Cultural Entropy

by John Steppling


November 1, 2004   


(Swans - November 1, 2004)   The culture industry was described in the forties by Horkheimer and Adorno, and with astounding prescience, and yet there is a sense of qualitative change in popular cultural product over the last twenty years. The creation of utopian dreams, of idealized worlds, has gradually changed into visions of an adjustment to banality, a loving acceptance of the normative "official" desires of control and domination.

It's clear to most people that the age of marketing and television has eroded attention spans and the ability to use language. It has also, along with the computer, made for an ever more sedentary and lifeless population, and one that spends more and more time indoors -- a society at odds with nature, distrustful of the world. Along with this goes the collapse of public education and (on the surface, a paradox) the growth of the University. Institutions of higher education have become ever more bureaucratized and their focus is mostly on teaching productive and economically advantageous disciplines, not on teaching people to think autonomously. One might also see cultural product as influenced by these trends; characters always in the throes of consumption and/or the desire to consume. It is more than this, however. Never has so much cultural product been produced, and never has so much been consumed. The product consumed is now rarely even referred to as art, and when it is, the word "art" is given a new meaning. The subversive or spiritual qualities of art are increasingly found to be too dangerous, too offensive, and the modern media apparatus dismisses them much as it dismisses all other dissent. We live in societies where education means the ability to function with economic efficiency and to consume endlessly (or the illusions thereof). Cultural product, the vision of the world represented in popular culture, is radically de-idealized and uniformly anti-life.

I remember holding down a nightshift job as a security guard many years ago. I always did a lot of reading during that midnight-to-eight shift, where I had few obligations and lots of quiet (it was a medical center). Occasionally someone would come and talk to me from the X-Ray Department, and when they would see me reading they would ask where I was going to school. When I said I wasn't going to school, they would (almost always) ask, "then why are you reading?" Adorno felt that the effects of deculturing were a major reason for the rise of fascism in Germany. He also felt the importance for modern art to retain a dialectical quality, for it to hold on to its origins, to represent what he called its own proto-history. That proto-history can only be found by actively remembering. This memory must be driven by a meditative ability to listen and to look. The films of Dreyer or Bresson look very hard at things, and this capacity has all but disappeared. The "don't just look accurately" -- "the look deeply," a distinction worth making...

"Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility... The movements machines demand of their users already have the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment".
—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

"The process of adjustment has now become deliberate and therefore total...The individual's self preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system...The more devices we invent for dominating nature, the more must we serve them if we are to survive...The individual, purified of all remnants of mythologies, including the mythology of objective reason, reacts automatically, according to general patterns of adaptation..."
—Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason

One could possibly look at a typical Hollywood studio film of today and find sometimes 90% of the frames are computer-generated or enhanced. Matrix was just a film, and Lord of the Rings another. The images in these films retain nothing of the history of art, but refer us back only to the computer. Without a memory of contradiction, without being dialectical, art becomes irrelevant. My years toiling in Hollywood brought me to understand that any kind of contradiction was to be avoided -- it was bad for business. Watch a 1940s film noir (maybe Out of the Past or The Killers) or Eisenstein or Fassbinder and feel the difference. The artifice of cultural history lives in every frame. The interior life of these films makes them seem almost accusative to today's audience. Adorno wanted to see art as an expression or voice for what couldn't have a voice; nature. Nature is silent and art attempts somehow to connect with that. It is always going to fail, and yet in its failure lies its success. In an age where the domination of nature is seen as normal and desirable, it's no wonder that almost all forms of art have come to disconnect from nature. Today's cultural product is reduced to answering only for its amusement potential. What it "means" must be able to be expressed in a line or two, if it means anything. The Clancy or King novels, or most network TV, are all reductive worlds of robotic behavior. Characters reflect in cursory ways, and even speak of religion and philosophy, of school and love, but they act out lives of utter repetition -- like the plots themselves. The truth of a story hasn't to do with a happy ending, or a sad ending, it has to do with an expression that lifts the veil of illusion, if only momentarily. It has to do with establishing a link to lived reality, a map for negotiating the multi-layered experiences of daily life, and of history. Much of today's cultural product is constantly in the business of building veil after veil. Reading (no matter what post-structuralists want to pretend) is inward looking. Watch the face of a person reading, then watch the face of someone staring at his cell phone. One is alive from the inside and one is simply blank. This blankness is coveted by big media. Tom Cruise, a Scientologist (not coincidentally) is the perfect blank slate, the empty vessel. From Robert Mitchum or Bogart to Cruise and Hanks. From pain and struggle to sentimentality and blankness.

