Monthly Archives: August 2014
‘Looking for the cause of this historical lightning crack in the ceiling of sanity is difficult’
Just recently the New York Review of Books newsletter arrived at my Inbox, and in it is a blog piece called “Portable Hell,” by my favorite poet, Charles Simic, who writes about the effects of our infernal current events and sums up my outlook succinctly with, “The world is going to hell in a hurry. At my age, I ought to be used to it, but I’m not.”
Because no matter whether you were raised reading the People’s History of the world or the Conqueror’s, the distilled point of their synthesis drips bleak, bleak, bleak like the slow water torture of historical consciousness applied ever-so-subtly to human memory.
But the subject at hand is dystopia. To dystope or not to dystope. To diss hope or not to diss hope. I ought to be used to it.
When I was in my late teens, ever hung over from the frightful social turmoils of the late ’60s and early ’70s, like many young geeklings I escaped into literature, hoping to read my way out of impending disaster. I started out by reading the usual suspects — Steinbeck, Hemingway, Roth and Flannery O’Connor — but they quickly reminded me of the colossal wreck of Pax Americana, and deepened my worries about the human condition. So I moved on to other lits — European poetry and novels, biographies of composers, scientific works, art and astrology, before finally tripping over C.S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet) and discovering with great astonishment the worlds of endless possibilities that speculative and science fiction posed.
I read a lot of sci-fi; I liked imagining how new technologies and humanity could evolve together; or I simply mooned over the far future of our species, as you do with, say, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. But most of all I was attracted to dystopic fiction from the start, maybe because the world seemed like such a disaster, while at the same time I was young and needed to understand what had gone wrong and envision how it could be fixed. And for whatever reason, the dystopia that captured my imagination then, and remains a favourite to this day, was George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides.
I’m not sure what attracted me specifically to that book, although I suspect it was the title, which reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and, in fact, both titles are derived from the same line in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
Over the years this line from the Bible has affected me more than any other, as it so straightforwardly implies that humans are not the be-all, end-all of Creation, and that Being goes on without us. Considering the source, this deeply resonating chord struck me as subversive, and I’m sure influenced my later decision to major in philosophy at university.
Strictly speaking, Earth Abides is not simply dystopic but, more, post-apocalyptic. Often dystopias present systems turned into nightmares but still functioning on some level. But with post-apocalyptic lit, all systems are down, and even the assumptions left over in the heads of survivors are smoky rhetorical question marks. Human certainty ceases, although the sun continues to rise and set regardless.
I also tinkered with dystopic fictional ideas, too. I’m sure, in my mind, that I was one of the first to invent a machine that allowed a psychiatrist to enter, like a knight, a patient’s dreams and literally battle the patient’s fears; or allow an agent to enter a sleeping person’s mind and seed designs and motives that would influence their waking behavior.
But that machine is now real; and the film Inception stole my dreams and erased any desire to sue them for copyright molestations. I was sure that I was the first to see domed cities in space comprised of solar paneling, providing endless energy to mad hippies cultivating massive jungles of seriously potent mayjay, which sounds good, until the ventilation system breaks down, and recycled smoke kicks in, and mates start looking like good little munchies to each other, and all that’s left when the smoke finally clears is happy leafery, rather greener now for all the extra human fertilizer plumping up their cell walls.
Yes, invariably, I’d discover that one of the hundreds of sci-fi writers out there had, in one of the dozens of books each had written, already covered the idea and there wasn’t much point in continuing to develop it. (Although I’m reasonably certain that no one else has thought of those spliff trees and cannabis clouds yet.)
Lots of people were reading and writing sci-fi and dystopias from the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, through to the moment of Star Wars in 1984 (natch), when US President Ronald Reagan forgot to turn his mike off after a speech and drolly uttered, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” (My, how times have changed.)
Remarks made so much more comical by the fact that the world was gripped then by the absolute terror of an impending nuclear war, as evidenced by the US broadcast of the nuclear war film The Day After just 6 months prior and BBC’s Threads, perhaps the darkest film on the subject ever made, about to be broadcast in Britain.
But that’s the thing about these dystopias: At some point, perhaps when Reagan gaffed, people seemed to realize that a world that could spend billions of dollars on a Star Wars system was explicitly preparing for a nuclear exchange of fire, and that whatever didactic power dystopias might have had –admonishing, pleading, painting the world black as visceral symbolism – they’d lost whatever momentum they might have had in preventing the world from going mad.
Like the more recent happy tittering of the White House press corps after Barack Obama made a joke about killing with his favorite weapon of war, the remote-controlled drone, there was no shock and horror, no jaws dropped to the plush-carpeted floor, instead the amused ears lifted champagne glasses and saluted His Majesty’s murderous mirth.
The fact of the matter is we live in world that is substantially over-populated, with longer life expectancies (even in the Third World), requiring ever more resources, leading to ever more drilling, mining and consumption, which results in ever more toxic pollution, and has led humans to the very edge of cataclysmic climate change, bringing with it melting polar ice caps, tsunamis, earthquakes, monster storms, and the catastrophic decline of the bee populations, rain forests and coral reefs.
Instead of reading dystopias now, there are ample samples of our living nightmare — described in the pages of such contemporary sober and rational non-fiction works as The World Without Us, The Sixth Extinction, and the resurgence of Rachel Carson’s prophetic classic, Silent Spring.
Looking for the cause of this historical lightning crack in the ceiling of sanity is difficult, not least of all because we are still in the moment, “the wheel’s still in spin,” as the Dylan lyric goes. But the crack is there. Another book I’ve come across lately is one by two psychiatrist brothers, Daniel and Jason Freeman, titled Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear, which argues that paranoia is widespread now, affecting as many as a quarter of the population, and “the days when paranoia could be written off as a meaningless sign of insanity are long gone … because paranoia is centre stage in our culture and in our individual lives.” Big Brother is, by definition, out to get us.
The ruminating philosopher in me is tempted to locate the decisive crack of lightning and peal of madhouse thunder at that historical point when the western world’s evolution from tenets of the Enlightenment led to structuralism and a sense of scientific certainty and its attendant idealism for human futures — only to be jig-sawed and relativized by the powerful deconstructive tools of post-modernist thinking.
In science, Thomas Kuhn argued that the truths of scientific outcomes were partially related to the working paradigm of the day; what you observed was changed by the observation itself. The value of the Canon and of Grand Narratives in literature was a value controlled by an academic elite with their own vested interests and agendas to protect. The great motifs of the First World’s enlightened political philosophy — liberty, democracy, equal opportunity, assorted bills of rights — were largely fantasies of assumed power, which, when examined more closely, dissolved from a peaceable kingdom into a frame filled with raw jungle hungers.
This is not a knock on post-modernism, which has made so much social and aesthetic progress possible in the last half-century, but it does point to a naive set of assumptions that neglected to account for the sure surfeit of sociopaths who lay in wait for soft, succulent humanists everywhere. No, post-mod’s promised landscapes of freedom, its liberating relativism that says there are no grand narratives, no essential humanity really, no transcendent function toward which we must strive into the future as One People, is also the same liberating process unleashed for warriors with their ‘humanitarian’ interventions with cluster bombs, for politicians to shed what little shame and fear they had about their lies, for Wall Street brokers to party hearty in the snorkle trough.
You can see this wild maelstrom quietly at work in Thomas Keenan’s Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy. In this relatively short book, the long-time technologist Keenan doesn’t so much argue as demonstrate how we have practically reached the point of the so-called Singularity, that evolutionary stage at which machines and humans begin to merge, synthesize, if you will, with the ramifications impossible to predict.
In one area of human activity after another, with example after example, Keenan lays out a future that is now, even if it will be too late to avoid its consequences once we come to full consciousness of this new paradigm shift. As President Obama might have said, with a smile, were he a technologist: We are the dystopia we’ve been waiting for.
Keenan especially focuses on the role of the US Defense Department’s research and development arm, DARPA, and their seemingly unlimited budget to bring into the world all manner of deviant technologies, from halitosis and gay bombs, tractor beams and invisibility blankets, eugenics, and an assorted sordid toolkit of subterfuge, always with a Caligula-esque mirth for the destruction to be wrought.
In one section he calls Robot Creep, Keenan demonstrates DARPA’s key role in future robotics, which DARPA plans not for the betterment of civilization but as proxy battlefield soldiers who can endure more than humans and don’t break down as much. Keenan describes how the military sees the use of autonomous robots: “We might even get to the stage anticipated by science fiction writers where countries in conflict simply duke it out in cyberspace to see who would win, based on mathematical models, and then the proper number of citizens on each side are executed in the settling up. It would be an efficient if chilling way to handle disputes with our neighbours.”
Again, it should be worrisome that the first thought out of the box is how these things can be used to kill more efficiently, but, again, that is the naivety of a humanist on display.
However, it doesn’t end there. Keenan goes on to describe future bordellos filled with picture-perfect robo-prozzies with the clear advantage of being indefatigable (and more cost effective).
In a chilling empowerment of kids with magnifying glasses out looking for creatures to fry, Keenan describes new kits that have come to market that allow kids to hack the nervous system of insects with their smartphones. Maybe it won’t seem so unnatural to them when the technique eventually transfers over to hacking ‘terrorists,’ the definition a moveable feast of lingo. (I vote: people who insincerely employ the word ‘empathy’ too much. They must learn to suffer with quiet desperation like the rest of us.).
Most people probably know by now that the planet’s honeybee colonies are collapsing, an event with profound consequences not only for humans but other life forms on the planet as well, and although no one has been able to absolutely pin the blame on GMO giant Monsanto, they are certainly implicated.
But never fear, say techno-cats, no problem, because robo-bees are on the way and they will take over for their live falling comrades. For a price, of course. And lots of contractors want mileage included, so we may need to hire some lay-about bees to keep the costs down.
We are, indeed, the dystopia we’ve been waiting for. So, why write dystopias when we live in one?
Well, actually, that’s easy. Let’s start with myself, because like the passenger on a decompressing plane going down, who needs to take care of himself first in the emergency, if he wants to save others, I sometimes have buoyant, upbeat thoughts, and when I think them they are beautiful as picture cards from Paradise or like those deep space views of the Christmas tree ornament cosmos. (Blow it up and see!) They make me want to live some more.
Second, my family, who take me out of myself, not only with their own needs and requirements, but with their genuine smiles and the connective tissues of their love that bind our ultimately separate destinies.
Third, it’s still green out there, life still surges in its lyrical impetuosity through the countless roots and veins and branchings of Being, Earth abides, and the sun also rises.
Fourth, we are one benign global catastrophe away from a possible reprieve, a solar flare, say, that wipes out world electricity and gets us off the internet arses altogether, and knocks down the surveillance state in one fell swoop. Forcing us to gather again in human commons and listen to each other face-to-face, and negotiate as sisters and brothers in need of wisdom. It’s called hope, and it’s the only real Utopia we’ve ever had or will ever need.
