1 May

“A socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.”
Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction

“Historical determinism is a recipe for political quietism.”
forex forum, Why Marx Was Right

Ryan Trecartin’s Sibling Topics (Section A): On Manic Boredom and New Modes of Thought

27 Apr


I could go on and on, but I won’t. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

                                                                        -Sibling Topics (Section A)


Film, it has been said, is a language. It’s a juxtaposition of images and sounds that construct both a finite sense of time and space (the diegetic world of the film) while also producing larger, sometimes unintended effects on the spectators that absorb it (the non-diegetic world of the film). Yet, as in the post-everything milieu of Ryan Trecartin, we have also arrived into a post-filmic era. Film has distinct ontology, one moored to its inherent materiality. Film is celluloid, shot and projected at 24 frames per second. Each shot represents a photograph unto itself. Each image is unique and announces it’s presence as a tangible thing. When one enters the realm of the digital, in this case video, the filmmaker has a unique and vast array of tools at his or her disposal. Distinct images can be morphed, mashed, and made up into one—leaving particular ontologies, or states of being, lost. Points of origin cannot be recalled; rather they are subsumed forever in a dense fabric of digital code. This new media logic can also serve as a metonym for our increasingly dizzying world. Confronted with immense knowledge at our fingertips buttressed by our ability to craft online identities of any stripe, the question of subjectivity or even personhood is rendered a highly mutable, often shape-shifting idea. Trecartin’s brilliant Sibling Topics (Section A) (2009) is, in my estimation, the first successful attempt at representing a new world order.

In his video, Trecartin deconstructs nearly all traditional means of communication, rendering individual shots, sounds and dialogue unimportant—subsumed to the meta-deconstruction of language that the film relentlessly pursues. The characters speak in fragmented sound bites, each both full with meaning, but hard to tease out of the cacophony of sound: “I love being in places that mean nothing to me;” “I’m finally just an as-if;” “What you want is vague and you don’t work towards it.” All of these seemingly random phrases gesture toward a mode of feeling that is at once present, but can never quite be snared. As Trecartin argues, “I’m completely driven by audio – hearing the flow and intuition of music structures around people probably excites me more than anything… I want to make scenes that feel like they broke out in a total music when they didn’t. I think of direction, script, body language, word delivery, set, edit, color, prop, and structure in a kinetic, musical, poetic way—each scene specific to itself and organized with different intentions to flow ideas.” In this description of aesthetics, Trecartin gestures toward what Deborah Tudor has dubbed “array aesthetics.” In this mode, the spectators receive a barrage of simultaneous points of view, while the sound-design creates an aural, non-relational mediation. We can think of mediation in this way in two major regards. First, as overflow—our senses are bombarded with sound, movement and time in such degrees that all of it cannot be processed in real time. Second, we receive an undercurrent of communication and connection that is more easily assimilable—this is the level where the artist communicates his message and connection to the audience. The late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has called this technique “rhizomatic.” Rhizomatic images, for Deleuze are “images of thought.” The images Trecartin presents are of thought in over-drive—a pathology of abundance. This world is unredeemable—there are no people left—gestured to in the video with the prescient line: “There are no people—critical mass!” Rather, what we are left with is a collection of hyper-mediated, hyper-aware, hyper self-reflexive humans regurgitating the detritus of culture, devoid of authenticity and meaning. These new, always-in-transition hybrids are fully post-identity. Characters openly bare the scars of breast augmentation, never play their assigned or traditional gender roles, and have skin tones that do not appear to occur in the natural world. Much like the images devoid of roots, the characters do not seem to inhabit any definable condition. The fluidity of gender, sexual, and racial roles reflects both the continuous availability of new identities as well as a progressive, non-hierarchical space of openness. Upon first viewing, many spectators may find this film devoid of anything, yet that is exactly the point of the attempt.  As Trecartin argues: “I think I do a lot of translating vibes into visually narrative time sculptures that story shuffle questions into abstract plots of now.”

