Wednesday, 18 November 2009

"Loneliness as a Way of Life"

I read the description of this book and I could immediately see how it would differ from the kind of approach I tried out in my earlier "The Quiet Men" post. Here's the blurb:

To be sure, it's a difficult subject to talk about without sounding mawkish. It's a brave thing then for a political scientist to do; willingly taking himself out of his "objective" comfort zone by writing about personal experience. I regard Dumm as working in a tradition of critical humanism. His recourse to literary models is also suggestive of a divergence from a sociological approach to theodicy though, insofar as "the human condition" is represented as a universal state of affairs. Not least of all, I'm certain that feminists could be justified in taking him to task for the emphasis the book places on "the missing mother". This blog has consciously avoided those kinds of metaphors, enquiring instead whether, for example, Furries and Realdolls may be construed as substitutes for intimacy, or if they are more symptomatic of a postmodern blurring of public/private space and time:your work friends feature in the afterhours production line, as your free time is used to network for the sake of career advancement. The workplace itself is increasingly decorated with pictures and trinkets from home. Television becomes dominated by stranger intimacy, and couldn't the same be said about the blogosphere acting as a confessional mode?

It is a very curious phenomena how under conditions of individualization it becomes necessary to work out if and when new collective forms of action take shape. The key question is how the bubbling, contradictory process of individualization and de-nationalization can be cast into new democratic forms of organization. This does not presume a denial of increasing inequalities, but rather the complicity of individualization as one of the problems to be addressed. Apparently, the more people are individualized, the more they produce de-individualizing consequences for others. We can infer from this why Dumm's "missing mother" may be drawing a very long bow: consider a woman who files for divorce and whose husband feels he's left facing the void (and please note that this hypothetical example is not attributing blame to either party). In the ensuring tussle over custody of the kids, each tries to impose on the other the dictates of their respective lives. Following Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck Gernsheim's thesis of "the normal chaos of love", it is possible to discern both a positive sum game of co-individualization and a negative sum game of contra-individualization. In the words of the former, "It would seem reasonable to suppose that the irritation caused by the other's resistance strengthens the urge for a new, and perhaps seemingly 'democratic', authoritarianism."

I smiled when I read that as it really captured the paradoxes of the character type I tried to describe in "The Quiet Men". Here was someone advocating some kind of neo-anarchist communitarianism on a very small scale, who also proclaimed himself to be a "Left Anarchist" (but when did he last show solidarity with anything/anyone?). The ideal in question was the organisation of everyday life around fairly intense, interpersonal relationships, because the impersonal buffer provided by the state and large chainstores was absent (I'm no apologist for liberal capitalism, but the subject in itself of the cold intimacies of capitalism will have to await a future post). I could see the contradictions, so I did some more research. Eventually I came across another book called The Loner's Manifesto. One anecdote was a real standout for me, as it graphically illustrated the seeming inescapability of the aforementioned "democratic authoritarianism". The author described how her friend, a music student, was not really a "people person". This friend had developed a romantic notion that life in less developed countries would be somehow less "phony" than what she was accustomed to at home, so she organised to study through an exchange program. She soon discovered though how this meant that even the smallest interaction involved bargaining. She thus felt pressured to always actively display "presence" because she was unable to just sleepwalk through social engagements by using the blase attitude that had served as a protective device back at home. Suffice to say, she was unable to continue her studies, and returned home as soon as possible.

I can only say this because there have been times when I've understood how it feels to exist in a liminal state: as a student (poised between study and graduation to something else), and an un/underemployed person. A lot of the music I listened to during these periods appealed to me as it seemed to address my concerns. I discovered how the inherent limitations of the lifestyle could foster identification with the sense of living through an interregnum, as described by Death In June for example: "then my loneliness closes in/so I drink a German wine/and drift in dreams of other lives and greater times." It already felt like I had an intuitive foothold on the recurrent themes in Joy Division's songs: "but if you could just see the beauty/of things I could never describe/these pleasures a wayward distraction/this is my one lucky prize". I still believe that Ian Curtis' most fully realised statement about this temporal/spatial ordering was Colony:

I can't see why all these confrontations
I can't see why all these dislocations
No family life - this makes me feel uneasy
Stood alone here in this colony
In this colony

Over time I became more discriminating- particularly once I understood how scary it really was when personal dilemmas are projected onto a much larger scale- thereby lending new meaning to Beck's paradoxical formulations. Small wonder then perhaps that many of the groups following in Joy Division's wake, such as Death In June, became more authoritarian, or rather, "martial industrial", in tone. This sensibility was already implied, of course, to some degree by Joy Division's choice of name, which referenced the use of prostitutes in Nazi concentration need to negotiate intimacy in that context and risk incurring reciprocal demands...or by the same token, authoritarianism was tragically inevitable, proceeding apace with the process of individualization. "Isolation" specifically mentions, "Surrendered to self-preservation
/From others who care for themselves." But just
in case anyone still missed the point, the well known posthumously released single was called "Love Will Tear Us Apart".

