Title: Literary Counter Insurgency: Managing Dissent by Absorbing the Counter Culture. (?)
Proposal: I want to examine the role that popular literature plays in managing dissent, the way it represents the interests of capitalists in a form that both recognizes the problems and criticisms of the masses and simultaneously reinforces the dominant social order. Specifically, I want to focus on the relationship between iconic literary representations of capitalists such as Scrooge, Mr. Potter, Jabba the Hut, and Montgomery Burns and the equally iconic representations of the commoner, popular portrayals of the everyman such as George Bailey, Fred Scrooge, Ralph Kramden, and Homer Simpson. In Gramsci's description of the hegemonic process, we learn that it isn't necessary for the dominant class to sell a particular ideology to the masses; it isn't necessary that people believe in the system, that is. What's necessary is that the masses don't acquire a comprehensive awareness of the hegemonic order that exploits them--that they don't not believe. Suspending belief then, or inoculation, rather than active propagandizing, becomes the primary focus of social coercion within consumer capitalist society. What this means, and what literary representations of the relationship between the capitalist class and the masses suggests, is that aesthetics has become the dominant discourse for producing hegemony. The masses are taught less what to believe than not to believe at all or not to believe too much, to focus on aesthetic questions (such as "Do i like it"?) rather than critical concerns (such as "Is it true"?), which are best left to specialists. As a result, the disciplining of the body described by Foucoult and the Noopolitics described by Mauricio Lazzaratto step in to shape behavior without a need for any explicit ideological support. Moreover, because the universe of capitalism is seen always through the lens of popular media, capitalism itself is transformed into a symbolic image, as is its manufactured opposition, consequently creating a culture in which visual violations of decorum are mistaken as political and political expression is rendered impotent.
Few would argue that many of the cultural ideas and practices that were once perceived as subversive, the once-alternative values produced by the counter cultures of the sixties and seventies, have today become commonplace. Anti-capitalist figures such as Montgomery Burns, Mr. Potter, Jabba the Hut, and modern versions of Ebenezer Scrooge dominate social media, while positive capitalist portrayals are not only scarce but presented usually with subtle apologies or overt defenses. The newest Batman film, for example, doesn't try so much to sell us on capitalism as to scare us away from other possibilities. By some accounts it seems that the counter culture has taken over. Once threatening figures of resistance such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X are today celebrated as cultural role models. The free-spirited adventurism and willingness to try new things--to explore a communal subconscious that puts ego and social identity at risk--behaviors and attitudes that once excluded people from succeeding or even participating in fundamental social institutions, have today become the flexible skill-set that employers are actively looking for. Formerly radical praxes such as Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed are now almost cliche teaching methods of the state/market sponsored educational system; while Augusto Boal's radical theater games, his rehearsals for revolution, are commonly taught by corporations in order to boost company morale and efficiency.
Nevertheless, in spite of the preponderance of anti-capitalist media production, there seems to be little evidence that capitalism is actually in trouble. To the contrary, capitalism seems stronger than ever, but that isn’t to say, obviously, that capitalism has won over our hearts and minds—just, perhaps, a part of our minds, a part not overly concerned with ideology or conscious decision-making. The counter-culture, as Antonio Negri argues, may have in fact won the battle but lost the war. What we see in modern culture today, Negri argues, are the concessions made by capitalism in order to divert more serious rebellions. Roberto Virno takes Negri's idea a step further and suggests that the changes brought about by the counter culture are today the new forces of Post-Fordist capitalist production. It isn't just that anti-capitalist thoughts have become absorbed and made non-threatening but that a specific type of anti-capitalist mind-set is what saved and now drives the modern capitalist agenda, that the counter-culture is today being harnessed as a new kind of labor.
