Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2005  



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


Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling


Part II




Read the first part of this conversation, published on January 17, 2005.


(Swans - January 31, 2005) 

Phil, said John in Part I,

The question of inner lives is important. There is a both a loss of inward looking, and a loss of outward looking. I see people staring at their cell phones, at the SMS messages, and never noticing anything of what is around them. How can a cell phone screen be more interesting than the world around you? Looking inward means contemplation and quiet -- and this is just anathema to the modern consumer psyche...and here it's on both the left and right. So much of the left is either rigid and without humor or a sense of play, or just PC, or it's authoritarian. On the right you have the endless delusions of superiority, sex hysteria, and the disfigured moral and ethical features of folks like Cheney and Rumsfeld...





John, continued Phil,

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

You're right, John -- cell phones make the world before you disappear. A few years back, I was walking west across the Brooklyn Bridge, when I received a call from an entertainment lawyer regarding some underpaid royalties (always an emotionally charged and frustrating subject with me). The bridge, East River, Manhattan skyline vanished...the extant world was simply gone...and did not reappear (or, more precisely, my ability to engage it) until the conversation ended. By that time, I had traversed the bridge, had blindly wandered throughout the Lower East Side, not rousing to awareness, until I found myself staring at a rack of glazed duck carcasses displayed in the window of a Cantonese restaurant on Mott Street.

While we blather away into our cell phones -- so much of the world is disappearing...civil liberties...polar ice caps...accountability of the powerful...a sense of place, history, even a cursory understanding, among the populace, of the precepts of civilization and democratic discourse...so many things have all but vanished, so much that is essential for maintaining the antagonist/protagonist/chorus dynamic required to synergize a civilization.

Your remarks started me thinking about Orestes, Athena, and the Furies. How is it possible for Athena to argue Orestesis' case -- to persuade the Furies to change their snakes-in-the-head system of tribal law based on cycles of revenge and to sublimate those primal drives by becoming the fierce defenders of democratic process, when the cell phones of the chorus (that would be us, the citizenry) keep ringing, distracting us into a self-referential obliviousness of the larger world? And we wonder why the citizenry can't be roused to outrage over torture at Abu Ghraib Prison nor by mass murder in Fallujah.

Next you bring up the topics of the entertainment industry and the culture -- cult, actually -- of addiction/recovery. And I'm thinking there might be a connection between those two areas as well.

I have one-quarter Indian blood (warhooping -- not dot-on-the-forehead variety). After an alcoholic beverage, I become a bit concerned (perhaps obsessed) on where and when I might attain another. I've attended a few of those meetings where folks sit around, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other -- and they would have a doughnut in another if only their higher power would provide them with a third arm -- all the while, talking about how the grace of this higher power...that "I choose to call God"...allows them to stay sober. And not only that -- but -- "the fruits of sobriety" have provided their sugar-bloated asses with big ticket items (cars, trucks, mcmansions and various and sundry other providentially provided major appliances). It always sounded to me like their higher power was a game show host.

Those damn meetings always made me anxious. I really wanted a drink. The incessant barrage of clichés, the ceaseless quoting (fundamentalist Bible-thumper style) from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the come - to - Jesus - like - I - was - a - sinner - but - now - I'm - saved - thanks - to - The - Big - Invisible - Sober - Super - Being - In - The - Sky - And - the- Wisdom - Of - This - Program cant, and the hagiography of Bill Wilson, a manic-depressive salesman who based "The Program" on the Protestant fundamentalist teachings of the Oxford Group, gave me flight-or-fight type panic attacks. (I quit drinking for good when I practiced a fight and flight strategy of telling the AA denizens what I thought of them and their cultist program and fled the meetings.)

I think the effects of AA on the culture as a whole are under-acknowledged and pervasive and invasive. As you pointed out, this is a culture of addiction, and the Twelve Step methods have cornered the market of the business of recovery. I hear innumerable AA references and platitudes in the mass media and in daily discourse. The confluence of consumerism and American Puritanism has created a culture of addicts and recovery junkies. It has been a progenitor of a sin/shame continuum that subliminally requires self-destructive behavior -- so that the individual must then submit and surrender to public confessional and other exhibitionistic displays of phony redemption that fundamentalist Christian group dynamics are based on. It's only a short step from that manner of thinking -- from thinking some celestial super being gives a rodent's rectum whether you take a drink or not -- to developing a belief system in which an omniscient God takes careful note of what folk are doing with their genitals, and if he becomes displeased enough -- he just might end the world by calling down a rain of heavenly fire to show his righteous fury at such brazen displays of Satanic canoodling.

