Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sweet Despair of End-Culture Snark

Finally having found and skimmed a copy of David Denby's book Snark, it has crystallized some things I've been thinking about for many months. Here, in no particular order, are some observations, not intended to be snarky themselves, but also not intended to pull any punches. Not that anyone cares, or ought to.

I am not a political commentator, and I don't intend to start. That is not my purpose here. I am going to make some general comments here about political discourse itself, but these are comments about style, about argument, about rhetoric, and are not linked to any given political position or ideology. Although one does feel it necessary to point out that the very values held by the progressive end of the political spectrum prevents most progressives from using the rhetorical tactics employed by some on the extreme right, and in some cases prevents effective rhetorical responses; this differing viewpoint can skew political discourse from the outset, purely on the grounds of style and values.

It's taken me a long time to work up the personal momentum to say all this that I have written here, and now it's done. For my own sake, just to get it off my chest. These are things I've been wanting to articulate for some time now, and now I have.

What truly concerns me here is how the corrosion of public discourse hastens the entropic collapse of the general cultural climate—this collapse itself being something I strongly believe ought to be resisted in every possible way.

1. First, I must disclose that I didn't do more than skim Denby's book before shelving it. Although I admire him as a writer, and have heard him interviewed on NPR with pleasure, and read other interviews with him with equal pleasure, the topic of this book is itself a seeping black hole of internet-cultural negativity. It's not something I intend to go wading in. I dip my toe into the edge of the event horizon, but I don't intend to let myself get sucked in. (The gods know I have had enough personal bad craziness in my life this past year and more, not excluding medical near-death experiences, that I feel permanently cured of going looking for snark and drama elsewhere.) The topic intrigues me; dwelling on the negativity of human affairs does not. The topic intrigues me because it is symptomatic of so many other related cultural phenomena.

Another, perhaps deeper book on this topic, Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture, which I also finally found a copy of, and will also dip only my toe in for the moment, is a more general look at the erosion of civility in public discourse that has been developed in the public arena in the past decade or so. This has happened, specifically, because of the rise of new media, which makes it easier for everyone to get their views in front of the microphone, or on their blog. Including the internet, but also including talk radio as a format, in which opinionated argument based on neither fact nor evidence has taken over public political discourse, this growth of general-citizen media access has created a parallel universe in which people are content to repeat lies as facts, repeating and repeating them until they take on the weight of authoritative truth simply by sheer force of volume. more and more fringe elements step up to the microphone. The shouting ever increases in volume, while listening to opposing viewpoints, much less factual corrections, has not only been lost as an art, but in some quarters is actually viewed as traitorous. As Tannen shows in her book, this pattern of polarized argumentative opposition has infected every form of discourse in our culture, including academic study and classroom debate.

It's no wonder political action itself has become gridlocked. It's no surprise that compromise has become labeled as ideologically traitorous, when uncompromising ideologues control the discourse. The vast majority of observers, especially those who own values require them to be honest about all matters, are disheartened, despairing, and dismayed, unable to find a way out of the gridlock. As Tannen writes:

Staging everything in terms of polarized opposition limits the information we get rather than broadening it. For one thing, when a certain kind of interaction is the norm, those who feel comfortable with that type of interaction are drawn to participate, and those who do not feel comfortable with it recoil and go elsewhere. If public discourse included a broad range of types, we would be making room for individuals with different temperaments. But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse—or choose not to—are likely to opt out.

In other words, those for whom heated argument is not their default mode of communication often go unheard in public discourse nowadays, precisely because heated argument is not their default mode. I place myself in this category: while I am able to speak truth to power, when power is being abused or waylaid by disinformation, I am not a competitive soul. I am not a natural arguer. I don't enjoy it. I find myself unable to keep silence mostly when I run across something that is so blatantly misinformed that someone, anyone, needs to speak up to correct the facts. Most of the time the result of such speaking out is personal attack, ranging in type from verbal bullying to ostracism. When it becomes clear that no good deed goes unpunished, in venue after venue, one learns not to make the effort anymore; no one is listening, so why bother. Of course, this means that those who like to shout down all opposition win in the end. At least in the short term.

2. "Bread and circuses while Rome burns."

