September 29, 2010

The Legend Of Steven Colbert


if he's the last man on earth, to whom is he a legend?


The global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero point... comprised by an ecological crisis, the consequences of a biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself, and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.

So goes the premise of Slavoj Zizek's new book, Living In End Times.  It's analyses are seductive, and from what you'll hear other people tell you about the book that no one will read, you will conclude, "this is a guy who gets it!"  Well, he doesn't. 

This is a very good rule of thumb: anyone who tells you we are living in end times is wrong about pretty much everything.

I.  To Whom Am I A Legend?

I Am Legend is the third substantial retelling of the novel by the same name (1954), the other two movies being The Last Man On Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).

All four stories follow similar plots.  A plague has killed off humanity, except for some who have been turned into zombies/vampires.  One human, Neville, survives.

A series of remakes can often be a window into the evolution of a culture, and so it's useful to look at what's the same and what's different over time.

In the book (1954), Neville fights against vampires, but also a group of infected but still human creatures.  They finally capture and execute him, not least because he is different, the last of a dead race. These infected humans have a functioning society of their own; as the majority  survivors, the world belongs to them.  Neville sees that they look at him with fear and disgust, the way he looks at them.  As he is executed he realizes that they will remember him as a legend(ary monster.) 

This is a truly multicultural theme, Neville's human tradition parallel but not superior to the infected's.   (History is written by the victors.)

The first movie slightly but importantly changes the ending.  Instead of being executed, he escapes to a church, but he is finally speared on the altar.  Defiant to the end, Neville says he is the last true human, and the rest merely freaks. 

By The Omega Man, the multicultural theme is avoided.  Here, the survivors are a mutant species of humans.  Crazy as they are, they voluntarily choose to live away from technology and modernism because that's what got them into this mess in the first place.  Neville, however, has found a cure, so even if Neville represents something terrible and fearful to the mutants, he is still the normal while the mutants are pathology.

In I Am Legend (2007),  the multicultural reversal is completely extinguished.  Will Smith (thinks he) is the last human, and at war with the vampires.  He later discovers a woman and a boy trying to meet up with other survivors living in Vermont in a walled compound.  In the final scenes Neville "adopts her fundamentalist perspective and adopts a Christological  identification":  he stays behind to fight the vampires (and dies) allowing the human survivors to escape with the cure.  So Neville becomes a "legend for the new humanity whose rebirth was made possible by his invention and sacrifice."

II.  Multiculturalism On The March/Decline

So goes the reading of the movies by Zizek.  It is the evolution of multiculturalism played out in cinema.  So far, so good.

But Zizek has a point to make, and that point is that Hollywood got it backwards. Why would Hollywood insist on making less multicultural movies, while real society becomes more so?   In 1954 multiculturalism was nonexistent; in 2007 it's practically an official ideology.  If there was a society that was "ready" for a movie that puts all traditions on an equal level it would be eyeballs-deep Multicultural America, where every reference to another society is qualified by, "but we have to respect their traditions/what makes our ways better than theirs?"

The answer is that we have regressed; what should be the correct, multicultural,  understanding of reality (all traditions are equal in value) was ducked, and a lie reinstated (we're better) in order to preserve the existing (though dying) social order.  More plainly: conservatives have taken over Hollywood.  These are all tricks to protect global capitalism.

III.  Write This, Not That

If you're having trouble with that line of thinking, you'll have trouble with his whole philosophy, aptly summarized on page 3 of the Introduction:

In today's post-political democracy, the traditional bipolarity between a Social-Democratic Center-Left and a Conservative Center-Right is gradually being replaced by a new bipolarity between politics and post-politics: the technocratic-liberal multiculturalist-tolerant party of post-political administration and its Rightist-populist counterpart of passionate political struggle-- no wonder the old Centrist opponents (Conservatives or Christian Democrats and Social Democrats or Liberals) are often compelled to join forces against the common enemy.

I'm not going to make the dozen easy jokes, I'll say simply this: when writing becomes so complicated that only the initiated can understand it, then it is meant only for them.  Who is he going to convince by hyphenating every third word set?  Nobody.  It's masturbation, though considerably more difficult.

IV.  Will Smith Is Black???

I Am Legend probably never had so much analysis, but let me throw in something Zizek missed:  Neville is black.  There's your multiculturalism, at least all human races are equal in their superiority to vampires.

