the end of another dull and lurid year, and a new one just begun . . .

From "The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same" Department:
 

Quotations from recent reading which frame the problem . . .

"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears."

 

—Antoni Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971)


"What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts."

 

—Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1972)

 


 . . . and describe the symptoms:


"No, you didn’t know my Zikmund, because he was not himself when he came with me to the camp. Because he lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore . . ." 

 

—Fred Wander, The Seventh Well (1971)


"Retailers are down 20 percent. Auto industry is in the dump. Housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment."

 

—Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air (2009), based on the novel by Walter Kirn

 

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boredom / happiness studies: adorno on the fetishism of suntanning & schopenhauer


An archetypal instance is the behaviour of those who grill themselves brown in the sun merely for the sake of a sun-tan, although dozing in the blazing sunshine is not at all enjoyable, might very possibly be physically unpleasant, and certainly impoverishes the mind. In the sun-tan, which can be quite fetching, the fetish character of the commodity lays claim to actual people; they themselves become fetishes. The idea that a girl is more erotically attractive because of her brown skin is probably only another rationalization. The sun-tan is an end in itself, of more importance than the boy-friend it was perhaps supposed to entice. 

   
Adorno on the evils of suntanning:

The act of dozing in the sun marks the culmination of a crucial element of free time under present conditions – boredom. The miracles which people expect from their holidays or from other special treats in their free time, are subject to endless spiteful ridicule, since even here they never get beyond the threshold of the eversame: distant places are no longer – as they still were for Baudelaire’s ennui – different places. The victim’s ridicule is automatically connected to the very mechanisms which victimize. At an early age Schopenhauer formulated a theory of boredom. True to his metaphysical pessimism he teaches that people either suffer from the unfulfilled desires of their blind will, or become bored as soon as these desires are satisfied. The theory well describes what becomes of people’s free time under the sort of conditions of heteronomy, and which in new German tends to be termed Fremdbestimmtheit  (external determination). In its cynicism Schopenhauer’s arrogant remark that mankind is the factory product of nature also captures something of what the totality of the commodity character actually makes man into. Angry cynicism still does more honour to human beings than solemn protestations about man’s irreducible essence. However, one should not hypostatize Schopenhauer’s doctrine as something of universal validity or even as an insight into the primal character of the human species. Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labour. It need not be so. Whenever behaviour in spare time is truly autonomous, determined by free people for themselves, boredom rarely figures; it need not figure in activities which cater merely for the desire for pleasure, any more than it does in those free time activities which are reasonable and meaningful in themselves. Even fooling about need not be crass, and can be enjoyed as a blessed release from the throes of self-control. If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored. Boredom is the reflection of objective dullness.


Adorno on DIY (home improvement?):

 

‘Do it yourself ’, this contemporary type of spare time behaviour fits however into a much more far-reaching context. More than thirty years ago I described such behaviour as ‘pseudo-activity’. Since then pseudoactivity has spread alarmingly, even (and especially) amongst those people who regard themselves as anti-establishment. Generally speaking there is good reason to assume that all forms of pseudo-activity contain a pent-up need to change the petrified relations of society. Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all.

 

—excerpted from Adorno’s essay “Free Time,” in his The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture (1991).

 

Read "Free Time," IF YOU DARE!

siegfried kracauer on memory and photography

Siegfried Kracauer in 1930.


Forced to leave fascist Germany in 1933, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) began a period of exile that would last the rest of his life. It was thus in Paris and then, after 1941, in New York that he would write the works for which he is known in the Anglo-American realm: a "social biography" of Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in Paris, 1937), a study of Weimar film (From Caligari to Hitler, 1947), an aesthetics of cinema (Theory of Film, 1960) and a meditation on the philosophy of history (History: The Last Things before the Last, 1969). What Kracauer abandoned in Frankfurt and Berlin was not only his native language but also a career as one of the major cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. Trained as both an architect and a sociologist, in the mid-1920s Kracauer became one of the editors of the feuilleton (arts and culture) section of the important, left-liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, a paper in which he eventually published nearly two thousand articles on a remarkably wide range of subjects. While many of these were more or less incidental journalistic pieces, others, such as "Photography," were sustained philosophical reflections. It was in these pages that Kracauer effectively pioneered the genre of sociological film criticism, undertook a pathbreaking series of analyses of the new "employee-class" (collected in 1930 in a book entitled Die Angestellten), and published major essays on Kafka, Benjamin, Weber, Scheler, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, the genre of biography, to name just a few. Together with his friends Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch, whose work he published regularly in the feuilleton section, Kracauer also wrote philosophical and sociological analyses of daily-life phenomena in the tradition of his teacher Georg Simmel. In these quotidian micrologies focusing, for example, on the architecture of cinema pal- aces, unemployment offices and arcades, on travel and dance troupes, best-sellers and boredom, on neon-light displays and mass sports events, Kracauer developed a genre motivated by the following programmatic insight: "One must rid oneself of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on people. They are much more deeply and continuously influenced by the tiny catastrophes which make up daily life." The publication in translation of a collection of these essays from the Weimar period entitled The Mass Ornament will finally make available this important and until recently largely unknown facet of Kracauer’s work.