Most of the things I see people arguing about with the apparent full force of their fierce convictions are, bluntly, distractions. None of it will matter in a 100 years. Most of it won't matter in a month. Most of what people defend as political or literary Absolute Truth is easily shown to be provincial, personal taste, local and subjective and defended so vociferously mainly because the heat of argument is supposed to get one to overlook its hollowness.

This is just as true in literary-critical circles as it is in the political arena. A poet friend who is now a former poet friend—former because he had a paranoid meltdown precisely along these lines of discourse, ending up by un-friending me—used to be fond of pointing out that the reason poetry criticism can be so very vicious is precisely because there's so very little at stake. It does indeed seem to be a general trend that argumentative viciousness is inversely proportional to its necessity for living. Argumentative public discourse is in some ways a sign of a decadent culture, but its also a sign of a culture of leisure, in which an entire class of people have the free time to argue, rather than attend to more basic needs.

So-called "reality TV" is blatant bread and circuses. Not to mention that it's not very real, since programs are edited to create maximum drama, maximum conflict, even when there wasn't much really. Most of TV is bread and circuses, for that matter, entertainment designed to keep us from thinking too hard or too long about the real problems faced by the world. 500 channels and nothing on.

But what sweet distraction it all is. How honey-rich to avoid having to think about what frightens us. How sweet to feel helpless rather than empowered.

People will go a long way towards avoiding solving the problems facing the world. Sometimes bread and circuses is what people turn to when they feel overwhelmed by the real problems. It is escapism, it seems soothing in the short term. although it is in fact entropic in the long.

Denial is rampant. Denialism is particularly unforgivable when it's in the face of observed and recorded scientific data; at that point it becomes ideological denial, not experimental or procedural dissent. People don't want to hear what they don't want to believe.

3. One must indeed stand up for a good cause when one finds one. There is always good reason to speak out against injustice and hatred, including hate speech; to speak out against bullying; to speak out against those who cite inaccuracies, factual distortions, and outright lies to make arguments, to call them on their shit. As rabbi and mystic Abraham Heschel once said, A prophet interferes with injustice, often by speaking out against it when all others seem afraid to. Talking back to the bullies is sometimes unavoidable because keeping mum is worse.

However, not every encounter requires anger and an aggressive response. You don't have to turn every statement you make into militancy. There is room, in critical discourse and in general human relationship, for conviviality and cohesion, for compromise and agreement. It doesn't all have to be disagreement for disagreement's sake, and it doesn't always have to be stated aggressively from the very start. Civil disagreement is one of the first casualties of the climate of snark in public discourse: being able to say "I disagree, and here's why," and know you'll be listened to rather than vilified merely for your disagreement.

The culture of snark is frankly, blatantly manipulative. It preys upon, and relies upon, emotional reaction in preference to reasoned, nuanced discussion. Shouting down the other guy is considered good form, and ad hominem personal attacks are just tactical. If you can't knock down the other guy's logic, knock down his personal integrity. Go quickly for the jugular, avoiding even the pretense of rational rebuttal.

4. This entire problem in public discourse is deeply symptomatic of late-culture decadence. The old culture is dying: postmodernism is really Late High Modernism, not a new cultural movement but the end of the High Modernism cultural movement, its death throes. This is reflected by how the arts have become mannerist rather than genuinely original.

Reactionary conservatism, no matter what topics it chooses to be reactionary about, is always symptomatic of the dinosaurs fighting to stay alive even when they know they're about to become extinct. They fight all the more fiercely when they know it's too late. They try to turn the tide of change back, stridently proclaiming ideologies both regressive and oppressive. These are the death-throes of the old, not harbingers of the new. The lessons they have to teach us about going forward into the Unknown are, paradoxically, lessons about fearlessness: about how you can't grasp the future with a tightly-closed fist.

5. I have little respect for (post-)apocalyptic fiction, in novels and movies—what my friend Frank Wilson defined as "the pornography of despair," an incredibly rich and useful coinage—which has become so commonplace and popular now that people don't even realize it's a symptom of cultural decline. Movie after movie, novel after novel, year after year, the stories are all the same: the end of the world approaches, and the protagonists struggle to survive, to overcome, to stay human while everything falls apart around them. Most apocalyptic fiction is predictable in both plot and outcome. Most of these stories are familiar tropes, recycled again and again.

