Filed under: Film | Tags: Bedford Falls, Capitalism, Ceci n'est pas une pipe, Christmas, film noir, Frank Capra, Gary Kamiya, It's a Wonderful Life, La trahison des images, Rene Magritte
I always disliked Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a teenager. I couldn’t buy that George Bailey, the intrepid cavalier whose only reward for discarding his lifelong hopes and dreams for conservative family security was not committing suicide and not losing the livelihood he never wanted. I know there’s suposed to be something about the respect of your peers and the triumph of the human heart, but it always seemed rather thin to me. This was eventualy compounded with an innate suspicion that because Paramount ‘forgot’ to renew its copyright in 1974 and let it enter the public domain, it became a “Holiday Classic” simply by virtue that broadcasters could play the movie ad nauseum.
Lately, however, my opinion of the film is changing. I’ve decided that Capra’s film is essentially a film noir in sheep’s clothing. Aesthetically, of course, the film uses many noir tropes: voice overs, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting and the cynical irony of Jimmy Stewart. But this style evidences nothing more than perhaps the fashion of the times. What truly establishes It’s a Wonderful Life as a noir is its treatment of the noir subject: the tough, ironic specimen of compromised masculinity who is drawn rather than travels through life, a a passive observer to forces beyond his control.
Gary Kamiya at Salon recently wrote about Capra’s opus, in which he hails the part of the film that is most explicitly film noir: the sultry, urban portrayal of a George Bailey-less world.
In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!
It sure does. Or at least, it certainly appears to. But what is particularly striking about this section of the film is that Pottersville more closely resembles the ‘real’ America: dehumanizing and debauched, rife unemployment, and criminally overseen by a General Sternwood-esque capitalist magnate, Mr. Potter. Bedford Falls, on the other hand, the ‘reality’ of the film, comes across as an eerie dream world of community, fraternity and equality (albeit with a creepy dose of privacy forfeiture). This dream world pales in the context of postwar America where a generation of men are searching for their identity, women are searching for their rights, and the capitalist state apparatus is violently rebuking such ideals at every opportunity in the face of the communist menace. Indeed, there is something powerfully unsettling about the film’s opening shot that brazenly declares to the viewer “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS” when we know, emphatically, we are not. Its uncanniness rivals Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.
Ironically, Bailey’s ‘dream’ world—that is, one where he has left Bedford Falls for college, travels or the war (!)—is the same as the one where he dies (paging Dr. Lacan). It’s also the real America. Essentially, America has dreamed itself, mediated by Bedford Falls where we all (do not) reside. Suddenly, we see the emergence of the noir universe, in which we are parasitic stowaways to our own capitalistic fantasies. How appropriate, then, that in the inflated consumerism of contemporary Christmas, this ‘wonderful’ film has monopolized our holidays by virtue of its repeatability, marketability and libidinal bribery.
Kamiya certainly notices this, although his conclusion is perhaps less jaded than my own:
I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.
We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.
So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!
On my last watching of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself really, truly enjoying it, both its preciousness and its stylistic gall. Perhaps Kamiya’s solution is the best one. If you’re offering a two-for-one Boxing Day sale on wings, I’ll be the first to queue up.
hat-tip to Julio
Filed under: Literature, Video Games | Tags: American Psycho, Brandon Crisp, Bret Easton Ellis, Capitalism, Censorship, Fredric Jameson, Free Speech, Free-Market, La Guernica, National Organization of Women, Pablo Picasso, Postmodernism; or, Slavoj Žižek, Subjective Violence, Systemic Violence, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Violence (2008)
The tragedy of Brandon Crisp, whose funeral was Friday, has fuelled a resurgence in the backlash against violent video games, like Brandon’s favourite, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although Brandon likely died of chest trauma sustained after falling out of a tree, the incident has inspired what critics term ‘video game addiction’, as in this sensationally titled Macleans article, ‘What Happened to Brandon?’:
The idea that a simple video game could so completely upend a teenager’s life is the kind of thing that most parents, at least until recently, would not have taken seriously. After all, shoot-’em-up computer simulations don’t raise the same sort of red flags for parents as drugs, alcohol, or delinquent friends. But there is growing concern, even in medical and scientific quarters, that there may be a link between video games like Call of Duty and obsessive, even addictive, behaviour. For some teens, this might lead to minor problems like slipping grades and a loss of interest in other hobbies. But there are an increasing number of reports of far more tragic outcomes. Earlier this year, for instance, a British boy committed suicide after his father took away a Wii game. In a youth culture where so much social interaction has moved online, the deep ties young people can form to games and other computer pastimes could, some experts say, be a recipe for disaster. How do you tell when that line has been crossed? Today, it’s the kids who don’t play video games that stand out. According to a survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last month, 97 per cent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 say they regularly “game,” whether on a console system, computer, or handheld device. In Brandon’s school alone 25 other students regularly play Call of Duty on the same online system he used. And the business continues to grow exponentially. In 2007, software sales reached US$9.5 billion, with nine games sold every second, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
I’m not sure why any of this is cause for alarm: surely a stat saying that 97 per cent of teens play video games indicates that it is normative behaviour? Are teenagers equally ‘addicted’ to driving cars or ice cream sodas?
