Saturday, 29 November 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

A Fish Swims Like a Fish

Friday, 25 April 2014 12:01 By John Steppling, John Steppling's Blog | Op-Ed

“The more laws that are written, the more criminals are produced.”
Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu

“Doctors are no doubt correct in warning us not to touch wounds; and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which has long lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is plainly suffering from mortal illness. Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty now seems no longer natural.”
Etienne de la Boetie
The Politics of Obedience

“Clear water all the way to the bottom;
a fish swims like a fish.”

Master Dogen
13th century (tr.Kazuaki Tanahashi)

There is a long article in the current Harpers by Adolph Reed, but I can't afford to read it, so I have to wonder if that irony is lost on Reed or not.

Still, there is a very fascinating interview Thomas Frank did with Reed at Salon. And among the points made has to do with the loss of labor identity, culturally and as community.

“FRANK: The labor movement. You said to reverse all this, it requires a “vibrant labor movement.” How on earth is that going to happen? Actually I’ve made this point to progressives and they don’t understand. They’re like, “What’s so special about labor?”They don’t particularly like labor. Culturally, it’s not them. They don’t really get it.

REED: They like their workers when they’re brown and really abject and getting the shit beaten out of them but they don’t like them when they try to work through institutions to build power for themselves as a class. That’s one way to put it.”

The affulent white liberal and increasingly corrupted left, in the US and UK, dont identify with labor. In Hollywood all union themes are nostalgic, and period. Labor is nostalgic. Work today is either sentimentalized or idealized. The poor are happy and simple. And the attention economy, the harvesting of time and the uses and circulation of image have given work the appearance of leisure. Or rather leisure IS work.

“FRANK: Obama’s a highly intelligent man. You’ve met him.

REED: Yes.

FRANK: Maybe he’s a cipher in the sense that he’s a symbol. But he’s not a cipher of a human.

REED: I don’t know. Look, I’ve taught a bunch of versions of him.

FRANK: You mean you’ve had people like him as students?

REED: Yeah. So his cohort in the Ivy League. His style. There’s superficial polish or there’s a polish that may go down to the core. I don’t know. A performance of a judicious intellectuality. A capacity to show an ability to understand and empathize with multiple sides of an argument. Obama has described himself in that way himself in one or maybe both of his books and elsewhere. He’s said that he has this knack for encouraging people to see a better world for themselves through him.

FRANK: Yeah, he’s like a blank slate.

REED: Right. Which in a less charitable moment you might say is like a sociopath.”

Most everyone can see the ideological seepage. Obama belives (as Reed points out) that the best students should be taken out of the ghetto or barrio and put in special schools rich people attend. The remaining poor, those not identified as special, can just fuck off, essentially. This is really a return to feudalism. And it is increasingly accepted as a reasonable idea. For increasingly the goal is, as Reed says in different words, the sharing of privilege. If Condi Rice as Sec of State is seen as progress for women’s rights, the Obama is seen as this, too, for racial equality (though of course Lyndon Johnson and Nixon gave more to the poor and to minorities than Clinton or Obama) then perception has eclipsed reality and become its own reality. In fact, its really the structural imperatives that reinforce this stratification. And its marketing. The selling of gentrification, and elitism as favorable, and the underclass as pathological and criminal.

The affluent class, the same ones who like their causes distanced from themselves, also are comfortable with the sending of troops (US military troops) on missions of “caring”. They won’t volunteer for the military, but they love to fawn over ‘others’ in the military, almost all of whom are poor. Send them, let them go fix Ukraine (fix US interests and prop up a fascist government). Let them rescue those poor (but not so attractive) women in the rape camps in Bosnia (even if they never existed). When Clinton plundered Haiti, that was ok, that was familiar because that is how they treat their own gardners and maids.

One of the things that strikes me, in light of, for example, this. 

The response of many was only to reaffirm that they “enjoyed it”. Even if its ersatz, fake and manipulation …. this really no longer matters for many. The events in the Ukraine, obviously orchestrated by the U.S., is met with confusion by many on the left, because almost without realizing it, their training in reading history is shaped by TV and film. The formal Open Letter to the EU, signed by such ghouls as Bernie Kouchner, Zizek, and arch reactionaries like Tim Garton Ash and Adam Michnik, is representative of this weird false memory. It is enough to see ‘people’ in the streets. Oh, our Hollywood implanted sense of protest means we are on the side of these ‘people’, never mind history, the US state department and CIA, or even fascists openly backed by the U.S. in the service of IMF, WB, and Chevron. If one cannot read the video of paid models kissing for what it is, then how can one read more complex matters, more complex images?

Today’s aesthetic education assumes (as I’ve said before) a certain idea about ‘reality’. And art is seen to be predicated upon volition. And this idea of volition exists outside history, or individual relations to material and means of production. It is simply there, apriori. It is connected to varying and changing notions of ability. This was the result, mostly, of Alois Riegl, but of Lipps, too, but of Worringer, and Wolfflin, and a great many others. And missing in this is mimesis. I don’t want to sidetrack too deeply into this, but only to point out that there is a general sort of assumption (which dates back two hundred years) that prior to the decision to create a work of ‘art’, there is the same universal impulse, and that it has a relationship, however vague, to nature. And increasingly, this culture sees the past in light of, and as if it were the same as the present. The past is just the present with different styles. Anachronisms are not read as anachronistic anymore. But its deeper than that, of course. It is that aesthetics are linked to a common sense idea of nature, as its been handed down (and increasingly commodified and marketed) and with this idea of volition, and of ability and skill. I forget who used the term “a dread of space” (maybe Joseph Frank) but much critical art writing and theory appeared in reaction to the rise of abstraction on the 20th century. And one of the truisms about abstraction, at least from, say, Pollock onward, was that this was an art about ‘surface’. I suppose this is the influence of Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg. And while I think this is wrong, one would have to really sit down and explore what one means by ‘surface’. Rosenberg actually contested the Greenbergian notion of Ab Ex as concerned exclusively with surface, and insisted, rather, on the idea of the act, of a certain expression of chance and training (like Japanese calligraphy) that come together in a moment of awareness.

