What is Hollywood, you ask, dear children? A quorum of whores babbling endlessly on about fucking while the bordello is razed for a penny arcade -- Paul Bern

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Part I. Susie Sunday’s Adventures in Hegemonic Moral Tourism. 

"I am generally interested in the ‘other’." -- JLG, in a joking mood. 
The strange desire of the gringos to connect, spiritually -- somehow -- with their Enemies of Color is remarkable. As is their need to use exotic others to act out their really complex psychomachias of self-division. Of course Tacitus is interested in the Germans and the Britons, too, but the melancholic tone of envy, of Civilization and its Discontents, is missing; he’s comfortable and confident in the Roman structure -- they are always resolutely Other; if they should at some point become Roman subjects, Great! Bitchen! then they will also be utterly transformed, and better for it. 

Yes, the key to the western soul – to conquistador psychology – is self division, alienation. Exhibit A:

I always notice, and it is a fact, that for the most part when we have something valuable in our hands, and deal with it without hindrance, we do not value or prize it as highly as if we understood how much we would miss it after we had lost it, and the longer we continue to have it the less we value it; but after we have lost it and miss the advantages of it, we have a great pain in the heart, and we are all the time imagining and trying to find ways and means by which to get back again. It seems to me that this has happened to all or most of those who went on the expedition which, in the year of our Savior Jesus Christ 1540, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led in search of the Seven Cities.

Granted that they did not find the riches of which they had been told, they found a place in which to search for them and the beginning of a good country to settle in, so as to go on farther from there. Since they came back from the country which they conquered and abandoned, time has given them a chance to understand the direction and locality in which they were, and the borders of the good country they had in their hands, and their hearts weep for having lost so favorable an opportunity. Just as men see more at the bullfight when they are upon the seats than when they are around in the ring, now when they know and understand the direction and situation in which they were, and see, indeed, that they can not enjoy it nor recover it, now when it is too late they enjoy telling about what they saw, and even of what they realize that they lost, especially those who are now as poor as when they went there. They have never ceased their labors and have spent their time to no advantage. I say this because I have known several of those who came back from there who amuse themselves now by talking of how it would be to go back and proceed to recover that which is lost, while others enjoy trying to find the reason why it was discovered at all.  
-- Pedro de Castañeda, Chronicler of the Coronado Expedition.

The Coronado Entrada was an operatic clusterfuck of a disaster. Whence the allure? These conquistador gentlemen had become citizen-hostages of that fairy-land known as possibility. They live in one place, hard and provincial, but their hearts and their allegiance are elsewhere. Cervantes, too lived his alienated dream of being the conquistador, a little mockingly, through the Quijote.

In 1968, as it was all going down in the Joli Mai Apocalypse & Free Festival in France, and long before any movie stars or Godard (who, laudably for his carbon footprint, always undertakes his moral tourism a priori, at his moviola) Sontag actually WENT to Vietnam. It was a dubious paradise, the Coronado Entrada in reverse, a little trip to Hanoi to undo the Conquest – which of course, triggered a fit of expressive Western alienation. For all her “edgy” modernist folderol, her aspirant iconoclasm, Sontag is always breathlessly, dangerously close to middlebrow, and nowhere so much as her trip to Hanoi. But she also has some very good insights into her sad condition, too. Which is ours, too.

Sontag: I’m overcome by how exotic the Vietnamese are – impossible for us to understand them, clearly impossible for them to understand us. No, I’m hedging here. The truth is: I feel I can in fact understand them (if not relate to them, except on their simplistic terms). But it seems to me that while my consciousness does include theirs, or could, theirs could never include mine. They may be nobler, more heroic, more generous than I am, but I have more on my mind than they do – probably what precludes my ever being that virtuous. Despite my admiration for the Vietnamese and my shame over the deeds of my country, I still feel like someone from a “big” culture visiting a “little” culture. My consciousness reared in that “big” culture, is a creature with many organs, accustomed to being fed by a stream of cultural goods and infected by irony. While I don’t think I’m lacking in moral seriousness, I shrink from having my seriousness ironed out; I know I’d feel reduced if there was no place for its contradictions and paradoxes, not to mention its diversions and distractions. Thus, the gluttonous habits of my consciousness prevent me from being at home with what I most admire, and for all my raging against America – firmly unite me to what I condemn. “American Friend”, indeed.

