David Kordahl

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Sleeping at Arcosanti

In Ethics, Politics, Travel on 2014/05/10 at 10:42 pm

Arcosanti, a bell-casting community, doubled as an experiment in constructing the city of the future … the sort of city, for better or worse, that never came to be. Is its guiding vision still possible?

Paolo Soleri hated cars. I knew this coming in, but it wasn’t until I was bumping at 5 m.p.h. along the trail of rocks leading to Arcosanti that the extent of this hatred became quite clear. After all, every prior encounter I’d had with Soleri’s work had come with the utmost automotive convenience. The Soleri Bridge and Plaza had been viewed only when I was on the way to the fancy mall in Scottsdale, and the big bell assemblage of his in the Neiman Marcus there was viewed only after a trip to the parking garage. “Stop, Holly,” I told my wife, who was driving. “I need a picture of this.”

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the "road" to Arcosanti

Good neighbors to the past future, just off the “road” to Arcosanti

“Jeeeez,” said Holly. Normally, this sort of abuse to the Toyota might merit some complaint, but no way, buddy: this one is all her fault. One night earlier, her co-worker Steve had told us about this crazy place seventy miles outside Phoenix where he might like to use as a concert venue, and since both of us were off work for the week, we decided to pack for an overnighter. We drove past a red helical sculpture and, upon reaching the visitor’s parking lot, got out and walked down the hill.

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, "An Urban Laboratory?"

Please note the eroteme ending the subtitle, “An Urban Laboratory?”

Looking into it afterward, I haven’t been able to find a source that directly states the meaning of “Arcosanti,” but here’s my best shot. Paolo Soleri, the site’s late visionary, was an eccentric who, in his writing, heavily favored the neologism and portmanteau. To appreciate the meaning of Arcosanti, then, we need to dig into a few of his other linguistic creations—starting with the two most famous ones. Soleri wanted to pair architecture and ecology, so ARCitecture + ecoLOGY = ARCOLOGY. In a sentence: “Arcosanti is an attempted arcology.” Try another. Arcosanti is overseen by the Cosanti Foundation, the non-profit established by Soleri. So, again, to break it down, COSANTI = COSA (It., “thing”) + ANTI (“against” or “before”). The foundation website encourages both interpretations, “against things,” with its anti-materialist vibe, and “before things,” which emphasizes the primary importance of architecture to society.

This etymological backdrop tells us the meaning of Arcosanti, then. ARCOSANTI = ARCOlogy + coSANTI. In other words, it’s an “urban laboratory,” built to test certain ideas about the ways that architecture, if put in direct contact with nature, can affect the society it holds.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti's gallery/bakery/restaurant.

The treacherous road to the guest rooms, as seen from Craft III, Arcosanti’s gallery/bakery/restaurant.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Holly and I arrived, we hadn’t made reservations, and on the way up the stairs of Craft III, we walked by a series of historical photos, a timeline of the site’s history since its beginning in 1970. At the top, there was a gift shop where a man told us that, yes, sure, we could get the last room available for $50, a room with three single beds. After signing, I took the key and said we’d return in a few minutes for the 4 PM tour.

He’d told us to pull our car around to the back, but as we rounded the hill on a single-lane thread of gravel, I kept flashing back to a passage in Blood Meridian where the poor donkey skitters off a cliff (“it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever in the mind of any living thing that was”), and Holly said, “If we ever come here again, let’s just leave the car in the front.”

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

Guest room, interior view. AC is not included, though a space heater and an excellent view of prickly pear cacti come gratis

It was hard to disagree. I now understood the complaints I’d skimmed on TripAdvisor before leaving the city—understood that these complaints, for the most part, were the result of an incorrect idea of what an Arcosanti stay might mean. If I’d arrived expecting a resort (during summer months, there is a swimming pool), the concrete floors and open windows might’ve seemed a touch too ascetic for comfort. But considered instead as a camping experience, the accommodations, roads excepted, are about as lush as one could want.

6.1 Walk Up

There's a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

There’s a lot of climbing on the way up, but check out that vista from the top.

After winding our way back up to Craft III, we met the tour guide in the gallery. “Sorry about my appearance,” he apologized, “I just came from work.” He was a little muddy (his background, he noted, was “in construction”), but this didn’t matter—we were the only ones here for the last afternoon tour, and he took us aside to watch a short film, a doc that was half Koyaanisqatsi, half Soleri primer. “Do you recognize the narrator?” Holly whispered. “It’s Gates McFadden! Dr. Beverly Crusher!”

OK, fine, I like Dr. Bev as well as the next guy, but what’s Soleri’s story, huh? Paolo Soleri, the narrator said, came to Arizona from Italy on account of Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture hub-cum-training camp. Soleri, however, was a generally sort of a badass who got on Wright’s nerves, and he was asked to leave after a year [1], whereupon he went out and camped under the stars on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix for a while before his architecture business took off.

To say that Soleri had an atypical career is to risk understatement. He wasn’t unprolific, exactly, but most of his architectural work was in theory—the planning of cities, of space colonies, of societies, not of individual buildings. To this day, not counting Arcosanti, the number of buildings he designed that have been constructed can be counted on two hands. Most of the hard money he made was from decorative bells, which was a sort of accidental project he lucked into upon returning from Italy, hot off a ceramics factory commission, after a gift shop in Santa Fe told him that the war vet who’d been making their “Korean bells” had passed and they could use some bells in that style, which began the one solid moneymaker that would fund his extracurriculars for a lifetime.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

Soleri Bells in the gallery. Prices vary: in the gallery, there was a range of $31 for the cheapest ceramic bell, to $1540 for the priciest bronze one.

The film adeptly covered the key points regarding where Arcosanti fit into all this. It showed Soleri propounding his “CMD paradigm,” complexity-miniaturization-duration, with its defining aphorism: “A waste of space equals a waste of time equals a waste of people.” Or, to put it in practical terms, Soleri’s idea was that the type of city Arizona is known for, the city with tract homes instead of apartments, or with freeways instead of sidewalks, is bound to squander human potential. Though even on these points, Soleri didn’t appear to be particularly dogmatic. In fact, he freely admitted that it wouldn’t be until after an arcology is built that its problems and possibilities would be fully understood.

