The End of Strange Attractors

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”-- how does one get from analysis to synthesizing a theory justice to pursue.

I am ending Strange Attractors.

I set out to do something with this letter that, I thought, was somewhat interesting: rather than simply view a piece of media through a political lens (a format, I think, particularly during the podcasting-era of media studies, has been beaten to death), I tried to identify the political themes of the thing, providing deep historical and philosophical context, which I’d hoped would help in identifying the parallels to my readers’ lives in recognizing them myself, many of which were no doubt similarly relateable and visible to those of my generation.

My last piece was about forms, how modernity can be used to violate them, and just as a form can be effective cultural shorthand for a complex set of concepts, so can it be exploited to perform an injustice. That’s what I hoped to point out about our media culture: You can interpret a thing as it is using an assumption that we recognize natural law governance when we see it, rather than things being appropriated in bad faith to an unnatural end (for a contemporary example: something like means testing as part of liberal social program, which nominally addresses the issue, but fails in getting it to those most in needs to avoid advantaging, tangentially, those who it may not help).

I want to talk about something fairly straight forward in this piece that, I hope, will leave y’all with a sense of what I hoped to come from a blog of quasi-satire, applied political philosophy, and the utilization of history: what makes a theory of justice.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that, while often derived behind a “veil of ignorance”, behind which those subjected to it rarely are a party to its intentions and motivations and thus are beholden to their own, collective, best intentions, but primarily, that justice ensures maximal benefit for the least advantaged, with the most advantaged becoming more advantaged only if it serves this prior commitment. Plenty of examples of this latter clause being required, or not being required, probably come to mind. But applied to politics, it’s fundamentally just asking this question: “Does this decision increase, or decrease democracy?” Of fundamental human rights, Rawls writes:

“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”

Essentially, that which, for example, a socialist society might theorhetically satisfy a definition of justice (welfare, health, education), an unjust system would be willing to do something like make them subject to market forces. So, if we accept that we can’t implement a social program because it infringes upon inalienable rights even if it would have mass societal benefit, which would create a marginalized class along whatever line, how Rawls proposes to address the question of justice is taking these limitations, identifying the least advantaged,

An example of such an injustice is create restrictions that accepts deprivation to prevent inefficiencies (preventing some large number of the poor to benefit in order to prevent an almost non-existent number of wealthy people from benefitting from the same program), and therefore, beyond merely now running counter to its own nominal goals, is no longer just. This is the sort of compromise touted in the present day as reasonable and in the interest of social justice. I’m describing, with this example, a very common tactic for enabling a policy, while never having to ever practice it in the interest of the people it’s supposed to serve, because it’s architected to use a theorhetical problem to avoid solving a real one (for example, Matt Bruenig’s discussion of a child tax credit) ; this is the ignorance in practice, and in practice, we’re asked to accept a lesser and lesser evil, yet the yield on how much less has been sub-zero since, at least, the 1980s, in the United States.

In Whit Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona, there is a protracted subplot about Ted, the protagonist, feeling obligated to translate the aims and intentions of American foreign policy to not only people he interacts with in Spain, who confront him with grim truths about American foreign policy (as far back as the 1890s), which he becomes defensive and “disgusted” over, calling it “blood libel”, which even his cousin, Fred, a Navy advance fleet officer while anti-NATO sentiment grows in Europe at the end of the Cold War. He is drawn in by the venerated justice-minded rhetoric of anti-communist thought, equating it to fascism, failing to recognize the parallels are not between the Soviets and Franco and Mussolini, but between the fascists and NATO. He accepts the premise of justice from the far side of the veil of ignorance, and has no answer for the atrocities he is confronted with.

This doesn’t make Ted an unjust person, but a believer of an unjust framework of adjudication that isn’t being applied (US/NATO intervention, occupation globally). In the process, his defenses of the US agitate locals, which results in an assassination attempt on Fred. In general, not this case in particular, extremism being bred is, sure, not justice, as such, but it’s a justified response to living under injustice; it produces resistant violence, which is justified, and becomes just if in the service of that which occupation and intervention is depriving a just society of— capitulating to the increase of agency over what are human rights (in this case, self-determination, as a principle, and the integrity of the geopolitical landscape’s truth value) is what ultimately brings peace, not a mutual compromise that satisfies both parties to some tolerable measure, while still breeding injustice. That would be, again, ignorance to suggest a disproportionate power balance, differing levels of recognition and material security, is representative of true conflict that can be adjudicated by asking both sides to tolerate losses; in justice of this sort, one side has to lose, and it has to be the more advantaged party losing out to a least advantaged party until the components of justice are satisfied.

Or, put as Rawls had, justice is satisfied when “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”— we can negotiate everything else after.

”Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system. Public resources have not been devoted to maintaining the institutions required for the fair value of political liberty. Essentially the fault lies in the fact that the democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry; it does not even in theory have the desirable properties that price theory ascribes to truly competitive markets. Moreover, the effects of injustices in the political system are much more grave and long lasting than market imperfections. Political power rapidly accumulates and becomes unequal; and making use of the coercive apparatus of the state and its law, those who gain the advantage can often assure themselves of a favored position. Thus inequities in the economic and social system may soon undermine whatever political equality might have existed under fortunate historical conditions.”

You likely recognize a lot of things in this passage from the United States (and its client states) political systems when asked to decide between two evils, and choose the lesser, in the interests of social justice, but attached to political processes, Rawls suggests this may never actually be possible. In the time since he wrote this text, the United States has openly embraced what was Mussolini’s own definition of fascism, effectively the state operated by guilds of corporations acting on mutual class prerogative— our current president, for example, is known not only for his commitment to donor banks, but defense as well; I can think of few industries that embody the sort of injustice we’re allegedly securing against more than these.

Let’s take this to a different level, the word of Leon Trotsky:

”The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to this concept, means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to Socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in the complete liquidation of class society.”

The historical context of the Russian revolution is that the empire existed only on paper— deeply indebted to other empires across Europe to sustain itself. It not only failed to govern, it failed to justify itself by acknowledging peer monarchies; it was rule for its own sake. Even in France during the 1789 revolution was it acknowledged to be a war of elites in Europe that monarchy had gotten in the way of (England having resolved its own civil war centuries earlier), but as the disparity between least-justified most advantaged and most-justified least advantaged grew more extreme, the response from the public in this third, most extreme, case to correct this equilibrium to create a state of justice from which to work, for Trotsky, seemed irreconcilable.

Justice here meant total “dictatorship of the proletariat”, to ensure the basics rights of everyone, and while we obviously don’t know if Trotsky’s ideology would have manifested similar or better results, under Lenin, the Soviet Union industrialized faster than ever could have been projected, 5 year plan after 5 year plan built an efficient economy that, at its peak, provided housing, jobs, education, and welfare until reforms derailed this in favor of global diplomacy, which was, like it was at the start of the revolution, necessary for its survival (and ultimately its demise by compromise to an external, coercive system of justice between states)— this had to come from armed resistance to restore justice, which had to come at the expense of the most advantaged, there was nothing to give them to ensure the least advantaged restored basic liberties. In instance after instance in the time since these events, we’ve seen these movements maligned, etc. on the basis of violence being unjust, while ignoring that it doesn’t occur within a vacuum; from the issue of Irish independence in the early 20th century to liberating Palestine through the present day, we’re seeing resistance to occupation framed as a reactionary issue, rather than the wholesale denial of writes, cosigned by a minimal number of allies, meaninglessly abhorred by the UN, all in the name of restoring basic justice.

