Sitting in the car the world passed by. It was a world which embraced every rebellion, de-sublimating rebellion into non-being. From the drug addicts, dealers and prostitutes to the kitsch; on Hollywood Boulevard everything was possible. Irony at its highest.
In the still motion of traffic a woman passed barefoot. Hair matted she pulled a small cart behind her. Engaged in a passionate argument with someone who wasn’t there, we looked. Earlier the car was diverted by police guarding traffic for the Oscars. A limousine passed, guarded by two police motorcycles.
In London everyone goes to Bond Street, Liberty, Oxford Street. The Seven Dials in Convent Garden is a fashionable area with hotels, high street shops and vegan restaurants. It’s impossible not to be stopped for the free soap a sexy young sales girl pushes into your hand as she promises to empty your wallet if you walk inside.
In Dickens time it was the poorest part of town. Visitors like Dickens, Byron and Wilkie Collins could not tell the starving from the dead.
The last time I was there I had brunch at Dishoom, a British/Indian restaurant. Glass and wood panels allow diners to look at the horn-rim spectacles of other men facing women those other men imagine through the glass on the walls.
In that same trip I saw Beethoven performed by candlelight at St. Martin in The Fields. Also a homeless shelter St. Martins is a short walk from Buckingham Palace. In between is Whitehall and the Exchequer. A statue sits outside the Foreign Office to General Clive; a man instrumental in securing exchange with India while failing multiple times to quit his opium addiction with his life.
The conductor was a superstar, weaving his body in motion with the music like a belly dancer for the Baroque. His performance brought the music to life; physically capturing the motion of the fugue in a visual pose. He received a standing ovation as we all turned round to see the unmeasured delight of the audience around us.
Like London Los Angeles’ Grove is a wash of people bumping past each other in a frenzy that narrows the visual field. The tumult of shopper’s needs hasten the anxiety of moving through the open spaces. I’ve never been to South Central but, I hear it’s bad; the homeless don’t want to be there, so I’m told.
In the middle of all this I wonder what app I should uninstall so I have more room for photos on my phone. I have a slew of emails to respond to but, I’ve been reading Marcuse’s ‘Essay on Liberation’ and am struck.
The narrowing of the consumption gap has rendered possible the … stabilizing, counterrevolutionary needs of the middle classes, as evidenced by their behavior as consumers of the material and cultural merchandise, by their emotional revulsion against the nonconformist intelligentsia.
– Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation
I saw graffiti guarded by gates protecting the buildings they are home to on the way home. The sensuality of the world felt lost. In the only perspective left, irony, it seemed that the ‘Little Birds’ had not taken flight.
Anaïs Nin makes perfect sense in this world. An antidote to the banality. She would write on an empty stomach; desire she said, was at its height when she was hungry. In her erotica she expressed flights of taboo, taking no conclusion except freedom whose expression was its own freedom and rebellion in a world that couldn’t digest her sex. Her hunger was as necessary as was her desire.
Marcuse also sees sensual freedom at the center of a utopian ideal. He dreams a world in which all that is human is necessary, a world only possible by discarding guards in a sensibility that embraces the potentials of man. A world that doesn’t posses in commoditized luxury.
For Marcuse aesthetic is sensibility, in a human sensibility sensuality is as necessary for freedom as is food. In his utopia there is time for both. In a mechanized aesthetic of abstraction and strip malls, where everything can be bought rebellion seems farcical. But, it is the rebellion of the spirit, the same spirit of writers like Anaïs Nin that Marcuse refers to. A rebellion of the senses.
For it is precisely the objective, historical function of the democratic system of corporate capitalism to use the Law and Order of bourgeois liberalism as a counterrevolutionary force
– Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation
Rebellion is counter argument in a world where high-art has tin cans as the sensual objects of high-culture. A world that needs to have the fun poked out of it by its own fake irreverence. Hard eyes in our world betray a broken spirit just as false smiles hide the knife. False irreverence betrays the absence of any reverence to speak of.
Freud in ‘Civilization and it’s Discontents’ also objects to the repressed sensuality of the modern world. Freud saw a Nietzschian weakness in a world whose desires are boarded up.
Individual liberty is not an asset of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization, though admittedly even then it was largely worthless, because the individual was hardly in a position to defend it.
– Freud, Civilization and it’s Discontents
Ernest Becker too saw this as prime-evil. He believed humanity must synthesize all of its creation; the abstract must reconcile with the romantic; Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften for a genuine description of being. In this Becker parallels Freud in embracing not just Eros but, Thanatos as driving forces in our nature.