I began reading science fiction at age 13. There has always been a sub-genre within science fiction of apocalyptic fiction, of post-apocalyptic fiction. The current run of mainstream fiction and movies that are on apocalyptic themes seem manifestly unoriginal and repetitive to me, having read the originals many years ago. Most post-apocalyptic movies and novels these days are original only in their details, not in their grand themes. The classic post-apocalyptic satire novel is Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Cormac McCarthy's much-over-praised novel The Road was nothing but a rehash. (Both Roger Zelazny and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, for example, wrote better-written precursors. And Gordon Dickson wrote more than one novel that serves as antidote, his stories ending not in nihilistic despair but in hope.)

I had a realization in 1973, when in the news yet another small cult had gone up to a mountaintop to await being evacuated by the flying saucers. I remember distinctly sitting in 7th Grade civics class. It was a sunny spring day in Ann Arbor. We were sitting in class, discussing the latest cult going to the mountaintop that had made the news. I suddenly had a brainstorm, a vision, a realization, whatever you want to call it, everything suddenly falling into place and becoming clear to me.

I knew with utter certainty that this latest cultish event was only the ramping-up to the Millennium. It would be followed by more and more similar events, culminating in mass hysteria around the term of the Millennium, and take another 25 or 30 years to taper off and fade away. I gave this overall trend, a few days after having this realization, the general name Millennial Fevre. (Yes, I made that phrase up myself; I've since heard others use similar phrases to describe their similar insights; although I must add that most of the discourse of any clarity on this topic has come from science fiction writers and the so-called futurists, social scientists engaged in speculation about large historical trends.) (By the way, I don't give a fig if anyone disbelieves this narrative of realization. It's in my civics class notes and journals from that time. So I know it to be accurate and factual, but if anyone wants to disbelieve it, feel free.)

The many little millennial and apocalyptic cults and small-time cultural crazy fads going on in the early 1970s were the first slope up the peak of a curved hill, a perfectly curved Gaussion-distribution hill, centered on its peak at the turn of the Millennium, and would take just as long to fade out on the other side. Millennial craziness was going to get worse before it got better. And it would take a long time to fade away.

I do not claim to be a prophet (although Rabbi Heschel's quote has become deeply meaningful to my personal life as an anti-bullying activist) but I was right on every point: things have gotten a lot worse, even though there are already signs that they will get better. We are already on the other slope of the Gaussian distribution—we just have to get through a few more manufactured and overheated Millennial predictions and events. The changeover of the Mayan calendar from the Fifth World to the Sixth World in 2012 is just the next in the Millennial Fevre sequence, following on the heels of the apocalypses predicted for Y2K, etc., none of which actually were the end of the world. There's already been a disaster movie blatantly titled 2012 made to titillate the masses with more pornography of despair, so that they remain entertained while Rome burns.

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean collaborated on a brilliant graphic novel in the 1990s titled Signal:to:Noise. This is one of the better novels of its decade. Gaiman and McKean dealt directly with the coming Millennial Fevre in this graphic novel, which depicts a film director dying of cancer, who begins to write his last movie script about the end of the world that was predicted for the year 1000. The lead character says at one point in the novel, and this is a quote worth inscribing permanently in your memory: "There is no big apocalypse. There is only an endless succession of little ones." Every personal death is a personal apocalypse. Gaiman managed to write here, in my opinion, a potent antidote to the pornography of despair: there is no big apocalypse, only an endless series of little, personal ones. That's serious food for thought. It is an empowering thought, because it frees us from fear of the end of all things by helping us realize that everyone faces the same end, in their own time.

This graphic novel introduced me to the concept, and the word, apokatastasis, which has become central to my own personal cosmology and spiritual belief system. Apokatastasis is the opposite of apocalypse: it is the realization that there is nothing, not one thing, that cannot be redeemed, given enough time. It is redemption, at the end of all things, not destruction.

There is an entire literature of apokatastasis, which serves as an antidote to the pornography of despair. This is a profoundly anentropic literature, rejecting both despair and hopelessness as erroneous choices.