All of this only to see resistance framed (propagandized) as oppression, itself, to question the validity of even holding basic rights as something to be conferred. This isn’t to say armed resistance is required or even preferable in achieving these aims (it was in Russia and Ireland and Palestine, very much may not help elsewhere), but that its framed in this way is in the interests of perpetuating injustice, more than it is in the interests of peace; it’s the difference between docility and calm, the difference between compliance and participation. Viewed objectively, these things are factually complicated, without being morally complex— there is a right and wrong, and too often, the veil of ignorance allows large numbers of people to, uncritically, believe there’s two sides to a conflict, when what you’re viewing is a siege and response to siege.

The ongoing instability in Myanmar provides an example of where the interference is most prevalent; who is right, and who is wrong, is dependent upon who Myanmar is being used as a proxy for— after WWII, and the subsequent fall of European colonial direct rule in Asia (this persisted, and the US took up much of the besieging) the military coup was a triumph over Soviet-bloc communism and must be recognized at all costs over the democratically-elected and militarily-dosed civilian government, and in the present, it’s framed as almost the reverse, for the explicit purpose of implying Russia and China have a stake in this. We’re undermining justice in real-time, to perpetuate justice for the most advantaged, while selling the least advantaged on the truth of this framing, that things that are no longer even hypothetical threats present a clear and present danger to them imminently today, a narrative to double down on.

Complicated, narratively, but not morally complex; when the applied system allows unnecessary suffering for the “greater” prosperity of a larger “many”, justice has failed—Rawls says, “The limitation of liberty is justified only when it is necessary for liberty itself, to prevent an invasion of freedom that would be still worse.” but without the backdrop of basic liberty being inviolable, it makes the political agenda of modern neoliberal thought (borne of conservative influence on moderating more progressive thought) fundamentally unjust while acting in the name of justice, as has been the case for the United States in the last 80 years, at least in the open.

I won’t even call Rawls’ text aspirational, because it speaks to an eminently applicable set of ideas that, if acted on in good faith, can amount to an agenda for great good, just like it can be appropriated in bad faith, draped in willful ignorance for those subject to it— it’s philosophy, not dogma. The utility of it is self-evident; if you want justice, as you understand it, it must be prescribed at the outset, whatever that means for your society— what is expected, but lacked; what is scarce, but willfully deprived; who is hurting, and who is hurting them, much less about why, than how, so they can be best helped:

“The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”

All that can should from a belief in justice is a stronger, loving world— you learn your whole life from history that if people were better to each other, the devastating sacrifices required to achieve justice would no longer be required, but they (too often) are. So, instead, we’ll hope and fight for a braver world to introspect.

Thanks for reading this past year!

Share

Extras

Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

Pizzicato Five - Baby Love Child

Glassjaw - Live at Pukkelpop, 2019

Eric Hobsbawm’s Success Was Because of His Marxism, Not in Spite of It

Jawbreaker - Accident Prone (Live - Austin, 2018)

Architecture parlante

Forms in modernity have become dogmatically self-defeating; an art culture of the professionally and perpetually exhausted

The book The Soul of a New Machine opens with an anecdote from a bunch of professionals like a banker and a dentist taking a vacation operating a sailboat, and the professional on-board taking the most shifts, Tom West, a computer engineer, doing the most grueling work, was a guy who wouldn't say what he did for a living, what his job was like, or anything:

The people who shared the journey remembered West. The following winter, describing the nasty northeaster over dinner, the captain remarked, “That fellow West is a good man in a storm.” The psychologist did not see West again, but remained curious about him. “He didn’t sleep for four nights! Four whole nights.” And if that trip had been his idea of a vacation, where, the psychologist wanted to know, did he work?

The significance of this anecdote is that often the key to being perceived as a legend in your field, while being a self-acknowledged cog, that something can be your life’s work and still not be something you care to make your entire life and so much so that your conception of what is, and is not, work defines how you the experience of human’s place in nature:

A snapshot taken of the cockpit in the afternoon shows West sitting in the stern. The dark shadow of a day’s growth of beard reveals that he passed adolescence some years ago, though just how many would be impossible to say. In fact, he is just forty. He wears glasses with flesh-colored rims, and a heavy gray sweater that must have given him long faithful service hangs loosely on his frame. He looks as if he must smell of wool. He looks thin, with a long narrow face that on a woman would be called horsey. A mane of brown hair, swept back behind his ears, reaches almost to his collar. His face is lifted, his lips pursed. He appears to be the person in command.

One of the crew would remember being alone with him on watch one night. They were sailing under clear skies with a gentle breeze. Suddenly, at the slackening of the tide, the wind fell away, some clouds rolled in, and then just as suddenly, when the tide began to run, the sky cleared up and the breeze returned. In a low and throaty voice, West made exclamations: “Did you see that?” He made his low and spooky laugh. His companion was about to say, “Well, I’ve seen this happen before.” The tone of West’s voice prevented him, however. He thought it would be rude to describe this event as ordinary. Besides, West was right, wasn’t he? It was strange and wonderful the way the pieces of the weather sometimes played in concert. At any rate, it was fun to think that they had just encountered a natural mystery, and, somewhat surprised at himself, West’s companion suggested that events like that made superstitions seem respectable. West gave his low laugh, apparently signifying agreement.

The nature of experience is that you can decouple your work from the aspects of it that are supposed to make it your passion as vocation in the first place, and the common thread is work, as such, capitalism, etc. makes the spectacular things about what each of us does seem mundane, routine, devoid of discovery in some way, as West reminded the crewman.

But what about the inverse? Not experience, but the human role in nature; creativity. What if the person who executes a particularly ambitious has to be the one to try because the form is at risk of extinction? Is that more human than the impulses of someone like Tom West, or less because it is entirely about the work, and of passion, and ultimately something that will prove difficult?

The first time I saw Cameron Carpenter play the organ, it was in the context of a (n admittedly, extremely funny) joke:

But I became fixated at some point over the last year. Fixated on the idea that, rather than being confined to viewing streams of Carpenter playing an organ in a church or concert hall online, what if I could see this in the flesh? To the purists, it seems offensive to make a commercial enterprise of organ playing detached from church and concert hall installations, but to me, it sounded like something I needed to see for myself.

The Platonic ideal is the idea that a thing can be so about itself that it exemplifies the thing so perfectly as to become synonymous with the qualities of that thing. Carpenter’s persona aside, his commitment to the craft is undeniable, it makes me trust him and his intentions more knowing that this isn’t coming from a place of installation organs making him sound bad or whatever, but from a place of wanting people to hear it where they go. When I watched a video explaining why he wanted to make an organ detached from time and place, so he could play anywhere (and it’s really not as portable as one might think, at least not for a single performer), I became curious when he admits this is “not rational”:

He wants to assemble a “new character”.

We’re not talking about reinvention, we’re talking about evolution, and sometimes that takes a personality so cringe that he makes weird rhetorical missteps about something he understands, but is underprepared (either, incapable, or because it is impossible) to articulate rationally, while remaining absolutely correct to reflect the next step for that instrument’s history, even if potentially a misstep. In the case of the organ, if confined to the original confines of where you’d see one, was that space integral or incidental, typically in context, to the instrument? Modern advances in musical technology to approximate any space with (I say this completely sincerely) complete sonic accuracy notwithstanding, I think the exercise demonstrates that the physical presence of an organ is not part of its Platonic essence of that an organ is or how it’s played, and that the proliferation of a “touring organ” is a democratizing one.

With Carpenter, specifically, he describes his craft with self-awareness of its relevance, and with the knowledge that it requires drawing heavy-handed parallels to contemporary culture: he describes himself as “addicted” to graphic design, believes film scores to be a tremendous vehicle to perpetuating classical music, and in his pursuit of this, the organ becoming an accessible instrument while sacrificing little of the experience of playing one, performing on one, or listening to one is a tremendous undertaking that, as I would argue, only someone proficient in these things, at odds with the aims of the interests underwriting this effort, is qualified to assess the risks of doing so to the culture.

