Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Herbert Marcuse and Repressive Desublimation

Also called "institutional desublimation," Marcuse first expounded at length on this idea in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man. It seems influenced by his Frankfurt School colleague Theodor Adorno and the quasi-Frankfurter, Wilhelm Reich. Though Marcuse studied under Heidegger - who dressed in Nazi regalia and gave the fascist salute at the end of each lecture, making Marcuse wonder WTF had gone wrong with German culture - he still wanted to unite Existentialism with Marxism. Certain events led him to flee Germany, where he worked for the Unistat Government's OSS (forerunner to the CIA) as an expert in explaining fascism to US government officials. Eventually Marcuse taught at UC San Diego.

                                         Herbert Marcuse (say "Mar KOO-zuh")

With the Vietnam war going on, Marcuse tried to tell his white, affluent students at UC San Diego that their surfing, drinking beer and listening to rock and roll, and increasingly promiscuous sexual forays were not "real" freedom. It seems few of those students understood him. Which brings me to "repressive desublimation."

Marcuse thought that society had become so technologically advanced that it could meet basic needs and give its citizenry a feeling (a simulacra?) of democratic participation in the processes of their lives, but this was a ruse.

Why was/is it a "ruse"? In taking Freud's ideas about artists sublimating their erotic impulses and producing High Culture, Marcuse noted that by 1964 technological society/capitalism had evolved by which the owners/Authoritarian class (recently renamed the 1%) could distract the masses that an ever-growing chasm between themselves and workers was underway by allowing free reign for everyone to "desublimate," whether as artists (probably not) or consumers (oh, most definitely this).

Music can not only move the soul, it can sell shoes.

So: I've seen this idea of Marcuse's presented as a sort of very erudite, High Concept conspiracy theory by Wall St. and the Pentagon and other fascists against The People. I find the idea too highfalutin' and would rather consider repressive desublimation along the lines of an idea to think with and not "believe", at other times as fitting under Chomsky's term "intellectual self-defense."

Rather than send out secret police to knock off dissidents, let there be dissidents, to foster the illusion that there's "freedom." (Who actually reads Chomsky anyway? Exactly.) What freedom do we non-One-Percenters have? We can buy stuff! And invest our emotional energies in games, and games played by professional athletes. We can get very involved in shows, especially TV. We can follow the relentless idiocy of corporate non-news (Nuzak) 24-7, which drum-up soap opera stories for all of us to yell and scream at each other about. We should always feel free to "vote" about which story was the best of the week. See? We're participating in the process!

Above all, we need to constantly internalize the values (but where did they come from?) of "personal responsibility" and "individualism." Express yourself! Have an opinion on everything!

Even if you have no real idea of what's going on and haven't read anything of substance about the issue.

Repressive desublimation is a "happy consciousness" in the midst of runaway gangster capitalism and institutions that don't work anymore. You don't identify with love and knowledge and a vision of better worlds for your fellow humans. You identify with what you consume. What you own. What you can display to others about your "self."

But making an effort towards finding out what's really going on? It's not sexy. And worse: acting on what you've found out and trying to do something about it? You're just going to piss off guardians of the One Percent, and they will marginalize your ass. Did you fill out your bracket? Did you see what happened in the Season Finale? Wasn't that just wild?

Happy consciousness: the safe way.

It seems like a brilliant move by the Owners: get everyone free to express themselves sexually, but with no rhetoric about liberation and beauty. Having known about Marcuse's repressive desublimation for years now, I'm a tad surprised They didn't make a move to legalize cannabis sooner.

But there I go again: They. The Owners. The One Percent. I reiterate: I don't think there's a conspiracy here to massively divert attention from a structural understanding of our lives. I think it's extremely complicated. But the irony here is: too much Irony among the quasi-educated. And what were "liberal values" in a dumb-game "Culture War" turned out, in tandem with a default philosophy of Consumerism, to have inscribed the mass consciousness we see in this particular moment, this Epoch.

Or: Well, yes. That's one way to look at it. <cough> (Back to my idiosyncratic interpretation of this high abstraction...)

So: we celebrate our Free Society even while knowing we're under a Panopticon. The Unistat government spends $700 billion a year on "defense" and almost no citizen likes that idea. There's over $1 trillion owed in student loans and no jobs for those graduates, and what jobs there are kinda suck. And escalating technological unemployment seems inevitable. There is almost zero talk about a Basic Income in Unistat, as of the date this blogpost is written. The political process is evermore transparently bought and paid for by the Owners.

