Monthly Archives: July 2015

Hester Street (1975)

While there may be some truth to the idea that Jews invented the Hollywood studio system, there’s no question about what ethnic group owns the narrative around immigration. Like a a great ship, The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974) have carried everything in their wake. Organized crime is now the key metaphor for immigration, assimilation, and the American dream, even for non-Italians. Cubans in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Mexicans in Edward James Olmos’s American Me, and the Irish in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York all follow in the footsteps of Michael Corleone. Unlike Michael Corleone, they all die horrible, violent deaths. But that just goes to show you what happens when an outsider tries to act like a “made” man with connections.

Hester Street, Joan Micklin Silver’s low-budget black and white adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, is a feminist “appropriation” of the immigration and assimilation narrative. Released only a year after Godfather Part II and beautifully shot — It almost looks like a lost, early film by Jim Jarmusch. — it tells the story of four Eastern European Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1890s. Jake, played by Steven Keats, is a superficially Americanized young man with a taste for dancing, women, and smart outfits. He works in a small tailor’s shop sewing clothes. Fast and efficient, he thrives under the “piecework” system. Bernstein, a former Yeshiva student who works in the same shop, is different. He doesn’t care about money, and only does the minimum amount of work he needs to do to survive. He’d rather be home studying the Talmud. Bernstein is bullied, not only by his boss, an ex-peddler who resents educated men, but by Jake, who takes him under his wing as a kind of “greenhorn” little brother. Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t side with Jake or Bernstein. Hester Street is such a quietly subversive little movie that it actually endorses the idea that doing the minimal amount of work you can get away with so you can get home and study is just as good as working your ass off to “get ahead.”

Mamie, Jake’s mistress — He has a wife back home in Russia — is another assimilated Russian Jew. For Jake, whose real name is “Yankle,” Mamie, who speaks English “like a Yankee,” is the American dream. For Mamie, very much the typical American woman, Jake is that sexy bad boy she can’t help but fall in love with, even though he treats her like shit and uses her for her money. Things get more complicated when Jake gets a letter, which he needs read to him because he’s illiterate, informing him that his wife, and little boy, are both on their way to New York. He asks Mamie for a loan of 25 dollars, a lot of money back then, for an apartment, and a set of used furniture. Mamie half suspects she’s being played, but gives it to him anyway. After all, he might be setting up an apartment and buying furniture because he’s planning on proposing marriage. Jake also asks Bernstein to move in with him. He needs the rent money. Bernstein who’s already looking for a room, agrees. A bed in the kitchen and a place to keep his books is all he really needs.

Carol Cane, who was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jake’s timid, immigrant wife Gitl, is so good she almost throws the film out of balance. In her own quiet way, she dominates Hester Street as completely as Daniel Day Lewis dominated Gangs of New York. But Hester Street is a much better film than Gangs of New York, if only because, unlike Bill the Butcher, Gitl is the hero, the center of Joan Micklin Silver’s feminist message.I would guess her performance comes off even better today than it did in 1975. In 1975, it might have been halfway believable Jake would have preferred Mamie to Gitl. In 2015, however, Jewish Americans have been so thoroughly assimilated into the American mainstream for so long that Jake’s pride in his ability be mistaken for a gentile almost seems a little quaint.

Gitl’s transformation from backward, superstitious Russian immigrant to self-confident American feminist, on the other hand, is a genuinely radical “appropriation” of the story of the American Dream. Silver may have discarded Cahan’s social democratic politics, and Hester Street may be a quiet, understated movie, but both are strengths, not weaknesses. Cahan’s political becomes Joan Micklin Silver’s personal. Gitl’s victory is not the revolution. She gets to marry Bernstein, the man she genuinely loves. She successfully pressures Jake into giving her alimony and child support. Yet it is the revolution. It was difficult enough for a woman to break away from an abusive husband in 1975, let alone in 1892. Orthodox rabbinical courts aren’t exactly known for handing out equitable divorce settlements to women, even in 2015. Jake isn’t a villain, just a clueless working-class man with the wrong values. He gets what he wants, to marry Mamie and to be a real American. But Silver clearly thinks Gitl has better ideals than her ex-husband’s.

I suppose if Hester Street has any weaknesses it’s no fault of Silver’s. Zionism didn’t exist in 1892. So she could hardly be expected to work it into the narrative. But the old Jewish Daily Forward under Abraham Cahan was a social democratic newspaper, not the liberal Zionist newspaper it is today. By not confronting Cahan’s politics, by making the central conflict about “old world Jewish values” and “American capitalist values,” not about socialism and capitalism, Silver opens the door to a kind of chauvinistic Jewish nationalism. If Hester Street has never even remotely threatened the Italian American gangster epic’s hold on the immigration and assimilation narrative in American cinema, it’s not only the fact that it was a small, low-budget movie. It’s that Silver’s nostalgia for the Yiddish speaking world of the old Lower East Side seems almost as quaint as Jake’s pride in his ability to be mistaken for a gentile.

Why Am I Clapping? Why Am I Laughing? Psychoanalysis of a TV Set

In the beginning there was happiness…

Smiley, the happiest brand ever, was founded by Franklin Loufrani in 1971 through a newspaper promotion to make people happy. using the logo to highlight good news, it allowed readers to see the bright side of life throughout any day. In a very short time Smiley became the most recognizable icon in the world and remains so to this day.

-Anonymous Author, Smiley Corporation History Page

Because it’s There, The Doctor says,
She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated,
Massage the brain.

-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives

Humor is a conformity enforcer clothed in the garb of congeniality. It focuses on others’ weaknesses, disasters, stupidities, and abnormalities.

-Howard Bloom, The Global Brain

Did you know that you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…

-Site preview, Google Search: “why are we laughing”


As is said when dogs try in vain to eat our food, “The TV thinks it’s people!”

What does a box that runs on wish-fulfillment wish for? What do televisions dream of?

What are its Freudian slips? What does it tell us?

It resists analysis, firmly confining me to the couch.

It shows me sitcoms that progressed since their inception from obsession with narratives of “actual” workplaces and families into obsessive narratives about the forging of surrogate family and replacement community. Why else on The Office would Dwight be a welcomed guest at Jim and Pam’s wedding when they hate him?

It shows me Bojack Horseman. The titular protagonist, a washed up actor who starred in a fictional sitcom about a family, repeatedly meets with the actors who played his (not) family and attempts to make them behave like an actual family. He eventually gives up on this, finding another surrogate family still trapped within the fictionalizing confines of the screen.

It shows me an episode of Alf. Alf becomes obsessed with the sitcom Gilligan’s Island and deserts his fictional surrogate family on the sitcom Alf hoping to escape from his own escapist entertainment into the twin dads of Gilligan and The Skipper. In a distortion of It’s a Wonderful Life, Alf, in a dream, is told by the Gilligan’s Island characters they’ve been watching Alf on a television rigged together with coconuts hoping to escape living on Gilligan’s Island. Alf goes back to his fictional surrogate family. An infantilized Jimmy Stewart, Alf tells them he appreciates them and gives Nietzschaen affirmation to his own fictional, surrogate existence. He escapes from one television sitcom to another television sitcom and returns but never exits the television.