Thought of in another way, the hegemony that has been constructed today is one in which the superstructure has made peace with the counter-culture and redefined itself, redefined capitalism, in the process. The ideal citizen/worker under Neo Liberal Capitalism is not the Marlboro Man, it isn't Ward Cleaver or Jimmy Stewart; it's the hipster--the suave, non-commital, ironic, always disoriented but never out-of-place, never to be ridiculed because never taking himself seriously Everyman who populates both the swankest downtown cafes and the diviest ghetto and red-neck bars at once.
Today's American culture is every bit as or more homogenous as the culture of the conformist era of the 1950s, only the style of homogenization has changed. What we have today is not a 1950's style homogeneity focused on the conscious mind, but a deliberate and coherent harnessing of what Virmo refers to as pre-consciousness. What we have today is a hegemony that operates not by traditional brainwashing, but through what is sometimes referred to as Noopolitics--by reducing human behavior to a pursuit of emotional rather than sensual pleasures and thus minimizing opportunities for the type of deep reflection that makes ideology and conscious behavior significant. More concisely, hegemony today operates not on the active thinking mind but on the mind at rest. And if it can be shown, as Colin Campbell argues in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, that modern daily leisure activities serve as a form of productive labor that involves a reduction of emotional intensity through daydreaming or dream making--that is, if the passive mind has indeed been harnessed--and if art inevitably reduces both emotional and sensory intensity in its pursuit of pleasure, then literary and other arts become intrinsically involved in upholding the consumer economy, in acting as a facade that, even if revolutionary in content, can't help but support the neo liberal Capitalist agenda. Literary artistic expression becomes a type of subaltern voice that, unless appropriated, can't be heard or properly spoken.
One recalls Adorno's famously misquoted phrase about there being no poetry after Aschwitz. What he actually said, within context, is that: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation." Adorno was writing in 1949, at the dawn of American conformism, but his concern about the complete absorption of the mind by a capitalist or fascist hegemony is just as relevant today; only, if we take Noopolitics into consideration, one might argue that today the primary mind being absorbed is that of the reader rather than the writer, the audience instead of the creator, that in effect citizens are being trained to manage their attention in such a way as to resist conscious deliberation in deference to pre-conscious activity designed to bring consumerist pleasure, to the realm where bio and noo politics reign. The disciplining of the body described by Foucoult (bio-politics) and the disciplining of the pre-conscious resting mind described by Lazzarrato (noopolitics) step in to shape attention and behavior without a need for any explicit ideological support. In terms of literature, this assumes that no revolutionary or subaltern reading is possible regardless of how revolutionary a book's content. Further, one would presume that if an entire culture's readership is turned into a certain type of reader, that once the reading mind, which is to say, the passive mind in search of pleasurable stimulation, is absorbed in this way, then no subaltern voice can be either read or spoken; the conscious mind is no longer master of artistic inspiration. In a world focused on regulating subjectivity rather than the actions of a subject, ideology has little power to threaten the status-quo or to inform aesthetic judgment. Aesthetics subsequently falls under the dominion of a new consumerist form of pleasure-seeking, one dependent on the dreaming self's ability to defer a genuine expectation of pleasure fulfillment. As Colin Campbell explains: "The process of day-dreaming intervenes between the formulation of a desire and its consummation; hence the desiring and dreaming modes become interfused, with a dream element entering into desire itself."The pleasure seeker of today still employs actual memories, Campbell argues, but, through day-dreaming--by re-imagining real experience to better coincide with one's fantasies, a never-ending, never-perfected process--the modern hedonist can heighten gratification by speculating on enjoyments that are yet to come. He or she can enjoy the anticipation, in other words, and the act of desiring itself becomes a pleasurable activity. (p86) Thus, today's principal mode of pleasure-seeking is defined not as a pursuit of material satisfaction but as a pursuit to remain in and enjoy the pleasures of being in a state of desiring. Our most sought for pleasure, that is, is the pleasure of contemplating pleasure, the activity of daydreaming, of taking pleasure from "possibilities", of making contact with a fantasy without fulfilling the fantasy, which would satiate and lead likely to boredom, would reduce or terminate the sought-for pleasure. Ideally then, in contrast to both the pure escapist who sets out to enjoy a fantasy that isn't attainable and, as such, is therefore in search of a less intense pleasure, or the material pleasure seeker who seeks attainment in the direct appeasement of the physical senses, the modern neo-liberal subject wants to maintain the pleasant state of mind of the daydreamer, someone who is within reach of a tangible satisfaction but who never attains it, is never fulfilled and thereby never bored or disillusioned.