Indeed, I have enough hope to close by saying I am right now working on a dystopic novel that has the one saving grace of assuming that we will get past our current troubles. I’m just anticipating the next disastrous confrontation. That, too, is a product of hope.
Richard Nixon’s legacy is more alive and well than it should be
Though Henry Kissinger has put his knee pads back in the prayer closet, Alexander Haig has gone back to being “in charge” of pushing up his daisies, my friend Dave has finally put away his National Lampoon Missing White House Tapes album (Lemmings was better), and old Daniel Ellsberg has put down his party kazoo and gone back to supporting the plight of embattled New York Times journalist James Risen full time, the 40th anniversary celebration of President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s jowly resignation from office on August 8, 1974, has ended all too abruptly for my taste.
So, forgive me if I linger just a little longer over President Paranoid’s demise, and briefly consider what happened in the bracketed historical period After Dick, and discuss where we are today, politically speaking.
Even though America commenced to embrace the healing process necessary to restore confidence in the integrity of the world’s premiere Democratic Republican system just as soon as Nixon boarded that helicopter holding up his Double Vs, it didn’t start out well, for sure, what with new president Gerald Ford’s first order of business being the pardon of the eminently and imminently impeachable president for war criminality abroad and blatant treason at home.
Though the laundry cleansing had actually begun with the Congressional passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, significant reform didn’t seem fully on its way until Frank Church’s Senate hearings of 1975/76 resulted in intensive scrutiny of the extensive “dirty tricks” played by the CIA, NSA and FBI in implementing executive office criminality and in pursuing their own extra-constitutional agendas over a long period of time. The very fearful excesses they engage in now were activities they were engaged in back then as well.
On a 1975 Meet the Press segment, Church cited the breathtaking technological capabilities that US intelligence agencies possessed – even then – and warned that, such were their capabilities, that there would be “nowhere to hide” should those agencies turn their powers on Americans. He added, “If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back…all agencies that possess this technology [must] operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss…from which there is no return.”
The hearings resulted in the creation of the FISA court in 1978. But neither the War Powers Act nor FISA could hold back the siren call of unbridled power.
In his 1983 Atlantic piece, “The Pardon,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recounts the general buzz of potential tyranny in the air around the White House in Nixon’s closing days: “The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.”
Hersh implies that the instigating force of such a potential military coup had come from Nixon’s chief of staff, General Alexander Haig, who had at one point, in the closing days, suggested the possibility of bringing in the 82nd Airborne to surround the White House, ostensibly to protect a worried Nixon.
Hersh recounts a variety of disturbing encounters. In an interview with an unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs, the four-star general told Hersh that in December 1973, when Nixon could see the writing on the wall, “He kept on referring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. He kept saying, ‘This is our last and best hope. The last chance to resist the fascists [of the left].’ His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the President, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”
Nixon’s secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, was so shaken by the possibility of a coup by the unstable president, writes Hersh, that he called meetings with high-ranking Pentagon personnel to secure assurances from them that no extra-constitutional support would be forthcoming should the Commander-in-Chief go that way.
But brutal military coups are hard to pull off and maintain in a nation prepared to fight back against tyranny. But there’s more than one way to skin a catfish, as Mark Twain never said, and the most effective way to achieve the same goal softly would be by getting the People to voluntarily coup themselves.
Beginning in 2000, let’s just say, an unusual array of indisputable facts came together to give the neo-cons just what they dreamed about in their PNAC manifesto, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which is actually an offensive policy of global interventionism. This American Enterprise think tank report came out two months before Bush stole the 2000 presidential election, and the manifesto’s wistful sigh – such dreams won’t soon come true “absent a new Pearl harbor” — were magically answered a year later, when repeated warnings of an impending attack were ignored in the White House, which, at least indirectly, led to the events of 9 Eleven.
By September 12, 2001, America (and her terrified allies) were ready to respond to any order the burning Bush barked. And the president said to the world, effectively, “You’re either fer us or agin us, and we’re comin ta git all the baddies, however long that takes, which will be forever, because ‘baddies’ will mean whatever we say it means on any given day forever.” And Dick “Dark Shadows” Cheney took off his gloves. And Karl Rove said, “We’re an Empire now.”
And then came the PATRIOT Act, essentially the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act on steroids, with the Bill of Rights thrown out. No more War Powers worries. No more FISA inconveniences. Out the window probable cause. Here comes police state secrecy, illegal willy-nilly wars in foreign lands, comprehensive eavesdropping without accountability or just cause, torture, murder, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Robert Bales, Raymond Davies, black sites, journalists shot or jailed, drone strikes on Americans and helpless children, and the prosecution of anyone who leaks truths. Fergusons will become more frequent. Welcome to the New American Century.
Most Americans, even Republicans, were glad to see the Bush era go, and gladly signed on to first African-American President Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, and repeated his mantra, “Yes, we can.” But as all but the wilfully blind see now, Obama is just one more tyrannical liar, but one who blatantly takes executive office excesses far beyond anything Bush would have dared to try.
Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report has accurately described him as “the more effective evil,” because Obama has taught the Left to accept the real politik of the killing fields of power and urged Democrats to join hands with right-wing ideologues and sing Kumbaya from the twisted recesses of Dante’s Inferno.
Easily the single greatest sign of the executive power’s over-reach is the ease with which the Justice Department signed into effect Obama’s justification for killing an American citizen abroad without due process.
In the aptly titled, “7 Pages That Gave President Obama Cover to Kill Americans,” Conor Friedersdorf of Atlantic Monthly shows how the memo weakens the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and he writes, “As that length suggests, the memo, which could have resulted in a human’s death at any moment, was woefully incomplete as a legal analysis.” It is not merely ironical that the weak memo served the machinations of a Harvard-schooled constitutional scholar, it’s terrifying in its implications.
And if the Morbidly Obese Lady isn’t singing it’s only because her high blood pressure pills have knocked her out on the sofa.
There’s more than one way to skin a catfish.
Lots of people when they think of journalism have in mind the mum-and-pop variety — car crashes and the latest gossip, local politics, sports, all the little details about “the time the doorknob broke,” to trot out an old Bob Dylan lyric. A step up from this layer of short and punchy news bits is that more ‘literate’ class of journalism traditionally associated with the New York Times and Washington Post, the so-called newspapers of record, which publish only the most polished, scrupulous pieces by the most ethical journalists. Or so the story goes.
But there is a third layer, the most important one, compared to which all other reportage is mere puff piecework, and this reified sphere is known as investigative journalism, often occupied by paunchy supermen and lithe linguists, such as Benjamin Franklin, H. L. Mencken, Martha Gellhorn, Jack Anderson, George Washington Williams, Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson (if you quick-toke a doobie, this example will seem more obvious), Mike Tabibi, and even Ernest Hemingway – the list is long and legendary. What sets their work apart is its adversarial engagement, the refusal to take things at face value or as laid out by the spokespeople for the rich and powerful, the relentless willingness to dig deeper and deeper until the truth is exposed.
Such investigative journalists are the vanguard of the so-called Fourth Estate, bearing the formidable task of watchdogging the other three estates – the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative – to ensure that they remain ‘checks and balances’ to each other in their assigned constitutional tasks of maintaining the Democratic Republic’s integrity and vibrancy. While such journalists are often associated with a ‘paper of record’, their work is so crucial that sometimes some separation even from their publisher is necessary, since publications are owned, and owners have political agendas, and those agendas may conflict with the findings of deep journalism. Recall, for instance, the New York Time’s decision to hold back, on the brink of the November 2004 presidential election, an explosive investigatory report on the Bush administration’s use of the NSA for warrantless domestic wiretapping (shocking revelations that beat Snowden’s by years) – a delay with serious repercussions for the Times’ reputation.
Prior to Glenn Greenwald’s in-depth journalistic interpretation and analysis of Edward Snowden’s raw NSA revelations last year, undoubtedly the most significant investigative journalism in US history came with the publication and analysis of the Pentagon Papers, released to the press by ex-Rand analyst Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971. Of the three branches of government, the Executive is the one that requires the most watchdogging because it is the branch wherein a single individual – the president – has a disproportionate and unilateral power at his disposal, compared to the Judiciary and Legislative, where decisions must come as the result of conference and consensus. The president can potentially become another form of king, if not checked. What the Pentagon Papers uncovered was the history of America’s secret presidential war-mongering in Viet Nam, beginning with the Eisenhower administration down through Nixon’s utterly corrupt regime – a history of unilateral and illegal foreign policy decision-making that by-passed Congress and the people they represent.
This is not merely academic or specious. It seems that very few people recall now that when the chips were down for Nixon, he was actively considering a military coup to stay in office. As legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in a long-form piece for the Atlantic in 1983,
The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.
Nixon’s Kool-Aid drinking (and secret bombing) buddy, Henry Kissinger, had once said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” which would suggest that in the end the jowly president was akin to Onan the Barbarian.
This is the kind of outcome that makes the ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” so dangerous to global democracy and liberty, especially as its execution is melded to the most comprehensive and intrusive state surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen – an eavesdropping system designed to not only ostensibly catch ‘terrorists’ before they act, but to treat all citizens everywhere as potential suspects, but especially policy dissenters and journalists who might look into the hidden agenda and expose Administrative (which is to say, Executive office) lies and corruption, with their clear and present danger to the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. In this respect, many people regard the Obama administration as a far greater threat to constitutional stability than Nixon ever got to be. Indeed, there are some who would argue that we currently live under a military coup, given that even our privacy has been militarized (and/or corporatized).
Consequently, it is no small deal that the Obama administration is trying to force James Risen, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times, to divulge his sourcefor the revelation that the CIA attempted to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility by planting false blueprints through a double agent, which is an act of war and a crime. But Risen and his source have been under surveillance for a considerable period of time, and, given the comprehensive nature of the national surveillance dragnet, they almost certainly already know who Risen’s source is and could proceed with prosecuting him without the reporter’s testimony. But Risen has a family, and together they have a life, and Obama is hope a-dopin’ that Risen will cave in under the weight of what he’ll lose and will acknowledge who his source was. And so he waits, now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear his case, to see whether Obama’s Justice Department will have him jailed for contempt or, perhaps worse, fine him into penury.
That’s why Daniel Ellsberg has come out in defense of Risen. As was the case when he released the Pentagon Papers, this is yet another attempt to codify Executive secrecy in defiance of the Constitution. As Ellsberg told the ACLU,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
But Eric Holden, whose Justice Department would oversee Risen’s imprisonment on contempt charges has told confidantes that no reporter would be jailed “as long as he was attorney general,” which sounds almost heartening until you remember back to how many people resigned or were fired during Nixon’s long demise.
However, even if the Obama administration lets Risen off the hook, the message has already gotten out to potential leakers and whistleblowers that this president will destroy anyone who reveals the lies and strategies of the Executive and his MIC handlers. As New York Times investigative reporter Scott Shane – the journalist whose piece on illegal NSA wiretapping was pulled before the November 2004 election – told the Committee to Protect Journalists:
“I think we have a real problem. Most people are deterred by those leaks prosecutions. They’re scared to death. There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.”
