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“Art exists because reality is neither real, nor significant”. -J.G Ballard
“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.”-Thomas Carlyle
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.” -Freidrich Nietzche
Some say great art and new ideas are born of innocence, of the joys and suffering of youth, of the struggle to be born anew or to birth the new—that with time and age comes a reticence, a burden of experience and assumed knowledge that prevents the novel and revolutionary from pouring forth, or from even being conceived—that even with wisdom or peace comes complacency and ossification.
In the history of culture we can see the pattern, not just in any particular culture but in individuals themselves—where what is at first a creative well, as new and fresh as the Spring, becomes stale and formal, a mere repetition or recombination of old patterns. What was instinctive and spontaneous becomes over-thought and overwrought. Indeed it can be difficult to improvise with the weight of history and experience hanging over the creative mind. It should be obvious, however, that the spontaneous impulse uneducated by experience, only produces novelty in environments that are new, that is, where the conditions have not yet reached the level of stable medium.
This natural Spring-time phase of creativity comes off as youthful naivety if it is not born or working in an environment it can help form as well as explore. As the self, environment or medium ages, so the unexplored possibilities dwindle, and consequently, the likelihood that anything new will be produced through a youthful or instinctual spirit becomes ever more remote, unless new environments or media are found and exploited by the restless hunger for more.
What happens next is the test of maturity in any individual or society. In the modern West, we have prided ourselves on our geniuses, on our great individuals, and especially on our youth and their ability to challenge tradition. This preference has made it easy for us to choose constant innovation in the forms and concepts of our knowledge, media, and culture, at the expense of facing the challenges of evolving our culture past its adolescent phase. We continually choose revolution over evolution, hoping a new invention or equation, a new scene, movement, or slogan, will overcome our stale forms and save us from ourselves and the unhealthy environments we create. This has led the West into a curiously prolonged youth.
In our age, novelty is indeed profusely generated, but that novelty is usually more of an oedipal reaction, an immature bid for attention, than it is any strong new vision, discovery, or creation. Starting, as the modern mind often does, with doubt and uncertainty, our cultural productions can’t help but bear the color of a late-stage mind, driven by the “anxiety of influence”—that is, determined by and reacting to predecessors, falling for cheap solutions and mutations in form, and not really solving problems or expanding the horizon of possibility. All cultures have their late stages, but the West’s has coincided with such an explosion of technological innovation that—along with the general ease we have overturning tradition—has made it easy to mistake surface novelty for real growth and spiritual maturity.
Cultural philosopher Oswald Spengler believed that as cultures grew past their prime, they shifted from a focus on truly creative work, to practical and administrative activities like politics, economics, and engineering. He considered this a decadent phase. Yet he advised us to embrace it, since according to him, there was no choice in the matter. A poet in this late phase, for example, would only be a naive or insincere reiteration of an idea that has run its course. To Spengler, it was only in a whole new culture—one that throws off the forms of whichever legacy culture seeded it—that new ideas and art would flourish.
Yet what we see in the modern West, with its passion for engineering, is that those activities that Spengler considered merely a practical application and manipulation of existing forms and ideas, do offer a new life, a new medium in which to play out our myths once again. Indeed in our times, engineers have invented so many technologies, and connected and recombined so many mediums, that our culture seems poised to go on playing with our reflections in new virtual worlds, possibly into extinction.
Across the board in our culture—both in science and art—we have not developed enough the skills of maturity, the patience and subtlety to link the old and the new, to revisit and recontextualize the roots of our perspectives. Rather we have fallen into the youthful delusion that what is new to us is even new at all. This naivety now often takes the form of a never-ending expansion of the same old ideas masquerading as technological progress, self-expression, and personal growth.
In contrast to this surface novelty, true knowledge, art, and spirituality, by their very nature, transcend the the limits of the idiosyncratic, historically contingent, or merely personal—tied, as these limits always are, to the accidents of history and the opportunism that thrives on them through the ambitious person’s anxiety of influence.
The anxiety of influence and the general ambition that drives us to seek recognition in the established order, perpetuates the cycle of reaction and negation in an “eternal return” of the same or similar, where every change is little more than a mutation in style and form that prolongs and obfuscates what would otherwise be an obvious stale repetition.
A society dominated by the pursuit of fame naturally becomes obsessed with the new, but mostly just manages to push the cycle of repetition to its next stage, where old forms are relived in new masks, and where the gradient of difference that drives all creation becomes merely the endless pastiche of details (which, like the short cycles in most pop music, is only interesting to those with no knowledge or memory of the past). Deep novelty, like meaningful freedom, is not a negation of prevailing conditions, but an illumination and manifestation of the world’s alternative possibilities and trajectories.
This is not to say that anything is essentially novel or absolutely free, since every “thing” or idea is only as new as the consciousness that holds it is free, and that freedom is also a matter of degree and context. It is always a matter of perspective. For with the right eyes we can see old and heavily determined forms in new ways; we can give them new layers and meaning through reflection and self-consciousness. What the evolution of culture and media has made possible is an increase in the opportunity for mature reflection, and new layers of meaning which would have otherwise not been possible in a traditional culture within the limited horizon of early civilization.
While these mutations in technology and media have prolonged the death of western symbolism—have allowed the same old symbols and stories to be made to look new through the use of new techniques—these new techniques and technologies have also undermined traditional culture in ways that can force mature reflection on the fate or purpose of culture itself. The mutation in outward form may keep the need for a whole new cycle from emerging, but with every turn of a repeating cycle there is also the possibility of a spiral of development. Wherever memory is enriched through experience, there exists a greater development riding through every cycle of life, building a greater purpose, even if that purpose remains unactualized.
As the pace of innovation and revolution has increased with Capitalism going global, new hybrid forms and mediums have multiplied with every new world the machine has made into a market. The mutation of form may, to some degree, hide a stagnant essence, but the evolution of outward form and media cannot help but change and evolve the imaginal power at its core. Sometimes more, sometimes less: more if we can pierce through the surface and follow the creative spirit within, less if we blindly trust progress, or, even less, if we doubt some kind of higher destiny is possible.
What most of the critics of science and mass civilization miss—whether they be conservative defenders of high culture against the machine of innovation, or liberal defenders of the cultural tribalism of identity politics or psychologized religion—is that both the impulse to preserve and the impulse to grow, are personalized reactions that depend on and necessitate each other, and feed into the cyclic pattern of growth and decay. Both the liberal obsession with growth (whether personal or economic), and the conservative attachment to outdated and decontextualized forms, obfuscate the kind of culture that can attain a sustainable vitality, translating the old into the new in amicable harmony.
Mature cultural vitality can critique and redeploy any aspect of tradition and give it new life. We continually avoid real progress when we fetishize our cultural forms, like that sacred cow of modern liberalism, democratic process, which is usually little more than a popularity contest that baits us with a conflation of choice with freedom. Any meaningful freedom must also be knowledge and power, must also have the capacity and will to help foundational forms grow through critical reflection.
Instead, most political positions merely ossify foundational principles in conservative idealization, or reject the past in an ignorant fetsihizing of what appears progressive or new, (or what usually results since these two cultural forces are two sides of the same coin in liberal society: some of us preserve tradition as beyond critique, while its errors live on under new names as we grope towards novelty).
The Nietzchean ideal of transvaluation, of changing the meaning of the world rather than trying to radically negate or transcend it, is not only the recipe for happiness, as Nietzsche’s “amor fati” expresses, but is also the key to affecting the world, whether through cultural production or otherwise. It really is the old paradox of Eastern philosophy (emerging in a more “tantric” form after its route out of the Upanishads, through Shopenhauer to Nietzsche): we can achieve what we desire by overcoming restless desire. The higher freedom of increased capacity comes through a sacrifice.
Meaningful freedom is creative power, the power to change the world and create new ones. It emerges not necessarily from any revolutionary form or idea, not necessarily out of either youthful enthusiasm or the wisdom of age. Whatever the age or medium, power and effective creation operate to the extent that one overrides or overcomes the frustrated will and its seeking after and reacting to external forms and objects. The full emergence of power comes especially with the transformation of the “reactive man”, who chases after or rebels against the phallus of the dominant order, (or in the case of some conservatives, the perception of a threatening new order), into a real “superman”, who transforms all orders and influences in the process of re-evaluation.
This “transvaluation”, as Nietzche called it, is a natural operation of awareness after it sees the futility of direct opposition, since opposed positions mirror each other. The only way to truly change anything is not to oppose it, but find the connection between oppositions and redirect them—not into a synthesis determined by the old opposition, but into a new playing field, determined by a capacity to imagine the endless possibilities always hovering over any thing or value. This becomes possible once we are freed from the illusion that things exist or mean anything in themselves, and from the prison of binary logic, of either/or judgment, of doubt and belief.
Because the anxiety of influence becomes all the more important in late-stage culture, it also becomes easier to see and understand the principles of mature creativity during these late stages. In maturing cultures, history and tradition become very important and pastiche likely. Many people will labor under the domain of old ideas they don’t really understand.
Those that want to understand or innovate will have to take the time to learn and choose a context. This will be difficult and many will settle for spectacle and recombination, but some will make the effort to produce meaning, to find an illuminating context or narrative. To make a meaningful narrative in these times, some amount of wisdom is required: some creative intelligence that can penetrate to the spiritual meaning of the myths and symbols being integrated.
It can pick up where older stories left off and develop them further—fill out their details with the insight of experience, with the overview of a perspective that has seen these stories play out in different contexts, and can distill down their essence. It can build up from these freshly distilled essences, new visionary details that can guide the emerging context or medium—or even, as mediums themselves converge into virtuality, form whole new environments for the reincarnating spirit, god, alien or hero.
In the current media environment, all previous art forms and mediums have become the content of the digital landscape enveloping the globe in its virtual glow. The stage is set for the integration of old and new if we can recognize the innovation that blossoms from sincere reflection, not just jaded irony. Both of these attitudes can be seen, and often together in our society and media. An exploration of our media environment—which by anyone’s reckoning is experiencing and reflecting a number of overlapping late-stage cycles on so many levels—can serve as an illuminating medium of these reflections.
Paradigmatic of this media environment, are pastiche artists like Quentin Tarantino. While he often devolves into kitsch and shallow irony, his sincere love of film and unabashed enthusiasm for stealing from all his influences, occasionally makes for some of the best examination of the issues of late-stage art, especially when he layers in his unease concerning the place of his own late-stage meta-movies.
