home during the midcentury and his hard edge, pastel colored works truly evoke the West coast bourgeois attitude of reserved coolness and subtle sexiness. James Franco swimming nude in a pool in Milk is a clear nod to Hockney. His works alone have spawned a whole style themselves, from the yuppie and Sloane portraiture of Alex Katz to the legions of ethereal realists whose works dominate galleries today.

It should also be noted that even in the middle of the 20th century, California was still viewed as the new frontier, the antithesis to the historic and established East Coast, especially my own beloved New England. So just as the new world was the blank slate on which European expats from the emerging mercantile class would paint a new civilization, so the West coast was where the nouveau riche (by definition, more open to new ideas and riskier investments) would have the space and freedom to develop this relatively untouched land in the New Style.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Quotes for the Terror Age

"I recently had a dream that capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better"
-Cop in Fassbinder's The Third Generation

"So let's not talk of love and flowers and things that don't explode- We've used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road"
-Hawkwind, Urban Guerrilla

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stylistic Reaganism and Right Wing Existentialism

A little while ago a good friend of mine who happens to be of a Marxist disposition, though not of the vulgar sort, introduced me to the hilarity that is Ronald Reagan's cult of personality. Now there is much that can be made about Reagan and the rise of Neoconservatism but that is not what I want to discuss. Rather his cult of personality is the origin for the Bolshevikesque rallying around of Party and Executive Branch that now characterizes Republicans and mainstream conservatives. This phenomenon, of course, is wholly unpolitical and is of the same nature as doing what your boss tells you to do because (s)he is your boss and not because you trust him or her to direct things in a positive fashion. It is the simplistic worship of the external which is so characteristic of modern life and is to be found on the Right with the belief in submitting to authority because it exists as such and on the Left with the preoccupation with Otherness simply because it is not the established norm.

But before the Reagan cult of personality became a rite of passage for GOP card carriers it was a symbol for the 1980s zeitgeist of egoism, easy money and consumer excess. In it's original form it was even more divorced from politics and celebrated the beneficial outcomes of neoliberalism for individuals rather than the actual policies. While it ostensibly championed free market capitalism in it's purest form, the emerging neoliberalism was really cutting against certain New Deal leftovers from the relatively more subdued social capitalism of the High Modernist era which ended with the Carter presidency. Nevertheless, the cooperation between private enterprise and the military would surely remain intact as Reagan favored increased military spending. But, again, this stylistic Reaganism, as I call it, was not so much concerned with the actual politics and marks the changing economic structure from High Modernist to Late Modernist and the attitudes which accompanied it.

The HM era was essentially a middle class utopia. The emerging jobs which most people could attain were middle level managerial and clerical jobs. While higher education became affordable for more people, a high school diploma still allowed many to get jobs in industries where they could rise up to managerial positions and make a decent salary. The accompanying values where thus of conforming to the norm and what we might cynically and correctly note to be mediocrity and babbittry. Nevertheless, this was the egalitarianism which the High Modernist era afforded. While the social conformity was attacked by the New Left from 1968 and on, the aesthetic Reaganites of the 1980s would finish off the midlevel complacency with a new standard of excellence.

These were young people who had grown up in mostly middle class homes with parents who enjoyed the benefits of the High Modernist era. They saw that the essentials of petit bourgeois existence were fairly easy to come by but that it lead to a boring, predictable life: put up with the workaday drudgery now and be rewarded later with retirement somewhere sunny. These upstarts wanted the best of the world now and new jobs in the financial sector offered them this. Here we see a higher level of education being sought, from MBA's to CFA's, but not for the purpose of gaining a greater knowledge of the world but rather for financial gain which would lead to the accumulation of expensive commodities which would be the determinant of status. This status, it should be noted, was wholly ethereal and malleable, changing with the trends of the zeitgeist. It also went beyond the traditional modes of wealth and power to include coolness, something previously associated with countercultural elements like the Beats or Hippies who were avoiding the very life these new upstarts were striving for.

