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Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

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Very interesting column by John Semley in Salon:

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.

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On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2017 at 4:17 pm

The beautiful architecture of libraries

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Here are many. One example:

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2017 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

U.S. Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War

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Bruce Headlam has a good column in the NY Times, with video (at the link):

The ancient Greeks didn’t go to the theater just to be entertained. Aristotle believed that audiences saw themselves reflected in tragic characters and that the very act of watching a character’s downfall helped purge them of emotions like pity and fear, a process he called catharsis or, roughly, “purification.”

More than 2,500 years later, a young classics major named Bryan Doerries wondered whether he could help a growing and vulnerable population in need of catharsis: veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom come home from combat with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

His idea became a project he calls Theater of War, which has now staged more than 400 performances for veterans across the country. He asked high-profile actors, including Adam Driver, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, to read from the war plays of Sophocles. After the reading, the veterans in the audience talk about their own trauma and their trouble readjusting to civilian life.

The project has attracted thousands of veterans and their families as they try to readjust to life away from the battlefield. It isn’t an easy process.

“You create a permissive enough environment where people can speak truth,” Mr. Doerries said. “The Greeks have a word which means ‘balanced-mindedness,’ which was the ideal of the fifth century. So how do you rebalance the mind of an Athenian? Part of the answer is to give them the opportunity to vent and purge these emotions that can’t be bottled up.”

Inspired by the example of Theater of War, we have created our own version of Sophocles’ poetry. We asked a dozen or so veterans to read passages from two of his war plays and to talk about what the passages meant to them. We turned their readings and their comments into two videos — one about a soldier’s suicide and the other about living with injury.

One, called “A Warrior’s Last Words,” is adapted from the play “Ajax” and shows Ajax and his wife, Tecmessa, as he contemplates suicide. The other video, “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” is a speech from the play “Philoctetes” (pronounced fill-ock-TEE-tees), in which a badly wounded soldier describes how the generals abandoned him on an island for nine years.

So instead of getting insights into themselves by listening to Greek poetry, these veterans are using the poetry to give us insight into their own experience.

“The first time I heard Ajax’s speech, it knocked me back in my chair,” said Jeff Hall, a retired Army commander from Oklahoma who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts after returning from Iraq. “It was me. I could see how he was betrayed in the text.”

Mr. Hall’s wife, Sheri, is the voice of Tecmessa in the video — the long-suffering spouse of Ajax, who lives in fear of her husband’s dark thoughts.

“She was walking around on eggshells and so were we during our time of Jeff’s PTSD onset, and the things going on with his anger and his depression,” she said. “It really spoke to me, especially with what she was dealing with. I was going through the same things.”

While Sophocles is better remembered for writing “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex,” he was also a general in the Athenian Army and lived during the decades-long Peloponnesian War. He wrote “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for audiences that most likely included his army’s own soldiers.

“The theme that’s most prevalent in both plays is . . .

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See also the excellent book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2017 at 9:32 am

Posted in Art, Books, Military

The Artist as Prophet

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Chris Hedges writes in Common Dreams:

The Israeli writer and dissident Uri Avnery asked an Egyptian general how the Egyptians managed to surprise the Israelis when they launched the October 1973 war. The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”

The deep malaise, rage and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped American society are rarely captured and almost never are explained coherently by the press. To grasp the savage economic and emotional cost of deindustrialization, the destruction of our democratic institutions, the dark undercurrent of nihilistic violence that sees us beset with mass shootings, the attraction of opioids, the rise of the militarized state and the concentration of national wealth in a tiny cabal of corrupt bankers and corporations, it is necessary to turn to a handful of poets, writers and other artists. These artists, who often exist on the margins of mass culture, are our unheeded prophets.

“What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones as well as those that lurk beneath the surface,” the painter Enrique Martinez Celaya said in an essay. “They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”

All despotisms, including our own, make war on culture. They seek to manipulate or erase historical memory. This assault on memory, Martinez Celaya said, is “philosophical violence.” It leaves us with a “sense of being a stranger, displaced, a sense of having no way to check where one comes from because something has been cut and removed.”

When I recently interviewed Russell Banks, the novelist said, “It’s remarkable to me, the speed which memory gets lost in America and perhaps elsewhere. The world has been so decentralized. No one lives with anyone older than they are, generally. It’s only through memory that we can compare the present to anything else, to take its measure.”