I want to emphasize here that it's hardly just Hollywood studio product, but also small independent film and theatre that has devolved. Theatre in America has become reduced to various therapies and feel-good self-congratulation exercises, and like much else is dependent on the University for validation. In fact, theatre is run much like a University these days. The actual importance of art is secondary. I doubt if most artistic directors even care about art. Do any of them really believe it matters to the health of a society? Do they believe it has political importance? I doubt they do. When the vapid musings of Tony Kushner can be fronted off as political, then things are pretty dire. Eve Ensler gets awards for junk like the Vagina Monologues, which includes an episode titled "My Vagina was a Village," about rape camps run by Serbs (you know, the ones that didn't exist). Ensler and Kushner are regularly described as "political" playwrights.

The exaggeration of something truthful, or idealized, becomes a distillation that points us toward our dream lives. Pinter's characters don't speak like anyone except Pinter's characters, and the same is true for Hemingway or Beckett. This is why we remember them. In theatre the off-stage is our dream life, our unconscious. A play without a living reality off-stage is a failure. When children go see their first stage performance, they will often run up, during intermission, to look into the wings. What is there in this hidden world? In Greek tragedy the messenger enters from off-stage. He tells of what is going on elsewhere, and then leaves. The real action is always elsewhere -- for we can never really depict the "real" action. On ancient maps the known world ended and was depicted by sea monsters and menacing demons. Our unconscious. When everything has been mapped (or so we believe), where is the unconscious to go?

Ernst Bloch found the expanse that is seen through the window, or door, in Renaissance painting, a link to our dream lives. It is fairy tale space. It is mythic space. The new horizon of Renaissance painting, the place where the lines of perspective converge, created dream value. In 1940s film noir we can still find the classical composition, the shadows and mystery in each set up. Does that exist today? Rarely, I would argue. If the journey a character in a fairy tale must take leads to an underworld, today's characters are left with little more than an accommodation to a system of exploitation. In American Beauty the protagonist "finds" himself by taking a job at McDonald's. Perhaps, one might respond, where else is he to go? That of course is true, but what isn't true is that anything of value is to be experienced at such low level minimum wage labor. It is pure alienated toil. Ask anyone who works there.

My cursory scan indicates one prerequisite for utopian moments is silence...or rather "quiet." One of the most compelling images for me, in a 16th century Flemish painting (the title of which I have long forgotten) is that of a farm girl pouring milk into a bucket. The "sound" one hears in one's head is the sound of space and simplicity, when the milk echoes off the bottom of the bucket. It is the sound of a connection to daily ritual. It is important not to romanticize the rustic, but one should also not dismiss the qualities of a rustic life that kept people connected to their environment. What appears in the average Clancy novel or Stallone film, is a technologized universe of regulated leisure time and a deep internalization of authority. It is also never quiet. We are now in a world created by the mediated existence of instrumental reason (Horkheimer). Reification is one of Marx's most profound ideas. We treat our friends like appliances and our appliances like friends (Russell Jacoby). The Clancy world (or most cop dramas on TV and in film) tends to depict characters who uphold the authority structure, usually without question. This is depicted as "professionalism." The Phillip Marlow iconoclast, the cynical professional who always ended up putting the search for "truth" above professionalism is long dead. The robotic and obedient hero of today's pulp world is anxious to convince us of his contentment with his small pleasures, his regulated leisure time, and his love of gadgets and acceptance of technological progress. The Knight Errant, the medieval hero on a quest for self-discovery (even if the journey takes one to far away places) has been replaced with Robo-Cop. The narcissistic self pity and bathos of cop TV (best exemplified by the various NYDP franchises) is awash in the delusions of sacrificial punishment. Class and opportunity are only mentioned if a "minority" youth may want to achieve acceptance in the mainstream community of crypto-fascist police state sadomasochism. Like Clancy or most pulp crime thrillers today, the TV world of cop shows has drifted further and further to the right. It's not just the fawning over punishment, it's the more insidious constellations of fetishized weaponry and personal isolation. Watching the 'Bourne" franchise play out, I am reminded of the Wolfman and even the original Incredible Hulk, characters haunted by inner flaws and curses and a danger to those around them. They tried to save others by staying apart. Bourne mostly just kills. His latest installment finds him losing a girlfriend (for whom he mourns all of ten screen seconds) and then searching for people to kill. Is it a revenge plot? Well, only superficially. Bourne seems to find killing, to find revenge, without cost to himself. He cries a bit at the end of the film, but one wonders for whom. Self-examination is given only cursory attention. The inward examination, the knowledge of our unconscious and the demons that haunt us, is largely a bad marketing tool. The tortured Wolfman character (or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) suffered greatly and eventually had to sacrifice themsleves. Bourne will never sacrifice himself. The elevation of consumption, usually of technology, is routinely presented by Hollywood as a kind of ultimate gratification. The universe presented is therefore a universe of consumption without end. The mise en scène even seems saturated with CGI, with all manner of computer generated effects, and interestingly these effects are not meant to be hidden, but to be displayed as part of the amusement park ride that culture has become. The message lurking around the edges is that a facsimile reality is actually BETTER than real reality (the remake of Solaris explicitly says this). The "hidden" is now avoided, all is meant to be revealed...even if it is empty. I heard Werner Herzog once on an LA radio station being interviewed. He said Americans were obsessed with shining a light on everything. He said to live in a house where there were no dark corners, where everything was illuminated, would drive one mad.

"Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device...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...Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows. Were the shadows to be banished from its corners, the alcove would in that instant revert to mere void".
Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Mystery is an essential ingredient for art. It isn't a mystery that is meant to be solved. It is the mystery that connects us to the absolute. In our society, all must be explained. Without explanation the modern narrative is adrift in a sea of irrelevancy. I have heard people ask why there is no tragedy anymore? Why it stopped with Shakespeare, or certainly, in a way, with Beckett? Perhaps because the tragic is about a sensibility, about hidden motives and unknown impulses. Tragedy is about bigger forces we can't control. This is a society that must tell itself it controls everything. It's no accident that our consumer culture wants to discredit Freud. A world where we deny the Id is a better world for buying, and a better world for dropping depleted uranium on civilians in order to "save" them. No Id, no tragedy. No Id, no hidden motives, or at least none that a good dose of Prozac couldn't neutralize.

"Tragedy lost its stateliness when the single unritualized death became the sole point of reference."
Frank Kermode

Bill Burroughs used to speak of both word and image virus. The endless assault of image is something our brain can't cope with. Might it be that Bush is popular because he is so slow, so simple and rudimentary?

"Manipulating our minds and rewiring our thoughts, the television, nothing more than the mechanism by which the corporate world controls and dominates us, has transformed human thinking and behavior like no other instrument in our history. Our minds are being bombarded with image after image, fantasy after fantasy and manipulative emotion after manipulative emotion. Our still primitive brains have never evolved to this reality, and the damage can be seen in the rise of attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, lack of discipline and loss of intellectual capacity in children. It can be seen in a society that has not been able to adapt and handle the blitzkrieg we see on our monitors on a daily basis and that cannot escape the conditioning and brainwashing the corporate world and our government so readily apply into our minds. The proof is all-encompassing, surrounding us like a thick fog, doing tremendous damage to the still undeveloped brains of youth, shackling and controlling almost every activity we do as adults, and haunting our daily life until death finally opens the gates of escape."
—Manuel Valenzuela, Axis of Logic

Later Valenzuela talks of TV as the new parent model. This was the message of the original Terminator film. A franchise built on the idea that a robot might be a better father than a human. In today's world, it's possible to find examples that would support such insanity. Once, art created visions of worlds that were idealized and utopian. They created and explored mystery and the enigmatic aspects of human life. In today's cultural marketplace we are three or four times removed from this. A film like Lord of the Rings, a children's story made into a film by, mostly, computers, is typical of the absence of deep structure. Good art, whether Genet or Godard, whether Melville or Celan, whether Schoenberg or Muddy Waters, finds ways to gaze back at us. That gaze is the enigma of human existence. When a society can't look at itself anymore, it means it has reached a level of disconnect that will be hard to come back from. The lack of serious culture is to be blamed in some measure, maybe in large measure, on the institutions that were created to protect it. Universities and galleries, theatres and museums no longer teach art as something requiring rigour. Art is to help with business or with therapy or with protecting collective delusions (particularly true of the U.S.). When art is no longer even taught, what can one expect? If teachers of art history refuse to discriminate lest they offend someone, then what can one expect? Becoming an artist now means going to school. Get a post grad degree in creative writing and find a job teaching it. Never mind the part about BEING a writer. These institutions, of course, are shaped by the larger material conditions of capital. Profit is key to all human endeavours at this point. Teachers of Buddhism (especially in the West) charge for courses in enlightenment. Teachers of writing and painting charge for courses with private students, or teach at Universities. But then an artist mostly can't survive any other way. One either joins the culture industry, or one disappears. The selling of everything, including the selling of an ethos that says selling is bad, is the new model of total capitalistic hegemony, a colonizing of consciousness. Alongside this colonizing of the mind is the destruction of history. The Reagan funeral spectacle was an example of recent history turned upside down. Cheney can talk of bringing democracy to El Salvador and Powell can hold up visual teaching aids, cartoon trucks full of chemical weapon agents, and this unreality goes unquestioned. Hugo Chavez is called undemocratic by Democrats and Republicans alike, while Ariel Sharon can be described as a man of peace. Not so long ago, an action-movie actor made a film that ended with a speech about environmental destruction and the myth of oil dependency. The film was produced by the people destroying the environment and the people who sell oil... Such is the domination, the total domination of the Imperialist class. Cultural product need not be taken seriously because it's no longer processed for its content. It is only more passively absorbed time killing filler for those with a few idle moments. "Serious" art is now usually conceptual, not for experiencing. The Turner Prize goes to an empty room where the lights get turned off and on occasionally. There is nothing to experience, only to talk about later, over a latte.