And just about everyone knows (most of ) this, while celebrating our Free Society and all our fancy gizmos, which some people camp out in front of the store for, overnight, on pavement. They will do this also to see Part VI of the latest film extravaganza. They will stampede to death each other at 6AM the day after Thanksgiving, at Wal-Mart, in order to get the Best Deals. They will text while driving. (Which reminds me: please watch the best PSA ever, by another filmmaker of German descent.)

Let us consider "repressive desublimation" as a mere model for describing present mass culture. As Marcuse scholar Charles Peitz paraphrased this unwieldy term: "Alienation in the midst of affluence, repression through gratification, and the overstimulation and paralysis of mind."

OR: what the hell: it's one of the greatest high-concept conspiracy theories out there. And I mean "out there."

Finally, when I recently re-read Marcuse on this topic (see here?) I marveled at how intellectually inventive and fecund the idea was, but it gnawed at me for a few days. It struck me (in the shower, as usual), that he was not only fairly accurate but that we may have moved beyond this, to something closer to Mass Cluelessness or Baudrillardian/Philip K Dick-like simulacra. This idea bummed me out, but I found this passage in a book from 1998 (O! The humanity!), by Frankfurt School scholar Martin Jay:

Now ironic reflection, camp parody, and awareness of manipulation have themselves become part of mass culture, which is no longer predominately grounded in seductive immediacy and the deliberate fostering of what Herbert Marcuse ironically dubbed the "happy consciousness" of "repressive desublimation." What seems to prevail today instead is what the German theorist Peter Sloterdijk has called "cynical reason," which he defines as "enlightened false consciousness," a "hard-boiled, shadowy cleverness that has split courage off from itself, holds anything positive to be a fraud, and is intent only on somehow getting through life." - from "Educating the Educators," p.107 in Cultural Semantics: Keywords For Our Time

The preceding quoted passage reminded me of a passage from Woody Allen's "My Speech To The Graduates":

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.
-from Side Effects

Which is to say: whatever is going on, let's try to keep our sense of humor.

Here's a 51 minute documentary on Marcuse and his role in 1960s New Left politics at UC San Diego:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

If You're Bored, Don't Read This

Or, on second thought, go ahead and read; I mean: why not? It's not like you have anything better to do, fer crissakes.

I can't find the source for a quote I'm about to fake, but I'm fairly sure it was either Timothy Leary or Robert Anton Wilson who said that, if you're bored you're boring. Does that seem callous to you? It does to me, or did. Now I see it as a tremendous spur, because when I read the quote - wherever the damned thing is - I had been well on my way to a personal abolition of boredom. I testify here: I'm never bored. (I will admit that I simply may not perceive myself as being bored, even when some fMRI shows my state to be very much like another's who testified that they are bored, but this line of thought could easily veer into some arcane spiel, which I shall resist.)

"Someone please text me. I'm bored." - seen far too often in CraigsList personals.

                                         Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy

If we're all caught up in the Infinite Goof - and I think we are - boredom seems some sort of faulty mechanism which we needn't accede to. To those who are bored, easily bored, usually bored, find most people boring, or were not bored but are now that they've read this far: let us assign blame to the school system, which never taught us how to rewire our nervous systems to avoid boredom. Or blame Bad Economics, your parents, your diet and genome, and Other People. Once we've assigned blame, we feel cleansed, absolved of a bad habit (?) such as boredom, and decide to never be bored again. I assert it's a worthy goal. Why not give it a shot? I suspect exactly 13 of you are way ahead of me on this one.

Oh, but there "really are" so many dreadfully boredom-inducing things out there, you say. Bullshit. To steal gleefully from Billy the Shakes and warp him a tad: nothing is either boring or not but thinking makes it so.

Gawd, you might be thinking: this Overweening Generalist dude is a simpleton! Ha! Maybe, but the old game of equating sophistication with being bored with what the lower-minds find accessible and fun? I'm not buying. Your above-it-all Weltschmerz isn't working and I hate to say it, but you look like a damned fool to me, usually.

Back to the Infinite Goof: I don't see the world as an Epic, with all the breathtaking events swirling around me, and myself in the center of History. We do know some friends who seem sort of like this, no? Hey, if it works for them and their marvelously endowed egos: let them enjoy their narratives. How fantastic these lives are to those living in them! And we get to play some small part!

