Swans Commentary » swans.com January 17, 2005  



America Has Left The Building...
A Conversation About Culture


Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling


Part I




"It is uncertain whether art is still possible; whether, with its complete emancipation, it did not sever its own preconditions."
"So all things hobble together for the only possible."
—Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), Murphy, 1938


(Swans - January 17, 2005)  This dialogue took place over the last couple months. The idea was to talk about culture, and about art, and about the role they play (or no longer play) in society.

It seems that man has always searched, both collectively (both transpersonal and political) and individually, for the logos -- the atman, the "self" (per Jung) or Being (Heidegger) or that non-empty void of so many mystical traditions. Art, often, if not always, somehow reflects this. Today, however, art is contextualized in ways that serve the ruling war/destruction class. Reading the year end "best of..." lists, in The New York Times, or anywhere, one tends to feel this trivializing tendency. What might have been of value is quickly neutralized and made into a tool of the forces of domination. The mystical and political has all but disappeared from view.

Thanks to Anna Kuros for endless insights and discussion on all these topics. Anything of value I might have written can probably be attributed to her.

John Steppling, Krakow, Poland
January 1, 2005



So Phil:

I was listening yesterday to some string band country music circa the 1930s -- American white church music, though some were dance tunes. This is the culture, in a sense, that is being bashed for voting Bush...for being so jingoistic and reactionary. Now, I know we have moved from the Carter Family to Hank junior...but I fear that the demonizing of these people is far too easy. Marketing and corporate designs have come to shape all aspects of culture.

In the 1930s this was rural white America...churchgoing and conservative, but also still connected to traditions and community.

When that started to unravel, so did the culture. I love that music. Love Cash, and Doc Watson and Bob Wills (to move on a bit). Geoff O Brien has written that blues and country constitute the secret literature of America. I've always felt this way...murder, betrayal, madness, poverty and loss. Gamblers and workers who never get paid. Standing at the crossroads and the New River Train...this train don't take no gamblers...and Dying Crapshooter Blues, On the banks of the O-hio, Betty and Dupree and that Lonesome Highway...Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell and Hank Williams are great American poets. This part of American culture is all but gone. In film, my friend Clu Gulager, a wonderful actor, now in his early seventies, is the last of a certain kind of American artist. He helped me in L.A. twenty-five years ago with the use of his loft and with food.

Why? Because he supported art and artists...it mattered to him. He spent more time studying with Barrault in Paris than trying to make the next big deal...but I fear there are few Clu Gulagers out there anymore. Something essential is being lost, or is lost, in American society.

Why is that?





We're losing the poetry of place, whether you're standing beneath the garish glow of florescent lights in a convenience store in Cut and Shoot, Texas or in Lowell, Massachusetts -- you're essentially having the same, soul-numbing experience. A number of years back, I wrote this opening stanza for a song/spoken word collage I created with Chris Chandler on the subject:

I saw Jack Kerouac
in the back parking lot of a
Stop 'n Go.
He was pouring wild turkey
in a Slurpy
sittin' on the hood of a Yugo.

We went on the road on a changeless scene,
headlights rolled past my eyes like the rolling
flash of a Xerox machine.
Have we all gone blind
from polystyrene signs,
endless replications
of strip mall situations,
fast food attitudes,
and telemarketing platitudes?

Even regional dialects, which are the tone poems of a place's landscape, are disappearing: One can hear gathering mist, incessant wind and rain, and the ghost of ancient trees in an Irish brogue, and breaking waves in the elongated vowel intonations of a California surfer's argot: Duuuude -- and even the reason why vowel intonations are long or short in the inflections of a speaker from the American south, depends on which side of the Gnat Line they hale from: long if they reside above it; short if from within it, to prevent taking in mouthfuls of the swarming clouds of minute insects when they speak.

Under corporate hegemony -- not only is place lost, so is a sense (individually and collectively) of immediacy and of consequence: One's life lived out as an indoor event, intermittently punctuated by automobile and jet travel, in which one is estranged from landscape and community, whereby the toxic illusion is generated that nature (external and internal) can be controlled. Not only has this engendered a general Triumph of Blandness across the culture but this mindset threatens the survival of our species as well.