“Tragedy is what happens to me. Comedy is what happens to you.”-Mel Brooks
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”-Charlie Chaplin
“When we are born we cry and weep; when we die we should smile.”-Jean Gebser
“We say an author is original when we cannot trace the hidden transformations that others underwent in his mind; we mean to say that the dependence of what he does on what others have done is excessively complex and irregular. There are works in the likeness of others, and works that are the reverse of others, but there are also works of which the relation with earlier productions is so intricate that we become confused and attribute them to the direct intervention of the gods”. -Paul Valery
Once upon a time, or at least a time in Quentin Tarantino’s mind, the Manson family killers are inspired to attack the house of an actor that Tarantino imagines living right next to Sharon Tate, rather than going to the house where Tate and her friends were murdered in our reality. In Tarantino’s 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, the fictional actor (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), his wife, his friend and his dog, brutally destroy their attackers, thus preventing the tragedy that some have marked as the end of the unique culture of the 1960s.
While it is easy to read this on its basic level as a nostalgia or revenge film, it is also quite a revealing work from an artist struggling with the self-consciousness of time characteristic of many late-stage processes. But unlike the divinely inspired works described by Valery, “Once Upon a Time” does not fully digest or transcend its influences; it merely celebrates them. Tarantino does, however, show a desire for some kind of transcendence.
He has claimed that “great artists steal, they don’t do homages”. It seems he would like to achieve the kind of complex relationship with his predecessors that Valery describes. Tarantino even claims to “steal from every movie ever made”. While this is obviously a large exaggeration, it does bring up the question, if this was even possible, would it be a good thing?
Before discussing Tarantino, his anxiety of influence, and the influence of media on us all, this question of integrating all influences should first be examined. James Joyce’s “late” work comes to mind as an example of someone who could be said to have succeeded in, while not exactly incorporating all of Western literature, certainly making a good show of integrating lots of predecessors and influences.
Beyond, or perhaps, beneath all the extravagences of style and form, Joyce’s work still seems to seek, and arguably achieve a kind of transcendence. He did this not by outdoing his predecessors (Harold Bloom argues his agon was with Shakespeare, who, let’s face it, anyone would be hard pressed to outdo in style and form), but by taking advantage of the complexity of our mature culture and the mature medium of literature.
Joyce absorbed this rich repository of experience, both from his own life and the history of his culture, and out of that maturity created something profoundly reflective—not just self-reflective, but reflective on many explicit levels—a kind of fractal-pastiche that suggests that the open-ended meaning of the poetic need not fall to the level of prosaic or closed-literal meaning as it becomes concrete. Nor must meaning completely ossify as it becomes mature and self-reflective, but, like some fractals, it may elaborate and develop in any direction of analysis. Scientific analysis itself need not be abstracted away from the foundational metaphors that it denies in its deficient modes. Culture can instead develop its primordial metaphors through its self-reflective and self-reflexive stages into a porous pastiche of modes and disciplines, where knowledge is art and art, knowledge.
This kind of culture can result whenever we reflect on, coherently digest, and insightfully apply our influences. It need not necessitate a wide breadth of knowledge. But we should not dismiss this quality of broad knowledge and learning in late-stage art. Being unaware of what came before is the norm for most early-stage processes; youth is catalyzed by a relative ignorance. This can catalyze the rare natural genius to produce something important in late-stage cultures as well.
But even in those cases, much of the genius’s talent can be wasted in ignorant repetition of what has already been done. This is more obvious in science and theory, but it is true even in art. The strongly individual person can certainly inject even tired old form with something new, whether they are aware of those precursors or not; but the individual can only get so far on their own.
Late-stage processes are unavoidably tied up with collective issues and considerations (one can see this inscribed quite elegantly into the “house” system in astrology, where the early individual-centered stages give way to collective and universal considerations in later houses).
While great music or poetry can theoretically take any form in any period, what makes something important in mature societies is the collective experience and meaning—the ways in which anything transforms or illuminates our perspectives and knowledge—as well as the immediate effect on individual experience and feeling that is important in any period. The personal experience is one thing—we may be quite moved by something not important to anyone else. This does not detract from its value or beauty, but larger contexts determine what becomes canon, or what goes on to influence the way a culture sees the world.
This is not essentially a point about art or even recorded culture in general, but about all thought and perception. The most important transformations in culture come not essentially or primarily from any genius, or even visible culture itself; science, art, politics—these are merely some of culture’s most interesting signs, but they all emerge from the discourse and relations between every person and every mind, no matter how they are expressed, or even, whether they are expressed in outward form at all.
Questioning whether a culture-producer is aware of all their precursors and influences or not is besides the point. What matters to the evolution of culture is whether its subjects merely consume it and passively recreate it, or whether they can become active creators of its meaning. Awareness of time and history is crucial. This is especially so as culture evolves and complexifies. It increasingly obfuscates the origins of its forms and makes understanding anything difficult without historical context. But this awareness of history and context will always be partial and displaced.
There is no point in trying to master and transcend the whole field of any culture or discipline. A full awareness of all relevant contexts, influences and precursors—even for a single narrow field of science, or a single artistic medium—is even more impossible in our own late period. What is more possible is new and revealing contexts. The loss of meaning inherent in the way forms drift out of their original context can motivate reevaluation and openness to other ideas and fields.
Meaningful progress in any specialized discipline is dependent on knowledge and experience outside the discipline, and while specialization and complexity can lead to a loss of general understanding, for those that are willing to brave the often maligned frontier of producing coherence out of the tangle of conflicting and contradicting truths, the richness of possibility expands exponentially with the complexity.
Ideally this produces at least some feeling for the possible alternate lines of development, not only for the future of a field, but for what might have been had a broader network of knowledge—or the right association—been available at the time. One can certainly master a craft or any other repetition without external knowledge, but creativity and understanding depends on difference and contrast. This is always present to some degree but is often stifled in late-stage specialization.
An encyclopedic knowledge of only one science or art will only lead to a dead-end and an anxiety of influence, precisely because narrow specialism gets trapped in surface details—even if it could claim exhaustive historical knowledge and comprehensive understanding. As forms and focus specialize, awareness and understanding must generalize—not into vague abstractions, but into the relations between forms, into the space of unthought ideas that invisibly rule those relations and whose eventual formation in culture will determine the evolution of future forms of consciousness.
If awareness and understanding do not grow and follow a process past the early-phase exploration of the medium or environment, and if they do not shift from their adolescent phase of concretizing relations, to the reevaluation and application in larger contexts of the now concretized niche or form-language, they will cease to play an active role in the life which they helped form. They will be left behind as their forms get picked up by new and broader contexts.
It is evolving contexts and relations that matter at this point, more than any further evolution of medium or form. Evolution of form continues regardless, but if it is to be of use to the universalizing processes of the later stages, it must come from a reevaluation of the meaning of terms, not out of a desire for endless innovation or mere combinatory pastiche (or to avoid the death of stale forms, as in the biotechnical evolution of our species that “patches” up the holes in our biological form with crude technology rather than the “tantric” art of weaving together a coherent bioenergetic fabric).
Anytime the hybridization and mutation of form starts to wear thin—as we have seen it recently do both in science and art—then the impulse for transcendence intuits the need for a “meta” art or an interdisciplinary science, something that goes beyond by going between forms. While this focus on relation does transcend the previous mode with its linear expansion of already-thought ideas into new styles or forms, the interdisciplinary and intertextual mode can also get stuck in the mere pastiche of already existing forms or in recursive self-referentiality.
The impulse to transcend through integration and combination can merely carry on previous errors in new genetic combinations. As we well know from human relationships and biology: not every new combination is ideal, and though relation can force examination, it can also get stuck in endless loops of self-reflection. The best relationships help illuminate the limitations in their component parts, and can even help overcome the errors of the parent parts in a new generation.
To further explore this rather abstract theme of late-stage art and integration, a return to discussion of specific media and artists might be wise. Filmmaker David Lynch, for example, is an artist keenly aware of the problems of his culture, and in his “Twin Peaks”, we get a complex series of shows (and a film) that hybridizes the cultural forms dominant when both TV iterations were made, all designed, seemingly, in his own kind of transcendental pastiche. But unlike a mere pastiche or parody of outward forms, Lynch was not doing homages or simple critiques (he reportedly was upset that the soap opera being watched by characters in the background was too much of a parody—he wanted it to be a sincere reflection, a kind of fractal or layered meta-play on media).
Neither was he trying to merely play intertextually with the cultural medium as it was, but reform it through a violent sacrifice, not only of a character, but of the melodramatic forms of TV that would otherwise turn the character’s death into a cheap commodity. Not only that, but the “Twin Peaks” creator was using the dominant medium of the time to establish a new relation between the medium and its audience, to make them confront their desire for shallow TV violence (and dark gritty violence in the 2017 third season). He wanted to expose our own dark desires and the dominant cultural medium that was feeding them, and to transform our desires into an appreciation and understanding of darkness and tragedy and their role in bringing out the light (twin perfect 2019).
He does not make his art simply about art or about his vision of it; he does not merely comment on the world or media as it is, nor does he attempt to manipulate or convince us of what it means or should mean. Instead he uses the medium to establish a new vision or relation, and perhaps a new trajectory for the dominant art form and consciousness of his time (though he was not successful: his original vision was hijacked through conflict with studios and collaborators that wanted to turn it into either a parody or sincere iteration of the genre forms he was trying to reinvent and revivify).
He is not just creating metafiction or pastiche to establish a “meta” or outside relation to the forms of the medium. He is using the meta-perspective common to mature mediums and artists to help bring balance and harmony to Hollywood and the culture at large. Lynch was keenly aware of the importance and dangers of Hollywood media, and with “Twin Peaks” he was concerned in helping us understand the darkness and light of our powerful and dangerous “electric” media.
In the end however, “Twin Peaks” is still thoroughly dualistic. Lynch believes in a balance of darkness and light, and though he is at pains to show how they arise together and exist potentially in us all, the darkness is always a pure metaphysical evil and the light a pure and sweet slice of wholesome pie. “Twin Peaks” deploys comedy amidst its dark violence, but it is used always as a light to contrast with the dark. Lynch’s metaphysics may be about fundamental unity and dependence of opposites, and his symbolism is very ambiguous, but his ethics are not ambiguous nor do they allow for any complexity; they are clear and purely dualistic: even if his moral poles depend on each other, the idea of pure good and pure evil remain.
In contrast, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” shows its creator, Quentin Tarantino, as is usual for him, famously blurring the lines of all morality, and, as usual, uninterested in any metaphysical ideas, but also becoming more conscious of the messaging of his films. In this film we see him aware of himself as an aging artist, in an aging medium, in an aging culture, pondering the loss of innocence and the loss of everything to time. While “Once Upon a Time” may not perform the shamanic sacrifice of visionary art, it is so self-conscious on the issues and challenges of creative work in late-stage society, that it bears a close look.
One reason being that the 60s are a perfect time-setting for this meditation on maturity. It was the time-period that American culture lost its innocence, gained a sober perspective on itself, and, by the end, reconciled its conscience, more or less, to the moral ambiguity and violence inherent in its existence. Likewise, “Once Upon a Time” is about coming into sober late-stage maturity, which presses us all with an awareness of our individual limitations.