These are just a couple among dozens upon dozens of telefictional equivalents.

They-with slight logistical variations-are, of course, eerily reminiscent of Derrida’s reading of a Rousseau’s Confessions in Of Grammatology.

Derrida gives us a summary (in Hollywood they’d call it “a remake”, in the Met they’d call it an “icon painting”) of the Confessions wherein the lonely Rousseau describes masturbating in the otherwise empty bed of the absent prostitute, his girlfriend, the woman he affectionately refers to as “mother”. He can’t touch his absent actual mother so he supplements her always present absence with a replacement. Eventually even this supplement requires supplementation by his own erotic fantasies. All for a thing no longer there, that can’t be there.

Just like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

“The TV thinks it’s people!” And it wants its mother.

Television presents itself in stories of its own drowning in a rising tide of supplements.

The sitcom is one of the pinnacles of what Dwight MacDonald dubbed “midcult”, what has been referred to as “fakelore”-the demographic-incepted industrial production of popular mythology. It aggressively divides the shared experiences and reference points of the child from the adult so as to most efficiently deliver advertising. Thereby it comes to commandeer the psychological space once the territory of the family.

And in its stead attempts, in all its blocky clumsiness, to grow into the experience of the family. It wants to jump on the table and eat our food. It wants to complain about what we’re having for dinner tonight. As God created man in His image, so has man created the television screen, in its image.

Television grows impatient wanting to be people and attempts to make them meet it halfway. It pushes them from the communality of the folk dance or music or tales toward the isolated space of the home, the office, the automobile. It blurs the sense of time in the night better than a bonfire and tells all the jokes.

It seizes the flow of folk culture as its own. The flow is diverted from being from the bottom up, of society out into art. It becomes the trickle down flow of art into the dreams of an occupied population.

The audience is the primary object of attention. For the television, people is the hopeful self-actualization to resolve its coming of age narrative. It is us that constitute the mirror in which television primps its hair and play-acts what it wants to be when it grows up.

 The television nervously laughs after it tells me jokes as though it really desperately wants me to like it. It’s insecure and presents itself in perfectly starched shirts, perfectly fit clothes. Its apartments always look specially cleaned as though expecting company.

“Smart” TV is the tv trying to have an earnest heart to heart with the audience about their relationship. We call this self-reflexivity. The TV calls it self-awareness.

The sitcom is defined by the laugh track and its felt absence, the drama by the musical cue.

The laugh track is one of the television’s reoccurring dreams. It wants approval. In its home, your home, it punctuates your projected dreams with its own dreams of you giving it unconditional love. The laugh track is the television’s safe-space

The original laugh track was also the first ever mellotron. One guy, Charles “Charley” Douglass, invented and owned the only one: “The Laff Box”. It looked like a tiny organ and was protected with padlocks. It had 32 sets of ten second tape loops that would be periodically switched out, able to reproduce a variety of different types of laughs at once. We might call these combinations chords.

Because this man’s business was a family business and because this box was essentially an instrument, the producers took to fighting over who got to book his son, who was very generous in his topical application of “laffs”. If the tape loops could be considered a fictional simulacra of a community he was their gregarious philosopher king, the bringer of “sweetened” dreams.

The producers would, however, avoid his wife. She was, according to insider sources, stingy with the “laffs”.

The Douglasses with their Laff Box were the mass media age’s answer to The Carter Family. They created the poststructural inverse, the pastiche of the other side of the folk song or play-the spectator response. They traveled playing “the audience” to any entertainment willing to pay them.

Somewhere in the clap, in the laff, in the cheer, sits the nervous shriek to stop.

The Superhero and Cultural Subversion

After sending an excerpt of my previous essay on the cultural place of the superhero to a friend, she took offense at the passage where I claim there’s no possibility of the female superhero because of the cultural discourses of power that create and maintain the superhero. She sent me to this New Yorker essay on the genesis and cultural history of Wonder Woman and we discussed it in its minutia until the wee hours of the morning. Reading the essay, a couple passages stuck out at me:

A press release explained, “ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” Marston put it this way: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

And here, Marston’s agreement with the thesis of my previous essay, with the New Yorker writer echoing the Freud element:

“Do you think these fantastic comics are good reading for children?” she asked.

Mostly, yes, Marston said. They are pure wish fulfillment: “And the two wishes behind Superman are certainly the soundest of all; they are, in fact, our national aspirations of the moment—to develop unbeatable national might, and to use this great power, when we get it, to protect innocent, peace-loving people from destructive, ruthless evil.”

And finally, the political denoument and split of the feminist movement’s relationship with Wonder Woman after the fairly advanced feminist politics of the six years total that Marston ran the title:

Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway (Marston’s female assistant) wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”

The notoriously backwards internal politics of the comics industry reared their ugly head and from 1947 onward with few exceptions the Wonder Woman character’s vaguely radical feminist components were rarely touched on again outside some attempts to make her a “career woman” in the 70s, her new look roughly modeled after the fashions of Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom heroine. The superhero, as a power fantasy, can at best touch progressive politics through the questionable tactics of the savior narrative or at worst use the most superficial trends of feminism as a trojan horse for reactionary politics while maintaining plausible deniability against their doing so. The sins of second wave feminism in their most bald form were regurgitated in Wonder Woman comics.

Of course Wonder Woman as a conscious piece of feminist propaganda couldn’t work. The reading of comic books has always been, like most “entertainments” that pretend to exist outside the possibility of intellectual criticism, processed on the unconscious level. This, not the conscious intent of the creator, creates their possibility of unwitting cultural subversion.

Comic books, as products meant for children, have sexual repression built into their DNA. It’s not an accident that Doctor Octopus always attacks right when Peter Parker is on a date. This is a repeated motif. Escape into superego to avoid the id. Express the repressed sexuality in obsessive endless images of bondage style sadism. Superman’s initial visual conception was in softcore bondage pornography. This is not a design error, it is the design.

The recent debates over the objectification of female characters in comic book art, while long overdue, miss one of the basic elements of the overarching visual aesthetics of superheroes. Superheroes have always existed as hypersexualized figure drawing to the point where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had to invent the absurd “unstable molecules” to explain why the clothing of the superhero is always perfect form fitting and never folds. I’m not advancing the idiotic moral equivocation argument pushed by the dread MRAs here. Even if the sexualization cuts both ways, the sexual objectification of the female characters exists in a different cultural context. The larger cultural norms for the entire history of superhero comics as a genre have involved the commodification of women as sex objects. As such the absurdly enlarged breasts, shrunk waists, and erotic posturing of female characters is the reproduction of the larger culture and reactionary.

However, the coded hypersexualization of the masculine that arises from the broader attempts to repress homosexual tendencies creates possibilities of politically progressive subversion. The repressed id always makes itself known to those paying attention.Coded language wants to be found out. It seeks community.