Hence Arcosanti—incomplete arcology though it may be. As soon as our guide led us outside, he was shadowed by another man, taller and thinner, a relative old-timer who would allow the guide to try the spiel first, then add on answers to our questions, asked and unasked, as needed. When we went out to see the South Vault, construction guy (CG; I didn’t get a name, all right?) told us the basics—that this was where they meet in the morning for assignments, that this was the first piece of Arcosanti built after the initial base camp setup in 1970—whereupon old timer (OT; ditto) gave us extra details about how Solari had siltcast the forms before they were flipped up and welded together, or how the colors were set deep into the concrete, so if one wanted a brighter ceiling, the top layer could be scraped off to reveal the vibrant colors underneath.

South Vault. Not sure if the "Arc" in "Arcosanti" has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

South Vault. Not sure if the “Arc” in “Arcosanti” has to do with circles, but just you try to find a Soleri structure w/o any.

Part of the ecological interest of these buildings is that they’re supposed to have passive climate control. In South Vault, there’s an openness that allows both shade and air flow. Farther down the hill, there are buildings with glass walls that, in summer, can be whitewashed and closed during the daytime and opened up at night—or, in winter, washed clear, so the heat is trapped inside as a greenhouse.

Another of Soleri’s favorite forms—claimed as alongside the others as an ecological consideration, though one has to assume that aesthetic considerations, in this case, were just as important—was the quarter-sphere, the apse. Because the bells are made in apses (one for each type: the Ceramics Apse and the Foundry Apse) we spent much of the tour beneath them. Once the basic bell-making process was described, OT explained how apse construction had been the macro-version of ceramic bell making. Since the site is within walking distance of the Agua Fria riverbed, now usually dry, it was easy to find silt, and, as with bells, Soleri would oversee the form of the apse to be siltcast. This form would then be undergirded by scaffolding/silt and overgirded by rebar, whereupon concrete could be poured over it, creating structures whose exteriors are as unformed as their interiors are baroque.

1. Ceramics Apse.

1. Ceramics Apse.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

2. Silt beds used for casting ceramic bells.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

3. Inside Foundry Apse, where OT explains the brass bell trade.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

4. Brass bells, post-cast, pre-assembly.

Of course, any Arcosanti story could easily veer into a bell-making tutorial, but I’m not sure how intrinsically interesting are the clay-setting properties of silt, or the metal-cleansing wonders of muriatic acid. Even for those scattered readers who might want a fuller account of the artisanal lore, there’s Carried Away, an indie comedy I haven’t watched; if you skip to 57 minutes in (this I checked) there’s a foundry montage, Arcosanti based, that contains more detail than anything I can provide [2].

But independent of how intrigued you are by the bells themselves, it’s problematic how central these items remain to the local economy. Moving from the bells to the amphitheater, we were told of the far past, before this schwanky stage was built, when kids would drive out to see Jackson Browne, say, performing with the mesa itself as a shell (including that one time when all the cars burnt up), which at least was something else the site was good for—apart from these darn bells. To be fair, they also make olive oil and honey. Still, the amphitheater has storefronts around it, in anticipation of future business, but with a stable population hovering around a hundred, what incentive do those businesses have to arrive? How can this environment be considered “urban” in any way whatever?

CG surveys the amphitheater, with its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

CG surveys the amphitheater, with
its perpetually empty storefronts (background circles).

OT pointed out the apartments built above the amphitheater’s outer ring, noting that these were probably the best living spaces, which usually go to the people who’ve been at Arcosanti the longest. Holly asked if this meant that the only way a resident could get a nicer place was if someone else left or died, and OT replied that, yes, that’s the way it’s set up for now. “Seems dark,” said Holly.

We walked down the amphitheater, where CG pointed out Soleri’s comparably palatial digs, now used as offices. “One thing I’ve been wondering,” I added, “is what kind of social structure would be able to support an arcology. Like, did Soleri think the government would own these huge buildings in the future, or would they belong to big corporations, or what?”

Soleri's old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8' x 8' cubes.

Soleri’s old house, now Cosanti offices. For comparison, individual units at the Base Camp are 8′ x 8′ cubes.

“That’s a great question,” said OT, “a very good question,” and confirmed that he had asked Soleri that same question many times before the man’s death without ever getting a straight answer.

Which meant, unfortunately, that I wouldn’t get any, either. When we returned to Craft III with some time before supper—visitors can pay $9 for a buffet—I wandered around the building, taking notes, feeling more and more that I wasn’t in a future city so much as a weird art commune. Minimum wage may be the norm for Arcosanti workers, but the whole downstairs was filled with the richness of their art, art of all kinds, ranging from the funny/bizarre (possibly intentionally; how else to interpret those sex-cyborg printouts, or “Blue Jesus,” the painting of a pants-less, many-armed Christ?) to the natural/mystic (one artist had smeary digital photos, kaleidoscopically tiled; another’s neo-primitive scrawls were halfway between Henri Rousseau and Grandma Moses) to the straightforward/practical (plant portraits; clay pots).

I returned to the stairwell timeline to be sure I had the dates right, and, reviewing this history, I wondered if this had been anything other than a weirdo colony, a sort of anti-Taliesin West, Type A architects replaced by Type B artists. It took five years (1973-78) just to build the swimming pool, for God’s sake. And when a blast of music from the kitchen signaled that it was time to eat—corned beef and cabbage, garlic tofu, potato soup, a salad bar, pretty tasty stuff—we managed to sit alongside the oddest of all the downstairs art oddities, Soleri’s own design for the über-arcology, the Hyper Building: a proposed one-building city, housing a hundred-thousand people and stretching a full kilometer into the sky, to be constructed midway between Las Vegas (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) and Las Angeles (“an icon of hyper-consumption”) as a moderate alternative to each.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Residents linger in the Craft III café at night.

Arcosanti Night

I’ll admit that there’s nothing too profound in pointing out the gap between Arcosanti and the Hyper Building, between the real community whose plans are enormous but whose present scale is modest vs. the imaginary building that has quite literally everything (an adjacent zoning poster indicated uses for each of its zillion levels). Nor is it probably useful to collect Soleri quotes [3] for future snark. The idea that Modernist architects could create a better world through architecture has been thoroughly enough abused by now—cf. Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House—that rebuttals of rebuttals have been digested and put on video. A fair upshot is that while architecture alone probably won’t save society, neither is it credible to blame Modernist architecture for very many social ills.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

Guesthouse exterior, morning, with photobombing background crane.