While it does, like most of Tarantino’s films, revel in the spectacle and artifice of cinema, it does so not to escape reality or preserve naive innocence, but to confront our violent reality and make of it art. And it wants us to appreciate the power of art, especially the essential arts of our time, film and television (or screen media as they have now become), in their own late stage as mature artistic mediums, which can only maintain their vigor if “they” becomes self-aware, as we all must do to evolve with time.
For much of Tarrantino’s work, reality may be violent or ugly, but he wants us to take a comic view of the world’s violence and suffering, to step back far enough from identification that the violent world becomes a comic play. While the dangers of making light of violence are worth considering, there is a difference between trivializing or glamorizing violence, and using it to invoke the transcendence of suffering that is the goal of many myths. While Lynch seems to want us to understand violence as a necessary evil, Tarantino seems to want us just to laugh at it.
Unlike the shallow, bloodless, and consumer-packaged TV violence that Lynch was responding to with the original “Twin Peaks” (and which Leonardo’s character is known for in “Once Upon a Time”), in his movies, Tarantino, like Lynch in this respect, seems to want us to feel the suffering of violence in its gruesome detail, yet unlike Lynch, see that death, even violent death, is no big deal. Which is, ostensibly, exactly the attitude that Lynch made “Twin Peaks” to address. Tarantino’s attitude is obviously very open to critique—he may indeed be glamorizing or trivializing in some respect. But he also seems to sense the power of myth and media to help us individuate, to help us break from the hold of excessive identification that makes us a slave to externally generated emotions.
He definitely revels in the power a filmmaker has over the emotions of his audience. But he also reveals a desire to wake us from the trance of media enslavement. Lynch may have wanted us to care for the victim of violence in “Twin Peaks”, to show how one murder affected so many people in a small town. However, people do not usually become desensitized to violence because they don’t care, but because they already care so much that they become burnt out by the onslaught of news media telling them the daily tragedy they are supposed to care about.
People are often attracted to TV violence because they want to be able to watch the violent drama that is life, without feeling like they are personally involved or even in danger. What good comedic violence may do is show them how to not care, that is, how to detach from suffering without being blind to it. If this can be done right, it can be enlightening; it can, in a sense, build a higher kind of sympathy.
In Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” he says:
“Up to the present man has hardly cultivated sympathy at all. He has merely sympathy with pain, and sympathy with pain is not the highest form of sympathy. All sympathy is fine, but sympathy with suffering is the least fine mode. It is tainted with egotism. It is apt to become morbid. There is in it a certain element of terror for our own safety. We become afraid that we ourselves might be as the leper or as the blind, and that no man would have care of us. It is curiously limiting, too. One should sympathise with the entirety of life, not with life’s sores and maladies merely, but with life’s joy and beauty and energy and health and freedom.(Wilde1891)
Whereas David Lynch seems to think that technology and media create an imbalance in darkness and light by allowing a great evil into the world, Tarantino seems to celebrate art and media’s ability to make us see the violence of the world and its power to help us transcend it—to identify with, and then to subsequently sacrifice identification with, the tragic drama of the world and the suffering that comes from it.
For Tarantino, this may take a crude form, and his gestures towards identification only go so deep, but he seems to be reaching for something beyond the shallow play of forms. In much of ancient Indian mythology, for example, the world is painted as essentially a play. Its stories may help us approach not a numbness or insensitivity to suffering (as is often confused with a transcendence of suffering), not a lack of sympathy for or identification with those suffering, but an expansion of empathy—an expansion that transcends not just an exclusive identification into a pity for both sides of a conflict, as simple tragedy does, but transcends identification itself into the equanimity of an understanding of purpose and necessity.
In “The Bhagavad Gita”, Arjuna learns from Krishna neither to avoid the violence inherent in life (especially life lived in the current late-age, the so-called Kali Yuga, a 432,000 year period, usually dated to begin around the time of the story), nor is he to fall for the illusion that violence really ends or radically changes anything.
While comedic violence is often shallow and desensitizing, comedy that successfully integrates tragedy is not tragedy’s opposite. That is, it does not merely create psychological distance by negating the production of empathy that is tragedy’s highest power, but fulfils both movements in a mature embrace of the “soulful” tragic detail and the comedic release of “spiritual” expansion.
In “Once Upon A Time” one can see the impulse for integration. One certainly sees the tragedy of limitations—the loss of talent to age, the loss of friendship to changing circumstances, and the tainting of freedom and love with the realities of vice and violence. But rather than wallow in pity or blame, the protagonists, and ultimately the film, find the good in their lot, and negate the bad so violently that we cannot help but laugh.
Laughing at violence can seem like a guilty pleasure, but physical comedy works because we have an innate desire to make light of suffering and death, to see that death is not a negation of life or an ultimate negation of anything, but perhaps indeed a symbolic act of transformation. Though there is no shortage of dangers along this slippery slope of disidentification from suffering—critics have linked Eastern spirituality’s popularity among Fascist Japanese and Nazi warrior culture to Eastern teachings of detachment, and the way those skills of disidentification were taught to soldiers to ease their conscience and trauma during war.
But just as a mere negation and avoidance of attachment is a shallow misappropriation of spiritual discipline, so the relegation of comedy to low-stakes drama, or to the process of “othering” someone through ridicule, are also shallow misunderstandings of its value. Integrating the comedic and tragic, however, is no easy task. Key to every integration is understanding the role of sacrifice.
Integration is an often problematic concept and process precisely because too much of what is being integrated gets lost or sacrificed for the good of what is claimed to be the whole. Determining exactly how and what to negate in order to break out of the circle of reactive forces defined by opposition and struggle, is one of the most important questions modelled by narratives.
To achieve a kind of unity or cooperation, different kinds of philosophies and narratives use different strategies of negation. Many popular narratives and modes of argumentation use aggression or violence to defeat, cleanse or otherwise negate a foreign or evil element characterized as disturbing the true or good, or some kind of natural harmony. This could be called a melodramatic frame. Other models negate sacrifice itself, as tragic drama and cooperative “dialectic” approaches often advocate, in some sense promoting conflict as a means for transforming conflict into synthetic unity—or at least into some kind of empathic understanding, even if it is only in the audience, who is made to empathize with both sides of the conflict.
There is nothing wrong with conflict resolution, but when conflict is resolved, any further creative tension must come from another turn of the spiral, another new, but probably very similar conflict. Empathy is all well and good, but without some kind of transcendence, some kind of perspective beyond the binary logic that rules any and every opposition, something that can lead opposition into a more open field of possibilities, one learns nothing. One merely resigns oneself to the back and forth of conflict and surface resolution, duality and a compromised unity—basically a repetition that becomes a farce. As the genius philosopher of tragedy and dialectic, Georg W.F. Hegel said, “First as tragedy, then as farce.”
The mature creative mind can, however, with the consciousness of time proper to mature periods, do more than just be resigned to the farce of decaying forms. One can attain a new productive perspective on the old conflicts and turn a tragic farce into a new development. This is not inevitable; or at least, new developments may not arise directly without a new perspective or field to pick them up.
A new perspective—which may emerge from the farce of repetition, but is not an inevitable or direct result of any conflict or dialectic—can take sacrifice to a higher level and give conflict a new creative space with more productive coordinates. This necessitates a sacrifice of all previous values, not a sacrifice of sacrifice, but an integration that radically transforms the meaning of all previous elements as well as the nature of the conflict.
In “Once Upon A Time”, Tarantino seems to be trying to do something like this. His decision to have the murder of the Manson killers themselves replace the murder of Tate in the world of his films, is a symbolic act of sacrifice. The original event, a symbol of 60s American cultural decay, is transformed through film into a different symbol, a sign of what might have been.
The murders now, in the film version, ostensibly connect old and young Hollywood, and therefore, conceivably, through the influence of Hollywood on the rest of the world, heal the bad blood between the youth culture and the conservatives in the society at large. This was something that was difficult to imagine after the dark side of countercultural freedom and LSD became so evident by the end of the 60s.
The movie turns real violence into artistic violence, and turns a real tragedy into a fictional meta-comedy. One could certainly argue that while this transformation may not exactly trivialize or glorify violence, it still celebrates it. We are made to laugh at the supposed necessity of brutal violence, and celebrate its power to resolve conflict and affirm cleansing violence as a symbol of character transformation. Despite this shift into the symbolic and comedic point of view, cleansing violence is difficult not to see as a dangerous melodramatic framing of conflict resolution. But is there value in depicting violence as a symbol of character transformation?
In ancient mystery traditions, the symbolic and psychological interpretation of myth was often ritualized to perform a shift in consciousness, as the adept was taught to see in violent sacrifice, even the cleansing, melodramatic violence of a hero’s conquest, a symbol of their own transformation of suffering, and a sacrifice of their immature self. Whether one was subjected to the death of the hero or the villain, or to the physical pain of ritual violence, the point was to experience the whole drama of identification and transcendence—to understand all suffering as tragic, and all tragedy as meaningful and purposeful. To the properly sensitized person, all death is tragedy, even the necessary death of a necessary evil.
But in late-stage social conflict, what once might have been seen as tragedy, upon continual repetition, can’t help but seem like obvious farce. People can become jaded and numb to suffering, as cynical distance and insensitivity become commonplace; at this point, any simple negative symbol of transformation is unlikely to have an effect.
There is no larger coherent whole, or communal meaning to sacrifice the ego to, no model of maturity that needs only a symbolic sacrifice or right-of-passage to invoke. At this point, we need a model of integration and individuation—not just a model of identity and its passage through to a greater whole, but a model of difference and a guide through the contingent and relative.
The whole concept of mystical non-attachment to suffering becomes insufficient in mature societies, as the complexity of interdependence demands a more constructive and relational concept of transformation than simple individual liberation from fixed identity. As society develops a complex apparatus of culture and media, this symbolic order complicates the easy empathy of shared identity; relations become very “mediated”.
People are likely to have a difficult time making attachments in the first place—their relations already heavily laden with emotional distance. The sacrificial passage from the natural into the symbolic order, or from a world of objects and fixed identities into a world of relational meaning, is no longer a sacred step from familial attachment into a divine comedy, into a play of oneness in diversity; not likely is the passage to maturity now ever much of an expansion of identity at all, but a traumatic reduction (or castration as they say in psychoanalysis) from a fragmented whole to a fractured self.
But in the fractured spaces of late-stage cynical society and desensitizing media, can media itself become a power to reconnect us to empathy? Probably not in the way David Lynch had hoped for with “Twin Peaks”; probably not without embracing and redirecting our mature capacity for mediation, for directing our empathic emotions with the power of individual thought. Lynch thinks we need to see the darkness as a way of teaching us to appreciate the light. But his vision of balance is consistent with his traditional metaphysics: there can be no integration because the two poles are pure essences—white and black, good and evil, cheesy light-hearted comedy and violent tragedy, wholesome community and the demoralizing effect of mass civilization, with its corrupting medium, the electric “fire” of contemporary media.