Absence of emotions neither causes nor promotes rationality. “Detachment and equanimity” in view of “unbearable tragedy” can indeed be “terrifying,” … namely, when they are not the result of control but an evident manifestation of incomprehension. In order to respond reasonably one must first of all be “moved,” … the opposite of emotional is not “rational,” whatever that may mean…
– Hannah Arendt, On Violence
Zizek forcefully expresses the sentiments of our violence such:
The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, buy their way out of their own activity… eating organic food…
Bertolt Brecht’s motto from his Beggar’s Opera comes to mind: what is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?
– Zizek, On Violence
And what Zizek, Marcuse, Freud, Nietzsche and Nin stress is that we are slaves. In our slavery we do violence to ourselves. It is not unlike the violence expressed in Erich Fromm’s ‘The Sane Society’; Fromm described a world interiorized and quietly hysterical.
The relation to Fromm is one of distaste. Distaste for an anally retentive world; one whose sheer burden of rationality is anything but sane. It is a world of quiet and hidden anxiety. For the doubtful Frued’s little essay ‘Delusion and Dream’ compellingly paints the picture of a man, clouded by his anal tendencies in a neurosis only freed when he meets a woman he had known all his life but, had forgotten except in dreams of Pompeii that compelled his academic study… until that is, he meets her again.
Each of these writers were explicit about different things. The thread that binds them is humanity in which we find freedom through the strength to be human. Freedom in this sense is happiness and the potentials opened between us.
In Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Possessed’ all of these forces come to play. The anarchist, the socialist and the lady of the manor bend on each other in a reliance as the book climaxes. Humanity is lost to neurosis. In the novel a group wishes to subvert the government. Their subversion however is their narcissism of necessity. The characters rely on each other to play a fantasy of madness woven by an illusions of themselves and each other. It is their lack honesty behind their drives that possesses them in a madness that is anal, hysterical or, as is the case of the protagonist, a delusion of self.
We have come far in our pursuits. But, heart, head and imagination must stand in the face of certain death. Made explicit in this way the limits and scope of humanity is given perspective; in that perspective life has meaning and impulse. Mechanics faced with spirit stand in sharp contrast when we measure our lives and the freedoms we feel.
Humanism means seeing the qualities of life and the lives of others; of finding life evocative for the very moment we live and share it. We are otherwise lost in the burden of living. In that burden it is only the panaceas of the modern world that can be the virtus dormativa in our lives. The opiate of the masses.
To some extent we are in similar sort of position as the photographers Eugène Atget or Gyula Halász. They were pioneers of early Documentary photography, exposing life through a medium whose place was not yet known. Walking the streets of Paris at night people didn’t understand what they were up to. But, a century later the practice of capturing the world for what we find in it is in the hand of every smartphone user.
Theirs too was a revolution in practice and thought. A new sensibility and aesthetic. Just like early Impressionism a new mode of seeing the world opened new horizons. But, like all new forms in a cultural landscape the juxtaposition with the world that came before must be synthesized. A readiness must exist; the pieces of the puzzle must find their place. The greatest arrogance of evil is the assumption that the mode of living we know is the pinnacle of life, as if life were a static form to be climbed, whose top can be reached.
The day started with a trip to a market. But, the day was full of contradiction. Public streets cordoned off for an Oscar party in a neighborhood of lost dreams and kitsch. The market was full of old and lost fragments of past lives brought to light through conversation with stall keepers who had stories to tell as they joked and engaged with the people around them.
Marcuse in mind… the juxtapositions of the day were an ugliness purely rational. Yes, from the inside of a car it is easy to see the outside of a world. However, sometimes it’s that surface that betrays the structure we are bound within. To paraphrase Hegel ‘what is familiar is not known precisely because it is familiar’.
Without a world whose technocracy, government and aesthetic are based on the modes of man we will in a constant position of violence toward ourselves. Repression is violence. In a different enlightenment we would move past the decaying Baroque. We would be pragmatically idealistic.
The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production—in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.
– Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
- Anaïs Nin – Little Birds
- Dostoyevsky – The Possessed
- Erich Fromm – The Sane Society
- Ernest Becker – The Structure of Evil
- Freud – Delusion and Dream
- Freud – Civilization and it’s Discontents
- Friedrich Nietzsche – The Antichrist
- Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil
- Hannah Arendt, On Violence
- Marcuse – An Essay on Liberation
- Walter Benjamin – Illuminations
- Zizek – On Violence