In his 2008 book Violence, Slavoj Žižek posits the theory that there are two kinds of violence: subjective violence, violent acts that incite our subjective outrage and ire; and objective or ‘systemic’ violence, the necessary violence that sustains liberal capitalist hegemony. More importantly, acts of subjective violence—the suicide bomber, the school shooting, particularly violent video games, movies or books—blind us to the systemic, endemic violence in which we are complicit. ‘Is there not something suspicious’, Žižek writes,
indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence—that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist ‘chaos’ of the painting, asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso calmly replied: ‘No, you did this!’ Today, many a liberal when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: ‘Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?’ And we should reply, like Picasso: ‘No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!’ (9-10)
Although I’ve written about this dissonance before, I am reminded now more than ever about the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). The novel, a hyperviolent satire about closet psycho killer Patrick Bateman (interpreted masterfully by Christian Bale in the 2000 film version), viciously skewers the sadistic violence that underpins the so-called free market. Bateman, a stupidly rich Wall Street investment banker blandly narrates his daily life between meaningless affairs, decadent lunches and copious lines of high-grade cocaine. He describes his sadistic torture and murder of prostitutes as casually as he describes returning video tapes or the vacuous pop music of Whitney Houston. Ellis’s statement is clear: violence and the capitalist system are inextricably and pervertedly linked.
The backlash against American Psycho was as palpable as it was predictable. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was ‘outraged’. Incredibly, however, NOW chose to voice their criticism in liberal, capitalist terms, with appeals to ‘free speech’ and free-market principles, precisely the principles Ellis critiques in his book:
“We are not telling them not to publish,” Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter, said. Instead, she said, members are being asked to exercise their right of free expression by refusing to buy the novel so the publisher “will learn violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable.”
The free market would teach Ellis. Consumers would ‘vote with their dollar’. As we now know, the book was a runaway bestseller and spawned a critically and financially successful film. The consumer, as anyone who has read Ellis will tell you, is nothing if not powerless.
I decide to even up the score a little bit by showing everyone my new business card. I pull it out of my gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850) and slap it on the table, waiting for reactions.
“What’s that, a gram?” Price says, not apathetically.
“New card.” I try to act casual about it but Fm smiling proudly. “What do you think?”
“Whoa,” McDermott says, lifting it up, fingering the card, genuinely impressed. “Very nice. Take a look.” Be hands it to Van Patten.
“Picked them up from the printer’s yesterday,” I mention.
“Cool coloring,” Van Patten says, studying the card closely.
“That’s bone,” I point out. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”
“Silian Rail?” McDermott asks.
“Yeah. Not bad, huh?”
“It is very cool, Bateman,” Van Patten says guardedly, the jealous bastard, “but that’s nothing He pulls out his wallet and slaps a card next to an ashtray. “Look at this.”
We all lean over and inspect David’s card and Price quietly says, “That’s really nice.” A brief spasm of jealousy Courses through me when I notice the elegance of the color and the classy type. I clench my fist as Van Patten says, smugly, “Eggshell with Homalian type. . .” He turns to me. “What do you think?”
“Nice,” I croak, but manage to nod, as the busboy brings four fresh Bellinis.
Ellis’s, and our, world is a capitalist one, choice without option, sustained by a dark underbelly of violent psychosis. In the words of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), published the same year as American Psycho: ‘this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror’.
And here we are quibbling about video games.
