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I got a glimpse, via my Facebook feed, of what appeared to be measured response of horror in the wake of Steve Stephens’ “Facebook Live” murder of Robert Goodwin Sr. on Easter. While I’ve been holed up within my own obligations and not paying too much attention to “mainstream” news or coverage of the event, I can’t really speak to the national response. That being said, in the very general sense, it seems as though the response was less than what I expected – less fatalistic, less enraged, less sensational. Not sure if that represents anything at all..but it did lead me on a thread.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading Whitney Phillips’ book “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture,” and she makes some helpful observations – first, that “Lulz is engaged by internet users who have witnessed one major economic/environmental/political disaster too many.” Second, that in the wake of 9/11 “Americans were asked to dissociate. They were asked not to dwell on the consequences of the wars, of torture, of the resulting economic bloodletting. They were asked to go on vacations, and to shop, and to not ask too many tough questions. Is it any surprise, then, that trolls- who essentially function as cultural dung beetles – would hold the tragedy of others at arm’s length? Is it any surprise that trolling…following a series of massively mediated tragedies, would be explicitly and unapologetically fetishistic?”  And lastly, that “regardless of how aberrant (and/or abhorrent) it may appear, trolling makes a great deal of sense within the context of contemporary American media.” 

Ultimately, while the behavior of trolls are so often targeted and characterized as these indications of moral decline in younger generations, Phillips argues that within the context of media – trolling is an understandable, if not logical, response to media culture (or contemporary culture informed by media) relying on sensationalism, spectacle, success, and profit (monetary and cultural). Trolling reflects behavioral norms displaced, exposed in new social contexts, amplified by new media affordances and media narratives, feeding off of the attention gained from media coverage, and motivated by the same exploitative appeals that motivate media coverage. That is – two sides to the same coin.

Elsewhere, in his 2009 book “The Fragile Absolute,” Slavoj Zizek in his meandering prose, discusses the “void of the thing,” or, how sublimation hides the fact that behind the representation of some idealized aesthetic object/subject lies the abhorrent object itself, an unadorned, unmediated, actuality. He draws upon Courbet’s “Le Origine du Monde” to illustrate his point: “Courbet masterfully continued to dwell on the imprecise border that separates the sublime from the excremental: the woman’s body in ‘L’origine’ retains its full erotic attraction, yet it becomes repulsive precisely on account of this excessive attraction. Courbet’s gesture is thus a dead end, the dead end up traditional realist painting…In other words, with Courbet, we learn that there is no Thing behind its sublime appearance – that if we force our way through the sublime appearance of the Thing itself, all we will get is the suffocating nausea of the abject.”

So, using realist representations of feminine beauty as an example, Zizek argues that what these paintings were hinting at is ultimately the pornographic – that is the fantasy these representations tease, however masterful the painting. To be clear, from an art history/art crit standpoint, this position could easily be challenged.  This particular excerpt in within a larger text that is not interested in art criticism. However, I do think that Zizek’s analysis, combined with Phillips’ analysis of trolling, offers a helpful framework to think about the spectacle and tragedy of Steve Stephens. The two analyses constitute a contemporary context informed by a creeping, dramatized, nihilism-lite, one populated with false flags; the very basic desire for murder (in the figurative, or Leonard Cohen, sense of the word) dressed up in some aesthetic or culturally trimmed disguise that obscures a more destructive or unimpressive logic.  Murder is not new, nor is commodification of different characteristics that could loosely be considered “human nature.” Spectacle gains a lot of mileage – and the Stephens event is spectacle. As Guy Deboard wrote, “the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep.”

The Stephens event is not the terminal end before a cultural reset, it’s the entrenched pattern of life in late capitalism. While the actual event is tragic and complex, the mediated spectacle is algorithmic output. It’s not about an increasing degree of extremes exploited by content producers. It’s about the dead end of meaning, the dead end of our ability to grasp the event from any cohesive static foundations of moral reference against which to utilize, understand, or process meaning.  We want it to be deep, we want to ascribe to this event some cultural diagnosis – but there’s nothing there.