“If you can’t take its measure then you can’t judge it,” he said. “You can’t evaluate it. You can’t take a moral position with regards to it.”

Randall Jarrell in his essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket” calls our consumer culture “periodical.”

“We believe that all that is deserves to perish and to have something else put in its place,” he wrote. This belief, Jarrell said, is “the opposite of the world of the arts, where commercial and scientific progress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the mere blush of fashion, where the past—the remote past, even—is responsible for the way we understand, value, and act in, the present.”

“An artist’s work and life presuppose continuing standards, values stretched out over centuries of millennia, a future that is the continuation and modification of the past, not its contradiction or irrelevant replacement,” he went on.

“The past’s relation to the artist or man of culture is almost the opposite of its relation to the rest of our society,” Jarrell wrote. “To him the present is no more than the last ring on the trunk, understandable and valuable only in terms of all the earlier rings. The rest of our society sees only that great last ring, the enveloping surface of the trunk; what’s underneath is a disregarded, almost hypothetical foundation.”

In his novel “Cloudsplitter,” Banks tells the story of John Brown through the eyes of Owen, a son who survived the assault on Harpers Ferry and the aborted slave uprising. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2017 at 8:31 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

The Vitality of the ‘Berlin Painter’

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James Romm has a very interesting article in the NY Review of Books:

Only twice in modern times have museums surveyed the career of a single Greek vase painter, and both shows were at major international institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 and Berlin’s Staatliche Museum in 1990-1991). Thus it is a marvel that the more modest Princeton University Art Museum has assembled a vast selection of the works of the master referred to as the Berlin Painter, who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BC. Curated by J. Michael Padgett, the show charts the development, over some four decades, of an artist whose name, nationality, and even gender remain unknown, but whose distinctive and confident illustration in the red-figure style stands out as clearly as any signature.

In his pioneering research on attic vase painting, the Oxford art historian Sir John Beazley devised the label “Berlin Painter” in 1911 in honor of a large lidded amphora decorated by this artist that is housed in Berlin’s Antikensammlung. He assigned thirty-seven other works to the same artist on the basis of the unique line they shared, which he described as “thin, equable, and flowing,” and various features of the depiction of the human form. By now several hundred vases have been attributed, more or less confidently, to this artist’s hand, many recovered from the graves of wealthy Etruscans in western Italy. More than fifty can be seen in the Princeton show, along with pots by the equally talented Kleophrades Painter—who, because of the similarity of their styles, is thought to have been the Berlin painter’s teacher—and by other, later artists who clearly took their inspiration from these two masters.

The Berlin Painter began working at the end of the sixth century BC, when the red-figure technique of vase painting—in which black glaze fills the background, leaving silhouettes of unglazed red ceramic to form the image—was just starting to replace its inverse, the black-figure style that had prevailed earlier. The possibilities offered by this new medium clearly intrigued the artist, who began to expand the black background and diminish the red subject to a single, static figure—a lyre-playing singer with his head thrown back in musical ecstasy, a young athlete holding a discus. These figures seem to float, anchored to the physical world only by the short geometric band on which they plant their feet. In some cases, even this tiny hint of landscape disappears.

The first phase of the Berlin Painter’s career coincided with the birth of democracy in Athens, and the early works—which portray ordinary people caught in simple moments of daily life in much the same way that other vase painters treated gods and heroes—demonstrate the humanism of that political evolution. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 May 2017 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Art

A sculptor takes us through it in a fascinating 8-minute video

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From Jason Kottke:

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2017 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Larkin on Poetry’s Pleasure Principle

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Phillip Larkin writes with stunning clarity:

It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.

What a description of this basic tripartite structure shows is that poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation, a skilled recreation of emotion in other people, and that, conversely, a bad poem is one that never succeeds in doing this. All modes of critical derogation are no more than different ways of saying this, whatever literary, philosophical or moral terminology they employ, and it would not be necessary to point out anything so obvious if present-day poetry did not suggest that it had been forgotten. We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try. Repeatedly he is confronted with pieces that cannot be understood without reference beyond their own limits or whose contented insipidity argues that their authors are merely reminding themselves of what they know already, rather than re-creating it for a third party. The reader, in fact, seems . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2017 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Writing

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