The person who introduced me to comic books when I was two years old, my cousin (a terrific fellow who leads an exciting life) now runs gay superhero costume themed fetish parties. They look like a hell of a lot more fun than Comic Con. In the linked NY Times article he mentions pretty much outright using the homoeroticism of the images as a means of discovering himself. In superhero comic obsessed communities, it ended up actually being the white cis-het sexuality that was repressed on the ground. Comic Con has “cosplay” but there are no cis-het superhero sex parties that I know of. Their impulses have to exist largely in voyeurism. The repression of the “deviance” led to the opposite of what was intended. This is irony at its richest and most satisfying.

So far this is the only subversion against the norms caused by the main streams of superhero comics I can think,of. I say this not to marginalize its positive effects but to assert the circumscribed nature of the superhero in my prior essay.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.

The Superhero and American Exceptionalism

The archetype of the superhero has gone through numerous shifts since its inception in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Like much of the early history of comics, the appeal, genesis and audience was largely within the immigrant population. Earlier comic strips appealing to immigrants were largely vaudevillian hijinks organized around the family-think the Katzenjammer Kids. Their appeal was in the lighthearted way they poked fun at the accents and cultural mores of the people who had little hope of assimilating.

Superman is different. Superman could not have existed before 1938. Superman is of course a subverted aryan power fantasy; that the main distinction between the seemingly powerless Clark Kent and the godlike Superman comes mostly from letting a slight kink in his dark hair loose points toward the subtext of Judaism. That he’s able to be all powerful only when he tucks the kink away shows that the fantasy is one of assimilation. Superman is an isolated immigrant. Superman as a fantasy, at least initially, isn’t much different than Walter Lippmann’s arc when he consciously de-ethnicized and deterritorialized himself as a Jew to support and prop up the cynical anxieties of the ruling elite.

Superman must endlessly battle Lex Luthor to legitimize inherent “goodness” of his authoritarian employment of bottomless power the same way people will fight corporate “corruption” in order to legitimize the current failing system. Superman is the Democrats.

The next major superhero, Batman, represents the opposite pole of the ruling class-vigilanteism, the slaveholder’s revolt. His enemies represent ethnic stereotypes codified in physiognomy as much as those of Dick Tracy. He comes from money and doesn’t need superpowers because money is enough of a superpower in and of itself. He is purposely sexless; he has an ancient butler instead of a love interest, he adopts a child instead of going through the disgusting physicality of sexual intercourse. Of course Batman did have periodic love interests but none of them ever stuck in the public imagination in the manner of a Lois Lane. The sensuality of the body has always been the cultural property of the poor and oppressed.

Batman fights small time criminals but rarely ever systemic injustice. He’s barely a vigilante; he steps outside the law to enforce the social place of the police in a way the police can’t. He can be more effectively normative than the state. He can enforce the surveillance state without the annoyance of process. His beating up a criminal is what defines them as a criminal; their “evil” is usually barely fleshed out by the writers. The Joker’s seeming “anarchistic” “meaningless” evil springs from the same mechanisms that allow a large portion of the population to claim Dylann Roof wasn’t a white supremacist but just “pure evil”. It is no accident the defining Batman comics came from Frank Miller, an outright fascist. Batman is the Republican.

The sheer volume of production in the comics industry means there are of course hundreds, possibly thousands of forgotten or secondary characters. Some might wonder “why aren’t you discussing female superheroes at all?” I don’t discuss this because there haven’t really been any; female superheroes largely exist as copies of male characters drawn up as psychologically safe sex objects.

This may be changing but as the superhero exists as the deep structure impulses undergirding the overarching hierarchies of power in a misogynistic society, their existence can hardly address the actual experiences and challenges of women any more than Rosie the Riveter could. The superhero is normative. The norm of the society is the repression of women unless they assimilate as aspirational carrots.

The superhero, being based always in the fantasy of assimilation imagined either from the bottom up (Superman) or the top down (Batman) in various configurations changes as the specifics of the politics of assimilation and aspirational ideologies shift. Because American capitalism requires the feeling of never being satisfied with one’s position, these fantasies have immense power and broad reach. They can be transposed in various keys all the way from outright neoconservative fantasies of genocide (The Punisher) to parables of the confused and blind “well meaning” authoritarianism of the classic liberal (Spider-Man.)

Superheroes predominate in the United States because their “goodness” is circumscribed within the boundaries of American exceptionalism and the justification of authoritarian ideology. This is why the Marvel Civil War comics seemed so utterly ridiculous. This is why the attempts to satirize these values in something like Watchmen failed to register as anything more than “superheroes growing up.” The only part that could register consciously is “hey, they curse and smoke and have sex now.”

“Foreign” superheroes like Colossus or Captain Britain exist merely as puppets miming the cultural values of America garbed in a usually laughable accent or literally their country’s flag. So the obvious question then becomes: How does the recent trend of major budget superhero films with reach beyond what their floppy paper predecessors could’ve dreamed of fit into the overall question of assimilation?

There are several manners in which they do this that only seem novel the way Jeff Koons sculptures do in relation to the commonplace objects they imitate-they’re bigger and more money is swirling around them. The most critically respected superhero film of the current wave, The Dark Knight is an obvious conservative parable of the Bush years, or rather the whitewashed narrative of the Bush years. The privileged child, acting on the expectations of his parents, faces “pure evil” (“Some people just want to watch the world burn”/”The terrorists hate us for our freedom”) by ramping up use of paramilitary equipment and absurdly expensive surveillance systems to take on this depoliticized evil and leaves having done the “right thing” despite a plummeting approval rating (“The hero we deserve”, ironically becoming this after the fall of Harvey Dent, the former DA and therefore as close as the film comes to an embodiment of the values of due process.) The Marvel movies are rarely this explicit but even there the US military actively did huge favors for the production of the Iron Man films. They saw their propaganda potential-the larger public did not.

Part of why the present is the time of the superhero the empty inertia of the flow of money. Part of it is dialectic pushback. Popular cinema has always been closely hewed to how Freud considered dreams-wish fulfillments. In the face of the emptiness of the authoritarianism of the present, the superhero represents the unfulfilled wish of the comfortable feeling that the authoritarian impulse and machinery is benign and wants to protect us from, as Malcolm X put it, “the chickens coming home to roost.”

Slightly more interesting is the aggressive resistance to interpreting these texts as political objects. But like sporting events, television or videogames, superhero movies exist as “apolitical” spectacles. Because political implications are inescapable, “apolitical” just means “basking in the inertia of the present”. They are therefore reactionary and useful to the existing power structure as firewalls to involvement and consciousness.

This firewall exists in two directions. Let’s draw a relationship to the politics of the workplace. Consumption of “entertainment” under capitalism has, since the advent of television, mirrored the scheduling of work as Adorno pointed out. Further, it works in direct relation to work as “relief”, or as I said earlier “wish fulfillment”. Of course, wish fulfillment only exists as a mirror of the unfulfilled wish and so the relation between entertainment and the dynamics workplace is more direct than is generally assumed.

The workplace tries at times ludicrously to protect itself in its own internal “apolitical” firewalls though rarely with the success of “entertainments.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a perfectly logical outgrowth of the society as a whole. Most workplaces and social outings work on the implicit agreement: “Don’t ask me anything, in exchange I won’t tell you anything.”