Filed under: Democracy | Tags: Alice Munro, Capitalism, Corporate Media, Corporatization, Ed Broadbent, Election Canada 2008, electoral politics, Proportional Representation, Tariq Ali
To use Alice Munro’s term, nothing gives me more dreariness of spirit than an election. A ‘free and fair’ election, the showpiece of democracy, the one trophy centuries of war and bloodlust have purchased, is the chief symbol and exercise of freedom, equality and liberty. Even the lowest amongst us has a voice to rival the powerful and the oppressor. It’s a wonderful idea, to be fair. Too bad we’re doing it all wrong.
First of all, the right to vote is a right many eligible Canadians don’t seem to want at all. The latest voter turnout 59% is the lowest ever recorded. And who can blame them? After three elections Canada still has a centre-right minority government that has again claimed it will rule as if backed by a mandate, without considering coalition, cooperation or conference. What really grates, of course, despite the bizarre rhetoric of media outlets that claim the Canadian electorate ‘wanted’ another minority government, or that we weren’t ready to trust Harper with a majority yet—as if one of the most diverse electorates in the world speaks with some kind of unified desire—is that the election results suggest Canadians ‘wanted’ a completely different government. As Ed Broadbent wrote in Thursday’s Globe,
As all Canadians know, the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens did agree on a number of economic measures, on social policy, the environment and protection for families in the current economic crisis. Since a majority of Canadians voted for these parties, they, not the Conservatives, should be determining our political agenda. Such democratic conditions work well elsewhere. Why not in Canada?
So for those keeping score, Canada got an election it didn’t need and got a government it didn’t want. And yet, while Broadbent is surely correct that Canada urgently needs to update its woefully inadequate electoral system, alone it will not fix electoral politics’ dire ailments.
While most of Canada voted for a centre-left government, Canada’s media endorsed Harper’s conservatives. The Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star and the National Post all supported Harper’s anti-journalist, anti-cultural agenda. While that may seem strange, when you consider that the kind of editorial environment corporate ownership by CanWest Global Media and CTVGlobemedia (partly owned by TorStar) must foster, why is it any surprise that the interests of Canada’s big media are at odds with the rest of Canada’s, or indeed, with journalism and humanities newspapers are supposed to value, examine and respect? These media conglomerates funnel the diversity of Canadian opinion into a centre-right mantra while pretending multiplicity and locality. As a result, politics in Canada (and elsewhere) become at once homogeneous and polarized. Choice without option.
So we are berated with boastful images of cheering Muslims sporting blue thumbs and subjected to the lustful urgings of Hip Hop artists and professional wrestlers inciting our youth to ‘get out the vote’ while we try to coax our mopeds into motorcycles. Admittedly, this post is littered with leftist talking points—up with proportional representation, down with corporate media, etc.—but my critical point is this: electoral politics do not equal democracy. Often these critiques are dismissed as ideological fantasy when in fact they are brutally realist. It is a far more dangerous fantasy to assume that the only kind of “action” in a democracy is exercising your voting rights. If that were the case, than Iraq under Saddam Hussein would be considered a democracy.
Here: concerted activism is as much a part of democracy as free elections. The only difference is that this kind of activism is not dead in Canada, like an outdated two-party electoral system to which progressives in Canada have acquiesced. In fact, it is this acquiescence that represents ideological fantasy—we have bought the capitalist dream that freedom starts and stops with signing an ‘X’ every four years or so and consequently, we may limit our participation in democracy to that single action. It is this gesture that is merely symbolic, without teeth, without significant consequence for leftist principles, not the just protest of those who expose such fantasy.
Until we fix our political consciousness, our broken media, our muted expectations of those in power, nothing will change. Mandatory election dates, for example, will only wallpaper voter malaise; it will do nothing to repair it. Our politicians are nothing if not capricious, subject to the whims of those that grease their pension. If we make our desires clear, untarnished by the heavy imprint of Canadian corporate media, we can effect these desires and overturn the sham that is contemporary electoral politics. As Tariq Ali said earlier this year, ‘Change is possible if the will is there’.
Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: Beijing 2008, Capitalism, China, Claire Fox, Merchant of Venice, Olympics, Vancouver 2010
One can imagine China reading such Western stories and responding with mock incredulity and sly condescension. ‘But what have I done wrong? Where have I stepped awry?’