Of course, I could live in Vietnam or an ethical society like this one – but not without the loss of a big part of myself. Though I believe that incorporation into such a society will greatly improve the lives of most people in the world (and therefore support the advent of such societies), I imagine that it will in many ways impoverish mine. I live in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacity for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures. Those who don’t enjoy (in both senses) my pleasures have every right, from their side to regard my consciousness as spoiled, corrupt, decadent. I, from my side, can’t deny the immense richness of these pleasures or my addiction to them. What came to mind this afternoon was the sentence of Talleyrand that Bertolucci used as his motto for his sad, beautiful film: “He who has not lived before the revolution has never known the sweetness of life.”

Et in Arcadia ego. Go on, laugh, it is funny. Give me the advent of those societies, but not yet, Lord. There is nothing that fills me with more admiration than the spectacle of a good bourgeois willing to equivocate unto death his naughty, ironic, decadent consciousness; ah, the sadean roster of crimes they might commit, y’know, between cocktail parties. This is puritanism with gums. It’s baffling, really.  Why won’t anyone in the spectacular class just defend the obvious: it’s not a bad life, rather pleasant, in fact. What’s really disquieting about it – is that the membership must perform this fake dance of mortification, so the peasants do it too.

But I could renounce, at least imaginatively, my conviction of the inevitability of irony, the Vietnamese suddenly looked far less undecipherable. Their language didn’t seem quite so imprisoning and simplistic, either. (For the development of ironic truths, one needs lots of words. Without irony, not so many words are required.) The Vietnamese operate by another notion of civility than the one we’re accustomed to, and that implies a shift in the meaning of honesty and sincerity. Honesty as it is understood in Vietnam bears little resemblance to the sense of honesty that has been elevated by secular western culture virtually above all other values. In Vietnam, honesty and sincerity are functions of the dignity of the individual. A Vietnamese, by being sincere, reinforces and enhances his personal dignity. In this society, being sincere often means precisely forfeiting one’s claim to dignity, to an attractive appearance; it means the willingness to be shameless. The difference is acute. This culture subscribes to an empirical or descriptive notion of sincerity, which measures whether a man is sincere by how fully and accurately his words mirror his hidden thoughts and feelings. The Vietnamese have a normative or prescriptive notion of sincerity. While our aim is to make the right alignment – correspondence between one’s words and behavior and one’s inner life (on the assumption that the truth voiced by the speaker is ethically neutral, or rather is rendered ethically neutral or praiseworthy by the speaker’s willingness to avow it) theirs is to construct an appropriate relation between the speaker’s words and his behavior and his social identity. Sincerity, in Vietnam means behaving in a manner worthy of one’s role; Sincerity is a mode of ethical aspiration.

The insincere, inauthentic, & ironic westerner, because of a fundamental mistrust of themselves, is always vulnerable to apparent sincerity. Vulnerable is not quite the word – they are sincerity junkies. But it’s good that Sontag makes for us the connection between excessive, baroque language, alienation, richness, and self-consciousness. Expressive language, for the westerner, is the picture and reality of the self, and it is only natural that it should eternally double back on itself or play a masquerade.

In our society, talk is perhaps the most intricately developed expression of private individuality. Conducted at this high-pitch of development, talking becomes a double-edged activity: both an aggressive act and an attempted embrace. Thus talk often testifies to the poverty or inhibition of our feelings; it flourishes as a substitute for more organic connections between people. (When people really love, or are genuinely in touch with themselves, they shut up.) But Vietnam is a culture in which people have not gotten the final devastating point about talking, have not gauged the subtle ambivalent resources of language – because they don’t experience as we do the isolation of a “private self”. Talk is still a rather plain instrumentality for them, a less important means of being connected with their environment than direct feeling, love.

Thus it’s off the point to speculate whether the warmth of Pham Van Dong during the hour of conversation Bob, Andy and I had with him in the late afternoon of May 16th was sincere in our sense, or whether the Prime Minister “really” wanted to embrace us as we left his office, before walking us out the front door and out the gravel driveway to our waiting cars. He was sincere in the Vietnamese sense: his behavior was attractive, it was becoming, it intended good. Nor is it quite right to ask if the Vietnamese “really” hate the Americans, even though they say don’t; or to wonder why they don’t hate Americans, if indeed they do not. One basic unit of Vietnamese culture is the extraordinary, beautiful gesture. But gesture mustn’t be interpreted in our sense – something put on, theatrical. The gestures a Vietnamese makes aren’t a performance external to his real personality. By means of gestures, those acts brought off according to whatever standards he affirms, his self is constituted. And in certain cases personality can be wholly redefined by a single, unique gesture: for a person to do something finer than he has ever done may promote him without residue to a new level on which such acts are regularly possible. (In Vietnam moral ambition is a truth – an already confirmed reality – in a way it isn’t among us, because of our psychological criteria of “the typical” and “the consistent”. This contrast sheds light on the quite different role political and moral exhortation plays in a society like Vietnam. Much of the discourse we would dismiss as propagandistic or manipulative possesses a depth for the Vietnamese to which we are insensitive.