I think your observation of the pervasiveness of the tyranny of what you termed the mindset of "identification" is dead on. The tyranny of the first person singular approach to the outer world, and its attendant soul-numbing self-absorption, has created a spontaneity-destroying self-consciousness in present day Americans, whereby they have come to believe they must get high, or take SSRIs, or go shopping, or only attend "escapist" movie and theater fare, all in a vain attempted to escape the anxiety inherent to such tedious self-enclosure. This is presently the prevailing and accepted way of viewing the world. And it has diminished us all. Such a point of view is anathema to the ability of art to have a transformative effect on the inner life of the individual. How can one be transformed when the artist's work simply serves to reinforce the limited way we see ourselves -- and doesn't challenge our narcissistic assumptions? Hence, the prevailing, soul-defying idea that art must be entertainment -- and must never have disruptive effects upon the sacred comfort levels of the audience.

Applause and approval are addictive...one starts to crave it -- even become depressed without it -- and one begins to unconsciously truckle for more. This is perhaps why so many writers, directors, and performers render themselves so fecklessly pleasant. You don't want to piss off your dealer and endanger your supply.

Regarding anger: I was told that too...don't piss-off record label people -- whose job (if not entire reason for being alive) is to exploit the artist. But my experience has been -- even if you were to shower rose petals at their feet -- those types are still going to stiff you on your royalties. It's standard industry practice. The result of this is an almost codified blandness. One is condemned to become a consummate "professional": competent, compliant, empty, risk-adverse.

Peter Yarrow once called a performer whose discography I had essentially written, up onto the stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival to perform a number with him -- and I'm thinking what the hell have I done wrong to garner the acclaim of this self-castrated, embodiment of what-went-wrong with not only so-called "folk" music -- but with (for want of a better term) bohemian manhood.

Not that this is a dick measuring contest -- but one should at least show up with one. Regardless of what AA tried to inculcate into me, that anger is "the dubious luxury of normal men" -- I've found I must attain from approval binging. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to keep my perspective vital. When one refuses to peddle feel-good (but creatively toxic), latte-sucking liberal homilies -- one risks conflict -- both internal and external. If you don't desire to be an accomplice in transforming yourself into some kind soulless Laingian false self construct -- then you are going to have conflict from time to time.

(This seems to be the problem with the hapless leadership (and a good deal of the rank and file) of the Democratic party, most of whom are the bought and sold product of corporatist rule -- and, accordingly, have been trained to act with a kind of ersatz public congeniality, the favored demeanor of the present corporate style...which is, in reality, a slave's learned deference towards their masters.)

They are a species of monster as well, John: The soul-sucking Demons of False Congeniality. They are best banished with an exorcism of honest rage.

Onward John.





Well, the whole question of drug prohibition is fascinating. Thomas Szasz wrote a good book on the subject many years ago, Ceremonial Chemistry, and it's still worth reading. The obvious solution to all drug problems is just to legalize them. This is so obvious that it hardly needs long discussion. In terms of "drug rehab," I tend to agree with you. I do know people, really shot to the curb alkies, who got a lot out of AA...but it has always smacked of this puritanical rejection of pleasure and is instilled with strange bits of sex-negative rhetoric and policing of consciousness. Robert Hughes's book on American Art begins with the premise that to understand American culture one must remember Americans are still essentially puritans. This uptightness, this rigid emotional armoring is the single most obvious characteristic of the average US citizen. Americans want artists who are well-behaved and sanitized, they want bourgeois art -- they don't want anything that can't be consumed as product. Americans consume pleasure and happiness like they consume cigarettes and soda pop. So, you have a people fearful of anything that steps outside the parameters of safe experience...and an emotional predisposition to punish those who try. But then, it's a very punitive culture. Look at the death penalty. When George Ryan stopped killing innocent men on death row in Illinois, the press and public opinion crucified him. I still find this response the most disturbing and revealing of all the many disturbing responses of Mr. and Mrs. America. I remember the treatment of addicts in the judicial system...the moral badgering of these poor (myself included) and marginalized, and the endless demand that we admit our crimes, that we repent and show remorse. I'd like to say I never repented once and still don't. Show remorse? For what? For shooting dope? I don't get it. Maybe Cheney can show remorse for the millions he has helped murder. Or Negroponte? Or ghouls like Rumsfeld?

