May 8, 2017
Socialist Survivalism: A Democracy Beyond Democracy (Part III)
by Curtis White
A Democracy Beyond Democracy
This is Part III in a four-part series; don’t miss:
Part I: Three Fateful Ironies of Democracy
Part II: Beneath the Volcano
III. Cult and the Culture of Impertinence
And yet, we are assured, the “resistance” is rising. This resistance is without question necessary, even if it is in need of more self-reflection and self-criticism. It is being delivered substantially through social media “sharing” (as if we were fragile democratic aspirants of the Arab Spring), mass marches, and MoveOn takeovers of congressional town hall meetings. (Oh, and phone calls. Peace, Michael Moore!) These actions are informed by left-leaning criticism from suddenly vital alternative news sources like Truthout, Truthdig, Democracy Now!, Reader Supported News, and the US edition of the Guardian. It’s heartening to see so many different forms of resentment asserting themselves so publicly. There is still a tendency toward the fragmentation of identity politics, but there also seems to be a growing sense of common purpose. Our “resistance” is anarchic, self-aware, and, for once, in search of comrades.
But it seems to me that there is something substantially missing from this resistance: culture. Culture, properly understood.
Contrary to what the mass media would have us believe, culture is not merely the customs of a place, its language, religion, and cuisine. Nor is culture merely the movies, the music, the Internet of Things, and the rest of capitalist life’s fabulously stippled frou-frous. These are very static ways of thinking about culture. Properly understood, culture is a process of becoming. As Sigmund Freud wrote, culture is the act of “replacing what is unconscious with what is conscious.” A cult is unconscious. It simply does what it has always done. It follows instructions. Culture, on the other hand, is the bringing to awareness of the damage—the repression, irrationality, violence, ugliness, injustice, and tragedy—imposed by the cult. In this sense, culture is enlightenment.
And in this sense… the United States is a cult.
A cult is not capable of Freud’s enlightenment. It has only its crude and cruel version of eternity: “This is how we do this, we have always done it this way, we will always do it this way, this is not negotiable, it is not worth thinking about let alone talking about, it just is, and, by the way, shut up or else.” And so, if you are in Saudi Arabia, do not drive a car if you are a woman and do not write blogs seeking to open a frank discussion of Islam or you will go to jail. A very unpleasant jail, and jailers with whips for lashing. And if you’re in Thailand, do not insult the king or even his mongrel pet dog or you will go to jail. A very unpleasant jail, and “Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth,” as a fictional king of Siam once put it. The cult enforces what is to be done through constant reference to what has already been done. And, as we know, it is deadly serious about its enforcement responsibilities. Disgracefully, these foreign outrages are not foreign at all on our shores, especially if you are an immigrant and are confronted by the cult of “America First.”
Your friendly, local agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says, “Haven’t been in Buenos Aires since you were seven? Get on the plane!”
But cults also take more sophisticated forms. In the United States at present, most of what passes for culture is, by Freud’s understanding, not culture at all. This is especially true for our art — it’s not art at all. It’s not that it is “bad” art, it is that it is merely an expression of a cult, New York’s cult of capitalist realism, say, when it comes to novel-writing. Our novels, our television dramas, our movies, and, to a lesser degree, even our music are mostly cult-like determinations not to think, not to be self-reflective, and certainly not to change. Cult art wants only to continue to be what it has been. It doesn’t want you to tell it how conformist and dull it is; it only wants you to celebrate its “blockbusters.” And celebrate it does, as Hollywood’s auto-fellation over La La Land and Kong have demonstrated yet again.
It’s not as if a critical language for describing a conscious, or enlightened, culture of art is completely lacking. It appears at times, but usually only if the art is sufficiently out of sight. Culture can do whatever it wants so long as it acts out its enlightened intentions in a closet. Consider this from a review by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini of composer Andrew Norman’s “Split,” performed in New York in December 2015:
The radical element… is the way Mr. Norman handles time and structure. His feel for storytelling is permeated by “nonlinear, narrative-scrambling techniques from cinema, television and video games,” as he explains on his website. So his music can seem like nonstop quick cuts from one idea to another…. Sometimes the piano broke into spiraling flourishes, like Ravel gone vehement, or arpeggio madness, like spliced-together outtakes from a recording of a Tchaikovsky concerto.