This is how a man like George W. Bush can become our nation's leader: He reflects a people made ignorant and insensate by their lack of authentic experience. Contrast a faux Texan like GWB and authentic Texans like Willie Nelson, or Jimmy Dale Gillmore, or Butch Hancock. Thankfully, there are still a few authentic human beings residing among us, even in Texas.

Have you noticed how few allusions contemporary songwriter make to weather nowadays? Not only references to the emotional contretemps of Stormy Weather -- but where are the equivalent of the Dust Bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie, in relationship to the global warming-spawned season of successive hurricanes that ripped through the prefab obscenity of modern Florida? What contemporary singer/songwriter -- with the possible exception of singer/song monologist Dan Bern -- could pull that off?

Do you know of anyone, John?

We just might need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.





It's interesting you mention how there is an absence of weather in today's songwriting. Robert Bly spoke of, quite a few years ago, that nature is being removed from all writing. This is certainly true in English language poetry (by and large) and in theatre. In the music we are speaking of, there is a loss of mythology.

If Cash writes of heading down river, cavorting in Davenport and battened down in Baton Rouge...well, that sense of place, which has always been an important aspect of American culture, is crucial to the sense of the song...which happened to be about chasing after a woman. Those places, the very names of places, have a mythic charge and invoke a feeling of history. I remember when the U.S. decided to issue a stamp of Robert Johnson, and they airbrushed his cigarette away...I thought, well, this is typical of the new conformist corporate world of safety and unreality.

Unreality...Ed Said's favorite word...is everywhere....and certainly obvious in cultural output. The blandness you speak of has created a world of unreality. American film is now computer generated and empty and has been tested on various focus group audiences...lest someone be offended, and all the corners are rounded off and all is sanitized. The energy of a Jerry Lee Lewis or a Howlin' Wolf, or Patsy Cline would seem offensive today. Imagine Muddy on Jay Leno -- couldn't happen...it would be like Armageddon.

The underpinnings of the new veneer of respectable and reasonable would be ripped away and a searing sexual proletarian link to the underworld would be standing in its place. This veneer is everywhere...and you see it in politics. The Democrats -- reasonable, refusing to get angry at voter fraud, Joe Biden calling Alberto Gonzales a "pretty solid guy." There is a huge quaking fear of tearing away the veil and revealing the madness and irrationality of our modern lives. Walter Benjamin said we no longer have real experiences. This was fifty years ago. It's worse now. We have a third generation dupe of reality, at best. When artists won't address the actuality of our lives, then the culture is in a serious state of decomposition. The business of cultural product keeps real artists from having much exposure (a Jimmy Dale Gilmore for example) and publishing houses do marketing research to target certain demographics. So graduates of writing programs get their bland boring work published. There is a bottom line to everything and people have been conditioned to accept it as natural.

After all, this is the great American model and it can't be flawed...can it? I know in theatre that those running University programs are the people who go along...those who don't make waves, those who have the right credentials. The bureaucratizing of art has created over the last few decades a new understanding for the society of what art is supposed to do. It's come to be seen as reinforcement for prevailing values and especially as a tool to make people feel better about themselves (i.e., to help them believe the lies of their society). The last gasp of a movement in theatre was off off Broadway in the '70s. The Padua Festival in LA (which I was part of and which included a number of the off off people) was a sort of coda to it. After that the energy is gone and the funding is gone (the government spends more on the Marine Band then it does on individual artists' grants). There are good writers around.... In theatre there is Murray Mednick, and John O Keefe, and younger writers like Wes Walker, Guy Zimmerman, Michael Sargent and Rita Valencia...and no doubt more than few I don't know. Folks like Handke still are doing work in prose and theatre, and a small handful of poets here and there...and some musicians. Robert Hughes has a good book he wrote on Goya-- and I return to Goya all the time. That sort of anger and courage to look at the darkness seems hard to find these days. Where is the Goya of the Iraq war?





Place, landscape, situation, and the mythos of its people are inextricably bound. When I was child, growing up in the south, on the occasion of fishing expeditions and such, I would have contact with rural black farmers who still lived by the agrarian rhythms of the nineteenth century. We would sit on wooden porches, snapping string beans, and I would listen as they quoted scripture. Like their life-sustaining crops, the figure of Christ was born of humble beginnings (a mere seed), and grew beneath the hot sun -- but, at the height of maturity, was cut down, sacrificed to sustain their lives, then, like the figure of Christ -- resurrected -- as next year's seed crop. This held mythic resonance; the metaphors resounded with the verities of place and circumstance. Jesus was as real to them as the green beans beneath their fingertips.

