Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pessimism of the Internet, Optimism of the Nil

Many of you have no doubt already seen this, but it bears widespread linkification.

I love The Yes Men so much it’s not funny.

In particular, this recent hoax, in contradistinction to their earlier and nonetheless exemplary infiltrations, marks out rather clearly the boundaries beyond which organs of left-liberal humor like The Colbert Report or The Onion will not or cannot venture. Don't get me wrong: I think Colbert and The Onion have worked up some of the finest ideology critique of the last decade, but their stance is, for all that, the opposition of the weak, of irony contingent upon the iron-clad immovability of the status quo. They cannot directly name their own (doubtless tepid) desires, and so must ultimately concur with Adorno: "A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia."

With the exception of their brilliant Union Carbide impersonation, the Yes Men's previous stunts are mostly close enough to Colbert and Billionaires for Bush and Sanguinetti and other left-wing parodies hinged upon a politics of satirical hyperbole. But the affirmative or perhaps neutral lineaments of this latest project bears note. However inadequate we might think its inability to see past a social democracy doomed for not posing the problem of capital as such, the special edition is nonetheless a negation potent precisely because it is the afterblow of an affirmation. To follow a useful distinction Jane once made, this paper is a détourning-forward, and so runs no risk of providing the illusion of critical distance, or freedom from ideology, that so often results from the weaker negations. You can’t live there. It is, thus, instead, a way of conserving, of suspending, of carrying forward certain heretofore sadly radical propositions like single-payer healthcare and a living wage and full unconditional withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, by placing them in a new context where they might continue to breathe. Debord’s films are perfect examples of this. As is Rene Vienet’s film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? And it is no doubt telling that, late in the life of the SI, René Vienet returned to Eisenstein’s proposed film of Capital as a model for the future of détournement. This is what is too often missed by Debord’s inheritors: he is not ironic. Sardonic, yes. Vicious, certainly. But he is as sincere and as sentimental as they come. Irony is environmental in Debord. It’s the resistance of the given.

For all its foibles, the Yes Men’s special edition shines some welcome light on the current cynical enthusiasm for Obama and his crew of free marketeers, Wall Street insiders, union-busters, charter-school enthusiasts, lawyers for paramilitary-backed banana companies and military adventurists. But it does so by taking the enthusiasm and wishes of the electorate seriously: this is what the majority of Obama voters mostly really almost want. We should not deny the meaningfulness of the election in terms of ideological positions vis-à-vis class and race. But the meaning of ideology here cuts both ways, as weapon and smokescreen, and it is to me an open question whether the people who celebrated in the streets on Nov. 4th are willing to do the much harder work of forcing the US State away from its commitment to immiseration, xenophobia, racism, militarism and general fuckery, just as much as it's an open question whether instruments like The Onion and Colbert and John Stewart, whose entire premise is staked upon the existence of the Republicans as comedic foils, will be able to make fun of the Democrats.

And this is why there are ironies and then there are ironies. And I guess there’s an almost ontological irony to talking about equality with a straight-face in a culture in which not giving a flying fuck is a form of currency. It’s the fine grain of the paper’s impossibilities that gets me, right down to the hilarious ads for De Beers diamonds and American Apparel (themselves the negative detournement couched within the positive one), right down to Thomas Friedman's lovely admission of his own irremediable stupidity, right down to the comment boxes where people can take political positions with regard to a world that does not exist.


And so it was yesterday therefore not at all incidental that, after my students presented on De Certeau, and some other students introduced me to parkour, and I decided against mentioning how the IDF cuts right through walls and houses and buildings and makes you want to stop loving Gordon Matta-Clark, and after I did lay on them my critique of micropolitics and differences that make no difference, and asked them to consider whether and how this might apply to Breton and the SI, and my architecture student said, yeah, but isn’t détournement still really effective, and I said, yeah, well, maybe, sometimes, but not always, and I talked too much about neutralization and recuperation and forgot to deploy the phrase the spectacle of negation ‘cause we were rushed for time but did mention The Yes Men—it was, then, yes, more than incidental, even an example of l’hasard objectif when, leaving the class, I ran into my to-remain-unnamed friend who is a total badass and whom you want with you on the barricades, I ran into her and another one of my friends who you want with you always, and they said let’s go see the improvements made to the giant outdoor feel-good yearbook-wall thingie in Dwinelle plaza, with black-and-white lifesized headshots of happy UC Berkeley students and faculty and staff and inspirational messages of enjoyment and privilege and ain’t it all fucking great in printed cursive next to the heads, itself borrowed it seems from the playbook of activisms past and present, and there it was, the counter-counter-détournement, a giant banner with all the facts about the multiple, 39, between UC President Mark Yudof’s and the below-living-wage wages of UC service workers, and headshots of UC workers keeping it real about what it’s really like to try and live on what they pay you here, and the fonts were all fucked up and different sizes because of all the inequality and I wanted to take it back then and I felt bad for maybe discouraging my students who were maybe going to vandalize something for their final project and you can be too smart and sensitive and too subtle of a thinker about the vicissitudes of ideology and sometimes I wish yes I could just shut up yes I said maybe I will yes.


Anne Boyer said...

I was introduced to parkour just last week . In the context of a video game, but still . . .

jane said...

Wait, didn't you see Casino Royale? Dude, you need to get out more. Opens with an extended parkour sequence, which Michael Rubenstein has an excellent article about.

Jasper Bernes said...


Yes, if only we could make cities more like video games!


Far be it for me to deny my own out-of-touchitude, about which we can have no doubt, but I did actually see Casino Royale. At the time, I didn't recognize the chase scene as all that different from other running chase scenes, though rewatching it now I can spot its particularly acrobatic superhumanities. In any case, I'm delighted to find out about all this. I mean, I spent a good portion of my adolescence running from cops, but didn't know I could dignify such activities with the name of sport.

Not incidentally, my students brought up parkour because I was talking about the genre of the rooftop chase, and the through-the-apartment chase, as a particular cut through the city. In doing so, I was recalling an especially excellent post that you wrote about this motif, as part of a movie review. I just did a search of your blog, though, and couldn't find it. Do you have a link for it?


jane said...

But, but...Bond's prey in the beginning of Casino Royale is Sebastien Foucan, the world's leading "free runner"! (apparently there's some debate between free runners" and "traceurs").

I think the note you're looking for is here:

Jasper Bernes said...

Ah, yes, that's it!

the unreliable narrator said...

"...and you can be too smart and sensitive and too subtle of a thinker about the vicissitudes of ideology..."

O humility! O well-said, Mols.