YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 29, 2014

LABOR DAY 2014

KOLsealLabor Day was a counter-revolutionary exercise in its very foundation during the administration of Grover Cleveland. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. Revolutionary socialism was the last thing that the AFL or the less well-known and long defunct Knights of Labor desired.

This blog will focus on those aspects of our dominant sociology that seek to defang the labor movement. [For a blog that shows resistance to New Deal labor codes as dished out by the State by one black radical, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/02/labor-day-2013/.%5D  But since I, unlike Sam Dorsey,  am not writing from the revolutionary Left (see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/10/why-i-left-the-left/), I will focus on those features that deter workers from acting in their own interest, for instance in their mindless capitulation to union bosses (a bureaucracy that is rarely mentioned these days).

  1. Populism versus revolutionary socialism. As I have written before, populism is a petit-bourgeois radical movement that seems to offer upward mobility to ambitious persons from humble backgrounds. Populism deploys such phrases as “the masses” or “the people” as if all but ruling elites formed a compact entity with identical economic and social interests. I don’t see why class analysis should be the monopoly of the Left. Clearly, small business and big business have different structures and problems; the same applies to male and female workers, especially with respect to child rearing and housework. (As to whether or not “class collaboration” between “business” and “labor” is a good thing or not, I leave to economists and other historians. The labor movement made its peace with capitalism during the 1930s and 1940s, and “big labor” has no revolutionary aspirations, to the disappointment of Leninists. The “labor movement” as it once existed, no longer exists in this “post-industrial” service-oriented economy.)

But even worse, populist politics, early on co-opted by “progressives” pervade popular culture, and are promiscuous in their antagonism toward “elites”. In its original form, populism was heavily antisemitic (i.e., bankers, like “Wall Street” were generically a Jewish cabal with ambitions to control the world), a fact brushed out by its New Left defenders. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/02/the-legitimate-aspirations-of-the-___-people/.)

I noted during the art world upheavals of the 1970s that protesters defined themselves as “populists”, not as “socialists,” for  the term “populism” however tainted by its initial anti-Semitism, was acceptable (for such intellectual celebrities as Hannah Arendt, “the people” was the opposite of a mob, implying that individuals believed in their particular individual rights; hence “the people’s” critique could apply to the supposed crimes of any elite suspected of taking away such rights, no matter how competent the elite’s members might be in their particular field). A particularly grotesque example is found in the Chomsky-ite attack on Walter Lippmann (again an antisemitic gesture) that spread the canard that Lippmann’s influential book Public Opinion (1922) called for the “manufacture of consent” in the newly developing mass media, in order to hornswoggle the gullible people-becoming-mobs. ( See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) A similar condemnation of mass culture can be found in Hannah Arendt’s “must-read” tome The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950, 1958). And yet Arendt is worshipped by many academic radicals, as are other “critical theorists.”

A similar outrage was found in the counter-culture that continues to delight in technophobia and representations of mad scientists (see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/.)

Indeed, when I defended the Enlightenment on a Pacifica radio popular morning show in the 1990s, I was accused of being a CIA agent, hence the lowest form of animal life—this from listeners who believed themselves to be anticapitalist and pro-labor.

night-of-the-living-dead

 

Cultural pessimism. What could be more detrimental to working people than the current mood of doom and gloom? Is it any wonder that they seek refuge in sports and other forms of mass entertainment, that are predictably primitivist and (stylishly) loud?

Where does this doom and gloom originate? Surely not in the aspirations of the Founders, most of whom were avid followers of the various European enlightenments, and who were guardedly optimistic about the future of the republic. I locate the apocalyptic, technophobic, and anti-intellectual mood to the regnant populism and 1960s counter-culture that arguably never had the welfare of working people as their goal, but rather emancipation from their parents—stand-ins for the evil “jewified” bourgeoisie. Enter “youth culture” as revolt against “suburban sadness.”

Materialism and the working class. American reactionaries (among whom I count the populists and faux “liberals”) come out of German (philosophical) Idealism, which was always antidemocratic and protofascist. “Materialism” is now widely understood as an addiction to consumerism and similarly shallow values, whereas materialism used to signify a retreat from mysticism to the power of the individual to use her or his senses, to reason, and thus to defend her and his interests through making sense of the world and its institutions.  This older view of “materialism” is now blamed by culture warriors of the Right on “secular progressives”—meaning persons like me who praise cultural pluralism and stand up for education in the sciences, economics, and history, putting children ahead of teachers unions and their narrow interests.