At this moment, I have a computer's keyboard beneath my fingertips, or, later on, I might hold the remote control of a television, or maybe, if I fail to distract myself from the emptiness inside, the cap of a vial of antidepressants, or, if from within my interior abyss, I dream a paranoiac's compensatory fantasy of contact, communion, and penetration, I might finger the trigger of a gun.

In our empty and anxious age of fear and distraction -- what images, events, and ideas might hold mythic resonance for me?

A Mythos of instant gratification.

If I'm young, I can jack my serotonin level by ingesting some X and finding transitory release in the enveloping throb of the machine-sex sound of the techno music of a rave. Of course, by doing so repeatedly, I decimate my neural receptors, rendering me increasingly numb and indifferent to authentic passion. Then: give me a legal scrip of an SSRI and I'm the model corporate citizen, numb and afraid -- neurologically incapable of excess and insubordination.

Or I can become a Christian fundie. I mean, what is the belief in the Rapture, but a worldview that reduces mythic reality to channel surfing: one moment you're watching the Armageddon channel, then you click the remote and you're in eternal JesusLand.

Be careful of what you hold in your hands: It will create the myths that you will live by.

Yes, and that includes your own genitals and those belonging to others. John, you spoke of wildness. Sex might be the last bastion where spontaneity can occur. Why do you think the commodified culture reduces it to the hyper-control of pornographic repetition and the cultural inquisitors demand abstinence before marriage? Corporate hegemony is dependent on the repression of the spontaneous, the ability to be present and engaged in the joys and sorrows of the manifest moment (that is...to do anything but shop). If sex were not stigmatized and/or commodified, then people might begin asking some troubling questions regarding the roles they have accepted as subjects of this corporate/consumer empire.

Jung asked the question: Why would the story line of Christian myth of Christ place the birth of the savior of the vast cosmos in the remote hinterlands of the ruling Roman empire, plus have that divine birth take place in the hinterlands of those hinterlands, and have the birth take place on the floor on a barn, no less, amid the animal shit? Jung answered that the human ego, as is the case with an overgrown, corrupt empire, will cast out what it cannot exploit and subdue. Hence, to find the soul, one must go into the remote, banished regions of the self. This is why every age is a wasteland and the poet and artist must resist being bought and sold as psychic chattel. It's why towards the end of his life, Nashville turned its back on Johnny Cash, and why if there were a Goya to emerge from Iraq -- the Pentagon would reduce the block his studio was located on to smoking rubble.





Your last comments remind me why Wilhelm Reich is still so essential. The emotional plague...the lack of sexual and emotional health is a crucial part of any analysis of modern culture. The plague exists on the right and left; almost in equal parts. From Falwellians to Stalinists, the sense of repression and sadism is the same. Of course, under communism there was at least, for a while, a genuine attempt to address this and to alleviate some of the basic lack people endure under our later stages of Capitalism. In fact, this is why the former Soviet block is increasingly feeling nostalgic for the old days.

Marketing has used sexual imagery in a very masturbatory way. The images in, say, a Sports Illustrated Swim Suit issue don't reflect real women, but rather, reflect a kind of weird hyper-masturbatory fantasy -- but the fantasy is not about real smells and tastes and feelings -- but is simply about the looking. So for the consumers of these images sex becomes, increasingly, about virtual women, or even more reduced than that, about glossy air brushed android women. It's just more alienation. And you're right of course about control; but then even the Catholic Church (and the ever backward looking medievalist Pope) wants to control through denial of pleasure. This exists, too, in the liberal world -- where it's always for your own good. The hysteria of recovered memory and the pre-school witch hunt...all about sexual hysteria. Stories about child sex slaves tend to get a lot more air time than just plain old child indentured servitude.