Of course, the experience of the radical potential of this music—which is to say the potential of the music to change the terms of American life—is limited to the moneyed connoisseurs who finance both it and the extravagant gathering places—David Geffen Hall, the David Koch Theater—where the music is performed. This state of affairs became a national news story when the Broadway producers of Hamilton raised the price of a ticket to $849 in an effort to frustrate “ticket bot” scalpers who were selling seats for an average of $1,000. The ticket bots seem to understand something about the nature of American culture that the producers do not.
These wealthy sophisticates operate not only in bad faith, but in the worst possible faith, because they turn an experience that ought to be liberating into a mere demonstration of their superiority — their superiority for being able to afford the ticket, first, but also their superiority for being able to “appreciate” what is difficult. It is in such cases that the complaint of “elitism” coming from red state populists makes perfect sense. These populists should say, “You use art to confirm your own right to wealth and power.” The virtue of understanding what is difficult is the second half of the brutal equation that goes, “I deserve to be rich because I’ve earned it,” as John Houseman used to scold, “and I’m smarter than you.” The concert that Tommasini described was a ritual display of culture in the service of a cult.
Such displays legitimize the continued domination of those whom the oligarchs think of as, essentially, their servants — the salary men, data drones, and “working people,” exactly those for whom the liberating effect of the music should have been intended and, I hope, would have been intended had Mr. Norman had any say in the matter. On the other hand, if the art in question were more popular, if it were something that tried to thrive outside of the oligarchy’s art temples, it would know better than to exhibit “narrative scrambling” and “arpeggio madness.”
There are all sorts of filters for that sort of thing. As aspiring novelists discover early on, instruction in university writing workshops is mostly oriented toward domestic realism (we called the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop the “Field and Stream School of Writing” back in my student days). A university workshop apprenticeship is followed closely by agents, editors, and, at the end of the line, a publisher and their executive staff (Rupert Murdoch, after all, owns HarperCollins), all of whom have internalized a certain commercial aesthetic: “Nothing too weird!”
In other words, nothing that might tend to suggest that there are other ways of ordering reality, exactly what art is supposed to do, and did in fact do beginning with the Romantic revolutionaries and continuing through the druggy bliss of a century and a half of art’s various –isms, from Symbolism and Surrealism to the Beats and psychedelia. These were not merely elite exercises in difficult art; they were first and foremost social movements whose purpose was to reinvent religion (Blake), confound the bourgeois (Baudelaire and Flaubert), or “freak out” (the Dada-inspired Mothers of Invention). As Frank Zappa wrote in the liner notes to the album Freak Out:
What is “Freaking Out”? … On a collective level, when any number of “Freaks” gather and express themselves creatively through music or dance, for example, it is generally referred to as a Freak Out. The participants, already emancipated from our national social slavery, dressed in their most inspired apparel, realize as a group whatever potential they possess for free expression.
But in the present, unfortunately, most of the art that does freak out a bit, that does foreground “arpeggio madness,” is no threat to “social slavery” because it is mostly social sophisticates—who have no intention of changing anything—who are exposed to its challenges. But, of course, they misrecognize these challenges and call them pleasure or sophistication or profit or “this season’s triumph.” What the rest of us get, outside the charmed circle of Alice Tully Hall, is carefully managed to make sure it affirms again and again capitalism’s unrelenting mysterium, home to the cult of the Market God and his Invisible Hand, which keeps itself busy counting out the stars in Amazon reader reviews, ad infinitum.
