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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, February 12, 2007

art and provocation

LI has strong and stubborn ideas concerning certain subjects of which, in reality, we are abysmally ignorant. One of those subjects is tv. LI has always thought that the influence of tv is vastly exaggerated. But even so, this article by Jane Kramer about “24” was a bit of a shock. Apparently, “24” is a Fox show centering on a fictitious Homeland security unit, and the gimmick is that it occurs in real time:

“The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour in the life of the characters, and every minute that passes onscreen brings the United States a minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) As many as half a dozen interlocking stories unfold simultaneously—frequently on a split screen—and a digital clock appears before and after every commercial break, marking each second with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting sensation of narrative velocity.
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.”

Well, no, the insecurity is that liberal societies are historically founded on sheer racism. Of course, while Kramer’s article does raise the hysteria level for a liberal like me, the description of what the show does is reassuringly ridiculous:

“The show’s villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. (The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which took on the force of federal law when it was ratified by the Senate in 1994, specifies that “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”) In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged in a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and harbors secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show’s credo, “Everyone breaks eventually.” (Virtually the sole exception to this rule is Jack Bauer. The current season begins with Bauer being released from a Chinese prison, after two years of ceaseless torture; his back is scarred and his hands are burnt, but a Communist official who transfers Bauer to U.S. custody says that he “never broke his silence.”)”

The show, of course, gets the onlooker wrong – it should make our torture voyeur the Vice President. The whole family of the odious shithead who presently fills that office are, apparently, big fans of the show. Does this fuckin surprise anybody?

The collaboration between the reactionary state and the resentful artist has a long and fatal history. It is the history of provocation. Oddly, I don’t think there is a history of this concept – although there should be. Although the elements of it go way back to the Egyptians, no doubt, I’d nominate Les Philosophes, a play by a man named Palissot that debuted in 1760, as the first modern provocation.

LI has been trying to trace the career of the Philosopher buffoon from Bruno to Rameau’s nephew to some figures in Dostoevsky. Reading Rameau’s nephew again, I came up, again, against that curious figure, the now forgotten Charles Palissot de Montenoy. The philosopher buffoon is not, after all, simply a hero, but a literary figure which, like all literary figures, finds unpredictable niches in the epigenetic media landscape. Shit, did I just write that? Well, leave it, and let somebody else figure out what that means.

Satire, of course, has always had a deep anti-intellectual bias. Burke must have given some thought to Swift’s Island of Laputa when he wrote his Reflexions on the French Revolution, given the way he displays a Swiftian contempt for the “theorists” who would try to re-engineer society. But Palissot’s genius was of the type that we can recognize in the up and coming muscular liberal or neo-con in D.C. First, attach yourself to a powerful patron with a complete lack of pride, bootlicking enthusiastically (see Fred Barnes vis a vis the Bush administration). Then, employ the arts of the class clown to make a name for yourself. Kick the weak, recycling old and tired clichés, launch various coy slanders, and – when all else fails – attack someone’s lack of patriotism.

Palissot must have seemed like a divine instrument to the forces of reaction back in the day. He was precocious, defending a thesis on theology at the age of 13. He was envious. He had an extraordinary regard for bigwigs – in his memoirs, he is obviously enraptured by the praise given to his comedy, Les Philosophes, by Frederick the Great – a king no less!

Palissot was obviously a man who needed a patron, and he found one in the Duc de Choiseul, France’s foreign minister. He first made a name for himself, after several mediocre pieces, with a play entitled the Circle, commissioned especially (oh heaven) for a party given to honor Stanislas, King of Poland in Nancy. This was the first time Palissot attempted to imitate Moliere. Having the usual heavyhanded taste of the reactionary humorist, Palissot thought the occasion was just right for making fun of Voltaire’s mistress, Mme du Chatelet, who had recently died. Mme du Chatelet was one of France’s premier mathematicians too – a learned woman! Just the thing to bark at. Alas, the play was considered to be in extremely bad taste – even royalty didn’t like it. Palissot went to the extent of writing a defense of the play to the king – and to the police chief of Nancy. The defense consisted of the fact that the elite, in Moliere’s time, were not offended by Moliere's plays. This is, of course, the alpha and omega of right wing humor – do not offend the powerful. That is, unless you have a patron you can rely on.