It is this awareness that is the creating of space. Abstract expressionism has always been mis-perceived because of Greenberg, mostly, but also by a lot of those artists following after Rothko, Pollock, and Kline.

“An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”
Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows

In Japanese aesthetics a key concept is yugen, or mysterious beauty, and sabi, the veil of history or antiquity. The dualism of the West is not addressed in another way, it actually doesnt even come up as a topic. Sabi is the quality of aging well, the creation of a patina or even rust on objects, which then take us back in reverie to our past, and to our ancestors. It is connected in one way with the tea ceremony, with the beauty of insufficiency. This also leads back to the idea of calligraphy, which under Confucian influence in Japan (in the 1700s, the Edo period) what had been simply called the ‘art of writing’, became Shodo, or ‘way of writing’, meaning a meditative practice. I actually called this blog The Practice of Writing, with this in mind. Calligraphy as the indexical embodiment or expression of dharma, not simply part of a message pointing toward dharma. In a sense, for the medieval Zen teacher, each brush stroke was a self portrait. And it was about practice. I hope to return to a long posting sometime soon on No drama, because I feel somehow one of the keys to reimagining theatre lies within practices that dispense with the decorative, and mediate the idea of recieving a message. A key concept of Zen aesthetics is makoto, or natural sincerity.

One of the effects of advanced capital and its mass production of everything, and its embedded militaristic ethic is that practice became repetition, and the machine like reptition of industry has imprinted itself on all cultural expression. Adorno saw the increasingly militaristic in certain conductors, the baton more and more resembling a implement with which to beat the audience. Technology needs no practice. And without practice, there is no self portrait. The camera is finally an intermediary that cuts the user of the camera, the technician, off from his creation. Now, there are alternative routes to get to the final artwork, the photograh, say, and partly this alternative route is what is so compelling. There is an occluding of this step, in most writing on photography, and probably, too, on cinema. One of the qualities in Ozu that destabilizes, still, all of his films, is that the camera becomes a field of practice. By placing it on the tatami mat, same height each shot, and then by rehearsing his actors at compulsive length, Ozu was offering something closer to makoto. I think Bresson might be the only other director that so looked to cross the technical divide, or gulf, or maybe, abyss.

In corporate cultural product today, there is what Adorno called a “narcissistically self-staging positivity…”. It is the art of the ego. A shreiking self advertising ego.

“The growing relevance of technology in artworks must not become a motive for surbordinating them to that type of reason that produced technology and finds it continuation in it.”
Adorno

Instrumental reason, today monopolizes everyday thought and experience, and language. Metaphors are created by reference to technology, and there is no vocabulary for genuine practice, and by extension there is no appreciation not funneled through the prism of technological categories. Appreciation is shaped by the audience’s growing sophistication in recognizing technological limits and in their recognition of a societal profit driven ethos taken as fixed in nature. And this internalizing of a techno model is what (partly anyway) leads to a culture of ‘fans’. There has evolved an intermediary step in the process of viewing the world, or interpreting all narratives, and that step is this new specialized appreciation of the characteristics of the system. In other words, there is an audience who are made to feel, encouraged to feel, like insiders who can judge — with great cyncicism — the process of profit making. On the flip side there is an utter blindness to the reality of their own exploitation. This culture seems not to mind, consciously anyway, that the ownership 1%, or 2%, have made their fortunes by naked theft and supression of individual human rights.

The valorizing of power, of brutality, has led to the erasure of humility. The spectacle presents a narrow self serving brutality as if it were an inner strength. Humility is weakness, forgiveness is weakness, and compassion is simply a pathology. Compassion is presented again and again as if it were an aberrant condition in need of medication. One of the things I’ve noticed, repeatedly, in popular culture is a basic refusal to accept apology and the witholding of forgivness. Forgiveness must be, almost magically, *earned*. The default setting is always to withold forgiveness, resulting in the cessation of considering it, the subject knows it will not be forthcoming, so the knee jerk reaction for mistakes is to double down, to make bigger more selfish mistakes or actions. And of course selfishness is not a problem.

Selfishness only becomes a problem, if it does, if it is accompanied by failure, by losing. It strikes me that the ascension of irony and snark has eliminated even the discussion of sincerity. And this elimination is reflected in secondary ways, in the basic construction of image and narrative. The fragmented and unfinshed or interrupted narrative is easy to cast aside sarcastically, because injury, emotional wounds are perceived as weakness. Audiences increasingly sense not to invest, not to watch too carefully, because so little pays off in corporate product. On the personal level of kistch psychology, hurt feelings can be navigated — sometimes — but the admission of deeper emotional relationship to culture, to art, is sneered at and ridiculed. In fact, ANY deeper concern for the creative tends to be ridiculed. One aspect of this is the hyper masculine (the brutal masculine) presentation of self that is so valorized. Where once the lonely cowboy, emotionally witholding, who liked the company of his horse better than family or wife, has become the sadistic and violent vigilante, the uniformed psychopath, the professional assassin. Writers and filmmakers as varied (sort of) as Neil LaBute, David Mamet, Zach Snyder, Clint Eastwood, Stephen Bochco, and David Milch et al, are also all prone to expressions of crass sentimentality. That sentimentality is often fused with jingoistic patriotism and a Norman Rockwell level cherishing of ‘family’. But these are fantasy constructions of family and country. Speilberg, that avatar of Reagan era white values, and his progeny like Joss Whedon, Vince Gilligan and J.J. Abrams, have repeated the tropes perhaps first ushered in way back with Frank Capra. The palatte of American kistch expression of family owes a lot to Capra, Walt Disney, and Speilberg.