A culture of punishment --- and we see it in rehab, we see it in scapegoating Muslims, we see it in the contempt those "who have" feel toward those "who don't have," and we see it in Capital Punishment, and now in Iraq. Even a good many liberals will support the death penalty and draconian drug laws. In fact liberals are sometimes the worst, always wanting to control people --- for their own good of course. People have less and less freedom to choose how to live and how to feel. The culture is saturated with a vocabulary of adjustment. One must adjust...even psychoanalysis has morphed into adjustment therapy. The idea of good therapy is make you into a good worker...an adjusted worker who doesn't complain. Russel Jacoby, a man always worth reading, wrote a great book on this subject called Social Amnesia. The de-politicizing of psychoanalysis.

In my class at film school recently I showed a Fassbinder film and the response was wholly negative. They almost all said they didn't understand it and didn't feel anything emotionally. I take this to mean the film didn't live up to the formulaic expectations they had. This generation is so conditioned by TV drama and studio junk that they have a hard time really "seeing" anything that doesn't conform to this standard. They also exhibit a tendency to get angry at material that doesn't conform, but this, again, brings us back to this blood-thirsty quality in Western society, especially the U.S. A society that has to invent a kind of pretend violence, the movie fights and shooting and car chases, where really nobody ever gets hurt or maimed, is a society that simultaneously murders 100,000 Iraqi civilians and tortures prisoners openly. The society will waste endless ink on the Peterson trial...demonizing this dumb fuck...but never question Abu Ghraib seriously. Peterson of course, strikes me as the kind of guy who likes movie violence and probably has never read a book...part of this blank generation. A robotic empty non-being who lacks compassion and empathy and has -- returning to earlier theme -- no inner life. This feeling of emptiness seems everywhere. I sense it on the streets of America, when I'm there, and I sense it in the corporate media and the vacuous talking heads they hire to rip 'n read State Department briefings. An air brushed reality, de-sexualized and psychotic, actually. We have no mythic underpinnings anymore. Some kind of wrong turn was taken during the post Enlightenment saga of Industrialization. Too much of what was thought superstition was tossed out in the frenzy of this trust in rational scientific thought. Marx said eventually all thinkers and artists and scientists would become commodities...or think in reified terms. We are there in total now. Art is in the hands of those who own the means to show it...if movie theatres, galleries, museums, or concert halls. Television is owned by a very few corporations and run via a corrupt FCC. The impossibility of a professional artist having integrity is pretty obvious, and I often find myself thinking back only as far as Vietnam to the poets and writers who protested (Robert Bly in particular) and how articulate and unafraid they were. Of course a bigger topic looms along side our dialogue, and that is how the society of the 21st century perceives the individual artist. I suspect the writing of novels is all but impossible. A Sebald is a good example, a very talented writer who was doomed to self parody (though I suppose Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or James Kellman's How Late it Was, How Late, are the exceptions that maybe prove the rule) and who seems to have sensed the limits of what he was doing. The tyranny of the subjective may be in need of re-examination (is that what Bernhard was doing? Perhaps).

Artists must stop thinking of career. Period. Stop accepting the tacit censorship of networks or producers or museum directors and Universities. In film, it's possible now to make a good film (or DV) very cheap...one that genuinely looks filmic. The problem is distribution...and here is where a revolution needs to take place. People should find ways to see small films...not go to the Cineplex. I feel this is the trend...but the powers behind corporate domination are tough to overcome. We shall see...but even before that artists must look beyond the banality of reductive psychologism and notions of entertainment.





I believe you're getting to the heart -- or more accurately -- the bilious digestive track of our cultural pathology when you address the issue of American public's pleasure/shame dichotomy. By way of the ceaseless manipulation by commercial imagery of our inner lives, pleasure has come to be associated with escape, distraction -- outright becoming anesthetized. Proto-fascistic corporate rule has made this outcome inevitable. The idea of what a human being is...has been increasingly defined downward. So much so, that people no longer seem to be able to exists within their own skins, much less...engage the world around them, without risking crippling anxiety. Perhaps this is why your students were so hostile towards Fassbinder: the messiness inherent to being human is more than their minds, ill-formed due to having such limited, degraded (outer as well as inner) lives, could bear. Whenever I'm down south and I speak with Bush supporters, I'm struck by how constricted their experience of the world has been. The criteria that forms their personalities is dominated by the image of enclosure: insular, guarded gate communities; enclosure in their over-sized pick-up trucks and SUVs; long work hours comprised of meaningless work where they are cut-off from nature and resonate human contact -- an existence as redolent of the aromas of existence as plastic covered cheese-food. They've been covered with plastic...simply rendered Body Bag People.

