Monday, November 21, 2011

It's all too hard, pass the red please.

Following on from the Michael Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Story discussed at last week's Deakin Philosophical Society meeting: we all pretty much sat there nodding... yes, there is a problem, bankers suck... big time. So, what is to be done about it? This is one of the most difficult questions, I think, that western society faces today. Where do we go from here? How do we get people (like ourselves!) who agree that the system is bad, to actually do something about it?

I watched a TEDx lecture the other day on YouTube. It was an Austrian artist/theorist, Johannes Grenzfurthner, talking about what's needed to successfully subvert the 'system' these days.

Firstly, he related how people used to protest by stepping outside norms and boundaries. The people would be blamed for transgressing, but there would also be a sense that something larger had gone wrong. If society wasn't able to control these people, there was something going wrong with society and a fix was needed.

Then he talked about a piece of performance art where a group of artists had dinner cooked by a person who specialised in blood sausage. The twist was that before eating, they had their own blood taken and it was this blood that was used to make the sausage. It was a shocking sort of scenario, which transgressed norms, but, Johannes says, it failed miserably.

He put the blame for this in Foucauldian terms: when we had a disciplinary society (transgress norms and people will not only tsk tsk, but also try to fix things) over-stepping the mark caused a reaction. Now we have a control society, where transgression is viewed, not as something to be fixed, but just as a loss of control by the individual. So eating yourself in a sausage gets a reaction of – those crazy guys, they're not really controlling themselves adequately. The expectation is that people control themselves, rather than rely on external discipline. There's nothing to be done but shrug and walk away.

On to the main anecdote of the piece. His art group, Monochrom, perpetuated an elaborate hoax. They were asked to represent Austria at the Sao Paolo Biennale, they 'sub-contracted' someone to take their place. The person they 'hired' didn't exist and the group themselves went along pretending to be the roadies. They let other roadies know what was going on and gave them permission to tell people anything they liked. The other roadies, rather than let the secret out, decided to manufacture rumours. Before the rumours (like the non-existant guy was porking some art luminary's wife) people would stop by the exhibit and say it wasn't interesting. After the rumours, more people came by and thought the exhibit was genius. By helping out a Taiwanese artist who had had some bureaucratic difficulty, the non-existant guy even managed to get onto the front page of a Taiwanese paper.

The moral was this: if you can fit your protest into a slogan, it's not going to work. The only way to get a reaction is to be so incredibly complex that you bamboozle them. You have to be more complex than the system you're fighting.

End of vid.

This ties in to a couple of things. Firstly, in DPS last week we discussed Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore constructs entertaining, nuanced and complex documentaries that are still ignored by mainstream America. One scene stuck in my mind in relation to the Foucault proposition above though. When some people were being evicted from their house, one of the things the evictor said was, 'You should have paid your bills.' So, misfortune is being interpreted as a lack of control on the part of the poor. To live in this world you're supposed to be able to look after yourself, which means having a certain amount of control over what you're doing. You fail at that control, it's a personal failure, not a societal one.

Another example from even more recent news here:

Militarization of Campus Police

What's interesting here is the quotes from the university management and police defending the police actions: That the protesters, although peaceful, were a problem that needed to be removed. "It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience... the police were forced to use their batons." This is expressed as a personal failing of the students, it's 'unfortunate' they behave this way. There is no problem with the system because it's not the system's job to keep them under control, it's their own responsibility to keep themselves under control. They failed, so they get swept away to make the quad 'safe' for everyone else - the people who are better able to control themselves - to get on with what they do.

Secondly, the issue of complexity: Just how complex do you have to be? Would you have to keep getting more and more complex in a sort of complexity arms race? For example: Lobbying firm's memo spells out plan to undermine Occupy Wall Street is a story about US lobbyists for banking firms spending $850,000 on muck-raking (construct 'negative narratives') against the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters.

I'm sceptical that complexity really works either. The issues we face are already complex: Corporations are out of control, but capitalism has a fantastic track record for raising, or at least maintaining standards of living throughout the world. Perhaps we should attack big business. But will that cause our prosperity to fall over in a giant steaming heap. Are corporations a necessary evil? What about the environment? Is our prosperity ruining that? What good will our prosperity be if the earth dies? What good will the earth be to us if we're all starving in dire poverty from our loss of prosperity? Is global warming even real? What do all those graphs mean? Fuck that, I'm off to church where I can get some certainty.