So, again, it would be optimum for Risen to crack and sing; that would have a quick, decisive and probably irreversible chill on future investigative journalism, but the Obama administration, or the next one (these precedents get passed on) can still get the effect they require by scaring the bejeezuz out of leakers. Not only must the Obama administration be stopped, but there needs to be some Bastille-storming, followed by the roll of fat political heads down the red carpet, in order for this systematic en-Gaza-ment of the world to be reversed.
And there may be nations out there, maybe even ‘friendly’ ones, rubbing their collective hands in either schadenfreude or in their own Machiavellian anticipation of purges to come. As goes American democracy, so goes the world – call it American Inclusionism. Certainly Europeans are not immune. The Czech Republic, to take a free-thinking European example, while enjoying a high rating for freedom of the press from Reporters Without Borders (currently ranked 13, just ahead of Germany), was also regarded according to a Gallup poll as having one of the most corrupt governments (94% of Czech respondents regarded their government as corrupt, second in the world behind only Tanzania). Such corruption is all that’s required to turn-key a free press into one that is critically constrained. And as the Gallup poll suggests, there’s plenty of corruption to go around: eventually capitalism doth make cowards of us all, it seems.
No doubt the so-called War on Terror will one day end. All wars end eventually; even wars conducted against an abstract noun. In this case you might have more luck guessing than normal. Look for a cease-and-desist just as soon as Syria and Iran are seized, their gas and oil accounted for; Afghanistan has been made safe for the TAPpipeline, which energy execs hope will run through Iran to the Persian –er, Arabian –Gulf; the Russians and Chinese have been neo-liberated, with Putin piked, Snowden rendered, the Great Wall: keychains; and two secretly negotiated sovereignty-crushing treaties – the TTPT and the Trans-Atlantic trade deal – are installed, along with the dissolution of net neutrality. Then, suddenly, the Apollonian sun will rise and shine once more, the doves will chirp like vultures of leathery love, and Walmarts will hold a 3-day only sale of Google Glasses (don’t be seen without them).
There will always be nuts-and-bolts journalism about the time the doorknob broke. It’s safe; no power is threatened. Obama will be free to tell his updated jokes about drone strikes to the White House press corps, perhaps adding colourful descriptions of cluster munitions ballet, and they will laugh, as they always do, champagne in hand, all excited for a future as crazy as they all are.
Imagine: You leave your house for work and the light sensor over your door records the time and snaps a picture. You hop into your car and before it will start a quick substance-abuse check is performed as you hold the steering wheel. Once you’re allowed to drive, your car’s “black box” records your speed and braking habits, and sends a graph to police analysts and your insurance company. Your car and Android pass on your GPS coordinates to some unknown Authority and to Google, who turns around and sells the information to target marketers. At a traffic light your licence plate is recorded, along with a thermal image showing how many passengers are in the car. In addition, an unseen drone overhead zooms in your face and reads its mood and ‘tone’ and matches it up against that day’s ‘known threat types’ in a disposition matrix. Still sitting at the light, you look left to see a teen in the next car wearing Google Glasses and recording your face; indeed, a few moments later, Instagram notifies you that your expression has been entered in a daily polling contest and already has 5 up-thumbs. Your car radio senses your rising anxiety and begins playing some easy listening tunes to calm you. Dread of work begins to envelop you—having to face the eye scanner to enter the building and the finger-print scanner to log on to your PC, and where you’ll be careful of how you answer emails, extra conscious of how you speak on phones, afraid to use the coffee machine, because it counts your cups and sends stats off to a work productivity study with unknown ramifications. And the coworker in the cubicle opposite you keeps flashing you a proud new prosthetic vagina that was extruded from a 3D printer at home. You decide to call in a sickie and turn the car around. Sensors and alarms go off. Your car questions your move. An app pops up on your Android and scans your features. You make it home, the light sensor recording your return, alone. You go into the kitchen and the fridge immediately calls out that ‘milk is low’ and your open laptop has a pop-up list of items needing replenishing that your fridge has passed on. You piss and the toilet tells you how many blue flushes are left. You take to bed and curl up in the foetal position, your blanket warming to an ‘optimal soothe’. Your bedroom lights read your distress and come on and a floating voice asks you over and over if you are okay, while simultaneously passing the moments on to your insurer, which immediately alerts a counsellor, whose voice in the room now says you need to spend more and sends you a scrip for Valium and a set of discount coupons that you hear arrive in your Inbox with a mystical ding…
Once upon a time this vision qualified as dystopic and its message cautionary. But as Thomas P. Keenan makes clear in Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy, we have entered a new Kuhnian paradigm that doesn’t necessarily include a future for the human species—at least as we know it. As Keenan puts it, the digitalization of humanity is now as unstoppable as climate change. Its impact can be reduced with certain uncomfortable adjustments, but the lag in any collective action will make it utterly reactionary and useless.
Keenan lays out the evidence calmly, methodically and without polemics: he lets the evidence speak for itself. This is not to say the book is devoid of humour—far from it! But his wit, like his politics, takes a back seat to the civil and civic-minded purpose of his endeavor. In 15 separate but related areas of human activity, Keenan provides examples of the way technology is bleeding over into the very essence of human life. He makes a convincing case that humans’ capitulation to the Machine has been, like the switch of data transmission from analog to digital, welcome, blind and unstoppable. And we have been hurtling along ever faster since.
Thomas Keenan is himself a lifelong technologist, with roots in the birth of modern computing in the 1950s, so his understanding of the current landscape carries the weight of developmental insights. He expresses his thesis more as a set of observations than as a theoretical proposition. He begins by stating his purpose:
So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us.
Far from warning the reader about the imminent doom, a la Orson Welles’ infamous Martian Invasion radio broadcast, Keenan assumes an intelligent readership and presents his case in a provocative but personal manner. “This book,” he writes, “is about the unseen ways in which technology is already changing our lives.”
Then we come to technology and what is ‘creepy’ about it. The term ‘creepy’ is popularly associated with dark sexual auras that play on one’s fears, but Keenan has a more nuanced take, likening it to what Freud describes as “The “Uncanny.” In his essay by the same name, Freud describes “a quality of feeling” and “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” a world of ‘doubles’ shadows and the occult, or what Julia Kristeva calls the magical realm of the ‘semiotic’ that precedes object-relations and the ‘symbolic’; the realm of the infantile. The ‘creepy’ seems to activate the ‘uncanny’ presence of that archaic realm of doubles, of objects brought to life by the mechanisms of desire.
Thomas P. Keenan
What follows in Keenan’s book is a grand parade of creepiness: Intelligence Creep, in which ‘the line between machine and human thinking is blurring’ and we are confronted with the unsettling experience of an object exhibiting realistic human behaviour; Camera Creep—whether thermal imaging that can ‘see’ through buildings and surveillance systems to thwart terrorism is being co-opted by commercial interests; Image Creep, whereby ‘your face is becoming a key that unlocks a vast amount of personal information about you’; Sensor Creep, with its Internet of Things that conspire to anticipate (your) needs and desires; Tracking Creep, with its ubiquitous RFID chips and real time bidding by corporates for ‘access to your eyeballs’; Sensation Creep, with its Pavlovian popcorn piped in to make you desire; Bio Creep, with its DNA profiling and databasing; Body Creep, with its fingerprint scanners and promise of coming-soon ‘software-based humans’; Time Creep, such as the time-lining of one’s everyday existence so that every moment is accounted for; Government Creep, not only with mass surveillance but with the manipulation of collected data for political purposes; Deception Creep, wherein language is drained of meaning and ‘you never really know who or what to believe anymore’; Physible Creep, as with 3D printers which imply that ‘now, within reason, anything can be anything else; Child Creep, where overexposure to the Internet is destroying the privacy of childhood; Pet Creep, where cosmetic testicles help repair the damage done a pet’s spayed ego; and, Robot Creep, whether allowing kids to hack the nervous systems of ants or robotic sex workers replacing human prostitutes.
What is most cause for concern in the area of Intelligence Creep, where quantum and neural network technologies abound, is that despite still requiring human sequential input the “apparent paradox is that many computer programs have already surpassed the comprehension of any one human mind.” It should be clear that such paradoxes represent a real danger, once you get past the euphoria of Geek bliss and narcissism. For such programs are capable of locking us out of key systems we put them in charge of overseeing.
With Image Creep it is as if the predatory male gaze, which has offended and objectified people for millennia, has suddenly run amok—as if, in Freudian terms, the ego had been universally subsumed by the super-ego, leaving no middle ground between the id’s chaos and the super-ego’s authority. It begins with Google Glass, says Keenan, with everyone recording everyone else and all of it stored, tracked and analyzed by forces inimical to freedom and privacy. So advanced is facial recognition software that, when combined with a technology like Google Glass, one can expect “that you will soon be able to point smartphones at someone and learn quite a bit about them in real time.” This likelihood has already spawned a counter-industry in ‘facial weaponization’. One company, Realtime Glamofage, “helps people create masks with weirdly-morphed versions of their actual face, hoping to bedevil the recognition software.” Do we want to live in a world where every day is Halloween and our identities are the treat to be fought over by corporate predators hungry for a taste of your face?
Perhaps the most disturbing Creeps, however, are in Keenan’s Bio and Body categories, where final physical and psychical barriers are breached, and the synthesis of operator stimulant on operant flesh is most fully realized. The celebratory hoo-ha that resulted from the astonishing work of the Genome Project, with its definitive and triumphant production of DNA sequencing knowledge, is also the stuff of totalitarian wet dreams, a yearning eugenicist’s Siegfried moment. This DNA capture begins at birth in a hospital, when samples of blood are drawn from the newborn, put on filter paper and stored. Keenan puts it in all its inglorious perspective: “In fact, newborn screening may actually be the Holy Grail that many governments have been lusting for – a national database of all its citizens.” The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may be the proverbial tip of a melting iceberg.
Another study under way by technologists delves into the nature of human memories and how they can be manipulated by external stimuli. Keenan cites Steve Ramirez, a researcher from the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics, who says, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviourally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” That is, it’s possible to make a sensible, rational person suddenly terrified of the Bogey Man. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively working on truly invasive “narrative network” technologies that can essentially hijack a brain, the way remote assistance controllers can now take over the functions of a pre-wired automobile, planting false memories and performing other tricks of the mind.
In perhaps the single most warped example of coming creepiness, Keenan cites contemporary French philosopher Rebecca Roche, who sees a time when, say, a prisoner’s mind can be uploaded to a computer and their mental cycle manipulated. By such means, she notes with only a touch of French jocularity, one could take the mind of a killer sentenced to 1,000 years and provide the equivalent experience of imprisonment in something like eight hours. As Roche puts it, “the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation.” Keenan adds, rather less dryly, “So that vicious serial killer or hardened terrorist could be home in time for supper.” And he doesn’t say it, but presumably a way will be found to reconstitute the victim’s body, their memories downloaded from the cloud.