China has opened her doors to capitalist investment. Following the lead of North American colonization of the First Nations, she has ushered in modernity and development to the feudal and poverty-stricken theocracy of Tibet. She has made national security paramount and relegated political dissent to free-speech zones. All of these strategies come verbatim from the Western capitalist playbook. It would of course be easier for our protests if China were to adhere to the plot of the last Western-led Olympic boycott—the 1980 games in Moscow—and invade Afghanistan so we could assume a position of moral authority. Oh wait.
So China has needlessly amplified State security, is guilty of oppressing and attenuating indigenous cultures, and is flagrantly ignoring calls to address its growing poverty and human rights abuses? Make no mistake: these are massive crimes and acts of negligence. But I question the assumption that our concern with these abuses stems from a love of humanity and not from a hostile, orientalist political agenda. As the wonderful Claire Fox has put it:
None of these measures count for much amongst a sanctimonious Western commentariat because they are not interested in “Beijing’s smog” as a practical problem with practical solutions. Beneath the breathless headlines this week is our own anxiety about the growth of China and our willingness to put the boot into the toxic Chinese economy at any opportunity.
As the New York Times put it in a 10-part series at the end of last year, China is “choking on growth”. The possibility that China could become a fully industrialised and urbanised society, with living standards akin to our own, has become the ultimate environmentalist nightmare. It is often concluded that it would be better for the planet if China simply stopped growing.
The problem is that this selfishly sees only the pain and pollution that an industrial revolution brings to a country the size of China and ignores the undoubted and enormous gains to the Chinese people brought about by the concomitant economic prosperity.
If once Western racists dubbed China as the “yellow peril” and Mao’s regime was sometimes called the “red peril”, modern China is often viewed as a “green peril”.
It’s the yellow peril all over again, but we’ve learned a new vocabulary. This bias is exacerbated by our own hypocrisy. Canada turns a blind eye not only to the cartoonish cynicism of unapologetically hosting the Winter Olympics while occupying Afghanistan a mere thirty years after boycotting Moscow 1980 for the same imperialist crime, but for the exact same abuses for which it criticizes the inscrutable East (hat-tip to bcg on babble):
Often, with only hours’ notice, residents were dumped onto the streets to join the thousands of others who wander the alleys by day and sleep on the sidewalk by night. Anti-poverty groups such as the Pivot Legal Society, the Anti-Poverty Committee and the Downtown Eastside Residents Association say a number of hotels have closed in this manner, adding many more people to the legions of the homeless. According to David Eby of the Pivot Legal Society, a total of 1,314 rooms that formerly housed low-income individuals have been closed or converted to other uses since the awarding of the Games to Vancouver in 2003.
“Economic cleansing” is the ticket, and Mayor Sam Sullivan has the plan. If the Downtown Eastside is ugly and drug infested, he can sweep it all away courtesy of Project Civil City, Sullivan’s less than subtle manoeuvre to rid Vancouver of the relics of years of institutional neglect. Or maybe the city could ship the homeless out to other parts of the province “for treatment,” as the province’s Liberal Forests Minister recently suggested, the idea eerily reminiscent of the wholesale urban clearances of the poor in the run-up to Atlanta’s Olympics in 1996. The statement seemed likely to be a trial balloon, sent up to gauge public reaction.
The Anti-Poverty Committee began to get media coverage, and while the latter tended to be very negative, the genie was out of the bottle; many British Columbians were forced to face the fact that poverty in Vancouver had increased as a consequence of the 2010 Olympic developments. The city struck back: Anti-Poverty Committee members were arrested and charged, and another anti-poverty group allied to them, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, had their city funding cut off.
Vancouver City Council had dug in its heels, and Mayor Sullivan declared that the city was not going to “surrender to hooligans.” They weren’t going to do anything serious about the underlying poverty issues either. The promises to the poor, promises that had led many social progressives to vote yes in the plebiscite, were simply abandoned. Although many Vancouverites noted the broken promises, a large number didn’t really seemed to care, at least if the mainstream media were to be believed. In this regard, Vancouver mimicked Sydney where, “Sydney Olympic organizers relied on ‘Olympic spirit’ discourse to diffuse public outrage on the numerous occasions when Olympic officials failed to live up to the lofty standards touted in pseudo-religious rhetoric.”