And so it is with the public’s relation to the superhero film. There is a great cultural demand for, to borrow a phrase used by Richard Poirier in describing early literary attempts to create American identity “a world elsewhere.”

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album yesterday which you can hear selections from for free here.

The Political Economy of Snuff Films

The Baffler published an article on the relationship between various US news channels and Islamic State. Particularly interesting was their discussion of the decision by Fox to publish a beheading video in full to their website. An excerpt:

Fox plays ISIS propaganda with the same intention that ISIS brings to its production: to make Americans feel frightened of and threatened by an organization that actually poses no threat to American freedom or security. Exaggerating the power and reach of ISIS is in the immediate best interests of both the savage terrorist organization and the cynical, right-wing media outlet. The fiction that ISIS—a band of fanatics currently engaged in protracted battles and occupations half a world away from the United States—poses an existential threat to the best-armed nation in the history of the world both burnishes the group’s credentials with would-be jihadis and gives weight to Fox’s critique of a Democratic president as soft on terror. (In an earlier era, with a Republican in the White House, Fox’s on-air news personalities routinely blasted the Arab-language cable outlet Al Jazeera for playing Al Qaeda propaganda videos.)

The important thing here is the recognition of a political economy in snuff films, a term that is almost never used to describe these death videos. The concept of the snuff film has been traditionally tied to the never substantiated claims, largely pushed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, that films of the rape and murder of women were being produced as pornography for commercial purposes. But if we defactionalize the concept of the snuff film, we find claims in books like The Hateful and the Obscene that snuff films don’t exist rather ludicrous; to find one from before MacKinnon/Dworkin or L.W. Sumner’s text responding to them, one simply has to go back to the day “America lost its innocence”-the Kennedy assassination and the corresponding snuff film, the first one produced and distributed in the climate of centralized mass media reproduction-the Zapruder Film. The sexualizing of the death video in the concept of “the snuff film” then merely constitutes another distorted manifestation of the US’s puritanical mores-the mortal sin, the real horror involved is that someone might be jerking off to them.

The Zapruder film does have a sexual component. As Bill Hicks joked about watching it: “I didn’t notice. I was too busy staring at Jackie’s ass.” The Zapruder film has been commercialized and replicated to a ubiquity that no porn film ever dreamed of.

A CANON OF COMMERCIALLY REPRODUCED AND REDISTRIBUTED SNUFF FILMS

I tried to compile a full canon of videos of people actually dying that were reproduced frequently for commercial purposes. Because television news in the US is a privatized industry, this is a very long list. I’m sure it’s nowhere near complete. I’m not providing links to any of these videos, but for the morbidly curious, well, I trust you all know how to use the google by now.

In rough chronological order:

  • 1937 Hindenburg Disaster Footage
  • 1963 Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination
  • 1963 Thich Quang Duc Self-Immolation Protest Film
  • 1968 Vietnam “Bullet in the Head” Execution Film
  • 1985 News Footage of the MOVE Headquarters Bombing
  • 1986 R. Budd Dwyer Suicide Footage
  • 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake News Footage
  • 1999 Columbine Massacre Cafeteria Surveillance Camera Footage (interestingly largely distributed as a bootleg)
  • 2001 WTC Attack Video
  • 2002 Daniel Pearl Death Video
  • 2006 Saddam Hussein Execution Video
  • 2007 Wikileaks Collateral Murder Video
  • 2011-present Eric Garner and related Police murder videos
  • 2013-present, ISIS Beheading videos

As we get past 2006 the production of death videos becomes so voluminous as to make this list a long exercise in redundancy if we’re analyzing them from the lens they exist as contextually produced pieces of political propaganda launched from various directions. It should also be pointed out that with the mass production of consumer grade cameras in phones etc. and increasingly easy access to distribution points for videos the landscape of political propaganda has shifted dramatically.

This shift has been from the accidental production then appropriation of these videos toward the purposeful production of them with the intent of distribution. They no longer represent the shock of mortal discontinuity; they present themselves as distinct subcanons; their continued production and volume is meant to establish the normality of their content. They no longer mythologize their dead bodies but attempt to frame them as the hyperreal everyperson give or take some broad gerrymandering.

THE REPRODUCTIVE INERTIA OF THE IMAGE, DEATH FROM ABOVE, DEATH FROM BELOW

Don Delillo, in his novel White Noise, famously gives us the unremarkable barn that people visit to photograph because so many people have already visited it and photographed it. Neil Postman in Technopoly lays out the thought experiment of a series of technological advances in highway design, each of which lowers fatality rates but only after a temporary one year spike in them. Of course, the rate at which the advances come accelerates to where they occur more than once a year and they end up with just a permanent spike in traffic fatalities.

It’s important to recognize these are both descriptions of the same phenomena viewed from different vantage points.

To this conversation I add the recent national conversation over putting body cameras on police officers. This is, ostensibly, a solution to the problem of the lack of police accountability.

But is it? This “solution”, despite the fact that ubiquitous video of police brutality in every imaginable context does not seem to be especially effective in court or in reining in the behavior of offending officers. The obvious question stemming from this, a question I refuse to endorse or reject for the moment, is: Are these proposed body cameras on some level the hollow shared cultural clamor for more death videos? A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs. And so on.

What is the appeal of the death video of the present? We can problematically but functionally enough define two ways that death videos reach the consumer-by their own volition, or from a top-down externality.

The former would be presented in the seeking out of death videos both in the consciously political sense of bearing witness a la the many police murder videos, but also in the long tradition of underground bootleg films like Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, etc. The Columbine surveillance tape is especially interesting because it crosses over between the two impulses-I remember when I was younger and seeking out bootleg copies of unavailable films seeing it come up frequently in tape traders’ lists.

The latter is of course the Baffler article’s example at the top-Fox News purposely releasing ISIS videos to pursue their shared aims.

THE MEMORY OF THE DEAD AS NARRATIVE REAL ESTATE

The spectral video image of the dead body is especially desirable as a memetic repetition because the dead body and its image are traumatic to behold. They create mental resistance and abstract themselves. The dead person’s image to the person who knew them is the reminder of their absence and an invitation to ponder what may have been. The memory of the dead person elevated to a folkloric archetype is a rorschach blot, a thing to be fought over as a chunk of real estate in the larger cultural battle over “narrative”. I can’t say with certainty what view is most prevalent as a reading of the Eric Garner and related videos. What I can say is that I’ve encountered equally vigorous reactions from both the people reading it as an archetypical document of the authoritarian racism of the state and as a sign of the “entitlement” of the disadvantaged and as affirmation of the unquestionable rightness of the police.

Insofar as the creation and sharing of these videos is a tactic towards an end, their eventual surface interpretations can’t be taken for granted as pointing people in either direction cleanly. This is as true for the one sought from the bottom or beamed down from the top. They exist in an inter-lapping set of discourses and can, as Stan pointed out in his most recent post on distributed fascism, lead to unexpected results.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Buy his first book on OWS here.

Are the Police Acting Like a Distributed Gestapo?