This, of course, leads to other philosophical considerations. If such memory manipulation, along with the synthetic reconstitution of the body (or a trade-in for a better model), is probable in the middle future, then it raises questions of immortality, and a kind of time travel. But if time travel happens in the future, wouldn’t it already be happening now, our descendants revisiting old stomping grounds, and, if so, what then constitutes the real?
Given the enormous stakes of all this technocreeping, one might expect considerable popular resistance to the current war on privacy. For, whatever else it may be, the War on Terror, with its unleashed global surveillance apparatus, most certainly is, in effect, a war on subjectivity and the private, whereby the government watches all and feeds their corporate sponsors, who turn around and manipulate the desires of the universal gaze. “Aside from the occasional blinking light,” Keenan says of the surveillance apparatus, “they tell us nothing. We tell them everything.” And yet, aside from the usual roundup of leftwing complainers, there seems to be a resounding celebration of the Internet of Things, with its ubiquitous sensors and data recordings, designed to tell us what we need; we don’t seem to mind apps that allow a nosy neighbour to point an iPhone at someone’s home and see what the occupants are doing; most will blithely accept being sprayed with GPS nano chips the way they now shrug at being sprayed with insecticide by flight attendants as they enter highly-restrictive countries, such as Australia. A lot of the acceptance has to do with how the invasiveness is packaged, of course. As Keenan points out, a sensor that casually allows you to monitor your neighbor “would have been greeted much differently if they had called it the ‘Anne Frank Finder.’” Perhaps, but then again, this is the age of irony.
Keenan, a deeply experienced technologist who has worked for both government and private interests, reckons that the deterioration of resistance to digitalization and the consequent dehumanization of personhood, which is summed up in the actions of the computer conquistadors, have been steady and irresistible since the 1950s. Keenan is not the only observer of this trend, of course. French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul’s seminal work, The Technological Society(1954), described how the tools and techniques of technology have gone from being an important means to an end (i.e., the betterment of the human condition through the gradual development of civilization) to becoming an end in themselves, and in the process the dialectical activity which has defined humanity and given it breadth and reason has been subsumed into technological activity, from which there is no escape. The system is the solution, Marshall McLuhan once said (a meme Bell Telephone was quick to co-opt and use in its ads of the mid-70s), and the system no longer requires politics, or the staggering inefficiencies of democratic choice.
Perhaps the weakest part of Keenan’s Technocreep comes when he sets up some cursory counterarguments to his thesis. He ventriloquises the optimist dummy who notes only, in so many words, ‘but technology will save and enhance humanity—by curing cancer, replacing body parts, lengthening our lives, keeping us safe and entertained!’ Perhaps Keenan felt that any reader who had gone through his book and reached this late stage of his study and still maintained a blind optimism was probably too delusional to worry with further reasoning. Likewise, he poses the commonly heard pop tart’s lisp, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ And rather than get into a debate about tossing the Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of privacy, to the wind, he merely reminds his lispeners that today’s model citizens could easily be tomorrow’s national security threats.
Keenan closes his book by offering up a chapter meant to lift the spirits, presumably, with a series of steps that techno-citizens can take to reduce their vulnerability to the System: various ways to ward off trackers, digital predators, government snoops, neighbourly eavesdropping, and the whole carnivalesque rompin’ stompin’ of the machine matrix of processed desire. Some of his advice includes living your digital life in a sandbox, using encryption to store data and communicate, and living with multiple identities. But such precautions, such necessary fortressing and deceiving, serve to accentuate the notion that real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality. Keenan’s remedies hardly inspire confidence. After all, these solutions suggest a fait accompli whereby democracy is finished and future survival depends on how one adjusts to the Machine’s requirements. Perhaps it is as philosopher Donald Verene posits in his essay, “Technological Desire,” (Verene, 1984):
Things in history, like human lives themselves, come to ends. The question is not the reform of technological society; it is the question whether human meaning is possible in its world… The technological society reduces the human spirit to desire, just as an individual life can be reduced to one of its dimensions.
Though one might be inclined to draw a similar conclusion after reading Keenan’s work, the book is clearly written with activists in mind. Indeed, it concludes with an exhaustive reference section that allows the reader to re-trace the author’s steps and access primary materials to study. In that sense, at least, it ends on an upbeat note.
I have sometimes wondered how some Johnny Journo, transported back into biblical times, might have reported on, say, the Massacre of the Innocents, or one of the many other atrocities which spice up the prolific stir-fried testaments to depravity that was the human condition prior to the arrival of the Enlightenment and the saving grace of Reason. Of course, most biblical historians now suggest that many of these kinds of atrocities were apocryphal or metaphorical, and somehow designed to push a meme or conceit about ancient justice. It probably never happened, scholars say; they weren’t those kinds of people.
And then you flash way forward to the 20th century, way past the Enlightenment and all its lessons and admonishments, and read that, according to a Cornell University study, some 231 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision” in the century. And that such a new testament to the dark side of the old human condition seemingly reached its abysmal bottom with Stalin’s purges (estimated to have led to 20-60 million deaths) and the Holocaust, which resulted in the genocidal extermination of some 6 million Jews. Summing up this moral cataclysm, Robert Jackson, U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials opened with,
“The crimes which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that a civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
The obvious lesson that comes out of this is that we must guard against wilful ignorance, that we must educate ourselves and be active citizens, and avoid becoming Good Germans or Good Sheeple who look the other way as the banality of evil deeds have their corrosive way with our moral consciences. Never again should one people be allowed to obliterate another with impunity – because, implied Jackson, civilisation will just crack up if we let this shit go.
Thus, when we pull Johnny Journo back through the time tunnel, back into the now, him dragging back tales of fanatical religious zealotry leading to horrific unilateral interpretations of justice, we needn’t insist that he look upon the current doings in the middle east “objectively.” After all, even ideally, only four of the five Ws of basic journalism – Who, What, When and Where – can be addressed objectively, and usually in a lede of some 25 words or so. The fifth W – Why? – has frequently proven to be a devil’s detail work of word-framing. The best the beat journalist can ever do is present a sense of balance to the reader. There are at least two sides to every story.
But the reporting that takes place under normal conditions is significantly different than the reporting that takes place in the face of atrocities. The blown up or dismembered limbs and body parts of women, children and non-combatants require not so much dispassionate observance, if such were possible in the instance, but documenting and keen witnessing, the sounding of the alarm that, as prosecutor Jackson suggested at Nuremberg, civilisation is under threat.
We all know an atrocity when we see one, even if our collective responses to them have been dimmed by years of exposure to the conscience-defiling phantasmagoria of cinematic excess, bodies blown apart, specially effected and disintegrated in more imaginative ways than creation can keep up. And then uploaded to YouTube. Vile snuffs, rapes, beheadings gone gleefully, secret-sinfully viral. We live in a world of textual irony shotgun-married to visceral imagery, of endless subtle smirks delivered in the serial gyrations of market-driven, in-your-face twerks. But long after the sarcastic are exiled to Sardonia, where each man wanders Lear-like, an island entirely unto himself, cast away by the inevitable irrelevance that time brings to all the things that occupy space for the length of a human memory.
But how do we report on such atrocities? If we could send Johnny Journo back to the Auschwitz-Birkhenau on the day of its liberation, to report on the stenches and smoke, the trenches and piled-up drained-to-the-bone bodies, the barbed wire and abattoir-like facilities, would we expect objectivity and balanced reporting from Johnny in that situation? Could we reasonably demand that he detach his subjectivity from the naked horror before him, interview first a zombie-like survivor, followed by asking a captured prison guard, “Jeez, Sergeant Schultz, just what were you guys thinking?” And, of course, no matter how moving what Johnny wrote was, it could not compete with the beckoning, come-and-see moving images of that bulldozer pushing those emaciated bodies into a mass grave, bodies so denuded of humanity that you could not even tell that this batch was once the string section of the Warsaw symphony. The image of these piled up bodies have become a searing universal symbol of barbarity, but also a trademark of the Jewish diaspora, an image always accompanied by the righteous slogan: Never Again. And if the 20th century could have minted a coin to bequeath to the 21st it might have had a depiction of the Golden Rule on one side and the bulldozer pushing bodies on the other.
While Gutenberg may have revolutionised the technology of language, bringing it from the chattering teeth and tongue palate of the oral tradition to the moveable type and ink plate of the press, one could argue that it was the evolution of the camera obscura, from its still box of shadow-lit light to today’s restless high def digital pixilations, that has made us understand our collective reality a different way. Nevertheless, in the continuing battle ‘for hearts and minds’ that is the coliseum of the politicians and Google ad-sensors, even the most graphic and disturbing images require the contextualization of reportage.
When it comes to the atrocities of war, which include the “human decisions” that lead to unnecessary deaths (the so-called collateral incidentals), the best example of the melding of context and image into one package of psychological influence is the reportage of the My Lai massacre by young investigative journo Seymour Hersh back in 1969. I was just a teenager back then, and, like most people, did not actually read the Hersh pieces, but had his findings summarised by a newsreader while an iconic still image of naked terrified children running down a dirt road lined with bodies machine-gunned by US military forces screamed out from the TV set: atrocity. Even as a youngster, the report was deeply disturbing, the way it would be if you were suddenly informed that your favourite uncle had just been arrested for chopping up his entire family.
The response went deeper amongst the policy-makers, academics and student activists who had actually read Hersh’s St. Louis Dispatch account of Lt. Calley and the events leading up to the March 1968 massacre. And while Hersh’s reportage did not by itself effect immediate changes or prevent further American atrocities (the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos were still yet to come), it certainly stirred up and catalysed the anti-war movement, which eventually led to bad plumbing and Nixon being shit out of office in shame in 1973.
But the American military learned from the journalistic coverage of the Viet Nam war, the so-called ‘first TV war’, and adjusted, and have controlled, as best they can, the imagery and contextualization of all the many big and small conflicts and engagements they have been involved with since. And after the three towers came down in Manhattan in near-freefall speed on September 11, the War on Terror has been prosecuted with a virtual gag order on the MSM. The invasion of Afghanistan; the blatant, criminal lies that led to Iraq’s evisceration; the regional chaos created in Libya, Syria and Yemen, with plans still progressing for taking out Iran; the crisis fomented in the Ukraine seemingly to pay back Putin for his interference with Obama’s careful planning to explode Syria on the pre-text of chemical weaponry; the Asian pivot that is already an undeclared war on China – all of this gets short shrift by the MSM, while American Exceptionalism is ballooned in a con-flatulence of false patriotism and criminal neo-liberal predation, a gifted whoopy cushion to a world and civilisation all too happy to have a sideline seat to the carnivalesque festivities.