These abstract plots of now and narrative time sculptures via Deleuze nudges us toward this path. In describing another part of the Sibling Topics trilogy, the video I-Be Area (2009), Trecartin muses that the end of the film is “a conceptual part-cyber-hybrid platform that obeys and functions within both laws of physics and virtual-nonlinear reality and potential in Web 2.0/ultra-wiki communication malfunction liberation flow, add-on and debate presentation.” Much the same can be said for the entirety of the video at issue here. How do we reconcile a world that still obeys the laws of physics, but has essentially become a virtual, non-linear reality? The former is concretized and steady. The latter is hackable, fragile and always on the verge of malfunction—a ceaseless information flow. And, this is where the idea of rhizomatic images enters and becomes a redeeming framework for both meaning and understanding.

Rhizomatic images are multiple, non-hierarchical, and have no pre-defined entry or exit points. These images are made up of a multitude of heterogeneous images. There is no longer any ONE—(God, underlying universal values etc.) a Nietzchean concept that gestures toward the promise of a transvaluation of all values. Rhizomes are not fixed—they can be broken in an instant—yet they always renew and always regenerate. A rhizome is a map, not simply a tracing. Rhizomatic images shove our understandings to new levels. Our world is re-shaping itself. Trecartin successfully represents our collective manic boredom, the current listless state nearly everyone feels, but few can articulate. “I like living and creating in a time of overwhelming transition” he argues, “I don’t want to believe in answers right now to abstract questions, because they’re always wrong somewhere else.” Trecartin’s film is not simply an artistic exercise; rather it is a visual manifesto toward a new way of understanding.

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Forbes writer graciously responds

26 Apr

Maura Pennington writes:

Thanks for reading and responding. I noticed that you didn’t refute the fact that this rhetoric is being used–you even went through the exercise of replacing “corporations” and “bourgeoisie” and said the statements ring true–so it seems you mostly have a problem with my concern over the adoption of this language. I should clarify that, yes, I know people feel all these economic ills acutely. I’m not trying to tell anyone that they are imagining their financial difficulties. I am just troubled that they would phrase them like we are in the midst of a class struggle on par with Marxism. My passion is working with words, writing, reading, and especially translating, and I have seen what language can do. It has a power over people that we take for granted.

Using the idioms of communism is dangerous and I wish Americans knew better than to do it. No one would dare start talking like a National Socialist, so why is it acceptable to talk like a Soviet socialist? Because no one remembers what the word Nazi comes from? If an Occupier made declarations preaching national unity as part of our new democratic order and someone could draw a connection to the rhetoric of Nazis, the movement would be discredited and shut down in an instant. Do I have to write an article comparing Lenin’s rhetoric to the 99% before people will be concerned? Or Stalin? What will it take for people to realize that these are not ideologies for free societies?

The words we use matter. That’s the point I was trying to make. If people are upset about corporations, there are other ways to express that than to say that they “hold us hostage.” We aren’t enslaved to anyone in this country and saying that we are is ludicrous hyperbole that does nothing but show how little people appreciate the liberty they do have. If we say we aren’t free, we begin to believe we aren’t free. When we believe we aren’t free, we stop seeing ways that we can execute our own will and make our own choices and then, guess what, we become unfree. The words we use matter.

My response:

I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. Even though I don’t agree with you, I find your arguments very thought provoking. I especially appreciate your attention to language, I agree such attention is taken for granted.

Back in the heyday of the Tea Party, did you have the same reservations about evoking the American revolution and it’s language (“water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants”)? The Tea Party was against deficits and the very-centrist (formerly conservative endorsed) heath care law. Did the fact that they portrayed Obama as some sort of fascist king and they an oppressed minority not ring a bit out of proportion with reality?

Does a resemblance to the generalized and perhaps reductive highlights of the language of theoretical/philosophical communism logically allow you to conclude that the Occupiers are bent on instituting communism in practice? Might they just be mining some words/phrases that are part of the common trust deed scotland nomenclature? Does identifying with those words automatically make one a communist sympathizer? As you say in your article, most people have not read the Manifesto, and certainly have not delved into the nitty-gritty of Capital Vol. 1.