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddy Grey, and now Sandra Bland, I’ve seen this movie over and over gain. The screenplay rarely changes. A young black man, or woman, gets into a confrontation with the police. He dies under suspicious circumstances. For the first few days, local newspaper reporters, who usually depend on the cops for leads to stories, just publish the police department’s press release. But it rarely stops there. Political activists investigate the incident. They publish what they learn in online journals and on social media and this in turn sparks protests, not only against the police, but against the local media, which all too often act like a stenographer for the local police.

The newspapers, no longer able to ignore the discontent, respond in two ways: They send their reporter back to write a more detailed report on the police killing. But they also “investigate” the victim, who we invariably learn was “no angel”, had a criminal record, marijuana in his system, or an all around “bad attitude.” Far right-wing media like Fox, Breitbart, and New York Post amplify the smears, and, along with the more mainstream, “liberal” newspapers, turn what should have been the trial of a police officer into a trial of a victim far too dead to defend himself. Sometimes a local district attorney will convene a grand jury. There’s almost never indictment. Liberals will call for a federal investigation. It almost never happens.

Surely this has to end?

But what if it doesn’t?

The growth of grassroots political organizations like Black Lives Matter, and the spotlight shown on both the police and the corporate media, are encouraging. But they are by no means guaranteed to succeed. History points to darker possibilities. The growth of revolutionary socialism after the First World War led to the birth of its mirror image: fascism. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s provoked a ferocious backlash. George Wallace, the Republican “southern strategy,” the Boston bussing riots and the Tea Party. We’re still living with it today.

Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism treats fascism, not as a stable political system, but as a historical process. While the only perfectly realized fascist states in history have been Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, all “fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity directed against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.” A fascist movement unfolds in a cycle of five stages: (1) the creation of movements; (2) their rooting in the political system; (3) their seizure of power; (4) the exercise of power; (5) and, finally, the long duration, during which the fascist regime chooses either radicalization or entropy. A fascist leader trying to build a fascist nation will play on the nation’s “fears of decadence and decline; assertion of national and cultural identity; a threat by unassimilable foreigners to national identity and good social order; and the need for greater authority to deal with these problems.”

So let’s take three examples of fascist and potentially fascist leaders: Donald Trump, Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. Donald Trump is clearly a would-be fascist leader of a movement still in stage one. While he’s a long-time racist who plays on white fears of national decline and resentment against blacks, and while he does have wide name recognition in the elite media, it’s unlikely that he will win the Republican nomination. What makes him appealing to the elites in the media — he’s a demagogue with no history as a traditional politician –- also makes him unappealing to the elites in the Republican Party, who would rather use him the way they used Sarah Palin. He will move the “Overton Window” to the right, but will be pushed aside for Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio.

Francisco Franco, by contrast, made it all the way through stage 3 almost to stage 4. But after he built a mass movement and took power with the support of the Spanish ruling class and the Catholic Church, he made no attempts to create a new revolutionary society on the model of Germany or Italy. On the contrary, he deftly evaded Hitler’s attempts to recruit him as an ally for the war against the Soviet Union, and would eventually rule as a traditional authoritarian, not a fascist. He made no attempts to replace the Catholic Church or to get rid of the king. Eventually, he demobilized the mass movement that he built in response to the Spanish republic and the Spanish Civil War.

Only Mussolini and Hitler went through all five stages, building a revolutionary “prerogative state” alongside the traditional “normative state,” plunging their countries into total war that would lead either to the conquest of Europe or to their own destruction. We all know what happened. Mussolini ended up dangling on a meat hook. Hitler shot himself inside the bunker. Franco and his Portuguese counterpart Salazar on the other hand ruled for decades, eventually becoming part of the “free world,” the coalition of capitalist governments the United States built up against the Soviet Union.

Even though Donald Trump has not yet successfully built up a fascist mass movement, he has something Hitler and Franco didn’t, a mass media based on 24/7 cable news and the Internet. Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1930s had well-developed civil societies, educated populations, and conservative family structures, a traditional culture in touch with history the United States in 2015 doesn’t. An Italian or German in 1930 could turn off the radio. Americans in 2015 always have their smart phones, or their computers. Few Americans have any space at all outside of the corporations and the mainstream media. Ironically, however, it also makes the charismatic fascist demagogue unnecessary.

The American ruling class can mobilize white fear and resentment without having to resort to a George Wallace or a Donald Trump, let alone a Hitler or a Mussolini. Let’s call it “distributed fascism.” While the traditional charismatic fascist demagogue needed storm troopers, mass spectacles, and a centralized “prerogative state” that would eventually displace the traditional “normative state” — The SS, for example, a militarized police force answerable only to the Nazi Party, would eventually replace the traditional German army and Prussian officer corps. — “distributed fascism” works in reverse.  The prerogative state doesn’t replace the normative state. The normative state evolves into the prerogative state. Most of us don’t notice since the prerogative state retains the outward appearance of the normative state. But the more movements from the left like Black Lives Matter protest police brutality and the remnants of Jim Crow and segregation, the more the mass media mobilizes right wing, racist fear and resentment behind “city police forces,” which are, in fact, no longer traditional police forces subject to the rule of law, but paramilitary class armies similar to Hitler’s brown shirts and Mussolini’s black shirts.

We probably won’t ever find out what really happened to Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old university administrator who was violently arrested this past July on a trumped up traffic offense then later found dead in her cell. Did she kill herself the way the police and mass media say she did? Did the arresting officer slam her head against her car and induce a concussion, which, left untreated, led to her death by traumatic brain injury? Was there really “marijuana in her system” at the time of the arrest? Or did the medical examiner plant it on her after the botched autopsy? We will probably never know. There is no institution in American society, not the local district attorney, not the media, not the federal government that will investigate and release the truth if the truth leads to the arresting officer going to jail. The mystery around Sandra Bland’s death isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no process of accountability that will allows a “bad officer” to be brought to justice for murdering a black man or woman, not for Sandra Bland, not for Freddie Grey, not for Michael Brown, not for the clearly innocent Eric Garner, who was strangled on video in front of the entire country.

While the American ruling class may not be consciously fascist, they still seem to fear a revolutionary upsurge by the American people, and by black Americans in particular. Hitler had his Ernst Rohm and Heinrich Himmler, but the American ruling class doesn’t need storm troops with a centralized leadership, let alone a single fascist grandee. All they have to do is mobilize conservative, white resentment and fear of national decline behind the highly militarized, but decentralized network of big city police forces, the class armies they built up in the wake of 9/11. A more centralized command structure, in fact, is not only unnecessary. It’s not desired. The banks were able to crush Occupy Wall Street with a highly coordinated attack, even while arguing they had nothing to do with it, that it was just about city cops dealing with a public nuisance. The intermittent murders of black men and women by the police, in turn, don’t have to be planned, just allowed to happen. The police become, in effect, a distributed Gestapo, a rallying point behind which conservative whites, already heavily armed, can reaffirm their loyalty to the capitalist state, even while denying it. They hate the federal government. They support their local sheriff.