Indeed, under the cover of fighting a War on Terror, America has taken the lead in doing its best to eliminate all efforts to reveal the many atrocities it has committed in the last decade. When Private Bradley Manning went public, through Wikileaks, with the secret cables, but especially with the release of the video depicting an Apache gunship atrocity in Iraq, in which children and a Reuters reporter were murdered, he had to be crushed (along with Julian Assange). When Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye demonstrated with his reporting that US forces were responsible for a cruise missile attack that horribly wiped out 14 women (5 of them pregnant) and 21 children with a cluster bomb, Obama personally arranged for his imprisonment. When Anwar al-Awlaki ’s family went before the Justice Department and begged them to bring their son to justice through long-established rules of law, they droned to death the American citizen son anyway, and, for good measure, droned to death Awlaki’s son, who’d been accused of nothing, a few weeks later, thus setting a precedent for assassinating citizens per order of the Executive alone. And more recently the military-backed government of Egypt has sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison for their reporting, a decision that drew puffy ire from US secretary of state John Kerry (though no ultimatums), puffs of smoke that mean little given the American role in installing Egypt’s latest repressive regime.
Indeed, times have never been so precarious for investigative reporters or adversarial journalists. Not if the stats are any indication. According to Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed while reporting so far this year. Another 179 have been imprisoned. Almost all of them have come in regions where atrocities are taking place – not just in the middle east, but also in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other places. And where reporters are not being killed outright, in many places, including such bulwarks of democratic liberalism as Australia, are passing new laws designed to suppress dissent and revelation.
So that when we come to how Johnny Journo should cover the atrocities resulting from the recent Gaza invasion by IDF forces, we may need to update our expectations to reflect the reality of what civilisation is up against. If the US, with its pushy Pax Americana, were still pushing its Cold War memes about the importance of installing the institutions of democracy worldwide, including most notably an adversarial journalism that challenged from within regimes the US was disenchanted with, then it would be almost unthinkable that Israel could have gotten away without anything so much as an official rebuke after shooting up the offices of al Jazeera in Gaza and blowing up two al Aksa TV reporters in Gaza recently, who, as “propagandists,” Israel simply regarded as enemy combatants. The American Exceptionalism that once at least pretended to lead the way for moral good, most certainly now leads the way for the atrocious and reprehensible. Everywhere thugs are taking note.
We all know what atrocities look like, and what the world has seen taking place in Gaza over the last few weeks is atrocity, war crimes by any measure. Hundreds of already barely surviving women, children and other civilians were murdered willy nilly by drone missiles and the bombs of supersonic jets supplied by US taxpayers. The US Senate weighed in on who they support in the one-sided slaughter by voting 100-0 in support of Israel’s over-the-top response. The Western mass media has been once again meek and compliant, just as they were back in 2008/9 when the previous set of Israeli atrocities on this scale took place. While there has certainly been popular outrage expressed over the latest merciless barbarity, the MSM has mostly gone along with the same old Israeli shtick of ‘provocation will be met with annihilating force’. Oh well, Atlas shrugged.
But this time the cynicism and suppression of dissent has taken on new dimensions. While Overland literary journal online published without incident “Watching the bombs,” a narrative which described how Israel residents of the hilltop enclave of Sderot set up chairs and munched down snacks as they watched their military rip the bejeezuz out of their occupied territorians, a narrative accompanied by a provocative image depicting a theatre crowd wearing 3D glasses, hysteria knew no bounds just a couple of days ago when a Sydney Morning Herald column on the Gaza mayhem by Mike Carlton was accompanied by a cartoon depicting the scene of carnage with an image of an old man with a long nose, wearing a skullcap and sitting in a seat adorned with the Star of David. While one could certainly understand how the use of religious symbolism could be construed as somewhat insensitive, the fact of the matter is that the inspiration for the cartoon was a photograph of Israelis on the Sderot hillside overlooking the bombing fun, some wearing skullcaps and flaunting the Israeli flag. Anti-Semitism, screamed the Israeli lobby, and forced the newspaper to apologia and retract the cartoon. The response from the Australian government was telling. Senator George Brandis, coincidentally overseeing legislation that will considerably clamp down on whistle-blowing journalism, said of the cartoon that it’s “the kind we haven’t seen since Germany in the 1930s”. And just like that, the scathing, revelatory column on Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, which could have been just as easily penned by the enlightened Jewish Robert Manne, as the gentile Carlton, was buried beneath the controversy over the cartoon.
And this, too, is American-inspired. Indeed, not long ago, when Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart expressed, for the first time, sympathy for Gaza residents undergoing the bombardment, he was lambasted by rabid defenders of Israeli policy. But it’s not just comedians who are subject to scurrilous attacks after daring to criticise Israeli hubris and war criminality, Jimmy Carter, who some would argue was the last actual Democratic president, Clinton and Obama being stooges for the neo-liberals, found himself attacked by his interviewer when he told it like it was about the roadblock to peace in Palestine which has been deliberately constructed by radical Zionist expansionists with a view to eventually evicting or destroying every last tenant’s hold on the land, a kind of terror nullius . As investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill noted in a recent Huffington Post live interview, “”Israeli propagandists are largely given carte blanche to say what they want on American television with very little push-back.”
One might get the impression that Israel citizens are as united behind their government’s actions as the US Senate has proven to be, but that would be wrong. There have been multiple demonstrations within Israel of people fed up with the war in general and with the occupation in particular. There is vigorous debate within the media and plenty of outrage voiced for the atrocities that have taken place. But these views and this debate are largely suppressed by, one imagines, the manipulation of search engine and ranking algorithms.
Whether adversarial and investigative journalism can even survive 2014, given the enormous pressure it is under from the US government, is anyone’s guess. Consider that New York Timesinvestigative journalist James Risen who may go to jail for contempt rather than reveal the identity of a whistleblower who provided Risen with classified information about a CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Formerly prominent whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers back in 1971, which initiated Nixon’s long, drawn-out demise, said recently,
“The pursuit of Risen is a warning to potential sources that journalists cannot promise them confidentiality for disclosing Executive Branch criminality, recklessness, deception, unconstitutional policies or lying us into war. Without protecting confidentiality, investigative journalism required for accountability and democracy will wither and disappear.”
And that would be the final atrocity for Democracy, with no one left to witness the bulldozing of our emaciated truths about unbridled power into a shallow grave.
 Milton Leitenberg, “Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century,” Cornell University Peace Studies Program, Occasional Paper #29, 3rd Ed., August 2003.
Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.
I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the its attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their database collaboration with the CIA – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuisance DRM locks they place on ebooks to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after cancelling your account.
So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.
But the question remains: what is the battle with major publisher Hachette about, and are there any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and done?
On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their ebooks at a substantially higher rate – $14–20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers; ultimately, the extra revenue supports the publishing industry’s ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that ebooks themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to print books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of publishing subsidisation.
But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counterproductive. For instance, Amazon told The Bookseller:
We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99.
Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among ebook sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of print copies as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really, cannot argue this point.
But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high-profit yields. In fact, many would argue that the industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and the idea that books are important. It is this cultural aspect – the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles – that Hachette uses to bolster its claim of keeping the eco-system healthy in order to continue delivering the Greater Good.
However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Writes Russo:
We want Jeff Bezos to say, ‘We share your beliefs, we’re all in this together.’ Yet even that simple statement—which would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing. Just silence.
But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, ‘when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.’ The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to eBay than book publishers.
In the end, it is the projection of this attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times observed, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behaviour that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:
Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons, lengthening shipping times and monkeying with recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves of a man who cares about customers above all else?
No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honourable days of fleecing banks.
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,”quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)
But the capper on the whole torture chamber music industry failings has to be the more recent acknowledgement that the torturers were aided and abetted in their Dark Knighthood doings by members of the APA – psychiatrists and psychologists who’d given their oaths, like Hippocrates, to “do no harm.” And apparently, if a recent report by an ex-APA executive is any indicator, these psychological architects of torture often did so gleefully, and not so much out of a sense of patriotism and justice but with career ambitions. In short, the ka-ching factor.
That’s depressing enough, but, then, who would you turn to for treatment? Who could you trust, when the profession which, next to Catholic confessionals, is built around honoring confidences turns around and sells those secrets to the Authorities for a song called, “The Bass Suddenly Sings Falsetto.”
You could argue that the first clear sign of the impending collapse of a civilization is when it throws its own most cherished ideals under the bus (or the chariot, if you require classical stim), and in America’s case the most important ideals, from a purely republican position, would be adherence to the Rule of Law and the application of due process. In America, the world’s once-premiere democratic republic, the law and the process were sacred symbols of trust, the manifest density of its transparent idealistic gas. The law and the process were a glad shackle of trust: Everyone here gets a fair shake. That’s what made gazing on the Statue of Liberty in the harbor so poignant, rather than just another accosting by the underarm deodorant industry. It was the value that made America exceptional.
But the law and the process were the first things to go under the Bush administration, and, by God, not even reluctantly. And when, a couple of years later, after the post-9/11 security lock-down was in place and well on its way to normalization, that he no longer much cared or thought about the atrocity’s presumed mastermind, Osama bin Laden, he revealed that the real mission he’d accomplished was the destruction of that sacred trust. The limited Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to wage war strictly against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack was morphed by corrupt lawyers into a justification for endless war, battlefields du jour, the militarization of all human communications, and, essentially, the martial outlawing of privacy – and not just in public communications, like texts and emails, but even, if they so choose, and using infrared technologies, the hand you wipe your bottom with. No doubt, terrorists use their left.
Borrowing, with heavy irony, from the post-modern relativists, the neo-cons and their kissing cousin neo-libs, have turned the Constitution into a feeble anachronism no longer to be taken any more literally than the Gospel of St. Paul. Never mind that the Constitution was the most literal document ever written, that it was intentionally written to be literal, and that that was what made it sacred.
But declaring war on an abstract noun –terrorism—and deleting due process as a syntactical inconvenience have messaged to the world that we’re pretty much right back in the world conjured up in living color by Voltaire in Candide, full of unspeakable horrors, Pangloss apologists and scaredy-cat gardeners. Ultimately, since the post-modernists demonstrated the relativism of controlling language and thereby weakened its hold, the controllers did one better and declared war on language itself. Because, in the end, that’s what the War on Terror is – a war on language.
It would be a mistake – and one I’m sure we’ll make—to think that now that we’ve fessed up and outed our torturing ways that that’s the end to it; that long looks in the mirror will come next, followed by the rejuvenation and redemption of reform. Indeed, we have merely finished Phase One.
Consider that the same criteria used by psychologists to construct the Destructo machinery for the government are the same ones that help determine who gets put in the US government’s Disposition Matrix database – the one used to help determine who will be droned to death (“and they will never see it coming,” haw-haw). The torture chamber was remedial; the Disposition Matrix is predictive. Like an astrology chart machine it algorithmically considers alignments of data stars and makes an analysis of how actors with certain star signs will respond in that alignment, and ices them ahead of time. (Man, I know some Aries punks who could use a good Hellfire in the belly, but I drift.)