They could have easily made the vampires a functioning society instead of animalistic marauders, thus allowing for a deeper multicultural comparison.  For example, why not a 9/11 allegory?   Black and white rural Americans united against New York Muslims?  A few days after 9/11, MTV interviewed the Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man about what should be done to prevent another attack.  His response was (paraphrasing), we're going to have to start searching Muslims, stop them in their cars and at airports, etc.  That the usual prime target of every possible kind of profiling was now suggesting that the solution was more racial profiling was an irony totally lost on him.  But nevertheless a film that shifted the players in the multicultural hierarchy but kept the theme intact should have been welcome in 2007.  It wasn't.

The question is why it wasn't.  There are huge ethnic divides in the world, not to mention poverty; "invisible people" marginalized, contained, unrecognized.  So why does Hollywood insist on making movies that inferiorize the other?

Zizek's answer is, "collective fetishistic disavowal," which is denial.  We know the global capitalist system is in crisis, but we're going to carry on like it's not.  Hollywood facilitates this.  Important point: Hollywood facilitates this, not reflects this, because Hollywood is an extension of global capitalism.

V.  Do You Swear To Tell The Truthiness?

Steven Colbert appeared before the House immigration subcommittee as an

"expert witness"

on migrant workers.   Pause for effect.

Steven Colbert is a person, but you have undoubtedly only seen the character Steven Colbert.  What's he like in real life?  Who cares.  That's not what you pay him for.

This wasn't the typical Hollywood Star Testifying Before Congress routine, and at least those actors have the decency to signify that they are experts by wearing glasses they don't need.   No, he stayed in character the whole time, so his appearance before the Committee was jarring, seemingly uncanny.  What next, Robocop?  Was it appropriate to play a fictional character before Congress?

And many congressmen/people said no, which on first consideration seems correct.  But.

But if you're focusing on a man playing a character for the benefit of TV cameras, you are looking in the wrong place.

colbert congress.jpg

Those hearings themselves are staged.  They are purely for display, as a means of getting things into the public record.  This isn't a metaphor, this is the literal truth; there is no institutional expectation that real work is conducted there or that they even reflect the actual beliefs of the individuals speaking.  They're reading their lines.   "What's my motivation?  Oh yeah, Monsanto."  Real business is conducted in the back.

Steven Colbert is a character that the public has voted on to several seasons of TV.  He's sticking with what works.  Congressmen are no more "real" than he; molded to represent the will of their perceived constituents.  Or did John McCain really think of himself as a maverick?  George Bush and Dick Cheney were anti-gay?  Those are characters.

No to mention that Colbert's character is decidedly more consistent.  How many people pictured above have to please their voters even as they must serve their donators?

Steve Colbert didn't crash the party, he was invited.  No one refused to appear with him.  No one criticized the fact of his appearance, only what he said or the way he said it.  "I think his testimony was not appropriate," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.  "What he had to say was not the way it should have been said."

The most you can argue is that Colbert wasn't an expert in the testimony he was giving, but, as he pointed out,

"Does one day working in the field make you an expert witness, do you think?" Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas) asked scornfully.

"I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert on something," Colbert replied confidently.

"Is that to say it's more work than you've ever done before, right?" Smith followed.

"It's certainly harder work than this," the comedian deadpanned.

He's not an expert, but he had, at that moment, more experience with the question than most everyone else in the room.  (This is the person who engages in argument to undermine the system (treats the problem as symptom rather than fetish), but who also distances himself from his position through the process of critical analysis (i.e. he knows what he is doing)).  

And the very difficult thing to accept is that he also has more power.  I realize that TV guys don't vote on immigration policy, but I can absolutely swear to you unconditionally without any qualification, that immigration policy will go the way TV wants it to.  They control the horizontal.

VI.  The False Choice

Here's a typical Zizek line of thinking.  Say you want homosexuality to be accepted.  So The Powers That Be tell you, "on penalty of death, do not dare make insulting comments about gays."  Got it. 

Or, TPTB can go postmodern on you, and instead say, "look, you have freedom of speech to say anything you want, but it's ignorant to make insulting comments about gays."  That's the approach in place now, and it's much more powerful.  It offers you a false choice, but you understand that you have to keep your remarks to yourself, or else something will happen.

