Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Reality of the Virtual Part One

As always I find Žižek’s comments about movies to be needlessly convoluted and quite over-intellectualized. Near the beginning of the “lecture” he argues that Sound of Music is popular because it purports to be about fascist resistance, but really it just re-inscribes and normalizes domestic fascism. Of course this is true. Indeed, how else could it possibly be popular? This is how kitsch works. What I find frustrating about Žižek’s conversation about movies, is that he seems to think this is a particular achievement of Sound of Music. It is for similar reasons I imagine that he named Fountainhead the greatest American film. They are both brilliant illuminations despite themselves of American Cultural ideology. I would ask: Why these films specifically? Isn’t this how Hollywood works in general? And do we really need all the verbal and conceptual gymnastics to say that Hollywood movies which purport to sell rebellion and freedom merely maintain the status quo?

Žižek is a unique, adventurous thinker on so many subjects (often vehement and confrontational), so it is surprising that his views on art line up so neatly with current academic trends.

Where does value come from? I find that philosophers will often focus on questions of ontology to demonstrate that values are unstable. Fair enough. Are we then left with no limits? I can agree that nothing should be taken for granted, that all should be scrutinized and interrogated, but at some point we must get on with it, no? At some point one must choose, yes? I would argue that in the world in which we live, that choice can easily be made for you. One who refuses to get off the path of relativity, one who endlessly deconstructs and upends everything as inherently illusory, will eventually find that his conceptual clarity makes for a quite shallow practical world. Society will not stand for relativism (and I am not sure that consciousness will either, but that is another matter). There will be values, and if one does not determine them according to morals, ethics, aesthetics or what have you, they will be determined by the market.

For all the bad philosophizing of the previous paragraph, I stand by the conclusion, and I reject the practice of indiscriminately treating everything as if it had significance. I am unsure whether this idea began when Freud started applying his technique of dream analysis to his interpretations of art and artists (see especially what he has to say about Leonardo’s Notebooks) or when Freud’s followers began using his myriad analytical practices as approaches to understanding society and culture, but Freud is a key source. I would argue that this methodology really comes to fruition in Roland Barthes Mythologies, the most important book to read for anyone who wants to understand where cultural theory as we know it today came from. Whether or not he states it outright, Barthes makes possible the absolute relativism that we know today. Professional wrestling, laundry detergents, automobile designs, toilets, Guernica, The Wings of the Dove, The Well-Tempered Clavier – all of it tells us something and we are not in the business of assigning value to what it tells us. The consequence of treating all culture as equally significant is that it is only a matter of time, within a society that mass produces and sells its culture, before the market replaces morality, ethics, aesthetics, faith even reason.

I heard Robert Rauschenberg say once that he feels sorry for anyone who cannot see the beauty in a coke can. Indeed his whole project was to transform the ugly, discarded trash and byproducts of mass production and mass consumption into works of art by reconfiguring and recontextualizing them. What Rauschenberg fails to acknowledge, in my view, is his agency in that perception. I believe underlying his statement is the view, held by many westerners, that seeing the beauty in all things is the equivalent of understanding that everything has Buddha nature. I will just say that I think westerners who use this as excuse for their relativism do not understand the eastern idea. Not that I claim to know what it means, just that I don’t think it is meant to be a defense for relativism. I would be inclined to argue that such a statement is not intended to be taken a conceptual at all, and to make reason out of it is a mistake.

Reason may be the root of my conflict with Žižek’s ideas about art. He seems to think that he can submit the world to the power of his mind. Everything is significant because he can make it so, and what’s more, it would be insulting to his great mind to suggest that he does not see right through the market that I submit shapes his values. Such are the limitations of my own mind and my own rhetorical style. I can only evaluate Žižek’s conclusions and speculate about where I think they come from. I do not find his discussion of cinema particularly interesting. For my own part, I do not believe that the sheer force of my will can make meaning. The time I spend browsing the internet, playing video games, watching television and thinking about sports is time unquestionably wasted on insignificant diversions. The less I do those things the better off I am, not just in the sense that all those things make me dumber, or atrophy my intellect, but that they cloud my awareness, they deaden my sensitivities and make my perceptions less acute.

Let me conclude (or rather draw to a close by blowing the whole thing up instead of concluding) by addressing the quote at the top of the page, from the Symbolist poet and philosopher, Viacheslav Ivanov. I anticipate that the notion of “new forms” can be misleading because it carries a lot of baggage about “formalism,” especially to anyone who has studied Modernist Art History. I think what he is getting at is the difference between what the conceptual idea and experience as idea. In other words, it is a lesser art work of art that seeks to embody a particular concept. It is a lesser artist that would have specific conceptual goals that he would use art instead of philosophy or science to address. It is a lesser spectator or critic that would expect to find concepts in a work; that would judge a work of art based on what he or she can glean from it. To experience a great work of art is to be plunged into states of perception and awareness that are ahead (maybe just ahead, but ahead nonetheless) of the categories one keep around to help make sense of the world. Part of making sense of this experience will be the spectator’s effort to revise those conceptual tools, but something happens to perception first. One does not come away from a masterpiece with new knowledge as such, but with sharper perception, enhanced sensitivity and the like. It is more akin to the professed benefits of psychotropic drugs or a profound religious conversion, than to a lesson learned.

Does this sound mystical? It is actually the most pragmatic thing in the world. At the root of it is the simple principle of constant change. As one grows, he or she gives up past interests and amusements. One stops listening to a particular band or a host of bands, one gives up on an author at a certain point, one finds that he or she cannot eat McDonald’s hamburgers anymore. Why? -- Ostensibly because new experiences have put past experiences into perspective. This part of life, this part of consciousness, is often neglected, because it is difficult to use conceptual language to talk about it. Yet it is just as much a part of our perception as reason, except in individuals where it has been ruthlessly subjected to the supposed superiority of reason.

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