The most intriguing thing about Arcosanti, as the dim reflection of its creators’ visions, may be just how far removed it is from whatever totalitarian overtones the super-structure evokes on paper. When we returned to Craft III for an 8 AM breakfast, the community was already at work, whether at bell-making or maintenance, keeping the old flame lit. It was easy to see what would draw artists to a place like this—though, ironically, with that open view of the mountains and sky, it’s probably not any strict doctrine of urban planning. Soleri was an architectural visionary, yes, but one without the social dogmatism that might have allowed him to conquer a larger cultural territory. When asked, late in his career, what twenty years of work at Arcosanti had taught him, he said, “In general, I’ve learned that the human animal is a very strange animal.”

An hour later, as we bounced back along the road (somehow, it was even worse on the way out), I said to Holly, “Let’s stop for another picture. I’d like an establishing shot with some cows in it.” We were headed back to Phoenix, the acme of non-arcologies, but in the next days I would come across Soleri nods scattered online, from virtual arcologies in SimCity to a real one in Abu Dhabi. “That’s good,” I said, when we were in position. Arcosanti was a smudge on the far plain, already distant, and in the pictures it was tough just to see the cows.

Cows Again

[1] Why he was dismissed was explained differently by each side. The video didn’t go into this, of course, but here’s Soleri’s version, from The Urban Ideal: “And the last thing was probably my wearing of bikinis—only bikinis and, when I was outside, sandals. I think that was the last straw. Mrs. Wright was very conservative in that sense.” On the other hand, brusque unofficial quotes to the contrary can be found from Wright (mid-comment on one of Soleri’s early commissions): “Oh, yeah, it’s by those two faggots, Soleri and [Soleri’s friend] Mills. I had to kick them out.” Up.

[2] OT mentioned one more film in which Arcosanti is featured. Although, on checking, this one turns out to be sort of anti-informative. After Armageddon, a History Channel production, uses decontextualized site footage from to show what life might be like after the hypothetical fall of civilization—an optimistic stretch, in this case, since if we could all live as well post-fall as do Arcosanti’s current inhabitants, maybe we should just leave off with the scary docs and now welcome its swift coming. Up.

[3] From the Hyper Building poster: “The Tower is the lingham, the male. Two cocentric Exedrae, semicircular edifices, are the female. The fecundity of the city, the richness of invention and complexity it germinates, is produced by the interpenetration of the two forms.” And let’s not even start with the Eros●Nudes pamphlet sold in the gallery upstairs. Up.

Required Viewing: The Century of the Self

In Politics, Pop Culture on 2013/05/29 at 12:57 am

To my knowledge, filmmakers like Adam Curtis simply don’t exist in America. He’s English, a documentarian for the BBC, which, in terms of American institutions, makes him something like their version of that PBS master, Ken Burns. Now, having never been patient enough (bored enough?) to sit all the way through one of Burns’s documentaries, the two may turn out to more similar than I suspect, but I don’t think so. The closest American equivalent I could come up with was Errol Morris, though Alex Gibney was a runner-up, and the Morris similarity is itself more the matter of a spot-it-from-a-mile distinctive style than one of any real artistic affinity. But while we Americans love Morris for his ability to let subjects spin their own verbal traps, Curtis is nowhere near so laconic. He’s more of an active case-builder, usually offering voice-over commentary that tells us what to make of his archival footage. This style of filmmaking—opinionated, but not activist; personal, but in no way autobiographical—is just one signal of his remove from American norms. This, despite a choice of Americana subjects consistent enough to make Burns himself seem like a foreigner.

The Adam Curtis film I’d like to suggest as required viewing is about four hours long (four one-hour episodes, made as a miniseries for BBC Two, the public channel for brainy niche pieces), so before that discussion I’m embedding a short he did in 2011 to give some idea of the Curtis Style—an appetizer, for once about issues pertaining more to the U.K. than the U.S.A. It’s a segment titled “Paranoia,” from a BBC Four meta-news commentary program, Newswipe:

Considered strictly in terms of style, this is easy enough to characterize, or to parody. There is a counterintuitive thesis (“This is a film about how ALL of us have become Richard Nixon”), far outsize what the film’s time constraints could reasonably support, followed by a re-framing of familiar issues in quintessentially Curtisian terms. The idea that the tyranny of “elitism” has been replaced by the more subtle tyranny of market forces has been well explored in Curtis’s longer works (it’s the main subject of The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom), as has the idea that the past thirty years have fundamentally shifted the relationship of the self to society (see below). The main thing to note here, before moving on, is the way that various disjunctions between sound and image, or between familiar found images and their unfamiliarly assigned meanings, are repurposed for the specific rhetorical purposes of the film. After a thumbnail sketch of Roy Jenkins, who in this short is used to represent Britain’s old political order—elitist but still with the country’s best interests at heart—the film goes from cheezy horror film music (listen behind the million-Nixon zoom out) to a party track (behind the images of investigative journalists, images that we’re used to having played straight) to conspiracy stingers (“there really were hidden conspiracies”), all in short order. This is the documentary at its most essayistic, where every sound and image is used to bolster a particular POV.

If I weren’t so sympathetic to the claims being presented, I would probably hate this. But I am sympathetic, and in the case of The Century of the Self, the movie is long enough to give its assertions the background and incident they deserve. It presents a vision of the remodeled modern self that stretches from Sigmund Freud to Bill Clinton—and, in doing so, manages to become the most incisive critique of consumer culture I’ve seen on film.

The_Century_of_Self_TitlesTitle card.

This is television, so it can’t afford to lose our attention. Each episode opens with its own elevator pitch: “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” It’s a good line, and it’s most true of the first episode, “Happiness Machines,” which follows the quest of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, in his transition from wartime propaganda specialist to peacetime PR-man. Which is itself an incredible understatement. Bernays invented public relations, insofar as it’s understood today—making him, at least for a while, not a PR-man, but the PR-man, an inventor of his own category of being. One film clip shows an ancient Bernays as a David Letterman guest, where Letterman asks Dr. Bernays what kind of doctor we’re dealing with here. “What we’re dealing with really,” Bernays replies, “is the concept that people will believe me more if you call me doctor.”