. . . Memory
encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event. Compared to photography memory’s records are full of gaps. The fact that the grandmother was at one time involved in a nasty story that is being recounted time and again because one really doesn’t like to talk about it-this doesn’t mean much from the photographer’s perspective. He knows the first little wrinkles on her face and has noted every date. Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance. The selection of traits that it assembles must strike the photographer as arbitrary. The selection may have been made this way rather than another because disposition and purposes required the repression, falsification, and emphasis of certain parts of the object; a virtually endless number of reasons determines the remains to be filtered. No matter which scenes a person remembers, they all mean something that is relevant to him or her without his or her necessarily knowing what they mean. Memories are retained because of their significance for that person. Thus they are organized according to a principle that is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter’s perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.


The meaning of memory-images is linked to their truth content. As long as they are embedded in the uncontrolled life of the drives they are inhabited by a demonic ambiguity; they are opaque like frosted glass that hardly a ray of light can penetrate. Their transparency increases to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul and limit the compulsion of nature. Truth can only be found by a liberated consciousness that assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or shut out by them. The image in which these traits are to be found is distinguished from all other memory-images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but instead elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory-images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since in it alone does the unforgettable persevere. The last image of a person is that per- son’s actual "history." In this history, all characteristics and determinations that do not relate in a significant sense to the truth intended by a liberated consciousness drop out. How a person represents this history does not depend purely on his or her natural constitution nor on the pseudo-coherence of his or her individuality; thus only fragments of these assets are included in his or her history. This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament. Eckart’s monogram is fidelity.* Great historical figures survive in legends that, however naive they may be, strive to preserve their actual history. In authentic fairy tales, the imagination has intuitively deposited typical monograms. In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow…


* The German mythological hero, faithful protector, and counselor Eckart warns the Nibelungen at the border of the Rüdegers Mark of the threatening Hunn danger. Kracauer here plays on the association of Eckart and fidelity as manifest in Ludwig Tieck’s 1799 fable "Tannenhauser and the Faithful Eckart" and Goethe’s 1811 text entitled "The Faithful Eckart."


—from Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.


“we never experience an affect for the first time; every affect contains within it an archive of its previous objects.”

 

Is dwelling on loss not necessarily depressing?  Jonathan Flatley argues that embracing melancholy can be a road back to connecting with others and enable you to productively remap your relationship to the world. Aesthetic activity can give one the means to comprehend and change one’s relation to loss.

Flatley’s argument shares with Freud an interest in understanding the depressing effects of difficult loss and with Walter Benjamin the hope that loss itself can become a means of connection and the basis for social transformation. The affective maps artists like Henry James produce can make possible the conversion of a depressive melancholia into a way to be interested in the world (cribbed from Flatley’s publisher).

Affective Mapping

 

The decisively new ferment that enters the taedium vitae and turns it into spleen is self-estrangement.