The language of Terror (and the terror of language) being what it is, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the future blows. “Terror” is a moveable feast. First, you wipe out the ones not willing to put up with any more crap (they’re easy to identify), and then you move on to their ‘material supporters’ and ‘sympathizers’, and then devolve to associates of sympathizers, until you reach that point where you are throwing Neanderthal Ned under the first wheel. Terror is the .gif that keeps on .giffing; a loopity-loop of fun and anticipation.
With the planet under siege and critical resources running low and dirty (think water), one imagines a future disposition matrix that includes most of the world’s people, all future billions of them, who, after all, add nothing to the future of the race but dirty genes and have only been useful as economic growth machines consuming what they’re told to (or else). Liberty and Democracy are fun words to say, especially with a few drinks in you, but they’ll soon come a time when government itself is anachronistic. Indeed, we may already be post-political and beyond the holy communion of self-governance.
Imagine gamers, armed with their Clint Eastwood joysticks and hacking acumen, hired by the government’s new morality enforcers, people like the likeable Duane Clarridge, to snuff out “nonsense” like over-population and other undesirables, culling down until there’s nobody left but elites, military leaders and family, rock stars and the like, the joystickers themselves (temporarily, wink) – in short, a Pol Potage of carnivalesque carnage, until there’s no one left but the ones Mick Jagger sings about in “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this world there’ll be no law or due process, no day in court. In fact, already, there are some places where not even the kangaroos get a day in court.
Is there no hope then? Hard to say. Voltaire, who thought we needed god to set us right, had Candide, in that cataclysmic best of all possible worlds filled with beheadings, failed states, and general pestilence, minding his own garden. One notes it was not a collectivist’s garden, Candide was no kibbutz-nik; he was alone with his private thoughts, blocking out the white noise of civilization collapsing all around him. Who knows, but maybe Candide was Voltaire’s hemlock and that lone constant gardener was his rude finger to the world? In the end, everyone picks his or her own poison, whether they know it or not.
Critchley has been on the Bowie train through its many hills and valleys
I first encountered David Bowie and all his earnest inauthenticities back in my madcap year of 1985. I’d closed out my collegiate career by winning a philosophy prize and a poetry prize, beaming at my first published poems, but instead of cashing in on this cache of success by accepting one of the several full scholarship offers from first and second tier post-graduate institutions, I backed away from the limelight of new, promising challenges that awaited me in Boston and Manhattan, and instead took a lesser though still-substantial offer from Renssalaer Polythechnic Institute in Troy, NY, to pursue a master of science in philosophy. And all because I was in love with a beautiful dark virgin of considerable brilliance who was studying journalism somewhat down the road, in Amherst. And she loved Bowie, the way I loved her.
By Simon Critchley
On the many weekends that I would visit her that fall, driving the scenic old country roads from Troy to Amherst, leaves turning colors, heart palpitating, loins ever-aching, I would arrive at her door like Dante emerging into Paradise, and Lucinda’s room-mate would slam shut her books and emphatically exit stage right, and we would kiss, our lips two rubber dinghies in a choppy sea of passion, and one thing wouldn’t lead to another, and next thing I knew she was showing me new shopping, pants and a shirt she’d bought me, which she was already hurrying me to change into, her fingers re-coifing my hair, which had lain straight and limp all week among all the geeky Trojan technologists. And from the cassette player came David Bowie singing, “Blue Jean.” And my sweet Cape Verdean ventriloquist would pull me up to dance, laughing at my stiff hips and wooden shoulders. And when Bowie sang, “Won’t somebody send me,” I knew just what he meant.
But I had a different take on Bowie back in Troy. I was lonely beyond comprehension, a Bowie Hamlet too frequently ruminating on the Everlasting’s injunction, often soused by mid-day, sitting in a booth alone in the student center, MTV’s carnival of sights and sounds on the large screen, molten mozzarella from a pizza slice creeping down my chin, all around me the shop talk of engineers, me reading and pondering poems by Louis Hammer, my professor, from his Book of Games, poems like:
See if you can play the hero / it is the game of dropping / off the skyrocket of courage / and landing / with your head between your knees
Troy for me was like Albany depicted in William Kennedy’s Ironweed – bleak, cold, dark, the things of life holding on by a thread. The songs of Madonna were ubiquitous and seemed to sometimes physically occupy the air. In snow squalls I would walk the alien streets near campus listening on my Walkman to John Lennon’s “God” over and over. At a post-grad student gathering, I’d met Youssef, a gentle Pakistani fellow, and we hit it off and would hook up a couple nights a week at a working class bar that sold cheap pitchers of beer, an angry blue lighted place whose jukebox seemingly featured George Thoroughgood’s “I Drink Alone” on a loop. And Youssef, a nuclear scientist hoping to bring home Bomb plans, would use me as a sounding board; “You Americans,” he’d say, “want to blow up the whole whorled,” and we’d drain another glass or three, heads hung. And I’d muddle through my phenomenology studies, my Kuhn and Ellul and Merlieu-Ponty.
The philosophy department a weak moral conscience, staffed by Buddhist geeks and poets, specializing in producing hand-wrung cautionary theses too late to matter. And then the Challenger exploded over and over in replay on the big screen, pre-empting the MTV (was it David Lee Roth singing “Just A Gigolo”?), and the shop talk turned to cause and effect, a buzz of “O” rings. And amid the clamor for answers I yearned for Lucinda. I went to a phone and called her and proposed and we negotiated a minimally acceptable ring for her finger. The next day I went to a dumpy little jewelry shop in Troy and spent the remainder of my assistanceships (I had a TA and an RA) on an expensive little gold circle, with sparkle, a Nibelungen wouldn’t have trifled with.
A couple weeks later, packed and moved to Amherst, I sat before the UMass philosophy department head coifed and dressed like Aladdin Sane, talking Kantian ethics, eager to transfer, and he listened like a pimp auditioning a new stable pony, probing, visibly risibly, and I never heard back. Perhaps I was a one trick pony. But, it didn’t matter; I had Lucy, so long as I was Bowie.
Well, of course, 1986 is a long time ago, and Lucinda has long since moved on to better baubles, re-married to an airline pilot of Greek ancestry, named, as I recall, Mr. Eaton Awfullotoffellfalas, and they had boys, Lucy was now kept, a soccer mum, wings clipped, her man all Sinatra, no Bowie he. While it would be cheap fun to further describe how my life went forward from Lucy into a phantasmagoria of switch-back misadventures and astonishing wayfaring, stuff that would take Homer’s breath away, I offer only that I have weathered all storms, certainly worse for the wear, pounded by circumstance at times like a Looney Tunes speedbag, I have reached a phase of my life wherein I am at peace with my alienation, having long since turned “to face the strange.”
David Bowie might never have been any more relevant to me again than Bob Dylan is, a singer of whom I might once have said, like a latter day Prufrock, “I have measured out my life with Dylan tunes.” But then the other day I came across a newly released book by Simon Critchley, a philosophy columnist for the New York Times, who has just released a book called, aptly and simply enough, Bowie. And all the old doubts and desires have returned, but now there’s no brilliant dark virgin waiting for me; the baubles have long ago been hocked.
Critchley’s little biography (a mere 185 pages) of the pop iconoclast is brilliant in its analysis and utterly engaging in its personal intersections with the singer’s lyrics, art and philosophy over a period roughly half a century long. Like many of Dylan’s fans, Critchley has been on the Bowie train through the many hills and valleys of Bowie’s long dazed journey into night, and into its many dawns.
For those of a certain age (and I count myself one), whose lifespans have encompassed all the traumas, turmoils and ch-ch-changes of the last 50 years, beginning with the Kennedy assassination and leading, in seemingly ever rapid succession, to a world conditioned by the Internet of Things and the quest for the Singularity, the shedding of all the emperor’s old clothes that leaves us with our chilling naked data bits exposed, David Bowie is an ideal avatar to reflect that cumulative zeitgeist.
And though Critchley certainly has the credentials and tools to have put Bowie under an academic microscope, with all manner of technical textual analysis, he wisely chooses to keep it personal, becoming in the process his own operant under scrutiny, vis-à-vis the Bowie influence.
For Critchley, and for many of Bowie’s aesthetes, the artist is all about the contingencies of identity. I say ‘aesthetes’, as opposed to mere fans, because I want to argue the notion that many of his followers are not merely passive consumers but interactive participants in his iconoclastic performing artistry. Naturally, as psychoanalysts like Julia Kristeva and others have demonstrated, identity is at the heart of human being, from the mythopoesis of our semiotic beginnings to that collective of compromises and politics that make up the social order and all its connective symbols.
One might very effectively argue that until the emergence of post-modernism in the mainstream, especially after World War II, the integrity of individual identity was tied up in the idealism implied by absolute structures and systemic order, be they the implicit historical stability of Judeo-Christian values or the egalitarian ethos of Democratic Republicanism, to take just two examples. But the deconstructions of post-modernism, applied across the vast apparati of orderly things and states, has produced a fragmentation and relativism that has undermined the symbolic order and left the ‘common understanding’ of values in a shambles.
The world no longer means the way it used to mean, alienation is rife, and the semiotic realm has been breached and co-opted by the manipulators of desire who promise order and meaning where there is none.
For sure, David Bowie is just a pop star, too. But then most people are pop stars in their leanings more than they are Rene Descartes in their thinking. In other words, unless even progressives are willing to argue a privileged place for intellectualism and its elite codes, then such pop stars must be seen as every bit as efficacious as some Socrates or Marx, at least in the practical realm where real behavior takes place.
And in this context, Bowie has proven to be an effective messenger/avatar for not only the disaffected, the gender benders and the strange, but for a whole era marked by alienation. As Critchley puts it, “Bowie spoke to the weirdos and the freaks. But it turned out that there were a lot of us. It left you wondering: who exactly were the insiders?” Well, it now seems clear those insiders are the technologists at the reins of our collective fate.
In such a psycho-social milieu it is difficult to be ‘original’ or authentic, because the last frontier of colonization is selfhood; we are born with claims already staked, by unseen others, to our deepest desires. It is only in the manifestations of art that we can begin to comprehend the linkage and our chains. As Critchley puts it:
“Art’s filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion. Bowie’s world is like a dystopian version of The Truman Show, the sick place of the world that is forcefully expressed in the ruined, violent cityscapes of “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”…”
Such confrontation or shock treatment is reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s requirements for The Theatre of Cruelty, where the audience itself must be viscerally roused past its masochistic accommodations of master narrative subjugation.
I own that I did not come to this understanding of Bowie’s art immediately or obviously, and not until a few hard years after Lucy and I had parted ways. I was taking a university course called Scientific Romanticism, which featured well-known writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Olaf Stapledon – all of them dealing with aspects of alterity – and a writer I’d never heard of before, Walter Tevis.
One doesn’t have to read too far into Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth to realize that Thomas Jerome Newton, the novel’s alien protagonist, more than adequately matches Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ persona. It’s uncanny, actually. Consider Tevis’ descriptions of Newton:
He had smooth skin and a boyish face — but the eyes were very strange, as though they were weak, over-sensitive, yet with a look that was old and wise and tired…his graceful womanish hand …birdlike frailty that belies his name…his strange un-manlike, unsexual nature…maybe he was queer…There was an indefinable strangeness about his way of walking, a quality that reminded Bryce of the first homosexual he had ever seen, back when he had been too young to know what a homosexual was….
