ABSTRACT: When we speak, we assume to be anchored in the present time. Yet, escape artists that we are, we are completely invested in avoiding any sensation connecting us to the present. Through religion, genes, country or any other kind of group allegiance, we feel protected from the complexity of life. Similarly news and media, as well as design and art, constitute some of the numerous ways we may concretize a form of wishful thinking that posits that we know something and have a handle on life.
Poing dans la Gueule/Fist in the Face
Amnesty – Copyright Topor
BEYOND BELIEF – an introduction will be expanded into a piece to be called On n’en revient pas (a French expression meaning both “from there one does not come back” and “hard to believe”).
La vie est âpre, mais belle/Life is harsh, but beautiful. A.K. (a friend)
It seems that most humans are still very much excited to exchange thrills with each other (the best translation for the French “frisson”?). Is that enough to keep us going further, from image to image, or artwork to artwork? Could all cultural production stand at a standstill, just for a while…? Maybe only then will we have finally, as Cocteau pleaded for mirrors to do, a chance to reflect?
The following short text – which characteristically seems to inspire no response – was written after my brain surgery and the loss of my mother, both of which are not mentioned in the text and truly irrelevant. To pay attention to these facts would be a reductionist way to avoid the content of the text. Life is not digestible so why lie through writing and why lie to each other?
Yes, the text below is indeed nihilistic, but as with our common fate, that position is neither positive nor negative, it is just a form of realism…
More to the point, I had repeatedly encountered the need for a tabula rasa:
– During WWII my father had been part of the Communist Resistance Movement in France (cf. “L’Affiche Rouge”). My grandparents had not survived the Shoah, and speeches praising peace or culture seemed farcical – I was a Jew in post-war Europe.
– Even though May 68 is remembered as a celebration of the free spirit, what I personally witnessed revealed the status quo’s violence.
– My early readings seemed to focus on unmasking the ever present pretense: Prévert, Dostoievski, A.S. Neill, Artaud, Daumal, Michaux, Debord… moving on later to Beckett, Porchia, and U.G. Krishnamurti (not the famous one)…
I distrust words, I would have preferred not to speak… but I still feel the need to try to communicate… So, for those who are able to view L’Amour à Mort Love Unto Death by Alain Resnais, I would point out that film.
For the others, I resort to the text below.
When asked to contribute to a 2010 conference on Media Literacy, I decided to address the topic of Cultural Literacy.
…the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives…
— Tony Judt
Everything exerts itself to have you believe that culture is great, that it’s cool, that movies are life, that poetry loves you, theatre awaits you, and that painting concerns you… They say, ‘Believe, we’ll do the rest.’
— Philippe Muray
If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.
… we are where we always were? Alan Watts.
To think in a loud and busy environment is extremely hard, yet our buzz of activity assumes there is no such place as solitude.
At all costs, shuffled away and perpetually distracted, we do away with boredom, loneliness, death… and thinking. The media, in its endless formats, refines itself over the years: “Make it more and more real, we need three dimensional interactivity now!”
But we were never present. There has never been a “now.”
From the start, we had always intended to get away.
NOT THE PRESENT
“Ecology,” another word for “survival,” is applicable to a great variety of domains. A year and a half ago, I spoke at a Saint Louis University Media Ecology conference.
Now needing to go further, I bring up Arne Naess’s “Deep Ecology” (more on this Wiki).
I will simplify one of its principles: when a harbor needs to be cleaned because the pollution has been noticed, it is already too late to accomplish anything serious (or “deep”) about it.
The trouble started much earlier. Our faulty interactions with ourselves, each other and our surroundings had prevented us from hearing the ringing alarm. In other words, the “canary in the coal mine” had been dead for a long time.
We must be invested in the source of our troubles, and not the symptoms.
More importantly, when it is news, it is too late.
I SEE WHAT YOU MEAN
To make matters worse, we live in a visual culture, which may mean that we live shallow lives. St. Exupéry puts it this way: What the eye can perceive isn’t worth seeing.
But we should not be surprised: the subject of ethics – can one visualize that? – is hardly the topic of news. Anything of importance will often be a subtle and complex substance, almost a private issue, and most often, a lonely endeavor.
My late friend and former teacher, Jean Baudrillard, dotted the i’s this way: Even though the images show everything, nevertheless there is nothing to see.
“Seeing is believing”; yes, believe and then you will see. As has been said before, life is elsewhere. Our eyes may be the actual source for our blindness.
I KNOW BECAUSE I WISH (TO ESCAPE)
We assume we will know more if we turn towards “brightness and light,” but apart from math, physics and chemistry, most theories and religions are based on mesmerizing forms of wishful thinking.
Against the strongest evidence, we relentlessly hope our assumptions for a master plan are on target: some still attempt to turn around the killing of tens of millions during WWII into the undeniable proof that a god must exist.