The Letterman audience applauds; they’re residents of the world Bernays created. But “Happiness Machines” reminds us that the world of the early 20th century was a very different place, a place where it wasn’t a natural assumption that people could be easily convinced to buy things they did not need. For that, the world needed Bernays. The world Bernays was born to was one where advertisements (the film showcases several) were more or less factual and focused on why a particular object would make your life a little easier if you purchased it. After WW1 experience building Woodrow Wilson into a hero and observing the adoring French crowds whose contact with Wilson was limited to the propaganda he had helped to create, though, Bernays came to realize that the techniques he had used to inflate Wilson’s image could just as easily be applied to inflate movie stars or cigarettes.

Perhaps the film’s most striking anecdote, in fact, describes how Bernays linked cigarettes to political motives so women might find them more attractive. After consulting a psychoanalyst and being told that the cigarette—longer than it is wide, after all—unconsciously evoked the penis, Bernays told his clients that women would be more likely to smoke if cigarettes could be linked to feminine power, as opposed to their “natural” linkage to male dominance. His solution: after alerting the media (free publicity!), he had a group of paid debutantes pose as suffragettes and light up “torches of freedom” during NYC’s Easter Sunday Parade. Within a year, the number of women smokers had increased by over 100%.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:24:57A brave suffragette sucks her torch of freedom.

“The Engineering of Consent,” the second film in the series, delves into the social and political implications of Bernays’s enormous discovery. The practical effects of possible manipulation might have seemed benign enough—in the wake of his early success, Bernays invented product placement and experimented with cross-platform pollination—but the philosophical implications, for some, were much darker. Sigmund Freud, for one, wasn’t out to sell cigarettes, but was disturbed by the primitive human urges that the world wars seemed to suggest. (Nephew Eddie, meanwhile, prepared America for his uncle’s coming with a publicity campaign that included excerpting Uncle Sigmund’s work in Cosmopolitan.) Freud’s daughter, Anna, would champion psychoanalysis as the solution for keeping these urges in check, effectively advocating societal conformity as the paradoxical necessity of a philosophy that had at its core the view that deviant, irrational urges were a ubiquitous feature of human nature.

Engineered social conformity had two forms, though—both of which would later be popularly viewed as insidious intrusions into the natural self. The first of these, Anna’s program, was repressive on the personal level. Having gone through analysis by her father once he found her masturbating, Anna Freud may not herself have had the best simulacrum of a normal family life, but that didn’t stop her from advocating the nuclear family as the epitome of the healthy individual’s relationship to society. One of Anna’s followers, the Los Angeles therapist Dr. Ralph Greenson, went so far as to use his own family as a model for his clientèle of disturbed movie stars, moving Marilyn Monroe into a house next to his so he might serve as her surrogate father figure.

This personal engineering, however, was very slight compared to the large-scale societal engineering being attempted. Ernest Dichter, by inventing the focus group, carried forward the original Bernays insight by using interviews and role-playing to determine what consumers really wanted. And though his conclusions, coldly described, might’ve sounded like bullshit (are you sure the reason women wouldn’t use instant cake-mix, upon its introduction to supermarkets, was that the saved labor evoked sense of guilt at their sloth? that the way to fix this was to have them add an egg, thus allowing the cake to double as an unconscious gift of femininity to their husbands?), it’s hard to argue with success (so…it turned out that women really did buy more cake mix if they had to add an egg [insert confused face here]). Bernays, too, was hard at work, except his work had branched out to include the government. In his most infamous coup—literally a coup, in this case—Bernays, under contract of the United Fruit Company, planned a propaganda campaign that spuriously linked the land reform efforts of Guatemala’s then-leaders to the Soviet Menace, a campaign that directly influenced the CIA to support a revolution. All for the commercial advantage of American bananas. In such campaigns, Bernays, believing that people could not be trusted to make good decisions without emotional guidance, worked deliberately to foster the confusion of capitalism with democracy that we still experience today.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 16:53:46The housewife contemplates her feminine gift.

Of course, cons of this magnitude couldn’t stay secret forever. The third film, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed,” tracks the general disillusionment these cover-ups engendered, complete with its pat symbols of personal and public malaise (respectively, Marilyn’s suicide—attempts at normalcy are no escape—and the Watergate/Vietnam complex—and social action won’t help, either). In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the rule of psychoanalysts who worked to align people’s desires more closely with the structure of society would be replaced by a new order, ready to advocate for a realignment of society to more closely match the structure of human desires. We see how Sigmund Freud, his Mosaic aspect telegraphing a stern disgust, was symbolically replaced by Wilhem Reich, prophet of the orgasm, whose sexy orgone guns (he claimed) could threaten the clouds into rain. Rather than working to repress the self, members of the Human Potential Movement joined at the Esalen Institute for encounter sessions, where participants were assured that many of the world’s problems could be solved if only they could just express themselves more fully.

Except the unintended consequences of this hard leftward swing were nearly as dramatic as the consequences of Psychoanalysis 1.0. We’re shown the interviews of a group of nuns who were encouraged, as an experiment, to express what their true feelings. The result: apart from the few who remained as a radical lesbian contingency, the rest simply quit being nuns. Such disorienting outcomes raised a serious question. Could society survive the elevation of desire as king? The short-term answer, at least in practice, was another question: Who cares? The quest for one’s true self wouldn’t be stopped by philosophical quibbles. In the guise of EST Seminars (famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his great essay, “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening”), the quest itself become a commercial product. Curtis includes footage of these supine pilgrims in giant hotel conference rooms, kicking, squealing, flailing—struggling mightily to achieve a “mass-produced nonconformity.”

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 13:28:23Freedom fighters of the 1970s, encountering themselves.

This ostensible shattering of the old psychoanalytic ideal, however, brought with it an ironic return to the territory of Edward Bernays, the series’s Lucifer incarnate. For if desires could now be submitted to without shame, wasn’t this exactly the sort of thing a trained marketer might best exploit? Researchers from the Stanford University spinoff SRI International were some of the first to realize the business potential of this shift. Their “Values, Attitudes, and Lifestyles” survey was able, with a detailed series of personal questions, to pinpoint the desires of the various new types of consumers that the social shifts had birthed. One type, an ad hoc addition based on the collected data, was the “inner directeds,” those for whom the demands of society were less important than the requirements of their fundamental selves. But no matter—whatever manner of existence a person (or, in the language of the times, a consumer) might inhabit, there would henceforth be products designed specifically for their desires. In the words of Stew Albert, co-founder of the Yippies, “What capitalism managed to do that was brilliant was to actually create products that people like me would be interested in. […] Capitalism developed a whole industry at developing products that evoke a larger sense of self, that seemed to agree with us that the self was infinite, that you could be anything that you wanted to be.” With this cornucopia of choice, it was hard not to concede that when business won, we consumers won, too.