To say we aren’t enslaved to anyone in this country is technically true (except maybe to our foreign debt holders). But, do you deny that the confluence of corporate power/money/government does not bestow a profoundly undue influence on only a select few people at the top? Those who have benefited the most economically over the past 30 years–those that also exclusively populate the political decision making class? These are real issues that deal with the very freedom and liberty you extol. To claim that the people chanting/ writing slogans that have a resonance with Communist texts they have probably not read is somehow more of a threat to freedom than a nebulous neo-liberal ideology that works, in actual practice, every day to limit the power of the individual and concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the very few is either disingenuous or stultifyingly naïve.

Pennington responds:

To be honest, when the Tea Party movement was in full swing, I was not following it. I was politically apathetic at the time, plus nothing scares me more than a rally, so I just tried to ignore it, as I ignored the rebuttal “Rally to Restore Sanity” despite the excitement of all my friends. I am by nature uncomfortable with populism, so if I had been in a position to comment on it, I probably would have taken umbrage with some of their phrases just as much as I do this liberal movement.

As for the confluence of corporate power/money/government, here is my position: it’s not the 1% that is a threat to our liberty, it is the state that has allowed itself to be influenced because it has taken on a larger role than it should be playing. By expanding its jurisdiction, it is open to special interests in a way that it would not be if it were limited. It has enabled itself to be bought. So we can’t blame people for trying to buy it. If the government weren’t in a position to regulate so much of our activity, no one would be concerned with manipulating those regulations. If it weren’t trying to provide so many services, no one would be angling to get the most out of them. The 1% is not capable of restricting the liberty of an individual in the way the state can. Corporations can’t make anything illegal. They can’t mandate anything. The state has that power, though. The state truly can make us slaves. It’s the state that we should work to limit.


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Forbes writer to Activists: Your “Commie Rhetoric” is destroying our country!

26 Apr

A young, seemingly libertarian writer (Maura Pennington) takes to the pages of Forbes (hello 1%) to foolishly call activists of her generation a bunch of commies. Rather than explore the real issues at hand, Pennington finds it easier to counter actual arguments by pairing them with quotes from everyone’s favorite college quick read The Communist Manifesto (what about Capital vol. 1 or The German Ideology?) Where to begin?

“Communism kills in practice, but maintains an allure in theory because fools still fall for it.  Americans, of all people, shouldn’t be those fools.  We should innately know the difference between the democracy of which our Founders spoke and the democracy of a perverted social order that actively destroys those at the top in favor of, as Marx calculated, “the nine-tenths.”  But the gateway to communist rhetoric was opened when the first Occupy camp set up on Wall Street, a financial center, and not Washington, the seat of government.”


The democracy of which our Founding Fathers spoke? The one that excluded everyone but wealthy land-owning men? That seems much more a democracy of a perverted social order that actively destroys those in the majority in favor of those at the top. The notion of what democracy is and who it includes has expanded dramatically and evolved as the nation became more diverse and the economy more global and complex. So a call for actually living the principles of equality our nation has supposedly embraced is bad because, in her estimation, it is closely akin to scary communist rhetoric?

“So when the 99% movement reveals their aim to be “a democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people” yet only lists grievances that are based on the current situation of our economy, it is not the same idea of democracy as opposition to political tyranny.  It is instead the idea that 19th Century intellectuals advanced of democracy as a resolution of economic inequity.  For Americans today, the 1% is an oppressive economic class, not political class.”

So, economic clout and political power are not intertwined in any way? Let’s do a little thought experiment. Earlier in the article, Pennington writes “Were someone to substitute the word “corporations” or the catch-all “1%” for the word “bourgeoisie,” The Communist Manifesto would chillingly read like any official statement from Occupiers and the 99% movement at large.”

Let’s play that game with the following paragraph:

In this way, our 99% does not emulate American revolutionaries but is instead after the same bourgeoisie that troubled Marx.  He wrote in The Communist Manifesto that, “the CORPORATION has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway.”