 

—Walter Benjamin, Central Park

 

In his influential 1960 book The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch explored the ways residents internalize maps of their cities. These cogninitive maps give one a sense of location and direction, and enable one to make decisions about where one wants to go and how to get there.1 A later scholar helpfully defined cognitive mapping as “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment.”2 Lynch studied three different cities—Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City—and found that some cities are more “legible” to their residents than others. That is, “the ease with which [the city’s] parts can be recognized and can be organized into a coherent pattern” varies from city to city.3 In a nongrid city like Boston, with notable points of reference like the Charles River, Boston Common, and Boston Harbor, residents were quite able to assemble usable cognitive maps of the city through repetitive experience of it. Jersey City, on the other hand, organized by an incomplete grid, was found to be more undifferentiated and thus less legible. Many of its residents, Lynch found, had only fragmented or partial images of the city. Since an image of the total system in which one is located is of course a crucial element in establishing one’s confidence in one’s ability to live in the world—see friends, get to the hospital, buy groceries, go out to dinner, arrive at the train station on time—the lack of such an ability can produce a sense of anxiety and alienation.

 

In his essay “Cognitive Mapping,” Fredric Jameson expanded the use of the term to suggest that just as one needs a cognitive map of city space in order to have a sense of agency there, one requires a cognitive map of social space for a sense of agency in the world more generally.4 Such a map’s function is “to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.”5 In other words, in its negotiation of the gap between local subjective experience and a vision of an overall environment, the cognitive map is an apt figure for one of the functions of ideology, which is, in Althusser’s now classic formulation, “the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship to his or her real conditions of existence.”6 We all need such representations, no matter how imaginary, in order to make sense and move through our everyday lives. By the same token, “the incapacity to map socially is as crippling to political experience as the analogous incapacity to map spatially is for urban experience.”7

 

The difference with the social map is that where the totality of Boston is quite representable, the “totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole,” conversely, is not. And the socioeconomic systems we all must negotiate on a daily basis are becoming ever less representable.8  Increasingly, Jameson argues, the distance between the structures that order everyday life and the phenomenology and datum of that life itself have become unbridgeable.9 Cognitive mapping in this context would be an essential part of “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.”10 Without such a picture insights remain partial and fragmented; we remain mired in the logic of the system as it exists.

 

*

 

So then what is this thing I have been calling affective mapping? In the context of geography and environmental psychology, the term affective mapping has been used to indicate the affective aspects of the maps that guide us, in conjunction with our cognitive maps, through our spatial environment.11 That is, we develop our sense of our environments through purposive activity in the world, and we always bring with us a range of intentions, beliefs, desires, moods, and affective attachments to this activity. Hence our spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going, the things that happen to us along the way, and the people we meet, and these emotional valences, of course, affect how we create itineraries. For instance, I live in downtown Detroit, and when I am in the suburbs around Detroit, I often get the sense that some people in the suburbs who have not crossed over the city limits for years carry around with them a map on which Detroit is a large, hazily defined space, but a space clearly marked by some mixture of fear, anxiety, sorrow, and nostalgia. They avoid Detroit not because of poor urban planning or a lack of landmarks but because of the emotions they have associated with the city space of Detroit.

 

Thus, by way of analogy, I would suggest that social maps are also marked with various affective values. To return to the example regarding the suburban resident who avoids Detroit, this is an affective map of social space as well, in a way that parallels ideology. For in all likelihood the person from the suburbs of whom I write is white, and Detroit is largely African American, and this split is of course overwritten by a class divide, so emotions about Detroit as a space are, for these suburban residents, inevitably also emotions about class and “race” and racism. In short, it is not just ideologies or cognitive maps that shape our behavior and practices in the world but also the affects we have about the relevant social structures of our world. The term affective map in this sense is meant to indicate the pictures we all carry around with us on which are recorded the affective values of the various sites and situations that constitute our social worlds.

 

I should perhaps reemphasize here that “map” is meant in a particular, metaphorical sense, a metaphorics that I hope does not too seriously limit the concept. The affective map, like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic map, is neither fixed nor stable: “The rhizome refers to a map that must be produced or constructed, is always detachable, connectable, reversable, and modifiable, with multiple entrances and exits, with its lines of flight. The tracings are what must be transferred onto the maps and not the reverse.”12 Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. 

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nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age


The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism

 

Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.

 

With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.

 

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.

 

During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.

 

Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."

 

That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."

 

With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.

 

Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.

 

A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,

 

With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"

 

A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.

 

When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."

 

Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.

 

For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.

 

Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.

 

"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.

 

In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.

 

The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.

 

To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.

 

Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.

 

Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.

 

Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."

 

Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.

 

Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.

 

Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.

 

"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.

 

Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.

 

Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.

 

Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.

 

2000

 

—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

frederic jameson on the disappearance of the individual subject and the practice of pastiche

"Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective spirit’: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach." 


—Frederic Jameson


The disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche. This concept, which we owe to Thomas Mann (in Doktor Faustus), who owed it in turn to Adorno’s great work on the two paths of advanced musical experimentation (Schoenberg’s innovative planification and Stravinsky’s irrational eclecticism), is to be sharply distinguished from the more readily received idea of parody.

To be sure, parody found a fertile area in the idiosyncracies of the moderns and their "inimitable" styles: the Faulknerian long sentence, for example, with its breathless gerundives; Lawrentian nature imagery punctuated by testy colloquialism; Wallace Stevens’s inveterate hypostasis of nonsubstantive parts of speech ("the intricate evasions of as"); the fateful (but finally predictable) swoops in Mahler from high orchestral pathos into village accordion sentiment; Heidegger’s meditative-solemn practice of the false etymology as a mode of "proof" . . . All these strike one as somehow characteristic, insofar as they ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself, in a not necessarily unfriendly way, by a systematic mimicry of their willful eccentricities.

Yet in the dialectical leap from quantity to quality, the explosion of modern literature into a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms has been followed by a linguistic fragmentation of social life itself to the point where the norm itself is eclipsed: reduced to a neutral and reified media speech (far enough from the Utopian aspirations of the inventors of Esperanto or Basic English), which itself then becomes but one more idiolect among many. Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes. And that the stupendous proliferation of social codes today into professional and disciplinary jargons (but also into the badges of affirmation of ethnic, gender, race, religious, and class-factional adhesion) is also a political phenomenon, the problem of micropolitics sufficiently demonstrates. If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.

In this situation parody finds itself without a vocation; it has lived, and that strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.

It would therefore begin to seem that Adorno’s prophetic diagnosis has been realized, albeit in a negative way: not Schönberg (the sterility of whose achieved system he already glimpsed) but Stravinsky is the true precursor of postmodern cultural production. For with the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of style — what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body (the very source, for an early Roland Barthes, of stylistic invention and innovation) — the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.

This situation evidently determines what the architecture historians call "historicism," namely, the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and in general what Henri Lefebvre has called the increasing primacy of the "neo." This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumer’s appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and "spectacles" (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the "simulacrum," the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it "the image has become the final form of commodity reification" (The Society of the Spectacle).

The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified: what was once, in the historical novel as Lukacs defines it, the organic genealogy of the bourgeois collective project — what is still, for the redemptive historiography of an E. P Thompson or of American "oral history," for the resurrection of the dead of anonymous and silenced generations, the retrospective dimension indispensable to any vital reorientation of our collective future — has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum. Guy Debord’s powerful slogan is now even more apt for the "prehistory" of a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles. In faithful conformity to poststructuralist linguistic theory, the past as "referent" finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts.

Yet it should not be thought that this process is accompanied by indifference: on the contrary, the remarkable current intensification of an addiction to the photographic image is itself a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous, and well-nigh libidinal historicism. As I have already observed, the architects use this (exceedingly polysemous) word for the complacent eclecticism of postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles. Nostalgia does not strike one as an altogether satisfactory word for such fascination (particularly when one thinks of the pain of a properly modernist nostalgia with a past beyond all but aesthetic retrieval), yet it directs our attention to what is a culturally far more generalized manifestation of the process in commercial art and taste, namely the so-called nostalgia film (or what the French call la mode retro).

Nostalgia films restructure thewhole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire7 — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs (Coppola’s Rumble Fish will then be the contemporary dirge that laments their passing, itself, however, still contradictorily filmed in genuine nostalgia film style). With this initial breakthrough, other generational periods open up for aesthetic colonization: as witness the stylistic recuperation of the American and the Italian 1930s, in Polanski’s Chinatown and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista, respectively. More interesting, and more problematical, are the ultimate attempts, through this new discourse, to lay siege either to our own present and immediate past or to a more distant history that escapes individual existential memory.

Faced with these ultimate objects — our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" — the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of fashion (in that following the prescription of the Barthes of Mythologies, who saw connotation as the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities: "Sinité," for example, as some Disney-EPCOT "concept" of China).

The insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode can be observed in Lawrence Kasdan’s elegant film Body Heat, a distant "affluent society" remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, set in a contemporary Florida small town a few hours’ drive from Miami. The word remake is, however, anachronistic to the degree to which our awareness of the preexistence of other versions (previous films of the novel as well as the novel itself) is now a constitutive and essential part of the film’s structure: we are now, in other words, in "intertextuality" as a deliberate, built-in feature of the aesthetic effect and as the operator of a new connotation of "pastness" and pseudohistorical depth, in which the history of aesthetic styles displaces "real" history.

Yet from the outset a whole battery of aesthetic signs begin to distance the officially contemporary image from us in time: the art deco scripting of the credits, for example, serves at once to program the spectator to the appropriate "nostalgia" mode of reception (art deco quotation has much the same function in contemporary architecture, as in Toronto’s remarkable EatonCentre).8 Meanwhile, a somewhat different play of connotations is activated by complex (but purely formal) allusions to the institution of the star system itself. The protagonist, William Hurt, is one of a new generation of film "stars" whose status is markedly distinct from that of the preceding generation of male superstars, such as Steve McQueen or Jack Nicholson (or even, more distantly, Brando), let alone of earlier moments in the evolution of the institution of the star. The immediately preceding generation projected their various roles through and by way of their well-known off-screen personalities, which often connoted rebellion and nonconformism. The latest generation of starring actors continues to assure the conventional functions of stardom (most notably sexuality) but in the utter absence of "personality" in the older sense, and with something of the anonymity of character acting (which in actors like Hurt reaches virtuoso proportions, yet of a very different kind than the virtuosity of the older Brando or Olivier). This "death of the subject" in the institution of the star now, however, opens up the possibility of a play of historical allusions to much older roles — in this case to those associated with Clark Gable — so that the very style of the acting can now also serve as a "connotator" of the past.

Finally, the setting has been strategically framed, with great ingenuity, to eschew most of the signals that normally convey the contemporaneity of the United States in its multinational era: the small-town setting allows the camera to elude the high-rise landscape of the 1970s and 1980s (even though a key episode in the narrative involves the fatal destruction of older buildings by land speculators), while the object world of the present day — artifacts and appliances, whose styling would at once serve to date the image — is elaborately edited out. Everything in the film, therefore, conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal thirties, beyond real historical time. This approach to the present by way of the art language of the simulacrum, or of the pastiche of the stereotypical past, endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage. Yet this mesmerizing new aesthetic mode itself emerged as an elaborated symptom of the waning of our historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history in some active way. It cannot therefore be said to produce this strange occultation of the present by its own formal power, but rather merely to demonstrate, through these inner contradictions, the enormity of a situation in which we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.

As for "real history" itself — the traditional object, however it may be defined, of what used to be the historical novel — it will be more revealing now to turn back to that older form and medium and to read its postmodern fate in the work of one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today, whose books are nourished with history in the more traditional sense and seem, so far, to stake out successive generational moments in the "epic" of American history, between which they alternate. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime gives itself officially as a panorama of the first two decades of the century (like World’s Fair); his most recent novel, Billy Bathgate, like Loon Lake addresses the thirties and the Great Depression, while The Book of Daniel holds up before us, in painful juxtaposition, the two great moments of the Old Left and the New Left, of thirties and forties communism and the radicalism of the 1960s (even his early western may be said to fit into this scheme and to designate in a less articulated and formally self-conscious way the end of the frontier of the late nineteenth century).

The Book of Daniel is not the only one of these five major historical novels to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader’s and the writer’s present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work; the astonishing last page of Loon Lake, which I will not disclose, also does this in a very different way; it is a matter of some interest to note that the first version of Ragtime9 positions us explicitly in our own present, in the novelist’s house in New Rochelle, New York, which at once becomes the scene of its own (imaginary) past in the 1900s. This detail has been suppressed from the published text, symbolically cutting its moorings and freeing the novel to float in some new world of past historical time whose relationship to us is problematical indeed. The authenticity of the gesture, however, may be measured by the evident existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life.