Without question, these observations will be met with resistance by many within our nascent resistance. They will offer their own observation that, no, I’m quite wrong, culture is still a leading aspect of the fight against the oligarchs, the dupes, and the neo-fascist flunkies. They will point to films like Moonlight, and books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. They will point to a vast literature of social trauma (as provided by the New York Times “Best Books of 2016”) concerning post-colonialism (The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan), racism (The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead), poverty (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond), and gender (In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi). They will rightly point to Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly (but ignore the mind-fuck of his Grammy Awards performance before the music industry elite). And they will suggest that all of this is a sign that American culture is vital and is throwing itself powerfully against the reign of rightwing billionaires.
For sure, better this resistance than no resistance at all. But I would suggest that there is something self-limiting about this work, something that is, in comparison with what Frank Zappa had in mind, constrained. As I see it, the books and art that currently give direction to the resistance do not do enough to challenge, for lack of a better term, American consciousness — capitalist, consumerist, scientistic, and journalistic. Taken together, these qualities make up our sense of what is “real” and “normal.” Unfortunately, while the politics of the books I’ve cited above may be resistant, and may be partisan, their prose is normative and their sense of the real is all too customary. Formally, they are both tactful—careful not to offend—and tactical: “I am allowed to say this so long as I say it in this way.” In other words, The Underground Railroad addresses important subject matter, but it is written in New York Times bestseller prose. (It is conspicuously not Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada.) It is alert and unconscious at once, caught in a twilight between cult and culture.
The problem here is that part of the sickness of this historical moment is precisely its normality, its conformity to what is thought to be possible or permissible. If the filmmakers, novelists, and critics of our resistance have defected to some degree from mainstream political culture, that culture has in turn taken its revenge by pressing home its demands in the very place that the defectors have sought refuge: in the work itself — in its language and in the realist form of its storytelling. In its formal propriety, the work offers the following assurance to its professed enemies: we won’t go too far. The world that awaits us at the end of our resistance as presently constituted is finally a familiar world, and will remain a familiar world, so long as our arbiters of taste are Hollywood, the Grammies, SNL, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times Best Seller List.
Freud’s understanding of culture wants something more than a return to what is customary, the social version of repetition compulsion. It wants something more than to be admired by wealth or vindicated by inclusion in a museum, canon, or repertoire, what Dave Hickey calls the “therapeutic institutions” where art is immobilized in amber and hung on the wall. What Freud’s culture asks for is to be understood for what it is — impertinent. Art is impertinent because it “meddles in what is beyond its proper sphere.” It is not content to remain within the narrow scope of commodity and entertainment, even if it is allowed to carry the bone of social commentary in its mouth. The culture of impertinence intends to seduce its audiences to join in its impertinence, and so into the Paris night after the first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913, or into the mosh pit for the Pixies’ “Debaser” in 1989.
The culture of impertinence scorns the awards offered by the oligarchs, for which scorn it is properly scorned in return. But that is expected. What is more discouraging is the scorn that comes from those who have something to gain from art’s impertinences, those whom Zappa called “social slaves.” The servant class—a “passively rotting mass,” as Marx called it—says, “It’s admirable and virtuous to survive by the rules that our masters set. It’s not easy to follow instructions. Don’t you elitists—you liberals, you Jews, you professors, you artists—tell us that you’re going to change all the instructions now, or redeem us, or enlighten us. We will hate you for the effort.”
The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel captured the artist’s quandary in relation to the elite in its strange alliance with its slaves, so familiar to us now since the CEO of Exxon has joined forces with the demagogues of Breitbart News.
The Axiom of the Average: as we and our surroundings are, so must it have been always and everywhere, because that, after all, is so very natural. (So Schlegel writes in his “Critical Fragments.”)
For the cult, this Axiom is a morality, a morality whose primary virtue is its indiscussability. But this is a morality that, as Nietzsche remarked, “makes stupid.” We think that we are better people if we conform to the expectations of religion, capitalism, two-party politics, and commercial art. But we do not make ourselves better, we make ourselves stupid.
Of course, it is impertinent to say so.
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.