What Is The Middlebrow

May 26, 2011 § 8 Comments

Thinking a bit about the hype/backlash cycle, attributed by Benjamin Kunkel to the ambivalences of “mass affluence.” Essentially, the complaint goes, under consumerism, culture is reduced to participation in status markets. Not only does this degradation of art teach us ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ but it renders us unable to comprehend the very concept of non-market value, a disability that extends to politics. “The extent of the hype cycle’s corruption of our minds,” he writes, “can be measured by the frequency with which you hear people complaining that environmentalism has grown so fashionable, so chic, so trendy. Try to imagine a similar complaint from another political era: “I was totally into democracy—before they extended the franchise. I was all about socialism—but it became so working class.” The loss of aesthetic discernment deadens us even to the value of the authentically popular.

There’s an apparent fact that seems to follow from this observation that undermines it at the same time. The ‘hype system,’ inseparable from angst about said system, is driven by the greatest fear of any self-respecting petit-bourgeois — to be caught being ‘bourgeois.’ To be truly cultured, ‘cool,’ etc., is to exist beyond categories. But with a few exceptions that prove the rule, one can’t even be in the running unless one is (gross!) in the running to become bourgeois. To specify by focusing on literature: from Lukàcs through Jameson and on to Kunkel (!), a novel written today that reminds the critic of 19th-century realism  is considered both less decadent and less ‘contemporary’ than one that takes its cues from the modernist demand for the transcendence of form over content, and is a clue that the writer is not, through no fault of their own, white, first-world, or (80% of the time) male. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the individual critic, but in either case the Euro, the American, the late capitalist, whiteness, and maleness just happen to converge on the center of historical progress. An interesting piece reflects on this bias here.

There is a handy classification scheme to mark those who don’t agree with the position one takes in cultural debate. I’m talking about the ‘brow system,’ developed by a Sun journalist’s use of phrenology as not-quite-just-a-metaphor for taste, opposing a “highbrow” elite to “lowbrow” plebes, marking them both as slightly freakish. The system was completed in the British comedy magazine Punch (the ancestor of MAD and National Lampoon as much as The Onion) with a flourish of self-reflexive irony — the “middlebrow…consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.” Virginia Woolf, the middlebrow’s favorite modernist, famously later used it to insult the BBC, the middlebrow’s favorite news source.

Of course, the entire ‘brow system’ is itself middlebrow, and that is because it locks every object formally eligible as ‘art’ within the market of formally eligible opinions of what ‘art’ is. Like the petit-bourgeois/middlebrow assessment of global warming, the problem is always that there are too many people involved: quality sinks, authenticity is forgotten, all is replaced by competitive self-interest and banality. The important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone can be judged in this way — it would be the height of poor taste to call the proverbial starving child in Africa (or New Orleans, for that matter) ‘lowbrow’; one only attacks those who should know better. The whole racket evidently exists for people who think of themselves as ‘middle class’ to police each other.

This great debate perpetuates an unspoken assumption that participating in it is an inevitable result of coming into wealth, or simply living in proximity to wealth (“under the conditions of late capitalism”). It’s all about making bourgeois culture seem normative rather than particular, and the world divisible into three categories in which highbrow and lowbrow are complementary Others (which is not to say that no one ever tries to embody them) with middlebrow an equally self-confirming form of autocritique; the system is only transcended when those who should be middlebrow are mysteriously not.

The fear of a world constantly in danger of being consumed by kitsch is a bit like the colonialist assumption that your slaves would do the same to you if given half a chance. ‘Middle class’ identity  assumes it has proved what the ‘average person’ will be like given the resources necessary for a certain level of comfort. Leaving out an explicit class dynamic means one can’t see how that class identity is formed by more and less stable systems of exclusion, not just the consumption and appropriation of resources by homo economicus. The bourgeois class and its petit-bourgeois support staff see themselves as utopian, and that (for them) dissolves the possibility of a real utopia.