This description makes perfect sense.  Americans of every political persuasion feel this false choice. They're told they have these freedoms that, in fact, they really don't.   And the false choices are everywhere: watch whatever news you want, but everyone knows these are the only legitimate choices.  No one can dare tell you what kind of diet you have to have, but your choice is high fructose corn syrup or aspartame.  Eat it.

From this very clear description of the problem comes the most terrible solution imaginable: let's go back to the authoritarian approach.  It's more honest, and in this way we can effectively build a better society.  You proletariat are either going to be controlled directly, or indirectly, but controlled you will be.  At least if you can get the right people controlling you, they'd at least force you to eat something better than high fructose corn syrup.  That's what he thinks would happen.

Well, they already tried this in a movie, and it was called Soylent Green.

VII.  I Am Legend In The Only Place That Counts

You'll observe that the title of the movie is I Am Legend, not We Human Beings Are LegendsI.  The point that has escaped Zizek's notice is that the I in I Am Legend doesn't depend on the presence of other people.  Note that Neville makes jokes and stays "in character" even though he's talking to mannequins or a dog or no one.  He can't help it: he's a human, and he was born after 1960.   Zizek is worried about some fantastical move by the culturally powerful to elevate themselves and others to a superior state, but that would be a dramatic misunderstanding of the situation.  The correct interpretation-- i.e. the only one that is correct-- is that from 1954 to now we have moved from human cultures in conflict with weird, strange, other cultures (e.g. the Italians), to a near total awareness of all existing cultures that we find annoying.  The result?  We hate everyone equally.   We are perfectly aware that to the vampires and Muslims we are evil, scary creatures, but that doesn't make them less scary or dangerous.

Hollywood got the evolution of the culture right, not wrong.  The next remake will be titled,  I Am A Main Character In My Own Movie, everyone else be damned.

VIII.  Who Would Win In A Fight?

Back to Zizek and his key error. If you take him at his word, there are "inherent contradictions" in the very structure of capitalism that make it untenable; no one needs to destroy it, it will implode on itself.  Similarly, the media moguls don't have to be in cahoots with capitalists because the media itself (that structure) is part of capitalism (it creates wants, branding, etc.) 

The media creating wants and branding has nothing to do with capitalism, it has everything to do with human psychology.  Even in a perfect (communist) utopia you could not kill off capitalism because capitalism is the sublimation, the "correcting" of the natural human impulse of envy.  It either bubbles up and corrupts you, or you create a natural outlet for it.  There aren't alternatives.  If global capitalism implodes from the weight of its inherent contradictions, it will simply be replaced by... global capitalism.  Because it's run by humans.

But none of that matters, because even Zizek doesn't believe his own theory.  He can write 600 pages but in the end what he blames are individuals.  

Zizek, like all important bearded lefty communist who can outthink you Central Time NFL lunatics, derives his entire philosophical system from one single axiom: the powerful control the powerless.  It may be phrased in terms of competing narratives or systemic contradictions, but it's all George Bush's fault nonetheless, and it is also Kim Jong Il's and Putin's and Maos's in as much as they (as individuals) are part of the capitalist system.   His solution is "a return to a Marxian critique of political economy."  When you hear someone in the front seat say that, hold your breath, you're driving by a graveyard.

There is no concerted effort to promote global capitalism, not in theory and not in practice.  There's no concerted effort to do anything, which is itself a problem but at least puts the Marxist angle to rest. These things you see happening aren't capitalism's fault, they are people's fault. There are corporations and individuals with their own personal interests that sometimes align and sometimes don't.  I'm sure the CEO of Exxon and the CEO of Apple often apply their considerable power towards similar goals, but the moment Steve Jobs discovers cold fusion we'll all be lamenting how pancreatic cancer takes the best of us. 

"They pressure the government to keep their corporate taxes low at the expense of healthcare!"  Wrong.  Each corporation pressures the government to keep their own corporate taxes low, period.  That they're all temporarily united on this is convenience, if Apple's taxes have to go up in order for Exxon's to stay low, we're all going to have Droids.  "But they all serve on each others corporate boards!"  That's not collusion, that's keeping your enemies closer. 

I can say all this with confidence because, as far as I know, corporations and governments are made of human beings, and human beings are envious, petty, anxious, and above all mortal.  What sets us apart from each other is how we manage those inherent flaws.  All of their power is the power of individuals.  When you say "Exxon tricks us by offering us a false choice of oil vs. unicycle!" you really mean that this guy is tricking you:

exxon ceo.jpg

Really?  Look closely.  Really?