On another track it is useful to look at the careers of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. This is the subsumption of counter culture expressions of dissent. And this goes back to Harold Ramis again, too. The contrarian posture was co-opted by social critics such as Zizek, but also in the nerd white guy culture of Zuckerberg and about a dozen film school graduates and children of nepotism (Sofia Coppola comes to mind) who churn out the reactionary and very white hipster product in which contrarian or oppositional is expressed through a face lift re branding of racism and mysogny. Racism in Ray Bans and an ironic haircut.

To be oppositional now means to embrace the previously rejected values of the far right. Niall Ferguson is the Oxford version of this, and Zizek the critical theory (as clown show) version. That all of this is horribly infantile and often just factually wrong is never a problem, because the instrumental values of technology, the belief in progress, and the revanchist stance on race and gender are fused with snark, sarcasm, and historical amnesia. Racism isn’t the problem, anti racism is the real racism. Patriarchal hegemony isn’t the real problem, feminism is the new hegemony. And on and on. The need for the ‘new’ fuels this endless almost scatter shot revisionism for the new fashion collection for Spring needs novelty. Facts are for sissies.

Reed says in his essay that the U.S. is left with a choice “between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.”

The branding of race. Race as a style question. In favor of multiculturalism means what? For most of white America the question of race operates as a cosmetic indicator of lifestyle choices.

The question of race hangs over this discussion, at least in terms of the U.S. like a toxic mental cloud of methyl isocyanate and white phosphorus that eats into every discourse. It actually encloses all the values of white gentrification culture, of arch irony, insincerity, and trust in authority. Race is outside the intellectual gated community of white affluence. Curiosity is bracketed away much as humility and compassion. A totalizing positivism. Self staging.

Bruce Levine wrote a pretty sharp piece here.  And it cant be over-emphasized, I don’t think, the role of both student debt AND psychiatric medication. There is no more NUMB country in the world. No country that on a simple biological level, ‘feels’ less. So to tick off the boxes: Heavily medicated, afraid due to constant fear producing propaganda, fear because of being in debt (either student debt, mortgages, or just business failure), loss of autonomous thought, the ability or inclination to think about resistance, to meditate on their own existential condition. A marketed snideness that would make fun of existential philosophical questions. Reflection itself has been bartered away for the latest iPhone or high resolution brain scan…er….computer screen. Fear of the police. Full stop. The police today are simply objects that elicit fear.

Reason #3 for Levine:

“Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy. Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” A generation ago, the problem of compulsory schooling as a vehicle for an authoritarian society was widely discussed, but as this problem has gotten worse, it is seldom discussed.

The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation.”

In the same way that the institutional authorities have domesticated the wild, regulated camping and even walking in National Parks, so has the intellectual landscape been narrowly regulated and stringently enforced. A majority of Americans will see a wilderness landscape and imagine a place to drive dune buggies or ATVs, or dirt bikes. There is a default setting that all nature needs is a mechanical application of some sort applied to it. Again, aesthetic reflection tends toward the anti authoritarian analysis.

Jean Genet wrote about theatre; “As to the audience, only those would come who knew they were capable of a nightime walk in the cemetary to be confronted with a mystery…if such a location were used…writers would be less frivolous, they’d think twice before having plays performed there. They might accept the omens of insanity, or of a frivolity bordering on insanity.”

I think the theatre of the dead is a perfectly sane idea. In fact theatre IS about the dead, not the living. A performance in crypts, atop graves, would, no doubt, cause outrage. But why? Such dialogues, such discourse, is forbidden in today’s west.

There was a famous essay, which appeared in Cahiers du Cinema, titled Blind Man and The Mirror, The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk. Written by Jean-Louis Comolli. It hinted at, and pointed toward, some ineffable and delicate transcendent quality that Sirk managed to create in the midst of overwrought melodramatic scripts. Tag Gallagher wrote;