A crisis in historicity, however, inscribes itself symptomatically in several other curious formal features within this text. Its official subject is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s (the rise of Hollywood and of the image as commodity): the interpolated version of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, the strange, tragic episode of the black protagonist’s revolt, may be thought of as a moment related to this process. That Ragtime has political content and even something like a political "meaning" seems in any case obvious and has been expertly articulated by Linda Hutcheon in terms of

its three paralleled families: the Anglo-American establishment one and the marginal immigrant European and American black ones. The novel’s action disperses the center of the first and moves the margins into the multiple "centers" of the narrative, in a formal allegory of the social demographics of urban America. In addition, there is an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power. The black Coalhouse, the white Houdini, the immigrant Tateh are all working class, and because of this — not in spite of it — all can therefore work to create new aesthetic forms (ragtime, vaudeville, movies).10

But this does everything but the essential, lending the novel an admirable thematic coherence few readers can have experienced in parsing the lines of a verbal object held too close to the eyes to fall into these perspectives. Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact. For one thing, the objects of representation, ostensibly narrative characters, are incommensurable and, as it were, of incomparable substances, like oil and water — Houdini being a historical figure, Tateh a fictional one, and Coalhouse an intertextual one — something very difficult for an interpretive comparison of this kind to register. Meanwhile, the theme attributed to the novel also demands a somewhat different kind of scrutiny, since it can be rephrased into a classic version of the Left’s "experience of defeat" in the twentieth century, namely, the proposition that the depolitization of the workers’ movement is attributable to the media or culture generally (what she here calls "new aesthetic forms"). This is, indeed, in my opinion, something like the elegiac backdrop, if not the meaning, of Ragtime, and perhaps of Doctorow’s work in general; but then we need another way of describing the novel as something like an unconscious expression and associative exploration of this left doxa, this historical opinion or quasi-vision in the mind’s eye of "objective spirit." What such a description would want to register is the paradox that a seemingly realistic novel like Ragtime is in reality a nonrepresentational work that combines fantasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram.

My point, however, is not some hypothesis as to the thematic coherence of this decentered narrative but rather just the opposite, namely, the way in which the kind of reading this novel imposes makes it virtually impossible for us to reach and thematize those official "subjects" which float above the text but cannot be integrated into our reading of the sentences. In that sense, the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws. When we remember that the theoretical critique and repudiation of interpretation as such is a fundamental component of poststructuralist theory, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.

The book is crowded with real historical figures — from Teddy Roosevelt to Emma Goldman, from Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White to J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford, not to mention the more central role of Houdini — who interact with a fictive family, simply designated as Father, Mother, Older Brother, and so forth. All historical novels, beginning with those of Sir Walter Scott himself, no doubt in one way or another involve a mobilization of previous historical knowledge generally acquired through the schoolbook history manuals devised for whatever legitimizing purpose by this or that national tradition — thereafter instituting a narrative dialectic between what we already "know" about The Pretender, say, and what he is then seen to be concretely in the pages of the novel. But Doctorow’s procedure seems much more extreme than this; and I would argue that the designation of both types of characters — historical names and capitalized family roles — operates powerfully and systematically to reify all these characters and to make it impossible for us to receive their representation without the prior interception of already acquired knowledge or doxa — something which lends the text an extraordinary sense of deja vu and a peculiar familiarity one is tempted to associate with Freud’s "return of the repressed" in "The Uncanny" rather than with any solid historiographic formation on the reader’s part.

Meanwhile, the sentences in which all this is happening have their own specificity, allowing us more concretely to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called "white writing." In this particular novel, Doctorow has imposed upon himself a rigorous principle of selection in which only simple declarative sentences (predominantly mobilized by the verb "to be") are received. The effect is, however, not really one of the condescending simplification and symbolic carefulness of children’s literature, but rather something moredisturbing, the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed. Yet other more visible technical "innovations" may supply a clue to what is happening in the language of Ragtime: it is, for example, well known that the source of many of the characteristic effects of Camus’s novel The Stranger can be traced back to that author’s willful decision to substitute, throughout, the French tense of the passe compose for the other past tenses more normally employed in narration in that language.11 I suggest that it is as if something of that sort were at work here: as though Doctorow had set out systematically to produce the effect or the equivalent, in his language, of a verbal past tense we do not possess in English, namely, the French preterite (or passe simple), whose "perfective" movement, as Emile Benveniste taught us, serves to separate events from the present of enunciation and to transform the stream of time and action into so many finished, complete, and isolated punctual event objects which find themselves sundered from any present situation (even that of the act of story telling or enunciation).