And just in case anyone in the Anti-Poverty Committee or any other organization had thoughts of doing anything even more radical, the Olympic security machine was beginning to sputter to life. As we will see, the 2010 security forces might not be able to do much against a real external threat, but perhaps that wasn’t to be their main purpose: Maybe their raison d’être would be to contain domestic Olympic opponents.
Economic cleansing, callous and active abuse of our Aboriginal populations (while hypocritically displaying the inukshuk on the Olympic logo to boast of our multiculturalism); while using it all to legitimate a security force more intent on suppressing domestic dissent and policing poverty than protecting us against an imaginary foreign menace. We prefer to focus our energies on China, who, coincidentally, are making a play for the global hegemony we used to enjoy. What really hurts is that this new yellow peril is stealing all our ideas and doing a better job. It’s enough to remind us of another wronged nation, whose ominous warning fell mutely on the oblivious ears of the Christian overclass:
—The villainy you teach me, I will execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.
The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.60-1
Filed under: Theatre | Tags: Capitalism, Franz Kafka, King Lear, Marshall McLuhan, Modernity, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Tragedy, William Shakespeare
I’m going to see King Lear at the Globe Theatre in London this week.
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom. (1.1.20-22)
In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Marshall McLuhan makes the argument that Lear’s “darker purpose” is the politically daring “delegation of authority from the centre to margins.” In fact, the powerful opening scene intimates the larger fragmentation of power and social structures as Elizabethan England moves from feudalism towards modernity. “King Lear,” McLuhan argues, “is a presentation of the new strategy of culture and power as it affects the state, the family, and the individual psyche.”
Only we shall retain
The name and all th’ addition to a king;
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,
This coronet part between you. (1.1.124-129)
Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester (“there was good sport at his making”) is generally the character considered the most Machiavellian in the play, the agent of social fragmentation who rails against institutionalized structures that discredit his birth. He wants nothing more than equal opportunity, to be considered on merit rather than his given social role.
But Lear, who has already separated his duty from his name, is Shakespeare’s chief fragmenter. He has fragmented his power, his state, his family, and even, in his filial demand for bourgeois competitive individualism, merit from nature:
Tell me, my daughters,—
Since now we will divest us, both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (1.1.32-37)
The wages of this fragmentation are the lives of Cordelia, Kent and the Fool, who cannot overcome this split. “According to my bond,” Cordelia tells Lear. “No more nor less.” To balance the destruction this sea change wreaks, a nostalgia brings low the evil yet modern Goneril and Regan, and forces a belated contrition from Edmund, who cannot outrun our sympathies. Capitalism is displacing aristocracy, and the sympathy the audience feels for Edmund registers the necessity of such a shift. Yet residual social mores that remain embedded in modern life continue to haunt society like Hamlet’s ghost. The play, dealing with such an oppositional force “bursts smilingly,” like Gloucester’s conflicted heart, “‘twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief.” The thunder that Lear famously interrogates is a contradictory force cleaving society in two. The result is a society that promotes the success of bastards (now Edgar, now Edmund) while forever cursing them for being so.
By the end of the play, Shakespeare has made bastards of us all. Edgar, the epitome of bourgeois mobility and individualism, rather than affirming a new social order in the manner of MacDuff or Fortinbras, gives both a mournful elegy and chilling augury in the play’s final lines:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. (5.3.383-386)
Edgar seems to offer a cynical tonic to his earlier, both hopeful and tragic comment,
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’ (4.1.34-35)
This is the worst, but the worst is yet to come. It is the tragedy of capitalism that it was both necessary and destructive, emancipatory and fragmentary. Nowadays, the fragmentation presaged by Shakespeare has increased exponentially, and we are expected to pursue its omen even as we know it harbours secret plans to destroy us. But Edgar advises us that this shackling determinacy offers us a kind of playful liberation. If there is hope, it is the kind of failed, tragic hope that Franz Kafka offers us: “Oh plenty of hope. An infinite amount of hope—but not for us.”
Now Gods, stand up for bastards.
Filed under: Music | Tags: Capitalism, Cultural Form, Daydream Nation, Identity, Kim Gordon, New Wave, Punk, Revolution, Sonic Youth, Starbucks, Teenage Riot, The Sprawl, Thurston Moore
It better work out.
I hope it works out my way.
‘Cause its getting kind of quiet in my city’s head.
Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.
