September 03, 2009

Be negative


(OK, so the Michael Jackson book is now with the copy-editor, so I have a little more time for posts here... So a couple of throat clearing posts before the long-promised Eliminativist Marxist post...)

Zone Styx Travelcard responds to Jude Rogers's simultaneously hilarious and depressing "Why Don't You"-style call to "action". What's interesting about Rogers's piece is the assumption, by no means unique to her, that "being positive" and "doing things" are automatically good, as if it is a duty to be chipper and keep your chin up. But it is this demand, this compulsory affirmationism, that is actually depressing. As Zone notes, "I was far more depressed reading Rogers’ piece, than I was when reading any of the quibblers she’s trying to call time on."

All of this resonated as, during the course of research for my next book, I read Darian Leader's The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia And Depression the other day. I was particularly struck by Leader's comparison of CBT with the techniques used by the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. "Cognitive therapy," Leader argues, "was perhaps used most widely in the Cultural Revolution in China, where people were taught that depression was just wrong thinking. ... Positive thinking should banish unhelpful and antisocial negative attitudes. This form of conditioning shares the aims of cognitive behavioural therapy today. The individual is taught to deny the legitimacy of their symptoms." However accurate or not this might be in relation to the Cultural Revolution, it is certainly the case that "positive thinking" functions as a tool of ideological realignment in late capitalism, So much of the labour of the cultural workers of late capitalism - with their light! upbeat! irreverent! cheerleading for the latest commodity - acts precisely to make us deny the legitimacy of our symptoms. (I think of the strangely solemn quality of Edith Bowman's dead-eyed enthusing on BBC3's coverage Reading festival: she looks like a hostage forced to profess the "brilliance" of everything that happens to pass into her consciousness.) Making negative judgements is held to be the result of "moaning", in other words a defective mental attitude. (With the implication, as Zone points out, that with the right mental attitude, one can learn to like anything.)

The by now familiar generational form of this argument - that the only reason anyone would be negative about current culture is that they are nostalgic for their lost youth - is equally depressing in its nihilistic relativism (for it suggests that enthusiasm is dependent upon being young rather than on any inherent features of the cultural objects themselves). But this falls down for at least three reasons. First, the idea that there is something innately radical about the young, or that there is a necessary relationship between radicalism and youth, is a kind of romantic-rockist myth that might have been convincing when youth culture was at the leading edge of popular modernism, but it is hard to seriously maintain now, when "youth" is routinely mobilised as a demographic weapon in the services of hedonic conservatism. (Why is Channel 4 crap? Because it is chasing the "young". Why does mouldy old rock enjoy full spectrum dominance - because the "young" love it.) It is this demographically-constituted "young" which is nostalgic, but its nostalgia is of a formal, not a pschological kind. In any case, the equation of youth with radicalism is merely the obverse of the idea that radicalism is a pathology of youth, put aside once "maturity" arrives. Second, whenever the young were radical, it was precisely by virtue of their discontent with the time and culture in which they happened to be living. The history of pop is the story of the tension between dissatisfaction and its commodification. Third, you you only have to look at the figures for depression amongst the young to realise that the young themselves are far from being happy-go-lucky pleasure-seekers who would just be enjoying themselves if it weren't for curmudgeonly theorists stealing their mojo, daddio. Faced with objectively appalling conditions (rising unemployment, continuously assessed education yielding qualifications that are getting worth less year by year) but embedded into a matrix of CBT, SSRIs and PR, the young are the primary victims of compulsory positivity, and even apparently hedonistic phenomena such as binge drinking are symptoms of despondency rather than straightforward expressions of pleasure-seeking. (Alex's remarks on the perils of narcomaterialism notwithstanding, the dominance of a low-level obliviate and sedative like alchohol in UK youth culture, tells its own story about the long comedown we've endured.)

One of the many reasons that Dominic's postulation of a "militant dysphoria" is so suggestive is that it holds open the possibility of a politics that is answerable to the negative, rather than one which obediently falls into line with the affirmationist imperative to "be positive".

Don't join in. Withdraw. Be negative.