To be optimistic and invested in progress substantiate one’s good character, yet what are we to do with last century’s indelible shadow of 262 million murders*?
Nasrudin, the wise fool of Sufi tales, tells this story:
In a small village, late one evening, a man found his neighbor Nasrudin on all fours by a street lamp, apparently looking for something. He asked him “What are you looking for?”.
“My keys.” answered Nasrudin. After a half-hour of scrounging together on the ground, the man turned to Nasrudin to ask “Are you sure this is where you lost them?”
To which, Nasrudin answered: “No, I lost them by my house.”
The man jumped up and asked “So why are we looking for them here?”.
Nasrudin’s answer: “Because that’s where there is light.”
As the classic German film Schatten (Warning Shadows) makes clear, we are always projecting ourselves and believing our images. The screening process has not taken place properly. Cocteau demands more: Mirrors should do a little bit of reflection before giving us our images back.
We actually seek to become images, as wedding photographers will attest to with their collections of so-called “picture perfect moments.”
NON THINKING – A SERVICE INDUSTRY
When facing the hardship of life, entertainment and the arts provide a greatly needed sigh of relief. An entire industry, now with a global reach, delivers its captive audience its pre-digested movies. Television dispenses a daily dosage of non-thinking in the form of groupthink. News often only offers a gloss on reality: show a bit of the good side, a bit of the bad, and the lure of objectivity is achieved: the voice of god itself! All the thinking has now been done for you.
There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous — Hannah Arendt.
Even multiple points of views, like the number of cereals in a supermarket, become a neutralizing factor. Dissent is co-opted, even welcomed, the more not to think. Ignorance is bliss, but so are knowledge, discussions, panels… the same contented vacuum reigns everywhere.
Debate, discuss, keep us looking elsewhere, or maybe just looking.
Institutions, media and books make it official: we don’t need to think, all we need is to agree or, as the expression goes, to agree to disagree. It is even possible to discuss or teach ethics without being implicated.
Thinking isn’t to agree or disagree, that’s voting. Robert Frost.
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Samuel Johnson.
For the sake of feeling that we belong somewhere, we have become aggregates of fear, huddled together by nation, religion, gene or history, illustrating the etymology of “consensus”: we make sense because we consent (and vice-versa). Our lives are tautologies (a rose is a rose) and reflect our well-rehearsed dictionaries. Containment is one of the functions of language: by using the currency of language, schooling, degrees and the workplace, our membership is sanctioned. Culture has become the railing for handling life, our great pacifier.
AN AESTHETIC OF BLIND SPOTS
We are amused by the fact that cats are caught up by any dangling piece of string. Yet we fail to acknowledge that our eyes and minds will do just the same with any moving object or any bright or colorful spot on a screen. The natives are still fascinated by the beads, the fireworks and the glitter. From bling to diamonds, our poverty at least sparkles.
After the striking branding campaign done by the Nazis, with their high-impact red, black and white colors, the prospect of aestheticizing and packaging reality should make all designers and artists highly wary. Yes, we can be manipulated, but what is the cost of learning and re-learning all of these lessons?
The blue-eyed blond heroes of our fairy tales may not hold a candle to the limping, one-toothed stinking hunchback who knows how to care and be respectful.
The refuge of beauty…
Those in power may display arrogance, but what I call “the arrogance of normalcy” could be even more nefarious. By ignoring and segregating those whose handicap we can clearly see, we have cornered ourselves: actually we are the ones who are acutely handicapped. The so-called horror films and its witches and monsters, more than anything else, publicize and reinforce our fears of ourselves.
(YOU WILL) KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW
I believe in America, I believe it exists. Stephen Colbert
In the dictionary, everything is defined by everything; a tautological closed system where you don’t have to be a linguist to sense that you don’t actually learn anything. At times, our vocabulary goes on a rampage: “roadkill,” “collateral damage,” “trash,” “(human) refuse,” “bums.” We learn to become comfortable with our blindness. Language, as Barthes has said, is tyranny, but it is also criminal containment, segregation and avoidance.
STASIS OF STATUS QUO
What is presented as communication consists generally, to use Jakobson’s coined function, of just a phatic mode of interacting: nothing more than saying “here I am, too.” We imagine eternity as the extension of a status quo against change. “Freeze!” as the police would say.
MESSAGE AS MASSAGE
As U.G., the Indian-born teacher hinted at, we are all sensory addicts, with art being the greatest piece of evidence in that constant search for sensual stimulation. Art is a habit forming drug. Marcel Duchamp (his underlining).
We need very cold showers, not just coming to our senses, but coming to beyond our senses.
So… I beg to differ. Or shall I have to shout to differ? Silence is often criminal collusion. Power reigns much more easily through silence: Karadzic’s 200,000 victims were greeted by silence. The Shoah, Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo, and on and on… the pattern is clear.
I probably have said too much and used too many words. As I finally veer towards another type of silence, it is appropriate I remember Umberto Eco’s words: A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie.