Maybe Partying Will Help

February 8, 2008

As the suspense of the U.S. presidential primaries continues on unbroken, I thought I’d just drop in to remind everyone that They are watching on in amusement as we vote on which of Their puppets They will string into the White House next.

Yes, I have been reading Pynchon. And no, I’m not serious, but the problem of co-opted resistance is one that has been bothering me lately. I am currently writing a thesis about the literature of the carnival, a time in which the norms and boundaries of society are temporarily removed in favor of universal hedonism, and I can’t decide what to think – is this really a form of transgression, or does it only reinforce the social norms that return once everyone goes back to work?

Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote one of the classic studies of carnival (or at least of Rabelais, whose work was a large part of its culture in France), thinks that carnival cannot be co-opted. Laughter, he says, will always remain a free weapon in the hands of the people. But I can’t see how laugh tracks are in any way in the people’s hands. Theodore Adorno, to pick on a particularly sad curmudgeon, argues that television comedy makes light of social inequalities to distract from their seriousness, and to keep people from feeling outrage where they rightly should. Couldn’t the carnival be seen in the same way? As a way of quelling all the people’s rebellious and transgressive urges at once in, say, one week of utter revelry, so that the rest of the year they will be docile?

It has been. The debate has been swinging in that direction since the 90s or so. But it hasn’t exactly ended. The original arguments for carnival’s power got sort of abstract after Bakhtin – Julia Kristeva writes that carnival forms are different from modern forms like television because in their language they do not allow for binary distinctions, instead letting opposites coexist. There is truth to this – the forms of parody that occurred in medieval carnival were not unilaterally negative as modern forms often are, but instead tore down and elevated at once, like insults exchanged jokingly between friends – but the way that sort of argument goes is too structuralist for the present taste. Mine too, but I still tend to agree with the conclusion even if I don’t like the argument. True dissent is possible, or at least I’d like to think so so much that I’m going to think so regardless.

But even if it’s possible, it might not happen much anymore. Kristeva agrees with Adorno that the supposed boundary-breaking we see in modern forms of humor (like, say, Family Guy) is evidence of nothing but a “law anticipating its own transgression;” in such cases, the transgression comes from the same system that makes the laws. If we accept that there is one, unified “system,” then this is certainly true. There’s where Pynchon comes in. The whole basis of his novels is the belief that everything is controlled by the same, invisible Force – both the squares and the rebels, both the Allies and the Axis. If we accept this, there can be no real escape because all the means of escape that are open to you have been specially designed to lead you right back into Their clutches. Scary.

But Pynchon writes satire. As much as I think Pynchon’s novels reflect on his times, I don’t take all the elaborate paranoid systems he constructs as anything more than grotesque absurdities. He’s not advocating that sort of thought – he’s making fun of it. I imagine he’s a bit of a paranoid himself, but I’m sure he’s painfully aware that it’s a delusion. What he’s saying with all the paranoia has more to do with our unfulfilled need for structure than with the actual order of our society. It’s more about the lack of structure in our world than anything. Of course I don’t think there’s a Them.

Even so, dissent is often corralled into a fenced-off place by one institution or another, and that must weaken its power to some extent. The obvious example is those “free-speech zones,” but you can also think of television shows like South Park that break norms just to shock people – ultimately, this sort of comedy does nothing but underscore the norms that it breaks.

The solution, of course, is to avoid defining your new position in terms of the thing you’re trying to escape. This means that art must become ambivalent again. Art that leaves some of the thinking up to the reader can’t be filed away so easily as art that really, overtly attempts to tear things down – it’s better to let dissent flow than to crystallize it. And as for revelry, I’m all for it, but you shouldn’t just drink to forget.


Art or art

November 22, 2007

Well first off Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope it is a good one.

 

For this holiday post I wanted to engage the question of art versus Art. That age old, or at least a century old question on the difference between what is considered “high art” and all that other stuff they call “low art.”  I know that the distinction has come up already and the term entertainment has been thrown around as well as what Adorno called it, “light art,” bud I’d like to dedicate a post just to this distinction. First I really don’t see merit in defining which is which just yet and I apologize to those who do. I would like to start with a discussion of the category itself and why we as a society have felt the need to create it.

 

I know we could have an entire conversation on why our culture has the need to create categories in the first place and maybe we will someday here at this blog but for now I’d like to approach the conversation of why with art. I know that that may seem very simplistic to some of you but you never know, sometimes it is the simplest questions that produce the most complex answers.

 

Anyway perhaps an obvious explanation is our desire to award genius talent, to separate those among us who show an extraordinary ability. And when the goal of art was that sort of extreme realism and mathematical precision it was during the Renaissance, that distinction was necessary. But what about today? Today that ability is not measured by some sort of tangible talent but rather by a talent in approaches. I have to stop here and acknowledge the fact that for those who do not accept modern art as art this probably will suffice as an explanation of the two, but for those of us who see modern art as definitively art then let us continue.

 

So today when the definition has been so greatly expanded and the potential for even “ready-mades” to fall into the category of Art (yes with a big “a”) why should we even have this division? I purpose that based off my idea of art as an interaction, that all “art” can now obtain that level of “Art” depending on the interaction between the observer and the object.

 

But how much should we follow such a proposal, I mean are we ready to except the Mona Lisa and Duchamp’s Fountain on the same playing field? Well based on my interactions with both, yes.

 

I look forward to your thoughts,

 

Huysmans


The Culture Industry, as Adorno sees it, well and Horkheimer too.

November 16, 2007

In Adorno’s essay, I mean Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay on mass culture titled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” they outline what they think the culture industry is doing to us and how basically it interacts with us. It is one of many essays published in Dialectic of Enlightenment originally published in 1944. I want to bring this essay into the continued discussion of art because it suggests a new type of art, the art of the mass industry. This art is a business, the business of entertainment. It is not ruled by manifestos or schools but rather by the wallet. This industry holds no morals and is not tied to any tradition, it will do what ever it needs to turn over that profit, and that includes convincing you that it is about traditions and manifestos, Dali that is to you.

 

Let me stop here for a second and admit that I 1) don’t fully understand the inter-workings of Adorno’s arguments and 2) hold reservations against brandishing everything that has come out of the cultural factories as some subservient art, a “light” art as Adorno would like us to call it.

 

I bring this up though because there is something interesting in the idea of control. Are we controlled by our own industry? There is truth to it in that the industry creates need through desire that it dictates, we can easily live without all the luxuries of technology but yet we don’t and worse off we now swear by them. But is it control? Am I writing here because I am being forced to or because I want to? But is that want imposed by the industry?

 

I’d love some thoughts on this. Huysmans