“Imitation of Life was Sirk’s biggest success and last commercial film. He had been all but ignored during his career and was resurrected only a decade after it by tiny yet earnest coteries scattered around Europe and America. If his most famous apostle was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his most Pauline apostle was Jon Halliday, whose interview, Sirk on Sirk (1972) – one of the greatest film books ever – reappeared in Sirk’s centenary year 25 percent longer and ten times better.” There has been, at least since Godard first waxed enthusiastic in 1959, in an early Cahiers piece, something in Sirk that brings out the language of devotional practice and ecclesiastical metaphors. I bring up Sirk here, after Ozu because if I put aside my personal favorites, of films that meant something personal and special to me, and really seperate the very most elite cinema, the impossible, those that achieve something outside conventional analysis, I think I am probably left with maybe only four, at most five, films, or directors, who have reached this ‘impossible’. One is Bresson, and one is Dreyer, and one is Ozu. These are the holy triumverate that Paul Schrader wrote about in his influential and very smart book Transcendental Style In Film. I would add Rossellini, at least the Rossellini of Louis XV, and Blaise Pascal. I would add Pasolini, of Gospel According to St Matthew. And Fassbinder, in Year of 13 Moons, and certainly in Berlin Alexanderplatz. That might be it. Mizoguchi maybe. Maybe. There are others that suggest but never quite realize the spiritual; the best of Welles, and Von Sternberg, and Eisenstein. Que Viva Mexico is certainly a talismanic masterpiece of unfinished fragments. The best of Hitchcock should be considered. And revisiting those odd auteurs whose body of work was small, Clarance Brown for one. When I first started to seriously watch films, with Terry Ork in New York, and the bible was Sarris’ American Cinema, we went to at least three films a day. There were small private film clubs, and there were triple bills on 42nd street. It was all we did. Well, almost all, but thats another story. People came to blows over Tay Garnett and if Sarris was right about his inconsistency. Or if Ford’s master shots were better than Hawks. And everyone read Cahiers. There were debates late into the night on the merits of Edgar G. Ulmer, and Blake Edwards, on Tashlin and Preminger. But nothing was ever snide. Nobody was anything but serious. I mention this personal memory because sometimes I wonder how a culture of such seriousness has so completly disappeared. There was politics, too, and it was taken as a given that radical revolutionary thought was an indispensible part of the fabric of the search. A search for revelation. Nobody really worked. I had odd jobs, working for a small rare book dealer on Greenwhich St. I catelogued W.H Auden’s library. Most of his books were ancient history and I remember the pleasure of just handling these books, smelling them, feeling them. I ended up never being paid for that job, but I didn’t care.

There is something elusive, and hard to pin down in the Rossellini, and this despite the paradoxical intentional ‘realism’. Its an almost meta naturalism. Fassbinder felt Sirk to be his greatest teacher. And in some sense, Berlin Alexanderplatz is his most Sirkian film, though many are overtly refrencing Sirk. In Dreyer, it is purity. Simply a chaste gaze, and Bresson follows upon this, that looks to create religious alters of clarity. If the brushstroke of Edo Period samurai monk/calligraphers is spiritual autobiography, then perhaps Sirk is that paradoxical cinematic monk. Dreyer is the Lutheran abbot, and Pasolini, the homosexual union organizer, a Marxist Jesus. In each case, though, and I guess this is my point, there is mokoto. Sincerity. But actual sincerity. Kierkegaard said something to the effect that we never know when we are being sincere. Perhaps. But I suspect that is artistic practice is involved, here.

Creating space, for reflection, seems crucial. It is interesting, Genet in that same essay I believe, said it took endless time to finish Brothers Karamozov. He would read a page and sit for an hour. He also called theatre rehearsals ‘trials’. Rehearse, conduct the trial, atop a crypt. Say what cannot be said in any way in any other place.

A few weeks ago a grad student, a young woman, argued with me about something, but at the end she challanged my reading of this particular thinker, and said, ‘but there are hundreds of professors who agree with me’. I thought about that. Where does such craven obedience to title come from? The answer is, it is the lesson of school today. One lesson, all the time, OBEY. In an odd way, I come back to Unions. Without a culture of unions, the psychological make up of the working class is damaged. Perhaps thats the most obvious sentence I’ve ever written, but let me explain further. Its not just the economic protection, job security, and such, but its the sense of being cared for. The sense your neighbor is cared for. And his neighbor. Others, others are protected and looked after, and even if unions were corrupt, that sense of belonging and pride is gone now. Students who attend school today, whose parents work shit jobs, temp jobs, humiliating jobs, are not going to enter school without carrying a lot of anxiety. Shit, you enter school with anxiety in the best of all worlds. Today, you enter more afraid. More anxious. And less willing to argue. In High School they must pass through metal detectors. Armed guards roam the halls.

People will debate this to a degree, citing movements off the radar. But honestly, those are small, not large movements. They are great and they often accomplish a lot more than their numbers would predict, but, there is no sign of mass mobilizing. What there is, is a sign of mass confusion, mass acceptance of propaganda, and mass fear.

And in plain sight of everyone, the growing underclass of the U.S. Disproportionately black and latino, the growing numbers of working poor, of homeless families and of hunger are impossible to miss, even from the back seat of your Range Rover or Lexus SUV, through your tinted windows, with your GPS in front of you.
Fear. Fear of ridicule. Fear of drawing attention to yourself in the age of mass surveillance, and fear of punishment. The U.S. public clings to the belief that the world operates like a movie. The narrative they follow is one constructed by, largely, the U.S. government. This is not fantasy, it’s fact. This was obvious as far back as 1977 (thanks to Molly Klein for this reminder). 

And running alongside the master narrative are films that each year lurch further into pure totalitarian kitsch. The loss of sincerity, of humility as a product of deep practice is anethema to the corporate culture industry. Sincerity is vulnerability, it is the deep strength of a practice not designed to ‘work on yourself’, but to work on the world.

A glimpse of how disconnected are the very rich can be found here. 

I close with this piece on the mental health industry. And below that, one of Kuniyoshi’s prints that I used as a model for a tattoo that the great Greg James did on my left leg at the old Sunset Tattoo.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

John Steppling

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation.