I've learned to fear people who carry an inner emptiness. Of course, they yearn for the void to be filled. But with their hearts and minds being mortared closed -- what makes it through the self-constructed prison is loud, stupid, and fascistic. Being: Fundamentalist Sermons on Armageddon; violent video games; crystal meth tweaking; the empty spectacles of steroid-induced professional sports hype (including the Schwarzenegger governorship); the fantasy of Shock and Awe; the exercise in Rock and Roll Genocide that US militarism has become. In short, all the Sturm and Drang necessary to pierce those protective walls and provisionally penetrate the pervasive inner emptiness.

I think people here in the States know something is wrong, but it's simply beyond the range of the American character to look inward. Hence: the punitive nature of society...we have a compulsion to force somebody (queers, druggies, show biz types) to, as you said, "admit [their] crimes, that [they] repent and show remorse." From Oprah/Dr. Phil types to the Federal Judiciary -- Americans are desperate for somebody to be held responsible and for someone to be punished...for something -- anything. Because we desperately wish to believe this might serve to absolve us of our shame and subliminal self-loathing -- that it might serve to dissipate the cloud of nebulous dread that has been roiling at the edge of our minds. -- So the culture adopts the mood of old-time public lynching. Look closely at the faces of the good, salt-of-the-earth, ordinary folk (homicidal hicks, in other words) photographed at those all-American events -- then take a look at the faces of those sitting in their vehicles in rush hour traffic listening to right-wing radio -- just freaked-out, run-of-the-subdivision, suburban psychopaths, nearly each and every one of them.

When a contemporary American risks straying from the mainstream and fails, the repercussions are terrible, more than most people can endure, economically as well as psychologically. In a culture where success is deemed the end all/be all of all things, failure is devastating. And in a corporate structure rigged to benefit a privileged few -- then failure is altogether likely. Then combine that with the puritanical notion that failure is due to some character flaw, and you have one pissed-off population...who are conformist, terrified to risk, but clinging to the defining delusion that they live in a society where industry, innovation, and pluck are rewarded with success. Or it would be, they seethe -- if it wasn't for...insert your favorite object of displaced resentment here: gays, the poor, drug-addicts, "career criminals" (two strikes and you're caged for life), the so-called "coming generation of "super-predators" (better execute them before their testicles drop and no one is safe) -- the whole gallery of those who are easy, safe, and sanctioned targets of public scorn.

Remember those reports of Satanic Ritual Abuse, or those of organized gangs of pedophiles who preyed upon entire pre-schools? Americans believed those delusions, like peasants in The Middle Ages believed Jews poisoned their wells and ate gentile babies. These are the dark fantasies of those who are powerless...of people who need a narrative by which they can displace their sense of being violated -- their feelings of helplessness engendered by being daily degraded by an inhuman system.

Whether it's the proliferation of tales involving aliens who transverse infinite distances of time and space simply to examine the rectal cavities of obscure hominids who dwell in a far-flung section of this vast galaxy -- or the post-cocaine-induced psychosis manifested by Mel Gibson directing swarthy, beak-nosed heavies to theatrically pummel and pierce the flesh of an actor portraying Jesus Christ, the imagery of powerlessness resonates throughout the culture.

Of course, it's the almost total corporate/governmental control of the lives of the individual -- not little gray extraterrestrial proctologists, nor blood-lusting Christ killers who are responsible for this state of affairs. But those metaphors express the depth of the denial. Aliens express how alienated we are. And only a tough, in fact, deathless god, a he-man Jesus could endure the invasive degradation of corporate rule. Perhaps this is why super heroes and serial killers fill seats in the corporate Cineplexes -- because mere mortals remind American audiences of their powerlessness. Accordingly, only macho cartoons can be our governors and presidents.