We stopped briefly somewhere in the countryside to visit the grave of an American pilot. As we got out of our cars and walked off the road about fifty yards through the high grass, Oanh told us that it was the pilot of an F-105 brought down with a rifle (cynical italics mine) about a year ago. The pilot had failed to eject and crashed with his plane on this very spot; some villagers recovered his body from the wreckage. Coming into a clearing we saw not a simple grave but an elevated mound decorated with chunks from the plane’s engine and a crumpled piece of wing, like a Chamberlain sculpture, and with flowers and topped by a wooden marker on which was written the pilot’s name and the date of his death. I stood there some minutes feeling haunted, barely able to comprehend that initial act of burial, astonished by the look of the site and the evidence that it was still being looked after. And afterwards when the vice-chairman of the provinces administrative council who was traveling in my car explained that the pilot had been buried in “a coffin of good wood” so that his family in America could come after the war and take his body home, I felt almost undone. What is one to make of this amazing act?  How could these people, who have had spouses and parents and children murdered by this pilot and his comrades (the load of one F-105, four canisters of CBU’s, kills every unsheltered living creature within an area of one square kilometer), quietly take up their shovels and tastefully arrange his grave? What did they feel? Did they realize that whatever his objective guilt, he, just as much as their dead, was a precious irreplaceable human being who should not have died? Could they pity him? Did they forgive him? But maybe these questions are misleading. What’s likely is that the villagers thought burying the pilot was a beautiful (they would probably say “humane”) thing to do – a standard that both overrides and transforms their personal feelings, so far as these might enter the matter.

For all its tortured and “understanding” condescension, amid the righteousness and rage, (I am disarmed because I am more in touch with your “rage” than you are…) this is unbelievably, unbearably naïve. This is exactly like the john who really desires or imagines a secret emotional engagement from his prostitute. He seeks mutual abjection, a violation of the roles, a momentary displacement of the erotic power relations. But that’s impossible, see, because the encounter with the Other that is so lovingly desired is just a symptom and manifestation of the conqueror’s self-division.

This is what enrages the sub-altern, the post-colonial: ultimately the trip to Hanoi cannot be other than a journey more deeply into solipsism. That grave is just a piece of Sontag’s atavism, a bit of her lost patriotic soul, she just can’t really talk about it in those chauvinistic terms. “We are patriots,” a Vietnamese poet tells her, “but in a happy way. You have more suffering in your patriotism.” The desire for conquest (even in reverse) is just a lamentable by-product of the need to actually encounter an other, when the primal, religious search for the otherness that is God has proved elusive.

Conquest, western or otherwise, is a symptom of a spiritual crisis.

Part II. Privates on Parade


"Our town, our town do love a stampede..."  Scott Walker, Tilt

For the westerner, one’s private consciousness is a sort of ultimate wealth and so sharing it is difficult, only possible as a form of (perhaps) humiliating potlatch. Augustine’s Confessions, etc. That contrasting generosity is what the sophisticate, with his half-measure of everything, always admires and idealizes in the primitive, especially in the vampiric unity of the sex tourist’s encounter with the Other. 

Pasolini: “Certainly the entire bourgeoisie including the "haute bourgeoisie" has always been badly disposed toward confession, sincerity, lack of pretextuality, violence, and verbal inappropriateness; and its ideal of behavior and therefore of language has always been strictly conformistic.”  
See you in Phuket, dude! (Makes high-five gesture)

The issue here is not conformity or freedom, (self-divided ideas, after all) but of a deeper submersion into oral-tribal-culture that renders the very idea of consciousness, and therefore of conformity superfluous. It’s no coincidence that Bin Laden is so articulate in expressing the traditional self-critiques of the west: he’s one of us. The classic alienated type, who needs to prove that he can be more “primitive” but with style and satellite phones, than the natives. And all this stuff about restoring the caliphate, the beautiful world of Al-Andalus reclaimed – this is, like Sontag’s Tribeca version, just so much islamic pastoralism.

The real tribalist experiences no contradiction between the collectivity, the external, and the self which is also “out there” among its people – the wealth, if one is to speak of it like that, resides in a collective possession that vibrates a sort of harmony; an increase of meaning in the system. It is communism, yes, but not materialist & not historical-dialectical, a praxis of the soul. A system that, nonetheless, is mute, meaningless outside of itself. Tolle, Lege – in oral culture there is nothing to take up, nothing to read. Simpler, isn’t it? From outside, they are literally pod people. A flock of birds, a terrifying mindless unison.