An idea never more concretized than in the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission (2010). Corporations are people my friend! In fact, since corporations are legally people, let’s just swap bourgeoisie back into the paragraph, the two terms have become legally interchangeable. Maybe that is why our generation is up in arms?

“The American proletariat believes that corporations likewise have their own legal agenda and “have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people…[and] donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.”  Once in power, they are entrenched.”

Substitute “people” with the patronizing “proletariat” and there is Abayas.

“According to Occupy Wall Street, those in the 1% are captors and masters who “have held students hostage.”  The bourgeoisie made men slaves; the 1% holds us hostage.  How do they do this?  With what do they forge these vile chains? “With tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.” All people who have actually been oppressed and subjected to violations of their humanity have license to mock us mercilessly for a statement like that.”

Sure—we can all agree that people are not literally being chained up and whipped. But, crippling student loan debt does make an entire generation of young people subservient to banks and the federal government. So much so, that they will be financially crippled for up to 30 years after they graduate from college/ grad school. Entering an economy of slow growth and underpaid jobs does not help matters. You will spend the majority of your working life sending a huge portion of your paycheck to either banks or the government (student loan payments plus taxes). How does one get ahead? Buy a house? Save money? That sounds like wage/ economic servitude to me.

“Oblivious to the absurdity, our 99% employs the hyperbole of communism to make the point that naïve twenty-somethings voluntarily took out loans for optional higher learning and can’t figure out, despite the education they received, how to pay them back. “ 

Yes, they were voluntary. But, does Pennington realize how quickly interest rates on both private and government loans can soar? How quickly your reasonable $25,000 loan can become $50,000?  Let’s say I took out $40,000 to finance my undergraduate education at Dartmouth. After a broad job search , I land the best job I can find, working for $35,000/yr in Boston. I get nominal raises from age 22-30, at which point I am making $55,000/yr. In this time my interest rates have soared and after diligently re-paying my loans for 8 years, I still owe a principal of $30,000. How does one thrive and get ahead in that situation? Go back to school for more debt? Work 5 jobs?

In sum, the Pennington’s conclusion is that the actual economic problems facing young people are not the problem, it’s that pesky communist rhetoric that will be the ruin of our “free” country.

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Laughing With Kafka

25 Apr

You know those hours where you start an article, click a bunch of links and end up at something totally off topic? Well, that happened to me this morning. I came across David Foster Wallace’s short article “Laughing with Kafka” which appeared in Harper’s in 1998. Having spent all of my 20s in academia, it resonated with me.

David Foster Wallace’s “Laughing with Kafka,” an excerpt of a speech given at the PEN American Center and reprinted in Harpers, is remarkable both for it’s brevity and for its masterful deployment of language to engage with multiple critiques on a variety of intertwined subjects. Wallace’s basic thrust is to explain that American college students lack the appropriate “exformation…a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication…” to fully appreciate the humor contained in Franz Kafka’s literary work (23). This exformation is not simply mundane historical or biographical knowledge about the context of the novel or the authors’ life. Rather, it is an ephemeral, momentary spark of recognition as when one, without thinking, “gets” a joke. Wallace’s language is particularly precise as he describes this phenomenon. In trying to capture the nature of the recognition referenced above, he calls it a “kind of explosion of associative connections” where the effect feels “sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve” (23). This simile is particularly adroit, as it performs on two registers. First, the choice of the word percussive gestures toward both the tinny, jarring nature of instruments as well as the lingering harmonic energy that hovers after such instruments have been struck. This energy serves to link the author/reader or the joke teller/ receiver on a level that is both fleeting and metaphysical—a form of connection that Wallace will later call “religious.”

His critique extends to the labor of academic literary studies, whereby novels and short stories are submitted to a mechanistic logic of dissection, robbing them of their inherent, sublime and unnamable beauty. Wallace relays the absurdity of this “critical machine” through a Kafkaesque metaphor, endowed with its own ironic, nightmarish humor—such submission, he writes, is the “literary equivalent of tearing the petals off and grinding them up and running the goo through a spectrometer to explain why a rose smells so pretty” (23). What literary analysis and its students ignore seems to be both complexity and simplicity. If anyone with a functioning olfactory system can smell them, how does one describe a rose without losing it essence? Without short-changing beauty and fragrance?