And this is dangerous indeed: It was the collective, hyperventilated breath of the powerless masses that stroked the flames that spread from Nuremberg. When the people of a culture have been conditioned to worship power -- but feel powerless -- watch out: the prisons fill-up, the museums are emptied of threatening art, the culture is saturated with crass imagery -- but intermingled with an hysteria that "something must be done" to restore decency. Artists and writers expatriate, quit, or sell out. The world beyond appears to bristle with threats...repression and war is inevitable. Blood sacrifices are made to the god of the inner abyss...corpses are tossed into the void.

And if anyone thinks those images are over-the-top, I disagree: I think they're models of understatement -- given these facts: we have racked-up one hundred thousand dead in Iraq; we have a government that sanctions and a general public who are indifferent to the use of torture -- as well as, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians; we have created a massive, brutal prison/industrial complex that mortifies what's left of the civilized world; and have a significant portion of our nation's population who believe that the Almighty would smile upon us and the world would be set perpetually right -- if only we could kill all the ragheads and then free our own home-grown Sodomists from damning sin by shaming them into the love of the One True God -- who would then guide them toward the enduring righteousness of pre-matrimonial chastity, followed by the perfect bliss of Christian, heterosexual marriage -- or, at least, it could be such, without the scourge of secularist thought, art, and entertainment to destroy its sanctity.

These folks' belief systems are so beyond the pale that it defies being limned in reductio ad absurdum. It's like tossing salt into the Dead Sea.

I feel there is a pervasive sense of futility among creative types regarding the ability to affect change. Or even momentarily rouse bovine audiences from their dull-eyed torpors -- especially when the corporations are mass marketing salt licks.

Do you think a movie could be made today like "Each Dawn I Die" that might affect prison reform?

I remember going to the theater when I was coming of age and being deeply affected, shaken to my core, transformed by what I witnessed. I recall seeing a production of Sam Shepard's Curse Of The Starving Class -- and being haunted (and I still am) by the image of the son donning the derelict father's booze-sodden, pissed-in, shit-encrusted clothes.

Can you image George W. Bush having a similar reaction?

John Cheever said he used to envisage writing for an imagined audience that existed "beyond the trees" that he could see from his workroom.

When you look westward -- who do you envisage, John?





Well, as we wind this down I find that I agree we have (I hope) sort of zeroed in on a couple things. I'm happy you mentioned the recovered memory trials...er...witch hunts again. The absurdity of this frenzy was obvious to anyone with half a brain...from jump street...and yet people, innocent people, went to jail (one has to thank Nat Hentoff for some great journalism on this score). All the hysteria about child molesters (and god knows, it's not like this crime doesn't exist) is fueled not by concern for children (since we see little concern for children in any other context) but by a dementia of sex-phobic self-hatred. How is it that thousands of dead Iraqi children are cause for no loss of sleep -- but these same concerned citizens will hunt down anyone with a sex-offender jacket and try to have him lynched?

The worst thing you can call anyone these days is a "loser." Winning is everything. Winning means making money, period. End of story. Dick Cheney is a winner...and never mind he is soaked in blood and an inveterate liar and hypocrite. Art should be about awakening...and about a kind of collective conscience. There is little of either these days. If something makes money, it's good. Period. Still, around the edges one does find real work of real value. It's just that one has to search for it. Art tends to be apologetic and conformist. It tends to be about personal redemption, and about a tacit support for the status quo. Now why is it an actor as good as Al Pacino would go and make that fucking film about the CIA (with Colin Farrell)? Why? Does he not care? Does he not understand? I haven't an answer. So many University programs, writing programs and art schools, perpetuate the notion that art and politics don't mix. Look back at how much great art was overtly political. This takes us back to the corporate control of all values. The marketing of "ideas" -- all safe and consumer friendly. The professionalism of art is also caught up in this. I look at poetry today, or fiction, and I see only very professional careerist work, very little of which is worth reading. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and I remember Gary Snyder, in an interview, saying that to be a good poet required you go apprentice yourself to someone who did something well; a carpenter, a mechanic, a gardener, and just stay with them and learn about doing something well. Goya learned painting by doing work in someone else's studio -- not by going to art school. How did Doc Watson learn to flat pick? I read an old interview with Genet recently, and it was so inspiring. It reminded me why I wanted to be an artist. He desired no fame or adulation -- can you imagine Genet doing a GAP ad? Where are today's Genets?