Tarantino, on the other hand, may lose all morality in his postmodern relativizing of all values, but he intuits on a gut level the power of symbols and media not only to direct or even manipulate emotions, but to make people aware of that manipulation. Might this not be a better road to integration? For if we merely empathize with whatever is in front of us in an exclusive way, we can never understand the roots of our social problems. This was Oscar Wilde’s point, here again from the same essay:
“The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism…The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence;…it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”
We also are much more easily manipulated by those who might want to take advantage of our natural sympathy for political reasons. So while meta and postmodern art and media may often degenerate into recursive self-reference, the greatest power of media in this age is in its ability to help us create our own sympathies through critical reflection—not just be ironically aware of the artifice and social construction of narrative, but conscious of the possibilities, for good and for ill, as well as the metaphysical necessity, of symbolic mediation.
Our late-stage culture of mass civilization is not just a fall, as many conservatives seem to think, nor is it just a darkness that can make us appreciate the primordial good, as Lynch seems to be saying. Like all late-stage processes, it invites us to become conscious of what lies behind and beyond every idea, narrative, or world, in a realization that the origin and purpose of everything is infinite—lying always beyond, in other stories and cycles of time. There is no ground, but the ground we make through conscious integration.
It is true, the symbolic energy of “fire”, of passion and individuation, can temporarily negate the “water” of empathic unifying emotions; it is also true that it can help balance them. But they are not primordial substances or moral qualities of good or evil. They are relational metaphors. There is no primordial ground to balance on. The ground is the processes we always already find ourselves within, and they are always changing. We need the expansive space of contexts that surround any situation as the environmental “air” of meaning: we need external ideas, the chance encounters of life blowing through the winds of change to contrast with any given context, and feed the fire of individuation.
The alchemical and “tantric” marriage or fusion of elements is not about balance or a stoic control of emotions. (Though this helps as a beginning. For instance one can see the various signs and archetypes of astrology as all based on a 12-stage cycle of basic principles of process.The 7th stage or house, Libra, is symbolized by scales, and begins the second half of the cycle with a process or person coming into balance with an “other” or the environment. The 7th house comes out of the 6th principle, which routinizes a form-language, and leads to a deeper fusion of energies in the 8th principle, before opening up to greater contexts in the final stages).
So one does not merely “accept what is necessary”, according to Nietzsche, who disliked any kind of stoicism, “but love it”. And we only love what we understand, and only understand what we truly love. That is why philosophy is the love of wisdom, of the truth of why things are the way they are. Only when we know why something is the way it is, can we truly love it, understand it, and help it become something more.
Simple empathy won’t do. We need the integration of tragedy and comedy, of empathy and individuation. We can’t fight the mocking laughter of the “Twin Peaks” demon Bob, or the quintessential villain of our age, the “Joker”, with a return to simple empathic resonance. The demon of mocking laughter is after all a defense mechanism to feeling too much. It is an aborted attempt to reach the higher comedy and consciousness that can empathize without fear of suffering, and without the anger and eventual burn-out that results from it in contemporary society.
In the 2019 film “Joker” this is thematized in interesting ways. In this film the protagonist can’t help but laugh even when he is suffering badly. The whole world in his eyes has become cynical and empty of compassion. He laughs as a defense mechanism, and as a subconscious attempt to make the world less miserable through humor, as his Mother had pressured him to do. But his laughter only works to empower him once he transforms it from a passive defense against suffering and an expression of his mother’s deluded image of reality, to a violent offense against his father figures and the social order.
As long as he is still unindividuated from his mother and from simple empathic resonance with a sick society, he cannot get any external perspective on himself or other people. He can’t make a joke or connect with people outside the fantasy world of his conditioned imagery and worldview. Eventually, he weds laughter to violence and succeeds in breaking through his conditioned and passive empathy, in a kind of pseudo-transcendence and individuation from his mother.
By embracing violence, he is finally able to escape the womb of her illusions that sheltered him but gave him no real protection, let alone power. He is finally able make a joke, to cease being a passive victim of the world and illuminate its absurd hypocrisy. Yet, we do not celebrate his transformation, nor do we identify with him. In fact his disidentification process does not become true individuation. He merely achieves an insane detachment. His power and revolution against the social order are aimless and destructive.
Like the Joker says of himself in “The Dark Knight”, he is like a dog chasing his tail, that wouldn’t know what to do with it if he caught it. In fact, as is common with traumatized detachment, he does not escape his mother’s will at all. He still continues her injunction to try and make people laugh, but he adds to this the actual power of comedic violence, which he learns as he realizes he is the butt of his father figure’s joke. In a powerful and disturbing scene where he murders his mother, he utters this line: “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize: its a fucking comedy”.
In psychoanalytic theory, the Mother is often associated with immature unconscious identification itself, which is consequently associated with the imaginary realm of myth and image, a realm that is violently rent by the cut introduced by the Father’s “symbolic order”. It has been variably said that life is a tragedy to those who feel and comedy to those who think. The Joker character’s shift to the father’s symbolic order through a literal sacrifice of the mother is a violent representation of how wrong the impulse to differentiate can go. Instead of symbolically sacrificing his unconscious attachment to his parents, he takes this impulse literally. He cannot “abstract” through the symbolic order; he must make the cut concretely, with actual violence.
He does not succeed in killing the man he thinks might be his father. But his true father figure, his role model in comedy, becomes his essential victim in the father’s symbolic order. He achieves the “killing joke”, the power to transcend circumstances and render them a farce, by integrating his mother’s power of illusion and his father figure’s comedic violence. But the Joker is merely a farce himself, a parody of the critical distance that comes through independent thought, through creative power in the symbolic order of meaning, through the kind of personal individuation that can relate as well as create.
This may seem like reading too much into some rather simple films, but making the most out of our art and our lot is precisely what is needed for any real change to happen. Constructive critique and creative extrapolation is the mature and sustainable form of negation. We try to get around the inherent violence and sacrifice of personal freedom that is inevitable in complex society, by appealing to democratic ideals and a sanitization of violence. We are mesmerized by the allure of generic platitudes and cartoon enemies that distract us from understanding each other and the system we are creating with our conflict.
The creative form of sacrifice affirms comedy and critique, done not with the reactive mind that wants to and believes it can destroy anything, but the creative mind that has absorbed the tragic lessons of time and experience, and thereby attained an understanding of limitations and the hubris of abstract ideals. The creative mind is motivated by this to sacrifice reactive forces not by destroying them or negating them absolutely, but by making them capable of a more productive arrangement—that is, capable of open-system integration.
It also may seem as if the violence in these films are didactically siding with one side of our cultural conflict, or otherwise not offering any new insights. But again, a more productive reading is possible. In “Once Upon a Time”, for instance, if there is any line to be drawn in the film between sides of a cultural war, it isn’t square vs. hip, or old vs. young or new. The “devil’s business” of the Manson family that the film sets up as the excuse for the heroes to violently negate their own pity and blame, is not portrayed as an evil, but as a pitiful joke. We see the Mansons commit little violence; on the contrary they are portrayed as too weak to even go through with the murders. But they are not merely ridiculed. They are clearly symbols.
We are not so much compelled to celebrate their defeat, but neither do we merely laugh at them as a satire of a completely foreign and rejected element. Instead we laugh at the violent transformation of what they represent: the dark side of youthful idealism itself, the idealism that turns from active to weak and reactive when it confronts the truth of its limitations. Or perhaps, as the Nietzsche quote also points out, idealism is always insincere in the face of what is necessary, so limitation only brings out what was incipient in youthful idealism all along—ambition becomes resentment when limits are realized. The Manson murderers are used by Tarantino as symbols of the immature clinging to regret and resentment that the protagonists themselves are struggling to overcome.
When youth reaches its moment of reckoning, when it should become mature in the face of its limitations, but instead turns to pity and blame, it is, in effect, failing to find freedom in the creative, failing to rise above the cyclical patterns of reaction, and into the intricate and immortal pastiche that Valery is attempting to describe in the quote above.
Idealism that cannot adjust to circumstances and context is not so much a problem in youth, when passion thrives more on the thrill of the chase, than it does on the sustainability of its objects; or in youthful cultures when the dialectic between sides of a conflict still thrives off of extreme transitions and violent oppositions. But sooner or later passion becomes pathetic; it becomes a violent reaction to its impotence if it cannot adjust itself to the divine violence of creativity.
The violence of the reactive person becomes most obvious and literal when they believe they can affect meaningful change with physical violence. The Manson killers choose the film’s male protagonists as their target in the film’s climax, because the cowboy actors symbolized the paternal generation that the Mansons claim taught them violence through screen media. Tarantino’s Mansons think they can strike a blow to the paternal order and all its violence by killing one of its cultural symbols. But that is the fallacy of all immature passion: that power over an object or person is the same as power in the creative and symbolic order of meaning.
True power isn’t wrested from the phallus of the father or the old order through direct struggle, just as true love isn’t gained through conquest or possession, even if the struggle between opposites may be the womb from which love and new life emerge. Passion needs to be transformed into compassion, which Joseph Campbell used to say was the core of every hero’s journey.
Compassion, though, isn’t simply about taming the wildness of youth into acceptance of reality and otherness. To return to the Nietzsche quote, he says that “we must not want things to be different”, but he does not ask us to merely accept, but to love what is necessary. What does he mean? What exactly is “necessary” to the philosopher of radical contingency and the “ubermensch” as creator of truth?
Well, in a word, everything. That is, everything that already exists must first be accepted and understood as necessary for reasons that are never complete or comprehensive. If one tries to negate something that already exists without understanding, redirecting or redefining the reasons it exists, one does not negate the force it is an expression of. One may kill or punish someone that represents or embodies a larger order, but the idea will live on and find new form or expression. To change the greater order one must create that new expression. To really overturn the force or idea, one must make that new form or expression, a real creative advancement.
The mature symbolic violence of effective creation does not, like propaganda or political art, merely persuade us over to one side of a conflict while negating the other; it creates new points of view to replace and re-embody the old. By recognizing that all things have a purpose and place, it “sacrifices” the futile crusade of trying to change how things are, or of becoming an absolute origin or cause of anything (or absolute destroyer of anything). One must “not want things to be different” because one cannot make things different; one can only make (a) difference.
The key difference being a recognition that the struggle to be someone, to change things, to attain an identity in the world as it is, is a youthful and often violent folly. As Marshall Macluhan would say, “all forms of violence are a search for identity”. We get lost in the fight for recognition—in the struggle over appearances, over which organizational form is best, which party or team wins the race—because we have not yet realized the higher art and violence that can “negate” all established values into a new expansive becoming.