Ultimately, what seems to make people bristle about Carpenter, besides perhaps his unusual and somewhat obnoxious personality, is that he breaks the form of what you’d imagine someone who is a classical musician, an organ player no less; he’s not a dogmatist, and in fact believes this to be stunting the necessarily consequential evolution, not protecting from the commoditization of, this instrument. The obvious question is whether or not this can be done without it becoming a poor facsimile for consumer grade organists, inasmuch as such a market exists.

I think the larger impulse at play, in both of these cases, West in the 80’s and Carpenter a few years ago, is that it’s an effort to reconsolidate and refocus the energy humans spend on work, as either just what one does for a living and not what one is (West), or that what one does can be representative of what they view as important about being human that happens to be their job (Carpenter). On the surface, these things would seem in opposition; the late West might even have given you the impression that he’d probably not be having a good time in 2021 given what has come of modern computing, and Carpenter is all about figuring out how to leverage technology to advance a form he is also deeply defensive of its integrity. You could argue it’s, as much as you could a reconsolidation, a devolution, but not a regress, it’s a rehabilitation, a restoration. The question, then, becomes: how do you safeguard the balance between the excesses of a systematized, tentacular technoculture, and the borderline personal Luddism practiced by many working technologists who avoid “Smart Technology” in their personal lives after working on it all day?

In Adam Curtis’ 2011 miniseries “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, he says that the stated intentions and implementations of these technologies and systemic approaches to social and economic problems by world leaders, more broadly, were described as “scientific, and therefore neutral”— encompassing everything from the Greenspan years in the Fed to the proliferation of Randian libertarian idealism’s influence over the autocratic function of state by the likes of technical leaders like Larry Ellison and Bill Gates. The answer to the above question, with this in mind, is to demand the nuance, the critical theory to recognize corporatist ursurpation of public power, draped in the language of science to imply objectivity, and that data can have no nuance, when the opposite is most demonstrably the case— the work of doing this never ends, which is why acceding to the order of these sociopaths as scientific geniuses is a grotesquely pat way for the public to accept, but not admit, defeat because, ultimately, the systemic nature of this impact is not combatable by individual action, the nature of Randian protagonists who produce nothing but are lauded as geniuses, figures like Elon Musk today for example, erodes the collectivized incentive to push back in any meaningful way.

Curtis’ thesis is that we’ve been colonized by these machines, and in so admitting, we’re being colonized by arch capitalists, elevated to the level of influence of statesmen, but also diplomats, not between nation-states, but the supremely self-interested party abstraction, a corporation. By comparison, the precepts of West’s machine, and that of Carpenter’s, are seemingly much easier to understand— West spends much of the early part of New Machine concerned with architecture, that of his own machine but that of predecessor machines and that of competitors. This is in the era of a pre-Internet, so much so that this being the conduit for nearly all information would have been laughable to West. West’s daughter, a librarian, likely could’ve told you better than he could’ve how a global network of computers, some more powerful than many multiples the Apollo LEM computer that now fit into every single American’s pockets, would influence the approach of these industrialists to the public’s consumption.

In this way, I see Carpenter’s machine as making that latter, prescient approach: You don’t need to push the instrument forward, you need to make the delivery more accessible. By protecting the form, you direct resources to the expression; if this is possible with a musical art, and some have suggested it isn’t, delineating the harmful aspects of the toolchain from the ones that increase the chances of success of his goal (a portable, but uncompromised organ for touring).

Curtis, himself in a 2004 interview, says, “what I am getting at here is that electronic community is a commercial enterprise that dovetails nicely with the increasing trend towards dehumanization in our society: it wants to commodify human interaction, enjoy the spectacle regardless of the human cost.” This, perhaps in a cynical interpretation, implies maybe this delineation isn’t possible in technologically advancing culture, but actually the warning is of the reverse, that this commodification is the dehumanizing incentive, not the technology itself, that perhaps absent commodification (capitalistic intent, self-interest, etc.) incentive exists, the technology can be harnessed. This where, I think, both, West and Carpenter stood to thrive:

West’s computer was anomalous in many ways from others being built at the same time, it was thinking about the user’s need and not the user’s present desire, for owning such a machine. Carpenter’s main duty, it seems, as I said, was similar to the form. Where this goes wrong is, for example, in computing when computer models are rehashed for ostensibly deeper market penetration (we saw this several times over Apple Computers’ long history, with more and more specialized variations) that exist purely for profit motive, and in the case of consumer musical instruments that increasingly integrated, and often to the detriment of sound quality, electronics into amplifier and, notably, synthensizer technology, which was the pitfall Carpenter could have easily fallen into under sufficient pressure from his patrons— that his vision stood to be more profitible for the larger investment was immaterial, if the goal of capitalism is to generate the most profit for the least amount of investment (and as a result, delivering, by definition, the lowest passable quality product for the price).

The mind trap Curtis seeks to demystify is that the collective trauma of modernity (war, collapse, proliferation of everything we’re taught to fear when aided by technology) against the backdrop of utopian ideal for any given situation, which appeals to an exhausted and traumatized public for its emphasis on solving nameable problems, while we see technology intersect, in more obvious ways, every facet of not only public (political, economic, philosophical) but also private (the sort of cop behavior online that does the work of the surveillance state but on an interpersonal level) life towards a paradigm of control we’re, seemingly (but not actually), inflicting upon ourselves.

Étienne-Louis Boullée is an example of an artist that, in architecture in this case, practiced what was derided as architecture parlante, or an overexplaining of function rather than letting the form speak to an enhancement or expression of that function— you only knew what it was because the building told you, rather than letting it serve its purpose or that common features of the purpose it served in surfacing. I was discussing this with my wife earlier: We walk together most evenings through our community in a neighboring complex of pale shadows of even McMansions— affordabilty built, but expensively sold townhomes and tract housing. This is the modernists’ dream for housing in 2021 if, however, they were affordable— that they wind up bulldozed in a decade would be immaterial if anyone could afford to live there sustainably. Instead, it’s a monument to capitalist overwaste, and the only reason you know who these homes are for? The signage declaring them “luxury” homes, built to order, from the shittiest materials the (over)developers could find to fill out every last inch of Eastern Iowa.

I mention this because, rather than try to evolve music using the tools of technology as one vector for growth, the arts follow this seemingly innocuous, potentially democratizing course often: the consumer access to digital audio tools, for example, didn’t primarily make it easier for musicians and composers to produce art they might painstakingly craft anyway using analog tools, it became an easy way for capitalists to forge a market from software patches and soundpacks to make overproduced music sound identical in composition as well as production. So, as a result, the valid art one produces with these tools are seen as shoddy or unoriginaly or “just pushing buttons”, but inherently considered lower art— Carpenter, in taking a highly elite instrument with a dogmatic culture of standards and fusing it with modern musical technology while seeking to preserve the integrity of the instrument for the listener as well as the performer, is demonstrably addressing this, whether you agree with his assertions or not.

The connection may not seem so clear, however: architecture that attempts to indicate what it is, in a culture that no longer recognizes a feature in the innate grammar of public imagination (and thus the form is not recognized, or contraindicates what it is requiring correction that denies the corrective nature of revision itself), that uses the old ways to say this something is right and good, or perhaps just well-executed (think a tomb for a European aristocrat in the mold of an Egyptian Pharoah— we know a monument when we see one, but that isn’t what makes a pyramid a Pyramid; the resting place of a God King and his court is not communicated by such a monument centuries later, culturally or religiously). One, ironically, violates the form by telling you what it is, when your eyes tell you something different, just as it does when the form tells you something that no longer applies to modern society— that results in disuse, neglect, and misappropriation of that form.