Sonic Youth, the band that crystallized the meaning of a decade of slackerdom with their legendary record Daydream Nation (1988), is releasing their next album through Starbucks. What do we want from a band called Sonic Youth led by a man who turns fifty this year? And what’s the difference between Starbucks and Universal Records anyway? Besides, a slick veneer over the hardest of core was always Sonic Youth’s shtick. After all, they galvanized a generation by hiding lovely pop melodies under a layer of filthy noise and feedback. They were the epitome of suburban revolution: Dick Clark dressed up like The Stooges. And they were f’n brilliant.
In 1988, Punk music’s anti-establishment message was over the hill. New Wave’s subversive critique had lost its edge; it became a euphemism for “synthesizer.” Enter Sonic Youth’s pleasing, melodic rage. Their music appealed because it justified an equivocal reaction to the paralyzing frustration that typified the end of Reaganism and Thatcherism. At the same time, it offered the utopian bribe of revolution and social change with avant garde coarseness and abrasion in the musical form. We could do nothing and still feel like we were fucking over corporate America. As Kim Gordon asks us in “The Sprawl”: “Does ‘Fuck you!’ sound simple enough?” And it did, Kim. It did.
Punk music petered out because it advocated a nostalgic return to one of the founding lies of capitalism: hard-work, rustic simplicity and self-determination can change the world. Essentially, punk bought into the American dream, as if to rescue it from the mainstream that perpetuates it. New Age disappeared because it was always too complicit in the society it hoped to critique: it mirrored the minimalism and moral void of capitalism with its sparse music and corporate costumes, while critiquing the culture with its lyrics.
Bands like Sonic Youth, mired in the malaise of the last days of the Cold War, were economically and socially prohibited from launching any kind of serious social critique so they hid their revolutionary impulses. The Western world saw unprecedented growth in multinational corporations and escalating takeovers of independent businesses by big interests; and the recording industry was no exception. Sonic Youth made the leap, mostly due to perfectly understandable economic concerns, from indie label SST Records to Capitol and EMI in time for the release of Daydream Nation. How could they be expected to effect social change from within the corporate structure? Their response was the key to their brilliance: mass culture content that expressed its discontent through form. Their art was a tacit acknowledgment of the vacuity of mass culture, a shift from politically inspired content to interrogation of identity and form.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Kids in the Hall and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble were comparable, contemporary efforts to achieve the same shift. But now we have Sonic Youth performing their classic album live, in full. Besides the irony mentioned above about aging rockers performing “Teenage Riot,” such a concert continues to institutionalize an act of social change. We go to this concert not to change our minds, but knowing exactly what to expect, as if to package our radicalism as essentially youthful, of a bygone era, of something no longer needed. And of course, what is most troubling about this kind of nostalgia, is the sobering thought that perhaps our daydreams were only ever leading us to Starbucks in the first place.
Say it ain’t so, Thurston.
Filed under: Ecocapitalism | Tags: Capitalism, Dubai, Earth Hour, Environmentalism, Globalization, Masdar, Nelly Furtado, Tar Sands, World Wildlife Fund
“Turn off the light,”sings Nelly Furtado. It’s Earth Hour. Promoted heavily by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is an action in which the world can “take a stand against climate change” by refusing to use electricity from 8:00 pm to 9:00 today, March 29, 2008. Well, that’s nice.
What’s better are the hundreds of Canadian businesses supporting Earth Hour. From Bell Canada to Cadillac Fairview, Imperial Oil to Starbucks, they’re all getting in on the action. At the end of Earth Hour, do you think Imperial Oil will shut down Syncrude, the consortium that governs its site in the Athabasca tar sands? Will Starbucks stop selling disposable paper cups and start selling fair-trade coffee? Even Google is getting in on the act. Crafty. They can tune in to Earth Hour without actually turning out the lights. Turning off virtually seems to suffice. The message is clear: buy into Earth Hour and you won’t have to do any heavy lifting. Ecology is a commodity and everything is on sale.
When Dubai announced that it would be the first Arab city to participate in Earth Hour, you had to know something was up. The transnational capitalist city par excellence, Dubai, earlier this year, announced it would turn its massive oil wealth into the world’s first zero-carbon, environmentally sustainable city. It’s difficult, however, to view the effort as anything more than a showpiece. Masdar, Arabic for “the source” will house 50 000 people and 1500 businesses in a car-free colony while Dubai, population 2 000 000 and headquarters of countless crude companies around the Middle East, sees its economic growth and massive expansion proceed apace.