The reason for this is simple. As is explained here, the New Left was victorious on the social front and this has remained their legacy ever since the 1960s, while the [American] New Right was victorious on the economic front with the replacement of the social capitalism of the HM era with the cutthroat policies of neoliberalism. The beginnings of the Late Modern era saw a synthesis between these two groups. Hence the stylistic Reaganites, now commonly called yuppies, often favored libertine activities such as recreational drug usage, especially cocaine, while the Reagan administration waged the War on Drugs. Many were also sexually promiscuous, enjoying the benefits of the Sexual Revolution, and among this new breed of moneyed, urban financial workers homosexuals were well represented. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration pursued social conservatism.

Another shift in consciousness which occurred between the HM era and the Late Modern one was the emergence of a vulgar, rightist existentialism which took many forms. The most mainstream version of this existentialism was expressed by Margret Thatcher when she famously stated, "And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." The stylistic Reaganites took these words to heart and found that the best way to counter this lonely atomized outlook was to become highly successful within the capitalist system achieving wealth, power and coolness. This strive for excellence was set strictly within the limits of materialism, like most postwar existentialism. But unlike the existentialism of the Left, be it either Fanon's racial Otherness or de Beauvoir's feminized Englesism, this new, nominally Right existentialism was strikingly asocial and even antisocial. The Left believed that alienation, be it of a class-based, racial or gender-based variety, could be solved by a new humanist society. I would term this a social existentialism as it is not rooted in religion as, for instance, Kierkegaard's theories were but believed that social and political acts could solve said alienation. The institutionalization of the New Left has lead to the establishment of the Therapeutic State.

The Therapeutic State marks the point where the New Left went from being a revolutionary force (even though this was always in name only) to a cultural addendum of the new liberal establishment. Hence, the New Left abandoned the theory that a new society was needed to solve the alienation of women and ethnic minorities. Instead, government-funded outreach in the form of affirmative action, cultural studies programs in higher education, and sensitivity training in the private sector became the solution. This inability to distinguish between organic community and an atomized society is part of what Thatcher was attacking in her famous quote. Nevertheless, Thatcher also denies that organic community even exists. Rather there are only individuals and families and no social units or bonds larger than those. Instead, these individuals are responsible for their own lot and cannot nor should not rely on society at large to help solve their problems, be they social, financial or existential. Participation in the marketplace was the one commonality which these otherwise isolated individuals and families shared. The market was also the place where the isolation of existence could be overcome, namely through the wealth, power and coolness which the stylistic Reaganites aimed to achieve.

There is another form of this materialist, rightist existentialism which actually predates the Reagan/Thatcher era though it shares the same outlook. This existentialism was relatively more populist in character and was rooted in a reaction to social changes brought about by the New Left. This mood is best exemplified by the vigilante films Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Taxi Driver. All feature lone individuals dealing with societal decay. In these movies there is never an appeal for some form of collective solution, rather the individuals in question must deal with rampant crime themselves and, true to the vigilante tradition, won't even elicit the aid of the police. There is also an implicit lack of transcendent values in these films. In Dirty Harry, it is the broad appeal for the preservation of law and order which is the justification for the extrajudicial killings committed by Harry Callahan. In Death Wish it is the desire to protect one's family that serves as the basis for vigilante justice. Taxi Driver features the protection of innocence against sexual perversion and exploitation as its underlying theme. In all three there is an appeal to base conservative values: law and order, family loyalty and feminine purity, but the notion of society being nothing more than a loose association of isolated individuals and families brought together only through economic transactions (i.e. jobs, purchases) remains intact. While these movies do not glorify consumerism and upward mobility, in part because they predate the Reagan years where this became a greater part of the zeitgeist, they certainly do not oppose it or in any way imply that this materialism could lead to existential despair.

A third form of rightist existentialism appears during the Reagan years and to an extent is a combination of the two previously mentioned. This form, while not putting forth a transcendental solution to the materialist despair of capitalism, at least recognizes that capitalism, specifically Reaganite neoliberalism, does lead individuals towards an existential crisis. The best example of this would be American Psycho by yuppie author extraordinaire Brett Easton Ellis. The novel tells the tale of Patrick Bateman, an investment banker, who commits horrific murders in his spare time. Ellis includes scenes of graphic violence alongside the mundane activities of modern life as if to give the impression that for Bateman there is no difference. The end of the novel leads the reader to question whether the murders even happened and thusly the objective nature of reality itself. Instead, Bateman's isolation and lack of connectedness to the world around him outside of the superficial banalities of yuppie living becomes the focus.