Consumer culture often relies on the coopting of such cultural and signifier-laden neglect; record collecting, for example, has its origins in preservation and archival for the sake of the art, with condition rating being a function of playability and thus fidelity of the audio, condition of the acquisition for its form, the message and not the medium. In the present, however, it’s a signifier of value, and in so (de)volving, a sealed and unplayed record of rarity has more value than the art recorded on it. It violates form and it corrupts what that form represents— Carpenter’s organ, in this case, represents a snatching of the instrument from, both, the institutions that would bar its propagation into the hands and the gaze of the commons, but also the corporations that would lessen its quality to make it consumable, in favor of the path of a creator to (re)define its use with the singular purpose of its being (to be played, played well, and with sonic presence) “the real thing” even if the form evolves. Conceding that there’s little, if any, ethical consumption under capitalism, it seems Carpenter strikes the appropriate, albeit cynical, balance.

The real significance, with all of this said, is that an effort like Carpenter’s, whether you agree with his project or not as an exercise, is that the act has significance, it’s recognized, itself, in its own expression— reclamation, not rebellion, but coarse (rather than fine) revision. There’s a reason Modernism would supplant this notion of parlante, and it’s because quibbling and coopting of form-as-utility became self-defeating, unproductive, and in the case of public structures, inaccessible— there’s a reason the artistic movements spawned from modernism resonate with any revolutionary movement’s aesthetic for progress from architecture to protest art to the politics themselves. The utility of function reasserted, the operators of a structure, a tool, or whatever become the arbiter of shaping its present.

Carpenter tells PBS that, “The authority ultimately lies with the individual listener”

I believe I understand his intent here: Carpenter notes he completed his organ, designed in part by architect Frank Gehry (a figure I’ve written about before), around when his father died; he’s asking the questions literary criticism asked long ago, does the author’s intent matter, does the author’s conception of the future matter, does poverty of the imagination (if only temporally— the notion of capitalism being foreign, for example, to then-contemporaneous feudalism; “who would choose this?”) play into this at all?

People don’t like Carpenter, for any number of reasons (which I totally understand), many believing he’s ultimately an opportunist seeking a profit, and maybe that’s true, but I believe, again even if true, this still presents the same questions for review of this effort in the same philosophical context— what else are we avoiding modernizing? Today, it’s the fine arts, tomorrow it may be the basis of something much larger, but far less human. Consider the preponderance of quantum computing companies— I believe the limitation there lies in classical computing understanding of how, both, classical computer systems engineers perceive the laws of physics, and how theorhetical physicists understand the tools for building and executing on classical computers; there’s a brick wall in there somewhere. How do we solve this without challenging long-held dogmas we might, otherwise, perceive as constants in the universe? Well, it starts by challenging man, ourselves, to interrogate why our own creations are limited by our own prescriptive forms of what that creation is.

This thing cost $2m, and took over 10 years, to build, Carpenter ascribes its completion to: “Technology, and my love of music.”— You have to ask yourself, if Carpenter were a less talented person, if the fusion of expertise and awareness of technological potential were enabling or mitigating in producing this end result.

Share

Extras

Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

John K & Billy West on Howard Stern circa 1996

Rarities Vol. 1 - Legends of Rodeo

Philly D.A. (PBS Series)

It’s the Petit Bourgeoisie, Stupid

Principles of the October Revolution

Adam Curtis - An Ocean Apart

Airman to Airmen

Anti-Relatability Politics and the Modes of Achievement

In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe reported:

For a test pilot the right stuff in the prayer department was not “Please, God, don’t let me blow up.” No, the supplication at such a moment was “Please, dear God, don’t let me fuck up.”

and this, I believe, is a fair summation of the biographies of most involved with space progam, but also test piloting as a whole; you’re a Platonic few doing what the many cannot because you’re missing whatever makes everyone else unable or else smart enough not to try. Ultimately, what makes these men well-suited to this pursuit is that they see nothing godly or otherwordly in, what the rest of us see as, the conquering of the natural world— it was their job, and they were honored to get to do it.

If you intend to do something, you typically make sure there’s a plan for how you do it if something goes wrong, you’re admitting the possibility of failure exists without admitting that it’s probable and even likely, before you commit to starting. That’s, in many ways, the story of the Apollo program, as much as it was the the individuals of the Mercury 7’s in Wolfe’s book; it’s a lens on why this shouldn’t warrant disappointment or underwhelm, but an opportunity for reflection on human achievement: It was supposed to be godly, yet we did it, and can explain how, so it is within human capability, so why worship otherwise, and allow other human constraints (in the case of NASA, media dynamics and capitalism) interfere with endeavor?

Between the media perception of our national hero astronauts from commentators like Wolfe, and then culture that developed after the period of his book subsequently of the public lives of Apollo astronauts (Neil Armstrong, for example, becoming heavily political; Buzz Aldrin punching a guy for doubting the moon landing; Apollo 13’s Jack Swigert running for Congress winning 64% of the vote in his district before his death) revealed to us they were just normal guys.

You read a book like Wolfe’s, where he discusses the antipathy towards Mercury Project astronaut John Glenn, for example, and the story of how Alan Shepherd went first, and you realized how the social dynamics between these men in the Mercury Program, from the very beginning, was not terribly sophisticated, it was just…normal. So, what made these people so different that they couldn’t relate interpersonally in some cases, trust each other with their lives explicitly in others, but also uniformly capable of a feat few else would’ve been, both, willing and capable of participating in?

The short answer is that NASA’s engineers have, long, been under-celebrated (quick: name any rank-and-file member of Mission Control, with whom you are not personally acquainted, during the Apollo program!) and did the work of planning and orchestration, while these men took on the risk of trusting the process and adjusting in simulations against the gradient of their experience in the field— it takes all of these parts to do a moon landing, but it’s also practically Fourierist in its division of labor, with some acknowledged to be organized to take credit and others relegated (amenably, but still engineered to be in the background) to support, and some cruelly (as any Fourierist example would have a component of) even to subjugated in support of the larger goal that did not require oppression by a society hellbent on upholding said oppression (and reframing it heroically as a bootstrap narrative to a certain extent) anyway.

The reality is that this was always within the capability of sufficiently motivated humanity, whatever social cost it might have had, positive or negative, considering the origins of, among other things, the American space program in its post-War scientific acquisitions (both, personnel and materiel). So, when these men are regarded as otherworldly, it’s not just a sidestepping of the achievement, but a willful setting back of expectations for a properly organized society to self-actualize, and perhaps it is become of this cost that it is way.

In Season 2 of The Crown, there’s an episode that centers on the Apollo 11 crew’s world tour arriving in London, where Prince Philip requests a private audience with the astronauts, something they are all too happy to grant. Philip, in the series, regards the practice of piloting an almost spiritual one; you’re defying the limitations of humanity, if your own labor to exceed it— to earn that ability- counts for nothing. He requests this on the basis of it being a conversation, “airman to airmen”— the Queen’s secretary couldn’t possibly understand, you’d have to have been there. His request, relateable, on the surface to the viewers, is granted.

There’s something casually grating about how the series depicts piloting— Philip flying Charles home from school in Scotland berating him in a “I’ll turn this car around”-manner, for example. The framing absolutely concedes what is, ultimately, the point of why Philip’s view is a relateable, but ultimately self-defeating one: it’s mundane, and it’s something that, once humanity does it, becomes a capability of humans, something by definition mundate by the people who did it first. We wind up back in the media haze of heroics and meritocracy and marketing spin in seeing Philip’s disappointment in meeting the men, who ask him vague questions about his post-RAF life in the palace, while he simply asks open-ended existential questions about being “up there”; they share the mentality required of a pilot, the drive to undertake such a mission, but not the vocabulary to articulate what has become a fundamentally different experience than the one Philip knows. There’s a scene before their audience with Philip where they wander the palace, mouths agape at the opulence; this is what impresses them about Earth, how places like this, of ancien regime, still stand, while where they come from is undergoing a transformation from mid-century, post-war robustness to the disposable— everything from housing to even the rockets themselves are driving to a state of disposability, even their experience on the Moon is something that, shared with someone who wasn’t there, is simply a commodity, and one that can’t truly ever belong to anyone.