In his classic book The Age of Reform, the great historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out that it was decentralization that prevented the United States from going fascist like Italy or Germany. Sadly it seems the decentralized nature of the 24/7 mass media may bring us fascism after all. Whether or not we notice it will depend on our ability to think critically. I doubt Sandra Bland died with any illusions about what the United States has become.

The Literature of Mass Shooters

Stan and I were analyzing the mass shootings of Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and James Holmes. The initial question being: “which ones qualify as acts of terrorism?”

The initial conclusions:

-Roof was a straightforward outgrowth of the white nationalist movement and therefore his shooting is terrorism.
-Rodger was an outgrowth of the MRA movement so despite the fact psychological issues can be read into his action it’s still a political act of terrorism.
-Holmes was legitimately and exclusively mentally ill.

We accepted these conclusions because both Rodger and Roof left written material. Holmes didn’t.

Roof’s in particular cut straight to the chase. It says, plainly, “I shot these black people because they’re black and I hate black people.” This doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about white nationalists. Anything interesting in regard to it is in the reactions denying that it was clearly a political act of terrorism supporting the 2nd grade reading level model of white supremacy.

Rodger’s “manifesto” tells us a bit more. The MRAs, like Roof’s Stormfront folks, are the product of white men revolting over the fact they might not be as privileged as they once were. But Rodger more clearly outlines the surreal banality of the spiritually dead culture of privilege he was an extension of.

Rodger spends portions of his manifesto nostalgically lamenting how everything was fair and right with the world when he was a young man playing Pokemon, and how happy he was there was brand synergy between the cans of Mountain Dew he was drinking and the World of Warcraft MMOs he was playing. I’m not making this shit up, it’s all there. Rodger may have been the most boring person who ever lived.

By being more boring, Rodger takes on a weird interest. His privilege, and he had tons, is not enough. He fears the universe is manifestly unjust; that maybe women can’t actually be bought. In more optimistic moments he clings to the hope that maybe they can be bought but he just can’t afford them yet.

The surreal climax to his autobiography/manifesto describes his staking whether he’s going to kill himself and go on a shooting spree or not on whether he wins the Powerball lottery. He spends his time driving 8 hours across state lines because the Powerball tickets weren’t available in California. He can’t buy other lottery tickets because he doesn’t consider anything less than a couple hundred million dollars capable of making his life anything other than a story of someone tragically wronged by fate.

Part of how he’s wronged is by being a white man who can’t get literally everything he wants right this second. This being wronged doubles over on itself because his mother committed the cardinal sin of not being “white” so he can’t feel as fully wronged about his not getting everything he wants as he could if he were unambiguously “white”. Rodger spreads white supremacist diatribes all over his manifesto despite his being mixed race because white supremacy is an aspirational ideology.

Remember when Charles Koch, a man whose net worth equals a couple dozen Powerball jackpots and whose whiteness probably attracts moths, said when he was caught stealing oil from an Indian reservation: “I want what’s coming to me, and that’s all of it”?

Maybe Rodger was right about himself. He wasn’t crazy. He was just a loser.

Holmes only seemed to fit into this thread by being a white man who shot a lot of people. He dyed his hair and took Batman movies way too seriously. Clearly he’s crazy and not like any person any of us have ever met…

Except in the trial where he was convicted his line of reasoning came out, garbed in the vocabulary of human resources managers everywhere. It was pretty simple.

“You take away life, and your human capital is limitless.”

It took Elliott Rodger 120 pages to express this, it took Dylann Roof two. It took the US military several tens of thousands of pages to express this during the Iraq war. It took James Holmes one sentence.

Of course the jury couldn’t find him insane. He is the 1%.

This is a guest post by Daniel Levine. You can buy his first book here.

Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

In 1937, Adolf Hitler told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that his favorite movie was Henry Hathaway’s Lives of a Bengal Lancer, an American film that romanticized the British Empire in India.

“I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall,” he supposedly said. “That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS.”

I have not checked into the authenticity of the quote, and for all I know it could be as spurious as all of the fake Lincoln and Jefferson quotes that pollute social media. Just because a fascist dictator speaks positively of a Hollywood movie doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a fascist movie. The only thing that really matters is whether or not the movie itself promotes a reactionary and racist ideology.

So is Lives of a Bengal Lancer a fascist movie?

Lives of a Bengal Lancer is a full throated defence of British Imperialism, probably the closest thing you can get to a Rudyard Kipling story in a Hollywood movie. It’s also an important cultural bridge between the British and the American Empire, at times even playing like a first draft for John Ford’s later film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. It’s no accident that Hathaway cast the American actors Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwell as junior officers in their 20s and 30s and the British actors C. Aubrey Smith and Guy Standing as senior officers approaching their retirement. The upstart Germans should have taken note. The film celebrates the passing of the imperial torch from the United Kingdom to the United States, not to the Third Reich.

British imperialism, however, and German fascism are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. They’re first cousins, as the recent discovery of photos of King Edward VII teaching the 7-year-old Queen Elizabeth the Nazi salute demonstrates. Lives of a Bengal Lancer is shockingly up front in its embrace, not only of white supremacy, but of Anglo Saxon supremacy. Since Adolf Hitler’s long-term goal was to take Eastern Europe away from the “inferior Slavic subhumans” as “living space” for the “Aryan race,” the 19th Century “Great Game” between the British and Russian empire easily translates into Nazi propaganda. The “racial other” in Lives of a Bengal Lancer is not a subhuman brute, the way he is in Birth of a Nation. Rather, he is devious, cunning, slippery. His identity is fluid, difficult to pin down. Hathaway’s Anglo Saxon supermen, by contrast, are simple, one-dimensional, honorable soldiers. Their loyalties are never in doubt. Lieutenant Donald Stone, the only “weak link” in the 41st Bengal Lancers Regiment, the son of their commanding officer, fails precisely when he lets personal resentment over being rejected by his harsh, disciplinarian father get the best of him, when his youth and lack of a fully mature identity as an officer of the crown put a target on his back.

Lives of a Bengal Lancer begins on northwest frontier of India during the British Raj, what today we would call “the tribal areas of Pakistan.” Lieutenant Alan McGregor, Gary Cooper, and his commanding officer Colonel Hendrickson are leading a patrol through the mountains. Even though they are getting sniped at from the surrounding ridges, Hendrickson has strict orders from Colonel Stone not to return fire for they are, in fact, bait, the objective being to lure the rebel leader Mohammed Khan out into the open. After Hendrickson is killed, however, McGregor leads a frontal attack, which puts the snipers to flight. Colonel Stone appoints McGregor to take Hendrickson’s place.

“You didn’t know about my orders,” he says.

“But I did know about your orders,” McGregor responds.

Stone is angry, but McGregor still gets his promotion. In one deft stroke, Hathaway has established McGregor’s character. He’s a real man, up front, aggressive, forthright. When he disobeys an order, he doesn’t pussyfoot around. He comes right out and says it. Shortly after his promotion, McGregor is ordered to pick up two new replacement soldiers from Delhi at the frontier’s train station, Lieutenant Forsythe, a cocky young dandy played by the American movie idol Franchot Tone, the Ryan Gosling of the 1930s, and the above mentioned Lieutenant Donald Stone, a 21-year-old greenhorn straight out of military school played by Richard Cromwell. John Ford fans take note. Forsythe and Stone bear such a striking resemblance to Lieutenant Flint Cohill and Lieutenant Ross Pennell from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that it almost makes me want to dig up his corpse and sue it for plagiarism.

