Establishing Our Bearings in Order to Think, August 2018

Photo: Exploding Head Without an Eyes

Everyone knows Harry Lime: 

“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs – it’s the same thing. They have their five-year plans, so have I.”

Let’s think about American culture, and let’s think about American socio-economic life.  And while we’re at it, let’s consider the human being.

Karl Marx challenged readers of the Manifesto to hold in dialectical freeze-frame “the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism as a single thought, without the attenuation of either…”  Marx is asking that we withhold judgement.  On a cognitive map you would notice that the coordinates of the baleful would be precisely the same as those of the liberating. The language of mapping and coordinates are crucial to this paper because they will ideally enable us to imagine complex theory in spatial terms while avoiding over-simple reification. And the idea of concrete spatial coordinates marks a disillusioned intellectual movement from the leaky abstractions and unfulfilled ideals of Modernity’s progressivism and liberal humanism, verities impossibly outside of time, to infinite, discrete, specific historically moored positions.  These events, taken together, do not, at least from a more critical politically left position, invite the construction of metanarative, and the “impossible science of the individual” militates against making broad pronouncements about American culture.  So where does that leave us with regards to human possibility, progress, solidarity and praxis?  

How do we achieve critical distance and what purpose does it serve?  Critical distance requires theoretical space, external coordinates relative to a different set of internal coordinates that represent, let’s say, the position from which we are able to decode or discover.   If, however, the best and the worst of Capitalism are systemically coterminous, from what vantage point do we criticize? This makes the task of knowing where we stand theoretically impossible, giving rise to a kind of blindfolded, disoriented un-mapped and unmappable self.  

In his book of essays, Against Everything, Mark Grief gives Radiohead high marks for taking our cultural temperature, the band that best expresses our epistemological  predicament. Radiohead smashes the cold vitrine world, affording a glimpse of the contents, an insight, a description of the menagerie and the emotional tenor of the oft-bewildered constituent figurines moving about, passing through or caroming off of one another. It may be the predicament of being adrift without feeling free; an experience of being surrounded–maybe sometimes it feels as though we are safely ensconced in a beautiful soft machine of commerce- in a heteronomous commercial culture too big to fail. We are outnumbered, outmatched, twitchy as a restless leg while messages penetrate us in our half sleep. We can’t possibly hold everything at bay and choose what comes in- or at least have the time to take an inventory of that which will enter us.  Maybe being violated most medievally by Burroughs’s spiky Candiru fish is preferable to the entrancing, lovely, soft little murders of DeLillo’s Toyota Celica. Would Foucault argue the newer, reformulated ways of being violated are more insidious because they seem gentle and serene, even assonant and poetic?

We sometimes feel uncommitted, unable to situate ourselves vis a vis something real and something greater, as though we’re living without coordinates. From Kid A, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” 

These phrases express a weird sensation, an opioid-induced hypnogogia. We bob up and down, move or get carried marginally forward or backwards in a dark and glassy moon-shaped pool of panic and dread.  There is the sickening sensation of urgency without agency.   Urgency about what?    A dark vision of floating in a womblike crater that is nowhere in particular, or anywhere generically.  Receiving dim flashes of visual information, hearing echoes.  The mind and body, which at some point were in a place where experience was happening, became uncoordinated and without purpose.  This is not about being bored, which is its own experience. There seems to be an absence of pattern, ritual and connection., meaning.  Out of body, we hyperventilate. 

“This is a low-flying panic attack,”  Thom Yorke sings.  Each moment like a panel in a jumbled storyboard, the combined moments discontinuous and no greater than their sum.  Hovering above and out of synch with ourselves, we’re never quite in our own skins, residing always in a pixellated liminality— whereas once Lichtenstein let us imagine ourselves with laughter as more substantial columns of Benday Dots.  We float on in a narcodoze of rotoshopped estrangement.

Thirdly, if the baleful and the liberating aspects of Capitalism are in a dialectic freeze-frame, thesis and antithesis yield nothing new.  There are a number of phenomena that fit Marx’s bill of simultaneously baleful and liberating.  Popular culture is one of them, I argue, because it is treacherous terrain that can be be both fructifying to consumers who are producers of social meaning and resistance, creators of group and personal identity, while perpetuating the ideology of dominant groups.  It’s shifting, cunning and elusive, Sisiphean and triumphal; it takes the form of a continuous dialogue of resistance and cooptation, vulnerability and agency, looking-glass self fragility and solidarity— as one meaning of what Antonio Gramsci “compromise equilibrium.”  And no figure in American culture I can think of represents the shifting dialogue of compromise equilibrium in its full sense of quite as well as Andy Warhol.  It’s full sense of the interpenetration of what is social with what is commercial with what is aesthetic, or “beautiful.”

Warhol took our inventory, and in a strange way offered us guidance on how to be ensconced in American commercial culture— but as a thoughtful participant, not merely a passive consumer.   We can see this in the articulation of commercial culture to elite museum culture, with the consequence of—anathema to modernism—flattening distinctions between high and low cultures, those distinctions being the bread and butter of the older form of critic and intellectual, thus rendering the judgements of intellectuals as having no more validity than an ordinary observer.   Warhol constructed an idea of himself as a cipher artist.  “Pop art is about liking things.”  He built an exterior and told us that’s all there is.   The great irony is that if you are going to overturn the modernist ideals of America’s art world, you can present yourself as an artist not in opposition to bourgeois values.  Which Warhol did, by celebrating “business art” as the step after art, but also by entering commercial culture, not as a representer but as the represented. If the above mentioned anecdote about the Coke bottle has a lesson to it, it could be that Warhol was ambitious, somewhat other-directed and maybe most importantly, made things up as he went along.  He followed the ebb and flow of culture.  His mind was large and full of inconsistentcy because it knew chaos and contingency.   All of the meaning, he said, is on the surface. Or I want to be a machine. (As Warhol said, Very shy people don’t even want to take up the space that their body takes up). As art historian Thomas Crow points out, “it would be difficult to name an artist who has been as successful in controlling the interpretation of his own work.” This is because in the burnished surface of the machine so many of us see our radiant selves.  And his withdrawn, wraithlike presence created a vacuum.  Eve K. Sedgwick notes in an essay on Warhol’s shyness, the “people with the most powerful presences are the ones who aren’t all there.” 

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