Why did pre-historic man paint the walls of caves in places almost impossible to reach? It wasn't as decoration. They weren't selling this stuff... So then why? The fact that most modern humans would have a hard time answering this question speaks to a very profound loss.

The culture of amusement and distraction. The short term gratification is, however, only a substitute and partial gratification (if it even gratifies at all) and needs to be constantly reinforced. To purchase a new pair of Nike's doesn't hold off the yawning abyss for very long. Quickly one must purchase a new toaster. And on and on and on and on. And when the credit card is maxed out, one is faced with the new despair, the new withdrawal symptom, consumer cold turkey. Bush calls this the "Ownership Society," and for once, he's right (though, of course, not in the way he intended).

That words have lost meaning, and are used simply as tools for numbing real thought, is pretty well accepted. Shakespeare seems difficult today not because of archaic spelling or syntax but because he forces those who read or listen to his work to go down into themselves toward a nearly lost mythic strata. That one recognizes this feeling, even if one can't identify it, is why Shakespeare (at least for now) is still on the table. It is easy to sound like some romantic anarchist longing for a golden past when discussing these things. It's true that culture goes round in cycles, but never before have so many consumed so much cultural product and never before has so much product been mass produced with the intention of deadening rather than awakening. The democratization of culture (or art) is driven by the profit motive. A society that absorbs the new pornography of a Tom Clancy or an Eve Ensler, or a Hollywood studio project is a society that will continue to flail in a psychic cul-de-sac, ever more desperately clutching at coherence. Leaving the theatre after watching almost any production of Macbeth doesn't make one want to go buy a new dishwasher. Encouraging audiences to meditate on their mortality, or on the contradictions of the political spectacle that surrounds them, is to lose them as potential consumers. Art that questions the assumptions behind everyday discourse and behavior is an art that will never find corporate sponsorship. Language has been cleansed of music and poetics, of ambiguity, and University writing programs focus on "user friendly" models --- as if art was supposed to be your friend, your therapist. Art is not meant to be your friend.

Idealism is ridiculed in today's world of conformist cynicism. The notion of Utopia is treated as unrealistic (whatever that means). In our cultural output, Western society refers back upon itself more and more. The obsessive repetition of situation, jokes, and plot is only to be expected when the demand for consumption of product is so high. Allowing people quiet and the freedom to experience non-productive time is anathema to the world of marketing. Recycle the familiar, and then recycle it again. Artists employ focus group thinking in the same way cheese snack producers do. The feeling of nervousness and near hysteria that permeates our culture is reflected in the banality and generalizing qualities of its art. Playwrights, filmmakers, and artists all tend to tell the audience how to feel, and when to feel it. Agreement is essential for the new fragmentary ego. The problem today isn't that art becomes a commodity, but that it starts as a commodity. Today's artists are rewarded for reinforcing the values of the status quo. They are rewarded for conformity and for being good salesmen.

Both popular and high culture are suffering the same afflictions. University professors and museum curators more and more resemble Hollywood producers in both temperament and style. It's probably too simple a strategy to try and separate high and low culture anymore (if it ever really made any sense), and the issue is really the effects of marketing and media on all our institutions. The blight of "entertainment" has taken over news, sports, and all forms of art. The solution to this stasis in cultural output will not come from boardrooms or Universities; it will come from the streets. The machinery of co-option is acute however, new forms are quickly digested and spit back out as their opposite. The "street" is a commodity too. Still, I would like to believe that, eventually, the credibility of bankrupt institutions will become too obvious to be ignored, and then, perhaps, if we are lucky, new life and integrity will be, again, given a space to breathe. Maybe the populace will look for that impulse that drove Neanderthal man to paint in deepest darkest and most inaccessible caves. Maybe.

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John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published November 1, 2004
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