Plausible Deniability

May 16, 2011 § 5 Comments

Being somewhat confused about the precise meaning of “capture/kill” in reference to military operations, I checked out the latest professional commentary for clues. But they seemed just as confused as me — here a congressional aide calling Operation Neptune Spear a “kill” mission, there a White House media liaison discussing the priority (when possible of course, and who are we to second-guess) of “capture.” When both terms were used together, the order seemed to depend on the writer’s intentions. “Capture/kill” to preserve objectivity; to express (rare) skepticism, “kill/capture.” I started to see the Schrödinger’s Cat logic behind this ambiguous nomenclature. Aufgehebt by the ersatz clarity with which the word is used is the question of whether the target was ‘intentionally’ assassinated or merely dispatched in the line of duty.

Or perhaps he was never killed at all!

It’s such a neat little box, this codified non-question, that it’s more poetic, and certainly more politic, not to try to answer it. Still, I kept looking. And found that it was easier to get clear answers if I checked before its recent smashing success. Nine months was about enough:

“Capture/kill” is a key part of a new military “doctrine” developed by the Special Forces Command established after the failure of Operation Eagle Claw. Under the leadership of General Bryan D. Brown, who took over the Special Forces Command in September 2003, the doctrine came to be known as F4, which stood for “find, fix, finish, and follow-up” — a slightly euphemistic but not hard to understand message about how alleged terrorists and insurgents were to be dealt with.

Under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush years, Brown began setting up “joint Special Forces” teams to conduct F4 missions outside war zones.  These were given the anodyne name “Military Liaison Elements.” At least one killing by such a team in Paraguay (of an armed robber not on any targeting list) was written up by New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Thom Shanker. The team, whose presence had not been made known to the U.S. ambassador there, was ordered to leave the country.

“The number-one requirement is to defend the homeland. And so sometimes that requires that you find and capture or kill terrorist targets around the world that are trying to do harm to this nation,” Brown told the House Committee on Armed Services in March 2006. “Our foreign partners… are willing but incapable nations that want help in building their own capability to defend their borders and eliminate terrorism in their countries or in their regions.” In April 2007, President Bush rewarded Brown’s planning by creating a special high-level office at the Pentagon for an assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.

Michael G. Vickers, made famous in the book and film Charlie Wilson’s War as the architect of the covert arms-and-money supply chain to the mujaheedin in the CIA’s anti-Soviet Afghan campaign of the 1980s, was nominated to fill the position. Under his leadership, a new directive was issued in December 2008 to “develop capabilities for extending U.S. reach into denied areas and uncertain environments by operating with and through indigenous foreign forces or by conducting low visibility operations.”  In this way, the “capture/kill” program was institutionalized in Washington.

“The war on terror is fundamentally an indirect war… It’s a war of partners… but it also is a bit of the war in the shadows, either because of political sensitivity or the problem of finding terrorists,” Vickerstold the Washington Post as 2007 ended. “That’s why the Central Intelligence Agency is so important… and our Special Operations forces play a large role.”

George W. Bush’s departure from the White House did not dampen the enthusiasm for F4.  Quite the contrary: even though the F4 formula has recently been tinkered with, in typical military fashion, and has now become “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze,” or F3EA, President Obama has, by all accounts, expanded military intelligence gathering and “capture/kill” programs globally in tandem with an escalation of drone-strike operations by the CIA.

There are quite a few outspoken supporters of the “capture/kill” doctrine. Columbia University Professor Austin Long is one academic who has jumped on the F3EA bandwagon. Noting its similarity to the Phoenix assassination program, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the U.S. war in Vietnam (which he defends), he has called for a shrinking of the U.S. military “footprint” in Afghanistan to 13,000 Special Forces troops who would focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, particularly assassination operations. “Phoenix suggests that intelligence coordination and the integration of intelligence with an action arm can have a powerful effect on even extremely large and capable armed groups,” he and his co-author William Rosenau wrote in a July 2009 Rand Institute monograph entitled” “The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency.”

