Friday, April 14, 2006

The secret relief of crisis; or, what "back to basics" really means.

Dwayne over at Weber's Polar Night has an extremely provocative (I mean this in a good way) post encompassing a rather startling post-9/11 proposition from Baudrillard:

...That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, — this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not so...

(link to full original Baudrillard piece here)

Dwayne M then asks,

We entertain ourselves with both imaginary and real images of massive destruction. Even as we cringe, we look on in fascination.

What element of the human psyche is revealed by investigating this element of our behavior?

Great question.

I had always been interested in Fromm's expansion on Freud's notion of the "death instinct," with his notion of "necrophilia" (not just or even the primarily the erotic expression; he uses it to mean a mechanistic, death-in-life approach to existence) versus "biophilia." I...hmm.

You know, I have been meaning to post about all that for a while, and my own take on Fromm, and specifically on the whole "culture of life" (which is meant very very very differently from the way Fromm means it, and from the way I mean it; it's a reactionary right catchphrase that I believe originated with the Catholic Church and is used wrt abortion and euthanasia in particular) business. But I'm gonna save that for another day, even though I think it might answer Dwayne's question more directly than what I'm about to say here, because it's, well...deeply involved. There are many whole books' worth of discussion there; this is one of those fundamental, profound questions about human nature and maybe even life itself, and there aren't simple answers.

Instead I'm gonna go with my original impulse and comment more specifically on the strangeness underlying the rah-rah USA #1 4-EVER stuff we've had for a while now, and jacked up to an insane pitch after 9/11.

So, I'm gonna anthropomorphize the U.S. for a moment here. I realize this is problematic and oversimplifying. Still, I think there's enough truth here to be useful. Bear with me.

So, if we look at the U.S. as a person. What does it say about us that we have the Bush administration in charge right now? What does the Bush administration itself say? What's underlying the whole PNAC-neocon notion of the American Century, and why is it that it seems like we/they are undermining our supposed goals at an exact inverse proportion to the amount of blustering about how much we want to, NEED to be/stay Top Of The World, Ma!

What I'm thinking is this. In a way--and again, this is strictly taking the large, blurry, anthropomorphic/psychologizing view, not taking into account how very much individuals here do not want this on any level, and in fact bear the brunt of the actual suffering--in a way, it's almost kind of a relief. "We" know very well the Bush administration has been a miserable failure. Bush knows it; everyone knows it. We didn't put him back in spite of that. We put him back BECAUSE of it.

When Bush first came into office, there was this terrific Onion article (it really says something that the Onion is often far more accurate than the actual news), headline, "OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE OF PEACE AND PROSPERITY IS FINALLY OVER." Prophetic words, those.

So let's stop laughing bitterly for a second and consider this: not only is it true, we collectively knew that it would be all along. It's not stupidity or "sheeplike" mentality, in fact. It's something else.

The great thing about war and debt is, they kind of concentrate the mind. Puts things in perspective, as it were. No more time to worry about "fripperies" like the sticky question of remaining racism in a post-civil-rights era, or the increasing alienation that corporate culture brings, or the ways in which the Puritan Work Ethic may just not be applicable anymore, much less the whole "Judeo-Christian" ethic "we're" supposedly all rooted in, or our incredibly complex collective attitudes toward sexuality, or the troubling ramifications of global warming and population explosion and and and... That shit's complicated. There aren't easy solutions, if indeed there are any at all. It's hard work. So...we don't really believe those are worth even talking about, because, ummm...look! There's a War On! There's work to be done! No time for it. And anyway, we're broke now, so there's no help for it. Off you go. Back to basics, yes indeedy. As in: back to survival needs, 'cause that's at least sort of familiar territory.

What's happening on a national level, it seems to me, is sort of the largescale equivalent of what happens sometimes with individuals or couples or families. For instance: the former alcoholic who's had a long and rather fucked-up past. Finally seems to have started getting his shit together, going back to school, maybe four credits away from the degree. And--boom! For the first time in years: off the wagon, gets into a really stupid bar fight which lands him in jail and gets him a record; loses his job, so no money to finish the degree...the degree and the dreams of "upward mobility" go on pause while he struggles with putting the pieces of the recent debacle back together, a fresh stint in rehab. One day at a time, again. Back to basics.

Or: the couple who after years and years of rockiness seems to be turning a corner, finally, finally...and suddenly, one of 'em, for the first time ever, has an affair, with no protection and with a rather unstable person, to boot. And gets caught. Drama, eruption. Either the marriage is saved or it isn't; but all the trickier, subtler issues they'd been starting to explore go on hold, perhaps indefinitely, while the crisis is dealt with. Back to basics.

Now, a popular term for this is "self-sabotage." I don't think this is strictly accurate though, not in its connotations, at least. That is: yes, at some level, it is deliberate, even though at another level, and just as truly, the person doesn't want this awfulness to be happening at all. What's happening here is, the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing. In a Strangelovian sort of way, that is. Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it: you know that drill.

But it's a bit more complex than that, and it still doesn't really answer the question why.