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A Fish Swims Like a Fish

Friday, 25 April 2014 12:01 By John Steppling, John Steppling's Blog | Op-Ed

“The more laws that are written, the more criminals are produced.”
Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu

“Doctors are no doubt correct in warning us not to touch wounds; and I am presumably taking chances in preaching as I do to a people which has long lost all sensitivity and, no longer conscious of its infirmity, is plainly suffering from mortal illness. Let us therefore understand by logic, if we can, how it happens that this obstinate willingness to submit has become so deeply rooted in a nation that the very love of liberty now seems no longer natural.”
Etienne de la Boetie
The Politics of Obedience

“Clear water all the way to the bottom;
a fish swims like a fish.”

Master Dogen
13th century (tr.Kazuaki Tanahashi)

There is a long article in the current Harpers by Adolph Reed, but I can't afford to read it, so I have to wonder if that irony is lost on Reed or not.

Still, there is a very fascinating interview Thomas Frank did with Reed at Salon. And among the points made has to do with the loss of labor identity, culturally and as community.

“FRANK: The labor movement. You said to reverse all this, it requires a “vibrant labor movement.” How on earth is that going to happen? Actually I’ve made this point to progressives and they don’t understand. They’re like, “What’s so special about labor?”They don’t particularly like labor. Culturally, it’s not them. They don’t really get it.

REED: They like their workers when they’re brown and really abject and getting the shit beaten out of them but they don’t like them when they try to work through institutions to build power for themselves as a class. That’s one way to put it.”

The affulent white liberal and increasingly corrupted left, in the US and UK, dont identify with labor. In Hollywood all union themes are nostalgic, and period. Labor is nostalgic. Work today is either sentimentalized or idealized. The poor are happy and simple. And the attention economy, the harvesting of time and the uses and circulation of image have given work the appearance of leisure. Or rather leisure IS work.

“FRANK: Obama’s a highly intelligent man. You’ve met him.

REED: Yes.

FRANK: Maybe he’s a cipher in the sense that he’s a symbol. But he’s not a cipher of a human.

REED: I don’t know. Look, I’ve taught a bunch of versions of him.

FRANK: You mean you’ve had people like him as students?

REED: Yeah. So his cohort in the Ivy League. His style. There’s superficial polish or there’s a polish that may go down to the core. I don’t know. A performance of a judicious intellectuality. A capacity to show an ability to understand and empathize with multiple sides of an argument. Obama has described himself in that way himself in one or maybe both of his books and elsewhere. He’s said that he has this knack for encouraging people to see a better world for themselves through him.

FRANK: Yeah, he’s like a blank slate.

REED: Right. Which in a less charitable moment you might say is like a sociopath.”

Most everyone can see the ideological seepage. Obama belives (as Reed points out) that the best students should be taken out of the ghetto or barrio and put in special schools rich people attend. The remaining poor, those not identified as special, can just fuck off, essentially. This is really a return to feudalism. And it is increasingly accepted as a reasonable idea. For increasingly the goal is, as Reed says in different words, the sharing of privilege. If Condi Rice as Sec of State is seen as progress for women’s rights, the Obama is seen as this, too, for racial equality (though of course Lyndon Johnson and Nixon gave more to the poor and to minorities than Clinton or Obama) then perception has eclipsed reality and become its own reality. In fact, its really the structural imperatives that reinforce this stratification. And its marketing. The selling of gentrification, and elitism as favorable, and the underclass as pathological and criminal.

The affluent class, the same ones who like their causes distanced from themselves, also are comfortable with the sending of troops (US military troops) on missions of “caring”. They won’t volunteer for the military, but they love to fawn over ‘others’ in the military, almost all of whom are poor. Send them, let them go fix Ukraine (fix US interests and prop up a fascist government). Let them rescue those poor (but not so attractive) women in the rape camps in Bosnia (even if they never existed). When Clinton plundered Haiti, that was ok, that was familiar because that is how they treat their own gardners and maids.

One of the things that strikes me, in light of, for example, this. 

The response of many was only to reaffirm that they “enjoyed it”. Even if its ersatz, fake and manipulation …. this really no longer matters for many. The events in the Ukraine, obviously orchestrated by the U.S., is met with confusion by many on the left, because almost without realizing it, their training in reading history is shaped by TV and film. The formal Open Letter to the EU, signed by such ghouls as Bernie Kouchner, Zizek, and arch reactionaries like Tim Garton Ash and Adam Michnik, is representative of this weird false memory. It is enough to see ‘people’ in the streets. Oh, our Hollywood implanted sense of protest means we are on the side of these ‘people’, never mind history, the US state department and CIA, or even fascists openly backed by the U.S. in the service of IMF, WB, and Chevron. If one cannot read the video of paid models kissing for what it is, then how can one read more complex matters, more complex images?

Today’s aesthetic education assumes (as I’ve said before) a certain idea about ‘reality’. And art is seen to be predicated upon volition. And this idea of volition exists outside history, or individual relations to material and means of production. It is simply there, apriori. It is connected to varying and changing notions of ability. This was the result, mostly, of Alois Riegl, but of Lipps, too, but of Worringer, and Wolfflin, and a great many others. And missing in this is mimesis. I don’t want to sidetrack too deeply into this, but only to point out that there is a general sort of assumption (which dates back two hundred years) that prior to the decision to create a work of ‘art’, there is the same universal impulse, and that it has a relationship, however vague, to nature. And increasingly, this culture sees the past in light of, and as if it were the same as the present. The past is just the present with different styles. Anachronisms are not read as anachronistic anymore. But its deeper than that, of course. It is that aesthetics are linked to a common sense idea of nature, as its been handed down (and increasingly commodified and marketed) and with this idea of volition, and of ability and skill. I forget who used the term “a dread of space” (maybe Joseph Frank) but much critical art writing and theory appeared in reaction to the rise of abstraction on the 20th century. And one of the truisms about abstraction, at least from, say, Pollock onward, was that this was an art about ‘surface’. I suppose this is the influence of Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg. And while I think this is wrong, one would have to really sit down and explore what one means by ‘surface’. Rosenberg actually contested the Greenbergian notion of Ab Ex as concerned exclusively with surface, and insisted, rather, on the idea of the act, of a certain expression of chance and training (like Japanese calligraphy) that come together in a moment of awareness.