As a consequence, the desiring subject, which is to say a flexible constantly shape-shifting subject that remains pliable to the demands of both modern labor and modern consumption, replaces the unified and conformist subject contested under Fordist Capitalism. Social relations today require the flexibility and non-commital tolerance of the day-dreamer. As a result, mere survival now requires being implicit in, to become the barbarian required of a barbaric system. Or, to reference Adorno again, "it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz."
Here Adorno raises the concern that only the totally dominated mind is allowed to exist let alone speak. One doesn't, however, have to dominate the entire mind to accomplish the same level of domination that Adorno worries about. One merely need create a world requiring specific parts of the mind to govern behavior more than others, to make those functions of the mind survival skills, and then to dominate those particular mental faculties.
So as culture turns away from developed thoughts or complex narratives, literature gets marginalized, pushed outside of public discourse while simultaneously made relevant as a force for counter hegemony--a contrast to the image-based culture that harnesses counter-cultural ideals and non-reflective attention. As a result, the texts that tend to get published are texts that actively defy this new literary potential for subversiveness, literature that pays homage to the image and to the dominant discourse by defying consciousness, literature, that is, which not only avoids but ridicules ideology and thoughtfulness, literature that actively pushes the reader away from a literary aesthetic and towards the pseudo-utopian potential of the image--literature, in other words, that a neo-liberal public will actually want to read. At the same time, and more importantly, literature that embodies even a radical critique of the consumer subject, is rendered harmless. More to the point, popular literature, even if supportive of a revolutionary and/or subaltern message, becomes counter insurgent by misrepresenting the system as "authoritative", as being an ideological power and not a bio or noo power, while art that challenges the real--and really complex--capitalist apparatus is doomed to oblivion, to always be steered away from consciousness by its well-conditioned audience towards the new territory being exploited, the passive mind. Autonomist literature that tries not to reinforce traditional subjectivity, which tries, as Samuel Becket's plays do, to deconstruct the coherent Western subject and resist commodification, must appeal to consciousness to do so--to a conscious deactivation of subjectifying forces--but consciousness doesn't constitute the modern private subject whose individuality is now a collective and multi-faceted entity produced by and within consumer culture. Autonomous art must, that is, be reduced to pure aesthetics, be stripped of ideology, in order to retain its autonomy, but, once reduced to pure aesthetics, to the non-conceptual, its reception will be governed by pre-colonized and pre-conscious forces.
In one instance of literary revolt, in popular literature such as The Hunger Games, we find capitalism being treated negatively but inaccurately, as being a type of external authority as opposed to a plastic network that is largely self-realized. But within a society organized by bio and noo power, no external authority is required. The result is that this type of anti-capitalist popular art ultimately strengthens capitalist hegemony by redirecting revolutionary impulses toward a false facade that, protected by abstraction, can never be destroyed. The actions of the counter culture are channeled into a class struggle that only exists within literary and artistic universes, and revolutionary activity is downgraded to attacking windmills.