But did anything lose? “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” the fourth and final episode, provides a curt response: politics lost. Curtis argues that when people started to self-identify primarily as “consumers” (a term evocative of irrational preference), rather than “citizens” (a term that suggests rational participation), this fundamentally altered their expectations of government. The “inner directeds,” to the surprise of the SRI team, were supporters of Regan and Thatcher—those politicians who “[made] the denial of compassion respectable.” Just as these prototypical Last Men expected products whose primary purpose was to serve only them, so too did they view such civic transactions as tax in businesslike terms, as a payment for services rendered to them alone.

These shifting attitudes were teased out by political focus groups. This development, now familiar enough to surprise that it was unused until the early 1990s, is told primarily through the trials of Bill Clinton, the first politician to allow such information to shape his policy positions. The film displays Clinton as a flawed crusader, a man whose good intentions were stymied by political realities at every turn. (It bears reminder that this portrait, though less positive than the hagiography routinely presented by nostalgic Americans, seems gentle when compared to the vitriol of Curtis’s fellow Briton, the late Christopher Hitchens.) During Clinton’s first campaign, polls indicated that he would lose to George Bush, Sr., if, as originally planned, he were to raise taxes, so the ever-canny Clinton simply changed course and promised voters that he would cut taxes. Upon taking office, though, he learned that budget shortages were more serious than he’d anticipated, and he couldn’t deliver these tax breaks—a failure that conservatives like Newt Gingrich were able to leverage into huge gains during midterm elections two years later. The backlash led a panicked Clinton into the arms of the ruthless political strategist Dick Morris, whose Machiavellian—Bernaysian?—advice Clinton followed to a T.

Morris realized that Clinton’s main focus, if he wanted to be reelected, would have to be on swing voters, who Clinton pursued with a single-minded focus. When polls showed that the hunting and fishing crowd might have some voters who could be swayed, for instance, Morris arranged a photo-op for Clinton the Hunter—non-sporting past be damned. No potential advantage, from V-chips to school-bus cameras, could be left unexploited. The endgame of this pursuit, just a few months before his 1996 victory, was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which in one fell swoop dismantled the safeguards of the old welfare state—an exact reversal of his 1992 platforms, modified to sway the will of the nation’s few politically undecided.

Screenshot from 2013-05-27 17:18:02The devil wears Gore-Tex.

The film ends with an appeal that’s surprising in its directness. Curtis claims that what Clinton began in politics has degenerated into a sort of international vicious circle, wherein politicians, refusing to take principled stands, have their positions dictated directly from voters, that lot of varied and conflicting voices, who in turn look to politicians for leadership, who turn to voters, who turn to politicians…and round the circle goes. We’re shown slo-mo shots of Tony Blair, the symbol of this vacuity, gleefully heading a volleyball. The final word goes to Robert Reich, Clinton’s disappointed Secretary of Labor, who doesn’t mince words: “Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to debate what is best. If it’s not that, if it is Freudian, if it is basically a matter of appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that business appeals to, then why not let business do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business, after all, is in the business of responding to those feelings.”

Adam Curtis, on the other hand, is a public filmmaker, and few have expressed the sweep of history better than he has. No film in the last year has influenced me more than The Century of the Self.

Note: The embedded video above has all four parts of The Century of the Self crammed together. Unless you’re blessed with a teflon butt, though, it’s probably best not to watch the whole thing at once. To ease the difficulty of finding where you left off for a stretch break, I’ve recorded here the times when each of subsequent chapter beings: Part 1, “Happiness Machines”—0:00; Part 2, “The Engineering of Consent”—58:33; Part 3, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed”—1:57:33; Part 4, “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering”—2:54:56. In other news, if you’re the sort who likes to Google along as you watch documentaries, I also found a full transcript that may be of use.

Apocalypse Hal

In Politics, Pop Cultue, Religion on 2011/01/08 at 6:21 am

My father once told me a story about his college days that I, today, find so incredible and strange that it seems nearly unbelievable. Apparently, he and his group of college friends, members of the Concordia College “outreach teams” [1], decided one semester that Jesus was going to return to earth right away. Specifically, that Jesus was going to arrive before final exams. And so instead of studying, they prayed, they confessed, they got ready. They waited. And waited…until the sorely disappointing days right before finals, when they suddenly had to de-escalate and pull consecutive all-nighters to catch up on about a half-semester’s worth of missed material. “It wasn’t my best semester, academically speaking,” Dad admitted, hastening to add that I’d better not try such a stupid thing during my time at college.

What, why, who, you might ask, could cause a person to believe such stuff? Two words: Hal Lindsey. To which, if you’re like most inhabitants of the 21st Century, you’ll ask: Hal Who’s-He? OK, let me explain.

Lindsey, who is still alive and waiting for the end somewhere in Southern California, advertises himself as the “best-selling non-fiction writer alive today,” and I believe him—granted that we’re a little liberal with the term non-fiction. If we are, he’s not only the best-selling non-fiction writer alive today, he’s also the author of the 1970s’s best-selling non-fiction book: The Late Great Planet Earth. I.e., the book that fell into the wrong hands at Concordia College almost forty years ago and convinced those impressionable young people that Jesus might interrupt them on the way from the chapel to the cafeteria.

LGPE, I admit, isn’t a book I’ve read [2]. Luckily, I didn’t have to: there’s a movie! That’s not surprising; a lot of books that sell over 28 million copies get turned into movies. What is surprising (and unexpectedly wondrous) is that it features a late-period Orson Welles as the narrator [3], hamming it up with all his might. Here it is…

If you didn’t spend your last 1.5 hrs watching that, let me fill you in. What Lindsey & Welles argue is that the Biblical prophecies are finally being fulfilled in the 1970s [4]; you need only look around to you to see the signs, which are clear and certain.