It is this awareness that is the creating of space. Abstract expressionism has always been mis-perceived because of Greenberg, mostly, but also by a lot of those artists following after Rothko, Pollock, and Kline.

“An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.”
Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows

In Japanese aesthetics a key concept is yugen, or mysterious beauty, and sabi, the veil of history or antiquity. The dualism of the West is not addressed in another way, it actually doesnt even come up as a topic. Sabi is the quality of aging well, the creation of a patina or even rust on objects, which then take us back in reverie to our past, and to our ancestors. It is connected in one way with the tea ceremony, with the beauty of insufficiency. This also leads back to the idea of calligraphy, which under Confucian influence in Japan (in the 1700s, the Edo period) what had been simply called the ‘art of writing’, became Shodo, or ‘way of writing’, meaning a meditative practice. I actually called this blog The Practice of Writing, with this in mind. Calligraphy as the indexical embodiment or expression of dharma, not simply part of a message pointing toward dharma. In a sense, for the medieval Zen teacher, each brush stroke was a self portrait. And it was about practice. I hope to return to a long posting sometime soon on No drama, because I feel somehow one of the keys to reimagining theatre lies within practices that dispense with the decorative, and mediate the idea of recieving a message. A key concept of Zen aesthetics is makoto, or natural sincerity.

One of the effects of advanced capital and its mass production of everything, and its embedded militaristic ethic is that practice became repetition, and the machine like reptition of industry has imprinted itself on all cultural expression. Adorno saw the increasingly militaristic in certain conductors, the baton more and more resembling a implement with which to beat the audience. Technology needs no practice. And without practice, there is no self portrait. The camera is finally an intermediary that cuts the user of the camera, the technician, off from his creation. Now, there are alternative routes to get to the final artwork, the photograh, say, and partly this alternative route is what is so compelling. There is an occluding of this step, in most writing on photography, and probably, too, on cinema. One of the qualities in Ozu that destabilizes, still, all of his films, is that the camera becomes a field of practice. By placing it on the tatami mat, same height each shot, and then by rehearsing his actors at compulsive length, Ozu was offering something closer to makoto. I think Bresson might be the only other director that so looked to cross the technical divide, or gulf, or maybe, abyss.

In corporate cultural product today, there is what Adorno called a “narcissistically self-staging positivity…”. It is the art of the ego. A shreiking self advertising ego.

“The growing relevance of technology in artworks must not become a motive for surbordinating them to that type of reason that produced technology and finds it continuation in it.”
Adorno

Instrumental reason, today monopolizes everyday thought and experience, and language. Metaphors are created by reference to technology, and there is no vocabulary for genuine practice, and by extension there is no appreciation not funneled through the prism of technological categories. Appreciation is shaped by the audience’s growing sophistication in recognizing technological limits and in their recognition of a societal profit driven ethos taken as fixed in nature. And this internalizing of a techno model is what (partly anyway) leads to a culture of ‘fans’. There has evolved an intermediary step in the process of viewing the world, or interpreting all narratives, and that step is this new specialized appreciation of the characteristics of the system. In other words, there is an audience who are made to feel, encouraged to feel, like insiders who can judge — with great cyncicism — the process of profit making. On the flip side there is an utter blindness to the reality of their own exploitation. This culture seems not to mind, consciously anyway, that the ownership 1%, or 2%, have made their fortunes by naked theft and supression of individual human rights.

The valorizing of power, of brutality, has led to the erasure of humility. The spectacle presents a narrow self serving brutality as if it were an inner strength. Humility is weakness, forgiveness is weakness, and compassion is simply a pathology. Compassion is presented again and again as if it were an aberrant condition in need of medication. One of the things I’ve noticed, repeatedly, in popular culture is a basic refusal to accept apology and the witholding of forgivness. Forgiveness must be, almost magically, *earned*. The default setting is always to withold forgiveness, resulting in the cessation of considering it, the subject knows it will not be forthcoming, so the knee jerk reaction for mistakes is to double down, to make bigger more selfish mistakes or actions. And of course selfishness is not a problem.

Selfishness only becomes a problem, if it does, if it is accompanied by failure, by losing. It strikes me that the ascension of irony and snark has eliminated even the discussion of sincerity. And this elimination is reflected in secondary ways, in the basic construction of image and narrative. The fragmented and unfinshed or interrupted narrative is easy to cast aside sarcastically, because injury, emotional wounds are perceived as weakness. Audiences increasingly sense not to invest, not to watch too carefully, because so little pays off in corporate product. On the personal level of kistch psychology, hurt feelings can be navigated — sometimes — but the admission of deeper emotional relationship to culture, to art, is sneered at and ridiculed. In fact, ANY deeper concern for the creative tends to be ridiculed. One aspect of this is the hyper masculine (the brutal masculine) presentation of self that is so valorized. Where once the lonely cowboy, emotionally witholding, who liked the company of his horse better than family or wife, has become the sadistic and violent vigilante, the uniformed psychopath, the professional assassin. Writers and filmmakers as varied (sort of) as Neil LaBute, David Mamet, Zach Snyder, Clint Eastwood, Stephen Bochco, and David Milch et al, are also all prone to expressions of crass sentimentality. That sentimentality is often fused with jingoistic patriotism and a Norman Rockwell level cherishing of ‘family’. But these are fantasy constructions of family and country. Speilberg, that avatar of Reagan era white values, and his progeny like Joss Whedon, Vince Gilligan and J.J. Abrams, have repeated the tropes perhaps first ushered in way back with Frank Capra. The palatte of American kistch expression of family owes a lot to Capra, Walt Disney, and Speilberg.

