Tag Archives: critical theory

Mass Shootings As Republican Anti-Politics

The several hundred mass shootings that have happened since Columbine have produced some literature from the shooters detailing their political ideologies or lack thereof. Given that a common complaint from the right leading up to their current moment of hysterical mass psychosis was “why does everything have to be political?” despite their clearly saying so for political reasons about everything from Colin Kaepernik to an imagined war on Christmas leaves me wondering whether these acts can and should be taken as acts of political terrorism and warning signs of our current situation in retrospect.

Columbine as Political Terrorism, Anti-Politics as Politics

The Oklahoma City Bombing, ostensibly a white supremacist response to FBI overreach in the handling of the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas, was framed by the Columbine shooters in the numerous written and taped materials later confiscated by the FBI as the opening shot of a “political revolution” of…well…there wasn’t an ideology, simply resentment and bloodlust. No one at the time looked at Columbine as a political act because it was politically incoherent. Yet over time, future shooters ranging from the V-Tech shooter to Vester Flanagan would cite the Columbine shooters as “inspirations” while carrying out similarly cold-blooded and politically incoherent shootings. These spiked in frequency in the years leading up to the current crisis to where there was nearly one per day, and met their official counterpart in a rash of racially motivated killings of unarmed black people, many of them disabled or children.

We are now stuck with a president who lacks any ideology beyond the glorification of resentment and violent displays of power. We are now stuck with a Congress and Senate that state their supposed remorse for the children killed in Newtown, the thousands of others in Las Vegas and elsewhere, then refuse to do anything to stop or even slow down their occurrence. They are essentially tossing Puerto Rico out the airlock as I type this. Our Republican representatives are sadistic voyeurs, mesmerized by the spectacle of their own deepest violent fantasies being offered as tributes from a distributed gestapo the way people burn goats as offerings to the devil.

If I might be allowed to play a game of id, ego, super-ego:

-The Congress and Senate Republicans are the super-ego who pose as the moral authority but are in fact just getting off on both the authoritarian thrill of screaming at the spectacle and the cozy, insular benefits it disproportionately accrues to them.

-The base is the id. The Republican base, perhaps best exemplified by Sandy Hook trutherism and Pizzagate, has grown increasingly schizophrenic and detached from reality. They aren’t guided by conscious concerns or their surroundings; they reimagine their surroundings in order to justify wanton indulgence of base impulses. It’s not a coincidence the people claiming they need guns “for their safety” are the ones assaulting people with them, that they believe they’re the chosen agents of Jesus Christ when they worship wealth.

-The ego is…irrelevant at this point? John McCain?

While much of the rise of the right could be seen as simply a perfect storm merger of the collective interests of white supremacists, Christian fascists, internet trolls, individual billionaires and large corporations, what ultimately brought them together were sustained outbursts of mass psychosis defined by mob violence and outright denial of reality-Gamergate, the police shootings of blacks*, the genocide by neglect going on in Puerto Rico, the denial that any children were shot in Sandy Hook.

The NRA, the 2nd largest right wing organization in the US behind the Republican Party, has a financial incentive to want mass shootings, because every time one happens, gun and gun accessory sales spike. Yet I think their hearty embrace of Trump and the violence of the current moment isn’t exclusively financial, though they have every financial interest in guerilla civil war breaking out and have even basically threatened it in recent advertising. This is after all an organization that exists as much as a culture of violent paranoid fantasy as a gun rights advocacy organization. They have been incredibly racist for most of their existence. They use “thugs” and “home intruders” as dog whistles to mean “black people” in tons of their literature. Their most famous spokesperson got the job because he was famous for screaming “Those damn dirty apes!” for fucks sake.

Violence as anti-politics is hardly a new phenomena, but has been accelerated through the return to tribal politics facilitated by the internet hive-mind and the slight decline in the financial fortunes of the privileged non-oligarch class.

Two years ago I wrote about the exceptionally banal manifesto that accompanied Elliott Rodger’s drive-by shooting in Santa Barbara, CA:

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.

Of course the opening shots of a revolution of anti-politics would be incoherent. That was the point. The longer we keep pretending the right is acting on rationales of anything besides the naked display of power through spectacles of opulence and terror, the more shit we’re gonna have to deal with later.