That's the problem with his "false choice" model above: there aren't any Powers That Be trying to trick you. Maybe in 1960 when we had superpower politics, and in 1939, but not now.  There's no concerted effort to control society, so there is nothing to rebel against.  The false choices work on you not because TPTB are devious but because you will murder your own family to avoid shame.  All the control is self-imposed.

And don't let Zizek hoodwink you; he'll say that the power isn't in individuals but in the structure of capitalism itself-- the rules and the initial allocation of rights that results in the outcome you see--no one has to act deliberately.   That makes for good theory, but Zizek doesn't believe it himself: it is still the execution by individual actors (who are part of the system, I'll admit) that must actively work to keep capitalism propped up.  Otherwise, according to him, it would be gone by now.

So to Colbert.  It would be awesome if all of this was planned, if there were some secret cabal who brought Colbert in specifically to mask the contrived meaninglessness of the Congressional Hearings, i.e. to make them seem more real than his simulated reality, and no doubt Zizek would see something along those lines.  And it would be comforting to know that the chaos around us was really under someone's watchful eye.  But the truth is there is no such cabal.  If you extraordinary renditioned Steven Colbert and waterboarded him to name names, he wouldn't know what the hell to say to you.  As far as he's concerned, he duped them.None of this was planned, indeed, none of it has any point whatsoever.  They invited Steven Colbert because... he's Steven Colbert.  There is no meaning behind it at all.

IX. Will Smith Is Black?

Zizek holds up I Am Legend as an example of preserving the current state of global capitalism, but in fact that movie is the perfect example of Hollywood's disinterest in preserving anything except it's own immediate survival.  They put Will Smith in the movie not because he is black and it offers a different version of multiculturalism, but for the simple reason that he is the most bankable actor in Hollywood.  In other words, not because they like him but because we like him.

Furthermore, the ending of I Am Legend that you see today-- the non-multicultural, kill all the mofos one-- is the revised ending.  The original ending was the multicultural one-- Neville realizes the vampires have their own society, returns the girl to them, and they part ways, parallel traditions, humans living one way and vampires living the other way.

This was the ending Hollywood wanted, but it was rejected by the (test) audiences.  So Hollywood changed it, not to serve capitalism but to make a profit for themselves.  It was that simple.

What you see isn't a systematic attempt to hide the truth from you, but the accidentally organized and random conflict of various individuals which has resulted in both iPads and temporary 10% unemployment. It is comforting to blame this on some flaw in the system, but there is no system, there is only people, and they have no time for theory.  In theory, there is no "they"-- just psychology the result of  language mediated by these capitalist interactions. Bu tin practice, there are lots of theys, and they act in completely unpredictable ways-- unpredictable if you're looking at them as cogs in a system.  Over beers and hash we can debate whether global capitalism requires emergency shifts into socialism, or not, but don't think for a moment it is organized or hierarchical.  And thank God.

Real control-- positive and negative-- comes from within.  Those guys don't have to lie to you. You are being lied to, by yourself.  If you want to change it, now you know where to start.


Addendum: too many emails about Bernie Madoff, so:

So, you know, there is a structural problem beneath all this psychological topic of the greedy bankers, which is, that's how capitalism works, my God, which is why even concerning our beloved model--Bernard Madoff, no?--I didn't like it how they focused on him.  He was just the radical version of where the system is pushing you. Now, I'm not saying--I'm not crazy--"which is why we need to nationalize all banks and introduce immediately socialist dictatorship" or what. What I'm just saying is, let's not get rid of the problem by too easily making it into a psychological problem. You know, you can be an evil guy, but there must be very precise institutional, economic, and so on, coordinates, background, which allows you to do what you do.

That it's not a psychological problem is an odd thing for a psychoanalyst to say.  But nevertheless, that Bernie Madoff knew how to work the system is different than saying the system allowed him to do it, or that the system creates Bernie Madoffs, or that he is simply an extreme case of what the system creates.  The system doesn't do anything, you do it all in reaction to the system.  Bernie Madoff did those things because of... Bernie Madoff.  To the extent that the institution itself is to blame, he should get less time, otherwise it is merely revenge; which it is, because there's no system: it is punishment handed out by individuals against another individual, or, more accurately, individuals manipulating the system to get the outcome they want.