On another track it is useful to look at the careers of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. This is the subsumption of counter culture expressions of dissent. And this goes back to Harold Ramis again, too. The contrarian posture was co-opted by social critics such as Zizek, but also in the nerd white guy culture of Zuckerberg and about a dozen film school graduates and children of nepotism (Sofia Coppola comes to mind) who churn out the reactionary and very white hipster product in which contrarian or oppositional is expressed through a face lift re branding of racism and mysogny. Racism in Ray Bans and an ironic haircut.

To be oppositional now means to embrace the previously rejected values of the far right. Niall Ferguson is the Oxford version of this, and Zizek the critical theory (as clown show) version. That all of this is horribly infantile and often just factually wrong is never a problem, because the instrumental values of technology, the belief in progress, and the revanchist stance on race and gender are fused with snark, sarcasm, and historical amnesia. Racism isn’t the problem, anti racism is the real racism. Patriarchal hegemony isn’t the real problem, feminism is the new hegemony. And on and on. The need for the ‘new’ fuels this endless almost scatter shot revisionism for the new fashion collection for Spring needs novelty. Facts are for sissies.

Reed says in his essay that the U.S. is left with a choice “between two neoliberal parties, one of which distinguishes itself by being actively in favor of multiculturalism and diversity and the other of which distinguishes itself as being actively opposed to multiculturalism and diversity. But on 80 percent of the issues on which 80 percent of the population is concerned 80 percent of the time there is no real difference between them.”

The branding of race. Race as a style question. In favor of multiculturalism means what? For most of white America the question of race operates as a cosmetic indicator of lifestyle choices.

The question of race hangs over this discussion, at least in terms of the U.S. like a toxic mental cloud of methyl isocyanate and white phosphorus that eats into every discourse. It actually encloses all the values of white gentrification culture, of arch irony, insincerity, and trust in authority. Race is outside the intellectual gated community of white affluence. Curiosity is bracketed away much as humility and compassion. A totalizing positivism. Self staging.

Bruce Levine wrote a pretty sharp piece here.  And it cant be over-emphasized, I don’t think, the role of both student debt AND psychiatric medication. There is no more NUMB country in the world. No country that on a simple biological level, ‘feels’ less. So to tick off the boxes: Heavily medicated, afraid due to constant fear producing propaganda, fear because of being in debt (either student debt, mortgages, or just business failure), loss of autonomous thought, the ability or inclination to think about resistance, to meditate on their own existential condition. A marketed snideness that would make fun of existential philosophical questions. Reflection itself has been bartered away for the latest iPhone or high resolution brain scan…er….computer screen. Fear of the police. Full stop. The police today are simply objects that elicit fear.

Reason #3 for Levine:

“Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy. Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.” A generation ago, the problem of compulsory schooling as a vehicle for an authoritarian society was widely discussed, but as this problem has gotten worse, it is seldom discussed.

The nature of most classrooms, regardless of the subject matter, socializes students to be passive and directed by others, to follow orders, to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authorities, to pretend to care about things they don’t care about, and that they are impotent to affect their situation.”

In the same way that the institutional authorities have domesticated the wild, regulated camping and even walking in National Parks, so has the intellectual landscape been narrowly regulated and stringently enforced. A majority of Americans will see a wilderness landscape and imagine a place to drive dune buggies or ATVs, or dirt bikes. There is a default setting that all nature needs is a mechanical application of some sort applied to it. Again, aesthetic reflection tends toward the anti authoritarian analysis.

Jean Genet wrote about theatre; “As to the audience, only those would come who knew they were capable of a nightime walk in the cemetary to be confronted with a mystery…if such a location were used…writers would be less frivolous, they’d think twice before having plays performed there. They might accept the omens of insanity, or of a frivolity bordering on insanity.”

I think the theatre of the dead is a perfectly sane idea. In fact theatre IS about the dead, not the living. A performance in crypts, atop graves, would, no doubt, cause outrage. But why? Such dialogues, such discourse, is forbidden in today’s west.

There was a famous essay, which appeared in Cahiers du Cinema, titled Blind Man and The Mirror, The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk. Written by Jean-Louis Comolli. It hinted at, and pointed toward, some ineffable and delicate transcendent quality that Sirk managed to create in the midst of overwrought melodramatic scripts. Tag Gallagher wrote;