The cultural output these days tends toward the highly simplistic. Good people do good things and bad people do bad things (I hate the use of the term "bad guys"). A black and white universe of easily recognized signposts. And a George Bush is popular, I suspect, in part BECAUSE people know he's a liar and criminal. Dick Cheney is the ultimate American right now....venal, self serving, immodest, and criminal. This alienation we are speaking of seems to lead people, in the end, toward catastrophic sublimation --- and the huge reservoir of resentment and feelings of powerless are manifested by identification with figures like Bush and Cheney and Schwarzenegger. The collective guilt of a nation built on the extermination of 600 hundred-some Native American tribes and the importation and use of slave labor isn't going to be healed by simply pretending it didn't happen. Artists have forgotten to look for the truth. The truth may be illusive and relative but there is still the sense of one's truth to be told.

Charles Olson wrote about Melville....and he said Shakespeare was about the expansion across the Atlantic and Melville about the expansion across the Pacific. That search for something just out of reach. I wonder if our society doesn't feel that (as I've said before) everything is mapped and everything is within reach -- literally, since you can take a packaged vacation to anywhere, assuming you have the money. The culture hasn't found a direction for the new search. It's about memory too, and history. Adorno has said that in even the most atonal modern classical music one should not lose the memory of the cafe fiddler. This culture doesn't search and doesn't remember.

There are lots of things your remarks bring to mind here....but one last thought for now. The Jungian comments do point up how sanitized our world is....or we pretend it is. The Western revulsion toward smell and fear of contamination has never been more acute. This is, of course, sexual as well.





I cannot look at George W. Bush, with his pathological rigidity, nor Dick Cheney, with his sociopath's sneer, nor Condoleezza Rice, with that phony smile shellacked across her face and not think that these crazy bastards are in desperate need of Reichian treatment, of being subjected to a merciless session of deep Rolfing by a six-foot-six-inch tall drag queen while being read passages from Miller's Tropic of Cancer.

Reich's (and Miller's, no doubt) position would be: What this country needs is the return of blowjobs in the oval office -- if not in every office cubicle across this repressed and regressive land. Not this dark Eros of endless war.

Stan Goff speaks of our national cult of macho narcissism and its subjugation of the feminine, what James Hillman has termed a "hyper yang" ascendancy, the utter dismissal and degradation of Robert Grave's notion of the White Goddess. And we witness it everywhere: Mel Gibson's promulgation of a muscular Christ, who proves his manhood by his endurance of pain, like a grunting, fake blood-spitting, clichéd professional wrestler; in the fear, hatred, and stigmatization of homosexuals; in the steroid-induced psychotic taunting from the governor of California of Democratic "girlie men."

Heir Governor, what about those powdered wig-wearing Nancy boys whose portraits are found on American currency? And what about the depraved fact that their pictures are placed in the pockets of one's pants -- right there next to the godly groins and buttocks of unsuspecting Christian men? The Congress will soon be forced to take up the passage of The Sanctity of the Heterosexual Groin Amendment, so that the American male will be troubled no more by dead, white, pocket-lurking poofters from the apparently pansy-ridden 18th century.

You see, John, this is where I depart from Wilhelm Reich, for I believe that humor is the real orgone energy. Shakespeare's genius extended to comedy as well. I think he would understand our era well, for he came of age in a time of religious repression and strife. As would Molière -- who would lacerate both the pretensions and hypocrisies of a clergy who mask their lust for power by feigning piety and the latte-dribbling liberal elitists whose preening vanities have destroyed what little remained of an era of progressive tradition.

In this age -- where the executive branch of our government is not "reality-based," it's good to keep O'Neal close by, and for those losing their native tongue to rapacious empire, Joyce, and HL Mencken is an imperative. If the rubes of the red states and the great "boobery" of the general American populace at large ever needed to be upbraided for their ignorance and corruption by the irascible voice of reason-betrayed, the time is now.

But because the strictly rational is also a prison, we can escape over the wall with a true poet of the proletariat, Groucho Marx, and float in the freedom of air with the Teiresias of weather, Wallace Stevens (what would he have to say about global warming?) and walk the breathing earth with the Theseus of the sensate world, Pablo Neruda.

We need not be so lonely, John. Many have passed through this wilderness before us. We're not alone here. We never have been.