Speaking of negativity, I can't say I was too impressed with Antichrist, which I finally got to see last night. I much preferred IT's remarks to the film itself. I've had quite a lot of contact with grief and depression recently, and Antichrist struck no sort of chord. This wouldn't matter if Trier had created some consistent plane, had produced a new mythography of despair; instead there was just a ragbag of off-the-shelf symbols and hack Gnosticism, all of it coming ready-packaged with a Significance that Trier does little to supplement or amplify. Trier didn't film Nature in a way that made it seem bleak or oppressive (it certainly appeared far less malevolent than it does in either The Evil Dead or The Blair Witch Project, two films with which Antichrist compares badly), he relied on Gainsbourg (unbelievably wooden throughout) and a talking fox telling us that it is infernal. Of course, the scenes of mutilation and automutilation have a visceral power, but it is cheaply achieved. (The most disturbing things are the small details of weirdness - the business with the child's shoes, for instance.) And far from being the objective correlatives of the emotions the characters are enduring, the violence dissipates any affect, tripping the film into an absurdity that it - although perhaps not Trier himself, who one can't help thinking is laughing all the way to the bank - was too po-faced to own. By now, we're in the territory of slasher exploitation films (how the directors of those films must wish that they had the licence which the censors have extended to Trier). But where pulp films, like Black Metal, have the courage to be pulled along by the absurdity of their material, Trier cleverly contains the extremity within a frame of arthouse tastefulness. The MO: take charged material which we're used to seeing in pulp (witches! child death! extreme violence!) and slow cook it in arthouse drear. The opening scene - in which a child dies in slow-mo black and white - is so breathtakingly hyper-aestheticised (it looks like a perfume commercial) that that you have to assume Trier was taking the piss. Similarly, it's hard to take the misogyny - or the meta-misogyny - seriously: by the end, all I could see was Trier calculating what will most easily generate broadsheet column debate. (As to the women's bodies/Nature/horror matrix, any of the films discussed by Barbara Creed in The Monstrous Feminine are far superior to Antichrist in their treatment of these themes, if only because they dared to be symptoms.) Judging art by its supposed intentions is a fallacy of course, and perhaps Trier was completely sincere - but it's hard to see how a film made by a manipulative cynic would have looked any different. If you want a film from this year which uses apocalyptic, christological and infernal imagery that lingers in the mind, go and see Terminator Salvation instead. Terminator Salvation feels like being plunged into the middle of a CGI-augimented nightmare; Antichrist feels like it's been cribbed out of a book of dream symbolism.


The article on depression that Dominic linked to is interesting, in spite of the findings being situated within the absurd framework of evolutionary psychology. The central question that evolutionary psychology is required to answer - what use did Evolution have for X or Y behaviour? - is as ludicrous as anything debated in Medieval theology, and totally opposed to the key insights of Darwin. Evolution legitimately functions only negatively, to show how phenomena which appeared designed could be explained by mechanistic causation. Evolutionary psychology is based on a simple fallacy of reasoning - just because "evolution" eliminates some maladaptive behaviours or traits doesn't mean that all the behaviours or traits that do survive fulfil some "purpose". Otherwise, "evolution" would an omniscient God, wisely and judiciously ensuring the optimal functionality of all behaviours and organs.


Incidentally, I couldn't disagree more with David Byrne's claim, cited in Jude Rogers's piece, that "We're very used to consuming art and culture. We find it easy to sit there and have it fed to us." Surely what we are used to is precisely the opposite - in our drive to interact, we find it hard to be fed anything now (an observation borne out by recent studies on "connected cocooning" which suggest that, whilst ostensibly watching television, many of us are actually engaged in digital twitch). As Kodwo argued in the interview below, the supposedly "passive" skill of listening is actually very hard to cultivate - a situation that has only worsened in the decade since Kodwo gave the interview. If Web 2.0 has established anything, it is that is far easier to (inter)act that it is to listen or to read - a revelation that the experience of being subjected to londonunderlondon at Gasworks underscored. We need artists who will subject us to things, and we need to (re)learn how to be subjected.

Posted by mark at September 3, 2009 05:39 PM | TrackBack