“Imitation of Life was Sirk’s biggest success and last commercial film. He had been all but ignored during his career and was resurrected only a decade after it by tiny yet earnest coteries scattered around Europe and America. If his most famous apostle was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his most Pauline apostle was Jon Halliday, whose interview, Sirk on Sirk (1972) – one of the greatest film books ever – reappeared in Sirk’s centenary year 25 percent longer and ten times better.” There has been, at least since Godard first waxed enthusiastic in 1959, in an early Cahiers piece, something in Sirk that brings out the language of devotional practice and ecclesiastical metaphors. I bring up Sirk here, after Ozu because if I put aside my personal favorites, of films that meant something personal and special to me, and really seperate the very most elite cinema, the impossible, those that achieve something outside conventional analysis, I think I am probably left with maybe only four, at most five, films, or directors, who have reached this ‘impossible’. One is Bresson, and one is Dreyer, and one is Ozu. These are the holy triumverate that Paul Schrader wrote about in his influential and very smart book Transcendental Style In Film. I would add Rossellini, at least the Rossellini of Louis XV, and Blaise Pascal. I would add Pasolini, of Gospel According to St Matthew. And Fassbinder, in Year of 13 Moons, and certainly in Berlin Alexanderplatz. That might be it. Mizoguchi maybe. Maybe. There are others that suggest but never quite realize the spiritual; the best of Welles, and Von Sternberg, and Eisenstein. Que Viva Mexico is certainly a talismanic masterpiece of unfinished fragments. The best of Hitchcock should be considered. And revisiting those odd auteurs whose body of work was small, Clarance Brown for one. When I first started to seriously watch films, with Terry Ork in New York, and the bible was Sarris’ American Cinema, we went to at least three films a day. There were small private film clubs, and there were triple bills on 42nd street. It was all we did. Well, almost all, but thats another story. People came to blows over Tay Garnett and if Sarris was right about his inconsistency. Or if Ford’s master shots were better than Hawks. And everyone read Cahiers. There were debates late into the night on the merits of Edgar G. Ulmer, and Blake Edwards, on Tashlin and Preminger. But nothing was ever snide. Nobody was anything but serious. I mention this personal memory because sometimes I wonder how a culture of such seriousness has so completly disappeared. There was politics, too, and it was taken as a given that radical revolutionary thought was an indispensible part of the fabric of the search. A search for revelation. Nobody really worked. I had odd jobs, working for a small rare book dealer on Greenwhich St. I catelogued W.H Auden’s library. Most of his books were ancient history and I remember the pleasure of just handling these books, smelling them, feeling them. I ended up never being paid for that job, but I didn’t care.

There is something elusive, and hard to pin down in the Rossellini, and this despite the paradoxical intentional ‘realism’. Its an almost meta naturalism. Fassbinder felt Sirk to be his greatest teacher. And in some sense, Berlin Alexanderplatz is his most Sirkian film, though many are overtly refrencing Sirk. In Dreyer, it is purity. Simply a chaste gaze, and Bresson follows upon this, that looks to create religious alters of clarity. If the brushstroke of Edo Period samurai monk/calligraphers is spiritual autobiography, then perhaps Sirk is that paradoxical cinematic monk. Dreyer is the Lutheran abbot, and Pasolini, the homosexual union organizer, a Marxist Jesus. In each case, though, and I guess this is my point, there is mokoto. Sincerity. But actual sincerity. Kierkegaard said something to the effect that we never know when we are being sincere. Perhaps. But I suspect that is artistic practice is involved, here.

Creating space, for reflection, seems crucial. It is interesting, Genet in that same essay I believe, said it took endless time to finish Brothers Karamozov. He would read a page and sit for an hour. He also called theatre rehearsals ‘trials’. Rehearse, conduct the trial, atop a crypt. Say what cannot be said in any way in any other place.

A few weeks ago a grad student, a young woman, argued with me about something, but at the end she challanged my reading of this particular thinker, and said, ‘but there are hundreds of professors who agree with me’. I thought about that. Where does such craven obedience to title come from? The answer is, it is the lesson of school today. One lesson, all the time, OBEY. In an odd way, I come back to Unions. Without a culture of unions, the psychological make up of the working class is damaged. Perhaps thats the most obvious sentence I’ve ever written, but let me explain further. Its not just the economic protection, job security, and such, but its the sense of being cared for. The sense your neighbor is cared for. And his neighbor. Others, others are protected and looked after, and even if unions were corrupt, that sense of belonging and pride is gone now. Students who attend school today, whose parents work shit jobs, temp jobs, humiliating jobs, are not going to enter school without carrying a lot of anxiety. Shit, you enter school with anxiety in the best of all worlds. Today, you enter more afraid. More anxious. And less willing to argue. In High School they must pass through metal detectors. Armed guards roam the halls.

People will debate this to a degree, citing movements off the radar. But honestly, those are small, not large movements. They are great and they often accomplish a lot more than their numbers would predict, but, there is no sign of mass mobilizing. What there is, is a sign of mass confusion, mass acceptance of propaganda, and mass fear.

And in plain sight of everyone, the growing underclass of the U.S. Disproportionately black and latino, the growing numbers of working poor, of homeless families and of hunger are impossible to miss, even from the back seat of your Range Rover or Lexus SUV, through your tinted windows, with your GPS in front of you.
Fear. Fear of ridicule. Fear of drawing attention to yourself in the age of mass surveillance, and fear of punishment. The U.S. public clings to the belief that the world operates like a movie. The narrative they follow is one constructed by, largely, the U.S. government. This is not fantasy, it’s fact. This was obvious as far back as 1977 (thanks to Molly Klein for this reminder). 

And running alongside the master narrative are films that each year lurch further into pure totalitarian kitsch. The loss of sincerity, of humility as a product of deep practice is anethema to the corporate culture industry. Sincerity is vulnerability, it is the deep strength of a practice not designed to ‘work on yourself’, but to work on the world.

A glimpse of how disconnected are the very rich can be found here. 

I close with this piece on the mental health industry. And below that, one of Kuniyoshi’s prints that I used as a model for a tattoo that the great Greg James did on my left leg at the old Sunset Tattoo.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

John Steppling

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation.

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