Neither do I see the world as a Tragedy or a Melodrama; those who do - they seem to never know this about themselves! - seem so boring that they're of a passing fascination to me. I listen, probe, try to get into the head space in which the keynotes of every day seem to point to boundless Tragedy or soapy Melodrama. (There are Good People and Bad People, dontcha know? And me and my friends are the Good People...

Uh-huh...What's the payoff?)

Yes, you're not hallucinating: by dint of my writing about boredom in this way, I seem to be arguing that boredom is interesting (or: not boring) to me.

In an Infinite Goof life is more like a Black Comedy. I cop to it: I live in a Black Comedy. Almost all of my favorite writers seem to live in one, too. We humans have made up almost everything we take very seriously...and forgotten we did this. We assert a Free Will, but that's quite debatable. Certainly the frontal cortex thinks it's running the entire show, but the lower half of our brains, and our amygdalas and oh hell: the limbic system in toto: they act and speak in ways quite contrary and perplexing to "us."

"What was I thinking when I did X (not the drug, but the variable that X stands for)?" Indeed.

Paraphrasing William James: Of course everything is determined and yet our wills are free. A sort of free-willed determinism must be the run of the game.

If that's not cosmically hilarious to you, you might not be paying attention.

"A subject for a great poet would be God's boredom after the seventh day of creation," Nietzsche says. A funny line? You're with me if you said aye.

Now, accidents do happen and some of our fellow humans find themselves mired in sadnesses and depressions and crippling anxieties and fears and it's nothing to joke about. But it does seem to lend credence to the Black Comedy model: a war criminal like Dick Cheney not only got away with it, he's smiling and has many fans and yet another book out, huge advance, and gets to air his ghoulish opinions on dipshit TV "news" as if he's a wizened Elder Statesman. Meanwhile, you remember that happy-go-lucky guy from high school? The one who liked everyone and was fun to be around? Remember when he cut all his hair off in solidarity with that other student who got cancer? Some of us followed suit and sheared their locks too. Yea, him. His wife died in a car accident (drunk driver), then he lost his job and I saw him the other day, looking like crap, begging for change outside a Starbucks.

Justice? A noble social construct. The preceding paragraph illustrates why I don't see the world as a Farce. Too much suffering. Too little equity and justice, too much luck and chance.

Robert Anton Wilson turned me on to life as a Black Comedy, and that a major, always-ongoing activity in life must be to learn how to "use your brain for fun and profit." I'm working on it, always. I have my days.

The Black Comedy is life inside the Infinite Goof, and I rather like it here. In Laurence Sterne's eternally delightful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Shandy's father, in conversation with Uncle Toby, asserts "Every thing in this world [...] is big with jest, - and has wit in it, and instruction too, - if we can but find it out." (Book V, chapter 32)

I've been reading more and more about pleasure and human evolution and confess I'm quite taken with ideas about us humans stumbling onto more and more ways to modulate our "selves" - our inner states -  in order to feel good. Or at least: better than that last brain-state, which could have been more pleasant than it turned out to be. You're thinking: drugs? I'm saying: yes. You're thinking: sex? I'm retorting: of course! What do you think I am, a damned eejit? Hell: masturbation, a perennial hot topic for me, even if it's clearly not for most others, judging by how quickly they withdraw themselves from the midst of me when I broach the subject.

And so I often find myself alone, abandoned at a gala. May as well rub one out...

Play. Humor. Invention. Tinkering. And oh my lawd: daydreaming, sooo underrated. Not underrated but seemingly essential play: music. Make it, listen to it. Really listen. Feel the music activate the bioelectric circuitry of your brain and bod, one brain module secreting dopamine and faxing it to another area of your brain, which in turn spray-bathes its own endogenous euphorics onto the finest neurons, temporarily coating your precious grey goo with glee...and this all due to a blistering guitar solo! Think of the effort that guitarist put forth, only to do that to my brain. Thanks, man. Maybe I should actually buy your CD, rather than downloading it gratis. (In truth, I've never downloaded any music from the Net, for free. Ever.)

And yes: engaging our sensoria with media such as this thing you're doing right now. Are you bored? If so, I blame you, mostly. I will accept part of the blame, if only to make you feel better.

The line from Shandy's pop reminded me of feelings I get when I read Buddhist or Taoist texts. And, on a level inchoate to me now: the impetus of comedy. The problem seems to me: if you don't get the joke...you don't get the joke. Which in turn feeds me more of the Black Comedy vibe.