Others are even more aggressively inclined. Lieutenant George Crawford, who retired from the position of “lead strategist” for the Special Forces Command to go work for Archimedes Global, Inc., a Washington consulting firm, has suggested that F3EA be replaced by one term: “Manhunting.” In a monograph published by the Joint Special Operations University in September 2009, “Manhunting: Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare,” Crawford spells out “how to best address the responsibility to develop manhunting as a capability for American national security.”

One sees the compromise — “Manhunting” is thrilling but a tad direct; “F3EA” is appropriately neutral, but undermines lingering conversational norms of the English language. The point is that at a certain level of abstraction inhabited by military bureaucrats, there’s really not much difference between “capture” and “kill.”

Anyway, it seems the U.S. is moving further toward fulfilling its role as global enforcer through a network of secret military police, the ‘police’ function serving largely as an alibi. Like the original and more conventional invasion force, there is a clear division of labor between Americans (and their NATO allies) and the locals, who have yet to demonstrate their capacity for self-government. For example, ambiguity is for white people — the straight-up “kill” teams are conveniently composed of Afghans:

Woodward’s…Obama’s Wars, excerpted today in the Washington Post and the New York Times, unveils a CIA initiative called the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams, a posse of anti-Taliban and al-Qaeda locals who don’t respect the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The teams are practically brigade-sized: a “paramilitary army” of 3000 Afghans, said to be “elite, well-trained” and capable of quietly crossing over in the Pakistani extremist safe havens where U.S. troops aren’t allowed to operate. The CIA directs and funds the teams.

Administration officials didn’t just confirm the existence of the teams — they bragged about them. “This is one of the best Afghan fighting forces and it’s made major contributions to stability and security,” says one U.S. official who would only talk on condition of anonymity — and who wouldn’t elaborate.

Yes, a minority of Americans also participate in unambiguous slaughter. But they’re crazy.

In this war that is also supposed to be a rebuilding, we call our soldiers police to legitimate them, and military to absolve them. It’s a neat trick: when one word can’t do everything that needs to be done, bring two.

This Machine Kills Terror

May 10, 2011 § 29 Comments

I got into a long and annoying ‘epic’ blog debate with a friend over Chomsky’s piece on the killing of Osama bin Laden here. Having spent way too many words on it to let them all go to waste, I decided to republish some…on this blog. Below are my key points:

what we have, in essence, an ambiguously defined attack on ‘the homeland’ (9/11), a hastily cobbled together accusation of (formally indicted) 1998 bombing suspect osm used as specious justification for the long-desired military invasion and occupation of afghanistan and then (to a lesser extent) iraq. then, in the background, a serious investigation with necessarily provisional results that the u.s. gov cherry picks from time to time to justify this or that military action. chomsky is pointing out the discrepancy between the results of that investigation and the ideological uses to which it was put. in this case that use is the targeted killing of someone the u.s. had basically already given itself permission to kill at will prior to any investigation, by cobbling together its own legal process after 9/11 largely in defiance of international law. so, leftists can critique the u.s. gov for breaking laws they no longer respect, or they can critique the u.s. for starting wars for reasons that were, as everyone agrees but is not allowed to say in public, bullshit anyway. either one makes us look like we have our heads up our asses. but that kind of goes with the territory. maybe you could call it ‘utopian.’

i’ll admit it’s easy to misread chomsky’s “Nothing serious has been provided since.” but if we’re going to be precise, that refers to his responsibility for 9/11, which the u.s. initially considered ‘full’ (so as to invade faster) but was very quickly dialed down to something more vague in favor of ksm and his team, who did the real work themselves.