One cannot SPEAK the language of the birds, Sontag.
Get the fuck over it.

You can only LIVE it. Oral-Tribality is instinctual re-action as the message of itself, the message being “Enjoying Fear Together”– it belongs to animality rather than thought. Expressiveness, that inefficient noise that signals conscientia (that is, a selfish complicity with one’s self; inner carnal knowledge) and personhood, tends to zero, and communicatio (making common the things of the tribe) tends to infinity. And the bird’s tweety, externalizing, presentational language, in turn, looks vapid and limited as an expression of consciousness, LOL! but less so if its function is ex-tegrating, or ex-gratiating to a super-body, or a defensive throwing off of a bit of narrative chaff.

It turns out that Engels’ quaint choice of Socialism or Barbarism was a false one. Socialism is Barbarism, or rather Barbarism is Socialism, but only if you throw out the literate/visual culture, that is, the possibility of private consciousness. Because if socialism really means anything, it means wearing your psychic underwear on the outside, so that your neighbors can see it and enjoy it, like L’altra Madonna, the Ciccone. And attempts to force the tribalism of socio-economic justice by means of private consciousness are doomed by self contradiction. In other words, the problem is how to share goods ethically, when one is so stingy and secretive in one’s inner life. The medium (private expression reckoned as private property) in this case is the message.

Old World: “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

New (Old) World: “Sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.” 

Yes – this is getting closer to bird-life, at least the electronic version thereof.

Italian researchers have gone a step further in this explanation by taking many pictures from starling flocks flying over the city of Rome. Then, they reconstructed on the computer the 3D position of each individual inside the flock, and studied how the flight of a given bird was shaped by its neighbors. They discovered that birds aren’t affected by the position of all neighbors within a certain distance (lineal distance), but only by those six closest neighbors (topographic distance). Implementing this rule as an algorithm into a simulation model, they showed that this individual behavior enhanced the compactness of flocks when attacked by a predator. In this way, starlings evade the attack of the falcon, leaving him hypnotized by their self-organized magic.

A noted author, a representative of the ancien regime of Text and a noted ethno-humorist, as well as an aspiring Sontag, is perplexed about this new locale for “collective consciousness-lite”: 

I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX...

This isn’t one individual mourning another, this is the eternal chatter of the network, the song of the conduits, along with, just faintly (and perhaps this is my imagination, the example provided being a fiction) a certain coded presentational stance, a mild bravado before a common, systemically hostile and stupid Nature of which one remains an inevitably hostile and stupid part.


Polyphony, along with all other products of the west, is the tenderest shoot of alienation, and its best hope. Products of the west are all manifestations of our beloved alienation. Naturally, it is easy to believe this to be a liability, a crippling condition to be overcome. Technological warfare reflects this self-division, too. We create weapons, that to use them, even in the last ditch, would destroy first and foremost our cherished and characteristic illusions about ourselves, enacting a sort of spiritual suicide. These are weapons of the super-ego.

The Jewish people have an unenviable symbolic content -- the rootless cosmopolitans, the conscience of the world, the tribe sophisticated by personalist hellenism, but they are, through some obscure arrangement with the deity the details of which no one remembers, also the poster children for persecuted tribalist essentialism, “the chosen people”. Christianity, in its wholistic, Anti-Tribal, Anti-Honor, “catholic” aspirations, tries to neutralize the dilemma, by extending the benefits of “the special relationship” with God to all, making it not so special after all, while maximizing personalist spiritual and moral activity. 

And let’s remember, please, that for much of its history, Christianity was a highly effective counter-hegemonic Al-Qaeda, and will no doubt return to its special energy of opposition, as the strong forces of fundamentalist tribalisms duke it out with the weak force of anemic secular culture, i.e. ideological supermaketing. Personalism, inherently unstable, needs a tradition and structure. For a thousand years, Christianity was that structure. It’s gone. To ward off the reconquista of tribalism in the new technological frontiers of possibility, you’d need a Khmer Rouge in reverse, a Pol Pot of alienated, private literacy and secular humanism. Where is that eagle scout? Salman Rushdie? Eddie Vedder? Bill Maher? 

Tribalism is a natural remedy to the pleasant buzzing psychosis unearthed by the utopia of the internet, and it grafts itself more comfortably in that non-realm than private consciousness ever will.

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