Yet, while Kafka’s more obvious attempts at humor generally function around a “literalization-of-metaphor-tactic,” if one stops there the joke is on them. Wallace contends that beyond such gallows humor, Kafka’s work contains a deeper dimension, a “religious humor” (26). While American students are culturally pre-disposed to see “jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance” Wallace sees Kafka’s humor as “heroically” sane, evoking a complex, modern and ultimately grotesque inner truth. Or as Wallace argues, “that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle” (26). When students think of humanistic inquiry, it is often to see the good, appreciate the beautiful and revel in the work of geniuses. Yet, it is only a scathing, absurdist brand of humor that asks us not to laugh, but to see. The sudden and percussive nature of fundamental truth is not something most people want to “get.” Laughing with Kafka is not a guffaw, but a knowing though maddening smile.

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25 Apr

“I honestly believe that people of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they’re all so envious of it.”
Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

Counter-intuitive and insightful, especially regarding the thoughts in the last post.

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What is the real-real thing?

25 Apr

I came across this great article by Maria Bustillos over at The Awl:

What is the real-real thing?


On Adorno and the philosophical questions of authenticity, she writes:

“There’s a whole wing of philosophy dedicated to investigating the complications of “authenticity”: Heidegger and Sartre wrote about it; Lionel Trilling, too. In The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), Adorno went bonkers with rage, and took off after Heidegger and the existentialists with a buzz saw, loudly condemning that sloppy word that these dumb existentialists sloppily use to brag about how they know what is real and what isn’t; to signal their membership in a privileged group that understands these things. Much later, Rorty came along and in his amiable, avuncular way, likewise jettisoned the whole idea of “an authority trumping that of reason.” He told The Believer(in an old interview well worth rereading), “What unites Plato and the bad kind of Romantic is the notion of your ideas having authority because of some privileged source, while the pragmatists say, ‘the hell with what the source is, let’s look at the consequences.’”

David Foster Wallace is on record as having asked a student to “strive to be more authentic.” Wallace’s dad is a philosopher; I am very sure he knew his Heidegger, and his Adorno too. It’s a paraphrase, but here, again, is a moderately absurd paradox.

A young writer is liable to be affected and derivative, to try things on for the sake of effect, okay. Maybe what Wallace was advising this kid was to be on watch within himself to not perform the Fall of Brendan, to refuse to strategize in order to take anything one hasn’t paid for. Which would be a question not of naivety or naturalness at all, but of self-policing against falseness. An ethical matter. But the ethics of this business turn out to be more complicated than they looked at first.”


The article does quite a masterful job of surveying a swath of cultural trends and philosophical conundrums. I was particularly struck by Bustillos’ invocation of the term “intention” which truly gets to the crux of the investigation. To take on a “pose” whether it be through fashion or a public and refined sense of conspicuous curatorial acumen, intention is nearly impossible to pin down. Sure, we may look at the bee-keeping, urban gardening, locavore independent filmmaker/writer/barista with the sleeve of colorful tats and ascribe some nebulous motivation to their public persona. But, I think the roots of a drive toward authenticity (the intention to be more so) can be a positive thing. Take the above mentioned bee-keeping maven. Is the intention to live a life of creative force (whether that is ever realized in a commercially successful/sustainable way) troublesome because it signals privilege and the ability not to have to fully enter / believe in the vagaries of late capitalism? Or because it represents a conscious trade off–less money, more time? Is the “self-policing of falseness” insufferable and therefore less authentic? Maybe. But, if we are all stuck in the culture industry anyway, I’ll take thoughtful (self policing) consumption and production over mindless wandering in the mass-cultural landscape. The jargon of authenticity itself becomes self fulfilling prophecy. If we can’t talk about it, can’t quite define it and hold authenticity up to impossibly pure standards, jargon may be all that’s left. Maybe in our current milieu, it’s the most authentic thing of all.

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