Derrida said, “Form fascinates, when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” In youth we long to be at the center of power and struggle to seize that power, imagining it can be obtained with the right position in the structure or the right structure that fits our values.
But power exists in everything, and we only surrender that power as we are mesmerized by the forms that fascinate and seduce us into wanting things to be different. We make them different, without the projection of restless desire, by breaking the hold things have over us, by no longer struggling over the form as it is, but by understanding that the world is actively being constituted by us all.
This should not lead to a ruthless disregard for the environments and circumstances that condition all of us in different ways, but to an appreciation for the myriad ways that conditions (and not just the sociologist’s concern with impoverished material conditions), can best be improved through building on the right conditions and creating new ones, not through the brute forcing of surface changes in circumstance.
Transforming physical violence into the symbolic violence of persuasion and propaganda is insufficient because even if one changes the world temporarily through aggressive persuasion, sooner or later a better argument will come along and mesmerize along different lines. The highest symbolic violence sacrifices all striving for predetermined ends or any kind of determination by established values and objectives; it necessitates a vision(ary) that both possesses and is possesed by the hidden ideas and potentials in things, with the power to take them further, to a new stage of development where the old conflicts no longer make sense.
Thus Krishna compels Arjuna to “renounce the fruits” of his actions—to go forward and slay what he needs to slay, but to not be deluded that he can destroy anything by negating an outward form; he must align his will with a divine vision that transcends any one goal or end, that links every seeming act of negation with a higher affirmation.
Tarantino is no ideal visionary, but “Once Upon a Time” does explore symbolic violence in somewhat paradoxical and interesting ways. The film does come down very violently against pity on the side of a mature, perhaps “manly” self-consciousness, that knows its limitations and affirms them in creative self-determination. In this regard, one can see some kind of groping towards the ancient and classical ideal of manly virtue that Nietzsche so respected.
This may seem like a stretch, given that the film is, on the most basic level, a revenge fantasy that rewrites history to save us from the grim reality of what became of the countercultural revolution. But this is one of the most “meta” films from one of the most “meta” filmmakers. Tarrantino may not achieve greatness, but his self-conscious efforts to attain it within the confines of so many levels of late-stage processes compel some further comments. For instance, he has suggested that he wants to retire while his films are still good, and this concern with legacy and declining potency saturates the film.
While the young and flawless Sharon Tate is portrayed as being at the height of her brilliance, with little self-consciousness beyond her awareness of and delight in herself as a celebrity icon, our aging male protagonists ponder their waning powers. But they do not run from self-critique into bitterness and blame; they do not fall for the hippie seduction, as it is framed by the film. Youth is pure and beautiful but it can hide a darkness that is just around the corner. In the Sharon Tate of the film, we see Tarantino’s vision of the ideal youth: unlike the Manson youth and their version of idealism, portrayed as mired in squalor and blame, Tate represents a youth made immortal by and through art.
With his early introduction of the Manson family and Polanskis into the film, anyone that knows the history, knows where this is going more or less, with allowances for a Tarrantino twist. We know it’s going to get dark, but we don’t know when. And he plays with that expectation, naturally. At one point we are led to wonder if the old man who was central to the old Hollywood the protagonists remember, has been murdered by the young hippies, only to find out, no, he has let himself be seduced, and is willingly wallowing in a dirty darkness that nonetheless muddles any clear concept of freedom. At least that is how we are led to see it through Tarrantino’s camera and our protagonist’s eyes: we wonder if the hippie version of freedom is not really a dangerous seduction.
But the male protagonists are by no means morally hardened conservative masculinists; they seem to be trying to integrate with the creative side of the counterculture. It might be more accurate to read the central conflict of the film to be between the reactive and creative elements of culture itself, rather than any strict liberal/conservative divide. To read that divide politically, one may say that the creative element tends to shy away from political power, since party-politics is difficult not to frame as a battle of reactive forces.
Not that these lines are clear. In the 60s culture there was definitely only a blurry line between those intent on changing the world through politics (a literal “counter”culture), and those doing it through art and the expansion of consciousness (creating an “alternative” culture). But there was a difference nonetheless. Is Tarantino siding against the politically-correct Left and its roots in the reactive remnants of the 60s counterculture? The film seems to suggest this.
Media scholar Gregory Desilet has argued that though Tarrantino’s films often lack the clear lines of good vs. evil as you usually get in traditional melodrama, they still self-consciously exploit our desire for cathartic violence(Desilet 2005). Sometimes this is done for comedic effect, for shock value, often using quick unexpected shifts in tone to extreme violence. It could be argued though, that Tarantino often shows both the humanity and inhumanity of a character before he exposes us to the cleansing violence that both satiates our desire for revenge against evil people, and exposes that desire as gratuitous.
His film “Inglourious Basterds”, one could read, as a metacommentary on how dramatic violence is used by film itself to shape consciousness. With the subject matter of Nazi propaganda and its structure as a revenge film about Jews killing Nazis and changing history in a film theater—the very venue where one could argue they have indeed gotten their revenge— he seemed to be discovering that higher possibility of meta-media forging consciousness of our “mediated” reality. Unfortunately, in some of his films, Tarrantino’s use of violence to manipulate and titillate audience emotion dominates. It is obvious that he loves violence sometimes more than he loves films.
Though in “Once Upon a Time”, he seems to be again pondering, just to what end that violence functions. Are his critics right? Should he be more conscious of the subtle messaging of the violence in his films, as opposed to his usual naive excuse that the violence is just entertainment? Or is their critique just another form of violence? Is it a symbolic violence against his art—an idealism gone wrong, an idealism that can spawn its own kind of real-world violence, as it does in the world of his film? The film seems to suggest this as well, and though this may have been just a cheap shot as his critics, not worthy of a discussion of high art, it reflects important points of contention in our culture.
At the film’s conclusion, we may even wonder what the new timeline has in store for us. Will Polanski, representing the new Hollywood, make friends with conservatives? Will he avoid his fate of falling into moral depravity with an underrage girl—thereby symbolizing a wholesome integration of young and old, conservative and liberal, unlike the slide into divisive moralism and identity politics that we have witnessed, and that Tarantino no doubt had in mind while making this film? Is this melodramatic wish fulfilment, or a violent symbol? A thinly guised critique of his critics, or a call to forge a new path for our culture and its art? Perhaps both.
Like many myths and propaganda, violence is used to solidify one side of a conflict over another, but the side denigrated here as in “Inglorious Bastards”, isn’t so much a clear external evil as it is a self-conscious constructed scapegoat. “Inglorious Bastards” suggests how we have used Hollywood to create the culture of the post-war world, with the Nazis as the scapegoat, the evil spectre of fascism that we fight to keep at bay.
“Once Upon a Time” could be read as a rewriting of the way that the new Hollywood of the 70s helped forge a path of compromise between conflicting values at war in the 60s (by creating a more libertarian culture). In Tarrantino’s version, maybe that compromise would be more of an alliance of creatives, rather than the narrowly liberal compromise that fractured the political landscape into extreme identity politics.
One can’t help but read contemporary cultural politics and explicit messaging into the film’s finale. After a career of revelling in film and violent scapegoating’s power to shape culture, he seems to be using it more consciously. In Tarantino’s defense, though the violence in his films is gratuitous, it generally serves to make us laugh at the whole spectacle, not hate the people being sacrificed (whether they be Nazis or hippies).
In late-stage culture, the old propaganda techniques don’t work as well. Traditional hero stories, though they often served to prop up the identity of a people and support its violent coherence, they also, as discussed previously, served a more subtle psychological end for those attuned to their deeper meaning.
But in late-stage art this subtle meaning can get layered explicitly into the narrative itself. When the old myths are no longer working, when culture becomes more cosmopolitan, its myths often express social conflict no longer defined by clear boundary-acts against a completely foreign other, but a conflict within the individual (or within an individual forced to violently enforce a boundary that cuts right through his family and society, as Arjuna must do in the Gita).
One could argue that in cosmopolitan cultures, narrative violence often notably shifts to a tragic mode that does not affirm the violence as necessary, as heroic myth so often does, but mourns it, perhaps since people are more concerned at this point with everyone getting along, than they are with drumming the masses up for war or creating a culture-defining myth.
Though as rational individualism matures, stories also arise where the psychological dimensions of the hero’s conflict are not narrowly conceived as a sacrifice of the one to the other, or the individual to the whole, but of all literal and predetermined meaning itself. This is not radically different from the mystic reading into myths a higher spiritual and psychological allegory.
But in late-stage stories we can sometimes see this hidden meaning more explicitly thematized, where even the evolution of myth is itself enacted. Mature-era storytellers are capable of layering ideas at meta-levels, creating moral complexity without becoming merely ambiguous, or simply tragic and morally prohibitive or prescriptive. There is explicit narrative tension not just between characters but between levels of meaning.
In Scorcese’s film “Silence”, for instance, we can see the myth of Christ’s sacrifice transformed from the tale of a martyr, where the mystic protagonist, Jesus, willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good, to the story of a missionary priest who has to sacrifice the glory of missionary conversion and the vanity of martyrdom itself for the greater good.
But this greater good isn’t clear from the point of view of traditional Christianity. The priest protagonist has to surrender an attachment to the literal model of Christ, has to actually renounce it, in order to achieve the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice. To achieve the spirit of the ideal, he must learn to let go of its literalism. He is forced by the complexities of multicultural conflict, to make a more subtle sacrifice and evolve the myth itself.
Similarly, in the fascinating final season of the series entitled “The Leftovers”, the protagonist must sacrifice not just his pride but his central and seemingly holy role in a heroic myth that brings some kind of meaning to people longing for it in desperate times. By doing so many people suffer the pain of no longer having a higher meaning for their lives; but by doing so, he and others are forced to create meaning for themselves that, though it robs them of heroic glory and dependable meaning, nonetheless makes them all heroes in the more subtle art of connecting with each other.
In classic tragedy, even when the characters fail to find solutions, there do arise new lessons and guidelines, even if they are not spelled out or rationalized. But as the rational itself has evolved, it has become necessary for it to combine with myth and metaphor, not merely being a parasitic supplement to the truly creative. The myth and the image need not be negated or sterilized by the conceptual/symbolic order that various theories have proclaimed as the inevitable process of development.
For instance, one could argue that unlike “Joker”, the classic film “Apocalypse Now” uses violence to dramatize a successful individuation process. The hero Willard, played by Martin Sheen, sacrifices Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, not with his gun, a symbol of his social order, but with a machete (which is intercut with a scene of a ritual bull sacrifice)(Ebert 2015). With this sacrifice, he is not siding with the social order against an out-of-control primal order of nature, but integrating the cultural and natural orders in his own individuation process, which sees the excess of both orders and redefines them in himself.