Anyway, the topic I've been tap dancing around here seems timeless. David Foster Wallace, in his posthumous novel The Pale King, has a not-named character say:

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive...To be, in a word, unborable. (p.438)

What gets me there is 1.) "unborable" and 2.) "conditioned". Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Brief Notes and Illustrations on the Illuminating Aspects of Studying Advertising


"Now that I have your attention..." <----That's an old chestnut in advertising.

Friends, the Overweening Generalist knows his Readers, and they're the finest. The Overweening Generalist, furthermore, knows you're free and intelligent and you could choose any blog to read but you've chosen this one, right now, and the Overweening Generalist KNOWS as well as you do that in the end this is really only just another damned blog (hey, we get tired of blogs too sometimes when they don't measure up). But the Overweening Generalist feels humbled, and hopes to bring the discerning, no-bullshit Reader real VALUE, and free, instant and new information you can use.

Doesn't advertising suck ass? I mean, who says it better than (maybe)Banksy? Here he talks about advertisers "taking the piss out of you" and that they're "laughing at you" and you know every bit written inside that Coke bottle is true, right? Deface ads!Let's take back our selves, values, consciousness and let the goddamned advertisers peddle their papers somewhere else!

Or maybe even better than (maybe) Banksy was Bill Hicks (died 1994). Here he is, for less than 3 minutes of your precious time: [NSFW]

This fascinated me, because Adam Corner wrote a fairly brilliant piece for Aeon that pretty much covered what Hicks was saying here, circa 1992. Corner's piece was from November, 2013. A researcher in psychology, Corner writes, "The advertising industry anticipates and then absorbs its own opposition, like a politician cracking jokes at his own expense to disarm hostile media." Corner seems to be getting at the deep structure of advertising when he writes that ads and the people who engineer them systematically promote clusters of values that are antithetical to pro-social or pro-environment attitudes. Who cares about the problems of sustainability of human life, or that the stock market was recently revealed as being fixed, or that your neighbors were downsized and now being unfairly foreclosed upon by a predatory bank? The new i-Gadget is out! And you know you NEED one now, if you're ever going to stand a chance to be happy again.

Buy this thing. Do it. For yourself. You owe yourself. If you make yourself happy, you might make others around you happy, and Everyone wins.

Do you want to know what's one of the most fascinating things on Ad folks' minds? Well, I'll tell you: they spend a lot of money to understand how you (18-35 year olds who have education and some spending money) are cynical about ads. They need to know as much as possible about how you feel distaste towards certain ads, and why. They know a lot about your values and how you think. They are truly fascinated with your highly sophisticated understandings of what advertising does, and how it works. 

So they can sell you stuff. Stuff you probably don't need or even want. Stuff that you'll look at after two weeks and say to yourself, "What was I thinking?" Lots of people - like Banksy and Bill Hicks and Adbusters and the brilliant people who put together the video (below) - think advertising is evil. I think it's a strong point but sort of wrong, but before I elucidate, please watch this. I'll be right back after this very important message:

Generic Brand Video Click HERE Now

Does this nail the ad people or what? I think it's "spot" (HA!) on. It seems like Good Work to me, but who's buying? Didn't you already know this shit? Of course you have a DVR and fast-forward through almost every commercial, but you still like to pick apart every ad you (happen to note) see with your friends, right? It's fun...They can't put anything over on you and your pals, can They?

We "don't even look" at the ads in glossy magazines or online; we can't "afford to spend the time." But by definition we don't know how much those ads affected us subliminally. 

Have They co-opted dissent now, making dissent into a marketing tool? Is this notion too depressing to deal with right now? Want a nice tall cool beverage?

Advertisers Versus Intelligent Consumers: A Dialectic

Recently I read a precis for some academic's PhD dissertation about James Joyce and advertising in Ulysses, a novel I will always be reading off and on until I die. Most of you know one of the main characters, Leopold Bloom, sells ads, analyzes ads, dreams up ideas for ads. It's 1904, so the psychology and science of manipulation and persuasion is in its infancy. The academic, Matthew Hayward, discovered that Joyce made annotations to a pamphlet titled Advertising, Or The Art of Making Known, by Howard Bridgewater, circa 1910. It had been thought by most Joyce scholars that Joyce did this in order to procure employment at a bank, but Hayward sees it as Joyce's way of getting into that part of Bloom's advertising-mind.