*It seems worth noting that Trump thinks the Central Park five did it but OJ Simpson is innocent. Perhaps by killing and sexually abusing Nicole Brown as violent tributes to the patriarchy, Simpson became honorarily “white” in Trump’s eyes. Trump clearly sees some of himself in Simpson and therefore could never believe Simpson was guilty.

The Dialectic of Nostalgia and Irony

In putting together a dialectical analysis, casting the roles of thesis and antithesis is perhaps the single most important action taken. The rest just sort of follows; the dialectic being a template to overlay on phenomena to tease out the shapes of their interaction in the larger world; where they’re headed, and what will replace them.

With the release of the new Star Wars film, talk of nostalgia, already a thing much more discussed in this country than would seem proper were the country not in a state of decline, is at an all-time high. Articles are being written left and right about this and that; every bit of historical, speculative, and other minutia that could be dredged is being rolled out into the digital sphere like so many wooden clocks shaped like animals at a craft fair, and, dragged along with the pettiness of discourse that unfortunately marks the internet periodical culture, considerations of what this nostalgia constitutes; what it  indicates; what the actual thing being wistfully remembered is can’t help but amble around the fitful mind of a man with no emotional attachment to Star Wars whatsoever, a man such as myself.

I suppose the poles of the dialectic I’d like to analyze, the two discursive threads running through the culture at large that have been snowballing into a confrontation, the two things that seem to be the dominant tones adopted once the internet opened up and everyone had a platform to say whatever was on their mind with no editors are the cultural threads of the “ironic” and the “nostalgic”. Which is the thesis and which the antithesis I can’t say, but the culture of omnipresent irony and the culture of tone-deaf nostalgia interact as dialectic; neither should be trusted on its own as both sides are ultimately things drawing one in directions that don’t lead to destinations; each only seems to derive its claims to the authentic or worthwhile through constantly underlining the distasteful excess of the other.

Of course, positing the two as being dialectical oppositions to each other is in itself somewhat problematic as, being secret lovers like any two culturally opposed ideas, we find them folded over each other more often than not.

Let’s explore an article that was picked up by a couple other publications when it was posted that works as a kind of brilliant picture of the emptiness the constitutes the center of the image of the two threads circling each other. The article, titled “This Private Garfield Facebook Group Is the Last Irony-Free Place on the Internet” is a terrific sleight of hand; a false nostalgia for a time and place on the internet that never existed that’s not even backed up by the screenshots in the article; a thing that wants to imagine there was a pure ur-state, an Edenic cyberspace where people could appreciate things like the inexplicably long running comic strip Garfield without people pointing out that it is a bit strange and unsettling to discover middle aged people aggressively fixated on a cartoon cat who hates Mondays and loves lasagna. In the appreciation of Garfield and the unease at the unironic appreciation of Garfield exist two things that in and of themselves aren’t horrible and are understandable. It would take an absurdly authoritarian worldview to say “No! People shouldn’t enjoy Garfield!”, at the same time it would take a self entirely numbed to any sort of hopes or dreams of human progress or there being anything more to life not to be at least a bit disturbed by the soul-crushing display of fatalistic mediocrity inherent in relating to a lazy cartoon cat that does nothing but eat, complain, and be a dick to Odie, especially by people who are presumably old enough to have seen some of the world.

Of course, both positions ignore the larger point that unless your name is Jim Davis, Garfield itself is irrelevant to pretty much anything. Fixation on the irrelevant is, however, one of the few true growth industries this country has. Neither nostalgic beatification nor ironic detachment are actual engagement; while more “serious” publications might take that realization as a call to start admonishing people, I’d like to consider the practical reasons why people on the whole would rather defend their moral right to enjoy Star Wars than the ideals of parliamentary democracy, economic justice, cultural progress, or pretty much anything else. They exist.

That the US is in transition, or, if I’m not being diplomatic about it, decline, isn’t really news. I think most people in this country, even if they don’t grasp the finer cultural or economic points of why it’s in decline, have at least some intuitive notion that shit is not getting better. The distribution of wealth is not any more equitable and is in fact less equitable than it has been since the Great Depression. Etc etc. Read any article about domestic politics that’s run in Counter Punch since like 2008 and you should be able to get the broad points of that story.