Sacrifice need not be framed as a complete repression or annihilation of any side, as it is in melodrama, nor a reactive and reductive attempt at integration, as in “Joker”, nor as a simple curbing of excess—but rather, a process of transvaluation that does not cut off the extremes of opposition into some neutral or neutered compromise, but redirects both orders to the ends of the individuated person.
This individuated person no longer serves any order, or any confused blend of the natural and symbolic orders, but perhaps, an order created by his will. Unlike the ego-hero of some traditional myths, however, his will does not serve his mythical ego-image, nor his symbolic social obligations, but becomes a creator that can guide both orders. This creative order of freedom is always at work in the two earlier stages of production.
In the first order we have simple asexual reproduction dominating: consumption, replication and the repetition of the one at the expense of the other. Though even there, in the drama of one over another, the outer form of domination belies the higher orders, whereby the dominated infects and undermines the dominant, and evolution creeps in through the gap introduced by time, and the symbolic drift that always accompanies it.
In the second level, we have sexual reproduction and a social order becoming more dominant: dilactic emerging explicitly, and the drama of the one and other producing novelty through subjection to the relation. And here the child of duality also brings in a novel creative element: a new force not present in the parents, nor derived directly from them.
This element emerging from the relation of the opposed terms becomes explicit in a kind of third level—when the sacrifice is no longer of one to the other, as in the first level, or both one and other to the quasi-transcendent child of duality, as in the second, or “dialectical” level, but rather a sacrifice of the illusion of complete negation (or transcendence) itself, to a vision of the continuity of relations behind every oppositional abyss.
At this third “immanent” or “tantric” level, the gap introduced by time and the symbolic order is brought into phase with the continuity of the creative. Conflict is not resolved but transformed and relayed into new possibilities that are sustainable and productive of new creative differences. Difference is not resolved into unity, conflict not sacrificed into peace, but sustained and cultivated. Sacrifice is only of the differences that least contribute to further creative differentiation, only of forms that cannot adapt to the evolution of the creative element they only contingently express.
The fact that this creative level is seldom achieved (or recognized and made explicit, since it is always functioning more or less implicitly), and development often proceeds as a kind of subjection of early stages to later stages, may just account for the difficulty we have achieving maturity (whether psychological or social).
In “Apocalypse Now”, Kurtz was part of the paternal social order, and highly placed within it. He reverts to primal barbarism when he sees civilization’s absurdities and hypocrisies. But he becomes a caricature of both orders as he deploys savage barbarism to secure the ends of the military’s “civilized” barbarism. He unrepresses the savagary but does not eschew the trappings of identity and purpose that the civilized order of the military have defined for him. He remains “Colonel” Kurtz and keeps on killing enemies of the military, even if he is no longer taking direct orders. Willard, on the other hand, uses his social role and his savage instinct to bring order to the land, as a true sovereign and higher-man should.
Our attempts at civilizing violence and the libido so often necessitate the return of the repressed because the social order cannot, by itself change anything—only recode, stifle, and well…repress. As a function of the creative, however, a symbolic order of relations can connect a natural order to an order that can transform every death into a new and more sustainable life.
Willard’s sacrifice of Kurtz is not an annihilation of an evil other, which never really works—nothing can ever really be destroyed—but a symbolic assimilation and transformation. Willard assimilates Kurtz , but does not repeat his errors. He does not take his place as a power-seeking king. Both the jungle (the natural order) and the military (the social order) wanted Kurtz dead, but Willard kills him to bring balance to both orders and become liberated from both.
Willard is not killing the symbol of any order or forcing the defeat of any principle. Kurtz wants Willard to kill him; he knows he has gone too far, that he has lost touch with his humanity. But he also wants Willard to individuate, to cease being an “errand boy” for the military, and perhaps, integrate and redefine both orders in himself in a way Kurtz was unable to do.
The journey the film chronicles has changed Willard and potentially us as well. We have traveled with him and his crew, tragically mourning every death. With them we have regressed backwards along the evolutionary flow of time as we travel up the river of life, shedding along the way each of the elemental principles the crew members represent: first the young boy“Clean”(air), then the Chief(earth), then Chef(fire),until only Lance, the surfer, remains with our proxy Willard, as we face Kurtz, the ruler over the primordial waters of the dark abyss(Ebert 2015).
But with Willard we are able to learn from tragedy, to not just be resigned to the cycle of myth and suffering, and to the exclusive oppositions that Dennis Hopper’s journalist character calls “dialectic logic”. In contrast to what Hopper says about emotions being mutually exclusive— “you either love someone or you hate them”—Willard does not love or hate Kurtz. He indeed empathizes with him. But after taking the watery-empathic element to the primordial depths, we see in Kurtz that we are left with only “the horror” of infinite suffering that is the struggle of life.
Kurtz is a “hollow man”, as he admits in reading the T.S. Eliot poem. His devotion to pure principle, to ruthless efficiency, to either/or logic, to no “maybes”, as Hopper says trying to interpret his master’s “genius”, has led him to lack the very clarity of will he admired in his enemies. He had wanted to be like them, to kill “without judgment”.
But such a thing is of the natural order. That kind of instinctual mode no longer works in the individualizing processes of the symbolic order, where the desire for a pure truth and a pure will without judgment—without even evaluation—becomes a desire for death, a desire to forgo individuation and merge again with the primordial natural order. The impulse to transcendence, if it is not to become regressive, must seek the later stages of maturity, where purity and universality are achieved through harmony and creative improvisation.
After seeing that Kurt’s desire for “real freedom”, as he calls it, had become a desire for absolute freedom—basically death—Willard, and perhaps we along with him, can see the limitations of all pure elements, characters, and principles. We see not only that pure principles are empty, but that the integration and proper application of principles or elements requires something beyond them to lend them value.
At the beginning of the film, Willard had felt lost without some external order telling him what to do. After his long journey, passing through the underworld, Willard emerges from the abyss with a will of his own, a will no longer enmeshed within any one principle or order, but one informed by their relationships and capable of creation.
The natural order and the mythic imagery we create to understand it are not transcended with rational thought, only complexified and disguised. But when image, symbol, and language are not merely mediating and complicating the system that governs us, but expansively integrated, they may serve as vessels to greater contexts and freedom.
When done right, we don’t only empathize in mythic resonance, nor do we sacrifice empathy and mythic imagery into a mediated and socialized individuality in the symbolic order of language. If those are our choices, it is no wonder we have so much trouble integrating comedy and tragedy without devolving into melodrama. In an integrative expansion, all elements are transformed and relayed into new associations, not just combined—we don’t simply cry with and laugh at suffering, we feel and understand.
“Because politics is the science of the possible, it appeals only to second-rate minds. The first-raters are only interested in the impossible.” -Arthur C. Clarke
“The worst thing we can do is to force people to agree with us. I mean that we shouldn’t try to impose our will when people don’t behave the way we want them to. The worst thing one can do is to confront human beings bluntly. A warrior proceeds strategically. If one wants to stop our fellow men one must always be outside the circle that presses them. That way one can always direct the pressure.”-Carlos Castaneda
The resolution of narrative conflict through violence could be considered an expression of our deepest instincts to defend a territory and solidify the identity of a community or individual, or as discussed, many levels of reality at once. In every act of creating coherence, a selection of perspectives, and therefore a sacrifice of the paths left behind, is required.
There is a dark side to every process of creation, though there are different ways of performing and framing the negation involved in this and every process(Desilet 2006). The more creative the process, the greater the symbolic violence—because of a greater transformation in established values. And as such, the process also becomes less dependent on outward form—on the violent drama of struggle over appearances.
Nonetheless, in ancient wisdom, the necessity of sacrifice was often mourned and consequently dramatized in classic tragedy, or sung in ancient vedic hymns. As rational individualism grew, the sacrifice often degenerated into empty ritual propping up authority, and into fixed metaphysical narratives that justified repression of the new and different. But this era (the so-called axial age), also saw the explosion all over the world of metaphysical narratives of liberation and individual salvation.
The 1960s also saw a reaction against the fixed narratives of Western culture, often echoing or pulling directly from the anti-authoritative mystical traditions of the early metaphysical age, similarly often emphasizing personal salvation and liberation against the backdrop of a corrupt world and society.
But just as the individualizing movements within early metaphysics became, or were co-opted by, the repressive religious movements of the majority, so did the 60’s own brand of American individualism meld with the mainstream in its mature formulation as neoliberal ideology and the general value climate of Western cultural capitalism and consumerism. Revolution, blame, progressive idealism…etc., all became important ideological support for the “liberation” of the individual within the confines of consumer Capitalism, and Capital itself from all moral restraint. The violence inherent in all change and liberation was seldom realized.
Born as it was out of the Greek fascination with the individual and with youth, Western culture owes much of its material and spiritual progress to a spirit of openness to the new. But with the worship of the new comes the vulnerability of the elders to the rage of Achilles. In the neoliberal revolution of the 1970s, an interesting compromise was reached between young and old, male and female, freedom and constraint, and we are now in the process of renegotiating that compromise, forged, as it was, in the aftermath of the cultural conflict of the 1960s.
So what did happen to the 1960s? How one answers that question says a lot about how they understand the political climate of our current era. Many people tend to look for scapegoats for the current state of the world and nation, no matter what side of the culture war they are on. Conservatives tend to trace continuities between the counterculture and today’s value climate, while left-liberals often see the 60’s accomplishments as a progressive flowering that was cut short, and which awaits further advancement.
While economic and political elites do their best to maintain and further their power and to co-opt any divergent populism into the mainstream choices of centrist political parties, populism on the Left and Right—and a conspiracy culture not always so easily categorized—continue to grow. Yet our society remains bitterly divided, even more so when populist rhetoric gets polarized politically, not just against elites, but against sides of a culture war. Each side seems to sometimes have entirely different meanings for the same words. Much of this revolves around many contradictory notions about freedom and community, capitalism and socialism.
But on a deeper level the political language masks a more metaphysical negotiation. For what is more at stake in this era—since any deep and lasting change in our political system for the better is dependent on it—is our understanding of freedom and its complicated history and meaning.
According to “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD”(Lee 1994), 1969 was a turning point in the counterculture for many reasons, but perhaps some of them, quite esoteric. The hippie acid chemists were in prison and into the gap in supply walked a mysterious man named Ronald Stark. With him was more LSD than the “Brotherhood of Eternal Love” (the hippie mafia then responsible for much of the 60’s distribution of LSD) had ever seen. The most famous of hippy chemists, Owsley Stanley, had believed that making LSD was an alchemical process, where the intention and energy during the production process drastically affected the mood and consciousness it provoked in its users.