We live in such materially disparate conditions as a society, with cultural elites distinct from political or economic ones, that in a (largely fictional) encounter like this one, we realize the divisions aren’t merely incidental, but a function of what reinforces or makes unstable ones experience with material reality. Wolfe writes of the difference between the astronauts of Mercury Program, “The world was used to enormous egos in artists, actors, entertainers of all sorts, in politicians, sports figures, and even journalists, because they had such familiar and convenient ways to show them off.”— society just had a new condition of humanity to contend with being taken off the table as something society could benefit from, but as a function of Cold War intentionality (which is why it’s telling that the moment that the Space Race ended, so did the urgency with which reflective and careful planning for space halted— things got riskier and more flimsy).

This is something I’ve discussed from the other side to some extent previously— and I think it proves the core argument of why this wasn’t a triumph of Western ideology, but of sheer endurance and force of motivation, a situation where they could have, but not should’ve, done a thing a certain way, and did. It felt fleeting because it was; competition didn’t produce better engineering, it produced a culture of winning where the powers that ended a world war fought over the, apparently, redeemable resources leftover (again, scientists and their work), and some (in this case, the Soviets) recognized the Space Race for what it was, a race to the bottom, while the Americans ran this race sincerely until it no longer mattered, and, themselves, adopted the approach (or at least Congress did) after the race was over, that competition no longer mattered, and NASA was to make do (achieve more) with reusable (completely disposable but inappropriately re-assembled so as to appear reusable, thus causing two separate fatal incidents) components in the form of the Shuttle Program.

The motivation for such public displays of, both, motivation and spite are, again, something I’ve written about to some extent, but the key thing to keep in mind is that, unlike future endeavours of global peace in the nuclear age, the origins of space-faring modernity are in warfare and mass survival because, eventually, we will experience doomsday whether it’s intentional or not, at the hands of our own creations as a state. The solution, I believe, comes from seeing actions of humans as they are, by humans, and understanding the opportunity for solidarity and of citizenship, even if we’re saying this in nationalist (as in patriotic) context, but overall, in the interent of recontextualizing human endeavour as undeifying the acts of thoroughly ungodlike people: As Murray Bookchin wrote, “Humanity has passed through a long history of one-sidedness and of a social condition that has always contained the potential of destruction, despite its creative achievements in technology. The great project of our time must be to open the other eye: to see all-sidedly and wholly, to heal and transcend the cleavage between humanity and nature that came with early wisdom.”

In the time since first seeing this episode of The Crown, beginning writing this piece, Philip actually died: I began writing this based on the underlying assumptions of that episode that speak to the contradictions between the increasingly unrelateable ways we communicate civility and the order of things and the humanist elements of modernity (weapons of mass destruction turned into tools of scientific expansion of the human spirit built by scientists whose findings are used to re-embolden weapons of mass destruction because they built the original weapons for that purpose) actually speaks to the perverse nature of imperialism and the moving goalposts of what is and is not acceptable imperialism to the western powers, something this show explores more in depth than other fictionalizations of the Royal Family. They’re depicted as divided over issues of modernity: a society that has outgrown a need for a god-king, but political undercurrents begging for a new feudalism clashing with burgeoning labor-socialism; the old ways have no more vocal advocate (both, in reality and in this depiction) than Prince Philip. His uncle was the last governor of India, he himself has been alive longer than most commonwealth nations that are independent have gained independence, his own experience as a Greek monarch informed his objective knowledge that this is all farce, but a class prerogative protecting one.

The comparison is one of who succeeds in the sphere of cultural celebrity, rather than for what reason, and too often notoriety in a surplus of control of the narrative can make two things seem very much alike and equally deserving of adulation— the monarchy has a constitutional reason for existing, but it’s not a particularly good one, whereas the godliness ascribed to achievement is for the benefit of the elites, who are perceived to enable this achievement, moreso than those whos feat it actually was.

My point here is that this is a metaphor for the acceptability of harm at global scale when draped in a layer of ersatz civility and long-held doctrines of use. We ask this question in American politics all the time, but rarely does it get asked consciously: do you trust the Office of the President with a given power, or do you just trust the person occupying the Office to wield it responsibly? Americans often laud the former without admitting it’s being granted on the basis of the latter, and this is true of what constitutional position monarchies play in the constitutional governments that maintain them; the modern monarchy influences modern-day evil using the advisory and socially influential role established for them in the age of Cromwell, where the ability to perpetuate global hegemony while ostensibly holding no real global influence as a government was simply not a possibility in 1660. It’s a very old way of wielding power, but one that takes on renewed and exaggerated stature in 2021— the series, for example, depicts Elizabeth II’s reign as ceding more and more to the commons as a way of protecting the monarchy at the cost of its influence, which speaks to the social forces at work politically in the rest of the country, where its approval of the monarchy is highly contextual, but its longevity due to, both, the influence it does exert, and the increasing awareness of the looming legitimacy of continuing under the current system of constitutional delegation of duties or not.

Society, as Wolfe notes, comes to see these normal men of the space program as godly, much in the way Americans view celebrity, Europeans view their monarchs, and ancien regimes throughout history view their nobility, but with a stark difference; one of objective merit, but in the worldly realm, not an implication of god-like ability, but of superhuman intentionality, actually. As we saw with the space program, this awe of this intentionality can be harnessed for good, or for evil (and as it turned out, this would be the lasting legacy of corporatists in the public sciences— defense contractors built our rockets, and went from vendors to being the client, dictating what gets developed and the federal government finding or manufacturing a use, and in this case, it’s global hegemonic military expeditionism). The existential threat of the nuclear age aside, we’re simply looking at the terminal stages of such an existential crisis brought on by capitalism, and as I said, the corporatist autocracy that influences what has become synonymous with superhuman intellects and abilities in the form of our space program to do material harm in our society is something I’ve also written about before. However, I’ll boil it back down to this one concept we’ve been discussing: Does an appeal to an apparently superhuman authority serve the same rhetorical misdirective effectiveness as doctrine from the supposedly super-worldly in centuries and societies past? It would seem, at least in the small, accelerated timescale of the last century, that this may be so.

Ultimately, Wolfe suggests, that rather than superhuman, the correct interpretion is that contrarianism made many of these men drawn to this work more willing or likely to undertake something bearing more risk with full (over) confidence:

“They would give a lecture about how a pilot should never fly without a good solid breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast, and so forth—because if he tried to fly with his blood-sugar level too low, it could impair his alertness. Naturally, the next day every hot dog in the unit would get up and have a breakfast consisting of one cup of black coffee and take off and go up into a vertical climb until the weight of the ship exactly canceled out the upward thrust of the engine and his air speed was zero, and he would hang there for one thick adrenal instant—and then fall like a rock, until one of three things happened: he keeled over nose first and regained his aerodynamics and all was well, he went into a spin and fought his way out of it, or he went into a spin and had to eject or crunch it, which was always supremely possible.”

This may, likewise, be the correct perception of other types of cultural elite analysis; what is the true reason they do what they do that sets them apart, in the public imagination, from someone like yourself— it doesn’t diminish accomplishment to understand what makes who becomes part of the iconosphere human, even singularly so, just like it’s not toleration to understand the human impulse behind demonstrable harmful expression of political and social power. In the case of the monarchy, and those like Philip who were taken by the astronauts like many were, but also insistent that those like him, personally, were facing a legitimacy crisis and rather than stave it off, electing to prolong the conditions that would, historically lead to crisis.