We live in an era of dead consciousness. All of us suffer from this smothering of free thought. The endless babble of television and media and the substitute gratification (per Marcuse) of big cars and fancy clothes and useless gadgets. Someone suggested to me that small boys' fascination with large trucks and fire engines was a substitute for large carnivores. I think there's something to this. Again, as Benjamin said, we have no real experiences anymore. It seems most people don't want real experience. They don't want real sex or real love either. It's all masturbation and cyber-life. Better to go hunt small animals at a distance, with large guns. Better to find trophy women and purchase them. Better to consume ersatz art and talk about it over a latte. Idealism is a bad word.

What do I see, Phil? I don't know. I see the role of the individual artist changing -- though in ways I can't quite grasp. Social theory, the theory of the state, is altered...and the role of creativity has changed. Is so much deadening cultural product affecting all of us in ways that preclude good work being produced? This is perhaps a topic for another round table or dialogue. When you talk of distraction I think you have hit upon the short version of what we are going on about. People crave, desperately, distraction. The reality of emptiness is too painful. Real art is too painful. It attacks those needed fictions that keep us getting up every day to go to mindless jobs and home to unsatisfying marriages and relationships. Children today are fed more and more drugs to keep them from the logical psychosis they would otherwise exhibit. Artaud, Henry Miller, Genet, Pinter, Beckett, Brecht, Carver, Bly, Wright, Broch, Handke, Celine, Fassbinder, Bresson, Godard, Burroughs, and all the rest of the lunatics who saw this coming...they feel like the last gasp of sanity, in fact. The act of refusing to go along with the system now means you are labeled a "loser" and anti-social. Poe said you must read over the records of those executed or in the madhouse to find the real history of a culture, and of course he is right. How can a George Bush be seen as a leader? Why can't a Stan Goff...a man of real integrity and strength run for President? I know the answer...but sometimes it's staggering to ponder such realities. Mel Gibson indeed....in a year when the brilliance of Brando finally was put to rest. There was no place for Brando to practice his genius. Orson Welles couldn't make films at the end of his life, and of course we could go on. Has it always been like this? Perhaps to some degree...but today we see the insanity in full bloom. Genius always disrupts society, and so it must be marginalized. Great art is meant to disrupt, and to destabilize - that's part of the general idea. It's just that today the marginalization is so total, and the contempt for artists so acute.

Institutions themselves, almost all institutions, are corrupt and without integrity. I become most angry when confronted with those who control "art." Maybe because I still think of myself as an artist. Young artists must forget writing programs and art schools, or at least demand changes, or look to additionally lead real lives. They must refuse to do the bidding of corporations and must create new paradigms for expression. The first step in this is to study history and politics. They simply cannot be creating for the sole purpose of making money. Coveting "things" provides no satisfaction. This is the first lesson to be learned. Repression leads to madness. Learn to do things well --- and experience life, not a facsimile version of it. I can't say I know even the smallest amount of how to do this. I do know, however, that the almost pornographic junk of Hollywood and mainstream media is to be avoided like the plague it is. The liberals and the right wing fanatics are almost equally guilty. Everyone is guilty to some degree. When people, often on the left, ask what is to be done I find myself thinking, well, start with learning about yourself. Organizing protests are fine...but start with what you do to distract yourself. Start with your own panic over the emptiness you feel. Start with the slow painful process of chiseling away at the corrosive fears of sexuality and emotional loss you feel. The anger that seems just under the surface of almost everyone in this big asylum we inhabit is now breaking through the surface and we have carnage all around us. The culture is moribund and diseased. Art is supposed to express this and too rarely does.

Ok, well, that's about all I can think to say. I hope that this raises questions more than attempting to answer much. What else, Phil?





The fires of human passion have been submerged by our punitive and petty age. The spurious Eros of the corporatist advertising/entertainment/consumer paradigm has risen as manifest Thanatos. I've heard stories of fires that burned unseen in sealed-off, abandon mines -- whereby years later, miles from the original location of the blaze, dead trees will burst into flames...the fire having traveled the length of the mine and up the kindling of the tree's root system to explode in the open air. We witness these sorts of sudden conflagrations, constantly: road rage, workplace and school shooting sprees, foaming at the mouth right-wing pundits, George Bush's oscillations between dead-eyed blankness and prickly anger (I don't know which state is more terrifying), and seemly -- an entire culture that willing accepts the outright murder of civilians, for no discernable reason. As if there is a good one.