J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings is not an apocalyptic story, as it has often been misunderstood; it is in fact a story of apokatastasis. 20th century novelist, mystic, existentialist, poet and playwright Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a manifesto of apokatastasis in his short poetic book The Saviors of God, and also in his play Buddha. Fantasy and science fiction author Diane Duane's entire cosmology, represented in many novels ranging from her Young Wizards series of young adult fantasy novels, to her lyrical and uplifting Star Trek novel The Wounded Sky, to her adult fantasy series that began with the novel The Door Into Fire, is explicitly and openly a cosmology of apokatastasis.

So, you see, indulging in the pornography of despair is a choice for entropy, for death and dismal hopelessness. It is a luxury that we can't really afford. The pornography of despair is explicitly and implicitly bread and circuses, because its message is that all we can do is stand by helplessly while Rome burns and the world winds down. It encourages us to do nothing. The message is: Don't form a bucket brigade to put out the fire. Bliss out on your daily dose of distraction, of soma (as in Aldous Huxley's dystopian satire Brave New World). Don't try to fix things, because all the problems are insoluble, and too huge to be solved anyway.

And this entropic lassitude, this encouragement to do nothing, to stand by and watch the world die, is why the pornography of despair is, to be blunt, a force for evil.

6. One excuse that is often trotted out for snarky public discourse is that we live in the Age of Irony, that public access to the revelations of the processes of political and social power, thanks to 24-hour media reporting on it, has made us all cynical. But cynicism is an excuse, not only in the artistic arena, but even more corrosively in the political arena. Cynicism is not a default state of being, it is a choice. Cynicism is entropic because it's easy: it's easier to be cynical than optimistic, because cynicism is like sliding downhill, following the pull of gravity, while optimism requires you to keep walking uphill.

Ben Lewis writes in his important article on contemporary artistic mannerism, "The dustbin of history":

Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these [mannerist] faults [in postmodern art], but invoke in their defence a critical attitude towards their material. Yes, [Jeff] Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, [Damien] Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism.

This is despair presented as process. It is cynical in its self-recursive presentation of meaninglessness: art is meaningless, so we're going to mock you for knowing that by presenting meaningless works of out. Postmodern vacuity. Despair about not having any point to art-making—as Yeats wrote in his great early-Modern poem The Second Coming, "Things call apart, the center cannot hold. . . ."—leads to cynicism about the entire art-making project. We have nothing to say, therefore we'll pretend that everything we make is about not having anything to say.

It's not hard to analogize this mannerism from contemporary art history to contemporary political and social discourse. A sense of failure, of hopelessness—and of high expectations that generate more despair and anger when promises of hope are not instantaneously gratified. Never mind that change takes hard work, and can take some time: we as Americans are addicted to instant gratification, and this is fueled by the media.

We get impatient and surly when our politicians make promises that take time to enact: we retaliate by "getting rid of the bums," voting in a whole new crop of new bums who can do no better, and may know even less about governance. Impatience with the political process breeds amateurism—which is not necessarily good for the body politic in the long run. Amateurs ignorant of the process may be quick to resort to ideology rather than negotiation, because it's all they know, and all they are familiar with.

7. I used to be an activist for LGBT rights. I co-founded an organization in Madison, WI, in the late 1980s, titled Madison Bisexuals & Friends. We gathered in part because of the very first Pride event, a march and public gathering, that was organized in Madison. (The history of Madison Pride events is checkered. I've become involved again in the past two years, but Pride events themselves were sparse in the intervening years.) I was active for some years. Eventually, about the same time I moved West from Madison, I changed my activism to be more artistic than political; following the model of certain other queer poets, artists, and musicians, I made social justice and social change priorities in my artistic life. i joined the gay men's chorus of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and later the famed, original chorus in San Francisco; moving back to Wisconsin a few years later, I eventually joined the gay men's chorus in Madison.

Now I find myself becoming an activist again, specifically on the topic of bullying, hate crimes, and the suicides of young men and women who have been bullied and attacked forced into suicide simply for being different. Young people committing suicide because they have been bullied for being different is something that raises my ire. I take it very personally, because I was bullied for many years, myself, when I was young. I am getting involved with anti-bullying and anti-suicide organizations and movements as time permits. (I am still coping with a serious chronic illness, so my energy has limits. I do more by writing than by marching, therefore, at the moment.)

This is necessary activism.