Something in your last remarks reminded me of the role we have before us these days. Real science serves an important purpose, and helps with the dispelling of magical thinking and superstition -- but our corporate profit-based science has become an industry driven by obscuring the truth. So much that passes for science is simply bad science...but my point, in terms of our discussion, is about this faith in the technological solution to things. How computers will solve all education problems (it's done the opposite in fact) and how the role of art is denigrated because there is no concrete purpose to it...nothing to be weighed and measured.

How many museums has Cheney gone to in his life? Does Rumsfeld appreciate an Anselm Kiefer or a Beethoven string quartet? Science is masculine as well, and here we return again to the crises in masculine identity. Science conquers things, nature, other people. Science is about control, not about a search for truth (of course Newton would be surprised to see this, as would Einstein). Research is driven by corporations, and for corporate purposes. The idea of truth has been diminished as well...and philosophy of the post modern strain, or post structuralist if you like, reflects this in its total relativism. It's also become masturbatory. Corporate science clings to mechanistic science and avoids the real frontier of post mc2 thought -- which would lead us back to Vedic thought, the Jains, Buddhism, and the early Christian mystics.

Art education is nonexistent now in public schools. Why? Because it serves no business purpose. Boys want to be play football -- and I think of James Wright's wonderful poem, Autumn Comes to Martin's Ferry, Ohio -- and would find it silly to sit in a class educating them how to listen to contrapuntal music or to understand a Bernini or a Rafael. The lust for accumulation is total, and the consumption of product is totally addictive. And this desire for "things" is rarely questioned, and I fear that when it is questioned it is often with the crunchy granola health food store vegan voice of softness and weakness...not with rigor and anger. So we have a bad corporate driven template of mechanistic science, a faux-rationality, and then we have knee jerk reactionary religious forms. We don't have Einstein, we have Pentagon research programs, and we don't have Tillich or Augustine, we have the Pope and Pat Robertson. In the midst of all this, the search for something, call it revelation or truth or release from illusion, whatever, is lost. I find fewer and fewer artists asking such large questions. Short stories are the perfect form for this culture (as they are practiced today)....short, unambitious, and middle class in their sensibility.

Certainly some artists are out there and occasionally find their way to the surface...but less and less often. And of course part of the problem is the audience, who are less and less able to look at such things. You have to look hard at a Rembrandt or a DeKooning...and you have to listen hard to Schoenberg or even to Woody Guthrie. You have to be willing to travel inside yourself in some sense...and that's dangerous....who knows what you'll find there?!




Yes John,

I suspect your last question comes from the crucible of your experience as a playwright. I suspect, during the act of creation, at times, your characters often make utterances and assertions that surprise you -- have both delighted you and shook you to your core. And that comes to the heart of what I was addressing. A corporate -- utterly commodified life usurps, exploits, and diminishes not only the outer environment -- but our internal ones as well. How could one not play off the other and visa versa? How can one spend all day in a so-called "work environment," spending a large percentage of one's life beneath florescent lights, with sweatshop-cobbled shoes touching industrial carpeting, body supported by bland, utilitarian office furniture -- then return, by way of a hideous, dangerous freeway, home to some ugly suburb or exurb -- all the while having one's senses incessantly inundated with commercial imagery calculated to manipulate -- hypnotizing one, actually -- into a particular way of viewing the world, and not become subject to the sort of psychic pathology that is pandemic among the populous of the empire? Exploitive systems -- whether created and maintained by the church, the state, or the corporation -- (and, as Bush would say, we've hit a trifecta here) create a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness among the exploited that easily becomes displaced into witch-hunt hysteria (from McCarthyism to faith-based homophobia) and the deep need for release though some form of ecstatic novelty (from the bacchanalia of blood created by the endless War on Terror (in truth, a war to create perpetual terror) to the fantasies of release embodied by EndTime delusions). As is the case with poets, novelists, and playwrights -- on a level deeper than our petty, fear-roiled egos will allow -- we want the world and the characters in it to surprise us.