In spite of their initial hostility, Forsythe and McGregor eventually hit it off, two fun loving frat bros together on the northwest frontier of the British Raj. Stone is more problematic. His very obvious American accent indicatea that he was brought up, neither on in the British Raj, nor in England itself. His father Colonel Stone and his American mother were divorced when he was a child, and he and the Colonel barely know each other. Supposedly he graduated from Sandhurst but there’s nothing of the spit and polished young British officer about him. On the contrary, he’s an American preppy, Lieutenant Ross Pennell from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Donald Stone, in fact, might best be thought of as an allegorical representation of the United States as seen by the British Empire. He’s a young pup who needs to step up and learn how to run an empire.

Next we are introduced to the film’s two main villains, the above-mentioned Mohammed Khan, and Tania Volkanskaya, a Russian spy in Khan’s service, a white woman who’s crossed the color line, the “orientalized” Russian of the Nazi, and Anglo Saxon supremacist imagination. Khan, an Oxbridge educated member of the Indian, Muslim elite, effortlessly slips in and out of both a western, and eastern identity. You might say he’s the film’s Osama Bin Laden, but he’s a lot more fun at parties, enjoying the company, and rivalry of Colonel Stone and Lieutenant McGregor. Not incidentally, he’s played by Douglass Dumbrille, a white, not an Indian actor. Tania Volkanskaya, in turn, is played by Kathleen Burke, an Anglo American, not a Russian actress. As evidenced by the way Forsythe and McGregor infiltrate Khan’s fortress by donning black face, or, to be more specific, brown face, the Anglo Saxon elite is allowed to impersonate Indian Muslims for the good of the empire. An Indian Muslim, on the other hand, or a Russian, who can pass as an Anglo Saxon is a mortal threat who must be destroyed. If Lives of a Bengal Lancer was popular in Nazi Germany, then it’s probably because Anglo Saxon anxiety over being diluted by Indian or Russian blood translated so easily into Nazi anxiety about “the eternal Jew.” A threat to the purity of the ruling class is a threat to the empire itself.

Mohammed Khan’s plan is to lure the 41st Bengal Lancers up into the frontier near his stronghold, where he’s stockpiled 2 million rounds of ammunition and a cache of heavy weapons. Colonel Stone’s son is key. Tania Volkanskaya has already sounded out the young man’s weaknesses on the train from Delhi. Khan knows about his American mother, his quarrel with his father, and his lack of a firm identity or commitment to the empire. On a hunting expedition on Khan’s estates — Colonel Stone is trying to play Khan even while Khan is trying to play him — Tania Volkanskaya seduces Lieutenant Stone and facilitates his kidnapping. Donald Stone is knocked out, tied up, and brought to Khan’s mountain fortress, but his father is not only too smart to take the bait. He’s too “hard.” Colonel Stone, like any good British imperialist — or any Nazi — puts the state above his own blood. If Donald Stone has to die in excruciating pain for the good of the British Empire, so be it. If a few hundred thousand young Germans have to die to take Stalingrad, so be it.

But while Colonel Stone might be proto-fascist, Lives of a Bengal Lancer is not. The North American Lieutenant McGregor, has other plans. He and Forsythe infiltrate Khan’s mountain stronghold in an attempt to rescue the Colonel’s son. Colonel Stone, of course, half suspects they will. Otherwise, he would have thrown McGregor in the brig rather than put him under the custody of the 20-something Forthsythe, already McGregor’s best friend, and cocky mannerism notwithstanding, thoroughly in awe of the rugged older man. You can guess the ending. Forthsythe and McGregor are captured. They’re tortured, but they not only take it like men, they take it like gentlemen, with Forsythe reciting poetry from memory in the jail cell after they’ve both had bamboo shoots jammed up their finger nails and set on fire. Stone cracks under torture — he’s still the weak link — but it doesn’t matter. Forthsythe and McGregor, torture or no torture, are up to the job, breaking out of their cell with a clever trick, setting Khan’s ammo dump on fire, and shooting it out with half the rebel Muslim army. McGregor goes down in a blaze of glory, inspiring young Donald Stone, at last, to be a real man.

Lieutenant Stone kills the villainous Mohammed Khan with his bare hands. The Muslim tribesman, now without a leader, immediately surrender. I suppose Hitler was too clueless to see the implicit critique of his own “fuhrer principle.” In any event, while Lives of a Bengal Lancer may be racist, imperialist propaganda, it’s not really fascist propaganda. It’s close but no cigar. It’s also a well-made, entertaining movie, far better than Rambo, American Sniper, or any of its later Hollywood imitators. Just how derivative Stallone’s First Blood is becomes clear when Gary Cooper picks up a heavy Vickers machine gun off its tripod and carries it through Mohammed Khan’s camp with his bare hands, the Anglo American imperial superman in all his muscle bound glory. Bradley Cooper couldn’t hold Gary Cooper’s ammunition belt.

Toward the Thing After Occupy: Pastiche, Parodic Capitalism, and the Need For New Resistances

There is great divide in the world. This divide is between the people who consider a large portion of the population disposable and everyone else.

These are the lines on which we must resist.

There is a great divide in the left. This divide is between those embracing the tactics of structuralism and those embracing the tactics of post-structuralism.

This is a false divide with many subdivisions mostly borne out of a failure of those on either broadly defined post of this division to do their homework, or the sentimental attachment to old or new ideas.
I write to the Marxists: are the old tactics actually working right now or are they the rain god you’re hoping will return?

I write to the post-structuralists: are the theoretical contributions of Judith Butler/Jacques Derrida really a thing to be constrained to discussions of gender?

And in structuring these replies I realize I’m making something of a false equivalency-in my experience, having performed both roles in these repetitive arguments at separate times, the greater pushback has been from the old guard. This pushback, driven by a false nostalgic desire for a return to the old lines of resistance or possibly the more selfish reason of wanting to seem “correct” in conversation, creates dialectic pushback from the oppressed groups (LGBTQ etc.) that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, have not always been well-served by the economically self-defining factions of the left.

The LGBTQ actors have adapted their tactics to the cultural logic of the present and as such have been racking up victories all over. We ignore their readings and lessons only if we wish to remain stuck in the same bars with the same dull Trotsky-ites until the last bit of capital is consolidated and accumulated.

PRECURSORS TOWARD POST-FORDIST MARXISM(S)

Some of the groundwork toward the synthesis I’m attempting to reach in this essay has already been done by academics like David Harvey in his essential The Condition of Postmodernity and in numerous essays by Fredric Jameson. Both are firmly academics and as such have a tendency in their writing to limit themselves, for better or worse, to the descriptive. However, both are excellent at describing things, and we must use what we can figure out how to use in their work.