The relationship between homicide and atomized individualism is not new, however. Ayn Rand, mother of vulgar libertarianism, was duly impressed with William Edward Hickman, a psychopath who killed and dismembered a 12 year old girl, because he reportedly told police, "I am like the state- what is good for me is right." Rand found this to be the most genuine expression of Man's psychology to date. It has been speculated that Hickman committed the murder simply to gain notoriety and fame. The murder is strikingly similar to the Leopold and Loeb case (possible origin of the homosexual thrill killing theory of criminology) where two bright young men from wealthy families murdered a young boy simply to see if they could get away with it. The case was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's excellent film Rope. In Rope, one half of the murderous duo spouts a crude Nietzschean philosophy in order to impress his professor. It is also implied that this materialist interpretation of ol' Fred is the basis for which they justified committing murder.

Of course, these are extreme examples and for most part people stricken with this modern disease do not go out and commit murder. The point, however, is that this lack of transcendent principles leads to despair and the dread of modern life becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. That certain deranged individuals would go so far as to commit murder just shows what sort of 'alternatives' become available when the cohesiveness of metaphysical values are abandoned. As Julius Evola notes in Ride the Tiger:

Transcendence, like freedom, ought to furnish existence with a foundation of calm and incomparable security, with a purity, a wholeness, and an absolute decisiveness in action. Instead, it feeds all the emotional complexes of the man in crisis: angst, nausea, disquiet, finding his own being problematical, the feeling of an obscure guilt or fall, deracination, a feeling of the absurd and irrational, an unadmitted solitude (though some, like Marcel, fully admit it), an invocation of the "incarnate spirit," the weight of an incomprehensible responsibility- incomprehensible, because he cannot resort to overtly religious (and hence coherent) positions like those of Kierkegaard or Barth, where angst refers to the sentiment of the soul that is alone, fallen, and abandoned to itself in the presence of God. In all of this, feelings appear like those that Nietzsche warned about in the case of a man who has made himself free without having the necessary stature: feelings that kill and shatter a man- modern man- if he is incapable of killing them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

On the Essentials of the High Modernist Era and the Current Crisis

I recently picked up The Idol and the Octopus by Norman Mailer in a quaint little used bookstore in Manhattan. He has held some interest for me since discovering that he is a self described Left Conservative. Dylan Hayle's blog by this name uses a great quote from the late Mr. Mailer which sums up most succinctly where radical politics needs to go in our current era, "It may yet take an alchemy of Left and Right to confound the corporate center." But Mailer offers much more than just potent quotables. The Idol and the Octopus reveals his eagle eye criticism of the High Modernist zeitgeist of which he was an essential component. For those readers (crickets...) who may have found my ability to define the high point of 20th century modernism lacking, here is Mailer on the essential look and feel of this era:

Railroad stations in large cities should properly be monumental, heavy with dignity, reminiscent of the past. We learn little from travel, not nearly so much as we need to learn, if everywhere we are assaulted by the faceless surfaces of everything plastic which has been built in America since the war, that new architecture of giant weeds and giant boxes, of children's colors on billboards and jagged electric signs. Like the metastases of cancer cells, the plastic shacks, the motels, the drive-in theatres, the highway restaurants and the gas stations proliferate year by year until they are close to covering the highways of America with a new country which is laid over the old one the way a transparent sheet with new drawings is set upon the original plan. It is an architecture with no root to the past and no suggestion of the future, for one cannot conceive of a modern building growing old (does it turn dingy or will the colors stain?); there is no way to age, it can only cease to function. No doubt these buildings will live for twenty years and then crack in two. They will live like robots, or television sets which go out of order with one whistle of the wind.

