Getting out the game…

July 25, 2011 § 20 Comments

The mood of despair among left-liberals has proceeded in a nearly unbroken stretch since Obama’s election. I’m not going to get into why — external reasons are easily found, and anyone reading this probably has their favorites. Instead, I’m going to address liberal disgust. which prompted some reflection on political engagement in our moment.

A Swarthmore history professor speaks out in favor of gardening:

In short, my political aspirations at this point could be summed up pretty well by Jon Stewart’s plea to just chill the fuck out, America, take the temperature down. Do reasonable things. Appreciate the genuinely tough questions in life and politics for what they are, and appreciate the different answers that people come up with to those questions. I think there is, if not a “moral majority”, a decent majority, a mellowable majority, who pretty much also just want life to be good enough.

I haven’t read this person’s scholarship, but it looks valuable and interesting. That doesn’t make this sort of thing any easier to stomach. As I see it, there are three ways to read (let’s call it) “Stewartism.” One is as a mainstream politics of civility, in which case it assumes a false equivalence between left and right, as if they were partners in a refereed debate. In reality, the American right makes ridiculous, extreme demands, which the White House and senior Democrats use to shift the center rightward, while progressives sort of mill about on the outskirts, wondering how many more surrenders will earn them the right to participate as equals in this stimulating legislative process. Stewartism could also be an activism in favor of universalizing the balanced life. The author says as much in a comment:

1) an extremely active ethos, not a passive one, because it comprehensively disagrees with extremely powerful and prevalent frameworks present in consumer capitalism, social hierarchy, and the American political system. If you insist that you don’t need to be top dog, that having a basic level of comfort is sufficient, that a vision of social relations that is exclusively built around competition is unnecessary, and so on, you’re very much dissenting from dominant ideology.

As other commenters point out, this version ends up self-refuting. Be as Zen as you want; dissent is not chill, even if it advocates for Chill Utopia. Otherwise one may as well be actively sitting on your couch reading blogs while keeping your thoughts to yourself, and calling that a break with the capitalist system. When defending left-wing ideas from dominant institutions, trying less hard is a funny way of fighting back, however beneficial it might be for personal wellbeing. I’ve made comments on this blog in favor of a greater sense of reciprocity and self-awareness when leftists criticize each other, or when not facing comprehensive disagreement. But against serious, ruthless, organized opposition, there’s no space for playing nice. The third way of reading Stewartism is as the exact liberal counterpart to the Tea Party, reactionary in the classical sense:  a defense of a state of affairs that is no longer tenable and was always unjust. Basically back when being born into the middle class meant you were entitled to a professional career without ruining your life. Far from the self-evident, commonsensical maturity he imagines, mellow decency presupposes that your life already is “good enough” in material terms, your dissatisfaction all in your head. It shouldn’t take a huge feat of self-awareness to realize that the “insane levels of meritocratic pressure” in the “sociocultural world of professionals” exists because it’s necessary to get and (unless you have tenure) stay there.

Counterpoint:

2) I think this is not just a kind of bourgeois “I got mine, fuck the workers”: I think satisficing is a concept that can be a powerful way to think about self and community all the way up and down the social hierarchy, and create social connections across class and hierarchical boundaries.

Where I see this as an opt-out is at two points: first, in terms of a kind of sociocultural libertarianism (something that Russell knows is a pretty consistent vision of mine) in which I’d suggest that satisficing requires a much broader range of accepting divergent individual, familial and community preferences in cultural and social practice than many on the left seem prepared to accept and second, that many of the long-standing details and particulars that fuel left-liberal conflicts are themselves fueled by maximizing, that various political fractions don’t set goals like, “less discrimination” or “more income equality” but instead have extremely specific political objectives that become fetishistic over time and make everything less or different seem horribly insufficient. This is just an extension of seeing satisficing as an active political project: applying it TO politics means that you’ve got to learn to embrace a much broader range of outcomes as basically ok, and be much more general about drawing the line between basically ok and basically not at all acceptable.