I will end this Labor Day blog by observing that teachers are petit-bourgeois and definitely NOT working class, despite their enthusiasm for their “unions” in which they ape the organization of real laborers. When I trained to be a science teacher in the 1950s, we were constantly asked “is teaching a profession? And if so, should they strike for higher wages?” It is our teachers who are preparing their students for real life as mature adults. The least they could do is not succumb to those administrators who joyfully participate in the Democratic Party urban machines and the collectivist ideologies that these mobsters dispense to kids and their parents who could and should know better.

Postscript: I got this comment from a Facebook friend Stuart Creque this morning after I asked what was interesting about Labor Day: “ My dad was a trade unionist, which is funny because he was a high school teacher, not a laborer. Teachers unionizing is rather like Hollywood writers unionizing: it has nothing to do with collective bargaining power and everything to do with self-image as “working men and women.”

But what really fascinates me about labor today is the death of solidarity. My dad exposed me to what labor solidarity was. And the interesting thing is that nowadays it seems almost nonexistent. Each union seems out for its own interests, and more likely to focus on poaching from other unions than coordinating with them or even honoring their picket lines.

In the Writers Guild of America strike a few years ago, the union actually counseled its members to write and earn as much as possible in the days leading up to the strike deadline. They had no concept that they were giving management inventory to work on during the strike, reducing pressure for a settlement. They had no concept of collecting a strike fund over time and then ordering a work-to-rule slowdown leading into the strike. They also had no stomach to hold out for synchronizing contract deadlines with other Hollywood guilds and unions.” I can only add to Stuart Creque’s comment that writers are competing with each other and thus have little motivation for solidarity in protecting the quality of their work. They form a guild, not a union.

MightisRight 

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June 25, 2014

Penny Dreadful’s sinister significance

Frankensteinpenny-dreadfulIn the US, late 19th century dime novels were the precursors to early movies; while in the UK, their similarly cheap, sensational analogs were “penny dreadfuls” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful).

Surely working class males are not the target audience for the Showtime series Penny Dreadful that is winding up its first season this Sunday; otherwise how can we account for its deliriously positive reception in, say, The New York Times and Vanity Fair?

CoverPennydreadful

When I commented on the postmodern slant of this serialized horror thriller with pretensions to serious high art, one of my Facebook friends groaned. This blog explains why I think the fact of its existence and its considerable success is of more than passing interest. I had thought that horror movies with their vampires, zombies, and werewolves, were for adolescents with kinky tastes. But the successful writer for screen and theater, John Logan, author of the series, is no kid (born 1961), but as a graduate of Northwestern University, he may have been exposed to the techniques of postmodernism, along with a fine cast of actors who probably think that this is a high class production, appropriately critical of this entirely mechanized, overly rational and complacent world we supposedly inhabit. I sometimes think that the production is a postmodern emphasis on “acting” and the theatricality of everyday life, along with the postmodern/youthful preoccupation with “real or fake”–a question I have taken up before on this website. What ever its intentions, it surely plays up the irrational and could not be more emphatically counter-Enlightenment, and even anti-American, particularly “America’s” treatment of its indigenous peoples, cruelly uprooted from their native culture and languages by the (ever imperialistic, expansionist) White Man.

Eva Green as Artemisia in

Eva Green as Artemisia in “300: Rise of an Empire”

The “pomos” deploy pastiche, distort prior genres, and appropriate prior cultural figures at will, all to comment on the horrors of modernity, most famously rendered in the Tory Terror-Gothic genre, and exemplified in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Wordsworth and Keats are quoted, while one of the characters is lifted out of Oscar Wilde—Dorian Gray. Significantly, Jack the Ripper hovers over the production, as if the overarching theme is that the social fabric is ripped to shreds by 19th century optimism and confidence in progress through market capitalism. Logan’s target is clearly the empiricism and leftish Romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the theme of the series, despite its mysterious plot twists and turns and lurid developments, is this: science (including medicine) is destroying our humanity and fellow-feeling, by ignoring the invisible world of demons—the monsters within, and who lead us to perdition when we deny their existence. Even the Catholic Church, possibly represented in the lead character “Vanessa Ives” cannot overcome the unpredictable demon(s) who torments her. And that demon, if we are to believe the publicity surrounding the series, may be inescapable “destiny”–a doctrine opposed by Catholic emphasis on free will and personal responsibility for our actions. Or compare the emphasis on “fate” with Milton’s Mammon, a puritan character who argues for “hard liberty” instead of submission to an unaccountable deity. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/07/09/preconditions-for-hard-liberty/.)

Penny-Dreadful-image-penny-dreadful-36465075-450-253

Prometheus, along with the rest of the Judeo-Christian West, is so over. As for individual moral accountability, that too is gone with the desert wind: we are left with a reproach to God as Frankenstein’s omnivorously reading monster quotes Adam’s lament in the season finale: “O fleeting joys Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man?”[ Paradise Lost, Book 10]. More: in the last words of the season finale, a Catholic priest asks Vanessa (the femme fatale who stands in for the demon-touched, hence “sacred” Romantic artist, i.e., Logan himself) “Do you really want to be normal?”

For in Logan’s Terror-Gothic world, a world shared by many opponents of “modernity”, “reality” exists solely in a chaotic invisible world that is inaccessible to our eyes, brains, and control. Could anything be more reactionary, hence agreeable to antidemocrats?

March 22, 2012

The Great Dumbing Down (2)

Devils from Rila Monastery

In a prior blog, I attempted to “periodize” the moment when American culture turned toward stupidity and away from the Prometheanism implied in the conception of American exceptionalism and the making of the Constitution by such as Alexander Hamilton (not that Hamilton was an American Candide). In that blog (https://clarespark.com/2012/03/13/dumbing-down-when-did-it-begin/), I fingered William James and other “pragmatists” as major figures in the deterioration of education. Now I add that moderate man Reinhold Niebuhr to my enemies list.

In the Fall of 1957, I took David Brion Davis’s course in American intellectual history at Cornell U. I have a clear memory of his stating that “the devil was back” in his discussion of Hawthorne and Melville. What Davis meant was that both writers took a dim view of the theory of progress, attacking its key precept, that man was malleable morally (as demonstrated in travel narratives or utopian communes such as Brook Farm) and that better government and capitalism could ameliorate what had been lives that were “nasty, brutal, and short” (Hobbes). Davis also lectured about the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr in furthering that pessimistic ideology after the second world war. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr. That Niebuhr should have switched his political views at that time, puts him in the camp of other pessimists who sought to dampen American hubris after the defeat of  the Axis powers by the Western democracies (see my blog on film noir: https://clarespark.com/2011/04/27/james-m-cains-gorgon-gals-2/.

It was also a moment when the high school population exploded and when returning veterans were availing themselves of the G. I. Bill, flooding colleges with cocky survivors of a war unprecedented in its mayhem. The major universities took note and reconstructed the humanities curriculum in collectivist and anti-urban directions– a direction that would halt the feared road to communism in America. Simply put, the real Marxist-Leninists were mostly purged, and “right-wing social democrats” (the “moderate” conservatives) took over and now are referred to as “the Left.” Their statism (but one that includes “ a reasonable amount of private property”) often leads some right-wing authors to conflate social democrats with Leninists, Italian Fascists, and Nazis.

As the Wikipedia biography of Niebuhr demonstrates, the key element in his conversion to “Christian Realism” (said to be a forerunner of “realism” in foreign relations), was the linking of evil to self-love and pride. Comes now the canonical reading of Melville’s Promethean Captain Ahab as the epitome of narcissism; indeed the Icarus legend was used to describe his literary fortunes from 1919 on. (As Ahab, his wings melted, plunging HM back to earth where he either drowned as Narcissus or burned as Icarus. In any case, he was demonic—the mirror of the Parsee Fedallah– and that theme remains dominant in Melville criticism as taught in the dumbing-down schools and universities controlled by the so-called left.)

Melville was ambivalent about “evil” as an independent entity apart from historically specific institutions and individuals. At times he wrote “evil is the chronic malady of the universe,” or in another mood he would say that good and evil were braided together so confusingly that he could say through one of his characters (the ambiguous Pierre) that “virtue and vice are trash” and that he must “gospelize the world anew.” I am convinced that Mark Twain read Melville, for in his fragment “The Character of Man” he echoes Melville in his most depressed and misanthropic moods.

To summarize: “moral relativism” has been a term used by some conservatives to condemn the explorations typified by the modern, mind-expanding world. What it meant to the Enlightenment was not the trashing of “virtue” but the realization that such conceptions as good and evil were socially constructed and could vary according to the institutional structures and resources of different societies; that in lauding individuals or social practices as either laudatory or destructive, such valuations had meaning only in specific historical contexts. Because many of the Founding Fathers were highly educated men, conversant with antiquity as well as with the discoveries of European explorers, they did not rely upon such ahistoric conceptions as The Devil to mold the Constitution that would govern negative human impulses in favor of a more orderly progress than had heretofore existed. But in the “progressive” world view of such as William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, the human capacity to be educated and uplifted has been ringed round with anxiety and self-doubt. Learning is hard enough without that extra dollop of immobilizing fear. For more on “the moderate men” (Melville’s phrase), see https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. Moderation is a buzz word without concrete meaning, and is a key word in psychological warfare.