The fact that Mailer points out that the New Landscape which has popped up has come after the Second World War is the key to understanding this era. Yes the buildings are cheap, plastic and have no sense of past or future, only an eerie immediatism to them. As we now know, they do become dingy and the colors fade yet they still retain an ahistorical feeling. They lack all ornamentation and when they are left behind in placeless industrial parks like pods dropped from spaceships of modular production we are struck by the naked utility made moot by their emptiness. The antagonism they show for the environment around them has the effect of a spreading cancer infecting everything around it and producing the dreaded Office Rows present in every United State: miles of highway surrounded by these factories of fluorescent mediocrity garnished by an over-ordered landscaping. The feeling is again timeless and placeless and causes one to wonder about the Gnostic celebration of space over time. If space is the place and time is the enemy why does this smack of Purgatory? Mailer elaborates on the cancer allegory in his architectural criticism and roots it in the societal crisis of individuals:

Now note: we sink into cancer after we have gorged on all the medicines which cheated all the diseases we have fled in our life, we sink into cancer when the organs, deadened by chemical rescues manufactured outside the body, became too biologically muddled to dominate their cells. Departing from the function of the separate organs, cancer cells from separate organs grow to look more like one another than the cells they have departed from. So, too, as society bogs into hypocrisies so elaborate they can no longer be traced, then do our buildings, those palpable artifacts of social cells, come to look like one another and cease to function with the mysterious proportion of the past.

Getting back to the point of the first sentence of the previous paragraph, American victory in Dubya Dubya Two was the reason for the postwar economic boom (the beginning of the High Modernist era) just as American involvement in said conflict was the reason the Depression ended. Perhaps like Mailer's quote about the Left and Right joining to destroy the corporate center, we now have libertarians and Marxists alike agreeing that the New Deal failed to end the Depression and, in fact, prolonged it. As Marxist economist David Harvey notes:

It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt’s attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt’s too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push towards a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.

Harvey, like many libertarians, also argues that Obama's current stimulus package will probably have the similar effect of failing to address the current economic crisis and possibly even prolonging it. Now while libertarians may not like Harvey's insistence that it is more spending, not less or any, which is needed to get us out of the morass (and I would agree with them), it should be noted that it was military Keynesianism which ended the depression. The equation was simple, hyperproduction + rationing by the citizenry as a whole + no damage to infrastructure or loss of life on the scale which Europe experienced during war= Depression ended and postwar economic boom. America in the High Modernist era was the epitome of the progress and evolution of capitalism to its highest point. At this point, thanks in no small part to the burgeoning cooperation between State and Capital (largely in the form of the MIC) which would set the stage for our current era of state capitalism, regular working people were able to afford much more and enjoy a higher standard of living than ever before. Advances in technology made it so that basic things like food were available in larger quanities and that even the process of cooking them had been streamlined so the least amount of time and labor was involved, i.e. TV dinners. With this we see the end of the Protestant work ethic and the beginning of the leisure principle which would lead to a consumer identity replacing a class based one and class itself being diluted by the consumer communism afforded by capitalism between the High Modernist era and the post-9/11 era. Why fight the class war when you can get lost in the supermarket? Forget "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise", to quote Mark Sandman "early to bed and early to rise makes a man or woman miss out on the nightlife."

Now that the relative wealth and ease of life created by postwar advanced capitalism is being thrown into crisis we see criticism of the cheapness and utility of modern life popping up in mainstream publications and news sources. On the surface they resemble Mailer's prescient observations quoted above but the reality is much different. Mailer was someone who believed in social justice. He was an independent leftist who saw that the modernizing effect of technology which is too often lauded as positive in and of itself has a very negative effect on human nature. On the contrary, the journalists and opinion makers who now deride what was revolutionary and progressive about modern capitalism (an easier life and a higher standard of living) do so as to stay ahead of the curve so they can welcome with open arms the new class war between the People (the majority of the population, those who work for a living) and the Elite (the plutocrats and oligarchs, their enablers and co-conspirators in the government, and their defenders in the MSM and upper academia) and ensure they are on the winning side. These court 'intellectuals' (if we can even dignify them with such a word) will speak of the very real and often underexplained and underestimated economic crisis with the same level of urgency as the entirely fictional environmental crisis, itself a secularized catastrophe fantasy designed to give these postmodern Puritans something to feel morally superior about with their lifestyle politics of Whole Foods activism and urbanite entitlement.