In retrospect, their rhetorical strategy looks a little too extreme. The film starts with an action sequence: an old greybeard is chased along sandstone ridges, higher and higher, until a few young men corner him, bash his head in with a rock, and push him off a cliff. After the poor guy hits the bottom, fellow patriarchs drop boulders on him until he’s buried. Pan to Orson, who informs us with heightened gravity that the false prophets in Israel were stoned. He picks up a skull, a supposed piece of evidence from an archeological dig that proved this. “There was no room for error,” he says—the implication being that the guys left over were probably pretty darn accurate and worth listening to [5].

From there, prophets are name-checked, accurate guesses tabulated. Welles informs us of the fulfilled predictions of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus to get us in the believing mood, and then we’re offered a literal, low-budget rendition of John receiving his Revelation on Patmos [6]. He sees an overexposed white-screen that cuts to some gulls flying (“One as a Son of Man!”), a lady who very sloppily ingests grape juice (“the Whore of Babylon—drunk with the Blood of Saints!”), and some stock battle footage followed by an A-bomb explosion (“ARMAGEDDON!”). Welles: “70% of the visions have already been fulfilled. The rest of the prophecy is expected to come to pass in our lifetimes.

This is where Hal shows up, a compact man with a short moustache wearing a tight polo. He explains that prophecy is “like a jigsaw puzzle,” inasmuch as you can’t know which historical pieces fit where until they’ve already fallen into place. But once they’re there, he posits, it all resonates. The major “fulfillments of prophecy in the present era” are mostly Israel-related—the post-WW2 establishment of the Israeli state being the big one—but he finds others. He interprets a line to the effect of ‘Jerusalem will be trodden upon by Gentiles, then regained’ as having been fulfilled by the Six-Day War, and even the oil crisis is reinterpreted in terms of Biblical prophecy, via a line about Jerusalem as a “burdensome stone” [i.e., Western backing of Israel, in defiance of the wishes of some Arab states, might become increasingly difficult as oil supplies diminish]. The sole remaining caveat preventing the apocalypse from coming tomorrow is the Dome of the Rock still sitting on Jerusalem’s Mt. Moriah, though Welles points out that this could easily be removed with the cooperation of a divinely localized earthquake.

All this is pretty standard stuff, as far as eschatology among fundamentalists goes, and even Hal Lindsey knows better than to set any firm dates. What he needs to bolster his claims, then, is to enlist some outside help. And everyone knows that nothing is better for upping the cred of your enterprise than Scientific Experts. In they come—a parade, surprisingly, that includes heavyweights like Norman Borlaug, George Wald, and Desmond Morris, just to name the supercelebrities [7]. The use of Experts to demonstrate the apocalyptic potential in a variety of messes (e.g., nuke stockpiling, overpopulation, food shortages, pollution, ozone layer depletion, Brazilian killer bees, planetary over-alignment, etc., etc.) is pretty convincing, and to hammer the point home, each time the Experts finish speaking, we’re offered a ‘man-on-the-street’ montage to highlight how misinformed the rest of humankind is, comparatively.

It’s refreshing to see environmental concerns taken seriously in a conservative context (though, as you’d expect, the claims that scientists are trying to make and the claims that the narration wants them to make often diverge wildly), but all this, too, is funneled into the framework of Biblical prophecy. Contrary to what we saw in the campy ‘John on Patmos’ sequence, H.L. seems to think that John literally saw the future and that much of the poetic language of John’s Revelation is merely an attempt to transcribe his observations of the modern world into the language of his times. When John talks of “flesh eaten off bones” and “fire rained from heaven,” Lindsey’s interp is that John saw the (still future) nuclear holocaust and was acting more as a reporter than a bard.

After a quick tabulation of false prophets in the world (Sun Mung Moon, Astrologers, and T.M. instructors), the film finally arrives at its juicy dish: attempts to predict the Anti-Christ. “Prophecy” predicts that the guy will get killed and rise from the dead to lead an all-world gov’t, but reasonable guesstulation leads Hal to believe that a fellow capable of such a stunt will be an agnostic humanitarian, probably someone on the world stage right now. 666 has something to do with it, too; they try transliterating the names of suspects into Hebrew and adding up the number-equivalents of the letters (Jimmy CARTER = 390; Ronald REGAN = 276; Alexei KOSYGIN = 600; Bobby BROWN = 432; Ted KENNEDY = 468), but this doesn’t yield any definite conclusions.

For definite conclusions, you have to scroll over to around 78 min., 50 sec. (Do it!) After a predicted seven years of peace, an absurdly detailed battle scenario is fleshed out, given a few questionable name replacements (Gog–>U.S.S.R., unspecified army of 200 million–> China). This acts as a lead-in to the extended stitch-together of no less than five minutes of explosion footage and plane take-offs that culminate in A-bomb ‘splosions—a filmic interpretation of the showdown at Meddigo, I think. Cut to images of running volcanic lava set to a vaguely dissonant soundtrack. Blackout.

Welles finishes up the film by reading the evocative passage about a “new heaven and a new earth,” which gives the director a chance to show shots of ice, melting ice, foliage, sped-up blooming foliage, and (to top it off) a scaled-back 2001 sort of acid-trip rendition of suns within suns and exploding galaxies &c. O.W.: “This generation shall not pass until these things take place…Truly, I tell you: heaven and earth will pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Roll credits.

Well. 32 years later, and we’re still trudging along, with no sign of a returned Christ in sight…but what has happened to Mr. Lindsey? Has he grown sad and bitter? Has he cursed God and died?

Au contraire, mon frère. Hal Lindsey has ridden the gravy train of American evangelicalism and has flourished. It turns out that Obama is as good an Anti-Christ candidate as any, and if you like your news re-interpreted with a prophetic spin each week, The Hal Lindsey Report is a one-stop shop. If you prefer your Hal in written form, his most recent book articulates a brave stance against Islam, and he’s a regular columnist for WorldNetDaily, a website that appears to share his passion for news reinterpretation. The more I hear about the life and times of Mr. Lindsey, the more it seems to me that prophetic interpretation is a fine, stable career that can be recommended to all children—a career, in fact, that is ingeniously recession-proof. If you know someone studying to join such a profession, however, please warn him not to expect the prophecies to occur before finals.