March 20, 2012

Links to Cormac McCarthy and Mark Twain blogs

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/17/blood-meridian-and-the-deep-ecologists/

https://clarespark.com/2011/11/21/cormac-mccarthy-vs-herman-melville/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/13/mark-twains-failed-yankee/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/huck-finn-and-the-well-whipped-child/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/31/the-numbers-game/ (This is about Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and his re-enchantment, and turn away from the skills acquired as a river pilot.)

April 27, 2011

Film Noir, decoded

Cover art for audio version of unabridged Mildred Pierce

This is the analysis of James M. Cain’s popular novel Mildred Pierce, especially as interpreted by HBO this Spring (2011). I started by finding the lyrics to the song derived from Chopin’s Grand Valse Brillante, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (1917). This song is the leitmotif for both the HBO series and Cain’s book.

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.

Chorus:

I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.

I have read the very wild and violent and strange James M. Cain original as adapted both in cinema and by HBO in a much touted and praised miniseries.  Briefly, Cain sees all women, especially those grown in Southern California, as monomaniacs, driven by unhealthy passions. The theme of mother-daughter incest runs throughout the novel, though Cain, born an Irish Catholic, is almost reserved on the subject. His last word on the Mildred-Veda dyad is the remark that she was a woman who loved her daughter too much, but there are insinuations and even graphic descriptions of a physical passion dotted throughout (and that HBO downplayed). I had suspected that the film noir or literary noir corpus was an assault on the idea of Progress (with its predecessor in the Terror Gothic genre that appeared in the eighteenth century and eventually became a staple of horror movies, for instance Frankenstein). But what I did not see was the full-blown assault on women as killers, serpents, and parasites on men and even on each other.

In Cain’s novel, Mildred is no laudable waitress-becoming-businesswoman, picking herself up as an entrepreneur and capitalizing on her capacity for hard work and talent in cooking artistic cakes and pies. She does cook brilliantly, apparently an inborn quality, just as Veda’s inborn musicality is prodigious, rare, and obsessive. Rather, after her husband’s fall in the early Depression, every move she makes is for the sake of Veda, her superior in every way, and whose love or classiness she can never gain. The HBO treatment of the novel does capture much of that, but not with the social history clarity of the novel, including the dialogue spoken in dialect that is un-PC, or the important original class difference between Mildred and her husband Bert Pierce, or their tenuous religious affiliations (Episcopalian vs. Methodist). The matter of class is crucial, for Veda resembles Bert, not Mildred, and seeks to restore or exceed his prior success.

Like other writers utilizing the realist tradition in literature, and infusing his tales with forbidden sex and violence to gain a popular audience, Cain has more than one agenda. In his case, his novel is not only about two crazed women, but about materialism, pride, and the failure of the American dream, a dream that is built on the theft of Indian and Mexican lands. The University of Maryland Special Collections (where his papers are stored) tells the researcher that Cain was interested in the lives and speech of the common man. They don’t say that he looked down on the lower-middle class; indeed his sociology in Mildred Pierce is very precisely delineated, down to the last detail of decor and clothing, but also the occupations of Mildred’s family and friends. The uppity Pierce home is decorated with paintings of cowboys and the West, with a hat tip toward the covered wagons and their pioneers. Later, the decayed patrician Monty Beragon makes light of his ancestors and their triumph over Mexicans in California. Mildred’s foolish overspending for the sake of Veda is described with the zeal of a bookkeeper, and of course this unrequited, very physical, passion brings her down and back to her first husband, who outclasses her throughout. Very little of this detail makes it into the HBO version, which condenses some of the most significant episodes in the novel, for instance the repeated image of the rainbow, first seen as a halo around the dead younger child in her coffin, Ray, who dies of a respiratory ailment early on in the tale, leaving Veda as the sole focus of Mildred’s life. The rainbow, traditionally a symbol of God’s benevolence after the Flood, refers to the American pursuit of happiness that eludes these characters who are stunningly devoid of self-knowledge, with the exception of Veda and Monty, matched, purposeful, and articulate cynics, unlike the comparatively wordless Mildred, whose untamed passions are mirrored in a winter storm that she fails to defeat, and whose temporary success is the result of the business-sense of others.

We should not underestimate the importance of the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” as used in both the novel and the HBO series. Long ago, I interviewed Roger Angell on his fascination with baseball, and he said that the sport was really about the inevitable failure that we all experience. I called that radio program (a collage) “Play Ball, or The Aesthetics of Failure.” Chopin’s ravishing lyricism can be seen as romantic yearning. The noir genre, whether in literature or film, should be seen as a sign for the end of the line for humanity. This ideology is profoundly antidemocratic and anti-American. It does not deserve our sympathy, though James M. Cain’s novel is interesting as a reactionary artifact, and more skillfully written than I had anticipated.

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