But if the criteria of our lives become contrived, artificial, do not contain the larger (and surprising) verities of nature and the cosmos, then a crisis will occur. In children it has been termed an epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder. Bullshit -- their minds are disordered because the prevailing order is so controlled and contrived they're going bug-fuck crazy within the constraints. Even though the culture seems to exist within a creepy cult of innocence that plays out in liberal platitudes of "nurturing care-giving" or franchises of fundie Christian private schools erected to shield their youth from a Satanic secular culture, the fact remains -- day-to-day existence has been rendered empty by the rise of corporatism: a system which tacitly disallows schools to actually teach anything interesting -- because any knowledge of history, civics, literature, and science would serve to expand the student's knowledge of the larger world -- and that would be antithetical to the maintenance of the consumer paradigm.

Remember that phrase, from about twenty years ago -- "the information age"? -- Sounds very quant now, doesn't it? A proliferation of information will be of no benefit -- if people just plain don't want to know anything.

And why have people been conditioned to become so incurious? Because certain types of reality-enlarging information might cast into question the tenuous web of comforting assumptions that our families, religions, communities, and culture and country at large have constructed regarding who we are (collectively and individually) and our place in the larger world. This is why the right crusades against daring art in general and leftist ideologues insist it must be PC. And it is a factor in why art itself has been so marginalized by both elites and rubes alike in our time.

Art and the awareness of the sciences are widely available -- but they are not part of the prevailing, regressive narrative of the age. An abundance of consumer goods -- yes; a proliferation of knowledge -- no way. A feast prepared for anorexics. And this is not simply a glib analogy. Anorexia stems (initially, before the neuro-chemical criteria kicks in) from a need (like all addictions) to control anxiety...the world is vast and overwhelming and it will reject me if I'm fat. But if I can control what I eat -- I will create a perfect body for myself -- then I will find love and acceptance. And initially -- as control is maintained and pounds fall away -- a sense of anxiety-ameliorating order is achieved. And this is where the addiction occurs: dumb animals we human beings are...we repeat rewarded behavior -- even long after the benefits and praise have ended. Whether the empty sensation occurs from pounding some H, shopping in a mall, gambling in a casino, or living off of a diet of lettuce and laxatives, we replicate the act, ad infinitum. These actions serve to create an engaging narrative, give us a sense of purpose, and connect us to a larger order -- but the trouble occurs when they begin to limit our existence rather than expand it. Hence, the sad and sick age we find ourselves in. Neither dope, nor consumerism, nor religious fundamentalism can create an order large enough to reflect the larger realities of the cosmos, and a closed system results in negative entropy.

Yes John, traveling inside yourself is dangerous enough, for there's no telling who or what you'll meet there -- and what they might have to say about you. And opening oneself up to art and the sciences can serve the same purpose. But is it worth the pain and terror evoked -- if what is revealed...brings the information that your life is a compendium of lies?

We are coming upon the centennial of the death of Ibsen. Has any modern playwright, you included, come up with an answer to the question he posed in "The Wild Duck" regarding the resulting calamity caused by the sudden loss of one's illusions? What a disaster for all concerned -- even the eponymous duck ends up dead.

The Greeks, at least, the early and middle classicists, saw things in a different light. Of course, the Gods reap havoc on the lives of men -- what else do they have to do? That's what huge forces do to puny things. The weather can destroy or sustain us -- and it's the same with the gods, they believed. Only by a careful and vigilant awareness of these powerful systems can perennial tragedy be forestalled...never fully prevented. For who can hold back nature? But one can build shelter and sow crops in accordance with knowledge gained. The gods (our internal drives) and the weather (all that is beyond us -- yet that sustains us) are ultimately uncontrollable. This is what tragedians know. They spend their lives attempting to find ways of breaking the news to the rest of us.

Had any ideas lately as to how, John?





The question of inner lives is important. There is a both a loss of inward looking, and a loss of outward looking. I see people staring at their cell phones, at the SMS messages, and never noticing anything of what is around them. How can a cell phone screen be more interesting than the world around you? Looking inward means contemplation and quiet -- and this is just anathema to the modern consumer psyche...and here it's on both the left and right. So much of the left is either rigid and without humor or a sense of play, or just PC, or it's authoritarian. On the right you have the endless delusions of superiority, sex hysteria, and the disfigured moral and ethical features of folks like Cheney and Rumsfeld...and well, Kerry. I see where Warren Beatty, he the iconic Democrat, was at an awards dinner for Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee...attended by Dubya and his somnambulant heavily medicated wife. The elite carry on, never mind the contradictions. Little matters like the Iraq war shouldn't interfere with a good brie and Chablis night out. So, the ethical and moral maps of our universe are sort of forgotten. I'm glad you mentioned children here, as this culture can do nothing right in terms of raising its young. The liberal vomit of "quality time" and words like "parenting" (this noun into a verb policy, ugh) is just astounding and so destructive. On the other side you have the punishing father and the template of authoritarian male role models and fear as a weapon of control. Children internalize all this at a very young age, and they spend the next six decades trying to unravel the mysteries of their anxiety and confusion. Restaurants conduct tests to determine which colors make you want to eat quickly (I'm told its red and purple) and what kind of lighting to use, and where to place clocks, etc. All is about control, all is about domination. The artists of today tend toward the ahistorical and to have ignored the larger Universe around them. I get this sense of smallness and boredom...that identification is what matters (gee, I told my girlfriend that same thing once...I can relate to that character). Genet once said identification is the lowest form of appreciation...and here is where so much of how art is taught goes totally wrong. Sophocles isn't about identification, neither is Shakespeare, nor is Beckett or Dostoyevsky. The interpretations are always reductive and about the small aspects of the work, not the bigger or metaphysical dimensions. Why? Because they are a problem in terms of our bad science model...the model of technology as a solution, the ersatz-rational...the consumer/marketer must have a simple message, and that message must not imply anything bigger or anything illusive. If it can't be easily defined (I recall so many Hollywood pitch meetings..."tell me your idea in two sentences"...what if they asked that of Shakespeare?) then it won't sell.

I saw a short news documentary on some Mafia hit man who was turning state's evidence after getting snitched off himself. He was interviewed and was quite charming. Then we had interviews with the DA team, and they were button downed and shut down and tight sphinctered and just horrible. I thought to myself, well, who would I rather have dinner with? The answer was the killer. At least he was alive. The DA was already dead. This is the culture of deadness. Emotional deadness and intellectual deadness. Dick Cheney is a zombie. Literally. Rumsfeld is a zombie three times over. Wolfowitz and Rice...zombies. Kerry and Edwards...zombies. All fucking zombies. Night of the living dead....right here in River City. When one thinks of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a cold war McCarthy era fable, one realizes the truth of that allegory actually went much deeper than just a HUAC metaphor. Brecht sensed this, as did many...but somehow the reality of all that got lost. Artists are afraid now because they are mostly careerists. They want tenure or they want to keep getting produced and published. It's a very pathetic spectacle, actually. The idea of artists in opposition is what...? Bono for fuck sake...or Jenny Garafalo...Sean fucking Penn or dopey Tim Robbins. Give me a break. Tony Kushner? Toni Morrison? They owe too much...they have too much to lose. Fear is rampant. I understand it, believe me, but it's still rather pathetic. I was told, not too long ago, to stop losing my temper when someone (a producer or agent) fucked me over. I thought that was pretty amusing, really. The "rational" response was to let yourself get kicked. Bark like a dog...fetch...return the ball, and sit. Amazing.

Your anorexic metaphor is pretty right on too. It's a fear of pleasure. Eat low fat, low taste, non-food...because it's good for you? No, because you will experience nothing. Skinny is sexy...big isn't. Super model skinny...I mean talk about having to sell an image. Never before in any culture has such a bizarre image of beauty been marketed as the ideal. Naomi Campbell? But see, you're right, it's more control. It is also, in this addictive age...and I know rather a lot about this one...about anxiety...anxiety rules all experience. Different people deal with anxiety in different ways. Opiates, alcohol, coke, all of it is to keep the demons of self-awareness at bay. Actually, taking drugs is a reasonably rational response to the insanity of this society. I remember well the questions of well-meaning health practitioners in those many re-hab centers I frequented...under court order. Why are you doing this to yourself? they would ask. My answer was to ask them what alternative they had for me? Minimum wage jobs of some sort? Homelessness? What? If not slavery, then madness (as I think maybe Artaud put it).