As I said, it’s not a comparison of the two sets of actors described here, but of the interplay of cultural import and public perception; even in so doing, the nuance of what makes a moon landing significant loses nothing by being overly understood multifariously, but the nature of believing an institution or its proxy superhuman suffers dramatically, and in understanding the latter, maybe we can come to appreciate the former in appropriate measure, and lead us back from the edge we find ourselves on today:

We’ve, for example, as a result of this dynamic, have lionized thoroughly unqualified tech capitalists as our society’s greatest scientific minds. The problem with this is that they control, both, the medium and the message— we’re told it’s good, actually, that our society is under their competent auspices. We’ve inverted how things “used to work” under capitalism; the state pays money, a vendor produces a product to that end, the public becomes the owner of a vast cultural and technological achievement, but in the case of space, companies like SpaceX (to say nothing of defense contractors producing weapons) not only get to dictate demand, they get to find themselves on both sides of the transaction by soliciting the working, producing the work, retaining the work with the help of public scientists, and pay themselves using the tax payer money that would have funded the work in the first place, in order to produce a private enterprise product for the wealthy elite class to consume. This is the goal of, historically, the monarchy in other countries, the oligarch class in our own, of retaining superhuman status, their feats compared to that of average citizens who actually do the work that derives that profit, those who actually perform the feat that derives its grandeur. As we’ve seen, it’s easy for a ruling class dilettante to brainworm themselves into buying the hype of their own manufactured narrative to see themselves as accomplished and brilliant as well, a singular linchpin in this entire endeavour; yet not every man is a king.

Share

Extras

Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

Eric Hobsbawm: the Stories My Country Told Me

How Britain’s Spy Cops Targeted Grieving Families

1988: P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A.

Husker Du - Live at Camden Palace, London 1985

Aaron Carnes - In Defense of Ska

Adam Curtis - An Ocean Apart

"Do him two favors and then remind him that he owes us a favor."

Against the backdrop of illegitimate power's grasp exceeding its reach, foreign art has long represented that US global policy apparatus is one merely tolerated as necessary muscle, but rarely good

In Michael Moore’s 1995 comedy Canadian Bacon, agitating for a new Cold War with Russia, but finding the nation less-than-enthusiastic, Rip Torn, playing the president, jumps on an opportunity to escalate what began as a hockey brawl started by a sheriff played by John Candy into nuclear brinksmanship with Canada. It’s a fine metaphor for what fiction repeatedly tells us is the overall theme of US foreign policy. In The X-Files, there’s an episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”, that traces the main antagonist of the story (“The Cigarette Smoking Man”, CGB Spender) from his roots in the deep state as an anti-communist agitator after failing in the Bay of Pigs, to pulling the trigger in November 1963, then again in Memphis in 1968, and then in the present, neutralizing an alien refugee. The episode ends with his team around a conference table, they’re out of enemies, and then he’s told he has a phone call from Saddam Hussein— perhaps they’re not quite done.

These are two examples of an incredibly common media trope about the United States’ intentions and methods in exercising its power domestically, and abroad. Less talked about is what anyone would care to do about it, if they could. But to understand what that might look like, it has to be through the media criticism lens of the former question in evaluating what is sold to us in fiction and reality as objective truth in narratives of public justification:

The global hegemonic power of the United States has a history over the last half-century has been the single most influential indicator of what will likely be the behavior of client states, allies, and virtually anyone the US, situationally usually, declares an enemy.

Even the soft-propaganda of nominally left-of-center outlets like The New Yorker couldn’t resist participating in, not only the propping up of the Iraq War, but also who “our” allies were— if you wrote the sentence “American intelligence and State Department officials have told me that by early 2002 Syria had emerged as one of the C.I.A.’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, providing an outpouring of information that came to an end only with the invasion of Iraq.” in 2021, you’d probably assume the leadership of Syria had changed dramatically since then, but the reality is simply that the actions of the US and its allies had the effect of creating a foreign policy environment favorite to NATO, and unfavorable to those left bearing the brunt of the consequences of NATO action, amidst existing political instability that, again, NATO continues to exacerbate to its own ends.

In 1998, Labour MP Tony Benn addressed Parliament to discourage action in Iraq, with the implication being that participating in Iraq at the, then largely abstract, behest of the Americans was committing to what they knew, publicly, to be a series of falsehoods that would lead to greater falsehoods (the 2003 Invasion of Iraq):

Benn’s assertion here would bear out when Prime Minister Tony Blair, half a decade later, at the urging of George W. Bush, would push for the UK to join coalition forces for the War on Terror. The implication being that failure to participate in the coalition was to become an enemy.

This is a situation where this global hegemonic power can only be described one way: illegitimate. This is, and remains, the behavior of the mafia, and operates the same way; it’d be a shame if we began a two-decade long smear campaign about human rights abuses we enabled as long as it was politically expedient…

Even in the present day, the coup in Myanmar being a prime example, this is being done; the US, as did much of the West, only recognized the military government following the 1962 coup, despite the abuses of having deposed a democratically elected government being self-evident (something the Obama administration was openly embracing of as a double-standard), but now because the posturing of the Trump administration has given way to the actionable threat of the Biden administration’s posturing on the matter actually triggering a trade war with China, alliances must shift, and it’d be a shame if Joe Biden found out you’d historically traded with, now, the wrong people.

Like any good crime family, the US intelligence community helped break a coup in Russia in 1991, which gave way to the administration that would eventually be under the domination of Putin, and only now is that power considered untenable, when this was well-telegraphed from the change of power in favor of Boris Yeltsin, and his young protege. My point is that it reflects a capacity for recognizing where the allies are in a global shake-down operation, and now there’s a weird kayfabe happening amongst Western elites about what, and even if, disloyalty from Russia has occurred. But the real question is whether or not, like the US historically has not, the global community will tolerate this much further. It’s something explored in great detail in fictions, this idea of holding the United States accountable, as it does to others, for the histrionics of most perceived threats to the American way of life— the one that interests me most is the idea of the rest of North America rebelling against this social order.

So, back to our original question: What could Canada, for example, even do about this, if you were to ask its artists?

The 2005 Propagandhi album Potemkin City Limits is a fine example of this: the opening track covers a scenario where, in a speculative future, Canada closes the borders to Americans, diplomats are expelled, and the US is left to seethe on their side of a “new Iron Curtain”. The track goes on to excorciate all manner of US influence on Canadians, from exposure to the defiant reactionary politics of the NRA to corporate media culture obstruction of cultural iconography for the benefit of consumerism at the expense of the form being commoditized. The conflict is, then couched in terms of the War of 1812, where the British loss (and that of the Canada colonies) signalled the end to limits on expansion— the American empire considered this license to floor it. Both, American and Canadian, colonists had much to gain from the conflict, but an American victory was particularly striking in this regard to the First Nations people, recognizing the violence and imperialist terror had really only just begun. But ultimately, the track concludes that such a conflict would be meaningless in securing freedom or increasing the world’s safety as the next hegemon would simply adopt the anodyne but routine, propagandistic sloganeering that carries water for the gross excesses of imperial violence.

The value of a story like this is to highlight one very important thing: Draping imperialist violence and coercive foreign policy agendas is deeply cruel and violent, but that, in a sufficiently motivated propaganda media state, sanctions and embargos and horse-trading allies can be repackaged as civilized compared to violent resistance, which will lose the PR battle to audiences at home, before a single boot is on the ground for the impending invasion.

What, I believe, art like this calls for is pretty simple: What if the discourse reflected reality, the blatantly obvious, rather than the impassioned media criticism one does when all they do is consume newsmedia produced by one of two media conglomerates that will, eventually, subsume everything; why is a state-sponsored media, by definition, less trustworthy than allowing, for example, Amazon or Disney, to report on itself and on the politicians they have a larger hand in electing than the actual voting electorate? Historically speaking, if this were any other place on the planet, there would have been a US-backed coup by 1980, so it may go without saying that there’s something fundamentally uncriticial about how the west chooses to perceive world events and view the distance between themselves and the victims of empire.