This androgyny and sexual ambiguity is Bowie’s bread and butter. Indeed, it is nature’s bread and butter – this whole business of whether we will one day hang a His towel in the bathroom or a Hers, a selection devoid of one’s free will and yet with considerable ramifications for our entire brief journey through space and time.
And certainly it is difficult not to hear echoes of Major Tom when Newton utters in despair at the novel’s end, “This world is doomed as certainly as Sodom, and I can do nothing whatever about it.” Planet Earth is blue and there is nothing anyone can do.
Critchley briefly touches on this Newtonian connection, although his reference is not to the novel but to the 1976 film by the same name, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring none other than David Bowie in the lead role. (Interestingly enough, it appears that Roeg wanted Bowie for the role based on Bowie’s “Starman” riffs, but neither of them had read Tevis’ novel.)
It’s worth noting that the novel’s themes center around a bird-boned alien from another planet (Anthea) peopled with a dying race of super intelligent creatures who have, nevertheless, found a way to destroy themselves and the resources of their planet with a nuclear war, forcing this last ditch effort by Newton to establish on Earth an outpost and bridge for his people to escape from their contaminated planet.
A rather cold technologist at first, Newton is seduced by listening to old blues and gradually moves into polyphonic jazz, and he becomes more sensitive to Earth’s own global issues as he introduces revolutionary chemical processes and assorted techniques meant to improve the general well-being of humanity, while raising funds that will help build a spaceship to bring his people to Earth.
But then he is stupidly blinded by war-mongering intelligence agents (CIA, FBI), the same kinds of forces that led to the destruction of Anthea, and it becomes clear, as Newton sinks into a bluesy alcoholic funk, the essential lightness of his being pressed by the unbearable weight of human gravity, that the two planets, and perhaps all planets with humanoid creatures, are doomed to the same destructive fate.
It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that the principal leit motif of The Man Who Fell to Earth is Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus. Newton-Bowie are fine embodiments of that notion that progressive-liberalism, assisted by the Daedalean wing-making of technological evolution, will lead us to a Sunshine Superman existence at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. But shit happens. And as Critchley points out, “Rather than amuse ourselves by playing with some fraudulent political agenda [such as Bono’s facile philanthropy, writes Critchley], Bowie simply declares that “It’s no game.” Shit is serious.”
But the question is: Can we see it in time? Tevis answers the question mark that is Brueghel’s Icarus by employing W.C. Williams’ famous poem about the painting, which is a study in human indifference to urgent and revealing historical events unfolding before our eyes.
(Tevis further magnifies this point by positing on a humanistic scientist’s wall a lithograph of Maricio Lasansky, he of The Nazi Drawings fame, that gets gradually covered up by piles and piles of useless, generic student theses; only a pair of eyes is visible in the end.) So Bowie becomes this yearning Icarian figure falling for us (a sign, like the Christ), and we, the readers of his art are the Williams-like poet-performers of his work in our hearts, or the critics of such performance-responses, or, drifting ever further away in a ‘tin can’ of ineffectuality, we are the observers of the critics of the performers of the art we can not do much about.
Thus, as we hurdle as a race toward the Singularity, that historical moment when human and the digital merge, Newton/Bowie/Critchley point toward an end that needn’t be but is coming nigh, fuelled by a rush-job utopianism that has not been thought through. The Nietzschean superman meme may seem to Buddhist geeks a passage beyond all-too-human desires to a place of sublime eternity, but don’t count on it. As Critchley observes, “Bowie asks, who are the Nietzschean supermen,these creatures that have left behind the human condition? Far from paradise and way to the east of Eden, they lead ‘Tragic endless lives /Could heave nor sigh in solemn perverse serenity /Wondrous beings chained to life.’ The more-than-human, infinite life of the superman is cruel torture. All he craves is a chance to die.”
This, of course, smacks of the Book of Revelations, which paints an End in which ‘men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die,’ as Bob Dylan puts it in his Biblically-influenced riff, “Precious Angel.”
It is this gloomy, freaky nihilism that Bowie, with all his post-modern cut-up lyrics, seems to encapsulate, and yet which so many of his followers find strangely inspiring. Critchley suggests that such inspiration comes from the fact that, despite Bowie’s essentially dystopic vision, “the longing for love…is characteristic of Bowie’s art … If Bowie’s music begins from loneliness, it is not at all an afrmation of solitude. It is a desperate attempt to overcome solitude and find some kind of connection. In other words, what defines so much of Bowie’s music is an experience of yearning.”
The invocation of the word ‘love’ seems so quaint and sentimental now. And that may itself be a most telling sign. Personally, it becomes ever more difficult to travel back to my Bowie-inspired memories, as though those times and places were themselves distant planets receding by the year. My last memory of things Bowie though comes from the planet Glass Spider Tour, which I attended with Lucy in 1987 at Foxboro Stadium.
Standing in the dark, a doophus doppelgänger, while my love cheered and the crowd was alive and organic with excitement, if I’m honest, some part of me hoped he’d suddenly fall, like Icarus, from his perch high above the set, tumble and end the charade, one could almost anticipate the chord change that would strike the crowd, like a Jimi Hendrix lick, but then it occurred to me that Bowie probably planned it that way, a purpose-built tension to be released in his casual belting out of “Ashes to Ashes.” Icarus forever falls, but Bowie, that singular showman, is a survivor. That is his ethic.
As I read Marion May Campbell’s new book, Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality and Subversion, I was reminded of the still seemingly sacred notion of a democratic historical progress. This notion celebrates cultural alterity (and all that that implies), and makes an urgent appeal to textual revolution as a means to political resistance. Campbell’s work is rooted in the relativist revolution – the book is part of publisher Rodopi’s Postmodern Series – and her intense, erudite study addresses a state of disunion that has loosely bound the dwindling body of progressives ever since.
Campbell, a lecturer in literary studies and writing at Deakin University in Melbourne, opens her study by posing a seemingly innocuous, academic question: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ Despite this broad gambit, Campbell considerably narrows her focus to an analysis of just seven writers: Jean Genet, Monique Wittig, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Kim Scott and Brian Castro. Campbell explains that she has chosen these authors for their ‘generic range (theatre, prose poetry, fable, novel), but more so by the fact all of these writers are informed by the French tradition of a revolutionary poetics.’ Generic range aside, one may observe that only Fallon, Scott and Castro are still alive, and that all of them are Australian. This is not arbitrary, but rather, at the heart of Campbell’s answer to the question she poses. While she presents some stellar examples of transgression at work in her own contemporary culture, the critical mass for broader socio-political change proves elusive. That tipping point should result from such heterodoxic practice, but Campbell’s study suggests that the mainstream has learned to co-opt and accommodate not difference, per se, but the comfort of academe. Worse, this presents an intellectual hegemony that may have learned to plagiarise the ideological dynamism of deconstructive practice to suit its own practice of destructive cons.
What is meant by ‘revolutionary poetics’? Firstly, Campbell acknowledges that it includes the material of verse producers such as Isidor Ducasse, Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. In a second phase, Campbell identifies the events of Paris, May 1968 (or thereabouts), with all its teeming intellectual energy working against the grand narratives of the day, as well as against the hegemonic collaboration of the French government with the American hunger machine – then at work feeding on France’s colonial leftovers in Vietnam. In this Paris, Campbell locates the radical post-structuralist review, Tel Quel, with its ‘cream of left-wing Parisian intellectuals’, as the place where the most culturally disruptive textual practice was in production. In short, it was an interrogation of what constitutes the self, through analysis, and how that self intersects (or intertexts) with the social realm to create a ‘better’ world, with more ‘equitable’ distribution of power. Thirdly, and crucial to Campbell’s thesis, is the work of Julia Kristeva, who incorporated key aspects of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, among others, to develop her doctoral thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language.1
Remaining mindful of Kristeva’s thesis – with Campbell’s stage directions – proves to be a formidable task for the reader; one that certainly requires boning up on postmodern terminology and jargon. Suddenly, one is confronted with terms like bricolage, carni-valesque, jouissance, scenographic, abjection, parody, mise en abyme, palimpsest, tessellations, and so on. At times, this is like being led through a Barthian fun-house by Edith Piaf channelling Susan Sontag while strung out on Janis Joplin’s smack; a funhouse whose mirrored panes belong to the theorists in an endless feedback loop of heteroglossic différance. Nevertheless, Campbell’s production is rich and compelling, and deeply intelligent. Ultimately, its rhythms and precision present a kind of musical clarity. She moves from the openness of Paris 1968 to the austerity of Melbourne 2013, using these postmodern leitmotifs and intratextual threads.
Arguably, the key finding of Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language is that subjectivity is not a static condition, and that we are each a sujet en procés (subject-in-process); caught up in an unavoidable dynamic discourse between the freewheeling, pre-lingual semiotic and the linguistic ordering and control that defines the symbolic. In order for the Bob Dylan meme – he not busy being born is busy dying – to be true, the self must constantly be in a state of becoming or revolution. But how to get there?
Campbell points out that the liberating function of the poetic – whether in the textual products of theatre, prose poetry, fable, or novel – is its call to action, to free thinking, difference and alterity. Consequently, as a preliminary answer to Campbell’s opening question, one can say with some confidence that the potential for textual practice to disrupt and subvert the grand narratives of the prevailing socio-political culture is (or, has been, up until now) profound. And, indeed, as she argues the point, ‘Kristeva sees the text’s availability to radicalism and polyphony as orchestrated by the reader’ (Campbell’s emphasis). Thus, theory is not a system but a tool, a kind of browser add-on to the world wide web of subjects in process.
Campbell takes this Kristevan dynamic and applies it across genres. In Genet’s work she shows the sujet en procés by means of abjection, parody, inversion. Campbell further elaborates on this point as it relates to Genet’s last play, The Screens, which:
reignites the sense of terror behind the theatre and all representation, which stems from the interrelatedness of life and death, of spectator and spectacle, of stage and off-stage. All these tensions are actively played out, subjected to constant mutual embedding, imbrication and inversion.
The sujet en procés is not something the textual practitioner enacts alone, but through its (somewhat) unpredictable staging in the reader’s mind. Campbell highlights it in ‘the poetics of the lesbian bodies-in-becoming that is celebrated’ in Monique Wittig’s work. In Angela Carter, one finds ‘The negation of the Erl-King will confirm for the newly liberated subject her parenthood of herself.’ According to Campbell, Kathleen Mary Fallon finds it in a kind of ‘polyphonous’ self-mockery that serves to abject herself from mate-ly communitarianism wherein lurk ‘the most violent aspects of Australian materialism, sexism, homophobia and racism,’ in an act of shedding-as-becoming. Kim Scott finds it in the ‘arsehole’ of his en-whitenment; and Brian Castro, exploring othered-culturalism in Australia, performs the subject-as-process as multiple, asymmetrical selves. Campbell suggests that the one exception to this lot seems to be Kathy Acker, who sees a corruption so devastating that all that’s left for the subject-as-process is circus, carnival, and the dirge of parody.
