On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”

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The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.

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An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

What Life Was Like

Maudlin showman Glenn Beck has the blogosphere yapping over a new schlocky spiel that features saccharine eulogizing for a mythical lost era of innocence and sweetness. In a popular YouTube clip from last Thursday’s show, Beck is seen tearing up repeatedly while fondly remembering “what life was like” during “simpler times.”

The insidious nature of nostalgia is on full display here, since Beck’s rose-colored glasses help him forget what life was really like back then. Like most sappy trips down memory lane, Beck’s “life back then” is an ache for his childhood days — ie, late ’60s and through the 70s. Which is what makes his sentimental jibberish confusing, amusing, and sad. When we hear Baby Boomers pine for “the good ol’ days,” they usually have the supposedly-desirable days of the ’50s in mind. I think the clip has gained notoriety for portraying as idyllic two of the most controversial decades in US history. This is the era of Vietnam and the My Lai massacre; of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation; CIA-backed dictatorships and assassinations; peak oil in the US and massive inflation; race riots and the slayings of R.F.K. & M.L.K. Jr. We had Watergate, the introduction of AIDS, passage of Roe v. Wade, and the start of the culture wars, etc ad nauseam… For anyone, especially a Republican, to claim (albeit with a hollow recognition that everything “wasn’t perfect’) that this was a “simpler time” is just laughably ignorant.

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It Felt Like a Trap

I’ve spent the last couple of days of soaking up more films by Adam Curtis, one of the best living documentary filmmakers. Last year I watched The Power of Nightmares; earlier this year I saw The Century of the Self; lately I’ve been working through his two most recent: The Trap (2007) and It Felt Like a Kiss (2009).

It Felt Like a Kiss is an experimental film that is a haunting evocation of the essence of life during the Cold War. Its cast features “Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Doris Day, Enos the chimp, and everyone above Level 7 in the CIA.” The excellent soundtrack was composed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, etc) and performed by the Kronos Quartet, with loads of additional pop tracks from the period. There’s no real semblance of a plot or, unlike Curtis’ other films, any sort of thesis. It Felt Like a Kiss is quintessential Curtis in terms of look: heavy use of montages (including some dizzying works of editing genius) and heavy use of archival footage, proving that Curtis probably spends 8 hours a day poring through old film reels. Yet this is also a new Curtis — less documentarian, more artist. The result is a trippy hour-long exploration of the ironies, oddities, and ambiguities of 3 or 4 of the most pivotal decades in American history. Were the U.S. a psychotic individual, this film would be its deranged subconscious bubbling up, exposing some of the roots of our modern American madness.

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The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.
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Dumpster Diving for Fun & Profit

This weekend was busy: finally graduated college, hung out with frieds & family, threw out my arm playing Wii rowing, watched Celtics mop up Bulls, then watched Manny Pacquaio flatten Ricky Hatton in under 6 minutes (“I didn’t know it’d be so easy,” said Manny before leaving for hours of celebratory karaoke). 

I also spent about 5-6 hours dumpster diving around campus while all the bourgeois students moved out. Saturday the crew included my sister, father, brother, future-sister-in-law, and our friend Scott. Yesterday Kraig, Laura, Scott & I went out again where there was essentially just one full dumpster left but it was a goldmine. Cedarville has acknowledged the typical profligacy of its students and this year filled multiple truck trailers with donated stuff — but an obscene amount was still thrown out. We’ve been inspired by international hero Micah Hans Holden, who essentially does 80% of his grocery “shopping” by rooting around in dumpsters. He would’ve gone nuts if he’d seen the Cedarville dumpster piles this weekend. It’s a great hobby that I intend to keep up this summer — it’s anti-consumerist, voyeuristic, and profitable… what more could you ask?

Here’s a bit of the haul from day 2:

  

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Books Read in 2008

I tried to read a book/week again, which seems very reasonable, but fell short once again. I’m about halfway through a dozen other books, which I’ll probably just finish & count for ’09. Under each category, they’re listed in the order I read them. Incidentally, the first book I read in 2008 was The Audacity of Hope by Mister Obama. (more…)

Crisis of Confidence

Listen to what this crazy nutjob has to say:

…In a nation [America] that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path… that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

Suffice to say, we ignored this yokel and chose the path of self-indulgence. We bought into Faustian economics and the seductive myth of MORE. The above speaker, one Jimmy Carter, went on to ask us Americans to re-think the need for more, more, more. This speech is from July 15, 1979. Carter’s ass was soon soundly kicked by an ex-actor who told us that our unsustainable lifestyles were sustainable after all, that boundless prosperity was our God-given right, that this so-called city on a hill of ours had a moral obligation to spread the shining ideal of consumption. He who dies with the most toys wins.

I began re-thinking consumerism over three years ago. I’m still addicted. I’m still addicted to consumptive habits that console and comfort (currently, coffee). I think one of the things I loved most about hitchhiking was the freedom to stop being such a savage consumer. As Marcuse might say, perhaps “economic freedom” is freedom from the economy — from the grind of “turbo capitalism.” From the mistaken belief that owning things and consuming things will satisfy my longing for meaning.