I guess this is my own attempt to conceptualize this event somehow – and I can only seem to do so theoretically, not necessarily poetically. In one sense, there’s really no logical thread to trace that offers a satisfying explanation (satisfying in the sense that it offers some degree of closure).

What are we to think of rebellion? There are a lot of initial thoughts that come to mind. I don’t know what I think of rebellion or revolt. It’s on my mind right now for a few reasons. Obviously, the Occupy Wall Street movement is a current reflection of social rebellion, although, it is not quite a rebellion. Also, in my 19th century philosophy class, we’re now reading Marx. Marx was that shining example how one person can change the world. Most people think about Communism right along with their thoughts of Marx, and understandably so. But to understand Marx in relation to Hegel adds, at least for me, a new dynamic to his thought. Hegel was a heavily influential thinker through which Marx developed his ideas. Essentially, without going into any detail whatsoever, Marx took Hegel’s idea of history;  as an expression, or on-going development, of absolute spirit–or the sharpening of our self-determing freedom, and developed it in his own way. Hegel’s thought is a positivist ideal which puts faith in the ability of man to come to truth on his own terms through a process which builds upon each previous generation or era. Therefore, as time progresses, mankind will only become a better version of itself.

Marx put forth his own philosophy based on Hegel. While Hegel remained abstract in his philosophy (i.e. the use words like “absolute spirit,” and “God”), Marx brought the idea down to earth. Marx reframed this process in purely materialistic terms, and as a result, became economic. I think that Marx man-handled Hegel’s philosophy and rushed it. While Hegel’s philosophy was a reflective one (which looked back through history as something that could reveal the truth of his ideas), Marx transformed it and made it something which man could realize, and had to realize, here and now, and move forward. Marx’s philosophy was a design for the future–it required revolution.

So what of it? I think Marx is a perfect example of what man does wrong. The decision to see man, an era of man, a vision of a man which must be created–to see man as the means of his own perfection–requires man to objectify himself in a way that distorts vision–regardless of the psychology which may lead one to believe that he can be mankind’s savior.  Hegel put faith in man to come to higher degrees of truth as an unconscious participant. Marx put the responsibility solely on man which requires a delusion.  While Marx could see the destructive consequence of being alienated from one’s own creativity, Marx’s view was developed in alienation from that Hegelian humility which saw man build upon the truth as an unconscious player, unaware of the larger development of history. To be unaware of the dialectic process is necessary in order for history to develop “naturally.” There is a very fine line. To be conscious of a potential role is to lead that responsibility vulnerable to an anthropological hutzpah which could disrupt the process. Hegel expressed a faith in man, Marx abused that faith and therefore undermined it. Marx forgot, or chose to ignore, that man will always be man.

All of this makes me wonder about the concept of rebellion, and how I see it being played out now. I generally see man as a reactionary species. We allow injustice, we react to injustice and call it an expression of the human spirit, yet we never (and perhaps this is necessary) understand our position holistically. The big picture rarely matters when it should, yet considering the design of existence, one that prevents us from understanding the larger context, all we have is the immediate and our understanding of justice within that very limited context, which can solve problems and lead to better societies, but it will never cure existence. Hegel valued conflict because it led to new levels of spirit (truth), yet we experience conflict in its immediacy and are not afforded hindsight or wisdom until it exists as something abstract or out of context.

So how do I instill passion in my heart for societal change, when societal change ignores the chains of the individual? The psychology of existence is never conquered. We are so creative with self-expression and are constantly in the midst of our plight. Existence is a curse which inspires beauty. We create our own cures, but are incapable of that one important cure. Marx envisioned a world in which philosophy no longer existed because it would be externalized and concrete, there would be no more questions to ask. But from where I stand right now, philosophy will always be required.

“we fought for a decade, corruption and greed
it gave me a purpose, a reason to breathe
but now that it’s over, now that we’ve won
i still sit in my bedroom, alone with a shot gun”–pedro the lion