That this double-standard exists in every manner in which the US purports to be the victim of foreign actors in justifying doing the same elsewhere (election tampering, corporatism, corruption) is really no surprise to anyone, and there’s only so much to be done by litigating it endlessly, and instead suggesting that the logical course of action is, indeed, leveling the playing field, and frankly, as can be demonstrated, coalition attempts to refuse participation bear out a failing optics war for the US: In the initial stages of the “War on Terror”, while Russia and China, of the members of the UN Security Council opposed an invasion of any kind, only France’s opposition undermind the ability of the US and Britain (or, at least, Blair, who indicated to Bush after Afghanistan that selling Parliament on Iraq would be nearly impossible) to sell this war as foundational to the perpetuation of the western way of life. The response? Well, historically, the US has had a certain amount of deference to the “old” powers that ruled Europe, and lent its present day demeanor legitimacy, and launched the most tellingly embarrassing response to French intransigence imaginable.

“Freedom Fries” were the propagandists’ response (sourced from a neoconservative business owner in North Carolina) response, and even the White House adopted this parlance, only for the phrase to die a quiet death in 2006, when it was removed from official menus.

The point here is that there is honor even among the corrupt— they respect that which gives them power; everything the US does has global impact, and ultimately, while it’s not nationalism, but patriotism (this is a distinction I’ve written about before) that informs organizing, resistance, any kind of state rejection of foreign influence, in this case, the pressure of the US to act and behave in their interest rather than one’s own (as France did, as Russia and China tried to do, as the UK tried to do, with Iraq). I say this because the arts have long been a vector for political change: One extreme example was the Bavarian SSR, where the modernist and expressionist arts, the work of Ernst Toller especially, became a flashpoint for the cultural war to be fought by the Nazis almost until the very end of the Second World War.

The reactionary response to this sort of politics by the West is best exemplified by the fiction of Mad Men: Don Draper, roundly and correctly identified as a piece of shit, is no more vile or even particularly evil or harmful than the rest of the cast, but our cultural framing is such that the material conditions of his upbringing, his standing in society, makes his position tenuous, so when he is successful, he’s not who this system is engineered to prop up as a titan of anything, let alone the machinery of consumerism— that belongs to the old money, someone like Pete Campbell in the show, not to a guy who faked his death in Korea to clean the slate upon his return. He’s not a good guy, but he’s a victim of capitalism in that this is what was required to succeed, and one the material satisfaction was there, his conditioning did not, but it was no longer necessary, so rather than lift others up (something he does to some extent with the people from his past like Anna Draper, or people dig deep into his past emotionally like Peggy, and to a certain extent Lane Pryce, those to whom he feels affinity, not in danger of being exposed) is exercises in a number of characteristically toxic and increasingly (not only self-)destructive ways.

The framing of the show is important: Rather than ending on a historically significant event of the 60’s that would bookend the series (The Moon Landing, etc.) it ended at some ambiguous time in 1969— you see nothing of this bookending, only that Don’s purpose as an ad man propels him as an innovator in this one thing forward. Multiple times in the series, he flirts with returning to auto repair, and multiple times Beat culture, but only to have it made clear he can’t relate to anything but the facade of being a late, but thriving entrant into bourgeois capitalist ranks— he’s not a rich kid living in the village on his dad’s money, he’s no longer working class either, and enjoys the solidarity, but is ultimately drawn back into his role of preying on the latter, while alienating the former. I think it’s for this reason that the show could have ended on one historical event if it wanted to make its point that Don’s purpose was not only self-harming, but ultimately not a happy ending at all: It should have ended on August 19, 1991.

In my ideal ending, they might choose to articulate the point made by the charcter himself. Muscovites turn on their TV for morning news to find scheduled programmes replaced by the ballet Swan Lake— no commercials, no news flashes, but in the US, an aged Don Draper wakes up to a coup attempt in progress on TV, he sees commercials take prominence alongside news items, nothing interrupted. He fought in the first of many wars that escalatingly had no real purpose outside of global hegemonic power, but were articulated to the public as increasingly crucial for their way of life, he spends much of the series wary of progressive politics (the Draper household, notably, in Season 1 was for Nixon in 1960, and Betty Draper would become ensconced in Republican politics for the rest of the series. The incongruity of the characters’ political perspective and the fall of the USSR, the defeat of communism, which was ostensibly the whole purpose of the show’s central premise, that capitalism could produce art that fulfilled its creators as a myth, and one that Don exemplifies, could have no better bookend to this finale. He would die a fraud for a war that was never the Soviets against him, but the capitalist superstructure scaffolding of the advertising business insinuitating itself into every element of public discourse being was what ultimately picked his bones clean.

The problem is that this show, like so many, make insinuations that are deeply and actionably political, but take the copout, walk it back, and close you off to the real world analogue— Mr. Robot does this as well, this wouldn’t ever happen to you, even if it actively was. As media, the show provides much to discuss, but without that actionable component being articulated, it’s just a fiction, nothing speculative, no cause for alarm, and it’s treated as such by consumer. There’s only so much mileage one can get out of it and apply as a cultural influence in a way that matters (why, I suspect, the aesthetic of the show was promoted so heavily, rather than its content). Don’s disgust, for example, during a pitch where a banking product idea is pitched, only for the bank executive to say customers were already doing it, now they’ll be able to charge them fro it, is visible, but rather than use the narrative to drive this digust into the influence of his character history as a beseechment to a broader working class, the show plays exclusively on his individual (but societally shared, evidently common) traumas, and his responses for the narrative are unbelievable; it makes the trauma responsible for his toxicity, not the event that traumatized him— the military-industrial complex, and his role in expanding not only it as an ad man, but forever securing its place in a world where the US will never run out of enemes. He played a material role in perpetuating a fraud about what actually made America formidible, and it wasn’t our superior way of life, it was that advertising had become a functionary of perpetuating propaganda as a lifestyle.

There’s always a problem to solve. So, what must the response be? Propagandists are telling you on one side that there is no problem that isn’t foreign in nature, your senses and perception demonstrate this is not true, whether or not you’re choosing to believe it, and I guess, if you want to apply some theory on the matter and you’re a foreign government, if you can’t neutralize this behavior through diplomacy into rational or simply ineffectual coexistence, you’ve been given permission to behave as they do, inhumanely— sanctions, expulsions, etc. which is what these other pieces of art, viewing the imperial core from the outside (or at least tangential adjacency, if not directly under its thumb), because there’s only so much an ineffectual performative counter-culture is capable of without the reality that, conceptually, as Mao teaches us, fascists have given you permission to treat them as a fascist might.

This isn’t me being prescriptive about solutions, this is how the US government is being depicted in foreign (even just north of the border) resistance art. In 2005 when the Propagandhi record had been released, just like when Tony Benn addressed parliament in 1998 in Iraq, everyone except the ordinary American citizen seemed to be openly aware that the Iraq War was based on not only a lie, but by one re-told so many times the words basically had no meaning by time it was voted on in 2003. However, by this point, US defense interests had too much riding on war becoming an everlasting backdrop, concepts of hot and cold war were immaterial because it was all perpetual and consistently handing off from one conflict to the next. So, I think it’s important to note that leftist art in other places feels the fantasy outcome is to punish the US as it punishes others it considers it peers and its clients, with economic sanction, cutting diplomatic ties, declaring an enemy once and for all that it will no longer tolerate. But like kicking the mafia out of your neighborhood a century ago, it remains risky business you’re free to discuss at length, but the arc of history bends against you if you try— even abject, repeated, and decades-long failure won’t deter.

Share

Extras

Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

QEMU Internals

The Consumerist Mediocrities of Millennial Socialism

Coup d’Etat in Football: What is the European Super League

The Miners Since Nationalisation - John Charlton (1973)

A Brief History of Irish Republicanism with Daniel Finn

It’s Time to Build a Grassroots Movement to Take Football Back

Sense, suspended and therefore ambiguous

Masters of the natural world, indeed.

