Monday, January 18, 2010

Riffs on a Good Read

A good article is one that ends up covered with margin notes after it’s been read. Gaither Stewart’s “Symbolism, Ideology and Revolution” is one such article. I’d highly recommend taking time to read the entire article. That being said, let me begin to quote and riff.

Stewart quotes Umberto Eco who argues that:

[S]ociety…has become a universe devoid of a center. Everything is periphery. There is no longer a heart of anything.

What we have, instead, are faux power centers that are more media creations than reality. It has become clear by now that neither Obama nor any other president has every run the country. What the media calls the most powerful leader in the world is little more than a shill for the dispersed special interests and lobbyists who are the real power, and, as Eco noted, there is no center, no heart through which a sword could be plunged. Rather there is only a toxic mist made up of many discrete particulates that drifts across the land, constantly changing shape as it moves.

Eco goes on to say:

Power is multiple and ubiquitous. It is a network of consensuses that depart from below. Power is plurality. Power is the multiplicity of relationships of strength.

The habituated momentum that makes a society and keeps power in its place also hollows society out as the ideals and ideology that set this momentum into motion gradually fades from memory and only a fragile ideological construct is left tht slowly becomes a parody of itself. We see this is the desperation with which our oligarchs cling to the belief in a self-regulating fee market, which is little more than an empty ideological shell staggering beneath the weight of the global economic meltdown brought about by a “free market” run amok.

Power is neither rational nor planned. It is a convergence of interests by those with the resources to implement them.

Stewart comments that one “notes little solidarity between middleclass and the poor.”

This points to the paradox of class in the United States. Because we cling to the belief that we are a classless society we find ourselves mired in class prejudice. The reason is simple: because we are classless we believe that everyone should be middleclass and those who isn’t well dressed, well behaved, orderly, polite, law abiding and Euromerican are marginalized.

The left castrated itself in the 60s when it turned its back on blue-collar America and, in doing so, lost its base. It has been impotent ever since. As a result, blue-collar America ended up voting for Regan who proceeded to screw them them to the wall.

Speaking of the European bourgeoisie, Stewart says:

Within that class emerge the thinking and movements for drastic social change.

This hints at a major difference between Europe and America. Europe has a history of vibrant social thought that reached down to all classes in a society. America has no such tradition. This is because we are a nation of technicians, not thinkers. For example, the mantras I grew up with were: “Say what you mean!” “Get to the point!” “Don’t beat around the bush!” In other words, we were conditioned to believe in “one word; one meaning.” Consequently, our language lacks depth, nuance and metaphor, without which there can be no poetry, and an ideology without poetry is a flattened balloon. (This explains why America is crawling with fundamentalists and why, when you scratch an atheist, you find a pissed off fundamentalist.)

Stewart argues that America is not bourgeois; it is middle class. And:

Lionel Trilling defined middle class in relations to the government. From the ruling or governing class one scales down to the lowest classes which are cut out totally from any relation with the government. The middle class, situated midway between the two, continues to believe—in its overwhelming false consciousness—that the government exists for it and for its interests.

However, now that the impoverishment of the middle class is underway, it will be interesting to see how it develops. Stewart contends that, “…the major target for proponents of radical change should be precisely those deaf and dumb, ignorant and obtuse, super patriotic middle classes.” We should take a hard look to see what we might have in common with the tea baggers. (Incidentally, an important component of “solidarity” is the willingness to listen.)

Unfortunately, the middle class has always wanted reform, but not too much reform. The reform is seeks is divorced from the structural and systemic changes that would be necessary to evolve into a truly decent society instead of the dog-eat-dog kennel we currently are. As Stewart notes about Liberals:

Liberals can take strong stands on minor community improvements; they can work themselves into a fury and campaign relentlessly and join sit-ins and carry placards concerning, let’s say, how the local school yard is to be used on weekends or about alternate days for trash pick-up, and still ignore the concept of social justice for all. Viewed from a distance, I therefore am dubious about so-called grassroots activities: naturally they are welcome, but I suspect in the long run harmless. No wonder Power as a rule lets them sit-in, sit-out, march and carry little placards. Liberals, at the most only potentially revolutionary, are Power’s ally and stand in the way of drastic social change.

Speaking of artists, Stewart argues that, “To write propaganda or paint conformist art is to succumb to the allures and/or the coercion of the reigning system. For that reason most artists are countercurrent. That is also why artists should stay away from the White House or the Elysees Palace.”

That is also why artists should avoid grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I disagree with Stewart over how “countercurrent” our artists are. Art seems to have been reduced to arcane installations viewed only by the “creative” clique that clusters round the trendy galleries in the country’s metropolitan centers and what passes for contemporary literature is little more than empty naval gazing.

Articles like Stewart’s are why I prefer reading to television. The tube deadens while the printed page stimulates. The tube produces consumers while the printed page produces citizens. This could explain why there are so few citizens in America.


David Myers said...

Back in my youth my playmates would give a disparaging names to anyone who spent their time infront of the tube: ESCAPIST. To escape being labeled you had to endeavour in some other activity such as sports, liturature, music, model building or kick the can. Today when I tell people that I refuse to watch such television as "David hates Raymond" I'm labeled scoffingly using such words as weird, odd, out of touch and backwards. But I like these labels and at least I'm not an escapist. If only some peer pressure could be brought to bare on the american people to read a book, I think the world could change. I'am thankful for having such playmates.

Case Wagenvoord said...

I was luckier. I was twelve when we finally got a television, and I thank God for it.

Anonymous said...

Case, could you please expand on your comment, "...when you scratch an atheist, you find a pissed off fundamentalist."