i don’t think what obama actually did should be considered acceptable or defended because it’s ‘closer’ to the ideal [an internationalist version of this, basically] than full-scale military invasion, both of which were launched for different reasons. the targeted killings are in fact being carried out under presidential authority, with no oversight from anyone, no recourse if there are ‘mistakes’ (obama said himself they were only ’55-45′ on whether bin laden was even there), and under a vague interpretation of international law. there are probably significantly fewer civilian casualties in commando operations than drone strikes but we don’t hear about them (they’re secret) and they operate on the same principles (the decision over which to use is tactical). the fact that they killed a celebrity overrides all of that for most commentators (including the u.n.), but it is still an example of the quasi to extra legal way this war has always been carried out. defending it defends u.s. policy and creates a precedent that may well become accepted as legal.

i guess this isn’t obvious, but i agree it would be ideal for terrorists to be treated more like international criminals than vague non-state military threats (‘terrorist’) that we can do anything to. i maintain the point of the chomsky piece was to rhetorically emphasize that difference. this is necessary because even defenders of assassination, torture, extraordinary renditions, and offshore prisons (actual anti-terrorist praxis) sometimes seem compelled to use criminal justice arguments, even though they don’t apply. that inconsistency is what drives of most of the public debate about this and keeps it in a state of perpetual cluelessness. leading to bizarre situations in which an assertion from an unreliable, secondhand source that says osama was ‘reaching for his gun’ or ‘maybe doing something else threatening’ can singlehandedly repress not only the competing accounts from u.s. officials and others (a few of which i cited at the top of the thread though what the hey,here’s another) but the simple commonsense acknowledgement that the operation was on military/CIA/Team America rules, therefore existing on a higher ontological plane than our mere legal formalisms can hope to reach.

Three Types of Universal Ideas

May 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

“The real principle underlying the phenomena” = Idealist

“That upon which designated individuals happen to agree” = Liberal

“That which everyone can in principle understand” = Communist

Obama 1, Osama 0

May 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Given the intense longing for righteous victory in U.S. national culture, the celebratory mood online and (apparently) on the streets of New York and D.C. should surprise no one, and yet just as obvious is how tasteless it all is, not to mention painfully hypocritical. Sensible justifications for a decade and more of war, like, say, control over a strategically important region, the undermining of its civil society, are unspeakable in polite discourse without being branded a ‘conspiracy theorist.’ In their place we have an action movie. Not because the reality is ‘too complex’ — all coherent narratives can be simplified — but because it is a shade too direct for the orchestrators of a blatantly unjust war that has killed hundreds of thousands at least, millions more likely. It would permit public recognition of a humiliatingly simple story: that what is happening ‘over there’ is just a more extreme application of the same principles we see in action everywhere. The death of Osama bin Laden is the one kill the official ‘narrative,’ or blood-soaked montage rather, can justify as unquestionably righteous, and is at the same time its proper conclusion. And thus America celebrates the end of a narrative that no one could ever really accept, a joke from the moment Dubya made the “dead or alive” crack, simply because it’s the only one we can address with the full force of the rich world’s media infrastructure — it’s the only celebration we will ever be allowed to have for this neverending war. Like so many things American, we have to refuse it in order to maintain any sense of dignity whatsoever. And this, in terms of the national dialogue, renders us effectively mute.

Everyone has their own way of coping with this painful dilemma. If you’re a pundit or a politico, you moved on long ago to “peace in the middle east,” and when that dream was over you hovered somewhere between “responsibly eventual withdrawal” and the exciting possibilities for security in a multipolar world. For the rest of us, apathy is always available. Compulsively picking over the collapsed husk of Obamamania is another option. A few busy themselves with imagineering ‘new myths’ to inspire ‘revolutionary change’ — because surely the problem is the bourgeoisified mass’s well-known lack of creative Wille.

Will the lack of immediate replacement for the always-already parodic “bringing Bin Laden to justice” narrative create an opening? Or have we learned our coping mechanisms too well? I can’t tell if the general half-assedness I pick up from the various jubilations is a good or a bad sign.

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