If the fires of passion are left to burn, unattended, in chthonic denial -- how can an individual or a culture learn to temper those raging fires of passions into warmth and compassion? Hence: the coldness of the corporate culture and the lifelessness of suburban existence, resulting into chronic dissatisfaction (the feeling something is missing) and the dark Eros of perpetual war.

The fire next time, indeed.

The imagery and dogma of our hyper-commercialized era surrounds, permeates, and dominates our lives in the same way the imagery and dogma of the church controlled the lives of peasants of the Dark Ages. And the result, then as now, is constant outbreaks of hysteria.

I think your idea regarding the necessity of learning to do something well....is well-advised: for such endeavors temper blazing fires of passion that threaten to burn out of control -- but do not repress them. Accordingly, troubadour apprentices were required to master then perform the work of others for years before they were permitted to contribute word and song to the collective, oral canon.

As a byproduct of the refinement of passion, one learns to love. It was, in fact, the troubadours who invented the concept of romantic love.

I think part of what we are discussing here is the distinction between socially sanctioned art and a more truthful, resonant, dangerous, socially and personally transforming variety. As Robert Graves and others have pointed out, this point is exemplified by the lives and works of the 12th and 13th century troubadours -- who stand in contrast with the court poets of the era. While the troubadours wandered the countryside...village to village...town to town (as we now wander...where, the hinterlands of cyberspace?) connecting with the populous, tapping into the collective depth of their outer and inner lives, the court poets sang paeans to powerful patrons and the vanities of kings. In short, the court poets produced what amounted to the equivalent of their era's ad copy, political sound bites, commercial theatre, television, and movies.

Since the corporatists are now the lords of a new Dark Age, one must go beyond the castle walls, beyond the privilege and "protection" accorded to court poets. If artist, poets, and writers fail to do so -- the result (and we see it all around us) is a wasteland -- an era comprised of petty vanities, egomaniacal, soul-numbing tiny agendas, and a pervasive sense of emptiness.

Our emptiness is compensated for by the gigantism we see everywhere around us...from fat, super-sized children to bloated mcmansions.

But from wooly mammoths to SUVs, from Elvis Presley, stuffed into a sequined jumpsuit, to the fate of the unwieldy armies of over-extended empires bogged down by local insurgencies -- gigantism is a precursor to extinction -- and now the phenomena is transpiring on a global basis.

I see post-liberal corporatism as analogous to the last days of Elvis...puffy, bloated, wheezing its way through its set...convinced that compulsive extravagance is tantamount to youthful excess. Guarded gate communities are our own private Graceland where we die in excess and isolation. The electric lights sequined across the entire planet glow from space like one of Elvis's Las Vega costumes. But does no one see the dying man beneath the jeweled jumpsuit? As the troubadours chanted: The land and king are one.

America has left the building.

And the trope is even more distressing when applied to Bush: To listen to the mangled syntax of his speech patterns is to hear the sound of the national infrastructure crack and buckle; his booze and cocaine decimated brain cells mirror the earth's diminishing bio-diversity; his snits of entitlement and his ruthlessness catalyze the entropic forces that are driving the engines of extinction.

John, the hour at hand has given us much to discuss, to write about, to perform, to commiserate with strangers about on a cross-town bus. I believe continuing to attempt to connect is key: first with one's inner voices and then engaging in an ongoing dialog with the world. The only ground rules being: an avoidance of the use of clichés, cant, comforting lies, careerism, power plays, preening vanities, and soul-occluding agendas of any sort.

I don't believe anyone will be saved, but a moment of honest expression can help one endure an age of banal lies.



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Internal Resources

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About the Author

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



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This Edition's Internal Links

The Upside Down - Walter Laqueur One - by Milo Clark

Terrorism Upgraded To Normality - Walter Laqueur Two - by Milo Clark

Excessive Demands Will Exceed Capabilities - by Philip Greenspan

America's Health Is In Tainted Hands - by Jan Baughman

Johnny Carson - by John Steppling

Boycotting The Hegemony: Part Two, Bechtel - by Gerard Donnelly Smith

The Pledge Of Solidarity - by Manuel García, Jr.

And We Call It The "Paper Of Record!" - Book Review by Louis Proyect

Shakespeare, Playwright Of The Diaspora? - Book Review by Charles Marowitz

Le Chant des Partisans (Song of the Partisans) - by Maurice Druon & Joseph Kessel

Blips #11 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/prjs02.html
Published January 31, 2005