The thing I want to use here is Harvey’s macro-economic transliteration of the ground rules of postmodern society-Post-Fordism. The concept being:

The old industrialism was based in the mass production of a limited number of items to be sold to a broad audience (Fordism). The new industrialism focuses on the small-scale production of a wide variety of niche items for specialized buyers (Post-Fordism).

The tech industry is thoroughly Post-Fordist, though the parts we engage with most frequently would seem more given over to Fordism. That the tech-industry seems to be the only growth industry in the country besides surveillance/security and various pop-up markets catering to the niche desires of the rich creates a problem for the traditional means towards Marxist revolution-there is no factory left to create a geographically proximate massing of the workers.

In fact, almost the inverse of what was predicted has happened. Many of the anxieties of the United States regarding Soviet communism-that the architecture would all be bland and samey, the emergence of mass incarceration and a totalistic surveillance state, even the bread line has reemerged in parodic form in the consumer frenzy surrounding the opening nights of superhero films. In neoliberal USA, the aesthetics of Stalinism are the privilege of the ruling class.

The takeaways from Post-Fordism as a construct are twofold:

1) Neoliberalism is the economic and urban planning rollout of the internal logic of the post-modern period of history in which we are all enmeshed. Late capitalism in Marxist terms and the stuff Baudrillard was talking about in Simulacra and Simulation are different descriptions of the same phenomena.
2) The factory as the locus of organized resistance and the forms of organization that stem from that aren’t gonna cut it right now.

POSSIBLE POST-STRUCTURALIST FORMS OF LABOR RESISTANCE

The genius of Judith Butler’s theoretical writing that can be applied here is the assertion that the performative identity can function as a form of revolt.

So it would seem the next logical steps are to assert that work is performative and to ask then “How do you perform labor in a way that resists?”

Except for the fact that tons of people are un(der)employed or otherwise marginalized. We want them in the revolution too. So the question expands to “How do we subvert work/un(der)employment/categories I’m probably forgetting through subversive acts of said reified categories as performance?”

I’ll go into that in Pt. 2. Obviously this is a lot of new ground to cover. Any ideas/thoughts/suggestions complaints will be taken generously in the spirit of the dialectic. Until then, see y’all tomorrow.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Photo by Daniel Levine. Etc etc. He has a book out. He lives on rice cooker food. For the price of said book, he eats out of his rice cooker another day. You should buy it so he can keep writing this stuff. 

The Landscaping of Neoliberalism

Last summer I traveled the United States with my friend Brian in a beat to shit car sleeping on peoples’ couches. We were trying to find what the United States are right now and make a film about it. Much of what this involved was walking around random towns and cities photographing buildings or their absence.

Though initially expecting the film to be a requiem and an exercise in dreamy bleakness, some part of me also expected and hoped to come to some great eureka moment; to figure out that the situation wasn’t as dire on the whole as I presumed it was. And in some way it did this at the same time as it deepened my sense of the bleakness.

The first thing people ask when you get home from wandering and mention you slept on peoples’ couches is “Wow, weren’t you afraid? There’re a lot of creeps out there.” The people whose couches Brian and I slept on were universally some of the kindest most generous people I’ve ever met. The people who asked me this question would waffle when I’d discuss the place of the police after Baltimore. They’re afraid of each other but not the cops, the banks, the actual predatory vultures in the society.

Obviously this is a problem.

Every place we went to had drastically divided slums and places of wealth except the places where the wealth had all left or pushed the slums to the outside of the town.

I’d describe sacrifice zones like Cherokee, North Carolina or Greenwood, Mississippi. The former is an indigenous reservation I can only compare to a science fiction version of Harlem where the only feasible local economy centered around selling Sambo merchandise. The latter resembles the AP photographs of Iraq after a bombing. And after my description, the listener would invariably say “Didn’t you feel nervous and unsafe there?”

Oddly enough I really didn’t. I felt sad, I felt disgusted with the conditions, but I never felt unsafe.

The place in the country I felt the least safe was in the town near Seattle where Bill Gates lives: Medina, Washington, what could only be referred to as a wealth ghetto. Nearly all the houses are surrounded by giant gates with obvious military grade surveillance systems attached. Despite there being an ostensibly public beach, public parking near it was limited to 30 minutes. There are signs around the town saying “You Are Entering a 24 Hour Surveillance Area”.

Despite all this, Brian and I managed to get two interviews with people on the beach. Wandering through the worst sacrifice zones of the South, the looks on peoples’ faces were mostly those of masked pains. The Medina beach was filled with very well dressed people whose faces projected empty contempt. A man worth at least several million dollars was riding a fancy bicycle attached to two giant floaties in the water. There was no sense of community, of interrelations between people. No sense of purpose or a point. Just paranoia and lawns so perfectly manicured they could only bring to mind the heavy makeup on a corpse.

Like many suburbs, the stringent zoning and landscaping laws are clearly meant to keep out “the rabble.” They isolate themselves so they can’t see the horrors of the world when they are the fount of them.

I suppose the reason I felt far more comfortable around the poor is that they’ve been through shit. They’ve been out in the wilderness for a couple days and know that while it’s not fun they’ll survive. The rich don’t know this and grow anxious for the time they’ll get to lash out at their own shadows. They institute the hallmarks of fascism first as a means toward “security” but ultimately as sport.

THE MICROSOFT CAMPUS

A friend gave us a tour of the main Microsoft campus in Redmond. This, along with similar campuses run by companies like Google etc., displays the logic of the new middle class workplace.

Pretty much the entire town of Redmond is just the Microsoft campus. This is a soft micro-fascist state, a thing that looks like a town but where the mayor can kick you out if he doesn’t like you and leave you in exile. You have to sign in and out to get into it. No one who isn’t financially useful to the literal dictatorship of capital is encouraged to enter. If we hadn’t had my friend there’s no way in hell we could’ve gotten in.

The employees are under just as heavy surveillance as the employees at the Dollar General across the street from me, maybe even heavier surveillance, but the techniques of soft behaviorism are more sophisticated. When we got to the cafeteria all of the options on the menus were coded by healthiness. My debit card stripe had given out by that point in the road trip, so I tried to pay for my lunch with cash and I was told they don’t handle cash there. The only reason you wouldn’t handle cash in a cafeteria like that is because, with the attached risk in dietary habits re: paying out health benefits to employees, you’d want to track what they eat.

The Microsoft Campus is to the workplace as Medina is to the town. Every seemingly positive or “cool” thing given to employees is carefully calculated to maximize profit. The employees, politically, realize that their communications are being read and were mostly entirely silent on the Snowden thing according to my sources who I can’t name because they’d get in trouble and they know it. To think that if circumstances became such that computer programmers had an excess labor surplus, the mechanisms are there to turn it into a pretty ugly place pretty quickly.

This is the landscape of the future-tiny pockets of paranoia and neoliberalism feudalism with nice stuff for the few, vast open wastelands of neoliberal feudalism for the rest.

Guest post by Daniel Levine. All photos by Daniel Levine, copyright 2014, all rights reserved. His first book Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available in paperback.