On the other hand, literary artists that understand and accurately represent modern, complex, and pliant capitalist forces, are pushed so far outside popular culture as to have a similar overall effect--that of channeling thoughts of revolt to a private and personal universe beyond the reach of market appropriation but also beyond the reach of collective action. Realism becomes accessible only as pure artifice, within an autonomous zone that isn't meant to be representational. Consequently, literature is made less relevant to actual circumstances and revolt can be seen as a seemingly "detached" activity, one limited to fantasy production, an already territorialized process. We can revolt all we want, the modern capitalist system tells us, but only in our imaginations! Revolutionary resistance is then governed by pre-conscious activities that can only be satisfied within a private and pre-territorialized part of the mind. The modern mind's training in de-emphasizing ideology, in distancing reality and real criticism in order to maintain pleasurable expectations, and the now strengthened impetus to defer satisfaction, because the deferment itself (of Utopian ideals, etc.) is now gratifying, ensures that no matter how accurate and convincing the artistic critique, it will be easily converted into a harmless pleasure-fulfillment--a deferred satisfaction, a possible but never satisfied reality that maintains a "desiring state of mind" in preference to a concrete plan for achievement. In short, no matter how authentic a book's revolutionary criticism, it can be turned into a commodity by its readers. Liberatory impulses must be re-channeled to a private and subsequently impotent world. They, like all other impulses and desires, get pushed inside, forced into becoming part of a private but multitudinous "inner life", the only life where liberation is achievable. The day-dreamer which neo-liberal Capitalist social relations insist upon and reinforce, the person we have to become to participate within modern society, the person we must become in order perhaps to survive, is now in charge of our aesthetic responses and makes sure that no counter ideology can touch it. The daydreamer, that is, which is today both a producer and a product of consumer capitalism, becomes skilled at internalizing utopian aspirations so that they become consumerist pleasures rather than revolutionary quests. The modern subject is trained to ensure that possibilities remain possibilities and nothing else, that the revolutionary impulse is forever deferred and endlessly enjoyed but never fully gratified or acted on, much like staring at a poster of the New York City skyline and deriving enjoyment from it by imagining what it would be like to someday live in the city but repressing and deferring the urge to actually move there because the reality would either disillusion or make one imaginatively poorer, with one less satisfying possibility in one's repertoire from which to derive emotional enjoyment. Put simply, one must defer material pleasures, the pleasures of the traditional hedonist, whether it be the enticing thrills offered by New York City or the social justice of a post-revolutionary society, in favor of the emotional pleasures begot by the daydreamer. The revolutionary struggle itself becomes today's Utopia in place of a post-revolutionary world in which revolutionary goals have been achieved.
But none of this is to say that all literature is doomed to degenerate into propaganda or even that popular genre literature can't contribute to the construction of an effective counter hegemony, but the task of the revolutionary artist today, the task, really, of every artist who seeks not to actively support the status quo, has changed dramatically. The challenge is no longer to change or influence people's thoughts and opinions, but to alter the tangible mechanisms of perception. Literature today, as Deleuze argues, must stake out territory in degenerate networks, thus reconfiguring meaning and understanding anew. It must hone in on that which is left over in the hegemonic process, on the pathologies and disorders of the modern mind which haven't yet been harnessed for production. But even that isn't enough. Once perception is reappropriated, new channels for utopian energies have to be created. The revolutionary impulse mustn't be merely liberated, it must open onto a counter ideological message, one that isn't imposed but which emerges from revolutionary praxis rather than from university offices or mountain-top retreats. Art may not drive effective social change, but it can facilitate change by focusing on the war of position advocated by Antonio Gramsci. The literary artist of today cannot afford to take refuge in solitude, to withdraw into her creativity; rather, her creativity must develop out of concrete revolutionary activities and membership within tangible revolutionary communities. (wherein new identities might be born and endure). In brief, the artist must become first a revolutionary subject before her art can speak revolutionary thoughts. She must seek less to create new worlds, or autonomous but fictional worlds, and instead locate the anti-alienating forces already with us, those forces already created by anti-capitalist movements, and to then embody and articulate those forces in new literary forms. She must become Gramsci's organic intellectual, a subject whose voice arises directly from within the revolutionary struggle and who then appropriates literary conventions (not the other way around) for her own subversive purposes and her own subversive audience.