Not only because kids are committing suicide, but because the cultural environment promotes tacit support for those who hate them. The cultural climate of snark in public discourse is a default state of bullying. Think about it: public discourse based on yelling at each other promotes, guess what, more yelling at each other. So those who feel empowered by the argument culture to publicly voice their every prejudice, bigoted opinion, and hateful speech will feel no constraints. Idiotic televangelist Pat Robertson, who has a long track record of hate speech and parallel-universe illogic, has managed to blame in his own mind the post-Christmas blizzard that crippled the East Coast in 2010 on gays and lesbians traveling to have decadent holidays in Florida. People of like mind feel empowered by such examples to not only verbally harass others merely suspected of being gay or lesbian, but also to physically bully them. if you can blame a blizzard on gays and lesbians, it's only a small step towards stringing them up on a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming.

The verbal bullying of public discourse that hates and fears the Other creates a climate in which the Other is attacked, just for being Other. The psychotic fringe is always empowered by such rhetoric. Timothy McVey was no Islamic terrorist, the new boogeyman of those who need an Enemy to fear: McVey was home-grown, and his rhetoric closely paralleled the rhetoric of the current politically ascendant Tea Party. Think about what that means.

So anti-bullying activism is more necessary than ever.

8. Now, notice that the rhetoric of cultural bullying is symptomatic of end-times panic. Notice that artistic mannerism is closely parallel in its tropes and patterns to political despair. Notice that literary reactionary conservatism and verbal bullying share the same rhetorical language.

All these topics I have raised in this essay are not disparate, they are in fact all linked at root level. That's because they are all based on the same emotion: fear.

Fear. Pure and simple.

Fear of the future. Fear of the past. Fear of personal responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.

Fear of change, fear of what the future might bring, fear of having to be held accountable in the future for one's current selfish choices and actions—these lie alike at the root of reactionary conservatism, of the denial of global climate change, and of the pornography of despair as expressed in apocalyptic fantasies.

Xenophobia, the fear of people who are not like us, fear of the Other, fear of people who are different—these lie alike at the root of hate-crimes, of bullying people who are different from the cultural stereotypes of what is represented as "normal," and of political ideologies that promote conformity and intolernace at the expense of liberty and diversity.

Xenophobia and the fear of the implications of liberty together combine to ignite fascism. That which threatens must be repressed. That which exhibits manifest otherness must be made to conform.

Fear of one's own helplessness, fear of being ineffectual, fear that is really overwhelm—these lie alike at the root of the pornography of despair, of bread and circuses (and Emperor Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burns), and of the choice to avoid addressing both social justice issues and environmental issues.

These are all the same at root.

And they are all a choice.

A choice which can be rejected. Even if the Universe must eventually wind down to nothing, finding a deadly entropic equilibrium, we are not required to be complicit. We have the choice to resist entropy, to choose to bring more life into the Universe rather than let what life there is drain away to nothing.

We don't have to let that happen. Living with fearlessness is possible. It takes some courage, certainly. But mostly it takes the stubborn refusal to let the hateful, fearmongering, anti-everything, anti-life bastards have the last word. Speak up. Life needs you.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

A powerful post here, Art. It makes a lot pf sense to me and perhaps accounts for why I rarely if ever engage in blog posts that go into details over political concerns.

I cannot bear the sort of polarisation you describe. Nor can I tolerate too much of the negativity some folks feed off.

That said, I too feel disillusioned with the political process as it dissents itself here in Australia, which is probably not so dissimilar to the US. I feel guilty that i do not pay much attention to the day to day rot that goes on, but life is short and I'd rather concern myself with things that I can at least have a say in, however little it gets heard.

I certainly distrust politicians of all persuasions, however well intentioned they may be at the onset.

I suspect the political process corrupts more so today than ever before, but I would not swear on that. My opinion is not a fact.

Thanks, Art.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Elisabeth. I rarely get political, for the same reasons. Sometimes you have to just step back, though, and connect some dots, and realize how everything ties together.

The extreme polarization in politics is unfortunately directly responsible for a lot of the gridlock, and ensuing despair and dissatisfaction, that has been the bane of American politics for going on three decades now. It's only been getting worse, more extreme, in the past ten years. Although I think so many regular folks are getting so fed up with it, that the politicians' days are numbered who continue to obstinately practice this. At least I hope so.

10:01 AM  

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