It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to say that the primary pivot point of human psychology is the creation of the simulacra of a sense of control over one’s surroundings. This is not to say a person wants actual control over their surroundings but, in a way, to say the exact opposite. The mind is not a mechanism especially concerned with its own internal coherence; it wants to have its cake and eat it too; why wouldn’t it? It wants control without the responsibility that comes with said control, it wants to perform control; it wants to toil away in the low-stakes and trivial as much as possible the same way the body would usually rather store up fat in case of a threat of starvation than work itself into what is in theory a healthier condition. The trivial gives both the sense of control and the comfort of knowing that a lack of results doesn’t actually matter.

There are many examples of people whose first actions upon finding out they’d gone suddenly bankrupt was to treat themselves to an expensive and fancy meal or spend whatever’s left on drugs instead of essentials. The tendency was perhaps most memorably immortalized in fiction in the character of Hurstwood in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Though this is probably the last thing the person should do logically, it makes a good deal of sense; it creates the environment of normality or even prosperity, of comfort. It’s a symbolic revenge taken against the money for its sudden betrayal; a nonsensical leap of faith forces the individual to shun the money the way the money shunned them. The thrill of a large purchase, of buying a boat or a fancy car, is to proclaim, accurately or inaccurately, power over the money and absolute faith in one’s future prospects. The need to state such things would seem to exist in direct inverse relation to how true they are; the loudest public pronouncements an individual makes are usually made primarily for their personal benefit; they’re ways of screaming down the voice in their head saying the opposite and the tangibility of the object purchased, the presence of witnesses who saw them purchase it, reinforces the ironically false notion that by this enactment of ritual their financial success and security has been actually accomplished. Of course the boat or whatever usually gets repossessed by the bank a little while later.

So the performance of capitalism, having been stripped of its practical and linear, logical dimensions since industrialization reached the point it could feasibly provide living essentials for everyone, lives on in an increasingly symbolic and religious form centered around self-flagellation in the face of its entertainments and conveniences. The state of uncritical fandom is in substance a stance of the esoteric; the ecstatic; the excitement and joy at what are visibly mediocre, manipulative, cynical and calculated works like Star Wars needs to be performed repeatedly in public as a ghost dance to hide the emptiness and dissatisfaction that increasingly lies at the heart of American capitalism. We are judged on our ability to consume in a state of ideological or spiritual purity even by the ostensibly well-intentioned and progressive voices increasingly taking various entertainments to task for their sexism and racism. While such an appraisal of mass entertainments is long overdue, the satisfaction with pandering sloppy works that repeat themselves and their cultural assumptions but with the Madlibs style insertion of figures of different groups doesn’t address the underlying problems of self-satisfaction at imperialistic attitudes; of our desire to play out with purity and fresh naive excitement the act of being duped and pandered to, of our deadly attraction to a form of congealed capitalism that grows increasingly toxic.

The nostalgic stance is problematic insofar as it holds close like the memory of a beloved parent an object that more actually resembles an inflamed appendix; a part of the person that is nonetheless toxic and should be extricated. The purely ironic stance is perhaps helpful to balance out the waves of toxic omnipresent nostalgia that grips the culture whenever something like a new Star Wars film is released but at the same time only has the sum effect of making the person question or double down on their commitment to keeping the inflamed appendix. As anyone who’s had appendicitis knows, the only thing that solves the problem is to remove the appendix entirely, even if it requires some time in the aftermath to recuperate.

Nevertheless the image returns again and again, outside comic-cons, outside movie openings, when new Iphones are released, every Black Friday at shopping outlets around the country, this strange inverted parody of either the Great Depression era bread line or the true believers lined up to kneel at Mecca, consumers who prove the purity of their devotion to the experience of purchasing an item through their will to suffer and inconvenience themselves for it; who sit through 18 hour film marathons and spend countless hours fashioning homemade outfits to celebrate their buying a movie ticket to show that they are the genuine ecstatics, that in a world increasingly cynical about the act of buying stuff they can still believe simply like pilgrims.

And so, to return to the initial question of the dialectic between the resistant ironic and the embrace of the nostalgia object, it should be pointed out that a synthesis has already been come to in the form of what I would call “high kitsch”, the embrace of the garish and hideous specifically for their being garish and hideous. While it resolves the intellectual problem I put forward at the beginning of this essay, it doesn’t solve the larger problem of the embrace of the consumer identity as that of a religious pilgrim, with purity displayed in blind love in the face of product, in capitalism and representative democracy as ideals that we perform increasingly magnificent and decadent ghost dances around because we no longer actually believe in them.

That’s a big problem. I’ll explore it here in further essays.

 

The Political Economy of Fuck Giving

The earliest trace of the phrase “I don’t give a fuck” I can find dates back to 1790, in a poem by the honorable Virginia judge George Tucker describing a quarrel between a father and his son who apparently was struck with a bad case of the academics:

“‘God fuck your books!’ the testy father said, / ‘I’d not give fuck for all you’ve read.’”

A phrase ahead of its time, it took a couple hundred years for human civilization to reach peak ungiven fuck. The now: the golden age of the fuck not given; the not giving of the fuck, the opposite of a gifting economy, lack-of-fuck given freely in response to the fuck-present, a yin to a yang.

Is it a koan? We know the sound of one hand fucking, but what is the sound of one fuck fucking?

What happens to a fuck deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

Is the lack of fuck the Trojan (horse) in which fuck is disguised? It is often said “Human compassion is limitless.” It is more often said “I have no more fucks to give.” Is a fuck not given a fuck retained, or a fuck never there? The fucks seems zero-sum, the not-fuck limitless.

A contour drawing of the body of “fuck not given” memes reveals two suggestive curves begging to be teased out. As would be presumed with a meme whose absence is so frequently defined in the vastness of its expanse as not-presence, these directly contradict or perhaps dialectically intertwine around the noumenal, original, inaccessible “fuck”.

The first is the positioning of the act of not giving the fuck as the key to the real. The omnipresent “bullshit” as it were, an insatiable beast with an eye to plunder the put-upon person’s hard earned fucks.

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The category of the “real” posited as the lack of fucks.

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The endless charade of personas comes crashing down when the beseiged cuts off the enemy’s supply line of fucks.

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In case there was a question of the gesture’s unambiguous sincerity.

The other, paradoxically enough, is the portrait of the not-giver of fucks as a secular holy fool, an ecstatic in the religious sense(less) blissfully esconced in the joyous revery of private madness in public; a prisoner freed from the omnipresent cage of fucks.

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A phantasmal rainbow for to shield the fuckless.

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An almost narcotic bliss, Spongebob’s rainbow could just as well be, and here is, a shrug.

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The end of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. The protagonist finds true Christianity, symbolized by the burning down of his house as a set piece against which the enormity of his not-fucks can be measured. He reserves his fucks for God.

The not-fuck: the horizon wherein the ironic and the sincere meet and multiply into vast Punnett squares of contradictory (dis)engagement: the sincere-ironic, the ironic-sincere, the sincere-ironic-sincere, the sarcastic-sincere, the sarcastic-ironic, and so on.

But what if the fuck is in fact not absent but simply accumulated; the fucks saved up like gold bars in the vault of the self for fear of a crash in the international fuck market? A shaky confidence in the future of fucks can spiral the entire larger economy of fucks downward. Keynesian measures may be necessary, fucks may need to be extracted from the miserly and redistributed to the global fuck-impoverished in the form of a fuck stimulus. The fucks have a tendency to accumulate at the top and much as it may seem logical little but the undesirable aftereffects ever trickle down on the rest of us in the bottom bunk.

It seems quite possible the distribution of fucks mirrors the larger distribution of capital; the conspicuous distribution of charity in the form of fucks given is largely the privileged Catholic indulgence of the rich while the beleagered find themselves lacking in fucks. The endless solicitations for the giving of fucks have strings attached; the fuck-giver can feel dirty and used, deprived of fucks, alone and depleted.

The poverty of fucks calls for their careful allocation; as Emerson asks in “Self Reliance”: “…but are they my fucks?” From this standpoint the gratuitous public giving of fucks by a Bono or a Gwyneth Paltrow feel unseemly.

As Christ taught us: “So when you give fucks to the poor, do not sound a fuck trumpet before you, as the hypocrites give their fucks in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.”

Escape into the Missing Self

The vernacular discourse of what constitutes “American values” and the way someone will say they believe in ghosts or spirits have too much in common for them to be entirely separated in good conscience. The person who claims they saw a ghost will say “I don’t care what you say! I know it was there! I saw it.” The American sentimentalist will produce no end of fall narratives for when the country “went off course.” When questioned, they’ll say “I know this! I just feel it.”