Adam Corner's article (linked to above), and the (maybe) Banksy and Bill Hicks and the satirical expose of generic brand ad-writing are, as I see it, part of the historical ying-yang of ads, persuasion, manipulation and much of the world as we know it, circa 1900-NOW. Let us all study advertising in our own idiosyncratic ways, because then we learn more about ourselves as consumers of ideas and goods, it keeps us on our toes, exhilarated and more mentally alert, we learn a lot about the mechanisms of advertising and our fellow citizens, and finally, we learn quite a huge lot about human psychology and mass manipulation.

My main influence in this is Marshall McLuhan, who, in a piece called "Love-Goddess Assembly Line" (published in his seminal, whacked, hyper-creative, cranky-Catholic-conservative, Joyce-Pound-Wyndham Lewis-influenced The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man), discussed two juxtaposed ads from the 1940s (the book was published in 1951!), one for soap and one for women's girdles, and showed how women seemed to be mass-produced off an assembly line. This particular essay (the whole book is amazing, even when McLuhan seems oh-so-very wrong) has McLuhan playing "anthropologist". He wants to be able to READ advertising and make it tell us something very deep and non-trivial about the culture we inhabit. He's always pointing out recurring patterns and symbols and how symbols migrate, he's "probing" before he came to terms with this term. 

"No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations," McLuhan writes. This line follows very closely on a quote from Cecil B. DeMille, who decries how young female would-be actresses in Hollywood all start to look the same to him. McLuhan had wondered why himself, he wants a better science of popular culture imagery and text; he wants to discern themes and their variations in the underlying "laws" that "will mould its songs and art and social expression." 

McLuhan then utters a nice line of what we now call "physics envy" from another major influence, Alfred North Whitehead:

"A.N. Whitehead states the procedures of modern physics somewhat in the same way in Science and the Modern World. In place of a single mechanical unity in all phenomena, 'some theory of discontinuous existence is required.' But discontinuity, whether in cultures or physics, unavoidably invokes the ancient notion of harmony. And it is out of the extreme discontinuity of modern existence, with its mingling of many cultures and periods, that there is being born today a vision of a rich and complex harmony. We do not have a single, coherent present to live in, and so we need a multiple vision in order to see at all." 

McLuhan then says this is where the ad agencies come in. He sees them as very useful toward focusing the multiple perspectives we must live with and understand. Dig this from McLuhan about advertisers:

"They express for the collective society that which dreams and uncensored behavior do in individuals. [McLuhan later called this "macro-gesticulation" - OG] They give spatial form to hidden impulse and, when analyzed, make possible bringing into reasonable order a great deal that could not otherwise be observed or discussed. Gouging away at the surface of public sales resistance, the ad men are constantly breaking through into the Alice In Wonderland territory behind the looking glass which is the world of subrational impulse and appetites. Moreover, the ad agencies are so set on the business of administering major wallops to the buyer's unconscious, and have their attention so concentrated on the sensational effect of their activities, that they unconsciously reveal the primary motivations of large areas of our contemporary existence."

Look at ads this way! Why not? Assume McLuhan's basically right: the advertisers are - ironically - unconsciously revealing all kinds of things about human non-conscious motivation. 

The history of advertising can be fascinating and ultra-instructive. Some of my favorite texts have been: 

A lot, maybe most, ads fail. 

Chomsky has often used the term "intellectual self-defense," but much of advertising now bypasses (or tries to) our rational, "intellectual" mind and instead appeals to the limbic, emotional brain, and even the "reptilian" brain stem. In my experience, studying ads is at first "intellectual" because we're so used to reading. But after some time, signals from the non-rational parts of your brain will arrive at your frontal cortex and you will gain some insight. This seems very much like reading an ambiguous text, because, unless you can find and buttonhole the main ad-entity behind the studied ad, you will only have interpretations. Make yours rich!

We like to convince ourselves we're impervious to the power of ads, that they're strictly for schmucks. How wrong we are. They are an exceedingly rich source for probing the deep structure of the paideuma.

I hope you enjoyed my little piece on hacking advertising. You may be aware I was changing fonts throughout, in hopes of maintaining your interest. I also employed some big-assed font sizes, hoping to keep you reading. You may also have noted this blogspew appeared on April 1st, and wonder if the OG-dude is playing your for a Fool.

Again, you will only have interpretations

Are we cool?