Art, in today's world, is more and more about hiding. It isn't about opening up, or searching. It's about hiding. Not examining the hidden or mysterious...but about simple scared cowering in the corner. You mentioned the Greeks, and I think more and more of Sophocles and Euripides...of Aeschylus...and how they embraced the darkness they saw in the heart of mankind. The festering anger and resentment, the lust for destruction and the malignant forces of our shadow selves. This is the dialectic they found with the gods. This is why we still read them. They asked how man can continue living, knowing his heart is black and fetid. They provided no answers, but they knew that to pretend all was well, that everything was hunky-dory and that we are good and moral and want to spread democracy and peace was a way to go mad. Denial is madness at a certain point. This culture is totally mad, totally. When one is lied to endlessly, it starts to not seem like a lie. When one lies to oneself, it starts to get easy. Lies, truth...same thing. The Post modern model of relativism...nothing much matters. Cretins like Stanley Fish somehow are not laughed off campus...and the reason is, probably, that this kind of sophistry is exactly right for the mediated mind of our modern robot. One experience is just like another, and Shakespeare is just like Barbara Cartland, and Gilligan's Island is actually the new Molière. Right. And peace is war, and occupation is liberation. And for the sake of peace we must disarm Saddam...never mind we armed him in the first place, and then disarmed him already...but who cares, it sounds good and it's good copy, and that's my story and I'm sticking to it. In modern philosophy there is seldom a sense of quest, or reaching for what is beyond, of looking for something we have not labeled already. It often feels closed off, professional and safe, and very specialized. Sociology journals, and psychology journals, and philosophy journals are all read by other specialists, not by the general public. Not by public intellectuals. So, one might ask, what is the point of this writing? I don't know honestly. I guess it helps with tenure. Now the teaching of creativity is really a strange one. Post grad writing programs and art schools and film schools (and I teach at a film school, mind you) seem to really not know what they are doing, mostly because I suspect the professors have no real idea of what art is supposed to mean to our culture. What does society expect of its artists? Perhaps because the lies and denial are so extreme, and the conditioning to consume so great, the average citizen simply cannot look at something that really questions the assumptions of this bullshit. If they did the entire scaffolding of thought control would be revealed like a weird X-ray -- like that John Carpenter film where if you put on these certain sunglasses you could see the reality. Lizard-like aliens were controlling the planet. Well, that's what we have...alien reptiles...Dick Cheney, George Soros, Tony Blair, Aznar, Chirac, Sharon, Bush, the folks at the IMF and World Bank, those at Bildenberg and other economic summits...aliens and zombies. Put away those reality ray-bans and return to Star Search, The O'Reilly Factor, and Friends. This culture is on the edge, and it's teetering. Ricky Williams, former Heisman winner, just did 60 Minutes. I didn't see it (I no longer own a TV) but I read about it. His quitting a 5 million dollar a year job and taking up the study of Ayurvedic healing was laughed at and ridiculed by Mike Wallace. Would Wallace make fun of Pat Tillman? He quit his millions a year football job to go fight a colonial war and got himself shot. Dead. Interesting how the corporate media must make a hero of Tillman, and a joke of Williams. The joke is on the Tillmans of this world, not the Ricky Williams. Ricky sounds happy and quite sane, and is alive.

In Falluja we have total domination. Total occupation. In the U.S. we have that same model executed in a more insidious fashion, but the goal is the same. Control the populace because it means a stable market. In the U.S. poverty is on the rise and the suffering of the poor is ever more obvious -- and yet it seems so little art shows any class awareness or understanding of these dynamics. Of this I have no exact explanation...none that satisfies me anyway.





Odd coincidence: I was thinking of cell phones and Aeschylus, on and off, all day. I had not connected the two, mind you...until your missive.

You're right, John -- cell phones make the world before you disappear... 

[Read the second part of this conversation.]

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Art & Culture on Swans


About the Author

Phil Rockstroh on Swans (with bio).
John Steppling on Swans (with bio).



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling 2005. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

Working With Havel - by Charles Marowitz

Tsunami Relief: A Study In Hypocrisy - by Joe Davison

God And Country - by Manuel García, Jr.

The Insurgent Word: Bring It On? - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Don Lee's Country of Origin - Book Review by Milo Clark

Instructive Quotations - Dossier: Behind the Israeli Propaganda

The Dumb Prophet: An Allegory of Intelligence - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Blips #10 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/prjs01.html
Published January 17, 2005