Then came Les Philosophes. “No play between Tartuffe and Figaro excited such passionate joy and such malicious pleasure,” according to the theatre historian Charles Lenient. There is an story Palissot told one of Napoleon’s officers – Palissot lived through the revolution and through Napoleon’s reign – that the only reward he got for his play was a smile, a mere smile, from Madame de Pompidour. Such are the rewards of the bootlickers.

The machinations behind getting the play put on by such a major troupe as a Comedie Francaise signaled that the play was not an ordinary play – it was a state sponsored provocation. The use of the arts to send political messages, persecute dissidents, punish factions – it is here in a nutshell, and it will be used again, in Stalin’s Russia, in Mao’s China, and in the U.S., where the tv network, Fox, that puts on “24”, now has put provocation into the media cycle, where it will quickly devalue.

Palissot outlived all the philosophes; in the age of Napoleon, he began to view himself as an illustrious enlightenment sage himself, and a protector of all things 18th century. The sports of the Napoleonic era didn’t quite know what to make of the crazy old coot. LI finds this latter part of Palissot’s life a sort of parody on the recent craze, among the warmongering set, for the Enlightenment. At least some more educated warmongers, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, has actually read, with mounting horror, what those philosophes wrote, which is why she wrote a book disputing the French pre-eminence in the Enlightenment (her argument isn’t so much revisionist as petulant). From romantic third world-ism to attacks on family, church and the war, Enlightenment writing is just the sort of stuff so richly denounced by the New Criterion, National Review, and Weekly Standard, issue after issue.

7 comments:

Chuck Pinatubo said...

"LI has always thought that the influence of television is vastly exaggerated"

It doesn't take a media village to cretinize a child, Roger, but it certainly helps. Our contemporary Palissots could hardly ask for a better medium. Their shameful, disgusting, unfunny, bootlicking fare can be viewed on demand in relative privacy -- of the sort cherished any upstanding citizen who regularly pays cash for a motel room and signs the register with a pseudonym. Later, the consumers can write agitated, sweaty letters to the networks blaming them for wussification, moral relativism and their own sedulous pursuit of stupidity. When that palls, they can demand legislation to save them from the depredations of people exactly like them. All this for the price of some electricity and the initial purchase of their villainous devices.

That said, it seems clear that the militantly cretinous would be able to find something to replace the role of television. There's always the old standby of the Authentic Sanctimony (TM) centers and the consummation of the teachings in the form of child abuse or beating their spouses.

Brian said...

God, Mt. P....I love your new term for churches-"Authentic Sanctimony Centers"

I am a screaming agnostic/atheist, but what is running through my head right now is a wish that there was some eternal punishment for that foul excruscence known as the Cheney family-and for those like Mr. Barnes. I guess I am at heart as bad as the Left Behind nuts, but they should pay:


Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of deaths construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds, oh lord yeah!

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait till their judgement day comes, yeah!

Now in darkness, world stops turning
As the war machine keeps burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgement, God is calling
On their knees, the war pigs crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan, laughing, spreads his wings
All right now!

roger said...

Mr. Pintatubo, now now now. You gots to learn to love your brother man - let a little sunshine into your heart - smile, and the whole world smiles with you!
You are painting a picture of homo americanus as some kind of, of boob, hypocrite and shit for brains and not the kind of liberty loving, churchgoing pal and Good Samaritan who simply wants the right people - the bad guys - to be tortured, not the wrong ones. For heaven sakes.

roger said...

Brian, man - that is pure heavy metal!
I love it.

Brian said...

roger...you would be appalled by my music collection. For every Arvo Part or Phillip Glass CD, there are ten Slayer, Emperor and Satyricon albums. :)

roger said...

Brian, you are talkin to the wrong guy if you want Musical taste. My taste is totally debauched - although I have never been a slayer guy. More Deftones.

roger said...

ps - hey, by the grace of Youtube, my fave Deftones song is up here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5ZZbtev_dU

- I like the suck suck suck suck and the squeal like a pig parts of the song. Such poeeetry!