“Satisficing” is borrowed from decision theory, specifically the work of Herbert Simon, who also came up with the idea of the “attention economy.” Both are mechanistic theories that quantify the scarcity of some vital resource — effort and attention, respectively — by associating it with time, so that it can be understood and managed rationally to better achieve an organization’s goals. They’re aids to production, of commodities, policy, or whatever. The self-helpy appropriation of “satisficing” used above means nearly the opposite: it is based on optimizing consumption as the metaphysical relation between human and world (or man as consumer of experiences), for which it assumes the ideal end is “happiness,” a kind of etherized contentment. Always looking for the best toothpaste results in less happiness, working long hours while neglecting your family results in less happiness, so these things are bad. And thus an efficiency maximization strategy is converted into a moral homily.

I get the sense that what looks like a political application is actually just the author’s attempt to deal with emotional fatigue caused by his Twitter and RSS feeds. That is, if your relation to politics is mostly one of consumption — as it is for most functional citizens in advanced capitalist democracies — you have no direct experience to convince yourself that politics, regardless of class position, is anything more than an endless barrage of trivialities dressed up as significant events. If you’re in the professional, ‘media-savvy’ class, you might think they all require your immediate response to avert disaster. Every meme is an opportunity for self-branding, where your status as a liberal, closet Marxist, ironic Marxist, feminist, libertarian socialist, or what have you hangs in the balance (if you’re lucky enough to have any sort of white collar profession, especially if it’s in media, then your work life probably reflects this as well). Mainstream politics looks the same way on this side of the computer screen, and that’s how it’s usually interpreted. That’s why no matter what Glenn Greenwald says, no matter what he actually does with his power, Obama will always read as liberal or ‘supposed-to-be-liberal’ because that’s his brand (and you voted for it). If you deny his right to his identity then you forfeit your own, and whatever scraps of ‘insider’ status you think you possess.

The desire to abstain from all this bullshit is perfectly understandable. But it comes from a weak understanding of praxis. No need for anything grandiose, simply a grasp of actually existing politics as fundamentally practical, for that reason open to agency. The theatrical ‘dysfunction’ over the budget is undoubtedly ‘real’ — Democrats and Republicans really don’t agree  — but their conflict, especially as mediated by Obama, is the product of a coherent class politics. It can’t be reduced to a procedural or psychological failing, Keynesians are not going to win, and if the Republican far right does manage to default the economy, that will be the result of a calculated risk on the part of their designated opposition ( discussions of the ‘policy-politics divide’ going on in some circles betray how remedial the understanding of these facts are).

Despairing rather than resigned, Stewartians follow neoliberal ‘realists’ in excusing themselves based on the lack of an outside. An outside to ‘capitalism,’ ‘corrupt institutions,’ or just ‘political reality,’ with the assumption that freedom from these constraints is the precondition for any transformative politics — for Real Change. But such radically external realms are nowhere to be found, so, no politics. The Stewartians seem to feel forced into the compromises they say they hate so much, rather than just encouraged and rewarded for conformity. They respond with irony and “satisficing.” Because after all, no one will pay Matthew Yglesias or his readers to quit their jobs (or just change their minds) and take the risk of building an independent left bloc, therefore their personal preference for the left does not present a ‘serious alternative.’ It’s either technocratic nitpicking or throwing up one’s hands and writing monographs on liberation theology. Consensus!

The obvious question, then: is there a secular, non-identitarian outside?

To be continued.

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Hollycaust Now

July 10, 2011 § 29 Comments

…in two recent films: Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Shutter Island (2010). Tons of spoilers follow.

Tarantino’s Basterds fantasizes a revenge movie solution to the Holocaust and to the war itself (or the European Front at least), carried out by Jews and led by Americans, in particular a hillbilly with Apache ancestry who keeps reminding everyone of that ancestry, such as by teaching his team of Jewish-American terrorist/guerillas bits of ‘Apache’ warrior culture, like scalping. It acknowledges a certain relativizing argument that would make Americans/Jews ‘just as bad’ or at least complicit with Nazi violence (by superimposing the extreme violence of modern U.S.-backed Zionism on the relative paucity of organized Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, highlighting the role of Nazi collaborators with the Allies and resulting dirty deals ‘we’ were forced to make with Absolute Evil, showing Americans doing bad things to people – though nothing as bad as what we do now) only to refute them. Not with historical fact, but by erasing or foreclosing those facts with a myth. A specifically American myth of retributive violence in its most ‘populist,’ gender- and race- libertarian narrative form – ’70s ‘exploitation’ cinema. Tarantino transplants that aesthetic from the civil rights, black power, and 2nd wave feminist milieu from which it grew (and which it often opposed in complicated ways) to a struggle it never directly addressed – the Nazi genocide of European Jews (‘Nazisploitation’ focuses on torture, rape, and kinky sadism rather than revenge). Set in 1941, the story – the assassination of the German High Command in a movie theater – is timed to head off the most deadly period of the Holocaust and most acknowledged Allied atrocities. it also re-emphasizes American victory in the propaganda war between Goebbels’s Ufa and ‘Jewish’ Hollywood. It’s a revenge fantasy directed at rehabilitating the historical memory of today’s oppressors (the U.S. and Israel) instead of empowering today’s oppressed (as left-ish ’70s exploitation film was). More on IB as meta-propaganda at my old blog. A well-made opposing argument that takes the film’s moral relativism between Nazi, American G.I., Jew, and audience to be its final word is here.