[1] Outreach Team [n.]: Singing evangelism group that vectored out to spread the love and preach the gospel to area Lutherans, at their own local churches. I have no idea if these sorts of groups still exist in the vicinity of Fargo, ND, but in my imagination they look very much like the Mormon missionaries that live in my apartment complex, except that they still wear bellbottoms and have slightly shaggier hair. Up.

[2] I intended to read it—really! I ordered a copy in the mail and everything!—but listen, folks: sometimes life is just too short to waste on crap…unless that crap is a movie, in which case, I’m a sucker. Read on! Up.

[3] Fun fact: if you check out the list of films featuring Welles’s smoky baritone, you’ll soon discover that Welles reprised the role as Truthier-for-Hire in a Nostradamus doc that came out two years after LGPE. Up.

[4] Another Dad Anecdote: Rev. K. went to see H.L. live, at some point, and on that fateful day H.L. remarked that he laughed when he signed a 30-year mortgage, implying that there was no way that Christ could be so pokey as to lag another 30 yrs. Of course, Mr. Lindsey has probably paid off his mortgage by now—though with all those book sales, he probably still has reason to laugh. Up.

[5] I will try not to bash you over the head with the irony of this, except to emphasize that whatever his myriad faults, I do not think Mr. Lindsey should be executed for his inaccuracies. Up.

[6] ‘John’ looks suspiciously like the guy who got stoned at the beginning of the film, but apparently he’s now stoned in a different, friendlier manner. (IMDb neither confirms nor denies this theory.) Up.

[7] The era of scientific big-shots getting duped into participating in shoddy documentaries isn’t over, BTW. Here and here are two recent offenders that come to mind. On the flip side, “real scientists” can sometimes act in flat-out poor judgment, too; madly prolific science writer John Gribbin is shown in LGPE stating that in 1982, volcanoes around the world will explode due the gravitational pull from planetary alignment. Up.

Ethics Degree Zero

In Internet, Politics, Religion on 2010/12/24 at 6:47 am

Today, I’d like to try an experiment: I would like to write a blog. I call it an ‘experiment’ because in some sense, I haven’t tried it before; everything posted on the Internet under my name probably falls better under the category of ‘essay’ than ‘blog’—essays modified by hyperlinks, sure…but still. There are some real differences between the two genres. To me, the major distinction b/t ‘essay’ and ‘blog’ is that in an essay, the author tries to articulate his piece and be done with it, while a blog is more of a call-and-response medium that encourages reader participation via comments. A secondary feature of some blogs is that the major topic under discussion is usually an Internet Happening, be it a NYT online feature, newly discovered celebrity indiscretion, viral video, whatever. So while the essay is allowed to be the mad egomaniac’s solipsistic wet-dream (readers be damned!), the blog is by its nature a more participatory genre, where the writer is at most the chairperson of a topical committee—a committee whose leader can change at any time following the intro-discussion of the post itself [1].

This piece is a blog in the sense that I’m writing about something that genuinely confuses me (signifying that I’d like the input of wise readers in the Comments), and it’s furthermore a blog in the sense that the thing that I’m confused about was spurred by an Internet Happening (signifying nothing). Though admittedly, it doesn’t look good for the potential blogginess of this entry that we’re two paragraphs in and the main topic hasn’t yet been broached. (Brevity and to-the-point-ness are sufficient conditions for blogginess, but not necessary [logically speaking].)

The Internet Happening was the publication of a certain Moral Essay hosted by 3quarksdaily, which is probably my favorite article aggregator to date. If you clicked on the link, noticed that the topic was not really appropriate for the Holiday Season, and want no more of it, then (in the joint spirit of Christmas and the Blog), I provide now the first reader-friendly interactive option: leave a comment to the effect of “WTF is ethical cannibalism u weird sicko, Merry Christmas lol.” Then close the window and be on your way. On the other hand, if you’re still here and want to rap about Armin Meiwes, then be my guest. I would like to state before starting any discussion that this story is one of the most repellent I’ve ever heard, and that I almost wish I had never heard it, enlightening though it is as a case study in human monstrosity. The tale is by now quite infamous: after putting out an Internet advertisement for a victim, Meiwes killed, butchered, and ate one willing participant, Bernd Brandes. What the Moral Essay argues, disturbingly enough at least to wake me from my own dogmatic slumbers, is that the actions of this ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ live up to all the plausibly defined strictures of Liberal Humanism, and that Meiwes thus should not be guilty of any crime.

I understand that the essay was designed to be provocative (what with that charming photo and all), but after reading some articles on the issue I feel like ceding to my gut. This is Just Fucking Wrong. Not only in its conception, but also in the details. Like in this article, it’s the nauseatingly familiar stuff that gets to me. The way that after cutting Brandes’s penis off, frying it, and feeding it to his dog, Meiwes read a Star Trek novel. The way that before stabbing Brandes’s neck, Meiwes tenderly kissed it [2].

My problem with the Essay is that I’m having a difficult time pinpointing exactly what to disagree with in it. I know that I could manufacture arguments contra Meiwes and that I could believe them, but I also realize that this would be backfill to fit my emotional response, not something that flows organically from underlying tenets. At the same time, I acknowledge that following strictly logical paths has led otherwise kind and reasonable people (I’m looking at you, Peter Singer) to atrocious conclusions (in Singer’s case, to accepting literal infanticide). I’d even go so far as to say that strictly logical thinking leads to real stupidity, in certain cases. (How else can one explain the antinatalist movement, which posits that the pain of birth and living makes it unethical to bring a child into the world?) What the Meiwes case does for me is to force a possibly drastic re-evaluation of my current ‘live-and-let-live’ approach to morals.

Originally, I was hoping to write a self-congratulating fluff piece on the ontological status of moral judgments [3], but what I’m left with instead is a blog. A frankly confused and inconclusive fragment that I’d like some input on, please. What think’st thou?

(Here’s the Wikipedia Ethics entry, if it helps. I don’t think it does.)

[1] That’s right, confused readers: a new year is coming, and I’m making a small attempt to be ever-so-slightly less of a mad egomaniac, this time around. Up.

[2] This detail particular aspect of the case, however, became a controversial one during the trial. Killing and eating one’s current lover raises questions concerning the causes of consent, even if the one to be eaten ostensibly gave permission. Up.