The “Brotherhood” didn’t seem to care too much where Stark got his acid, and it was later revealed that he was working for numerous intelligence communities. Whatever the “energy” of his labs or the hidden intentions of this mysterious man might have been, it was widely reported that there was a different vibe in the counterculture, and in the drug that fueled it, after Stark took over much of the supply. Whatever the connections between MKultra and Charles Manson, and whatever the intentions of the intelligence community were with LSD and the counterculture, the results are difficult to deny: a great movement with powerful momentum lost its focus and credibility.
Whatever and whoever you blame for derailing the momentum, it is important to see that the “Brotherhood” made a crucial mistake that only served to express the overall naivety of the time. They supposedly assumed that anyone with that much acid had to have good intentions. Indeed Stark professed a desire to free the minds of everyone and change the world. And indeed acid does “free” the mind, if by “free” you understand the essential problematic of freedom, as American culture has always had a hard time doing. When the Manson family struck, it became a little less difficult.
Of course conservatives had long resented the kind of freedom flaunted by the counterculture. But that is besides the point: hippies weren’t just breaking from society, they were starting to radically change it. So by the 70s a more conservative libertarianism gained traction in the States, where freedom was treated even more vaguely and abstractly—abstracted away from any difficult questions or conflicts in collective values and community agreements.
As the dominant ideology became more ambiguous and abstract, and applied differently by a growing divide of political identities, the underlying agreements and rules of society became more concrete, solidifying a certain freedom for capital and, ostensibly, individuals, at the expense of freedom for community, that is, freedom to change it. This fast-tracked the process of techno-globalization that destroys all community but the business community and consumer culture.
Conservatives and hippies both lost their community-culture by falling for the illusion of an abstract freedom. While the reasons, no doubt, are complex, some powerful factors were conservative fear of social change, and the counterculture seduction into a drug-fueled pseudo-transcendence.
On some level this illusionary freedom probably seemed like a good compromise. People were becoming more tolerant of diversity, so culture continued to become more liberal, and people on both sides were becoming more wary of government, and conscious of the problems of socialism and its corruption by elites. Attaining the mutual understanding required to change the world without it being corrupted is hard, whereas everyone can get down with freedom.
The confusion and shifting of political coordinates opened up a way to the downfall of organized Labor, and a further reorganization of culture and politics along free-market lines. This liberalization of the economy helped set up conditions to swing the country and much of the world’s social structure away from any real revolutionary possibilities as the Left had traditionally conceived them. The shift from discussions of class to an emphasis on cultural politics, and a reduction of political ideas to mere ideological preferences—to mere adornment of identity— played right into the increasing divide in popular consciousness.
What is interesting to note here is that without a truly “alternative” culture, that is, without a culture challenging the status quo with an actually existing alternative worldview and way of life, politics becomes mere opposition, a mere “counter”culture. It becomes about obtaining something through struggle, something you want but do not have. Politics becomes more of an opinion and ideology than a negotiation of concrete relations.
In contrast to the multiplicity of relations in creative culture, which affect related cultures and values without needing to directly oppose anyone, abstract ideals necessitate an opposition that, when politicized, is easily caught up in a shadow-boxing match that goes nowhere. Hence the convenience of duality in party-politics. Even with the presence of real creative cultural difference, the duality of opposition reduces much of the nuance of multiplicity to the generic categories and dueling parties of tribal politics and team-cheerleading.
The contradictions inherent in this arrangement—between opinions, between how things are and how they are desired to be, and especially between how they are conceived to be and the reality of a situation—all necessitate a cyclical process that is hard-pressed to produce anything outside the circle. Such a culture defined by its oppositions and contradictions makes a difficult environment for creating new relations and ideas; too much energy is caught up in fighting abstract enemies to do the difficult work of growing ideal representations into concrete communities in dialog with all conditions and limitations.
With the increasing importance of new media after the turn of the millenium, however, came an important change in the politics of counterculture: a growing relevance of alternative research and conspiracy theory. By the end of the millennium, many of the popular ideas of the 60s counterculture were ultimately proving quite compatible with the liberal mainstream. Practices like yoga and the least challenging platitudes of civil rights, became integral support to the free flow of consumer goods and capital. The deeper theoretical ideas behind both the counter culture’s spirituality and its politics, however, went in different directions.
With much of the academic Left turning to cultural and identity politics, they lost any hope of winning over the support of the working class. All the while, alternative spiritualities expanded and hybridized, seeding an interest in the occult across the political spectrum. The internet especially helped some of this growing interest become politicized, naturally putting it in touch with the culture of conspiracy that has long overlapped with “occulture”. Gradually, a diversity of subcultures were pushed closer together on certain key political issues. Biopolitics especially has contributed to much of the new counterculture’s general metaphysical attitude of a kind of gnostic paranoia.
Both traditionally counterculture spirituality and traditional christian subcultures have become part of a broader global ecosystem of conspiracy-inflected populism. In some sense this convergence and its conspiracism is a product of the “othering” process of mainstream institutions. But as this othering process proceeds, it is easy to see why various peoples attracted to marginalized knowledge might be politicized along these lines, as types and sources of knowledge become more central to political debate.
One need not be a fascist, a racist, or unreasonably paranoid to find appealing a conspiratorial “truth” movement as an attractive substitute for a traditional political revolution. Consciousness revolution—seizing the means of knowledge, rather than the means of production—becomes the defining motivation of a new kind of political counterculture(Robertson pg. 207).
Granted, consciousness revolution had been central to the hippies, but the political component of the movement had been largely inspired by the secular-Left. Even the spirituality of the counterculture took a long time to develop an interest in the occult side of politics. Even as it did, a large portion of alternative spirituality remains perfectly compatible with the secular framework of mainstream liberalism.
But the new counterculture is larger than any one political orientation. What is clear is that unlike the secular-Left’s focus on material and political changes—or if when interested in cultural change, then only in a further liberalization of values—the new counterculture is motivated by an alternative way of seeing the world. Not to imply there is any unambiguous boundary between cultures, or any one worldview at work in such an amorphous movement of values.
But across the fields of culture, and running right through the middle of groups and even individuals, there is a growing consciousness of dissent around the authority of the secular priesthood and its religion of expert consensus. This often inspires an outright rejection of the technocratic ideals of liberalism, and an alternative vision finding an expression in many developments and oppositions.
The most relevant developments to early 21st century politics are the metaphysical alternatives to secular-liberalism—the various spiritual worldviews that are forced and framed through conflict and the resulting paranoia on all sides, into some semblance of coherence. They are pejoratively labeled crazy conspiracy theorists, science deniers, and other such terms indicative of real metaphysical conflict (complete with the accompanying requisite accusations of heresy by the dominant ideological faction).
While much of conspiracism and its diverse metaphysics, or “conspirituality”, can be easy to make fun of, any person looking to make large-scale connections and see some kind of big picture frame to global events might come off as a conspiracy theorist. They might even be willing to align with a politicized conspiracy worldview if it can offer a more honest picture of the mysteries of power.
Even if someone doesn’t “believe” wild conspiracy speculation, distrust in mainstream news and knowledge is so high that even a conspiracy author guessing wildly at the truth can seem like a more reasonable source of information than the manufactured lies of the establishment, or the timid analyses of rigorous intellectuals.
Conspiracists may speculate irresponsibly and often conflate structural forces with evil intent, but determining the truth out of the wilderness of speculation offers people a chance to participate in forming their own worldview, or at the very least, offers a chance to be a part of a culture in the making. The opposition between Left, center and Right liberals has revealed itself as more of a shallow ideological debate than any real difference in worldview or opportunity for change.
What is most unfortunate is that as this alternative to liberal-technocracy starts to develop, the political opposition is so extreme that the conflict starts to resemble, or can be made to resemble by either side, the struggle between liberalism and its last real challenger, fascism. Since the politics of ideology and opposition cannot handle any real alternative culture, it attacks and forces a political coherence on the parts of its rival, with both sides being forced into their most aggressive and reductive caricatures.
As opposition often does, it recreates past struggles, covering over any legitimately alternative truth and potential with the spectre of previous conflicts. Fear and opposition become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating the very thing that is resisted, both in itself and its rivals.
This process represses a whole “alternative” knowledge-culture, with nothing much in common but being on the wrong side of political power, and the common fact that such a position usually implies a devotion to a deeper truth than the prestige of institutional power. While parts of this knowledge-culture, especially the more political and paranoid are indeed getting co-opted by established conservative power blocs, the consciousness behind it—with its many fields, issues, and subcultures—develops alongside and through any political oppositions and the generic labels that feed into them.
One could say that the important cultural divide, whether the sides are directly opposing each other or not, is now more accurately framed as being between those that continue to trust secular authority, and those more “spiritually” inclined skeptics of “science”, traditional media, and technocratic society.
With the traditional media, academics and scientists losing credibility in the eyes of more and more people, and even institutional scientists being forced into alternative channels for any work that threatens establishment narratives, the liberal ideology of neutral democratic freedom and disinterested factual science has become more obviously revealed as a definite kind of culture: an exclusively technocratic and spiritually unfulfilling one.
The ideal of democracy, so long used as a propaganda tool, increasingly is questioned, not often in principle, but in the resignation of more and more people to the realities of power politics. The spectre of fascism indeed looms large, but to many on both sides of this debate, this is only seen in their opposition. It is enough for those not so easily persuaded by any large scale political movement to continue the “New Age” counterculture’s trend of forgoing electoral politics and putting naive hope or reasoned faith in the politics of consciousness.
And with the disappearance and repression of the last vestiges of investigative journalism, people are doing their own investigation. The idea that there are levels of reality and levels of politics far beyond any elected government is becoming quite common and reasonable. Peter Dale Scott’s term “Deep State” has become part of popular political discourse, and paranoia is becoming more rationally justifiable.
It is becoming difficult to believe there is a politics free from coercion and violence when it seems that the true powers that be are beyond all reproach, or even beyond comprehension. While many double down on the war against their chosen scapegoat, one hopes the violent shadow of all idealism may become visible to more of us.
The more we can recognize the complexity of power, the more we can shift our focus to the power that flows from all of us and the relations between us, then the more we may find a way beyond the violence of reactionary politics (on the Left or Right), and into a society where every individual’s power is given opportunities to grow—just as Marx originally envisioned communism, not as a negation of our tradition, but as a fulfilment and refinement of its “Enlightenment”.
This doesn’t have to be a sacrifice of some people’s freedom for the good of the whole, or as we say these days, the desires of the few to the democratic majority. If liberal democracy can’t evolve past a sanitized violence that pits us all against each other—and against the prevailing order in a way that always manages to further the ends of the establishment or keep things from changing in any fundamental way—then more explicit violence may become inevitable.
To prevent this chaos, political consciousness has to evolve through the tragic model, and out of the second level of production previously discussed. We all must first learn the lesson of suffering intrinsic to duality: we must not only learn to listen to the other side of any opposition, but to perspectives outside the opposition—to the limits, values, and contrasts that arise between different perspectives, as their consequences, histories, and analogical resonances, ramify into multiplicity.