In regards to said economic crisis, here is my entirely serious solution: It has been correctly noted by more than a few people that the Bailout (yes, I think we can start refering to it with caps like the Depression of the 1930s), instead of being doled out to a few members of the Elite, could have been distributed to each American citizen, which of course would make more sense as it is made up of tax dollars taken from the paychecks of working Americans. The exact amount that each American would recieve if evenly distributed can be debated but the I think it can be safely assumed to be well within six figures. This sort of bankruptcy sale social democracy would probably have the effect of actually bankrupting, or at the very least cripling to the point of irrelevancy, the government and those parasitic institutions which were never needed in the first place. With this populist stimulus the natural elite would buy land, firearms, food, vehicles and plenty of luxuries to make the hard times ahead as easy as possible as people got down to the serious business of free association, self determination and establishing a whole new economic system of production, sales and distribution and a whole new social and cultural order. Sure the morons would buy TV's, sneakers and Dane Cook DVDs and probably starve to death before they even attempted to be self sufficient but so be it. The plutocrats and their enablers would be rounded up and summarily executed.

Now while I think that the positive effects of modern capitalism mentioned above are, well, positive, that doesn't mean they don't come at a price. One cannot forget that there is a direct line from there to now that is unbroken, just take the rise of state capitalism as an example. Also, the problem with the rise of the leisure principle is that, well, it became a principle in and of itself rather than a nice side effect of the historical process. Norman Mailer gets it right (for the most part) when he writes:

The crucial characteristic of modern totalitarianism is that it is a moral disease which divorces us from guilt. It came into being as a desire to escape the judgements of the past and our responsibility for past injustice- in that sense it is a defense against eternity, an attempt to destroy that part of eternity which is death, which is punishment or reward. It arose from the excesses of theology, the exploitation of theology, and the oppressions of theology, but in destroying theology, the being of man and his vision may be reduced to a thousand-year apathy, or to extinction itself. The words are abstract, but the meaning by now is I hope not altogether hidden. In our flight from the consequence of our lives, in our flight from adventure, from danger, and from the natural ravages of disease, in our burial of the primitive, it is death the twentieth century is seeking to avoid.

To this I will add a point about leisure and technology. The Puritans lived life through a very materialist and life-hating perspective. They worked from sun up to sun down and allowed very little time for what most people might consider "fun" as they viewed such pleasures as acts of Satan and his emissaries. Idle hands are the Devil's tools. Indeed, the heathen or the independent Marxist will tell you that leisure time is essential for the creation of art and culture. But this perspective is not of the Judeo-Christian mindset which fused with capitalism through the Protestant work ethic and is now bellowing out of those windbags who now tell us that being poor (or poorer) will make us holy. The Romans, on the other hand, existed in a time far predating the supposed technological and ideological progress of the era in which the Purtians lived yet were possesed with a spitituality much greater than those nasty busybodies and were also able to enjoy bathhouses equipped with an elaborate plumbing system. Try explaining that one to their Colonial ancestors who were still heating up the bath water over the fire. Perhaps the present isn't always an improvement over the past. Yes, we are always moving forward in time, but we are moving forward in cycles. Maybe what we really need is a

“re-emergence of archaic social configurations in a new context”. For the societies of the future we need to think in terms of a combination of the advances of techno-science and the return to traditional solutions out of the mists of time. That may be the true nature of post-modernity, as far removed from a nostalgic cult of the past as it is from an idiotic worship of whatever is current. Between the longest memory and the Faustian soul should not be a question of “or” but of “and”. For they do match. To bring together Evola and Marinetti...The Ancients are not to be aligned with the moderns but with the futurists, for...globally the future needs the return to ancestral values and that applies the whole world over.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Whispers of Conspiracy

More interesting stuff from the diaries of Ken Tynan. This time with Gore Vidal high on the 'exhaust fumes of democracy.' From June 25, 1973:

Then to the Connaught with Gore Vidal and Burt Shevelove. Gore is not a bit surprised that Governor George Wallace was on Nixon's list of politcal 'enemies', indeed, he says he is convinced that Nixon engineered the attempted assassination of Wallace during the 1972 election campaign.