In seclusion from the ravages of the Black Death, the world of Il Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio grows one tale at a time, a hundred narratives from a youth whose existence will be defined, not so much by the Black Death in real time but, by how the memory of it will force the sort of conclusions drawn about the world, now and then, in reading it as a historical non-fiction, through parables of all facets of human nature.

Few filmmakers quite understand the power concepts of human existence over which we assert no real control are unifying influences over all periods of time that never truly exist apart from one another like Pier Paolo Pasolini, who adapted Boccaccio in 1971’s The Decameron. In his telling, it is truncated, but fierce and pointed; it points the finger at the modern age using the art of the past, showing us for all our advancement, we’ve not come very far as a species, and that only makes us more human— that, like death, human nature itself cannot be outrun.

We’re experiencing a sort of persistent, low-level anxiety in the modern world; there’s a moment in the Richard Ayoade film Submarine, where the protagonist, Oliver Tate, is explaining his mother to the audience in narration: she works in an office, appears dead operating a copy machine, and confronted with the metaphysical proposition of, on your birthday, being responsible for brining your own cake, something unpleasant to everyone involved. Yet, we participate in these things, because it’s what we do, and it’s tragedy and farce all at once; we experience these mini crises of humanity, of purpose, thousands of times per day, and it’s very literally killing our souls. So, why in fiction, is giving into vice always the only joy your characters can ever experience? Maybe our vices aren’t the answer, but they are saying something is the answer, and as a species, we’ve engineered a society to deny ourselves in a race to acknowledge superiority over the natural world, but in what way is societal malaise and principled deprivation of crucial pleasure superior? We don’t apply technology for our convenience, seemingly only applied to make life harder in managable, but objectively harmful ways.

But The Decameron, at least not as such, is not about these things, but more about turning the narrative form on contemporary culture, it becomes a lens through which to view these things. It is just one film in a trilogy of similar construction (albeit in different adaptive sources from different places), but this is the one viewers might naturally start with, and thus, makes its case to viewers about modernity as understood through past parable.

Murray Bookchin once wrote, in service of a politics and governance surrounding a feminist municipality, “As victim and aggressor, woman and man are thus brought into blind complicity with a moral system that denies their human nature and ultimately the integrity of external nature as well.” As a socialist, and one adjacent to (prominently, as an admirer of Antonio Gramsci) Italy’s Communist Party, Pasolini was keenly aware of the dynamics of intersectionality in any oppressive framework— it stands to reason that his work would eventually reflect what he saw as the, almost (if not at least metathematic), growing extremism of the oppressive against the oppressed on all manner of intersection. In the case of Pasolini, himself, he was a target of smears by the state related to his sexuality, an orthogonal circumstance he never contested (either because he didn’t believe it criminal, or because fighting it would’ve been futile— it has been speculated that he was eventually murdered, or was staged to appear to be related to, over this aspect of his personal life by the mafia), similar to Gramsci’s imprisonment by the Fascist Italian state being of the intention to exacerbate his physical handicaps to his detriment while imprisoned to ensure he’d never recover (if ever freed), many reactionary elements within Italy were, as was broadly suspected, activated through propaganda and moralistic posturing in mainstream sentiment to act on this extremism even after the fall of Mussolini, for example the environment in which syndicates developed and continued to exercise a lot of extra-legal influence.

Each of the episodes in The Decameron speak to these real world political matters: most episodes of the film involve a main character believing to be able to successfully make one compromise for personal gain at someone else’s expense, only to find themselves having been exploited themselves as a result at the hands of their target— a gardener who feigns disability to work at a convent, only to have the convent’s nuns exploit him sexually; a man who brings his wife to a doctor to turn her into a horse for his farm, only to find the spell allows the doctor to possess the man’s wife sexually (consider, again, here the implications of the above Bookchin quote in the context of post-war Italian morality) in front of him. There are several critical of the artifice of the church’s precepts as a modern guiding institution of morality: a man whose crimes (murder, rape, theft— perhaps the most concerning to the church, also is a homosexual) flees his home to reinvent himself elsewhere, and in his new life becomes lauded for his piety where he is, in death, sainted, and consequently homosexuals are brought to his crypt to reflect on their lives of sin and invited to follow his example; another episode has two friends who have violated church law of premarital sex agree to tell the other, upon their death from the afterlife, where they end up, only to find that the human condition of sexuality only lands you in limbo, to which it is the living man’s great astonishment that it is, simply, not a sin.

The lesson seems to be that it’s a fool’s errand to look to an apparently corrupt, at the very least inconsistent, institution for moral guidance in the execution of one’s duties in society— an institution made of its own flawed and sometimes vile individuals holding dominion over the morality of those outside its operation, most of whom never have their sins see the light of day, while the codified sins damn the moral and just for eternity no matter what they do. The matter of sexuality as a means of holding power, but also a conduit of violence, against the backdrop of the church’s agents, themselves, being lapsed or in some cases just blind to the reality of the humanity they revere in favor of rules that would equate crimes against society (murder, rape) with the supposed offense of homosexuality (as the church had, but also modernity in its treatment of gay people)— this moral certainty at what becomes a sin came, in this case, at the expense of actual justice, only for the characters in the film to realize the former never calculated into the latter at their deaths, it simply just is. One could choose to interpret a “sin” like premarital sex, in this context, as immaterial to whether or not, upon one’s death, a person is judged for it at all, the implication being this is likewise so of homosexuality, and that in the church’s zeal to condemn, they (in the case of this film) wind up canonizing a murderous thief, but the church would have seen no difference between that offense and the sexual one, at least in theory.

The modern parallel Pasolini is making here is a fairly apparent one, as noted, but even into the present day, there’s a certain amount of reactionary puritanism in every generation believing it’s restoring some kind of nebulous traditional utopia they imagine existed decades previous, but one that prosecutes sins inconsistently—either to the letter, or with leniency, because of this bias; sort of a social microcosm of how Pasolini depicts the church. It’s no coincidence that this ideological bent shares much in common with those presdisposed to seek out or join or even lead a fascist movement as a means of framing it as a holy crusade against what they mythologize as degenerency on the structural-social level. We’re experiencing something of this phenomenon in the contemporary US, and bearing out online potentially becomes even more viral than in Pasolini’s era because it can masquerade further as aspirational, aesthetic, somehow wholesome, if not just sad and pathetic, and thereform harmless, when, as Pasolini’s film depicts, this is the vehicle for putting dangerous people in positions of molding the public consciousness, and combatting this is a function of remaining critical and vigilant. This lesson still very much applies, perhaps more so because of how quickly and thoroughly information can become embedded as socially conscious reality.

“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” said Pasolini, and in saying so suggests there’s a social good in belief, but one must unbelieve in good faith to hold that power accountable by those who wield it, in this case the Catholic Church— it’s a begrudging respect for what belief represents for man, but not how it’s practiced (in this case, at odds with Christ) and reinforced politically as an institution. It makes for a society that reflects these values, as Pasolini suggests in these fictions and his peers’ writings in Italy’s communist movement. However, Pasolini’s view is bleaker, that the revolution will amount to mere “sentiment” as long as these extrapolitical institutions remain as the standardbearers for morality in such a society, a view not shared, primarily, by peers like Gramsci, who felt a revolution was eminently possible: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Gramsci writes at one point, feeling the frustration of the stagnation of the sort Pasolini is troubled by as well, however, he concedes a point where Pasolini will not— that there is hope, essentially that the work must always go on if anything is to ever happen one way or another. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned”

Share

Extras

Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:

Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks

Gramsci and Pasolini (Short Film)

The Long Struggle Over the Suez

Westminster: Behind Closed Doors with Tony Benn

A Brief History of Irish Republicanism with Daniel Finn

Loading more posts…