Dubai is the emblem of twenty-first-century capitalism, a microcosm of globalization. Deborah Campbell wrote a wonderful article on the phenomenon that is Dubai in the September 2007 issue of The Walrus.
“The Earth Has A New Centre,” announces a massive billboard for a new mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight-lane expressway in Dubai — a city that was, not so long ago, a patch of sand. As a yellow Ferrari driven by a local in a white dishdasha and baseball cap roars up behind my rental car, and Hummers with black-tinted windows pass busloads of labourers who stare out, saucer-eyed, at this strange new planet, I find myself thinking that the billboard refers not only to the Dubai Mall, soon to be the largest in the world, but to Dubai itself.
The world’s largest mall. The world’s tallest hotel. The world’s tallest building. The first underwater hotel. The largest waterfront development. The fastest-growing tourist market. The Earth has a new centre and it is a tiny desert kingdom gone mad.
Behind the spectacular gratuitousness of this capitalist Disneyland, lies the criminally exploited working class the powers this expansion, its savage environmental cost.
There, a familiar sight: a swarm of workers in overalls gather at a new construction project. They earn as little as $4 a day. It’s more than they would get in the factories of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, making jeans and shower curtains for Western consumption, but in the lavish light of Dubai it isn’t even a decent tip. I have visited the camps where they live, smelled the open sewage outside their dormitories, know that many of them can’t read the contracts they have signed. They send money home and visit their families once every few years. Past the billboards, past the cranes, if one squints, one can see on the surface of every construction site tiny human forms. Nothing in Dubai could exist without this labour.
This obfuscation, the sleight-of-hand that Dubai enacts when it displays its “commitment” to sustainability while brutally abusing its workforce and the environment is the crime of Earth Hour. For an hour, urban electricity use will decrease by 10%, maybe 15% (if you can bear turning off the Habs-Leafs game during Hockey Night in Canada) while the cities and corporations that pledge “support” for Earth Hour change their corroding practices not one whit.
We’ve turned environmentalism into a brand. Buy it, and you can sport it, and still have a good time at a Nelly Furtado concert. Turn off the light. Save the world.
Hat-tip to Bread and Roses
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: atheism, Capitalism, Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, John Gray, Marxism, Max Weber, Protestantism, religion, Richard Dawkins, Secularism, The God Delusion
An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.
Gray’s main strategy is to historicize this debate—an act he performs skillfully in rhetoric if not entirely convincingly in substance. Essentially, he argues that the debate between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism is the precipitate of political conflicts and a descendant of Christian progressivism.
The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image.
Gray puts his finger on something here that has always bothered me about the way writers like Dawkins forward the unscientific assumption that much of the conflict present in the world today would disappear if religion did first. Aside from the fact that entrenched in this theory is a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, it takes for granted that the 9/11 attacks were a religious act. There is, I believe, something terrifyingly secular about religious fundamentalism.
Religion is a language for speaking about the unspeakable. For parsing truth and creating meaning. Marx called it, not unsympathetically, “the sigh of an oppressed people.” Where is the sigh in the suicide bomb? Is the fundamentalism that inspires this kind of sacrifice not, rather, drained of any transcendence? The body is reduced to a secular image that may carry political symbolism in this world, but carries none in the next. Fundamentalism does not trade in the truth religion and metaphysics seek to uncover, it trades only in the brutal, irreducible and secular image.
Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason.
Here is Gray’s best attempt to persuade atheists to abandon their faith. The only alternative to religion is metaphysics, it is not ‘science.’ The common ‘secular fundamentalist’ strategy is not to historicize religion, to demystify it, but to show that it is based on nothing, that it is all nonsense, that it is entirely useless. This, of course, requires a larger leap of faith that would make a rapturous Baptist shiver. If the object is truly to demystify religion, to show that it is part and parcel of a larger, oppressive, ideology, one needs to demonstrate the purpose and origin of religion. As Gray points out, religion is part and parcel with dominant political ideologies—progressivism, capitalism, etc. As such, it natively carries the foibles and the advantages of these systems. Why is it so hard for Dawkins et al. to admit as much?
Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism provides a sombre warning to those who forget that religious belief remains firmly rooted in political desire.
The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.
Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfillment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all.
Hat-tip to contrarianna at babble