Only then can we stop fighting over abstractions and their inevitable ambiguities and oppositions. Only then can we break through the circle of reactive forces. Outward form may evolve and every cycle may be part of a greater spiral, but every progressive spiral is only a progression in the opportunities for maturity, not a guaranteed expansion of possibilities.
Quite the contrary: it is the restriction of possibilities inherent to all aging that necessitates either an extrapolation and expansion into new fields or a return to another similar cycle. Every new cycle brings new opportunities to learn the cosmic and comic lesson that nothing really ends because all things are connected, and that the only way to change anything is through understanding those connections. The only way forward, the only way past is through—and with—what seems to be opposed.
As long as we are seduced by opposition and war (and as Foucault pointed out, long before war was described as politics by other means, it was also known to be the inverse: politics is war by other means), even if that war is against those made to seem the most dangerous and violent, even if war is marketed as the path to peace, even if war is framed as the scapegoat to be opposed, we are fated to oscillate and circle around the oppositional foci that define all closed cycles and limit the true fractal expansion of possibilities, or anything resembling the progress promised by the European Enlightenment.
The struggle for justice has its place; it can definitely win important reforms. To the extent that these reforms make a real difference is the extent to which struggle was only an outward realization of a new consciousness already created and integrated. To the extent that any battle is won only in form and not in consciousness—if the defeated element was humiliated and forced into a surface compliance—this creates a discontinuity and a cyclical return of the negated quality, confining the whole spiral of development to an inevitable trajectory.
The telos of history and its dialectic is not any idealized synthesis or overcoming of the negative, or any absolute fulfilment, but merely a return to—and hopefully a realization of—the relations behind our most basic assumptions, our abstractions and identifications, and their inevitable consequences and oppositions, which have captured and seduced a whole civilization’s striving.
The greater path of expansion, the strange “fractal” pattern, is at work throughout and within every seduction into the whirlpools of diversion that are the greater fractal pattern’s mere sideshow “attractors”. That is to say, we need not negate or transcend the struggle and power games. We will naturally grow out of them if we find the rhythm illuminating their role in the greater pattern that is always busy creating and reforming—using every destruction and every conflict to build new productive relations for value fulfilment.
Out of the three core values of the liberal Enlightenment, liberty has always been the easiest to grasp and the easiest to fake, as long as people don’t take the other two as seriously. But freedom is just another abstraction and outward form, defined by unconscious contexts that necessitate freedom’s opposite as long as those other two liberal values are not considered. By the time of the 1970s neoliberal revolution, a seductive mirage of freedom emerged more than ever before, but at the cost of equality and fraternity.
One could even say that the counterculture and the greater culture it transformed through Hollywood, sold its soul to cultural capitalism: sex and drugs were liberated (though drugs only through a circuitous route that kept funding for pharmaceutical companies and the CIA, and kept the unwanted burdened with prison), while equality and fraternity became inscribed within narrow cultural spheres and nominal rights to all.
We can now do whatever we want as long as we don’t seriously challenge the system with a different kind of community. No one is making you fight a war, no one is telling you who to be, so you no longer have the right to say who we fight or what our world is to become. Basically we traded the difficult responsibility of expanding the possibilities of our society for what we thought was freedom. Like every other value, freedom is worthless on its own.
Certainly people can have their say; opinions proliferate now more than ever. The internet has made telling other people what to do way easier, even if it is becoming pointless. People do long for a say in what is to happen, but this is increasingly difficult to integrate with any creative means to power. Without the kind of power that comes from shared consciousness and understanding, people fall more easily for contrived solutions and oppositions.
But that is politics: war by other means…and one never really wins a war. The defeated element survives in new forms, often hiding or emerging within the conquering force. Unless, of course, the opposition is integrated into a new stable formation (never a direct result of conquest, but the creative element advances in any case).
The best one can hope for, in war or politics—outside of the transvaluation never achieved directly through reaction and struggle—is pockets of stability, within which we can experiment on the possibilities of a more sustainable and less oppositional system of differences. Unfortunately, the more common consequence of a conquest is a squandering of peace that necessitates new struggle.
In our time, bitterness and blame reign, and complicate the necessary work we must do to integrate the Left’s call for collective responsibility, and the old American religion of self-reliance. That “integration” may take frightening forms if we let it be shaped by technocrats encoding our freedom into one monolithic system of limited possibility, rather than a coordination of our communities defined by open dialog.
Will we see the end of liberal society? Or the end of the illusion of it? One can only hope that both camps of dogmatic liberals—that is, both the new Left-liberals angry at society and the classical liberals angry at the Left and government—will learn to shout less and listen more, to not just agree to defend each other’s illusionary freedom while they grease the machine with their individual struggles, but attain enough mutual understanding to take hold of and change the machine itself.
Dogmatic or not, we are nonetheless essentially a liberal minded society—whether people vote right or left or not at all, or whether they live in the U.S. or in the countries more recently indoctrinated into the liberal democratic empire. In any case, the narrow framework of abstract individualism is a trap. It puts us all at odds with each other, judging each other, caught in a dialectic that needs to be broadened with an understanding of the larger system and how that system mediates any concept or action of an individual—something which gets covered up by everyone fighting for their “liberty”, and by a dumbing down of our tradition to the most polarized cliches.
Both classical liberalism and the new Left arose at times in history when the rights of individuals or minority groups, respectively, needed to be brought more into the foreground. But given the seriousness of our collective problems, and the escalating issues of biopolitics that are making the politicization of science the most important problem of our times, the rise of populism is a sign that people are realizing that, like it or not, the future requires some kind of “socialism”—which is to say, some kind of acknowledgment that there is no getting around the tangle of conflict, struggle or sacrifice.
Socialism arose as a concept to contrast with the individualism that was coming to dominate Western discourse, but as Marx envisioned it, it was by no means its opposite. The ideal evolution of socialism would bring the fulfilment of the individual. The essential sacrifice is only of the narrow egoism that wants the impossible (a freedom without constraint)—liberating the true individual, who imagines and creates what was impossible (a path beyond the trap of a choice dictated to us by the system).
There is no neutral science or system that does not involve sacrifice, and despite what the propaganda tries to sell us, the kind of sacrifice is not a foregone conclusion. Even if we agree that the most good for the most people is the goal, we must not let the value judgment determining what that might be, turn into a calculation that precludes reevaluation and debate.
In other words, we better be conscious of what we are sacrificing. To what extent our socialism will be an improvement based on co-created values or a nightmare based on propaganda and repression, depends on how willing we are to negotiate our collective future together with people we don’t agree with, and with a society that is nobody’s fault, and everyone’s reflection.
Every agreement has its dark side. With successful propaganda, we may all agree, but we may be sacrificing worlds we never imagined, precisely because we traded in imagination for a dull peace. Let us hope we don’t fall for the ruse. For while coordinating our differences may be necessary on a global scale, we certainly do not have to all agree in order to have a coherent world or community.
Western culture, and its “culture war”, are crucially important as we go on forging this emerging planetary society. Both sides of this war abstract different interpretations from the same tradition that need not be so violently opposed, if a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of that tradition and its dependence on others was cultivated.
The Left is in dire need of a deeper metaphysics, and a partially ironic embrace of Christianity is not going to cut it(Zizek2009). Though understanding Christianity is an interesting place to start, since it did, in its early days, help create an expansion of possibilities that has led us to the potentials of a planetary civilization. Its original emergence seemed to herald a kind of cultural coherence not based on blood and tribal associations, with a unique vision of collective liberation that has helped us form the utopian ideas we are still working to refine.
The Greeks may have developed democracy, but they were not able to wed their utopian philosophical and political ideals deeply to their mythological tradition. The intellectual culture that still derives so much from the Greeks, continues to struggle with this problem. Christianity, on the other hand, developed a metaphysics and mythology that expanded beyond any one ethnic or geographically-bound narrative. Christianity gave the early proto-liberal ideals of the Greeks a spirituality and mythology to anchor cultural coherence. While the deeper threads were, in many ways, repressed or diverted into a countercultural mystical tradition—which made integration with the eventual resurgence of classical rationalism difficult—important threads lived on.
As Christian thought evolved into idealist philosophy, cultural coherence seemed more tangible as an inevitable outcome of the dialectical process of history. But as Idealism was forced to reckon with the realities of material and empirical considerations, that cultural coherence became less imaginable or desirable. The evolution of Idealist philosophy into the social theory of the Left, with its emphasis on political economy (however much an advance in political theory it may have been), became increasingly divorced from the realities and necessities of cultural and metaphysical evolution.
As intellectual tradition evolved into Critical Theory, cultural politics has been more deeply addressed. But because of the dominance of materialism, and academic theory’s frequent and often unconscious attempts at a radical transcendence of metaphysics and tradition, any cultural or metaphysical coherence has been beyond its capabilities.
On the other hand, as contemporary thought embraces and develops its metaphysics, it is becoming easier to establish lines of communication between different cultures and subcultures, especially as difference becomes foundational and supremely valued. If our spiritual and intellectual traditions can work more closely together, our culture may still yet evolve into a truly inclusive philosophy of universal brotherhood, as liberalism originally envisioned it. We could achieve a degree of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence if the dialog of ideas that is the “Western” tradition (and its countercultures) becomes integrated deeper into the organization of our communities and social structures.
Of course the tradition isn’t essentially Western or any static thing capable of final definition, but rather, a kind of sublimated spiritual bounty of this planet’s colonial transition into—one can only hope—some kind of sustainable vitality. High culture has always been multicultural, more or less, and the evolving legacy of all the world’s peoples (and the often violent conflict between them). High culture will, most likely, persist and evolve, even in truly expansive ways—to the extent, that is, that we can sacrifice our attachment to its forms by finding the spirit behind them, and to the extent that we can follow that spirit, that thread, into the infinite and pregnant relations between every form and value, and maybe, one day, converge fluidly into the immortal pastiche weaving seamlessly through every death and birth.
The West has always been about transcending limits, and within every mode or metaphysics of transcendence is a violence that must be negotiated. Every new technology or media destroys a previous way of life, and with that destruction must come an updating of our symbols. Beneath the radical changes in our culture, the old gods live on in new clothes. We ignore them at our peril.
But when we are in harmony with our times, not fighting youth or old age, not clinging to what we think is the true tradition or the necessary evolution of society, but listening to the messages hiding in our violence, and looking for what possibilities must be sacrificed to preserve and develop that which matters in every value or tradition, we can find the threads of continuity that place every violent call for identity and transcendence, within a tapestry of supportive relations and opportunities for expression. This way of thinking and expression, this fractal and immanent mode of creation, can place us each in extraordinary times with important contributions to make to a global culture so long in the making.
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