On an almost entirely separate note: go read “Sorry, Dad, I’m Voting for Obama” by Christopher Buckley, son of the late William F. Buckley. It’s a very well-written piece with a compelling case.
TGIF.

Black Friday redux

Two years ago I chronicled my virginal Black Friday experience. Yet despite that poor initial experience and the fact that Black Friday stands for almost everything I’m against… I caved and went again this year.

I rationalized it thusly:
1. Like 2 years ago, I was already awake. I didn’t get up for Black Friday.
2. I only planned on purchasing items I already intended on buying and even now will probably end up getting eventually. That is, no buying something simply because it’s deeply discounted.
3. It’s a tradition, it’s American, it’s vaguely family-oriented. Nevermind the fact I was alone.
Etc.

I intended, in other words, to attend the orgy but keep my clothes on.

God/Circuit City rebuffed me. To punish my backsliding ways, I spent x hours (too embarassing to admit how many) pursuing my decadent aims only to be turned away within mere feet of my goal. SOLD OUT. Me and the products.

It was a long drive home. I had intended to soothe my conscience with new gadgets, gizmos, and gee-haws. Instead I had to own up to how disgusting and revolting Black Friday is. I was repulsed by the obscenity of the crowds, the rush, the madness, the greed — and shamed by my own complicity in the process. A process repeatedly endlessly every day really, but concentrated more vulgarly on one morning.

A morning, I should note, that was beyond brilliant. It was snowing. It was bright out, it was gorgeous. Nobody noticed.

Dear GM

I read in a recent Wired article that General Motors has an annual TV ad budget of $2.9 billion, second only to Proctor & Gamble (I don’t even want to think about how sick their budget must be). Aren’t these figures just digusting? The $2.9 billion excludes radio, internet, newspapers, etc — just television. That $2.9B is just such a stunning number when you think what could be done with that if GM cut out tv ads for just one year. Several organizations seems to suggest that it costs $240 to feed an impoverished child for a year: $2.9B feeds 12 million kids. This happens to be the same number of children “in need of assistance” in the Horn of Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc) according to Concern.net. The cost/year is $363 according to LifeLine South Africa — $2.9B still feeds 8 million children! Other sites suggest slightly different figures on the cost to feed the severely malnourished and starving… no matter how you add it up, $2,900,000,000 is a really absurd number. I have severe doubts about whether a one-year moratorium on GM ads would hurt their bottom line, especially considering the publicity boost a $2.9B charitable gift would provide. Plus they’d still have all their other advertising mediums.

Dear General Motors,
Don’t be stupid: less SUV ads, more food for dying kids. KTHXBAI.
Love,
Kevin

Black Friday Confession

It’s -3 degrees out (with wind chill) and all good patriots are out shopping in the traditional post-Thanksgiving orgy. See somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that the day after Turkeyfest stores opened at like 5 or 6am, but I guess I always thought that was a gimmick. Surely no one seriously shops before sunrise.

Shows you what a n00b I am. I think Target built an extra parking lot or two just in anticipation of the hordes ready to buy buy buy. You had to walk half-a-mile from your car just to get inside the building. See now I’ve only been in America for four years so I’m always looking for opportunities to enrich by cultural education. But this morning was out of control, even more baffling than my last encounter with the true face of freedom: drunken hockey fans chanting Sponge!Bob!Square!Pants! Target was mobbed with so many people – families, clans, tribes – that there were lines to just to get into an aisle. Except in Office Supplies. Spiral-bound notebooks are so not in this year.

I quickly realized that coming to Target was a mistake, apart from the sociological gems I was acquiring. As for acquiring actual merchandise, I had to set aside my $8.88 copy of Crash in light of the 2-hour wait for a cashier. It became pretty apparent to me that I was way out of my league. This was a whole different class of shoppers. I came to browse, and that is like so amateurish. I had neither shopping list, store ad, nor building blueprint. Come on man, get with the program. You need a plan, you need objectives, you need strike zones, targets of attack, methods of insertion and withdrawal. But seriously, what was I thinking: I was there a half-hour after opening, everything was picked over. It’s 6.30am. People are on their cellphones because really now who wouldn’t up at 6.30am maxing out their credit cards? I know I’m here just to listen in on the holiday cheer: “Mommy buy me more sh*t! No, the good kind!” and “B*tch gimme back the Limited Edition Harry Potter Tupperware set you stole from my cart.” I should tell you I hit up Best Buy too because I’m a glutton for punishment and who can pass up $6 DVD players (with rebate, please wait 10-15 weeks)? I mean for a year’s wages of the Chinese kid who assembled it, I can get one high high quality tele-vision to watch my favorite infomercials on. They also had some special bargain where you could get like 295 CD-R’s for $1.25 but I decided to save my money for later. To buy french fries at McDonald’s. Where the lines don’t extend around the building.

It’s the holidays USA: spend, spend, spend – this is the reason this country exists! Do it for our boys in Iraq! Come on comrades, raise your middle fingers to our economic recession and stock up on iPod’s before 8am arives.