John Steppling: Irony is like sentimentality, a kind of violence to the form, to the narrative. And in a sense, these days we probably need a new term because “irony” is insufficient. It is the post-ironic moment. It is very hard in a vocabulary that has been so mediated and coopted by marketing, it is very hard for people to not be ironic, to not be snarky and sarcastic. But this is also an expression of class antagonisms. I think the poor have a very hard time expressing snark and sarcasm in the same way. Because it turns into something else in their mouth. Pathos, possibly.
The elimination of the experience of engagement with an artwork has you know, contributed—is another contributing factor to artworks as commodities, somehow. That you are there to purchase it and not experience it. You are there to shop for it rather… Rather than to engage in a relationship that costs something. I mean, to engage in tragic drama costs the viewer something. Presumably the rewards are greater than the cost.
To engage in the viewing of The Dark Knight doesn’t cost you anything—it costs you a ticket. And in a sense this continually is validated by a critical community out there that are really sort of consumer advocates. Critics today are not critics, they’re reviewers. And they may as well be restaurant reviewers.
So, the other end of that, the presumed alternative to that has been alternative press or sort of leftist criticism or theory—critical theory. Which increasingly feels like a fan culture as well. It is… It is simply alternative shopping. And you can go to leftist publications and read favorable reviews of The Lone Ranger. Of the same authors that The New York Times validates. If the alternative press is embracing Rachel Kushner the same way The New York Times is, the same way The New Yorker is, then we have a seamless sort of hegemony of critical position and a further marginalization of radical voices.
The avant-garde disappeared, probably in the mid-twentieth century. And the loss of this…the traditional notion of the avant-garde, which was there as a social conscience in some way, as political opposition, as questioning, meant that art was put in the hands of academia and corporate publications that treated it as either successful or unsuccessful commodity. Art stopped questioning anything. And the idea is… And this is part of the American distrust, I think, of art in general, is that if it doesn’t provide answers it can’t be worth very much. What is the purpose of art if it’s not weighing or measuring or providing solutions for something? Then it has no role. For the left it was always– Art was supposed to be moral instruction, somehow. For the right it was just entertainment or propaganda. And I suppose in a sense it’s become propaganda for both sides.
There is always a sort of subtextual theme of domination, somehow. For men there is a great fear of submission, I think. So, there is an awareness in the culture of say, lack of compassion. And it finds its own kitsch expression in these fetishized narratives of compassion. If bullying is seen as a problem there will be films and TV shows and PSAs warning of you know, how terrible bullying is. But they serve the same purpose that those old anti-drug ads used to serve, where somebody would scramble some eggs and say, “This is your brain on drugs.” You know, and everybody who took drugs was like, “Where do you get those drugs? Because that’s the point. I want my brain to be scrambled.”
So it is this false conscience that is imposed on the master narrative. And as I say, the master narrative has all these tributaries that contribute to them. And you can’t minimize things like puritanism in American culture. I mean, Americans will forever be puritanical. And the puritanism today takes very strange…takes strange shapes, I think, but it is always there. And again, the paradox is that in a society that is ever more pornographic; in which social media is more pornographic; in which there is an ever more objectified depiction of sexuality and so forth, at the same time there is an intensifying of the puritan ethos and the notion of punishment.
Those old— I mean, there used to be these old chestnuts about you know, if you saw a slasher film the girl who first had sex in the film was the one who would first get her throat slit. But it was true. And it’s true in other ways when you watch films. Somehow, there has to be a consistency to characterization in which good people do good things, bad people do bad things. And the use of the term “bad guys.” You know, we’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.
So there is a constant reinforcement of these binary models. But always, always there is the impulse to punish. And the punishment is usually for transgressions of a sexual nature. It’s curious. It is a society in which cultural product that does not allow for forgiveness. It’s a culture that doesn’t even accept apologies of the most basic sort anymore. Characters will say, “I’m really sorry.” Oh, that’s not good enough. I mean, it’s amazing how often that is repeated. People want… People own their identities as victims, even of the smallest offense. It’s a lifestyle choice.
There are these multiple narratives that form a fabric that is a sort of master narrative. And in one sense the valorizing of violence, the reinforcing of violence, can be seen in an obvious ways in things like violent video games and so forth, and the endless parade of cop shows and so forth.
I think what is less examined and less talked about are the ways in which these secondary themes, things such as sentimentality, become embedded in this fabric. If you look at for example the kind of endless police brutality that exists, the excessive force, by this new militarized domestic police force… You know, this is… We are now in the second or third generation of a population that has been brought up…whose education is essentially the product of the culture industry in some way.
So if you have these individual policemen exercising excessive force, it’s seen as perfectly acceptable somehow. I don’t imagine these individual policemen go home and reflect on the paintings of Francis Bacon or Anselm Kiefer or something. They probably… They might go home and have a Thomas Kinkade painting on their wall. They certainly watch these endless romantic comedies, and sitcoms, and dramas, and…there’s a whole variety, all of which reflect a specific kind of ideological backdrop.
I think that everything is genre today. And the durability, the persistence of crime narrative reflects our own psychic formation. Lacan said our mothers can only love us as criminals. At the same time, those conventions and a cultures’ familiarity with those conventions has become almost a de facto, archetypal, mythic form or structure for deeper, secondary, mimetic narratives. So that the best work may be coming out of genre, rather than what has come to be a very solipsistic, prestige set of narratives, whether in literature or film.
So, I think culture today, with this incessant sort of background noise of violence—car crashes, carnage, automatic gunfire and so forth—has several meanings and serve several purposes. There is the creation of these threats. Islamic terrorists. Black teenagers. Chicano gang members. Serbs, Russians, Chinese. And there is the marketing of this threat. And the audience is told that the only solution to this threat is state violence, and never mind these mushy legalities like habeas corpus and so forth—we don’t need that anymore. So the violence does that. The violence also is a constant desensitizing. I mean, it simply is, and it is for children certainly.
And it is some kind of mystification of suffering and death. The message is always… The message in superhero films, and fantasies in a sense, is that death can be rectified somehow. People come back from the dead, from their death, all the time.
In police state films, it is part of a cleansing of society. There is equilibrium; a threat appears that creates disequilibrium; and then the thread is eliminated and equilibrium is restored somehow. And this is a very sort of René Girardian idea of scapegoating, in a sense. There are sacrificial victims.
And in the case of the United States today the sacrificial victims are always the underclass, are always the poor. And it is a given sort of shorthand that black teenagers are inherently criminal. Muslims are inherently violent and backward. That…somehow, the other is always to be distrusted.
Now, this also touches upon I think a really curious… I don’t want to use the word “crisis” but a curious moment for Western masculinity. Because we live in an era in which I think white males feel quite threatened. And this is one of the paradoxes in narrative today, is that while there is a contempt shown for the masses, for poor people, a fear of poor people, there’s also an eroticizing of crime. And the underclass is seen—whether this is overt or conscious, I don’t know (probably sometimes it is, probably sometimes it isn’t)—that the underclass is somehow more authentic. More sexually potent. And this is probably… These insecurities and anxieties probably drive a lot of what is increasingly a culture of bullying and snitching and shaming…