Then on December 6th of the same year, the great American aristocrat returns to the same subject with further elaboration:

At dinner Gore Vidal bets me $1,000 that Nixon will be out of office by 1 April, next year. Cravenly, I refuse the bet, though I'm sure he can't be right. Gore is fascinating on the subject of E. Howard Hunt, the novelist, CIA man and Watergate conspirator who just may have had a hand in the killing of J.F.K. and the assassination attempt on Wallace.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reactionary [Late] Modernism: Back in Style!

ARTnews does a fine job reporting on horrifying events in the art world. Consider that art works owned by long since dead Jews, killed during some holocaust and confiscated by the Nazzies, ended up in European art museums, on display for the public! "Oh, gawd, tha horrahs!" Good thing the ancestors of those deceased parasites, er.. patrons of the arts, were contacted so the works could be returned to their rightful owners. Of course, contacting the ancestors of the artists who actually created the works was out of the question since in the feudal enterprise known as the art world, the fruits of one's labor mean nothing when compared to the purse of those desperately trying to buy culture.

After that shocking affair (art on display for the public! really...), we have this travesty: Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt winning the Kandinsky Prize for the Project of the Year, "Russia's answer to the Turner Prize." So far it seems innocuous enough until it is revealed that Alexy:

is regarded by many as a fascist. He is the official artistic director of the Eurasian Youth Union, the youth wing of the small, ultranationalist Eurasia Party, which is rumored to be supported by the Kremlin. Last August he visited South Ossetia during the war between Georgia and Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists. After his return, he gave an interview glorifying the might of Russian arms and proposed the reconstruct Tskhinvali, the battered capital of the runaway republic, in Stalinist architectural style.

Two things. For one, wasn't it Stalinist Russia that is typically credited with the defeat of the fascists? Secondly, why is it so out of the question for an artist who is a member of a political group rumored to be supported by the Russian state to be awarded the Kandinsky prize? The website for the Tate Modern notes that:

After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 Kandinsky produced no more paintings for two years. This was partly due to lack of funds; but he was also co-operating with the new government by taking on numerous important roles in the new art institutions of the Bolshevik regime. When he did start to paint again in 1919, his paintings show a simplification of form and a more comprehensible structure. Continuing his developments of two years earlier, White Oval (1919) includes both a strong central shape and a dark, enclosing border. The pictorial space is freer than in his earlier work, more open and less physically dense. The painting In Grey (1919) is subdued in colour, and the shapes are starting to become more sharp edged, verging on the geometric – possibly a response to Kandinsky’s contact with the younger artists of the Russian avant-garde, such as Kasimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko.

Of course Malevich and Rodchenko were both well known supporters of the Bolsheviks as well. But these well known facts certainly wouldn't prevent the defenders of liberal orthodoxy from making an ass of themselves:

the announcement of his win caused an uproar in the Vinzavod audience, his supporters cheering while detractors booed and jeered. His acceptance speech was interrupted by the previous year's winner, Anatoly Osmolovsky, repeatedly yelling "Shame!" Outside, picketers holding a swastika-covered banner and chanting "A disgrace to Kandinsky" scuffled with the artist's supporters.

Even the author of the article, who at least admits that the fascist label is misleading, goes off the deep end by noting that:

Russian commentators wondered how much the foreign jurors knew about such figures as Alain de Benoist, a leader of the French New Right, whose doctrines are available on the Web site of the Eurasian Movement along with a manifesto composed by Beliayev-Guintovt. It also seems unlikely that the foreign judges [Ed. note: two Western jurors who voted in favor of Alexey winning the prize and were quoted as saying they evaluated "the works and not their content", which is like saying they looked at them but didn't see them] are familiar with such prophets of Eurasianism as the militaristic German writer Ernst Jünger, who claimed to "hate democracy like a plague," or the Italian occultist and fascist Julius Evola.

Just imagine the horror if people actually read some of the works by these 'creeps' and actually formulated an opinion on them outside the fear mongering of the chattering classes. And here I thought the reign of liberal modernity was supposed to have caused the desacralization of the word...