[3] I know that might sound like a straight-up joke, but I actually came up with an example from life and everything. IYI, this was supposed to be a little byte on the subject of that although I know rats cause untold human harm (as documented in this fascinating PBS documentary, which I took careful notes on), I can justify my love of my pet rats by recourse to what morals, in fact, are. Given that I have absolutely no formal background in this subject whatever, it’s probably good that I didn’t write about it (the age-old high school discussion of ethics vs. morals being exactly the sort of thing that I tend to flub). Though given that the Internet is the one place where it’s Amateur Hour every hour, it might not have been that bad, either. Up.

Varieties of Horrific Experience

In Lit, Politics on 2010/12/05 at 6:01 am

Horror writer Stephen King—probably America’s best-loved writer—wrote a study of his chosen genre early in his career, a (relatively) obscure, baggy volume entitled Danse Macabre. In its “Forenote,” King claims that the book is intended as an answer to those repetitious reporters who following each of his books’ releases would ask him, Why? Why write such grisly things? With DM available, he could simply tell them, “Go read my book.”

For most of the book, King gives a discursive overview of his turf, but he eventually provides a theoretical response to the reporters’ FAQ. The answer—or, rather, the moral justification (the “reason,” for genre connoisseurs, being simply that it’s fun to be safely frightened)—is that horror, far from being a potential corrupter of the youth, “is as conservative as a Republican in a three-piece suit.” King’s vision of Horror is that it is the group of artistic works that present the dark secrets of humanity in such a way that the very darkness of these things is emphasized, emphatically. When the typical tropes of serial killers, mad scientists, and vampires/zombies are presented as horrific, the subtext is actually a tacit endorsement of the anti-[serial killer/mad scientist/vampire/zombie] status quo. E.g., to hate serial killers is to hate random murder and to love law enforcement; to hate mad scientists is to support gov’t regulation of scientific research; and to loathe vampires and zombies is to affirm the specialness of the human soul (or maybe the power of the Catholic Church against evil—pick an implied moral as you wish).

King’s statements concerning the uses of horror are probably more interesting as a comment on his own approaches to writing than as a guide to the literature in general1, but they present a particularly simple Straw Man that I’m interested in. Keep them in mind while I present a conflicting POV in the next few paragraphs.

Another horror maverick who has grown more respectable in his dotage is the Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, whose body-horror classics like Rabid, Scanners, and Videodrome plumbed the terror arising from unforeseen interconnections of the mind and body. The one of these I watched most recently was Rabid. Rabid (Inept American Title: Rage) was influential in its day because it was the 1st feature film to treat vampirism as a medically explicable infection; today, the “vampire virus” idea having been treated ad nauseum via countless zombie movies, it’s more interesting for those fantastically icky special effects that all of Cronenberg’s horror movies are known for (see: the phallic stinger emerging from Marilyn Chambers’s armpit when she needs to suck men’s blood). It was controversial in its day for more than one reason (like many Canadian films, it was gov’t-financed, and since it starred the hard-core actress Marilyn Chambers [of Beyond the Green Door fame], some critics who mattered alleged its porniness), but the criticism that Cronenberg singled out as especially specious was that his movie was reactionary and “conservative.”

In the DVD Director’s Interview in which this was discussed, Cronenberg offered an opinion of the Horror genre that I’m repeating here as a foil to King’s. Certain critics pointed out that Rabid played upon its audience’s fear of sexually aggressive females and, hence, claimed it was a reactionary comment upon the then-recent Sexual Revolution. Cronenberg’s (rather weak) argument to the contrary was that the Horror genre is de facto liberal; the intrinsic appeals of works in this mode to the irrational and unknown elements of the self automatically force one to question the status quo. Since Horror encourages thought about and reactions to actions/events outside of the old societal norms, it’s almost always accurate to categorize Horror as a sneakily subversive influence.

So…who’s right? King or Cronenberg? Is Horror society’s Saviour, or its Destructor? Is it ‘conservative’, or ‘liberal’? Nice, or Naughty?

About here, I’m willing to admit that anyone who’s even a casual fan of Horror will be able to spot the problems with my setup for herself. Fear, by itself, doesn’t denote a distinct ideological bias. It’s the object of the fear that determines the politics of a work.

And this is a sticky point, because for an objet d’art to have the power to induce fear in its reader, the reader must come halfway toward the work and admit some of the basic premises for its magic to work. Some examples. The Turner Diaries, the schlocky thriller that provided Tim McVeigh with his blueprint for the OK City Bombings, doesn’t come off as scary or even plausible to anyone who hasn’t already come halfway toward its gun-totin’ White Supremicism; it is only offensive and has no power to convince. Alternatively, unless you’re already critical of Wall St. and its Reganite ways, it’s hard to imagine that a book like American Psycho could be viewed as anything other than an over-the-top serial killer/fashion narrative. Yet to receptive audiences, each of these books has been greeted with extreme acclaim, the acclaim that meets books that are able through simplification to clarify what the receptive audience had always suspected was the case all along.

(Of course, certain Horror works play on such quiet and natural premises [e.g., it’s not a good thing for characters to get unexpectedly stabbed in the back, attacked by faceless monsters, buried alive, etc.] that it’s not immediately obvious that these are ideological premises at all. Be aware, however, that just because something is implicit in most everyday social situations doesn’t make it ideologically neutral; the most commonly held beliefs are the sorts of tacit assumptions that Horror can exploit most broadly, to the greatest effect.)

The reason that the world is in general so confusing is that it’s impossible to separate things out into separate categories and deal with the complications one by one. Everything comes all at once, without any built-in pause for reflection. I have no doubt that if (by some weird act of Fate) either S. King or D. Cronenberg were to happen upon this blog, neither would recognize his own view of Horror in my gross caricature, but that is by design: to make this seem like a puzzle to be clarified, I have simplified and made dogmatic those statements which were probably meant by their speakers to be exploratory complaints and vague suggestions. So it is with Horror: only in the rarest cases might you come upon the odd strictly regressive or strictly progressive curio. Most cases will have one shock, one jolt, one idea, all coming right after each other—and, embedded as they are in the flesh of story, the philosophical biases are usually only implied. Then it’s up to hacky blog posters to prepare obsessive discussions that claim otherwise.

  • Not that this is especially strange for writers; DFW’s essay on John Updike is a perfect case in point.