The imagery of later album covers chosen by martial industrial/neofolk groups, typically featuring marble statues and monuments, gradually transmuted into an elegy for a dormant Europa (here I acknowledge Roger Griffin sending me a related article previously referred to in my "Fascism & Electronic Music" post)- whereas Joy Division's swansong, Closer, had intimated the horror of "the normal chaos of love" (making it consistent with the rest of their oeuvre). Notwithstanding these differences, it would clearly be a mistake to ignore how each exists on the same continuum (and Death In June still managed to produce the odd song about doomed romance e.g. "Hail the White Grain!").



Speaking for myself, thinking a way out of these states has in effect meant remaining mindful of Bachelard's maxim: "a creature that withdraws into its shell is preparing a way out". During my student days I certainly tried to avoid becoming a victim of the book. I never entertained fantasies of anything like an altruistic suicide being tantamount to a "democratic authoritarianism", in which "dead people are all on the same level" (if you've seen Badlands, and read about the case on which it's based, you'll know what I'm talking about). Read Mark Seltzer's description of Dennis Nielsen in his Serial Killers too and you'll better understand this crazy idea of the authoritarian "exterminating angel" burning his victims in a funeral pyre; the intermingling of their bodies/identities is facilitated by their reduction to ash and smoke, thereby paradoxically attaining a ["democratic"] commonality denied them during their lives (shades of Bataille at work here too). I can safely leave it to Death In June to betray a hint of desperation in their self-appointed role as keepers of the flame:

And, when the ashes of life
Fall down from the skies
Rose clouds of holocaust
Rose clouds of lies...

Prospects for any escape from the interregnum must be slim indeed if this is the most realistic remaining option, right? It's true though, I have on rare occasions had a [superficially] comparable fantasy about how great it might be hear the title track (which heavily samples the climax of The Wicker Man) from Blood Axis' The Gospel of Inhumanity at my funeral, particularly as the coffin is lowered into the ground. Just imagine the voice of Edward Woodward's character substituting for mine from the coffin, while Christopher Lee et al are orchestrating the proceedings above ground ("Prepare the sacrifice!!" orders Lee, only to be admonished in turn by Woodward/me, "Awaken thee heathens!!!!!"). There's some black humour for you, but it's probably the kind of sendoff I'd deem most appropriate for myself. Then and again, I could even marginally prefer Wooden Ships by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner (not that I am planning a departure anytime soon):

Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy,
Easy, you know the way it's supposed to be,
Silver people on the shoreline, let us be,
Talkin' 'bout very free and easy...
Horror grips us as we watch you die,
All we can do is echo your anguished cries,
Stare as all human feelings die,
We are leaving - you don't need us.

Go, take your sister then, by the hand,
lead her away from this foreign land,
Far away, where we might laugh again,
We are leaving - you don't need us.

And it's a fair wind, blowin' warm,
Out of the south over my shoulder,
Guess I'll set a course and go...

But I digress...The bottom line is that I before I go, I should really bring this all back home. Dumm imbues his writing with considerable pathos, and that is most of all what this posting does not want to lose sight of, because it undoubtedly breeds some of the best and worst characteristics of modern societies. It can be generative of many voluntary forms of association in civil society, and as such constitutes a viable alternative to the problems Beck chronicles. But this kind of success is not always the case, and I believe many examples could be pressed into service to buttress my point (even after making allowance for any cultural differences):

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Good Soldier

Re-writing Mahmoud's PhD has kept me away from blogging, and now I'm beginning to suffer withdrawal symptoms as a result. So much incredible material to talk about, so little time. Be this as it may- from what I've seen- advance notices for the PBS documentary The Good Soldier have been very good (with Howard Zinn, for example, singing its praises). At the same time, I've heard about, but haven't yet read, Kari's work on soldiers' representations of what she calls "body horror" (in the latest issue of Media, Culture & Society). I think she will probably refer back to her analysis of, which was a controversial site soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan could use to upload pictures of their naked girlfriends, along with the bloody carnage censored from the mainstream media. That site was eventually closed down, so please think carefully before choosing to type "" into a Google Images search, as you will come across some of the imagery, now hosted on other sites. I'm not adding any of that here as I think The Good Soldier offers eloquent enough testimony in its own right. One to file alongside Joanna Burke's Intimate History of Killing.

Unfortunately, I can't find any footage of Kari talking about "body horror", but the following clip is still quite interesting, as she talks more generally about the kind of media environment that phenomena is symptomatic of. I also found the clip refreshing as it gave me a chance to look at an academic's bookshelves, with Kari's appearing more varied and interesting than the more postmodern and poststructuralist variety of media theory that dominates the blogosphere and some versions of cultural studies (read: the "Ballardian" brigade, Baudrillard, McLuhan, Kittler et al). Indeed, she makes a veiled critical reference to such works by mentioning how historical examples can still help qualify the excesses of utopian and dystopian thinking alike (not uncommon, for example, in exaggerated misreadings of Ballard- as I've argued previously in response to Seltzer's use of "the atrocity exhibition" in relation to "the pathological public sphere").