And I think the answer, at least on an individual level, is often that in fact the person is not entirely ready to be moving forward in the way she says--hell, believes--she wants to move forward. Because there are still unresolved, deeper, more fundamental issues buried in her psyche, underpinning her behavior in certain areas, if not necessarily the most visible ones; and they need to be dealt with, and they aren't being dealt with, or even really looked at, while the shiny job or relationship or whatnot is taking up all her energy.

So the crisis happens, and she goes back to basics. Lather, rinse, repeat: solving a problem that's supposedly already been solved instead of moving onto new and more challenging ones. But the thing is, problematic as the way in which she's doing this is--and it's problematic precisely because she has not done enough examination--it is, still, an incoherent way of trying to address something that needs to be addressed. Unfinished business. And maybe that shiny new job or that great new relationship wasn't the answer, after all; maybe it was just a coat of glossy new paint over unsteady foundations. Of course, it might not have not been the answer; certainly it might have still been a good thing, in itself. But we're going back to basics now, so we may never really know. Shiny new stuff: off the menu for a while while we deal with the mess we've (frankly) created. Regret it or not; it's done. Here we are.

So, how does this map to the macro level? Well, lord knows the U.S. has plenty of unfinished business. Lots of creakiness in the underpinnings. And the booming Clinton years--hell, the whole more-or-less boom ever since WWII--nice as they were in some ways for some of us, they, well, didn't really address some deeper problems.

But is the endless cycle of crisis and going back to basics the only way to deal with this? Or even the best way? my question.

And my answer, personally, is, well, frankly, no. But as long as the one hand doesn't know what the other is doing--as long as we're not willing to look, really LOOK at everything (and I mean everything) that brought us to this place, then it's gonna keep on happening.

And even that's not entirely hopeless, necessarily on the macro level at least. Suzan Lori-Parks has this theory of "rep and rev," repetition and revision, which she uses as both a theatrical technique and (seems to me) a sociopolitical understanding of how things work. Without getting too far into it, what I take it to mean, at least here (she may not agree with this usage, but for my purposes): history does not repeat itself, exactly, in fact. And what looks like an endless unchanging cycle probably is in fact more like "two steps forward, one step back." Only messier and more uneven. A series of tightly coiled loops, rather than a perfect circle: eventually, you still move forward. But oh, is it a tortuous route.

And, too, finally, not to be too grim, but: sometimes you might simply just run out of steam or luck before you make any more progress on that path. The alcoholic's crisis might come in the form of a stupid but still salvagable fuck-up, or it might come in the form of a fatal car crash. Oops.

And like it or not, the fact is, for the first time in human history, for the past half-century or so, collectively we humans are now capable of wiping our whole sorry species off the map. And if we do, it'll be precisely because we were trying to go back to basics, but good. That's what the fundamentalist (Islamic or otherwise) terrorists are doing, after all. That's what fundamentalism is: going back to basics. And while, as we've seen, it's not the only way of doing so, it is the most ah fundamental way of expressing that cry:

"It's all too complicated. I can't deal."

and, in the case of the terrorists:

"It's all too complicated. Stop the world; I want to get off."

After all, what could be more basic than that? Being and nothingness. Stick it in whatever metaphysical framework you like; when it comes to suicidal/homicidal nihilism, it all pretty much boils down to the same thing, imo. Back to the matrix; back to tohu bohu, the chaotic vasty nothingness; back to the loving all-encompassing arms of the Lord; back to the womb; back to the muddy soil, dust to dust. Take your chances on being born again, one way or another; or not. New body, new life, new astral plane, newly evolved species, or maybe just a perfect blank rest. A fresh start or no start; anything's better than this...this mess. Right?

Back to basics. Hey-ho, let's go.


Dwayne M. said...

Awesome post (and thanks for the link).

I hope you'll pardon the eau de geeklogne I'm about to liberally spritz about the place.

This idea you mention - of eventual progress but through unavoidable fits and starts and retrogressions and catastrophes - reminds me of a seldom considered portion of the pop/sci fi saga, Star Trek .

That is, Roddenberry didn't imagine a straight line of social and technical progress starting with, say, Pericles and the wheel, leading through the Civil Rights movement and the transister and bringing us, happily, to a peaceful Earth and interstellar exploration.

No, there was a period - the 21st century, funnily enough - during which chaos and warfare and bloodshed occured on a monstrous and unprecedented scale.

The sublime technics and multiculural harmony of the various incarnations of our dream ship: Enterpise (and the Enterprise is best understood I think as embodying the twin hopes of technological and civilizational excellence), were hard earned through terrible struggle.

Interstingly, Roddenberry solved the narrative problem of how we travelled from huddling in the strife shattered remnants of our once great cities (a global Kabul) via the classic means of a deux ex machina: in his case, the arrival of Vulcans to Earth who came, after a tentative warp flight by a fellow named Cochran, to check us out and save our sorry asses (warp capable species being a rare and precious thing).

In other words, he couldn't imagine a way out once things had fallen.

A dilemma many of us confront.

belledame222 said...

eau de geeklogne!

no worries. I'm planning a deconstruction of the sociopolitical implications of "Serenity" pretty soon, along with at least one other Ode To Joss.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.

Sarah said...

This is brilliant. I've often wondered why I'm so attracted to postapocalyptic narratives, and agree that it must be this desire to get "back to basics."

Reginald said...

Thank you for this post, really effective piece of writing.
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