Shutter Island draws on older, ’50s pulp genre (Lewton and Hitchcock, and their ’70s paranoid revival in films like The Wicker Man), filtered through some combination of Lynchian unease and videogame-like narrative pacing, to frame a look back at the Holocaust that fixates on a little-known atrocity on the American side – the Dachau massacre. Leonardo DiCaprio’s ambiguous protagonist is obsessed with guilt for his participation in this ambiguous crime, repeated on the personal, domestic level in his murder of his mentally unstable wife for drowning their children. The guilt for both is over excessive vengeance inflicted on the victimizer, which is itself a response to guilt for failing to save the victim. This dual sense of moral transgression and unheroic failure haunts the postwar American dream, which the film suggests is a product of its repression. Family life, which was supposed to reward The Greatest Generation for its participation in The Good War is rendered impossible, a site for the repetition of battlefield trauma (DiCaprio’s comeback career seems to be based on playing America’s lost innocence – see Catch Me If You Can, Revolutionary Road, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, Body of Lies). That much is also in the novel. More intriguingly, Scorsese’s Shutter Island reinterprets genre-inflected paranoia in film of the ’50s-’70s as the result of whitewashing WWII, what became America’s Heroic Age, fountainhead of the 20th century American Dream. Postwar horror, SF, and thriller traditions start to read as so many allegories dramatizing the struggle to remember this painful truth — that American innocence was not simply ‘lost’ in Vietnam, but was illegitimately extracted from the wreckage of postwar Europe. At the same time, the liberalism of that era, represented by Ben Kingsley’s tough-love psychotherapist, is itself refuted – Kingsley leads DiCaprio to remember the truth about himself and give up his film noir delusions in order to save him from being lobotomized, only to have the latter fake insanity, effectively choosing brain death over forgiveness. “Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?” he asks, having already chosen his answer: when it comes to real American history, judgment precludes rehabilitation.

These films represent two ways of making contemporary, disillusioned America responsible for the Holocaust, and by extension, responsible for its (beleaguered) status as world superpower. We can restate the comparison in the form of a question: does Gothic/psychological horror or ’70s exploitation provide the most convincing narrative means for rewriting history as the domain of American agency? SI depicts psychological repression resulting from the impossible desire to take responsibility for events that undermine agency (neither Leo’s killing of Nazi prisoners nor his murder of his wife are strictly his fault, but for him they have to be, and that’s why he goes crazy). IB rejoices in the movies’ power to heal historical wounds by creating an alternate myth-history more appropriate to current propaganda needs (America/Israel are righteous because they’re willing to be bad for obvious reasons). But for both, guilt and the transmutation of guilt into potency, the Holocaust is a tragedy too significant to have had nothing to do with the U.S.A. — it is no less than the source of America(and Israel)’s moral authority, one of the most hilariously flimsy arguments in human history.

It should be mentioned that IB is vastly more exciting as a film than SI. The latter’s attempts to emulate Lynch are about as effective as Spielberg’s attempt to channel Kubrick in AI, and its frequent ridiculousness isn’t leavened by the thrill of affirmation. Its denouement is instead enervating (to an extent only achievable by disillusioned liberalism + Scorsese’s Catholic guilt), and we then have to call the film hard to take seriously instead of praising it for its daring. Tarantino, on the other hand, hasn’t made a better film. IB is just as ridiculous, but is able to make regression look and feel revolutionary, perhaps the special genius of these remedial times.

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