If the sujet en procés is the overriding theme of Campbell’s Poetic Revolutionaries, then her book argues how the techniques, methods and practices of the semiotic are the clues out of the subjective labyrinth. Campbell demonstrates how mise en abymeappears and operates in, say, Carter’s rehabbed Bluebeard fable, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, when the virginal newlywed espies her husband gazing at her with an expression of pure carnal appetency in one of the castle’s many ‘guilded mirrors’. Then, in turning away, the virgin sees herself as he sees her and understands about herself for the first time ‘a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.’ One sees here the contradictions between desire and death – Liebestod – come together in Carter’s textual victim. As Campbell further elaborates, ‘the story disturbs foremost with its emphasis on the awakening in the young bride of a desire for her own crushing annihilation.’ Similarly, in Kim Scott’s novel of miscegenation and ‘enwhitenment’, Benang, Campbell has us pause before a mirror with the novel’s subject-in-process, Harley. There, we note that the one remaining feature of his Aboriginality is his ‘arsehole.’ Campbell incisively notes:
The mirror functions like hegemony, interpellating the Indigenous subject within the dominant racist discourse. To ‘black eye’ this mirror is to resist its call to abjection and subjugation, to treat it with the contempt it deserves.
It should be noted, however, that not all critics of the postmodern find such analytically constructed moments of mise en abyme entirely convincing. Ron Moshe, for instance, details nine problems he has with the definition and function of the figure, and is persuasively unconvinced that such mirror scenes are emblematic of anything special.2 Nevertheless, Campbell’s observation is an interesting way of performing Scott’s text.
Just as Kristeva’s subject-in-process suggests an individuation that is never static, heteroglossia proffers forth a multiplicity of subjects-in-process, tentatively congealed in a kind of cultural individuation. As Mikhail Bakhtin posits:
Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values. The semantic structure of an internally persuasive discourse is not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever newer ways to mean … (Bakhtin’s emphasis)3
Campbell demonstrates how heteroglossia is embedded in our thinking to begin with: that often we are not as ‘original’ in our ideological thinking as we like to believe we are; that our thinking in the realm of the symbolic is mediated and dialectical. This is bad news and good news: bad, because the implication is that we are largely products of conditioning, our thoughts and beliefs being part of a cultural co-dependency; good, because a secondary implication is that we can awaken from such conditioning and free our thinking. This is the work of postmodernism (just as it was the work of Socrates a couple of cosmic moments ago). All of the works under Campbell’s scrutiny – no matter the genre – shake, rattle and roll complacency and the conditioned expectation.
Perhaps Campbell’s best discussion of the power and necessity of unfettered heteroglossia comes in her discussion of Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, where, citing feminist theoretician Donna Haraway, Campbell draws a distinction between the personal politics of heteroglossic resistance (and the need to carve out one’s own space, as it were) and that of social politics: ‘Complexity, heterogeneity, specific positioning, and power-charged difference are not the same thing as liberal pluralism.’ With its multiplicity of voices, rupturing of genre discourse and assorted registers, Fallon’s Working Hot is, Campbell suggests, a work of what Haraway calls ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ and, consequently, a prime example of how textual practice can work to shake up socio-political culture.
Related to this, is Campbell’s marvellous explication of how Kim Scott’s Benangexplores the way language works as a material body, that is, ‘writing as a technology of terror perpetrated upon indigenous Australia.’ Indeed, what is terra nullius if not a ‘failure’ to produce a body of persuasion, a habeas corpus in the form of a sheet of paper called a land deed? What more compelling example of the dangers of controlled, commoditised, and reified language by its ‘possessors’, than the paper lingo of colonialism? In Benang, Campbell shows, miscegenation itself becomes a papering-over of an ancient oral tradition, deeply rooted in kinship, local cadences and rhythms, by the material enslavement to paper. Harley’s body, his ‘enwhitenment’, is the message of radical miscegenation; its own silent, wordless text, a tabula rasa tragedy. And yet, as Campbell amplifies, Scott has managed to ironically, ‘masterfully’ craft a largely parodic subversion of this reality – hoiking the colonials back into their own spittoon.
In the works Campbell examines and enacts, the principal method of textual subversion is by means of staging the carnivalesque. Loosely speaking, and as the term suggests, the carnivalesque involves the staging of a second, parallel reality that is parodic, autonomous and subversive of the hegemonic. The term is derived from a nearly forgotten but then much-practiced medieval folk tradition that Bakhtin describes in ‘Carnival Ambivalence’:
Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval spectacles often tended toward carnival folk cultures, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play. (my emphasis)4
Of course, harkening back to Kristeva, one might also say that carnival takes place in the borderline between the semiotic and the symbolic; it is the meaning of language and simultaneously its ‘infidel’. Campbell amply demonstrates how this carnival atmosphere prevails in each of the primary and/or secondary works of the authors under consideration. It can take the form of scenographic carnival, as with Genet, or in graphological fulfilment, as with Acker, or in atavistic guises, such as with Harley in Benang, where his body itself becomes a carnival of abjection. The carnivalesque serves to undermine any notions of a stable, authoritative reality; there is no text, per se, but only the hypotheses of power, the centripetal and centrifugal pulling and held together in the atomic proximity of being. Campbell reiterates throughout her analysis that the textual practices of such postmodern works serve to liberate, and in doing so hold out the inexhaustible blessing/curse of socio-political change. In short, intertextuality and subversion are a means to getting at the poetic revolution within; becoming is the revolution.
It is not only Campbell’s analysis that is trenchant and compelling. In many places she employs some exquisite turns of expression that light up the page. She uses the term rubato at one stage to describe the technique of Brian Castro at play, but it could just as easily describe her own approach: keeping her subject of scrutiny in structural suspense with her lefty handwork, while laying down some righteous, handsome melodies with the other. For example, in describing the polybiographical nuances of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, she writes:
Here, reclaiming cultural and ethnic multiplicity means navigating a universe of stories. The tessellation of genres, modes, and registers proposes inheritance as a relay of linguistic performances in the face of severance and exile. It suggests—through the gaps and abysses of its writing, through its phantasmagoria, its memories and its amnesia, its excesses, the compensatory tempo rubato or the stolen time of its music—that such might be the ‘grounding’, of ‘identity’, whose quest is as monstrous as it is vertiginous.
In this style, through more than mere analysis, Campbell bolsters the sublime which imbues her politics of the poetic.
But in the end one wonders if Campbell has sufficiently answered the simple, straight forward query with which she begins her analytical quest: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ As stated earlier, the contemporary socio-political culture she has in mind is clearly that of Australia. The three living textual practitioners she reviews – Fallon, Scott, and Castro – certainly have put forth transgressive works confronting issues that continue to pile up bad karma in the Australian socio-political culture: gender/sexual identity, the continued marginalisation of Aboriginality, and other-cultural accommodation. Campbell, while holding out a certain degree of optimism and continuing to keep faith with the alchemical processes of the semiotic, nevertheless provides a scathing rebuke to Castro’s reception among mainstream critics, adding what can only be seen as a massive slap-down of Australian mainstream culture:
Such is the myth of Australian egalitarianism that any difficult or ‘complex’ cultural text, whatever form it takes, is condemned by the mainstream critical apparatus as being wilfully abstruse and elitist … it is tempting to see it at once as symptomatic of the continuing mainstream distrust of intellectuals and of any who fail to embrace the feel-good myths of down-to-earth Aussie ‘belonging’, and especially those who celebrate a multiplicity of inheritance, rather than sentimentalised Anglo-Celt assimilationist mediocrity.
This is one of the few places in her work where Campbell sheds her analytical ‘diamonds and furs’, as she so brilliantly puts it in her latest novel, konkretion.1 In fact, Campbell’s konkretion is the rubato and carnival that accompanies her highly structured, academic thesis. The novel features an aging lecturer who complains about the same indifference afforded to postmodern literary experimentation and who seems imprisoned by her nostalgitations on the glory days of ‘revolution in the air’. At one point, the narrative voice of konkretion notes: ‘For some of Monique’s colleagues, poetry, and while we’re at it all of so-called literary fiction, is a right wing plot, effete, aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs.’ This highlights one of the paradoxes of postmodernism: it liberates thought, but, at the same time, like Socrates, it is functionally anti-democratic and sceptical of popular culture, and many critics would like to see it go the way of Socrates (some argue that it already has).2
Poetic Revolutionaries would make for an intoxicating postgraduate survey course in postmodernism, tracing as it does a lineage and continuity of vital processes still at work, although significantly co-opted by rebounding structuralists who want to write a neo-liberal end to history. But postmodernism hasn’t gained the purchase on culture that Campbell wants, although it continues to be a necessary and effective tool, even if not a discernible movement. It is just such a course that is unlikely to ever see the light of day at any contemporary university in Australia, as recent academic labour tensions, followed in recent weeks by substantial budget cuts in education by the Abbott regime, make all too clear.
In the end, one wonders if the seemingly inexhaustible passion of desire expressed in language can any longer be transformative. Living in a world at war with an abstract noun (terror), under surveillance, and with democracy going the way of South Pole ice caps, people of a certain age (of which I’m one) can’t help but moon nostalgically and wonder if a 1968 is possible again – whether raining money down on Wall Street brokers, levitating the Pentagon, or sliding flower stems down gun barrels. The spring and summer of 1968 saw students, artists and intellectuals around the world begin a full-throated resistance to the doings of the Man – a resistance that grew in all the years leading up to the Nixon resignation in 1973, before being subdued again. Or is that all illusory? As Terry Eagleton prefers to remember it:
Imagine, finally, the most bizarre possibility of all. I have spoken of symptoms of political defeat; but what if this defeat never really happened in the first place? What if it were less a matter of the left rising up and being forced back, than of a steady disintegration, a gradual failure of nerve, a creeping paralysis? What if the confrontation never quite took place, but people behaved as though it did? As though someone were to display all the symptoms of rabies, but had never been within biting distance of a mad dog.3
If postmodernism still had its potency one might expect to see Genet’s The Screensbeing performed in one of the Aboriginal graveyards on Rottnest Island, with Pommies and Miners (the neo-Diggers) on stilts, and swimming there being part of the price of admission and submersion. But we hesitate like Hamlets, all ‘to be or not to be’, pondering Polonius-like memes such as, ‘Neither a Subject nor an Object be.’ Can the textual productions of the likes of Fallon, Scott and Castro find that critical purchase and subversive impact on contemporary socio-political Australian culture, as Campbell hopes?
- Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984 ↩
- Ron Moshe, ‘The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyss’, Poetics Today, Volume 8, Number 2 (1987), pp417-438 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Dialogic Discourse’, The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p86 ↩
- Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Carnival Ambivalence’, The Bakhtin Reader, pp197-8 ↩