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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…


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