We think ourselves engaged in battles of the factual when we’re in fact fighting over the supposedly slain ghosts of our desires. The strict epistemology of the betrayed ghost’s wishes mask the desires of the one evoking the ghost and their compounded desire to never get what they actually desired; the point of acknowledged appeasement is the beginning of painful isolation; the thing that can only eat must continue to eat or face the prospect of eating itself. The identity of the consumer, the even greater specter haunting the American present than capitalism though spawned from it, is this desire to eat faced with the possibility that the great questions of the future don’t revolve around what to eat next but when we consider ourselves full. The contradictions of capital resolve themselves in the vengeful reemergence of old mythologies when they can’t resolve themselves comfortably in the space of the real.

The marketer is the shaman who evokes new ghosts that appear to the marketed as the specter of their past disappointments, dressed up to the appearance of nobility or, even better, relatability.

Says Wikipedia: “The bald eagle is an opportunistic feeder…Bald eagles also regularly exploit water turbines which produce battered, stunned or dead fish easily consumed.”

So I ask one uncomfortable question in three formulations:

What haunts America?

What is America’s self?

What does America want?


REAL PORNOGRAPHY, EMOTIONAL PORNOGRAPHY

As the justifications to what constitutes unambiguous quality in the arts collapses into the theoretical subjectivity of pop culture studies in which this blog is complicit/a valuable contributor and the commercial subjectivity of market research, two trends that distinctly co-exist and intermingle in the varied fields of media studies, media psychology etc., the question of whether the canon is simply the valorized self reflected back becomes extremely uncomfortable for anyone looking for anything besides the validation of their self from the “gatekeepers”. The line between emotional and physical pornography, neither delivered “physically” in any strict sense is similarly blurred. The media criticism of the left exists in large part to draw the borders between “propaganda” and “art” and in this project finds itself commingled more with the critiques of the disillusioned bourgeoisie of the Horkheimers and Adornos than the desires of the “pure” oppressed who exist in the worker and the actor whose lack of free time has left them with little recourse to engage with “junk culture” by means of subverting it into reflections of self.

However, the market can tolerate and cheer this process on. The market wants identification with the product; symbolic artifacts of “feminism” expand the frontiers of consumption aggressively into territories of moral obligation. What was once the subversive reversal of roles that came from the unconscious expressed repression of the taboo desires of “the other”, the semiotic democracy that gave some semblance of liberation theology in these popular texts, has instead become the disturbingly commodified need for the society as a whole to pat itself on the back for its own consumption.

I recently finished watching many many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was entertaining but ultimately stands with much of the rest of the US TV canon as emotional pornography. Reassuring stories heard many times before were told once again but with the genders reversed. Its innovation was in opening up new avenues of emotional pornography to social groups which had, until now, not had access to the hard stuff so they could mainline it. In some sense this is progress; but the process that humanizes “the other” sneaks in the trojan horse of legitimizing the sins of the larger culture. The largely empty symbolic of the TV genre courts the skewed reading of the powerful who have access to the megaphones. The act of conscious reading itself is largely outsourced. To engage, even critically, is to legitimize. This is a conundrum.

The function of pornography for the viewer/reader is to create a bridge toward their insertion of their imagined self into the suggested power dynamics of the image and in doing so create the capacity for the ultimate power fantasy of their desired surrounding and relation. Narrative ambiguities are circumscribed into set, flattering parameters. Emotional pornography works similarly but goes less detected for its lack of straightforward qualities. It draws the viewer into a safe, non-judgmental space wherein they can project their fantasy selves without consequence.

In drafting this essay, I hesitated for a moment to use the word pornography; “pornography” is a word that haunts. It less describes a thing than lays itself over it,  a word that reads events all on its own. Like “terrorism”, a categorical. It holds the charge of the zeitgeist and exists to shift things into the realm of the wrong. It creates the cloud of absolute moral judgment and in its evocation pushes itself closer toward a specific definition or emptiness that neuters its usefulness. Part of the hidden but universally known intifada of pornographic materials brought about as the consequence of the internet that cannot be spoken of without carefully being separated discursively from the “legitimate” streams of the internet. Like the culture at large, the whole enterprise loses much of its ideological justification if it might be exposed as an elaborate way to justify sexual release. Would this be to expose it for what it is?