E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present. What is culturally interesting, however, is that he has had to convey this great theme formally (since the waning of the content is very precisely his subject) and, more than that, has had to elaborate his work by way of that very cultural logic of the postmodern which is itself the mark and symptom of his dilemma. Loon Lake much more obviously deploys the strategies of the pastiche (most notably in its reinvention of Dos Passos); but Ragtime remains the most peculiar and stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered by the disappearance of the historical referent. This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only "represent" our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes "pop history"). Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject but rather that of some degraded collective "objective spirit": it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past upon its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a "realism" that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.

Notes

7. For further on the 50s, see chapter 9.

8. See also "Art Deco," in my Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990).

9. "Ragtime," American Review no.20 (April 1974): 1-20.

10. Lynda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), pp.61-2.

11. Jean-Paul Sartre, "L’Etranger de Camus," in Situations II (Paris, Gallimard. 1948).

 

—from Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

 

gary indiana on consumer capitalism & cultural flotsam

In this chapter from Do Everything in the Dark Gary Indiana muses about popular music — that old leitmotif of Theodor Adorno — to show the totalizing commodification of mass culture in twenty-first century America (not surprisingly, Indiana is an accomplished social and artistic critic in his own right): 
 
                                               33
 
Malcolm sits in Union Square Park, on a bench facing the white tent tops of the farmers’ market, braced for another day of floor-walking at the Virgin Megastore. People buying music and video DVDs fall into a trance induced by clustered rows of monitors, clashing streams of music, and a huge Orwellian video grid strategically placed to lure shoppers down to Level One, where three items or two items or four items of the same kind of thing are forever on sale, but never displayed in close enough proximity for the sensorily battered to distinguish two for one from three for two or four for three. The calculated illogic of everything sends thousands each day into transports of credit card abandon that move a Niagara of cash around the world.
       He’s recently read a news item about the millions in bootleg CDs that funnel through Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, along with trucks stuffed with counterfeit Marlboros, real marijuana, and heavily disguised convoys of depleted uranium, stolen fuel rods, Kalashnikovs, any species of unthinkable thing desired or sold by shadows traveling under the rose.
       At the Megastore, all is legitimate, flawlessly manufactured, factory sealed. Its revenue spills cleanly into the raging river of cash and credit and digital wealth, spinning numbers in and out of corporate bank accounts. Somewhere, no doubt, this river sucks up the tributaries of loot generated by the inauthentic, the counterfeit, the Jennifer Lopez knockoffs. A spike in the current from the world’s numberless laundries sends it all rushing faster to the Falls.
       Malcolm doesn’t have to persuade people to buy things. They can’t help themselves. He merely has to interpret, a few times a day, the sometimes fractured language of the customer’s desire, recognize the piece of music or musician whose name they’ve forgotten or can’t quite bring to mind, or figure out from froggily hummed signature riffs what album by which performer a song they want appears on. The gross abundance and variety of music and books and movies stimulates an epidemic wish to own a copy of everything. As customers dawdle or race along the wide rows of product bins, their eyes snag on reissued memory tracks, groups they’ve read about in magazines, music they might not like to hear but which is thought to define the present in an important way As each moment passes, by the time they get this music home to their audio systems, other, newer music defines the moment they’re listening to these acquisitions, and still newer music will nail down the moment that replaces that moment. All these moments eventually condense into a boxed set as the perfect past, the sound of an era. Memory becomes the sound track of perfection.
       Malcolm is most comfortable working on Level One, handling DVDs: every week, eons of long-forgotten films fill shelves in reformatted special editions, their sound tracks digitally scrubbed, with clickable sidebar interviews with directors, even the original trailers, optional commentary from stars, material that sparks Malcolm’s interest. Shanghai Express, Eyes Without a Face, Bunuel, Godard, Fassbinder, Dracula’s Honeymoon, Porky’s, everything from the moronic to the sublime returns from the grave in suavely designed, oblong snap-open cases, even the silents Malcolm cherishes. The only aspect of this eclectic, bonanza resurrection of every movie ever made that irritates him is that they’re grossly overpriced compared to the vanishing videotape format. However, he gets a substantial store discount. He also steals copiously Even Anna doesn’t know Malcolm hates music. When he moonlights as a DJ, he wears earplugs that virtually deafen him.
 
— from Gary Indiana, Do Everything in the Dark